Morality: fixed or culture-based?

Here’s a thought provoking question I encountered recently… Is morality fixed and unchanging, determined by God as described in the Bible? Or is morality changing over time and influenced by culture, as people seek to interpret the Bible as the Holy Spirit moves them/us?

On Facebook, I asked a question that appeared to be about the interpretation of Psalm 173, and how my reading of it has informed my understanding of inspiration of scripture as described in 2 Timothy 3:10-17.

In Ps. 137, the speaker/writer is an Israelite in Babylonian captivity, lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. It is quite pretty, and has been set to music many times. It is pretty, up until the last couple of verses of the psalm, where the narrator expresses a violent revenge fantasy:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:8-9)

I went on to discuss how morality is changeable, and used slavery as an example. Slavery is not condemned in the Bible, as Dan Savage recently stated to much media coverage. Paul (and Jesus) could have staked out a moral high ground by stating plainly that all human beings have a right to exercise their free will and autonomy without being exploited and subjugated by others. But he/they didn’t. However, over time, and as people sought to follow the teaching of Jesus, they came to understand that you can’t love your neighbor if you’re got him locked in chains and working against his will for your personal profit.

That, I posited, was the Holy Spirit continuing to lead us into all truth. Some things that were not considered immoral in the past are now considered immoral. We’re being led to a better way, and the process is not complete. Also, some things that were considered immoral in the past already have been re-examined as being either morally good or neutral, and some things that are still considered immoral on historical grounds are now or soon to be re-examined using similar criteria: how do we best demonstrate love for your fellow human being?

I got push-back. The response was, in part:

“…without inspired biblical morality we all really would just be evolved apes. How does anyone know that “hate” is wrong?”

“I don’t have an answer for whether or not the Jewish “indentured servitude” kind of slavery was immoral. It was/is immoral to mistreat or disposses a servant, but I don’t know if it was/is immoral to have servants. I suspect not. The larger issue is that I am human, and God is divine; I cannot presume to know all of his wisdom. But I do know this: He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His wisdom does not evolve in response the the chronological snobbery of the latest human versions of foolishness. We may choose our values, but nothing we do has anything to do with determining morals.”

Saying that slavery in the Bible was actually just “Jewish ‘indentured servitude'” seems like an attempt to redefine the topic and completely side-step the issue, as if every slave in the Bible made a choice to enter into an indenture contract. I find this statement preposterous. Did descendants of Jacob contract with the Egyptians to enter into indentured servitude, and Moses was just freeing them from their contracts early?

So I thought the issue of slavery was an easy example. No one would say that slavery isn’t immoral in the 21st century, would they? Apparently some would.

I’m not an expert on the rhetoric of ethics and morality. But my intuition is that morality is a combined product of culture (society-derived) and values (internally-derived), and that a person’s or a society’s morality changes based on these factors.

So this is something I’ve been thinking about lately. What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Morality: fixed or culture-based?

  1. Hi there. I must admit that I normally do everything I can to avoid blog posts about Christianity – not at all because I am against the religion, or any religion for that matter, just that I find it tiring to read about how people think their lives are so much better because of God. Again, not denying that their lives aren’t great because of His presence, I just don’t enjoy reading about it. However your opening paragraph caught my eye, and I was lured in. Of course morality changes over time, just look at society today. Women in the workplace, voting, and (supposedly) equal to men – 150 years ago this would have been totally unheard of. We no longer think of stoning as an acceptable form of punishment, and polygamy is unacceptable in many, if not most cultures. It seems obviously to me that the very, very large majority of people in this world would consider a lot of what occurred in the bible to be immoral if it were to occur today. Thanks for the post, and for an interesting thought!

  2. It is a major development to go from saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that’s that!” to saying, “Some parts of the Bible are more authoritative for us today than other parts.” Jesus himself set aside some parts of scripture that didn’t live up to his experience of God, and so I believe we too can do the same, when we read in scripture parts that don’t live up to the ideals that Jesus himself put forward.

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