I had to ground some of the outlets in the first house we bought. It was dirty work.
The process required entering a cramped crawl space that was inhabited by camelback crickets, a species that looked too much like the face-hugger in the movie “Alien” for me to be comfortable.
I endured because ungrounded outlets are hazardous. Electricity could spark, cause fires and destroy property — most importantly the Macintosh 512K that I was using to write my dissertation.
So it is with moral passions. We see plenty of moral passion these days in the way people respond to issues.
This situation should make an ethicist like me happy because ethics is not simply about objective, emotionless, rational calculation.
Our passions are necessary parts of our moral furniture. They sensitize us to problems and motivate us to act.
I should, therefore, be happy about the moral passion I see these days, but I am not. I am afraid those passions are not adequately grounded.
George Packer, for example, describes the linguistic conformity demanded by diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as “moral” and “not just bureaucratic.”
He argues that the standards by which language is judged offensive have become increasingly opaque and their implementation authoritarian. This situation only reinforces cycles of seemingly interminable debate.
We are left in a situation where, according to Jonathan Tran, “No one can live up to the standard of being sensitive to every possible sensitivity, setting everyone up to fail.”
More crucially, Tran observes that “almost none of this has anything to do with repairing and redistributing structures and systems.” This passion, however well-meaning, distracts from the real — and hard — work of addressing the causes of inequities.
This example (or pick any “culture war” issue) indicates to me that we live in an era of ungrounded moral passions.
Philosopher Michael Polanyi calls this phenomenon moral inversion. He uses the term to describe movements characterized by intense moral — revolutionary even — passion, but a passion that is divorced from any conviction that there are objective goods and evils.
Moral passion then devolves into the subjective exercise of power.
That we, as a culture, will ever be able to agree on a vision of a good life that truly benefits everyone is an open question. To be honest, I am not sure we ever have, and I am pessimistic that we ever will.
Nevertheless, instead of wringing my hands in despair, here are three suggestions for ways Christians might more peaceably and constructively deal with issues that divide.
First, listen to Jesus.
When he says in Luke 6:37-42 (and its parallels), “Do not judge,” he does not mean that we should never judge others (which is what my students often think). When we read further in the passage, he tells us to take the log out of our eye before trying to help someone else.
The instruction amounts to this: check yourself, then solve the problem.
By this standard, if we use authoritarian means to counter a perceived authoritarian culture (or subculture), then the log is still firmly in place in our eye. Furthermore, we have replaced the goal of problem-solving with winning.
Second, listen to John Calvin.
He distinguishes between being offensive and taking offense. We are being offensive, he says, when we consciously do things that “cause the ignorant and the simple to stumble.”
We take offense when we “by ill will or malicious intent of mind” interpret something done innocently as offensive.
I know some may be offended by Calvin’s characterization of others as ignorant and simple, but can we see beyond his language to the point he is trying to make? If we follow Jesus’ instruction, we might better be able to do this.
Third, listen to Augustine.
He famously said, “Love and do what you will.” It’s easy to misunderstand Augustine on this point, however. For him, the central moral task is to love or desire the right things in the right way under God.
When we do that, we can do whatever we want because our passions will be grounded in God’s vision of a good life and society.
If we can start to do these things more consistently, then this ethicist will be a bit happier about the moral passions people exhibit these days.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.