I hear it all the time, mostly at parties and social gatherings where I’m more likely to run into non-Christians. Often I end up on the receiving end of it at funerals, hearing someone’s grief channeled through anger:
‘I don’t need someone else to connect me to God.’
‘I don’t need a church to tell me how to live my life.’
‘No,’ I normally qualify, ‘you don’t someone like me necessarily. But you need someone.’
Moral absolutes get a bad rap in the antinomian landscape we’d rather call postmodern.
As Americans, we instinctually believe it to be our birth right to decide what is right and what is wrong for ourselves. To have an organized religion tell us what is right and wrong- and train us into those beliefs- strikes us as deeply unAmerican; never mind the fact that the organized religion we call America is the institution who indoctrinated us into the belief that we should decide right and wrong on our own.
As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas repeatedly echoes:
“America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story.”
The consequence of living in a nation where you’re indoctrinated into believing that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story is that you’re more likely than not to attend a church that’s gun shy about indoctrinating you into a counter story.
And so in most contemporary churches, the mood is more often one of comfort than challenge.
When it comes to ethics, the focus in churches is on conversation rather than catechesis. The extent to which churches are shaped by the belief that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story can be seen in the cliches we use to describe churches as moral communities.
We want churches, we say, that ‘live into the questions’ (rather than learn the wisdom of the saints).
We prefer churches where our youth will be able to ‘make up their minds for themselves’ (even though we’ve not trained them into having minds worth making up).
Faith, we say in progressive churches, is about ‘exploring the question’ while in conservative churches we say similarly that faith is about ‘making a decision for yourself Christ.’
The problem with not wanting the Church to indoctrinate you in to its answers of right and wrong is that it ignores the fact that right and wrong conduct is grounded in the kind of people we are, the traits of character we have.
What our American religious ethos obscures is that morality- ethics- is not what we do or decide.
It is who we are.
People of virtue, people with good character, moral people are those who tend to do the right thing and to do it rather easily or without effort or agony; to do it naturally.
Bad people, however, habitually do the wrong thing and the worst without even agonizing about it because they no longer have the character sufficient to discern or choose the good.
This is auspicious news, for any parent knows we are not born with the particular traits or character we come to possess. Virtuous traits of character have to be acquired or “learned.”
The moral life is learned, an apprenticed art.
What the Church calls ‘catechesis.’
We become the kind of people we are through only through other people- through practice and training under other people. As Thomas Aquinas taught, we acquire habits by repeatedly acting in particular ways until the attitudes and dispositions related to the act become our own, become reflexive. According to Aquinas, only people with the proper training and mentoring, only people shaped by appropriate traditions and stories, are likely to do the right thing.
Exhibit A: My friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz.
Brian, a lawyer, has written a book, One Big Setup, in which he tells his story advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.
Brian’s decision to take the pro bono, career-harming death penalty case was, he writes, reflexive.
Brian writes that he grew up Catholic in Jersey, going to Mass every week; as a result; he grew up just believing- knowing- that the death penalty was wrong.
Because that’s what his priests and his Church drilled into him. That, and the fact that you’re supposed to stick up for the poor.
And so, when it came to make a decision about advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian writes that it wasn’t really a decision at all. It was something more like a reflexive yes.
A habitually-conditioned response.
So much so that when Brian looks back with the benefit of hindsight, he’ll honestly say that if he had to ‘choose’ all over again he’d probably decline the case.
To show that this isn’t just an abstract theological excursion, that there’s something at stake in the Church catechizing Christians into the moral life, that there’s something at stake in the Church failing to do so…
Exhibit B: The Texas Appeals Court just overturned Alfred Dwayne Brown’s death sentence.
(You can read about it here)
The face-saving State will now try to request a new trial for which it now has no evidential basis.
Thanks to Brian.
And the many, many years and sacrifice and tears he gave to Alfred.
So the next time some couple wanting to get married or baptize their baby tells me they want their ‘children to decide for themselves when they grow up’ I’ll tell them about Brian and tell them the stake are much too high to let them let their children decide for themselves.