In recent articles I have challenged the place of contemporary morality in the Christian life. Some have had difficulty with this, wondering how we should then think about the commandments that are directed towards our behavior. Others have suggested that my challenge is merely semantic. There are certainly semantic distinctions being made here – but the reason for them is important and goes beyond mere words. But if it is not proper to think of ourselves as “moral” beings, how should we think? How do we confess our sins if morality is not the issue?
Our culture sees morality as the rules and standards by which we guide ourselves. These rules of conduct are external and can be described and discussed. They are the rules by which we choose how to behave and by which we sometimes judge others. In this, everybody can be said to be “moral.” Atheists invariably adhere to some standard of conduct – it is just what human beings do. We are sometimes inconsistent and often cannot explain very well the philosophical underpinnings of our actions – but everyone has rules for themselves and standards that they expect of others.
But it is precisely this that sets Christians apart – that makes them “unmoral” (not “immoral”). The nature of the Christian life is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being “from God.” The “unmoral” life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.
This “unmoral” life is not necessarily exception for its behavior. If this were not so, then an atheist “acting” like a Christian, would seem to be a Christian. Indeed, at one point in our culture, a “Christian gentleman” meant nothing more than a “gentleman.” This is often the case in public morality. Most Christians seem to be little different from their non-Christian friends. They cannot describe how it is that they differ other than to say that they “think” certain things about God and the universe. But did Christ die only to give us certain ideas?
If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about?
It is about being a god.
This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less than divine life.
But is our primary confession simply that we fail at being gods? As difficult as it may be to understand, this confession is closer to the point than repeatedly admitting that we’re only marginally good at being moral. One of the failures of morality is that it seems so tantalizingly possible. And so we distract ourselves as we wrestle with our morals, condemning ourselves for what we somehow
imagine that we can and should do.