A Foundation for Values

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From time to time I share lunch with a friend who is quick to describe himself as a happy heathen.

He’s one of the smartest people I know.  He’s also quick-witted, hard-working, and optimistic. 

I cherish our conversations.  As a secular materialist, he professes no need of believing in God.  He seems to live with a calm acceptance that his life is going to come to an end one day, and that will be that.  If push comes to shove, I’d have to say he is kinder and gentler than a majority of the church people I know. 

To be honest, however, my friend does have one particular character flaw.  He’s a thief

As a strong advocate for social justice, human rights, and educating the poor, my friend enthusiastically serves the common good.  But as I point out to him from time to time – always with great gentleness – he has no right, according to his own belief system, to believe that such values have any meaning at all.  He has essentially stolen them from the Judeo-Christian culture in which he grew up. 

For more than a century and a half, the West’s secular-minded universities, institutions, and philosophers have been wrestling with a difficult question:  What does it mean to be good and to do good?

Since secular materialism denies any ultimate basis for right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood – and it most certainly declares that such words have no actual meaning – then human cultures have to come up with an explanation as to why we feel the need to make moral choices.

There are two primary alternatives. 

The first is evolutionary biology.  Certain behaviors are apparently programmed into our genes.  That’s why we do the things we do and feel the way we feel.  But it’s exceedingly difficult to explain how natural selection can account for significant aspects of human behavior.  Why, for example, do so many people admire self-sacrifice to benefit those outside one’s own family – donating a kidney, for instance, to a total stranger?

The second alternative is arbitrary social custom. 

All cultures believe that some things are right and other things are wrong.  While there’s plenty of shared moral conviction between diverse cultures, there are also some startling variations.  Historically, some groups of humans have practiced cannibalism.  Most have not.  The second group, quite frankly, cannot even imagine certain “alternative recipes” being featured on the Food Network.  But the first group might ask, “Why not?”

And there’s the rub. 

Neither biology nor custom can give us firm reasons why it’s wrong – not just in certain situations, but always wrong – for the rich to cheat the poor, for adults to sexually abuse children, and for people in power to take whatever they want for themselves.  Not to mention whether it’s always wrong to eat one’s neighbor.  The vast majority of people who live in the West are strongly opposed to such behaviors.  But they don’t come by such convictions from secular materialism.  A philosophy that declares there is no God, no natural law, and no final accountability to a Cosmic Judge could never have come up with values like social justice, progress, and universal human rights.

But Judaism and Christianity certainly could – and they did.   

In 1990, media mogul Ted Turner, after accepting an award as Humanist of the Year, told a group of 200 humanists that he was proposing Ten Voluntary Initiatives.  They were to replace the Ten Commandments, since the Bible’s list, as Turner put it, is “too old and no one obeys them anyways.”  His initiatives were laudatory.  People everywhere should be ecologically responsible, preserve the earth’s resources, serve the poor, avoid violence, and only have two children (which was intriguing, since Turner himself had five kids). 

The challenge, of course, was wrapped up in the word “voluntary.”  Turner, an agnostic, could give no reasons why his list was right.  It was simply a record of his opinions.  People could take it or leave it.

For the past 20 years, the Foundation for a Better Life has been creating billboards and 30-second TV segments that offer, as stated in their mission, “inspirational messages to people everywhere as a contribution toward promoting universal values, good role models and a better life.” 

If you watch TV, you’ve seen their wonderful commercials.  They promote kindness, love, and gratitude with endearing music and images.

The Foundation explains on its website, “We believe people are basically good but sometimes just need a reminder.  We also believe that the positive values we live by are worth more when we pass them on.”  It claims no religious identity, no political agenda, no formal programs, and refuses to take donations. 

So what’s not to love?

The “values for a better life” commercials are indeed exceptional.  But (and here once again we must speak gently), there’s still that nagging question:  Who gets to decide what constitutes a “better life”?  If religion doesn’t provide final answers about morality and meaning, where do such values come from?

Lest we think that’s a silly question – “Come on, everybody simply knows that love and kindness are always right” – all we have to do is remember that there were six major genocides during the course of the 20th century.  During the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” convinced most of China’s teenagers to denounce their friends, siblings, and parents to the authorities.  Millions of innocent people were murdered because someone declared, arbitrarily, that the betrayal of one’s family was now a patriotic virtue. 

It isn’t true, in other words, that people “just know” that love and kindness are always right and will choose to live that way.

Which brings us back to my happy heathen friend. 

It’s wonderful that he embraces honesty, integrity, and treating others with dignity.  But his own belief system can’t explain why such values are inherently superior to lying, cheating, and ripping other people off. 

I would gently say that he has borrowed, or stolen, the values that most Americans have come to believe are good and right.  But those values emerged only because Western culture, over many centuries, drew upon the Judeo-Christian conviction that a personal God, who is both good and just, is ruling the cosmos.   

Human rights make sense because Genesis tells us that all human beings are made in God’s image.  Working for justice makes sense because God himself cares about justice, and will make sure that “justice for all” is finally accomplished in this world or the next.   

The things my friend cares about the most – goodness, kindness, and human rights – didn’t arise by chance, by some roll of the Darwinian dice. 

My enduring hope is that he will conclude that his love of goodness makes perfect sense only if there is a good God who put such love into his heart. 

May God grant all of us a hunger to value the values which lie at the very heart of God’s kingdom.