"What Makes Us Moral?"

Dr. Craig Hovey discusses "What Makes Us Moral?"

Dr. Sue Dickson asked Dr. Craig Hovey, assistant professor of religion, some questions about his recent book on science and morality after a book launch at Ashland University.
One of your main points is that while science, especially biology, can help explain human behavior, it doesn’t help us know what we should do. Yet we make value judgments all the time. Where do those come from?

They come from a lot of sources, some of which may be closely tied to tendencies that come to us through our biology. But they cannot simply be read off of our biology. As a theologian, I’m ready to identify where Christian morality—such as loving one’s enemy—asks us to do things that seem to be at odds with what comes naturally.

At the same time, it is Christian belief that such things make us more “Christlike”—and here’s the trick: becoming more Christlike actually makes us more human, not less. After all, from its earliest centuries, Christians have talked about the full divinity and full humanity of Christ. He is actually more human than we are; he is the model human. Sin makes us, in a sense, less than human by withering our humanity.

So at a deeper level, we may find another convergence between biology and theology in what the tradition calls natural law. At exactly the points where it seems we are most noticeably departing from what comes to us “naturally,” we actually discover that we had misunderstood our nature. But this is part of the repair Christians believe the redemption of humanity to be.

If Sam Harris is wrong about there being a “science of morality,” then why do so many scientists seem to agree on certain moral topics?

If you go back 80 or 100 years in this country, scientists were nearly all behind eugenics. Meanwhile, Christian fundamentalists opposed it. This is an element of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial that is often neglected. The high school textbook at the heart of that case didn’t only teach evolution; it also taught eugenics and racist ideology.

It’s of course satisfying to note that scientific opinion, as well as public opinion, has changed a lot since then. But it’s not clear how much of this change should be attributed to advances in the science itself. After all, if science isn’t equipped to weigh in on questions of value, then the earlier consensus among scientists probably didn’t come from the science itself either. (The biology of race was always sketchy and the sketchiness is much clearer now, but it’s not likely that that alone is enough to counter racism.) Nevertheless, it seemed clear to the critics of eugenics at the time that the link between human evolution and eugenics was a very close one. (They noted that Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the term “eugenics,” for example). And no one was objecting morally to selective breeding in plants and animals.

Today, there appears to be widespread consensus among scientists that destroying human embryos in the process of doing research using stem cells is not morally objectionable. Again, though, we need to ask whether this view comes from science or from some other source or sources. My suspicion is that, like the cultural fad of eugenics from the past, we are witnessing today a near consensus that is resistant to critique because it has been confused with the science. But it’s not science telling us it’s okay to destroy human embryos—science can’t actually do that.

What’s the difference between “creation” and “creationism”?

It is crucial to distinguish these. “Creation” is a Christian doctrine that has been with the church from the beginning and is, in fact, shared in most respects by Jews and Muslims. It says that God created everything out of nothing, that everything that exists—living things, non-living things, the heavens, the earth… all of it!—exists by God’s good and gracious will and is also upheld and sustained by his love. But believing this doesn’t commit the believer to a specific account of how God creates. For example, I can believe that God is my creator without being ignorant of where babies come from. There is no physics of the act of creating since God is not physical. In this sense, human evolution is not at odds with the doctrine of creation.

However, in my view, many Christians in recent years have gone very wrong. “Creationism” commits itself to a particular reading of the opening chapters of Genesis whereby we are given a blow by blow account of how God creates. I think this is gravely mistaken and, in fact, it is a fairly recent aberration historically speaking. Because creationism commits itself to a specific account of material origins, it finds itself at odds with the scientific picture, human evolution included.

So the “creation / evolution debate” is mis-labeled. We should be very clear to call it the “creationism / evolution debate.”

You argue that what makes us moral is faith which includes worship, obedience and submission to God. But you also say that with God, morality is beside the point. What do you mean by that?

As sometimes happens when we touch on something interesting, our words begin to fail us. “Morality” is, theologically speaking, aiming at something lower than what Christianity identifies. The higher thing is union with God or, as Paul talks about in Galatians, life in the Spirit. Where the Spirit is, there is no need for the Law.

Likewise, I point to Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer as examples of modern Christians who make this same point: Morality and ethics are what we reach for when we abandon God since now we need to figure out how to live. Bonhoeffer develops this in a discussion of Adam and Eve. They are tempted to eat from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are too! (Which is, of course, the point since the meaning of Adam in Hebrew is humanity.) But it is a temptation toward morality and away from God. So the higher good—union with God and life in the Spirit of God—comes by faith, obedience, and submission. This doesn’t get us to morality, but moves beyond it.