Sunday, November 07, 2004

Is there such a thing as “Christian values”?

A discussion starter

In the recent election in the U.S.A. much was heard from “The Moral Majority” about “Christian values” and the need to vote for those who upheld them. From many pulpits and on many Radio Stations there was and is much talk about “Christian values”. These include the true humanity of the fetus in the womb, the genuine civic, religious and political freedom of each citizen and the institution of marriage as between a man and a woman. (However, because up to 50 per cent of those who claim to be “born again” and of “The Moral Majority” are divorced/divorced & remarried, the “values” refer only to the ideal – in contrast to the divine requirement& norm -- of a one man and one woman union for life.)

I want to suggest that it is a mistake for Christian preachers and leaders to use the plural form, values (belonging to the language of sociology and politics), as if it were a Christian word, especially in worship, preaching and teaching.

Values as a plural noun was first used by F. Nietzsche not as a verb meaning “to esteem something” (e.g., I value his contribution), and not as a singular noun meaning “the measure of a thing” (i.e., the economic value of money or labor or property) but describing the attitudes and beliefs, moral and social, of a given society. Max Weber the sociologist took up this use of “values” and popularized it so that it moved from sociology to ordinary speech, accelerated into common conversation by the radical & revolutionary 1960s. This use of “values” usually comes with the general assumption that all moral ideas are entirely subjective and relative for they are mere customs, conventions and mores, that belong to different societies at different times in their history and experiences. Thus politicians stand for different “values” and these change from generation to generation and from place to place. So “the Moral Majority” stands for certain values and Liberal Democrats for others.

A well known best-selling book of a few years ago and entitled “The Book of Virtues” was originally intended to be called, “The Book of Values.” Then the distinguished author, William Bennett, was told by friends (including I think Gertrude Himmelfarb, who has written on Victorian Virtues and Values) that what he had written about was “Virtues” not “Values” and the publisher agreed to change the title.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher is well known for her espousal of “Victorian Values” [e.g., hard work, thrift, intelligence, sobriety, fidelity, self-reliance, self- discipline, respect for the law, devotion to family and community, cleanliness, God-fearing and so on]; but, according to her autobiography, she originally spoke of “Virtues” and the Media changed the word to “Values” and she did not try to change it once it had taken off, as it were. So she is associated with the rightness of “Victorian Values” even though the Victorians themselves most carefully and distinctly referred to “Virtues.” They did not use “Values” in its plural form.

But there is a big difference (if we use words aright) between values and virtues.

From Aristotle we get the cardinal virtues – wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage, together with prudence, magnanimity, munificence, liberality and gentleness.

From Christian tradition we get faith, hope and love/charity as the theological virtues.

The classical philosophical, together with the Christian tradition, saw moral standards and law as objective and so virtues belonged to objective reality and standards. Virtues were very serious things possessing authority (for they were anchored in objective reality).

For classical philosophy, including Christian moral philosophy, a virtue is a good habit, or a habit of excellence (excellence being a high standard of goodness) and vices are bad habits. Habits must be inculcated by repeated use, not just by one time application. Thus, for example, when we refer to a virtue of chastity, we are referring to the continual and repeated practice of chastity, which rationally orders one sexual desire towards its proper end, its good, either the natural good of marriage or its supernatural end in the Kingdom of God where the Church is united to Christ, her Bridegroom. Needless to say, to talk about “values” misses such a point altogether. Then, also, it is only possible to inculcate virtue by grace: even the natural virtues are impossible to man's nature on its own, wounded as it is by sin.

In contrast, “values” as a plural noun, as already noted, is a relatively new word for an Enlightenment world, describing the moral principles & ideas which are subjective and relative for they are mere customs, conventions and mores, that belong to different societies at different times in their history and experiences.

So I want to suggest that it is really disastrous for Christian discourse and teaching when the word values is used in such expressions as “biblical values.” Regrettably, not a few of us seem wedded to this and like expressions and do not seem to realize that we undermine the whole basis of the objective norms of God in creation and in redemption by using such a word if we really intend to describe what God has revealed and commanded. In fact the only biblical values – and this is a sobering thought -- in terms of the modern use of the word are those ways of life and behavior patterns condemned by the prophets, the Lord Christ and the apostles as being of the world, the flesh and the devil and of being totally opposed to the virtues or fruit produced by the indwelling Spirit of the Lord in the Church of God.

The Bible as a whole places supreme value on the objectivity of the revelation of God’s law and of the standards, principles, norms [virtues] or righteousness and holiness therein set forth. Such value makes “values” to be totally unsuitable for Christian use when dealing with what God’s will for us actually is.

So are there “Christian values”? Yes, but only in the sense that in a sociological description of the way of living of a Christian community it would be valid to speak of the values by which they live. But to speak in this way is very different from calling the standards, norms and principles by which Christians are called and commanded to live, together with the expression of these as virtues, “values”. Therefore “values” is not a word that should normally enter into Christian worship, teaching and preaching. For “values” describes what a society lives by or a political party commends. Whatever connections these “values” have in their origins with the moral teaching of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition does not of itself make the word “values” appropriate in 2004 for Christian discourse that is honoring to God, the Lord.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon November 6, 2004

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