The purpose of this research is to discuss religion and morality. Religion has always been concerned with morality. Indeed, the Ten Commandments are moral commandments. Much of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are concerned with the stand-ards of conduct by which men ought to live. At the very core of religion is the message that man must live according to the moral standards of God in order to achieve ultimate salvation. Many of the classical Greek tragedies had a religious and moral signific-ance in that they portrayed to the audience what happens if man transgresses against the laws of the gods, however incompre-hensible those laws might be to human understanding. Thus, Oedipus is doomed to expiate some unknown sin, even before his birth.
Early philosophers–Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle among them–were concerned with religion and morality. The earliest dramas of medieval Europe and England were miracle and morality plays. Biblical pageants intended to instruct and guide the people. These medieval drama morality plays were first performed inside the church but soon moved into the towns during religious festivals for the edification of the people. Perhaps the most famous of the moral plays in English is Everyman, a simple allegory in which Everyman is called to account for his life by God. In the beginning of Everyman God says:
And now I see the people do clean forsake me:
They use the seven deadly sins damnable,
As pride covetise, wrath, and lechery
Now in the world be made commendable;
And thus they leave of angels the heavenly company,
Every man liveth so after his own pleasure,
And yet of their life they be nothing sure (Cawley 208).
God sends Death as his messenger to Everyman who must now
account for his life. Everyman searches for one of his friends to accompany him on his final journey but he is refused by all
save Good Deeds. The moral message to the medieval audience
This moral men may have in mind.
Ye hearers, take it of worth, old and young,
And forsake Pride, for he deceiveh you in the end;
And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion,
They all at the last do ever man forsake,
Save his Good Deeds there dot he take.
But beware, for and they be small,
Before God, he hath no help at all;
None excuse may be there for every man (Cawley 233).
Thus, we see that throughout history religion and morality
have been closely tied; indeed, some might say that religion
and morality are the same. But concepts of morality have
changed through the centuries as man, religion, and society
have changed. Today, in an increasingly complex technological
society the question of religion and morality has also increased in complexity.
The twentieth century has seen a variety of moral questions and problems present themselves. Few of these moral questions have been satisfactorily answered by religion or philosophy. What is the morality of war in an age where nations possess the capability, through atomic and hydrogen bombs, to destroy world and all evidence of mankind? What is the morality of the churches and nations of the world allowing the apartheid government of South Africa to maintain the domination of the white minority over some 16 million black Africans? What are the moral questions inherent in the despicable rule of Idi Amin in Uganda?
There are other questions of morality, which are closer to
home. What are the moral implications of the Watergate scandal? What are the moral questions involved in CIA assassination plots or coup plots against national leaders or their nations? What is the morality of euthanasia? What is the morality of continued racial injustice in a nation which, on the one hand, professes a deep belief in equality and liberty and the moral precepts of Christianity and, on the other hand, continues to oppose integration and civil rights? What is the morality inherent in the question of obscenity and pornography as opposed to freedom of speech and expression? And is it moral for the U.S. and European governments to continue to allow children of third world countries to suffer from starvation and diseases, such as in Africa and India?
These are but a few of the moral questions, which confront
religion, nations, and individuals today. Of late, there has been a continuing criticism of religion and the church because of what Harvey Cox calls a “moral laxity” on the part of Christianity today. The people
obviously expect a word from the church about the moral issues of the day and are outraged when it is not forthcoming. In the United States, more people have dropped out of the church because of its cautious position on racial injustice than because they found it difficult to recite the Nicene Creed (“Why Christianity Must Be Secularized” 17).
The Radical Theologians and the Death of God Theologians say
that the modern church is out of touch with and unresponsive to the realities of the modern age. Thus, William Hamilton, perhaps the leading proponent of the Radical Theology, is able to reject God but maintain that he can still follow the precepts and dictates of Jesus Christ because they are morally good. In Hamilton’s view, “Jesus . . . an essential and necessary role in the Christian’s life, even if God be gone. It is he who, in effect, gives us a model of who we are and what we should be and do, who shapes the style of life which characterizes Christian existence” (Gilkey 225). Theologians, such as Hamilton, feel that such a radical theology is necessary because the church, with its traditional concepts of God, have not provided the moral leadership necessary in such a complex and confusing age as our own.
A secular interpretation of the Gospel must be ethical, and in our corporately organized world this means it must be political, and worldly. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the church must never be general in its preaching but must always be specific, must support this program and oppose this war, he was really asking for a secular interpretation of the Gospel. Later, when he suggested just before his death that we must search for a “nonreligious interpretation” of the Gospel, he probably had this political secular interpretation in mind (Gilkey 18).
Pope John XIII realized that the Roman Catholic Church was in need of reform when he called the Second Vatican Council The Vatican Council was the church’s attempt to bring the church into a closer relationship with the people. But the Vatican Council left many moral issues; unresolved–birth control, abortion, racism, and so on. Still, the Vatican Council was called in an attempt to modernize the church, at least as much as the church could be modernized within a conservative and traditional stance.
Indeed, Thomas J. J. Altizer, a leading Radical Theologian, writes that the Roman Catholic church may have less trouble in breaking with the past than the Protestant church. Rather than being destroyed by new theological movements “the Church has been moved to reinterpret the Catholic tradition so as to insure its place in a new future and to reconstruct both the meaning and practice of faith and worship so as to open them to the realities of the twentieth century” (Altizer 2).
The relationship between religion and morality have always been of concern to man. This relationship is perhaps of even greater concern in the latter part of the twenty-first century. Man is no less confused in the twenty-first century than he was in the fifteenth century or the seventh century or the first century. Perhaps man’s confusion is even greater today because of the complexities of the moral question in the world. The calls for a Radical Theology and a Secular Theology come about because modern theologians of these two schools of thought believe that religion today is not asserting its moral leadership. Cox cites such a play as Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy as a critical attack on the Catholic church because it did not offer aid to the Jews of Europe during Hitler’s twelve years of power in Nazi Germany (Altizer 17). The Deputy is not an isolated case of criticism. Religion today must adapt moral positions because man today wants and needs moral leadership. If religion does not provide that leadership, then man must look elsewhere. William James wrote that “We all help to determine the content of ethical philosophy so far as we contribute to the race’s moral life” (William 184). Modern religion must make its contribution to contemporary issues of morality.
Charles E. Curran cites only two areas of modern life or existence in which men, and religion, must make decisions of
great moral impact. These are politics and medicine. Political instability throughout the world, domestic and international politics, the possibilities of nuclear war, and the very real presence of guerrilla wars and continued terrorist activity present modern questions of morality for religion.
Medicine has made such advances of late that new moral questions are raised almost daily. A moral question for physicians is: What is moral when a pregnant woman has cancer, to save the baby at the expense of the mother’s life by prolonging her pregnancy or to save the mother at the expense of the baby’s life, by terminating the pregnancy? And what are the moral implications of a young teenage girl having an abortion eight months into her pregnancy? Many churches of the Christian faith believe in Pro Life and therefore believe that a pregnancy should never be terminated. Under the Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths it is immoral and unethical to end a pregnancy. In addition, to the medical profession, and religious faiths being faced with such ethical issues, governments such as South Africa, also face medical moral questions. South Africa’s question is: Is it moral to not declare a state of emergency and make medicine affordable to its 4 million citizens that have the AIDS virus or is it moral to make them be responsible to pay their own medical expenses? And a political, medical ethical question for the United States is: Is it moral for the tobacco industry to continue to sell cigarettes to U.S. citizens when thousands die each year from tobacco related illnesses? Such decisions determine life and death for millions of people. “Man . . . can more readily interfere with the processes of his own living and dying. Man may even have the ability to direct the evolution and the improvement of the human species itself” (Politics, Medicine, and Christian Ethics 1).
These two aspects of moral questions–political and medical–are of great concern to religious thinkers and leaders today.
Man’s advances in scientific ability and technology have given man the power to both destroy the world or transform the evolutionary process. The concept of a “master race” may be with us again. Religion (and individuals and governments) cannot afford to delay the seeking of answers to the perplexities of politics and medicine in the modern world. Delay in either area may be akin to the Munich Conference of 1938, which brought Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of “peace in our time.” There can be no peace in our time until the issues of morality–and they are many–have been addressed and answers found to those questions of morality in the modern world.
“Everyman’: continues to seek answers in the meaning
inherent in the human condition. The human condition, the bettering of the human condition, has been the concern of artists, philosophers, and theologians throughout man’s history. The moral
considerations of the human condition continue today. All too
often in the past, religion has taken refuge in dogma and prejudice to avoid confronting issues of morality. The world
today, however, is too complex, too confusing, to permit religion
refuge from the “realities of the twentieth century.” These realities are the moral considerations of politics–domestic and international–medicine, poverty, racial discrimination, injustices of many kinds, and violence. In short, all the problems of a modern man in a modern society contain moral considerations of great importance.
Recent religious thought has been concerned with the need for change in the traditional approach to religion. Modern religion has responded with a continuing dialogue, often argument and controversy, over the nature of change within religion. This dialogue, very often concerned with moral and ethical questions is necessary, not only for the survival of religion but for the survival of man. Modern man is in greater need of moral leadership and guidance today than at any other time in man’s history.