Moral Apathy is not a problem


You might think I’m mistaken, but I don’t think so, and here’s why.

I recently attended Acquire the Fire and was actually impressed with the kids I brought, and their astute observations about the conference, the music and their lack of overtly gross emotionalism that tends to be cultivated by these things. Did it put a pep in our step? Sure. But it didn’t inspire us to go out and Christianize the world, it inspired us to be better disciples, that’s the focus i’ve been putting on things.

Alright, so here’s the deal, we tend to think that if only we could get the kids to be more moral, or to make good choices we’d be set, but that’s not the gospel message. I am convinced that teenagers and young adults can make great choices and suffer for the kingdom as much as adults can, and that this suffering isn’t limited to being made fun of at school for praying before a meal, or wearing a Jesus t-shirt.

I was saddened by the lack of practical advice on small groups, and getting connected, and participation in church life at the conference. Looking back on it, i see a few things here and there that were lacking, and the emphasis on community was definitely one of them. Sure it’s nice to have all the ATF’ers on the same twitter page and facebook page, but if they’re not being encouraged to connect locally, they’re going to fail before they start. The thing is, these kids don’t need an exhortation against premarital sex, though that’s not a bad idea, they need exhortation to be the Church, in and with people who desire that same vision on earth as it is in heaven.

Moral apathy is not a problem unless we let it be, because the heart of Christianity is not morality, but Divine Love. This love is totally dissimilar to human love, yet it beckons our response and embodiment to make it happen in a fallen world.

I think that one of the things I took away from the conference to emphasize to my own kids is that they are not trying to go out and win the world today, but they are trying to cultivate their own discipleship in communion with their church, and their fellow Christians. Faithful disciples make disciples, is a tagline I’ve been using.

It’s not getting jimmy and bobby to not do drugs, though that is certainly part of the vision it’s getting them to experience God’s love in a community of committed and loving individuals who will nurture them and present them with challenges, not just a list of regulations.

Originally uploaded by DiscoWeasel

The lesson is this: a more moral society is not a more Christian society.

The church was born in an immoral world, and if we think that outlawing this, or having a million facebook fans for that is going to do anything we’re sadly mistaken. The only way to change societies towards the love we know is true is to be the Church. Be those people so claimed by God that they serve, and they go and the love and they grow. The churches come out of a world where human sacrifice still existed, orgies were the norm and cruelty could be found for the price of a dime, and yet these churches flourished whereas our churches falter. These churches were consumed with a desire to be faithful witnesses, not a desire to see the emperor be less cruel for its own sake.

If they could not make faithful converts, the churches didn’t make converts. So be it. We’ve lost that costly grace as Bonhoeffer calls it, the grace that requires us to follow Jesus Christ. Losing this expensive grace is our greatest failure, and now we live in a society where we have turned revival tents into the church. Questions of fiathful worship and right thinking have become impractical and to be ignored, so long as we can cultivate fifteen minutes of “repentance,” we’re good.

If we’re going to help anyone, including ourselves, we have to recognize that the locus of salvation isn’t society, it’s the Church (which does not mean just this or that congregation, for my non-Christian readers, it means that the Church is that community of people who believes that among them, they are already experiencing God’s gracious forgiveness and love in such a way that it is saving them). In the churches is where we need to focus on building people into good, loving dedicated people, committed to serving one another. Too often the tent revivals and the culture they spawn focus on getting people in, but have nothing for them to do once they get there.

I’m saying we need robust churches, inspired for service, geared towards nullifying apathy towards discipleship. The last thing we need is a new generation of moralistic preachers building ever increasingly complex lists of rules, or berating young adults and teens with guilt-trips about behavior.

Make faithful disciples, because I’m convinced that without the ever present challenge of Jesus Christ, nothing will matter much longer, and we will have lost our face as a community of Jesus, becoming another faceless social institution for the moral upkeep of society. That’s not the church. Go out and be faithful, love your neighbors, love your enemies, you enemies are your neighbors. It’s that simple.



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8 thoughts on “Moral Apathy is not a problem

  1. I generally get where you’re coming from and think you have some fine points, but I want to provide some pushback. Whether moral apathy is a problem depends on 1) what moral apathy is and 2) who has it.

    1) What is moral apathey? If morality means having a position about legalizing marijana or having an opinion about Arizona immigration or all the other media-driven issues, then, yes, moral apathy is just fine. But that’s not morality. Morality ties into the mission of the people of God that began with Abraham: “And you shall be a blessing in the lives of those with whom you come in contact.” From its inception, the idea of a chosen people was not community for community’s sake but to be a blessing to the world – particularly, those we come in contact with. Morality has everything to do with that interaction, because we are only a blessing to the extent that we treat people the way God would have us treat them: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Believing that Jesus had two wills, one human and one divine, is great – but it really isn’t blessing anyone. If moral apathy means not caring how we treat people, it’s a HUGE problem. To the extent that rules help us achieve this purpose, Christianity promotes them (see, beatitudes, Rule of St. Benedict, etc.). For our mission to be successful, love has to be more than a feeling we have for people; it has to be action, behavior, and habit.

    2) Who are we talking about? The mission of God’s people is to be a blessing, not to expect everyone else to be a blessing to us. We cannot be morally apathetic, but it shouldn’t bother us if the world is. I see nothing wrong with pastors preaching morality to their flock, whose riteousness should exceed that of the scribes and pharisees. Pastors preaching morality to the world are mixed up. Also, pastors preaching to their own flocks that morality isn’t imporant are mixed up and risk creating a lower standard of behavior for Christians than for the world. Christ explicitly calls for a higher standard of behavior.

    Your article, I think, is aimed at a trivial excuse for morality, but I would avoid using language that implies moral development and action are not key to living a Christian life.

    • Richard by no means was I trying to state that morality is not part of the Christian life, I merely was pushing for specificity, that morality and discipleship are two totally different things, one can be moral and not be a disciple, was what I was pushing for.

      Another thing is that my argument is directed at the evangelical assumption that getting kids to do these or those actions totally cut off from the life of the church is what we are geared towards, and I could not disagree more. Of course we want children and teens and all people of all ages making the right, loving, discipled choices that include them in the people of God, but this again, is different from morality for its own sake.

      I don’t think morality qua morality is the mission of the people of God and what I’m aiming at is a robust ecclesiology, a system of thought that involves the church’s life in “moral” decisions via the language and structures of discipleship.

      I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about being a blessing to the world, but again, what I’m aiming at is not undoing morality altogether, but refashioning it under the blanket of discipleship.

      Moral apathy to me was the specific relation of the church to society. I don’t care if society wants to take a nose-dive, because I’m not trying to Christianize the social order, I’m trying to make the churches be the Church. Notice that my main points were on ecclesiology, discpleship and evangelism, not on personal decisions, I was being a bit abstract but

      I think the point needs to be reiterated, and often. We are here to make faithful people who love and serve one another, not make the world more just, but to make the world the world. Precisely because when the world is the world, and the Church is the Church, it is then that salvation and discipleship have visible difference from the world’s offer on what life should look like.

      The lesson is this: a more moral society is not a more Christian society. We can easily set u an idol to morality and praise ourselves for virtuous actiosn as a society and that’s precisely the devil I want to avoid by separating morality from discipleship, because one is based on assumptions about good and evil, the other is based on being drawn intot eh Christian story and acting according to the mandates and character of that story. I know this is all a bit out there and abstract but the point is a very concrete one: the Church’s message is not a social maintenance tool to create moral societies or justice, nor is it the place where we go to help make social institutions like families work. The Church is first and foremost a community of discipled and disciplined worship to the Triune God in thought, action and Love.

      I think while you present a great argument, and you know i always appreciate the push-back, you missed my point.

      “We cannot be morally apathetic, but it shouldn’t bother us if the world is.” That’s my point exactly. right there. We cannot be morally apathetic, but our morality is intimately caught up with our decision to be and act as disciples. All this article is really intended to do is critique the idea that Christians should be good people first and if they can manage, be disciples.

      I want to flip that on its head. Christians must be disciples first, and this project includes morality, worship, liturgy, morality, ethics, politics, but all this article is intended to do is place Christian morality where it belongs, not in America, or in trying to make America work, but in the churches, trying to make the churches be the Church.

  2. moral apathy is apathy in the general sense of anyone can do this. I said moral apathy is not a problem because apathy towards discipleship is. The difference is slight in vocabulary, but immense in effect.

    who? anyone and everyone can have this type of apathy, but my concern is that we are not trying to make good people, we are trying to make good Christians, and there is a world of difference in the two houses.

  3. As you requested . . .

    My struggle is whether you’re giving an academic answer to a real life problem. By academic I mean indeterminate. It’s easy to say you’re “discipleship” isn’t abstract, but if it waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. If I understand you correct, you are trying to replace a lower standard with a higher standard. Good. But are you replacing a lower standard with a higher standard or a concrete standard with an indeterminate one? If that’s the case, I think you risk creating a lower standard of behavior in your listeners.

    Let’s talk about something specific: charity. The “moral” standard is 10% of one’s income. The standard has come under attack in different Christian theological circles as being too “Old Testamentish” and thus too legalistic. Everything we own is God’s. Therefore, we should live as if we own nothing for ourselves. That’s really clever. One problem. Most people who hear that end up less generous than they would have been. It’s easy to go to the mall and have the latest television and swimming pool and extravagant lifestyle all justified under (abstract) good stewardship. The abstract standard makes it easy to feel satisfied doing much less than the “moral” standard requires. Now, I guess your concern is that the person who gives 10% feels as if he’s done enough and becomes self-righteous. I think that’s legitimate, but overstated. Getting normal churchgoers to even be that generous is difficult. Getting them to be that generous directly to the poor (the real moral standard) on top of everything they give to their church, is even harder. The minimum standard isn’t easy. As a practical matter, I wonder why you’re so eager to get beyond morality to something bigger, when most of us struggle to do the minimum.

    It’s a similar story in other categories: the day I was told that scheduling a specific prayer time every day was legalistic because my whole life was supposed to be a prayer to God was the day I stopped praying altogether. The day I was told Christianity is more than basic kindness was the day I became disrespectful to my teachers and rude to my classmates. Is the new Israel really supposed to be doing less than the old one?

    I understand that you have a particular target in evangelical churches and I think it’s great to go after them. But I’m more interested in what standard you’re trying to promote than in what standard you’re preaching against.

    I know you would tell me that none of that is your intention, but I’m not interested in your intention but in the practical effect of your words. I’ve had enough replacing objective standards with subjective ones.

    I don’t know how theologically sound that is, but it’s what’s on my mind.

  4. Eli,
    1) Insofar as you’re calling into question the concerns many adults in youth ministry have for adolescents, I agree with you. Our goal is not (primarily) to maintain our children’s innocence, nor is it merely to keep them from experimenting with drugs and sex, etc.
    2) However, I don’t know if you want to make a distinction b/w morality on the one hand and Xian discipleship on the other hand. I think the virtues are the effects of the Spirit bringing us into the divine life. Moral character is inseparable from being made like Christ. Perhaps the way to express it is to demonstrate how truly Xian morality subverts the staid morality of much compromised Xianity.
    3) It will take very careful articulation of your position not to sound “abstract,”/ Richard’s complaint. Talking about the church, about faith, hope, love, about patience, and the like are going to sound hopelessly impractical if you don’t find a way to make plain how they touch on everyday life.

  5. Richard, I see what you’re saying and don’t thing you’re wrong to raise questions about anti-religious sentiment from within the ranks of Christian devotion.

    I guess the heart of what I was trying to express was my dissatisfaction with the idea that such conferences as the one I attended should inspire us to go out and focus on keeping our kids away from sexuality, or drugs. What I was trying to express was a critique of the low ecclesiology at work in this case and how faithfulness qua discipleship exceeds morality. The Church has an exciting and vibrant challenge that most pastors are unconcerned with because they’re more comfortable talking about smoking habits and bacon grease and being polite.

    And, I understand your expressing that I might be overstating my case, especially since people who attend church and give ten percent feel pretty self-satisfied, and I seem to be pushing for something more.

    “As a practical matter, I wonder why you’re so eager to get beyond morality to something bigger, when most of us struggle to do the minimum.” I guess if I had to answer I’d say I’m trying to follow in the footsteps of Bonhoeffer, who allows for no easy correlation of faithfulness with common societal morality. I am saying that our righteousness should “exceed that of the scribes and the pharisees” and that’s why I am discontent to let abstaining from certain films or experiences dictate the moral standard for my kids. I think this post was written too hastily to properly express all that, as Dr. Green notes.

    Dr. Green,
    Thanks for weighing in.

    “Perhaps the way to express it is to demonstrate how truly Xian morality subverts the staid morality of much compromised Xianity.” I will definitely have to do this, because I feel it’s something that’s vitally important to the thought processes I’m trying to cultivate in my church, and I’m not exactly sure how to go about it. But nevertheless, I see a need I’m not exactly sure how to fill.

    and on your 3rd point, that’s true. As I admitted before, I penned a fast reflection to throw something on paper instead of carefully trying to tackle an issue this large with the proper thought and responsibility necessary. You’re right, and I guess I’ll rewrite this in the future trying to say what needs to be said.

    However, I did have a question about your take on Bonhoeffer, I took it to be one of his and Hauerwas’s theses along with the church fathers that Xian morality via discipleship and regular morality were two different things. Was I wrong?

  6. And then there was Jesus…

    “Jesus came preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the Kindgom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.'” – Mk 1:14

    First comes the Kingdom, then comes the metanoia, then comes the morality.

    If you’re going to be a citizen, you must participate in citizenry.


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