Christian values have often been identified as compassion, forgiveness, justice and peace.
However, these can also be described as essential human values, further society without having to turn to belief in afterlife or a saviour Lord. However, the claim that Christian values are ‘distinctive’ seems to separate the spiritual from the human and this would conflict with the message of the incarnation – God bringing together the human and divine.
Firstly, the Gospels set the example of Christian values of compassion, forgiveness, justice and peace. For example, the parable of the Prodigal Son and his forgiving father show forgiveness and compassion; Jesus’ many healing miracles – of the bling man, the paralysed man, taking spirits out of a boy, etc, teaches us to consider the plank of wood in our own eye before addressing the splinter in another’s – showing us that justice involves looking inwardly before looking outwards towards others. Furthermore, when Jesus is asked about who should throw the first stone at an adulterous woman, he says ‘let he who has not sinned throw the first stone’ and all walk away.
These teachings show that justice is not always ‘passing judgement’ – it also shows we are responsible for our own moral development too.
However, there does not seem to be anything distinctive about these values – perhaps Jesus was interpreting a concern for humanity that was challenging society of the day, but in no different a way to the ways in which the Suffragettes went on to challenge attitudes to the roles of women, and the way in which society raises concerns for the rights of the LGBTQ community today.
Perhaps Christian ‘values’ represent values arising out of society. For example, compassion and love is reassuring for people and creates a positive experience of life. Forgiveness is an important part of overcoming failures within the self and within relationships. Justice enables a fair approach to wrong-doing and peace furthers society, in contrast to the destructive forces of war. Enhancing society based on these values keeps society from falling into chaos. Since we can articulate such a moral code without reference to belief in God or an afterlife, then we could say that ‘Christian values’ are no more than basic human values and are far from distinctive.
Indeed, Richard Dawkins teaches that life has meaning without reference to religion – “there is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else…has a responsibility to give your life meaning.” In his argument that religion is something for children to escape from and is harmful, Dawkins draws attention to the abuse of children among Church ministers, the Hell House example in Colorado and the 19th Century kidnapping of Jewish children who were then baptised and raised Catholic. While these examples are extreme, they seem to contradict the values of peace, forgiveness and justice that were earlier identified as ‘Christian’. It seems here that the only ‘distinctive’ feature of these so-called Christian values is that they seem distorted in practice and conflicts with general values of love. Society seems to abhor some of the religious ideas of justice – for example, the ‘cutting off of offending hands’ in Matthew 9 and the eternal damnation in hell for homosexuality or sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6).
However, one could argue that this would be missing the point. Jesus’ central message was to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and to ‘love God’. Jesus taught to put yourself last – that the “first will be last and the last, first”, that we should be a servant to our brethren. The teachings of Paul in Corinthians do not match with this message of love for outcasts. The Christian values of self-sacrificial and unconditional love arguable cannot be explained using the rationalist of love, peace and justice above. For example, nuns travelling to Ebola-stricken areas to administer aid, or a mother giving her life for a son does not seem to be explained purely in terms of the functioning of society. Similarly, the Christian teachings of loving your enemy and ‘turning the other cheek’, extending love to a foreigner – all seem to go against what is easier and safer to do. This implies that such values arise from a commitment to something greater and ‘outside of’ oneself – something distinctive. Such values seem based on an appreciation o the intrinsic worth of all humans as made imagio dei, and in this way, can be seen as distinctive.
Notwithstanding, even the values from society seem to be based on a shared understanding of the intrinsic worth of humans. We have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights – for all, despite individual (robbery, murder) and collective (pollution) wrongdoing. This suggests that society appreciates humans as having some form of intrinsic worth – which is why even inmates get basic human rights such as food, water, shelter, hygiene and health facilities.
Overall it seems most convincing to suggest that spiritual and human values cannot be separate. It is not a case that Christian values are ‘no more’ than basic human values; but rather, human values are inherently of a spiritual nature too. This can be supported by some Christian teachings. The belief in Christianity that God took on human form and became man and lived among us, lends itself to the idea that in encountering other humans, we are also encountering God. God’s incarnation brings humans into new fellowship with Him – made final in Christ’s death and resurrection. God represents both the divine and the human and in this way, human values cannot be made separate to Christian values. In a similar way, Christian values cannot be seen as distinctive to human values.
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