Christianity not primarily about ethics Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Many atheists and agnostics today argue that it is possible for non-believers in God to be morally upright.

They resent the implication that the denial of God will lead inevitably to ethical relativism or nihilism. They are quick to point out examples of non-religious people who are models of kindness, compassion, justice, etc.

Non-believers praiseworthy?

A recent article proposed that non-believers are, on average, more morally praiseworthy than religious people. God knows (pun intended) that during the last 20 years we’ve seen plenty of evidence of the godly behaving badly.

Though I could quarrel with a number of elements within this construal of things, I would concede that it is possible for atheists and agnostics to be morally good. The classical Greek and Roman formulators of the theory of the virtues were certainly not believers in the biblical God, and many of their neo-pagan successors today do exhibit fine moral qualities.

What I should like to do, however, is to use this controversy as a springboard to make a larger point, namely that Christianity is not primarily about ethics, about "being a nice person" or, to use Flannery O'Connor's wry formula, "having a heart of gold."

The moment Christians grant that Christianity's ultimate purpose is to make us ethically better people, they cannot convincingly defend against the insinuation that, if some other system makes human beings just as good or better, Christianity has lost its raison d'etre.

Kant's influence

Much of the confusion can be traced to the influence of Immanuel Kant, especially his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Kant was impatient with the claims of revealed religions. He saw them as unverifiable and irrational assertions that could be defended, not through reason, but only through violence. Do you see how much of the "New Atheism" of the post-September 11th era is conditioned by a similar suspicion?

He argued that, at its best, religion is not about dogma or doctrine or liturgy but about ethics. In the measure that the Scriptures, prayer, and belief make one morally good, they are admissible, but in the measure that they lead to moral corruption, they should be dispensed with.

As religious people mature, Kant felt, they would let those relatively extrinsic practices and convictions fall to the side and embrace the ethical core of their belief systems. Kant’s disciples today think that Christianity ought to be de-supernaturalized and re-presented as a program of inclusion and social justice.

Witness of first Christians

The problem with Kantianism -- old and new -- is that it runs counter to the witness of the first Christians, who were concerned, above all, not with an ethical program but with the explosive emergence of a new world.

The letters of St. Paul, the earliest Christian texts we have, are particularly instructive. One can find "ethics" in the writings of Paul, but one would be hard pressed to say that the principal theme of Romans, Galatians, Philippians, or first and second Corinthians is the laying out of a moral vision.

The central motif of those letters is Jesus Christ risen from the dead. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is the sign that the world as we know it -- a world marked by death and the fear of death -- is evanescing and that a new order of things is emerging.

This is why he tells the Corinthians "the time is running out" and "the world in its present form is passing away"; this is why he tells the Philippians that everything he once held to be of central importance he now considers as so much rubbish; what counts is the "new creation."

The new creation is shorthand for the overturning of the old world and the emergence of a new order through the resurrection of Jesus, the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."

The inaugural speech of Jesus, reported in the Gospel of Mark, commences with the announcement of the kingdom of God and the exhortation to "repent and believe the good news."

We tend to interpret repentance as a summons to moral conversion, but the Greek word that Mark employs is metanoiete, which means, "go beyond the mind you have." Jesus is urging his listeners to change their way of thinking so as to see the new world that is coming into existence.

Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and agnostics can be "good people." They can all be tolerant, inclusive, and just.

But only Christians witness to an earthquake that has shaken the foundations of the world and turned every expectation upside down. A key to the new evangelization is the rediscovery of this revolutionary message.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at