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The Urgency and Power of Moral Formation

Jim Denison | Denison Forum | Thursday, August 17, 2023
The Urgency and Power of Moral Formation

The Urgency and Power of Moral Formation


“It will be pretty crazy when I watch him walk by. I’ll be able to say, ‘There goes my kidney.’” This is what Eddie McCarthy, a high school math teacher in Toledo, Ohio, told a Washington Post reporter after donating a kidney to Roman McCormick, who was one of his geometry students. The teacher and student are doing well following the transplant surgery.

Stories like this illustrate Albert Einstein’s observation, “Only a life lived for others is a life worth living.” And they are especially notable in a day when such altruism seems so rare.

Maui residents say they are being looted and robbed at gunpoint following catastrophic wildfires on the island. On the mainland, retail theft is up 26.5 percent across the US. A recent video showed more than thirty people stealing $300,000 worth of items from Nordstrom in Los Angeles. A few days earlier, the same thing happened at a Yves Saint Laurent store in the LA area.

"A society that’s terrible at moral formation"

How America Got Mean” is New York Times columnist David Brooks’ latest in-depth article for The Atlantic. The subtitle explains his premise: “In a culture devoid of moral education, generations are growing up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world.”

As examples, Brooks documents the rise of hate crimes and murder and the decline of social trust.

He writes that “the words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces” (his italics). In his view, “We’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis, and it undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy.”

His explanation is simple: “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.” Said differently, “We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.”

He notes that America’s Founders had “a low view of human nature, and designed the Constitution to mitigate it.” Consequently, for the first 150 years of our history, teaching virtue was central to society’s endeavors. Foundational was the conviction that “concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste: An objective moral order exists, and human beings are creatures who habitually sin against that order.”

"Whatever feels good to me is moral"

What changed? Brooks reports that humanists responded to the horrors of World War II by claiming that “the existence of rigid power hierarchies led to oppression in many spheres of life.” In their view, “We need to liberate individuals from these authority structures” since “people are naturally good and can be trusted to do their own self-actualization.”

The result was the abandonment of moral formation in schools and society. Psychology, especially emphases on self-help and self-esteem, replaced philosophy and theology. The consequence is what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called “emotivism”: “Whatever feels good to me is moral.”

However, as Brooks perceptively notes, “Expecting people to build a satisfying moral and spiritual life on their own by looking within themselves is asking too much. A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another.”

Brooks quotes Duke Divinity School theologian Luke Bretherton: “The breakdown of an enduring moral framework will always produce disconnection, alienation, and an estrangement from those around you.”

A sobering conversation with a cashier

This is where the Christian faith becomes relevant, or at least it should. Christians are called to imitate Jesus (Romans 8:29) and manifest virtues vital to flourishing such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). However, Brooks mentions churches only twice in his lengthy article. In his prescriptions for a more moral society, he nowhere includes religion or faith (even though he converted to Christianity a few years ago).

Why is this? My answer is that Christianity is not obviously producing culture-changing Christians. Too many of us act too much like the world when we’re not in church.

This fact was driven home for me yesterday when I was checking out from a store and struck up a conversation with the cashier. When our discussion turned to faith, she said that she was a Christian but she had to work on Sunday mornings, so she attended services on Sunday night. She added that she was hoping to change her hours to be off on Sunday mornings, but not for the reason I expected.

She explained that so many Christians come into her store after church services and treat her so rudely that she would rather not work the Sunday morning shift. I’ve heard similar stories from waiters and waitresses who say the after-church shift is their hardest all week—church attenders are the most demanding and tip the least.

"May all who come behind us find us faithful"

I say all of that to say this: the moral crisis David Brooks analyzes so perceptively is a historic opportunity for our faith to impact our culture. People are dying—some literally through “deaths of despair” such as suicide and drug addictions, the rest spiritually—to experience God’s life-giving love and grace.

But they understandably judge Christianity by Christians. When I was lost, I did the same thing. It was the vibrant joy and peace I witnessed in Christians I met that drew me to their faith. I wanted what they had. Nearly fifty years later, I’m so glad I saw Jesus in them.

Now it’s my turn and yours. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to fill and control us today so fully that we exhibit the compassion and character of Jesus to everyone we meet (Ephesians 5:18). Let’s measure success by the degree to which people see Christ in us (cf. Colossians 1:27). And let’s settle for nothing less than a movement of culture-changing Christians whose love for their Lord and their neighbor transforms those they influence (Mark 12:30-31).

In the words of Steve Green:

O may all who come behind us

Find us faithful,

May the fire of our devotion

Light their way.

May the footprints that we leave,

Lead them to believe,

And the lives we live

Inspire them to obey.

O may all who come behind us

Find us faithful.

NOTE: Our Biblical Insight to Tough Questions series is a perennial favorite, so I encourage you to request your copy today of the newest edition, Vol. 12. We discuss cremation, horoscopes, and whether God supports war—all from a biblical perspective that we pray leads you back to the timeless truth of God’s word.

Publication date: August 17, 2023

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Jacob Wackerhausen

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

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The Urgency and Power of Moral Formation