Standing Against Materialism
Materialism is a philosophy (not the kind Madonna sings about) that states that human beings and in fact the whole of the world consists only of physical materials. It drives science because science can really only study physical things. But some scientists have made the mistake of thinking that the limit of what they can study is in fact all there is. Human beings realize that there exist things outside the realm of the physical, and these things pose problems for a materialist viewpoint. Some scientists believe that eventually they will discover a physical cause for everything in the universe.
As Christians we have to reject this philosophy because obviously God himself is immaterial and “unstudiable.” But He exists. And because He exists and we are made in His image, we will find things in this world that cannot be explained by solely material causes. One of these things, I believe, is “morality.”
The Moral Dilemma of Valjean
If you are looking for “good Christian fiction,” then Les Miserables (Signet Classics) is the pinnacle of the genre. It tells a great and timeless story that is permeated with the Christian themes of redemption, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Yes, the musical may have worn out its welcome in your heart if you have endured the Broadway production, the movie, and two or three high school renditions (perhaps one of your own darlings belted out “I Dreamed a Dream” to cheering crowds). But it’s still a great story, and the book tells it with panache.
While there are many great themes in the book and many great scenes, my favorite scene is one that makes us think about the nature of morality. Where does morality come from? Can we have a morality that arises out of a purely material being?
The scene occurs after Javert has told Valjean (known to him as Monsieur Madeleine) that a man Javert (and the prosecutor) thinks is Valjean has been captured and will be tried for his crimes. The real Valjean realizes that this could be his ultimate salvation from Javert’s relentless hunt for him. He could live a life free of fear of discovery.
Valjean rationalizes that the man in question no doubt has done some evil deeds and probably deserves a prison sentence, while he, Valjean, has contributed much good to the town where he is mayor. He knows that no one would know if he failed to speak up for the man and that his own life would become much better if he keeps quiet. But Valjean knows this is wrong. He knows that he must speak up. And he knows that the consequences will be severe—he will return to the hated galleys and probably die there. Valjean spends quite a bit of time pacing and thinking and wrestling with his conscience about what he should do.
This is the epitome of the experience of Christian conviction. We are called to do the hard thing that we do not want to do. And yet if we are faithful, we must do it. We follow our own Lord in this as he prayed with sweatdrops of blood at Gethsemane that this cup might pass from him, nevertheless the Lord’s will be done.
But if we look at this logically, we might wonder why Valjean pains over this decision or why he even considers confessing at all. Why is he motivated to do himself harm to save a complete stranger from an injustice? How can we explain such altruism in a world formed totally by accident through deterministic forces that reward the genes that survive not those that sacrifice themselves?
The Moral Animal of Robert Wright
Robert Wright the author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology tries to answer this question from a materialistic point of view. If we are mere products of evolution, how did morality arise? He tries to make a case for the natural generation of morality based on societal survival. Society as a whole survives when some individuals sacrifice their individual wants and needs. It is a very unconvincing case. The book is 20 years old, so there have been more recent discussions of this topic, but the more scientists try to break transcendent ideas down into chemical reactions, the less explanatory their hypotheses become. This is because we are more than chemicals. The Wright book is worth reading just to see how the best case for a naturally arising altruism is still unconvincing.
Original Sin in Lord of the Flies
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the self-sacrificing hero Valjean, we read in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies about the “innocent” British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island who give rein to the basest desires of human beings. It is a brutal, disturbing novel suited for mature readers, but it is the best illustration of original sin as you are likely to read. No Rousseauian utopia here. Rousseau posited that we are born innocent, and it is exposure to society that corrupts us. If only we could live close to nature and be as we were in our original innocence, then what a wonderful world that would be.
Unfortunately for Rousseau’s theory and for the boys on the island, society does not foist evil desires on us; we bring that evil nature into the world with us. And these boys bring it to the island. Without the civilizing constraints of rules and laws and the authority of moral men to impose them, these boys degenerate into savage beasts who kill their fellow schoolmates for the fun of it.
I think the novel has stood the test of time because even as people blithely mouth the idea of the basic goodness of mankind, we all suspect that the Lord of the Flies scenario is the one that would prevail if there were no moral constraints. Where there are no accepted rules of behavior, the strongest will force his will on the weakest, and there will be few in that situation that would die to defend the weakest.
Lost in the Cosmos
In fact these two novels illustrate that our base natures tend toward evil, and it is only some outside influence of goodness that causes us to overrule our natural tendencies and to behave morally.
Walker Percy’s book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book has a small section that also deals with this theme of the innate evil that men bring with them wherever they go. There is a quite funny chapter where a group of earthlings start a new colony on an untouched planet and find themselves amazingly beset by the same evils they left behind. Lost in the Cosmos addresses a whole host of themes about the modern world and is highly recommended. Though published in 1983, it offers prescient insights on the state of our culture and could be somewhat depressing as you realize we are thirty plus years on from Percy’s dismal vantage point.
Questions that arise from reading these books are: Where does good come from? Why do we think that “good” is the way things should be? Tigers don’t sin or violate a moral code. If we are animals, why do we have a moral code? How does a morality that does not make us do something but tells us we ought to do it have a hold on us. Is morality learned or innate?
We want our children to embrace Christianity on their own rather than having us always make sure they are taking it with them (Did you pack your Christianity this morning, dear?). I think the best way to do this is to help them think about questions that won’t get asked unless you ask them. And I think it is important to let kids think these through and perhaps pose answers that we may not like. But that is a good thing, because then the conversation continues. And you are forced to think even more deeply about what you believe and why. So let the conversation begin.