Wednesday 29 July 2020

On Qualities for Living Well in a Pandemic

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

A few weeks back, the BBC’s ‘Rethink’ programme asked people who they describe as ‘six great minds’ – from chef Nisha Katona to philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah – ‘to share the qualities they believe will help us weather the pandemic and thrive in the world beyond’. You can check out the feature here.

Before you read on, you might like to pause to ask yourself the question: what qualities do we need in order to live well at this time? How would you respond if they asked you?

Their answers? Compassion. Gratitude (for healthy bodies). Consistency of small actions. Engagement. Empathy. Hospitality.

I don’t know anything about the faith commitment or otherwise of those who were asked, but it strikes me that those qualities are not at all out of place with the sorts of qualities Christians would be happy to endorse.

It got me thinking about what lies behind the moral judgments of people in society. All of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, approach ethical issues from a particular way of viewing the world, or what we sometimes call our ‘worldview’. (We were thinking about this as a church on Sunday evenings before lockdown started.)

Given this, I’d like to propose that qualities such as compassion, gratitude, empathy, and hospitality make best sense from a perspective that, at the very least, resembles a biblical worldview, grounded in a God who is himself good.

Of course, it’s not true to say that non-believers don’t recognise moral values or live good lives. They clearly do. But that’s not the same as having a consistent basis for doing so.

That’s perhaps especially the case for dedicated atheists. It’s very difficult to make sense of a commitment to values in the absence of God. Where atheists hold to a view that there is nothing in the universe other than matter and energy, that we are a random collection of atoms and molecules, and that moral beliefs are pressed upon us by our evolutionary history, then nothing and no-one has any rightful claim on us and we can live as we please. One of the most famous atheists, Friedrich Nietzsche, recognised this: if there is no God there can be ‘no moral facts whatsoever’.

As Justin Brierley puts it in his book, Unbelievable?, ‘Most atheists I meet are passionate about equality and justice, so of course you don’t need to believe in God to be a moral person. The problem is that you can’t make sense of those moral beliefs without there being a God.’ The question is not whether there might be people who are good without God, but whether they have a strong-enough framework – or a coherent-enough story – in order to hold those views consistently.

The good news for our non-believing friends is that there is a story which is not only consistent with the world they long for and the values to which they aspire, but which undergirds them, and a Saviour who stands at the heart of it for when we fail.

The challenge for us as as Christians is to live as if we ourselves believe that to be case, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, living lives that point to Christ. As the writer to the Hebrews prays (13:20-21), ‘may the God of peace... equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

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