Spiritual Life

‘Theological tennis’: The fall and rise of Christian morality

Editor’s note: The following column is a response to the article that ran in last week’s Spiritual Life section, “Back and forth: A stirring game of theological tennis,” by Los Altos resident Mike Bushell.

“If we discovered tomorrow that there were no God, would the world grind to a halt?” asked Mike Bushell, who calls himself an agnostic. “Would you start acting differently? Would society break down into some amoral anarchy?”

According to Bushell, the answer is no. He wrote, “We have the capacity and the responsibility to act morally ... without abrogating that responsibility to a Supreme Being.”

Is he right? After all, the world is changing fast. The widespread rejection of a Bible-based conscience has accelerated that change, and our news media bombard us with evidence of today’s heartless cruelties and amoral lifestyles. In fact, the word “moral” is fast fading from our vocabulary.

Reporter Melanie Phillips describes the social decay in British cities: “What has been fueling all this is not poverty ... but moral collapse. What we have been experiencing is a complete breakdown of civilized behavior. .... It’s a world without any boundaries or rules.”

Especially moral boundaries.

Yet, as centuries come and go, history occasionally reveals sudden, momentous changes that transform cultures in ways that defy logic. One of these leaps began more than 400 years ago. Its transforming power brought light into the dark Middle Ages. It spread hope among people bound by fear, superstition and tyranny.

Historian Randall Roth summarizes what happened. His research showed little variation in the rate of human violence between the 14th and 16th centuries. “Then, in the 17th century, there is a very big, dramatic drop,” he wrote.

Why? How did people suddenly become less violent?

According to James A. Sharpe, historian at the University of York in England, “The great decline in homicide in the 17th century was not accompanied by a rise in property offense prosecutions but rather by their diminution.”

In other words, theft as well as murder plummeted in the 17th century.

People had actually changed their values. They had become more honest as well as peaceable. But again, why?

History teacher Tom Cohen helps solve the puzzle: “The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation put a lot of emphasis on individual conscience. ... The conscience becomes the internal gyroscope. (It builds) personal self-control.”

By God’s grace, people in Northern Europe were suddenly free to print and read the Bible, live by faith and follow their conscience. A century later, the evangelistic zeal that spread God’s truth and love throughout Europe would cross lands and oceans to reach the earth’s most oppressed people.

We still reap the benefits of a world pacified by the spread of Christianity. But it may not last long, for we now face a reversal of the tide that brought truth and hope to a broken world.

We face a new era. Christianity is mocked and the Bible-trained conscience is being replaced by contrary guidelines that twist, scorn or deny God’s truth. Consequently, many now redefine the conscience to match new cultural values.

But the Lord is our strength and refuge!

“Thanks be to God who leads us in His triumph!”

Berit Kjos of Los Altos Hills is a member of Union Presbyterian Church.

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