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Do we need to be a person of faith to have strong moral convictions? February 10, 2007

Posted by Cobus in church, theology.

This was the question we posed to the engineering students during the week. The specific formulation was : “Must an engineer believe in some faith/ God to have strong moral convictions?” (Afrikaans : “Moet ‘n ingenieur ‘n gelowige mens wees om sterk morele oortuigings te besit?”). The class was devided into two groups, who had to debate this. Now, this was the first discussion of the only semester they have in ethics, but to me it opened some interesting questions.

In both groups I facilitated someone from the group defending the idea that you need to be a person of faith to have strong moral convictions said that any faith system work on the basis of punishment and reward, and that is what will cause an engineer to have strong moral convictions. But the problem is, is it really moral convictions if based on the idea of punishment or reward? On the other hand, I facilitate the Afrikaans class, which means that by far the most dominant religion is Christianity. This is the perception people have, that our moral convictions is based on punishment and reward.

But if we dig into out deep and rich tradition, we will find something quite different. We can enter the Old Testament, which doesn’t really have a concept of eternal punishment or reward, the idea that we are in covenant with God is important here. Strong moral convictions isn’t a requirement to enter the covenant, it is the result of the covenant. It is because of the covenant, the relationship with God, that Israel need to be different than the other nations, that they should look after the widows and the orphans etc. Also in the New Testament we find the same thing, we are made holy when we enter into relationship with God (Christ), that cause us to become different, to be different.

Punishment and reward was never supposed to become the soul motivating factor for moral convictions, for an ethical life!

But the awnser to the initial question. We do not need to be religious, to have faith, to have strong moral convictions. Sometimes religion/faith cause some very immoral convictions. And as one student phrased it, we live for life, life is important, therefore we have moral convictions. Strong moral convictions come from different things.

As theologian I need to ask, why Christian ethics then? Is there anything different about being a Christian, except for some specific believes? Does it make a difference in the way we live? I believe it should. It’s only because of my identity in Christ that I can say “love your enemies”, love others even if it’s irrational.


1. Glenn - February 11, 2007


A couple of thoughts:

All positive ethics have their origin with God. We are created in His image and likeness.

Beliefs, in the commonly understood sense, do not change behavior. In America there have been numerous studies indicating little difference between the behavior of Christians and non-Christians. For beliefs to make a difference, they have to be embraced by more than our minds.

Punishment and reward are good external motivators, but not nearly as powerful as love (in a covenant relationship.)

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