Morality and Love

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buddy-JesusWhat purpose does morality serve? This is a question I have been given reason to consider from time to time—in particular as I live in the heavily-Protestantized Deep South. The question comes up in discussion, both with my Protestant colleagues and acquaintances and with my non-Christian ones [1]. One variant I have heard before might be paraphrased as, ‘Doesn’t morality get in the way of a relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior?’ One might as easily believe that religion gets in the way of such a relationship, or that the establishing of rituals prevents it, or that serving others in charity prevents our giving ourselves wholly to Him [2].

Morality, the caricature goes, is just a set of rules, and rues ruin relationships. Now, I have known few relationships which have been healthy and which have survived (let alone thrived) without some set of spoken or unspoken boundaries. Both people in a relationship have some set of expectations, for themselves and for the other person: this is true whether the relationship is as colleagues and co-workers, as employer and employee, as friends, or as lovers, and so on. If it may be said that expectations seldom become reality, it must remember that the expectations are there to be compared to reality.

Fence Boundary
Boundaries are good. Image source.

Some sort of spoken or unspoken boundaries and expectations will exist in the relationship. There are thus some sort of rules which can clarify or define these boundaries and these expectations. The rules may be written (as in a contract or employee handbook), or they may develop organically and implicitly through spoken words and worked deeds [3]. These “ground-rules” in a relationship can be acted upon subconsciously, implicitly, and even without acknowledgment. Manners, for example, may be taught us at a young age and then acted upon without hesitation later in life. It becomes almost “second nature” to ask a guest if you may take his coat or to offer him a seat or a drink when he arrives at your door.

Some rules are followed quite naturally, that is, without the need to reflect upon them at all, and without necessarily being taught them directly. Family or close friends who are on “hugging” terms might hug in greeting or farewell almost reflexively, and to ask permission beforehand after the pattern has long been established would seem almost a violation of this rule. Young lovers hands may seek each other out, almost on their own, and a friendship requires that the friends spend some time together, which they are often all-too-happy to do.

What happens when there aren’t clearly defined rules or boundaries.

That these things might seem natural, and that we might be inclined to do them, does not mean that they have ceased to be rules. Rather, this is an example of what is truly meant by being “free” of these rules (see Romans 8:2). That there is still a rule in effect, a sort of “morality”, is evident by the fact that we use expressions like “It seemed like the right thing to do” or “It feels right to do this”. And while “feeling right” and “being right” are not always the same thing, the fact that something can “feel” right or wrong does imply that we are beholden to some standards (again, rules) for what is right and what is wrong, even if that standard is implicit, tacit, unacknowledged, unspoken, or subconscious.

This brings us back to the question of morality’s role in a relationship. Morality isn’t inimical to a good relationship with God, nor is it merely a consequence of such a relationship. Rather, it is an essential component to that relationship, with the moral Law (the rules) fulfilling the important (rather than incidental) task of giving us guidelines and ground-rules to follow in our relationship with God and with His Church; and the rules become also rules of thumb for promoting harmony in society (that is, between men) and within ourselves.

C.S. Lewis likened moral rules and moral obedience to the essential characteristics of seaworthiness and good sailing among a fleet of ships, and then again of playing music in a band:

“There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual—when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on)either drift apart or interfere with one another. You can get the idea plain if you think of us a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have ether or these two things without the other. If the sips keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions. Or if you like, think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others.

The Great White Fleet
The Great White Fleet.

“But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to, or what piece of music the band is trying to play The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment, but even then the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants to play” (Mere Christianity, pp. 72-73).

I have so far considered mostly the first of these three concerns (harmony between individuals), though it should be especially clear that the second is closely related to it. If I have no interior peace, then I cannot be at peace with others in the world, which is another way of saying that there are no truly private sins. And if we each are captains of our own ships (ourselves) and the players of our own instruments, then here is still an admiral of the fleet and a conductor of the band. God provides the ultimate and absolute of our morality, delivered I suppose to the admiral or conductor (a stand-in for the Church). Christian morality in particular must trace itself back to the source, God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In Him alone does our morality find its basis, because He is our one absolute. God is the Lawgiver and He gives us Himself. Thus, all true morality goes back to Him, and the moral Laws become so many rules of thumb for us to interpret His Word. He ultimately wishes to give Himself to us, if we will but give ourselves to Him; and we can accept Him by being obedient to His commandments and teachings, which are there to convey His perfect love to us.



[1] This point also comes up in discussions with my Catholic friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, but not quite as much. Since one form or another of Protestantism is the dominant religion in these parts, most questions about Christianity seem to assume dogmas such as the solas.

[2] As Prof J Budziszewski has noted, the first Protestants certainly believed that some sort of morality—even Natural Law morality—was assumed by the Bible.

[3] How we act is the most effective way of convincing others of the truth of our moral values.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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1 thought on “Morality and Love”

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    The part about Romans 8:2 made me think of the saying, “If you love something, set it free.” I think it should be, “If you would be free, love.”

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