In my previous post, I made a quick and imperfect overview of basic morality and the idea of altruism. I concluded with the statement that sacrificial love is the highest level of selflessness attainable by humans. For Christians, the Passion (the crucifixion, death, and resurrection) of Christ is the perfect act of sacrificial love. It is only by mimicking Christ, on various levels of sacrifice, where we can act out truly altruistic behaviors. But let me step back for a bit.
I pointed out that as we mature in our morality we begin to ask for the reasons behind what is right and wrong. Questions of “why” are simple to grasp when it comes to basic morality: lying, stealing, murder, rape, assault. Most human cultures have recognized these transgressions as immoral; ultimately they cause pain in others and separate us from the community. Most animal species exhibit at least a small aspect of this morality. What separates humans is altruism. Altruism begins with a communal instinct, moves to more empathetic feelings, and then reaches selflessness in sacrificial love. Christianity shares this basic morality with the rest of the world though there is an added dimension. The purpose of all Christian morality has its foundation in the first of the Ten Commandments; “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”
When we are asked to “behave” in a certain way, it is because we have a God who has asked us to do so. We follow the precepts of God first, because He is our God, and second, because it provides us with the means to live in peaceful communion with the rest of His creation. The knowledge of God and His command to place Him first provides for the Christian a purpose and fulfillment to morality. So we could also say we follow God’s precepts first, because we want to live in peaceful communion with the rest of His creation, and last, because we have the promise of eternal reward for doing so. Sacrificial love becomes easier to bear when we have the approval and blessing of God. But doesn’t that negate the selflessness of the act of love? If we are still expecting a reward for our kindness, isn’t our altruism imperfect? The answer is yes, at least initially.
It is very easy to see Christianity simply as a law of morality; for many their faith is only a set of rules which must be kept in order to escape eternal suffering. The truth is morality should only be a by-product, or “fruit”, of the Christian quest for Salvation. Salvation is defined as being protected from harm or some dire situation; Christian salvation is protection from death. According to Christian teachings the reason we are mortal is due our separation from God the creator. Separation from God is the result of humans placing their will in front of the will of God, taking us out of synch with our created nature. When our will trumps the Divine will it is what we call sin and the result is bodily and spiritual death. The difference between Christianity and a law of morality is subtle but important. We do not strive for moral perfection through acts of love so that we won’t suffer; we strive to oneness with the will of God. The result is salvation from death and for some (the saints), this includes moral perfection.
As a result, the “Good News” of Christianity is twofold. One, salvation does not require moral perfection; it is enough to simply take part in this journey by acknowledging our will is subject to the will of God. Two, this was made possible through Christ who was victorious over death—victorious because His will was at one (atone) with the will of the Father, and by grace this victory has been shared with His creation.