ABC Radio host Jon Faine, a noted atheist, asserted the other day that he or others could live a Christian ethic while rejecting religion. This is a common misunderstanding.
It is possible to lead a coherent, consistent and even admirable ethical life while rejecting religion, and many atheists do, but it is not possible to live a Christian ethic. That is because the Christian ethic is based above all on “the first and greatest commandment”, that one love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind.
This is neither a small nor irrelevant aspect, and it is one that the atheist by definition cannot follow.
The second commandment is like it, Jesus says, that one should love one’s neighbour as oneself, and here atheists probably fail at least as consistently as believers do.
The idea that moral perfection is unattainable, yet our duty to aim at, is often misunderstood and often criticised, but it is one of the glories of the Christian ethic.
In particular, Faine suggested that non-believers could live by the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. Again, a common claim but wildly wrong because no one can.
The Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5 to 7) spells out the ethics of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus taught that he came to institute, but it is an ideal – something to which we can only imperfectly aspire.
It is certainly not within the grasp of atheists because (to quote A.M. Hunter) it is a religious ethic, a disciples’ ethic, a prophetic ethic, and an unattainable ethic. It is a religious ethic because it is based on religious premises, especially the nature of God; it is a disciples’ ethic because it is for life in the Kingdom; it is prophetic because it does not lay down rules but opens principles.
It is unattainable because no one can perfectly realise it – who has never been angry, never had impure thoughts, always forgiven without reservation? – yet it is still a design for life.
Jesus does not ask merely that we do our best or make a contribution. He requires the utter abnegation of self in the service of others – dying to self, as the Apostle Paul said, that Christ might live in him.
This cannot be reduced to a comfortable set of moral norms that atheists can equally follow. Christians, I need hardly add, don’t manage it either.
The idea that moral perfection is unattainable, yet our duty to aim at, is often misunderstood and often criticised, but it is one of the glories of the Christian ethic, along with the idea of progressive sanctification – that we seek to make our lives reflect Christ more and more, day by day.
I’m not far down that road, but I know where it leads.
This article first appeared in The Age.
Barney Zwartz is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.