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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Monday, December 02, 2013

How Teaching Answers Fails Christian Students

This morning, I talked with a friend of mine who teaches at a local Christian college. The students he instructs come from traditional evangelical homes, and the parents pay high tuition to send their kids to a school that will provide a solid, biblical framework during their higher education. But something still bothered him.

He had given his students the assignment of presenting an argument for some cultural topic or issue of the students' choice, and one of his brightest students chose to discuss the morality of embryonic stem-cell research. She read her paper in front of the class, arguing that the embryo is a human being; thus destroying an embryo for research is destroying a human being and is wrong. She provided reasons for her position and did well in supporting her view.

All of this sounds great, but what happened afterward has me deeply concerned. Because the students presented their papers orally, each student was to leave five minutes for questions and answers at the end of their presentations. When asked to clarify what she means when she said it was wrong, she responded, "Well, I mean it is wrong for me. I wouldn't fund any type of research like this but I couldn't impose my moral views on another person who may want to do so."

I've commented many times on why moral relativism fails as a true way to measure the rightness or wrongness of an action, but my bigger concern is this strange contradiction between the paper this student presented and her about-face during the Q&A. I mean, think about it: if moral claims are subjective and personal, then they don't need to be argued for or against. No one has to provide three reasons why they choose soup over salad for their dinner. We understand that these are subjective choices that cater to the taste of the individual, therefore supplying reasons to make such a choice is superfluous.

So, after all the effort this student put forth in defending her moral objection to the practice of embryonic stem cell research, she simply undercut her whole argument by saying that the case is only applicable to herself. Why would she do such a thing? I think it is because young Christians today compartmentalize their beliefs instead of integrating them. This particular student was very capable at doing the assignment given to her. She knew where to look for the "right" answers to the question she was engaging, and she knew how to create an argument to support her views. She may have even been taught this position in her church youth group, but she didn't really understand it because she didn't really know was right and wrong means.

If this student had truly understood that moral values and duties must be prescriptive, that is people should conform to them, she wouldn't have relativized her response. If the issue was, say, requiring a one race to drink out of a separate water fountain from another, I don't think she would say, "Well, that's wrong for me personally, but I wouldn't want to push my views on other people." No, such a requirement should be rightly condemned and anyone seeking to segregate in such a way should be punished. That means we would force our moral point of view on the segregationist, telling them that they must conform to the proper action. It doesn't matter regardless of what that segregationist believes.

All of this leads me to three points that Christian leaders, and especially leaders of young people, need to be sensitive to if we're going to make a difference in the lives of our students and in our culture:
  1. Christianity is a worldview rooted in objective values. Christians need to understand that the claims that Jesus made were not his personal opinion. When he said "If your brother sins, rebuke him" in Luke 17:3 it didn't carry an asterisk saying "but only if he believed it was wrong." Right and wrong are objective, regardless of what we think.
  2. Christians may say the right thing, but it doesn't mean they get it. Just because our students can answer a question on abortion or sex outside of marriage with the right responses doesn't mean that they have internalized those ideas. They may know what to say, but we as teachers need to see if they really believe what they're saying. This means that students need to feel secure enough to ask tough questions in church and know that they can explore their own positions without being condemned or being dismissed.
  3. Christian leaders need to focus in integrating Christian teaching with Christian living. We need to begin breaking down these different "boxes" that people erect today when discussing faith. Christian teachers need to explain why certain positions matter and how they make a difference to the person in the pew. For example, if an embryo is a human being, then stem-cell research that destroys an embryo is sacrificing a living human being to science. Is such a sacrifice worse than forcing someone to drink out of a separate water fountain? Does the soul of a human being matter? Let's dig deeper into what our parishioners actually believe instead of waiting for them to volunteer the information.
As an apologist, I'm keenly aware that I can assume nothing when talking with people, even those who identify themselves as Christians. I cannot provide "how to answer this" type information without first establishing why such issues matter, why morality is binding, and why Jesus sought to remove their hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh for those with whom He engaged. Without laying a proper foundation, all the apologetics in the world will be nothing more than an academic exercise.


  1. It wasn't moral relativism. The girl was just recognizing the fact that other people disagree with her, and she was admitting that she wouldn't advocate all-out violence to force those others to do what's right.

    When she said she wouldn't fund the research, she was taking a stand for what's right, and she was calling for others to stand with her. If enough people stand together, in a democracy, then they can get laws passed. That's how the system works, in order to avoid violence and chaos in our society.

    Because of your simplistic black-and-white thinking, you jumped to a conclusion, and you totally misunderstood the reality that young people face out there in the real world, in our mixed culture.

  2. Actually, John, you're wrong. My buddy asked the girl if she was talking about compulsive by use of force or if she meant telling others that such actions are objectively wrong. She said the latter, so I'm pretty confident I got it right.

    This isn't the first young person I talked with who held to morality as completely relative. I spoke with a girl at UC Berkeley who actually said that if a person was raping her sister and he believed it was the right thing to do, his moral position was just as valid as hers. People are simply confused on what right and wrong really are.

  3. Thank you, Lenny. Your candor is refreshing.

  4. I run into this all the time. When somebody says they don't believe there are objective moral values, they don't seem to realize that means they have removed their right to criticize anybody else or suggest their actions are wrong. That means they have to allow every rapist, child molester, etc. to keep on doing what they're doing -- because it's right from them!

    However, I have found, when it gets right down to it, people who reject the idea of objective moral standards doesn't live according to his own belief. When pushed, most of them will admit that they believe something like raping children is wrong -- always has been, always will be, for ALL people ALL the time.

    In truth, if people didn't live with a grasp of objective moral standards, whether they admit it or not, we'd live in chaos.

  5. Thanks Mary Lou. It's easy to be a relativist on the things you don't care about. Find the thing that passionate to that person and I bet they will think there are certain absolutes that apply.

  6. The definition of hell is where there is no right or wrong just whatever works for you!

  7. The Pharisees were pretty sure that they had "Objective Moral Standards". When I claim to be a relativist, it is mostly as a reaction to people who appear to want to be Pharisees. I think that this is what a lot of people are doing, subconsciously, when people corner them about "Objective Moral Standards".

    1. "To want to be pharisees."

      Stating the fact that objective morality exists isn't being a pharisee. That's what Jesus did.

      The pharisees, if they believed in objective morals, were right that objective morals existed, but that doesn't prove that they have all of the morals correct.

      Somebody can believe that murder is objectively right, but the falseness of that idea doesn't somehow prove that murder can't be objectively wrong.

    2. John, that sounds almost like an excuse never to have a serious conversation about anything. The trouble with the Pharisees is that they cared about the form more than the substance, about the appearance rather than the heart. Which is, I think, to say that they were not really that interested in objective reality after all but only in keeping up appearances.


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