Flat and Layered Morality

“Because the Bible says so!” is a common refrain when a Christian is called to defend a moral point. Predictably, this tends to result in derision from non-believers, and often enough this derision is, I am sad to think, just. “The Bible says so!” is a useful and significant statement so long as it means “here is a relevant biblical passage – we ought to be attentive to it” – and not “here is a relevant biblical passage – no further argument is admissible”. The latter supposes morality as “flat”, in the sense that it is decided unequivocally by single lines or statements without need for any further reference, while the former admits the possibility of “layers” – for eg. delving beyond the simple wording into the context of the passage, comparing with other related texts, considering its integration into a larger system of moral thought, etc.

Making this distinction is useful so that we might be more cognizant of our own approaches to thinking about morality vis-a-vis Scripture, and so that we can compare the merits of both approaches. Many Christians, I think, tend to find themselves in “flat” territory, and it may not be clear why this might be problematic or dangerous. Especially since the alternative – the “layered” approach – may seem to lack the solidity of straightforward Scriptural backing and thus seem uncertain, and suspiciously close to secular thought.

there is simply no way to say that Scripture must be taken absolutely literally in its entirety without reducing it to absurdity

However there are several reasons why “flat” reasoning in morality is pretty much untenable on scrutiny, at least on a Christian perspective. In the first place, any reasonable student of the Bible must agree that it is an exegetical work – that is to say, it is a work that requires interpretive effort to make sense of. It is no real secret that Scripture contradicts itself variously when taken in the most literal, non-contextual sense, and so there is simply no way to say that Scripture must be taken absolutely literally in its entirety without reducing it to absurdity. This is the insurmountable wall that confronts any radically fundamentalist position.

Now if the Bible is indeed an exegetical work, then it becomes necessary by default to ask deeper questions about any particular part of text we are presently interpreting. What and for whom is it written for. When is it written. What is its relative importance compared to other parts of Scripture. Asking questions like these is the essence of exegesis. Accordingly when we settle for one particular interpretation of a bit of Scripture, there must necessarily be reasons for the interpretation – reasons that can be defended or attacked. We do this in fact as part of pretty much standard practice in much of modern Christianity. For eg, we are not normally too fazed by the existence of difficult verses in books like Leviticus because modern Christian exegesis puts Jesus Christ – the living Word – at the forefront of our faith, and thus enables us to prioritize and contextualize the rest of Scripture using the lens of Jesus’ own teaching. When a modern Christian acts, he has the teachings of Christ much closer to his heart than the laws in the Pentateuch. This does not of course mean that Leviticus should be ignored(*), but rather that we must seek an understanding of it that is compatible with Christ – and so think deeper than the mere literal senses of the texts in that book. This is in fact exegesis – and thus layered morality in action.

If a work is exegetical, then it is exegetical all through and it would be silly to suppose that there is some partition that immunizes certain passages from the necessity of interpretation

Being now aware of this, what we must be wary of is “trying to have it both ways”. It may be tempting to think that while “layered” exegesis of Leviticus is justifiable, the words of Christ in the Gospels (say) must be taken at “flat” face-value. If a work is exegetical, then it is exegetical all through and it would be silly to suppose that there is some partition that immunizes certain passages from the necessity of interpretation. At the very least, someone who wants to make a claim like “the words of Christ in the Gospels must be taken in full literalness” must be aware that his claim is in fact itself an act of interpretation, and must thus be as such open to challenges and must be defended with reason. So long as Scripture is exegetical, we can never say that an isolated piece of Scripture is authoritative purely on its own.

So long as Scripture is exegetical, we can never say that an isolated piece of Scripture is authoritative purely on its own.

A little further reflection on God and Scripture will lead us to another reason to be suspicious of “flat” moral judgements. If the revelation of God-given morality happens in bits and pieces scattered across the books of Scripture, then either these revelations are part of a greater integrated Whole, or they are just what they are – disparate pieces. Now, if individual Scriptural verses are absolutely authoritative on their own, then they are disparate pieces – because if they are part of a greater Whole, then it must be meaningful to talk about and interpret them based on their relationship with each other and how they fit together. So either we must abandon “flat” judgement, or we must accept that God’s revelation can show up in absolutely unrelated pieces. But what does it really mean to accept the latter? Can we truly reconcile our belief in one God with N different fully-autonomous rules? It seems to me, no. We say that God is Good, that God is Love – and that naturally implies a kind of unity in His divine Essence. Jesus Himself declared all the Law and the Prophets as derivative of the Great Commandment. We, too, naturally see connections between common moral ideas – I should not commit robbery because hurting my neighbours is bad and because being greedy at my neighbours’ expense is bad because I ought to love my neighbour because love is good. I cannot but think the Glory of God demands a complete Whole, a fuller Splendour that unites all Good in Him. If I am right, then “flat” morality simply cannot hold.

Can we truly reconcile our belief in one God with N different fully-autonomous rules?

Finally, we must consider that “flat” morality alienates unbelievers, while “layered” morality holds out the chance to engage them. Now while some believers may be dismissive of the idea of debating non-believers on stuff like morality, I believe that such dialogue is becoming increasingly critical in our world. I have already previously argued for why it is important for religious voices to join society’s discourses – but this can only happen if discussions can go further than simple appeals to isolated verses. Thankfully, by the arguments above, it seems undeniable that Christian morality at any rate is more nuanced and reasoned than mere “flat”ness. The sense of Scripture delves deeper than its mere words of language. We ought to consider that both you and I are today Christian because, in all likelihood, something about Christianity has appealed to our innate humanity. If Christianity is good and true, then we could expect its ideas to be naturally appealing to any unbiased and sincere human being – and I have great faith that it is.

If our deepest intuitions of Goodness is a part of the image of God imprinted in all of us, we can hope that, properly presented, the ideas of the Christian faith will also resonate with the best intuitions of people who are yet outside the faith. In a time where the foreseeable future remains peppered with likely friction between faithful and secular peoples, our ability to, through our Christian values, hold out resonant appeals to lofty, universally-recognizable goodness will be critical to our ability to anchor the course of human society and defend what is sane and good. God willing, it may also help to bring more into the fold of the Faith – and, chances are, for all the right reasons.

(*) I should add a little emphasis here to the fact that I don’t for a moment think Scripture is redundant. Just because we shouldn’t take many verses in the Scriptural books of law literally doesn’t mean they deserve no attention. Quite the contrary – the difficulty and complexity of Scripture is fertile grounds for lifelong meditation, prayer, and communal exegesis. Its tendency to stick out in all sorts of unexpected ways help immunize us from the lure of overly simple and “rounded” philosophies. No matter what stage of wisdom we think we have attained, Scripture ensures that new grounds for humility and learning always await our seeking – yet undiscovered, yet richer ways to learn about and interact with our God. This, too, is another wonderful outcome of a “layered” attitude towards Scripture.

Let Religion Speak to the Secular State

It is a common point to make nowadays that the state is secular and that religious considerations are thus inadmissible in matters of policy. That there ought to be separation between religion and the state, and religious considerations belong to the personal and/or inner-communal life of the religious, whereas in matters of public import religion ought to be absolutely silent.

Now I have great sympathy for this sentiment. I think it stems from a perspective that is first of all charitable – after all, public affairs necessarily affect the lives of non-religious people as well as practitioners of other religions. No doubt it is in wariness of tyranny by a dominant religious group to the detriment of others that we countenance this idea of strict separation. We suppose it a reasoned compromise for there to be religious freedom in the private affairs of people, but for religiousness to be put away in the larger discourse of society, to avoid the inevitable conflicts of views that would otherwise arise.

Reasonable as this may sound on the surface, I do not think strict, no-questions-asked separation of this sort is ultimately wise(*). For one, it is naive, and perhaps even a little condescending. It tends to cast religion as merely a sort of strange behavioral quirk for which civility demands tolerance. If we are honest, we may even go on to admit (as exemplified by snarky remarks such as this) that we do not suppose that religion contains within it anything of real substance – why else would we not want to hear from it at all in matters of importance?

Religion as a holistic philosophy of life

Against this I shall forward two claims. Firstly, religion – most major religions at any rate – are emphatically not limited nor limitable to the domain of private life. To spend some private moments in prayer, or attending a segment in a place of worship, and then to “switch it off” when returning to “normal life” is entirely against the very nature of most major religions. The whole appeal and usefulness of religion is in its being a holistic philosophy of life – the practitioner ought in principle to be thinking about it at all times, and it ought to have something to say about as many aspects of life and the human condition as possible. That’s the entire point of a religion. Therefore, in order for the religious to hem in their religion in matters of society, there are really only two possibilities: either they must be compelled to such silence by force, or they must cease to be religious in a genuine sense.

Secondly, I will challenge the usually unstated implication that religion has nothing to say that is of worth in the wider social context. When stated explicitly like this, the very idea begins to sound absurd. It again betrays the tendency to think of religion as a sort of embarrassing and archaic quirk or a mere set of fairy-tale mythos, a sentiment that simply would not hold to any real scrutiny. After all, most major religions have centuries – if not millennia – of history of being variously at the forefront of human thought, where they have at different times been vigorously developed as well as harshly challenged by eminent thinkers. It seems to me impossible to deny that the major religions in their surviving forms are significant parts of our intellectual and philosophical heritage. Certainly, there are progressive thinkers today who may, with their own intellectual ammo, reject many of the ideas that are passed down in the religions – and this is perfectly fine. But there ought to be dialogue, is the point. One may seek to refute religious ideas as they are professed by their believers, but I can see no sense in seeking to prevent the professing in the first place.

Religion and the secular – a healthy tension

Let me argue a little more concretely for the substance of religious ideas. Secular morality has a tendency to be comparatively nebulous and fluid. It is actually rather hard on investigation to find a solid basis for a purely secular morality. In the last resort we would probably fall back on a common moral intuition that we use to justify certain far-reaching principles – like human rights. However there aren’t actually too many secular resources that can be employed to defend these principles – if in the last resort moral intuition is merely personally felt, a) how can you be sure that what you built on your intuition matches what I feel in mine? and b) even if we agree on the intuition on what grounds should I be compelled to obey it?

Unsurprisingly, progressive moral ideas tend to be in the direction of loosening rigid traditional standards – and I hasten to add that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes the loosening comes as a result of identifying fundamental moral ideas and then recognizing that existing standards are incongruous with them. However, such “debunking” obviously cannot go on forever, there must be a counterbalance that asserts the baseline inviolability of certain ideas, so that there is a rock bottom. The critical apparatus works best when it is dismantling superficial moral standards for deeper, stronger ones – when it is taking apart appearance in service of Truth. But how can we identify these deeper moral Truths? Of course, there is no easy answer, but I think it is fair at least to say that pure secularism is here standing on shaky ground.

On the other hand, properly viewed, religion is an important edifice of the larger philosophical point of view that regards morality as transcendent and divine. It makes it its business precisely to define this baseline while adopting a metaphysic that could justify it. Of course, religious ideas ought not be simply accepted but should be open to challenge, but that is quite exactly the point – religion helps provide the material for the critical apparatus to function. It already has a long track record of doing so, having, as previously noted, been already subject to centuries of debate. There is certainly no reason for the debate to stop now – the best chance for society to remain humane and sane is neither to have limitless skepticism nor settled uncritical belief, but for the two to be in constant, healthy tension.

Let views be aired – and defended and challenged

What, then, of the practical concern that rival religious groups are by definition irreconcilable. How do we accommodate religious views if accommodating one religious view involves violating another rival one? Well, the simple answer is not to accommodate. Let the rival views be aired, and let them be defended and challenged, and then let due democratic process decide what makes it into public policy. What I am here arguing for is really simply a species of freedom of speech: that the secularity of the state should not be invoked to require silence from religious points of view.

I would also go on to point out that there is a desirable effect to the sort of discourse I am advocating – the religious would be incentivized to cast their ideas in more generalized terms and appeal to common thought. After all, simply pointing to a verse in a holy book is not likely to win you support. Practical interpretation and exegesis of religious texts is already a normal operation in most religions anyway, and having the task of convincing a secular audience would encourage the making of more connections between aspects of sacred tradition and common life. On the other hand keeping the religious silo’d in their private lives and forbidding them from participating in public discourse is likely to have the opposite effect and exacerbate the faultline between the religious and secular parts of society. In a real sense, blind faith and fundamentalism are a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Atheist thinkers have long labored boldly to demolish the walls that insulate religious people from criticism. If their efforts have produced any fruit, then we certainly ought to apply them in critical examination of religious voices. However in order for that to be possible in the first place, the religious should be encouraged to speak widely and uninhibitedly on all manner of public issues, so long as due process is observed. After all, in accordance with democratic principles, it is through more speech, as Rowan Atkinson says, that we arrive at our best public consensuses.

(*) To be clear I am here talking primarily of moral issues, and not of things like customs, rituals or purely-religious rules. Happily, these other aspects are not normally controversial – Christians are not usually keen to push the Eucharist ritual on non-believers, and Muslims are not usually concerned to enforce practice of the Salat on non-Muslims. These indeed belong with the private life of worship. It is the aspects of religion that bears on the day-to-day public life of the believer that is of interest here.

Homosexuality – a Christian defense

On the subject of homosexuality, I do not here write thinking to add anything novel to what has already been hitherto known and argued. The material is out there, but, perhaps, not numerous nor loud enough, and so I think to add my voice to chorusing what I myself believe with regards to a topic that is still controversial and divisive even among mainstream Christians – indeed even amongst people in the same church and denomination. I think those of us who are able to ought to contribute to the unfolding discourse, and participate as members of the body of Christ as the Church steers its way through these new waters.

Now in discussing whether or not homosexuality is a sin, I should first like to emphatically note that our Lord, in His ministering to the downtrodden, oppressed, and hungry of His time, never counted the sins nor the sinfulness of His charges. He mingled with prostitutes and lepers while rebuking the teachers who disdained Him for it. And so with Christ as our master, be homosexuality a sin or not, there should be no question as to the correct treatment which the Church and her charges owe to homosexual men and women who come to her doors. They must be served, loved, and protected. Any discussion about the sinfulness of homosexuality may only properly proceed after we establish this as a basic consensus.

Now, in considering the question of whether homosexuals ought to be permitted to – and be protected in the course of – pursuing romance and relationships analogous to heterosexual ones, but with men or women of the same sex, I should think that the very tenor of the Christian faith first compels us to say “yes”. After all, as a religion and as a philosophy of life, Christianity heavily emphasizes care for our fellow man. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are to sell our riches and give to the poor. Those who are hungry we are to feed, those who are thirsty we are to water. We are to invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick, visit the imprisoned – for these which we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do also for Christ our Lord. And so when perceiving these men and women who, it seems, cannot help being attracted to people of the same sex, how can we but naturally desire that they too may be permitted and defended in the possibility of tasting the fruits of romance and the complex joys of family building that we ourselves pursue? What privilege I enjoy, I wish also for my brother or sister – even at my own peril. That is a pillar of the Christian faith.

What privilege I enjoy, I wish also for my brother or sister – even at my own peril. That is a pillar of the Christian faith.

Then wherefore the controversy? Opposition largely centers around several bits of scripture – up to 6 verses in all – that seem to be critical of homosexual behavior. Flanking this are claims of the unnaturalness of homosexuality, the idea that homosexuality is not determined but chosen, and the claim that homosexuality can be changed into heterosexuality and thus “cured”. On the basis of scripture opponents claim that homosexual behavior is sinful, and on the basis of the other claims they may go on to charge that homosexuals sin by choosing homosexuality for themselves over natural heterosexuality, and that repenting the sin of homosexuality holds up hope that homosexuals may re-embrace heterosexuality and thus be admitted to the same possibilities and fruits heterosexuals traditionally enjoy.

Let us examine these claims

Is homosexuality a choice?
The answer seems to be “no”, for the time being. This is a scientific question, and we must thus draw our answer from the work of the scientific community – the prevailing consensus of which at the time of this writing is that no, homosexuality is not a choice. It is true that there is yet no established scientific consensus on the cause(s) of homosexuality, and our understanding of homosexuality may yet evolve with the progress of related research, but at least for the time being there is no use cherry-picking results as I have seen done in some Christian-themed material. To, for example, conclude homosexuality as a choice merely from the fact that scientists don’t currently regard hereditary/genes as the sole/main cause of homosexuality is to misrepresent the literature. If we appeal to science at all we must take it in full and accept the interpretation of its practitioners.

If we appeal to science at all we must take it in full and accept the interpretation of its practitioners.

Likewise on the topic of whether homosexuality is “unnatural” or whether it might be “cured”, the view held by contemporary science as of this writing is unfavorable to people who would argue against homosexuality on these grounds. Research appears to have shown that homosexuality is a natural variation on human sexuality and that it does not result in negative or pathological psychological effects. On “curing”, there is yet insufficient evidence of the efficacy of sexual orientation changing efforts, and some people appear to have experienced significant distress from the experience, so that there is now great suspicion on the practice on ethical grounds.

An understanding of these ideas is significant to our framing of the homosexuality issue because it outlines the moral gravity of the whole thing. If we insist that homosexuality is sinful and turn out to be wrong, we risk inflicting significant suffering and trauma on innocent people. This is why I have said that an anti-homosexuality position runs against the tenor of the Christian faith. I think it is encouraging that many Christians who view homosexuality as sinful are nonetheless well aware of these things and are exceedingly cautious and gentle in practice. Some have restricted the sinfulness of homosexuality to only the sexual act itself, and thus view the sexual orientation as merely a temptation rather than an aberration or a sin, one that may be successfully resisted simply by celibacy. Now this is I believe a more robust, scientifically tenable position. We shall consider it next.

If homosexuality is not a choice, can it be a sin?
In a strict sense, no – since an act of sin must be an act of choice. But it may still plausibly be a temptation to sin. This can be illustrated very simply with a thought experiment. Let us consider pedophilia – that is, a dominant sexual attraction towards children. Now I am not myself knowledgeable about the real facts about pedophilia and its effects on its sufferers, but let us suppose here purely for the sake of argument that it is not a choice and also not a source of other negative psychological effects. It should be evident that pedophilia remains a temptation to real sin all the same. The sinfulness of consummating a pedophilic desire is not nullified by the involuntariness of the desire. Likewise therefore, if it can be demonstrated that, for example, homosexual intercourse is sinful, then homosexuality could be a temptation to sin even if it is not a choice. This would in fact be entirely analogous with regular modes of sin – we did not choose to be born with greed, and yet following our greedy impulse would lead inevitably to sin. Involuntary temptation, and virtuous – oftentimes painful – resistance, is well at home in Christian thought.

Involuntary temptation, and virtuous – oftentimes painful – resistance, is well at home in Christian thought.

The question then becomes: is homosexual intercourse sinful? The answer clearly isn’t as evident as with the case of my hypothetical pedophilia. If pursued monogamously, consensually and with due diligence, there is no evidence that homosexual intercourse results in any significant harm to its participants – or anyone else. How then might we decide?

Scripture!” would doubtlessly be the resounding answer from some Christians. But is it really decisive?

Does Scripture decisively rule against homosexual acts?
No, I do not think so. There is a good amount of debate around this topic, which I won’t endeavor to consider in full here. Example full articles treating it from each side can be found here and here. For my part, I find myself in greater agreement with the perspective that Paul in his epistles never began to consider homosexuality in the context which we do today – ie that of lifelong, monogamous, consensual relationship in accordance with an involuntary sexual orientation. There is evidence that heterosexual men and women did engage in homosexual intercourse out of depravity in those days, and no evidence that homosexuality was ever coherently known or discussed as an involuntary sexual orientation. And therefore it seems extremely likely that Paul was writing in reference to depraved homosexuality and not to the sort of sincere, loving relationships we are here considering. While one must admit there is some merit to the idea that Scripture can often stand on its own, transcending even the context and intentions of its human author, exegesis of this sort must naturally be applied with caution. It suffices at any rate for our current purposes to note that there is credible opposition to the idea that Scripture is unequivocally against homosexual relationships/acts of the type we are considering. It thus becomes a question of Scripture interpretation, and in Christian thought, Scripture is engaged and interpreted with the help of personal communion with the Holy Spirit, and that brings me to my next point.

It suffices at any rate for our current purposes to note that there is credible opposition to the idea that Scripture is unequivocally against homosexual relationships/acts of the type we are considering

Can we truly understand a sin towards which we feel no temptation?
Admittedly – sometimes yes. In the case of pedophilia for example, the sinfulness of the consummation is apparent from the evil and suffering it inflicts on others. And so where the sin eventually manifests itself as harmful effects we can clearly see and perceive, then we can understand its sinful nature even if we are not tempted to it. “Ye shall know them by their fruits”. However, in cases where a hypothetical sin may manifest no clear outward signs of harm – as in, apparently, the case of our type of homosexual relationships – the situation is more complicated.

Does “no outward signs of harm” decisively eliminate the possibility of sin?
We must acknowledge “no”. Harm is not always apparent to the observer – at least, not to observers such as us. The goal of the Christian life is to manifest the Godliness of our Father as fully as we are able to, and a sin may cause us to simply fall short of what we would otherwise be able to attain. An external human observer would likely have no true idea of what God’s plan is for a particular soul, and so might not be able to tell when such a soul has fallen short. And so it is certainly possible for a real sin to manifest no clearly humanly discernible outward signs – though God of course would know. That however brings forth the following synthesis:

Can we as third-party human observers truly know an untempted sin which manifests no clear signs?
I would argue, no. It doesn’t seem to me that in Its guidance of my soul the Holy Spirit is usually concerned with things that do not tempt me. Out of my own sincere contemplation I can speak with confidence about my own battle with my own enemies, but can I truly also speak with confidence about the battles that I do not fight? I think not. And so it is my opinion that those of us who are not homosexual cannot know that homosexuality is a sin merely on our own introspective thought, however sincere. The Christian homosexual may plausibly be able to say with confidence that he/she thinks homosexuality is a sin, but the rest of us, I think, cannot make this claim on our own. We must be supplemented – either by scientific data, or at least by unequivocal Scripture. Neither of which, as I have argued, seems presently decisive.

can I truly also speak with confidence about the battles that I do not fight? I think not.

In the final analysis it must be admitted that the position I am arguing for is tentative. It seems clear to me that we currently have no grounds to say confidently that homosexuality is a sin or a temptation to a sin, and therefore should in practice allow it and even support it whenever such support may result in good effects – like alleviation of personal distress and defeat of social discrimination. At the same time I admit that this position is not set in stone – it can be modified by new information. Before ending, I should like to make clear the sort of new information I am here talking about. I do not think it is likely to come from Scripture – we have probably already debated all there is to debate about that. I think at least 2 things may hold the potential to affect my position. Firstly – new scientific/research results. If scientific research were to, say, eventually demonstrate that homosexual relationship in fact causes tangible harm of some sort, then that would be a valid occasion to revise our conclusion. Secondly – the testimony of homosexual Christians. If large numbers of homosexual Christians were to independently and sincerely testify that, through their experiences and their journey with the Spirit, they perceive that the consummation of their own homosexual desires is sinful, then, on the grounds of my previous thesis that a sin is knowable to those whom it tempts, I would also consider this a valid occasion for potentially revising our conclusion.


But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.


And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ