On June 28, Syd Hielema posted a reflection in the faith nurture section of the CRC Network in which he introduced, as his second point, the idea and practice of two different moral compasses. He was speaking into the context of a particular struggle, but I want to examine the theology and possible biblical source of this apart from that issue.
Here is the link to the original posting:
The comment thread is worth reading. For me what stood out is the absence of neutrality in the responses. As some imply in the comments, there are clearly deeper previous suppositions at play when we discuss moral compass in association with a hot potato topic. What I want to do is think “out loud” about a deeper (confessional?) aspect of that one idea.
Here is the key excerpt I am speaking of:
2. Every Christian I know uses two different moral compasses, both rooted in Scripture: the “right/wrong” moral compass and the “better/worse” moral compass.
Most moral decisions are guided by biblical teachings on right and wrong. But a number of times in Scripture we see a “better/worse” moral compass superseding the right/wrong one. It’s wrong to be a prostitute, but it was better for Tamar to become a prostitute than to allow her father-in-law Judah’s unjust behavior to continue (Gen. 38). Slavery is wrong, but it was so systemically entrenched in the Roman Empire that any community that tried to abolish it would be massacred. Thus, it was better strategically for Paul’s mission work that he not seek its abolition but instead encourage born-again masters and slaves to act as godly as they could within an evil societal institution while he focused on other social justice issues (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-4:1).
I could give many more examples from Scripture where the “better/worse” compass supersedes the “right/wrong” one. Might the 1829 elders of Third Presbyterian Charleston have confused a better/worse biblical teaching with a right/wrong one?
First, the way Syd makes uncertainty “Holy” does not sit well with me and feels dangerous. I am more comfortable with a posture I would call “Veiled Certainty” or “Sacred Uncertainty.” I have gone from “sure doctrines” more toward “operating theories.”
My current posture has grown in me as I have experienced life. It is largely a result of the dissolution of “certainties” I was taught. Pentecostals, I was taught, were severely misguided, yet I met one that was more serious about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit than I was. Me, in all my youthful certainty of his being misguided and “forced to fake” speaking in tongues to get respect in their churches. Catholics were certainly doomed to the place below the purgatory they had made up, yet I met some that were active in the Kingdom of God and body of Christ in ways that humbled me in all my sureness of their doom. And so on. It’s quite a list. Just so no one gets freaked out, some things have become more sure over time. I am more certain than ever about the theology of “calling” we used to articulate, for example. So, stay calm, not everything has crumbled. In fact, if you need to hear it to keep my words credible to you, I believe more than ever that Jesus lived and died and rose again. But I do believe it in a different way than the way I was taught.
Second, what Syd describes regarding a better/worse compass resonates with me, and I find myself baffled and unfortunately angry often with those who, to me, rigidly advocate for a strict right/wrong with nothing in between.
So, in my next post, I will share why I have come to think that at the core of the moral compass issue is the false belief that it is our job to identify right and wrong, white and black, and why I think we are mainly left with living on a towards better and towards worse continuum instead.