‘So, whosoever accepts guidance, it is
only for his own self, and whosoever goes astray, he goes astray only to his
(own) loss.’ (Qur’an 39:41)
‘And whomsoever God
wills to guide, He opens his breast to submission, and whomsoever He wills to
send astray, He makes his breast closed and constricted, as if he is climbing
up to the sky. Thus God puts the wrath on those who believe not.’ (Qur’an, 6:125)
How do human beings determine
for themselves what is right and what is wrong? What is that process and how
does it operate?
Christian scholars and theologians who teach as Christian doctrine the
principle that humanity itself instills
a basic, enduring, and predictable moral sense in human communities. This moral
sense, we are told, is God’s consistent, impossible-to-ignore standard of behavior,
a standard that is always clear to the human community. For instance, C.S.
Lewis, the author of Mere Christianity, and
the most celebrated modern Christian writer in English, insists on this view.
Even a tyrant, we are told, consistently
‘knows right from wrong’ (regardless of whether he chooses to acknowledge the
distinction to himself). We know this; the argument goes, because the tyrant
will attempt to present at least the appearance of virtue to the outside world.
This understanding of right and wrong action may be something a person employs
selectively, but, we are told, it is reliable.
hypocrite, the theory holds, has a fundamental sense of propriety. Hypocrites
claim to act by one set of standards (because they know these standards are
right, or regarded as such), but actually act by a different set of standards
(which they know to be wrong).
Even a sadistic
person, we hear, will, after having crushed a helpless victim to steal away
some advantage, claim that the action was justified, or ‘fair’, given the
situation he or she faced.
If there are
exceptions to this notion of an enduring, fundamentally human moral sense, we
are told, it is only because of the rare individual who lacks any ability to perceive
right or wrong, or any ability to ‘fake’ that perception. Such a person, the
theory goes, is nothing more than an anomaly, a chance result like that which
shows up on the far end of a bell curve. Just as the occasional person may be
color-blind or may have trouble singing in the proper key, there may be a statistically
insignificant number of people born who lack this fundamental, consistent human
ability to distinguish right from wrong. Such ‘amoral’ people are, supposedly,
something like genetic aberrations—freaks of nature. Yet
human beings as a group, we are assured, have a distinct, enduring, and
consistent capacity to distinguish right from wrong.
This inherent ability to tell right from
wrong is sometimes referred to as ‘Natural Law’, or the ‘Law of Human Nature’.
The phrase suggests a static, predictable moral standard (or law) that is, though often ignored, consistent
and predictable (or natural) for the
overwhelming majority of real human beings like you and me.
This doctrine has become an important pillar
of what we now call mainstream Christian theology. God has set a clear,
consistent standard of right and wrong that humanity, if it does not always
obey, definitely understands without any problem.
Islam regards this notion as incomplete.
Jesus Christ regards it as incomplete too, and you will see why in a moment.
Islam envisions each human being as
possessing a) free will, and b) a soul that knows what is good for it and what
is bad for it, a soul that God has inspired to advise us to choose the good.
Some people, however, use free will in such a way as to make themselves
increasingly deaf to the soul’s advice. And this is the part, a Muslim might
argue, that Lewis leaves out.
Lewis ignores the possibility that when
human beings make choices, those choices will either degrade the soul or purify
Islam holds that people who consciously
make choices that support the soul’s
inherent longing for righteousness are dynamically brought toward the moral
clarity God intended for them, becoming more and more certain about what is
right and what is wrong.
On the other hand, people who consciously
make choices that oppose their own
souls’ inherent longing for righteousness do
violence to their own souls. They
imagine themselves safe from God’s plan, immune from accountability to Him. And this is folly.
So. God knows all
and understands all; God has also granted humankind free will. We are left, as
the result of our own choices, with a steadily
improving or steadily deteriorating ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Submission to the Will of the One God,
Islam holds, improves the ability to
distinguish good choices from bad ones. Resistance to the Will of the One God degrades this ability. A firm, obstinate,
long-term policy of resistance to the Will of the One God leads one to worship
one’s own desires first and foremost, and to abandon even the charade of moral
authority. This is true catastrophe.
Our ability to
distinguish right from wrong, Islam holds, is not consistent and predictable, but variable. This ability to distinguish
right from wrong is part of God’s Plan, of course, but from our point of view
it depends upon our own choices and thoughts.
If we persist in the delusion of
self-sufficiency and independence from God, Islam tells us, we will eventually
be engulfed by our own delusion, and those delusions will eventually take over
our lives and our very ability to reason.
If we persist in worshipping our own desires
as though they were god—thereby
ignoring God—a truly horrifying thing happens. Those desires
become the rulers of our lives.
This whole process,
Islam insists, is dynamic. We are
constantly in motion. The question is, in which direction?
A tyrant, an
alcoholic, a drug addict, a serial killer, or anyone else in an advanced stage
of self-absorption and self-worship will eventually
cease even to pretend that he or she is under any obligation to distinguish
right from wrong. Such a person will eventually
cease to believe that such distinctions are important. These people,
Muslims believe, advance themselves toward their own doom.
Once again: the
question is one of movement.
It is as if someone were asking us, ‘Where are you going?’ and then
helping us to travel in what-ever direction we
ourselves identified. There is a destination of darkness, darkness that
accumulates as the direct result of a personal choice to embrace it. Think of
Adolf Hitler, who was not merely unstable, but increasingly unstable as the Second World War ground on. In his
final days, Hitler railed even against the German people he once claimed to
have been the Master Race. What greater perversion of his own ‘standards’ can
we imagine? Or think of the late-stage John Belushi, whose beastly behavior
near the end of his life shocked even the Hollywood of the early 1980s (a
community not easily shocked). Belushi, in his final months, terrified some
very jaded people, some of whom had known him for many years.
such ‘moral standards’ do not inherit them at birth; they earn them, usually through years of patient, persistent, soul-destroying
effort. People who reach this bleak and horrifying point reach it, not because
they have a genetic flaw akin to that which imparts color-blindness or a bad
ear for pitch, but because they choose, over and over again, to go astray. And
the choosing becomes easier with each choice.
Crowley, the self-proclaimed Satanist, embraced a world-view in which ‘do what
thou wilt shall be the law of the land’. Surely he was not born with such beliefs.
Surely he had to strive to attain them.
This idea of striving
is quite important. Some kind of striving is seen, in Islam, as a constant feature of human nature. One is
either striving toward the purification of
one’s own soul, or striving toward its degradation.
To persist in
the former is true victory; to persist in the latter is the ultimate defeat.
And this, the oldest Gospel verses
suggest, is the understanding of human moral vision that Jesus wishes us to
‘And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he
that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’ (Matthew
If we are honest with ourselves, we will
admit the challenging nature of a verse such as this one. The Bible tells us
that we are reading the words of Jesus … but somehow the words do not seem to
match up easily with what we may have been taught about Jesus.
In fact, this
is the kind of verse we may have read dozens, hundreds of times without really
‘getting’ what it is trying to say. There are many Gospel passages like this,
passages we are likely to rush past or ‘file’ for future study if we can’t
instantly apply them to our lives.
What if we were to linger over a verse
like this for a while?
Is it possible Jesus is saying to us that
a moral view that relies on the
promotion of selfish, narrow interests will lead, in predictable measure, to spiritual loss?
Is it possible
Jesus wants us to understand that a moral
view that rejects selfish obsession will lead, just as predictably, to spiritual gain?
is warning us to beware of the kind of striving that is based on
self-absorption, on self-promotion, on self-obsession.
Elsewhere, Jesus tells us to keep our
eyes open to the light, that we may gain more light. This is another ‘difficult’
saying. Please take a moment to read the words below closely and prayerfully …
even if you have read them many times in the past. It’s possible that, like me,
you read them dozens of times without quite grasping what they meant.
light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole
body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full
of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not
darkness.’ (Luke 11:34-35)
Again, we must be willing to sit quietly for a while with passages
like this one. We cannot speed-read such words. We have to come to them on
their own terms and be willing to take our time in considering them. Some
teachings are meant to be contemplated for a while.
Once we have slowed down enough to sit
with these words, once we have asked God for guidance, we may feel them entering
us at a depth.
Having stopped to listen carefully to
these words, we may conclude that they have something to do with moral perception, with determining what
is right in our lives and what is wrong in our lives.
Aren’t these words really
telling us that moral
vision, like moral blindness, perpetuates and strengthens itself?
words: ‘flooded with light.’ In these sayings, Jesus seems to be telling us
that those who strive hard for righteousness will have not just a reward, but a
cumulative reward. By the same token,
he tells us that those who strive in the other direction will have not just a
penalty, but a cumulative penalty
that pushes them into a ‘negative zone.’ He is talking about a dynamic process,
about a soul in motion.
We may eventually conclude that these
words are all about our ability to listen
to the promptings of our own soul.
Again—you may find that you
agree with this interpretation; you may find that you disagree with it. The
only mistake, I think, lies in letting empty
force of habit cheat us out of the chance for a direct encounter with the
teachings of Jesus Christ.
Consider yet another ‘difficult’ passage
from the Gospels.
I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him
that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.’ (Luke 19:26)
As a matter of practical experience, this passage makes no
sense. I have no apples—two apples must be taken from me. How can
one take something away from a person who has nothing?
Yet when we
consider the idea of the soul that knows what is good for it and what is bad
for it, the soul that we listen to ever more closely or deafen ourselves to
ever more obstinately, is the saying really that puzzling? These words may well
make the only possible sense … the ultimate sense.
This important verse, when we compare it
to those we have examined already, may become a little clearer to us. If we sit
with it for a time, it may begin to speak to us. And what it says could sound
something like this: Our choices magnify
themselves. When we listen to our souls and strive to acquire favor with God,
we are granted more of His favor. When we
strive in the other direction, we dig ourselves into a hole.
Jesus tells us in
other sayings that it is what we sustain in our heart,
ultimately, that makes true success possible for human beings. Consider these
where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ (Matthew 6:21)
‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth
forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart
bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth
speaketh.’ (Luke 6:45)
It is as though Jesus were asking us: What are you doing with your heart? How are you investing it? Are you
using it to build up a surplus, or to bring about a deficit in your life? Where
are you going?
He also tells us, as though with a nod
and a wink, of the woman who conceals leaven in fifty measures of flour. How it
grows for her!
May I ask you to take just a moment right
now to pray to God for guidance in discerning the real meaning of the important
verses you have read in this chapter? Perhaps you should do so before you
continue with the next chapter of this book.
If the words in question were my words, I
would understand and respect your decision to decline this request of mine to
pray for guidance. But if Jesus said
these words, as the Bible tells us is the case, then it is surely fitting for
us to ask our Creator for His help in understanding these teachings.
After all: Why would Jesus have said
these things if we were not meant to understand them and apply them in our
I can so clearly remember reading the account in the 22nd chapter of Luke
where Jesus withdrew from the disciples, prayed, and returned to find them fast
Who, I wondered, could have possibly observed him praying ... and
then related the incident so that it eventually could be included in the Gospel
of Luke? There’s another passage in the Gospels where Jesus supposedly includes
the words ‘let him who reads understand’ in one of his spoken discourses, which
seemed odd to me. And there was yet another spot where the New Testament author
assured first-century Christians that their generation would see the second
coming of the Messiah—a passage I found difficult to
square with modern Christian doctrine. These and other queries about the New Testament
arose while I was still quite young, certainly before I was fifteen. Had
someone manipulated the Gospels?
If so, who? And why?
I ‘filed’ my questions for later, and decided that
the real problem was that I was not part of a
vigorous Christian faith community.