Moral Complexity

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…

Penitential Order for the Holy Eucharist, page 320, BCP

There are people who understand Christianity to be nothing more than following a fixed set of rules distinguishing obvious good from obvious evil, which if done correctly will lead to everlasting life. It has been my observation that people who attempt to live their lives in this manner may well lead lives that are morally uncomplicated, but they certainly aren’t easy. They aren’t easy because time after time such individuals face what appear to me to be impossible choices between following the rules and behaving compassionately. Having grown up in the Northeast, I was very much aware of the Amish. Indeed, I remember a Sunday afternoon in 1970 when some friends and I drove from near Philadelphia down to “Amish country.” It was a lovely trip, the country around Harrisburg is pristine, and the shoo-fly-pie was delicious. But the darker side of the picturesque Amish world is that young people who choose to move into the mainstream of modern society rather than live in the 19th century style of their community are shunned. Everyone, including members of their own families, is expected to behave as if they no longer exist. On one level nothing about this is complicated, the rules are clear, but what must this do to people’s souls? Life as I’ve experienced it simply isn’t that black and white, but rather, dare I say it, is many, many shades of grey. We Anglicans understand that. We recognize that life situations are unique and need to be treated that way, which is why some of our more fundamentalist sisters and brothers think we practice a rather soft, wishy-washy form of Christianity. They see us struggle, sometimes very publicly, with what the apostles’ teachings mean in today’s world, hear us acknowledge that what might once have been considered righteous behavior no longer is, and claim that we’re just unprincipled do whatever feels good sorts of people.

We are not.

As Episcopalians we know that moral choice is a struggle. We recognize that the guiding principles by which we live have to be applied with care, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have principles. The promises in our baptismal covenant, which we renew at every baptism we attend as well as at other times, call us to affirm our belief in a triune God, and then go on to describe in the form of questions, how we should live with each other. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we don’t manage to keep these promises perfectly, but we also know God doesn’t shun us when we fail. Rather, the God who loves us more than we can ask for or imagine continues to support us in our lifelong effort to lead principled lives in a morally complex world.