In 1781 the British astronomer Wiliam Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. This discovery rocked the world of astronomy because, prior, everyone in the scientific community did not believe there were any planets beyond Saturn. In the years to come, astronomers studied the new world and realized it was almost 900 million miles beyond Saturn, which came as another surprise because it significantly increased the assumed size of our solar system.
Roughly 100 years prior, Sir Isaac Newton calculated the theory of planetary motions, which allowed astronomers to measure and predict the movements of all the planets in our solar system with a high degree of accuracy.
Yet after 40 years of studying this new planet beyond Saturn, it became clear that it was not following Isaac Newton’s theory. Time and time again, the calculated results failed to produce the expected patterns. Some suggested Newton’s theory was wrong and needed revision. Others proposed possible variations of the sun’s gravity. Whatever the reason, Uranus was not following the trusted and expected behavior of the planets in our solar system.
Every day, really every hour, we have expected outcomes in our daily lives. Outcomes that are rational, sensible, and expected. For example, when we wake up in the morning, we expect our alarms to be accurate. When we shower, we assume to have warm water. When we order our Starbucks coffee, we presume a particular taste, and every day we anticipate our car to start and reliably take us to where we want to go. Our expectations in the physical world are pretty reasonable and sensible because they are based on scientific observations, measurements, and experiments. Those, in turn, give rise to hypotheses that, over time, are modified to better fit the puzzle of life we call reality.
If you have a building, you have a builder. If something is engineered, you have an engineer. But having expectations of how things are supposed to run in our daily lives is not limited to the physical world. Do you expect your friends to treat you a certain way? Are there moral obligations we have toward other people? Of course, we all know we ‘ought’ to behave a particular way toward others. If behaviors are supposed to be a certain way, it is not unreasonable to say you have a supposer.
Do your friends remind you of your past mistakes, or do they encourage you? Do the people you hang with genuinely want better things for you, or are they just looking for advantages in your relationship? Do you only hear from certain people when they want something, or do you hear from them with no expectations or favors in return? Do you have friends that just want to talk about their day but have no interest in yours?
It should be obvious that our physical world has been designed and engineered, but it should also be evident that our characters have been aligned to follow a certain path or things break down rather quickly. Broken relationships, divorce, children without parents, murder, rape are all common occurrences in our lives, (just watch the news), but it should not be this way. We all know that because we complain when things or people don’t behave as we expected.
Eugene Wigner, an agnostic and a Nobel Prize recipient for his work in physics, was one who recognized how reality seemed to have design and intention. He wrote, “The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious, there is no rational explanation for it.” 1 In his book Surprised by Meaning, Alister McGrath wrote, “Things don’t just happen. They fit into a pattern, a bigger picture, an overall scheme of things.” 2
Is it unreasonable to expect someone you meet to treat you with kindness, respect, and dignity? Of course not. We have unspoken expectations with everyone we meet and have relations with. Where do they come from? Are they just evolutionary behaviors that aid in human flourishing or is there something else behind it all? So the question really is, are moral obligations subjective or objective?
I shared with a friend not long ago the difference between subjective and objective beliefs. Personal, subjective beliefs are based on the subject, you. For example, you might believe that strawberry swirl is the best ice-cream flavor; I might think it is chocolate-chip cookie dough. Who is right? Who is wrong? No one obviously, because it is a subjective opinion. That is, it’s an opinion based on your personal preferences. Another subjective opinion would be dogs make better pets than cats. Obviously, dogs are better pets, and anyone who is not in a drug-induced coma knows dogs are better than cats, in every way. But, grudgingly, I admit that is a subjective opinion.
An objective truth is based on the object. An objective truth example could be the difference between aspirin and arsenic. Aspirin might help you, and arsenic will kill you. This belief is true regardless of your opinion because it is based on the objects, aspirin and arsenic, not a personal preference.
Without a standard of morality, an objective standard, you can’t judge something to be immoral. Instead, you are just expressing your opinion. It is just your subjective opinion vs. someone else’s subjective opinion. Yet everyone has expectations of behavior. People’ ought’ to behave in a certain way that is not based on an opinion. Newton may have discovered the fixed patterns and laws that God established for our planets, but people discover God’s character by established patterns of behavior for our morality. John 4:8, Ephesians 2:7-10, Psalm 107:1
Someone might push back and say God is an individual, a person, and moral truths are dependent on Him. Therefore there is no difference between our opinions on morality and God’s. They can argue it’s all relative to the individual who is holding a certain moral conviction. They may say good and evil are based entirely on the human mind.
Yes, moral relativism is grounded in the subject, the individual or group that holds something to be good or evil, but there is a difference between ours and God’s. Our beliefs change over time, and God’s does not. Gassing Jews in Germany during WWII was acceptable; now we recognize it for the horror it was. 3
Yes, God is an individual, a person, but His personhood does not change over time. From the beginning, His character was an objective, unchanging quality of goodness. Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17, Psalm 102:27
Concerning morality and goodness, Josh McDowell wrote, “Evil then is not a substance or an entity, but the corruption of that which is good. This means that evil is parasitic upon good. In other words, evil depends upon the existence of good in a way that good does not depend upon evil. Thus, while there can be good without evil, there cannot be evil without the existence of goodness. Just as the concept of ‘bentness’ requires ‘straightness,’ the existence of evil required that good be previously in existence.” 4
Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks explain evil this way, “It is a lack in things. When good that should be there is missing from something, that is evil. After all, if I am missing a wart on my nose, that is not evil because the wart should not have been there in the first place. However, if a man lacks the ability to see, that is evil. Likewise, if a person lacks the kindness in his heart and respect for human life that should be there, then he may commit murder. Evil is, in reality, a parasite that cannot exist except as a hole in something that should be solid. 5
Science can answer a lot of the why questions, but not all. A professor at Biola University, Garrett DeWeese, pointed out in a lecture on the book of Job (it’s about great suffering if you have not read it) that the real question is not why but Who. Maybe this illustration will help. When my daughter Sarah was very young, she had to receive a shot. The doctor gave it to her, and she wailed and reached out to me. I will never forget that. What was important at that moment? Did she care about the why, (the reason for the shot), or was it the who (her daddy) that was ultimately significant to her?
There is no doubt that God can teach us through pain, but if we hang on, and reach out, God will be there. Did my arms and comfort remove the pain of the shot for Sarah? No, but she understood who I was, and that was what she desired above all, to be in the arms of her father. When we suffer, understanding why is not always possible, but Job teaches us it is more important to understand Who than why.
We can answer many questions about why, but not all, especially when it comes to losing loved ones and broken relationships. Over the years, I have noticed one certainty depending on someone’s focus. When someone who has suffered great loss focuses on the why and not the Who, their faith (if they ever had any) eventually wavers and fails.
Finally, to wrap things up, what about the planet Uranus? Why wasn’t it following the rules, the established and expected behavior of all the other planets in our solar system?
In the 1840s two mathematicians began to investigate this dilemma with the notion that there might be another planet even beyond Uranus that was bending its orbit. One of the mathematicians, a Frenchman named Le Verrier, wrote a friend at the Berlin Observatory in September of 1846 telling him where to look for this hypothetical new planet. In less than an hour Johann Gottfried Galle found the new planet we call Neptune. 6 The why was answered, but it is the Who behind it all that is important. Psalm 8:3
Christianity does not simply make sense to us; it also makes sense of us. – Alistere McGrath
Who Not Why by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.Sources:
- Travis, Melissa. “A Meeting of the Minds” Science And The Mind Of The Maker, Harvest House Publishers, 2018, pg 161
- McGrath, Alister, “Patterns on the Shore of the Universe” Surprised By Meaning, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, pg 17
- Koukl, Greg. “Is Morality Grounded in God Just Another Form of Relativism?” STR.org, 24 April. 2019, https://www.str.org/w/is-morality-grounded-in-god-just-another-form-of-relativism-
- McDowell, Josh; McDowell, Sean. “What is Evil Exactly” 77 FAQ’s About God And The Bible, Harvest House Publishers, 2012, pg 53
- Geisler, Norman. Brooks, Ronald. When Skeptics Ask. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990. Print.
- McGrath, Alister, “Patterns on the Shore of the Universe” Surprised By Meaning, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, pgs 16-17