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Calibrating Our Moral Compasses
Mark Liederbach, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Senior Fellow, L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture
In the early days of nautical travel sailors traveled without sophisticated radio equipment or GPS tracking systems. Indeed, because they lacked such navigational tools, it was typical that sailors would chart their course by staying within sight of land and using recognizable landmarks. This worked fine, of course, until they forsook the safety of the coastline and pushed beyond the horizon. No longer able to see the familiar landmarks, they needed to find a new point of reference. And thus, they looked to the heavens.
By gazing at the night sky sailors eventually learned that although most of the stars appeared to move, one remained constant: Polaris, the North Star. Because it appeared fixed in the heavens it became the sailor's most trusted advisor. With the aid of navigational tools like the sextant and compass, sailors could not only pinpoint their current position, they could also determine the proper course necessary to reach their destination.
Now imagine what would happen to a sailor if he or she either chose to navigate merely by an “inner-sense” of feel, by the general consensus of the crew, or by choosing the wrong star as the point of reference. In each case it would be entirely possible that the captain could believe with all certainty that he was charting the right course. But the belief would most likely not match up with reality. Even if the captain was convinced, such a conviction would in no way guarantee reaching the desired destination. Most likely, if he acted on his convictions without first ordering them to True North, even his rightly intended convictions would most likely lead to loss or shipwreck.
This is a good metaphor for understanding the current nature of much of the modern debates raging in all areas of culture. Whether it is issues surrounding the taking of life in war, capital punishment, abortion, or questions of sexuality and marriage, we live in a time and in a culture that questions the validity of any fixed reference point.
The fact that we now live in a world morally adrift is hard to dispute. But this was not always the case. When God created the universe He was careful to provide a foundational locus and direction by which the primary caretakers He put into the created order (humans) could properly navigate a moral course that was fully pleasing to Himself. Further, this God-given moral course would also ensure the flourishing of the entire created realm. In more contemporary language, we would say that Adam and Eve had a proper conceptual framework by which they correctly perceived, interpreted and judged their reality. That is, their worldview was calibrated to True North.
In right relationship to God, non-sinful humanity was given the task to navigate a course for themselves and all creation that would rightly honor God and represent His best interests for the entire created realm. Not only were they given instruction, most importantly they also enjoyed the relational context with God by which they could both rightly and properly order, serve, protect, and orient God’s world as an act of obedient worship.
Tragically, it was because of human sin and rebellion that the long history of muddled moral thinking and acting followed. Instead of tracking a course to flourishing and joy the legacy of humanity is one of moral drift and uncertainty. The reason for this is that with sin and rebellion, came a fundamental shift in worldview. Our moral compass was no longer calibrated to True North. Inferior ends and ideas replaced those which humans were created to know and follow (Romans 1).
This fact is what makes living in a fallen world so perilous. Each of us individually, and all of humanity corporately, attempt to navigate through life with a broken compass. Indeed, in this postmodern era the normative idea is that we cannot know if there even is a True North. Therefore, as we pilot our ships, the best we can do is choose a course with conviction and learn to get along with the other passengers. But ultimately, we are told we can have no certainty of where we are headed.
Hopefully, the danger of this postmodern thinking is self-evident. A compass should be calibrated not by the searcher’s preferences, but by a certain and fixed reference point external to the self. That is, one must find True North first, calibrate the compass to that point, and then chart a course toward life and flourishing. To attempt to orient one’s life or the culture’s moral path by simply choosing a direction that seems reasonable and then calling a robust pursuit of that end a viable option to True North is fundamentally silly.
James’ Davidson Hunter’s argument in his To Change the World helps us see the importance of this point. He argues that while humans use power to shape the world in which they live, they do so while they are “instinctually challenged” (i.e., morally lost). This is not to say that humans use their power without direction. To the contrary, because everyone has a worldview (whether they know it or not), people always function from some frame of reference. The problem that then emerges is that humans wield world-shaping power without a clear and coherent worldview, point of reference or properly determined end goal. Yet because worldviews always head in a direction, human use of power (either individually or collectively) will shape the world in whatever direction their moral compass is pointing.
For these reasons it is utterly important that each of us (and all of us corporately) pay careful attention to how we are calibrating our compasses. Scripture is clear. All things have been created by God, through God and for God and they are created for His glory (Romans 11:36).Therefore, though it be tempting to calibrate the compass toward such noble ends as “saving the planet,” or “living a good life,” or whatever mantra might catch on in culture, ultimately the pursuit of anything other than Christ is foolish both temporally and eternally. Biblically and theologically speaking, these (and/or any other goals) are in essence idolatrous. They set an inferior end in the place of the ultimate end for which God created the world. It is imperative, then, that we calibrate our compasses to Jesus Christ, and set our course toward a pursuit of the One who is the True North of the created order, the redeemed creation, and the future fully established eschatological kingdom.