Invitations for Conversation & Reflection

Moralism and the Pathway to Holiness


"Jesus was never less than a moralist and always more than a moralist. Jesus forgave as no moralist can and made a demand larger than any moralist would."

-Jaroslav Pelikan in conversation with David Goa


I often regard moralism as a symptom of immaturity—a clinging to a set of rules of behaviour important to parents and others in teaching children within our role as guardians. 

Children need to be helped, guided and encouraged as they engage with the developing movements of their hearts and minds and with the life of the world. Until they are fully formed, moral guidance helps them not accidentally misstep and do things that will harm them for the better part of their lives. We seek to guide our children’s behavior and thinking so they are not harmed in ways that will play back in their soul’s formation and damage their capacity for life-giving relationships in a fragile world.

The problem comes when, based in our own passions, we become fearful of our own moral missteps—of how they became appetites leading to our own struggles. This fear leads to moralism that elevates moral injunctions into the register of the spiritual life and our understanding of the experience of faith. We confuse faith, belief, and behaviour and thus, are compelled by fear to lay down the law. Then we can’t hear the movements of the heart of the young and we impede the development of faith and the virtues of courage and temperance that form good judgement. We create confusion as behaviour gets abstracted into moral ideals and we lose the capacity to mature beyond taking refuge in ideals and laws. So our moralism may actually prevent their maturing in a stance of faith.

We have a responsibility to initiate children into the gifts of the Christian tradition rooted in the gospel’s call for transformation of the inner person where intentions are purified. The stance of moralism reifies the appearances of the good life, but like the Rich Young Ruler, does not open the pathway to holiness. Moralism rightly reacts to modern Progressivism that abandons children to a notion that all acts are neutral as long as they “feel good” and do no apparent harm. In this perspective, there is no aspiration beyond immediate pleasures or any understanding that the soul is formed over time by our thoughts, intentions and deeds. It assumes the child is a blank slate and in doing so abandons them to anyone in proximity to fill this void where there is no language for aspiration and virtue.

One of the gifts of Evangelicalism is its strong sense of the damage of immorality. One of the dangers accompanying this perspective is that the fear that entrenches moralism elevates particular forms of behavior (good in themselves but not the goal of the Christian life) to the stance of faith. Moral guidance is necessary but it is only prophylactic. As an ideology, it becomes a hindrance when it is the only language we use in speaking to children and the young as they grow and mature. It leads to confusion because our children, as they grow, need to engage their experience—the movement of their hearts and minds and relationships—and to learn to exercise their judgment about their experiences and, as difficult as it is to bear for parents, need to make missteps. Missteps (‘sin’ in the sense of missing the mark) are a central element of the pathway to faith, central to the maturing process at the proper stage. One of the most demanding gifts of being a parent is discerning when our moral perspectives need to give way to deep listening and holding our children in love.

We need to be alert to the danger of elevating moral principles such that they actually lead young people away from a courageous and temperate approach to the human desires, which when exercised properly are a source of life and joy. When we refuse them that dignity, it drives young people into secret places where they cannot face or speak out their struggles. Affording them that experience requires faith and confidence in their questions and wonderment around desires. It is important to discern, rather than fear, the important role of natural desire in the maturing process.  

Christian moral understanding is rooted in an understanding of the nature of being human, not in idealized forms of behavior. Being human and the making of our soul is the pathway to deepening communion, the central dynamism of life. The danger of moralism is that it may block the path to our being—it misidentifies the goal of life by replacing the pathways to holiness with forms of idealized behavior.  Elevating particular kinds of behavior both confuses and atrophies the pathways to holiness. When the young are placed under this colonization the normal exploration of the mind and heart including their sins are encouraged to grow into appetites and forced into the hidden places of their life. Moralism becomes a simulacrum for holiness.  

St. Paul gave us the Magna Carta of the Christian life: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23)—everyone sins. It is in the nature of human experience and, in itself is not the problem. That’s life. The problem is a response of fear to this normal and necessary experience that prolongs the distance from “all have sinned” to “and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Spiritual maturity leads us to quickly see and accept these missteps—rather than hiding in shame, learning to confess them sooner and repair the damage. This is at the heart of the Genesis 3 narrative, the revelation of how sin and death enter life in every moment when we forget who we are as the “image of God” and think we need to be something more in order to be “like God.” In those moments, shame blocks that pathway back into communion.

Again, moral teaching is prophylactic. It protects but there is no life in it. To bind our children to moralism when the movement of their minds and heart and relationships calls them to the fullness of life is to not have faith that the Holy Spirit is “everywhere present.” This failure of faith is the source of enormous spiritual harm to those we thought we were protecting.