I saw an old film by the Coen brothers recently called No Country for Old Men. There is a gunfight in the desert when a drug deal goes wrong. The next day, a local guy played by Josh Brolin is out hunting, and he finds two million dollars in a suitcase at the scene. He thinks hard, then puts it in the back of his truck, and takes it home. He spends the rest of the film running from hit man played by Javier Bardem, one of the most terrifying characters ever to grace the screens.
So Brolin finds the very thing he has been searching for all his life: a tonne of cash. But in the process (spoiler alert) he loses everything else that has been important to him: his home, his work, his wife, his freedom, and eventually his very life.
The film is a classic morality tale. It raises all the big questions: What are you searching for? What would you do to get it? Is it really worth it? Are there any moral boundaries?
If you speak about morality today, you get a fascinating mix of views. On the one hand, we don’t like to judge or interfere. We value diversity. In Britain there is a great emphasis on the virtue of tolerance. Live and let live. We want to respect people’s freedom.
On the other hand, most people agree that we need some kind of moral code, some shared values. It’s not enough just to say: do whatever you want. Some things are just wrong. So there is a bit of tension between freedom and morality.
I see this every day. I spend most of my time working with university students. I often have conversations with them about what they hope to do in the future. And most of the time I wouldn’t dream of pushing them in one direction or another. I’ll pray with them and maybe give some gentle advice. But they need to find their own way. Every person is unique.
But sometimes they ask a moral question. Is this right? Is this wrong? And sometimes I do step in and give some stronger advice. I’m not trying to impose anything on them, but just being honest about what is right and what is wrong. We can’t make good decisions if we don’t have at least a few clear moral guidelines.
Christians believe in freedom. They also believe in an objective morality. Not everything is relative. There are some fundamental human values that all people have in common. Why? Because we all share a common humanity, and some things help us to live a good life, they lead us to a genuine fulfilment, and other things can damage that.
It’s a good thing, for example, to care for the sick, to tell the truth, to honour your parents, to do an honest day’s work. And it’s wrong, for example, to kill an innocent person, to steal, to betray your spouse, to exploit the vulnerable.
We can argue about the exact details. But Christians believe that a core set of values has been accepted by most people in most societies. They’re expressed in the Ten Commandments of the Jewish-Christian tradition and many other similar codes.
If a society loses touch with these fundamental values, it begins to fall apart. This is what happens in the novel Lord of the Flies, when a group of boys trapped on a remote island descend into chaos and violence.
Most of us are struggling to live a good life. We are not sure what we would do if we found that suitcase in the desert, stuffed with two million dollars’ worth of bank notes. We are not sure about lots of our day-to-day choices. Life is often very complicated and messy. But the knowledge that there are some guidelines and boundaries is actually a huge gift, rather than a burden. And trying to follow them actually helps to set us free.
Questions for reflection
Do you think there is such a thing as right and wrong? Why?
Do you think morality changes from one culture or country or religion to another?
Do you think human beings are free? Do you think people are capable of change?
This blog is an extract from SYCAMORE: The Catholic Faith Explained. In SYCAMORE, you will find answers to the most common questions about life and faith, whether you want to deepen the faith you already have or are exploring the faith for the first time.
To find more answers to the big questions in life, get your copy of SYCAMORE: The Catholic Faith Explained.