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11 November 2011

The moral and the spiritual

The moral and the spiritual

In the 2011 Theos annual lecture delivered this week, General Lord Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, observed that the Armed Forces could no longer presume that new recruits "would have absorbed an understanding of the core values and standards of behaviour required by the military from their family or from within their wider community."

It was undoubtedly a provocative comment, likely to provoke reaction (which it did) but it could hardly be deemed a surprising one. The dominant story of the last few years in British public life is that of our general moral disorientation.

Of course, most societies do like to indulge in periodic bouts of moral panic. The Venerable Bede openly worried about the lack of piety in his time (the 730s) when compared with the more honestly devotional seventh century.

Nevertheless, the recent succession of moral meltdowns - the parliamentary expenses scandal, the banking crisis, the phone hacking scandal, the summer riots - cannot be so easily dismissed.

In a wide range of situations, the norms of behaviour that should have restrained people from doing things they should not have done, did not. If Dannatt is right about the Armed Forces (and he should know), it further underlines the pervading sense that we no longer have a sufficiently robust moral culture to nurture and sustain the kind of virtues - trust, respect, honour, integrity, etc - that every society needs. Other public servants, not least teachers, often observe the same thing.

What was particularly interesting - and courageous - in what General Dannatt said, however, was that whereas the moral dimension is necessary, it is not sufficient. There also needs to be a spiritual dimension.

Talking about his own personal experiences in the military, but also recounting some of the moving doubts and fears that ordinary soldiers experienced in their tours of duty, Dannatt repeatedly said that "everyone, when push comes to shove, is reaching out for something bigger than themselves."

Being a prominent public figure, and having exercised considerable authority in his field, Dannatt was - and remains - careful not to impose his spiritual beliefs on others. Indeed, he repeatedly emphasised that it was "down to individuals to work out what their spiritual dimension is for themselves."

However, he was also clear that his deeply held Christian faith was fundamental to his own make-up and that when he was Chief of Staff he had instructed the Chaplain General "to make sure that everyone deployed on operations has some understanding of the Christian message."

Ultimately, morality does not exist in a vacuum. Much as it sounds heroic and altruistic to say: "I don't need a reason to be good - I just am", such a sentiment is, in truth, flimsy and unconvincing.

That does, of course, not mean that simply being a Christian or reading the Bible constitutes a solution to our moral woes. In spite of what some Christians - and some atheists - believe, 'God says so' is a pretty fragile reason for doing something.

The reality is that most people behave because of other people. The task before Christians is not, therefore, simply to get people reading the Bible (though that is a good starting point) but rather to form moral communities, inspired by and focused on Christ, in which the virtues of trust, generosity, forgiveness, and love are nourished and preserved.  

Nick Spencer, theos