With apologies to the great bard...
The task for half of my freshmen this past two weeks is to explain the system of moral authority in their lives. The question is fairly simple: are you what you do, what you believe, or a combination of the two? By what you do I mean actions in the world, not a job. For the record, I'm pretty sure there's not a great answer to this question, but the point of the question isn't to find the solution; it's to track the decision making process, including moral justification, when confronted with a moral dilemma.
I started thinking along this track when reading through Driscoll's sex freak book (real title Real Marriage). In it, Driscoll uses the Bible to help his penis, and yours if you're a boy, find its way around the female form: hands, mouth, vagina, and rectum. And if you think I'm being needlessly crude, read Driscoll on oral sex based on Song of Songs. Driscoll's discussion of dangling fruit reminds me of Patton Oswalt's G-Rated Filth (and that is not for the faint of heart, folks. watch only if extremely graphic language gets you aroused...er...doesn't offend you). Driscoll uses the Bible as a moral authority by which he assesses the rightness and wrongness of particular sex acts, which is quite frankly hysterical, given that he thinks it's ok to bugger his wife but not to spank his aforementioned penis, neither of which the Bible mentions. This is, of course, as I said in the previous post, an exegetical model based on personal preference. I'll go ahead and say it now; all exegetical models are based at least partly on personal preference. That Mark Driscoll is a psychotic narcissist only makes his percentage of personal preference higher than someone who at least attempts to be honest about the complexities of interpreting an ancient and often ambiguous (if not silent on an issue) text.
Moral authority is always complex at the conceptual level. When I ask students the question about how they decide what is right and wrong, inevitably they give the standard answers: parents, pastors, peers, God. The first is easiest to dispense with; most humans have willfully disobeyed parents when the desire outweighed the fear of reprisal, or when they simply stopped believing as parents did. In the first case, did they really believe what they were doing was wrong, or did what they want to do really constitute what they believed about the action? Parse at your leisure. Pastors and peers we can ignore for now, as the first is seldom really heard and the latter work more as justification or consolation than character formation. The real problem is God.
When people say God is their moral authority, I'm absolutely certain they don't understand what they're saying. First, God is not immediately available to talk to them, and as for those (like one student) who said a relationship with Jesus was key to understanding the Bible, I simply ask why you have so many denominations and traditions if that relationship steers you the right direction. It's simply a way of avoiding the dilemma. God is not your authority because God is not telling you what to do. A book is. The authority people believe is resident in God is mediated through a text, and that text must be interpreted; God, over against Elijah's assertions, is not readily available to answer questions. That leaves a community, or in most cases, an individual to ascertain which portions of the Bible function as moral authority. All this to say, if an individual is making the assessment about particular texts, then the locus of moral authority is the individual's conscience and desires, not God and not the text. The text may give shape to the parameters, but it certainly doesn't dictate particular choices.
An example. If I read that a man may not lie with another man as with a woman, and I take it as a moral command, then I create an exegetical model that dictates that all such plainly worded commands must be interpreted consistently throughout the text. There is a problem, though. When I turn over to Matthew 5-7, Jesus gives many plainly worded commands (Don't resist an evil person.) that Christians plainly ignore. The calculus seems to be how difficult the command actually is to carry out. If I don't want to have sex with a man, then that command is easy and can easily be read literally. If a man has broken into my home, the second command becomes radically difficult and must therefore be parsed. The parsing happens inside my own complex assemblage of emotion, desire, preference, will, and honesty. My personal preference becomes the moral authority. Over against the one I call Lord, I make a decision that is contrary to what he says, and to do that, I must justify it in such a way that I'm allowed to remain part of the group called Christian. At this point, I point out (hypocritically) the competing verses in the text, especially the ones about violence, to justify my decision. Hypocritical because if challenged on other issues, I'm likely to insist there is no conflict; gays can't have gay sex. Period.
The further complicating factor is the issue of forgiveness. That I am able to make decisions that allegedly go against what I actually believe is largely a function of the practice of so-called repentance. I can believe premarital sex is wrong and still engage in it as long as I make a show of saying I'm sorry to God. This, of course, allows me to do whatever it is I actually desire to do while making a feeble nod to God with faint promises of "trying harder." Once again, my own preference is the moral authority since it is what gives shape to what I actually do. That Christians have watered down the ideals of forgiveness and repentance has in fact made it harder for them to make disciples, and it has contributed a great degree to the dualism inherent in modern evangelicalism.
An example. I said, "Let's say I do everything Jesus tells me to do. I feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, obey the commandmentes, sell my goods and donate to homeless shelters, live generously, forgive easily, love sacrficially, all because I'm crazy about this Jesus guy. I then tell you I don't believe in God. Am I a Christian?" At this point it's clear that it's a trap. Whatever they've said previously about how important actions are, it's clear now that they will disqualify all my actions based on one "false" belief. This is the heart of the problem. Belief, functionally, is the determining factor in moral authority. As long as I believe it's the authority, it doesn't matter what I do; I believe the right things. (The soteriological dilemma should be obvious here, too.) My belief insulates me from the demands of ethics and allows me to remain part of the group even as I behave in ways that are contrary to what the group says is vital to group identity.
Back to Driscoll. Reverend Sex Freak begins with a desire: I would like to insert my penis into my wife's x. I now need moral authority to do so. I parse the Bible. Oh, how convenient--here's a verse about a woman sitting in front of low hanging fruit (ironically, the description is an apt one of Real Marriage). Clearly God wants my wife to pleasure my fruit. Where the Bible is clearly silent, as if it wasn't on that issue, Driscoll finds authority in different places. That's all fine, except that this is hermeneutics in reverse. I start with my desires and then find their justification--metaphorical, implied, or explicit--in the text. This makes the text functionally worthless, and it's not just worthless for people who misuse it as egregiously as Driscoll. Without a consistent rubric to direct the exegetical process, how do you avoid exegesis based on personal preference? No one will believe you if you don't do the hard stuff, and they shouldn't. Even if you do though, how can I know that your rubric isn't arbitrary?