Some years ago, the blatantly Christian movie Time Changer was released and I had wanted to see it – eventually. I finally got my chance the other day. I watched it twice to try to get my thoughts in order. It’s a pretty simple story – a seminary professor believes that his colleague’s ideas are dangerous to Christianity, so he zaps his colleague a hundred years into the future to see the ultimate result. The colleague spends four days in the here and now getting a crash course in modern spirituality. He returns to his time and changes his ideas. The movie ends with the seminary professor trying to figure out when the end times are – and it appears the end of the world is at some point before 2060.
The main argument of the colleague is that universal morality is best for society even it means not teaching about the authority of Jesus. The ultimate result of morals alone without Jesus’ name is: “Sin abounds! The Lord is not feared! Morals have replaced Christ, and with liberal teachings! Families are in disarray, no authority, no respect! The world lives without Jesus while the church seems to be filled with professing Christians who do not follow the Lord they claim to believe!” This points to a common belief – that morals are objective. A force outside of ‘us’ must tell us what is moral for ‘us’ because we cannot measure what is moral anymore than a single drop of water can measure how much total water there is in the same glass of water. Someone outside of the water must tell the water how much water there is. If we were to sit down a collectively decide what morality is, we would all come to disagreement. Lying is bad, except when the truth is worse. Stealing is wrong, unless hunger plays a factor in the theft. Humans do that – we understand the complexity of human life and how to apply situational ethics in a world where absolute standards is something most of us can’t agree to abide by. After all, there are about two dozen moral beliefs that are common to every culture regardless of their religious upbringing. And there are countless others that are shared by a majority of cultures. For being an amoral society, we’re pretty ethical.
What spoke to me was what was missing. After spending four days in 2010, the 1890s prejudices and attitudes remained unchanged. He saw unparalleled equality – he met with people of color who didn’t have to live a second-class existence and met with a woman who was a librarian with her own secretary who was also a woman and another woman who was a teacher and he didn’t feel the least bit shocked by their competence or the willingness of the men to follow their lead? He didn’t return home and look at the women of his community and wonder if any of them had the same potential that ought to be encouraged? Did he at all think that the Chinese-American, Latin-American and African-American people in his community deserved to be treated better than he had treated them before? How is it that Mr. Plank-in-my-own-eye can see so clearly our authority issues when he fails to understand that he himself has authority issues of the opposite extreme? Our authority issues did not appear over-night, but were set forth in the past. When we misunderstood and misused the authority of Scripture to bolster slavery, permit segregation, explain away sexism, give us the right to have as many guns as we wanted, declare feeding poor people entitlement, and whatever else we wanted. We saw the end result of 1890s authority-defined morality carried out to it’s logical extreme and rejected it because of the injustice and cruelty inherit in it. And so the next generation had to rediscover morality apart from the example they knew growing up – learning how to define morality in a multi-cultural world that values equality, respect, and tolerance.
All he did was prove how his misunderstanding of authority traveled with him through time – and that’s the true legacy of his argument. For having changed his book, it didn’t change the future. Why would it? A random book published a hundred years ago limited to maybe a thousand total printings if it was a runaway best seller and only a few hundred if it wasn’t doesn’t amount to an earth-shattering loss of it a chapter suddenly disappears or changes or if the book itself was never written. Few people will read it. Fewer people will take it’s message to heart and tell everyone they meet about it. In all likelihood, it wasn’t a widely read book or read for a long period of time – it might have been entirely forgotten in the next fifty years. All we can do is to speak to the morality of the present and perhaps a short window into the future as people read our books, magazines, and now our blogs and comments. A lot of us heartily disagree with traditional morality because it was blind to the suffering it caused. It’s not the answer for what ails us and it won’t save us to be totally devoted to authority structures that still cause suffering. Morality isn’t what it used to be – and that’s something to be thankful for.