Under the Rubble of Moral Scaffolding

The (Failed) Quest for Virtue

Blake Nail / 5.16.23

When building something masterful, whether it’s the Great Wall of China or the newest cloud tickling skyscraper, sweat coated workers utilize a type of structure reportedly seventeen thousand years old — scaffolding. This simple, yet undeniably ingenious way of achieving architectural wonders has been around at the engineer’s disposal for millennia. Scaffolding provides a sturdy footing that enables a builder to comfortably work on specific areas of a project still in need of further completion. The quest for advancing architectural techniques is one humanity has been on since the beginning of time. Alongside this quest, which encompasses all of time past, is another one humankind has painstakingly sought out: the search for morality.

At first glance morality and scaffolding appear to have no connection, but as of late the two have become joined by cultural figures like Joe Rogan and other influential voices, who speak metaphorically of “moral scaffolding.” Rogan himself is irreligious, but he appreciates the morality religion provides. For Rogan, the “moral scaffolding” offered by religion teaches a way to live a good, upstanding life. You, the under-construction-building, wrap yourself with the moral scaffolding of the Bible and hopefully end up appearing as a building standing tall with a firm foundation.

Rogan’s approach isn’t all too different from how the vast majority in the West treats religion. We love the law, the rules on how to behave. You go to church to be a “civilized” person. It’s the reason Christianity is more well-known for morality and self-righteousness rather than forgiveness and the self-acknowledged sinner. People usually see Christians, whether or not it’s what’s projected or perceived, as those striving for a moral life (as opposed to, say, one who’s failed at it and is well aware of that fact). Or perhaps  the religious Christian is seen as one pretends to be moral to cover up every strike they’ve had at bat. Certainly, these perceptions are fair, given how the religious have acted over the years. But one can get morality anywhere. Frankly, the Bible isn’t necessary for such quandaries and neither is Christianity. Speaking frankly, there is someone who could possibly give us insight into this view of religion. And it just so happens they were quite influential in the founding of the country in which this view has grown to be widespread …

In his time, Benjamin Franklin was generally a fairly respected man. By the majority of accounts, history has favored him in one sense or another. Whether it’s his inventions — the infamous lightning rod, swimming fins, the catheter (perhaps we’re a bit grumblingly appreciative of this one) the Franklin stove … the list goes on — or his charitable work in creating the first volunteer fire department, his free hospital, and his libraries for those without access to the wealth of knowledge available. That’s not even getting into his assistance in developing our government. It’s no wonder how he ended up on the hundred-dollar bill without being a sitting president. But among the numerous pursuits of Benjamin Franklin was his Moral Perfection Project. Franklin was not a fan of religious dogma or doctrine. Instead, he often asked the question: how does one act? After discarding his Presbyterian roots for a morally virtuous life, he drafted a list of twelve virtues:

Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e., waste nothing).

Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

(Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson, pg. 89-90)

Ironically, the brilliant biographer, Walter Isaacson, notes that a Quaker friend of Franklin’s reminded him of something missing: Pride. Franklin had garnered a reputation of being prideful, so he added humility to the list with the words “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” for description. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong about any of these pursuits. They are admirable and even worthy of grasping. If one were to attempt to build a life on these, you could argue it’d be a sturdy scaffolding for a quality life.

Franklin, however, soon came to realize the nature of humanity, himself riddled with the DNA we all are. In his own words it was a “task of more difficulty than I had imagined.” He described the difficulty in this way: “while my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another.” In his journal he would make a chart, marking where he failed at each one of these virtues. And so, he set off on this journey, focusing on one virtue a week marking when he erred and then repeating the thirteen-week cycle.

While this may not surprise one familiar with low anthropology, Franklin himself was surprised to find out how often he found himself faltering in virtue. “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined.” Isaacson notes that “his notebook became filled with holes as he erased the marks in order to reuse the pages. So he transferred his charts to ivory tablets that could be more easily wiped clean.” (pg. 91). Later, in his aging years, Franklin would jokingly, almost mocking himself, state he finally achieved moral perfection.

It may be that Franklin’s life was marked with a plethora of achievements, it was also marred with quiet scandals and public spats. Like the majority of people in his times, he himself owned slaves — although his thoughts evolved on this practice as he aged and the times progressed. He was also known to be quite the lady’s man. Franklin developed numerous questionable “friendly” relationships with young women while neglecting his own wife and daughter — the majority of his marriage was spent away from his wife while he travelled overseas, even to the point of knowingly missing his wife’s final days and eventual passing. While (perhaps) comical, he utilized pseudonyms to write articles attacking business opponents and detractors of his. There was also continuous notable relational strife with fellow founding father, John Adams, who thought Franklin didn’t always live up to the hype, as we’d say today. Isaacson notes a time when Adams wrote a friend, saying that Franklin had “a monopoly of reputation here and an indecency in displaying it.” Adams would write in his journal how Franklin wasted valuable time socializing and enjoying his popularity while Adams spent his focusing on work. Perhaps this should suffice in displaying Franklin’s inability to perfect himself, lest we completely disparage a dead man.

Is it any wonder that one of the founding father’s (and plenty of others’) philosophy on virtuous pursuits and morality over doctrine and grace has bled all the way into our culture today? As Franklin shows, morality is not unique to religion and there are plenty of non-religious folk who strive to live a good, upstanding life.

If all the church has to offer is moral scaffolding, then we, in fact, are the ones to pity. The unique trait of Christianity, and ideally the mark of the church, is not moral scaffolding, but rather grace for those under the rubble of their moral failure.

Christianity is for those who’ve fallen from their building projects, leaving the rubble of an unfinished renovation. Those of us all too well aware, as Franklin became, that even ivory tablets can’t hide the plentiful ways we fail to meet virtue at the table. While the gospel of grace doesn’t scoff at attempts toward morality, it instead provides an exquisite state of the art building already fully completed. One is pulled from the wreckage of their own scaffolding failures and brought inside Another’s finished work. This is what the gospel of grace has to offer, not moral scaffolding. Where religion may be moral scaffolding, the gospel is a gracious rescue from inevitable structural collapse. It’s the sweet sound of metal poles and wood planks being tossed about, a radiant light that falls on those crushed under the rubble of unattained virtues and revealed or unrevealed moral failure. And frankly, that’s about as good as news gets.

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2 responses to “Under the Rubble of Moral Scaffolding”

  1. spen$er says:


  2. Lysa Tribolet says:

    Beautifully put!

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