Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Abridged Introduction to Christian Ethics

From a paper I wrote for an Intro to Christian Ethics class I took during the Winter 2010 Intersession:

There are a number of different questions the study of ethics may address. One might want to know which things are good or evil, or right or wrong, and may also want to know what makes these things so. One may focus these sorts of questions on things as diverse as motives, actions, character, lives, even entire communities or social structures. To focus simply on, say, motives or actions alone, however, leaves the false impression that being ethical is simply a matter of, in each discrete situation, doing what is best or right in that situation in isolation from everything else. Instead, we should see that actions and motives are shaped by and in turn shape a person’s character. Actions are not simply isolated events but integral parts of a life-long process of character-expressing and character-building and hence cannot be considered apart from this project of self-formation.

Even this is too limited, though, since one’s character and character-building project itself falls into the broader scope of and provides a kind of personal frame for one’s life as a whole. It is not simply isolated actions or even actions as part of one’s character-project that matters but also the shape of one’s life as a whole – what kind of life, beginning to end, should I have? Given what has come before, how can I make the best overall shape for my entire life, taken in its entirety?

But we still do not have enough, for our lives are not lived isolated from others or from our environment – these are all closely interconnected, overlapping and interlocking. Ultimately, we must also ask how our lives, actions, and so on, ought to fit into the communities, social structures, and cosmos we find ourselves in. And this will ultimately involve our role and fit within the broader story of God’s interactions and interrelations with his created world. The goal of this paper, then, is to provide an Evangelical introduction to Christian ethics which will focus on the ethical task of our attempt to live ethically within the context of all of these various roles and responsibilities in which we may find ourselves. Due to space, some of these aspects of our ethical lives will receive more attention than others, but that should not be seen as a judgment that these aspects are necessarily more central or important.

I. The Biblical Story

An Evangelical ethic is based first and foremost on the belief in the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture in matters of faith and practice. Children of the Fall, we have finite minds corrupted by sin. God does not suffer such limitations and hence a reliance on the arbitration of Scripture, however treacherous working out how to apply it may be, is a must. In particular, the biblical story ought to be a key starting point in our understanding of ethics. The gospel – the biblical story of God’s mighty works and relations with his people, particularly as centered in Christ – is the key ingredient here. Creation, Fall, Exodus/Torah, Exile, Return, Jesus, Church, Eschaton – all of these are important for understanding our place in the unfolding story (and for understanding the place of various biblical commands in the story in relation to our own respective places[1]) and much of it is vital for thinking in Christian ways about our natures, roles, and responsibilities in a fallen world.

God created everything good, making humanity in his own image and giving them the great goods and awesome responsibilities of stewardship over the creation, marriage, relationships, and work. Humanity has fallen into sin, however, and all of creation is shaken and marred by our sin – we ruin creation, live in broken or destroyed marriages or relationships, and indulge in soul-destroying, unsatisfying, or unethical work. But God has redeemed us and creation, making a way for a renewed humanity and renewed creation set at rights, united by love for God, humanity, and creation. The new age, the kingdom of God, where everything is perfect, has come but is not fully consummated or realized – the age of sin and death overlaps with the age of righteousness and life. Christians live in the midst of this crossroads, having begun the life of the kingdom which they will live forever, but also remaining part of the sin-marred world.

The world and everything in it is God’s and God in Christ is bringing all things under his heavenly rule which has already begun with Christ.[2] The church is the new humanity for the new creation, called out of the old, composed of the old, and living amidst the old. God’s kingdom – his imperial rule that has been won in Christ and is now being applied – is not the same as the church and is not to be identified with a particular place, people, community, or nation.[3] It is an act of God and it is the church’s task to live in accordance with it as the people of the kingdom, the people of God’s current phase in the biblical story. The whole world is fallen and Christ died for the whole world.

II. Good reasons and good actions

Christian ethics is traditionally against the idea that it is only the consequences of an action that matters for assessing goodness or badness, right or wrong. The ends do not necessarily justify the means from the Christian standpoint. Instead, in deliberating about what to do, one thinks about and weighs all the various reasons for or against various courses of actions – the ethical agent is by definition a (at least minimally) rational agent. The sorts of reasons (or sources of reasons) we ought to consider in deciding what to do are many – moral principles, duties and responsibilities, context, consequences, non-moral facts, our own motives or emotions, character or roles, created human nature, revelation, etc. Scripture and the Christian tradition in particular are both excellent resources for various kinds of reasons that might be relevant in any particular situation.

When evaluating what to do, however, we need to always be careful of ethical consistency. All persons have dignity and are of infinite value – each is made in the image of God, is loved by God, and is purchased by his grace expressed on the Cross. Each person, then, is of incomparable worth and we should not treat ourselves as somehow privileged to special exemptions from moral considerations. This consistency, in dealing with others as ends-in-themselves like myself, requires me to be careful with the reasons I act on. If I would not want everyone else to do something in the same sort of situation for the same sort of reason (or if it would defeat the whole purpose of the action if this was so), then I am being inconsistent if I go ahead and do it anyway[4] – I am treating myself as a special exception over and above everyone else. This is the rational basis for the Golden Rule.

III. Good actions and good persons

In discerning the moral value of an action, there are different levels or contexts in which we may evaluate it. We may evaluate the deed on its own as a physical act, ignoring what is “behind” the action or what is going on inside the person who performs it. A more stringent context is to evaluate it also in terms of whether the agent exhibited proper motives or reasoning in performing the action. Going still further and deeper, we may ask whether the act expresses a good character trait which the agent has and from which they are acting. And finally, we may ask whether all of this is finally rooted in a regenerate heart whose foundational direction is towards God and exists in right relationship with him. Actions, then, can be good in a broader sense of being examples of proper physical actions or proper physical actions resulting from proper motives and reasoning but fail to be good in a narrower sense of, say, also resulting from a good character and proper relationship with God (cf., maybe, Romans 14:23).

We do not begin life with unqualified, fully formed good characters, however. Nor do we begin in proper relationship with God. As somewhat-free creatures, we have been given a limited power of self-formation. Our character constrains our options, depending on how deeply it is rooted, and even effects how we see, feel, or value things. At the beginnings of our lives, freedom expresses itself through the ability to form different characters and take a wide variety of actions. At the end, freedom or responsibility expresses itself through the inability to form a different character or choose from certain actions – the fixed character is itself a result of this freedom. On such a picture, we are responsible for our fixed character and the actions that flow from it.[5]

Our self-making projects proceed through a process of habit-formation. It is by doing virtuous actions of a certain sort that one develops that virtue[6] and the same goes for vice. Of course, at first one will not be doing such virtuous actions virtuously. For that, one must have a steady character – that is, a virtuous one – from which the virtuous action is flowing, one must have knowledge of the action, and must choose the virtuous action for its own sake.

Being virtuous, though, means not merely doing the appropriate actions but having the appropriate feelings in the correct proportions and with regard to the correct things, having appropriate motives, and taking pleasure and pain in the appropriate things in the appropriate amount. If one is not virtuous, one’s feelings will not always be appropriate, nor will one’s actions or the apportionment of pleasure or pain. Pleasure is the natural response to getting what we most want or from doing what is most natural to us and pain the opposite. The bad person will take great pleasure in bad things and will be pained by good things (or at least find them boring or unexciting compared to bad things) precisely because they are bad and their character is off. Certain things, after all, can only be understood from the inside. The person who does not already believe in or properly see right and wrong will not understand morality or see how or why certain judgments are true or why they should be followed. They will not see what the big deal is or why one should be moral (either generally or in a particular instance). The truths of Christianity are similar. The person who has not internalized such things simply will not have a mind appropriately formed to handle such things in the appropriate manner.[7]

Following in the spirit of Kierkegaard, we can thus distinguish three phases of life. In the initial one, one is not an ethical person and one does not grasp ethical truths or seek to be ethical. In the next stage, one seeks the ethical and can now have some understanding of it. The last stage of human fulfillment – the pinnacle of human life – is the religious life, how our lives were meant to be. Here we now seek the religious and have some understanding of it – our life is now organized under a single guiding light, it is focused, free, and unified and not divided or enslaved by all the various goals or external goods which vie for attention. In this stage you “become who you are” – that is, your most important identities line up in a single true identity in Christ. The less we line up with our design as bearers of God’s image, though, the less we live up to being human. To be fully human would be to make oneself into a complete human being – fully formed in complete perfection, something which will not likely occur within the course of our earthly lives. To tie all of these threads together, to become who you really are, to progress to the fullness of your own humanity, requires making yourself a virtuous, religious person, slowly progressing in understanding and knowledge but driven along initially in the faith that things will work out.

This discussion so far points out some of the reasons why, the more firmly a vice is entrenched, the harder it is to get rid of it – one’s character, actions, feelings, and so on get formed around and by performing these vicious deeds. And the more one’s character gets formed as a vicious one, the more one will be vicious and the more vicious one is the more one will form a vicious character, and so on. Both virtue and vice in this sense are self-perpetuating cycles. This is why it is so important to seek virtue as early as possible and to teach others to do likewise, wherever they are at – each vicious action forms one’s character and actions for the future and begins or renews or firms up a cycle of viciousness that could potentially destroy a person morally.

Since we do not begin with original flawlessness, however, and do not live in a perfect world, our processes of ethical formation will almost necessarily involve sinning – this will simply be part of the process that we should accept. Just as one learns to ride a bike partly through making mistakes, overcorrecting (and hence making more mistakes), slowly zeroing in on a proper way of doing things, so goes the process of learning to live. We must act in a timely fashion and hence cannot spend all our time analyzing situations to make sure we are always doing the right thing. If we analyze too much, we will miss opportunities to do good and will not grow. We never have perfect information, perfect reasoning, perfect character or emotions, or perfect perceptions of the values of things. Instead, the process of acting and living in the world will involve taking ethical risks and sometimes, frankly, falling down and then learning from our mistakes. Paradoxically, to over-analyze and make it one’s primary goal on each occasion to make as sure as possible that one is not sinning results in stunted ethical growth and a decrease in one’s ability to make sure one is not sinning or to fulfill one’s roles in life.

Instead, we lean on God and the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our formation process[8] and trust in his grace that he will forgive us when we inevitably do mess up and will aid is in getting back up on our feet again. God regenerates our hearts, our innermost selves, and then works from there. Only in his power can we hope to complete our projects of formation (Philippians 1:6). Until then, we practice living our eternal lives now, but in the context of our fallen selves and fallen world, slowly being conformed to the image of Christ, who is himself the image of God par excellence.[9]

IV. Good persons and good communities

Every person is in relationships and has roles and responsibilities in the context of these and in the context of the various social structures and communities in which they find themselves. As Christians, the task is to live faithfully and responsibly in these contexts in which God has placed us. Not everyone can do or help with everything, not everyone has been called to give of the same amount of their resources or in the same way, but everyone is still called in some way or another to do and be a light in their own contexts.

Of course, not everyone has the same vocation or calling either in the church or outside of it (cf. I Corinthians 12, Romans 12). The church itself is the community which provides a context for Christian ethical formation and cooperation both in communal formation and in transformation of the world – a springboard for the kingdom-transformation of the entire cosmos. The church is an instrument to create and seek out justice in the world, to spread the gospel in word and in deed, and to care for and promote our shared creation.

Government, family, marriage, and the world as a whole have all been instituted by God as special structures or contexts for responsible, ethical living. How we live in the particularities of our lives is in part dependent on where we find ourselves with respect to these different institutions. The kingdom of God, however, breaks into and onto these institutions, redeeming and reconciling and transforming. The church cuts across these just as the kingdom does. The church is therefore not a separate institution above, below, or beside these or belonging to some kind of hierarchy involving these institutions. Instead, it is a progressive eruption within them.[10] These institutions too are objects of God’s redemption and, as Christ has reconciled the entire cosmos, all aspects of creation and society are open to Christians to explore and renew. The sacred/secular divide has been abolished by his shed blood and all things are under his Lordship.[11]

V. Good God

Without love, none of this ethical stuff is going to work for long. Proper love of God, self, others, and creation ought to be at the heart of all that the church does, even if it cannot always be the only motivation or reason behind things. All things, at least in part, ought to be done for the love and glory of God, not merely for what we or others can get out of it.[12] Along with loving others, if we can do this, we will have “fulfilled the law”. In biblical terms, we might speak here of righteousness – right relations with God, self, other persons, and the rest of creation. Complete, universal love and righteousness awaits the Eschaton and the final consummation of God’s new creation.

[1] For example: as the New Testament affirms, at least some of the Old Testament laws were accommodations to less-than-ideal practices and structures then present, trying to limit them even. These laws were addressed to Israel in a particular context but the Law still expresses God’s ethical will, particularly with regards to Israel, and one way something could be polluting or unclean was precisely by being immoral. The Prophets then applied, interpreted, and enforced this will revealed in the Law and Jesus, in this tradition, did similarly. Since the church is not Israel and has a different focus and is not composed of a single nation but is to be from all (in addition to the considerations mentioned above about accommodation), aspects of the Law will not be literally for today. This does not make the Law any less authoritative or any less of God, though. We can still ask about the ethical principles or values behind a commandment and look for exemplars of virtue throughout the Old Testament and Bible as a whole, Jesus of course being the virtuous exemplar par excellence.

[2] As such, we as Christians are stewards of what God has given us – of our money, our time, our skills, creation, our very selves, and so on. None of this is ours but has been given to us as a responsibility to take care of on behalf of God, who is working on the renewal of all creation. Cf. the Parable of the Talents.

[3] Thus identifying one’s own or one’s own nation’s cause or interests with God’s is not a good idea. Patriotism – proper love and sense of duty towards one’s own country – is good, but not at the expense of hatred or unloving neglect of other countries.

[4] Cf. Kant’s ideas here. Section III, meanwhile, will be more influenced by Aristotelian ideas, particularly as they have come down through the Christian philosophical tradition.

[5] Consider two kinds of perfection: perfection as original flawlessness versus perfection as completion. Adam and Eve, prior to their sin, were perfect in the first sense – there were no moral flaws since there was as yet no exact moral character (they had just begun their self-formation) and hence they were utterly blameless. Now consider the other end of the self-formation process. At this end, one might be perfect in the second sense by holding a fixed, maximally good moral character.

Suppose someone is on the road to completion – their character is neither fixed nor yet maximally good. Since they are morally incomplete in this sense, they may choose wrong or not. The complete, however, cannot – they have completed the ethical project. So freedom expresses itself in flawlessness through the possibility of falling into vice while it expresses itself in completion through the impossibility of the same. Our time of making, however, can be ended with ourselves ethically incomplete and so not able to go on to completion.

[6] Following many others in the virtue tradition, I include among the virtues not just the “ethical” virtues as we normally understand them but also personal excellences which may vary from person to person. The duty to develop ourselves into virtuous persons, then, includes not just developing a character that results in “good actions” but also developing our own natural talents and abilities. A good character, in this sense, will be slightly different, then, for different people since different people possess different natural talents or abilities. Stewardship of one’s own self will involve personal as well as more narrowly moral goods.

[7] Cf. this paragraph with some of Augustine’s similar ideas.

[8] Tradition, Scripture, other Christians, the promptings of our own hearts, etc. are all tools that the Spirit can use to communicate with us. The Spirit guides both generally and in specific situations where God is calling us to not just any permissible or correct action but a specific action he wants for us to take.

[9] Spiritual disciplines will play a key role – not as necessarily good ends in themselves but rather as important tools in eternal-life-training and in personal formation.

[10] Hence, it is like the first bursts of color across an otherwise colorless page of a child’s coloring book, enlivening various parts but not necessarily filling them fully yet with color either.

[11] Christians are therefore subject to those civil laws which are just and have a responsibility to them and to their nations and governments, but their first loyalty is always to God, not to their nation or its laws or government. Much of the way I have framed this section has been inspired by Bonhoeffer’s works.

[12] Hence, I have to disagree with John Piper’s notion of “Christian Hedonism”, which gets proper motivational structures, in a sense, upside down.

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