Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

The Goal of Ethics – Part 1 (Jan-Feb 2005)

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The Telos of the Kingdom of God: An Interpretation of the Task of Christian Ethics

by Lee Camp
January – February, 2005

Nothing stirs up trouble like a discussion about “ethics.”

Moreover, the manner in which higher education teaches “ethics” confuses more than clarifies. I am reminded, for example, of a course entitled “Twentieth Century Ethics” which I took as a graduate student some years ago. At the conclusion of the course, a fellow student remarked to the effect: “prior to this class, I thought of myself as somewhat of an ethical person. Now, I don’t really know what right and wrong are.” Some might immediately respond: “yes, indeed. That’s the way academics and intellectuals are these days, advocating their liberal flabby relativism, confusing young minds and perverting the objective truths for which Christians must contend.”

But I don’t see it that way; quite to the contrary, I suspect that so-called “conservatives” and “liberals” are really not all that different from one another; instead, I suggest that these parties are simply opposite sides of the same Enlightenment coin, and we will have to reconsider some of our most basic convictions about “ethics” if we are to have much to say, as Christians, to the cultural context in which we find ourselves. “Conservatives” have bought into the Enlightenment presuppositions as much as “liberals,” and offering Gospel Ethics to our world will entail a very different set of convictions and practices than either of these offer.

Here I propose 1) fleshing out what I mean by this assertion, by describing the Enlightenment landscape, and the manner in which Enlightenment philosophers have talked about ethics; 2) proposing an alternative view, in which we disciples of Jesus embrace the Kingdom of God as the ultimate end and goal of our lives; and 3) offering very briefly a few concrete observations about the task of Christian ethics.

The Enlightenment Quest for a Timeless, Universal Ethic
Since the rise of the Enlightenment, the start of which we can date somewhere around 1650, philosophers have sought to find some sort of footing, some sort of foundation, upon which they could establish a “timeless, universal” ethic. As the story is commonly told, post-Reformation Europe was in a mess: the Catholics and Protestants had done much in an attempt to destroy one another and take or maintain control of the political arenas in which they found themselves. Consequently there arose in philosophical circles the assertion that religious traditions—particularly those having “revelation” or “history” as their authority—had little to offer the modern world. “Natural religion” was preferred: that is, people like Lord Herbert of Cherbury or founding-father Thomas Jefferson of Monticello advocated a different way to formulate an ethical norm. Rather than relying upon a supposedly “revealed” authority, we could depend upon our own fount of rationality.

That is, philosophers increasingly believed that “all rational men” could agree upon certain truths; and we needed no Moses or Jesus or any other supposedly authoritative law-giver to pronounce what we could all figure out for ourselves anyway. Moses’ and Jesus’ authority (as well as any other “religious” authority) is limited by time and place and history; we need some viewpoint not limited by time and place and history, the philosophers asserted.

In spite of the assertions these days by many conservative Christians (who want to do their own revisionist history by asserting that the United States began as a some form of a Christian commonwealth), Jefferson and many like-minded friends were Deists, who believed that a God created the world, basically wound it up, and let it run. We could all read the “law book of nature” and figure out ethical norms from that standpoint. Out with old-fashioned revelation and “heteronomous” authorities; in with reason, and self-governing authority. The former gave rise to superstition, irrational dogma, and religious wars; the latter to progress, rationality, and peace. So that premier Enlightenment theologian and philosopher, Immanuel Kant, summed it up this way:

Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another . . . ‘Have courage to use your own reason’ – that is the motto of the Enlightenment.

So any good Enlightenment philosophy would distance itself from inherited traditions and “superstitions”; increasingly, if an assertion or belief could not be established by science-like certainty, it was to be accredited no validity. This is what is meant in modernity by “objective”—that which the high-priest named “Science” can validate. (It takes us somewhat on a side-path, but a very important one, to note that it was precisely the Quest for “objective truth” that began the marginalization of faith and religious traditions; when Christians today object that we must make a firm stand in favor of “objective truth,” they often unwittingly further the Enlightenment dichotomy between “objective” and “subjective” that, from the start, assumed Christianity had nothing relevant to contribute to any important discussions.) This dichotomy leaves us with a division of fields of labor: there is, on the one side, the important, public, relevant, objective, scientific and factual, and on the other side, the unimportant, private, irrelevant, subjective, religious and normative. A scribbled dictum on the bathroom wall just above the urinal at one of my favorite coffee houses in Nashville, best sums up this presupposed dichotomy: “don’t pray in my school and I won’t think in your church.”

What has happened since then, in brief, is this: all the philosophers seeking a “rational” way of establishing “ethics,” have found themselves at an impasse. They have found themselves at a point of being unable, in a “rational” manner, to deal with the root conflicts they have discovered. For example, in most ethical dilemmas, one can typically find at least two very distinctive viewpoints: on the one hand, those who believe the rightness or wrongness of an act is based upon the consequences of those acts (a viewpoint commonly called “consequentialism” or “utilitarianism”), and on the other hand, those who believe that the rightness or wrongness of an act is inherent in the act itself (commonly called “deontology”). The former says the “ends always justify the means,” and the latter rejects this. Even those who say they hold to one of these positions may find themselves in the uncomfortable and inconsistent position of changing the basis of their ethic depending upon the issue. For example, those who hold to a deontological position with regard to abortion (“we ought never take the innocent life of a fetus”) might find themselves back-tracking when it comes to warfare (“the killing of innocent life sometimes occurs in warfare; it’s unfortunate, but a necessary thing for the preservation of life in opposition to tyrants and despots”).

To illustrate this idea, Stanley Hauerwas somewhere asserted, in his typical crass way, contemporary ethical analysis centers around this one dilemma, stereotyped in the story of the group that went spelunking. On their exit from the cave, the fat lady in the group got stuck in the cave opening: do you blow her up with the stick of dynamite that lies ready-at-hand, so everyone else may escape and live, or do we preserve her life and the rest of us die from starvation? The textbooks very often bring the issues back to this one point, this one impasse, and it is not clear why we should choose one over the other.

Think of the impasse this way: the Enlightenment philosophers, suspicious of theologians and religious adherents, say to us Christians, “you all are welcome to enter our discussion room, so long as you don’t bring in your prejudices and biases. Come on in, so long as you leave your Bible quoting and theological dogmas and religious traditions outside the door. In our room, we will employ rationality as our sole criterion, and we will come up with something that we can all agree on.”

Imagine that we submit ourselves to their demands; we strip our language of any sort of “God-talk,” set aside any notions about faith, and walk through the door. And we start listening to their conversation But as we listen, we realize that all these Questers who say we can all come to agreement based solely upon “rationality,” seem awfully biased themselves; they seem to have some root convictions themselves that cannot be “rationally” justified or explained. The argument between the Questers, who so blithely told us to leave our “prejudices” outside, seems to operate based upon its own covert set of biases. They insisted we leave our baggage at the door, but they quietly brought in three or four trunk loads of baggage. It’s not that they are malicious, wickedly trying to deceive us in insisting we leave our baggage outside; they are not aware of their own baggage, because when they came in it was strapped to their back. They feel the weight of it—they call that weight “rationality”—but are blind to it, because they simply cannot see it. (Or to mix the metaphor: they told us to take off our glasses, our lenses, before we come into the room; but they are unaware of the cataracts which color and distort their own sense of sight.)

Seeing the unfruitfulness of the discussion, we now wish to make a contribution: but we realize that we now have nothing to say, nothing to share, because we left all we counted to be important outside the door. We don’t want to feel unimportant—“after all, we are Christians, and we ought to be paid attention to”—so we might on occasion pick a side in the debates, siding with this set of “objective, timeless universal values” over against another set of supposedly “objective, timeless universal values.” We rummage through their baggage, trying to find something that might help us feel a little better about ourselves. When we Christians get over in our own little corner and talk a bit among ourselves, we might convince ourselves that the argument going on in the middle of the room is awfully important—and we might even quote Bible verses to ourselves to convince ourselves it is so. (We, of course, don’t want to say anything explicitly about the Kingdom of God, or scripture, or doctrine, or Jesus of Nazareth when we are out there in the middle of the room, since we were told we cannot do that. And we did, after all, allow them to set the rules of play.) We might tell ourselves that “Truth is the ‘same today, yesterday and tomorrow,’” and so we know that we have to make a stand for some of these “timeless universal values,” and so we go back to the middle of the room, and rejoin the fray. Meanwhile, the really important stuff has been left outside the room, and we—(pardon the chauvinist language, but being a male I cannot think of a better term)—we have emasculated ourselves. We have nothing of any potency to give, because we let ourselves be sold the worthless bill of goods that, if we wanted to join the talk, we had to leave the things important to us outside.

Consider one example, although much too-briefly treated here: In western democracies, the language of “rights” is the primary category that denotes values we claim to be universal, objective, and timeless. In the public debate over abortion, there are those on one side who assert the “rights of women,” the “right to choose”; on the other side are those who assert the “rights of the fetus,” the “right to life.” Christians from the earliest days of our tradition have not practiced abortion, have outright rejected such a practice. So, many in our ranks immediately feel a kinship with the “right to life.” But given the parameters of public debate in the U.S., we have accepted the moral philosophers’ insistence, and have left our most important convictions and practices at the door. That is, we’ve bought into the notion that what must do is win the debate over “rights” (and in that debate, we’ve often talked much of “timeless, universal values”). Moreover, not only must we win the debate in theory, we must then impose those “values” upon the communities around us through the force of law, given that the legal apparatus of the modern nation-state is the only means by which we know to make a significant public statement.

Is there some other way to make a difference, to offer a Good News Ethic to our world? Is there another approach that is not only more biblical, but more faithful to the Way of Christ, more fruitful for the Kingdom of God? I believe there is.

Part 2: The Significance of a Telos, or, What’s the Difference between a Soldier and a Basketball Player?New Wineskins

Mere Discipleship by Lee CampResources

Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2003).

Get information about this book from Brazos Press a division of Baker Books.

Purchase at this site.

Lee CampLee C. Camp is associate professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author of Mere Discipleship (Brazos, 2003).

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