Reprinted from my old blog, Levellers, last year.
In their popular work, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the contrast between Jesus’ entry into the East Gate of Jerusalem with Pilate’s military/imperialist entry into the West Gate of Jerusalem on the same day. They state the simultaneous nature of these events with a little more certainty than is historically warranted, but we do know that Pilate did not normally reside in Jerusalem, but arrived with extra troops every year to keep the crowds from revolting Rome’s rule during Passover. After all, Passover celebrates the Exodus, God’s liberating of His people from another oppressive empire long ago. Discontent in the Jewish crowds would be strongest during Passover.
So, Pilate comes from the West with extra troops on war horses in a military display to cow the masses. By contrast, Jesus arrives from the East in a carefully staged (getting the colt/foal of a donkey) counter-demonstration. Drawing from Zechariah (not lost on the crowds), he presents a salvation from imperial rule that is not based on greater firepower, but on peace and meekness.
When we celebrate Palm Sunday, we don’t just remember the fickle crowds (so soon to desert Jesus, along with the 12) and their brief recognition/celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry. We also remember that Jesus presents us with a deliberate choice: Following His Way of meekness, humility, and peace or the Way of Empire and military might. There is no Way to follow Jesus that does NOT break from the military option.
Tomorrow is Palm Sunday the beginning of Holy Week, the celebration of Christ’s Passion, Death & Resurrection. This year the liturgical calendars of East and West line up so that both the Eastern and Western churches will celebrate Easter (Resurrection Sunday) on the same day.
I am taking an internet fast this week, under the shadow of the cross. I will see you good people on Easter afternoon/evening when I will have reflections on each part of the week that just happened.
With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor. I will index this series and place it on a page of “popular posts and series” for easy reference for future readers. That’s because of the importance I attach to this topic. I will undoubtedly refer to this series in future discussions of ethical issues.
The top right box in the 4-dimensional chart denotes one’s “style of moral reasoning” or “mode of moral discourse.” I saved this dimension for last precisely because in far too many textbooks on moral philosophy (ethics) ALL the discussion is here and the other dimensions of moral discernment are neglected–as if people were disembodied reasoners. (Likewise, the “Chicago School of Economics” begun by Milton Friedman along classic libertarian lines mistakenly assumes human beings to be disinterested minds who seek to “maximize personal profit” in all transactions. Since we are far more complex, the entire economic school of thought based on this is flawed–yet it dominates both the academic and political landscape in the U.S. today–and is behind the mistaken view that economics can be a “science” divorced from ethical consideration.)
Generally speaking, moral reasoning takes one of two BROAD forms: deontological forms of moral reasoning focus on whether a particular moral action is intrinsically “right” or “wrong.” In English, the terms “right” and “wrong” refer to deontological categories. The most famous Western philosophical version of this is the work of German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that actions were either right or wrong regardless of consequences. He argued that one could deduce unbreakable moral rules from a universal categorical imperative. (However, Kant formulated the categorical imperative in two very different fashions. He thought they were just two different versions of the same thing, but not all have agreed. Some have affirmed one version without affirming the other.) 1. To be moral, an action must be universalizable, i.e., one must be willing that everyone should do it. Examples: One can affirm that everyone should tell the truth, but one cannot affirm that everyone should lie, ergo lies are always immoral and special pleading for one’s own self is wrong. 2. An action is moral if it never treats persons merely as means to an end, but always treats persons as ends in themselves. A Kantian would say that torture is wrong, no matter any ticking time bomb scenarios, because it treats the one tortured as a mere means to an end. A Kantian who also believed that fetuses were persons from conception onward (once again, we see how the different dimensions intersect–here the basic convictions dimension influences the style of moral reasoning) would argue against abortion in all circumstances because such a Kantian would see all abortions as treating unborn persons as means to an end. (On the other hand, a Kantian who did not share that metaphysical view of fetal life, may come to a very different conclusion.)
Almost all forms of arguments for universal human rights are deontological to some degree or another. These often grow out of the natural rights tradition with its roots in Medieval nominalist philosophy and going through the -Leveller Richard Overton (c. 1599-1644) to the later John Locke(1634-1704). In a different fashion, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also rooted in a natural rights form of deontology.
In theology, Divine Command approaches to ethics tend also to be deontological in approach. Something is moral because God commands it. Something is immoral because God forbids it. Period. (This takes varied shape from Calvin to Barth.) Natural law approaches tend also to take deontological shape.
By contrast, teleogical approaches to ethics look to goals or outcomes. The most famous modern version of teleological ethics is utilitarianism. An action is Good (“good” and “bad” are teological terms as “right “and “wrong” are deontological terms) if it leads to the most happiness for the most people with the least unhappiness for the least people. Utiltarianism is associated with the British lawyer Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and his disciple, the civil libertarian John Stuart Mill(1806-1873). More recent famous utilitarians include Australia’s Peter Singer (now at Princeton University) and the pioneer of modern medical ethics, Joseph Fletcher(1905-1991).
Because American society is highly pragmatist (focusing on “what works”), there is much utilitarian thinking in American public moral reasoning–e.g., the arguments between those who claim that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tool (e.g., most American military commanders and FBI interrogators) and those who claim (e.g., Dick Cheney) that torture is effective in interrogation and therefore justified in saving lives by foiling furture terrorist plots.
(This is a good place to point out that few people are consistent in their style of moral reasoning. I often notice conservatives denounce utilitarian reasoning when it comes to stem cell research, but embrace it when it comes to torture. Many liberals are mirror images–embracing stem cell research despite the destruction of embryonic life because of the potential good, while denouncing torture no matter if it is effective or not. There may be consistent ways to consider both ends and means, but most people simply are not being consistent in their mode of moral discourse.)
A very different form of teleological ethics focuses not on the end or goal of an action (in terms of consequences), but of the end or goal of a person or community. This kind of teleology asks about the purpose and goal of the moral life. The ways to that end are found in the practices and habits that form the person or community in certain virtues, i.e., moral qualities of excellence such as honesty, courage, wisdom, peaceableness, kindness, etc. Almost all religions take some thought to the virtues, to moral character formation. In Paul’ s Epistles, they are listed as “fruit of the Spirit.” (Paul also has vice lists–immoral qualities he wants churches and their members to avoid). There are similar concerns in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.
Note: This does not mean that all religions teach the same thing morally. The shape of the virtues is narrative dependent, i.e., dependent on the shape of the story being lived out. (We are back to basic convictions, again.) Do different moral and religious systems mean the same thing by particular virtues given the same name? It’s a difficult question that is highly contested in current philosophical, theological, and interfaith discussions. Example of a major difference: The ancient Romans greatly valued the virtue of courage–but courage was usually seen in terms of ARMED RESISTANCE TO AGGRESSION. Thus, the nonviolence of the early Christians was often viewed as cowardice. We see similar differences today in the debate over whether talking with enemies (which Jesus commanded) is a sign of weakness or strength in foreign policy. However, I am among those who claim that this need not mean that no communication can happen between moral systems: some Roman soldiers recognized the courage of the Christian martyrs–and it sometimes led to conversions.
Another critical variable in this dimension of moral discernment is the level on which one is discussing. I don’t mean intellectual level, but level of concreteness. Situationists believe every moral act must be judged separately, usually with guidance from only a very broad rule of thumb, such as “love” or “compassion.” Legalists focus on the level of moral rules. If they are Christians, they tend to see the Bible as primarily a rulebook. Principlists do not neglect moral rules, but when moral rules conflict, they reach back to the broader principles behind the rules. E.g,, behind the rule “thou shalt not kill,” one might find the principle “Respect for human life.” Still broader are those who function at the paradigmatic level, or the level of basic convictions. Behind the principle, “respect for human life,” for instance, might be the basic conviction that all humans are created in the image of God and/or that all humans are persons for whom Christ died. This is a narrative or ground of meaning level, again.
Often in moral discourse persons talk past one another because they use different levels of moral reasoning. One is speaking in terms of rules, while another is speaking in terms of principles, and a third is outlining a broad theological or philosophical narrative paradigm.
I should note that these descriptions are fairly male-dominant. Feminist theologians and philosophers (as well as female psychologists like Carol Gilligan) have noted that women’s moral reasoning is somewhat different–though whether this is cultural or genetic or what is a huge debate that I am NOT qualifed to answer. Basically, women tend to be more relational in moral thought. If posed a moral dilemma, men will often weigh conflicting moral principles “like math problems with human variables.” Women do not. They seek win-win solutions rather than either-or answers to dilemmas. They tend to reason morally in ways that keep families and communities together. The moral world is a world of relationships, a web. Few ethics texts, whether philosophical or theological, written by men, have yet to attempt a deep integration of feminist perspectives.
With this we have examined the critical variables in the 4 dimensions of moral discernment or judgment. I want to emphasize again that EACH dimension influence every other dimension. Look back at the chart in our opening discussion. Remember that I said that there should be arrows drawn that connect each dimension or box with each other–visually displaying the fact that every dimension of moral discernment (convictions, loyalties & interests, perception of the situation/issues, style of moral reasoning) inflences each of the others–and one’s conclusions or moral decisions. Further, “history is the laboratory of ideas” (H. Richard Niebuhr) and our encounters with the realities/outcomes of particular moral judgements acts as a “feedback loop” to influence every variable of all the dimensions–whether to reinforce previous conclusions or to challenge and modify them. So, imagine a dotted-line with an arrow looping back from the particular moral judgment(s) to each dimension on the chart. Hopefully, people and communities seek to grow as moral agents–to learn from mistakes, errors, sins. The biblical name for such a “feedback loop” is “repentance.” 🙂 And without repentance no individual or community can have moral growth. All of us, Christian and otherwise, need to be far more willing to say the following words about our moral judgments and actions, “I was wrong.”
We have been discussing the dimensions of moral discernment, using the 4-dimensional diagnostic tool designed by Christian ethicist Glen Stassen. Moving clockwise from the lower right, we have discussed the way basic convictions (or “ground of meaning beliefs”) shape our moral judgments and then the way our varied loyalties, interests, and passions also shape our moral discernment. We now come to the upper left-hand box in our 4-dimensional diagram, the dimension of Perception, that is, how we see our moral environment, and the moral “issues” or decisions or problems or judgments that we encounter. This dimension of perception is another part of ancient ethics that was lost for awhile with Western ethics’ concentration on disembodied moral reasoning, but is being rediscovered in both moral philosophy (philosophical ethics) and moral theology (theological ethics). See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (1981); Judith A. Dwyer, Vision and Values: Ethical Viewpoints in the Catholic Tradition (1999); David McNaughton, Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics (1991); Duane L. Cady, Moral Vision: How Everyday Life Shapes Ethical Thinking (2005).
Once again, Stassen identifies several critical variables that shape our moral perception. One is authority. There are authorities in every life. In logic arguments from authority are considered weak arguments. But no one can master every field of information. We all take some things “on authority.” If we identify the locus of authority for persons (religious leaders, government officials, parents, teachers, respected elders, etc.) we know a key factor in how people perceive the moral world around them. But in addition to the locus of moral authority(ies), we also need to pay attention to the nature and degree of a particular authority, asking “What kind of authority is it?” and “How much authority does it have?” My own commitments in politics are to rest authority with the people through elected representatives with lots of checks and balances, critical inquiries by a vigilant free press and answerable directly to the people. (Yes, this is an ideal rather than current reality. One works to make reality closer to the ideal.) In religion, my Free Church/Believers’ Church commitments are also to non-heirarchical authorities, answerable to the gathered community and the whole people of God. For Christians, Scripture is also an authority: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Scripture is embedded in the liturgies and writings of the early Church Fathers. For Roman Catholics, Scripture and Church Tradition form parallel strands of equal authority mediated by the Magisterium and the unique institution of the Pope who, when certain conditions are met, is believed to give infallible doctrinal and moral teaching. (There is a whole discussion of ordinary and extraordinary papal tradition that goes well beyond our purposes here. See what you learn when you’re a Protestant who gets the chance to teach at Catholic universities?) For Protestants, Scripture alone is to be the final authority in matters of faith and practice, but there is wide divergence in approach to interpretation.
For persons of other faiths or persons who have no religious faith (atheists, agnostics, etc.) there are also moral authorities. Identifying their locus, nature, and degree is just as critical in understanding the moral perception of persons of other faiths or of no-faith.
Another critical variable in moral discernment is identifying the moral or existential threat, including both its nature and degree. For example, in discussing stem cell research through the destruction of human embryos, some find the threat to be to the sacredness of human life while others see the threat in terms of the genetic diseases that will go uncured if such research is disallowed. (Notice how we are back to different convictions about the nature of human beings. Each dimension of moral discernment influences the others. This cannot be emphasized too much.)
In the debate over torture (and I should write a post showing why even having a debate over torture is already a sign of moral confusion and decay that didn’t exist even in America even a few years ago) some see the threat of terrorism as justifying torture. Others, such as myself, see torture as a threat to both the dignity and well-being of the tortured, to the torturer, and to the moral fabric of the society which allows it. For us, the resort to torture means that the terrorists have, to a degree, at least, already won–because one of their announced goals was to make us surrender our values in the name of “security”
Another critical variable is social change. Is any social change acceptable? If it is, what speed or rate of change is acceptable? What allies are acceptable in working for change? What method or methods are acceptable?
During the civil rights era, the influential Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey was conflicted, not because he was racist (far from it), but because he had a strong sense of order. Ramsey supported the work of the NAACP which tended to work for change through the courts. The nonviolent movement led by such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC) struck Ramsey as “chaos in the streets.” The threat of such rapid and “undisciplined” social change was greater for Ramsey than the threat of segregation or the slower disappearance of segregation.
The final variable in the perception dimension is the integrity of information. Is the moral agent (or community) open to new information or not? Does the agent manipulate information to fit a predetermined answer or does the agent allow new information to lead to new perspectives? How does the agent handle information which contradicts previously held views? This is not to say that one surrenders convictions easily (that’s what makes them convictions, rather than opinions), but one wants to make discernment based on accurate information, not innacurate or manipulated information.
Philosophers (and some theologians) often talk as if moral discernment was simply a matter of correct reasoning (e.g., deontologists vs. utilitarians). The last 25 years has seen a mini-resistance movement focusing more on moral character (virtues, passions, affections)–a return to classic and medieval interests in a postmodern era. Glen Stassen’s 4-dimensional approach to moral discernment was a forerunner of this interest. We have looked at the dimension of basic convictions looking at the critical variables of God and human nature; justification and sanctification; love and justice; and the mission of the church in the world. (These are Christian convictions, but we tried to indicate that there are usually analogues in other religious or moral systems that function similarly.)
Moving clockwise to the next dimension we examine the critical variables of loyalties, interests, passions, virtues, & affections. The main point is that we all have loyalties and interests that affect our moral outlook. A scientist who sits on the board of Exxon-Mobil is likely to approach the issue of catastrophic climate change with a desire to defend the interests of the oil industry whereas an equally qualified scientist working for the Environmental Defense Fund will have a very different outlook.
(Now, usually when I point this out, someone screams that I am making an ad hominem argument. I’m not. At the end of this post, I will deal with the issues of ad hominem and genetic fallacies. )
Our loyalties include our friends, mentors, and role models. At least since Aristotle, philosophers have known the moral importance of friendship. Parents are right to worry about the friends their kids make, although the influence can go both ways–a good kid can be a good moral influence on a friend. The same concerns are prominent in the Wisdom writings of Scripture, especially Proverbs. Jesus gathered disciples and Paul held himself up as a role model for leaders in the churches he founded.
Our loyalties to our friends shape our moral discernment, but they need not determine it. We can be aware of the limits of our friends and mentors. We do not need to romanticize them. So, for instance, friendship with a rape victim who chose to abort may influence the way someone approaches the abortion issue, but it doesn’t preclude that person deciding that her friend made a moral mistake. Similarly, and sticking with the same “issue” for sake of illustration, if a person is the parent of a special needs child, he would probably respond very negatively to the kinds of “quality of life” arguments that a utilitarian like Peter Singer makes for abortion (and Singer also argues for infanticide!!) in cases of genetic “abnormality.” But such a person, deeply loyal to his child, also understands the huge demands of raising special needs children and his loyalty would not necessarily lead him to rule out abortion in ALL cases of genetic deformity–Tay Sachs is very different from Downs Syndrome. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that our loyalties do not influence our moral judgments, both for good and ill.
We also have loyalties to particular practices and processes. For instance, a particular conservative commenter who is not favorable to same-sex marriage nonetheless recently praised the Vermont legislature for passing legislation allowing same-sex marriage because he is committed to the priority of local and state legislatures and dislikes judicial decisions which appear to him to make new law. This is a commitment to representative democracy and to a very restrictive understanding of judicial review. A gay friend of mine disagrees: While happy that Vermont passed such legislation, he worries that rights that can be legislated into existence can be legislatively removed as Proposition 8 took away same-sex marriage last year in California. His commitment is to a certain view of universal human rights that it is the responsibility of courts to recognize, uphold, and enforce.
We also have loyalties to particular communities and institutions. The way this can shape moral judgment is too obvious to need to explicate further.
We also have interests, including monetary interests, power interests, prestige interests, etc. Some deconstructionists like Foucault may go too far in seeing all moral arguments as disguised power plays, but we are naive if we don’t ask about the interests of those who make moral arguments. To take an obvious example, former Vice President Dick Cheney has a strong self-interest in making his argument that the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists is both necessary and effective in protecting Americans. (So does his daughter, Liz, in defending his view and him.) Judges are expected to recuse themselves from cases in which they would have an interest in one side or the other prevailing (e.g., now that Virginia Thomas is heading a group connected to the Tea Party movement, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should recuse himself from any case that has even a remote connection to Tea Party politics).
In addition to other loyalties, each person also has an ultimate loyalty. That ultimate loyalty may be to one’s nation or race or sex or to one’s religion or ideology. Christians (and other theists) would say that their ultimate loyalty is to God and would judge these rival claims for ultimate loyalty as idolatrous. But notice that this connects this dimension back to the basic convictions dimension because if our ultimate loyalty is to God then rival conceptions of God’s character become very important in determining moral judgment. Also, remember that classic theologians like Calvin have called the human heart an “idol factory,” and all of us deceive ourselves constantly. So, we may think that our ultimate loyalty is to God and someone else may examine our actions and conclude that our ultimate loyalty is Money or Power or the Nation-state. We are not always our own best judges concerning our loyalties.
Now for our “footnotes” on two logical fallacies. Ad hominem (“against the man”) arguments attack the character of the person making a moral argument rather than the argument itself. Nothing said about our loyalties and interests negates that. A scientist working for Exxon-Mobil may still have valid arguments against the consensus on global warming. I would say, against some ethicists, however, that examining loyalties and interests is highly useful. For those of us who are scientific laypersons, that scientist’s employer is a good reason to view his conclusions with suspiscion and to stick with the scientific consensus until the Exxon-Mobil scientist manages to convince a substantial number of peers who DON’T work for petroleum companies.
The Genetic Fallacy is a related logical fallacy. If one dismisses an idea or an argument or a moral position because of its origin, one commits the genetic fallacy. For example, I am a registered Democrat (and a social democrat in political philosophy), but I would be foolish to dismiss an idea just because it was advanced by a Republican. (Republicans have had two very good ideas in economic justice in the last few decades: The Earned Income Tax Credit and inner-city “empowerment zones.”) In diagnosing people’s interests and loyalties, we have not automatically discredited their arguments.
I read many peace related blogs, especially Christian and interfatih peace blogs. I do not mean to denigrate any of them. However, I am here to say to you that if you only read one internet site dedicated to Christian peacemaking, read Ted Grimsrud’s Peace Theology.net .
Here are Biblical studies, sermons, rough drafts of book chapters, book reviews and more. They are written from Ted’s perspective as an adult convert to Mennonite Christian pacifism. His is an Anabaptist vision for the 21st C. quite similar to my own. (No one is exactly the same.)
Along with J. Denny Weaver, Ted is charting what I believe to be the most hopeful “post-John Howard Yoder” path in Anabaptist pacifist thought. This is not to run down the excellent work of Gayle Gerber Koontz (though I wish she’d publish more), Duane Friesen, Willard Swartley, or Mark Theissen Nation. (It IS to disagree sharply with the direction mapped out by A. James Reimer.) I disagree with Swartley and Nation on GLBT matters, but they have much else that is worth reading–worth celebrating, even.
But I think Ted is pushing and prodding Mennonites–and others of us who identify with some or all of Anabaptist perspectives in theology and Christian discipleship–along the path I think we need to go. Because I am a non-Mennonite, what I write will have a different shape–but it will be informed by Ted’s work in many ways as it already is.
Michael Bird & Preston Sprinkle have edited a strong selection of articles that rehearse the raging “pistis christou” debate in Pauline studies–a debate that effects the way the gospel is understood and presented. Some scholarly debates are mere “tempests in teapots,” but not all. This one is VERY important for the life of the church. Should Paul in Romans and Galatians be understood as referring to “faith IN Christ,” or “the faith[fulness] OF Christ” (especially his faithfulness in knowingly continuing his path that would lead to the cross)? If the former, is salvation then dependant on human will? If the latter, is salvation independent of human response in faith? Andy Goodliff gives an excellent review of the book here. Because I have long wanted a volume that collected the best arguments in this debate from all sides, I am now ordering this volume based on Andy’s Review.
I’ve contended for some years that the classic Christian tradition(s), while having some anti-environmental dimensions that need re-thinking and reform, are far more eco-sensitive than the conservative/capitalist Christian tradition that developed in the West after the Industrial Revolution–and especially more eco-sensitive than the Religious Right in America. Well, one of my favorite Aussie theo-bloggers, Byron Smith, who has written extensively on theological and ethical dimensions of climate change, peak oil, suburbia, and related matters, has just given a gem of a quote from Calvin’s commentary on Genesis:
“The earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation… The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that, being content with the frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits, that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits it to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.”
– John Calvin on Genesis 2.15 in Commentary on Genesis (1554).
Byron’s “Jesus and Climate Change” series begins here. His blog is called Nothing New Under the Sun and I suggest you read it regularly, especially for, but not limited to, his many blog posts on the environment. He also regularly has the best photographs to go with his posts.
We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions that I learned from Glen Stassen. Beginning with the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts in the world are paired with differing views of human nature in shaping our basic moral outlook. We also discussed two other pairs of critical variables, differences over justification and sanctification (or forgiveness and discipleship) and their relationship, and differences over the nature of Christian love and its relation to justice (variously defined) lead to major differences in ethics.
The final critical variable which Stassen identifies in this dimension of moral discernment is the mission of the church in the world. That is, if we think the Church’s primary mission is to save souls (one by one) from a world going to hell, then we will pay less attention to movements for social change–and we will see the church primarily as a preaching station. (The revivalist D.L. Moody gave this as precisely his reason for ignoring most of the major social issues of his day and Billy Graham gave similar answers when asked why he said little about segregation and other evils throughout most of his ministry.) If we have more of a social gospel view, then we expect the church to get actively involved.
There is a rather long range of options in this matter. One of the pioneers of sociology of religion, E. Troeltsch, in his classic, The Moral Teachings of the Christian Churches, divided the major church/world options into “church,” “sect,” and “mysticism” types. H. Richard Niebuhr refined this in one of the most influential small theology books of the 20th C., Christ and Culture–dividing the choices into those who see the church as part of the larger culture (Christ of Culture–primary example in his day was Protestant liberalism); those who see a radical opposition between the church and the world (Christ Against Culture–HRN placed Tertullian, Tolstoy, and most Anabaptist groups here–but few Anabaptists have thought HRN was depicting their stance accurately); those who see the church and the world in a great synthesis (Christ Above Culture–e.g., Medieval Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy during the era of the Czars); those who who have a dualist or Two Kingdoms view (Christ and Culture in Paradox–e.g., Luther; HRN’s brother, Reinhold); and those who see the church as a pioneer that transforms the surrounding culture (Christ Transforming Culture–e.g., Calvin,;F.D. Maurice; HRN’s own view).
HRN’s classic has been highly criticized, especially by those whom he labelled as “against culture.” I would say that all Christians participate in their wider cultures selectively. For example, even in societies in which prostitution is legal, no one expects there to be Christian brothel owners. Those Christians who object to all use of alcohol may or may not want alcohol consumption to be illegal, but they certainly would find the idea of Christian bartenders to be absurd. Likewise, those of us who are Christian pacifists, object to Christians joining the military and some of us obect to Christians in police forces. But this does not mean we “withdraw from” the culture or don’t wish to transform it or are blanketly “against culture.”
In the wake of HR Niebuhr, several books have taken up the question anew. I recommend especially the following:
Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture by Glen H. Stassen, Diane M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder.
Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective by Craig A. Carter.
The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr by Charles A. Scriven.
Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture by Duane K. Friesen. This gem needs to be more widely discovered. In fact, I find this to be one of the most overlooked and neglected Christian theologies of culture around. I beg you, read Friesen closely.
I’d also like to recommend the following books on the church as very helpful on this issue:
Avery Dulles, Models of the Church.
Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.
Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.
Frederick Herzog, Justice Church
Letty Russell, Church in the Round.
Juergen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.
Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Re-invent the Church.
Others could be added.
Now, just as with the other critical variables, The mission of the church in the world is a basic conviction of Christians. But there is usually an analogue in other religions or non-religious moral systems which plays a similar role in moral discernment. Think: what institution does this moral or religious system see as the primary locus redemptive activity in the world. For Judaism, this role is not played by the synagogue, but by the people Israel (not the modern nation-state of Israel) scattered among the nations, fulfilling the role of the remnant called to seek Tikkun Olam “to heal the earth.” Similarly, Islam is not mosque-centered in the same way that Christianity is church-centered, but they would have similar debates as to the role of Islamic leaders vs. laity, of the role of an Islamic state (and whether such is possible or desirable) of Islamic courts (whether or not these have legal standing), etc.
An orthodox Marxist would see the revolutionary vanguard as playing this key salvific role. A fascist would see the state as salvific and so, in lesser form, do all nationalists. Anarchists and radical forms of personalism see individual moral action alone as valuable. Maybe some moral systems would see the locus of redemptive activity in the Labor movement or (vice versa) in private enterprise.
So, whatever institution is seen as the main human agent of redemptive activity in the world is the analogue for this critical variable concerning the mission of the church in the world. And differences over what kind of actions said institution should take, what kind are or are not legitimate, etc. correspond to the kinds of arguments we see Christians have concerning the relationship of the church and the world.
P.S. With this we are done with the dimension of Basic convictions or Ground of Meaning Beliefs in Stassen’s model of understanding the complexities of moral discernment. (We will see that this model helps us see why people who seem equally logical can come to very different moral conclusions on a number of issues. ) If I, the lowly student, were to modify this model any, I would add the role of eschatology or how one sees the future or the END–either personal end (my life, afterlife, etc.) or the end of ALL. Glen Stassen believes this is contained in his question about difference in how God works in the world. But I have come to see that different outlooks on eschatology lead to such radically different outlooks on personal and moral ethics, that I would add this as a separate critical variable. (I’ll have to do an eschatology and ethics series here one day.) Again, there are non-Christian parallels. Orthodox Marxism has an eschatology: the fervently held belief in the eventual collapse of capitalism, triumph of communism, and withering away of the state. Further examples could be multiplied.
When this series continues, we turn from the dimension on basic convictions to that of “loyalties and interests” (and passions, affections, virtues).
Continuing our series begun here and here on moral discernment. The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic convictions” dimension are Justification and Sanctification, two terms from the Apostle Paul concerning different facets of salvation. (Again, non-Christian moral systems have rough analogues to these variables.) If we think of salvation as primarily Justification (e.g., Martin Luther or Reinhold Niebuhr) we focus on forgiveness for our sins. Grace is then understood primary as “unmerited mercy” for our sinful acts. A theology that plays up justification to the exclusion or marginalization of other dimensions, is not likely to have high moral hopes for people. Specifically, it would not expect a higher morality for Christians than others.
Other theologies focus more on sanctification or Christian discipleship (i.e., moral improvement), whether understood as a slow process or one that may happen instantaneously. Some Christian theologies (e.g, some readings of John Wesley or the Quaker George Fox) stress sanctification in a way that suggests that Christians may achieve some form of moral perfection (although for Wesley, this was simply a “perfection in love.”) If this is our focus, then we see grace not primarily as “unmerited mercy,” but as “empowerment to faithfulness.”
Anabaptists like Menno Simons thought more in terms from the Gospels than in Pauline terms. Menno did not ask with Luther, “Where can I find a gracious God?” but “How may I be a faithful follower of Jesus?” So, he more often talked in terms of the relationship between forgiveness for sin and faithful discipleship. For Menno, salvation was not primarily viewed in legal or forensic terms, but (as also with Eastern Orthodox thinkers) in medical terms–as healing from the sickness of sin–or in terms of liberation from captivity. With that liberation, came the call and grace to follow after. Christians were expected to have much higher moral standards (and, through the Holy Spirit and the help of the gathered church, the power to fulfill those standards) than non-Christians–though never coming close to perfection or leaving behind the need for further forgiveness.
Think back to our last section on the variables God and human nature and it is easy to see some of the many combinations that would lead to differing moral outlooks. I have a relative who is a member of the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan Holiness group. Her version of this theology (which I do not claim is normative for Nazarenes) combined a judgmental view of God, a perfectable view of human nature, and a stress on sanctification/perfection to lead to a constant spiritual temperature taking. You will recall others with other combinations.
The next pair of critical variables are differing convictions about love and justice. Most theologians have stressed Christian love (agape) as the highest Christian moral norm. Many define such love as “sacrificial,” but others as “equal regard for all” (see Gene Outka), “mutual love” (many feminist theologians) or “delivering love” (Glen Stassen).
However defined, it is crucial that love be related to justice. Justice is understood also in various ways and applied to various dimensions of life: economics (distributive justice), racial relations, gender relations, civil rights, war and peace, etc.
Reinhold Niebuhr saw Christian love as sacrificial but almost impossible to live out, even for Christians. Therefore, it functioned only as a criterion that judged how far from Christ’s teachings our best moral efforts lie. So, he focused on justice understood as a rough balance of power and of competing interests. He stressed the difference between love and justice.
By contrast, Dorothy Day saw love and justice as intimately related and both as commanded to be lived out in this world.
Next chapter will finalize the dimension of basic convictions by focusing on the mission of the church in the world.