Christian Ethics: Why???

I have always been fascinated with Christian ethics.

Well, not always. I mean, when I was not a Christian I really didn’t care, and later on when I had become one I didn’t realize that I already had an affinity for the discipline.

What I mean by that is as follows: Christian ethics is where it all comes together.

While talking to one of my professors I realized this anew. Dr. Jeph Holloway, professor of Christian Ethics at ETBU, was discussing my academic journey and I was letting him know that I was conflicted about what exactly I wanted to pursue my doctoral studies in. I have always admired the depth and breadth of Jeph’s knowledge. His concerns are near limitless with knowledge ranging from sociological studies on ANE and Ancient Mediterranean culture, to a fluency in Koine and Ancient Hebrew, on into wide ranging concerns with most branches of philosophy and ethics. Because of this his recent book on theodicy and Christian ethics is pretty top notch and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of those disciplines that intersect with ethical concerns.

Anyway, he mentioned to me that he settled on Christian ethics because of how panoptic the discipline is. But, beyond that all of the concerns of Christianity come down to the theological/ethical, the notion of how one is engaged in believing/doing. The practical is of extreme importance.

But, by “practical” I do not mean “devotional.” Not in the least. Usually devotional studies tend to rest on individual concerns or spread a sort of decisionistic disease. It borders on the ethical, but by ethical a different understanding is iterated, one that I think is harmful and deficient, sub-Christian. Too bad it makes up the majority of popular Christian writing. Devotions usually are all about “self” and how the individual is to reframe his/her own singular life. When ethical questions come up the foundation is the decision and life is reframed in a decidedly economic manner. We are those disconnected minds who assert and come to conclusions wholly consciously and do so for every decision we make; the infinite res cogitans within a finitude of decision. One can see this strange Christian ethic in, say, Scott Rae’s popular ethics books that are common in evangelical institutions. The idea of virtue, or walking along a certain path, are just denied existence. As is the reality of manipulation through popular means of media and how this shapes the individual.

This type of literature tries to engage the practical, and parades in a facade of practicality and doing justice to the scriptures, but it falls short, I believe (which I will leave for a future discussion).

But, even with these particular types of ethical responses that I find to be deficient I see a desire to engage all relevant materials.

Jeph’s new book “The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy.” Seriously, pick it up on Amazon. You won’t regret it. Top notch writing and scholarship.

. One has to care about the scriptures, has to know what they believe about hermeneutics, about ancient and modern history. One also has to understand philosophy, must know why they are not a Kantian or a Cartesian or a reductionist. One has to engage different theories on the nature of morality and ethics, and follow through with logical consistency. And so there is an amount of difficulty. When I have written on ethical theory and economics I must take into account Paul’s collection effort, which necessitates that I understand sociological studies, literary criticism, exegetical and hermeneutical concerns, but also I have to reply to and understand neoclassical economic theories, market manipulation, contemporary advertising sociology, and of course various philosophical analyses on contemporary modernistic and postmodernistic capitalist culture. It can become a sort of endless spiral of tails to chase.

But, most important is the Christian factor. It calls for one to interpret situations based on tradition and scripture. It necessitates that the interpreter pays attention to nuance from a Christian perspective. And this can be difficult because the further question is asked, “What Christian perspective?” And the answer is not cut-and-dry or simple. But, suffice it to say, it must be a perspective that holds the reality of theology/ethics, that realizes that moral discernment concerns the “who” moreso than the “what” or “why” (another tidbit gleaned from Jeph), that the Christian is engaged in a community of believers who are called to make things right by engaging in the tasks of the Kingdom, and that Christ is the Lord of Peace, not of envy, strife, anger, hatred, or violence. Many more niceties could be added, but the whole of Christian ethics calls for the Christian to realize that they are a “who” that is called to differentiate from the world and yet love the world, to engage in tension through being within the tensions created daily, to effect change through peace.

This is very different from an ethics of autonomy, of individualism, because it assumes that the “who” is engaged within a community and is more than an “I”, a ghost in the machine of the body who is disconnected from the material world, nor is the autonomous self a wholly material entity reduced to chemical determination.

How do you look at ethics? Do you realize the interconnectedness of the ethical, or do you think we are just autonomous beings who create our lives completely (in otherwords, beings who are realized through the Now)?


Now and Then: Remembering Our Past, Shaping Our Future.

We have an unhealthy obsession with the Now.

Despite the pitching of those popular self-help books (too many written by “pastors”), and flying in the face of the “common” sense touted by those who are deemed wise, the key to happiness is not found realizing your best self now. Nor is it in reaching deep within yourself to find what is true to you, what is particular to your tastes and proclivities. These tactics more so reveal that humans are conflicted and confused, perhaps composed of multiple distinct selves, or a self that is under constant construction. One of the many reasons why when I look at writings from my past  I find it easy to see a shadowed stranger.

Osteen’s best-selling self-help book.

In fact, there are no special steps or a certain key to finding what you desire. What you desire is probably childish, immature, unhealthy, undisciplined, and uninformed.

See, we have been raised within a very specific time in the Western world, a time constructed by the modern and postmodern. The obsession with the modo , with the now, is all too obvious. Perhaps one of the reasons why we are a service oriented culture, a people who desire swift justice at all costs, fast service (even if it results in nasty products), and the quickest buck we can find. We see the destruction, but we continue on like an addict. We want all things now, no matter who suffers the consequences. The writings of the Apostles have been destroyed, reduced to hollow sentiments (and hollow sentimentality), a group of teachings that have more to do with your individuality than to the tradition of the faith nor to the future of where the faith is headed.

But, Christianity is not this. Christianity is not a religion that is purely existential. Surely, there are existential elements.

Now is important, but it is not the crux of the faith. The tradition (something not old and stodgy, but an element that is made real by being interpreted by those within it) relies upon the past and is concerned for the future. This multi-formed dialectic of old and new is what makes the now, what allows the now to be truly.

We can see this in the writings of Paul quite clearly. His theology and ethics are shaped both by his interpretation of the past and his apocalyptic image. No, Paul is not he who Nietzsche condemns as the enforcer of a passive nihilism consumed by the coming disembodied heavenly existence, and neither is this what is meant by a concern for the apocalyptic. Instead, Paul is aware of the transformation of God, the renewing of creation that is to come, and that is at the same an existent reality. God is actively making, and will fully make, the new creation. Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 8:18-25, where he stresses the coming reality despite the present suffering. And in Ephesians 1:10 where he mentions the “bringing together of everything under Christ.” Furthermore, Paul’s whole project is a concern of fulfilling the tradition of Israel and thereby living the Gospel, otherwise Gentile believers would hardly be on his radar. Certainly this is not simply a Pauline peculiarity as Jesus reinterprets the tradition of the past during the Sermon on the Mount. No longer is it enough that a follower of God refrains from killing or committing adultery; now, one must neither lust nor hate another wishing him evil. Such is the way of the peaceful, the way of the Christian. Tradition begets interpretation.

The imminence of new creation is not escapist, or futurist, denying the importance of what came before or what is present. The apocalyptic tensions are made real by both the past of the Christian faith, the long journey of the people of God, and the lives that we currently live. In other words, all of the elements are important and intersect with one another. The importance of one is viewed through the lens of the others. Taken simply we too often structure ourselves with either a sentimental longing for a golden age, a selfish glee at our current prospects, or the apathetic desire to leave all things behind.

What, then, is to be done? In the next few posts I will discuss a few of these issues a bit more in depth. The importance of Christians ethics (detailing why this post on the now is so important); a more detailed discussion on modernity and postmodernty, showing the relationship between the two; and finally, more properly contrasting modern and postmodern ethics from Christians ethics, which should hopefully detail why exactly it is important to realize where we are at in history, and why we should continue to follow our tradition.

In the meantime:

Is it possible that this is what is currently deficient within contemporary Christian culture? Both within those liberal and conservative branches of the catholic Body? What do you think, and have you seen an unhealthy obsession with now, or even with the past or coming?