The Struggle of Christian Ethics: Holloway Interview Part 2

Alright. I have had a bit of a hiatus, mainly due to applying to doctoral programs and the like. So, here is the second part in a series, a transcription of an interview I had with Jeph Holloway, Prof of Ethics, Theology, and Philosophy at ETBU.  In this part of the interview we talk about the basis of his work, differences in ethical models, and the problem of contemporary Christian ethics, which too often asks the wrong questions… you be the judge, though 🙂

Lots of good content here.

This is a picture of Dr. Holloway. He is, obviously, communicating vocally.

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T: Ok, Here’s another question, and I think it points toward where you start with the book and the central question, where you work ethics from- and I think it’s highly original. Asking this question about what God is doing about evil is usually taken down different trajectories. So, at what point did you note theodicy as particularly important in the discipline of Christian ethics?

J: Well, I think one thing that has helped me give coherence, if there is such in what I’m up to here, to my understanding of what Christian ethics is all about has been the work of N. T. Wright. Now, I’ve been slowly forming this pattern, this narrative that I’m trying to present, that God, through God’s redemptive work, is creating a people, whose lives sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. I think my explanation of what God is doing about evil is itself a story. It’s a narrative. Or, it is a nutshell presentation of what I think is the narrative of the Bible. And, I have known for about the last twenty years, even before that, even when I was finishing up my own PhD studies in Christian ethics, that I was uncomfortable with what were the prevailing patterns of what I saw in the field of Christian ethics. Before N.T. Wright I will have to say Stanley Hauerwas occasioned that discomfort in my outlook.

With Hauerwas’s emphasis on a  narrative approach to Christian ethics, that it cannot be, first and foremost, “Well, alright, here’s a situation; what are the norms, standards, rules that pertain to that particular situation”, and then we operate through a deductive process and come out with some right answer to the question, “What should I do?” Hauewas helped me understand that the moral life is not reducible to the operations of the Cartesian cogito, the res cogitans, the “thinking thing” that is operative in an a-historical abstract environment. We are living people whose lives have been shaped by multiple influences that effect how we even interpret the situation we are required to act within. We live in the world in light of the world we live in. And, so, the question is “What world do we live in?” and “How do we see that world?”

Hauerwas will stress the singular importance of “vision”, “perspective”, “perception”, as fundamental to what the moral life is all about.


Stanley Hauerwas. Looking bad-ass, per usual.


Now, that occasioned a sense of discomfort and dis-ease, and so I couldn’t necessarily explain it clearly back in the late 1980s why I wasn’t so comfortable with the prevailing approaches and models of what Christian ethics is all about.  But, understanding that narrative emphasis made certain things I was reading from N.T. Wright resonate with the task of Christian ethics. In Wright’s first volume on the NT and the People of God he will outline what he considers to be the overarching narrative of the Bible as a whole and will relate to that narrative certain basic, what he calls at that point, Worldview Questions: “Where are we?” “Who are we?” “What’s wrong?”. And, that “What’s wrong?” business really evokes the questions of theodicy.

Now, you indicated that I am doing something original; well, it’s a different approach to theodicy in general terms because theodicy usually is, from a philosophical standpoint, asking “How can you justify belief in God in a world that knows evil and suffering?” From a biblical standpoint, we don’t ask how we can justify belief in God, we begin with the affirmation that God is the good creator of a good creation. That affirmation impels us to ask, “Ok, well then, what is God doing about evil?”

Now, what I do suggest early on in the book is that there have been other voices before mine, certainly, that would approach Christian ethics in a way very very different from asking “What is right? What is wrong? What is good? What is evil? What should I do?”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, would write in his Ethics that that very approach shows that we live in a fallen world. The quest for the knowledge of good and evil is what the serpent sought to satisfy. Ethics, as generally pursued, is done in the aftermath of the fall, rather than in a very different setting that is open to fellowship with God. The way ethics is generally done is itself pursued in a sort of resistance to God.

And, so, what I am trying to do is an effort of a particular way of advancing some of the concerns that I have seen in Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer, and as well what I think are some critical voices in contemporary biblical scholarship that want to underscore the wholeness of the Bible as an overarching story of how God is at work.

T: Ok. In the book you cut to the quick a lot of, as we just talked about, understandings of ethical questioning, such as asking the usual first question of “What do I do in this situation?” So, has this been something your students have been able to grasp? Sometimes I fear that the divide is so deep that even explaining it is seemingly impossible. I remember taking your class and definitely realizing that this is something completely different. Obviously, a lot of students have to take your class that don’t necessarily care about these essential questions…

J: I think I’m getting better at explaining why we are doing what we’re doing. I think, and hope, I am. I think I’m even better at explaining now than when you took it [I took the class in Fall 2010]! And, I think the process of writing this book certainly has helped me be more specific in that. I will tell you this, I don’t know what recalled this event to mind earlier today, but I remember, this was probably ten or eleven years ago, [laughter] there was this person in my Christian ethics class, and I was not doing it in those days in the precise ways I am doing it now. I was working towards this, and it was still not clear in my own thinking how I needed to approach everything.  But, she came to me after class one day, it was probably about 2/3rds of the way through the course, and she was just livid, angry with me because I wasn’t doing what she wanted me to do. And what she wanted me to do was for me to tell her what to do in all of these various situations and circumstances in her life. She wanted a decision-making model.

Now, the first volume, it alludes to criticisms to that approach. It insists we cannot begin there. The second volume, on which I am at work now, takes that on specifically. On the chapter on a narrative ethic it fundamentally challenges the notion that a Christian ethic can be reduced to “What should I do?” And, I have to say, I hadn’t, in the face of her anger, really been able to clarify all of these issues in my own mind, as to “why” I wasn’t doing what she wanted me to do. I do think I am better at explaining it now. And, while students this semester have the first volume out they have some outside reading that has very much to do with those questions of why we aren’t doing the “What should I do?” approach. I’m hoping that with that they will at least be acquainted with the notion that maybe there is more to this whole life of following Jesus than just, “What should I do?”

Not discounting the reality that we do make decisions, here and there. But, ya know, in this later material I will be quoting Paul Ricoeur who says that most of moral philosophy is focused on the “what” and “why.”  What are the norms and what justifies those norms. And, all too frequently moral philosophy has not asked the question of “who”.


Paul Ricoeur. It would do you well to remember his name. He is an important thinker.

So, we have that question of “What should I do?” Well, here’s  another question, “Who’s asking?” And, does it matter what kinds of persons we are and how we can become the kinds of persons who can do this, or not do that. The way I try to put it in my later material–against decisionism–  is that depending on what kind of persons we are, only then are certain decisions made possible and others not even necessary.

I do not get up in the mornings, as I used to do in high school, and wonder: “What should I do? Should I go to my first period class or go out behind the tennis courts and smoke some pot.” That’s not an issue. I do not decide that. When I go to Wal-mart I do not go down the aisles thinking, “Well, should I stuff that box of macaroni cheese down my pants and see if I can get out?

For those to be issues, if we are having to make some decisions, there’s already a problem.

But, that is the prior question of “Who?” that Ricoeur wants to address.

T: I think one of the difficulties is: this flies in the face of some popular Christian reconstructions of, especially political reconstructions of what it means to be a Christian in light of some libertarian models whose anthropology seems more influenced by economic models. We are infinite individuals with finite moments of decision limited by bodied experience and therefore are called to make these calculations. And this seems to be becoming more and more popular in some Christian circles.

J: You’re right, that hits the nail on the head. And that has everything to do with why we offer a truncated, attenuated gospel that is solely focused on the isolated individual-

T: And why we don’t care about the poor; why don’t they just make the right decisions! Get a better job! Or not spend their money on certain things.

J: Right. Christian ethics has to go in this direction because we subordinate it to prevailing political paradigms. And, American civil religion has co-opted the Christian faith for separate purposes. And, so Christian ethics has had to become what you have described there.


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