What does it mean to do and study Christian ethics?

How to you react to the term ‘Christian ethics’? What comes to mind when you think of the term? What emotional response does it evoke?

I never used to like “Christian ethics.” In fact, I was repulsed by it and avoided taking a class in Christian ethics for as long as I could in seminary. I’ve since come to realize that my conception of Christian ethics was shallow and misinformed. [I even teach Christian ethics now and enjoy helping students to work past these assumptions!] Formerly, I had the idea, probably based on pop-Christian subculture and its public voice as represented by the media, that Christian ethics was about endless arguments, moral nit-picking, legalism, and black-and-white pronouncements on personal and social issues.

The theologian Ted Peters describes this tendency well:

“‘Where do you draw the lines?’ is a question that is asked of ethicists again and again by journalists, religious leaders, and even by Roman Catholic and Protestant ethicists themselves. I simply do not like this question. Much less do I like ethicists to answer it.

Hidden in the question is a disparaging assumption about the task of ethics. Ethics, it is assumed, has the job of drawing lines, of erecting fences, of placing barriers and ‘no tresspassing’ signs to prevent people from moving forward. The only two words an ethicist apparently needs to utter are ‘no’ and ‘stop.’ This is strictly a negative pre-understanding of the purpose and task of ethical deliberation.

Can an ethicist help anybody? Can an ethicist help anybody get from one situation to a better situation? Can an ethicist help anybody who feels the need for healing, for redemption, for transformation, for fulfillment?”

Peters’ last paragraph begins to hint at what Christian ethics is truly about: hopeful transformation. Of ourselves. Of human community. Of society. Ultimately, of the world. He continues:

“Ethicists are concerned about what is good. The good is that for which we strive but do not yet possess. A vision of what is good draws us from the present situation toward something that is better, from a situation of lack toward one of fulfillment. To get from here to there may require transformation. Could an ethicist help us envision transformation?”

– Ted Peters, Anticipating Omega (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006), 177.

This is exactly what Jesus did. He spoke forth a vision for a new world, a new reality pervaded with God’s presence, power, and transformative grace (the kingdom of God) . . . a world directed toward an ultimate end, the new creation, a consummation yet to come but already dawning in the present. He proclaimed this vision through stories and conversations, demonstrated it in his actions and miracles, and trained his disciples to recognize and live-into it through his teachings and practices. He embodied his kingdom-of-God vision in his own life and formed a community to bear living witness to it. Most importantly, he didn’t just provide an ethic; he promised transformative spiritual power to attain it. Not ‘a power’ that we possess and control, but the personal presence of God’s own Spirit within us to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Essentially, then, Christian ethics is about Christ taking form in us, as Bonhoeffer puts it. This is, primarily, what is “Christian” about Christian ethics.

Christian ethics does sometimes draw lines. It does sometimes say ‘no’ and ‘stop.’ But this is not its focus and goal. Its focus and goal are oriented toward a vision of what God is doing and where God is leading us. Christian ethics seeks to proclaim this vision and articulate ways that we can begin to participate, in concrete ways, in what God is doing, and in the process undergo personal and social transformation as we journey with God who is already at work within us “to will and to do” the good.

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