“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.'” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

All truth is God’s truth

I liked this post from Rachel Held Evans in which she rebuts critics who say that those who propose revisions to traditional church teachings are merely trying to “conform to the world.” She points out that many of the calls for change on matters like gender roles, the relationship between science and the Bible, and sexuality are coming from inside the church, from Christians reflecting on their experience and on new information about the world.

Nonetheless, I’d like to lodge one small disagreement (or maybe just a difference of emphasis). I think RHE*, implicitly at least, may be conceding too much ground to her critics.

In principle, there’s no reason to think that new insights (into morality, for example) must come from within the church. On the assumption that morality arises from reflection on human nature and that reason is a faculty shared by people of every faith (and none),** we should expect that new knowledge would often come from outside the Christian community. The church doesn’t have a monopoly on truth, and when truths are discovered outside its purview, Christians ought to be willing to recognize that.

Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar, in his book Behaving in Public, puts this point well:

If [Christians] believe in human creatureliness and sinfulness and in the eschatological futurity of perfect understanding, and if they believe in these seriously—that is, as applying to themselves—then Christians will come to public discussion with the virtue of docility. They will come ready to listen, perhaps to learn, maybe even to change their mind.

This point doesn’t by itself, of course, resolve any particular moral debate. Christians still have to sift and test proposed new truths, see if they’re consistent with core beliefs they already hold, and consider how much they would have to revise their existing beliefs if they adopt the new ones. But they should be prepared to admit that, sometimes, “the world” is right. In the particular cases RHE is writing about, “the world” is already ahead of most churches (or so I would argue, anyway).

Christianity doesn’t provide us with a ready-made answer to every moral, philosophical, political, or scientific question. The churches seem still to have a bit of a hangover from the days when they were society’s presumed moral guardian—when moral instruction was a one-way street, with the churches lecturing everyone else on right and wrong. But all too often the church obscured or resisted new truth, particularly when it came from outside the church’s boundaries. In our “post-Christendom” setting, “docility” in Biggar’s sense is a virtue well worth cultivating.

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*Referring to her as “Evans” seems rather brusque, but “Ms. Evans” seems too formal, and “Rachel” presumptuous, since I don’t know her personally. So I’m going with “RHE.”

**I realize this kind of minimalist “natural law” position is controversial in some circles and is somewhat unfashionable in recent theology, but it has a long pedigree in the Christian tradition.

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

On pseudo-radical antigay arguments

This and this both seem to me to run aground on the same basic reality: gay people exist, and no amount of quasi-Foucaultian “deconstruction” is going to change that. Even if you could dispense with the concepts of hetero/homosexuality, there would still be people who are exclusively, and more-or-less unalterably, attracted to members of the same sex. And many, if not most, of these people will want to form romantic relationships, which are widely and plausibly regarded as an important part of a good life for most people. Moreover, experience shows us that same-sex relationships can foster many of the same goods and virtues that opposite-sex ones can (and may have unique ones of their own).

These facts are inconvenient for religious conservatives because the options they have traditionally proposed for gay people–feigned heterosexuality or permanent celibacy–are so unappealing. The damage that results from living in the closet is so apparent now that hardly anyone seriously advocates this in public anymore. But celibacy is hardly a better alternative for most people. There’s no particular reason to think that gay people are in general more cut out for celibacy than straight people are. (This is true even if celibacy is pitched as a bohemian alternative to the “bourgeois” nuclear family.) Certainly people can be called to celibacy, perhaps as part of a religious vocation, but it’s unreasonable to demand this of gay people as a class.

I suppose it might be a sign of how much headway gay rights have made that opponents are now resorting to such counterintuitive and esoteric arguments.

Can conservatism protect your daughter?

Say what you will about conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, he certainly knows how to troll liberals.

Yesterday, the Times published a column in which Douthat offers an explanation of why, as some research has apparently shown, parents who have daughters are more likely to vote Republican. Douthat sketched a post-60s sexual landscape in which men hound women for commitment-free sex, and women spend their prime child-bearing years without landing a husband. This situation, he theorized, can increase the appeal of social conservatism to parents who worry about such a fate for their daughters.

This set off a round of the usual Twitter outrage among liberals. And much of it was well justified–Douthat’s column could be read as endorsing the retrograde sexual ethic or a bygone (and in many ways mythical) era. Virtually all liberals–and many conservatives–think we’re on balance much better off living in a world where premarital sex and previously taboo forms of sexual behavior like homosexuality don’t invite the full force of social disapproval (not to mention legal sanction). Moreover, the findings that Douthat’s argument leans on can be given a much more unpleasant interpretation.

But in fairness, Douthat’s conclusion was actually pretty modest. You don’t have to be crazy to think that contemporary sexual norms have drawbacks as well as advantages. Or that those drawbacks might disproportionately affect women. Certainly Christians, whatever their political views, can’t sign on to a regime of anything-goes sexuality.

All this notwithstanding, as (yes) the father of a daughter (and of a son for that matter), I’m glad my kids aren’t going to grow up under the sexual norms that prevailed when I was young, much less those of the 1950s. If for no other reason, this is because (1) girls and women today aren’t held to quite as rigid a double standard and (2) being gay is much less stigmatized. I don’t want my daughter to live in a world that tells her she’s a slut for expressing her sexuality, and I don’t want either of my kids to think there’s anything wrong with being gay.

Having kids has made me more conservative in some ways (and more liberal in others). Yet this hasn’t translated into increased support for the policy objectives of the organized conservative movement. As far as I can tell, these have very little to do with addressing the real problems facing people today, including young people. A policy that actually supported commitment and family formation, for example, would include paid parental leave, something that is largely anathema to the Right. Contemporary social conservatism seems driven largely by a tribalistic opposition to anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow definition of “real” American. And it’s far from clear to me how a platform of cutting taxes on the rich, gutting the welfare state, and opposing gay marriage will make life better for my daughter (or my son) as she grows up.

If there’s a problem with contemporary sexual mores, it’s not clear there’s a policy fix for it. But to the extent there is, I don’t see any reason to think conservatism provides it.

Can Methodists consistently oppose homosexuality?

The Book of Discipline is, in effect, the constitution of the United Methodist Church. It contains the law and doctrine of the church, specifies how it is organized, and enunciates the church’s stance on various social issues, among other things.

Notoriously, the BoD states that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and this is a major obstacle to the church blessing same-sex unions or ordaining non-celibate gay people.

But Heath Bradley, who is the UMC campus minister at Vanderbilt University, had an interesting post recently asking if the rejection of same-sex relationships is consistent with other statements about marriage made in the BoD. He points out that it rejects several of the major rationales used to deny the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. In particular, the BoD denies “male headship,” or the view that men should have authority over women; complementarity, understood as the view that men and women are, apart from each other, inherently incomplete; and “procreationism,” or the view that marriage is essentially or primarliy for the sake of having children.

How, then, he asks, can the UMC justify its position against same-sex relationships if it denies these underpinnings of “traditionalist” views on marriage?

And yet, after all this we still assert in the BOD that gay marriage is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (161 F). In light of this, I think a fair and modest proposal to our sisters and brothers on the traditional side would be to explain to us how we can continue to hold this view while denying the main lines of support that have traditionally gone into this negative judgment. If we reject patriarchy, complimentarity, and procreationism, as we officially do in the BOD, then on what basis do we continue to make this judgment about gay marriage? If the fundamental goods of marriage are ” love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity” (161 B),  then why exactly does a marriage have to include a male and female partner? Hasn’t experience clearly taught us that same-sex couples can exemplify all of these virtues?

Rev. Bradley notes that traditionalists could still appeal to the (apparent) biblical prohibitions of homosexual acts; but he points out that Methodists generally interpret individual biblical passages in the light of larger ethical “frameworks.” So if the UMC denies the frameworks that underpin most defenses of “traditional” marriage, then on what basis does it continue to proscribe same-sex relationships?

Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.

Fiction:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.

Non-fiction:

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

American Christians should relax about church decline

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN on “why millenials are leaving the church.” She really means the evangelical church, and she cites issues like excessive politicization, an anti-science attitude, and hostility to LGBT folks as reasons why people in her generation are jumping ship. She suggests that churches need to come around on these issues if they want to draw in today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Since I’m neither an evangelical nor a millenial, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Mainline churches have problems with numbers across the generational board, so we’re not exactly in a position to lecture evangelicals about how to boost theirs.

But maybe that’s not really the point. I don’t want to attend a church that’s anti-gay or that tells me I can’t believe in evolution because I think those positions are wrong. Will a pro-gay, pro-science church attract more members? I frankly have no idea. But I do know that it’s better to live by what you consider to be the truth.

It seems to me that behind much of this anxiety about church decline is an unstated assumption that America is still the center of Christendom. Numerically, this just isn’t the case, as Philip Jenkins and others have been pointing out for some time. Whatever the future of Christianity is, it isn’t likely to happen here.

In light of that, maybe American Christians need to get over the idea that it’s up to us to ensure the future of Christianity. This could actually be quite liberating, allowing us to experiment with new forms of church life and take bold steps to live out our faith without constantly worrying about how it’s going to play to whatever demographic we’re trying to attract. Maybe we need to have a little more faith.

The biggest problem facing us is not the numerical decline of the church. It’s things like climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars. If Christians worried less about the former, they might discover the resources for interesting and fruitful ways of responding to the latter. And communities that can do that might actually be worth paying attention to.

Methodism, homosexuality, and me

This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.

Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.

This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.

So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?

The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.

Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.

The “medium chill” and keeping Sabbath

Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.

In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.

But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.

And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).

Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.

He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.

All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.

Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,

[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)

This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.

In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)

This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.