Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Stephen H. Webb

Danger! Christian Ethics

Religious ethics is one of the last strongholds of liberal Protestantism in the academy.

Go and Do Likewise

Go and Do Likewise

Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics
by William C. Spohn
Continuum, 1999
240 pp.; $19.95

Christian ethics probably sounds like a good idea to most people. You take Christianity, and then you find out what kind of ethics it promotes. Nonetheless, it is an empty phrase. If we mean by ethics a set of abstract principles or a theory about what makes certain acts obligatory, then Christianity has no such thing. Christian ethics is nothing more than simply being a good Christian. Christian ethics becomes just another name for Christian theology. What Christianity teaches about ethics is nothing different from or more than what Christianity teaches about Jesus Christ.

While Christian ethics is not only an empty idea, it is also a dangerous one. Trying to find something called "Christian ethics" risks separating the moral life from its religious foundation. If you start with the doctrines of Christian faith, and think them through in a consistent and full manner, then you will get Christian ethics. If you start with some general notion of ethical standards, however, then it is unlikely you will be able to find your way back to the specifics of Christian faith.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of professors in the universities who teach what is called "Christian ethics," or sometimes, more inclusively, "religious ethics." The study of religious ethics is one of the last strongholds of liberal Protestantism in the academy, a way of reflecting on Christianity while also speaking to a broad audience on the basis of universal principles and premises. Ethicists raise questions of ultimacy and urge students to change and grow as they take positions on issues of both personal and public significance. It is a hybrid discipline that teaches religion indirectly by focusing on common ethical problems.

I have a friend who teaches Christian ethics, and he has told me, a Christian theologian with ethical interests, that I could not teach at his state university because what I do is too narrow, too parochial. He, on the other hand, does something that is relevant and appropriate to a diverse student body. He assumes that it is easier to talk about generic ethical problems than concrete religious beliefs.

But don't the former lead directly into the latter? Indeed, the problem with my friend's line of thinking is that he does something that does not exist. Either he must employ some intellectual contortions to hide the theological assumptions of the ethicists he teaches—which would be intellectually dishonest no matter how convenient; how can you teach Augustine or Aquinas without talking about their theological beliefs?—or he must teach Christian ethics as a form of theology, and thus he does the same thing that I do, only with a slightly different emphasis.

His dilemma has been brought about by trends within philosophy, not theology. For many years now, philosophers have been backing away from the Enlightenment goal of defending a universal morality grounded in pure reason alone. This retreat has made room for a resurgence in theological ethics, since all ethical thought is now recognized as local, not universal.

Rather than rejecting the artificial boundaries of professionalization, however, many religious ethicists insist that they are not theologians. Thus, Christian ethics is still struggling for a sense of identity by borrowing from philosophical schools for direction and theoretical framework. What is the alternative? Can ethics be grounded in the Bible alone?

The problem is that the Bible does not provide us with an ethics, generally conceived. The many different books that make up the Bible are full of prescriptions, injunctions, commandments, warnings, recommendations, counsel, parables, opinions, admonishments, advice—in sum, a plethora of do's and don'ts that appeal to a variety of ethical principles, rules, and insights. Moreover, the general ethical principle expressed in a specific biblical commandment is frequently hard to extract and turn into an absolute rule. The danger of grounding ethics in the Bible alone is not that it does too much with the Bible but that it does too little. Christians do not look at the Bible but through it, letting it shape us in many complex ways.

William C. Spohn, a Roman Catholic scholar who teaches at Santa Clara University, has written a catholic book of moral theology in the truest sense of that word. His book does not focus on one piece of the puzzle of Christian existence but covers the whole terrain in a rich and complex portrait of what it means to be Christian.

Spohn grounds moral theology in the person of Jesus Christ. That a Roman Catholic theologian can do so is remarkable evidence of the recent convergence of Protestant and Catholic theologies. Spohn does not treat the life and teachings of Jesus as exemplifying moral principles that have been established on other grounds. No credence is given to natural law here. But neither does he use the life of Jesus as a ready-made manual for telling us what to do in every situation. Instead, he relies on the analogical imagination, informed by spiritual practices, to discern the relevance of the gospel and enable it to shape our moral perception. He thus integrates the Protestant language of discipleship with the Catholic insistence on the ecclesial mediation of grace. As Spohn insists, the Christian asks not, Who am I? but Whose am I? The result is a brilliant and wise account of how moral agency is essentially a communal enterprise.

The title of the book says it all. When Jesus says, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37), he is not asking us to duplicate his actions slavishly ("Go and do exactly the same") but instead to appropriate his life and teachings creatively. Jesus Christ provides the norm for Christian ethics, but that is not the last word on the topic: "Disciples follow Jesus as the Way, not as the terminus of the journey." This means that Jesus does not give us absolute rules or a program for social reconstruction. Indeed, the analogical imagination looks not for the right but for the appropriate action. Spohn is very critical of those who search for timeless rules in the Bible, although he does admit at one point that rules are necessary to establish the outer limits of Christian behavior. Following Jesus is a matter of "spotting the rhyme" between the sayings of Jesus and current events.

To explain how we develop the skill of making good analogies, Spohn turns to the Catholic tradition of moral virtues, even as he also acknowledges some limits to virtue analysis. Virtue theorists overestimate human moral capacities by implying that morality is a matter of human effort and social formation. Jesus Christ, however, points the way to God not by asking us to improve our behavior but by demanding that we change our very identity. The message of Jesus is not, after all, just good advice.

Talk about virtue could lead to the conclusion that moral formation is a technique, something that can easily be learned. Spohn shows how virtues are developed only through a long immersion in biblical stories and images, but he also insists that the virtues shape ethical decisions indirectly by informing the way we perceive events. The virtues are not a set of tricks we can employ to achieve moral goodness. They are more like alterations in the way that we look at the world. The virtue theorists are correct, then, that the moral life consists not in abstract principles but in the concrete emotions, intentions, and commitments that make us who we are.

Becoming a Christian is a matter of developing a set of characteristics that are congruent with the qualities that Jesus displayed in the Gospels. Developing virtue, then, involves imaginatively entering into the biblical text so that we become a character in that all-encompassing plot. Thus Spohn brings together virtue theory with narrative ethics. Much narrative theology fails to attend to the specific ways in which Christians imaginatively enter into the Bible. Spohn supplies a corrective, arguing that the moral life is not possible without spiritual practices.

The problem with appealing to spiritual practices is that they are often connected in our society with a superficial religious relativism. Spiritual tourists go from one practice to another in a quest for personal fulfillment that only enhances the ego, rather than orienting the self to God. In contemporary parlance, "spirituality" often suggests a private pursuit of holiness, disregarding social and ethical commitments. These connotations unfortunately have kept many theologians from embracing spiritual practices as a necessary precondition of the ethical life. In contrast, Spohn reminds us that there is no obedience of God without a life of worship. In his hands, the Catholic emphasis on spiritual traditions fits nicely with the Protestant focus on the biblical narrative.

Spiritual practices cannot, he argues, do the work of ethics. Yet they are necessary to train our dispositions and emotions so that we can form sound and virtuous habits. Such practices do not have merely instrumental value. They are inherently worthy as expressions of gratitude for God's grace. The joy they bring, Spohn insists, is necessary to help focus our affections toward the will of God. We become better people by drawing closer to God.

Prayer, for example, might begin as an immature attempt to manipulate God. Some theologians conclude from this that intercessory prayer is always at best problematic. Spohn argues, however, that prayers of petition actually signify a mature faith. We only ask for help from those to whom we feel particularly close, because such requests make us vulnerable. Moreover, by placing our concerns before God, we put them in a new context and thus can see them by the new light of God's grace.

The danger of Spohn's approach is the implication that, if every ethical model has its limitations, then by using all of them—virtue, narrative, and spirituality—the ethicist can guarantee a credible and appropriate reading of the biblical tradition. Spohn's account of Christian ethics has too much theological integrity to make that mistake. The point of studying ethics is not to get your theories straight so that you can do the right thing. Even the most comprehensive use of

ethical theories will not lead to spiritually mature applications of the Bible to ethical problems. The development of a proper ethical method must emerge from a prior commitment to theological truth and a lifelong immersion in a Christian community that shapes how one reads and uses the biblical text.

Thus, the closer one comes to a full account of Christian ethics, the more one ends up just describing what Christians believe and what they do. The best Christian ethics is a good Christian theology, just as a good Christian theology will be ethically demanding and transformative. Teaching Christian ethics in a university classroom, then, is a matter of letting students overhear a conversation that is really going on in the churches. It is a conversation students need to participate in, even as they also need to be reminded that they can hear it more clearly when they actually go to church.

Stephen H. Webb is professor of theology at Wabash College. Among his books are The Gifting God: A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess (Oxford Univ. Press), Taking Religion to School: Christian Theology and Secular Education (Brazos Press), and, published just this month, Good Eating: The Bible, Diet, and the Proper Love of Animals (Brazos Press).

Most ReadMost Shared