Monday, October 26, 2015


The scriptures referred to are Mark 12:29-31, Matthew 22:37-40.

One of the rare pleasures I had on my recent “vacation,” besides officiating at the marriage of my nephew, was going to a bookstore with my daughter as a sort of birthday present to us. It was Carmichael's in Louisville, Kentucky, a small independent bookstore, which is the best kind. You can find all the bestsellers at a big box store or on Amazon. What is nice about small independent bookstores, a dying breed, is the odd little book that you didn't know existed but which you now must have. One of my finds was part of a series of introductions to great thinkers and ideas. Introducing Ethics; A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson and Chris Garratt is a breezy but well researched look at this issue. And it reinforced several impressions I got from my philosophy course in college.

First, the thing that philosophers are best at is poking holes and finding flaws in the works of previous philosophers. The thing that philosophers are second best at is making observations or sharing insights on a subject. The thing philosophers are worst at is taking those few insights and observations and building a whole philosophy based on them. Philosophy reminds me very much of the Buddhist parable of the blind monks encountering an elephant for the first time. They are good at describing the part of the elephant they are touching (ie, the tree-like legs, the snake-like trunk, the wall-like sides, the leaf-like ear) but no one can be bothered to try to put together a complete picture of the elephant using all of these observations and treating them as true but not exhaustive. Thus for Socrates ethics is all about knowing oneself; for Aristotle it is knowing one's purpose; for Hobbes it is the social contract that wicked people make to keep from killing and robbing each other; for Rousseau it is preserving or recovering our original and primitive goodness; for Marx it is exchanging the false consciousness that accepts things as they are for class consciousness that sees everything as a class struggle; for Utilitarians it is working out a formula for providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people; for Deontologists like Kant, it is all about duty and asking oneself what would happen if everyone did what you were thinking of doing. It seems that one size fits all when it comes to philosophers; they don't seem to do much building on the work of previous philosophers except to start with the questions raised by the deficiencies of their predecessors.

While I really like the book and the refresher course it provided me, it too has some deficiencies. Religion and Morality get just 2 pages. Christianity by itself only merits 3, which means the book leapfrogs over about 1700 years of ethical thinking by Christians, touching very lightly on Augustine and Aquinas. The book is about secular ethics alone.

It is astounding because not just the Bible but a great many Christian thinkers have a lot to say about living a moral life. These are rooted in Jesus' teachings but the ethics book only mentions the Golden Rule, which is the least of Jesus' contributions to ethical thought. Nearly every religion has some version of the law of reciprocity, of not treating people as you would not like to be treated. Jesus basically just restated this positively, saying you must treat others as you would like to be treated, though that is a significant difference. If I merely refrain from doing to you what I would not want done to me, I could pat myself on the back for not kicking you while you are down. Jesus' positive version means I have to help you get up and stay up. It obligates me to exercise more than benign neglect.

Jesus raises the bar higher when he states the two great commandments out of the 613 in the Torah, the books of Moses. We are to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is a lot different than just treating people the same way you prefer to be treated. Love is proactive. It can be seen as intrusive, as any parent knows when trying to give aid or advice to a teenager. As Anne Lamott points out, God loves us as we are but he loves us too much to leave us that way. Love wants what's best for the beloved. If the person you love is having trouble, you try to help. If they are self-destructive you try to get help for them. Love can't just stand by while someone is harming others or themselves and say, “Well, if that's what you want, dear, that's fine.”

The other thing that the two great commandments do is bring together all three concerned parties in an ethical discussion: God, others and oneself. Ethics is ultimately about relationships—one's relationship with others, of course, but also one's relationship with God and one's relationship with oneself. You have to work to make or keep all three relationships healthy to be ethically sound. C.S. Lewis illustrated the 3 parts of a holistic moral system by comparing the process to an orchestra or a convoy of ships. In an orchestra one has to take care of one's own instrument to make sure it is in tune. Your fingering or bowing technique won't do much good if your violin is too sharp or flat or sounds like a dying cat. One also has to be in harmony and in sync with all the other musicians in the orchestra. If people are coming in at any old time or holding different notes, the performance will be excruciating rather than exhilarating. And finally, you have to all be playing what the conductor chose. If he's conducting Beethoven and you're all playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” it will be a bad concert experience for all concerned. In the same way, for a convoy to work, the boats have to be seaworthy; they have to sail in formation and not crash into each other; and you need to arrive at the right port. A functional ethical system must include a personal moral regimen to keep one morally healthy, a code of conduct to make interactions with others just and harmonious, and a unified goal that is noble which you are working towards.

For Christians the personal component has to do with recognizing that you were created in the image of God and so have intrinsic worth and value. This is what enables us to love ourselves and thus know how to love our neighbor. Our personal ethics also include an acknowledgment that we nevertheless engage in thoughts, words and deeds that betray our original status, mar that image in us and severely impede our living up to our intended purpose to care for this world and those in it. We recognize our need to be fixed and saved from our self-destructive ways and turn to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, whose death and resurrection clears the way for us to live as he did through the power of his Spirit. Christian ethics differ from all other ethical systems in that the moral rules we follow do not save us or the world. That is what Jesus did. We can only follow them if we are already saved, the way a person can only walk properly after the surgeon has replaced his broken hip. Our personal moral code is rather like the sheet the physical therapist gives you listing exercises you need to do to get your strength back and techniques for learning to walk again.

The part of morality that people tend to agree on the most is social ethics. Every society has prohibitions against murder, theft and other things that disrupt the community in major ways. We are all held responsible for engaging in honest business practices and for doing our civic duties. Even then we differ on various issues. Where we tend to disagree are on the specifics and to what extent a person must curtail or surrender certain freedoms for the good of society and to what extent society should accommodate the individual. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Here again Christian ethics are different. While we agree on the sort of things all societies have in their law codes, like not murdering, not being a lying witness, and not stealing, Christians are also not to covet or wish to possess anything belonging to our neighbor. In a legal system you can't outlaw or prescribe feelings toward one's neighbor, just actions and, in the case of threats or slander, certain forms of verbal aggression. But God is also interested in the roots of such harmful words and actions. Our thoughts and attitudes are supposed to be those of love. We are supposed to love our neighbor and even, and here Jesus departs from every other ethical system, our enemy. That means we are to want the best for them and in fact to speak and act towards that end. This is of course impossible...without the constant aid of the Holy Spirit in the form of shaping and renewing of our minds. Only by becoming new people can we desire, much less achieve these things.

If we agree broadly on social ethics and only somewhat on personal ethics, we humans really disagree when it comes to how to maintain our relationship with God. For a lot of people this is the stuff of superstition and ritual. They don't see how this is useful, or that it even makes sense. As Captain Kirk once asked one of the many deity-like entities he encountered, “Why would God need a spaceship?” Or, to paraphrase, “What can we possibly do for a God who can do absolutely anything at all?”

There is a reason why, of all the metaphorical titles we use for God, Father is the most common. When a parent is working with a small child on something like making a meal or putting together a toy and asks the child to do something or hand the parent something, it is not usually because the parent actually needs the child for the task. It is because they are including the child in the activity out of love and to teach the child how to do it or simply how to cooperate with another person. And the child usually complies out of love and the desire to be like the parent. A lot of what God requires of us is like that. Why did God put us on this earth in the first place? To care for it, according to Genesis 1 & 2. But not because God couldn't do that without us. He was including us out of love and so that we would learn and grow to be like him, in whose image we were created. 

(In fact, one could argue that the prohibition in the Garden of Eden story wasn't necessarily a permanent one. Perhaps it was like telling small children that they can't have a cell phone or a car or touch the stove. They aren't ready for those yet. When the day comes that they are, the prohibition will be lifted and they will be guided through it.)

So what exactly does God require of us in our relationship with him? Four things according to the Ten Commandments: that we acknowledge his uniqueness as creator and redeemer of his people, that we not diminish him by reducing him to a mere symbol or treat him as a lifeless image, that respect him and not invoke his name in ways that go against his character and that we devote one day to him. Is that too much for God to ask? Are those not reasonable ways to act towards our heavenly Father? 

Yes, there are a lot of other rules in the Old Testament. But even God is not interested in them if they are done in a rote fashion, without any real faith or repentance. As he says in Isaiah 1:11-17, “'What need have I of all your sacrifices?' says the Lord. 'I am sated with burnt offering of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me—who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I turn my eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime—wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.'”

Do you notice something in that passage? What makes the offerings and rituals and worship useless are social sins. We cannot love God if we do not love those created in his image. Back in Genesis 9 when God makes his covenant with Noah and prohibits murder, the reason he gives is that human beings are made in God's image. The prophets over and over link idolatry and faithless worship of God with injustice against other people. And when Jesus is asked for the greatest commandment he gives two, because loving one's neighbor should follow logically from loving God.

If you love me, I expect you to treat my children fairly as well. God expects no less from us. But Jesus raises the bar again. On the night he was betrayed he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” No longer is it adequate to treat others as we wish to be treated, or to love them as we do ourselves. We are to love others as Jesus loves us. And he died for us! We are to love each other with a self-sacrificial love. And our enemies, too, for as Paul points out, Christ died for us while we were still sinners and therefore enemies of God. (Romans 5:8) Loving others with no payback or even if it provokes a negative reaction is what we are called to do. And as the ethics book says to its credit, “This is why real Christianity is a hard act to follow.”

Getting what we deserve is justice. Not getting all we deserve is mercy. But getting what we don't deserve, what we could never deserve is grace. God is a gracious God and he wants us to be gracious in our following him and in how we treat others. And that is what really sets Christian ethics apart. In other ethical systems if you treat others as you would like to be treated, and they don't reciprocate, you can usually treat them the way they actually treated you or at least punish them in some way. But Christians are not to repay evil with evil but to respond to evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9; Matthew 5:44) That's what Jesus did; that's what we are to do.

The question “What would Jesus do?” does not miraculously solve all ethical dilemmas but it is a good starting place. Sometimes, when it is obvious that Jesus would do something for which we lack the gift, like heal someone or multiply food, the question can be restated “What would Jesus want me to do?” We have to consider our assets, which includes others. Enlisting others to help someone whose needs are beyond your ability or resources is one way the church can use its bonds of love to make things better.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that, unlike the philosophers, Christians have the simple, one-size-fits-all solution to all ethical problems. Sometimes two ethical principles clash, as when Christians in Nazi-occupied Europe had to weigh the commands to obey authorities and not to lie against the command to love their neighbors, the Jews. To save those the state wanted to kill entailed not only disobedience of the authorities but often elaborate deceptions involving forgery, false identities, and clandestine activities that go against the Christian commitment to truth. But those who did so remembered how Jesus was not afraid to break the Sabbath rules to heal and save others. 

To quote a paraphrase of H.L. Mencken I once saw on a poster, “for every complex problem there is a simple solution...and it's wrong.” But when Jesus stated the two great commandments, he added that none of the other commandments are greater; indeed they depend on those two, or as N.T. Wright put it, all the others are footnotes. They are examples of how the two commandments have been applied to various situations. And we are to study them so we can apply them to all situations, old or new, that we encounter. If I may add one more helpful ethical idea, again paraphrased from a poster: when in doubt, do the most loving thing. It's what Jesus would do.   

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