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An Introduction to Christian Ethics
Goals, Duties, and Virtues
By Tobin W. Lovin
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE ORIGINS OF ETHICS
The study of ethics begins with critical reflection on a way of life. Christian ethics has its roots in the work of the Hebrew prophets, who called people to renew their covenant with God by living with justice, kindness, and humility. It grows from the teaching of Jesus, who taught love of God and neighbor. Christian ethics is also closely connected with another tradition of critical reflection that begins with Greek philosophy and asks what it is that everybody is seeking. Thus, Christian thinking about ethics develops as shared human questions find specifically Christian answers.
At some point, most people begin to ask questions about the way of life they have lived. They start to wonder whether they really should obey the rules they have been told to follow. They ask whether the ideas they have been taught about the world and their own place in it are really true. They look at the dreams and the goals they have been pursuing, and they have to decide whether the life they have or the life they want really is a good life. Many things lead to this kind of critical thinking. Sometimes, it happens as a person matures and leaves the familiar surroundings of home and family for further education, marriage, or a new career. People encounter new cultures, new religions, or new neighbors, and as a result, they see their own lives and beliefs in a different way. Illness, war, or natural disaster can change lives suddenly and so completely that people ask whether they can return to the life they were living before, and whether they want to. Sometimes, too, the questions come slowly, out of quiet reflection, as we recognize the choices we have already made about our own lives and begin to discern the possibilities still ahead of us.
However the questions arise, the people who ask these questions have begun doing ethics, even if they do not know what to call it. They are thinking critically about their own lives and the social world in which they live. They are asking how they can be good people and how they can make the right choices. They are thinking about how they ought to treat the other people around them, and how they can together build a just society, where everyone will have a fair chance to ask these questions and find the answers. The words themselves—good, right, ought, just—are signals that moral thinking is going on. We can do what we have always been told to do, or we can decide for ourselves what things are really important and what deeds are worth doing.
Something like that happens in history, too. For as far back as we can go, people have had rules to tell them what to do and what not to do, ideas about things that are good and worth pursuing, and words for character and virtue to tell them what kind of people they ought to be. For most of human history, people would not have thought to separate some of these ideas from the rest of what they did and believed and call those beliefs "ethics," any more than they would have thought to identify some of their ideas and activities as "religious." Most human beings have lived their lives as part of a culture, where they learned how to grow their crops, pray to the gods, ward off diseases, deal with their neighbors, and keep track of the seasons, all as part of a unified way of life. Modern thinkers might divide these practices into agriculture, religion, medicine, magic, science, etiquette, and ethics, but those distinctions probably would not occur to people for whom the whole way of life came as a package. To an Israelite praying in Solomon's temple, a Native American hunter, or a scribe copying magical and medical information onto a scroll in ancient Egypt, our categories would probably have seemed a strange way to divide up a life they experienced as a unified whole.
At some point, however, the accumulation of cultural memories, the growth of literacy and written records, and contacts with other people and other ways of life through warfare, trade, and travel reached a point at which questions became inevitable. Globalization moves at a very rapid pace in our world of Internet connections and air travel, but globalization happens even when the exchanges are by way of handwritten scrolls and camel caravans. People begin to reflect on their way of life. They start asking what is really important among all the rules, stories, and rituals that make up the way they live. They want to know if there is something that holds this way of life together across time, something to which they might remain faithful, or from which they might drift away. Is this just the way we do it? Or is there some deeper connection to reality behind all of these practices?
We might say that the history of ethics begins when there are records that allow us to follow this critical reflection on a way of life. Out of the whole array of customs, courtesies, rules, and rituals, people start to identify some as really important. These are the things that make them who they are, the beliefs and actions that help them find their place in the universe. These beliefs and actions also give individuals their own character, so that others around them think of them as good when they live according to these practices and as bad when they do not. These things are so important to identity and relationships that people hold on to them, even when they are no longer easy to follow; but they can also become the basis for a new way of life, when the details of the old life no longer work.
That kind of critical reflection grew out of changes in many cultures and religious traditions that began about 800 years before the time of Jesus. During this period in history, India, China, and Greece developed their characteristic systems of philosophy. The religious movements that became Buddhism and Zoroastrianism began, along with many other religions whose rituals and beliefs spread along the trade routes that connected Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean world.
During this time, too, the Hebrew prophets transformed the religious life of their people by focusing on the requirements of justice in relations with fellow Israelites and reverence for God before all other loyalties. Through centuries of upheaval that divided rich against poor, subjected the people of Israel and Judah to foreign rulers, and introduced them to foreign gods, their prophets and teachers challenged them to return to the Law of Moses and to the covenant that formed them as a people. Central to this covenant was a relationship between persons that also involved a right relationship to God.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Jesus of Nazareth continued this prophetic criticism, announcing the nearness of the Reign of God, which would be open to all people and not only to those who had been part of the covenant and the Law of Moses. For Jesus' followers, it was more than ever essential to see what had been really important in that old way of life, so that everyone could shape a new life by it. In a memorable summary in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reduces the Law to just two commandments:
One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:35-40)
For Jesus' disciples, his teaching inaugurated a new covenant, even a whole new creation. That was how Paul, the most important of the early Christian teachers, explained it to his readers in the Greek city of Corinth. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul could also speak of this new creation as a profound personal change of thinking, in which Christians are no longer conformed to this world, but transformed in mind so as to be able to discern the will of God. At that point, they no longer require guardians and tutors to tell them what to do.
This teaching provided a critical way of seeing not only life lived according to the Law of Moses, but all of the other ways of life that Christians encountered as they carried their message around the Mediterranean. Paul pointed out the differences in his letter to Christians in Galatia, a Roman province in what is now central Turkey:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:19-23)
Early Christian texts are filled with such contrasts: living by the flesh or living by the Spirit; walking in the light or walking in darkness; the way of life or the way of death. These sources offer advice on the details of Christian life and daily prayers. They talk about family life and relations between husbands and wives, and they also offer guidance on how to relate to the pagan rituals and sacrifices that were an inescapable part of life in the cities of the Roman world. Through it all runs the theme that the roles and distinctions that once shaped relationships lose their importance in comparison to the new way of life that Christians follow. "There is no longer Jew or Greek," Paul writes, "there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
We have said that ethics begins with this critical reflection on a way of life, when people condemn its failures, challenge its accepted rules, identify what is really important, and set out guidelines by which life can be lived as it was meant to be and not just as we have known it in the past. Christian ethics, then, takes its start from the Hebrew prophets and the teaching of Jesus, and especially from this idea that the most important thing is to connect justice and kindness to a right relationship with God. Those two commandments hold all of life together, so that there is no difference between what you love and what you do and how you relate to God.
The Greeks Had a Word for It
Neither the Hebrew prophets nor the early Christians would have called this reflection on a way of life ethics. That term comes to us from the Greeks, who also experienced historical changes that led to critical reflection on traditional customs and culminated in new ways of understanding life as it should be lived. But the Greeks posed the questions in a different way. Instead of thinking about right relationships, both to God and neighbor, the Greeks asked how to make the right choices when we face decisions about how to live.
They could, of course, simply follow their desires, but they noticed that desires change from day to day, and they realized that the first thing we pursue often turns out not at all to be what we really want. Another way they had available to make their choices was to consult an oracle or use magic, hoping to find out what fate had in store for them. Lacking any texts quite like the Hebrew scriptures, the Greeks did not have a definitive set of divine commandments to follow, but they might try to emulate the heroes in the poems of Homer, or the characters in ancient stories that were being retold by their contemporary poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Some four hundred years before the time of Jesus, a series of Greek philosophers offered a different answer: Right choices are guided by reason. Socrates seems to have originated this movement in Athens, raising hard questions for his pupils, and for the rest of the Athenians, by pointing out that they did not really know what they meant by key ideas like truth, goodness, or justice. Plato, a student and follower of Socrates, wrote out dialogues that recalled his teacher's way of asking questions, but Plato also argued that reason could supply the answers. Reason is what enables us to recognize what is really real, as distinct from desires and illusions, so that those who are guided by reason will make their choices in accordance with reality.
A third key figure in this development was Aristotle, who wrote what was perhaps Western civilization's first systematic treatise on ethics. Aristotle suggested that rational decisions about action begin by identifying the purpose or goal (telos) at which we are aiming. Everything in nature has a natural direction, from rocks, which fall downward—never sideways or upwards—when released, to oak trees, which pursue their goal as they grow from acorns, to animals, which follow very complex patterns of behavior to achieve their goals of survival, mating, and rearing their young. What distinguishes human beings in this goal-oriented world of nature is that they use reason to identify their goals. Animals just do what they do, but human beings have to think about their choices. They can inquire into what makes a good person or a good life and direct their actions to that end.
Ordinary people think about goals all the time. A navigator asks what makes for a good voyage, or an athletic trainer asks what makes for good physical conditioning. The philosopher, however, asks what makes a good person. What goal does a person aim at, not to accomplish some particular thing, but to live life as it ought to be lived? For the Greek philosophers, this is the first question of ethics.
Aristotle suggests a number of possibilities as the goal of the good life, including pleasure and honor, both of which were very important to the aristocratic Greek men who were the students at Aristotle's lectures on ethics. It probably would not have occurred to him to include relationship to God, or piety, as a candidate for the most important goal. Religious rituals and reverence for the gods mattered to the Greeks, but were hardly central to their lives in the way that Jesus regarded love of God as central.
Aristotle concludes that all of the obvious goals have their limitations. For one thing, most people fail to see the difference between what they want as a means to something else and what they want because it is good in itself. People spend a lot of time pursuing money, success, or power because these things seem to be part of the life they want, and they are hard to get. But it turns out that most of those obvious goals are not things that we really want for themselves. We want them because we believe that they will give us something else. There is, however, one thing that all people seek, and they seek it for its own sake. That goal is happiness.
Aristotle's word, actually, is eudaimonia, and happiness is perhaps too weak a translation for it. Happiness sometimes suggests little more than a momentary feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. For Aristotle, eudaimonia is a long-term achievement that involves not merely feeling good, but actually living well. Some modern scholars translate eudaimonia as "well-being" or "flourishing." Eudaimonia also involves sustaining that kind of happiness over the course of a lifetime. Ethics, then, for these Greek philosophers, is thinking critically about their society's ideas of happiness, determining what happiness really is and how to achieve it in a lasting way.
Notice that Aristotle does not make the sharp distinction that we sometimes make between moral goodness and other good qualities. The good, to kalon, is also the noble and the beautiful, and arete, virtue, is the same word that the Greeks would use for any kind of human excellence, the courage of a soldier, the skill of a musician, or the strength of an athlete.
Excerpted from An Introduction to Christian Ethics by Tobin W. Lovin. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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