Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is there such a thing as Christian ethics? Part 2 (by Dani)

On Monday, I raised the question of whether was such a thing as Christian ethics. As I wrote in that post, if we are thinking about an ethical code, then the answer has to be yes: there are Christian ethics that can be seen in the set of moral imperatives found in the New Testament.

But what about metaethics? What makes things right or wrong? There are lots of possibilities: Consequences? Equity? Gut feeling? That you can make it a universal law? Because God says so? Upholding created order? Does Christianity point to one particular metaethic, or are several possibilities consistent with it?

I think the Bible points to a particular ethical framework, but I don’t think it addresses the question of metaethics. I think we can speculate about which metaethics is most consistent with Scripture, and some speculations will be better than others, but again, I think the Bible operates on the assumption that there is a morality and that we all know it (at least well enough to be condemned for failing to live up to it).

So what is this ethical framework? It’s in both the Old and New Testaments, and the key to it is love—loving God, and loving your neighbour as yourself. From these two great overarching moral principles all other morality flows. These principles don’t offer us shortcuts to always knowing the right thing to do, or divide the world neatly into clearly distinguishable black and white for us. But they are more precious than gold, sweeter than honey, and they make wise the simple. Again though, these aren’t exclusive to Christianity. The second principle in particular—the Golden Rule—is found almost universally. (There is an interesting Wikipedia article that lists different forms of the Golden Rule as it’s found in different cultures and religions across the world. See also C S Lewis’s short book The Abolition of Man.)

What then do we make of the ethical views of people like Hume and Kant? The interesting thing is that many plausible metaethical views come very close to the Golden Rule. Recall that Kant’s categorical imperative and Hume’s sympathy both evoke this rule. Why? Because it’s a very good encapsulation of our moral intuitions, and these are what a metaethical theory sets out to explain. If a philosopher came up with a moral theory that deemed most of what we think of as good, evil, we wouldn’t give it the time of day! I have a suspicion that God, with typical overflowing graciousness, has so bound morality into this world that we can’t avoid finding it, whether we look at the consequences of our actions, at our gut feeling, with our reason, at the ordered creation, or even in our own consciences. On the other hand, I don’t think any of these are going to be sufficient, for two reasons. First, because they fail to tell us how to love God (or at least, give us only the dimmest outline), and without this, we only have half of morality. Secondly, they don’t show us the place of morality in God’s grand scheme: that God is the judge and will hold us accountable for how we live; the wonder of the gospel that offers forgiveness for our failure to live righteously; and the love of Christ in the hearts of Christians that teaches us to love what is good, and hate evil. So Isabel, with all her intelligence and desire to live rightly, is ultimately doomed to failure in her moral life because she rejects God and his revelation.

Nearly there!

A few paragraphs ago I said I thought most of the moral imperatives of the New Testament were not exclusive to Christianity: righteousness is righteousness, whether you are Jew or Gentile, Christian or non-Christian. However I do think that as Christians, more is expected of us than those who haven’t accepted God’s grace, and therefore that Christian ethics, taken as a set of moral injunctions, has a distinctive emphasis (I still wouldn’t go as far as exclusive!) that sets it apart from other moral codes. This can perhaps be best seen by comparing the Golden Rule as it is in the Old Testament, and the new version Jesus gives his followers:

Love others as you would have them love you.

Love one another as I have loved you.

In the original, we are to treat others as we would have them treat us. In the new commandment, Jesus’ love for us is now the standard, and it takes the Golden Rule to a whole new level—I once heard this called the Diamond Rule because it shines more brightly! Christians are to love as we have been loved; to forgive as we have been forgiven; to show mercy, as mercy has been shown to us. It is inconsistent for us to accept mercy, and yet fail to show it to others; to fail to forgive when we have been forgiven. Just as God took the cost of our wrongdoing onto himself so as to offer us reconciliation, so we are to take the cost of transgressions against our rights and entitlements ourselves so we can offer reconciliation to those who sin against us. This, if anything, has a right to be called Christian ethics.

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