The word ‘teleology’ (from Greek τελος ‘telos’ – meaning ‘goal’, ‘end’, ‘purpose’ or ‘that toward which things tend’) is not a street-level term. However, the concept of a purpose, goal, function or ‘end’ to things most certainly is. It’s a common as anything. Teleology is blindingly relevant.
It’s worth noting (as I have before) that one cannot speak of anything being truly good or bad, well or poorly functioning without some kind of teleological concept. From complaints (or amazement) about how poorly (or well) ‘designed’ the universe is (if designed at all – see this rebuttal), to the largest complaint of all – the ‘problem of evil’ (which has an often forgotten twin, the ‘problem’ of good); every kind of value-judgment we make assumes some kind of teleological concept.
Teleology, then, underlies the whole prospect of moral and ethical enquiry. If things merely ‘function’, but do not function toward a certain end, goal or purpose, then there can be no such thing as a truly or ultimately immoral action. Nothing can be said to ultimately or truly right or wrong with either the universe or human behaviour.
One can give an account of the ‘functioning’ of an event/thing in purely numerical, metrical or otherwise descriptive terms: human ‘a’ swings their right arm with tightly-closed digits in such a way that the digits impact the face of human ‘b’ with ‘x’ amount of force, resulting in human ‘b’ losing the state of balance and falling to the ground… etc. This is a statistical, and purely ‘objective’ account of an event. No ethical comment here.
The moment someone begins to say that one person should not have hit someone (or should have in the case, for example, of self-defense or protecting a helpless person being raped or otherwise harmed), they are imposing a teleological assumption onto the set of events. They are no longer giving a merely descriptive account of the event, they are giving a prescriptive account.
As a Christian, my ethical thought (and hopefully my action too!) is shaped by my belief that creation has a telos. Things are being brought from a state of chaos (Genesis 1 creation poem says ‘tohu vo vohu’ – wild and waste – formless and void) to a state of more and more orderedness. Things are going somewhere – toward an ‘end’. Things are meant to behave in a certain way and not another way. This, in a basic sense, is what the notion of God’s “will” (desire) means.
The most tightly compacted summary of the desire of God is one word – Love. Jesus summarised the entire ‘Law’ and ‘Prophets’ in two commands: Love God. Love Others as Self.
A summary that I’ve found helpful is the desire of God for humans to be in right relationship 1) with God, 2) with other humans, 3) with ourselves, and 4) with creation.
Christianity views humans as having a unique status (and therefore responsibility) within Creation. This anthropocentricism is not, however, to devalue the rest of creation. All of creation is seen to ‘reflect’ God’s beauty and creativity. But humans as the ‘crown’ of creation, the ones with the capacity to bear God’s ‘image’ in a unique way, have a special role. Humans are put ‘in charge’ of creation, commissioned to take care of it, and use it wisely – working to bring it to the fullest expression according to God’s will/desire.
Interestingly, no matter what one believes about God or whether or not humans reflect a God, it is manifestly obvious that humans have the greatest power to either utterly wreck things or to behave in a way which helps creation, humanity included, to flourish. (And we note, again, in passing, that things being ‘wrecked’ or things ‘flourishing’ are meaningless concepts with no teleology.)
Christian ethics, then, are based on a Christian understanding of God’s purposes for His creation; namely to bring it to full and rich orderedness. An orderedness characterised by not control but freedom to be all that it was made for. And an orderedness characterised by Love.
Here are a few (quite random) examples of my out-working of this:
- Education: Knowledge is to serve relationships. Humans are to celebrate any/all kinds of knowledge which enrich their relationship to/with creation, each other and the creator (i.e. medical knowledge, social knowledge, scientific knowledge, relational knowledge, etc.), while not letting knowledge –or the pursuit of it– become an idol or an enslaving thing.
- Sexuality: Sex is to be used in such a way as to bring an orderedness characterised by freedom, and not slavery. Many forms/expressions of sexuality are characterised by human slavery to sexual desire. Sex is for humans, not humans for sex. Also, sex is to bring relational fullness, not relational pain. Sex should thus be respected as the powerful thing it is, and used in ways that reflect freedom and full relationships.
- Poultry production (one of my favourite examples): God’s desire is not for chickens to live the life of a chicken in a cage covered with it’s own feces, and to be injected with steroids and killed in a mechanical and abusive fashion, etc. God’s desire is also not for chickens to be deified to the point where they are forbidden to be eaten. Chickens are a part of God’s good creation, and are to be farmed, ‘egged’ (hens) and processed/eaten in a way that is characterised by order and freedom (the ‘free range’ movement is brilliant here).
- Eating (while on the topic!): Humans (like other animals) need to eat to survive, but eating should not be treated as a merely biologically sustaining thing, but rather in a way that brings dignity to both what is eaten and who eats it. One of the most degrading and undignified forms of eating is (we all do it) fast food. Where speed and efficiency of production is the telos of eating. The food is mass-produced, the food preparers have little/no relationship to the eaters, and the eating experience is rushed and shabby. Contrast this with a community that grows and harvests their own crops, and where the cooks sit at the same table with everyone, serving each other and sharing in the creativity of food preparation and the joy of sharing the eating experiene (the culmination fo the whole process) together.
- Work: Work is to bring freedom not slavery and enable us to bless, rather than participate in being a curse. Laziness and greed are equally destructive things. Slacking on the job or working 60+ hour work weeks are ways of cheating and enslaving (or being enslaved). Industry and production should serve to bring about the flourishing of creation – including humans. Work in fields such as education, social-work, government, police-work, food industry, transport/travel, clothing, entertainment, etc. can all be done in either a dehumanising way or a humanising way.
- Music/Art: Art (including poetry) is a deeply human thing, and should reflect the creativity of the creator. Art can deeply reflect reality in a way that other things cannot. Art can be characterised by chaos and confusion with no hint of redemption or freedom, or it can speak of healing, order, justice and transformation (even while acknowleding brokenness and pain). Sadly, much ‘Christian’ art is often cheap copies of what has been done before, and has no staying power (it is quickly forgotten).
- Technology: All technology (from eating utensils to wireless broadband) should serve to bring order, freedom and to deepen relationships. Sadly, we often end up being enslaved to our conveniences. Technology allows us to have higher frequency and quantity of contact with other people – bringing the sad reality of ever-increasing numbers of ‘contacts’ and ever-shallowing depth of relationship with family and friends. Transportation technology takes us further and faster away from home than ever before, giving us more options than we know what to do with. Add to this, the constant reminders that our basic normal life is boring, and that we ‘deserve’ another trip to this or that resort place to ‘escape’, and we find ourselves often on a treadmill-ish pursuit of ‘happiness’, being less and less satisfied with ‘normal life’ and seeking more and more after the elusive reality we see in the advertisements.
- Medical Activity: Medical knowledge and activity should serve to bring order to the chaos of disease and injury and freedom from blindness and pain. It should always be used in the service of rich human life, not to destroy it. Surgery should be about healing (even if it temporarily makes you bleeed), not about making a womans breasts look like this or that super-model or about doing away with an inconvenient developing pre-born child.
- Violence: Violence is only justified when in the service of bringing freedom and preserving relationships – for example protecting those who cannot protect themselves from rapists, thiefs, abusers, torturers and (actual) terrorists. The power to inflict violence (and control people by doing so) comes with great responsibility.
- Community: Obviously, community is a place where relationships are central. True community is characterised by freedom and whole and holistic relationships. Community that leaves people enslaved to things, experiences or addictions, etc. is not a community characterised by love. Also, community that controls and micro-manages people is to treat people as cogs in a system and is therefore dehumanising rather than humanising and thus not characterised by freedom. True human-ness if found not in isolation from all others, nor in being forced into conformity with them, but in a community which values true genuine human flourishing and which is characterised by loving, patient and consistent transformation to it.
- Money/Possessions: All possessions are to be held with gratitude, and to be not merely ‘used’ or ‘consumed’ with our comfort/survival/convenience as the telos, but rather to be shared with and passed on to others. Life’s telos is not acquisition or status, but transformation and wholeness; and our handling of money and possessions should reflect this.
- Clothing: Clothing is a wonderfully rich and creative human thing. It can be used (both by wearers and producers) to enrich our freedom and relationship to others, or to enslave us. Fashion, for example, can often serve to alienate and degrade those who are not able (for either financial or body-style reasons) to keep up with things. This divides and dehumanises, and is not God’s desire. Although modest dress will look differently from place to place and time to time, for each culture/place, there will be uses of clothing that either serve to enhance a person’s personality and humanness or which will serve to rob them of their person-hood, and make them into an object. Clothing design and production can and should be a creative and body-honouring thing which encourages human relationships.