religion-free ethics?

A quick reflection and question as I dig into my Master’s mini-thesis which will use sociological methodology to discover how non-religious people think about ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘sin’, both in terms of what they believe about wrongdoing, and what they ‘hear’ when Christians talk about it.

At any rate, one secular book I’m flipping through is Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion by Phil Zuckerman.  He repeats the familiar line about non-religious people being as-good-as (or better than! p. 122) religious people.  This is supported (over and against the detached-from-reality musings of C.S. Lewis “between his sips of tea”) by the empirical testimony of a series of post-religious-now-secular people.

All talk of “how unhelpful the word ‘religion’ is in conversations like this” aside, I want to reflect on the socially-constructed aspects to ethics.  Yes I just said that.  Whatever anyone thinks, positively or negatively about God’s ability to break into the human discourse and direct, dictate, shepherd, shove, manipulate, move, coax or command it this way or that way, we all acknowledge that ethics is at least a human conversation.  There is a moral Zeitgeist.

In light of this obvious reality, it would seem methodologically problematic to be comparing the ethics of a) Christians, who are deeply immersed in the moral Zeitgeist of western – or in this case American – culture, with b) post-Christians, who remain influenced by the previous immersion in the ‘religious’ moral conversation which, at least in principle, has Christ and Scripture as it’s locus and telos.  In short, because (in this case) American Christians are more influenced by American culture than many realise, and American post-Christians are more influenced by Christian teaching (of a very particular kind of authoritarian, moralistic flavour, I suspect) than some may realise, the comparison seems problematic.

To really prove the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion (granting this problematic usage of the term ‘religion’), wouldn’t you have to find a specimen that was living in a religion-free context, so that the specimen was fully free of religious motivations, assumptions,  habits and practices and that the pure, untainted non-religious ethic could shine in all it’s unadulterated glory?  Rather than compare Christian to post-Christian, I think the thesis would find better data if it compared Christian to pre-Christian.

Thus concludes my rambling on this thought.  Back to reading!

jesus within the good samaritan parable?

I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts.  Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.

But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth.  Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).

Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:

On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”

It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off.  Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away?  I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper.  The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned.  Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?

of marriageable age

My last post got me thinking about other factors involved in who is ‘allowed’ to marry in different times and places in human history.  One factor is age.

I want to note here that a) what many Christians would say on this issue would reflect (perhaps as it should in this case?) the cultural attitudes around them, b) there is probably no official ‘Christian’ or biblical numeric answer for it, and c) this is an area of morality which seems to be characterised by both binary, ‘either/or’ thinking (either pre or post puberty) and gradient, ‘from-to’ thinking (from less mature to more mature).

The prohibition (‘discrimination’?) regarding people being too young to marry, is (like the prohibitions about gender, related-ness, and number of people) a protective one.  Both the people involved (including their bodies) and the institution are being protected.  In the case of age, the young people are being protected, to be blunt, from their own immaturity.   Which leads to the next point.

The conversation (ethically and biblically) is about maturity.  Clearly we all can imagine the 50 year old fool who is utterly incompatible with even the thought of monogamy.  Like a rattlesnake which has not yet learned to conserve its venom and wastes it all on each bite, he or her has not matured to a point of self-control required to sustain fidelity in marriage.  Equally clearly, especially for those of us in contexts where the legal marriageable age is high (18 in New Zealand – 16 with parental consent), we may have known individuals who were technically under the age, but seemed beyond reasonable doubt to be easily mature enough for marriage.

Traditionally, in older contexts and less ‘developed’ (depending on your standards for what constitutes ‘development’!) contexts, the age for marriage clusters around biology – puberty.  Ability to bear children was and is linked to response-ability to raise those same children.  And fair enough too.  But this mention of responsibility raises a dynamic I find both interesting and worrying…  We seem to be sponsoring immaturity.

We rightly and understandably put off and absolve young people of responsibility until they are old enough, but ‘old enough’ seems to get older and older the more ‘developed’ the context is.  In simple ‘primitive’ cultures, maturity comes earlier because the convenience of delayed responsibility is absent.  The 13 year old is a valuable asset to the family’s sustainability, and must “chop wood and carry water” if they are to survive.  Our teenagers whine about having to put the dishes in the dishwasher.  Which one is ready for marriage?

just do it – a lot

All is/ought distinctions and naturalistic fallacies aside, whilst monogamy does occur in some non-human species, apparently humans have a evolutionary and biological predisposition of sorts to polygamy.

But is this really newsworthy?  Even the most prudish of “just lay there and think of the queen” conservatives would admit off the record to the fact that being married to one person doesn’t remove all attraction to all other potential mating partners.  Yet again, science is giving us technical and detailed accounts of what we already knew.  We like sex.  We like sex a lot.  We like a lot of sex.  Which is good news for the pornography and prostitution industries, though perhaps not for monogamy.

If both the above science and near-universal human experience is correct, then monogamy necessarily always involves a kind of saying ‘no’ to a desire that is as natural and normative as it gets.  There are two interesting points of relevance here for the current global discussion of same-sex marriage.

1) Legal same-sex marriage and legal multi-marriage are logically related.  It is hardly ‘scaremongering’ to point out that polygamy is the next step in the current progression, if not one of the next steps.  There is no shortage of online pro-polygamy groups which have been arguing for its legality for years (and plenty of challenging of other ‘no-marriage-for-you’ lines un-challenged in the currently proposed legislation).  Methinks that those pushing for the law change don’t want to talk for too long on this point, so they play the ‘scaremongering’ (or religious ‘fear’) card as quickly as possible.

2) Saying no to sexual desires may not be so inhumane after all.  If indeed the natural tendency toward polygamy is there in the vast majority of humans, then the widespread monogamous habit of routinely dousing of the flames of desire for multiple sex-partners is infinitely more backwards and sexually repressive in scope and number than expecting a relatively small percentage of the population to do the same with (homosexual) desires which are arguably just as natural, though incredibly less common.

But of course I do not think that sexual self-control is repressive or backwards.  Neither do I think that sexual expression (or marriage for that matter) is some kind of thing that makes you human – and therefore is a ‘right’.  All this goes directly against messages both implicit and explicit in movies, media and advertising whose suggestion is hardly a gentle one: namely that to err is virgin, and to get it on is divine.

And the church doesn’t help much either.  Marriage is on such a pedestal that single people feel like unfortunate, illegitimate, inconvenient accessories accompanying we normal married folk.  We need to affirm those who are both single and celibate as being just as human as any other.

love of self & others

More and more, I’m convinced that love of self and neighbour/others are meant to go together.  Love of self without love of others is – literally – selfish, and love of others without love of self is not only unsustainable but false.  Leaving aside the question of justification for love of self (when we all know too well of the things we do which we don’t love – or do we grow too skilled at dismissing these things from our minds?), I found a relevant statement yesterday in Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy.  As a part his argument that ‘hunger for significance’ is not egotistical, he defines egotism in a helpful way:

Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count.  It is a form of acute self-consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved.  It is, indeed, a desperate response to frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.

 

both-and, again…

This photo (found on Facebook) reflects a false, either/or view of Christian spirituality.

It assumes that a) respecting, serving, growing and happiness of ‘you’ and b) respecting, serving, growing and happiness of ‘God’ are in direct and total contradiction.  To quote Hannah Moore from the film ‘Amazing Grace’, “we humbly suggest you can do both.”

I suspect that the person making these ‘corrections’ to the original photo probably meant well, and I agree that a ‘humanism’ that defines itself as being over-and-against (or otherwise independent of) God is counter to Scripture and the Gospel.  But I deny that loving yourself is in tension with loving God or others.  Indeed, based on Christ’s epitomisation of the entire Law (i.e. Mark 12:29-31), I’m inclined to believe that Love of God, others and self are inseparable.

a working metaphor

More and more, I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian moral life is the role of active, moral effort.

By this, I’m talking not only about the mental/psychological task of working hard at discerning what is ‘right’ or ‘God’s will’, but particularly the gritty, tiring, laborious work (but not ‘works’ – read on) doing God’s will.  Training yourself to do acts of love and service instead of (at best) nothing at all or (worst of all) of acts of harm and selfishness.

Not surprisingly, if you know me, I’m finding N.T. Wright just brilliant on this.  Video here.  Book I’m currently reading here.  He helpfully navigates the territory of the debate concerning how we develop Christian character, and particularly the question of the role of our own moral effort in this process.  Is it a matter of simply trying hard enough (to make yourself good enough), as comes through in popular portrayals of Christian faith (based no doubt on a lot of actual teaching/instruction)?  Or is it a matter of resting from any trying at all, and simply waiting on God to empower, motivate and enable you, as comes through in not a few reactions to the former?  Wright argues persuasively and thoroughly that it is ‘neither/nor’.  He makes clear the ‘both/and’ view expressed by Paul and the rest of the New Testament.  Both my own moral effort; and God’s enabling presence alongside and underneath me.

As usual, the worldview one is working with is everything.  And here the tension between monistic and dualistic frameworks are evident.  If reality is, at utter rock bottom, essentially one thing, then it’s hard to have any sense of both/and.  And if reality is characterised by not only a relational duality, but a dualism where the two ontological realities are fundamentally opposed to and detached from one another (i.e. the Creator is not involved within creation at all…), then this both/and is just as impossible.  Indeed, much modern naturalism has simply cut the strings of an ‘unnecessary’ deity who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ by 18th century Enlightenment philosophy.  We inherit much of this naturalism today, as we breathe the air of an intellectual (and epistemological) tradition that fails (or refuses) to see any trace of God in the world, and strips it of its title ‘creation’ and calls in ‘Nature’ instead, leaving us with an utterly God-less view of the world.

This general (and powerful) shift in popular imagination (and let’s be honest, at the level of ultimate reality, it’s a matter of imagination, not observation) has fed into the particularly Christian (and biblical) debate about how we should picture this both/and of God’s work and our work in Christian living.

I think metaphors are the best we can do, often.  And perhaps multiple metaphors are needed to capture this.  Wright makes the point that a picture of two humans collaborating on one activity doesn’t quite get it, as though ‘walking by (or in) the Spirit’ was analogous to working alongside another human such that you put in 50% and so does God.  It’s not like that.  Any good metaphor will capture at least three things (and more):
a) the ontological difference between God and humans
b) the utter human dependency of humans upon God
c) the very real human responsibility to act and choose

I can think of no better metaphor than the person of Christ.  But unfortunately, this re-raises the whole question, for (if we affirm Christ’s dual nature as Scripture teaches) how do we conceive of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity.  Is he a human puppet for a divine hand?  Is he basically just human?  Is he mostly divine and just appeared to be human?  Much rich and wonderful theology (since the 1st century as the apostles countered Gnosticism and docetic Jesus) is devoted to clarifying and addressing these questions.

But what other metaphors might we use?

adversarial self-righteousness

((What I’m about to describe happens not all the time, but enough to notice it…))

Christians are not only against things, we are also for things.  (Indeed, for everything you are for, you are therefore against anything that hinders what you are for!)  Nonetheless, because of the Christian conviction that the Creator is for wise, loving, creative order in the cration, for two-millenia, Christians have been against all manner of things they see in the world, which they see as falling short of the order that God designs and desires to be brought to bear upon the creation: violence, slavery, abortion, unjust pay for workers, various kinds of sexual behaviour (sex with those who are: too related [incest], too young [paedophilia], too similar in bodily sex [homosexuality], not willing [rape], etc.), cruelty to animals, pollution, anarchy (and it’s equal opposite evil, oppressive dictatorships), greed, sloth, etc., etc.

In the old back-and-forth between the Church and State (‘the World’), there have been two main areas of BOTH disagreement AND agreement:

a) ethics: what is right and wrong (i.e. what we should be for, and therefore also against)

b) politics: how to wisely govern and order society (including how to promote/legislate in ways that promote this)

Sometimes the Church & State agree happily, and ‘religion in public’ is not a problem to most.  Other times, the clash drives people to try to force religion into private life.  And it’s different in different times.  William Wilberforce fought the slave trade against much opposition.  Now both Church and State oppose it happily.  Church opposition to drunkenness is often met with groans against self-righteousness, etc.  Recently (certainly in NZ as seen in various mainstream media), however, ‘problem’ or ‘binge’ drinking has a level of opposition that is very high.  Sometimes it goes the other way.  The list of times, places and issues could go on.

My main observation here is that it is not only the Christians who (at times) look down their nose at ‘the World’ in self-righteous moral superiority.  The ‘world’ often repays them in kind.  Whatever one’s views on sexuality and marriage are, it is not hard to see, at present, a posture of more-moral-than-thou, more-modern-and-progressive-than-thou directed from (much of) ‘the world’ to (most of) the Church.  Whether it is Facebook interaction or a survey of MPs, there is a ‘name and shame’ methodology that seeks to identify and villainise anyone who disagrees with popular cultural leanings on this topic.

This posture of adversarial self-righteousness, whether in Christians or otherwise,never helps when it comes to a) discussing an issue, or b) making a difference in society.  ‘Nuff said.