Tag Archives: Ethics

More Hugh Mackay

Hugh MackayOn Tuesday I gave a brief review of Hugh Mackay’s Infidelity. Here are a few more insights from the book, asides from Mackay the psychologist, which sparked an interest as I read. The first comes as Tom is discussing Sarah’s past with her mother, Elizabeth, and has relevance for the kinds of spirituality we nurture in the church, and especially in our youth and young adults groups. Elizabeth says of Sarah:

She went wild over religion, too. There was more than a bit of overlap, in fact. I think a lot of adolescents confuse spirituality and sexuality – don’t you, Tom? Or is it just that churchgoing covers all that steaminess in a cloak of respectability? (276)

The second finds Tom reflecting on the nature of intimate relationships, salient as a warning for all couples, and more broadly, for any kind of relationship:

I had heard plenty of clients describe the frightening lunge from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you.’ It had always struck me as being a bit like a passion hangover – when the stimulants were withdrawn, their toxic effects took over. The swing from devotion to indifference was more common, though, and more familiar to me. When the love switch is turned to ‘off,’ for any one of a thousand reasons, or none, the current simply stops flowing. You don’t have to hate someone to destroy a relationship – you just have to lose interest. (298)

The final thought comes from the final chapter of the book, and here Mackay’s agnosticism comes to the fore:

The hardest thing, finally, is to accept our insignificance in the scheme of things – or perhaps to accept that there is no ‘scheme of things.’ There are no inevitabilities. No embedded meanings, either – only those we choose to attach to what happens. And often, when we most ardently desire them, no answers.  Life surges on, mostly out of control, rarely giving us respite… (310)

There is both wisdom and pathos in this statement. In the end, though, it seems that life, for Mackay, has only the meaning we ascribe to it. That we do ascribe meaning to life is part of what it means to be human. That we ascribe meaning to life, though natural, is also somewhat arbitrary and threatens to undermine the kind of ethics that Mackay wants to commend. This approach inevitably leads us back to ourselves as the moral centre in a manner reminiscent of the biblical book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) – and the results were less than ideal. Stanley Grenz recognises this problem and argues that “justification of moral claims requires a foundational principle that in the end is religious” (The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, 58).

The message of the gospel is not that there are no inevitabilities, or that every question will be answered, or that life can be fully controlled. In these respects, Mackay is quite correct. Yet the gospel assures each person that their lives, choices and deeds can and do have enduring significance. Further, it testifies to a transcendent meaning embedded in the orders of creation and redemption that tells the truth of our existence and so provides an orientation to the good life. The moral life is not simply the assertion of power in this direction or that, but response to a transcendent reality which in the Christian tradition is understood in terms of the triune God of infinite goodness, holiness and love.

Jesus as Political Activist?

politics of JesusIn a class today exploring the ministry of Jesus and his kingdom-practice, I called upon R. T. France to say that Jesus was not a political activist, and that his kingdom is not an earthly-political system. The statement understandably raised questions. France characterises the kingdom of God as ‘divine government,’ and suggests that the coming of Jesus is tantamount to declaring, “The revolution is here!” Yet it is a peculiar kind of revolution:

God’s kingship will involve the overthrow of many aspects of the status quo, but it is remarkable that among those powers and values which it will challenge Jesus seems to have little interest in that aspect of the current situation which for many of his hearers was primary, the fact of Roman imperial government.[1]

More fundamental than political revolution is the spiritual revolution Jesus instituted as the ‘stronger man’ who overthrows the kingdom of Satan. In this view salvation is exorcism, the liberation of men and women from oppressive and dehumanising spiritual powers.

So a revolution against the rule of Satan is going to involve a revolution in the thinking of those who wish to come instead under God’s kingship. Their minds need to be liberated from Satan’s control. … And it is that sort of revolution, the overturning of accepted human attitudes and values, which Mark’s Gospel is designed to promote. … To follow Jesus demanded a complete reorientation.[2]

To say this, however, is not at all to suggest that Jesus’ message is apolitical in its implications. To the contrary, his message of the kingdom of God is deeply subversive with respect to the present ordering of life in the world. The community of God’s people would live in ways which challenge the false values and false gods of the surrounding culture. This, though, is different to direct political action. It is no doubt true that some are called to participate in direct political activity, especially in a liberal democracy. It is likewise true that genuine care for the vulnerable members of society may necessitate at times, direct intercession on their behalf to those who hold positions of power. It may even call for costly opposition to those in power because we choose to stand with the vulnerable.

Jesus, though, neither taught nor modelled direct political action. He did, however, call his followers to a primary allegiance which trumps all other allegiances. He did, however, model redemptive engagement with those who suffer, were outsiders, lowly or despised. He did command that we love our neighbour as ourselves. He did exemplify and commend the ways of peace. He did command that we neither value or pursue those things so highly valued in the world. Not so among you!

The temptation to have and exercise power is ever with us, for it seems that those who hold the levers of power are able to accomplish so much in the world. Nevertheless, it also seems that whenever the church has gained political power it has not gone well. Might it be that whenever we become enamoured with gaining, holding and exercising political power we betray our loss of confidence in the spirit and power of the gospel?

[1] R. T. France, Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark (Homebush West: Lanzer, 1990), 46.

[2] Ibid., 48.


AngelsAnother good day at the Conference, and an easier day for me since I did not have to present a paper. A highlight of the day for me were the many conversations with new friends and old from all around the country. This is one of the main reasons for attending conferences, in my estimation. This kind of formal and informal interaction is enriching and fun, even for an introvert like myself!

Scott Stephens’ second lecture was around themes of political representation in democracy, the modern mind, and popular press. It was not as coherent a presentation as yesterday’s lecture (in my view), and I found it somewhat difficult to follow. Scott departed from his published schedule and put several somewhat diverse elements together. I should note that several other folk afterwards said they appreciated it very much. A take home point for me included an assessment of modern autonomous freedom as freedom from our responsibilities in community and for the common good.

Other papers today included a well-written and interesting exploration of Barth’s theology of angels by Mark Lindsay from the University of Divinity. Mark identified an enigma in Barth’s doctrine whereby he seems to insist that angels are involved in the mediation of revelation – something absolutely novel in Barth’s theology, and worthy of further investigation.

Christy Capper, a doctoral student from University of Divinity, explored the concept of an authentic life, showing that there are different levels of authenticity, and that sometimes, what appears as authenticity is not, and that authenticity is not simply “self-expression” or “being true to one’s self,” but indeed, true authenticity may mean denying what one wants or would prefer, because genuine authenticity involves living toward something greater than the self.

Myk Habets from Carey Baptist College in Auckland presented an attempt at a “theotic” ethics, in which he sought to incorporate four major approaches to ethical reflection (deontological, teleological, virtue and ontological) with a trinitarian account of the good life. I liked his approach and think it worthy of further reflection. The end of ethics is the glorification of the saints in communion with God the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.

Vicki Lorrimar from Vose, and now a doctoral candidate at Oxford, presented an excellent study of Stanley Hauerwas’s christology. Hauerwas has been severely criticised by Healy as having an insufficient christology and a Pelagian or almost Pelagian account of salvation. Lorrimar demonstrated that Hauerwas views Jesus’ death in terms of both a Christus Victor and an exemplarist model of atonement, and that Jesus’ death as victory is decisive for salvation. She acknowledges that Hauerwas is not a systematician, but insists that he should not be held to account for what he does not say. Rather, what he does say is not incompatible with a more complete account of salvation, christology, etc.

Finally, Robert Tilley from the Catholic Institute of Sydney, brought a very forceful lecture exploring the philosophical connections between capitalism and neo-liberalism, arguing (I think) that the neo-liberal self conforms to the logic of the market. He identified abortion as a critical issue for both systems and noted that the many modern critiques of capitalism fail at precisely this point, where the freedom of the self and the freedom of the market seem to intersect. He insists that any movement of resistance to late-modern capitalism must also be resolutely pro-life. This, too, was a very interesting argument, beyond the limits of my all-too-scant philosophical knowledge. I suspect, however, from the certainty of the presentation that the case may not be quite as certain as it was presented.


Scott StephensThe 2015 ANZATS conference got off to a good start today. This year we are meeting in Sydney at the offices of the Sydney College of Divinity. There are 70-80 delegates, with Scott Stephens (Online editor of religion and ethics for the ABC) addressing the plenary sessions.

Scott’s topic today was “The Kingdom of the Popular Soul: How Truth became Opinion, and Opinion became Fashionable.”
His lecture was basically an overview of some key developments in the history of popular media and mass communications, and how these developments have helped shape discourse in the arena of ‘public opinion.’ His discussion of Kierkegaard’s ferocious opposition to the popular press was a highlight of the day. My brief note here probably does not do justice to what I heard…

For Kierkegaard, opinion is irresponsible speech, something we have to wear into the public realm, opinion as a ‘fashion statement.’ Irresponsible speech is to ‘chatter.’ It is the annulment of the essential distinction between silence and speech. Speech derives from thoughtful reflection. Silence as a means of reflection, is therefore a moral activity; to speak is then to become responsible, to commit oneself. The opinion makers have therefore cheapened public discourse, forcing opinions, chattering… The pressure to have an opinion, to have to ‘say something,’ leads to irresponsibility.

Other sessions I attended today were:

1. Anne Elvey – “Compassion as Method in (Public) Theology.”
To have compassion is to act in concrete ways toward others in ways which seek to alleviate their suffering, to include them in community, etc. What impact would a commitment to live and act compassionately towards others, including the non-human creation, have on our theological work?

2. Geoff Thompson – “A God Worth Talking About for a Life Worth Living: The Accidental ‘Public Theology’ of Terry Eagleton.”
This was a very interesting lecture on the way a non-theologian is introducing ideas from classic theology into public discourse in order to ‘repair culture.’ Eagleton is a talented polemicist, yet he gains a hearing for Christian ideas, introducing and explaining them as ideas which are relevant to the way we think and live. Thompson suggests that Eagleton seems to have convictions about just how big the Christian story is; convictions many Christians and even theologians seem to have forgotten. I came away from this lecture wondering whether we should be trying to do “public theology,” or to do ordinary theology in publicly accessible ways. I suggest the latter is the case.

3. Scott Kirkland – “Toward an Aesthetics of the Cross: Barth, Divine Beauty, and the Persuasiveness of Divine Speech.”
The first lecture of the Barth Study Group explored Barth’s doctrine of the divine glory, the beauty of God seen in the work of Jesus Christ, and especially at the cross. What would otherwise be understood as ugly and violent becomes a thing of beauty, not from some kind of objective and disinterested stance (i.e. a kantian view of beauty), but from a perspective of faith, in which the true beauty of the self-giving God is revealed to us.

And I presented my first paper: “An Ethics of Presence and Virtue in Psalms 9-11” arguing for a fully ‘religious’ ethic. Two really interesting questions  were asked at the end:
(a) Is it wrong to advocate both a virtue ethic and an ethic of imitation? Are not these two forms of ethics at odds with one another? I suggested, within the context of Psalms 9-11, that no, they are not. This is an ethical life grounded in the community of God’s people living into the narrative of God’s redeeming work as witness in Scripture, including the kind of God that God is, and the kind of people God calls us to be.

(b) If the psalms so commend such an ethic, how might they be more fruitfully used in congregational worship to stimulate such ethical response, especially in the free church tradition where they are not used liturgically? Great question! I think we need to work on that one…

Can Science Determine Morality? Part 2

Thank you to Vicki Lorrimar for this post. Part 1 of the essay was posted yesterday.
The full version of this essay with references and notes can be found at Vicki’s Academia.edu page.

SamHarris_Moral LandscapeHerein lies one of the major problems with Harris’ reasoning. While science has the potential to provide us with substantial information concerning human well-being, it does very little when it comes to providing the necessary impetus to implement these insights in our lives. Even experts in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural sciences, with their superior understanding of cognitive biases, irrational behaviours and impulse control, make choices that are selfish, or prioritise fleeting pleasures over long term well-being. To argue that further advances in these fields will translate into greater well-being seems overly optimistic.

How would Harris have us obtain the motivation necessary to do what is right? He envisions a society in which hidden lie detectors keep us honest. Advances in neuroimaging technology will allow the monitoring of truthfulness in particular contexts e.g. the courtroom or job interview. Even Harris concedes, therefore, that while science might increase our understanding of human behaviour, and provide the technology to monitor it, external enforcement is required to actually motivate people to do the right thing. Robinson raises an interesting issue when she questions the identity of the invisible accuser. Whose assumptions will be programmed into these imagined devices?

Throughout The Moral Landscape, Harris often seems more concerned with providing a critique of religion than in establishing the sufficiency of science for determining human values. It is as if he believes that the latter conclusion will proceed directly from the former i.e. religion does not always produce ideal societies, therefore we must abandon it in favour of science as the true source of moral knowledge.

Harris’ analysis of religion in this volume is characteristically belligerent, not just atheistic but aggressively anti-theistic. He caricatures religion as the antithesis of intelligent thought, and selectively cites only the worst examples of faith in support of his argument. His understanding of religion aside, however, Harris is operating on the basis of flawed logic. He takes two disconnected arguments: (1) scientific research can provide information about what makes us happy and healthy, and (2) religion is often (in his view) responsible for impeding scientific progress and producing vast suffering, and combines them to arrive at his final conclusion that science alone can provide us with a sufficient and objective morality.

Harris argues that “religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts.” It is unclear how he has arrived at this conclusion without attributing it to his obvious distaste for religion. Several times in his account of the usefulness of neurophysiological research Harris argues that science helps – indeed, science can assist immensely in determining which measures might increase overall well-being. This does not eliminate religion from the moral sphere, however.

Harris also overlooks the fact that a lot of contemporary research into neural impulses and human behaviour is taken up by, or even funded by, marketing bodies interested in harnessing this knowledge to bring about increased sales of their products. This fosters a consumerism that concentrates wealth into the hands of fewer people and is likely to have a detrimental impact on natural resources – clearly not the road to greater human flourishing.

On the contrary, David Bentley Hart points out that certain advancements in science required the scientific mind to set aside religious “superstitions” regarding the soul and the image of God within – the development of nuclear weaponry, the eugenics movement, and medical experimentation on prison populations are just a few of the examples he gives us. Scientific progress does not have the morally pure track record Harris would have us believe.

Harris’ thought betrays a dependence on modern assumptions about truth and absolutes. Though he claims to be well-versed in philosophy; though in fact he completed an undergraduate degree in the field, Harris writes as if unaware of the postmodern shift. The Enlightenment quest for a universal epistemological foundation has been criticised by the likes of MacIntyre, and replaced with the view that rationality is tradition-dependent. The stridence of the New Atheist approach is rather embarrassing in the current postmodern climate of philosophical modesty and tolerance. With philosophers and theologians alike moving into a new paradigm in which appeals to universal reason and truth are replaced by contextual and narrative approaches to meaning and morality, Harris’ approach cannot help but come across as stale.

Though he diverges from the tired atheist argument that morality is simply the outworking of our evolutionary impulses, Harris’ approach fails to provide an alternative source for our concern over morality. It is true that scientific insights can assist in increasing moral knowledge; however they are not exhaustive. Not only is science unable to justify well-being as the concern of morality, it cannot provide the motivation to consistently overcome baser human instincts in making decisions that impact well-being. Our ethical choices must derive their meaning and conviction from another source.

The aim here is not to provide an argument in favour of any specific religion, but rather to evaluate Harris’ assertion that science alone can determine human values. Harris is most convincing when writing on his subject of expertise – neuroscience. It is true that brain studies are producing interesting insights into how we might improve our sense of wellbeing. Behavioural economics and the science of happiness are burgeoning fields. The existence of scientific facts about human nature that have important moral implications is not a new idea, but rather one that sociobiologists have been arguing for decades.

This does not pose any problem for religion, however, or for the existence of God. Harris’ zero-sum conflict is apparent only to him. There need be no antagonism between the capacity of science to discover more about what leads to well-being, and the role of religion in providing both the motivation and ability to integrate this knowledge into our lives. It seems that Harris’ antipathy toward religion causes him to overstate the potential of scientific research in determining morality, and to overlook its many shortcomings. The ’moral landscape’ envisioned by Harris is little more than wishful thinking on his part; when it comes to moral discourse, religion is likely to persevere.

Can Science Determine Morality? Part 1

Thank you to Vicki Lorrimar for this post. The full version of this essay with references and notes can be found at Vicki’s Academia.edu page.

Picture by obviouslycloe; see obviouslycloe.org

Many consider morality to be the purview of religion and not science. Stephen Jay Gouldarticulated this thinking best in his argument that science and religion each have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and that these magisteria do not overlap. For those who subscribe to this view, science deals with facts about the natural realm, while questions of morality or purpose fall exclusively within the domain of theologians and philosophers.

Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, challenges this prevailing understanding that science has little to contribute to moral discourse. Instead, Harris defines morality in terms of human flourishing and locates a moral compass in biological sources. According to Harris, “only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to co-exist peacefully” – and such a rational understanding precludes any input from religion. Drawing momentum from the current popularity of behavioural economics and the science of ’happiness,’ Harris argues that an increasing understanding of neurophysiology promises a morality that is entirely determined by science.

Harris departs from traditional atheist arguments concerning morality, which often invoke evolutionary pressures as the source of our moral code. Rather, Harris argues that we must often oppose these natural tendencies and transcend them through reason, for “our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.” He spurns moral relativism, the notion that moral truth does not exist and that right and wrong are merely constructions. The title Harris gives to his work represents his own understanding of morality – that there are multiple answers to moral questioning. For Harris, ‘the moral landscape’ describes “a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible human suffering.”

Harris challenges the “firewall” that has been in place between facts and values ever since Hume drew his ‘is/ought’ distinction. Values, according to Harris, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. As a neuroscientist, Harris considers the human brain to be the nexus of social, emotional and moral development. Beliefs about values and beliefs about facts seem to arise from similar brain processes – therefore values are derived from facts about how our brains interact with the world.

Harris proposes that advances in our knowledge in areas such as the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, the effects of social institutions on relationships, and retributive impulses will provide all the necessary tools to identify right and wrong with respect to human values. This leads him to suggest that morality is not philosophical or religious in essence but rather an undeveloped branch of science. “If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being… then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviours and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning.”

Harris contends that “science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people.” Chopra is quite right when he describes Harris’ account as “gussied up old-fashioned utilitarianism.” The inherent problems in such an approach have long been established in the literature. Ewing, for example, posed the question: “Suppose we could slightly increase the collective happiness of ten men by taking away all happiness from one of them, would it be right to do so?” Harris would answer ’yes’ – in fact he poses an even more extreme version of this question himself and answers in the affirmative. Harris does acknowledge the dilemmas arising from consequentialism, however persists in his belief that it must form the basis of morality.

The issue of individual justice aside, there remains in the utilitarian approach the challenge of discerning which actions will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. According to Harris, science is much more clear-sighted in determining the consequences of behaviour than we are! In reality, it is often difficult to weigh the far-reaching effects of any given action, another problem acknowledged yet not addressed by Harris.

If a consequential approach to ethics were to be accepted, is well-being the most appropriate criteria by which actions are assessed? The term itself is rather vague, although Harris appears to employ it interchangeably with happiness and human flourishing. All religious and philosophical notions of morality are reduced to a common concern for well-being. Harris imagines an unlikely scenario in which an honour culture might result in a high level of human flourishing, and concludes that killing for the sake of honour would then be morally acceptable. This moral reasoning appears dubious at best.

Even if maximal well-being were considered a sufficient basis for morality, we must ask how this end goal is selected in the first place. Harris claims that “once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.” However, what directs us to consider human-wellbeing seriously? Science does not supply us with the notion that well-being should be our ultimate concern – Harris has arrived at this conclusion by some other means.

Let us again assume for now that the optimisation of human well-being is indeed an adequate foundation upon which we may construct an ethic. In yet another statement of his thesis, Harris argues that “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” Having attained such knowledge, how do we then put it into practice? We already know that driving our cars at reduced speeds, or removing unhealthy sugars from our diet, has a positive impact on well-being – but this does not stop many people from speeding on a regular basis or reaching for the slice of cake instead of the piece of fruit. There is a significant gap between knowing what is right and doing what is right.

Continued tomorrow

Two Articles on Sexual Ethics

gay_liberation_monument_manhattan - Sculpture by George Segal
gay_liberation_monument_manhattan – Sculpture by George Segal

Two interesting articles over at First Things. What is of interest to me in both articles is the question of what constitutes marriage, and more fundamentally, what the “good” of marriage is.

The first article (“Sex and Danger at UVA”) is a response by two senior academics to the University of Virginia’s response to the now discredited Rolling Stone article of December 2014 which reported on a supposed gang rape and rape culture at the University. The article argues that the University is complicit in the development of a destructive culture of sexual practice that is harmful, especially to women. The article navigates the difficult relationship between women’s choice, which the authors want to affirm, and the (quaint-sounding?) idea that women must be protected from rapacious attitudes, practices and environments which is the main burden of the essay. Their argument hangs on the implicit idea that the political culture based on rights and freedom is insufficient to secure the kinds of relationships between the sexes which are mutually beneficial and honouring. Habits, practices and structures which help form virtuous patterns of character and interaction are required.

The second article by Peter Leithart (“The Failure of Gay Marriage”) questions what gay marriage will do to marriage itself, and suggests that its impact will be negative. However, he does not assign the blame for this to the gay community. Rather, it is the result of heterosexual attitudes adopted decades ago which value marriage primarily as a romantic attachment.

“The whole set of fundamental, irrational assumptions that make marriage such a burden and such a civilizing force can easily be undone.” This is a powerful argument, but doesn’t give sufficient weight to a point that Schulman acknowledges early on: The fact that “romantic marriage” was invented by heterosexuals, and the detachment of sex from marriage and marriage from kinship was accomplished long before anyone began seriously proposing gay marriage. Gay marriage may further damage marriage; but heterosexuals damaged marriage nearly beyond recognition all on our own.

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 2

hercules-at-the-crossroads-4226Last week I posted the first part of this summary/reflection on Barth’s essay here.

Christian freedom—and therefore according to Barth, human freedom—is not simply the human capacity to choose between alternatives, nor a vision of the autonomous person standing aloof from all other circumstances, powers and persons. True freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. It is not realised in solitary detachment from others, but only in encounter and communion with them. It is not the power to assert one’s own desire and will, and so to preserve, justify and therefore save oneself. Rather, true freedom and thus true humanity consists in joyful obedience and thankful response to God.

Human freedom is freedom only within the limitations of God’s own freedom. … It awakens the receiver to true selfhood and new life. It is a gift from God, from the source of all goodness … Through this gift man who was irretrievably separated and alienated from God is called into discipleship. This is why freedom is joy! … Freedom is the joy whereby man acknowledges and confesses this divine election by willing, deciding, and determining himself to be the echo and mirror of the divine act.[1]

Freedom, for Barth, is not autonomy, but precisely its opposite: dependence upon God. It consists not in isolation from God but in being bound to God, in relation with God, and in correspondence to the divine way of being revealed in Jesus Christ. In this relation we are set free to be and become truly human: God’s creature, God’s partner, God’s child. These three categories of human being and freedom correspond to God’s relation to humanity as creator, reconciler and redeemer. As God’s creature we are freed to be truly human, living in dependence upon the gracious God, and in right relation with others. As God’s partner we are freed to echo God’s Yes and God’s No in our own decision and act, and so live a life of faith and love as a pilgrim and witness to the reality of God and the freedom God gives. As God’s child we are freed to live in this fallen and darkened world according to hope in the as yet unseen future which will be ours through God’s promise. On the basis of this promise we are freed to live toward this future, to pray, to work and ultimately to die. “A Christian is one who makes use of this freedom to pray and to live in the hope of the end which will be the revelation of the beginning.”[2] Freedom, in Barth’s vision, is the gift from God by which unfree and enslaved humanity is set free for the service of thankful obedience, for participation in the causa Dei, for the joy and hope of being God’s child both here and hereafter.

In the third section of the lecture Barth addresses the nature of “evangelical ethics.” A person does the good when she obeys the divine command implicit in the gift of freedom, and with which she is confronted in every new moment. The divine command is the immediate encounter between God and the human agent. God does not deal with us through the intermediary of a rule, a principle, a natural law, reason, conscience, or even the Bible. Certainly ethical reflection, pastoral exhortation, brotherly admonition, study and doctrine are all appropriate as preliminary words, but none of these in and of themselves constitute the divine command. The final word belongs to God in the moment of encounter with the free human agent. Ethics, therefore, may search for and point toward the will of God as it has been revealed and known in different times, places and circumstances. Its task, however, can never be to mediate the divine command, to take the place of God, of human freedom, of the encounter between the two; that is, it can never become a law.

Ethics according to our assumptions can only be evangelical ethics. The question of good and evil is never answered by man’s pointing to the authoritative Word of God in terms of a set of rules. It is never discovered by man or imposed on the self and others as a code of good and evil actions, a sort of yardstick of what is good and evil. Holy Scripture defies being forced into a set of rules; it is a mistake to use it as such. The ethicist cannot take the place either of the free God or of the free man, even less of both together.[3]

The task of ethics, therefore, is to remind us of and direct us to our responsibility before God. It emphasises the reality and conditioning of human existence. It may offer provisional conclusions and conditional imperatives but will leave the pronouncement of unconditional imperatives to God.[4]

Ethics is reflection upon what man is required to do in and with the gift of freedom. The ethicist should not want to attempt too little either. He must want to realize his calling and his talents. It is not enough to insist that human life is to be lived under the divine imperative. Ethical reflection must go further and ask the question to what extent this is so. Neither the freedom of God’s commandment nor that of man’s obedience is an empty form. Human action takes place at the point of contact between these two spheres of freedom. Each of these is characterised by its own content, tone, and extent. Ethical reflection has to concentrate upon these. It has to begin with the recognition that the free God is the free man’s Lord, Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, and that free man is God’s creature, partner, and child. This insight will be gained at the very source of Christian thinking, in Holy Scripture, where ethical reflection will also renew, sharpen, and correct its findings in continuous searching. In addition, ethical reflection may and must consult the Christian community in its past and present history. It must do this in order to be admonished, nourished, enriched, perhaps also stirred and warned, by the use which the fathers and brethren made and still are making of Christian freedom.

Therefore, ethics is not without signposts in its attempt to point to God’s authoritative word of judgment. If it is based on the knowledge of God and of man, it will receive its contour. It will not point to a vacuum, but to the true God, the real man, and the real encounter between them. The ethical quest is and remains a quest and yet is not totally devoid of fulfilment. Indirect as it may be, the quest is a witness to God’s concrete word. Ethical reflection may and must be genuine search and genuine doctrine, genuine because true ethics does not deprive God, its object, of His due power and glory. It leaves the uttering of the essential and final word to God Himself. But it does not shrink away from the preliminary words which are necessary to focus man’s wandering thoughts on the one center where he, himself free, shall hear the word of the free God, the commandment addressed to him, the judgment falling upon him, and the promise waiting for him.[5]

This long citation is very important in understanding Barth’s view of the divine command. The command is not simply equated with the commands of Scripture. Further, many commentators on Barth’s ethics have worried about the possibility of an immediate command coming to each person in each instance of their lives. They worry that human ethical reason is evacuated of any significance, that Barth’s concept is simply irrational, and that actual people are most unlikely to hear such a command in the to-and-froing of their daily existence. This passage makes it clear, however, that the divine command comes not as a bolt out of the blue, nor is it so alien to us as to be unrecognisable. Christian ethics may prepare for the command through reflection on the particular cases and circumstances confronting us; through reflection on Scripture and history, through pastoral exhortation, study, brotherly admonition, etc. But ultimately, ethical existence is the free response the person makes to God in the moment of encounter.

Barth appends a final section to his essay which functions as a sort of illustration or application of his view of freedom specifically with reference to the work of theology. Nevertheless, the categories of thought used here serve to illustrate how the work of ethics also proceeds. He lays out his thought in five points;

  1. Begin at the beginning, that is, in prayer, liturgy and devotion as a response to God’s prior action, especially his revelation in Christ and culminating in the resurrection;
  2. Begin too with Scripture where this revelation is witnessed and heard;
  3. Be free to draw on other frameworks of understanding, other approaches to the issues at hand;
  4. Reflect in dialogue with the church and for the church, drawing in peers, confessions, the fathers, governing authorities, etc.;
  5. Reflect in joyful, critical and free dialogue with other contemporaries, even and especially those with whom you disagree.

When Barth does ethics, he refuses to tell us what to do. Rather he describes in thoroughly theological terms, the moral field in which our existence takes place, and in which we are called to act. The great and central reality of this field is God himself. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). In every moment of our lives we are confronted by a reality from beyond ourselves, by which we are addressed, and to whom we are responsible. This “whom” has reached out to us in Jesus Christ and called us to himself. This is evangelical ethics.


[1] Ibid., 78-79.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] Ibid., 85, original emphasis.

[4] Ibid., 86.

[5] Ibid., 87-88.

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 1

Hercules at the Crossroads between Virtue and Vice (Annibale Carracci, 1596)

On September 21, 1953 Karl Barth gave an address at a meeting in Bielefeld of the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (Society for Evangelical Theology). It was published in a little collection of three essays entitled The Humanity of God. I am away from home at the moment and so cannot check Busch to find out what was going on at the time, but there is clear evidence in the lecture that Barth is engaging with some contemporary conversations and issues.

The most important thing to note at the outset is the subtitle of the lecture: “Foundation of Evangelical Ethics.” When Barth uses the term “Evangelical” he is referring to Protestant theology rather than evangelicalism as it is commonly known today. It may be, however, that Barth has in mind evangelical as gospel; what is beyond question, however, is that Barth is arguing for an ecclesial ethics, one specifically for the Christian community, rather than for humanity generally. Indeed, his ethics are possible only as an evangelical ethics and not otherwise.

The lecture progresses in four sections, the final section serving almost as an excursus. Although it seems natural to discuss the seeming reality of human freedom, Barth asks, “Why deny priority to God in the realm of knowing when it is uncontested in the realm of being? If God is the first reality, how can man be the first truth?”[1] Barth insists that beginning with God does not in any way imply the abrogation of human freedom, although some may want to argue the point with him. God’s freedom is not naked sovereignty or bare omnipotence, but relational freedom, the freedom in which God in covenantal grace gave and gives himself to humanity to be humanity’s God. God’s freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. God is free to determine his own being to be God for us in and through Jesus Christ. God’s freedom was and is expressed in the gospel, and although surely God’s vision and purpose includes all his creatures, God’s particular interest concerns his human creature, indicated in his becoming human in his Son.

The well-known definitions of the essence of God and in particular of His freedom, containing such terms as “wholly other,” “transcendence,” or “non-worldly,” stand in need of thorough clarification if fatal misconceptions of human freedom as well are to be avoided. The above definitions might just as well fit a dead idol. Negative as they are, they most certainly miss the very center of the Christian concept of God, the radiant affirmation of free grace, whereby God bound and committed Himself to man, making Himself in His Son a man of Israel and the brother of all men, appropriating human nature into the unity of his own being.[2]

In the second section of the lecture, Barth turns his attention to human freedom and here his exposition runs entirely counter to modern expectations. Human freedom is indeed the gift of God, grounded in God’s own freedom. But God is not simply the source of human freedom; he is also its object and goal. The natural freedom given to humanity in creation has been lost through sin, by which humanity is alienated from God and self. Humanity does not now know its original freedom, nor indeed what it means to be human.[3] Barth therefore implies that we cannot know what freedom is and entails by phenomenological analysis of human existence and action. We can, of course, understand the human capacity of choice, decision, and action, but this in itself is not freedom.

The concept of freedom as man’s rightful claim and due is equally contradictory and impossible. … Man has no real will power. Nor does he get it by himself. His power lies in receiving and in appropriating God’s gift. … God does not put man into the situation of Hercules at the crossroads. The opposite is true. God frees man from this false situation. He lifts him from appearance to reality. … It would be a strange freedom that would leave man neutral, able equally to choose, decide, and act rightly or wrongly! What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. … Trying to escape from being in accord with God’s own freedom is not human freedom. Rather, it is a compulsion wrought by powers of darkness or by man’s own helplessness. Sin as an alternative is not anticipated or included in the freedom given to man by God.[4]

Apart from the gospel, then, humanity is “unfree.” What freedom is can be known only by understanding Christian freedom, that freedom which is given to humanity in Jesus Christ. Barth, echoing Luther, insists that freedom can be understood only in terms of “the freedom of the Christian.”[5]

To Be Continued …

[1] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J. N. Thomas & T. Weiser (St. Louis: John Knox, 1960), 70.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 76-77.

[5] Ibid., 75, 82.

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling on Moral Conscience

Wyndy_Corbin-ReuschlingThis semester I have been teaching an introductory unit in Christian ethics and for my undergraduate students, assigned Wyndy Corbin Reuschling’s Reviving Evangelical Ethics as a text. I also required a report on the book to ensure students actually read it! Previously, I have assigned Arthur Holmes’ Approaching Moral Decisions, which is also a good book. Nevertheless, I found Holmes a little conservative and dated in some respects, and felt that Corbin Reuschling had a good contribution to make to the subject. I also want to include some women in my reading lists where an appropriate text is available, to help even up the voices that students are reading and listening to.

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling writes as an evangelical concerned that evangelicals have thinned out their moral reflection, as well as the moral nature of Christian salvation and life because of historical commitments to patterns of piety, and modern commitments to cultural priorities such as pragmatism, personal fulfilment, and ecclesiastical success. Corbin Reuschling surveys the three classic models of ethical reflection—deontology, teleology and virtue ethics—via a discussion of major theorists in each field—Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle. She then explores in quite broad terms how a central aspect of each of these classic models finds expression in evangelical spirituality. The subtle shift from ethics to spirituality is not made overtly, but is probably intentional, and highlights Corbin Reuschling’s conviction that evangelicalism has a “thin” ethics. Thus she insists that spiritual formation is moral formation, and that one cannot be transformed into the image of Christ without an accompanying commitment to the moral and ethical concerns of Jesus.[1] In this vein, she associates deontology with evangelical biblicism, virtue with therapeutic forms of piety, and suggests that evangelical pragmatism might be considered as a kind of “spiritual utilitarianism.” In the final chapter she presents her own constructive proposal in terms of the development of a robust moral conscience, supported by robust Christian community, and a developed competence based in practical wisdom.

Corbin Reuschling begins by distinguishing between an “antecedent” conscience, an idea more at home in Roman Catholic moral philosophy, and a “consequent” or “judicial” conscience, more familiar in Protestantism. An antecedent conscience is simply a conscience developed prior to the ethical moment when one is faced with a dilemma, a choice, or some other ethical challenge. Corbin Reuschling defines conscience as follows:

Conscience is the active integration and use of our abilities to assess moral issues with our passionate moral commitments that reflect the heart of God’s justice with practiced determination to live and act according to our moral convictions. … This begs the necessity for the formation of an “antecedent conscience,” which Charles Curran describes as the capacities and sensitivities we need prior to an action to guide and direct our decisions in order to act according to the orientation that our moral values and sense of goodness give us.[2]

Later in the chapter she also approves van der Ven’s definition of conscience as “considered conviction … developed in and through sustained processes of thought, reflection, discovery, prayer, and dialogue.”[3] Clearly, such a conscience is not innate but rather must be formed. Nor is it private, because one’s conscience is socially mediated. The formation of robust Christian conscience, therefore, requires:

I. A deep and continuing immersion in and reflection on Scripture in order to,

  1. Confront each person and the community with the reality of evil in ourselves and in the world;
  2. Illuminate and motivate us with a renewed moral vision including the church as an alternative community, Christ and his cross as our essential paradigm, and the vision of the kingdom of God as our goal;
  3. Discover rich sources of moral wisdom, especially in the biblical narratives.

II. A community where these narratives are taught, where conscience is formed, where identity is narratively constructed, and where moral discourse and deliberation are encouraged and practised.

III. Skills of practical wisdom (phronesis) leading to moral competence. Practical wisdom includes the skills by which we move from the abstract to the particular, from the conceptual to the concrete, aware of the unique, contingent and open-ended nature of every moral situation. Practical wisdom is the application of “considered convictions” to this particular situation. It involves making moral judgements with reference to norms and values. It takes personal and corporate agency and responsibility seriously, with respect to this

By recovering the idea of conscience and situating its formation and use within the community, Corbin Reuschling retains the sense that each moral agent bears responsibility for their own decisions and actions, without privatising the moral life or to modern evangelical individualism. This unique balancing of the personal and the communal is a significant contribution.

Much more could be said about the book. By and large my students appreciated her moral vision, and the rigor she brought to the study. This, perhaps, is the best commendation I can give the book: they have suggested that I use it again next time I teach the unit.

[1] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 124.

[2] Ibid., 149, original emphasis.

[3] Ibid., 163-164.