Critical Reflection on Christian Ethics from Allen Verhey, D. Stephen Long, and Samuel Wells

Each of these books (John Wesley’s Moral Theology, Improvisation:The Drama of Christian Ethics, and Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine) brings up some valid points for considering the wider issue of Christian ethics. First, it is important to note that ethics and theology should not be separated out as two separate entities. Rather, they are intimately and integrally connected and cooperative. Separating ethics and theology makes for poor theology and ethics. First, theology lacks practical application without ethical consideration. And, ethics based upon the “Logic” of people can lack a moral anchor. The end of ethics without theology is the same end for modernism: nihilism. Thus, it is vital that both be held in tension together.

Theology and Christian ethics cannot merely be speculation or intellectual rumination. Rather, like a drama, they are meant to be embodied and lived out in tangible ways. It must combine both “heart” and “head.” As with a drama, we are enacting each “scene” in light of the whole story: Creation and Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton. But, “embodied” living is not sufficient.

Wells and Long both note that what we do is not the only thing that matters. Granted, we must embody the story and practices of the Church, yet those practices are dead if they are not enlivened by the Spirit. Our call is to be connected to the very life of God, not simply the practices of the Church. At the same time, the practices of the Church are indispensable.

Verhey emphasizes the value and importance of Scripture for discerning ethical action. And, he highlights the need for the community of believers for proper interpretation of that Scripture. Long and Wells, I believe, would posit similar positions. However, Verhey seriously neglects the value and importance of Church practices, tradition, and sacraments as viable icons for ethical living. Granted, the Scripture is extremely important. The use of Scripture, however, also assumes a living tradition (not traditionalism).

For this reason, Verhey’s implementation of Scripture betrays his own assumptions, which I believe to be an assumption about natural law. If that is true, the assumption of natural law is not readily obvious to everyone in the Church and it is likely to succumb to some of the same ends as modernism. In fact, natural law became the basis for Deism. This creates some of the same issues as found in the Baconian project that Verhey is trying to subvert.

However, I do agree with Verhey’s basic proposition concerning the necessity of Scripture. Undoubtedly, Scripture is a vital source for connecting our story with God’s larger story. In other words, it is through the reading, remember, and enacting of Scripture that our lives our joined with God’s life in Christ through the Spirit. It is all God’s work. Thus, we learn that we are not God, that we need salvation, and that God enters bodily into our very suffering. Because of this fact, we are invited to “take up our cross” and suffer alongside those that are experience pain and sorrow.

In addition, Verhey mentions that the task of the theologian is to talk to anyone about God, to anyone willing to “hear,” and to talk within the Church about God. I believe this is fundamentally true because Scripture reveals that God is dialogical. Brueggemann contends that God is consistently and continuously dialoguing. In the Old Testament God engages four dialogue partners: Israel, humanity, the nations, and Creation.

God speaks and invites response. Not only does God act upon those partners; those partners can act upon God. We see this in the crucifixion. That dialogue is extended in the New Testament to the Church. God calls and invites response. As we are gathered into the very life of God as the ecclesia, we are called to invite others to enter into this divine conversation.

Speaking, honestly and humbly, is the calling of the Church. However, I think that this is only partially correct. God does speak first, yes. Yet, dialogue is only able to happen with another partner. Furthermore, one only becomes a partner in dialogue in as much as they are willing to hear the “other.” Thus, the community, Scripture, prayer, and sacraments all become vitally important in “hearing” God’s call to us as the Church. And, “hearing” in the Hebrew understanding is really about obedience.

This obedience shapes and is shaped by character. Liturgies, thick practices, form us as the community of believers who are becoming Christ-like and living with cruciform compassion toward the “least of these.” We must always be suspicious of ethics, or theology, that neglects either Scripture or the practices and the traditions of the Church. But moreover, we must really be on guard when ethics, or theology, lacks any reference to God’s character and nature. Without that basic understanding, we are walking blind and without discernment in the midst of difficult issues.

“Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine” by Allen Verhey

Allen Verhey begins by pointing out that Christians have always been engaged in bioethics. This stems from three realities. First, Jesus’ ministry was concerned with healing people. Although health is not the ultimate good, it is still a “good” which is part of God’s life-giving agenda. Secondly, Jesus also suffered. Thus, in serving the poor and sick, Christians have believed that they too served Christ. Finally, Jesus proclaimed freedom for the poor. God, through Jesus, was concerned about the “least of these” in our world. As such, we too should be concerned about the “least of these” in our society.

The primary task of the theologian is to talk about God. The question is raised: “With whom?” Verhey provides three answers. First, theologians are called to talk about God with anyone that is willing. It is a conversation with the world about who God is and who God calls us to be. Secondly, it is talk of God with those who might not be willing to hear. Sometimes our beliefs and convictions will run into opposition, but we are called to speak difficult truth in those times and places where it may not necessarily be welcomed. Finally, God-talk happens within the Christian community. It is within the community that the theologians are responsible for “priestly nurture and prophetic correction of the community’s practices” (30). The community of faith is the arena of dialogue and discourse between God and God’s people, which calls for a tangible response for God’s people.

The use of Scripture is necessary for the Church. Although Scripture does not always speak directly to the issues we face, we still believe that Scripture speaks a word that forms the life of the community. As such, we must read and interpret Scripture humbly and in community. In addition, Scripture must be engaged prayerfully and acted out in the life of the community. This entails discernment happening within the dialogical deliberation of the community.

Theological anthropology is an important topic in the discussion of bioethics. The Christian tradition rejected Marcion’s dualism, which separated out the spirit from the flesh. Christian Scripture, from beginning to end, posits a bodily existence whereby one cannot distinguish between body and soul. As such, we must treat the person holistically. In other words, medical care must treat both the body and the “person.” In addition, the human person must also be understood in terms of a relational ontology. A “person” is constituted by its relationships, its history.

We are called to compassion. But, the nature of modern compassion stifles the voice of those suffering and seeks to silence lament. However, suffering and lament must be allowed to give full voice. It is within that voice that the person finds meaning in the midst of suffering. Suffering must also be done in the community, not isolation. Compassion must be careful not to negate the pain of the person, but enter into the suffering through presence, for Jesus entered into our suffering and calls us to take up our cross.

Verhey rejects the “Baconian project” along with its utilitarian bent on using the body and its various parts as commodities. We must be cautious and wise in the ways we use technology. However, in Verhey’s discussion of preserving life and suffering with those who suffer, he seems to momentarily violate his own hermeneutic. He asserts that embryos as nascent life must not simply be discarded. However, almost in the same breath, Verhey says that there are justifiable means for abortion, namely some disease like Trisomy 18 or Tay-Sachs.

Although these are horrible diseases, I’m not sure how he can manage to say abortion is okay in this case when he has major moral issues with discarding embryos because they have the possibility of life. For one, only about 25% of those whose parents have the gene for Tay-Sachs will actually deal with those complications. Should there not also be more than benefits and risks factored into the decision of abortion as is stated with other cases? And, is the value of life dependent upon whether or not a person has defects? After all, Verhey’s argument concludes, it is a short move to then say if defects are grounds for discarding life, those that are “defective” should also be eliminated.

However, despite this fact, I do agree with Verhey’s major assessment of the Baconian project. Namely, the Baconian project is about mastery of “manipulable nature.” As such, the “person” can quickly become lost and the quest to end suffering through technology can actually prolong and increase suffering. Our bodies and children are both a gift, not an achievement. For this reason, we are called to be good stewards of these gifts and to treat them wisely. Thus, not all technology or techniques for “improving” the quality of life is permissible on the grounds of faith.

As both D. Stephen Long (John Wesley’s Moral Theology) and Verhey suggest, we must be willing to wrestle with the deep issues of our world, culture, society. The prevailing culture quite often reduces “person” to “commodity.” Technology seeks to replace faith and our need of God. And, the modernistic and “Baconian project” seek mastery over nature rather than awe, respect, and humility. We overreach our capacity for wisely using technology and often seek our own comfort at the expense of others. Although Verhey lacks a fully compelling reason for distinguishing “nascent life” from previous states, I believe his basic intuition is correct. Life is a gift from God and we must treat it as such. How we live that out tangibly may be difficult to discern, but that is why we need the community to engage these issues with seriousness and in prayer.

“John Wesley’s Moral Theology” by D. Stephen Long

Long first wants to assert that John Wesley’s theology can speak for today precisely for the reason that it does not play by the rules of modern ethics. In fact, Long shows that Wesley was not an empiricist or pragmatist, as some have speculated. Rather, Wesley provided a moral theology that was more akin to Augustine and Aquinas than it was to Locke, Hume, or Kant. Because Wesley did not imbibe in the modern view of ethics, it does not also suffer the same destructive fate as modern ethics.

Eighteenth century philosophy provided a framework in which God and the good could be distinguished, separated, and even in contention with one another. The division of truth, beauty, and goodness undermined the very foundation of their being, as Wesley argued. The “good”, in essence, became a law or principle unto itself with no need for reference to a greater power. Thus, theology and ethics were ruptured. Theology, for many, became a dispensable practice since ethics was a “higher form of morality.”

Much of this separation between theology and ethics can also be attributed to the division of will and intellect. Long suggests that it is proper to understand the will and intellect as working in conjunction, rather than one coming before the other in a causal way. In connecting truth and goodness, Long notes:
This entails that doctrine and ethics are not finally separable. In opposition to this, modern scientific ethics separates the good and the true such that one would not need to know anything to be good, for there is finally nothing good but a goodwill. A person could be ignorant of truth and still be good. (69)

This not only ruptures theology and ethics, but centers “the good” within each human person.
Human secularism is not a far cry from this position. When this becomes the prevailing attitude, God, as for Nietzsche, is a non-entity. There is no root or ground for truth, beauty, or goodness. All that remains is the will to power, which renders ethics a tool to accomplish what makes one happy. Wesley’s “moral theology” would have rejected this sentiment outright, believing that such things are intimately connected with the Creator. As such, they cannot be self-contained values but are subsumed within the Triune God’s very character and nature.

Similarly, if God and the good are separated and found within each individual, then morality is no longer dependent upon the Church. Thus, as Hume posits, religion is the enemy of true morality and is an unsustainable discipline. Instead, according to Hume, morality is largely based upon the societal structures and desires for what they perceive to be the good. The “phantasm” of the good renders one capable of assuming that our thoughts are actually God, rather than our ideas and imagination being grounded in God. However, Wesley combats this notion vehemently, recalling our participation in Christ as participation in the divine mind (i.e., the commandments). It is only in grounding our ideas in God that we can appreciate and understand the fullness of morality (God’s will).

Wesley stood apart from the “disinterested” ethics of his day. Instead, he followed the principle of metaphysical participation. In other words, Wesley believed that we could participate in the divine life and mind through Jesus the Christ. Because Jesus was both fully human and fully God, he united the two in such a way that metaphysical participation was possible. It was not merely a phantasm of the mind, but a legitimate way of knowing God and who we were created to be.

Part of this bodily participation emphasized within Wesley’s framework is distinguished in three ways: do no harm, do good, and attend to the sacraments. However, Wesley did not believe that this was sufficient for salvation, but rather could become a mere “righteousness of the Pharisees.” Wesley maintained, as per Jesus, that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. This does not mean that we are not to be hypocritical. The Pharisees were very devoted observers of the Law. Rather, their failure lies in neglecting the weightier matters of the Law and their efforts were not enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s life-giving power. Or, holiness of heart did not provide the impetus behind those practices.

Yet, Wesley’s caution did not keep him from maintaining the importance of attending the sacraments and living out the commandments. In fact, they were vital to a life of holiness, but they simply were not sufficient alone. Thus, Wesley seeks to maintain these practices while waiting on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of those who practiced charity and observed the sacraments. Inward and outward holiness of life had to be held together.

“Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics” by Samuel Wells

Samuel Wells believes that Christian ethics is much like a drama that is to be enacted. He begins his book by discussing three types of approaches to ethics: universal, subversive, and ecclesial. To understand Wells’ connection between ethics and drama, it is necessary to trace the various approaches to ethics.

First, the universal approach to ethics believes there is a meta-narrative that is applicable to all. It is a one-size-fits-all tactic to life. However, Wells notes that this approach is typically governed and enacted by those in power and positions of influence. Thus, it is really only the voice of a powerful minority rather than the voice of all. This is connected with an “objective” approach to the world, which ignores the “subjective” element of life.

The subversive approach to ethics notices this inequality within the world and counters those claims, sometimes by simply replacing the existing meta-narrative with its own meta-narrative. This “subjective” approach might be understood as an “ethic for the excluded.” (33) It is an attempt to allow equal representation for other voices in the conversation. But, the subversive method also meets a similar end as the universal approach.

Wells then constructs a hybrid approach that values both the universal and the subversive elements of ethics. In a sense, it melds both the “objective” and “subjective” components of Christian ethics into a unified whole. To put it another way, the universal ethic is like an epic poem that observes reality from the outside in an “objective” manner without real personal engagement. The subversive ethic is like lyrics that are “subjective” renderings from person experience but which neglect or are difficult to assess the “objective” qualities of the content. Christian ethics, on the other hand, is more like drama that combines the two, meshing both mind and heart in the composition of embodied practices.

Wells contends that this drama is best understood as a five-act play, not simply a one-act play. The “acts” are: Creation and Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton. To understand ourselves in the wrong “act” renders us incapacitated in understanding the story and our role in it. Despite some congruency on this point, Wells neglects a vital connection between acts three, four, and five. Each of these acts bleed into one another. Thus, Jesus preaches that the Kingdom has come and the Church is understood as the first seeds of that Kingdom. Yet, the eschaton is a now-and-not-yet reality. The “acts” might not be a hard and fast division as a play might otherwise suggest, as if simply moving to an entirely different scene! Despite this hesitation, drama does provide an interesting playing field in which to connect ethics.

Wells also distinguishes between two types of ethics. One is a type of situational ethics that is based upon decisions made in the moment of crisis. Wells, however, says that this is a failure to see ethics in a holistic light. Ethics, he suggests, is not simply concerned about what we do but about who we are. Thus, ethics is about our “being” or character. Thus, he supplies formative practices as a way of developing habits that shape character for those moments of decision. Yet, because those practices have intimately, integrally shaped our characters, the decisions are made based on what we “take for granted.” In other words, our habits shape our decisions because we have been trained to be certain types of people.

The framework for ethics has generally been conceived as two possibilities: blocking (saying “no”) or accepting (saying “yes”). Thus, it is either about going along with the greater culture or totally rejecting that culture and not engaging in it at all. Either way is not a very Christian response. Wells opens up a third possibility: over-accepting. This neither blocks nor accepts, but rather “out-narrates” the prevailing narrative of the culture. It is opening up imaginative possibilities for a future that God has already redeemed. Thus, one looks at each moment as a “gift” to be received, not a “given” to be maneuvered through or around.

It takes the formation of creative imagination informed by the practices of the Church which empower us to make imagination ordinary in the moments of crisis. In other words, the practices of the Church train our characters through habits. As those habits become ingrained in our very person, it takes little to no “effort” to make decisions in difficult moments because our character calls for specific action. Beyond this, however, the creative imagination makes it possible to see God’s larger story at work over and against the smaller stories that the world puts before us. New possibilities open up because we are empowered to live our lives in light of the story that God is weaving. Thus, even the broken, sinful moments can become gifts through which God might display God’s glory, power, and mercy.

Where is God in the Midst of Tragedy?

I have been thinking this morning about something Dr. Terrence Fretheim said last Fall.  He was talking about God’s activity in the world, saying this: “God always acts directly but always through agents.”  It reminds me of Exodus 2 where the Hebrews are groaning under the weight of their enslavement in Egypt.  Suffering is their lot in life, it seems.  And the question might very easily be, “Where is God?”  The text says that “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:24-25). 

“Concerned” is too soft of a word.  God “knows” their suffering.  God suffers even as the Hebrews suffer!  God is present in the midst of suffering!  The next scene flashes to an old man sitting in the desert watching sheep.  He’s been doing this for forty years.  He used to be a prince of Egypt… now, he’s prince of sheep (not exactly a CV builder).  It is in the mundane routine that the shepherd, Moses, notices something out of place.  A bush on fire.  That’s not so out of place, but the fact that it is not consumed is surprising.  Moses watches the bush because… well, because what else do you watch in a desert?  After watching for some time, he notices that the bush isn’t being consumed.  So, he gets up to go and take a look to see why it isn’t being consumed. 

It is at this moment that Moses hears God calling him to go back to Egypt as God’s representative.  God will use Moses, flaws and all, to “draw out” God’s people from Egypt.  “God acts directly but always through agents.”  Moses’ seeing and moving toward the burning bush is the opportunity for God to use Moses, even as God has seen and knows the Hebrews’ suffering and is moving toward them and toward their redemption from slavery.  Moses will be the vessel by which God’s presence is manifested in a desperate situation.

The question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering is still one we ask today.  With the recent tragedy due to the great destruction by tornadoes, we may very well wonder where God is at.  Yet, I can’t help but remember this story and recognize that God suffers with us.  God sees, hears, and knows our suffering… and has not abandoned us.  Rather, like Moses, God calls waiting to see who will respond so that we might be sent as a tangible sign of God’s presence in the midst of suffering.  “God always acts directly but always through agents.”