Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Relational Ethics

After reading a summary of the recent Barna Group survey on Americans and our "Biblical" morality, one of the things that struck me about it was the rather clumsy understanding of what does and does not constitute a Christian ethical framework.

What was presented in the study was the old tension between deontological and consequentialist ethics...to which you would justifiably say...what? Quoi? Basically, what that means is that morality tends to be understood in two separate ways.

"Deontological" ethics are ethics that appeal to or are founded in an absolute truth. Measured against that standard, things are either right, or they ain't. "Consequentialist" ethics are entirely contextual, and are classically and clumsily articulated as "the end justifies the means."

The Barna report implies that a fundamentalist "Biblical" morality was absolutist. It is, of course, but in such a way that doesn't really reflect the Bible.

The challenge for each of these approaches is that neither framework captures the foundation of Christian morality. Are we absolutists? Sure. It's very difficult to believe in God and not have a sense that morality transcends our immediate context. But the nature of that absolute belief...at least as Jesus taught it...is a bit different than the way it gets typically presented.

What Christian faith is not is a belief that a certain set of rules or laws have absolute authority. This has been the failure of both the hierarchical absolutism of Catholicism before the reformation and the literalist "Biblical" absolutism of Protestant fundamentalism. Christian faith is, instead, focused on an absolute that defines and governs both church and scripture. That absolute is the assertion that God is love. God's love is the heart of Torah, is made manifest in Jesus, and continues to articulate itself through the presence of God's own spirit working in the hearts of those who are willing to receive it.

If we accept this understanding of God as the absolute that governs our ethics, an interesting thing happens. Love is an absolute, but it is an absolute that can only be articulated contextually. If we are absolutely committed to loving our neighbor, then the way that love expresses itself must take the other...their needs, their context, their identity, their self...into account. If it doesn't, then it cannot be described as love.

The relational ethic that lies at the foundation of Torah, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles explicitly spans that gap between the absolute and the infinite array of contexts and perspectives into which we have to apply it.