Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Searching for Moral Structure in a Changing World

Written by: on November 9, 2014

It is difficult to find a moral voice that speaks with authority and clarity in a twenty-first century secular society. Perhaps the voice is there but is obscure, nearly impossible to hear and discern in a pluralistic society. Richard Lischer in The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence suggests that in the Christian church those speaking, the preacher and the prophet, have remained embedded in a cultural and religious language of the past. Moral voice is lost when spoken into an arena where no one is present. The voice must go where the action is and speak into the nihilistic confusion of a diverse population. He notes, “The preacher does not contend with competing messages that are easily named but with principalities and powers that envelop us and swim effortlessly beside us in the sea of words.”[1] The danger here is twofold: on the one hand, in the midst of the confusing voices, to fail to speak at all; on the other, it is attempting to speak above the “other” voices and thereby failing to “listen” to what others are hearing.

I believe American Christianity, perhaps all Western Christianity, struggles with this lack of voice. Patrick Nullens and Ronald Michener in The Matrix of Christian Ethics suggest a number of issues that are “signals of a moral crisis.”[2] The authors note that there is a significant lack of moral voice in the area of legislation and politics. “When the moral mindset slackens in the minds of the majority, laws are changed to reflect the changed values.”[3] We live in an era when political correctness supplants moral values and voice is frightened from speaking. I cannot help but think back to the “Moral Majority” of the nineteen seventies and eighties. Their voice, however, in retrospect seemed to be the “embedded” voice that Lischer portrays as speaking into the oblivious past. “The members of the Moral Majority frequently perceived the modern lifestyle as decadent, promiscuous, self-indulgent, and vacuous.”[4] Can Christianity have a voice that speaks to culture and society today and if so, what is that message? According to Nullens and Michener the “Christianity community is called to grace, charity and hospitality”[5] and the moral voice will be heard when the proclaimed ethics does “not lose the responsive and contextual character of life in the church.”[6] They state clearly the impact of the Christian message:

In our view, only an ethics of grace stemming from a gracious response to Jesus Christ crucified, buried and risen (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) can offer an answer for renewal in the contemporary landscape of our polemically driven world.

Ultimately it is the Christian message that speaks, according to Lischer, when “the people of God claim their identity … thereby [they] constitute a powerful witness in the world.”[7] It is the narrative witness of grace and love, not argumentative words of retribution and condemnation, he notes further, that will challenge and expose the “listener to being fundamentally changed …”   The Christian voice is a reconciliation narrative. The Christian voice participates “in something larger and better than our inherently violent disposition toward enemies. This something Paul terms the ministry of reconciliation. We have found our role in God’s script at last.”[8]

I have not read a book on ethics, per se, for twenty years. Nullens and Michener is both an introduction and a refresher in ethics. It was particularly helpful to have clearly defined definitions such as: “Christian Ethics: is methodological reflection on the values, norms, virtues, and purposes of Christian life in one’s contemporary context, drawing on Scripture and the tradition of faith.”[9] It was revealing to see ethics from the perspective “methodical thinking of morality” and “critical reflection on mores, customs and morality.”[10] The authors use of the matrix concept though the book made what could have been philosophically challenging concepts easy to understand.

The Christian ethics matrix provides a contemporary model for living in a complex postmodern world. As a pastor, I know that the members of my congregation have not thought seriously about the conflicts that confront them. They are content to say “The Bible tells me so.”[11] I dare not pick Sunday School curriculum that  is not saturated with scripture. A congregation that is maturing in age and declining in membership is undoubtedly clinging to the “absolutes” upon which their faith has always been erected. They are quite oblivious to the philosophical shift that has taken place around them and the need to be “in dialogue with our ‘situatedness’ within a matrix of shifting cultures and contexts.” I do not anticipate using this text in an adult Bible class any time soon; however, I expect that as a leader, my own studies will help me to lead the members to relate to the questions of right and wrong, good and evil in the ever changing and complex environment in which we live.

[1] Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), Kindle, 112.

[2] Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener,  The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2010), 28ff.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] “Moral Majority.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (accessed 8 Nov. 2014 http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401802744.html

[5] Nullens, 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lischer, 1235.

[8] Ibid., 1245.

[9] Ibid., 12.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Ibid., 190.

About the Author


14 responses to “Searching for Moral Structure in a Changing World”

  1. Liz Linssen says:

    Hello there,
    This is a really well written blog post. I especially like where you wrote, “We live in an era when political correctness supplants moral values and voice is frightened from speaking.” So true! And isn’t it strange the politicians don’t see it. It certainly takes a lot of courage to stand up for moral causes today.
    You mentioned about your congregation. If there were a question you wanted to challenge them with in this area of ethics, what would that be?

    • Richard Volzke says:

      Many in my formal church are so consumed with materialism and “keeping up with the Jones” that they look and act no different then the sinners around them. My question would be “do you look like Christ or the world?”

      • rhbaker275 says:

        This is a very difficult question to answer. Not that Bible teaching and the life of Jesus is difficult, although there must be room to listen to those with a different perspective or different assumptions, there is however, a need to see things in cultural context. Some things, of course, are clear in every context. An example the authors use is “stealing.” What does it mean? And when? And why is it wrong? In Africa, if I leave my hammer laying out on the ground over night and it is discovered by an indigenously acculturated African the next day, it is acceptable to think I don’t need it and so it is okay to take it. On my occasion, I once discovered (found) a 30′ tape measure (of considerable value) buried in the loose insulation of an attic, obviously lost by a previous contractor. What did I do? When I can down out of the scuttle to the attic, I drove a nail and hung the tape measure where the “rightful” owner might find it. Not every thing, however, is absolute according to my perspective. I don’t mean to say we always have to live in the indecisiveness and fear of the “grey area” but in a post modern multicultural context we ought to be open in an inclusive sense of hearing. The authors note that “Customs or mores point descriptively to life as it is lived in a particular context or culture” (9).

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks Liz,
      From a political perspective, morality is blurred and the normative issues that Nullens and Michener speak of (15) are hidden or disguised in political speak. The authors note that “people often hold values, norms, and moral behaviors without being able to substantive or explain why they hold such values and norms.” More then ever in America, having just completed a political cycle, the moral voice in public space is a morass of confusion and double speak. Politicians know that one word can destroy and debunk a career; taking an explicit personal stand on moral questions results in a biased media exploiting the issue to benefit their place on the political spectrum.

      It is probably at this very point that we are challenged with leading our congregation: How to have a voice on issues of morality in the public space in a postmodern, postChristendom era. I really like what the authors, by way of introduction, have to say about the dimensions or levels of reflection in studying ethics and morality. It seems to me the teaching/leading in a pastoral setting does not entail “ethics” per se, but it must address the “normative issues” and “latent ideals” that create tension in believer’s lives and chaos in public life. Reflection on “mores, customs, and morality” provides for a “deliberative” (deep understanding that goes beyond this is so because “I have always been told it is so) theology that helps the Christian understand what they believe and why, a necessary perspective before moving into the public space.

  2. John Woodward says:

    Ron, you always bring in other voices into the conversation that I find so fascinating – and I end up adding them to my wish list. I was especially captured by Lischner’s comment about the two important dangers: the first, “to fail to speak at all; on the other, it is attempting to speak above the “other” voices and thereby failing to “listen” to what others are hearing.” This is so perfectly stated. I find that most people fall into either of these two categories. Most have strong feelings or passion about an issue, but are just two afraid or non-confrontational to speak up, while those who do speak up tend to do it poorly, bulldozing over others rather than creating space for dialogue. This I think ties into your later discussion of those in churches that are pretty well stuck in their dogmatic thinking and give no room to listen to the whirlwind of ideas and insights that is postmodernity, because that will disrupt their thinking. But, by making room, it will, I believe, strengthen their faith and create space for mercy that often is lacking in those who hold to strong points of view. It seems that this theme keeps coming up in our discussion: Listening! Maybe we are seeing a new development we can call the ethics of listening! How refreshing it would be to create this kind of matrix in some of our older Sunday School classes, in our denominations and throughout our culture. Thanks for adding another interesting book to my collection…and for your great insights!

    • rhbaker275 says:

      John, thanks, great reflections!
      I find “The Matrix of Christian Ethics” to be a terrific and easy to read/understand text on a difficult and important study. It presents the questions of morals and morality, personal and public, in the context of contemporary postmodern society. Once again, I have to confess to not making a careful reading of each chapter. Most of my take-away at this point is from the introduction (great) and the final two chapters on “Biblical Ethics” and “facing Moral Problems.” I hope I will be able to come back to the six “phases” in making a choice when facing a moral dilemma.

  3. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Ron, Great post. I appreciate your remind us to speak into the moral crisis of our time and also “listen” to what others are hearing.

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks, Telile,
      I wish I was a good listener. I try to be more conscious of what people are saying – it is to easy to be thinking about how we are going to reply without hearing what the person is saying. This is more difficult in the public space. Speaking without listening can get one into “deep water.”

      It is interesting to study the encounters that Jesus had with persons and the public. Jesus often responds with a penetrating question that makes it obvious that he “heard” the person.

  4. Clint Baldwin says:

    Love this post. Thanks.
    Too often in the past, ethics has been pursued by Christians often at the expense of (oddly enough) love/grace. It is wonderful to see a healthy interactivity of those aspects in your post.
    I think that almost always, primary purposes focused on particular adherences become quickly rigidified and passé. However, primary purposes focused on principles retain relevance and immediacy.

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