Whenever I pick up a book on philosophy, I always wonder how many people actual think about ethics, morals or philosophical leanings? Sadly, most people I know never stop to consider why they believe what they believe or examine the reasons for their actions.
This is where The Matrix of Christian Ethics is a helpful book. It makes clear that most people (religious or not) may not think about the reasons for their actions, but they should! Whether they think about it or not, all people act according to particular principles based on underlying reasons. Understanding how we formulate our moral decisions can help us to act better—more gracefully—toward others. This is so important, because the least compassionate people are often those who are most dogmatic concerning their rules for life.
I found this dogmatic approach well illustrated in a minister friend who, not surprisingly, was fond of quoting Ecclesiastes 12:13: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Not a particularly happy verse, but clear and to the point. Notice the emphasis: fear, duty and commandments! This minister, who never went anywhere without his big black Bible, was guided by this simple passage. His sermons and personal advice focused on obedience to God, which meant simply applying the clear guidance of Scripture to every problem and situation. The emphasis on was “on the authoritative speaking of God and the need for unconditional human obedience. Here, the Ten Commandments are the timeless heart of Christian ethics.”[i] All problems and their answers tended to be black and white. Either you followed what God commanded, or you chose not to. In his system, matters of character, personal growth, the Holy Spirit and the church community had no real relevance. One simply needed to do what God said…that was the “conclusion of the matter.” There was found in this system little empathy or humanity.
I always wondered why this minister never quoted a similar passage (also found in his Bible) that also attempted a “conclusion to the matter,” but this from Micah 6:8: “O man, what is good. And does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This passage seems a far better summary of the Old Testament, coming at the conclusion to Prophets and anticipating the life and teaching of Jesus, who would embody this very passage. Here was a radically different approach to ethics than fear and following rules. Here, the question is first breached: What is good? What is required by God is now one and the same thing as what is good. This suggests that there is good that comes when we do what God requires. But look at what is required: Not blind obedience to specific rules, but general guidance to act in mercy and justice, and walk humbly with God. What I believe that my minister friend was missing was the fact that the “law is not simply about obscure commands but about the commands of a triune God expressing his love from the depths of his being for the care of his creatures.”[ii] In other words, the “law has its ultimate source in the caring, loving, providential activity of God.”[iii] Here, obedience was to experience and live within the care and love of God. Doing what is required grows—not out of fear, but–out of a loving relationship with a loving God. “The law is not simply a matter of outwards obedience to static rules but of loving God with our entire being, complete and undivided. And God desires that our love for him be expressed in love toward others in concrete actions of care.”[iv]
The emphasis shifts from rules and obedience to the care and love of others as a basis for Christian ethics, based on the example of Jesus and the mercy and love he shared with us. “According to this emphasis, Christian ethics is, in the first place, about imitating Jesus. It is a Jesus-centered ethic placing a greater emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount than on the Ten Commandments.”[v] The Sermon on the Mount then provides illustration for what it means to act justly, to show mercy, and what a life lived in step with God might look like. Notice that Jesus’ teaching here lacks dogmatic rules and hard commands. It rather discusses character, attitudes, matters of the heart and general principles for a life of mercy and grace. Jesus describes a life of “Christ-likeness,” of joy (blessedness) under the care of God. It is an ethics that comes from the inside of the believer, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear: “The conscience is developed as it submits to the influence of Christ, Scripture, and the faith community through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not simply about blind obedience to the hard facts of the law, but it is about discovering joy in obedience to the purposes we were created for.”[vi]
My minister friend loved God, loved the Bible and worked tireless to live a holy life. His view of “the good” is very simple: Fear God and be obedient to His clear rules. What is lacking is—what I call–the “human factor”; that God is concerned with more than mere obedience. He is concerned with character, with relationship, and with spiritual life that rarely finds an echo in any hard set list of rules. As Stanley Grenz stated: “We cannot simply collapse truth into rational certainty. Rather we must make room for mystery—as a reminder that God transcends human rationality…Christian truth is more than correct doctrine. Truth is both socially and linguistically constructed, and at the heart of Christianity is a personal encounter”(my italics).”[vii]
How do we approach ethics? Scripture tells us what is good, not only for us, but for God. What is good is a life of knowing God who is love and being guided by mercy and justice in messy reality of daily relationships. Not an easy task, but one Jesus himself took on in order to be our guide.
[i] Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christina Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2010), 158.
[ii] Ibid., 163.
[iii] Ibid., 162.
[iv] Ibid., 164.
[v] Ibid., 159.
[vi] Ibid., 187.
[vii] Stanley Grenz, Primer on Postermodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), quoted in Leonard Hjalmaron, Introduction to a Missional Spirituality (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014) 31.