Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener unpack the intersection of ethics and Christianity in their work The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context. They begin with a definition of ethics as “emphasizing the methodical thinking of morality rather than morality itself (9).” As pertains to Christian ethics they offer the working definition of “methodological reflection on the values, norms, virtues, and purposes of human life in one’s contemporary context, drawing on Scripture and the tradition of faith (12).” Tracing philosophy’s intersection with ethics, we find that ethics at its core is about helping people and society live a “good” life. Ethics is essentially about how one ought to be, magnified to also how the world ought to be. In this sense, there is so much at stake both theologically and existentially at the intersection of Christianity and ethics. Christianity in itself is an ethical framework, a totality, of seeing and understanding ourselves and our place and purpose in the world. Proper Christian ethics allows Christians to show their moral authenticity to the world in their proper orientation to God, neighbor, and creation. Much is at stake.
Ethics of course need to be situated in the real and practical reality of our everyday culture. Currently much of Christianity in the west faces a crisis of how to implement an authentic Christian morality and way of life in the face of the postmodern turn. Holding to perceived traditional ethical stances is seen as regressive and dangerous. The concept of historical Christianity has been rejected by most. Absolute truth has become anachronistic. In our political climate of victimization, the idea of evangelization carries a stigma of one group imposing their dominant world view on others by force and manipulation. Metanarratives are abusive, thus, “by you explaining that my truth does not get to God, you are being abusive.” The very essence of evangelism seems to scream “exclusion” to many people.
The postmodern turn has even strongly influenced the way churches and individual Christians see evangelism. I would suggest in the Western church we may have a crisis of evangelism, as many no longer believe in the need for evangelism having bought the postmodern assumption that evangelism is always a power play, colonialism in disguise. Still others are simply embarrassed by it, or don’t know how to ethically navigate the call of the Great Commission in Western society. I have experienced my own crisis of evangelism many times, working in a cultural paradigm where even if there is a God, he is cruel and distant, thus evangelism is an evil manipulation.
Perhaps, thinking about evangelism ethically can help solve this problem?
Towards the Morality of Evangelism
Christian theology, often against the broad sweep of ethics and philosophy, finds that humanity faces a major barrier in its quest to find shalom. That barrier is sin. Sin taints our world, and divides us from God, our neighbor, and the creation. As humans we yearn for a healing of sorts to bring all into a peaceful unity, however, this remains elusive at best. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, a time when all would be justice, peace, and harmony. Ultimately his call, and the message of Christianity is an ethical call to live out lives that are indicative of the Kingdom of God, while thus waiting its final consummation. In the already/not yet tension of the resurrected Lord Jesus, as humans we can experience the reality of the goodness of the Kingdom now, while also yearning, believing, and working towards its very real coming. This is of course good news.
The barrier of sin still exists to keep us from living out the ethical mandate of the Kingdom. This is where Nullens and Michener develop a strong framework for the importance of Christian ethics. It is through the Son, sent by the Father, that on the cross sin is conquered and humans are restored into Trinitarian relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The ethical call of the Old Testament is then renewed in the New Testament as equipping all humanity for every good work, that is an ethical life that manifests the kingdom of God (2 Timothy 3:17). However, this ethical state can only come through Jesus, as through his death and resurrection we are free to enter into relationship with the Father liberated from sin, and empowered and transformed by the Holy Spirit. Thus, we are freed and empowered to live the ethic of Trinitarian love.
What is more, the authors suggest that this new ethic of love written on our new hearts by the redemption of Christ and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, further allow us to live out the ultimate ethical life, by our broken relationships being radically healed. Sin has entered the world, and broken the relationships that exist between ourselves and God, neighbor, and creation. As Bob Dylan sang, “everything is broken.” We are broken people and as such fully incapable of joining the Trinitarian love in its redemptive work. The forgiveness of sin and its banishment, allow for right loving and restored relationships, flowing in both directions, to exist. I would add a fourth element to their three part ethical relational structure: God, neighbor, creation, and then self. The work of the cross also heals the broken relationship we have with ourselves (found in our anxieties, neurosis, psychological conflicts, etc.) further opening ourselves up to be a part of the loving mission of the Kingdom.
Reclaiming Good News
Evangelism simply means good news. I would also suggest that in light of our current world situation, full of violence, exploitation, and ecological stress, that evangelism is much needed. It offers the starting point for all to enter into the true ethical life of Trinitarian love, and to begin to live orientated towards the eschatological desire. It offers personal healing, relationship with God, peace amongst all people, and the restoration of creation. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? In fact, it is our best hope at addressing the ethical failings and conundrums of the world, because by entering into right relationship with God we are freed from the barriers of and our brokenness in sin to have our hearts transformed for love and thus act accordingly.
Ethically and morally, if we care about our neighbor, should we evangelize them?
Can we speak of and believe that evangelism may even be the source of solving such massive global issues like ecological collapse?
Can Western Christians recapture a confidence in evangelism once again?