Thinking About Christian Social Ethics

Any ethical speculation ought to start with an awareness that “it’s only cheating if you get caught.” This is meant descriptively rather than prescriptively. All ethical issues, I mean, are necessarily social in character. Only in a context of competing notions of justice or “the good” do we need to speak ethically. Bearing that in mind, I argue here that Christians ought to shape both the content and delivery of their ethical convictions based on the context in which they find themselves. Further, an ethic that takes into account all of the concrete realities of one’s social situation will necessarily end up speaking to different audiences in different languages. I will establish a basic rubric for thinking about ethics and public engagement through a brief thought experiment. Then, I will sharpen those insights through some engagement with Richard Rorty’s material. Finally, I will point out some of the difficulties with Stanley Hauerwas’ separatist position based on both my earlier arguments and a brief encounter with Tertullian.

Consider an extraordinarily simple ethical dilemma. Jason and Terry are on a dessert island with a cow. Jason wants to slaughter the cow for steaks, but Terry wants to keep it alive for milk. Their positions are deeply held and (obviously) mutually contradictory. What will happen? In this case, Terry and Jason have available to them only two options: persuasion or force. Suppose they are friendly, peaceable guys. Their goal will be to convince their island comrade of the rightness of their own position. To do so successfully, they will need to explain their position in terms that their island friend understands. If they cannot find a way to communicate their position and desires to the other, the task of persuasion is pointless. At that point, assuming Jason and Terry were both very adamant in their convictions, the dispute would be settled by physical force. The winning argument would be reduced to “because I said so and I’m stronger than you.”

What does this unrealistic thought experiment mean for religion in the public sphere? The basic insights, I believe, still hold true. Our awareness of the basic parameters surrounding ethical disputes ought to guide our approach to ethical engagement. Suppose that instead of speaking of Jason, Terry, and the island cow, we are now considering the United States of America and marriage equality for GLBT persons. Which forms of argumentation ought to be considered and/or encouraged in the public sphere? Richard Rorty recognizes rightly that religious convictions cannot be kept out of the public sphere. One reason for this, although Rorty would not frame it this way, is that both religious claims and secular claims have a “faith” component. That is, at some point all claims from a text or other source of authority—whether the Bible or (in Rorty’s case) John Stuart Mill—eventually come down to an irreducible assertion. “Faith,” then, whether in a religious or secular costume, will be part of the conversation.

Rorty argues that certain invocations of faith, while legally permissible, ought to be forbidden by custom. He writes that the invocation of the book of Leviticus to oppose marriage equality “should be deemed not just in bad taste, but as heartlessly cruel, as reckless persecution, as incitement to violence.” His prescription for a response to such forms of public argumentation is that those who invoke Leviticus in this context be “shunned and despised.” (Rorty, 143) I would consider that response to be both ideologically mistaken and counter-productive. The reason that appeals to Leviticus in this context are unacceptable has to do with the nature of the argument being made rather than the particular content. Appeals to Leviticus in this context out to be discouraged on the basis of the fact that they are not part of a coherent ethical argument on the scale of national politics. The argument that same-sex marriage be disallowed is analogous to Jason claiming that the island cow cannot be milked because he wishes for the cow to wear a hat. This new scenario is not an either/or ethical decision and Terry would be foolish not to make that appeal before resorting to violence against Jason. Likewise, those who invoke Leviticus to oppose marriage equality should not be shunned, as the abuse will likely only fuel their false sense of victimhood and strengthen their conviction. Rather, custom ought to suggest that they be challenged to make the case for why exactly their personal ethical qualms about homosexuality are a matter of public concern.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to bring an irreducible claim into a public conversation. (By public, I simply mean any sized conversation that is not contained amongst people who subscribe to the same sort of irreducible claims.) One can either attempt to translate their belief into language the other parties will understand or make an appeal to a tangible reality that shows the meaning of their belief—“this is what this belief does.” Neither of these methods will carry the exact meaning of the original irreducible claim, but translation and indirect suggestion are the best that can be hoped for in this sort of scenario. When all of these methods reach their terminus (and eventually they will) a decision must be made by some combination of social consensus and use of force. By insisting that issues of public (read in this case as “national”) ethics be settled according to methods of argument that address all involved parties either through translation or indirect suggestion, we can limit the need to ostracize or exclude religious voices on the basis of their religiosity alone.

* * * * *

Stanley Hauerwas, in his chapter “On Keeping Theological Ethics Theological,” notes that over the course of the 20th century “American society was increasingly becoming a pluralist and secular society.” (Hauerwas, 61) He cites with disapproval the post-Enlightenment trend of Theologians seeking to “demonstrate that theological language can be translated into terms that are meaningful and compelling for those who do not share Christianity’s more particularistic beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth.” (60) Hauerwas notes that “[t]heologians and religious ethicists avidly read philosophers; the compliment is seldom returned” and that “anyone who wants theological language to be taken seriously…bears the burden of proof.” (54 and 51) He frames his central objection to the trend within liberal Christian ethics as such: “As American society becomes increasingly secular, Christian ethicists come to think that, if they wish to remain political actors, they must translate their convictions into a nontheological idiom. But once such a translation is accomplished, why is a theological idiom needed at all?” (68)

The key phrase in Hauerwas’ question is “if they wish to remain political actors.” In so far as Christian ethicists wish to make arguments in spheres that include non-Christians, they need to eschew theological jargon as much as possible for the simple reason that Christian theological terms do not mean anything to non-Christians. To bring a religious claim into the public sphere without making some attempt to translate the belief into a language accessible to the public is to acknowledge that the viewpoint being presented is not actually an ethical concern pertaining to the larger public. Refusing to offer a translation of or indirect suggestion to the meaning of a religious conviction is merely a sanctimonious version of “because I said so.”

Of course, a theological idiom may be very much necessary in the context of a conversation between people who share religious experience and beliefs in common. In that case, the idiom does not need translation because the conversation partners are coming from a place of shared meaning. This type of discourse is perfectly appropriate for the sort of Christian community that Hauerwas has in mind—namely, a “community distinct from the world.” (72)

The problem with speaking ethically only within a theological idiom, though, is that Christian communities are never actually “distinct from the world” in a separatist sense. In reality, Christian communities are always dependent upon the larger social order of which they are part and parcel. Tertullian makes the point well in his own ancient context. In many ways, he argued, Christians are model citizens. He writes, “it is not without a Forum, not without a meat market, not without baths, shops, factories, inns, market days, and the rest of your business enterprises that we live with out—in this world….How we can appear worthless for your business, when we live with you and depend on you, I do not know.” (Tertullian, 29) The same insight holds true in our modern context as well. Those forms of social organization that presume themselves separatist are in fact dependent on either commerce with the wider world or the good will of people who make their livelihood through involvement in the wider world. Separatism is often little more than a different type of dependency.

Since Christians are members of the wider social order structured by national politics, they should not absolve themselves of ethical responsibilities in that arena. If they imagine that their Christian beliefs are of value to the life of society as a whole, then they ought to be bringing them to bear at a number of different levels of ethical discourse. Whereas a congregation or small group of believers can speak in an insider’s theological idiom, those same insights will need to be translated if they are to be understood at a national level. Christian ethicists, then, are responsible to a wide variety of spheres, and, as such, must be “multilingual.”


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