Thursday, December 03, 2015

How Should A Christian Define "Ethics"?

This is a question I was asked recently, and as I am not a professional philosopher by any means, any post of mine would probably fail to hit on many of the considerations which have been debated for millenia. Still, I think this is a worthy question which every person of faith should consider for themselves and their communities. So, in what is probably much too short a post to fully address the issue of Christian ethics, I will offer some of my own thoughts on how I formulate my understanding of Christian ethics, its relationship to human philosophy, and to scripture.

I think that very often, the term "ethical" is implied to be some external good (perhaps a holdover of Platonism?). If there is a God, then I do not think that God's ethics with regard to humanity are an objective, eternal reality by whose standard we are held to account. Before the cosmos (or outside of the cosmos, outside of existence itself), any understanding of "good" or "evil in relation to God would be irrelevant, as there would only be God as an objective reality. And after all, if God is revealed in any way in scripture, it seems immediately clear to the average reader that even in scripture standards change over time.

There are definitely overarching themes which weave their way through the passages and books (and these, I think, are significant for the faithful) concerning standards for justice, but of the 613 mitzvot alluded to in the Tanakh, many are simply impossible to obey today (for example, commands regarding the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists). And most (if not all) of the basic concepts behind the standards for justice in scripture are relational in nature.

I think that, in terms of us who believe in God, ethics must be viewed as entirely relational and not objective. What I mean is, "the good" and the ethics which govern behavior along this standard, is defined as that which encourages harmony between God, humanity and creation. For a Christian, the more this harmony reflects the inner-relationship of the Trinity, and the more humanity's character represents Christ and lives as the image of God (and caretaker of creation), the more ethical we are. We measure these ethics by Jesus' interpretation of the Law and the Prophets: we are good when we love God and love others (even our enemies) as ourselves. We fall short of this ethical standard when we do not.

The commands themselves are relational, and reflect the above relational understanding of humanity's purpose. For the Christian, God is ethical because God sent the Incarnate Word made flesh, to open the way for perfect relationship between God, humanity, and creation. The commands, in this context, do not then act as the substance of ethics, but as part of the road-map leading toward the Incarnation.

This also means that as times change, humanity should ideally change as well. What was "good" for a Medieval or Ancient Near Eastern king is not necessarily good for a king today. This is something on which both religious and non-religious people should be able to agree. It is interesting to me that many non-religious have an objectified view of ethics or the good (as if they were unchanging), but I do not know what this idea would be founded on.

As an example, from an objectively material point of view, landmines are neither ethical or unethical. They are simply an additional and painful component of the chaos which often comes in contact with human lives. From a relational point of view, they are extremely unethical. Not only do they harm the possibility of human relationship in the relevant conflict in which they were laid; but they also harm people for many generations to come and greatly impede the ability of human beings to overcome all the other problems we have to deal with.

#God #ethics #good #evil #relationship #humanity #creation

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