Thursday, May 03, 2012

REVIEW - REVIVING EVANGELICAL ETHICS: Part 1

INTRODUCTION

Dr. Wyndy Corbin Reuschling’s book, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality, seeks to explain the misconceptions of Christian ethics. Writing in a style best suited for seminarians, theologians, and perhaps philosophers, Reuschling’s background as a professor of ethics and theology at Ashland Theological Seminary is quite evident. Though academic in approach, Reuschling writes from the perspective of evangelical insider comfortable with the language, the communities, the commitments, and the moral and spiritual practices valued in evangelicalism.[1]

Reuschling approaches the topic at hand by conducting an examination of three classic theories of ethics, deontology, teleology, and virtue ethics. Deontology is a term first used by J. Bentham in 1826 for the science of ethics or moral obligation.[2] Teleology is essentially the science of ends or final causes.[3] However, for her purposes, Reuschling defines the term as being typically understood as the ascertaining and achievement of moral outcomes or ends by considering the consequences of decisions for the good they achieve or harm they minimize.[4] Virtue ethics focuses on individual character shaped by and reflected in the decisions, behavior, and habits of the individual.

During her review of these three classic theories, Reuschling seeks to compare and contrast these views while looking in depth at the forms that these theories have taken in evangelical morality and ethical practices. At its core, Reuschling is trying to answer the question of what really shapes evangelical ethical practices.

Chapter 1: Classic Models of Morality

After a lengthy introduction, Reuschling opens her discussion by describing each of the three classic theories used in her work. Beginning with deontology, Reuschling uses the work of Immanuel Kant who was among an informal group of philosophers who rejected the authority of the Christian church and opened the door for the acceptance of humanism.[5] The foundation of Kant’s ethical system is his categorical imperative also referred to as absolute moral law. Kant believed actions must be drawn from a sense of duty dictated by reason rather than from obedience of a law or custom in order to be considered moral.[6]

Kant sought to find a morality that could be decoupled from religion not because he was against religion but because he believed that morality had to be based on a what all people have in common. Kant’s categorical imperative relieves a person of the contingencies of ethical decision making by focusing on one’s duty rather than desires or the ends produced. Geisler’s description, more succinct and easily understood, clarifies Reuschling’s description by stating of Kant’s view that duties are duties regardless of the consequences.[7] An example of Kant’s categorical imperative is that of telling the truth where if lying were to become a universal rule then there would be no more truth to lie about.

Having thoroughly discussed Kant’s categorical imperative, Reuschling turns her attention to teleology and the work of John Stuart Mill. Mill expanded on the idea of Bentham and the notion of utilitarianism focusing on maximizing the general happiness by trying to determine the greatest good for the greatest number of people.[8] Utilitarianism has for its focus three notions that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically good, no person’s happiness is more important than another person’s, and the only thing that is ethically significant in judging an action is the outcome.[9] The links between doing good and happiness and a measureable outcome make this ethical system attractive to many people. Where a deontological ethic believes that the result is always calculated within established rules, utilitarianism, or a teleological ethic, believes the result sometimes justifies breaking established rules. The description provided by Geisler and Wilkens greatly assists the reader in understanding teleology.

The last of the three classic theories of ethics is virtue ethics as understood by Aristotle. Building on platonic thought, Aristotle believed that acting like a human being is commensurate with acting like a rational human being, and acting like a rational human being is the same as acting as a good human being.[10] In short, be good. Aristotle’s thinking here is that reason must be educated since it is what ultimately controls the passions of human beings. Intellect is the seat of virtue and the virtuous person is one who pursues happiness using higher faculties over the course of a lifetime. Here, Reuschling and Geisler are both far more complicated than is necessary whereas it is Wilkens who provides the clearest explanation.

The key strength of the first chapter of Reuschling’s book if her thoroughness in the approach taken. Clearly she has done a tremendous amount of research on the three classic theories of ethics. Where her strength is in the research conducted, the weakness of chapter one is the unnecessarily complicated explanations of these theories. There is tremendous value in the ability to explain the complex in easily understood terms, even to academics, which Reuschling seemingly misses.

Chapter 2: Trust and Obey?

Reuschling’s focus in chapter two is deontology which she renames trust and obey. Her purpose in doing so is to demonstrate the limitations of reducing Christian morality to mere rules to be obeyed.[11] Reuschling rightly points out that under Kant’s approach to ethics, God is unnecessary because human beings have the ability through reason to ascertain truth and to act accordingly. Further, rules to be followed make sense according to reason even though they may have been previously revealed by God. As such, belief in the God who revealed the rules is unnecessary since any reasonable creature is capable of following a universal moral code.

The issue Reuschling brings to the fore is this narrow view of Scripture excludes the rich narratives and contexts behind the prescriptions found therein while being careful to acknowledge that deontological commands do exist.[12] Reuschling also rightly points out that our moral obligations are not exhausted when we simply do what we are told to do. There is a purpose to our obedience beyond this. As a cornerstone of obedience, Christians are required to actually read the Scriptures allowing them to interpret, sanctify, and reorient the lives of believers.[13] Reuschling believes if this reading were actually taking place that the behavior of the church would be decidedly different when approaching polity, war, economics, and even immigration; a sentiment with which this seminarian is inclined to agree.

The strength of this chapter is again found in the thoroughness Reuschling demonstrates. Her approach also uses language that is not overly and unnecessarily complicated. Laypeople should not struggle with this chapter as with the first. The weakness to be found in this chapter, if there is one, is the length of the chapter itself. Reuschling uses twenty-three pages to accomplish what could have been done in chapter half the size.

Chapter 3: We’ve a Story to Tell

With an unexpected description of a church in the early nineties beginning a contemporary worship service, Reuschling begins her treatment of utilitarianism. Her question: is the greatest good for the Christian faith in seeing the “greatest number” saved by whatever means possible?[14] Do the ends justify the means as teleological ethics eventually leads one to believe? This view builds on the assumption that what has the desired effect for the greatest number of people is inherently good and just.

There are four issues expressed by Reuschling about this ethic. First, this ethic leads people to the belief that the church exists to meet the needs of the religious consumer. Second, believers are free to pick and choose which aspects of Christianity to apply to their lives. Third, this ethic is in direct conflict with the Christian obligation to serve the least of these among us. And fourth, utilitarianism easily lends itself to be used in support of the ends justifying the means.[15] Again, this is clearly contrary to biblical teaching. Essentially, “getting saved” is stressed as the only important thing and life change is unimportant once this salvific experience has taken place.

Reuschling’s candor and openness in this chapter is the key strength found there. Questioning they type of Christians created by meeting the “needs” of the religious consumers in the “spiritual marketplace” is intriguing for the reader and is an open condemnation of the church moving towards the secular ways of drawing a crowd. Reuschling rightly reminds her readers that Christendom needs people who practice the ways of Jesus as His disciples viewing the church as an agent of the kingdom of God. If a weakness is to be found in this chapter, it is again the logorrhea Reuschling employs needlessly.



[1] Reuschling, Wyndy Corbin. Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 27.

[2] Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 473.

[3] Ibid, 1594.

[4] Reuschling, 10.

[5] Story, Dan. Christianity on the Offense: Responding to the Beliefs and Assumptions of Spiritual Seekers. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), 141.

[6] Anderson, Kirby. Christian Ethics in Plain Language. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 3.

[7] Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues & Options, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1989, 2010), 69.

[8] Anderson, 16.

[9] Wilkens, Steve. Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right & Wrong. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 90.

[10] Reuschling, 51.

[11] Reuschling, 66.

[12] Ibid, 72-73.

[13] Ibid, 86.

[14] Ibid, 90.

[15] Ibid, 92-93.

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