Sunday, May 06, 2012

REVIEW - REVIVING EVANGELICAL ETHICS: Part 2

Chapter 4: Sweet Hour of Prayer

Arriving at the third of the three classic ethical systems, Reuschling provides the definition for Aristotle’s theory of virtue ethics missing from the opening chapter: the acquisition of specific virtues, or those qualities that make a person good, enables that person to achieve a life of happiness, which is the end and substance of the moral life.[1] Righteousness is referred to more often in Scripture than virtue likely because the former points to God’s acts rather than to human achievement.[2] A fact not lost on Reuschling in this chapter.

Reuschling sees a great deal of commonality in Aristotle’s virtue ethic and Christian morality. In fact, she states that virtue ethics has an important place in Christian morality.[3] Jesus personally modeled proper Christian virtues during His incarnation. Since we have the perfect example from which to draw, it is not enough to ask, “What would Jesus do?” The proper question is, “What did Jesus actually do?”[4] Clearly, the life of Jesus is to be used as the norm for the Christian moral life.

If this is the case, spiritual formation as moral formation becomes our focus and is the process by which believers are transformed into the image of Christ.[5] Reuschling presses this point emphatically stating that spiritual formation is moral formation and that one cannot be molded into the image of Christ without also being committed to the moral and ethical concerns of Jesus including righteousness, justice, and peace. Of course, an improper understanding of such virtues leads to behavior as seen in Israel between 700 – 600 B.C. where the people hid behind their own spiritual “rightness with God” as His people at the expense of others.

In concluding, Reuschling reiterates that the Christian cannot be conformed to image of Christ and not be touched by social injustices. Though her remarks would likely stir spirited debate in certain evangelical circles, Reuschling’s willingness to call out her brothers and sisters in the faith for their skewed sense of justice is a major strength of this chapter. Her weakness is in stating her belief in the need for practices such as prayer, meditation, fasting, contemplation, and solitude while seeming to say that these should be tempered by her view of social justice.

Chapter 5: Reviving Evangelical Ethics

Attempting to make good on the promise to address the question she raised as to what really evangelical practices, Reuschling launches in the fifth chapter of her book by proposing three dimensions she deems vital to an appreciation of the ethical life in an evangelical context. Reuschling states, “These are the development of conscience, the role of Christian community, and the practice of moral reflection and ethical deliberation as a means for becoming an ethically competent thinker and practitioner.”[6]

Stating that moral development requires not only the formation but also the use of conscience, Reuschling explains that the understanding of total depravity taught by Luther and Calvin is the basis of a high view if sin. She sees as further complicating the assessment of conscience evangelical fear of subjectivity, the desire for simplicity, and the tendency to spiritualize ethical issues.[7] From this point Reuschling moves on to repeat an earlier statement that the believer is forced to face reality only if the Bible is actually read.

Strengths of this chapter include that thoroughness characterized by the entire book. Regrettably Reuschling returns to her verbose ways delivering a chapter twice the length necessary to accomplish the task at hand.

Reuschling’s Conclusion

In her concluding remarks, Reuschling launches a final volley at the evangelicals from which she comes offering her reflections on three practices held dear: preaching, small groups, and service.[8] Of preaching, Reuschling expresses her concern over topical sermons and cherry-picking texts at the expense of the larger narrative from which those texts come. Concerning small groups, she first states that though this is likely the shape of the early church, we evangelicals have only recently “discovered” them. Rather than forming small groups based on specialized needs, Reuschling recommends groups that cut across generational, class, lifestyle, and gender boundaries.[9] Of service, Reuschling encourages groups to make a commitment to service and being open welcoming others rather than being perceived as being closed to new members.

Conclusion

Reuschling uses her book to identify and classic theories of ethics and how those theories have impacted Christian morality. She certainly succeeds in this task seemingly accomplishing what she set about to do. The books begins with a very academic tone and is challenging to follow the author’s train of thought as she spends more time than necessary meandering through some parts of the book. While coming to her work from an evangelical background, she seems to become increasingly hostile towards her roots as the book progresses. In the opinion of this seminarian, her critical analysis of those roots in the context of Christian ethics and morality seems to border on attacks at times while at others seeming to closely identify with them.

It is apparent that Reuschling has a passion for her work and the topic at hand. While her book is certainly worth reading, it would be quite difficult to recommend it to a layperson or anyone other than a seminarian, theologian, philosopher or ethicist. The needless level of difficulty in the presentation of the material covered in the book makes this one only the most dedicated of readers should undertake. Still, the contribution to Christian ethics is significant and this is a book to which reference will be made by this seminarian.



[1] Ibid, 116.

[2] Achtemeier, Paul J., and Literature Publishers Harper & Row and Society of Biblical. Harper's Bible Dictionary, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 1114.

[3] Reuschling, 120.

[4] Ibid, 123.

[5] Ibid, 124.

[6] Ibid, 145.

[7] Ibid, 147.

[8] Ibid, 170.

[9] Ibid, 178.

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