Lost in Ethical Reflection
October 28, 2010 § 7 Comments
In the spare moments between course work, normal life, and our new blogging project, I have been attempting to narrow in on my thesis topic a bit more. I’ve found it difficult for two reasons: (1) it seems to be dually focused on Christian ethics and theological anthropology; and (2) it seems to be dually focused on a specific doctrine (ethics) and a specific thinker (Bonhoeffer). I have found that converting this into a coherent thesis topic is not as straightforward as I thought it would be. If you’re interested, I offer some of the reflections that have been rolling around in my mind lately, what my personal starting point for this thesis is. Of course, a personal starting point doesn’t always make a good scholarly starting point, so I’d love to hear what you think in terms of how it might be focused. I’m always open to the wisdom of my peers.
Christian ethics is often pursued as the attempt to conform to ‘the Good’ and reject ‘the Evil’, but in fact this is precisely the dichotomy that makes ethical reflection non-Christian. For an ethic to be truly Christian, it must be normed not by the knowledge of good and evil but by Christ. It must be defined not by our reach toward the gods of right and wrong but by God’s reach into our very lives. It must be governed not by principles but by a person. It must refer not to a dead letter but to the living Word. Christian ethics, therefore, must begin at the incarnation and the resurrection.
The logic of the incarnation is twofold. First, it states that Jesus Christ was really God made human. What God was, the Word was; whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father also. Second, it states that Jesus Christ was really God made human. What we see in the face of Jesus is not only God but ourselves. Not only was he truly God but he was truly human. In Christ, God and humanity are truthfully revealed. The extent to which we differ from Christ has not to do with his divinity but with his humanity––becoming like Christ means becoming human. If we are to equate “being like Jesus” with ethical perfection, we must understand that this process is less about being conformed to his deeds and more about being formed to his person. WWJD must be replaced with WWJB––who have we, in Jesus, become? If our deeds imitate those of Christ, it is because we now participate in his new humanity.
Christian ethics must also begin at the resurrection. The resurrection says that we serve a living and active saviour, a God who has come into our lives and continues to work in and among us. Participation in the new humanity means participating in what Jesus is doing today. WWJD must be replaced with WIJD––what is Jesus doing? It is not so much about imitating what we think Jesus would have done in a given situation; it is about discerning what Jesus is actually doing in this situation. The action of a Christian is an expression of their new being in Christ and is normed by the contemporary ministry of Christ.
Obeying God’s command should thus be viewed as both an expression of who we are and a participation in God’s activity. When we consider these two concepts together––and they certainly should not be divorced––we assert that Christian ethics is human participation in God’s activity through the new humanity of Christ. Through Christ, we participate in what God is doing in the world today. Yet God’s activity inheres in his being, and we cannot truly be caught up in the action of God without also being caught up in the person of God. Surely such a thing would be unthinkable apart from the hypostatic union! Put more succinctly, the Christian life is life in the humanity of Christ.
The essence of sin is bondage, the bondage to a subhuman way of being. The essence of God’s command is freedom, the freedom to live as human beings before God. The question driving my thesis, the question which I believe to be the starting point for all Christian ethical reflection, is this: How does our new humanity in Christ find concrete expression in our lives?