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Does Christian Ethics Exist?

“Would someone please explain what is meant by the ‘Christian lifestyle?’” Elaine made this reasonable request many comments ago in our discussion of “We Ministers Have Professional Standards Too!” “Is it different from an Islamic, Buddhist, Mormon, or atheist lifestyle in a way that is apparent to all around? Is a Christian kinder, more loving, generous, thoughtful and forgiving than others?”

At Loma Linda University, where I teach, we have quite a few courses in “Christian Ethics,” but none that I know of in “Christian Anatomy and Physiology” or “Christian Neurology.” Neither do we offer residencies in “Christian Radiology” or “Christian Orthodontics” or anything of the sort. What’s going on? Several things, it would appear.

Let’s begin by conceding that this is an issue about which specialists in Christian ethics have always disagreed. About half a century ago in Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr, who taught at Yale Divinity School, identified five typical positions that have developed over the centuries. Although it is less pronounced now, in recent years there was some tension between the “Yale/Duke” school on this issue and the “Chicago/Claremont” one. The first emphasized the differences between Christian and non-Christian ethics, the second highlighted their similarities. Neither “school” of thought wholly disregarded the concerns of the other, however.

My belief is that when people ask if there is a difference we can give a short answer or a long one. The short answer is “no.” The long one is “yes.” These responses do not contradict each other because the short answer necessarily restricts its focus to one part of the issue, whereas the long one attempts to be more comprehensive. Paintings also seem different according to how much of them we see at once.

When both are at their very best, there is little or no difference between what Christians and non-Christians actually do. Those who are monotheists and those who aren’t ought to relate to God differently. This is self-evident. But for all practical purposes how they interact with other living and non-living things is the same. If this is all we are talking about, there is no difference worth discussing between Christian and non-Christian ethics. This is the short answer.

The long answer is that, like the several floors in a tall building, engagements with ethical issues occur at several different levels of interaction, and if we take them all into account there are important differences. One of several good ways of sorting this out is to say that on the first floor we consider alternative “judgments” about specific deeds. Whether we should keep a particular promise is a simple illustration. On the second floor, we work with “norms” such as protocols, policies, criteria, standards, and so forth, which are more general in application. An example of this would be that here we deal with just war criteria and guidelines for nonviolent resistance. The difference between the two floors is not the topic but the degree of generality.

On the third floor, we handle even more general “themes.” For Americans, these include “liberty and justice for all.” For many of the ancient Greeks, wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice were front and center. For Christians, the First Testament emphasis upon love as loyalty (chesed) and the New Testament focus upon love as graciousness and mutual respect (agape) are decisive. For Buddhists, the “Eight Steps to Enlightenment” really matter. So do the expectations in “Twelve Step” addiction recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

On the fourth floor, we wrestle with comprehensive visions of life. This is where we encounter alternative worldviews, such as those offered by Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism, on the one hand, and the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, on the other. We engage their more secular counterparts as well. Marxism, Existentialism, and Pragmatism, and some forms of Postmodernism are examples.

This attempt to distinguish different levels of ethical engagement, and others like it, make it possible to make three basic proposals that bring us back to the initial question. The first of these is that as we move up the “floors” our engagements with ethical issues and options become increasingly general and abstract. The second is that as we journey upward from floor to floor we become less concerned about “what” we should do and more interested in “why.” The third suggestion is that as we travel up these stories the differences between Christianity and other ways of thinking and living become increasingly apparent.

At the level of particular “judgments” there is hardly any difference. When we move up to “norms” we begin to see some variation. We often stop there; however, if we move up to the third level to “themes” the differences are pronounced. The differences between the comprehensive visions of life that we encounter on the fourth floor are sometimes difficult to exaggerate.

The more we ask “why” instead of “what” questions, the more different our answers become. We see this sort of thing in several important movements in our time. It is notoriously easier to get bioethics committees and commissions with diverse people to agree about what should be done than why. We also see this pattern in the widespread preference for democracies. Some contend that they are attractive because ordinary citizens are good enough to participate in responsible decision-making. Others say they are necessary because all people are so evil that no one should have a monopoly on political power.

We see same thing in the civil rights movements. Those who work together on behalf of healthier and fairer societies during the week often attend different churches, synagogues, and temples on the weekends. Perhaps the most recent illustration is the emerging co-operation of atheistic evolutionists and evangelical Protestants on behalf of ecological richness and sustainability. It is difficult to imagine less difference at the first level of ethical engagement and more at the fourth!

The future of human civilization depends upon this kind of collaboration.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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