On Cosmic Ethics and Proverbial Fish

On Cosmic Ethics and Proverbial Fish

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ethics and Christianity for several different reasons, but especially because of Reinhold Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. In the book, Niebuhr critiques modern moral theory on the grounds of its temporality and inability to incorporate the eternal and infinite into ethics. His approach emphasizes the deep significance of time, temporality and eternity for ethics. Unfortunately, Niebuhr doesn’t develop the reasoning behind this significance as much as I would have liked, but he got me thinking.

The relationship between the eternal and the temporary is a complicated and esoteric one. Perhaps the struggle comes in that we don’t really know what time is, but find ourselves completely bound by it. It is not possible, as far as I know, to really conceive of eternality or even of temporality. We find ourselves as the proverbial fish unable to understand what water is.

Thus, how time and timelessness can impact ethics is an even more difficult matter. Niebuhr, however, cues us onto an answer. He argues that modern moral theory is concerned with this action right here, in other words, it sees the ethical quality of an action as essentially temporal. “All modern moral theory may be briefly described as complacent finiteness.” (pg. 67)

Niebuhr goes on to explain Christianity’s combination of eternality and ethics:

“The distinctive contribution of religion to morality lies in its comprehension of the dimension of depth in life. A secular moral act resolves the conflict of interest and passion, revealed in any immediate situation, by whatever counsels a decent prudence may suggest, the most usual counsel being that of moderation–’in nothing too much.’ A religious morality is constrained by its sense of a dimension of depth to trace every force with which it deals to some ultimate origin and to relate every purpose to some ultimate end. It is concerned not only with immediate values and disvalues, but with the problem of good and evil, not only with immediate objectives, but with ultimate hopes. It is troubled by the question of the primal ‘whence’ and the final ‘wherefore.'” (pg. 5-6)

Enlightenment ethics fits this analysis perfectly. For the two big Enlightenment theories, every action is evaluated purely temporally. Kant tells us to universalize the particular action we are considering, and Mill tells us to predict the consequences of this particular action. They are both unable to transcend this action to locate ethics in some eternal end or purpose. Ethics is a matter of this moment right here.

Kant gives us not a moral rule but a moral method. Mill offers us no ultimate rules but a simple criterion to judge morality by. Mill’s criterion comes close to achieving a telos, but still fails. Maximizing happiness may be a good goal, but still sees happiness as a matter of the temporal and the finite.

What, then, is Niebuhr’s solution to this? How does eternality and temporality affect ethics? Here is where it becomes unclear, at least on my reading. Thus, at this point, I don’t pretend to be offering Niebuhr’s answer, just mine. It seems to me there are two  answers to this.

First, if we assume that virtue ethics is the biblical ethical system (a point Jonathan Pennington defends exegetically) we must recast ethics slightly. Any ethical question is not just a question about this action here but about the habit that this action tends towards. Does this habit cultivate virtue? This approach wisely recognizes that actions are never isolated but connected to each other (a point we’ll come back to), such that one action opens up the way for a broader habit. As all of us who have violated boundaries know, once you’ve broken a rule once it becomes far easier to break it again.

To steal a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, an ethical action is a virtue-producing habit extended through time. We are now questioning habits of a lifetime not decisions of a moment. But this still ultimately binds us to temporality. Aristotle, for example, ultimately has no other end goal but happiness. Granted, the way he envisions happiness is certainly not the most un-Christian vision in history, but neither is it quite Christian. Aristotle is not envisioning a lifetime in heaven or the deep, time-transcending happiness that comes from experiencing the love of Jesus.

Christian virtue ethics combines eternity and the temporal in a simple way. Since Jesus, eternity made flesh, is the ultimate moral exemplar that we imitate (imitation being the staple of virtue ethics), we are not just imitating dispositions and habits that are temporally wise. Rather, the ethical Christian life dictates that we imitate the eternal dispositions of God, incarnating them in history as Jesus incarnated them.

This is all over the Biblical text. John is constantly emphasizing that Jesus and God are one, and the way Jesus loved us (dying for us) is the way we should love one another (i.e. imitation of God). In fact, we are to be virtuous, just like God is virtuous (Matt. 5:48).

By imitating God we incarnate his eternal dispositions in the everyday. Thankfully, Jesus has already given us the habits that will inculcate these eternal dispositions in us (serve others, pursue reconciliation, don’t divorce, walk an extra mile, pray in secret, etc.).

The other way one could incorporate time into ethics is likely not what Neibuhr had in mind but my personal favorite. Taking a cue from MacIntyre, we know that any action is only intelligible in the context of a narrative. MacIntyre gives his famous example of a man who, standing next to him at the bus stop, suddenly looks at him and says, “The name of the common wild duck is histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” Without a story this action is unintelligible but:

“We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me for someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: ‘Do you know the Latin name of the common wild duck?’ Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. ‘But what shall I say?’ ‘Oh, anything at all.’ Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact. In each case the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative.” (After Virtue, pg. 210)

Ethics presupposes meaning. The mutterings of a man in a coma have no ethical status. They may be tragic or heartbreaking but one can hardly pretend to assess their moral value. If an action has no purpose or intent it has no moral value.

But as MacIntyre makes clear, only within a narrative can an action have meaning. Modern ethics locates that meaning within some temporal story, but such temporal stories are inadequate. As Niebuhr makes clear, we require a grander story, at some level, to make sense of the world. We need to be dealing with “the primal ‘whence’ and the final ‘wherefore.'” We might say that honesty will bring moral satisfaction (a narrative) but we have to ask why moral satisfaction is really worth anything at all. We ask this not in some annoying philosophical sense–”well why would we even want to be happy at all?”–but simply a question about how we can render the action of moral satisfaction intelligible.

Let me explain: if I ask you for a hammer, that request is only intelligible in light of a narrative. For example, I might be building a house. But why am I building a house? Once again, this only makes sense within a narrative. I would like a place to live. Why would I like a place to live? Eventually we end up, as ancient thinkers have often noted, at the simple desire for happiness. They are right, of course, that it makes no sense to ask personally why you wish to be happy, but it is worth asking why this thing or that thing produces happiness. And, we must ask if there is not some better way to achieve happiness, some greater good that satisfies at a deeper level. Temporal narratives leave us guessing and hoping–”I feel pretty happy right now,” we are forced to say, with no idea whether what we are experiencing is really happiness, if it will really last, or if it is even ethical. We just know it makes me happy.

To solve these problems we need an eternal narrative. We need to know something about the goodness of desire and the possibility of satisfaction. We need to know that we are created to desire all sorts of things–contra many Eastern religions–and that these desires are good and can be satisfied. We also need to know why they can be satisfied–because the Good has created them, and their goodness flows from his nature.

Now are are telling stories, cosmic ones, that give deep meaning to even the simplest of actions. This impacts ethics in all sorts of ways. From a Christian perspective, creation itself is involved in a narrative of recreation, and the evil within reality is not just temporal evil but eternal, cosmic evil. Theft doesn’t just fail a test of universalizability but it actually disorders reality further, fighting against the inevitable New Creation.

Thus every single ethical action, on the Christian stance, either moves us and reality towards the New Creation or away from it. It either reorders reality–perhaps simply by reordering our own hearts–or destabilizes and disorders reality. It either draws us back to our final Good or pulls us away from him forever. For the Christian, ethics is cosmic.

Importantly, this is not just esoteric theologizing. This changes our vision of daily choices. In deciding to yell at my brothers I side with the old world and move myself away from my real good and happiness. I disorder reality just a little bit more for myself and for my brothers.

When tempted to lust I am pulled in two directions: do I destabilize the proper relationships between human beings and turn an eternal soul into a pure object for sexual pleasure, or do I rebel against disordered reality and attempt to incarnate the love of Jesus towards this woman in front of me?

Paul channeled this in Philippians when, confronted with a life in prison and a deep desire to die, brings together eternity and the present: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He describes his inner struggle between being with Jesus and reaming “in the flesh” to help the Philippians. He concludes:

“But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for you progress and joy in the path, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (1:24-26)

Paul brilliantly brings together the eternal and the temporal. Remaining the temporal, he says, is necessary for the Philippians “progress and joy in the path” of eternal salvation. All of this will cause the Philippians to glory in the eternal Son of God because Paul is coming to them again soon. Every decision and ethical dilemma Paul presents here locates the meaning, intelligibility, and moral status of the decision in an eternal and temporal narrative.

And so, Niebuhr seems to have put his finger on something important. I’m not happy with any of the thoughts I’ve given here, but they at least have clarified in my mind some of the relationship between time and ethics.

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The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

The Sermon on the Mount is an enigma. Its ethical demands seem unrealistic and idealized, its teachings contradictory to any grace-centric gospel, and its content little more than a random collection of oppressive moral standards. But Jonathan T. Pennington, in his book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, quite convincingly shows us that these problems are not ones inherent to the Sermon. In fact, many of our problems stem from the fact that we don’t read the Sermon as Matthew intended. We are clouded by modern moral theory, and thus prevented from the real message the Sermon intends to get across.

Pennington’s basic thesis is that “the Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced–How can we experience true human flourishing? What is happiness…and how does one obtain and sustain it?” (pg. 14) Read against this backdrop, the Sermon is less about how to be saved (easing the law/gospel tension), and more about how to flourish. Indeed, it may not be too much of a stretch to say that the Sermon is a guidebook to happiness.

Pennington begins by outlining the two “encyclopedic backgrounds” to the Sermon: the Hebrew wisdom tradition, and Greek moral philosophy. These come together in Pennington’s discussion of the word makarios, often translated “blessed.” This word starts the nine beatitudes, but is unfortunately thought of as referring to the blessing of God. On this reading, the pure in heart, for example, will see God as a reward for their purity, and the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit because of their spiritual poverty. In other words, this reading sees the Beatitudes (and the rest of the Sermon) as outlining requirements to receive the blessing of God.

Pennington helpfully points out that the word makarios simply cannot sustain that reading. Makarios is always used to translate a particular Hebrew word which refers not to blessings by God but to a state of flourishing. Thus the Sermon provides us a path not to receive blessings from God but to flourish in his world.

Armed with these insights, Pennington then meticulously shows how every command in the Sermon must be read from a virtue ethical standpoint. The introduction alone is worth the price of the book, and the rest is full of clarifying and insightful comments.

Pennington examines several other key terms in the Sermon before diving into a commentary on it. The commentary is probably the weaker half of the book, but it still serves as a clear and thoughtful guide to the ethical world of the Sermon. Throughout, Pennington delivers us one simple reading of these commands:

“The Sermon’s answer to the human-flourishing question is that true human flourishing is only available through communion with the Father God through his revealed Son, Jesus, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This flourishing is only experienced through faithful, heart-deep, whole-person discipleship, following Jesus’s teachings and life, which situate the disciple into God’s community or kingdom.” (pg. 13)

Pennington also highlights the central role of imitation in this. Imitation is found throughout the Sermon (5:17, 20, 48, 6:25-34, and 7:13-27). Unfortunately, many commentaries on the Sermon focus on the rules and commandments and their interpretation, rather than the interpretive key the Sermon itself delivers to us. That is, if true virtue is only found through imitation of God, then the ethical commands of the Sermon are simply descriptions of the character of God.

Thus, of course anger is not always wrong because God is often angry. But God also pursues reconciliation with his people at all costs–even the cost of his own life. Thus we are similarly to pursue reconciliation, not murderous anger.

Of course praying in public is not always wrong–God Incarnate prays in public! But crucially, Jesus does not deliver, for example, his prayer in John 17 to bolster his own self-image but to help his disciples.

If Pennington is right, the intractable moral conflicts we find ourselves in by interpreting the Sermon as a set of absolute commands rather than careful descriptions of a person may be the result of an unfortunate Kantian lens.

Thus, not only does the book carefully exegete the Sermon, it also acts as an incredible treatise on Christian ethics. Of course, Pennington doesn’t develop a full moral theory, but he gives us the groundwork to apply the paradigm of the Sermon to other ethical teachings in the Bible.

Pennington’s reading also resolves other key tensions throughout the Sermon. Is the moral vision of the sermon unattainable? Of course, because the basic message of the Sermon is: be virtuous exactly like God is virtuous. But that message is not a requirement to enter the kingdom but a path to achieve a happy life. The more one imitates God the more fulfilled, happy, and flourishing one will be.

One thing I wished Pennington pulled out more is the central role of habit in the Sermon. The Greek background places habit at the center of the ethical life. We become ethical by imitating a virtuous person, Aristotle would say, but we imitate them by littering our lives (as one of my teachers put it) with virtuous habits. So, Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics 2.1 says:

“Virtue of character results from habit…virtues…we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having previously activated them. For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it, becoming builders, e.g., by building and harpists by playing the harp; so also, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions. What goes on in cities is evidence for this also. For the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them, and this is the wish of every legislator; if he fails to do it well he misses his goal. [The right] habituation is what makes the difference between a good political system and a bad one.”

Matthew picks up on this in the solutions he gives to moral flaws. For example, in 6:5-6, Matthew identified praying in secret with the door shut as the solution to showy prayers. Of course, that in itself doesn’t fix the problem. Our hearts can still crave the approval of others even if we pray in secret.

Has Matthew completely missed the point? Not quite. Praying in secret with the door closed is the type of action a humble person would take. If you didn’t care about other’s opinions, you would pray in secret.

Matthew, then, is recommending a habit that will eventually reshape the heart. Augustine picks up on this in his analysis of the Lord’s Prayer:

“The question can be asked as to why there has to be prayer if God already knows what we need…The very intention to pray soothes and purifies our heart and makes it better disposed to receive the divine gifts…God does not hear us through the earnestness of our prayers, because he is always ready to give his light to us…yet we are not always ready to receive it because we are inclined toward other things and are under the shadow of our desire for what belongs to the temporal order. A movement of the heart, therefore, takes place in prayer towards the one who is always prepared to give.”

This pattern runs through the Sermon. We remove lust by removing the ability to lust, we fight anger by habitually pursuing reconciliation, we prioritize truthfulness by refusing oaths, we eliminate revenge by serving our enemy, we fight hatred by greeting the other, we stop showy prayers, almsgiving, and fasts by secret prayers, almsgiving, and fasts. In short, virtuous habits are the solution to sinful vices.

Despite this omission, Pennington’s book is definitely worth reading. His careful exegesis acts not only as a guide to the Sermon, but also as an incredible foundation for Christian ethics. Of course, Pennington doesn’t develop a full moral theory, but he gives us the groundwork to apply the paradigm of the Sermon to other ethical teachings in the Bible.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing reads the text closely, presents relevant historical background, and radically re-orients our moral vision.I highly recommend it.

We are Not Holier Than Those in the World

“Love one another, fathers…Love God’s people. For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, but, on the contrary, anyone who comes here, by the very fact that he has come, already knows himself to be worse than all those are in the world, worse than all on earth…And the longer a monk lives within his walls, the more keenly he must be aware of it. For otherwise he had no reason to come here. But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved…Do not be afraid of your sin, even when you perceive it, provided you are repentant, but do not place conditions on God. Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate the atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, nor those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time. Remember them thus in your prayers: save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you. And add at once: it is not in my pride that I pray for it, Lord, for I myself am more vile than all.”

–Fydoror Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book IV, Chapter 1

David Foster Wallace Tells Us About Empathy, Redemption, Literature, and the Reality of Suffering

My sister texted me this quote. And I loved it. I have no idea where it’s from.

“I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”

-David Foster Wallace

Addendum to Marx Goes to Church

This isn’t a dialog. But. I wrote this dialog to try to sort through one of Karl Marx’s objections to Christianity. In it I toyed around with the idea that the rupturing of community is fundamental to both the Christian idea of man and the Christian idea of sin, taking from Genesis 3. One more somewhat obvious addition to that:

I was reading Jeremiah 18 in my Bible reading plan yesterday morning. I came on vs. 15-16.

“15 But my people have forgotten me;

they make offerings to false gods;

they made them stumble in their ways,

in the ancient roads,

and to walk into side roads,

not the highway,

16 making their land a horror,

a thing to be hissed at forever.

Everyone who passed by it is horrified and shakes his head.”

The interesting thing about these verses is the order it gives to the communities/relationships that have been ruptured. A broken relationship with God (“But my people have forgotten me”) inevitably leads to a broken relationship with our environment (“making their land a horror”). But the relationship with God is the source of the problem and thus also the locale of the solution. So this is basically an extension of the response to Marx’s critique that Christianity takes us away from community by making our most basic nature individual rather than communal.

Marx Goes to Church

Marx Goes to Church

Some notes.

1. I’m a philosophy major, so this is me trying to understand different philosophies and their relationship to Christianity. This is also me exploring any rabbit trails these philosophers set me off on. As such, any and all conclusions here are entirely tentative. To borrow a phrase, the only thing I’m certain of is that I’m not certain.

2. This isn’t necessarily responding to Marxism itself. It’s more taking one critique that Marx levied against protestantism and religion and thinking theologically about that.

3. Also, the priest does not represent me. The priest represents potential responses I could see someone making.

 4. And finally, I don’t know what’s up with this church, but whatever. 

Karl Marx walks into St. Cornerstone’s Church of the First Baptist. It’s set up like a super cool contemporary church, with lights and cool music, but he sees the priest–yes, priest–approaching him in full robes. He would wonder what sort of a denomination this church is a part of, but he’s too busy thinking about all the alienated labor the building represents.

Priest: Karl, I didn’t expect to see you here.

Marx: Neither did I.

Priest: You know, I’ve been reading some of your work lately. It’s been very interesting.

Marx: Oh really? What part.

Priest: Well, I just finished up “On the Jewish Question.” I had many questions of my own as a result.

Marx: I’m surprised you read it. It does, after all, critique religion quite intensely.

Priest: You’re right, it does. But I’m curious about the critique. I actually found myself mostly in agreement with it and yet, well, I’m still here at church, preaching, doing the sacraments, and doing other priestly things.

Marx: Then I don’t think you’ve fully understood the critique. To preach religion is to ask men to see themselves primarily as individuals. Protestantism specifically has turned man inward to focus on his own guilt before some sort of God. It then portrays salvation as an individual salvation that reconciles one to God and demands moral behavior as a result. But such a theology reduces man to an individual, taking him out of his species-life.

Priest: I actually don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. I would just want to expand your understanding salvation.

Marx: I’m listening.

Priest: Well, let me start with a question. From your perspective, what is the solution to this religious problem?

Marx: We have to see people primarily on a species level. We are all part of political communities and this political being, this communal, social being in a relationship not only with ourselves but also with others, is who we really are. We have to realize that we can only be ourselves, only realize ourselves, in a political community. Religion refuses to allow this, instead making the individual’s personal spiritual relationship with the Divine the focus, rather than their species-life.

Priest: Well, I’m not entirely sure. I think the Bible sees an individual’s personal spiritual life as one part in a much larger fabric that is the reconciliation of the entire cosmos with itself and with God.

Marx: How so?

Priest: Well, think about the storyline of the Bible. It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t ever let us think that people are primarily individuals. In fact, one of the first lessons the Bible teaches us is that we are irreducibly social beings. Adam, after all, had to find another human before he could cure his loneliness.

Marx: But then it immediately turns the focus inward onto the guilt of the individual!

Priest: Well, not quite. Genesis 3 shows a rupture in the entire community. The community, at that point, is revealed to be not just Adam and Eve, but Adam, Eve, God, and even nature itself. How? The ground is cursed and will now resist Adam as a result of Adam’s sin. Adam and Eve are separated and start blaming each other. God is separated from all of them. Right at the start, sin is presented not fundamentally as the incurring of guilt but as the fracturing of a relationship. After all, the punishment for Adam and Eve isn’t that they now have to feel bad about themselves, or that there’s a legal sentence passed against them, it’s that they’ve been cast out of a perfect relationship with nature (Eden), a perfect relationship with one another (Cain and Abel), and a perfect relationship with God. There are aspects of personal guilt, but the guilt is actually a manifestation of a deeper problem. If we experienced harmony with everything as we ought we wouldn’t be guilty or experience guilt.

Marx: You seem like you’ve removed any guilt at all from this.

Priest: Also not quite. See, this is where personal guilt comes in. Individually, we can all contribute to this alienation from each other, the environment, and God by sinning. Sin ruptures communities and sins are committed by individuals. These sins do incur guilt.

Marx: And see, this is where religion goes. The fundamental problem is always the individual.

Priest: You have a point. I’m still tempted to say no, though I’m walking out on a limb here. The fundamental problem could actually be seen as a refusal to recognize our embededness in community and our need for others. So, for example, Genesis 3 displays two human beings, in perfect harmony with themselves, each other, the environment, and God heading out on their own to find what will give them individual pleasure and satisfaction. They refuse to find themselves in a perfect relationship with God and a perfect relationship with everything else. They refuse to find self-realization in community, and instead look to something individual to solve this.

Marx: So salvation is the community. That’s my point.

Priest: Here’s where I definitely have to disagree with you. I think the mistake you make is by assuming that humanity’s individual life is the problem but their species-life is basically fine. But communities themselves can be ruptured.

Marx: But as you said, they’re ruptured by seeing ourselves as individuals.

Priest: And so for communities to be healed that individual sin (guilt) has to be healed. That’s not the end goal. That’s a step along the way. The perfect community isn’t salvation, the perfect community is what we would call heaven.

Schweizer’s Thoughts on Righteousness

So, this sounds off, and I’m really not sure I buy it, but it was interesting enough to share. From Schweizer’s commentary on Matthew I quoted yesterday:

“If, then, we follow the Old Testament in understanding the righteousness of God as the power of love seeking to carry the day on earth and win men’s hearts, we can no longer make a sharp distinction between God’s actions with respect to men and the human actions that spring from God’s. The question is only one of emphasis.

Earlier, he made this claim:

“[In the OT, God’s] righteousness is without exception salvation for his people (Isa. 4:5; Ps. 22:31; 40:10; 69;28; etc.), which of course includes judgement upon Israel’s oppressors.

That seems fairly obvious. But how we get from that to righteousness = love I don’t understand.