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.