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Christian Ethics Exam September 17, 2023
According to our primary text (Lovin), Ethics is the method by which we make decisions in line with having “a good life”. What constitutes a good life is different for everyone but is largely shaped by our culture and our early experiences.
Christian Ethics incorporates our experiences with our embedded theology and drives our decision making as we seek to live “a good Christian life”. In broad terms, a good Christian life is centered around living according to our interpretation of what God requires of us, what fosters harmony and brings good to those with whom we are in relationship, and what brings happiness and satisfaction to us as individuals.
Living a good Christian life is deliberative. As humans, we use our experience and our reasoning to make deliberative choices in line with our beliefs about what living a good Christian life entails. There are times when our choices are driven more by what we want as individuals in contradiction with what we believe God wants for us, or what is right for others with whom we share community, and when those choices are harmful, they are considered unethical.
The beliefs we learn growing up and what we are taught about God and the Bible early on in our lives guides much of our decision making. What constitutes Christian Ethics in one family is wholly unacceptable in another.
For example, although we were taught in my family that it is good to say blessing at meals, it was never enforced. As a child, I saw other Christian families pray together, and it seemed a good thing to me. I was taught that God wanted us to give thanks for our provision. Family prayer seemed a solemn holy act, and I not only thought it would make God happy, but also that it would make me feel good, and that it would bring us closer as a family. My behavior as a young child was guided largely by teleological ethics (Wells); I was focused on what would show the most love to God and culminate in the most good for my family.
When I’d ask to pray at dinner, the idea was never met with resistance, but it was left to me to say the blessing. I didn’t do it often because it felt awkward and forced. After a while, I didn’t do it at all. My lofty goals gave way to practicality. I succumbed to Natural Law (Wells), in this instance embodied by the norms and customs of my immediate family. Compromising my ethics was in some sense a matter of self-preservation.
My uncle was a Reformed Baptist minister. I did not have a good relationship with my own father, so I sought my uncle’s approval from the time I was very young. I never received it. In his family, not praying at mealtime is considered sinful. Their core belief is that all our goodness and all good things come from God — that individuals are not capable of being good or bringing goodness into their lives without God’s favor. In my uncle’s family, relationship with God is highly transactional. To take personal credit for anything is an afront to the Creator, who will withhold blessings as punishment. The motive behind all choices is driven by a fear of punishment and a fear of hell. Their Christian Ethics is based on Divine Command; the commandments of God as recorded in scripture (Wells).
When I am eating out with a colleague, and they bow their head to say a silent prayer over their food, I am taken aback. Not because I think it’s a bad thing, but because it is not typical in our society today. It also reminds me how badly I wanted to pray with my family and how disappointed I was that my father didn’t care enough to make it part of our tradition. It also causes a pang of guilt because I do love Spirit and want her to know I am thankful for my food and all the good things in my life.
As an adult, I developed and now hold firm to a core belief that I will not allow my choices to be dictated by past disappointments or guilt, so I have never implemented the practice into my life. To me, living a good Christian life does not require I pray over my food. It is a lovely gesture, but that is all I see it as. A lovely gesture. I no longer give it much thought at all.
In writing these words, it’s clear how much of my personal narrative, my early experiences and Christian training shaped my choices around prayer at mealtimes. As much as I’d like to believe I don’t make decisions based on past disappointments, it is clear I actively avoid prayer at mealtimes in large part because of the negative memories it evokes.
What I’ve described is the process of deliberation (Lovin). My choices are the result of my relationships, what I was taught about God as a child and what I have come to believe about Spirit as an adult, and all the knowledge I’ve accumulated from the choices I’ve made throughout my life, both good and bad. The culture and time I live in also greatly influences my decision-making. It’s incredibly rare to see people engaging in traditional Christian behaviors, such as prayer at mealtimes, in the spheres I inhabit.
Somewhat independent of all of this is my areteological ethics (Wells); my desire to live virtuously and develop the virtuous aspects of my character.
I did not have a full understanding of what it meant to live virtuously before taking this class. I thought living virtuously was following Divine Commands as revealed in scripture. That is the message I received from my family and the teachings of the churches I’ve attended.
I abandoned relying on Divine Command as the primary basis for ethical decision-making very early on in life. I learned there is no definitive way to determine Divine Command. Even if God’s commands were crystal clear, what we determine to be the right, best, and most godly choice is always in the context of our learning, our experience, and our situation.
I now understand living virtuously is making choices driven by the cardinal virtues of temperance (moderation), fortitude (courage), prudence (practical wisdom), and justice (morality) (Lovin). As I’ve gained wisdom through the experience that comes with age, and as I’ve deepened my understanding of what it means to live a good Christian life, the desire to develop virtuous character has become the primary impetus which guides my deliberative ethical choices.
Lovin, Robin W. 2000. Christian Ethics: An Essential Guide. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wells, Samuel. 2010. Christian Ethics: An Introductory Reader. Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.