Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christian Ethics by Ronald Preston (Part 2)

Welcome to the second part of my summary of Ronald Preston's essay on Christian Ethics.

In part 1, I looked at the basic ethical message drawn from the gospel accounts of Jesus. The key innovation of Christian ethics was its radicalised form of love or agape. This was a completely disinterested and selfless form of love.

In this part, I look at how that message was adopted and transformed by St. Paul and other early leaders of the Christian church. I close by examining some common criticisms of Christian ethics.

1. St. Paul and the Early Church
Although there is no direct account of the teachings of Christ in Paul's various letters, Preston thinks it clear that he grasped the basic message as being one of love (Romans 13).

Unlike Jesus, Paul offered specific guidance to members of the early church. A good example of this comes in 1 Corinthians 7, when he answers questions on the subject of marriage. When giving this specific guidance, Preston argues that Paul demonstrates a failure to fully absorb the Christian message. This is particularly evident in his sexist teachings with respect to the place of women.

One notable aspect of Paul's teachings is that they were not otherworldly. He did not suggest that the followers of Christ abandon the interests worldly existence and sit about waiting for the End Times. So he did not embrace the full apocalyptic import of Jesus's teachings.

Moving beyond Paul, the later books of the New Testament (Colossians, Ephesians etc) show the early church struggling to keep to the radicalism of Jesus. This is perhaps understandable: after the apocalypse failed to come, the church leaders had to find some way to keep Jesus's message relevant. Preston argues that they did so by regressing slightly, by downplaying the centrality of agape and by adopting a patriarchal view of society.

One final development can be observed in Hebrews and Revelations: the almost complete abandonment of the message of love. For example, in Revelations there is no express desire that sinners will repent and accept Christ; rather, there is an exultation in their expected punishment. This seems contrary to Jesus's core message.

Preston closes this part of his discussion with the observation that it has always been difficult to make the Christian message relevant. This has led to innumerable distortions, mutations and revivals.

2. Common Criticisms of Christian Ethics
Preston ends his article with a brief list of the common criticisms of Christian ethics. They are:

  1. Christianity is intolerant and breeds intolerance: Preston accepts the force of this criticism, pointing out the fierce factional fighting that has often overcome followers. He also makes reference to the legacy of anti-semitism.
  2. Christianity offers only a morality of reward/punishment: This is the idea that people are scared into good deeds by the threat of damnation and the hope of salvation. This, it is argued, is a corruption of the true nature of agape, which encourages us to abandon these self-interested goals.
  3. Christianity is repressive: This is the idea that the impossible goal of agape gives rise to a repressive and guilt-ridden psychology. It is detrimental to true personal growth and fulfillment. This is tied to a final criticism.
  4. Christianity provides an ethics of immaturity: Here, the claim is that Christian teachings encourages people to abandon careful, contextual thought about ethical questions. Instead, they are encouraged to develop reactionary attitudes based on the virtue of "conscience". Preston thinks this is a mistake. The doctrine of conscience does not necessarily mean the abandonment of thought; it only means that actions should be done out of proper conviction.

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