Divergences in an Expansive Discipline: How Should We Study Christian Ethics?

Article excerpt

Many in the mainline churches lament the growth of divine-command moral reasoning common among conservative Evangelicals. Increasingly, the popular American imagination equates Christian ethics with following rules. This type of moral reasoning is overly simplistic and, when premised upon a dictation-theory biblicism, problematic for its use of scripture. It also avoids full personal responsibility for moral discernment, leaving us with a truncated sense of human agency. If the churches are to do better, we must consider how we are educated in moral thought and practice.

How should we train for Christian leadership? To broach this question, I will start with a few contours of the academic discipline, how morality is incorporated into the curriculum at universities, colleges, and leading ecumenical divinity schools. My hope is to put forward a range of options from which to think about the study of ethics. Based on these observations, I conclude with several base points for the study of Christian ethics within the shifting landscape of church and society.

Christian Ethics as an Academic Discipline

Preliminary Definitions

All of us in the churches and in our educational institutions do Christian ethics in some fashion. This is true if we have any claim on the notion of Christianity. To be sure, Christian ethics is not the province of ethicists alone. Christian ethics is well-represented in the curriculum across biblical studies, practical and systematic theology, and church history, as well as holistically by particular institutions. Still, there is a separate discipline that has long-standing in the academy called "Christian Ethics." What is this discipline and how should we engage it here?

The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics describes the modern Protestant enterprise in terms of a series of influential scholars beginning with Karl Barth and ending with the likes of Roger Shinn. (1) However, the entry provides no single coherent picture of ethical inquiry. This non-definition points to a central challenge in the history of the field. I call this challenge "Potter's lament," as it was first articulated by a longtime teacher of Christian Ethics at Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Potter.

Potter's Lament

In the 1970s, leading scholars in the field--Jim Gustafson, Ralph Potter, Joe Hough, and Jim Childress, among others--anticipated a crisis of purpose and workability in the study of Christian ethics. For a time, their debates dominated the confines of the Ethics Section of the American Academy of Religion and the then newly established Journal of Religious Ethics. What should we be doing as ethicists? Their conversations set the stage for the discipline for years afterward. Only subsequently would "non-white-male" voices emerge to weigh-in and tip the scales in these conversations. However, the issues outlined then continue to vex ethicists today when thinking about how best to teach and practice.

Ralph Potter began: 'Among professional practitioners of Christian Social Ethics in the United States today there is relatively little agreement concerning the nature of the ... discipline, the intellectual tools necessary to perform it, and the scope of ... responsibility for the guidance and stimulation of Christian social action. Some accentuate the qualifier, 'Christian'; others place stress upon the second modifier, 'social.'" (2) Note the problems he signals: diffusion of responsibility, methodological confusion, and questions of audience and accountability.

Happily, most in this group agreed that Christian ethics is a "practical discipline," in the instrumental sense. That is, it is concerned with what is right and just, but also with action. Ethics means both knowing and doing. This early consensus on the practical nature of Christian ethics elicited even greater concern about its breadth. Such a broad view of the field extends responsibility to all Christian agency. …