Academic journal article Theological Studies

Living the Truth: Fundamental Theological Ethics

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Living the Truth: Fundamental Theological Ethics

Article excerpt

NOVEMBER 10, 2012, MARKS THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY of the birth of Bernhard Haring, who revived moral theology by writing in a way that responded to people as they actually lived their lives. (1) The reality of people's lives was something Haring aimed to address, in part because he was radically transformed by World War II. There he found truth not primarily in what persons said but in how they acted and lived. The war experiences irretrievably disposed him to the agenda of developing a moral theology that aimed for the bravery, solidarity, and truthfulness of those committed Christians he met during the war. (2) Not surprisingly, he found truth more in persons than in propositional utterances.

This note in honor of Haring's legacy is rightly entitled "Living the Truth." But this phrase echoes the title of Klaus Demmer's book newly translated as Living the Truth: A Theory of Action. (3) I believe that not since Haring's The Law of Christ have we received from a senior moral theologian such an innovative and complete work mapping a contemporary moral theology. This brief, three-chapter meditation took the award-winning translator Brian McNeil nearly three years to complete. The upshot is that he preserved the lucidity and the poetry of the original text.


In his introduction, Demmer asserts that "ethical questions are existential questions," and that moral norms "are the result of life histories on which people have reflected," and that "the root of these histories is experience." (4) While reminding us that moral theology examines the justifiability of norms of ethical conduct, Demmer argues that the goal of moral theology is the "building up of an ethical personality. The competence in matters of ethical insight must correspond to an ability to engage in conflicts that allow a person to survive the drama of his own life history." (5)

Demmer presumes conflict in life, becomes suspicious when moral tensions diminish, and recognizes that conflicts are resolved through moral lives and relationships and have their own embodied, complicated histories. In this world of conflict, Demmer finds the God of providence who through the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus has concretely freed us from sin and death. The theologian's reflection on this event is central: "it is impossible to think more radically than this of the conflictual history of humanity." (6)

Demmer's ethics of a life lived in truth is hardly triumphalistic: The right realization of "human existence begins with the admission of one's own weakness. The ethical claim meets the Christian where she is thrown back on her own resources and suffers under the limitations of what she can do." (7) Still, since the Christian makes "her life history a project aiming at the vision of God," "her life story has theophanic traits." (8)

From the awkward limits of one's own self to the grace-filled response to follow the Lord, Demmer sees progress in being a disciple of Christ: "The art of pruning back her self-importance and arriving at a realistic self- assessment is bestowed only on the person whose grasp of the greatness of her goals progressively increases." (9) The basic lesson to understand is the perpetual tension between being and knowing, a historically ongoing dialectic: only by living the Christian life can we understand the Christian message. Demmer proposes here the virtue of modesty as a companion for navigating this tension between who we discover ourselves to be and yet who we believe we are called by Christ to become. "The truthful person is refreshingly different. His intellectual modesty gives him the courage needed for a morality of small steps." (10)

For Demmer, then, the fundamental role of faith in moral theology is ever developing in terms of the history of a life of human experience. "While revelation does not bring about any immediate growth in knowledge on the normative level, it does establish a new context for the foundations of normative ethics. …

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