Ethics in Our Time

The Christian Century, September 27, 2000 | Go to article overview

Ethics in Our Time


THIS MAGAZINE TOOK its name 100 years ago when the field of Christian social ethics was just being born. At the time, many Protestants were urgently seeking to address the dislocations of the industrial age and to learn from the emerging fields of social science. In this anniversary year, we spoke about this tradition of social ethics with three prominent writers in the field--Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches at Duke Divinity School; Robin Lovin, dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University; and Emilie Townes, professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York--and asked them to reflect on this tradition in light of the current challenges. The discussion was moderated by David Heim.

DAVID HEIM: In the first issue of the magazine named the CHRISTIAN CENTURY, in January 1900, the editors said that their special interest was in "the application of Christian principles to character and social problems." They also spoke of their hope to make the kingdom of God "a divine reality in human society." This, of course, was what we know today as the "social gospel"--the attempt to move beyond individual piety to address broad social problems. What relevance does that social gospel vision have today?

STANLEY HAUERWAS: That quotation is a reminder, for one thing, that in 1900 the editors thought Christian theological convictions were culturally assured. They thought that a Protestant culture was more or less in place, that they didn't have to fight over the creeds, and that they could direct attention to "character and social problems."

It is interesting that the editors mentioned "character" as well as "social problems." That reminds us that the social gospel did stress character. As the fight for Prohibition showed, the social gospel leaders cared about whether people drank or didn't drink.

A generation later, when Reinhold Niebuhr offered his critique of the social gospel for being naive about the reality of sin in social structures, he didn't emphasize matters of individual character. That was partly because Niebuhr tended to assume that Christian character was in place--that people knew, for example, that divorce is a bad thing. It's these interconnections of theology, character and social action that we've lost in the 20th century.

Another important aspect of our time is that many of the original goals of the social gospel--like abolishing child labor--have been realized in the U.S. This raises another question for social ethics and for churches: What do you do when you get what you want and still have a lot of problems?

ROBIN LOVIN: As Stanley says, there was a lot of theological confidence in the early 20th century. It was a confidence not only that theological claims were in some sense secure, but that you could reinterpret theology through the understandings of the world that were emerging from science and social science.

Since that time, we've lost confidence in the power and usefulness of science and social science. One of the important questions before us is whether the connections between those disciplines and theology are going to break down entirely. If they do, then I'm afraid the church will become the province of creationists and of people who want to reduce all social problems to individual piety.

Can we sustain the project started by those editors at the turn of the 20th century? Can we take Christian theology and read it into and read it off of what is going on in the world around us? That project remains very important, even though the way the social gospel theologians tried to do it may have been naive in many ways.

EMILIE TOWNES: I too hear the optimism in that quotation from 1900. It makes me think about the parts of the society that could not have much optimism about realizing the kingdom--at least not based on what they saw around them. As for naivete, the social gospel's analysis of capitalism, for one thing, was quite naive. …

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