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Chapter 3 of Church in Crisis: “Ethics and Agreement”
This chapter should be a pretty quick review, since it is essentially a primer on how to make discriminating ethical judgments, for the sake of liberals who no longer know how. For the evangelical side of the debate, most of this chapter will seem fairly obvious. But it’s worth rehearsing his argument briefly and paying attention to some places where he draws important conclusions for all sides of the debate.

First, O’Donovan points out another curious about-face by the liberal tradition. Once upon a time, the liberals insisted that doctrinal agreement was unimportant, as long as we united around a common morality that we all agreed upon. Now, liberals insist that moral diversity must be embraced within a minimal common creedal framework. But, as O’Donovan points out, either position assumes that we can maintain a disconnect between moral and doctrinal formulations, something traditional Christian teaching has always insisted against—doctrinal commitments entail moral consequences, and moral conduct affects doctrinal commitments. But this will not be a one-to-one correspondence, because the nature of ethics means that different historical circumstances may require different applications of the same principles and same lines of moral reasoning. But to what extent—how do we discern the legitimate boundaries of moral diversity?

Before answering this directly, O’Donovan lays out “three coordinates for mapping differences of practical judgment”:
“1. Some differences of practical judgment are not ethical differences, others are.
2. Some ethical differences of judgment do not indicate underlying moral disagreements, others do.
3. Some ethical disagreements do not reflect doctrinal disagreements, others do.” (38-39)

What does this mean? Well, it’s fairly simple. The first point simply asserts that there are all kinds of differences in practical judgment that have no ethical ramifications—if I decide to ride my bike to school and you decide to walk, then, in almost every set of circumstances imaginable, this would not constitute an ethical difference between us on that point. However, if we both filled out our tax returns, and you did yours truthfully, while I did mine untruthfully, then we would have an ethical difference.

The second point asserts that, if we have an ethical difference in our conduct, we may or may not have a disagreement about what we ought to have done. That is to say, I may have lied on my tax return because a) I shared your judgment that it was a rotten thing to do, but I did it anyway (sin is often willful in this way, contra Socrates); or b) I did not share your judgment that it was a rotten thing to do, because I sincerely believed that my duty to provide for my family was higher than my duty as a citizen, and I felt that I was being forced to choose. In the latter case, we have an underlying moral disagreement—I understand the nexus of moral requirements surrounding the issue very differently than you do. In many cases, I may still be quite culpable for my error in judgment, but in other cases, the fact that I am acting sincerely on my understanding of the moral situation leaves me innocent, though erroneous.

The third point asserts that, of the class of ethical differences that reflect underlying moral disagreements, some of these will involve doctrinal disagreements; others may arise within a shared doctrinal framework, due to different judgments about the requirements of the circumstances, etc.

With this map now clear, the question is where we place the homosexual debate…or perhaps, where to place different parts of it. At this point, though, another question arises—how important a disagreement is this, really? (This, of course, is a liberal question O’D is addressing…the evangelicals have not really been tempted to ask that.) This is difficult, because our judgment of what is morally most important tends to be extraordinarily changeable depending on the cultural era. How can we be sure how much weight to put on what seems most morally important to us in our era? “Christians in any period of history, whatever their disagreements, seem to agree with one another on morality more than they agree with Christians of other ages on morality and more than they agree with one another on doctrine.” (44)

At this point, I can’t resist quoting O’Donovan’s example, because it shows how little he understands what kooks American evangelicals really are: “The moral profile of Christians today is pretty recognizable across most varieties of church and churchmanship. They believe in international aid and fair trade; they believe in care for AIDs victims; they do not believe in racial discrimination; they believe in families; they tend to think the more abstract forms of capitalist financing morally perilous; they regard making money out of sex as debased, and so on.” (44) Of course, Pastor Wilson, and many others I knew in Moscow, did not believe in international aid or fair trade, and didn’t believe that AIDs actually existed…and were perhaps not nearly as leery of capitalist financing as most other Christians. But anyway, O’Donovan’s main point is sound

This point is not intended to advocate an ethical relativism—he is not saying that ethical right and wrong are changeable, but that ethical priorities are, and often rightly so. That is, while Christians have always opposed drunkenness, at certain eras and in certain traditions this has been far more militant and central than others. Sometimes there is no good reason for these changing priorities; other times there is—the times and circumstances may demand the focusing on certain concerns more than others. “The logic of human historicality is that living in a given age means having a distinct set of practical questions to answer, neither wholly unlike those that faced other generations nor mere repetitions of them. It is to be neither superior to nor independent of the past; but it is to be answerable for our own space and time and for its peculiar possibilities of vice and virtue.” (45)

But there is more to it. The gospel reveals that we do not have to do with a set of separate moral requirements, some weightier, some lighter, but rather, that all of our moral requirements find their place within the overriding law of love—they are all particular applications and manifestations of love. The size of the disagreements that we face, then, are “not determined by the matter of the difference as such, but by the relation in which it stands to wider agreements and disagreements.” Therefore, no moral question can simply be isolated and judged on its own, but only in the context of all of the obligations and circumstances surrounding it: “The question is always, what does it mean, in this constellation of circumstances, to approve or disapprove of this or that line of conduct? What relations are present to us in and through it? How do the various refractions of the demand of love within the moral law come together to form an understanding of where we stand?” (47)

This admonition is primarily directed against the liberals, who seek to make a quick and easy matter of justifying homosexuality. But of course, it also needs to be heard by evangelicals, who, even though they think the final answer of the ethical question is quite clear, need to beware short-circuiting the complexities along the way.

We also need to beware hanging a greater significance upon the question than it demands. “We must,” says O’Donovan, “take seriously the fact that homosexuality has become a dividing issue among us. There is no point in expressing scornful wonder. It is part of the shape of the history we have been given to live through—no more rational and no more irrational than any other history.” As we seek to understand why this issue has become charged with such significance in our day, we may be able to reach the point where the homosexual question is “ready to be seen precisely for what it is and not as the bearer of some wider cultural decision.” (48)

Now, O’Donovan finally returns to the question raised near the beginning of the chapter—what is the acceptable range of moral pluralism? His answer, for which I shall not rehearse the argument, since I think we would all completely agree, is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to argue for true moral pluralism, which “must paradoxically maintain a kind of approval of moral judgments of which we disapprove.” (5) That being the case, the liberal churches have been very foolish to advocate such a course without providing any reasoned explanations. The liberals, he suggests, did not decline to explain themselves to the African churches because of racism, as was charged by many, but because “an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)

So, in this chapter, O’Donovan levels a pretty harsh broadside against liberal moral pluralism, but he leaves at least three points for evangelicals to reflect on (at least, three points that caused me to reflect). The first is the difference between outright sin and a moral disagreement—between actions that arise from knowing rebellion against morality, or actions that arise from a different understanding of the requirements of morality. We can be much more sympathetic, if still opposed, to the latter. The second is that the homosexual question cannot be summarily answered in isolation; we have to be cognizant of its complexities, and of what response it calls for in our unique historical circumstances, which will necessarily be a somewhat different response to that of other historical eras. Third, while recognizing that the issue is tangled together with many other issues in our day, we must work to prune it down to its true size, and respond to it appropriately, rather than with panic and melodrama.


I'm still skeptical. Take your last paragraph. I keep seeing comments like this in you and O'Donovan. They appeal to general truths that, sure, are true, but (1) I've already gleaned from evangelical/conservative sources, so I don't see why they're such a big deal (nor why you keep taking shots at evangelicals for them), (2) don't come in for a landing. I'm hoping number 2 gets answered later, because otherwise, it's just a bunch of concepts that can be taken very well or very badly.

As far as the first point, maybe I'm misunderstanding, but take the three revelations you outline at the end. The first I'm sure any pastor could tell you. The second is really just saying that there are things going on behind this whole homosexual movement, which isn't all that surprising. You do say this warrants a unique response, which is either just saying that since we're the ones with the big movement, we're the ones that need to deal with it (that seems fine), or it can be hijacked into something very odd. And the third can be summarized as "Don't be scared of the homosexuals".

Again, let me know if I'm missing some important insight, because I would honestly love to hear it, but I'm just not getting it from what I've seen.

September 20, 2009 at 12:22 AM  

Hey Donny,
I think your response here comes from a misunderstanding of the purpose of this post and of O'Donovan's chapter.

Yes, of course these are fairly obvious points, ones that you could learn from many evangelical pastors. I said that O'Donovan's covering some pretty basic ground in this chapter, and doing it for the benefit of liberals who have lost their grip even on the basics.

I merely reiterated those three points because they were three that struck me and that seemed like principles that had something important to say about how evangelicals should respond. If evangelicals already realize these things (and most thoughtful ones do), then good.

Remember, my purpose in putting up these posts is to give an exhaustive, thorough run-through of what O'Donovan argues, so that we can discern where there might be problems, and where we have something to learn. If I put something up, it doesn't mean I think it's some grand new revelation that should knock evangelicals flat (and again, my interest is certainly not in knocking evangelicals flat), but simply because it's part of the book. So I don't know why you keep posting, "Ok, I agree with that, but why'd you bother saying it?"

September 20, 2009 at 9:17 PM  

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