Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part One

Mitchell_review_20190919Ben Mitchell.[1] 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My interest in ethics dates back to when as a young man I faced the Vietnam war and the draft without a clear understanding of what I was dealing with. What does God require of us here and now, in this situation, and why? Questions of life and death tend to grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:  

“Few people need to be convinced of the importance of ethics. We live in a tragically flawed world where we are confronted daily with moral failures…This book is a guide to thinking about the good.” (15-17)

He goes on to write:

“Jesus described a trinity of moral relationships—to God, to others, and to self. These three relationships were to be ordered by the virtue of love. Importantly, when one of these relationships becomes disordered, the others are affected.” (19)

Nouwen (1975, 20) refers to these three relationships as movements of the spirit, suggesting that what we believe and what we do are closely related. Much of what we do arises, especially in a professional sense, arises out of our identities.

As Christians, our identity naturally flows from our understanding of who Jesus is. Mitchell’s commitment to a Christian ethical understanding is summarized as:

“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)

In his final paragraph he asks: “What does it mean to be truly human?” (98) The answer to this question often given by Christians is that we more closely reflect the image in which we were created (Gen 1:27).

Background and Organization

Ben Mitchell has a doctorate from University of Tennessee, a masters of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a grade of Mississippi State University. He is currently on the faculty at Union University in Tennessee. His focus is bioethics and he is widely published.

Mitchell writes in six chapters:

  1. “The Challenges of a Relativist World
  2. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1
  3. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 2
  4. Enlightenment Ethics
  5. Evangelical Ethics
  6. Using the Bible in Moral Decision Making” (9)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and acknowledgments and followed by conclusions, an appendix, questions for reflection, a timeline, glossary, resources for further study, and two indices. In his scriptural index, the vast majority of citations are from Genesis (creation), Exodus (Ten Commandments), and Matthew (Sermon on the Mount).

Confronting Relativism

Concerning the pervasive influence of relativism, Mitchell observes:

“relativism is morally crippling because relegates ethical discussions to the personal, private, and subjective, and to the realm of mere preference.” (34)

He terms this view normative ethical relativism because it suggests not only what is, but what should be. Citing Louis Pojman, it stands on two premises: the diversity thesis, that “right and wrong differ from person to person and from culture to culture”. And the dependency thesis, that “morality depends on human nature, the human condition, or specific sociocultural circumstances, or a combination of all three.” (24-25) The diversity thesis is not normative, but simply observes that ethical practices differ between cultures. Mitchell devotes more attention to the dependency thesis.

Mitchell outlines five weaknesses of the dependency thesis that we care about:

  1. Majority opinion can be wrong. For most of human history, the majority of people supported the institution of slavery.
  2. Moral error is not possible, if the dependency thesis is true. Child sexual abuses is always wrong, irrespective of cultural context.
  3. Moral reform makes no sense if relativism is true. Abraham Lincoln had no basis for criticizing slavery or Nelson Mandela for criticizing racial segregation, if relativism is true.
  4. What is does not imply that it should be. Just because some Islamic and African nations practice female genital mutilation does not imply that is should be.
  5. Relativism confuses moral practices and their underlying values. Signs of disrespect differ by culture, yet every culture honors respect. (27-29)

Citing James Q. Wilson, Mitchell observes that “every culture shares the values of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty” (30) suggesting that we share common moral values even if they are expressed differently among cultures.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.

Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.uu.edu/programs/stm/faculty/ben-mitchell.html.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part On

Also See:

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Downward Mobility: Monday Monologues, October 14, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Downward Mobility.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Downward Mobility: Monday Monologues, October 14, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Prayer for the Impoverished

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father,

All praise and honor be to you for you shelter us from hurricanes and other storms in spite of our poverty of spirit and resources.  

We confess that too often we are tight fisted and only remember our obligations when it benefits us directly or indirectly.  

Yet, we thank you for sending your son to teach us hospitality and generosity of body and mind and spirit.  

In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us gentle reminders of our need for charity and grace, grant us strength for the day, grace for those we me, and peace that we might grow closer to you day by day.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for the Impoverished

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Prayer for Healthy Limits 

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Downward Mobility

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“There is neither Jew nor Greek, 

there is neither slave nor free, 

there is no male and female, 

for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

(Gal 3:28)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry involved organizing a summer program for students in my parent’s new church home in McLean, Virginia in the late 1970s. The high school students loved this idea and I continued to organize the summer program throughout graduate school. Over these years, I saw one cohort of students after another progress through school, graduate, and move away, a process that I described as downward mobility. As a doctoral candidate with good prospects, I was one of the few able to live and find work in affluent Northern Virginia.

The Downwardly Mobile

This downward mobility is actually a phenomena facing most young people today. Studies show that real income in the United States has been relatively flat for college graduates since about 1980. The average student has a couple years of college before dropping out and, like high school graduates, has suffered a decline in real income since 1980. Only students with postgraduate work—maybe 10-20 percent of the population—have seen an increase in real income since 1980, generally associated with their ability to take advantage of changes in information technology—the hamburger helper of today’s professionals.

This downward mobility has placed economic pressure on many people making it hard to purchase a home or have a family. The disappearance of pensions and healthcare are a related problem. In the midst of this economic pressure, American society has increasingly been stratified by economic class. Throw in gender, race, and ethnicity, and you have a highly combustible mixture because no one feels better off. The decline in life expectancy over the past three years, due in part to record suicides and drug overdoses, is testimony to the stress that people feel.

Being the Church

In the middle of a chaotic social situation and pressure on budgets, how does the church resist the temptation to serve only the wealthier economic classes rather than the entire community? This is not an idle question.

Churches, like the Roman Catholics, that operate on the parish model are better able to serve the entire community than those that differentiate themselves based on their theological heritage, like most Protestant churches. A parish is defined geographically that should ideally serve both rich and poor neighborhoods equally.

A theologically defined church can attract one or another social group, depending on particular concerns. A church promoting the prosperity Gospel, for example, is much more likely to attract the economically-disadvantaged while the work-ethic of traditional Calvinist denominations, like the Presbyterians, is more likely to appeal to professional groups.

Irrespective of structure or theology, we are called as Christians to minister to and evangelize the entire community. Just because a stressful economy has raised the stakes, does not mean that we can neglect the mission.

The Special Problem of Immigration

Massive immigration from Latin American countries, particularly in Central America, has exacerbated class distinctions in America. Hispanic immigrants often speak no English and lack documentation that allows them to work in the United States. Political deadlock has led a humanitarian crisis at the border and the development of a rigid underclass in virtually every American city.

What makes this crisis interesting is that policy changes in the United States helped promote this immigration. Illegal drug use in America has prompted the growth of narco-trafficking and the development of drug gangs in Central America that has made life difficult in these countries. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lowered the price of grain in Central America undermining the rural economy (where most of the immigrants used to work) after 1994.

Complicating matters, the lack of population growth has created an urgent need for workers in the United States in low wage industries, such as janitorial services, hospitality, construction, and agriculture.

Role for Churches

While immigration has met the need for workers and promoted economic growth, the Hispanic immigration has proceeded too quickly for immigrants to be legally and socially integrated into American society. Churches need to intervene to assist with both problems.

The biblical mandate to assist immigrants is obvious. In Exodus, we read:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner [immigrant] or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” (Exod 22:21-23)

From a practical perspective I remind people that about a third of the children in the United States under the age of twenty share an Hispanic background. Another third are minorities. Learning to serve these groups today while the kids are young is an important investment in the future of congregational ministry that we dare not neglect.

Downward Mobility

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

Vance_review_20190903J.D. Vance.[1]2018. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the middle of the Second World War in 1944 a group of world leaders met in Breton Woods, New Hampshire to craft a monetary agreement that would come into effect after the war. In the agreement, the United States pegged the dollar to gold at a price of $26 per ounce. That agreement came to an end in 1971 when the United States announced that it could no longer defend the value of the dollar with gold. From that point forward, the rock-solid U.S. economy has been in transition.

Many people that took the opportunity to educate themselves and invest their money wisely during those prosperous years after the war pulled themselves out of poverty; others did not. In this latter case, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy sees “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Ironically, he sees his own struggle with dysfunctionality paralleling that of other minority groups in America that have not moved ahead in spite of ample opportunity.

Introduction

Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of one man who defied a legacy of isolation, poverty, and a dysfunctional family culture to become educated and gainfully employed. Of his background, Vance writes:

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree … Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”(3)

In his description, Vance goes on to cite social isolation:

“Our religion has changed—built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities. Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”(4-5)

Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the changes that churches have undergone to reinforce this dysfunctional culture. He does, however, emphasize the oasis offered by his grandparents—in spite of their own obvious dysfunctions—that allowed him to graduate from high school and the encouragement they gave to his higher education (e.g. 253).

Detailed Dysfunction

Vance calls his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw, terminology used exclusively by his hillbilly community (23). Mamaw and Papaw grew up in Jackson, Kentucky but moved to Middletown, Ohio for fairly sketchy reasons—Bonnie was 16 and pregnant and James feared that her family would shoot him. Ohio offered the opportunity to find industrial work at Armco and join the middle class. Ironically, the pregnancy that prompted the move died in infancy (26-27).

Vance‘s mother was a nurse whose life was torn between an addiction and a never-ending rotation of men. Once he realized early in high school that the instability in his home life would never change, he moved in with his grandmother. He writes:

“Mamaw [a pistol-packing hillbilly] would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her.”(243)

Protected by his lunatic grandmother, Vance found stability in his high school years that allowed him to focus on his studies. He later joined the Marines which “taught me how to live like an adult”and enabled him to apply for Ohio State (174-77).

Ironically, he kept his relationship with his grandmother a secret, even from his close friends, because child protective services would not have honored this relationship and would probably have placed him in foster-care. He writes:

“Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role.”(243)

This outsize role arises because even in dysfunctional families there is often someone willing to look out for a child at risk and function as a surrogate parent.

Assessment

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a young man who grew up in hillbilly family and found his way to Ohio State University and Yale Law school despite all odds against him. The craziness of his life and family make this an interesting read. At the time of publication in 2016 the media made this book a cult classic because it seemed—quite unfairly—to epitomize the typical Donald Trump voter in a manner like “Joe Six-pack”or the “Silent Majority”used to describe poor white voters, forgotten by the media and mainstream politicians between elections. Nevertheless, Hillbilly Elegyis likely to become and remain a classic study of cultural dysfunction.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._D._Vance.

Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

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Christian Distinctives: Monday Monologues, October 7, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Christian Distinctives.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Christian Distinctives: Monday Monologues, October 7, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Prayer for the Fallen

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Merciful Father,

All glory and power are yours,because you created and sustain our good universe.There is none like you and we praise your name.  

We confess that we are unworthy to stand before you because of our sin and unable to stand before because you stand outside time and space where we reside.  

We thank you for our redemption in Jesus Christ who not only bridged the gap between us in time and space, but also covered our sins bridging the gap between us and your holy nature.  

In the power of your Holy Spirit, aid us in our reconciliation with one another and open the hearts of those around us to your perfect love.  In the glorious name of Jesus, Amen.

Prayer for the Fallen

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Prayer for Healthy Limits 

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Christian Distinctives

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most important roles that Christian leaders play is distinguishing orthodox Christian beliefs from beliefs from other religions. If our spirituality is practiced theology, then right action follows primarily from right beliefs.

Let me focus on two deviations from orthodox Christian belief. First, why do Christians believe in original sin? Second, why does Christ provide the exclusive path to God’s salvation?

Original Sin

Original sin describes the action of Adam and Eve in breaking God’s command not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17; 3:6). As a consequence of this first act of disobedience to God, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. A holy God cannot tolerate the presence of unholy human beings.

Ever since, humanity has been tainted by this sin. Because of the doctrine of original sin, Christians are seldom surprised by sinful behavior and the existence of evil and considerable effort has been made over time to promote moral behavior, avoiding sin and embracing godliness.

Recently, some have questioned the doctrine of sin arguing that humanity is basically good and teaching morality is unnecessary because it only induces guilt among those taught.

An important implication of this new teaching is that basically good people have no need of salvation from sin or reconciliation with God. Thus, Jesus cannot have died for our sins, as the New Testament teaches (e.g. 1 Cor 15), and need not have been divine, because no divine intervention was necessary to reconcile us with God. Jesus may be a great teacher or prophet, but is not the son of God.

Thus, original sin, as taught in scripture, is a key to understanding our need for salvation and Christ’s work on the cross to bridge the gap between a holy God and unholy human beings. Unfortunately, those who believe we are basically good cannot be saved because they do not believe salvation is necessary.

The Exclusivity of Christ

Holiness is not the only gap that needs to be bridged between us and God. God creating the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), which means that God created time and space—attributes of the created universe. Like carpenters must be separated from the book shelve that they built, God stands outside the universe that he created.

Standing apart from the universe is what theologians refer to as transcendence. God’s transcendence implies that we cannot approach God because we are locked inside time and space. Existentially we cannot reach out to God; he must reach out to us. As Christians, we believe that God reached out to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man—a necessary attribute to bridge the existential gap between us and God (Heb 7).

The creation account in Genesis thus eliminates the possibility that the pantheists are correct, that God is in every living and inanimate things, because God stands apart from his creation. Also eliminated is the Jainist notion of multiple paths up the mountain to God—God’s transcendence implies there are not paths up the mountain—God must come down. Christ is also not just another avatar (an incarnation of of Visnu bridging the gap between God and humanity) because his sacrifice on the cross bridged the gap between God and humanity for once and for all—there is no need for God to reach out a second time.

Moving On

Orthodox Christianity grew up in the polytheistic environment of the first century, distinguished itself from many other religions, and thrived to become the one and only truly world religion. Christian leaders today need to understand this history in order to witness in the postmodern world where communication and borders are relatively porous. Fear of other religions stems primarily from ignorance of the strengths of our own faith in Jesus Christ.

Christian Distinctives

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Value Of Life

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Chesterton Mystifies and Alludes

Chesterton ReviewGilbert K. Chesterton. 2018. The Man Who Was Thursday (Orig Pub: 1908). Overland Park, KS: Digireads.com Publisher

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

No one understands life’s minutiae like a novelist. It is one thing to experience a trifle; it is another to describe it and the emotions conveyed therein with a minimum of words. The reader thus inherits the author’s inner life’s ruminations and is then free to explore another. The more spirited the writer, the greater the inheritance.

Introduction

Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday sets the stage for his tale with a curious mixture of personal and grandiose observations:

“A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather, year, sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together. Science announced nonentity and art admired decay; The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay [happy].”(1)

This odd description appears either primordial or simple gibberish. If primordial, our minds run to the creation account:The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” (Gen 1:2 ESV) Yet, the object being described is not the earth, but the “minds of men”and we are immediately told that the world is old, not new, as might be true during creation. What is new is that “we were boys together.” Enigmatically, science shows no interest and art is only interested in decay. But “you and I”read on happily perhaps more out of curiosity than out of comprehension.

Still, we soon catch an allusion—“Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind believed”—to Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas (John 20:29) that comes across as a promise to readers that we will soon understand what it all means.

Poetic Duel

The second scene sprints from one end of creation to the other:

“This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world.” (5)

In this strange end time saga, we are introduced to two poets:

“For a long time the red-haired revolutionary had reigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that his solitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by the name of Gabriel Syme was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he was less meek than he looked. He signaled his entrance by differing with the established poet. Geogory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He said that he (Syme) was a poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said, he was a poet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as if he had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky. In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the two events.”(6)

The two poets now contend for supremacy, one representing chaos while the other order, suggesting tension between the primordial muck and the created order introduced by God (Gen 1:1-2). Syme pokes fun at Lucian, describing his anarchy as dull, vomitus, and revolting (7). Lucian is irritated and invites Syme to visit his lair, scene three, where he proves himself to be a real anarchist, not just an angry poet. Further on we learn that his name, Lucian, is aptly chosen.

Assessment

Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is on the surface a quick, page-turning mystery novella set in early twentieth-century London, but on deeper inquiry proves to be a metaphysical allegory filled with biblical allusions. It got me thinking; you might also find it fascinating.

Chesterton Mystifies and Alludes

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Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Creation Living: Monday Monologues, September 30, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Creation Living.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Creation Living: Monday Monologues, September 30, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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