RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One observation that I find myself repeating since seminary is the importance of finding the right words to talk about a given subject. Coming from a Dutch background, the words to express emotion that I learned in seminary were new to me. Although I did not immediately become a spontaneous and chatty person, the new vocabulary opened me up to grow my faith along an unexplored path, like I had been given the first map of an uncharted territory.

 Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. In part two of my review, I commented on arguments in part 1 and began part 2. In Part three of this review, I finish RSL’s parts two and three.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing—Continued

Doctrine of Doing and Allowing

RSL presents an interesting dilemma that makes a distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. He calls it the doctrine of doing and allowing: “It is always morally worse to do harm than to allow the same harm to occur.”(233)

For example, he tells the story of a soldier whose colleague is wounded—is it better to put him out of his pain, knowing he will die, or to leave him to die on the battlefield? This doctrine suggests just leaving him to die is morally superior (235) I am not sure that I would agree.

Virtue Ethics

RSL writes:

“According to virtue ethicists, actions aren’t right because of their results [e.g. consequentialism] or because they follow from some hard-and-fast rule [e.g. utilitarianism]. Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.”(257)

Virtue ethics has a long history that is attributed to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The focus here is on practical wisdom, emotional maturity, and sound judgment rather than hard and fast rules. As such, moral training, experience, and practice are required (258-261).

Virtue ethics has long been considered a Christian approach to raising children and developing leadership skills.

Feminist Ethics

RSL sees two ways that:

“philosophers have shortchanged the lives of women. The first is to make false and damaging claims about them. The second is to ignore female experiences and perspectives.”(277)

RSL sees feminists making four central claims:

  1. Women are the moral equals of men; views that justify the subordination of women or downplay their interests are thus mistaken on that account.
  2. The experiences of women deserve our respect and are vital to a full and accurate understanding of morality…
  3. Traits that have been traditionally been associated with women—empathy, sympathy, caring, altruism, mercy, compassion—are at least as morally important as traditionally masculine traits, such as competitiveness, independence, demanding one’s fair share, a readiness to resort to violence, and the insistence on personal honor.
  4. Traditionally feminine ways of moral reasoning, nes that emphasize cooperation, flexibility, openness to competing ideas, and a connectedness to family and friends, are often superior to traditionally masculine ways of reasoning that emphasize impartiality, abstraction, and strict adherence to rules.“ (277)

 These observations suggest that what is unique about the female perspective is tied to their particular role in society. Does what is unique about their perspective disappear when women take on roles traditionally associated with men?

 Metaethics—The Status of Morality

Are moral truths objectively true? If this is true, then some truths are better than others and not all cultures are equally good. Moral progress is accordingly possible.

Assessment

In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.

Introduction

In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:

“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…In this engagement, I shall argue that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation. That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing: functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)

Well’s goes on to observe:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues. These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control) …. The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived.”(14)

Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”

What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?

Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:

  1. “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
  2. Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
  3. Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
  4. As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)

Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

“it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.”(180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.

Background

Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.

Organization

Wells writes in these chapters:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualities
  2. The Playground of Desire
  3. On Saving Ourselves
  4. The Bonfire of the Self
  5. Contradictions
  6. Faith of the Ages

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=15912&grp_id=8947.

References

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. (Goto part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Anyone who works in Washington DC quickly learns that when something is broken, it is seldom an accident; someone typically benefits from the brokenness. In the case of the Hebrew heart found everywhere in the New Testament, it naturally leads one to take a holistic view of life and ministry. If thinking, emotions, action, and character formation are all intimately tied to one another, discipleship requires personal mentoring over years that cannot be reduced to a seasonal program or delegated to strangers. Church programs are event-driven or tackle one issue independent of the others without the holistic integration required for discipleship.[1]

The Future is Always Present

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”(89)

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”(46)

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film Home Alone[2]) or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (47-53).

Clearly a lot more could be said about this book. Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work.

Assessment

James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habitis a deeply theological reflection on the formative aspects of Christian ritual and worship. Those familiar with prior work on spirituality and worship will find his analysis compelling and better integrated for a topic often offering divergent pieces and perspectives. Those unfamiliar may find reason to attend a more liturgically-oriented church respectful of the bells and smells. In any case, Smith is an engaging author and his writing is cogent and accessible.

Footnotes

[1]Discipleship is much more doable in a rural, small village setting where everyone knows everyone else and families spend large amounts of time together. In the Gospels, we see this sort of mentoring (a kind of pastoral care) in the stories of Jesus with the woman at the well (John 4) and his visit with Nicodemus (John 3) and in Paul’s pastoral letters. In today’s urban setting, lots more intentionality is required to achieve the same result and often only active youth volunteers in the church receive this sort of attention. Not surprisingly, such youth frequently enter mission work or attend seminary.

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Alone. In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:  http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Galatians 5: Healthy Boundaries

Fruits by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,

goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;

against such things there is no law (Gal 5:22-23 ESV).

An interesting conversation going on in missionary circles concerns the definition of a Christian.  Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed?  Or, is a Christian someone has consistently grown closer to Christ as a disciple?  While only God knows truly who is saved, the definition of a Christian is important in understanding the role and articulation of the institutional church.  This is particularly a problem in non-western countries where persecution threatens both life and livelihood.

In Paul’s ministry among the Galatians, the question of who is a Christian was upfront and personal.  Is a Christian a sect within Judaism or an independent faith?  Being circumcised identified one with the Jewish faith, but in the first century it more importantly marked one politically as a Jewish nationalist.  And it was also not just something that your wife would notice.  Entry into the temple in Jerusalem required a ritual bath (purified, e.g. Acts 24:18) and sports in the gentile world were also frequently practiced “in your birthday suit”!  Both activities made circumcision a public event in a way that we might overlook today.

How does Paul answer the question of who is a Christian?  Ironically, Paul stands with Moses when he said:  Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart (Deuteronomy 10:16).  In Paul’s words:  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (v 6).  Neither Moses nor Paul accepted the idea that by itself circumcision placed any claim on God.  Faith working through love, as Paul says, speaks to changes in the heart.

Paul’s comments have immediate application in our cultural environment.  In our context, Paul would say:  neither baptized nor unbaptized; neither communicant nor non-communicant; counts for anything.  Going through the motions to join a church does not count.  The question remains: is your heart moving closer to Christ or not?

Movements of the heart might seem rather private but this does not imply that one can be a Christian incognito (secret Christian).  Our freedom in Christ is freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves (v 14).  Do you think that your neighbor will notice?  If money and time are involved, do you think your spouse would notice?  How about your kids?

In drawing healthy boundaries, Paul offers both a list of vices (vv 19-21) and a list of virtues (vv 22-23).  Interestingly, while the list of virtues will not guarantee admission to heaven, practicing the vices will keep you out (v 21).  In Paul’s mind, grace includes law, but is not limited by it.

Questions

  1. How did the snow affect your week?
  2. How was your week? Did anything special happen?
  3. Do you have questions from chapter 4?
  4. What is freedom; what is slavery in Paul’s eye? (v 1)
  5. What is Paul’s point about circumcision and the law? (vv 2-6)
  6. What does Moses say about circumcision? (Deuteronomy 10:16-17) Why does he talk about bribing God?
  7. Why does circumcision require the whole law be obeyed? (v 3; Deuteronomy 27:1-3)
  8. One interpretation of Paul’s, advocated for example by Charles Finney (The Spirit-Filled Life (Orig pub 1861). New Kensington:  Whitaker House. 1982), was to compare grace to pledging guilty before a judge while law was like pledging innocent. Why is this legal analogy helpful?
  9. What is Paul’s argument in verse 7? (Hint: vv 7-11)
  10. What is the offense of the cross that Paul refers to? (v 11; 1 Corinthians 1:17-18)
  11. What is the freedom in Christ that Paul talks about? (vv 13-14) Can you be free in Christ and have no one notice?
  12. What does it mean to walk by the spirit or, alternatively, walk by the flesh? (v 16)
  13. How does the law and gospel relate? (v 18)
  14. What are the works of the flesh? (vv 19-21)
  15. How do the works of the flesh relate to salvation? (v 21)
  16. What are the fruits of the spirit? (vv 22-23)
  17. How does the cross of Christ relate to the works of the flesh? (v 24)

Galatians 5: Healthy Boundaries

Also see:

Galatians 6: Parting Comments 

Galatians 4: Slave and Free 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Gabriel Models Virtue; Speaks Worlds

Stephen Gabriel.  2011.  Speaking to the Heart:  A Father’s Guide to Growth in Gabriel_10012013Virtue.  Falls Church:  Moorings Press.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Virtue.  That to which we hold ourselves accountable to.  Or not.  If your forehead were a billboard, what objectives would be written there?  Stephen Gabriel’s book, Speaking to the Heart, is a book that I wish that I might have written at a younger age.

Speaking to the Heart is a book for fathers written by a father (11).  Gabriel’s focus on virtues arises from the desire to be an intentional father who can assist his children in navigating the turbulence of life (12).  For those of us uncomfortable with the subject of virtues, Gabriel advises—pay attention to your discomfort because it points in the direction of wisdom (14).

The book is organized around 20 virtues starting with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity).  These 20 chapters are introduced with an introduction and followed with a conclusion.  Each of the 20 chapters begins with a scripture passage and a famous quote.  The virtue is then defined in a single page.  This definition is then followed by a two page discussion entitled:  “Considerations for Growth in the Virtue of XXX”.

Chapter 7, for example, focuses on temperance.  The scripture passage is 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 which begins:  “All the fighters at the games go into strict training…”  He then cites Robert Burton:  “Temperance is a bridle of gold.”  Gabriel writes:  “Temperance is evidenced by a sense of moderation and restraint in the exercise of our appetites.”  First among the considerations for growth cited is:  “I reflect on how I seek my happiness and fulfillment”.  Another gem is:  “I am more attentive to the people I am with than to the food and drink.”

Gabriel’s Speaking to the Heart oozes authenticity.  What gives the book authenticity is not the author’s professional background, expertise in ethics, or ability to turn a phrase. Gabriel is not an obvious candidate to take up the pen here. Gabriel’s authenticity arises because he promises publically to model virtue as a father and outlines what that looks like.  In a postmodern world devoid of adults, that takes guts.  You want to be a good parent?  Model virtue.

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