The Call to Discipleship: Moving Beyond Reactionary Ethics
During the late medieval period there was a significant shift in the nature of Christian moral teaching. Since the time of the apostles moral instruction had centered on the Sermon on the Mount and the writings of the apostles, but in the later part of the middle ages the emphasis shifted to the law, especially the Ten Commandments. I’ve written on the causes of that shift here and here.
The result was that both Catholic and Protestant ethics came to characterize the Christian life as being fundamentally about duty and obligation. Classic Christian teaching on happiness and virtue was left undeveloped, if not ignored entirely. Even the concept of charity, or love, in principle understood to be the essence of Christian morality, was in practice often reduced to a theoretical abstraction whose true content simply consisted in the commandments of the law. And Immanuel Kant’s hugely influential ethics raised the significance of commandment – of the categorical imperative – to a whole new level, while secularizing it at the same time.
Eventually, and inevitably, this led to a reaction. Utilitarianism – with its emphasis on consequences, happiness, and the ends justifying the means – came to dominate western ethics. And Christian ethicists – including both Catholics and liberal Protestants – called for a return to the ethics of love.
In his book The Sources of Christian Ethics Servais Pinckaers describes the way this worked out in Catholic moral theology.
On the one hand, traditional ethicists find it hard to set aside their instinctive mistrust of love and passion … Today an opposite reaction can be observed among ethicists and Christians. There is a strong attraction for love and spontaneity, without due regard for the demands of integrity and truth. For some, love has become the ‘Open, Sesame,’ the cure for all problems. They misapply St. Augustine’s magnificent expression, ‘Love, and do what you will,’ as if warmth of emotion liberates a person from all commandments and restraints. For St. Augustine, however, the greater the love the greater the adherence to commandments, for they are the expression of God’s love. Without the rectitude ensured by the commandments, love will not be true, will not survive.
We are faced, therefore, with a kind of sickness induced by the morality of obligation. The symptom is allergy to all obligation or authority in the name of the primacy of a naive and confused love.
So we have gone from one extreme to the other:
A moral theory of obligation depicts God as an all-powerful legislator issuing his law in the midst of thunder and lightning… The contemporary reaction to such a picture has the advantage of highlighting the goodness of God. Yet there is a risk of devaluation. In removing from God all power of judgment and punishment, and in focusing exclusively on his universal pardon, we are left with a soft and spineless God. Here we encounter one of the major problems of Christian ethics today: how to reconcile God’s love and justice.
The answer, of course, is in the gospel of Christ, and it is only being Christ-centered that Christian ethics can really be truly Christian. This is what far too many traditionalists who imagine that the need of the hour is a return to the law of God fail to understand.
On the other hand, what characterizes modernity’s (and much of contemporary Christianity’s) “naive and confused love” is a failure to grasp “one of the conditions for authentic love”: renunciation and sacrifice. In the gospel, Pinckaers reminds us, “radical self-renunciation is a necessary condition for love of Christ.” And it is that sort of love, a love shaped by cross-bearing discipleship in conformity to the image of Christ, that is so desperately needed today.
If you would be my disciple, Jesus tells us, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Mark 8:34). It’s a hard truth, but that is what Christian ethics must be all about.
Posted on September 26, 2016, in Augustine, Christian Life, Law, Thomas Aquinas and tagged discipleship, Immanuel Kant, Servais Pinckaers, Utilitarianism. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Call to Discipleship: Moving Beyond Reactionary Ethics.