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The freedom of Jesus and the prison of ideological purity
Sometimes I just have to get out of my head. Scott was kind enough to say I should skip class tomorrow so I could go watch Rhys Hoskins smash some baseballs telling me, “I was too smart for my own good.” (LOL.) Gwen reminded me of that on Sunday when she said, “God did it, through Jesus. It’s hard to get that six inches below your head.”
I do like to think. And so this semester my systemic theology class has been quite a treat. We are considering Christian ethics and how to discern them. Some big schools of thought: deontology and teleology. Put simply, deontology is concerned with duties and actions; whereas teleology (and all the schools of ethics that follow) is concerned with consequences. When we think in terms of deontology, we think about our duties. When we think in terms of teleology, we think of results.
It’s been interesting to try to translate Christian wisdom in these terms and consider why we do the things we do. It’s also been interesting to shoehorn Kantian philosophy (the father of the Enlightenment who sought to replace religion with reason) into the Bible. I enjoy the exercises and I find them fun, but I find them limiting too.
It is probably good for me to think about this because it’s practically applicable, even to my day-to-day. One of the main reasons I am part of Circle of Hope and call myself an Anabaptist is because of its good ethics and theology. I like how we think and I like how we say what we say. But ideological purity has its limits, clearly, and can sometimes turn into a new fundamentalism. If our faith is simply ideology, we kill the incarnation. Weird Al already said it best, the Amish Paradise has some problems.
When we decide in deontological terms how to act, we might paralyze ourselves, or worse, clobber well-intentioned people (who are also considering consequences) with the “right theology.” Furthermore, we can use our “right theology,” to combat people that we disagree with for the sake purity and righteousness. Rather than being direct about what we want, we can use our holiness to further our own interests.
As Christians, we always have one foot in deontology and another in teleology. It’s that dialectical relationship that helps us discern. Jesus, incarnate, is the perfect image of that philosophical dance. He was both human and God. Both divine and human. Both duty-bound, and considerate of consequences.
I think Weird Al was making fun of Anabaptist deontology more than he was Coolio, but that's just me.
But I know if I fail to apply ethical theory into action, I’m not sure I’m really doing much. Chances are the application of my thought won’t be perfect. And so if I insist on being perfect, I might never act on how God moves my heart. The Gospel must be lived out if it’s real. I know that God isn’t just an abstract idea in my brain or a summary of good philosophy. And I know that following Jesus is not about perfect ethics or just ethical conflict.
I am afraid that is the seminarian's (or the post-Enlightenment Christian's) plight. To never get six-inches below her brain and allow the Gospel to infiltrate her whole body. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, for me, makes sense in my head, but I know it doesn’t necessarily start there. It’s probably just where it’s comfortable for me.
My class got me thinking about how I make choices about what I do. I’ll be honest, I’m an intuitive man; However God is neither in my head or my stomach. Many of my daily decisions come from my instinct, one that’s been shaped by God and by others. Although, in many cases that has gotten me in to more trouble than I wish.
So then, how do we make “ethical” decisions? How do we decide to do what we do? For one thing, we get out of our head and onto the streets. The world is on fire and there is urgency. We probably don’t have to time to simply philosophize the perfect response. We are moved to do something now. We are moved to express the Gospel in earnest.
Along with that, we do things together and mutually. We are not individuals on an island making ethical decisions on our own. We have to think like the Body of Christ that we are. We have to listen to one another in order to listen to God. We spent a lot of time in dialogue in Circle of Hope, but we also spend a lot of time doing things.
An ethical framework might be a good start to that process, or might even be a conclusion, but our goal is an incarnational expression of the Gospel (living it out) and not cementing good theology. I suppose that is a philosophical statement in itself. If we’re not careful, our own philosophy, which is supposed to be bigger than our thoughts and deeper than our doctrine, will stay stuck in our brains and never come out in our hands and feet.
The risk, of course, with deciding to express the Gospel practically is that we are bound to do it imperfectly, we are bound to not anticipate the consequences of our actions, we are bound to get in conflict. We swing and miss. It might hurt a little. I suppose if we think avoiding suffering is paramount, or never getting into a conflict is ideal, or even never sinning is how we get to heaven, it might be appealing to avoid trying something risky. But I am moved to do something today because even if (and when) I mess up, God is there to fill in the blanks. I can follow God today because he is making me good enough. No ideological purity required.