Follow Me On
The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}

« Narrative and Ethics | Main | Appropriation and Ethics »

Revelation and Ethics

As Christians we believe that the nature of being human, as individuals and communities, and the nature of morality is not simply a matter of human choice. In this session we will consider divine hopes and intentions that influence our moral choices and the very essence of what it is to be human.

In this chapter we will explore some of the theological issues that affect the way we understand and do ethics and consider how our sense of being and becoming might affect our ethical choices.

The Goodness of Creation

We begin with a question: Are there moral presumptions which can meaningfully be described as "Christian" and which can also serve as helpful guides to moral judgment?

In order to sensibly answer that question we must consider the Bible (which we have already begun in the previous chapter), Christian theologies and traditions, and personal and community experience. Here we begin to consider a possible theological basis for Christian morality.

According to J. Philip Wogaman, the Doctrine of Creation may provide, in theological terms, a foundation for the building of a Christian ethic. Wogaman says, "it is through a doctrine of creation that we express our understanding of how it is that related to the structures and events of this world...Creation expresses our understanding of how God relates to human life in the actual setting of concrete existence" (1976:68).

In all that we say about creation there are the implied assumptions that it is good and that our good God intends good for humankind through the fulfillment of love in the divine-human covenant. It is through terms like covenant and redemption that we attempt to understand and describe how God does indeed relate to human life in the actual situations in which we find ourselves as individuals and communities. Within Christian theology, creation and covenant cannot be separated and each would lose meaning without the other. Without creation, all that we understand through Christian faith would merely exist in the mind of God; that is to say, creation makes real and concrete the convenant God has and continually seeks with humankind. Without covenant, creation is merely a reality void of God's redemptive relationship with humankind. Thus, creation can form a foundation for a Christian ethic while covenant can give that ethic hope.

To speak of reality as created, implies that nature is not self-originating, and that the meaning of nature cannot be fully understood from nature alone. To say nature is created is to say that it has a beginning, source, and intention in something Other; that Other called God by Christians. Thus, a theological interpretation of nature, of human life, and of ethics must always address the question of how in our world God's intentions can be fulfilled in and through human activity. If God has an intention for creation and a covenantal relationship with humankind, which is part of that creation, human character and action become crucial for human existence, the divine-human relationship, and creation itself.

Peter Hodgson says that God is above all else a creative being who not only "calls into being everything that is but also creates a more complex and differentiated world by offering novel possibilities for advancement, thereby luring finite beings forward into new and richer possibilities of being" (1994:175). In this Module one possibility that we are "lured" into is that of seeking ethical "perfection," as implied in and through our biblical tradition (perhaps best described as the possible impossibility). But of importance here is that our possible ethical understandings are grounded in the goodness of creation itself, and that our possible ethical advancement is intimately bonded to God's intentions for creation and humankind. For Christians, the consideration of virtue and character, the actions that insure a virtuous character, the being a good person and doing what is right, should always further God's intentions for creation. In fact, a Christian ethic might assert that if character and action do not further God's intentions for creation, an individual and/or community could not claim to be ethical and moral.

The Value of Being Human

It is a truism to say that to be a human being is to be limited. We have a relatively short life span in which we experience, again relatively speaking, very little. Thus, our best hopes and judgments will never be informed by all the "facts", nor can we even claim that our best understanding of the Christian faith itself will ever be complete.

To say that we are creatures of a infinite and creating God is to first emphasize the limits of our creatureliness. Being created does not also imply we possess the mind of God. Our ability to understand will always be limited. And Wogaman points out that this would be true "even if we could justly claim moral perfection, a point which is emphasized scripturally through the doubts expressed by Jesus on the cross and by the agony of his wrestling in prayer" (1976:107).

It is, therefore, significantly important that we can affirm that the infinite God, who creates and has intentions for creation, has created finite human beings with some divine quality, that is to say, we are created in God's image. It is important to maintain that we as created beings possess significance (an issue of Christian anthropology and the theology of "image") and that God as creator does not condemn his own creation (an issue of incarnational theology). As Wogaman says, unless "it can be affirmed that the infinite God is also capable of limiting himself through self-disclosure and that he has indeed revealed his essential nature in Christ, then there remains little basis for Christian faith" (1976:106), and we might add here, for Christian ethics.

Psalm 8:3-5 reminds and reassures us that our very createdness has significant value:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,

            at the moon and the stars, which you set

            in their places -

what are human beings, that you think of them;

            mere mortals, that you care for them?

You have made human beings a little less

            than God, and you have crowned them with

            glory and honour.

You have appointed them rulers over

            everything you made;

            you placed them over all creation (1994:539-540).

The poem encourages us to, first, believe in the power of creative image. Being created in the image of God indicates that we are not just any beings, but that we were made a little less than God. It is important to remember that God is, as the poem tells us, glorious maker of all and, through love and justice, preserves and sustains all that was made. This is the quality of the being in whose image we were created. And this maker God has entrusted to humans the needs of creation and its preservation.  Or, in other words, being created by a loving and just God, in the image of that God, and existing in a covenant of love with that Creator, speaks to our value as beings. The God of the universe is also the God of our souls. It is in our createdness, in our very nature, that we are created and live in the image of God. Madeleine L'Engle says,

God's image! How much of God may be seen in me, may I see in others? Try as we may, we cannot hide it completely...The words which have taught me most richly come in logical progression: ontology: the word about being, ousia: the essence of being, that which is really real; ananada: that joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse (1983:19).

Second, we are reminded that in our understanding of incarnational theology is implied the notion that God does not damn creation, but is willing to participate in it; a participation in the world as created, loved, condemned, and reconciled in and through Jesus Christ. In other words, creation is valued by God, to the point where God is willing to make his home in us as we make our home in him (John 15). And if God values creation it is, obviously, valuable.

And third we believe, as many theologians insist, that inherent in our being a part of God's very creation, and being entrusted with that creation, we are also called to a partnership of co-creation with God (Psalm 8:6). Within the notion of partnership theologians note two aspects as significant to our createdness: Our dignity as creatures and our responsibility for creation. 

 Issues and Questions for Discussion

 Consider the following statements and questions:     

a) Does the Doctrine of the Fall speak of the fall of creation or the nature of human freedom?

b) The profoundest struggling with evil is at the point of considering human sin.

c) Because creation is good and God intends good for humankind, our moral presumptions should always lie with judgments and actions that reaffirm that goodness.

Consider then the following: Human beings are not 'the measure of all things.' That is to say, the dignity and worth of human existence cannot be derived from an analysis of human life itself. Christian faith maintains that the worth of human life is established by our relationship with God, precisely because that relationship is created and given by God. It is because we have our being from God and are sustained by God that human life has value. Also, each and every person, as God's creation, is a beneficiary of God's love and forgiveness, which offers both honour and responsibility.

a) Discuss the following ethical presumption: The burden of proof falls against any principle, judgment and/or action that undermines the importance and/or devalues human life; creation.

b) Discuss the following questions: Does contemporary society undermine or support the presumption of the value of human life and/or creation? Bring some examples from newspapers, magazines, etc. to support your answer.

c) Can you think of an example where a judgment and/or action both valued and devalued human life and/or creation at the same time. Again bring examples if possible?

Living the Methodology

Step 3: Identification of the Dilemma
Conflict: Duties, Roles, and Principles

The Croquet Game

Ruth should ask herself what her real ethical dilemma is. There are many problems to be faced in this encounter, but not all of them are ethical dilemmas. The following questions come to mind: How should she help Kathy? Should she secure an abortion for Kathy? Give Kathy the money? Tell Kathy's parents? Consult her senior colleague? Etc.

In actual fact, the dilemma in this case is one of Confidentiality. Kathy asked Ruth not to tell anyone before she "confessed" her problem. Ruth told Kathy that what was said "in this office" was "just between us." Ruth, acting as a minister, promised Kathy confidentiality.

It is important to note that for Ruth this is not a dilemma about the morality of abortion. She has an opinion about the morality of abortion, but it is not her dilemma in this case. Her first concern is whether she should tell anyone else (especially Kathy's parents) that Kathy is pregnant. For some, the prohibition against abortion overrides all other considerations. If that had been so for Ruth, there would have been no ethical dilemma at all. Her rule to prevent abortion would have been more important than her promise to keep confidence, more important than the possible consequences of breaking her promise to Kathy, and she would have gone to Kathy's parent's straight away.

Many things affected Ruth in her decision making about Kathy. Of primary importance was her role as minister. In other words, her role was morally relevant. The importance of role clarity should not be underestimated. As Lebacqz says, the resolution of a dilemma can be "based on the assumption that ethical obligations derive from our roles. If we can achieve clarity about the role or roles involved, and about our movement from one role to another, we will achieve more clarity about our ethical obligations as well...Roles provide an initial link between the situation and appropriate norms for behavior" (1985:58). Lebacqz goes on to explain that roles are defined by "the aims of the profession, the process of professional training and socialization, and the images of the good professional held by society, by the profession, and by the individual practitioner" (1985:58-59).

The question we now ask is does Ruth's professional role, that of ordained minister, make a difference in her deciding what to do. The ethical issue in this situation is one of keeping confidence. In this situation, Kathy came to her minister in the minister's office and requested confidence. Does Ruth's role as minister and setting of office place greater ethical demands on Ruth then might be expected with another person in another environment?

Ruth explicitly promised confidentiality within the confines of her office. Lebacqz points out that this is a "concrete agreement" and is morally relevant and binding (1985:41). Interestingly, however, when ministers were surveyed, most agreed that Ruth as minister would be bound by the moral obligation of confidentiality even if she had not made a specific promise and if the encounter had not taken place in her office. The response indicates that there is something about being a minister, about the professional role, that brings with it certain kinds of obligations. While it is true that Ruth's obligations were reinforced by being in the office, "most agreed that even if it had happened over a cup of coffee in the local cafe, the minister would still be bound to confidentiality as part of the expectations of her role" (1985:42). Indeed, it seems that for ministers "confidentiality or promise keeping is not simply one prima facie duty among others; it has a special place" (1985:42).

Lebacqz reminds us that while situations and dilemmas come and go, our role or roles endure (1985:59). Thus, roles are also linked to the image of whom we are or want to be. Talking about roles quite naturally leads us into considerations concerning character.

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>