Fear and Trembling in the Formation of Moral People

Fear and Trembling in the Formation of Moral People December 2, 2016

By Dr. Laura Levens,

Laura Levens headshot
Dr. Laura Levens is Assistant Professor of Christian Mission at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

I have a confession to make. As a seminary professor, I am terrified of teaching Christian ethics. The thought of forming and teaching people to be morally good makes my blood pressure rise and I feel the urge to run far away. But with great fear and trembling, I have found the courage to journey through with my students. Let me say more.

My fear is out of self-preservation. Engaging in moral discussion, especially with the Bible, carries along all the baggage of prior moral teaching. As a minister and professor, I have learned that part of forming moral people entails hard conversations about the way Christians, even with the best of intentions, have gotten moral teaching and practice wrong. I will have to hear and take some responsibility for the ways in which the Bible and Christian tradition have been used to harm, ostracize and oppress in the name of “godly instruction,” “for their own good,” “God’s discipline,” or some other phrase that signals moral right and wrong.

But I resist this part. I don’t want to do it. It breaks my heart and challenges my faith.

My trembling is out of conviction. To form a moral people, I must own that I do not have all the moral answers. Nor are the answers discernible from a quick read of the Bible, a simple prayer or timeless rules. Becoming morally good is hard work. It requires difficult questions. You have to face complex issues. You have to search inside and out for what really counts in life. You have to pay attention to your own lack of understanding, your own limitations  and your own creative avenues for repentance and change.

And then it requires the very same on a community level, a social level, a national level and on and on and then bring it back down to who you are, where you are and what to do. Did my students know they committed to this work when they registered for class? Did they know they committed to this work when they became Christian?

My courage has been found, thankfully, in the classroom among my students. Since moral formation is hard work, I cannot do it alone. I could not become an expert in moral formation all by myself, and then teach the way to others. I needed my students to pray and have courage to do the hard work with me.

Every class, I resist bringing ready-made answers. I come ready to face the hardest questions. And the students come prepared to share their questions, to name their resistances and difficulties, and to claim their passion for certain issues and people. My role has been to gather guidelines, practices and resources, and to vulnerably engage in the very work I ask of my students. And we struggle and journey through together, in hope of becoming good, moral people on the other side.

We struggle and work with Scripture. Reading the Bible separately and together is one of our foundational practices. To prepare for class, students read a selected passage from Scripture and write answers to these questions:

  1. What is of importance in this biblical passage? What mode of ethical reasoning is employed by this passage? How is this passage reading you?
  2. What ethical themes are connected to this passage? What might the biblical passage be saying about them? What questions do the ethical themes present to the biblical text?
  3. What are my assumptions as I come to the text? From where are my assumptions informed (e.g. worship, Christian tradition, current events, national/cultural tradition, personal experience)?
  4. Have I been changed, challenged, and/or deepened by this reading? How? What should I do today, in response to reading this passage of Scripture?

Each week, we share together out of what we have written and what we have heard from others. We do not aim to compose absolutes, objective explanations or generalized life applications. Prayer is encouraged. Thinking widely about various avenues for ethical themes is encouraged: personal virtues, family, relationships, social matters, life stages, institutional systems, current events, national and cultural issues. We aim for increased capacity to listen to and reason with Scripture and one another. We aim for better discernment. We aim for the hard, life-changing work of moral formation as Christians.

Upon reflection, this work of moral formation is like becoming a disciple. Some class days it feels like we are disciples, following Jesus on the roads of Galilee. Some days it feels like we are feasting at the table with Jesus, laughing and having a grand time together. Some days it feels like we are traveling behind Jesus to Jerusalem, and I fear what will happen when we get there.

On those days, I understand why Peter scolded Jesus and asked him to stop talking about crosses, suffering and dying for the world. I am thankful that Jesus kept him and me on the journey anyway. And I am encouraged to continue, with fear and trembling, the hard work of moral formation. Thank God I am not alone. Thank God we are not alone.

Dr. Laura Levens is Assistant Professor of Christian Mission at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. Her research and teaching interests include theological practices, the church in mission, Christian vocation, biblical interpretation and women’s history. Dr. Levens is an ordained Cooperative Baptist Fellowship minister, and has served in various congregations and Christian ministries.

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