Second (or Third) Thoughts about Situation Ethics (Part One)
I recently completed a second or third reading of the famous or infamous 1960s book Situation Ethics: The New Morality by American Protestant theologian and ethicist Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991). It was first published in 1966 and was widely lumped together with other radical theological proposals published around the same time such as Honest to God by John A. T. Robinson, The Gospel of Christian Atheism by Thomas Altizer, and The Secular City by Harvey Cox. All four of these books and similar ones lumped together as “radical Christianity” proposed sweeping changes to Christianity in light of the cultural revolutions taking place in the mid-20th century. Of course these “cultural revolutions” (behind these books) were all Western—European and North American.
These books were aimed at popular audiences, not academic ones. All of them attempted to convince lay Christian audiences that (in the words of a later liberal theologian) Christianity must either change or die. And the changes proposed were, indeed, radical.
The one I focus on here is Joseph Fletcher’s 176 page Situation Ethics. In 1966, when it was first published, I was in junior high school and the son of a Pentecostal pastor. I was deeply embedded in that particular kind of American fundamentalism. (Not the same as non-Pentecostal fundamentalism but similar in terms of reaction against anything considered secular, worldly or liberal.) I well remember being warned against “situation ethics” by my father and many other of my spiritual mentors—evangelists, Christian speakers, writers of Christian books and articles, etc. Actually, it was probably not until I was in high school, a year or two after Situation Ethics was published, that I first heard about it in any detail. And I was severely warned against it, as were almost all of my peers within that particular Christian subculture.
So, dutifully, I avoided the book, assuming that everything I was told about it was true—that it was of the devil, that it was extremely pernicious, that reading it would bring great spiritual harm, and that its author was automatically damned to hell. Most importantly, I suppose, some speakers and writers I was exposed to—within my milieu—predicted that the approach to ethics proposed in the book would lead America down the primrose path to moral anarchy.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
When I entered seminary—something I was strongly warned against!—my evangelical professor of theology assigned me to take an independent-guided study with him and the subject was to be “radical theology.” I was shocked and worried. What if my father, whose assistant pastor I was, heard about that? What if the people in our church heard about it? What if my uncle, president of our little Pentecostal denomination, heard about it? They would all say “I told you so! Seminary is cemetery! It’s where faith goes to die!” But I discerned that my professor-advisor thought I was a fundamentalist who needed to be shaken out of my complacent biblicist-conservative theology. In class, to students who protested having to study “liberal theologians” he said “If studying liberal theology is what it takes to sting you into appreciated your evangelical heritage, so be it! Be stung!” I can still hear his voice in my head and “see” the spit coming from his mouth as he pronounced that forcefully.
Together we created a syllabus of books of radical theology including the four mentioned above. I approached them with some trepidation. Would just reading them destroy my spiritual life? Would demons crawl out of them and get into me? (Seriously, I knew Pentecostals who thought that was a real possibility!) But I read them, studied them, read critical reviews of them, and came through the semester-long independent-guided study with flying colors. I got an “A.” But not because I agreed with the books or wholly disagreed with them. Rather, because I responded to them critically but also appreciatively—finding both good and bad in them. I wrote essays about the books and had a final two hour oral exam with the professor where he grilled me about them and my responses to them. It was a truly life-changing experience, but not in the way my Pentecostal tormenters (for going to seminary) predicted. My response to Situation Ethics illustrates that. And my second (or third) reading of the book just now illustrates it still.
That is next in Part 2 of this series of blog posts about Situation Ethics. Stay tuned.
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