Christian Ethics: If you understand, I’m explaining wrong…

Christian Ethics: If you understand, I’m explaining wrong… June 1, 2016

(Matteo Doni / Flickr)
(Matteo Doni / Flickr)

I’ve gone on from borrowing books from my fiancé to borrowing books from my fiancé’s family, and I’ve just finished reading Stanley Hauerwas’s Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong.  One of the passages I found most striking is Hauerwas’s argument below that Christian ethics should be at least a little repulsive to non-Christians.

Christian ethics, like any ethics, are “tradition dependent.” That is, they make sense, not because the principles they espouse make sense in the abstract, as perfectly rational behavior, which ought to sound reasonable to any intelligent person. Christian ethics only make sense from the point of view of what we believe has happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Practically speaking, what the church asks of people is difficult to do by oneself. […] More than these practical considerations, what the church asks of people is difficult to see by oneself.


The habit of Constantinian thinking is difficult to break. It leads Christians to judge their ethical positions, not on the basis of what is faithful to our peculiar tradition, but rather on the basis of how much Christian ethics Caesar can be induced to swallow without choking. The tendency is therefore to water down Christian ethics, filtering them through basically secular criteria like “right to life” or “freedom of choice,” pushing them on the whole world as universally applicable common sense and calling that Christian.

If you’d like a non-religious example of a divide where each side’s common sense sounds like lunacy to the opposing side, try Scott Alexander’s Survive vs Thrive model of political divides. (In brief: do you think the world is pretty stable, and we’re figuring out how to best share this lasting prosperity, or do you think the world is teetering on the edge of near collapse, and unless we’re very careful, everything will crumble).

Survive vs Thrive has become one of the background assumptions I automatically ask about when I’m in a dispute with someone I already know and respect. It’s turned out to be lurking behind a lot of the disagreements I’d find most repulsive or hard to debate — my interlocutor is usually much farther toward the “Survive” end of the spectrum than I am, and is ready and willing to do last ditch things.  (When I turn out to be the closer-to-Survive one, the Thrive person tends to feel to me like a Jenga player who hasn’t heard of gravity).

We can’t keep debating the issue “on the merits” because we have a bigger problem — we have to figure out which world we both live in in order to figure out how to settle of our debate. Hauerwas seems to be saying something similar in Resident Aliens — that Christians should expect to get stuck, and to find that some of their ethical and policy debates wind up really being debates about whether Christianity is true. Not all our claims are provably true in every metaphysics.

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