The Creator God and the Question of Ethics, or We’re Dead on Our Own

For nearly a week now, there’s been a fascinating conversation developing over at JRD Kirk’s blog on gay marriage.  It’s not your typical right-v.-wrong question, and Kirk’s position is, naturally, well nuanced.  The ensuing conversation, for its part, has its highlights, but also has its devolutions, which I suppose ought to have been suspected.  Regardless, the conversation raises some intriguing points and explores some oft ignored quarters of the debate.

This morning, I awoke to another ethics question at Not the Religious Type, the blog of Vineyard pastor Dave Schmeizer (and others from his community).  The issues Schmeizer raises connect to the inherent tension in the conversation at Kirk’s blog.  Of what value is academic ethics?  At what point does the theoretical impact life decisions in the moment?  What is the relation of civil law to morality, whether individual or corporate?  Should a person fight for laws that match her personal ethic?

My high school offered a humanities class to seniors in addition to English and history classes.  This was, in essence, the first opportunity to engage in many of the big questions of life directly within the context of public schooling.  World religions, psychology, philosophy, and, yes, ethics were all covered briefly.  I loved this course.

What does God think of David's robes? Hume cares not. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

I remember, though, as a 17-year-old being simultaneously enthralled and frustrated during our minor sortie on ethics.  Fascinated though I was by Hume and Kant, I couldn’t help but think there was something missing from these conversations.  Of course, this collection of unknowingly naive teens debated whether it was wiser to throw an elderly doctor or pregnant woman or teen-with-potential off a sinking ship to save the lot.  My classmates relished the complexity and the debates and the opportunity to take moral high ground.  My teachers looked on with the smirk of experience, at once thinking, “Isn’t this cute?” and “I guess you kids don’t know it all, do you?”

Yet, I recall thinking, “This is stupid.  When am I ever going to wind up on a sinking ship?  And why couldn’t I just sacrifice myself to save the rest?  And furthermore, where is faith in this conversation?”

Having been raised in the church and being one with a predilection to matters of faith, I had been reading the Bible before my stature reached four feet.  Perhaps I didn’t understand Job or Ecclesiastes, and perhaps I often skipped Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and perhaps the prophets seemed to be speaking inconsequential gibberish, but the stories I understood.  And it seemed to me that the miraculous was a regular part of those biblical stories.  And it seemed an omnipresent and omnipotent God played major roles in those stories.  This God, it seemed to me, would have been on that sinking boat too, and He would have had something to say about the situation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his Ethics with what seems must have been a similar thought: “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.  The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. … Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. … Man at his origin knows only one thing: God”. [1]

The temptation of Adam and Eve was to partake in the knowledge of good and evil, but their calling was to partake of life.    Where the original humans had available a relationship with that omnipotent and omniscient Creator, a relationship overflowing with life, they opted for a future of independence.  With their Creator, they were not assured all the answers, but were guaranteed life in all circumstances.  Without their Creator, they were assured nothing but a deteriorating existence.

Such is the story of all the Scriptures.  It is a story of humanity pursuing its own ethical path, of the Creator eternally working to reestablish the original union with humanity, of minor successes and major failures, and, finally, one major victory.

Ethics without its origin in a relational Creator is no ethic at all.

What say you?  How do you approach ethics?  Does the reality of a present God matter?  How do you consider difficult (and real) situations in life?

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 21. The entire first section of Ethics is mind blowing. Where was I?

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One thought on “The Creator God and the Question of Ethics, or We’re Dead on Our Own

  1. “Ethics without its origin in a relational Creator is no ethic at all.”

    Absolutely wrong. The only ethic that matters is that created by a man for himself. If you act right in fear of hell or hope of heaven it isn’t righteous at all but a selfish investment for your future. Man doesn’t need big daddy wagging his finger to act properly. It only has reality if the man does it for himself. We need to quit depending on outside pressures (the church, the law, et al) to learn how to act. We need to stand alone and achieve virtue for ourselves. Everything else is artificial.

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