From 9-5 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week I had an intense time of reading, thinking, and discussion with the following professors at Fordham University:
Dr. Barbara Andolsen, James Buckman University Chair and professor of theology, Dr. Michael Baur, associate professor of philosophy and an adjuct professor of law, Dr. Miguel Alzola, assistant professor of business, Dr. Jeanne Flavin, associate professor of sociology, Dr. Keith Cruise, assistant professor of psychology and The honorable Michael A. Corriero, executive director and founder of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice and former NY State Judge.
It was a discussion about theories and applications in contemporary ethics covering topics like incarcerating drug addicted pregnant women, the juvenile justice system's incarceration of felons under 18-years-old, corporate social responsibility, Catholic Social Teaching, and and more. After spending about 7 hours discussing the juvenile justice system, trauma, and the neuroscience of adolescent brain development, I realized that I think I'm kind'a bored at the moment with the discussions in conservative and Reformed evangelicalism because conservative and Reformed evangelicals don't really seem to be interested in cross-disciplinary theological ethics. So, when I look for other evangelical scholars to discuss how the Trinity can inform rehabilitation for PTSD suffering incarcerated youth in forging new imaginations needed for virtuous 'future orientation,' I realize I don't really have other scholars to dialogue about these matters because evangelicals are primarily concerned with "getting the gospel right," "church planting," and heretic hunting. So those of us in theological ethics are somewhat homeless.
There may be a few reasons for this:
(1) "The gospel" as an exclusive hermeneutic technical phrase is not always useful in theological ethics. As a scholar, I need to draw from other categories like the "the eucharist," "the Trinity," "the liturgy," "the church," etc. Relying exclusively on phrase "the gospel" limits theological reflection on ethical issues that are not resolved by the message of the good news found in the salvation offered in work and person of Jesus Christ. For example, the Trinity is far more useful for providing a framework for helping rap victims restore their dignity than the good news about salvation. There has developed a trend to almost randomly attach the phrase "the gospel" onto issues as if the connection makes sense, say, for example, "the gospel and corporate social responsibility." I don't think a reputable academic journal of Christian ethicists would even accept a title phrased in that way.
(2) The possible idolatry of (or at least an over-emphasis on) preaching. Preaching "the gospel" has not be shown to lower recidivism rates for adolescent sex-offenders who were both victims an perpetrators of sex crimes. Preaching is only one of the multiple dimensions of sanctification and following Jesus to be conformed to his image. Too much responsibility for Christian reflection on life and culture is placed on pulpits. There is more to Christianity than preaching. For theological ethicists, the emphasis on preaching doesn't really help us do our work. For example, the quip that America's stem-cell debate will be settled if we just "preached the gospel more" is great churchy rhetoric that is sure to garner applause but does not help ethicists at all think theologically about addressing the issue in the public square.
For example, many evangelicals do not believe that brain is physical organ (like a heart or a kidney). Therefore, for example, many hurting people are wounded by the church because often (but not always) they have either biochemical or physical brain damage that gets reduced to simply "spiritual issues." Someone who is bi-polar does necessarily need more than sermons.
(3) Evangelicals are confused about the nature and work of the "the church." For starters, when evangelicals say "the church," they tend to mean their denomination, an association of churches they personally like, or their local congregation, so that language isn't even helpful. Also, because many evangelicals have an underdeveloped understanding of civil society there is no discussion about the differentiated roles of other institutions in society to do the things "the church" is neither commissioned nor equipped to do. Moreover, the growing narrowed emphasis on church planting as the solution to society's ills does not help theological ethicists engage the task of developing moral oughts.
(4) The naivete of trickle-down Christianity. The idea that if everyone in the culture were Christians all of society's problems would just fall into moral order is romantic and unrealistic. If there were true, there would be no civil codes in the Pentateuch, no wisdom literature, and so on. The trickle-down approach seems so odd given the fact that sin still exists and human reason has been compromised by the fall. Even if everyone in the world were a Christian, on this side of Christ's return, we would still need theological ethics. Any pastor will tell you that being a devout Christian does not mean that people's marriage and parenting practices are competent and always virtuous. Therefore, preaching the gospel and growing churches is not enough for Christian reflections on making the world a better place when thinking about ethics.
(5) The Bible is not sufficient for all questions in ethics. What I mean is that the biblicist approach to ethics is profoundly insufficient. For reasons that can only be described as "odd," the impulse to demand that ethical conclusions demonstrate "biblical" coherence means that conservative evangelicals look for Bible verses to justify ethical positions. Ethics by proof-texting. The ethics-via-proof-texting approach is a residual of American fundamentalism and the Barth/Brunner debate that has even infected Reformed theological ethics--which historically developed theological ethics with the Bible and natural law. Not using natural law in theological ethics limits evangelical's ability to think conceptually. Of course the guiding foundations and principles of Christian ethics are derived from Scripture but there is not going to be a verse to deal with specific ethical issues in many cases; and to take Bible verses out of context to force them onto issues, for whom they exegetically do not apply, is to abuse and misuse the Biblical text and undermine Biblical authority.
Dr. Stephen Grabill makes the point this way:
Among Protestants in general, there is an absence of critical moral discernment on bioethical issues outside the scope of abortion debate. This stems, in part, from Protestant skepticism toward natural law (God's will as expressed in creation, imprinted on the conscience, and known through reason) and from an underdeveloped role for the legal, as opposed to the teaching, aspect of ethics. Informing people what principles ought to guide their conduct and what actions are morally illicit is the teaching aspect of ethics, whereas developing theological and philosophical criteria to adjudicate the morality and severity of illicit human acts is the legal aspect.
The now-neglected legal aspect of Protestant ethics was once a vital part of Anglican and Puritan moral theology. Older Protestant luminaries developed texts on "cases of conscience," which attempted to discern whether a specific behavior was right or wrong and to evaluate the moral gravity of wrong behavior. They were assisted in this project by their appropriation of Christian Aristotelian philosophy and the natural-law tradition.
In another article Grabill rightly concludes:
Evangelicals tend to be pragmatic, wedding political activism with biblical appeals, but this has resulted in moral reflection operating on a mostly private and intuitive plane. The tragic pitfall with this style of ethical decision-making is that adverse spiritual and moral consequences often go undetected.
American evangelicals should not be dissatisfied with the captivity to the binaries of "preach the gospel" and "church planting" as a way to resolve moral dilemmas. Having said that let me affirm the following because I realize that many fall into disassociative reading patterns: I believe the gospel is the only matrix for salvation and sanctification, preaching is the only way people will hear that gospel and is, therefore, necessary, the mission of God in the work is fulfilled through the work of the church, and that many psychological issue can be effectively addressed with the means of grace. My only purpose here is to offer perspective on why evangelicalism lacks theological ethics and is a hard place for those of us committed to that as a vocation.
I simply wish there were contexts where evangelical scholars in theological ethics could have cross-disciplinary conversations about the pressing ethical issues of our day but those just simply do not exist and I'm wondering if it's even possible. Any ideas?