Lesson 20: The Greatest Challenge to Christian Ethics

Technological SocietyA couple weeks ago Derek asserted that the problem in Christian ethics is not so much Christians arguing with the world as Christians arguing with each other. He suggested the Bible does not help much, because all groups cite scripture passages that support their positions. He pinpointed the contemporary Church’s biggest embarrassment, which I think goes back to its inability to handle its biggest challenge, technology.

A good argument can be made that technology has not solved any of the great human problems. It has not fed, clothed, or housed the world’s population. However, its has made an important contribution to solving these with the innovation of safe birth control, exemplified by The Pill. It has provided the freedom women needed to wage one of the greatest revolutions in human history, bloodlessly. (How’s that for a word play?)

The church has responded much as Derek observed. Her leadership seems clueless. Her laity appears to have no troubles at all.

You can see this in a paper my son wrote years ago examining official statements on contraception by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. These statements were virtually the same until the nineteenth century development of a rubber safe enough to be used in prophylactics. After that technological innovation, the positions increasingly went in opposite directions, diverting more and more at each stage. Both Church bodies hardened their stands first with the introduction of the birth control pill and then with the morning-after pill. While the churches moved in different directions, their membership moved toward one another. Study after study shows approximately the same percentage of the membership uses birth control, regardless of their churches official positions.

Of course, this extends to other controversial technological issues, such as abortion, in vitro fertilization, climate change, gun control, and a host of others. The public media conveys, perhaps accurately, the impression that the modern division of Christian denominations centers on these issues.

The laity, however, does not appear to be divided at all. Without much guidance from theology, they have simply adopted technology’s one standard, usefulness. In a recent issue of the Christian Century top ethicists claimed “usefulness” has become the norm of their work. In numerous books, Biblical scholars report people now read Bible passages in terms of whether they are helpful in their lives. People express admiration for practices of religions, while acknowledging they think their doctrine is silly. They like the good family values and ethics of Mormonism, but are skeptical of Joseph’s Smith’s visions. They even practice yoga and other Buddhist exercises, reporting its mindfulness and mediation provide them peace and awareness in a confusing world, without any interest in studying the theology behind the practices. Families who do not consider themselves believers send their children to church so they might learn Christian values they consider important for a successful life.

You can read this as a sign that theology is irrelevant; only practice matters. However, “usefulness” is not much of an ethical standard. It ends up judging everything according to whether it helps me or my people get what we want. Another read would be theology has become irrelevant; it should get busy helping us find our way in this technological society.

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  1. Robert Nordvall says:

    Although usefulness is certainly a widespread lay criterion for the value of something, of course, there is not total agreement about what is “useful.” I think, however the divide among lay folks is not over what is useful and what is not. The main divide is the level of the desire for certainty. People who desire “certainty” naturally are attracted by more fixed, immutable, moral rules. The desire for certainty becomes ever more problematic in a increasingly diverse and complicated world.

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