Lesson 18: So Where is the Basis for Ethics Found?

Ethical ConversationI began suggesting people often claim they go to Church to find a basis for ethics. Public figures on television often try to show their morality by reporting, “I grew up in Church.”

I then suggested these people are often speaking of learning laws that are taught at Church, laws they can take with them after they have stopped participating in worship.

I am inclined to think what is really happening, albeit unwittingly, is these people might learn what it is to be ethical, because they have been among good people who live ethically. They might come away with laws that are helpful, but even more important they come away with attitudes and habits of the heart that contribute to healthy living.

Cognitive studies and evolutionary theories might maintain ethical laws, such as the Golden Rule, are products of human development as people learned to survive best by co-operating in this manner. However, the rules they cite are hardly a set of laws, just general principles. And they do not necessarily point to these being inherent and given in human nature.

Instead, they indicate the basis of ethics is found in community, when at least two people address one another as persons. Ethics begin with the accountability and vulnerability found in community. In some sense, ethics is the terms of engagement when people take responsibility for their actions. It depends on seeing oneself and the other as persons.

But is that the only basis found in the Church community? And can these rules of engagement be taken away whole when one leaves the community?

Many, including myself, believe the basis of ethics found at Church always includes a minimum of three persons, the third being God. The Church has insisted over the ages that God must be regarded as a Person. It is the nature of God presented in the scriptures, the explanation of the Trinity forged in the early Church, and the Real Presence promised in the Means of Grace. God promises to be present among his people, to speak to them as a Person in the Word and to share their lives as a Person in the Sacraments.

At its best, the Church never bases ethics on abstract principles or general laws. Instead the basis is found in words spoken between persons, and sometimes these are commands.

Concordia expressed this when she suggested the unchanging nature of God is found in the image of the caring, loving Good Shepherd. Ethics then are based ultimately on the relationship with that Person. The terms of engagement might change according to the needs of the situation, but the Person remains the same.

Of course, that brings up the question of whether those who have left the Church really can take a Christian ethic with them. That is not to say those outside the Church have no basis for an ethical life. But it is to say a Christian ethic is different than this. It depends on participating in the Christian community. It also means if this society is to learn again how to share their stories and work toward a common good, those engaged must recognize the personhood of each speaker.

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    Obviously involvement an a Christian community can foster an ethical sense. Ethics in general are effectuated in a community context. I think it is possible, however, for someone to develop a set of ethics similar to, even if not identical to, those of a practicing Christian without being a Christian. A lot of ethical systems, religious or otherwise, share many common features. The reason is that ethical systems ptimarily address the question of how to treat other persons in a just manner. What a religious perspective provides is God’s aid in helping us do what we should do.

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