Why do we differ so strongly in the ethical positions we adopt?
Edited By Hak Joon Lee and Tim Dearborn
We live in a rocky time—a time of massive structural changes, a civilizational shift, and deepening inequality and injustices. Accelerating globalization and the advance of communication technologies are reshaping our civilization and political dynamics. Eroded by the mobility of globalization, the power of financial markets, and the anonymity and vitriol of the Internet, our social institutions, cultural ethos, interpersonal communications, work experiences, personal tastes, and religious identities are undergoing unprecedented changes. Conventional moral values and norms are being challenged; traditional communities and institutions are losing authority; welfare programs and safety nets are being removed; and numerous jobs are either being outsourced to other countries or replaced by robots and computers.
It seems that the earth is shifting under our feet. This cultural dissonance and structural dissolution engender anxiety, fear, uncertainty and anomie (as indicated by the rise in drug addiction, depression and suicide rates), and they create the conditions necessary for an acceleration of xenophobia, nativism, protectionism and racism. Under the pressure of these structural changes and cultural shifts, the body politic in the United States shows signs of deep cracks and fissures. Trust in our political institutions and politicians are hitting historical lows, and the nation seems more politically polarized than at any other time in recent history. It seems that the American experiment of a democratic, multicultural society now faces unprecedented challenges.
At the heart of this polarization are controversies around how we as a society should deal with particular social issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, gun violence, public education and global warming and their personal, religious, financial, and security implications. These controversies in fact reflect radical divergences and differences in ethics (more particularly social ethics), that is, what our normative and authoritative ideals, vision, values and virtues should be and why. This polarization, of course, is a symptom of the fragmentation that our society is facing, the demise of its basic common values and shared frame of reference, to a dangerous extent.
Unfortunately, Christians are not an exception to this cultural polarization, but rather at the center of many of these controversial issues, worsening the partisanship, misunderstanding and conflict. Christians today are as divided over social ethics as they are over doctrines, ethnicity and worship styles, even while all Christians sing and confess that they are the members of the one body of Christ. Even while we believe in one God, serve one Lord, pray in the one Spirit and read one book, we are often radically divergent in our understanding of God’s will on particular social issues. Debates become passionate and heated because these issues have to do with questions of identity, values and our calling as Christians. The polarization among Christians frequently boils over to the level of distrust and antagonism, as we all justify our moral stances and positions in the name of God and demonize the other party without hesitating to use fake news and alternative facts.
The current polarized political climate discourages, and at times even appears to preclude, the possibility of studying and learning from different ethical views on social issues. Many preachers and Christians feel cautious or wary about offering biblical teachings and insights on controversial social issues because of their fear of fracturing their own congregations; consequently, they remain noticeably silent about the issues. They do not want to upset people, but the outcome is that many Christians are more influenced by secular ideologies (that they receive from friends, the Internet, or other media sources) than they are by the corporate spiritual formation of their congregation. All too rarely do Christians have any chance to develop theologically informed, publicly tested opinions and ideas at church. As a result, churches are not only racially segregated but also politically and culturally segregated, exacerbating the divisions within the universal body of Christ and the national body politic.
The situation is not much different in classrooms of Christian colleges, seminaries and divinity schools. Professors and students are often afraid of freely expressing their particular views on controversial social issues, and conversations about these issues are mostly confined to the safety of likeminded people.
Why can’t Christians get along with each other on social issues? Where do these radical differences come from and why? As the following brief observations indicate, the polarization of our moral understanding stems from several different sources.
Authoritative sources. While all serious Christians may genuinely want to know and pursue God’s will, they differ in where they find the sources of that knowledge. In ethical decisions, some prioritize the Bible as the primary moral authority, others lift up church teachings or rely on the dogmatic pronouncements of prominent church leaders, while still others endeavor to listen to the direct personal guidance of the Spirit. To make matters more complicated, Christians often prioritize different moral visions, values, norms or teachings in the same source. For example, while all Protestants hold the Bible to be the primary, central authority in discerning the will of God, there are ongoing debates among Christians as to which biblical texts (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, or the apostolic epistles) are most foundational and authoritative, and whether normative sources other than the Bible (e.g., church tradition, experience and reason) are relevant for decision-making, as well as to what extent and in what order.
Adding further complexity is the reality that interpreting the moral teachings of the Bible can be challenging because of its unresolved ambiguities, tensions and even silence on certain moral topics that we face today, and it is a mistake for Christians to select one teaching or narrative over the others without examining the entire Bible and the context in which it was written.
Interpretation. Even if Christians rely on the same source(s), values and norms, their different interpretations of these sources, values and norms can (and often do) result in different ethical decisions. Humans never read and understand the Bible, or even empirical reality, in the exact same way. This epistemological difference results from the fact that we all wear, implicitly or explicitly, a certain interpretive lens. There is no naked access to reality. Interpretations reflect our different personal upbringing, life experiences, social locations and cultural heritages as members of particular racial, ethnic, gender and economic and religious groups. Sometimes our interpretations are colored by our political ideologies and vested interests; hence, careful scrutiny is necessary.
While no interpretation is completely neutral or objective, this does not mean, however, that all interpretations are equally valid or equally flawed. That is, this plurality of interpretation does not entail ethical relativism but rather indicates the inevitably conditional and contingent nature of human knowledge, including hermeneutics and ethical reasoning. Important for our purposes is the fact that a critical comparison between diverse interpretations is possible.
Empirical analysis and data. As with moral sources and interpretations, different empirical analyses of a specific social issue may also result in different ethical decisions. Many Christians often understand Christian ethics simply as the application of relevant biblical principles and rules to a particular topic, but every ethical decision also includes certain judgments about the factual, empirical aspects of that issue. That is, every ethical issue has an empirical side to it, and its analysis contributes to the decisions that we make. Hollinger notes, “Often differences in ethical decisions are due to differing accounts of what is happening in a given situation. The particular way we portray the reality may well determine, at least in part, the ethical outcome.” For example, the controversy around abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells turns on the questions of when a human life begins and whether a fetus is a full person or not. Similarly, the debates on global warming are shaped by whether it is caused by humans or not, and whether science offers reliable evidence on this question.
Hence, empirical analysis is crucial for understanding an issue. Any reasoning that disregards relevant empirical realities is very likely to result in a misunderstanding of the issue and its moral nature. History offers numerous examples of how Christian decisions have often been informed and influenced by fear, trauma, ambition or nationalist ideology (e.g., German Lutheran churches’ support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (1933–1945); overwhelming American Evangelical support of the Iraq War in 2003).
Because of its broad scope and public nature, an empirical analysis in social ethics requires higher and more rigorous standards. For empirical analysis of those issues, we typically rely on the findings of the social and natural sciences. Social-scientific analysis is different from a few personal anecdotes or individual observations. It usually relies on tested scientific processes and methods of data gathering, observation, analysis and interpretation. It seeks to discover, as precisely as possible, certain regularities or recurring patterns—causal relationships that persist in natural or historical phenomena.
In summary, we differ in ethical positions because we often understand God’s will, read the Bible and perceive the empirical realities around social issues differently. To bridge the gap in our differences and avoid unnecessary and dangerous polarity and conflicts, we need to be self-reflective and self-critical of our own ethical perspectives and our ways of seeing reality in conversation with others. The study of ethical reasoning offers an invitation to this process of self-reflection.
Excerpted from Discerning Ethics edited by Hak Joon Lee and Tim Dearborn. Copyright © 2020 by Hak Joon Lee and Tim Dearborn. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com