Right or Left

Truth is not relativistic; truth is relativtastic! 

To clarify what that statement implies regarding ethics, consider how you would answer the following two questions about driving down the road.

1) Is it better to turn right or left at the intersection ahead?

The answer depends on where you’re trying to go.

Far too often we assume that the specific moment of decision is the only factor worth considering in ethical deliberation. To restrict our lens to the moment of decision is to preclude the possibility of our actions leading anywhere in particular. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different if our actions are meant to be in service to any particular goal.

2) Now assume you know the roads and you know where you’re headed. Do you know which way to turn at the intersection?

The answer depends on whether you know where you’re coming from.

Even if we know the goal of the decisions we make, the practical choices to arrive at the same destination are deeply shaped by where we are coming from. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different when our context is shaped by radically different experiences and histories.

In the same way, any time we are asked to consider the ethical implications of a particular word or action, we must consider both the world we believe ought to be created through that word or action as well as the context through which each person affected has arrived at the particular moment in question. No matter how “by the book right” something might seem, it may still have the effect of destroying the very world one hopes to create. No matter how many times one specific word or action may have been right, if the context has changed enough the implications might be the opposite of what they have previously been.

Ethical action is only possible at the intersection of the stories we hope to participate in and the stories that wrote us. In the tension between the world we create with our actions and who we have been up to the point of action, we create the space where the truth of relationship is possible. Ethical words and actions are precisely those that build up relationship and not those that tear it down. 

We so often ask only, “what should the individual do in a given moment?” A better question would be, “what would the world look like if our community made abundant life a present reality?” We so often think only, “why are those other people so wrong.” A more fruitful way to think would be, “what is the source of their fear or grief that leads to such opposite conclusions?” To start with a goal in our minds and empathy in our hearts would not solve all the world’s problems. But I sure do believe it would allow us to take at least one correct turn along the way.

That truth is relativtastic is another way to name this essential role of relationship in any ethical analysis.

I think about this kind of analogy a lot in terms of how our most partisan and broken divides play out in the life of the church. Whether it’s abortion, sexuality, immigration, or whatever else you want to name, we often consider only repercussions for moments of choice rather than where we are headed or where we are coming from. In other words, we spend all of our time fighting about the parameters or prohibitions of the laws that we think ought to be put in place. We spend precious little time or energy considering how we can become the kind of people who live in such a way that all but the most extreme cases make no sense as a source of controversy or division. 

If we were to become the kind of people that truly value life, we would not allow the possibility of systems and attitudes that tell people their children are a personal burden more than a communal gift. If we were to become the kind of people that know the power of intimacy, partnership, trust, vulnerability, and mutuality, we would not accept that gender is the necessary and sufficient category by which to divide our world and define acceptable marriage. If we were to become the kind of people that embraced and brought to light the gifts all neighbors have to offer, we would not be so ready to abandon common sense or compassion through fear and protectionism.

In short, if we were to build God’s kingdom here and now, there would be no lines in the sand regarding momentary choices because we’d recognize that God’s love is much bigger than our limited boxes can hold. The kingdom of God is a world upside down way of life that calls for nothing short of complete submission to the power of God at work in all things. The kingdom is not a right or left kind of endeavor; the kingdom is an invitation toward a radically different way of life no matter what roads have brought us to where we are now.

People, not choices

“How does one make in the moment ethical decisions?” is the only question popular ethics ever seems to explore. It may be argued that intent or consequence or some other factor is most important for the ethical calculus of the decision, but in the center of the exercise is always a decision that must be made. The unspoken assumption within the question is that there is an agent who is capable of making a decision regardless of the context and narrative in which that person operates. But, the narrative of the agent’s life is the only context in which an agent can have agency. 

The context that creates the agent is thereby the necessary and sufficient  arena in which ethics is able to meaningfully determine or describe right from wrong. Changing the context changes the agent, which changes the calculus surrounding any decision. The more important question is something like, “what kind of people should be created such that the moment of decision is no longer a meaningful point at which to make an argument about what ought to be done and how then do we create the world that creates that kind of person?”

The greatest shortcoming of popular ethical debates is the notion that there can be a distinct moment or act of decision that can be analyzed in any meaningful way. All behavior makes sense in context and it is the context that must be challenged and changed if we are to create ethical people.

Moral Ambiguity in Decisions

Objective moral judgments are impossible because there are always more factors than you can account for; to ask one to choose to act on the basis of the given facts is to ask one to choose in a situation that does not and cannot exist. The human life is never disjointed to the extent that you can isolate individual choices or circumstances in which a choice is made; you can only develop the type of character that will render decisions over the course of a life in a way that reflects the nature of God more or less fully, but never approaches some ‘objective’ standard of right or wrong. To make this claim is no less scary than it is true – but while people fear the inability to say definitively that something is right or wrong, the black and white definitions we seek are simply a way for us to deny the need for God’s grace and to control our own lives without the need for a force of judgment and transformation that is more than we can ever create.

 

Morality and community

Two factors render nearly all popular moral discourse meaningless and hopeless.

First, modernity and postmodernity assume the primacy of the individual and only then understand how individuals interact with one another. The community is more basic than the individual, thus any understanding of individuality is necessarily built upon the communal identity one holds or rejects. To start with the individual is to make any judgment of morality meaningless because the very categories of thought into which moral judgment can be placed are only possible within community. To start with community is to rest any judgment of morality upon the coherence and development of a community or the incoherence and destruction of a prior community.

Second, to build out a moral theory based on community requires us to understand traditions and the ways in which we are always participating in multiple competing traditions that define the narrative of our lives. Human lives will always be somewhat incoherent within multiple and competing traditions. The only way to find wholeness is not by defining right and wrong per se, but by understanding our part in the most determinative story and the most determinative community in which we belong.

Experience and Interpretation

I read an interesting blog post by Peter Enns that got me thinking. The first three sentences of the post are as follows: “God reveals. The biblical writers interpret God’s revelation. Those interpretations eventually become the Bible.” He goes on to illustrate what this means in terms of Passover laws. I appreciate much of what Enns has to say in his attempts to give normal people (especially from an evangelical background) a way to gain a new understanding and appreciation of scripture. This is not so much a disagreement with his post, but a challenge to the notion that humans and/or language could ever do anything other than provide an interpretive lens of ANY experience or ANY revelation, from God or otherwise. The same dynamic Enns argues for in the Passover laws is part of the process of ALL human experience, interpretation, language, and relationship.

To experience an event necessarily requires that the human mind run that experience through the structures of the brain that have developed over the life of the person. What any experience means to an individual (whether that experience is in the form of language or other apparent external action) is necessarily different from what that experience could possibly mean to any other individual. At the same time, the contingency of individuality means that the experience also cannot be wholly other than what another person would have experienced. Present experience is, therefore, always a dynamic interplay between the community that formed the individual and the uniqueness of that individual’s formation.

To then convert the stored memory of that experience back into words is necessarily to add another layer of interpretive shaping. And to hear/read those words is a at least a third layer of shaping. Interestingly, neuroscience even suggests that every time an individual remembers a past experience, that memory is re-recorded in a slightly different way. It would seem that even speaking what we believe to be accurate necessarily adds a layer of interpretation within our own brain as well.

It is, therefore, useless and atheistic to assume the Bible means anything without the presence and activity of God’s grace that opens our eyes and ears.

Partisan Grace

A friend recently asked why there was no room for the Christian notion of grace in conservative politics these days. Conservative policies seemed to him unnecessarily harsh to those without power and wealth. Whether or not that is an accurate criticism of conservative policies, I actually think he got the question backwards. Grace’s place and meaning in a liberal or conservative ideology obviously depends on how exactly you define grace, but for a working definition I’ll assume something like ‘unmerited favor’ or perhaps more generally the kindness to offer something not earned.

The project of modern liberalism carries within it the rejection of community defining expectations that are required in order to form the kind of relationships in which grace is a possibility. Put differently, the presence of grace is only possible in a community in which expectations of one another are concrete enough to go unmet; liberalism rejects any such expectations other than, perhaps, that a live person stay alive. You can still offer to give to one another out of pity or obligation or duty or whatever other motivation, but when there is no such thing as merit in the first place, the gift can’t be unmerited.

Conservatism carries with it expectations, some implicit and others explicit, that there is some concrete and measurable standard for what life ought to be and thereby what an individual life ought to look like or contribute to the common good. When the expectations of what an individual ought to have contributed are not met, giving anything to the person who does not merit the gift is an act of grace.

In this way, it is liberalism and not conservatism that has no room for grace. However, there are two realities that must be made explicit so that naming the problem and seeking a remedy do not simply deepen the ideological divide.

1) Liberalism as we know it is a response to the kind of conservatism we know. Liberalism’s rejection of community defining standards is actually a rejection of the lack of grace found in conservatism for many different kinds of people who don’t fit the model of what life ought to be (not that conservatives all agree on the specifics, but there is at least a tacit agreement that there should be things about life we take for granted). Liberalism as a theoretical project strips meaning from grace; but liberals as they actually exist are in many ways the embodiment of the grace that is seen to be lacking in conservative practice.

2) No one is entirely liberal or conservative and our lives make no sense without the presence of both. We always inherit a world of expectations and assumptions that we did not create and that we spend our whole lives working through, accepting and rejecting various parts at different times. Without a brand of conservatism to reject, liberalism means nothing. Without the force of liberalism, conservatism cannot respond to the inevitability of new experiences, technologies, and relationships in the dynamic world in which we actually exist.

Grace in the Christian life is about finding the creative tension whereby we can do both at the same time. We have to become a) a strongly defined, tight knit family of God in which we drive each other, through encouragement and accountability, toward meeting the high expectations of the new life Christ offers; and b) humble and open servants who exist precisely for the sake of those who are not yet inside that family; who never think ourselves so smart or clever as to think we know the exact size and shape of new life in Christ; and who see that we too receive every good gift not because we have earned anything but through the action of God’s grace. Put more simply, we have to a) conserve our identity in Christ and b) seek liberation from everything except the love of God and what that love entails.

Christians have to be conservative enough not to replace ‘the traditions and peoples in which we come to know God’ with ‘human rationality,’ but liberal enough not to think we have a complete definition of what life in Christ looks like. Christian grace only makes sense at the intersection of this tension.

4 Stories

Truth is not truth except in the context of the story in which that truth finds expression.
Consider 4 very brief stories and ask 3 questions of each – What is the first thing you think about the main character? How would you respond if you were the owner of the flower(s) in each story? How does each story make you feel?

  1. Alan got the bad news he feared his doctor would tell him. Alan’s heart was in bad shape and if he did not start to adjust his lifestyle with significant changes to his diet and exercise habits, he would not have long to live. Alan took a walk that afternoon and somehow found a profound sense of peace come upon him. He knew that he not only could, but would make the necessary changes and turn his life around. As he walked, he came across a beautiful flower that reminded him of his parent’s garden from childhood. Alan walked over and picked the most beautiful flower to remember this day when he turned his life around.
  2. Bill had a feud with his neighbor. They made each other angry all the time. From yard maintenance, to late night noise, to clogging the street with parties – they were polar opposites and made the Hatfields and Mccoys look like amateurs at feuding. Bill’s neighbor had a garden that was his most prized possession in the world. Bill wanted to hurt his neighbor more than anything else in the world. So, one day, he found the chance, walked over to the garden, grabbed the stalk of the most prized plant with both hands, and he broke it in half with a rush of joy going through his body and a smug smile upon his face.
  3. Charlie was a romantic at heart, but had grown apart from his wife recently. They were empty nesters and hadn’t been adjusting well to life without kids at home. Charlie knew something had to changed and wanted to make a big romantic gesture to show he was trying. Chocolates or jewelery wouldn’t do – his wife was way too sentimental and loved unique things way too much for something mass produced to mean much. One day he found the perfect rose, it was gorgeous in color, but ever so slightly imperfect on one of the outer petals. The only other time he had noticed a rose just like this was the day he met his wife. He brought that single rose on their blind date and he even joked about how it was imperfect, just like him – if she could accept an imperfect rose, maybe she could accept an imperfect guy. As Charlie picked up the rose, he knew he found the perfect symbol of his commitment to rekindle their relationship.
  4. Dan always seemed like a robot to his neighbor across the street. Dan just came and went to work, same time every day, like clockwork. The neighbor across the street never knew anything about him beyond the methodical schedule he kept. One day, the neighbor watched as Dan walked up to his next door neighbor’s house, grab a flower out of the neighbor’s garden and walk back to his house.

What do you think of Alan, Bill, Charlie, and Dan? What would you do if you were the owner of the flower(s)? How does each story make you feel? There are no right or wrong answers here. But I’m willing to bet you’d answer each of the questions a little different for each of the 4 stories. The trick, as you may have already guessed, is that all four takes could be true of the same person at the same time. A workaholic romantic-at-heart guy gets revenge on his neighbor; by doing something nice for his wife, during the exercise his doctor ordered, while a neighbor looks on with no idea about any of the backstory. Alan, Bill, Charlie, and Dan could very well be the exact same person doing what looks for all the world like the same exact thing. 

How you view what is happening depends entirely upon which details you know about the life of the main character; what you prioritize and value in your own life; your own prior experiences with neighbors, a spouse, gardening, etc; how much detail you know about the particulars of the story; and a whole host of other practical and unconscious factors about your expectations and the reality of the people in the story.

My point is not to zero in and judge any particular take on the stories above – my point is that we are all, always living out multiple competing stories and, at the same time, witnessing a tiny fraction of the near infinite stories that are going on around us. Factors like “where we draw the lines around what stories we are willing to consider” and “how our past has shaped us to value one story over another” are not neutral options that all lead to the same truth; they are the primary drivers in determining what we will deem true enough to be the “real” story. These factors do more to influence our answer to any questions about what ‘really’ happened than any supposedly objective account of events.

There is no possibility of a coherent account of what happened that does not already do half the work toward shaping how we respond to what happened. One of our greatest challenges as finite and limited human beings is that we can never step outside of our lived experiences and knowledge base to assess how much of the ‘full’ story we are resting our judgment upon. That we sometimes live in echo chambers and see the world through different eyes should be self evident when we see the way partisan blinders are able to shape and spin the same set of facts in dramatically different ways. I am arguing that such shaping is the necessary form of all historical and practical knowledge.

This argument may seem to render all attempts at speaking the truth about our lives and our world as an impossibly relativistic endeavor. That’s because our assumptions about the way rationality and logic work are fundamentally backwards. We assume that we see facts and use those facts to tell a story. The opposite is the case – we tell ourselves a story given what we think we know at the time and we find a way to fit the facts into that story. We are fundamentally storytelling creatures that are rarely able to see outside of ourselves enough to jump from one story to another.

We learn to tell the stories that write us in the context of relationship. Many of these stories are set in place long before we have the conscious ability to respond or challenge the ways we are being shaped to see the world. Most moral thought and logical argument fails to take seriously the extent to which thought is shaped by the story of relationship and only possible in the soil of emotion. Truthful rationality is quite often misunderstood as an attempt to control the way we relate to the world. It is better employed as a means of putting words to the healing and wholeness that comes when our lives become one with the truth of who we are.

Lest this claim seem like a mere academic exercise, it is a 4 part story in scripture that conveys the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s new Moses. Mark’s messianic revolutionary. Luke’s gentile savior. John’s Passover lamb. Each Gospel clearly means to tell the story of the same historical figure, but each has a very unique perspective, focus, and shape for how the story is told. Any single perspective is inadequate to convey the full truth of the identity of Jesus. That multiple competing and complementary narratives are necessary is not a shortcoming in the bible – it is a profoundly important recognition of the way words and story only convey truth in the context of relationship.