Shared Belief: Tradition and Ethics

Part of Shared Belief, a series responding to Alisa Childers’ article on progressive Christianity and atheism.


#3. “They May Affirm a Culture-Adapting Morality”

About three and a half years ago, Pope Francis promulgated the encyclical Laudato Si, calling for Christians to care for our common home (i.e., the earth). What followed was an uproar from politically conservative corners of the Church. Jeb Bush announced that he doesn’t take policy advice from the Pope, and Rick Santorum stated that the Church should stick to “what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”

It just so happened that, I was heading for a two-night backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with some older pastors during this same time. On our drive through the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee, we discussed the reaction to the Roman Pontiff’s document. How could it be, I wondered out loud, that care for the environment — with all that it means for the poor, for future generations, for our role as stewards — is not considered a point of “morality”?

A friend and mentor answered, it seems that for a large segment of the Church morality comes down to “pelvic issues” — matters of human sexuality.

Alisa Childers takes up the issue of morality, but she condenses it to such “pelvic issues.” First, she writes:

Many atheists believe an action is moral or immoral based on its effect on the well-being of humanity. With no need to bring God into the picture, this view of morality ends up following certain societal norms.

It’s not so different for progressive Christianity. With the Bible evicted from its seat of authority, that authority will generally shift onto self. Personal conscience, opinion, and preference becomes the lens through which life and morality is evaluated and interpreted—and this will usually be informed by the current cultural milieu.

I have previously taken up progressive biblical interpretation, arguing that progressive Christianity does not jettison Scriptural authority. Scripture is true and authoritative, and it need not be historically factual in all matters to hold its authority. Scripture, then, still provide a strong foundation for progressive Christian ethics (more on that below.)

It is worth noting, though, that progressive Christian ethics do find sources outside of Scripture. Following the great Wesleyan tradition, progressive Christians affirm that God continues to lead the Church through Scripture, reason, experience, and the tradition of the Church. The so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is certainly not the sole domain of progressive Christians (hence, the United Methodist Church faces the very real threat of schism between progressives and conservatives this year), but the Quadrilateral does shape the progressive approach to Christian ethics.

The Quadrilateral approach is, itself, attested to in Scripture. We need only consider the debates over Jewish purity laws to see how Saints Peter and Paul interpreted Scripture through their own experience and reason, defining the tradition of the Church, all through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Or consider the formation of Scripture itself: one needs the Church’s Great Tradition to arrive at any sort of consensus regarding the canon.

All of this is to say that Childers once again oversimplifies the facts on the ground. Progressives are not guided by arbitrary personal opinions but an honest and open wrestling with four traditional sources of Christian ethics.

One key example of such wrestling is Matthew Vines (see below). When Vines set about to defend LGBTQ inclusion in the Church, he did so by turning to Scripture and listening to reason, experience, and the Tradition. The result is a book, God and the Gay Christian. His conclusion is not simply one of personal desire; instead, it is the product of a thorough exegetical project. This is not the work of a person following preference but a Christian wrestling with Scripture the same way Jacob wrestled with God.

Childers continues:

In 2016, Jen Hatmaker sent shockwaves through American Christian culture by announcing she now affirms same-sex marriage. LGBT activist Matthew Vines tweeted that this made her “one of the highest-profile evangelicals” to do so. She’s hardly the only self-professed evangelical who no longer holds to the historic Christian position on sexuality and marriage.

Here, Childers once again reveals her true concern. Just as she worries that questioning Scripture equates to ignoring Sacred Writ altogether, so to does she equate morality with sexuality.

The distinction between Childers’ fundamentalist ethic and progressive Christian ethics is the topics covered. Progressive Christian ethics extend beyond “pelivic issues.” The ethics of progressive Christianity are rooted in the witness of the prophets and in Christ’s ministry, focusing on care for the poor and oppressed.

To be certain, matters of social justice are not unique to 21st century Christians. Saint John Chrysostom and his close acquaintance Saint Olympias were known for their care for the poor and the impoverished. Christians of all backgrounds strove for abolition. The push for civil rights in the US was led by numerous Christian clergy.

In the 1970s, though, predominantly white Christians sought political power; they began to downplay the aspects of social justice championed by the likes of Bonhoeffer and King and to emphasize sexual purity as the marker of true Christian piety. Christian ethics were reduced to “pelvic issues.” (For more on this, cf. Rev. Dr. Randall Balmer’s lecture on the origins of the Christian Right.) At the same time, these newly-resurgent fundamentalists developed ties to the Republican Party under Reagan, championing trickle-down economics and deregulation. Gone was the concern for the poor, the stranger, the hungry; here to stay were the policies of the Moral Majority.

The implications of this ripple out today. Visit a site like First Things or The Gospel Coalition and peruse the topics; compare the sheer volume of articles they post about human sexuality and the small list of articles about poverty, racism, or hunger. Consider how many white fundamentalists were willing to vote for President Trump, despite his overtly racist and misogynistic remarks, trusting that he would deliver Supreme Court justices to vote against LGBT rights and overturn Roe v. Wade.

The lasting result of the political alliance between the GOP and fundamentalists is that human sexuality has become part of their core doctrine; Concern for the poor, the oppressed, and those pushed to the margins did not.

Far from rejecting traditional Christian ethics, progressive Christians embrace the Church’s historic emphasis on caring for the poor and liberating the oppressed. To be certain, they are not alone; other Christians, including many fundamentalists, care for the poor as well. (To this end, I consider Russell Moore to be a star among the fundamentalists.)

I would wager that, were she asked, Childers would also affirm the Church’s call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. It’s a pity she doesn’t recognize this commonality with her progressive kin.

What sets progressive Christians apart from their fundamentalist kindred is the centrality of these concerns. For progressive Christians, they are an essential dimension of God’s coming Kingdom; for fundamentalists, they play second fiddle.

There is more to be said on this point as pertain to the ethics of human sexuality, and I will address that topic in my next post.

3 thoughts on “Shared Belief: Tradition and Ethics

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