Monday, January 09, 2006

Losing Our Virtue: a Reaction

{{Here is a reaction paper I wrote for a theological ethics course, based on the book "Losing our Virtue: Why the Church must Regain its Moral Vision" by David F. Wells. }}

Perhaps no one needs to tell us that the moral fabric of North America has been unraveling for many years now. A plethora of Christian writers have bemoaned this fact, especially as Americans have more and more bought into the (nearly) ubiquitous post-modernism of this age. But the telling issue for the church as we face this moral decay, is how to bring about a recovery of our “moral vision” both in secular culture and in the church. David Wells takes up this issue with an insightful diagnosis of the post-modernism that inhabits our culture and is creeping into or already present in our churches. Precisely what challenges this moral climate presents for the church, and the implications this may hold for Lutheran ethical reflection, will be set forth here.

The root of the problem lies in the variety of attacks that have been made against morality in general. The attack has been both bold and direct, in the form of simple refusal by many to adhere to basic moral norms of our society and of our church, and it has also been subversive and indirect, in the form of undermining the very foundations of morality by the steady incursion of relativism into our beliefs, and the consequent denial of moral absolutes. This problem has been exacerbated by the Church’s assimilation of American business practices and psychology with the attendant weakening of moral language; the Church’s growing failure to understand and speak of sin in relation to God; and the consequent loss of the understanding of the sole sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for sin. This simply cannot continue, as the church needs to be a beacon of morality to the world, so that they might come to know our Father and His dear Son (Matt. 5:14-16).

If the Church is indeed to lead the culture in this regard, it must regain and reclaim the language of sin and morality. It cannot use the flimsy language of psychology to describe sin as lack of self-esteem or self-fulfillment, and should move away from the subjective language of “values” understood as the preferences, beliefs, feelings, habits or conventions that guide our moral action. By taking sin out of relation to God, and putting it into relation to self, the language of psychology prevents sin from being seen as a moral offense in the face of a Holy and Righteous God who cannot tolerate sin. The shift in language from “virtues” to “values” has also aided the post-modern attack on morals, as Wells notes, “The inevitable outcome of treating the self as the locus of all meaning and of all moral values, however, is that both meaning and values become relative to each self.” Instead we must return to the objective source of morals, found in the Ten Commandments, and also reflected in natural law. We must acknowledge that even if we do hold certain beliefs because we were raised with them, that does not make them subjective, because we are not the ones who define morality—God is, and He has established and revealed these objective truths to us in the Bible.

As the Church moves to recover the foundation of morality in the Ten Commandments, it will also be struck by the challenge of making people realize that they have actually broken the commandments. Wells states that the great majority of Americans believe they have kept the commandments, but only 13% believe that each of the commandments has moral validity. The Lutheran response to this is preaching of the Law in its full sternness, so the Word of God can do its work in convicting human hearts of their sin, and showing them the full depth and extent of God’s Law. Christ’s preaching in the Sermon on the Mount showed how the full spirit of the Law required obedience beyond mere outward adherence to the letter of the law. Then repentant sinners will rightly be prepared to hear the Gospel proclamation of Christ’s forgiveness through His death on the cross.

This will move people beyond a mere legalism like Wells describes, where the realm in which “good character” and self-restraint governs one’s behavior has been so narrowed that a tendency develops to polarize issues not between what is right and what is wrong, but what is legal and what is illegal. It is then assumed we are free to do what ever is legal—but in the absence of an accompanying honesty or self-restraint to govern behavior, now many resort to litigation to protect themselves. Instead, with proper preaching of Law and Gospel, they will instead see the Ten Commandments as the shape of the moral life that God wants us to lead, and that though we certainly and indeed daily fail to keep them, that God forgives us in Christ Jesus. In this way, our ethical conduct will not be selfishly motivated by seeking our own righteousness through the Law, but by virtue of our justification by faith alone, the Gospel will move us to altruistically serve our neighbor in true faith and love, as God desires. And out from the realm of mere legalism, the Christian life will be guided and shaped by the character of the new man in us, which will not seek the bare minimum of obedience or legality, but joyfully does good and sees the intrinsic value of all human life, and judges ethics accordingly.

In this same vein though, as the Church strives to be a beacon of morality, the ever-present cry from culture will be, “Ah but you Christians are hypocrites!” Here is the golden opportunity for Lutherans especially to speak of the simul justus et peccator. Though we indeed strive to live according to God’s commandments according to the justified, new man living in us, we recognize that by virtue of our old, sinful Adam we still sin much in this flesh, and are often found to be the hypocrite. Yet the Law unmasks this hypocrisy once again, and we are restored in forgiveness by Christ’s death. Especially in light of our sinful nature, Lutherans have the opportunity to speak in marked contrast the culture’s refusal to give up “their freedom of choice.” Here we must teach and preach that the human will is not in fact free or autonomous, that we do not develop our own values , but that once again God reveals truth from above, and that what He sets is absolute. To believe that God actually brought judgment against sin in Christ’s death, and that sin is not a matter of moral indifference shows that moral relativism simply doesn’t wash. Like an upset bottle of ink on a white tablecloth, the slowly spreading stain of moral laxity cannot be corrected by merely returning the ink to the bottle…the stain remains and it must be purged clean. It is Christ’s death that purged us clean of the stain of sin, and to go on living in sin is to despise of His death.

So the challenge for Lutheran ethics is to continually turn people outside themselves for the source of our knowledge and our moral vision. This is part of the problem with the whole shift from speaking of (moral) character to personality. “It was a shift away from the invisible moral intentions toward the attempt to make ourselves appealing to others.” Turning inward for answers, self-reliance, or inner knowledge runs counter to the Word of God that is revealed to us from outside ourselves (extra nos). But the Christian ethic must always be shaped primarily by the Gospel, as reliance on the law alone has led many legalistic churches to create unattainable standards in man-made laws that drive a person to false guilt or shame.

Here again the Lutheran faith offers an answer to the challenge of the moral climate of our culture, as we face the issue of how to correctly deal with shame and guilt. First, by properly distinguishing law and gospel, we eliminate false shame and guilt by discerning what is God’s Law and what is in fact merely human invention. Secondly, as the renewed preaching and teaching of the Law in its full sternness will create true guilt and shame at one’s sin, there will continually arise opportunities to administer the healing balm of the Gospel through private confession and absolution. For those who are burdened with the realization of past sins exposed by the full light of the Law, private confession can be a safe place for the sinner to release the unconfessed sin and guilt, laying it upon Christ, and hearing the living voice of the Gospel proclaim, “Your sins are forgiven.” And instead of wearing the shame of our sins, we are clothed in honor, which Wells says comes in God’s reverse world through our rebirth , which we as Lutherans recognize comes about by baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

When Wells challenges the church to restore its moral vision by 1) being courageous enough to call sin sin, and 2) to become more authentic morally , the Lutheran church can respond by bringing to the table a strong Christocentric understanding of morality, vocation, and sanctification. Pointing to the full height and depth of the law as revealed in Christ’s perfect obedience and love, we can show how all the commandments are concretely rooted in God’s active love for people, and are not arbitrary whims or regulations. By sharpening Christianity’s understanding of Christian vocation, we can show how our responsibility toward God and our neighbor is lived out in every realm of our lives, not merely those that are governed by civil laws, and how we should act accordingly. And by rooting our ethics in a Christocentric understanding of sanctification, we always begin with the cross of Jesus and our justification, in order to understand that the source of our motivation and ability to live as holy people is not found in our own moral strivings, but in the love of Christ that dwells in us by faith.

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