September 22, 2009

Ethics – Part 1

Right and Wrong in the Christian Context


According to Webster, ethics is “the science of moral duty.” He further describes it as “the science of ideal human character.” The word in Greek means “dwelling” or “stall,” as in a safe place to live (our word “morals” comes from the Latin word for ethics). The implication is that humans depend on right choices for security. For a Christian, and indeed for many non-Christians, Jesus Christ is the only perfectly ethical person. He is the perfect man, always making right choices, and to believe him to be flawed is to abandon Christianity completely. Upon this fact and foundation, we have a second belief that we are to allow God to transform us into an image of His Son, Jesus. Jesus calls us to follow him, become his disciples and inherit eternal life. If Jesus is the ideal human being, and we are called to imitate him, then we are called to an ethical life.

What is the Basis for Christian Ethics?

Christian ideas of right and wrong originate in revealed truth, i.e. they stem from what God has taught us through Jesus and the prophets and Apostles. This primarily means the Bible for some, although as Catholics we accept as equally true the teachings of the Apostles handed down through the bishops and known as Tradition. For both the Bible and Tradition, we believe we must obey because the teachings come from God, not because they are wise, will ensure a long life or prosperity. Christian ethics may be contrasted with Utilitarianism, whose adherents simply “do what works.” Utilitarian ethics allowed the Holocaust, slavery, and totalitarian Communism. Because Christians do not believe humans made themselves or occurred “naturally,” we do not believe we are free to do whatever suits us. Because God is the author of life, He also determines the standards of behavior for those members of His creation with free will.

How Does Free Will Fit In? What Is It?

Free will is a gift from God. It means human beings have been given the ability to choose between right and wrong. We do not believe God runs our lives like a puppet show. We are completely free to choose, but are not shielded from the consequences of our actions as they interact with the rest of the humans (also with free will). Some people feel that we do not have free will because God punishes us for the choices he does not happen to like. Christians answer that God determines the standards of behavior because He is God, the Creator. Rather than punish, God simply allows people to choose to reject Him. As there is no happiness apart from God, permanent rejection of God results in permanent unhappiness. Without free will, no opportunity for choices between right and wrong exist. Creatures without free will cannot have ethics because they have no choice.

What Ethical Rules Have Been Revealed?

When the rich young man asked Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life, the response was: “You know the Commandments�” When Jesus was pressed further, he offered the chance to follow him as a disciple. Taking these together, following Jesus while keeping the Ten Commandments would seem to be the revealed answer. Jesus also said that loving God and neighbor summed up the Commandments, but our poor understanding of love sends us back to the Ten Commandments and the example and teaching of Jesus as a practical guide. Some traditions hold the Beatitudes as the highest ethics (Matthew 5:1-12). Each of these “blessed attitudes” fulfills God’s Law.

Why Can’t We Accept Some Rules and Not Others?

Our own ethics must be built on revealed truth. Over time the Church has spoken out on moral issues. Each teaching of the Church is built on some more basic ethical truth. Each of these truths is built ultimately on the Ten Commandments, which originated with God Himself. God has commanded obedience and trust, and to disobey any commandment is to disobey God in at least two ways. Jesus never said to obey most of God’s Law. He did say that to disregard even the smallest part of God’s Law is to be considered least in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:19).

An Exercise In Ethics

In class, choose a few Church teachings and try to follow them back to the Ten Commandments, the Gospel or the early Church. Use a chalkboard or large paper to draw these in the form of branches in a tree. Try to follow what would happen if one of the more basic truths were removed.

Copyright 1998 William E. Rushman – Permission to copy granted provided this notice is retained.

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