Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World

I take the title of this month's column from the great new book by Messiah College Vice-Provost and College Pastor, Dennis P. Hollinger. Dennis is a friend, well-known in a variety of thoughtful ministries (such as the C.S. Lewis Institute, where he serves on the Board) and a thoroughly reliable guide to one of the most complicated areas of ministry in our time.

Oh yeah--I know what you may be thinking. How hard is it to know what is right and wrong? Only a worldly fool would start hedging the bets and muddying the water, nuancing this and questioning that. Isn't truth black and white? Only an ivory tower academic has to write books like this.

Well, hear me out. Rather, listen to Dennis Hollinger. He is a solid man of God, fully committed to orthodox and historic Christian thinking. Still, he is fully aware that various Christians (and non-Christians) have seen things from various angles, with different nuances and insights. There have been--and still are!--very different schools of thought, different contexts, each which have persuasive cases. Even for those with the most simple commitment to the authority of the Scriptures, different biblical principles sometimes compete, making it hard to know what to do in a given situation; such quandaries can drive a sensitive soul to prayer and can sometimes push us to cynicism or paralysis. To complicate things even more, in these (post)modern times, there are ethical issues and moral decisions that simply are not mentioned in the Bible. No, things are not always that easy nor clear. And there is little consensus, even in the church. We need some help, and the sooner we pay some intentional attention to this area, the better.

I am convinced that just relying on our good instincts or our desires to be faithful in our discipleship will not bear the sort of fruits we long for, and our integrity, our coherence, our contentment and our witness before the watching world will be compromised. From the workplace to the voting booth, from our shopping choices to our sexual ethics, from personal questions of our use of time to public questions about modern warfare, as a character in a Bruce Cockburn song sings, "'s live." This book, Choosing the Good, newly published by Baker Books, is the best book I have yet seen on this vexing area. It will make thoughtful and intentional Christian living a little less hard.

Although Choosing the Good isn't what I would call a quick or easy read, Hollinger is a clear and stimulating writer, always a teacher, offering good illustrations, case studies and examples along the way. Even when explaining fairly philosophical notions--how Alasdair MacIntyre uses Aristotle, say, or why Stanley Hauerwas claims he doesn't even believe in ethics--the book is clear and understandable. More often than not (unlike most texts of this sort), it is not only clear, but you understand why the matter under discussion is important. Few readers will grow impatient with the hard parts, but rather will be quite willing to slowly work through the various arguments and positions and viewpoints. Just when the going gets a bit rough, a clever illustration appears or a good case study. Some of them made me want to right away ask somebody--"Hey, what do you think about this? What would you do?"

Dr. Hollinger is exceptionally fair-minded and delightfully ecumenical. He draws on such a wide array of thinkers and scholars that I found myself grinning--few authors really care about both Carl Henry (practically the father of contemporary evangelicalism) and Rosemary Ruether (a radical, Catholic eco-feminist.) To see pacifism dealt with respectfully from a scholar with serious Calvinist leanings did my heart good. (For those few who may care, by the way, I first learned of John Howard Yoder's Politics of Jesus--which Hollinger calls one of the more provacative ethics books of the 20th century--from hard-lined Dutch Calvinist Peter J. Steen. And Rich Mouw, whose books I always read, is as ecumenical and fair a Calvinist as I've ever read. And Hollinger cites him often!)

Besides being ecumenical and widely-read, Hollinger seems to have incorporated the very best of these various scholars and the passions and concerns which animate their work. Many ethics texts, I have found, tend either too strongly in one direction or the other; they are strong on explaining structural sin and corporate issues, or they are personalistic and helpful only in developing private morality. Again, Hollinger moves back and forth, covering all the necessary ground, using case studies as diverse as a lonely traveler who falls into an inappropriate sexual liaison to a friend of his who worked at the State Department, with significant ambiguity about his role in the bombing of Kosovo. Some case studies are from the two-thirds world (what does a Christian do in a tribal culture where certain marriage mores are nearly non-negotiable and what can we learn from their struggles?), while others are quite common for most Western readers. For Hollinger, faithful Christian living and healthy moral living must find application and embodiment in the very midst of the complex cultures and places in which we find ourselves. Discipleship is down-to-earth and practical and sweeps across the whole of life. Finally, even for this college-level philosophy prof, nothing abstract or theoretical will do. This is urgent and necessary stuff.

So, this is why I like this marvelous work. Let me tell you about its layout.

Firstly, Hollinger starts with an overview and an introduction that lays out his plan. What a helpful and interesting chapter--read it right away, and you will want to dive into the rest! You will serve God more dearly just having read those few pages, thick as they are with insight and caring advice. From the outset, he also makes it clear that admitting ethical complexity is not the same as moral relativism. It is an important distinction to keep in mind as the mind will boggle soon enough.

In a tough-going couple of opening chapters, Choosing... tells of a few different schools of thought, looking at them carefully and in light
of a consistent Christian viewpoint. The heart of the first half of
this debate can be described as "Consequences versus Principles" (Chapter 1). As may be obvious, it asks whether moral discernment ought to be guided largely by the fruits and results of the decision or is normed by principles, rules and laws. The more one reads the different philosophers and theologians, the more one ponders the case studies,
the more interesting this becomes.

The second half of this debate, though, gets even more interesting.
Rather than asking about what we do (either the consequentialist or the principled view), another perspective suggests that it is more a question of "who we are." This is called "character ethics," which is a view based on virtue. In other words, the question is less about what we do but what we are. Some readers will know that the most famous modern Christian spokesperson for this view (and what a colorful spokesperson he is!) is Duke professor and all around trouble-maker, Stanley Hauerwas.

I have great appreciation for Hauerwas' view, an appreciation that I found Hollinger putting into concise and helpful terms. Paraphrasing even his brief summary, it has much to do with Hauerwas's huge claim that the ethical life--nay, the Christian life--is not guided by rules or laws that we figure out, but by the very way in which we see life. It is foundational in this sense, worldviewish, presuppositional, deep, heart-level. Learning to live into the way of Christ emerges from a community of character, shaped by Word and Sacrament; the narrative and Story from which we draw our meaning and construe our lifestyles is what really matters. This is a good and rich insight, often popularized by Will Willimon, and eloquently preached by Marva Dawn. It is a key insight in Steve Garber's important Fabric of Faithfulness and, while not exactly the same, seeps out of Walt Bruggeman's passionate proclamation that the biblical text shapes our prophetic imagination. Such thinkers make a powerful case that a community which gathers around the Word and worship comes out a whole new people, embodying a way of being that points to, and in some way births, a whole new creation. As we are (re)newed folk, we do new stuff. Ethics, then, for Hauerwas, sort of takes care of itself. (What abstract textbook or reasoning process, aloof from Word and a community of the faithful, can deduce anything about life, let alone what God wants? Moral quandries? "Seek ye first the Kingdom...")

I am grateful that Dennis H. is neither on the pro- or anti-Hauerwas bandwagon, as many are these days. It would be a glaring mistake not to include this major writer and his important insight into the book, and a discerning reader can see Dennis' earnest appreciation for the powerful admixture of anabaptist pacifism, Wesleyan holiness and high church liturgics that shapes Hauerwas. But he is equally clear that the colorful rhetoric against ethics and reason and natural law coming from
the character ethics school is short-sighted.

Actions and decision do matter. And God has given us certain principles and foundations. Virtue--what we are--is an important component of the ethical life, but what we do still does matter. It does not need to be "either-or." As is often the case, one extreme view replaces another. Hollinger helps us off the horns of this dilemma--and in the acadmeic world, this debate is all the rage right now!--by affirming insights from the character/virtue tradition without its short-sighted weaknesses.

In an excellent chapter, the book explains just what sort of biblical worldview should shape and direct our thinking. This shows how and why Hollinger can maintain such a multi-faceted, wholistic and ecumenical approach. It is a chapter simply entitled "A Christian Worldview Foundation for Ethics," and it is a wonderful biblical overview, the sort of chapter one could read and reread for sustenance and strength. Not a hard part of the book, it is essential reading and, oddly, rare in a book like this. All of the above views and schools can be critiqued and appreciated in light of this foundational approach--a biblical worldview shaped by the biblical metanarrative and its key points of creation, fall, redemption and future consumation.

The next two chapters are very interesting, and these explain the ups and downs, foibles and potentialities of two contexts--the modern world and the postmodern world. In two fine sections, Hollinger explains these often-used words, highlights the ethos of each era and how they have presented unique and sometimes devastating challenges for faithful Christian living. Only a major book like Craig Gay's stellar The Way of the (Modern) World: Why It Is Hard To Live As If God Mattered does as good of a job of expressing how these pressures have shaped and deformed our ethical/moral sensibilities and practices.

Making Ethical Decisions
Part Three is where the book gets remarkably down to earth. Anyone who is mentoring another should have this material at their fingertips; pastors and preachers should review it regularly.

Clear and precise, Hollinger gives three motifs for making ethical decisions, shows just how to use the Bible (and this is really, really good stuff for anyone who loves to read and wonders how to apply the Word) and even has a major chapter on questions about the role of empirical evidence in the making of ethical decisions. (In other words, we all may agree that the ethical lifestyle would be one which is ecologically sound, or one which enhances justice for the poor. But what evidence is there about, say, the facts of energy use and global warming or, for instance, minimum-wage laws and the poor? In any such matter, even if we want to do the right thing, and are shaped by a community which has nurtured in us habits of heart that are virtuous, we still need uniquely Christian analysis of the facts on the ground. It is good chapter, especially for those of us who are eager to be honest and have Godly integrity without seeming partisan on the burning issues of the day.

Christ and Culture
Oh, if only we could get this sort of balanced and thoughtful awareness of public theological issues into the hands of those who so often speak out on TV and the religious press. Again, Hollinger is wise and careful here, dissecting the various schools of thought about just how Christians should relate to the surrounding culture. What about pluralism? How do we influence the society? What does it mean to pursue justice? Certainly laypeople in the working world, students in college and every pastor who cares about her congregants should be struggling with these matters.

These are burning, burning questions and the best books are often very
academic or a bit shallow. Some give solid political insight--Paul
Marshall's new book, God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics, is brilliant and a must-read for good Christian citizenship! Others give more cultural motivation, like the helpful but rather light-weight Roaring Lambs by Bob Briner. (And you know how much we love Bill Romanowski's Finding God in Popular Culture, which, incidentally, won a coveted "Gold Medallion Award" this year!) But for foundational, general theories of how to get at the whole "make a difference, being salt and light, in the world but not of it" Kingdom vision, I think this studious but clear exposition will be an immense help. Praise God for such good thinking, aimed at helping us live virtuously, for God's sake, in love of neighbor, making a difference whenever and wherever possible. Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World is a serious-minded book for serious times. Let us hope it is taken seriously.


Along with this month's theme on ethics, here are a few other really great and important new titles that seem related. I think you would want to know about them, especially to complement a serious study of Hollinger's work.

Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce by Kevin Belmonte (NavPress, $24.00). A thick hardback, a great gift, and a page-turner bio. Many of us use Wilberforce's lengthy and tireless Christian political campaign against slavery as the classic example of faithful reform efforts, but sadly, few know much about the man and his many, many projects. This may be the definitive work, with a good forward by Charles Colson. If Wilberforce was a fascinating man who changed the world, this book is a fascinating read, which could allow you to persevere in your efforts to change the world.

The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning and Public Debate by Phillip Johnson (IVP, $16.00). This solid little hardback is an excellent collection of essays examining, well, if not the right answers, at least the right questions. Johnson is known for his thoughtful critique of the assumptions of naturalistic Darwinism and is now vibrant in his energetic insistence that Christians help shape the public debate in coherent and moral terms. From debate about the Human Genome Project to the underpinnings of education, from the quest for meaning to religious pluralism, this is a good and helpful guide to public discussion.
Provocative and well-worth considering.

My Brother's Keeper: What Social Sciences Do (and Don't) Tell Us About Masculinity by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen (IVP, $17.00). If morality matters at all and Christian living means to find a Godly and normative way of being in the world, certainly (certainly!) our ways of construing our maleness or femaleness is central to our task of being human and, hence, of being good.

This topic is with us always, and the brokenness surrounding our sexuality and gender roles is among the most painful to behold. This
very week I had the unsettling privilege of addressing a rather large group of court-adjudicated men appointed to undergo treatment for domestic violence. I was asked to talk about being a man. It was not easy. It should be so obvious that these are essential issues. Ergo, this is a very, very important book to have and to use with others!

And: after the feisty and very critical review I wrote a few months back against the popular nonsense of John Elderidge's best-selling Wild at Heart, I really want to mention this book as a major contribution to serious study of men, in light of a clearly Christian worldview.

Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth by Derrick Bell
(Bloomsbury, $19.95).
This book is garnering extraordinary reviews.
Folks I admire, such as Jonathan Kozol, rave about its integrity and care. It is obviously written with flare and passion, and one reviewer says it "moved me first to tears and then to action." It is about the daunting challenge of living what we believe in a world of complicated structures and pressures. Intellectual, passionate and literary, Peter Gomes called him "a gift to the nation." It is on my short list to tackle soon.

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges (Public Affairs, $23.00). I considered making this remarkable work the lead review this month as it deserves more than this blurb. Hedges is a fine and good man, a war correspondent with a degree from Harvard Divinity School. Not a pacifist, he nonetheless hates war and the war ethos--he has seen and smelled and tasted it up close, on nearly every continent.
Some of this is nearly too brutal too describe. Other parts are so literary and insightful that I wanted to photo-copy pages and hand them out. After reading a dozen pages, I gave it to my Congressman. As one General Wesley Clark (former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) has said, "Hedges has written a powerful book, one which bears sad witness to what veterans have long understood--that the fine and seemingly noble sentiments of wartime soon pass, and can leave behind the wasted hearts and minds of the young who have heeded their call. War is a culture all its own, he warns, and it can undercut and ultimately destroy the civil societies that engage in it. ...those charged with leading (that) defense must recognize the consequences of the forces and passions they arouse. Most important, Hedges provides a somber and timely warning to those--in any society--who would evoke the emotion of war for the pursuit of political gain."

This patriotic book reminds us that patriotism is dangerous, that the ethos of a culture engaged in war is dangerous, that war itself is more dangerous than most know. He knows the classics, sites Greek dramas, Shakespeare, Bible stories and great republican scholars. And he has seen some of the worst stuff of the last 50 years. Through it all, I am very, very glad to have this book, and hold it like a friend and ally. I want others to read it. Maybe it will help us all be more careful, more caring, more wise. Perhaps we should all send it to our Congress people.

God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics by Paul Marshall (Rowman & Littlefield, $27.95). I mentioned this briefly while discussing Hollinger's good section on social ethics and the need to relate Christian truths to the pluralistic public square. This is the best book on this subject and I think poorly titled. It really isn't about the Constitution as such, but, more widely, about a uniquely biblical vision for statecraft, jurisprudence, citizenship and politics. A fine writer, a clear book, and well worth the pricey cost. In many ways, this appears to be a reworking of the previous Eerdman's masterpiece, now outdated and out of print, entitled Thine Is The Kingdom. This is a very useful resource.

Sense and Sensuality: Jesus Talks with Oscar Wilde on the Pursuit of Pleasure by Ravi Zacharias (Multnomah, $9.99). Yep, you read that right. This is the second in the "Great Conversations" series with master apologist Ravi Z writing little fictional discussions between contrasting worldviews. (The first one was called The Lotus and the Cross and was a dialogue between Jesus and Buddha.)

Here, Jesus (with some help from Blaise Pascal, whose books were in fact read by the great playboy playwright) does head-to-head--and heart-to-heart--with the notions of pleasure and sensuality lived so fully by Wilde. While on his deathbed in November 1900, dying from syphilis, dear Oscar seemed to undergo a conversion to Christ. He requested a biblical text from Job to be placed on his gravestone. To this day, his journey is a fascinating, if painful, one to consider. More importantly, Ravi is putting his sharp mind to the task of deconstructing perhaps the chief idol of the Western world--hedonism and sensuality. God, of course, loves pleasure. So what, we overhear Jesus ask Wilde, might be the relationship between sense and sensuality, between head and heart, between the good and the beautiful. It is a discussion worth having.

Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Quentin Schultze (Baker, $24.99). A few CCO staff have studied under "Quent," and he is increasingly known as a fun man of deep insight. This new book, with the intriguing subtitle "Living Virtuously in the Information Age" is getting very good comments from world-class critics such as Walter Ong, Clifford Stoll and Mark Noll. Richard Mouw says: "What are the new information technologies 'doing' to us as human beings? Quentin Schultze's exploration of this has amazing breadth and offers profound insights. This is a virtuous book about cultivating the virtues in an information age." We ignore this book at our peril!

Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community by Oliver O'Donovan (Eerdmans, $15.00). O'Donovan has been gaining respect for years and is, for some, the most significant theological ethicist of our time. Although his major works are important, this brief collection of a set of lectures done at Calvin College (the prestigious Stob Lectures) is a wonderful, learned and far-reaching way to become familiar with his chief and important themes. Look also for a spectacular book about his work coming later this month (A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically & Politically--a Dialogue with Oliver O'Donovan) which includes his responses to a dozen friends and critics--from N.T. Wright to Craig Bartholomew to Jim Skillen. Co-edited by Al Wolters (Zondervan, $34.99).