One day last week Francesca Murphy said something in a comments thread that I wanted to pursue a bit further, but I was too busy. So I’ll do it now. Francesca said:
In modern times, especially in the 19th century, Christianity re-presented itself, (partly) and partly was re-presented by others, as being essentially about ethics. Its metaphysical not even to mention its mystical claims were not of great interest to moderns, but its ethics were.
I think this is true. It strikes me, too, looking at Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, that an emphasis on the faith as primarily concerned with ethics is characteristic of many factions that are in their specific concerns very hostile to each other. (I’m just going to refer to “Christianity” here, as what I’m going to say is applicable to the Christian community at large, not only to the Catholic Church.) The religious right, the social-justice left, and even traditionalists who wish to restore a past Christian order or create a new one have in common that they appear to the world as simply one group among many with a set of ideas about how to run the world. There’s nothing wrong—in fact there’s much right—about Christians presenting their social-political vision to the world on its own merits, and not as something of interest only to Christians. But if that’s all people see of the faith then its nature is being fundamentally misrepresented and misunderstood.
It’s a commonplace that Christianity is not to be identified with any specific political system. But more importantly, and more essentially, it shouldn’t be seen as a primarily an ethical program at all, whether social or personal. Christian morality comes after the Gospel and much of it only makes sense in that light.
That’s a matter of truth, and also an important point for evangelization. If the first and possibly only thing an outsider knows about Christianity is, for instance,a its sexual morality, he may just laugh and pass on, believing it silly, outmoded, and repressive. To really understand why Christianity teaches what it does about sexual behavior, you have to understand what it teaches about the essential nature of sex itself and of the human person.
Moreover, to preach a system of ethics is usually to engage in an argument, and in this case it may well be an argument that is crippled by lack of agreement on underlying principles. And when an argument begins people usually want to win more than they want to arrive at truth, and this is as true of the Christian in this case as of the other. So a situation may be created where the non-Christian has a strong (and probably unacknowledged) motivation not to agree. This is especially true now when so many people are so angry about politics and all the cultural questions connected to religion.
The core of Christianity is that it is an answer to the most fundamental questions and deepest longings of human life: What is my purpose? Why must I die? Is the longing for perfect happiness that I’ve had since I was born simply an illusion that will die with me? To say to a person asking these questions that the hope of such fulfillment is as reasonable as the hope of water to a thirsty man seems a much better place to start than the moral principles which are a means toward that end. To preach morality first is often to preach in the very unpopular sense of that word. Christian hope logically precedes Christian morality.
Returning to Francesca’s comment: I would like to think we might be entering a time where the world is once again interested in Christianity’s metaphysical and mystical claims. If this is true in the modernized world—Europe, America, much of Asia—it’s probably because we have attained so much and are still so unhappy.
I don’t mean, obviously—well, maybe not so obviously, as I’ve occasionally had some very curious views attributed to me when I didn’t explicitly deny them—I don’t mean that Christians should avoid discussing ethics or refrain from making a Christian case on political and cultural controversies. It’s a matter of emphasis, and of what comes first.Pre-TypePad