you can't judge a book by its title

If you saw a book on the shelf titled The Responsible Self: An Essay on Christian Moral Philosophy, aside from the fact that you probably would not pick it up to read it, you would probably think that it must be a dry book about duty. H. Richard Niebuhr has something else in mind altogether. You might think it dry, but you will not find dutiful.

First, who is H. Richard Niebuhr? Well, he is the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr! Ok…in spite of the fact that very few Christians I know have any clue who they are, the Niebuhr brothers—Reinhold especially—are considered some of the most influential American theologians of the 20th Century. Besides that, they are Germans from Missouri, which for a Berger automatically increases their awesomeness! His most well known book is Christ and Culture. He taught theology and ethics at Yale Divinity School for decades, and his work is considered one of the sources of post-liberal/narrative theology.

The Responsible Self (1963) is a collection of lectures he gave at University of Glasgow in 1960 and was published after his death in 1962. The basic ethic of this book might be illustrated in this quote: “Responsibility affirms: ‘God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to his action’” (p. 126).

Let me explain. There are two dominant ways people talk about what a person ‘ought’ to do. The first has to do with purposes and goals. As a system of ethics, this is called teleological ethics because it defines the good in terms of its end/purpose (Grk, telos = end/goal). It would be over-simplified to say this is the ethic of “the ends justify the means,” but for the sake of space, I will do it anyway. The second ethic has to do with law or legislation. As a system, this is called deontological ethics (Grk, deon = obligation/duty). There is a law that binds us. When you hear people argue for an “absolute moral law” or by non-absolutists like Kant who said, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law,” you are hearing this view of ethics.

Niebuhr is not rejecting either one of these outright; he merely says neither one of them is adequate in itself:

“What these debates suggest to us is that as helpful as the fundamental images are which we employ in understanding and directing ourselves they remain images and hypotheses, not truthful copies of reality, and that something of the real lies beyond the borders of the image” (pp. 55-56).

In other words, each view has something right about it but suffers some limitation. It is for this reason that Niebuhr suggests the ethic of response, saying the right thing to do is the fitting response to the things being done to or demanded of us. For the Christian, this comes from understanding what God is doing to us or demanding of us in any given moment. He summarizes:

“In summary…we may say that purposiveness seeks to answer the question: “What shall I do?” by raising a prior question: “What is my goal, ideal, or telos?” Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: “What is the law and what is the first law of my life?” Responsibility, however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: “What is going on?” (p. 60).

Therefore, what is fitting or appropriate for the situation alone is the right or good thing to do. This will sound to some like some kind of moral relativism—and in some sense, it is—but might it actually help to make sense of the ethics of the Bible? We have all run into the difficulties of taking the Bible as “an absolute law” or maintaining the truthfulness of competing demands. I do not think I need to explain what those difficulties are. I only propose the question:

Does Niebuhr’s ethic of response help to make sense of Abraham setting out to sacrifice his son at God’s command, why God can ask his people to kill their enemies in Joshua and love them in Matthew, and why Paul can say things like “the law came to an end when faith came” or “to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel” or “whatever is not done in faith is sin”?

Tell me what you think!


Michael B said...

I am not an expert on 'Ethics' or the H. R. Niebuhr by any means. I just happen to like the name Helmut so I am responding. But I do join with Helmut in rejecting the over simplification that is communicated in the static forms of teleological/deontological ethics. So I will try to give my own over simplification of why I agree.
My mind goes to a biblical one- liner that seems to bypass these two schools:
Without faith it is impossible to please God-
But why does faith look different in different situations or in similar situations at different times? i.e. your examples (Joshua-Matthew) I'll give it a shot -- God is not only the source of our faith, hope, and love but their terminus(ending place) as well. With deontological ethics the judgment of the act to often terminates with the act in a vacuum of sorts. Killing in obedience to God and loving in obedience to God find the (source) from God (i.e. He gave the orders) and He is the one to be pleased/served. They (the ethical acts) also find their final judgment and reasoning in Him. Which leads us to the teleological side--

With teleological ethics it is a little stickier! If you believe that in the Father is the ending or the 'telos' then fine, we are done!But even so, this would be like saying everything is subjective (subjective to God in the end)--but most teleological ethics would judge the end/goal (telos) prematurely or inaccurately. For example: we cannot humanly judge an act the same way that an all knowing and all powerful God judges (infinite vs. finite) i.e. unjustly hanging on a cross until dead = Dead Jesus = bad! In short the ethical judgment of an act is finite until the end of time when these acts are judged for eternity. We might be sure now that 'the acts' are good or bad, but the final judgment remains-

For a case study that further illustrates this -- How does one judged the act of the widow who gave two pennies using teleological or deontological ethics? If she follows the law (Deontological) she gave her tithe and even more and obeyed the law just like many of the others-- if you follow Teleological then her gift was meaningless and not nearly as valuable as the others who gave much— but introduce faith and all bets are off.

Along the same lines--

Bonheoffer sees ethics most sinister side when it is sought apart from God (which puts a great divide between himself and Kant) thus following quote...

"Only the one for whom neither reason, nor principles, nor conscience, nor freedom, nor virtue is the final measure, but who offers all this, when called in faith and in sole allegiance to God to obedient and responsible action." ~Dietrich Bonheoffer

I realize that you are all a little dumber having read this! Brett, I thought I would ignorantly but willingly cast the virgin response into your blog world--by probably misspelling every single word!
GO ASU March Madness baby...Question...is it unethical to pull for the Devils?

BAB said...

There is nobody with whom I would rather lose my virginity.

The question is: is it unethical to be a devil? If so, I am in trouble.

I'll give a better response when I have a little more time. Thanks.

David Malouf -- said...

Sorry I'm so late-to-the-game on this one...

I rather like what Michael wrote. I've been 'modified' by two writers on this subject: Robert Greer in _Mapping Postmodernism_ and BAB in _personal ongoing discussions_ (ha).

Greer's ... 'prediction'(?) is that we are swinging away from truth-as-idea and back to truth-from-a-person. Seems to me, most of the Scriptures are written in a -from-a-person approach making them difficult to handle in our -as-an-idea, Western upbringings. I surmise this is another angle on the same line as Michael and Helmut.

My challenge from Brett will also challenge Brett's designated "Helmut's main idea." The push-back is this, Is God REALLY involved in 'all actions'? I am coming to think that this is NOT true (except in a hold-the-universe-together sort of way). This is why God is not consulted on which seed-type to plant where, what colored robe to wear, or how many children to have (or more importantly, why God did not see it fit for us to see Him being involved in those decisions and, therein, did not have them included in the Scriptures).

My friends who lean more into the Spiritual side of life (vs. the rational or the emotional) tend to see God in everything and I am NOT discounting this. From my rational (mental) point-of-view, this seems to be very akin to my idea (thought) of the immanent omnipresence of God.

But does this mean God is ACTIVELY interested in how I lace my shoes? I am NOT asking this sarcastically but seriously for Helmut writes of "all actions."

My friend, Brett, has wrestled (and has let me enter this wrestling as well) with notions of "What if God is silent - does that mean I'm in sin or am I trying to find Him in places He isn't or doesn't need to be" (that is a highly interpreted non-quote of Brett's thoughts as seen by me).

CONCLUSION: My push-back on Helmut is this. First, I am thinking that perhaps there is some liberal residue as you are seeing the volition of the individual as, essentially, the Source of truth and will in a way that I find contrary to Eph. 2:1-4.
Second, I am thinking you are looking for 'the right' (be that 'truth' or 'responsibility' or ...) as if that is the ultimate aspect of the human experience/existence. I'm not sure that's correct and is, perhaps, a far to mental/rational approach to life, philosophy, relationship, and all things Spiritual (this is where the adage comes in: if you point a finger at Helmut, there are three pointing back at you!).

This got longer than I thought and probably looks longer 'cause Brett's blog puts comments in a column 2 inches wide :-)

David in Seattle