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!