From The Peaceable Kingdom
As we shall see, some Christian ethicists have characteristically claimed universality very similar to that of recent philosophical ethics. They tend to presume that we have a theological stake in an adequate philosophical defense of an unqualified ethic. Yet, oddly enough, this assumption makes positive theological convictions ethically secondary. For if we know what we ought to do on grounds separate from our religious beliefs, then what are we to make morally of those theological convictions? Usually these ethicists relegate such convictions to a “higher morality” or to the “motivational” aspects of the moral life. Both alternatives entail a moral psychology which artificially severs agents and their actions; what we “ought to do” is abstracted from the question of who we are.
No less distorting for Christian ethics is the assumption that we must choose between teleological and deontological theories of obligation. Of course, there are aspects of the Christian tradition that seem to fit into either theory. Those inclined toward the deontological option tend to emphasize God’s commanding presence of the necessity of covenant fidelity. Those more attracted to the teleological alternative often stress love as the overriding aspect of Christian ethics. There is no reason to deny that the Biblical record and Christian tradition manifest deontological and teleological tendencies, but it is mistaken to assume that Christian ethics requires us to choose either alternative or some combination of the two. For when we do so we inevitably tend to abstract the Christian “ethic” from its rationale by subordinating theological convictions to prior formal patterns of ethical argument.
For example, many who are convinced that ethics is primarily a matter of rules, assume that Christian ethics must have its primary source in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. While both are extremely significant for Christian ethical thinking, they are unintelligible when treated as sets of rules justifiable in themselves. The Decalogue is part of the covenant of God with Israel. Divorced from that covenant it makes no sense. God does indeed command obedience, but our God is the God who “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” (Deuteronomy 5:6). Because of this action the demand, “You shall have no other god before me,” can be made. So too, the command not to kill, not to commit adultery, and not to steal necessarily make sense only within the particularity of the story of God’s dealing with Israel. For this reason each time we receive God’s commands we are reminded that:
We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statues, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us. (Deuteronomy 6:21-25)
It is no wonder that this aspect of Biblical morality is ignored by those who emphasize an ethic of obligation in the interest of developing an ahistorical ethic. For the Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with their God. A “Biblical ethic” will necessarily be one that portrays life as growth and development. In contrast, an emphasis on rule-determined obligations abstracted from this story makes our existence appear to be only “one damn thing after another.”
We should not be surprised, then, if the kind of convictions Christians hold are better exhibited by an analysis of the virtues. As MacIntyre has suggested:
[To develop a] stance on the virtues will be to adopt a stance on the narrative character of life. Why this might be so is easy to understand. If a human life is understood as a progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical, which someone may encounter and overcome in better and worse ways and with a greater or lesser measure of success, the virtues will find their place as those qualities the possession and exercise of which generally tend to success in this enterprise and the vices likewise as qualities which likewise tend to failure.
Jews and Christians understand themselves to be in such an adventure, a journey capable of being sustained by the moral resources God has given them. The story of this people on a journey and the place of the virtues are inherently interwoven. I shall try to make more clear why and how this is the case.