Thursday, December 17, 2009

Short - Listed Ethics and Paradoxes

Since wrestling with ethics is one of my passions, a blog on ethics recently attracted my attention. However I soon discovered that the blog was not written by a Christian, but by someone who conveniently used biblical terms in contemplations of right and wrongs of specific situations. I began to do some contemplating myself. Just how do you make ethical decisions without a solid unshakeable standard for making those decisions?

As a believer I can short list many layers of possibility because of clear biblical principles and explicit instructions. What a privilege to be able to confidently short list many decisions. However, real life exposes us to a wide variety of decisions that require ethical decisions that cannot be answered with a quick Scripture quip. And if we gathered a crowd of theologians from a wide variety of Christian backgrounds to discuss right and wrong on a hot topic we would likely see butting head discussion with individuals each preaching the biblical basis for their decisions. Who’s right? Now that’s the key question.

Our theological camp could adamantly defend our position based on our personal study and understanding of Scripture and still be wrong because we haven’t seriously considered another perspective based on their study or understanding. We are faced with an amazing aspect of Christianity – biblically based paradoxes rooted in God’s character and ways. Serious discussion of ethics requires us to closely examine the extremes God presents to us. Unconditional love and justice. Mercy and justice. Sermon on the Mount meekness and prophetic name calling (white-washed sepulcher!)

Paradoxes foment energetic debates between best friends, challenge the most vigorous academics to write lengthy tomes to express their understanding, and create extreme theological camps whose leaders charismatically pull adherents after them. However I would like to suggest that biblical paradoxes should serve a vital role for all Christians. Each biblical paradox expresses an important revelation of God’s character that serves to soften the hard edges of human character and behavior.

Some are tempted to hide unkind bigotry or selfish ethnocentricity behind “defending righteousness.” A hearty look at God’s kindness, long suffering, and compassion could challenge our bigotry. Others have been wooed into embracing “tolerance” as an expression of God’s love without being challenged by God’s hatred and judgment on destructive sin. Remaining in any extreme camp without regular forays into genuine dialogue with those outside of our camp leaves us in danger of missing hearing others’ glimpses of another side of God’s character and its impact on decision making.

Paradoxes implanted within the Bible should provide a moderating impact on each of us. After all God acts consistently out of his character. By observing his actions through out the Bible and history we see all facets of his character presented. Sometimes his love is most obvious, sometimes his anger is prominent, and other times his justice is the outstanding feature. However, God never has the luxury of choosing one characteristic over the other! His responses to humans must be at once consistent with all of his character. As humans we do not have the right to define God by one side of his character while ignoring other parts. Therein lies the tension when we make ethical decisions. We do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which end of the biblical paradoxes we will align with. No matter how uncomfortable, we must be willing to be moderated by the other end of the paradox.

I was raised within a major theological camp. I was confident in all of my views and could appropriately defend each of them until I entered into significant dialogue with someone of another theological camp. That person’s gentle presentation of his views and life practice moderated my view and gradually moved me closer to his theological stance. In a later work situation I became a meek ambassador of my theological camp to others resting securely in their camp. I believe my presence and conversation moderated my coworkers in a healthy way that delighted God.

So, biblical paradoxes are part of reality and actually vital to healthy ethical decisions. On that basis I need to be willing to move outside of my comfort zone and quick biblical quips to genuinely engage others in meaningful conversation. And not just others in my camp, but others who have contrasting perspectives to share with me. But more than that, I desire to allow others’ perspectives to contribute to broader understanding of biblical paradoxes and to help inform my own ethical decision making. And yes, be willing to gently share with those outside my camp in a way that they can hear and appreciate my glimpses of God’s ways. Together we may just get a better handle on God’s amazing paradoxes.

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