A sermon given at Choral Evensong by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold on the Sixth Sunday of Pentecost.

Christian Ethics – seeking divine guidance to complex issues

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Tonight, we start the first of a series of four sermons on Christian Ethics; let me remind you that after the service, those of you who are interested are welcome to join in a discussion on the general topic in the Cynthia Poulton Hall.

In our Hebrew Bible reading tonight we were reminded of a pivotal incident in the life of Jacob – pivotal at two levels. One, the divine, because it became the moment when Jacob was renamed Israel – a metaphor for his story becoming the story of God’s people, notwithstanding his abrogation of any number of divine precepts in the way he had defrauded his brother Esau. But also pivotal at a human level as well because, torn by fear at the thought of how his brother might receive him, Jacob was caught in a severe struggle with his own guilt; a struggle which resolved itself quite unexpectedly in the next chapter of Genesis which we didn’t read tonight. This is relevant verse from that chapter:

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. [Gen 33:4]

Jacob had behaved dreadfully to his brother years before and now, at the fearful reunion, his brother acted with grace. Jacob had been unable to justify his own behaviour before either his God or his brother, yet after that tempestuous night, he received grace from both God and man. Our reading reminded us that to do so there had been a two-fold struggle through the darkest hours of that night. Verse 28 put it this way:

Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.

I chose this episode for our Hebrew Bible reading this evening because it seems to me that this conjunction of Jacob’s two struggles in the one wrestle with an unnamed opponent, is the space where we find an invitation to Theological Ethics.

The Christian Ethicist, Waldo Beach, has written that this particular form of Ethics is a:

discipline of reflection and analysis that lies between theology on one side and the social sciences on the other. [1]

This is a very dry way of saying that the study of Ethics, Christian Ethics in particular, is no simplistic issue. That it exists in tension between divine precepts and worldly reality. In other words, ethical behaviour by Christians cannot be prescribed by simply stating that one needs to do no other than simply adhere to the Ten Commandments or the 613 instructions contained in the Torah; nor, on the other hand, can it be defined by the codex of acceptable behaviour as described by the world’s social sciences.

Years ago, I heard a minister state that there are two truisms. The first truism is that to every complex problem there is a simple solution. This is absolutely true, I have not yet encountered a complex problem for which someone hasn’t proffered a simple solution – have you? The second truism is that this simple solution is always wrong. The reality is that we each find ourselves struggling with a number of ethical issues in our own lives where simple answers to complex problems elude us.

Over the past few weeks through pew sheet notices and Facebook, I have asked for your answers to the question: ‘What ethical issues are a challenge to my faith?’ I would like to thank those of you who responded for the rich array of answers which you provided. Over these next four weeks, through Evensong sermons and discussions afterwards, I am hoping that together we can seek God’s wisdom as to how complex ethical issues we face can be met – in other words to give meaning to the idea of Christian Ethics.

In our discussions we will need to be guided by the apostle Paul’s comment in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For now I see through a glass darkly. [1 Cor 13:12]

His acknowledgment that, in this life, each of us only ever sees through a glass darkly. And because we all see through the glass darkly differently, we have the gift of meeting as ‘two or three (or more) gathered in Jesus’ name’ [Matthew 18:20] where we are told we may be enabled to seek divine wisdom through God’s ever-present Holy Spirit in a grace space that is offered between us.

Are Christian Ethics different from other forms of ethics, particularly those secularly based? Let me start answering this in an unashamedly hyperbolic way. Most of the world’s non-faith ethical philosophies seek a benign state of collective bonhomie which provides safety and well-being for the greatest number. I accept that; but to highlight the discussion, let me go to an extreme which starts with fiction but ends with a chilling reality.

In H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, the namesake of the book justified his research with this explanation:

I went on with this research just the way it led me. That is the only way I ever heard of true research going. I asked a question, devised some method of obtaining an answer, and got a fresh question. Was this possible or that possible? You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator, what an intellectual passion grows upon him! You cannot imagine the strange, colourless delight of these intellectual desires! The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem![2]

Regarding the question of the ethics of his work, Moreau went on to say:

To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature. I have gone on, not heeding anything but the question I was pursuing.

In fact, despite his denial, Moreau did have an ethic – one which valued knowledge, not humanity, as supreme. It might be hoped, of course, that such esteeming of knowledge was for some ultimate human betterment, but that was not stated in the book. Moving from that fictional world into our own, the British philosopher A C Grayling has proposed a chilling law which suggests ultimate human betterment is not necessarily the goal of what may be termed human advance; the law states:

Anything that can be done will be done if it brings advantage or profit to those who can do it.

This presents a clear ethical challenge to anyone who finds the proposition repulsive that there may be no limit to how far society may extend its knowledge regardless of what we might wish to call ethical consequences. It is clearly an ethical challenge for all who disclaim any faith; but it is also an ethical challenge for those of us who do proclaim belief in God. The challenge we face is given extra drama when we realise that we share the world with those non-believers and so ethical answers which we may decide upon for ourselves somehow have to engage with the wider world whilst retaining our integrity to the foundations of our faith.

To help our ethical gymnastics, shoehorning our call to practice with whatever fundamental precepts we have accepted for ourselves – be it as believers or not – there are many ethical ‘games’ that have been used to help us in deciding our ethical call. For example, in 1967, Philippa Foot put what is known as the ‘Trolley problem’.[3] It goes like this:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two (and only two) options:

  1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

While I would be interested to know your answer to this problem, I actually want to move to something more challenging for us as Christians – namely the issue of lying. There are many verses in the Bible that speak against lying, such as:

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth. [Proverbs 12:22]

So here is the ethical problem – hypothetical for us, but which was very real for some in World War II. A Jewish family is hiding in the attic of your neighbour’s house, you know this; the Gestapo come to your door and ask you if you know where they are hiding? What would you do?

In dealing with this ethical problem, I would suggest we have to be clear about what is fundamental to our ethical position and then decide how that speaks to the situation we face. Regularly in our services, we remind ourselves of the two greatest commandments:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. [Matt 22:37-40]

If we are then to love our neighbours as ourselves, we would surely accept that we should lie to protect our threatened Jewish neighbours. Of course, our family are our neighbours as well, and their lives may be brought under serious threat if we were discovered to have lied to the Gestapo.

There is, incidentally, one Biblical episode which did seem to endorse lying – the example of Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 6 where she was not only a liar but also a traitor to her country. While the writer of the book of Joshua was silent on how Rachel arrived at her decision to do what she did, it would be reasonable to assume that she had faced a deep internal struggle in coming to that decision. In other words, she would have found herself in that same place where the two struggles with God and with the world enmesh us – the place where we develop Christian ethics.

Jesus, when he taught us how to pray, may well have spoken into that place of ethical struggle when he told us to say:

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

These words guide us but they also instruct us to embark on the ethical struggle as to how each of us may play our part in its achievement. Over the next three weeks, I propose to deal with the ethics of love, the ethics of life and the ethics of Creation and the challenges they may present to our faith and our lives. But for now may our thoughts and actions be imbued with a sense of God’s Kingdom being done on earth.

[1] Beach, Waldo, Christian Ethics in the Protestant Tradition, 1988, John Knox Press, p8.

[2] Wells, H G, The Island of Dr Moreau, chapter 4.

[3] Foot, P, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, originally published in Oxford Review, #5, 1967