Monday, August 16, 2004

The Ethic of Love

By 1963 everyone knew that the Old Christian Ethic--the Rules, undergirded by Kantianism at its sourist and, above all, no sex--was bad. The trouble was that the Ethic of Love promulgated by J. A. T. Robinson and other liberal clergymen, was much, much worse.

The tenets of the Ethic of Love were three: (1) radical altruism, (2) personal involvement and (3) non-reflection.

(1) Christians, according to the Ethic of Love, were to "do what Love would do"--to give themselves unstintingly to the Other, without counting costs. So, in Honest to God J. A. T. Robinson rehearsed the story of a woman who cured a pederast by "giving herself" to him sexually. Quite apart from feminist objections to this recommendation and the fantastical suggestion that Love can cure pederasty, the fundamental claim that the whole of the law and the prophets was unstinting self-giving was oppressive. Buttoned-up clergy, accustomed to dealing with puritanical parishioners imagined that the Ethic of Love was liberating, but it was the opposite.

The Old Christian Ethic made limited, if stringent, demands: if you didn't steal, lie, commit adultery or worship graven images you could do pretty much what you liked. The demands of Love were unlimited. Love demanded constant sensitivity to the needs and wants of others: whenever there was a need or want, Christians were to jump to satisfy it--without thinking of inconvenience to themselves or counting costs.

(2) To make matters worse, Christians were supposed to give of themselves. Impersonal acts of charity were not good enough. Christians were to work in soup kitchen and enter into conversations with derelicts, volunteer for social service projects, keep informed about current events and work politically for a more just society. Contributing to political organizations and paying others to kiss lepers was just not good enough.

(3) Finally, reflection on the costs and benefits of the program was not on. It was, after all, Judas who worried that the ointment spilt on Jesus' feet could have been sold to provide for the poor.

Love was spontaneous and unreflectively generous. Love did not ask whether contributing a day's wages to Oxfam might not be better than spending a day dispensing sandwiches to bums on grates. Love did not even ask whether its beneficiaries wanted the kind of generosity it demanded: it did not ask whether poor families would have preferred an impersonal check coverning the costs of a decent Thanksgiving dinner to a church lady delivering a food basket and ministering to them. Love never asked about opportunity costs either: it demanded a spontaneous, unreflectively generous response to need as it presented itself, without consideration of other needs, most especially one's own.

The Ethic of Love was not so much about how people should behave as about what sort of people they should be--in particular, the doctrine that they should be like liberal clergy. It was liberating and comfortable to people who were uncritical, sentimental and sympathetic; it was flattering to people who wanted to "work with people" and got personal gratification from helping the needy. But it was miserable for people who were simply not like that--and clergy, who were self-selected for these traits didn't realize that for others who tried to practice the Ethic of Love, it was more oppressive and guilt-inducing than the old, sour puritanism.

In the end, most people didn't take it any more seriously than they took old style Christian Morality. They conducted their lives according to the conventions of their particular social groups, with attention to the exhortations of advertisers and self-help gurus. Conservatives looked to their churches to support the social conventions they followed; if a church failed to do the job, they found another that did. Liberals didn't pay any attention to the church at all.

The earth spun around, the sun rose and set, while clergy debated the fine points of sexual ethics, preached and exorted, and imagined that they were keeping it going.


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful piece of writing. The points about the "unlimited demands" of Love - which is IMO a very serious weakness in this particular Ethic - and about the "self-selected" traits of clergy are exact. And the thing about Judas gave me the shivers, and not in a good way.

I wonder if Love, in this formulation (undifferentiated?), drives out every other emotional state of being? And I wonder if it is meant to. I just made a list of eighteen or twenty different kinds of emotion - anger, frustration, sorrow, etc. - which seem to be more productive in many ways than Love. They are more creative, at any rate, and are not the end of things, most often, but the beginning.

My bugaboo is pacifism; the facts seem to be that Christians often end up on the side of the jackbooted thugs in the name of "peace." Not that I'm not in favor of peace, of course, but not at any expense. I think this is probably connected with the Ethic of Love, anyway. These things - Love and Peace - are part of the picture, no doubt, but were they ever meant to become The Major Themes, or Absolutes? Perhaps they were supposed to be boundaries, or ultimate, unattainable goals - like perfection.

Anyway, great piece - beautiful clarity, and the "placid polemic" is definitely an interesting style.

H. E. said...

Thank you for the compliment!

My radical view is that the church should get out of the ethics business--just as it got out of the astronomy business after the fiasco with Galileo. Ethics is a secular academic discipline--try searching on "ethics" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see the range of topics and the scope of the literature. "Christian ethics" is as objectionable as Christian astronomy or Christian biology.

Most of us don't believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of the origin of species or even of middle eastern history--why assume it does any better on ethical issues? We aren't bothered that Jesus was wrong about the authorship of the psalms: we don't expect him to be an expert in Biblical criticism, much less math, history, anthropology or chemistry--why expect him to have expertise in ethics?

Anonymous said...

Yes, radical. This is the ecclesiastical version of "going nuclear," I think. You might be about 50 years ahead of your time, though. But might as well give it a try.

At first the idea seems absurd; but then once you think about it, it just seems self-evident. Clearly there's something wrong with things as they are, as evidenced by the sexual "cure" story in the example you gave. That IS the logical end of the ethic, which is, in fact, currently playing out in a different way in the form of "reparative therapy" for gays.

But a lot of "Christian ethics" has made its way into the culture itself, don't you think? Christianity essentially created the West, after all, and has been a powerful muse for the arts. Those are the two things that give me pause. Probably, though, since it's not the 16th Century anymore, we can just move on at this point.

Anyway, I think maybe it's just crazy enough to work!

H. E. said...

Actually I'm about 2500 years behind the times. The Greeks recognized a fairly sharp division of labor between priests, who did the cult, and philosophers who did metaphysics and ethics.

But a lot of "Christian ethics" has made its way into the cultureAnd vice versa. Christianity picked up a lot of notions which were floating in the Hellenistic world like cosmopolitanism and the idea of moral judgments as universalizable that only really germinated at the Enlightenment. We think of these as the legacy of Christianity because they aren't Classical Greek ideas, but they they're there in the Stoics and Cynics, and for that matter the mystery religions like Eleusis where everyone who spoke Greek was welcome--male and female, slave and free.

Reading the secular history of Late Antiquity you get a very different picture from reading the church history of the period. Until fairly late in the game much of the elite, including lots of professional intellectuals weren't even nominally Christian. One source estimates that even by the time Justinian closed the Academy no more than half of the empire was Christian. The ethics (and metaphysics) we think of as Christian were being discussed and debated in non-Christian philosophical schools--and not because they'd picked them up from Christianity. These ideas had been kicking around for centuries and Christianity to the extent that it represented itself as a "philosophy" (as it did at least since Justin Martyr put on the uniform) picked them up too.

Christianity... has been a powerful muse for the arts. I just suggested getting out of the ethics business. I'm all for the artistic, cultic and mythic features of Christianity--and I'm not being facetious.

The irony of it is that with some exceptions the trend has been to try to make Christianity palatable to the cultured despisers by making it out as a vehicle for "values" and a "philosophy" for successful living while making out the cult as peripheral at best. People like myths and art; a sizable minority is interested in "spirituality" and virtually everyone wants ceremonies, holidays and rites of passage. It's the "values" and "philosophy" that secular people find objectionable, even when liberal clergy twist themselves in knots trying to tailor the message to contemporary tastes.

For most people Christian ceremonies are poisoned because they're perceived as carrying baggage and as far as I can see there's no going back. We've got secular myths, shrines, ceremonies, iconography and rites of passage--shopping malls, street fairs, Thanksgiving, graduation, Super Bowl Sunday, etc. Too late.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, about the cross-cultural stuff.

I wonder if there's some sort of middle ground; I'm trying to picture a Christianity totally without an ethical component and I admit I can't do it. Caring for the welfare of the poor does seem to me to be there front-and-center, for instance. But maybe there's a purely mystical approach that will get the church itself out of the "ethics business."

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing says that in comtemplation " is laudable to reflect upon God's kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence and to love and praise him for what he is in himself."

Maybe that's enough; maybe the awareness of God "in his naked existence" is a prod to ethical behavior on an individual basis. Maybe you just need one Rule, a personal one, and the church itself doesn't need to be involved.

Of course, I'm still on Chapter 8.

Anonymous said...

First, allow me to agree that this is a fine piece of writing.

Secondly, I am not myself a Christian and may be a bit fuzzy about the finer points, so pardon me if I come off as a bit of a naif.

Isn't the "Ethic of Love" program -- minus, surely, the supposed "cure" for sexual dysfunction -- very much like the standard of perfection proposed by Jesus in the Gospels? Just asking about the text, not tradition, theology, or historical realities.

I don't suggest that an answer to that question necessarily implies anything, just curious.

No One In Particular