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.