Friday, September 17, 2004

Time to get out of the ethics business



Almost 10 years ago a committee of Episcopal Bishops produced a "teaching document" human sexuality declaring that the Church's traditional moral prescriptions ought to be modified to eliminate "discontinuities" between moral judgment and actual practice, that is to say, the rules had to be changed to agree with the way people actually behaved.

I circulated this document amongst some of my colleagues for comment. All of us had taught ethics courses required of all students which most take as sophomores. We agreed that by the standards we set for students in these classes, the bishop's study document should get a C+, and that purely for basic literacy and spelling.

The bishops declared that Freud was an intellectual giant, on a par with Galileo and Darwin, with whom the Church had to reckon. They had no clear understanding of the standard ethical theories that undergraduates were supposed learn about in their sophomore ethics class, appealing alternatively to Kantian notions of persons and ends in themselves and to natural law theory. They did not seem to have heard of utilitarianism or any consequentialist accounts at all. They cheerfully deduced "ought" from "is" and generally relied upon rhetoric and sentimentality in place of argument. This was a bad term paper.

I agreed with the bishops' conclusion that the Church's traditional rules for sexual conduct were overly stringent and often damaging. Indeed, I would have gone further: I believe that all sexual activities between, or among, consenting parties, heterosexual or homosexual, whether in the context of loving, committed, monogamous relationships or not are morally ok. It was the poor quality of the bishops' arguments that that set my teeth on edge.

It was after reading this that I realized it was time for the Church to get out of the ethics business. It would not have been quite so bad if the bishops had claimed that they received their conclusions by divine revelation. But they did not. They assumed that they had expertise in ethics, and that they were competent to assess the results of scientific investigation, decide controversial moral questions in light of scientific discoveries, and pass the results on to the laity. They imagined that they were qualified to issue a "teaching" in virtue of their expertise.

The Church has gotten into trouble repeatedly by making claims that competed with the results of secular experts including notoriously Galileo and Darwin. Most clergy now recognize that they have no expertise in the hard sciences and no business issuing teachings about the age of the earth, the structure of the solar system or the origin of species. Still, they assume, with no more justification, that they have expertise in ethics. And as bishops and priests duke it out about sexual ethics, that assumption has wreaked havoc on the Church.

When I suggest that ethics isn't the Church's business I draw incredulous stares from people who would not turn a hair if I had ridiculed the Trinity as "a sort of committee God," announced that the idea of a God "out there" was as absurd as the idea of a God "up there" or asserted that no educated modern person could take theism seriously, all views that bishops, within my lifetime, have taught. Theology is negotiable; ethics is not. Since the Enlightenment it has been a commonplace that ethics was the Church's most important business, indeed, some have suggested, it's only business. People worry that lopping off the ethical component of Christianity trivializes it, leaves something that is not Christianity at all.

This worry is unfounded. The Creed, which says absolutely nothing about ethical issues, proclaims that there is a God in three Persons, that God became incarnate, and that we shall survive death and enjoy him forever. Such claims about the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being and personal immortality are momentous. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people imagine that getting out of the ethics business would trivialize Christianity because they do not believe these metaphysical claims are true, or even worthy of serious consideration, and have reconstructed Christianity as "commitment to an agapistic way of life" in order to make it out as plausible and significant.

Since Kant made metaphysics disreputable, the Church, in the interest of self-preservation, has been quietly divesting itself of its theological stock while promoting its ethical sideline. Now, ironically and deservedly, the Church is being undermined by the arrogance of priests who imagine that they are in a position to offer intellectual leadership and moral guidance--as if anyone took their half-baked notions seriously. The Church might have done better minding its own business.

There is plenty of legitimate business for the Church to do: baptizing, marrying and burying, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and comforting the dying, maintaining buildings and conducting services. Most of all, the Church's business is mysticism--maintaining church buildings as sacred spaces, openings into another world and doing liturgy through which people can participate in the cosmic drama and experience the thrill of transcendence. That is the Church's area of expertise, something which only it can do, something we cannot do for ourselves. Ethics, by contrast, is something we can do perfectly well for ourselves, in which the Church has no special expertise.

So the Church should get out of the ethics business, and back into the mysticism business. Even if there are few takers for mysticism, there are none for its moral oracles on sexual conduct or anything else.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bizarre, actually, that rites of passage like marrying, burying, and comforting the sick and dying have been reduced to secondary status, in favor of ethics and politics.

But not for long, I don't think. People still have church weddings, and get their children baptized, even if they don't attend or even belong. If the churches can't help make our lives holy, or at least get us in touch with holiness, whatever is the point? Close them down.

I just had an extensive argument about the invasion of religion by politics; I can't comprehend why the fact of the existence of the "religious right" isn't enough to discourage people in this, but it doesn't seem to be.

Freud, eh? Oh, brother.

Anonymous said...

If the Church is to consider and conduct itself as a business, is it not rational for them -- by your own observation that there are few takers for mysticism -- to do _exactly_ what you have decried in other posts? Things like run a private-school network and cater to the least common denominator of middleclass middlebrow suburban liberalism (since they can't compete efficiently with the megachurches' appeal to middleclass middlebrow conservatism)?

If they're a business, they're going to do what all other large businesses do -- ignore niche markets that provide small return on investment. Christian mysticism, however defined, is such a "market". "Ethics", as defined by the _consumers_ of such a product, may be exactly the sort of thing the Church can do -- product quality need only be sufficient to maintain an acceptable level of demand.

Never mind the question of what they could/should/would do if they decided to take a "principled" stand rather than a businesslike one. Whose principles? And this _is_ America, after all. "Business" is what we do, for good or (in this case, IMHO) ill.

(sigh)

H. E. said...

The trouble is there's lots of competition in the ethics business and middle-class, middle-brow women who once consumed devotional literature now read self-help books and watch Oprah. Interestingly the boom in secular books on pop psychology, "relationships," "wellness" and the like coincides with the decline in church membership.

Recognizing that there wasn't much demand for religion, churches have been trying to diversify in order to provide goods and services for which there's more demand--schools, "community," opportunities for volunteer work, social service projects, and occasionally political activism. The trouble is that there's lots of competition and consumers can get most of these goods and services cheaper and better on the secular market. When it comes to "community" for example the church used to be, in some places, the only show in town but now there are innumerable groups, clubs and organizations where people can go to meet congenial people and socialize, most more tailored to individual tastes and interests than the church.

When it comes to education the church's future prospects are not particularly bright because it can't undersell commercial ventures which are now becoming major players in the education market. The Catholic church runs its parochial schools as a benevolence and, now that it can't depend on the slave labor of nuns, they operate deep in the red. To be profitable, church schools have to charge tuition comparable to the tuition at commercial for profit schools.

In general, secular ventures have an advantage in selling all non-religious goods and products because they're more specialized and more efficient, and because where they offer comparable products, most secular people prefer not to deal with the church. Even if the demand for religion is minimal, it's the only place where the church is competitive.

This isn't to say it has no competition: tin the religion business it competes with Eastern religions, commercial New Age products and do-it-yourself "spirituality. The church has lost market share to these alternative religious ventures because it's devoted its efforts to promoting its secular sidelines and, at this point, it may be too late to recapture the religion market. Potentially however this is where the church has the greatest advantage because, unlike alternative spirituality movements, it has the infrastructure--public, identifiable buildings and organization--and because Christianity is still our culture religion..

The market for religion isn't good but it's the only market where the church can compete at all. Religion isn't a universal human need--it's a special taste that probably at most 5% of the population have. The best the church can do, as a business, is to capture that 5%

Anonymous said...

Your point about the competition between religious and secular "goods" (devotional literature versus Oprah, etc.) and the logical conclusion that the church should be guided by competitive advantage is well taken. Still, I wonder about two things.

First, I have the impression that such goods are quite "soft", with very elastic demand for any particular product, much depending on marketing and brand loyalty. If that is so, then the Church _can_ compete in the broader market with new products, particularly if it's willing to whore after customers the way "real" businesses do. They can, of course, whore after liberal _or_ conservative customers; the current trend is simply an artifact of the existing management.

More importantly, if what was once poetically called the Church Militant is seen as a corporation, the choice they face seems to be between revamping both the product line and (especially) the marketing strategy OR the likelihood of a radical downsizing dictated by the smaller (and still shrinking) customer base that remains loyal to the old product line.

It may be that they would be more efficient ("leaner and meaner" ?) by doing a better job for fewer customers by keeping the traditional product. I wonder whether they are willing to restructure the corporation to the degree necessary given the much smaller (if still relatively well-off) customer base the traditional product has -- particularly since even _that_ product has competition that it didn't have forty years ago (competition in both products _and_ vendors). An organization's first goal is to protect and preserve itself.

I suppose that they _could_ try to aggressively market the traditional line to a broader audience ... Naah.

I would like to be wrong about all that. Can you help me? :)

Right or wrong, I dislike the business analogy when applied to the church, but it does work distressingly well.

H. E. said...

The church will definitely have to downsize in developed countries because there's not much demand for it's best-selling traditional product: miracles. Where churches are growing, in the third world and at the margins of affluent societies, people don't have ready access to effective medical treatment or technology, and look to churches for healing, for a source of power in circumstances where they're otherwise powerless. They're in much the same position as Jesus' original followers. Where people have technology to cure diseases and make the corn grow, wealth to give them some control over their lives and Prozac to make them feel good, the appeal of the church for most people vanishes--in the way that the cult of the smallpox goddess in India disappeared once everyone got vaccinated.

Conservative churches still have some appeal to the lower classes and people who feel they're excluded from the mainstream because they cast out demons, promise money miracles and, perhaps most importantly, support a moral agenda that's been rejected by the larger society. The religious self-help, pop psychology literature that sells is just the literature that provides an alternative to standard secular products and tells conservatives what they want to hear: that pre-marital abstinence is normal and desirable, that it's good for men to beat their children and for women to be housewives. The market for the standard products is saturated and the church has not been able to market it's product line successfully even to its current customers--who join secular self-help groups, consume Mars/Venus products and pop Prozac just like everyone else.

The only product liberal churches have for which there is a demand is mysticism and the demand is minimal.

I guess if I had a church to run and the resources to do an experiment I'd hire a guru to conduct classes in meditation and advertise like crazy in local quasi-underground newspapers, with flyers at alternative book stores, and any place where people with an interest in exotic "spirituality" were likely to look. I would also offer free space for all vendors of psychic, spiritual or cultic products: tarot card readers, Tibetan Buddhists and Feng Shui providers, covens of Wiccans and reconstructionist pagans looking to revive the Elusinian Mysteries.

I'd trick out the church with all the paraphernalia of high church and rig it up to exude spooky atmosphere, like a Halloween fright house, with guttering candles, spooky chant piped in, and clouds of incense hanging in the air. I'd keep the building open at all hours of the day and night, with the doors wide open to the street, even if I had to hire an armed guard to keep the building secure. I'd conduct services daily in the most elaborate, formal and impersonal way, particularly flashy items like Solemn Evensong and Benediction, and feature all the art, music and mythology of the Christian tradition. I would make it clear that the church was a completely public place where all people could go anonymously, without risking unwelcome personal contact, to enjoy the atmosphere and sample the spiritual products.

It would mean a radical "revisioning" of the church, understanding it not as a community of people but chain of liturgy mills offering the resources for religious and aesthetic experience. I'd enjoy it--this is what I myself wanted the church to be. But would it sell? I doubt it because it's too late in the game--most people who are seriously interested in this sort of thing are hostile to the church, which they identify with raging fundamentalists, and would suspect that it was a trap.

Anonymous said...

Your proposed church sounds a little like the Liberal Catholic Church International (www.liberalcatholic.org). They aren't quite that eclectic in style, but from what I've read they do a _very_ High/Catholic liturgy, but have as liberal a theology as one can and still look even vaguely Christian. (There are actually _two_ flavors of LCC, there is another that is more Theosophical, for which I don't have a URL to hand.)

As you will see if you visit their site, the LCC is rather small.

I notice that they have a presence in San Diego -- permit me to suggest that a visit might make an interesting post. :)

Disclaimer: I am not a member of the LCC (either one) nor do I know anyone who is. I have never been to an LCC service nor do I know anyone who has. I would derive no benefit from your visit other than reading anything you might choose to write.

H. E. said...

No thanks. They don't ordain women.

Actually the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC was doing much of what I suggested during the 1970s. No tarot card readers or Benediction but they did have a guru in residence, I believe Bubba Free John, and advertised weekly in The Village Voice Also, interestingly, perhaps 10 years ago "Seattle Compline." a spooky late night service in the cathedral there, located in the youth dating and entertainment district, attracted crowds.

Over the years there have been a variety of fads that the church could have turned to its advantage but failed to exploit--from the youth craze for Gothic and chant to the enthusiasm for angels that cut across the population. This was native growth, straight from the Christian tradition: why didn't churches in great numbers get on the stick when these fashions were at their height, stage Gothic services with Latin chant, put on angel festivals and advertise courses on angelology? That's not a rhetorical question--I'm curious.

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