We have No Ready Made Blueprint for Ethics
In 1986 Wayne A. Meeks, Yale professor of Biblical Studies, published The Moral World of the First Christians, a study of the cultural milieu behind the Christian ethic. By identifying concepts and positions of earlier societies (Greece, Rome, and Israel) he shows how and why Christian ethics developed. Three truths emerged in his study.
First, early Christians were not as novel as we have thought them to be. They were, like us, children of their age. They followed previous developments in thought and behavior and conserved what they could of that past.
Secondly, the novelty was the breakthrough in understanding God. As Meeks says, “there is the strange new world of the creating, caring, and judging God, of the crucified Messiah raised from the dead. There are the little groups of fellow believers…in these meetings this other world seemed more vivid than the ordinary one. Yet somehow they had to live in both, and it was not easy to find the way to do that.”
Third, we can’t go home again. No historical attempt to return to an imagined primitive and pure early Christianity has ever done so, because we cannot escape the constraints, problems, and issues of our own age. We bring what resources we can to them, in hopes of fulfilling our vision of a kinder, more just and compassionate world.
Since Christianity is a social movement, people had to enter it – even before institutional status. Entry marked a shift from one social configuration to another. We call it conversion. This was difficult; friction arose in culture and family when people entered the movement. The novelty clashed with the customs and mores that people had grown up with.
Movement into a new social group brings changes in perception, attitude, lifestyle, and understanding of the self. Therein lie seeds of conflict. Christians always called entry into faith a “second birth,” a “regeneration,” and initiation through baptism a “dying and rising with Christ.” There are also the family meals and rituals that locate people in the new social context.
Radical though these changes could be, conversion did not wholly supplant the primary socialization received via family, friends, and surrounding society. We grow into the ethos of the new group gradually. There’s the rub.
We inhabit more than one social milieu. People have a shifting identity that is never stable the way our great-grandparents’ world was stable. We also move from place to place, and that can provoke a deep sense of dislocation, maybe even isolation, for the period of adjustment. We are familiar with this if we have moved a long distance or to another country for a period. It can make your head spin trying to remember how you fit into different social contexts.
But we would be making a mistake, according to Meeks, if we believed that our age is unique or that the early Christians did not also have to find their way amidst a bewildering array of social and ethical options. No blueprint.
We learn from them to use trial and error, teachings old and new, to practice our faith ethically in areas of sex, politics, death and dying (not a full list). But you need maps and these were provided already by the second century. They are called creeds. They have simple content and focus on God’s work in creation, redemption, and renewal. Creeds do not provide ethical checklists but rather a way to see the world so we can make faithful ethical choices in a community of moral discourse. We need to re-learn these gifts of the early Church in our time, when we are often pitted against others in so-called culture wars.
16 Aug 2013