Thursday, November 13, 2008

Starting with Christ: the limits of neutrality

On being a Christian fanatic

"The Christian who lives by faith has the right to justify his moral actions on the basis of his faith."

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics"
in Principles of Christian Morality (trans. Graham Harrison;
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986 [1975]), 77.

Christian ethics (and theology more generally for that matter) does not attempt to discover a "neutral" starting point without presuppositions and build arguments from first principles. We start, as everyone always starts, in media res, in the middle of things. To leave one's beliefs and commitments behind when pursuing intellectual inquiry makes for less, not more, interesting and valid conclusions. Of course such commitments and beliefs will be revisable (the first freedom is the freedom to repent), but attempts at neutrality are nearly always simply a reversion to the background assumptions of the culture one finds oneself in. Such a supposed neutrality is thus less likely to lead to critical reflection upon the conditions of possibility of that culture and its faults and elisions than a perspective that begins unashamed of its convictions and enters into dialogue with other such interlocutors.

This has been an abstract discussion of a principle that makes more sense in the concrete. Jesus is the Christ and reflection upon our actions and ways of life (i.e. ethics) must first respond to that announcement. This can seem like too small or particular a starting point to sustain and shape the whole of life. Yet as we grow more aware of the contours of that reality and all that it encompasses, we are led deeper into the richness and complexity of our existence. In Christ, in that one word, we find the entire world and ourselves as well.

It might also seem like an irredeemably partisan commencement, from which no agreement or peace may ever be reached. This is both true, and false. It is true, because Christ makes claims upon the world and upon our lives that stand in tension with all other claims. No one can serve two masters. There are two ways to walk: one broad, one narrow. Those who are not for Christ are against him.

And yet walking the way of Christ is a peculiar kind of opposition to "the world". Christ is hostile to hostility, he takes captivity captive, he kills death, destroys destruction, opposes opposition, hates hatred, excludes exclusion; he loves the world. His is a battle in which he prefers to be killed than kill. His "party" can thus never be merely partisan. Christianity can never conceive of itself as one viewpoint amongst and against others, one religion amongst and against others, one lifestyle amongst and against others. "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6.12). The way of Christ is a restless one, never content with the divisions and contradictions of human society, including the contradiction and division created when you simply try to dissolve such differences by a well-meaning but myopic relativism.

Therefore, the church, as the faction of Christ, can not be reduced sociologically to one cultural or political agenda. The church does not have a social program, it is not an interest group. Trusting in the God who raised Christ from the dead, it is to look not to its own interests, but to the interests of others. It embodies, and so holds out to the world, the promise of a society in which the interests and rights of one group need not be understood to be in competition with those of another. It believes and so pursues (imperfectly and provisionally) the common good.


gbroughto said...

thanks for this Byron.
More helpful than you can imagine in some of the ideas I am currently trying to wrestle into submission

byron smith said...

No problem. It was a post that I thought might be two or three lines when I read the von B quote, but just kept growing.

joel hunter said...

Byron, what do you think of Christian participation in crafting a global charter for religious harmony, as Karen Armstrong advocates? See: Charter for Compassion. Is this transgressing the appropriate limits of neutrality, a "myopic relativism," or is it a Christlike gesture of passio?

byron smith said...

Joel - Thanks for the link. I am not familiar with that Charter and a quite look at the website might not be enough for me to get a feel for what it might be trying to do. In general, I think that joint projects can be great and finding areas of overlap is often productive if done sensitively. However, the attempt to say that all religions are at heart on about the same thing ("compassion" or whatever it might be) is generally reductive and ends up creating a new thing that is not identifiable with any of the traditions for which it claims to speak.