Saturday, May 14, 2011

Joined-up Life: A Christian account of how ethics works

"[Jesus] wreaked the best kind of havoc wherever he went. He upset everyone’s moral categories all the time. To the law-stickler he said, go and discover some compassion (Luke 14.3-5). To the equal-rights activist he said, challenge your inner greed (Luke 12.13-15). To those who valued self-fulfillment he said, learn some faithfulness (Matthew 19.3-6); and to the seeker after self-improvement he said, learn from kindness (Matthew 19.16-21). To the goal-oriented security-seeker he said, lose yourself in Gods abundant creation (Luke 12. 22-34). To those wanting righteous judgement on others he said, stop it (Luke 9.52-55). To evaders of righteous judgement he said, wake up (Luke 13.1-4). For those deserving righteous judgement he prayed, forgive them (Luke 23.34).

"He upset moral categories everywhere, yet he inhabited the most joined-up life imaginable. So Christians orient themselves to he cosmos ‘in him’. Anything less – any adherence to some other code, set of values, consequences, principle or philosophy – would relegate Jesus merely to becoming a fellow traveller within that code or philosophy. That would be a horrendous error, because we would then miss all the signals that he’s the human who knew how to be human. We would miss the opportunity for him to induct us into true humanity."

- Andrew Cameron, Joined-up Life: A Christian account of how ethics works
(Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 315.

Having recently got my hands on a copy of Andrew Cameron’s new book, I have rediscovered in its pages many of the reasons why I found him to be an insightful, careful, refreshing and stimulating teacher at college.

This text is a very useful and readable introduction to what is usually called ethics (though perhaps can simply be called "navigating life"): what it is, how it works, how it has been approached in the past and what Jesus has to do with it. The book is divided in forty-seven bite-sized chapters that can stand alone for those who wish to dip in, or which can also be read consecutively in a picture that gradually comes together.

These chapters are grouped into seven sections. In the first, Cameron walks us through basic ethical approaches, which he summarises as rules, rights, values and results. Each has something to contribute, but each fails to provide a comprehensive framework for finding our way in life.

The second section explores a number of ways in which our moral map is more complex than it may at first appear; our social context, our own desires, human frailty and the complexity of a world filled with myriad good things combine to refuse easy answers. Ethics is not obvious and we need help if we are not to get lost amidst it all.

The third section turns to the centre that holds together and surpasses rules, rights, values and results: the human life of Jesus. Tracing his story, Cameron argues that here we find a life that hangs together, a cohesive and compelling life, a joined-up life amidst the complexity and fragmentation of our world. This doesn't mean easy answers, but it does give a central point of reference to all our ethical thinking and practice.

Fourth comes five fundamental poles of reference to guide us amidst the intricacy and confusion: the character of God, created order, divine commands, Christian hope and community shaped by Jesus. None are sufficient, but each contributes to our navigation through life's twists and turns.

The final three sections turn again to the specifics of our lives, illustrating and applying the theological orientation developed in sections three and four to the complex situations outlined in section two. Since I have only dipped into these sections so far, I won't attempt to say much more about them here.

The great strength of this book is precisely its refusal to discover or establish a single unifying framework or concept by which to live our lives other than the person of Jesus and his life. The irreducible complexity of the moral challenges we face (and this doesn't just mean the familiar "hard cases" trotted out in every introductory ethics course but also them variegated patterns and texture of daily life) elude analysis based on a single interpretive key. Jesus is what holds it together, but this doesn't require the reduction of every problem, question or opportunity for action to a predetermined framework.

Readers may find points of disagreement with Cameron's suggested applications and expeditions into the jungle of life, though also hidden treasures. And disagreement itself becomes less threatening when we acknowledge the sheer breadth of goods we are trying to keep our eyes on.

Honest and humble in tone, this book invites us to face the reality of our inability to find a perfect path through our days. We are not given a map with a birds-eye view, simply a companion to share the journey.


Mister Tim said...

Thanks for the review. It is now on my 'to buy' list. In regard to application sections, would you say it is more about personal ethics or social ethics or does it cover both?

byron smith said...

Both! Hurray!

However, at forty-seven chapters it is covering a lot of ground, but at 300 or so pages, that ground isn't always very deep. But what's there is generally very good. I had a couple of issues with particular topics, but it would be surprising if I didn't given how many things he's writing about.