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Teaching and Learning Moral Theology

Asked what I do for a living generates a moment of existential dread as I ponder how I should answer. I teach moral theology but saying that leaves some people confused, some alarmed, and some uncomfortably silent. Moral theology relates theology to ethics and vice versa. Yet defining either term is not easy. Basic and inadequate definitions would be that theology is the study of who God is and how all things relate to God; ethics is the study of human action as it relates to good, bad, and evil, or right and wrong. Explaining how the two terms are brought together often takes more time than most people have patience, so I often shorten my answer to either “I teach theology” or “I teach ethics.” Both answers bring liabilities that make for awkward conversation. The first answer potentially creates uncomfortable discussions about religion. Typical responses are persons explaining how they were raised religious but no longer find it compelling, or how they are religious, assuming I will support their view of religion. And on the rare occasion with a militant atheism enlightening me on why religion poisons everything, as if those of us who teach theology have never confronted atheisms new or old, or the self-perceived cogency of atheists’ arguments against God’s existence.

If I say that I teach ethics, responses markedly differ. Awkward conversations seldom follow. I’ve yet to meet militant anti-ethicists. Instead, people say, “Well, that is important. God knows this society needs ethics,” or “At least, you will always have work.” No one has ever asked me, “Ethics? What is that?” There seems to be an assumption that people know what ethics means, what its subject matter is, and that teaching it, unlike theology, is a good and honorable vocation. Perhaps this assumption will prove as time bound as previous assumptions about theology. Much of western culture, especially in the academy, agrees with Nietzsche that gods die. They become useless. It has not yet agreed with him that ethics dies as well. “The twilight of the idols” is affirmed; “beyond good and evil” awaits affirmation. Perhaps a next stage in western culture will be militant anti-ethicists, and one day soon people will respond by claiming that ethics is a delusion poisoning everything. I’m skeptical that day will arrive. The pursuit of goodness is too baked in to being creatures.

Yet what does theology add to ethics? In one sense, the most obvious answer is nothing. Ethics can stand on its own without theology. Theology seems no more necessary for ethics than prayer is for being a good person. We readily have examples of people who do not pray but are good, and people who pray but do evil. Of course, we also have examples of people who do not pray and commit evil and those who pray and do good. If we recognize the truth of these claims, which I do, then moral theology appears to add nothing to moral philosophy. In another sense, however, the answer is everything. Theology recalibrates ethics, making it something it cannot be on its own. “God” is not one more entity in the universe that one can affirm or not affirm without consequences. If God exists, everything is changed. Every entity will look different because they are now called creatures and that establishes a different relationship that they would have if there were no God. 

The previous paragraph could appear to be a contradiction: (1) theology adds nothing to ethics and (2) theology adds everything to ethics. Yet I think both can and should be said because of the relationship between finite and infinite action. In a previous work, I made this statement: “Christian theologians claim that the relation between God and creatures is such that humans and God can both be the cause of a virtue without divine and human agency being in competition” (Long 2010, 50). These two seemingly contradictory statements only make sense in terms of Christological teaching. As Rowan Williams argues, Christological doctrine is for the purpose of “the complete and unequivocal presence of divine action and human action inseparably united with one another” (Williams 2018, xii). While human agents are not Christ, they can participate in his life. According to the doctrine of creation, it is in, through, and by him that we have our being. The Holy Spirit infuses virtues and gifts in the human agent that they cannot acquire on their own. Faith, hope, and charity take up the ordinary moral virtues and fit them for friendship with God, not by evacuating persons of their creaturely agency but by bringing it to its perfection. This infusing of virtue, I will argue, is a more compelling account of ordinary moral agency than most accounts of it on offer. It will be the burden of my next few installments of InStead to make a practical case for infusing virtue.

Sources Cited

Long, D. Stephen, Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Williams, Rowan, Christ: The Heart of Creation(London: Bloomsbury, 2018)