Reading through Principles of Christian Theology part 13: Chapter 21

Series Index

Principles of Christian Theology by John Macquarrie

John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology does not have a conclusion in any formal sense; instead he ends the book with an exploration of Christian ethics in the existentialist framework that he’s set up through the first twenty chapters.  Here even more than before Macquarrie’s commitment to a strong universalism gives shape to his thought, and I’ve figured out as I’ve drafted this post that I can’t give a strong sense of his project without setting it against my own ways of doing Christian ethics.  For the length of this post and for its self-indulgence I apologize up front.

Universalism and Historicism

Early in this final chapter Macquarrie states that “the sense of God’s presence does not create a new ethic” (503).  That programmatic statement gives shape to the rest of the chapter, beginning with the relationships between natural law and ethics.  As in earlier chapters, Macquarrie does not find a sharp antithesis between the ethics of Christianity and other ways of evaluating good lives and lives-not-to-be-celebrated; instead, the content of Christian ethics stands in basic continuity with other philosophies of the good life (504).  Such is not to say that human communities’ sense of what is good and what is bad never changes: because human beings are historical beings, the content of “natural law” is not immutable, and the careful thinker should expect changes in “natural law” over time (506).  By no means should anyone invoke “natural law” as a check against human progress (507), and in fact Macquarrie dedicates a few paragraphs of this chapter to reassuring the reader that, whatever genetic engineering makes possible in decades to come, that new state of affairs will give a new shape to “natural law,” and things will simply go on.

Underlying Macquarrie’s project is his conviction (stated in earlier chapters and repeated here) that religions without a doubt differ but that they all share, as a core aim, the desire to open practitioners to the initiative of Being and to lead human beings to fuller and richer existence.  So Macquarrie tends to emphasize the common convictions in Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and a number of other traditions, namely that the key to the best sort of existence lies beyond the self, in some kind of communal life, and in some sort of humble stance towards the depth and grandeur of reality.  What comes through quite clearly is that Christianity does not seek to overthrow what’s already present in other human traditions but to help people experience the universal human experiences of Being’s approach more fully.

What I don’t see much of in this account of ethics is the fact that his inter-religious comparisons all assume those traditions’ twentieth-century versions without much reference to earlier forms.  So a reader finds in Macquarrie nothing of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which emphasizes the strong conflict between the warrior-ethics of Homeric and Samurai and old-Teutonic hero stories on one hand and modern liberalism on the other.  Christianity is not a revolutionary moment in this tale, a new way of being human that levels distinctions between rich and poor, master and slave, foreigner and countryman.  Humility and universal charity and love for enemies are not moments of novelty on the ethical scene but always latent, even in the mighty Roman mythos.  There’s no master-morality and slave-morality here; everything is, to some extent, a latent version of modern toleration and liberal openness to the neighbor.  Christianity does not call for an unprecedented concern for the weak and the poor and the oppressed but simply adds depth to the universal human wishes that are, by Macquarrie’s account, present in all religions already (504).

I realize that Macquarrie wrote this grand book before N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, before Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, and even before Hauerwas’s The Peaceable KingdomAnd I know full well that to judge this book by their standards is to engage in a bit of unfair play, historically speaking.  Nonetheless, I saw quite clearly as I engaged this chapter that my own training in Christian ethics leads me to think of Israel and Church not as identical with Babylon or Rome or the DNC, only with more depth and perhaps with a bit of a head start in terms of moral progress, but as strong rejections of the powers and empires of the world.  To locate forgiveness at the core of existence, and to think of human beings not as relatively virtuous and relatively vicious but as radically sinful and in need of saving–personally and politically– really does make a difference in how one evaluates human lives.  To walk along with Macquarrie’s ethical project in this chapter would be to start from an entirely different narrative framework, to assume that nobody in the first century was turning the world upside down, to conceive of Christianity as basically a differently-decorated version of what was already in the world and which the modern liberal-capitalist project does not reject but merely decorates differently.

I should pause here and note that, within what I’d call a post-liberal take on Christian ethics, there is room to see and appreciate and even emulate what is good in Islam and Buddhism and Marxism, but the narrative framework differs significantly: the story that I tell, when I think about those folks in terms of Christian ethics, is a story of forgetting and remembrance, the aletheia that Heidegger presents as a helpful notion of truth.  To say that Gandhi teaches Christians to be better Christians is not to give up on Christ as a revolutionary moment in human ethics but to say that, because of historically intelligible and morally inexcusable reasons, God had to use a man like Gandhi to remind us of what we should already have been doing.  The same goes with the piety of the praying Muslim, the strong concern for the poor that one finds in the best kinds of Marxist, and so on.  The moral center remains in the person of Jesus and the tradition of reflection on Israel’s Scriptures and the New Testament, but strangers who come to us from somewhere else, because we learn to tell their stories in terms of Jesus and Israel, help us to repent sometimes, not because Jesus was insufficient but because our own sins kept us from following Jesus, and the Taoist who became our friend helped us to see that.

Such are some of the strong differences between what I’d call Macquarrie’s liberal approach to Christian ethics and my own post-liberal.  I’ll let you, O Reader, decide on whether I’ve given an account worth thinking on.

Legalism, Marriage, and the Church’s Ethical Value

Saint Paul, by Macquarrie’s account, seeks to transcend both Torah and natural law in his letters (509), seeking to put in their place a primacy of conscience that would not locate the ethical ideal in rule-following but in seeking goodness actively.  The conviction, to be found in Christianity but present in all religions, that the universe is at its root a good creation, inspires those who are open to Being to live good lives themselves and increase the self-fulfilling of Being in the world (511).  Such resistance to legalism is already present in the Biblical prophets (508) and in modern philosophy, so Christians once more should not regard their place in the world’s moral development as unique, though the Church can and should be a sort of ethical vanguard, a place where a small community lives without racism and other kinds of political sin (512).

When the book turns to marriage, its liberal thesis begins to look quite dated, forty years later.  Macquarrie calls marriage a “natural” practice of the human species that the Church picked up and sacramentalized (513).  That move was a good one, theologically, because–again, according to Macquarrie’s account–incorporating such universal practices into the specifically Christian sacramental life is a message to the faithful that Christianity is not trying to be something unique in the world but is taking what everyone already desires (marriage in this case) and exploring its depth.

Forty years later, of course, Europe and North America are putting to the test the notion that marriage is universal, much less natural.  Even in Gainesville, Georgia, a place most folks would consider part of the “Bible Belt,” my wife and I were, on the occasions of each of my children’s births in 2005 and 2009, the only married couple in the maternity ward.  The fact of the matter is that, at least in the North Georgia Medical Center, the only married mother in the house was married for specifically Christian reasons, and no broad expectation that mothers should be married governed actual lived existence.  I note this not merely to vindicate my ethics against Macquarrie’s (though I’m not nearly moral enough to resist that temptation) but also to return to my earlier thesis, that it’s not enough to make ethics historical.  After all, Macquarrie situates his own theology and his own ethics within a kind of history.  Christianity, in his story, comes into a world where other religions were already doing what Christianity seeks, and the ministry of Christianity is to help them to work together towards moral goals that all of them basically share.  It’s a pleasant picture, to be sure, but as Hauerwas and Brueggemann and Wright note, such confidence in the universality of Christian ethics and the feeling that everyone is secretly a liberal Protestant might be a product of living off of the cultural capital of Christianity more than any truly universal truth.  Doing ethical history is not enough; in order to make ethics (and history) helpful, one must be willing to revise those histories in light of new discoveries.

So as we wrap this series up, I’m not disappointed that I read this book.  It’s one draft of a history of theology and ethics, one situated in a post-superstitious, liberal Protestant, twentieth-century, east-coast America that has largely faded away but whose vestiges still shape the way that we think about God, Church, ethics, and all sorts of other important realities.  I liken this summer’s reading to our ongoing project of blogging through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (a project to which I plan to return now that this series is over): having spent twenty years reading critiques of liberal Protestantism and of Kant, it’s good to read the originals and realize that they needed critiquing not because they lacked intellectual power but precisely because they did good work that needed revision.

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