I always enjoy reading Ephraim Radner’s thoughts, and always learn from him. He is a cherished mentor. That said, I do wish to voice an objection that pertains not just to his most recent volley against same-sex marriage, but to the whole project, shared by many, of keeping alive the sexuality debates and cultivating a self-identity as a defender of orthodoxy on that question.
My objection is that I think such a project does not serve the Church as well it may seem to conservative Christians because it causes Christians to focus on the wrong questions. The approach to doing ethics that Ephraim pursues is, in my opinion, not the most fruitful.
As Sam Wells said in his dissertation, commenting on this discovery by Stanley Hauerwas:
When ethics is understood as the adjudication of tricky cases of conscience by balancing moral principles, the practice is implicitly socially conservative – since it assumes there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the status quo, only with its anomalies. In contrast, the Christian community lives within a tradition based on a story which in many respects contradicts the assumptions of the contemporary social status quo. How then does the community faithfully live out its story?
Ephraim implicitly wants Christians to engage on the level of acts consequentialism. That is precisely the ethical approach of his opponents, whom he characterizes as Christian leaders who have departed from the received wisdom. That is the ethical approach of such leaders because that is how Niebuhr taught the Church to defend the desiderata of its culture. Yet acts consequentialism is both strategic and theological error. The error implies confusion about the task of Christian ethics. Our task is not to defend tradition or a particular ethical conclusion with regard to a proposed act. Rather, our task (channeling Wells again) is “to describe the world in which Christians perceive themselves to live and act, and to help the Christian community form practices consistent with life in such a world.”
The problem is NOT that folks are making wrong choices with respect to homosexuality. The problem is NOT that folks are irrationally preferring one set of facts over the ones Ephraim wants to defend as though both sets of facts occupy the same world. The problem for the Church is not one of choice but of vision: due to the astigmatism of sin, folks actually perceive entirely different worlds. Folks on the opposing side of Ephraim’s proposed acts consequentialism choose rationally, but choose on the basis of a differently perceived world. And so the problem in our ethics cannot be reduced simply to claims that people are disobedient or rebellious or irrationally want to conform to cultural waywardness. The problem is that too often we do not see the world as it really is. As Wells has shown, our task as ecclesial ethicists is not to argue for different choices, but for different worlds.
Our strategy ought not be to engage in continuous battle over whether homoeroticism is rightly defended or condemned or in other questions about right acts, but rather to call the Church to the practices through which virtue is formed, wherein we learn to take the right things for granted. The material cause of right actions is a virtuous community, and so our most fruitful approach in ethics is to focus persistently on the formation of that virtuous community, resisting the temptation to respond at the level of acts consequentialism.
And therefore our energies ought to be devoted to the recovery of vision, not to debating on the level of acts consequentialism. We can trust folks to make right choices if they see the world rightly.
How do we collaborate with the Spirit’s sustenance of our ecclesial vision? By devoting ourselves to cultivation of the soil in which such vision is formed. And that soil just is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – a relationship in which we discover ourselves to be addressed and acted upon by Christ and justified in our belief that the only right response is to follow. A personal relationship means that Christ can be no longer our object of study from a safe distance; there is a personal knowing such that his history becomes our history, and our actions are seen as extensions of our relationship with him. Such personal relationships are forged only through repetitive contact with him. And so we most collaborate with the Spirit by fostering such repetitive contact: our energies are rightly devoted to soil cultivation techniques such as the recovery of our Scriptural literacy, the classical spiritual disciplines (updated for our times as need be), the three-fold rule, and sacramental practices such as holy matrimony and reconciliation. If we focus on fostering personal relationships with Christ, the virtue we seek will happen. The Spirit will make it so.
Arguing about the rightness of same-sex marriage distracts us from our theological task, and is the least fruitful way to cultivate the virtue of Christian community. If, in spite of this caution, we must engage the presenting question, the level of discourse ought not be on the level of acts consequentialism (which, in the current discourse presupposes a universality of ethics that is itself dubious), but on descriptions and celebrations of real marriages that are rational responses to the experience of grace. Rather than attacking same-sex unions, we ought to be describing and calling folks to a fidelity in their vows that signifies the covenant of grace, and showing how the Spirit uses such exemplars of fidelity to form the community of Christ such that we are sustained in our mission to the world. The important questions about marriage are not about procreation or questions of natural law but about how the Spirit uses faithful marriages sacramentally to unveil the New Jerusalem, correcting our vision so that we see the world the way it really is.