Moral Imperatives

There is nothing specifically Christian about theological curiosity. Before there was Gospel there were Greek, Jewish, and more exotic writings about the gods. The first recognizably Christian theology was anti-theology, the five books of Irenaeus, Against Heresies; attacking what he called vain speculation and superstition. The first constructive Christian theology, Origen’s De pricipiis (On First Principles), was greeted with profound distrust, and branded with the same epithet: speculation. To this day, the best Christian theology does not begin with positive theistic assertions, but starts with a stringent critique of human understanding, to expose errors and groundless pretensions. So it has been since Moses’ interview with the Unnamable at the burning bush.

Most Christians think of theology as a discourse whose purpose is to support religion and religious programs, in which some measure of power is at stake in order to be effective and constructive; the moral and political ends of sound belief. Old King Old King Numa had it right from the beginning. According to him, the purpose of religion is to make society cohere. There need be no distinction between that and politics.[1]

The Owl reminded readers recently that faith is a gift visited upon individuals by a free God, enabling them to carry out their vocations obediently, obedience to God being the only true freedom. By definition, freedom has no prescribed content. Accordingly, the ethical demands of faith can never be reduced to the programmatic purposes of kings or politicians, even if they fly under colors of the church.

If so, what is the real ethical problem for a Christian? One traditional answer is the Imitation of Christ, and that is not a bad start, as long as we keep in mind the precautions outlined above, and expect the matter to remain mysterious, incomplete, endlessly unfolding.

At one level, imitation of Christ  means life for others. It bears urgently repeating, this does not mean any one set of moral precepts. That is a forlorn tactic, an attempt to be good while working for the one who asks “Who you calling good?” (Mark10:18) By being good ourselves—if only!—we try futilely to avoid facing our need for mercy.

At a deeper level imitation of Christ means what he said: taking up a cross and following him where the path leads. He is our archetype, true humanity to which we are the antitypes: utterly condemned.

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Fortunately, today we do not condemn sinners to crucifixion. In America—not everywhere—Christians can live out our vocations in reasonable safety, using as much discernment as we can. All the while, we know there can be no perfect political order in this world; no final state to be reached, no perfectly just array of powers. It is not for lack of trying we know these things. But if that trying is the sum and substance of faith, and if this is the only world in which to work out our salvation; in short, if that is what is at stake, here and now, then no brutality is too costly to make it come about. As we look back over the twentieth century we see what we get.

A Christian may have a vocation to struggle for justice, solidarity with humankind, without expecting it all to come to pass. Those things are eschatological hopes, postponed to mythopoeic future outside of time. Only in the eschatological event, only from outside, is any final meaning expected, and then only by an act of God.

[1]         Livy, The Early History of Rome I.19-20 (Penguin Books, 1960), pp. 38-39.

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