3. Contributions to the Task of Reenvisioning the Field of Christian Ethics
This special issue of Religions
represents merely one moment of collaboration and dialogue within the ongoing task of reenvisioning Christian ethics. This effort makes no attempt at comprehensiveness or systematic overview, in contrast to a recent treatment of theological ethics (Junker-Kenny 2019
). There are many perspectives and voices that I tried to include in this issue, many scholars whose competing commitments prevented them from contributing an article in this particular collaboration. As a corrective to the limitations of this scholarly effort, I encourage readers to draw connections between these essays and other forums, such as Syndicate Theology (https://syndicate.network/about/
); to further these conversations through professional guilds such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE), and the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (SSCE); and to participate in those uncertain, “incompetent communities” (Jenkins 2013, p. 20
) that have so much to teach us about living morally in an ambiguous world.
The scope of this special issue is necessarily broad, though each individual contribution is well-focused, indicating how advances and insights from one location might effectively contribute to or prompt new developments in other locations in this field. Each author was invited to provide a vision of the field of Christian ethics from a distinct perspective, as follows: identify the primary partner discipline, method and approach, theological perspective and starting point, and scope of inquiry and purpose; name key insights developed from that perspective; describe ways in which this perspective has impacted other perspectives and approaches in the field; and suggest ways to reenvision Christian ethics through these perspectival insights. Individual authors may or may not share my underlying convictions, as described above. Readers engaging this sampling of perspectives on the task of reenvisioning the field of Christian ethics are encouraged to participate through agreement, disagreement, argument, and continued, critical dialogue.
In “Transformational Ethics: The Concept of Obedience in Post-Conciliar Jesuit Thinking,” Antje Schnoor employs conceptual history, specifically Begriffsgeschichte according to Reinhart Koselleck, to illustrate how the pursuit of social justice became a form of religious obedience within the Society of Jesus. Her analysis reveals a bidirectional flow of social and theological influences, resulting in an emphasis on responsibility and conscience within Jesuit practices of leadership and ethics more generally. The article raises awareness of historical context for shaping ethical values, thereby suggesting that the task of reenvisioning Christian ethics is itself situated within and influenced by a social history of ideas.
In “The Scales Integral to Ecology: Hierarchies in Laudato Si’ and Christian Ecological Ethics,” Kevin J. O’Brien draws upon ecological theory and environmental ethics to assess the use of scale and hierarchy in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’. Drawing on Bryan Norton’s attention to spatial and temporal scales in moral argument, O’Brien observes, “Pope Francis’s integral ecology is a powerful example of global environmental ethics.” However, O’Brien questions the hierarchical assumptions of the encyclical, arguing that all hierarchies are social constructions and must be interrogated and acknowledged as such. Citing Francis’s unreflective use of hierarchies ordering relationships by gender, species, and the divine, O’Brien calls for a more inquisitive integral ecology. Acknowledging the limitations of all hierarchical assumptions, O’Brien reenvisions Christian ethics as a self-critical endeavor operating at multiple scales simultaneously.
In “Taking Children’s Moral Lives Seriously: Creativity as Ethical Response Offline and Online,” Kate Ott reenvisions Christian ethics through sustained attention to child moral agency. Drawing on John Wall’s concept of childism as a methodology for social change, she engages in conversation with psychologists, child development theorists, educators, theologians, and philosophers as well as her own experience leading children’s programs to consider children as full moral agents. Childist ethics emphasizes particularity, decenters rational individualism, and upends linear moral developmental models. Children’s responses to the impact of digital technologies illustrate a reenvisioning of Christian ethics through creativity, play, and improvisation.
In “Reconstructing an Ethics of Credit in an Age of Neoliberalism,” Ilsup Ahn engages economic and social theory to expose the social and environmental costs of financialization, a global, economic process based on credit contributing to the erosion of social capital and increased inequality. Drawing on David Harvey’s scholarship on neoliberalism, Ahn observes a disturbing result: “the increasing economic inequality paradoxically destroys its own basis—social capital.” In order to reconnect social and financial capital in a just way, he lays the groundwork for a theological reconstruction of moral credit, recovering a sense of credit as “a form of gift [that] should be all-inclusive and thus available to all.” Ahn thereby reenvisions Christian ethics as a call to churches to promote financial justice by engaging in political activism to rebuild social capital.
In “Liberating Discernment: Language, Concreteness, and Naming Divine Activity in History,” Tyler B. Davis examines the criterion of objectivity for discerning God’s activity in the world, illustrated by narratives about meteorological events in history. Drawing on Alice Crary’s expansion of objectivity in ethical theory, Davis rejects any conception of objectivity that would demand abstraction over concretization. He argues, instead, for a “concrete objectivity” as the basis of discernment within liberation theology, as expressed by Beatriz Melano Couch and James Cone. Such liberating discernment claims a Christological criterion in the lives of crucified peoples and can only be articulated in language emerging from the material struggles of the oppressed. Davis, then, “re-envision[s] Christian ethics as language accountable to the God of the oppressed” discerned through the concrete praxis of liberation.
In “Challenge of Doing Catholic Ethics in a Pluralistic Context,” Shaji George Kochuthara shows the need for and possibility of constructing a pluralistic approach in Catholic ethics. The Indian context provides a richly pluralistic environment of cultures and religions for this discussion. To establish a theological grounding within the Catholic tradition, he engages documents of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent developments within Church teachings, including the International Theological Commission’s document, “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law.” Two issues, ecological ethics and sexual ethics, serve to illustrate potential rapprochement within both Catholic and Hindu traditions. He concludes by offering a number of basic considerations necessary for constructing a pluralistic approach to ethics, including: appreciative, non-judgmental listening; collaboration along the way; mutual study of texts and traditions; critical evaluation; humility; and solidarity. In this way, Kochuthara reenvisions Christian ethics through ongoing dialogue amidst difference in pluralistic contexts.
In “Pursuing Ethics by Building Bridges beyond the Northern Paradigm,” James Francis Keenan reenvisions Christian ethics through new and emerging forms of scholarly praxis. Specifically, he promotes collegiality among Christian ethicists across the globe, illustrated by the work of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC). He describes the development of this network as an attempt at bridge-building between scholars of the Global North and Global South, “respond[ing] to the challenge of pluralism by answering the call to dialogue from and beyond local culture.” CTEWC was created to address the problem of insularity among ethicists in the Global North, dominated by a “northern paradigm.” He narrates in detail the creation, growth, and challenges to CTEWC as this network achieved international and regional conferences, published a monthly newsletter, sponsored visiting scholars, provided PhD scholarships, and launched an international book series. Citing the long-term benefits of these cross-cultural, interdisciplinary conversations while naming the institutional realities that prioritize individual scholarship over collaboration and co-authorship in the academic job market, Keenan issues an invitation to reenvision Christian ethics as a collective endeavor requiring connection and collaboration among global scholars.
In “Christian Ethics and Ecologies of Violence”, Luke Beck Kreider seeks to combine environmental ethics with peace and conflict studies to address what he terms “ecologies of violence”. Recognizing “the deep entanglement of ecological and sociopolitical systems”, the author facilitates a more integrated moral analysis by identifying four illustrative types of ecologies of violence: ecological drivers of conflict and peace; environmental consequences of war; land conflict; and structural violence conveyed through environmental systems. He then interrogates recent works in Christian ethics addressing these topics and challenges the authors to further collaboration and deeper engagement. Recognizing both cosmological and pragmatic challenges, he calls not only for improving moral imagination and practical strategies but also for a new approach to ecologies of violence: “a dialogical method” characterized by “integration, critique, collaboration, and exchange” across boundaries of culture, politics, theology, and community. Inspired by Traci West, Krieder reenvisions Christian ethics “as dialogical negotiation over intersectional problems with the goal of ‘building more ethical communal relations.’”
4. Implications for Christian Ethicists and Our Guilds
The responsibility of Christian ethicists to join with members of global society for more rigorous ethical thought, reflection, and action is more important now than ever. We live in an age of “wicked problems,” anthropogenic climate change foremost among them (Jenkins 2013, p. 171
). We also live in an age of alternative facts. As a colleague recently observed, “Who would’ve thought that in the Potter Box, the dimension labelled ‘facts’ would become the most difficult and contested part of ethical methodology?”5
When the “real” recedes from view, morality has precarious standing. We must be intentional about engaging with many disciplines and with persons inside and outside the academy (Edwards 2014
). Reenvisioning Christian ethics as real, perspectival, dialogical, collaborative, and purposeful is timely and urgent work.
This special issue of Religions is one, small part of this ongoing effort. Contributors have offered a fascinating array of perspectives, engaging conceptual history, multiple spatial and temporal scales self-critical of assumed hierarchies, play and improvisation inspired by children’s moral agency, political activism to rebuild social capital, the concrete praxis of liberation as a criterion of discernment, bridge-building among global scholars, ongoing dialogue within a pluralistic context, and dialogical negotiation about intersectional problems. Each of these perspectives has enriched my own understanding of Christian ethics. These authors challenge us to consider more deeply the value of intersectional, interdisciplinary, and intercultural approaches. Yet, I believe the task of reenvisioning Christian ethics requires even more of Christian ethicists and the guilds that support us as scholars. We must look beyond academia.
Reenvisioning this field requires seeing as valid Christian ethicists who work outside the academy. The SCE’s “2020 Committee,” tasked in 2012 with investigating the current status of and future prospects for Christian ethics, raised a question about the “academic captivity” of the field: Has the field of Christian ethics become too “professionally distinct” and “disciplinarily reflexive”? (SCE 2014
). This question, however, was offered as “provocation” and was not explored by the Committee. The report itself reflected the academic insularity in question. When a major report on “The Future of Christian Ethics” concerns itself mainly with the production and placement of PhD-trained scholars in U.S. academic institutions—and whether the academic job market will sustain them—our vision is indeed too narrow. Would a law school strive to train only as many graduates as are needed for future faculty needs? PhD graduates who apply their studies to work outside of the academy should be considered valid and successful placements by a PhD program. Furthermore, while labor relations with contingent faculty are an important ethical issue within higher education (Keenan 2020
), the designation “non-tenure track” is an inadequate description of the many Christian ethicists who interact (or who might potentially interact) with the SCE without academic tenure. The SCE, for example, could do more to engage with and include professional Christian ethicists who work primarily in hospitals, churches, NGOs, and other social institutions. What would it look like to view these Christian ethicists not in terms of their standing (or lack thereof) within the academy but rather in terms of their standing in a larger field of Christian ethics, of which the academy is only one part? Again, provocatively but with no exploration, the SCE futuring report asked, “How ought we to understand Christian Ethics’ multiple modes of engagement with ecclesial structures?” (SCE 2014
). Indeed, what about ecclesial engagement? Are we missing significant opportunities for collaboration and learning? When we restrict our vision to where academic Christians ethicists are rather than where Christian ethics could be (and in many cases, already is), we suffer from a failure of imagination.
What would it look like for a professional guild, such as SCE, to reorient itself to the wider field of Christian ethics rather than the narrow purview of academic advancement? To my academic colleagues, I offer several thoughts for consideration. Instead of defining the borders of our terrain, perhaps we should map uncharted territory—places of messy collaboration and solidarity. Instead of engaging in reconnaissance to determine the possible “negative impact” of emerging fields of study threatening the turf of Christian ethics and then sighing in relief when realizing that they “seem not to engage ethical studies very much at all” (SCE 2014
), perhaps we should lament the dearth of ethical attention in other fields and seek to partner with them. Instead of worrying about PhD programs producing too many graduates for the number of academic jobs available, perhaps we should equip and encourage Christian ethicists with PhD training to embed themselves in the social fabric and institutional lives of our communities—taking on diverse roles, responsibilities, and forms of employment. Instead of scholarly guild meetings focusing almost exclusively on scholarship within the academy, perhaps we should focus guild meetings on learning from and with Christian ethicists and practitioners who work primarily outside of academic institutions. To really see “the future prospects for, the field of ‘Christian ethics’” (SCE 2014
), scholars need to practice, and hear from others who practice, Christian ethics in churches, school boards, hospitals, and many other locations within the pluralistic communities in which we live.
To see beyond Christian ethics as an academic endeavor only, we must reenvision this field as contributing to every aspect of life. To put it differently, which aspects of life would we want devoid of Christian ethical thought, reflection, and practice? I believe that Christian ethics needs to expand beyond the academy and even beyond the Christian if we are truly to partner with all members of global society for the common good, shared justice, and full flourishing of all of creation. We need, always and everywhere, to engage with and reflect on the shared journey of being good neighbors in this “world house” (King 1968
). As I reenvision Christian ethics, I see an awe-filled, discerning, responsive, participatory, and hopeful task. I invite you to join in!