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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 55–66 

Rethinking Christian Ethics: From Moral Decisions to Character Formation

Howard J. Loewen

Modern ethics has frequently been characterized as decisionist ethics. The primary examples in such a view are autonomous individuals deciding between two or more very difficult options believing that with sufficient information they can freely make the right decision. Increasingly this view of ethics has been questioned. This concern has led to a major rethinking of Christian ethics in the past decade. The shift can be characterized as a move from ethics as decision to ethics as narrative. Three closely interrelated books provide a good sampling of how Christian ethics is being rethought: Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1981), Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, 1983), and James McClendon’s Ethics (Abingdon, 1985).

God . . . provides memory, unity, identity and meaning to the story of our life.

What these major works in ethics share in rethinking the nature of Christian ethics is of vital significance for the church, and particularly for those traditions which have often unknowingly done ethics in the way these works propose. What follows is an attempt to understand the distinctive contribution each work makes to the process of rethinking {56} Christian ethics. We will attempt to weave together the central strands of each work in order to substantiate the common thesis that ethics is not primarily an activity of moral decision making but a fundamental process of character formation.


Where Are We?

The work which provides the clearest analysis of what has gone wrong with modern morality and ethics is Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. MacIntyre is an ethicist who writes from the perspective of moral philosophy. His approach is historical in nature, making the scope of his work comprehensive. One of his primary tasks is to identify and describe the lost morality of Western culture and discover the specific moral character of the modern age.

His work is especially helpful in describing the critical state of morality in modern culture. According to him it is in a state of serious disorder. All we possess are little bits of morality here and there; no overall moral vision governs our life any more. We have lost the larger context which gave meaning to the moral fragments. As a result we are suffering from a serious case of relativism. This relativism is the basis for seeing moral decision making largely in terms of making the right decision amidst a number of difficult options.

Among the most common examples in decisionist ethics today are the ones citing the need to make difficult medical ethical decisions in regard to such issues as abortion, genetic experimentation, transplants, death, and dying. Examples of this sort abound, not only in the medical field, but also in business, politics and law. They are real, at times very complex, and usually emotionally charged. They reflect what we have frequently come to identify as the main task of ethics, namely to decide what to do in a crisis situation.

Yet to see ethics primarily as a process of critical decision making has increasingly come under question. Why are individuals placed into decision-making positions? What societal values have set up such moral dilemmas? What kind of communities create these dilemmas? Must not ethics also critically reflect on why such a situation has emerged in the first place? {57}

According to MacIntyre the reason for decisionist ethics is that there is no longer a single moral vision which informs our morality. We lack a sense of the right moral options. Morally we are at sea as a culture. The tragedy is that we are not even entirely sure why we are adrift, nor are we aware of the seriousness of our condition.

How Did We Get Here?

What are the cultural roots of the current crisis of moral relativism? MacIntyre shows how the shift in morality from a state of order to that of disorder has its roots in Northern European intellectual and cultural history. According to him this Enlightenment history embarked on a course which separated the moral from the theological. It tried successively to give a rational basis for morality in the various human spheres of passion, reason, and the will.

The net effect of this development was that it resulted in seeing moral judgments as expressions of the person’s emotions and feelings rather than as statements of fact informed by God’s will and human intention. So moral decisions were increasingly based on personal preferences without any guidance from God or any other sense of overarching purpose for human life. Morality and ethics were thereby relegated to the realm of subjective opinion. This position is called emotivism.

According to MacIntyre, a modern, emotivist view of ethics is characterized by a deep dualism between the private world of values and the public world of fact. The quest in our culture is for value-free, scientifically proven facts, as for example scientific data on human nature or political trends determined by Gallup polls! In that realm the options for our decisions are in fact very limited, and often dictated to us.

By contrast, the private world of “values” is a world where we are free to decide what we will cherish and what we will neglect. Nobody can challenge us in this realm because in reality the values we hold are not grounded in what our society calls scientifically verifiable fact. Thus the value systems reflected in our styles of living are not right or wrong, true or false; they are matters of personal choice in a pluralistic context. Each person can choose which values he or she wants to live by. Whereas in the realm of public fact there is immense pressure to conform to value-free facts (e.g., the nation-state, technology, media, efficiency, politics), in the field of personal {58} values (e.g., religious and moral commitments) pluralism reigns. As a result, our personal purposes and values have no more authority than the degree to which we express our convictions and the tenacity with which we hold them. Our personal values simply do not hold the same authority as the public scientific facts.

Therefore we are governed by a dualism deeply embedded in the structures of our thought. We blindly exist in a fundamental paradox. On the one hand we are mired in relativism and subjectivism, which modernity attempts to rationalize as important and necessary. On the other hand we live boldly with the illusion that we can hold to a rationally grounded, objective morality based on universal, scientifically verifiable principles.

Why the Crisis?

The primary way in which Western society and the modern church have conceptualized ethics is for the individual to have the immediate ability to choose, or decide, by an act of will. What the major modern ethical schemes have in common is the understanding that morality basically means “deciding”—making the right decision (values) according to some universal rule (fact). Yet, according to MacIntyre, we decide with the illusion that we are doing so on the basis of universal, objective principles.

In such a view ethics is grounded in the understanding that freedom, autonomy, and decision are the essence of the moral life. In the final analysis ethics is grounded in subjectivism and relativism, rather than on some universal, objective principle, contrary to the main goal of modern moral theory. MacIntyre views this modern attempt as a colossal failure.


What Ought We to Be?

In his The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist ethicist, engages in a constructive development of MacIntyre’s themes. His explicit purpose in this primer in Christian ethics is to show that ethics is not primarily about making the right decision (What should I do?), as modernity proposes and practices, but about being the right kind of {59} people (Who should we be?).

Hauerwas accepts MacIntyre’s assessment of the serious breakdown of morality in Western culture and builds approvingly on his affirmations regarding classical morality. This provides an alternative model to modern morality. He agrees with MacIntyre that in classical cultures (those preceding the Enlightenment) morality is always to some degree tied to local and particular communities. This contrasts with the “modern” morality which aspires to universal moral principles freed from all particular communities.

As a result modern societies have abandoned the narrative approach to ethics and gone to a more abstract, rule oriented ethic. This shift has come about because individuals no longer see themselves as part of a particular story or a societal vision that gives unity of character and personal identity to their lives. Such a way of thinking is alien to the dominant individualist modes of modern culture. Therefore questions of morality and ethics are increasingly dealt with on an individual basis.

But modernity is wrong. According to Hauerwas, morality does not primarily consist in individuals freely making the right moral decisions. For him the ability to make the right decision is a skill one learns, not a fundamental right or status. In fact, Christian morality also means learning to accept the fundamental reality that we are not always able to decide what is right, as for example, when tragedy strikes us. Christian morality must teach us that certain decisions are not open to us.

The mother who “decides” against abortion because she has truly learned the value of life from her particular Christian community or tradition is one who can really be freed in her decision. The question for her is not what should I decide, based on the information I have. But what do I want to be and become given the stories that have formed my life. Her decision against abortion is not an option, in the sense that to remain truthful and retain her integrity she cannot decide to abort the fetus because that would violate her character and identity. Only the virtuous person—one who learns the skills of living truthfully and with integrity—can satisfactorily make the right decisions and will better know what decisions to make when crisis situations do arise. It will be a narrative ethic (the moral skills and habits of faith learned in a community of {60} faith) and not a decisionist ethic (primarily individual, autonomous decisions based on the available information) that informs her action.

Why Practice the Virtues?

According to Hauerwas it is important to reappropriate the practice of the virtues for Christian morality, virtues such as friendship, courage, fidelity, self-restraint, wisdom, justice, prudence, temperance, or the fruits of the Spirit. In modern culture morality as the practice of virtues has been all but lost. We have reduced morality to commitment to some general, universal good such as human rights, equality, or happy monogamous marriages, but have failed to embody these general rules in real communities of faith because we do not have the learned skills and practices to do so.

Hauerwas argues that virtues are God-given qualities which we learn in the community of faith, a tradition which nurtures these virtues, and in which an individual can learn the skill of exercising them. For the Christian these can be thought of as the fruits of the Spirit given to the church. When believers exercise these virtues the church will be enabled to achieve the goals God has planned for it.

These virtues exist and are practiced only where there is a sufficient unity and an adequate story to a person’s life. They do not come about simply by making the right decision. They are learned skills developed in the process of character formation. To exercise these virtues is to be moral and to practice ethics. To do this is to move from a decisionist ethic to a narrative ethic.

Of What Story Am I a Part?

Therefore, the notion of a history or story (narrative) is as fundamental as the notion of an action (decision). This is precisely what the spirit of modernity denies, since it gives priority to the individual over any story that might shape the character of that individual. For Hauerwas, however, the human being is essentially a story-telling creature. The narratives of which we are a part precede the actions which we take. For the human being is a social creation, not an individual one. The unity of a person’s life resides in the unity of a story which connects birth to life to death, and gives that narrative meaning. Narrative is the primary grammar of Christian belief and {61} practice. Thus the basic question for Christian morality is not, “What am I, as an individual, to do or decide?” but “Of what stories do I find myself a part, and thus who should I be?”

Hauerwas contends that we need to be transformed in the way we see the world and live in it. But we cannot be transformed simply by making the right decision. Genuine transformation, one that deeply affects the Christian life demands a truthful language—the narrative language which teaches us to grow into the story of faith as exemplified in Jesus.

Thus to be Christian is not principally to decide to obey certain commandments or rules but to learn to be disciples, for whom the center of creation is the cross-resurrection. Our decisions will then reflect who we really are. From this perspective the first task of Christian ethics is not to declare “thou shalt/thou shalt not,” but to participate morally in God’s life. We are on a journey with God through which we develop a God-like character. The story which God has invited us into is a gift. By learning to be his disciples we will learn to find our life, our story, in God’s story. Thus Christian ethics is concerned more with who we are than what we do or decide. Deciding and doing are important, but they are a reflection of our character. A decisionist ethic first asks “what ought we to do?” and then claims we can answer “what ought we to be?” The reverse order is the right one.


James McClendon, writing as a Baptist theologian, builds on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and others. His purpose is to show how ethics looks from the perspective of the believers’ church (what he calls “baptistic”) tradition and how ethics is the first, not last, step in the task of theological reflection. His volume on Ethics represents the first volume in a proposed three-volume systematic theology.

McClendon defines the task of narrative ethics as “the discovery, understanding and creative transformation of a shared and lived story, one whose focus is Jesus of Nazareth and the kingdom he proclaims.” Within the framework of this understanding he makes a distinctive contribution to rethinking Christian ethics by developing three interrelated strands: the organic, the communal, and the resurrection strands. These three interwoven strands represent the natural, the {62} social, and the spiritual realms of God’s creation. Within a narrative ethic these strands respectively affirm the importance of embodied virtues, powerful practices, and the resurrection life for Christian morality.

What are Embodied Virtues?

With MacIntyre and Hauerwas, McClendon defines virtues as the skills which enable us fully to enjoy the embodied moral life. We live our moral life as bodily creatures. The skills we acquire to live this embodied moral life require human effort and training. Thus moral development is understood as building upon the organic (i.e., bodily) foundation of life the skills required for living, much as architecture organizes materials into livable structures. It is important that these learned skills (i.e., virtues) are grounded in the practices and values commonly accepted in a particular tradition or community.

For example, the virtue of presence is a quality of being there for and with the other. McClendon convincingly argues that God’s presence is one of the great gifts of the gospel, associated with the incarnation of the Word, the giving of the Spirit, and the return of the Lord. These are recalled in every communion, called forth at every baptism, and reappropriated at every gathering of disciples.

According to McClendon the virtue of presence is a central dimension of the Christian life. Being there is for us a function of our bodily existence. Yet we can be “there” bodily but not present for the other. We must recognize that there can be ghostly imitations of presence—simulated presence (actor’s stage presence), artificial presence (politician’s or salesman’s presence), perverted presence (butting into other’s lives, nosiness). Presence is being one’s self for someone else; refusing the temptation to withdraw mentally and emotionally; overcoming the tendency to avoid and alienate others.

The organic strand of morality, therefore, has significant implications for all human relationships: parents and children, marriage partners, pastors and congregations, personal friendships. It also includes the importance of meeting basic human needs. McClendon cites the black church as a primary “baptistic” example of a tradition which under oppression has displayed the quality of presence. This is especially exemplified in someone like Martin Luther King who, in his person and in the movement he generated, represents a powerful nonviolent {63} presence in confronting the oppressor with a witness to the truth of God’s presence.

Thus for McClendon presence is one of the profound forms of Christian witness. The ministry of presence is deeply rooted in our organic natures. To understand this, and to live by it, is to embody Christian virtues in a narrative ethic. It is to give priority to the question of who we are rather than what we do or decide.

However, our own ability to embody such a virtue as presence is found only in the presence of another whose need is often the very occasion of our freedom to serve. Through others we are often able to overcome our self-absorption and be empowered by the gift of another’s needs. We are able to move from a self-centered narrative and enter into a service oriented narrative which creates in us the character God has called us to be. Yet, for McClendon, Christian presence cannot be accounted for in organic terms alone. We also need the communal strand.

What Are the Powerful Practices?

The communal or social strand of Christian ethics is best articulated in terms of the concept of practices. Like MacIntyre and Hauerwas, McClendon defines practices as cooperative human activities (e.g., friendship and marriage) which are closely linked to certain skills (e.g., the virtues of presence, justice, courage, truthfulness) and which must be learned and maintained in a community of people over a period of time.

The social sphere of ethics affirms that the individual’s identity and unity comes from being part of a larger story (i.e., community or tradition) which links birth, life and death, and gives particular meaning to that linkage. It affirms the social sphere of God’s creation. Our skills for living are derived from the several stories (e.g., family, church, work, nation) of which we are a part and cannot be developed or understood apart from these stories. Therefore morality and ethics cannot be separated from the various and meaningful cooperative human activities (i.e., practices) occurring in the various stories. Ethics is, therefore, not first and foremost a process involving decision-making (what shall I/shall I not do) but the discovery and understanding of our story and of asking what shall I be/not be. Its focus is character formation.

However, according to MeClendon, the moral skills we {64} learn (i.e., virtues) cannot only be defined by the practices and activities of the communities to which we belong, because under certain conditions a practice may also be a source of evil. Thus practices must be placed in some larger moral context, beyond our own immediate story. They must be understood in terms of the most important and determinative story of all time. Therefore, Christian narrative ethics involves the discovery, understanding and creative transformation of the story whose focus is Jesus of Nazareth and the reign of God he proclaims. This is the story of God in Christ through the eschatological Spirit.

Within this context McClendon uses the biblical concept of principalities and powers as an explanation for the human condition in a sinful world. For the principalities and powers are none other than the social and spiritual structures we may also identify as practices. These powers are the replacements of God’s powerful presence among the people (golden calves), the political powers of another nation (foreign gods), the production processes among a people (false gods), and the powerful practices embedded in social and religious structures (principalities).

These are the powerful practices which have been dethroned by Christ but are not yet destroyed and abolished. They can be institutionalized practices of the bureaucracy, mass communication, scientific technology, knowledge, sports, politics, money, efficiency, sex, revolution, nationalism, ideologies, class, or race. They are all the individual and communal gods to which we give our primary loyalties and allegiances.

From the perspective of narrative ethics we must be trained to see ourselves as sinners. We are sinful because we deceive ourselves about the nature of social reality One of the major manifestations of sin is the active and willful attempt to overreach our powers, as though we can be the authors of our own stories. This is the source of the will to power which is so prevalent in modernity. Yet to be engaged in a narrative ethic is not just to see ourselves as sinners but to do something about our sin. Such action requires a community of faith whose interest lies in the formation of character under a particular God.

McClendon shows how this narrative framework of understanding gives new meaning to the Ten Commandments and {65} the Sermon on the Mount as moral directives. Each directive has its place in connection with a powerful practice in the community of Israel and Jesus. The commandment reminds its hearers of a particular existing moral “activity” and provides a line of direction for life in that “activity.”

The role of the Ten Commandments presupposes the power of the practices by establishing important limitations that show the people of God how they may live with these practices yet not be tyrannized by them. The final protection of God’s people lies not in the law, which itself can become a tyrannical and idolatrous power, but in God who gives it. This recognition also makes it impossible for Christian morality to be defined solely in terms of the social strand.

What About the Resurrection Life?

McClendon asserts that the organic and the social dimensions of ethics must be grounded in the third strand—the resurrection. For him the significance of the resurrection for ethics lies in its new way of understanding and envisioning the world. Through the resurrection God has inaugurated a new epoch between the times of the first and final advent of Christ. It is a new reality on which you stake your life, a new world into which you enter through conversion and transformation.

For McClendon the beginning of resurrection morality is made explicit in the central sign of Christian baptism. Baptism is significant in that it refers to the life story of Jesus himself; it focuses the story of the believer’s life as taken up into a new story of God; and it signifies how Christ’s and the believer’s stories are brought into the company of all the people of God.

Likewise, communion is the central practice of the church to commemorate the story of Jesus and our participation in it—the suffering and death, the eschatological hope, the meaning for the life of the church as Christ’s body—and to reaffirm its loyalty to the story of the one God of Israel, Jesus and the Church. It represents a renewed commitment of the church to its spiritual identity as the people of God.

Baptism and communion, therefore, become the ongoing sacramental acts of the church’s faith to give birth to and nurture the embodied virtues anew; to say no to the powerful practices that continue to challenge God’s people and would lead the church into. sin; and to say yes to the resurrection story of the one God in Jesus Christ who is lord over history {66} and creation. A Christian narrative ethic, therefore, not only leads us to identify with the story of Jesus, to remember and expect the returning Christ, and to examine ourselves and fellowship with God’s people. It also directs us to worship, in word and deed, the God above all gods who provides memory, unity, identity and meaning to the story of our life.

Howard J. Loewen is Professor of Theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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