On the Priority of Ethics

I grew up with a very spiritualized Christianity that focuses on getting to heaven.  I later became a pentecostal, and this spiritualization of everything was intensified.  Now, I don’t mean “spiritual” in the common sense referring to our inner feelings (although that’s certainly a part of it), but rather an understanding that there are two worlds that we interact with, a physical, visible world and a spiritual, invisible world – and that this spiritual world is the greater of the two.  At times we even flirt with the gnostic notion that we are trying to escape this fallen, physical world in order to get to the true, pure, perfect, spiritual world.  But my point here is simply that common North American Christianity often points us away from the daily realities of life and toward a future, invisible reality that is spiritual in nature and doesn’t compare to the physical, hum-drum daily life we experience now.  The only connection between the two, it sometimes seems, is that we can find answers to the evils of our physical world in this spiritual world.

Reading the gospels, however, has changed that perspective for me quite a bit.  Yes, there’s lots of mention of spiritual realities, and I don’t want anyone to think for a minute that I don’t believe in them.  But there’s a much greater emphasis on ethics, on how we live our lives here and now, than I was ever led to believe.  In fact, I’m willing to say that ethics is what Jesus and his followers were all about.

As I said, I don’t want to give the impression that the eschatology (the future, heaven stuff) of the New Testament is unimportant.  On the contrary, I still think it’s very important; it’s the relationship between the ethics and the eschatology that I’ve changed my mind about.  On the surface, they seem to be opposites: one is concerned with here and now, the other is concerned with the future in heaven; one is concerned with the physical world, the other with spiritual realities we cannot see.  Traditionally, we connect the two in a causal relationship: if you’re not good enough in the physical world today, you don’t get to go to heaven tomorrow.  This is not entirely wrong, but I think perhaps we’ve over-spiritualized it – and we can see this through a logical exercise.

Consider the eschatological vision of Jesus: a world in which truth triumphs and evil is defeated; a world in which God is reunited with the people who were once separated from Him due to sin.  Now consider the ethical vision of Jesus: a world in which people speak out against injustice, and are vindicated by the truth; a world in which injustices are exposed and corrected; a world in which religiosity and false piety are replaced by real acts of grace and mercy.  Is there a comparison to be made here?

The big difference between the most eschatological and the most ethics-focused passages is that in the eschatological passages the hand of God is emphasized, whereas in the ethical passages the acts of humans are emphasized.  The goal and end results are the same.  Some scholars see the ethical and eschatological traditions of the New Testament to come from different religious groups because of the differences between them; perhaps.  But I see two ways of describing the same worlds – the world we have, and the world it ought to be – and two ways for our world to transition from how it is to how it should be.

The kicker is, by human effort alone we can’t seem to get there, to that vision of the world as it ought to be.  By human effort, we’ve failed.  Apocalyptists (like the writer of Revelation, people who often focus on eschatological concerns) see that human failure and rely on God to get the job done: the world can only truly change through divine intervention.  Sadly, I’m inclined to agree.

Then why did Jesus spend so much time preaching ethics, when we need God’s direct intervention in order to truly be able to change?  This is the gospel: Jesus showed us how to live, and painted a picture of what an ethical world would look like.  His movement had little success, and he was killed; ethical teaching in the hands of human beings fails.  But then Jesus resurrects, reveals his deity, and bestows God’s Holy Spirit in order to empower human beings to follow through on those teachings and truly act ethically.

Now, debate all you like about whether or not human beings, even those that are Spirit-empowered, are truly able to change (but it seemed to be what Jesus preached).  The point here is that the eschatological vision – of God stepping in to make everything right – is a glimpse of the future that is told in service to the ethical vision that Christ painted.  Ethics is both the journey and the destination as we strive to see our world become a place of good rather than evil; eschatology is a hopeful vision of that journey and destination in the face of our inability to do it on our own.  Eschatology serves ethics.

That doesn’t mean that eschatology is less, or that we shouldn’t get excited about God stepping in and making everything right.  It means that we ought to remember that God included us in his method, and that we ought not to lay back and focus on these visions of the future.  Because when we act ethically, the way Jesus taught us to, the future is now.

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2 thoughts on “On the Priority of Ethics

  1. I actually understand us to live in the eschatological age, but awaiting its final consummation. This makes the ethics of Jesus the ethics of NOW. The “age to come” is already upon us in the outpouring of the Spirit though we await the coming of Christ Jesus to finish what has been assuredly begun.

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