Getting Your Meta On

[1] It seems as though many systematic treatments of ethics take great pains to disabuse readers of their assumptions as to what constitutes ethics in the first place. Then they can move on to doing ethics “proper” in the mode set forth by their systematic meta-approach. One of the more remarkable examples of this is the first paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which reads:

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. But if one does so notwithstanding, that can only mean that Christian ethics claims to discuss the whole problem of ethics, and thus professes to be a critique of all ethics simply as ethics” (Kindle Location 131–45).

[3] I like to think of this move, not uncommon in theology, and especially prevalent in systematic theology, as “going meta on.” Here Bonhoeffer is “going meta on” ethics as traditionally practiced and expressed.

[4] What is the value of such an approach? Well, for one, it backs off from the specific engagements ethics seems to imply, and asks about first principles. What is it that has equipped us to talk about these ethical concerns in the way that we do? Are we approaching this topic from a teleological, deontological, contextual, or virtue ethics perspective? Does it matter?

[5] So in place of particular probes into “topics” in ethics, ethics as a discipline asks, “What is ethics, anyway?” Here’s Karl Barth’s answer, at the beginning of his Ethics: “Ethics as a theological discipline is the auxiliary science in which an answer is sought in the Word of God to the question of the goodness of human conduct. As a special elucidation of the doctrine of sanctification it is reflection on how far the Word of God proclaimed and accepted in Christian preaching effects a definite claim on man [sic]” (3).

[6] This is the kind of statement that irritated me when I first encountered it in courses on ethics. Why not, I thought, dig in and start talking about specific moral concerns, rather than “going meta on” ethics as such. I wanted to “do” ethics rather than talk about ethics as a secondary order of discourse.

[7] Compare, for example, if you took a course on homebuilding, and the course instructor asked, in extensive detail, in fact spent the majority of the class time during the semester, not building a house with you in order to teach proper building techniques, but instead asked over and over in various fashions, “What is a house? Why houses?”

[8] Which is, essentially, what Barth does in his lectures on ethics, which only ever get around to the nitty gritty about 246 pages in to the volume (the Winter Semester of his lectures), and then only in a very abstract way. Perhaps European students in that era would have been more prepared for such an approach. I myself would have been going crazy.

[9] Or, and here we will take one last example, just for fun, consider John Webster’s more recent book, Holiness. If you are like me, you assume reflexively that a book titled “holiness” will be about holy practices, what it looks like to be holy, and so on. What you don’t expect, or at least I, at first blush, don’t expect, is an introduction like this:

“This book is a Christian theological essay on holiness. It is not primarily concerned with matters of ascetical or pastoral theology, though it has an eye to the implications of theological talk of holiness for the practice of the Christian life. Rather, it is written from a particular standpoint, and tries both to articulate some convictions about the substance of the Christian faith, and to set out some judgments about the nature, setting and tasks of Christian theology. At heart, what is offered here is a small exercise in dogmatic theology, a trinitarian dogmatics of holiness.”

[12] So, Professor Webster, let me get this straight. I pick your book up off the shelf because I want to learn how to be more holy, and instead you give me a trinitarian dogmatics of holiness? You “have an eye to the implications of theological talk of holiness for the practice of Christian life,” but it is not your primary concern?

[13] Start paging through the book, and you learn how in earnest he is. An early (and spectacular chapter) is about the holiness of theology itself. Here Webster starts to surprise (and thrill) the reader, because you suddenly imagine that the work you are doing reading and researching theology is in fact participation in the holiness of God itself. The majority of the book then proceeds to work through dogmatics and the holiness of the Trinity. If you want specific topics on hot button moral matters, you’ll need to read Jim Wallis instead.

[14] Why does Webster take this tack? Because it takes a really good theologian to remind us that holiness isn’t first about how to be holy, but about the fact that God alone is holy. Once we remember this truth revealed in Scripture, then doing theology is re-cast in the light of holiness because it is “words about God,” who alone is holy. And so forth (remembering, for example, the multitude of times Leviticus says, “You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy”).

[15] Similarly, it takes a spectacular ethicist to not hunker down in preconceived notions of what constitutes “good human conduct,” but instead see ethics as an auxiliary science that looks at how the Word of God makes a claim on humanity (especially through preaching). It takes a theologian of the caliber and integrity of Bonhoeffer to question whether there can even be a “Christian” ethics, and to invalidate traditional claims to “knowledge of good and evil.” Pause with these theologians long enough, and you see why this is so. For Bonhoeffer, it is an interpretive issue, because of the Genesis account and the problematic situation of having discovered knowledge of good and evil. For Barth, it is a concern that so much of the theology with which he was contemporary started with ethics and worked back to Scripture rather than the other way around.

[16] And for Barth as well as for Webster, it has to do with the fact that ethics, which is grounded somehow in sanctification, is about our being sanctified, not sanctifying ourselves.

[17] Or to point back to the hypothetical course on homebuilding, what if you learn how to, and actually build a wonderful home, only to discover, years later, that you built the wrong house, in the wrong place, using the wrong methods, for the wrong reasons?

[18] What does this have to do with the season of Epiphany? Well, it is all a really long and abstractly theological way of reminding us, all of us, that we so easily slip into thinking that epiphanies are about our insights, as if what is interesting about epiphany is that we see something, we have an “Aha!” moment. Whereas the model we learn from these theologians reminds us to turn things around, to invert our natural approach. The day of epiphany is a theophany, God revealing Godself in Christ, not us revealing ourselves to ourselves. Anything we might talk about as “epiphanies” are simply an auxiliary science to this one true epiphany. God reveals. God appears.

[18] We might say that the epiphany of Christ invalidates everything we thought we knew about epiphanies. It is God in Christ “going meta on” us. In this season, preach something like that.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at