Inhabiting the Christian Narrative: An Example of the Relationship Between Religion and the Moral Life

The following paper was presented at an International Symposium on “Religions, Morality and Social Concerns” at Fudan University, Shanghai, China in April 2003.

The university’s newly established Institute of Religious Studies brought together Christians (Protestant and Catholic), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Marxists and others from China, other Asian countries, Europe and the United States. According to the university’s president, this was the first symposium at the university dealing with religion since Mao’s revolution in 1949. The papers varied in their approaches and content, and discussion was open and respectful. I chose to present a Christian understanding of the relationship of faith and the moral life from the “inside.”

Approaching the Topic
[1] The invitation to explore “the relationship between religion(s) and the development of moral consciousness or social awareness” implies a distinction between religion and morality as well as a connection between them. It assumes that religious beliefs and practices do, or least may have, an influence on moral awareness and behavior. The invitation assumes that this influence is worth exploring, although it does not say why it is worthwhile.

[2] I agree with these assumptions. Within the religious tradition in which I stand, Christians do distinguish between believers’ relation to God and their relation to others, and at the same time they believe that their relation to God has significance for all their relationships. Christians may be described as people who place their trust in the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. They distort their beliefs and practices when they divorce their faith in God from love of neighbor as well as when they reduce their faith to morality. Jesus’ double commandment speaks both of the distinction and connection of faith and morality: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

[3] I also agree that the influence of religion on the moral life is worth exploring, and I believe that for two reasons: One reason is for the sake of the faithfulness, strength and renewal of the religious tradition itself. Christians-and something similar can certainly be said of participants in other religious traditions-must continually attend to what it means to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in today’s world; they need to ask again and again what it means, in the words of St. Paul, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). When Christians explore the relation of faith and life with this intent, they are involved in the critical and constructive task of theological ethics. While this task belongs principally to adherents of the Christian faith-who, one hopes, are listening to and learning from others-its importance extends beyond the Christian church. When, for example, small bands of persons in the United States, claiming to be Christian, organize to spread hatred of and violence toward African Americans, Jews, Muslims and others, Christians are the ones who have the responsibility to say that such attitudes and behavior have no place in the lives of followers of Jesus Christ. Christians must so speak to guard the integrity of their faith, to protect the targets of hate, and to contribute to the common good.

[4] My own self-understanding is tied up with the reason I have just described. I am a Christian theologian and ethicist, rooted in the Lutheran tradition, called to assist the church in my context in the critical and constructive task of thinking and talking about the relation of faith and life. Since one necessarily speaks out of one’s own experience and social location, a word about myself seems appropriate. As Director for Studies in the Division for Church in Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I struggle daily with how our church and its members should move from what we confess about God to our social responsibility. Our church states in its constitution that one of its purposes is to “serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, caring for the sick and the aged, advocating dignity and justice for all people, working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs.”1 I contribute to this purpose by preparing or overseeing the development of studies that are meant to educate members on their social responsibility and to address difficult social issues. I also work with task forces to develop documents on social issues that are discussed throughout the church and adopted as official policy of our church.2 This reference to my own work makes evident that my reflections come out of particular circumstances, tied up with the history of the Lutheran church, the society and culture of the United States, and the global events of this time in history.

[5] The second reason why it is worthwhile to explore the relationship of religion and moral consciousness, a reason I surmise motivates this conference, is the continuing vitality of religions to shape peoples’ moral awareness and behavior. Religions do indeed make a difference in how people live and act. Billions of people in our global society view their moral lives as rooted in religion. For some, this fact comes as a surprise and puzzlement. A powerful narrative that comes out of the Western Enlightenment has in various ways told the story for more than two centuries that religion is a relic of a pre-modern world, based in ignorance and superstition. Religion, the story tells us, will disappear in the enlightened modern world where reason, science, technology, education and justice reign. For many today this narrative has collapsed and lost its plausibility in the face of the persistence of religion.

[6] One example of a scholar who has changed his mind about the future of religion is the American sociologist of religion, Peter L. Berger, who for many years promoted “secularization theory.” According to this theory, “modernization necessarily leads to a decline in religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals.” Now, recently in a book aptly titled The Desecularization of the World, Berger argues that secularization theory “is essentially mistaken”; modernization “has also provoked powerful movements of counter-secularization.”3 Like it or not, religion is likely to be impacting peoples’ moral consciousness and social world for some time to come. Exploring the nature of this impact is vital for the future of individuals, societies and our shared earth.

[7] Our topic is worthwhile, yet to seek to say something coherent about it is a daunting task. In our pluralistic, rapidly changing, global world, we encounter an amazing diversity of religions as well as major differences within the same religious tradition. Religions, we see, are not static but dynamic, so that at best, it seems, we may only capture a snapshot of them that gives us a partial, perhaps blurry, picture of the past but does not tell us much about the present or the future. Clearly, religions both influence and are influenced by their social world, and it is difficult to determine what influence is decisive. When we ask about the relationship of religion to moral consciousness and behavior, the diversity is overwhelming. Adherents of the same religion may, for example, appeal to their religion to sanction holy wars or crusades or to require non-violence. The same religion in different circumstances may function to support the status quo or to resist it. Empirical and conceptual generalizations about religion can often be countered by examples that do not fit the generalization.

[8] In turning to the scholarly study of religion, one sees again the complexity of our topic. Scholars employ many methodological approaches, viewing religion through historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, cultural, linguistic, phenomenological and even biological lens. All of these approaches may provide valuable insights into religion, and none of them is without its limitations, its methodological debates and its discarded theories. Scholars aim to understand and explain religion, some to expand it away, but interpretations differ and often clash. When one presses the questions, “What is religion?” or, “What is moral consciousness?” it becomes clear that there are no agreed-upon definitions. Since scholars, too, stand in some relation to the religious beliefs and practices they study, their perspectives and interpretations need to be scrutinized not only for the adequacy of their descriptions but also for the implicit or explicit normative stance and judgments they make.

[9] In the face of the vastness and complexity of our general topic, what, I asked myself, can I who am not a scholar of religions but a scholar within one religion contribute to this conference? The answer I arrived at is that perhaps I can illustrate how one religious tradition understands itself to be influencing “the development of moral consciousness or social awareness” (a phrase that I summarize with “the moral life,” which includes both personal and social life, both consciousness and behavior). Instead of speaking from the vantage point of an outside observer, I approach the topic from the perspective of a person inside the Christian community, as one who participates in that community, who is formed by its practices and teachings and who accepts its beliefs as true and normative. My aim is not to convince others of these beliefs but to describe their meaning for the moral life and thereby to offer an example or a case study for our consideration. In various ways I seek to address the question: What shape and content does the Christian narrative give to believers’ moral life? Even with this limitation, my approach opens up an immense area of exploration.

Making the Connection through “Narrative”
[10] There are various reasons why the concept of “narrative” or “story” is especially appropriate for considering the relation of Christian faith to the moral life. Humans are storytellers and story dwellers. Humans live self-consciously in a present that has come from somewhere and leads somewhere. Stories are bound up with this human awareness of time, with living in the present, remembering the past and anticipating the future. In relating what has happened in the past and what will or may happen in the future, stories help humans make sense of present acts and events. Stories allow humans to see the contingent fragments of their finite lives within larger, meaningful wholes. Stories, which tell of particular people in particular times and places, grab people in ways that more prepositional or abstract discourse often does not. They captivate people in their pre-reflective consciousness, and they give rise to new reflection, thoughts and insights. Stories speak to humans as whole persons, evoking their emotions, intellect and will.

[11] Human persons live within many narratives. We may live within a family story, an ethnic story, a gender story, a stage-in-life story, a national story, an education story, a work story, a friend story, a place story, a time story (we are “modern” or “post-modern” people) and a religious or a comprehensive secular story. Our stories tell us who we are, offer structure and meaning to our lives, link us with others, provide roles we are to carry out, account for institutional structures, identify what we should do and not do and give examples of what is good and evil. Our own personal story is a unique and complex composition of the shared stories of the groups or communities to which we belong. To know a person or a community is to know that person or community’s story. To know the Christian community is to know its narrative.

[12] The concept of narrative has received considerable attention in certain currents of philosophical ethics and Christian theology in the United States. This attention is part of what Gene Outka, a Christian ethicist at Yale University in the United States, has called “The Particularist Turn in Philosophical and Theological Ethics.” Outka identifies a movement that “turns away from formalist and universalist ethical theories and toward some particular historical-ethical community.” Universalist ethical theories claim that basic moral beliefs are known through reason alone, are available across cultures and historical periods, are entirely justifiable without recourse to particular beliefs and practices that distinguish communities, and apply to all humans. Particularist ethical theories challenge these claims and insist that moral beliefs are historically and contextually situated. Human thinking and living are tradition-dependent and culturally conditioned, these theories argue; we should therefore view our traditions borne by communities “not as mere milieus but as repositories, not accidental but essential to the moral knowledge on whose basis we ought to live our lives.” Such an understanding means that “the most fitting way to view our individual human lives is to narrate our histories.”4

[13] A leading representative in moral philosophy of this particularist turn is Alasdair MacIntyre. In his ground-breaking book After Virtue, MacIntyre writes: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'” The moral agent exists in a narrative context, the bearer of “a particular social identity. . . . I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point.”5 This understanding of the moral agent differs from those views that “regard the self as being detached from the entanglements of society, history, and even its own past,” as “serene and autonomous, float[ing] freely in the rarefied atmosphere of Reason.”6 MacIntyre’s polemic is directed against modern individualism in which “I am what I myself choose to be.” Instead, he argues, the moral agent is tradition dependent, and traditions are born by communities. His focus on narrative coheres with his understanding of the importance of tradition, community, character, virtues and vision for moral philosophy. In a famous sentence, MacIntyre writes, “A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.”7 The Christian narrative belongs to such a living tradition.

[14] George A. Lindbeck at Yale University illustrates the particularist turn in Christian theology and provides another example of the importance of narrative in current thinking in the United States. In what he calls a “pre-theological inquiry,” Lindbeck compares two models for understanding religion and experience and evaluates them for their empirical and conceptual adequacy. In one model religions are products of those deep experiences we call religious, and in the other model the converse is true: religions are producers of experience. In the “experiential-expressive” model, “different religions are diverse expressions or objectifications of a common core experience” that “is present in all human beings.” Lindbeck rejects this model in favor of a “cultural-linguistic” model. Religions, he contends, are like languages or cultures that make possible the experiencing of inner attitudes and the formulation of beliefs. “Like a culture or language, [religion] is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectives of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities.” He understands religions to be “comprehensive interpretative schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of the self and world.” Their cosmic stories identify and describe “what is taken to be ‘more important than everything else in the universe,’ and organize all of life, including both behavior and beliefs, in relation to this.”8

[15] These three scholars argue in different ways for connecting narrative, Christian faith and morality. I share with Outka and MacIntyre the view that the moral life belongs in a narrative context, and with Lindbeck, the understanding that religions with their cosmic stories are shapers and produces of experience. There is one further reason, a decisive one, for using the concept of narrative to make the link between faith and moral life. The Christian God has a story. This God’s identity is known through what he does. To answer, “Who is God?” Christians tell the story of what God has done, is doing and will do in relation to humankind and creation. They identify divine agency in human affairs with active verbs: God creates, speaks, judges, preserves, frees, calls, demands, gives, blesses, becomes human, forgives, comforts, promises, fulfills, and so forth. To speak of such a God one must tell that story.

Dwelling within the Christian Narrative
[16] The Christian narrative is the biblical narrative. Christians tell their story by reading and interpreting the Bible, a book of books with numerous stories of different genre. They do so in the church, the community of believers, who view the Bible as Scripture, turning to it with the expectation of hearing the living Word of God. The central character in the narrative is a God involved in human history. The story line is this God’s steadfast and unrelenting love for humanity and all creation. The narrative begins with God creating heaven and earth; portrays human rebellion and sin; tells of God electing the people of Israel to be blessing to all, freeing them from slavery and making a covenant with them; relates God’s gift and promise of salvation from sin and death through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s only Son; recounts the sending of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the church as the bearer of the story and its promise; and looks forward to the end of all in God’s eternal reign.

[17] Any account of the biblical or Christian narrative is partial and selective; it also is normative, that is, it necessarily makes claims about what does and does not belong to the narrative. The history of Christian theology can be told as a continuing conversation about what constitutes the Christian narrative and what is important and good in that narrative. In interpreting the Christian narrative, I am making disputed judgments in this often-testy theological conversation. There are many ways to speak of the narrative; mine is done with a Lutheran accent, an accent that is usually associated with the center of the Western Christian tradition.

[18] Certainly Christians are shaped by other narratives and influenced by non-theological factors. Certainly Christians often act in ways that betray, contradict, and embody the narrative imperfectly, realities of which the narrative itself takes account. Yet it is my contention that the Christian narrative is often an independent, non-reducible factor in the lives of many believers. The metaphor of “inhabiting” or “dwelling within” the Christian narrative is meant to suggest that the narrative may and often does have a strong influence on believers’ moral life. To inhabit the narrative means to live it from the inside; it is to know its language, its images, its individual stories, its practices, its people; it is to be at home in the familiar surroundings that it creates. To inhabit the narrative is to trust in the God whose story it tells, to make the narrative one’s own, to view the world and self in its terms and to respond to its calling to a new way of life. The analytic distinctions we modern people try to make between “religious acts” and “moral acts” or between “what is” and “what ought to be” are an imposition on the narrative’s integral, holistic portrayal of living before God. Worshiping God and caring for neighbor are intertwined in the narrative. Those who are caught up in it believe that God’s Holy Spirit works through the narrative to free and empower them to love and do justice to others.

[19] If this approach has any validity, it means that the Christian narrative’s influence on believers’ moral formation needs to be seen comprehensively, as something that permeates the whole of their moral life. It cannot, for example, be limited to providing a moral code, giving examples of good behavior, or listing how Christians stand on various moral issues. In considering the manner in which the narrative influences persons, let me suggest that it occurs in three interrelated dimensions or arenas of the moral life. I will identity the dimension and illustrate the narrative’s influence in each dimension.

[20] First, the Christian narrative defines reality. It provides a lens through which Christians see, understand and interpret the world, persons, institutions and events. The concern here is with how persons perceive situations and determine what is going on and what is at stake. The Christian narrative, I claim, influences how persons envision, comprehend, discern, and imagine the world.

[21] To illustrate this dimension I refer to the narrative’s theme that tells of a God who is the creator and preserver of all that exists. The theme presents a lens on reality that has full-reaching moral implications. It makes a fundamental distinction between God and all the rest of reality. God is God because he calls all into existence out of nothing, and humans along with the entire universe are creatures because their existence comes from and continuously depends on God. Humans and humanity are finite not infinite, created not the creator, who are not alone in the Universe but live in the presence of the Other who addresses them and acts upon, through, in and for them. Humans are a living unity of body and spirit, not eternal souls imprisoned in evil bodies. In the view of believers, therefore, the world is a good and trustworthy created order, the non-human world has both intrinsic and instrumental value, human life is God’s gift to be received, treasured and protected, and all persons share a common humanity. That all, male and female, are created in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) points to the divinely-bestowed unity, dignity and equality of all people before God, to whom God gives mandates to ensure future generations and to represent God’s rule (“have dominion”) over other living things (Genesis 1:27-28).

[22] Second, the Christian narrative forms character. Character refers to the “sort of person” one is, the persistence of a person’s identity that makes others expect consistency in her moral judgments and actions.9 The concern here is with the moral agent or moral self. The Christian narrative, I claim, influences persons’ character and their moral traits, such as their virtues (or gifts of the Spirit), attitudes, disposition, loyalties, “senses of life,” and habits.

[23] To illustrate this dimension with the creation theme, one might say: Trusting that one is a creature of a loving God evokes in the moral self a sense of worth and dignity that, among other things, defies attempts to transform the person into a mere extension of another.10 It calls forth distinctive character traits in the moral agent, such as an abiding sense of gratitude to God for the goodness and wonder of life and creation, a sense of direction to life bound up with God’s purpose for creation, a sense of obligation to act in accord with the creator’s will, and a sense of modesty fitting for a creature. Being a creature evokes attitudes of thanksgiving, resolve, responsibility and humility.

[24] Third, the Christian narrative guides action. It sets forth obligations to fulfill, goods to protect and seek, norms to govern acts and standards by which to make moral judgments. The concern here is with actions and the criteria by which they are to be evaluated as good or evil, right or wrong. The Christian narrative, I claim, influences persons’ moral life by supplying direction for what they should and should not do.

[25] Using the creation theme to illustrate this dimension of the moral life, one may summarize by saying that human creatures are under obligation to act in accordance with the creator’s intent for human community and for the rest of creation. In the flow of the narrative, since all people are God’s creatures, all people should be treated in accordance with their God-given worth and dignity. The Ten Commandments with their prohibitions of idolatry, murder, lying, stealing and adultery are meant to protect the precious life God has given. The Golden Rule presupposes that all are God’s creatures: Act toward all others as you want others to act toward you. Christians draw upon the creation theme when they consider humans’ relation with their environment, and when they address human oppression, poverty, peace and war, human diversity, the relationship of men and women, sexuality, marriage, religious freedom, health, the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, cloning and a host of other issues where claims about who the human person is are crucial.

[26] Not all people inhabit the Christian narrative but all people are, according to the narrative, God’s creatures. On the one hand, this implies that Christians are obligated to treat all persons in accordance with their God-given dignity; all, including enemies, are to be loved. On the other hand, the creation theme implies that at least traces of God’s intention for human life may be found among all who are created in God’s image, perhaps with a greater clarity than in the church. Christians should rejoice when they find that persons who inhabit other narratives have a strong sense of right and wrong, follow some general rule similar to the Golden Rule and prohibit behavior similar to that forbidden in the second table of the Ten Commandments. It is consistent with the Christian narrative to think that while comprehensive narratives, whether religious or secular, are very different, they also may contain moral norms and obligations that overlap among them, creating possibilities for living together.

[27] Other themes within the Christian narrative strengthen what the creation theme brings to moral formation or contribute new features to Christians’ moral life. The teachings, example and suffering of Jesus Christ, for example, reinforce the worth of every person and beckon Christians to respond in mercy and justice to all people who are marginalized, ill, impoverished or otherwise in need. Abstracting themes from the narrative or dimensions of the moral life from the lived experience of those dwelling within the narrative hardly does justice to the fluid, dynamic ways that Christian faith may impact believers emotions, thoughts and will. It may, however, have made clearer that the Christian narrative does influence moral life.

Characterizing Christians’ Moral Life
[28] In this concluding section, I attempt the risky task of sketching key characteristics of the moral life as understood by those who inhabit the Christian narrative. In light of what I have said this far, I seek to describe in theological terms the shape and content the narrative gives to the moral life. Consider it as one model of how Christians perceive their moral life.

[29] 1. The moral life is one of relationship, with God, with the non-human creation and with other humans. God created humans so that they may live in communion with him-worshiping, honoring and glorifying God-care for the earth in their use of it and live in peace with all others. Living in right relationship in the created world depends ultimately on being in right relationship with God.

[30] 2. Humans, however, find themselves in the midst of broken relationships. The moral life is lived with an awareness of something deeply wrong in human affairs; sin names what distorts the goodness of creation and contradicts the creator’s intent. All humans “are bound together in sin. Sin, the rupture in our relation with God, profoundly disrupts creation. Centeredness in self, rather than in God, destroys the bonds of human community. In bondage to sin, we fall captive to fear. Sin entangles our social structures. The Bible describes the power of sin: ingratitude, deceit, distrust, hatred, greed, envy, arrogance, sloth, corruption, debauchery, aggression, cruelty, oppression, and injustice.”11 Sin points to the human condition and to personal and social acts arising from this condition. In sin, humans elevate a created good to the place of God, finding in power, pleasure, money, nation, or cause their ultimate loyalty and source of meaning, and using God and others as means to achieve their end. God’s good and just demands for right relationships come as a threat that judges and condemns humans entrapped in sin.

[31] 3. The moral life of Christians is a joyful response to God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, God frees believers from the bondage of sin, death and divine judgment, forgives them their sin, and sets them in right relationship with God. Faith in Jesus Christ creates communion with God and frees believers to love their neighbor. This new way of life marks a radical break, a conversion, a turning from self to God, a dying with Christ to the old and rising to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4); it means being “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God’s gracious act in Jesus Christ motivates and energizes Christians’ moral life. It provides reasons of the heart and mind to answer the question, “Why be moral?” The cross of the Son of God is the key for seeing the whole of the biblical narrative as God’s love story with creation. As St. Paul writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God’s prior activity propels the moral life. “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Human action therefore is not a means to achieve salvation, to establish a right relationship with God, or to justify one’s existence. Persons are righteous before God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by doing good works. Salvation is the presupposition for, not the consequence of, doing what is good and right. Human action is thus freed to focus on the welfare of others.

[32] 4. The moral life is communal, that is, believers are incorporated in baptism into the church, the assembly of believers gathered together by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ. The biblical narrative becomes their own. The Holy Spirit nurtures and sustains the moral life through various practices of the church: gathering in worship, preaching, baptism, Holy Communion, music, singing, prayer, services of healing, instruction in the faith, study of scripture, giving to persons in need, visiting the sick and mutual consolation and conversation among the faithful. The church’s calendar (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity) tells God’s story and structures the community’s life. Its liturgy or worship involves such public, communal practices as confessing sin, praising God, hearing God’s word, confessing the church’s faith, receiving the body and blood of Christ, praying the Lord’s Prayer, interceding before God for those who suffer and are in need, offering one’s self and goods and greeting one another with the blessing, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” Through these practices, the Holy Spirit works to awaken and increase faith, love and hope and to unite believers in all times and places.

[33] 5. The moral life is an ongoing struggle. Believers live in the contested area between two ages, the old age where sin still reigns and the new one where Christ reigns. As sinners they belong to the old age; as saints-righteous or holy before God on account of Christ-they belong to the new. They are paradoxically both sinner and saint at the same time. They are forgiven sinners, yet sinners nonetheless. They know the continuing power of sin in their own attitudes, acts and involvement in institutions entangled in sin. This recognition fosters humility, self-criticism and a sense of solidarity with all other sinners and leaves no room for self-righteousness or moral triumphalism. Their moral life then is not a steady progress to perfection but a journey of daily repentance and forgiveness, a continuous return to their baptism to be reclaimed and renewed by God’s mercy. In remembering that they belong to Christ in their baptism, they are given hope: They are sinners who are forgiven and changed through faith in God’s merciful forgiveness and the Holy Spirit’s transforming power, whose fruits are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

[34] 6. Christians live out their faith in ordinary life.12 Their divine calling is to serve God and others amid the relationships, stories, institutions and responsibilities of their family, work, church, culture and government. They do not withdraw from society into their own enclave but participate critically in the human affairs of this present age. Their participation stems from believing that God works through human actors, institutions and events to order, preserve and bless human life in society; their critical attitude stems from awareness that sin also is at work to corrupt, violate and oppress. Knowing that social institutions and processes combine life-giving and life-destroying dynamics in complex mixtures and in varying degrees, they are positioned to say both “yes” and “no” to what is happening. They seek to unite realism and hope, wisdom and courage, in their participation in society.13

[35] 7. The moral life includes responsibility both for the church and for the political community in which the church exists. God creates the church through the gospel to be its bearer in service to the new age of God’s reign. God institutes government to serve this present age through consent, law and its enforcement in order to resist evil, provide for the welfare of its citizens and serve the common good (cf. Romans 13:1-7). Since God authorizes both for distinctive purposes and gives them different means to carry out these purposes, neither has authority to dominate or control the other. Believers have responsibility to ensure that both fulfill their God-given purposes with the means God intends without overstepping their bounds. As citizens who are Christians, they affirm and support the proper functions of government when it acts justly, and they voice their criticism when it does not. They remind government that it is God’s servant not God, that its authority is limited to the concerns of this age and that it has no saving gospel. When government intervenes in the church’s service to God’s new age, it has gone beyond its authority; then, with Peter and the apostles, believers must say: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Believers expect the church to be faithful to its calling, to obey just laws appropriate for civic organizations, to cooperate where possible with government in areas of mutual endeavor, and to advocate before political authority with and for those who are without voice and power. They resist their church when it uses government’s coercive power to advance its mission, when it subordinates its loyalty to Christ to a political cause or government, or when it uses its faith as a means to gain power. Then believers must say, “Jesus alone is Lord of the church, who rules through the word of the gospel not through the sword.”

[36] 8. The moral life is lived in history at the foot of the cross in the hope of the resurrection and the coming in fullness of God’s reign. Believers stand under the judgment of the cross of Christ, where they also find God’s forgiveness and comfort. Shaped by the example of their Lord who suffers for all in a suffering world, they are called to follow the Crucified One by expending themselves for others, aware that their discipleship may mean suffering and even death. The cross of a suffering God is not defeat but victory, overcoming sin and death and promising the resurrection from the dead and the fulfillment of all in God’s eternal reign. The time between the cross and the final resurrection is a time of “now . . . not yet,” a time when salvation has come but yet is still to be fully revealed. During this time before the End, God has not abandoned human history but preserves, cares for and directs it, often in hidden, inscrutable ways. Accordingly, believers approach historical events with an attitude that is neither defeatist nor naively optimistic, but sober and yet hopeful. They are not defeated by the existence of historical evil, tragedy and the failure of utopian dreams; they value provisional arrangements that provide for relative peace and justice; they recognize that situations can become so unbearable that they require radical change; and they join with others to pursue historical possibilities that hold hope for a more just and peaceful future. They do not find the meaning of history in inevitable progress, the superiority of a race or the power of a nation, but in God’s reign promised in a Crucified and Risen Lord.

[37] 9. The moral life involves discerning God’s will and intent. Certain things in the moral life of believers are fairly clear: Deliberate deception of others for personal gain, for example, is wrong. At times, the church is called upon to speak prophetically: “Thus saith the Lord.” But often when asking what should one do in relation to this or that issue, believers are perplexed, overwhelmed by its complexity or torn between conflicting duties and goods. Believers with their diverse experiences and social responsibilities may differ on what should be done. In such situations, those who are shaped by the biblical narrative need to talk together about what they, as individuals and a community, should do. When they do so, the church becomes a “community of moral deliberation.”14 United together in faith as forgiven sinners even when their moral judgments on particular issues may differ, they are invited to converse and prayerfully discern God’s will. The conversation is many-sided: They interpret the biblical narrative and ask for its meaning for the issue at hand; they use their God-given reason to understand the issue, drawing on the knowledge of experts and the experience of people affected by the issue; they inquire how love, the Ten Commandments and other biblical and contemporary norms apply to the situation; they consider the options and their consequences and use their imagination to seek alternatives. Through this deliberation Christians’ stance on an issue may change or may confirm what has been received. Whether or not they reach agreement on the issue, they are better equipped through this process of deliberation to discern and decide what to do and to live out their calling in daily life in responsible freedom. Moral discernment is an ongoing part of the church’s life.

[38] The moral life has a narrative context. If that is the case, then one needs to be acquainted with the narrative in which the moral life is enmeshed. I have sought to describe what it means for persons’ moral life to inhabit one narrative, the Christian narrative. I have done so with the hope of providing for our conversation an example of how, from my perspective, one religious tradition understands its influence on the development of moral consciousness and social awareness. If it has illuminated this relationship at all, it should provoke new questions and insights not addressed in this lengthy but partial description.

End Notes

1 The constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ELCA 4.02.c.

2 Among the topics that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has addressed in official documents since its beginning in 1988 are: environment, peace, economic life, race and ethnic diversity, abortion, the death penalty, AIDS, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, homelessness, community violence, end-of-life decisions, sexuality, immigration, suicide prevention and commercial sexual exploitation. These social statements and messages can be found online at The Department for Studies has prepared studies on topics such as Lutheran ethics, moral deliberation, gambling, education, genetics and cloning. These studies also are online at the above address.

3 Peter L. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview” in The Desecularization of the World, ed. Berger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 2, 3.

4 Gene Outka, “The Particularist Turn in Theological and Philosophical Ethics,” in Christian Ethics, ed. Lisa Sowle Cahill and James F. Childress (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 1996), 94, 96, 98.

5 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 216, 220.

6 Paul Nelson, Narrative and Morality: A Theological Inquiry (University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987), 10.

7 MacIntyre, 220, 222.

8 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post Liberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 31, 33, 32-33.

9 James M. Gustafson, “Education for Moral Responsibility,” Theology and Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Pilgrim, 1974), 64. In his many writings Gustafson has made important contributions in sorting out different dimensions of the moral experience and has influenced what I have written.

10 Eugene D. Genovese, who was then a Marxist historian, made an extensive study of slavery in the United States and concluded that it was the slaves’ religion that inspired them to resist slavery. While their masters introduced Christianity to their slaves to inculcate obedience, the slaves found something different in it. “If [Christianity] calls for political submission to the powers that be, it also calls for militant defense of the freedom of the spirit and the autonomy of the personality. But the master-slave relationship rests, psychologically as well as ideologically, on the transformation of the will of the slave into an extension of the will of the master. Thus, no matter how obedient-how Uncle Tomish-Christianity made a slave, it also drove deep into his soul an awareness of the moral limits of submission, for it placed a master above his own master and thereby dissolved the moral and ideological ground on which the very principle of absolute human lordship must rest.” Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1974), 165.

11 “For Peace in God’s World,” an ELCA social statement adopted in 1995, 2.

12 The philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “The entire modern development of the affirmation of ordinary life was, I believe, foreshadowed and initiated, in all its facets, in the spirituality of the Reformation.” Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 218.

13 “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” an ELCA social statement adopted in 1991, 3.

14 The ELCA has encouraged congregations to be “communities of moral deliberation.” See the social statement, “The Church in Society,” 5-6, 7-8.

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.