If you were from another planet and were exposed to Christianity for the first time from all the available media, chances are excellent that you’d think Christianity was an ethical system that focused on good and evil, right and wrong. You’d be in some very good company, too, without a doubt. From the time that Christianity started to spread over the Greco-Roman world, apologists have been trying to use Christian “principles” to influence human behavior. This is not to say that even the Christian Scriptures aren’t replete with moral guidance: they are. Yet, sadly, when Christianity is distilled down to the childish level that some do — avoiding punishment — the astounding insights into human and Divine behavior that form the essence of Christianity get distilled out, too. What’s left is often brutal and extreme fundamentalism.
in the middle of the last century, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg published his theory of the stages of moral development. He divided moral development into three “levels”: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each of these levels, he divided into two “stages”: pre-conventional into “Obedience and Punishment” and “Self-Interest”; conventional into “Interpersonal Accord and Conformity” and “Authority and Social-Order Maintaining”; and post-conventional into “Social Contract” and “Universal Ethical Principles” stages.1 He observed that most people progress through these levels and stages (although most people stop somewhere before stage 6), and everyone operates from time to time at nearly every prior level.
When we apply this profound understanding to the way Christianity has been taught throughout the last two millennia, it is possible to recognize the main features of what has always seen as Christian ethics. Many of these approaches are designed to control or moderate undesirable behavior; they most often end by subjecting persons to impersonal forces of control and punishment.
- You’re going to hell if you do that! (“Obedience and Punishment) This approach carries with it a dizzying array of presuppositions, especially that “God”2 has proscribed something (and let me tell you what that is) and will punish you forever if you slip up. This is infantile ethics at its worst.
- If you are pure and good, you’ll get to go to heaven! (“Self-Interest”) Be good (and I’ll let you know what that means exactly) and “God” will reward you. You’ll live in unbelievable happiness forever. It’s the Christian version of “I’ll give you a dollar if you do this for me.”
- “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (“Interpersonal Accord and Conformity”) You won’t do this or that thing if you want to remain a member of our church in good standing. If you screw up, we’ll shun you!
- You must not do that because it violates the Will of “God.” (“Authority and Social-Order Maintaining”) What if everybody did that? Where would we be then? We need laws and government and church authorities to make sure that society does not descend into chaos. These norms are all that keep us from behaving like beasts.
- You need to avoid doing that because we’ve agreed that will cause harm. (“Social Contract”) We understand there are differences of opinion on matters of behavior, but we Christians believe that this is what is best for humans and what will most please “God.”
- You have experienced yourself in a unique relationship with your God and you are therefore motivated to do whatever is necessary to build on that relationship. (“Universal Ethical Principles”) You understand your relationship to a Higher Power and therefore to your fellows, and you strive to do whatever is necessary to maintain and build those relationships based on your spiritual experience.
From punishment and reward to laws and social custom to commitment: that is the path of moral development. You can look around you at the expressions of morality in general (and Christian morality in particular) to better understand where on that continuum those ethical systems lie. Jesus did not create an ethical system. Jesus realized that the Law of Moses (the Torah) had been legalized over the ages by scholars who had such a profound respect for it that they were afraid of breaking even the “smallest letter or stroke”3 of it.
However, turning any spiritual experience into a legal system creates an idolatry. It is not the wording of the law that carries the power, but but the spiritual experience itself. The experience is an encounter with the Transcendent; everything else is merely an expression of that experience. When people take the expression for the reality (and thereby make the expression a barrier to the experience), idolatry is in play. Look at the expressions that Jesus himself used to explain the law:
‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’4
This is the law that is written in the hearts of all people of Faith — those who have had a personal encounter with the Living God (however you’re led to describe your Higher Power). Therefore, Christianity can be said to be an ethical system only when it is understood that Christian behavior flows inexorably from one’s spiritual experience. From this perspective, both reward and punishment are meaningless. One can talk about a “social contract” only from the perspective that there is only one of us here: we are one at the core of our humanity where our encounter with the Transcendent takes place. If we are in service to God (as we understand God), we are therefore in service to one another because that is where we encounter our God. Our God, truly, wears skin.
2I’ve put “God” into quotes here to demonstrate that these approaches assume a definition for ‘God’ that may or may not be shared by others — or us.