A new year invites ponderings of what may be in store in various areas of life. For those in a faith family, there might well be a question for 2024: “Quo Vadis, theology and ethics?” Careful reflection may offer some clues.
It was in the context of the give and take of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King Jr. offered the iconic and oft-quoted line: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” His words were a reminder that progress is seldom smooth and without setbacks in the human struggle for a just correction of long-standing injustice.
More often than not, it is a “step forward/ half step back” process. Still, despite often halting progress, there is reason to hope.
Listening to the current conversation of theological and ethical concerns has brought his insight to mind. There seems to be a ferment in “faith’s seeking understanding” that is offering new wine that is both energizing parts of the faith community and, at the same time, putting serious strain on the old wineskins.
A current example is the recent Vatican document from its “doctrine office” that priests can now offer blessings to same-sex covenant partners. Being careful to clarify that such a blessing is not to be understood in any way as the sacrament of marriage, it is still a remarkable departure from the church’s long-standing policy and practice.
This development has led me to wonder if a relevant variation of the classic line about the arc of the moral universe might be: “The roots of Christian theology and ethics are deep in the soil of tradition, but they grow in the direction of inclusive community.”
Theology’s understanding of faith and the application of that understanding in the principles and practice of ethics grow out of the ground of a religious experience. This experience reorients how persons and communities see themselves and their relation to the world and the God they have met in that experience.
These understandings and applications change over time and in response to life’s challenges. They refine themselves in directions that reflect more faithfully the reorientation and alignment the earlier experience points to.
The entire biblical testimony is held together by a conviction that God engages history and history’s people in ways that reflect a growing understanding of what those engagements mean.
From the first reported encounter with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 to the vision at the end of Revelation (21:3), the process of an evolving understanding of what that covenant relationship means weaves its way through centuries of insight (and of misdirection) toward an alignment with the divine purpose.
The “one step forward/ half step back” image seems to describe the pattern of the faith community’s evolving understanding (theology) and application (ethics) of faith’s core meaning in and through life’s challenges.
Easily distracted by the attractions of power, entitled privilege, material comfort and superficial security of simple answers to complex questions, faith communities have engaged in support of a wide range of historical features that belie the core of their originating experience with God.
Faith’s understanding and its application in ethics have been refined through sometimes painful challenges in a faithful and hopeful direction. Examples include the Crusades; a defense of accompanying world views in the face of challenges by scientific discovery (i.e., Galileo, Darwin); support of slavery before the American Civil War; embrace of nationalistic ideologies in the 20th century and resistance to efforts to liberate both oppressed and oppressor from the bondage of lingering injustice.
And what is the nature of that direction/ destiny toward which the human faith pilgrimage is moving, often by halting steps?
From a careful look at both the biblical testimony and the ferment of current reflections, it seems that faith’s destiny is an inclusive community that sees and affirms the sacred in the ordinary places of life. It also resists the tendencies of exclusivism, rigidified understandings, and frameworks of injustice— open to discovery and growth into new levels of understanding.
New ways of understanding things naturally challenge our dependence on previous understandings. The “half step back” may even be a healthy caution to encourage discernment as we move forward. The question becomes whether we focus our energies on the new levels of understanding and their implications or on defending the previous ones.
Faith’s “calling” to the human family seems to be toward an inclusive community rather than an exclusive one. Perhaps, and hopefully, 2024 will see this process unfold step by step.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).