Christian Ethics and the Formation of Character

September 2015 Feature Professor Murray Rae, Head of Theology and Religion, Otago University, spoke at the NZCatholic Education Convention in June about Christian ethics and formation of Christian character. Professor…

Christian Ethics and the Formation of Character Archdiocese of WellingtonSeptember 2015


Professor Murray Rae, Head of Theology and Religion, Otago University, spoke at the NZCatholic Education Convention in June about Christian ethics and formation of Christian character. Professor Rae presents his address in three parts in Wel-Com. Part 1 ‘Christian Ethics not Christian Values’ is presented below.

A generation or two ago, there was a fairly high degree of uniformity in the cultural experience and moral awareness of most New Zealanders. Being religious usually meant being Christian. Believing in God meant believing in the God associated with Jesus. Knowing right from wrong meant knowing, for instance, that sex was for married people, that one shouldn’t swear in polite society and certainly not on radio or television; it meant knowing that adults should be addressed respectfully, that shops should be closed on Sundays, and so on… Understanding the way the world worked meant general acknowledgement of, if not conformity to, particular standards of behaviour. It was thought a clip around the ear or whacks with the strap were a good means of correction for children who violated accepted standards. Administering the punishment was the prerogative of parents, of teachers, and even of corner dairy owners in cases where the violation of standards involved a bit of shop-lifting after school.

If the assumptions and practices of that era seem questionable now, at least we knew where we stood. It was a relatively homogeneous world so far as our cultural experience and moral assumptions were concerned. But of course, the world has changed. Being religious now in New Zealand may mean being Christian, but it could just as well mean being Buddhist, or Hindu or Muslim. Increasingly, however, belief in ‘God’, or ‘spirituality’ of various kinds, is a private option one might pursue apart from any institutional affiliation. Knowing right from wrong means having a set of personal values, but those values shouldn’t be imposed on anyone else. It is up to individuals to decide how they will live their lives.

We live now in a world of vast diversity, of religious difference, and of competing belief systems. Moral convictions are widely contested, and cannot be taken for granted.

Although we may lament an erosion of moral standards, we generally acknowledge that morality cannot be imposed on others. The cultural landscape we now inhabit is pluralistic, diverse, uncertain, confused — some might say, chaotic. How are we to think Christianly in such a context? And what might be the implications for the formation of Christian character, particularly in church schools?

Christians have sometimes reacted to this pluralistic world by seeking a compromise with it. An instance of that, I suggest, is the increasingly prevalent talk of Christian values. Christian values are things like respect for others, compassion, integrity, honesty, a concern for truth, empathy, a commitment to justice, standing up for what you believe is right, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so on. The appeal of this approach is that the values mentioned still have some currency; while we may not adhere to them very consistently, few people would dispute that they are admirable ideals.

There is a problem, however, in supposing that the preservation of such values is more or less the same thing as preserving the Christian character of our society, or indeed of our church schools. Let me try to explain, beginning with a story about Captain Cook.

In the journal of his third voyage, Cook records the discovery by English speakers of the word taboo, used widely throughout Polynesian cultures (Alasdair McIntyre After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, pp111-112). Some of Cook’s crew were astonished by the permissive sexual habits of the Tahitians, on the one hand, and the strict prohibition of men and women eating together, on the other. When inquiring after the reason for the prohibition, Cook’s men were told the practice of dining together was taboo. No further explanation was forthcoming. To describe something as taboo apparently constituted a moral argument all by itself. Indeed, when Cook’s men pressed the matter further they found the Tahitian people couldn’t offer any further justification.

Reflecting upon this situation, it has been suggested by some anthropologists, notably Mary Douglas and Franz Steiner (McIntyre After Virtue), that taboo rules have a history that falls into two stages. In the first stage the rules are embedded in a cultural and religious context that provides them with a degree of intelligibility. There was a time in the evolution of Polynesian culture, no doubt, when it made sense for women and men to eat separately. It may not make sense to outsiders but the practice fitted with the worldview under which Tahitian society then operated. As time passes however, the culture changes and the framework of intelligibility is lost. Taboo rules may survive as remnants of the earlier culture, but they are bereft, in that second stage of development, of the cultural and religious framework according to which they were once justified.

They become free-floating rules cut adrift from their moorings in an understanding of the world that has long since been abandoned and perhaps forgotten.

This is the stage, it appears, at which Cook’s crew encountered the Polynesian culture. A series of taboos were still observed, but the reason for them had long since been lost to the cultural memory. In 1819, about 40 years after Cook’s visit to Hawaii, where the same systems of taboo were in place, the Hawaian King Kamehameha II abolished all taboos in Hawaii with very little social disruption. Apparently, no one knew any good reason why the taboos should be maintained.

Consider now the situation we face in Western culture. Although there was once a time when the Christian story of the world was widely known and accepted, that story now commands much less allegiance among people of Western culture. For many people, the Biblical story is neither known nor understood. In this context, talk of Christian values is in danger of meeting the same fate as the Polynesian taboos. Like the taboos of earlier Polynesian cultures, the values said to be Christian become increasingly unintelligible when cut adrift from the story that gave them their birth.

Put otherwise, values are like the fruits of a tree. They will wither and die if not sustained by the nourishment of the roots. In the case of ‘Christian values’, the root that gives life is the gospel, the story told in Scripture of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If Christian values are to be sustained, we need to attend to and be formed by that Gospel. We need to be people rooted in the biblical conception of God’s purposes for the world.

There is another result too that ensues from attending to the gospel. We find, in fact, that genuinely Christian values are more radical, and indeed subversive, than the customary marks of good citizenship – honesty, integrity, respect for others, and the like… These things are good, but there is a more to the Christian gospel than that. I will take this point further in the third article in the series.

Professor Murray Rae Department of Theology and Religion University of Otago.