We Are Finding Who We Were: On Not Discarding the Past in Moral Thinking
The Role of the Past in Moral Thinking, with an Obligatory Head-Nod Toward Abortion Debates
So much of current debates over how Christians should live morally in the world depends on our understanding not of our present, but of our past. Present abortion debates highlight the need for Christians to have a better grasp on this, but there’s complications.
Yesterday, I was doing some manuscript review for friends, all of which had this theme in common: to have a sense of where we are going, we must have some sense of where we have been. It’s a straight-forward claim, and one which we implicitly operate out of all the time. Christians are those who, at the most basic level, have an identity which is due to fixed events: the Exodus, the Incarnation, the life of Jesus, the promise of the return of God to renew all things.1 To name oneself as a Christian is to have your present identity tied to something which has happened, but which you had no immediate control over: we live morally as a Christian out of convictions which we did not originate.
It’s not as straightforward as simply repeating the past, however. As early as the book of Acts, we run headlong into the question, occasioned by the inclusion of Gentiles into the church: is Christian moral behavior governed by past precedent, and if so, which precedent?
In the deluge of commentary by Christians on the post-Roe world, you’ve run across something like the following claim:
“Christian notions of what the unborn are, and what the moral status of abortion is have changed across time. As such, claims that “the past” provides guidance or normativity are unhelpful in sorting out what a Christian position is on abortion.”
In the wake of Dobbs, I can’t count how many times I heard something like this said, and while it’s very partially true, the effect of this kind of reasoning is to reduce moral thinking to a kind of presentism: moral thinking is a matter for the present, for the individual to make, independent of past precedent which is of no help anyway. As a theologian and ethicist, and someone who invests a lot of time in trying to get the past right, this kind of thing makes me bananas: I get what people mean here, but it’s just incorrect in ways which have profound implications.
There is some truth to this statement above, the substance of which I want to delicately sidestep in the interest of space. For those interested in the nuances of the history of Christian thinking about abortion, check out these sources in particular. It’s not true that Christians have had no consistency on the question, but neither is it true that Christians have had absolute consistency on the particulars of it either.
All of this is harder to have nuance about now2; as I argued recently here, it’s gotten nearly impossible for us to have nuance after Roe about these kinds of things, and it affects our reading of history as well. The effect of the post-Roe world and the continuation of coalition-thinking dominating us is that either the history is all pro-life in the way that the last thirty years has been pro-life or not; either the history is all permissive of elective abortion in the way that the last forty years has been, or not; either history will support our position or it must be set aside.
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The Work the Christian Past Does(n’t) Do:
To start, the Christian past—particularly the Christian moral past—is plural, though not irreducibly so. On nearly every topic there is a minority report, a dissenting voice who goes on record to stake a nuanced claim to the contrary, but the span isn’t interminable. The topic I’ve spent much of my career writing on, Christianity and war, is a great example: Christians have, for the most part, agreed that there are very specific conditions and reasons under which the taking of human life is permissible, but there has always been a part of the ongoing tradition which has dissented, arguing for a more permissive or less permissive position3.
But these voices are statistically lesser: you don’t find a lot of writings arguing for a “kill for many reasons” kind of argument, and you don’t find a statistically large number of voices arguing for the “no reasons whatsoever to kill” argument. Similarly, you can find pro-choice voices in the Christian tradition prior to the 1970s, but you have to work harder to find them: set aside all of the sophistic takes on how to read Levitical law on the status of the unborn—Christians have, by and large, held that the unborn, because of the Incarnation, are loved of God as persons.
But even so, statistical prevalence is just not the slam dunk for sorting out this kind of question, which is bad news for those who want to claim the pro-life ground and for those who want to claim the pro-choice ground. When it comes to the moral life, majority historical opinions are not always the weighty argument we think, for two reasons.
There are many instances in which there were temporal majorities for doctrinally and morally wrong ideas. On the doctrinal side of the ledger, 4had (and sometimes, continues to have) its day, despite having been condemned repeatedly at church councils. There were certainly durable majorities among bishops for the (correct) conclusion that the Son of God is of the same substance with God the Father, but populism dies hard when it comes to theological arguments. On the moral side of the ledger, slavery had sizable defenses for millenia.5
There are many instances in which the past we thought we had is not in fact the past we had. Christians are not immune from telling fables about our history, moral or otherwise, and a right recounting of history sobers us to the theological truth that we are a perpetually sinful people that God loves anyway. Christian historians get slandered whenever they attempt to tell the facts about what happened and what didn’t, but I take their work to be part of that sobering of the Christian life: Christians shouldn’t have heroes, but saints, people who sought to be transformed by God, not spotless exemplars without blemish.
(No apologies for the video above. King’s X remains one of the great underrated bands of the last 40 years.)
Of the recovery of the Christian past, there is no end. We are perpetually discovering new voices from the past that complicate our understanding of what it means to stand in the line of the apostles, or what it means to be the people of God. But if a majoritarian approach to the past doesn’t help us, neither does a presentist approach to moral issues.
Those who propose that the past is irrelevant because it is not present. Perhaps what Christians did in other ages doesn’t matter or isn’t binding on our present. This is true, but only in a nuanced kind of way: each generation is entrusted with the faith as it has been handed down, such that it cannot be lived by the past but only by the present. But it’s silly, I think, to claim that the past isn’t binding, for this reason: the living God who Christians serve is a God who loves precedent. It’s impossible to make sense of why Scripture holds the Law to be binding if we don’t also hold that God is a God who works within the frailties of time and flesh, and in some real way, makes those frail pasts holy accordingly. We have no way of making sense of anything in Acts if we don’t think that the past is binding and still relevant: heck, you can’t even make sense of the Gospels unless you think that the past-as-binding-precedent matters. You can make the case that Christian history is to be discarded wholesale, but only at the risk of saying that there the Spirit only works in the present and not across time in periods that I find abhorrent or difficult to reconcile.
Those who propose that the past is irrelevant because what matters is our identity. This one is trickier: that moral actions are governed by the need to be coherent with our sense of identity. In one way: of course! One of the detrimental things about modern moral reasoning is the way in which it thinks of ethics as a series of decisions, unrelated to each other, as if we make decisions in isolation from a larger sense of who I am and the kind of person I am.
But in another way, my ability to think of who I am is an inherited ability: that I can think of myself as a having no relationship to the past is something that I inherited from the past. I can discard the past only because the past told me I could.6
We can only live in light of the past, but our relation to that past is not on the face a binding one: no one makes you live morally in light of what was done before us.
Making Do With An Ambiguous Past
First, ambiguity is not the same thing as absolute unclarity. In the situation before American Christians, it does no favors to divorce ourselves from the past. You find all kinds of specious arguments here: that Thomas Aquinas knew nothing about how embryonic implantation worked, or that Southern Baptists prior to the 1980s were nuanced in their understanding of abortion, and so, these precedents must be discarded or embraced more fully, depending on one’s persuasion.
Within historically polyphonic opinions, there is frequently consensus around key matters, without which it would be impossible for there to have been disagreements in the first place. In the case of Thomas Aquinas, for example—the moral status of abortion as a grave evil wasn’t on the table, though the question of when ensoulment happened was. In the case of the SBC, the question of the moral status of the unborn wasn’t in doubt, while the question of permissibility in the case of the nonviability of the unborn was in play. The list goes on here, but you get the point: the past has contours which are stable across time, though some of the particulars change and at times can cause revision of stable contours. But it’s important to note that these latter examples are far fewer, and the exception that proves the rule: for every overturning of slavery as an acceptable opinion, there are countless others which remain stable.
Second, most changes that happen in moral thinking happen slowly, and are on the basis of internally-recognized blindness. This point is going to be contested: whether Christian ethics changes because of internal or external forces.7 As well, it’s an open question whether the incrementalism implied here is always a good thing: slow and steady can sometimes be a way of deferring the right thing because it’s hard.
But what I mean here is fairly modest: when changes in moral thinking occur within the Christian tradition, it’s because of a revisiting of the past as a binding precedent and seeing the blind spot within. We see this in play on abortion with appeals to Scripture back and forth, pulling forward things now which seem obvious to us but in ways which the past didn’t see or use for whatever reason—this happens in all kinds of ways. Were the past not binding upon us, we would simply go on, but because we take it to be binding, our arguments take the form of internal lacunae which are now visible to us in a way that wouldn’t have been before. This is important because I’m persuaded that most of the time, Christians have the internal goods to reason through new questions, but only if they don’t give up on the bounty of riches they have and instead let Twitter give them a cheapened framework for moral thinking.
An example: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church begin to advocate for the Jews at first not out of a commitment to the Jews, but because Jewish Christians were part of the church. God had been including German Christians with Jewish heritages in the local congregations, and so, the “Jewish Question” took on now a different cast than it would have in the days of Martin Luther. To be clear: Luther’s writing about Jews is terrible, but Luther’s writing remained no less norming for Bonhoeffer in many ways, and in fact, it was Luther as theological and moral norm which enabled him to develop the sensibilities to see Jewish advocacy as important. He was a Christian not in spite of Luther, and became an advocate for the Jews not in spite of Luther, but through Luther’s theology, reading Luther against himself.
The Christian moral past is, as Lauren Winner has described it, a broken gift; all gifts which come to us in the conditions of a world under sin will bear the marks of ambiguity, and some of the gifts will come to us needing to be repaired. But they remain gifts, and we discard them at our peril. For not only are they an account of a flawed people whom God yet was at work among, but they are what has made us, for better or worse, the kind of disciples we are.
We are creatures of the present given birth by a past that we do not understand, much less have the freedom to reject wholesale. But it’s not the past for its own sake that matters here, but that Christians confess that past theological wisdom bears the traces of the Holy Spirit, and to claim to be a part of that present is to be joined to a past which is fraught, disputed, and yet bears lines of continuity which must be understood and named before they can be refused.
Reading: Chad Meister’s After Evil, which has a lot of explanatory power for how contemporary movements of abolitionism (the “never again” kind of movements) are well-intended, but end up destroying the possibility for reconciliation and of understanding what causes evil to emerge in the first place. If you’re a paid subscriber, I’ll be talking about it next time. Gary Saunders’ middle grade novel The Wednesday Wars, which was a fun read. Lots of travel recently, and I’m always overly ambitious about what I can actually read when I travel. Re-reading Ivan Illich’s work: stay tuned for more on this.
Writing: I have a couple of pieces on the way—one with Comment on loneliness in the Christian life, and one with Christian Century on violence. I’m beginning work on a piece for another outlet on the so-called “sanctuary city from abortion” movement, and what a much better form of “sanctuary” would be. Still making slow progress on the ostensible summer project, on what it means for a church to claim to be apostolic, which bears on the piece above.
Yes, the memory we have of all of these events is no small factor here—as is the notion that these events are never fully past but present. The Book of Acts describes in no small ways how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles perform the works of Jesus, not replicating them but amplifying and improvising upon them. All of that in a future post.
But that’s what newsletters are for, right? For taking the time and space to get arguments right instead of hot, sloppy takes? RIGHT?
Arianism is one of the key Christian heresies you may have never heard of by name, but have probably encountered in some form, having to do with saying that there is “part” of God that is of a lesser rank or of a different essence. Whenever you hear someone claiming that the Son (2nd person of the Trinity) has a lower rank in being than the Father (1st person of the Trinity) because of the Incarnation, that’s Arianism. That the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father? Arianism. That the Holy Spirit is a force, but not fully God? You guessed it. You find it popularly among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This is one of the reasons why the “right side of history” argument is a silly one for Christians to make. What you take to be the inevitable direction of historical progression, or what you take to be that thing which will be surely judged righteous by the future may be resolutely condemned by your children. I get what’s meant here: that there’s a sense of dawning historical awareness that what we took to be true in the past just never was true, but the point is the same: you could be absolutely stark wrong about that.
Again, a different post for a different day.
It’s kind of a false choice here, in that Christians live lives, as Augustine puts it, in the saeculum, the time between times, and in spaces between spaces. Ambiguity is part of the deal, and it’s silly to say that Christians don’t make decisions based on all manner of criteria, not just Scriptural or theological ones.