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Transformative Christian Ethics pt. 1: Performative and Transformative Ethics

February 7, 2013

“Christianity is a transformative faith rather than a performative faith.” That’s something a friend once told me and it is something I have always took to heart. I have been a serious Christian for almost two years now and the experience is still transformational. Christian ethics are much the same way.  But what is “performative” and “transformational” in relation to ethics? That is the task I am taking up in this article series on ethics.

 Performative ethics are “top-down” ethics usually parceled out by some higher power or concept. In this ethical schema, we see that traditional expressions of ethics are performative, see Moses and the Ten Commandments or utilitarianism for example. In this view we see that these ethical views are totalizing and militant or at least they have the potentiality to be so. The other reasoning for this discussion on performative ethics is that traditional Christian ethics are performative rather than transformative. Christianity is a universalist faith, but not because of the performative aspect of organized religion. If we concieve Christianity as a religion in which one must do the right things in order to make God happy, then Christian ethics are detached from the transformative vision of John and Paul who seen faith in Christ, to put it in Paul’s words, “a new creation.”(Galatians 5 and 6) Performative ethics are, in any event, a totalizing response to the complexity of real life ethical reasoning. If we concieve ethical systems as a methodological approach to ethics which there is a formulaic response to an ethical problem, then we see performative ethics.

My point however is to demonstrate that biblical faith is transformative rather than performative in it’s ethical constitution. This becomes readily apparent when we read Paul and John, both of which had a distinct approach to ethics counterposed to traditional performative Jewish ethics. So what do I mean when I talk of “transformative ethics”? I am talking about ethics that are “bottom up”. A biblical example of transforamtive ethics comes from 1 Corinthians 13:

 I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophesy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes in all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tounges, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. [NASB]

In this passage we see that Paul is celebrating faith, hope, and love and the most important of these is love. This is an example of transformative ethics rather than performative ethics. Rather than being a formulaic response to sin, we see that the transformative Christian ethic is a principle that establishes Law rather than Law establishing love. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Romans 3: 31) When we concieve of a Law that only appears as a response to faith, hope, and love then we see the roots of a transformative ethical system. It is perhaps in this transformational principle that we can see the roots of a Christian materialism or an anti-metaphyisical Christianity.

Maybe you are wondering what this has to do with Jesus. It seems that some authors of the New Testament had the world-view that included Platonic metaphysics. For example, the author of John begins with a prologue and writes “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The “Word” is in reference to Jesus, who is the perfect form of God. Another Platonic writer  in the New Testament is the author of the letter to the Hebrews. S/he declares that Jesus is the heavenly high priest making sacrifices in heaven, and since Jesus is a Form then he too must be sinless, a perfect human come to earth.

The other Gospel writers do not appear to take such a stance, e.g. Mark’s Gospel has no reference to Jesus as being eternal, but as “Son of Man.” Therefore, I take a position that we must perform Christology from the bottom up rather than top down. Roger Haight does this in his text, Jesus, Symbol of God. He recommends “an incarnational christology in which the created human being or person Jesus of Nazareth is the concrete symbol expressing the presence in history of God as Logos” (p. 439). Once we take the view of Jesus from an anti-metaphysical or existentialist point then Jesus is eternal in another sense. It is no longer about Jesus being eternal and worrying about all this implies, but the concern is where Jesus receives power and authority. Top down Christology, one is not concerned with Jesus, but Jesus as an Form. In this way, one does not have to concern herself with the history of Palestine or the Roman Empire, but only about Jesus as the perfection Son of God. Yet there must be a happy medium where we care about discipling people for the kin-dom of God and a balanced historical-critical reading of the Scriptures.

While I don’t agree with timothie’s understanding of John, I agree that it is important  to divorce Platonic reasoning from Christian theology. Platonic ethics are top down. Plato would tell us that the only point of humanity is to glorify the Forms. This is what a non-Christian expression of Platoism essentially is. It is only because of  the residue from transformative Christian ethics that we see expressions of love, faith and hope. So then, the question here is how to mediate between the transformative ethics of Christianity with the complexities of real life ethical reasoning If in Christianity, the sacred is made radically profane what does this mean for Christian ethical thinking? We know that historically Christians have fought in wars and revolutions and participated in nonviolent social justice movements. What is unique about Christian ethics are their inexpliciable fluidity.

Our conception of the sacred is made radically profane in every expression of Christianity and that is the subject of this series. Whether it be Catholic revolutionaries in South America, Christian fundamentalism in the United States, or the Christian pacifism of Leo Tolstoy in Russia, each were a transformative response to Christian ethics. I hope to explore questions of violence and injustice in the light of Christian ethics and possible ways to live an ethical Christian life.

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