Rowan Williams’ address at Lambeth Plenary on making moral decisions
22 July 1998 • Persistent link: iarccum.org/?p=4167
Prof. Rowan Williams
Bishop of Monmouth, Wales
But of course we don’t spend all our lives in supermarkets. Some of us come from environments in which this kind of consumer choice is at best a remote dream, where it can sound like a cruel mockery to talk of such choices. And for the rest of us, the ones who do have the power to exercise such choices – is this model a sensible account of what it’s like to make decisions in general?
Whom shall I marry? Shall I marry at all? Which charity shall I support this Christmas? Shall I resign from this political party, which is now committed to things I don’t believe in – but is still better than the other parties in some ways? Should I become a vegetarian? Should I break the law and join an anti-government protest? Should I refuse to pay my taxes when I know they’re partly used to buy weapons of mass destruction? How should I finish this poem or this novel? How should I finish my life if I know I’m dying? Think about these and choices like them. Each of them – even ‘Which charity shall I support?’ – is a decision that is coloured by the sort of person I am; the choice is not made by a will operating in the abstract, but by someone who is used to thinking and imagining in a certain way: someone who is the sort of person who finds an issue like this an issue of concern (another person might not be worried in the same way by the same question). And this means that an answer only in terms of the system’, the catalogue of right answers, would help us not at all; what kind of code, we may well ask, would give us impersonally valid solutions to the dilemmas just listed? We believe that, in some contexts, we can say, ‘You ought never to do that’; but there is no straightforward equivalent formula allowing us to say, ‘You ought to do that’. As the Welsh philosopher Rush Rhees, argues in an unpublished paper, telling someone else what they ought to do is as problematic as telling someone else what they want. There is a significant sense in which only I can answer the question, ‘What ought I to do?’ just as only I can answer, ‘What do I want?’
But for me to answer either question is harder than at first it sounds. Rhees is careful to say that ‘What ought I to do?’ is drastically different from a question about my preferences, what I just happen to want (or think I want) at some specific moment. Herbert McCabe, a prominent British Catholic theologian and moralist, wrote many years ago – not without a touch of mischief – that ‘ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want’; going on to explain that our problem is that we live in a society, and indeed as part of a fallen humanity, that deceives us constantly about what we most deeply want. The point that both Rhees and McCabe are trying to make is emphatically not that ethics is a matter of the individual’s likes or dislikes, but, on the contrary, that it is a difficult discovering of something about yourself, a discovering of what has already shaped the person you are and is moulding you in this or that direction. You might put it a bit differently by saying that you are trying to discover what is most ‘natural’ to you, though this begs too many questions for comfort. Rheas notes, very pertinently, that if I say I must discover something about myself in order to make certain kinds of decisions with honesty, this is not purely ‘subjective’: I am in pursuit of a truth that is not at my mercy, even if it is a truth about myself. And when the decision is made, I shall not at once know for certain that it is ‘right’ – in the sense that I might know if it were a matter of performing an action in accordance with certain rules: it may be that only as years pass shall I be able to assess something I have done as the ‘natural, or truthful decision.
That too tells us something significant about our decision-making: we may in retrospect come to believe that – however difficult a decision seemed at the time – it was the only thing we could have done. We were less free to choose than we thought: or, we might say, we were more free (in a different sense) to do what was deepest in us. Some of our problems certainly arise from a very shallow idea of what freedom means, as if it were first and foremost a matter of consumer choice, being faced with a range of possibilities with no pressure to choose one rather than another. But we have to reckon with the freedom that comes in not being distracted from what we determine to do. The saint is often recognised by this freedom from distraction. They may not be – subjectively – eager to do what they are going to do, but they have a mature and direct discernment of what ‘must’ be done if they are to be faithful to the truth they acknowledge. And their confidence comes not from knowing-a-catalogue- of- recommended or proscribed actions, but from that knowledge of who or what they are that enables them to know what action will be an appropriate response to the truth of themselves and the world.
If this is so, self-knowledge is far more than lonely introspection. We discover who we are, in significant part, by meditating on the relations in which we already stand. We occupy a unique place in the whole network of human and other relations that makes up the world of language and culture; but that isn’t at all the same as saying that we possess an identity that is fundamentally quite unlike that of others and uninvolved in the life of others -with its own given agenda. Thus the self-discovery we have been thinking about in the process of making certain kinds of decision is also a discovery of the world that shapes us. I spoke earlier of finding out what has shaped the person I now am; and this is always going to be more than the history of my own previous decisions.
And this is where we may begin to talk theologically (at last). How do Christians make moral decisions? In the same way as other people. That is to say, they don’t automatically have more information about moral truth in the abstract than anyone else. What is different is the relations in which they are involved, relations that shape a particular kind of reaction to their environment and each other. If you want to say that they know more than other people, this can only be true in the sense that they are involved with more than others, with a larger reality, not that they have been given an extra set of instructions. The people of Israel in the Old Testament received the Law when God had already established relation with them, when they were already beginning to be a community bound by faithfulness to God and each other. The Law didn’t come into a vacuum, but crystallises what has begun to exist through the action of God. When the Old Testament prophets announce God’s judgement on the people, they don’t primarily complain about the breaking of specific rules (though they can do this in some contexts) or about failure to live up to a moral ideal; they denounce those actions that signify a breaking of the covenant with God and so the breaking of the bonds of faithfulness that preserve Israel as a people to whom God has given a unique vocation – above all, actions such as idolatry and economic oppression. They denounce Israel for replacing the supremely active and transcendent God who brought them out of Egypt by local myths that will allow them to manage and contain the divine; and for creating or tolerating a social order that allows some among God’s chosen nation to be enslaved by others because of poverty, and that is unworried by massive luxury and consumption, or sees its deepest safety in treaties with bloodthirsty superpowers. If you had asked one of the prophets about moral decision making, he might have responded (once you had explained what you meant to someone who wouldn’t be starting with such categories) by saying, ‘What we seek as we choose our path in life is what reflects the demands of the covenant, what is an appropriate response to the complete commitment of God to us. The Law tells me what kinds of action in themselves represent betrayal of God; but in deciding what, positively, I must do, I seek to show the character of the God who has called me through my people and its history’.
The truth sought by such- a person would be a truth shared with the community of which they were part, the community that gave them their identity in a number of basic respects. When we turn to the New Testament, it is striking that the earliest attempts at Christian ethical thinking echo this so closely. We can watch St Paul in Romans 14 and 15 or I Corinthians 10 discussing what was in fact a profoundly serious dilemma for his converts: to abstain from meat sacrificed to pagan gods was regarded as one of the minimum requirements for fidelity to the true God by Jews of that age (as an aspect of the covenant with Noah, which was earlier and more comprehensive than the covenant made through Moses); and it had been reaffirmed by the most authoritative council we know of in the Church’s first decades, the apostolic synod described in Acts 15. But the growing recognition that the sacrifice of Christ had put all the laws of ritual purity in question, combined with the practical complications of urban life in the Mediterranean cities, was obviously placing urban converts under strain. Paul is, it seems, fighting on two fronts at once. He warns, in Romans 14, of the risks of the ‘pure’, the ultra-conscientious, passing judgement on the less careful, at the same time as warning the less careful against causing pain to the scrupulous by flaunting their freedom in ways that provoke conflict or, worse, doubt. In the Corinthian text, he offers an even clearer theological rationale for his advice in arguing that any decision in this area should be guided by the priority of the other person’s advantage and thus by the imperative of building the Body of Christ more securely. What will guide me is the need to show in my choices the character of the God who has called me and the character of the community I belong to; my God is a God whose concern for all is equal; my community is one in which all individual actions are measured by how securely they build up a pattern of selfless engagement with the interest of the other – which in itself (if we link it up to what else Paul has to say) is a manifestation of the completely costly directedness to the other that is shown in God’s act in Christ.
So for the early Christian, as for the Jew, the self that must be discovered is a self already involved very specifically in this kind of community, in relation to this kind of God (the God of self-emptying). The goal of our decision-making is to show what God’s selfless attention might mean in prosaic matters of everyday life – but also to show God’s glory (look, for example, at Romans 15.7 or I Corinthian 10.31). What am I to do? I am to act in such a way that my action becomes something given ‘into, the life of the community and in such a way that what results is glory – the radiating, the visibility, of God’s beauty in the world. The self that I am, the self that I have been made to be, is the self engaged by God in love and now in process of recreation through the community of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.
It’s no use trying to answer the question about who I really am independently of this. There is no secret, detached, individual ego apart from these realities in which I am gracefully entangled. So perhaps the most important challenge to some of our conventional ways of talking about morality comes from the biblical principle that sees ethics as essentially part of our reflection on the nature of the Body of Christ.
And this is where the pain and tension arises of Christian disagreement over moral questions. Decisions are made after some struggle and reflection, after some serious effort to discover what it means to be in Christ; they are made by people who are happy to make themselves accountable, in prayer and discussion and spiritual direction. Yet their decisions may be regarded by others as impossible to receive as a gift that speaks of Christ – by others who seek no less rigorously to become aware of who they are in Christ and who are equally concerned to be accountable for their Christian options. It would be simpler to resolve these matters if we were more abstract in our Christian learning and growing. But the truth is that we learn our faith in incarnate ways; Christ makes sense to us because of the specific Christian relationships in which we are involved – this community, this inspirational pastor or teacher, this experience of reading scripture with others. Of course (it ought not to need saying) such particularities are always challenged and summoned to move into the universal sphere, the catholic mind of the whole body. But this is what can be a struggle. If we learn our discipleship in specific contexts and relations, as we are bound to, our Christian identity will never be an abstract matter. We are slowly coming to acknowledge the role of cultural specificities in our Christian practice. But it’s more than that, more than a matter of vague cultural relativity, let alone allowing the surrounding culture to dictate our priorities. It is that local Christian communities gradually and subtly come to take for granted slightly different things, to speak of God with a marked local accent. At a fairly simple level, we might think of different attitudes to the Christian use of alcohol in many African contexts as opposed to prevailing assumptions in the North Atlantic work or differences as to who you might most immediately ask for help over matters of moral or even spiritual concern – a cleric or an elder in a community or a family council. At first sight, when you encounter a different ‘accent’, it can sound as though the whole of your Christian world is under attack or at least under question, precisely because no-one learns their Christianity without a local accent.
And it would be easy to resolve if we didn’t care about Christian consistency if we didn’t somehow share a conviction that the Church ought to speak coherently to its environment about discerning the difference between ways that lead to life and ways that lead to death. We want our faith to be more than just what we learn from those who are familiar and whom we instinctively trust, because we remember – or we should-remember – how the faith moved out from the familiar territory of the Eastern Mediterranean to become ‘naturalised’ in other cultures. Tribalism is never enough. Yet when we begin to put our insights together, deep and sometimes agonising conflict appears. What are we to do?
It comes – for me – so near the edge of what I can make any sense of. I have to ask whether there is any point at which my inability to recognise anything of gift in another’s policy, another’s discernment, might make it a nonsense to pretend to stay in the same communion. It’s finely balanced: I’m not a Mennonite or a Quaker. I can dimly see that the intention of my colleagues who see differently is also a kind of obedience, by their lights, to what we are all trying to look at. I see in them the signs of struggling with God’s Word and with the nature of Christ’s Body. Sixty years ago, Bonhoeffer and others broke the fragile communion of the German Protestant Churches over the issue of the anti-Jewish legislation of the Third Reich, convinced that this so cut at the heart of any imaginable notion of what Christ’s Body might mean that it could only be empty to pretend that the same faith was still shared. How we get to such a recognition is perhaps harder than some enthusiasts imagine, and Bonhoeffer has some wise words about the dangers of deciding well in advance where the non-negotiable boundaries lie. Our task is rather to work at becoming a discerning community, ready to recognise a limit when it appears, a limit that will have a perfectly concrete and immediate character. For him, the limits are going to be set ‘from outside’: ‘the boundaries are drawn arbitrarily by the world, which shuts itself off from the church by not hearing and believing’ (The Way to Freedom, p.79). But of course the discernment of such boundaries has quite properly involved the Church in drawing boundaries ‘from within’, in the form of baptism and credal confession. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer: if we didn’t have these markers of Christian identity, there would be no ground on which the Church as a community, a body with a common language, could discuss and discern a possible boundary being set by the world’s refusal of the gospel.
The question is when and where the ‘world’ so invades the Church that the fundamental nature of the Church is destroyed; and to this question there is – by definition, Bonhoeffer would say – no general and abstract answer. Up to a certain point we struggle to keep the conversation alive, as long as we can recognise that our partners in this conversation are speaking the same language, wrestling with the same given data of faith. If I might put it in a formula that may sound too much like jargon, I suggest that what we are looking for in each other is the grammar f obedience: we watch to see if our partners take the same kind of time, sense that they are under the same sort of judgement or scrutiny, approach the issue with the same attempt to be dispossessed by the truth they are engaging with. This will not guarantee agreement; but it might explain why we should always first be hesitant and attentive to each other. Why might anyone think this might count as a gift of Christ to the Church? Well, to answer that I have a great deal of listening to do, even if my incomprehension remains.
This is hard to express. It may be clearer if we think for a moment of the past of our Church. In the Body of Christ, I am in communion with past Christians whom I regard as profoundly and damagingly in error – with those who justified slavery, torture or the execution of heretics on the basis of the same Bible as the one I read, who prayed probably more intensely than I ever shall. How do I relate to them? How much easier if I did not have to acknowledge that this is my community, the life I share; that these are consequences that may be drawn from the faith I hold along with them. I don’t seek simply to condemn them but to stand alongside them in my own prayer, not knowing how, in the strange economy of the Body, their life and mine may work together for our common salvation. I don’t think for a moment that they might be right on matters such as those I have mentioned. But I acknowledge that they ‘knew’ what their own concrete Christian communities taught them to know, just as I ‘know’ what I have learned in the same concrete and particular way. And when I stand in God’s presence or at the Lord’s Table, they are part of the company I belong to.
Living in the Body of Christ is, in fact, profoundly hard work. The modern liberal is embarrassed by belonging to a community whose history is infected by prejudice and cruelty (and so often tries to sanitise this history or silence it or distance themselves from it). The modern traditionalist is embarrassed by belonging to a community whose present is so muddled, secularised and fragmented (and longs for a renewed and purified Church where there are apparently clear rules for the making of moral decisions). If we cared less about the truth and objectivity of our moral commitments, this would matter infinitely less. But if I say that our moral decisions involve a risk, I don’t mean by that to suggest that they have nothing to do with truth; they are risky precisely because we are trying to hear the truth – and to show the truth, the truth of God’s character as uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ. And there are times when the risky decision called for is to recognise that we are no longer speaking the same language at all, no longer seeking to mean the same things, to symbolise or communicate the same vision of Who God is. But that moment itself only emerges from the constantly self-critical struggle to find out who I am and who we are in and as the Body of Christ.
I cannot escape the obligation of looking and listening for Christ in the acts of another Christian who is manifestly engaged, self-critically engaged, with the data of common belief and worship. But, as I have hinted, there are points when recognition fails. If someone no longer expressly brings their acts and projects before the criterion we look to together; if some one’s conception of the Body of Christ is ultimately deficient, a conception only of a human society (that is, if they have no discernible commitment to the Risen Christ and the Spirit as active in the Church); if their actions systematically undermine the unconditionality of the gospel’s offer (this was why justification by faith became the point of division for the Reformation churches, and why the anti-Jewish laws of the Third Reich became the point of division for the Confessing Church in 1935) – then the question arises of whether there is any reality left in maintaining communion. This is a serious matter, on which generalisations are useless. All we can do is be wary of self-dramatising, and of a broad-brush rhetoric about the abandonment of ‘standards’. As the Confessing Church knew well, such a case requires detailed argument – and the sense also of a decision being forced, a limit being encountered, rather than a principle being enunciated in advance to legitimate divisions.
Unity at all costs is indeed not a Christian goal; our unity is ‘Christ-shaped, or it is empty. Yet our first call, so long as we can think of ourselves as still speaking the same language, is to stay in engagement with those who decide differently. This, I have suggested, means living with the awareness that the Church, and I as part of it, share not only in grace but in failure; and thus staying alongside those on the ‘other side, in the hope that we may still be exchanging gifts – the gift of Christ – in some ways, for one another’s healing.
One of our problems, especially in our media-conscious age, is that we talk past each other and in each other’s absence; and even when we speak face to face, it is often in a ‘lock’ of mutual suspicion and deep anxiety. But the Body of Christ requires more of us. It requires, I’ve suggested, staying alongside: which implies that the most profound service we can do for each other is to point to Christ; to turn from our confrontation in silence to the Christ we all try to look at; to say to one another, from time to time, hopefully and gently, ‘Do you see that? This is how I see him; can you see too?’ For many of us, the experience of ecumenical encounter is like this when it is doing its work. I wonder whether we are capable of a similar methodology when we divide over moral questions. It does not preclude our saying – in the ecumenical context – ‘I can’t see that; that sounds like error to me’; and in the ethical context, ‘I can’t see that; that sounds like sin to me’. It’s what I want to say to those who defend certain kinds of defence policies, as I’ve noted. But what if I still have to reckon with my opponent’s manifest commitment to the methods of attention to Christ in Word and worship? I risk an unresolvedness, which is not easy and may not be edifying, and trust that there may be light we can both acknowledge at some point.
And I am brought back to the fundamental question of where and who I am: a person moulded by a specific Christian community and its history and culture, for whom Christ has become real here with these people; but a person also committed, by my baptism, to belonging with Christian strangers (past, present and future – do we think often enough of our communion with Christians of the future? we are their tradition…). I am not sure what or how I can learn from them. They may frighten me by the difference of their priorities and their discernment. But because of where we all stand at the Lord’s Table, in the Body, I have to listen to them and to struggle to make recognisable sense to them. If I have any grasp at all of what the life of the Body is about, I shall see to it that I spend time with them, doing nothing but sharing the contemplation of Christ. At the very least, it will refresh the only thing that can be a real and effective motive for the making of Christian moral decision: the vision of a living Lord whose glory I must strive to make visible.