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Adjustable Ethics

The will of God by majority vote.

by Barnabas
August 6, 2003

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Adjustable Ethics_Barnabas-The will of God by majority vote.
I intend to. I mean to. See? I never made up my mind to do a thing yet that I didn’t bring it off. That’s the sort of man I am.
—Boss Mangan in Heartbreak House, by Bernard Shaw.

You are beneath the dome of heaven, in the house of God. What is true inside these walls is true outside them.
— Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House, by Bernard Shaw.

There’s going to be a lot of things you won’t like.
—My sister-in-law, answering the complaint. “Don’t like!” stated by her tiny daughter.
This column is not about the ethics of homosexuality; I had my say on that subject a few weeks ago. It’s about the modern obsession with getting our way—the assumption that if our desires are so strong that they seem to us to be a natural force, we have the right to follow them. When enough people, or the right people, want what we want, we alter our ethical perspectives to include the satisfaction of these desires. Self satisfaction replaces self-discipline as an ethical standard.

We have the right; but we do not concede it as a universal right. We see to it that racists and kleptomaniacs, to cite two examples, are forbidden by law to follow their desires - and we deny any parallel between their desires and ours. Our desires are wholesome, natural, and God-given; theirs are perverse and unholy.

Sometimes wholesomeness and God-givenness have nothing to do with it. It boils down to “we have the power, and you don’t.” That is Boss Mangan’s position in Heartbreak House. He plans to marry a woman less than half his age. Captain Shotover tells him he can’t, which leads to the contrary summaries stated in the epigraph. To Mangan, the truth is whatever he wants it to be in relation to whatever he wants to do. To Shotover, the truth is unyielding no matter where it is said or by whom. We are all under the dome of heaven.

Even churches may yield to the insidious persuasion of Mangan’s philosophy, as the Episcopal foofaraw in Minneapolis is demonstrating this week: anything goes if other people can’t stop you and the relevant majority does not object. The real issue for the Episcopalians is the locus of authority, not the practice of homosexuality. The Episcopalians decided that issue several years ago, when they began to allow their priests to live in homosexual relationships.

To those of us in congregational churches, the ethical content of the controversy is sadly comic. To us, what is unholy for a bishop is also unholy for a priest. It seems to us that the threat to walk out if a practicing gay becomes a bishop is a trifle late in the game — barn doors and horses and other such conventional wisdom appears to apply.

I’m with the old pagan Captain Shotover, and my sister-in-law, on this one. While mercy and forgiveness may adjust to circumstances, truth does not. There’s going to be a lot of things we won’t like.

Comments (5)


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Bullwinkle10 writes:
August 8, 2003
Is it possible that the Spirit was working in/through the Episcopal assembly? Is it possible that our Episcopal were discerning the Spirit's movements among them in this time and place? Now I'm not saying among you or me, mind you. If so, what would this mean? For them, that is - only penultimately would I ask what does this mean for you or I....

Barnabas from The Partial Observer writes:
August 8, 2003
Bullwinkle's concern is deeply felt in every church, and ethical criticism is not focused on the motives of those who voted as they did.

Ethics,in part, is focused on consistency. Christian ethicists believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and in the authority of the Bible. It is a matter of faith that the Spirit affirms the Word, taking the things of Christ and revealing them, not inventing them.

The inconsistency in the case at hand is demonstrated by the refusal of the bishops to authorize same-sex marriage, even while they affirmed the election of Bishop Robinson.

Ethics is philosophy. It is not feeling-based. Touch me at other points, and I will feel--but my feeling will not repeal the truth.

SeaDrive from Connecticut writes:
August 11, 2003
A man says I know the mind of God, and it is this: my kind shall have power and your kind shall not - my nature is sacred and your nature is abhorrent.

We don't accept this from an Iraqi shiek. No more should we accept it from a Christian.

Barnabas from The Partial Observer writes:
August 11, 2003
I don't know to whom SeaDrive is responding, but it is not I, nor should he/she impute to me what others may have said. If it is any comfort, neither the heterosexual nor homosexual dogmatists will have me. That's okay, because I don't want to be had.

In biblical theology, all of us are lost by nature: by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind, so that all salvation is by grace alone, not because of works and certainly not because of sexual orientation. All nature is fallen, and may be renewed by Christ alone.

As Barnabas, I am not making the Christian case, except intrinsically. Instead, I'm trying to hold to the idea that there should be some coherence in discourse,some historical and consequential connection between an organization's roots and its present existence, and some realities that are transcend our current situation or status, neither of which are definitive.

To SeaDrive, thanks for reading the column. Stick to it - I may go from bum to hero, just as I go from hero to bum.

SeaDrive from Connecticut writes:
August 12, 2003
I imput nothing to Barnabas. Rather, I describe my own reaction to the arguements of those opposed to equal rights for gays within the Episcopal church.

I decline a general discussion of historical and consequential connection(s) between an organization's roots and its present existence since that would require exhaustive knowledge of the history of the church's views on slavery, divorce & remarriage, ordination of women...and even, I suppose the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII, the selection of texts to be included in the New Testament, etc., etc.

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