Forgotten forms of teaching need to be restored to the writing of Christian ethics.
By Mark D. Jordan
There is nothing like a course—or an essay—on Christian ethics to fuel skepticism and to promise boredom. I share the skepticism, but I take the expectation of boredom as a riddle. I suspect that it tells us more about how we have cut out the academic field of “ethics” than about the role of religious languages in telling or shaping human lives.
My friends concede—my enemies complain—that I am regularly tempted to pun in titles. I have succumbed once again. “Missing scenes” means three different things. First, I mean that certain scenes of teaching have gone missing in the discourses of Christian academic ethics. Second, I suggest that Christians are indeed missing them, if obscurely—and that they act out their loss in various ways. Third, I argue that Christian writers of academic ethics still miss these scenes—fail to recognize them as they happen, fail most of all to reflect on how to write them.
I write as an almost Christian, to use John Wesley’s famous phrase, about the forms of Christianity I know best, which are in the United States. But so far as the United States is still disentangling itself from the collapse of Christendom, and so far as our speech about religion has been conditioned by Christian forms even when it has opposed them, I may also point out some circumstances of our public speech. Perhaps this will also suggest to you some useful analogies to other religious traditions—or some salient contrasts. Any serious study of Christian ethics is intrinsically comparative in any case, because of Christianity’s historical and global pluralism, because of its repressed dependence on Judaism and “pagan” antiquity, because of its millennial engagements with other religions, especially Islam. I’m also not persuaded that we are adept at counting or individuating religions. I’m not sure, for example, that the differences between what we count as two religions are necessarily more profound than the differences within what we count as one.
Scene of Instruction
I now start to unpack my title. What do I mean by a scene of ethical instruction? A scene is first a place, real or imagined. Some scenes of instruction spread out in luxurious detail: the exact plan of a room or walled garden, with its furnishings and decoration; its sounds—laughter, quarreling, sighs, music—or deliberately none; a fragrance or a stench; drowsy heat or alerting breezes; the display of implements for a feast or a ritual or an execution about to begin. Other scenes take place on a bare stage where the wavering background only hints at shapes, while the props are few and unstable. Either way, the space of the scene already begins to teach us about ethical instruction. Is the scene to be public or private? How do we enter it? Is it connected to other places—to the kitchen or bedroom, the marketplace, the temple? Is it a place in which some normal expectations are suspended—or severely enforced?
A scene of instruction is also a time. It may begin at a specified hour. It may fall on an anniversary. Summer has brought cicadas to sing in the plane tree overhead, or the night promises a torch-lit procession on horseback in honor of a Thracian goddess.—These are the times of Plato’s Phaedrus and Republic.—Other scenes refuse to settle on any fixed calendar. They want to unroll outside of time or to roll time back over itself. But every scene of instruction, even one that happens in a visionary moment, supposes a sequence, the series or order of learning itself. And so the time of a scene leads us to other questions about ethical teaching: How much time does the scene’s pedagogy require? Fifty minutes, the length of a master’s degree, more than a lifetime? What is presumed to have happened before the scene begins? What hopes or fears color its impending futures?
The scene of instruction is a place and a time, but both set the stage for characters. Characters are not simply people. They are both more stylized and more diverse. For example, they don’t always own bodies, though disembodied characters—souls, virtues, demons, deities—are often lent bodies so that they can appear within a scene. There the body can express or enact a lesson, but also change, resist, suffer, fall away. Characters are patterns of action in every sense—for deeds, but also for thoughts, passions, words. Sometimes a character presents a fixed pattern, but there can be no scene of instruction unless some characters at least can change. A scene of instruction is an occasion for bringing new meanings into action, for binding new words into bodies, and so some characters are liable to be remade.
Scenes display, perform, and address characters. Some ethical characters, the most obvious, are held up for praise and blame. Be like this! Don’t be like this! Exemplary characters have always been more consequential in lived Christian ethics than principles, rules, or cases. But often more important than the characters given as examples in a scene are the characters that inhabit it—the learner, the teacher, and, frequently, witnesses or bystanders. The relations enacted by the characters inhabiting a scene are both the means and the substance of ethical teaching. Their relations make ethical teaching significant and effective. They also make it interesting.
I have been talking so far as if the scenes happened right before our eyes. Of course, when we study or teach traditions of religious ethics in classrooms, we turn mostly to re-narrations or re-presentations in text and picture. The larger frame of narration or presentation introduces other characters: the author and reader, or the painter and viewer. The long presumption of Christian communities has been that representing scenes of instruction, as if in common memory, can have important ethical effects, not least by establishing new ethical relations. One original scene of Christian ethical teaching, the so-called Sermon on the Mount, is a vividly evoked episode with a variety of characters, both exemplary and enacted. Christians encounter this scene not by direct experience, but as textual construct. The scene is enriched with textual devices of allusion and symmetry. The textual construct also creates new ethical relations—among the author or authors, communities of transmission or interpretation, and generations of readers. When I talk about scenes of instructions, I mean both the scenes and their representations. Indeed, the two are inseparable.
A final caution: the word “representation” is easy to misunderstand—and not only because it has several meanings. I am not using the word as a synonym for realistic figuration—as when we distinguish in painting between representation and abstraction. Nor do I imply that the representation of a scene of ethical instruction is ever literal or complete—as if a representation could fully capture the scene. A text can be related to scenes of instruction ironically or emblematically. It can represent them by its failures and silences. It can be a script or set of directions that only makes sense when performed. It can fracture or mock its own efforts at representing or giving instructions. It can be camp. It can be drag. By representation I mean not what captures ethical instruction, but what reactivates it, carries it, incites it again by urging attention to its means and purposes.
So far, an introduction to scenes of instruction and their representation. I can now fill in the punning meanings of my title. Christian representations of scenes of instruction have gone missing. Christian communities are obscurely and even destructively motivated by the sense of their loss. Contemporary writers of Christian ethics still regularly miss the occasions and the art of representing them.
Scenes That Have Gone Missing
A fresh reading of the long arc of Christian writing—a comparative reading—notices quickly enough the gradual disappearance of important forms for writing scenes of ethical instruction. This absence would be obvious to contemporary Christian readers if we hadn’t been taught to ignore mere forms of representation as beneath the dignity of pure ethics. Let me try to restore some memory of what has gone missing.
The writing of what we now call Christian “ethics” begins in competition with scenes staged by ancient Mediterranean philosophy. The philosophic schools of Graeco-Roman antiquity are preoccupied by the relations of teachers to learners and the limits on their effective restaging. Every Platonic dialogue represents a scene of ethical instruction even as it worries, explicitly or implicitly, about representation itself. Philosophic writers alongside or after Plato, including some we tend to classify as historians, offer an exemplary life, a biography, as the privileged pattern for showing morals. Other texts record the daily transactions in a philosophic school—lectures, but also the give-and-take of argument or the scrutiny of ambiguous cases. The ethical works of Aristotle, as we inherit them, condense a school’s ongoing debate, including its revisions of terms and forms. Many ancient works cast instruction as a letter to a distant student. The epistolary form is no mere convention; it reactivates an absent community of relations and so underwrites many of the crucial arguments. Still other ancient texts are collections of striking sayings meant to be carried through daily life either “in the hand” as a portable reminder or, better yet, in the memory. And then, last but hardly least, there are what we tend to call allegorical readings of canonical texts—like Neoplatonic readings of Homer—or else allegories simply speaking, including some in which the allegorical covering is so vividly satisfying that it raises doubts about whether any further teaching lies behind.
I recite this history because Christian ethical instruction appropriates all of these philosophical forms. Sometimes the appropriation is explicit. Ambrose sets out to rewrite Cicero’s letter, On Duties, for Christian ministers. Augustine redoes the famous Stoic handbook, the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Gregory of Nyssa rewrites Plato’s Phaedo in retelling the death of his sister, the contemplative Macrina, and their final conversation about the soul’s immortality. Christian moral readings of the Hebrew scriptures are notorious, but we shouldn’t forget to pair them with allegorical uses of the New Testament or with Christian poetic allegories, in all their ambiguity. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy—that remembered, allegorical rehearsal of songs for ethical therapy—still provokes debates over whether it is a Christian work at all. The allegory is seamless.
Sacraments are the evocation and conferral of a troupe of characters, and liturgy is a play that inducts its audience into the cast of a recurring story.
I stress the borrowings not to accuse Christian writers of plagiarism but to remind us that both ancient Mediterranean philosophers and their Christian successors wrote ethics as representations of scenes of instruction. Nor would it be hard to extend the list of examples into medieval innovations: more stylized classroom disputes, moralized encyclopedias of the liberal arts, saints’ lives and miracle stories, bestiaries, mystery plays, and, of course—of course—liturgies and sacramental rites. Sacraments are the reiterated evocation and conferral of a troupe of characters, and liturgy is a play that inducts its audience into the cast of a recurring story. Much more should be said here, but I hope that I’ve already said just enough to make my point about the richness of representational forms in Christian ethical writing.
How do we miss this history? What happened to those forms? The two questions intertwine: we miss the history of forms because we have been raised on a program for writing ethics that banished them.
It is fashionable once again to blame the Enlightenment, especially Kant, both for the modern change of direction in Christian ethics and for our ignorance of its older forms. In certain moods, I am willing to blame Kant for almost anything. Certainly it isn’t hard to show that the neo-Kantian fixing of a canon of ethics—that neo-Kantian decisions about what counts as ethics—determined both the method and the historical memory of Euro-American academic ethics in the last century and a half. But we writers tend to exaggerate the power of single books to shift world history. The impoverishment of writing in Christian ethics takes more than the Enlightenment and starts much before it. One long process is legalization, by which I mean recasting Christian scenes as courtrooms and rewriting Christian ethics into forensic genres. You can trace this in the growing regulation of confession, which takes on both the procedures and the purposes of criminal judgment. Or you can trace it through patterns of moral codification, both in grand schemes for organizing ethical doctrines and in the classification of cases—in casuistry.
An equally important process is the deployment of moral theology as a tool for polemic. It is hard to overstate the effect of continuing Reformation controversies on representational forms in modern Christian ethics. Or on the Enlightened conviction that any religious ethics had to be shrunk, stripped, for the sake of establishing a tolerant peace. So the impoverishment of representation in Christian ethics cannot be blamed on the Enlightenment, though the Enlightenment remains a culpable episode in it.
Whatever the causes, the loss of represented scenes of instruction in Christian ethics is the loss of significant power to describe or shape lives. Since the Reformation especially, academic writers of Christian ethics seem to peel off one after another of their most powerful genres. We’ll give this set of forms to the novel. We’ll delegate the slow disciplines of formation to spiritual writing, to religious education, to homiletics, to sacramental theology. This knowledge will go to a new science called psychology, and that set of practices to psychotherapy or counseling. And in case anyone should still be tempted to write ethics beautifully, we’ll create a condescending category for the “merely literary” essay as catch-all. What forms are left then to ethics proper? Some syllogistic skeletons, a few maxims or intuitions, the drone of the monologue, and a little flotilla of lifeboat cases. This does indeed assure boredom—and uselessness.
Acting Out the Obscure Sense of Loss
Now the second meaning of my title. Many Christian writers—many Christian communities—register the sense that something has gone missing in their speech about ethics. Too often, the loss is obscure to them—and they react to it badly.
Some writers bewail the disappearance of compelling Christian voices—or at least progressive ones—from public debates. The remedy, they think, must be more focused messaging. Others judge that the solution is to find more rigorous arguments by retrieving tradition. Papal sponsorship of nineteenth-century neo-Thomism grows out of just this reaction to a feeling of loss. In the face of modern “relativism,” so the project declared, Catholic ethicists would have to rearticulate philosophical foundations using Thomas Aquinas as guide. But the new articulation was instructed to ignore the old scenes of instruction, the old forms, in favor of thoroughly modern manuals.
A different sort of response to the sense of loss appears in progressive Anglican or Protestant critiques of sexual ethics. From the 1950s forward, for example, church writers of various denominations announce that the old sexual codes are no longer working and then propose a radical break for the sake of beginning anew. I am sympathetic to these writers—indeed, some of my work descends directly from them. But I think that they often respond not to tradition, but to its modern caricatures.
I also see a misunderstood loss—or, rather, its dangerous acting out—behind the extraordinary importance now given to disconnected ethical issues, especially sexual ones, as tests for Christian orthodoxy or church membership. What is striking about contemporary ethical debates in American churches is not the connection between heresy and irregular sex or gender—that’s old—but the privilege given to one irregularity as the only kind of heresy worth fighting over. These sexual standards are supposed to be dictated by more “fundamental” principles of scriptural or ecclesiastical authority, but in contentious fact the relation often flows in the opposite direction: Official voices must defend certain citations of scripture or of authoritative documents because they have no other way to talk about topics of sex and gender, which sometimes seem to be the only topics left to Christian ethics. The volume and passion in these official voices registers the loss of whole libraries of forms for speaking the breadth of ethical teaching. The shouting comes from the anxiety of having nothing convincing to say.
The loudest calls for a return to ethical tradition, the bitterest laments for the loss of Christian teaching authority, are regularly couched in language that erases traditional characters and pedagogies. Consider church debates over same-sex desire. Across the relatively short span of 50 years, there has been an astonishing succession of characters for same-sex desire within church discourses. Since 1950, American churches have talked about inverts (as opposed to homosexuals), homophiles, homosexuals (as equivalent to inverts), gays, gays and lesbians, and now persons subsumed by one or another letter in that ever-expanding jumble of an acronym: LGBTQIIA. . . . Along with these changes of name, churches have adopted and then confusedly discarded an incoherent array of theories of personality formation and their corresponding therapies. So, for example, early ministries of the “biblically based” ex-gay movement applied a model of same-sex desire borrowed explicitly from American psychoanalysis of the 1950s. The felt loss of Christian characters and their scenes acts itself out as the wholesale adoption of “scientific” characters and “medical” pedagogies. The obscure mourning becomes frantic borrowing.
In one sense, of course, churches can never finally surrender the power to display, address, and perform characters. A text of Christian ethics that has forgotten how to represent scenes, that denies their importance, still projects characters around itself. It still addresses readers, still makes presumptions about them, still tries to change them. But so far as a text of Christian ethics refuses to represent its own scene, so far as it refuses to acknowledge its own power to stage characters, it opens itself to other pedagogies, to other systems for forming selves. It is not just the names and theories of the modern clinic that are borrowed by the ex-gay movement. The scene of the modern clinic is installed as well, supplying its power as a comforting consolation for the obscure sense that something important has gone missing. The consolation completes itself in the claim that ex-gay diagnoses and therapies were always already there in the Christian Bible. The frantic borrowing is now disguised as pious retrieval.
I dwell on this example because it seems to me to illustrate at once the loss of Christian ethical speech, the temptation to supply the loss from newly powerful competitors, and the risks in announcing projects of retrieval. So many recent retrievals in Christian ethics are in fact capitulations. In trying to make good the loss, they complete it. While I think that Christian ethics must always be engaged with the full range of past speech—the first meaning of my title—I don’t think that it can console its loss of that range by projects of retrieval—the second meaning. The safer way forward is to try to speak, to write, by confronting the forgetfulness of loss with new forms for representing the scenes that still happen around us.
Missing Surrounding Representations
Now the last meaning of my punning title. Those of us who attempt to write Christian ethics for the American present regularly miss various sites at which new Christian characters or scenes are improvised around us. More importantly, we miss the cultural conditions for effective representation—without which Christian communities can’t even begin ethical discourse. There can be no ethics without the capacity to make and form characters. And there can be no making or forming of characters without some capacity to represent them in compelling ways.
Contemporary Christian writers seem to notice representation most when they complain about competing powers to broadcast patterns for life. The present regime of advertising and “the media” does indeed challenge the teaching of Christian ethics, though its challenges are not entirely new. (What is Carthage for Augustine but an all-night mall selling satisfactions to desire that it has just taught its customers to commodify?) Then again, churchly complaints about the media are often envy. They tacitly assume that Christian ethics or worship should copy, season by season, the most lucrative techniques for market representation. Having spent so much of my life trying to restore complexity to Christian scenes of instruction, I am not particularly eager to hand over ethical formation to techniques pioneered by lifestyle magazines—or by online hook-up sites.
I am interested in other sites where complex new characters are formed—especially sites that look directly at the conflict between churches and other systems of representation. I spent part of my last sabbatical studying—or, rather, learning from—a congregation in San Francisco. The congregation, just now celebrating its 40th anniversary, was one of the early churches planted by the Metropolitan Community Church, or MCC, a predominantly gay and lesbian Christian movement founded in 1968. By any standard I know, MCC SF is an exemplary urban church—if a small one. During the year I was there, it worshiped intensely, with open doors. It worked to serve meals to the hungry; to arrange clothing, shelter, and showers for the homeless; to meet the hundred expected and unexpected needs that desperation brings to a church’s door.
Since this church door is located a few blocks from the corner of 18th and Castro, that is, at the center of San Francisco’s most famous gay male neighborhood, it has been deeply identified with the concerns of those stigmatized for their sexuality and gender. During the first wave of AIDS deaths, the church performed hundreds of funerals, sometimes as many as eight on one day, not least because other churches refused to bury those who had died from “the gay plague.” The church has also been blessing same-sex unions for most of its 40 years.
All of this is notable, but it doesn’t explain my chief interest. I went to MCC SF to learn how people represent their own improvisation of queer Christian characters—of characters that reconfigure Christian ethical teaching against the long history of condemnation; of characters that many Christian groups still consider to be impossible or abominable. I wanted to watch these characters improvised in worship, in prayer, in community service, but also in dialogue with the representations of activist politics. The rhetoric of liberation or aids protest has often been stridently anti-Christian. “Stop the Church” was the slogan for one of the most controversial demonstrations by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). So I went to MCC SF to see how characters were being made after the impoverishment of Christian ethics, in the presence of opposed speeches and images for shaping human lives.
During life-history interviews, I would ask people to talk about how they grew out of childhood Christianity into a nonstandard sexual “identity” and then back into MCC. Most of my conversation partners told me that they had never been asked the question before. Certainly they had not been given traditional Christian language for answering it. They stammered. They fell silent. Then they began to tell about an often solitary search for names, rituals, forms of life. What they described to me—what they performed before me—was the simultaneity of multiple characters and much skill in parallel ritual systems. Some would go to the dance club on Saturday night, then to the local Catholic parish on Sunday morning, and finally to MCC for Sunday evening. Others celebrated rituals within closed women’s communities or sat in Queer Sangha—both meeting at MCC—before joining public worship on Sunday morning.
It is easy to misstate the interrelation of these various scenes of instruction and so to miss the significance of their formal innovation. I was not watching the hybridization of characters, which would imply the creation of a new cultivar out of different breeding lines. Nor was I learning about an intersection, which would imply the meeting of preexistent lines in a geometrical space. I was watching something more like performed juxtaposition—or constellation, to use Walter Benjamin’s metaphor. My interlocutors were juxtaposing, were constellating multiple characters and ritual scenes. The result was not a thing, not an identity, not a doctrine, but a form for showing together what was supposed to be kept apart at the risk of incoherence.
Juxtaposition, constellation—or collage, montage, remix, mash-up. These are characteristic and privileged forms of representation in our art and literature. They capture something deep in our sense of how lives should be represented. The interviews at MCC SF were describing not just new characters, but a sophisticated understanding of ethical representation. Indeed, their improvisations were more sophisticated negotiations of the modern crisis of representation than can be found in most academic ethics. So the whole challenge for me was not to erase the shape of these characters or their scenes of instruction under the form of my writing. In their unlikely—and, to some, shocking—juxtaposition of the new rituals and characters of urban queer life with the continuing practices of the Eucharistic table, prayerful discernment, Bible study, and works of love, my interlocutors in San Francisco both improvised new characters and troubled their representation. What is the form for representing the collision or collapse of forms? That is a central question for modernist aesthetics—but also for any writing of Christian ethics that wants to be modern—or that remembers the lessons of negative theology.
I still don’t know how to write what I saw in those new characters—though I think I have some new ways for constellating their traces in the archives of church-speech. But even if I had found or made some dazzling form in which to represent these scenes of ethical invention, of invention by juxtaposition, I couldn’t simply tell you about it. I couldn’t reduce it to a propositional summary. I would have to show it to you. Indeed, if anything I have said is true, then talk about ethics is necessarily more boring, and less useful, than representations of scenes in which ethics is taught. You cannot remedy the loss of a form for representation by talking about what it would be like to have it. You have to display the form.
If there has been an impoverishment of the academic writing of Christian ethics, there has also been a curious continuity of lived pedagogical relationships.
The same demand applies to any serious talk about ethics itself. You have surely noticed that I haven’t at any point defined ethics. I won’t do so now. Nor will I propose my own clever criteria for cutting out ethical teaching from the rest of Christian doctrine and practice. I don’t think that it should be cut out. Nor will I propose a better ethical canon to counter the neo-Kantians. The canon of Christian ethics may well be just as extensive as the library of Christian writing and the gallery of Christian images.
But if a student came to me to ask in all seriousness, or in all playfulness, about ethics, I could say something. I could suggest, for example, that she pay attention to our own ongoing practices as teachers, learners, or bystanders. Whatever else it might be, ethics is attention to how lives are shaped around teaching. When I offer readings of the forms in certain old texts, I might tell her, I do something that much resembles some of the scenes of instruction represented in those texts. I am also repeating scenes of instruction that communities have enacted around the texts in many other times and places. If there has been a striking impoverishment of the academic writing of Christian ethics across centuries, there has also been a curious continuity of lived pedagogical relationships. We still gather to listen to a lecture—that is a lectura, a teacherly exposition of texts. We still dispute disagreements among our authorities. We still scrutinize ambiguous cases. So, I would advise her, first attend to our local pedagogical practices and then consider how you might represent their enacted relations in forms that strike you as most moving—even if least religious. In that exhausting and delightful writing, you may begin to see ethics.
Mark D. Jordan is Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He has just finished a book on the rhetoric of American church controversies over homosexuality.