Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Jesus and Ethics

Projecting our values onto the story of Jesus

I'm currently doing some research and writing related to the virtue of humility. As a part of this, I recently came across the following quote from William Spohn in his book, Go and Do Likewise:

"Christians have often substituted a false norm for the story of Jesus by projecting their own values and biases onto it. These counterfeits are exposed by a deeper reading of the Gospels, which are the enduring standard against which all portraits of Jesus must be measured. The sentimental Jesus of middle-class piety hides the cross of poverty and oppression; the Jesus of Western imperialism is refuted by the non-violence of the passion accounts; the Jesus of patriarchal tradition wilts under the evidence that the Nazarene chose the powerless and marginal to share his table" (p. 11).

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I think Spohn is right, though of course other such projections can be found as well. There is the Jesus who wants us to be healthy and wealthy and promises to give us both if only we give enough money to our favorite televangelist. Some take Jesus to be concerned primarily with abortion rights (or making it illegal), the ethics of same-sex marriage, or limited government (or big government). And on it goes.

But at its best, the Christian knowledge tradition should not merely be a projection of our own biases. Rather, and we see this occuring again and again in the accounts on offer in the canonical Gospels, the teachings and life of Christ should undermine and challenge many of the biases, beliefs, and preconceptions we have about morality, religion, and the good life for human beings. I'm sure I project many of my own values onto the person and life of Christ, but what is important is an openness to a change in values, to being willing to have our morality challenged by the morality and person of Christ, which centers on loving God and your neighbor as yourself.

Some argue that Jesus and ethics are not related, but it seems to me that even a fairly cursory reading of the gospels or other portions of the New Testament refutes such a claim. What does it mean to follow someone, after all, if not at least making a serious attempt to live like they do? As Spohn points out, this doesn't mean that those who seek to follow Jesus are to become clones of him; we can't do what he did, after all, given the cultural, personal, and temporal separations that exist. However, we can take the story of Jesus to be a moral paradigm; we can take him to be an exemplar whom we seek to imaginatively imitate in the circumstances we find ourselves in today. And if ethics is primarily a matter of character, both individual and that of one's community, then the imitation of exemplars and the application of their views is central to living a moral life.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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