Beyond Morality

Ethics is about what we do. We form our moral judgments, our consciences; and we act on them or we refuse to. We change ourselves and our little parts of the world by our agency. We respond to duties or a desire to maximize happiness or a commitment to justice. Supposedly autonomous agents, we makechoices. Sooner or later, however, the world crashes against our efforts. We come to see that we face massive physical and moral evil well beyond the reach of human effort.

What is the power of our will before the ravages of earthquake and hurricane, so recklessly unselective in the lives they destroy? The great wheel of change seems indifferent to life, indifferent to us, blind to our aspirations. We wrap our hopes over a few miners who may be trapped, we sit rapt before television stories of one saved child, but somehow steel our consciousness against the great pyre of history heaped with innocents, the victims of droughts, dysenteries and tidal waves. As Annie Dillard reminded us in For the Time Being, half of all the dead in human memory are babies and children.


Of what avail are our choices in the presence of our kind’s sheer fallenness, naked for all to see in a parade of moral evil seemingly unconquerable? Have we learned from the hundred million killed over the last century in the name of wars to end war? Have we solved the crimes of abortion, the abuse of children, the trafficking in persons, the exploitation of the poor, the contempt for the helpless?

Our choice, our autonomy, our freedom, so vaunted in song and story, are dwarfed when confronted by our own wounds, whether they be physical, psychic or moral. We all die: the greatest, the oldest, the youngest, the mighty, the swift, the broken. Popes and presidents, believers and agnostics, winners and losers all succumb to the frailty of bodies, halting in their walk, frail in memory, diminished in form. The alchemy of moods assails even the strong and successful among us. There is no protection against the dashing of our hopes, the fear of loneliness, the loss of control or the terror of abandonment. Eugene O’Neill is reported to have heard his father say before he died, This life is all froth, rottenness.

Is this bleak? Is it godforsaken? Is it Good Friday?

As Christians, our great danger is to reduce Christ to some kind of ethical model. We have been soberly advised over the centuries to rid our faith of all the transcendent trappings, its talk of sacrifice, its dream of miracles, its incense of the otherworldly. But if we rid our faith of that, we rid ourselves of faith. True, we are called to choice and action, but that does not answer the deepest cry of our existence.

Who or what could ever save us? Who might deliver us from the death grip of history? Who might ransom us from bleak necessity and wild choice, from ourselves? Ethics is the stirring of our hearts and minds that we ought to be good. But it does little for our desperate ache for rescue.

Of ourselves, we can never make things right. By ourselves we can use only the limits of our condition to fight our condition. But we cannot change who we are. We may enter the public square to make our defense of human dignity; but in the end we must realize, if we are believers, that our faith in Christ points to an answer we could not have dreamed or imagined.

The God who dared to make this world, willy-nilly made a world that was not God. It was a world unfinished, incomplete and vulnerable. Subject to the laws of time, it would suffer change. Subject, moreover, to God’s will that there be free beings created in God’s very likeness, there emerged the possibility of moral chaos.

The paschal mystery announces the fact that God did not abandon the chaos of sin and the suffering of time, but entered it. What is asked of us is not only action, but also surrender to the mystery.

At the end of Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God, he highlights a thought from George Steiner:

We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well. This is to say that he knows of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historic dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives. We know, ineluctably, of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude which are our history and private fate.

We need not be believers to know our wounded state. Unbelievers, as well, reach for hope. Steiner continues, We also know about Sunday...the lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope (there is no word less deconstructible). But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.

Well said. But not enough. There is a content to Christian hope. Our paschal faith reveals that love can glorify all wounds. The risen Christ asks of Peter, Do you love me? He tells Thomas: Enter the wounds. Enter them, indeed: the wounds of the world, the wounds of our nation, the wounds of each of us. But enter with the love for the least of us in our least condition, a love revealed by the Word made flesh. Not only are wounds made glorious. Ethics is transcended and made complete.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Pope Francis proclaimed that the former Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston can no longer participate in the liturgy and commands him to make amends for the harm he caused.
What started as a "Gilmore Girls"-themed trip through New England gave me and my parents far more than we had expected.
Detail from a Latin Missal (iStock/wwing)
Latin is often seen as an outdated tradition, but language student Grace Spiewak writes that it can foster pride in our global church, reminding us of our unique and complicated history.
Grace SpiewakJuly 19, 2019
Callahan was an independent scholar working at the frontier where ethics meets medicine, law and religion.