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Can Churches Help Society Find a New ‘New Normal’?

I’ve been losing a daily bet for some time now that things can’t get any more (you fill in the word) – crazy, embarrassing, silly, preposterous, unbelievable – on the public stage.

As sure as I make such a wager, the next day brings a new level of disarray and disregard for wholesome thought and behavior.

A common observation among viewers of this drama is that we have arrived at a “new normal” in our acceptance of what would previously be considered irresponsible patterns in our collective life.

We seem to have “normalized” fact-free opinion, racism, xenophobia, greed, hostility, dishonesty and a host of other anti-community perspectives in the quest for preservation of privilege and a sense of superiority based on that privilege.

The question of how parts of the Christian family could be in the forefront of sanctioning such patterns is being widely and helpfully discussed.

These dialogues will no doubt lead to some important clarifications on how and why such redirection of religious zeal could result in support of things so out of line with a traditional understanding of the gospel.

My concern is how the ethical guidance of the church might address this larger pattern of “normalizing” and offer guidance that is more than “weed killer” applied to the various expressions of such departures that pop up in the cracks in the sidewalks of our lives.

The discipline of ethics (philosophical and religious) speaks of different ways of describing ethical guidance.

There is “proscriptive” ethics, which determines what is “right” by appealing to rules and laws that set forth the appropriate response.

Such ethics can easily move from helpful guidance to rigid legalism, and its lack of flexibility can lead to “loophole” ethics, allowing various exceptions – “There’s no law against it, so it must be OK.”

Then there is “contextual” ethics, popularized by the concept of “situation ethics,” where the specific circumstances of the situation have a determinative effect on the decision.

Here, rules (proscriptions) matter less than the particulars of the situation, in which whatever is thought to be “right,” “moral” or “loving” is the guide for the choice.

“Contextual” ethics can move from the helpful reminder of the uniqueness of situations to a kind of relativism that encourages a “whatever feels right” approach to life’s dilemmas.

This contrast of options leads to offering a middle course of “principled” ethics, which affirms clear principles, such as love, justice, the “common good” and so on.

Such principles may well be codified in concrete guidelines while maintaining a flexibility of application that allows for a deliberative consideration of a broader range of factors and dynamics that are part of the context.

Of course, principles can vary in different settings. Order and duty may be primary in some, while freedom and creativity may dominate in others.

For example, the Klansman may think and act according to his “principle” of white supremacy, while his opponent may act according to a principle of justice for all.

An expansion and focusing of principled ethics is often called “normative” ethics, wherein a particular understanding of what is “good and true” is embraced and used as a standard for measuring deliberations in ethical decisions.

A “norm” is a principle, but more than that, it is a principle that is given status as the reference point from which ethical thinking and behaving emerge.

The norm is beyond the specific guidelines that point to it and above the particular circumstances that are at issue in the deliberation.

An example of such a norm would be the concept of covenant in the faith of Israel, as expressed through both the Torah and the prophets.

It is a relationship involving God and the human family, whose thoughts and behaviors point to it as the answer to the “why?” question of choices made.

In this pattern of thinking, the norm for a Christian ethic would be the disclosure of God’s truth as experienced in Jesus Christ, as the incarnation of the ultimate principle of Logos (John 1:1-5,14).

More than any set of beliefs, rules or doctrines, this personal embodiment of God’s truth becomes the basis for deciding what is true and faithful.

The guiding question for such a normative ethics is not primarily, “What does the Bible or the official teaching of the church say?” but “Is this belief or course of action consistent with what we can know of God through Jesus Christ?”

The tradition that brings this normative ethic forward includes Thomas à Kempis and his “The Imitation of Christ” (circa 1420), Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps” (1896) and the more recent symbolism of the “What would Jesus do?” perspective.

It seems that the “new normal” of our collective life has become the acceptance of perspectives and behaviors that reflect a culture of disrespect and carelessness for the well-being of parts of the human family and the planet that is our home, and that parts of the Christian family sanction such a culture with its blessing.

Therefore, it is encouraging to see and hear other parts of our faith family speaking clearly and strongly for a new “new normal” that looks to the “norm” that we claim to follow.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.