Monday, March 19, 2012

Article Review: The Fourfold Pattern of Moral Reasoning According to the New Testament

Last summer I went to Korea with my wife and daughter. During the trip we took a couple of days to go to a resort at Na Num Jae, on the Yellow Sea, with my wife's family. One morning I went down to the beach to read for an hour (as you can see from the picture it was at low tide). In what was one of the best hours of my whole trip, I read this article, The Fourfold Pattern of Moral Reasoning in the New Testament by Bernd Wannenwetsch in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible. It's a fantastic essay that I've been hoping to discuss and I now have the chance.

The goal of Wannenwetsch's essay is to 'explore the core practices that constitute Christian ethics-the art of moral reasoning in a theological vein' (178). He identifies four core elements, perceiving, discerning, judging, and giving of account(178). These are undertaken cyclically. You progress through the list and then go back to the beginning. Your perception is affected by the account you give that results from your judgment and so on (179).

Wannenwetsch fleshes out each of these four practices starting with perception (180-5). He asks, 'Is perception not actually a premoral faculty, a spontaneous impression that falls outside of the realm of moral responsibility?' (180). Most people discuss ethics solely in terms of decision making. You are faced with situation 'X' and based on certain moral principles, you determine the right thing to do. This makes it seem as if we have an objective perspective in the situation. Reality is, as philosophy has shown, that we don't. The way we perceive effects the way we describe situations and the way we implement moral principles. We are subjective. This is clear from the language we use to describe an event. 'A situation is always more than a set of external circumstances; it embraces the agent's (or observer's) personal convictions, beliefs, and dispositions' (180). Who we are shapes what we see.

Paul addresses this very issue in Romans 12. Wannenwetsch offers the following translation: 'Do not be conformed to this world time, but be transformed by the renewing of your perception, so that you may discern hat is the will of God...' (181). We are called to have a renewed perspective which causes us to see the world in a different way. The Spirit is to transform us as is our ecclesial setting.

Next Wannewetsch discusses discernment (185-6). Discernment is the process of testing; testing to determine the will of God, and testing of our moral fitness. 'Our probing of God's will is not separable from God's probing of our hearts' (185). When we are in a situation, our job is to explore the will of God from within the situation. It's learning to be moral on the ground, and it's to be carried out within a community.

Judgment is the third item up for discussion (186-7). Simply put, judgment applies the will of God to the situation at hand. After one has discerned then they will determine if the proposed action is in line with that will (or is a matter of preference). Since situations vary, there is no strict calculus for coming up with proper judgments. These must always arise out of the process of discerning and also is a communal task.

Last, Wannenwetsch covers the giving of account (187-9). You would think that judgment would form the last step in the chain, but it doesn't. We need to recognize the provisional nature of all judgments, and be open to revise our decisions. The giving of account is the process of explaining to others and God how you came to that judgment. This process is an open process where others give input and if a revision of judgment needs to be made, then the cycle of moral reasoning begins over again.

Wannenwetsch closes his discussion by suggesting that three of the moments of moral reasoning need to be rooted in cardinal Christian virtues. Perception in love, judgment in faith, and giving of account in hope (189).

This section on perception is the most significant in the article. Contemporary philosophy has shown us that the way we see the world is greatly effected by our culture. Why is a stick with a colored piece of cloth attached to it a flag (a single object), while a stick with a chalkboard eraser attached to it, not a single object, but two objects being held together? It's because that is how society has decided to divide up the world. We can easily imagine a world where it's the other way around. The same is true with moral perception. Take pornography as an example. Society now teaches us that a woman posing naked is an exercise of her rights over her own sexuality. It's liberating. We are told that this is how we should understand this act. The word, 'porn' no longer has as strong of a negative connotation as it used to. The goal of society is to dictate the way we see, so that we do not have a natural negative reaction. Why do we need to see the way the world wants us to see? As Christians we need to have our perception transformed so that we make proper judgments on how to act. Yes our perception is not determined by society alone, but also by biology. However, we cannot blame all of our shortcomings on our biology.

Of all of the articles in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible, I found this one to be the most profitable. Wannenwetsch distills New Testament emphases in a way that is illuminating, not individualistic, and corresponds with what we know from modern philosophy, allowing us to extend it in fruitful ways. Not only that, we have a practice that is doable and recognizes that our judgments will be fallible. Following Wannenwetsch's pattern will help us towards our goal of steady growth so that we can continue to do better next time.

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