The Future of Christian Ethics by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

The annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics is just around the corner (Jan 3-6, 2013). One of my responsibilities will be to meet again with members of the 2020 Future of Christian Ethics task force.

Our “charge” according to the chair of the committee, Charles Matthewes, is as follows:

The 2020 Committee will explore the current status of, and future prospects for, the field of ‘Christian ethics’ as a field of scholarship and teaching in the academy. It will do so with an eye to reporting the findings of its inquiries, and communicating what recommendations may be derived therefrom, to the whole Society of Christian Ethics, in order better to inform and guide the actions of the Society, now and in years to come.

The Committee has two objectives. First, it seeks to understand, using all possible evidence, the current state of the field of Christian ethics — both in terms of its pedagogical, intellectual, and institutional presence in the academy, and in terms of its role (both pedagogically and institutionally) in American churches and ecclesial bodies. Second, it seeks to use that understanding to offer tentative practical recommendations regarding how best to commit the resources of the Society to the present encouragement, and future cultivation, of the field of Christian ethics in the academy and for the churches.

In preparation for our meeting, each task force member submitted a 1000-word piece on the future of Christian Ethics. What follows below is a slightly revised version of my submission.

Several of the major tasks assigned to the SCE 2020 committee have weighed heavily on me in recent years, coinciding with my move from undergraduate to graduate teaching. While I have long taught “Christian ethics” (previously, as a portion of my undergraduate courses in “religious ethics” and now in a stand-alone manner in both introductory and advanced seminar courses at a seminary), I am now institutionally responsible for selecting and recruiting talented students for doctoral admissions and then training them to become the next generation of scholar-teachers. Many of the questions that Stanley Hauerwas discussed in his 2003 Journal of Religious Ethics piece “Between Christian Ethics and Religious Ethics: How Should Graduate Students Be Trained?” are accordingly my own:

(1) What does it take to train graduate students in our field today—what do they need to know, with whom (if anyone) must they be taught to think, and do they “need to travel the same intellectual path my generation traveled in order to do the kind of work they associate with Christian or religious ethics?” (p. 406)

(2) What should I understand myself to be doing in producing graduates in the “field,” when the nature and boundaries of the field are under dispute and when the realities of the job market, coupled with shifting church and religious affiliation demographics, may suggest different answers (i.e., it might be the case that training a competent Christian ethicist and training someone who can get—and keep—a job are two different things entirely).

Here are some preliminary answers to these questions:

(1)  The next generation needs to continue to know the moral vocabulary of and various approaches to character formation and decision-making that have long been associated with Christian ethics. (Let me add that while I am an unabashed defender of “rights talk,” the study of ethics would be enriched if we all remembered that our tradition of ethical thinking is much broader than the moral vocabulary of rights).

(2)   The next generation should ideally do #1 in service to the church (particularly for those who teach Christian ethics to those training for ministry) and for the larger academy. (Yes, the first part of my statement assumes that those who teach Christian ethics will ideally identify as Christian and have vested interests in how Christians as a community comport themselves; I recognize that many will not share this assumption. For what it’s worth, I would say the same thing about Jewish ethics and Muslim ethics–that they should ideally be taught by persons with parallel and respective normative commitments).

(3)  The next generation should themselves know, and should know how to teach others about, the various ways that Christian convictions can map onto, connect, inform, or even challenge conversations in the broader society. (There is a large body of scholarship on this). Anecdotally, few things frustrate me more in my students when they believe or act as if legal questions exhaust moral ones or when they confuse law and public policy with Christian ethics (e.g., when they are so committed to keeping abortion safe and legal that they have done little to no theological reflection on what distinctive contribution Christianity can make to such discussions).

(4)  They should also know #1 and #3 insofar as those discussions are not only in conversation with, and distinct from, (secular) philosophical approaches, but also the same with respect to other religious ones. This latter point is tied not simply to the practical-institutional point of equipping the next generation to be competitive on the job market, but also to a pastoral concern of meeting people’s real needs (i.e., given the rise of children growing up in interfaith marriages, the reality of people who either claim multiple religious belonging or who are open to receiving the wisdom of multiple traditions).

I then closed my submission by offering two practical suggestions:

(1)  Collect syllabi for courses in Christian Ethics, so as to help our junior colleagues who must teach such courses for the first time and also to serve as a launching pad for discussion of what we consider canonical or otherwise important

(2)  College/discuss bibliographies of reading lists of what we take the intellectual tradition of Christian ethics to be, so as to help grad students who are forming their own bibliographies for their qualifying exams and also to serve as a springboard for discussion of what constitutes the field

To reiterate, these are not the conclusions of the SCE 2020 task force, only the views that I’ll be bringing to the table (and thus are themselves liable to change upon further reflection and discussion). What do you think of my submission? What do you envision as the future of Christian Ethics?

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives.

Categories: Academy, Ethics

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. Very interesting, if entirely abstract. How do you propose that Christians act ethically when they’re dealing with people who are not Christians?


  2. Care and concern for other people and the web of life are values to which all people should ascribe. If it does not require fear of God, salvation through Christ, or the example of Jesus to get us there, then I would view the contribution of religions as secondary, not primary in the teaching of ethics. First on my list would be the relational nature of reality and the connection of all people and all beings in the web of life.


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