Day: 17 July 2008

Kyle Fedler review (1)

A few days, while visiting one of my favorite stores (i.e., Half Price Books), I stumbled across this promising little work on Christian ethics by Kyle D. Fedler.  I glanced through it quickly at the store and thought it to be a good purchase–especially because it contains a chapter on “The Ethics of Paul” the apostle, which is becoming a growing interest in my studies of Paul.  That same night, after buying the book and before going to bed, I read through the first chapter and was initially impressed with the content.  Because of this, I thought it best to have this book to be the first to kick off the category for reviews.  I’ll do the Preface and Chapter 1 in this post.  

Preface (ix-xi)
eases some of the initial reluctance that readers might have in wading through a text on ethics–let alone Christian ethics–by promising to be their guide and conversation partner.  (He picks up on this theme in Chapter 1 as well–see below).  He promises this for the simple fact that ethical discourse can sometimes be confusing and disheartening for many who are unfamiliar with the territory.  For Fedler, one of the leading contributors to the confusion–and sometimes the debate–is the lack of recognition for the larger framework within which ethical discourse takes place.  Part of Fedler’s goal is to confront this larger framework, realize its importance, and address the subsequent questions in light of this framework.  

Chapter 1: Exploring Christian Ethics (3-13)
Fedler picks up the imagery of serving as a guide through the journey of ethical investigations.  His goal in this endeavor is to equip the traveler with the knowledge and language associated with such investigations so that they are better able to express what they have learned and internalized.  This is the fundamental distinction between knowing something and knowing about something.  “Knowing about something” is nothing more than a practice of regurgitation of what was momentarily learned. To adapt slightly Einstein’s sentiments on education: “knowledge” is that which remains once everything that has been learned has been forgotten.[1]  In other words, true knowledge is part and parcel to who we are, and it manifests itself in how we live–i.e., it is our second nature.  (Fedler, however, does not develop the argument to this extent).

The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus once said: “The beginning of a right education is the examination of terms”; and it is in this light that Fedler proceeds.  He begins rather broadly by considering the “types of ethical distinctions” (5) maintained by scholars.  The big three are: descriptive, prescriptive (or, normative), and metaethic.  The first deals with determining the various paradigms by which people live, act, behave, etc (5-6).  Fedler makes it clear that this category is not concerned with the issue of “ought”.  The second category is the one that addresses the issue of “ought”, which appears to be predicated on an understanding of descriptive ethics (6).  (This is Fedler’s primary concern in this book).  The third and final category distinction deals with the issue of abstract semantics (6).  In other words, metaethics is concerned with how abstract terms/notions like “ought,” “good,” “bad,” etc are defined and used in ethical discourse.  

With prescriptive (or, normative) ethics being the key focus for Fedler, further categories and terms are identified and nuanced that will become crucial for his presentation.  The areas of “decisionist ethics” and “virtue ethics” are presented as “closely related aspects of normative ethics”; and it is to these two areas that Fedler seeks to “maintain a balance” (6; cf. 8).  The notion that a balance is to be sought suggests an inherent disjunction between the two areas.  More on this anon.  “Decisionist ethics” is concerned with what one must do in a given situation–a situation that is labeled a “moral perplexity” (6).  On the other hand, “virtue ethics” is concerned with how one lives or acts in everyday situations, and this “how” is predicated on one’s understanding of the model, ideal, or “good life” (7).  The key concern here is not just related to how one responds to the difficult moral perplexities of life; there is also the concern with how one responds to the basic and even mundane happenings of life (7-8).  

Fedler proceeds to delineate the basic paradigm for Christian ethical discourse–both in the ancient world and in the modern (8-12).  The paradigm has three essential parts: God, the world, and humans.  The Christian understanding of these parts defines how one behaves in an ethical manner.

With respect to God, Fedler makes a case for God being personally involved with (all of) creation on a continuing providential level (9).  Onus is therefore placed upon mankind to care for what has been given to them by God, and it is to be cared for in a way that is consistent with God’s ways.  This slides into the (brief) discussion on God’s goodness or morality.  The logic here is quite simple: if God is just, loving, good, and moral; and if mankind is made in the image of God; then mankind must reflect the same attributes as God–albeit to a lesser degree, because mankind is not God (10).  

With respect to the world, Fedler presents a condensed version of an argument that will be developed in a later chapter.  The logic here is even more simplistic than what was noted above: God is deeply concerned for all of creation–i.e., both spiritual and material aspects; mankind is created in his image, sharing his attributes; therefore, mankind is to be deeply concern for creation (11)–at least the material aspect (i.e, the earth).  This is an area that is becoming rather important in both ethical and theological circles, for the standard argument used to be: who cares what happens to this world, heaven is the ultimate destination.  Such a position simply does not stand under close scrutiny of the biblical evidence.

With respect to humans, Fedler makes a case for why the study of Christian ethics is so crucial: it is because mankind was originally “created to be in [a] harmonious relationship with God and with one another” and because mankind has “disrupted both of these relationships” through sin (11).  For Fedler, it is vital to address both sides of the dilemma simultaneously and without necessarily giving precedence to one or the other.  Much of this argument is predicated on a proper understanding of the previous two–i.e., God and the world (12).  

Points of Concern
My first concern deals with the (near) exclusive treatment of Christianity with very little regard for its Jewish heritage.  The vast majority of what Fedler promotes as “Christian” ethics is intimately associated with what could be equally labeled Jewish ethics.  Not only that, but it seems to further is (wrong) disconnection between Judaism and Christianity in the 1st century CE.  Nearly all of the people who would later be classified as “Christians” (by pagans, no less) were Jewish.  Paul did not renounce his Jewish heritage, nor did he view himself as starting a new religious movement completely devoid of all things Jewish.  In this initial chapter, Fedler seems to be implicitly advocating the position that Christianity and Christian ethics are systems in their own right; although, there are points along the way where this separation is not as pronounced.  My concern is the tone thus far, which appears to be a marginalization of the Jewish-Christian connections.  (This may be resolved later in the book–I hope).  

My second concern is the supposed disjunction between “decisionist” and “virtue” ethics.  This, to me, seems to be a distinction that emerges out of the age-old philosophical debate on “thought” and “being”.[2]  The supposed disjunction is a difficult position to maintain in light of the fact that the majority of the ancient world ascribed to the notion that a separation between one’s essence and one’s action/behavior could not exist.  It is primarily a modernist (and post-modernist, to some degree) position that these two are out of kilter and in need of balancing.  Equally, it is a modernist (and post-modernist, to some degree) position to believe that one’s actions define one’s essence.  In other words: one’s deeds, life, choices, appearance, etc define who a person is.  This logic would have been unacceptable in the ancient world in general and Jewish-Christianity in particular.  Thankfully, Fedler does not lean in this direction.  


[1] Einstein’s comment was: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school” (In His Own Words [2000], 222)
[2] In this regard, I highly recommend Martin Heidegger’s little (dense) book, An Introduction to Metaphysics–a book and philosopher that Fedler does not mention, which I found to be quite odd.