Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 2011. 336 pp.
Ethics may be the reason I’m still a Christian. Each time I find my way of seeing the world challenged—and it is challenged—by atheism, by the claims of other religions, by my own doubts and questions about issues like the reliability of the Bible, I seem to be won over again and again by Jesus. When I hear his teaching in the gospels, and realize how he truly lived out his preaching of loving even enemies when he died for me, it just seems so right and good.
And yet ethics turns out to be a slippery thing. It’s not difficult to define, but it’s much harder to go any further. As a human being, I’m surrounded by ethical claims about ‘hot issues’ like abortion, climate change, and same-sex marriage, by laws and rules, and by arguments about human rights and values.
As a Christian, I’m sometimes bewildered by what seems like a complex tangle of ethical instructions in the Bible. There are commands (some of them no longer apply, right?), there is revelation about God’s character (that’s important), there are Jesus’ words and his actions (which are great, but which don’t cover everything), and there’s teaching about ‘wisdom’. How does all this fit together? The problem seems to grow when the apostle Paul instructs Christians to “test everything; hold fast [to] what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).
In Joined-up Life: A Christian account of how ethics works, Andrew Cameron attempts to plot a course through the murkiness and equip Christians with a framework for thinking about right and wrong. The ‘joined-up life’ is the life in which all the ‘bits’ that contribute to our ethical understanding—biblical commands, revelation of God’s character, Jesus’ teaching and so on—are connected and held together.
Cameron points out that ethics is not merely about ethical dilemmas, such as when to turn off life support for a patient. Ethics is about developing the discernment to recognize and hold on to what is good in every moment of life.
Before answering the question of what can connect these bits, Cameron surveys how we encounter ethics in everyday life: the mess of rules, rights, values and results-orientated ethics around us. Each of these resonates at some point with our sense of what’s right, but it is difficult to see how they fit together. He also points out the unseen ‘undercurrents’ of desire and social inclusion that affect our beliefs and actions, shaping us without our awareness.
How can Christians, or any human being, get a grip on how to do right amongst all this? Cameron suggests a unified theory of ethics is required, a little like the ‘theory of everything’ scientists seek to help them relate all the forces they observe in the universe. In reaching for this unified ethical understanding, Cameron points to Jesus Christ as the human who lived the most joined-up life imaginable.
Jesus is essential for insights that allow for a unified understanding, “partly because he shows what a correctly functioning human looks like, and partly because he releases humanity from what’s depressing about ethics” (p. 81). Ethics cannot simply be “What would Jesus do?”, because Christians are not simply followers of a great moral teacher but are changed by being in Christ. Without the forgiveness and acceptance given to us in the cross, for example:
Divine condemnation, both in its possibility and our misunderstandings of it, distorts and dogs human life and confuses ethics. Ritual guesswork to appease God then preoccupies religious people. (p. 101)
But because we are in Christ, our fixations on performance are undone. We are free from fear of condemnation as we seek to make ethical decisions.
Cameron has a clear, self-effacing style and a fresh way of expressing central Christian truths, which makes these chapters on Jesus’ death and resurrection positively thrilling. He describes what it means for Christians to be ‘in Christ’ as like being invited to join the football team of a great player, a Beckham or a Ronaldo.
I’m actually a fat slob, and so possibly are you. Next to us are a bunch of other wheezers, geezers, whingers and the attention-deficit disordered. He scores all the goals and wins all the matches. Meanwhile, we, his team, zigzag around him gibbering in circles, or just lie listlessly on the ground. Yet he allows us all to share his glory… Yet, over time, his way rubs off. You eventually learn to run the ball in his direction. His tactics and moves start to interest you. Bit by bit, you move as he moves. (p. 114)
Cameron says that Christian ethics is the only right response of that team of misfits to their captain—the response of those who really don’t have a clue, participating alongside someone who really, really does. According to the Bible then, the question is not simply “Am I living ethically?”, but “How am I responding to Jesus Christ?”
Having demonstrated that Christ is the centre of moral reality, Cameron moves to working out its boundaries. He outlines five “things that matter” in our thinking about ethics. Drawn from the story arc of the Bible, the first four are: the character of God, creation, commands, and a new future. Creation is important in ethics because there is a ‘moral order’ in the universe. Right and wrong are somehow ‘woven into’ the creation, because God leaves his imprint on it. We see this imprint in our own experience of the world: the God who made us loves truth, just as relationships seem to require truth.
But we live in the overlap of the ages, and though marriage, for example, is a good part of the created order, there will be no marriage between humans in the new creation. This is because the cosmos is on a trajectory towards the end: a new future. This trajectory shapes our thoughts and behaviour now.
Cameron’s treatment of commands and rules is illuminating. Biblical commands do not stand on their own, but reveal part of the moral reality, acting to interrogate our desires and giving us a ‘quick start’ to orientate us to the moral reality around us. He describes a parent’s rule for their child as a “wisdom pill” (p. 26). Cameron deals sensitively and skilfully with tricky questions like the place of Old Testament law in the Christian life.
It is Jesus who binds these first four together. Jesus reveals God’s character, restores created order, interprets and reframes God’s commands, and receives God’s future promises. Jesus reconciles relationships and creates true society to reveal the fifth ‘thing that matters’: Jesus-shaped communities, churches, which are the chief “school of moral formation” for people.
These five boundaries to the moral reality, or ‘poles’, become a unified field. Together they give us “an interlocking account of the nature of the cosmos we inhabit” (p. 175). The trick with ethics is to develop a form of discernment which can keep all of these elements in frame, a technique of pattern recognition and response which allows us to deal with the complexities of the world. Being aware of this unified field expands our “moral imagination”, giving us deeper insights into life and problems, and more solutions to work with, than anything else.
True to his word that ethics is not primarily about dilemmas, Cameron then explores the significance of the unified field for the ordinary situations humans find themselves in. He works through the five poles for “life packages” such as singleness, marriage, work, and even friendship.
Finally, Cameron turns to six hotspots, including homosexuality, bioethics, and the place of Christian faith in the public space. In the chapter on sex, Cameron explains that because of our understanding of the unified field in Christ:
We can live in the chaste singleness lived by Jesus, or in the faithful lifelong marriage he affirmed. We cannot believe at first that Christ’s way is thinkable. Sexual feelings do seem like final truth. Yet in Jesus-shaped community, we find men and women forging contented marriages, and single people learning the art of a network of intimate, non-sexualised friendships. (p. 291)
All of this argument is tightly structured with cross-references to key ideas, so that a reader can dip in at any point. Each part and chapter is introduced with a brief explanation of how it fits into the whole, and chapters are usually a pithy five-to-seven pages. The book is even welcoming to someone who is not (yet) a believer, inviting them to explore a Christian account of ethics.
Joined-up Life is an unintimidating and clear account of how Christian ethics work. Far from simply giving us the ‘answers’ to tough ethical issues, Cameron shows us how the story of the Bible, centring on Jesus, gives us a framework for discerning what is good in all areas of life. This means that, in the end, Cameron can encourage us to use our imagination (!) to discover what our lives can look like joined-up.