Biblical Ethics in the Twenty-First Century

This past weekend Paul Cizek and Paul Pasquesi, both doctoral students in the Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity area of the Theology Department at Marquette University, hosted a superb conference, “Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: In Memory of Rev. Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.”  The conference was a reflection on the work of Lúcás who died of heart failure last May while on the Marquette faculty. The conference title comes from Lúcás’ second book Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions (Paulist, 2013).

The Conference began with papers by two of his Marquette Colleagues, Joseph Ogbonnaya and John Thiede, S.J., commenting on Lúcás’ cross-cultural approach to biblical ethics and how that enhances their work in African and Latin American theology respectively.  Following them, D. Glenn Butner, with his newly minted doctorate and Chris Gooding, another doctoral student looked at how Lúcás’ methodology in virtue ethics helped them in their work.  They emphasized Lúcás’s proposal of the four key components that virtue ethics provides for the right understanding and application of scripture: character formation, the shaping of both personal and communal identities, the practices and habits that can accomplish this, and the worthy exemplars that live the virtues.  Gooding’s essay was particularly interesting in suggesting that, by using Lúcás’ method, the parable of the shrewd manager (Lk 16: 1-15) should be read as an act of “slave resistance.” 

John Donahue, S.J., gave a prophetic paper on Lúcás’ work on the relationship between justice and the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn.” He reflected on the extensive study of laments in the Psalms and the Book of Lamentations.  Gina Hens-Piazza, who worked with Lúcás at Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, focused of what counts as a “just reading” of scripture and whether we attend adequately to the biblical subaltern.  Her colleague, George Griener, gave a very moving paper on the identity of the theologian, while tracing Lúcás’ longstanding vocational commitment to solidarity with suffering.  Coming from Berlin, Antonio Autiero spoke on the Torah and Moral Law, while Bryan N. Massingale raised the Table Fellowship of Jesus and its implications for Racial Justice. 

Throughout the conference, one of Lúcás’ fundamental contributions, that ethicists and biblical theologians need one another if they want to do biblical ethics, was proven time and again.  In Biblical Ethics for the 21st Century, he establishes the minimal normative criteria for biblical ethics by unapologetically arguing that the work of biblical ethics requires an inseparable double competency: the exegetical competency of a biblical theologian and the hermeneutical competency of the ethicist in applying the exegetical claims into a contemporary moral setting. In his first book The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012)  he actually performs both competencies for each of the commandments and beatitudes.  While Protestant theologians Allen Verhey and Richard Burridge authored book length works utilizing both competencies, Lúcás’ Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes is, to my knowledge, the first Catholic work that does.  As Margaret A. Farley writes, “This book constitutes a major step forward in the blending of biblical studies and ethics.” In this light, Marquette University’s moral theologian Conor Kelly furthered Lúcás’ legacy by insisting on the “imperative connection” between the two fields. 

Faculty and graduate students from Boston College, Santa Clara University, St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Pepperdine University, Wheaton College, and High Point University participated in the conference that was sponsored by Marquette Theology Department Chair, Robert Masson.  Both Cizek and Pasquesi are already preparing for the publication of the conference papers.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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