Duty & Delight

What Catholics call “moral theology” Protestants tend to call “Christian ethics.” Whatever you call it, this is the discipline of discernment which Gilbert Meilaender succinctly describes: “As we seek daily to creep ever more fully into our baptism, we struggle to distinguish between those actions that follow Christ and those that do not.” Academic discipline can be helpful in this effort, but ultimately our goal is following Jesus; and, for that, a relational and affective element is essential. But how do we learn to love? How do we learn to make our hearts supple for God? Here a pastor is often more helpful than an academic. Gilbert Meilaender, who holds a chair in Christian ethics at Valparaiso University in Indiana, combines the best qualities of both. For all their rigor and perspicuity, his books are always animated by a careful love. They take part in the “struggle to distinguish,” but ultimately all their distinctions are for the sake of leading us to Jesus.

Which doesn’t mean that Meilaender wants to make things easy for us. The Way that Leads There sounds like a soothing invitation, but the book’s major theme is the painful gap between human desire and Christian duty. “The way that leads to God (and, hence, to fulfillment) is a way that often hurts and wounds us,” Meilaender writes. Again, The Freedom of a Christian may sound comforting, but the book holds some difficult and discomfiting questions. For example, on the subject of vocation and careers, Meilaender asks, “Does obedience to a divine summons diminish or enhance the one who has been called?” On the subject of medical technology and bioethics, Meilaender asks, “Can it be right to accept limits even on the good we might accomplish?” The freedom that Meilaender thinks we should worry about is first of all God’s freedom, and, next, our willingness and capacity to embrace suffering.

Because the latter freedom is not easily cultivated or attained, Meilaender is sure we will often fail. But he encourages us to hear God’s commandments as promises, not threats. “We trust that the grace of God in Christ has pardoned our sin and set us free for discipleship even in those moments when we cannot experience it happening.” In other words, God’s promises are even more real than our own experiences, particularly our experiences of sin: “You shall become a child who loves the Father, a bride eager to greet her bridegroom, a creature who loves the Creator from whom comes life and every good thing, a lover of God in whose speech the praise of God resounds.... And to trust that promise...is both our duty and delight.”

Very gently but clearly (Meilaender is Lutheran, and he usually displays excellent ecumenical manners), Meilaender asks whether most Catholics have absorbed the dynamics of God’s command and God’s grace as deeply as Christians should. The opening essay in The Freedom of a Christian compares John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor with Karl Barth on questions about grace, works, and Christology. Meilaender guides us through their different treatments of the story about the rich young man in Matthew 19. Having asked what he must do to be saved, the young man assures Jesus that he already follows the law. What else must he do? Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. The instruction astonishes and disturbs the eavesdropping disciples.

Veritatis splendor uses this passage to explain how “grace makes possible growth and progress in righteous deeds.” Meilaender gives the encyclical’s interpretation of Matthew 19 a close reading. Overall, he is appreciative. He writes that he would be “hard pressed to imagine an equally serious statement on the nature of theological ethics issuing at this time from any major Protestant body.”

Nevertheless, Meilaender is even more impressed by Karl Barth’s treatment of the same passage. Barth, a giant of twentieth-century Protestantism, made many of the same interpretive moves that the encyclical makes, but he also examines an aspect of the story that the encyclical doesn’t address. After the rich young man goes away saddened by Christ’s recommendation, Peter seeks assurance of his own merit, pointing out that he and his fellow disciples have indeed left everything to follow Jesus. Barth and Meilaender meditate on this self-justification, concluding that even “obedient” Christians can live on the edge of disobedience. The obedient disciples are still counting up the costs of their faith and congratulating themselves for their self-denial. Peter’s reaction reminds us that fleshly loves continue to pull the strings of his divided heart. Meilaender suggests that this complexity-and the necessity of returning again and again to the roots of our trust in Christ-is missing, or at least muted, in John Paul II’s reading of the story, with its relative confidence in moral progress.

Meilaender usually has good ecumenical manners, but not always. In The Way that Leads There, he uses the writings of St. Augustine in defense of contraception. In so doing, he makes a helpful analogy between sex and eating, but he does not allow the traditional Catholic critique of contraception to be heard as clearly as it should be.

Still, in almost all other respects, Meilaender is a reliable and accessible teacher of Augustine. The Way that Leads There has a chapter on Augustinian political theory that is a timely introduction to the field. We live in an era when Western democracies are in a crisis of morale. Many of us are hungry to learn more about the theological roots of liberal democracy, and how theology might correct and chasten militantly secular variations of the democratic tradition. Yet high-school civics and college political science rarely give us the right intellectual tools. Usually, if we get any political theory at all, we leap-frog from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Hobbes. Meilaender’s essay on Augustinian political theory helps fill this gap. One could argue that by demythologizing politics and deflating its religious pretensions, Augustine cleared a space for a civic pluralism. Meilaender nuances this proto-liberalism, explaining how Augustine enables Christians to keep their political hopes modest without feeling like the entire enterprise is pointless. “It is not easy to find language in which to express clearly the proper way to love something that is good, but good only relatively.” Like most of Meilaender’s arguments, this one is both theoretically perspicacious and pastoral.

Published in the 2007-03-09 issue: 

Christopher C. Roberts is studying for the permanent diaconate in Philadelphia. He is the author of Creation and Covenant (Continuum, 2008), a book about the theology of marriage.

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