« What to believe... | Main | And We're Back...so, unfortunately, are Chuck Colson and misogyny in Christianity Today »

September 22, 2007



What happens when we fail to do the right thing? What happens when we do bad things?


When we fail, we make reparation. When we do bad things, we suffer the consequences, as do others in the path of those consequences, thus the impetus to do the right thing.

Dorsey Marshall

Problem is, I can't do the right things, at least, not for long.



I think that's largely untrue with most people. We actually do manage to do quite a bit that is right and good. Most of us can do better, and the point is to try to do better: Christians would call that sanctification, but they will rely on a nebulous entity known as the Spirit to do the work for them.


Nowadays it doesn't seem like there's much in the way of practical ethics coming out of churches, except perhaps where they intersect philosophy departments (MacIntyre, for example).

It used to be that mainstream church literature (e.g. Confessions) and teachings, particularly in the middle ages, would talk about self-examination for the purpose of rooting out "evil desires." While this was often abused, it did at least offer one concrete and substantial way to try to behave in better ways. Backing down when you recognize that you'd be acting out of malice, for instance, is a way to eliminate an entire category of wrongdoing.

I think this introspection needs to be partnered with a habit of investigating the results of actions, though, and I haven't seen this approach championed in any specifically Christian writings (maybe Aquinas, sort of, but I'd be looking for something later than the empiricists). Aiming for sound motives [which will never be perfect or pure] and an informed, detailed understanding of our actions' consequences seems to be the best we can do in the way of becoming individually good.

Of course, the real problem seems to be how to behave ethically as a group. I wonder if there's actually an answer to that.

Dorsey Marshall

So Greg, you're saying it's just me? LOL. Seriously though, how good is good enough?

Regarding Leighton's comment, there seems to be something about the institutionalization of spiritual discipline that tends to reduce it to an unnaturally manipulative dynamic. I personally enjoyed Richard Foster's "Celebration of Discipline," but would be terrified to study it with a group. I can just picture the competition to see who could spend the most hours in prayer and meditation, or who could rid themselves of the most worldly possessions.

Dorsey Marshall

Umm... I think my "good enough" question above reads like I'm trying to start an argument. I'm not.


I guess the question is, good enough for what? We can't be perfect--I'd even argue that if you dig deeply enough, the idea of moral perfection isn't coherent; but "better" almost always makes sense, and we never stop trying. I think, though, that the motivation for improvement falls somewhere between "I'm just not good enough for salvation/to accept myself/to sit down and enjoy something" and "There are things in this world yet to do, and I can help," and the healthier motives seem to be clustered toward the latter end. (By "healthy" I mean both the sense of joy and contentment on the part of individuals, and more overall work being done; wallowing in guilt saps a lot of time and energy that could be put to better uses.)

I agree that I'd never want to read a book like that in a group. The weird thing is that introspection toward the end of self-discipline has to be done individually or it's subject to horrible institutional abuses, but for me it was impossible to build those habits of thought without the background of institutional efforts, either in my own life or reading about other people's experiences. I'm still trying to figure this out.


Greg, as you know (and have so kindly helped me out with), I am knee deep in studying this sticky thing that is religon. And do you know what I have found most of it to be? Just words. Words, words and more words. Things and ideas and academic bullshit that really has no applicable or rhetorical benefit to anyone who actually claims to pracitce such a thing. That's discouraging. What I have realized on the other hand is that buried in the words is the niche. The one thing to which everyone clings. That thing is so broad and diverse that it really has no name, and frankly, it is based solely on an eisegesit view of religion. You are going to take what you need, nothing more and nothing less. For some people (and I think this includes you), you are going to take away a sense of social duty. For others, you take away a sense of entitlement and superiority. For still others, religion is nothing more than a hobby. For some it is a true intensive and comprehensive valuing of faith.

I think my point is that people are going to DO exactly what they BELIEVE. Fairly black and white. It is the belief that gets hazy because regardless of what the bible says about Jesus, people are going to keep on believing whatever they want and then doing what they think corresponds. I don't even know if you can ask for more.


I used to go bowling. I was terrible. Absolutely terrible. A friend of mine helped me by pointing out that bowlers don't look at the pins, they look at the arrows.

I think that belief is like that. There are fundamental beliefs, probably archaic, that can guide us if we can see them. I think in a lot of ways that is exactly what Jesus did. He made sure that we knew that unless we dealt with the heart that created the urge to act, we would be in danger of acting unseemly.


Marvelously put!

My response to these sort of ideas a couple of years ago would have been to object that ideas have consequences. So, if what we believe affects how we live, then what we believe obviously does matter.

However, the behaviour of Christian seriously questions such a response!


Seems like the tricky thing with respect to ideas having consequences is that statements of core Christian beliefs like the Nicene creed don't have any obvious implications for behavior, beyond loyalty to authority figures who profess those creeds. In practice, you see instantiations everywhere on the scale from pacifist anabaptists to Crusaders and dominionists who want to spread the good news by fire and the sword.

This may be inevitable in American churches, which have a couple hundred years' history of defining themselves primarily by the differences between them and competing Christian groups.

Dallas TIm

The Bible, on the other hand, has a massive call to altered behaviour. Yes, we can argue what(or how) those behaviours might look, but Jesus (and His immediate followers at His direction) threw down the proverbial gauntlet by commanding radically different hearts, minds, words and actions.

That reminds me, we should discuss inerrancy sometime. I don't think we've ever really debated that topic here at The Parish.


If you go with the Sermon on the Mount, yeah, that's a hell of a lot of imperatives. Most churches seem to like Paul more, though. I've seen a dozen or more churches who spend years or decades of concentrated effort weighing in on the question of whether women can actually speak in church, and only online have I come across individuals (and no churches) who consistently teach that people ought to live like Jesus.

Inerrancy, though, only talks about particular qualities of the text, and as with like the various creeds, you see believers in inerrancy who are commendable, and others who behave like Fred Phelps. It's too abstract and divorced from human action to have any implications for behavior that wouldn't be just as strong coming from a text that's just authoritative.


"As with like"...ouch. It burns. Must proofread more.

I do want to make it clear that I don't think inerrancy's lack of implications for behavior is a problem. I have lots of beliefs--criteria for interpreting physical data, and miscellaneous thoughts on mathematical axioms, for instance--that wouldn't have any effect on how I live if they were radically changed, and don't play a role in my ethical decision-making as they are. My point is that there's no way to distinguish between people who believe in some form of inerrancy and people who see the Bible as authoritative but not inerrant based only on their behavior.

Not that this matters much, since you were pretty clearly joking when you brought up inerrancy in the first place. Some things are more obvious after a couple of drinks.

annette fricke

Like what you have to say. Do you have any formal theological education? Good theological thinking.



thanks. I have a B.S. in Biblical Studies and a M.A. in Theology.

Dallas Tim

Fred Phelps, regardless of what he says he believes, proves by his ACTIONS that he is about as far from the application of Scripture as one could possible get.


I'm on your side when it comes to condemning his actions. It's just that he says the same thing about people who don't behave like him. And while I will side with you any day in that disagreement, it's because I, personally, think kindness and compassion are better for building community than public harassment and condemnation of vulnerable minorities. It makes sense to me, but if God's ways are not our ways, why would that be out of line?

I guess my point is nobody (even inerrantists) takes the whole Bible seriously, just parts of it. Though some groups' parts are much, much larger and more sweeping than others; the Phelps crowd is a little heavier on the "abomination unto the LORD" stuff than the "love your neighbor" or "care for the widows and orphans among you"--groups that are saner and whose members aren't total assholes tend to value more excerpts of the texts than a few cherry-picked wrath of YHWH verses. Would you say the point to try to take as much of the Bible seriously at once as possible? (On that note, have you heard about the guy who did The Year of Living Biblically?)

Dallas Tim

I would say that I take the entire text of Scripture seriously. Now, that doesn't mean I don't eat pork. Why not, if the O.T. say it's fobidden? I think (with the N.T. supporting me) that Jesus changed everything. According to Him, that doesn't mean the O.T. is to be highly esteemed and even still followed in a more "in the spirit of..." kind of way, but the O.T. was God's way of pointing to Jesus and what He would do to fulfill the law (and much more).

I see much of the O.T. as having been fulfilled in me by Christ. O.K. now what? I can eat pork, pull my oxen out of a ditch on Saturday (even Sunday), and use the same fork to stir my milk shake AND eat my chicken fried camel.

The N.T. calls for obedience to Jesus and the "heart" of obedience to God thru following Him. Sometimes we are given specific instructions and sometimes they're just general frames of mind to have towards people and situations.

The book you metioned was interesting. I'd not heard of it. Again, the stoning the sinners part (according to how I see the N.T.) doesn't apply now so I wouldn't consider that as "Living Bibically."

Just my thoughts.



here is a great link.

The comments to this entry are closed.