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Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics
by Gilbert Meilaender
University of Notre Dame Press, 211 pages, $22.95

This veteran of forty years of teaching no longer selects books for courses that fit into some tightly conceived outline but rather picks classics—or worthy companions to classics—that he knows his students will find rewarding and, just as important, from which he himself will continue to learn by teaching them. Gilbert Meilaender’s Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics is just such a book. To make room for it, some other volume will have to move out of the syllabus on Christian ethics next time round.

Meilaender writes beautifully. His literary skill as an essayist puts him in a class with G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. He is Chesterton and Lewis, if you will, in a Lutheran key.

But unlike those other orthodox apologists, he works within the guild of Christian theologians and thus tries to respond to some of the most vexing issues Christian thinkers currently face. His first chapter, for example, acknowledges the singularity of Christian ethics but challenges those prominent sectarians today who have held that the distinctiveness of the Christian faith argues for a withdrawal from the world. In arguing against the sectarians, Meilaender relies on the metaphor of language. “The image of Christian life as insider’s knowledge, as moral tradition learned in the way we learn our native tongue, cannot be fully adequate.” For, “although the Christian way of life is itself a particular one sustained within particular communities it has within it universal elements. And the understanding of life which faith seeks, if it is truly understanding, will to some extent admit of ‘translation’ into the language of public life—which life it both affirms and seeks to transform.”

The three chapters on human nature—the human being, the sinful human being, aid the justified sinner—do a fine job of translating the great themes of the faith that the first chapter calls for. At the same time, Meilaender helps to enrich the language and broaden the sensibilities of native speakers. For example, in the brief compass of six pages, he connects the doctrine of the Trinity (which affirms the elements of universal benevolence, mutuality, and self-sacrifice in the divine life) with four different patterns of Christian piety, two Protestant and two Catholic. These pages are quite original, illuminating, and perhaps even reconciling.

Similarly, in his chapter on the justified sinner, Meilaender travels across the conventional debating lines between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of grace: Protestants, emphasizing God’s grace as declaration, pardon, forgiving love; and Catholics, emphasizing God’s grace as transformation, power, and sanctifying love. He patiently shows how the celebrated advocates of each, Luther and Augustine, found room for the opposite: “. . . Luther could not speak of grace only as declaration of pardon. Augustine could not think of it only as transforming power.” Since “no theory can unite these two in a tension-free harmony,” Meilaender looks to the theologian to strike in the moment the most needful theme.

The last five chapters of the book turn more directly from faith to faithfulness, or what writers in other circles have somewhat inelegantly called “applied ethics.”

As a first step in illuminating what it means to be faithful, Meilaender examines, under the chapter title “Rules, Virtues, and Results,” the three major competing moral theories that dominate contemporary discussion. He is generally more sympathetic to those who associate ethics with rules and virtues, and wary of consequentialists (read utilitarians, pragmatists, and, I suppose, Marxists) who let the full weight of ethics fall on results. While human beings bear “a real but limited responsibility for overall outcomes,” modern utilitarians overreach. They imagine “that the destiny of the world lies not in God’s hands but in ours.” Utilitarianism lacks both trust and hope. It “makes life a heavy burden indeed, for then we bear the godlike responsibility of providing in our every action for the general well-being.”

Once having assumed a godlike responsibility, consequentialists too readily instrumentalize and rationalize all else, sometimes flouting rules and neglecting questions of virtue and character. Meilaender has written elsewhere, “Those who know themselves to be creatures—not Creator—will recognize limits even upon their obligation to do good.” We are obliged “not to achieve all the good that we can” but “to effect all the good that we can within the limits morality places upon us.” These limits lead Meilaender to reject as temptations such practices as active euthanasia or taking tissue from anencephalics for transplants. Respecting these limits does not supply the Christian with an “easy conscience” but a “consoled conscience.”

In defining the church’s role in society, Meilaender rejects what he dubs the Eusebian and the Sectarian temptations. The church is in the world, and therefore it cannot yield to sectarian withdrawal, but it is not of the world, and therefore it cannot undertake the Eusebian task of domination/accommodation. In consequence, the church engages fittingly in public life in two ways. First and positively, through its corporal works of mercy—“feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, burying the dead, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned”—the church reflects the being of the Triune God and supplies intimations and inklings of God’s reign.

Second and negatively, the church must bear witness against injustice in the social and political order. However, in fulfilling this latter role, the church must not fall into the trap of identifying the reign of God with any one social program. The Nazi, Emanuel Hirsch, wrongly tried that back in 1934; and liberation theologians, such as Gustavo Gutierrez, have made the same formal mistake in our time, “however wide the gap between the justice of their respective causes.” (Meilaender could have offered his theological correction of liberation theology without that linkage.) Once having cleared some space between the kingdom of God and the political arena, Meilaender observes, with latitudinarian equanimity, that “there are many different—and acceptable—ways of achieving . . . [a] balance between competing goods and goals in our common life.” The church should speak out against injustice, not consecrate any one social agenda or cause.

In upshot, Meilaender’s position on the political role of the church may reflect too much the perspective of the comfortable burgher, willing to see the intimations of God’s kingdom in the arena of the personal and the intimate—in corporal works of mercy—less disposed to concede that the logic of those works of mercy may require some specific commitments for institutional reforms. Nurturing institutions—even of the tax-supported variety—may sometimes intimate and foreshadow the kingdom of God.

Meilaender closes with two chapters on “Mortality: The Measure of Our Days” and on “The Taste for the Other,” a comparison of Augustine’s and Rousseau’s attempts in their respective Confessions to retrieve all our days. In these explorations of faithfulness across the full span of life and its oftentimes arduous close, Meilaender shows himself to be immensely learned, but too wise simply to jangle the verger’s keys of learning. Throughout these chapters and the whole, he manages to offer the general reader insight into an extraordinary range of authors (not the least, some wonderfully apt texts from Shakespeare) while never losing his own control of the basic agenda for the whole. Undoubtedly my students and other readers, working through this splendid volume, will learn something about fine writing, whether this account of the Christian faith comes to them in their native language or in one not quite their own.

William F. May is the Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University and author of The Patient’s Ordeal (Indiana University Press).