Moral Formation of the Church: A Socio-Theological Inquiry

It is common place to declare that all religions teach us to be good. As such, protagonists relying on an ethical justification of religion often point to a set of moral values which all religions presumably affirm. . . .Nevertheless, how we are taught such goodness is often not clearly explained. It is not clear how displaying of a set of common moral values would suffice to validate the ethical significance of religion.

The secularity of modern pluralistic societies also means that moral values are not the preserve of religions. The current dominance of rationalistic ethics in moral education is a case in point.

Moral Formation of the Church: A Socio-Theological Inquiry

Ng Kam Weng

I wrote this article more than fifteen years ago. Discerning readers will note that I made good use of Stanley Hauerwas on the subject of moral formation and Christian identity. I must confess that I have since concluded that his work is good only for the preliminary task of social critique and that it lacks resources for constructive social engagement. At the least we need to offer a framework for the Church to contribute to the building of the common good in pluralistic society, in answer to Muslims who charge that Christianity has no social relevance. For this positive task I find more resources from writers of the Amsterdam Reformed Philosophy – Herman Dooyeweerd, Abraham Kuyper and James Skillen.

I. Aim of Paper
It is common place to declare that all religions teach us to be good. As such, protagonists relying on an ethical justification of religion often point to a set of moral values which all religions presumably affirm. One may appeal to the recent declaration for a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic in the World Parliament of Religions II, Chicago 1990 to substantiate this claim. Nevertheless, how we are taught such goodness is often not clearly explained. It is not clear how displaying of a set of common moral values would suffice to validate the ethical significance of religion.

More importantly, we need to make a conceptual distinction between common morality and common ethics. The former is the set of values that citizens agree upon as necessary to undergird social practices and institutions of civil society. The later refers to the rationale each particular community relies on to justify its participation in the common life of civil society. The rationale is naturally framed in terms of the religious tradition and moral identity of each particular religious community.

The secularity of modern pluralistic societies also means that moral values are not the preserve of religions. The current dominance of rationalistic ethics in moral education is a case in point. For instance, moral education which was made compulsory for all non-Muslim students has adopted a deliberately non-religious orientation. Significantly, the moral curriculum is centred around a set of seventeen ‘universal” moral values such as self-reliance, courtesy, honesty, justice, moderation, diligence and gratitude. Presumably, the choice of “universal” moral values is to assure parents from the different communities that their children will not be indoctrinated with moral values which are in conflict with their own traditions. Furthermore, these moral values, being “universal”, would also contribute towards social harmony and national unity.1

On the other hand the demand of “universal” moral values require that the teaching of these values be divorced from the existing moral traditions among the various racial and religious communities. The result is that these values assume the character of abstraction. It is granted that the textbooks do attempt to set up the moral discussion within the contexts of short episodes of social interactions. But is it not the case that the act of severing moral values from the traditions of the communities from which the students come leads to a deprivation of the rich moral resources that are embedded in these various traditions? The assumption that moral values lose their “universal’ significance if they are associated with a particular tradition justifies such an abstract approach in the inculcation of moral values. But the assumption is questionable. Indeed, it may be argued that the students are more likely to adopt and internalise moral values if they are overtly linked to the traditions of their communities.

Excursus 1:
Abstract Rationalist Ethics

The most influential school of moral education today is the school of Cognitive Development associated with Lawrence Kohlberg. its philosophical presuppositions include the claim that to act morally is to act for justice and to give rational justification for one’s action and that there is one psychological structure of moral development. The vital manner in which these two presuppositions undergird the whole cognitive development school demands more detailed comments on our part.

First, the demand for a rational account for one’s moral action has been a dominant feature of the Western ethical tradition since Plato. Plato taught that man must overcome his passions to attain a clear vision of the Good. Such knowledge attained is regarded as virtue. Unfortunately, this leads to a dichotomy between reason and the emotions. Indeed, reason is regarded as the supreme factor in moral behaviour. This tendency is well exemplified by philosophers like Spinoza who modelled his ethics after geometrical deductions and proofs, and Immanuel Kant who took pains to stress that the emotions serve only to hinder moral judgments. This outlook is evident in the moral teaching which seeks to secure the acceptance of moral values on the basis of rationality. Moral educators influenced by Kohlberg would encourage the analysis of moral situations to produce universal assertions as a basis for decision-making of all kinds. Their goal would be moral agents who could give reasons and evidence in support of any claim of truth and validity, in the belief that a rational morality should be capable of withstanding the test of public discussion.

For Kohlberg. the teacher should aim to develop the moral reasoning of the student rather than increasing the students’ moral content. What matters is the attainment of a more ‘sophisticated’ pattern of moral reasoning rather than any particular moral conviction or even moral behaviour. Kohlberg writes:

The goal of moral education is the stimulation of the ‘natural” development of the individual child’s own moral judgment and capacities, thus allowing him to use his own moral judgment to control his behaviour. The attractiveness of development rather than teaching fixed rules stems from the fact that it involves aiding the child to take the next step in a direction towards which he is already tending, rather than imposing an alien pattern upon him.2

Kholberg displays a typical secular-humanist confidence in the inevitable progression of moral development. In his view the human being is driven by a natural impulse to empathize and act with justice in social relationships. To be sure, Kohlberg indicates awareness that children initially display a self-centred morality. He is however confident that this moral weakness will be eventually overcome with proper moral education.

Kohlberg also claims to have discovered the stages of moral development which are invariant even across cultures. These moral structures are themselves neither latent nor environmental but result from social interactions. The initial structures are elementary but through the exercise of moral reasoning more complex structures which supersede the original ones are evolved. The stages of moral development are as follows:

Kohlberg’s Moral Stages3
I. Pre-conventional level

At this level, the child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but interprets these labels either in terms of the physical or the hedonistic consequences of action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or in terms of the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels. The level is divided into the following two stages:

Stage 1: The punishment-and-obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness, regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are valued in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority (the latter being Stage 4).

Stage 2: The instrumental-relativist orientation. Right action consists of that which instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms like those of the marketplace. Elements of fairness, of reciprocity, and of equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” not of loyalty, gratitude, or justice.

II. Conventional level
At this level, maintaining the expectations of the individual’s family, group, or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order, and of identifying with the persons or group involved in it. At this level, there are the following two stages:

Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation. Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or ‘natural’ behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention-!he means well” becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being “nice”.

Stage 4: The ‘law and order” orientation. There is orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists of doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.

III. Post-conventional, autonomous, of principled level
At this level, there is a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding these principles and apart from the individual’s own identification with these groups. This level also has two stages:

Stages 5: The social-contract, legalistic orientation, generally with utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, the right is a matter of personal “values” and “opinion.” The result is an emphasis upon the “legal point of view”, but with an emphasis upon the possibility of changing law in terms of rational considerations of social utility (rather than freezing it in terms of Stage 4 “law and order”). Outside the legal realm, free agreement and contract is the binding element of obligation. This is the “official” morality of the American government and constitution.

Stage 6: The universal-ethical-principle orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accordance with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency.. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons (“From Is to Ought,” pp. 164-165)

II. Criticism of Abstract Rationalistic Ethics
Kohlberg’s theory has occasioned much controversy. For instance some moral philosophers reject the model as a mere reflection of Western cultural presuppositions. There are doubts if it could be applied adequately in a context with a different cultural and moral outlook such as those of Eastern philosophies.

Perhaps the most interesting criticism comes from Carol Gilligan4 who in her own empirical research concludes that Kohlberg’s moral stages are biased. The males interviewed by Kohlberg may frame their ethical questions around rules, rights and abstract principles. But the women in Gilligan’s studies based their moral action on the basis of real ongoing relationships rather than theoretical solutions to hypothetical dilemmas. Not surprisingly, women tended to score at stage 3 on Kohlberg’s scale since they were concerned with interpersonal feelings. Consequently, women tended to score lower on Kohlberg’s scale.


R. S. Peters also notes that “there is a kind of abstractness and unreality about the approach to moral education which places exclusive emphasis on the development of a rational form of morality and which considers its content unimportant, dismissing it, as Kohlberg does.”5 He then insists that moral principles must be conceived of as being bound up with some ethical content. After all, even the scientist who supremely personifies abstract theorising cannot proceed without having any content to think about.

In other words, if values or the valuation process is to be effectively taught, they must be enfleshed in concrete realities. Much of a person’s morals is taken up with his roles and duties, with what is required of him as a husband, a father, citizen and member of a profession. Furthermore, he needs to be motivated to action and often ritual, social myths and heroic figures serve to achieve this. The complexity of morality is recognized by Bertrand Russell in his observation that “Social cohesion demands a creed, or a code of behaviour, or a prevailing sentiment, or at best, some combination of all three”6

Another unsatisfactory aspect of Kohlberg’s theory is the dichotomy between moral reason and the emotions. First, it ignores empirical studies of moral judgment which point out that the moral character is greatly influenced by deep emotional attachments experienced by the child in his formative years. Second, moral choices are not just a simple matter of cooly and rationally deciding the various possible courses of action. In a world where our insight into the future is often clouded by ambiguity and insufficient information, we often have to agonize in conflicting emotions, especially over matters of great consequence. Often too, our desires justify themselves with rationalisations. Third, we cannot ignore that for many, to be rational is to care for the truth. It is no accident that Bertrand Russell was called the passionate skeptic. Surely moral convictions must be equally passionate. Last, a morality that moves beyond narrow individualism, that views the moral agent in a social context must see the unavoidable involvement of the emotion since “interpersonal relations are the very stuff of morality.”7 We can only concur with the judgment of Downey and Kelly,” just as it is impossible in any practical educational context to separate the cognitive from the effective goals, so it is impossible to distinguish these two aspects of any practical moral issue.”8

1. Abstract Ethics Assumes an Alienated Self

The preceding discussion bring doubts on much current focus of ethics from abstract rationalism which can range from adoption of a hierarchy of values and their rational justification. After all, ethical action results from a prior choice of what kind of person one chooses to be. That is to say, moral identity precedes moral choices however inseparable they may be.. Cf. Pauline Chazan, The Moral Self, pp. 108-109.

Pauline Chazan displays a more accurate understanding of moral dynamics when she insists that, “ the moral aim should not be merely to perform good or right action. The aim should be that we intend and will the good and right thing because our motives are what they are, and this because we have made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are.” [p. 152]

For example, we act for justice not because we are attracted to certain theories justice so much as acting our of integrity given our personal sense of justice. As such, the moral self must be central in our discourse on morality. After all, moral action presumes a coherent self to be significant. On the other hand, to deny the existence of an enduring self would rob morality of an accountable moral agent. More significantly, moral action presumes a wholesome conception of one’s own moral self.

Chazan 85-87
A cohesive self, as described by self-psychology, is needed if a conception of human good is to guide a person’s thoughts, deliberations, actions, relationships. This kind of commitment to, and guidance by, certain values precluded in a person whose self is in a state of fragmentation. For a fragmented self will need to invest all its energies in those strategies and activities that might hold it together as a self, albeit precariously, precluding it from committing itself to, internalising, or investing its energies in enacting, a normative conception of human good. A fragmenting self is capable of neither virtue nor character-friendship.

This insight has been affirmed long ago by Aristotle and recently by psychotherapist H. Kohut. Aristotle remarks that “Friendly relations with one’s neighbours, and the marks by which friendships are defined, seem to have proceeded from a man’s relations with himself.” [1166al-3, Chazan 63]

Aristotle’s love of the self should however is not so much an expression of narcissism. It is the realization of a robust moral self with its own internal moral resources that enables the moral agent to interact positively with other people.

Cf. A man with a bad conscience cannot be a good man. Hence the ethical significance of the doctrine of justification.

Questions: How can Buddhism justify ethical action if it denies the existence of an enduring moral self. Who is the ethical agent? Who should take responsibility? How to account for moral formation in the absence of a relational context?

An ethics that emphasizes on a robust moral identity for the moral agent also avoids weakness that is common to current abstract rationalistic ethics which seem to suggest that moral choices often contradicts one’s emotional preferences and self-interests. Chazan elaborates, “Rather than morally good action been seen as action which disregards or neglects what we most care about and which (it is thought) we ought morally to care less about (our own selves), it can be seen instead to be something which the self can be completely committed when the self is cared for and valued in the right way.
Rather than seeing morally good action on the model of replacing my interests with everybody’s interests, . . . every person (in virtue of their ability to make a value into their reason for acting in a certain way) can be seen as potentially having morally good action as one of their interests.” [pp. 152-153]

2. Abstract Ethics Neglect Contextual Factors
Abstract rationalistic ethic also wrongly views the moral agent apart from his social context. The weakness of the kind of moral individualism exemplified by Kohlberg is exposed by G. R. Dunstan when he warns:

Moral individualism of the sort now in vogue tends to deny the community the assurance of that support [i.e. a conscientious determination and effort to maintain morality and to uphold the law]; it atomizes morality, isolating each individual and each decision from its context in society and moral continuity.9

Undoubtedly, the moral agent should be the focus of moral education but he must be placed in a moral context. Perhaps Bertrand Russell’s maxim would serve as an excellent guide towards a balanced and wholesome moral education, “ Without civic morality community perishes, without personal morality their survival has no value.”10

Attention should also be drawn to the sociological insights of Emile Durkheim in order to correct the permissive laissez-faire approach to moral stimulation in Kohlberg’s theory. Durkheim emphasises that moral formation involves discipline since morality assumes consistency of conduct. “Morality thus presupposes a certain capacity for behaving similarly under like circumstances, and consequently it implies a certain ability to develop habits, a certain need for regularity.”11 In particular, discipline reinforces appropriate conduct without which ordered and organised life would be impossible. Discipline liberates us from the need to contrive each ethical action de novo. Socially, it means accepting convention which “are the carriers of moral insight; they form the network for moral consistency within a generation and moral continuity for the next.”12 It necessitates learning and accepting one’s role in an institution. Such moral role is clearly set out by Dorothy Emmet:

The framework of actions are established patterns of social relationships and ways of doing things-institutions, in fact-which produce situations in which some kinds of action can be effective and other kinds discouraged or rendered ineffective. In a chaotic aggregate of individuals few purposes could be effective (the Hobbesian insight). Sociological analysis shows why some kinds of purpose are likely to be pursued effectively under some form of social relationship and others not.13

Discipline therefore guides the individual to appropriate, determinate goals without which life would itself dissipate into frustrations and failures resulting from directionless aspirations. The task of moral education is foster and reinforce social relationships not only through theorising but through active participation in the activities of social life. R. S. Peters is in full agreement with this insight when he writes that we acquire virtues only in the exercise of them (Aristotle), and since education is initiation of people into social life, children gradually acquire these desirable forms of social skills by some on-the-spot apprenticeship system.14

The inadequacy of Kohlberg’s abstract morality is further highlighted by recent developments in moral philosophy which emphasise that a person’s morality is not a series of disjointed responses to isolated situations but that it is one of an ongoing quality of life. A prominent voice is found in Stanley Hauerwas with his articulate criticisms against this ‘juridical’ ethics which prescribes solutions derived from generalizations based on analysis of abstract moral concepts divorced from historically contingent and particular situations and which assumes the autonomy of the moral agent from religious and traditional values. Among his many telling criticisms, we find the following three instructive:

First, ‘juridical’ ethics, that is to say, the form of ethics which concentrates on deducing solutions based on abstract moral concepts and principles, presupposes a distorted moral psychology. Since Kant, ‘juridical’ ethics has engaged in a futile attempt to secure for moral judgments an objectivity that would free such judgments from the subjective beliefs, wants and stories of the agent who makes them.’-, The moral character of the ethical agent is both obscured and alienated from his passions and interests.

This is a serious misconception since our perception of what constitutes moral problems depends on the kind of people we are. In other words, a moral problem arises when we discern and feel that certain actions are incongruent with the kind of people we think we are and we therefore act accordingly. We have deliberately chosen the words ‘discern’ and ‘feel’ because often we do not conclude that a problem exists through a process of analysis and reasoning so much as intuitively construe it to be the case. Thus we agree with Hauerwas when he insists that moral discernment requires sustained habits that form one’s emotions and passions, teaching one to feel one way rather than another.16

Second, juridical ethics gives an ‘unwarranted emphasis’ on individual decisions in ‘quandary’ situations. The result of this obsession with adjudicating difficult cases of conscience within a system of ethical principles means that ethics has more to do with hypothetical cases rather than real life situations; it has very little to do with much of life. Hauerwas succinctly formulated his objection:

The concentration on obligations and rules as morally primary ignores the fact that action descriptions gain their intelligibility from the role they play in a community’s history and therefore for individuals in that community. When “acts” are abstracted from that history, the moral self cannot help but appear as an unconnected series of actions lacking continuity and unity.17

Third, upon closer examination, the stress on juridical ethics actually turns out to be counterproductive. The abstract and alienating exercise of juridical ethics actually renders us unable to use our imaginative power to offer new and alternative options that could arise from a community of people with a unique identity. The purpose of ethics is to determine various means by which we may live and act consistently with the values embodied in the narratives and community of which we are members.18

Excursus 2:
Murdoch’s Visional Ethics

The fundamental source of these three ethical distortions has also been relentlessly exposed by Iris Murdoch as arising from the assumption that moral differences are differences of choice rather than vision, and in making goodness a function of the will rather than the fruit of insight.” But to consider duty without a context and to exalt the idea of freedom and power of choice would obscure the relationship between virtue and reality.

In Murdoch’s view, man is more than an impersonal thinker. He is, rather, a holistic being. He acts not merely out of cool, rational deliberation but is also influenced by what he perceives and desires. Murdoch points out that it is a psychological fact that we receive moral help by focusing our attention upon things which are of value, like virtuous people, great art and even the idea of goodness itself. She insists that we act rightly not out of strength of will but out of the quality of our usual attachments and with the kind of energy and discernment which we have available.

It is a task to come to see the world as it is. A philosophy which leaves duty without a context and exalts the idea of freedom and power as a separate top level value ignores this task and obscures the relation between virtue and reality. We act rightly ‘when the time comes’ not out of strength of will but out of the quality of our usual attachments and with the kind of energy and discernment which we have available. And to this the whole activity of our consciousness is relevant.20

According to Murdoch when people approach moral issues they do not so much consider their immediate decisions to particular moral dilemmas; rather we consider their conception of their life.21 Murdoch adds, “We differ not only because we select different objects out of the same world but because we see different worlds.”22 Elsewhere Murdoch points out that our moral actions are ‘instinctive’ reactions since “I can only choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of ‘see’ which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort…. One is often compelled almost automatically by what one can see.”23

In seeking to restore vision as morally central, Murdoch agrees with Simone Weil that “will is obedience and not resolution.”24 Murdoch writes as a philosopher of the Platonic tradition. Not surprisingly her suggestion with regard to the background reality central to one’s moral vision is the idea of goodness. Undoubtedly, the Christian would reject such an abstract concept of goodness.


III. Christ and Narrative Identity

The Christian accepts the fact that moral action springs from a particular view of reality. But in contrast to Murdoch’s Platonic tendency to take its flight from the concrete world to a timeless world of “ideas” the Christian requires a moral framework that does justice to the historical experience and contingency of human existence. Hence Hauerwas calls for a recovery of the narrative quality of our moral existence. Action itself has a historical character: It is because we all live out our narratives in our lives and because we understand our lives in terms of narratives that we live out that form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told-except in the form of fiction.25

Hauerwas’ suggestion springs from his perception that since the self is historically formed it therefore requires a narrative. “To be historic means that I must be capable of making a succession of ‘events’ a narrative- not just any narrative, but a narrative that is sufficient to give me a sense of self, one which looks not only my past but points the future, thereby giving my life a telos and direction.”26 Hauerwas also insists that “Narrative is the characteristic form of our awareness of ourselves as historical beings who must give an account of the purposive relation between temporally discrete realities.”27

The Christian does not merely adopt any story as the basis of his moral action. His personal identity and action is grounded in the person and history of Christ. Specifically, the history of Jesus Christ determines the shape and content of the ethical life of the Christian. By grounding ethics on the history of Christ the Christian sets aside the fear that his rejection of casuistry would mean a deprivation of definiteness of content and criteria necessary to determine and structure ethical action. This gap is filled by the normative role accorded to Christ for the believer. As Karl Barth writes, in Christ the command of God:

… does not confront us as an ideal, whether that of an obligation, that of a permission, or that of a combination of the two, but as the reality fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. This person as such is not only the ground and content but also the form of the divine claim. And it is in this person and only in Him that the identity of authority and freedom is accomplished. Deriving from this person, in His relationship to us and in our relationship to Him, this identity becomes normative for what is demanded of us.28

The life of Jesus as narrated in the Gospels provides a dynamic but coherent framework wherein the hearer may place himself and appropriate examples of moral action. Far from being occasionalist, there is continuity and direction for moral growth in a visional or narrative ethics since the story facilitates the process of appropriation of roles and patterns of moral action on the basis of what is observed in the life of Christ.29 The purpose of the narrative of Christ is not to provide rules and prescription for ethical questions but the theological resources which will ensure that the church will respond to specific moral issues consistent with its distinctive identity.30 More significantly, the recognition of what constitutes obligations arises out of a sense of wanting to act in a manner consistent with one’s identification with the narrative of Christ.

The fact is moral discernment and reception of Cod’s command never occurs ex nihilo. In this regard we can point to W. B. Gallie’s insight in another context – “almost every incident in a story requires, as a necessary condition of its intelligibility, its acceptability, some indication of the kind of event or context which occasioned or evoked it, or, at the very least, made it possible.”31 In view of the constancy of God it should be possible for us to reconcile the command which we hear afresh with the history of Christ in which God had acted decisively for man.32

Following Barth’s insight, we are stressing that we can determine the events in the story (in this case the story of Jesus Christ), only if we first of all place our own life story within the context of the story of Jesus. As Werpehowski puts it, “…we are concretely and actively concerned with God and his command when we properly situate our personal life-story at his disposal, having it determined completely by the story of what he has done for us. If we truly understand what we are asking and why we are asking it, then the command will be ours for the hearing.”33 This is clearly what Barth meant when he insisted that only the history of Christ can provide the continuing context and unity of purpose and direction for Christian action.34 Only as such will it be possible and necessary to investigate the horizontal effects of the vertical command without violating its mystery and divine subjectivity.

Christian ethics becomes theocentric since it continually situates Christian action within the prior pattern of divine action which is “the reality in which the ethical event takes place, to which we look from the event, and from which we must look back to the event to see it in its concreteness.”35 Christian ethics calls for an appropriate mode of human response that corresponds to Cod’s prior action for us in the story of Jesus.

What we have said about the objective content of truth of the reality of Jesus Christ, which includes our own reality, presses upon us, from its objectivity to our subjectivity, in order that there should be in us a correspondence…It becomes a historical event in the encounter between this witness and us. In the name and commission of the reality and truth of Jesus Christ we are concretely seized, whether we like it or not, in the course of this address and summons and application and claim.36

The fact that ethical action receives its initial actualization in the history of Jesus does not mean that the ethical concerns of the Christian are restricted to the past. On the contrary, the category of incorporation of the believer into the history of the resurrected Christ implies the continuance of this history. As such, the concern for growth of the ethical agent is kept in view. We observe, for instance, that each person’s life actually contains not one history or story or memory but many, and that we act according to how we play out these stories. From this observation we may describe the growth or the sanctification of the Christian as the process whereby the story or history of Christ assumes increasing dominance in the Christian’s life. The Christian is seen as liberated [The term liberation (Befreiung) rather than freedom (Freiheit) of man, is used since the former better preserves the dynamic overtone of the encounter between man and God in which Christ remains the subject and in which the story of Christ increasingly determines human action] from his past by exercising a new found freedom oriented to the future, in this case the continuing history of Christ. But, the history of Christ is seen as an extension of liberating grace to both the Christian community as well as civil society, this outlook entails that Christian freedom goes beyond individual significance. Rather the Christian lives out the grace of God in personal commitment to a new vocation of God within his social cultural context.37

But is it not true that in our pluralistic society there are different ‘visional’ ethics or moral vision? How are we decide which moral vision should be the basis of our moral life? Is not ‘visional’ ethics only an ethical form of the coherence theory of truth, which is inadequate unless one is assured that it demonstrates experiential adequacy for moral action in the context of shared reality? As an answer the Christian moral vision offers the following criteria for ethical valuation of competing stories that undergird various moral visions. Any story which we adopt, or allow to adopt us, will have to display: 1) power to release us from destructive alternatives; 2) ways of seeing through current distortions; 3) room to keep us from having to resort to violence; 4) a sense for the tragic; how meaning transcends power.38 The criteria are not meant to be applied mechanically for the sole purpose of rational valuation. Instead the very adoption of these criteria must be seen as a commitment to a way of life, a determined effort to embody the moral vision in a community.

It would be misleading if our criticism were to give the impression that we must choose between an ethics of being and juridical ethics. That this does not imply any exclusion of a consideration of the rules which govern moral obligations should be evident. The concern at the moment is to establish the priorities which theological ethics ought to address. There is no necessity to force the issue in having to choose one or the other. We are merely stressing that priority be given to the attainment of the moral identity of the agent as a prerequisite for any adequate moral decision.39 In this respect Kohlberg’s form of moral reasoning may be seen as a possible form of moral discourse in public or civic morality whereby people of different traditions attempt to come to agreement as to how best to relate to each other in a shared social reality. That it is not the only form of moral discourse, that it is far from adequate and that it needs the underpinning of established traditional forms of morality is the burden of this paper.

IV. The Church as the Context for Moral Formation
The Church functions as the community of moral discourse and bearer of Jesus’ ethical teaching. The Jesus we know is the Jesus remembered by the church, and is mediated by its tradition and made present through word, sacrament and action.40 In this sense, to neglect the community in our quest for a christologically based morality would be to ignore the most important legacy of Jesus’ ethical ministry.

It must therefore be emphasized that the story of Christ cannot be told in isolation from the present experience of the church in wider society.41 It may even be argued that priority be assigned to the community over the individual in moral formation since the church nutures the relational capacities of its members and shapes the moral sensibilities and identities of the members.42

First, the Church is a source of moral development wherein members identify with the moral tradition. Furthermore, communities have their own dramas. 1 become a part of the community insofar as I adopt the drama as part of my own drama. In the process 1 come to share the most fundamental convictions and viewpoints of the community and internalise a way of life. 1 also accept the specific role entrusted upon me as a member of the community. My moral identity becomes a function of my social location within the community. In this regard though moral reason remains an important skill, nevertheless, the ability to fulfill my role expectation is even more fundamental.

Second, the church embodies a rich and varied content of moral resources and values. The community presents its own moral discourses and rituals which both shape my moral vision and provide the moral criteria in the exercise of moral reasoning. Of particular importance are the rituals and symbolic actions of the community. It is in prayer that believers are delivered from the “relentless fat ego which Murdoch noted”.43 What is needed is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind from that of our self centred destructive relationships. Prayer refocuses and reinforces our vision of the Supreme Good. This is morally significant since we are instinctively obedient to what absorbs our attention. Consequently, prayer is the necessary prerequisite for obedience to God. It must be stressed that this is more than just an exercise of moral psychology. Rather, in resorting to prayer the Christian acknowledges the fallen side of human existence. Moral progress is not an automatic result which seems to be implied by Kohlberg. It comes only as one appropriates the renewing grace of God.

Third, the church functions as a framework of moral accountability. The Christian has always understood that moral discernment is not attained through the contemplation of an isolated hermit. Rather it comes about in the act of mutual service in the ongoing life of the community. In this regard moral freedom is freedom in the presence and for the service of the other. ‘Visional’ ethics requires us to frame our vision in the context of moral accountability.

It should be clear that the church has a responsibility in availing its moral resources to shape our moral vision. More importantly, the church needs to be aware that moral formation is not an option which it may ignore. This is because the ongoing life and activities of the church are fundamentally moral in nature. The church is involved in moral formation of its members whether it is aware of it or not. The only question is whether it is doing a good job of it. A critical self awareness of the moral dimension of the communal life would undoubtedly ensure the successful fulfillment of this vital ministry.

1. Anthropological discussions on universal values include Clyde Kluckhohn, “Ethical Relativity: Sic Et Non,” The Journal of Philosophy 52 (1955): 663-677. See also his article “Values and Value-Orientation in the Theory of Action: An Exploration in Definition and Clarification,” in Toward a General 7heory of Action, eds. Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils ambridge: Havard Uni. Press, 1951), pp. 388-433. Ralph Linton suggests common values such as reciprocity, fairness, parental responsibility, filial obedience, as well as values regarding health, happiness and knowledge. See, “The Problem of Universal Values,’ in Method and Perspective in Anthropology (Minnesota: Uni. of Minnesota, 1954), pp. 145-168. Finally, the legal perspective on ‘the basic form of the common good” may be found in John Finnis, Natural,Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: CUP, 1980), pp. 81-99.

2. Lawrence Kohlberg “Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education.” in Beck, Crittenden, & Sullivan, ed. Moral Education: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Uni. Toronto Press, 1971), p. 71.

3.Excerpted from Lawrence Kohlberg ‘The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment,” Journal of Philosophy. 25 October 1973, pp.631-32.

4. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard Uni. Press, 1982).

5. R. S. Peters, Psychology and Ethical Development (Alien Unwin, 1974), pp. 376, 288.

6. Quoted in R. C. Angell, Free Society and Moral Crisis (Arm Arbor, 1965), p. 28.

7. P.W. Musgrave, The Moral Curriculum: A Sociological Analysis (Methuen,1978), p.27.

8. Downey and Kelly, Moral Education: Theory and Practice (Harper & Row, 1978), p. 111.

9. G. R. Dunstan, The Artifice of Ethics (SCM, 1974), p.2.

10. B. Russell, Society in Ethics and Politics (Allen Unwin, 1954), p. 28.

11. Emile Durkheim, Moral Education (Free Press, 1961), p.27.

12. G.R. Dunstan, Artifice of Ethics, p.9.

13. Dorothy Emmet, Rules, Roles and Relations, p. 125. Unlike Kohlberg, Durkheim does not see discipline as a threat to autonomy so long as “morality not be internalized in such a way as to be beyond criticism or reflection, the agent par excellence of all change of, circumstances are never the same, and as a result the rules of morality in their application.” Moral Education, p. 52.

14. Peters, Psychology and Ethical Development, p. 272.

15. Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy (Uni. of Notre Dame Press, 1977), p.16.

16. Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 117. See also James Gustafson, Christ and the Moral Life (Chicago: Uni. Chicago, 1968).

17. Ibid., p. 21.

18. Ibid., p. 121.

19. Iris Murdoch, “Vision and Choice in Morality,” in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, ed. I. Ramsey (London: Macmillan, 1966), p.208. Note also Oliver O’Donovan’s remark that man’s moral understanding is a grasp of the whole shape of things. “If a set of moral conceptions has at any time to be supplemented by major additions… then something more has happened than a simple accrual of moral wisdom. There is no empty space in a moral outlook which unlearnt moral truths may come in to fill. To learn radically new moral truth is to change the shape of the whole outlook. One cannot add moral truth to moral truth; one can only repent false perceptions of the moral order and turn to truer ones. The fact that moral illumination does, in its fundamental form, involve conversion-having to unlearn as error what one thought one knew as truth-should alert us to the inadequacy of the accumulative model to express our experience of moral learning.’ In Resurrection and the Moral Order (Leicester: IVP, 1986), pp.91-92.

20. Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1970), pp. 91-92.

21. Iris Murdoch, “Vision and Choice in Morality,’ p. 202.

22. Ibid., p. 203.

23. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), p.36.

24. Ibid., p.40. Further theological elaboration may be found in Craig Dykstra, Vision and Character: A Christian Educator’s Alternative to Kohlberg (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).

25 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 197. ‘Me philosophical underpinnings of a narrative moral theory is lucidly set out by Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue. 2nd. ed., (London: Duckworth, 1985).

26. Ibid., p. 36.

27. Ibid., p. 28.

28. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics vol. 2.2., (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), p. 606 The normativity of Christ for the believer lies not merely in the superiority of an ethical ideal. Rather, for the believer, Christ becomes the ruling subject. “But if He acts extra nos pro nobis, and to that extent also in nobis, this necessarily implies that in spite of the unfaithfulness of every man He creates in the history of every man the beginning of his new history, the history of a man who has become faithful to God.” CD. 4.4.21.

29. Gustafson argued, “If what God has done for man in Christ has a story that is the appropriate historical manifestation of it, a story to be found in the Gospel narratives, this story does give some shape and specification to what human purposes, actions and orders are appropriate expressions of man’s own sharing in Christ’s life.’ In Christ and The Moral Life, p. 187. An excellent discussion may be found in John Webster. -Christology, Imitability and Ethics,’ in Scottish Journal Of Theology 30 (1988):309-326. Hauerwas also notes, “Christian ethic is the disciplined activity which analyzes and imaginatively tests the images most appropriate to orchestrate the Christian life in accordance with the central conviction that the world has been redeemed by the work of Christ.” In Peaceable Kingdom, p. 69.

30. George W. Stroup writes, ‘Christian narrative simply provides the moral posture or disposition the Christian community assumes in relation to its larger social world, and Christian narrative provides the symbols and principles by which the community responds to moral issues.’ In The Promise of Narrative Theology (London: SCM, 1981), pp. 231-232.

31. W. B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 26.

32. Thus Barth asserted, “Concrete human action thus proceeds under a divine order which persists in all the differentiations of individual cases. It, too, takes place in a connexion which is sure though it can seldom if ever be demonstrated. We have to take this connexion into account, and therefore the permanence and continuity of human action as well.” CD.3.4.17.

33. In Werpehowski, “Command and History in the Theology of Karl Barth,’ in The Journal of Religious Ethics 9 (1981), p.314. Barth concurs, “Ethics, then, cannot itself give direction. It can only give instruction, teaching us how to put that question relevantly and how to look forward openly, attentively, and willingly to the answer that God can and does give.” See Barth, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p.34.

34. Elsewhere Barth added, “He is a being which is summoned by the Word Of God and to that extent historical, grounded in the history inaugurated in this Word. And whatever else his nature may be, it is subordinated to this historicity and explicable only in the light of it.” Church Dogmatics vol.3.2. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960), p. 150.

35. CD. 3.4.28.

36. CD. 4.2.303.

37. Jacque Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 119, 141-142.

38. Hauerwas, “From System to Story: An Alternative Pattern for Rationality in Ethics” co-written with David B. Burrell in Stanley Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy (Notre Dame: Uni. Notre Dame, 1977), p.35. Note how the criteria recognizes the dark side of human moral existence which is overlooked in the morality of L. Kohlberg.
39. For example, p. 121. Moral reasoning takes on different emphasis in ‘visional’ ethics which is the imaginative testing of our habits of life against the well-lived and virtuous lives of othes. As Hauerwas writes, “But such testing is not simply a deduction from texts to actions, but the testing by others who have been formed by that story and have perhaps discovered more appropriate ways to understand and shape our pratices, habits and choices.” In Peaceab1e Kingdom, p. 133.

40. David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroads, 1981), pp. 234-238.

41. This is particularly highlighted by Alasdair Macintyre who points out that the story of my life “is always embedded in the story of those communities from which 1 derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualistic mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.” A. Macintyre, After Virtue, p. 204.

42. James B. Nelson, Moral Nexus: Ethics of Christian Identity and Community (Philadelphia, Wesminster, 1971), pp. 94-99. See also Bruce C. Birch & Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life 2nd. ed.,(Minneapolis: Ausburg 1989), p. 132.

43. Murdoch added that the religious believer, especially if his God is conceived of as a person, is in the fortunate position of being able to focus his thought upon something which is a source of energy.

44. It would be unrealistic to expect the existing moral curriculum to include specific teachings of all moral religious traditions, given the lack of a central organizational authority to represent each tradition. Neither would it be acceptable to parents who do not want their children to be taught morals from a tradition different from their own. Perhaps a compromise could be found in allowing different voluntary moral societies (e.g. Christian moral society) to be formed at the request of parents. It is also incumbent that the Christian community comes out with a moral curriculum that can be satisfactorily carried out within the present education system.

One thought on “Moral Formation of the Church: A Socio-Theological Inquiry”

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