Moral Agents And Christian Ethics

A second aspect of the idea of Christian ethics is the construal of moral agents and activity, personal and collective, in the light of Christian beliefs and experiences. Moral philosophers provide different interpretations of the nature of moral agency; some stress rationality and the capacity of reason to determine volitions, some stress basic drives or orientations of persons, e.g. towards pleasure of happiness; some stress the power of traditions and the communities that embody them to shape and form persons. Moral philosophers have to account for human failure; it is wrong reason, or weakness of will, or improper socialization. They also have views on how to correct moral failures. The formal structure of moral anthropologies is shared by all, or most, moral theorists. The moral anthropologies of Christian writers set these issues in a particular theological and religious context. Moral failure, for example, has historically been defined as disobedience to the will of God; it is a form of sin, and sin is a theological and religious term as well as a moral term. Its antidote is not only better practical reasoning, but the effects of religious faith and openness to the redemptive powers of the Spirit, for example. Confining attention to the significance of sin and grace does not permit a description of all relevant features of Christian moral anthropology, but does provide a way to indicate the importance of choices made by theologians.

Christian ethical ideas are affected by the extent of corruption theologians claim to be the effect of the Fall, whether that is interpreted historically or mythically. Generally the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions have had more confidence in the continuation of powers of the image of God in the human than classic Reformation theologies and their descendants. Appeals to the use of reason to give knowledge of the universally human content of morality in both historic and contemporary moral theologians assume less corruption than many Protestants accept. If rational capacities are corrupted by sin, our knowledge of the right and the good is distorted. Classically, and throughout the tradition, one locus of the moral fault is in the 'will', the power to determine one's conduct according to the good and right that can be known. Thus St Paul, in Romans, claims that we have natural knowledge of what we ought to be and do, and therefore are without excuse in not doing it. The good we would, we do not; the problem is in the weakness or corruption of the will. Radical conversion of the person is required; participation in Christ and the presence of the power of the Spirit are correctives which enable people to have commendable dispositions and to act in morally proper ways.

For the purposes of this chapter, four loci of sin will be distinguished as follows (they are not necessarily mutually exclusive):

1 Disorientation of the ends of natural desires.

2 Unfaith or misplaced trust.

3 Disobedience.

4 Historical social structures.

Each affects the locus of accountability, and the remedy is to some extent determined by it.

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