Can you teach Christian ethics without Christ?

It’s already started. My daughter, who is only one month into 4th grade, has already encountered the kind of ‘mean girl’ dynamics that I so painfully associate with the Middle School experience. A few nights ago we had a long talk about some of the nasty goings-on at school and how she should respond. Although my daughter was not directly involved in this recent incident as either victim or perpetrator, she was still very upset. In our conversation that night, I found myself repeating the two lessons that I have taught all my children so often before:

  1. Treat others the way you want to be treated
  2. Be kind to everyone, even the people you don’t like

As I taught my daughter these lessons that night I was struck by the fact that I never explicitly referenced Jesus, God or the Bible during the conversation, although it was Christ’s words that I had in my mind as I spoke (in particular Matthew 7: 12 “In everything do unto others as you would have them to do you” and Matthew 6:44 ‘…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’).  But I remember making the conscious choice during the conversation not to explicitly reference these verses. Instead, I just passed on the lessons to her as though these were my own ideas – a sort of divinely inspired plagiarism.

Later that night, I started thinking about why I had left Christ out of the conversation. Given the fact that I write about religion regularly and have been a Sunday School teacher for the past few years, it’s not like I’m afraid to talk about Jesus. But I chose to deliver a secularized version of Christ’s message, and after some reflection I realized that there were two main reasons behind this choice.

  1. In the case of my daughter, who regularly makes fun of me for reading ‘boring books about God’, I know that making any explicit religious reference is guaranteed to turn her off (unless she’s in the mood to challenge me, in which case she provides new fodder for blog posts about raising an atheist daughter).
  2. My instincts that evening almost certainly reflected my own secular upbringing and current cultural context. My Reform Jewish parents never mentioned God except maybe at Passover when they did the annual ritual of ‘opening the door for Elijah’ (which enabled our 150 pound Bullmastiff to come in to the house).  Even today, I live in a culture where God or Jesus are rarely mentioned during normal conversation. This does not mean that the people I know are not religious – most people in my community are either actively affiliated with a religious institution or consider themselves spiritual. Rather, God-free conversation seems to me more a cultural dynamic of my particular geographic and socio-economic milieu (Northeast, urban, liberal, affluent and predominantly Caucasian). In contrast, it seems that, for instance in the South, or certain immigrant communities, God and Jesus are just more frequently and naturally mentioned in conversation.

Putting aside for a moment the reasons for these different conversational cultures, I’ve been trying to figure out whether, given my faith, I did the wrong thing. Or, put another way – which is more important for a Christian parent: to raise a kid who knows she is a follower of Christ or to raise a kid who lives the way Christ taught us to live?  While of course one would think that those options should never be mutually exclusive, in the case of my daughter at this stage of her life, I think I reach her more effectively when the message is secularized.

To answer this question, it’s important to clarify what my overall goals are for my children. They’re pretty simple really: for them to live a happy life. I happen to believe that the best way to achieve that happiness is by trying to live the way Jesus taught us to live: loving others, caring for those in need, not focusing on material things, nourishing our spirits and living in awe of the glory of creation. As far as I can tell, none of these things require one to be a Christian, or even to be religious.

That said – I wonder if my daughter will reach a point where she will find that having faith makes it easier to find the path to this kind of happiness. You see – for now -it works just fine for her to take my word on how to live her life. But she’s only in 4th grade. What happens when she gets to, say, 7th grade, and goes into the full-blown adolescent mode of Everything-My-Parents-Ever-Told-Me-Is-Lame-By-Definition?  In other words, the days of my being the ultimate authority in her life are likely to be short-lived, and they should be. She needs to come to her own conclusions about life.

So when she reaches that point, it seems likely that the moral lessons I’ve tried to teach her will require some alternative source of authority. In particular, some of the less intuitive injunctions such as loving one’s enemies may require some additional supporting evidence.

Perhaps she will find the justifications for living a moral life in philosophical works such as those of Derek Parfit or, more recently, Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, which ground moral living exclusively on scientific and rational basis. However, from my (admittedly still limited) review of such material, I find that these writings are:

  1. Completely ineffective at inspiring moral action (these works speak to the head, but not at all to the heart where compassionate acts must ultimately form).
  2. Are inconclusive rational arguments that are endlessly challenged by other inconclusive rational arguments.

Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, writes in his Systematic Theology that “the infinite horizons of thinking cannot supply the basis for any concrete decisions with certainty”. He goes on to say that the basis for such ‘existential’ decision-making must be derived from “Only a truth which is present in spite of the infinity of theoretical possibilities and only a good which is present in spite of the infinite risk implied in every action….”  Tillich argues that this truth, that this good, can ultimately only be found in revelation – in faith.  Although I am still early in the process of studying this issue, I’d have to say that so far I agree with Tillich. And when it comes to my daughter – well – maybe I’d better review that lesson with her and cite my sources this time.

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3 Responses to Can you teach Christian ethics without Christ?

  1. joan says:

    So timely – as a parent of adult children who are finding their own way in the world I will simply say that I do think it matters that your children know your sources. As a teacher I think it matters that they know the sources and that you read from them together in the elementary developmental stage of life. I also think that when they reach the adolescent stage it matters that they do social action within a moral context – ie. youth group. Yes we can all be “good” people coming at it from many directions…but I think one of the failures of my generation was not to explain our NON literalistic, NON fundamentalistic ways of faith – be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. I feel like we failed in our spiritual disciplines and education within our families in some ways. My goal was not to raise anyone to be my faith – but simply to let them know what guided my moral decisions and my problem solving in life within our real human community. So, know we all do the best we can and do continue to be the open minded teacher and loving Mom that you are…your daughter is lucky – even though you may be headed for the years where she says she rejects everything that you have taught her!

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