Re: Religious Life/Professional Life

Tom Pearson (
Wed, 04 Feb 1998 14:36:16 -0600 (CST)

To this list,
I've had to be away the past couple of days, and haven't responded
to the many good comments posted on professional ethics. I'm going to try
to catch up, just a little, anyway.

At 02:43 PM 1/28/98 -0500, Dennis Feucht wrote, regarding a study on the
ethics of pharmaceutical researchers:

>It would be interesting to know how the depth and clarity of their
>Christian orientation is determined in your research. We live in an age
>where many ostensible Christians are living compartmentalized lives, where
>their Christian thinking interacts insufficiently with their other thinking
>to result in a spiritually integrated life. When they face another source
>of moral instruction, they are confused because they haven't thought
>through "professional ethics" in the context of the Law of God.

This is an excellent observation. The fragmentation of our ethical norms is
reflected, I think, in the conflicted ways we often engage each other in
conversation on moral topics within our society. I suspect that is why so
many professionals tend to reduce moral rectitude down to positive civil law
-- if it's legal, fine; if it's not, don't do it. This is an effort to
locate simple, direct and immediately applicable standards to local and
complex situations.

I'm afraid that I don't determine the depth and clarity of the Christian
orientation of the subjects in my research, and I'm not sure I'd know how to
do that successfully. First, I'd need to find consensus on a definition of
"Christian orientation" and the nature of a "spiritually integrated life."
Given the comments I've read on the list over the past several days, I'm not
sure we would achieve that consensus even here. Perhaps our theological
diversity accounts for our diversity in ethical outlook as well. In
particular, I wonder how much dissent there would be to the notion that "the
Law of God" is a suitable framework for thinking through professional
ethics. But you're certainly right in pointing out that the cultural
pluralism that so broadly orders our public and professional lives these
days -- a pluralism that carries with it a multiplicity of norms, methods
and practices -- doesn't nurture in us a unified perspective on ethical matters.

>One of our tasks as Christians in society is to influence the development
>of these codes toward a result that is consistent with God's biblically
>revealed code of conduct. For example, Joe Carson's on-going DOE saga
>illustrates well the need for this. We need thoughtful and informed
>Christians to be diving into these scenarios, not bracketing themselves
>out, I think.

It is at this point that our approaches begin to diverge, and I am genuinely
interested in trying to figure out why. First of all, the risk of
irredeemably exposing myself, I confess that I am (like George Murphy) a
Lutheran. I suspect this has a significant impact on my outlook. For
instance, my eyes start to glaze over when I read things like, "God's
biblically revealed code of conduct." I don't start there, and I don't end
up there. What the Bible reveals is Christ crucified, and in that
historical and divine event is all we can know of God's character and intent
toward His creation. So, "codes of conduct" are of litlle *theological*
interest for Lutherans (well, for this Lutheran, anyway).

But there's a bigger problem. Scripture provides for us an account of what
God is doing in Christ, reconciling His whole creation to Himself (II Cor.
5:19). The proclamation of Christianity is universal, timeless, absolute.
Its focus is on the redemption of whatGod has made. But "codes of conduct"
speak to the immediate and the local, to the particular contexts in which
individual human beings must carry out their lives, frequently in morally
congested situations. There is nothing universal and timeless about ethics,
so far as I can tell ( do believe in an absolute ethics, but not ethics that
is universal and eternal).

The difficulty that I see among professionals who are routinely uncertain
about "what to do" in given situation seems to arise because they are trying
-- unsuccessfully -- to distill universal moral principles from
Christianity, and then contort them to make them fit the immediate context.
It seems to leave folks bewildered and hesitant. That's why I'm beginning
to lean the direction of thinking that specific, local, and
context-dependent "codes of conduct" are far more satisfactory than are
universal and timeless moral systems that cannot often be effectively
translated into immediate practice.

But I'm also left wondering about something else. As one who was raised and
trained a Lutheran, I'm inclined to read the Bible from within a
Christocentric orientation. Christ crucified tells us about God.
Therefore, I don't start with a creator-God, I begin with a redeemer-God.
We gain our most secure information about God from His redemptive activity
in Christ, rather than from His creative activity. As a corollary,
scripture is not a systems operation manual, but a testimony to Christ.
Now, I'm prone to speculate -- but it seems a viable speculation -- that
those whose professional lives are devoted to science and engineering would
tend to begin with a creator-God, with One who established vast systems of
physical and moral reality for us to live in. In exploring these systems,
we would confirm our knowledge of the One who created, a knowledge that we
have initially in scripture. Does this make sense? If it does, then maybe
this is the source of my misgivings about comments like, "God's biblically
revealed code of conduct," and why it seems a perfectly natural, and
perfectly accurate, description to other Christians.

And, if this is right, perhaps it also helps to explain why some Christians
can't find the "code of conduct" in the Bible, and why those who do
regularly have such difficulty translating down the universal principles
into a usable and practical form.