I’ve never had much of a head for philosophy.
It’s not for lack of trying: I’ve read Sophie’s World, but I barely remember anything about it. I watched all four seasons of The Good Place and laughed at the part where Eleanor says, “Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” and Chidi replies, “Plato!”, but I didn’t really get it.
When it comes to philosophy, I’m at the level of playing Absurd Trolley Problems. Beyond that, when confronted with terms like “existentialism” and “deontology”, my eyes can’t help glazing over.
If you don’t know what ethics is (I didn’t!), it’s that branch of philosophy that has to do with working out what’s right and what’s wrong, and therefore how you ought to live.
Say you are concerned about the current state of the environment: this might lead you to recycle, compost your food scraps, catch public transport instead of driving or donate to environmental charities.
Or say you’re against modern slavery: this might lead you to only buy certain brands, spend a bit more on an item to ensure its makers are paid a living wage, write to companies to encourage them to keep their supply chains ethical or join an anti-slavery protest.
What you decide is right and wrong determines your behaviour.
That said, Christian ethics is slightly different: right and wrong are not determined by us, but by God. God says it’s wrong to murder, so we do not murder. God urges us to love our neighbours, so we care for others. God commands us to honour him above all, so we strive to live according to his word.
So as Christians, it’s easy to determine how we ought to live, right? Well, not exactly. While the Bible is black and white on things like murder and adultery, it’s less clear on things like whether in vitro fertilisation is okay or whether you ought to delete your Facebook account; obviously, these things weren’t around when it was written.
What this means is that for any given situation, Christians need to weigh up what we know about God’s principles for ethical living and figure out how they apply.
Take, for example, looking after the environment. The Bible tells us that God made the world and everything in it and that God gave humans the responsibility of ruling over it (Gen 1). But the Bible also says this world will one day end and that God will forge a new one (Rev 21:1; cf. Isa 65:17). So even if we recycle, compost and catch public transport, we need to remember that our efforts will be limited in their effectiveness.
Furthermore, God commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Lev 19:18; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). So although we might act in ways that care for the environment most of the time, we still might serve individually wrapped packets of biscuits at church morning tea to lessen the risk of people catching COVID, even if the amount of plastic waste this generates causes us to wince.
In other words, “doing” Christian ethics means knowing God and understanding his word. This is why the primary aim of the Centre for Christian Living is to “help Christians bring biblical ethics to everyday issues”.
But it’s worth noting at this point that Christian ethics isn’t just for Christians. In my humble opinion, the most radical thing about Christian ethics is that it applies to everyone. God made the world and everything and everyone in it. Therefore, God’s view of what’s right and what’s wrong is relevant to everyone.
After five years of working at the Centre for Christian Living, I still don’t feel like I have a head for philosophy. But I’m starting to get a handle on Christian ethics – enough to grasp that working out how to live as a Christian in our world is an ongoing and lifelong process.
Perhaps you feel similarly. If so, I encourage you to check out the talks, essays and podcast episodes on our website