Giles Fraser: New vigour is required in our ethical life

24 February 2010

A NEW Citizen Ethics campaign is calling for rediscovery of the need for public debate on the big ethical questions of the day. Led by a number of prominent thinkers — from Philip Pullman to Michael Sandel to the Archbishop of Canter­bury — the Citizen Ethics team points to the behaviour of our MPs and bankers as evidence that we live in a time of moral deficit. How then can we revivify our sense of a shared moral life? Their publication Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis can be found on the web*, and is a valuable resource.

But there is something about all this that has been bugging me for years. How important is Christian ethics for Christianity? Indeed, is there really such a thing? Consider Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. On the journey to salvation, and after crossing the Slough of Despond, Christian meets Mr Worldly Wise­man, who tempts him from his way by persuading him to settle in a village called Morality: “There shalt thou live by honest neighbours, in credit and good fashion.”

But along comes Evangelist, with the fearsome accusation that Chris­tian is attracted to morality “for it saveth him from the cross”. The church of Morality is a secular con­struct that fails to raise the question of ultimate salvation.

I have some sympathy with Bun­yan. Take, for instance, that familiar Lenten double act, sin and death. The reason St Paul links the two is that sin is not an ethical category so much as a soteriological one. Human beings can free themselves from

the pain of death by locating their centre of interest in God, dying to self, and rising to new life by par­ticipating in the divine life. Sin is all that keeps us wedded to self and thus impedes our ability to transfer the centre of interest in our lives from self to God.

One might say, therefore, that the Christian worry with ethics is that it fails fully to confront the reality of death. “Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we are told on Ash Wednesday. God alone is the source of life and God is life eternal. Ethics cannot travel down this road.

Indeed, one of the great PR dis­asters of modern Christianity is allowing the concept of sin to be seen as something ethical. This turns life-seeking salvation into a set of narrow restrictions and regulations. Ulti­mately, ethics cannot say anything like this: “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”


The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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