The Morality of Manners

“Chivalry is dead,” it is often said and, apparently, civility was right behind it. The savagery that hid behind anonymity in the online comment sections in the early history of the internet, has metastasized first to public posts on platforms like Twitter, and then to the public square as seen in the recent disruptions in the Senate confirmation hearings. People are angry, vicious. The word ‘incivility’ doesn’t begin to capture it.

“Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?” we might ask. The Golden Rule was stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). That much is frequently quoted, often in the simpler, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But have you heard the rest of the verse? The verse concludes, “For this is the Law and the Prophets.” For Jesus, the Golden Rule was not a stand-alone principle but, rather, rooted in the rich soil of God’s revelation of his covenant relationship with humanity. You may recall that Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets in a different way elsewhere: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for neighbor is dependent upon love for God. And love for neighbor is based upon seeing ourselves and our neighbors as made in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity (James 3:9). The roots of the Golden Rule are in all of God’s instructions on how to live in harmony with Him and others.

Common civility is a fragile flower that cannot survive on its own. Cut from the root of a deeper system of morality and nourished by little more than the water of cultural sentiment, it was destined to fade in time. You cannot cut the summary of the Law and Prophets off from the Law and the Prophets and hope that it will still bloom. If the prevailing philosophy is of self-advancement, self-preservation, self-creation, the Golden Rule and civility more broadly can only function self-servingly. It will be about me rather than about you.

Manners manifest morality in miniature. Courtesy, civility, gratitude, patience, and deference are the fragrant bouquet gathered from plants rooted in a right understanding of our relationship to God, a deep appreciation of the value of others, and an honest assessment of our own frailty. That is to say, these virtues find their most natural root in the message of the Gospel. The glory of God, the brokenness of humanity, the elevation of human worth implied by Christ’s sacrifice, and the invitation to live out the unmerited “civility” of God.

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Trust Fall

In his book The Problem of Trust, Boston University Professor of Religion & Society Adam Seligman analyzes the condition of modern social interaction. One of the major shifts in modernity is the weakening and multiplication of social roles. That is, compared to earlier ages, there is increasing flexibility in how we behave in social roles such as employee, citizen, spouse, etc. and we inhabit a broader range of such social roles.

A unique feature of modern social interaction under these conditions, he argues, is the number of interactions that require trust. Trust, for Seligman, is needed because our interactions are increasingly “free” in that they are not clearly structured by shared social expectations of specific roles. The people we interact with are free to do just about anything. To interact with them we either must prepare ourselves for a range of responses, or we must trust that they will interact with us in mutually beneficial ways.

We all know this by experience even if we wouldn’t have put it in Seligman’s terms. We have experienced the unexpected explosion of rage from what we thought was a simple social interaction. We have seen the list of taboo topics grow from politics and religion to include race, gender, holidays, and even the weather (think environmentalism).

The effects of all this are many. We increasingly isolate ourselves (often with headphones). We view interaction with others as uncertain if not dangerous. We retreat to safe relationships (tribalism). We signal our affiliations quickly to control interactions (MAGA hats). We seek to have interactions controlled by externally applied codes of behavior rather than courtesy (campus speech codes).

These shifts in interaction have an impact on the church as well. As a church we are called to be the body of Christ, to be the family of God, to be united, to bear one another’s burdens, etc. But we bring relational exhaustion to church with us. Wearied by the uncertainty of daily interactions we come to church relationships trust deprived. Add to that deficit of trust any history of having had our trust abused and the stage is set for church to be nothing more than a series of surface, guarded interactions—just like society.

What must we do? Every age of the church has had specific ways in which the cultural climate challenged their efforts to live out the faith. This may be one of ours. G.I Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Just being aware of our trust fatigue can help awaken us to the need to push back against this minimalist-relationship tendency both within the church and without. Within, because we cannot be the body of Christ effectively without meaningful interaction with each other and without, because we cannot hope to evangelize without pushing beyond the safety of minimal social interaction.

Binary Opposition

One of the terms that the transgender movement has popularized in contemporary speech is “binary” or more often, “non-binary.” The computer savvy may point out that the term had already infiltrated the vocabulary with the proliferation of computer jargon in the modern world. In computer terms, binary usually refers to the computer code made up of only two digits: 1 and 0. It is “bi-nary”, because there are only two (bi-) options. In the broader cultural discussion about sexuality, “non-binary” was first used to refer to people who did not identify exclusively with either of the two sexual behavior choices before them: heterosexual and homosexual. They rejected the tidy division of humanity into these two categories. Now the term is more frequently applied in talk of sexual identity and gender to refer to people rejecting the simplistic categorization of humanity into male and female. To be “non-binary” is to reject being simply labeled as male or female.

Much could be said about this state of affairs, but for now let us make an observation and a diagnosis. First, we should observe that these are not the first binaries to come under assault in our world. The spread of the theory of evolution broke down the binary between animal and human. There is no longer any hard break between animals and humans; we are merely the next link on a chain. Postmodern philosophical thinking has undone the strict binary of truth and falsehood and even between reality and irreality, suggesting that everything is a human construct. Society has similarly dismantled the binary of single and married. Of course, many still identify themselves as one or the other but the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, the practice of “serial monogamy”, and the general disconnection of love, sex, and child-bearing from marriage have all contributed to the creation of a range of relational categories. Other examples could probably be adduced.

How might we explain this rejection of binary thinking? I believe these high-profile rejections of either/or options exemplify deep dissatisfaction with other binaries over which we are powerless. Human existence, never mind Scripture, present us with key binaries that fundamentally label us as humans. There is the Creator-creature binary. There is the God-not god or Divine-human binary. There is the alive-dead binary. And we might add the spiritual alive/dead binary we call saved-not saved.

Sinful humanity is absolutely powerless to undo these binaries and so, is diametrically opposed to them. However, since we are totally powerless over them (despite our best efforts), we exert energy in either establishing our own binaries not underwritten by divine authority (e.g. master/slave, racial distinctions, and social classes) or, more commonly, seek to control or undo the binaries that God has ordained.

Humanity is desperate to control the terms of its own identity and, as the transgender movement reveals, is willing to head into absurdity to do so. By contrast, Scripture invites us to have our identity defined on God’s terms. That he will “make our name great” like he did for Abraham. That we can find our identity in Christ by sharing in his sufferings. That he will call us by his name. What he asks in return is that we embrace the ultimate binary—He is God and we are not—and live it out in daily worship.

Rebel Territory

One of the disagreements between the North and South during the American Civil War was the status of the Southern states. Southern politicians believed themselves to have completely severed themselves from the Union and proceeded accordingly, establishing their own government. For his part, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states the right to secede and so, treated with the Confederacy not as a free-standing political entity but rather as an insurrection. He even went so far as to approve the formation of a “Unionist Government-in-exile” in Virginia and installed “military governors” in several Confederate states to carry on government business as if secession had never occurred. And, of course, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he exercised the authority he believed he had to free slaves throughout the Union, not just in the North. This distinction in the South’s status was no mere political quibbling. Southern ambassadors pressed their case for official state recognition before European governments even as Northern dignitaries urged foreign powers to regard the South as in rebellion.

We might see in this situation an image of the relationship between the Kingdom of God and his enemies. Though God has apparently ceded a certain amount of authority and power to “The Prince of the Power of the Air”, and though the Enemy thought highly enough of his power to offer Christ “all the kingdoms of the world” (Mt. 4:8), the absolute affirmation of Scripture is that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).

Like Lincoln, God does not actually believe that any created reality—human or spiritual—has the authority or right to secede from under his authority. Each exorcism in the ministry of Jesus reclaimed human territory from the enemy that belonged to God.

Continuing the analogy, we might see the church as those “military governors” or as a “government-in-exile”, living in compromised territory but under orders from the true Lord of the land, to carry out his business. In Jesus Christ he has announced an Emancipation Proclamation that applies to all those enslaved in sin throughout his many territories, a proclamation he calls the church to promulgate. This seems to be the imagery at work in Ephesians as Paul exhorts the church to clothe herself in the armor of the Lord and to stand.

The earth is the Lord’s. He has no intention of giving it up. Though the advances and retreats of the Kingdom of God on earth are at times as disconcerting for the faithful as were the defeats and losses of the North during the Civil War, we should take great comfort in the fact that though we reside in rebel territory, no defeat is final, and victory has been secured through Jesus Christ.

Reverse Renaissance?

In The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200, Colin Morris discusses some of the effects of the growth of education and rediscovery of classical and Patristic texts during the “French Renaissance” of the 11-12th centuries. One was the discovery of a theological subtlety not characteristic of the simple creeds of the day. He writes:

The reading of the Fathers in the light of the better knowledge of logic revealed that the Augustinian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was immensely more complex and sophisticated than the simple creeds which had been accepted as adequate in the immediate past, and that it raised a variety of issues which required consideration. (58)

He notes that theological and practical reform movements arose in response to the now obvious conflict between these sources and the present thought and behavior of the church.

Morris notes another, related challenge. That is, 12th century readers of these ancient sources discovered that in many cases, the ancients did not speak to issues that they themselves were facing. This left them in the position of needing to think things through on their own.

As an example, Morris notes the development during this time period of more sophisticated theories of atonement, like those of Anselm and Abelard, in contrast to the less precise conceptualization of the Patristic period.

Morris notes the most distinctive difference between the periods: “The doctrine and discipline of the Western Church was modified to meet a new situation…presented by the fact that Church and society were now identical in membership” (59). In contrast to the Patristic period and the time in which canon law had first been formulated, there was much greater continuity between church and society by the 12th century. So much so, that Morris quotes Otto of Friesing (c. 1114-1158) to the effect that Augustine’s Two Cities have become one.

Morris had earlier noted that as the church came to dominate society, she found less resonance with the biblical presentation of the situation of the early church and turned increasingly to the Old Testament depiction of Israel as a religious society. What is clear is that the striking change of fortune necessitated a deep reconsideration of certain aspects of the church’s thought and practice.

For some time now, the Western Church and especially the church in America has been experiencing the reverse of the Medieval trend. Whereas at one time one could reasonably consider citizenry more or less coextensive with religiosity, that is no more the case. America remains “spiritual” in its unique way, of course, but the direct relationship between Christianity and society that some like to imagine was once the case is no longer tenable.

What doctrinal and practical challenges might this reversal present to the contemporary church? To be sure, changing cultural norms and intellectual fashions have frequently forced the church to clarify or nuance its positions on various topics. Issues of human and personal identity, gender, and marriage are obviously much to the fore currently.

But the shift away from a predominantly Christian culture in the West will force more specific questions about the relationship between church and society, church and magistrate, than the West has had to negotiate for some time. In such a situation, we should not be surprised if the best resources to understand our situation are found in the historical experience of the church in other eras and in the contemporary experience of the church in hostile areas.