(Editor’s Note: Randy Harris, an instructor at Abilene Christian University, led a two-day seminar Aug. 4-5 on Christian ethics. Always entertaining and insightful, Harris didn’t disappoint. He invites anyone interested to a “Ministers’ Lunch Hour with Randy Harris”, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 29, in the Hunter Welcome Center on the ACU campus. His topic will be “Does the Church Matter?” Cost, including lunch, is $15. To register, go to www.acu.edu/siburt and click on “Events” by Aug. 22)
By Loretta Fulton
The title of the two-day seminar was “Christian Ethics in a World Gone Mad: How to Cope and Even Thrive.”
By the time it was over, some in the sessions may have suggested a name change to: “Solving Christian Ethical Problems Can Drive You Mad.”
Such is the nature of Christian ethics–it ain’t easy. Thankfully, the leader for the Aug. 4-5 seminar at Abilene Christian University was Randy Harris, a popular instructor at ACU, who made the sessions not only informative and enlightening, but also entertaining.
If you want to be driven truly mad, and entertained at the same time, read “ The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge” by Thomas Cathcart. Harris suggested everyone attending the summer short course read the book beforehand. Those who did realized that spending just two days pondering ethical issues could be maddening.
An example of the ethical dilemmas thrown out by Harris for the participants to ponder:
- God wills it because it is good.
- It is good because God wills it.
Answer: “Not exactly.”
Scholarly types might want to know that the brain-teaser officially is known as the Euthyphro Problem, first posed by Plato. Don’t worry–even Harris had trouble spelling it.
Other mind-bending thoughts to ponder:
“If you understand what I’m saying, you won’t like it. If you like what I’m saying, you don’t understand it.”
From the mind of the Apostle Paul: “If you violate your conscience, you’re always wrong. If you follow your conscience, you’re not always right.”
As mind-boggling as some of those thoughts are to work through, Harris offered some help in the form of a handout titled, “How to Solve an Ethical Dilemma.”
- Clarify the issue (Deciding about courses of action, not people)
- Complexify the issue (Argue the side you disagree with. “Until you can do that, you do not understand the issue.” Try using a little “sympathetic imagination”)
- What are the prima-facie duties on both sides? (Harris listed seven prima facie duties and said they sometimes conflict: Do no harm, Do good, Tell the truth, Keep your promises, Respect for autonomy, Justice, Reparations)
- Formalize the question (What is at stake?)
- Form your answer (“At some point you have to make a decision.”)
- What do I do with the duties on the other side?
- Does your answer correspond to your moral intuitions or you sense of the living Lord? (Simply put–Think through what the loving thing to do is. Hard part–What does love require?)
Harris cited Acts 17: 16-32 for an answer to the question of how to respond to the ethical issues that come about in our culture. In the Acts passages, Paul was in Athens, the rockiest soil the apostle would ever find himself standing on. He was in the middle of a secular, pagan world, trying to preach the gospel. But he didn’t shrink from his calling.
“Where I see hopelessness,” Harris said, “he sees opportunity.”
First, Paul didn’t preach from inside a church. He took to the streets where the people who needed the message could be found. Second, he spoke their language. Paul knew the scriptures so well that he could speak them in words a pagan listener would understand.
“It is that,” Harris said, “that allows you to speak a relevant word.”
The passage from Acts also teaches something about faithfulness to the message. Some in the crowd mocked Paul when he spoke of the resurrection of the dead, something his audience didn’t believe in. They believed instead, Harris said, in the immortality of the soul. But Paul didn’t change his message to appease them because that he was telling the Christian story.
“That’s the story,” Harris said. “That’s the gospel and there can be no compromise.”
Simply put, Harris said, there are four things Christians can do when an “opportunity” arises: