Tag Archives: ethics

Unsystematic liberal theology: Aretalogy

Aretalogy, says Biblical scholar Helmut Koester, is “the enumeration of the great deeds of a god or goddess (e.g. Isis) or of a divinely inspired human being (a ‘divine man’).” The word is derived from arete, meaning a virtue or powerful act. More broadly, aretalogy is the study of virtues as they are embodied in divine or haumn exemplars.

Aretalogy can take different forms: a simple listing of the subject’s virtues; a series of stories, each of which demonstrates a virtue of the subject; a series of miracle stories. I would distinguish aretalogy from hagiography; a hagiography is a worshipful or laudatory biography, that is, a more coherent narrative than a listing of, or a series of stories demonstrating, virtues.

Liberal religion has generally rejected hagiography, considering saints and their biographies religiously unimportant. Liberal religion tends to attenuate the vertical dimension of religion, that is, tends to de-emphasize supernatural divinity. Rather than relying on divinities or saints to enforce moral and ethical norms, religious liberals are far more likely to turn to great human beings as exemplars of moral and ethical virtues. And rather than using coherent biographical narratives to tell about these great human beings, religious liberals are far more likely to pick an outstanding virtue that a great human being represents, and tell a story or stories that exemplify that virtue.

Thus, Universalists use aretalogy to talk about John Murray, and they tell the miracle story of his arrival in North America, and stories of his fearlessness in the face of opposition to his Universalist preaching. Some Unitarians use aretalogy to talk about Thomas Jefferson, and they tell stories of his free-thinking approach to the Bible. Like hagiography, aretalogy is likely to present only the good side of its subject; thus aretalogy ignores that John Murray was a trinitarian; and aretalogy ignores the fact that Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. The point of aretalogy is not to present a coherent, reasoned narrative of a person’s life; instead, the purpose of aretalogy is to enumerate virtues.

It is helpful to learn to recognize aretalogy when trying to make sense out of liberal theology. For example, when Unitarians continue to claim to Thomas Jefferson as a Unitarian, you might at first consider this claim to be unreasonable, since any reasoned narrative account of Jefferson’s life would reveal that Jefferson actually attended an Episcopalian church, and never set foot inside a Unitarian church. But the Unitarian claim on Jefferson is not part of a reasoned, coherent narrative biography; instead, it is a part of a Unitarian aretalogy that has less to do with Jefferson as a real live human being, and more to do with enumerating Unitarian virtues (in this case, the virtue of challenging the literal truth of the Bible).

Neither moral nor managerial

Mr. Crankypants here, and as usual he has something on his mind, which is this: Why is it that people in the United States assume that everything a minister says has to do with morality? — actually, morality and guilt. As if ministers are predominantly supreme moral and ethical arbiters. Speaking as someone whose alter ego happens to be a minister, Mr. Crankypants is uniquely placed to assure you that, on average, ministers are not that much better at moral and ethical distinctions than are non-ministers. It is true that ones would like a minister who is not going to molest one’s children nor rob one blind, but having an honest minister does not mean one should feel guilty every time one sees one’s minister.

Nor, despite what the acolytes of John Carver will try to tell you, are ministers essentially supermanagers and/or superadministrators. Trust Mr. Crankypants, most ministers have little formal training in management and administration, and even less skill. The effort to equate ministers with Chief Executive Officers is a lost cause, unless your congregation plans to pay your minister a salary equivalent to a CEO salary (we’re talking six figures for a chump CEO, and seven figures for a competent CEO for a nonprofit organization, just so you have no illusions about this). It is true that there are a few ministers with MBAs, but if your minister gave up a well-compensated position in the business world, you would be wise to be a little bit suspicious about why he or she decided to drop that seven-figure salary in favor of the pittance your congregation pays.

No,– in Mr. Crankypants’s experience, it is unwise to expect a minister to be either particularly moral or ethical (thus no need to feel guilty when you see your minister), nor to expect your minister to be particularly adept as a manager. At best, we can hope for minister who approximates to a holy person. But we’ll probably have to settle for someone who actually does maintain a daily spiritual practice, and who might be occasionally inspired (a word which literally means, O best beloved, infused with spirit, or Spirit). Ha! –too bad my stupid alter ego, Dan, is none of the above; except that he does maintain a daily spiritual practice.

Now that that is settled, Mr. Crankypants will head off to bed.

Ethics and Terri Schiavo

Terri Schiavo died yesterday, and our thoughts must be with all her family members as they grieve. But as someone who is not personally affected by her death, I find myself mulling over the ethical questions tha arose during this case, and I have been trying to separate out the ethical issues from the media hype and legal frenzy. The ethical questions prove to be difficult to address, and worthy of serious reflection.

The obvious ethical question is: Under what conditions is it OK to cease medical care for a person? But there are other, related, questions. Ignoring the legal requirements, after someone becomes incapacitated, what ethical standards allow us to say we know a person’s wishes? If someone does not agree with current legislation and/or judicial rulings in this area, is civil disobedience justified? — especially if, as Thoreau mentions in his famous essay on civil disobedience, we can point to higher principles as justification for such civil disobedience? Final question in this area: is this an ethical issue we can safely delegate to the legal realm?

One or two knotty ethical questions get raised by the struggle between Terri Schiavo’s husband and her parents. Most people would agree that when we are children, our parents have primary responsiblity for us, but when does that primary responsibility end? Can that primary responsibility end, but then return later at some level, e.g. when an adult child becomes incapacitated, terminally ill, disabled, etc.?

Similarly, we are confronted with ethical questions regarding marriage. (I am limiting my definition of “marriage” as two people joined in a religious or social ceremony of marriage or union, i.e., I’m not including legal definitions of marriage.) Did Terri Schiavo’s husband give up his ethical rights as a husband when he began building another family? What are the ethical rights of a spouse, anyway? In what areas and in what circumstances can spouses speak for each other? All of this raises difficult questions, including some ontological questions, e.g., do spouses lose something of their individuality when they become partners?

Another set of ethical questions concerns how public persons should get involved with the personal and/or family concerns of a single individual or small group of individuals. We might ask a question like this: Given the reality of the impact of mass media on our lives, at what point does the personal become public? — and therefore, what is the ethical responsibility of the public regarding the personal lives of individuals? A related question: If I am a public figure, how do I make the determination that a personal matter has become public, to the point that I can now ethically get involved as a public figure (e.g., elected official, appointed public official, judge, well-known minister, etc.)?

It is unlikely these ethical questions will have simple answers. (Nor will these questions have answers that neatly follow partisan politics!) Unfortunately, I suspect the public debate around the Terri Schiavo case will move away from the ethical issues, in two directions — into the realm of constitutional politics on the one hand, and on the other hand into overly simplistic debate between extreme views at both ends of the spectrum. But the ethical questions are there, and they won’t go away.