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A Question of Ethics

A Question of Ethics

Tuesday July 3

Throughout the summer, we will be revisiting some of our favourite Ron Ferguson columns. In the first, from April 2004, Ron explains why Christians need to hear both traditional and modern voices when facing ethical questions.


The Moderator has been making waves again. The Rt Rev Professor Iain Torrance, who has repeatedly challenged the Kirk to think through moral and spiritual issues, preached a controversial sermon on the nature of Christian compassion in the context of supporting and encouraging the Church of Scotland’s Project on HIV/AIDS.

After inviting the congregation to look at society’s handling of widespread disease in the past, the Moderator concluded: “It is evident that in the issue of our reaction to HIV/AIDS, those who are not infected are confronted with what many see as a dilemma. Yet, we constantly face a series of dilemmas in responsible Christian life. For instance, in a culture where there is much misuse of drugs, there are schemes which provide clean needles for addicts, so as to limit needle-carried infection. In situations where sexually transmitted diseases are rife, there are schemes which provide free condoms.

“It is understandable that, unused to this, some people believe that to do so is to engage in collusion. In a sense, of course, they are right. Yet, I believe that collusion, or getting onto the slippery moral slope and attempting with God’s grace to navigate it, is part of our calling to be responsibly present. Because, what would denial amount to? In the Christian scriptures, again in the language of imagery, we are assured that in the Kingdom of Heaven, the Lord will wipe away the tear from every eye. John Donne, in one of his sermons asked: ‘And what of those eyes which never wept?’. Is it not the same, if you refuse on principle ever to step onto the slippery slope and to stand alongside those who are most afflicted?”

Trying to stand upright on a slippery slope is immensely difficult, but this is what Professor Torrance is advocating in relation to Christian ethics. Let me take this imagery a little further.

Making Christian ethical decisions is not always easy. There are often purists at the top of the overhang, who do not venture down the treacherous slope to where vulnerable people are. Their shouted advice is like the traveller seeking directions who is told: “If I were going to where you want to go, I wouldn’t start from there.”

Christian people peering over from the safe ground at the top of the overhang often provide neither helpful advice nor encouragement. They will chant lists of rule. In relation to sexual behaviour, for instance, they will equate purity with keeping the rules. They will place great emphasis on keeping the tradition of the fathers. They will want to pull the person on the slope up on to the safe ground.

Further down, there will be people pulling in the other direction. They will say that rules are unimportant – the only thing that matters is that you live lovingly in the now. The traditions of the ancestors are unimportant. There may be a crevasse at the bottom, but that’s life.

The most morally rigorous Christian place to be may well be alongside the person on the slippery slope, as a fellow struggler, acknowledging the virtues both of tradition and of living with passion in the present. The slippery-slopers need both the people on the overhang and at the bottom to bring constant reminders of the resources which are available.

The ones above have useful information and wisdom, particularly in pointing to how people in the past navigated life’s maze. The error they often make is to imagine that the beloved stories from the past provide detailed instructions about how to live in a modern world characterised by immense new technical possibilities and choices. They may be too deeply embedded in history. Some of the people in this camp may also seek to live risk-free lives, being guilty of the sin which Iain Crichton Smith names as “survival without error”.

The people pulling towards the bottom are right to insist that life is lived in the now without a risk-free map, and that in every decision Christians face, the situation we find ourselves in provides much of the basic raw material. They are wrong, though, if they think that tradition and stories are unimportant, and that rules don’t matter. They may be too embedded in the modern world for anyone’s good. Their particular salt may have lost its savour.

Am I talking about conservatives and liberals? Mibbes aye, mibbes naw, as the great philosopher king, Kenny Dalglish, might put it. Within the community of the church, we need those who pull us towards the tradition, and those who pull us towards the modern world. The tension of these different tugs may help us to stand upright on the slippery slope. On that dangerous gradient we may even manage to be a tear-stained community of brokenness and grace: which is roughly what the Lord is calling us to be.