Christian ethics. On wearing masks and being God’s holy people.

Reflection on Philippians.

A friend of mine once told me that I have a particularly powerful inner policeman.

I had never heard of that phrase before but I decided he had a point.

I think most of us probably have some version of this internal controller who arrests on the spot wayward   thoughts and expressions.

 I will give one fairly safe example of this. From a very young age I was a story teller- I spun dreams inside my own head- which I later came to share with my foster sisters in elaborate games of imagination.

To my father and most of my teachers this was all pointless daydreaming so I learnt to bolt the door on such impulses.

In addition to my inner policeman, I have now added an inner police car, with a very loud siren. Which is very valuable

I am sure living near the Merton Road has contributed to this.

But one way this works is whenever I find myself agreeing with Giles Fraser. The siren goes off shouting are you sure?

Because usually I find that at second glance I don’t.

Recently he wrote a piece about ethics in the time of Covid. It was interesting and made some very good points about how we as individuals and a community deal with it. Where he went wrong, I think, in a mistaken move made by many moral philosophers, is that there are different options for deciding what is right and wrong, a bit like choices on a menu.

There is a rules based system- when you simply follow internal or external rules.

‘Wear a mask.’  Don’t covert your neighbour’s ass.

Then there is a utilitarian system which operates on calculation.

In which your personal  behaviour should follow the principle of trying to find work out what action leads to the greatest good for the most people.

Wear a mask otherwise the R rate will rise, and many people will fall sick and die.

Giles seemed to be arguing that these strategies simply didn’t work, and we should embrace what is known as Virtue ethics, which is to develop the sort of character who will normally do the right thing.

Wear a mask because you are a good egg.

 Philosophically I am particularly drawn myself to  this last model- but I am well aware my inner policeman will be constantly nagging me to obey the rules.

Before I came to London one of my roles in the church was to mentor people training to be licensed readers, and they had to cover much of the same academic territory as people training to be ordained as priests , but without the support of university departments. So I had to help them think about ethics.

I can still remember working with a very conventional man who attended an evangelical church who told me that when it comes to morality it is absolutely simple, because it is all laid out in the Bible. God has given us a very clear rule book and he just follows what it says.

But when I got him to tell me not what his theory of ethics was but how he went about making moral decisions I watched it slowly dawn on him that he actually sometimes made calculations about the consequences of any possible action, he did try to be a good egg, and he would sometimes break the rules if context demanded it- not many can entirely resist the white lie.

Going back to my earlier analogy. If moral systems are items on the menu, we often like to sample more than one pudding.

Our reading this morning, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians has one of the best known and beautiful passages about the heart of Christian morality. It  has stuck with people as guide to being and living.

Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable., if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise.

Here I am going to differ with the translation we usually use.

It goes on’ think about these things’ but that sounds too much like a mental exercise. Other translations day ‘ ponder’ these things, or even ‘ do these things’… which actually link much better with what comes next. Which I have also  changed to avoid misconstrual of emphasis.

‘ Keep on doing those things that you have learned and received and heard in my me and via me, and the God of peace will be with you.’

This is not simple stuff. We really have to think about what St Paul means. Not because it is a puzzle but because it is demanding. St Paul himself, when discussing morality drew on the traditional rules from his Jewish inheritance, and cultural conventions, but also talked about an interior law- what developed to become the idea of conscience.

 Jesus always took traditional ideas about how to live and sought to deepen them and stretch the imagination and range of concern of the listener.

Like in the parable. Asking his disciples not to see themselves as entitled and honoured guests at a feast, but as unimportant people only getting an invite through the grace of God.

I have come a long way from where I began.

And am not sure I can easily tie things up.

Only to say that God made us imaginative, thinking and feeling creatures, who might be the sort of people who would say to themselves something like.

‘I wear a mask because I want to care for myself and my neighbour, it is a good and commendable rule, which I accept because of immediate and long term benefits. And because my health and that of others is of equal value in the eyes of God.’

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