“Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good, and excellent, and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
When we read Paul’s famous exhortation to the Romans, we immediately get his point. Christians should not imitate the immoral and unjust practices of the world: sexual promiscuity, consumerist greed, narcissistic individualism, indifference to the poor. We must not sink to what is low and base in society. There is, however, another, more subtle and so more insidious, manner of conforming to the world. It is the view that the Christian ethical ideal is essentially the same as the world’s highest ideals, and that to be good Christians we need only espouse the noblest sentiments of liberal democratic society — tolerance and equality, altruism and philanthropy, personal liberty and human rights. By equating Christian virtue with the virtues of the world we reduce the Christian ideal to worldly values. Then there is a serious consequence: Christian ethics loses its distinctiveness.
Identifying Christian ethics with the best of worldly wisdom is a practice that goes back to apologists of the second century. Claiming, reasonably enough, that all wisdom is God’s wisdom, they pointed to the similarities between Christian moral teachings and those of revered Classical and Hellenistic philosophers, no doubt in the hope that these shared values would make Christianity seem less strange, less threatening, and less deserving of persecution.
In the 17th century, however, a new narrative emerged about the relationship between secular and Christian virtues. In the Enlightenment account of Western history, when the human race was in its primitive stages God conferred on it the knowledge of morality through special revelation. With the dawn of the age of reason, we discovered that by the power of reason alone humanity had the ability to grasp the logic of the morality that had been revealed. We could “see” for ourselves what once had to be given and accepted on faith.
One of the consequences the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual reasoning was the lessening in importance of the church’s pedagogy. We could live just as virtuously as Jesus, but now without miracles, without theology, without the sacraments, and without the promise of heavenly reward. These were redundant. And for many in the increasingly secularized West, they have become almost extinct. In the December ‘89 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the cover essay carried the provocative title “Can we be moral without God?” The editor was promptly inundated by letters. Although some were appreciative, many others dismissed of the question altogether. “Morality evolved,” one reader wrote, “as human beings realized and stabilized relations with neighbors and kings…. We have managed to achieve an increasingly realistic perception of morality in spite of religion….” This particular reader concluded his letter by cancelling his subscription.
The church, therefore, faces a challenge. If we are called to be “a light unto the nations,” to bear witness to the truth of the gospel, “to prove what is the will of God, what is good and excellent and perfect,” then it is not enough to say we have an alternative to all that is corrupt and base in society. Rather, we must prove that we have something better than the world’s best. We have a vision of human flourishing that surpasses the highest aspirations of liberal society.
Recently the question of Christianity’s distinctiveness has returned for consideration among NT scholars in C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (Yale University Press, 2016). Drawing heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment pursuit of objective knowledge, Rowe argues that Stoicism (represented by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius) and early Christianity (represented by Luke, Paul, and Justin Martyr) are two incommensurable traditions, each of which calls its adherents to a path of life that requires them to forsake all other paths. The either/or of Stoicism and Christianity arises from a recognition that each tradition rests on mutually exclusive, foundational assumptions about reality that render them “untranslatable” to the world view of the other. There is no transcendent common ground that allows Christians and Stoics to reason together. Rowe does not deny various similarities in terminology used by Christians and Stoics. Rather, he wants to show that the complex, overarching patterns that define each tradition are so radically different that even the shared terminology cannot make one tradition intelligible to the other. Rowe expresses the absolute divergence of these paths of life in the starkest terms: “[Their] incommensurable ways of inquiry … [have] no set of agreements that would be necessary to resolve the disagreements…. Rivals are rivals all the way down” (181). Key to this project is MacIntyre’s idea of “tradition.” Ideas do not have some freestanding existence; rather, they emerge within a tradition of reasoning that over time has developed norms governing not only how people think but how they live under the guidance of masters of the tradition. The truth of Christianity cannot be apprehended except in the light of the Holy Spirit. And the deep logic of the faith cannot be internalized and transform individuals apart from their formation by the living tradition that is the community of faith, the church. “Short of conversion, we are literally shut out of one by the life we live in another” (204).
As a work of NT scholarship, One True Life challenges the influential interpretations of Paul and the Stoics in the works of Abraham Malherbe and Troels Engberg-Pedersen. Deep down, as the work of a devout churchman, it is a challenge to the church to recognize the radically different way we are called to walk in following the crucified Lord – a way that is incommensurable with the myriad other paths our pluralistic world offers. As Rowe puts it, we have only one life. If that life is to have any coherence and integrity, we have to be clear about the identity of the different God who is himself the different Way we are invited to walk.