How defining a chair helps students understand Theological Ethics

On the first day of my Theological Ethics class, I have my students conduct a fairly straightforward assignment: I place a chair at the front of the classroom and ask them, "What is this?"

Of course, they answer that it is a chair, after which I proceed to play dumb (very convincingly, I might add) and ask them what a "chair" is.

Typically, they will define a chair one of two ways, either as something that can be sat upon or as something in the general shape of a chair. However, after demonstrating that I can sit on a desk just as easily, or that a picture of a chair also shares in a chair's general shape, they become less certain, usually devolving into arguments with one another over what constitutes "chair-ness."

The purpose of this exercise is simple: we often use words and phrases without really knowing what they mean, and only when we're forced into deeper examination do we truly begin to understand and appreciate why things are the way they are. What if, for example, I had asked my students to define a "person"? Would they define a person in terms of function, or appearance, or size? Would doing so result in them devaluing or denying a person's humanity?

What about words like "good?" What makes a person good or bad? What does it mean to be "virtuous?" What does "justice" look like? All of my students come into a class with preconceived notions about all of these concepts and more, and soon discover that their worldview has been limited by a lack of engagement with ideas deeper than what they read and write on social media.

As you might expect, I hear a lot of complaints during the first few weeks of the course, when my students are forced to engage with the writings and ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Kant, Bentham, and others.

In the interest of fairness, I warn them beforehand that this is not easy material; however, it is also true that the human language conveys far deeper — and far more consequential — ideas than those conveyed by mere human authors. After all, language is a gift of God, a gift he values so highly that he clothes his own Gospel in it. And it goes still further, as God ordains that his Word not only be written in human language, but preached from human lips — even the lips of his own Son Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.

God is the one who fills our humanity — and therefore our language — with its meaning; thus, we can have no concept of "good," "virtue" or "justice" apart from God, and ethics itself becomes a pointless and foolish exercise unless it is centered in the human, flesh-and-blood person of Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus, any concept we have of the good and the just is simply another human invention, and like every other human invention it becomes destined to create more misery than happiness.

It is only in the person of Jesus that we learn what true goodness, virtue, and justice look like, and that these things all resemble a man nailed to a cross. This is the truth that I want my students to recognize: that whether we are discussing the writings of the philosophers, the relationships between husbands and wives, or how we should act as ethical members of society, all of Christian Ethics is learned at the foot of the cross. The Gospel is the foundation of the entire Christian life, and the goal of all Christian language, morality, and knowledge is to know nothing except Christ and him crucified.  

Here's another exercise I enjoy doing with students: I hand them a copy of a medieval folk hymn, written in its original 14th-century Middle English. At first glance, it resembles very little of the English we speak today, and I get plenty of dubious stares when I ask them to translate it in its entirety with almost no help.

And yet, once they go to work sounding out the strange words and stringing the syllables together, they find that not only can they easily translate the song, but they also have a grasp of the author's audience, ideas, and theology — a much better grasp than they would have if I had just given it to them already translated. They are forced to engage with the words on the page, and thus to engage with the man who wrote them.

This is what we are seeking to do in Theological Ethics, and in all Theology classes at CLHS: to carefully and methodically grasp onto the words of Holy Scripture, and in doing so grasp onto the Divine Author who inspired them, our Savior Jesus who leads, inspires, and allows us not only to hear the Word of God, but to keep it.

Rev. Ted Hoham,
Theology Teacher