Finding The Common Ground
I had a realisation recently: There may often be more common ground between opposing viewpoints on ethical issues than we tend to assume, and that recognition could prove hugely useful in discussions and debates on these issues.
This common ground is found in underlying goals. Behind every ethical viewpoint will be a number of goals and motivations. Some of these will always differ between those coming from a Christian perspective and those not, but often our motivation in relation to the people directly affected will be exactly the same. In many cases our judgements on ethical issues are an attempt to provide the best solution to a problem which brings (potential) pain, suffering or loss to individuals and communities. Our answers on how best to solve the problem may differ, but the underlying desire to solve the problem in a way which helps those affected is the same.
Highlighting this common ground is a way of diffusing the idea that a Christian perspective is unloving or uncaring. Rather, we can show that in reality the Christian perspective, like others, is seeking to love and care by providing a solution to the underlying problem. The disagreement is simply over which solution is best.
So, when we’re engaging with a different viewpoint on an ethical issue, there are some key questions to ask: Is there a shared motivation behind the different viewpoints? What problem or perceived problem is each seeking to solve? If a common motivation is found, then the next questions should be: What problems might there be with the alternative solution? In what ways is the Christian solution better and more life-giving? This is why it is so important for us to know not just what the Bible says, but why it says it.
This approach can be fruitfully applied to many of the big ethical debates of our day:
The most common argument employed in support of euthanasia is the argument from autonomy, the idea that it is not fair to force someone to endure the loss of their dignity when they reach the point of being unable to care for themselves. The motivation is thus to protect the dignity of those who are unable to be autonomous.
A Christian viewpoint which opposes the acceptance of euthanasia has the same motivation of protecting the dignity of those unable to be autonomous. However, rather than allowing life to be ended when or before this point is reached, the Christian approach solves the problem by affirming that our dignity is based on God’s creation of us in his own image, not on our ability to be autonomous. The question thus becomes: which solution is best?
The secular approach affirms that dignity is lost when autonomy is lost. It thus removes dignity from anyone who is unable to look after themselves, regardless of whether they are content to live in that state. By affirming that the life of one individual who has lost their autonomy is not worthy of protection it is unavoidably affirmed that the life of anyone else unable to look after themselves is also not worthy of protection. (It is not true that the difference is the individual’s consent to ending their life; our cultural belief that suicide should be prevented disproves the idea that consent makes the ending of life acceptable.) Thus, in seeking to maintain the dignity of one group of people, support for euthanasia removes dignity from another group. Surely a solution which maintains dignity for all people, regardless of the loss of autonomy is better. The differing perspectives are aiming to solve the same problem, but the Christian view is arguably far better.
An affirming approach to transgender is a proposed solution to a problem. The problem is the pain of gender dysphoria and the solution is transitioning. A biblical approach which concludes that transitioning is not morally acceptable should also be concerned to look for a solution to the pain of gender dysphoria. There are various elements to this response including the biblical resources for living with suffering in a post-Fall world and the hope of resolution to the dysphoria by seeking the alignment of the mind with the body through prayer and the help of clinicians.
The question is again: which solution is best? Major problems can be observed in the philosophical assumptions behind the affirming approach (i.e. in the concept of internal identity), increasing numbers of people (sometimes referred to as ‘detransitioners’) are reporting that transitioning did not bring them the desired relief, and the process of medically transitioning brings with it additional physical pain and potential negative health impacts.
In contrast, the Christian perspective is stronger philosophically, avoids unnecessary additional physical pain and negative health impacts, and acknowledges the reality that the experience of pain is an unavoidable reality for every person in this life, while offering genuine hope both for the present and the future. I believe a much stronger case can be made in support of the Christian solution than the solution offered by a secular, affirming approach. (That’s a case I’ve made for a teenage audience here).
The problems perceived to be solved by the approval of same-sex relationships are the problems associated with celibate singleness: loneliness, lack of opportunity to experience love and family, and lack of sex.
A full Christian perspective on sexuality and relationships addresses each of these perceived problems in more life-giving ways. The problems of loneliness and lack of love and family are solved through the reality of genuine, expressed love in friendship and the experience of family in the context of church (which is a family and so should live as family). This is a better solution to these problems than restricting their resolution to exclusive, romantic relationships which will always exclude some in society (such as those unable to find a willing partner).
The problem of the lack of sex is resolved in a full Christian perspective on sexuality by observing that sex is not a genuine need; it is not needed for health or to attain the status of ‘a true adult’, despite the unproven assumptions of our society. The genuine need for human love can be met in friendship and church family which shows that the perceived need for sex to experience love is false. Again, this is a better solution as it doesn’t restrict the fulfilment of core human needs only to those who are able to find a sexual partner. The alternative leaves some unavoidably unable to have their supposed needs met (e.g. those who fail to find someone who will consent to having sex with them) and could be wrongly used to justify the dispensing of consent as necessary for sexual activity. (The logic being: ‘I have a genuine human need for sex, no one consented to having sex with me, therefore I had to forcefully take what I rightfully need’.) Again the Christian approach is a better and more life-giving answer to the underlying problem.
I think this kind of approach could be incredibly helpful as we seek to engage with different viewpoints on ethical issues. Showing our shared motivations challenges wrong assumptions about Christian perspectives, and about the very heart of God, and allows us to show the world that what God says is not only true but good. Jesus really does offer us fullness of life.