Relational Ethics

By Clarence White

The essence of ethics is to enhance our relationships to God, others, and our world.

I teach philosophy at a community college in Southern Indiana, close to the area known as the “Hoosier Hills.” I am a product of the hills, coming from Southern West Virginia. I am the son of a coal miner and growing up I did not know what philosophy was—never dreaming that one day I would become a philosopher.

I also happened to be born with cerebral palsy. Many people did not think I could ever take care of myself, let alone have a wife and family. In high school, I told my pastor that I thought I had a call to the ministry. His negative response crushed me. “No son,” he said, “I don’t think so. God is not that hard up. I will only believe that if God reveals it to me personally.”

Thank God all of that proved to be wrong. I have been married for years and have two adult children who are a physician and a professor, respectively. I have served as a Quaker pastor, a Christian publishing executive and a college professor and dean.

Many of my students do not come from strong academic backgrounds. I am thankful to have had the privilege of exposing them to some of the greatest minds and ideas of all time. Plato’s Dialogues and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics are amongst the texts we have studied. I am drawn to Aristotle’s virtue ethics because of his emphasis on the importance of friendships.

I mostly teach various ethical theories. Some theories in moral philosophy are deontological. These theories are rule based, holding that the morality of an action should be based on whether that action is right or wrong under a series of rules. Indeed, we need rules for society to function, otherwise chaos ensues. Just imagine there were no road rules for driving cars! Other theories are more consequentialist in their approach, emphasizing results. For example, utilitarianism, where the emphasis is on the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Our elections, for example, are utilitarian in their approach. We usually get the result which most of the participants wanted. Whether voting for mayor, class president, or where to go for pizza after a sporting event, a results-based method serves well.

As a Christian I find problems with both deontological theories and consequentialism. Do all actions really have an intrinsic rightness and wrongness across all contexts? Would it really be wrong to shoot and kill a mass murderer who was about to detonate a bomb, killing himself and a classroom of school children? Likewise, should we judge all our actions by their consequences and results? Do we even know what the results are in all circumstances in order to decide on a course of action? I think not.

I find another ethical system helpful; the virtue ethics of Aristotle which emphasizes the centrality of virtue in decision making. For Aristotle, if we become the right person, right behavior will take care of itself. We learn moral virtue primarily through habit and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction. I find this approach helpful—to a point. However, there is yet another approach to ethical decision making which excites me since it seems to provide an answer to some problems encountered in previous models. This more recent approach is embodied in the teachings of Open and Relational Theology.

This is part testimonial and part theoretical. In the spring of 2020, I took part in an online reading group which read Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Whitehead interested me, because my mentor, the Quaker philosopher D. Elton Trueblood, had studied with Whitehead at Harvard in the 1920s. People had always told me Whitehead was difficult to comprehend, but I seemed to grasp his concepts. I felt extremely motivated to continue with my studies, and I came across two books by Thomas Jay Oord, God Can’t and The Uncontrolling Love of God. I found the ideas in these books to be life changing.

Whiteheadian Process Philosophy gave rise to what some people have named “Open and Relational Theology.” An important aspect of this, as Oord notes, is that God does not have a physical body to prevent evil from happening. God cannot physically jump on a landmine to keep soldiers from stumbling upon it, for example.

That God could not single-handedly prevent evil caused me to reflect upon my own life as a man living with cerebral palsy. I thought about how negative people had been towards me over the years, thinking I could never marry or have a career. I thought about how many people assumed I was cognitively deficient because I was different to them. I recalled incidents like going to a restaurant and waiters asking my wife to order from the menu for me because they did not think I was able enough due to how I walk and talk. The constant pressure of people’s negative reactions had made me furious with other people and God. The constant question going through my mind was “Why God? Why?” But now I was beginning to understand where God was in all of this. Now I was acknowledging that God played no part in me being born with cerebral palsy. God had nothing to do with it. I believe God neither caused nor allowed my ailments. Open and relational thinkers emphasize that God’s character is love, and part of that love is “essential kenosis.” Kenosis is a Greek word meaning self-emptying. It is used in the Christ-hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-7,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

Kenosis is where Jesus is said to have “emptied himself,” renouncing his divine nature in the incarnation. Essential Kenosis is the idea that such self-emptying is not just a divine choice, it is the very divine nature of God. It is the very nature of God to pour God’s love lavishly upon people, and because his essential nature is that of Love—God cannot force anyone to do anything. Force is contrary to who God is.

We cannot say, “Boy we are lucky God is self-emptying, because if God was not, we would be in trouble.” We also cannot say “It would be better if God made us do what is right.” These ideas are incoherent if we are to accept the concept of essential kenosis. Realizing this helped me see it was people who hurt me, not God. God was there, walking with me, helping me overcome the pain and despair caused by the negative opinions of others. I suddenly realized that I did not have to be angry anymore.

Now, this has a direct bearing on my profession as a philosopher and ethicist. If essential Kenosis is true (and I believe it is), and if, as Paul exhorts us, we are to have that same mind in us, then even though as humans we do not have essential kenosis, we are called to embody kenosis. We are to have the same attitude of Jesus, that of self-emptying, sacrificial love.

This has led me to both extend and deepen my understanding of ethics. If God is by nature self-emptying for the other, then everything God does is about relationships. Open and relational thinking emphasizes that we are all objects of God’s love, which is why loving one another is one of the two Great Commandments. No longer do I have to choose between rules and results or virtues. I now have a fourth option, which is an ethic of relationships.

The great environmentalist John Muir saw this. As he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Because of that connectedness, ethics becomes a matter of relationships, with God, with one another, and with the earth. That means empirical results are not always the thing to be looking for, and neither are rules which assume intrinsic goodness in various actions.

The goal becomes making ethical choices that strengthen, enhance, and affirm those relationships.

Question: In making ethical choices, am I aware of how they help or hinder my relationships?

Clarence Graham White is a former Quaker pastor and now a practicing Catholic. He and his wife Gay live in Columbus, IN, where he is Professor of Philosophy at Ivy Tech Community College. Clarence holds a D.Min. degree in Theological Reflection from Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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