The Trinity, the Incarnation, and Caputo’s Anti-Ethics: Monday Morning Musings

There is a movement within the so-called “Emergent Conversation” (which has become a dead term, even to adherents) of metaphysical atheism. The denial, or at least the high doubt, of a metaphysical God of power and foreknowledge, the one traditionally embraced by Christians. John Caputo is the philosophical champion of such a movement with Peter Rollins being the evangelist (or, the anti-evangelist) for the belief. Other are beginning to fall in suit, including, but not limited to Rob Bell, William Michael Morrell, Jay Bakker, and others.

Where most followers – including Rollins – haven’t taken the movement, Caputo has, which is to a direct denial of ethics. Though none of the followers have explicitly taken a stance against ethics, I believe if pushed against the wall they would formulate an opinion similar to Caputo’s; after all, the denial of metaphysics, or at least a weak metaphysic as Caputo claims, is the inevitable death knell for ethics, which requires a metaphysical grounding.

Now, make no mistake, Caputo and others aren’t advocating anarchy on the social level where everyone simply does as is wished; this doesn’t open the door for murder, theft, and other horrible atrocities (at least, they claim it doesn’t). Instead, rather than having rules and regulations, we are met with an event that happens to us, the event being our obligation to the ‘Other.’ The ‘Other’ is anyone who I could oppress or who is oppressed by me, either directly or indirectly. Thus, my obligation is to the one who suffers; not any temporary suffering or shallow ‘suffering,’ but one who deeply suffers. One who is raped by occupying soldiers, one who withers away from AIDS in a small unnamed African town, one who endures a tyrannical government propped up by the United States for its own self-interests; these are the ‘Other’ to whom I have an obligation.

Now, Caputo concocts this idea as a response to the various ethical systems that seem to have failed. And let us be honest, such ethical systems have failed. While in general they support magnanimous standards and make grandiose claims as to their justification, in the end someone always ends up oppressed, someone always ends up on the outside. The ‘Other’ is usually the poor, the minority, the mis-represented or un-represented, and the ‘Other’ is never covered by the ethical system and is often oppressed by it.

Rather than turning deconstruction onto Caputo or taking a systematic approach to refuting him, let me just say this: Caputo is right, at least partially.

He is correct in pointing out that ethical systems fail to protect and that such a failure is a necessary failure. That is to say, even if someone lived the ethical system perfectly, there would still be those who suffer and are oppressed, either because they lay outside of the ethical system or they are under the thumb of the ethical system. Even a virtue-based system affords us the opportunity for oppression, depending on which virtue-based system one adopts.

But, for all Caputo gets right in his criticism, he must recognize the need for a metaphysical defense. While he doesn’t deny metaphysics, he takes a weak metaphysical approach by saying, “Obligation happens, and if you wish me to tell you why it happens or where it came from, I will throw up my hands in defeat. I wasn’t there when it was created, so I don’t know.” While one might admire him adhering to obligation even without a justification for it, we must not forget that we live in a world where men are selfish and almost anyone can be a sociopath. Certainly obligations don’t simply “happen” to us, as none of us are born with a sense of obligation to any ‘Other.’ For proof, go to Toys-R-Us and just watch the three-year-olds when their moms say “no” to getting a toy.

We must be conditioned – often by the word “no” – to think about others. If not for this teaching, the ‘Other’ would be oppressed because the ‘Other’ wouldn’t be recognized. Even so, many people are simply grown-up three-year-olds. A rich business tycoon decides to lay off hundreds of workers on December 15 so he can avoid giving them a Christmas bonus. Caputo points his finger at him and rightly says, “But sir, you have an obligation to these people’s well-being!” The CEO shrugs his shoulders and says, “Why?” Caputo retorts, “Because obligations happen!” The CEO lights his cigar and walks away, muttering, “Ah, but I have never felt this obligation. So I am in the clear.” For all his writings, Caputo is left there with his finger pointed at air, in fact, with his feet firmly planted in mid-air.

But rather than going through and offering a treatise on how we need a metaphysical backing to our ethics, or (a)ethics in Caputo’s case, or explaining that Caputo is still supporting a system of ethics, even if poorly constructed, I will simply say this: It is obvious that we need metaphysics when speaking of obligation if we are to convince others that they have an obligation. It is here that Caputo and even other weakness theologians, or those who would flirt with weakness theology, completely miss the point.

Rest assured, such people are not to be blamed for missing the point. For I fear Christianity has missed the point for quite some time. For all our talking about ethics, Christians tend to treat ethics as rules (in the evangelical Protestant tradition), as duties (in the mainline/liberal Protestant tradition), or as virtues (in the Roman Catholic tradition). And I do not deny that I fall heavily on the side of virtue, but I only see virtue as a means to an end, with the end defining the means.

At some point, however, I part ways with Aristotle and begin to shake hands with Plato. I look to Plato, or at least his vision of Socrates, and see his talk of the Forms and I’m quite intrigued. While I like the ethics of Aristotle, and especially the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas, I always want to add a pinch of Plato to them. But if Aristotle has hijacked the Church via Aquinas, I do not want those a thousand years from now to say that Plato/Aristotle hijacked the Church via Borofsky. I like Plato’s idea of the Forms, but only to a certain degree; at some point I jump back to Aristotle.

I like the idea that Justice is a form that we attempt to enact on earth, but that no matter what we’ll never achieve the true form of justice this side of eternity. The same stands true for charity. But of course, just as Socrates discovered in the Euthyphro, if the forms exist they must either exist co-eternal to God or as created by God, to the point that either they are greater than God or arbitrary. Thus, even my Plato/Aristotle hybrid runs into some problems.

Here is where I get to the main point, being that the solution for Caputo’s failure, Aristotle’s failure, and even my own failure is found in two Christian doctrines; the Trinity and the Incarnation. It is in the Trinity that all ethics, or the forms of the virtues, have their beginning (Plato), but the virtues are found in the nature of God, not external to Him (Aristotle). All of the virtues are summed up in one word; love. The love that existed between the members of the Trinity is the foundation of all ethics, that love being sacrificial.

It is in the event of the imago Dei (man being made in the image of God) that we see the beginning of ethics. We see the ethic of the Trinity lived out fully, however, in the Incarnation. While there are still abstracts under this view of ethics, such abstracts are drawn from and founded in a Person, not mid-air. Thus, while Christ gives us the abstract of “Love your God” and “Love your neighbor” (which, as a note, notice how the greatest commandments, the foundation of Christian ethics, are both founded in sacrificial love), we only see both commandments practiced in the Incarnation and draw from His life what it means to love.

The Trinity and the Incarnation are the solution Caputo seeks, or at least needs to seek. In other words, he must get over his incredulity towards metaphysics and embrace – at the very least – the metaphysics of an eternal Trinitarian God who loved His creation that He sent His only Begotten Son to die for them, to display the ultimate sacrifice. Yes, Caputo might be against ethics and the system I preach might be a form of virtue-ethics, but it is one that if perfectly lived does not exclude the ‘Other.’ Even when one rejects Christ, I have the obligation to help that person. But I only know this because I saw the same actions in Christ, not simply because I say so.

Other ethical systems attempt to found their metaphysics in reason, emotions, or some other human experience. Caputo attempts to (un)found his (anti)ethic in nothing, to simply say obligation happens (though no three-year-old knows what Caputo is talking about). Both attempts fail. The only ethical system that can be justified is the one that is founded in and flows from the eternal Trinitarian God and His Son Jesus Christ. This is not to say one who denies Christ cannot live an ethical life, merely that such a person lacks proper justification for doing so. Only in Christ can we properly justify an ethical life, only in Christ do right actions have true meaning, and only in Christ is the ‘Good Life’ defined as being like Christ.