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Teaching and Learning Christian Ethics: Some Fresh Food for Thought

Many Forum readers know the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE), the nondenominational professional organization that holds a lively annual convention each January. The SCE began in 1959 as a small and informal gathering of Protestant ethicists working mostly at seminaries. The admission, in the wake of Vatican II, of many Catholic ethics professors (first clergy, then larger numbers of laity including women) was the first of many expansions in the organization’s membership and complexity. Though it still struggles to include and fully welcome ethnic and gender minorities, the SCE attracts an increasingly diverse membership, even reaching beyond its geographic base in the United States and Canada.

The last two annual meetings constituted an encouraging rebound from the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The 390 members who attended the January 2024 meeting represent slightly over half the current dues-paying membership. This meeting’s (somewhat playful and ambiguous) convention theme,  “Teaching and Learning Christian Ethics: What’s the Matter,”  represents a rare effort by SCE leadership to highlight classroom teaching. Though instructing students in ethics undoubtedly occupies much of the daily professional energies of most of its (non-retired) members, the SCE has not often so deliberately catalyzed sustained reflection on the specific challenges of classroom interactions.[1]

Attendees of this year’s meeting enjoyed 3 plenaries and 6 concurrent sessions featuring as many as fourteen options. It was a veritable feast for professional ethicists, whether teaching in seminaries, professional schools, undergraduate institutions or nowhere at all. There is of course no way to summarize all the wisdom on display at these sessions, nor adequate space here to do so. Every attendee could probably relate a parallel experience: what I heard at the conference allowed me to hone my half-formed thoughts and challenge my preconceived notions regarding the teaching enterprise. Allow me to present this partial and admittedly idiosyncratic sketch of how the sessions I attended advanced my reflection on the task of teaching Christian ethics.

First, instructors must strive to ensure that the classroom is a “safe space” for each student. Because ethics (unlike many other disciplines) lends itself to diverse opinions and personal investment in the subject matter, a premium must be accorded to demonstrating respect for every learner, perspective, and reasonable set of opinions. This is especially so when treating religious ethics, since theological commitments bearing on ethical approaches lie at the very center of a person’s identity. At the same time, the classroom is at its most creative when it is also a “brave place” (a phrase I had somehow never encountered before hearing it several times during this conference—thank you Emily Reimer-Barry and others). We do our students a great service when we, wielding instructional authority within classroom power dynamics, encourage them to share their thoughts boldly, even at the risk of missteps, potential misunderstandings and vociferous disagreements.

Of course, academic standards include commitment to full freedom of inquiry, and rightly so. The classroom may even emerge as a “subversive space,” where students may learn a certain boldness of intellectual style challenging the status quo. Lively debate fosters growth in knowledge and wisdom; it may even surface implicit bias and bigotry, which teachers should be ever eager to expose, challenge and lead our students to ultimately reject. Skilled instructors hope to help their students overcome any innate timidity; we should encourage each student to test their initial judgments and engage in constructive moral dialogue even with classmates who sharply disagree.

Secondly, several conference presenters emphasized the need for balance and sensitivity in executing various teaching techniques and pursuing the many learning objectives that ethics courses typically identify. Accommodating neurodiversity and accounting for varied learning styles (extroverts interact differently from introverts in classrooms) are well-founded principles of effective teaching. Another challenge relates to the range of personality types and ethical styles of our students. In any given class session, we will likely share space with students who exhibit an excess of confidence (even smugness) in their already-settled opinions on ethical issues, sources and methodologies, and other students whose instinctive reticence to forming and expressing firm moral judgments reflects the ambient liberalism, secularism and even relativism of our culture. The latter type of student may resist any unqualified affirmations of values or moral absolutes, exhibiting an almost visceral response to the expression of ethical commitments that strike them as rigid and overly determined. The former may enter our classrooms expecting to win approval and support for their already-hardened views.

It is no easy task to navigate these waters, where we may need to challenge students to “un-learn” various things and invite them to reexamine their ethical premises. An experienced teacher will work to complexify, complicate, and problematize students’ previously acquired views on certain occasions, or to prick their consciences so that they consider realities (such as profound and widespread human suffering) that demand broadening their horizons. As SCE presenters wisely suggested in various ways, the professional ethicist’s vocation includes a willingness to “roil the ethical waters” (my phrase here) of various audiences, from those trapped in smug certainty to those committed to an excessively noncommittal stance.

Third, presenters emphasized close attention to the style with which we interact with students in our ethics courses. We can all appreciate the benefit of establishing personal relationships with individual students as appropriate. College professors do not literally fulfill parental roles (although the encounter is likely trans-generational in nature), but ethics instructors in particular may find themselves assuming a certain responsibility for students’ moral formation and personal development. Ethics courses lend themselves to a “pedagogy of engagement” that may take many forms. Especially valuable are classroom activities that feature lively interaction (even the open-ended discussion periods that have given me anxiety attacks on occasion). I hasten to add that there is still a place for the “sage on the stage” style of lecture that provides an intellectual rigor that class discussions seldom surface. A well-planned lecture can display the informed ethical synthesis that no one else in our classrooms is likely to possess.

SCE presentations captured quite well further educational approaches and pedagogical values that I have long appreciated. These include: compelling case studies to spark our students’ ethical creativity and appeal to their moral imaginations (“show them more than tell them”); lesson plans geared toward generating ethical curiosity, so that students will ask better moral questions over time rather than rehearsing stale “culture war” battles; an invitational style without any hint of heavy-handed indoctrination, so that class sessions are conversation-starters rather than conversation-stoppers promoting prefabricated answers; and frank discussion of virtues and vices, with the process of moral development that fosters each.

As a Jesuit priest, I have a special angle on teaching and learning ethics. The Society of Jesus’s dedication to educating youth dates from our founding in the sixteenth century. Our mission was recently renewed in the 2019 “Universal Apostolic Preferences” which identifies “accompanying youth” in their educational and spiritual growth as one of four global priorities. Jesuit spirituality moves its adherents to strenuous efforts for transforming the world, and of course forming youth in conscientious moral reflection and ethical practice promises a multiplier effect in positive social change. In my own undergraduate teaching of social ethics (at a prominent Jesuit university known especially for its diverse student body in a highly pluralistic world capital), I am aware of the risk of being accused of “smuggling in” confessional commitments that might be unwelcome or alien to some of my students. Indeed, I begin the first class of each semester by acknowledging that the moral universe of most students in my classroom is unlikely to be as God-centered as mine, so I am rather deliberate about pledging absolute respect for the viewpoints of all students without in any way abandoning or even bracketing my own. By the end of my courses, most students easily detect my hopes that they will not only be moved to practice social action for justice, but also that they may develop a heightened interiority, whether they understand this in the language of spirituality and prayer or simply as a mindfulness that nourishes mercy, empathy and compassion. It is only rarely that I detect any particular friction between the project of presenting established Catholic theological positions on peace and social justice, on one hand, and inviting wide-ranging dialogue on alternative ethical approaches and commitments, on the other hand. The creative tension has actually proven most fruitful, as classroom learners ponder together the contours of forging a socially responsible way of life amidst so many global challenges.

On this point, I am grateful to Vincent Lloyd, who used much of his SCE plenary session to call for all teachers of ethics to bring into their instruction descriptions of (and even conclusions drawn from) lived human experience. Theology and moral theory are especially worthy of study when students are encouraged to factor in ample data from the “real world” that always informs any adequate analysis of specific policy issues and decisions, whether of a personal, corporate or institutional nature.

The previous day, D. Stephen Long delivered the SCE Presidential Address, treating his audience to a preview of his forthcoming book On Teaching and Learning Christian Ethics. The volume explores the relationship between moral philosophy and theological ethics as academic disciplines, with an emphasis on several seminal nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures, and on two Britons in particular whose life projects form something of a diptych. The first is Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), a veritable founder of modern ethics. In his desire to establish precision in the “oughts” that form the basis of ethics, this utilitarian bracketed theology entirely out of his methodology. The other is F.D. Maurice (1805-72), prominent Anglican theologian and a founder of Christian socialism. In Long’s estimation (and mine as well), the latter gets the better of the debate over proper methodology. Maurice not only remained unapologetically theological in the grounding that supported his social activism, but also exhibited a felicitous appreciation for the complexity of all such judgments, and indeed the overall dynamism of human life. Along with so many SCE presenters this year, we may easily share Long’s admiration for an approach that consistently opts for the broadest construal of what matters in the domain of ethics. Sidgwick’s preference for a narrower cast simply sacrifices too much of human life in its quest for precision of judgment.

Finally, I note that the 2025 conference will feature the theme “Riding the Moral Arc of the Universe” (one of the more lyrical titles I can recall, with its allusion to a favorite quotation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). If you cannot wait until then for valuable insights into the contribution of theology and ethics to human life, consider reading a recent apostolic letter of Pope Francis, Ad theologiam promovendam.[2] This motu proprio offers a rich set of reflections on the importance of practicing a contextual theology that engages life in all its messiness and with all its complexities. Our ethical research benefits richly from this commitment, as do our students. I am especially encouraged that in the closing weeks of 2023 the pope was pondering many of the same dynamics, by which reflection guides human action, that nearly 400 ethicists took up in Chicago at the very start of 2024.

Works Cited

 Curia Generalizia della Compagnia di Gesù (2024). “Universal Apostolic Preferences.”  https://www.jesuits.global/uap/

Pope Francis (2023). Ad theologiam promovendam. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/la/motu_proprio/documents/20231101-motu-proprio-ad-theologiam-promovendam.html

Stephen Long, On Teaching and Learning Christian Ethics, Georgetown University Press, 2024.

Society of Christian Ethics (2020). “The Society of Christian Ethics.” https://www.scethics.org/

[1] For background on this point, note the text of this, the first of three paragraphs on the “Who We Are” tab of the SCE’s website:

The purpose of the Society is to promote scholarly work in Christian ethics and in the relation of Christian ethics to other traditions of ethics, and to social, economic, political and cultural problems; to encourage and improve the teaching of these fields in colleges, universities and theological schools; and to provide a community of discourse and debate for those engaged professionally within these general fields.

The final paragraph of this section of the SCE website further describes the ways that this learned society “promotes research” on various topics such as “the history of ethics and moral theology; theoretical issues relating to the interplay of theology and ethics; methodology in ethical reflection and investigation; and comparative religious ethics…. [and] problems in applied and professional ethics, and various human-rights and social-justice issues.” (Who We Are.) The purposes mentioned are all laudable, of course, but the “teaching” component is easily lost in the shuffle of enumerating foundational issues and eclipsed by other purposes and professional activities. I suspect that many members anticipated this year’s conference theme with as much eagerness as I did.

[2] The official English translation of this document is not available as of this writing.