The defense of truth and dignity: a Christian approach to communication ethics

It has been said that knowledge is power. If that is true, then knowledge, in the wrong hands, is a dangerous prospect. I speak specifically here of the study of communication. As both a science and an art, it equips scholars with an arsenal of weapons that can be employed towards the defense or destruction of humankind. The power of communication to influence attitudes and shape the course of human endeavor cannot be taken lightly. By it nations have been forged, atrocities incited, and loves enflamed. Communication is a powerful tool. But might does not make right; might must be governed by what is good! Without a clear ethic, communication can quickly degenerate into a means of coercion, manipulation and exploitation. It should rather be a tool in the fight for cooperation, liberation and education.

In the twentieth century, people were asking whether we should exchange religion for science. In large part, that is precisely what happened. Now we are living with the result: a postmodern secularized society. In many universities today, students are taught that they must forsake morality for a more mature understanding of the world, that informed individuals do not get suckered into thinking that there is a moral framework by which to live. It is as if they are sent out to sea on a ship without a compass–no mission, no destination, not even a suggestion. Ultimately, the only indication given of what ought to be done is that one should choose for oneself. The prevailing attitude disseminated at many of these educational institutions is summed up in the following statement made by a Harvard graduate student: “They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true” (Beauchamp, 1991).

J.P. Moreland sees this relativistic mindset as the natural outcome of a secularized culture in which “science is the measure of all things” (1997). Indeed, this is a core value of secular humanists that claim to be committed “to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions” (www.secularhumanism.org). For them, “religion and ethics are considered merely subjective notions in modern society,” since science deals with the realm of hard facts and religion and ethics deal with personal values and feelings (Moreland, 1997). This notion has led to the privatization of religion in America, which is to say that the humanists tolerate people believing their silly stories as long as they keep their fantasies to themselves. They feel it is foolish to think that religion has any bearing on reality. Instead, we get to be our own gods and choose what is right and wrong for ourselves.

Possibly the single most influential scientific theory of the 20th century was Evolution. It is the best explanation of the origin of the universe apart from Intelligent Design. Thus, it is one of the hallmarks of secular humanism. “If naturalist evolution is the story of how we came to be, then there is no human nature answering to a divine blueprint and no good life that expresses that nature. There are only accidentally formed individual human beings who are free to create whatever version of happiness they wish” (Moreland, 1997). So, the popular belief in evolution as the explanation of our origin logically leads to a relativistic culture in which “freedom is the right to do what I want, not the power to do what I by nature ought to” (Moreland, 1997).

C.S. Lewis aptly states that, “a man with no ethical allegiance can have no ethical motive for adopting one” (1967). For him, ethics are not a matter of religion, culture or modernity, but entirely a matter of “general human tradition.” Given the marginalization of religion today, he would not be surprised at all that we have led ourselves into moral ambiguity. “Some precept from traditional morality always has to be assumed,” he says. “We never start from a tabula rasa: if we did, we should end, ethically speaking, with a tabula rasa.” The bottom line is that we cannot opt for one ethical framework over another, or even choose to do away with ethical codes altogether, unless we first have an ethical stance from which to make the decision.

The secular humanists have suggested a new ethical system grounded in science, a supposedly objective framework. However, to espouse that view they had to have judged it as valid on the basis of some other ethical framework outside the realm of science. So, though they hold to the worthy ideals of “reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation,” those values do not and cannot stand alone. Rather, they seem worthy to us because they are congruent with the “general human tradition,” which was prior. What is not congruent is their exclusive emphasis on empirical reason, which does not logically lend itself to the value of human life they profess. They cannot claim to be on “a constant search for objective truth” if they categorically exclude all but one form of knowledge. At best, secular humanism is shaky ground.

There are reasonable alternatives to the relativistic perspective that coincide with a Christian worldview. I will briefly discuss three of them. First, the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant provides a basis for ethical decisions by asking the question: “What if everyone did that” (Griffin, 2000)? For instance, if everyone went throughout their day picking fights, society would not last very long. Therefore, it is our “duty without exception” not to pick fights. To do so would be immoral. So the answer to the question helps us to recognize a universal law. Nevertheless, Kant’s categorical imperative is incomplete in that that it neglects that “the basis of morality is God as the ultimate end, highest good, and supreme lawgiver” (Newadvent.org.) This is remedied in the second alternative, expressed in Saint Augustine’s maxim, “Love God and do what you will” (Griffin, 2000). Implicit in this statement is a knowledge of and obedience to the teaching of Scripture since, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (John 14:21, NIV).

This leads to the third and relatively new idea of Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics. Fletcher explains that “the situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so.” (Fletcher, 1966). In essence, a person discerningly uses love–the “one and only law”–as the basis on which to make a decision in a given situation. Fletcher leaves room for principles, but only as “illuminators,” not “directors” of conduct. Situation Ethics allows for relativistic compromise of absolute standards based on subjective personal judgment. So, for Fletcher, situation governs principle, not vice versa.

Despite their shortcomings, these three views are useful. As a Christian, I believe in a universal moral code based in both revelation and reason. Many moral standards are self-evident and can be discerned through logic as shown by Kant. Others have been specifically spelled out in Scripture (yet still stand to reason) and should be followed out of love for God, as Augustine asserts. Both reasonable and revelational morality yield definite standards of right and wrong based not on human will, imagination, or consensus, but on God’s character and created order. Even so, we often find ourselves in complex situations where a right choice is not apparent. If there is no applicable standard to apply in a given situation (if there is, we must adhere to it), then we can rely on the principle of love to guide our decision. Of course, love undergirds every Christian ethic and principle of conduct. We simply need to recognize that, though principles are universal, applications are not.

Indeed, there are many moral principles that are spelled out by which we ought to govern our lives. In the study of communication two have particular relevancy: “speaking the truth in love” and “be prepared to give an answer . . . with gentleness and respect.” The first principle speaks to a general honesty tempered with love; the second to a defense of the gospel where what is not said is as much an integral part of the apologetic as what is verbalized. First, in Ephesians 4:15, the ethics of truth and love are joined together. The word for truth here “denotes veracity, reality, sincerity, accuracy, integrity, truthfulness, dependability, and propriety” (Hayford, 1995). It essentially means that nothing is being concealed. There is a very real sense of vulnerability conveyed. What is being communicated is not simply the need to say what is right and true, but to live a life of integrity to the truth. But this is not to be done for the sake of ourselves. In this phrase, we have been made our brothers’ keepers. We are to live transparently before one another, vulnerable, and hold each other accountable when necessary, in a spirit of love that “always seeks the highest good of the other person” (Hayford, 1995). As Christian communicators we have the responsibility to speak the truth, live the truth, and shine the light of truth in dark places. Paul reiterates this later in Ephesians when he says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV), and again, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

The second principle I want to discuss I call an apologetics of word and character. It is laid out in the following verse: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). First, we are always to have an answer. This is most definitely where we can employ our arsenal of communication power in defense of our hope. It is not that every Christian needs to be able to argue every truth of Christian doctrine, but they “should be well acquainted with the ground and foundation of the Christian religion . . . therefore it becomes them daily and diligently to search the Scriptures, meditate on them, and get all the help and assistance they can, to lead them into an acquaintance with them” (Gill, 1999). Secondly, this ethic is not as burdensome as it may sound at first, since we do not have to go around explaining ourselves to everyone at all times. We are to live our lives in such a distinctly Christian way that makes others curious, just as salt would make them thirsty. And we are to answer those questions that are asked of us; nothing more is required. Dr. Daniel Taylor, professor and author of The Healing Power of Stories, talks about sharing the gospel in terms of telling a story. He says, “In some ways The Story doesn’t need defending, it needs living. And we are sometimes so busy defending it that we don’t put all our energy into living it. If we live it well, it is so powerful that people won’t even require that intellectual defense of the gospel. They’ll be too drawn to it” (Allen, 2002). This is what I mean by an apologetic of character. When we defend our faith, we are called to do it with gentleness and respect. Gentleness “is best translated ‘meekness,’ not as an indication of weakness, but of power and strength under control. The person who possesses this quality pardons injuries, corrects faults, and rules his own spirit well” (Hayford, 1995). Some Christians may be acquainted well enough with Scripture that they can prove any doctrine and refute any objection, but it is humility, not haughtiness, that wins a hearing. Taylor comments on this crucial ethic of apologetics:

“Built into the ethics of storytelling is both a teller and a listener which forms a kind of community. Often we only listen to the stories of the secular world with an ear to finding out flaws, often missing the heartache or the reaching out or the good that is there. We listen to find out where is the place that I can attack. That is an immoral way of listening. And we don’t listen only to “know the enemy”, which is one rationale often given for knowing about culture. We listen because they are human beings made in the image of God who have things to tell us that we need to know and will be better for hearing. And at the same time listening to their stories will help us form relationships with them at some point”(Allen, 2002).

Along with gentleness is the ethic of “respect,” which one biblical commentator remarked as being “due respect towards man, and reverence towards God” (Fausset, 1871). It is that and more. In fact, most translations render this word as “fear,” which more precisely expresses the idea not just of respect for one’s hearers and for the God whose story one is sharing, but also of the gravity of what is taking place. When people defend the gospel, they are bearing witness to the ultimate reality of God’s love as revealed in His Word. What is at stake is not merely an accurate account of the truth, but the sowing of that truth as a seed in the soil of souls. Apologetics is not a weapon to be used for the sake of sport. “One reason the gospel is not heard or people don’t want to hear it is because the image of Christians is that they are not only self-righteous but arrogant people who know everything and have nothing to learn from anyone outside themselves”(Allen, 2002). On the contrary, apologists must defend truth with a profound reverence for the value of a human being. Philosopher Martin Buber, addressed this issue with his idea of the I-Thou relationship where “we see the other as created in the image of God and resolve to threat him or her as a valued end rather than as a means to our end” (Griffin, 2000). In Buber’s view, what happens as we take the time to listen is that those to whom we are listening gain a greater awareness of self and, in the process, are able to catch a clearer glimpse of who they are meant to be. In other words, as we behold a person, we help them to become.

Knowledge is power, and with power comes responsibility. In the postmodern view, responsibility is to self since exclusive allegiance to science has yielded a relativistic ethic. In the Christian view, responsibility is to God and to neighbor, to love them. With this moral framework, Christian students and practitioners of communication are free to use their knowledge as they ought, to defend truth and the dignity of every human being. They defend truth both in word and character, and human worth through respect and mutuality. These are categorical imperatives. These are love of God. These are right in every situation.

References

Allen, K. (2002). The art of telling-and listening to-stories that matter: An interview with Dr. Daniel Taylor. Retrieved on March 16, 2002, from http://www.theooze.com/articles/read.cfm?ID=375&CATID=3

Beauchamp, T. L. (1991). Philosophical ethics: An introduction to moral philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Beza, T. (1600-1645). Commentary on 1 Peter 3. The 1599 Geneva study Bible. Retrieved on March 16, 2002, from http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/GenevaStudyBible/gen.cgi?book=1pe&chapter=003

Fausset, A. R. & Fausset, A.M. (1871). Commentary on 1 Peter 3. Commentary critical and explanatory on the whole Bible. Retrieved on March 16, 2002, from http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/JamiesonFaussetBrown/jfb.cgi?book=1pe&chapter=003

Fletcher, J. (1996). Situation ethics: The new morality. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY.

Gill, J. (1999). Commentary on 1 Peter 3:15. John Gill’s exposition of the Bible. Retrieved on March 16, 2002, from http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/GillsExpositionoftheBible/gil.cgi?book=1pe&chapter=003&verse=015

Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory. McGraw-Hill: Boston.

Hayford, J.W. (1995). Hayford’s Bible handbook. Thomas Nelson: Nashville.

Lewis, C.S. (1967). Christian Reflections. The Executors of the Estate of C.S. Lewis. First Inspirational Press edition: New York, 1996.

Ming, J.J. (1908). Categorical imperative. The catholic encyclopedia, volume III. Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition: (1999). Kevin Knight. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. Retrieved March 16, 2002, from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03432a.htm

Moreland, J.P. (1997). Love your God with all your mind: The role of reason in the life of the soul. Navpress: Colorado Springs, CO.

for Small Group Communication at APU circa Fall 2001

Advertisements

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s