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Giving Shape to a New Manner of Thinking

Clearly, a new manner of thinking is long overdue, an additional life skill. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein warned us that “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” (1946). However else we might conceive of a new manner of thinking, it will most certainly include what we might call an ethical intelligence.

By “ethical intelligence” I do not mean some vague awareness of, say, the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule to which good people allegedly conform their lives. Not that there is no place for an external Code in the ethical life, but ethical intelligence requires first an inner transformation, and as Paul tells the church, that transformation comes not as we conform to a standard of behavior, even the Ten Commandments, which Jesus does endorse (Mark 10.17-31, par.), but as we adopt the very mind of Christ, modeling our lives on his life and thinking as he thought. Paul goes on in his magnificent hymn (Phil. 2.5-8) to describe the so-called “kenotic” or self-emptying Christ, who gives up privilege and all its possibilities (in his case, the privilege of complete oneness with God, privilege indeed) and instead becomes (takes the form of) a slave, serving the other for whom he is even willing to die if (and when) necessary.

For Christians, the “kenotic Christ” is the answer to the lament that after 2,000 years it just seems like we (church, society, and humankind as a whole) should be further along, that instead of contemplating the collapse of civilization in a generation or two, if not the capacity of the planet to support life above the level of crabgrass and cockroaches, we (the church and the larger faith community, for we do not shoulder this responsibility alone) should have shaped the conversation sufficiently by now to include and reflect an ethical imperative that takes root in moral leadership. At a minimum, one would think we would have discovered by now that short-term profits take a distant back seat to long-term justice in all its dimensions, social, economic, and environmental. An ethical intelligence would expect—and accept—no less. Failing there, we continue to cut away at the trunk and branches of the tree that supports the limb on which we—mere humanity—perch.

In part, such moral progress inches along at best because we (here the church we) cannot transfer faith (the words and ways of Jesus) and faithfulness (ethical intelligence born in having the mind of Christ) like we do knowledge. Once discovered, no one had to rediscover the wheel, for example, but for some reason, when it comes to religious awareness and its ethical implications, each generation seemingly must discover for itself and from scratch that it has stumbled across something new, revolutionary, mind-bending … and, like sex, completely foreign to the elder generation.

In part, too, at least as measured by biblical standards (summarized by the Ten Commandments and the two Great Commandments on love) and certainly by the invitation to have the mind of Christ, moral progress may only inch along because religion asks of mere human beings more than our current level of evolution can deliver. In other words, does our species even have the capacity to give up the self in favor of serving the other as a slave (cf. Matthew 10.39, par.; Mark 8.34-9.1, par.)? From our vantage point, can we even imagine a more bizarre economy of the universe than losing the self to find the self? Is it not rather the case that we are bred to survive, to protect the self and the immediate clan?

History rather demonstrates that we are a violent race and will trample over persons in the pursuit of profits (the institution of slavery, for example, and the genocide of indigenous peoples unfortunate enough to be in the way). The heirs of the Enlightenment did not let its lessons get in the way of their profits as they crossed the Atlantic in the conquest of the Americas. We emerged from the cave and established the social contract not because we love our neighbors and celebrate the wider community but because it got us what we need and want for ourselves and our tribe, and so long as there is enough for everyone, we live in relative peace, clan-to-clan and tribe-beside-tribe, but when push comes to shove, we push and shove because in the end, there is either not enough to go around or we lack the political will and social grace to share the pie equitably (take your pick). Rather than addressing the discrepancy in the distribution of human resources (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked … Jesus again—Matt. 25.31 ff.), making some reasonable distinctions between needs and wants in favor of the “common good” (Paul again, the Philippian hymn), we build gated communities in our neighborhoods and iron fences at the border to keep the unwanted out.

I have always viewed the church as something akin to a burr under humankind’s saddle, nudging its own, frequently reluctant, people to reach for higher ground by living increasingly into the words and ways of Jesus (of which we are the custodians) and prompting the wider community to grow in its own consciousness of the divine presence in the ongoing creative process. That the Christian enterprise asks more than we are normally disposed to give—and may ask more than we have the capacity to give—hardly lets God’s people off the hook, for ultimately, God calls us (church, society, humankind) to accept our place as co-creators with God. We recall that one-third of Jesus’ ministry involved healing the sick and casting out demons; we call it pastoral care these days, and both persons and the planet alike need all the pastoral care they can get, for saving civilization and stemming the sixth extinction (which would remove church, society, and all of humankind from the globe) hang in the balance.