Creating the Morality of Christ

While we can point to the Sermon on the Mount as an originary expression of the “morality of Christ,” we cannot fully arrive at the sense of this morality through a textual analysis alone. Gary Gutting explains why:

Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it. To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity. This does not require membership in any particular church, but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world. In this sense, to forget the church is to forget Jesus.

The moral teaching of Jesus can be reached only by passing through the traditions of thought and practice which have, in their own unique ways, erected methodological frameworks for interpreting Jesus’ words and thereby introduced and fused meaning to those words beyond the “original” meaning a mere textual analysis would uncover. In effect, the traditions of Christianity have reconstituted the meaning given initial creative expression by the uttering and recording of the sermon. In this sense, we can say that Christians have created and recreated the morality of Christ.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the influence of non-Christians on this history of morality. Returning to Gutting:

Much of the history of Christianity consists of trying to develop a viable way of life from Jesus’ puzzling sayings.

These efforts, moreover, have had to go far beyond interpreting Jesus’ words in their own terms. Augustine and Aquinas, for example, used ideas from Plato, Aristotle and other pre-Christian thinkers to help them understand the “law of love.”

Christian morality owns much to the thought of non-Christians. For this reason, Christianity remains true to itself by remaining open to the thought and practices of others. Christians, I dare to say, are being untrue to their religion when they shun the world and the wisdom it has to offer. Christianity may proclaim the “good news,” but this gospel, in both form and content, owes its life not only to the figure of Jesus Christ and to the ever-searching traditions of the church, but also to the pursuits of truth upon which non-Christians have, in their own ways, creatively embarked.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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2 Responses

  1. Tom Van Dyke says:

    The Gutting essay did little for me, as I think he’s talking about “natural law,” but missing the point of it—that its origins can formally be found in the Greeks and the Stoics and then are Christianized by Augustine and Aquinas.

    Further, looking up some criticisms of Notre dame’s Prof. Gattling, it appears he’s quite out of sync with the Roman Church to the point of missing the point of it as well, that is the magisterium.

    I haven’t read enough of Gattling to call him an idiot yet, but I definitely must give him a yellow caution light. [That he’s NYT-approved is also a yellow flag, if not a red one.]
    “I find it impossible these days to think of Gary Gutting, philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, without being reminded of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. I imagine a letter from Lucifer to his nephew Snipe, the agent in charge of undermining Catholic education, something like the following.

    I was amused to see Gutting’s comment in the New York Times that “the immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.” He based this astonishing but welcome news on the fact that so many Catholics ignore Church teaching on the matter. What I especially enjoyed was his response to those like EWTN and Professor William E. May of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America who pointed out that God’s Son gave the authority to speak in his name only to a designated body. “This was, and is,” said May, “Saint Peter, the Apostles and their successors.” They alone “have the authority to speak, in the name of Jesus Christ, the truths that are necessary for our salvation.”

    Professor May even cited the teaching of Vatican II that Catholics “may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.” He cites another document of Vatican II on the duty of Catholics to accept and submit to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.” These are dangerous arguments, drawing as they do on the authority of Christ himself and Vatican II, a council to which dissidents like to appeal. No worries – we know that the NYT looks to my followers, not the bishops, to speak for the Catholic Church, and Gutting did a wonderful job of appealing to the “spirit” of Vatican II against what that Council’s documents actually say.

    But here our dear Professor Gutting surpasses himself. He rejects the relativist view of the unsophisticated undergraduate that there is no objectively correct view, but asks how we can decide who’s right. “We can’t appeal to the bishops to decide the matter, since what’s in question is their authority. So obviously, Catholics have to answer this question on their own, by their own best lights. That’s what I mean by saying it’s up to individual Catholics.”

    That is brilliant! He asserts as a matter of fact that the immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church. He admits that his assertion is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church as promulgated by the pope and bishops, but then says it’s up to individual Catholics to decide what authority those clerics have anyway. Be sure to have our dear professor explain to the New York Times that the Church no longer teaches the Real Presence either and use this same argument to justify his position if challenged. This is the way to go, a sure path to our ultimate goal, dissolution of the Church.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You may be missing his point. The development of natural law is related to what he says, but it’s not his topic. Gutting writes in response to the notion that one can bypass the church to get to the message of Christ, arguing instead that Christ can be understood only through the traditions of and influenced by the church. A rather orthodox point, that.

      By the way, the point of the Roman Church isn’t the magisterium. It’s Jesus. The magisterium is but a means to that end. Whatever his heresies, Gutting gets that.