Paul A. Lewis is Professor of Religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He previously taught at schools in Minnesota, Ohio, and North Carolina and has also served in a variety of ministerial roles with churches in Missouri, California, North Carolina, and Virginia. He earned his PhD in Theology and Ethics from Duke University and has long-standing interests in moral development and the virtues. He is also managing editor for Tradition and Discovery: The Journal of the Polanyi Society and an avid fan of jazz, college basketball, and motorsports.
How did you come to write a book centered on the difficult topic of ethics?
It was a long time coming. As I say in the preface of the book, the ideas had been percolating for a long time and grew out of my research and teaching. One reason to write it now is simply a need to see if there is a center to my work. But more importantly, this was a good time because the culture wars have so polarized us that we want to pull away from the hard work of ethics by retreating into moral absolutism or relativism. We need to find a way to avoid those temptations and I think this way of approaching ethics can do that.
Why is the topic of ethics, Christian ethics, more specifically, so often misconstrued?
I think we have a mistaken idea about ethics for a variety of reasons. For several hundred years, western philosophical and theological movements have striven for certainty. We have sought to base knowledge on foundations that are true in all places and times. That may work for certain forms of mathematics, but not in all areas of human inquiry, especially ethics. To be sure, ethics requires hard thinking about difficult matters. It is because these matters cannot be answered with the precision of a mathematical formula that we are tempted to quit thinking and retreat into the absolutism and relativism that I mention above. I get it. But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking.
Another reason ethics is misconstrued is the way we often teach it. Too many times, we focus on making decisions in crisis situations when we don’t have enough time or information to process the problem. We ask people to justify choices by pulling principles out of the air or guessing at hard-to-calculate consequences. One example is this exercise is this: “Your ship, which is carrying Jewish refugees, is stopped by a Nazi submarine. Do you lie to the Nazi captain about whether you have Jewish refugees in the hold of your ship? Why?” The problem with this type of exercise is that it hides the fact that the kinds of people we are plays a large part in how we decide things. Is the captain self-centered or other centered? Brave or cowardly? A selfish person cannot be counted on to reason the same way as a self-less person. Character matters.
I think Christian ethics is misunderstood for a couple of reasons. One is that we have not taught people about the richness and complexity of the Christian tradition. If we had a better sense of that history, we would see that Christianity has always been an argument about what it means to be a Christian—it has always been about innovating faithfully. What faithfulness means in practice has always been contested. Additionally, some of us want to use the Bible as magic 8-ball. In doing so, we have failed to realize, as one of my mentors put it, “Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t make it Christian ethics.” Maybe a large part of what is in the Bible is there to help us learn from the mistakes of others.
How do you suggest resolving these misconceptions in the public and in the church?
I know this sounds like something you would expect from a college professor, but a big part of it is better education. For a lot of reasons, our culture has made job training the highest good of education and elevated STEM as the best form of job training. Higher education is just as guilty. In following that trajectory, we may have gained the world, but we may have lost our souls. We have largely forgotten—or at best pay lip service to—the value of the liberal arts and within them the humanities. The liberal arts help us learn not only how to do things, but also discern whether we should do what we can do.
Regarding the church, for many reasons clergy have not done a good job of educating people into the richness of the tradition. We sometimes don’t expose parishioners to this material out of fear of making them angry. Sometimes we do it because we think they can’t handle it. Sometimes we want to preserve a sense of privilege. I don’t mean to imply that every Christian needs a seminary degree, but church members need to know more than we are teaching them. From what I am reading, a lot of people who are giving up on church don’t want simple answers. They want to deal with hard questions. This is the time for churches to live into their mission of teaching—the whole story, not part of it.
What do you hope readers will take away from Faithful Innovation?
I would like readers to gain two insights from the book. The first is a sense that they are part of a larger, 2,000+ year long story in which we are doing today what every generation of disciples has had to do: discern how to maintain the integrity of the tradition in ways that connect with the present in both word and deed. We have to deal with the challenges we face here and now, using the intellectual resources we have today. The second insight is that it is possible both to have the courage of our convictions and still be open to change when there are good reasons to do so.
What tools are necessary to innovate faithfully in the changing times?
More than tools, we need what the ancient and medieval worlds called the virtues: those habits of thinking and desiring that help us channel our innate capacities in ways that help us live well. Thinking well means knowing something of the ins and outs of our religious, political, and ethical traditions. It also means supporting our ideas with good reasons based on solid evidence. We need to learn to perceive details, especially the ones that are most important as we seek to do what is fitting and appropriate in a specific situation. We need to learn to love (desire) the right things in the right way, rather than loving the wrong things or loving the right things wrongly. We need to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.
How did your own reasoning develop through the writing process? Did anything surprise you?
As I alluded to earlier and as I say more about in the preface, my ideas on this topic have really been developing over a lifetime. The focus on practical wisdom has come more recently. The real surprise is how practical wisdom has helped me connect twin convictions. The first conviction is that Christianity has almost always become captive of and servant to the dominant culture. A Christian ethic must therefore be distinctive if the term Christian is to have any meaning. The second is that there is still much to be admired and appreciated about “the world,” so that a distinctively Christian ethic, one that has integrity, can still meaningfully intersect with and learn from “the world,” even as it may at times challenge “the world.”
Here’s how it works for me in the book. First, I take from Aristotle that the virtue of practical wisdom involves acting in ways that promote a certain vision of the good and the good life (Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, an authentically human flourishing in relationship with other people). Second, what makes Christian ethics distinctive is how we describe that vision of the good and good life. Third, a distinctively Christian ethic has to be deeply connected to Jesus. Finally, the place where we get the most explicit version of what Jesus cared about, i.e., the kingdom or rule of God, is in the synoptic gospels.
What is the difference between skepticism and curiosity? How can we recognize the differences?
I think the important distinction is really between skepticism and doubt. Skepticism amounts to a rejection of our ability to know anything and leads to despair and nihilism (the notion that ideas are only exertions of power). In the end, skepticism amounts to laziness. While doubt can also be an excuse for laziness, it can also be a tool for learning. After all, asking questions is a major way we learn. Healthy doubt is then an expression of curiosity, which itself reflects a humility that recognizes that (1) there is always more to be learned and (2) that I am only human, not God. Michael Polanyi, a scientist turned philosopher, puts it something like this: that which is most real promises to reveal itself to us in ever new ways. That does not mean that what we know is wrong or that we don’t know anything. It just means we don’t know it all. It means we have more to learn. In the language I use in the book, we have to learn to be definite, not definitive.
How has the pandemic confirmed or challenged your initial thesis? How would you approach this topic in the post-pandemic age?
I think the pandemic simply confirmed the need for practical wisdom. Our experience with the pandemic reminds us that even the conclusions drawn by the natural sciences evolve and change as new information comes to light. Many of the people who stridently oppose wearing masks and resist getting vaccinated seem to do so because they privilege individual freedom above all else. From my perspective, that is loving a good thing in the wrong way, making an absolute out of something that is not. The frustration over scientists changing their minds about masks in part belies a misunderstanding of how science at the cutting edge works and the desire for certainty. That desire is what I call in the book theoretical reasoning—a version of absolutism—when what we really need is practical reasoning.
If I were to add a chapter addressing the pandemic, I would follow the same pattern as I do in part 3 of the book. I would look at a particular case. I would discuss larger issues raised by the case. I would examine how the rule of God, a vision of the good that is characterized by caring for the vulnerable in society and how we find meaning in life not by asserting our freedom from constraints but by serving others. As I see it, the rule of God disposes us to wear masks and get vaccinated. There may be, however, situations in which a Christian should not wear a mask or get vaccinated. While some may see that last statement as waffling, I see it as simply the nature of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom asks what this specific person in this particular set of circumstances needs to do to embody, as much as possible, the rule of God here and now. Still, while there may be legitimate exceptions, the burden of proof is on those who make them.
Outside of academics, how do you enjoy spending your time?
I enjoy sharing good food and conversation with family and friends. I relax by walking/hiking and listening to jazz. To the extent that being a sports fan can be relaxing, I follow college basketball, watch motor racing (Formula 1, Indycar, and sportscars—sorry NASCAR fans), read science fiction and detective novels, and watch various iterations of Star Trek, Star Wars, and British television shows.