Here I want to offer a final reflection on grace and ethical systems. The original post that sparked the rather heated debate, here and elsewhere, was entitled “Stop Teaching the Ethics of Jesus.” One of the important, but missed, points of the title was that it didn’t say “Don’t Teach the Ethics of Jesus.” The reason for this was something I addressed in the interview with Jay Bakker. In that interview I mentioned how my position is neither one that claims ethics fails (and thus should be abolished), nor succeeds (and should be held onto). But that I am rather arguing the following,
Ethics is failure that succeeds in its very failure
Let us outline the two positions I mention above in the following way,
Ethical teachings are vital in helping individuals and communities engage in moral behaviour
Ethical teachings breed guilt, repression, and disavowed symptoms and thus should be abolished
My argument is neither of these. Rather I am saying that ethical teaching helps us to approach moral behaviour by the very act of exposing its impotence. In his book Less Than Nothing Slovoj Zizek uses a simple and useful analogy to explain this process (he offers this as part of a detailed and complex analysis of the structure). He takes the example of offending a friend with a thoughtless remark and then apologising (elsewhere he tells us that this is a true example of something that happened with Judith Butler). Once he realized that he had offended his friend he apologised for his remarks. After the apology she told him that there was no need to apologize as she understood he didn’t really mean it. The same logic can be found in lots of places, for example, when we bring a bottle of wine to a dinner only to be told that there was no need for the gift.
What we see in times like this can be broken down as such,
- Someone makes a comment that hurts a friend
- The friend shows that hurt in some way
- The person who made the comment feels bad and apologies
- The other person says, “you don’t need to apologise, I understand you didn’t mean it”
- The relationship is re-established and the first person is more considerate in what they say in future
The point here is that the apology is needed so that it can be rejected as not needed. The same is true of bringing a bottle of wine to a party. Imagine the awkwardness that would ensue if the person who was told that they shouldn’t have brought the wine said, “OK” and then went out and put it back in the car. The point is that the wine (or apology) is retained in its very redundancy.
It is this structure that we see play out in ethics. Take the example of a family in which a child hurts someone. Both the “hippie” response of accepting everything and the “conservative” response of helping the child internalize a code of conduct that ought to be followed, are problematic. Instead we can provide the following (simplified) scheme that follows my argument,
- Child hurts someone
- Help the child understand why what they did is unacceptable
- Child feels bad
- Tell child that its ok, that everyone messes up and that they are loved just the way they are
The idea is that this type of structure is one that can best transform our subjective relation to the other. In other words, if you stopped at stage one (do nothing) or two (show the inappropriate behaviour) the result is damaging. The point being, of course, that offering grace in the face of the necessity and impotence of ethical systems is the way of getting what ethical systems promise and yet cannot deliver. The critique of ethics through love is thus not a way of attempting to get away from ethical systems or what they aim at, but rather of approaching what they promise yet obscure through the creation of a subjective obstacle.
This properly Hegelian dialectic move is what, I would argue, is missed in both the “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul.