Strange Virtues

In Sunday School we were taught that murder, stealing, and hitting your brother was wrong.  We learned that saying “please” and “thank you” were polite and that we learn patience from standing in line and waiting our turn.  However, the older we got, the more complex our society became, especially as we ventured across the cross-cultural divide.  The more we learn about other worldviews, and even differing views within our own worldview, the more confused we are about the ethical implications of the things we do and don’t do.  One of the most eye-opening books I’ve read in a long time that speaks to this issue is entitled Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World by Bernard T. Adeney.  Before reading this book I believed that there was such thing as absolute truth.  Now, for the first time in my life, however, I’m realizing there’s a difference between absolute truth and absolute actions.

   The central theme of this book is that ethics means doing (actions) “good” appropriately at a certain time, in a certain place, with certain people in a real life context of a culture.  Ethics is not just a belief in laws and abstract concepts; in other words, ethics is praxis in context.  The end goal of ethical engagement is to gain wisdom and virtue in living and it is in the living it out that we become “good.”  We are challenged to understand that other cultures have standards that are drastically different from those we adhere to in the west.  The book demonstrates how Christians should respond to these values that are so different from their own.  Rather than cast judgment, we are called to look more closely into the patterns of meaning prevalent from culture to culture.

    Adeney draws from many years of missionary experience in his life and faith and invites dialogue with his readers.  He presents many different interpretations of several dilemmas that exist on the moral plane.  With each of these moral dilemmas, he admits both the soundness in each option and the corresponding difficulties, whether we are talking about bribery, higher connections as in the story of “Robert” in chapter five (what the Chinese call guanxi), or the role of men and women.  He doesn’t give answers, but demonstrates that most things don’t exist in clear black and white.  We cannot hold all values as true to everyone until we look at the context from which these values are practiced.  The context is the combination of cultures and the actors that appear on the community scene. His chapter on practicing theology speaks to the fact that morality comes from a combination of biblical rules and principles, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the working out in experience (33).  Adeney is not afraid to question the assumed absoluteness of certain principles and then asks whether our perceptions are twisted, whether consciously or subconsciously, by our own culture.  Biblical values should transcend culture (97), but the way these values are played out in context is the true ethical challenge.

   One of the greatest strengths in this book also demonstrates a weakness.  He says in his introduction, “I have no doubt that there are absolute values, but our understanding of them is always relative” and then quotes 1 Corinthians 13:12 (page 20).  I applaud when he makes this statement because it touches on the real issue so clearly.  However, even the words “I have no doubt” seems like a dogmatic statement in and of itself.  Dogmatism is hard to avoid in whatever form it takes.  We speak of absolute truth and the idea that “all truth is God’s truth,” but what does this actually mean for limited human beings?  We live with mental constructs that are close to reality, which essentially represents truth, but what of our limitations as human beings in a fallen world? 

   Personal application was found in Adeney’s last chapter about the unity of personal and social ethics.  This chapter is very well written as he expounds on the story of Linda and Frank in West Africa.  We are given these theories and examples (for many of the stories it seemed as if the author took the experiences from my own hands as they resembled so closely the kind of issues I have faced during my years in Africa, Indonesia, and, most recently, China).  After giving us theories and very good insight into specific ethical dilemmas, he answers to the “and so what?” question.  How do we combine our personal ethics (which we hope comes from the Bible and the leading of the Spirit) with ethics of our society (which has value, but it is still a fallen society) and what of the safety issue when these two come into conflict?  Pat Sunday School answers don’t have much relevance anymore in these situations.  I am not so quick to judge other peoples and other cultures.  This does not ignore that there are clearly right and wrong answers to certain moral dilemmas, but most of the issues we face has to bring cultural, theological, and contextual forces into play.  Belief is not very powerful until one chooses to act on what he believes.