‘The Ethics of Uncertainty’ by R. John Elford

The Ethics of Uncertainty: A New Christian Approach to Moral Decision Making by R. John Elford (Oneworld, 2000)

Reviewed by Robert M Ellis

I bought this book, probably soon after it was published in 2000, but it has languished on my bookshelves unread until recently. It now appears to be out of print, but is available from Amazon for 1p (Amazon list it twice and get the author’s name wrong both times – as R.J. Elford and as John R. Elford). You might think that this is not an encouraging introduction (such is the power of the crowd’s disapproval), but actually I think there is a great deal to be said for this book (which is why I am taking the trouble to review it). Its fate at the hands of the public is a cautionary tale in how difficult people can find it to engage with subtle Middle Way type positions – and how quickly they can dismiss someone who fails to offer a new certainty. The main reason that I failed to read it myself for so long was simply that exploring the Middle Way in Christianity was not top of my priority list – but now it is moving higher up it. Now that I do read it, I find a number of interesting ideas that can make a substantial contribution to our understanding of the Christian Middle Way.The Ethics of Uncertainty

The author, an Anglican theologian who worked (at least at the time of the book’s publication) at Liverpool Cathedral and Liverpool Hope University, has been influenced by Don Cupitt, who led the way in taking leave of divine certainties whilst remaining in the wider Christian faith tradition. However, he puts a lot more emphasis than Cupitt on maintaining continuity with Christian tradition. For him, the whole Biblical and Christian tradition is one that can provide inspiration, but primarily in respect of the flexible ways that past people responded to their circumstances rather than providing unique moral truths. Elford recognises that morality cannot be separated from wider religion, but is primarily a way into wider religious practice. He also recognises that an adequate interpretation of Christian ethics that takes into account wider human uncertainty can operate in parallel with similar interpretations of other religious traditions rather than in competition with them.

Elford’s main inspiration in recognising uncertainty appears to be Kant – which is fair enough, though I found it a bit odd that there was no mention that the philosophy of uncertainty goes back a lot earlier than Kant, to Pyrrho and the Buddha. The Middle Way is, of course, not explicitly mentioned, but it is implicit in much of Elford’s whole approach. He recognises that uncertainty about God’s will does not mean the denial of God as found in human experience, and his emphasis on making positive use of the Christian tradition indicates the avoidance of negative metaphysical absolutes as much as of positive ones. He recognises the magnitude of the task involved in turning a religion that is for many almost synonymous with false certainty into one in which it is the many sources of uncertainty that are highlighted. But he also does not shrink from this task, and does much to re-interpret the Christian tradition as one in which living uncertainty is a key element.

One of the weaknesses of the book is that it takes a long time to reach the interesting and original bits. The first three chapters, in which he explains why uncertainty has arisen in modern Christianity, and how many contemporary theologians nevertheless still cling to false certainties, may be instructive for readers who have not studied these issues before, but for me seemed fairly tedious. You may have the false impression by the end of the third chapter (assuming you have stuck it out) that Elford is writing a kind of textbook. However, the fourth chapter, where he reinterprets the ethics of the Bible, then starts to get more interesting, and the final three chapters are where Elford finally throws the scholarly caution to the winds and tells us how we can actually have an ethics of uncertainty inspired by the Christian tradition. This is where the book comes into its own and we start to really hear the author’s voice ringing out.

The most interesting chapter overall is ‘The Dynamics of Christian Ethics’, where Elford identifies eight ‘themes and emphases of Biblical morality’.

  1. Relationship to True Piety: here Elford argues that piety is inseparable from morality throughout the Bible. In effect this involves a recognition that both are part of a process of integration. If we are spiritually challenged by what God means for us, we are also morally challenged to stretch our responses in the world.
  2. Nonreciprocity: doing good without expecting anything back. This challenges the common social and religious emphasis on doing good to get rewards, or at least to avoid penalties.
  3. Unconditional lengths: this is primarily applied to how many times we should forgive, which Jesus said should be ‘seventy times seven’, i.e. indefinite. This means that wherever you are, no matter how bad your previous behaviour, you can always start off afresh from there.
  4. Antiestablishmentism: i.e. a sceptical challenge to groups and authorities, as shown by Jesus.
  5. Search for novelty and innovation: this turns out to mean something like provisionality, namely the value of considering new alternative ways of looking at things.
  6. Place of self and self-interest and its denial: Elford identifies a rather confused debate in Christianity about whether we should deny ourselves, or merely love others as much as we love ourselves. But he emphasises that love (agape) depends on the experience of being loved, and thus seems to recognise the importance of loving ourselves as well as others.
  7. Use of secular wisdom: Elford emphasises that the Bible does not offer a wholly separate ‘holy’ set of demands apart from the common sense of Biblical societies. Rather the Bible contains a good deal of ‘wisdom literature’, such as Proverbs, alongside other kinds.
  8. The ultimate and the everyday: Elford is effectively discussing the Middle Way here, as the need for a creative use of the tension between idealised moral demands and practical limitations. His discussion of this is well worth quoting:

All systems of morality exist between a polarity of ultimate values, or systems, on the one hand and contingent needs on the other; between what really, ultimately matters and what can or cannot be done in given situations. The best moralities are those which are creative and flexible in the way they achieve their ends. Ones which ignore neither what is ultimate nor what is contingent. Ones which hold both these polarities in equal regard and tension. Distortion occurs whenever this does not happen; whenever what is ultimate is used to disregard what is contingent or vice-versa. (p.112)

This tension is central to the way I also prefer to read the significance of the incarnation in Christianity. It would be fair to say that Jesus does not exactly teach the Middle Way, but rather offered less balanced or structured kinds of sceptical challenge to the established views of his time (Elford quotes J.D. Crossan’s account of Jesus as ‘a peasant Jewish cynic’ – in the original Greek philosophical sense of ‘cynic’). However, the great strength of Christianity is that its central symbol – that of Christ, who is wholly divine and wholly human – is the Middle Way in a way that Buddha is not. Our interpretations of the archetypal Christ are constantly subject to that tension, and require that process of navigation between settled extremes. In this respect Christianity seems to offer an insight into Middle Way ethics that I have not found in Buddhism – one that is very much reflected in Elford’s unsettling list of moral themes.

In his next chapter, Elford goes on to apply this by unsettling conventional Christian views on issues like homosexuality, prostitution and drugs. He does not give us any answers on these topics: but that is the whole point of any Middle Way ethics. It is not that there are no answers at all, but that the answers are practically determined in a given situation rather than prescribed by formulae. The process of applying such an ethic to practical examples in a book is always tricky, as I found out when I tried to do it myself in ‘A New Buddhist Ethics’, because people have come to expect ‘answers’ from such discussions. If you offer no answers they may feel short-changed by vagueness, and if you offer personal or probabilistic ones they may be mistaken for new dogmas. Personally I felt that Elford could have gone a bit further in his rather brief discussion of these issues, but I could greatly respect his intentions.

In his final chapter, Elford makes clear the key element that binds together such an ethics and makes it Christian: that is divine grace. Though the language he uses here may be off-putting to non-Christians, I interpreted it very much as a recognition of the need for a confident response to the foreshadowing of a more integrated standpoint that we may experience. Openness to divine grace is a response to the overwhelming sin of pride, which is “a belief in human self-sufficiency, intellectually, psychologically and physically” (p.140). The sin of pride sounds very much like a recognition of the over-dominant left hemisphere as identified by Iain McGilchrist, and divine grace thus as a sufficient openness to the promptings of the right hemisphere to challenge us to reconsider our false certainties.

I think Elford needs to tell us much more about where the Christian Middle Way he effectively advocates might take us and how it can be applied. However, his main concern, perhaps understandably, is to challenge the association of Christian ethics with false certainties, and to at least sketch a way in which Christianity can be seen differently. By the end I found that sketch a compelling one which added to my overall understanding of the Middle Way from quite a new direction. Elford has written other books, which I have yet to read, so it may be that he develops this approach better there. However, I can highly recommend this book, particularly the second half, and particularly to anyone from a Christian background, who won’t be automatically put off by Christian language and is patient enough to unravel what it means in experience.

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