“Reflecting” with Dr. David Gushee

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 3
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 3: “Reflecting” with Dr. David Gushee was released on January 25, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In 2003, a groundbreaking Christian Ethics textbook was co-written by Dr. Glen Stassen and Dr. David Gushee titled Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. In the politically contentious years since then, Dr. Gushee (Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University) has taken his many years of teaching and experience and poured them into a book offering a fresh vision of the Christian moral life for today’s turbulent world. In this episode, ~ing Podcast host Allison Maus, sits down to discuss this new book, titled Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today (available now for pre-order), and how it might impact the Christian Church and our understanding of how we follow Jesus in today’s world.

Allison Maus, David Gushee, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season 2 of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

David Gushee  00:27
The grandeur of the tradition, if I if I have captured it to any extent, is inviting and the grandeur of the field is inviting. There is a way of arguing in the tradition of ethics. There’s some better ways and some worse ways. And I tried to show some ways to have a good argue… and really in ethics it’s really one long argument… and so let’s have let’s have a good one right?

Ben Wideman  00:51
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.

Allison Maus  00:58
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of ~ing Podcast. Today I’m excited to sit and interview Dr. David P. Gushee, who’s a professor of Christian Ethics and the writer of Introducing Christian Ethics, which is a book that I think is already available for presale, but it’s coming out early this year. Welcome.

David Gushee  01:18
Thank you for having me on. On your podcast, the ~ing Podcast. That’s a fun name.

Allison Maus  01:24
It is a fun name. Yeah. So um, can you tell us just a little bit about yourself so that our listeners can get to know you a little more?

David Gushee  01:33
Sure. Um, I was born in Germany raised in Northern Virginia, I was raised Catholic, had a Southern Baptist conversion experience as a 16 year old in the late 1970s. Became a flaming born again, Southern Baptist Christian. And was going to save the world through evangelism. Gradually, I moderated and eventually I went to Southern Baptist Seminary, discovered the field of Christian Ethics there. And I have made a life out of teaching and writing Christian Ethics since my graduation from Union Seminary in New York in 1993. Personally, we live in Atlanta, and I work in Macon. And my joy of teaching remains unabated. I teach college students, mainly some seminary students, and I also have doctoral students that I teach to the Free University of Amsterdam, in Europe. So it’s a very rich life. That’s wonderful.

Allison Maus  02:32
I’m curious, you said you, you know found out about ethics. What What drew you to that maybe it’s even some something that’s worth defining for people, especially since your book is about introducing it and making it maybe more approachable for the average everyday Christian.

David Gushee  02:50
You know, so much has to do with who your teachers are. I had two great ethics professors. In seminary, Paul Simmons. And then more, personally important for me was Glen Stassen, who, by the way, was the founder of Just Peacemaking Theory, and a legend in peace church circles. So, by the time I had taken a couple classes in ethics, I was in love with the discipline, I found that it brought together piety and real world engagement. What Jesus had to do with war and economics and family life and abortion. So once I, once I discovered that it was clear, I needed to do that. So christian ethics as a discipline goes back, really to the beginning of the church. Every time Christians asked, What should we do? What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does faithfulness look like? We’re doing christian ethics. The modern discipline of Christian ethics was born in the late 19th century, in the US and in Europe, responding to the grave problems of that time of industrialization, urbanization, mass, poverty, labor, unrest, and the dramatic transformation of the social landscape. And so you first start seeing classes in Christian ethics. In the late 19th century, I think the first one I’ve ever identified was like 1875. That expression of the discipline is sometimes called Christian Social Ethics. And that’s really where I locate myself as my own professional identity. Christian Social Ethics basically asked how does Christian faith and Christian values and the teachings of Jesus apply to social problems especially, but more broadly, Ethics is a discipline that asks what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. How should we live? What is just and what is unjust? What pleases God? And descriptively, how do Christians and other people historically, answer these questions? And so we’re all the time examining the history of the church, thinking about the issues that people face today and proposing, as you might say, strategies and standards for how Christians should live today.

Allison Maus  05:13
I love that point of intersection that you bring up that it’s about understanding our tradition, where we come from how people have answered these questions of yeah, what’s right and wrong, or what should we do, which feels very active and just relevant, but then also, applying that in a way that’s like, okay, what are what are the issues that are coming up regularly for Christians today? I think that that’s feels very central to both how I understand my faith as an individual, but also, as a pastor, leading a corporate group of people. This feels extremely relevant. So yeah, I’m interested to hear more about why is this book valuable for today… for this time that we’re currently in?

David Gushee  06:04
To your last point, I can’t think of a discipline that’s more relevant. I mean, every every question, pretty much that we deal with and ethics is acutely relevant. Just… I’ll just thumb through… this may also help answer your second question or, you know, thumb through just the issues that this chapter that this book deals with, okay.

Allison Maus  06:26
Yeah, yeah.

David Gushee  06:30
Patriarchy, creation, forgiveness, race, economics, abortion, sex, marriage, church, state, crime in the criminal justice system, peace and war, end of life. And then I have the moral dimension of the ministerial vocation, and why the last chapter is called Why following Jesus is so hard. I also have some thematic chapters on green themes and ethics, like sacredness of life, justice, love, forgiveness, and truthfulness. So, I mean, I think that’s bread and butter for, for the concerns that real people have, and, and ethics, I think can can provide some guidance in this moment. There’s a lot of people who are skeptical about Christianity, a lot of people who are leaving I’ve written about ex evangelicals who are leaving. And one of the things that concerns me is, a lot of times the people that I am running into are more sure about what they don’t believe, than what they do believe. And the subtitle of this book is called “Core Convictions for Christians Today.” And I, I do want to provide substantive help and thinking about what we should believe, not just what we find unbelievable.

Allison Maus  07:58
Yeah, I work with college students, mostly. But I’m also housed in a congregation. And I do feel like the younger people that I talked to have this real emphasis on practicality of, of what it means to be a people of faith, right thinking about mission and how we are in the world. around all of these topics that you brought up, you’re not backing away from hard topics, that’s for sure with that list that you read off. And I think that young people are also thinking more and more about their system of ethics, you hear more and more about people only shopping right from people who, from companies who pay their people living wages, or supporting local businesses or anti racist corporations. I’m glad that this resource is going to be out in the world because it definitely feels like something that the future of the church needs to really hold central as we as we move forward.

David Gushee  09:05
Just a little bit more backstory on why this book I had an earlier introduction of Christian Ethics that I wrote was Glen Stassen. It’s called Kingdom Ethics and it’s really well known. It’s been used in classes all over the world for almost twenty years, I guess. But, um, Glen died in 2014. I updated Kingdom ethics in 2016. But there were some new things I wanted to say. And I didn’t feel like I could stay in his name anymore. And as I was, as I was preparing to leave full time seminary teaching, I had one last ethics class. And I thought, you know, I think I want to write all new lectures for this last class, so that I can give them my best shot at what I really think about all these things here at the mature stage of my career. I won’t tell you how old I am… At the mature stage of my career… So I decided to write on new lectures and I talked to talk it over with front edge and they said, you know, that might make a great book. So we decided to turn these last lectures into a book. And then we decided to make it multimedia. So part of the appeal of the book is it is, for one reasonable price, you can get audio, book, video lectures of the whole content, ebook… and for print book, now you can get it all I like I’m looking at the print book and there are a QR codes. If you scan the QR code, you go right to the, to the either the audio or, or the video lectures. So I intended to be used excessively, hopefully, like a gift to people who, who have different challenges accessing education, and to make it available, can listen in your car, you can do a seminar about it, you can be in Kazakhstan reading, you know, engaging it, or however, however, is most convenient for people.

Allison Maus  11:07
That is such a cool resource, I will admit, I do not read a whole lot on Christian Ethics regularly. But that sounds like a really unique resource. So I’m excited – thank you for for this offering into the world.

David Gushee  11:20
But I appreciate that I’m excited about it, too. I’m really eager to get people’s response, my peers gave me lovely endorsements of the book, and I have a high, I guess I have a higher confidence than I even thought I would about that is going to be useful. So I’m grateful, really grateful. Good.

Allison Maus  11:41
Another part of the conversation I feel like people are often talking about is that we’re in a time where people have kind of retreated into their ideological camps. They’re in echo chambers. How might this book or this bigger conversation about Christian ethics help us in that space?

David Gushee  12:02
That’s a great question. Here’s what I would say. The Christian moral tradition is 2000 years old, and then longer if you if you make the link to the Jewish tradition, as I do in the book, and as you must to do to Krishna, that’s right. So in its origins, the Christian moral tradition is 4000 to 3000 years old, right? It’s as old as the Hebrew Bible is as old as the oldest materials in the Hebrew Bible. And then when you think about the way that the Greek ethical tradition that woven into Christianity, it’s as old as the Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, right. And it is a tradition that has developed in many, many, many cultures, all over the world, many different eras. It’s a rich mosaic of different tradition, Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, brilliant scholars, church leaders and regular people. Okay, so you’d look at all of that. And then you think about our puny, polarized ideological camps, at this particular moment in American life circa 2020, to where everything has got this left/right binary. And, and people are divided into their, into their camps, and can hardly even hear what others have to say. This is what is the anomaly… what we’re living through now is the anomaly. I hope that what the book does is it kind of put some context and some perspective, and helps people rise above and beyond and transcend and think in different terms than the fixed left/right binary forms that we deal with every day. So like when you engage, like the issue of, say, marriage, in classic Christian ethical terms, nobody’s going to be completely satisfied the right wing, if you’re going to if you’re going to the left/right binary, the right wing has been up there’s going to have some issues, the left wing is going to have some issues, the tradition speaks beyond those terms. So I think that a book like this, for any serious intellectually rigorous, traditionally, you know, engaged book, like this helps us to get beyond the binary and to find ourselves challenge wherever we find ourselves in our ideological camps.

Allison Maus  14:22
So you also have a book called Changing Our Mind, and I feel like that fits in with this conversation of people being stuck in a certain ideological framework. We feel like we don’t have permission to change our mind to jump ship or find ourselves even in the middle. Can you share a little bit more about the importance of being able to change our minds or, or how that has been liberating for you?

David Gushee  14:52
Changing Our Mind is a book that I wrote in 2014. That was an exploration of the LGBTQ question – mainly from within conservative evangelicalism – asking whether there was a way beyond the rejectionist position that has dominated conservative Christianity. And I really began that as a exploratory project. I did not know what the outcome would be when I started writing it, I began it as a series of essays. As they piled up, I gradually realized that I was in the process of changing my mind from what I would call a soft traditionalism or rejectionism, you know, like, gay people are cool and everything, but they just can’t be married in their sex, sexuality is not okay. To, to fully embrace that. And that meant the belief that this aspect of Christian moral tradition needed to be reconsidered. But I found that the tradition itself gave me the tools for doing the reconsideration scripture and tradition dead. Because I concluded that when you actually looked at the number of verses that spoke about, you know, same sex activity, they were a tiny, tiny number of them, they were disputable, in terms of how they were interpreted. And they had a lot of cultural laiden in them. And they’ve done a great, they’ve done a great deal of harm. Um, but I did not find myself persuaded by kind of a straight out liberal or libertarian view that you know, something like, hey, people should be free to do whatever they want, you know, sex is nobody else’s business. You know, personal freedom is all that matters. Man, that’s a cultural attitude. But that’s, that’s not any part of the Christian tradition, it just isn’t. So, I found in the category of covenant, what I needed, and covenant is one of the ancient themes of, of Hebrew and Christian scripture, and tradition. And the idea that adults as they leave adolescence and move into the world, and they feel drawn to partnership, their best off scripture and tradition teach if they make a covenant with a partner suitable for them, and then they commit to that covenant for life, and to find a way of life that enables them to sustain that covenant. So that’s, that’s a fairly traditional rendering. So it’s not, hey, anything goes. It’s people in who they actually are not who we wish they might be in some theory. And that includes that some people are gay, and some people are lesbian, and some people are friends. And, but as they are, they should be free and blessed by the church in making a covenant partnership with the partner suitable for them, which by the way, is the best translation of Genesis 2:15. I think that’s the worst “I will make a partner suitable.” And, and so what the tradition said was, if what, what essentially said, and what both conservatives still say is, if you are gay or lesbian, there can be no partner suitable for you because you’re too broken to have a legitimate. But what I say is, if we accept the reality, of the diversity of humanity in its sexual, sexual diversity, sexual orientation, diversity, then we invite all people to the covenantal standard, which is rigorous, but also gracious, because when we find that partner and commit to them, and then to us, we find stability, love, and flourishing. So do you see how that that revision of the conservative views still has plenty of conservative in it, it has tradition in it is just more expansive. Because it is it has allowed learning from real life and real people today, it does involve some rethinking of how the Bible was interpreted, but I’m not throwing out typical ethics to come to that conclusion.

Allison Maus  18:57
It also feels maybe more honest? It feels like sometimes we’ll make decisions that we think are holding true to a certain way of, of being. But there’s like contradictions that come up when you look at it from different angles. But the way that you’ve taken this issue, for example, and brought it bigger picture feels like it’s given it permission to be more like synchronous with the rest of your faithful understanding of tradition of scripture as faith.

David Gushee  19:36
It’s interesting. A term that I use and seeing if I, if I have it in this book, where I can just grab it real fast occurred to us about marital and sexual ethics is covenantal realism. So I’m glad you just knew that the word that came to mind for you. Yeah. covenantal is the norm. Realism is also a norm In the sense that it is right, to understand human beings in their actuality, and to attempt to make gracious inclusion for all people in their actuality, right? So what what the tradition tries to do is to Believe the unbelievable and then to impose that on people and great crushing cost. Yeah. And that’s what has gone wrong on the LGBT side is unbelievable to believe that there is no such thing as you know, same sex orientation or that it’s all just a satanic plot or for the people just being willfully evil. That’s not believable when you actually know realized and real people. By the way, I have I deal with that in the book in terms of how do we how do we source our ethics, and it’s scripture and tradition and share, but it’s also reason and experience. And experience includes real lives, real people, that also includes what the clinicians tell us in the psychologists and people who’ve studied the most closely all human phenomenon that are relevant to whatever the subject is. The clinicians have been begging the churches for decades to… to reconsider traditional teaching on the basis of real lives, and real dignity and real suffering. And so this book is written kind of on the other side of… of me having made those moves. And it’s kind of my synthesis statement of what that looks like in a variety of different areas, including end of life, and in marriage and sex and a bunch of areas.

Allison Maus  21:36
Yeah, I’m curious. As you think about Christian Ethics, how denominations or certain types of traditions come into play. I think that’s coming to mind, where I think of, like the fracturing that happens in different denominations, or church traditions on these topics, right? Like, that seems easier to be like, Oh, well, I’m just gonna like sit with the kids who think this thing is me. But I’m wondering, in your experience, if there is, I don’t know, room or space? Or what does it look like to have different denominations or types of traditions play a role in the study of Christian ethics? I think I’m particularly curious from the perspective of this podcast being associated with the Mennonite denomination and peace tradition. If there are, I don’t know, more categorized areas of Christian ethics, or how those pieces fit together?

David Gushee  22:40
Yeah, that’s a great question. One way to I mean, if you if somebody were to do a mental math, you might think that Christian ethics, essentially, it’s kind of like historical theology in the sense that you’ve got versions of it, right? Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and then think of all the Protestant groups, right? And then even just Baptists or Anabaptists, how many different versions there are, right? So… So that while there is a grand, and to some extent, shared tradition, there’s also these different tributaries in some of these tributaries or dead ends, brackish streams, you might call them, but most of them have something constructive to add. And, and so one way to think about ethics is in terms of listening closely to the distinctive contributions of specific tributaries. And I think the peace church tradition is one of those, the radical focus on Jesus on his earthly ministry, on his peace proclamation and peacemaking ministry and His blessing of the peacemakers. On is nonviolence, and the way that that that left such a profound imprint on the early church, that there’s no evidence of any Christians participating, or supporting violence until at least the late second century, 150 years after Jesus, then that begins to become more convoluted and complex and contradictory. But, but the peace tradition never does. And it always bears witness. Sometimes it is the only witness for non violence in our violent world, as a lot of other Christians just kind of give into violence. So I, you know, in the book, I try to illustrate what different tributaries of the Christian tradition add to different issues. And I have a whole chapter on on peace and violence and warfare. That’s one reason is discipline is endlessly interesting. You can be a specialist in Baptist ethics or Calvinist ethics or Jesuit ethics, or, you know, specific figures like Luther or Reinhold Neibuhr or somebody, right, so. So I’m trying to offer a 30,000 foot view synthesis while also inviting people to dive into the strands that they find most helpful for themselves.

Allison Maus  24:55
Yeah, that’s a super-helpful way to think about it. I always appreciate an ecological metaphor. Well, David, this resource seems like a wonderful thing for the church. And I’m wondering how it might bring hope to the future of the church? Or how how, what do you think the hope for the future of the church and Christian tradition is?

David Gushee  25:22
My hope for this book is that it can transcend the binaries a little bit, and be read in very different kinds of countries, denominations and audiences, and also different levels from high schools to, you know, to all the way up the age brackets, right. So, the grandeur of the tradition, if I… if I have captured it to any extent, is inviting, and the grandeur of the field is inviting. And so I also hope that the book contributes to substantive conversations about important issues rather than just slogans and attacks. There is a way of arguing in the tradition of Ethics… there’s some better ways and some worse ways. And I tried to show some ways to have a good argument. And really, in Ethics it’s really one long argument and so let’s have let’s have a good one, right? Let’s have a good one. I think that a lot of cultural, you might call it cultural Christianity is dying in America right now. Just kind of, “hey, I went to church because mama and grandmama went.” It’s over, right? It just isn’t happening. So I hope that those who keep going to church will want to be serious about their discipleship and about resourcing that discipleship. Christianity is not the majority path anymore. And so maybe that means that just kind of vague cultural Christianity is fading, in more serious, studied thoughtful Christian faith is what will survive. And so I’d like to see this, this book, be a part of that. I’ve loved having smart conversations with so many different people, churches, podcasts, schools, there’s a lot of smart Christians sloughed off a lot of unhelpful tradition, but they still want to follow Jesus, I want my hope for the churches, we may not have as many Christians, but what we can hope for is serious discipleship. And any resource that helps people do that is a good thing. And I hope this book is that.

Allison Maus  27:30
Well, it certainly sounds like it’s going to be a good read. I can’t wait to get my hands on it. And talk about it with people in my congregation in my community. So thank you again, for for this book. I’m saying thank you preemptively. I know it’s gonna be fantastic. And thank you for talking with me today.

David Gushee  27:50
Thank you for having me on the ~ing Podcast. And now I’m now gonna tell everybody that I’ve been on ~ing which is really cool.

Allison Maus  28:00
Yes, yes. I am curious, is there a way or a place that people can follow along with this project, other projects or things you might do in the future that you could share here?

David Gushee  28:12
Yeah, the best starting point is DavidPGushee.com.  

Allison Maus  28:16
Okay, great. Wonderful. Well, thank you for talking with me. And again, thank you everyone for listening to another episode of ~ing Podcast.

Ben Wideman  28:27
Next week awning podcast as we look toward Black History Month, we sit down with Glen Guyton, who is the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, and also happens to be the first African American to serve in this position.

Glen Guyton 28:41
Even when I do diversity training, it all boils down to back to who are you? You know, who do you say you are? And then how do you get to that, that place? How do you live that out? You know, organizations have mission statements, vision statements… but is that really what you’re living into? Are your actions aligned with, with who you say you are? I think that’s our biggest, biggest challenge.

Ben Wideman  29:05
As always, we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app and have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards, and produced by me, Ben Wideman. views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.