TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Appendix 1: Jesus as Christian moral principle: unique but intelligible

If moral norms always are about kinds of action (and so are logically universal propositions, although more or less specified), how can specifically Christian norms make reference to one’s personal vocation, which is a share in the redemptive act of Jesus? Here is determination to something unique. Does not Christian morality in this way really go beyond the boundaries of reason and become personal in a sense that no other human morality is? In other words, is it really true that Christian morality specifies common moral requirements? Or does it not add something concrete which understanding cannot grasp? Is this not the point at which each Christian is personally led by the Spirit through the opacity of the concrete, which reason never penetrates?3

The answer to this objection is that Christian life does center upon Jesus, who is a unique individual, yet Christian morality does not go beyond what is intelligible in the light of faith into the opacity of the concrete.

The modes of Christian response already proceed from the level of normative principles to that of norms, although they are very general norms. This is so because the modes of Christian response are determined by factual considerations about the human condition and the real possibility of realizing integral human fulfillment by making human action into a cooperation in the redemptive work of God.

God and integral human fulfillment are both unique entities, not classes with many members. However, neither is a particular thing, a singular item. When normative principles or specific norms make reference to them, the reference is based upon something intelligible—for example, the intelligibility of the good of religion and the reasonableness of acting in a way consistent with integral human fulfillment. So references such as these to what is unique do not go outside the domain of the intelligible. Of course, faith adds to rational knowledge, and so the factual considerations which transform the modes of responsibility into modes of Christian response go beyond reason in the sense that they are contributed by the light of faith. But they do not go beyond reason by adding something concrete and purely intuitive. The truth about God and the human condition which Christian faith teaches is intelligible in the light of faith.

But it will be objected that when the modes of Christian response make reference to the redemptive act, the reference is to a particular act by a particular individual, namely, Jesus of Nazareth. Christian religion is not simply a question of living in a certain kind of way; it is a matter of living with and in Jesus, of sharing his life and death and resurrection, of cooperating in living toward his ultimate fulfillment. All this is true and very important. But it does not mean that Christian morality goes beyond the intelligible to something extrarational as suggested by the original argument.

Jesus himself had to understand what he was humanly doing in order to commit himself to it (see 22‑C). He understood the human condition and the divinely offered solution to it. He knew himself to have an opportunity to live a good human life in the sinful world, and in doing so to constitute a new human community in friendship with God. This opportunity was in fact unique. But as a commitment he had to make, his redemptive act was an intelligible possibility whose moral determinant—its rightness—followed from its perfect consistency with integral human fulfillment.

In the light of faith, Christians also understand the rightness of what Jesus does. Moreover, the determination of one’s personal vocation is a consequence of applying normative principles to the intelligible possibilities. The possibilities are limited by one’s factual situation, but the rightness of one’s commitments is not determined by nonintelligible factors.

Of course, one’s communion with Jesus does go beyond what understanding can grasp even in the light of faith. One’s communion with him is more than cooperation in human action. It also is sharing in his divine fullness and being joined with him in bodily solidarity. Both of these are immensely important in the total personal relationship Christians have with Jesus—and with one another. In the obscurity of divine love and creaturely materiality the reality of Christian life is completed in ways which no moral norm can direct.

However, precisely for this reason, these other dimensions of Christian life do not add something concrete to Christian moral requirements. Communion in the Spirit and in the sacramental flesh do not displace the order proper to Christian moral life. When human action is transcended, so are moral requirements; but when human action is in question, Christian moral norms (which are intelligible in the light of faith) never are transcended.

3. For a clear example of the position outlined here and criticized in the remainder of this appendix: Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 530–53. Much rather confused writing about the need for discernment, which treats it as a substitute for conscientious reflection, seems to embody a similar view.