My brief introduction to ethics. Chapter 1

Happiness: An introduction to the Good Life

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5.4

The Beatitudes, a set of short statements that Matthew reports Jesus as saying at the very beginning of the sermon on the mount, will form the backbone of this section on ethics in a biblical worldview. Each one of these statements is about a person or group of people who are surprisingly happy as in the beatitude which opens this chapter. At least as far back as the Greek philosopher Socrates happiness has been at the heart of how wise people have understood ethics.

My favourite story about happiness is told in the film Life is Beautiful. It is a story about an Italian Jewish family in the second world war. In Life is Beautiful the family has much to mourn, but through the father’s persistent happiness his son is able to find comfort. I believe that stories are the most useful way for us to begin to learn about ethics in a biblical worldview. I believe this because I believe that the Bible is itself first and foremost a story and so if we want to think about the Bible we need to learn to think in stories.

In the rest of this chapter I want to tell this story and connect it to Jesus’ Beatitude about mourning and comfort. I also want to introduce the rest of this section of the book. But first, let me say a bit more about the thesis of this chapter, which I’ll restate here: I believe that stories are the most useful way for us to begin to learn about ethics in a biblical worldview.*

Introduction: Believing with/in Authority

Stories other than Life is Beautiful might be useful too, but I believe that we need to think in terms of a story when we are learning about a worldview because worldview are stories that we tell ourselves about our world. I also believe that as often as we can we need to let ourselves be guided by stories when we are trying to be ethical. In particular, I believe that stories are more useful than goals or rules for the person or community who is trying to be ethical. I believe this because I believe that only stories have the richness to help us think about the complexities in our lives. Stories have the strength to sweep us up in their narrative or flow of events so that we could imagine ourselves actually living in the story. In addition to being strong in this way stories are also non-coercive. That is, a story very rarely forces us to think or believe or do anything. Stories are so useful for people who want to think about ethics because they are strong (complex) and voluntary (non-coercive).

Not everyone believes that stories are so useful for ethics. As I hint above there are at least two other ways (goals and rules) of thinking about ethics are in reference to the Christian religion. We’ll explore these in more detail later. For now, I simply want to note that while I am stating what I believe to be true other reasonable people disagree. Furthermore, I can not prove (in what we might call a mathematical or scientific sense) that it is true. The world of ethics is not black and white. Does this mean that there is then no truth or that truth is merely a private matter so that what I believe is true for me but can not be made to impinge on other people’s lives? This is an important question and we will take it up again and again in different ways in the chapters that follow in this section. For now let me state simply that you the reader and I the author work together as a community of sorts to create truth. We are responsible to each other. And of course, this extends far beyond you and I. At the limit everyone who learns about or attempts to inhabit a common worldview has a responsibility to each other to consider the truth they share.

Therefore the claim that stories are the most useful way for us to think about ethics is a claim I am making and you are reading and it is an important claim which attempts to ground our reality. The way that the Gospel writer Matthew begins and ends the sermon on the mount is a good example of the strength and voluntary nature of stories.

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. – Matthew 7.28-29

It is interesting to note that nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus claim authority for himself. He simply speaks as if he has authority. But it is not Jesus who claims authority, nor the disciples who claim authority on Jesus’ behalf. However, Jesus does have authority at the end of the Sermon on the Mount for the crowds give it to him in their astonishment. Jesus works together with his audience to establish his claims.

Of course, Christians do not simply believe that Jesus was a good teacher. Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God. Interestingly, Jesus himself, at this point in the story, is not particularly interested in having the good news that he is the son of God spread about. Matthew reports,

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ – Matthew 8.1-4

Teaching is something that anyone can do. Jesus teaches with authority and lets the crowd with their own reaction give credibility to his teaching. Healing is something that only God can do. It might be the proof that Jesus teaching is God’s teaching. I have spent so much ink on belief and authority at the very beginning of this section because I believe that it is very important to recognize that Jesus is more interested to have the crowd validate his teaching than to validate it himself, even though he could have! Jesus, even when he acts with authority at this point in the story, is not interested in having people blab about it. I believe that Jesus is also interested in working with his audience to create truth.

In fact, we get another clue to this at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: – Matthew 5.1-2

Note that it is not at all clear who Jesus is about to preach to. There are crowds, and Jesus goes up a mountain (so that they can hear him? or at least see him?). There are also the disciples who come to Jesus. Jesus could be teaching the crowds but why then does Matthew report that the disciples come to Jesus? Jesus’ teaching could be just for the disciples but then why does he teach now when there are so many people around? It is likely that Jesus aimed his teaching at the disciples but was happy for any in the crowd who wanted to listen to be able to. In some ways Jesus has a double audience. He is a bit like a tour guide in a museum who does not mind attract a crowd of unpaid guest who voluntarily want to learn.

In this way, when I state that stories rather than rules or goals are where we should look for authority I recognize that I must convince you of my thesis. You may be convinced or you may not be convinced. In a very real way we are looking at the question of ethics in a biblical worldview together and are responsible to each other in this process. The material in these chapters is my best attempt to truthfully convince you about what I believe the best way to live a human life is, the best way to be happy. I hope that in your reading you will hold me accountable to that high goal. With this introduction in hand, let us move together to my favorite story about happiness.

Happiness in a Concentration Camp

As Jews trapped in the holocaust, Guido and his son Joshua find themselves on a train from Italy to Germany facing likely extermination in a concentration camp. Their uncle Eliseo is immediately gassed upon arrival. Guido hides Joshua from the Nazi guards and then works to convince Joshua that life in the camp is really just a game. The rules for game are these: if Joshua cries, complains that he wants his mother or complains that he is hungry he will lose points. Quiet boys who hide from the guards earn points. The person who wins the game will win a tank.

So the stage is set; Guido and Joshua are in what is surely one of the saddest places our world has ever seen but Joshua is primed to think that this is a game. Even though they are surrounded by sickness, misery and death, Guido gives such a good performance that Joshua experiences the camp as one of the most fun experiences of his young life. When the guards yell at the prisoners Guido “translates” their commands into instructions in the game. When Joshua despairs at his situation and asks to quit the game and go home, Guido lifts his spirt by telling him he is in the lead. At the end of the movie, Guido is lead by the German prisoners to his execution. With Joshua watching Guido comically mimics the actions of the guards much to Joshua’s amusement. American tanks roll into the camp soon thereafter and Joshua wins this game.

Happiness can mean many things to many people. It can be a state of contentment, of humor or amusement. In this story it is also an activity. Guido works very hard at happiness, perhaps for himself, but surely for Joshua. Everything he does has the goal of creating, maintaining and sustaining Joshua’s happiness. Joshua is willing to trust his father that this concentration camp is in fact a happy place, or at the very least a place where a fun, if very wierd, game can be played. Joshua’s trust that his father understands what can count as happiness is what I think makes Life is Beautiful so beautiful. That trust animates the world that his father is creating for him. The world that Guido creates is on one level deceitful–concentration camps are not happy places–but on other levels it is more truthful than the concentration camp itself. That is, and this is I think the important lesson that we can learn from Life is Beautiful, happiness is not so much dependent on the harsh realities of our situation, nor is it a simple emotional state that we simply will (as if we can decide whether to be happy or not), instead our happiness is connected both to our actions and to the actions of those around us. For Joshua happiness is the activity of trust.

What is happiness then for Guido? Guido must also experience many other feelings (despair, anger, mourning) but he rigorously maintains an amused attitude. This is certainly partly because it is necessary in order to build the fiction of the game up around Joshua, but it also seems that Guido is authentically and constitutionally a happy person. It is not just a deceit that Guido remains happy throughout this story. It is also just who he is. Finally, Guido’s energy is a testament to a happier world that really does exist underneath even a concentration camp. This happier world is the one ruled by God which scripture refers to as heaven. One of the biggest questions that will arise for us as we move through this unit is the question of what heaven is. Jesus refers to heaven again and again in the beatitudes. For now, let us just notice an important claim that I have made; that heaven is a deeper reality than a concentration camp. Inside this claim happiness is also an activity of trust for Guido. Just as Joshua trusts in Guido, Guido trusts in heaven.

Let us move more deliberately into the realm of ethics. Is Guido an ethical person? Is Joshua? I believe that they both are. Guido and Joshua are moral people because they imagine a world in which things are as they should be and they actively pursue that world. Both Joshua and Guido live as if heaven were already here. They have a view of their world, a story that they are telling themselves, and it is that story which in this extreme case allows Joshua to survive. I believe that this is exactly what Jesus proclaims in the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Here are the beatitudes as they are found in Matthew 5.3-12,

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

At first glance it seems like Jesus is up to exactly the same kind of deception that Guido perpetrates in Life is Beautiful. Jesus takes many of the hardest aspects of human life and says that the people who experience life in this way are happy. Is this intellectually or ethically dishonest? Is Jesus selling us a world in which we should be happy when we mourn, when we are poor, when people revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us? If so then we should want nothing to do with this world. Mourning, poverty and persecution are not reasons to be happy. Anyone, even Jesus, who tells us something different is wrong. We know this because we know that Jesus again and again shows that he cares deeply for the mourning, the poor and the persecuted. I believe that instead of tricking us or expecting something impossible from us that Jesus is revealing for us the way that the world really is at its core. Again, God’s reality (much like Guido’s) is much better, much happier than the world we see around us.

A biblical worldview is a view of heaven. Being ethical inside a biblical worldview is acting as if heaven were already here. We expect this to be very difficult and it is. This is due to the fact that we do not know what exactly what heaven looks like.  It is therefore very hard to live our lives as if heaven is already here. But if we look back to the story of Guido we do get some guidance about this first basic point.

Living as if heaven were already here is as hard as being happy in a concentration camp. If we imagine ourselves in Guido or Joshua’s place, we may even think that it is irresponsible to expect happiness in that kind of situation. We will want to spend more time reflecting together on what is psychologically, materially and ethically responsible (and by this I mean what is responsible for ourselves in terms of our mental health, in terms of our bodily health and in terms of the health of our actions) as we learn together about heaven and happiness together. For now, let’s again recognize another claim that I have made. The shape of what heaven is really like should have an impact on our actions now. That is, what we really expect ourselves to do in difficult situations really matters is connected to broader ideas of what is good for minds, bodies and actions. Let me summarize this discussion in the simplest way that I can. Heaven is the deepest reality that there is. Our imagination of what heaven is like should shape our actions in the here and now.

When we look back over these beatitudes we see that they have much to do with a picture of heaven. They don’t paint the picture in the same way that the author of Revelations does, (although I would argue that they are not in fundamental conflict either), but a picture of heaven emerges nonetheless. In the chapters that follow in this book I want to move through these beatitudes one by one and flesh out this picture in a larger story. I will do this by interweaving important lessons from the story of the development of Christian ethics with individual beatitudes. I hope that by doing this we will be able to learn together both the salient features of ethics in a biblical worldview as well as have a sense of the story of how Christians have tried to lead happy lives.


Careful readers will have noticed that in the listing of the Beatitudes above “Happy” is used rather than “Blessed”. The greek word, makarios, which is the word that Matthew used, can be translated to mean either blessed or happy, but most bibles use blessed because Jesus would have been referring to a state of being rather than a subjective emotion.* We have already seen an example of happiness as a state of being in Guido’s character, a person who is constitutionally happy.

At least since Socrates, who lived 400 years before Jesus, one of the main goals of ethics has been happiness. How can people lead a good life? How can people be happy? These are some of the most basic questions in ethics. For this reason, it makes sense to structure our learning about ethics around happiness, but since we are interested in ethics in a biblical worldview, it makes sense that we would want to let Jesus define what happiness is. The beatitudes do this and that is why I have structured these chapters around them.

There were other beatitudes before (and after) Jesus in both Jewish and Greek culture. We can learn more about how Jesus used the structure of the beatitude if we pay some attention to the different meaning that the greek word makarios held in the different cultures it was used in. In ancient Greek times, a thousand years before  Matthew, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. In the Greek usage of Matthew’s time, makarios came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. We have some of this meaning in our time as well. We sometimes think of movie stars, or professional athletes, or other celebrities as blessed. Makarios was also used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. There it referred to the results of right living or righteousness. Jesus uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not even the righteous, necessarily. Rather, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. When Jesus blesses these people what is he trying to do? What does it mean to tell someone who is mourning that they will be comforted? I believe that Jesus’ beatitudes are ethical, performative and indicative.

The beatitudes are ethical statements in that they are intended to inspire action. When we hear that the mourning will be comforted we should seek to comfort the mourning. In this way the beatitudes include an ethics. The beatitudes name those people who should be the focus of our actions. If we want to be ethical, Jesus suggests, we should take action for, with and on the behalf of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek and the mourning.

The beatitudes are performative statements in that they accomplish action in being spoken. When Jesus says that the mourning will be comforted, the mourning themselves may feel comfort from the words. Perhaps a better example of performative language are the vows spoken at a wedding. When the bride and groom say to each other, “I do,” they accomplish their marriage. The action of marrying is performed by speaking the words. In order for performative language to be successful three things are necessary.The words must be spoken in the correct context, there must be an audience, and the audience have uptake; they must understand the words in the right kind of way. If I were to turn to someone on a crowded subway train and say, “I do,” I have not married them. At least context and uptake are missing from this example. If the subway rider is listening to their iPod audience is missing as well. The beatitudes have an audience and a context for believing that what Jesus is saying is true. In that a group of people formed around Jesus and around the disciples who were interested in living their lives according to the beatitudes we can suppose that uptake also happened at the Sermon on the Mount.

Besides being ethical and performative the beatitudes are also indicative. We can see this most clearly in the first and eighth beatitudes. They are set in the present rather than the future. Especially here, but across all the beatitudes the purpose is to both bring about a new state of affairs that God has proclaimed and to acknowledge that that state of affairs has already been brought about. The beatitudes are simply descriptive in this way. Those who mourn will be comforted. This is simply true.

The Beatitudes as Story?

I have made many arguments in this chapter to support the idea that the bible is a story and that we need to learn to think in stories if we want to inhabit a biblical worldview. But there may be one question remaining, for Jesus is not telling us a story in the beatitudes is he? These are short performative statements. This is not a story with a beginning, middle and end. The beatitudes are curious in that they are, in important ways, simply the end of the story. When Jesus says, Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, he is saying that you should make this happen, that it is happening in my saying it and that it simply will happen. However, unlike Guido from Life is Beautiful, Jesus is not telling a story about happiness, mourning or comfort. This is true, unless we think that people in the crowd would have been mourning. If that is the case then Jesus would have been telling them their story. It is most likely the case that Jesus was preaching to people who were on the fringes of society. They would have heard his words as speaking to them. It is also the case that Jesus’ preaching is part of a larger story that Matthew is telling in his gospel. Matthew doesn’t simply give us the Sermon on the Mount as a set of good rules or a goal to aim towards (although it has elements of both of these things) but puts the sermon inside the story of Jesus’ adventures in Galilee.