I finally managed to access a copy of Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis's On the Moral Nature of the Universe. A fellow from Metanexus that I met last weekend at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Woodley Park recommended it to me after I told him about the paper I'm preparing for Communio (working title: The Kenotic Flow of Time).
The book unfortunately typifies the narcissism and shoddy scholarship into which the "science-religion dialogue" has degenerated (to put it briefly, religion is shy of challenging science's monopoly on objective reality). Though the Murphy-Ellis (ME) project begins with a brilliant connection, it quickly goes awry.
Murphy and Ellis attempt to ground ethics in a kenosis that they see reflected in the universe. Good enough so far. The term kenosis means "self-emptying" and its quintessential usage is in St. Paul's letter to the Philipians (2:5-8):
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (RSV)
In their introduction ME write:
God appeears to work in concert with nature, never overriding or violating the very processes that God has created. This account of the character of divine action as refusal to do violence to creation, whatever the cost to God, has direct implications for human morality; it implies a "kenotic" or self-renunciatory ethic, according to which one must renounce self-interest for the sake of the other, no matter what the cost to oneself. (xv, emphasis in original)
Pehaps you can see the problem already. (I mean the problem aside from the avoidance of the masculine pronoun to refer to Almighty God, who names himself our Father.) Their very definition of kenosis is a stunted, quasi-deistic version of "self-emptying." Self-containment instead of self-giving; Confuscius'
"Do not unto others and you would not have them do to you"
instead of Jesus Christ's Golden Rule,
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you";
hands off, instead of hands helping.
Moreover ME's definition makes no mention of the Incarnation, which St. Paul manifestly holds up as the primary way that Christ emptied himself. In fact the index reveals only one reference to the Incarnation in the entire book, and that in a long Yoder quotation used merely to bolster Jesus' authority for giving moral laws as divine (p. 183). Check out the Catholic Encyclopedia article and you'll see that in defining kenosis both Catholics and Protestants historically focus on the Incarnation.
The intellectual perspective of the book is similarly truncated and narrow. Granted I've only quickly thumbed through the book, but I haven't found a single reference (they're all in footnotes) from before 1940. For heaven's sake, it's been two thousand years since God took on human flesh and walked the earth: surely the perspectives on Christ of Christians before the 20th century carry some weight. Or can the past teach us nothing? Is our age the summit and summation of all that is good in human history?
This impoverishment is similar to the current social-justice idea that peace consists of a superficial "absence of war" instead of an integral justice before God and communion with His creation—what Jews mean by shalom and in English we call "the peace of Christ."
Perhaps the biographies of the authors illuminate the origins of the book's perspective. Nancey Murphy is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. George F.R. Ellis is a professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Capetown and a Quaker. Quakers are famous as pacifists. I don't know much of the Brethren, except what's on their webpage, which at first glance seems to emphasize a very this-worldly, social justice form of Christianity. I mean no derogation to either denomination by these observations, but simply to point out that ME seem to focus on a small slice of the Christian message that is apparently prominent in the theologies of their respective denominations—to the exclusion of vast, untapped oceans of Christian belief. In some sense I suppose ME, like all of us moderns, are trapped in a culture that, as Daniel Boorstin observes, merely reflects us back to ourselves, like a hall of mirrors . It's just a shame that we cannot empty ourselves of our self-involvement to look beyond the walls of our own egos and possibly glimpse Infinite Truth.
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image : A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage; Rei edition, 1992).
Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
For an excellent historical treatment of perspectives on Jesus, please see
Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press, 1999).
(Pelikan is also author of an excellent history of the Christianity.)
Just read a profile of Ellis in the January-February Science & Spirit. He's lived a generous life, having risked himself to expose "the pattern of unsolved assassinations of anti-apartheid activists" in his native South Africa. Details like this reveal that Ellis is actually better than his book.