In The Origins of Christian Morality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), Wayne Meeks performs a superb and wide-ranging juggling act of history, ethics, religion, theology, and ethnography in analyzing the first two centuries of Christian morality. After an introduction notable both for its concision and for its usefulness, Meeks arranges his study of Christian morality’s origins through ten focal areas, and proceeds to take them up by swift combinations of anthropological scrutiny, historical clarity, ethical insight, and deft anecdotes. Meeks’ thesis is that to understand moral formation is to understand communal formation, and this proposal is enacted in what follows. In appreciation and respect for—not to mention common agreement with—Meeks’ work, below I will focus primarily on his method as laid out and explicated in the introduction, in particular relation to questions of objectivity, cultural interaction, religious identity, and textual inclusiveness.
Early on, Meeks comments: “Texts do not have an ethic; people do” (4). He says this by way of explanation of his terminological distinction between “ethics” and “morality” and between “New Testament ethics” and “Christian morality.” To engage in “biblical ethics” or some synonymous discipline would involve questions of normative practice, of prescription and proscription, and in this case grounded in the particular texts of an authoritative canon. Meeks’ method, instead, is to approach early Christian morality: that is, first order discourse engaged in calling persons and communities toward or away from particular actions and attitudes, over against second order discourse (“ethics”) concerned with reflection on and about morality. For Meeks, this task is distinctly descriptive: searching and discovering the myriad ways in which early Christians actually lived and directed one another to live.
Meeks calls this approach an “ethnography of morals,” taking his cue from modern anthropological approaches to studying native cultures’ form of life (10-11). “Culture” is in fact the right word here, for “morality” is not some discrete portion of life describable apart from the whole complex of factors and variables that make up the entirety of a community’s life in the world. Thus Meeks’ is a “holistic approach” (10), “an interpretive ethnography” (11), insofar as these webs of meaning are not self-evident, but must be discerned in their context. The metaphor employed for this approach is that of an anthropologist who lives among a native tribe for a length of time, gleaning details about their life in the process—though, admittedly, “[i]n the absence of a time machine” (10), analysis of the early Christians will rely heavily, if not almost exclusively, upon texts (11).
Two different sets of questions immediately arise in response to this (to be sure: clear, thoughtful, well-stated) methodology. The first has to do with objectivity. The image of an anthropologist embedding herself in a foreign culture—a “tribe”—for a set amount of time and “gleaning” information about them is at once imaginatively helpful and deeply problematic. Is our intrepid student of human culture invisible? Is she learned, cultured, religious, thoughtful, respectful—or might she be destructive, imperial, rapacious, foolish, close-minded? Does she hail from nearby or from far away, from a rival or a friendly culture, from “civilization” or a similar tribe? Does she propose to remain as she was or is she open to being changed by her encounter? Is she truly embedded in the culture of the tribe—and thus a participant in its form of life—or merely an observer hovering in the wings, taking notes while they go about their days?
These questions may seem silly upon first glance, given that Meeks obviously has a sophisticated and honorable person in mind, but if the metaphor is to work, there must be a degree of realism in the image for there to be anything substantial with which to compare his methodology. And the unspoken fact of this governing image should be clear from my tone above: there is no such thing as an “objective” or “unaffected” observer of human affairs in the sense suggested. Upon entering into any community, much less as an outsider intent on understanding a strange (i.e., unknown) way of life, either one must remain an outsider, and inevitably both disturb the integrity of the culture while never actually encountering it deeply enough to understand it from the inside; or one must legitimately be received into it, and therefore both see it from the inside out and open oneself to be affected and changed in the process.
On the one hand, because the reading of ancient texts does not offer a “host culture” to disturb in the sense just outlined, Meeks’ metaphor stands in this regard. On the other hand, there is a kind of “host” potentially disturbable in both sides of the comparison: that of the anthropologist, and thus Meeks himself. But the one thing left unmentioned in the introduction is any evidence of a “cultural encounter” between Meeks the moral anthropologist and the (relentlessly imposing!) “foreign texts” of early Christian morality. Given that Meeks’ goal is largely descriptive and historical, this fact is understandable; but is it finally justifiable? That is, can (much less ought) any work of anthropology or morality or religion claim or aim to be totally pure of self-involvement, of personal investment?
At the least, descriptive transparency must be offered from the outset for purported descriptive objectivity to be considered trustworthy. Is Meeks a Christian? Is he Jewish? Does he think Jesus a ridiculous myth? Does he consider the Bible to be infallible? Does he belong to a church? Does he take the New Testament to be morally authoritative? Does he confess the creed? Does he view any one stream of Christianity to be normative? These and other basic questions would offer a minimum of context for this textual ethnographer embedding himself in the ancient church—for on the other side of the metaphor, it would make a great deal of difference if our anthropologist were studying her tribe with a prior attitude of agreement rather than of ridicule in relation to its rituals, beliefs, and morals.
(Meeks’ “Postscript” (211-19) addresses these issues to an extent, though the mere fact of their being relegated to a 9-page “P.S.” already says enough. Moreover, the tonal switch from the descriptive to the prescriptive, while welcome (and on point!), is jarring just to the extent that it is nowhere to be seen until the very end.)
The second set of questions raised by Meeks’ method involves the texts themselves. Undifferentiated, taken at face value, there are a whole host of texts available for modern study that claim to be or are representative of “Christian” communities. But, akin to the (shall we say) sola descriptora approach critiqued above, is the question of Christian identity, and therefore of what may or may not be taken to be properly “Christian,” merely moot for historical study of this kind? Inasmuch as Meeks engages the Gospel of Thomas and Gnostic texts, with the issue remaining largely untouched, the silent answer is a straightforward “yes.” In looking to the first two centuries of “Christian morality,” whatever belonged to nominally Christian communities or texts is taken on face value; whether later or even contemporary communities or texts rejected these as false or unfaithful is beside the point, for they represent the wide diversity available to the historian/ethnographer today (who, in any case, is not in a position to judge).
This approach may indeed be a legitimate one; but doesn’t it at least call for argued substantiation? Taking up Meeks’ proposed metaphor again, say our beloved anthropologist’s tribe were called “The J.C. Clan,” and upon getting to know the convictions and experiences of this tribe she discovered that a neighboring tribe claimed the same name, though the former rejected the latter as derivative, perverse, other. Would the next move be to spend time in the second tribe, then to report her findings about both tribes as “Life in the J.C. Clan”?
Meeks’ method and analysis are of course significantly more complex than this simplification; but the point is that the choice is left unargued. To call any and every self-identified group “Christian” is already to have assumed a position. Left unarticulated, this position becomes implicit: there is no normative Christian identity, and so we may understand “Christian morality” by variously studying whoever self-identifies as Christian, full stop.
(To note another exception that proves the rule, in a small section in the chapter “A Life Worthy of God” (163-66), Meeks notes in two paragraphs the difficulties of marking out the boundaries between those later deemed “heretics” and “orthodox.” He then lays out in two pages the views of the character of God held, respectively, by Valentinus and Marcion. Such a brief section three-fourths through the book is significantly less than what I am arguing for here.)
Another problematic of dealing primarily with texts is the question of actual practice over against merely written claims or exhortations. Because Meeks is distinctly aware of this difficulty, I raise it less to critique him than to restate the importance of keeping it mind: the steps involved to get from Paul’s letters, to his messages therein, to the receiving communities, to the concrete moral lives constituting the latter is an enormous and perpetually imperfect process. Meeks remarks more than once that the lists of virtues and good morals offered by the New Testament and other early Christian documents do not contain much at odds with the lists of the philosophers; perhaps it is only a question of putting these virtues into practice, combined with the radically mundane inclusion of all persons in a socially unique community, that distinguished the early Christians from their (ordinarily non-philosophical!) neighbors.
In many ways I have intentionally overstated the case against Meeks’ method. He avoids the worst extremes of the pitfalls outlined above, and it is in fact the distinct feature of his thesis that allows for his simultaneously objective and textually inclusive approach. That making morals means making community is found, Meeks wants us to see, precisely in the fact that when a Marcion enters the scene, the community’s morals undergo a new socialization process of identity formation that did not exist before. This way of telling the story is both welcome and unobjectionable. My only request would be for the author to have laid all his cards on the table from the start, for the agent of investigation and the object under investigation cannot always be so clearly disentangled or distinguished.