In the introduction to his book, God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics, Sam Wells writes:
. . . I take [there] to be a consistent majority strand in Christian ethics—the assumption that there is not enough, and thus that ethics is the very difficult enterprise of making bricks from straw. Scarcity assumes there is not enough information—we know too little about the human body, about the climate, about what makes wars happen, about how to bring people out of poverty, about what guides the economy. There is not enough wisdom—there are not enough forums for the exchange of understanding, for learning from the past, for bringing people from different disciplines together, and there is not enough intelligence to solve abiding problems. There are not enough resources—world population is growing, and there is insufficient access to education, clean water, food, health care, and the means of political influence. There is not enough revelation—the Bible is a lugubrious and often ambiguous document, locked into its time, unable to address the problems of today with the clarity required. Fundamentally, I suggest, this whole assumption of scarcity rests on there being not enough God. Somehow God, in creation, Israel, Jesus and the Church, and in the promise of the eschaton, has still not done enough, given enough, been enough, such that the imagined ends of Christian ethics are and will always be tantalizingly out of reach.
In contrast to this assumption of scarcity I suggest that God gives enough—everything that his people need. He gives them everything they need in the past: this is heritage; and everything they could possibly imagine in the future: this is destiny. He gives them the Holy Spirit, making past and future present in the life of the Church. He gives them a host of practices—ways in which to form Christians, embody them in Christ, receive all that God, one another, and the world have to give them, be reconciled and restored when things go wrong, and share food as their defining political, economic, and social act. The things he gives are not in short supply: love, joy, peace. The way these gifts are embodied is through the practices of the Church: witness, catechesis, baptism, prayer, friendship, hospitality, admonition, penance, confession, praise, reading scripture, preaching, sharing peace, sharing food, washing feet. These are boundless gifts of God. My complaint with conventional Christian ethics is that it overlooks, ignores, or neglects those things God gives in plenty, and concentrates on those things that are in short supply. In the absence of those things that are plentiful, it experiences life in terms of scarcity. My argument draws attention to those things that God gives his people and resists the temptation to scratch around for more.
On the other hand I argue that God gives his people not just enough, but too much. What I am doing is trying to account for there being more than one kind of problem in ethics. The first kind of problem is simply not wanting, or wilfully disregarding, the gifts of God, and setting about making one’s own. But there is another kind of problem, which is primarily about imagination. The “problem” is that there is too much of God. Whereas the first kind sees the difficulty being that God gives the wrong gifts, or not enough gifts, for the second kind the difficulty is that the human imagination is simply not large enough to take in all that God is and has to give. We are overwhelmed. God’s inexhaustible creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, fathomless love: it is just too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand. This is the language of abundance. And if humans turn away it is sometimes out of a misguided but understandable sense of self-protection, a preservation of identity in the face of a tidal wave of glory. Christian ethics should seek to ride the crest of that wave. It should be a discipline not of earnest striving, but of joy; a study not of the edges of God’s ways but of exploring the heart of grace. . . .
Thanks to Peter Leithart for the quote.