Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine: A Noble Tradition

By Kevin Tankersley

Ethics –– sometimes defined as the moral principles that govern our behavior –– has been the subject of instruction, research and discussion at Baylor since its founding as a Christian university in 1845. And now, faculty members in the College of Arts & Sciences are prepared to play an important role as Baylor gives even more emphasis to the study of ethics as part of one of five academic initiatives in Illuminate, the university’s new academic strategic plan.

Ethics are already the focus of several current classes at Baylor, spanning a number of departments and academic units and incorporating subjects such as philosophy, medicine, business, media and film, the environment and biology. But Dr. William Bellinger, chair of the Department of Religion in the College of Arts & Sciences and the W. Marshall and Lulie Craig Chair in Bible, said the religion department’s strong emphasis on ethics dates back at least to the mid-1960s with courses taught by the late Dr. Daniel McGee.

“Dan McGee began work on Christian ethics in our department, and he understood ethics as a service area for the University,” Bellinger said. “It wasn’t just religion –– he had courses like bioethics, which were very important to prehealth students. And he had a course like environmental ethics that related to environmental sciences.”

McGee, a professor of religion and the Emeritus Melton Endowed Chair of Religion, taught at Baylor for 40 years and died in 2014. At the time, Bellinger spoke about his former colleague’s devotion to ethical study.

“Dr. McGee had a profound influence on Baylor University, the Baylor department of religion and the discipline of Christian ethics,” Bellinger said in a 2014 Baylor news release. “He came to Baylor as part of a group of faculty who were instrumental in beginning the Ph.D. program in the department and in forging interdisciplinary approaches to ethics.”

Bellinger said that the mantle that McGee originated at Baylor has been passed on to younger religion faculty members.

“They are the next generation of ethicists in our department and they reflect, I think, the trend that theology and ethics are really understood to be heavily interrelated,” Bellinger said. “When I first came to Baylor, which was a long time ago now, I think we tended to think about ethics in terms of dealing with ethical issues. And there’s still some of that that goes on. But this generation of theologians and ethicists tend to think about it in terms of what kind of ethical theory are we working with, or what is the history of theology and ethics on various issues that arise in our society.”

Ethics in society

Dr. Elise Edwards, lecturer in religion, teaches classes in both Christian ethics and bioethics. She deals with contemporary issues in her bioethics class, discussing topics with students such as physician-assisted suicide and emerging medical technology and its capabilities to sustain life much longer than before.

“We’re looking at bioethics from a Christian perspective. There’s a sense in which we’re never just individuals interacting with individual doctors,” Edwards said. Instead, she said her students look at bioethics from the point of view as community members, parents with children or as people taking care of aging parents.

“This also makes sense in terms of what we mean to each other and what we mean to God,” she added.

Edwards said many modern-day ethical issues are covered in her gender, feminism and theology course as well, topics such as gender roles in the church, and the evolving definitions of marriage and family.

“I love feminist ethics and feminist theology because there, we get into questions about social justice related to gender or sexuality and gender roles,” she said.

Students in her ethics classes also learn about post-Christian feminists –– women who in the 1960s and ‘70s felt they had no place in a male-dominated church that was not designed for them nor inclusive of them, Edwards said. Yet the course primarily addresses Christian feminists who say, “There’s something here that I can work with to change and make more inclusive,” Edwards said.

Edwards said both the bioethics course and the gender, feminism and theology class start with the same basic questions that she poses early in the semester in her Christian ethics classes: “What does being Christian bring to ethics? What does ethics bring to being a Christian? How do these two match up?”

In her classes, Edwards waits a few weeks each semester before tackling difficult topics –– physician-assisted suicide and gender roles, for instance –– and uses numerous reading assignments to expose students to different points of view before asking them to weigh in with their own points of view. This allows the students to “engage in a process of self-reflection, of seeing where they already are on certain issues and why they are there,” she said.

Edwards begins that process by having her students take place in a “social location narrative” where they talk about their religious influences, race, gender, ethnicity, educational background and economic class, as well as what they’ve been taught about those aspects of their lives and whether any of those have ever changed.

By the third week in class, her students begin to see that because of those things, they’ve already been acculturated to see the world in a particular way, Edwards said. “And it doesn’t mean any of those groups are monoliths, but it means that we are informed by the people we’re raised by, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But part of being in college is learning to examine who you are and beginning to ask those important questions about whether or not those are things you actually want to commit to.”

What is Edwards’ goal in teaching ethics? “It’s not to lead students to a particular conclusion or a particular position on any particular subject,” she said. “I want them to know that Christians disagree on topics for some very good reasons. It’s never to say, ‘as a Christian you must believe this right or else you’re not a real Christian,’ or ‘you’re some sort of heretic or have no relationship with God.’ I would never make that claim in my students’ lives. But I want them to come to their own position by having looked at the different informed positions that others have come to.”

That message is important to emphasize in classes at Baylor, Edwards said, because some students, up to this point in their lives, have been “doing what they’ve been told in following a vision of morality that is simply given to them, and they do not feel they should question that,” or that they feel they lack the courage or power to question that.

“I think it’s important for people who are living in the world that were in, consistent with what I think a liberal arts education does, that we learn to be engaged thinkers, readers and writers, and that we come to know our own minds and come to our own decisions,” Edwards said. “I think within the Christian tradition we have a lot of help and guidance that can assist us, and we’re never alone in our decision-making. We have the church with us even though there are so many different views within it.”

Practical implications

While Edwards encourages her students to begin looking inward as they’re considering important questions, Dr. Paul Martens urges students in his Christian ethics and environmental ethics classes to consider some outward factors in their discussions. He asks them to consider the ethical implications –– for example, of choosing what they eat and what they wear.

“You begin to realize you own habits and behaviors,” said, Martens, an associate professor of religion and director of interdisciplinary programs for the College of Arts & Sciences. “As soon as you start looking at the systems we participate in, it can be very unsettling. In some cases, it’s no big deal. But in some cases –– for example, if you or your pet are eating fish from the waters of Thailand –– there’s a pretty close to a 100 percent probability that it was fished from boats that are run by slave labor. If we, as Christians, don’t think we ought to support human trafficking with our purchasing power, this is a big deal. We tend to think of human trafficking in terms of women in prostitution, which is also terrible, but human trafficking is much broader in large parts of the world.”

And the world of fashion can be just as challenging, Martens said –– only in a different manner.

“It has been observed, over the last couple of decades, that you can tell what colors are in fashion in Paris by the color of the rivers in China,” he said. “It takes a tremendous amount of water to dye clothes. The wastewater, with dye and toxic mordants, often just gets released into the rivers and then the ocean, and that’s how it goes. And we still happily buy those clothes.”

While these are obviously large systemic problems, Martens said, they’re not insurmountable, and the choices his students make can have an impact.

“‘Who am I? What can I do?’ To start, you can decide if you can wear your shoes another week or two, or a year, and then you can replace more responsibly only as necessary,” he said. “And cumulatively, those are things that actually change the world. It’s not the big things that generally change the world.”

Martens said he and his colleagues in religion, and those faculty members across campus teaching ethics in fields such as law, business, philosophy, media and film, are perfectly positioned to guide students in ethical conversations at this juncture in their lives.

“Christianity is always lived in a particular context or culture at a particular time,” Martens said. “So, even though one might share a biblical faith or Christian convictions that reach back all the way to the first century, we no longer live in the first century. The task of Christian ethics, therefore, is an interdisciplinary task that is new each generation. It is the task of seeing the world through Christian eyes, or determining what it means to live as a Christian in this particular time and place, which also means that it requires one to attend carefully to the world in which one lives.”

Ethics as mission

Just why is Baylor’s emphasis on teaching ethics so important? Bellinger said there are at least two reasons. First, as ethical matters arise in societal life, “we tend to resolve those issues, it seems to me, in sort of whatever kind of works for the moment. And I think we would say that it would be helpful to have a thoughtful attitude about those things ahead of time, so we can then think about, ‘How does this play out in international relations?’ or ‘How does this play out in integrity in public life and politics?’”

Also, Bellinger said Baylor’s distinctive character makes it critical that the university be at the forefront of ethics education.

“It’s very important for a university that has a Christian mission,” he said. “Theologically, ethics has been a very important part of the Christian faith all through the years. You get the teachings of Jesus and a lot of legal material in the Old Testament. There is also a long history of reflection on ethics in the Christian church. In higher education, Baylor is one of the places that needs to be speaking to these kinds of questions.”

The emphasis on ethics in Baylor’s religion department will continue to grow, Bellinger said. Some ethics classes will more than likely have a place in the new Arts & Sciences core curriculum, he said, adding that’s just how it should be.

“If you’re going to talk about Baylor and its Christian mission to educate men and women to serve as worldwide leaders, ethical issues will be central to that for the young people taking undergraduate classes in the future in a way even more pressing than it has been,” Bellinger said. “Ethics will be more front and center than it has been. It’s one of the ways we can make a difference at Baylor.”


This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here


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