REL2214: Christian Ethics
- Professor: Dr. Brian Hamilton (email)
- Class time: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:00–3:45
- Classroom: Edge 304
Our goal this semester is to have a thoughtful conversation about how we ought to live and why, guided by some of the greatest thinkers of the Christian tradition. We will do that by reading some of their books, talking about those books together, and writing to develop our own point of view.
This web page will be our hub for this semester. It includes a description of the class, a list of the books you’'ll need, an explanation of the course requirements and grading system, and a reading schedule.
We all want to live a good life, but what is it that makes a life good? Ethics is the part of theology and philosophy devoted to thinking carefully about that question.
This is a course about Christian ethics, so we will be focused in particular on how Christians have answered that question through the centuries. But note well: this is not Sunday school. We will not assume that the authors we study are giving the right answers. I will ask you to take them seriously as exceptionally thoughtful human beings, but you need not agree with them. The goal, rather, is to enter into conversation with them—agreeing and disagreeing, learning and criticizing–and with one another.
Our methods are simple: read, discuss, reflect. I have chosen several important pieces of writing that represent different moments and emphases in the Christian tradition. We will read them, a bit at a time, and come together in class to talk through them. Then you will go back and put your own ideas into writing.
Here are the books we’ll read this semester:
- The Gospel according to Matthew
- John Chrysostom, “First Sermon on Lazarus”
- Augustine, Confessions
- Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law
- Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian
- John Wesley, selected sermons
- Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited
You will need hard copies of these books, not electronic copies, because I don’t allow computers in class. I recommend you buy the editions I’ve linked above if you can afford it. If you can’t, talk to me and we’ll see what we can work out.
Expectations and grading
Our working rhythm will be very simple:
- Before each class, you will read and take notes on part of a book.
- In class, we will discuss the book together.
- Once a week, you will reflect in writing about what we read and discussed.
- Twice during the semester, you will meet with me to review your work.
- At the end of the semester, you will have the option of writing a more formal essay on theme of your choosing.
Your grade in this class will depend entirely on the quality of your participation in our discussions and on the consistency of your weekly reflections.
Preparation and participation in the seminar
This is a seminar, which means that our main work together is to read and discuss some important pieces of writing. You will need to read something new before every class—usually 20–25 pages—and take careful notes about your questions and reactions. Your questions and reactions will become the basis for our discussion that day.
I will only very rarely lecture; my role is to ask questions that help us think more deeply about the texts we’re discussing. That means it is your responsibility to give the seminar its substance. You will need to actively participate in our conversations every day.
The ideal seminar member—i.e., an A student—would carefully read every assigned text, mark up key passages in it, and write down a few questions and observations worth bringing to the whole group. In class, the ideal seminar member would be an engaged participant in every discussion: raising questions about the text, responding to questions others have raised, making connections with other texts we’ve read, and testing lines of argument.
The quality of your preparation for and participation in the seminar will be your main grade in this class. I will give you official feedback and a provisional grade on your participation when we meet individually. If you want a grade report at other points in the semester, write me an email with a 1–2 paragraph self-evaluation describing your reading, note-taking, and participation habits, and set an appointment with me during office hours.
Every week (by Monday at 7am), you will submit a one-page, single-spaced reflection on the previous week’s readings. What did you notice? What did you find important? What are you still chewing on? There is no set format or rubric for these essays, but you have three main responsibilities:
- To the author: your paper should reflect a serious engagement with the author under consideration, evidenced by careful summary and thoughtful quotation.
- To your classmates: your paper should reflect the discussions we have been having in class, perhaps even to the point of citing classmates by name.
- To yourself: your paper should reflect your own honest thoughts and questions, with an eye to developing your own interests and point of view.
This is not a research paper, and you do not need need to consult outside sources. In fact, I would prefer that you don’t. Focus on the author’s ideas and your own. This is also not a book report. Do not simply parrot back what the author says. The point is to have a conversation with the author.
Think of these papers as part of a single, on-going project, not as isolated exercises. Refer back to earlier authors and to your own earlier papers. Say things like, “When we read Matthew, I noticed that… Now I also see that…” Or, “I argued in an earlier paper that…. but I think I’m changing my mind. Now I think that…”
I will not grade these papers, except to mark them complete and on task. (If you give me a paper that is too short or doesn’t engage seriously with the texts, I will mark it as incomplete.) Instead, we will talk about them at our review meetings.
I will not accept these papers late except by prior arrangement.
Personal review meetings
Twice during the semester (once in the middle and once at the end), I will meet with you individually to review your work. We will talk about what you’ve written in your weekly papers and about the books we’ve been reading.
Actually, we’ll meet three times. The midterm and end-of-semester meetings will be your “official” reviews, but we’ll also have a “practice” review in February so you’re not too nervous when the real thing comes around. The practice review will be shorter and you’ll come with a partner.
Part of the goal of these meetings is to assess the quality of your work so far. I want you to show me that you’ve been reading thoroughly and thinking deeply. I will ask you some challenging questions about your own work and about the authors’ ideas. In this respect, these meetings will function as oral exams.
The other, more important goal of these meetings is to help you consolidate your own developing ideas. We will both prepare for these meetings by reading back through your weekly papers and identifying some common themes. Those will be the basis of our discussion.
These meetings will not be graded. Instead, they will help to confirm or revise your participation grade. I will give you an official grade report at these meetings.
Optional formal essay
During the second half of the semester, you will have the option of developing one or several of your weekly papers into a more focused and structured essay. The essay will usually either defend an interpretation of an author we read in class, critically compare two or more of the authors, or develop a view of your own in conversation with them. It should be 6–8 (double-spaced) pages long.
I encourage you to do some new reading for these essays, beyond what we read together in class. That might mean reading more deeply in one of the authors we discussed, or reading something from a supplementary bibliography I will provide you. Do not use internet sources.
If you think you might want to write this paper, start after spring break by re-reading your weekly papers and noting a few possible topics or questions. Then set up a meeting with me to talk through ideas. I will help you focus your thinking and set a work plan.
This paper is required for majors in religion or philosophy and for honors students. It is generally expected for minors. For everyone else it is entirely optional. It has no effect on your grade in class. Pursue it only if you have an idea or question you want to explore more deeply for yourself.
There are no tests in this class, and I will not be putting grades on particular pieces of writing. Instead, your final grade will reflect the quality and consistency of your work habits throughout the semester.
The foundation of your final grade is your participation grade. I will give you a provisional grade at your midterm review so you know where you stand. You can request a provisional grade at other times by writing me an email with a 1–2 paragraph self-evaluation describing your reading, note-taking, and participation habits, and setting an appointment with me during office hours.
If you miss more than two weekly papers during the semester, your final grade will drop by one letter grade. If you miss more than five weekly papers, your final grade will drop by two letter grades. If you miss more than seven weekly papers, you will automatically fail the course.
Your personal review meetings will function as additional evidence for your participation grade. If it becomes clear during your review that, though you have been struggling with speaking up in class, you are thoughtfully engaging the material, I may revise your participation grade up. If it becomes that, though you have been speaking up, you have not really read or understood the authors, I may revise your participation grade down.
In very rare circumstances, your weekly papers might improve your final grade. If I gave you a B for participation because you were inconsistent in class but you wrote exceptional weekly papers all semester long, I might still give you an A in the class. But don’t count on it.
The optional final essay will have no impact on your grade unless you are a major in religion and philosophy or an Honors student. For majors and Honors students, that essay is required. If you fail to complete it, your final grade will drop by one letter grade.
- Tue, Jan. 10: Introductions
- Thu, Jan. 12: Matthew 1–7
- Tue, Jan. 17: Matthew 8–13
- Thu, Jan. 19: Matthew 14–20
- Tue, Jan. 24: Matthew 21–28
- Thu, Jan. 26: Chrysostom, Sermon on Lazarus
- Tue, Jan. 31: Review meetings
- Thu, Feb. 2: Review meetings
- Tue, Feb. 7: Augustine, Confessions 1
- Thu, Feb. 9: Augustine, Confessions 2
- Tue, Feb. 14: Augustine, selections from Confessions 3 and 6
- Thu, Feb. 16: Augustine, Confessions 8
- Tue, Feb. 21: Aquinas, ST I-II, 90–91
- Thu, Feb. 23: Aquinas, ST I-II, 93–94
- Tue, Feb. 28: Review meetings
- Thu, Mar. 2: Review meetings
- Tue, Mar. 7: Spring break
- Thu, Mar. 9: Spring break
- Tue, Mar. 14: Aquinas, ST I-II, 92, 95
- Thu, Mar. 16: Aquinas, ST I-II, 96–97
- Tue, Mar. 21: Luther, Freedom of a Christian, §1
- Thu, Mar. 23: Luther, Freedom of a Christian, §1
- Tue, Mar. 28: Luther, Freedom of a Christian, §1
- Thu, Mar. 30: Wesley, sermons
- Tue, Apr. 4: Wesley, sermons
- Thu, Apr. 6: Thurman, JATD, intro. and ch. 1
- Tue, Apr. 11: FLW Day
- Thu, Apr. 13: Thurman, JATD, ch. 2–3
- Tue, Apr. 18: Thurman, JATD, ch. 4–5
- Thu, Apr. 20: Thurman, JATD, epilogue
- Tue, Apr. 25: Review meetings
- Thu, Apr. 27: Review meetings