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The theological ethicist who did not mince phrases

(RNS) — The famend theological ethicist James Gustafson has been within the information recently, a yr after his demise on the age of 95, spurred by a fine appreciation of Gustafson’s pioneering work in bioethics by The Hastings Heart Report. 

It dropped at thoughts my sole encounter with the scholar after I was working at The Atlanta Journal-Structure 34 years in the past. Gustafson had come to close by Emory College from the College of Chicago to imagine a flowery professorship and it fell to me to write down the story.

That’s as a result of Gustafson occurred to be the godfather of our faith reporter Gustav Niebuhr, so journalistic ethics precluded Gus from doing the piece. Faith scholar manqué that I used to be, I prepped myself for the interview by studying a few of Gustafson’s work and talking with just a few of the distinguished ethicists he had taught over time.

The interview went in addition to I may have hoped however as we had been wrapping up it dawned on me — beginner newspaperman that I used to be — that I didn’t have something a lot to seize the eye of your common AJC reader. Aha, I believed, possibly this outstanding liberal theologian would have one thing to say about “The Final Temptation of Christ,” the brand new Martin Scorsese movie that was producing controversy for a scene wherein Jesus imagines himself marrying Mary Magdalene and having intercourse along with her.

“What do you consider the movie’s Christology,” I requested.

“Jesus undoubtedly had a penis,” Gustafson replied. “He had testicles. He was Jewish man. Are you going to take a seat round and inform me that Jesus was by no means sexually aroused?”

Wow, thought I, I assume I’ve obtained my lede — until the editors suppose it’s too express for a household newspaper. They didn’t and, to the astonishment of quite a few my colleagues, the quote appeared a few days in a while Web page 1.

Gustafson, I later realized, was mortified. Right here he was being launched to the denizens of the Bible Belt as a Christian thinker who was OK with a sexy Jesus. If any of our readers had been scandalized, although, they didn’t write offended letters to the paper or cancel their subscriptions.

As for me, whereas I felt sorry for Gustafson, I figured I used to be doing my job. His pushing the envelope of Jesus’ humanity was of a bit together with his “Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective,” a two-volume magnum opus that depends closely on secular studying, little or no on biblical authority. 

His concern, he advised me, was for “secular individuals who have profound non secular sensibilities and profound ethical sensibilities however who’re postpone by the claims of a traditionally specific faith.”

“When that rattling custom will get in the best way of individuals serving the divine actuality, then I’m keen to jettison the custom.”

After Gustafson died, his pupil Stanley Hauerwas, maybe the nation’s main theological ethicist, praised his “robust gentleness.” David Kelsey, his colleague at Yale Divinity College, the place Gustafson taught earlier than Chicago, called him “a hard-headed realist about how complicated most vital moral questions are. He pushed again in opposition to obscure and over-simplified rhetorical gestures towards ill-defined abstractions.” 

Not that Gustafson anticipated pastors who admired his work to observe his lead from the pulpit. He acknowledged that his concepts would by no means fly in “a conventional neighborhood that used conventional symbols and conventional language,” he mentioned.

“If I got here out and preached — in a Presbyterian church, in a Methodist church,” he advised me, “I’d be out on my ass very quickly in any respect.’”

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