IT’S COMPLICATED: A Guide to Faithful Decision Making. By Jack Haberer. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xxiii + 122 pages.
Life is complicated, and that means that our decision-making will reflect this reality. We might want absolutes to guide our lives, but rigid rules and regulations tend to fall short when life happens. For Christians, who desire to make good decisions that reflect the tenets of our faith, there is often a desire for certainty. We want to know what is right and what is wrong, because we would like to be on the side of right. But seeking certainty, as several other recently published books have demonstrated, is not always the best policy. People might get hurt! So what should we do? How do we make good decisions that reflect our commitment to be followers of Jesus?
Jack Haberer is a Presbyterian pastor and author who has attempted to offer an answer to this question. Haberer is, by background a pro-life evangelical Protestant. He wants to ground his ethical and practice in Scripture, which he holds in highest regard. He wants to hold tight to Scripture, but he understands that Scripture must be interpreted responsibly and applied in the same way. In the introduction he announces his goal to be helping the reader "articulate an authentically Christian way of discerning God's will for your personal life decisions (both the big ones and the small ones) and for your life together with others in Christian community —indeed, in the whole kingdom of God." (p. xxii). From this he hopes that we will "discover a truly ethical way of living" that actualizes maturity in Christ.
Rather than call for our adherence to absolutes, Haberer speaks of aspirations and then adaptations. An aspiration is a yearning “to achieve something great, noble or excellent” (p. 26). Aspirations “elevate us above our more crass and self-serving instincts. They deepen our feelings. They broaden our vision. They empower our resolve. They help overcome impediments and correct misdirections” (p. 27). Focusing on absolutes keeps us narrowly focused. Aspirations lift us and others up. That seems to me to be a better way to go! He speaks of seven aspirations rooted in the call to love God and seven aspirations rooted in the call to love one’s neighbor. Aspirations focus us upward and forward. Life requires, not only aspirations but adaptions as well. Our goal in life is to approximate—get close—to the aspirations laid out in Scripture. Dealing with life's complexities, we make adaptions like recognizing that telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth might not be the most ethical decision. Thus, telling someone that you think her dress or hair style is hideous might be true but not necessarily appropriate. Sometimes telling something less than full truth might be best. Christian decision-making that seeks to be true to aspirations but is adapted to reality is related to being both countercultural and contextually relevant. The goal is to move toward a form of decision-making that makes for a better world.
So how do we make decisions? We start with recognizing that our own decisions affect the lives others as well as ourselves. While it is often difficult for Americans raised in a context that values individualism, the community is important and community is complex. With this in mind we must develop informed consciences. An informed conscience honors freedom, but it also respects the community and its values. This is true even if we’re choosing in the end to disobey tradition and law.
Haberer includes two chapters in the book that offer us a picture of how this all works. One chapter is titled “Matters of Life and Death.” The other chapter is titled “Love and Marriage.” With regard to the former, he raises the question of whether it is ethical/moral to take a person off life-support. Though he is pro-life, he recognizes that people find themselves in difficult situations where difficult decisions have to be made. So, in this case he concludes that removing a person from artificial methods when a person is brain dead is truly ethical. Regarding the question of love and marriage, he notes that there are aspirations and benchmarks, such as life-long covenant marriage. He also recognizes that life happens and when life happens sometimes marriages fall apart and divorce is the only choice. He notes that even Jesus and Paul seem to recognize this! While it took him awhile to get there he affirms that it in the complexity of life it is appropriate to bless a same-sex marriage (though according to one’s conscience).
The final chapter is titled "Letter and Spirit," and it serves as a fitting conclusion. While there is need for the letter. It is the starting point; life requires that the spirit of the Law guide us. Therefore, even though there are aspirations that guide us, more often than not we will face the need to adapt. He's not suggesting that such a vision is allowance for self-indulgence. The goal in this is to find a way forward that makes sense of life, so that we might live ethical and moral lives that express the vision of Jesus. Such is a worthy vision to embrace in a complex world.
Haberer writes as a pastor to a lay audience. He writes as one who has been with people in difficult situations. He knows that cut and dry answers will not suffice. Certitude is not possible. We can only approximate our aspirations. With this in mind this book will well serve those who seek to find a path forward in life that is ethical and moral and real. With that in mind, I would suggest that this could serve as a good study book for groups. Haberer brings the best of moderate Christianity to the conversation. It is rooted in evangelicalism, but open in application.