It's all on you... I had a memorable conversation with a friend the other day—a truly decent guy, someone who makes me feel comfortable and who listens well. He's newer in my life than many people and so he wanted the back story on me. Basically, he asked, "What's a business woman like you doing with a missionary past?" The conversation quickly evolved into shared story lines—he was in a fraternity (Lamba Chi) and I was in a sorority (Kappa Kappa Gamma). I was a little sister at the Lambda Chi house at UCLA, in fact. We both "got saved" through campus ministries (Navigators for him, Campus Crusade for Christ for me). That shared background is a bit like knowing a secret handshake. We talked easily about stuff like discipleship, evangelism, relationship versus religion, moral authority, and the possibility that the world may end in our generation! It was more difficult to talk about the changes in my faith. My friend was respectful, kind, interested. That's always nice. He did ask one question, though, that I'm still thinking about. His primary concern in all these years since college is that his kids know what he discovered: that there is a moral absolute that is separate from what he, their dad, tells them; distinct from what the culture expresses; superior to their own judgments. This is where it falls apart for me. It would be nice if such a thing existed. And certainly the case has been made in many faiths that that "thing" does in fact exist and will eternally! But it seems to me that there is a critical oversight in that assertion—that a superior, binding, moral absolute exists apart from our participation in it. The oversight is this: in order forany set of beliefs, principles, to be considered absolutes, we must deem them so (we reason, assign values, determine why we accept them as outside ourselves by consulting our reason, experiences and thoughts). Not only that, but for these morals we've assigned supreme authority to have a binding effect on us, we must empower them with our consent. The interpretation of what these principles mean in our lives must be arrived at in a context (culture, generation, gender, intelligence, geography, education). We hear stuff said to us by those in power and we adopt their point of view and seek reinforcements. The "static" absolutes of the past have evolved; the Christian God is no longer thought to endorse slavery, despite Paul's admonition to slaves to obey their masters. Women have rights and are no longer property of their husbands. One of the benefits of a life that falls apart spectacularly is that you get to see just how much you were in control of the moral compass you adopted for your life. Even the need to label the items as "separate" from self, as binding from beyond can only occur if you say "yes" to that way of knowing, believing and receiving. Our kids sometimes flummox us because we can see so clearly what they "ought" to see and don't (smoking is harmful, drinking while driving is dangerous, marijuana is illegal, unprotected sex is risky, texting while driving is reckless, not saying "thank you" to those who give to you is impolite). So we invoke larger "backing" for our clearer moral vision (the Surgeon General, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the laws of our state, the Bible, Oprah, and Emily Post). Yet no matter how large we make the authorities behind our morally superior positions, we are powerless to do anything to create conformity to the principles we iterate.
The only way that anyone or any list or any book or any code or any law has power in our lives is by consent. Not only that, the laws themselves have no power! They have never prevented a crime. The choice to act or not is entirely on the individual choosing or not choosing the action.
Moreover, ethics do turn out to be situational. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is filled with practices we would find horrific today. LIkewise, church history is littered with acts deemed moral in their time that today's believers regret.
My favorite professor (Dr. Dewey) once explained to me the genius of Paul's primary insight released to the New Testament churches. Paul articulates that the shift in understanding about God has to do with how God-followers cultivate a spiritual life. The Holy Spirit lives within and we are cultivating an attentiveness to the depths of our experience when we make moral and ethical judgments. But we can't do it alone... none of us is free enough of our own baggage to make those judgments without harming others. So we do it in community. Each community, in each era, with their own language, experiences and limitations seeks the "good" or the "true" or the "compassionate" as best they can together. The conclusions they draw are "drafts," not published "once-for-all" documents. Each generation revises the previous generations insights to conform to their time.
If you doubt what I'm saying, think about the move to end slavery in America. To run an underground railroad, to work toward abolition meant embracing contemporary revelation that flew in the face of Scripture as it had always been understood. We don't shift postures lightly or easily (no whims), but our faith must be responsive to the promptings of the Spirit in community. If the code is already written, there is no need for Spirit. That's what Paul taught us. It's what I believe.