Which Ethics? For Which World? Revisiting Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

Scottish actor and producer Ewan McGregor released, some weeks before Christmas 2016, a streamlined screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, “American Pastoral”. The movie encapsulates a complex literary masterpiece that was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for best fiction. McGregor's revisitation puts us, as does the book itself, in front of an old ethical dilemma: the continuity between actions and effects. Can our well-intended actions always produce immediate, direct and predictable effects?

The movie narrates the story of Seymour Levov (McGregor), a Jewish high school “golden boy” and star athlete from Newark, New Jersey. The Swede, as he is called, marries Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), a gentile goddess and former Miss New Jersey, with whom he lives an idyllic, gentrified, rural life in western New Jersey. As a humane and visionary liberal, he runs his family’s glove factory in Newark, where he is proud to provide jobs to a work force that is 80 percent black – a level he tries to maintain even as the city explodes in the 1967 race riots.

The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) after he meets the Swede’s boisterous younger brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), at a 45th high school reunion. There he learns that the Swede, his teenage idol, died of prostate cancer at age 68 – destroyed by the pain of not being able to see his daughter again. Their idyllic family unravels when his brilliant but troubled daughter, Merry (played as a child by Hannah Nordberg, and as a young woman by Dakota Fanning) forsakes the family to join a radical underground-like terrorist cell. The furious arguments between the Swede and his daughter reproduce the irreconcilable generational strife that can exist within any family. In this case, Ms. Fanning’s chilling tone of moral superiority echoes the extreme left-wing rhetoric of that era. She then disappears after helping to organize a 1968 bombing of a nearby general store that leaves one man dead.

Swede searches tirelessly for his missing daughter, in whose innocence he desperately still wants to believe. His wife Dawn suffers a breakdown and finds solace in plastic surgery and in transient romantic escapades. Then, just as the dust has started to settle, Swede is visited by a figure claiming to know of Merry’s whereabouts, a sadistic hippy-like temptress named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry). Through her, he finally succeeds in finding his daughter, but in such a deplorable physical and mental state that he is completely overwhelmed and devastated. No effort, word or generous gesture can convince her to come home, or at least remain in touch. She disappears again for good. After a while Seymour dies without being able to see his daughter again. He dies in the disarray and discontinuity between the generous actions of a father and their inscrutable effects on his erratic daughter. The dream of a harmonious and coherent family had completely vanished. The “American Pastoral” was only an illusion.

Based on this narrative let’s reflect on Adventism's current mission in relation to Ethics. And, in a larger perspective, in relation to current society, which confronts us with three pressing questions.

1. Which Ethics?

Which Ethics is applicable to our contemporary World? This first question is not an idle one as it may seem to be. There still exists among us, particularly among religious people, a deep misunderstanding concerning the status, nature and destiny of modern and post-modern Ethics. Let’s characterize contemporary Ethics with three traits: secular, rational and anthropocentric.

First, contemporary Ethics is structurally an a-religious Ethics. Starting with the Florentine Renaissance the Western world developed a radical rebellion against the religious Ethics that had dominated Europe for centuries. An Ethics that had managed to maintain persons and groups in psychological and social subordination and which, in a large degree, was the perspective still defended by the Reformation. That is known. What is less evident is that behind this repudiation was hidden both a continuity and a displacement. The continuity was the ongoing search for an “ordered reality”. The displacement was that the search for a desired Order was no longer based in the inherited paradigm but as the product of an anthropological activity. In other words, modern Ethics is, from various points of view, a secularized “Ethics of Order”.

Second, contemporary Ethics configures itself mainly as a rational Ethics. This new rationality is based in the enhancement of the concept of Autonomy. The emerging modern man can rely only on rules, laws and principles which are rooted not “transcendentally” beyond, but “immanently” in himself (Auto-nomy). And this orientation has nothing to do with moral arbitrariness (Kant). In fact, behind the critique of Religion itself, the main target was a radical critique of any heteronomous (external standard) component. Religion after all could be tolerated; not Heteronomy. Now, we need to remember that Heteronomy, in medieval times, beside and beyond authoritarianism, also contributed to preserve the mysterious and non-linear components present in reality, and in every decision-making process. This determined post-Medieval commitment to rationality ended up reinforcing even more the already strong vocation for “Order” in modern Ethics. In fact, the pervasive deontological or utilitarian flavor present in many lay and religious Ethics, is just an expression of this obsession with Order.

Third, contemporary ethics is an anthropocentric Ethics. Romanticism first, then “non-cognitive Ethics” (Ayer, Stevenson, Hare) and “Ethical Intuitionism” (Sigdwick, Moore) later on, tried to revert and correct this excessive rationalization. They partially succeeded but without correcting the strong Anthropocentrism of today’s Ethics. And the paradox of this more differentiated Anthropocentrism is that its criticism of Order has not overturned the strong obsession of modern societies for Order. Instead it has radicalized it. The major life dimensions of post-modern persons, i.e. work, housing, food, health, family life or even feelings (Eva Illouz), continue to be scheduled, programmed and organized in search of predictability and order (Lipovetsky). The cult and idolatry of annual GDP growth, cultivated by us all, is a sign of it.

2. Which Adventism?

Adventism has been very critical of modernity since its very beginning. It has criticized modernity's irreligious foundation, cult of autonomy and its rationality. But paradoxically, Adventism has ended up looking very similar in the fundamental, underlying trend of contemporary Ethics as we have described it previously: the obsession with order. In fact Adventist Ethics is a typical Ethics of order. Sure, our justification and rationale differs but at the end, we have not been able to assess, correct and balance the unilateral accent of our surrounding society and culture on Order and to propose a valid alternative. And worse, we have “mis-used” our main ethical and theological categories (ten commandments, perfection, obedience, coherence etc.) to endorse this obsession.

The latest administrative events (women pastoral ordination) or documents (On Unity) clearly show that this obsession with Order and homogeneity is still the main ingredient of our policy, Ethics and theology. And that is certainly an idolatry “biblically” supported. Is this the Adventism we want? Is this the End-time Adventism we are building on?

3. Which World today?

Our current societies have become irreversibly heterogeneous, multicultural and diversified. There is no way back. And since our Adventist community is part of these societies we also have assimilated the same traits. And that’s not a sin any more than if we had been born in the middle-ages, Egypt or Rome. This is what a theology of incarnation really implies. And in this unprecedented and unique situation the obsession with an Ethics of Order doesn’t help. It only risks making things worse. Adventists must humbly learn that sometimes theology, in order to remain healthy and relevant, must be assessed by the existing reality and not the other way around. That is what confrontation with the “reality principle” means. And Adventist theology and Ethics are certainly not the exception.

Philip Roth’s book “American Pastoral” reminds us that an “Adventist Pastoral” of Order, where all Adventists look like, administratively choose the same monolithic policy and feel and act only as an obedient army – is a poor illusion. It reminds us that between actions and effects there must certainly be a relation based on desire and aspiration. That makes our actions human and future-oriented because they wake up hope. But this relation is not mechanical. It’s mediated by feelings, surprises, paradoxes, asymmetries that delay, modify and transform its effects, making them sometimes unpredictable. And a healthy identity – individual or corporate – is that which has learned to welcome, with trust and hope, the Unpredictable.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7834

Surprise of surprises! Only Spectrum could take a movie based on a Philip Roth novel and turn it into a commentary on WO. I wonder if I could find a way to spin La La Land into a commentary on the absurdity of professed SDAs who believe in the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard.

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A better source would have been Rawls Distriutive Justice. We are all under the same condemnation, and all have equal access to Grace. This does away with the party spirit that has come to dominate secular and religious thought, more so in America. Adventism has its own brand. TZ

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What you are saying is: For a religious organization to survive they must adapt to the ethics of their times. Nobody today can live by the ethics of the puritans. Mary Rowlandsom (1637-1711) a puritan woman held captive by Indians referred to them as “infidels, hell-hounds and savages.”

JW’s have stopped setting dates for Jesus’ return. LDS leaders have changed their teaching on polygamy. Shakers failed to adapt from their celibacy vows and have ceased to exist.

SDA’s have moved away from annual Ingathering, a door-to-door event. We have ceased to display our 2300 day chart in the church sanctuary. Many have moved away from the Eden Vegan diet in view of its deficiencies. Nobody advocates the EGW clarion call to for a diet free from spices, tea and coffee and the used of hydrotherapy as God’s remedy for disease. Who wants to read the 9 Volumes of the Testimonies and the White estates have discontinued their Testimonies Countdown seminars. The R&H has lost its voice with fewer members paying attention to anything it says. The universal Sunday Law receives scant pulpit attention anymore. I wonder what will fall next to social ethics?

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Fascinating…my devotional reading this morning in Timothy Keller’s book “Counterfeit Gods” is quoted as follows (page 131): “An idol is something that we look to for things that only God can give. Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace. It is a subtle but deadly mistake. The sign that you have slipped into this form of self-justification is that you have become what the book of Proverbs calls a “scoffer”. Scoffers always show contempt and disdain for opponents rather than graciousness. This is a sign that they do not see themselves as sinners saved by grace. Instead, their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior.”

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The teachings of Jesus remain the standard of ethics for anyone identifiying himself as one of His followers. Everything else is subject to revision.

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Listen to these words this is clear and concise. Ponder this then reread the article.

The time of God’s investigation is at hand. The Most High will come down to see that which the children of men have builded. His sovereign power will be revealed; the works of human pride will be laid low. “The Lord looketh from heaven; He beholdeth all the sons of men. From the place of His habitation He looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth.” “The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: He maketh the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the Lord standeth forever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations.” Psalm 33:13, 14, 10, 11

PP p.117

Surprise! Surprise! The absurdity of some who do not see layers of meanings and societal applications in literature.

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Take the most ardent, conservative SDA; spin time backwards, and place them in the midst of the social order, however far back, and they would not be recognized as even Christians. Society moulds and modifies our ethics whether Christian or otherwise.

Traditional, conservative Adventism is a nineteenth century construct; but even that, has been modified without adherents noticing. Not even a generation ago, what is now considered Christian music was banned within the church building - then there are the dress codes, hair styles, and all the other superficialities with which we like to mark people. This is also why we no longer keep slaves; whip our kids; or use stocks in town square; however, we do still have a form of witch burning. Progress, in some areas, is sometimes slow - hence, the “old boy’s clubs,” a relic that still exist, in and out of church environments.

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I have a five year old grandchild. In order for my grandchild to embrace the love of Jesus and His perfect order for living, it would be futile for me to attempt to explain God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit through your presentation on Ethics. Salvation is soooooooo simple. Why is it necessary to make it so confusing with the philosophies of men?

Provers 3 - Read it and live by it.