The ‘ethic of care’ and the Christian faith

Last week I was interviewed by a researcher about the ethic of care in our teacher education program.  The researcher was interested in exploring how the ethic of care was understood, communicated and experienced in Christian faculties of education.  Her interest in the ethic of care stems from her own affinity to the theory as a Christian teacher educator in a small US Christian liberal arts university.  She also expressed a growing realization that it is valued in many Christian faculties of education.  Given that the theory was developed in a secular setting, she is wondering why it is so commonly valued in Christian teacher education and what happens to the theory when it is brought into a Christian context.  Do Christian teacher educators and students think about the ethic of care differently? Teach it differently? Practice it differently?  I have been thinking a lot about our interview since it occurred, and in particular, about her last question to me regarding how I understood the ethic of care being connected to my Christian faith.  Below are some of the thoughts I shared with her and some that I’ve thought of since.

But first, it might be helpful to briefly summarize what is meant by an ethic of care.  An ethic of care is a normative theory of ethics that arose from an understanding of the inter-relatedness of all humans, as well as, our responsibility for one another.  In other words, ethical reasoning, or a decision about how to act in an ethical way,  is not based on knowing abstract principles of what is right or wrong and then trying to match practice to those beliefs.  Instead, it is based on relational understandings of what is most supportive of the person requiring care, discovered through attentiveness and a sense of responsibility for that person.  Carol Gilligan, a feminist philosopher, first developed this theory in response to Kohlberg’s moral stage theory.  She found the gender bias of Kohlberg’s theory objectionable, and questioned the strict linear development towards abstract reasoning as the highest level of moral development.  Her theory centered on the realization that such abstract morality often made the moral actor blind and indifferent to the needs of others.  The ethic of care, rooted in understandings of nurture, emphasized compassion and empathy (or sympathy), and an attentiveness that seeks to respond to others on their own terms.  It asserts that caring is not present if the person being cared for doesn’t understand the response of the carer as care.  The ethic of care is also closely connected to critical theory and social justice concerns, in that care is particularly important in determining ethical treatment of those who are without power or vulnerable in any way.

Nel Noddings is well-known for her work in connecting the ethic of care to education and most educators would be familiar with at least some of its tenets, even if they don’t have an in-depth understanding of the theory.  Teachers are very conscious of the vulnerability of their learners and the imbalance of power that is part of every educational setting.  It is important to note that demonstrating an ethic of care is not simply being sweet or nice or kind.  The ethic of care is a stance of self-emptying attention to the other.  It is a strong desire for our help to be truly life-giving to our learners and support their growth.  It is a recognition that what can be good for one, can be evil for another.  There is a humility implicit in the ethic of care and a willingness to be taught by the ‘cared for.’  

I am not at all surprised that teacher educators who are Christians (little Christs) are interested in the ethic of care.  I don’t think you can read the gospels without becoming aware of the way Christ responded to those around him – particularly those who were marginalized or vulnerable.   He didn’t have a single method or apply any kind of discursive reasoning to his actions.  He attended to all he met with an intuitive understanding of their deepest and most pressing needs, and responded to each person in ways that brought healing and life.  He brought the lost into communion with the Trinity and through their relationship with Truth, they began to participate in that Truth and love the Truth.  He met life with life, not abstract principles and rules.  But it was not just any life – it was a calling to life that was more abundant – I think He had divinely high standards.

For me, the ethic of care is a generally revealed truth that points to the reality of our need for communion with God and others – to be persons rather than atomized individuals.  The truth is revealed in our every day experiences, and our memories of being truly cared for, and in our longings to be cared for again.  It reflects our personal being, our uniqueness or unrepeatability and our deep connection with all others.  It fills our moral actions with a content that makes sense to us in ways that abstract ideals can’t.   It’s not that abstract ideals cannot be helpful – St. Paul says the law is our tutor and Christ fulfills the law, rather than abolishes the law.  However, we can’t offer ourselves with faith, hope and love to an abstract ideal.  We can only offer ourselves to others/the Other.  Only we can offer ourselves to another.  This is our absolute freedom and uniqueness.  Our motivation to care arises from our opportunities to go beyond ourselves through love – to become ourselves in the emptying of ourselves for others. 

Would there be a difference in how Christian teacher educators understand, practice and communicate an ethic of care?  Since Christianity is a way of life and a radical shift in orientation to life (a turning from self to God and others), a putting on of Christ and a putting off of self, it would be almost atheist to say that there would be no difference.  However, I don’t think you would necessarily find the difference in the level of care shown by teacher educators or encouraged within a program.  I don’t even think you would find much difference in the level of care shown by graduates of various teacher education programs.  I think most educators are already strongly oriented to care for others.  I’d like to think Christians are better at caring, but I’ve been humbled too many times by the level of care shown by those who don’t profess Christian faith.  God loves us all so much that we all have experiences of that love and are motivated to love others.  We all experience the truth of living in communion and long for it when we don’t.  We all try to recreate a sense of love and community through our interactions with others.  I am reminded of the gospel story of St. Photini, the woman at the well.  Christ says that she serves who she doesn’t know, whereas the Jews serve who they do know.  Those who know the truth about caring are responding to the voice of God in their hearts even if they don’t know Him yet.

What might be the difference then?  One thought is that there would be a difference in the way the ethic of care would be understood and communicated.  As a secular theory, it is a fragment of truth.  Christians, through their relationship with the Truth, can see and experience that fragment in relationship to the whole.  They can see how it is truly real in the way it points to the reality of human nature, the reality of our relationship with God, and the reality of what it means to help/save/give life.  It is not just one theory among many to choose, it is a way of participating wholly in the life of God.  Teacher educators who are Christians should be knowledgeable about the theory, but also delight in continually connecting it back to the revelation of God.  Rather than a theory to be grasped, it can become part of the light that enables us to see light – a revelation to be received with gratitude and openness.   So, maybe a commitment to the ethic of care would have stronger roots in Christian educators, maybe we wouldn’t give up so quickly on care and default to the imposition of ideals and rules.

Another thought is that we Christians would be growing in our ability to care through the practice of spiritual disciplines that teach us to attend to others in ways that suppress the self so that the other can be heard, or to invite others into life-giving relationship in ways that are not manipulative or controlling.  I would hope that our attentiveness would become a kind of prayer and that our responses to others would be guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit rather than the outcome of our own discursive reasoning.   I think this is the greatest thing we can offer to each other and our students through an ethic of care – the presence of God in us, a presence full of faith and love and hope for the other, a presence that inspires and guides.

Near the end of my interview with the researcher, we talked about how the ethic of care was woven into our program to the degree that it would be difficult to separate it out from any aspect of our program – not from teaching, researching, administrative policies or other events.  It should be this way.  There shouldn’t be a time when we are practicing the ethic of care and when we are not.  There shouldn’t be things that we do carelessly.  There shouldn’t be aspects of our program that don’t take into consideration our care for each other and our students.  What better thread to weave into any institution than the thread of care.  May God help us weave even more beautifully and carefully.

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