A Theology of Integrity

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When I was a child, my father always told me that integrity is “doing the right thing even when no one is looking.” This concept of integrity seems straightforward enough, but it hangs on a universal understanding of “the right thing.” For a parent teaching a child ethics, “the right thing” is easy to understand. Tell the truth. Don’t steal. Don’t hit or bite people. For adults, the definition can become more complicated.

In Business Ethics Quarterly, Robert Audi and Patrick Murphy write that “integrity is conceived in widely differing ways.”[i] The word “integrity” comes to English from the Latin integritatem, which means “soundness” or “completeness.” In contemporary use, scholars have no consensus definition for integrity. Manjit Monga writes, “Some scholars equate integrity with actions that demonstrate high moral and ethical standards, and others call it a morally neutral term equating it with the law of gravity.”[ii]

Scholars tend to view integrity as either normative (moral) or objectivist (neutral). Monga argues that personal integrity requires a commitment to sound moral principles. She then relates personal integrity to organizational integrity. Her research draws my quest for a theology of integrity away from the divine. She connects integrity to group actions. In business ethics, increasing shareholder value lurks near any discussion of moral principles. God is not bound by business ethics or a desire to increase shareholder value.

Thomas Aquinas said “God is the prime mover.” Schleiermacher said that we know God through a “feeling of absolute dependence.” For Barth, God is “wholly other.” Tillich places God at the “ground of being.” Segundo says “God does not leave us alone at dinnertime.” This theological sampling points to God’s omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omni-temporality. Or, God is all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere, and in all times. A Christian personalism draws God into our awareness of our existence.

With God’s presence well established, our relationship with God and integrity seems to be a moot point. Whether we “do the right thing even when no one is looking or not” doesn’t matter because God sees us. Therefore, when we do not do the right thing, we are either willfully sinning or ignorant about the right thing. Over the course of one’s life, we do both. We know we should not gossip but do so anyway. This is a willful sin.

Our ignorance is more complicated. Before I knew about the Rwandan genocide in 1994, I could do nothing to lobby the U.S. government to get involved. My inaction was not a lack of integrity; it was ignorance. Yet, once I knew, continuing inaction becomes willful sin. The same logic applies to the way we live or interact with any news. We know that Tillich’s “ground of being” calls us to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20), but we hesitate to share our faith. Or, we know that Barth’s “wholly other” calls us to help the powerless (James 1:27), yet it is easier to do nothing.

Inconsistencies in our faith journeys abound. At some level, all of us are hypocrites and need Aquinas’ “prime mover” to offer redemption. Theological integrity recognizes the complexity of finding the “right thing” to which my father referred. Just as we each have a unique calling, what God expects us to do “when no one is looking” varies from person to person.

What are we supposed to do? Ask God and seek answers in scripture, history, and experience. God is here and speaking right now.


[i] Robert Audi and Patrick E. Murphy, “The Many Faces of Integrity,” Business Ethics Quarterly 16, no. 1 (2006): 3.

[ii] Manjit Monga, “Integrity and Its Antecedent: A Unified Conceptual Fraemwork of Integrity,” The Journal of Developing Areas 50, no. 5 (2016): 415.

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