Is Islam “the cause” of Islamic terror?

Take a look at this crackerjack bit of reporting on the Islamic State.  (Ignore the requisite use of “medieval” – I think he merely means the time of Islam’s founding, though I wonder if Islamic historians use the same terminology).

The article’s virtue is that it takes seriously the question of whether Islam the cause of the Islamic State.  More generally, we can (and should) as whether self-described Islamic terrorists, such as those who attacked the Charlie Hebdo paper offices or perpetrated the 9/11 attacks?  (Note: the “self-described” here relates to the “Islamic,” not the “terrorist” label).  As stated, it’s almost certainly true and also almost certainly false.  It’s almost certainly true in that, as a description of the terrorists’ subjective self-understanding, Islam is understood as motivating their actions.  They say they are acting out of a particular understanding of the demands of Islam and so in that sense, yes, Islam causes Islamic terrorism.  But it’s also almost certainly not true as well in that Islam is not the cause of Islamic terrorism in that there are plenty of social, economic, political and other factors that impinge on an individual’s actions.  And herein lies the trouble in figuring out the degree to which “Islam” causes people to commit these horrific acts of violence.

 You’d think that social science—which is all about trying to figure out what causes various social and political phenomena—would pretty good at helping us figure this out.  And scholars have done lots of research trying to understand why some people commit terrorist acts (and, implicitly, why others don’t).  The trouble is that our social sciences have a hard time thinking about ideas as having causal power and so they tend to discount ideas as significant.  Here’s why.

 First, ideas themselves are just that—concepts, arguments, etc. floating about in speech—until they attach to particular persons or institutions that can put them into play and thereby make things happen.  But just as soon as they get attached in that way, teasing out their causal effects gets confounded by the fact that the actor—whether individual or institutional—has a history, a class location, a sex, a race, etc.  That is, the actor is a material creature with material interests, demographic factors, and a history that can also do work to explain all of our actions.   Consider Samuel Huntington’s Third Wave that explains the great wave of democratization in the latter third of the 20th century in part through reference to the Catholic Church’s change of heart with respect to liberal democratic rights at Vatican II.  Anthony Gill in turn suggests that the Church did that because it was in their interests (at least in certain parts of South America).  These two explanations are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive but it’s a pretty vexed question how one might tease them apart (and decide which is more basic).

 Second, ideas are never just “ideas” or a single cohesive idea that gets put into play across a variety of contexts or situations.  We usually see instead that the “idea” is in fact a family of ideas, different conceptions that have a reasonably close resemblance but that certainly aren’t always the same thing, or at least the same thing in all the relevant respects.  So when we ask whether “Islam” caused a certain sort of action, it’s a pretty simple thing to point to places where people hold to that idea and don’t commit the action—and give an all too easy negative answer.  But that might be, of course, because what one person takes “Islam” (or any other set of ideas) to be is different than what another person takes that idea to be.

 The temptation, then, for the social scientist is to favor material explanations over the ideational.  Some do it for philosophical reasons (e.g. material causes just are more basic) and others for professional/methodological ones (e.g. you can count and measure material factors while ideational ones are frustratingly fuzzy).  But in either case it seems to me a mistake, since it suggests that we are merely material creatures, subject solely to material causes and in practice indifferent to moral (or immoral, as the case may be) suasion.

 So does Islam cause terrorism?  Well, sure, in the sense that we have any number of people who have committed terrorist acts motivated (they say) by what they take to be Islamic beliefs (however incoherent or poorly structured they may be).  But, no, in the sense that this is not the only thing going on—it’s probably not even the only ideational thing going on.  But it is striking that over thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks we’re still having these kinds of debates.  I wonder what that says about us?

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David Gushee’s Changing Mind: Evangelicals and Sexual Ethics

On November 4th David Gushee published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community–and the church should, too.” Here, Gushee makes his case for rejecting the traditional Christian teaching on homosexual conduct, framed in terms of the LGTB community as a sexual minority. He summarizes it thus:

For me, the answer to this debate has become simple: There is a sexual-minority population of about 5 percent of the human family that has received contempt and discrimination for centuries. In Christendom, the sexual ethics based in those biblical passages metastasized into a hardened attitude against sexual- and gender-identity minorities, bristling with bullying and violence. This contempt is in the name of God, the most powerful kind there is in the world. I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors. I also now believe that while any progress toward more humane treatment of LGBT people is good progress, we need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.

Put simply, it finally became clear to me that I must side with those who were being treated with contempt, just as I hope I would have sided with Jews in the Nazi era and with African Americans during the civil rights years.

A caveat: I understand that this op-ed reflects thinking Gushee develops in more detail in his recent book Changing Our Mind (David Crumm Media, 2014) and in his series of 17 posts for Baptist News Global. I haven’t read the book and have only scratched the surface the BNG posts, so what follows here is focused on Gushee’s Washington Post piece. (For a critique engaging the broader project, see Matt Franck’s excellent piece for Canon & Culture.)

The Logic: As I make it out, the basic structure of Gushee’s argument goes like this:

  • Christians are oppressing sexual minorities (based on contested scriptural interpretation);
  • The Gospel requires standing with the oppressed;
  • Christians should drop their ethical claims about sexual behavior as part of standing with the LGTBQ community.

Gushee’s logic here is worth noting. The last step–dropping traditional Christian claims about sexual ethics—rests on two rationales: 1) the fact of being oppressed; and 2) Gushee’s judgment that the clarity of scripture on this issue is “questionable.” In his Washington Post piece, the first of these claims bears the lion’s share of his argument; the second is merely mentioned in passing. I believe the first claim is flawed and the second to be unsubstantiated. We’ll consider each in turn.

What Gushee gets right: It’s helpful to recast Gushee’s language of “standing with” in terms of a biblical conception of love. The fact of being oppressed does indeed call for a loving Christian response to suffering. Gushee’s exhortation to treat those who identify as LGTBQ with love is thus well-taken: he describes a history of “contempt and discrimination” towards those who so identify and rightly treats “bullying and violence” as un-Christian. In addition to the compassion Gushee calls for, we might add that where Christians have sinned, love also requires repentance and confession. So far, so good. Moreover, Gushee wants to compassionately account for the suffering of those who identify as LGBTQ–an important aspect of showing love in a fallen world, and an issue that resonates with the experiences described by the likes of Wesley Hill.

Divine love: welcome with an agenda: Where Gushee’s argument gets into trouble lies with the implications of love for our ethics: Does the call to “love the oppressed” change the substance of Christian ethics? Many would say yes. Christians sometimes talk about God’s love as “unconditional” and there is a sense in which this is quite right. God does not wait for sinners to reform themselves before He reaches out to them. Instead, God is like the father in the story of the two brothers in Luke 15. He runs to meet the prodigal son–the one who knows he is helpless and cries out: “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (v. 21, NIV). But thinking of God’s love as “unconditional” can easily distort the agenda that God’s love entails. When confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew 9 for the keeping company with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replies in Matthew 9:12: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (NIV) The implication is that those who mistakenly think they are healthy wrongly fail to call the doctor–just as in the Luke 15 story where the “good” brother is in danger because he does not know his need. Gushee frames the LGBTQ issue as “not primarily an issue of Christian sexual ethics” but rather “primarily an issue of human suffering.” Here, he seems to endorse the first aspect of divine love (the welcome) while avoiding the second (love’s agenda). But the need to take love’s welcome more seriously does not, ipso facto, abrogate any aspect (jot or tittle?) of love’s agenda.  Thus, while the fact of being oppressed does support the argument to love, it does not provide any support for changing the transformative content of that love. To push the point further, any time that we suggest that love is only welcome (and thus not also transformation)—a gospel of “I’m okay; you’re okay”—we encourage each other to think of ourselves like the older brother in Luke 15 who stays at home and who see no need to repent. To the extent that we reduce love to “welcome”, we accept that false claim that ethical disagreement is itself dehumanizing. Insofar as Gushee makes this reduction, he seems to go beyond opposing political oppression (dehumanization) to requiring a positive affirmation of a new sexual ethic.

Interpreting scripture: Given the above, the substantive merits of Gushee’s rationale for altering Christian sexual ethics must rest entirely on his account of scripture’s witness regarding sexual ethics—a matter that gets minimal treatment in Gushee’s op-ed (and thus also by me in this post). In it, Gushee describes “Our argument has centered on six or seven biblical passages that appear to mention homosexuality negatively or appear to establish a heterosexual norm: the sin of Sodomthe laws of Leviticus and the list of “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.” He describes “endless debates over how to interpret that handful of biblical passages.” Gushee attempts to resolve this debate with the claim that, “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable.” If we should reject any apparent biblical teaching that has ever been subject to the sort of questioning Gushee describes with respect to sexual ethics, then no major teaching of scripture that has ever been questioned should be held securely, including, for instance, Christ’s divinity, the trinity, and the nature of justification. Put differently, this would mean that the existence of a question–such as the disagreements that required councils of the Church to iron out creedal commitments–should preclude accepting the Bible’s apparent meaning. I understand that Gushee has devoted significant attention to the scriptural and theological questions tied up in Christian sexual ethics and I look forward to reading and engaging his arguments. Suffice it to say, however, that more than being “questionable” should be required to reverse course on the Church’s long-held interpretations of the Bible.

Implications: Finally, we should recognize that more is at stake than just how to interpret a handful of passages on specific sexual acts. To make this claim suggests a case of serious theological myopia. Strongly implicated in questions of human sexuality and relationships are other matters of no small import to Christians: the doctrine of creation, especially as regards marriage and the family; the relation of God to his people as a bride (Hosea, Ephesians 5); the theology of Divine covenants, which are always made with familial implications; and the very model of relational plurality-in-unity: the Holy Trinity. I expect that Gushee knows all of this; indeed I believe he engages some of these issues in his more extensive arguments. But he would do better to resist casting LGTBQ  issues as a “love vs. questionable passages” dichotomy in which Christians should choose “love.” Of course we should choose love, but that love must be understood in theological context, in all of its rich fullness and breadth—to the extent that we can comprehend it.

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Election Predictions and the Responsibility to Vote–A few hastily-composed thoughts for election day.

The last few weeks have been full of bookie-like odds projections, predicting the outcomes of various races and the subsequent composition of governing bodies. How likely is the Senate to swing to the Republicans? It depends who you ask. The New York Times puts the odds at 75% and offers a graphic representation of how the odds have changed over time. Yesterday’s Huffington Post suggested a 77% chance. One CNN analyst today predicted 95%. The Washington Post goes as high as 96%.

Probabilistic statistics may make us uncomfortable at times, since they can suggest a higher degree of determinacy than is compatible with our sense of personal agency. They can also work against get-out-the-vote efforts. Don’t the voters decide elections, after all?

Honesty about the math, however, can be sobering. As rational choice theorists are sometimes fond of observing in the so-called “paradox of voting”, the probability that one person will cast the deciding vote in a large-scale election is infinitesimally small. Indeed, it is so small that the numerical representation of a consequence-based argument for voting (the pB term in the equation R = pB – C — namely, the the probability of casting the deciding vote multiplied by the benefits one will receive if and only if one’s preferred candidate wins) is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

So why vote?

Rational choice theorists focus on the “D” or “duty” term in the equation–the social and psychological benefits that are intrinsic to voting and that one receives even if one’s preferred candidate does not win. This is where economic theories of voting locate one’s sense of moral obligation.

The mathematical realities have led some Christians to argue that we ought to approach voting expressively rather than instrumentally. That is, we should vote sincerely rather than strategically, to borrow language from my colleague Tom Knecht. His  argument suggests that one should vote for a candidate that one truly endorses–rather than the least-of-several-evils that actually has a chance of winning–since one’s vote will not actually determine the election. Moreover, one could extend this argument to support the expressive value of not voting when the only choices are among minimally attractive candidates. Despite the varied merits of these argument, I want to suggest something else (not particularly original) here.

Voting does present a collective action problem, but it is not clear to me that this requires one to entirely reject an instrumental approach to voting (i.e., one that is geared toward contributing to a particular outcome). While one vote is not generally instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office, elections nevertheless are instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office and that this has implications for how we see individual voting inputs. The argument that one vote does not determine an election requires all other things to remain equal–for others to behave as one expects them to do. Thus, the logic of the case for expressive voting or non-voting require that others not do likewise.

Since we are responsible for ourselves more than we are responsible for others, I wonder whether we might not retain certain election-outcome-based moral arguments for voting. Since we do not have the responsibility (let alone the ability) to keep all other things equal (cast others votes for them or require that they do so), we can only behave in a manner that spends our own political authority responsibly. Put another way, what is our duty with regard to elections, and why? If candidate selection is even slightly implicated, then I don’t know that we can accept a purely expressive view.

The biblical concept of faithfulness is instructive here. Proverbs 16:9 states: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (NIV) While the supremacy of God’s wisdom and providence are in view here, so is human agency in relation to Him. I’ve often reflected that humans are responsible for being faithful with inputs and that God is responsible for outcomes. I think this is well applied to an argument for voting instrumentally, not just expressively.

If I am right about this, then faithfulness may require spending our political authority responsibly–as if we are casting the deciding vote, even when we aren’t. This doesn’t deal with all the attendant issues and problems raised by rational choice models and arguments for expressive voting, but it does suggest something of what we should do.

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Of the Arts and Alan Jacobs

My friend and erstwhile colleague Alan Jacobs has penned this really quite interesting something-more-than-a-blog-post but not-quite-an-essay  in which he suggests – and it really is a suggestion in the best sense of things – that the financial and institutional ties art currently occupies (or is occupied by, I suppose) limits artists’ (and he has in mind mostly writers) ability to imagine “other” worlds, other ways of being. I’m not going to pull quotes much from the piece because you really should go read and think about it.

I’ll admit that the piece bugged me when I first read it through, first because he flogs that old chestnut “military-industrial complex” as the big bad thing that is limiting our artists.  I get bugged by the phrase because it’s so often misconstrued – Eisenhower’s warning was not about a bunch of generals and captains of industry conspiring against us all, but, in reality, a warning about what political scientists call “corporatism,” a way of organizing political and economic institutions such that government, business, and labor all cooperate in policy-making.  It’s the model that dominated Europe’s political economy for most of the post-war era and while it has some real benefits, it also tends to ossify economies and privilege insiders.  (President Obama, you should recognize, is much more a corporatist in this sense than any sort of socialist or social democrat or whatever).

But then I realized that Alan means the “complex” phrase to stand in for the ways in which a kind of instrumental rationality that prizes the calculus of material investment and gains above all else has, when it captures different institutions, converts them, so to speak, to its logic.  So to the degree that our artists are tied to universities and our universities have become institutions dedicated above all to material profit, then Alan’s worry is that art itself becomes hemmed in or even deeply structured by that self-same logic.  (And don’t kid yourself – major research universities may not report profits in the same way that IBM or GM do, but they have profits–they just distribute them differently).

So what to make of this?  Well, in a way, it’s nothing new, is it?  It reads to me as at least running in parallel with 150 years of Marxist thought on the subject and similar in structure (I think – I’m wandering a bit outside my expertise here) to some of the complaints the Frankfurt School folks made in the middle of last century about culture.  And, of course, there’s obviously some sort of truth to it – people who give the money will often (though certainly not inevitably) look to pull the strings.  At the very least, artists, like most anyone else, respond to incentives and if institutions are set up to reward those who remain within a certain “lane,” that’s where folks will drift.

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer.  See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty!  Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held).  And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way.  That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

I’m not sure I quite buy a central part of Alan’s thesis – that capitalism is central to this development – but I’ll have to think more about that.  But for those whose instincts make them dubious regarding the benefits of markets (or certain markets), it’s worth keeping in mind that I think Alan’s critique cuts much more deeply (or, maybe better, should cut much more deeply) than some we-don’t-like-corporations gesture.

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Religious Liberty and Pluralism: The Case of Gordon College

The Boston Business Journal (BBJ) reported last week on recent developments between Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and its accreditation board, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC): take a year to review (and change) college policy.

(By way of background, NEASC had put Gordon on the agenda for its higher education commission’s meeting during September 17-18, following heightened attention to Gordon’s behavioral expectations last summer. This attention spawned from Gordon President Michael Lindsay’s signing of a letter to President Obama arguing for exemptions for religious organizations’ hiring practices under an executive order limiting hiring discrimination by federal contractors. At issue for the NEASC is whether the exclusion of “homosexual practice” by Gordon’s behavioral expectations violates NEASC “standards and policies” [see BJJ 7/10/14]).

Last week’s developments reflect the NEASC granting Gordon College a year reprieve in order for a college working group to review Gordon’s behavioral standards for consistency with NEASC policy. While the review is ostensibly at Gordon’s initiative, the purpose (from NEASC’s perspective) is clear: to give the college a chance to see the error of its ways and to change its policy. According to the BBJ’s report, NEASC President Barbara Brittingham described the year in just these terms: “She said the long time frame that Gordon College has been allowed for the review is appropriate considering that Gordon College’s policy is ‘deeply embedded in the culture of the college’ and such things ‘don’t change overnight.'” (BBJ)

Much remains to be seen about how this will play out, so it’s best not to rush to any final judgment. The process and what is driving it, however, bear consideration. Without inferring any malevolence on NEASC’s part, its actions should give pause to those committed to religious liberty and to a pluralist society. In this instance, an accrediting board is using its power to pressure a private college away from its religious commitments as manifested in its behavioral expectations. NEASC’s power is far from insubstantial: accreditation has major implications for college finances, perhaps most notably through students’ eligibility for federal financial aid. Put strongly, the pressure from NEASC brings the coercive power of the state (albeit indirectly) to bear on (re)shaping a distinctively religious community.

Moreover, NEASC’s actions reflect a broader cultural confusion about what toleration and pluralism mean–the same confusion shaping the CSU system’s recent policy change for its on-campus groups. Rather than suggesting that Gordon ensure that prospective students are familiar with its policies so that those who disagree with them can elect to attend other institutions, NEASC’s stance suggests something else. It seems to indicate that reasonable people of good will cannot disagree about sexual ethics, and that those who do disagree–even voluntary communities like Gordon–should be prevented from shaping policies pursuant to their beliefs.

Regardless of one’s opinions about Gordon’s behavioral standards, a pluralistic society must retain protections for religious freedom such that voluntary associations are not precluded from shaping their communities in a manner consistent with their beliefs. As Robert George provocatively phrased it over at Mirror of Justice, “If the powers that be—in this case an accreditation board—can force Gordon College into line with the dogmas of expressive individualism and sexual liberationist ideology, no college (or law school) whose moral and religious commitments place it in dissent from the new orthodoxy will be safe.”

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Discrimination and Diversity

Stephen Monsma’s recent piece in Capital Commentary provides helpful perspective on the California State University’s system-wide de-recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. InterVarsity asks that its officers hold religious views consistent with the group’s mission, placing it at odds with recent CSU policy changes prohibiting recognized clubs from discriminating on a host of lines, including religion. Monsma wonders how: “…in the upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world of the CSU, reducing the diversity of on-campus religious student organizations somehow will increase students’ ‘exposure to new ideas, especially those that are in conflict.’”

Monsma’s argument echoes Justice Alito’s 2010 dissent in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez–a case which dealt with a closely parallel situation. In the CLS case, Alito argued that making an all-comers policy a condition for recognized club status worked against the very diversity it purported to promote: “In sum, Hastings’ accept-all-comers policy is not reasonable in light of the stipulated purpose of the RSO forum: to promote a diversity of viewpoints ‘among’–not within‘registered student organizations'” (p. 31).

Like Alito, Monsma points out that not all discrimination is invidious. Indeed, ensuring that groups can make such distinctions is essential to the existence of groups espousing diverse viewpoints. Monsma is right that CSU’s policy injures the pluralism of California’s CSU campuses. His commentary can be found in its entirety here.

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Education, Formation, and Assessment

(Note: this post began as a reply to Bryan’ McGraw’s post from July 23, but it got long enough to suggest posting it separately–though not because I disagree with McGraw’s argument.)

David Brooks’ recent column on William Deresiewicz reaches conclusions similar to McGraw’s, though Brooks is somewhat less critical of Deresiewicz. Rather than framing what is missing from higher education explicitly in terms of “human flourishing” as McGraw does, Brooks describes the problem in closely related terms:

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

In contrast, those in parental authority still (usually) claim some “place” in more substantive accounts of formation-for-flourishing. Michael J. Lewis’ piece in First Things today suggests that to exercise this authority effectively, parents may need to take a significant step back. Lewis uses Deresiewicz as a launching-point for questions tied up with childhood formation–how non-constrictive parenting habits and especially independent play are essential to shaping imaginative, responsible, and mature people. He argues that unsupervised play allows children to learn from the consequences of the choices they make “when no one is looking.” He continues:

They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.

While the “unsupervised” aspect of this could easily be overstated (formation requires outside influences, after all), the exercise of minimally-structured agency seems a crucial part of maturation.

I can’t help but wonder whether both faces of the problem–a rigidly cognitive (and thus anemic) conception of education on the one hand, and risk-adverse and unimaginative students on the other–will only be compounded by educational trends that are increasingly oriented towards assessable outcomes. In other words, might the pressures from accreditation agencies (and increasingly from government sources) have stifling consequences on education-for-flourishing in a manner analogous to the effects of helicopter parents on their children’s maturation?

Cognition–especially its simpler forms–is easier to quantify than are the many facets of a robust account of human flourishing. Moreover, imaginative and risk-taking academic work may not seem like a good bet to students or their teachers in a context that rewards narrowly-defined assessable successes. Like a parent watching from the kitchen window, the presence of the rubric may loom increasingly over the academic endeavor, constricting the goods it orients itself to pursue.

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A Critique of the Critique of the Ivies

Folks all around the internets have been applauding this TNR essay by William Deresiewicz on what is, apparently, the soul-killing, inegalitarian “education” offered by our elite institutions.  There’s a lot of nice stuff in there – even a shout-out to “obscure” religious colleges that might provide a better education than the Ivies.  (Hey, bud who’s obscure?  We end up in the papers at least every few years so weirdly countercultural!)  But, honestly, as a piece of argumentation, it’s a bit of a mess.

He starts off with what seems now like a familiar lament regarding the ridiculous kinds of things people need to get into elite colleges – perfect test scores, unbelievable (in the literal sense, I think) kinds of volunteer work, and so on – and then quickly turns to the problem that the education many students get at elite schools leaves a great deal to be desired.

I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy Leaguebright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.

He then goes on to assert – presumably the evidence for many of his assertions are in his forthcoming book for which this serves largely as a teaser – that our elite schools largely serve as vehicles for the reproduction of class privilege and that we ought to (a) work to dismantle the ways the elite schools privilege those with monetary privileges and (b) make public higher education free (just like K-12 education).

Well, that’s nice and all, but it’s a bit of a let-down, isn’t it?  I mean, we get all that soul-killing stuff up front and what we get out of it is the promise to do to higher education what we’ve done to secondary schools over the past four decades or so.  I’m sure the University of Virginia will be awesome once the teachers’ unions get their hands on it.

Let me suggest that there’s a deeper problem and it’s with what he (and many other folks) think the point of college is.  Here’s his view:

The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.

Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique beinga soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

The problem here isn’t that he supposes college is about helping you become a better thinker–and we should all be thankful that he doesn’t offer us the insipid rhetoric of “critical thinking”–but that he inverts the relationship between, we might say, virtue and reason.  Suppose we think that “thinking” is a kind of stand-in for “reason” and “self” is a stand-in for living well, or virtue.  When he complains that elite schools teach students how to think only in instrumental terms, I wonder if he realizes that even the way he has set up his sense of what college is for follows along the same path.  In his view, we develop our (instrumental) reason so that we can develop (or “find” in the more common parlance) our “self” apart from that which has been handed down to us – family, tradition, community, religion, etc.  That’s what colleges already do, most of them, anyway.

Elite universities don’t fail at education because they’re too easy or don’t have the right mix of classes, ethnicities, etc.  They fail at education because they misunderstand what education is really all about and the truth is that unless they recognize that education is ultimately about human flourishing, their discontents will keep writing books and essays lamenting their failure.

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A series on the Founding

The John Jay Institute is hosting a series on the Founding and the Declaration, featuring an essay by Joseph Postell about whether the Founders relied on reason OR tradition and experience. Smartly, he finds it’s not an either/or. I try to bolster his case.

http://www.canonandculture.com/false-choices-americas-philosopher-on-reason-tradition-and-experience/

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Evangelicals and Natural Law, Part I

Last year, the eminent theologian David Bentley Hart kicked off what amounts to a bit of a firestorm in the theo-political corner of the blogosphere with a couple of short essays published in First Things.  He suggested, roughly, that the natural law tradition, which has stood at the center of much Christian thinking about politics for, well, most of Christianity’s history, wasn’t really viable.  (Brad Littlejohn has a nice summary of the pieces and many of the reactions it engendered here).  As Littlejohn notes, Hart’s point was not that natural law’s metaphysical premises are wrong, but that given the ways we moderns tend to think about nature (including human nature) it just doesn’t make sense to talk in terms of natural law in our public political deliberations: no one else buys it, it doesn’t persuade, it’s hard to make sense of it, etc.   I’m not interested in re-litigating Hart’s argument—in blog-time, that was a year ago, which is something like a century in regular time—but I am interested in some of the questions he raises.  Indeed, I’ve got something of a dog in the fight, since I (along with my co-authors on this blog) published an edited volume in which the contributors deliberated on the ways in which evangelicals might appropriate the natural law tradition in their political reflections.  More to the point, we are in the early stages of co-authoring a book in which we hope to do precisely what Hart says you can’t really do, make natural law arguments intelligible and useful for Christians within the context of modern pluralist democracies.  (We haven’t gotten to the point of pitching this to publishers, but if you’re a publisher and would be interested, get in touch!)

 

So how to do that?  For all the fulminations and critiques leveled at Hart (many of which I found true), a basic point remains: what typically passes for natural law arguments are generally no more persuasive in public deliberations than citing scriptural authority.  As Alan Jacobs once remarked to me, it might just be easier to get people to convert to Christianity and then persuade them regarding the natural law.  So the question we are interested in runs something like this: supposing that Christians should endorse the idea of the natural law (something Hart agrees with, by the way), how can we (if we can) bring those ideas into play in the context of our modern pluralist democratic order?  In this post, and probably any number of others following it, I will try to work out some reasonable answer to that, though fair warning: I am trying to work out some answers, meaning I will inevitably make all sorts of wrong turns, false claims, etc.  But that’s what blogs are for, right?

 

First, a bit of throat-clearing to set things up.  It’s important to recognize that when we talk about natural law, what we mean is the idea that human beings have a distinctive nature and that this means we have a distinctive set of ends and a distinctive way in which we can flourish (or live well).  On Aquinas’s understanding, for example, this cashes out in a claim that we should act according to reason since (following Aristotle) what distinguishes our nature is that we are distinctively rational creatures.  Since human beings have a distinctive and, in some sense, singular nature, it follows that we also share a common sense of flourishing and that this is available to all (aside from those whose contexts prevent that).  It does not follow—and no natural law theorist of whom I’m aware thinks this—that this idea of flourishing is then immediately obvious to all.  The idea of natural law is an ontological claim about who human beings are and what our true ends are, not an epistemological claim about how we know who we are and what those ends are.  That latter claim is part of what theories of the natural law are about.  So when we talk about the natural law, we are talking about what makes for human flourishing (for human beings as such).

 

Second, how should we understand our modern democratic context?  Hart’s skepticism regarding the efficacy of natural law arguments are of a piece with a much wider skepticism whose near ubiquity must be a part of our considerations.  To simplify things a bit, I think there are two main ways in which our context offers challenges to employing natural law claims, one political and the other philosophical-cultural.  The first suggests, broadly, that employing natural law claims are unfair and/or unjust and thus incompatible with the best understanding of constitutional democracies.  (Note here that this is not necessarily a problem for natural law.  It could be the case, after all, that natural law is true, that it is indeed incompatible with the best understanding of what makes a constitutional democracy work, and thus that constitutional democracy is a bad form of government.  I don’t think that is true – hence the book).  The second is more diffuse, but more challenging for all that: it suggests that natural law is a problem because it isn’t compatible with any reasonable modern understanding of nature and, correspondingly, of human flourishing.

 

And that’s really the rub here, namely that any recognizable theory of natural law will have at its heart a vision of human flourishing that then cashes out in a set of practices and institutions meant to support that vision—and preclude alternative ones.  Since we live in an age where most would deny that there is a defensibly distinctive view of flourishing or whether we can even talk comprehensively in those terms at all, making evocations about the natural law is, rhetorically, not likely to be “successful,” to say the least.  This gets me to my third bit of throat-clearing, namely that the reason to be interested in how or whether Christians should think about the natural law and engage politically in the light of its understanding.  Many American Christians are consumed by a sort of pragmatism and seem drawn to natural law arguments because, they hope, they might work (especially with regard to issues surrounding same-sex marriage).  As things have progressed in the US over the last several months, that particular hope seems less plausible than it might have.  In any case, though, I think the reason think about the natural law is really not so much whether it “works” or not, but whether it’s true.  I’m happy to be pragmatic in how we talk about this with our fellow citizens – and I have some ideas rattling around in my head for how to do this – but I’m only interested in those questions provided that the prior set of questions—is this true or even plausible—makes much sense.

So much for the throat-clearing.  Up next, thinking a bit more about the cultural and political challenges to natural law arguments.

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