Archive for December, 2012

“The primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community.” (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 154)


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images“Without exception, outstanding teachers know their subjects extremely well…Outstanding teachers follow the important intellectual and scientific or artistic developments within their fields, do research, have important and original thoughts on their subjects, study carefully and extensively what other people are doing in their fields, often read extensively in other fields (sometimes far distant from their own), and take a strong interest in the broader issues of their disciplines: the histories, controversies, and epistemological discussions.  In short, they can do intellectually, physically, or emotionally what they expect from their students.

None of that should surprise anyone.  This finding simply confirms that people are unlikely to become great teachers unless they know something to teach.  The quality of knowing a discipline isn’t particularly distinctive, however.  If it were, every great scholar would be a great teacher.  But that’s not the case.  More important, the people in our study, unlike so many others, have used their knowledge to develop techniques for grasping fundamental principles and organizing concepts that others can use to begin building their own understanding and abilities.  They know how to simplify and clarify complex subjects, to cut to the heart of the matter with provocative insights, and they can think about their own thinking in the discipline, analyzing its nature and evaluating its quality.  That capacity to think metacognitively drives much of what we observed in the best teaching.” (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 15-16)

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“About morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after; what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 4)

imagesThe sociologist Christian Smith aptly concludes, in light of his massive survey of the experiences and perspectives of those whom he designates “emerging adults” (18-23 year olds), that today’s youth are following in the footsteps of Hemingway:

“By ‘moral relativism’ we mean the descriptive belief that moral standards are culturally defined–that the truth or falsity of moral claims and judgments is not universal or objective but instead relative to the particular historical and cultural beliefs, views, traditions, and practices of particular groups of people, which leads to the normative belief that everyone ought to tolerate all of the moral beliefs and belief-justified behaviors of others, even when they are very different from our own cultural or moral standards, since no universal or objective moral standard exists by which to judge their beliefs and behaviors…

[Emerging adults] mostly unquestionably presuppose that most things about the socio-cultural world are not fixed or given facts of nature but rather human constructions invented through shared social definitions and practices that are historically contingent, changeable, and particular.  It apparently has not required emerging adults attending multiple anthropology, sociology, and postmodern humanities classes for most of them to have arrived at this view.  For many, it appears that the sheer impact of the realization of the particularity of the conditions in which they were raised drives them to assume this de facto social constructionism.  When they were younger, like anyone else, their personally experienced reality was, for them, simply reality.  Now that they have grown older, have met some different people, and maybe have seen some of the world, they seem keenly aware that they were raised in a very particular way that is different from the way others were raised.  Sociology and anthropology show that human cultures are indeed significantly  socially constructed and vary in certain ways across time and space.  That awareness by most emerging adults presses them–for better or worse–to relativize their own perspectives.  For instance, they repeatedly frame and qualify their views on life with statements such as ‘Well, at least for how I was raised I feel that…’ and ‘For other people it’s different, but for me I tend to think that…’  For example, one emerging adult observed, ‘Being raised in a certain culture you have certain norms for what are moral.  I guess for me there is a certain way to act based on my culture.  But if someone else is coming up with a different perspective, they would maybe have a different outcome, based on what they believe.’  Often these are not  intentionally expressed statements of feelings replacing thought or opinions replacing beliefs but rather unconscious habits of speech reflecting larger cultural norms.

To whatever degree it is intentional, however, the phrase ‘I feel that’ has frequently replaced the phrases ‘I think that,’ ‘I believe that,’ and ‘I would argue that’–a shift in language use that expresses an essentially subjectivistic and ’emotivistic’ approach to moral reasoning and rational argument; see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984).  Consider, for instance, this emerging adult’s use of ‘feel’ 12 times in seven sentences: ‘Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it.  You could feel what’s right or wrong in your heart as well as your mind.  Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what’s right and wrong.  Because if I feel about doing something, I’m going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, then I’m going to do it.  But if it doesn’t feel good, I’m going to know, because then I’m going to be nervous and I’m going to be tensed, and it’s not going to feel good.  It’s not going to feel right.  So it’s like I got that feeling as well as thinking.’  One of the apparent effects of this culturally relativistic view and the continual self-relativizing to which it leads is speech in which claims are not staked, rational arguments are not developed, differences are not engaged, nature (that is, the natural world, the reality beyond what humans construct) is not referenced, and universals are not recognized.  Rather, differences in viewpoints and ways of life–including religious ones–are mostly acknowledged, respected, and then set aside as incommensurate and off limits for evaluation…

One last example: ‘I think you have to eventually answer to yourself and answer to God, but I mean, that’s your decision to do that, kind of cheat on yourself in the end.'” (Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, pp. 251-253)

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(Meta)Narrative Ethics

images“That biblical commands are not arbitrary decrees but correspond to the way the world is and will be is fully appreciable only as we inhabit the Bible’s narrative and appropriate its perspective on how the world is and will be.  The point is important because it will by no means necessarily be evident within the worldviews of our society that biblical commands correspond to the way the world is.  Theories of natural law that attempt to demonstrate this independently of the biblical narrative have a certain value, but they are never completely successful, and in a postmodern society are unlikely to carry much conviction at all.  Recognizing the importance of the biblical metanarrative enables us to see that inhabiting it is learning to see the world significantly differently (though not of course in every respect differently) from the way the cultural tradition of our context see it.  Biblical laws that ‘make no sense’ in relation to the world as those traditions portray it may do so in relation to the world as the biblical story portrays it…Neither what the Bible obliges us to believe nor what the Bible obliges us to do can be known from isolated texts, but requires their total context in the biblical metanarrative.” (Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom, pp. 70, 72)

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images“[A major] theme in emerging adult culture [18-23 year olds] is that they very much want to profess to have no regrets about their lives.  Despite often hurting from hard lessons learned, most of the emerging adults we interviewed initially denied feeling any regrets about any of their past decisions, behaviors, or problems, at least explicitly so.  In keeping with their widespread optimism about the future, most who we spoke with, including those with serious problems, insisted that the past was the past, that they had learned their lessons, that they would not change a thing they had done even if they could, that what’s happened is part of who they have become, and that they have no regrets about anything at all.

In reality, many emerging adults appeared to us to harbor regrets about the past and sometimes expressed them–as we will see below–even as they often denied that they were doing so.  Most emerging adults simply do not want to see themselves as having regrets, even though they also get angry with themselves about mistakes and continue sometimes to be haunted by problems from the past.  So, for example, after a lengthy explanation by one girl about how she invested so much into advancing her boyfriend’s career that she herself never finished more than one semester of college, she concluded, ‘I put aside my dreams to try and help him follow his, for him to become a cop, but I feel like if I was just a little more selfish, I could have advanced myself a little bit more  It’s a lesson learned.  I don’t really regret it at all.’  Likewise, addressing whether quitting drugs had an impact on his life, one guy said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, I’m so much more clear-minded.  Now that I’m where I am it kinda makes me see it was bringing me down, even though I don’t regret it, I don’t really regret it at all.  I think everything that you do makes you who you are, so I don’t really regret it.’

Their thoughts and feelings on this matter, however, are inconsistent.  It appears to us that overtly admitting regrets would somehow be capitulating to a self-doubt or compromise or nascent discouragement against which they are holding out at all costs through the power of positive thinking.  It seems as if many of these emerging adults are too young to name and own their own unalterable disappointments with life by admitting regrets.  Instead, saying ‘no regrets’ puts a good face on matters that are in fact obviously problematic, optimistically reframes the difficulties of the past, and keeps all of life’s concerns moving forward in a positive, constructive direction.  Denying regrets also appears to protect a sense of personal self–which, in a world in which the self is central, seems sacred to emerging adults–against threats to the ultimate good of ‘being yourself.’  That is because actually expressing regrets suggests that the self that one has become embodies something that is wrong or unwanted.  When one’s life is essentially about ‘being who I am,’ one must try to negate the existence of genuinely regrettable choices and experiences, since even the worst and hardest have contributed to making oneself who one is.  The very idea of regrets also presupposes a clear view of good and bad, right and wrong by which to judge past decisions, which many emerging adults lack.”  (Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 151-52)

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images“I feel like saying something about this abortion issue.  My credentials as an expert on the subject: none.  I am an M.D. and a novelist.  I will speak only as a novelist.  If I give my opinion as an M.D., it wouldn’t interest anybody, since, for one thing, any number of doctors have given opinions and who cares about another.

The only obvious credential of a novelist has to do with his trade.  He trafficks in words and meanings.  So the chronic misuse of words, especially the fobbing off of rhetoric for information, gets on his nerves.  Another possible credential of a novelist peculiar to these times is that he is perhaps more sensitive to the atrocities of the age than most.  People get desensitized.  Who wants to go about his business being reminded of the six million dead in the Holocaust, the fifteen million in the Ukraine?  Atrocities become banal.  But a twentieth-century novelist should be a nag, an advertiser, a collector, a proclaimer of banal atrocities.

True legalized abortion–a million and a half fetuses flushed down the Disposall every year [1981] in this country–is yet another banal atrocity in a century where atrocities have become commonplace…

Nothing new here, of course.  What I am writing this for is to call attention to a particularly egregious example of doublespeak that the abortionists–‘pro-choicers,’ that is–seem to have hit on in the current rhetorical war…

As a novelist I can recognize meretricious use of language, disingenuousness, and a con job when I hear it.  The current con, perpetrated by some jurists, some editorial writers, and some doctors, is that since there is no agreement about the beginning of human life, it is therefore a private religious or philosophical decision and therefore the state and the courts can do nothing about it.  This is a con.  I will not presume to speculate who is conning whom and for what purpose.  But I do submit that religion, philosophy, and private opinion have nothing to do with this issue.  I further submit that it is a commonplace of modern biology, known to every high-school student and no doubt to you the reader as well, that the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that thenceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism.

Such vexed subjects as the soul, God, and the nature of man are not at issue.  What we are talking about and what nobody I know would deny is the clear continuum that exists in the life of every individual from the moment of fertilization of a single cell.

There is a wonderful irony here.  It is this: the onset of individual life is not a dogma of the Church but a fact of science.  How much more convenient if we lived in the thirteenth century, when no one knew anything about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were legitimate.  Compared to a modern textbook of embryology, Thomas Aquinas sounds like an American Civil Liberties Union member.  Nowadays it is not some misguided ecclesiastics who are trying to suppress an embarrassing scientific fact.  It is the secular juridicial-journalistic establishment.

Please indulge the novelist if he thinks in novelistic terms.  Picture the scene.  A Galileo trial in reverse.  The Supreme Court is cross-examining a high-school biology teacher and admonishing him that of course it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized human ovum is an individual human life.  He is enjoined not to teach his private beliefs at a public school.  Like Galileo he caves in, submits, but in turning away is heard to murmur, ‘But it’s still alive!’

To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way.  But you’re not going to have it both ways.  You’re going to be told what you’re doing.” (Walker Percy, “A View of Abortion, with Something to Offend Everybody,” in Signposts in a Strange Land, pp. 340-42)

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images“Epictetus has described for us the dreadful loneliness that can beset a man in the midst of his fellows…Such loneliness must have been felt by millions [in the centuries immediately following Jesus’ life]–the urbanised tribesman, the peasant come to town in search of work, the demobilised soldier, the rentier ruined by inflation, and the manumitted slave.  For people in that situation membership of a Christian community might be the only way of maintaining their self-respect and giving their life some semblance of meaning.  Within the community there was human warmth: someone was interested in them, both here and hereafter.  It is therefore not surprising that the earliest and most striking advances of Christianity were made in the great cities–in Antioch, in Rome, in Alexandria.  Christians were in a more formal sense ‘members of one another’: I think that was a major cause, perhaps the strongest single cause, of the spread of Christianity.” (E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, cited by Wesley Hill in The Harvard Ichthus)

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