Category Archives: belief

Disturbing the Peace

Last Friday I attended a talk on campus by civil rights lawyer and and law professor Greg Lukianoff on issues of free speech, trigger warnings, and a related host of matters on college and university matters that are regularly in the news. He is the co-author of an article in The Atlantic a bit over a year ago that raised a lot of eyebrows and generated a lot of conversation. I wrote about it in the early weeks of my sabbatical last August: 

I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza Spinoza

One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

Ine this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The new fall semester is just three weeks old–here’s a bit of advice related to safe spaces and learning for the incoming freshmen:

  1. Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  2. In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  3. The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort zone.it is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson

Tired of Hating People–Thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11

Everyone beyond a certain age can remember clearly what they were doing fifteen years ago tomorrow when they heard the news. I was in my college’s main cafeteria getting coffee and noticed something weird happening on the Today Show broadcast on a television hanging from the ceiling in the corner. first towerAt that point all they knew was that one of the Twin Towers was on fire, apparently because an airplane had crashed into it. I had scheduled office hours that morning, so I listened to live radio reports on NPR of the second tower being hit and the collapse of both towers. There was a surreal air to the broadcast—I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true, some sort of elaborate hoax along the lines of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast many decades earlier. But it was true.

Classes were encouraged to meet and decide individually how best to deal with the day’s events. Several students in my first class of the day at 12:30 had family and friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan—it was clear that the best thing for these students to do was to continue their frantic attempts to contact their loved ones. About half the class stayed and shared their thoughts—what they said and the nature of our conversation is difficult to recall. I know that many students (as well as many of my colleagues) were understandably angry and wanted retribution; tower collapseas we gathered our things to leave about half way through the class period I said “the one thing I’m feeling is that my best response to what has happened is to become a better person. A better teacher, husband, father, friend. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

There will be any number of retrospective reports throughout the day and evening today. Neither Jeanne nor I lost any immediate family or close friends in that day’s terrible events, although in a few cases it was only “luck” that spared someone we know well. A decade and a half removed, when I think about 9/11 and its aftermath as I have been over the past few days, I think of patriotism, wars that seem never to end, and the realization that with the swift passage of time soon I will be teaching students who, first, will not remember 9/11 and then, two or three years later, will not have been born when 9/11 occurred. But most of all, the lasting effect in this country of the terrorist attacks on that day has been a persistent atmosphere of fear and suspicion—as well as of the hatred that fear and suspicion  produce.

Just about a year ago the theme of the weekly “TED Radio Hour” on NPR was “Transformation—stories and ideas about becoming a completely different person.” The first story up that day was titled “How Did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?”untitled

How did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?

The story teller, Zak Ebrahim, is a peace activist and the author of The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice. Ebrahim’s father, El-Sayyid Nosair, for a number of years plotted with other radicals to attack a number of New York City landmarks, including tunnels, synagogues and the United Nations headquarters. May of these planned attacks were thwarted by an FBI informant, but one of the attacks—the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center–was not. Nosair and his fellow terrorists were convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sublevel parking lot of the North Tower; the subsequent explosion killed six people and injured over a thousand others. Ebrahim was seven years old at the time of his father’s conviction and incarceration—Nosair was sentenced to life imprisonment plus fifteen years.nosair and son

Ebrahim’s father had become radicalized in the early years of his son’s life; in his TED talk Ebrahim describes how shortly before his father was arrested he took Ebrahim, along with several of the men who turned out to be co-conspirators, to a shooting range for Ebrahim’s first lessons in using a rifle. Even after Nosair’s arrest, the impact of his worldview on his young son continued to be strong.

Growing up in a bigoted household, I wasn’t prepared for the real world. I had been raised to judge people based on arbitrary measurements, like a person’s race or religion. He would just talk about Jews being evil. And I would hear similar things from the men that were with him. You know, gay people being evil and them wanting to turn you gay so that you would go to hell too. And just gay people being all-around terrible people and a bad influence. And he used to say things like, a bad Muslim is better than a good non-Muslim. That’s pretty much what indoctrination is. You have authority figures around you telling you that the world is one way and you don’t get to see another perspective.

This radical indoctrination began to crumble when Ebrahim, as a teenager, began through school to be exposed to some of the people he had been taught to hate. PhiladelphiaOne of his fellow group members at the National Youth Conference in Philadelphia leading up to the 2000 Presidential election was Jewish. Ebrahim did not learn that his new friend was Jewish until several days after their friendship had started developing; he says that “I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that, for most of my life, I had been led to believe was insurmountable.” That summer he found a job at a Busch Gardens amusement park and for the first time had the opportunity to meet some gay people performing in one of the park’s shows. “I soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met.”

One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change. And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who’d experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said tired of hating“I’m tired of hating people.” In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.

On one level it’s easy to hate because a world made of “Us” vs. “Them” is simple to define and make judgments from within. On a deeper level, though, Ebrahim is right—the negative energy of fear and hate is psychologically exhausting, an exhaustion that is symptomatic of our culture. It’s almost as if it isn’t natural for humans to hate.

A few moments of attention to the level of discourse in the current Presidential campaign are sufficient to hear the tones of fear and anger that pervade our national conversation about almost everything. It is a season of intolerant and fear-mongering language. That such attitudes exist is nothing new; what is new is that we have reached the point where hatred and intolerance have found a new foothold in the public square and conversation. And even for those who seek a moderate position that avoids anger and fear, the current atmosphere is infectious. big enough lieA character in Eric Bennett’s new novel A Big Enough Lie explains the dynamic well:

There are people in the world whose opinions differ from yours so much that the difference implies violence, urges it, supplies a will for it. And if you stand on the side of moderation, this implication, this will to violence, upsets you even more than the mere difference of opinion itself. Because you are complicit in it—you become complicit in extremism by loathing extremism. You are reduced by your enemy to what you despise in your enemy. The world excuses only saints and lunatics from its economy of hatred, is what you realize. Pick a side.

On this fifteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, my hope is that we as a nation, as a culture will decide, as Zak Ibrahim’s mother did, that we are tired of hating people. us-vs-themTired of dividing our tiny little universes up into “Us” and “Them” as we vilify those who do not look like, act like, or believe the same as those in our self-defined groups of specialness do, often in the name of rigidly dogmatic beliefs that cannot accommodate the complex and shades-of-grey world in which we live. As Zak Ebrahim discovered, the best cure for fear and hatred is simple experience. But such experience can only happen if each of us has the courage to step outside our ossified comfort zones and dare to meet the most frightening thing in the universe—someone who is not the same as me.

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

You Are Free, Therefore Choose

Each of us can point to a time (or several times) in our past when we made a decision that, in retrospect, significantly shaped our lives going forward. Such decisions for me include getting married at one month past twenty, choosing to leave law school for a masters program in philosophy, and deciding to commit for life in my early thirties to a person whom I had known for six weeks. I could have chosen differently in each of these cases, and my life would be much different now than it is. DarwinBneuroscienceut could I really have chosen otherwise? The answer of many “experts” from psychology, science, philosophy, and more is “no.”

I wrote about how the “experts” have gradually but inexorably come to this conclusion a week ago, describing how evidence from Darwin to neuroscience supports the conclusion that everything about me, including all of my choices, is fully determined by both biological and environmental causes beyond my control.

They Will Never Take Our Freedom

I undoubtedly, the experts admit, will continue to believe that some of my choices are free in the sense that I could have chosen otherwise, but that belief is based on an illusion. illusionMy choices may feel free, but they really aren’t. If true, the news that free will—the foundation of what most of us believe concerning morality, reward, punishment, praise, blame, and responsibility—is an illusion cannot be taken lightly. Nor, I would argue, need I either as a philosopher or a human being believe that the “experts” are right about this. Free will is only an illusion if one accepts the starting assumptions that energize the argument against human beings having real free will, assumptions that include the belief that everything that exists is made of physical matter, that physical matter is governed by inexorable physical laws, and that we generally know what those laws are. These assumptions are so entrenched among the “experts” that challenging them is as uphill a battle as trying to argue that the earth is flat. But I’ll give it a shot.

I often tell my students that each person, among her or his beliefs, has a small handful of what Aristotle called “first principles.” Aristotle knew as much about cause and effect as anyone;ō indeed, he arguably invented our familiar system of logic that is built on the belief that we live in a world governed by cause and effect relationships. These relationships shape how our beliefs hang together as well. Consider the following conversation:

Me: I believe A is true.

You: Why?

Me: Because A depends on B, and I believe B is true.

You: Why?

Me: Because B depends on C, and I believe C is true.

You: Why?

There’s a pattern here. We all seek to support our beliefs by referring to connected and deeper beliefs on which they depend. There’s also a problem here, though. The chain of cause and effect has to end somewhere if we are to avoid the dreaded “infinite regress.” So eventually we get this:

Me: I believe that X is true because X depends on Z, and I believe Z is true.

first principlesYou: Why? (you’re getting really annoying, by the way)

Me: Because I do.

In Aristotle’s terminology, I have just identified “Z” as one of my first principles. In order to avoid an infinite regress, eventually we arrive at a belief for which we seek no further justification than that we believe it. Such first principles vary from person to person–some common ones include “Human life is intrinsically valuable,” “Human beings are fundamentally equal,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For many, including myself, “Human beings have the capacity to choose freely, choices that are not entirely determined by matters outside their control” is another first principle which, if true, stands in direct opposition to what the “experts” claim the truth to be. And like it or not, no one wants to hear that a first principle is an illusion.

When I choose freely, I deliberate between available options, weigh the evidence supporting and against each, and choose the option that best satisfies my operational criteria. I cause the choice, in other words, influenced but not determined by any number of factors. This simple idea—that a human being can choose without the choice being fully determined—violates assumptions so prevalent among the “experts” that it is tantamount to heresy. uncaused caused 2And to be sure, this simple idea is indeed a radical one, for it claims that the freely choosing human being is an exception to the inexorable laws of matter, capable of starting her or his own chain of causation that would not have happened without the choice starting the chain. There are few beings in the annals of philosophy with this power. Aristotle called his creating force—what we might call “God”—the “unmoved mover” or “the first cause uncaused,” the place where the chain of causation begins (or ends if one is going backwards). In short, human beings act “in loco parentis,” with the causal power of the divine itself, when we make free choices. If one wants to go religious, it is this very creative power of free choice that the sacred texts are referring to when they claim that human beings are “created in the image of God.”

The position that truly free choices step meaningfully outside the laws of nature has been called “metaphysically peculiar” by some philosophers, simply “bullshit” by others. Free will deniers assume that any human capacity that purportedly steps outside the laws of physical matter must be an illusion, since we all know that everything is made of matter and that matter is governed by deterministic laws. more thingsTo which I respond, as I often do, in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Presuming that everything in heaven and earth can be reduced to the confines of our current understanding of reality is hubris of breathtaking proportions. When a fundamental and definitive human ability is defined out of existence because of narrow assumptions, I choose to question the assumptions rather than the reality of the fundamental human ability. When answers to a question do not square with our strongest intuitions and beliefs about ourselves, change the question.

None of the above is very philosophical of me, at least not in the contemporary sense. I freely (J) admit that human free choice might be an illusion, but I see no reason to believe so based on an argument with questionable assumptions. I choose rather to embrace the mystery and miracle of being human and believe, until better contrary evidence is provided, in keeping with the intuitions of billions of human beings that at least some human choices make a difference—such a great difference that they make the world a different place than it would have otherwise been. SartreAnd human beings are not just vehicles of that change—their choices cause that change. Maybe we just don’t know enough about reality to rule out abilities that don’t square with our current understanding of things. Maybe human beings are truly the crowning glory of creation, endowed with a spark of the divine that reveals itself in our most basic capacities. Maybe all of the above. Take your pick. As Jean-Paul Sartre used to say, “You are free, therefore choose.”

illusion

They Will Never Take Our Freedom

Although I read incessantly, I don’t read a lot of magazines. The only magazine I currently subscribe to is The Atlantic—I appreciate the excellent writing and quirky features, but don’t exactly wait by the mailbox for each monthly edition to show up. Instead, they tend to pile up on the little table next to my side of the bed, waiting to be perused when I am between authors in my novel reading. I’m currently in one of those spaces, having just finished my fourth consecutive Arturo Pérez-Reverte mystery a few days ago and not ready to start a new, large reading project just a week before the semester starts. 394-They'll Never Take Our FreedomAccordingly, I started plowing through the three summer editions of The Atlantic that have accumulated on my nightstand since June. Inside the June edition, whose cover includes two-thirds of Donald Trump’s head peeking in from the right side announcing a lead article entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump” (an oxymoron if I ever saw one), I found this: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—Here’s why we all may be better off believing in it anyway.”

Stephen Cave: There’s No Such Thing As Free Will

CaveThe article is by Stephen Cave, a philosopher who runs a “Center for the Future of Intelligence” at the University of Cambridge. His article is well-written and engaging—so much so that I suspect he may have had help with it. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. I have spent over twenty-five years learning to write in ways that make core philosophical issues accessible and interesting to non-philosophers—it ain’t easy. First, it’s important to clarify what philosophers usually are referring to when they use terms like “free will” or “freedom.”  Just before the final battle in his 1995 epic “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson’s William Wallace screams to the Scottish army that They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!

That sort of freedom, the kind enshrined in this country’s founding documents as “rights” that each citizen possesses and that must not be violated or taken away, is not what philosophers mean by freedom.

Instead, “free will” refers to the human ability to choose, for a person to deliberate between options and eventually choose, then act on one of the options, all the time knowing that she or he did not have to choose that option—decisionin other words, she or he could have chosen otherwise. This vaunted human ability to freely choose is, for many (including me), the fundamental and defining feature of what it means to be human. Stephen Cave points out that our legal systems, as well as our general beliefs concerning praise, blame, reward, punishment, and all things moral depend on our basic belief in human free will. And it is under attack—scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and just about everyone “in the know” have been trying to take it away for decades.

The “free will issue” is a go-to problem in all philosophy courses, the philosophical version of the divine foreknowledge/free will problem in theology. Just it is impossible to make room for free choice in a world governed by an omniscient deity, so in a world where everything that occurs is governed in a cause-and-effect manner by the physical laws of matter, there is no room for true human free will. Cave points out that at least since Darwin argued in The of Species that everything about human beings—including our vaunted reasoning abilities where the ability to choose is located—is a result of natural evolutionary processes rather than a mystical, magical, or divine “spark” that lies outside the physical laws of matter, illusionscience has reinforced the conclusion that whatever human consciousness and deliberate choice are, they are to be placed squarely in the material world. Making it impossible, of course, to squeeze out the special place we desire for choice. Our choices may “feel” free, “as if” they are up to us, but Cave pulls no punches in describing the truth about us:

The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

Experiments by psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that the brain’s neurons fire in new patterns causing a specific action before a person consciously “chooses” to act—indicating that my conscious “choice” is an illusion that actually doesn’t cause anything. nature nurtureDebates rage concerning how much a human’s actions are caused by “nature”—one’s hardwiring—and how much is caused by “nurture”—one’s environment—but there is general agreement that none of them are caused by conscious choice. We are determined through and through.

The ensuing discussion is often amusingly similar to conversations that couples considering a divorce might have: Should we tell the children, and if so, when? In the service of all truth all the time, some argue that non-philosophers and non-scientists should be made aware that free choice is an illusion and they should stop believing in it. Others insist that such a revelation would be damaging to the basic human’s commitment to morality, law, reward, punishment, and all of the other cool things that rely on our apparently mistaken belief that our choices make a difference and that we are responsible for them. My own classroom experiences indicate that it doesn’t matter. I regularly use a very simple thought experiment with my students at the beginning of the “free will” unit on the syllabus:

Suppose that in the near future a super-duper computer can read your brain and physiology sufficiently to predict the rest of your life, from large events to the minutest second-to-second thoughts and feelings, from now until you die. For a nominal fee you can purchase a printout of every event, thought, and feeling that you will experience for the rest of your life. Some printouts will be yards in length, while others will be very short. Do you want to see yours?

In a typical class of twenty-five students, no more than one or two students will say that she or he wants to see it. Why? Because even with direct proof available that the rest of my history is determined down to the minutest level—including my “free” choices—illusionI prefer to believe that my choices make a difference in my life and in the world around me. I prefer to embrace the illusion. It appears, in other words, that human beings are determined to believe that they are not fully determined.

On this particular issue I find myself swimming against the tide. I not only believe that human beings have the ability, at least on occasion, to make choices that are not entirely determined by their biology, history, and environment—I also believe that this ability is not an illusion. It’s real. The free will/determinism issue as contemporary philosophy defines it has its current shape because virtually everyone accepts a starting assumption—everything that exists is material stuff subject to inflexible physical laws. Given that assumption, the claim that human beings have the capacity to jump outside the limitations of matter and make choices that avoid the determinism of cause and effect makes no sense. But as I often tell my students, if the answers one is getting are unacceptable, change the question. If the ability to freely choose is fundamental to what a human being is, and if our current assumptions about how reality is constructed make no room for that ability, then perhaps instead of accepting that choice is an illusion we should challenge the assumptions that forced us to this acceptance. Be watching for “What Freedom Amounts To” next week, where I’ll describe a very different way to think about human choice!Horatio

hey-relax-buddy-im-working-on-it

I’m Working On It

Any caring human being asks the question What is the right thing to do? on a regular basis. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics regularly, IrisI am aware that in the minds of many, the whole purpose of thinking systematically and rigorously about the moral life is to provide reliable and confident answers to that very question. Moral philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Iris Murdoch, from Aristotle to MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre, have provided frameworks within which to answer the question. But each framework is different, they are often incompatible with each other, and philosophers do not agree on which aspects of the moral life are most important in a moral analysis. Some focus on the consequences of an action, others stress the reasons behind one’s actions, still others argue that the character of the person making the choices and doing the actions is most important of all. In short, philosophy’s answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is, at least partially, “Which philosopher are you currently studying?”

Such disagreement among those who are supposed to be the experts often leads to the conclusion that moral certainty must be sought elsewhere—in religion, for instance. If one is convinced that God not only exists but has bothered to let human beings know the divine preferences for human behavior, then faith promises to provide a far more reliable foundation for knowing the right thing to do than anything pointy-headed philosophers might come up with.is god real But scratch the surface of the religious option and a whole bunch of additional questions pop up. Which God? Which sacred text? What about conflicting claims within the same tradition or the same text? Those from outside the camp of religious faith consider these awkward and essentially unanswerable questions to provide strong evidence that atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the way to go, while those who cling to their faith tend to get defensive and judgmental toward those who disagree.

I have spent the past several weeks preparing my syllabus, assignments, and lesson plans for the two sections of introductory ethics that I’ll be teaching this fall. In my twenty-five years of professorhood, I have taught at least fifty sections of introductory or upper division ethics courses, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than throwing students headfirst into the deep end of the “What is the right thing to do?” pool. By the time they are eighteen years old, just about every human being has been exposed just enough to a possible set or two of answers to this question to assume that they’re all set and have the moral life generally figured out. disturbing the peaceMy job as a philosophy professor is to disturb the peace starting on the first day of the semester. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear at the end of the semester, as I did from a student at her final oral exam two or three years ago, that “this course really messed me up—but that’s a good thing!” Mission accomplished.

But I’m not just a philosophy professor—I’m a regular human being as well. My professional training and natural disposition makes me generally skeptical of any claims to moral certainty—I frequently tell anyone who will listen, from the classroom to the blogosphere, that certainty is vastly overrated. (A quick search just revealed that I have used that very phrase eight times in blog essays). But I am also a person of faith, raised in a religious tradition that supposedly equipped me with the tools (scripture, prayer, authority, guilty conscience, and more) to provide definitive guidance when wondering about what the right thing to do is. working on itHow do I make being a philosopher and a person of faith work together, or at least not be in perpetual tension? As my youngest son Justin likes to say when challenged concerning important things: I’m working on it. This very issue is the central theme of this blog—after four years of hanging my struggles out for public display, I’m working on it. My sabbatical book that is under contract and will be out early next year is all about this. I’m working on it. When pressed for a summary of where my working on it stands in real time, two passages come to mind.

The first is from Simone Weil, the strange and beautiful woman who, for the past two decades has been a model for me of intellectual rigor as well as integrity to one’s faith commitments. In one of her dozens of notebooks, she writes:

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think “Thy will be done,”Simone the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

There is enough in this passage to justify many essays—what currently strikes me most strongly is Weil’s conviction that the knowledge each of us seeks is within us. Philosophers and theologians err when they tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that seeking the answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is like a treasure hunt, a search that, if successful, will once and for all provide us with proper guidance in all circumstances. Rather, as both the Pentateuch and the Apostle Paul tell us, the word is within you. It is within me. Believing this requires an act of faith that, at least at first look, is astoundingly optimistic. What reasons are there to believe that the universe, God, reality, or anything, is so attuned to what Catherine of Genoa called “my deepest me” that I can trust that this deepest me holds the answers to my most pressing questions? No reasons that can fully stand up to logical scrutiny, but in matters this important perhaps logic is as overrated as certainty. I choose not to believe that my desire for bread will inevitably produce rocks, that my deepest cries will go unheard. So sue me.tutu

Then there is a similar sentiment from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked for his own insights concerning the will of God and how to know one is doing the right thing, he replied that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Morality by the skin of your teeth. Tenacity and hope, along with faith, love, goodness, and as many other desirables that you care to list, are essential for even rudimentary answers to “What is the right thing to do?” This is a lot more challenging, but also a lot more fulfilling, than looking it up in a book or memorizing answers. I’m working on it.

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

Believing What I Think

Last week at the Republican National Convention, the Republicans nominated as their candidate for President of the United States a person so outside the norm, so iconoclastic in every way, that even the most experienced observers of American politics—insiders and outsiders alike—are scratching their heads. trumpHow did this happen? I suspect that it will take years for answers to fully develop, but there is one contributing factor that I have been hearing both through traditional and social media on a regular basis. Supporters of this candidate often say something along the lines of “He’s saying things that many of us have been thinking for years but have, for any number of reasons, not been able to say. He speaks for us.” Which raises the question—How much of what we believe to be true is simply a projection of what we want to be true? After all, as a bumper sticker I saw the other day insightfully pointed out, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”believe

Fall classes begin in a few weeks and I have started planning my two sections of General Ethics in earnest. Over my twenty-five-plus years of teaching, ethics has always been my favorite course—because of administrative duties, then sabbatical, this will be the first time in five years that I have taught it. I chose several weeks ago to make the class as contemporary possible—with two exceptions, every assigned text was written within the past ten years. One of the exceptions will come early in the semester from one of my three or four favorite philosophers—Michel de Montaigne. massacre[1]Montaigne lived in a polarized religious world that reminds me strongly of our current equally polarized political situation. Sixteenth-century France was not a pretty place—in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were killing each other with regularity and abandon, all in the name of Christ. Catholics and Protestants each were certain that they were right; energized by such certainty, each was willing to kill the other in the name of truth and right belief. When I heard delegates in Cleveland last week regularly chanting that the soon-to-be-official nominee of the other major political party should be locked up or worse, I thought of Montaigne’s constant efforts to convince his readers that certainty and unwarranted conviction can be deadly.

In the second week of classes, my students and I will be working on perhaps Montaigne’s most famous essay—“On Cannibals.” Reflecting on the visit to France of several Brazilians from cannibal tribes, Montaigne notes that just as cultured Europeans of his day were appalled by various Brazilian tribal practices, so the visitors were just as confused and appalled by certain European cultural norms. michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Stepping back, Montaigne argues first that a stronger case for barbarism could be leveled against the Europeans than against the cannibals, then puts his finger on an issues that is remarkably relevant to our contemporary world.

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed, we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.

Our own myopia and parochialisms are usually defined by something other than national borders, but Montaigne’s point is clearly as true now as it was in his day. We tend to believe that what we are most accustomed and used to is true, without ever wondering how we came to be accustomed and used to these things in the first place. We resonate most strongly with those who mirror back to us what we are already thinking.

Parochialism and attachment to what we think we know is not a problem exclusive to any particular set of beliefs or experiences. All of us, from conservative to progressive, from atheist to dedicated religious believer, assume that the way that we think is not only the epitome of common sense, but also the standard of reason well used. Yet as Adam Etinson, a contemporary commenter on Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” adam etinsonobserves,

Moral reasoning is generally something we use merely to convince others of long-held beliefs that we are unwilling to abandon . . . often, no amount of persuasive reasoning, clear argument or exposed contradiction can shake us from what we already believe.

Why are we so inclined to hang on to our most entrenched thoughts, even in the face of evidence that our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in anything but experiential evidence supported by logical reasoning?

The most obvious answer is that adopting the thoughts and beliefs of one’s culture and family is easy, while critically challenging one’s default settings and perhaps even changing them is hard work. Cultural centrism is evidence of both our intellectual laziness and our fallibility—the ever-present possibility that our beliefs might be wrong. One effective way that I have found to bring the randomness of our deepest convictions to light is to simply ask my students the following: “How many of you think that you would be a very different person today if you had been born in rural Tibet instead of where you were actually born?” All hands go up. “Why?” Because, as everyone knows, we are shaped early and often by features of our existence—our society, family, location, social status—that we do not choose. ethnocentrismYet we often wander unreflectively through life relying on these foundations that we did not choose, as if we had magically been given the universal truth about all important issues at birth. The fact that our deepest held beliefs would be different had we been born elsewhere on the planet (or even, sometimes, to different parents farther down the street) should disconcert us. In every course syllabus I include Spinoza’s observation that “I do not know how to teach philosophy without disturbing the peace.” The “What if you were born elsewhere?” exercise is one of the more effective peace disturbers in my teaching arsenal.

Of all the things I deeply believe, those that I have come to through challenging preconceptions and previously unchallenged assumptions are the ones that are now most definitive of who I am. All of us should regularly reexamine our beliefs and practices, become alert to weaknesses and inconsistencies in our own thinking, discover something plausible in another’s point of view and in so doing, become better than the parochial and myopic creatures that we naturally are. After all, none of us needs to believe everything that we think.

Raising the Bar

One of my greatest joys as a philosophy professor is that I get to be bad on a regular basis. There were a number of people about whom I was told little growing up, other than that they are dangerous and to be avoided like the plague. images.1I work out my rebellion against these restrictions now by ensuring that these thinkers make as many appearances on my syllabi as professional integrity will allow. So I teach Darwin, for instance, with gusto in the interdisciplinary program I direct and participate in, and took great delight a few years ago in hearing an older Benedictine monk—a biologist by training—say that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all the theologians put together.” indexI take a perverse pleasure in making sure that my mostly parochial school educated students know that Marx is more than a four letter word and, more importantly, is not an irrelevancy simply because the Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago.

And then there is the the biggest and the baddest of all the dangerous thinkers I was taught to fear in my youth—Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s the philosopher who infamously proclaimed that “God is Dead,” after all. But humor me for a bit, because a few moments with Friedrich will help illuminate just how radical and subversive today’s gospel—imagesthe conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount—actually is. And yet it this very text, hopelessly beyond the highest standards we can imagine for ourselves, that completes the road map for the life of faith that we all profess.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist, despite the fact that his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers. Yet throughout his life he focused his philosophical and creative energies on ethics, on the ways in which human beings make moral choices and use them to shape their lives, to create their character, and to influence others. friedrich_nietzsche_in_christianity_neither_mousepad-r6e52a64025c1012fb64900ffb0cb9003_x74vi_8byvr_324It was this intense interest in morality that caused him to be one of the most eloquent and influential critics of Christianity who has ever lived. He developed his critique in response to texts such as the final paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” eye for eye copyBut I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Nietzsche complained that this is a moral framework for the weak, for those who are incapable of asserting their own excellence or even protecting themselves. Jesus is telling those lacking the power or will to be independent that it is okay to be mediocre or weak. In so doing, Nietzsche complains, Jesus is turning the natural moral order of things upside down. Nietzsche’s critique is borne out in the very next paragraph from today’s gospel.

love-your-enemiesYou have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Our natural wiring inclines us to love our friends and hate our enemies, but Jesus is asking us to embrace and love those who we should hate, as He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. As do many moral philosophers, Nietzsche insists that moral requirements should be fitted to what human beings actually are, not to what someone might wish them to be—hence his charge that Jesus’ challenge is inhuman and unnatural. We expect that good people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished, but Jesus reminds us, just as Job found out, that it rains on both the good and the evil, that the sun shines on everyone regardless of whether they have earned or deserve it. spirituality-science-beyond-good-and-evilEventually, in one of his most important works on ethics—Beyond Good and EvilNietzsche summarizes his critique of today’s gospel and of the moral standards that arise from it.

What is it I protest against? That people should regard this paltry and peaceful mediocrity, this spiritual equilibrium which knows nothing of the fine impulses of great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.

Jesus is describing a moral framework for losers, one that enables the weak and exalts those who cannot make it on their own. This is a powerful critique, one that over the century and a half since it was written has for many been the basis for an outright dismissal of Christianity as a workable moral system. For persons who take a faith commitment to Christ seriously, these should be fighting words. But how should we respond? Nietzsche.2

We might start with a certain amount of defensiveness, by noting that if Friedrich thinks that what is described in the Sermon on the Mount is for sissies or for the weak, he ought to stop pontificating about it and actually try living it for a day. Anyone who has ever turned the other cheek, who has been harmed or betrayed and has actually tried to love that person in response, knows what extraordinary strength doing this even once requires. This is not a morality for wimps, Friedrich; this requires strength of character of which most persons only dream.

Recall, though, that the heart of Nietzsche’s critique is that the blueprint for a human life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is unnatural—it does not square with what we actually are. And the gospels confirm, in no uncertain terms, that Nietzsche is exactly right. Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount?be-ye-perfect1

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Really? Are you serious, Jesus? Iris Murdoch once responded to this command by asking “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say ‘be ye therefore slightly improved?’’ The standard of divine perfection is so out of the reach of human effort that it blows our first response to Nietzsche out of the water. We might be able to turn the other cheek once in a while or even convince ourselves that we forgive and love those who have hurt us and who wish us harm, but who but an insane person would claim to have attained perfection? Nietzsche is right—Jesus is asking us to do what no one could possibly do, except by watering it down so far as to be unrecognizable. The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are humanly impossible and entirely ill-fitted to what human beings are capable of achieving.

Elijah-in-desert-lowEach of us , in a moment of honesty, should tell God “I can’t do this. This is impossible. I quit.” In the spirit of Elijah hiding in a cave from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, we might as well say “I can’t do what you are requiring of me.” And in the same still, small voice that Elijah heard, we hear “you’re right. You can’t do this. And that’s the whole point.” Nietzsche’s mistake is not in his judgment that the demands of the Sermon on the Mount are ill-fitted to human nature. His mistake is not realizing that this is the whole point—Jesus is describing a transformed human nature, a transformation made possible by the Incarnation. The bar has been raised to a level that cannot be reached by the greatest of human effort, but is the hallmark of a human life infused with divine energy and love. Those who follow Jesus can expect to see every expectation that is natural to human beings turned on its head. As Paul wrote, every person who is in Christ “is a new creature. othpa-iconOld things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation, not to endless frustration and falling short of the mark, but to the discovery of divine life within, a life that Jesus promises will “overcome the world.”

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the seven-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, during a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar a couple of semesters ago, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper not long ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid