Category Archives: books

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”

Something Rather Than Nothing

One of the most reliable ways to deaden a lively conversation in class is to ask a “philosophical question.” indexNothing is more certain to produce blank stares, then uncomfortable silence, than questions like “Is the world we experience primarily a matter of what we perceive or of what we create from what we perceive?” or “Is the truth something we find or something we invent?” Jeanne read one of these sorts of questions—“Is the self assembled from my memories, and if so, what if my memories are inaccurate?”—in a book she was reading not long ago. “This person sounds like you,” she said. “The problem is, I just don’t care about this question.” I know. The fact that in twenty-eight-plus years together I have failed to get Jeanne to understand the importance of properly splitting philosophical hairs is a constant source of disappointment.

For most of my years of teaching philosophy, I have managed to ask such questions, which are the bread-and-butter of my discipline, in ways that actually have some relevance to the lives that my students live. But there’s one philosophical question, perhaps my favorite, which is close to perfect in the form that it has been asked for thousands of years. 100030303-the-mystery“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That doesn’t grab you? Try this version: Assuming that the world (and us in it) could have been different, or not have existed at all, why is it the way that it is? And what might we learn about ourselves and the larger reality within which we find ourselves by pursuing possible answers?

These were the guiding questions behind the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium I will spend with a dozen Honors juniors and seniors next semester. It’s odd to be thinking about next semester when I am buried under grading this semester, but the Honors Program director asked me for a course description of the colloquium a couple of days ago, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed it the last two times I taught it. One of the authors we will study is P2P_sphysicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne, who once said in an interview that Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. In other words, the creator might be more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven. Many people carry a model of the natural world around that we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, the model of an intricately and finely tuned machine, designed and created by a cosmic being whose favorite things are precision, order, economy and control. If we speculate about the personality traits of this “designer God,” characteristics such as “powerful,” “rational,” “logical,” “rule-making” come to the fore, which are but a short step to “judgmental,” “controlling,” “aloof” and “distant.”

The problem is, we don’t live in that sort of world. If our world was designed with precision, order and economy in mind, the designer was having a teilhard-1-sizedpretty bad day. Darwin opened the door wide to speculation that the world we live in is vastly more messy and open-ended than ever imagined; a century and a half of further investigation in all of the various sciences has con-firmed Darwin’s insight. It’s very possible to investigate the messy, inefficient and spectacularly fascinating universe we inhabit without reference to anything greater than ourselves, but I find it impossible to do so. If we are in fact part of a creation that is unfinished, in which in Teilhard de Chardin’s memorable phrase, “God does not make: He makes things make themselves,” where does intelligent speculation about such a creator lead? In directions both stimulating and iconoclastic.

We spent a number of weeks the last time I taught the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium teasing out some of the differences that understanding the world in this way might have for how we think about God. For some of my students, the implications were fascinating and liberating, while for others they were disturbing and paradigm-shifting. Two of the traditional characteristics attributed to God, for instance, are omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and has the power to do anything. These “omni” characteristics have been problematic for centuries when thinking about human choice and freedom. 20080626_kristatippett_2When thinking about an open-ended universe that continues to be created by the creatures that inhabit it, such characteristics are more than problematic—they need to be jettisoned entirely, as many cutting-edge scientists and theologians suggest. Here is the full John Polkinghorne quotation, taken from an interview with Krista Tippett:

The act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. Kenosis-school-of-art-and-creative-services_11310_imageIt is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world involves God accepting limitations, and, I believe, accepting limitations such as not knowing the future.

Rather than a tightly controlled and designed universe, this is a universe in which power and knowledge on the part of the divine are sacrificed for—something. Freedom? Choice? Beauty? At thegod_created_risk_postcard-r1d8ae1c777454aa29480a38b805f6646_vgbaq_8byvr_324 very least, the motivations for such an ongoing creative process are something other than control and order. A world in which creatures are empowered to create in novel and unique ways sounds less like a universe energized by ordering power and more like one embedded with creative love and emerging beauty, a beauty that theologian John Haught defines as “ordered novelty.” Only a universe structured on the edge of order and chaos could generate such results.

A God who intentionally created a partially finished, non-economical and messy universe that is still a project in the making is not a God who knows everything that will happen or inserts divine power into every organizational detail. This is a God who has taken a significant risk—on us. In an intellectual notebook entry, one of my students captured this idea concisely and beautifully.

God is only truly taking a risk if He has a desired intention for us—a purpose, so to speak—that could either be fulfilled or unfulfilled through our free actions and the way in which we live our lives. God is gambling on us because He has allowed for the opportunity of failure. God has fixed His hand by giving us everything we need to fulfill our purpose. He is actually no less omnipotent, he is simply using His power to limit His power, a theory that if true would be the noblest of all divine endeavors. If we deny our egos, we are to be awakened by His silence and transformed by the realization of our limitations.

This, of course, raises many more questions than it answers. But they are better questions in my estimation than the traditional ones, in keeping with my favored definition of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions.” Yet another confirmation that Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”quote-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living-socrates-174068

Silence and Submission

trump-and-bushDuring the past two weeks, reports concerning the attitudes and actions of one of the major party candidates for President of the United States towards women over the past few decades has dominated the news cycle. The attitudes and actions of the husband of the other major party candidate for President towards women have been part of the news cycle for lewinskydecades as well. It’s difficult to imagine that there is a person in this country who either finds such attitudes acceptable or wants to hear yet another person’s opinions about them—so I won’t dig further into the details. Instead, I’m interested in why so many people, from every political and religious persuasion imaginable, has been surprised by the offensive, demeaning, and degrading attitudes and actions that have been illuminated over the past two weeks. Misogyny and prejudice toward women has been part of our social structure for centuries—one if the most powerful sources of these attitudes and actions is the dominant religion in our culture: Christianity.ancient-other

In the team-taught, interdisciplinary course that I teach in, we recently completed a unit called “The Other,” focusing on how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood and treated those who were different. During one seminar we considered ancient views of gender, with two of Aristophanes’ comedies and an assortment of excerpts from other authors as our texts. Some were remarkably equitable, including Plato’s insistence that both males and females are equally capable of being rulers of his idealistic and imaginary perfect community, and hence should be educated in the same ways. Other ancient voices were not as complimentary toward women. From Aristotle, for instance, we learned that women are “deformed males,” arguing that “as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” And in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read thatpaul

I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is her husband . . . a man is the image and glory of God, but a woman is the glory of her husband. For man was not created from woman, but woman from man. And man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the sake of man . . . In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home . . .

But wait . . . that’s not all. A couple of Sundays ago, one of the readings was this from the Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.silence-and-submittion

After the lector finished I leaned over the back of the pew in front of me and whispered to the couple sitting there “Wow, I guess Paul was having a bad day when he wrote that!” “No shit!” the guy whispered back. I’ve often wondered what the experiential and/or psychological sources of Paul’s obvious problems with women might have been—I’m still wondering. But whatever the sources were, such attitudes, fully resonant with the majority of philosophies of his day with which he was fully familiar, had a powerful influence going forward—an influence that afflicts Western culture to this day.

I found that many of the dozen-and-a-half eighteen-year-old freshmen in each of mif-onlyy seminars on ancient perspectives on gender assumed that the attitudes toward women they were exposed to in the readings they prepared for seminar are no longer with us. We moderns are, fortunately, respectful of all and treat everyone equally, no matter what gender or sexual orientation. If only. I wish. It didn’t take very long or much encouragement, however, for a few female voices to start providing plenty of evidence that we not only have not moved that far from ancient attitudes on gender, but in many cases are arguably very much the same.

female-priestDuring that seminar I asked the students to start thinking about the ways in which we use gender to organize social structures by asking them to identify a job description for which one’s gender is truly relevant. They had a difficult time coming up with one, despite our culture’s history of making gender relevant to decision making in everything from wages to educational opportunities, until someone said “I know one—priest!” I pointed out, first, that one of my best friends is both a woman and an Episcopal priest, so clearly it is only priests of a certain sort (Catholic) who can only be male. The rules and traditions of the Catholic church notwithstanding, however, none of my students were able to identify any specific thing a Catholic priest does that could not be done equally well by a qualified male or female.gmm

Given that it is difficult to find anything in the actual reported teachings of Jesus to support either treating men and women differently or assuming that men are superior to women, it is truly remarkable to observe just how thoroughly such attitudes and actions became entrenched in the religion that grew out of Jesus’ teachings. There is plenty of evidence that many members of Jesus’ inner circle were women and that women were important leaders in the early Christian communities. But the documents containing such evidence did not make the cut when the New Testament was officially assembled, and such evidence was suppressed and ignored as a male-dominated ecclesiastical hierarchy emerged. After two millennia there are signs that biases against women are changing in some Christian circles, but there remains much to do and a great deal progress needs to be made.

When misogyny and Neanderthal attitudes toward women rear their ugly heads, as they have with a vengeance during the past couple of weeks in the context of the Presidential campaign, we should not be surprised. This is the natural outcome of centuries of history in Western culture, a history in which Christianity has been a central driving force. Christians are in nearth-and-heaveno position to take the high road and respond to such ugliness with moralistic tut-tutting and judgments. The truth of the matter is that Christian churches of all sorts have contributed to the embedded misogyny and sexism that still infects our world in many ways. If Christians truly intend for God’s will to “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as we recite in the Lord’s Prayer every week, it is incumbent on us to put our house in order before casting stones elsewhere. There is a great deal of work to be done.

hello october

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is my brother’s birthday in a few days; I am several months older now than the age at which my mother died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-eight years ago; amazingly, sometimes it seems more like twenty-eight weeks.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of his freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a rock star in Jeanne’s and my estimation, speaks in ten days. I remember a couple of years ago when my friend and best-selling author Kathleen Norris was resident scholar on my campus and gave a late afternoon talk. At the beginning of Q and A , Kathleen mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Last Sunday we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the Animals.” I went to the early show with Frieda, who along with five other dogs held center stage and generally behaved themselves.

Three years ago

Five years ago

This year

Two years ago

For several years running I was lector for Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who was rector of our little Episcopal church for those years, made sure I was scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always brought Frieda to the lectern so she could stare people down while I was reading.

During October the weekly readings are still stuck in Ordinary Time, where we have been since Pentecost. This year the readings from the Jewish scriptures have wandered through various prophets yelling at whoever would listen about various shortcomings.  Last year we were walked through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. In Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll begin again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life not long ago in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, october

A Grownup Faith

If we’re grownups about faith, then why can’t we all get together and lament the fact that there is no God? Christian Wiman

Recently my ethics students and I have been discussing the dangers of moral certainty. For many of them, this has been a counterintuitive conversation, given that moral principles are commonly thought to be only as good as they can be proved to be universally applicable and unassailable. Why wouldn’t we want certainty in our moral beliefs? one might ask. Because, as several of the authors assigned for class discussion have noted, many of the worst atcritchleyrocities that human beings have done to each other over the course of human history have been done in the name of various claims to certainty. The Holocaust. The Crusades. Terrorism of all sorts.  In an article assigned for a recent class, Simon Critchley writes that “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. Insisting on certainty leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.”

Nowhere is certainty more problematic than in the life of faith. As poet Christian Wiman said in a recent interview,wiman

Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can’t be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all of this energy that’s going on, all of these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

If my own experiences and struggles with faith are at all typical, Wiman is on to something. There are times when I find it very difficult to tell the difference between faith in God and faith in a figment of my imagination. This is why, as I wrote last Friday, a person of faith can learn a lot from atheism.

Evangelical Atheism

This is not an unusual idea. For centuries, voices from within the camp of Christianity have called for something sounding very close to atheism. eckhartMeister Eckhart wrote that “We pray to God in order to be free of God,” from his prison cell Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted that the future of faith would be found in a “Religionless Christianity,” and Simone Weil wrote that “the absence of God is the most marvelous testimony of perfect love.”

In each of these instances, the person of faith is asked to move beyond the traditional notion of God as something outside ourselves, a picture of the divine that for many has lost its meaning. I often find myself thinking, as I listen to various descriptions of God being thrown around in different venues, that “if that was what God amounted to, I would be an atheist.” This is where the passage from Christian Wiman quoted earlier comes in. The only way for faith to evolve and take new forms is for old models and paradigms to change. As Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss, “This is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.”paradigm-shift

This can be very disconcerting, because old paradigms change only with great difficulty. When life gets even more challenging than usual, the person of faith is often tempted to fall back on “tried and true” methods of getting the divine’s attention. More prayer, more church attendance—but there comes a time when such methods are regularly met with deafening silence. This silence can lead either to a deepening crisis of faith or an entirely new faith altogether, a new faith that is infused with healthy doubt, and an openness to possibilities from sources that one never even considered as places where truth might reside. Wiman again:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

A grownup faith is one that is both strong enough to look for God in places that have traditionally been off-limits and honest enough to realize that certainty is the greatest threat to faith of all.

One of the traditionally strongest arguments from atheists against belief in God is particularly effective against a supposed God who lives outside the reach of human investigation, effectively immune from supporting evidence and critical argumentation. When non-theists mock disagreements among religious folks as simply being various competitions about whose imaginary friend is better, it is this sort of God whose existence is being questioned. immanenceAn evolving faith, however, tends to move from the “out there” model to the “right here” model when looking for the divine. If God’s immanence is at least as important as God’s transcendence, then we should expect to find glimmers and traces of the divine in the most mundane features of reality, although it takes a great deal of patience and imagination to perceive these traces. Persons of all faiths, in moments of doubt and uncertainty, can honestly share their faith experiences without the burden and bondage of doctrine and dogma, since in the trenches of faith, pristinely certain articles of faith tend to be irrelevant and meaningless. And atheists can join in the conversation, because trying to live a life of meaning and purpose without a safety net is a challenge for all of us, regardless of whether God is or is not a piece of the puzzle.evaporating-dew

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions. Christian Wiman

Horton in a Nutshell

geahDr. Seuss was a regular in our house when my sons were young—my thirty-something sons still occasionally mention how much they both loved Green Eggs and Ham in particular. Theodor Geisel’s creatively madcap work has occasionally made it into this blog over the past four years, from the star-bellied Sneetches in an early essay on heresy

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

to the environmentally-minded Lorax during an on-campus controversy over the demise of a 150-year-old oak this past summer.

I Speak for the Trees

The most recent Dr. Seuss classic to cross my radar screen involves a gentle elephant who believes that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” a couple of kangaroos with bad attitudes, and other jungle animals dedicated to making the elephant’s life difficult. Early last summer someone at a conference Jeanne was attending told her that she should read Horton Hears a Who; by late summer a large orange-covered copy had arrived at our house. I paid no attention to it until a couple of weeks ago.nutshell

As I drove across town headed for minor oral surgery (a phrase that has turned out to be oxymoronic), I listened to an interview on Boston Public Radio with Ian McEwan, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

McEwan was in town on a book tour promoting his new novel, Nutshell. On the basis of the interview, I ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I got home. It is a reworking of Hamlet with a few twists, including that it is narrated by an unborn child hanging upside-down in its mother’s uterus. A la Hamlet, the unborn child knows that his mother is having an affair with its uncle and that they are plotting to kill its father. The fetus is urbane, sophisticated, listens to music and podcasts vicariously through its mother, has developed a connoisseur’s picky tastes in wine, and wonders whether there is life after the uterus. This is going to be fun.

Toward the end of the segment, the two interviewers asked McEwan to read a passage from Nutshell.

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies to be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some: courtship among the 18th century gentry, life beneath a sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, nativities by the millions, and crucifixions, assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases, and Dutch bread and cheese, with or without a knife on the side. Some give themselves in prose merely to the self. In science, too, one dedicates his life to an Albanian snail, another to a virus. Darwin gave eight years to barnacles, and in wise later life, to earthworms. The Higgs Bosun, a tiny thing, perhaps not even a thing, is the lifetime’s pursuit of thousands. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things? And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. So, why not be an owl poet?horton

In the wonderfully random way that things often connect together, this passage made me think of the book that had been laying on our coffee table for the last couple of weeks: Horton Hears a Who.

Horton the Elephant, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. He comes to realize that the voice is coming from a small person who lives on the dust speck; indeed, the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, the home of microscopic creatures called Whos. the-whosThe Whos know that they are vulnerable and exposed to possible harm in a dangerous world; the mayor of Whoville asks Horton for protection, which Horton happily agrees to provide. He places the Who-planet on a clover that he proceeds to carry in his trunk as carefully as a waiter carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses. Horton has come to the same realization as the pre-born narrator of Nutshell: Each existing thing is the center of its own universe of interests, desires, and concerns—but each existing thing is “bound in a nutshell,” “just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

The apparent insignificance of human existence prompted seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to write that The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Yet in Psalm 139 we are told that

You have formed my inward parts;

You have formed me in my mother’s womb . . .

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

As both Horton and McEwan’s upside-down narrator realize, everything is at the same time both insignificant and unique. The challenge is to keep both of these in mind simultaneously.success

As Horton’s story proceeds, his fellow jungle animals refuse to believe that the Whos exist, believing rather that Horton is nuts. In scenes reminiscent of grade school playgrounds, various animals ridicule Horton, eventually managing to steal his Who-bearing clover and hide it from him in a large field of clovers. After a long search, Horton rescues the frightened and shaken Whos; at his prompting, they finally prove their existence to the still skeptical jungle animals by making as much collective noise as possible until everyone can hear them. Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, all the animals vow to help Horton protect the tiny community.

Each of us is both insignificant and infinitely precious, no matter what current circumstances might indicate. From within the confines of his mother’s womb, McEwan’s narrator gains insights into a world he’s not sure he will ever reach. The Whos, upon discovering just how vulnerable and fragile their world is, are discovered by someone greater than themselves, someone willing to put himself on the line again and again to preserve their special existence. It’s a wonderful retelling of a story that generations have embraced. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” after all.a-persons-a-person

Two Plus Two Makes Four

In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters coetzee“The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”

This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?

Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent a recent semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. plato geometryPlato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.

If my students in this class—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,Mona_Lisa

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.

Then I move to the point of the exercise by writing a third truth claim on the board.values

C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).

X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.

moral-disagreementWhen I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement. Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.

the plagueIn The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my recent classes, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.

Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. the white rose“But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”

Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. kolbeThose who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.

The Right Niyyah

As I wait impatiently for my sabbatical that is under contract with a publisher to return from the editor, I’ve been thinking about some of my blog essays that “made the cut” in some sense to appear in revised form in my book-to-be. One of these essays is about the challenge of cultivating the right attitude with which to enter the world on a daily basis. I learned a lot about this from Rami Nashishibi when he was interviewed a year or so ago on Krista Tippett’s “On Being.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being,” a show that I frequently catch several minutes of on Sunday mornings as I drive the fifteen minutes from our house to the early show at church. A few weeks ago, her guest was Rami Nashashibi, Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, in Chicago. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.nashishibi

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

Graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.

Not surprisingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, fascinating, and introduced me to a number of matters and issues that are well outside of my usual frame of reference. What particularly grabbed me, however, was a brief exchange toward the end of the interview, just as I was pulling into my usual parking spot at Trinity Episcopal.

Krista Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: “My 4-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, ‘Daddy, do you have the right niyyah?’” What does niyyah mean?

Rami Nashashibi: So niyyah — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. niyyahAnd oftentimes — it’s both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right niyyah? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit? I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn’t have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, “No, probably not.”

And I said, “What?” We then had a conversation. I said, “Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have.”

This four-year-old’s simple question—Do you have the right niyyah?—has stuck with me ever since. So has her response to her father’s lack of response—“No, probably not.” It’s hard enough to figure out what the right thing to do is on a daily basis; adding in that it should be done with the right intention, for the right reasons, seems like piling on.intentions and actions As a philosophy professor who has taught introductory ethics courses more times than I care to count over the past twenty-five years, I have thought about this a lot. When I ask my students “What is more important—what you do, or why you do it? Actions or intentions?” they usually split roughly down the middle.

And so do the great moral philosophers. There is the tradition of those who say that only results matter (since they can be observed and measured publicly) and intentions are irrelevant. Then there is the other tradition (spearheaded by Immanuel Kant) who say that results are irrelevant—the true measure of the moral life is internal. Were your intentions pure? Was your heart in the right place? If so, then you are morally in the clear, even if the results of your intended action go “tits up” (to quote my brother-in-law).

VgMKgyZMy students are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take very long before they realize that the “results or intentions” question is a false dichotomy. Because in truth, normal human beings care about both. If morality is just about doing the right thing, then the person who identifies the things that should be done and does them—even if for all of the wrong reasons, such as self-righteous smugness or the praise of others—is morally in the clear. But Nashashibi’s four-year-old daughter is right—we want not only the right thing to be done, but for it to be done with the right niyyah, the right intention or reason. And that sucks, because it takes things straight into the human heart. For those who profess the Christian faith, it also takes things straight into the world of grace.

The first thing I ever learned from Scripture about the human heart as a young boy was from JeremiahJeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” Far less attention was paid to the Psalm that is recited in liturgical churches during the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Straight from the Jewish scriptures is both the problem of and the solution for right intentions. As a flawed human being, I am incapable of doing things for the right reason, but help is available. Through divine grace the heart is changed and turned toward the good. Rami Nashishibi’s daughter is right when she doubts that her dad has the right niyyah, so long as that depends on his own energies and strength. But when the divine gets involved, everything changes.

The mystery of grace is exactly that—a mystery. Divine grace enters the world through flawed human beings, strangely enough, and there isn’t enough time to try to figure it out. Grace is something to be channeled, to be lived, not systematized and turned into dogma or doctrine. My bright abyssThe poet Christian Wiman writes beautifully about this. Through many years of cancer treatments, he learned to hear God, then to channel God, in the most unlikely places, the very places where divine grace apparently lives. Wiman writes that

God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is composed of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. . . . All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

The right niyyah is not the result of struggle, training, or calculation. And as the author of Deuteronomy tells us,deuteronomy

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

All I have to do to have the right niyyah is to open my heart, open my mouth, and let it out.

To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.

Tolerance on Steroids

What happens when a perfectly good virtue gets turned into not only the most important virtue, but in many cases the only virtue? I have come face to face with this question in the signpostsearly weeks of this semester with fifty juniors and seniors in two ethics classes. I chose this past summer to organize my General Ethics course, usually a tour of several of the notable moral theories in the Western philosophical tradition (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre, etc.) that are then applied to the details of human experience, by starting instead with those messy details themselves. We find ourselves in a world of competing religious, moral, and political claims shouting at each other across various divides, claims that are both incompatible with each other and resistant to compromise. How in the midst of diverse perspectives that too often lead to violence are we to find a place of stability from which to plot the way forward?

I have discovered both from early class discussion and student writing reflections what I suspected—most of my young adult students have been taught for as long as they can remember that the “go-to” virtue that must be cultivated in order to wend one’s way through the minefield of incompatible beliefs and commitmaristotleents is tolerance. It’s interesting that the granddaddy of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not include tolerance in any of his lists of virtues—apparently such a virtue was not particularly useful in fourth century BC Athens. Tolerance is also rejected by many contemporary people as a sign of weakness, of lacking commitment to one’s beliefs, and of a willingness to compromise too quickly. But for many in our culture, particularly those who might consider themselves as “liberal” in some sense, tolerance is the proposed remedy for many of the things that ail us.

Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with tolerance as a virtue. As a matter of fact, it probably plays as regular a role in my life on a daily basis as any virtue you could name. My concern about tolerance arises from intimate facebookfamiliarity with how it often works in my own life. When I remove myself from an email list on campus because I’m sick to death of being inundated with what I consider to be the often petty concerns of my colleagues, it feels like tolerance. “Let them continue emailing about anything they want,” I think. “I just don’t want to be part of it.” When a Facebook conversation wanders into areas that I find either offensive or seriously different-strokesmisguided, my tendency is to withdraw from the conversation rather than insert my concerns. Tolerant, right? Not really.

I find in my own life, and I suspect I’m not unusual or unique in this, that “tolerance” is an umbrella term for “whatever.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “I disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (although I almost certainly wouldn’t). In other words, one of the best safeguards against being judgmental and ethnocentric, a check against our natural human tendency to negatively judge those who believe, think, and act differently than we do simply because they are believing, thinking, and acting differently than we do, turns into a placeholder for laziness and a reticence to engage even with what one most strongly disagrees with. When writing on topics related to diversity and difference, my students regularly include phrases such as “we all just need to accept people as they are” and “the world would be a better place if everyone would simply be more tolerant of differences.” Tolerance is not only the first virtue that gets mentioned in class discussion and assignments, but is often the only virtue in play. But is tolerance suitable as the primary virtue in a moral framework or ethic? And what if there are some things that must not be tolerated?

herodotusA brief but familiar story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus provides a useful jumping off point for asking uncomfortable questions about tolerance. In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of King Darius of Persia, a (somewhat) enlightened ruler who was fascinated by the various customs of the different groups of people from the far-flung reaches of his empire who were part of his extended court. Darius noted, for instance, that two different groups of people—the Greeks and the Callatians (a tribe of people from what is now the Indian peninsula)—had strikingly different methods of dealing with the body of a person who died in their community. The Greek practice when someone died was to burn the dead body, while the Callatian practice was to eat the dead body.

Intrigued, Darius first asked representatives of the Greek community what he would have to pay or give them, what honors he would have to bestow on them, so that the next time someone died in their community they would eat the dead body instead of burning it, as was their custom. Appalled, the Greek representatives told Darius that no amount of riches or honors could possibly convince them to do such a horrible and immoral thing. Darius also asked a similar question of the Callatians—could I convince you to burn the next dead body you have to deal with in your community rather than eating it, as is your custom? Hell no! the Callatians said, insisting that nothing could convince them to do such a disgusting and immoral thing. Herodotus’s conclusion? callatians“Custom is king.” What a person or group of people considers to be “right” or “moral” is what they are accustomed to, the practices of their family, their community, or their culture that they have been taught since their youth. Humans nature causes us not only to embrace what we are most familiar with as morally right, but also to assume that it is right for everyone.

If “custom is king” and moral values are culturally defined, then the most important attitude to cultivate, the habit most likely to put up a firewall against unwarranted projection of one’s parochial practices and values on others, is undoubtedly tolerance. As Herodotus’ story is intended to illustrate, the best answer to the question “Who is right about the best way to dispose of a dead body—the Greeks or the Callatians?” is “Both, within the parameters of their culture.” Furthermore, there is no way to step outside one’s own culturally defined moral stance and be “objective.” There is no such objective standpoint. The only proper response to differences between groups, or perhaps even between individuals, is tolerance—the habit of accepting differences without judgment.tolerance

The problem, as a student quickly pointed out in each section of my ethics course, is that tolerance as an exclusive or primary virtue is not sufficient to account for many of our strongest moral intuitions. What if, for instance, the difference is about something more serious than the difference between eating or burning a dead body? What if the difference is between a culture that practices female circumcision and our culture that does not? Is tolerance appropriate in this instance? Are we to say “wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that culture, but for them that practice is morally right”? If our intuitions say that some practices cannot be tolerated, no matter what cultures adopt them, is this because our intuitions have been shaped by our own culture or because our intuitions are resonating with a moral absolute that transcends cultural differences?moral-values

Of such questions a great General Ethics class is made. But it appears that if we raise tolerance to primary virtue status, we at the same time take any commitment to moral principles that transcend cultural differences off the table. And that may not be a price worth paying. As I told my students the other day, a moral theory that does not account for our strongest moral intuitions is like trying to cover a queen-size mattress with a twin-size fitted sheet. It covers some of what needs to be covered, but not all of it. I, for one, am not ready to tolerate a theory like that.

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 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