Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cleanliness is not akin to Godliness: why evangelicals ought to muddy up the waters

I spent too long trying to think of a clever title. Success? I doubt it. But, regardless of my failure on that account, I hope to succeed on another account, on dispelling an annoying (yet common) conception of Christianity. Yet again I've run across a ridiculous rant against progressive Christians, and this time I took it to heart. As you may remember, this whole Evangelical Manifesto is causing quite the stir. So even though I already gave my thoughts on the manifesto in an earlier post, I thought I'd take the time to respond to an interesting response I found on townhall dot com. Now I've never been to that site, nor have I ever heard of Dr. Crouse, but google has a way of introducing you to strange new worlds. Dr. Crouse wrote a post called "Muddying the Evangelical Waters," a passionate response to the manifest, and I found it both both extremely disheartening and utterly ridiculous. I'm sorry, but it really was just silly. Here's a summary of what she had to say: the manifesto is secretly trying to turn Christians into liberals, and that's bad because liberals are going straight to hell. Okay, that's quite uncharitable, but that's what the article screamed out at me from my computer screen. Actually, what she did say was based on some truth (more at the end); however, the whole post was overstated and narrow-sighted. Here's what I found, line by line: (mainly sarcastic here, and remember this is all in response to the manifesto)

1. ...the closed group of people working on the content apparently excludes traditional conservative and pro-family evangelical voices.

Okay, so I don't recognize enough of the names to know which of the charter signatories is an actual conservative, but I will bet my life that they are all pro-family. And I am certain that some are conservative, if not at least moderate. The great part here is the reference to pro-family as though it is mutually exclusive with leftist policies. Wait... don't some lefties want to promote family policies like better leave for parents (including fathers!), better daycare options, etc?? I know that I, at least, am very very pro-family. I think families rock, and I think the government should help families out more (though I admit, I'm not sure how). I also, admittedly, lean to the left these days (though not always, depends on the wind), and I haven't come across a liberal who was anti-family (but I'm sure they're there, just not that I've encountered). Of course if your definition of family means one wife, one husband, and 2.5 biologically related offspring, where traditional gender roles are upheld...well perhaps I'm not pro-family after all. I'm pro whatever family you've got where you receive love and support. Not everyone has the luxury of a Beaver-style nuclear setup.

2. “Progressives” criticize traditional evangelicals because they are overwhelmingly Republican, without acknowledging that the Republican platform, which has been consistently pro-life, is congruent with the moral values of evangelicals whereas the Democratic platform is not.

Whoa there... The Democratic platform is not congruent with moral values? Says who? Oh that's right, I've forgotten, the only moral issues are abortion and gay marriage. The environment, poverty, war, access to healthcare... none of that has any moral dimension. We have no duty to protect our planet (command from God in the garden of Eden...), protect our neighbors (call to love them?), or live in peace (other cheek?). How silly of me.

3. “Progressives” criticize traditional evangelicals because they focus on individual sins and the two major moral issues of abortion and homosexual marriage, instead of focusing on what they call “structural sins” like poverty, war, oppression and destruction of the environment. Typically, when “progressives” talk about “broadening the evangelical agenda,” they mean making their so-called “structural sins” the priority instead of emphasizing the “personal sins” that concern traditional evangelicals.

Now this is a distinction that I find quite interesting. It's one I've discussed numerous times with friends. The question is how to deal with sins on a personal level, committed by a person in such a way that may only affect that person (and perhaps other consenting persons), versus sins that affect non-consenting persons and/or evils that arise from the structure of society. This is an important distinction, as Dr. Crouse notes, only I prioritize it a bit differently. We can expect fellow believers to live lives accountable to the commands in the Bible, but not non-believers. Example, Christians are called to moderation when it comes to substances like alcohol. Abuse is a sin (get drunk on the Spirit not on wine!). Can we expect non-believers to drink in moderation because the Bible says so? No. Now if they are drinking and driving and putting other people in harms way, then we have a case for complaint, but it's not exclusively a Biblical complaint. This logic can take you down several paths, one path will sort of leave you between party lines. Example, if you take a fetus to be a person (or a being worthy of protection from interference/harm), then you have cause for complaint --at least a starting point, because there is a non-consenting third party involved. In the case of gay marriage, however, you don't have any harmed third party (except the bogus claim that it degenerates the family as a structure or something). In the one case, the sin interferes with an innocent party, or at least could be claimed as such. In the latter, the sin affects none but the person choosing that lifestyle. As Christians, we are called to hold fellow Christians to the commands of God in Scripture. Heck, even Jesus said it would be a waste of time to try and convince a non-believer to live by Scripture (pearls and pigs). So why make Scripture a part of national law?? Unless a third party is harmed, God will deal with personal sinners, not us. Remember the tax collectors and prostitutes (committing personal sins)? Jesus ate dinner with them. The pharisees wanted to stone them. Christians today fall into which camp?

4. The “progressives” package their thinking in traditional Biblical rhetoric fusing traditional values with populist ideals and themes of the liberal left (like a Marxist-flavored version of social justice and racial reconciliation) and latching onto trendy secular causes like climate change, poverty, globalism, immigration and political correctness.

Now this one is fun. I didn't realize that climate change, racial reconciliation, etc were merely secular causes. Apparently the earth is not worth the effort for Christians, nor are immigrants. We take care of our neighbors, but only if they have a valid social security number, and if they're white.

5. Further, a significant number of evangelicals (according to George Barna’s polling) live no differently than their so-called “progressive” counterparts. These lukewarm believers (who critics say are less concerned about their salvation than their status and more concerned about money than morals) are easy prey for feel-good faith that puts few limitations on the believer — making no demands and establishing no boundaries. They are theological sponges — absorbing anything that “sounds” traditional and/or religious.

Pulling out the big guns now. Apparently, if you are a progressive, then you MUST be a wishy-washy Christian. I'm glad she let me know, because I was beginning to worry that I actually believed in something, like God or a personal savior. Glad to know I was mistaken, as it couldn't possibly fit with my heretical social agenda. Also note, apparently it is only liberals who are concerned more about money than morals. I suppose that's fair, after all, I've never met an affluent conservative Christian who has gripped about high taxes and undeserving welfare leeches. Never. Damn liberals.

6. As Christ warned the Disciples, standing for truth is not the route to public acclaim. The term “evangelical” means a Biblical worldview and this dictates a philosophical/theological perspective on the timeless moral issues of Scripture. Those positions ought to be clear and unequivocal, rather than muddied by sophisticated rhetoric and clever obfuscation. The subtle danger is, as the old axiom states: “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”

I completely agree. However, it's better to be unsure yet continually thinking about what you stand for than to blindly stand for the WRONG thing. Be careful. Very careful. We will be held accountable for what we stand for, and stand we must, but woe unto those who stand for the wrong thing.

Okay, I'm done. Really, I do realize that there are tons of wishy washy Christian liberals out there. But what Dr. Crouse doesn't seem to acknowledge is that there is a multitude of conservative Christians out there who are theologically unsound (at best) and often morally questionable. The liberal platform has many virtues, and they are not inherently secular. The conservative platform has some virtues too, but it has it's vices. Branding a whole movement of Christians as theologically unsound and immoral is not only wrong and unjust, it's just silly. I sympathize with liberal causes. I sympathize with conservative causes. I have friends in both camps, and I see virtues in both. I also have friends with whom I disagree, but that's okay. If they disagree with me, that doesn't automatically mean they are theologically unsound or worse. Maybe sometimes they are, maybe sometimes I am, but you can not assume to categorize an entire movement (esp without a critical look at your own side). Sometimes things aren't neat and clean cut. I'm sorry Dr. Crouse, but cleanliness is overrated. Sometimes you just have to get a little muddy. (yes, cheese-tastic end here, don't judge)

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of the Democrats. I may lean to the left, but I lean way past them when I do. This is not an endorsement for that party, nor necessarily an anti-endorsement of the GOP. Just thought I'd make that clear. Also, I encourage you to read the comments on Dr. Crouse's post. They are priceless. I'm pretty sure some of the people leaving comments would stone me if they had the chance.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Manifesto? Really?

So I'm sort of in shock over this whole Evangelical Manifesto that's made its way onto the scene recently (some of the charter authors are pretty well known, and one is my old pastor -Stuart Briscoe from Elmbrook Church, one of the coolest pastors on the planet). It is, undoubtedly, evangelical, but not everyone is sure its really much of a manifesto (a postive response here). I'm in shock that these leaders have assembled themselves to write such a thing, to try and define a wildly diverse group of people, to try and give them common definition and common aim. It is a hefty task, and in some respects I think the manifesto fails to do what the authors intended (namely, the whole bit about who we are as evangelicals is not to my liking). But in other ways, I think it does what it should, and I'm going to talk about where I think the manifesto gets it right. To be truthful, I got bored with the actual manifesto, and I think the summary is better anyways, so I'm really going to be talking about the points brought up towards the middle/end of the shorter version. (I'm allowed to do this because I think readers are more likely to fully read the summary--6 pages instead of 20-- than the whole manifesto, esp given the intro of the manifesto)

One of the bigger parts in the actual manifesto (and the beginning of the summary) is the section about the evangelical "identity." I've already delineated my views on what it means for me to be an evangelical, and while I think the manifesto does a decent job (though not a great job), it's really not the part I want to focus on here. I do agree that it's important for evangelicals to be better understood; no one likes to be misperceived, after all. But that's not really where the manifesto packs its punch, nor really where it needs to be fighting. Yes, it's awesome that you want to the world to understand us better, but so what? The world will never fully understand us, and why do we have to painstakingly defend our identity? We don't. Rather, we need to do a better job of integrating our identity into our public lives, and that brings us to the part I liked.

From the summary:
First, we repudiate two equal and opposite errors into which many Christians have fallen. One error is to privatize faith, applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. Such dualism falsely divorces the spiritual from the secular and causes faith to lose its integrity. The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, Christians become the “useful idiots” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology. Christian beliefs become the weapons of political factions. Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, economic system, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, or nationality. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness. (emphasis mine)

So the authors recognize two equally dangerous poles on the spectrum of faith in the public square. There are the personal believers, who keep faith at home and in their own hearts, never to be brought out into the open. This is just silly. If you really believe in an Almighty God and the grace of His Son then you can't genuinely compartmentalize your life. You can try, and some do, but they aren't being honest with themselves. You just can't be honest in that belief and then disown that belief when it's convenient. Sure, it would be easier for me to believe at home and check that belief at, oh I don't know, let's say the classroom door. It's certainly easier to be a philosopher these days if you don't own up to any sort of supernatural faith. But it's not honest, not if I really believe. I can't believe at home and not at school. That doesn't mean I proselytize at school, but it does mean I don't try and hide it. This goes for all public realms. If you ask me, I will be honest with you. When my faith points me to a certain decision, I will be true to that and will be open about it. If it comes up in discussion, or you seem interested in hearing more, I will tell you. I can't be a Christian on Sunday and not on Tuesday. I just can't. It doesn't make sense.

And then there's the other danger: the political Jesus freak. Being a Jesus freak is awesome. I wish I was more of one. But being a Jesus freak in order to support some other political party, ideology, etc is not cool. I think I've said something about this in earlier posts, and so did CS Lewis. You can't use God as a means. He is too freaking amazing to be the means to some other end. God is the end, the ultimate end. Peddling God for votes, or to engineer patriots, or to achieve some other ideological end is just wrong. Doing so belies a serious crisis of priorities. Even if you're not a ring leader, you too are culpable if let yourself be duped by one of these leaders. A politician waiving the banner of God might as well be waiving a huge red flag. Be careful, for there false prophets and swindlers running a muck with masks of holiness on their faces.

And my favorite bit:

...we repudiate the partisans of a sacred public square, those who would continue to give one religion a preferred place in public life. In a diverse society, it will always be unjust and unworkable to privilege one religion. We are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths. We are firmly opposed to theocracy. And we have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose beliefs and behavior on anyone. We believe in persuasion. On the other side, we repudiate the partisans of a naked public square, those who would make all religious expression inviolably private and keep the public square inviolably secular. This position is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens, who are still profoundly
religious. Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are. (emphasis mine)

So again, two dichotomies: the sacred and the naked public square. This balancing act called for in the public life may be what led to charges from some that the manifesto is "insistently moderate." But you know what I say to that, three cheers for moderation!!! I see moderation as a virtue, and I also see that the Christian community, particularly the evangelical community, lacks said virtue. Sure, maybe this is nothing new to the secular readers, or non-evangelical readers of the manifesto (though I don't believe non-believers and non-evangelical Christians have got a firm grasp on this virtue either, and they really ought to heed the lesson too), but for most evangelicals this is a new call to action. It is telling other evangelicals that Christianity cannot be the ruling religion in America, or anywhere, because a country shouldn't impose religion on its people. This does not often come out of the mouths of evangelicals, so in that sense, it is as revolutionary as it is common sensical and obvious. At least, that's how I see it.

And then there's that other extreme, an extreme the evangelicals are certainly not guilty of. The second warning is for all those secularists (including religious secularists), who are trying to completely rid the public square of any trace of religion. This manifesto speaks to you as well. Stop it. You're not doing any good. Public life must leave room for people to express their identities, what makes them who they are. For many people, there will be a religious component to their identity, and making them take that off or deny it robs them of their voice. Everyone in a liberal democracy has the opportunity to express her voice, to persuade others to her cause, to be persuaded by others, to let her convictions influence her decisions. You can't ask a religious person to truly do this without any reference to who she is, to what she believes. There is a place for discussing religious values in the public square.

The manifesto summary calls for a civil public square, one that incorporates religion without letting it dominate: "We are committed to a civil public square – a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths as well. Every right we assert for ourselves as Christians is a right we defend for all others. " That sounds about right to me.

As I've discussed before, I think that religious values are important in public life, and I also believe that you can hold onto those values while still finding common ground for agreement with non-believers. It's a balance. It takes moderation. It requires compromise. This sounds simple, and it doesn't sound like a new idea. But in practice, it is new. Put into practice, it would be like a revolution, a good revolution. All the nay-sayers of the manifesto can complain about the defensive tone, the lack of relevance. But in the end, they're wrong if they think it's unimportant. Anything that calls upon religious and non-religious people alike to both embrace their beliefs and work through their differences together without forcing them to hid their convictions but also without unduly imposing thier beliefs on each other, well anything like that should be read by everyone. The way things are done now sucks. The way many religious leaders want(ed) them to be done is wrong. The way many secular leaders want(ed) them to be done is wrong. So calling on people to find the right balance, well I'd say that's a pretty good start.

One of the other charges against the manifesto is that it doesn't say how we can achieve the balance I spoke of above. Well, I think a good first step is talking about this balance, and having everyone agree that a balance ought to be our aim. Reaching agreement on this matter would be a monumental step. So I don't think the manifesto is as deficient in this respect as it has been charged with. What to do next, well I'm still thinking about that, and so are many other people much smarter than myself. I'll keep you posted. (This is where you should point me to good articles/books about this topic if you have any...thanks!)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Teaching Philosophy in Schools

Harry has a nice post up at CT about teaching Controversial Issues to high schoolers, with a link to his paper about it. I encourage you to read both. The idea is that philosophy is important, because it equips us with certain skills that we need to navigate our moral life (among other skills like reason/logic, critical thinking, etc). An ethics course can equip students to analyze arguments and make their own, all in the attempt to discern some ethical truths. Now Harry rightly points out that this sort of course does not work until you first strike down the pop philosophy concept of moral relativism (which is more prevalent in mainstream thinking than you'd suppose). After all, if there is no moral fact of the matter, however hard it might be to know, then there really is no use discussing these things, because you can't reach a truth that doesn't exist. Assuming you get everyone on board with that, there's a lot that you can do with philosophy, even with younger children. So before I say anything else, I want to be clear that I am definitely on board with more philosophy in schools. My concern, however, is how this can be done well. If it can't be done well, than I think perhaps it shouldn't be done at all.

Take the Controversial Moral Issues class as an example. This sort of class is different than your typical high school class. It does not involve memorizing and repeating facts, and starkly opposing answers can (if argued well) all be given a good grade. The focus is less on the answer, though the moral answer is important, but more on the process of arriving at that answer. Now, teaching a class that focuses on method and not a set of answers is tricky, because as the teacher you have to be comfortable with the method yourself. The method is often called the reflective equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying that you think of some assumptions we can agree upon and then you reason out to a conclusion. You can argue with each over the truth of the assumptions or the validity of the logic. This is not an easy task, esp not to teach. The Socratic method is also fun, but not easy. How can you make the students arrive at the answers themselves by only asking questions? You don't want to lecture at them, but you want them to learn something. It's a tough balance, and I'm afraid that balance may not be teachable.

Here's a real life example. This past year I taught English in a French high school. In one of my classes, I taught a CMI-like course. I knew the material, the articles, the arguments, etc. I was very comfortable with what I was teaching, having studied it quite a bit as an undergraduate (something not most teachers have done). When I started teaching that class, I was floored by how poorly it often went. Why? I knew the material, wasn't that enough? Not hardly. I had to figure out, somehow, how to teach my students how to think. It seemed impossible. How do you change how they think??? How do you teach them to be critical and logical? I'm not sure I know. I had some classes that went well, while others bombed. I'm not sure I know why in either case. One thing that did work sometimes (though this may have been cheating) was being horribly uncharitable to an author's argument. Flaws in philosophical work are often subtle, and most high schoolers (and college students) will have a really hard time catching them. So to help my students out, I rewrote the arguments and exaggerated the "holes" (as I called them). I made the faults look as obvious as possible, but even then, my students had a hard time finding them (I admit, part of this was the language barrier). Eventually, some of my students learned how to spot the holes. Most of my students did not, but some of those at least started to understand the holes after I pointed them out. One thing I never accomplished, arguably the most important thing, was to get them to argue something for themselves. To be original and creative. Maybe it was my own fault, or the language thing, or just that the students weren't ready to do that yet. I'm not sure. But I do know this much: that class was not easy to teach.

So why do I worry about how well a teacher can teach the class? I worry for the sake of the student, because a poorly taught ethics class is worse than no ethics class at all. Worst case scenario: a teacher teaches dogmatically (either because she wants to promote her own views or, more likely, because she is under pressure from the school and parents to teach a certain view) and the students come out with a certain set of "answers" fed to them in class. Perhaps they were even taught the best arguments for those answers, but even so, they did not learn how to think about those answers critically. In fact, a student coming out of a class like that is more likely to be confidant that those answers are right, than a student who (never having had a class in ethics) is still unsure what she thinks about it all. I'd rather a student be unsure but not brainwashed than the opposite. A commenter at CT replied to my concern with a good point. The response was that sometimes our concern for "impartiality" puts up too many unnecessary roadblocks. Yes, I agree that teachers could never be completely impartial, and that's okay, but that doesn't mean some teachers (perhaps due to school pressure or liability) won't be unacceptably partial. Even without outside pressure, it's very hard not to let your own views creep in and color the discussion (it certainly was for me --in fact, to offset this, I tried to fight for the opposite side more, or make sure I was fighting for the side that was the least popular in class).

Teachers will always have biases in their classes, but some classes should be taught anyways. I think that a college level CMI course, even if biased, is better than none. However, I think a biased CMI course in a high school is worse than none at all. Part of this is a distrust that a high school student could recognize bias and file it away as such. When I was in high school, I was much more trusting of the authority of my teachers than I was at university. Part of that was due to the fact that I had many more professors at university that had contradictory views (making it clear that neither side was decided upon). But a bigger reason, I suspect, was that I was more mature as a student in university than I was in high school. In high school I was too inexperienced to mistrust the views of my teachers, and I was much too easily swayed. Now I'm not saying this is true of all high schoolers, certainly not. And maybe if it is true that would in fact be another reason to have CMI course, so that students could be taught to be more critical. There's also the concern that not everyone, in fact most students, won't go to college (or if they do they may not take a basic ethics course). The CMI's of today are important enough that everyone ought to be thinking about them, so maybe high school is the best place to start that process. And I want schools to have well run CMI classes. That, to me, would be amazing. But I just don't know. If the course is poorly done, that may cause more harm than good, and that wouldn't be a worthwhile trade-off.

So I'll follow the comments over at CT, and maybe if I see some good suggestions for how to train teachers to do this (and give them the academic leg room they need to do so), then I'll be less worried about it. Or maybe the jobless philosophy phds should step up and help out. Who knows...