Posts Tagged Enlightenment

Reviving Character: Diversity, Conformity, and the Moral Life

The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil I recently finished up James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, which provides a marvelous critique of American moral education, chronicling our gradual descent from a focus on virtues and eternal truths into a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”

Hunter’s diagnosis, from the prologue:

A restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy-making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.

These “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, believing that morality is “self-evident” in and of itself and all we must do is help individuals “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Anything else is too dogmatic, too sectarian, too potentially offensive.

Particularity is inherently exclusive. It is socially awkward, potentially volatile, offensive to our cosmopolitan sensibilities. By its very nature it cuts against the grain of our dominant code of inclusivity and civility. In our quest to be inclusive and tolerant of particularity, we naturally undermine it. When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.

Indeed, there’s something about particularity that scares us, regardless of our own particular beliefs in our own particular moral philosophies. The secular progressive is afraid of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is afraid of the Muslim. The Muslim is afraid of the secular progressive. And so we fight for control over the monopoly on the narrative.

So if this inclusivist approach is ineffective and actually undermines the ways in which morality is formed, how is morality actually formed?

Hunter answers:

Morality is always situated—historically situated in the narrative flow of collective memory and aspiration, socially situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities. Grounded in this way, ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient…

A morality conceptualized without basic links to a living creed and a lived community means that the morality they espouse entails few if any psychic costs; it lacks, in any case, the social and spiritual sanctions that can make morality “binding on our conscience and behavior.” What is more, without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes—variations of the emotivism that now prevails everywhere. Critics who point to the absolutist quality of this moral pedagogy are not far from the point. Outside the bounds of moral community, morality cannot be authoritative, only authoritarian. In the end, these alternatives [i.e. any modernistic attempts to instill virtue] do not advocate virtue, but at the their best, it is virtue on the cheap.

This, of course, is very much in line with the thesis of this blog. If we want to achieve a just, or as I would prefer, a Read the rest of this entry »

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Get Personal: Restoring Individualism to Gospel-Worthy Conduct

Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, Duane LitfinIn his new book, Word versus Deed, Duane Litfin contemplates how Christians are to be Christians at a time when the church seems bent toward what I might call representation without proclamation (and vice versa, though to a lesser extent, methinks). “Today some are emphasizing deeds at the expense of words, while others hold fast to ‘talking’ and forsake the doing,” Litfin writes. “This is an imbalance that must be righted.”

The book covers a range of topics, but for the moment I want to focus on an interrelated “imbalance” that Litfin briefly notes in his chapter on “gospel-worthy conduct” (i.e. the “doing” piece). Litfin encourages us to think of such conduct as being “lived out in five distinguishable circles of application”: personal life, family, God’s people, society at large, and the natural world.

These are all good “circles” for us to think about, yet we must also take care to order them properly. For example, as Litfin duly notes, the church has, as of late, begun to shift its focus directly to the social realm, ignoring the “personal life” or “private dimension” altogether—a faulty either-or approach that will not bode well if the church has any hopes of transforming the social sphere toward the heart of God.

According to Litfin, this switch has happened for the following reasons (quoted directly from the book):

  1. Our time and place in history is stamped with the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. In reacting against this imbalance some may be inclined to move directly, and perhaps too quickly, to the social and corporate implications of the gospel, bypassing the individual realm entirely.
  2. In certain Christian circles the personal dimensions of Christian living—issues of sexual morality, personal honesty, worldliness, etc.—seem to be as far as the demands of the gospel ever reach. These issues are stressed constantly but little is heard of the social implications of the gospel. Such a perceived imbalance undoubtedly prompts others to leapfrog these “overworked” private matters on their way to broader social concerns.
  3. Any emphasis on issues of personal holiness in the Christian life appears for some to be an embarrassment. They tend to write off such concerns as the unwarranted obsession of pietists.

These realities have largely shaped the focus of Remnant Culture (thus my focus on “Radical Individualism”). From Shane Claiborne to David Platt (in varying degrees, to be sure) we are consistently sold on the idea that misaligned, Enlightenment-style individualism is the only kind there is, and the only way the American church will get past it is by bloodying itself on a self-constructed altar to abstract social goods. Under this perspective, anything that might result in individual advancement or recognition, regardless of what is driving it, must be too individual-oriented, and thus we are told to compensate by injecting our actions with impulsive socially conscious do-gooderism. We may still be trying to push Christians toward obedience to God (Platt certainly is), but we will continuously miss the mark if we “leapfrog” past the messy, complicated subject of (1) what this all means at a personal, individual level, and (2) how that translates into the social dimension holistically (i.e. encompassing all of the circles Litfin mentions).

The fundamental problem with the American church is not that we are too focused on our private lives and need to go on more mission trips or curb our incomes at a certain level. It’s that we are not recognizing that our private lives need to be broken by God’s grace and our social responsibilities need to be rightly ordered in turn. We want a quick-fix answer for everything—as nearly every observer of the West will recognize—but such an orientation does not stop at the electronic store check-out line; it drags itself into every element of our vocation-building and world-changing, prodding us to skip pass complicated questions of individual purity and purpose and jump straight to easy-and-convenient “social” arguments, whether we’re talking about sexuality, mega-church management, or global poverty.

We need to take a step back and make sure our hearts and our deeds are on the right path, and that means doing a lot of difficult work at the individual level. We need to cry out, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need to pause and pray, asking Read the rest of this entry »

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The Last Dregs of Christendom: Islam vs. Postmodernism

Twilight of Islam and Christianity

Douglas Wilson recently posted a great critique of a speech given by Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism (read “The Last Dregs of Christendom”). The speech itself is well worth listening to, but Wilson directs his critique at one specific piece, namely Gingrich’s claim that our struggle with Islam is primarily about preserving “Western values.”

“So?” Wilson asks. “Who cares about that?”

Such indifference to Western values is bound to perplex a few readers. What about the Enlightenment? Scientific progress? Democracy? Capitalism? What do you mean, “so what”?

The West certainly has plenty to offer in the realm of societal order, economic efficiency, and overall justice — and these are fine things to preserve — but when we’re talking about a serious and persuasive religious ideology (i.e. a spiritual force), engaging a struggle in the name of Western values is a bit risky, if not futile.

As Wilson says:

Western values only have value if they are a coded way of referring to something else. And that something else cannot be another horizontal fact, like representative government, or womens’ rights, or anything like that. That just pushes the question back a step. Why should we prefer those? And if we say that Western values simply means “our values,” then why should those outrank “their values”? In the ebb and flow of Darwinian struggle, ours sometimes loses to theirs.

In other words:

“Western values” as an appeal works only if it is a coded references to Christendom, and that only works if Christ is still there. Anything else is Read the rest of this entry »

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