Posts Tagged Islam

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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Religion, Babies, and the Limits of Economic Analysis

Data-visualization guru Hans Rosling recently gave a fascinating TED talk contemplating the relationship between religion and babymaking. (For some of my commentary on his previous instances of wizardry, see here and here.)

This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer my thoughts on the lecture, focusing specifically on the limits of Rosling’s analysis as it relates to the economic implications of religion and culture.

You can watch the full talk below:

Rosling argues that religion has nothing to do with decreasing birth rates, but getting out of poverty does.

Ah, but what hath religion to do with that?

As I’ve written previously, economists have a tendency to shy away from and/or mistreat any factors that might rattle their neat categorical frameworks and cause “#VALUE!” to pop up throughout their intricate Excel spreadsheets. Observing countries according to “majority religion,” for example, provides little insight into the unique cultural differences and political climates of the countries involved while also Read the rest of this entry »

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Government Need Not Wash the Terrorists’ Feet

Jesus, Osama bin laden, George Bush, washing feetBy Josh Lowery, Guest Contributor

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, remembrance took many forms around the country and even the world. For my own part, 9/11/11 was more emotional than 9/11/01.

Ten years ago, the most lasting image came from sitting in an over-crowded student lounge where I watched the events live, along with about one hundred other people, on a big screen TV. As the first of the two towers began to actually fall, it was surreal, and as a self-absorbed, 20-year-old college junior who had a small world view and a very small frame of reference for tragedy, I watched in stunned numbness.

Ten years later, at about the same time in the morning as when the second plane hit, I found myself rehearsing music for my church’s 10:00 a.m. service. During a brief break on stage, the media guy played about 10 seconds of a video to test the sound. The video was a roughly 2-minute-long audio montage of distress calls, media reaction and on-the-street sound bites from that terrible day, coupled with a stream of quotes from world leaders and dignitaries encapsulating the unity, resolve and general “oneness” that we all experienced in the immediate aftermath. After hearing a mere five seconds worth of audio, I found myself cascading quickly into a visible emotional state. I began nervously pacing around in a 5-foot radius of where I was standing (I was wearing a guitar that was plugged in at the time). I’d been caught off-guard by those sudden, interrupting sound bites and had a much more emotional reaction in a very short period of time than I did on 9/11/01 when the tragedy itself was unfolding. 

What followed throughout the rest of that morning at church was a time of reflection ranging from inspirational to downright uncomfortable. There was an open mic (which is all you need know in order to imagine the possibilities), but all in all, the morning was memorable and served a good and proper purpose.

I then came home and was treated, courtesy of Facebook, to a host of 9/11 “reflection” articles representing an array of political persuasions. One in particular came from Tony Campolo’s blog, in which Kurt Willems, a self-identified Anabaptist, discusses the Last Supper.

Willems notes that despite Jesus’ “intel” on what Judas had already done (and was soon to do), Jesus nonetheless washed his feet along with those of the other disciples. Willems’ marveling of this as one of the most profound enactments by Jesus of his command that we love our enemies is something I absolutely resonate with. I would even go so far as to say that, short of perhaps the Crucifixion itself, this act stands above all other Gospel anecdotes in this regard. 

But after this point, the writer and I sharply diverge. Willems takes what is a beautiful, practical, spiritual lesson from the life of Jesus and uses it as a political springboard. It surpasses the ironic that this would come from someone who belongs to a community of writers and activists who sanctimoniously criticize the “religious right” for its uneasy marriage of faith and patriotism. According to Willems, we should view Jesus Christ Himself as equal parts God and policy wonk. We are to look on Jesus’ washing of Judas’ feet as an all-encompassing metaphor for how national foreign policy should be executed.

After conceding that “this humble act was contextual in its application for people in the First Century,” Willems abruptly changes his tone, ambiguously chastising a myriad of nameless American churches for Read the rest of this entry »

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Functional Universalism: Do We Really Believe What We’re Saying?

The Rob Bell controversy has yielded several important lessons, but David Platt offers one of the best in a new video on the dangers of functional universalism in the Christian church (as opposed to intellectual universalism).

Using Northern India as an example — a country comprised mostly of Hindus, Muslisms, and Buddhists —  Platt challenges us to consider whether we really believe that the 597 million non-Christians therein are really going to hell. By asking whether we really believe it, he means to ask whether we are really doing something about it. 

Watch the video here (HT):

For Platt, the distinction between the intellectual issue and the functional one is as follows (though there can certainly be plenty of overlap):

If we believe that everyone is going to be ok in the end — if we embrace universalism, however it is cloaked — then we’re free to live our lives however we want, to sit back as easygoing Christians in comfortable churches. Because in the end, all of these masses are going to be ok. They’re going to be fine.

However, if we believe that people around around us — 597 million people in Northern India, 6,000+ people groups who have never even heard the Gospel — if we believe that they are going to an eternal hell without Read the rest of this entry »

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Prophet Motive: Islam and Economic Growth

The Silk Merchant, Islam, painting, merchantsThis week at Common Sense Concept, I take a closer look at John Cassidy’s recent piece in The New Yorker on Islam and economic growth (“Prophet Motive”).

Cassidy’s piece provides a good overview of Islamic economic history (or, at least, one side of it). His eventual conclusion, however, does not exhibit the degree of critical curiosity that one would hope for. In the end, I think his approach is largely limiting to our discussions about the relationship between religion and economic growth.

According to Cassidy, we are not to analyze Islam itself as a religious belief system. Instead, we should focus on more “predictable” indicators of economic activity.

Here’s an excerpt:

[Cassidy points to] more “traditional methods” of analysis, such as focusing on “the way beliefs are codified and institutionalized,” rather than dwelling on theology, philosophy or moral doctrine (as Weber and Novak do). For Cassidy, the matters related to the religion itself —the “spiritual stuff” — are largely unreliable. To make real progress in analyzing religion and economic growth, Cassidy believes we should look toward firmer, more measureable developments in the politico-religious (e.g. usury laws, business partnership, limitations or inheritance practices, etc.).

I disagree with this view and think that religion is indeed a valid investigation tool.

Here’s my response:

If we are going to analyze the merits of a particular religion as it relates to an economy, it makes little sense to toss out the fundamental features that define religious institutions and set them apart from those in the socio-political realm.

Whether formally codified/institutionalized or not, our religious beliefs and convictions fundamentally transform our perceptions, and thus they largely impact our visions. Regardless of whether the specific religion, god, or authoritative text is actually true, Islam has just as much potential to instigate such an effect as Christianity.

To read the full post, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Regulating Temptation: How to Cut Off Your Own Hands

I have a new post at Common Sense Concept discussing Jesus’ advice on dealing with temptation. Specifically, I look at how Christians like to implement such teachings using political force.

I focus on the following passage, which is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ inquiry on “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”:

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

So if we do try to look at this passage politically, what can we gather from it, if anything?

Here’s an excerpt of my response:

We are tempted to act on Jesus’ words by rashly rolling out some kind of policy to deal with people’s junk. We don’t try to channel human nature through incentives or think about public sins vs. Biblical sins. Instead, we rush to seize the objects of our temptations, and in our attempts to do so we instantly rob Jesus’ message of everything that makes it unique.

This is not the Quranic message of “cut off his or her hands.” We are not called to put our sisters in burqas just so the men won’t have to deal with their lust. Jesus’ message is the entirely different, non-political, non-coercive message of “cut off your own hands.”

To read the full article, click here.

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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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