— HYPHENS & HORIZONS

 

2014-03-15 17.10.48       This is, in many ways, an unplaned second installment to my previous post on learning rituals and inspiring venues. I travelled to Princeton to participate in a conference over the weekend, and the experience surpassed all my expectations. Princeton is, in almost every respect, utterly exceptional. About the only real complaint one could lodge about the place is that getting there requires a lengthy and tedious commute from most places in the country. It took me all day Thursday to journey there and all day Sunday to return.  But the commute is hardly a serious complaint. To prevent me from gushing about the trip I’ll say just a few things about the conference, the town, and the university.

The conference. The whole point of my going to Princeton in the first place was to participate in a conference at the Center for the Study of Scottish Philosophy (CSSP). The CSSP is under the very able direction of Dr. Gordon Graham and housed in Princeton Seminary. This year’s conference theme focused particularly on religion in the Scottish enlightenment (http://www.ptsem.edu/library/cssp/events/). I won’t bore you with why this is an important topic for historians and philosophers in the field at present. Suffice to say, there is some disagreement about just how prominent the religious commitments of many central thinkers really are. I was slotted to serve on a panel discussing Adam Ferguson’s religious outlook. Never heard of him, you say? You’re not alone! He is, shall we say, a more minor figure, standing somewhat in the shadow of David Hume and Adam Smith. My paper argued that Ferguson understands science as a religious activity and therefore religion and science (as Ferguson conceives of them) cannot be opposed to one another. And much to my surprise the other panelists, some of whom are not at all religious, seemed to agree. I’m beginning to think that the general interpretation of the Scottish enlightenment as a moment of religious skepticism is now being upset by a more religiously literate read of faith and reason’s partnership during the period.

I’m glad I attended the conference. Smaller academic conferences afford greater opportunity to speak at length with others about their work, and in this case with many of the most knowledgeable scholars in the field. Scholarship is an otherwise isolated work. Conferences are among the few real opportunities for talking in depth and at length about one’s research with other practitioners. Doing so can be immensely therapeutic, like opening a window in an over-stuffy room. I’m now very ready to move beyond Ferguson. The book is done; time for a new venture.

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The town. Princeton charms all but the deranged. Narrow lanes lined with whitewashed colonials; still lakes interrupted by heaving crew teams; sycamore trees mediating every ray of light: the town is quintessential. I arrived a few hours early to ensure I had ample time for touring. The “downtown” is a few square blocks, but still gorged with shops and eateries. Perhaps the highlight for me was the Nassau Cemetery, where Jonathan Edwards and John Witherspoon are interned respectfully in the President’s Plot. As a great admirer of Edwards, that was a moving moment for me. Standing by his grave I was suddenly and profoundly impressed by the sheer magnitude of Edwards’ contribution to the Church. Still, for all its history, the town is nothing without…

The university. Princeton University is quite possibly the most exquisite campus I have visited so far in the US. The older, central structures of the campus — Nassau, Alexander, Rockefeller College, Princeton chapel, etc. — are mostly in the colonial or gothic style. It feels as though the buildings themselves infuse the atmosphere with academic excitement. They are each linked by crisscrossing, symmetrical walkways. On first sight, one cannot help but gawk childishly at university’s architectural elegance. A student I met on my return journey home said that this experience is referred to affectionately as the “orange bubble”: for the most part, students do not even want to leave the campus. One might, every once and a while, catch the train to NYC for a broadway show, say, but only on the off weekend. Students had just as soon stay within the bubble. The air inside this bubble is saturated by academic aromas, and students obviously cannot get enough of it. The physical environment itself urges students to keep within its nourishing enclave, and in doing so the internal saturation is compounded. This is the unique composition of an academic culture.

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New College      I reflect fondly on the several years my wife and I resided in Edinburgh. The city itself is dazzling, as any one who has travelled there can attest, and is site to a staggering range of artistic and cultural events. My alma mater is located there, obviously, serving as an energetic facilitator to a great majority of the city’s intellectual initiatives and achievements since before the American founding. There’s always something on. In a given week a student might enjoy a stimulating weekly seminar, stroll across city centre for a Gifford lecture, and complete the evening with special film screening, introduced by the director herself. Few places on earth can compare. In moments of quiet solitude I think mostly of the rituals and spaces that defined my time there, and I have come to the conclusion that intellectual vitality, aside from the requisite divine illumination, is bolstered largely by these two factors: learning rituals carried out in inspiring venues.

I enjoy teaching immensely. The glimpse of understanding that passes across a student’s face is inexpressibly gratifying to any earnest teacher. Preparation for class lectures is, however, a rather stupendous challenge. For a slow thinker like myself, preparation alone can consume nearly every spare hour of a given week, if I let it. When the semester load is especially heavy, there is no time for my own research. And it isn’t a matter of just “being more disciplined” about my time, but rather a straightforward decision about, say, family leisure or reviewing a book, basic home maintenance or devising a fresh proposal.  Teaching demands have prompted me to think time and again about what sorts of fertilizers enrich intellectual soils and I keep coming back to that same compound: learning rituals carried out in inspiring venues.

Most days I would walk to New College in the morning and leave at “quitting time.” That walk up the mound is notoriously sweaty. Ironman winners can’t get from new town to the Ramsay Lane wing without shortness of breath and excess perspiration. But its that moment when, just before entering college, you look back over new town to the Firth of Forth and are arrested by gratitude. The Torrence room, with its tall arched windows — cubicles are necessity in such a room, unfortunately — is where the intellectual labor takes place. It inspires the labor. Curiosities can roam safely within its walls. On realizing suddenly that a certain book may be of assistance, one gets up and descends an ungodly number of stairs to the New College library, housed wonderfully in the former sanctuary of a Free Church. En route back to the study carroll, a stop for coffee is imperative. Labors begin again, reinforced by caffeine and text. My fortune was to have a desk along the window-wall of Torrence. Out of these windows I could see only chimneys and rooftops and the magpies and sky-rodents (pigeons) perched indelicately upon them. I was inside, withdrawn from the dastardly Scottish elements. When depleted I could look to the adjacent wall for some encouragement, where a portrait of the great Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrence, hung in awkward isolation on an enormous and otherwise empty wall.

Most days I would walk home from college with my wife and we would discuss whatever it was we were thinking about that day. Mercifully, it was all down hill.  The walk took us past the college entrance, the national galleries, Scott monument, Princes Street, George Street, Queens Street, Queens Street Gardens, and to our own comely lane. Theologians will perhaps foist “liturgical” language upon this romantic depiction, and I wouldn’t be opposed to that out of principle, I suppose, though the terminology is now somewhat stale from overuse.

The human mind needs time and space to breath. Its oxygen is silence. Our best thoughts are slow thoughts. The longer we linger over our mind’s imagery, the more vivid its color, the crisper its contours. It is for good reason the scriptures implore meditation and contemplation. Without them our minds are imperiled. But it turns out that patient thought is the hardest won. Moderns are mostly convinced that what is most needed is accelerated thought–more news, more data, more efficiency, more speed. The mind simply does not work that way; it is meant to walk, not run. Pace of mental ambulation is key. Rituals are what give us intellectual rhythm and centrifuge, and if they are practiced regularly, a mindlessness that frees for superior mindfulness.

I believe wisely designed spaces that acknowledge the shape of the human soul, in all its limits and all its potential, offer the best venues for intellectual adventure. The space can’t manufacture good thought by itself , of course, and that is why learning rituals are equally decisive. The venues of thought must correspond to the rituals of thought: they are mutually compounding. Inspiring venues encourage rituals and rituals in turn prompt thinkers to seek out inspiring venues.

Modern prophets of education herald the victory of group “collaboration.” I, for my part, favor seclusion. Let me think alone; when I’m ready I’ll discuss. Group discussions are more excruciating than constructive, in my experience (save for a few church examples), and that is why I never ask my students to break into them during class. Something tells me that Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Barth didn’t do their best work belly up to conference table for brainstorming exercises. No, I suspect they did their best thinking alone, silent, and temporarily closed off to the world outside. They retreated into their minds. Collaboration, if it happened at all, would come only much, much later. Reversing the priority of this thought process, as the modern acceleration project has tended to do, suffocates the imagination and overwhelms contemplation with still more “conversation.” Apt are the words of David Hume: ”An author is little to be valued who tells us nothing but what we can learn from every coffee-house conversation.”

Living within an increasingly post-Christian society the Church must remember the forgotten wisdom of thinking the thoughts God has given it to think. This may even demand individual toil for the “unthought thought,” the diligent strain to break through the strictures of contemporary discourses and assert the truth that most needs asserting, undeterred by platitudes the modern age takes for granted. We have learned an invigorating, if also painful lesson about the final impotence of sophistry. We must now seize the opportunity to speak poignantly, charitably, beyond our tired modern confusions; the task is as crucial as it is formidable. Reflecting on the very means to good thinking is a sensible first step–making ourselves a living sacrifice, not being conformed to this world (Rom.12).

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Gold Trophy       The Academy Awards ceremony, now ubiquitously referred to as the Oscars, began in the early twentieth century as a rather inauspicious acknowledgment of cinematic achievement. The gravity surrounding this event has altered considerably over the last ninety plus years. In fact, Gravity is a strong nominee for this year’s Best Picture award! I wouldn’t know about this nomination, of course, unless I generally enjoy good film, and I do. But I cannot claim to have ever watched the ceremonies at length. The red carpet, shameless celebrity worship, and self-congratulatory decadence of the ceremonies make watching just a bit too bothersome for me. What interests me here is not the Oscars themselves, but what the event reveals about segments of our artistic class.

When I read the headline, “Ethical Concerns Hit Oscar Races,” in Tuesday’s New York Times, my moral ears perked up.  It turns out some academy voters (the irony of it calling itself an “academy” does not escape me) have raised vehement moral scruples with some of this year’s award nominees. Some nominees are accused of having committed unpalatable moral wrongs. This year allegations of sexual abuse against Woody Allen have resurfaced and should (rightly) disqualify him from serious consideration, if his (in my view) unimpressive work were not enough. Sexual predators do not deserve public commendation of any kind. But last year moral scruples were directed toward non-criminal activity like the purported valorization of torture in Zero Dark Thirty and the gross underpayment of the visual effects artist for Life of Pi. If we were to retreat back to previous years I’m sure we’d find still further cinematic culprits.

The central argument of the NYT piece is consciously inconclusive. Reports Mr. Cieply, many are insisting that “academy members should take into account moral, ethical and social factors when marking a ballot or enforcing the rule.” Now, aside from the author’s apparent ignorance of the etymology of ‘ethics’ and ‘morals,’ this report is revealing for at least three reasons:

1.  It serves to highlight the perverse moral arbitrariness among many in the so-called “cultural elite.”  Voicing boisterous indignation over underpaid effects experts and disapproval merely of depicting torture scenes, to site only the examples raised in the piece, seem woefully selective. I mean, which sorts of violations deserve reprimand? What is the threshold for disciplinary voting? And why, for that matter, is voting influenced only by moral wrongdoing and not by moral right-doing? Wouldn’t moral heroism deserve a vote? Not for voters, apparently; evidence the academy takes its judicial endowment far too seriously. This arbitrariness also raises the natural question of just which ethic is being consulted in the first place: what is it, for example, that makes depicting torture morally wrong? So much of the outrage (and the article itself) blankly assumes that everyone shares the very same moral intuitions about the issues in question.

2. Glaring hypocrisy. These moral objections are raised all while the film industry promotes near-gratuitous violence and hyper sexuality, among a host of other “moral causes.” It raises vociferous outrage over some questionable moral concern and yet ignores, if not approves of, wholly egregious actions in its scripts and on its screens. With few exceptions the industry has deliberately attempted to establish itself as anti-ethical in all the traditional — and thus meaningful — senses of the word. I think St. Paul said something quite pointed about this in early passages of his letter to the Romans.

3. A strict division is drawn between artistic and moral judgments. Voters once judged the artistic merits of a film and its collaborators, but now it must also judge its moral perspicuity, or so the claim goes. This division however confounds the truth that artistic judgment itself is inherently moral. If we are asked to judge of the beautiful, and the beautiful is good, then we are being asked to make a distinctly moral judgment about the presentation of beauty. Desecration of a Botticelli, for example, is both a violation of property law and a profound moral tragedy, for society can no longer gaze upon it and find contemplative inspiration. And likewise, isn’t every academy voter asked to determine the virtuosity of each nominated performance? Was it truly excellent? Inquiring about excellency means being put in touch with moral categories of deliberation. But I shall have to leave expounding a theory of the sublime for another time!

Although I will not be watching the Oscars next month, I do wish to clear up some of the obvious moral confusion surrounding its acknowledgment rituals. I do not claim that the three observations above comprehends the perils of late-modern art, but they perhaps do begin to explain what can happen when arts are shorn of moral poignancy.

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stuntz     I returned from the Society of Christian Ethics annual meeting in Seattle this past weekend fatigued but inspired. It is encouraging to be reminded (yet again) how many thoughtful Christians continue to do pioneering work in the discipline. The meeting also affords ample opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, prompting further discussion over substantive and often illuminating ideas. Of all the conference proceedings, however, quality as they were, it was a book panel on William Stuntz’ posthumously published The Collapse of American Criminal Justice that has continued to occupy my thoughts since arriving home. But before summarizing some of the book’s more compelling arguments, a few things to know about Stuntz.

Prior to his untimely death in 2011, William Stuntz served as the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard University. He had previously served on the law faculty at the University of Virginia, where he was himself a student many years prior. Interestingly, Stuntz’ was also a devout Christian. His particular expression of faith has been described as “eclectically” evangelical, at least by those unaware that all thinking evangelicals are eclectic. We are at any rate fortunate to have this book to read at all. The cancer that eventually took his life so early (he died at 52) was painfully present during final stages of the book’s composition. And I do mean “painfully,” because the tumors that collected around his spinal column scourged his nervous system throughout the last years of life. Writing a book, any book, under these circumstances would have required heroic feats of courage.  In some sense, he was incarcerated by the pain.

The book poses two central questions: (i) how did the unraveling of the American criminal justice system happen? and (ii) how might the now dysfunctional system be repaired? A rather daunting pair of questions, if you ask me. But what does Stuntz have to say about them?

He begins by charting two “migrations.” The first relates to the droves of european immigrants entering America in the latter nineteenth century. The second relates to the northward migration of southern blacks during the twentieth century. Each migration shows a statistical spike in crime prosecution, and for revealing reasons. Perhaps the most important is the noticable infrequency of jury trials. The vast majority of criminal cases, it turns out, are not tried by jury because “nineteen of every twenty felony convictions are obtained by guilty plea, compared with roughly two-thirds as recently as the 1960′s.” The primary reason over 90% of offenders plead out is attributable in part to system’s intensely proceduralist structure. In old fashion jury trials the evidentiary threshold was surprisingly high, either acquitting a significant percentage of offenders entirely or else sentencing them with greater clemency. Strange as it may sound, “low crime rates, frequent acquittals, and small prison populations” were once the American norm.

This line of argument supports the constructive claim that criminal prosecution should be more localized and less centralized. The aggressive push to expedite trials and make an otherwise clunky system more efficient has had the adverse affect of hastening the accused behind bars. Now, some of the accused are undoubtedly guilty, and so we might appreciate some modest arraignment savings.  Proving criminal or malicious intent, too, was once central to any viable prosecution; now it is largely unnecessary. Add to this some restrictive sentencing guidelines and “mandatory minimums,” and the incarceration tally upticks dramatically. Again, these are all signs of a mechanical (i.e., Enlightenment era) system of procedural justice.

As the justice system has become more centralized and proceduralist, it is ethnic minorities, especially blacks, whose communities have been most fractured. Here is Stuntz in his own words:

“When prison populations turned up after 1972, the black share of those populations rose as well, from roughly 40 percent in the early 1970′s to half by the mid-1990′s. Prison sentences became an ordinary part of male life in many black communities: a rite of passage, even a badge of honor. Today, among white men, the imprisonment rate stands just under 500 per 100,000 population: the highest in American history by a large margin. Among black men, the number tops 3,000; among black men in their twenties and thirties; the figure exceeds 7,000. If present trends continue, one-third of black men with no college education will spend time in prison.”

Still more statistics could be supplied. But as Stuntz goes on to explain, “when the justice system seems legitimate to the young men it targets, those young men are more likely to follow the system’s rules.” When the opposite perception prevails, however, it is reasonable to expect wide disregard for rules. “Poor black neighborhoods thus receive the worst of both worlds: too much punishment in settings where punishment does modest good (as is probably true of imprisonment for drug crimes), and too little in cases where punishment is most needed to preserve social peace–meaning crimes of violence.”

More localized control over criminal justice would broker peace between two conflicting incentives shared by all neighborhoods, regardless of race or class. Everyone wishes to live in neighborhoods with safe streets to go about their business; they want to carry on with their lives normally and in relative peace. On the other hand, these same citizens “are loath to incarcerate their sons and brothers, neighbors and friends.” Thus, a desire for order and longing for freedom, though they may seem antithetical, can perhaps be reconciled at the local level.

A final point of interest here concerns Kantian and consequentialist theories of punishment. A Kantian theory will punish a crime in retribution for the offense; whereas a consequentialist theory, wishing to enhance benefits and minimize complaints, will punish so as also to deter others from offending. Stuntz focuses primarily on the latter, and raises several crucial objections addressing the elusiveness of predicting which punishments really deters criminal action. For example, “putting more offenders in prison cells increases the tangible price criminals pay for their crimes–but if done too often, it diminishes the intangible price by making a stay in the nearby house of corrections an ordinary life experience.” In other words, ironically, “more punishment may yield less deterrence.” This is but one argument in a much larger case against deterrence as a principle aim of punishment.

So, in support of the claim that the American criminal justice system is in fact unraveling, it would appear that “American levels of incarceration exceed the most plausible or comparative benchmarks by an enormous margin.” The system simply punishes too severely and too frequently.  Arriving at this point it is difficult to believe that all I have summarized above comes from the first two chapters alone!

Although I remain someone unconvinced by Stuntz’ localist proposal — I mean, how when is a proceeding sufficiently local? and how many neighborhoods are populated by citizens who really know one another? — it is nevertheless a deeply compelling and thus deeply troubling book. It comes strongly recommended.

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Christmas-Present-redBooks make for superb Christmas gifts. With approximately one week to the Big Day, I provide below a short list of book ideas for that person in your life with eclectic literary tastes. They range widely in both substance and price; some fiction and non-fiction, some scholarly and less scholarly.

 

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest or This is Water. In truth, anything by Wallace would be interesting, though I should add that Infinite Jest takes about 100 pages to get used to and then another 800 to complete. This is modernity criticism at its best. Hat tip here to my pastor, who has reminded me recently of how intriguing (and convicting!) Wallace’s thought can be.

Gary Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (New Haven, Yale Univ Press, 2013). I was pleasantly surprised to see this named a CT book of the year. See also his Sin: A History (Yale, 2010).

Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West. (Princeton, 2013). This is a dense and rather sweeping study of early Christian treatments (and understandings) of wealth and its use by one of the world’s most renowned scholars of the period.

Augustine, Confessions. An essential volume for any self-respecting bibliophile. Splurge for the better translated volumes; Hackett Publishing is hard to beat. I am committed to including this book on every recommendation list I ever write.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God. (Yale, 2013). I’m reading this book now and it is excellent so far. See also Doors of the Sea (Eerdmans) and Beauty of the Infinite. The latter title is for scholarly audiences.

Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. (Yale, 2013). A slightly more accessible title would be The Spirit of Early Christianity (also published by Yale).

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. But anything by Ellul is of highest quality. See also Violence and The Presence of the Kingdom, both are excellent.

The Early Church Fathers. All 38 volumes of the ante and post Nicene fathers are available at CBD for $230. These are en route to my home as I write thanks to my exceedingly generous parents! (http://www.christianbook.com/the-early-church-fathers-38-volumes/9781565630819/pd/30815)

Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books. An interesting collection of essays on an array of subjects from one of America’s best stylists. Plenty here to pique interest.

D. G. Hart, Calvinism: A History. Historians help remind us how contingent our suppositions can be, and suppositions about what constitutes “Calvinism” certainly deserves challenging.

Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. A marvelous introduction to one of Christian history’s greatest thinkers. Turner is a judicious interpreter of scholasticism, especially Thomas, and one can rely on him as a faithful guide.

William Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. For the attorney or armchair political theorist. This particular book was published posthumously after Stuntz untimely death in 2011.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. (Fortress, 2013) The much-anticipated final installment to Wright’s monumental series. This one is itself two-volumes, hence a slightly higher pricetag.

Two ‘Very Short Introduction’ titles: Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (much to disagree with here, admittedly) & Roger Scruton, Beauty.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Because its a classic and because it was probably misunderstood the first time it was read, if indeed it was really read the first time.

Karl Marx, On Capital or Grundrisse. For many, Marx is horrible and wrong and will live forever in the lowest pits of hell with Brutus and Judas, but there are nevertheless a few accidents of thought worth pondering in these texts. Probably best suited for the contrarian in your life. For an excellent biographical introduction see Isaiah Berlin’s Marx. 

Plato, Republic or (why not?) Collected Works (get the Hackett edition). And while you’re at it pick up Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. (Fortress Press). A must. I am usually flexible as to publishers/editions but in this case I really must insist upon the Fortress edition. The footnotes alone, linking certain lines of thought with sermons, letters, and other work are worth the added price.

Wrinkle: A non-book! Get them a subscription to Mars Hill Audio (https://marshillaudio.org/). Key Myers has been conducting and producing high quality interviews with Christian intellectuals for many years now. Makes for a fantastic gift.

I should think at least one (or all!) of these would be much appreciated!

 

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Since accepting a position at an evangelical institution two and a half  years ago, I have been forced to think a great deal about evangelical ethics. I remain unconvinced that evangelical ethics needs doing, if not simply because I cannot see how Christian ethics in general can remain distinctly Christian without also being essentially evangelical. Two moral concepts in particular have occupied a great deal of my attention lately: (i) conscience and a semi-new rule in evangelical ethics, (ii) gospel-centeredness. I explored each of the concepts (far too) provisionally in a recent paper delivered at ETS in Baltimore. Here is a short excerpt:

Seeing as we are occupied with misshapen understandings of conscience within evangelical ethics, I wish to draw attention here to the pietistic hue idealism tends to take within the broader evangelical experience. Pietism, you will recall, disproportionately stresses the importance of God’s presence in the heart and the moral feelings resulting from that presence.[1] Maintenance of severe moral purity for the purpose of giving God clean accommodations is itself the longstanding ethic of pietism. Proper self-inspection results in reliable self-projection. When members of our churches insist on the absolute relevance of personal “authenticity” they are not channeling Heidegger— if they read Heidegger they would know it is not possible to be unconsciously authentic—rather they are channeling this deep pietistic impulse to fuse individual moral feeling with action.

To illustrate, consider the following “evangelical” description of the church community: “the ‘true church’ is simply a ‘religious community of free agents, who ‘rejoice in their community, in their pure fellowship in which they would exhibit and communicate only their innermost existence….”[2] True religion is to “have life and know life in immediate feeling.”[3] Perhaps we could capture this with the popular cliché, “spiritual but not religious.” Now, I confess to misleading you with these quotations; the author is not “evangelical” in the sense expected but is none other than Frederick Schleiermacher, and in his typically romantic enthusiasm! Schleiermacher’s religion of the heart is in many respects the inevitable romantic synthesis of traditional pietism and Kantian idealism. The brand of pietism manifesting itself in contemporary evangelical ethics scarcely resembles the eighteenth century renewal movement but is rather Schleiermachian ethics reincarnated: “Religion is not knowledge of either the world or of God,” but a powerful “intuition” or “affection”; its foundation is isolated to the everyday experience of unique individuals.[4]

Perhaps it is an accident of history that this powerful interior feeling became identified with conscience, perhaps not. Either way, evangelicalism’s fixation with inner feelings of devotion represents a startling assimilation of pietistic interiority. So pervasive is the assumption that evangelical ethics often finds it difficult to distinguish and prioritize the feelings it affirms, to the troubling end of believers identifying faithfulness with the “feeling” of divine presence, or of “rightness” with confidence. Pietism energized by a newfound idealism was almost bound to synthesize into theological romanticism. That inevitability is almost as sure as the new impulsiveness that would come to dominate late modern religious experience. For a reminder of desire’s notoriously unreliable service as a moral criterion one need look no further than the increasingly sensational doxological practices in contemporary evangelical churches.

Yet conscience is irreducible to affective impulse. Attention to the etymology of the term cautions against strict sentimentalization. Conscience means literally “with-knowing” and thus in the biblical sense, particularly that given by the Apostle Paul, signifies moral self-consciousness, or wakefulness, a definition that endures even in the early church fathers. John Chrysostom, for example, appeals always and everywhere to the judicial facility of conscience.[5] Conscience enables one to see and judge oneself; it prompts affections but is not itself an affection, hence the experience of guilt when convicted of sin, say, or of being overcome by joy on reception of a providential gift.

Crucially, conscience is not eligible for possession. That some may conceive of it as a possession is evidence of just how thoroughly economized our understanding of personal agency has become. Thanks in large part to Locke and his commentators, modern man often presumes to own his conscience in some way, when, in fact, the scriptures and the theological tradition have no concept of self-possession, much less possession of conscience. In fact, this economized anthropology seems to have helped facilitate the rapid transition from a judicial conscience that looks internally to the conditions of justice within the subject to an executive conscience personified by the individual will. The notion of “liberty of conscience” in modern theology is perhaps the most glaring illustration of this transition.

Conscience cannot be controlled or otherwise usurped by another person. Only the Self can impair or estrange its own conscience. Among the more sinister temptations for any person, but especially the Christian, is to assert conscience as a sort of guarantor of right moral action. Take, for example, a small caucus of laypeople professing bitter disagreement with pastoral staff over some displeasing ministry practice. Their demands unmet and frustrations intensifying, they resort to civil courts for arbitration of this internal disagreement and do so on grounds of “free conscience”—they feel positively compelled to right this wrong by any means possible, even to the point of litigation. Nevermind the biblical prohibition of bringing brothers to court—this is a matter of conscience! And so the witness of the church is tarnished by appeal to “principle.” When, exactly, this changeover from conscience as judge to conscience as executor originated historically is difficult to tell, though it is undoubtedly Kant who formalized the theoretical terms of this transmutation. Perhaps blame lies at the feet of voluntarists, as has been suggested by many, but that is for another time.

Quite distinct from the tendency of feeling to commandeer actions, moral reasoning, on the other hand, is a “reflexive, not an absolute, intellectual operation.”[6] Individual conscience cannot be separated from moral knowledge in Christ, which means knowledge must take the following shape: (i) it must be “knowledge of things in their relations to the totality of things,”; (ii) because knowledge of the whole, it “must be knowledge from within,” to participate in what is known; (iii) it must be “knowledge from man’s position in the universe”; and lastly (iv) “such knowledge must be ignorant of the end of history.”[7]  What we know, in other words, is the order of creation and “true knowledge of the moral order is knowledge ‘in Christ’.”[8] The best way to avoid involvement in worldliness and to resist collusion with worldly powers is, paradoxically, remaining open to the world as it is given to us. We accommodate the world; the world does not accommodate us. Thus judging of our own worldliness requires understanding the shape of the world itself, its basic constellation of features here and now on our own moral horizon.

Especially prescient on this point is Karl Barth’s treatment of Conscience arriving towards the end of his Ethics:

God’s command strikes me as my own strictly moment-by-moment co-knowledge of the necessity of what I should do or not doing its relation to his coming kingdom. In this concrete fellowship of mine with God the Redeemer it claims me and I have to listen to it.[9]

Conscience means knowing “what God alone can know as he who is good, as the giver of the command and the judge of its fulfillment…[and so]…of the goodness or badness of the act which I am about to commit or upon which I look back as already committed.” These points from Barth are pivotal because they demonstrate the falsity of possessing a conscience and therefore of claiming executive capacities. Being our own judge is doomed to presumptuous hypocrisy unless conscience participates in, and is authorized by, something outside itself, just as civil judges sit under the authority of the rule of law. Conscience is under authority and so must be obeyed and never asserted.

Since returning to the U.S. two and a half years ago I have noted with considerable interest some recurring appeals to a new rule for evangelical ethics: “Gospel-centeredness.”  I have reasoned this abstraction inside-out and have come to the provisional conclusion that it must in part refer to Christian living that steers between the extreme poles of liberty and legalism. If you wish to imagine it similarly as striking a mean between excess and deficiency, then please feel free. One of the stranger developments emerging from observation of this new rule is implementation of new programs for social justice. Exactly why the love commandment is morally less suitable, at present, remains unclear. At any rate, the novelty of this rule confronts us with a central question: can the Gospel serve as a moral rule for action?

It would appear not, for rules tell us what is to be done by imposing specific limitations on general circumstances. The gospel motivates and orients moral action, and the biblical rule for defining the course gospel witness must follow is the love commandment. Love of God and neighbor is what makes the gospel an object of action. If we were to make the gospel into a rule we would lose sight of the Truth the good news announces. To illustrate this point, when mission agencies defend falsifying the backgrounds and platforms of their commissioned agents in order to gain entrance to restricted (“closed”) countries on the grounds that the gospel as an end justifies the policy, they have in doing so turned the gospel into a rule (i.e., rule-utlilitarianism): one may operate under false pretense if the gospel is their end.

Notice, “go therefore and make disciples of the nations” is a command Jesus gives to his followers and the effect of obeying that command is proclamation of good news. If, alternatively, Jesus would have told his followers to go and lead gospel-centered lives he would have been giving them no thinkable moral principle for deciding or acting, and he knew that acting according the rules already laid down could not fail to bear witness to the good news he himself realized. Our actions may or may not bear witness to the gospel—to the good news of redemption in Christ—and because of that contingency the gospel must never become a rule for action but serve only as an end which other rules direct us toward. As Paul Ramsey once suggested, “by being immoderate about this one thing, namely Christian care for the neighbor’s needs, Christian ethics is on principle alternatively more lenient (more free from regulation) and more severe with itself (more subject to command) than any other ethic.”[10] The paradox of the love commandment is that it shouldn’t have to be a commandment!

In thinking specifically of how the adjective “evangelical” qualifies “ethic” you may recall the suggestive opening lines of Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order:

the foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be a Christian ethics.[11]

Evangelical ethics is therefore nothing more than Christian ethics properly understood as testifying to the good news of Jesus Christ. Christian ethics displays its evangelical foundations to the extent that it acknowledges Christ’s commands as Euangelion, as good news, for it is apparent that Christian ethics not only arises from the gospel of Jesus Christ but also prescribes the intelligible form the Gospel takes in the world. Repent and believe in the gospel (Mk 1:14-15) confronts us as Christ’s command. The Gospel carries inescapable moral force; a message to believe and to obey. The news, after all, is good news, and thus a qualitative distinction is placed on receiving and proclaiming it. He who has eyes to see, let him see, and he who has ears to hear, let him hear.  It is the task of conscience to see and hear God’s commands, and in doing so faithfully apply the message it has been seen and heard. Conscience constrains and never liberates, governing the soul so that every activity carries evangelical potency and thus can only be taken as declaration of good news. In saying as much we hope to echo the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 1: “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.”



[1] Terry Pinkard, German Philosophy, 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 149-50.

[2] Frederick Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 134. See also Pinkard, p.153.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Chrysostom, Homily to Those Who had not Attended the Assembly.

[6] O’Donovan, RMO, p.76.

[7] Ibid., 76-81.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Karl Barth, Ethics. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 475.

[10] Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980).

[11] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 11.

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    What is a generation? Conventionally it is thought to be a collection of individuals born around the same period of time. These so-called generations are often carved artificially into thirty year blocks. Why this parceling occurs remains unclear, presumably it has something to do with the average age of adult fertility and procreation. In contemporary debates of generational distinctions, which can roam rather indiscriminately across disciplines, the idea of a generation has come to represent far more than mere statistical variants between father and son, grandfather and grandson; far more than the passing of old and the bearing of new. A tacit ethos has been applied to each generation. Each unique generation is thought to pursue various goods and evils in different ways and to different degrees. Like waves lapping the shore line, generations appear and recede under similar and dissimilar conditions, constituted by common and uncommon properties. The moral proclivities of a “generation” cannot be comprehended.

But let me get right to the point: I find the very idea of a “generation,” a collectivity organized according to its moral exhibitions, entirely contrived and intellectually untenable. In saying so I do not mean to suggest that a Boomer generation, for instance, does not exist. Servicemen and women returned from war and procreated, spawning a population increase of notable report. The anthropological fact of procreation is not here in question. What I doubt, rather, is that an ethos can be applied to the Boomer generation, or to any other generation for that matter. The fact that a convenient percentage of Boomers relocated to the suburbs does not confirm or disconfirm that Boomers are exceptionally individualistic, anti-urban, or racially prejudice. Perhaps such characteristics will apply to some Boomers, perhaps some will not. Who knows? But what would the statistical threshold be for attaching a definitive ethos to this generation? When is a tendency or characteristic properly demonstrative? When, exactly, does a generation acquire virtues or vices? How is it to be reckoned praiseworthy or blameworthy? Questions like these are unanswerable using generation-think.

I have not read the flurry of posts commenting on the current generation’s purported disappointment with the church. I do not really need to read them. Once a special problem or question is attributed sweepingly to a “generation” I can be assured that the arguer has stepped in the trap of generation-thinking. Generation-think is what philosophers refer to as a logical fallacy of composition. Look it up! The arguer observes some “tendency” and chooses to amplify the obvious by brandishing an entire “generation” with moral judgments inferred from it. I will risk an example, realizing any example of this fallacy will appear comically superficial: Alex Rodriguez violated league rules by using PEDs and is a cheat; therefore, anyone Rodriguez’ age playing baseball is also a cheat. At least one labor of good thinking is the marking of distinctions, generation-think suppresses crucial logical distinctions.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, I am a late member of Generation X. I have read up on what this categorization implies and what I am therefore supposed to be like as a person. I do not find myself accurately portrayed: I am not suspicious of authority out of habit; I do not resent my parents; I am not a great believer in progress. I fail to understand, moreover, how my classification within this demographic enables others to better understand me. If armchair sociologists rely exclusively on generation-think, they will indeed never understand me. They will only ever understand the way I am supposed to be as elaborated by popular theory.

As it relates to church attendance, at any rate, I rather think that younger people–not the younger generation, which is nonsense–either do not find attendance especially necessary (i.e., they do not care) or else find nothing exceptional about the church’s gathering, nothing which sets it apart from other consumptive options competing ferociously for attention. Whether they do or do not attend has nothing at all to do with their supposed generational identity; any apparent connection there would be purely accidental. One does not gain near the amount of social capital by attending church as was once possible: that reason alone is enough to account for decreased church attendance. Yet further causes for “decline” could be cataloged with relative ease.

“Culture” and “generation” are not equivocal. We may use “generation” helpfully to ease our references to family lineage or to parse contrasts between descendants, but once we impute cultural content to a generation we have immediately slipped into error. Peter Jennings’ famous boast in “America’s greatest generation” (the ‘silent generation’ of WWII) many years ago is exemplary in this regard. With stunning self-assurance his news special sought to depict a swath of the American population as qualitatively better than other swaths; in fact the inferior swaths should honor the superior swath. Now, I am, of course, a strong advocate for honoring one’s elders; however, I defer to them not because they belong to any one privileged generation, but because they carry a seasoned dignity deserving my respect and because I am commanded to do so in scripture. Which qualities should the “greatest” generation hold? Which should they reject? Jennings certainly doesn’t know! He might have had a clue, however, were he better familiar with Paul’s letter to to the Philippians, where he implores his flock to remain blameless amidst such a “crooked and perverse generation.” And indeed which one hasn’t been? Please relieve me of my ignorance! I grasp in vain for criteria to resolve these questions. One will either have to illumine them for me or else generate them from scratch!

When waves crash against the shore line it is they that are fundamentally changed–becoming lubrication for the beach sand and then quickly absorbed into the outgoing tide. The mistake of generation-think is to obsess over the wave when in fact the problem is the water!

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SCOTUS  It came to my attention several weeks ago that two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), intend to introduce legislation requiring the Supreme Court to televise its proceedings.  Their principal argument for this legislation is that the American public deserves open access to important, politically formative cases brought before the court. The senators claim that televising court proceedings would promote increased transparency. It is likewise believed that increasing transparency somehow lends greater credibility to the court’s decisions, or if not greater credibility, then at the very least appeases the curiosity of interested citizens. Notably under reported in this development is the niggly fact that no justice seems to support such a measure. Some, in fact, have testified publicly before congressional hearings in direct opposition to it.

Requiring the high court to televise its proceedings carries two troublesome assumptions: (i) that televising itself is a transparent medium and that (ii) transparency necessarily strengthens the institutional relation the court shares with the American public. It is not at all clear that televising, as a method, establishes or fosters social transparency. Nor is it plausible that any so-called transparency achieved through television broadcasts would bolster the public’s confidence in the Court; it is equally doubtful to inspire its justices to improve their performance.  A few examples should support these claims.

If the effect of televising the congressional floor debates or its specially convened hearings show for anything, it is that televising civic officials does not necessarily improve the quality of representation. Most speeches from the floor are plainly unexceptional. The podium represents an opportunity to grandstand for constituents; a pulpit for self-justificatory speeches full of misdirection. Notice also how the interior arrangement of each congressional floor itself is inconducive to serious debate. For evidence, compare US congressional rooms to those of Parliament in the UK. There parliamentary rooms seem to have been designed from the outset to encourage hearty political debate. On each side of the room are raised benches facing each other, moderated by a Speaker tasked with keeping order.  The room itself looks like a place for debate.  Our congressional halls in the US, on the other hand, are designed in the mold of amphitheaters, conducive to speeches (mostly unheard these days, given the empty seats [televised!]) but not to sustained debate. No, congressional debates predominantly take place behind closed doors, so that the votes cast as representatives are cast publicly and on the merits of the legislation negotiated privately beforehand.

Either way, even if we set this architectural contrast aside, it is not at all clear that televising congressional floors has increased its transparency. If anything it has forced representatives to conceal more than they ought. Rather than serving as a window into congressional life, the omnipresent cameras have forced representatives to shutter themselves up.  Every representative becomes two persons–the one before camera and the one off camera. I’d venture to claim congress functioned with far greater transparency before the introduction of cameras to its venues than it ever did after.

Introduction of cameras to the high court, where impartiality is supposed to be privileged above all else, would be even more politically disastrous. We would all of a sudden be right to worry about judicial compromise. The impact of televising congress has been far more forceful on representatives than on the public, and the same would be true of the Court if required to televise its own hearings. Instead of giving the most pointed questions or rebuttals, the justices must now be concerned with theatrics: did they embellish the point satisfactorily? Was the facial expression too contrived? Etc., etc. Political optics are so unwieldy in this media-controlled world the justices would invariably forfeit a certain degree of public legitimacy. To sharpen the point: it would no longer be adequate for them to reach a true, reasonable judgment on the merits of a case, but they must do so before cameras in a manner acceptable to the American public. This new obligation foists upon the court distractions and divided allegiances it has otherwise staved for over two centuries. We do not need judicial stars, but wise and able judges of Right.

Television is an interesting, if beguiling social conditioner. Introducing it to the Court would accomplish quite the opposite of transparency, despite senatorial guarantees, and de-stablize the institutional respect the court enjoys with the American public. As Neil Postman made resolutely clear many years ago: television is not merely a medium of the message, it is itself a powerful message.

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Paul Ramsay Princeton University

Paul Ramsay
Princeton University

Paul Ramsey’s critical report on the events surrounding the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and State is both a product of the times and, as is the tendency with good thinking, a strikingly pertinent contemporary reflection. The title of the book in which we find that report, Who Speaks for the Church?, poses for us an ecclesial question worthy of careful consideration. Who indeed does speak for the Church? In the case of the ecumenical Geneva Conference, a select group of churchmen and women from around the world supposed themselves authorized to reach definitive judgments upon the way political authority should be wielded in the international community of modern nation states. The presumptuousness of the counsel is everywhere criticized by Ramsey.  It could never really have achieved what it set out to achieve, nor for that matter did it achieve what it in fact thought it achieved. The sheer ambitions of the conference were what inevitably undercut the venture’s momentum.

Ramsey’s book is aimed principally at the attempt of conference-goers to formulate real policy agendas which magistrates could use to replace the unjust, outdated, or otherwise disliked policy of the moment. It is a critique of ecumenism’s political aspiration as much as it is a critique of the actual policy yielded from the proceedings, which Ramsey finds ill-informed and rather outside the political purview of the Church anyway. Nevertheless, despite this contextual focus, we find in Ramsey’s account several illuminating criteria applicable to the Church’s deliberation over its public pronouncements. You see, participants of the Geneva Conference sought to offer a series of pronouncement on global affairs from what they thought was the securest ground. The question however is not whether the Church can make public pronouncements, but who precisely is to make them and what sorts of pronouncements in fact correspond to Christian faith. As is typical of Ramsey the following criteria, which I for the most part paraphrase, address both the manner and content of ecclesial deliberations. The index is by no means comprehensive. How indeed are we thinking about our public pronouncements?

(A) Policies announced must be concrete and actionable; ie., spell out how the policy might be enacted and followed by societies.

(B) Purpose of any pronouncement from the Church (or representatives) ought to be broadening and deepening of public debate on urgent questions.

(C) Dissent ought not to be (politically) partisan.

(D) Pronouncements, and the gatherings to formulate pronouncements, should in principal be less presumptuous. Much political knowledge (esp. international) is beyond the Church’s ken.

(E) Speak specifically upon what can reasonably be spoken upon and still be the Church.

(F) Maintain distinction between the moral and political insights of Christianity and the competence we (the Church) have to exercise political authority itself.

(G) Church must resist temptation to over-stress or overly rely upon ‘experts.’

(H) Pronouncements should help regain understanding that it is the Christian life and action we are trying to clarify, and help one another clarify, in today’s world.

(I) If churches have any role in aiding magistrates contemplate the final ends of their political action, it is “in cultivating the political ethos of a nation and informing the conscience of the statesman. The church’s business is not policy formation.”

(J) Christian address to the world—its Witness—ought never to be identified with a number of specific partisan positions that may or may not be correct. We must be on our guard against sectarianism, for its root, as the word itself suggests, is secular.

(K) Resist pronouncing on matters which the church possesses less (or inferior) knowledge than the magistrate.

(L) Church does not recommend but clarifies the grounds upon which the statesman must put forth his own particular pronouncements. It clarifes what “may” be done.

(M) Church has non-magisterial form, seeing that the governing authority does not secure its functions inadequately or wrongly.

We might collect these criteria into a summary of three: (1) Clarify the grounds of government biblically/theologically; (2) Articulate structural elements of nation; and (3) Inform the ethos and conscience of nation. Throughout Ramsey’s report the witness of the Church is paramount. All pronouncements must support the ongoing mission of the Church. And aren’t the the people of God supposed to be quick to listen and slow to speak?

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books       For those noble students who choose to do some reading of their own initiative this summer, I commend a few books that may be of interest. Read whichever titles strike your fancy (though I hope you will read them all!). In no particular order:

 

Augustine, Enchiridion
Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works
Jonathan Edwards, Charity and its Fruits
Henry Chadwick, The Early Church
Josef Pieper, Leisure
A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
Karl Barth, Prayer
Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One
FICTION! Something old and something new: You choose!
The whole of the New Testament
Pascal, Pensees
Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

 

There’s a somewhat eclectic start. Now make haste!

M.A.

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