Choices and Inclinations 2: Imparting a Moral Vision

This post is the third in a little series on college students and the worrisome choices they make.  I’ve been thinking about the naive anthropology (theorizing about human beings, what we’re made of, how we’re designed, what are our problems and difficulties) that drives policy in higher education.

The “bad choices” mantra that I’ve been criticizing is based on a view of humans as rational and autonomous, at least in private matters.  Rationality is understood as the ability to exercise the right mental calculus in pursuit of one’s interests, most often described in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.  For example, as I have shared in other posts, the college party culture reveals the risks students are willing to take – the costs they are potentially willing to pay – for the sake of the benefits they receive.  Thomas Van der Venn’s sociological analysis in his book Getting Wasted (http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Wasted-College-Students-Drink/dp/0814788327/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374941662&sr=8-1&keywords=getting+wasted), which I have mentioned elsewhere, ably describes this phenomenon.  He shows clearly how students can consider even the grossest, most disgusting, unpleasant parts of party culture (sickness, loss of bodily control, hangovers, blacking out) as a social benefit, because they do it with their friends, they support each other, they take care of each other.

University officials try to counter this moral culture with a different cost-benefit approach.  We deploy increasingly sophisticated training sessions that dole out useful information, assuming that more of the right information (more cleverly communicated) will help student makes better choices.  I applaud the fact that schools are developing recovery communities on campus and helping students with getting started toward recovery.  I’m not against this practice.  Certainly people need useful information and I can imagine that for those students already sensitized to the dangers, or who are otherwise attuned, the information does prevent some bad choices.  But for too many students, more information and training is wasted on them.  Mandatory training sessions better not be the only tools in our toolkit.  We need an explicitly moral vision.

So, let’s try a little exercise in moral reasoning.  Let’s try an old fashioned word – “lust” – to get at the inclinations that pervert and mystify our choices.  Not the sexual kind of lust.  Everybody knows that already, thanks to cheap romance novels and porn.  Let’s think of lust as any kind of disordered desire.  That the desire is disordered is known as such because we place it against an accepted, trusted moral reference point.  Let’s try lust for glory and, since I grow increasingly concerned about the condition and fate of young men, I’ll use something familiar to them.

Why does a young man drink so hard, so heavily, to the point of alcohol poisoning?  One of the reasons is glory.  He wants to prove that he’s man enough to handle it.  If he can prove that he’s man enough, he’ll have the approbation (glory) of his peers.  He will have shown that he can rise to the challenge, that he can take it, that he can stand with the best of them.  He’ll be a man among men.  He’ll have respect, status, standing.  This is the benefit that they desire.

(Sidebar: For the sake of clarity of comparison, one of my expert colleagues shows a Power Point slide to indicate students’ motives for drinking “back then” in the 60s and 70s and students’ motives now.  “Back then,” students generally drank to “get a buzz.”  They could overdo it, of course, but the motive was basically to feel loose and sociable without getting out of control.   These days, a major motive is to drink until you’re plastered [“shit-faced” as students call it], out of control, on the verge of unconsciousness – but you’re still standing.  Or maybe not.)

Lust for glory is not the same as desire for acceptance.  Desire for acceptance is the normal, natural, appropriate desire of a social animal like humans.  Lust for glory involves not only acceptance, but distinction, to set oneself apart, to be known for the ability to do something.  Desire for distinction can be a good thing, if properly-ordered.  But in the hard partying college culture, it isn’t.  Lust, therefore, is a desire disordered.  (What causes the disorder?  That’s a question for another time.)  The only check to the seduction of lust for glory is a proper moral vision and the moral courage to stay true to a better end.  It takes vision, modeling and mentoring from more experienced people, and practice, to become morally courageous.

The cure for the lust for glory thus involves imparting a vision to young men of their better selves, to appeal to that which lies already in their hearts.  To do so requires honesty and transparency.  We all struggle with disordered desires, but we also know other desires, created into us by God, part of the image of God in every human being.  Young men feel and know this, too.  Let’s help them think about it, grapple with it, try it on.

We don’t impose this moral vision.  We impart it.  And students (young men) catch it.  They don’t catch it much through training and information distribution.  They catch it through relationships – real, organic, and intentional, though not overly-structured.  Maybe it’s a bit too simplistic to say, but I think it makes an important point: young men become good by hanging around good men whose transparency shows that goodness truly lies in their hearts.

If all we do is train and dispense information, we will mis-form, de-form, college students.  This is a serious danger to which we in higher education seem blind.  It takes more than training and information.  It takes a clear, consistent, practiced moral vision, rooted in relationships.  May colleges and universities find appropriate ways to re-instill this vision and the relevant practices.  And may United Methodist-related schools model the way.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. James Lung says:

    Steve: Our collect this morning includes this: “Almighty God, You alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant Your people grace to love what You command and desire what You promise;”.

    I would be lost if called upon to help a young man develop a moral vision oriented towards the good without a theological vision ordered by sin and grace.

    Aren’t you really just re-cycling the now-forgotten efforts values curricula now lying in a dusty corner somewhere in central offices all the country, suggesting a mentoring model instead of small group sharing?

  2. James Lung says:

    Steve: The “values curriculum” that I referred to is actually the “character education” fad that swept through the public schools a while back. Sorry for the memory lapse.

    • Hi James,

      Yes, I’m familiar with the character education curricula to which you’re referring. It’s still around, though morphing into different forms. I need one more post to finish this little series, but I’ll go ahead and share a bit of what I plan for that post. Yes, we need a theological Reference Point – the Triune God – as the aim and arbiter of the moral vision. I think that is what really transforms a life. But I also think there are some relative transformations for which we can rejoice. For example, the higher power of AA might be one’s group or sponsor, according to AA’s philosophy (shall we call it). It can be God, but it doesn’t have to be. The 12 steps of AA impart a moral vision for those who recognize their need for fundamental behavioral change. So, I can rejoice when an alcoholic achieves sobriety and is able to stay the course.

      Two caveats, however: (1) I would want to be clear that having this view of things does not equate to a Christian’s understanding of the one Triune God. They are not the same and they do not address the same concerns, even if there is some overlap. (2) Likewise, steps toward sobriety (or other moral improvement) call forth a kind of chain of inference toward the realization that there must be an Ultimate Reference Point and this chain begins to call into question the need to encounter IT/Him.

      Regarding college students, in my last post on this little series, I’ll try to address exactly the concern you raise. It’s one of the reasons I think church related colleges and universities have such an important role to play in higher education.

  3. Tom Lambrecht says:

    Excellent series, Steve. You are addressing some tough issues. What you suggest in this post sounds like old-fashioned Christian discipleship. The church has failed to disciple our youth adequately. So they are vulnerable to making bad choices. Even those who have been discipled need to continue the process as they grow through their young adult years. (Actually, we all need to continue it throughout life!)

  4. I’m starting to get it. “Bad choice(s)” misses the point. What the culture calls a bad choice is really “fruit of a poisonous tree.” The Fourth Amendment, as currently construed, requires that not only the evidence wrongfully seized in the course of an unlawful search be excluded from a trial, but also the evidence gained as a result (fruit) of the unlawful search.

    And, of course, here we encounter Jesus. We know a tree by its fruit.

    Your challenge , in ministry to college youth, is not to somehow monitor the fruit (choices) but to mold the tree.

    And, we return full circle to Augustine: We choose according to our strongest desire.

    Aboriginally we were presented with two trees. Knowledge of good and evil, or life.

    • Yes, James! That’s precisely what I was trying to convey. College students need to know that there’s much more going on that just whether they make good or bad choices. Other forces lurk below the surface of those choices, and unless we pay attention to those deeper matters, we will never understand the “bad choices” we make, or how to change.

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