(For the next few months, I have added responsibilities in my work at Southern Methodist University.  Hence, my blogging will be even more spasmodic than usual for a while.)


Fearing Moral Talk

With this post I’ll bring to a close, for now, this little series on college students and what they show us about the naive anthropology of our popular and academic cultures.  I won’t detail them here, but there are dreadfully serious consequences to this moral naivete in our institutional policies and practices.  My major concern, then, is for college students to have better and more consistent access to useful moral deliberation than so many seem to have right now.

To re-cap a bit from the earlier posts: we often talk about bad choices rather than bad people.  “There are no bad people, only bad choices.”  I agreed to the grain of truth in this claim.  The problem is, it does not help young people think deeply about the murky motives, the tangled desires, the mixed purposes with which they (and we older folk) sometimes struggle.  A good dose of biblical, Augustinian thinking on the power of sin as disordered desire is in order.

But our thinking must go beyond this point.  In order to understand why those mixed motives and wilding desires can so quickly lead us astray, we have to have a sense of what “astray” actually means.  If bad choices come from a bad heart (so to speak), what makes the heart bad?  To get at what I’m trying to say, let me tell of an experience I had with some students and a colleague a few weeks ago.  It stands out in my mind as the most enriching, exhilarating conversation I’ve had with students in a long time.

Every college in America has its strengths and weaknesses and we (Southern Methodist University) have ours.  Our weakness right now is that we seem to lack community.  We don’t really know what binds us together, even though we use a lot of the right-sounding terms.  Among our strengths are our student leaders and they are concerned to solve this problem of lack of campus unity.  I was privileged to sit with a few a while back, along with a colleague, to work on a preamble to our university code of conduct.  Our two most recent Student Senate presidents, the one immediately past and the current one, have taken the lead on efforts to unify our school’s culture.

So, what unites the members of an academic community?  What are the shared values?  This was the topic of conversation with our students that day.  In the document we were studying we found words like “academic freedom” and “intellectual integrity.”  Again, these terms are quite familiar to people in higher education.  I threw out the notion of “moral courage.”  It takes moral courage to lead in upholding communal values.  It is very difficult for any of us to hold our peers accountable to our shared values when they offend them, but this is exactly what leaders have to do.  They have to speak up, stand up and stick to those values regardless of social pressures which are strong on college campuses.

The students liked the idea of moral courage, but struggled with the word “moral.”  It sounds too, well, religious.  And the one thing we absolutely must not do is to impose a particular religious viewpoint on someone (notice the moral principle here?).  I pointed out, after a very stimulating interchange that we had been using moral language all along.  Intellectual integrity is a moral value, as is freedom.  You can’t not (‘scuse the double negative) talk about moral values when you talk about communal values.

Moral talk is therefore inevitable.  The problem is, we have all but taken away moral language from our students, because no one wants to sound moralistic, judgmental, narrow-minded, etc.  So we use moral language all the time without knowing it as such.

Sooner or later, however, we inevitably start asking: Where do such values originate?  Where do we get the idea that freedom is a good thing and that honesty-in-freedom is, too?

Moral Talk Leads to Theological Talk?

While traveling last weekend, I listened to a book, The Price of Civilization, by Jeffrey D. Sachs.  Though the book deals with large-scale economic problems, it is profoundly moral.  Sachs uses the Buddhist concept of mindfulness to offer solutions.  I have my quibbles with that word, though it does communicate.  More to the point of this post, he also made reference to a work by Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who, looking for an inter-religious way to solve problems, employs the notion of “our common humanity” as a starting point for positive change.  If we could but recognize our common humanity across the usual divisions, we might make some progress on peace and justice.

But “our common humanity,” by itself, tells us nothing.  In fairness to Kung, I’m getting this idea filtered through how Sachs uses it, but it does illustrate the point I want to make.  “Our common humanity” is rife with assumptions.  If I could just get to know you as a fellow human being; if you cease being “other” to me and become someone known, then you and I will be able to get along in peace, is a huge assumption.  Sound familiar?  It’s a wonderful sentiment.

The truth is, once you and I get to know each other better, we might actually hate each other.  “Our common humanity” might turn out to be grounds for conflict rather than community.  “Our common humanity” has to be grounded, therefore, in a further a priori, some principle that guides me to recognize what about you demands my respect, even my love, or, short of that, to call me to live in goodwill with you if not unity.

One important part of this picture, I think, is that none of the pre-existent principles render as of merely human origin.  This is part of the problem with “our common humanity.”  There must be a transcendent starting point – an origin outside human invention – for any of these good sentiments to work long-term and large-scale.  Morality comes from theology and theology begins with divine revelation.

I know that I’m stating an ancient idea and I know that many intelligent people disagree with what I’m saying.  There are several accounts on offer that expressly avoid religion or deity as a source for moral reasoning.  From my armchair philosopher’s position, I find none of these attempts very convincing, all suffering from the problem of vicious self-reference.

And so, the God question looms – always.  Moral values, I believe, are objectively real (this is an idea not limited to  Christian thought) and moral questions call for exploration of other, theological, questions.  And this all eventually leads me to the good old-fashioned notion of the fear/reverence of God.  What would happen to some of our conversations with students if we engaged in exploring with them the strong possibility that their very moral sense is a gift from the God who created them?  And that that God has an opinion about how we live?  And, furthermore, that that same God has revealed not only moral principles but his [sic] very own Self?  Which means we are not completely adrift in a sea of confusion.  We are not left to make it all up by ourselves.  We have a Guide who not only shows us the way, but Is the Way.

Thus, if we trace our steps back to the beginning of this series with my pondering about the “bad choices” hermeneutic, I hope we can see the salutary possibility for self-understanding by re-engaging the idea that God actually speaks.  I know myself best when I know my Maker, Who is not silent, as Francis Schaeffer once told us.  And though I struggle with murky motives and perverse inclinations, I’m not blown away by them.  I am not destroyed by them.  And by God’s grace, I can master them.  And surely, that would be a good thing for our students to know – by experience.

Semi-Final Thoughts: Bad Choices and Divine Revelation

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