May 2011 Archives

grabill_rediscovering_the_natural_law_in_reformed_theologicals_ethics_700px_interspire__66274__81253_zoom.jpg From 9-5 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week I had an intense time of reading, thinking, and discussion with the following professors at Fordham University:

Dr. Barbara Andolsen, James Buckman University Chair and professor of theology, Dr. Michael Baur, associate professor of philosophy and an adjuct professor of law, Dr. Miguel Alzola, assistant professor of business, Dr. Jeanne Flavin, associate professor of sociology, Dr. Keith Cruise, assistant professor of psychology and The honorable Michael A. Corriero, executive director and founder of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice and former NY State Judge.

It was a discussion about theories and applications in contemporary ethics covering topics like incarcerating drug addicted pregnant women, the juvenile justice system's incarceration of felons under 18-years-old, corporate social responsibility, Catholic Social Teaching, and and more. After spending about 7 hours discussing the juvenile justice system, trauma, and the neuroscience of adolescent brain development, I realized that I think I'm kind'a bored at the moment with the discussions in conservative and Reformed evangelicalism because conservative and Reformed evangelicals don't really seem to be interested in cross-disciplinary theological ethics. So, when I look for other evangelical scholars to discuss how the Trinity can inform rehabilitation for PTSD suffering incarcerated youth in forging new imaginations needed for virtuous 'future orientation,' I realize I don't really have other scholars to dialogue about these matters because evangelicals are primarily concerned with "getting the gospel right," "church planting," and heretic hunting. So those of us in theological ethics are somewhat homeless.

There may be a few reasons for this:

(1) "The gospel" as an exclusive hermeneutic technical phrase is not always useful in theological ethics. As a scholar, I need to draw from other categories like the "the eucharist," "the Trinity," "the liturgy," "the church," etc. Relying exclusively on phrase "the gospel" limits theological reflection on ethical issues that are not resolved by the message of the good news found in the salvation offered in work and person of Jesus Christ. For example, the Trinity is far more useful for providing a framework for helping rap victims restore their dignity than the good news about salvation. There has developed a trend to almost randomly attach the phrase "the gospel" onto issues as if the connection makes sense, say, for example, "the gospel and corporate social responsibility." I don't think a reputable academic journal of Christian ethicists would even accept a title phrased in that way.

(2) The possible idolatry of (or at least an over-emphasis on) preaching. Preaching "the gospel" has not be shown to lower recidivism rates for adolescent sex-offenders who were both victims an perpetrators of sex crimes. Preaching is only one of the multiple dimensions of sanctification and following Jesus to be conformed to his image. Too much responsibility for Christian reflection on life and culture is placed on pulpits. There is more to Christianity than preaching. For theological ethicists, the emphasis on preaching doesn't really help us do our work. For example, the quip that America's stem-cell debate will be settled if we just "preached the gospel more" is great churchy rhetoric that is sure to garner applause but does not help ethicists at all think theologically about addressing the issue in the public square.

For example, many evangelicals do not believe that brain is physical organ (like a heart or a kidney). Therefore, for example, many hurting people are wounded by the church because often (but not always) they have either biochemical or physical brain damage that gets reduced to simply "spiritual issues." Someone who is bi-polar does necessarily need more than sermons.

(3) Evangelicals are confused about the nature and work of the "the church." For starters, when evangelicals say "the church," they tend to mean their denomination, an association of churches they personally like, or their local congregation, so that language isn't even helpful. Also, because many evangelicals have an underdeveloped understanding of civil society there is no discussion about the differentiated roles of other institutions in society to do the things "the church" is neither commissioned nor equipped to do. Moreover, the growing narrowed emphasis on church planting as the solution to society's ills does not help theological ethicists engage the task of developing moral oughts.

(4) The naivete of trickle-down Christianity. The idea that if everyone in the culture were Christians all of society's problems would just fall into moral order is romantic and unrealistic. If there were true, there would be no civil codes in the Pentateuch, no wisdom literature, and so on. The trickle-down approach seems so odd given the fact that sin still exists and human reason has been compromised by the fall. Even if everyone in the world were a Christian, on this side of Christ's return, we would still need theological ethics. Any pastor will tell you that being a devout Christian does not mean that people's marriage and parenting practices are competent and always virtuous. Therefore, preaching the gospel and growing churches is not enough for Christian reflections on making the world a better place when thinking about ethics.

(5) The Bible is not sufficient for all questions in ethics. What I mean is that the biblicist approach to ethics is profoundly insufficient. For reasons that can only be described as "odd," the impulse to demand that ethical conclusions demonstrate "biblical" coherence means that conservative evangelicals look for Bible verses to justify ethical positions. Ethics by proof-texting. The ethics-via-proof-texting approach is a residual of American fundamentalism and the Barth/Brunner debate that has even infected Reformed theological ethics--which historically developed theological ethics with the Bible and natural law. Not using natural law in theological ethics limits evangelical's ability to think conceptually. Of course the guiding foundations and principles of Christian ethics are derived from Scripture but there is not going to be a verse to deal with specific ethical issues in many cases; and to take Bible verses out of context to force them onto issues, for whom they exegetically do not apply, is to abuse and misuse the Biblical text and undermine Biblical authority.

Dr. Stephen Grabill makes the point this way:

Among Protestants in general, there is an absence of critical moral discernment on bioethical issues outside the scope of abortion debate. This stems, in part, from Protestant skepticism toward natural law (God's will as expressed in creation, imprinted on the conscience, and known through reason) and from an underdeveloped role for the legal, as opposed to the teaching, aspect of ethics. Informing people what principles ought to guide their conduct and what actions are morally illicit is the teaching aspect of ethics, whereas developing theological and philosophical criteria to adjudicate the morality and severity of illicit human acts is the legal aspect.

The now-neglected legal aspect of Protestant ethics was once a vital part of Anglican and Puritan moral theology. Older Protestant luminaries developed texts on "cases of conscience," which attempted to discern whether a specific behavior was right or wrong and to evaluate the moral gravity of wrong behavior. They were assisted in this project by their appropriation of Christian Aristotelian philosophy and the natural-law tradition.

In another article Grabill rightly concludes:

Evangelicals tend to be pragmatic, wedding political activism with biblical appeals, but this has resulted in moral reflection operating on a mostly private and intuitive plane. The tragic pitfall with this style of ethical decision-making is that adverse spiritual and moral consequences often go undetected.

American evangelicals should not be dissatisfied with the captivity to the binaries of "preach the gospel" and "church planting" as a way to resolve moral dilemmas. Having said that let me affirm the following because I realize that many fall into disassociative reading patterns: I believe the gospel is the only matrix for salvation and sanctification, preaching is the only way people will hear that gospel and is, therefore, necessary, the mission of God in the work is fulfilled through the work of the church, and that many psychological issue can be effectively addressed with the means of grace. My only purpose here is to offer perspective on why evangelicalism lacks theological ethics and is a hard place for those of us committed to that as a vocation.

I simply wish there were contexts where evangelical scholars in theological ethics could have cross-disciplinary conversations about the pressing ethical issues of our day but those just simply do not exist and I'm wondering if it's even possible. Any ideas?

Cultural and Economic Development

I have no words.
What happens when a culturally and economically 'backwards' territory is suddenly made a part of a great economic powerhouse? If you're a follower of Aid Watch (and, really, you all should be), you know that the answer is 'mostly bad things.' Part of the problem, of course, is the fact that who gets to decide what constitutes 'backwards' is a pretty important question, and one with almost no good answers. But supposing we can identify a truly inferior culture-economy, that still doesn't mean the economically powerful can make things better by swooping in like a hero in red and blue.

This post by Vivek Nemana illustrates the point nicely. The antebellum American South was both entrenched in a social system that was morally deficient and locked into an industrial system that was economically counterproductive. (I realize not all my readers will agree. I stand by the strength of this statement.)

The South was heavily invested in racial subjugation - slavery directly accounted for over a quarter of the GDP. The region spent an enormous amount of resources to justify slavery, hiring silver-tongued apologists like John C. Calhoun to spin slavery as humane. In this light, slavery was an economic institution that was designed for racially hegemonic society.
Presumably, then, the North was doing the South a favor by overthrowing its destitute system and replacing it with a system based on sound property rights and the promise of true freedom for everyone, not just the landed gentry... right?

While the Civil War radically restructured Southern laws to promote racial equality and property rights, the hegemonic bonds were resistant to change. [...] As the legacy of slavery wound its way into postbellum Southern society and politics, it hindered the way freedom and property rights should have boosted the economy, denying the South the full bounty of American development.
In other words, "the very insertion of these new freedoms and property rights into a society designed for slavery [...] led to the divergent development of North and South." Improving economic and political conditions aren't enough to produce lasting prosperity, and fixing one part of a system can actually make the people under the system worse off.

(As an aside, this post really got me thinking about the economic destructiveness of even a little bit of racism, especially this sentence: "Gary Becker once wrote that people lose out on the potential gains from trade if one group is able to indulge in 'tastes for discrimination' against another." It ties in closely with a post at another blog from Jonathan Wight on the nature of property rights: "Property rights do not bestow limitless abilities on owners, and property rights come with responsibilities.")

All this brings me to an article at the Financial Times. Essentially, the article discusses how we should compare cites like Vancouver to cities like NYC, and what sort of values we express by preferring one over the other. I just don't know how to react to it. The author wants to argue for the organic, unplanned outcomes of a place like NYC over the zoned and top-down oriented nature of Vancouver. But I'm left not sure what to do with some of the elements of the argument.

In fact, it can often be exactly the juxtaposition of wealth and relative poverty that makes a city vibrant, the collision between the two worlds. Where parts of big cities have declined, through the collapse of industries or the fears about immigration that led to what urbanists have termed the "donut effect" (in which white populations flee to the suburbs, leaving minorities in the centres), there is space to be filled by artists and architects, by poorer immigrants arriving with a drive to make money and by the proliferation of food outlets, studios and galleries. These, in turn, attract the wealthy back to the centre, at first to consume, and then to gentrify.
Is he saying diversity is a good thing? That wealthy elites should not isolate themselves? I think that's a great point. But is he also saying that the wealthy should keep a few poor folk around because they run tasty food trucks? Because they offer a culture worth fixing (my wife hates the word 'gentrify,' btw)? That's something else entirely.

In a strange way the everyday conflict with the (unliveable) city can also become part of the attraction.
Again, whether I can get on board with this depends crucially on whether we're talking about opening ourselves to learn from those different from us, or whether the goal is to bring our (clearly superior) ways to influence the 'backwards' folks of the inner city.

Mumbai is probably the greenest big city there is - slums like the million-strong Dharavi use minimal land, energy and water.
Once again, does this mean that we should be willing to have some poor people around because it is good for the environment, or that economic growth for the poorest around us is worth being less green, or that striking the balance between economic and environmental stewardship is hard?

At the end of the day, how we relate to the people and city around us depends an awful lot on if we are developing full and complex relationships with them, with plenty of give-and-take and holistic engagement, or if instead we are setting out to gentrify the backwards natives. And for those of us who educate others vocationally, I think it's a call to special reflection and introspection.

Thumbnail image for jesus.jpgMichael Kimmel notes: Typically, each nation constructs a model of masculinity against which each man measures himself. This hegemonic image of manhood is constructed often through articulation of differences with a variety of "others"-- racial or sexual minorities, and, of course, women. The hegemonic definition of masculinity is "constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women," writes sociologist R. W. Connell (1987, p. 183). As the sociologist Erving Goffman (1963, p. 128) once wrote,

In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. . . Any male who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself - during moments at least - as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.

Have evangelicals made Jesus into the archetypal American man? Therefore to be a Godly man means the following:

(1) white
(2) married
(3) Protestant
(4) a father
(5) college educated
(6) employed as a busy worker
(7) physically strong

Therefore, if you're not these things you'll never be considered someone to look up to in evangelical circles. The problem, of course, is that none of this is in the Bible as something to determine Godly masculine identity. Evangelical leaders are white men (NOT women, not men or women of color), married, etc., or at least to aspire to me like one of them.

So if you're not a married white male with children, college educated, with a good job, etc. you will likely remain an outsider in evangelical circles. Will Black and Latino men will only be accepted in evangelicalism if they adopt the white hegemonic masculine norms.

Kimmel argues that white America men define their masculinity by excluding others. Is this why some black and Reformed guys adopt an exclusionary posture? Do white evangelical men look for ways to exclude others?

Black and Latino men are often as told "tone things down"? Could this be an indirect request to adopt white hegemonic masculinity in order to be included?

Hegemonic definition from Wiki: "In gender studies, the theory of hegemonic masculinity refers to the belief in the existence of a culturally normative ideal of male behavior. Hegemonic masculinity posits that society strongly encourages men to embody this kind of masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is said to be marked by a tendency for the male to dominate other males and subordinate females. According to the theory's proponents, it is not necessarily the most prevalent form of male expression, but rather the most socially endorsed that always contributes to the subordinate position of women they perceive. Proponents point to characteristics such as aggressiveness, strength, drive, ambition, and self-reliance, which they argue are encouraged in males but discouraged in females in contemporary Western society, as evidence of the existence of hegemonic masculinity."

Thoughts? Is there a problem here?

To Study Or Not To Study


Stopping my studies was never really an option for me.

Sure, my parents did tell me my senior year of high school that I didn't have to go to college if I didn't want to. But I had spent my entire life learning how to do the bare minimum to get the 'A'. And I was good at it. I was good at it even if I disliked it. What else was I going to do? It wasn't like I had the physical strength to do industrial fishing or the ability to repair cars or even the musical talent to make it big (references upon request). So, like many others, I was propelled inexorably from high school to college, and then later from college to graduate school.

I was even fortunate enough to be admitted to an Ivy League school for graduate school. I had dreams of taking advantage of Penn's amazing scholarly resources while contributing to an engaged and wide-ranging discussion of the problems that mark human existence. I did enjoy the library, the conferences, and the world-class speakers at Penn. But I also discovered that, in the words of a professor friend of mine, "a lot of academia really sucks, most of it is over-specialized and uninteresting, and higher education is a depressing racket".

white privilege.jpeg Last night I had a fascinating conversation with my cousin (who between to two of us have multiple graduate degrees--she has 2 ivy-league degrees and finishing up a 3rd ivy degree) about the reality of being a black person in a predominantly white world and having to wrestle with the fact that younger whites with less education and experience will grant whites with more education and more experience a level credibility that often is not granted to blacks in the same position.

"We are not equals," was the phrased used to describe the internal response to younger whites, with less education and experience, who will assume that we (more experienced and more educated black people) don't know what we're talking about while being willing to not question the perspectives of whites (with the same level of experience and education and credibility as we have). It's just weird.

This is another expect of white privilege at work. Many whites with my same level of education and experience don't have to constantly prove their qualifications to speak on various subjects. So, I've noticed that I will offer the same critiques of evangelicalism as Pratt or Horton & they get "Amen" while I get "hold on a sec. . ."

"Doing the Work: Unearthing Our Own White Privilege" by Maggie Potapchuk looks at some of the undercurrent here:

"Doing the work" is about understanding the theoretical constructs of structural racism, having a power analysis of systems we work and live in, developing the willingness and skills continually to align our intent and action, and dedicating ourselves to being in authentic relationships with people of different races and ethnicities.

In this chapter, I specifically speak to people who identify as white, based on the
premise that whites need to learn and teach each other. There are at least four

First, people of color get tired of being placed in the position to teach
white people about racism.

Second, white people often have access to and
credibility with other white people, based on our shared racial identity and family,
social, business, faith and organizational affiliations to which people of color are
not privy.

Third, white people created white privilege and most of the strategies
that maintain it. So we have the lion's share of responsibility for ending it. Finally,
it will take many people stepping up to eliminate racism and race-based privilege.
People who step up get marginalized and punished for doing so. We need to
work to have white people be among the waves of people who step up and stand
strong for racial equity. If enough of us do that, we are unstoppable."



For those wondering about the difference between John Galt and Jesus of Nazareth, Ayn Rand would like to clarify the matter:

Let's remember that believing in objective truth does not imply Objectivism.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

April 2011 is the previous archive.

June 2011 is the next archive.


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