Christ without Christianity? The Case of Anne Rice

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Anne Rice says she is tired of the hypocrisy of the church and has decided to leave Christianity, but keep Christ. This attitude is so typically American since it reflects the influence of radical individualism on American religion. With the end of the hegemony of the Anglican Church after the American Revolution the Second Great Awakening began in the last decade of the eighteenth century; it continued through the first decade of the nineteenth century. It was this movement that made the United States a national characterized by individualistic Evangelical Protestantism. The religion of the frontier emphasized individual salvation and an individual decision for Christ. It is a short step to invite people, as Southern Baptists often do, to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” It is an even shorter step from this position to claim that a relationship with Jesus is wholly personal and that institutional Christianity is, at best, optional.

There are a number of difficulties with an overly individualistic religion. First, it ignores the fact that human beings are intrinsically social creatures–as Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a political [i.e., social, M.P.] animal.” To separate Christ from a Christian community is to separate Christ from the social aspect of human nature. Second, individualism encourages doctrinal chaos. If each individual accepts Christ on his own terms, then each individual can mold Christ into his own image. Often, this image is of a Jesus who tells us to “love each other and be nice to each other.” But as Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, if all Jesus said was for us to be nice to each other, “then why the h..l did they crucify him!?” In part, Jesus was crucified because of claims like he made in the Gospel of John, where He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” This statement would have been clear to a first century Jew–Jesus was claiming to be God. It was that claim that helped get Jesus crucified, not some general message about love.

Anne Rice has made no secret that she does not agree with all the statements of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sexual ethics. Rice believes that homosexual behavior is morally acceptable, a position opposite to that of the Roman Catholic Church. If she really believes that the church’s moral teaching is wrong, then the only way for her to have integrity and follow her conscience would be to leave the church. But that does not imply that the church’s teaching is incorrect; a good natural law argument can be made against the moral acceptability of homosexual practice, and it is clear that the Biblical witness as well as church tradition opposes homosexual practices. As far as Rice’s claim that church leaders are hypocritical–this is no different than any other organization, secular or religious. It is not a good reason to leave the church.

Sometimes I believe that the increasing secularization of American society might be a blessing in disguise for the Christian Church. Many Americans go to church only because it is socially good for them. If it becomes less socially obligatory to go to church, those such as Rice, who do not wish to abide by the church’s precepts, can leave. Then the church will be like it was in the era before Constantine in the fourth century, when those claiming to be Christian were serious about their faith.

Although not everyone accepts Biblical authority, the New Testament is the earliest written witness to Jesus’ teaching and the beliefs of His earliest followers. From a Biblical point of view, it makes no sense to say “Jesus yes, the church no.” St. Paul says that Christ purchased the church with His own blood; so if one rejects the church, one rejects Christ’s blood, a key part of the Christian doctrine of redemption. In addition, St. Paul calls the church “the bride of Christ,” so to reject the church is to reject the church’s husband, Christ Himself. One cannot separate a head from the body anymore than one can separate Christ, the Head, from the Church, His body.

Anne Rice may say she is a follower of Jesus–and in some ways, she may be if she loves her neighbor as herself and focuses on loving God with all her heart, soul, strength, and mind. However, part of the experience of loving others, including loving difficult people, is in the context of community. What better place to exercise such love than the community of sometimes flawed, sometimes exacerbating, yet often loving, Christians.

Abortion

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As a precocious child, I watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite from the fourth grade onward. One winter evening when I was in the fifth grade Mr. Cronkite’s lead story was one I did not understand: “The U. S. Supreme Court today in a seven to two vote legalized abortion.” I ran and asked my mother what “abortion” was. She was hesitant to say, as if the term I had used were an obscenity. Finally she said, “It’s killing babies before they’re born.” My mouth dropped and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. To this day that sinking feeling returns when I consider the great evil Justice Harry Blackmun and his court majority inflicted (via Roe v. Wade) on the American people that day, January 20, 1973.

In considering the morality of abortion, the key philosophical question is when does human personhood begin. Even supporters of abortion would say that the human being begins at conception—the issue is, at what stage does the human being become a human person? Is every human being a human person? Or does a human being become a human person at a particular stage of development. Parents with teenagers may believe that a human being does not become a human person until around age twenty, if even then. Seriously, though, philosophers Michael Tooley and Peter Singer have both argued that a human being does not become a human person until several years after birth. Singer believes that a baby should not be declared a human person until he is a week old; during that time, it is, Singer believes, morally permissible to kill the baby, for example, if it has an incurable disease that would cause it endless suffering. Tooley holds similar views. Bonnie Steinbock believes that sentience, the ability to feel pleasure or pain, is the point at which personhood begins to develop; she argues that this ability is not present until the third trimester. Before then, the human being present does not have the moral rights that a person does.

The separation of human personhood from human being finds its roots in the mind-body dualism of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes argued that the mind, defined as consciousness, is the self, and that the body, though closely connected to the mind in this life, is not essential to one’s identity. Although not as dualistic as Descartes, John Locke (1634-1704) explicitly argued that the human being is not the same thing as a human person. For Locke, the human being is the living human body; the human person is the individual consciousness. The continuation of the same person is guaranteed by the continuation of consciousness, and this is revealed by having a stream of memories stretching back through time. Thus, if my consciousness were transferred into Hugh Laurie’s body, the body would remain that of Hugh Laurie, but the personal identity would be that of Michael Potts.

An alternative position holds that the human being and human person cannot be separated; as long as the human being is alive, the human person remains. This view is associated with some followers of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Philosophers J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae are representatives of this position. They argue that what constitutes personal identity is the soul, defined as the “form of the body,” the informational pattern, encoded in DNA, that makes the person the kind of entity he is. This informational pattern is specific to a particular body, and as long as that body lives, the pattern is present. This is true even if the body does not have all its powers, for example, in a zygote , embryo, or on the other end of the scale, in an elderly person suffering from severe Alzheimer’s Disease. This view, I believe, makes better sense of the embodied nature of human existence than the radical Cartesian separation of mind and body. It recognizes that humans can BE persons without FUNCTIONING as persons, as when a person is in a dreamless sleep or under anesthesia. Thus, as soon as the new information pattern encoded in the genetic code after conception is present in the zygote, a human person is present. Thus, abortion kills a living human person and not just a living human being.

I am aware of arguments regarding twinning and the lack of implantation of around 40-50% of embryos. As far as twinning or other multiple births, the informational pattern for all the births are present in the case of identical twins, triplets, etc., and it would be wrong to destroy the zygote(s) at whatever stage of development it is in. As far as lack of implantation—in the past the child mortality rate was as high or higher than 50%, yet no one questioned the personhood of children.

Even if conception is not when human personhood begins, one could argue we cannot know for sure—would you risk shooting a person if you heard a rustle in the bushes and thought it was a deer? In a similar way, would you risk killing a human person by killing an embryo you are SURE is not a human person. Some confidence can kill.

Men often pressure women into abortions; I have known at least two cases among family and friends in which this occurred. It is ironic that most feminists support abortion when it empowers men to be sexually irresponsible—if the woman gets pregnant, a man can pressure her to kill the evidence.

Morality is not necessarily the same as legality, but if abortion is murder, it should be prohibited. Although abortion due to rape or incest is still murder, most Americans support it being legal—even with that exception, almost all abortions would be illegal. Now I do not think that a constitutional amendment is the answer; overturning Roe v. Wade and putting abortion back into the hands of the states is most consistent with federalism. Then it is up to those on both sides of the issue to make their best cases—and the representatives of the people would decide instead of dictatorial judges.

Although abortion is objectively a grave moral evil, one of the worst mistakes a person can make, the subjective guilt of the woman may be lessened by circumstances such as rape, incest, or threats from a boyfriend. But abortion doctors are, to use a Southern expression, “lower than a snake’s belly” in using medicine to kill instead of to heal. I hope and pray that people will wake up and work to stop the great evil of abortion in American society.

Academia: A Diamond-Filled Cesspool

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Such a title may appear strange coming from an academic. I enjoy academic, and my undergraduate and graduate school training changed my life, I believe, for the better. Through my education, I learned how to critically think beyond my childhood Fundamentalism without giving up Christian orthodoxy. I learned the wonderful field of philosophy and experienced reading some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Alfred North Whitehead, and many others. Sadly, if a young person were to talk to me about going to college or university, I would tell him, “Go, but remember that academia is a cesspool, and sometimes you have to dip your hands in s..t to gather up the diamonds.

What damaged the integrity of academia was the radicalism of the 1960s. The history of such radicalism has been documented by David Horowitz and Robert Bork, so I will only give the broadest details. After the 1962 Port Huron Meeting, in which the Students for a Democratic Society were radicalized under the leadership of Tom Hayden, they began to work toward revolutionizing higher education. Influenced by the Frankfurt School, especially the thought of Herbert Marcuse, they desired to bring about a Marxist society by changing the culture, rather than by changing the government. After the student protests of the 1960s and the early 1970s, many of these radicals attended graduate school and got their Ph.D.s. They believed that race, class, and gender (what some have called “the unholy trinity”) determine one’s identity. The Humanities became dominated by such thought, especially English departments. At a conference on Southern literature at which I presented a paper, I believe that my paper (on Wendell Berry) was the only one that did not focus on race, class, and/or gender. A young lady presented a paper that espoused relativism based on the unholy trinity. In the question and answer session I pointed out the contradictions with any kind of relativism, and she readily admitted their existence. When I talked privately with her, I found her to be a traditionalist and a Christian. When I asked her why she presented a paper presenting views with which she did not agree, she said, “I must do what is necessary to get a job.”

To use another term found in discussions of academia, these “tenured radicals” gained control of many departments of English, History, and even Music—they were not as successful in philosophy departments. Once they gained control, they hired only clones of themselves. As a result, many students are exposed to a distorted view of English literature or American History. Instead of focusing on the classic core of literature, for example, Shakespeare is often not even required for an English degree. “Underrepresented writers” replace the great writers of the past. The reason Shakespeare and other writers are in the core curriculum is their ability to express universal meaning through the particularities of their literature. The purging of the classics affects libraries, as they rush to order books to gain the proper balance of “race, class, and gender” and discard classics.

Class discussion is poisoned. Female students are taught to focus on grievances, and men are often portrayed as evil, greedy, and lecherous—to the point that even consensual sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is portrayed as a man raping a woman. Racial differences are emphasized, and minority races are taught to focus on how the majority society has mistreated them. Traditional religion is mocked, especially traditional Christianity, which is portrayed as a tool of the ruling class to keep down women, minorities, and the poor. “Multiculturalism” and “diversity” are code words—they do not refer to teaching about other cultures such as India or China—they are code words for “black and Hispanic.” This kind of multiculturalism distorts the rich cultural diversity found in different black and Hispanic communities. It also promotes a naïve relativism that claims that no one culture is better than another. Such a view poisons moral discourse because if relativism is true, the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia could not be morally censured. If a student questions the radicalism of the professor, oftentimes the student’s grade will suffer.

How can a student find the diamonds within the cesspool of academia? First, he should, to the best of his ability, choose his teachers carefully. Choose teachers who are willing to hear both sides of an issue, no matter what the teacher’s political views might be. Avoid professors who are known to push their agenda and who punish students for politically incorrect speech. Speaking of which, many colleges and universities have adopted “speech codes” to control politically incorrect speech. Now if such speech referred to truly offensive and insulting speech against a group of people, I could at least understand why a speech code was adopted. But speech codes can be used to censure politically or religiously conservative talk. If a student is punished for breaking a speech code, for example, by defending the position that practicing homosexuality is morally wrong, that student should fight that conviction, in court if necessary. Students should be willing—and be strong enough—to speak up and defend their own positions.

A student can also take elective courses on the classics, such as an elective course on Shakespeare. A student might orient his term paper around a classic work of literature, philosophy, or around a major historical event. Many classics are now online, and some students might be interested in reading them in their spare time. I know of a few students who read classic texts and who do not buy into the radical left’s understanding of human history in terms of the unholy trinity. Of course math and science courses have not, for the most part, been politicized, at least in terms of a strong left-right split.

If anyone teaches a course in Classical Rhetoric, a student should take it. The skills taught in that course are seldom taught today—and they aid both in grammar and in logical reasoning. Taking logic is also something that would benefit students.

I make this next suggestion with some concern that today’s students may not have the discipline to handle classical languages, but students should learn at least Latin, and ideally Greek as well. This teaches not only English grammar, but discipline, and opens up the world of the classics in their original tongues to students.

It is possible to find gold nuggets in the cesspool of academia. The main task for parents is to be aware and do their own homework in finding a school that will encourage a person to think, that will not indoctrinate students, and which focuses on a classic core of literary and philosophical works.

The French Revolution, Rationalism, and the Left

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Since the time of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), French philosophy has been characterized by rationalism, the view that our knowledge comes through reason rather than through sense experience. Descartes began a trend toward rationalism in philosophy on the European continent as a whole (with the exception of the British Isles, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the exception of Scandinavia). In politics, it is dangerous to apply a rationalist approach, since that approach is often used by idealistic thinkers to set up an ideal political state arising from thought alone rather than from concrete human experience. In the ancient world, Plato is a good example; in his ideal state, babies are taken from their parents at birth and whisked off to state-run nurseries. There, children attain their “natural state” of being artisans or soldiers; later, from among the soldiers are chosen philosopher kings who rule with dictatorial power hidden by “noble lies” they tell the people. Aristotle rightly countered that government should start from below with the actual historical development of a people rather than being imposed via some idealistic rationalist framework.

The practical results of such a rationalist approach are seen in the tragedy of the French Revolution. What began as a series of grievances against King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, quickly degenerated into a rationalist framework being imposed on the French people. A new “age of reason” was proclaimed, tradition trashed, and the king and queen executed. Later, after Robespierre’s rise to power, the new modern apparatus of the police state was used to round up those who opposed those in power, or simply opposed the attempt to eliminate Catholicism and replace it with a cult of reason. As a result, tens of thousands of heads rolled from the guillotine. The attempt to oppose a government run by the “reasonable elite” led to tyranny. Since then, that threat became even more dangerous with Rousseau’s notion of the “general will,” which can be used as an excuse to label the most brutal tyranny “the will of the people.” The proper question to ask is “which people”? The answer is almost always in terms of the elites who run the state according to their rationalistic plan no matter how many people are killed. The cause becomes higher than the individual.

This scenario was repeated by the followers of Karl Marx. Lenin murdered hundreds of thousands of those who “opposed the people.” Stalin, though more of a psychopath and thug than an ideological Marxist, murdered millions in the gulags and his forced relocation of millions of people.

Those who wield political power in the United States are more benign–people are generally not killed or imprisoned for their beliefs that oppose the position of the state. But top-down management by elites takes place to the point that the United States often seems to have the form of a democratic republic without the content. Federal judges make mandates and force them onto the people against their will–not because those mandates are really constitutional, but because the judge has a rationalistic vision of society he or she wishes to impose on the rest of society. Government bureaucrats do similar things, with their arrogant “we know best” attitude. This arrogance is supported by media elites who despise Middle America as a group of ignorant hicks, and who believe that if their vision of society prevails, we will live in a utopia, a secularized heaven on earth. The American left eagerly supports their goals with an almost missionary zeal. When Middle America opposed the left’s goals, as in the Tea Party movement, the left does not resort to rational argument, but to name-calling. This is ironic–if the left really believed that, say, redistribution of wealth, unlimited access to abortion, affirmative action, etc., were rational, they would present arguments to support their position. But for the most part they do not do so–and no empirical evidence against their methods, no matter how persuasive, will phase them–after all, if their form of government is so clearly proven by reason, their position, they hold, cannot be touched by the evidence of our senses.

The alternative is to realizes that governments should arise from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. A government, as Aristotle recognized, reflects the geography, history, and traditions of a people. This does not mean that “anything goes;” in fact, Aristotle strongly condemns tyranny. As traditional conservatives such as Russell Kirk argued, it is best to respect a people’s traditions and not impose an artificial, rationalist ideology to remake society, including political governance, in its image.

Today’s College and University Students: Expectations vs. Real Abilities

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In the course of eighteen years as a full-time university professor, I have encountered the following situation many times. An irate student knocks on my office door to complain about a grade. Even when I show the student his paper, he complains, saying, “My teachers have always told me I’m a good writer. I’m real smart. You’re the only teacher who’s ever given me grades this low.” When the student leaves, I look over the paper again. There is not one coherent English sentence in the entire paper. It is so unclear I have to re-read it several times to get the point the student is trying to make. The paper makes multiple mistakes about a philosopher or philosopher’s actual position. There is no argumentation in the paper, only claims, many of them spiced with emotional tirades.

Some of my colleagues pass out a questionnaire at the beginning of each semester. One question is “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Students provide a variety of answers, including “I want to become a pediatrician,” or “I want to be a best-selling author.” Later, it turns out those same students read and write at a fifth-grade level at best, have poor math skills, and are C students or lower. How can such high expectations co-exist with such low intellectual ability?

One reason, I believe, likes in the American culture of entitlement, a culture that is reflected in the government school system. Grades K-12 are no longer about teaching basic skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, and a basic knowledge of science and history. Teacher education schools operate on the “mantra of the year,” and none of these mantras help teachers to educate students. A few years ago the mantra was “facilitative teacher,” which was more about letting the students run the show and teaching politically correct left-wing ideology than teaching children basic skills. Before that, the emphasis, which still is operative in the public schools, was on student “self-esteem.” Rather than encouraging self-esteem for real achievement, students were taught to feel good about themselves at the expense of academic standards. The result is a group of students who feel great about themselves but who are also, to put it frankly, “dumb as dirt.” They are taught that they can do anything, and are given the grades to prove it—but without grades reflecting real abilities, when those same students enter college or university, their dreams are shattered. Rather than taking responsibility for themselves and working on improving their skills, many students “blame the professor” and move to an easy major such as education or social work. In those fields, they can continue their “education” in self-esteem and left-wing politically correct ideology—and they will remain ignorant and uneducated in reality.

Such poison has infiltrated higher education in the form of “student-centered education,” which supposedly is better for “post-modern students” who cannot learn from traditional methods of teaching. Although there is nothing wrong with varying from the traditional lecture and using visual aids or discussion groups—I use those methods myself—the real goal of “student-centered education” is to ignore traditional methods of education such as lecture and memorization. And though I agree with student-centered education’s emphasis on getting students to think, they still require some content to think about—and this implies some lecture, reading, and memorization. Students do not automatically know what is best for them, and the rise of student evaluation of faculty and student influence on the curriculum coincided with the lowering of academic standards.

What can be done? First, education schools, which have been the source of much of the plague infecting the school system, should be replaced by an internship system. In this system, students would get a strong liberal arts undergraduate degree that emphasizes general education plus knowledge of a particular field. Then those students who desire to teach should go through an internship in the school system in order to develop their teaching skills and learn the technology. Second, no student should go through grades K-12 without being taught basic grammar—and I recommend some elements of classical rhetoric, perhaps a basic course in classical rhetoric. Third, students should be taught the history of the United States and of the world so that they know not only historical facts, but also geography and its effect on historical development. Fourth, students should be taught basic skills in mathematics and science. Fifth, school should emphasize real achievement and support high academic standards, including grades that reflect a student’s actual ability instead of high grades to promote “self-esteem.” Sixth, higher education should avoid the mistake the public school system has made and avoid trends toward “post-modern education”—there is still room for traditional teaching methods so that students learn the facts that provide content for thinking. And students, when they are old enough to think critically, should be taught how to reason from kindergarten through their university education. Only if we focus on the tried and true rather than the newfangled and false will the gap between expectations and skills be bridged.

The Fundamentalist Left, Social Engineering, and School Busing

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Like the European left, the American left is obsessed with social engineering. The chief difference is that the American left couches its attempts to use government power to enforce social ideals in moralistic terms. This secularization of New England Puritanism gives many movements of the left an evangelical tone that call to mind Fundamentalist Christian revivals. Like Fundamentalist Christians, many leftists prefer emotional screeds to rational argumentation and will not listen to any evidence contrary to their position. An example of this is the issue of school busing that has recently become an issue in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The use of school busing to promote “racial balance” is clearly one of the failed experiments of the American left. I am from Rutherford County, Tennessee, just to the south of Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County. When busing was introduced into Davidson County Schools in 1970, many children, even small children, had to get up at four a.m. in order to be bussed across town. Many white families fled to adjoining counties such as Rutherford or Williamson. Private schools sprang up like wheat as wealthier families rushed to pull their children out of the public school system. Over the years, Davidson County Schools became re-segregated, and this scenario has repeated itself in other places where school busing has been tried—in some cases children were bused across county and school district lines. None of these decisions to bus children had popular support; rather, they were imposed by the federal judiciary, which in effect acted as a dictatorship to force a reorganization of society according to its will. The attempt failed, just as earlier attempts to force racial segregation failed.

What the left fails to understand is the organic nature of human communities. Normally a community is born when individuals voluntarily settle into an area. Over the years the community changes as people are born, die, move, and others move in. Overly rapid change tends to disrupt community harmony—arguably, the extreme mobility of American society is not good for stable communities. Although a community is more than the sum of the individuals that make it up, and the traditions a community develops over time help hold it together (as traditional conservatives recognize), the decision to join a community is ultimately a free and voluntary choice (as libertarians recognize). To interfere with such choice by forced resettlement (as the Soviet Union tried, especially under Stalin) or by forced busing, upsets the order of the community and can only lead to conflict or the ultimate destruction of the community.

I was blessed to have gone through the Smyrna, Tennessee school system for twelve years. There are high school classmates I knew all those twelve years. For a child, such stability is important, as is seeing familiar sites on the ride to and from school every day. This is true for children of all races. Neighborhood schools promote a sense of community, and left-wing attempts to destroy neighborhood schools in the name of some abstraction such as “racial balance” is bad for children from every race and cultural background.

The voters of Raleigh recognized this when they voted in a school board that supports neighborhood schools. But the Fundamentalist Left, led by the NAACP, has led an emotional protest claiming that the plan promoting neighborhood schools is “immoral” and “evil.” These leftists support school busing to promote “racial balance.” They have not learned from the failures of school busing and other attempts at social engineering from the past. They are like Christian Fundamentalists, who, confronted with scientific evidence for biological evolution, state that that evidence must be invalid because evolution is evil. Both leftist social reformers and Christian Fundamentalists can only resort to angry, emotional appeals rather than putting their ideas to the bar of reason and experience. Such appeals are really attempts to intimidate. The predominately leftist news media publicizes the protests of a few hundred people and ignores the will of the vast majority of the voters of Raleigh. Those who support neighborhood schools should not reply in kind, but continue to appeal to reason and experience. But they should be willing to speak up and not allow intimidation tactics by the left to silence their voices.