Students Cheating and American Subjectivism

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Ethics class

Ethics class (Photo credit: aditza121)

Students cheating in school is not a new thing, but it has become an epidemic in recent years. The Internet has made cheating easier, with thousands of term papers students buy and pass off as their own work. Cell phones are now used by students to get answers from their classmates or to look them up on a website. What is most surprising is how many students see no moral problem with cheating. Sometimes irate parents will visit a high school principle or college dean and complain that their child did not cheat, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the student. Is it any surprise that there are so many scandals in business and in government? Children are emulating the values of their parents, who reflect the terrible trend in American culture to want something for nothing.

The rampant relativism to which students are exposed on television, by celebrities, by the media, in the K-12 school system, and in colleges and universities makes it easy for students to become subjectivists on ethics. “Whatever floats your boat” or “Whatever I think is right is right for me and whatever you think is right for you” becomes the mantra of many students today. The most dogmatic relativists are as closed-minded as any religious fundamentalist. The fact that they become angry and try to cut a professor off when he argues against subjectivism reveals that they only want their views to be heard. Apparently the position held by the professor and by other students that everyone, including the professor, has the right to speak his mind has not sunk into these students.

I am at a loss to determine how to get beyond the impasse of relativistic propaganda in society. When the United States accepted a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, as it did from the Second Great Awakening in the late eighteenth century through around 1963, one could argue from a common morality held by the vast majority of Americans. With the decline of Christianity and the proliferation of different religions and cultures, one could try to find common values between them–and between deeply devout people of all major religions much commonality in moral beliefs is present. Radical secularism, agnosticism, and atheism can try to develop a non-relativistic deontological or utilitarian system, but other secularists who desire to do what they want without restraint could say, “Okay, there’s a common morality needed for the good of society, but I don’t care about the good of society. There’s no God to stop me from being a self-centered ass. So that’s what I’ll be.” Without transcendent meaning, how strong is the force of the “ought” in ethics (I am borrowing this point from George Mavrodes). Students may intellectually believe in some kind of deity, but the secular relativism they have been taught from kindergarten onward has already sunk into their psyche. This fact, along with the inherent immaturity and selfishness of youth, make for a combination that will inevitably result in rampant cheating. I have had students of all grades brag to me about how they successfully cheated in school. It is a matter of pride to them. It is a matter of shame to American society that its cultural rot since 1964 has destroyed any notion of transcendent meaning (beyond trying to find it through pleasure), has promoted self-centeredness, has promoted “success” by any means necessary, and has lied to people by telling them they should be proud of their accomplishments even if they did not earn them. With churches catering to the relativist, postmodern young person without trying to correct their relativism, all that results is high recidivism and young people who leave church with the same twisted values they previously had accepted. Without a large-scale religious revival, which I do not see coming in the United States, growing irreligiosity will cause societal destruction in the U.S.–Europe had enough residual tradition to withstand falling into chaos when Europeans gave up on Christianity, but how long will that last? I expect more cheating in the future by students. Some will get caught, most will not care unless they are caught (and even then for selfish reasons), and the shred of integrity left in the American educational system will be threatened.

Supreme Court Supremely Fails in Upholding the Individual Mandate

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English: The United States Supreme Court, the ...

English: The United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, in 2010. Top row (left to right): Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Bottom row (left to right): Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

U. S. Courts have increased the power of the federal government vs. the power of the states. Those in favor of expanding federal power have often referred to the Commerce Clause to justify such actions, and that was the Obama Administration‘s tactic in its arguments before the Supreme Court supporting the individual mandate. This mandate requires that all Americans buy health insurance. States, fearful that they would be the ones paying for such insurance, sued, arguing that such a requirement is an unconstitutional expansion of federal power over the states. The individual mandate also marks the first time the federal government will require Americans to buy a particular produce.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, argued that the power of the federal government to tax its citizens is sufficient to justify the individual mandate. This is a dangerous ruling–if the government has the authority under tax laws to force American citizens to buy health insurance, would it not have the power to require American citizens to buy other products? It would seem so. The states would have no veto power over the national government in this area.

Tax law is overly expansive already–anyone who deals with the Internal Revenue Service can witness to the maze of rules, the (often unintentional) violation of which can cost someone money, property, or freedom. Fines are the penalty for violating the individual mandate. How does the government presume to enforce such fines? Would prison become an option, an option that recalls the bad old days of imprisonment for debt. How else could the Supreme Court use the taxing powers of the federal government to increase government power over the states and over individuals? I fear the options are potentially unlimited. Hopefully a new administration will come into power with a willing Congress that will reverse this legislation. However, the harm the Supreme Court has done remains. Once again, the will of the majority of the American people has been thwarted by the Congress, by the President, and now by the Supreme Court. I wonder how long the dying embers of the Republic will glow before the light finally goes out on freedom in America.

Mysticism and Christianity

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Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to a common stereotype, mystical thought has always played a role in the development of Christian thought, just as it has in other religious traditions. While eschewing Gnosticism, Neoplatonist pagans such as Plotinus were used by Christian writers, and the Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings could be called mystical works from a Christian perspective. The Eastern Orthodox Church has emphasized contemplation, and this trend became dominant during the late states of the Eastern Roman Empire just before Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1453. In the Western Church, St. John of the Cross, St Julian of Norwich, and St. Theresa of Avila were only a few of the great mystics. The Church has taken care regarding mysticism, not in order to make life difficult for the mystics, but to make sure that the teachings of the mystics were in line with Christian teaching. St. Theresa of Avila gladly submitted to that rule and did not begrudge it–anyone with doubts should read her writings. There were a few exceptions, but this was not due to the authors’ mysticism. The problem was the teachings of certain mystics seemed to conflict with the teachings of Christianity. I am not sure if Scotus Erigena was a mystic, but he was clearly a pantheist, and while not formally condemned, his position was stronger than the alleged panentheism of Meister Eckhart–Erigena clearly identified God with the universe in his dynamic pantheistic system. Meister Eckhart, on the other hand, believed, as far as I can follow his thought, that the was a good Thomist–if every contingent thing that exists is radically dependent on God, then without God all contingent things are literally no-things. Thus God is all in all. Eckhart’s teachings could be a form of panentheism, and one could even interpret them in terms of classical theism. In my judgment, Eckhart’s heresy trial was based on a misunderstanding of his teachings.Mystics tend to emphasize the untiy of all things in the One, and sometimes they seem to subsume creation into God so that God is the only reality and contingent things are unreal. R. C. Zaehner has argued that Christian mysticism always kept the God-world distinction in the background while Eastern mysticism did not. That is a widely disputed point; many writers would claim there is a strong cross-religious and cross-cultural commonality to religious experience. Huston Smith has argued that within a religious tradition that approves their use, psychedelic drugs may be a way to reach the transcendent. From a very different perspective, Stanislav Grof has argued that high doses of LSD can put some persons in contact with transcendent reality. Even the majority of mystics who do not use drugs use fasting, chants, and other methods to focus the mind. However, as William James notes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, there is a passivity to mystical experience–ultimately it is a gift of grace. James is also correct in noting the ineffable quality of mystical experiences. It is not that mystics cannot communicate anything about their experience–otherwise, why would they write books about mysticism–but that language does a poor job in communicating the experience. In December 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas told his secretary that he had a mystical experience of God of such power that everything he had written before was “straw.” He died shortly afterward in March 1274.

Mystics also have a sense, as James noted, of certainty that the experience they had was real. The experience itself does not last long; James is probably not far off the mark when he states that most experiences last less than half an hour. These special gifts of grace are the height of the contemplative (Mary-type) life as opposed to the more practical Martha-type life. The church requires both.

Christian mystics should always keep in mind the fact of the incarnation (as did St. Theresa of Avila). Matter is good and redeemed by God through Christ. Any mystical experience that denies the goodness of matter is heretical from a Christian perspective. What mystical experience tells Christians, among other things, is how small we human beings are in comparison with God. Even the Beatific Vision will not result in anything close to a complete knowledge of God. It is good for humans, who have a tendency toward pride and arrogance, to realize their smallness, their nothingness, in the face of Existence Itself.

Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

The 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference

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English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Ten...

English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

550 scholars from throughout the nation and some from overseas participated in the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference at David Lipscomb University. This was the first CSC I attended. It was only two years ago that I discovered that those outside Churches of Christ could present papers and/or attend the conference. Since Lipscomb was my Alma mater, I could not pass up the opportunity.

Besides seeing old friends I had not seen in years, I was treated, as were the other conference attendees, to top-notch Christian scholarship. I learned something valuable at every session I attended. In the session in which I presented a paper on functional magnetic resonance imaging and mind-reading (I do not think fMRIs can read minds!), respondents gave me some names of people from the computer science field whom I need to read. That advice should strengthen the paper considerably as I try to get it into journal-submission shape.

The theme was reconciliation, but there were papers in many areas: religious studies, theology, Biblical studies, church history, pastoral theology, and philosophical theology. The strong interdisciplinary focus of the conference is one of its strengths.

The highlight of the conference for me was the talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, a woman who hid in a small bathroom with seven other women during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Her entire family was killed. During her time hiding, she discovered faith in a God who acts, a God who requires forgiveness, and she was able to forgive those who murdered her family. Her willingness to forgive, the seriousness with which she takes her Christianity, her love for others, and her humility make her a saint of God. Her story put me to shame—and so many others who often refuse to forgive much less serious offenses than Ms. Immaculee Illigabiza suffered. What a fitting end to a splendid conference.

Having been outside Churches of Christ since 1986, and a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, one thing that surprised me was the openness of the members of the Church of Christ to those of other faith traditions. Another surprise was the higher liturgical religious services with litanies and responsive readings of the psalms. The participation of women in various parts of the service was also a big change from my days at Lipscomb. A big shock was that I was more conservative, both theologically and politically, than the majority of the conference participants. There were a number of papers covering issues of race, class, and gender, areas that, in my judgment, are too often abused by people on the left to further their particular agenda. There was a strong liberal political bias toward social democracy in the sense of the New Deal/Great Society model. There was also a strong sense that the Courts should override the power of the states for the sake of what is good. The difficulty with that strategy is that a Court that has the power to rule for the good also has the power to rule in favor of evil—and world history does not provide a particularly favorable picture of the use of government power. Those who assert such positions mean well and believe that they are practicing their Christianity by changing society for the better and by being “prophetic.” A friend of mine once said that a man at church who is tired after driving a truck for a living does not need a “prophetic sermon” on what a jerk he is for ignoring the concerns of (pick your favorite one or more of the liberals’ “favored groups”). What I hope is that the more liberal people at the conference realize that both liberals and conservatives are concerned for justice and for the poor, but they differ on strategy and on the role of government.

I am more concerned that theologically those questioning much of the tradition in which they were reared would be careful “not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” There are essential Christian beliefs which are stated by the Apostle’s and Nicene-Athanasian Creeds and by the early councils of the church. The bodily resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully God, fully man, the virgin birth, the Holy Trinity—all are essential tenants of Christianity that cannot be jettisoned without destroying the faith. In addition, the traditional moral teachings of the Church, including traditions concerning sexual ethics, should be affirmed and lived. When people are unsure of the identity of their tradition, especially intelligent and sometimes brilliant academics, it is tempting to lose one’s way.

Another temptation is intellectual arrogance, that “we are better than all those ignorant people in the pulpit.” I have been down that road—and it is a road of sinful pride. Everyone should read Helmut Thielicke’s A LITTLE EXERCISE FOR YOUNG THEOLOGIANS.

All that being said, the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference was a splendid conference, and God willing, I hope to present a paper there next year.

On Looking through Time as Well as Through Space

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English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Ten...

We are temporal creatures, living in a world of time as the measure of change. When we experience the world, we experience it in terms of space and time–Kant was correct in at least that portion of his philosophy. People do not experience time in the same way–some people focus on the present, others are future-oriented, and still others live in a world of images of the past. All human beings consider past, present, and future in their experience. Now science tells us that when we look into the night sky we are looking back through time as well as space. If I see Sirius, I am looking 8.6 years into the past, since it takes 8.6 years for the light from Sirius to reach the earth. Most stars are far more distant, and telescopes can peer billions of years into the past.

The past two days I have been attending the Christian Scholars’ Conference at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, my Alma mater, from which I graduated with a degree in Biblical languages in 1983. Although my parents live thirty miles from the school, I am staying on campus to avoid rush hour traffic. The campus has grown so much that parts of it are difficult to recognize. The older buildings remain–Sewell Hall, where I stayed in the dorm during the week, driving home to Smyrna every weekend; the parking lot by the dorm where I would return from Sunday dinner at my grandparents; the old Student Center; the auditorium where I attended chapel; the Burton Building, which houses health sciences today, was where I took my Greek class under Dr. Harvey Floyd. As I looked at the buildings and the parking lot, the experience was so emotionally overwhelming that it brought me to tears. As I looked at the campus, I was gazing through time and space, and memories from the past flooded back in a series of photographs and moving images. I felt the extreme loneliness I had felt as a student, socially awkward and from a working class family, among students who were more socially astute and from very different backgrounds. All I had wanted was to find a good Christian woman to marry, and I was so awkward that dating, such as it was, was not a successful venture. Thank God I have a wonderful wife now. I remembered the walk I would take from the side of Sewell Hall to go to class, to the Student Center, or to the Tuesday night singing led by Mack Wayne Craig. The parking lot was poignant, which may seem strange, but the memory of driving home to find Granddaddy worse every trip, and worst of all, driving back to school after his funeral in late November of 1982, was so vivid that I was reliving the event. Perhaps that is an Asperger’s trait–to have such a vivid memory that the past seems as present as the present moment. That can be both a blessing and a curse. I had also had some good times and met some friends for life, and for that I am grateful.

I have quoted Peter Kreeft on this blog before on memory–that memory makes past events sacred, and I added that it can also make past events more difficult to bear due to the pain of loss. Even if you have not experienced time in this way, this experience illustrates why a good God would create a Heaven for people to live forever as embodied creatures. Perhaps one reason that human beings live in time is for them to learn how precious relationships are. Once this lesson is learned and we have nurtured virtue, then living forever without worrying about loss will not make us take relationships for granted. We will remember, I think (although God only knows) the pain of loss on earth so that in the New Earth, the heavenly realm, we will appreciate what is restored and praise the God who grants the gift of transcending the limitations of time. Perhaps looking through time as well as through space will be accentuated for all people in Heaven, but only what is good in human relationships will be in memory to be recalled as a whole whenever we meet a loved one. Now love of God is always primary, for it is only through His grace that we are granted eternal life in the first place. The hope of orthodox Christians is that through our primary love we can love those people we lost in life more deeply than before. We will never lose temporality entirely, but redeemed temporality will transcend the fabric of losses peeled from our earthly lives. Thinking of looking through time and space in this way makes that ability a gift rather than a curse.

Christianity and Victimology

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Jesus Christ Crucifix

Jesus Christ Crucifix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christian scholars often tilt toward social democracy or to full-fledged socialism in their thought, as well as an activist role for the federal courts in overturning immoral laws passed by the states. I admire their sincerity and zeal in their cause, but I cannot agree with their naivety about human nature and the realities of political life in a fallen world. In addition, the moralistic way in which they present their message is sapping with more sentimentality than with logic.

There is no question that Jesus demanded the highest standards of conduct toward God and toward one’s fellow human beings. The first and greatest commandment, as Jesus said, is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, with the second greatest requiring that a person love his neighbor as himself. These are not abstract demands–they require that a person take concrete actions to fulfill them. When it comes to loving one’s neighbor, this begins with one’s self, then moves out to family and friends, and finally to strangers in need. The command is also incompatible with any treatment of individuals that violates their dignity–this is like Kant’s third version of the Categorical Imperative that says one should act as much as possible so as to treat a person as an end in himself and not as a means to an end.

Now politically liberal Christians often claim that the federal government should love its neighbor by large-scale social programs for the poor. This sounds like a good, loving idea, but it runs into the problem that poor people are most effectively helped at the local level by people who know their overall situations. Throwing federal money at the poor has only made them dependent and lacking initiative to improve their lot in life. Any observer who has a modicum of objectivity can observe the failure of Lyndon Johnson‘s Great Society. A more modest government, oriented toward the states and to more local areas of control and resource allocation, can do more good to stimulate business to hire more workers and to help those among the poor who desire to raise themselves out of their situation of poverty.

The federal courts should not be in the position of enforcing the particular moral obsessions of judges into the federal law books. Well-meaning court rulings in the 1950s and 60s on Civil Rights were meant to fight clear injustices, but it would have been more in line with the Constitution to allow good people from the states along with people of good will from other places to persuade the good people in each state to fight against immoral laws. With enough political pressure, or with enough voters turning out those who support immoral practices, the state legislatures would most likely follow their best interests in changing the law in the direction of the good. There are no guarantees, but the seizing of state power by the federal courts will only lead to long term erosion of the power of the states and the growth of an inefficient, over-regulating federal government with the power to intimidate individuals through exercise of police power.

Well-meaning Christians look at the world simplistically–“We can change society for the better.” It is a short jump to go from “we” to a mammoth federal bureaucracy that will only grow in power until it engulfs the power of the states–and eventually guts freedom in general.

Victims are created and maintained to support the federal bureaucracy. Group identity trumps individual identity, and the individual is subsumed into a victim-group which in turn is kept dependent by the state in order to keep the ruling order in power. Christians are sympathetic to victims because Christ was also a victim of injustice and suffered a terrible death by crucifixion. Being a victim raises the moral status of the victim in the eyes of many Christians. The victim becomes a Christ-figure who does not need to reform his life, but only needs to say, “I am a member of minority victim Group A, therefore I should receive federal benefits B and C and D, etc.” Christianity needs to open its eyes to its own doctrine of the Fall, so that it recognizes that even well-meaning strategies to bring about justice do not work in real life, especially when those individuals who live irresponsibly do not amend their ways. The victim, in turn, enjoys the status of victim since it takes away his responsibility in life and turns his care over to others.

Christians should take care that their well-meaning, loving strategies do not leave the world a worse place than before. They can do what they can to help individuals in their own communities–that way, one small step at a time, without the poison of identity politics, people can be truly helped.

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