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Students’ Broken Moral Compasses

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Atlantic which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.

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A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.

I was satisfied that students were clearly thinking about tough issues, but unsettled by their lack of experience considering their own values. “Do you think you should discuss morality and ethics more often in school?” I asked the class. The vast majority of heads nodded in agreement. Engaging in this type of discourse, it seemed, was a mostly foreign concept for the kids.

Widespread adoption of the Common Core standards—despite resistance by some states—arguably continues the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 law charged all public schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, meaning that all students were expected to be on grade level. This unrealistic target forced schools to track and measure the academic achievement of all students, a goal lauded by most, but one that ultimately elevated standardized testing and severely narrowed curricula. Quantifying academic gains remains at the forefront of school-improvement efforts to the detriment of other worthwhile purposes of schooling.

As my students seemed to crave more meaningful discussions and instruction relating to character, morality, and ethics, it struck me how invisible these issues have become in many schools. By omission, are U.S. schools teaching their students that character, morality, and ethics aren’t important in becoming productive, successful citizens?

For many American students who have attended a public school at some point since 2002, standardized-test preparation and narrowly defined academic success has been the unstated, but de facto, purpose of their schooling experience. And while school mission statements often reveal a goal of preparing students for a mix of lifelong success, citizenship, college, and careers, the reality is that addressing content standards and test preparation continues to dominate countless schools’s operations and focus.

In 2014, an annual end-of-year kindergarten show in New York was canceled so students could focus on college-and-career readiness. Test-prep rallies have become increasingly commonplace, especially at the elementary level. And according to a 2015 Council of the Great City Schools study, eighth-graders spend an average of 25.3 hours a year taking standardized tests. In Kentucky, where I teach, high schools are under pressure to produce students who are ready for college, defined as simply reaching benchmark scores in reading, English, and math on the ACT.

Talking with my students about ethics and gauging their response served as a wakeup call for me to consider my own role as an educator and just how low character development, ethics, and helping students develop a moral identity have fallen with regard to debate over what schools should teach. The founders of this country, Jessica Lahey wrote in The Atlantic, would “likely be horrified by the loss of this goal, as they all cite character education as the way to create an educated and virtuous citizenry.” According to Gallup polling, Lahey added, 90 percent of adults support the teaching in public schools of honesty, acceptance of others, and moral courage, among other character traits. What adults hope occurs in schools, however, is in sharp contrast to observations provided by teens themselves.

The 2012 Josephson Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth reveals a pressing need to integrate elements of character education into the country’s public-school curriculums. According to the study, 57 percent of teens stated that successful people do what they have to do to win, even if it involves cheating. Twenty-four percent believe it is okay to threaten or hit someone when angry. Thirty-one percent believe physical violence is a big problem in their schools. Fifty-two percent reported cheating at least once on an exam. Forty-nine percent of students reported being bullied or harassed in a manner that seriously upset them.

In the recently released Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michelle Borba claims narcissism is on the rise, especially in the Western world, as more teens concur with the statement: “I am an extraordinary person.” If empathy is crucial to developing a moral identity, then this trend should be troubling to parents and educators who hope that students foster the ability to see the world through others’s eyes.

My own observations support the data. I’m frequently unnerved by the behaviors I see in classrooms and hallways every day, from physical and verbal bullying, to stereotyping, to students leaving trash strewn all over the outdoor cafeteria courtyard.

“Teaching character education in schools is actually unavoidable … [E]verything the school chooses to do or not do in terms of curriculum choices” influences the culture of a school and the character of its students, Steve Ellenwood, the director of Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility (CCSR), wrote in an email. His words resonated with me. During my 12 years in education, I can’t recall a single meeting in which the discussion of student character and ethics was elevated to anything close to the level of importance of academics within school curricula.

Groups like the CCSR and the Josephson Institute of Ethics’ Character Counts! initiative strive to enhance existing school programs and curricula to address these issues, proof that efforts do exist to transform schools into places where character education is elevated within traditional curricula. But Ellenwood laments that many educators “blithely accept that schools must be value-neutral,” adding that there is legal precedent for teaching about religions (and not imposing any set of beliefs), character, and ethics. And divisive national politics have left many educators with difficult choices about addressing certain issues, especially those who teach immigrant students who are actively afraid of their fates if Donald Trump wins the election.

A reluctance to teach about religions and value systems is coinciding with a steady decline of teen involvement in formal religious activity over the past 50 years, according to research led by San Diego State Professor Jean Twenge. And while attending church is only one way young people may begin to establish a moral identity, schools don’t seem to be picking up the slack. There’s undoubtedly a fear about what specific ethical beliefs and character traits schools might teach, but one answer might be to expose students to tough issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.

At a recent convening of 15 teacher-leaders from around the country at the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina, I spoke to some colleagues about the balance between teaching academic content and striving to develop students’ moral identities. Leticia Skae-Jackson, an English teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and Nick Tutolo, a math teacher in Pittsburgh, both commented that many teachers are overwhelmed by the pressure and time demands in covering academic standards. Focusing on character and ethics, they said, is seen as an additional demand.

Nonetheless, Tutolo engages his math students at the beginning of the school year by focusing on questions of what it means to be a conscientious person and citizen while also considering how his class could address community needs. His seventh-grade class focused on the issue of food deserts in Pittsburgh and began a campaign to build hydroponic window farms. While learning about ratios and scaling—skills outlined in the Common Core math standards—students began working to design and distribute the contraptions to residents in need, a project that will continue this fall as Tutolo “loops” up to teach eighth grade.

William Anderson, a high-school teacher in Denver, takes a similar approach to Tutolo, but told me that “most teachers haven’t been trained to design instruction that blends academic content with an exploration of character and ethics.” He emphasized that schools should promote this approach to develop well-rounded students. Addressing academic skills and challenging students to consider ethics and character should not, he argued, be mutually exclusive.

When I reflect upon my own education, two classes stand out with regard to finding the balance between imparting academic skills and developing my own moral identity. My high-school biology teacher Phil Browne challenged us to think about the consequences of our consumer choices and individual actions as they related to ecosystems and the environment in a way that challenged us to think about ourselves as ethical actors.

A couple years later, I signed up for a freshman seminar in college titled “Education and Social Inequality” at Middlebury College in Vermont. I remember being moved by Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and his moral outrage at dilapidated, underfunded, and understaffed schools in impoverished areas; early on in the course, I struggled to articulate my thoughts during essay assignments. My professor, Peggy Nelson, would sit quietly during seminars, watching us squirm in our seats while we grappled with big ideas such as personal responsibility, systemic injustice, and racism.

Entering my 13th year in the classroom this fall, I hope to continue striving to capture the dynamic that Browne, Nelson, Tutolo, Skae-Jackson, Anderson, and other skilled educators have achieved by blending academic instruction with the essential charge of developing students as people. It’s time for critical reflection about values our schools transmit to children by omission in our curriculum of the essential human challenges of character development, morality, and ethics. Far too often, “we’re sacrificing the humanity of students for potential academic and intellectual gain,” Anderson said.

By Paul Barnwell and originally published in The Atlantic on July 25, 2016 and can be seen here.

Assimilate! How Modern Liberalism Is Destroying Individuality

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in National Review which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.

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Progressives claim to celebrate diversity, but demand that everyone fit their mold.
I was once called a “cracker” by a member of the Nation of Islam. It was in the mid-1980s and I was driving through Washington, D.C., in the kind of neighborhood that conservatives call dangerous and liberals call “transitioning.” I saw a member of the Nation of Islam, bow tie and all, on the corner hawking copies of The Final Call, the NOI’s newspaper. I rolled down the window and asked for a copy. That’s when he hit me with it: “F*ck off, cracker.”
I thought of this gentleman fondly when I was reading the new book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish scholar Ryszard Legutko. The book is an intense read that argues that liberal democracies are succumbing to a utopian ideal where individuality and eccentricity might eventually be banned. As liberals push us towards a monoculture where there is no dissent, no gender, and no conflict, the unique and the great will eventually cease to exist. No more offbeat weirdoes, eccentric crazies, or cults. No more Nation of Islam there to call me a cracker. No more of the self-made and inspired figures of the past: Duke Ellington, Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibowitz.
Legutko’s thesis is that liberal democracies have something in common with communism: the sense that time is inexorably moving towards a kind of human utopia, and that progressive bureaucrats must make sure it succeeds. Legutko first observed this after the fall of communism. Thinking that communist bureaucrats would have difficulty adjusting to Western democracy, he was surprised when the former Marxists smoothly adapted — indeed, thrived — in a system of liberal democracy. It was the hard-core anti-communists who couldn’t quite fit into the new system. They were unable to untether themselves from their faith, culture, and traditions.
Both communism and liberal democracy call for people to become New Men by jettisoning their old faith, customs, arts, literature, and traditions. Thus a Polish anti-communist goes from being told by communists that he has to abandon his old concepts of faith and family to become a member of the larger State, only to come to America after the fall of the Berlin Wall and be told he has to forego those same beliefs for the sake of the sexual revolution and the bureaucratic welfare state. Both systems believe that societies are moving towards a certain ideal state, and to stand against that is to violate not just the law but human happiness itself. Legutko compares the two: “Societies — as the supporters of the two regimes are never tired of repeating — are not only changing and developing according to a linear pattern but also improving, and the most convincing evidence of the improvement, they add, is the rise of communism and liberal democracy. And even if a society does not become better at each stage and in each place, it should continue improving given the inherent human desire to which both regimes claim those found the most satisfactory response.”
Legutko argues that, of course, there are huge differences between communism and liberal democracy — liberal democracy is obviously a system that allows for greater freedom. He appreciates that in a free society people are able to enjoy the arts, books, and pop culture that they want. Our medical system is superior. We don’t suffer from famines. Yet Legutko argues that with so much freedom has come a kind of flattening of taste and the hard work of creating original art.
We’ve witnessed the a slow and steady debasement of our politics and popular culture — see, for example, those “man on the street” interviews where Americans can’t name who won the Revolutionary War. Enter the unelected bureaucrats who appoint themselves to steer the ship; in other words, we’re liberals and we’re here to help. Inspired by the idea that to be against them is to be “on the wrong side of history,” both communism and contemporary liberalism demand absolute submission to the progressive plan. All resistance, no matter how grounded in genuine belief or natural law, must be quashed.
Thus in America came the monochromatic washing of a country that once could boast not only crazies like Scientologists and Louis Farrakhan, but creative and unusual icons like Norman Mailer, Georgia O’Keefe, Baptists, Hindus, dry counties, John Courtney Murray, Christian bakers, orthodox Jews, accents, and punk rockers. The eccentric and the oddball, as well as the truly great, are increasingly less able to thrive. As Legutko observes, we have a monoculture filled with people whose “loutish manners and coarse language did not have their origin in communism, but, as many found astonishing, in the patterns, or rather anti-patterns that developed in Western liberal democracies.” The revolution didn’t devour its children; progressive-minded bureaucrats did.
By Mark Judge and originally published on August 11, 2016 and can be seen here.

 

Mammon Ascendant

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  It is by one of my favorite theologians/philosophers, David Bently Hart (see here), and regards the relationship between capitalism and Christianity, and takes a view with which I tend to agree.  Be edified.

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So, there I was, pondering, with an old familiar feeling of perplexity (about which more anon), certain reactions to my reaction to various reactions to the pope’s last encyclical, when it occurred to me that the one thing on which ­Hegelians of every stripe—right or left, theological or materialist, contemplative or activist—are undoubtedly correct is that the logic of history is not the logic of individuals, or of parties, or of states. It is not ideology, that is to say, that determines the course of cultural evolution, but the dialectic of history, which (even if it is not materialist) can never float free of material conditions. Hence Hegel’s famous “master-slave dialectic”: that process by which the material economy of ancient society slowly but inevitably inverted the order of knowledge and power upon which that society rested. History—its meaning, its irony—reveals itself only by way of a ­continuous pragmatic labor, an engagement between spirit and matter; and the final issue of that labor becomes manifest not in the abstractions we profess but in the culture we create.

Take, for instance, American political history of the last thirty-five years. One of the great political masterstrokes of the late twentieth century was Ronald Reagan’s successful creation of a coalition between cultural “conservatives” and fiscal “conservatives,” one that seemed to a great many at the time and for a long while thereafter not only a stable alliance, but a natural association. All at once, Wall Street Journal–reading mandarins began caring about abortion, “family values,” and even school prayer; pro-life Christians and Jews became genuine partisans of supply-side economics, reduced marginal tax rates, and expansive free-trade agreements; and both sides shared just enough traditional American traits (sincere patriotism unburdened by the disenchantments of postwar Europe, genial optimism, the language of self-reliance, pioneer myths, small-town ideals, and so forth) to overcome whatever regional and cultural differences might otherwise have separated them. It was an invincible political force.

But, again, it is culture—not politics—that pronounces the final historical verdict on our transitory ideologies and grand social projects and high ideals. The coalition that Reagan wrought has largely collapsed, and has done so as the result not of external hostile forces, but under the weight of its own contradictions. It has been said often enough that in the long aftermath of the 1960s, it became evident that the “right” had won the economic argument over culture and the “left” the moral argument. At least, I have heard one of my friends say it often enough (usually in a slurred voice and under fairly dim lighting: free markets and free love, corporatism and hedonism, low taxes and high times, Ben and Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Bill Gates . . .).

And, of course, it is true. The social revolution of the late 1960s was a marvelous impasto of cultural, political, social, and moral gestures, many of them more spasmodic than deliberate, and most of them only accidentally associated with one another. The most licentiously self-indulgent hedonism dallied for a gay flirtatious season with the grimly severe moralism of Trotskyite or Maoist rhetoric; the revolution was proclaimed by cossetted children of the middle class who imagined the socialist utopia as an interminable revel of psychedelic drugs, casual copulation, and ever shorter skirts; Madison Avenue was relentlessly denounced by its most servile victims. (And, oh, how I sigh with genuine nostalgia for the idiot happiness of those days.)

But, once the mists had cleared and the lava lamps had dimmed, things began sorting themselves out very rapidly. The economic radicalism faded, but the new social mores persisted, and grew in power, and became the common social grammar. A once very fashionably idealist generation found the adventure of revolution far less exhilarating than the venture of capital; it continued to cling to the old new Bohemianism (which, after all, always sold very well), but realized that endless self-indulgence requires the sort of resources that only canny investment can secure. Apple Records began as a collectivist idyll but a few bats of the eyelashes later was a tightly controlled distribution firm with security cameras at the gate; George Harrison soon learned that it was easier to find time for Krishna and room for organic farming on the sprawling grounds of an English manor house; Haight-Ashbury tie-dye ­mutated into Silicon Valley office casual; the homiletics of public property yielded to the legalese of the public offering; cannabis was just the new Chivas. All that now remained of economic debate were procedural details: the relative preponderance of development and regulation, the shifting balance of power between business sectors and state agencies, and so on.

In another sense, however, the notion that two opposed ideologies divided the spoils of the culture between them is deeply false. In truth, no political faction won or lost, because none was involved in the process at all except as one of the forces employed (and then perhaps discarded) by a deeper power. What in fact won the day was a single historical dynamism, a single indivisible cultural philosophy. That its political expressions had been distributed among different parties was a purely incidental matter of process, an especially exquisite example of “the cunning of history,” which effectively hid the true form of what everyone really wanted behind the spectacle of superficial antagonisms. Or rather, I should say: not superficial, but certainly futile. The struggle over “values” was quite real on both sides, as far as personal commitments were concerned. But, once again, the reasons for which individuals act are not the reasons by which history unfolds.

All right. Perhaps I am not as much of a German idealist as all that. But I do believe that the relation between material conditions and moral concepts is never accidental, and that cultural logic invariably discovers the real harmonies and balances and accords that our fleeting intellectual paradigms generally cannot. As late modern persons, we live in a society whose highest values—in every sphere: moral, religious, economic, domestic, cultural, and so on—can loosely be described as “libertarian.” We understand freedom principally as an ­individual’s sovereign liberty of deliberative and acquisitive choice, and we understand individual desires (so long as they fall within certain minimal legal constraints) either as rights or at least as protected by rights. And we are increasingly disposed to see almost every restriction placed upon the pursuit of those desires as an unreasonable imposition. Our natural economic philosophy, then, is of course “neoliberal” (or, as it is also called in America, “neoconservative”) while our natural moral philosophy is voluntarist, individualist, and hedonist (in a not necessarily opprobrious sense). Not only is there no contradiction here; there is an essential unity.

And, in this sense, talk of history’s dialectic is not only pardonable, but probably necessary. The story of how, over a far longer period than thirty-five years, we arrived where we are has been told often before: on the side of ideas, the rise of late scholastic voluntarism, the emergence not only of epistemological nominalism but even of nominalist accounts of the good, theologies that subordinated all divine attributes to the supreme attribute of absolute sovereignty and that increasingly conceived of sovereignty as something like pure spontaneity of will, then the eventual migration of this idea of sovereign freedom from theology to anthropology, as well as the rise of mechanistic metaphysics (and so on); on the side of material circumstance, the rise of the absolute state, the creation of denatured ecclesial establishments, the rise of early market institutions, the growth of an enfranchised merchant class, the rise of the power of large capital in the age of industrialization, the inevitable emergence of consumerism (and so on); and, between the two sides, a dynamic, fluctuating, oscillating, but ultimately inexorable dialectical process. It is an absorbing tale, but it has gone through so many editions by now that even the effort of declining to repeat it is tedious.

Even so, just at the moment I feel as if somehow I have to remark this essential, indissoluble concomitance between the logic of late modern secularity and that of late modern capitalism. It all has to do, I suppose, with those reactions to my reaction to those reactions I mentioned above, and with that old familiar perplexity they occasioned in me. At least I feel I want to confess, if nothing else, the limits of my imagination on one vexing point. Simply said, I have never been able to understand those (almost exclusively American) souls who expend such energy both on lamenting the late modern collapse of so many of the moral accords and cultural values and religious aspirations of the past and also on vigorously promoting the very system of material and social practices that made that collapse inevitable.

The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. Any dominant material economy is complicit with, and in fact demands, a particular anthropology, ethics, and social vision. And a late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessity promotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. The entire system depends not merely on supplying needs and satisfying natural longings, but on the ceaseless invention of ever newer desires, ever more choices. It is also a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions—religious, cultural, social—that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices.

This is what Marx genuinely admired about capitalism: its power to dissolve all the immemorial associations of family, tradition, faith, and affinity, the irresistible dynamism of its dissolution of ancient values, its (to borrow a loathsome phrase) “gales of creative destruction.” The secular world—our world, our age—is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. It is a reality in which all social, political, and economic associations have been reduced to a bare tension between the individual and the state, each of which secures the other against the intrusions and encroachments of other claims to authority, other demands upon desire, other narratives of the human. Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.

Mind you, part of the difficulty of convincing American Christians of this lies in the generous vagueness with which we have come to use the word “capitalism” in recent decades. For many, the term means nothing more than a free market in goods, or the right to produce and trade, or buying and selling as such. In that sense, every culture in recorded history would have been “capitalist” in some degree. And for many, then, it also seems natural to think that all free trade and all systems of market exchange are of a piece, and that to defend the dignity of production and trade in every sphere, it is necessary also to defend the globalized market and the immense power of current corporate entities—or, conversely, to think that any serious and sustained criticism of the immorality, environmental devastation, exploitation of desperate labor markets, or political mischief for which such entities might often justly be arraigned is necessarily an assault on every honest entrepreneur who tries to build a business, create some jobs, or produce something useful or delightful to sell.

But, in long historical perspective, the capitalist epoch of market economies has so far been one of, at most, a few centuries. At least, in the narrower acceptation of the term generally agreed on by economic historians, capitalism is what Proudhon in 1861 identified as a system—at once economic and social—in which, as a general rule, the source of income does not belong at all to those who make it operative by their labor. If that is too vague, we can say it is the set of economic conventions that succeeded those of the “mercantilism” of the previous era, with its tariff regimes and nationalist policies of trade regulation, and that took shape in the age of industrialization. Historically, this meant a shift in economic eminence from the merchant class—purveyors of goods contracted from and produced by independent artisanal labor or subsidiary estates or small local markets—to the capitalist investor who is at once producer and seller of goods, and who is able to generate immense capital at the secondary level of investment speculation: a purely financial market where wealth is generated and enjoyed by those who produce nothing except an incessant circulation of investment and divestment.

Along with this came a new labor system: the end of most of the contractual power of free skilled labor, the death of the artisanal guilds, and the genesis of a mass wage system; one, that is, in which labor became a commodity, different markets could compete against one another for the cheapest, most desperate laborers, and (as the old Marxist plaint has it) both the means of production and the fruit of labor belonged not to the workers but only to the investors. Hence the accusation of early generations of socialists, like William Morris and John Ruskin, that capitalism was to be eschewed not because it was a free-market system, but because it destroyed the true freedom of the market economies that had begun to appear at the end of the Middle Ages, and concentrated all real economic and contractual liberty in the hands of a very few.

This is a system that not only allows for, but positively depends upon, immense concentrations of private capital and private dispositive use of that capital, as unencumbered by fiscal regulation as possible. It also obviously allows for the exploitation of material and human resources on an unprecedentedly massive scale, one that even governments cannot rival. And it is a system that inevitably eventuates not only in economic, but cultural, “consumerism,” because it can continue to create wealth sufficient to sustain the investment system only by a social habit of consumption extravagantly in excess of mere natural need or even (arguably) natural want. Thus it must dedicate itself not only to fulfilling desire, but to fabricating new desires, prompted by fashion, or by seductive appeals to what 1 John calls “the lust of the eyes”—the high art of which we call “advertising.”

Now, without question, capitalism works. It is magnificently efficient at generating enormous wealth, and increasing the wealth of society at large—if not necessarily of all individuals or classes—and adjusting to the supersession of one form of commercial production by another. But this is practically a tautology. That is its entire purpose, and it is no great surprise that over time it should have evolved ever more refined and comprehensive means for achieving it. It generates immense returns for the few, which sometimes redound to the benefit of the many, but which often do not; it can create and enrich or destroy and impoverish, as prudence warrants; it can encourage liberty and equity or abet tyranny and injustice, as necessity dictates. It has no natural attachment to the institutions of democratic or liberal freedom; China has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that endless consumer choices can comfortably coexist with a near total absence of civil liberties. Capitalism has no moral nature at all. The good it yields is not benevolence; the evil is not malice. It is a system that cannot be abused, but only practiced with greater or lesser efficiency. It admits of no other criterion by which to judge its consequences.

This last point, moreover, needs to be particularly stressed, at least in America, where many of capitalism’s apologists are eager (perhaps commendably) to believe that our market system is not only conducive of large social benefits, but possessed of deep structural virtues. This belief often leads them both to exaggerate those benefits and to ignore the damages, or to explain them away (like good Marxists preaching the socialist eschaton) as transient evils that will be redeemed by a final general beatitude (“rising tide” . . . “all boats” . . . “supply-side” . . . “trickle down” . . . “Walmart may destroy small businesses and force the formerly well-employed into inferior jobs, but, hey, think of the joy that all those cheap—if occasionally toxic—Chinese goods produced by ruthlessly exploited laborers will provide the lower middle class in its ceaseless fiscal decline!”). But, given the sheer magnitude of capitalism’s ability to alter material, social, economic, and cultural reality, to cherish even the faintest illusions regarding some kind of inherent goodness in the system is to risk more than mere complacency.

Yes, venture capital built Manhattan—its shining cloud-capped towers, its millions of jobs, its inexhaustible bagels—but the cost of a world where Manhattans are built has to be reckoned in more than capital. And one does not even need to travel any great distance to assess some of the gravest of them. One need go no farther than the carboniferous tectonic collision zones of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky to find a land where a once poor but propertied people were reduced to helotry on land they used to own by predatory mineral rights’ purchases, and then forced into dangerous and badly remunerated labor that destroyed their health, and then kept generation upon generation in servile dependency on an industry that shears the crests off mountains, chokes river valleys with slurry and chemical toxins, and subverts local politics. And what one must remember is that all that devastation was not the result of one of capitalism’s failures, but of one of its most conspicuous successes. All the investors realized returns on their initial expenditures many thousands of times over. Those who win at the game can win everything and more, while those who lose—who more often than we care to acknowledge lose everything and forever—are simply part of the cost of doing business.

None of which is to deny that capital investment can achieve goods that governments usually cannot. While it is certainly not the case that, say, the world’s rising mean life span or the increase in third-world literacy are straightforwardly consequences of globalization, it certainly is the case that global investment and trade have created resources that have made rapid medical progress, improvements in nutrition, and distribution of goods and services—by private firms, charities, governments, and international humanitarian organizations—possible in ways that less fluid commercial systems never could have done. There are regions of sub-Saharan Africa currently enjoying the kind of economic development that once seemed impossible because certain governments and businesses (such as numerous small technology firms) have set aside generations of post-colonial prejudice and finally begun building businesses there.

On the other hand, untold tens of thousands of Africans have died as a result of large Western pharmaceutical firms, concerned for their market share and their proprietary rights, exerting fiscal and government pressure to deny access to affordable antiretroviral drugs manufactured in Thailand and elsewhere. The market gives life; the market murders. It creates cities; it poisons oceans. And throughout the third world, as well as in less fortunate districts of the developed world, the price of industrialization remains (as ever) environmental damage of a sort that cannot be remedied in centuries, along with all its attendant human suffering. The World Health Organization, on very judiciously gathered data, estimates that roughly 12.6 million persons die each year as a result of environmental degradation, particularly pollution from industrial waste products. This being so, it seems only decent to wonder whether a thriving market system might be run on more humane principles—which is to say, on principles alien to capitalism as it has always existed.

Perhaps, though, I am allowing myself to drift away from my original point. Even if it were not so—even if fully developed capitalism, per impossibile, operated without any destruction of ecologies, communities, and lives—it would still carry moral costs that would render it ultimately antagonistic to any but an essentially secularized culture. At least, it could not coexist indefinitely with a culture informed by genuine Christian conviction. Even the fact of the system’s necessary reliance on immense private wealth makes it a moral problem from the vantage of the Gospel, for the simple reason that the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil. I know there are plentiful interpretations of Christianity that claim otherwise, and many of them have been profoundly influential of American understandings of the faith. Calvin’s scriptural commentaries, for instance, treat almost all of the New Testament’s more consequential moral teachings—Christ’s advice to the rich young ruler, his exhortations to spiritual perfection, and so on—as exercises in instructive irony, meant to demonstrate the impossibility of righteousness through works. Calvin even remarks that having some money in the bank is one of the signs of election. But that is offensive nonsense. The real text of the New Testament, uncolored by theological fancy, is utterly perspicuous and relentlessly insistent on this matter. Christ’s concern for the ptōchoi—the abjectly destitute—is more or less exclusive of any other social class.

What he says about the rich youth selling all his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor, and about the indisposition of camels trying to pass through needles’ eyes, is only the beginning. In the Sermon on the Plain’s list of beatitudes and woes, he not only tells the poor that the kingdom belongs to them, but explicitly tells the rich that, having had their pleasures in this world, they shall have none in the world to come. He condemns those who buy up properties and create large estates for themselves. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Do not store up treasure on earth, in earthly vessels, for where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. The apostolic Church in Jerusalem adopted an absolute communism of goods. Paul constantly condemns pleonektia, which is often translated as “excessive greed” or even “thievery,” but which really means no more than an acquisitive desire for more than one needs. He instructs the Corinthian Christians to donate all their profits to the relief of the poor in other church assemblies. James says that God’s elect are the poor of this world; the rich he condemns as oppressors and revilers of the divine name, who should howl in terror at the judgment that is coming upon them, because the rust of their treasure shall eat their flesh like fire on the last day. And on and on. This is so persistent, pervasive, and unqualified a theme of the New Testament that the genius with which Christians down the centuries have succeeded in not seeing it, or in explaining it away, or in pretending that it does not mean what it unquestionably means may be among the greatest marvels of the faith.

But, again, even if it were not so—even if there is a way of possessing wealth purely as a blameless stewardship of God’s bounty, or if the system could function as well in a society with more equitably distributed capital, or what have you—the problem with which I began remains. As a cultural reality, late capitalism is not merely a regulatory regime for markets, but also a positive system of values, necessarily at odds with other orders of desire, especially those that seek to limit acquisition or inhibit expressions of the will. We may think we are free to believe as we wish because that is what our totalitarian libertarianism or consumerist collectivism chiefly needs us to think. But, while our ancestors inhabited a world full of gods or saints, ours is one in which they have all been chased away by advertising, into the hidden world of personal devotion or private fixation. Public life is a realm of pure elective spontaneity, in every sphere, and that power of choice must be ceaselessly directed toward an interminable diversity of consumer goods, and encouraged to expand into ever more regions of fiscal, moral, and spiritual life. We are shaped by what we desire, and what we desire is shaped by the material culture that surrounds us, and by the ideologies and imaginative possibilities that it embodies and sustains.

This is not to say that believing Christians, Jews, and other retrograde types cannot live peacefully amid the heaven-scaling towers and abyss-plumbing indulgences of late modernity. Believers of every kind are strangers and sojourners in this life, and should not seek to build enduring cities in this world. Still, all of us must make our livings, and seek to provide for others, and that means buying and selling, hiring and being hired, seeking justice and enduring injustice. That is the business of life, and conducted well, it can bring about many good things. And who knows? Perhaps it is possible to reimagine a real market economy on a more truly human and humane scale, of the sort envisaged by E. F. Schumacher or various other religious “economists of the small.” After all, the exchange of goods, the common commerce of everyday life, the community that exists wherever one person trades one “gift” for another—all of these are natural goods, part of the corporal grammar of community, and can usually in some way exhibit a generosity more original and more ultimate than any calculus of greed or selfish appetite. But, beyond that, the claim that capitalist culture and Christianity are compatible—indeed, that they are not ultimately inimical to one another—seems to me not only self-evidently false, but quaintly (and perhaps perilously) deluded.

David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute of Advanced Studies. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays.

Originally published in First Things in June 2016 and can be seen here.

Book Review: The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, by Edward Feser

I have recently finished reading the book entitled The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, about which you can learn more here, by Edward S. Feser.  Feser is an associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, and a visiting scholar at the social philosophy and policy center at Bowling Green State University.

Professor Feser is unabashedly a Roman Catholic philosopher who wrote this book specifically in response to the writings of the New Atheists.  One cannot get more than a few pages into his writing without realizing that, in addition to being a Roman Catholic, Feser is a totally committed devotee of the philosophy/theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  What is also notable about Feser’s writing, unlike what one may expect from a philosopher, much less a Christian one, is that it drips with acerbic sarcasm, humor, and wit, which makes what could potentially be very dry material very entertaining (or very annoying and infuriating if one is on the other side of the positions he argues).  Indeed, Feser ensures this book is very readable to even those who are most unfamiliar with philosophy as he goes to great lengths to explain basic philosophy before embarking on the meat of arguments.

Feser’s main agenda in the book is to demonstrate why and how the primary arguments proffered by the New Atheists are without merit.  His arguments are far more pointed and directed than, say, David Bentley Hart‘s are in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss (see more on that book here), which deals with many of the issues raised by the New Atheists.  The distinction is that Hart’s thesis is to present a “definition” of the term “God,” which also just so happens to address and expose many of the errors of the arguments put forth by the New Atheists, as opposed to Feser’s approach which is to formulate specific arguments in opposition to the New Atheists.

Feser’s book is more than just “negative” however (by negative I mean demonstrating how the New Atheists are in error); his arguments against the New Atheists generally take the more positive form of demonstrating how Thomism, and by genetic connection, Aristotelianism, are far more cogent and coherent worldviews, especially as it relates to God.

Feser, like Hart, has an extremely low opinion of the arguments presented by the New Atheists, and it is also clear, like Hart, his opinion is not merely due to some sort of personal bias toward theism or Christianity; rather, both men note the intellectual bankruptcy in the arguments and positions of the New Atheists in the face of authentic scholarship, indeed even the scholarship of atheists of better reputation.  Of course, as implied above, Hart’s approach to the New Atheist arguments is as merely an ancillary to his greater point in developing a clearer picture of God, whereas Feser meets them directly.

Feser, like Hart, notes that the New Atheists’ rejection of, or disbelief in, “god” does not at all speak to the Christian’s God as the “god” the New Atheists disbelieve in bears little resemblance to what Christians mean by “God.”  Furthermore, Feser takes the time to provide the reader a brief overview of the history of (relevant) philosophy so one can see what came before in philosophical thought, what now exists in it, and how that transition was made.  Upon setting the philosophical stage, Feser picks off each of the New Atheists by demonstrating and exposing the fact that none have “done their homework” due to their rather obvious unfamiliarity (or lack of understanding of) basic philosophy.  Furthermore, he reveals that their lack of philosophical literacy has caused them to develop their own philosophies (intentionally or unintentionally) to provide the foundations for their views that are completely incoherent and unable to withstand the most elementary of arguments and analysis.

Through the use of the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and ultimately St. Thomas Aquinas, Feser convincingly demonstrates that cogent, coherent, and rational cases can be made for the existence of God, the soul, the afterlife, non-physical reality, and teleology.  Indeed, perhaps most central to Feser’s thesis is his approach to teleology, which is to say the purpose or function something has.  For the atheist, by definition and also, indeed, through his own arguments, teleology simply cannot exist as teleology assumes, by its own terms, a purpose or function giver (e.g.: God) which the atheist fundamentally rejects.  As a result, the atheistic approach to life, philosophy, and science is ultimately one which flounders around trying to develop a sensical worldview but is unable to do so as it rejects the tools available to do it.  Instead, without an understanding of basic philosophy and with a rejection of teleology, New Atheist philosophy has been forced to embrace completely irrational, incoherent, absurdist, and, indeed, superstitious, philosophies like eliminativism, scientism, idealism, and/or anti-realism (among others I am sure).  By contrast, Feser asserts, unlike the irrational worldview of the New Atheists, he can present a worldview that makes sense, is consistent with what we intuitively know to be real life, and can provide context, answers, and explanation for what we experience as life and reality.

Finally, it is worth noting that, despite being a Christian philosopher, Feser makes his arguments in this book without resorting to the Bible, Church teaching, or other religious authority.  Instead, his arguments are exclusively philosophical and arrived at through the use of reason and rational thinking.  Perhaps this aspect of the book is what will make it most powerful with the non-believer as it requires no submission to, or acceptance of, any religious teaching or text.  In order for one to understand and arrive at Feser’s conclusions, all one has to do is think, but, unfortunately, all most atheists are interested in doing is disbelieving.

Book Review: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss by David Bentley Hart

I have recently finished reading the book entitled The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, about which you can learn more here, by David Bentley Hart, who is an Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator, and currently a professor sitting as Danforth Chair at Saint Louis University in the Department of Theological Studies.

I do not want to overstate my thoughts on the book, but it is hard for me to say that it has been anything other than life changing for me.  I have been reading the Bible, theology, and philosophy for effectively my entire life and I am embarrassed to say that perhaps the most fundamental aspect of theology – who or what is God – is something I have merely taken for granted without a whole lot of thought.  Dr. Hart corrects this oversight.

The main thesis of the book is to develop a clear definition of what is meant by the word “god.”  Surprisingly to me, as I am not terribly conversant with non-Western religions, is that the definition for the word “god” is fairly consistent across every major religious traditional in the world today.  So, while Dr. Hart may be a Christian theologian, the applicability of this book cuts across virtually all religious lines.

The twenty-first century has seen the debate regarding whether God exists become perhaps its most contentious, but Dr. Hart points out that this debate, often in the form of competing books or public and moderated debates at universities, has become something of a parody of itself as very few of the participants in the debate accurately define what the term”god” means before the debate commences, which has led to hours of debates expended and gallons of ink spilled to facilitate people talking past one another and/or going on extended non sequiturs.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Dr. Hart’s thesis in this book is that it is not unique or new or innovative.  Dr. Hart cuts through all of the noise in popular culture about God and his existence and, instead, goes back to the basics.  Dr. Hart, instead, relies on the long standing traditional explanations of the great religious traditions before the so-called modern era.

Dr. Hart describes and defines God using three basic parameters: being, consciousness, and bliss.  Perhaps the most important drum beaten into submission throughout the book is the idea that God is not a being within the world.  He is not a so-called “supreme being.”  He is not in the “genus” of “god” in which there is only one entrant: himself.  Instead, Dr. Hart, falling back on the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, recognizes that God does not “exist” but is, in fact, the very essence of being itself.  Establishing God as “being itself,” Hart establishes that to exist is to be conscious and, therefore, God is the ultimate embodiment and/or expression and/or revelation and/or essence of consciousness itself.  As a corollary to that, Hart provides a litany of reasons as to why consciousness, as experienced by all human beings, simply cannot have an origin found in nature.  Now that God has been established as being itself which is the ultimate expression of consciousness, Hart further establishes that the very essence of conscious being is to be in a state and/or directed to bliss as God’s consciousness, indeed, his very being, is beyond all of the difficulties of our finite and temporal lives and is focused upon that ultimate beauty, which is being itself that is, in turn, God himself.  In making his case, Hart points out that ultimate concepts like beauty cannot find their origin in natural existence, and indeed have no purpose or need or function in our natural existence, but can only finds its origin and explanation in God.

This book really is not one of apologetics, though it sometimes goes in that direction, and nor is it an argument against various arguments raised by atheists against God’s existence, though it sometimes presents those arguments as well.  This book, at heart, is one which really only serves to clarify terms or, more specifically, a single term, that of course, being “God.”

By the end of the book the reader cannot help but realize that the vast majority of arguments one sees against the existence of God are not really arguments against God’s existence, but the existence of any number of so-called deities which exist in the universe.  This is why, for example, Bertrand Russell’s teapot or the ever popular “spaghetti monster” are so silly as neither have even the basic characteristics of God and, therefore, cannot serve as adequate targets for the arguments raised by atheists.

This book does not strike to add really anything new to theology in terms of data or insights, but it does serve the eminently important function of ensuring what is (or ought to be) meant by the term “God” is clearly understood, otherwise all of the debates and controversy about his existence are, ultimately, pointless diversions.  For this reason, I highly recommend this book.  It clarifies theology and provides a firm footing for any believer to stand on and, perhaps equally importantly, it also casts a rather long and imposing shadow against the arguments of the atheists in their effort to disprove the existence of God, showing them to be intellectually deficient (and perhaps intellectually ignorant), weak, and, ultimately, irrelevant to what is actually meant when believers refer to “God.”

NT Wright Responds to Stephen Hawking on Heaven

Here is a fantastic retort by the Right Reverend N.T. Wright to Stephen Hawking.

Fr Stephen Smuts

What Stephen Hawking doesn’t understand about heaven.

It’s in the Washington Post:

It’s depressing to see Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant minds in his field, trying to speak as an expert on things he sadly seems to know rather less about than many averagely intelligent Christians. Of course there are people who think of ‘heaven’ as a kind of pie-in-the-sky dream of an afterlife to make the thought of dying less awful. No doubt that’s a problem as old as the human race. But in the Bible ‘heaven’ isn’t ‘the place where people go when they die.’ In the Bible heaven is God’s space while earth (or, if you like, ‘the cosmos’ or ‘creation’) is our space. And the Bible makes it clear that the two overlap and interlock. For the ancient Jews, the place where this happened was the temple; for the Christians, the place where…

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