The Beauty of Culture Care

Dr. Justin Ariel Bailey

Coaching Call Info

As Christian leaders and educators, we have a powerful opportunity to offer a generative engagement of culture. Join us as we explore how to think about theology and culture as it relates to our teaching, our leading, and our own culture-creating. SCL President Eric Cook interviews Dr. Justin Ariel Bailey on his latest book, Interpreting Your World.

We tackle piercing, complex questions, such as:

How do we define culture? Are we out to win?

What could it mean to reimagine an apologetics of “culture care” rather than “culture war”?

How do we empower students to be rather than to appear?

About our Speaker

Dr. Justin Ariel Bailey, Dordt University

Justin Ariel Bailey is associate professor and chair of the theology department at Dordt University. He works at the intersection of theology, culture, and ministry, and his written work has appeared in publications such as Christianity Today, Christian Scholars Review, and the International Journal of Public Theology. He is the author of Reimagining Apologetics (IVP, 2020) and Interpreting Your World – 5 lenses for engaging theology and culture(Baker, 2022). He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church, and he has served as a pastor in Filipino-American, Korean-American, and Anglo-American settings.

The Challenge of Cultural Correctness

More threatening to classical Christian schools than “political correctness” is “cultural correctness,” the widely disseminated moral and religious assumptions that are often embedded in Christian parents and students, even those who are likely to come to classical Christian schools. What is “cultural correctness,” and how does it operate to undermine Christian institutions? How should we grapple with it?

Bob Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and a research associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department of Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. He teaches Christian ethics for the online Lutheran Institute for Theology. In 1982, he founded the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society, which was named in his honor in 2013. Prior to that, he was the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Roanoke College for 18 years, as well as Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for 17 years. He is a native of Nebraska, a graduate of Midland University and has graduate degrees from the University of Chicago. He has lectured and written widely on the relationship between Christianity and culture. Titles include Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics and Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education – A History of Roanoke College. He has been married to Joanna Carson Benne for 58 years and they have four children and eight grandchildren.

The Sophistry of American Education

This session desires to look critically at the unity of the Trivium. Rhetoric in the Grammar Stage does not only mean oral presentations. It will challenge this notion and ask the question, how can we give rhetoric a proper seat in each classroom? This session focuses on the Rhetoric of Fiction, laid out by Wayne C. Booth in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction. It takes the principles found in that book, as well as from other scholars in the field of rhetoric, and applies them to K—6 classrooms. This session will discuss the rhetorical lens that can be applied to lessons surrounding fiction and will give intentional questions to ask and discussions to employ in order to prime the pump for future rhetorical analyses. The focus of the seminar will be on the narrator and the impact on a story because of the specific narrator chosen by the author. The instructor will also give two examples of how to employ these principles and tactics in the classroom in order to create a rich environment around reading. It will give an example through a short story and a picture book.

Colleen Dong

Colleen Dong has been with The Cambridge School for five years. She is passionate about classical Christian education and is constantly delighted to get to spend her days with the kindergartners shaping their a ections and preparing them for their classical journey. Colleen was born and raised in San Diego. She received a BA in English from Azusa Paci c University. She also studied for a semester at the University of Oxford, where she found a renewed appetite for education. After graduating, Colleen desired to be a part of a classical school and quickly found a home with Cambridge. She is now pursuing her master’s degree in Rhetoric from San Diego State University and is particularly interested in integrating rhetorical practices at an age-appropriate level in the Grammar stage.

Recovering Our Creative Calling

Andy Crouch

Andy is the author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, published in October 2013. His book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling was named one of the best books of 2008 by CT, Publishers Weekly, Relevant, Outreach, and Leadership—as well as receiving a shout-out in Lecrae’s 2014 single “Non-Fiction.” In December 2012 Andy became executive editor of Christianity Today.

Panel with Makoto Fujimura and Andy Crouch

Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, recently appointed Director of Fuller’s Brehm Center, is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003—2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts.

Andy Crouch

Andy is the author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, published in October 2013. His book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling was named one of the best books of 2008 by CT, Publishers Weekly, Relevant, Outreach, and Leadership—as well as receiving a shout-out in Lecrae’s 2014 single “Non-Fiction.” In December 2012 Andy became executive editor of Christianity Today.

Culture Care

Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, recently appointed Director of Fuller’s Brehm Center, is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003—2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts.

The Clean Sea Breeze of the Centuries: Literary Experience as Perspective on Culture

One of the primary benefits of reading literature is that it allows us to inhabit another person’s experiences, to see the world through other eyes, and to perceive it with other minds, and in so doing, broaden our own limited experience of the world. In particular, C. S. Lewis says that in reading “old books,” we can temporarily view our own culture from outside its assumptions and blind spots. In literary experience, especially the experience of “old books,” we have the powerful and rare opportunity to gain an outside perspective on our own contemporary culture, and so to know it and ourselves more fully. The purpose of this session is to model and discuss the benefits of opening the first day of a humanities class with an excerpt of Lewis’s essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in order to give students an elevated sense of purpose in their reading and to establish a central metaphor—Lewis’s “clean sea breeze of the centuries”—that class discussions will frequently return to as they compare the older cultures the class reads about with our own. Secondarily, the session will offer brief observations on a belief and a practice that students bring from our culture into the classroom: the belief that individual choice is the highest good and the practice of reflexive irony.

Jeremiah Forshey

Jeremiah has been at classical Christian schools since 2004, teaching literature, logic, and rhetoric classes for Redeemer Classical School in Harrisonburg, VA; The Geneva School in Winter Park, FL; and the New Covenant Schools in Lynchburg, VA. He is currently the American Literature and British Literature instructor for the New Covenant School of Rhetoric. He holds a master’s degree in English from James Madison University, but an undergraduate degree in computer science has allowed him some occasional forays into mathematics and programming.

Book Review: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, is the second volume in what will be a Cultural Liturgies trilogy, which seeks nothing less than to overturn what Smith perceives as the dominant paradigmatic approach to Christian education. In his first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith challenges the notion that education is essentially about “ideas and information” which seek to cultivate “the life of the mind” into a distinctly “Christian perspective, or more commonly now, a Christian worldview.”1 For Smith, this line of thinking entails the Cartesian assumption that human beings are essentially minds, “thinking things,” and thus places a premium on the cognitive and propositional relative to the practical and aesthetic. Instead, Smith argues that human beings are essentially desiring beings, in that “before we are thinkers, we are believers; before we can offer our rational explanations of the world, we have already assumed a whole constellation of beliefs – a worldview – that governs and conditions our perception of the world.”2 But this precognitive sense of the world is not arbitrary;
it is developed by the shaping of our dispositions and habits which inscribe what Smith refers to as a ‘social imaginary’ within us. And the primary means by which our dispositions and habits are shaped is through social and bodily practices. Thus, Smith proposes that we “re- vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project,” paying particular attention to how “Christian education shapes us, forms us, molds us to be a certain kind of people whose hearts and passions and desires are aimed at the kingdom of God.”3

With this second volume, Smith supplements the central argument of Desiring the Kingdom by developing three interrelated constituents of a liturgical anthropology: first, the centrality of the imagination for our desires and actions; secondly, the role of the body in the formation of the imagination; and thirdly, the role of narrative in the integration of body, mind, and environment. “In short,” Smith writes: “the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story.”4 The focus of the second volume is thus the formation of the kind of imagination that is behind the desire for the kingdom.

The book is made up of an introduction and two parts, each comprised of two chapters. Part One, “Incarnate Significance: The Body as Background,” provides an overview of how the body is the site for its own unique form of knowledge. In Part Two, “Sanctified Perception,” Smith develops how such physiognomic knowledge primes the human person to perceive the world through metaphor and narrative.

In his Introduction, “A Sentimental Education: On Christian Action,” Smith sets the stage with an inquiry borrowed from political theologian William Cavanaugh: how does a provincial farm boy become persuaded to join the military and travel thousands of miles away to another part of the world to kill people he knows nothing about? The answer is not that he has been convinced by an argument, but rather “he has been conscripted into a mythology: he identifies himself within a story that has seeped into his bones at levels not even he is aware of… He is the product of a sentimental education” (16). Smith observes that the dynamics of inscription operate more at the level of the imagination than the intellect, and that our imaginations are shaped by the cultural ecosystem that we both imbibe and shape by virtue of our bodies. For Smith, the ‘imagination’ is “a quasi-faculty whereby we construe the world on a precognitive level, on a register that is fundamentally aesthetic precisely because it is so closely tied to the body” (17). Thus, he notes, becoming a soldier, “takes practice;” it involves innumerable kinaesthetic and poetic reinforcements that persuade by attuning the desires of the provincial farm boy in accordance with frames of reference constitutive of nationalist narratives (19). In the interest of Christian education and formation, Smith intends to account for these desire-shaping dynamics by “recognizing and understanding this intertwinement of embodiment and story, of kinaesthetics and poetics” (20).

In Chapter One, “Erotic Comprehension,” Smith draws from research that has foregrounded the role of the body in knowledge acquisition. In as much as the mind exists in a body, it has been recognized by scholars that we as humans cannot but experience ourselves simultaneously in and as our bodies. Smith observes: “My body is not something I have, but something I am; it is the ‘me’ that dwells in the world” (49). Statements such as ‘My foot hurts’ and ‘I am in pain’ are in fact synonymous statements that indicate I don’t just have a body, I am my body. We experience things done to our bodies as done to ourselves. This means that there is no such thing as ‘disinterested’ thought; all human perception entails an aesthetic evaluation, such that our thinking is affected invariably by our affections, the ways in which we feel. This combination of emotion and perception, what Smith links to the imagination, is primed or trained by narrative, a “storied pedagogy,” that is inextricably linked to embodiment (36- 7). It is this interface between imagination, narrative, and embodiment that serves as the nexus for Smith’s liturgical anthropology.

In order to explicate this kinaesthetic link between story, body, and imagination, Smith turns initially to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau- Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment, by which Smith disambiguates the nature of bodily knowing, or what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘perception’ (41). For Merleau-Ponty, the world as perceived through the body is not merely the foundation for knowledge of the world, but involves its own unique mechanism of knowledge. He argues that humans are neither solely intellectual nor instinctual, but rather we live between instinct and intellect. There is, as it were, an immediate relationship between the perceiver and that which is perceived. For example, in order to reach for a spoon, one need not first search for his hand and then calculate the distance between the hand and spoon. Nor is the act merely instinctual, devoid of any meaning or significance. The reaching for the spoon is an act that exists in between our intellect and instinct, and it is this interstice that accounts for the way the body knows (44). It is the body that mediates our ‘being-in-the-world’ and inexorably shapes our perceptions of the world; I know what a tree is not by merely analyzing it but by what I do with it (e.g. climb it, decorate it, cut it down, etc). The same goes for tables, chairs, and doorways. Thus, “the body carries a kind of acquired, habituated knowledge or knowhow that is irreducible and inarticulable, and yet fundamentally orienting for our being-in-the-world” (45).

In Chapter Two, “The Social Body,” Smith seeks to answer how such habituation is acquired. Here he enlists the help of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his theory of habitus, defined (somewhat confoundingly) as “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures…” (81). Human dispositions or inclinations for Bourdieu involve norms, habits, rules, understandings and goals that reflect the constituents of a wider social order. The important insight offered by Bourdieu is that
our dispositions and inclinations are not learned abstractly or intellectually but rather through the unconscious inculcation of objective social conditions inherent in bodily postures, gesticulations and rules of etiquette. The social inscription entailed in various reciprocal practices produces dispositions that are homologous to the social conditions through which they are acquired. Thus, the dispositions of human persons are always structured and structuring; they are produced by the rules, understandings, and goals inherent in the practices constitutive of the larger social order on the one hand, while, on the other hand, the socially inscribed dispositions provide a range of options for the actor to choose from that are appropriate to any given situation. In Smith’s words: “I need the community and social body to enable me to perceive the world; however, the social body needs my body to instantiate its vision and practice” (82). Again, in a wonderful turn of phrase: “I learn how to constitute my world from others, but I learn how to constitute my world. The ‘I’ that perceives is always already a ‘we.’ My perception is communal, a debt I owe” (84).

This practical sense is not so much a formal knowledge per se, but more a kind of proficiency or mastery which does not entail necessarily the ability to mentally process such proficiency. As Smith notes: “There are all kinds of virtuoso players who make terrible coaches, precisely because their practical sense and feel for the game does not necessarily translate into the ability to communicate and teach what they know” (87). This practical sense, this habitus, is thus a belief, a taken-for- grantedness that arises as the result of the body’s interaction with its culturally conditioned world. “To have acquired a practical sense is to have imbibed embodied beliefs in such a way that I ‘naturally’ relate to my world and my environment on those terms” (88). This imbibing is acquired through various rituals that incorporate or initiate us into a culturally defined habitus, such that the social body in effect co-opts my body (94).

In Chapter Three, “‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’: How Worship Works,” Smith develops the concept of the socially invested body by exploring the centrality of stories for our existence. Each of our acts, however mundane, in fact constitute micropractices of larger macrocosmic narratives. “Such orienting narratives are not explicitly ‘told’ in a ‘once-upon-a-time’ discursive mode … We don’t memorize the Story as told to us; we imbibe the Story as we perform it in a million little gestures” (109-10). Stories are imbibed by our bodies through gestures that have a semiotic relationship with our environments; that is, each action of the body corresponds to our environment by virtue of human “meaning- making” (110). For example, the act of kneeling does not merely communicate or symbolize subordination but in fact subordinates the kneeler in the act itself; the act of kneeling is the site of meaning. “Our bodies, brains, and environments function together as the three-legged stool of our experience; any meaning is generated at the nexus of all three” (111). This nexus entails a ‘feel’, an aesethetic evaluation inherent in human perception. It is this aesthetic sense that sketches out our neural maps of the world, providing the plausibility structures by which the world is imagined and interpreted.

This tripartite complex of body, brain, and environment accounts for the primacy of metaphor for how we make sense of our world. Citing theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie, metaphors are mechanisms for the enactment of meaning. When someone makes a statement, “This rose is my love for you,” the rose is presented not merely as a rose, but as a tangible expression, a concrete manifestation, of the person’s love. The metaphor represents one thing in relation to another, and in so doing, it transforms the object of representation; the rose in our example is no longer merely a rose, it now embodies an idea, an expression that transforms its connotative significance. But metaphor is not merely linguistic; Smith argues that metaphor is in fact “characteristic of the aesthetic aspect of human being-in-the-world” (118). We experience our world tacitly, such that our learned tastes and distastes and the cultural shaping of the senses provide the aesthetic lens through which we know our world. For example, when someone points something out with his finger, we see the finger, but we are not looking at it but rather through it. Our awareness of the finger is the subsidiary means, the instrumentality, by which we may focus on the object to which it points. For embodiment theorists, knowledge obtains primarily through a tacit collection of subsidiaries that constitute a framework through which our perception of the world is shaped and focused, very much the way sight obtains through the instrumentality of the eyes. It is through this tacit awareness that we know our world, a knowledge that is rooted in the body and sensory experience. The mental, somatic, and ecological constituents of liturgical environments shape the way we see, that is, imagine our world. And it from this imagined world that our desires spring. We simply do not self-generate our desires; rather, “they are birthed in us. There are formed in us as habits, as habitus.” (125) Our desires thus arise from our somatically- and environmentally-shaped imaginations. Smith concludes:

Our incarnate significance, our imaginative being-in-the-world, is governed by the dynamics of metaphor and narrative, poetry and story…. Liturgies – those formative rituals of ultimacy – marshal exactly these dynamics…. [L]iturgies are pedagogies of desire that shape our love because they picture the good life for us in ways that resonate with our imaginative nature … We are conscripted into a Story through those practices that enact and perform and embody a Story about the good life…. [W]e are incorporated into a social body when the stories of a people become the dominant landscape of our imaginative background – when those stories have worked their way into our ‘practical sense’ in such a way that they now (automatically) govern how we perceive the world…. This is how worship works (136-37).

In Chapter Four, “Restor(y)ing the World: Christian Formation for Mission,” Smith applies the previous chapters’ explicated liturgical anthropology to distinctively Christian worship practices. Smith writes: “Worship and the practices of Christian formation are first and foremost the way the Spirit invites us into union with the Triune God.” The discipleship inherent in worship is thus not merely imitating Christ, but rather being formed in Christ, absorbed in the shared lifeworld of the church which is the body of Christ. This Christocentric formation entails the ‘sending’, the missio, distinctive of Christian worship, since to be incorporated into Christ is to be incorporated into the story of God sending his Son, the Son sending the Spirit, and the Spirit sending the church. Thus, Smith argues that if this sending-action is so central to our Christian identity, then Christian missional institutions such as churches, schools, and universities, must form actors. Formative education requires “sanctifying our perception” through “restor(y)ing the imagination” (160). Restor(y)ing the imagination involves, first, foregrounding narrative and art as primary ways in which we know our world and, secondly, ordering our perception in such a way that we take the right things for granted (161). This entails that Christian education must be rooted in Christian worship and liturgical formation, for it is only through such formative practices that we experience a reformation of our habits and dispositions distinctive to a Christian vision of life. Moreover, Christian worship provides the allure or the momentum for such a reformation by virtue of the divine calling that initiates our worship. This calling awakens the obligation of my response to that call, and thus orients my body to a liturgical environment reconstituted by such a call. Smith writes: “Christian liturgical practices and spiritual disciplines are not just means of personal renewal; they remake the world because they transform the perception of the people of God who not only inhabit the world differently but inhabit a different world, a world constituted by God’s creation” (167).

Smith’s Imagining is an important work for classical educators. It helpfully draws together a number of embodiment and literary theories into a singular coherent paradigm, a synthetic vision, of physiognomic logic indispensible to teaching in accordance with the nature of the student. While the content of Imagining is quite dense (a mere four chapters comprising nearly 200 pages of theoretical argumentation), Smith’s writing is lucid, enlivened by nice turns of phrase and inviting prose. There are also a number of sidebars that illustrate richly his points with literature and film, poetry and litany. As Smith himself admits, however, the density of practice and literary theory will likely be a challenge for most readers, especially those not accustomed to the theorists from whom Smith draws. While his Introduction does map out the scope and sequence for his study, it would have been helpful if Smith had delineated his argument at key points within each chapter to guide the reader through what can be rather bewildering content. Furthermore, the theoretical focus of the study does at times come across as ironically ‘disembodied.’ There are a number of studies on historic Christian educational practices which could have been analyzed illuminatively by Smith’s practice and literary theory. Finally, though a small quibble, Smith’s occasional social, political, and economic comments can come across as sanctimoniously selective, predictable, and sententious.

That being said, Smith’s second volume of the Cultural Liturgies project does not disappoint as a supplement to his already well-received first volume, and has awakened within this reviewer an ardent anticipation, a desire, for the third.

The Myth of Moral Neutrality

Western liberal democracy has been the most successful political system the world has produced, but what began with Magna Carta and progressed to elections by all the adult electorate has also developed new features. In particular, the tolerance for the rights of others that was necessary to limit the power of the king has been replaced by a demanded tolerance legitimizing any libertine desire of the ruling elite. This elite panders to every marginal group and demands that Christianity must never show its face in the public square. This is hardly tolerance and a long way from Milton’s understanding when he wrote: “Where there is a great desire to know, there of necessity must be much argument because argument in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Now tolerance has become a means of social control.

As Mark Steyn put it, The United States has not just a ruling class, but a ruling monoculture. Its “truth” and “facts” and “science” permeate not just government but the culture, the media, the institutions in which we educate our children, the language of public discourse, the very societal air we breathe. (p57, After America) That air we breathe no longer welcomes vigorous discussion.

This is why we must begin the process of reversal at ground level within our families, within our own early education environment. We must also recognize where our principles differ from political culture’s and teach our children to understand what is at stake and be able to deconstruct the position of the current elite, replacing it with the richer culture that is under attack. It is no
use to waste all our energies on the outcomes – abortion, euthanasia, the legitimization of every form of sexuality. We must go for the root of the tree. Classical education, at its best, does that, especially in its Christian development, but far too often we have allowed the enemy to establish an outpost in our heads. We think in his terms and necessarily he wins.

Classical education recognizes that the foundationa requirement for a child is that he “inhabit” the story that underpins Western society and that is, of course, the Bible. This initial step is primarily built upon the extra-ordinary powers of memory which God gives to children. They memorize with ease and they love doing it. In Deuteronomy 6 Moses commands the Israelites to build their society around the family activities, especially “the dining room table,” and to make it the place where all the Bible stories are told. I do not believe explanation of the stories is necessary at this stage because what is happening is that the child’s mind is being furnished with morally consequential narratives that will be stored and called upon later when the moral challenges and choices confront us in our schools and adult lives. At that point the necessary principles will be drawn from the stories. What I have briefly described is the grammar stage of the Trivium.

The next stage is teaching Classical logic so that a child can recognize the errors in sentences such as:

You must be morally neutral.
You must not be judgmental.
All truth is relative.
Either you agree with me or you are a bigot.

My primary list of issues that every student must be clear about before they enter the State-funded, social engineering project called school or college is: reductionism, relativism, tolerance, moral neutrality, multiculturalism, the sanctity of life and sexual ethics.

Learning to recognize these things is best achieved not so much by formal teaching but by sitting at the feet of great writers, from whom they learn both the logic and rhetoric necessary to defend their souls and also how to carry an audience with them on a journey of intellectual engagement.

Let us first of all examine the tacit belief that moral neutrality is possible. You must not impose your views on others. Of course not, we all agree. So you must live from a non-judgmental, morally neutral stance. Now here is a wild extrapolation. Judgment is at the heart of life and it is increasingly a moral judgment that is required to decide that certain habits are not good for our health. Only a world devoid of logic would think itself capable of forming a functional society without any foundations, without any agreement about basic moral issues. The phrase “morally neutral” could be out of Alice in Wonderland; it might have been coined by Humpty Dumpty or the Red Queen. In reality it is like a square circle – not dead on delivery, but inconceivable.

When I lecture on the myth of moral neutrality, most audiences have to be persuaded of the intrinsic idiocy of the concept of moral neutrality; it does after all sound very nice, very tolerant, very Canadian. One group of students was unanimous that everyone’s ethical opinions are equally valid! Hence this paper might be called remedial thinking for those temporarily overwhelmed by the nonsense in the media. Thus I use the word “myth” in the sense of something accepted, almost reflexively, as true when it is false, not in the sense of fairy tales which are false but overflowing with truth.

One has only to ask the question, “Why should I practice neutral values?” to expose the fallacy. The question can only be answered by proposing some far from neutral proposition such as, “To do otherwise would be insensitive or intolerant”. This is merely a debased form of morality in which truth and justice are trumped by sensitivity and tolerance. At the very least such a radical re-ordering of moral priorities needs some justification.

The idea of the good.

All societies share some fundamental ideas about what constitutes good and evil, at least until they are in the terminal stages of social decay. A healthy society prefers truth to lies, love to hatred, honour to dishonour and justice to injustice. It is true that we all have considerable difficulties in the translation of these ideas into the ethics of daily life, but we are in need of them. Different societies may view the same behaviours quite oppositely, as with suicide in the East and the West. Nevertheless, the underlying principle of honour is present in both; the difference is in how honour ought to be expressed. Here is where Milton’s vigourous argument comes in.

Such vigorous intellectual activity is essential to a healthy society, but those who espouse the concept of neutral values, which demands that no-one’s beliefs can be challenged, necessarily suppress free speech. They frequently talk of zero tolerance for particular ideas, apparently unconcerned with the inconsistency of their pronouncements. To assume that human discourse can be conducted from a value-neutral stance certainly presupposes that metaphysical truth is either unimportant or non-existent and would logically disallow the idea of political correctness. The inconsistencies must be challenged before they are accepted.

One of the most common arguments for ethical relativity and hence for the denial of objective moral truth is to point to the dramatically different ethical codes found around the world. These are undeniable phenomena extremely well documented by anthropologists, but the essential question is to establish how we should distinguish between these different ethical practices to determine which best represent the underlying ethical principles. Over some issues we respond intuitively, reflecting our own cultural history. For example, in parts of the Sahel girls are subjected, by older women, to extensive and painful circumcision to signal their passage into womanhood and to preserve theirs and their family’s honour. In Canada we call this practice child abuse and it is forbidden. In other words, over this issue, we are prepared to say that our understanding of how the concept of honour should be translated into the ethics of everyday life is better than that of the Sahelians. Who is right and on what basis do we judge?

Different ways of judging metaphysical truth.

At issue is the question of metaphysical knowledge and here we are in great danger, because on this point we certainly have no consensus in North America. Nevertheless, some form of consensus is necessary and the form we achieve will determine the society we live in. I wish to touch upon three major approaches to this question.

The first is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses speaking to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 4:5-8 told them that the law which they had been given was better than that of the nations around them and that those nations would recognize that reality. The essence of the Jewish position is in the concept of the “givenness” of the law. They did not create their own values but received the law from God and they believed, that precisely for that reason, it was better than natural human responses. The Jewish law’s treatment of the underprivileged, widows and strangers was in fact uniquely different from their neighbours in ways that we now consider enlightened. Moses simply said that the other nations would recognize the wisdom in the Jewish way. He didn’t say that their laws were more just, but that is how many nations came to see them in due course. Why did other nations change their views?

Just as we have criteria for deciding between alternative scientific theories, we have criteria for deciding between ethical theories. The kinds of questions that help us are similar: which theories have the greatest explanatory power for observed human behaviour, which view is nearer to the truth which we can observe, more just to all, more loving, more likely to build a stable community, more ethically beautiful and satisfying? Ethical relativity is a result of human fallibility in relating actions to the eternal principles of truth, justice, honour, and love. Because we cannot definitively describe these principles does not mean they do not exist; rather, it is their transcendence which makes them the stuff of poetry and story.

The second approach is the Greek alternative. For the Greeks truth, justice, and honour were to be approached not as gifts but as logically demonstrable consequences of rationality. In the Greek view, virtue was a product of right thinking whereas for the Jews it was a product of obedience. The two can, of course, be combined as they are in St. Paul’s injunction “to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” Phil 2:12.

The dominant modern approach stems from our self-absorption. We say we create our own values. This is a seriously flawed theory because truth is made subservient to desire. We cannot, for example, control our desires, particularly our sexual ones; we must therefore rationalize them. This leaves us as prisoners of our own nature. C.S. Lewis expressed it like this in The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality [God] and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For the modern mind the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men and the solution is a technique. The pursuit of happiness in the modern sense is therefore self indulgent. Man’s conquest
of nature must always become man’s conquest of other men using nature as the means. But these powerful people no longer think of God and God’s laws as objective reality so they are controlled not by God’s supernatural ideals but by the natural forces of their own heredity and environment. Thus man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.

Hans Jonas expressed the thought like this: “If the good is a mere creature of the will, it lacks the power to bind the will.”

Creating our own values presumes that we can put ourselves in a kind of moral vacuum, but once there, we have no reason to create moral injunctions except those that satisfy our desires.


So far we have seen that moral neutrality presupposes the absence of metaphysical truth, that it espouses a moral subjectivity which is easily shown to be unacceptable and unworkable, that it necessarily accepts the equal validity of everyone’s moral choices but, nevertheless, passes legislation outlawing some cultural choices. The primary virtue of the morally neutral is tolerance. The question is, “Can a society be built on the basis of tolerance?”

Tolerance and freedom are not supreme virtues.

No one likes to be called intolerant but it can be demonstrated that intolerance in certain things is essential. Consider the following scenario. There is a society in North America with the declared aim of legalizing sexual activity between adult males and pre-pubertal boys. “Eight is too late” is their slogan. Now imagine yourselves as parents of an eight- year-old boy who find themselves compelled to have one of these men as a house-guest for two weeks. He is charming, witty, intelligent and full of fun, but he does have this quirk. Will you allow him unopposed opportunity to use his charm and sophistication to persuade your eight-year-old that he is being deprived of the rightful experiences of every eight-year-old? I have asked this question of many audiences. No one has said yes. There are activities which all of us will not tolerate and we feel no shame in displaying our intolerance.

What sorts of behaviours do we legitimately attempt to suppress? I would suggest a starting list of four – unloving, unjust, untruthful, dishonourable behaviour. Love, truth, justice and honour cannot even share a sentence with the verb “to tolerate.” You do not tolerate love; you embrace it, you seek it. You do not tolerate truth or justice; you demand them, and honour is admired not tolerated. Tolerance and compromise are not the stuff from which great societies, great stories or even great professions are made. But tolerance is important. It is the oil which lubricates so many human interactions; but often its strength is to overlook error or wrong-doing, to have compassion on the human frailties which beset us all. Unlike truth, love, justice which brook no rivals, the proper use of tolerance involves wise judgement. To lack the necessary skills of prudent judgement will lead the defective into either bigoted narrow-mindedness or libertarian excess.

The necessity for appropriate tolerance.

Neutral values do not exist, but we do need the tolerance they would seek to protect to adjudicate the conflicts which arise in our attempts to translate the unchanging but only imperfectly known truth into the working ethics of daily living. Human judgements on how this should be done are very culturally dependent, as even a brief list of practices considered ethical in different parts of the world in the last century clearly illustrates. Such a list would include: widow burning, ritual prostitution, infanticide, slavery, abortion and euthanasia. Changes in what is considered ethical occur very slowly, but they are dependent on dogma for their foundation. Christians, for example, affirmed that all were one in Christ Jesus, that there was neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free from the time of Paul. But this doctrine did not translate into the practical condemnation of slavery for 18 centuries!

What is desired, and rightly so, is tolerance as a normal virtue in our human interactions, but it is clear that the espousal of neutral values is not the way to create the appropriately tolerant society. Neither is the refusal to accept every opinion as equally valid truly intolerant; rather those who would demand such things are intolerant of logic. It is becoming apparent that the atheistic secularist has no adequate basis for tolerance because if this life is all we get and there are no individual moral consequences,
it is logical to use power to achieve your own ends. The Christian, on the other hand, believes in both his own fallenness and the ultimate unknowableness of God in His entirety and therefore has good reason to be humble in the face of contrary opinions.

The hidden premise.

Those who want a neutral value policy usually say something like, ”You keep your opinions on morals private and I will do the same, and in that way we will both be happy.” This slick piece of sophistry is neither true nor honest. The hidden implication is that there is no objective truth at stake, but, as we have already seen, in order to have justice, objective truth is necessary. We have to have means to judge. But I believe the real motivation behind the “I have my values, you have yours” argument is the objective of a libertarian society and this follows by default without the risk of rigorous debate, if we accept their argument. It is the old hatred of God in modern dress. Pascal in his Pensees expressed it most eloquently:

It is the nature of self-esteem and of the human self to love only oneself and to consider oneself alone. But what can a man do? He wants to be great and finds that he is small; he wants to be happy and finds that he is unhappy; he wants to be perfect and finds that he is riddled with imperfections; he wants to be the object of men’s affection and esteem and sees that his faults deserve only their dislike and contempt. The embarrassing position in which he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passion that can possibly be imagined; he conceives a mortal hatred of the truth which brings him down to earth and convinces him of his faults. He would like to be able to annihilate it, and, not being able to destroy it in himself, he destroys it in the minds of other people. That is to say, he concentrates all his efforts on concealing his faults both from others and from himself, and cannot stand being made to see them or their being seen by other people.

Throughout history there have always been those who wish, as they put it, to be free. But unless we are good, our freedom always deteriorates to license and usually to the tyranny of the few over the many. The bane of human history is the desire to be God, to be beholden to no one. The old Christian understanding of freedom is contained in: “The Truth shall set you free,” and “Whose service is perfect freedom.” Christian freedom is freedom to be willingly a servant of Christ, whereas secular freedom is freedom from God. Conscience for the one is a gentle nudge towards truth and, for the other, the guilt trip laid on them by society.


The first thing to recognize is that the word itself shows its origins in the idea that conscience is not a feeling but a form of knowing. We all have the experience of being inwardly obligated to do “good” or to eschew “evil”. This is true even when it is to our own immediate hurt, as with passing up an opportunity to cheat. This is not a feeling; indeed it fights against our feelings. This is moral knowledge. In most cases it offers no evolutionary benefit to our genes so that the reductionist is left with an explanatory problem. Whence cometh the moral law within? When one reads a law, it is normal to ask, “Who is the lawgiver?” The objection, of course, is that if we accept this view we accept our creaturely status. A lawgiver, the legitimacy of whose laws we cannot deny, rightly demands our obedience.


So what needs to be done to remove the illusion of moral neutrality from our teaching guidelines and replace it with a more sophisticated understanding of moral truth, including appropriate tolerance of different ethical judgments? First, those who understand the process that has led to the logical nonsense of so-called neutral values must start saying so publicly and doing what they can to redress the damage done. We might also demand that logic be taught to all university students. We must all examine our intolerances and decide whether they are bigoted in the Chestertonian sense of not seriously considering the alternative proposition, or selfishly libertarian and therefore to be decried and removed, or legitimate and therefore to be defended. Judgment is hard, but it must be attempted if we are not to be left with a crude and debased culture. For tolerance to be properly exercised it must be held in tension with all the other virtues. This is what character formation is all about. It requires the development of wisdom which is quite different from the acquisition of knowledge and utterly different from the mere cataloguing of information which currently passes for education. It requires a recognition that metaphysical truth exists even though our knowledge of it is limited. Sincerity is not enough. As Iris Murdoch put it, “Our failure as a society is that we have substituted for the hard idea of truth, the facile idea of sincerity.” Life requires us to answer the age-old key questions or else to spend immense psychological energy in denying their cogency and paying the price for such denial.

Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
How can I make sense of suffering? How do I come to terms with mortality? How can I believe in justice?

What can I know? What may I believe? What should I do?

The Jews were told that the critical educational environment was the home: the conversations at meals, on journeys,
the practice of giving thanks to God morning and evening and of celebrating the feasts with joy before God. Moses taught the Jews that the reality of their faith in God must be lived out in the everyday environment. For us we have the additional promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” For work-ridden professionals framing life in these eternal realities is difficult and needs constant attention, but if our children have only an education that does not have these foundations, then they have only an education that is not worthy of the name.

Now We See in a Mirror Dimly

This summer there was a headline in my local paper that caught my eye. In large, bold, capital letters were the words, “FACING FACTS,” and then in bold type below that was the sub-heading, “Survey debunks negative opinion of teens and social media.” I wondered what negative opinion had been “debunked” and how the “debunking” had happened. So I read on.

The article explained that most teenagers (ages 13-17) have positive rather than negative experiences with social media. Social media platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have helped young people “keep in touch with their friends, get to know other students at their school better, or connect with those who share a common interest.” Also “half of teens said they feel social networks helped their friendships . . . Three out of 10 (sic.) teens said social networks made them feel more outgoing.” Other benefits listed in the article were that teens felt more confident, popular, and sympathetic to others as a result of spending time utilizing social media.

Some negative effects were mentioned too such as the “adult-like weariness” that teens can feel from the constant pressure to text or post something new on their Facebook page known as “Facebook fatigue.” Nevertheless, the general consensus of the article was that even though teenagers may be overindulging in social media a bit, it is helping them make friends and it is causing teens to feel better about themselves. Thus, the article concluded that, contrary to popular opinion, social media is basically good for teenagers rather than bad.

More specifically, according to the author, the negative opinion that has been discredited by this study is the “popular perception that using social-media sites is inherently harmful because of the dangers of isolation, bullying from peers, the release of private or personal information, or online predators.” Evidently, she thinks that the possibility of these dangers becoming a reality is so remote (only four percent of respondents reported a harmful effect of social media on their relationships) that we shouldn’t worry about them.

There are several problems with the claim of “debunking” that is being proffered in this article. First, it states that most people think that “using social media sites is inherently harmful.” In other words, the majority of people think that the use of social media sites inevitably results in some kind of harm for teenage users because of the dangers listed above. This opinion is offered without substantiation. However, this seems like an unreasonable claim. It may be that this is not a claim that needs to be “debunked” because it is a claim so extreme most people don’t really hold it.

Second, the author makes the assertion that social media was once thought to be inherently harmful, but now that opinion has been “debunked” by virtue of the fact that most teenagers report having a positive experience with it. However, this is something like saying that automobiles were once thought to be inherently harmful, but that perception has been “debunked” because the vast majority of teenagers do not have fatal accidents in them. This is a false portrayal of the issue. Using social media is not “inherently harmful” to everyone who utilizes it, but the dangers are real and need to be carefully avoided. An automobile is not inherently harmful either; not everyone who climbs into a car will get into an accident. But driving a car is a dangerous undertaking and care must be taken to avoid an accident. Just ask any parent who has recently placed his keys into the hand of a novice driver; the potential for disaster is enough to keep you awake at night even if the probability for a serious accident is relatively miniscule.

Third, this study, which was conducted by Common Sense Media, is based on self-reports from teenagers who are immersed in social media. The study itself states that “those who are immersed in social media may not be best positioned to assess whether it is having an impact on them or not.” It also warns that this kind of research is “useful for providing descriptive statistics and exploring associations between variables, but it cannot demonstrate causality between any of those variables.” So to draw the conclusion from this study that we no longer need to worry about the harmful effects of social media because most teenagers report having a positive experience with it is overreaching the scope of the evidence to say the least. The conclusion of the report states, “None of this means that there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to teens and social media. The concerns are real: about privacy, bullying, hate speech, body image, and oversharing, to name a few.”

So it is perhaps more accurate to say that there are some benefits to using social media, and there are some dangers that, if possible, need to be carefully avoided; however, this is merely stating the obvious. There is also a deeper sense in which social media and technology can have a negative effect on those who use it by chipping away at the kinds of interactions that make us most human. Social media offers the illusion of companionship without friendship, it promotes the de-incarnation of the bond between word and body, and it encourages interaction that is efficient and shallow rather than real and authentic.

Most of what I see on my Facebook page is trivial and superficial. By perusing profiles, I can often find out where my friends from high school live and where they work. Sometimes when I read their posts, I can get some idea of their political stances or religious views. I see pictures of their families, their pets, and their vacations,
but I don’t really know them anymore because I don’t see them face-to-face or talk to them on the phone. I don’t know what their lives have really been like, what they have suffered and what they have celebrated. They post witty sayings on their walls or funny pictures or videos. We share a laugh alone in front of our computer screens and then comment with an “lol” or click on the “like” button to show approval. Sometimes it even seems like we laughed at it together. Someone might post something sentimental that will put a lump in your throat or make your eyes well up, but the real stuff doesn’t get posted very often. Facebook isn’t designed to bear the weight of real life.

Shelly Turkle, the author of Alone Together, has said that one of the problems with social media is that “there’s this sense that you can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. The real demands of friendship, of intimacy, are complicated.” Friending and defriending someone on Facebook is accomplished with the click of a mouse; it is a process that is both sterile and uncomplicated. Real friendship demands time and attention. It is joyful and rich, but can also be painful for a host of different reasons. Real friendship can be as comfortable and warm as your favorite sweatshirt, but it can also be inconvenient and awkward. Social media, by its nature, removes much of what is required for true friendship to exist between two people. Friendship is best accomplished face to face in the real world without a cyber intermediary. Maybe there are some people on your Facebook “friends” list that you would call at four
in the morning in the midst of a personal crisis, but that is probably only because you spend a lot of time with them in real life.

Almost half of the young people (49%) who participated in this survey carried out by Common Sense Media prefer face to face encounters with friends over any form of social media interaction. They seem to realize that there is a distinction between Facebook friends and real friends without too much trouble. They understand that sharing a laugh in person is better and more fun that posting something witty online that you hope your friends will laugh at with you.

All forms of social media de-incarnate language. The nature of social media is to take language out of context by separating the words from the one who spoke or thought them. This is not a new problem; it is as old as written language, but technology has allowed written messages to occur instantly and often. When you write a letter by hand, you have more time to think about what you are going to say because it takes longer to do. If you say something that is difficult or confrontational or controversial in the letter, you also can take time to decide whether or not you should send the letter. If you send the letter you know that it is going to take some time for the person to receive the letter, and you can call and apologize before the letter gets to its intended destination if you  need to. However, when you can send a message with the click of a button in the heat of the moment without fully considering what you are saying, you can easily say things that you wish you had not said. For instance, twenty-five percent of teens admitted that they had said something bad about someone online or while texting that they would not have said in person.

This kind of separation of the word from the flesh that is inherent in social media can also encourage a sense of boldness or perhaps even wantonness that one would not otherwise have in a face-to-face encounter. Thirty-one percent of the teens surveyed revealed that they had flirted online with someone that they would not have approached in person. When you are using social media it is far too easy to have one face online and another in person.

Steve Baarendse has rightly pointed out that “so much of human communication lies in the incarnational bond between word and body. Think about the volumes conveyed by a piercing glance, an eye moistened with tears, a tender hand on the shoulder.” The human incarnation of language brings a great deal of context and meaning to language. The teens surveyed said that the top reason why face-to-face communication is preferred is because it is more fun, but second on the list was because you “can understand what people mean better.” Being there really does make a difference. As Baarendse says, “Pointed sarcasm or a tough word of confrontation can be tempered in person—the surgeon’s scalpel that cuts in order to heal—but these words are often blunt meat cleavers on Facebook.”

Perhaps the most disconcerting finding in the Common Sense Media survey is that one third of thirteen to seventeen year olds would rather text than talk to someone face to face. The basic reason they gave for this is that it is more efficient. Thirty percent of those who preferred texting said that it is the quickest and twenty- three percent said that it is the easiest. Sixteen percent said that it gave them more time to respond. Sherry Turkle also comments on this saying that texting “is less risky, (young people feel that they) can just get the information out there. (They) don’t have to get involved.” Texting someone can circumvent awkwardness that cannot be avoided in person. Cultivating friendships is demanding; it takes lots of negotiating. People use technology to skip and cut corners and to not have to do some of these very hard things. Turkle proposes that “this generation is given the option to not do some of the hardest things in adolescence.” She worries that they “are growing up without some basic skills in many cases.”

Texting rather than talking allows friendships to be more efficient, but it also means that friendships can become more mechanical and shallow, especially if texting is the primary vehicle for communication between friends. In order to have relationships that are real and authentic, face-to-face communication is necessary. Technology encourages face-to-screen communication. Next time you are in an airport take notice of how many people are absorbed in their laptops, tablets, or smartphones. People rarely even people-watch anymore; they are too riveted to their screens to even notice what is going on around them.

Using social media is not inherently harmful, but reasonable precautions are always advisable and even necessary to avoid the pitfalls of bullying, isolation, hate-speech, oversharing, and predators. The more subtle dangers that we need to be aware of are how it affects
our communication and our relationships. Among these hazards are the illusion of companionship without real friendship, the de-incarnation of the bond between word and body, and the temptation to move toward interactions that are efficient and shallow rather than real and authentic.