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    Entries in Philosophy (7)


    Service as Substitute for Morality :: David Brooks (NYT) on the Moral Vocabulary of the Young

    David Brooks has written a piece for the New York Times describing the moral vocabulary of the young, noting the role service now plays in determining who is and who is not a good person. Brooks' observations, rising from an examination of an online discussion held by Rob Reich of Stanford University, could easily be applied to other sectors.

    Here is the key piece of commentary (my emphasis in bold):

    The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.

    Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products. It sometimes seems that good students at schools in blue states go into service capitalism (consulting and finance) while good students in red states go into production capitalism (Procter & Gamble, John Deere, AutoZone).

    The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.


    People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.

    Anecdotally, I could support this description of younger people and their moral grid--there is little deep reflection taking place on what a good person is, and how to become one. There is some reflection, but the driving question is "How do I do good?", not "How do I become good?" As Brooks says, "community service has become a patch for morality." As long as someone is doing good things, one is a good person.

    But Brooks' knows, as we all do, that one can spend one's life working in the non-profit sector and end up a rotten person, or at the other extreme, establish a career as a very successful business person and end up a remarkable person. Becoming a rotten or remarkable person requires more than rooting oneself in the right environment where good things are being done. Character requires development and transformation, and a moral framework within which to name vice and virtue, as well as the accompanying practices that can bring about the necessary refinement to live an excellent life.

    As Brooks says:

    Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

    Living a morally excellent life is no simple matter. It cannot be boiled down only to what one does. It has always been possible to live an outwardly righteous life, while being utterly corrupt on the inside. And it has always been a tremendous temptation for human beings to hide behind a veil of socially approved good works as a substitute for the inner work required to become a person of exemplary character. It is the heart that is at issue.

    Several years ago I heard Dallas Willard remark to a group of pastors and church leaders that the opportunity lay before us to become the true moral guides of our age. Christianity, he contended, provides answers to the questions, "What is the good life?" and "How do I obtain it?" in ways that far surpass any other philosophy on offer. "The service patch" is one such philosophy, which Brooks summarizes as, "if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person."

    For Christian people, it is not only the works that matter, but the inner motivation and condition of the heart, or foundational moral framework that determines whether or not one is pursuing and living the good life. Yes, the doing of good works does itself have a formational aspect, but it is possible to do good works and be like a whitewashed tomb or a cup that is clean on the outside, but inside is riddled with filth.

    Among the many intended outcomes of a life lived deeply with God is that of integrity--becoming a type of person who, through and through, has been permeated and transformed by the grace that has been revealed, enacted, and unleashed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This means not only doing good, but being good--being the person God has intended you to be, and doing the things prepared for you to do, since before the foundation of the world.


    Book Review :: Sarah Sentilles' Breaking Up With God

    Sarah Sentilles’ memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, is an honest, forthright, and forceful account of one woman’s spiritual journey.  Sentilles chronicles her beginnings in the Catholic church, attending worship and being discipled as the daughter of a Catholic father and displaced Episcopalian mother, who taught her how to question and doubt.  Very early, Sentilles had questions that did not find satisfying answers, whether it be in her conversations with a priest, a family member, or a Sunday school teacher.  As she continued to grow and mature, Sentilles struggled with an eating disorder.  Her quest to find acceptance before god is placed alongside her difficulties in accepting herself--her perception of her own body was always lacking in some way.  As she learned self care and self acceptance, overcoming her temptations to starve her own body, she moved on to college at Yale.  While in school, she faced another type of abuse, this time at the hands of a boyfriend she calls “Canada.”  Sentilles willingness to explore this element of her past is admirable.  After first seeking self acceptance through thinness, Sentilles then seeks to establish her identity in her dating relationships; a strategy that also leads to self destruction.

    After her time at Yale, Sentilles enters the Teach for America program, eventually landing in Los Angeles.  She did so to appear brave and generous, another attempt to earn acceptance of others and of god.  After this admission, she identifies herself in a short prayer as a “doer of good deeds.”  It is no longer thinness or a relationship that will be the basis of her acceptance of self, for now it is career.  And what she finds in Los Angeles is disturbing--the system she has benefited from is incredibly unjust, and there are young people in our inner cities who are deprived of even the opportunity to succeed.  During this time in her life, Sentilles discovers a church that feeds her soul, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena.  She discovers art and writing and her own capacity for creativity. She also discovers a calling while at All Saints, explores a vocation as an Episcopal priest, and eventually leaves the west coast for Harvard Divinity School.  Her decision to pursue this vocation affirmed her sense of self.  Sentilles writes, “I wore my self on the outside, dressing it up for people to see and admire.  Saying, I’m going to be a priest was part of this costume, a badge, a mask.  Just being me wasn’t enough.  I needed props.”

    Sentilles time at Harvard Divinity School was formative, for in that context she was exposed to people of other religions or no religion, other sexualities, and other theological and philosophical perspectives.  During this time she did not attend church, but she did think, study, live and breath god every day.  Through Gordan Kaufman and other mentors, Sentilles began to discover her own theological method, and her beliefs about god began to solidify.  During this period, Sentilles began to see that religion was a tool to confront injustice.  It is something we create for our own purposes.  There is no revelation; there is no truth.  The task of theology, according to Sentilles, is to craft a narrative, or a world, wherein we can confront “injustice and environmental degradation and poverty and racism and sexism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.”  In response to these problems, Sentilles says, “I can create a version of God that can respond to this.”  This leads to some strange assertions, such as “If you admit your understanding of God is a construction, then you won’t be willing to kill anyone over it.”  My response is simply, “Says who?”

    After Harvard Divinity, Sentilles moved to the local church, finding a position at a church just outside Boston where she would continue to pursue her vocation while aware that her sense of calling was fading.  But she needed a job. And others expected her to be a priest.  She moved in to the role, working with the church youth group, preaching inflammatory sermons, and becoming annoyed by the day to day operations of ministry.  Sentilles found that people didn’t want to talk about God.  They only wanted to be part of a group.  She says, “God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise, background noise.”  Distressed by the lack of god-talk in the congregation, Sentilles returns to the doctoral program at Harvard Divinity.

    Sentilles continues telling her story, moving from the death of a close friend, Charlie, who died young of stomach cancer.  She stops praying.  She becomes increasingly disillusioned by the church, and drops out of the discernment process.  She finds love with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity named Eric.  She is disgusted by what has taken place at Abu Ghraib prison, and becomes determined to write her dissertation on the photographs that emerged from that place of oppression.  She discovers more ethical eating practices, in part through the witness of Eric.  She moves to Idaho.  She and Eric marry.  She moves from belief in god to saying, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us." 

    Sentilles is the hero of her own story.  She admits as much, noting the moment in her own life when she began to view herself as the protagonist in her narrative.  This is significant for many reasons, but, considering this memoir primarily concerns the progressive unfolding of her understanding of and relationship to the divine, this admission marks a profound shift.  No longer does Sentilles look to something transcendent, or rely on some concept of Providence.  

    Sentilles looks to herself as the arbiter of morality, of purpose, and of truth.  She determines what is right and what is wrong, notably with regard to food related ethics and sexuality.  She asserts what can and cannot be known about god, suggesting that god is a useful construction, and, that if god exists at all, we cannot know what that god is like.  Any description of god we offer is something for which we must be held accountable, for none of us can speak for god.  Revelation does not exist.  Therefore, we only speak for ourselves.  Anyone who claims to speak a word from god, or on behalf of god, only does so in an effort to increase and leverage their own power.  Yet, employing such Foucauldian tactics not only serves to disarm those in power, but establishes a form of power of its own.  The oppressed become the new oppressors, as those who are able to recognize social constructions elevate themselves to a position where they, and they alone, are able to identity, establish, and create reality.

    There is a great irony throughout Sentilles’ memoir that she does not seem to recognize, that being, she decries the version of dogmatism she perceives that is present in much of modern Christianity yet, in its place, she produces a dogmatism of her own.  As someone who has jettisoned her idea of god, she replaces that concept with a god of her own making.  Jesus is a revolutionary and a political activist, not a cosmic Savior or Redeeming sacrifice.  Sentilles, too, is a revolutionary and a political activist, thus, the way of salvation is not rooted in the historical reality of the cross, but is accomplished through the denouncing of oppressive government policies and those who vocally oppose the legitimization of same-sex relationships (among other causes).  The God of her upbringing was male, demanding of human submission, and a stern judge, expecting his children (foremost here is Sentilles) to earn his acceptance through obedience to his divine commands or through expressions of righteousness.  Sentilles is a feminist, a libertine, and, ironically, a stern judge, expecting her fellow human beings to live in accordance with her standards, and therefore earning her acceptance and approval.  In order to avoid being called a bigot, you must be righteous as Sentilles is righteous.  “You must be holy, because I, the Lord, am holy.”  Not everything about the god of her childhood, it seems, was worthy of leaving behind.

    I happen to think that Sentilles' memoir is gripping and engaging.  I did spend a day with it, reading every page, every word, wrestling with her a/theological assertions, sympathizing with her journey, and identifying with her rage toward the Christian church that often appears to stand for one thing yet do another.  I appreciated, quite deeply, her engagement with highly intelligent and important scholars of theology and religion and philosophy.  She is more knowledgeable in such areas than many pastors, which I admit with some sadness.  I also think that Sentilles is honest during a time where there is much duplicity, both overt and covert.  There are many who are afraid to voice their own doubts and struggles for fear of being rejected, and thus the intellectual and emotional concerns that plague us are never brought in to the light to be faced down, dealt with, and moved past.

    In that respect, I can recommend this book.  But as a guide, I cannot recommend Sentilles.  I believe her ideas about god are quite wrong, and her characterizations of both the church, theology, the Bible, conservatives of all stripes, epistemology, method, and more should not be followed.  This, of course, is my informed opinion, one that is worthy of vigorous debate.  The ideas I have just listed are no small matter.  They are the stuff of life.  Just as Sentilles has the right to assert her own thoughts, and to justify those through argumentation, so too do those who disagree with her, yet, for Christians that might read her story and find her too bombastic or abrasive, it should be remembered that the Bible that Sentilles deconstructs commands us to provide an answer for what is believed with “gentleness and respect.”


    Excited. "The Right Way to Disagree" Published at

    I was glad to discover via Twitter that published an article I submitted under the title "the Right Way to Disagree".  I am thrilled.  Here is my conclusion: 

    John 13:35 reminds us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This includes loving one another enough to speak the truth. It means loving one another enough to ask hard questions, to be picky about the details and to take care that our words and actions are truly Christian. As Stanley Hauerwas has reminded us, living as a Christian requires learning a language that encompasses what we say and what we do.

    We may not be of one mind, but we can be of one heart. If we hold our love for Christ in common, God has given us all the time we need to work out our differences and disagreements. In those difficult moments, we must trust that, though we can’t see it, God’s Kingdom is bigger than our corner.

    You can read the rest here.  Share with your friends.  I hope you find my words of value, and worthy of discussion.


    Questions, Not Answers

    It's nice to have a little downtime from the day to day of the job to immerse yourself in thought and the ongoing conversation that is the art reading.  I came across this nugget from Peter Rollins, and thought it was worthy of sharing:

    In contrast to the view that evangelism is that which gives an answer for those who are asking, we must have faith to believe that those who seek will find for themselves...If this is true, then the job of the Church is not to provide an answer--for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine--but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise.  In contrast to the type of sermon that aims to answer thought by providing a clear explanation of a passage or area of Christian life, the emerging community is in a unique place to embrace a type of communication that opens up thought by asking questions and celebrating complexity.

    --How (Not) to Speak of God, 42-43

    Minus the eloquence, I shared this exact sentiment to a pastor about twenty years my elder two or three years ago.  She found it to be a completely fresh, exciting, and altogether different way of taking up the task of the sermon.

    I've since come to a place where I would contend that the question is itself a form of answer, and the questions themselves do lead to solutions which the preacher can propose.  There is merit in what Rollins says here, I think, but I also think that the proposal in and of itself represents a case where the pendulum has swung too far.

    So, do we provide questions or answers, or both?


    Menial Jobs and the Life of the Mind

    I drive a school bus.

    Some friends think this gives me a unique angle--it is a distinctive.  Others are surprised that I would hold such a job in light of my educational background and life experience.  A few have offered a wry smile or a chuckle when I reveal this part of my life.  And still others have said, "I'm so glad I don't have that job."

    But I have come to love it.  There are many reasons for this.  One is that I serve wonderful students.  Another is that the students I serve provide me with unique insight into the lives of teenagers in our city.  I also enjoy my coworkers.  They are dedicated to safety, passionate about their work, consistent, diligent, and possess colorful stories regarding their life and how they ended up behind the wheel of the yellow bus.  Some work other jobs as well.  Some are single parents.  Many are senior adults.

    One advantage my work has over other jobs is that while every day is different, every day is the same.  There is routine.  There is a prescribed path to follow.  The machine is designed to function in a particular way.  And even my students have become accustomed to my "good mornings" and "see you laters."  They have standard replies all of their own.  That, or a steely silence.

    Because my day is routine, my mind is allowed to go where it likes during those moments my bus responsibilities switch to "auto-pilot."  I can think.  When the bus is empty, I can ask questions out loud, and answer them.  I can argue with myself, or with an imaginary discourse partner.  And during my short break between my morning middle school and elementary school routes, I can read, jot down thoughts, or simply relax for a few quiet moments while my bus is parked.

    A few weeks ago, I heard Charles Lee make an offhanded reference to the documentary "The Philosopher Kings."  I haven't seen it.  But he described the film in a way that resonated with me.  I recall him saying that the film featured interviews with janitors, who possessed profound and unsurpassable wisdom.  They understood the world.  And this understanding derived from their ability to think deeply about many things while completing their jobs.

    At one time, great thinkers not only wrote, they worked.  We live in a day of the professional scholar or writer.  When there is a professional intellectual class, there is a danger of detachment from the everyday.  There is an unconscious recession into the ivory tower.  Most scholars do not think their work is largely irrelevant to the rhythms of the everyday.  It is a hidden blindness.

    I'm thankful for my job.  And while I've pondered taking on the vocation of a writer full time, there is that fear that if I do, my ability to see will somehow be altered.

    Menial jobs, if approached the right way, can foster the life of the mind in unexpected ways.  And if you pastor or lead those who have menial jobs, ask them what their life has taught them.  You might discover a treasure.