Fully Human: How to Think Part III Why we need all 4 sources

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In the last post we discussed why it is important to think in such a way that gives priority to Scripture.  In this post I outline, in bullet form, 4 reasons why our thinking must still value the other sources of knowledge (Tradition, Reason, Experience.  For a review of those 3 sources, click here)

1)   Because The Scriptures don’t tell us everything we need to know:  The Scriptures are perfect in regards to what they are communicating but we must also recognize that they don’t address every situation we find ourselves in.  The Scriptures may help provide the basic principles for thinking about a modern topic, like say for developing an ethic of social media.  However in order to really hash out an ethic like this we will also need to use our rational faculties and draw on knowledge gained from our experience.

2)   Because The Scriptures cannot be accessed apart from the other resources:  As much as we are to preference Scripture, we must always recognize that we cannot consult Scripture in isolation from the other sources of knowledge.  Our experience, reason, and tradition will inevitably shape how we read Scripture, even as our view of Scripture will shape how we view our experience, tradition, and reason.  They key is to have these four sources in the proper order and in proper conversation with each other.

3)   Because Reason, Experience, and Tradition can teach us some good things:  There are many insights that the other 3 resources can teach us:  for instance our tradition may tell us that being faithful in a marriage is important, our reason may tell us that things like stealing and lying are wrong, and our experience may tell us, particularly while we are growing up, that things are much more likely to go well for us if we honour our parents.

You may have noticed that the examples mentioned all refer to a few of the 10 Commandments.  I chose these examples intentionally to show that some of the morality of Scripture can also be gained through the use of our other faculties.  My conviction is that the types of morality that we can gain from our other faculties are those things that can be found in the moral “lists” or “laws” (for more on laws see my post here).  This type of morality may be referred to as the “common morality” or “basic morality”.  It refers to the things that people can agree on regardless of their religious conviction.  From a Christian point of view, the “common morality” is good but is not the greatest good.  To discover what is at the heart of morality in Christianity, you need Scripture.

Part of the reason why I share this insight is because as Christians we find ourselves living in a nation that does not give primary importance to Scripture; in fact as a society Scripture does not even exist as a unique category.  This means that as believers we must temper our expectations in regards to what type of morality we will find in our society.  It’s unrealistic and in fact unfair to expect our society to be organized around the morality of Scripture.  We must instead be willing to accept from our society a lowest common denominator of morality, something that is OK but not perfect.

4)   Because If Christians want to impact society we must be knowledgeable enough to converse using the language of reason, tradition, and experience:  It’s perfectly fair to be motivated by Scripture but it does no good to quote something as authoritative to people who do not see it that way.  The way broader society hears our Scripture quotations is similar to the way we hear quotations from the Koran or other religion’s scriptures.  They may be interesting, they may in fact communicate something that makes good sense; however their claims will not be held as valuable because they belong to the category of Scripture but will rather only be held as valuable if they make sense according to our reason, experience, or tradition.  For that reason, if we want to make an impact and change on our society we must speak the language of our time and place.

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Must Religion bring Armageddon: Re-appropriating the Separation of Church and State.

Some time ago I wrote a blog which outlined why I believe the metaphors used to describe the relationship between citizens and their government have serious implications for how people believe the state should function.  There I contrasted two common metaphors:  mechanistic and organic.  ‘Mechanistic’ metaphors suggest that the state should be viewed as a social-contract.  The view believes that the state is to function as the public sphere and is to legislate a lowest common denominator of morality.   Conversely organic metaphors suggest that members of society are bound  ‘naturally’.  Organic metaphors tend to suggest that the legislation of the state should resemble the ‘ideal’ status of morality as much as possible.  Furthermore ‘organic’ views of the state suggest that the good of the state takes precedence over the good of individuals.

Judging by several recent newspaper columns it seems as though the significance of this dynamic has come home to roost in Canada.  For instance, Jane Taber wrote a thought provoking article in yesterday’s Globe & Mail.  The article draws attention to the latest spat between the Conservative government and the CBC.  According to the Conservatives, the CBC is attempting to divide Canadians by emphasizing the (‘evangelical’ Christian) religious affiliations of several prominent members of the Conservative government and thereby effectively creating a “faith war”.  Meanwhile the National Post’s website has run a column by Don Martin which summarizes the ideas behind Marci McDonald’s recently released book:  The Armageddon Factor.  The book highlights various maneuvers of the Conservative government which suggests that Harper’s Conservatives are trying to get into bed (without anyone else knowing it!) with the religious right.  Some notable maneuvers include raising the age of sexual consent to 16, having a Chief of Staff who is pro-life, cutbacks to feminist groups and gay pride parades even while providing additional funds for faith-based colleges (on this last point I cannot resist pointing out that Regent College–a world class faith-based graduate school will cost a student about 2.5 times more per year than someone working on a research-based graduate degree across the street at UBC).

What I find fascinating about these stories is not so much that Harper is trying to please the religious-right of Canada (really?  just figuring this one out now?) but rather the tendency of Canadians to think that it is inherently negative for religious convictions to be brought into the public sphere (see the “reader comments” on the Globe link for examples).  The irony of course is that opponents of the political agenda of the religious right often hold to a twisted vision of secular liberalism which attempts to prescribe its own set of values on the masses.  For example, in a previous blog I cited the tendency of certain secular liberal groups to prioritize diversity over individual rights.  What I would like to suggest is that the problem in Canadian politics is not bringing religion (Christian or otherwise) or some other worldview to the public sphere but rather a group’s attempt to legislate their prescribed version of morality for all Canadians.  To explain why this is the problem requires a closer look at the meaning and significance of social-contract.

Social-contract theory suggests that the state exists to promote the well-being of its members.  The idea is that a group of otherwise independent groups and/or individuals come together to find common or public space based on the belief that this space will allow them to flourish better off than they could individually (health-care, infrastructure, protection of private property through police force are all appropriate examples).  In this model the public space exists for the benefit of the individual people/sub-groups—in contrast to say the former Soviet Union where the individual was to serve the state.  In social-contract societies individuals/groups must bring their particular identifying markers such as religion, ethnicity, orientation, or sex to the public sphere.  This is for at least two reasons:

  1. The state will not be able to allow particular groups to flourish if it is not aware/does not understand their particular needs/desires.
  2. If groups/individuals are prevented from bringing their particular identifying markers to the shared space then the contract metaphor has been forsaken and is replaced by a particularly bland, ignore-the-differences  ‘organic’  understanding of the state a la France? Quebec?).

That being said, separation of church and state (and indeed separation of any particular group and state) still needs to occur in the sense that particular groups need to recognize the existence and legitimacy of others who have ‘signed on’ to the contract who do not share their particularities.  Special interest groups which neglect to do so are deserving of harsh criticism since their actions attempt to undermine the very purpose of social-contract.

To be clear I am not at all suggesting that debate over what is the highest good should be abandoned.  In fact, as the very existence of this blog suggests, I am an advocate for the public discussion of virtue, religion, etc.  However as a Mennonite I am also painfully aware that the attempt to legislate the highest good of a particular group often has morally reprehensible results—the drowning of Anabaptists in 16th century Switzerland, the forced exile of Menno Simmons from Holland, or the mass-killings of 20th century Russian-Mennonites by the Bolsheviks are more than enough examples for me to remember what happens when we confuse categories.  This is especially true in the ‘global village’ where there is nowhere left for refugees to run to look for a tolerant nation.  In this context the prophetic words from the Eagles’ song “The Last Resort” come to mind:

There is no more new frontier,

We’ve got to make it here.

Why Metaphors Matter: There’s an ‘I’ in society…

Today’s blog is a digression from the series I’ve been working on regarding a Christian perspective of forgiveness.  I intend to come back to forgiveness in the near future.  However this week I read something which caught my eye and believe it is worth sharing.

Last week I read an article by James Gustafson called “Theology Confronts Technology and the Life Sciences”.  In this article Gustafson makes the point by-the-by that our ethical opinions about particular matters such as euthanasia, abortion, etc are impacted by how an individual views their relationship with society.  Gustafson suggests that there are two competing metaphors that are used:  mechanistic and organic.

Mechanistic metaphors are those which understand society as if it is a contract.  Individuals are seen as voluntary participants in a society without a “natural bond” between them.  An example of the mechanistic metaphor at work can be observed in the advent of human rights.  Human rights such as free-speech are things which have been agreed upon by participants of a society for the good of the individual.  The state functions to ensure these rights are maintained.  In this model the individual is valued above the whole.

The organic metaphor understands society as interrelated and interdependent.  Individuals are naturally connected.  In this metaphor the parts make up the whole; however the whole takes precedence over the individuals.  A good example of how the organic metaphor manifests itself is that of the environmentalist who cites the health of the planet as the highest good.

I believe that the metaphor we use has great implications for how we engage with society.  The example of Anne Coulter helps illustrate this point.  I heard an interview on the radio between a Canadian editor of “Now Magazine” and a journalist who works for Fox.  The journalist from Fox argued that preventing Coulter from speaking at the University of Ottawa violated her right to free-speech.  The Canadian responded by saying that in Canada free-speech and individual rights are not seen as the end or goal but rather the greater good of accepting minorities is the end. 

The point in citing this example is not to argue for one side or the other but rather to illustrate the impact that an organic (Now magazine) or a mechanistic (Fox news) has on particular ethical issues.  We are all part of many different societies:  work, country, province, church, school, family etc.  In each of these societies the metaphors we implicity use and the ones being advocated for by its other member may differ. Regardless of circumstance metaphors matter—it’s worthwhile to try and figure them out.