The Christian College in a Pluralist Society

I’m running short on time today, so I’ll content myself with posting another link from ISI. This one is a reprint of part of a 2005 article from Latin Mass magazine. It asks some interesting questions about threats to Christian schools in a pluralist society. According to this author, although pluralism and protection of religious freedom, etc., certainly provide us with many advantages, they also “negate in principle the possibility of governing by the truth.” I’ll be interested to see the next part of the article to find out how he develops this idea and whether he pinpoints specific dangers to Christian schools.

Tomorrow I intend to start a series of posts on the classic work How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Stay tuned!

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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11 Responses to The Christian College in a Pluralist Society

  1. Vic McCracken says:

    Interesting article. I find it curious that the author casts the issue of pluralism as if it is somehow in opposition to revealed truth, as if the existence of pluralism is somehow at odds with the Christian religion. I perceive the relationship between liberalism (which in all of its forms affirms value pluralism as in some sense the outgrowth of human freedom) and Christianity very differently. Pluralism is the outgrowth of the inevitable fallibility of human knowledge; we live in a pluralistic world (a pluralism that extends into the Christian world too, I might add!) because of the fallibility of human knowledge. This fallibility is inescapable, even for Christians who purport to simply know the truth of the Bible (which truth? Intrepreted how?). All Christians need to be epistemological skeptics, willing to assert truth claims while admitting the possibility that our perceptions of truth are fallible. Liberalism, and its consequent admission of pluralism as an inevitable feature of human polity premised on the idea of individual liberty, is in my view an outgrowth of this skepticism. We recognize that it is only in pluralism that we may test knowledge claims in a way that moves us closer to what is true. This isn’t a novel claim. J.S. Mill says as much in “On Liberty.”

    I agree with the author that there are times when value pluralism devolves into mindless relativism, when religion is treated like a form of apparel, something to be judged for its aesthetic appeal. This is a problem we rightly avoid. However, does the author really believe that religion has been excised from the public square? I doubt this is the case, and I’m increasingly unpersuaded by the shrill cries of those who mistake the absence of things like state-sponsored prayer in schools for the absence of religious vitality in American public life. Like you, Jason, I am curious what the author himself envisions when he speaks of “governing by truth.” If what he envisions is a theocracy in which priests trained in unerring knowledge of the ways of God dictate public policy, than I’m a Christian who will take the value pluralism of our representative democracy, no doubt. If what he speaks of is a polity that will govern, as his article says, for the sake of the common good, one in which public policy is based in establishing systems that embody love of neighbor–including just social policies that tend to the wellbeing of the least well off–than I am a liberal willing to give his argument a closer look.

    • Robert says:

      Reading blogs and replies can easily consume too much time and can contribute to the destruction of the precious resource of well placed words. With that in mind, I only have one comment and one question. I really cannot wrap my mind around such universal absolute declarations as “All Christians need to be epistemological skeptics”. My first impulse was to doubt it! Ultimately, however, I was wondering what the relationship was between epistemological skepticism and the virtues of faith, hope, and love?

      • Vic McCracken says:

        Robert, I see epistemological skepticism as an outgrowth of our Christian commitment to humility. It is possible to be an ontological realist (i.e. a person who believes that there is an absolute basis of knowledge) and an epistemological skeptic (i.e. a person who denies that we humans can ever collapse the gap between what we perceive to be true and what actually is). When I say that Christians should all be epistemological skeptics, I am simply saying that Christians should be skeptical about the certitude of the claims that we make about God, and (perhaps especially!) of the theological systems that we use to describe God, creation, and our social world. I see the pluralism of our world, the Christian community, and the like, as evidence of human fallibility, and I don’t think this can be arrested through appeals to some foundational text or monolithic “tradition” (be in the Bible, the Constitution, or some vague spectre called the “Western tradition”), texts and traditions which must be interpreted by fallible humans like you and me. Hope this clarifies my point!

      • Robert Woods says:

        Vic, Your comments do help. I would like to add that my commitment to “moderate realism” is grounded in the incarnation, which itself urges humility. However, I’m not sure I would see pluralism (do you mean relativism?) as evidence of human fallibility, but rather as (partly) the result of a triune God creating human community. As far as convictions about “appeals to some foundational text or monolithic ‘tradition’ (be in the Bible, the Constitution, or some vague specter called the ‘Western tradition’”), I can only say that I felt the same way about Narnia and Montgomery, Alabama until I spent more time in both and now neither is vague nor ghostlike. Maybe if we all spent more time in the “specter of Western Tradition” then it would become more solid.

  2. Dr. J says:

    Vic, I didn’t read him as saying the religion had been excised from the public square, only that traditional and tacitly Christian understandings of things such as social relationships no longer set the terms of public discussion or debate.

    On the epistemological problem, I agree with James Sire’s thesis in Naming the Elephant that ontology precedes epistemology, i.e., we can know something is true without understanding exactly how we know it. Sire identifies the preoccupation with epistemology (beginning with Descartes) as perhaps the most important contributor to modern intellectual paralysis.

    I think the theocracy bugbear is a straw man; I’ve never seen anyone call for government by allegedly infallible priests. There may be a handful of ultramontane RC’s out there, but I doubt they have any influence. Not even Calvin’s Geneva functioned this way.

    You may have noticed that this author has a forthcoming on the philosophical problem of pluralism, so apparently he has thought a lot about it. When the second part of the article is posted, I’ll link to it so we can see exactly where he’s going with this.

  3. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, I don’t see theocracy as the principle aim of most Roman Catholics (I also don’t see most Roman Catholics calling for a libertarian society either, but that’s another story). I do consider the social vision of Christian Reconstructionists like Rushdoony and Demar as theocratic, so I have them in mind more than I do people like the author of the article that you cited. If I had to choose between (1) the libertarian society that you often affirm, and (2) the Reconstructionist society envisioned by Christian thinkers like Rushdoony, I would choose your libertarian society in a heartbeat. I don’t think these are the only options (thankfully!).

    I haven’t read Sire, but your description of his thesis sounds like he affirms some sort of fideistic eschewal of justification, something that won’t fly well in contemporary public discourse. Simply saying “I know the Bible is true, but I can’t prove it to you,” for example, won’t get you far in a well-ordered liberal democracy. ISTM that our preoccupation with epistemology is inescapable. We live in a world in which we are constantly coming into contact with alternative beliefs and practices. Epistemology is critical precisely because we need to find ways to justify our beliefs when engaging those who don’t agree with them, especially true when it comes to public policy debates when our comprehensive beliefs inform the policies that we support.

    On the idea that “traditional and tacitly Christian understanding of social relationships . . .” no longer setting the terms of public discussion or debate, I’m unclear precisely what this means. Is the idea that citizens in a pluralistic society no longer share a common stock of beliefs that are rooted in Christian faith? This is an empirical claim, but one that is, I think, easily overstated. Jeff Stout observes that even in a pluralistic democracy like ours there are certain beliefs that are widely shared, beliefs that were more controversial in that idealized past that conservatives so frequently laud. I know of few public intellectuals today appealing to Christian scripture in order to offer a moral defense of the practice of slavery. It’s not difficult finding such defenses in the 19th century homiletical literature, as well as their progeny in early 20th century defenses of Jim Crow laws and the like. There are some things that many citizens of our liberal democracy today affirm, even in spite of our differing backgrounds and comprehensive beliefs. I see these things as signs of moral progress, not decline.

    This is, in my view, one of the weaknesses of the decline narratives that frequent evangelical discussions of contemporary culture. The idea is that we had some pristine past but that our retreat from Christian values has led to a great cultural decline. I find this narrative doubtful. Our past was not as pristine as we would like to believe, nor is our present as depraved as some would have us imagine. Our social life has always entailed a mixture of virtue and vice, no more or less now than in the past.

  4. Dr. J says:

    Vic, you raised several points. I’ll try to be brief in my response.

    The word “theocracy” seems to me to be very imprecise the way people throw it around, and I’m not sure exactly what you mean by it, but my sense is that most people really mean “ecclesiocracy” when they use it (as implied by your characterization of it as including infallible priests), and to my knowledge no evangelicals (Reconstructionists included) are calling for that.

    Sire is not saying what you inferred from my previous comment.

    We need look no further than the current societal debate over the meaning of marriage, not to mention the Canadian evangelicals jailed for preaching against homosexuality, to see that traditional and tacitly Christian understandings of social relationships no longer set the terms of debate.

    I believe you are attacking another straw man when you say that decline narratives appeal to a pristine past. None of these authors that I have read deny that there were problems in the past. And if you think there can be moral progress, you have to at least admit the possibility of moral regress as well.

    • Vic McCracken says:

      Jason, you wrote:
      ________________________
      The word “theocracy” seems to me to be very imprecise the way people throw it around, and I’m not sure exactly what you mean by it, but my sense is that most people really mean “ecclesiocracy” when they use it (as implied by your characterization of it as including infallible priests), and to my knowledge no evangelicals (Reconstructionists included) are calling for that.
      ________________________
      Rushdoony’s vision of theocracy is of a society run be Christians who have experienced regeneration and are exercising dominion over those who continue to rebel against the reign of God. He calls for the criminalization of consensual same-sex activity, including the death penalty for gays and lesbians who persist in their way of life as well as for unrepentant female adulterers. I’m indifferent abou whether you call this theocracy or “ecclesiocracy.” This is the kind of religious power that worries me.

      You wrote:
      ________________________________
      Sire is not saying what you inferred from my previous comment.

      We need look no further than the current societal debate over the meaning of marriage, not to mention the Canadian evangelicals jailed for preaching against homosexuality, to see that traditional and tacitly Christian understandings of social relationships no longer set the terms of debate.
      _______________________________
      Set the terms of what debate? You are right that we live in a world in which we are deeply conflicted about sexual ethics and family life, with growing numbers of same sex couples adopting children, raising children conceived through the use of reproductive technology, and with these couples seeking the same recognition as heterosexual couples. But it’s not clear to me what a “tacitly Christian understanding of social relationships” would mean in terms of the contemporary debate about social relationships. What would such an understanding mean? Are you saying that we simply wouldn’t be having the debate because the majority of us would agree that these relationships are out of bounds? Are you saying that you regret that the social mores of the majority of American aren’t tipped more in favor of denying the rights of same sex couples to have children or to marry? What in your view would the restoration of Christian understanding entail in the face of this pluralism? I should probably be asking the author that you cited, not you, these questions!

      You wrote:
      _______________________________
      I believe you are attacking another straw man when you say that decline narratives appeal to a pristine past. None of these authors that I have read deny that there were problems in the past. And if you think there can be moral progress, you have to at least admit the possibility of moral regress as well.
      ______________________________
      The decline narrative is a bread-and-butter trope of evangelicals who lament the loss of conservative Christian values in mainstream culture (this does move away from the author you cited in the initial post, a Roman Catholic). I think there is ample evidence for the decline narrative that I cite, so I simply disagree that this is a straw man. It’s amply evident in the A Beka homeschooling history and civics curricula that I analyzed as part of my dissertation. I could quote from Christian ministries like Wallbuilders to further illustrate my point, but I’ll desist since this post is getting overlong. From my perspective a truer narrative of the American democratic tradition needs to do more than making passing comments about the sins of things like slavery; there needs to be a more honest reckoning of our mixed history. I think that evangelicals often fall short on this account.

      Enjoying the conversation!

  5. Dr. J says:

    Vic, I’m trying to understand where you are coming from with some of your comments, so I hope you don’t mind if I come at this from a slightly different angle. On theocracy, by which you apparently mean any attempt to conform a modern legal code to the mandates of a religious tradition, let me ask you this: If you became convinced by whatever means that Christianity mandated a legal regime contrary to that posited by the egalitarian theorists you favor, would you call for that regime, or is your “epistemological skepticism” a prior commitment? Secondly, can egalitarianism also be seen as a religious view that your epistemological skepticism ought to prevent you from imposing on others through the State apparatus?

    On the marriage question, I am simply referring to the debate over what marriage is, not to any specific legal question. Appeals either to 5,000 years of Western civilization’s tradition or to the Bible are dismissed a priori by the bien-pensant today, and any attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of homosexual erotic relationships is trumped by ideology. This goes well beyond the question of whose interpretation of the Bible is correct; discussions of what the Bible teaches are simply ruled out of bounds in public debate.

    On decline, I think you’re focusing on an idiosyncratic narrative of the past 400 years of American history promoted by some evangelicals (portions of which may or may not be correct), whereas I am talking about a millennia-long tradition of civilizational consensus which did not really begin to erode in places until the eighteenth century. This tradition is no “vague spectre,” as you put it. I suppose that next you’ll be telling me there’s really no such thing as “the West” at all!

    • Vic McCracken says:

      Good questions, Jason. Let me be clear: my Christian faith is my “prior” commitment, so in reply to your hypothetical question if a compelling case were made that Christianity mandated a legal regime that conflicted with egalitarian premises that I currently believe to be consonant with Christian faith than I would feel compelled to reconsider my political commitments. I say this with some important caveats however. I don’t think our commitment to any religious tradition can be unbending. If it became clear to me that the God of the Christian faith were a monster who took pleasure in inflicting cruel abuse on his creation, for example, I would see every reason to reject this god, even if all other Christians believed this God to be the true creator God. I don’t see the Christian God this way, however. This may seem that I’m hedging my commitment to the Christian tradition, but I don’t intend the comment as such. Similarly, I would be morally opposed to becoming an Islamic terrorist, even if someone could rationally convince me that radical Islamic faith is the one true religious faith.

      As for egalitarianism being a “religious commitment” that the State ought not to impose, a lot turns on what you and I mean when we speak of egalitarian politics. There are certain egalitarian premises that reasonable citizens of a liberal democracy widely accept, the fact that we all have equal rights to an adequate scheme of basic liberties, for example. There is no such thing as a valueless politics; public policy is about finding ways at arriving at and justifying policies based on more-or-less widely shared beliefs and values. There will always be some people who sees policies arriving from these values as impositions–think of the white supremacist upset that they now have to live in a society where black people can vote. This does not mean that the values that form our politics are beyond question. Indeed, liberals need to be open to the claims of those who deny widely accepted premises, not hold them as beyond question. This beckons back to some earlier discussions you and I have had about the idea of reflective equilibrium. We should always be open to testing the beliefs that form our political commitments. This is the outcome of epistemological skepticism, not that we deny the possibility of true belief but that we remain open to the possibility that the beliefs that we hold to be true, as well as the political commitments that flow from these beliefs, may be wrong.

      You wrote:
      ________________
      On the marriage question, I am simply referring to the debate over what marriage is, not to any specific legal question. Appeals either to 5,000 years of Western civilization’s tradition or to the Bible are dismissed a priori by the bien-pensant today, and any attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of homosexual erotic relationships is trumped by ideology. This goes well beyond the question of whose interpretation of the Bible is correct; discussions of what the Bible teaches are simply ruled out of bounds in public debate.
      _______________________
      Well Jason, of course claims from the Bible are dismissed a priori by people who don’t accept the Bible as authoritative scripture! What more should we expect? Simply appealing to what the Bible says, or appealing to ancient traditions to justify opposition to homosexuality isn’t all that persuasive in public discourse. Is this what you mean when you speak of the western tradition not prevailing today? I’m unaware of any public context where people are precluded from citing scripture should they so choose to justify their beliefs. What they can’t expect is that citing scripture alone to non-believers will be sufficient to justify claims about how a diverse society should govern itself. I’m really trying to understand what you would prefer, because in the end it really does sound like this lament can be boiled down to a complaint that there aren’t enough people in high places who agree with Christians that homosexuality is wrong.

      Further, I think that the state of current marriage debates is much more complex than your comments suggest. Evangelical attitudes toward same sex couples are evolving and nuanced. The latest Field (http://field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/Rls2349.pdf) study of CA voters noted that self-defined evangelicals in California are all over the map as far as same sex relationships are concerned. The majority continue to believe that homosexuality is immoral, but 27% of evangelicals in the survey indicated that they believed same sex couples should have the right to marry. 24% believed that same sex relationships deserve no legal recognition. What is interesting is that 43% of self-defined evangelicals chose a middle option, affirming “civil unions” that granted gay couples virtually the same legal rights as heterosexuals but stopped short of calling them “married.” These aren’t intellectual elites who are drawing these distinctions; these are the in-the-pews brothers and sisters that we worship alongside weekly. I think that your description of intellectual elites vying against the wisdom of the past doesn’t account for the fact that even Christians approach this issue with more nuance.

      I appreciate the distinction you draw between the idiosyncratic narrative that I’m responding to and the one that you are affirming. I’m still more ambivalent about the virtues of the civilizational consensus that you laud, a consensus that affirmed a fair number of things that we now recognize to be grave moral errors. Perhaps our difference on this point is more a matter of style. Like you, I wish more of my students would read the classics. Faulkner’s Great Books program is an outstanding example of something I’d love to see us develop in our own Honors College. I’d like my students to spend more time reading Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. For me, however, I think it’s important to approach these sources in a way that both acknowledges the wisdom of the past while pointing to the shortcomings. I’d like students to see how Aristotle’s aristocratic vision of the self entailed a social order, for example, in which some people are born to be slaves. I fear that laments about the decline of the western tradition too often resurrect this tradition by rendering sacrosanct ideas that we ought to question, all in the name of affirming “tradition.” I’m sure that this isn’t your routine when you teach Great Books, Jason, so I’m not accusing you of this.

      One more final comment, related to a previous thread that we were discussing on facebook. I asked you a while back about why you believed that a Muslim community center built on private property a few blocks from Ground Zero was immoral. You told me that you were simply referring to the idea that Islam is a manifestation of rebellion against God (pointing to Romans 1). I’ve been puzzling over this response for some time and think now that I see why it befuddles me. The post to which I was replying had to do with why creating an Islamic community center so close to Ground Zero is immoral. Your comment was much more all-encompassing than I was expecting, and I’m not convinced that you intend the implications of what the comment suggested. If the reason why building a mosque so close to Ground Zero is because Islam is a false religion, than wouldn’t this mean that building a mosque anywhere at all is immoral? It would seem to be the case, but then it’s not clear to me why you’re saying that the problem is how close the mosque is to Ground Zero. Shouldn’t you just say that building any mosques anywhere is immoral and be done with it? (Maybe you can post a followup thought on the Western tradition, Islam, and Ground Zero. I’d enjoy reading your thoughts)

      Again, Jason, I always appreciate our conversations.

  6. Dr. J says:

    Vic, sorry for letting this conversation drop. I really got tied up with start-of-school activities and didn’t have the energy to revisit this thread. Just a quick note, and then we might want to resume discussing the second part of the article I linked to today.

    I was attempting to the raise the issue of what we take for granted in a liberal democracy and whether those things (and the idea of liberal democracy itself) are actually religious commitments that may or may not be fully compatible with Christianity.

    When you say, “Simply appealing to what the Bible says, or appealing to ancient traditions to justify opposition to homosexuality isn’t all that persuasive in public discourse,” yes, you are illustrating what I took to be the author’s original point about historic Christianity’s no longer setting terms of debate in the public square. What evangelicals believe or don’t believe at this particular moment is largely irrelevant as far as that goes, although the polls you cite appear to asking about a purely legal issue and may not say anything at all about evangelicals’ views on whether homosexual relationships are morally licit. I’m not sure precisely what you mean by “people in high places,” but if you’re talking about people who influence cultural norms, then sure, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t think there are enough people in middle or low places who agree with Christian views, either!

    Thanks for the kind words about our Great Books program. The honoring of tradition does not entail viewing the classics as Holy Writ, but it does entail granting them presumptive validity unless compelling evidence is presented to the contrary. The modern view is usually the opposite, that the classics must pass the test of our modern assumptions before we endorse them.

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