Sound Thinking

30 Sep

What Is Life Like after Culture?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/30/01

The modern elevation of individual autonomy leads to postmodern suspicion of all authority, and eventually to postculturalism. Insights from Christopher Clausen and Philip Rieff . . .

In the summer of 1996, The American Scholar published an essay by Christopher Clausen. It was called "Welcome to Post-culturalism" and in it, Clausen (a professor of English at Penn State University) reflected on how the word "culture" has come to mean something very different from its historical meaning in anthropology. In that context, it "refers to the total way of life of a discrete society, its traditions, habits, belief, and art." This way of life was transmitted from one generation to the next and thereby served as a system of moral instruction and ethical restraint.

But "culture" in this deep sense has always been something of a problem for Americans. "The American political tradition places individual liberty ahead of nearly every other goal, thereby (among many other benefits) reducing occasions for intergroup conflict." The liberation of individuals from restraining forces "is one of the permanent trends in American life and comes closer to realization with every advance in communications. But the freedom that lies beyond culture may be a mixed blessing—in some respects a liberty that not even John Stuart Mill could love. The escape from restraint that the Internet represents derives not from an ideal of human fulfillment but from the narcissistic experience of one's own personality, strengthened by its reflection in the computer screen, as the only significant reality. The major constituents of real cultures—family, religion, ethics, manners—have shrunk almost to the vanishing point as authorities over individual behavior. This inflation of personality at the expense of exteral reality did not begin with the computer age; Christopher Lasch chronicles its rise in a book entitled, naturally, The Culture of Narcissism (1978). Computers and their sibling, cable television, have, however, greatly accelerated the process." [p. 387]

"The old liberal distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct has little significance if one inhabits a world made up primarily of bytes and images. Like television itself, which exists only to reach the largest possible audience, such a world has no fixed norms; like the Internet, it welcomes virtually any content from any source. Every expression, however violent, pornographic, or merely shallow, is equivalent to all other expressions. 'The First Amendment,' proclaims Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company, 'gives you the right to be plastic.'"[p. 387]

Clausen's observations resonate with earlier concerns expressed by Philip Rieff in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. In that book, Rieff describes a culture as an "inherited organization of permissions and restraints upon action." [p. 3] But the 20th century was witness to a widespread suspicion about any inherited assumptions about good and evil, and so encouraged social institutions and personalities that were committed to liberation rather than restraint. This marked a transition from culture towhat Rieff terms anti-culture: "The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized. . . . Our cultural revolution does not aim, like its predecessors, at victory for some rival commitment, but rather at a way of using all commitments, which amounts to loyalty toward none.

Rieff's diagnosis is similar to Clausen's, but more pessimistic. [Posted October 2001, KAM]

9 Jun

Free Trade Zone for Preferences

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/09/01

Philip Turner, the former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and currently the Vice President of the Anglican Communion Institute, examines "The Episcopalian Preference" in the November 2003 issue of First Things. The occasion for the article is the controversy surrounding the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, USA, the first candidly homosexual bishop in the denomination. (ECUSA) Turner looks at the failure of ECUSA since the mid-1960s to discipline its priests and bishops, a failure inspired by a desire to protect the image of the denomination as an open, inclusive, progressive body. But Turner sees larger cultural forces at work, forces that threaten American churches of every creed and style: "the subversion of Christian belief and practice by the logic of autonomous individualism, and the churches' transformation into simulacra. Make no mistake: what has happened in ECUSA is not a problem limited to a once (overly) proud denomination. Rather, it provides an exemplary case study of the subversion and transformation that, in one way or another, threatens all American denominations today."

Turner summarizes the critique of liberalism offered by Alasdair MacIntyre (in After Virtue and in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) in which he argued that "the tradition of liberalism cannot allow for a single notion of the good to dominate 'the public square,' since liberal society must remain morally and theologically neutral. What one can express in public are not notions of good, but rather preferences. Of course, some way must be found to order preferences both in respect to individual life and to social policy. No rational way can be found to achieve this goal, however, because there is no common notion of the good to which public appeal can be made. Hence, one establishes preferences in the public arena primarily by bargaining. Everything in private as well as public life becomes a 'trade-off.' Social life becomes a sort of free trade zone for preferences."

MacIntyre labeled this dominant attitude toward moral understanding "emotivism," defined precisely (in After Virtue) as follows: "Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character." [p. 11f.] Later, MacIntyre observed: "[T]o a large degree people now think, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. But of course in saying this I am not merely contending that morality is not what it once was, but also and more importantly that what once was morality has to some large degree disappeared—and that this marks a degeneration, a grave cultural loss."

Philip Turner points out that since, in the framework of emotivism, assumptions about identity and the nature of moral agency are radically different than they were in the classical and Christian understanding of the moral life, the current arguments about legitimating homosexual behavior in the churches and in society at large are quite predictable.

"It is precisely this sexualized notion of moral agency and personal identity that makes the Robinson election so predictable. Here is a unique individual, who is a self with a particular history, and a person with a right to express his preferences and put his talents to work in the social world he inhabits. To deny him that right on the basis of sexual preference is to deny his personal identity. This notion of moral agency also makes understandable why the issues of abortion and euthanasia take their place alongside self-chosen sexual expression as centers of moral controversy both within the churches and without. At the heart of each of these arguments lies the characterization of moral agents as individuals, selves, and persons who have the right to pursue their own preferences, whatever they may be.

"In the culture wars that rage over abortion, euthanasia, and sexuality, defenders of more traditional Christian teaching and practice often miss the fact that they must confront American culture on a deeper level than any of these specific issues. If they are to be effective, they must take on the very way in which Americans think of themselves as moral agents. The 'socio-logic' that stands behind ECUSA's recent action beckons thinking to a deeper level than the sad history of this church's search for a distinctive place on the spectrum of American denominationalism. It tempts Christians to adopt a vision of moral and social life that runs counter to the very foundations of Christian thought and practice. And it raises the question of whether we inhabit a moral universe governed by an order we are called upon to understand and to which we are required to conform, or whether that universe is a mere product of preference-pursuing individuals, selves, and persons who create a social world suited to their self-defined goals through an elaborate process of moral bargaining."

Philip Turner has written earlier pieces that look in greater depth at the ideas of identity and moral agency as they relate to the understanding of sexual ethics. In "Undertakings and Promises: An Anatomy of Sexual Ethics" (First Things, April 1991, pp. 36-42), he argues that current thinking about sexual ethics is rooted in the "contractarian moral philosophy of Hobbes and Locke." Whereas traditional sexual ethics understood that the ends of sexual activity were rooted in the purposes of God, contemporary sexual ethics assumes that the ends are rooted in the choices of those engaged in the activities. And in "Sex and the Single Life" (First Things, May 1993), he comments further on the subjectivization of sexual ethics as concern about "commitment," "vulnerability," and "care" eclipses the reference points of God's revelation and the moral order of creation. [Posted December 2003, KAM]

9 May

"The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Theology, Analogies, and Genes"

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 05/09/01

In 2001, Abingdon Press published an examination of the biblical account of homosexuality by Robert Gagnon, an assistant professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Gagnon subsequently wrote a summary of the book, titled The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, for Theology Matters: A Publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family, and Ministry.

In 2001, Abingdon Press published an examination of the biblical account of homosexuality by Robert Gagnon, an assistant professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Gagnon subsequently wrote a summary of the book, titled The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, for Theology Matters: A Publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family, and Ministry. In the article, "The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Theology, Analogies, and Genes," which is available on-line as a pdf file (listed under "Gagnon, Robert"), Gagnon reflects on the theocentric posture of Scripture before approaching the "three main arguments for supporting homosexual practice,"and before looking more closely at two issues within those arguments. The two issues he looks at more closely concern the biblical analogies that are used to support homosexual practices, and the "socio-scientific data" used to prove the innateness of homosexual desires. Gagnon offers the following in his concluding thoughts in the article: "Jesus, Paul, and the first-century church generally did not view sexual intercourse and sexual gratification to be God-given rights, nor did they regard sexual intimacy as the highest good. . . . The fact is that Scripture's carefully defined vision for acceptable human sexual expression—and that of any civil society whose law contains vestiges of that vision—leaves a lot of people bereft of sexual intimacy through acceptable channels. . . . The extraordinary energy that the church has expended in efforts to secure endorsement of homosexual behavior should be diverted instead to exploring ways in which those homosexually inclined, as well as all others who cannot obtain sexual intimacy within the bounds of Scripture's parameters, can have their intimacy needs met through acceptable avenues." [Posted March 2004, ALG]

30 Apr

"The First of Institutions"

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 04/30/01

In an article called "The First of Institutions," theologian Gilbert Meilaender writes that conversations about homosexuality should begin with a discussion of marriage.

As headlines from both coasts indicate, there is increasing argument about the morality of homosexuality and about the proper response to social and ecclesiastical demands by homosexual rights activists. In an insightful article called "The First of Institutions" (which is available as a pdf file here), Gilbert Meilaender establishes a framework for the portion of the discussion that focuses on theological ethics. Meilaender writes that conversations about homosexuality should begin with a discussion of marriage and its purposes because marriage is the first of institutions and, as such, has much to say about the nature of sexuality and love. He proceeds to define the purposes of marriage and what they imply about sexuality, and only then moves on to the Bible's evaluation of homosexual behavior and what others have said about it. He concludes by measuring the latter against the former. "The First of Institutions" was published originally in Pro Ecclesia, Volume VI, Number 4.

Meilaender has appeared on various issues of the Journal. [Posted April 2004, ALG]