Hating the Government

I am disturbed by the frequency of the “I hate the government” rhetoric of the Tea Party and others.  The original Tea Party hated the English government, but in response they did not become libertarians or anarchists.  They established a new government of their own, a government that would structure how things would happen and get done.  The government was “us”, and so it made no sense to “hate the government”, at least not in principle.  But there are good reasons not to take most of the Tea Party rhetoric seriously.  For one thing, conservatives in this country have always loved the government that goes to war, and the vast sums of money that are spent (whether the military actually wanted them or not) are approved with happy abandon.  This aspect of government is much loved.  The rub comes when government attempts to provide for the social welfare.  The usual thinking is that government “goes too far” when it attempts to alleviate poverty, protect human rights after birth, and regulate the dangers that come with the wide distribution of our modern technology (guns, chemicals, etc.).  Other governments in Europe can do all this more easily because they are not fighting wars everywhere on the planet.  

So I conclude that in fact all Americans love government, that government is only an enemy when it does things that people in the opposite political camp don’t approve of.

“Libertarian” politics is largely relative and non-absolute.

The only time I would fear a libertarian spirit altogether is when it turns into a philosophy of survivalism.  That is the end of government.  There are thousands of people who hate our government in that sense, and they are all around us.  I think it is important to be on our guard with respect to people who believe that local police and judges have no authority.  They have a tendency toward the will to power with the aid of as many guns as they can get hold of.  It is they, even more than the average member of the NRA, who are real dangers to society.

Some Reflections on the Current Priest-Pedophile Crisis

Last night I came to the end of a book I have been reading rather feverishly.  The book is Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal by Michael D’Antonio (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).  It is wonderfully well written, not unlike And the Band Played On, which happens to cover much of the same time period.  D’Antonio lays out the emergence of the priest pedophile crisis in the public eye and in the courts, with much emphasis on the U.S., but also encapsulating developments around the world, especially in Ireland where the impact has been very strong.  It is a wide ranging history, with a solid vision of the issues at stake.  By and large I think he was fair in his treatment of individuals, though they might not think so.

It led me to take a look at BishopAccountability.org, a web site set up which, among other things, lists every priest, bishop, and nun who has been accused of pedophilia or a cover-up here in the U.S.  I had hesitated to look at it for fear of who I would find.  I had spent a lot of my life at Conception Seminary College, run by the Benedictine Abbey, in northwest Missouri–first as a student in college and theology (1964-69), then as a faculty member teaching philosophy (1976-1991).

In my time there, I knew of only one person–a monk– who had a problem with a young boy.  The monk was originally a student of mine, then a colleague and fellow teacher.  He left the Abbey in a hurry after this incident with a boy in a boys’ choir.  I knew the incident was sexual, but I did not know, and still don’t know exactly, what happened.  The Abbot at the time has been accused of ignoring evidence of this individual’s proclivities from a previous Benedictine Abbey.  The previous Abbot’s day in court is yet to come.  The monk is home free because of the statute of limitations.

A third person–a monk of some standing– accused of molesting a young relative was someone who had played a very large and important role in my education.  Even though I and others were aware that he lacked a sense of appropriate sexual boundaries, he was such an unusual person in some ways that certainly I did not draw any immediate conclusions about his actual behaviors.  It was a shock to read only a year ago or so that he had been charged with molestation sometime when I was teaching at Conception.  I was shocked because he was then my colleague and eventually President-Rector of the seminary.

A few other individuals–classmates from my time as a student at Conception– I knew had been charged with child molestation, but when I checked out the Accountability website, I discovered that there were more than a few.  Two of the many came from the Joliet Illinois diocese, and they first came to Conception in their first year of theology, which was my last year there as a student.  While I liked both of them–they were lively and humorous and outgoing–I had no clue that they would become child molesters.  Indeed, one of them was thought both by me and others to be “good material” for bishop–even then he had the “aura” of a person with ecclesial authority.  He happens to be the one who was labelled one of the worst priest pedophiles in the country because of a history of repeat offenses, and his inability to control his behavior.

Some of those classmates from the Joliet diocese struck me even then as “full of themselves”.  What I mean is “full of their soon-to-be-priestly powers”.  At that time I was contemplating leaving seminary life because of the issue of celibacy.  To be specific, while it was clear enough that one might have a calling to be priest, I did not perceive that I had “calling” to be celibate.  i did eventually leave the seminary at the end of that year.

But what struck me then about other seminarians, and about the seminarians I taught in the 70′s and 80′s, was how much a calling to celibacy was discounted in favor of a calling to be a priest.  Being a priest gave an individual respect and deference from others, and for some Catholic seminarians this was clearly a draw, especially if their self esteem was particularly low (and I will posit without a lot of empirical proof that self esteem has been an issue for seminarians since the dawn of time).  Celibacy was no draw for seminarians looking for self esteem; indeed it made it vastly more complex and challenging.  What is it at issue here is just how important human physical intimacy is for self-esteem and for love of others.

By the late 80′s I had seen enough of individuals with stunted psychological growth to question why celibacy got so little attention from seminary authorities.  There was, as I recall, a little movement in that direction, but it always came off as “hey, let’s get somebody in here to talk about the joys of serving God as a celibate, maybe for an hour or two.”

If celibacy is legitimate and defensible, it cannot be easy, and I suspect most priests are not capable of it over a long term.  I do not condemn those who fall from grace in a consensual relation; but I do not have time for those who rape and abuse, and especially for those who argue “the child really enjoys the sex”.

Looking through all the cases against priests on the BishopAccountability.org website, one has the sense of looking at a vast field of tragedy, or rather, two overlapping tragedies.  The one tragedy, the most obvious, is the one which involves a huge number of victims, much larger than the number of priests and bishops on the site, since so many of the priests abused multiple and sometimes dozens of victims.

The second tragedy is the large number of bishops and heads of religious communities who all took the perspective that no priest should be turned over to the police for prosecution.  Because of the celibacy requirement, the number of priests is limited, and so bishops are very reluctant anyway to compromise the number of priests they have.  But there is another factor: the insistence on seeing child abuse as exclusively a moral issue to be dealt with internally to the Church, with the assumption that civilian and police authorities are to be kept out of the whole business.  “The Church is above the State” is the thinking that characterizes so many of the bishops.  Hardly any of them ever seem to have questioned this; indeed they all tacitly and without question accepted and embraced it.

Helping victims and their families is something that has been thoroughly compromised in all this.  Bishops are required to defend their monies and the wealth of their dioceses, and to that end only high-powered and ruthless lawyers will do.  The consequence is more agony for the victims.

I wish I could say that all this has not affected my good feelings about the church.  The truth is that it has.  I share the anger of victims, because I know from my loved ones the agony of abuse.

In the meantime the Church would do well to allow priests to marry.  It would do even better by integrating women into the hierarchy.  There is no reason at all, for example, why a woman could not be appointed a cardinal of the church.  Cardinals are not required to be ordained; they exist as advisors to the pope.  The presence of women in positions of authority in the church might do a lot to address the enormous problems it faces.

For the thousands of victims it is all too late.  Many have lost their faith; many are in treatment for depression; many suffer from post-traumatic syndrome; and not a few have committed suicide.

The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong

A friend of mine gave me Armstrong’s book which was published in 2010.  My friend was mostly through it, but said that “so far” Armstrong had not made the case.  So when I got the book and began to read it, I was uncertain what to expect.  About two-thirds of the way through the book I began to think the same thing as my friend about it.  But by the end, I had quite a different feeling, and a rather strong one at that.

So let me begin with the problems with the book, because they may detract from one’s enjoyment of it.  First the title: this is not a book which, like a good theistic argument from design, creates a proof by pointing to various kinds of evidence.  The subtitle of the book is actually much more significant: “What Religion Really Means”.  This book puts  God back into religion, and asks the reader to consider more carefully the significance of religious ritual and practice in relation to the question of God.

Second, as much as I think very highly of Armstrong as a writer, this book is a tad too long.  The detail is overwhelming, and perhaps not always necessary for the conclusion.

The conclusion of the book–the last chapter especially and the Epilogue–are worth the price of admission.  But not everyone will like what she says.  Professional Christian philosophers, as a case in point, may not appreciate her insistence that belief is not central to religious life, except where fundamentalism rules the roost.  She embraces a bit of medieval mysticism, traditional Thomistic agnosticism, and some of the interesting views of recent French post-modernism to espouse a perspective which sees the question of God in terms of a “mystery to be lived, instead of a problem to be solved” (with apologies to Gabriel Marcel).

While one may not like her conclusion, her marshalling of the evidence from religion, science, and philosophy is intriguing.  At the least her voice needs to be heard among all the rationalistic theists out there.

Gene Bales, August 3, 2013

EDUCATION, DIVERSITY AND JUSTICE

EDUCATION, DIVERSITY AND JUSTICE

Paper given at Linnaeus University, April 25, 2013

As much as I have given thought to the topic I wish to speak about, it has been a struggle to arrive at an approach that makes sense of the complexities of the topic.  So, rather than begin by trying to address all three of these concepts simultaneously, I want to begin a discussion with the dilemma of diversity, following that up with the dilemmas facing higher educators with respect to diversity, and finally consider how all of this may help define the just society of the future.  I will begin with the concrete, and end up in the clouds, as befits someone who is by background a philosopher.  And I caution that I will be speaking out of my own experience at Bethany College, especially out of my nine years as Academic Dean and Provost.

  1. DIVERSITY

Twenty five years ago in the United States, one could be asked for many reasons to indicate one’s racial/ethnic identity, as well as gender, on a form.  The choices were fairly limited, but it was clear that one should check whichever one should apply.  It seemed simple enough when one was really white and male, like I was.

The first time I had a thought that this whole approach to diversity through identification was inadequate was when I had a student who was taking an oral exam from me in philosophy.  While I don’t remember how we got into the subject, the discussion was about the treatment of minorities.  This student had a darker complexion than most whites, but not as dark as many blacks.  What he told me was that, yes, he was born of white and black parents, but that his grandparents included both Hispanics and Native Americans.  He had long since given up identifying himself as anything, even though in a general way he realized that people perceived him as not-white.

Other people thought they could identify his minority status more easily than he could himself.

Sometimes the diversity in the classroom admits of easy classification, but very often it does not.  With the advent of genetics, it is now possible to trace one’s biological identity back thousands of years, at least in a general way.  A while back, public TV in the U.S. ran a series entitled Exploring Our Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The series took the DNA of a variety of famous people in the U.S., and then showed their family tree, both from genealogical records and from DNA.  The results were sometimes surprising and revealing.  Perhaps the upshot of all that is that there is nothing like racial purity in the real world, and that identification with one particular racial group is largely superficial, perhaps more reflective of culture than of strict biology.

Yet racial differences have not entirely faded from economic reality.  It is still true that blacks in the U.S. are far more likely to be imprisoned, and that black income is still much lower than white income.  This situation has shifted at times, but it does not show any signs of disappearing very soon.

Ethnic differences are sometimes taken as racial differences, but of course they need not be so construed.  Some ethnic minorities do worse economically than the majority, and others do much better.  Over time, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish minorities in the U.S. blended into the larger white majority.  This is true though in communities such as Lindsborg there remain pockets of Swedish speakers, and a strong commitment to the appearance of a connection with Sweden.  But ethnic minorities, such as the Japanese and the Chinese, had different experiences than European minorities.  Asians were commonly thought to be a good source of labor and not very intelligent.  The U.S. record of its treatment of the Japanese in WWII is appalling.  Yet despite this, it is commonly believed in the U.S. today that Asians are much smarter than white people and are privileged when it comes to admissions to elite schools.

Another kind of diversity is religious.  That kind of diversity is very considerable in the U.S., and is often correlated with socio-economic status.  Protestants have long been the best off economically, but Catholics have largely risen to about the same level as have Jews.  But when one looks more closely at particular denominations among Protestants there are interesting differences.  Episcopalians do well; mainline denominations such as Lutherans and Methodists and especially Baptists also do well.  But blacks have remained pretty strongly in their own churches and denominations—some of which date back to the time of the Civil War.  Black denominations are not always poor, but in general they are often not as well off as white churches.  And then there are the smaller groups which are sometimes fairly marginalized economically and educationally.  I think in particular of Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Amish.  Hispanics have generally been Catholic, but in recent years they have shifted to denominations where there is a faith more outgoing and where individual freedom is more central.

The state of Kansas is a compilation of a multitude of small European religious and ethnic groups.  Bethany, which is Lutheran, is one of six colleges within 50 miles of one another.  The schools each represent a certain religious minority: Methodist, Brethren, Mennonite, and Presbyterian.  And the Mennonite colleges come in two flavors: liberal and conservative.  All of these colleges began as strictly denominational, but over time have come to embody the ideals of American egalitarianism.  Yet each retains its own religious traditions—and this despite the fact the youngest college generation increasingly has no religious affiliation.

Another kind of diversity is gender.  That, too, used to seem pretty simple: male or female.  Now there are other choices.  And the divide between biology and culture has never seemed wider: there is no inevitable connection between, say, being male and being masculine as defined in any given society.  The plasticity of these categories offends those who rely on rigidity for psychological comfort.  Today at least on Bethany’s campus there have been and are efforts to provide gays and lesbians some kind of organizational space to discuss their issues and challenges.  All of this is in the midst of a sea-change in American values, with the issue of gay marriage being the most significant at the present time.  And the animus against gays is very strong in many quarters despite growing acceptance.  Efforts to be inclusive have met a backlash from especially religious conservatives—who are numerous in Kansas, which is one of the most conservative states in the U.S. currently.

The list of possible diversities is indefinitely long.  I do not want to continue to list them, because my point is not the sheer number of them, or any particular one.  Rather, what I want to note is that every individual consists of a variety of diverse characteristics arranged into some kind of personality structure.  Some of those characteristics may come to define the personality more than others, because the individual or society thinks they are important.  So skin color has long been a way of categorizing individuals, even though it is probably not very significant in itself.  In short, it has become apparent that everyone bears a variety of diversities within themselves, and that classifying people according to some hard and fast list of mutually exclusive possibilities makes not a bit of sense.  This insight does have some important ramifications for education and for the classroom and I hope to say more about this later.

A second point to note: many diversities are treated as keys to rationalizing social inequality.  This is the point where the issue of justice comes to the fore, though I will wait until later in my talk to focus on this.  Diversity is sometimes not even seen initially as connected with social inequality until one begins to talk with someone who is characterized by it.  So, for example, people who are left handed are a minority in society, but they have often been subject to unconscious discrimination in the way in which objects are made for right handed individuals.  People who are confined to a wheelchair are subjected to discrimination insofar as society does not make it easy or even possible to travel to and from places for shopping, going to the physician and so on.  Luckily, some of this has been and is being addressed.  In the U.S., there is great concern about transgender individuals using bathrooms: should such individuals use the bathroom of the gender they were, or the gender they are?  This matter’s legality is still being debated.

All diversity is manifested in a variety of linguistic discourse, some of which presumes or reinforces inequality, some of which works against inequality.  In the U.S., for example, this has been seen as the problem with black students speaking “Black English”, a dialect which keeps them from succeeding in society.  There have been and are strong political desires in the U.S. to insist that students in public institutions speak only English.  So the presumption is that blacks need to speak like middle class whites do.  And Native Americans were for a long time forbidden to speak their own language in their schools.  What was important was fitting into U.S. society.  This led some to champion English-only policies in all public institutions, a position taken against bi-lingual education especially with regard to the large number of Hispanics in the U.S.   Language departments across the U.S. have been decimated by the widespread belief that English is the only language anyone needs to know.

Diversity as a sociological fact may structure the language games we play with one another.  But individuals vary in the way they absorb and live out the language games they play with others.

As diversity and differences are lived out in real life, they both sanction institutional norms of differences, and sometimes violate them or call them into question.  In short, language games where power and control are at stake may generate social stability, as well as social conflict.  This is the point at which the concern for justice can begin to appear.

As the question of diversity has developed in societies around the world, the focus has often been on how a given identity of individuals or groups either helps or hinders their integration into society and the opportunities they may experience.  This is true of education and higher education in particular; diverse identities may impact the need institutions experience in recruiting populations that are representative of their larger societies.  Affirmative action and quotas have been utilized in the U.S. as ways of achieving equality, but those means are under attack in the U.S. and may not survive.

I have only one thing to add to this discussion of diversity.  It is that in higher education, it is too often the case that we thought more about the function of identity than the educational wealth in the complex of diversities in everyone.  I want to address that in the next section.

  1.  EDUCATION

Recruitment of Diverse Students

One symptom of the problem in American higher education is the overinvestment of students in athletics.  Ironically, this tendency has been furthered by the desire to give many minority students scholarships to help them attend college at all.  But the outcome of this has been that athletics has run away with educational institutions at every level.  Not all students involved in athletics are equally affected—I note that there is a difference in the way this plays out by gender, with females more likely to take their studies seriously than males.

While overemphasis on collegiate athletics has been troubling, it is particularly troubling in small colleges, such as Bethany and the other private colleges I am familiar with.  In a recent article in Sports Illustrated, Rolf Potts, a brother of a Bethany faculty member, wrote a very interesting and lengthy piece which among other things took note of how a legendary coach at Bethany begin recruiting enormously large football teams as a way to insure success on the field.  His success had the predictable result that other small colleges in central Kansas began doing the same thing.  A football team of 120 players or more in a total student population of around 600 on average cannot fail to have an impact.

As success in football increased over the years, success in recruiting a more diverse student body also increased.  This is an important and positive issue in itself for the various accrediting bodies we work with—the Kansas Department of Education and the Higher Learning Commission, among a number of others.  So now, our minority numbers at Bethany have run between 15 and 20% of our student body, in a Kansas county (McPherson) which has far fewer minorities.  Other small colleges in the area have had the same results.

One result of this practice was something that came to my attention back in the mid-1990’s when I first began looking at Bethany’s retention problems—the fact that it skewed the male/female ratio horribly.  There have been times when the number of males was considerably higher than the number of females and this largely because there is no counterpart to football in female sports.  And this is a problem for many of the small colleges in Kansas.  One odd thing about this is that many other somewhat larger private colleges are unaffected by this phenomenon, and if anything have more females than males on their campus.  I have discussed the small campus/big football team phenomenon in sessions at the national Council of Independent Colleges in recent years, and many other college personnel have been rather surprised by it.

Retention of Diverse Students

Recruiting diverse students from populations that colleges have not been previously successful with would seem to be a win-win situation for both economically disadvantaged students and for the college.  But it is in truth a silver cloud with a dark lining.  The challenge is this: once a student is recruited, it is by no means certain the student will be retained.  And in fact retention rates for minority students are notoriously low.  The challenge is national, and not limited to small colleges.  And to make matters worse, in a small college like Bethany the extra number of males in football also means an extra number of students with fairly poor academic backgrounds and academic motivation.

In almost all four year colleges males trail females in maturity and motivation.  Despite this males graduate in about the same numbers as females.  At Bethany that means that along the way many males have dropped out.  It is somewhat odd to think of males as a disadvantaged class or minority, but I have come to think just that.  The challenge is reaching them as students.  Coaches play a crucial role in this endeavor, but coaches themselves don’t always pay more than lip service to academic life.  Bethany, to its credit, has involved its coaches in its general education program and on various academic committees.  That has been a big sea-change, and in time it is hoped that will make a difference with students.

A key to the retention of diverse students has been to emphasize, especially in the first year experience, practical involvements as part of the academic curriculum, with a goal toward building a portfolio of work in electronic form at least.  This gives students a goal, and a sense of what to aim for.  We are in just the initial stages of this; the outcomes will take a few years to judge.

If recruitment is expensive for a college, so is retention.  But colleges are learning that investment in retention only makes sense given the fairly large amounts of money that are spent on recruitment.

I am encouraged by all these efforts, but I know there is much more to be done.  And the discussion about these issues continues nationally.

Diversity and the Curriculum

For the moment, let me distinguish two different views of the purposes of higher education.  On one view, higher education’s purpose is to help individuals fit into the economic structure by training and educating people for the kind of work that needs to be done.  Education changes its focus as the economic needs change.  One need only consider how profoundly computer technology has influenced the curriculum and the classroom by comparing it with the curriculum one hundred years ago.

A very different view of higher education is the older one of previous centuries going back to Rome and Greece: it is that higher education is about preparing individuals to live in a political world where the ability to think broadly and communicate clearly is essential.  There are modern protagonists of this latter view, notably Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt.

The first view is quite frankly a modern view.  It sees education generally in relation to the economic forces of productivity.  The second view sees education in relation to the state, and sees education as the foundation of a healthy realm of equal citizens.

My experience of education is largely with higher education in the U.S.  The usual four-year program in a college combines specialized education and training with a broader “general education” curriculum.  This is true of many two-year community colleges, although the emphasis there is much more on specialized training of a practical sort.  There also exist various technical colleges, which are entirely concerned with practical training.

Many people will say that the purpose of all this education is to get people jobs when they graduate.  To that end, more and more time is spent even in the four year institutions creating very large majors which are focused heavily on practical and technical training.  When I first came to Bethany 22 years ago, its general education curriculum took up about 70+ hours, or about 60% of the total needed for graduation.  Today it is about 40+ hours or about 33% roughly needed for graduation.  In the intervening years, the pressure to decrease the size of general education came from professors and students who did not want to waste all that time on course work that was not directly relevant to getting a job.  At the same time as general education decreased in size, the size of many majors increased dramatically.  Some programs are now over 100 hours, or over 80% of the hours needed for graduation.

The impact of all these changes at Bethany was to reinforce the idea that higher education is all about preparing to get a job.

One way to see this trend is to recognize the flattening of issues of the diversity of both student and teacher, not to mention curriculum, in the national interest in workplace productivity.

First the students: students largely understand that it is their knowledge and skills which are relevant to acquiring a job.  Their socio-economic and ethnic/racial diversity is thought to be the enemy of making good workers in a strong economy.  Many students, and not just majority white students in the U.S., feel that the economic playing field is level, that discrimination is not an obvious problem anymore, if a problem at all.  Students, in short, want the assurance that their differences from the dominant majority are not significant in the workplace.  And some of the political rhetoric about the evils of affirmation action in the workplace presumes equality is already here, and equality does not need recognition of diversity.  (I would add parenthically that equality in the U.S. is more a political reality than an economic one, and not an assured political one at that.  The catch is that many people don’t want to talk about socio-economic class structures since that kind of communication, it is said, is divisive.)

Second, the teachers: my experience of teachers is that many of them believe he or she is not diverse, or if so that their diversity is not particularly relevant in teaching.  Those teachers who are most sensitive to the issue of diversity in the curriculum are often those involved with the program of liberal education and general studies, or with social welfare studies.  But in many of the specialized programs, issues of diversity may be marginalized for teachers, who are more interested in delivering content to the students, than in recognizing or celebrating the diverse backgrounds and interests of their students.  I have heard many in my own experience say that their concern is to help students get jobs.  Period.  And I have also heard many students say exactly the same thing.  That concern is palpable when students ask why they should have to take a course in literature or a foreign language, or any other course that is not narrowly aimed at their job prospects.

It has often seemed to me, therefore, that within the institution of education there has been an ominous homogenization of diversity in favor of a uniformity of practical concerns.  Diversity is willingly eliminated as a means to an economic future.

Third, and most importantly, curricular matters are largely taken as givens.  Issues that might pertain to questions of diversity are allotted footnotes or add-ons to pre-existing material, thereby reinforcing the idea that the curriculum is neutral because it is objective, and that its expansion is only along the margins.  Questions about minorities and diverse populations are marginal in their implication.

There are several concerns that need to be addressed in all this.  Someone might say that education is about teachers’ communication of information to students, and information is neutral because the “factual” has no bearing on the diversity of students or the diversity of teachers.  So talking about minority concerns in many fields is either dismissed out of hand, or left for marginal excursus in class, or special assignments.  Obviously not all disciplines work in this way; but some certainly do.

Any deviation from what is thought to be a “fact” is suspect in many places in the U.S.  The science wars in the U.S. are a case in point.  It is a fact, it is said, that no one has any experience of species undergoing changes, and so it is beyond the factual if science teachers in public schools teach only evolution and not the obvious fact that God is the creator of everything.

There are more sophisticated forms of the devotion to fact.  One of them is the claim that all knowledge derives from human perception, and anything that “goes beyond” perception is not factual.  Things that traditionally do go beyond the “factual” are labeled mythology, religion, theology, or just plain fantasy.

The problem with this understanding of “fact” and human perception is that very little of our knowledge can be justified by references to simple sense experience.  “My cat is sitting in the window on the east side of the first floor of my house” can be verified pretty easily.  But try saying exactly what would have to be the perceptual basis of a claim like, “People who read lots of books suffer from emotional deprivation”.  And then there are claims in science about the behavior of electrons, the big bang, and so on.  These seem clearly to be interpretation of observables, but are themselves not directly observed.

The truth is that much of any academic discipline is made up of claims that are not readily reducible to factual claims that are reducible to sense perception.  One way to understand this oddity is to recognize that our knowledge is shaped by our language as much, and perhaps even more, by language and its various games.  This was the insight of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who noted that the meaning of words was to be found in their function in a language game, and not in the ability to associate each word we come across with some particular thing in sense perception.

Well, then if the content of most of our disciplinary knowledge is a language game we play, and that expertise is largely understood in terms of acquiring a facility in playing a particular language game, is it the case that language games are value neutral?  The answer is: almost never.

The challenge here is to recognize the sociological fact that human relations at all levels—micro, macro, social, political, economic, bureaucratic,–are bound together in relationships of power and control (these are not the same, I note).  And relationships of power and control, as a consequence, color our communication, whether overtly or covertly, whether innocently or not, with our language games.

Education at one level involves a considerable amount of control, of authority at the very least, exercised, it is said, in the name of advancing social goals.  One of the most important social goals today is economic.  Whether that always justifies the language of power and control within education is not entirely clear.  For one thing it presumes that the primary goal of education is the production of wage-earning citizens who will satisfy the demands of economic productivity as well as the needs for an educated citizenry.  The second goal is much more tenuous than the first, and many within the educational hierarchy, both teachers and students, are inclined to think that education for a job is good enough.  .

It has often seemed to me, therefore, that within the institution of education there has been an ominous homogenization of diversity in favor of a uniformity of practical concerns.  Diversity is willingly eliminated as a means to an economic future.

When games are played with one set of rules, and only one legitimate kind of output, the experience one has is that of a means to an end, of assuming the power of the end in order to justify the control necessary to realize the end.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but there is an inevitable narrowing of focus in education.

What one does not adequately experience in this end-means language game is the open-endedness of power in the sight of others, power with respect of both the ends and the means.  The sharing of power and the communication proper to it is what constitutes the public or political world.  In that world, each person is related to the other through language that affirms some kind of value and some kind of ordering of things in light of that value.  It is my contention that the purpose of education is not the elimination of diversity, but its cultivation for the enrichment of the public world.  And to that end, education seeks, within its own limits, to bring students together so that they can begin to come to terms with their different values, and with the practical training that is being urged upon them.

The implications for educational curricula in all this are that, first, teaching must always be open to reexamination of the content of the curriculum in light of different views of the effectiveness of that content for various students.  And second, teaching is first, last and always a function of aiding students in their growth toward a reflective diversity in their outlooks and in their lives.

No teacher can be so well informed as to be able to do this with anything like perfection or omniscience.  But if society and the political realm are to be fully enriched by the processes of education, then every teacher must do whatever is in his or her power to challenge every student to communicate with others about fundamental values and about the means to realizing them.  Students may have interesting things to say both about their education and training, as well as the adequacy of either.  The whole raison d’etre of a good education is to help students become both learners and critics of the goals they are working toward.

When one gardens, one usually has a plan about how to do it.  There are rules for gardening, butt the average gardener (I take myself as an example) often pays no attention to the way in which different plants develop differently.  When I begin paying attention to weird things that happen that I didn’t expect, I may be led to see an underlying series of events I had not considered before, and therefore I will change the rules.  But if one is rigid, in a hurry, and not very committed, one gardens and never learns from the problems.  You just try the same process again next year.

Teachers have to come to appreciate the way in which they are related to their students as individuals in a process of diversification, and not just as widgets needing homogenization with the educational plan.

Homogenized students cannot think or reflect critically about differing values or means to those values.  They are at a loss, and are so more easily manipulated in the political forum.  They are easy prey to ideologues and pedagogues of any stripe who await them after graduation, if not before.

There are so many examples of this in American society it is hard to know where to begin.  The recent discussion on gun control or on government involvement in health care provides plenty of insights.  Americans know little about how the rest of the world works.  For example, they are unaware of the Australian approach to gun control—which was quite successful in reducing the number of guns and gun violence in society.  They assume that an approach like that in the U.S. is just a cover for the government, and ultimately the United Nations, taking away all our guns.  No questions about this arrangement are possible, and those who question are eggheads and academics who don’t know how the world works.            Americans think the same kind of thing about health care.  The Nordic countries in general are infamous for having very comprehensive health care, as well as the tax base to make it possible.  The U.S. has a health care system that is wildly expensive and whose outcome is a society far down the list of countries with good health care.  Yet most Americans will say they have the best health care system in the world, no questions asked.

I do blame the educational system for helping this blindness occur.  If education is reduced to training and certification and the passing on of disciplinary knowledge, the outcome is likely going to be the elimination of diverse thinking and diverse communication with others.

For teachers, the question of curriculum is a difficult one.  Every teacher has expertise, and the expertise is expended on getting students up to par on the current state of knowledge in one’s field.  That will always be the case, and that is why at one level education is both homogenizing and conservative.

But if that is all that it is, then education does not fully serve the interest of having an educated citizenry, or for that matter of a reflective approach to one’s own discipline.  Knowledge is itself organized by disciplines each of which has an enshrined set of language games and research projects that follow from the foundational ideas.  The progression of knowledge occurs in two basic ways, each of which demands openness to diversity.  First local or regional bodies of understanding—say, an understanding of how a language is best taught to students—comes into question out of the failure at times of that approach to teaching.  I should be clear that failure in teaching is easily chalked up to the failure of students to appreciate or take seriously what is being taught.  But sometimes the failure is something the student brings to the teacher’s attention about a certain way of understanding the material.  Over the years I was caught off guard several times by students who claimed that I had missed the point in my approach to something in the classroom.  And in those times, after some thought, I came away realizing that I had not fully understood something myself.  So I changed my approach in light of that.

A second kind of change in language games is rarer and is fairly termed “revolutionary”.  That is the kind of change that happens at the time a whole body of knowledge undergoes a scientific revolution.  Thomas Kuhn has well documented this process, and many others have demonstrated that his general point applies to many other knowledge fields.  The heart of the argument is that there are times when diverse points of view about problems that have arisen in the field indicate an overall weakness in fundamental assumptions.

Not too many years ago alternative medical techniques employing a language that was not mainstream was regarded as having no value.  It was a medical approach championed by individuals whose diversity put it at odds with the establishment view of science.  While these diverse minority voices included some that are still regarded as disreputable, there has been an interesting revolution in the medical establishment toward at least partial recognition of these diverse techniques.

Communication in the classroom must somehow reflect these various concerns.  There must be a focus on the curriculum to be taught, a focus on questions that are raised, by student or teacher, about the adequacy of this curriculum.  And there must be a focus on teaching students, where this involves helping the student flourish and develop in their knowledge and understanding both of the curriculum, and of their own stake in the realm of knowledge.  Developing the students’ stake in knowledge is one of the most challenging things for a teacher.  Many students come from environments where education is regarded as useless, boring, and dispensable for a good life.  Behind this is a failure to connect not only to a discipline of learning, but also to the world at large.

  1.  JUSTICE

There are at least three important strands in understanding justice today.  One of them is indebted to the philosopher John Rawls, who emphasizes justice as fairness, elaborated in terms of how goods are to be distributed from an initial hypothetical position where no one knows where they will be actually located in the society.  I am simplifying his view considerably in saying that he is arguing for basic fairness, with the additional provision that any inequality must redound in the end to the good of the whole.  In short, inequality needs to be justified.  This would eliminate any kind of social marginalization of people simply because they are different and thus should not be given the same rights as others.

A second strand may be represented by the viewpoint of Martha Nussbaum, who admits to being much influenced by Rawls.  Nussbaum wants to argue that fairness in itself is not sufficient to account for justice in society.  One must also have some list of fundamental human goods, some list of things that will allow humans to flourish.  In short, justice is not merely a formal condition, but a material or substantive one as well.

Neither of these views of justice is well received by conservatives.  For one thing, the foundation of equality for many conservatives is economic productivity, where every job is filled by someone who is the best trained or educated for that job.  Economics, not political life, jobs, not the arena of citizenship, is the focus.  This view may derive in part from John Locke, but the most important representative of it today may be Robert Nozick, who argues that all rights derive from the right of private property.  The difficulty with that perspective, and Locke’s I would add, is that not everyone is in a position to claim private property.  There are individuals whose brain function is diminished; individuals who because of disease and the like are totally dependent on others.  In short, the argument would be some kind of human right, some kind of human equality is prior to any right of property.

It would be my contention that a strong democracy must include both a reasonable equality of an economic sort, and reasonable diversity of citizens with different perspectives.  Education must aim both to fill the needs of the economic sector, as well as the needs of future citizens.  In the end individual human flourishing is more fundamental than simply the filling of jobs.

To put this in a more practical perspective: in a society such as ours, where economic productivity is fundamental, it is important not merely that “no student be left behind”, but no citizen be left behind.  This is in part because matching productive work with workers is no longer an issue of someone going into work with the family.  Work has become increasingly sophisticated, and the requirements of education have increased considerably.

Getting people educated is not easy in a society where socio-economic structures, the past shadows of bigotry, race-hatred, and the like, still situate people far from the doors of opportunity.  It is possible to argue with the defenders of the economic view of justice that some equality of opportunity in education is necessary.  But it is hard to see why that equality should extend any further than the demands of the economic sector.  And so the economic understanding of justice does not deal with the richness of questions of diversity when diversity has no ramifications for work productivity.  And worse: for some work productivity is linked with a view about the diversity of human beings that limits people from being given any kind of equality if it is commonly thought that “people of that sort are unsuitable for this kind of work”.  This is the reason why women have been kept from many kinds of work traditionally, why people of various ethnic groups are regarded as lacking the appropriate motivation to work and thus not educable, and so on.

In order to satisfy the demands of equality, some kind of fair access to education must be possible and real for all citizens willing to make the effort.  Equality of opportunity cannot be grounded on simply the requirements of the work force.  Other than government itself, education is one of the most important social institutions for challenging the inequality endemic in the socio-political structures of every society.  Many American universities have a kind of open door policy, in part because they were conceived as institutions serving American democracy.  Not everyone is happy about that, since inevitably the failure rate in the first year is pretty high.  Private institutions such as Bethany College have utilized athletic scholarships among other things for attracting more students to college who might otherwise not be able to afford it.  Academic scholarships in general tend to award opportunities to students who already come from high performing schools, and thus reward students who represent the middle and upper classes  disproportionately.  Affirmative action and race-based admissions have been tried and championed and challenged with increasing success.  The future of educational equality in a country like the U.S. is not certain, despite many triumphs at a local level.

In the end, though, even if increasingly diverse students have a higher education made possible to them, the demands of the curriculum and the approach of teachers in the classroom remain important contributors to the realization of justice in a society.  This is because, as I would argue, education is not simply a preparation for economic productivity, but a preparation for the Great Conversation that is the public realm.  In that Great Conversation, all of our differences and points of diversities come to the fore as we think, reason, and ultimately govern in ways which help make a society as just as possible.  This is the final argument for a just society—that the meaning of diversity and sameness comes to fruition only where people have been encouraged to address those questions all through the curriculum and in every classroom as appropriate.

Education, therefore, must embrace a concern for equality of opportunity for all students, as well as a concern for the development of differences and diversity.  And this is not merely for the sake of the student; it is also for the sake of the development of knowledge and understanding—for the sake of the growth and change of the curriculum.  The fruitfulness of diversity lies in the way in which it advances learning itself.

What practical consequences of this view are there for higher education?  My answer to this reveals my own bias and interest in American private education, but perhaps it is relevant for others.

First, modern education requires an orientation toward the diversity of each student that is almost certainly beyond the capability of any single professor in a given course to realize.  Education itself employs increasingly large number of paraprofessionals to address issues with students.  Academic advising is crucially important in all this, though many professors nullify this importance by insisting it is all about getting students enrolled in the courses they need to get a good job.  Advising demands attention and listening to the student, and takes much time.  Again, it is probably not possible for teachers alone to do all the advising that needs to go on in higher education.  Besides the extension of student advisors there is also an multiplication of professional student life staff, many of whom deal with the issues of diversity, and especially conflicts that develop.

All of this has seriously impacted the expense of private higher education, and that is ironically one of the consequences that makes it increasingly difficult to recruit students and minorities.  I do not know the answer to this problem: I can only raise it.

A larger question is the effort of an institution to develop courses, programs, majors and the like that address some of the issues of diversity in modern society.  The contour of these issues keeps changing, which is why the faculty alone are not necessarily the best situated for developing an appropriate and timely curriculum that is responsive to the needs of diverse students.  I have wondered about the need for a small number of faculty to work together to insure the programmatic and curriculum needs that better prepare students to live in a just society.  A group like that at Bethany has worked to create a new and very different kind of general education program which is just now getting off the ground.  It may take a few years to know how well it is succeeding.

In the end, it is not possible to eliminate systems of control in society or in education.  Control is not itself a problem or an issue, unless it is control allied with an inequality that deliberately ignores the cost of inequality and seeks perpetuation in spite of that.  Power can be shared with others, and systems of control when rooted in the power shared by all, work toward greater equality.  Diversity is in many respects an inequality resulting from modes of social control.  Education can change this by bringing diversity into the Great Conversation that every society today needs.

If I champion the view of liberal education and its importance, it is with the assumption that its value is not really measured by its function in uniting society around a commonly understood past, but in uniting society around a commonly understood present and future.  And that vision of liberal education is one which should reach through every specialized program, every major, every program of graduate studies.  That’s a tall order today, but our challenges today are not simple ones.

Eugene F. Bales

Capital Punishment

Chapel Talk, April 8, 1998

 Reading: Deuteronomy 17:2-7

                 John 8: 3-11

 

Today I refer to three women: one unnamed in John=s gospel; the second Carla Faye Tucker, recently executed in Texas.  And the third, Judy Buenoano, recently executed in Florida.  [Note in 2013: Carla Faye repented of her crime of murder; Buenoano murdered her husband, son, and a boyfriend, and never admitted guilt.]

 

In the gospel story, it is clear that the unnamed woman violated the law of the Old Testament, and that she could be executed under a law promulgated by God himself.  Jesus had of course established a rather controversial relation with the law of the Old Testament.  It is true that in the Sermon on the Mount he announced that the new law would fulfill the old law, so that nothing would be wiped away.  Yet at other times, he and his disciples openly broke the law, drawing down the wrath of those who defended laws above human lives.  The questions from the Pharisees and Scribes makes no sense if Jesus was simply fulfilling the Law and nothing else.  He criticized the dominant interpretation at the time; and in this case I will argue he went much further.  The core of his questioning was put rather radically in the famous saying that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  Laws exist for people, not people for laws.  And some laws cannot be acted upon because if they are, they will ask too much from the humans that must enact them.

 

One of the laws Jesus does not, to my knowledge, question elsewhere than this passage, is the law requiring capital punishment.  Here he says nothing about the law which certainly justified the proposed action.  Instead, he asks only that those who are without sin should cast the first stone.  Usually that line is generalized into some moral point about not criticizing or judging, in order to turn away from the uncomfortable specifics of execution; but the point here is rather specific and not just moralistically general: even if the law is justified, can we carry it out?  We could carry it out if we were without sin, but clearly we are not, and clearly we cannot.  Before Jesus each of us, and not just the Scribes and the Pharisees, is robbed of the spiritual and moral right to execute another. 

 

This woman was guilty; she was not innocent.  Jesus does not suggest that we should not execute her because she really is innocent; to the contrary, her innocence or guilt are irrelevant.  It is our guilt that must cause us to lay down our stones.  Jesus commands her to sin no more only after execution has been lifted.  He does not make forgiveness contingent on repentance.

 

It is one of the great ironies of the history of the religion which Jesus founded that most of his followers have upheld the death penalty that would have killed this woman, and upheld the death penalty of the Roman Empire that would kill Jesus himself.  Indeed many Christians imagine that the execution of Jesus, an innocent person if ever there was one, was necessary so that their sins be forgiven.  But a little thought shows that God was not required to go along with this execution in order to forgive; a scratch on Jesus= little finger would have done just fine in the eyes of an omnipotent being.  Death on a cross, death as capital punishment, was chosen deliberately and freely.  And what was the lesson for so many?  What has been the lesson?  How blind we have been!

 

I can offer many good philosophical arguments on behalf of capital punishment.  I even believe a few of them myself.  I can also quote the many passages from the Old and New Testaments that directly state or imply God’s will about executing the unfaithful and the sinners.  Suppose we can put all those laws in place.  Someone will have to do the executions.  Who will it be?  Me?  You?  Which of us is so sinless, so justified, that God would pick up the stones and give them to us? 

 

Some have recently said: it’s the fact that the sinner has repented.  Especially if it’s a woman like Carla Faye Tucker.  A vicious killer turned pious Christian.  Pat Robertson and the Pope both came to her defense.  Repentance is a good reason to be forgiven.

 

But in the passage from John Jesus forgives, he fore-gives, he lifts the weight off the adulteress’ shoulders before she has repented of anything.  Would the religious authorities come to the defense of anyone who had not repented?  Or who was not female? Or worse, who was a black male, the person most likely to be executed today?

 

Consider Judy Buenoano, the “black widow”.  She was almost certainly guilty, and a Catholic by background.  But the Pope was not there for her, nor was any other religious leader that I am aware of.  Who wants to defend a killer, an unrepentant killer? 

 

Again, Jesus does not defend the crime or the criminal.  Jesus forgives the criminal and commands sinlessness as a consequence.  And worst of all, he makes it impossible for us to find the “healing” that is supposed to come from killing the killer.  He does that because he knew that there is no healing from killing the killer, only more pain and suffering.  If the family of the victim who was killed suffers in the first place, an execution only creates another family of pain and suffering, this time the family and friends of the killer, who will suffer in addition to the family of the victim.  Capital punishment democratizes the misery under the mistaken impression that justice has been served.  Jesus teaches us that there is no justice without understanding the limits of our ability to judge.  He says elsewhere that we cannot and should not judge.  And he says elsewhere that we must forgive seventy times seven.  While justice and mercy may coalesce, neither is founded on the sinlessness of the killer, but on the sinfulness of the executioner.

 

The law is not abolished, but fulfilled.  The law of love perfects capital punishment by making it impossible to carry out. 

 

It is one of the great mysteries of the history of Christianity that it has so rigorously resisted the logic of Jesus, position.  That is why reformation is always needed.  Each of us is an executioner already; each of us is called to repent of being an executioner, and instead to create life and love.  We are not called to justify Caesars murder of Jesus; we are called lay down the stones, put aside the nails and the hammers, dismantle the electric chairs and gas chambers and ask God to forgive us. 

 

Jesus said not a word about abolishing the laws establishing capital punishment.  He only made it clear why we cannot utilize them any more.  His kingdom was purchased through capital punishment; no one in that kingdom may ignore that fact.  We live under the sign of the cross, which while forgiving all, constitutes a warning to all of us not to step beyond our ability to judge and to repent.

 


In this week, the holiest week of the liturgical year, let us call to mind once again the horror of the death of Jesus, pledging not merely to thank God who died for us, but to ask him to forgive us for being the executioners of the Lord today.  When the state executes, we are all executioners; when we forgive and ask for forgiveness ourselves, the real process of healing can begin.

Solving the Problem of Evil

Talk given at the Salina Mennonite Church

May 8, 2011

I want to thank you this morning for your very kind invitation to speak to you today.  I come to you not as a Catholic, which I am, but as someone whose beliefs about Christ have been shaped by the same words of Jesus that have played so important a role in the history of those who have been called Mennonites.  I am a philosopher by background; and I have often debated whether I am more dangerous as that or as a Catholic.  Or possibly, worst of all, by both.

My topic today is the solution to the problem of evil.  I know it’s pretentious, but the Catholic side of me is almost comfortable with that.  The philosopher side of me is more restless.  And it is restlessness that drives me today.

The story of the man born blind (John 9) reveals several different attitudes toward evil.  One of them is challenged by Jesus, and the other is enacted by Jesus.

Evil in this story from John’s gospel is being born blind, or deaf, or without speech—it is to be lacking in one or several of those capacities central to our humanity.  Evil is not just a physical problem; it is a personal problem and a social problem.  It can be a function of our responsibility when we will to do something evil even though we know better.  And then there are those evils that no one individually intended but which happened on our watch.  We build a nuclear reactor over an earthquake fault line; we know it’s dangerous, but we are sure an accident just won’t happen any time soon.  As long as nothing happens, we remain innocent.  But if something does happen, then people will question the responsibility of those who could have prevented the situation in the first place.

Many evils present themselves as problems to be solved by establishing responsibility.  A murder instantly invites the question: who did this?  Who is responsible for it?

The evils created by natural events, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, present several sets of problems.  In modern times, with the help of science, we are dealing with these evils in another way.  We ask how these things happen in the natural world.  We believe that if we can understand such natural events, we may be able to modify their impact, or even prevent them.  And so we strive to take responsibility for things for which previously God had always been responsible.  And it is with this modern scientific approach toward natural evils that we come right up against an older understanding of the function of evil in human history: namely, that it is God’s will.  If syphilis is a disease with a natural explanation, its cure was rejected by some religious persons originally because syphilis was created by God to punish sinners.   So Jerry Falwell is notorious for having said: “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”   Should one participate in scientific research the purpose of which is to go to counter God’s will?  Should we cure HIV or AIDS, and thereby prevent God for punishing the wicked?

Ever since the age of enlightenment in the 18th century, many western philosophers have been focused heavily on the problem God’s relationship with evil.  In fact, it is an intellectual industry in itself.  Skepticism about God’s role in the world was and still is seen as the logical conclusion of the central fact of evil.  David Hume, one of the fairest skeptics of all, summed up the intellectual situation by indicating that while the evidence from order for God was substantial, the evidence from evil trumped it.  An all-good God cannot be an agent causing evil events to happen to good and innocent people in human history.  It does not make any sense to make claims like this.  And while it might be true that some morally dubious people deserve a punishment, there are innocent children and others who suffer disease and death for reasons that elude everyone.

While it has always been common to claim that God is behind various unfortunate events—plagues, defeat in battle, the deaths of loved ones—it is of interest that sometimes that language can be comforting to people.  “God called him home” is a nicer way of saying “God decided to take his life”.  Yet the latter has no comfort value at all, while the former does.

What is hard to appreciate in all this is the limitation of our language and our thinking.  We always assume our language is meaningful, both emotionally and intellectually.  But we understand much less about God than we think we do.  We say things like, “God caused the famine in Africa”, thinking we know quite clearly what it would mean for God to cause things, because we know what it would mean for us to cause things.  But when God causes, the causing is from a being that is eternal, not located in space or time, so that there can be no sequence of such causal events.  And God does not cause one thing to happen so that another happens, like a sequence of such things.  God does not plan, if by plan we mean first we do a, so that then next we can do b.  Presumably, God is not restricted by such adjustment of means and ends.

There is a philosopher who built a great theory about God planning and intervening periodically to make the outcome of history the best possible one.  That philosopher was Leibniz who proposed the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds, because if there was a world with a sequence of events that had one more evil in it than necessary it would not be worthy of an all-good God.  And the world we find ourselves in must be worthy of the all-good God, and thus it must be the best possible one.  The only problem with this theory was the enormity of evil we find in the world.  Surely we could have had the Holocaust without that many Jews being killed; or, in the 18th century, the earthquake of Lisbon without that many Portuguese being killed; or more recently, the Japanese earthquake without that many people being killed.  The enormity of evil in any age makes this justification of God’s causal action seem crazy.  Yet it remains possible that if we could understand the whole of human history, it would all “make sense”.

If evil is so great and really unredeemable, then why was the world created by God?

From the beginning of Genesis, we are told that everything that God created was good.  This view of things is set in sharp relief to other ancient pagan myths about creation, which suggested that the world’s value was neutral at best and that the gods interacted with humans as though goodness were not a major issue.  If pagan gods saw themselves as unaccountable and random forces for what humans thought was evil, that was life.  But from the beginning, the Christian God doesn’t just make a world like an architect, but makes it good, and promises periodically that humans won’t be destroyed in the end and that he will give them his love.

It seems plausible to me that even in ancient times the Creation story in Genesis was a reply to those pessimists who saw the world as something of no special regard by the gods.  But if that is the case, does not the Judaeo-Christian vision of creation take the first step down the path toward confronting evil by refusing to condemn the world, and by insisting that true faith is in a God who promises a good future, rather than erratic and cruel behavior.  So does God’s revelation of goodness and healing offer an explanation of evil?

It might offer an explanation for why some human behaviors are genuinely evil.  But it might not offer any explanation of great natural disasters in human history.  It has always been the temptation of believers to latch on to an explanation of something awful.  Faced with so many evils and awful things in history, we would do better to acknowledge our humility in the face of the mystery of God’s universe, a mystery which includes its origin, good, evil, and consciousness itself.

And while we may have the time to set aside our everyday lives for philosophical conversations—and while there might be great worth in such an endeavor, we do not have the option of stepping aside from the evils that confront us.

So how do we respond to evils when we confront them in real life?  How do we, or would we, respond to the knowledge we have cancer or some other terminal disease?  We care deeply about our life and our health.  We hope others will join the struggle with us.  We don’t usually assume (though some have) that such disease is God’s will and we should not call in a doctor.

How do we respond to the knowledge that a member of our family or a good friend has a terminal disease, or is killed or seriously injured in an accident?  We don’t say or think that, well, John, you’re a nice fellow, but you did cheat on your wife one time, so your accident which left you paralyzed is God’s judgment on you.  Usually, we join John or others in their struggle insofar as we can.

How do we respond to great disasters that happen to many people at one time—say the Japanese earthquake and tsunami which killed thousands?  Do we ask the question of Jesus: Lord, whose fault was this: the Japanese people for not believing in you, or the Japanese wealthy elite who did not mind making a profit from a nuclear reactor built in an earthquake zone?

How do we respond to great human disasters that happen in human history, but which are caused by humans?  The Nazis killed millions of Jews and others.  Did God allow this for a reason?  Did God actively will it?  Was God punishing the Jews, as some anti-Semites believe?  The question about God’s responsibility for such evil in human history may be found in Scripture itself (why did God allow the Jews to be taken into captivity in Babylon).  But it is also front and center in the first major theological tract on secular history, the fourth century City of God by Augustine of Hippo.  All of human history was appropriated into salvation history, so the Romans were merely carrying out God’s plan.  And so was Pontius Pilate and Judas and all the others.

There is in all this an effort to follow the bread crumbs of responsibility until we find someone to blame and something to explain.  Humanly speaking, we need to do both.  But neither is what Jesus called his disciples to do.  Faced with their persistent questions about who is responsible for the man born blind, their attempt to turn the other way when faced with evil, Jesus insists his work is not about that kind of thing.  It is about the work of healing, or about doing the works of God.

This story from the gospel of John brings to mind some famous lines from the atheist Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague.  The novel is about a literal plague that has infested a North African city.  As the situation becomes direr, a Week of Prayer is designated at the local Cathedral, culminating in a High Mass on Sunday and a sermon given by Father Paneloux, a local priest who is a scholar on the work of Augustine of Hippo.  The opening line of Paneloux’ sermon shook the church: ‘Calamity has come to you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.”  He goes on to say that the calamity is intended to humble the proud, and lay low the enemies of God.

Jesus, in the story of the man born blind, rejects all of this in one fell swoop.  When people ask who sinned, this man or his parents, he says neither.  And he says nothing about God laying low enemies by making them blind, or anything else like this.  Jesus confronted blindness not with the question who is responsible for the sin that caused the blindness, but as a moment to engage his audience in the meaning of healing.  The story about the man born blind continues in an almost humorous way, with questioning of the blind man and his parents about who might have sinned, and how exactly Jesus could have cured the blindness.  In the end, no one can say how Jesus did it; it remains a mystery.  The work of God is not merely directed toward sin, but more generally toward all human illness and sickness, all evil.  And we are invited to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  And if there is a sinner in this episode, it is not the blind man or his parents, but the religious authorities who persist in their skepticism when faced with the rabbi in their midst.  They reprove him for curing on the Sabbath.

Jesus could not and did not rest easily with the notion that disease of this kind is to be put aside in a safe place, in an apartheid world.  He regularly crosses the boundary between clean and unclean, and he is not very concerned about religious purity rules.  Touching the unclean should make him unclean, but he pays no attention to that rule.  Eating dinner with the tax collector, or associating with prostitutes, would do the same thing.  But he regularly ignores “the rules” because his mission is to all those who are unclean, who are sinners, who are gentiles and even tax collectors.  His mission is not to explain evil, but to turn it toward the good.

There is an important point to make here: namely, that the evils we encounter in the world around us are to be healed.  That means not just addressing them in some intellectual or technocratic way, but confronting them in real terms.  The problem of evil is not first and foremost an intellectual one; it is a moral one which demands our commitment, which demands that we enter into the power of God by the process of healing.

Those who engage in the healing of Jesus includes not just ministers and pastors and the ordained, but ordinary people, husbands and wives, friends, parents and children, physicians, nurses, therapists, engineers, and yes even government bureaucrats.   We are not called to faith that is all about understanding who has sinned, or how a miracle occurred, but into a way of life that leads toward the healing of the humiliated and injured, the disabled and the disturbed.

What then about atheism?  The atheist who has a boatload of good arguments for why the existence of evil is incompatible with the goodness of God must in the end face the same world the theist faces.  In the face of real evil, it is quite possible that the atheist’s argument lead to quietism.  There is no God, so everybody is on his own.  There are evils, but unless they are on my doorstep I have no responsibility.  This is what one can call practical atheism.  Practical atheism is a form of spiritual apartheid which says that because there is no god, there is no good and no responsibility for anything other than what is bad for me or my family.

But not all atheists are practical atheists in this sense.  It is possible to be an intellectual atheist, but reject the passive stance of the practical atheist.  So the believer who follows in the footsteps of Jesus may find comfort and common union with those who are intellectual and not practical atheists,–people like Camus.  In his novel The Plague, Camus’s protagonist Dr. Rieux and Fr. Paneloux have an intense conversation about evil and their relation with it.  This is what Dr. Rieux says as he is holding Fr. Paneloux’ hand: “What I hate is death and disease, as you well know.  And whether you wish it or not, we’re allies, facing them and fighting them together.”  “So you see”. . . God Himself can’t part us now.”  There is a kind of marriage of wills between those who know they must act against evil, whether they think God is part of the picture or not.

You may say, are all atheists like Camus?  And the answer is clearly no.  One of his most famous friends, Jean-Paul Sartre, parted ways with Camus because of Camus’ strong moral insistence that not everything is permitted, that there is “in the middle of winter . . . an invincible summer.”  Camus never quite said what that invincible summer was.  But the follower of Jesus knows what it is: it is the light that comes in the work of healing.  What is invincible in the human condition is not simply or mostly human nature; it is the work of grace, of love, faith, and hope.  Camus knew there was more than just an abstract recognition of a human nature.  He knew that the test for everyone was the ability to face evil, to name it, and to do one’s part in the struggle toward greater light.

Many of our current intellectual atheists—Sam Harris, Christopher Dawkins, and others—are often focused on intellectual questions—is evolution compatible with belief in a good God, for example.  But they are in some cases focused on the abysmal failure of Christians, Jews, and Muslims and others to respond adequately to the evils we face in this life.  This is an indictment of Christians and others for being what I have called practical atheists.

The follower of Jesus must draw faith, hope, and love from the wells of God’s grace to continue the works of God’s power and healing in the world.  Those works are well enumerated by Menno himself:

For true evangelical faith…cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it…clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it.”

—Menno Simons, Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing, 1539

The great atheist Karl Marx once wrote: philosophers have up to this point merely interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.  Marx was quite right about this; I would add only that the human motive for such change is not an impersonal economic force, but a personal force of love.  Working miracles in the face of evil is exactly what we are called to do.  And there is no greater miracle than this: that a human being lays down his or her life for another.

Gene Bales