The Death of Evangelical Ethics

EDIT: It was brought to my attention by one of the commenters that the tone of this post was unduly flippant, harsh, and caricaturing.  In short, I violated my anti-pontification blogging rule.  I stand by all the concerns articulated here, but they should have been voiced in more measured and moderate tones.  Given that lots of people have already seen the post, I won’t attempt to re-write it accordingly, but read it with this apology in mind.

A strange anomaly afflicts our conservative Reformed institutions of higher education.  No other institutions can be relied on to insist, at every possible opportunity, on the importance of our theology for all of life.  As the leader of one such institution often puts it, “Theology should come out of our fingertips”; another common slogan is “Faith for all of life.”  At such institutions, you will hear, nonstop, the need for Christians to “engage and transform culture,” to bring every square inch of creation under the lordship of Christ, etc., a legacy of the neo-Calvinist triumph of the last century.  The great bogeyman in such circles is “Gnosticism,” which refers to any account of the Christian life that is overly intellectualist, insufficiently “incarnational,” which is more about having the right ideas in your head than concrete Christian living.  Given all of this, you would expect such institutions to be zealous for the recovery of the lost tradition of Christian ethics, eager at every opportunity to flesh out a theological account of the moral life, as it relates to business, to politics, to family, to creation, etc.  Surely, such institutions above all would be interested in answering the question posed by Francis Schaeffer, a giant in these circles, “How shall we then live?”

Apparently not.  A consultation of the course catalogs of four leading Reformed-worldview colleges yielded very slim pickings indeed when it came to ethical subjects.  At one school, only 2 courses out of 37 in the Bible and Theology department dealt with ethics, although in fairness, some courses in the philosophy department did as well.  At another school, it was 1 of 34 (plus, again, a few philosophical ethics courses).  At a third, it was 1 of 31, with 2 other courses incorporating substantial ethics content.  At the bottom of this ranking, one school dedicated only one half of one course, out of a total of 24 Bible and theology courses, to the Christian moral life, and didn’t supplement this with any business ethics, political ethics, or philosophical ethics courses.  Of course, this is a rather rough method for determining the actual teaching at those schools, since ethical issues could be woven into other courses, even when they’re not the subject of a separate course.  However, a little leaven of ethical reasoning in a business course is no substitute for systematic and historical reflection on the Christian ethical tradition.  The dismal picture that emerges from this survey confirms, in any case, what I have found autobiographically, impressionistically and anecdotally.  And while my indictment here is focused particularly on Reformed institutions, the same could probably be said of most of American evangelicalism—we simply don’t know the first thing about the history of Christian ethics or about how to go about the task of moral reasoning.  And it shows when we look at the level of much evangelical discourse in contemporary ethical and political debates.

Why this depressing dearth?  Some might be quick to point the finger at Protestantism’s core doctrine: justification by faith.  Justification by faith means that we’re saved by having the right ideas in our head, not by what we do.  So what we do doesn’t matter at all, and isn’t worth reflecting on.  Theological concepts, though—what we believe—matters immensely, and need to be fine-tuned extensively.  Even when we talk in Kuyperian terms about transforming culture, we can’t help but think that it’s the right ideas in our heads that transform culture, not how we act.  Is this the problem?

Perhaps part of it, although insomuch as it is, it’s due to a serious corruption of the  Protestant teaching on faith, rather than the genuine article.  The Reformers were passionately interested in faith working through love, and dedicated vigorous reflection to matters of moral theology.  And most evangelicals today have no hesitation in saying that it matters immensely what we do; they are capable of getting very worked up indeed about moral issues.

So where’s the problem?  I suspect the culprit lies in another Protestant doctrine: the perspicuity of Scripture.  Of course, again, we are dealing here with a corruption of the doctrine, rather than the original, which was intended simply to safeguard the clarity of the gospel, the power of Scripture unto salvation.  Quickly, however, the perspicacity of Scripture came to mean for many Protestants that everything the Bible taught was clear and straightforward.  Combine with this with a corrupted concept of the sole sufficiency of Scripture, and you arrived at the conclusion that everything the Christian needed to know about ethics was given, clearly and simply in the words of Scripture.  All we have to do then is to obey.  Of course, obedience to God’s will is difficult, but that’s due simply to the weakness and corruption of our wills, not due to any difficulty in discerning his will.  Given this assumption, it follows that anyone who feels the need to puzzle very long over the question “How shall we then live?” is doing so only because they want to disobey.  Like the serpent, they are asking “Did God really say?” when it is quite obvious what He said.

We still conclude, somehow, that theology proper is complicated stuff, that it takes years of study to plumb the mysteries of God and understand the order of salvation.  But ethics is comparatively easy.  Obey God’s commands.  This is an odd conclusion to reach, given that there are some reasons for supposing, on the contrary, that ethics would take more reflection than theology proper.  After all, the study of doctrine is the study of eternal verities.  What is true about the ordo salutis, if we can once determine it, is true everywhere and at all times.  You are saved by grace through faith every bit as much in Guatemala in the year 2000 as in Hungary in the year 1000.  But the study of ethics is the study of changing human circumstances, and while there are unchanging moral norms, the particular imperatives that they generate differ dramatically depending on the time and place to which they are applied.

Whatever its causes, the effects of this neglect of moral theology are serious indeed.  In Reformed and evangelical circles, it tends to generate at least four baleful responses (note that these are all perhaps, to some extent, caricatures—though I think we can all recognize the types—and I would hesitate to judge any member of one of these types as harshly as I describe the caricatures here):

1) The Apathete
For many, the self-evidence of ethics is an excuse for not worrying much about the subject at all.  We can simply take as given the moral norms handed down to us by our parents, and reinforced by our subculture, no matter how unreflective these norms are.  In a contemporary American context, many of these norms are deeply compromised by the conditions of bourgeois modern life, which steadily water down the demands of the Gospel and encourage compromise with the world.  In Reformed evangelical settings, we are pretty good at resisting this compromise when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, but are woefully prone to it on matters of economic ethics, social ethics, political ethics, environmental ethics.  We have no concept of a just wage or a just war anymore and just can’t be bothered to.  Such ideas are so alien to us that they must, we assume, be the result of “secular liberalism.”  Thus do we quietly euthanize our long-forgotten theological ancestors and toss the inheritance they have given us in the trash out back.

2) The Radical
Appalled at this compromise, this easy, bourgeois living, some young Christians conclude, rightly, that this isn’t how Jesus intended us to live.  So how?  They have, alas, no concept of any alternative to the de facto “Christian ethic” in which they’ve been raised, no concept that there is any tradition of Christian ethical reflection which could be drawn upon to critique this degeneracy.  But, after all, why would there need to be?  It’s all supposed to be quite straightforward, right?  The only reason we haven’t seen the moral demands that we’re called to as Christians is because we are weak-willed, and have suppressed the truth in our unrighteousness.  We just need to get serious about following Jesus.  It’s all there, plain as day, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels, if only we have the guts to actually live it out.  And no matter that it’s hard to give any coherent account of how it could be lived out on a large scale.  What about protecting the innocent?  Sorry, Jesus calls us to pacifism.  What about fulfilling our vocations?  Sorry, Jesus calls on us to all give up all our possessions.  Maybe taking all this without any qualifications will only work for a small sect of the dedicated, but that’s OK—to heck with the world!  Anyone who wants to pause and try to work through the details of a Christian social ethic is already wavering and compromising, so such must be left behind.  Just follow Jesus and all will be well.

3) The Culture-Warrior
Many young evangelicals, possessed by the conviction that ethics is easy and straightforward, and the only reason to complicate things is ungodliness, simply hold in contempt their “liberal secular” adversaries (which includes, in fact, most other Christians) on almost any ethical issue that arises.  Abortion and homosexuality are of course the hot-button issues, but for many on the Religious Right, a quasi-libertarian account of government has become almost as central a commitment.  Although they talk a great deal about “engaging” and “transforming” culture, all these people really know how to do is to conquer it, or ignore it.  They cannot begin to engage, because they do not think there is a rational discussion to be had.  Anyone who suggests that there is a need to make careful ethical distinctions has succumbed to the temptation to be respectable in the eyes of the world, and we mustn’t dare to stop and listen to such a person, lest we be led astray as well.  In their blind opposition to ethical nuance, they often end up opposing principles that are in fact the legacy of centuries of Christian moral reflection.  (Culture-warrior types can quite often also be members of Class 1, the Apathetes, their apathy on most issues being compensated for by their aggressive passion on a select list of pet issues)

4) The Illuminati
Other young evangelicals, disgusted with the culture-warriors and convinced that there really is something to be learned by detailed ethical reflection, resolve to inform themselves about the ways of the world.  Unlike all of the first three categories, this group recognizes that ethics is not, in the end, a piece of cake.  However, like the first three, they have been brought up ignorant of the fact that there exists two millennia of Christian moral reflection, which has weighed carefully how to balance God’s demands on us in the realms of business, family, politics, care for creation, etc.  So, eager to illuminate themselves about ethics and leave behind their benighted co-religionists, they turn to the only resources for ethical reflection they encounter.  These, while usually flavored by bits and pieces of the Christian ethical tradition, are by and large the products of modernity, offering solutions to the problems of wealth and poverty, authority and freedom, cultivation and stewardship, etc. that differ sometimes subtly, sometimes radically from those which Christian moral theology has generally offered.  Seduced by the superiors sophistication of this reflection to the simplistic ethics of their upbringing, these young evangelicals end up joining enemy ranks, thus confirming the suspicion of the culture-warriors that to ask hard ethical questions is already to compromise.

Of course, in referring to “the Christian ethical tradition” I do not mean to imply that there is a unitary set of answers to any moral problem that has been bequeathed to us by our theological ancestors.  That would be to repeat the same error of perspicacity, only with reference to tradition, rather than Scripture.  What we find instead in the nineteen centuries of Christian moral reflection is patterns of moral reasoning and argument that we can make use of, treasuries of resources for moral reflection, warnings about dead-ends in moral reasoning that we will arrive at if we start along certain paths, and examples of the other paths that have proven particularly fruitful, and may be worth treading anew.  To learn all of this requires rigorous and systematic study, every bit as much as the study of Scripture or dogmatic theology.  It is high time that evangelical and Reformed higher education begin working to recover this lost heritage.

 

16 thoughts on “The Death of Evangelical Ethics

  1. Outstanding post, Brad. You laid out the various options well, as well as highlighting the important fact that we corrupt several major Reformed doctrines such as the perspicacity of Scripture. As a teacher in a classical Christian school, I can’t help but think about matters like this frequently, particularly with respect to curricula. The "worldview warrior" mentality is huge in the classical school movement, and, unfortunately, it very easily surrenders to the temptation to act as though as long as we have the right thoughts in our heads, we are engaging the culture and prepared to transform it. Also problematic is the fact that most of the people we serve are very simplistic thinkers in one of the four trajectories you outlined, and since they pay the bills we teachers often have to take great care with what we say, lest we drive our consumers away to another outlet that will better satisfy their prejudices – particularly their economic and political ones.

    All that to say, we’ve definitely got a long road ahead of us to recover a meaningful grasp of the Christian ethical tradition.

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  2. Derek Rishmawy

    This is a wonderful post. I just finished Oliver O’Donovan’s brilliant piece of work, "Resurrection and the Moral Order" and I’m trying to think of a similarly comprehensive or rigorously Reformed account of ethics and I can’t. I’m sure that’s as much due to my own ignorance on the subject as the paucity of actual resources, but it is far easier for me to think of top-notch texts in almost any area in theology other than ethical theory. The only one that really comes to mind is Nicholas Wolterstorff. In any case, great work here. I’m hoping to see some follow-up analysis or proposal as to what an ideal Reformed approach might look like.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Hey Derek, Thanks. RMO really is the landmark in this field, and there is nothing that approaches it within the American Reformed or evangelical world. Wolterstorff is doing some good work, to be sure, though I don’t know how rigorously Reformed it is. Of course, I think that O’Donovan’s work would need fairly little tweaking from a Reformed standpoint, so I’d definitely propose that as a starting point.

      You’re not the only one asking me now for a constructive follow-up. I don’t know that I would want to try to summarize in a blog post what an ideal Reformed approach to ethics might look like, but perhaps I could begin reflecting on some of the building blocks we need to recover, and how we might go about that. I’ll be giving it some thought over the next few weeks.

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  3. Disappointing post, Brad. This was long on scolding punditry and short on method, history, ethos, and charity. Your passion for theological ethics and improving its instruction at the post-secondary level is commendable. But not every subject under the sun, even ones budding young scholars may be passionate about, merits one, let alone multiple courses in the undergraduate curriculum. Counting courses says virtually nothing about a college’s passion for or commitment to a subject, especially when it comes to subjects like ethics. Counting only tells you how many noses and courses you have. For what it’s worth, your scolding of Reformed colleges (including your alma mater) for their "dismal" lack of courses in ethics needs some historical perspective. The earliest extant curriculum (1643) of Harvard, the mother of all North American Reformed colleges, had one and only one "course" on "Ethics" in its roughly 25-course B.A. program. Apparently the great "Christian ethical tradition" you speak of hasn’t really declined in recent years after all. It’s been a bottom dweller, according to your method, for the past 370 years. Curiously, adding multiple courses in ethics now, as you seem to advocate, would itself break with that long curricular tradition. Don’t get me wrong. Your desire for more and better ethical study and learning at the undergraduate level is commendable. No one I know in Christian higher ed would say we need or want less. But many learned and godly scholar-teachers, much older and wiser than you, have been faithfully laboring in that vineyard in both Reformed and non-Reformed institutions of Christian higher education for multiple, multiple decades. They deserve your gratitude and encouragement and charitable assistance, not an uncharitable scolding thinly based on counting courses. A high view of Christian ethics demands no less.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Dr. Atwood,That the tone was perhaps too flippant for the seriousness of the subject, I acknowledge and apologize for. My purpose was not to "scold" but to lament (though I recognize that that difference needs to be more clearly marked than perhaps it was here), and I tried to make it clear that my lament was not aimed specifically at a narrow group of Reformed institutions (though I used such a narrow group as the statistical sample to illustrate the broader point). Rather, I am saying that all of us evangelical and Reformed people are bad at doing this, and have been bad at it for decades. This is a deep and wide problem, not a curricular oversight at a couple colleges. I acknowledge that counting courses is only convincing as evidence of what already appears to be a problem on other evidence; to me, and to many others I’ve had conversations with, this problem is already clear on other evidence. I know that when I started a graduate degree in Christian ethics, I had no clue what that meant as a discipline of study, despite having spent years intensively studying theology. And as I’ve tried to explain it to others in the evangelical and Reformed world, I’ve encountered similar bamboozlement. I am immensely grateful for all that I have received from my alma mater, but I cannot be grateful for what I didn’t receive. Not that I’m bitter about what I didn’t receive, but part of a good education is equipping one to go on and discern the holes in one’s former education. In this case, the hole is not in my alma mater as such, but in the whole Reformed evangelical landscape. Of course there are plenty of learned and godly people laboring in that vineyard—I’m not denying that. But we certainly need more. There is a problem, and counting courses was merely an illustration of it—that is not, as you rightly point out, proof in itself.

      However, your appeal to the Harvard curriculum of 1643 does seem to in fact offer additional proof that there has been a dramatic decline. You say they had one course in Ethics out of a total of 25 for their entire BA program? That’s 4% of the whole degree! For the schools I cited above, it’s not even 4% of the Theology department—it’s less than 1% of the whole degree, in most cases. And in fact, different amounts of time were allotted to the different courses at Harvard in the original curriculum. According to the summary here (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1888/1/3/the-curriculum-of-study-at-harvard/), five hours a week (two hours of instruction, and we could presume half of the six hours of disputation) were devoted to ethics and politics, out of a total of 33 hours. That means that the Harvard curriculum devoted 15% of its entire undergraduate course-time to ethics, compared, again, to maybe 1% for contemporary liberal arts schools. That is a noteworthy decline, I should think.

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      • Roy Atwood

        Thanks Brad. Appreciate the clarification and apology. As I tried to indicate, I think your general concern about ethics education at the undergraduate level is appropriate and justified. At the same time, ethics education is only one piece of much larger problems of incoherence in the smorgasbord approach to liberal arts education at many lib arts colleges today. Since most institutions are driven by narrow, specialized career interests, adding more courses in ethics would likely only produce more applied, professional ethics instruction of a very narrow and anti-intellectual sort–something I’ve witnessed personally at several colleges and universities around the world over the years. Additionally, the disconnect between ethics in the classroom and ethics in everyday life is heightened today because of the dualistic nature of American higher education (academic experience v. "the real world"). With little or no personal mentorship and community context to education in the academy today, students can pass course after course in ethics and still have no clue as to how to live out those lessons in flesh and blood community on a daily basis. Until courses in ethics and personal mentorship in real community embrace, the deeper problems of academic ethics education (that include little instruction) will likely continue unabated.

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      • Brad Littlejohn

        Thanks for all your careful and thoughtful replies to these comments, Dr. Atwood. You are certainly right my post was methdologically thin and rhetorically heavy-handed. I regret not taking a couple more hours to offer a more nuanced and convincing statement of the same points, and to avoid giving the impression that I thought no work was being done to rectify this problem. It is encouraging, however, to learn that we substantially agree that there is a significant problem to be addressed, and we have a long way to go.

        Your closing points here, about the need for ethics to be done in a context of community and personal mentorship, are absolutely spot-on, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be seen as endorsing the ivory tower way that most study of ethics is done today. It will take some serious dedication and creativity to figure out how to go about recovering a serious, thoughtful, and effective Christian ethics in the evangelical and Reformed world.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      I should perhaps further mention—and I don’t say this simply to placate or flatter—that I consider an NSA undergraduate education pretty much the best undergraduate education I could have possibly gotten. So I have no cause to be ungrateful. I’m just saying that we’re just taking our first baby steps towards "Repairing the Ruins" to use the title of one of Wilson’s books, and we have a long way to go.

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      • Roy Atwood

        Understand and no need to placate or flatter. Agreed about the baby steps. But your rhetoric didn’t seem to recognize or appreciate that many scholar-teachers in Reformed colleges across North America, at least, share your concerns and have been working at addressing some of the problems you identify for many years. Not all of their successful efforts would necessarily show up by merely counting courses. So baby steps are being taken at various institutions that need encouragement.

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  4. I second Brad’s remark that NSA is the best undergraduate education I could have gotten. I still recommend the College highly to anyone I can who lets me know they’re looking for a place to go. Nevertheless, like Brad, subsequent experience and education has facilitated some insight into the Liberal Arts tradition that, I say unapologetically, goes well beyond what I got at NSA and fully justifies the occasional constructive critique. Historical context? Sure, let’s discuss that – especially as it pertains to the thinly-veiled Modernist tactic of replacing the dominant Reformed reliance on the natural law tradition with a baptized version of Kantian skepticism via the adoption of pedagogical Van Tilianism. Yes, let’s have that discussion about historical context. It’s most necessary.

    NSA is marvelous, and in some ways it may in fact be leading the pack, but it is not the arrival of the full recovery of the Liberal Arts tradition – a fact I would expect, from my long experience with the intellectual humility of the professors there, every one of them to be willing to admit. There is much room for growth, not just at NSA but in the broader Christian college movement. The issues Brad highlighted earlier regarding substantial distortions of key Protestant doctrines – most particularly the introverted biblicism that has resulted from the loss of the true sense of the doctrines of the "perspicuity" and "sufficiency" of Scripture – need very much to be discussed, for they are real barriers to further progress in the recovery operation.

    A Liberal Arts education is all about dialogue resulting in everyone making their way further down the path toward wisdom. NSA started this dialogue; I would think those of us alums who have taken what it gave and desire to build further upon it would be welcomed to continue the dialogue, and any rhetorical flourishes that may appear from time to time chalked up to us actually using all those Rhetoric classes for their intended purpose – to goad others, even our former teachers, to move "further up and further in."

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    • Roy Atwood

      Tim,Thanks for reply. I fully agree that no one and no institution has "arrived." I know NSA’s many and significant weaknesses better than anyone. But that wasn’t the point. The problems I saw with Brad’s post were methodological and rhetorical. The ethics education problem, which he correctly identifies, is at its root not revealed by the number of courses taught, and ethics education will not improve significantly merely by adding more courses in the current context. His concern is legit, but he isn’t alone in having those concerns. Many good Reformed folks I know who work in the college trenches are actually working to correct those deficiencies at their institutions as best they can. From 30,000 feet it may look like little or nothing is being done, but that is deceptively untrue. From 30,000 feet counting courses may be all one can do, but that isn’t the whole story or even a very helpful part of the story. It misses important details and glosses over hard work actually done by real people on the ground. We are all in this project together covenantally which is why the rhetoric ones uses is important. Yes, let’s make sure we have iron sharpening iron, but let’s do it in a way that acknowledges the labors and challenges of our fellow travelers with charity and winsome encouragement. Even the most clueless Reformed college faculty is not "the enemy" and those colleagues won’t be inspired or encouraged to reform their ways with general put downs from 30,000 feet. Please keep up the constructive criticisms of NSA and all Reformed colleges–we need it and appreciate it–but please do so with charity and humility, acknowledging that the faculty and administrators at those colleges share many of our concerns and are doing the best they can to address them in the challenging contexts God has placed them–not you.

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      • Thanks for the reply, Dr. Atwood. I don’t disagree with anything you said, and if I sounded a bit harsh myself, I’m sorry. I constantly have to police myself so that I don’t take on this persona of "frustrated would-be reformer," who thinks he sees so well this or that problem and can’t understand why others don’t take it as seriously as he himself does. The path to teaching in college has, by God’s providence, not worked out for me up to this point, but I can say from the level I am on – 7th through 10th grade in a classical school – I see pretty well, I think, why the problems Brad highlighted are so important to address on the level of NSA. Places like NSA are producing the next wave of teachers for these lower schools, and we desperately need more who are thoroughly grounded in not just the sources of the Christian tradition but in the ability to reflect seriously and self-critically upon how all of us in this generation appropriate or fail to appropriate that tradition of wisdom.

        Like Brad, I am very grateful for what I got at NSA, but also in retrospect keenly aware of what I did not get there. Of course, my perspective on my time at NSA is a bit distorted by the fact that I always had to work full time while taking classes – so who knows what I may have missed that actually was offered, or that I could have gotten earlier than I did had I had much more serious time to reflect on the texts I read there. Plus, I really don’t know how things have changed in terms of faculty perspectives and curriculum since I left nearly 6 years ago. That’s why I try to keep away from direct critiques; the things I said above are quite general in nature and may not even apply to what goes on at NSA these days.

        Good to talk to you again. For what it’s worth, though I only ever had Thesis Seminar with you, many things you said in those times have stayed with me over the years and continue to be very useful to my thinking about all these matters. When I speak of the intellectual humility of the faculty, it’s always you and Mr. Schlect , and various self-criticism-inducing sayings of you both, that I recall most.

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  5. Brad,

    I find it curious and unfortunate that Dr Atwood sees only the "counting of courses" in this essay, and overlooks altogether the quite accurate taxonomy of types you have offered here. This group of character sketches (in the Theophrastan sense) would in fact be of great use to the educators he rightly applauds for their long work in the field, since it can help them have a sense of what it is they’re up against and what they have to work with. But making appeals to piety and charges of ingratitude in order to privilege educators from all critique, even critique as gentle as this essay, seems to me not very different from what secular teachers’ unions do when ways in which they might improve are suggested to them. Surely we can do better.

    But speaking of doing better, as you yourself admit, the tone of this was a little harsh and flippant (a style for which NSA grads are noted!). Be that as it may. What’s really worth remarking upon here is that ethics need not only be taught in courses which go by that name, and so you might want to spend some time thinking about the ethical dimension of other studies. For the ancients, and for the Reformation pedagogues, even gymnastics and sports had such an intentionality, and of course humane letters most certainly was thought to. Modern isolation of "ethics" as a discipline is questionable, and I take it that this is what Dr Atwood was trying to get at in expressing his concerns.

    paxP

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks Peter. I agree that the modern discipline of "ethics," as it stands, is unhelpfully isolated and artificial. Nonetheless, "moral theology" or "moral philosophy" has an old long pedigree as a distinct branch of theological and philosophical reflection that cannot be treated merely as an appendage to the doctrine of sanctification, on the one hand, and a set of "rules of fair play" to tack onto a business or sports course. And I worry that that’s how it’s become for much Christian education today. Doing a bit of business ethics or sports ethics or environmental ethics without having grasped the core principles and modes of reasoning that belong to ethics won’t get us very far. It does seem to me essential that we recover systematic exploration of the inner logic and past insights of the Christian moral tradition (which means courses dedicated to this). This groundwork established, we should absolutely seek to make ethical reflection an integral part of other courses of study.

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    • Roy Atwood

      Peter,Just to clarify. I found much to appreciate in Brad’s post. His taxonomy was useful, and the overall concern spot on. I just thought the constructive elements of his post were overshadowed by his thin methodology (counting courses) and his rhetoric. If we are in this together, then acknowledging that others in the trenches (where you may not happen to be) are laboring hard to address these problems despite many challenges and push backs is the appropriate and charitable thing to do. Producing a college curriculum is a very complex and difficult thing to do. No one I know would claim they have arrived at the perfect one. Hence, constructive criticism is welcome and crucial for reform and improvement. And BTW, nothing I said was intended to "privilege educators from all critique." Far from it. Criticism is important, crucial, and necessary at all levels of scholarship, pedagogy and the academy. But not all criticism hits its mark (or even the right target) or is done constructively. And you’re right in your observation on my comments, that the modern isolation of ethics as a discipline may be part of the problem, not the solution, in the decline of ethics. It may be similar to how the rise of narrowly specialized "classics" as a discipline contributed to the decline "classical education." Blessings.

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  6. Thanks for the reply, Dr. Atwood. I don’t disagree with anything you said, and if I sounded a bit harsh myself, I’m sorry. I constantly have to police myself so that I don’t take on this persona of "frustrated would-be reformer," who thinks he sees so well this or that problem and can’t understand why others don’t take it as seriously as he himself does. The path to teaching in college has, by God’s providence, not worked out for me up to this point, but I can say from the level I am on – 7th through 10th grade in a classical school – I see pretty well, I think, why the problems Brad highlighted are so important to address on the level of NSA. Places like NSA are producing the next wave of teachers for these lower schools, and we desperately need more who are thoroughly grounded in not just the sources of the Christian tradition but in the ability to reflect seriously and self-critically upon how all of us in this generation appropriate or fail to appropriate that tradition of wisdom.

    Like Brad, I am very grateful for what I got at NSA, but also in retrospect keenly aware of what I did not get there. Of course, my perspective on my time at NSA is a bit distorted by the fact that I always had to work full time while taking classes – so who knows what I may have missed that actually was offered, or that I could have gotten earlier than I did had I had much more serious time to reflect on the texts I read there. Plus, I really don’t know how things have changed in terms of faculty perspectives and curriculum since I left nearly 6 years ago. That’s why I try to keep away from direct critiques; the things I said above are quite general in nature and may not even apply to what goes on at NSA these days.

    Good to talk to you again. For what it’s worth, though I only ever had Thesis Seminar with you, many things you said in those times have stayed with me over the years and continue to be very useful to my thinking about all these matters. When I speak of the intellectual humility of the faculty, it’s always you and Mr. Schlect , and various self-criticism-inducing sayings of you both, that I recall most.

    Like

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