We hear a lot these days about the US becoming less religious, or, more specifically, has less religious affiliation. Nation-wide polls show that more and more people check off “None” when asked about religious affiliation. And that the percentage of those identifying as agnostic or atheist has risen from 16% to 23 %. What are dedicated Christians to make of such figures? Are we seeing a real downturn in religious commitment? If so, what is to be done about it?
The answer, I think, is: “Yes,” there is a real downturn but, “No,” the figures aren’t accurate. Let’s take the downturn first.
Following WWII, the US Government hit on a great idea to help slow the return of 10 million GIs into the work force. The idea was to give them a free college education as a benefit of having served their country. Many of those who started college under what was called “the GI Bill” never finished, but whether they finished or not having that opportunity forever changed their attitude toward college. Higher education, which had up to that time been available only to the wealthy, was now something the so-called “greatest generation” wanted for their children.
The result was that from roughly the middle of the last century onward, a college education was added to the expected post high school rites of passage for all but the poorest segment of the population. Moreover, the number of high school grads applying to college was given a significant boost in the 60s by the fact that going to college could exempt men from being drafted to serve in Viet Nam. The result was that by the early 70s, hundreds of thousands more high school graduates were seeking college entrance than would ever have dreamed of it.
Is Educating People Making them “Unaffiliated?”
So, am I suggesting that becoming more educated has resulted in the downturn in religious commitment? I’m sure that’s what some would like to have us believe, but it’s not quite true. It’s not simply being educated that has had the results we’re now seeing. Rather it’s the way religion has been taught at the college level across the nation for the generations since WWII.
Religion courses of all types have been among the most popular in the college curriculum for a long time nation-wide. Comparative Religion, for example, has been a huge draw on all campuses from community colleges to major research universities. Students are drawn to religion courses by curiosity and by what they see as the opportunity to study a fascinating subject. The students’ expectation was a course taught from an unbiased source and point of view, as opposed to the biased sources of their childhood religious upbringing.
The reputation of being difficult that attaches to philosophy courses didn’t prevent philosophy of religion from being well enrolled. Actually, most Introduction to Philosophy courses have regularly included the existence of God among the topics covered. It is the prevailing way these courses were handled that I see as the cause of the present-day decline in religious commitment and religious affiliation.
The Search for Unbiased Teaching
First off, the standard treatment of religious belief was not religiously neutral as opposed to the “biased” treatment of the average church, synagogue or mosque. College instructors have their beliefs and inclinations as do all other humans. And these include whether they believe in God or not. No one can expect anything different, but the average student entering college has been unprepared for that fact. Many even supposed the existence of a neutral stance from which to debate the question of God’s reality. There isn’t.
Second, the standard treatment of whether God is real was (and still is) to examine the arguments that have attempted to prove (or disprove) God’s existence. And there are, and always have been, a minority of professors who defend one or another proof. But, the vast majority left the upshot of their examination stamped “UNDECIDED.” This conclusion conveyed two great mistakes to the last four or five successive generations of American students. Without explicitly stating or examining these mistakes the following was simply accepted. 1) the way to ascertain God’s reality is by argument and proof. And 2) the attempts at proving God’s reality have all failed. The conclusion these generations reached is that no one really knows the truth about whether God exists or not. Many choose to have no religious affiliation.
The Proofs Have Failed
Let’s take the second one first. I agree that the proofs have all failed. But I disagree that their failure leaves God’s existence in doubt. There’s a simple but important point that all attempts to prove God’s reality have overlooked: the New Testament says that God created “everything visible or invisible (Col. 1: 16). If that’s right, it includes the laws of logic, one of the invisible creations. But if God created the laws by which we prove anything, then he is not subject to them. Applying them to God is therefore demoting him to the status of a creature. The proofs argue that God is governed by laws of proof instead of being their Creator.
The proofs have also done other mischief against their best intentions. They have led many people to think that belief in God is a theory, and therefore in need of proof. When we make theories we do, indeed, try to test them. And logical proofs are frequently part of that process. But belief in God is no theory! It is instead a report of the experience of those who have encountered God.
Experience it for Yourself
College students today need to be told to look for their own experience of God, rather than to engage in the logical evaluation of arguments. They need to be urged to read the scriptures in order to hear God speak to them. They need their own encounter with the living Creator who is not the conclusion of an argument. Instead, he is the God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ.
Ethics and History
In our consideration of the place of ethics and our understanding of ethics, I have been playing around with some considerations from history. I would like to turn now to see how the Word of God addresses ethical issues. I’m going to call these next several blog entries my moral musings. (just to have some alliteration!)
In one of my earlier ponderings on ethics, I stated that, for me, a central text for my own understanding of what is ethical and moral arises from the prophet Micah’s declaration (in chapter 6:8),
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Chinese Exclusion Act 1882
I pondered this precept from God for many years already. I came to the realization that many who might quote this as their moral center, have failed to put it into practice. Too many of us have come to the point, along with much of Western culture, that if you are not caught and punished for some deed, it must be “OK.” The result? The laws of one’s land are the arbiter of what is good, moral, and just.
Here is one example that occurred in my country, the USA. In 1882, the Congress of the United States passed a law. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law suspended all immigration into the United States from China. It was only supposed to be in effect for 10 years, but actually remained in effect for 61 years. It was changed in 1943 when China allied itself with the United States in World War II.
Was that ethical?
Now was the law moral, or ethical, or just? Many in that day thought the law was just. Why? Because, anyone with Asian features aroused deep suspicion among the rest of the population. Chinese people “flooded” into California following the 1849 Gold Rush. The populace already in California said the Chinese were “causing social disruption” to their communities. By 1943, much of the anti-Chinese sentiment had faded. And immigration began again with 105 (yes you read that correctly) Chinese allowed to immigrate every year.
Again, I have to wonder, why did those in authority believe that someone of Asian origin was suspect? How did they manage to listen to sermons on Micah 6? Did they not ask themselves if the laws of the nation in which they lived reflected God’s will for the nation as much as for an individual? Where does the pursuit of what is right: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God stop and the law of a country begin?
Is Morality only Personal?
Let’s ask ourselves, Do the laws of God extend to only me as a single person or are God’s laws also intended for the good of a whole society? As we muse on morality further in posts to come, let’s try to see how and if God’s will extends to counties as well as people. I hope you will join the discussion.
Let’s start with this: Did you know that the Bible mentions prayer incense as part of worship over 100 times? Are you aware that the use of prayer incense was ordered by God Himself for the Tabernacle worship under Moses? Recall, this was hundreds of years before its use in the Temple built by Solomon. Do you ever consider that it was part of Jesus’ own worship when he visited the Temple?
It seems a pity, then, that so many churches have no place for this ancient symbol of prayer. I suspect that is largely because so many churches nowadays think of worship as no more than a praise service.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a service of praise. My point is that there is much more to worship than just praise. In addition, there are – at least – confession, contrition, absolution, intercession, and the Eucharist.
Worship as Foretaste of Heaven
I believe that the church as an institution, as the vestibule to heaven, should be as unlike the rest of everyday life as possible. The church should have its own architecture. Create its own dress. Its own calendar. Compose its own sound. Develop its own vocabulary. And, yes, even its own smell.
*In the world ofArchitecture, the church can have many styles, but they can still all be cruciform: in the shape of a cross.
*When consideringDress, what has developed over the centuries is robed choirs and clergy, and a clerical collar for the clergy, to set them off from everyday life.
*The LiturgicalCalendar, the traditional Ordo which begins the church year with four Sundays looking forward to Christ’s birth (Christmas). The calendar then follows the rest of his life through the year: his ministry, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the founding of his Church.
*As to sound, church music has a long and distinguished history that culminates in the chorales of Bach. And hymns by Beethoven, Mendlessohn, Brahms, Handel, and Williams – to name but a few. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that music developed within the four walls of the church.
*And when it comes to language – especially the words that constitute the worship service – there is nothing that matches the dignity and power of the liturgy to be found in The Book of Common Prayer. There is a time for praise, to be sure. But there is also a time for worship to be serious – what the framers of the BCP called “solemnity.”
*Of course, the church smell is the incense – which brings us back to our title. Incense has been part of the worship of God’s people since very ancient times. Prayer incense was used at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1: 9,10).
Prayer Incense in The Apocylypse
And Revelation 8: 3,4 tells us it is part of the worship of God as that is conducted heaven.
Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints… and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.
What Revelation describes in heaven is no different from what now takes place on earth. As the smoke of incense rises toward the ceiling of the place of worship, it makes visible the prayers of God’s people as they rise to heaven. In addition, incense is also a symbol of our reverence of God. Think of the Christmas carol, We Three Kings. One of its lines goes: “incense owns a Deity nigh,” that is, “incense acknowledges that God is near.”
Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ gave up the use of prayer incense. I see that as a pity. So many of the historic things that can make the church and its worship distinct from everyday life have lost their place. Let us hope and pray that as our sisters and brothers reconsider their forms of worship, they will re-institute the ancient practice of using prayer incense.
Do the right thing
Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example, a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty.
To Have a Noble Character
The ideal character traits are the focus of virtue ethics. These traits have the effect of others looking upon one as a person of noble character.
It is interesting to me how often the concept of virtue and the ethics which follow upon the pursuit of virtue are central to the stories we find intriguing. Will the (dark) Empire overthrow the Rebellion? Will the good and virtuous Snow White survive the evil intentions of the wicked Queen? The conflict of the good and the bad, the virtuous and the evil informs the story lines of most stories. It is by means of our engagement in these themes that we form our own ideas of what is right or wrong. We are, normally, going to identify with law enforcement over against the bank robbers. We want the NCIS teams to triumph over the bad guys who are trying to disrupt society or who have murdered someone to hide their own evil acts.
Bennett’s Books on Virtue Ethics
When we read children’s literature, we often hope that the story will subtly (or pointedly) promote good and hold it up as something to be pursued. In addition, however, children need to have adults in their lives who are good. William J. Bennett the former Secretary of Education for the USA put it this way: “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously. And with their own eyes they must see adults take morality seriously.”
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/william_bennett
Virtue ethics, then, are a way for adults to shape the moral sensitivity of children. By acting virtuously they will be handing on the traditions of what is good and morally right.
Is Artemis Fowl a Virtue Ethicist?
At times, however, there is a conflict which arises in our perceptions of what is good. For example, in the series of young adult novels about Artemis Fowl, we are drawn into admiring and rooting for a young man who is a criminal genius. For all his evil intentions, young Artemis finds himself doing what is right and virtuous because of how his mother would want him to live.
He is further influenced by his fairy companion, Holly Short, toward acting for the good. The novels all are filled with the conflicted sense in Artemis that what he is doing is wrong, while at the same time hiding it from his mother who would be very disappointed in him if he were to be found doing things which would end up on the evil side of the moral ledger. And finally, in the final book, he acts for the good without thought of great personal gain.
When we evaluate the actions of others, we often use the virtue ethics of Aristotle or his philosophical heirs of our day. Those heirs include these who are named in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Anscombe, G.E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33 (1958). This article is the original call for a return to Aristotelian ethics.
MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985). In this book MacIntyre provides us with the first outline of his account of the virtues.
Murdoch, I., The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark, 1985)
Williams, B., Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985).
As we can readily see, these were written in the latter part of the 20th century, with the exception of Anscombe who published his call for virtue ethics in 1958. The virtue ethicists have had a significant influence because the idea of doing the right thing is deeply embedded in our (western) cultural consciousness by means of literature, television, and movies.
What do you think? Should a Christian approach to ethics follow the line of moral reasoning that the virtue ethicists do? Or is our call to morality something else? Join the discussion!