Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics

Philip D. Smith, The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics. University Press of America, 2002. 111 pages. ISBN 0-7618-2329-8.

The problem of incivility has only increased since the publication of Philip Smith's book, The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics. In this book the author offers definitions of the following words: civility, politics, opponent, coercion, and pacifism. Smith is a virtue theorist because he thinks the moral life is best understood "in terms of virtues--character traits-- than in terms of actions or rules for acting" (viii). The author argues that civility is a virtue related to a political opponent. He thinks his book is both truthful and useful.

The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics is divided into nine chapters. It covers controversies and conduct, virtue of civility in the practice of politics, Robert Audi's rules for civility, civil speech, the right, and the good, civility and the civil process, and civility and coercion. In the first chapter the author gives examples of different controversies and conduct. The examples come from corporate policy, Church policy, and public policy. Smith's primary interest is how we conduct controversies, not solutions to the controversies.

The author provides definitions of the key terms he uses in the book. He states that "Civility is a properly grounded character trait which moves an individual to treat political opponents well and/or to feel certain emotions toward political opponents, emotions which move an individual to treat political opponents well" (15).  He writes, "Politics is the art or science of making decisions for groups of people" (15). This surprised me at first because I tend to think of politics as what happens in local, state, and national government. He states that the goal of politics is to make good decisions. The third definition: "Political opponents are people who have conflicts over group decision proposals" (15). Smith summarizes his major points about civility in the practice of politics: "Civil people are moved to treat political opponents well. . . . Negatively, this means we are disposed not to impugn opponents' motives, slander them, lie to them, ignore them, or the like. Positively, we are disposed to debate honestly with them, keep any agreements we make with them, treat them with dignity, and so on" (16). What he is describing are virtues or character traits.

To help describe the virtue of civility in the practice of politics he lists the things that it is not. It is not being polite. It is not a tool to oppress others. It does not consist of rules and rule keeping. Virtue is different than rule keeping. Last, it does not cover everything. It does not cover every interaction between people. In chapter three Smith discusses concepts that are related to virtue: practices and institutions. It is through practice we develop virtue and "institutions are human organizations that grow up around a practice and make it possible" (25). Chess would be a practice and a chess club would be an institution, and the ability to play well would be a virtue.

To summarize civility as a virtue in the practice of politics is a character trait that disposes one to treat their political opponent well. Civility describes what a person is, not what he does. Smith thinks there are four advantages to the virtue of civility in political practices. First, it helps to avoid "destructive conflict." Second, "civility helps preserve participants in a political process as resources for decision-making" (32). In other words, the political opponent may provide important information, knowledge that will help in making a good decision. Third, civility decreases distortion in communication. Fourth, civility "helps preserve participants in politics as people of dignity" (33). It seems to me that civility is a better trait than incivility in seeking the truth. Mortimer J. Adler often said that in a discussion the goal was not to defeat your opponent but to find the truth. The virtue of civility is much needed in our society today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Seasons of the Soul:Stages of Spiritual Development

Bruce Demarest, Seasons of the Soul:Stages of Spiritual Development. IVP Books, 2009. 191 pages. ISBN 978-0-8308-3535-5

I have become quite interested in developmental theory and how it is helpful to understand life's stages. I have also found these theories to be helpful in understanding the stages of faith. The idea of the stages of faith has not been emphasized in my particular faith community. I guess I was first introduced to it through the Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan which I have read many times. The idea of journey is also prominent is classical Western literature: The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, the Fairie Queen and others. Bruce Demarest asserts, "The journey is a prominent biblical metaphor for the Christian life from beginning to its fulfillment. The Christian life is not an aimless wandering but a challenging and sometimes perplexing pilgrimage to spiritual maturity and ultimately our heavenly home" (11). Demarest, in his book, Seasons of the Soul:Stages of Spiritual Development, argues that our spiritual journeys occur in seasons or phases. Spiritual growth is rarely in a straight line "toward heaven; it's more like an upward spiral. The Christian spiritual journey involves starting and stopping, digressions, and sometimes even reversions to previous stages. While God invites us to grow and mature, we retain the freedom to resist his gracious call, and at times backtrack. Since pilgrim believers still retain the sinful nature in this life, our journeys of transformation are ongoing throughout our lives" (13). The author said he was taught as a youth that when we come to Christ that we have arrived. But trusting in Christ is "only the beginning of a lifelong process of spiritual transformation and training in discipleship" (13). This idea of arriving when we first believe in Christ is the kind of idea emphasized from my own faith community. Though sanctification was sometimes mentioned, all the emphasis was on the initial conversion. This idea of faith as a lifelong process was foreign to my own faith community.

The author draws from Walter Brueggman's paradigm to organize the content of this book. This concept sees the life of faith as involving a "repetitive, threefold pattern." The first phase is spiritual beginnings. This is the phase when we first come to faith. The second phase is when we are disoriented by trials and difficulties. The third phases is when we are reoriented, "experiencing spiritual renewal." Demarest basically describes six stages in the Christian journey and not all people will go through all six. His ideas is related to Eric Erikson's eight stages of psychosocial development, Kohlberg's six stages of moral development, and James Fowler's six stages of faith development. Initial orientation is the Demarest's first stage. This is the time when a person first believes in Christ. He is a new believer and he experiences the joys of salvation. Painful disorientation is the next stage where the believer encounters trials and difficulties. The third stage is understanding why we suffer. The next stage is the dark night of the soul. This is a time when we sense very little light or God's presence. The fifth stage is redemptive responses to our journey. This is a time of growing through trials. We are purifying ourselves for the presence of God. The last stage is joyful reorientaion. This is a time of healing, wisdom, journeying outward.

A strong part of Demarest's book is his assertion that trials and troubles are part of the Christian journey. God uses these difficulties to transform our lives. Another strength of the book is that it is accessible to diverse readers. It is easy to understand and he includes many examples from the Bible, spiritual writers, and his own life. The ideas of this book will help Christians understand the different seasons of the Christian journey. Sometimes we do not sense God's present not because we are backslidden, but because God is maturing us. This book will shine a light on our Christian journey.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Friendship: The Key to Spiritual Growth

Friendship: The Key to Spiritual Growth by John W. Crossin. Paulist Press, 1997. 110 pages. ISBN 0809137100

John W. Crossin is the author of What are they Saying about Virtue? (Paulist Press. He has written other books and articles on morality and spiritual growth. I was intrigued by the subtitle. How is friendship the key to spiritual growth. Second, I am interested in friendship and its connection to the virtuous life. Many classical authors have written on the topic: Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Aquinas, and others. Crossin asserts, "friendships spur us to spiritual growth. Our quest for meaning intimately involves friendship--with self, others, and God. These relationships anchor our spiritual life and set our priorities" (1). This book is both a book on friendship and spiritual growth or growth in virtue. Crossin states, "personal spiritual growth inevitably involves reaching out to others and making wise and loving moral decisions that form our character, making us certain kinds of person" (2). Even the Bible insists on the importance of friendship. It starts from the beginning: "It is not good for the man to be alone." It witnesses to the close friendship of Saul and David. Even Jesus selected twelve to be with him and chose three to give him support in his time of need.

Friendship: The Key to Spiritual Growth includes seven chapters. Chapter one discusses the state the world is in today. Some of the key characteristics of the modern world is a replacing of religion with psychology which emphasizes therapeutic models, turn to values, instead of virtues, belief in science, and a pursuit of pleasure. Crossin, however, thinks there are signs which can give us hope. First, there is a longing and a searching for community. Second, there is an emphasis on character in the business community. An example would be Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits for highly effective people. Third, there is a "reemergence of religion in the public forum." In the last part of the chapter, the author argues for the importance of commitment. Chapter two discusses spiritual growth. Crossin connect spiritual growth with the virtues tradition. To do this we must take responsibility for ourselves and decide to pursue spiritual growth. In addition, if we are going to grow spiritually we must listen "to our inner selves, to others, to our environment and to God" (21). In addition, spiritual growth calls for patience and support from others.

The author discusses friendship with self, others, and God in chapters three through five. through five. Crossin believes we must know ourselves if we are going to know what changes we can make in our lives. We need to know and live within our own limitations. However, change is required if we are going to grow spiritually. To accomplish change we need to make time to be quiet before God allowing Him to speak us. In the next chapter the author thinks that friendships influence our spiritual growth. In the chapter he lists characteristics of friendship like communication and respects. Friends help us to become our best selves. He also discusses different types of friendships: colleagues, marital, ministry, and others. In the chapter on friendship with God, Crossin emphasizes Scripture, prayer, meditation, and spiritual tradition.

Crossin discusses spiritual friendships in chapter six. He asserts, "Friendships can change our lives. Good friends can lead us to maturity. Spiritual friends can help us to become holy. Our relationships help us set the direction of our lives" (67). Friendships may vary in depth. In other words, we have different levels of friendship. In this chapter he also discusses spiritual direction. Different definitions of spiritual direction exist. Here is one from Sandra Schneiders: "Spiritual direction could be defined as a process carried out in the context of a one-to-one relationship in which a competent guide helps a fellow Christian to grow in the spiritual life by means of personal encounters that have the directee's spiritual growth as their explicit option" (69). Basically, a spiritual director is a more mature christian who meet regularly with his friend to help guide him in spiritual growth. The last two chapters discuss what to do when relationships falter and the last chapter discusses living the virtuous life.

Crossin's Friendship: The Key to Spiritual Growth shows the importance of friendship for spiritual growth. It discusses friendship with self, others, and God. It shows the different friendships we might have. Crossin makes a strong case that we need spiritual friends if we want to grow spiritually. I know that at key points of my life Christian friends were instrumental in my spiritual growth.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What's A Christian to do with Harry Potter?

Connie Neal, What's a Christian to do with Harry Potter? Waterbrook Press, 2001. 210 pages. ISBN 1578564719

I hate to write a review of a book that discusses the Harry Potter controversy because of how the issue divides evangelical Christians, but I do have a reason to review the book. I am doing research on the evangelical college library and intellectual freedom in preparation for my Ph.D course in the Fall semester. Some of the possible topics that will be discussed in my paper are bad language, nudity, atheism, non-orthodox views, evolution, Harry Potter, and homosexuality. As you can see, I will have to choose some topics and let go of others. I am interested in this topic because I am a librarian and intellectual freedom is important to librarians, but that is a topic for my future paper. Concerning Harry Potter, I am a big fan. I am reading through it for either the fourth or fifth time. I assume I know a lot about the series. Second, I am an orthodox Christian, so why would I defend the book. This brings us to Connie Neal's book, What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? Connie Neal has written extensively on Harry Potter and she claims in the book that she tried to read everything Christians have published on Harry Potter. In addition, she is an orthodox Christian and was a youth pastor for ten years.

What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter contains eleven chapters: Chapter 1--Controversy in the Christian Community; Chapter 2--What are the Stories about Anyway?; Chapter 3--Classic Fantasy or Blatant Witchcraft; Chapter 4--Why Kids and Kids at Heart Love Harry; Chapter 5--What Would Jesus Do with Harry Potter?; Chapter 6--Beware of the Dangers of Debate; Chapter 7--Protecting Kids from Real-World Occult; Chapter 8--Be in the World but Not of the World; Chapter 9--Harry Potter and the Judeo-Christian Ethic; Chapter 10--Using Harry Potter to Grow in Goodness; Chapter 11--Using Harry Potter to Preach the Gospel.

The author states her purpose: ""In the following chapters, I will help you sort out facts from fiction, reality from rumors, and provide trustworthy information to make you knowledgeable about the Harry Potter stories and the related debate. I will aim to help you become clearheaded, calm, confident, and peaceful with regard to the issues being raised about Harry Potter, whatever your personal convictions may be now or after you finish the book" (1). Neal's basic purpose is to inform and educate about the Harry Potter controversy, so the reader can make their own judgement about Harry. Her intended audience is both pro-Harry Potter people, anti-Harry Potter people, and maybe, those sitting on the fence. I believe she is writing mainly for evangelical Christians. After reading this book, the reader should be well informed about the controversy and some of the myths popular among certain people.

In chapter one the author include excerpts of both pro-Potter and anti-Potter publications. Chuck Colson speaks for the series: "It may relieve you to know the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals--but they don't make contact with the supernatural world" (15). Speaking of Harry and his friends, Colson asserts, "They develop courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one another--even at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons in a self-centered world" (15). One excerpt comes from selected letters sent to Christianity Today after it wrote a positive review of the Potter series. One letter respondent asserted, "It amazes me very time I read an article that blatantly ignores God's word on the subject and would make decisions based on so-called gray areas of the influence around us" (27). There are others excerpts from the opposing positions.

Chapter two gives a basic summary of the Harry Potter books for those who had not read them. She does make the following point: "Hogwarts is presented as a place clearly in a fantasy world that is set apart from our own. Hogwarts is a school that does not practice or teach the Dark Arts, but instead has classes that teach Defense Against the Dark Arts" (33). Chapter three was one of my favorite chapters. It asked the question is Harry Potter classic fantasy or "blatant witchcraft" (37). The author describes the essential parts of fantasy children's literature, mythology, legends, folklore and fables, and fairy tales. I learned some things I did not know before reading this chapter. For example, a fairy tale are fantasy stories from an unknown source. The story begins in a "dismal setting" with the main character suffering from injustice. The main character is led, invited, or some other way transported to this magical world. In this world, the main character "feels hopeful but may struggle with self-doubt" (44). The main character usually goes on some type of quest and usually has special gifts or powers. The main character will be tested by trials and difficulties and he must prove himself. In the process of testing, the main character grows in character or virtue. The contest between good and evil is another element of a fairy tale. The main character will need the help of others to defeat evil and the last part is a happy ending. The Harry Potter books includes all the essential elements of a classic fairy tales. In addition, it contains elements of myths, folklore, legends, and fables.

Two other of my favorite chapters were how Christians can resolve disagreements on disputed matters. The author does a detailed study of Romans 14 & 15 and chapters from First Corinthians. The principles the author discusses in this chapter would apply to other disputed matters among Christians. The other chapter I liked was on how the Harry Potter stories can help kids grow in moral development or virtue. Neal describes the stories underlying features:

  1. Each tale is set in the context of students belonging to a house or household
  2. Where moral and educational development take place...
  3. Where students have been chosen or belong
  4. We see through Harry that students exercise free will
  5. and where individual gifts, strengths, and abilities are needed by others
  6. In context of respect for leaders who teach them
  7. And who offer reproof, correction, and training in right living
  8. Leading to a climax where the heroes have to combat the forces of evil.
If you want to know more read the book. In addition she includes a chapter on the dangers of real world-occult.

What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter is a good summary of the Harry Potter controversy among evangelical Christians. She does a good job in fairly representing both sides. She does believe in a real-world occult and discusses the dangers of it. She shows how merchandising paraphernalia of the Harry Potter sometimes contain material that might encourage the occult. She believes parents should teach their kids the difference between real-world occult and the fictional world of Harry Potter. Neal also believes that Christians who study the pros and cons and believe it is wrong to read Harry Potter should not read them. One of the weaknesses of the book is that it was written before the series was finished. My least favorite chapter was the last on using Harry Potter to preach the gospel. There is a danger forgetting these are stories and not illustrations of the Gospels. I have found that evangelicals are too-literal minded. Personally, I like to let the stories speak for themselves, but that is a personal thing and might not bother other readers.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Christianity and the Soul of the University

Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community edited by Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty. Baker Academic, 2006. 192 pages. Isbn: 978-0-8010-2794-9

Christianity and the Soul of the University is a collection of essays that grew out of a 2004 conference held at Baylor University on the relationship between the Christian faith and the University and how the Christian faith can provide the foundation for an intellectual community. The first part discusses some of the major issues of a Christian intellectual community. In chapter one Richard B. Hayes shows how the epistles of John, Peter, and Paul can provide insight for creating a Christian intellectual community. He discusses five characteristics of the Christian community: it values concreteness, it tells the truth, it is wary of cultural idols, it locates itself in the Christian story, and is intellectually charitable to outsiders.

In chapter two Jean Bethke Elstain shows through autobiography and argument that the intellectual mind and the Christian faith are friends. She thinks the university is a place for both reasoned faith and respectful discourse. She show how her intellectual struggles deepened her faith. She describes her own journey from childhood belief, "to halfhearted yet dogged unbelief," to belief. In the next chapter John C. Polkinghorne argues for Christian disciplinarity. He shows how the Christian faith unifies knowledge in contrast to the modern fragmentation of knowledge in the university. In the last chapter of part one David Lyle Jeffrey offers an excellent essay, "Faith, Fortitude, and the Future of the Christian intellectual community." Jeffrey asks the question if there is a future for the Christian intellectual community. He answers in the affirmative if "there are communities of scholars who make it their business to privilege faith," practice academic freedom that is "grounded in the larger Christian principle of love your neighbor;" as long as we do not become "double-minded and unstable in all our ways;"  and "as long our faith is unwavering, accompanied by fortitude and perseverance" (99). Susam M. Felch begins the second part which deals with the practices of the Christian intellectual community. Felch's essay, "Doubt and the Hermeneutics of Delight" argues that delight serve as a better characteristic for the intellectual community than doubt. She does agree that doubt has a place in the university, but she says doubt becomes a problem when doubt is crowned as "education's patron saint." She proposes that "we consider delight as an alternative to doubt." Aurelie A. Hagstrom proposes Christian hospitality as an important practice for the intellectual community. She believes it serves as a better alternative than tolerance. She asserts, "Tolerance is ill suited to address matters of deep controversy because of its tendency to trivialize what is important to us." She thinks it is a "false form of engagement." She states that "hospitality is much more engaging, risky, and costly" than tolerance. She continues, "Hospitality takes the identity, story, and tradition of the guest seriously as a foundation for table fellowship and meaningful dialogue, and it does so without pretending to be less than one is a Christian" (127-128). She concedes that true dialogue in the context of Christian hospitality is not easy. In addition, she shows how Christian hospitality is an exercise in Christian charity.

Other essays discuss the importance of worship, moral imagination, and the importance of emphasizing the protestant doctrine of vocation which has been deemphasized. This book is an excellent collection of essays about how the Christian faith can serve as a foundation for the intellectual community.  

Monday, June 20, 2016

Growing Older Gracefully

Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister. Blue Bridge, 2010. 222 pages. ISBN: 9781933346335.

The past year and a half I have read many books on Mid-life struggles, human development, the stages of Christian faith, and spiritual development. I have found this reading to be quite helpful. Before a few years ago I thought very little on these subjects. I just finished two books recently: Weathering the Storm by Bob Biehl and Halftime by Bob Buford. Biehl's book provides a map of different stages of mid-life and how to figure where you are on the map and how to get to the place you want to go. I found the book to be quite helpful. I decided to read it over again. Two important things I learned from the book is the importance of developing a few close relationships and the need to rewrite our dreams or come up with new ones.

Buford's Halftime is a good companion to Biehl's Weathering the Storm. The two authors even think similarly about retirement. They prefer to think of it as a transition instead of as retirement. Buford's idea is that around mid-life we began to reevaluate our life. It is similar to halftime at a football game. We evaluate what we did in the first half of our life. He thinks that the main thrust in the first half of our life is to be successful; while, the second half is the search for significance. During half-time we might have regrets and thoughts about how we could have done it differently. In the first half of our life we believe we have all the time in the world to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. In the second half we realize we only have a limited time left. Both authors believe that the second half of our life can be even better than the first.

On one of my visits to Chapters, a coffee house in Oregon, I noticed Joan Chittister's book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. The title caught my eye since I have been reading on the topic for over a year now. The author's name sounded familiar and guessing I must have read a book by her previously. I began reading the book this morning. Some of the things she is saying is complementing the two other books I have already mentioned. Joan believes that life is more than breathing or simply being alive. It is about  "becoming more than we are, about being all that we can be" (viii). Like Buford, it is searching for significance. Middle age seems to be a reflective time where we reflect on our life and think about how we can make the best of the second half of our life. Chittister thinks the latter end of our life can be our best years. She was seventy when she wrote the book. She thinks that this time of life can be a time of growth. This is remarkable because many people think of old age as a time of decline. Another book I have been reading by James V. Schall has an essay on the death of Plato. Schall asserts that Plato continued to write when he was eighty-one years old.

Chittister argues: "This is a special period of life--maybe the most special of them all... Life is not about age, about the length of years we manage to eke out of it. It is about aging, about living into the values offered in every stage of life. As E. M. Forster wrote, 'We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us'(x-xi)." Old age is just another stage of life. WE actually live not one life, but several lives. "The evening of a well-spent life," wrote a French moralist, "brings it lamps with it" (xi). The author believes that old age can enlighten not only us, but those around us. Another book I read said that two things remain important in old age--knowledge and love. It is a time that we can continue to grow in wisdom and to invest our lives in those who will follow us.

Monday, June 6, 2016

On the Pleasure of Walking About Derby

James V. Schall, "On the Pleasure of Walking about Derby" in On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing. ISI Books, 2001.

Fr. Schall asserts, "No one will ever know whether there are answers to the highest questions unless he has first formulated the very questions to which such answers might be addressed." This is a remarkable statement because we tend to put the cart before the horse. What I mean is that we look for answers before we even created good questions. One important part of learning is knowing how to formulate good questions. Schall add, "Faith does depend on reason in this sense, that reason need not exclude a priori those answers of revelation that curiously seem to be aware of the abiding questions, when accurately formulated." For example, reading Plato can help us to develop good questions about the essential things of life which revelation answers. Faith and reason needs each other.

Schall notes how so many people are worried about the crisis of their time. He shares with the reader the advice Eric Voegelin shared with his students: "Civilizations as such are never static because every man is a new element of revolution in the world. Just stop being static and do something.... Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time. He can do something else." Schall adds, "The first thing we can do, then, is to refuse to cooperate with the forces that have brought upon us a crisis of culture." These words are startling. You hear so many people despairing of the times, but everyone can do something. We do not have to participate in this crisis; we can do something else.

Schall believes that two of the most significant words in the English language is to "wonder" and to "wander." They even sound similar. As we wander we wonder. Aristotle says that wonder is the beginning of philosophy. Chesterton said, "We wander because we have here no lasting city." Schall describes how Louis L' Amour wondered as he wandered. He has written an excellent book, Education of a Wandering Man. It is a book I have read and which I need to read again. Schall notes, "Perhaps the only thing that will save us from the many ideologies found in academia and public life will be books--good books--that we find lying about unnoticed because, as was the situation in the Athenian democracy, virtually no one can distinguish a good book from a silly one." We  can educate ourselves simply by reading books or through meeting good men and women in our wanderings.. This is what Louis La'Mour did. In his book, La'Mour lists hundreds of boos he read during his journeys. L'Amour wrote: "I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and a guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself." It is in our power to acquire an education if we are willing to put forth the effort.