Monthly Archives: November 2014

Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Enlightenment

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Last year, I was invited by Veritas Press to participate in the production of a video curriculum for its Omnibus program, geared toward middle and high school students that focused on the history of Western thought. It was a lot of fun, and the best part was that one of my favorite people in the world, my good friend Bruce Etter, was the host of the program. We had a lot of fun doing the interviews on Rousseau–and we also got together for some round table discussions with John Fea of Messiah College. He posted one of the videos on his blog a few months ago.

My students in History of Philosophy are studying Rousseau, and these videos are also for them to watch and review as they gear up for their final exam. Enjoy guys! Study hard! 🙂

*Correction from the first video: I mentioned that John Locke’s conception of justice was that it existed only in the presence of civil law. As the politicians say, I misspoke. I was thinking about Thomas Hobbes, while I was saying John Locke’s name. Sorry!

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Lecturing in Fort Worth on American Exceptionalism

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Spent the day today at the main campus of my institution, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth. As some of you know, while I am an elected faculty member at Southwestern Seminary, I teach full time at Southwestern’s campus in Houston: the J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies. As a result, I don’t get to the main campus of SWBTS in Fort Worth very much, but I always enjoy being on campus and seeing good friends the few times I am there during the academic year.

Recently, I was named Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. It’s going to be a lot of fun working with Evan Lenow, an ethicist and the director of the Land Center as well as Trey Dimsdale, a PhD student in ethics as well as a fellow Associate Director. Together, we plan to implement the mission of the Land Center, which is (in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) “to awaken, inform, energize, equip, and mobilize Christians to be the catalysts for the Biblically–based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation.”

What on earth can I bring to the table, especially since I am not an ethicist (is it that obvious?). I will attempt to bring historical perspective to issues related to American identity and Christian engagement with culture in the public square, as well as religious freedom and the historic Baptist role in articulating and defending it.

I had the pleasure of giving a lecture today at a lunch hosted by the Land Center in the beautiful Naylor Student Center dining room today. My lecture was entitled “American Exceptionalism and Cultural Engagement.” I drew a distinction between closed and open exceptionalism, and attempted to define a model for an open exceptionalist engagement with the culture that draws on the work of Justin Martyr (d. 165) and W. E. B. Du Bois (d. 1963).

In his First Apology, Justin wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate, pleading for justice for the persecuted community of Christians. He eloquently distinguished the Christian churches from the Roman state, while simultaneously situating the churches within the Roman state. Justin said that no one was more loyal to Rome than the Christians, but they would not render to Caesar those things which belonged to God alone.

Du Bois, in his Dusk of Dawn (1940), differentiated and retrieved the Christian ethic from Americanism, which, he wrote, leads ultimately to white supremacy. In doing so, Du Bois showed how nationalism and white supremacy were a betrayal of the Christian conception of justice articulated in the gospels and summed up in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you.

Justin and Du Bois were both members of persecuted minorities. Both disspelled rumours about Christians; both advocated for human dignity and justice; both called on the leaders of their societies to respect and protect their people. Justin is an example of how Christians can see themselves as both distinct from, and a part of, the nation. Du Bois is an example of how Christians can employ the prophetic voice to call the nation back to its stated principles. Both of these figures present us with a model for cultural engagement that is true to the best ethical and political traditions of American ideals on the one hand, and consistent with the teachings of Christ on the other.

This open exceptionalist model is unlike the closed exceptionalism which idealizes and idolizes the nation by asserting that America can do no wrong. America is made up of Americans, who are flawed human beings prone to selfishness and hubris. At the same time, Americans hold out those ideals of equality, justice, individual freedom, and human dignity based on the imago Dei–ideals on which the American republic was founded. America is not God’s chosen nation. America is not morally regenerate. But America is a nation that, historically, is never content with the status quo of human flourishing–Americans, as a uniquely self-examining people, continually look for ways to expand human flourishing, albeit imperfectly and by fits and starts.

Christian people have a special responsibility, as articulated in the New Testament, to demonstrate loyalty to the nation and to be a preserving agent of culture. They do this by 1) submitting to God, 2) submitting to civic leaders, 3) contending for truth and justice by their actions and their words, and 4) confronting injustice with boldness tempered by patience and love when it is manifested in the culture. In these actions, Christians are consistent with the highest ideals of the American republic and the sublime teachings entailed in the gospel of Christ.

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Evan Lenow’s funny token of appreciation for my coming to speak today at the Land Center Luncheon. Thanks, Evan–I guess.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Lesson for Americans”

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1896 monograph entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation which he produced as Rogers Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

To close his work, Du Bois presented a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” In this little section, Du Bois reminded his readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve Union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

Du Bois warned Americans that it was their habit to deny or dismiss the presence of real social ills in their country. He observed that Americans were loathe to admit that their nation had deep flaws and sins, and the result of this denial was that they continually delayed the honest addressing of those flaws to later generations. The failure of the founders to adequately and decisively solve the question of the slave trade, and by extension the institution of slavery, at the Constitutional Convention exacerbated the problem. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founding generation plunged into the tragedy of the Civil War because of the failure of 1787. The lesson for Americans of his own day was, therefore, to avoid the kind of failure the founders perpetrated at the birth of the nation. Don’t believe the lying words, “America is a pristine nation, pure and innocent of social ills.” Americans must identify injustices in its society and rather than put off those injustices for another day, they must deal with them when they ought to be dealt with, that is, in the present moment.

Here is an excerpt of Du Bois’ admonition to those who would accept the myth of America as an innocent nation, that they would cease believing in myths and take responsibility for pursuing justice in the here and now.

With the faith of the nation broken at the very outset, the system of slavery untouched, and twenty years’ respite given to the slave-trade to feed and foster it, there began, with 1787, that system of bargaining, truckling, and compromising with a moral, political, and economic monstrosity, which makes the history of our dealing with slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people. Each generation sought to shift its load upon the next, and the burden rolled on, until a generation came which was both too weak and too strong to bear it longer. One cannot, to be sure, demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism; but a certain hard common-sense in facing the complicated phenomena of political life must be expected in every progressive people. In some respects we as a nation seem to lack this; we have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us. Consequently we often congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it. Such an attitude is dangerous; we have and shall have, as other peoples have had, critical, momentous, and pressing questions to answer. The riddle of the Sphinx may be postponed, it may be evasively answered now; sometime it must be fully answered.

It behooves the United States, therefore, in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave-trade. The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, and social evil to grow. No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.