Disappearance of Moral Knowledge Symposium 2 Summary
Summary of the presentations given at "Knowing What's True. Doing What's Good." February 3-4, 2020
See the Knowing What's True; Doing What's Good Symposium Program for a list of speakers and discussants, along with a PDF copy of each paper.
Knowing What’s True, Doing What’s Good: The Moral Knowledge Awakening
Until the early twentieth century, the prevailing view in Western culture… had been that a systematic body of moral knowledge (and in that sense a “science” of ethics) was possible, and necessary for managing human life successfully. But in the early twentieth century this attitude disappeared… This transition – the “great reversal” – and the institutional and cultural situation resulting from it, is the disappearance of moral knowledge.
During two invigorating days in February of 2020, approximately 20 friends, pastors, scholars, professors, and practitioners gathered at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, California to discuss two pertinent topics to contemporary life today: how do you know what is true and how do you do what is good? These two questions were derived from the ground-breaking work of Dallas Willard in The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.
To sum up the rich and challenging discourse that took place during those two days is an impossible task, but the necessity and importance of the goal is worth the effort. Now more than ever, Americans need to be asking these profound questions:
Dallas, of course, would answer those questions in the context of becoming an apprentice to Jesus, who looms large over history as someone who naturally, with great knowledge, and with great thoughtfulness, lived a life of truth, beauty, and goodness. It is my hope that this paper reveals and advances His great cause of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is currently reigning in the heavens.
Thematic Summary of the Symposium
Knowing What Is True
Dr. Scott Lisea, Campus Pastor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, opened the Symposium with an insightful metaphor. Recounting a story of getting lost while cycling near a cliff at night on a marine base, Dr. Lisea centered the participants on the necessity of finding a fixed point, or a wise guide, upon which we can navigate the difficult terrain of moral knowledge. Without a fixed point or a wise guide, even a moderate navigational error will result in potentially catastrophic events, or one could simply never get to the intended destination, no matter how much effort one applies to the pedals, or to becoming a truly good person.2 Without functioning lights, a map, a fixed point, or an informed person to point out the right way, Dr. Lisea and the teenager in his YoungLife group who accompanied him were in grave danger while their proximity to the nearby cliffs or other hazards was unclear. The wayward cycling duo came upon a lone marine who was, in Dr. Lisea’s words, “slightly inebriated” and they asked him for directions. Following those directions only put them farther off course, and more in danger.
The lessons learned from this modern day parable of the necessity of knowing what is true, and then taking the appropriate actions necessary to actually do the right thing are clear: In order to become a good person one must find a reliable source of goodness, or even more preferable; a wise guide, who can lead one in the knowledge and application of real, true, trustworthy moral knowledge. This harrowing story matches closely with the “parable of our times” from chapter one of The Divine Conspiracy about a pilot who was sure she was flying straight and true as she applied more power to her aircraft only to hit the side of a mountain.3 She was unaware she had been flying upside down. As Dallas said, there is plenty of “that” in the world. Dr. Lisea’s opening remarks and the entire symposium were both dedicated to intentionally building the kind of people who could navigate the world as it really is, with the necessary knowledge, will, and energy to navigate through life with a character imbued with goodness, truth, and beauty.
What is Truth?
Dr. Aaron Preston opened the first morning with a brief introduction of what the disappearance of moral knowledge means, and a brief history of how we came to view moral knowledge as a purely subjective endeavor. Dr. Preston, Dr. Taylor, and Dr. Poplin all noted that the only semi-universal exception to this view of the subjective nature of moral knowledge is the knowledge of the virtue of diversity, and the knowledge of the vice (although that term would rarely be used) of being “judgmental” or in any way declaring the actions or intentions of another to be “wrong” in any real sense of the term. Morality, over the past century or so, has come to be seen not as a domain connected to “truth”4 but instead preference or feeling. Dr. Taylor, in particular, presented some compelling arguments in this area in relation to the common core standards that have been adopted by many of our public schools. We will consider his thoughts in more depth later, but for now it is enough to share his conclusion; that the realm of morality is looked upon by the vast majority of those in academia as simply a matter of personal opinion or preference.5 Willard articulates our moral quandary in The Divine Conspiracy, “there is now no recognized moral knowledge upon which projects of fostering moral development could be based”.6
One can know, for example, the distance from Los Angeles to Chicago. One cannot know, according to common core standards, that cheating is wrong.7 The sole reason given to not consider the immorality of cheating to be in the realm of knowledge is that “others may disagree.”8 In order to restore morality to any semblance of a form of knowledge, we must now dive deeply into the idea of what is true.
Dr. Poplin’s recollection of Dallas Willard’s encounter with a particularly aggressive young philosophy student is helpful here. The student stood up and defiantly asked Dallas, “So what’s truth anyway?”. Dallas was gravely ill and feeling quite weak, but nevertheless stood and answered, “What is true, is what’s real. And reality is what hits you when you’re wrong.”9 Dr. Preston explained that this view of truth is described in philosophical circles as the “correspondence view of truth”, which essentially means that something is true if it corresponds with reality. This is the view that was held and taught by Dr. Willard and by many on the panel at the MKS. The correspondence view of truth is a component of a system of recognizing knowledge as “justified true belief”. In other words, someone can rightly believe something is true if he has good or “justified” reasons for such a belief, and that belief corresponds with reality.10
Truth and Ontology
Dallas Willard was a phenomenologist whose academic writings focused on the work of Edmund Husserl. His obituary in a British publication summarizes his philosophical work thoughtfully,
Always a realist, Willard was particularly drawn to the phenomenology of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. He devoted 15 years to a study of Husserl’s early thought, resulting in Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge (1984), and went on to translate Husserl’s works in Early Writings in the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics (1993) and Philosophy of Arithmetic (2003).
Willard’s philosophical work in phenomenology and ontology is highly academic and philosophical in nature. For the purposes of this paper, perhaps it is enough to summarize the disciplines of phenomenology and ontology and Dallas’s interest in these inter-related disciplines by simply stating that in both his academic and popular writings, Dallas considered the question, “what is real” to be one of the most important and unavoidable questions one could ask,11 Everyone has an answer to this question, and everyone lives in relation to the answer they provide. This is true whether or not a person chooses to consciously consider the question, “what is really real”, or not. In order to make any further headway into a theology or philosophy of moral knowledge we must first ask two questions:
Much of Dallas’s work in The Divine Conspiracy (TDC) - particularly the first and last chapters - and The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (TDMK) explores and indeed answers both these questions in the affirmative: There is a “real world” in which we all live and move and have our being, and we can come to know enough about this real world in order to appropriately live, make moral choices, come to know our creator, and live lives of purpose and meaning.
Willard’s influence in the lives and work of the panelists was evident throughout the symposium. In particular, we shared a common vision that Dallas embodied in his personal life, and advanced in his popular writings: we all lived, and moved, and had our being inside the Kingdom of God, as apprentices of Jesus; and we all believed that the Kingdom of God is the most “real” thing a person can know. The panelists were united around a commitment we learned from and shared with Dallas: that while there are many expressions of “the good”, and there is beauty found in many religions and philosophies; life in the Kingdom of God, trusting and following Jesus as we grow in friendship with Him, is the only truly “real” life.
Truth and Telos
What is a human being made for? In order to begin to earnestly and intelligently seek what is true, good, or beautiful, Dallas claimed that we must first answer this vital question: what are humans made for?13 This aim, goal, purpose, or in the Greek, telos, has been debated from Aristotle, to Hume, to modern philosophers, scientists, and skeptics such as Dennett and Dawkins. If there is no ultimate purpose or goal toward which we all individually and collectively aim, then it logically follows that each person can determine his or her own “truth”.
If a person, for example, feels that his life is made for radical sexual autonomy – if he believes that the ultimate meaning in life resides in maximizing his own sexual pleasure - then it is “true” for him that all sexual behaviors that bring pleasure may in fact be good. If however, a person believes that honoring God by living in the way of Jesus is the highest good, he will likely come to believe that we thrive by observing the Christian sexual ethic – that sexuality should be experienced in the ways described as good in scripture and in relationship to life with Jesus. Teleology plays a vital role in determining truth and goodness, which are both inherent components of moral knowledge.
Dr. Jeff Schloss addressed the issue of telos by briefly immersing us into the world of evolutionary biology, which he contends is undergoing a radical shift away from the belief that evolution is an aimless process. For many years, according to Dr. Schloss, evolution was described as a “drunk stumbling along,”14 it had no purpose nor direction. Instead, he contends that several prominent secular evolutionary biologists are beginning to be persuaded by the evidence inside their specific disciplines to the belief that perhaps human beings are evolving with an end in mind.15 Dr. Schloss sees great hope in the fact that evolutionary biology is starting to consider arguments for humans to have a real purpose, or telos, especially considering that evolution itself has long been perceived as one of the keys to dismantling the idea of a universal purpose for human beings.
Dr. Schloss argues convincingly that biologists have long-used terms like “human thriving” that have an inherent telos built into them – one can only work for human thriving if there is an end goal for humans in mind. The scientific study of medicine is just one example of a built in “telos” in a given discipline. When doctors keep their patients alive they are not just doing their job, they believe that they are accomplishing a known “good”; they believe that human beings were not created to senselessly die, which is a solid first step of building a teleology for human life. In fact, modern medicine and the Hippocratic oath are both deeply connected to a telos, otherwise, the phrase “do no harm” is nonsensical.
Dr. Preston, Dr. Schloss, and Dr. Taylor all affirmed that the idea that we were made for a purpose can be traced all the way back to the Aristotelian principle of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia refers to living as one is intended or purposed to live and it is a concept deeply rooted in Aristotle’s idea of happiness. Aristotle considered a happy life to be better than a miserable life, which again involves some form of evaluative or teleological consideration; how is something “better” unless there is a known end goal or purpose to fulfill. Words like “progress” also have a hidden teleology; a person can only make progress if they are working toward something, otherwise, they may be regressing, or simply wandering.
The advent of scientism (see below), several complex shifts in academic philosophical pursuits - including the rise in popularity of postmodern thought - all contributed to a shift away from the pursuit of a uniting teleology through academic and philosophical methods.16 Dr. Poplin would have much more to say on this matter on day two, during her critique of critical theory, but for now it is enough to say that the academic removal of a known and explicitly stated telos or purpose for all human beings was an essential step in the dismissal of morality as something to be known.
Science, Morality, and Knowledge
Dr. Schloss highlighted three approaches the scientific community tends to take toward science, morality, and knowledge:
We will now examine each of these options, and then consider a fourth option.
Science Is the Only Real Knowledge
The topic of science and knowledge arose frequently throughout the symposium. Dr. Schloss articulately and insightfully guided those in attendance through some of his work in evolutionary biology, and along the way he addressed the concept of “scientism”, which has almost subconsciously become a way of thinking for many Americans. Dr. Schloss defined scientism as the idea that science is the only legitimate form of knowledge.
This concept is easily tested: simply go to any social media account and make any moral claim that is out of fashion with the majority of its followers. A good example might be posting that marriage is exclusively a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman on a college student’s Twitter account. Within minutes, the critiques would be brutal and overwhelming, and they would all essentially be saying the same thing: 1) Who are you to judge? (which we will address later), and 2) How do you know what marriage is? This would eventually devolve into someone asking the person who posted to “prove it”, and then the claim that there are no good grounds upon which a person should make the claim that marriage is one thing and not another kind of thing because that claim can’t be scientifically proven.18 All of this, because we can know scientific facts. We cannot, in popular culture or in everyday life in social media, know moral facts. Moral facts, as Dr. Taylor pointed out, may in fact be considered an oxymoron by many school administrators.19
This way of knowing is a subtle form of scientism; the belief that science is the only true form of knowledge, and thus the only truly appropriate platform from which moral critiques are acceptable.20 Michael Polanyi’s work on science and knowledge has been helpful for many, including Dr. Schloss. In his Science, Faith, and Society, Polanyi argues that even the purest, “hard” science – like measurements taken in test tubes – actually depends upon foreknowledge which is not necessarily scientific,
If science is the understanding of interesting shapes in nature, how does this understanding come about? How can we tell what things not yet understood are capable of being understood? The answer I gave here to this question was that we must have a foreknowledge sufficient to guide our conjecture with reasonable probability in choosing a good problem and in choosing hunches that might solve the problem.21
The scientific results of an experiment may be world-changing, but one cannot get to the point of conducting the experiment without first using non-scientific means to get there. The process by which the experiment - out of many potential experiments that are not funded nor explored - is funded, staffed, and carried out is all largely outside of the realm of the strictest scientific definitions of knowledge, and is therefore non-scientific in its nature. In this sense, the discoveries of science rest on the kinds of knowledge which many in the scientific community are now claiming are not actually forms of knowledge whatsoever. This seems to be problematic at best for those who contend that science is the only form of real knowledge. Dr. Schloss thus concluded that scientism is not the way forward regarding science, morality, and knowledge.
Science Has Rendered Morality Obsolete
Another popular approach to this issue contends that science has made all of the traditional ideas regarding morality obsolete. One prominent scientist went so far as to say that the only thing left to do was for science to “wrestle morality away from philosophers.”22 Some scientists and proponents of scientism would argue that the millennia-long quest to find deeper meaning in life is simply a dead end street, and that we all march to the beat of the drumkit that is our DNA. Dr. Schloss found this view to be deeply lacking, and that it didn’t absolve us from making the hard moral choices entailed in everyday life, nor did it advance the discussion around science and moral knowledge in a meaningful way. Dr. Schloss instead offered his own view, which we will explore shortly.
Science and Morality Do Not Overlap
Science and morality, according to option three, have little or nothing to do with each other. Dr. Schloss quoted Galileo, who famously said, “Religion tells us how to get to heaven, science tells us how the heavens go”. In this view, there very well may be some morality “out there”, but it is not the domain of science, and so people should, therefore, stop invoking science in their quest to buttress their own particular view of right or wrong. Dr. Schloss also found this approach to be unsatisfying and ultimately unhelpful in our quest regarding moral knowledge.
A Fourth Option: Science Reveals a Cosmos Made for Community
The first chapter of Genesis reveals that we have a “cosmos not a chaos,”23 we have a world that was ordered and created by benevolent and intelligent God. Furthermore, this created world was made with telos, or purpose. God could have created the Earth, declared it “good” and then left it empty. But, as Dr. Schloss argues, he instead chose to fill the Earth with his image-bearers and countless other forms of life. The Earth is creation, and a creation always bears at least some of the attributes of the creator.
In this understanding, studying the creation can at least partially reveal to us some of the character of the creator, which can help to inform our ethics, our morality, and our religion. Far from being hostile or irrelevant, Dr. Schloss sees science and faith to be mutually-instructive forms of knowledge that can collaborate in dialogue in order to reveal what is true, good, and beautiful.
Dr. Schloss presented several poignant examples in the way science and morality can inform each other. One study, conducted by secular scientists, sought to find the optimal number of sexual partners per person per lifetime in order to lead to human thriving (another telos word, from a secular source!). The results of that study affirms the traditional Christian account of sexuality found in the Bible: Humans thrive best when they have a total of one sexual partner for their lifetime.24 Dr. Poplin also quoted several studies in her field that showed that regular worship attendance was the single most significant indicator of human thriving. She shared that many in her field assumed that this result was because people make friends at Church, although Dr. Poplin wisely pointed out that there are many places in which people are known. There is something distinctive about coming together for the purpose of seeking transcendence that seems to have an extraordinarily positive effect on human thriving.25 Dr. Schloss even quoted Daniel Dennett, who is commonly known as one of the self-appointed “four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse” who remarked that the primary reason humans have achieved such a favored status compared to all the other species on Earth is because we have the ability to “transcend our genetic impulses”. He continued to say we can do this because we develop “creeds”, and that our communities thrive because we are the only species that can place a “transcendent” good over our own desires.26 Other studies cited on stage revealed that human thriving and life-long monogamy are intrinsically-linked.
In all of these examples, as long as there is an agreed upon telos revealed upfront (human thriving), science, morality, and religion (although there is much work still be done on the kinds of religion that lead to thriving) are not mutually exclusive but are instead in many ways interdependent. Dr. Schloss completed this idea by quoting secular scientists who noted that it was very likely that it was the advent of religion that led to the kind of inter-community cooperation that led to the kind of human thriving that placed us atop the food chain. In other words: Without religion, we would very likely not have transcended our genetic impulses, and if we simply followed our base genetic impulses, we likely would not have been able to cooperate as individuals,27 and without cooperating as individuals, we wouldn’t have been able to form stable societies, and without stable societies, we would likely have not developed robust scientific enterprises. The irony is that now many of those scientific enterprises are now often working to undermine the religion and the morality that led to their existence.
Moral Knowledge and Education
Dallas Willard served in the Philosophy Department at USC for two decades. In that time, he had a first-row seat from which he observed the dismantling of moral knowledge as a recognized body of work, even though it used to be approached by many as a science. Moral knowledge used to be seen as indispensable, and the instilling of an agreed upon set of moral virtues into every student was one of the primary aims of education. Since the time of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates - even Jesus - education was the teaching of a values-system between a student and a trusted mentor towards the character formation of the student. In Jewish thought such a values system was delivered through Judaism and was referred to as a “yoke” of teachings that would both fit lightly around the students’ shoulders, and hopefully lead to thriving in their life’s work and mission.28 This is no longer the case in the U.S. in academia in 2020.
Both TDC and TDMK brilliantly articulate the dire situation we are in regarding moral knowledge in academia. For many who study Willard, the following passage from Chapter 1 of The Divine Conspiracy is particularly haunting,
There is now not a single moral conclusion about behavior or character traits that a teacher could base a student’s grade on – not even those most dear to educators, concerning fairness and diversity. If you lowered a student’s grade just for saying on a test that discrimination is morally acceptable, for example, the student could contest that grade to the administration. And if that position on the moral acceptability of discrimination were the only point at issue, the student would win. The teacher would be reminded that we are not here to impose our views on students, “however misguided the student might be.”29
Stanley Fish has perhaps had the greatest impact on modern education in America of any modern educator. In a 2004 interview published in the New York Times, Dr. Fish gave articulate voice to the idea that modern education should not be connected to instilling a body of values nor character formation,
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education a year ago, Dean Fish reminded his fellow university teachers that when it comes to having an effect on students, ”you might just make them into good researchers.‘You can’t make them into good people,” he said, ”and you shouldn’t try.”
In her first address to the symposium, Dr. Poplin suggested that Dr. Fish had perhaps softened in some of his critiques of moral education, and even suggested that Christianity may be necessary to society in order to maintain a sense of moral order. Dr. Poplin speaks with great hope that the modern failure of the University will yield way to something greater, perhaps even with a Jesus-shaped curriculum at its center.30
Dr. Taylor brilliantly addressed the current state of K-12 education in the U.S. as he delved into the moral education (or lack thereof) inherent in the “common core” standards in most public (and some private) schools in California. Dr. Taylor read directly from the standards that students should divide truth or knowledge claims into three categories, which will be listed and discussed below. The definitions all come from the common core standards, as quoted in Dr. Taylor’s paper, and referred to in his address at the MKS.
Dr. Taylor argued that in this view, practically all claims regarding moral knowledge would be removed from the “fact” category and be placed simply with “opinions” or “reasoned judgments”, which, according to the standards, are both unknowable. As mentioned above, the common core standards place the phrase “cheating is wrong” in the “opinion” category merely because, “some students may disagree.”31 This, argues Dr. Taylor, is a prime example of the rampant confusion and lack of awareness regarding moral knowledge in the modern educational system.
Dr. Taylor, Dr. Poplin, and Chazz Anderson all argued that there is a better way regarding K-12 education, and that better way involves character formation and the teaching of moral knowledge as a form of knowledge, not mere opinion. Dr. Taylor, for example, argued convincingly that some opinions are purely subjective and should be treated as such (which flavor of ice cream is the best, for example), while other opinions actually reflect truth or knowledge on an objective basis. Say, for example, a person says that after researching all the evidence, he believes that there is extra-terrestrial life, while another person says they believe otherwise. In reality, only one of those statements, though they are both either opinions or reasoned judgments, reflects truth. There either is life elsewhere in the universe, or there isn’t. Either way, both of those students gave an opinion on a subject about which there is actually an objective truth or reality that can prove them wrong or right at a moment’s notice. In this way, we can see that not all opinions are “knowledge” or “truth” claims in the broader meaning of the words knowledge or truth, and yet we also see that some opinions do actually reveal what is true, real, or knowable, and that treating all claims of morality as mere opinion may in fact be a grave mistake. There are many moral facts that could be contended to be near-universal in their truthfulness – anyone who argues that abducting a small child who belongs to another parent is actually permissible would have to be deemed a moral monster. And yet the common core standards of the state of California, and most secular universities would argue that such a truth-claim is actually mere opinion, and therefore, unknowable.
Moral Knowledge, Education, and Athletics
Chazz Anderson is a gifted Bible scholar, Athletic Chaplain, Pastor, football coach, and teacher who is completing Doctorate-level work at Master’s Seminary. Mr. Anderson’s presentation at the MKS focused on the role of athletics in character development, discipleship, and passing on moral knowledge.
Mr. Anderson began with the idea that athletics is often overlooked when it comes to education and moral knowledge.32 Athletics, he noted, is the “front porch” of any given school. Guests never pile into stands on a Friday night in order to view a fantastic mathematics lesson, nor do students transfer from one school to another to study under the best science teacher in town. But the community will flock to a Friday night football game, and students routinely transfer schools in order to get a better shot at fulfilling their athletic ambitions. In this way, Anderson argued, athletics is a highly visible, influential, and often overlooked component of any school’s curriculum.
Athletics also provides a stellar opportunity for character formation. A student may only be in a given class with a given teacher for forty minutes to an hour, several days per week. The same student will be at practice for several hours with the same coaches every afternoon. This, Anderson contends, is a stellar opportunity for students to be practically trained in what is good, true, and beautiful. It is Mr. Anderson’s job at Oaks Christian School to come alongside the coaches and disciple them so that they can in turn disciple their athletes, and he believes that the connection between athletics and moral knowledge is under-studied and under-developed.
Mr. Anderson’s method of passing on moral knowledge comes directly from Oaks Christian School’s “portrait of a graduate” (POG), which hangs in every classroom and adorns every office wall. The POG lets every faculty member and coach know what they are aiming for in their given leadership role with students: Students who value and embody leadership and character, well-being and community, and knowledge and wisdom. Anderson argued that such values are essential to the raising of good young men and women, and he enumerated several important ways in which coaches can encourage their athletes toward those purposes. Anderson was also clear that the ultimate goal of any Christian coach or learning institution is to produce students who closely follow Jesus, and that those who are authentically following Jesus are well on their way to finding dependable moral knowledge.
Moral Knowledge and Diversity
Diversity is perhaps the most relevant, necessary, and controversial aspect of moral knowledge. Early on in the symposium, Dr. Preston contended that the lack of moral knowledge has eventually given way to a way of knowing that focused on power;33 who has power, how do they use it, and how do those without power get it? Dr. Preston and Dr. Poplin both shared deep concerns regarding critical theory, critical race theory, intersectionality, and their role in education and the culture at large, particularly in their relation to the advent of political correctness. Dr. Kenneth Waters from Azusa Pacific University, one of our distinguished discussants, spoke eloquently during our discussion times about the need to critique critical theory while also taking issues of racial and social justice seriously. His concerns were deeply appreciated by many on the panel, and they set the stage well for Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, an author, executive coach, speaker, and thought leader to lead those gathered in a constructive conversation on what could actually be done to move toward greater justice from a Christian perspective.
Mrs. Robinson’s paper begins with the stirring statement, “’I don’t see color’. I cringe every time I hear those words. While many Americans have been raised to be “colorblind”, Mrs. Robinson sees that goal as actually unbiblical. Mrs. Robinson began her presentation in the gospel of John; “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”34 The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all distinct persons. They don’t pretend to be the other in order to have value. Their value is intrinsic, and their personalities inside the Godhead are decidedly different. It is exactly this unity in diversity that Mrs. Robinson believes should be our blueprint for engaging in diversity as the Church. “The Trinity”, she contends, “has no hierarchy in it. It doesn’t need it.”35 God himself models for us what we should emulate on Earth; unity in diversity.
There is no “colorblindness” in the Kingdom of God. The Father knows the Son and the Holy Spirit intimately and he does not demand that they change their personalities nor their essential qualities in order to be loved or valued. Mrs. Robinson contends that Paul continues the argument in his extended metaphor of the body and the Church; there are many parts, with many different functions, but each one is essential, unique, and valuable.36 If we are going to engage in diversity well, and if diversity is going to become part of the body of moral knowledge the Church hands on, then we need to make sure that we are not merely handing down whiteness or another cultural impression of Christianity instead of the true biblical message of diversity. Diversity is not an “extra”; indeed, in 2020 diversity may indeed be the key to engaging Jesus or rejecting Him. Engaging issues of diversity well is an essential component of developing a curriculum of moral knowledge. Mrs. Robinson enumerated 5 specific ways we can begin to grow in true biblical diversity:
Dr. Poplin continued the discussion of diversity during her second presentation, which focused on critical theory and intersectionality. Dr. Poplin began by tracing the history of critical theory, which began as a Marxist movement but quickly took on a life of its own. Critical theory contends that there are essentially two groups of people, the oppressed and the oppressor, and that it is society’s job to make sure that the oppressed take power back from the oppressors. This idea was original anchored in Marx’s work on the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but critical theorists utilized his ideas and applied them to people of diverse ethnic, economic and many other categorical backgrounds. The idea has now been extended to those who contend they are without power due to their sexuality or status as a non-cisgender person. Critical theory was originally espoused and popularized, according to Dr. Poplin, by thinkers such as Marcuse and Habermas. Several of our panelists lamented that critical theory is the dominant narrative on our college campuses today, and they see this theory in direct opposition to regaining a robust body of moral knowledge in higher education.
Intersectionality is closely aligned with critical theory, and it contends that a person is more oppressed based on the number of differences she has from the dominant culture. If a person is black, so the theory goes, they are oppressed. If the person is black, gay, and genderfluid, intersectionality would argue that they have been more oppressed and therefore potentially need society to intervene more generously in order to give her the opportunities afforded a straight white male, or someone else from the dominant culture.
Dr. Poplin sees critical theory as counter to the advancement of moral knowledge because it teaches people to see themselves primarily as victims of one sort or another, who are owed recompense for their suffering by the larger society. Victimhood is thus rewarded, and instead of pressing deeper into greater virtues such as self-sacrificial giving, courage, or bravery, the young man raised a critical theorist will consistently look for ways that he has been overlooked, left out, “triggered”, or generally treated badly by the dominant culture.
The “me too” movement was used as an example to illustrate this point. Dr. Poplin was quite transparent that she was eligible to be part of this movement, and she also pointed out that “me too” should usually be completed with “I, also”. Every person, Poplin contends, has autonomy over his or her own sexuality and can choose how their sexuality is expressed to the world. While Dr. Poplin sympathized deeply with those who have been victimized, she also recognized the need for everyone to take responsibility for their own sexuality and use it in a way that is beneficial to the community.
Mrs. Robinson and Dr. Poplin provided an insightful examination of the state of diversity and moral knowledge in our culture. The former focused on the positive progressions the Church could make if it took its own biblical teaching regarding diversity more seriously, and the latter critiqued a current dominant secular theory that is often applied to issues of diversity. This kind of interdisciplinary, respectful, candid, honest dialogue should be affirmed and repeated if we are going to learn to have hard conversations about moral issues in our society.
Connections Across Disciplines and Concluding Comments
The second Moral Knowledge Symposium was graced with a palpable sense of collegiality and a shared vision and purpose. The presentations, discussions, and conversations around dinner tables were warm, insightful, and yet intellectually challenging. There are too many inter-disciplinary connections to be documented here, but in an effort to provide a flavor of the two days we spent together, we will first offer a concluding comment, then summarize some prescient interdisciplinary connections.
It is vital to note that as we work for an awakening in moral knowledge, we are not merely looking to regress to the “good old days”. Nostalgia can sometimes be associated with a cultural amnesia that remembers the way moral knowledge worked for the good of those at the center of the dominant culture, and ignored the plight of those on the margins. Dallas cared deeply about biblical justice, and biblical justice is rooted in the Way of Jesus. An awakening of moral knowledge must also be an awakening to our current justice issues, and we must be committed to both holding firm to our deepest Christian traditions, and listening with deep empathy as we seek kinship with image-bearers whose justice issues are not being addressed. The interdisciplinary collaboration that thrived during the symposium will be essential to advancing the cause of biblical justice as we work to develop morality as a body of knowledge.
The need for different academic disciplines to be in dialogue with each other regarding moral knowledge became apparent almost immediately. Dr. Schloss is an evolutionary biologist while Dr. Poplin is a sociologist, and yet they both presented research-based conclusions related to moral knowledge and human thriving that informed the work of the other. In particular, Dr. Schloss’s work on altruism, human cooperation, and the role of religion and “creeds” in our evolutionary development and Dr. Poplin’s work on the role of religion in human thriving makes it appear as though they are having the same conversation in two very different fields, and reaching very similar conclusions.
The conversation on diversity yielded several important ideas that need to be in dialogue. In advocating for upholding the social norms that formed most Western nations, Poplin agrees with French Philosopher, Pierre Manent, who suggests that assimilation is impossible when the receiving nation has forgotten the foundations of its laws and history, which as he points out are taken from Judeo-Christianity. Thus, newcomers do not need to be Christian, but they must obey the receiving nation’s laws and social norms.37 Mrs. Robinson emphasized the value of different cultures inside the kingdom of God and articulated the need for the body of Christ to see diversity as one of its strengths. It would be intriguing to see further dialogue between scholars who are persons of color and those, like Dr. Poplin, who advocate for assimilation into Judeo-Christian values and culture.
The need for a unifying narrative and a unifying telos is evident across all of the disciplines represented at the symposium. Dr. Poplin and Dr. Schloss each gave voice to several secular scholars in their respective fields who (surprisingly) are at least beginning to see the destructive effects of the rejection of the Judeo-Christian metanarrative in the West. While this metaphor used to be applied to unguided evolution, perhaps it is modern academia that is more like a “stumbling drunk” (or a pair of lost cyclists trying to find their way through the dark on a marine base) in its aims - or confessed non-aims - to develop moral human beings who can be entrusted with life’s most difficult moral decisions. Perhaps the Western world is waking up to the frightening reality that we lack any real method in which we are training young people to become wise moral decision-makers. Dallas Willard would argue that the answer to our moral knowledge dilemma rests in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of a young oppressed man of Middle-Eastern descent, who two-thousand years ago came and showed us the Way to abundant life, and whose life continues to become even more relevant today.
2. For the purposes of this paper, a “good” or “moral” person will be used interchangeably. While there are differences between the two terms, they were used as such in the Symposium and will be used similarly in this discourse.
9. Poplin, Mary. “The Necessary Struggle to Regain the True, the Good and the Beautiful – Part 1.” Presentation at the Moral Knowledge Symposium, Westlake Village, CA, February 3-4, 2020.
10. When editing this paragraph, Dr. Preston and Dr. Taylor both helpfully pointed out that there are many who have justified reasons for beliefs that are actually – in the end - not True and that actually don’t correspond with reality. Such a person does not, in fact, have knowledge, even if their sound reasoning logically leads them to a conclusion that is not, in fact, true.
11. The question of what is real is just one aspect of the study of ontology. The symposium is interested in applying academic understanding at a popular level, so perhaps Webster’s dictionary should be consulted to give us a brief definition of “ontology” at a popular level. Webster’s dictionary defines ontology as, 1) a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Ontology deals with abstract entities. 2) a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.
14. Schloss, Jeff. “Science and Moral Truth: What Our Unique Biology Can and Can’t Provide.” Presentation at the Moral Knowledge Symposium, Westlake Village, CA, February 3-4, 2020. (Not available online)
18. Although even the person making the claim that marriage cannot be claimed to be one thing and not another often doesn’t really believe that argument. If you ask them, “is it acceptable for a person to marry himself because he would like the tax breaks and he is his own best friend” you would likely receive a response that insinuates that such a claim is foolish. Even the person who questions the possibility of truly knowing anything about morality knows enough to know that marriage has to have another party involved in order to be marriage. In other words, a person who is skeptical of any truth claims outside of scientific truth claims has some form of moral knowledge to which he or she appeals in order to say that something (like marrying one’s-self) is nonsensical.
20. The true irony here is that Dr. Schloss pointed out that Science cannot, by itself, make any moral claims. It is simply a tool through which we come to know facts about the physical world, through testable and verifiable theories. Science, unless a telos is applied to it, cannot tell us how to morally weigh between two known goods, nor can it tell us what is good or evil, nor even if those categories exist.
27. There is a real debate here as to whether or not our ability to form communities through altruistic acts is part of our genetic coding or from some other source. Dr. Schloss specializes on the study of altruism, and his work was evident in his expertise in this still-unsettled arena. The fact that Dr. Schloss quoted secular scholars who more than hinted at there being more to the explanation than simple genetic coding is a helpful indication that perhaps science and religion could perhaps one day come together more closely to provide answers to intriguing questions such as the origins of altruism.
30. Dr. Poplin’s comments regarding the failure of the modern University referenced Hillsdale in particular, and several other Universities who focus on teaching a body of moral knowledge rooted in historic Christianity.
35. Robinson, Natasha Sistrunk. “Diversity and The Common Good: The Urgent Need to Train the Minds of Children and Renew the Minds of Adults.”
Polanyi, Michael. Science, Faith, and Society. London. Oxford University Press, 1946.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco: Harper, 1998.
Willard, Dallas, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. Edited and completed by Steven L. Porter, Aaron Preston, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof. New York, Routledge, 2018.
Select The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge from our book list for a description of the book in Dallas’s own words, the story of how the book was completed, links read abstracts of each chapter, and video of Dallas teaching on this topic in the Spring of 2010.
Read the Preface of The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge
“The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Exploring Dallas Willard’s Parting Diagnosis of our Cultural Moment,” by Steve Porter — Talbot Magazine, June 4, 2019
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