The Critical Mindset

One of the most powerful aspects of Christianity is how it provides an ideal: the character of Jesus Christ.

This provides individuals and communities with several opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to more fully apprehend this idea.
  2. The opportunity to compare oneself to the same ideal.
  3. The opportunity to take steps toward this idea through spiritual disciplines and acts of virtue.
  4. The opportunity to help others along the path to the ideal.

The danger is the development of the critical mindset. We can easily turn the sharp instrument of logic necessary for comparing ourselves to our understanding of Christ’s virtue into an instrument for apprehending the flaws of others.

The perception of the sinfulness of other people is a powerful asset in that it can keep us safe from wolves in sheep’s clothing. On the other hand it can lead to a disdain and distrust for those we perceive to fall too short, whether Christians or not.

My biggest moral failure, aside from a general idolatrous malaise, is my tendency to see the weakest and most shameful in somebody and instantly file it away as a weakness. I can think of dozens of circumstances in life wherein a disagreement lead to somebody insulting me, which allowed me to exploit said weakness in a vindictive and very hurtful way.

Some of you may know exactly what I’m talking about either because I’ve done it to you, you’ve seen me do it, or you or somebody you know does this. It’s an ugly way to live. I typically use this particular skill as a sour grapes thing. I’ve joked before when my friends move away (they inevitably do because I live in a town that is hated by most of its residents who find themselves unable to leave due to insufficient income and expensive housing costs) that I’ll “think of everything I can’t stand about them and then I won’t miss them.” This strategy actually works. I’ve done it. I’ve also used it to justify the end of a friendship whenever somebody hurts somebody I care about. I’ll just tell my wife the list of horrible things I’ve perceived about this person and say, “Yeah, we’d be better off not having them in our lives.”

Jesus says this:

Mat 7:1-5 ESV  “Judge not, that you be not judged. (2)  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (3)  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (4)  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? (5)  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Jesus’ brother puts it this way:

Jas 4:8-12 ESV Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (9) Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. (10) Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (11) Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (12) There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The critical mindset has to be turned inward before one ever judges a brother. And even then, when Jesus spoke of judging, he equated it with taking “the speck out of your brother’s eye.” For Jesus, judging without self-criticism is wrong. But more importantly, judging, to be rightly done, must be for the purposes of helping a brother not hurting them or condemning them.

John Calvin on Good Teaching

In a remarkable little comment on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, John Calvin made these remarks:

Imitators of me…Paul had [in the previous chapter] there brought forward his own example in confirmation of his doctrine. Now, in order that the Corinthians may understand that this would be becoming in them, he exhorts them to imitate what he had done, even as he had imitated Christ.

Here there are two things to be observed—first, that he prescribes nothing to others that he had not first practised himself; and, secondly, that he directs himself and others to Christ as the only pattern of right acting. For while it is the part of a good teacher to enjoin nothing in words but what he is prepared to practise in action, he must not, at the same time, be so austere, as straightway to require from others everything that he does himself, as is the manner of the superstitious. For everything that they contract a liking for they impose also upon others, and would have their own example to be held absolutely as a rule. The world is also, of its own accord, inclined to a misdirected imitation, (κακοζηλίαν)1 and, after the manner of apes, strive to copy whatever they see done by persons of great influence. We see, however, how many evils have been introduced into the Church by this absurd desire of imitating all the actions of the saints, without exception. Let us, therefore, maintain so much the more carefully this doctrine of Paul—that we are to follow men, provided they take Christ as their grand model, (πρωτότυπον,) that the examples of the saints may not tend to lead us away from Christ, but rather to direct us to him.[1]

In sum:

  1. Good teachers prescribe nothing that they do not practice themslves.
  2. They direct others to the ideal, not just to their own practice.
  3. Good teachers must not require others to immediately become exactly like themselves for they might fall short of the ideal or be expecting unrealistic transformation.

[1] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 349–350.

My virtue ethics blog

I started a blog on virtue ethics as a way to reflect on something that might interest people who don’t care about random theological musings. Anyway, it was periodically really popular if it got a retweet by an “internet famous person”, but otherwise I could write several posts in a row and the only readers were my 8 email subscribers.

I’m most likely going to stop paying for it.

I’ll write about the same topic here.

Is Job by an “unreliable narrator”?

In church today we sang the song that repeats, “You give and take away.” And I suddently recalled that in the book of Job, right after Job says that the LORD gives and takes, the narrator says “Job did not…charge God with wrong.” Here is the passage:

Job 1:20-22 ESV Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. (21) And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (22) In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

And yet, when the LORD confronts Job toward the end of the book, the LORD says that Job did not sin, but he does accuse Job of charging him with wrong:

Job 40:1-2 ESV And the LORD said to Job: (2) “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Later in the story the LORD says that Job spoke rightly concerning him (Job 42:7).

The question, of course, is where? Where did Job do so? If the book of Job is in the genre of wisdom literature and it’s point is to, through story, make for philosophical discussion and to obliquely make a particular philosophical argument then it makes sense for the book to be like a riddle. Indeed, part of gaining wisdom is learning to understand the riddles of the wise (Proverbs 1:1-7). And the book of Job, it seems, fits into that category.

Anyway, I think that the book is trying to get the reader to decide between voices.

Evangelism and “The Neg”

When I worked at a coffee shop I observed a man in line make a rude comment and a woman who did not know him said, “There are ladies present.” He said, “Where?” She then spent the rest of her time in line explaining her lady-ness to him. Then she sat at his table. It blew my mind. I later learned from conversation with a co-worker to whom I explained this event that this is a flirting device known as “the neg.”

According to Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, there is a well known-mechanism for this guy’s success. Here’s his explanation of the research:

Walster (1965) investigated the influence of momentary self-esteem on receptivity to the romantic advances of a stranger. The researcher arranged for a group of female participants to interact with a male research assistant who flirted with them. The female participants were then given positive or negative personality test feedback. After their self-esteem was increased or decreased in that way, they were asked to rate their liking for the male research assistant.

The results of the study indicated that women who had their self-esteem temporarily lowered found the male research assistant significantly more attractive than the women with temporary high-self esteem. Walster (1965) theorized that this effect occurred for two reasons. First, individuals who feel “imperfect” themselves may demand less in a partner. Second, a person usually has an increased need for acceptance and affection when their self-esteem is low. Overall then, when an individual is made to feel “low”, they find potential romantic partners more attractive.

Research by Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (2003) explored the relationship between self-esteem and compliance with requests. Both male and female participants were asked to complete various measures of self-esteem, compliance, and coping behaviors. The results of their analysis supported the hypothesis that individuals with lower self-esteem are more compliant and agreeable to the requests of others. Thus, lower self-esteem appears to lead to greater compliance with requests (or demands) as well.

Anyway, this reminds me of the version of evangelism which involves asking people this series of questions:

  1. Do you think you’re a good person?
  2. Have you ever lied?
  3. What do you call a liar?
  4. Have you ever coveted?
  5. Have you ever murdered? The Bible says that whoever hates his brother has committed murder.
  6. So you’re a lying covetous murder?
  7. Are you a good person?
  8. If God judged you on the last day, what would you have to say for yourself?

This puts the person experiencing this onslaught into a similar state of lowered self-esteem and may make them more willing to listen to the offer of mercy made by God on the cross.

I’m not opposed to using rhetoric to help people believe the gospel. Paul used it. The question is whether or not the rhetoric has substance behind it and whether or not it can help people come to believe the gospel is true rather than merely comply with the requests of a person who made them feel bad. I’m neither for nor against using this technique to evangelize. I just noticed the similarity when I was thinking about sweet and sour sauce today.

Josephus: On why Moses is Superior to Greek Legislation

Below is Josephus’ comment on the superiority of Moses’s legislation to the Greek laws:

The reason why the constitution of this legislation was ever better directed to the utility of all than other legislations were, is this, that Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and he ordained other virtues to be parts of religion; I mean justice, and fortitude, and temperance, and a universal agreement of the members of the community with one another; (171) for all our actions and studies, and all our words [in Moses’s settlement] have a reference to piety towards God; for he hath left none of these in suspense, or undetermined; for there are two ways of coming at any sort of learning and a moral conduct of life; the one is by instruction in words, the other by practical exercises. (172) Now, other lawgivers have separated these two ways in their opinions, and choosing one of those ways of instruction, or that which best pleased every one of them, neglected the other. Thus did the Lacedemonians and the Cretans teach by practical exercises, but not by words: while the Athenians, and almost all the other Grecians, made laws about what was to be done, or left undone, but had no regard to the exercising them thereto in practice. [1]

This is a remarkable observation of human nature. We’re naturally religious and superstitious. And while the logical arguments for virtue seem to hold, they are hardly capable of overcoming our superstitious desire to base our lives on our feelings and to expect a logical result. So Moses, instead of teaching religion as a part of virtue, Moses taught virtue as a part of religion and taught a religion that demanded virtue. Josephus goes on to argue that with respect to the two types of instruction in virtue, the law of Moses is superior because, “But for our legislator, he very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together; for he neither left these practical exercises to go on without verbal instruction, nor did he permit the hearing of the law to proceed without the exercises for practice…”[1]

 

References

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).