Particularities of religious communities form character

James Davison Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, delivered the Bill and Roberta Bailey Family Lecture in Christian Ethics, sponsored by Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning.

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WACO—Communities grounded in the particularities of religion have the capacity to form moral character substantive enough to deal with life’s ethical challenges, cultural analyst James Davison Hunter told a Baylor University crowd.

Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, delivered the Bill and Roberta Bailey Family Lecture in Christian Ethics, sponsored by Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning.

Hunter spoke on “Good Kids: Thinking Anew about the Moral Formation of Children,” acknowledging that in many circles, discussions about character development seem awkward, he said.

“Precisely because we live in an increasingly pluralistic world, the question of character and its importance is simply no longer self-evident,” Hunter said.

 ‘Carry the weight’ of ethical challenges

Some see the concept as outdated, while others see it as politically charged, he observed. However, character signifies how people “carry the weight” of ethical challenges and the burden of sorrow in everyday life, Hunter asserted.

“What resources do we have to bear the moral burdens that permeate our personal and shared lives? Are those resources enough?” he asked.

If those resources are grounded only in secular psychology and its underlying emphasis on individualism, they ultimately will prove to be “too thin” to bear the weight of life’s moral challenges, he said.

In America’s colonial period, Calvinist religious doctrine—with its emphasis on virtues of obedience, honesty, industry and piety—provided the foundation for children’s moral instruction, he noted. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke likewise emphasized virtues such as piety, loyalty, industry and temperance, grounded in a belief in the Creator, he added.

“To the 17th century mind, there could be no morality without God,” Hunter said. “Virtues would not exist without reverence for God.”

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Paradigm shift

However, particularly within the last century, the educational approach to teaching morality took a decidedly different turn, he insisted.

“The entire social and moral ecology of (character) formation has been transformed,” he said. “The content of moral instruction has changed from the objective moral truths of divine Scripture and the laws of nature to the conventions of a democratic society and, today, to the subjective values of the individual person.”

The paradigm shifted from moral instruction centered on the home and the church to one dominated by the public school and popular culture, and one dominated by psychology, he observed.

Psychology gained dominance because it appears as neutral objective science and as inclusive of all people, in contrast to the particularity of religious and theological belief, he said. Therefore, it offers a “safe morality” that presumably presents less potential for conflict and avoids legal challenges, he added.

Problematic approach

However, such moral instruction is problematic on logical grounds, he asserted.

“In an effort to establish a neutral and inclusive moral paradigm, the moral universe is emptied of all particularities that make in binding on the conscience,” Hunter asserted. “It might be a safe morality, but it has little or no attraction. An inclusive morality tends to reduce morality to the thinnest of platitudes.”

Virtues lifted out of the framework of moral traditions lose their meaning and substance, he noted.

“The denial of particularity so pervasive in the dominant paradigm leaves us mute in response to the ‘why’ questions behind all moral agency,” Hunter said.

The prevalent paradigm also falls shore because it views children as individualized autonomous moral agents outside of community, with its belief, rituals and moral practices, he insisted.

No ‘generic values’

“The problem in a nutshell is that never before in history have there been generic values,” Hunter said. “Insofar as I know, there has never been a person or child in history who lived his life outside the particularities of a time, a place, a community, a social and political order, an ethos—outside the influence of exemplars of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. Such people don’t exist.

“Practically, the psychological strategy of character formation may be set up to affirm certain behaviors like altruism or empathy or kindness. By the same stroke, it may also be set up to oppose certain behaviors like the use of drugs, sexual promiscuity or stealing. But there is nothing intrinsic to the strategy itself that leads to those ends.”

Moral development according to the psychological paradigm can increase utility and capacity but does not provide the resources for character development substantial enough to help people face ethical challenges, he insisted. Rather, those resources are found in virtuous communities.

“Human beings are inextricably formed within the social environment of particular communities and the cultures that define them,” Hunter said.

Political rhetoric exalts diversity not just as a social reality, but also as an aspirational ideal, he asserted. However, because people fear diversity, they seek to “domesticate the troubling particularities” of groups in a pluralistic society, he noted.

‘Discover commonality through particularity’

Hunter offered a different vision.

“Instead of forcing commonality in our moral discourse at the expense of particularity, we would discover commonality through particularity,” he said.

Hunter emphasized the importance of finding common ground in a democratic society in light of—not in spite of—particular religious and philosophical contexts.

“Creating space for different moral communities to flourish in public and private life might very well be the conditions that are conducive to the growth of people of ethical seriousness and, very possibly, good character,” he said.

Moral character in children is developed not from sterile abstractions and vague generalities but from tangible moral examples, he asserted.

“It will be found in communities where prudence, wisdom, faith, courage, hope, justice and love are—however imperfectly—modeled by everyday exemplars and woven into the practices that define their everyday life. It is in such communities, and only in such communities, where good kids will be formed,” Hunter said. “At its best, the Christian community is such a community.”


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