A Skeptic’s Hope

As both a cynic and a skeptic, I find hope a particularly challenging commodity to find, especially in recent months. As an atheist I don’t have faith to fall back on or to justify hope. But I do find hope, against my cynicism and despite my skepticism, not because history teaches me that we are inevitably moving toward justice, not because I have faith in a divine being who will ensure it despite human failings, but because the alternative is despair, and we deserve better. My work developing a social justice major, my writing about the problem of evil, and recent events in our country have me thinking about hope a lot lately—searching for hope, really. This essay is a reflection of my thoughts on how I came to choose to hope.

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A Call for Empathy and Honesty

Los Angeles, June 2020. Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

America faces an unprecedented combination of challenges—a pandemic, historic economic disparity, a racial reckoning, and the threat of global climate change. Moments of crisis like this test our most basic moral foundations; the four major crises we face now challenge us to embrace the two fundamental elements of morality: empathy and honesty. 

As we teach in the shadow of these crises, we must cultivate a capacious empathy, which would embrace everyone, especially those with whom we struggle to agree or even understand, and an ardent demand for honesty, first from ourselves and second of those whom we engage. If we are to overcome these crises—and the next should we endure the combination now facing us—we must rediscover these two core principles of all moral behavior and use them to forge a way forward.

Central to our ability to build relationships is our capacity to feel empathy for others. (This is a contested claim; I prefer a virtue ethic, so I lean toward this view, but here is one example of the debate: “Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”). We must recognize the basic humanity, at a bare minimum, of others, if we are to enter into the relationships that morality governs. Without empathy, other human beings are merely objects to be manipulated or avoided.

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Who and What Should I Believe?

We live at a moment in history when making decisions about who to believe is harder than ever. We have more access to information than at any time in history, but our care in consuming information has not caught up with our ability to create it. Public officials rationalize using “alternative facts” to make decision. Modern science falls prey to the whims of popular opinion or motivated reasoning, but conspiracy theories attract millions of Americans, including how they think about COVID-19. Studies show that students have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction on the internet and the rhetoric since the election has shown this study to be prescient. We are suffering what some call “truth decay.” Lines demarcating differing realms of knowledge are so blurred that everyone is free to “believe what you will.” 

We need to encourage critical thinking (rhetorically and in the classroom), but we need more. In navigating the information deluge, we need to think about what beliefs merit our faith and what ideas merit our trust. Attention to the ethics of belief is crucial to not merely surviving these tumultuous times but thriving. 

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Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference

Diversity is a fact of life. All societies are internally diverse, but some types of diversity provoke social anxiety. We are very comfortable with diversity in sports, fashion, cuisine, in fact such diversity is encouraged. But diversity that calls into question our assumptions and most cherished ideas about meaning in the world trigger deep-seated anxieties about the order of the cosmos. Challenges to our preconceived ideas of how the world is organized risk what Peter Berger called the “terror of anomy” (The Sacred Canopy, 26); they risk undermining our trust in meaning and order in the universe. Challenges to normative views on religions, politics, race, and gender, for example, create powerful anxiety. Such fears divide us. Talking about these differences requires courage and overcoming these fears requires we talk to people who are different.

To develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not). As a nation and as individuals we are in deep need of dialogue across the differences that divide us. Drawing upon David Tracy’s description of “conversation,” I offer suggestions for dialogues about and across the differences that divide us constructive.

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To “Know Thyself” You Must “Know Thine History”

Many people today are invoking history—sometimes erroneously, sometimes prophetically—in arguments about our future. Historic elections, historic unrest, calls to honor this history or rewrite that one. We are reminded daily that we are literally making history every day. Perhaps more than ever fostering our students’ understanding of themselves as a part of history is crucial to our efforts to prepare them to pursue a fulfilled life.

When I ask my students to write a religious autobiography, contextualizing their personal story in US religious history, they struggle to recognize a context beyond their immediate family because they have not been taught to think of themselves as embedded in history. If students do not learn to understand themselves as not only a product of history, but potential makers of history, we have neither prepared them to fully understand who they are nor to authentically understand or make for themselves a place in this world.

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