At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” entries. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #4
In the fall of of 2013 I tried to help people consider how they make decisions about what is right. With the companion piece, I pointed out how broad the Bible is compared to the cultural assumptions that masquerade as normal.
While I was waiting for baby Hannah to arrive the other day I read a book. (The labor took much longer than I expected! ) It was such a good book that I can’t resist applying a few of its more applicable thoughts to what we are going through right now.
We live in a weird culture and it has influenced us so much that our Christianity is weird. But our church is the brave antidote to that, unless we make it weird.
Jonathan Haidt, a UPenn alum, wrote a well-received book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. It is not a Christian book, even though he gets a lot more sympathetic to Christians by the time he is finished with his huge study on why people react the ways they do when it comes to politics.
He realized that his blue-state sensibilities were actually rather WEIRD. By that he means: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. As far as assessing how humans work, in general, WEIRD people are statistical outliers in the world today and certainly are out of the mainstream of history. USonians are even WEIRDer than Europeans. Haidt says that “several peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of self than do East Asians. For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the word ‘I am…,’ Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).“
If you see a world full of individuals, like WEIRD people do, then you’ll want a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. Concerns about harm and fairness will be emphasized. If you live in a non-WEIRD society, as most people do and most have, then you will see a world full of relationships, contexts, groups and institutions. So you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals, you’ll place the needs of the groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals. Morality based on harm and fairness won’t be enough. You’ll have additional concerns and a whole set of virtues to go with them.
People often wonder when our church is going to get on the bandwagon and become as WEIRD as (the obviously exceptional) westernized culture around us. We resist being WEIRD and resist conforming to their outlier morality. For one thing, we don’t think the rest of the world and the previous history of humankind is stupid. But the main reason we don’t conform is that God has revealed a much larger playing field on which truth and morality is worked out. You can see that in our far-reaching and diverse scriptures.
Haidt apparently teaches undergrads, because he can boil down his ideas into bumper stickers (which I admire). He follows his own journey out of being WEIRD as he discovers that there are six foundations for morality, not just the one that Americans are using right now to make all their new laws about protecting rights. I was not surprised to see that all six of his “foundations” are elements of the Bible’s teaching about how to live a righteous life [check them out!]. I love it when social science “discovers” the Bible! I think I will save the other five for next time. But since we just welcomed another child into our clan, I’ll leave you with the foundation that dominates our society right now, what Haidt calls the “care foundation.”
The care foundation for morality is all about protecting people from harm. It is what triggers that “aahh” when we see picture of babies and puppies, preferably together. And it is also the trigger that makes us angry when we see baby seals being clubbed or chickens crammed in a cage. It is also why we can be obsessed about everyone’s rights and why our leaders hasten to tell us they are protecting whole countries and the rights of humanity when they bomb them. All our ethics codes begin with the basic premise that we are supposed to “do no harm.” That’s essentially how we sum up how to act. If the married couples I know are any indication, we all apply this with vigor. They are often very concerned not to do anything wrong that will harm the other, thus protecting fairness but paralyzing intimacy. At the same time they are always doing harm because their rights are violated every day and they can’t help being mad about it.
The “care foundation” is also a main motivation for how we act as Jesus followers. We love how Jesus described God as being like a father filled with compassion for his child: “So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20). God is all about loving individuals; the worse off they are the more Jesus seems to love them.
The Bible teaches us to be like God in how we live: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Love, we are taught “always protects” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Individuals and their well-being count and they are supposed to matter to us, just as they are.
There is more to morality than harm and fairness, however. USonians boil it down to that and then start analyzing everything to see if it meets up to their rather tiny idea of what is good. But they are off to a good start, at least — as long as they don’t try to make the rest of us, and the rest of the world, conform to their small idea of what is right, based on their WEIRDness.