Friday, November 21, 2008


I've been reading Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen Carter, slowly--not because the book isn't interesting, but because I keep pausing to think about how everything he says relates to my own life and the lives of people I encounter, especially in this recent election season, and because of the baby and all those other distractions. I think I will try to plow through and read it this weekend. Anyway, I want to quote a couple of paragraphs here.

I suspect it will be possible to treat each other with love only if we are able to conceive doing so as a moral obligation that is absolute, something we owe others because of their personhood, bearing no relation to whether we like them or nor. My wife puts it this way: every encounter with another human being should inspire in us a powerful sense of awe. Why? Because that other human being, whatever his or her strengths, weaknesses, and simple complexities, is also a part of God's creation. We should be struck with awe at the fact that we are face to face with a part of God's work. It is one of those propositions that, once stated, seems like a truth we should have seen all along--but somehow it takes someone of uncommon wisdom to point it out.

To enter into the presence of another human being, then, is to enter the presence of God in a new and different way. We are admonished in the psalm to come into His presence with thanksgiving (Psalm 95:2), not with suspicion, self-seeking, or disrespect. The great theologians Karl Barth and Martin Buber both arrived at this point along their different paths: our obligation is to see God in everyone, not merely as possibility, but as reality. So whenever we mistreat others, we are abusing our relationship with God. And awe alone does not capture what we owe. We should encounter others with a sense of gratitude, for here is a fresh and different corner of God's creation--or, for the secular-minded, a new and different human being. We should be grateful to be traveling where we have not been before.

I'll leave that without comment, except wow that gives me a lot to work on.

I also recommend Stephen Carter's Culture of Disbelief to anyone who is interested in religion and public life. It was published in 1993 (I think) but is still relevant. I think most of my blog readers would find it provocative, even if you don't agree with everything in it. By the way, Carter is a professor at YLS, but I read and appreciated Culture of Disbelief long before we knew where we'd end up (and possibly before I even met Justin, I'm not sure).


BenMc said...

When I read that I immediately think of how I treated my students in the past week: we had a test. Tons came to me for questions, and I spent as much time with them as they needed, with this kind of reasoning in mind. But on the other hand, when I passed out the test, I have an honor code statement for them to sign (because we're crammed elbow to elbow in a room that's poorly designed) so they won't cheat -- I have to start from the presumption of cheating because I actually had a problem with that last year. Now I have a student taking that test in my office who was sick and I insisted on a doctor's note for missing the test.

So my question's this: it's easy to engage with them one-on-one. But as a group/class, I have to presume at least the tendency for wrongdoing, and protect against it with policies like honor codes and doctor's notes that quite frankly seem uncivil to me.

Does my conflict make any sense? I'm just trying to put a healthy skepticism for people's intentions together with Carter's quote, which I agree with as well.

Wise as serpents/innocent as doves?

Deanna said...

So, does this mean that I should ignore my impluse to strangle my children when they scream loudly in public libraries? Because that high-pitched eardrum-splitting scream is coming from God's little creation there.

I'm kidding, of course. I'll let Catherine strangle them.