Thursday, November 01, 2012

A contribution to a debate about Empowerment and Theology

My friends and colleagues Becca Dean and Jo Dolby have been having some blog discussion about these topics here:

and here:

There were a lot of connections with some of the reading I've been doing so I thought I would put in my two penn'orth.

I’ve been thinking and reading about the end of Christian discipleship.  To clarify, when I say end, I don’t mean the finish of it, but rather the eventual aim of it, what is sometimes referred to as the telos.  I noticed that a lot of writers on Christian education were talking about different sorts of ethics and how at different times Christian discipleship had been shaped by different ethical styles.  Ethics is often divided into three styles: deontological or rules-based ethics, where behaviour is governed by a set of externally derived rules or laws; consequential ethics, where behaviour is governed by the outcome of a course of action, as in utilitarianism where the greatest good of the greatest number is sought; and virtue ethics where the character of the person is so imbued with virtues that in any given situation that person will behave in accordance with those virtues.  

In the Christian education context, the different styles have prevailed at different times, so at times Christians were taught that in order to be good they need to follow God’s rules, at other times they were taught that they needed to seek the good of others.  At the moment the underlying ethic seems to be moving towards virtue ethics and there seems to be some biblical warrant for the importance of shaping the character of a person so that they will then do what is right.  Educationalists such as Westerhoff and James K A Smith base their arguments on the originator of this approach, Aristotle, and it could be argued that the call to be transformed inwardly described in Romans 12:2 and Romans 5:1-5 is in line with it.

I think this is significant to the discussion Becca and Jo are having for two reasons.  The first is that it connects with the idea of absolute truth.  I think I agree that there is absolute truth; I’m just not sure that I (or anyone else) can be absolutely confident that I know what the meaning of that is.  I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog that Jesus says that he is the truth, and so I think my calling as a disciple is to know him rather than to seek for truth.  Absolute truth tends to fit more with a rules-based ethic and way of teaching; it suggests that if we could just know what the rule is, we could get it right, and we could then tell our children that rule and then they will be good.  It even tends towards a form of Gnosticism, which is not helpful (it’s actually heretical!) 

The second connection with Becca and Jo’s discussion is more methodological.  If the telos is to develop Christian virtues and character then we need to be equipping and empowering young people to develop those Christian virtues in themselves.  Aristotle develops his virtues based on Plato’s virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and prudence and suggests that these virtues and other minor virtues are developed in children by doing virtuous acts and thereby developing good habits leading in turn to human flourishing.  Wikipedia summarises it:  “people become virtuous by performing virtuous actions, which they might not have chosen themselves when young. They must develop proper habits during childhood and this usually requires help from teachers, parents, and law-makers.  A good community is normally required for the development of good people.”   This seems to me to connect with Jo’s scaffolding idea; young people need to be surrounded by a scaffold that supports them as they develop the inner habits of virtue.  These habits then become the ultimate empowering because young people are able to act in ways that make for the good life, for human flourishing not because of rules imposed on them, but because of their own internal virtue.

I’m still pondering the practical outworking of this, and my reading continues but I think it’s the beginnings of a paradigm shift for me in terms of my understanding of the task of discipleship which fits with the youth work value of empowerment.

p.s. In the interests of academic probity I should say that my thoughts and ideas at this stage are being shaped and refined by reading James K A Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Samuel Wells’ Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, John H. Westerhoff’s Will Our Children Have Faith, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, as well as Wikipedia.  I also own a copy of MacIntyre's After Virtue...but I haven't read it yet!

p.p.s I am aware of the irony of using a pre-christian philosopher in my thinking but arguably both Plato and Aristotle have always been influential  on Christian education.

No comments:

Post a Comment