Friday, September 30, 2005

God and man at Dartmouth, Part Deux

The controversy over Student Assembly President Noah Riner's sermon/speech at the Dartmouth convocation is covered at Inside Higher Ed, and is also the subject of a William F. Buckley column, an article at the website of the invaluable FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education), and two blogposts by Todd Zywicky at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Unfortunately, all these articles, except for the IHE one, continue (as I noted in my first post on the subject with regard to Peter Robinson's post at NRO's The Corner) to focus on the less controversial part of Riner's speech -- the passage invoking Jesus and his sacrifice as an example of "character" -- while barely alluding to the much longer passage in which he spoke of Jesus as humanity's redeemer ("He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn't have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love") and as the solution to the problem of flawed character. To invoke Jesus as a role model is one thing; to invoke him as the pathway to salvation is quite another. As I noted, too, Riner was not merely speaking of his own personal perspective and experience; he consistently used the word "we." He was either proselytizing or assuming that he was speaking to an entirely Christian audience; either way, it's completely inappropriate at an event meant for the entire student body at a religiously diverse school.

I'm not saying that Riner should be officially penalized or disciplined for his talk. I do find it disturbing that, as his comments quoted by IHR suggest, he doesn't understand why his talk was objectionable. Said Riner, "My goals were to challenge and inspire students and specifically to make them think deeply about character. And for me, Jesus is a natural figure to bring up when talking about character." Fine, but he wasn't just talking about himself.

As one commenter at IHR pointed out:

Riner could have solved his problem with a very simple addition to his speech—acknowledging that Jesus was his personal icon, but that other students who come with different faiths, including agnostics and atheists, may have other role models. His purpose was to move students toward character development, not just acquisition of learning and/or power, but he failed to put himself in the position of those who do not share his personal beliefs and background. He “embarrassed himself” in the sense that one might expect a Dartmouth senior to be a bit more alert to such differences.

This, it seems to me, is a salient point that should not be omitted from the discussion.

Why not do a thought experiment and put the shoe on the other foot? Suppose Riner had been an atheist who used his address at convocation to declare that "we don't need the comforting illusion of God in our lives" and that true strength of character lies in behaving morally without divine guidance and without the hope of reward in an imaginary afterlife. Would Christians have been offended or not?


thecobrasnose said...

I'm new to this controversy, but having read the speech am still not persuaded by the irritation of the brilliant author of this website. The formulation, "'we don't need the comforting illusion of God in our lives' and that true strength of character lies in behaving morally without divine guidance and without the hope of reward in an imaginary afterlife" is a common, even prevailing message in American culture. Whom it offends is of little interest to its purveyors. When some Christian believer does kick up a fuss, the usual result is a roll of the eyes and the continued wonder that said believers just cannot tolerate an alternative viewpoint.

And that's fine. The original thought and the complaint are both valid expressions. Can't the subsequent roll of the eyes work both ways, too?

The traditional Christian belief is that all mankind can be redeemed through Christ's sacrifice because He was willing to suffer unimaginable torment both in Gethsemane and on the cross on our (that's right! I used the inclusive pronoun!) behalf. Christians of various stripes have differing notions of what gets a person into heaven, but the potential of redemption for all is the heart of the belief. When Riner used "we," it was not so much to proselytize, and certainly not because he was naive enough to think he was addressing an exclusively Christian audience. It was a correct description of Christ's mission.

Riner took a chance in assuming that his audience wouldn't be shocked by the invocation of the most general statement of the most common religious belief in the United States before the supposedly sophisticated incoming class of one of the most prestigious universities in the country. It wasn't wise, but I'm not persuaded that it was offensive or nuts either.

But I would be willing to bet anything you'd like that had he been an atheist who had chosen to make the statement above, that "'we don't need the comforting illusion of God in our lives' and that true strength of character lies in behaving morally without divine guidance and without the hope of reward in an imaginary afterlife," that there would be zero controversy and no chance whatsoever that Riner would have been denounced as he has been. Had he made that statement and one single peep had been made by an evangelical, that peep would likely have been condemned as "specious conservative whining."

I wouldn't imagine this is a great example of the equivalence of tolerance levels of believers and non-believers. What can believers do but to roll their eyes and wonder why others cannot seem to tolerate an alternative point of view?

thecobrasnose said...

At the end of the original post, a question was presented: " Would Christians have been offended or not?" My reply, had it been more succinct, was, "Maybe--but would the outcry been as loud or as favorably received by the petitioners of Dartmouth?" Surely it's permissible to answer a hypothetical with a hypothetical?

And by all means, feel free to get sentimental about "an assembly of young minds of diverse beliefs at a tender stage of their intellectual and spiritual development." But I'd be more inclined to give them the benefit of the assumption that they are discerning and intelligent adults capable of withstanding the rigors of a three to five minute address in which an ordinary religious viewpoint is expressed.

And while I am no theologian and certainly not speaking on behalf of all Christians, the version of Christ's message is the mainstream while this business about "the proclamation of the IMMINENT coming of the Kingdom of God, in the lifetimes of most of his listeners" manifestly is not. Or do you think so little of believers that you assume they would mistake two thousand years as "IMMINENT"?

Anonymous said...

Cathy, thanks for the follow-up post on this issue. I am REALLY disappointed in Prof. Zywicki that, in his second post on the issue, he apparently couldn't bring himself to admit that maybe, in view of the whole speech, the criticisms of it had more justification than at first seemed to be the case -- and this even after several commenters (one linking to your blog) had pointed out that the publicized parts of the speech were also the tamest.

One other point -- As a former Jesus freak, I'm quite sure that Riner knew exactly what he was doing and is now rather enjoying being a martyr for his faith. I used to pull the same "principled" stunts when I was his age. Fortunately, most college administrators have patience with this sort of thing.

Cathy Young said...

thecobrasnose -- I'm afraid this is a case where we have a rather dramatically different perception of the world around us.

You say:

The formulation, "'we don't need the comforting illusion of God in our lives' and that true strength of character lies in behaving morally without divine guidance and without the hope of reward in an imaginary afterlife" is a common, even prevailing message in American culture.

In all honesty, this leaves me scratching my head. Where is this a "common and even prevailing message," except in elite intellectual/academic circles? Can you point me to a single television show or mainstream film that conveys an atheistic message? Mind you, I'm not talking about movies like The Last Temptation of Christ or Dogma that tweak and twist traditional Christian doctrine but present an alternate theistic viewpoint of their own, or about movies and TV shows that ridicule or attack conservative Christian beliefs about sex roles, abortion, homosexuality, etc. I think what's being attacked in those cases is social conservatism, rather than religious faith per se. I would submit that the probability of seeing on TV the sympathetic portrayal of an evangelical Christian with traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality, and of an outspoken atheist, is about the same -- i.e. close to zero.

For me, the notion that religious faith itself (as opposed to religiously based social conservatism) is stigmatized or marginalized in American mainstream culture was decisively laid to rest after the Indonesian tsunami earlier this year. I had a column about it in Reason, actually, which you can find here:

After the Deluge, the God Talk

An excerpt:

[The post-tsunami debate[/b] should—but won’t—lay to rest the notion that the mainstream media treat faith and its adherents with scorn, and that talk of God is somehow marginalized in our secular public square. In fact, in the aftermath of the tsunami, religion held a distinctly privileged place in America’s public discourse. Numerous papers around the country ran stories on post-disaster soul searching about evil, suffering, and the meaning of life that usually gave only passing mention to nonreligious philosophies.

On the op-ed pages and on the airwaves, there were plenty of voices representing various faiths, with little if any input from humanists, agnostics, or other secularists. On CNN, Larry King convened a panel composed of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr., left-wing rabbi Michael Lerner, best-selling guru Deepak Chopra, a Catholic priest, an adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and a Buddhist monk. On MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, a similarly ecumenical gathering generously included a token atheist who could barely get in a word edgewise.

And here's another interesting tidbit I cited in my column:

The press coverage of the memorial service for Pat Tillman, the former National Football League player who passed up a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist in the Army and was killed in action in Afghanistan, almost uniformly omitted his brother’s remark from the podium: “With all respect to those who have been up here before me, Pat’s not with God. He’s not religious. He’s dead.”

Now, getting back to the specific scenario I suggested: I have certainly heard of quite a few instances of Christians on campus objecting to presentations they regarded as offensive (e.g. a production of Terence McNally's play Corpus Christi which depicts Jesus as gay). There have also been controversies about college commencements and convocations being used as platforms for left-wing political messages (e.g. denunciations of Bush). So I find it very hard to believe that no one would have protested if a speaker in an official capacity, addressing the entire student body, delivered an atheist message that did not simply express a personal viewpoint but included the entire audience in the speaker's perpsective. (i.e., not "I don't need God in my life," but "we don't need God in our lives.") In fact, I'm pretty sure that in a couple of days this would be a subject of discussion by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly etc.

Again, I think there's a huge difference between delivering a personal message about one's own perspective and addressing the entire student body in a way that excludes many people. If Riner had talked about what Jesus means to him personally, I think criticism would have been entirely inappropriate. In fact, unlike many advocates of church/state separation, I think that such a personal message should be allowed at a commencement in a public high school.

thecobrasnose said...

Clearly we do see the world differently, and I'll even posit that my radar isn't refined enough to differentiate "movies and TV shows that ridicule or attack conservative Christian beliefs about sex roles, abortion, homosexuality, etc" from the attacks on the people who hold those beliefs. (And by the way, I wouldn't include "The Last Temptation of Christ" as offensive--clearly it was a work of faith and devotion by its director. "Dogma" I refuse to see, not because of the danger it might pose to my religious values, but because I loathed "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy.")

Riner was clearly speaking for himself as a believing Christian, just as his audiences' professors will speak for themselves when they as members of "elite intellectual/academic circles" who are non-believers. Which will be more influential over the students' tenure--a tiny speech at the beginning, or lesson plans over the next four years?

A person speaks, others complain, then come the counter complaints...and the beat goes on. It's just not one I'm always interested in dancing to. But I don't see that taking up for the religious side is any more or less noble or valid than catering to agnosticism. Nor do I see the need of continually adding the caveat "you are free to believe as you like and to choose your own heroes." Of course we are! Shouldn't that go without saying?

Now, if only it would.

Cathy Young said...

thecobrasnose: Well, I most certainly agree with you about Chasing Amy. I actually went to see that movie on a first date, and my date and I both ended up squirming in embarrassment. Not a cheery memory. And I agree with you about The Last Temptation. I actually thought that the film presented a very strong Christian message. There was a big brouhaha about the part where Jesus has an "alternate life" in which he marries Mary Magdalene. Yet ultimately he rejects that path and chooses to make his sacrifice on the cross. I wonder how many of the people who were angry about that film actually realized that.

You say...

Clearly we do see the world differently, and I'll even posit that my radar isn't refined enough to differentiate "movies and TV shows that ridicule or attack conservative Christian beliefs about sex roles, abortion, homosexuality, etc" from the attacks on the people who hold those beliefs.

Actually I think you missed my point, somewhat.

I agree that popular culture routinely ridicules not only conservative beliefs about sex roles, abortion, homosexuality, etc., but also the people who hold those beliefs.

What I was saying was that, to me, this does not equal an attack on faith in God or Jesus or an afterlife, or a promotion of atheism. It's an attack on particular positions on earthly cultural and social issues -- positions that are not held by all religious believers or all Christians. In fact, one complaint I've seen from conservative Christians is that TV shows dealing with faith will typically extol liberal versions of religion and equate the "true spirit" of faith with socially liberal causes. (E.g., the idea that God loves everybody and wants people to love each other is taken to mandate acceptance of homosexuality -- I believe there was a controversy over an episode of Touched by an Angel in which a Christian fundamentalist who was intolerant toward homosexuality was shown the error of his ways.)

I would also venture a guess that people who hold politically incorrect views of gender and sexuality without religious underpinnings are likely to be portrayed just as negatively.

You make an interesting point about whether a persistent left-wing bias by professors in the classroom is worse than a three-minute speech at convocation.

I guess to me, the difference is that a welcoming speech at a convocation or commencement is something that should be addressed to all students and be as inclusive as possible. In the classroom, on the other hand, there is an expectation that controversial and debatable views will be expressed.

However, I do agree with you that in many classrooms, professors probably convey the view that no intelligent person can believe in God (or vote Republican). That's very wrong, too.

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