A Friend After 50 Years

A record of one journey into a peculiar type of Quaker Christianity, and a bit of silliness to boot.

Location: Arkansas

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Of horsehair and value judgments

"Let's learn to ask questions. What are the assets and liabilities of a technological society? What has the fast-food industry done to the tradition of a family gathering for dinner? Why do we find it difficult in our culture to have time to develop relationships? Is Western individualism beneficial or destructive? What in our culture is in harmony the the gospel and what is at odds with it?"

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (Rev. Ed. 1988).

I pulled this quote for a Friend who was looking for a front-cover quote for a local Quaker publication. It dovetails with my own current inquiry about how much of my life is merely an unintentional product of the larger culture -- and to what extent I either justify or merely accept without question: "that's just the way it is...."

There's another sentence to this paragraph that I left off. Its this: "One of the most important functions of Christian prophets in our day is the ability to perceive the consequences of various forces in our culture and to make value judgments upon them." The term "value judgments" tripped me up. Why? The terminology worries me, although I acknowlege that there is such a thing as "value" and that we must and do make "judgments." This is not for me simply a matter of "moral absolutes" versus "moral relativism." I believe in absolutely there is such a thing as "right and wrong" but I believe the big question of the hour is how we get there. The history of religion is replete with the most immoral means of enforcing "morality," and Quakers have not been immune (which ought to prove that noone is!) The temptation to hard-heartedness can be at its highest when we are dealing with judging the morality of others (and ourselves, for that matter).

During last meeting for worship I was pondering the Irish Friends who questioned whether God really told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites. A first time visitor then ministered to us about Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple using a "gentle whip" made of horsehair -- "that's progress, at least" was my thought. Horeshair whips are better than swords. Hopefully we can continue the trend in the direction of gentler, and probably more effective ways, of dealing with sin. By that, I do not mean politely ignoring it -- rather, a gentle exploration of the consequences, how it affects us and our relationships with others. For me, this at bottom is more about finding our way to where we truly want to be -- with God, with one another, in loving relationship -- than about making a career out of beating (or arguing) the sin out of ourselves and others. True, I don't want to be angry, selfish, greedy, and so forth. But then I need, with God's help, to focus on the opposites of those qualities. Too much attention to a thing gives it force, and resistance makes it stronger. Sin itself is a form of resistance ("resist not evil"). "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Philippians 4:8.

Note: I have only started reading "Celebration of Discipline," so nothing I've said here is intended as a critique of the book or as a characterization of its author's views.


Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hi, Dave.

Thanks for sharing parts of Foster's book. Based on what you've offered here, I've looked at an excerpt online and am considering getting a copy of it for myself.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

9:45 AM  
Blogger Paul L said...

If my spotty education in the history of philosophy didn't completely mislead me, I don't think Foster is using the term "value judgment" correctly. I think F. Nietzsche developed the term to contrast his idea that was that there is no such thing as absolute morality (for the herd, at least) but only judgments people make about the value of one course of action or another.

Therefore, making a value judgment (I prefer peace to war) is the opposite of making a moral judgment (peace is good; war is bad). A prophet in the sense being used by Foster means one who is making a moral judgment. That's what he does. And that's what a prophetic church does.

You are right that many statements of moral judgment have been wrong, horrifingly wrong. But the response can't be to not make them. Dr. King didn't hesitate to do so, and he wasn't speaking in terms of personal preference. He was speaking the Word of the Lord.

So our call is to make correct judgments and discern and reject incorrect ones. And I am as hesitant as you are to do so because of a lack of confidence in my own power of discernment. But I see that as a problem to be solved, not a fact to be accommodated.

And re the progress of law enforcement, there is a lot of truth in your insight. I remember a light bulb going off when I first learned that the eye-for-an-eye dictum was actually a reform that brought the principle of proportionality into the justice equation. Prior to Jahweh's giving that command to Moses, the general rule was that you could take a life for an eye, or an arm for a tooth.

So it was entirely logical for Jesus to reform lex talonius when it became a command rather than a limit. Time makes ancient good uncouth, indeed.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I've heard it suggested that the whip might actually have been to get the animals the moneychangers were selling moving, which actually kind of makes sense to me.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Dave Carl said...


I may have confused the issue by conflating the concepts of an initial judgment with the harmful way we often respond to such judgments.

I agree with you to the extent that we need to make judgments about that which causes harm, which is to say, we need to be able to discern that particular conduct is harmful in particular ways. Simply to say that something is "wrong" or "immoral" is, in my view, a shorthand way of saying this. The problem as I see it is 1)that we often attempt to apply "rules" without understanding the reason for them (i.e. the harm to be prevented) and 2) that we often respond to harmful conduct in a harmful way.

I am also concerned that the language of moral judgment is in itself too non-specific. To say that something is "morally wrong" does not provide much incentive to change (beyond, perhaps, fear of punishment) or enlightenment about why it is wrong, i.e., what sort of harm it creates. We humans tend to respond more "morally" when we understand the harm we are creating for ourselves or others (or to put it in Quakerese, when the light within has revealed it to us). When I am told that I have "done wrong" my first impulse is to mount a defense, and perhaps find a way to blame my accuser. If I am told of the difficulty or pain my actions caused another, I am much more likely to want to change my conduct.

And then there's all that about beams in the eye...

3:00 PM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

And then ( by the way, so good to meet thee, Dave Carl ) there is the question about why we Friends don't proselytize. I think it because we believe that discernment happens when we are present to that still small voice within. So, I have seen, as I become one of the old Friends I could never imagine myself being as a child... that Friends go through a process often of internalizing those things they learn and realize that the things they thought they were taught, only taught them how to learn these things by being present to that God within themselves and others.

In this light, I am a wee tad dubious that Jesus drove the money lenders out with a whip as a matter of force ( if in fact historically he did, or if it is a rhetorical element of a parable lost on me... ). A friend and I were speaking the other day, and he said that he felt the core of Quakerism was to see God in all others, and asked if I thought there was more. I said, yes, that that is to become intellectually convinced, but to become a Quaker in thy heart is to become present to God in others.

Presence of God in others, I think is to teach by listening. To not condemn, but ask, to not say, thee is not right, but to say, teach me, and in that listening, the other in telling often must test their leading and look within.

I am called to mind, by this, a ride with a Mennonite couple a few months ago in Lancaster. As we drove in his buggy to the Green Dragon Auction, a Mennonite friend and I discussed the differences in our two expressions of faith. We spoke about the closeness of our dress, I dress formally plain, and yet the difference in some aspects of witness behind it. He then showed me his cell phone.
He told me that it was not universally accepted, his own church disallowed them, but that he was trying his own leading on this object, to use it during business hours, turn it off in the home, other than for an hour of visiting on specific evenings. I found his approach much more like that of our own, than the use of the plain tradition to isolate members of some plain faiths. For example, a Mennonite writer explaining why some Amish and Mennonite churches allow scooters but not bicycles says that it is to keep their members from going too far out into the world... to quote Billy Bragg, I think we Quakers feel, "virtue never tested is no virtue at all..." or that until we live our faith we may not know our faith.

Thine in the light

9:31 AM  

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