Human Excellence: On the Cardinal Virtues

One of the most unfortunate losses during the reformation was the loss of focus on the four cardinal virtues as simple excellencies that are praiseworthy in anybody, but find their truest expression in the Christian Scriptures.

I’ve written about the cardinal virtues (justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom) briefly in the past and their place in the Bible in the past. They are called cardinal because other virtues tend to hinge on them. For instance power depends upon courage because one must act to gain power, generosity depends up temperance and justice because one must first give to those who deserve and moderate his own desires in order to have extra to give to the needy. I don’t intend to say that the cardinal virtues are actually the only hinge virtues, but I see no reason to deviate from a helpful rubric for thinking about human virtue until it is proven useless or wrong. Showing it to be incomplete would be no more damning to the system than showing modern physics to need improvements would be a proof that we should abandon it.

In my mind, the learning the virtues is important because it seems that people are are praised for excellence have these traits and while they may possess others, they always have these traits to some degree. What is unusual is that in our present culture praise is often given to those who do not have these traits, but it never seems to correlate with actual success on the part of those being praise. Edward Feser observed this a few years ago:

But much more prominent than the cardinal virtues — and to a large extent coloring the conception democratic man has of the content of the cardinal virtues — are certain other character traits, such as open-mindednessempathytolerance, and fairness.  The list will be familiar, since the language of these “virtues” permeates contemporary pop culture and politics, and it can be said to constitute a kind of counterpoint to the traditional cardinal virtues.  And in each case the counter-virtue entails a turn of just the sort one might expect given Plato’s analysis of democracy — from the objective to the subjective, from a focus on the way things actually are to a focus on the way one believes or desires them to be.

In other words, virtues concerning the dispositions that require one to interact with the world as it is, to virtues that focus on how the individual wishes the world was. Whereas wisdom is the virtue of knowing the world and acting accordingly, open-mindedness is a willingness to consider alternate points of view without settling on one. In other words, one of the components of wisdom has replaced wisdom. This is similar with respect to tolerance

There are three important things to remember about the concept of virtue, as I’m using it:

  1. Virtues are dispositions and habits of mind and body, not mere actions.

  2. Because they are dispositions and habits, they can increase and decrease based on actions and belief.

  3. The cardinal virtues are natural virtues.

I want to explain each of them briefly and then in later posts give some tips, from older literature as well as from recent psychological literature on how to acquire these virtues.

  1. Justice is the virtue of giving to others their due. Modern culture has a tendency to think of justice solely in terms of the actions of institutions and other people. Rarely is virtue a consideration, at least in any news outlets I read, for the introspective soul.

  2. Courage is the virtue of facing fear and danger in order to perform a noble act or to suffer for the sake of some good.

  3. Temperance is the virtue of self-control with regard to good things. Temperance is the virtue of saying yes to the good, but no to too much.

  4. Wisdom is the virtue of understanding the world, discerning good from bad (not just morally, but consequentially as well), and acting accordingly.

These are rough summaries of what you would find in Aristotle or Aquinas.

Are there other important virtues from the ancient world that you feel make humans excellent, but are ignored or even treated as vices in our culture?

Trivium 3: Rhetoric

The third art of a true liberal arts education is rhetoric. I’ve written about grammar and logic already. I’ve also written about rhetoric in the ancient world. Obviously, this post is about rhetoric.

Whereas the purpose of grammar is clarity of communication and the emphasis of logic is the discovery of truth and probability through clarity of thought, the purpose of rhetoric is the discovery and use of what is persuasive.

Rhetoric, as a skill set, can be seen from the perspectives of speaking/writing, listening/reading, and debating:

  1. Speaking/Writing
    Rhetoric, in this sense, is related to the forethought given to discovering what could potentially persuade an audience, what they need to be persuaded of, and the actual delivery of the speech or writing of the paper/article.
  2. Listening/Reading
    Listening involves discerning the intent of the speaker or author as well as the intended audience. Are they trying to get you to act, to believe a proposition, or to support a cause? In knowing the author’s cause and audience, one can determine what methods they are employing to persuade and whether or not they are convincing. At this stage, one will want to use logic to determine whether or not the author contradicts accepted principles without good evidence or contradicts other statements made in the discourse.
  3. Debating
    In debating, rhetoric becomes very important because being able to demonstrate or discover the truth is not always helpful in a person-to-person encounter whose outcome can largely be determined by the emotions of the audience. So rhetoric is especially important in debate. Logic is still one’s friend, especially for discrediting an opponent’s claims, but rhetoric is important for defending oneself from claims on incredibility or incompetence. Rhetoric is also important for framing the debate. It is not uncommon in debate for side issues to become the focus due to ideologically driven participants or people unconcerned about civility. Learning to maintain one’s state of mind and the emotional and cognitive frame of the debate for the audience is difficult, but crucial in a debate.

The Modes of Persuasion
Aristotle identified logos, ethos, and pathos as the three phases of persuasion.

  1. Logos
    Logos is the appeal to facts and evidence. But in a speech, this is not always the same thing as careful and accurate argument. That is necessary for research and writing to advance the field of knowledge. It is not always best for persuading people to act. Logos, with respect to rhetoric appealing to the facts that the audience would find convincing. This is not always different from careful and painstaking accuracy, but it is not always the same thing. Learning to use the common topics carefully will be very important here because they represent the types of evidence available to a researcher, speaker, and writer. Also, I recommend that no matter what type of logical argument you rely on in a speech, you have a tighter more carefully documented version of the argument elsewhere in case questions are asked.
  2. Ethos
    Ethos is appeal to personal credibility. To bolster your ethos, you must associate yourself with the good (morals, principles, groups, and individuals), take the moral high ground (appeal to the audience’s sense of virtue and morality), and when possible use sources credible to the audience. When thinking of rhetoric in terms of debate, ethos becomes very important. Many debate opponents are comfortable discrediting the other by means of attacking their ethos rather than their arguments. Learning to deal with this and take an acceptable risk of punching back in the same manner (because that is the nature of the game) or taking the moral high ground of non-response is a difficult decision to make. In my opinion, this depends on whether or not the debate is about action or fact. If the debate is over an academic topic, then the high ground of seeking truth must be taken, even if this leads to a perceived “loss” on the part of the more accurate and careful participant. In the case of debates about the proper course of action, the one becomes morally obligated to fight back hard in defense of the audience when attacks are made. This is because, in fact, we are easily persuaded to enjoy ruthless winners over kind losers. In the Bible, Jesus does both, which illustrates how difficult a line it is to walk.
  3. Pathos
    Pathos is the appeal to the passions or deeper emotions of the audience. This includes using techniques such as exaggeration, sarcasm, language of shame/honor, flattery, legitimate compliments, and so-on. Pathos is greatly aided by florid language or simple language. Academic language is almost always a passion killer, although if it is accompanied by strong ethos, academic language can ignite the passion for knowledge. Pathos is appealed to, not simply by florid or simple language, but also by emotional style. An enthusiastic speaker is easier to listen to than somebody who sounds like the topic is boring to them.

When you think of writing a speech, I recommend thinking of these aspects like a group of investment accounts. You need to invest enough in the right one depending upon the audience. For instance, your personal credibility might be very high due to your virtue and research capabilities, but that does not mean that an audience of people who don’t believe in virtue will care. So in that case it might be better to appeal to emotions and logic. Similarly, emotional appeal will not help you in a speech about statistical methods to a group of mathematicians. Similarly, an audience might need a strong emotional hook before they are ready for logic and facts. In other cases, logic and facts must come first, but a rousing fiery call to action can come at the end. These things are to be determined on a case by case basis.

Concluding Thoughts and Extra Tools
I really think that the study of rhetoric, as a skill is crucial to the development of your mind and social skills. People who are naturally good at it often say things like, “Just get it without trying to learn it.” That’s literally stupid. Studying rhetoric can help you learn to defend yourself against charming evil-doers and appealing falsehoods, to win debates, to see through cheesy sales tactics, and even to flirt.

Helpful tools for becoming rhetorically minded include:

  1. Grammar and Logic (of course)
    Without clarity of expression and thought, rhetoric is pointless.
  2. Eloquence
    Eloquence is the art of speaking beautifully. It is context dependent. A good tool for gaining eloquence is having a digital copia and listening to the compelling speeches of others.
  3. The Common Topics (Or the destroyers of writer’s block)
    I’ve written about these here. In coming weeks, I will write about each topic and add a few more to the list. Knowing the common topics is incredibly useful for research, finding the truth, writing, and personal mindset (because debating your inner monolog is best done using evidence that you find convincing).
  4. Learn the Five Canons of Rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery)
    These are the five things one ought to think about in order to improve at public speaking. I will write about these soon, but for now I recommend the articles at AoM here.
  5. And, to keep you from being an charming evil-doer, learn wisdom and virtue
    Rhetoric treated as a mere skill without reference to truth, goodness, and beauty leads to speeches which work like fruit eaten off of a forbidden tree. They sound good, but they are poison to the mind and soul.

Spiritual Lessons from Peter Drucker

In teaching the common topics, I’ve had my students read Managing Oneself* by Peter Drucker. The goal of the assignment is to have the students see which of Aristotle’s topics Drucker uses to make his case and to determine if his points are persuasive. For Christian readers who don’t want to learn from a secular author, read this. Anyway, Drucker had these points that would be helpful to anybody pursuing any goal, including becoming more like Christ:

  1. Use feedback analysis.
    Feedback analysis is the simple process of looking at the outcomes of your habits and actions using a journal or, in today’s world, a tracking app on your phone. Christians might, for instance, notice that on days when they get more sleep, they are more apt to be kind and forgiving or that when they study the gospels each week they are more daring with respect to evangelism and caring for the needy. The effectiveness of this method is that you can edit/revise your affairs routinely rather than simply being shaped by whatever suits your fancy in the moment.
  2. Concentrate on your strengths
    For church member ship or one’s job this task is very important. If a hand tries to consume food or a foot tries to see, then there will be some serious problems. But if a hand works really hard at being handy, then the whole body can flourish. If you’re really good a mathematical reasoning then it doesn’t really make sense to try to help the world doing something different like interior design or managing a hair salon.
  3. Work on improving your strengths
    Many people have strengths and they use them when the time comes to use them, but they do not improve them. I had this struggle with academia. I was good at memorizing and synthesizing data, but I hated studying boring things. But had I improved my abilities when I was younger, I might have (would definitely have) been more successful. If you have strengths, improve them.
  1. Discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it
    I’ve written about this before. Many people are so proud that they refuse to learn something new, lest it shows them to be ignorant. I remember when Johnny Candito posted about using wrist straps for deadlift and observed that many people don’t use them solely for pride. Similarly, many people won’t use the Lecture-To-The-Wall technique of studying because of pride. Finally, many people cannot overcome a bad habit like drinking, porn use, or video game addiction because they won’t admit that they have a problem. But Drucker recommends that you crush this pride barrier, admit ignorance, and start learning to do the thing that holds you back.

There are several other comments Drucker makes in his essay that would be helpful, but this was meant to help people learn these particular principles and perhaps get you interested in reading the essay itself. How have you applied these principles? If you haven’t, how will you?

*While skimming the essay, I realized that he had intentionally universalized certain Christian principles of self-examination and applied them to goals beyond the constraints of Christian spirituality. In fact when I read it more thoroughly, I discovered that, Drucker admits as much in the essay when he says that “feedback analysis” is simply adapted from the Jesuit and Calvinists in the immediately post reformation era in Europe.

Christians and Non-Christian Literature

Some Christians feel squeamish about learning anything from non-Christian authors. This is understandable, especially in light of the fact that in the Bible there is a clear emphasis on not emulating the evil or desiring the riches of evil people or basing your life on human traditions and false philosophies (see Colossians 2:1-10). Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Psalm 1:

Psalms 1:1-2  Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;  (2)  but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

But other passages of Scripture place the emphasis on learning wisdom wherever it can be found. But the fact of the matter is that the Bible has many cases wherein God’s people can learn from non-Israelites and non-Christians. The only sinful thing would be to learn from sinners (whether Christian or not) to emulate their sinful habits (See Exodus 23:2).

Here are some of the Bible passages about learning from people just because they are wise, regardless of their religious situation:

  1. Moses’ father-in-law, who certain respects the Hebrew people and even sacrifices to their God, but is not a Hebrew himself. Never-the-less, Moses not only follows his advice, but his advice is included as a part of the Torah in Exodus 18.
  2. In Acts, one of Stephen’s praises of Moses is that he was wise in “all the learning of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22).
  3. Paul quotes pagan philosophers in Acts 17, 1 Corinthians 15, and Titus in order to make specific points. In 1 Corinthians, the quote is concerning the capacity of bad character to corrupt good morals. Paul could have easily quoted Proverbs on this score, but didn’t.
  4. In Titus 1:15 Paul notes that to the pure, all things are pure, including the very mythologies he says not to obsess over earlier in the book (1:14).
  5. In Daniel, Daniel knows all of the wisdom of the Chaldeans, and this is considered a good thing.

Anyhow, the point is that while Christians should be concerned to avoid emulating the evil they see in others (whether Christian or not), they should not feel bad about learning to be wise or discovering truth from non-Christians. Instead, in all their getting, they should get wisdom.

Don’t Retire to Watch T.V. and Wish You’d Lived Differently

Don’t retire, if you retire from your career, pursue your calling as soon as you clock out on your last day.

Watch this video. This woman is 100.

Proverbs 24:10 says:

“If you faint in days of adversity, your strength is small.”

I hope to follow this woman’s advice and I hope you do to.

Here’s an article at ergo-log.com describing a study which tried to determine if the phrase “he worked himself to death” describes a real phenomena: Hard Workers Live Longer

ht to Gary North for finding the video.

On the Accumulation of Tradition in Christianity

Nicholas Taleb helps us understand why tradition is helpful::

Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations— what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology. But let me change Popper’s idea ever so slightly (actually quite a bit): my take is that this evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Kindle Locations 3841-3847). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now, in Christianity tradition includes, but is not limited to Scripture. The idea is that Scripture is the measuring rod against which other traditions are judged. Scripture takes pride of place whether the church is examining practices, beliefs, or ways of speaking about God. But this does not mean that traditions are always wrong.

Socrates is right that everything should be questions. Postmodernists are wrong that they should be rejected.

How to read several books a year

I love reading and I love reading a lot. But sometimes I get depressed and don’t “feel it” or I get busy and don’t pick up a book. Author Jeff Olson, in his book The Slight Edge offers a solution to this problem:

Everything you need to know to be successful—every how-to, every practical action—is already written in books like these. Here’s a Slight Edge action guaranteed to change your life: read just ten pages of a good book, a book aimed at improving your life, every day.

If you read ten pages of a good book today, will your life change? Of course not. If you don’t read ten pages of a good book today, will your life fall apart? Of course not.

I could tell my shoeshine friend that if she would agree to read ten pages of one of these good books every single day, over time, she could not help but accumulate all the knowledge she’d ever need to be as successful as she ever wanted to be—successful enough to send her daughter to that cheerleading camp and hey, to send her to the best college in the country if she wanted. Like a penny over time, reading ten pages a day would compound, just like that, and create a ten-million-dollar bank of knowledge in her.

Would she do it? On day 1, sure. And day 2. And maybe day 3. But would she still be doing it by the end of the week? If she did keep reading, over the course of the year she would have read 3,650 pages—the equivalent of one or two dozen books of life-transforming material! Would her life have changed? Absolutely. No question. But here, back in week 1, all that’s still an invisible result.

And that is exactly why most people never learn to recognize or understand the Slight Edge, the reason most people never learn how to make the Slight Edge work for them, and why the Slight Edge ends up working against them: When you make the right choice, you won’t see the results. At least, not today.

We live in a result-focused world. We expect to see results, and we expect to see them now. Push the button, the light flicks on. Step on the scale, look in the mirror, check the account balance online 24/7. Give me feedback, trip a sensor, hit a buzzer, tell me, tell me, tell me it’s working!(Olson, 37)

Just ten pages a day, a discipline that could be accomplished a page at a time if necessary could lead you or I to read 3650 words per year, minimum. Most people won’t do it because it doesn’t feel epic enough. Same reason many people quit simple but effective training routines like Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, Body by Science by Doug McGuff, the six week program by Johnny Candito or Heavy Duty by Mike Mentzer. All of these programs will yield impressive results over the course of 12 months. The results will be even more impressive if the training is accompanied by increased sleep and improved diet. But, since the results won’t be evident in three weeks or six weeks, most people will give up. When I was a personal trainer I had several people give up while they were still simply learning perfect form.

Anyhow, don’t let time be the excuse you don’t read. This is especially important if you’re a teacher or a clergy member whose job is to be informed.

How to become a morning person

A couple of days ago my wife wrote a post about becoming a morning person. Go read it. In the first paragraph she makes this observation:

I’ve always admired people who can get up and enjoy the early morning hours. I’ve admired their discipline and craved the fruits of what they enjoy–the peace and solitude and freshness of a day in its infancy. Really, there’s nothing quite like the morning time. Apart from the the grogginess it brought, I have always had an appreciation for the morning…when I’ve woken up early enough to enjoy it.That’s the kicker.

Have you ever struggled to be a morning person? I have. When I was younger, I could stay up all night with no problem. I could even wake up before my cousins. But even as a child, I always felt very tired in the middle of the day. Even when I’ve had manual labor jobs, I’ve usually wanted to simply be asleep from the hours of 9AM-5PM. But in the middle of the night and the early morning, I’ve always been good to go.

When I was younger, people would be amazed at how much I could read. But I used to work night jobs, which meant on days off or when I got home around midnight or later, I would simply read all night and sleep until about 11AM and get on with my day feeling exhausted until evening. And, btw, if I did wake up before 10AM, I was usually quite energized until the afternoon. In all seriousness, even on days when I worked mornings, I could stay up until a couple of hours before work, take a nap, and work and not feel any different than I would feel if I had slept eight hours.

Now I have a day-job. Like 8-5. Now, historically, this has been the time period when I’m least functional. Worst of all, right when I got hired, I grew out of the ability to go with very little sleep and have no ill-effect. If I pull all-nighters I get cranky. So, to deal with this, I had to think about how to become a “morning person/day person” so that I could still get reading and writing done. I simply didn’t want to be somebody who was in a bad mood at work from staying up late or somebody who was “normal” with respect to reading volume. “I don’t really read anymore because when I get home from work, I don’t feel like it.”

Here are the steps I took for becoming a morning person:

  1. Mindset Shift: If other people can do it, I can too.
    Although some research suggests that morning/night people are stuck that way, self-limiting beliefs of that sort are unproductive until they’re conclusively proven to be true. In fact, many doctors and refinery workers have jobs that force them to change from night to day shift on a regular basis.
  2. Visualization: Imagine yourself getting out of bed without hitting the snooze button before you start your evening reading/prayer time in bed.
    One can elicit all sorts of physiological and neurological effects through visualization. If you imagine an embarrassing event from your youth, your cheeks can go beet red. So set yourself for a habit you don’t have yet by imagining getting up in the morning and associating that with positive feelings.
  3. Lists: Make lists of what you wish to accomplish in your mornings.
    Even if you simply want a leisurely morning so that the trip to work isn’t a terrible rush, make a list the night before. That always helps me.
  4. Fatty Food: Only eat fat and protein within three hours of bedtime, no carbs.
    I’m no doctor and this isn’t medical advice, but I hypothesize that only eating fat and protein late in the day will keep you from waking up in a hypoglycemic stupor because your body will already be in a fat burning state. This change might necessitate and entire dietary transformation, though.
  5. Find a ‘why’: Determine why mornings are important to you and make them non-negotiable.
    As a Christian, perhaps mornings are important because they give you time to pray, as a parent, they give you alone time, as a programmer they give you time for personal projects, as an athlete they give you time to prepare meals, or whatever it is figure it out. Until those values are no longer important to you, make yourself do the thing in the morning. You are what you do and if your “why” results in no “what,” then over time you will value that thing less and less until it is no longer a part of your life. Mornings can save you from giving up on your purpose.
  6. Get Enough Sleep: Go to bed early enough to get your ideal amount of sleep.
    Some people need four hours of sleep, some people need twelve. Find your number and go to bed with enough wiggle room to take 30-minutes to doze off and therefore achieve your ideal amount of sleep.

Other tips might include using melatonin for a brief time, using cold showers as soon as you wake up, incrementally waking up earlier (fifteen minutes a week or five minutes a day), or asking an early riser in your household to ensure your expulsion from dreamland manually.

I hope this helps. What tips do you have for becoming a morning person?

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:38-42

Writing about this passage is something I often do with great trepidation because it sounds like I’m deradicalizing it. But here I am, rock you like a hurricane, I guess.

Text
38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα, στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δόςκαὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.

Translation:
38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I am telling you, to not resist by means of evil. Instead: whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other, 40 and to any who desires to sue you to receive your shirt, release to him also your coat, 41 and whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 and give to him who asks of you and concerning him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Reflections:

  1. I’m very nearly a pacifist, in the sense that I am almost entirely convinced that violence does not solve problems, but I do not think that this passage teaches out and out pacifism. For instance, Jesus does not say to let violence happen to others on your watch or to take a pummeling when your children are in danger.
  2. The passage is not turning over the judicial principles of the Old Testament because those passages (eye for an eye) are about court room settings and only one place in the passage above is court mentioned. Jesus, instead, seems to be correcting the use of those passages to justify revenge or a refusal to go along with superiors (Roman soldier who could demand you carry his pack for a mile, an apparently superior man challenging you to an honor duel, or somebody rich suing you for something they don’t actually need). The final illustration is for the Christian who is in a superior position: show mercy.
  3. The passage is not a carte blanch check from outsiders to abuse Christians or for Christians to accept interference with their lives. Jesus himself refuses people who ask him for things several times in the gospels, he does not always go along with demands people make of him (although when he does, his death atones for the sins of humanity), and when verbal disputes happen sometimes Jesus hits back twice as hard. So Jesus is not saying that Christians are to never respond to criticism, insults, or outrageous requests. But he is apparently using the examples of generosity in the face of such actions to illustrate his point that he wants his followers not to seek revenge.
  4. One of my favorite interpreters, Jerome Neyrey overstates the case that in these verses Jesus is telling his disciples to stay entirely out of the honor-shame game (see Honor and Shame in Matthew’s Gospel). It seems more coherent to say that Jesus is prioritizing honor with God by means of generosity over honor with man, but he does not seem to be saying that honor with people is always bad. It just constitutes it’s own reward. Again, see Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus often wins with rhetoric rather than careful argument. This is presumably because he needs to maintain his status as a public teacher until the time of the crucifixion.

Conclusion

Overall, I find that the approaches to this passage often taken make the rest of Matthew’s gospel incoherent. Essentially it is either taken as a list of impossible commands to show how evil we all are and compel us to ask for forgiveness or it is taken as a highly unrealistic social program that Jesus himself only selectively follows. I think it is better to take it as a correction of a misunderstanding followed by illustrations of how to do it. This explains how there are exceptions in Jesus’ own behavior and teaching elsewhere in Matthew.

On calling people names: Fundamentalist

Over at his blog, Mike Bird, posted this quote from Alvin Plantinga’s tome Warranted Christian Belief:

We must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000),  245.

When I was younger a friend of mine and I wanted to revive the term fundamentalist to mean what it originally meant to Christians in the early twentieth century. We never managed to do so. I don’t even fit, due to a frustration with a certain way of reading Scripture, with the historic Christian definition of fundamentalist, but I think that next time I allegedly sound like one I’ll own it anyway. Btw, here is Slavoj Zizek’s understanding of fundamentalism from his book On Violence:

This is an excellent description of the current split between anaemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer able to fully engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism. However, are the terrorist fundamentalists, be they Christian or Muslim, really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the U.S.: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have their way to truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns him. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful Other, they are fighting their own temptation. These so-called Christian or Muslim fundamentalists are a disgrace to true fundamentalists.
It is here that Yeats’s diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: the passionate intensity of a mob bears witness to a lack of true conviction. Deep in themselves, terrorist fundamentalists also lack true conviction-their violent outbursts are proof of it. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be, if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a low-circulation Danish newspaper. The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending, politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only make them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that secretly they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. (This clearly goes for the Dalai Lama, who justifies Tibetan Buddhism in Western terms of the pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain.) Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true “racist” conviction of one’s own superiority.”