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Christianity and Honor

Christianity and Honor

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Published by TheLivingChurchdocs
In the modern church school, no conflict exists between an honor system and personal dignity.
In the modern church school, no conflict exists between an honor system and personal dignity.

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Published by: TheLivingChurchdocs on Aug 08, 2013
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01/31/2014

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8
THE LIVING CHURCH • AUGUST 18, 2013
By David Hein
 
C
hurch schools support both Christianityand honor systems. They perceive noconflict. They see honor as harmonious withChristian theology and Christian ethical prin-ciples. Certainly no chaplain or school headever arises in chapel and proclaims:
I nowknow that we have been deceived into accepting this honor system all these years; shame on us!
And yet conscientious Christians might wantto raise some questions about their compati-bility, and then go on to see if they can sort outany tangles that appear.
Christianity and Honor
 
 AUGUST 18, 2013 • THE LIVING CHURCH
9
I
n church schools, honor is routinely experienced asaleadingwayofrepresenting,embodying,enforcing,and growing this commitment to character. It’s almostrightuptherewithchapelasaleadingidentifierofwhattheschoolisallaboutinrelationtomoraldevelopment. Aschool’shonorsystemisdareIsayit?afamiliar marketing tool.Today’s students grow up in a world in which thelackofhonor(althoughitwouldnotbeputthatway)isalmost taken for granted. Who, when accused of any-thing, ever says “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’m sorry”? Whodoes not first
deny
? Then, if left no room for escape:blame others, or the environment, or mental stress —anything but
Yes, I was responsible, I did wrong,I amwilling to face the consequences
. That last bit gets saidin court only as part of the plea deal. That’s what chil-dren grow up exposed to. Or they have parents who,ratherthansupportingtheteacherwhoreprimandedor  punishedtheirchild,blametheschool,thinkingtheyaredefending their child.
 T 
he famous sociologist Peter Berger raises somethought-provokingquestionsinhis1970essay“Onthe Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” He beginswith this arresting statement: “Honor occupies aboutthe same place in contemporary usage as chastity. Anindividual asserting it hardly invites admiration, andonewhoclaimstohavelostitisanobjectofamusementratherthansympathy.”Apparentlyoutdatedandper-haps thankfully so — “at best, honor and chastity areseenasideologicalleftoversintheconsciousnessofob-soleteclasses,suchasmilitaryofficersorethnicgrand-mothers.”Bergerpointstoamoralreasonforhonor’ssocialos-tracism:itwasclass-bound,thenormsofanelite.Itwasappropriateformedievalknights,butitwasnotseenasdesirable or even possible for democratic men andwomen. Honor was, Berger observes, an aristocraticconcept, bound up with a hierarchical view of society.The age of chivalry operated on the basis of a moralcode that gave different weight to and had varying ex- pectationsofdifferentparties:“Toeachhisdue”wasthemoralimperativeofthefeudalorder.Thismoralitywastraditional,then,butitwasnotabsolute.Instead,itwasrelative to different groups in society. (This medievalmind-setshowsupinAnselm’sgreatworkontheAtone-ment,
Cur Deus Homo
.)Whatcitizenstheworldoverseektodayisnothonobut dignity, which confers status not according to rankbut according to personhood. Dignity adheres to thesolitary self; it asserts a humanity behind the roles andnorms of society. A naked, abandoned baby in a trashcanhasasmuchstatus,dignity,andworthastherobedking in his castle on the hill. This view is enshrined insuchfamousmoderndocumentsasthePreambletotheDeclaration of Independence and the United NationsDeclaration of Human Rights.Thus the waning of honor, Berger believes, is notsimply reflective of a coarsening of ethics, a moral de-cline,selfishness,oradecreaseinrespectforotherper-sons. That pessimistic historical view, he finds, is tooone-sided.Itfailstoappreciatethemoralgainsmadeinthe wake of the loss of honor. The age that saw the re-treat of honor, he points out, also saw the rise of newmoralities and indeed of a new humanism. Racial andreligious minorities, exploited classes, the poor: all re-ceivedrespectthroughdignity.Thusdignity,nothonor,came to hold unique sway in modern society. Although dominant in modernity, dignity is not modern invention. The view that humanity has a pro-founddignityhaslongroots:youcanfindthisprinciple,for example, in the Bible, in Sophocles (in the con-frontation between Antigone and Creon), and in other ancient and medieval texts.Wheredothesehistoricalfactsandethicalappraisalsleavetoday’shonorsystem?Isitmerelyanarchaic,elit-ist, snobbery-inducing, class-bound, institution-de- pendentrelic?Isitsreplacementbydignity,Bergerasks,to be lamented as loss or celebrated as liberation?
onor 
is a vague word with many meanings. Anhonor system in today’s church school bearsaffinitieswithmedievalcodesofchivalry,butobviouslytoday’s schools operate in a morally complex world. AlexisdeTocquevillenotedasmuchwhenhediscernedthe transformation of honor in the New World of dem-ocratic capitalism. In church schools, honor is mixedwithothersocialandethicalingredients,includingdig-nity and Christianity, as well as — a school’s athleticsdepartment would hasten to point out — impressivecodes of good sportsmanship. Aswebegintoconsiderthemoralissuessurroundinghonor, we might think first of the moral issues — froma Christian point of view — surrounding friendship.
 Philia
, as Aristotle, Cicero, C.S. Lewis, and othershaveremarked,isavirtue.Amoralgoodinitself,friend-ship can also, as John Henry Newman declared, sum-mon and fortify other worthwhile practices, including patience,self-sacrifice,andcourage.But
 philia
isprob-lematic from a Christian point of view. It speaks of thein-group, a self-selected coterie; its tendency is to es-tablish boundaries that exclude.
 Philia
can, however, be transformed. In Christianethics,thefirstplacetolookforanansweristhelifeof Christ: the way of the Cross.
Agape
transforms
philia
. A Church of England priest named Hugh Lister servedinLondonsEastEndasatrade-unionchairman
(Continued on next page)

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