What the Most Popular Class at Harvard Has To Do With Creation Care

March 2, 2011


What do Plato and Aristotle have to do with Creation Care? More than you would think. (cc image courtesy of Image Editor via Flickr)

By John Murdock

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Professor Michael Sandel’s class “Justice:  What’s the right thing to do?” is the most popular class at Harvard. It was a fascinating exercise in philosophical reasoning that enthralled me for hours on a lazy, football-less Saturday afternoon when my local PBS station broadcast several episodes of his lectures back to back.  (The entire series can be viewed online, and it is well worth your time to do so.)

What does this have to do with creation care? A lot, it turns out.

When Christians make claims about the way things ought to be, we are, knowingly or unknowingly, engaging with the competing worldviews and philosophies through which Sandel leads his bright, young students. In lecture after lecture Sandel examines moral decision making as seen through the lens of philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Aristotle and others. The relevance of these philosophies for creation care is especially clear where issues of resource allocation, exploitation, mixed costs and benefits—in short, justice­—are unavoidable. Take, for example, coal. Clearly, something like coal has societal value, but how does one decide what the “right thing to do” is when that value is in conflict with the interests of local communities, wildlife in streams, and those far away who may be impacted by the leftover pollution.  Understanding these important secular systems of thought, including where they are compatible and incompatible with the teachings of the Bible, is a vital skill if we are to address the issues of our day.

For example, the utilitarian maxim “the greatest good for the greatest number” shows little regard for the dignity of the individual created in the image of God.  Nor does it account for any intrinsic value that the Creator might assign other aspects of his creation, such as rivers, whales and mountaintops.  Another philosophy discussed in the class is libertarianism. Its foundation (as Sandel explains in his lectures) is that “I own myself.”  The Apostle Paul disagreed, teaching, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.”  (I Cor. 6: 19-20)

We are all influenced by these and other philosophies to one degree or another. Too often we all, like Professor Sandel’s young students, shoot from the hip without fully contemplating whether what we say we believe on Sunday actually is consistent with the decisions that we make throughout the week.

Religious reasoning is not front and center during the series, but Sandel is an intellectually honest arbiter of his classroom and does not dismiss religious arguments when, say, a brave student defends Catholic teaching in a discussion about the legal status of same-sex unions.   More often, however, the Christian viewer will be saddened by the religiously rootless moral vision of the rising young elites at Harvard.  As one co-ed puts it bluntly, “Religion is personal.  It doesn’t affect anybody.”  Many others see no societal role for concepts like patriotism and traditional marriage.

Thankfully, Professor Sandel does not share this view, and he himself argues instead for “a more faith-friendly idea of public reason.”  In the final lecture to his students, Sandel explains his view that moral reasoning cannot be value-neutral and that, instead, it is often necessary to engage the underlying questions of what makes for “the good life.”  Sandel (sharing much in common with Dr. Os Guinness and Yale’s Stephen Carter)  posits that, in the course of this necessary dialogue, one pays greater respect to deeply held religious sentiments—not by ignoring them and relegating them solely to a personal realm—but by engaging them directly and honestly.

The fact that thousands of the planet’s best and brightest have exhibited a philosophical and spiritual hunger by eagerly embracing Sandel’s class on justice is a sign of hope, and we should pray that, once put on this path, these students will indeed find a philosophical home in Christ.  Yet, even for mature Christians, walking this road with Sandel is a useful exercise, especially since the Apostle Peter directs us to, with gentleness and respect towards others, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (I Peter 3:15)

May the one true hope for humanity and a groaning creation be proclaimed well to all the world.

John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C. and is a member of The Falls Church.

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