Wednesday, February 27, 2013

(CLP) Should We Lose the Race?

Here is a short essay by the late Ronald Dworkin, the last one published in the New York Review of Books before his death. Consider as you read it whether you can detect how his analysis flows from his theory of legal process as interpretation and integrity. Consider also, in light of Moore's critique of Dworkin's theory for impracticality, whether applications like this might constitute a sort of hands-on defense.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Divesting from Fossil Fuels

Many colleges and universities around the country are discussing divestment from fossil fuels, as a way of putting their money where their sustainability/green rhetoric is. This is a strategy that was effective in the 1980s in helping bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, so it's not just symbolic (or rather, it is essentially symbolic, but it can be quite potent symbolism in generating the political will for fundamental policy change). Author and activist Bill McKibben here lays out most of the relevant arguments:

(WR) Romans v. Christians (or not)

Here is Professor Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame on the persecution of early Christians by the Romans (in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education):
"There is no doubt that Romans executed Christians, just as they executed other social and political subversives. There is even evidence to suggest that there were brief periods (AD 257-58 under Valerian and 303-5, Diocletian's tetrarchy) when Christians were deliberately singled out by Roman legislators and administrators. But Christians were not the victims of sustained persecution by the Romans, as has been mythologized in popular imagination. For the vast majority of the pre-Constantinian period, Christians flourished."
You can find the whole article, which is nuanced and charitable about the reasons for the growth of the mythology, at:

(CLP) Remembering Dworkin

The New York Times piece on the occasion of Dworkin's death (linked below) isa little disappointing, in that it cites only two of his critics (Robert Bork and Richard Posner), neither of whom engaged seriously with his work. Here Jeremy Waldron, former student and intensely informed critic of Dworkin's jurisprudence and an important legal philosopher in his own right, has something more substantive to say.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

(CLP) More on Paternalism

We briefly discussed Sunstein and Thaler's notion of "libertarian paternalism" effected by careful choice architecture. Here is a review by Sunstein of a new book by Sarah Conly arguing unabashedly for paternalism in public policy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

(WR) From the Ground Up

Judging from this last crop of Q&As, I have the impression that some of you are still expecting a course mainly about doctrinal or ritual details in the development of various branches of Christianity. Much of this is fascinating stuff, of course (and you are quite welcome to read books about it at your leisure) but for our purposes it is essentially travelogue -- colorful detail that makes little sense without a grounding in the guy who started it and an understanding of how to make sense of those pesky early texts (read between the lions!).

This is a bit like taking a chemistry course, but rushing past all the stuff about molecules and catalysts and mainly asking questions about how various mixed drinks taste. There is of course no shame in such curiosity, but it's premature where the aim is the serious study of anything.

Let me reiterate that the words, actions, and ideas of the historical Jesus do not reductively determine anything about the legitimate practice of subsequent Christianity -- but they do constitute a key element in any honest conversation about what it might mean to follow Jesus.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

(WR) Good Thought

In class today, the question arose about whether Jesus' egalitarianism was fundamentally a social and economic or a spiritual matter, and Grace suggested that she thought it was both. This may be the most intelligent thing any of us have said this month. Given the very grounded nature of traditional Hebrew spirituality, it's even possible that Jesus, who was after all Jewish, wouldn't have seen much point in distinguishing between the two.

(CLP) Contra Moral Minimalism

Here is a column by economist Robert Reich, disputing the idea of moral minimalism as applied to the economic realm. I suspect analogous arguments apply to law as well.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

(WR) Fabulous Blogging!

Thank you all for a very stimulating blogging week. Probably it helped that I was too busy myself to weigh in and thereby interrupt the many good threads you had going. Al topped the lot of you with ten posts and comments (all of them thoughtful and responsive, though some may be longer than they needed to be!), and all but six of you did the minimum of one post and two comments (only two failed to blog at all). I have the utmost faith that all of you will succeed next week.

As happened the previous week, your discussions inspired me to articulate or amplify a number of ideas that I want you all to think about for class this coming week, so please read over last week's blogs and comments as part of your assignment for class.

Friday, February 15, 2013

(CLP) Contra Sunstein

Here is an approving analysis of President Obama's State of the Union speech by philosopher and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Interesting in its own right for what it says about how political discourse shapes deep moral narratives, it also constitutes a sophisticated challenge to Sunstein's advocacy of incompletely theorized agreements. Based on a sophisticated account of the way language works, Lakoff suggests that we actually agree on general principles, when they're framed carefully, more than Sunstein suspects.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

(WR) Dead Sea Scrolls

Here is a fascinating interview by Fresh Air's Terrie Gross with a well-known scholar of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls. It is well worth the 36 minute listening time, as it is highly relevant to our current reading in the course.

(WR) Critical Thinking

I want you all to re-read the Philosophy Toolkit I gave you at the beginning of the semester, focusing particularly on critical thinking and the intellectual virtues. The material we are working with now is where the critical thinking rubber meets the long road of most of our upbringings in or near cultural traditions related to Christianity.

To think critically about something, you have to examine your most basic assumptions -- not to dismiss them, but to suspend them for the time being so as to consider a way of looking at them that is foreign, and that can even feel threatening. For example, many of you begin with the unexamined assumption that certain claims (Jesus as messiah, Mary's virginity, etc.) are identical with, and inseparable from, Christianity as such. However, the historical record tells us otherwise. In the early decades after Jesus' death, there were many different groups of Jews (and eventually, Greeks and Romans as well) who did their best to keep what they understood about Jesus and his work alive. Each of these largely insular groups had its own stories, its own theology, its own understanding of who and what Jesus was, and what the events of his life and death meant. Some (but not all) of these groups thought he was the messiah of Hebrew scripture, some (but not all) liked the idea that he was God, or God's son, some (but not all) told stories about his bodily resurrection, some (but not all) anticipated his return in an apocalyptic destruction and transformation of the world. In point of fact, there is no single story about Jesus of Nazareth that all early Christians agreed on. Some (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas) focus exclusively on sayings attributed to him, some view him as a kind of avatar (hence not really human, but a kind of cosmic projection, like Krishna), etc. ad nearly infinitum.

Instead of reading backward through the filter of the predominant varieties of Christianity in the modern world, I am asking you temporarily to set all those assumptions aside (remember, you can have them back if you like when the course is over) to look as clearly as possible at the historical events, and the historical person, which are the starting points of all subsequent interpretations. I fully understand how difficult this is, but I am asking you to give it your all.

Monday, February 11, 2013

(WR) (CLP) Blogging Success

I really appreciate the quality of your blogging this past week. Many of you raised really thoughtful (and brief!) questions, and the rest of you did a nice job of posing possible answers to them. This is precisely what I hope for in the blog conversations, and I'm delighted to see almost all of you pitching in. Keep it up! In a number of cases I have posted a comment that I hope is helpful and affirming at the end of the thread, and it might be useful for everyone to read those, since some of them are the sort of thing I might have offered in class if I had been there. Of course, further replies (or new posts in response to those comments) are entirely welcome.

Friday, February 8, 2013

(WR) Comment on Reading Crossan

All of you will find aspects of this book challenging. Those of you who are practicing Christians will probably encounter a particular challenge, since some (but not all) of the ways institutional Christian traditions have interpreted the gospels and other religious texts vary quite a bit from what historians have discovered. If you find this text threatening, it will be worth remembering two things:
     1) Crossan is a leading theologian and a practicing Catholic; his purpose is not in any way to debunk his religion – he aims rather to understand and to deepen it.
     2) A course at a public liberal arts college is a secular experience. No-one is asking you to change your spiritual beliefs or religious practices, or even to agree with the professor or the text about anything at all. Rather, such a course requires that you attempt to comprehend and follow the reasoning of a scholarly investigation, so as to grasp how and why some intelligent people who have thought deeply about these things draw the conclusions that they do. Once the course is over and you have succeeded in this intellectual exercise, you are perfectly free to think and believe whatever you please. This sort of challenge, and the freedom to think for yourself once you have met it, are of the essence liberal learning..

Monday, February 4, 2013

(WR) (CLP)

Some of you are aware that my wife, Sharon Wyrrick, was involved in a serious automobile accident last week. She is in stable condition, and has been moved to a rehabilitation facility. Thanks to those of you who have offered your concerns and assistance. The best way that all of you can help is to be the most diligent and imaginative students you can be, so that there are no unnecessary distractions from our work together. I will probably not be available for most of my office hours; the most direct way to communicate with me is through email.