The Ethics of Christian Belief: Developing a Friendship With W.K. Clifford

A paper I recently read at the 2015 Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting was recorded, and is now available for download. This is on the more technical side, so may only appeal to those with a philosophy background. As an added dissuasion from listening, it costs $4. And if none of that deters you, I’d love to hear what you think! This is a pre-publication paper. http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=20779

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A Writer’s Methodology: Just Do It!

Writing is a dance between art and science. Writers of any stripe will try to work when they feel the urge, but increasingly busy lives and distracted psyches make this sweet blend of time and motivation hard to find. If a writer desires productivity, we have no choice but to find a way to put pen to paper when we do not feel like doing so. I am at my best when creative inspiration strikes, but that muse is often rather unsociable. In these times of muselessness, I must rely on self-discipline and careful methodology in order to produce my prose. Since I am an adjunct professor teaching anywhere from two to three classes per term, my schedule changes wildly each semester. That leaves me sometimes writing in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and occasionally in the evenings. I have begun using a weekly calendar to mark off and protect times that I will be able to spend with my computer and reference material. I find that I can concentrate best when I have at least three consecutive hours to myself, which lessens the pressure of planning where I need to be next. This gives me roughly an hour to organize my thoughts and materials, an hour to write, and an hour to review what I have done. I build these times into my once-weekly schedule planning sessions, and guard them fiercely.

These dedicated writing sessions typically find me rather unmotivated, given the demands and worries of life. In order to focus my sensorium, I try to locate the place that makes the least demands on me. Usually, that place is my home, since on weekdays I am alone for much of the day. For other people who have a busier home, a remote library cubicle is preferred. This would indeed be my second choice. Then, I get out my reading materials or notes that I have taken, and mine them for a writing prompt. I keep notes in my books, flagged with paper sticky tabs, as well as in a small journal that I keep with me at all times. Any notes written on miscellaneous paper gets scanned with a smartphone photograph, and uploaded into a descriptively labeled computer file. I also use two programs to organize ideas: Evernote and Scrivener. Both give me the opportunity to store and organize any half-baked ideas before they are “ready.”

The process of thinking, researching, and writing must generally be a solitary activity for me, in order to minimize distractions. However, I do solicit conceptual advice—in the form of social brainstorming and seeking intelligent responses— at the outset of a potential paper idea. When the writing is finished, I ask trusted eyes to edit and proofread. At this final stage, it is important to me to use a reader who has some degree of familiarity with my topic or field of study. Additionally, I try to find another reader who does not have familiarity with my topic, to test myself for clarity. I dread sounding vaguely intelligent, while being ultimately unintelligible. In order to accomplish all this, any given piece needs to be completed at least a couple of weeks before my deadline. This gives my readers time to work, and allows me time to revise accordingly.

Generally, this is my preferred method for transferring ideas to text. I have to frequently hunker down and rededicate my efforts to protecting right conditions for productivity, as life bombards me with one distraction after another. Nevertheless, with discipline, dedication, and a conviction that something needs to be said, I am able to write despite it all.

Reclaiming the Responsibility of Learning: A Student’s Code of Conduct

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While the world of education is fascinated with learning styles, an adjacent problem has emerged. Our sensitivity to various learning styles is not necessarily the cause of this problem. But despite the effort to increase the accessibility of learning, students somehow seem to be less studious than ever before. Many students now approach education as though it must be tailored to them if they are to learn, just as their iPod playlists fit their musical taste. I first observed this immaturity as an undergraduate. The idea for a student code of conduct came to me as a graduate student where—surprisingly—this phenomenon persisted. Now I have been a philosophy professor for a few years, and have observed the problem as a student and as a teacher. I will offer a few of my irritated observations culled from my time in higher education before proposing a code to correct intellectual misconduct.

Students routinely stroll in late and leave early without warning or apologizing to the professor. They often play on their phones and have conversations with each other during lecture. I have spied desperate students trying to complete the reading five minutes before class. And then there is the glaring neglect of the syllabus. Most students either do not read their syllabi or else briefly scan them, just as they would a web page or an uninteresting Facebook post. Some students have always assiduously ignored the obvious, but this inattentiveness is getting worse—probably because students are increasingly distracted by multiple technologies. Students often turn in hastily-written papers, turn them in extremely late, or do not write papers at all. Worse yet, some seem oblivious that this omission will spell their doom.

But being an active learner is not just about paying tuition and showing up to class; it requires an emphasis on the students’ responsibility to learn. The rigors of learning often grate against the student’s less-than-intellectually-virtuous mental habits. I want engaged participants, not just warm bodies nodding off or twitching in response to the latest technological blandishments. Sadly, the principles of my student’s code of conduct are no longer taken for granted. Therefore, teachers may need to remind their students of all or some of them.

My concern here is with trends. Some students may not need the following educational Decalogue, but their numbers are dwindling. I offer these rules so that their kind may increase, that learning be restored through student responsibility, and that teachers may be greeted with more educationally savvy students. This is not merely a pedagogical dream. I have experienced focused, dynamic classrooms which inspire both students and teacher. Obviously, this is only possible when students as well as teachers take their responsibilities seriously. When the obvious is restated and reinstated, it can be allowed to become taken-for-granted once again.

The Student’s Code of Conduct

Article I: Learning is Active

Profitable learning is not something that just happens to us. In order to grow in knowledge, we not only have to pay attention, but we must critically evaluate ideas. We have to think, for instance, about the logical and social consequences of a given idea before accepting it. Then we must think of relevant objections to any truth-claim to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Moreover, while studying and sitting in a lecture, it is beneficial to write down ideas that excite you or anger you. Then, after class, reflect on them. This will help you enjoy your studies more. More importantly, it will help you become a more inquisitive and self-directed learner.

Article II: Professors Are Resources, Not Entertainers

While some professors are naturally more entertaining than others, it is not the professor’s job to entertain you. It is your job to listen carefully, to participate in discussion where you can, and to take detailed notes, all of which will help you stay alert. You will find that this enlivens the classroom for you (and perhaps for others).

Article III: Address Your Own Confusion

If you are confused, ask good questions, which will benefit you, other students, and the professor. (I am often nearly desperate for any thoughtful questions from my students.) The professor needs to know if she is making sense, and should be held intellectually accountable by the students.

Article IV: Avoid Distractions

Turn off your cell phones and other hand-held devices for (at least) three reasons: (1) A noisy cell phone is simply rude, (2) if the professor is distracted, the quality of the lecture (and thus your learning) will plummet, and (3) a quiet cell phone is less likely to compete for your attention.

Article V: Silence!

If you must talk to your neighbor in class, make it brief, and very quiet. Loud whispering, apparently unbeknownst to many, is not quiet. This rude behavior may unnerve (or even enrage) the professor as well as distract students. This ultimately harms the overall classroom experience because of the awkwardness that sucks life out of the room.

Article VI: Learning Styles Are Not Exemptions

Your individual learning style does not exempt you from applying yourself in a class that does not cater to that style. Someone who is “a visual learner” cannot claim this as an excuse for not listening to a lecture. Despite our educational preferences, we are responsible for seeking improvement in all areas as learners.

Article VII: Grades are Earned, Not Deserved

Students should realize that good grades are earned by hard work—at least when the system is working. Merely completing an assignment is rarely grounds for an A, and certainly no one is entitled to an A. Unless the grader is a veritable nincompoop, it takes excellent work to earn the best possible grades. There are two basic ways to handle assignments: Either finish the assignment early and allow time to polish it; or hand it in at the last minute. If the latter, prepare yourself for a justifiably low grade.

Article VIII: Discipline Yields Results

To read well, you must read often. This requires discipline and may be painful to the chronically overstimulated cybernaut. Commit time every day to doing your assigned reading. Strive to complete it at least one day ahead of schedule. If you wait until final exams to do your reading, you will not have the ability nor the time required to complete this task. Cramming is antithetical to learning.

Article IX: Course Materials Are All Important

If it is assigned, assume it is important. Do not rely only on an outline or handout from your professor. These are meant as supplements, and are not intended to be outright replacements for lectures or reading. Refrain from quoting or referring to the professor’s lecture notes if they are taken from assigned reading. This only advertises that you have not read. Take your own notes, too, because this fleshes out new ideas and makes them your own.

Article X: Lateness and Absences Do Not Excuse you from Coursework

Missing a class is your problem and not your professor’s. It is your responsibility to acquire what you have missed. If you must miss a class, contact your professor as soon as possible, or ask a classmate to fill you in. Check the syllabus before asking what you missed, so you can be prepared to understand what the classmate or professor tells you. Do not ask whether you missed anything important! This is an insult both to the professor and the class.

This is the sum of the matter: Read, write, and own your own education. You are a human, not a hard drive.

Training the Mind

In the first paragraph of his Discourse on Method, Rene Descartes describes the riches and perils of the life of the mind. It would benefit us to reflect on these words of an underappreciated philosopher.

For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough– the prime requisite is to rightly apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.

High Stakes Christianity

“My friends, let us look this question in the face. If there is anything at all in the religion of Christ, give everything for it. If there is nothing in it—if it is a myth, if our mothers who have prayed over us have been deceived, if the praying people of the last [2,000] years have been deluded—let us find it out. The quicker the better.

If there is nothing in the religion of Christ, let us throw it over and eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. If there is no devil to deceive us, no hell to receive us, if Christianity is a sham, let us come out and say so.

I hope to live to see the time when there will be only two classes in this world—Christians and [unbelievers]—those who take their stand bravely for Him and those who take their stand against Him. This idea of men standing still and saying, “Well, I don’t know, but I think there must be something in it,” is absurd. If there is anything in it, there is everything in it.” – D.L. Moody

H/T to Kevin Belmonte.

Denver Apologetics Conference

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On May 1st and 2nd, there will be an apologetics conference in Littleton, CO. It will be at Calvary Chapel South Denver, and is put on by the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions organization. For more information, see the website: http://emnr.org/myth-taken-the-cultural-challenge-to-the-church/

I will be speaking at this conference, on the below topic.

Ways Christians Mishandle Doubt

When believers face religious doubts, they have for generations been told to “just have more faith.” In recent years, a rival, apologetics-oriented approach has been on the rise. This is essential, and must continue to be encouraged. However, even within the apologetics subculture, many often unknowingly yield ground to skepticism. This session will address the skeptical currents present in the modern and postmodern contexts, and how the church tends to misunderstand both. Philosophical correction in these areas is essential for a culturally shrewd Christianity that takes knowledge, doubt, and discipleship seriously.

A Discussion of the Ethics and Essence of Contemporary Apologetics

Today, Melissa Pellew allowed me to join her on “Theology Matters with the Pellews.” We spent one hour talking about the cultural climate, benefits, and pitfalls of the contemporary apologetics renaissance. The podcast can be heard here: http://player.cinchcast.com/?platformId=1&assetType=single&assetId=7432485

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