Vinoth Ramachandra

Morality and Intellectuals

Posted on: January 23, 2014

What is the relation between moral goodness and intellectual insight? The modern assumption is that there is no connection, that ethics inhabits a different realm altogether from knowledge- a view that would have been incomprehensible to the great sages of both the ancient West (whether “Ecclesiastes” or Socrates) and the East (Buddha or Confucius). In the Hebrew Bible, for example, “the fool” is a moral category more than an intellectual one.

History is littered with examples of brilliant scientists, mathematicians, artists and musicians who inflicted deep misery on those who had to live with them and whose chauvinist or racist beliefs would shock us today. The Royal Society or the Nobel Committee do not look at the moral character of the individuals it chooses to reward for their intellectual achievements. A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is weighed on its own merits and not by any financial corruption or marital infidelity that may have given him his academic position. His personal character and relationships are fitting subjects for his biographer, not for evaluation in professional math journals. We can gratefully receive, as gifts of God’s common grace, the artistic creativity and scientific genius of men and women whom we would not care to present as moral exemplars for our children and societies.

However, can the absence of moral goodness leave unaffected any person’s claim to be a great theologian or moral philosopher?

This question was raised in a paper, written some forty years ago, by the Cambridge theologian-philosopher, Donald Mackinnon. He begins his paper with the examples of the outstanding logician Gottlob Frege- who was not only “a racialist of the most bigoted sort”, but “obsessively anti-Catholic as well as anti-Semitic” – and Gerhard Kittel, initiator of the widely-used Theological Wordbook of the New Testament and a noted authority on the text and historical context of the New Testament, who had no qualms about developing a theological apologia for the Nuremberg racial laws. He showed no remorse for his support for the Nazis after the war ended.

But the occasion for Mackinnon’s reflections was the “deeply disturbing” revelations concerning the celebrated German-American theologian, Paul Tillich, stemming from the pen of his wife, Hannah, and his personal friend, the psychiatrist Rollo May. Tillich fled to the USA as a refugee from Nazi tyranny, and established himself after the war as perhaps the most famous philosopher-theologian of the Anglo-American world. He emerges from his wife’s book as a man who used his intellectual charisma to attract women into his orbit and seduce them. He comes across as coldly cruel towards his wife. His children were also the victims of his wilful promiscuity. When Hannah in desperation sought divorce, he threw himself on the floor, begging her not to, and enlisting his friends to tell her that it would ruin his career. This was the author of a best-selling existential classic, Courage to Be. Mackinnon notes wryly: “Sadly, we must conclude that at that time the ‘courage to be’ of which Tillich wrote did not extend to risking his career, his status, his reputation, his security.”

Colleagues of mine in Singapore recently told me of how they had invited a well-known evangelical theologian from the U.S to visit Singapore for some public meetings that they planned to host. They were shocked when this man demanded U.S $2,000 as his fee for each talk, plus a business-class airfare. They had to revoke the invitation as they could not afford it. I was incensed when I heard this. My last “experience” of the same theologian was in a conference on reconciliation in South Korea, when he flew in just before the talk he was to give and flew out again after he had finished, not waiting to hear responses, leave alone listen to other peoples’ talks. I remember thinking at the time, “Typical academic prima donna”. I lost all interest in reading his books anymore.

Am I wrong to feel this distaste? No doubt he continues to have interesting and important things to say. And I don’t doubt that God continues to use us despite our moral flaws. But if theological and moral positions are not embodied in the lives of those who advocate them, why should we take them seriously?

I feel the same distaste over the cult of “apologetics” books and courses emanating from conservative American circles and marketed worldwide. More than the simplistic arguments, what troubles me is the profoundly unChristian style– inattention to context and history, caricatures of other viewpoints, self-promotion, the reduction of Christian witness to winning arguments, etc. Knowing a preacher’s political stance and what he does with his fees tells me more about his “Christianity” than any of his theological arguments. And I think I am not alone. It is why secularised young people are more likely to listen to Pope Francis explain what it means to be a Christian than to clever evangelical “apologists”.

In the early Church, before the onset of Christendom, those seeking baptism were given moral instruction (how they should live as Christians) before they were taught the doctrines of the faith. (See the last chapter of my book The Recovery of Mission, 1996). Church leaders assumed that people don’t think their way into a new way of living; rather, they lived their way into a new way of thinking. Some truths can only be perceived by people who live in a certain way.

Were they- and I- wrong? If so, I would welcome correction. But, if not, what are the implications for theological and spiritual formation?

15 Responses to "Morality and Intellectuals"

In 1Timothy 4:16 Paul was very clear to Timothy about lifestyle and doctrine. The two go hand in hand. Vinoth you are right

There is (sadly) no shortage of other examples – everyone from Martin Luther to Karl Barth to John Howard Yoder.

Coming from an American evangelical mindset it has been difficult for me to recognize over the years just how disconnected doctrine can be from practice. For the longest time I concentrated on getting the argument right, rather than on getting the lifestyle right. Thanks for the reminder.

Calebmorgan: I would be interested to hear what you’ve read about Karl Barth and John Yoder (and the documented sources, please!)

I don’t have any documented sources about Barth and I probably shouldn’t have mentioned him since I don’t know much at all about his conduct. It seems like it’s hotly debated what exactly his professional and personal relationship(s) with Charlotte von Kirschbaum entailed – that’s about all I know.

I’ve read more about Yoder, and struggled a lot with it, as I’ve greatly appreciated his thought. His violent behaviour was widely known from at least 1992 (and even before that, people had observed how certain strands of his thought, when applied to women and oppressed people, can be used to justify violence and oppression).

Discussion of Yoder’s behaviour seems to have erupted last year, especially in the blogosphere. Here’s a timeline of last year’s discussion, with a lot of links: . This (not linked from above) is also worth reading:

Suzanne Selinger’s biography of Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship with Barth and her significant contribution to the theological opus that is widely regarded as Barth’s own, is written plainly and without sensationalism. That fiery creative exploratory minds require and seek out
1) a partner who is steady and willing to keep a household running around their drivenness
2) other extraordinarily adventurous minds to catalyse and critique ideas,
is no mystery or secret.
You don’t need to be of the stature of Karl Barth or Martin Luther King: even the average artist or scholar or leader needs to learn the lessons well, and be in a community that offers an environment in which passionate intelligence can flourish alongside fidelity.
I am encouraged that this is an area of ethics (managing the passions of intelligence) that IFES recognises. I wish I had been given more help, as a young person who had the kind of mind that can intoxicate others, in knowing how to protect and nurture healthy relationships and how to be protected from the relationships that can cannibalise goodness. By the grace of God, in my forties, I am grateful for a steady marriage, circles of ‘safe’ colleagues, and some survival skills, but it’s been hard work.
My guess is though, that the emerging young “Karls” and “Charlottes” need more than just a ‘make your doctrine and practice match up’ talk. Thus, your work on ‘living our way into a way of thinking’ is important.

In terms of spiritual formation – a great deal of our difficulties arise from the sexualisation of power, so common still in Christian culture, and the automatic assumption that those with insight, talent, intelligence, and skill should be given power and placed in leadership positions. This cuts both ways, however. Sometimes a person with great insight, talent, intelligence, and skill is excluded from a position of leadership on the basis that we mistrust their personal integrity, rather than recognising the truth that all of us when placed in isolation and and given power are liable to corruption, as is this person, but probably no more than another. Some leaders look more squeaky clean than others, but this can often be more the result of social advantage than ethical integrity. A collaborative model of leadership, and genuine sharing of power in roles of leadership is helpful to everyone.
Finally, in formation, role models are vital. We need the honest dark confessions of Henri Nouwen, we ought to think candidly, not idealistically about the choices of John Stott, we must recognise the gender exclusions Billy Graham’s cohort required in order to maintain their reputations, and can we comprehend the role that constant compassionate physical touch may have played in sustaining the communal life of celibacy for Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity of Kolkata.
Sorry for the long comment.

Beth, thank you for your thoughtful, insightful and wise comment. A pleasure to read your thoughts.

Beth and Caleb, thank you both for enlightening me. And I agree with Beth’s proposals regarding team leadership, role models of men and women who honestly share their moral struggles and failings in supportive community, etc.

I think we will all agree that serial infidelity and the unrepentant abuse of weaker people should be confronted openly and as promptly as possible. But why are we so slow, at the same time, also to confront financial greed, academic one-upmanship, and sheer arrogance on the part of theologians, philosophers and church leaders? And am I the only one who is appalled at seeing people awarded PhDs for theses on “inter-faith dialogue” who are never actively involved in such dialogue; or for theses on “Reconciliation” when their own personal relationships are in a sorry mess and they don’t seem to care? How has “academic excellence” come to drift so far apart from “Christian formation” in theological colleges and seminaries?

Not sure if you’re asking a rhetorical question here, Vinoth. But as the problem persists, there are two factors in theological education, and consequentially its replication in church culture from my (learning & teaching) experience which I think are worth mentioning. I own that it is an australian reformed/liberal/pentecostal/evangelical experience, so what I offer suffers that contextual boundary, but may have some resonance in other global contexts where there are common factors.
Individualism and Rationalism: To an extent these are ‘buzz words’ which post-modernity loves to critique, however I think it warrants attention to consider how these prevailing cultural values have thwarted Christian intellectual integrity.
As we undertake theological education in the individualist and competitive tradition of modern education, we are assessed almost entirely by means of long, single author monologues, constructed on conventions of formal argumentation, (at least in their historical roots in oratory) styled to increase the honour and status of the speaker. The senses are suppressed. Image, sound, smell, taste, touch are bracketed out of what it means to engage theologically. We are taught that only the linear progression of our argument counts. Thereby we both rehearse lack of sensitivity and create sensory poverty. It is not difficult to see how this creates the environment for disconnection between thought/word and practice. Surely no one is surprised at the outcome?

Because this is the way we assess, it conditions the way we ‘teach’ (though is sticks in my throat to even call much of what goes on in colleges ‘education’) and the power dynamics that are practiced at this most fundamental level, with regularity and routine are what sets the model for almost the entire rubric of church practice. One person, standing in a position of power, putting forth their own impenetrable argument in condescension to a group – usually of adults, who in the rest of their lives exercise ethical, rational and practical judgement, and yet are passive recipients to pre-packaged ideas, presented with an air of ‘authority’.
I do not think most church leaders intend this kind of power differential – and it is not their hearts to behave in such a way, in fact many express a sense of frustration with the system of expectations they feel caught in, and vulnerable to the issues of disconnection and moral failure that you have raised. My point is not intention, but to look squarely at the social-power dynamics of what it is that we perform and re-inscribe time after time after time – as an answer to how the disconnection that appalls you and I both, is the outcome of a so-called Christian faith.

As for ‘higher’ education by research and thesis, all of the above is intensified and exacerbated by even greater removal from community and sensory engagement. Ironically, and perhaps an exercise in futility, my current thesis topic critiques the (poor) exegesis of New Testament texts used to uphold the common models of ‘spiritual growth’ that often lead to a disconnection from the marginalised and ‘ascending’ progress into leadership and into an exclusive cohort of ‘the strong’; a concrete example being, if you are considered to be ‘spiritually mature’ or ‘theologically educated’ you will be invited to preach sermons, or address scholars, rather than be found walking with children, strugglers with health or sanity or ablement, the homeless, incarcerated… More and more you will be asked to articulate in the abstract and conceptual, and less and less you will be asked to demonstrate in the actual and concrete.

My questions were, yes, partly rhetorical; but also an expression of my frustration over what I see of theological education in South and South-East Asia (and I see absolutely no difference between “evangelical” and “ecumenical” schools in this regard).

There are lecturers with PhDs from some of the “top” universities and seminaries in the West. Some return to the West (often “for the sake of our children”); others remain but display the immaturity of character and lack of sacrificial social engagement that you refer to. It puzzles me, no less than it saddens.

this is a good reminder that theology is a discipline of the church, not primarily of the academy. and that it is the practices and language of the church that make possible the speaking of christian truth, not the practices of modern rationality. (cf stanley hauerwas’ emphasis on learning to speak christian)

the case of john howard yoder is a good example. while it seems clear he engaged in very inappropriate behaviour towards women, he submitted to church discipline. he was stopped from teaching. for all his flaws, he remained a theologian at the service of his church.

p.s. on the point about apologetics, donald mackinnon has this great quote – ‘apologetic concern, as Karl Barth has rightly insisted, is the death of serious theologizing, and I would add, equally of serious work in the philosophy of religion.’

It’s interesting that in spite of what the Pharisees did, Jesus still said that since they sit in Moses’ seat, you must obey them and do everything they tell you, But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. and of course God’s gifts and His calling are in a sense irrevocable, though exceptions are there like King Saul.

Vinoth, thanks for this post and opening a necessary discussion, particularly in the Western church, which still reels from the influence of modernity. I don’t presume to have a simple answer, but I am actually wondering if you have read anything by professor James K.A. Smith of philosophy at Calvin College? He deals well with the necessity for a revival of spiritual formation within Christian education, particularly in his Cultural Liturgies series: Desiring the Kingdom & Imagining the Kingdom.

In essence, he wants to eschew the Cartesian notion that we are “thinking things”. He argues that, instead, we are “liturgical animals” that “feel” our way through the world. He emphasizes our embodiment as an essential aspect of our formation. Just some food for thought in this discussion!

I am familiar with his writings on postmodern philosophy, and I recently read Imagining the Kingdom. I was frankly disappointed by the latter. Smith is addressing an evangelical/ Pentecostal audience that has downplayed ritual and bodily practices. Those of us who come from older church backgrounds are often struggling against the deadening effects of ritual and wish our congregations would become more “thinking beings”!

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January 2014
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