Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist, with a focus on moral reasoning and behavior. Coming from a basically secular Jewish and politically centrist background, Haidt set out to answer the question in the sub-title (“Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”), and in so doing sheds genuine light on the present polarization of our culture. He has done much, much more, however. He has articulated a moral foundations theory, and he has argued that moral decisions involve the gut. I suspect that this way of thinking about things will both contribute to our thinking about natural law, and illuminate aspects of the Bible that might be difficult for modern westerners to grasp. I think it will also help in thinking about moral formation. Intriguingly for the Creation Project, I think his empirically-based conclusions can contribute to how we conceive of our theological and ethical positions.
Let me begin this symposium by expressing how much I have profited from his work—in the book under present consideration, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2012), in his book with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure (Penguin, 2019), and in his Veritas Forum event with Tim Keller at New York University in February, 2017 (“The Closing of the American Mind”). It is a special treat to enlist my colleagues in a thoughtful conversation about one of these items.
Let me speak for myself: In the course of writing commentaries on the Hebrew books of Psalms and Numbers, I found that his articulation of the six moral foundations clarified issues in these biblical books that many might find off-putting. (I have since seen that this applies to the rest of the biblical books as well!) I also found that his stress on the emotional aspect of moral judgments corresponds with my increasing awareness of the role of the biblical texts in shaping the moral aspirations of the worshiping assemblies in which they were to be read aloud. To be sure, there are some specific topics on which I might adjust or augment Haidt’s presentation: I do not count that as a finding fault with the book, but rather as respectfully engaging its material and adapting it beyond what Haidt himself was seeking to do.
In this light, then, perhaps Haidt’s work can also illustrate a constructive interaction of empirical research and theological formulation, another case where science and faith need not be at odds.
I will come back to some of these matters in my discussion that will conclude this symposium, and God willing, will develop them more fully in later publications. For now, I want to let my colleagues have their say. We have six people from diverse backgrounds, and I look forward to reading their thoughts, which combine appreciation, pushback, and suggestions for our consideration.
(1) Kirsten Birkett, with her PhD from the University of New South Wales, Australia, in Science and Technology Studies (among other impressive qualifications), with extensive service teaching, and now serving as Associate Minister of an Anglican parish in London, having also been a research fellow with The Latimer Trust.
(2) Anthony Bradley, with his PhD in Historical and Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary and his MA in Ethics and Society from Fordham University, now teaching at The King’s College in New York City.
(3) J. Daryl Charles, with his PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary, having written much on ethics, natural law, and just war, is now an affiliated scholar of the Acton Institute.
(4) Joshua Jipp, with his PhD from Emory University, is Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, as well as a resident fellow at the Creation Project of the Henry Center.
(5) Te-Li Lau, with his PhD from Emory University, is Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; originally from Singapore, he has written the important work, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters (Baker Academic, 2020).
(6) Mark Stirling, with his PhD in New Testament from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, was a medical doctor before his theological studies, and is now the Director of the Chalmers Institute in St Andrews, and also a part-time lecturer in Ethics at the Edinburgh Theological Seminary and the Highland Theological College.