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Christianity and Honor

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By David Hein

Church schools support both Christianity and honor systems. They perceive no conflict. They see honor as harmonious with Christian theology and Christian ethical principles. Certainly no chaplain or school head ever arises in chapel and proclaims: I now know that we have been deceived into accepting this honor system all these years; shame on us! And yet conscientious Christians might want to raise some questions about their compatibility, and then go on to see if they can sort out any tangles that appear.

In church schools, honor is routinely experienced as a leading way of representing, embodying, enforcing, and growing this commitment to character. It’s almost right up there with chapel as a leading identifier of what the school is all about in relation to moral development. A school’s honor system is — dare I say it? — a familiar marketing tool.

Today’s students grow up in a world in which the lack of honor (although it would not be put that way) is almost taken for granted. Who, when accused of anything, ever says “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’m sorry”? Who does not first deny? Then, if left no room for escape: blame others, or the environment, or mental stress — anything but Yes, I was responsible, I did wrong, I am willing to face the consequences. That last bit gets said in court only as part of the plea deal. That’s what children grow up exposed to. Or they have parents who, rather than supporting the teacher who reprimanded or punished their child, blame the school, thinking they are defending their child.

The famous sociologist Peter Berger raises some thought-provoking questions in his 1970 essay “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” He begins with this arresting statement: “Honor occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity. An individual asserting it hardly invites admiration, and one who claims to have lost it is an object of amusement rather than sympathy.” Apparently outdated — and perhaps thankfully so — “at best, honor and chastity are seen as ideological leftovers in the consciousness of obsolete classes, such as military officers or ethnic grandmothers.”

Berger points to a moral reason for honor’s social ostracism: it was class-bound, the norms of an elite. It was appropriate for medieval knights, but it was not seen as desirable or even possible for democratic men and women. Honor was, Berger observes, an aristocratic concept, bound up with a hierarchical view of society. The age of chivalry operated on the basis of a moral code that gave different weight to and had varying expectations of different parties: “To each his due” was the moral imperative of the feudal order. This morality was traditional, then, but it was not absolute. Instead, it was relative to different groups in society. (This medieval mind-set shows up in Anselm’s great work on the Atonement, Cur Deus Homo.)

What citizens the world over seek today is not honor but dignity, which confers status not according to rank but according to personhood. Dignity adheres to the solitary self; it asserts a humanity behind the roles and norms of society. A naked, abandoned baby in a trashcan has as much status, dignity, and worth as the robed king in his castle on the hill. This view is enshrined in such famous modern documents as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Thus the waning of honor, Berger believes, is not simply reflective of a coarsening of ethics, a moral decline, selfishness, or a decrease in respect for other persons. That pessimistic historical view, he finds, is too one-sided. It fails to appreciate the moral gains made in the wake of the loss of honor. The age that saw the retreat of honor, he points out, also saw the rise of new moralities and indeed of a new humanism. Racial and religious minorities, exploited classes, the poor: all received respect through dignity. Thus dignity, not honor, came to hold unique sway in modern society.

Although dominant in modernity, dignity is not a modern invention. The view that humanity has a profound dignity has long roots: you can find this principle, for example, in the Bible, in Sophocles (in the confrontation between Antigone and Creon), and in other ancient and medieval texts.

Where do these historical facts and ethical appraisals leave today’s honor system? Is it merely an archaic, elitist, snobbery-inducing, class-bound, institution-dependent relic? Is its replacement by dignity, Berger asks, to be lamented as loss or celebrated as liberation?

Honor is a vague word with many meanings. An honor system in today’s church school bears affinities with medieval codes of chivalry, but obviously today’s schools operate in a morally complex world. Alexis de Tocqueville noted as much when he discerned the transformation of honor in the New World of democratic capitalism. In church schools, honor is mixed with other social and ethical ingredients, including dignity and Christianity, as well as — a school’s athletics department would hasten to point out — impressive codes of good sportsmanship.

As we begin to consider the moral issues surrounding honor, we might think first of the moral issues — from a Christian point of view — surrounding friendship.

Philia, as Aristotle, Cicero, C.S. Lewis, and others have remarked, is a virtue. A moral good in itself, friendship can also, as John Henry Newman declared, summon and fortify other worthwhile practices, including patience, self-sacrifice, and courage. But philia is problematic from a Christian point of view. It speaks of the in-group, a self-selected coterie; its tendency is to establish boundaries that exclude.

Philia can, however, be transformed. In Christian ethics, the first place to look for an answer is the life of Christ: the way of the Cross. Agape transforms philia.

A Church of England priest named Hugh Lister served in London’s East End as a trade-union chairman in the 1930s before becoming a combatant officer in the Welsh Guards during the Second World War. His coterie in the East End was an open fellowship. His neighbors were his friends. Starting each day with an early celebration of the Mass at the Eton College Mission in Hackney Wick, he could be found at noon handing out union leaflets at the gates of a local factory. From morning till night, all his practices were aimed at inclusion. His practice of philia was transformed by agape. In this way the man whom Austin Farrer called “the one saint” of his generation blithely transgressed friendship’s theoretical limits.

An honor system in a Christian school has this same openness. It should be seen and exercised as transformed by agape. Indeed, it will work only if it is voluntarily supported by all: embraced as part of a common cause.

Elitist? Yes, in a sense. A school governed by honor will be different from society at large. It must be a community set apart. But like the Church, as an alternative society it exists not only for itself but also as a tough little community of resident aliens witnessing to and accepting the existence of — as Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man — a universal Tao.

After all, Christianity is no stranger to deontological or rule-based ethics: Thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal. In other words, prohibitions laid down on lying, cheating, and stealing: an honor system. So an honor system is not obviously counter to the norms of Christianity.

In our relativistic age, the way of honor affirms that there are binding ethical norms that we freely submit to for the good of the community and for the good of ourselves as moral creatures. Order is the only structure within which true freedom can thrive and authentic selfhood flourish. As Thomas Mowbray says to King Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Mine honour is my life, both grow in one; Take honour from me and my life is done.”

Recent educational studies clearly show that self-control (which used to be called self-mastery) contributes much more to students’ future success than do praise and self-esteem, especially when self-esteem is all too democratically based on less-than-outstanding achievement. We respect students — their dignity and their potential — when we help them learn to master themselves and to defer gratification.

Students must be taught that they are not formed simply by nature and culture. As one of my heroes, Samuel Johnson, knew, to proceed on the assumption that you are nothing more than a creature of your environment or of your natural impulses is no way to become a human being. If we really want to respect the dignity of all, then we have to treat students as persons for whom will and conscience come into play. Students’ free will enables them to make choices. In an honor system, we respect students’ dignity by acknowledging their freedom and affirming their responsibility as moral agents.

Like democracy, an honor system is not perfect, but it is certainly better than the alternatives. It’s the only system that takes human beings seriously as moral actors. According to Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, if you act morally only because there’s a teacher in the room, or because you will be rewarded for your good deeds and punished for misbehaving, then you’re occupying a pretty low position on the moral totem pole — and people will be sure to check their silver spoons after you leave a party at their house.

In the modern church school, no conflict exists between an honor system and personal dignity. Anyone who is admitted to the school is expected to join the community of trust. The honor system is open to all on the basis of submission to a principle, not submission of a pedigree. And the whole idea is that your personal dignity will be affirmed and enhanced if you do so submit. Indeed, Christianity claims to offer the ultimate path to real dignity — participation in the life of Christ — but this path, as Thomas Aquinas and others knew, is also the route of true virtue.

Veritas et virtus, my old school’s motto, never forgotten, often recalled: Truth and courage, or truth and virtue. At that school, St. Paul’s of Brooklandville, Maryland, true manliness — true personhood, we would say today — is found along a path marked by signposts: the eternal lights of divine truth and divine law. In the modern church school, the way of honor and the way of Christ are complementary.

David Hein is professor of religion and philosophy at Hood College and coauthor of Archbishop Fisher, 1945-1961: Church, State and World (Ashgate, 2012). This essay is adapted from his remarks at the 2013 conference of the St. James School in Maryland.

Image: The lectern and Communion table of Glasgow University Chapel • Charles Clegg/Flickr

Christianity and Honor


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