Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Blogging the GOEs, Question 3: Nuke a Gay Whale for Jesus!

As Crusty has mentioned a couple of times over the years, the GamesMakers of the GOEs, the General Board of Examining Chaplains (as opposed to the loser, local boards of examining chaplains?), do mix things up occasionally.  They've tweaked the evaluation system to a simpler "sufficient" and "insufficient," and this year they've made everything open resources, for instance.  The last few years they announced ahead of time what would be covered during what sessions. Frankly COD liked the olden days when you never knew what canonical area you were going to get on any given day, when Crusty took the GOEs it made me feel like I was a spy waiting to get my mission for the day, though unfortunately the questions didn't self-destruct (because we got them in hard copy back then) and the self-destruction, when it does happen, usually seems to come when students try to submit their answers, not receive them.

Thus we already knew this morning's area is Christian Ethics and Moral Theology.  At the seminary we have Morning Prayer (or celebrate the Eucharist when the Epiphany falls during the GOEs, which it inevitably does).  After Morning Prayer, there's a Hill Street
Be careful out there.  And aways answer the question as it is asked!
Bllues-esque moment (old man alert) when Crusty tries to impart a little advice for the day.  Today COD was honest: "I'm not gonna lie to you," he said, "the Ethics and Moral Theology questions are often the hardest."  Crusty didn't think last year's question was terribly clear or helpful, as he noted at the time.

Crusty doesn't hate this Ethics question, but he also doesn't love it, either. 

Let's run the disclaimer before getting to the question:

[Disclaimer:  You know, Crusty can be serious at times (well, often, actually) and here is a very special message from COD:  These  blog postings are really about me arguing with the questions, and are not intended to be any kind of GOE forum.  Crusty welcomes comments and feedback, but please DO NOT discuss answers in the comments section, since the GOEs are a double-blind process -- readers aren't supposed to know who you are, God forbid any of them should stumble across this site.  While Crusty thinks the GOEs need some pretty substantial if not radical revamping and restructuring, he's also a firm believer in them, or something like them, and feels we need to follow the process in place while having discussions about what changes might be needed.]

Set 3 Christian Ethics and Moral Theology


You observe two bumper stickers displayed together on a car in a university neighborhood. One says, "Save the Whales." The other says, "Keep Abortion Safe and Legal.”

Choose one of the following ethical approaches: Virtue Ethics, Feminist Ethics, Teleological Ethics.

1. In your own words, provide a 250-word, working definition of the chosen ethical approach as practiced in a Christian theological context. The definition should be appropriate to what might be given at an adult education forum in a parish.

2. With direct reference to the definition given in 1.), provide a reasoned, 750-word argument for how the messages of these two bumper stickers, taken together, do or do not represent a morally coherent world view, consonant with your understanding of Christian responsibility.

First off, Crusty was reminded of that great ethicist, Nelson Muntz, resident bully on The Simpsons.   When Lisa Simpsons is over at Nelson's house, she notices a "Nuke the Whales" poster on the wall of his room.  She says, "Nuke the whales?  You don't really
At least he's coherently consistent with the nuking worldview.
believe that, do you?"  Nelson replies, "I don't know.  Gotta nuke something."  COD would have preferred that this be the basis of the Ethics question this year, unpacking Nelson's and Lisa's respective ethical world views, but, then again, COD would have nothing to write about since that question would be AWESOME.

But back to this question.  Crusty think the General Board must be populated by people who live in college towns, since the theology question was set up around a college student who comes home doubting their faith, and this morning's question setup involves you observing bumper stickers on cars in a university neighborhood.   Crusty wonders if the next question's setup will be, "While driving through campus and listening to NPR on your way to yoga class, you hear a story..." 
Assuming the next question will be on schweddy balls.

On a side note, Crusty thinks the question could have used a little proofreading: in section 1 the student is asked for a "250-word" definition, and in section 2 a "750-word argument."  The word limits are almost always phrased as "no more than 250 words" or "about 750 words."  Either they are going to be sticklers about these sections coming in at exactly those word counts, or they should be consistent with their word limit instructions.

There are a couple of things Crusty likes about this question.

--Once again, it's grounded in a context of encounter -- not as direct as in questions one or two, but the bumper stickers themselves do represent ethical positions held by a fair number of people.  Unlike some of the more esoteric ethics questions of years gone by, this one, at least, is more directly connected to ethical positions held by individuals, and ones which pretty much every clergy person will encounter or address in ministry.  The fact that it's centered around the bumper stickers, and not persons holding the opinions, perhaps gives a slight remove from the issues themselves.  Guess they didn't want to jump right into "You're sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table and your sister announces she's working for Planned Parenthood because she thinks abortion should be safe and legal, and your brother the Roman Catholic priest just returned from the March for Life rally."  COD in general approves of questions which ask students to address the canonical areas in contexts they might actually deal with, so this is encouraging.

--We also see how Open Resources can be helpful here.  In previous years, it felt, at times, that the questions were asking students to address or name specific components -- like being asked to name "three forms of justice" one year.  When it was just you and your brain, and for whatever reason you didn't happen to know what they were getting at, it put students squarely behind the 8-ball in answering. Open Resources allows greater flexibility for both the question and the answer; they could specify which ethical approaches they wanted students to consider, because, well, you can go look at your notes from Ethics class or scramble to find a secondary source to brush up on what these approaches are.  Even Crusty had to look up "Virtue Ethics," to remember exactly what it was.

--In section one, they also give a context for the form of the definition asked, that it be appropriate for a parish forum.  Again, COD welcomes the parameters that the GBEC seems to be providing, since, as COD mentioned in his comments on the Scripture section, while clergy will often be asked to apply what they learned in preparation for ordination, they will rarely, if ever, be asked to do so in any formal academic format. [This is one of the reasons why Crusty has an oral component in every single class he teaches.  Usually this is an extensive class presentation, but at times it has also been an oral, one-on-one final examination with me.  When students have grumbled at times, COD has replied, "You'll rarely write academic papers after you graduate but you'll constantly be talking with people, so this is a way to apply what you've learned in a different context and format."]

--COD is a little perplexed by the end of Section 2.  Students are being asked to do two things here. [BTW in GOE prep Crusty often tells students to outline the question, since oftentimes very short questions can ask you to do several different things.] 

The first is whether "the messages of these two bumper stickers, taken together, do or do not represent a morally coherent world view."  Crusty is OK with this, I guess, since this is the kind of stuff ethicists spend their time thinking about, and if you ask enough ethicists, you'll get people who say things that can directly contradict the other.  It's one of the things Crusty likes about Ethics -- you gotta love a theological discipline where the point is to muster enough logic and precedent to support most any position.  They seem to be leading us a bit here; the plainest interpretation is that we are being asked to address an ethical conundrum.  One bumper sticker expresses a commitment to preserving life (saving the whales), the other involves ending one (keeping abortion legal and safe).  One could, of course, make an argument from any of the three ethical perspectives for
Crusty literally owes everything he knows about Ethics to Dr Farley.
either option, namely, that they do represent a morally coherent worldview or, conversely, not morally coherent.  [Crusty would have chosen Feminist Ethics, since he took that class from Professor Margarte Farley at Yale Divinity School, and would kick this question's ass with a morally coherent ethical argument for both.] Again, that's the perverse pleasure Crusty derives from Ethics, that you can make a reasoned argument about pretty much anything.  This was how Crusty got the only Outstanding on his GOEs in Ethics (back when they graded them on a four point scale from "Outsanding" at the top to "We pity you" at the bottom), when COD had yet to take a single Ethics class before taking GOEs.  Crusty got his only outstanding in Ethics because, in case you haven't noticed, bulls******g and arguing are second nature to Crusty and served him well in making stuff up as he went along in his Ethics GOE answer (and BTW Crusty failed the history question when he took it).

But while they seem to be setting up the parameters of the ethical conundrum, they're also giving the student the option to take either side, so long as they are able to back it up from their particular ethical perspective chosen in Section 1.

--But then they throw in an 11th hour curve:  "consonant with your understanding of Christian responsibility."  Whoa!  Where did this come from?  Do the students need to define their understanding of Christian responsibility (as they were asked to define their ethical perspective in Section 1)?  How does that relate to the ethically coherent worldview they've just been asked to describe?  This just seemed, frankly, an unnecessary and gratuitous twist at the end, like an M. Night Shymalan movie.  Crusty doesn't see how it adds to the question, and would have been fine with ending things with a period after "worldview."

Overall, Crust gives this question a "Meh."  

On the plus side,

--It asks students to grapple with ethical issues they will most certainly face in a ministry setting (abortion and concern for the environment/animal rights).   It provides some clear guidelines by specifying the ethical hermeneutics available, and open resources allows students who may not be familiar with any of them to not be at a disadvantage.  That's all good. 

It gets a "meh" however, because

-- It's a bit of a coput to make it about the bumper stickers and not the actual people who believe passionately about these issues and whom we encounter in our lives and in our congregations (and ethical standpoints that we ourselves hold).  It's also a bit of a copout that these reflections don't go anywhere: you see these bumper stickers, then write up this definition and this argument, but there's no context for what you do with them.  Do you write them in your journal, or, if you're particularly unbalanced, post them on an inappropriately named blog chock full of pop cultural references where nobody cares what you think?  Most of Crusty's conversations about the ethical aspects of abortion and animal rights/stewardship of the environment have not been journal entries where he has pondered bumper stickers seen in the Whole Foods parking lot.  It was in relationship and encounter with actual people.  In talking to an avowed feminist friend in college about the abortion she was debating whether to have or not.  It was letting the door-to-door Greenpeace canvasser into the house to call a taxi because the people in the neighborhood were hassling him, and we talked about why he took the job in the first place. [Crusty donated money to the Greenpeace canvasser, in part because the guy had been having such a rough time in the working class neighborhood of Somerville where COD lived at the time, and in part because he appreciated Greenpeace making France look bad when they sunk the Rainbow Warrior.]

--And it gets a Meh because they go M. Night Shymalan by throwing in a twist at the end by adding the requirement to include a reflection on one's "understanding of Christian responsibility."  But even that's a bit unkind to the GBEC, since that twist doesn't suck as much as
Still bitter I wasted two hours of my life on this.
Shymalan's last movies have.  Like "Signs." Really?  Water?  Aliens invade earth and are deathly vulnerable water? Didn't they know it's COVERED BY WATER?  Thanks for wasting my time, M. Night.

So far, so good: one "Axios!" and two "Meh" responses and we're halfway through the exam!  No WTF question yet, even.


  1. Talk about proof-reading. "There's a couple of things Crusty likes about this question." Try "There are ..." There are English majors in the room.

  2. Cheerfully corrected. In Crusty's defense, this week he's writing a couple thousand words twice daily with no dedicated proofreader, whereas the subcommittee drafting this question had several people and several months to get approxmately 125 words right.

  3. Also in proofing "MargarTE Farley" and "coput." (And great article--looking forward to the next!)

  4. Continuing the proofreading trend: I was happy to see that the top grade when COD took the GOEs wasn't really present, it was "Outsanding" (out, sanding? But sanding down what?)


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