Harold Horell, Ph.D., says religion should root young people while teaching them to be open to other points of view.
Photo by Janet Sassi

Postmodern society is overflowing with myriad points of view. Thanks to the immediate nature of today’s technology, contradictory ideas are constantly bumping into each other.

One of the results, according to Harold Horell, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious education, is moral anxiety: What is one to believe about right and wrong?

“The postmodern worldview begins with a recognition that there are multiple perspectives,” said Horell, who directs master’s level religious education programs in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education. “Today, life is often a booming, buzzing confusion, and there are multiple ways of viewing reality.”

How, then, does a faith community teach its young people morals? These and other questions are the subject of Horell’s forthcoming book, Nurturing Moral Wisdom: Morality and a Christian Moral Education in a Postmodern Age.

Horell outlined the dramatic cultural shift from modernism, based on the Cartesian notion of subjectivity, to a postmodernist deluge of views that has occurred largely over the last 50 years. The transition has been traumatic for all people, he said, but particularly for Catholics.
In the 1960s, as part of the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism set aside a rigid, classical view of the world to make room in its doctrine for modern human experience.

“The modernist world we thought we were welcoming no longer existed,” Horell said. By the time Vatican II was complete, the world was moving toward the postmodernist globalism of today.

“So Catholics experienced a kind of culture shock, going rapidly from a classical worldview into postmodernism. The last 45-plus years have been spent trying to figure out how we as Catholics can make our way in a postmodern culture.”

Under a classical view, teaching morality is simple: there are rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts.

A modernist recognizes how subjective factors such as our nationality, faith convictions and gender influence our outlook on life.

But a postmodern view creates “ambiguity that extends to even fundamental moral concepts, such as justice,” Horell said.

For example: Imagine a group of engineers discussing the potential for the moral and immoral use of a defensive weapons system they have been asked to design. The more perspectives there are among the group members, the more difficult it becomes for the group as a whole to make a moral evaluation.

If only one member is Catholic, and his moral perspective has been deeply shaped by his faith, he faces the added challenge of trying to communicate a moral vision that is grounded in his faith to people who do not share that faith.

While it is easy to teach children the fundamental dos and don’ts needed to co-exist within a contemporary social structure, Horell said it is no longer enough.

“Too often, we teach our faith convictions not as a starting point for dialogue, but as a blueprint for how to figure things out,” he said. “If faith provides a blueprint, then there is no room for dialogue. Yet, in a postmodern world, we need to know how to foster dialogue among people who hold differing moral outlooks.”

Horell advocates teaching religion as a means to root young people in their faith while ensuring they have the social tools to be open to other points of view. The emphasis, then, is not so much on what a moral person should do, but how a person can be of moral character.

In the case of the engineer mentioned above, Horell said he knew such an employee in New Hampshire. When faced with a moral crisis of designing a weapon he could not morally accept, the engineer worked for change. He visited the Department of Defense and engaged in a dialogue with military representatives, until they agreed to redesign the system.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, now an Oscar-nominated movie, evokes a moral ambiguity very much in step with the postmodern ethos of which Horell speaks.

In the story, Sister Aloysius, principal of an elementary school, accuses a priest of having behaved inappropriately with one of his male students, and her certitude is met with the priest’s denial and others’ doubt.

The priest eventually takes a reassignment as headmaster at another school. The audience is left to decide who is right and who is wrong.

“Doubt can be constructive, but it can also be destructive, and in the postmodern culture, there is a lot of destructive doubt,” Horell said. “One way to deal with it is to retreat into a secure worldview and the morality of one’s religion, or of one’s clan, or of one’s family. As long as you stay within a closed little circle, things can be okay.

“But if you have to interact with people who see things differently, you have no basis on which to build that interaction. In a world where we increasingly have to encounter people who are different, insular morality is less and less adequate.”

He noted the importance of providing young Christians with the means to find a middle ground, to seek a point of contact with other religious traditions. The recognition of the right to human dignity, for example, is rooted in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other faiths. A tradition like that, Horell said, has “public resonance.”

The next step, Horell said, is to locate those points of public resonance that have classic significance to different faiths. He cites the novel To Kill A Mockingbird as a story that is a classic because it pities the meek and seeks justice for those unfairly treated. These are themes that are global, but that also resonate across the centuries, Horell said.

“By a process of public reflection over time, it is possible to arrive at a morality that is refined, one that moves closer to objective truth and value,” he said.


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]