Taking A Right Approach to the Problem of Racism
Jun 12, 2020 by David Fowler
Professor Johnson, in his book, The Right Questions—Truth, Meaning & Public Debate, said this about the place at which he began a search for an answer or solution to any issue:
In my lifetime of studying and participating in controversies, I have learned that the best way to approach any problem of any kind is usually not to talk or even think very much about the ultimate answer until I have made sure I am asking all the right questions in the right order.
The reason for this methodology, he said, was this:
When I am too eager to get to the answer, I may overlook some of the preliminary questions because I do not stop to reflect on why they are important and assume carelessly that I must already have answered them.
Here is how he applied those thoughts to public debate:
My problem is not persuading readers or hearers that I have the correct answers to the questions I am asking. My problem is rather to persuade those listeners and readers that the questions I am asking are the ones they should be asking and that their education to this point has prepared them to ask the wrong questions rather than the right ones.
And, this, he said, is the result of this approach:
If I start with the right beginning question and let the answer to that first question suggest the next question and so on through each succeeding step, then the irresistible power of logic will eventually take me to the correct conclusion, even if at first that conclusion seems to be a very long way off.
Is this a good approach? I’ll go with yes, because Jesus often seemed to ask penetrating questions when presented with a difficult issue, particularly when his answer would have been “twitter fodder” for those who hated him (Matthew 12:22-30; 21:23-27; 22:15-22).
What Is Always the First Right Question?
For this, I’ll again turn to a statement by another person, this time Alexis de Tocqueville, taken from his book, Democracy in America, and ask if we would agree with him:
Somewhere and somehow authority is always bound to play a part in intellectual and moral life. The part may vary, but some part there must be. The independence of the individual may be greater or less but can never be unlimited. Therefore we need not inquire about the existence of intellectual authority in democratic ages, but only where it resides and what its limits are.
All but the anarchist would agree, and that leads to the first right question, “Where does authority in society ultimately reside?” Only those with authority can authoritatively do what needs to be done.
What is the Second Right Question?
In order to help us frame the next right question, I again turn to an observation made by de Tocqueville:
There is hardly any human action, however private it may be, which does not result from some very general conception men have of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their soul, and of their duties to their fellows. Nothing can prevent such ideas from being the common spring from which all else originates.
If this is so, then the next right question is what bearing does our conception of God have on the issue at hand?
Now, atheists would object to this being the next right question, but the objection is misplaced. It isn’t a matter of this not being the next right question, it is just that the atheist has already answered it in the negative.
What to Make of the Atheist?
In an age of social equality—which is what we say we aspire to, right?—the atheist’s answers to any problem may logically be dismissed for, according to his own espoused belief system, he has no authority over anything greater than perhaps himself and, therefore, by admission, he cannot speak authoritatively to anyone else.
Sure, the atheist can say, for example, that his solution is reasonable or even improve on that by saying it is reasonable in the light of what we can learn from history, and therefore his solution should be accepted.
But on the basis of what authority can the atheist authoritatively say to anyone else that solutions must be reasonable or even reasonable in light of history? Considering the views of great Greek philosophers in regard to slavery brings that standard to naught.
Now the athiest may retort that the majority of people agree with his standard of assessment, but that is of no authoritative consequence. On what basis can the atheist say that majority opinion matters?
Reason and even reason in light of history should tell us that the majority can be really wrong. For example, consider the views of slavery held by the majority in the British Empire prior to Wilberforce and the majority in America’s southern states in regard to slavery prior to the Civil War.
Enough said about reason and majoritarian ethics based on reason.
The Third Right Question.
The last question, for today at least, is then, “Who is God?”
That is a huge question. All serious religions purport to answer this third question, and the answers each give are exclusive; by their own terms only one can actually be right assuming, for the sake of argument, any of them are.
But religious people can be assured of this, if we get the answer wrong, we will, by a train of logical reasoning, come to the wrong conclusion.
If Christians want to get the answer to the issue of racism right, then I believe we need to spend more time studying and answering the question of who God is, particularly what it means to say God is Triune, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign.
That sounds impractical in a let’s-get-‘er-done world, which may explain why these doctrines are taught so infrequently today, but the Apostle Paul’s prayers for the church weren’t about doing more or doing “things” better; they were about growing in the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God must be the predicate for how Christians see things and how we do them; it was always the predicate for what the Apostle exhorted us to do.
Only as we Christians grow in that knowledge will we be in a position to discuss constructively with others and model genuinely before others solutions to racism.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006.