St Nicholas Plumstead

4th September 2011

‘Critical Judgement’ Part One

This sermon is in two parts – one today, the other in a fortnight. They’re called ‘Critical Judgement’. People often mean the same thing by the two words ‘Critical’ and ‘Judgement’; but they use the word ‘critical’ often to implies a sense of urgency:

One urgent need today is to clear away the rubbish which well-meaning teachers and sociologists have piled up on the word ‘Judgement’. We need some good, simple, Christian thought about judgement.

Let’s think of some everyday examples. The first is Crossing a busy road. That calls for judgement; if we don’t want to get turned into raspberry jam! So Jesus wasn’t inviting us to walk in front of the nearest bus when He said ‘judge not’. We teach our children to exercise their judgement, and if they are too young to judge the speed of traffic, we take their hand and cross the road with them.

Secondly, imagine an engineer building a bridge. He has to judge just the weight that bridge will need to bear, and design it accordingly to prevent it collapsing.

Or thirdly, if we go into hospital for a surgical operation we put ourselves under a surgeon. This involves making two judgements: whether to submit to the operation in the first place; but also our judgement about the surgeon’s judgement during the operation.

Judging, then, so far from being a wrong thing to do is sometimes our duty; and making the right judgement is as critical to other people’s welfare as it is to our own.

Judgement of course (like any good thing) can be abused. When Jesus said ‘judge not’, He was referring to those hasty, instinctive, judgements we make about others especially when we don’t know all the facts.

So when we’re told ‘don’t be judgemental’ it doesn’t mean that we should never exercise our judgement; it means that we need to make better, more informed judgements. And what seals the matter once and for all is the Pentecost Collect that ‘by the [Holy] Spirit that we may have a right judgement in all things’.

Some people one knows habitually criticize everyone (except themselves!). Like other bad habits it’s one which grows in people like a cancer without their realizing it, and, like a neglected cancer, becomes untreatable. Self-righteousness (as it’s called) is something Jesus made no bones about. He condemned it totally and He said that prostitution and tax-extortion were less grave sins. Such self-approval was the hallmark of the Pharisees and Scribes, and. as the saying goes, Jesus simply ‘had no truck with it’.

Let’s ask next why people, whose duty it is to judge between good and evil in others besides themselves, are now so afraid of doing so that they keep their mouths shut: people like parents, teachers and priests.

Part of the answer lies in the way people confuse two quite different things – ‘Virtues’ on the one hand, and ‘Values’ on the other.

Why are they different? Well, in a nutshell, everyone nowadays is taught to have their own values. So it’s unrealistic to expect that any two given people will have the same set of values. So the idea that a civilization can build a workable Moral Code on an amalgam of the individual values of those who belong to it, is ridiculous. If Mr Jones has put kindness, and Mr Smith has put personal success, at the top of his Value-list, then it’s unlikely that they will ever manage to agree about anything else!.

Virtues, on the contrary, are not generated by individuals. They are the same for everyone and are independent of one’s’ personal preferences (which is the stuff our Values are made of); and, contrary to popular belief Virtues hardly change at all over the years, whereas our Values can change overnight.

Values are creatures of fashion: and we all know how quickly fashions change. Just look at the sort of clothes people throw away or give to charity shops. They were often ‘New’ only a few months ago. If moral Virtues depended on the Value which we personally place upon them it would be tantamount to saying that people should do exactly what they feel like doing at any given moment – which, if you think of it, is exactly what the recent looters were doing a few weeks ago. But more of that in a fortnight’s time.

So how did this all rot about Values set in to begin with? Well, for one thing it’s a great deal easier for a hard-pressed teacher with bored students, to invite them to catalogue their Values, rather than think about Virtues (or their lack of them!),. Thinking about personal Values is so much more congenial than recognizing one’s lack of Virtues – for example Chastity, Prudence, Temperance or Fortitude.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why ‘contemplating one’s Values’ has replaced ‘disciplining one’s Virtues’ as a school subject, and it’s not hard to discover what has brought this about. It is this:

Not long ago, a teacher, a nurse, a doctors or a priest (to name but four examples) was seen by him- or herself (and others) as having a vocation (or a ‘calling’) rather than doing a jobs or following a career.

That meant that they were expected to make it a ‘whole-life’ choice – not in the sense that they could not, if appropriate, embark on a different profession later on, but in the sense that, so long as they were following that vocation they were committed to being ‘that kind of person’ 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. And that commitment, necessarily involved them in setting an example to those whom they were teaching or nursing or ‘priesting’, not just when they were in school or church or hospital or surgery; and not only during working hours, but in the whole course of their life, both public and private.

That commitment to vocation has now gone by the board and, until there is a general change of heart, it will remain that way. People will continue to imagine that their Private Life, and their Personal Values have nothing whatever to do with their job or profession.

Of course they are mistaken, and we shall consider some of the tragic consequences of this misjudgement in a fortnight.

To give you a clue: it has something to do with the fact that we presently live in a ‘secular’ society.


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