Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Cause-Cure Fallacy

In a recent e-mail exchange with my best friend, I had occasion to talk about what I call the "cause-cure fallacy." I think I've touched on it before on this blog, but it's worth revisiting.

The fallacy, in a nutshell, arises when some controversial practice--like the exclusion of some people from access to social goods made available to others--is justified by appeal to social problems that the practice may actually help to cause. The controversial practice is touted as the solution--or at least the most fitting thing to do given the problem. But any kind of thoughtful investigation will show that there is good reason to think this proposed "cure" is actually making the problem worse.

Consider, as an example, some of the ideas on education espoused by the namesake of the building I'm in right now. Murray Hall, home of the Oklahoma State University Philosophy Department and several other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, is named after Alfalfa Bill Murray--who presided over Oklahoma's Constitutional Convention, served as Oklahoma's first Speaker of the House, and was governor during the Great Depression.

Murray, like many white politicians in his day, was a racist. In Murray's case, he wasn't just a racist in private. He spearheaded efforts to make sure Oklahoma was a Jim Crow state. And at one point during a speech at Oklahoma's Constitutional Convention, he argued forcefully against providing higher education to blacks.

On what basis did he make his case for excluding blacks from higher ed? Here's a snippet of what he said:
He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers and many lines of agriculture, horticulture and mechanics in which he is an adept, but it is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions…
Murray's claim that this is "an entirely false notion" is, of course, an entirely false notion. But he got away with asserting this falsehood. I'm sure most of privileged white people in his audience nodded the heads in blithe agreement--and would happily point to the rarity of accomplished black professionals, the relatively fewer displays of high academic achievement, etc., as evidence that what Murray said was true.

But, of course, we all know that intellectual excellence is cultivated through education. If you systematically provide fewer educational opportunities to a class of people, they're likely to show less aptitude for law and medicine and scholarly research, and more aptitude as "porters, bootblacks and barbers." If you use this fact--which we know to be an effect of being denied educational access--as a justification for denying it, you are guilty of the cause-cure fallacy.

I should point out that in this case we know that Murray was dead wrong. We know that when afforded the same educational opportunities, blacks and whites are equally capable of achieving intellectual excellence.

Did Murray know this, too? Was he just in denial about it? I can't say. But that's not the problem with Murray's thinking. Or, perhaps better: His thinking would be problematic whether or not he knew. The problem with Murray's thinking is that anyone who reflects on the matter can see that such an exclusionary educational policy could be the cause of the difference in intellectual achievement that's observed. And because the exclusionary policy could be the cause of the difference, you can't appeal to the difference as a justification for the exclusionary policy.

Put more broadly, you commit the cause-cure fallacy any time you justify a controversial practice based on considerations that, reasonably, could be caused by that practice.

Consider the following example, which has some relevance to the recent conflicts in Ferguson, MO. Suppose you want to justify a militarized style of policing, in which outsiders to a community patrol its streets in military gear, maintain their distance from the community they patrol, are quick to draw their weapons as a way of enforcing their authority, and routinely shoot to kill when they feel threatened. And suppose you justify this approach on the grounds that the people in the community show little respect for the law.

Here's the problem: If a community finds itself in an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement, that tends to generate an attitude of hostility towards the agents of the law. Respect for the law predictably erodes under such conditions. Militarized policing by outsiders without deep community ties thus could be an important contributing cause of eroded respect for the law. As such, such eroded respect can't be invoked as a reason for militarized policing tactics. To do so is to fall prey to the cause-cure fallacy.

Or here's another example. Conservative opponents of same-sex marriage like to point to the promiscuity of the gay community. They talk about the "gay lifestyle" as if acting on same-sex attraction were essentially bound up with a kind of sexual free-for-all which disdains sexual constraints. Many conservatives point to this "licentiousness" as a reason why same-sex relationships should continue to be stigmatized and same-sex marriage withheld.

The problem, again, is that being systematically stigmatized and denied access to marriage could readily explain why there is so much more promiscuity and impermanence in the gay community. Denied access to society’s primary tool for encouraging and supporting monogamy, the gay subculture is understandably less monogamous. Furthermore, since society has historically declared that homosexual intimacy is sinful regardless of how it is expressed, conservative norms entail that a faithfully monogamous gay relationship is just as much a “sin” as promiscuity and casual sex. Since lesbians and gays see no place for themselves within a society ruled by such norms (those norms lay out no legitimate expression of their sexuality), they predictably end up adrift in a marginalized space outside the scope of those norms--a situation that can readily lead to a collapse of sexual restraints.

Add to that the depression and sense of uprootedness that comes with social rejection, and the way in which superficial and self-destructive pleasure-seeking often follows on the heels of such depression, and you can see why it is reasonable to suppose that stigmatization of gay sex and exclusion from the chief social model of responsible sexuality (marriage) could be major causes for the promiscuity and "licentiousness" of the gay community. To justify such stigmatization and exclusion based on these phenomena is therefore fallacious.

As these examples hopefully indicate, the cause-cure fallacy is a real issue. It's a pattern of thinking that rears its head again and again--and it seems to function especially in contexts where privileged groups seek to preserve their privilege and justify the continued marginalization of others. They point to the effects of marginalization as if they were some essential problem with marginalized people, and invoke those effects as a justification for continuing to marginalize.

Insofar as this sort of thinking obscures and even seeks to vindicate social injustice, it's important to call it out. The first step to defusing its power is to become aware of it, and to pass that awareness on.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What Victoria Osteen Got Right

Victoria Osteen, wife of mega-church prosperity-gospel preacher Joel Osteen, got some attention recently for a poorly-worded bit of theology, delivered (with a benign smile and a cheerleader attitude) to a stadium-sized church and countless television viewers.

Her words were spliced onto a brief clip from the Cosby Show to generate a video meme that went the rounds of social media, garnering a couple of million views. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

When I saw the video, I chuckled and moved on. But then, yesterday, I read a piece by Dwight Welch, a progressive pastor here in Oklahoma, that inspired me to stop and reflect a bit on the content of Victoria Osteen's words. Here, again, is what she said:
I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?
Dwight Welch rightly notes that many of Victoria Osteen's critics seem to be operating with a view of happiness that--contrary to Aristotle's view--severs happiness from morality, the "good life" from the life of goodness. He asks, "If God is not to be found in the good of life, then how is it salvific that we relate to such a reality?" In articulating what he appreciates about Victoria Osteen's claim, he puts the point as follows:
She connects God and humanity and the good together.  Instead of  doing something for God’s sake, as if God is a wrathful parent, demanding obedience, we are being told that in doing and engaging the good, worship, in all that we do which furthers human well being and flourishing, we are in fact honoring God.
Now, from a broadly Christian perspective, there clearly is room to criticize what Victoria Osteen has to say. By putting the focus squarely on our own happiness--by framing good works and worship as a means to personal happiness--her words suggest that we should prioritize ourselves. Doing good is relegated to an instrumental strategy for self-gratification. Worshiping God sounds like it's to be valued in the way we value a decadent meal.

But Dwight Welch's invocation of Aristotle suggests an alternative way of understanding her words--a way that may or may not be what she had in mind, but which deserves a response more thoughtful that dismissal-by-Cosby-clip.

For Aristotle, virtue is the essence of happiness. That's not to say that you can be happy while you're starving, so long as you're a good person. Aristotle thinks we need to have basic needs met as a precondition for happiness. But once those conditions are met, the path to happiness isn't found through self-indulgence or accumulating wealth. It's found through self-actualization. It's found by becoming a good example of a human being. And for him, virtues such as generosity and temperance and courage and wisdom are all parts of that process of becoming a fully actualized human being. The truly happy people are those who, by cultivating their character, come to find pleasure in what is genuinely good.

Within a Christian context, true happiness is found when you love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you love your neighbor as yourself. Rather than there being a division between personal fulfillment and being a good person, the two are intimately bound together. The greedy business tycoon who steps all over others might experience ephemeral pleasures, but not true life satisfaction--not true happiness. That is reserved for those who live a life of love made possible by giving themselves over to the loving source of life.

Here's what I think Victoria Osteen gets right: When you worship and obey God, you aren't doing it for God. Doing it for God's sake makes no sense, because the infinite creator of the universe doesn't need anything from us in order to be fulfilled. God doesn't need to be glorified by us, as if God is somehow diminished by failing to be properly fawned over. If there is a need here, it's our need. We can't be fully actualized human beings if our priorities are wrong. And to get our priorities right, we need to recognize the inherent value in things, and then let our priorities be shaped by that.

If Christian theology is even remotely true, then this means we should value God above all other things--not because God is a wrathful parent or a vain megalomaniac demanding sycophantic obedience, but because we cannot love anything in proportion to its inherent worth if we do not first love that which is the infinite source of all inherent worth. And if Christian theology is true, this also means that our capacity to love has its origins in God and is nurtured to the extent that we open ourselves up to God and make ourselves into instruments through which God's love can work in the world.

If worship is about anything, it is about such orienting of the self towards the ultimate good and the source of all goodness--so that we become better people and more fulfilled people, more full of love and more full of joy. In that sense, glorifying God has merely instrumental value: it's purpose is not to make God feel better about Himself, but to transform us and lift us up. Worshiping God is essential to getting our priorities in order.

I am not saying here, by the way, that atheists are therefore incapable of having their priorities in order. Many atheists orient themselves towards the good, the inherently valuable, in a way that amounts to what theists are doing when they orient their lives around God. And I've seen theists who claim to put God above all things but whose understanding of God is shaped by their own prejudices in such a way that they have lifted up an idol of their own making and made it into the supreme object of their devotion. If there is a God--as I believe--then I've met atheists who worship God but don't call it that, and theists who don't worship God even though they claim to. On this front, the debate over God's existence is not so much a debate over what a life lived well looks like, but a debate over how to understand such a life and unpack the metaphysics behind it.

On Christian metaphysics, Victoria Osteen is exactly right when she says we don't worship and glorify God for God's sake. We do it for our own. God needs nothing from us, least of all our worship. But if we think God is worthy of worship, then failing to worship God displays a disorder in our value system that will compromise our ability to love others and find joy in life. And if God is the infinite source of value, then connecting with God in worship becomes a way of communing with the good, of letting it enter into us, in a self-actualizing way.

What Victoria Osteen gets wrong is this: It is one thing to recognize that our self-actualization--our moral character and happiness--depend upon putting God first. It is something else to put our own self-actualization first. When we do that, we are likely to get confused about what will really fulfill us--and we might walk away with the confused notion that life is about material comfort and security, or something equally superficial.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ferguson

I've been wondering for awhile what I can add to the public discussion that has been generated by the recent events in Ferguson, MO: the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, and the subsequent community protests. What light can I shed, a white man sitting comfortably here in Stillwater, OK?

And then I remembered something my daughter said earlier this summer. We were driving, and we passed a police vehicle. From her car seat in the back, my daughter waved to the police officer. I know this not because I saw her do it (I was watching the road), but because she promptly announced, "I waved to the police officer. I like to wave to the police. They're nice."

They're nice.

That is my daughter's experience of the police, and I'm not surprised. We have a relative, Uncle Rob, who's a police officer. I'm sure she thinks of him as a warm, intelligent, and charming gentleman--because he is all those things. For a few years, a police officer lived across the street from us. He and his family were good neighbors. We had them to our house for dinner. His wife helped my daughter acquire Charlotte, her American Girl doll. My daughter knew that if she ever needed to run to a neighbor for help, she should go to them.

The point is this: Police officers are members of my daughter's community. They're neighbors, like the teachers who live down the street, and the nurse around the corner, and the professor. They're family members. They have a job, and their job is to keep people safe and make sure everyone follows the law. It's an important job. It's good that some members of the community are doing it.

That's who the police are to my little girl. They're nice.

The job of a police officer is best served, I think, to the extent that they are what my daughter takes them to be: Members of the community that they serve, neighbors and friends and family members who identify with the people they meet on the street, who see their job as serving and protecting their own community.

Similarly, the job of a police officer is compromised to the extent that the line between officers and the community in which they work is a dividing line between us and them, between community members and strangers who enter it with power and authority. There is a fundamental difference between an occupying force--even one that sees its mission as keeping the peace--and the police. To the extent that this distinction evaporates, something has gone tragically wrong.

The police have a hard job, and as I learned a few years back from police officers at conference on criminal justice ethics, they operate day-to-day with a complex combination of enormous individual discretion and sometimes byzantine hierarchical oversight. On the beat, they have to make quick decisions with significant consequences largely on their own; but there is also a a world of procedure and regulation that they are responsible to. They are, as one officer put it, the only 24-hour social service agency. That is, they are expected to solve human problems in their community when others (whose official job it is) aren't available to do it--and at the same time, as their official job, they are to enforce the law and keep the peace.

In a world where guns are everywhere, they face significant danger to their very lives--because those who intend to break the laws will see the police as their enemy, as a threat to their aims, and they may be armed.

None of this can be easy. Given that rules need to be applied fairly and without favoritism, a police officer won't always be seen as "nice." But a police officer's job is so much better to the extent that neighborhood children think of the officer in positive terms. When there is a widespread sense of mutual belonging--when the officer thinks, "This is my community," and the citizen thinks, "That officer is my neighbor with an important and difficult job"--the work of the police officer becomes meaningful and appreciated in a way that can reduce some of the challenges and make other challenges worth it.

And the community is more likely to have the kind of relationship with local law enforcement that contributes to their quality of life. There is a world of difference between entrusting your safety to members of your community who have been carefully trained to protect and to serve--and living in the shadow of an occupying force.

Unfortunately, there are a range of forces that can push the relationship between police and the community in the direction of the latter.

Some arise from the inherent psychological pressures of the job. When your job leads you to seek out those who are likely to view you as an enemy--and who therefore pose a threat to you--the antagonistic us/them frame of thinking has the potential to bleed out across your psyche. Furthermore, the need to exercise authority in the enforcement of rules can make you hesitant to get too friendly. Your job calls for a kind of impartiality that may push you towards a degree of psychological distance from the community you serve.

A certain amount of suspicion and distance are probably essential to doing a police officer's job. But too much, and the police are no longer members of the community. Suspicion breeds suspicion. Distance breeds distance. In the worst cases, the police become a kind of occupying force.

In poor and socially marginalized communities, the risk of this is magnified by numerous additional factors. First, poverty and social marginalization breed crime, and this increases the psychological pressure in police to be increasingly suspicious and distant from the members of the community they serve. Second, police officers have jobs that pay well relative to the incomes of those in poor and marginalized communities, a fact which creates a kind of economic distance. It can also create physical distance: police officers are more likely to live in middle class neighborhoods. And because the job carries with it an important and recognized social role--one that you're unlikely to choose or manage to get if you are yourself too marginalized and disaffected--officers may have trouble identifying with the depth of marginalization that many in their community feel; and the most socially marginalized may, in turn, have trouble identifying with the police. The result is an increased risk of us/them thinking, a sense of disconnect that pushes policing in the direction of quasi-military occupation.

And I haven't even mentioned race.

Racial divisions can obviously play into the us/them thinking, especially if the demographic profile of the police force is too unlike that of the community population. But I think there is another issue related to race that may go under-appreciated, on linked to racial profiling. The issue is this: The natural desire of the police to form some sense of belonging within the community they serve is in tension with the suspicion and distance that the job sometimes brings. But if there are some members of the community who can be easily identified as "safe"--as non-threatening and law-abiding--the need for suspicion and distance can be loosened with respect to them. You can let down your guard enough, at least with those you can quickly identify as safe, to form the sense of kinship and connection that makes the job more meaningful.

There is therefore something seductive about the idea that profiling based on visible cues can pick out those who are likely to be dangerous law-breakers, marking them off from those one can form a sense of connection with. Race is one of the most visible cues of all. Combine that with a cultural history of racial stereotyping, and a demographic disconnect between the police force and the community--not to mention the fact that legacies of injustice have resulted in disproportionate numbers of blacks living in poverty and feeling marginalized--and what do you get?

You get Ferguson.

The community response we've been seeing in Ferguson does not arise from a single incident, no matter how tragic or terrible. It is the effect of a cumulative and long-standing problem, a disconnect between a community and the police so severe that mutual fear and opposition have largely displaced any sort of identification. In Ferguson, I doubt that little black girls see a police car and think, "You're nice." Too many of their brothers have come home indignant about being profiled, being treated as guilty until proven innocent...or, sometimes, not come home at all.

The question is how such alienation can be repaired.

Part of the answer may be demographic--seeking to encourage a police force that more closely resembles the community it serves. Part of the answer may be prioritizing the hiring of officers with deep personal ties to the community. But much of the answer may lie in deliberate programs designed to build bridges of understanding between the police and the community: opportunities for members of the community to share with the police their feelings and needs and experiences, and for police officers to do the same--facilitated to minimize accusation and blame and maximize mutual listening and understanding.

Give law enforcement officers the chance to gather with community members to share together what they fear, what they hope, what they need. Find ways to give each side a safe space to express their anger, their frustration, their hurt--and experience what it is like to be heard.

The people of Ferguson are in a better position to know what kinds of activities and programs will help the most. What I can say with confidence is this: The question of what will help overcome the alienation between police and community is intimately linked to a question of central importance to those in Ferguson who have taken to the streets, who are chanting "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

The question is this: What should they be asking for?

The most successful campaigns of the civil rights movement were organized around very concrete goals. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that when community action was taken to protest segregation practices, they be clear about what, specifically, they wanted from their opponents.

In Ferguson today, there is energy for change. Anger is energy, and it's spilling into the streets. If the people of Ferguson want to harness that energy in a way that has a chance of making a positive difference in their lives, they need unity and organization, and they need nonviolent direct action strategies that will call attention to the problems and the reasons for their outrage. But they also need a clear purpose. They need to ask for something--something specific that the police department is actually able to give.

Justice for Michael Brown is one goal, but it lies beyond the power of the police alone to give. The police can commit to approaching the Michael Brown shooting with transparency and integrity--but the outrage in Ferguson arises from a problem that runs much deeper than the shooting of one person. The anger in Ferguson is fueled by more than a single shooting, no matter how tragic. It is about a relationship between the community and the police that has broken down. Michael Brown's shooting and the response are symptoms of something deeper.

Here, then, is something the activists in Ferguson might ask for, which cuts to the heart of the deeper issue: They could ask for a concrete commitment by the police department and the local government, complete with action steps, to devise and implement a community program to overcome the alienation, the us/them ideology, that has overtaken the relationship between the Ferguson police and the community. Perhaps the result could serve as a model plan for building positive community connections with law enforcement in other communities across the country.

It isn't just community members who would prefer to live in a world where their young daughters see a police officer and, rather than feel a rush of fear, smile and wave. The police would much rather live in such a world, too. As such, the problem in Ferguson is a shared problem. And a demand for addressing the schism between community and police is a demand for something that everyone has motive to pursue.

The energy in Ferguson is more than just a powder keg. It is an opportunity--a moment when, if the forces can be aligned in the right way, significant positive change can happen. Let's pray that, in this moment in history, anger and wisdom can come together and move Ferguson--and maybe the rest of us with it--in the direction of something brighter.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From the Archives: The Paradox of the Stone and the Challenge of Defining "God"

Since I'm talking about the challenge of defining "God" in my philosophy of religion class this week, I thought I'd reprint this post, from an earlier occasion when I covered the same material.

This week in my philosophy of religion class we are talking about the concept of God. Since I have already expressed my views on how "God" should be defined in Is God a Delusion?, I don't intend to simply repeat myself here. But I do want to say a few words about some common challenges to the coherence of the traditional Western theological understanding of God--which, in the language I use in my book, is a "substantive definition" (one that defines God in terms of a set of properties) as opposed to an ostensive definition (which would define God by metaphorically "pointing," as Schleiermacher does when he defines God as the "Whence" of our feeling of absolute dependence) or a formal one (which sets out a procedure for arriving at divine properties, as Anselm does) or a functional one (which is what I tend to favor).

As I worded it in class, the dominant substantive definition of God in Western theology takes God to be "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is transcendent, eternal, and self-existent."

One common challenge to God thus conceived targets the property of omnipotence, arguing that it is incoherent to attribute this property to anything. Another challenges the co-possibility of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom. Of course, the most historically important objection to theism is the argument from evil, which in some of its forms challenges the possibility of there existing a being characterized by omnipotence and omnibenevolence in a world with the amount and kind of evil we find in this one (I won't consider this challenge here, since I will be devoting considerable attention to it later in the semester).

The main thing I want to consider here is what significance such challenges have for the devoted religious believer. For this purpose, let me focus on the challenge to divine omnipotence. In its most common form, this challenge starts with the so-called Paradox of the Stone, which asks, "Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?" The argument, roughly, is that however one answers this question one must reject divine omnipotence. Either God can create such a stone, in which case there is something He cannot do, namely lift said stone; or God cannot create such a stone, in which case there is again something God cannot do.

The traditional response to this argument is to define omnipotence in terms of the capacity to do whatever is logically possible--and then to note that it is not logically possible to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being that has the power to lift every possible stone. As such, on the assumption that God is omnipotent, God creating a stone God cannot lift is logically impossible--and since omnipotence is defined as the ability to do whatever is logically possible, the inability for God to create said stone is no restriction on God's omnipotence. It would be like saying that God cannot create a round square or make it true that two plus two equals seventeen.

Of course, if we define omnipotence as the capacity to do even what is logically impossible, then the paradox of the stone is a non-starter. If logical consistency is of no consequence to God, then God could do the logically impossible thing of creating a stone so heavy God could not lift it...and then lifting it (while it remaining true that God could not do so).

But while this solution to the Paradox of the Stone strikes me as sound insofar as it goes, it obscures what I find to be a deeper and more profound question raised by the paradox: Can an omnipotent being limit its power so that it ceases to be omnipotent? And if it can, would a God who did so thereby cease to be God?

How one answers these questions has some very interesting implications. First of all, it has implications for what one thinks about about the idea of "kenosis" that has been proposed (and vigorously debated) by some Christian theologians. "Kenosis" refers to a kind of divine "emptying" that some theologians invoked to help to make sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The question at issue has to do with how Jesus' humanity is to be understood in relation to His divinity. If God is all-knowing, and if Jesus is God, does that mean the baby Jesus was born with a full knowledge of 21st Century string theory and could have explained it at three weeks of age to anyone who might have understood what He was saying?

Some theologians have thought that to answer "yes" to questions of this kind is to strip Jesus of his humanity. To be human involves living a human life--and to be born possessing all the infinite knowledge of the universe pretty much precludes that. Such a being would be a divine being wearing human skin, not a human being at all. But Jesus is supposed to be both fully human and fully God. Is there a way to make sense of this?

Some theologians, inspired in part by Phillipians 2:6-8, suggested that the solution was to suppose that in order to be truly human, the incarnate God "emptied" Himself of at least some divine attributes--in effect becoming limited in knowledge and power, etc. That is, in order to authentically share in the human condition and live in solidarity with God's finite creatures, God didn't just pretend to be a finite creature alongside us but actually took on real finitude.

This idea of kinosis took on different forms among its advocates. Some thought it involved a total abandonment of the divine nature while others distinguished among divine properties--distinguishing God's moral attributes from God's "physical" ones (such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and timelessness) and arguing that the incarnate God preserved the former while abandoning the latter.

What is important to note for my purposes here is that this kenotic theory has implications for how we are to understand divinity. Marilyn McCord Adams, in Christ and Horrors, puts the point in these terms:

If partial absolute kenosis (the theory that Jesus is emptied of God's "physical" attributes but not the moral ones) retains the traditional claim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could not exist without being God, it insists that not all the perfections formerly thought to be essential to Godhead were genuinely necessary to It. So-called physical attributes are allegedly the permanent but contingent possession of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and are contingently had, then abandoned, then repossessed by the Son. Thus, it seems, with respect to some perfections, Godhead essentially includes a capacity for them but not their actuality. (Italics in original)
Here we have a theology which, metaphorically speaking, maintains that God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it--that, in other words, it is in the power of God to impose real limits on God's capacity to exercise power (as well as on God's knowledge, eternity, immunity from harm, etc.) but that the God so limited remains God.

Another variant of kenosis can be and has been posited apart from the uniquely Christian concern with making sense of the incarnation. Specifically, some have argued that the very act of creation is an act of the divine imposing limits on itself--that a divine withdrawal and abdication of power is essential for establishing the "otherness" of the created world, thus preserving its status as a reality distinct from God that can evolve on its own terms and eventually acquire (in accord with its own rules) the capacity to autonomously enter into a self-other relationship with God. This is an idea articulated, for example, in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, and it is also expressed in the writing of Simone Weil. Put simply, the idea is that the existence of a universe that isn't simply swallowed up into God requires the establishment of a kind of boundary or demarcation between God and the created world, one which implies limits on what God can do in relation to that world. On this view, in effect, the act of creating the universe is an act of creating a stone that God cannot lift.

The question then becomes, does God remain God after creation if the act of creation necessitates divine limitation? Or, perhaps better, do those who ascribe to theological views like Tzimtzum have to give up calling the object of their religious devotion God? I don't think so, but if not it makes little sense to insist that "God" just means what is expressed in the traditional substantive definition above. The fact is that people who believe in God can disagree about just how essential the various properties ascribed to God in this definition really are.

And someone who thinks God in fact possesses all of the properties identified in the traditional definition may well agree that these properties do not define God. For example, you might well think that my eyes are a particular shade of blue. But suppose someone demonstrated to you that it was physiologically impossible for human eyes to possess that specific shade, given the manner in which eye color arises. Would you conclude that I don't exist? Surely not--because, although you thought I possessed this specific property, it was never a property that you took to be definitive of me.

Likewise, there is presumably room to accept that a certain property you had formerly attributed to God is one you must give up on, without thereby being forced to give up on the claim that there is a God. But this raises in a new way the question of what, precisely, a theist is asserting when they assert that God exists. If someone ceases to be a theist--what, specifically, are they denying that they had once believed? And why is it that some undergo radical reconceptions in their beliefs while still professing to be theists? What is it that they still believe that warrants holding onto the "theist" label?

This is what I think a functional definition--a definition in terms of the role or function God fills in the life of the devoted theist--is helpful for. In class the other day, a student defined God, roughly, as that in which he could place his hope in times that otherwise would call for despair. This is a functional definition. Given this understanding of God, the believer might radically change their idea of God--but so long as God, thus characterized, could be a source of hope in the midst of despair for those who believed in it, it would still qualify as "God."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fair People: A Confession

A bit over a week ago, while visiting my relatives in Buffalo, I took a trip to the Erie County fair. After eating some unhealthy food (and bypassing some really unhealthy food, such as deep fried Oreos and fried dough), we headed to one of the display buildings to see my sister's award-winning flower displays.

Unfortunately, food and drink weren't allowed in the building, and my kids weren't ready to relinquish their lemonades--so my wife and I took turns guarding the lemonades outside while the others took in the floral arrangements and used the restrooms.

That's how I found myself standing there, waiting, a sweating lemonade in each hand. And I did the only thing that made sense under the circumstances: I started people-watching.

I saw tattooed people who (apparently) were trying to expose every fold and flap of skin on which a favorite work of art had been inked.

I saw walking skeletons in Wrangler jeans and blue eye shadow.

I saw men of enormous girth whose mouths were greasy with the oils from the fried-whatever-on-a-stick they were clutching in their fists.

And I thought to myself, "Dear Lord, I may actually be one of the pretty people."

It was something of a jolting thought, and it made me laugh. You see, the week before that, my wife and I were in Boulder, CO, getting ready for her bid to complete a second Iron-distance triathlon (her bid was sadly derailed when she got swimming-induced pulmonary edema the moment she hit the water--but that's another story). While there, I spent a lot of time standing around waiting--and people-watching--while my wife got registered and otherwise ready for the race.

Waiting around in an Ironman Village, while triathletes trot by on every side, is a rather humbling experience. Even vigorously healthy people can start to feel, well, kind of dumpy.

But people-watching at the fair was a decidedly different experience. Glancing at my reflection in the glass doors, I found myself tempted to preen, cock my head, and say, "Hey there, me. You look mighty fine."

Well, not really. But you get the idea.

When I got home, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed to discover that a friend had posted a link to an article, "Deep-Fried America on a Stick." It featured portraits of some rather interesting fair-goers and an interview with the photographer, Bruce Gilden. Here's one of his portraits (click the link to see them all):

I stared at the photos. And then I promptly commented on my friend's post with the same glib thought that had entered my head as I was standing there guarding lemonade: I may actually be one of the pretty people.

Then I went to bed. But a day or so later, I found myself remembering something from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't recall much about the book (I read it a long time ago), but this bit stuck with me.

Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist of the novel, was raised on Mars by Martians--and one of the more engaging features of the book is Smith's outsider view of human culture. Something that perplexes him is the human concept of beauty. Those that we find beautiful strike Smith as simply boring. In contrast, he is drawn to interesting faces: weathered, wrinkled ones, faces that say something about the character of the person within.

And as that tidbit from the novel drifted to the surface, I felt ashamed. Ashamed of how I'd been looking at the people at the fair.

I returned to the Deep-Fried America article. I looked anew at Bruce Gilden's portraits. I looked at them as Valentine Michael Smith might have looked at them. Or at least in a way that was nudged by his fictional spirit. And I imagined that Bruce Gilden, in his choice of models, was nudged by that spirit as well.

I saw interesting faces, faces full of personality. Most of all, they were faces that told stories.

I wondered what stories I would have seen walking past me at the fair if I hadn't been possessed by my glib little thought. I wondered why we are so prone to see beauty in the superficial way that so puzzled Valentine Smith. I wondered just how much we miss.

When I look at faces like the ones Bruce Gilden photographed and I laugh at them (even if only to myself), these other human beings becomes nothing but a way for me to see myself--a kind of foil. I'm not looking at them. I'm blind to the stories in their faces. Delight, empathy, and fascination are sacrificed to a moment of smug superficiality.

Fortunately, I have a chance to redeem myself. The Oklahoma State Fair is coming up in about a month. I plan to be there, and to do some people-watching. But when I do, I'll be thinking about Valentine Smith.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

From the Archives: The Choice is Yours

For some reason--probably because I'm getting ready to head out on a family road trip soon--I was reminded of this post from a few years back. Because its wisdom is timeless and transformative, I decided it was worth sharing again. Enjoy!

While on vacation, I passed a billboard somewhere in rural Ohio that read, “The Choice is Yours: Heaven or Hell.” A toll free number was provided for those who wanted to learn more.

Fortunately (?) the idea for a crank call didn’t occur to me until it was too late to jot down the number. That didn’t stop me, however, from fantasizing about it for much of the remaining six hours on the road. Since I didn’t get around to any of the promised “lighter fare” on this blog while I was vacationing, I share with you now my crank call fantasies.

I should warn you that, in some circles, even having these fantasies would be viewed as grounds for damnation—and the same fate is most likely attributed to those who read them with a chuckle. So it’s probably best to remain grimly sober as you proceed.

(Note to readers: I manifestly do not think that every species of Christianity adopts all the views and ideas expressed by “Them,” especially as articulated in Fantasy 3. But some do. My aim in Fantasies 2 and 3 is not to offer any kind of serious philosophical critique of doctrines of hell, but to playfully gesture towards the absurdities of some of the less thought-out versions. Fantasy 1 is just what comes into your head when you’ve been driving a car for days on end.)

Fantasy 1: Probably Not What Carrie Underwood Intended.

Them: “Amazing Holiness Bible Church of the Redeemer, World Outreach and Evangelical Ministries Center. How may I help you?
Me: “Well, actually, I was hoping Jesus could help me. Is Jesus there?”
Them: “Jesus is always with you. All you need to do is turn your heart to Him and repent your sins.”
Me: “Yeah, well, I was looking for more, you know, practical help.”
Them: “Sorry? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Me: “Well, I saw your billboard, and it made me think of that song. You know, the one by that American Idol winner.”
Them: “Jesus Take the Wheel?”
Me: “Yeah! Well, you see, I was wondering if He could do that for me.”
Them: “Of course. Jesus is just waiting for you to open your heart, so that He may become the Lord of your life.”
Me: “Um, yeah, well, what about the Lord of my car?”
Them: “Excuse me?”
Me: “I’ve been driving for days and I’m getting pretty tired of it. I could use a break.”
Them: “Uh, Jesus doesn’t drive cars.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well...”
Me: “I mean, he was bodily resurrected, right?”
Them: “Yes...”
Me: “So He has arms to steer with, a foot for the gas pedal and brake, all of that. And surely He know how to drive, being omniscient and all.”
Them: “Of course. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to climb into your car and take over the driving.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well, for one thing, Jesus has more important work to do than to drive people around in their cars.”
Me: “But if He’s omnipotent, doesn’t that mean He can do that greater work and drive my car for me?”
Them: “He wants us to live our own lives. He’s not going to live it for us.”
Me: “Then what’s this ‘Jesus take the wheel’ stuff about? Anyway, I’m not asking Him to live my life for me. Just drive my car for an hour.”
Them: “What do you think Jesus is? He’s the Lord of Life, not your servant!”
Me: “Um, well...I don’t mean to contradict you or anything. I’m sure you know this Jesus guy better than I do and all...but, well, doesn’t the Bible say He is a servant? The suffering servant, or something like that?”
Them: “He served us by dying for our sins, not by doing our chores for us.”
Me: “Oh, wait. I think I get it. He doesn’t have a license, does He?”

Fantasy 2: Choices, choices

Them: “Grace for Life Bible Ministries, Center for Global Evangelism. How may I help you?”
Me: “I saw your billboard, the one about the choice being mine, and I had some questions.”
Them: “There is no more important question than your eternal destiny. God has led you to make this call.”
Me: “Yes, well, I was hoping you could tell me a little more about this heaven and hell, so that I know exactly what I’m choosing between.”
Them: “Of course. Heaven is the most wonderful and—”
Me: “You’ve been there?”
Them: “Well, no, but...”
Me: “So this is just hearsay, is that it?”
Them: “No. God has revealed to us—”
Me: “Can we just cut to the chase?”
Them: “What?”
Me: “I’m a masochist. You know what that means?”
Them: “Um...”
Me: “I get off on pain. Actually, what I like best is when an older woman beats me with a riding crop. So I’m wondering where I’m more likely to experience something like that.”
Them: “This is sick.”
Me: “Would I get to have that in heaven? Leather, manacles, bullwhips?”
Them: “Absolutely not!”
Me: “So, I guess my best bet is to go with hell, then?”
Them: “No! What you need is to invite Jesus into your life so that he may cure you of these perverse desires.”
Me: “So, my masochism is a bad thing?”
Them: “It is sick and evil! You must be cured of it!”
Me: “What if I’m not?”
Them: “Then you will roast forever in the unquenchable fires of hell!”
Me: “Mmm. Sounds nice.”
Them: “You don’t understand. It’s utter misery and suffering.”
Me: “But I already told you that I get off on—”
Them: “Not in hell, you won’t! Hell is a place of unmitigated suffering. It is existence stripped of anything that might redeem it. Even if you find pleasure in pain now, you won’t when you get to hell. It will be all and only pain, and you won’t even remotely enjoy any of it.”
Me: “So you're telling me, basically, that if God sends me to hell He’ll first cure me of my masochism so that I won’t enjoy any of it when the demons flog me?”
Them: “That’s right.”
Me: “And being cured of my masochism is a good thing, right? So hell isn’t all bad.”

Fantasy 3: Getting Serious

Them: “Church of Absolute and Indubitable Truth, Such That Any Who Doubt Are Obviously Delusional and Deserve What They Get. How may I help you?”
Me: “Can I get serious?”
Them: “About what?”
Me: “Do you really mean it when you say it’s my choice, heaven or hell?”
Them: “Oh. That. You saw our billboard. Yes, we mean it.”
Me: “Okay, then. Let’s see...heaven is eternal bliss and all that’s good, while hell is undying misery stripped of anything even remotely valuable. Have I got that right?
Them: “That’s about right, but there’s more to it. Demons with implements of torture are—”
Me: “Okay, okay. I don’t need the gory details. I choose heaven.”
Them: “Wonderful! Pray with me.”
Me: “Why?”
Them: “Why? Well, if you want to go to heaven you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Usually that’s done in a prayer.”
Me: “Oh. Well…to be honest, I really don’t know what to think about all this Jesus business. I mean, people have different ideas about who he was and what he said and did and what it all meant. So, I’ll take the heaven stuff, since it sounds pretty nice, but let’s leave Jesus out of it.”
Them: “That’s not possible. You won’t go to heaven unless you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”
Me: “But I thought the choice was mine. If I choose heaven, I get heaven, right? So I choose heaven.”
Them: “It doesn’t work that way.”
Me: “Okay, so what you’re telling me is that even if I choose heaven, I’ll get hell unless I make the right choice about Jesus. That doesn’t sound like the choice about heaven or hell is mine at all.
Them: “It's your choice whether you welcome Jesus into your life or not.”
Me: “But since that choice is framed by a set of beliefs about who Jesus was and what he did, I first need to adopt the right framing beliefs. So, what you’re really telling me is that, from all the world’s religions, I have to decide that Christianity’s got it right. Only then can I enjoy heaven.”
Them: “What I’m telling you is that you need to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior if you want to get into heaven.”
Me: “So, if I’m really convinced that, say, Islam is true, and so become a faithful Muslim, I won’t get into heaven?”
Them: “That’s right. The only path to salvation is Jesus.”
Me: “So say you. But there are others I’ve talked to who have a really different view about this stuff. So I’m not sure what to believe. But wait…Oh, I think I get it. If salvation depends on getting my beliefs right, and since the truth isn't obvious in this life, then God’ll make the truth obvious after I die. Right? So I can make a fully informed choice then.”
Them: “No.”
Me: “No?”
Them: “You have to decide before you die. If you do not accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior before death, you will go to hell.”
Me: “Well, if that’s true, then God is pretty mean.”
Them: “God is not mean. He became human so that He might suffer and die for the salvation of the world. He’s love.”
Me: “But you’re telling me that if I sincerely try to figure out the truth about reality in this life and get it wrong, God slam-dunks me down into hell?
Them: “The truth has been made manifest to all, so that no one has any excuse. Says so in Romans.”
Me: “Well, it’s not manifest to me! The ultimate truth about reality seems to be one of the most mysterious and not obvious things of all. All the evidence indicates that sincere people who care about truth arrive at very different conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality, and so about religion. If guessing wrong about religion means that one is cast into hell, then the choice isn’t really up to me at all. I can choose heaven all day, but if I guess wrong about the nature of reality, it won’t matter. Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
Them: “It’s not a matter of guessing. The Truth is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.”
Me: “So, you’re telling me I’m blind?”
Them: “If you do not see that Jesus is the Way, then yes. You are blind.”
Me: “And because I’m blind I’m doomed to hell even if I choose heaven?”
Them: “I suppose you could say that.”
Me: “Well, then, I hate to tell you this, but…well, you guys may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m afraid I’m going to have to report you.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Must Hobby Lobby See Attempts to Conceive as a Crime?

The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to oppose not only the termination of pregnancy in the technical sense, but also anything that impedes implantation of a fertilized egg. (In the technical sense, prior to implantation no pregnancy has yet been established.)

Hobby Lobby's position on this issue appears to be rooted in a certain view about the fertilized egg: At the moment of fertilization, it becomes a person with a person's rights--including the right to life.

Now there's more to their argument than that--and that something more should make those with a vaguely libertarian bent rather uneasy. After all, what does a right to life consist in? If I will die unless you let me into your home, does my right to life entail that if you lock me out you have committed homicide? Hobby Lobby would presumably have to say something along these lines if they want to insist that there is something seriously wrong with preventing implantation--which is a fair bit like denying me access to your home when I need such access in order to survive.

But let's grant all of this. Let's assume that the fertilized egg has a person's right to life, and that a person's right to life isn't limited to a right not to be killed but also puts demands on others: If I have a right to life and I need to use your body in order to survive, then you have a duty to make sure that I can gain access to it--and if you take steps to block me from gaining access, that's seriously wrong.

Let's assume all of that is true. If we adopt such a perspective, what ought we to think about a practice which results predictably in the deaths of more than half of all fertilized eggs that are involved in the practice? If you know, when you engage in a practice, that there is a good chance that a person will die--let's say a 50-60% chance--would it be permissible for you to engage in the practice?

Let's suppose that you have a worthy goal: You want to become a parent. Imagine a dystopian world where the only legal way to become a parent is to put in a request with a breeding factory--one which is fully automated, using artificial wombs and robotic childbirth and infant nursing machines. If you put in a request, the breeding factory goes to work--gestating a baby until viability and then evaluating the newborn for a period of time (a few weeks, say).Then the facility either delivers the newborn to you--or anesthetizes the infant and dumps it into a midden where it dies quickly from suffocation. Sometimes this happens because the evaluation protocols have judged the baby insufficiently healthy. Sometimes it happens inexplicably--it's just something the breeding factory does.

In fact, let us suppose it does it 50-60% of the time. More often than not, when you put in a request for a baby, the machine produces a baby and then dumps the living three-week-old into a midden heap to die.

Would it be morally problematic for you to make use of such a breeding facility? Most of us, I think, would say yes. After all, babies have a significant moral standing and a robust right to life--and making use of this facility entails that, on average, for every two beings with such moral significance who come into the world, one of them is automatically tossed away and left to die.

If a fertilized egg, pre-implantation, has that kind of moral standing, then there's a significant problem. Because fertilized eggs only successfully implant 40-50% of the time. The rest of the time, they are washed out of the uterus and die. If we really want to give to fertilized eggs the kind of moral standing that we give to three-week-old babies, then don't we need to regard every case of a couple trying to conceive as having the same problematic moral status that we attach to the parents putting in a request with the breeding factory?

Now let's modify our dystopian scenario just a bit. Let us suppose that all human beings are sterilized at birth, but they are implanted with a device that detects if and when they are engaged in sexual activity. Instead of putting in a request for a baby, in this future world you just have to start being sexually active--and a request is sent automatically. The detection device is imperfect, so the request only goes once in awhile, and is more likely to go out during full moons. To be sure the message is sent, you need to have sex fairly consistently, especially around the time of the full moon.

Now compare two couples who are sexually active in this dystopian world. Bill and Mary want a baby and are urgently trying to get the message through to the factory--and hence engaged in a practice which has a 50-60% chance of throwing a baby onto the midden heap. Carl and Nancy, however, have found a way to disable the transmitter so that it doesn't put in any requests for babies. But suppose that the disabling technique is not quite perfect. There is a 0.5% chance, say, that a request will go out anyway after a year of being sexually active. And when that happens, something about the disabling technique increases the chances that the baby produced will be thrown on the midden heap. Let's say the chance is 90%. Still, since the chance of a request going out is only 0.5%, the chance that Carl and Nancy' activity will send a child to the midden heap is 0.45%.

So, Bill and Mary are engaged in an activity that has a 50-60% of resulting in a living baby being thrown onto a midden heap to die. Carl and Nancy are engaged in an activity that has a 0.45% of producing this result. Who is morally better? Which choice is more problematic, morally?

Numbers aren't everything, of course, so the morality of their respective choices may not be simply a matter of consulting the numbers here. And in this dystopian world, taking he risks that Bill and Mary take is the only way for new children to come into the world. But something should be pretty clear: It's not obvious that Bill and Mary are doing nothing wrong while Carl and Nancy are engaged in moral wrong-doing. There's at least some reason to think that Carl and Nancy's behavior is less troubling, morally.

But if a fertilized egg, prior to implantation, has the same moral status as a three-week-old newborn baby, the couple trying to have a baby is like Bill and Mary, while the couple using an IUD is like Carl and Nancy. That is, if we adopt a key assumption made by advocates for Hobby Lobby's position on contraception, the couple trying to have a baby is engaged in activity that is at best morally suspect--and arguably more wrong, morally, than the couple that uses the IUD. Their key premise about the moral status of the fertilized egg can hardly justify the position which they in fact seem to take--namely, one in which a couple trying to conceive is doing something lovely, while the couple using the IUD is engaged in a serious moral wrong.

Note that most of these problems go away if we think that baby-like moral standing emerges at some point after implantation--that is, at some point after a pregnancy has started in the technical sense.

All of this leads me to conclude that there is something seriously muddled about the Hobby Lobby position. Am I missing something?

Hobby Lobby and Religious Conscience: Two Reasons to Doubt the Freedom of Religion Argument

There is much about the recent Hobby Lobby ruling that I'm not qualified to comment on, but I have some concerns about a key claim in this case--namely, that the business owners' freedom of religious conscience offers grounds for justifying the Supreme Court's decision. There are two problems, in my view--although my thinking on both is still evolving. The first strikes me as less serious than the second.

1. Religious conscience needs to be responsive to matters of fact.

Suppose Pastor Bob refuses to officiate at the wedding of Pat and Alex on the grounds that he is religiously opposed to same sex marriage. If, as a matter of fact, Pat and Alex are a heterosexual couple, then no court of law would treat his religious opposition to same-sex marriage as a legitimate basis for refusing to marry them. And if Bob sputters that it is a matter of religious conviction that this man and woman are in fact both men--well, I doubt that will fly if the facts don't line up with the conviction.

In other words, there is the moral premise of Bob's argument--which is derived from his religious convictions. And then there is the factual one--which isn't a matter of religious belief and shouldn't be.

In the Hobby Lobby case, there is the the moral premise: The rather complex conviction that a form of contraception which operates by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg is wrong because fertilized eggs are persons who are thereby being deprived of their lives. And then there's the factual claim that the four forms of contraception at issue function in this way.

But it does not appear that, as a matter of fact, the four forms of contraception operate in this way. Three (the two "morning after" pills and the hormone-releasing IUD) operate primarily to prevent fertilization, while the fourth (the copper IUD) kills sperm cells. With respect to the two "morning after pills," extensive research indicates that these do not prevent implantation in the cases where they fail in their primary function.

It may be true, however, that when the IUD's fail in their primary function and conception happens anyway, the fertilized egg is considerably less likely to implant than it would be in the absence of the contraceptive. Absent any contraceptive, on average only 40% of fertilized eggs implant. IUD's may lower this percentage considerably.

But in that case, the effect on implantation appears to be a side-effect of the contraceptive's use. Given the standard 40% success rate for implantation, someone who is trying to get pregnant is a greater threat to the lives of fertilized eggs than an IUD-user--since it is likely that the IUD-user will never flush out a fertilized egg because the IUD will prevent the egg from being fertilized in the first place. But I doubt Hobby Lobby is going to start condemning couples attempting to conceive of slaughtering innocent babies wholesale. After all, the deaths of more than half of the zygotes they produce is a side-effect of the effort to become pregnant, not the aim of it.

The moral status of a medicine's side-effects is different from the moral status of its primary intended effect. Hobby Lobby could argue that any medication which substantially increases the probability that fertilized eggs won't implant even as a side effect of its use violates their religious conscience. But if their religious faith entails commitment to this broader ethical principle, consistency would call for more sweeping employer involvement in regulating the health-care options covered by a health plan. For all we know, numerous medications prescribed for a range of purposes have an impact on implantation chances. (At least the IUD makes it unlikely that this side-effect will ever happen, since it is highly effective at preventing the conditions under which such a side-effect will arise.)

So: If Hobby Lobby isn't interested in sweeping involvement in health-care choices, then it doesn't seem as if they really are, as a matter of religious conscience, committed to this broader ethical principle after all. And if what they're committed to is the narrower one, their religious conscience at best calls for condemning those who use IUD's in part to achieve what is ordinarily a side-effect (as in when someone takes a medicine with psychotropic side-effects for the sake of those side-effects). If their religious conscience really does push them towards the broader principle, then the substance of their religious conscience calls for a level of intrusion into health care options that is far more burdensome on the insured than what the Supreme Court was considering--leading to a different set of worries about the ruling.

Of course, all of this is premised on the facts about the four contraceptives being as described above--and while I am relying on what I've read about them, I'm not an expert. So this line of concern hinges on what the facts are--but that's part of my point here. This can't and shouldn't be seen as merely a matter of religious conscience. If the facts don't fall in the right way, the principles derived from religious conscience don't apply. And there is reason to think this is the case here.

There is, however, a deeper concern about the relevance of religious conscience that I think may be more decisive.

2. A health care plan is a form of compensation that gives employees a means of paying for their health care--and in this way is like a paycheck.

Here's the concern in a nutshell: Hobby Lobby sees its religious conscience as compromised when it's required to offer a health care plan that can be used to pay for certain types of contraceptives. But the paycheck that Hobby Lobby pays out to each of its employees can be used to pay for those same types of contraceptives. If the latter doesn't compromise Hobby Lobby's religious conscience, why should the former?

A health insurance policy is sometimes viewed as a product--but no one wants a health insurance policy for its own sake. They want it for the sake of paying for the healthcare products and services they many need. Hence, it is more natural to see a healthcare policy as a way to pay for a certain class of products. Insofar as it is the latter, offering a healthcare policy that covers the normal range of healthcare products is like offering a salary in a form that can be used to buy the normal range of things money can buy.

When Hobby Lobby pays its employees, they are providing them with the means to buy porn. They are providing them with the means to visit Nevada prostitutes. Money, in our society, has by social agreement been invested with a very broad purchasing power. A normal healthcare policy, by contrast, can be used to buy far fewer of the things that offend the values of Hobby Lobby's owners. That's true even if the policy covers morning after pills and IUD's.

Does the fact that our monetary system empowers money-possessors to buy porn entail that Hobby Lobby's conscience should be opposed to paying its employees with money? I suspect Hobby Lobby would say no. They could explain that the decision about what to do with the money Hobby Lobby gives them lies with the employee, not with Hobby Lobby--and if the employee decides to use it on porn, that's not Hobby Lobby's fault, even if Hobby Lobby provided the money that was used for this purpose. So Hobby Lobby hasn't done anything wrong. The company hasn't been forced to violate its corporate conscience.

That, of course, is exactly what Hobby Lobby should say about the money they give to their employees. But if so, why shouldn't they say exactly the same thing about the health insurance policies they give to their employees?

Unless a sufficiently potent distinction can be made here, it becomes hard to justify the claim that Hobby Lobby's religious conscience is being violated by offering a broad health insurance policy covering the usual range of health care products and services. If their conscience is being violated, then they should be complaining about the violation of religious conscience that comes from offering a paycheck in a form that can be used to buy the usual range of things (including porn and divorce lawyers and emergency contraceptives) that our society makes available for purchase.

And if this isn't about religious conscience, it becomes instead about the desire to use their position as the provider of health insurance to constrain employee choices. Instead of this being about Hobby Lobby's desires to follow its religious values, it becomes about Hobby Lobby's desire to use its position to impose its religious values on others--to make their employees act according to the values of Hobby Lobby's owners, by controlling what the compensation provided to employees can be used to do.

And if this sort of control is deemed acceptable, what follows? Will it become legitimate for employers to pay their employees with cash cards that can only be used to purchase employer-approved goods and services?

In the end, the Hobby Lobby case is about the clash between the liberty of businesses and that of individual employees. When companies do whatever they please, their choices can sometimes restrict the options and freedoms of those who work for them. In a world where workers largely depend on business owners for their livelihoods, workers are susceptible to exploitation and undue control when owner decisions about how to run their business are unregulated. Business owners should have considerable freedom to decide how their businesses are to be run, of course. But if the exercise of the power they have as owners is wholly unregulated, it is individuals who pay the price--in terms of fewer choices and opportunities.

The Hobby Lobby decision strikes me as ultimately being about this balance between the liberty and welfare of business owners on the one hand and workers on the other. And the Supreme Court decided in favor of business owners in a way that, as I see it, sets a very disturbing precedent.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Any Growing Interest in Classical Music is a Sign of Our Nation's Moral Decay

As I read Ann Coulter’s recent commentary on why soccer is un-American, I felt a paradigm shift in my understanding of the world. With a growing pit in my stomach, I saw that her reasoning doesn’t just apply to soccer. And I knew, once I finished the essay, that I would be compelled to resign from the Stillwater Community Orchestra. To do otherwise would be un-American.

I love classical music. I love playing my violin. And I’ve long classed myself among those trying to expand interest in classical music in this country. But enough is enough. It’s clear to me now that any growing interest in classical music can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

▪ Individual achievement is not a big factor in classical music ensembles. Sure, there’s the concert master and the conductor, and the occasional soloist. But in the best orchestras, instruments blend seamlessly together and voices complement one another so as to produce a collaborative work of art. It’s practically communistic. In real music there ought to be stars who stand or fall based on their personal charisma—a Mick Jagger gyrating at the microphone while crowds scream and swoon and tear at their clothes.

▪ In a high school orchestra, lousy players can hide in the back of the second violin section and fake it quietly to cover up their lack of talent, so that no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised. This encourages kids to hide from personal responsibility. They grow up to be moochers.

▪ Liberal moms like classical music because it’s something both girls and boys can participate in equally. But no serious human endeavor is co-ed, even at the grade-school level. I'm not sure why. Ask Ann for details.

▪ In an orchestra performance, nobody scores. You can sit (or snore) through an entire concert, and the score is still 0-0. No fist pumping as one player dominates another. No victory dance by the principal cellist while the poor clarinetist hangs her head in defeat. It’s all “collaborative” rather than competitive. How does that teach our kids the traits they need to make it in the competitive capitalist economy?

▪ No human endeavor is worth pursuing if it doesn’t come with the risk of personal humiliation or physical injury. While someone sitting in an orchestra might face some slight risk of a bow in the eye, the risk is low. And a personal slip will probably be covered up by the other musicians—unless you're in the winds or percussion section, but then you're safely hidden behind the strings, so no one can see you to pin the mistake on you.

▪ People are always trying to force-feed you classical music as if it were good for the soul. The same people trying to push classical music on Americans are the ones demanding that we drag our noses away from our TV’s and smart phones and spend more time reading books. It’s that “eat your vegetables” thing, except with sound. It’s patronizing.

▪ It’s foreign. Classical music was invented by Europeans. That’s probably why people try to push it. They think European stuff is better than American stuff.

▪ Classical music is like the metric system. It is. Take my word for it.

The only people listening to classical music in America are academics and immigrants from France. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is listening to classical music. Or if they are, they’re forced to do it against their will, or trying to impress someone. Either that, or they are actively betraying American values.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How Does God Reveal? Five Christian Reasons to Doubt Biblical Inerrancy

The Patheos website is currently hosting a multi-blog conversation about progressive Christianity and Scripture which has generated numerous engaging and thoughtful contributions--such as this one by James McGrath. Because the relationship between progressive Christian faith and the Bible is one of my enduring interests, the sudden flood of interesting essays on the topic has inspired me to take a few minutes to reflect on the issue myself. 

As a philosopher of religion, the way I approach this topic is in terms of a philosophical question: What theory of revelation fits best with the Christian view of God? Put another way, if there is a God that fits the broadly Christian description, how would we expect such a God to reveal the divine nature and will to the world?

Many conservative Christians take it for granted that God has revealed the divine nature and will in and through a specific book. More precisely (although they aren't usually this precise), they believe that God inspired certain human authors at various times in history to write texts that inerrantly express divine truths--and then inspired other human beings to correctly recognize these texts and include all and only them in the comprehensive collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.

Let's call this the theory of biblical inerrancy.

Does this theory fit well with broader Christian beliefs? Is this a good Christian theory about divine revelation, culminating in a good Christian theory about what the Bible is and what sort of authority we should attach to it? I think there are a number of reasons to be skeptical.

Put more narrowly, I think there are a number of reasons why Christians should be skeptical, given their Christian starting points. Let's consider at least some of these reasons.

1. Christianity holds that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God

Traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the incarnation of God in history. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book (however inspired). It is this fact which motivated George MacDonald to say of the Bible,
It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," not the Bible, save as leading to him.
Biblical inerrantists might argue that nothing precludes God from both revealing the divine nature primarily in Jesus and authoring an inerrant book as a secondary revelation. This is true as far as it goes. But there are reasons for concern.

First, there's a difference between the kind of revelation that Jesus represents, and the kind that a book represents. A person and a book are different things, and we learn from them in different ways. Consider the difference between having a mentor in the project of becoming a better person, and reading self-help books.

Doesn't Christianity teach that God's preferred way of disclosing the divine nature and will is through personal, living relationship rather than fixed words? The problem with throwing in an inerrant book as a "supplemental" revelation is that it can lead to Bible-worship. Given human psychology, there is something alluring about having a book with all the answers. But if God primarily wants us to find the answers through personal engagement with the living God, as discovered in Jesus, isn't there a real danger that fixation on the Bible will distract the faithful from God's primary mode of self-disclosure?

None of this is to say that human stories--witness accounts of divine revelation in history--aren't important. They can motivate a desire to seek out the one whom the stories are about, and they can offer tools for discerning whether you've found the one you seek or an imposter. But once they are seen as secondary, as valuable as a means to an end, the need for inerrancy dissipates. If what really matters is my friendship with Joe, and if I sought out and formed a friendship with him because lots of people told me stories about him that revealed him as an awesome guy I wanted to meet, do I really need to insist that those storytellers were inerrant? Why?

2. The Jesus of Scripture was not an inerrantist

In John 8:1-11, we have the story of the teachers of the law coming to Jesus with an adulteress, and asking Him whether they ought to stone her to death as the Scriptures prescribe. The passage itself declares that this was a trap: If Jesus came out and directly told them not to stone her, He would be defying a direct scriptural injunction.

He avoided the trap: He didn't directly telling them to act contrary to Scripture. Instead, He told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

It is a stunning and powerful story (no wonder someone decided to write it into the Gospel of John, even though it didn't appear in the earliest versions). But notice that Jesus didn't tell them to do what Scripture prescribed. Instead, He found a powerful way to drive home exactly what was wrong with following that scriptural injunction--in a way that avoided their trap.

In short, Jesus disagreed with some of the teachings in the Scriptures of His day. In the Sermon on the Mount, he offered gentle correctives to earlier teachings--teachings which started in a direction but didn't go far enough. The lex talionis command to punish evildoers eye for eye and tooth for tooth may, at the time, have served as a restraint on retributive impulses: don't punish beyond the severity of the crime. But for Jesus, that level of restrain was insufficient. It was a start on a path, perhaps, but only that. Jesus followed the trajectory of that path to its conclusion, and enjoined His listeners to turn the other cheek.

In short, it's clear Jesus didn't have the inerrantist view towards the Scriptures of His day that conservative Christians have towards the Christian Scriptures of today. Conservatives might argue that Jesus would view the modern Bible--or maybe just the New Testament?--in the way they favor, even if the approach to Scripture that He actually modeled is at odds with their approach.

Allow me to treat such a speculative claim with suspicion. If Jesus is the primary revelation of God in history, then it strikes me as appropriate to follow His model for approaching Scripture, and respectfully look beyond the letters on the page to the deeper intentions that finite human authors might have missed, noticing trajectories and exploring where they might lead.

3. In the New Testament, Paul distinguished between his views and the Lord's

 In 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her...
I've talked about this passage before, so I won't go into details. What interests me is the distinction Paul makes between his own views and those of the Lord. In this passage, it's clear that Paul did not see Himself as taking dictation from God. He made a clear distinction between his own opinions and those of the Lord, and by making the distinction explicit was signaling to his readers that they should treat the injunctions differently--as if he didn't want to claim for himself the kind of authority that he took to accompany Jesus' explicit teachings.

But if inerrantism is true, then Paul's teachings are the inerrant word of God, and so have the same kind of authority as Jesus' words. In other words, if inerrantism is true, then Paul was wrong to make the distinction he made. But that distinction is made by Paul in a letter that's in the Bible. And if inerrantism is true, a distinction made in a letter that's in the Bible has to be accurate. But if it's accurate, inerrantism isn't true. Zounds!

An exercise in creative interpretation might offer the inerrantist the wiggle room to escape this logical trap, but inerrantists are routinely skeptical of such creative interpretation of Scripture. At best, then, this amounts to a difficulty for inerrantism, the sort of difficulty one often sees when trying to force a theory onto subject matter that doesn't quite suit it. Theories can perhaps weather some such difficulties, but if they become too common it is hard to reasonably persist in endorsing the theory.

4. Efforts to overcome apparent contradictions in Scripture lead to a false view of Scripture

Speaking of difficulties of this sort, the Bible isn't a neat, orderly, systematically consistent treatise. The Gospel narratives, for example, aren't identical. They tell the stories of Jesus' life in different ways. Details differ--for example, in accounts of the resurrection. Bart Ehrman does a fine job of cataloguing  many of these in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.

Mostly, these tensions aren't explicit contradictions but rather what might be called apparent ones: they don't seem as if they can go together, because you'd need to tell a rather convoluted story to make them fit.

Inerrantists have not been remiss in offering such convoluted stories. But if you need to tell enough of them in order to make your theory map onto what it's supposed to explain, the theory becomes increasingly implausible.

And there's another problem, one that should be of concern to Christians who care about the Bible. The convoluted tales that you have to tell in order to make disparate biblical narratives fit together end up leading you away from an honest appreciation of the message of the biblical authors. As Ehrman puts it, "To approach the stories in this way is to rob each author of his own integrity as an author and to deprive him of the meaning that he conveys in his story."

When you do this, you care more about preserving your theory about the Bible than you do about understanding and taking in its message. For me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of an inerrantist approach to Scripture: It makes it difficult for readers to engage with the Bible on its own terms. It's like someone who is so devoted to a false image of their spouse that they can't see their spouse for the person they really are. Likewise, the steps that need to be taken in order to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible's actual content means that it becomes impossible to have an intimate relationship with the Bible as it really is. This is not taking the Bible seriously. It is taking the doctrine of inerrancy seriously at the expense of the Bible.  

5. God is love

Christianity teaches that God is love. In fact, it is the closest thing Christians have to a scriptural definition of God:  "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8).

If God is love, then we experience God when we love. If God is love, then the primary way we can encounter God is through loving and being loved--that is, through cultivating loving relationships with persons. This may help to explain the Christian view that a person--Jesus--served in history as God's fundamental revelation, rather than a book. Books can't love you. And you can't love a book in the sense of "love" that Christians (and the author of 1 John) have in mind when we say God is love.

When we feel the profound presence of the divine showering love upon us--or when we feel the joy of being loved by others--we are encountering the divine nature as something coming to us from the outside. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are channeling divine love, and experiencing it "from within" (so to speak). The divine nature is moving within us, more intimately connected to us than any mere object of experience. I think this is what the author of 1 John means when he says that whoever does not love does not know God. To love others is to be filled with the spirit of God. It is to let God in.

If any of that is true, then it is by encouraging us to love one another that God makes possible the most profound revelation of the divine nature and will. And while the Bible does encourage us to love one another, the theory about the Bible which takes it to be the inerrant revelation of God may actually be an impediment to love.

We end up focusing more attention on the Bible than on our neighbors. We are more committed to "doing what the Bible says" than we are to loving those around us. Out of a desire to be connected with God, we insist that homosexuality is always and everywhere sinful--and when the gay and lesbian neighbors we are supposed to love cry out in despair, their lives crushed by these teachings, we stifle our compassion, shutting out love in fear that loving them as ourselves might lead us to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

If God is love, then any theory of revelation that tells us to find God by burying our noses in a book is a problematic theory. If God is love, we must look for God in the love we see in the world. The Bible, understood as a flawed and finite human testament to the God of love working in history, can be a deeply meaningful partner in our quest to encounter God and live in the light of divine goodness. But as soon as it is treated as inerrant, it is in danger of becoming a bludgeon used to silence those neighbors who want to share experiences that don't quite fit with this or that verse.

The Bible points away from itself. Respect for it demands that we look up from the page and engage with our neighbors and the creation. God is alive in the world. The Bible tells us that God is alive in the world. In so doing, the book is telling us that if we want to find God, we need to look into our neighbor's face with love, and at the natural world and all its creatures with love.

Because God is there. God is there, revealing Himself in the vibrancy of life and the child's laugh and the mother's tender kiss. God is there, in the gay man who sits by his longtime partner's hospital bedside, gently stroking his brow. God is there, in the joyous wedding vows of the lesbian couple that can finally get a legal marriage after years together.

And any time a too-literal allegiance to the letter of the biblical text causes someone not to see the face of God in that tenderness and joy, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has blocked divine revelation, impeding God's effort to self-disclose to the world.