Friday, February 20, 2015

Religious Extremism: Critiquing a Facebook Meme

There's a (new?) Facebook meme that's crossed my newsfeed recently, one which I think warrants some critical attention. It looks like this:



There are several problems with this meme. Let me list a few.

1. Caricaturing the Left

I've never seen or heard anyone on the political left openly "side" with Muslim extremists--that is, defend the horrors perpetrated by such groups as ISIS or Al Qaeda, or argue that these groups are justified in what they do.

Rather, what I've seen and heard them do is react to sweeping generalizations that impute to all of Islam these horrors, or that strive to hold moderate Islam accountable for Muslim extremists in a way that they don't hold moderate Christians (or Jews) accountable for Christian (or Jewish) extremists.

This is not to say that there don't exist "leftist extremists" who are cheering on ISIS as they lop off Christian heads. But if they exist, they have no reputable public voice in this country--and so I suspect that this meme is really intended to caricature and thereby prematurely dismiss the kind of views I have heard from the political left.

People often hear what their biases tell them to hear, rather than what others are saying. I suspect there are people out there who believe that many moderate voices on the political left are really "leftist extremists" who are "siding with the decapitators" because they don't hear what those voices are actually saying.

The person on the political left says something like the following:
"There are extremists in every faith, and just as we don't stereotype all Christians as extremists based on the existence of extremists who act in the name of Christianity, so too should we avoid stereotyping all Muslims as extremists based on the existence of extremists who act in the name of Islam."
But what is heard is this:
"In saying that not all Muslims are extremists, I am defending Islam--which means I'm siding with Muslim extremists. And in saying that there are extremists who act in the name of Christianity, I am criticizing Christianity as a whole, which means I'm siding against Christians."
The above meme invites such an extreme and extremely muddled mistranslation, and hence perpetuates misunderstanding.

2. Framing the problem as a matter of who to side with in an us/them polarization

There's a disturbing us/them theme running through this meme. There's "us": the Jews and Christians who are labeled as extremists for wanting to exercise religious freedom (freedom to pray where we want and to withhold services where our religious conscience tells us to). And then there's them: the Muslims, who really are extremists, who are actually killing people in gruesome ways. And the liberals, by defending the Muslims while criticizing the Jews and Christians, have chosen to side with them.

This way of framing things actually builds on the first issue I talked about. It is clearly and obviously a mistake to compare a conservative Christian baker's refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding with a nominally Islamic extremist's participation in terrorism and murder. Anyone who treats the two as morally comparable is operating with dangerously distorted lenses.

But no one with any publicly credible voice does that. There are many on the left who both criticize the Christian baker and defend the typical Muslim from being wrongly stereotyped based on the actions of extremists. But that is not the same as likening what the Christian baker does to what the ISIS terrorist does, let along siding with the ISIS terrorist over the conservative Christian baker.

The deeper problem here is the tendency to deflate the meaning of "extremism" in the first two examples so as to implicitly suggest that what is identified as Muslim extremism is as common among Muslims as the desire for freedom to act on religious conscience (even in controversial cases) is among Jews and Christians.

Let me be clear: I think Christians who want to withhold their business services from gay and lesbian couples are misconceiving Christian ethics in a way that promotes division and marginalization, thereby undermining the core thrust of Jesus' love ethic. But laws requiring them to provide such service are demanding that they act in ways that violate their sincere beliefs. Not without reason, of course. For the sake of preserving equality of opportunity for a socially marginalized group, it may be necessary to tread on freedom of religious conscience--but if so, to treat this matter as equivalent to invoking the law to keep extremists from beheading their targets does no one any good.

But in a sense, this meme does that very thing. It lifts up, as the paradigm of Christian extremism, something that even the most progressive Christian can understand and (somewhat) sympathize with: the struggle of conscience faced by the Christian baker. By implication, the meme suggest that even the most progressive Muslim is likely to view in a similar light the ISIS foot soldier hacking into the vulnerable neck of an aid worker.

As such, the meme plays into anti-Muslim stereotypes. It draws a sharp line between us and them, between what we are like and what they are like. By portraying "our" extremism as mild and at worst controversial compared with "theirs," the whole Christian and Jewish community is contrasted with Islam as a whole. And since their extremists target us, they are a threat to us. Sides must be taken.

3. Minimizing non-Muslim Extremism

My final point is related to the preceding one. The meme minimizes the extremism of those who self-identify as Christians and Jews for the sake of sharpening the perceived divide between Islam and other religions.

If we're looking for the worst cases of Christian extremism, refusing to bake a cake isn't among them. One might be tempted to point to Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful signs as a better example--or perhaps the isolated acts of those who kill abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. But these Christian extremists operate within the context of a civil society that has been relatively stable since the Civil War. By contrast, ISIS operates in a war-torn region of the world, one heavy-laden with ethnic conflicts which were, for a long time, forcibly suppressed by oppressive regimes.

We can only learn so much from comparing the worst that Christian extremism has produced in the stable environs of contemporary America with the worst that Islamic extremism has produced in the more volatile social, economic, and political climate of the Middle East.

There are better comparisons. And although I'm not a fan of Christopher Hitchens' overall assessment of religion in god is not Great, Hitchens does discuss, in that book, an example that may offer a better basis for comparison: the ethnic violence that tore through the former Yoguslavia after the collapse of its totalitarian communist regime. Hitchens describes the scene that greeted him when he visited the region in 1992:
The mainly Muslim city of Sarajevo had been encircled and was being bombarded around the clock. Elsewhere, in Bosnia-Herzegovina...whole towns were pillaged and massacred in what the Serbs themselves termed "ethnic cleansing." In point of fact, "religious cleansing" would have been nearer the mark...In effect, the extremist Catholic and Orthodox forces were colluding in a bloody partition and cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were, and still are, largely spared the public shame of this, because the world's media preferred the simplification of "Croat" and "Serb," and only mentioned religion when discussing "the Muslims."
Hitchens goes on to  further describe what he takes to be the media's glossing-over of religious identities and divisions:
It would have been far more accurate if the press and television had reported that "today the Orthodox Christian forces resumed their bombardment of Sarajevo," or "yesterday the Catholic militia succeeded in collapsing the Stari Most." But confessional terminology was reserved only for "Muslims," even as their murderers went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts. 
In Is God a Delusion?, I criticized Hitchens and the other new atheists for failing to distinguish between religion and what I call religionism. There is a difference, I think, between living out a religious faith and using religion as an identity marker to ideologically divide the world between us and them. The latter is what I mean by "religionism," and it's what I think is at work in cases like the violence in the former Yugoslavia. The Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs weren't slaughtering Muslims as an expression of their faith. Rather, they were acting out a divisive us/them ideology, and were invoking Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam as identity markers in their ideology of hate (in much the way that racists invoke "white" and "black" and other racial categories).

And so I think Hitchens is wrong to blame religion for the violence in the former Yugoslavia. But for the same reason, it is wrong to blame religion for the violence perpetrated by ISIS and other groups like them. ISIS and similar groups deserve to be called Islamist extremists only insofar as Islam serves as the identity marker with which they work out their ideology of hate. But if that is what warrants calling them Islamist extremists, then the closest parallel in Christianity--what deserves the corresponding label of "Christian extremism"--may be the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina by nominally Christian Croats and Serbs.

It is quite possible that different religions don't do enough to identify and guard against elements in their theologies and religious practices that lend themselves to extremist interpretations. It is quite possible that Islam can do far more than it has done in this regard. It is even possible that in recent years, Christians or Jews have done better. I don't know. But if so, these concerns need to be raised and addressed in a spirit of solidarity, in which people of all faiths are working together to defeat the problem of extremism, rather than taking sides against each other and seeing extremism as the problem of the other guy.

Because as soon as we do that, we are on our way to embracing the very us/them thinking that leads to extremism.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

AP History Under Fire: Text of a letter to my state legislators

In case you haven't heard, the Oklahoma legislature is considering a bill--HB 1380--that would do away with AP History in Oklahoma. Reproduced below is the text of what I wrote to my legislators. If you live in Oklahoma, I encourage you to write your own letters (you can get help finding out who your legislators are here, although it doesn't give perfect results on the local level). Feel free to share this post or plagiarize the text freely (although you probably want to replace the personal anecdote if you do).


I am writing to urge you to oppose HB 1380, which would replace AP History in Oklahoma with a locally designed alternative. This bill would be bad for the state, and it would be bad for Oklahoma’s students.

AP courses have a long-standing national reputation for academic rigor. A newly-fashioned Oklahoma alternative would not enjoy that status. Successful performance on AP courses and tests enables students not only to prepare for college by undertaking courses of the sort that they will encounter at the college level, but gives these students the opportunity to earn college credit—thereby expanding the options and opportunities they will have for higher education. For example, in my own experience the college credit from my AP courses enabled me to take a semester off in my sophomore year to travel in India with my family and still graduate on time. This experience not only changed my academic trajectory but deepened my understanding of alternative worldviews and cultures in ways that have had a lasting impact on my life.

Part of the reason AP courses can confer college credit and hence provide these opportunities is because the curriculum and learning objectives laid out by the AP program reflect well what experts in the represented disciplines have recognized to be a sound college-level introduction to those disciplines. The motive for HB 1380 springs, on the contrary, from ideology—and in effect is advocating that a course structure which reflects the recommendations of experts in the field of American history be replaced by a course structure that reflects a specific ideological understanding of the American story. In other words, the motive is to render Oklahoma’s high school history classes less academically credible, less scholarly, but more effective at reinforcing a preferred worldview.

Even if many legislators do not see it in these terms, no one can reasonably expect colleges and universities to see it any other way. Hence, no one can reasonably expect colleges and universities to recognize the proposed Oklahoma alternative to AP History the way that they do the AP course. In short, were this legislation to pass, it would impose a handicap on all Oklahoma students pursuing college careers. The imposition of such handicaps is the opposite of what a state legislator should be doing. It shamefully prioritizes ideological agendas over the welfare of Oklahoma’s young people.

There is a dangerous tendency for those at the political and ideological extremes to confuse balance for bias. When one is prejudicially wedded to a particular worldview and narrative, the open and critical inquiry essential for sound academic scholarship can be misperceived as biased simply because it fails to prejudicially endorse the favored worldview and narrative over defensible alternatives. If we allow HB 1380 to pass unchallenged, my deepest worry is that it will strike a blow against sound academic scholarship in the state of Oklahoma.

Please do what you can to fight this bill.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Us and Them and Murder: Islamophobic Terrorism

This morning I was greeted by two disturbing pieces of news. First, I read that a Muslim woman, dining at a TGI Friday's last week, found pieces of bacon shoved into the straw of her drink in what appeared to be a deliberate show of disrespect for her religiously-rooted dietary restrictions. The second piece of news was more extreme: Yesterday, three Muslim college students--two sisters and the husband of the elder sister--were murdered in North Carolina. The alleged perpetrator, Craig Hicks, described himself as an anti-theist who was openly hostile to religion.

Here is a brief glimpse at one of the victims, a dental student, who made this video to raise money for a missions project:



The motives for the shooting remain undisclosed, but if they prove to be bound up with Hicks' anti-religious stance, then I think we need to keep two things in mind: First, Hicks' atheism is no more the reason for his violent attack than Islam is the reason for 9/11. In both cases, the problem lies with a kind of ideological targeting of people based on group membership. While Islam can be and has been invoked to underwrite that sort of us/them ideology, other things can be and have been invoked as well--including Christianity and atheism. This fact never justifies sweeping generalizations about the group and its members. In fact, falling prey to such sweeping generalizations is the first step towards embracing the very us/them ideology that is the root problem.

Second, if Hicks targeted his victims because they were Muslim, then we ought to take very seriously the idea that what he did should be called an act of terrorism. Islamophobic terrorism. And even if it isn't terrorism, the ideological patterns of thinking that underwrite terrorism may have played a role: It is easier to kill people if you first ascribe to an ideology that dehumanizes them.

What is terrorism? In my academic work on the subject, I've argued that it has to do with how victims of violence are targeted. Terrorists operate from an us/them ideology that sees every member of an enemy group as a legitimate target. Terrorists may select targets based on strategic or symbolic considerations, but they don't discriminate based on their innocence--because all members of the enemy group are seen as guilty, simply because they belong to that group.

Hence, no one in the targeted group is safe. That's why terrorism terrorizes. Being an American is enough to make you a legitimate target in the eyes of Al Qaeda extremists.

This way of viewing terrorism connect the dots between ideas and violence: If you embrace an ideology that divides the world between "us" and "them," and you portray all of them as collectively guilty, then you are laying the groundwork for terrorist violence. And violence that is done because of this sort of ideological motive is different in kind from violence done for, say, personal gain or jealous rage.

Among other things, those who kill because of allegiance to an ideology of hate are harder to deter. If you see yourself as an agent of the Children of Light fighting a war against the Children of Darkness, you may be perfectly happy to sacrifice yourself for the cause. Threats of punishment won't hold you back.

And that's why the most chilling thing I read this morning wasn't the news report of the triple murder (although that surely chilled me deeply). Instead, it was a comment, posted on one of the websites recounting the TGI Friday's incident, that reads as follows:
We unfortunately MUST do to them that which they wish to do to us, all I wish to do is to work, provide a living for my family. worship how I wish, (or not) and enjoy life. THEY want CONTROL over my life and how I live. THEY want me to convert or die. THEY want to tell me what to wear, what to eat, and what to do everyday... They are like the current U.S. Government under Obama on Steroids. Lock and Load Real Americans.
Notice here the universal imputation of nefarious motives, the repeated invocation of THEM. And then the call to arms: Lock and load. THEY are a threat to US. WE have no choice but to load our guns and shoot them down.

And to think this diatribe was sparked by the story of a woman who wanted her dietary restrictions respected, and instead had the forbidden food all but shoved down her throat.

Adherents to this kind of ideology know that members of their own group aren't all the same: they're normal human beings who want to live normal human lives, with diverse values and interests. They worship in different ways (or not at all). Some want to stand on a soapbox and spread their faith; others just want to eat at TGI Friday's without having bacon shoved into their drinking straw. But instead of seeing the same humanity and diversity in the other group, those in the grip of divisive ideologies offer a sweeping portrait of what "they" want. And what THEY want is so bad for us that we have no choice but to treat them in ways we would never treat members of our own group.

The philosopher John Ladd, in an essay that has strongly influenced my thinking, finds in Nazism a kind of template for violent ideologies: Such ideologies begin with what he calls the doctrine of bifurcation: the world is divided between the chosen group and the "other" group. They then move onto a doctrine of moral disqualification. The others are in some way rendered less than human: they aren't like us, and so can be legitimately treated in ways that we couldn't otherwise justify. But that's not enough. Another key tenet of these ideologies is the notion of a group mission: Our welfare is threatened by THEM, and so we must, to bring good and right back into the world, knock THEM down--marginalize, oppress, or destroy. Lock and load.

This is the sort of pattern of thinking that enables terrorists to ignore questions of guilt or innocence, and so target civilians. It is the pattern of thinking that feeds cycles of ideological hatred and violence. And were it isolated to a rare comment on an occasional blog post, we could set aside acts of violence like the triple murder in North Carolina as just the actions of a lunatic.

But when the lunatic is acting out the implications of a worldview that is repeatedly endorsed in the public sphere--when there is a subculture that repeats and disseminates and encourages this kind of thinking--the lunatic becomes more than a lunatic. The lunatic is the agent of a cause, and terrorism is the means of pursuing it. This is why our public leaders and intellectuals need to be so very careful about what they say and how they say it--because even those who don't believe in bifurcating the world into the good and the bad, the light and the dark, sometimes find themselves falling into rhetorical patterns and arguments that play into dangerous ideologies of the sort Ladd describes (as Sam Harris has done more than once).

We can't and shouldn't stifle free speech and free expression. But we can model modes of expression that encourage cooperation rather than division, that resist the urge to absolutize any group. And when hateful and ideological speech proliferates, we can counteract it with speech of our own, speech that calls it out for what it is and highlights its dangers.

The vast majority of atheists are well-meaning, decent human beings who care about humanity and disavow us/them ideologies. But sometimes, us/them tropes are invoked by influential atheist figures (who themselves denounce extremism) in ways that fuel subcultures of extremism. People are drawn to the seductive simplicity of a world where enlightened atheists are locked in a (metaphorical) war with the benighted religious fools who threaten the welfare of us all. They indulge this simple worldview, usually just with heated words and self-righteous diatribes. But when enough people begin to say "lock and load," eventually someone does just that. When someone does, we must recognize the depths of the problem--but we should resist the urge to absolutize atheists or attribute to all atheists the ideological motives of the extremists.

And, just to be clear, let me repeat the preceding paragraph with one small change:  The vast majority of Muslims are well-meaning, decent human beings who care about humanity and disavow us/them ideologies. But sometimes, us/them tropes are invoked by influential Muslim figures (who themselves denounce extremism) in ways that fuel subcultures of extremism. People are drawn to the seductive simplicity of a world where enlightened Muslims are locked in a (metaphorical) war with the benighted unbelievers who threaten the welfare us all. They indulge this simple worldview, usually just with heated words and self-righteous diatribes. But when enough people begin to say "lock and load," eventually someone does just that. When someone does, we must recognize the depths of the problem--but we should resist the urge to absolutize Muslims or attribute to all Muslims the ideological motives of the extremists.

Or plug in "Christians," if you prefer.

We don't yet know what motivated the killings of three young Muslims in North Carolina the other day. We don't know why Craig Hicks gunned them down. But there is a pattern of thinking in place in this country--sometimes articulated by self-described atheists, sometimes by self-described Christians, sometimes by others--that treats all Muslims as a single unit, characterizing them as an enemy that threatens us all and against whom we must be prepared to take up arms. When someone follows that call and strikes out against innocent members of the group, it is terrorism. Islamophobic terrorism.

If Hicks isn't an Islamophobic terrorist in the sense described here--and he may well not be--then there are others out there who have been primed to be just that. Some use the mistreatment of a Muslim woman in a restaurant as the occasion for a call to arms against the "Muslim threat"--as if the fact that she was treated with disrespect is proof that her kind are poised to ruin our way of life.

We can't address the danger that such ideologically driven individuals pose by treating them as nothing but isolated lunatics. We need to pay attention to the way that the ideas we permit and nurture in the public square can fuel our potential for terrorist violence.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When You Blame Religion, What are You Blaming?

In a recent Raw Story piece, "These are the 12 worst ideas religion has unleashed on the world," Valerie Tarico comes up with a list of some really harmful ideas--ranging from notions such as "blasphemy" and "heresy" and "holy war" to practices such as female genital mutilation and blood sacrifice and male ownership of female fertility. And she blames religion for them.

Yesterday, Kate Blanchard--a religious studies professor at Alma College--shot back with a concise but pointed response, one that resonates with my own perspective.

In the course of answering the Raw Story piece, Blanchard makes the following insightful observation about our use of the term "religion":
Some people like to think that the "essence" of religion is all sweetness and light, while the violence and bigotry for which religious people are famous are unfortunate cultural add-ons. The flip side is the idea expressed in the aforementioned post, that the essence of religion is tribalism and violence, while all the good stuff is "our shared moral core."
This is a point I tried to make a few years ago, in connection with a debate/discussion between Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell. In my more academic writing, I've argued that religion has become a "bifurcated essentially contested concept": On the one hand, people use "religion" as a value-laden term and offer competing understandings in part because we disagree about what deserves the value-ascription that goes with religion. On the other hand, we don't agree on what the value-ascription is that goes with religion.

The result is that people can have all the same values and the same assessment of the facts and yet end up seeming as if they fundamentally disagree about religion--when really they're just talking past each other. Joe Shmoe can hate all the things that Valerie Tarico hates, and they can (perhaps) love all the same things about Martin Luther King, Jr. But they disagree vociferously about religion. Why? Because Ms. Tarico attributes the former things to religion (because religion is bad, and these are the things that make it bad), while attributing MLK's virtues to humanism; but Mr. Shmoe attributes MLK's virtues to religion (because religion is good, and these are the things that make it good), while attributing Ms Tarico's list of horrors to the general human propensity for tribalism and the like.

There are ways I expressed myself in the book, Is God a Delusion?, that put me very close to sounding like Joe Shmoe--and were I to rewrite it today, that's one of the things I'd change. What I wanted to say then (at least in my moments of greatest clarity) is what I will say now: It's not that the essence of religion is all sweetness and light. Rather, there is something important that runs through the religions of the world that, if we take it to be religion's essence, provides an internal basis for critiquing the very things that Valerie Tarico criticizes in her piece. And this is a reason to take it to be religion's essence--because it provides a reason for religious people to rethink some of the more harmful things that religious communities have endorsed and perpetuated (if not originated).

What is this thing that I find running through the religions of the world? Well, it's a bit hard to summarize briefly, but here's my best effort: There is this thing I call the ethico-religious hope: the hope that in some fundamental way, reality is not indifferent to moral goodness, that despite the cold indifference of natural laws there is something beyond the empirical skin of the world that is on the side of the good. There is, within religion, a lifting-up of mystical experiences that speak in favor of this hope--even if, of course, they can be explained away as delusional. But one thing that religious communities do is make a decision to live as if this hopeful possibility is true--as if the mystical experiences that speak to it are not illusory, but are rather glimpses into a dimension of reality that transcends the ordinary run of our empirical lives.

One feature of religion, then, is a commitment to aligning our wills and lives to this ethico-religious hope, and cultivating the kinds of mystical experiences that nurture this hope.

I think that if we extract from the religions of the world these elements, it will be hard to blame Valerie Tarico's 12 bad ideas on them. In fact, I think that if we focus on these elements, they provide the basis for challenging such evils. This is one of the things I aimed to show in Is God a Delusion?

But it is also true that real-world religions embody a diversity of features, including our propensity for tribalism and our urgent desire for certainty and easy answers. But blaming religion for these features is itself an instance of falling prey to the desire for easy answers. This is a point that Kate Blanchard makes nicely towards the end of her short piece:
Many of us are willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that human nature and history are irreducibly complex, in favor of bedtime stories that let us sleep better at night. We blame the worst stuff on religion and dream of a better world without it, as if other factors like land, nationalism, gender, wealth, power, or the desire to be right are unique outgrowths of religiosity. As if heresy, blood sacrifice, glorified suffering, or the desire for eternal life are not equally insidious in their secular incarnations.
The result is the naivete of John Lennon's Imagine. A friend recently shared on Facebook his conversation with his young daughter about this song, in which he went into a detailed account of its oversimplified and naive vision of the human condition...putting her to sleep in the process. But maybe it's the song that should put us to sleep. I kind of like the song. I find it pretty--but pretty in the way that oversimplified bedtime stories are pretty. In fact, Valerie Tarico's list of religion's evils and Lennon's wistful imaginings seem to be different ways of articulating some of the very same ideas.

If so, Kate Blanchard's response is not just a reason to resist oversimplified attacks on religion, but a reason to be suspicious of Lennon's more lyrical naivete.

If you haven't read Blanchard's piece, it's a quick read and worth clicking over to.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Death of Chivalry? A Plea for Human Decency

A few years ago my family and I were heading into a restaurant for lunch. I was herding the kids, trying to keep them from running into the street or smashing their faces into concrete posts. Hence, my wife reached the restaurant door before I did.

A man who watched this scene responded with horror, surging forward to save the day. He managed to do what I should have been doing instead of keeping my children alive. It was a near thing, but he got to the door before my wife did and held it open for her, rescuing chivalry from the clutches of my negligence.

And then he gave me the kind of withering look reserved for people who push old ladies into traffic.

At first I was baffled. But then I realized what was going on. Watching to make sure the kids didn't commit unintended suicide in the manner of small children--that was my wife's job. My job was to take care of her by making sure her Ironman-triathlete arm muscles weren't strained by the task of opening a door.

This case was hardly unique. I'm not at all good at the chivalrous-holding-open-the-door-for-a-lady thing, at least not the Oklahoma version. I was raised in upstate New York by Scandinavian parents. My mother, a Norwegian raised mostly in Denmark, reserved a distinctive kind of scorn for those American men inclined to inflict Chivalry on her. (My father never dared.) She'd make this scoffing noise--very Danish--combined with an expression that was part bafflement and part eye-roll. Sometimes she'd follow it up with something like, "I can get my own chair."

I'm not a child was unspoken but implied.

If she was trying to be polite to the chivalrous agent of condescension, the scoff would be stifled and her face would wrinkle up in a way that mostly expressed discomfort. Sometimes she'd enact the expected ritual responses in a playfully mocking manner: "Oh!" Big Dramatic Expression. "What a gentleman!" The guy would usually catch on, and pretend that all along he'd been play-acting as a way of expressing their shared disdain for such things.

So perhaps I can be excused for growing up without the habits of chivalry that Oklahomans generally treat as normative. But I've tried, for the sake of form, to catch on a little bit when I'm out in public. Unfortunately, I'm a bit dense about it. A couple of years back I thought that I was doing it right. I got to the door ahead of my wife and held it open. I silently congratulated myself on remembering the ritual.

But I did it wrong. I did it in the way that I hold doors for people coming up behind me as I'm entering a building. You know, that common human decency which leads you to make sure the door doesn't slam in the other person's face. Once they get there and their hand is on the door, you let go and continue on into the building.

It turns out that chivalry isn't about common human decency. I may have held the door for my wife, but people glared anyway--because I didn't continue to hold the door until she'd passed completely through ahead of me. I'd forgotten about "ladies first."

I remember having a conversation about this with my students once. "Why," I asked, "have I done something wrong if I fail to run ahead of my wife to get the door and hold it for her, but my wife hasn't done anything wrong if she fails to do the same for me?"

"Because," my students answered, "you're the guy."

And that's it exactly. Chivalry isn't about common human decency. It's about gender differences. It's a ritual reinforcement of differential gender roles. And insofar as it is a holdover of a patriarchal culture--one in which women were rendered dependent on men--rules of chivalry reflect and reinforce that patriarchal culture.

Here's how I look at it. In a patriarchal society, rules of chivalry have an important function in symbolically encouraging men to restrain how they use their privilege in relation to women. In patriarchy, that privilege makes women's life prospects depend on the good will of the men in their lives. Fortunately, there have always been men of good will in the world. Hence, many women have had decent lives despite patriarchy. And the rules of chivalry have helped to promote that. Every time a man makes a chivalrous gesture, he's reminded to use his privilege to care for rather than exploit women. He also sends a (possibly deceptive) message to women that here is a man who will not exploit his advantage over them: a man of good will, who will use his higher status in the cultural hierarchy to care for those lower in it, rather than abuse them.

But at the same time that chivalry symbolically communicates the importance of not exploiting a privileged position, it symbolically reinforces the hierarchy itself. When women ritually allow men to do for them what they are fully capable of doing for themselves, they symbolically hand over to them the power to take care of them. Rather than being autonomous agents who take care of themselves, they transfer the power to a paternalistic caretaker.

I suppose a paternalistic caretaker is better than an abusive tyrant, if you have to put your life and happiness into someone else's control. But equality is better still.

Let me be clear. I believe in human relationships. I believe that they should be shaped by care and compassion. And I believe that in an intimate partnership, we need to be willing to trust our partner, and sometimes rely on them to do things for us, even things that we could very well do for ourselves. Self-care and self-control have to make room for trust and interdependence. We are not wholly autonomous beings. We need to form intimate partnerships where we can care and be cared for. We need to make space for both--and that means letting others hold doors for us, even when we have the muscular strength to open them ourselves.

But the problem with chivalry is that what it symbolizes goes only in one direction. The woman gives up her self-reliance to the care of the benevolent man. There is no symbolic parity.

When I asked my students why my failure to hold the door for my wife was a big deal, but her failure to do the same wasn't, it was a very serious question with a very serious point. I would eagerly try to learn cultural rituals that affirm interdependence and mutual care between men and women. But the door-holding ritual doesn't do that, precisely because it is gender-specific in what it demands.

Chivalry is, in other words, a set of rituals designed for a society in which gender relations are not egalitarian, a society where women are vulnerable to exploitation and hence dependent on making sure that the men in their lives are men of good will, men who will use their privileged social position to care for those women rather than abuse them.

I believe we should be aiming for a society characterized by gender equality, a society where neither sex is uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, a society where women don't need gestures of chivalry to assure them that this man won't abuse his privilege--because he doesn't enjoy such privilege.

For that, we need new rituals. We need symbolic acts of human decency, acts that communicate our openness to egalitarian partnerships, to interdependence, to a balance of vulnerability and self-reliance, trust and care.

That said, we do face a world in which women are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse at the hands of men than the other way around. And this fact may call for ritual acts and gestures that are specifically for men--ritual acts whereby men symbolically express their rejection of rape and the culture of rape.

I don't think the rituals of chivalry are well suited to this aim. First of all, their focus is on a kind of paternalistic care-taking in which the woman is passive and the man is active--and the message here is hardly an unambiguous repudiation of rape.

He opens the door. She walks through.

He takes off her coat. She passively lets him.

He pulls out the chair. She sits down.

He orders the wine. She trusts his judgment.

He pays. She relies on his financial privilege, feels indebted, and wonders how much he thinks he's buying in return.

He directs and she follows. He acts and she allows. It's almost as if the whole thing is aimed at habituating her into a pattern of acquiescence...all in preparation for that moment when he finally makes his move.

The truth is that all of us are vulnerable to abuse, to being used by others in various ways. All of us can benefit from a culture that, in its little rituals, symbolically repudiates such abuse. And if there are special gestures that men should convey to women that women aren't expected to reciprocate, it makes sense for them to be special forms of these more general rituals.

What would these rituals look like? I'm not sure. What do we do now to show common human decency through symbolic gestures? Can any of them be adapted to dates, to romance, to intimate relationships in ways that affirm interdependence, equality, and mutual care?

The death of chivalry is often bemoaned, but I doubt that anyone would really miss it were it replaced with something that is truer to an ideal of gender equality--something that is about our shared human condition, our shared vulnerability, our shared need to be cared for and to be relied on.

That's what we want and need--but men want and need it as much as women do, and chivalry falls short not only in terms of reciprocity, but in terms of subtly imposing a patriarchal hierarchy on expressions of care.

So let chivalry die. But let's not merely let it die. Let's strive together to replace it with something new.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Nigerian: Terrorism and the Limits of Love

Last week, the world became Charlie Hebdo.

After a pair of Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine, killing twelve, "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") became a Twitter hashtag, a slogan on signs, a message on buttons pinned to celebrity lapels at the Golden Globes. There were marches. There was intense international attention. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the world stood with the victims of the attack.

A related attack in Paris, two days later, targeted a Kosher market, killing four and spurring the Grand Synagogue of Paris to cancel Shabbat services for the first time since World War II. It received somewhat less attention.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram engaged in a slaughter of the innocents, killing perhaps as many as two thousand villagers. The news was reported, and the world went back to its usual routines. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they went back to announcing their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

CNN has offered a nice overview of the differences between global reactions to the two disparate terrorist attacks--the one in France that has stimulated a display of international solidarity not seen since September 11; and the far bloodier one in Nigeria, which was received as another bit of bad news somewhere out there in the world. The report goes on to offer some explanations for the differences in reactions, ranging from the symbolic resonance of the Charlie Hebdo attack to the real-time reporting of unfolding events that was possible in France but not in northern Nigeria.  

My aim here is not to denounce the expressions of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, but to reflect on the limits of our solidarity. There would be something amiss in the world, I think, had the international community not offered the kind of show of solidarity for the victims of the Paris attacks that it did show. But if that is true, then there is something amiss in the world--because the reasons why it is right and good to show that kind of solidarity for the Charlie Hebdo victims are also reasons why it is right and good to show solidarity with the victims of countless other brutal and pointless tragedies.

The kinds of considerations that CNN invokes to explain the differences in our reactions do merely that: they explain. They don't justify.

We are flawed, finite creatures. We live our lives, absorbed in our own small concerns. And every once in awhile something breaks through--"Je Suis Charlie" enters our world in something like the way that a new fad sweeps in. We're caught up in the fad, and maybe the fad sparks some real compassion. But compassion is not a fad.

I am as guilty as anyone. In my case, my guilt is bound up with my academic leanings. Some events raise issues that I can't help but intellectually gnaw on, given my academic training and the direction of my scholarly concerns. The Charlie Hebdo massacre raised issues about freedom of speech, about the legitimacy of critiquing crude and disrespectful speech even in the wake of extreme and intolerable violent responses to that speech.

It raised issues about the ways in which extremists try to provoke retaliation--seeking to inspire those they attack to strike back in ways they hope will get out of hand, thereby helping to fuel the polarization and hostility that breeds extremism. Increasing Islamophobia is, for extreme Islamists, a victory: It means that Muslims will feel more alienated, more threatened. Fear and exclusion breed the kind of disaffection that may help the extremists identify and nurture new recruits.

Trained as I am in nonviolence theory and the study of conflict resolution, I find myself drawn in by these kinds of issues. But when I consider the ongoing violence in Nigeria, all I can see is blood. It's too much. The scale of it shuts down the intellect, and all I can do is turn away in mute horror.

It's so much easier to think about Charlie Hebdo, because I am able to hold it at arm's-length and think about it in intellectual terms. I'm a limited creature, and while I know I have within me the potential to push against those limits and even rise above them, too often I'm just too tired. I call that weariness sin.

If I loved deeply enough--if I loved with the kind of love that Jesus called for, the kind of love that encompasses everyone, even my enemies--I would be driven by a fire of love that would overcome my weariness. But too often the weariness wins, because my love is too limited. I call those limits sin.

I do not weep enough for the world, because I don't want to spend my whole life crying. I call that sin. I call it sin because it means my hope is frail.

And so I want to say that I am Charlie, but I also need to say that I am the Jews killed in a Kosher supermarket, and the Nigerian villagers slaughtered in their homes, and the Muslim who is horrified by the Charlie Hebdo killings and afraid of what it will mean in the weeks to come. I am the Palestinian suffering in Gaza, and the Jewish family in Tel Aviv cowering in a basement while bombs are lobbed from afar.

I want to say it because I want to feel it, because I want to be more than I am. And I want to encourage others to do the same.

Perhaps it is too much to weep for the whole world, for all its victims. Perhaps we must concede that our limits would turn such efforts into empty gestures. But at least we can cry for the Nigerian dead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Atheist Purification and the Case of Ryan Bell

I’ve been following with some interest the year-long journey of former Seventh-Day Adventist preacher Ryan Bell, who made the decision a little over a year ago--in the midst of a crisis of faith--to try on atheism for a year. His Year Without God has generated some strong reactions and is nicely chronicled not only in various media pieces but on his own blog.

Bell, at the conclusion of his year-long journey, has announced that he isn’t going back. "I don't think God exists,” he told NPR's Arun Rath. His year without God will be, it seems, longer than a year.

So what do I think of this? Do I share William Lane Craig's catastrophizing view that Bell's journey is "spiritually disastrous" and that "If this man really does consistently live out an atheistic lifestyle, it could do irreparable harm to the Christian church"? 

No. In fact, it may do the church some good. Much hinges, I think, on whether Bell's journey towards atheism reflects more of the spirit of Simone Weil, or more of the spirit of Blaise Pascal. Let me explain. 

When I first heard of Bell's existential experiment, one thing that immediately came to mind was Simone Weil’s notion that atheism can be a “purification.” This idea may seem strange coming from a religious mystic committed to relinquishing herself to God. But it makes more sense once we pay attention to the terrifying danger she saw in gods of the imagination

As Weil puts it, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” Put another way, our imaginations are very good at constructing false gods that block the pathway through which the genuinely divine might enter our souls. (I would add that cultures are good at it, too, so if we simply adopt our notion of God from cultural institutions rather than our own imaginations, we aren't any better off.)

The divine, as Weil sees it, defies conceptualization. At one point Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.” But she pairs this atheistic assertion with a contrasting claim that is more suggestive than clear: “I am quite sure there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory.”  And as she puts it, “that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Weil’s theistic counter-claim becomes clearer when we recall key features of her spiritual journey. Her love of God was sparked by unexpected mystical experiences that shattered her understanding of what was possible—mystical encounters with a love “like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” But she still “half refused” to accept what she had experienced. As she put it in a letter to her friend and confidante, Father Perrin, 
For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.
Weil made it clear to Father Perrin that it was her intellect, not her love, that resisted the urgings of her mystical experiences. I get the sense that her intellectual resistance was in service to her love. She did not want her love to fall on a false object. She wanted her love to be true. And to keep it true, she had to be rigorously critical of any particular conceptualization of the divine. 

On Weil's view of things, all false images of God must fall before the critical scrutiny of the intellect. Only then will the true God—who transcends our concepts but comes to us in profound experiential encounters—be the object of our love. This isn’t to say that nothing can be said about that to which mystical experience points. After all, Weil herself had things to say. But to treat what one has to say as adequate, and to place one’s hope and devotion in the image one has constructed through one’s words and thoughts—that is, for Weil, the real spiritual disaster.

Weil reminds me here of Socrates. Socrates famously held that one of the greatest impediments to knowledge was false certainty. To dislodge someone’s certainty, to cast them into a place of doubt, was for him a necessary first step in the journey towards truth. Paradoxically, this is so even if the belief happens to be true. If we have a true belief but our certainty exceeds what is warranted, then we are further from the truth than the doubter. We aren’t connected to the truth as the truth, because we cling to it in a manner that's indifferent to truth.

This is essentially the point Simone Weil is making about belief in God. It is what she means when she says, “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

Ryan Bell’s journey towards atheism might be just the kind of purification that Weil is talking about: a step in a journey towards truth, whatever that in the end may prove to be. If we are lovers of the truth about the divine, as opposed to lovers of our particular conception of God, then we have nothing to fear from such journeys and everything to gain.

Of course, Bell's atheism might be something else. It is possible that Bell’s shift towards atheism is a product of the kind of self-indoctrination that Blaise Pascal recommends at the conclusion of his famed “wager.” After arguing that we should bet on God’s existence because the costs of doing so are trivial and the potential payoff infinite, Pascal confronts the reality that beliefs aren’t so easily controlled by our decisions. It’s one thing to tell skeptics, “It’s a good pragmatic bet to believe in God”; something else for them to actually shake off their skepticism and believe. 

And so Pascal offers a strategy for attaining faith. And how do skeptics attain faith? “(B)y acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” In other words, by immersing themselves in the life of the believer, surrounding themselves with believers and doing as they do. Simone Weil despised this method, by the way, precisely because it could instill belief in anything.

The same method, of course, can be pursued to promote unbelief. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, if you pretend to be something long enough, you become what you pretend to be—whether it be a Nazi (as in Vonnegut’s novel), or a Christian…or an atheist. Is that what’s going on in Bell’s case? After a year of operating as if he were an atheist, did atheism sink in like an Aristotelian habit?

Only Bell can answer that for sure. But I doubt it. I doubt it in part because of the trajectory of his spiritual journey. According to one article, Bell was once so religiously conservative, so steeped in the anti-intellectual warnings of fundamentalist Christian culture, that in college he refused to read Voltaire because “writing such as Voltaire’s defiles the soul.”

There is a difference between immersing oneself in a particular worldview to the exclusion of rivals, with the aim of becoming a believer, and exploring an alternative worldview with an openness to being moved and transformed by it. The former treats the worldview in question as a final destination. The latter treats it as part of a journey whose final goal is not entrenchment into the worldview in question, but a deeper insight into the world. 

Pascal is recommending something more like the former—and it is something more like the former which motivated the young Ryan Bell to resist “defiling” his mind with ideas at odds with the worldview he’d chosen as his final destination. But at some point Bell broke away from that Pascalian pattern of belief-reinforcement. He left the rigid domain of false certainty for the realm of doubt and questioning. It seems to me unlikely that, in exploring atheism during his Year Without God, Bell would do so in the spirit of the very self-indoctrination he’d left behind. More likely, I think, is that his existential experiment and its outcome represent an ongoing journey.

In other words, I see Bell’s shift towards atheism as reflecting more of Simone Weil’s spirit than Pascal’s--more an exercise in spiritual purification than atheist indoctrination. Whether this is true or not will be seen in where his journey takes him next—whether he continues his exploration in the spirit that motivated his Year Without God, or whether he takes someone like Richard Dawkins as his model, and sets his heels into atheist ground as trenchantly as he once did into conservative Christian soil. 

But much of what Bell is saying these days reflects more of Simone Weil than Pascal. In one interview, he resists calling his expression of atheism a conclusion, because "conclusion is too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from." This sounds as if atheism is not so much a final destination into which he intends to dig his heels, as it is a place he has come to on his journey. 

And finally, there is this sentiment from his NPR interview: "I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality." Again I cannot help but think of Weil's words: "If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

If there is a God who transcends our understanding, Bell may be closer to that God now than he was a year ago. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Racism: We're All Victims

When I was a small child in the late 1960's, my family visited friends in a mostly black neighborhood in California--and my mother decided to warn me about playing out in the front yard while we were there. My memories of this are very sketchy. I think she said something about black people being mad at white people right now. Whatever she said, it caused me to have nightmares. I remember those vividly. In my dreams that night, coal-black men burst through the door of our hotel room and snatched me away.

Then we returned to the lily-white suburban neighborhood where I grew up, and the nightmares didn't follow me. I wasn't aware, for a long time, of any lingering effects. After all, there were only two black boys in my school district, and they were friendly and familiar.

But a dozen years later, I was at a Lutheran summer camp. It was the first day, and activities hadn't started yet. After dumping my things on a bunk in the boy's dormitory, I walked around the campground for half an hour. Then I decided to read under a tree, and so headed back to the dorm to get my book.

Three black teenagers were there, chatting and laughing. I froze in fear. I almost turned in the doorway. But I stopped myself. I forced myself to walk into the room, say hi, and get my book. They didn't beat me up. Instead, they said hi back. And I, still flushed with adrenalin, went and found a tree to read under.

In light of recent news out of Ferguson and New York, I've been thinking quite a bit about my childhood nightmare, and about my encounter with my gut-level racial fears in that summer camp dorm room. They are evidence of something--namely, that I've been harmed by growing up in a racist society. My best self has been harmed.

One of the things that profoundly shaped Martin Luther King, Jr.'s approach to fighting segregation was his conviction that the struggle was not between white people and black people, but between human beings and the racist system.This is one crucial reason why he insisted on an approach that eschewed violence and expressed love for the white oppressor: We're all in this together. All of us should work together to overcome racism, because all of us are its victims.

Let's be clear: King didn't mean that blacks are just as racist towards whites as the other way around, and that we're therefore all on the same footing. When a social system--defined by deeply rooted cultural practices and patterns of thinking and feeling--causes one group to enjoy privileges at the expense of another, there is no equal footing. And when members of the marginalized group lash out against the privileged group, it has a very different meaning than when members of the privileged group invoke their privilege to put the oppressed in their place.

Racism is not just about harboring animosity towards members of a racial group. It's about the oppressive use of social power. And unlike the frustrated lash-back of its victims, such oppressive use of social power can look very subtle, almost benign, to those who aren't its victims. When the oppressed behave badly, it looks like rioting. When the privileged behave badly, it looks like business-as-usual.

King called on all of us to stop behaving badly--but that call demands different things from the privileged than it does from the oppressed. It is one thing to resist the urge, in the wake of years of frustration and resentment, to lash out with flailing fists. That can be hard, especially in moments of acute outrage at specific injustices. But that challenge--to resist behaving badly in the face of an acute injustice--is very different from the challenge of resisting the urge to do what is socially acceptable, what is invisible, what you don't even know you are doing when you do it.

Racism drives the oppressed to moments of acute frustration, where it becomes hard to be your best self. But racism confronts the privileged with easy injustice, and it sometimes takes moments of acute emotion to begin learning to resist temptation. Racism harms me, a white male, not only because it make me unjustifiably afraid of my fellow Lutheran campers. It harms me because it makes it so easy, so painfully easy, to fall short of my moral aspirations.

And this is what King meant when he said that the racist system harms us all. White supremacists have been inhumanized by racist ideologies even as their black victims have been dehumanized. Well-meaning white people have had their best intentions undermined by subconscious prejudices that they don't even know are there, and black people have felt the accumulated weight of the micro-aggressions that result.

Research shows that even people who loathe racism are affected by unconscious prejudices. And no one is immune. Those in my profession are as guilty as anyone, as a recent study of college professors reveals. The evidence also shows that black children feel the effects of this unconscious racism very early on--starting as early as pre-school. Black children who behave the same way as white ones are perceived by white authority figures as a problem in a way that their white peers are not. It starts in preschool and just keeps happening. For some personality types, this may lead to a kind of cowering effort to avoid notice. In some, it may inspire a concerted effort to be better-behaved than everyone else, so that one can come off looking to unconsciously racist eyes as almost respectable.

But for some personality types, it can lead to growing frustration, growing anger, a growing sense of injustice. And if those personalities don't also possess uncommon resources for expressing their sense of injustice with eloquence and creative nonviolence--if they don't have the uncommon resources of a Martin Luther King, Jr.--they may strike back in more antisocial ways, creating a kind of feedback loop. Authorities treat you as a problem, so you react in ways that lead authorities to treat you as a bigger problem, and so on--culminating, perhaps, in a black teenager lashing out in explosive rage at a white police officer who orders him off the street, and a white police officer seeing a problem so terrifying that shooting seems the only way to get home to his family alive.

I've thought quite a lot about the tragic encounter between Officer Darren Wilson and teenager Michael Brown, and I'm uncomfortable with knee-jerk reactions in either direction. It was a black police officer who said, at a panel discussion I attended in early September, that the evidence available to him pointed to a justified police shooting. But if we accept that judgment, and also the judgment of the Grand Jury, it doesn't mean that racism isn't deeply implicated in what happened in Ferguson. Rather, it points to the deep truth that the racist system in this country has victims who are both black and white.

If Darren Wilson was justified in pulling the trigger, then it's because a system of anti-black racism worked itself out in the history of Ferguson, MO, and in the lives of the people involved, in ways that put that police officer into a desperate corner. Black boys grew up unfairly singled out as problems rather than people. A system evolved such that a city of mostly black citizens was policed by mostly-white officers who lived elsewhere, who were both physically and racially segregated from the community they served and so were unlikely to feel deeply connected to the community and its members.

The police have been targeted for a special kind of scrutiny by recent events, and given their important role in our society, and the power with which they are invested, I suppose such scrutiny makes sense. But the problem of racism is a social problem, not a police problem. I know a number of police officers and respect them all. They are good people devoted to serving the public good. As in all professions, there are bad apples. And as in all professions--including my own--the broad social influence of systemic racism will have its effects.

One of those effects is unconscious racial bias. The thing about such bias is that, unlike deliberate prejudice, we are not morally blameworthy for it. The enemy is the racist system; the fact that we acquire unconscious racial biases is a sign of the way that we all are victims. When blacks internalize such bias, it leads to self-destructive patterns, an internalized racism that leads them to underestimate their own potential. When whites do, it cuts them off from the full fruits of fellowship with their black neighbors, and leads them to unconsciously carry out patterns of behavior that defy their own values.

The moral questions comes into play when we wrestle with what to do with our racial bias.

When I came face-to-face with my own racial bias at that Lutheran summer camp, it awakened me to something I hadn't been aware of before. I might have pretended that race had nothing to do with my reaction--that I was just following a gut instinct that the teens standing there in the dorm were bad news. But I saw my own racial bias in that case, and over the years I have become convinced that there are many forms it takes which I don't see.

So what do I do with that? Here's one thing I do with it. You know that instinct you have, sometimes, not to get in an elevator when you see who's inside, or to cross to the far side of the street when you see who's coming towards you? I have that instinct. And here's the thing: I am probably more likely to feel it when the person in the elevator or coming towards me is black. But for that very reason, I am more likely to act on it if the person is white. Because if the person is black, chances are it's the legacy of the racist system at work within me--and that's something I ought to ignore. But if the person is white, I may be intuitively responding to something that I should pay attention to.

In other words, I am more suspicious of my instincts when it comes to my reactions to black strangers than to white ones, because I know how insidious covert racial bias can be. In relation to intuitive responses to white strangers, I hesitate less because there is less reason to mistrust my instincts. In relation to black strangers, I hesitate more. Now this still means I treat whites and blacks differently--perhaps differently in ways that might be noticed, that might still work in ways that are harmful. But it is the best I know how to do under the circumstances.

There's reason to suppose that white police officers in general have internalized the same lesson. A recent Washington State University study shows that, despite the evidence of unconscious racial bias in police officers (mirroring the unconscious racial bias in the general population), in circumstances that mimic real-life decision-making, white police officers hesitate more and make fewer errors when shooting black suspects. This is true even though the same study shows that the participants were more likely to perceive black suspects as threatening.

One way to understand this finding is that the police trust their gut more when the suspect is white, and so don't hesitate as long (and so make more errors). When the suspect is black, they have developed a meta-level instinct not to take their first-order fear-response as trustworthy. And so they hesitate longer, and make better decisions.

If this is right, then when it comes to the split-second decision-making of whether to fire their weapon or not, most police officers are doing the best they know how to do under the circumstances. Of course this is just one study, but it is a hopeful one. While there is little reason to suppose that the police are any more immune to unconscious bias than the rest of us, there is reason to think that, in general, police have some awareness of racism's potential to bias judgment and have--perhaps unconsciously--developed meta-level instincts to counteract those effects.

But racism is a many-tentacled monster, and doing the best you know how to do in split-second decision-making isn't enough to overcome a long legacy of oppression and injustice. Racism will sometimes rear its monstrous head in the form of overtly racist officers. Some police departments may foster a culture that discourages self-reflective awareness of racial bias and its effects, so that that the meta-level instincts to counteract such bias never take root.

But the bigger problem is that the police cannot be expected to become immune to racism in isolation. They cannot be expected to cope effectively with a society that treats black boys as suspect from earliest childhood, and reinforces that message so deeply through the years that it becomes a struggle not to internalize it. They cannot be expected to take responsibility for the whole range of social forces that turn the police into a group of outsiders entering a community they don't belong to and being received as an occupying force rather than as officers of the peace.

The police, like the rest of us, are victims of a racist system. As King insisted half a century ago, that system is the enemy. It's not the police, and it's certainly not the protesters in Ferguson and New York around the country who are rising up to say that black lives matter.

Racism has made victims of us all, but we don't have to stay victims. The trick is to remember who the enemy is, so that we don't turn against each other, human against human, and thereby allow the many-tentacled monster of racism to continue to do its terrible work unresisted.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Divine Revelation and Cultural Filters: The Human Journey to God

In the discussion section of my post on Abraham and Isaac, an interesting question came up: Would a God anything like the one envisioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition allow divine revelation to be filtered through (and possibly distorted by) the cultural lenses of the human recipients?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, my progressive theology is premised on an affirmative answer. Here's what I said in the discussion thread:
I believe in a transcendent creator whose self-disclosure is difficult for humanity to grasp and understand properly given the cultural filters through which that revelation is received. As such, any historical report of revelation will be a distortion, and the task of historical religion is to attempt to work through the distortion by gradually evolving in the light of critical conversation about experience. 
Christian progressives are often accused of "cherry-picking" the Bible or the tradition, when in reality what they are doing is approaching their religious inheritance in terms of the perspective described in the quote: They see it not as the very revelation of God, but as the product of divine revelation being filtered through the limitations of merely-human, culturally-situated recipients. Such an understanding calls for critical appropriation--which is not the same as cherry-picking.

Here, in a nutshell, is the idea behind a progressive understanding of divine revelation and human religion: God is imperfectly encountered in experience, filtered through the assumptions and prejudices and conceptual categories that we bring to our experience--our worldview, if you will. But experience also transforms our worldview. When a square peg is forced to go through a round hole, the hole may not be the same afterwards. And the more malleable the hole, the more this is true. A hole made of clay may actually take on the shape of the peg being pushed through it. Likewise, our worldview is transformed by our experience, including our experience of God.

Revelation stretches the limits of our worldview so that more authentic revelation can make it through, in turn leading to further stretching in an ongoing cycle. While the transformed worldview remains imperfect at each stage in the cycle, it is hopefully closer to the divine reality than its predecessors. This does not only mean that future revelations are less distorted, but that some revelations make it through the filters which would have been entirely blocked out before.

On this view of revelation, we can't be biblical literalists, and we can't be so tied to traditional theologies that we refuse to let new experiences transform our understanding. All inherited accounts of the divine, all traditional theologies, are the product of limited human worldviews both filtering and being transformed by the self-disclosure of God. They represent centuries of human progress--and so must be treated with reverence. But we do not revere that progress if we strive to shut down its trajectory of unfolding revelation. That trajectory is an arrow--but what it points to isn't our worldview and our understanding of God. It points beyond us, to the truth that lies at the end of an ongoing human process--one that we are called to participate in, not try to freeze in place.

One frequent commenter on this blog, Burk, doesn't buy it. Here's how he puts it:
Why is that revelation received through cultural filters? Isn't that an argument that the various and sundry revelations might rather be culturally constructed & psychologically actuated, instead of culturally filtered? The revelation could have been brought far more directly (not to mention uniformly) to each person, given the theory you have of it, yet it is not. The epistemological situation seems highly suspicious.
In other words, the cultural variation in accounts of revelation--both across cultural and religious traditions and through time--might well be explained in the following terms: Different cultures aren't encountering a divine reality and then understanding and interpreting it differently based on diverse cultural lenses and human limitations. Rather, they are making it up to meet varied psychological and social needs.

But Burk does more here than offer an alternative interpretation of religious diversity across time and cultures. He thinks there is a reason to prefer his interpretation, based on his conviction that were there a God, that God could (and presumably would) bypass cultural filters to produce a clear, direct, and cross-culturally uniform understanding of the divine.

Burk's implicit reasoning here parallels the reasoning in the traditional argument from evil--that is, the argument that challenges God's existence based on the evil in the world.That argument goes roughly as follows: God, as traditionally conceived, would be able to eliminate evil, would know how, and would want to eliminate it. Hence, if there is such a God, there would be no evil. But there is evil. Hence, there is no such God.

Burk's remark can be formulated along the same lines: The Judeo-Christian God would, in the act of divine self-disclosure, be able to bypass cultural filters, would know how, and would want to bypass them. Hence, if there is such a God, there would be a perfect revelation undistorted by cultural filters. (Interestingly, Christian fundamentalists routinely argue along the same lines.)

There is one big problem with this argument that I want to note right up front: It assumes a particular understanding of what God is like--and argues that if God is like this, then God would reveal Himself perfectly, without the distortions of cultural filters. Bit this assumption is seriously problematic from the standpoint of the progressive vision of divine revelation sketched out above. On that vision, we cannot ever be confident that our historically and culturally situated understanding of what God is like is beyond criticism or refinement. Hence, an objection to that progressive vision which is premised on the correctness of a particular understanding of God is really setting aside the progressive vision in the act of critiquing it. In other words, it's begging the question.

But let's put aside the problem of question-begging for the moment, just to see whether we can really be so confident that the understanding of God in play would lead where Burk (and many Christian fundamentalists) think it leads--to a God who would bypass cultural filters in the act of divine self-disclosure, in order to make sure that divine revelation is clear and accurate and uniform.

In fact, a few years ago on this blog I wrote a post that directly addressed an argument along these lines--an argument formulated by Christian funamentalists to support a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I drew the parallel between their argument and the argument from evil, and noted that some of the "theodicies" that attempt to reconcile God's existence with the existence of evil might also be invoked to explain why God might not create a perfectly clear and inerrant revelatory text.

I think what I say there about an inerrant text can apply to any direct, clear, and unambiguous revelation. But my reasons for being suspicious of Burk's argument go beyond what I said there. If we are, indeed, creatures made by God, then God is responsible for us being the kinds of creatures that we are. And part of what is essential to us is that we are social creatures who form cultures and engage with the world through our cultural lenses. We meet reality as historically and culturally situated beings with concepts and assumptions and stories shaped by that context, which in turn shape our experience of the world.

That's part of what it is to be human. To bypass that would be to bypass our humanity, and to connect with us in a way that defies who we are. But a critic of theism might at this point regard this aspect of who and what we are as a defect--at least insofar as it interferes with our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Our cultural context imposes limits on our ability to grasp our world, precisely because it puts up filters between ourselves and unvarnished reality.

Such limits and imperfections make perfect sense from a naturalistic standpoint, where we are nothing more than the products of blind forces operating through the mechanism of natural selection. But if you assume that the world is created by a God who cares about forging a relationship with us, we are forced to ask, "Why would such a God make us such that our capacity to experience the divine is limited by the filters of culture (among other things)?"

The mistake, I think, is in treating this as a rhetorical question. Because there are answers. John Hick, in his soul-making theodicy, offered a theological portrait according to which God, out of love, sought to create otherness--beings truly distinct from the divine who were afforded a space in which to develop themselves in accord with the rules of their natures and their own choices. Here's how Hick puts it:
For what freedom could finite beings have in an immediate consciousness of the presence of the one who has created them, who knows them through and through, whi is limitlessly powerful and well as limitlessly loving and good, and who claims their total obedience? In order to be a person, exercising some measure of genuine freedom, the creature must be brought into existence, not in the immediate presence of the divine, but at a "distance" from God. This "distance" cannot of course be spatial; for God is omnipresent. It must be epistemic distance, a distance in the cognitive dimension...this "distance" consists, in the case of humans, in their existence within and as part of a world which functions as an autonomous system and from within which God is not overwhelmingly evident...it is religiously ambiguous, capable both of being seen as a purely natural phenomenon and of being seen as God's creation and experienced as mediating God's presence. In such a world one can exist as a person over against the Creator.
Thomas Talbott has similarly argued that "an initial separation from God" is crucial to the creation of persons at all. If God wanted to create persons distinct from God, Talbott thinks God would have no choice "but to permit their embryonic minds to emerge and to begin functioning on their own in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and indeterminism." This creates a distinct kind of dilemma, which Talbott characterizes as follows:
Some of the very conditions essential to our emergence as rational individuals distinct from God are themselves obstacles to perfect fellowship (or union) with him, and these cannot be overcome until after we have already emerged as a center of consciousness distinct from God's own consciousness.
 But this means that the very project of connecting with God will require that God come to us through the filters that our self-development apart from God have put in place. Those filters--fashioned through our upbringing as ignorant children by parents of limited understanding--are part of our self-understanding and identity. For God to simply bypass them or erase them would be to refuse to pursue a relationship with us. A change in those filters--an opening up that allows more of God to enter in--is consistent with preserving our identity if that change is progressive and incremental, and if at each stage the development is based on the recognition that the change is called for by insights or discoveries that one can discern from where one is at the moment.

And this is true at both the individual and collective levels. What it means is that if there is a God something like the Judeo-Christian God, we should not expect divine revelation to blast through our filters and presuppositions all at once--to essentially erase our identities in order to have a relationship with us.

To have a relationship with who we are in all our otherness, God must meet us where we are, cultural filters and all. But that doesn't mean we stay where we are after God has come to us. Instead, that's the start of a new journey of discovery.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Despair, the Hard Work of Theology, and Abraham's Test

I have a son. The other day my wife and I went to his first parent-teacher conference as a middle-schooler. We were told what an awesome kid he is. Afterwards, we got ice cream. Then we headed to the theatre to rehearse for a play he and I are in together.

Ice cream. Shared activities. Involvement in his education. These are things I associate with being a parent. Here are some things I don't associate with being a parent: Tying him down to a rock. Gathering kindling. Preparing to slit his throat and set him on fire.

Those are things I associate with being evil.

A couple of weeks back, Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac--you know, that story in which (at least on a straightforward reading) God tests Abraham by asking him to kill his son as a sacrificial offering. Evans declared, up front, that she would have failed that test.

So would I. More importantly, I share Evans' wariness of treating a straightforward reading of this story with anything but suspicion. Here's how Evans puts it:
While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.
Of course, there are metaphorical ways to approach the story. You can stress that child-sacrifice was not uncommon in Abraham's day, and treat the moment that God stays Abraham's hand as the key revelatory part in the tale--a kind of divine repudiation of a practice that was accepted at the time. Or you can see the story in terms of its narrative place within a Christian story where God gives His son up to be sacrificed for the sake of all humanity.

But Evans' discussion is about the story when you approach it literally and treat it as an accurate depiction of what God has done. In that case, we are left with an image of God that is starkly at odds with the urgings of a conscience shaped by the Christian ethic of love.

Evans asks whether such a God is worthy of our worship--and sees those who answer yes as forced towards a theology that worships power, that sees omnipotence rather than love as God's defining attribute. And she calls us to a Christian faith that engages our conscience, that allows the richness of our moral experience to shape our reading of the Bible.

Based on this message, Samuel James accuses Evans of being "too tired" to do "the hard work of theology." He likens her to Brittany Maynard, the young woman diagnosed with brain cancer who has recently become a poster child for physician-assisted suicide. In James' analysis, Maynard lacks the perseverance to continue to hope in the face of her grim diagnosis, and so seeks to end her life rather than continue to affirm life's value by fighting to the bitter end. Evans, he thinks, is shaped by a similar despair. But in her case it's her faith, not her life, that's put upon the sacrificial altar.

This strikes me as dead-wrong.

Why? Let me begin by explaining why I can't approach the Abraham story as a straightforward account of what God did in His relationship with Abraham. The story, as it's told in the book of Genesis, takes the following as given: God really did order Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham knew this.

The story asks us to assume that this is true, and to read the story with that assumption in place. For me, this is kind of like someone telling a story about a guy who cuts out a perfectly round square from construction paper and gives it to his girlfriend as a Valentine. If the moral of the story comes out only if one assumes that round squares are real, the storyteller might ask me to assume this for the sake of the story. Maybe, for that purpose, I could momentarily pretend that I believe in round squares. But I could never actually believe in them. And I don't know how long I could sustain the pretense.

Likewise, maybe I can pretend to believe, for the sake of extracting from the story the lessons it intends to teach, that Abraham really knew that God was commanding him to kill his son. But I'm not sure how long I could maintain the pretense.

Someone once asked me to imagine the story of Abraham's testing through Isaac's eyes. I did, and for me the most harrowing part was the trip down the mountain, after Isaac's trust has been violated, his childhood ripped away, his father stolen irreparably from him by an act of treason. Once I imagined it through that perspective, I could never unthink it. In the biblical version of the story, Isaac is incidental. He's just there to serve as the pawn in the test. But if we treat the story as something that really happened, then we can't ignore Isaac's experience. We can't ignore the question of what God would command--and what He wouldn't command--if he genuinely loved not only Abraham, but Abraham's child.

Let me put it this way. Were a voice to thunder from the heavens, "I, the Lord your God, command you to go and kill your son," I would assume I'd gone crazy. And if my sanity wasn't in question, I'd assume I was the object of some high-tech hoax. And if it came down to believing in a supernatural power as the source of the experience, I'd have to conclude something along the following lines: "Satan has taken to thundering commands from the heavens in the name of God."

Under no conditions would I believe that it was actually God who was commanding me to betray my son in defiance of the very meaning of parental love. And why not? Because to do such a thing would be evil. Even if I was sure that God would intervene at the last minute, my child would still be traumatized for life. A good God would not issue commands that, if followed, would inflict such horror. And I have an unwavering faith that God is good.

Put another way, to believe--even in the face of the most astonishing pyrotechnic display of supernatural fireworks--that God was actually commanding me to kill my son, would be to give up my faith in the goodness of God. It would be to stop believing that God is love.

Here is where Samuel James would accuse me of failing to do the "hard work" of theology. Apparently, to do that hard work is to do the hard work of believing the following two things simultaneously:

(a) God is perfectly loving and good.
(b) God might  (and sometimes does) command people to fundamentally betray the trust of the children who love and depend on them, simply as a test or as a sign of loyalty to God.

Sure, I can say the words, "God is love AND God commands people to kill their own children." But I can also say the words, "There is a square that is perfectly round in its shape--but remains wholly a square for all of that." That I can say it doesn't mean I can think it.  

I cannot possibly think it would be anything but evil for me to grab my beloved son, who trusts me and loves me, strap him to a stone, and prepare to slit his throat and set him on fire. I can say the words, but I can't think it.

I could pretend to think it, but such pretense would be hard work--the hard work of pretending to be someone I'm not. The hard work of repeatedly asserting what my conscience thunders against. Sometimes, betraying your integrity is hard work. Is that the "hard work of theology" that Samuel James is talking about? If so, he's turned theology into something ugly.

Let me be clear: Real theology is, indeed, hard work. And that work often includes the effort to determine whether two things that appear to be at odds on the surface are really compatible at a deeper level. When dealing with realities that transcend our limits, we may confront truths that we cannot readily understand. Wrestling with those truths is hard work.

But so is maintaining the pretense that you believe a contradiction. So is pretending to believe in what you can't coherently even think: that round squares exist, for example, or that a God of perfect love lovingly commands us to fundamentally betray the children who put their trust in us.

If James wants us to believe that there is a theological reconciliation that's possible here--a pathway to reconciling the apparent evil of commanding fathers to betray their young sons and the doctrinal commitment to the perfect benevolence of God--then he should do the hard work so that the rest of us can see what he sees. Instead, James simply accuses Evans of giving in to despair.

Presumably, James thinks that, unlike Evans, he has not given in to despair. But this seems wrong to me, too. If Evans has given in to despair, then so has James. And if James hasn't, then neither has Evans.

Why do I say that? Because Evans and James are both confronted with the same theological dilemma--and the difference between them isn't that one gives up in the face of the dilemma and the other does not. The difference is that, while both are forced to give up something to address the dilemma, they choose different things to give up.

Imagine that a parent is confronted with the following horrific dilemma: The house is on fire, and the parent can only bring two of her three kids to safety before it's too late to save the third. The parent who, in the face of this, curls up in a ball and cries while all three children perish has surely given in to despair. The one who charges in and saves as many as she can has not. Do we really think it matters which two the parent saves? If she saves little Billy and Cathy before the house collapses on Mary, she's given in to despair; but if she saves little Billy and Mary, then she hasn't?

Consider the following three claims:
1. The biblical stories that purportedly report God's commands and activities, understood in their straightforward sense, offer an accurate portrait of God's commands and activities.
2. God is perfectly good.
3. My conscience is a product of God's creative work within me, and as such is not profoundly unreliable.
And now imagine that the following is true:
4. My conscience recoils in horror at enough of the things that God purportedly does in biblical stories--at least in their straightforward readings--that I cannot embrace both the resultant portrait of God and the belief in God's perfect goodness unless I treat my conscience as profoundly unreliable.
"4" is like the burning building. It forces us to choose which of 1-3 to give up. And I think it is fair to say that both Evans and James are in this burning building. Unless I'm profoundly mistaken, Samuel James, like me and like Evans, would be deeply hesitant to slash open his son's throat just because a voice claiming to be God told him to. And the reason would be the same one that moves Evans and me: our consciences recoil in horror at the prospect of doing something so unremittingly awful. Surely no God of perfect love and goodness would command something so evil. Like me, I suspect he'd say, "I'm either having delusions or being misled by malicious agents. Surely this is not the voice of God."

And when genocidal maniacs lead campaigns of brutal slaughter and assert a divine mandate, I suspect that Samuel James is just as skeptical of the purported mandate as I am--and as Evans is. And for the same reason: Our conscience recoils.

And this means that 4 is true for all three of us--because the Bible has stories in which God commands genocide, and stories in which He orders child sacrifice.

And given 4, we each have to give up on 1, 2, or 3. It seems that Evans and I have, under these conditions, given up on 1, while James has given up on 3. That is, Evans and I have given up on a certain human theory about how the Bible is related to the revelation of God, while James has given up on a certain human theory about how the human conscience is related to the revelation of God.

How is one of these choices any more a matter of religious despair than the other? Perhaps it would be a matter of despair to give up on all three. I would argue it would be a kind of theological despair to it to give up on #2. But in the choice between 1 and 3, why is one choice any more reflective of despair than the other?

It isn't. Rather, it reflects a difference in theology--a difference in our theology of divine revelation, to be precise. It reflects different answers to the question, "How do we discern the self-disclosure of God?" Developing and defending your own answer to that question in the light of challenging cases that force us to make choices--that is doing the hard work of theology, not giving up on it.

To slap the label of despair on those who develop one theology of revelation rather than another is, it seems to me, simply a refusal to take seriously theologies that differ from one's own. And it seems to me that taking seriously theologies that differ from one's own is part of the hard work of theology.