Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New RD Piece on Responding to Terrorism

For those interested, I have a new featured essay in today's Religion Dispatches, in which I reflect on our persistent reliance on forceful interdiction as our solution to problems such as terrorism, and I ask what it might be like if we started taking seriously that quiet, prophetic religious voice which calls us to respond to evils such as terrorism with greater compassion and empathy, rather than more force and fear.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hitchens and the Atonement

Christopher Hitchens has a problem with the Atonement. At one point in the recent documentary, Collision—which follows his debates with evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson—Hitchens puts it this way: “I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all—that is, the one of the vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else.”

His opposition to this doctrine predates his debates with Wilson. In fact, he devotes a section of his book, god is Not Great, to trashing the doctrine. But if you read what he says there, you quickly realize that his numerous objections to the doctrine are based on an understanding of it modeled on the ancient practice of human sacrifice performed in order to appease an angry tyrannical deity.

Although I have a great interest in defending the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, I have no interest in defending this particular version.

Even as I say this I'm conscious of the kind of outraged response Hitchens and his followers are likely to voice. It’s the kind of response that’s repeatedly been expressed in response to my book—most recently, in the latest Amazon reader’s review. According to that reviewer, I am guilty of “first re-defining religion so that it no longer matches the target that the New Atheists attack, then defending the re-defined religion, and then finally claiming that since re-defined religion is so easily defended, that (sic) the New Atheists are therefore wrong.”

But here’s the thing. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, does not claim to be targeting the particular version of theistic belief dominant in mainstream religion (or something along those lines). He claims quite explicitly to be “attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (p. 36). To point out that his arguments only address one species of theism, and that a more nuanced species exists which is immune to his attacks, is not a case of “talking past” Dawkins. It’s a matter of showing that he’s guilty of a faulty generalization.

And the fact is that the New Atheists in general are on a campaign to stamp out, not fundamentalist religion or dogmatic religion, but religion as such—and they make pains to include “moderate” religion within the scope of their assault. They claim that core religious notions are to blame for the crimes of religious extremists—most notably the concept of “faith,” which is the target of Sam Harris’s unrelenting assault in The End of Faith.

And so, when I say that I am interested in defending the doctrine of the Atonement, but not the version which Hitchens explicitly attacks, I can already see the critics lining up to call foul. But the fact is that Hitchens makes no nuanced distinctions between different versions of the doctrine of the Atonement. He simply says, “This is what the doctrine holds. It is evil.” And it is not illegitimate, in response to such an argument, to say something like the following: “The doctrine admits of many alternative interpretations, and even if the one that you single out is evil, it doesn’t follow that we should throw out every interpretation on those grounds.”

And the fact is that there is no singular, agreed meaning that all Christians attach to Christ’s crucifixion, no one univocal theological understanding of how His death at human hands is supposed to lift the burden of sin from human shoulders.

In a Religion Dispatches article not too long ago, I sketched out one way of conceiving the Atonement. But although I find that understanding important and moving, I am not prepared to declare it to be the One True Doctrine of the Atonement. I have no interest in such entrenchment, in large measure because it shuts down what is perhaps one of the richest fruits of the gospel narrative: namely, the ongoing creative human response to it.

For me, the core gospel narrative, in which Jesus suffers on a cross, dies in agony with the full burden of human sin on His shoulders, and then rises again—this core narrative is like one of those resonant high points in a work of fiction, in which metaphor and symbol merge with human drama to create a wellspring of alternative meanings. At once mysterious and profound, such a narrative comes alive for readers precisely because they must bring themselves to the text, creatively engaging with it in the light of their own experiences and concerns. With such a narrative, we can keep returning to it and each time discover something new, something that speaks to who and what we are today.

The Jewish practitioners of midrash believed that the entirety of the Scriptures were like this, living texts rich with undiscovered meanings. As Karen Armstrong puts it in The Bible: A Biography, the early practitioners of midrash “were not interested in recovering the original significance of a given scriptural passage. Like Daniel, they were looking for fresh meaning. In their view, there was no single authoritative reading of scripture…Scripture was inexhaustible” (p. 81).

In part, this approach was motivated precisely by their conviction that Scripture was a gift from God and a pathway to relationship with God. As the literal surface meaning gives way before the rich array of interpretations, we are afforded a glimpse of the Infinite pushing out against the boundaries of the finite words. As new meanings blossom with each new reading and each new reader, it becomes clear that revelation is found not in the text by itself, but in the living engagement of persons with the text. On this view of revelation, it isn’t the Bible (or some other holy book) that is the revealed word of God. It is, instead, the vibrant, living human engagement with the Bible through which God speaks.

The cross, while not a text, is like that. Its significance cannot be bounded by a single interpretation, a single theological treatise. For Christians, Jesus is the place where the human most perfectly intersects with the divine, and the cross is the place where the import of that intersection is fully realized. The full weight of the infinite is pressing up against that moment of crucifixion, that space between anguish and death.

What does it mean? The answer doesn’t plunk out like a stone to sit there, dead and solid at our feet. To engage with the crucifixion is to pierce a rock behind which endless waters flow. What results is a torrent.

One moment, I look at the cross and I see God manifesting the relentlessness of vulnerable love, persisting even in the face of the most hostile conceivable rejection.

At the next moment I see the incarnate God crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; and I find in that cry God’s paradoxical way of standing in solidarity with us at the point of utmost affliction, the point at which God is experienced as wholly absent.

I look again and I see God’s repudiation of sin. “This is what sin means. This is how bad it is. It is like nailing God Himself to a cross!”

I look again and I see what it means to choose the good regardless of the cost, in defiance of the torture that a fallen world imposes on those who do not submit to the demands of coercive power. If only we could hold unflinchingly to the good even under the threat of torture and death, then death will have lost its power to destroy who we are. If only the powers and principalities would find themselves unable to manipulate us with the fear of death, then, paradoxically, we would no longer have anything to fear from death. But even when we stand our ground against the darkness, we flinch and are changed by it. By death. But here is Christ, unflinching, forging the pathway to the empty tomb.

I look again and I see the physical crucifixion as but a symbol of a deeper and more profound spiritual one, as Christ faces what we cannot face and endures on our behalf what we cannot endure: the honest subjective understanding of what we have done and left undone in our lives, the unvarnished truth about our finitude and our failings. We do not know the depths of our sin, the gravity of it, because we cannot bear the truth. So Christ bears it for us.

And I hear the words: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But when Hitchens looks to the cross, this "man of letters" sees none of these things. Ignoring the rich and varied interpretive tradition, he focuses on the most banal and literal understanding, the narrow fundamentalist one in which an angry tyrant demands blood sacrifice to appease his wrath.

Like most of the New Atheists, he wants to pin poetry to the dirt. And then he furiously points to the dirt stains and declares it filth.

“Yes, that’s filth,” I want to say in response. “But what about the poem?”

What about the poem?

My response to the New Atheists is consistently this: What about the poem that you persistently and almost willfully ignore as you delight in pounding banalities into the ground? It’s true that I am not defending what the New Atheists are most directly attacking. Rather, I am trying to wave in their faces the thing that they aren’t seeing, which they don’t seem to know exists, which they are content to consign to the dump right along with the junk they are explicitly heaving in the trash.

And yet, when it comes to Hitchens’ attacks on the Atonement, my response cannot be purely this. Because there is something that he targets for attack which I have to own. Hitchens accuses the doctrine of vicarious redemption of affording us the chance to “throw our sins onto somebody else.” If the Atonement is about anything, it is about this: the cost of sin, the burden of our errors, is (somehow) lifted from our shoulders and borne in our stead by Christ.

The how may be a richly rendered mystery of the faith, an invitation to endlessly creative re-appropriation—and insofar as Hitchens attacks a particularly banal rendering of the how, his critique means little. But when it comes to the what, Hitchens stands on firmer ground. Amidst all of the diversity of understandings, there remains this consistent them: Christ lifts from sinners the wages of sin.

Of course, not all Christians understand the implications of the Atonement in the same way. One of the chief points of contention has to do with scope. Are all human sins objectively atoned for on the cross, as Lutherans typically believe? Or is the Atonement only hypothetical until the sinner actively accepts Jesus as savior?

My own theological predilections fall in line with the former. But it is the former that is most obviously susceptible to Hitchens’ challenge. He thinks it is wrong, immoral, for us to embrace a teaching which says that we can “throw our sins onto somebody else.” His view seems to be this: We should be responsible for our own actions. And the practice of making someone else a scapegoat for the worst of them is morally abominable.

Of course, there are a number of problems here. First, the Christian doctrine of the Atonement is not one according to which we make Christ into a scapegoat for our sins. It is, rather, one according to which Christ adopts a burden on our behalf that we cannot conceivably bear ourselves, but which Christ can and does bear. This isn’t something we do to Christ, but something that Christ does for us. We aren’t asking Christ to do something that we should be doing ourselves. Christ, out of love, is doing for us what, otherwise, would not be done at all, because we couldn’t possibly do it.

And the doctrine of the Atonement isn’t about responsibility for our actions so much as it is about responsibility for our salvation. It’s the wages of sin that Christ bears on our behalf: guilt, shame, denial, indifference, despair, resentment; all the things that poison loving relationships or cut us off from them, all the things that therefore keep us from the beloved community—either because we think we don’t deserve to be a part of it or because we have put ourselves so deeply into self-righteous denial that we can’t participate. Loving community requires honesty and vulnerability. It requires a sharing of one’s authentic self. The wages of sin are precisely those things which stand in the way of taking that step into true intimacy. Salvation is about removing those impediments, so that the doors of heaven—the doors that close on our own hearts—are cast open.

So what does this mean for Hitchens’ critique of the Atonement?

Obviously, one of the most fundamental differences between Hitchens’ atheism and the Christian worldview is this: for Hitchens this life is all there is, and when it’s done then all of us, the good and the bad alike, come to the same end: oblivion. What does this mean for the wages of sin? It means that, once we are dead it makes no difference. The worst sinners and noblest souls face the same fate in the end.

It means, in other words, that if there is a reason to be good, a reason to cultivate compassion and openness rather than resentment and defensiveness, a reason to favor forgiveness over revenge, empathy over hatred—if there is a reason for any of these things, it won’t be found in some heavenly rewards or hellish punishments. It will be found it what it means for your life and the lives of those you affect, to be good rather than wicked.

In a sense, the doctrine of the Atonement, if it does anything, makes the theistic worldview more like the atheist one in this respect than it would otherwise be. If the wages of sin are borne by Christ; if they can no longer stand between us and our eternal participation in the Kingdom of God, then heavenly rewards and hellish punishments will no longer function as the reason to be good. In a theistic worldview according to which the wages of sin are overcome by the Atonement or something like it, our attention is turned to the intrinsic merits of a life of virtue, rather than towards extrinsic rewards.

In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, I think that anyone who takes the doctrine of the Atonement seriously cannot consistently sustain anything like the traditional doctrine of hell. But even those who do not go this far must, I think, admit something more modest: if there is a hell, given the doctrine of the Atonement it cannot be the case that what puts someone in hell is that they deserve it on account of their wickedness.

Instead, if any are damned, it will likely be because, first of all, damnation just is being so full of resentment and hatred and bitterness and petty self-righteousness that one cannot enter into genuine loving communion with others; and secondly, one has failed to subjectively appropriate the divine gift whereby such things are lifted away.

Once again, it is the intrinsic merit of our moral character that becomes the important thing, the thing that matters. This is what the doctrine of the Atonement does: by lifting the wages of sin from our shoulders, it puts the focus not on the extrinsic rewards and penalties of our actions, but on the intrinsic worth of being a moral agent rather than a wicked one.

And this, of course, is precisely where Hitchens says that the focus ought to be. It is therefore deeply ironic to me that Hitchens’ sparring partner, Douglas Wilson, challenges Hitchens atheism on precisely these grounds.

Wilson repeatedly challenges Hitchens with the example of the prosperous atheist villain who, on his deathbed, declares that he’s “gotten away with it.” Let’s suppose that this is a man who’s truly villainous, having committed horrible atrocities of genocidal proportions, and who has enjoyed immense earthly fortune in the process (I assume it is a man only because the legacy of patriarchy entails that few if any women could achieve the position of influence necessary both to effect genocidal massacre and to become filthy rich in the process). What can you say to such a villain, Wilson asks, if the villain is convinced he’s about to meet the same oblivion he would’ve met anyway had he been saintly all his days?

In response to this challenge, Hitchens makes the standard move: being moral out of a desire for a heavenly reward or fear of a hellish one is not really being moral at all. To be truly good is to do the right thing because it’s right.

But while I agree with this, it doesn’t answer the question. What do you say to this atheist when he chuckles and claims to have “gotten away with it”? Do you really just say, “You should have done the right thing just because it was right”? I think the atheist can say more—at least an atheist who is attuned to the moral life, and knows something about what it’s like to live in the light of justice, compassion, and mercy.

So here’s the answer I propose: “You lived a bad life. You go to oblivion having not mattered to the world, except in a negative way. That you don’t feel bad about this is evidence that you have missed the point of life, and you die in a dark pit of ignorance, having lost out on the sweetest nectar that life can give. You die thinking you got away with something, when in fact you got away with nothing. You came in with nothing. You leave with nothing. And while you were here all of the very greatest goods, goods which are available to those who live with compassion and respect, have utterly eluded you. You will go into oblivion having experienced empty pleasures in abundance, but never any real joy. And so you are the most pitiable of creatures, more pitiable than the many victims of your crimes.”

And this seems to me to be a better answer than the one that Wilson seems to think Christians have at their disposal. Of course, Wilson’s answer to the atheist would be a blunt, “You won’t get away with it! God will smite you in the afterlife!” Perhaps, assuming that Wilson rejects the doctrine of the Atonement or selectively ignores its implications, such an answer is available to him. But it is precisely the doctrine of the Atonement, the doctrine that Hitchens so reviles, which would force Wilson (if only he’d take it seriously) to offer an answer more like the atheist one that I proposed.

Put simply, the manner in which our sins are “thrown” onto Christ in the doctrine of the Atonement has implications that should either lead Hitchens to condemn his own atheism or view the doctrine of vicarious redemption as the best part of Christianity, insofar as it puts Christianity (at least in one important respect) into moral waters similar to the ones in which atheists sail.

Of course, there is something Christians who take the Atonement seriously can say to that atheist monster on his deathbed, something Hitchens and atheists like him cannot say. It isn’t that he won’t get away with it. It is, rather, that despite his wasted life, despite living all his mortal days without ever having tasted anything of real value, despite existing in a pit of meaninglessness in which all the deepest and most fulfilling goods of existence have eluded him completely—despite all of this, and despite the fact that nothing remains of his mortal life in which to find what has eluded him, there’s still hope.

Because God still loves him and doesn’t cast His precious children to the void.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What's in a Name?

After years of being housed in a run-down, cockroach-infested and asbestos-contaminated building, the philosophy department at OSU has finally moved into a new venue: a freshly renovated building, elegantly appointed, that is nestled between a café and Theta Pond (my favorite place on campus, where I used to take my son just about every afternoon for the first two years of his life). My office window looks out onto a lovely courtyard where I expect I may spend some quality time on pleasant spring days.

I wasn’t prepared for just how psychologically uplifting this new environment would be. And yet I feel conflicted about enjoying it—and not just because I really should be missing Amanda, the squirrel who’d made a nest in my office window a couple of years ago and has been living there ever since.

Philosophy's new home is in a building called Murray Hall, an old residence hall that was largely unused for the two decades prior to the start of renovations a couple of years ago. It’s named after William H. Murray, an important figure in Oklahoma history. He presided over the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, served as the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and, later, as Governor during the Great Depression. If Oklahoma has a slate of founding fathers, Murray would be among them.

Murray was also a racist and an anti-Semite. In his capacity as president of the Constitutional Convention, he pushed for a “Jim Crow” constitution—an effort which proved successful largely because the move had such broad support. During his tenure as Speaker of the Oklahoma House, he continued his segregation efforts by pushing hard for the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the state.

In fact, if there is a person who might be singled out as the one who most clearly spearheaded the efforts to make Oklahoma a Jim Crow state, I think no one would be better qualified for that dubious honor than Murray. He was not just a vocal public champion of one of the greatest American injustices of the 20th Century. He was the lead figure in bringing it about that this grave institutional injustice was implemented in the state of Oklahoma.

On matters more directly relevant to higher education, Murray doesn’t come off much better, at least in terms of my own educational philosophy. Murray thought that education in the humanities and the sciences was wasted on most citizens, and he advocated a system in which the two state universities were restricted to the intellectual elite. He thought, furthermore, that it was a waste of resources for two universities to have overlapping programs, and so thought that Oklahoma A&M (now OSU) should focus largely on agricultural education while leaving the arts and sciences to OU.

The idea of a university system which affords a large percentage of the population the chance to pursue a well-rounded four-year education, in which specialization in some discipline is balanced with broad exposure to our cultural heritage and intellectual discoveries—this idea is not one that Murray endorsed. But it is the very thing, of course, that OSU and other state universities embody in their explicit mission statements and philosophies.

The more serious issue, however, is how Murray’s bigotry infected his views on higher education. In a speech during the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, Murray spoke the following words with respect to blacks and education:

He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers and many lines of agriculture, horticulture and mechanics in which he is an adept, but it is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions… I appreciate the old-time ex-slave, the old darky—and they are the salt of their race—who comes to me talking softly in that humble spirit which should characterize their actions and dealings with the white man…The worst negroes of which I know in my territory are in the Creek nation, where they have been allowed to vote, hold office, (and) attend school with the Creek Tribe…
In short, Murray thought that not only was higher education wasted on blacks, who purportedly lacked the intellectual ability to take advantage of it; he thought, furthermore, that blacks who had access to such education lost sight of their place in the racist hierarchy. And this, of course, he took to be a very bad thing. He appreciated “the old darky” who was fawning and submissive. Those who came to him as equals made him (as he admitted in the same speech) want to punch their lights out. This goes a long way towards explaining why, when Oklahoma A & M instituted a scholarship program in his name, blacks and Jews were excluded.

Murray also publicly declared that he thought Jews should be deported from the United States and relocated to Madagascar. This so-called “Madagascar Solution” has a long history and was also proposed by the Nazis in their early efforts to pursue “racial purity” in Germany—a precursor to their more horrific “Final Solution.” And while Murray was never a Nazi sympathizer, his ideological affinity for the racist and anti-Semitic commitments of the Nazis is one of the most disturbing facts about the man and his life.

Had Murray not been around, Oklahoma would surely still have become a Jim Crow state. He was part of a generation in which the things he stood for were not uncommon. If he had not taken the public stage to champion them, someone else would have done so. But as a matter of history, it is Murray who led the efforts to make Oklahoma a Jim Crow state. It is Murray who wrote the hateful anti-Semitic and racist tracts that defined the latter part of his career. Murray's name cannot be severed from Oklahoma’s legacy of racial oppression, because Murray was an instrumental figure in the creation of that legacy.

While Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, he didn’t found the institution of slavery. What he helped to found was a nation organized around principles of representative democracy, liberty, and equality under the law—principles which were later invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights movement to denounce the system of segregation. Symbolically, then, Jefferson’s name is bound up with distinctive historic contributions that are worthy of being honored, even if not everything the man did or stood for should be honored. The question I ask myself is what Murray’s name is symbolically bound up with. My answer is that it is bound up with distinctive historic contributions that should not be honored today—even if, as is surely the case, there are things Murray did and stood for that deserve respect.

And I can see no reason to think that OSU has any obligation to preserve the name. The building wasn’t named after him because he financed the building or in other tangible ways supported the university. Rather, university administrators were worried that, because of Murray’s strident opposition to FDR and the New Deal, he would block their efforts to secure federal funds to build a new women’s dormitory. And so they cleverly decided to flatter him by promising to name the building after him. Such motivations are hardly the sort that we are duty-bound to respect today.

For all these reasons, as Murray Hall was being renovated I became part of the efforts to change the building’s name. There have, in fact, been numerous such efforts. Petititions to rename the building after Clara Luper, the most prominent leader in Oklahoma’s civil rights movement, have been circulating for years. Forums--including one in which Clara Luper came to speak--have been held. Most, if not all, of the departments moving into the building sent or signed off on letters to the administration in support of a name change. The Student Government Association voted in support of a name change. The Arts & Sciences Faculty Council initiated an official recommendation to un-name the building. This recommendation was supported by the University Faculty Council, and thus forwarded to the administration for a decision.

Also in the fall of 2007, I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by OSU’s Ethics Center on the topic of un-naming Murray Hall. There were two panelists: an English professor who spoke forcefully in favor of unnaming the building (citing considerations very much in the spirit of those I’ve offered above), and a member of the history department (the only person we could find who was willing to advocate publicly for preserving the name). His argument, interestingly, was that we should not hide from our history, even the ugly parts of it. He was worried that renaming the building would simply be an effort to sanitize the past, and that we would be better served by keeping the name (at least for now) and using it as a springboard to talk about Oklahoma’s history and its significance.

This is not a foolish argument. In fact, I became convinced as I listened to it that, even if the building’s name were to be changed, it was important to make sure that the history was not brushed under the rug. Even if, administratively, the building came to be called something else, the “Murray” name etched into the outside walls of the building should remain—and an explanation of the disparity should be offered through some kind of historical display discussing who Murray was.

From what I can gather, the administrative committee responsible for making the decision interviewed both panelists from our fall 2007 event, in addition to considering a letter sent to them by the Oklahoma Historical Society. To my knowledge, this constituted the bulk of their external research. That is, as far as I know they didn’t interview representatives of the African American student body or Jewish faculty slated to move into the new building, or anything along those lines.

But I don’t actually know everything that went into their deliberations. What I do know is that their decision was announced shortly after school was let out for the summer, in May of 2008—that is, shortly after students, staff, and faculty who might otherwise have come together to express outrage at the decision were scattered hither and yon for the summer. Whether this timing was coincidental is a matter about which I can only speculate.

And what was their decision? Obviously, my new office is in Murray Hall. But that’s not the whole story. There is also an historical display set up in the atrium on the lowest level of the building—an honest discussion of who Murray was, what he stood for, how the building got its name, and the controversy surrounding the name. The display was created by the same historian who was on the panel. While the administrative committee voted against changing the name “for now,” they supported the creation of such a display as part of an ongoing conversation about the building’s name.

When I first heard about this decision, what I felt can best be described as moral outrage. I viewed the display as little more than a bone thrown to the opposition. Now, while I still disagree with the decision, my reaction is more nuanced and emotionally muted.

I’ve walked through the display several times, and it’s good. So good, in fact, that its presence in the building changes the symbolic meaning of the building’s name. In the absence of that display, the default meaning of a building’s name is veneration: the person named is lifted up and symbolically affirmed. In the case of a donor, the affirmation is one of gratitude (or, put more cynically, an affirmation of fiduciary indebtedness). But in the case of someone who hasn’t funded the university’s efforts, the name is more purely a gesture of honor (even if the purpose of making that gesture might have been nothing more than appeasement).

But this display changes that default meaning. In it, we learn what Murray stood for and did with unflinching honesty. His more positive contributions to Oklahoma’s history are included, of course, but so is the substance of what I discuss above. From now on, this building will be unique among all buildings on campus, in that there will be a face and a history attached to that name.

And most people who come to know that the building is named for that Murray, the bigot who spearheaded Jim Crow in Oklahoma, are likely to have gained that knowledge from a display in the building itself. And so, if they are disturbed by what the name represents, it will be because an honest display in the building gave them reason to be.

And this is important. It conveys, in effect, the following message: “We, today, do not affirm the venerative gesture that was made decades ago when the building was first named. Instead, we question it and treat it as a lesson in history.”

For me, this helped make it possible to move into the new building without feeling as if I were betraying my values. But is it enough?

It would, for me, have been intolerable to actively honor, even on a perfunctory symbolic level, what the Murray name has come to represent. In the absence of the historical display, the refusal to change the name in response to an official recommendation would have been a symbolic act whose significance was precisely that: to lift up what should not be lifted up. This intolerable message has been largely neutralized by the display.

But the university could have done more. It still can. It’s one thing to neutralize a negative symbolic message. It is something else again to express, symbolically, an opposing positive message. Changing the building’s name could be a way to do the latter.

As of now, the university has managed to declare, “This name, etched on the walls of this building, is not what we stand for.” But that is only half the message that, in my view, needs to be expressed. I think the university can and should do more: Plant a new name in the grass outside the building, a name that resonates with the ethics of inclusion that Murray opposed. A name like “Clara Luper.” Let the university declare, “This name, planted here amidst the petunias, represents what we strive to be.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Collision? Hardly--New Religion Dispatches Essay

I've got a new essay in today's Religion Dispatches. It's a reflection on the significance of the recent debates between atheist "public intellectual" Christopher Hitchens and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson, chronicled in the new documentary, Collision. The RD essay doesn't delve into the merits of the arguments laid out by either man (I may take that up in a later post on this blog), but focuses instead on the form of the debate--a form which, unfortunately, has become all too typical of the so-called "God Debates."