Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Hell

A good while back I had an exchange with a conservative Christian critic of my book, who essentially accused me of being inconsistent in my treatment of the problem of evil and what Marilyn McCord Adams has dubbed the problem of hell (I reprinted the substance of my reply on this blog back in January of 2009). I was reminded of that exchange recently, because my philosophy of religion class has been considering the problem of evil and the problem of hell back-to-back.

While the two problems are very similar, they are also fundamentally different. In this post I’d like to consider the problems side-by-side, highlight both their similarities and their differences.

Epicurus offered a classic formulation of the problem of evil in the following terms:

Is (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Not long ago, Randy Olds articulated the problem of hell simply by retooling this epicurean argument :
Is God willing to put an end to the torments of Hell, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then how can Hell possibly last for all eternity?
In both cases, there is an argument to the effect that belief in an omnipotent and perfectly good God is incompatible with something else—either the existence of evil, or the existence of an eternal hell.

Now, an enormous difference between the two problems rests in the following fact: The existence of evil is a matter of experience, whereas the existence of hell is a matter of doctrine. That is, all of us have encountered in our lives, either directly or indirectly, cases of cruelty, suffering, pointless death, and the like. There is no denying that children starve by the hundreds of thousands. There is no denying that bifurcating ideologies lead to gruesome atrocities. There is no denying that diseases cut promising lives short, that natural disasters bring untold suffering.

And so, to deny the existence of evil requires that we say of all of these horrors that they really aren’t evil after all. Some theists, confronted with the problem of reconciling evil with their faith in an almighty and benevolent God, do seem drawn to just such a move. When Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on a supposed pact with the devil that Haitian rebels had made generations ago, we see the ugliest fruits of this kind of theodicy. Horrors are baptized. Victims are blamed. God is vindicated at the expense of doing violence to human dignity.

Denying the existence of hell requires nothing of the kind. And while some Christians argue that it requires denying the clear teaching of Scripture, even this is a dubious claim—as, I think, Robin Parry (writing as Gregory McDonald) has argued quite powerfully in The Evangelical Universalist.

Another enormous difference between the problem of evil and the problem of hell is that the problem of evil is posed in terms of finite, terrestrial evils—evils that, if God exists, do not have the final word in the lives of those who suffer them. If God exists and is infinite in power and benevolence, then there is reason to hope that even the worst terrestrial evils will being redeemed.

As Marilyn McCord Adams has so powerfully argued, there are really two problems of evil: One is explaining why God would permit evils in the first place; the second is explaining how God can be good to the victims of the worst of those evils, the ones Adams calls “horrors.” Adams offers a compelling account of how God might “defeat” even the worst finite evils, so as to make the lives of those who suffer them well worth living. Her account doesn’t solve the first problem of accounting for evil in the first place, but the point I want to make here is that eternal hell is by definition suffering and sin that endures eternally and so is never redeemed.

As such, it seems that the second problem of evil becomes, in relation to hell, seemingly insurmountable. In effect, the doctrine of hell holds that there are some evils that endure eternally, evils that God either cannot or will not redeem, and so remain forever as a blight on the divine creation.

Seen in this light, belief in the doctrine of hell seems to be a far more serious threat to belief in an almighty God of love than does the reality of any finite evil.

Nevertheless, there are those who seek to cling to the doctrine of hell and integrate it with their theistic faith. The main aim of That Damned Book (my forthcoming book co-authored with John Kronen) is to show that these efforts just don’t work.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jostling for Moral High Ground: The Courage of Atheists and Theists

The other day, Cliff Martin over at OutsideTheBox offered an interesting blog post about atheists who take the high moral ground and argue that it takes more courage to be an atheist than it does to be a theist. Martin invokes William James to suggest that, at least for many theists, it would be easier and less courageous for them to give up their faith.

The original post and the ensuing exchange not only touches on elements of William James’ philosophy that have been explored earlier on this blog and in my philosophy of religion class, but raises an interesting and important question: Who, if anyone, can claim the moral high ground of courage in the ongoing debates about theism?

My own view is that no one can. Or, perhaps more accurately, my view is that the answer depends on contextual factors—both in terms of the environment in which the individual atheist or theist takes their stand, and in terms of the individual’s own intellectual and religious journey. And since it’s hard to be sure of these things when talking about someone else, we should be hesitant about judging another person’s courage, whether they’re theists or atheists.

One belligerent critic on Martin’s post, Larry “The Barefoot Bum,” quickly shot back that “publicly denying the trivial, infantile superstitions of a large majority of the population — especially when those people tend to react with extreme and brutal violence when their infantile superstitions are denied — does require a bit of physical courage.” While I have little sympathy for Larry’s quick dismissal of theism as trivial nonsense—and while he clearly exaggerates the danger of overt violence faced by atheists (at least in the US and Europe)—there is, it seems to me, a germ of truth in his remarks.

The other day I had a conversation with a student of mine, clearly from a conservative Christian background; and as we talked it became clear that she was struggling with the ways in which my introductory philosophy class was challenging beliefs that were strongly normative in her community. She found some of the arguments we’d been looking at in the class quite convincing, but if she followed her intellect on these matters she’d have to make a choice. Should she be quiet about her disagreement with her community on fundamental matters, at the cost of undermining the authenticity of her relationships? Or should she be honest and public about her disagreement, at the cost of risking more overt rejection and alienation? That the issues raised in the class forced such a dilemma created a kind of meta-level dilemma—a conflict between intellectual integrity and loyalty to her community of origin.

At least some atheists have gone through a personal intellectual journey along these lines. That is, they have encountered arguments that not only challenge what they’ve been taught, but that cut to the very center of their community’s organizing worldview. It takes courage to face such arguments, since they might put one in a dilemma like the one my student confronts. And at least some atheists come to their atheism because they have honestly wrestled with these challenges to their faith—at which point it takes courage to be true to their beliefs at the risk of being alienated from their community.

Of course, atheists are not alone in confronting these sorts of challenges. In the former Soviet Union, devout theists faced serious costs for seeking to live out their faith openly. To a lesser extent, theistic academics in secular universities often face—if they are public in their profession of faith—the risk of being quietly judged as an adherent to “infantile superstition.” But certainly in the U.S. today, you are more likely to face this challenge growing up in a religious home and courting atheism.

But there is another issue here—and this is the real issue at stake in Martin’s post. The courage which Martin’s atheist friend touts as being a hallmark of atheism can be usefully understood in relation to Walter Stace’s his famous essay, “Man Against Darkness.” At least at the time that he wrote the essay, Stace believed that the weight of the evidence, especially the evidence coming from the sciences, clearly supported the view that the universe is at root a place without purpose or intelligence, a reality governed fundamentally by blind mechanism and chance.

Stace took this to be a growing realization of the modern era, an irreversible trend in our intellectual understanding of the world that forces us to confront a dilemma that earlier generations didn’t need to face. The question, for Stace, was what we should do in the face of this intellectual realization that we exist in an essentially blind and meaningless universe that cares not a whit for our endeavors or values. While he doesn’t frame this question in terms of courage, I think it’s fair to interpret his view as follows: It takes more courage to face what you think is the truth, even if it’s a truth that makes the reality you face far bleaker than you wish it were, than to retreat into comforting illusions that, on an intellectual level, you think are false.

Now I agree with Stace about this. Furthermore, I believe that many atheists have gone through a spiritual/intellectual journey that looks just like this. They have found themselves faced with the dilemma Stace describes, and have decided to do away with what they’re convinced are just comforting illusions. The problem, as I see it, is that many of these atheists universalize their own spiritual/intellectual journey and so presume that intelligent theists have faced the same dilemma, conceived in the same terms, but made the opposite choice.

What William James does, in “The Will to Believe,” is present the fruits of his own spiritual and intellectual journey. Just like Stace’s journey, it leads to a dilemma, a forced choice—but a different one than the one Stace confronted. For James the nature of reality is far more ambiguous, far less clear in its implications, than what Stace (at the time) took it to be.(I say “at the time” because, later in his career, Stace became interested in approaching mystical experience empirically, and the conclusions he reached on the basis of that work are not quite the same as those he embraced in “Man Against Darkness”).

Stace looks at the empirical world and is convinced that a materialist worldview is the only kind that maps well onto the facts. James, by contrast, is convinced that a range of worldviews map onto the empirical facts—and what distinguishes a materialist worldview from others that map onto the facts is that the materialist worldview posits no facts beyond what can be ascertained empirically. Other worldviews, while just as consistent with the facts, posit realms or domains of reality beyond what is empirically knowable.

James thinks that refusing to embrace what is empirically unknowable amounts, for practically purposes, to disbelief. Here, it is important to remember that James is a pragmatist about belief, in the sense that the meaning of your belief is given by the impact it has on what you DO. If you actively pursue some kind of spiritual alignment with a supposed transcendent level of reality, then you are a believer in practice. And given this pragmatic perspective, the one who withholds belief withholds this practice every bit as much as the one who actively disbelieves.

In short, there is a pragmatic attunement, James thinks, between the person who endorses a materialist worldview and a person who simply holds that we shouldn’t believe any empirically unknowable propositions. Pragmatically speaking, both are materialists—and so both are pragmatically rejecting worldviews that map onto the facts but add new levels of meaning to the facts by reference to realities that transcend them. (By the way, I am not at all convinced that James is right to wholly collapse agnosticism into atheism in the way he seems to—but for his purposes I think a complete pragmatic alignment isn’t necessary in any event).

James’ question is whether we have an epistemic duty to refuse to believe in the transcendent and so (pragmatically speaking) be materialists. It is from this standpoint that we must understand his comment to the effect that “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truths if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” James thinks that the rule to refuse to believe beyond the empirical evidence is just such a rule, and hence irrational.

For James, the wellspring of religion is a distinctive kind of experience that seems to put one in touch with a transcendent good but which might just be a non-veridical product of psychological and neurological forces. Empirical evidence, he thinks, cannot tell us how to interpret these mystical states of consciousness. So do we trust these experiences, given that they cannot be verified? Or do we adopt a skeptical stance?

James doesn’t answer this question. Instead, he rejects the view that we are required to adopt the skeptical stance in the absence of sufficient evidence. Instead of being required by some rule of proper thinking to never believe beyond the empirical evidence, James thinks that when we confront alternatives that are equally consistent with the evidence, one of which goes beyond it and the other not, we are led to a position in which reason cannot guide us. Hence, we are ultimately forced to choose among rival passions: the fear of being duped, or the hope aligning ourselves with a truth that makes the universe more meaningful than empirical investigation alone can support.

This is the dilemma that my spiritual/intellectual journey has taken me to—and it is, I think, the journey that Cliff Martin’s journey has taken him to as well. And for those on such a journey, the decision to believe is a decision to resist a very real fear in order to live in hope.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Does Same-Sex Marriage Radically Undermine the Institution of Marriage?

As I pointed out in my last post, last week I commented on a discussion about the use and misuse of the term “homophobia” on J.R. Daniel Kirk’s blog, Storied Theology. I'd like to recap one of the conversations I was drawn into there, and then extend my thinking in connection with that conversation.

As part of the exchange that followed my original comment, another commenter named Alastair offered several responses to my contention that excluding gays and lesbians from access to marriage marginalizes them. In his first response, he argued that denying same-sex couples marriage rights does not marginalize them because the institution of marriage would be undermined if they were included within its scope. In my subsequent reply, I noted that this argument, whatever its merits, did not show that gays and lesbians aren’t marginalized. Rather, it was an attempt to justify that marginalization. I went on to claim that, in assessing such a justification, we needed to attend compassionately to how this marginalization affects gays and lesbians.

Alistair’s response was lengthy and focused on two things: first, what he took to be the nature of marriage; second, what he thought about the relevance of paying attention to how exclusion from marriage affects gays and lesbians. Since what I want to do here is respond with some care to these remarks, I've decided to reproduce them in full. Here, then, is what Alistair has to say:

I think that the basic error here is thinking that marriage primarily exists to rubberstamp a close personal relationship between two individuals. I don’t want to diminish the importance of ‘pair-bonds’, but nor do I want to diminish the cultural significance of marriage, and gay marriage does that.

Marriage upholds a certain form of ‘relational grammar’ that preserves and fosters a number of relationships, not merely that between two individuals who love each other very much. The idea that marriage could be reduced to this troubles me greatly. Obviously marriage is not merely, or primarily, about sex. Nor need marriage involve procreation for it to be marriage. A particular relationship need not express the entire grammar of the institution for it to be a genuine marriage. The problem is that gay marriage completely rewrites the grammar of the relationship, in a manner that leaves a number of the bonds that marriage exists to protect vulnerable.

I would question the appropriateness of the word ‘marginalization’ in this context. It is a term that is generally used to portray society’s privileging of marriage as if it were an arbitrary celebration of heterosexual people over gay people. As a single person I may feel ‘marginalized’ by the significance that marriage is given, but I know that the institution does not exist to marginalize me, but to protect and uphold certain bonds that are good for society in general. Although as a single person I can do much for society, I cannot do what marriage does. The fact that I do not enjoy its status and privileges is entirely equitable; to frame this in terms of ‘marginalization’ is to present the issue in a very biased light.

The ‘marginalization’ here ultimately comes down to the fact that society’s great project of moving from one generation to the next is one in which nature has not equipped homosexual pair-bonds to participate in in the same way as heterosexual pair bonds. People often fail to see just how much the redefinition of the grammar of marriage to include gay pair-bonds would lead to the marginalization of the concerns of children from the institution.

Gays aren’t ‘excluded’ from marriage, as if there were some arbitrary restriction holding them back. A gay marriage is simply an impossible entity, so we don’t recognize them. If gays were excluded from marriage when their ‘pair-bonds’ could serve society in exactly the same way as heterosexual marriages we could fairly talk about ‘exclusion’, but they can’t and so I think that this is just a matter of coming to terms with reality.

There is a certain degree of social impotence that comes with certain territory. Children are the future and those in committed reproductive relationships will always have great power for this reason. The bonds of blood are strong, and those who work according to them will often be more influential in the long term. Single people, married people without children, people in committed gay relationships, and those who lack the stronger institutional bonds to their children that marriage provides, will always be at some measure of a disadvantage. This situation won’t be changed until government assumes the responsibility for the task of child-rearing, or something like that.

If we were arguing for a sui generis institution that recognized gay pair-bonds, a more realistic debate could be had. The problem is that if we were to recognize gay pair-bonds on their own terms, they would still probably not be viewed as equivalent to marriage bonds.

You claim that the ‘status’ of their pair bonds are ‘rejected’. The status of civil union, including most or all of the privileges of marriage status – save for the name – are given to gay pair-bonds in many jurisdictions. The key thing that is rejected is the claim of their unions to the title of ‘marriage’, which would grant equivalency. However, the claim to this ‘status’ is consistently asserted and never really demonstrated.

You write: “Is it ultimately a convincing argument? Here, again, is where I think it is important to keep in mind the two loci of moral debate. The argument you advance places a moral premium on the reproductive potential of a pair bond. How morally significant is the honoring of that potential with a unique social institution? How does that weigh against the moral case against marginalizing a minority group in ways that, in my judgment based on listening compassionately to my gay and lesbian neighbors, is deeply damaging to their lives? One thing is clear: We cannot answer this question unless we really listen–broadly, deeply, and empathetically–to the diverse life stories of gays and lesbians. Hopefully, at least, we can agree on that.”

First, a clarification. The moral premium is not placed upon the ‘reproductive potential of a pair bond,’ if by that we are talking about particular relationships. The moral premium is rather placed upon an institution that protects and encourages the bonds of blood, the relationship between the sexes, and the relationship between the generations. The moral premium is placed upon an institution that is ordered towards procreation (upon a form of pair bond that has the intrinsic potential to become more than a pair bond) and the needs of children.

The relationships between men and women, between the generations, between the child and their parents, and the relationships of blood impact on all of our lives profoundly. The idea that we should consider redefining an institution designed to protect these to make a particular minority feel more accepted is incredibly reckless, especially when the breakdown of the bonds maintained by a strong marriage culture would be profoundly damaging to everyone, and not just in terms of our feelings of well-being.

There is a time for sympathetic listening. However, there are such things as non-negotiables, matters on which we cannot compromise without the sacrifice of truth. Ultimately, I don’t think that any of the concerns, stories, and issues of the gay community has any bearing on the question of whether their committed unions should be recognized as ‘marriages’. That question boils down to the fact that gay pair-bonds and heterosexual pair-bonds are categorically different in character. No amount of empathetic listening will change the coordinates of the situation in that regard. The listening is, of course, crucial, but it must be undertaken within a situation where the constraints of reality are openly acknowledged, rather than wished away, or fought against.

The problem with all of this ‘sympathy’ talk is that much of the time it boils down to little more than a dissembling euphemism for the rejection of the biblical pattern of truth and love, for the contemporary counterfeit of ‘tolerance’. Tolerance cannot be forthright with its neighbour because it is more concerned with being inoffensive than it is with being truthful in love. This is an issue on which there is a genuine offence and we should not disguise the fact, or pretend that it doesn’t exist. Much as we would like to seem sympathetic of the concerns of the gay community, we must honestly recognize that there are issues on which we must oppose them, and the account of reality presented by much of the gay rights movement. In my experience, many of those who stress that sympathetic listening has a bearing on the fairly clear issues, such as the differences between gay pair bonds and heterosexual pair bonds, are the people who never end up saying anything.

We should also not forget that sympathy can be a profoundly dangerous thing if not handled correctly. The great leaders of the Bible were generally marked out by their ability to act without sympathy when the occasion called. The moral leaders that God appointed for his people were people like Moses, who slew the Egyptian, like the Levites, who killed 3,000 of their brethren, like Phineas, who thrust a spear through a couple, like Samuel, who hacked Agag in pieces, like Nehemiah, who cursed, struck, and pulled out the hair of people, like Peter, who could condemn Ananias and Sapphira to their deaths, like Paul, who could curse opponents like Elymas, etc. The bad leaders in Scripture are often condemned for their sympathy, for having their hearts led astray by sympathy for others, which prevented them from speaking truth and justice (e.g. Eli’s sympathy for his sons, Solomon’s love for his wives, Ahaziah’s love for his mother, the Corinthians’ failure to exercise church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5, etc.).

Since I was too busy grading to respond promptly to this lengthy post, I didn’t get around to formulating my comments until this morning. And since my comments are themselves lengthy—and since the activity on the original post has died down in any event—I thought it more fitting to post my remarks here (with a link over at Storied Theology), where my own dear faithful readers are more likely to see it and offer their thoughts. Here, then, is my response:

First of all, let me say that I am in general suspicious of theories that have implications for public policy decisions but which, if embraced, render irrelevant the lessons gleaned from compassionate attention to the impact on those who are powerfully affected by the policy decisions. It certainly sounds as if Alastair is saying that, given his theory of marriage, it doesn’t matter what lessons emerge from compassionate attention to the lived experiences of gays and lesbians. The public policy of excluding them from participation in marriage just is correct because of what (according to this theory) marriage is, even should it prove that this public policy has ruinous implications for the lives of gays and lesbians. A theory which so neatly sets aside the relevance of compassionate listening is, for me, presumptively suspect.

(As to Alastair’s biblical case against what he calls “sympathy”—which, by the way, may not be the same as empathetic and compassionate listening—I must say that I have so little, erm, sympathy for it that I think it’s best just to remain mostly silent on the matter. Thus I limit myself to the following parenthetical remark: the kind of biblical thinking exemplified here is what leads me to regard stringent views of biblical authority as potentially very dangerous. Those who want to know more about my thinking can look at Chapter 3 of Is God a Delusion?, especially pp 62-63 and pp. 68-71).

But all of this amounts to an indirect objection to Alastair’s theory of marriage (a theory which has also been defended by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Margaret Somerville, the editors of Commonweal, and many others). In addition to my indirect concerns, I have more direct objections. First, it seems as if Alastair is setting up a false dilemma: Either marriage “exists to rubberstamp a close personal relationship between two individuals” (let’s call this the “rubberstamping view” of marriage); or it is about designating a social institution for the purpose of singling out the reproductive “kind” of pair-bond for a distinctive place of honor so as to secure certain goods (“the bonds of blood, the relationship between the sexes, and the relationship between the generations”) that would otherwise (for some reason) be rendered “vulnerable.” Let’s call this the “reproductive view.”

My own view is neither of these—and as such, the implied argument that rejecting the reproductive view forces us to embrace the rubberstamping view doesn’t carry much weight. Since false dilemmas of this sort are common (Alistair is not unique in his invocation of it), I think it is worth devoting some attention to a third alternative, which happens to be my own view of marriage. My view is that marriage, while a complex institution embodying an array of functions, is centrally an institution in which a love relationship initially born out of the affective fruits of pair-bonding (caring and intimate feelings we usually think of under the rubric of “romantic love”) is transformed into a covenantal relationship in which marital vows establish a commitment that transcends the essentially fleeting character of romantic feeling.

The covenant of marriage, as I understand it, aims both to preserve benevolent mutual care through the loss of romantic feelings and to establish a commitment to nurturing and restoring these feelings when they inevitably fade. Romantic feelings are a natural impulse towards intimacy, benevolent care, and commitment. The marital relationship takes the last of these impulses—the impulse towards commitment—and formalizes that commitment so as to create a framework within which the pair ideally learns (i) how to practice intimacy and benevolence even when supportive feelings are absent, and (ii) how to nurture the supportive feelings. In brief, the marital bond becomes a crucible within which love is taught. More precisely, it provides a context in which pair-bonded couples can use their mutual feelings of love as a basis for cultivating a more profound kind of love conceived as a virtue. And the lessons about love that are taught within the framework of marriage ideally carry over into other relationships.

Let’s call this the “covenantal view” of marriage. It is the view of marriage most clearly or obviously presupposed in traditional marriage ceremonies, which include vows of fidelity and life-long commitment (“for better or worse, in sickness and in health”). In fact, not only is the covenantal view of marriage more obviously present in traditional wedding ceremonies and marital vows, but the reproductive view is notably absent. But that is not to say that reproduction is not featured significantly in the complex phenomenon we call marriage. It clearly is. Marriage encompasses numerous characteristics: romantic and sexual intimacy, friendship, life partnership, mutual support and care, fidelity, the establishment and maintenance of a single household, the “joining” (however pro forma) of previously separate extended families, the making of babies, the raising of babies (and subsequently trying to "guide" sassy teens into adulthood), shared responsibility for joint projects and tasks, etc.

Not all of these are necessary for a marriage to exist (two orphans can still marry, even if two extended families aren’t thereby brought together), and some features operate as mere ideals to be approximated (mutual support is always a matter of degrees).

This complexity is a point Alastair seems to recognize when he says, “Nor need marriage involve procreation for it to be marriage. A particular relationship need not express the entire grammar of the institution for it to be a genuine marriage.” In this comment, Alastair concedes that procreation is not essential to marriage—that a marriage can be a marriage even if the couple fails to (or cannot) procreate. We agree on this and on the complexity of the institution. The latter leads me to think that marriage is best understood as a “family resemblance” concept in Wittgenstein’s sense—where, rather than the term’s proper use being given by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, it is given by participation in some subset of an array of recurring characteristics. On this view, my preferred understanding of marriage--the covenantal view--is not a definitive account of the necessary and sufficient conditions for marriage, but a portrait of what I find most compelling among the range of complex properties that actual marriages embody to varying degrees.

As such, marriage may also be an essentially contested concept in W.B. Gallie’s sense, insofar as there is normative value attached to the idea of marriage. This idea of essential constestability is one I have explained at length elsewhere on this blog as a way of undestanding the concept of religion. What I'll say here is that with such concepts, contestability arises because there is enduring disagreement about which features of the complex paradigms warrant the positive or negative normative appraisal that goes with the use of the term--and "fixing in place" a single definition would therefore amount to silencing certain moral perspectives through a sort of "definitional fiat."

If I'm right that “marriage” is a family resemblance term or an essentially contested one, then it does not possess just one “definition” that every true marriage must conform to—and so Alistair’s arguments to the effect that same-sex marriage just can’t be marriage defies the complex ways in which the term actually functions. It seems to impose on the use of the term a rigid meaning that is not true to the term’s actual usage. As such, I would argue that Alastair is “rewriting the grammar” of marriage.

But even if Alastair rejects these approaches to understanding the “grammar of marriage,” I don’t see how he can insist that “gay marriage completely rewrites the grammar of the relationship.” Even if “marriage” is not an essentially contested or family-resemblance concept, insofar as Alastair admits that marriage is characterized by a complex set of features and concedes that reproduction is not necessary for a marriage to be a marriage, the fact that gay couples can embody virtually everything that a sterile heterosexual couple can embody (including child-rearing) from among the complex features that characterizes the institution seems to undercut the credibility of the claim that extending marriage to same-sex couples “completely rewrites the grammar of the relationship.” How is it that extending marriage rights to gays does more to rewrite the grammar of the relationship than the existing practice of extending marriage to a couple known to be sterile?

Perhaps some clue to an answer is found in the details of the reproductive view of marriage—which, as Alastair expresses it, includes “the bonds of blood, the relationship between the sexes, and the relationship between the generations.” This is pretty vague, especially given the concession that a marriage can be authentic even if the couple fails to reproduce and so remains a single-generation pair-bond between biologically unrelated adults. What does it mean to say that an institution is in some fundamental way about the bonds of blood and the relationship between the generations when that institution legitimately extends to couples who share no bonds of blood and produce no children biologically related to them? More to the point, if it can be about this even though it extends to non-reproductive couples, why would extending marriage to same-sex couples render it incapable of being about this anymore?

The “relationship between the sexes” clause makes me uneasy since I’m not sure if the so-called “complementarity” thesis, with its concomitant conception of normative gender roles, is being alluded to. I’m unhappy with the complementarity thesis for reasons I can only gesture towards here. Let me say, first, that I’ve witnessed the damage that can be done by imposing gender role expectations on those whose native character is at odds with them. The reality is that native character traits are not apportioned out consistently in terms of our gender role expectations. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there are gender-specific virtues, that is, character traits which it is virtuous for a woman to possess but not for a man or vice versa.

As such, it seems problematic on many levels to suppose that men and women “go together” in a way that two men or two women cannot, that is, in a way that leads to a “complementarity” in which each fills in the weaknesses of the other with corresponding strengths. This can fail to happen with heterosexual couples. It can happen with same-sex couples. And it seems a mistake in any event to choose marriage over self-development as a strategy for addressing one’s weaknesses.

But perhaps Alastair doesn’t have the complementarity thesis in mind. Perhaps he simply means that marriage provides an institutional framework in which the romantic pair-bonding between men and women can be regulated and directed in ways that are more likely to promote healthy relationships. I agree that marriage can do this. But the same is true for romantic pair-bonding between two gay men or two lesbian women—and there is no reason to think that access to marriage by same-sex couples in any way undermines the capacity of marriage to serve this function for heterosexual couples who seek it out.

Maybe, however, Alastair thinks that marriage somehow regulates the collective relationship between men and women as distinct classes. But this seems highly implausible. People marry a single individual, not the whole gender to which their spouse belongs. And the marital relationship is explicitly exclusive—the bond to one’s spouse is supposed to be unique, forming a relationship that one forsakes in connection with all others. As such, it is not nor is it supposed to be a model for how one relates to every member of the opposite sex.

But let’s set that issue aside and focus on the bonds of blood—by which is presumably meant genetic relatedness—and relations among generations. The idea (which I’ll call the “blood ties thesis”) seems to be that marriage somehow fosters close positive relationships between generations of people who are genetically related, and that this is uniquely to be valued. Of course, the actual people who are married—the husband and wife—are (hopefully) not closely related genetically. But if they reproduce, then their children will be genetically related to their parents and to each other, as well as to extended family on both sides.

Now what are we to make of the blood-ties thesis? In assessing it, several questions arise. One delicate question is whether there is really something intrinsically valuable about preferring the establishment of “familial” relationships among those who are closely related genetically over the establishment of such relationships among persons who do not share these genetic ties. What implications does this preference have for adoptive families? What does it mean for children who bond deeply and positively with foster parents after escaping sexually abusive parents, or for “black sheep” who are alienated from their families of origin and form familial ties with a circle of friends? Alastair claims to value marriage for its capacity to protect relationships that would otherwise be “vulnerable” (to what?)—but doesn’t marriage in the reproductive sense he favors implicitly devalue familial relationships that fail to map onto genetic ones? And aren’t such relationships more vulnerable to being unfairly dismissed, to having their importance for human lives improperly belittled, than relationships between those with blood ties?

Another question relates to the impact of marriage—which explicitly bonds together those who are genetically unrelated—on nurturing close relations among those who are genetically related. Assuming that there is such an impact, a third question relates to how extending marriage rights to same-sex couples would threaten the capacity of marriage to continue to have that impact.

Let me consider these last two questions together. Clearly, marriage does nothing to facilitate reproduction, which heterosexual couples are very good at doing apart from the institution of marriage. Marriage helps to provide a more stable context for the fruits of reproduction—that is, children—than might otherwise greet them on entry into the world. In terms of preserving the bonds of blood and the relationship between the generations, it is certainly the case that when heterosexual couples marry, there is a higher likelihood (albeit no guarantee) that if they have children both of them will be involved in the lives of those children and have an enduring relationship with them. As such, if the children they have are biologically their own rather than adopted, there is a greater likelihood that these children will have enduring relations with both of their biological parents and both extended families.

But this function of marriage is made possible by the covenantal commitment between the spouses, a commitment that increases the likelihood of their staying together, supporting each other, and sharing in the labors of child-rearing. In other words, the capacity of marriage to serve the purposes Alastair attributes to it rests most clearly in those features of marriage which are central to what I’m calling the “covenantal view” of marriage—a view that is not even remotely threatened by extending marriage to same-sex couples, who are fully capable of participating in a marriage defined in these terms. The only clear and obvious impact of granting marriage-access to non-reproductive couples is, it seems to me, a positive one: Given that so many children are produced outside of a stable marital context (because marriage is entirely unnecessary for successfully making babies), the presence of married couples without children who can offer this context is a social boon. Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples increases the options for stable child-rearing environments for those children who lack them.

Given all these considerations, I am left at a loss when it comes to understanding the force behind Alastair’s case for what I’m calling reproductive marriage. When marriage is conceived in the covenantal sense, it serves the function of producing stable child-rearing environments and increasing the likelihood of children having ongoing relationships with both parents and extended families—and it does so without all the troubling implications for the status of adoptive and other non-traditional families, and without the problem of trying to reconcile the authenticity of non-reproductive marriages with the doctrine that the institution of marriage is essentially about forging blood-ties and intergenerational relationships.

On my view, marriage is about establishing a framework of mutual commitment and love. This framework serves as an ideal foundation for building multigenerational families—biological or adoptive; but it doesn’t cease to be a marriage if it doesn’t serve as such a foundation. The harms that are thus warned against in relation to same-sex marriage—the threats it supposedly poses to the institution and to its capacity to protect important relationships which would otherwise be left “vulnerable”—these appear to be largely illusory. But the negative impact on gays and lesbians is real.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Use of the Term "Homophobia"--Comments on Another Blog

Yesterday I found myself inspired to comment on a blog post, "Re: Homophobia," on the blog of Fuller Seminary New Testament Professor J.R. Daniel Kirk, Storied Theology. Prof. Kirk suggests that the use of the term "homophobia" (and its cognates) is generally unhelpful in promoting civil discourse in what is so often an angry debate. Since this concept of homophobia (its use and allegations of misuse) is a topic I was working on just before I started writing Is God a Delusion? (a project I abandoned in order to finish the book), I couldn't resist saying a few words. Maybe I'll be inspired to take up the project again--after That Damned Book is finished, of course.

In any event, the discussion thread has gotten quite lengthy but many of the comments are well worth reading if you are interested in the subject. I've made a few additional comments since my original, but must now restrain myself so that I can focus on such things as grading and finishing Chapter 7 of That Damned Book. My original comment, for those interested, is reproduced below:

 Since I think that the analogy between “homophobia” and “racism” is right on in terms of actual usage, I want to explore the analogy just a bit to see what it means.

In its root meaning, “racism” refers to the systematic marginalization of one racial group by another. But the term does not merely have a descriptive meaning. It also makes a strongly negative evaluative judgment. Thus, the term binds together systematic oppression based on race with the judgment that such systematic oppression is wrong. By extension, lots of things—acts, people, beliefs, attitudes—can be called racist insofar as they are the kinds of things that serve to perpetuate the social marginalization of racial minorities. A belief would do this if, were it true, it would JUSTIFY the practice of social marginalization.

As such, in calling a belief “racist” one is not merely casting a pejorative label on it but offering a reason to reject it. One is saying, in short-hand, that this belief implies that the social marginalization based on race is just; but it is not just; hence, the belief implies something false and so must itself be rejected as false.

That one can say all of this with a word rather than an argument both reinforces and expresses the appropriateness of binding together the descriptive and normative senses connoted by the term. That is, in using the term, one expresses the fittingness of treating a certain moral judgment as presumptively correct.

Now if you think it is indeed fitting to condemn the systematic exclusion of gays and lesbians from full access to crucial social goods (marriage), then you will find it fitting to use the term “homophobic” to label beliefs, attitudes, and practices that contribute to such social exclusion. For example, it will be judged fitting to label as homophobic the belief that all homosexual acts are wrong (since this belief justifies what one takes to be clearly unjust practices and policies, the belief is therefore judged false).

If, however, you think that all homosexual acts are wrong, you will by implication think that the systematic social marginalization of sexual minorities is not wrong, and so you will find the homophobia label unfitting—since this term attaches a negative judgment on something you do not think warrants such a judgment. And you are likely to bristle at the use of the term, because its use takes for granted a moral perspective with which you do not agree.

Such bristling CAN be an impediment to productive dialogue—but it can also serve other purposes. There is a tendency for many in the dispute about homosexuality to assume that there is only one locus of moral debate: namely, over the morality of homosexuality. They think that only once THAT matter is settled should we look at whether excluding sexual minorities from access to marriage is unjust. But the homophobia label can serve as a potent reminder that there are two loci of moral debate—one over the morality of homosexuality, one over the morality of systematically marginalizing gays and lesbians. Since how we answer one has implications for how we answer the other, to set aside consideration of the ethics of socially marginalizing gays and lesbians until we’ve settled whether homosexuality is wrong may be to unfairly exclude from the moral discourse one of the most compelling reasons to think that homosexuality is NOT wrong. Shouting “homophobia!” may, it seems to me, be a way for marginalized gays and lesbians and their allies to demand due attention to the social justice issue.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Matters of Life and Death: A 2003 Reflection on the Invasion of Iraq

Today is Veteran's Day. Facebook is dominated by status updates reminding us to honor the soldiers who sacrificed and often died because their country called them to fight. The elementary school where my wife teaches and my children go to school is festooned with stars--each with the name of a student's family member who has or is serving in the military.

My personal relationship to this holiday has always been conflicted. It simply isn't possible for me to just repeat the common platitudes that dominate this day. Although I admire the courage and dedication of so many soldiers, and although I honor their willingness to sacrifice so much for the sake of what they take to be their duty, I'm not at all convinced that the wars this country has fought over the last half century should have been fought at all. And although I know that the history of the world would have been far more grim than it was had allied soldiers not ultimately waged war against the axis powers in World War II, I also see the descent into that war as the long culmination of an international war system in which national pride fueled needless conflict, inspired punitive treaties on the losers, and blocked the efforts to establish an international community governed by principles instead of power. 

It is one thing to say that the allies did what they had to do given the circumstances. It is something else to say that the circumstances themselves were unavoidable. In my judgment, they were not. But to avoid the conditions which give rise to the necessity of war, peoples must commit to a trasformation of the character and structure of international relationships--and this simply won't happen so long as we uncritically revere the existing system or armies poised to strike.  

All of this expresses matters in an abstract, intellectual way. But as I was thinking about Veteran's Day this morning, I recalled a more personal reflection that--although it wasn't written in response to Veteran's Day--really captures the essence of my conflicted relationship to the military and to the soldiers who are so often separated from their families for the sake of risking themselves on foreign soil. Shortly after the US launched its invasion of Iraq, I was invited to give a talk about my perspective on the war. At the time, my wife was only weeks away from giving birth to our first child, and so I couldn't help but reflect on the war in terms of this momentous event in my life. Here, then, in honor of Veteran's Day, is an essay from April 2003, "Matters of Life and Death":

 My wife and I are expecting our first child in about a month. While American soldiers march through the sands of Iraq, risking death and shattered innocence far from the comforts of home, while Iraqi civilians huddle in terror as American troops rumble into their cities and rain death from the sky, the promise of liberation a pale hope in the face of the grim realities of war—as the terrible tragedy of war shatters the lives of so many, Tanya and I are nesting: putting up a “moose” border in the nursery, shopping for baby clothes, imagining what little Evan Alexander will look like.

There is a guilty strangeness to this juxtaposition. A week ago I read the troubled words of an American soldier who had learned, after participating in a battle in which hundreds of Iraqi attackers died, that many of those attackers were fighting for only one reason: troops loyal to Saddam Hussein threatened the lives of their wives and children if they refused to take up arms. And now that young soldier must live his life haunted by the image of women and children waiting hopelessly for their husbands to come home. Perhaps he is reminded of his own family waiting for his return, and feels a terrible solidarity with the men he has killed.

At moments I am ashamed to be happy. And then I think: No, I must be happy, now more than ever. I must let the joy descend all the way to my bones.

Somehow I must find a way to be true to both realities: the terrible reality of war, and the joyous reality of new life. I must find a way to honestly express what each of these realities means for me. But such honesty is hard. For me, as a pacifist who does not believe in war, and especially not in this war, such honesty is particularly hard. It was easier before the war began. I could oppose the war in the slim hope of persuading the U.S. government not to send our soldiers into harm’s way. Now, once they are there, I am torn between the conviction that we should not be there, and the realization that nothing good could come from abruptly turning on our heels, heading home, and leaving Iraq in ruins. This war violates some of my most sacred principles. It violates my understanding of what it means to be a Christian in this world. And yet I am paradoxically thinking that it would be best for all if we won quickly so that we could begin the difficult task of healing and rebuilding a shattered nation.

What should I say and do at such a time as this? My opposition to this war is not just theoretic. I live in fear of what it will mean for my son. Despite the promises of this government I can’t bring myself to believe that this war will make things better for him. I have long opposed wars on principle, based on my philosophical and religious commitment to nonviolence. I have long believed that wars contribute to ongoing cycles of violence, and that the only hope of escape from the scourge of war lies in creating and nurturing effective institutions of international law.

But when this country fought the first Gulf War I slept comfortably at night. Now I lie awake. Now I pace the house raging at the television, the blood pulsing in my temples. At the same moment that I am full of joy and anticipation at the prospect of being a father, I find myself full of anxiety and dread, full of fear for the future prosperity of the nation in which my child will grow. My opposition to this war has become very personal; it has become almost indistinguishable from my love for the child who is kickboxing Tanya’s bladder every night. The war has come to symbolize every fear I have about my son’s future. As I imagine anti-American sentiment spiraling out of control in the wake of this war, as I envision an American future punctuated with terrible repeats of 9/11, I want to scream out No! No! Please don’t feed that hungry spiral of violence! Please keep my baby safe!

That is part of my reality, a part that I must express if I hope to live with integrity.

A few weeks ago, when our country began its invasion of Iraq, our neighbors across the street promptly put up an American flag on their lawn. Being so new in our home, my wife and I haven’t gotten to know our neighbors very well yet, but we had a nice visit a few months back with those neighbors across the street. They’ve called us a few times since then. I think they want to be friends. A few days after the flag appeared on their lawn, an acquaintance gave me a small poster to put in my window. The poster says, simply, “No War Against Iraq.” I didn’t put the poster up.

Why not? Was it because I think that now that war is underway the best thing to do is win quickly so that we can get to work cleaning up the mess? A part of me wishes I could say that. It would make the fact that the poster lies facedown in the back of my car more honest than it is.

I’ve tried to convince myself that there is something honest about my failure to put up the poster. I know how hard it must be to have a loved one facing injury and death in a distant place. I know it not by experience, but because I feel Evan’s little hands and feet moving underneath my palm when I lay it against my wife’s abdomen, and I know how much I want to keep him safe. One day he will be eighteen, a soldier’s age. I imagine what it would be like to think of him, not only in harms way, but in service to an unjust cause. To think that would make the anguish all the more unbearable. So much better to think that his sacrifice serves some grander purpose, and if he dies he will have done so defending values I hold dear.

Perhaps those neighbors across the street have a son in Iraq; perhaps they remember when their child was kicking in the womb, and now recall with poignant fondness that time when they could keep their child safe within their own flesh. What would it do to them to see that poster in our window, to know that their neighbors think their son is a pawn in an unfair and unnecessary war? Perhaps the reason I don’t put up that poster is because I don’t want to risk challenging what I imagine to be their comforting illusions.

But that’s not it. In the long run, I think that such comforting illusions only reinforce the war footing that makes harmful cycles of violence more likely. So why don’t I put up the poster?

Here in Oklahoma, support for the war is strong, and the response to opponents of the war is often hostile. When I first moved to Oklahoma a couple of years ago I felt very out of place. Among other things, I don’t think that I had ever deliberately listened to a country song from beginning to end. A few months ago I finally began to feel my first glimmer of real connection to Oklahoma culture, or so I thought. I found a country music act that I really liked, that I actually looked forward to hearing on the radio: the Dixie Chicks. And then, just a few weeks ago, I witnessed footage of Oklahomans furiously crushing Dixie Chicks CD’s under their heels.

Whatever connection I thought I had with Oklahoma culture cracked beneath those angry feet. Their rage was inspired by Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the group, expressing open opposition to President Bush’s war policies. The feeling she expressed was a familiar one to me. “I am ashamed,” she said, “that the President of the United States is from Texas.” I am not from Texas, but I know the shame she was talking about. At a time when this nation is rallying behind the flag and expressing patriotism at a fever pitch, it is very alienating to feel ashamed of my country—to stand apart as the masses rally together crying “Yes! Yes!” when all I want to do is weep, cry out at what my beloved country is doing in the world.

I pass a kindly older man in WalMart, and he smiles. Beneath the smile I sense an expression of solidarity: at this time of war, we must stand together as Americans. I like the man instantly, but I wonder what he would think of me if he knew my opposition to the war. I wonder if his smile would transform into an expression of dismissal and contempt. I witness the growing patriotism around me, and I look in on it from the outside—and think of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Little Match Girl, shivering in an alley as she magically sees into the warmth and comfort of a nearby home with its radiant Christmas tree. As long as she keeps her matchsticks burning, she is almost there, almost inside. As long as I keep silent, as long as I keep that poster facedown in my car, I can almost join in the star-spangled solidarity.

At a time when young men and women from all over this country are risking their very lives in a foreign land, I fail to honestly express my convictions because I am afraid—afraid I might alienate my neighbors; afraid that kids might see it and egg my home, or worse: leave the gleaming shards of Dixie Chicks music scattered on my lawn; afraid of what this poster would do to the safe little nest my wife and I are creating for our child. I am in awe of the kind of courage and sacrifice our soldiers are showing in Iraq. I grieve that this sacrifice is for a cause I cannot believe in.

As I live my life, anticipating with joy and hope and some fear the birth of my first child, as I put together the crib carried in by a deliveryman bubbling with enthusiasm over his own experience with new fatherhood (and showing us pictures of his baby), as I rub Tanya’s pregnant abdomen and sing to Evan through her belly button—as I live my life of comfort and joy, American soldiers are far from their families, far from the comforts of climate-controlled homes and spaghetti dinners and walks at the lake with the dog. They are off in a distant desert with sand chafing in their boots and at their necks, acting not out of their own self-interest, but because their nation has called them to serve. Some of those soldiers will not return home alive. Some will sustain physical injuries they will never fully recover from. Others will be haunted for the rest of their lives by things they have seen and done in the name of service to their nation. I can hardly imagine what that kind of sacrifice is like.

There are those who say that opponents of this war should keep quiet, out of respect for these soldiers. It would be easy for me to say that the reason I failed to put up that poster in my window is because I agree with this sentiment. But how can I honor these brave young men and women if I remain silent when I sincerely believe that their lives are being put at risk to no good end? Worse, how could I claim to honor their courage if I refuse to show even a fraction of that courage in my own life by openly expressing my convictions?

I have a son on the way. My friends tell me I will be a good father. I hope that when the time comes for me to share with him, in love, my honest understanding of the truth, I will do so without fear, rather than hide it facedown in the back seat of my car. If there is one thing that each of us can do, one thing to make this world a better place, it would be to speak the truth in love, and give others the space to do the same. Ultimately, I think that’s what fatherhood is supposed to be about.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Brief Question about Fighting for Change and the Ethico-Religious Hope

Just a little while ago I stumbled across the following quote from an article by Rabbi Michael Lerner:

The most important changes in our country have come about because people were willing to fight for what everyone supposedly knew to be “unrealistic” (e.g., ending segregation, ending ten thousand years of unchallenged male supremacy and sexism, legitimating gay and lesbian lives, building an environmental movement, and the list goes on).
Realism is idolatry — believing in God is believing that there is some Force in the Universe (some of us call it God) that makes possible the transformation from “that which is” to “that which could and should be.”
It immediately brought to mind the following passage from Martin Luther King's 1956 speech at UC Berkeley, "The Power of Nonviolence":

I am quite aware of the fact that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had consmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the univers is on the side of justice.
What both are talking about here relates to what I refer to, in Is God a Delusion?, as "the ethico-religious hope"--that is, the hope that in some fundamental way the universe is on the side of the good. In my book, I define God by reference to this hope: belief in God is belief that there exists that which fulfills this hope--or, put in more pragmatic terms, to have faith in God is to live one's life as if there is that which fulfills this hope.
There is no question in my mind that what Lerner and King are referring to can have enormously rich pragmatic fruits, in the sense of motivating people to face entrenched injustices and powerful opposition--and to do so without retreating behind a gun or a terrorist bomb, but with a commitment to honesty and nonviolence. The sense that the universe is somehow fundamentally on the side of the good can give people the courage to trust in good means to attempt good ends against seemingly impossible odds.
It doesn't have to be "God" in the traditional sense (and there are some conceptions of "God"--as I've argued in my book and elsewhere--that don't align with this hope in any way that could be expected to bear such fruits). But my question--and it is a serious one, not merely rhetorical--is whether there is in materialistic/naturalistic worldviews something that can serve the same motivating function. Could the civil rights movement have been built up around a secular humanist idea that would do the same work--in terms of motivating courageous and persistent nonviolence in the effort to transform the world for the better--that King's invocation of a God of agapic love served?
In part, my question is sparked by the fact that I am starting to read Greg Epstein's impassioned defense of secular humanism, Good Without God, which is in part an attempt to inspire humanists to stand together nonviolently and compassionately against the social forces that continue to marginalize those who reject theistic belief. He takes as one of his models Martin Luther King; but in so doing is Epstein implicitly embracing some non-theistic variant of the ethico-religious hope? If so, can it be sustained from his secular humanist foundations? And if not, is there some alternative to this hope, something consistent with seeing the universe as fundamentally indifferent to the good, that can motivate a commitment to relying on morally good means in the pursuit of morally good ends even when doing so seems utterly "unrealistic"?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Excerpt from That Damned Book: Efficacious Grace and Rational Freedom

Since participants on this blog seem to have an ongoing interest in issues of free will, I thought I'd share something from the chapter I'm working on right now from That Damned Book. The excerpt is from the first of two chapters in which we critically assess the argument that God will not save all because to do so would require Him to trump the freedom of the unregenerate in a morally unacceptable way. In the chapter from which this excerpt is drawn, we consider the first of two responses to this "liberal" justification for the doctrine of hell--namely, the response which invokes the concept of "efficacious grace" (roughly, a divine act which guarantees the salvation of the sinner by ensuring that the sinner responds favorably to God's offer of loving union with Him). In this excerpt, we begin to consider the case for the view that it is possible for God to bestow efficacious grace. Once we narrow in on the "Thomistic" view on this matter (meaning the view endorsed by followers of St. Thomas Aquinas), we offer an account of the Thomistic view of freedom. It is this part of the excerpt that I think may be of special interest to readers of this blog.

That God can bestow efficacious grace was assumed by most older dogmaticians, whether Protestant or Catholic, who discussed the matter. But the Catholics were divided over the nature of efficacious grace. Adherents to the older Thomist and Augustinian tradition took such grace to differ in kind from so-called “merely sufficient grace” (which gave sinners all they needed for salvation other than the appropriate subjective act of will). Followers of Molina, however, held that efficacious grace does not differ in kind from sufficient grace, but differs only in virtue of the fortuitous situation the creature is placed in when receiving sufficient grace.

While volumes of scholastic theology have been written on this dispute, for our purposes a brief overview is sufficient. According to the Thomists and their Protestant followers, when God grants efficacious grace, what He does is guarantee conversion and regeneration by putting creatures in a state that influences their motives such that they have every reason to respond favorably to the offer of salvation and no reason not to. But if this is what efficacious grace involves, it raises important questions about the nature of creaturely freedom. Most significantly, one may wonder if efficacious grace is consistent with libertarian freedom—by which we mean, roughly, the power to act or not act on motives that incline but do not determine the will. Freedom in this libertarian sense exists only if, when one makes a choice, one could have chosen otherwise—that is, there is some possible world in which one chooses otherwise.

In affirming that God can grant efficacious grace, the Thomists did not mean thereby entirely to deny creatures freedom in something like this sense. Rather, they meant simply to limit its scope. Specifically, the Thomistic view is that what we call libertarian freedom is a coherent understanding of freedom only when the creature confronts conflicting motives for action. It does not extend to circumstances in which the creature has every reason to pursue a given course of action and no reason not to. Under such circumstances the Thomistic view is that the will of the creature is not merely inclined towards the given action but determined to do it. The action remains wholly voluntary, but there is no possible world in which an agent who has every motive to do A and no motive not to nevertheless refrains from doing A—and so, it seems, the action is determined even though voluntary, and so conforms to what is usually labeled “compatibilist freedom” by contemporary philosophers.

But it strikes us that this contemporary language implies something Thomists did not mean to imply—namely that there are two kinds of freedom, compatibilist and libertarian. We find it more in tune with Thomistic ideas to say that freedom simply operates differently under conditions of uniformity of motives than it does under conditions in which motives conflict. In the latter case, free choice looks like what we think of when we speak of libertarian freedom, whereas in the former case it looks like what we think of when we speak of compatibilist freedom.

If this is right, God could guarantee that the unregenerate freely-but-inevitably make the subjective choices necessary for salvation. For Thomists, this is the essence of how efficacious grace works: it brings all the creature’s motives into conformity with the choice of pursuing loving union with God above all things.

The Molinists, however, objected to the Thomistic view of efficacious grace because they took it that freedom has a libertarian character even under conditions of uniform motives. Granted this strong notion of libertarian freedom, it would initially seem impossible for God to give efficacious grace without first extinguishing the creature’s freedom. But the Molinists argued, on the contrary, that (i) God has middle knowledge, and (ii) for every rational creature there is a possible world in which she would freely (in the strong libertarian sense) respond favorably to God’s offer of salvation. That God has middle knowledge means He knows, for any creature X He might create, what X would freely do in any circumstance God might put X in. Thus God can give efficacious grace to X by creating that world in which He knows, by middle knowledge, that X would favorably respond to grace.

For a number of reasons we are unconvinced by this Molinist doctrine. First, we are not convinced that divine omniscience entails middle knowledge. It is not clear to us that, in the absence of an actual (libertarian) free choice made under an actual set of circumstances, there is any truth of the matter with respect to what the agent would freely choose in the libertarian sense. Furthermore, as William Lane Craig has shown, supposing that God does have middle knowledge does not, by itself, demonstrate that He can give efficacious grace. Hence, we will not argue here that efficacious grace is possible on the Molinist view of freedom. Given the strong libertarian perspective of the Molinists, we think a different argument for universalism (which we discuss in the next chapter), is more compelling than the argument from efficacious grace developed here.

In this chapter, then, we will argue that God has available to Him a morally permissible means of bringing it about that all a creature’s motives uniformly favor conversion. If so, then on a Thomistic view of freedom there is a morally permissible means for God to guarantee that all freely make the choices necessary for salvation.

So, is there a means whereby God could, without moral fault, bring about in a creature uniformity of salvation-inducing motives? To answer this, we think it may be helpful to develop a fuller picture of the Thomistic view of freedom by way of a contemporary philosopher—Thomas Talbott—whose thinking is very close on this matter to that of the Thomists.

Like the Thomists, Talbott insists that one cannot imagine anyone freely choosing what they have no motive to choose and every motive not to choose. Such a choice, for Talbott, is incoherent. If one is in a condition such that all of one’s motives converge on a single choice, then Talbott thinks this choice becomes inevitable.

On Talbott’s view such a choice may nevertheless be truly free—but only if certain conditions are met. Talbott argues that if ignorance or deception entails that one chooses based on misrepresentations of the alternatives (such that what one thinks one is choosing is different from what one is actually doing), then one’s freedom is impeded. And if controlling affective states entail that an agent is determined to choose one option even if informed deliberation would come down in favor of another, then the agent is “in bondage to desire” and, again, not truly free. But if someone is “freed from all ignorance, deception, and bondage to desire,” the agent’s choice is free even if all motives converge on a single option, thereby making the choice of that option inevitable.

But if all of this is right, then there will be different ways to produce conformity of motives, not all of which should be assessed in the same way. Consider the following case. Suppose Jenny grows up in a dystopian future where all children are fed a highly addictive drug from infancy. They are taught (falsely) that the drug is a medicine they need to stay healthy—while in fact it is used by a tyrannical regime to control the people. Given her addiction and beliefs, Jenny’s motives all converge on the choice to continue taking the drug. But insofar as this choice is governed by deception and addiction, it is not free in Talbott’s sense.

But suppose a resistance group reveals to Jenny the truth, so that she now knows the drug is harmful but remains addicted. She now has reason-based motives to stop taking the drug, but they are impotent because she is in bondage to her addiction. Perhaps the resistance gives her a counter-drug that weakens the strength of her addiction but does not shut down the cravings. Now, whenever she is in the vicinity of the drug, she faces an inner struggle. Sometimes, with the right help and support (and a bit of luck) she can resist her craving; but usually she falls prey to it, weeping in horror at her own weakness. At this point we might say she has some measure of freedom—but it remains constrained by the hold the drug continues to exert.

But then imagine the resistance group finds a way to break her addiction. Now she neither craves the drug nor thinks taking it is a good idea. Let’s suppose, further, that she has no other motive to continue taking it but many reasons not to: concern for her health and continued freedom from addiction, gratitude to her liberators, a desire to oppose the unjust regime, etc. Suppose, in other words, that once she is finally freed of her addiction all her motives converge on a single choice: not to take the drug. Even if this means (as Talbott and the Thomists believe) that her rejecting the drug is inevitable, we wouldn’t want to say her choice isn’t free. Rather, we’d say that, with respect to this issue, she is truly free for the first time.

This example shows, we think, that the “libertarian” and “compatibilist” labels are both inadequate for the sense of freedom that Talbott champions. Prior to help from the resistance, Jenny’s choice to take the drug would be free in the compatibilist sense—but not free in Talbott’s sense. After her final liberation, her choice to refuse the drug is free in Talbott’s sense—but not in the libertarian sense (which assumes the possibility of having chosen otherwise). What makes the choice free in the one case but not in the other is that reason is no longer impeded from playing the role it ought to play in decision-making. Hence, we think the best label for this conception of freedom is “rational freedom.” And given Aquinas’s emphasis on the natural ordering of the will to follow reason, we think such “rational freedom”—which treats only some cases of uniform motives determining one’s choices as free—best captures the Thomistic view.

Underlying this view of freedom are several presuppositions, which can be summarized as follows: (i) Values are objective, such that there are objectively good or best choices and objectively bad ones; (ii) the rational faculty makes judgments in accord with its finite grasp of this objective order of values; (iii) the will can be controlled by non-rational forces (such as addictions, childhood coping mechanisms, entrenched habits); (iv) the will is naturally ordered to choose in accord with rational judgments, such that in the absence of non-rational controlling factors the will always chooses in accord with reason.

These presuppositions imply, in brief, that the will is naturally ordered to follow reason (its “default setting,” if you will, even if the will can be reprogrammed), and that reason in turn is naturally ordered to discern the objective good. On this view, choices are free to the extent that both will and reason can operate in accord with their nature—that is, there is nothing (such as “ignorance, deception, or bondage to desire”) that impedes them from acting on their natural teleology. This, we think, captures the essence of freedom as it is understood both by the Thomists and, more recently, by Talbott.

In any event, what all of this shows is that one can bring about uniformity of motives both in ways that impede “rational” freedom and in ways that do not. As such, if efficacious grace is a divine act of producing uniformity of salvation-favoring motives in the unregenerate, this divine act may or may not impede freedom in the Thomistic sense—depending on whether this uniformity is produced by inducing false beliefs and/or affective states at odds with reason, or whether it is produced by revealing truth and removing affective barriers to acting on what reason discerns.

Given this perspective, the question is not only whether God can bring about uniformity of salvation-favoring motives in the unregenerate, but whether He can do so in a way that promotes rather than impedes rational freedom. In fact, we think it falls within the power of an omnipotent being to do both. Hence, not only do we think it is within God’s power to bestow efficacious grace. We think it is within God’s power to do so in a way that does not violate the freedom of the unregenerate—at least if “freedom” is understood in this Thomistic sense.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Blog Milestone

Well, not really. Since I just started monitoring blog statistics in June of this year, any statistical milestones are a bit arbitrary insofar as they only represent a few months of the blog's history. Still, it was cool to note that the blog hit 20,000 page views earlier today. If only my book would sell as many copies...

From the Archives: The Parable of the Spaceship

Last week, my philosophy of religion class considered pragmatic arguments for religious belief--including the arguments articulated by William James (especially in The Will to Believe). It so happens that the view of "faith" that I defend in Is God a Delusion? is very influenced by James's pragmatic approach. At one point, as I was writing the chapter on faith for the book, I wrote up a kind of parable that was intended to capture the Jamesian picture of our human predicament as it relates to religious belief (slightly modified to include, as part of the pragmatic dilemma humans confront, an important thematic distinction in my book, namely Plutarch's distinction between "religion" and "superstition"--or what might be better called the religion of hope and the religion of fear). The parable ended up not making it into the final book, but I did post it on the blog back in 2008, before the book even came out. Since many current readers of this blog have likely never seen it, and since it has bearing on what we've been doing recently in my class, I reprint it now:

Imagine that you abruptly wake up to find yourself on an enormous spaceship. Earth appears through one of the viewports as a diminishing globe—only less blue than it looks in the photos you’ve seen, as if you’re looking at it through a brownish film. You have no idea how you got here. You begin to explore, opening doors at random. You find a kitchen, an exercise room, several bedrooms, and other rooms with strange equipment. Some doors are locked.

As you explore, you begin to meet others who, like yourself, have no memory of how they got here. The first people you meet are a middle-aged woman named Jane, who reminds you of your favorite aunt, and a young man named Paul. Together you follow the sound of voices to what looks almost like a classroom. A dozen people have gathered there. You join them. More people trickle in, until your numbers swell to about fifty.

Eventually, several groups of intrepid explorers head off to see if they can learn more. Your own explorations are interrupted by a scream. Following the sound, you find a smashed-in door leading to a deep shaft. At the bottom is Paul, his neck obviously broken.

Having no way to reach him, you gather in the classroom with others who were close enough to hear the scream, and you await the return of the rest. After a time, one of them—whom you’ve learned is a college student named Joe—returns. He says he’s done a complete circuit of every level and found nobody else, certainly nothing like a crew. “If there are space aliens flying this thing, they’re hiding behind the locked doors.”

But then, a few minutes later, Jane returns, full of excitement. “I’ve met them!” she announces. People gather around. “Well, I didn’t actually see them. It’s like they exist in another dimension. But they were able to…talk to me…sort of. What they did was make pictures in my head. From what I could gather, there’s been some kind of catastrophe. A nuclear war, maybe. I think the aliens were studying Earth when it happened and decided to save as many of us as they could. There are dozens of ships, and they…beamed us up. I guess the process is disorienting. Wipes your short-term memory. Anyway, we’re being transported to a new home. They’ve used their technology to make the ship as comfortable as they could. But some doors are locked for our safety. We shouldn’t try to go in them.” Jane pauses and shrugs. “That’s it. And I’m not sure I got it all right. It was weird, all these pictures in my head.”

Her story elicits considerable heated discussion. Jane is shocked to hear about Paul’s fate, but takes it as evidence that her visions were honest. Someone points out that her experience sounds suspiciously like hallucinating. Someone else asks if she’s ever taken LSD, which elicits a few chuckles. Jane looks away, turning red, but doesn’t answer.

More explorers return without much to report. And then a frazzled young man, Chris, stumbles in. His story is similar to Jane’s, but with important differences. “They were getting in my head, man. Putting pictures there. Forcing me to see stuff I didn’t want to see. It’s like, I saw explosions, all over the planet. And then their ships were swooping down and suckin’ people up with beams of light. They destroyed the planet, man. Alien invasion! And now they’ve snagged a few of us and they’re taking us to some other place. We’re gonna be zoo exhibits.”

Jane shakes her head. “No, no. You’ve misunderstood.”

“This is nuts,” says Steve, a chemistry professor. “Space aliens? I doubt it. This is some kind of experiment. Someone perfectly human has built this thing to test our psychological reactions or something. These…visions…are probably some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion.”

As hours stretch into days, people stake out bedrooms and establish routines. Steve leads a cadre of “investigators” in a systematic exploration of the ship. They map and describe it, and eventually call a meeting where they report their discoveries. One significant discovery is a room where they can regulate the ship’s temperature, humidity, and light levels. They also note that some of the unlocked rooms contain dangerous machines. “Joe nearly got electrocuted,” Steve explains. “And the nearest kitchen is running low on food. We’re gonna need to find some other food source pretty soon.”

“But what does it mean?” you ask. “Why are we here? Are we zoo specimens taken by hostile aliens, or refugees rescued by friendly ones? Or lab rats in some experiment?”

Joe shrugs. “Who knows? All we can do is describe what this place is like. If you want to know what it all means, ask the mystics over there.” He points to Jane and Chris.

“The mystics are idiots,” Steve snaps. “If we’re gonna survive we need to figure this out.”

“Maybe we can’t,” says Jane.

“Yes, we can. There’s a perfectly…human explanation for all this. We just need more information. We need to break down those locked doors.’”

“No way, man!” Chris rises to his feet, looking fierce.

“Chris is right,” says Jane. “They’re locked for our safety.”

“So says mystic Jane.”

“But remember what happened the first day. That young man who broke his neck.”

“Paul was a reckless idiot. We’ll be careful. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on.”

“I’ve told you what’s going on. They talked to me.”

“Convenient that they only talked to you.”

“Chris, too. Maybe only some minds are receptive.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Let’s suppose they did communicate with you. Some kind of woo-woo ESP. Why should we trust them? They sucked us from our homes.”

“To save our lives.”

“So says mystic Jane. Mystic Chris has a different interpretation, as I recall.”

“If we need more information,” Jane says, “let’s try to communicate with them again. I was in that room with all the pillows—the meditation room—when they first contacted me. Let’s go back there, try talking to them.”

“A waste of time,” Steve huffs. “If they exist at all, they obviously can’t or won’t do more than put pictures in the heads of a couple of screwballs.”

Jane sighs in frustration. “It’s hard to understand them, but I think they exhausted their ability to affect our dimension when they altered the ship to make it suitable for us. But that doesn’t mean they’re not helping. They can still get the ship to its destination. The drive systems operate in both their dimension and ours.”

“How convenient.” Joe shakes his head. “If you’re right, they might as well not exist as far as life on this ship is concerned. If we’re going to deal with that, we need to help ourselves. Let’s figure out how the ship works, what the dangers are, how to control them. I’m with Steve. We gotta start breaking down doors.”

“They’ll kill us, man,” Chris says. “Just like they took out Paul. You start going where they don’t want us to go, they’ll get mad. They’ll blast us. Not just you. These bastards are nasty. They’ll take it out on all of us.”

“Yeah, right,” says Steve.

“I’m serious, man. We gotta keep these buggers happy. We’re in their power. You start opening doors, I’m gonna have to stop you, man.”

“Just try it.” Steve looks around the room. “Who’s with me?” he says again.

And now, finally, the moment is here. You have to decide what to do. Do you join Steve and start breaking down doors? Do you join Jane in the meditation room? Do you join Chris in trying to stop Steve? Do you decide to ignore all of them and head to the kitchen for some soup?

Let’s suppose you like Jane. She seems a decent person, and her story of what is happening is certainly more attractive than Chris’s. If she’s right, then going to the meditation room with her might uncover some new insight. And so you decide to go, in the hope that her story is on the right track, that there are benevolent aliens guiding the ship, aliens you can trust.

Suppose you go with Jane. Suppose that while you’re sitting in the meditation room, silently asking for the aliens to speak to you, you experience a momentary glimmer of something. It feels like someone is there, except that you can’t see or hear anything. Jane, meanwhile, is ecstatic. “They’re talking!” she says. “They’re worried about Steve and Chris. They don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

The feeling you have might just be the power of suggestion. Jane might be hallucinating. For all you know, Steve might be right about things, or Chris. There’s no evidence that clearly speaks one way or the other. But you’ve sensed something. You trusted Jane enough to follow her to the meditation room, and it produced what felt like contact with someone. You could shrug and walk away. Go get soup. Maybe Jane’s delusion is just rubbing off on you. But you hope otherwise.

You turn to Jane. “What’s it like? Talking to them?”

“Wonderful,” she says. “They want to know us, to be our friends. And it makes it so much better, knowing they’re there and mean us well. You know? It’s all so frightening, otherwise.” She sighs. “Do you hear them at all?”

“I thought, maybe, a little.”

She smiles. “It’s a start. Keep listening for them. In the meantime, just know you can trust them.”

Let’s suppose you do just as she says. Suppose that you orient your life aboard ship in terms of Jane’s teachings, in the hope that she’s right. You decide, out of hope, to live as if her teachings are true. But since her teachings are about benevolent aliens who are looking out for the denizens of the ship, orienting your life in terms of those teachings means trusting the aliens Jane says are there.

And this means rejecting Chris’ claims about nasty aliens that need to be appeased on pain of retaliation. While it doesn’t mean blocking Steve and his group from finding out what they can about the ship, and while it certainly doesn't mean rejecting their findings, it might mean taking seriously the idea that the locked doors are locked for a good reason. But mostly, it means two things: continuing the practice of listening for their voices in the hope that a relationship with them will be possible, and finding some comfort in the promise that the ship is taking you, in the end, to a safe harbor.

And here is the question: Could a morally decent, reasonable person follow this path? If you apply the reasoning of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to this parable, the answer would seem to be no. After all, Jane is training people to believe beyond the evidence, and therefore priming them to become followers of Chris and his extremism. Right?

Or have Dawkins and Harris missed something important?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Therapeutic Fiction

When I woke up this morning, I thought about writing a blog post about the election results—more precisely, about the results of the Oklahoma State Questions, and about what an ethic of love and hospitality and compassion would say about, for example, a proposal to needlessly prohibit what is already prohibited by the US Constitution, in a state where there isn’t even the remotest likelihood that any judge will be tempted to rely on Muslim Sharia law, where the only possible function of a such a proposal would be to give voters a chance to say “F*&%@ you!” to our Muslim neighbors from the polling booth. Or about the “English only” question…

But by this time my blood was starting to boil. And so when I got to my office, instead of working myself up into a fit by fixating on the election results, I went to “My Documents,” found the folder called “Fiction,” and opened a document entitle “Christmas Sleigh Novel.” I set to work on revising the opening scene, then added a new scene in the middle, bringing alive a section that had always seemed a bit drab. I allowed myself to spend the entire morning on it. Since I’d just finished a draft of Chapter 5 of That Damned Book on Hell yesterday, I gave myself permission to engage in some therapeutic play.

This is what fiction-writing has always been for me. I write philosophy because I am passionate about ideas and arguments, because I want to wrestle with the meaning of life head-on. Of course, ideas and arguments and issues of meaning are also at work in fiction, but they play out in a different way. In fiction, if your aim is to make a systematic and compelling case for a thesis, your work descends into preachiness. In fiction your job isn’t to make a case but to tell a story.

And somehow the process of doing that has become, for me, a therapeutic exercise. A couple of years ago I was called upon to reflect explicitly on this therapeutic dimension of my fiction when one of my stories won the Crème-de-la-Crème Award of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation. I was asked to write a short article about the story and what it meant to win, and this led me to reflect on the story’s origins and its significance.

“Malaguena” is about a teenage girl whose family duties included cleaning the apartment of a stroke-stricken aunt. The old woman so disgusts her that she treats her as little more than a thing, but by the end of the story she is moved to connect with her on a human level, extending a gesture of respect.

It’s fiction, but the story has its origins in my own past. Years ago I had a summer job as a nursing assistant for a home nursing service in Oslo, Norway. One of my tasks was to clean the apartment of an old, stroke-ridden woman. But I never did treat her as more than a thing. She’d sit there on the sofa while I cleaned, half-naked, scattering ashes on her bathrobe as she chain-smoked. I tried to pretend she wasn’t there, praying she’d return the favor. But sometimes there’d be something she wanted. Since she couldn’t speak, she’d grunt at me and gesture wildly, trying to communicate. But I’d never figure out what she meant. She’d lapse into silence, and I’d leave.

For years I felt the weight of my inadequacy. And finally, long after that woman’s death, I wrote this story about a teenage girl, inadequate in many of the ways that I was inadequate, who somehow realized that what she needed to do was a simple act of affirmation, an acknowledgement of her aunt’s humanity. The story, in turn, became my effort to acknowledge and affirm the humanity of that woman I had tried not to look at while I cleaned her home. It became, in other words, an act of self-forgiveness.

But there’s a more generic way in which writing fiction is therapeutic. When I get outraged by current events, tinkering with a story can help restore balance. Perhaps it’s the details of the task—toying with word choices, cutting out the fat, fretting over whether a bit of dialogue sounds authentic. Perhaps it’s the struggle to get in touch with the sympathetically human in each of the characters, even the least sympathetic of them. Perhaps writing fiction expands my capacity for compassion, and so helps to quiet the anger and outrage that has the power to so disturb my inner peace. Perhaps it’s just that fiction is less about my ego than is philosophy. As a philosopher by profession, I’m supposed to be good at it, and so my inevitable inadequacies become something to beat myself up about. With fiction I can just write. If a story wins an award or gets published, it’s something to be celebrated rather than something only to be expected.

If that's writing, then part of the therapeutic value of writing fiction probably will be lost were it to become something other than a hobby.

For a couple of years now, I’ve spent the months leading up to Christmas tinkering with a Christmas novel. It was actually born as a short story back in the ‘90’s, when I was a visiting assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University. The author-in-residence at PLU, Jack Cady (a wonderful writer, by the way), became a champion of the story. But it was long as short stories go. Not quite novella length, but longer than most editors would be comfortable devoting to a story by an unpublished writer. When I sent it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the story had fantasy themes), Jack sent a note along with it to the editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, whom he knew.

It didn’t get the story published, but I’m sure his note had something to do with the fact that, a few months later, Ms. Rusch bought another story of mine, “Faery Storm.” The Christmas story, however, languished. Jack suggested that I expand it, maybe into a short novel. But at that point my visiting position at PLU came to an end. I found myself temping at a bank to make ends meet while trying to find an academic philosophy position in a very tight market. For years after that, my life became about my philosophy career—about landing that tenure track job, then about getting published, getting tenure. There was no time for fiction.

A few years back, after getting tenure, I started writing fiction again in my free time. And one of the things I did was brush off the Christmas story and begin to think about how to expand it into a novel. My first effort was, I must concede, an utter failure. I had the idea of framing the story in something like the way that John Irving did in A Prayer for Owen Meany—with an adult narrator alternating between rather drab accounts of his present life and colorful recollections from his childhood.

This was powerfully effective in Owen Meany. All the vibrancy and vitality of the narrator’s childhood recollections become focused in his best friend, Owen Meany, and all of that vibrancy and vitality comes into sharp contrast with the dull grey existence of the narrator’s adult life, a world in which Owen Meany is absent. And so, when at last Owen’s inevitable death is told, readers feel as if they are being cast into this colorless, pro forma existence—the world as it is without Owen.

I had visions of doing something like that—except to have the key events of the story take place in the present, so that the adult narrator can redeem his life despite the loss of his sister all those years ago, and despite his own guilt about her death.

This just didn’t work. The narrator was transformed into this stunted adolescent you just couldn’t identify with. It’s hard to empathize with the plight of someone who should have dealt with these issues decades ago, before they turned him into an a**hole. Of course, Dickens was able to pull off something of this sort with Scrooge. That has something to do with Dickens’ genius, but also (I think) with the third-person-omniscient point of view that authors of the era were able to adopt (but which is pretty much off the table today).

Had this been a problem in my philosophical work, it would’ve kept me up at night. But instead, it was just an interesting puzzle. How do I make the story work?

Last year, as the holiday season approached, I dusted off the story again and wrestled with the problem. And then, abruptly, I thought, “If the problem is that the narrator should have dealt with these issues before they turned him into an a**hole, then, well, I should have him deal with these issues before they turn him into an a**hole.” That is, make him a teenager, two years out from his sister’s death, still wrestling with the imminence of guilt and loss.

The result was an enormous improvement. But it still…wasn’t…quite…there. Nevertheless I talked with an agent (who mainly represents young adult novels) at last spring’s Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Conference. He asked to see the manuscript, kept it for a couple of months, then finally wrote a note declining to represent the manuscript “despite its obvious merits.”

In other words: It’s got promise, but it’s still…not…quite…there.

I was, of course, disappointed. But in a strange way this makes me happy. Because it means I still have this story to work on as the holiday season approaches. It means that my fiction-writing remains free of the expectations that I place on my other work. For now, at least, it remains just a kind of therapeutic play.

And right now, after the results of yesterday’s election, I need all the therapy I can get.