Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Empirical Evidence Linking Moral Relativism with Openness?

A few months back, The Philosopher's Magazine published an article reflecting on some recent "experimental philosophy" exploring the relationship between personality and the propensity to be an "objectivist" or "relativist" about morality. I want to reflect a little bit on what conclusions, if any, can be reached based on the research discussed by Joshua Knobe in the article (some of it his own research, some of it the research on which he based his own).

The following passage captures a key dimension of the experimental work on which Knobe basis his own work:
For a nice example from recent research, consider a study by Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely. They were interested in the relationship between belief in moral relativism and the personality trait openness to experience. Accordingly, they conducted a study in which they measured both openness to experience and belief in moral relativism. To get at people’s degree of openness to experience, they used a standard measure designed by researchers in personality psychology. To get at people’s agreement with moral relativism, they told participants about two characters – John and Fred – who held opposite opinions about whether some given act was morally bad. Participants were then asked whether one of these two characters had to be wrong (the objectivist answer) or whether it could be that neither of them was wrong (the relativist answer). What they found was a quite surprising result. It just wasn’t the case that participants overwhelmingly favoured the objectivist answer. Instead, people’s answers were correlated with their personality traits. The higher a participant was in openness to experience, the more likely that participant was to give a relativist answer.
It is the lessons from this research that I want to focus on in the present post. I may return in a later post to a discussion of Knobe's own research, but for now the Feltz/Cokely research outlined above gives plenty of material to chew on.

One of the questions I have about this research is what the researchers mean by "objectivist" and "relativist." Knobe attempts to capture this distinction in the following way: "Should we say that there is a single right answer and anyone who says the opposite must be mistaken, or should we say that different answers could be right for different people? In other words, should we say that morality is something objective or something relative?"

Part of the problem with framing the distinction in these terms is that it runs the risk of conflating two different distinctions: the distinction between absolutism and context-dependence, and the distinction between objectivism and subjectivism. Although I explored these distinctions at length in an earlier post, a brief reminder seems warranted here. An absolutist on a certain matter thinks that something is true under all conditions, as opposed to thinking that what is true depends on a range of valiables and so may vary from one circumstance to another. The latter position is sometimes referred to as "relativism." On this understanding of relativism, the boiling point of water is a relative truth insofar as the temperature at which water boils varies relative to such variables as purity and atmospheric pressure.

But sometimes the term "relativism" is used as a synonym for what I call "subjectivism." Subjectivism is opposed to objectivism. The objectivist with respect to some field of discourse holds that the truth-maker for a claim within that field of discourse is not reducible to the subjective preferences, attitudes, or emotional dispositions of the individual making the claim. The truth-maker (to put it in helpful if slightly misleading terms) is "something out there, rather than something in my head." The subjectivist, by contrast, thinks that the truth-maker is something in one's head. With respect to ethics, the ethical subjectivist thinks that the truth-maker for moral claims is a subjective attitude of approval towards that which is given a positive moral evaluation, or a subjective attitude of disapproval towards that which is given a negative evaluation. In short, ethical subjectivism makes moral truth relative to the subjective attitudes of individuals.

But notice that while the temperature at which water boils is relative to atmospheric pressure and purity, it is not relative to the subjective attitudes, preferences, and emotional dispositions of the person making a pronouncement about said boiling point. Water's boiling point is what it is, regardless of what one happens to think or feel about it. As such, a claim about the boiling point of water is objective. But it is not absolute, since the boiling point of water is context-dependent. Likewise, moral truth might turn out to be context-dependent but not simply a function of whatever subjective attitudes an individual happens to have.

Now if you had to read through the preceding a couple of times to get the distinctions clear your head, you are not alone. Through years of teaching undergraduates, I know just how easily these distinctions can get muddled together. And when they do get muddled, it is easy (for example) for people to reject objectivism because they are deeply bothered by absolutism, and because they think the only way to set aside the latter is to set aside the former. Even when these distinctions are laid out with painstaking precision, people sometimes lose sight of them.

To see this point, let's breifly consider another common meaning of the term "relativism." Sometimes, this term is used as short-hand for cultural relativism, a theory which holds that morality is determined by a kind of cultural consensus as embodied in a cultures customs--and as such that moral truth varies from one culture to another depending on what is customary. But the theory of cultural relativism is itself often confused with other theoretic frameworks, ones which make culture an important contextual variable for the determination of what is moral without making it the foundation for moral truth.

For example, One might hold--as utilitarians do--that the morality of an action is determined by its effect on aggregate human interests, whatever those interests happen to be. In simplest terms (oversimplified terms, really, but pedagogically useful nevertheless), X is right if X does the best job of satisfying the most interests of everyone affected.

If you think that, then you're not a cultural relativist in the sense defined above. After all, you don't believe that cultural consensus, as embodied in custom, determines what is right and wrong. You believe that the effect of actions on aggregative interest-satisfaction determes what is right and wrong...and what satisfies the most interests might not be what custom dictates. Nevertheless, if you are a utilitarian, you will believe that specific moral obligations will depend on a number of variables, including cultural custom. Among other things, the customs with which you were raised will profoundly influence the interests you come to have. And since the utilitarian thinks morality is found in maximizing interest-satisfactions, the utilitarian will therefore be convinced that specific obligations will vary according to cultural context.

Other theoretic perspectives--objectivist but context-dependent ones--produce a similar result: one of the variables that affects our specific moral obligations is culture, even though the foundation for morality is not taken to be culture. From years of teaching experience, I know that students often mistake their own objectivist but context-dependent theoretic perspectives with cultural relativism. They think they are relativists because they don't make all the distinctions they need to make--and once they do make these distinctions, they realize they aren't relativists after all. In other words, what people "think they think"--that is, what theory they think best captures their ideas, commitments, experiences, etc.--isn't always what they actually think (what theory actually fits best with their ideas, commitments, experiences, etc.).

As such, we need to distinguish between giving an accurate account of the patterns that someone's thinking follows, and asking people what they think. The latter may not conform to the former. That people think they are relativists doesn't mean they think and speak and act like relativists. And that people give one answer to a difficult philosophical question because it seems to them to fit better with how they think doesn't mean that the answer they choose really does fit better with how they think. People get themselves wrong a lot.

To appreciate this point more deeply, I want to share here a true-false question I have occasionally used on tests in the past. It is one that I don't use anymore, because the error rate is so high. Here's how it goes:
Consider the following statement: "We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion on moral matters. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about morality." Someone who makes this statement is most likely an ethical subjectivist.

Now the correct answer to this question is....FALSE. (Did you get it right?) Ethical subjectivism is the view that moral truth is subjective in the way that matters of taste are subjective. Food is tasty just in case you happen to like it. Likewise, according to ethical subjectivism, rape is wrong just in case you happen to disapprove of it. What makes a moral claim true or false, on this theory, is whether it corresponds to the attitudes and preferences of the person expressing the view.

Given that definition, can you see why a person making the statement above is not endorsing ethical subjectivism, but on the contrary presupposing that ethical subjectivism is false? In fact, there are multiple ways in which this hypothetical speaker is saying things at odds with ethical subjectivism. First off, this statement begins by making a claim about how people ought to behave--a moral claim if ever there was one. We should be respectful of differing opinions. It would be wrong not to. But does the speaker justify this claim by then saying, "This is true because I happen to have a subjective attitude of approval towards being respectful of people with differing moral opinions"?

No. If the speaker were really an ethical subjectivist, that would be the only relevant consideration. If the relevant attitude is there, then the statement is true...for that speaker, at least. For someone who delights in intolerance towards people with differing moral views, the statement would be false.

But instead of justifying the statement by reference to subjective attitudes, the speaker instead offers reasons to accept the moral claim--reasons that are put forward as if they might convince someone with an initially different attitude. In effect, the speaker is saying, "Here are some reasons offered in support of my moral judgment--reasons which I offer because I think they might be relevant in the thinking of someone who isn't sure they agree with me." Offering such reasons makes no sense if ethical judgments such as "We should be respectful of everyone's opinion on moral matters" are wholly subjective, true if one happens to have an attitude of approval towards showing such respect, false if not. To be an ethical subjectivist is to hold that, if you happen to approve of being disrespectful of people with different moral opinions than your own, they you should absulutley go ahead and be as disrespectful as you please. That would be the right thing for you.

At best, an ethical subjectivist who offered reasons such as this would be engaged in deceptive manipulation--trying to convince you that you have reasons to believe something that there are no reasons for you to believe, and hoping you'll buy it. This is one important outcome of ethical subjectivism: If moral truth is determined by whatever subjective attitude you happen to have, then your moral opinion is true so long as it conforms to your attitudes, and there is therefore no reason for you to change your opinion.

Of course, concern for consistency might inspire you to iron out internal discrepancies among your subjective attitudes. As such, if someone points out such a discrepancy, that might count as a reason to change your opinion. But which opinion do you change? If you harbor attitude A, and I argue that it is inconsistent with attitude B, that isn't a reason to change A as such, since you could just as readily modify B.

And why should I care about consistency anyway? When it comes to objective matters, consistency is a guide towards truth: If my views involve a contradiction, they can't be wholly true. But when it comes to my subjective attitudes, what's wrong with a bit of contradiction? Approve of A and disapprove of B, even though B imples A. So what? What's wrong with my attitudes being all over the map? There is no truth out there that I'm losing out on by sitting happily in my contradictions, so why bother eliminating them? Because...what, inconsistency is bad? Only if I adopt a negative attitude towards it (on subjectivist assumptions). Why shouldn't I just delight in my own inconsistency, thereby making it good?

But be all of that as it may, there is another reason why the statement from my abandoned test question isn't the statement of an ethical subjectivist. The reason the speaker gives in support of respecting divergent moral voices is one that just doesn't make sense if ethical subjectivism is true. Given ethical subjectivism, what is there to learn about what is right and wrong by paying open-minded attention to people who disagree with you? I might learn that you have such-and-such moral attitude (making such-and-such moral judgment "true for you"), but I can't learn anything about what is moral by engaging in respectful critical discourse with people who have different moral views. I certainly won't make progress in my understanding of morality (since I've already got it right so long as I'm in line with my own attitudes). What's the point of being "open-minded" about moral opinions if the moral opinion I happen to have is right for me regardless of the moral opinion you happen to have? Will you offer reasons for your moral opinions that will require me to rethink my own in a substantive way? No (for reasons already addressed).

In other words, there is nothing in the statement to suggest that the speaker is an ethical subjectivist, and much that is at odds with ethical subjectivism. But people get so fuzzy about the relevant concepts that even when they're taking a course on it, they will mistake a statement which is hardly coherent given ethical subjectivism as an endorsement of ethical subjectivism.

In the face of such muddiness--and in the face of the fact that the objectivist/relativist distinction used in the study invites muddiness by failing to clarify all the relevant distinctions that need to be made--what can we conclude about the study's reliability in correlating views on ethics with personality?

Instead of answering this, let me share one more thing about my true-false question--more specifically, about the statement embedded within it: "We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion on moral matters. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about morality." Although I've stopped using this as a true-false question, I still make use of it in class, as a teaching aid for clarifying ethical subjectivism. One thing I do is read the statement in class and ask students whether they agree or disagree with it.

I think a slight majority agree with the statement--and in my experience, the ones who seem to be most "open to new experiences" are the most likely to agree with it (of course, this isn't a controlled experiment, so you'll have to treat this as anecdotal evidence that calls for further study rather than as proof of anything in its own right). When I ask those who disagree with the statement why they disagree, they don't disagree because they are ethical subjectivists--because the statement implicitly rejects the subjectivism they embrace. They disagree for reasons such as the following (while not direct quotes, these come as close to direct quotation as I can get operating from memory):

"Some people's moral opinions don't deserve respect."

"Some people, like Nazis, are blinded to what is right and wrong, so you can't learn anything from them."

In other words, there are those in my class who agree with this statement--hence implying implicit agreement with the ethical objectivism that it presupposes. And then there are those who disagree with it--grounding their disagreement in ethical objectivism. None have, so far, rejected the statment based on the fact that it implicitly denies subjectivism. So, based on their answers to this question, we can assume that all of my students are ethical objectivists--including the open-minded ones, none of whom reject the statement because of its implicit objectivism. Right?

Well, maybe not. Let me put it this way. Who do you think is more likely to agree with the statement extracted from my true-false question: Someone inclined to "open their minds to alternative perspectives" (Knobe's language), or someone not so inclined? Of course, the statement is an endorsement of the importance of opening one's mind to alternative perspectives on moral matters--and so is nicely geared towards getting people so inclined to agree with it. Since the statement makes sense only if we assume some level of objectivism, does it follow that most of those inclined to open their minds to alternative perspectives are objectivists? Or is it more that they are drawn to the open-mindedness expressed in the statement, regardless of where it falls on the objectivism/subjectivism/relativism divide?

Perhaps the reason why, in the Feltz/Cokely study, the researchers found a correlation between the supposedly "objectivist" option and openness to new experiences was because the objectivist option was the one that sounded more open-minded. I wonder what the results would have been if the research subjects had been asked whether or not they agree with the following statement: "There is no point in listening attentively to people who have different moral opinions than you do, because whatever you happen to already believe to be moral is moral for you anyway, so you can just ignore what other people have to say with no loss." In this case, of course, agreeing with the statement is agreeing explicitly with subjectivism, and disagreeing with it would be the "objectivist" position. But in this case, agreeing with the statement is agreeing with something that sounds really close-minded--and hence would be a turn-off for those students whose personality type falls under the "openness to new experiences" heading.

My point is that how we phrase our questions, and how we classify our answers, likely plays a big role in what sorts of conclusions we can legitimately reach about this (and similar) experimental philosophy studies. A "relativist" option that sounds more open-minded than an "objectivist" option might be attracting those with open-minded personalities because of the open-mindedness it seems to espouse, rather than because of its relativism. And if so, then when the "objectivist" option sounds more open-minded, it will be the objectivist answer that draws the endorsement of those very same personality types. Nothing in the Feltz/Cokely study rules this out. As such, the conclusions Knobe wants to draw from this study strike me as unwarranted.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

And Here They Are: Cover Options for GOD'S FINAL VICTORY

Below, you will find a number of cover options for the new book. John and I have narrowed it down to a couple of favorites, but I won't divulge them yet so as not to prejudice your assessments. Let me know your favorites. Here they are, in essentially random order (you can click on each to enlarge):

Option 1:

Option 2:

Option 3:

Option 4:

Option 5:

Option 6:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Cover Options...

Speaking of the new book, John and I have received suggested covers from our editor, and I got the go-ahead to post some of the alternatives here to solicit feedback from readers. Unfortunately, I received the sample covers in Adobe pdf format and cannot figure out how to post them to blogger. Using the "Insert image" option doesn't work, and cutting-and-pasting doesn't work (once in blogger it doesn't give me the option to paste). If anyone know how to transfer images to a blog post in blogger, let me know.

Since internet has not been turned on yet at the new house and I'm heading home from the office now to continue the task of unpacking, you won't see the sample images until tomorrow even if someone can walk me through the process. But assuming no devastating effects of the predicted massive tornado outbreak that's supposed to hit central Oklahoma this afternoon, I'll be back at the office in the morning and will try again then.

Wow...That Was Fast. New Book Critiquing Bell

The first book (that I know of) directly responding to Rob Bell's quasi-universalism is already available for purchase. It's Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell's Love Wins, by Michael E. Wittmer. Wittmer must have had an advance copy of the book...

In other news, my and John's book, God's Final Victory, is due for release in September--too late, perhaps, to ride Bell's coattails to super-bestsellerdom, but not too late to offer a fresh defense of universalism in reply to the potential wave of attacks on universalism prompted by Bell's book. Or so one might hope.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Shades of Toemageddon: Princess Parties and Gender Intolerance

Sometimes, the lives of ordinary, mild-mannered philosophers mirror the madness of media melodrama. Not long ago on this blog, I talked about one such case of media melodrama: The Fox-News Induced Toemageddon. And a few weeks back, as if to mock me for mocking Toemageddon's gravity, I came face to face with my own little variant of it.

I was grading term papers in the corner of a local restaurant when the controversy broke--in the form of a text message from my wife. Between spoonfuls of French onion soup I hissed out a fiercely eloquent diatribe—under my breath, of course, but I’m sure nearby patrons were nervously gauging the distance to the nearest exit.

The message started with the confession that my wife was so angry she “couldn’t see straight.” And then she told me why. The tale that emerged was one about judgment, and about my son—my beautiful, almost-eight-year-old son...who, it so happens, had worn a dress to his sister’s fifth birthday party the day before.

You see, my daughter had a “Princess” themed birthday party in the back room of a local ice cream place, and everyone was invited to come dressed as a princess. My son, a thespian to the core, wasn’t going to be left out. We did suggest the option of going as a prince, or in some other costume. "No," he replied. "I'm going as a princess."

(He then asked me to take him wig shopping. I refused.)

Just before we left for the party, my wife took him aside to point out that there were going to be a couple of older girls there, and some of them might laugh at him. This did not deter him. In addition to being a thespian, my son is a very savvy social operator in his own peer group. He knows how to face down seven-year-olds who have the temerity to question his party attire. And so, off we went with two princesses in the back of the minivan--one of them with a crew cut.

An older girl at the party did, in fact, laugh at him. He didn't care. And halfway through the party he shed the princess dress (which was "scratchy") in favor of the shorts and t-shirt he was wearing underneath. We all had fun, ate ice cream cake, opened presents, and went home. Best of all, I had an extended excuse to put off grading.

Now I'm not going to tell you who it was that questioned our parenting skills on the basis of this series of events, because it's none of your business (and few readers of this blog would know the relevant players anyway). But I do want to talk about the nature of the charges against us. They featured two ideas: first, that we were threatening our son's "healthy development" by allowing him to attend his sister's pre-K party in a dress; second, that we were setting him up for bullying.

Now let me be clear about something. My son is entirely comfortable in his own skin. In other words, he shows no signs of being transgendered in the sense of feeling like a female trapped in a male body. And while he doesn't slavishly conform to traditional gender roles (he's loved dance since the age of two, and he's as utterly indifferent to baseball as his father is), he far prefers Shrek to Sleeping Beauty. He delights in a good fart joke, and he can spend hours entertaining himself by combining baking soda and vinegar in a ziplock back, sealing it, and waiting for the explosion. On Sunday mornings, he neither wants to wear a dress to church nor envies his sister for being able to do so. He's a little boy, and he doesn't dream of being a little girl.

But he's also a performer, and dress-up is one of his favorite activities. Our daughter always dresses as a princess, but my son is more ecclectic. He'll dress as a vampire or pirate or dragon or witch, or as some kind of wierd clown-monster hybrid...or as a princess. Whatever strikes his fancy. He takes on a role and plays it to the hilt.

But if my son were transgendered, taking a hard line against wearing a dress wouldn't change that. Imposing strict gender role expectations on children whose native sexualities defy those gender roles is a recipe for suppression, for relationships based on pretense and fear of rejection rather than on honesty and trust. You might succeed in producing women-trapped-in-men's-bodies who pretend to be mountain men, out of the conviction that those close to them can't possibly love them for who they really are. You won't produce healthy, well-adjusted mountain men.

My theory is this: Attend to who your child is, and then support them in becoming the best example of that sort of person they can be. If your child is a budding mountain man, then by all means help him to become the best mountain man he can be. But if your child is a budding ballet dancer, trying to turn him into a mountain man is just a way of telling him that you don't love him. What you love is some human template he can only pretend to fill.

To put on a dress for his little sister's Princess party--well, that's part of who my son is. Casting off the dress halfway through the party--well, that's also part of who he is. For him, it was no big deal. A game he played for about an hour. But it would have been a big deal if (as some apparently think a good father would have done) I'd "put my foot down" and refused to allow him to wear a princess constume to a princess party where the invitation specifically encouraged the wearing of princess dresses. That would have driven home a message--a message about gender, about the rigidity of gender roles and the importance of enforcing them, even at the cost of stifling innocent childhood play. If he internalized that message, I think it would kill some beautiful part of who my son is.

But what about the specter of bullying? Let me say that I do worry about that with my son. He is, after all, small for his age. And brilliant. And he's a dancer. When he was two we watched the Tony awards as a family and he was transfixed by the dance numbers. He pointed excitedly at the screen and said, "Mommy! Daddy! I go there!" He begged to start dance lessons, and so my wife called around only to learn that the earliest they started children in dance was three. She told him as much. Close to a year later, on his third birthday, he suddenly announced, "I'm three now! Now I can start dance lessons!"

He's been dancing ever since. It hasn't always been easy, here in Oklahoma. He is, as of this moment, the only boy in his entire dance studio. A couple of years ago he almost quit, when he first became conscious of the gender-based judgments. (Once, a father and son were waiting in the lobby when he walked by in his leotard. The son said, "I didn't know boys danced." The father replied, harshly, "They don't!") But my son isn't immune to the benefits of being the only boy. And no, I'm not talking about the ones which will likely become obvious to him in a few years. I'm talking about the fact that he's a novelty, and so is more likely to get top billing. This year, his ballet class performed a number to music from the Peter Pan movie. Guess who was Peter Pan?

So I do worry about bullying. I find it horrible to think that my son might be targeted because of strict gender-role expectations that have no room for a boy doing what my son loves to do. And I find it especially pernicious that other children may become the agents of that intolerance, enforcing rigid gender dichotomies through peer teasing and bullying.

But if I were to prohibit my child from dancing, or from taking engaging in some playful bonding with his little sister on her birthday, out of fear of such teasing and bullying, the I would become the enforcer of the very social intolerance I oppose. By "putting my foot down," I'd only be bringing the bullying home.

If you are concerned about your child being the target of intolerance, because your child is unique in some special way, the solution is not to pre-emptively practice intolerance yourself out of fear that if you don't do it someone else will. The solution is to be your child's advocate in the face of intolerance. That is the kind of parenting that promotes healthy development.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Adventurer's Life

Some followers of this blog may have noticed the sudden dearth of new postings on this blog. There are numerous things I want to write about. In fact, I'm practically itching to do so.

But having just passed through finals week, a writers' conference, "the birthday gauntlet" (my wife and kids have their birthdays within a couple of weeks of each other), and the end-of-year dance recitals for my kids, I'm now in the final stages of packing up my entire house to move across town...while teaching an intensive three-week intercession course. In the midst of all this, on Sunday my wife's uncle passed away.

This doesn't leave me much time for the blog. But I want to say a few words about my wife's "Gunkle," Otis.

While clearing out a back closet on Sunday, hours after his death, I pulled down a plaque that was just the right size to fit in the box I was packing--and so I almost didn't look at it. But as I was slipping it into the box, in the space that was just exactly the right fit, I saw the words etched into the metal surface. It was a plaque inducting Otis, aka "Jingles the Clown", into the Clowning Hall of Fame.

I stood there holding the plaque, and I had a sudden, vivid memory of sitting in Otis's cluttered living room as he fit a clown wig and red nose onto my then-three-year-old son's head. Somewhere we have a picture of my son wearing that wig and nose. And, of course, I found myself choking back tears.

When I first met Otis, it was after he'd been essentially immobilized by strokes and other health problems. He'd moved in with his mother, who was in her late 80's at the time, and they kept each other company. He would sit in the sofa (or, later, in his bed at the nursing home) doling out laughter and gifts (mostly little trinkets meant as expressions of affection). When his mother (my wife's "Gaumi") passed away a few years ago, he lived alone in the same little apartment, mostly on that same sofa with a a view of the front door and the people who walked by.

But from stories and photographs, I knew that this man had once been an adventurer in the truest sense of the word, an explorer who traveled the world, who climbed mountains and forged his way into remote jungles. He collected treasures and trinkets and junk from everywhere he traveled (and from mail-order catalogues when travel was no longer possible--a fact that created quite a burden for my wife when he finally moved into the nursing home and his apartment had to be cleared out). When he wasn't on wilderness adventures, he worked for the gas company, for Oklahoma City's "Cowboy Hall of Fame"...and as a professional clown.

When I think of the lives of the people I've known, his ranks among the most interesting. It was a life that fell outside the established scripts, the normal patterns and expectations. (This included expectations about keeping one's home tidy; I doubt he ever used a vacuum anywhere he ever lived, although I would be surprised if he hadn't collected dozens of them.) His was a life of exploring unfamiliar terrain--a life of doing, of living with gusto and a spirit of adventure. And so one might think, in those later years when he could barely get around even with the help of a walker, that he'd be bitter.

If he was, I never saw a sign of it.  When he finally went into a nursing home a couple of years ago, he became a kind of goodwill ambassador to the lonely souls that surrounded him, spreading laughter and smiles wherever he went. On Halloween, when we brought the kids by in costume, he led us through the halls of the nursing home in his motorized wheel chair, greeting everyone by name, sharing a joke--and knocking on the doors of his friends so that he could show off his grand-niece and -nephew (and bring them the special kind of delight that children so often seem to bring to residents of a nursing home). I think he was wearing his plastic viking hat while he did so.

Or maybe it was his oversized foam cowboy hat. I can't remember. But the comical headgear was a clear part of the role he had adopted in the nursing home, a role that gave him a sense of purpose. He was being a clown, not in the derogatory sense of that word, but in the sense of honor expressed in that etched plaque I found in the closet. And he was able to be a clown in the nursing home--in this place where so many lie in lonely isolation, playing a waiting game with death--because he was, first and foremost, an adventurer. The nursing became for him a new jungle to explore, a new mountain to climb. And the giant foam hat was part of his adventurer's gear.

We found out on Thursday that he'd been put on hospice. On Saturday, immediately after my son's birthday party, we made the hour-long drive to visit Gunkle in the nursing home. Because we weren't sure if he'd be up for a crowd of visitors, I waiting in the car with the kids while my wife and her mother went in to check on him. My son was busy practicing the new magic trick he'd gotten as a birthday present. He wanted to show it to Gunkle, because Gunkle would love it. My daughter had brought with her a line drawing she'd made--of herself, her brother, and Gunkle. She wanted to give it to him, and she was wondering what gifts Gunkle would have for her.

We waited. I took the kids out of the car and rolled my daughter down a small grassy hill. We looked at a bronze sculpture of one child pushing another on a tire swing. At last my wife and mother-in-law came out. My wife explained to the kids that Gunkle was very tired and sick, too tired and sick to have a lot of visitors. I could see the disappointment on their faces. They'd been imagining a visit like other visits, with Gunkle sitting on the bed, smiling and being jolly, laughing with delight at their antics, telling them which drawer to look into to find the trinket or stuffed animal he had for them. Of course, because of the pain and the morphine, that is not what it would have been like if they'd gone inside.

And that is what he wanted them to remember, the last impression he wanted to leave. And so he sent with my wife a message to the children--a message of goodbye, a message that he was looking forward to seeing Jesus, and his mother and father, and his brother (my wife's father, who passed away more than a dozen years ago). My wife couldn't bear to convey that message right then.

But Otis--or Jingles, or Gunkle, depending on who you talk to--was ready to go. He'd made up his mind. And his was a life of doing, not of waiting. His was an adventurer's life. And so I wasn't all that surprised when we woke up the next morning to the news of his passing.

It was my son's birthday, and we have a family tradition of waking up the birthday boy or girl with songs and well-wishes, and then letting them open their presents on the bed. Before we had the chance to do that, my son wandered into our room, perhaps awakened by the sound of my wife's crying. And so she told him the news and shared Gunkle's message with him...and after a moment of quiet sadness, she masterfully invited my son to leap back into his bed so that his sister wouldn't miss out on waking him up for his birthday.

He played the role of groggy birthday boy masterfully. We had his birthday morning. A little later, my wife shared the news, and Gunkle's message, with my daughter.

That afternoon was the second and final run of their dance recital. Of course, Otis hadn't been able to come to the one on Friday night. But I like to think that his new adventure afforded him the chance to watch his little grand niece make her awkward dance debut, and his grand nephew dance the role of Peter Pan with confidence and poise.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

BLOCKED! And Morally Outraged

So, I'm at a writers' conference, pitching my next book idea (God and Gays) to agents, since I think it deserves a wider audience than I'd get from an academic publisher (and since my target audience isn't academics in any event). I'm having some downtime between sessions, and so I'm here in the "business center" where they have a couple of complementary computers for guest use.

I type in my blog's URL and...I'm blocked. A message comes up saying that access to the site is denied because certain key words were identified in the blog that suggested "imappropriate content." It even specified WHAT those key words were--a phrase in an earlier blog post about the Texas House vote. I'd tell you what the phrase is, but then I'm afraid my efforts at circumnavigation to get to this posting page may somehow be blocked, and I won't be able to post this. So I'll paraphrase as only an academic can: I was referencing a statistic about the relative rate of self-destructive behavior in a certain minority group.

And this reference was sufficient to make it impossible to access my blog directly from this computer. And since almost the very same words appear on the website for the Travis Project (an organization that helps the targeted group to overcome their self-destructive impulses), this also means that a teenage member of the minority group in question who is staying in this hotel, who is having the kinds of thoughts that I dare not mention directly and is therefore at risk of death, and who decides to use a computer that his parents can't check up on, thinking this may be his chance to find out who he can reach out to...well, you get the idea.

Why in the world would THESE precise key words--words which would block the aforementioned teen from access to a LIFE LINE--be included in a set of key words that trigger a computer program to BLOCK someone's access to the selected web page. It's as if the hotel manager decided...well, I won't speculate.

But I'm furious.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Religion Dispatches Piece: Osama bin Laden in Hell

My most recent piece for Religion Dispatches develops in a bit more detail some of the ideas Kathryn Gin and I discussed in our bloggingheads.tv conversation.

Talkin' 'Bout Hell...and Rob Bell, and Osama bin Laden

My "blogginheads.tv" conversation with Princeton professor Kathryn Gin--about hell, the controversy generated by Rob Bell's book Love Wins, and the eternal fate of Osama bin Laden--is now available. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Caption Contest

While I am busy grading final exams (and attending a writers' conference later in the week), I invite readers of this blog to participate in the first ever Piety that Lies Between Caption Contest! The picture (a John Pertwee-era Dr. Who still) was snatched shaemelessly off Jim Linville's Biblioblogging Carnival post. Entries into the contest (submitted as comments to the post) must conform to contest regulations or they will be disqualified (or deleted). Contest regulation are as follows:

1. Entries must be either original, plagiarized, or forged (see here for discussions of plagiarism and forgery).
2. Obscene language should be avoided, unless it is entirely gratuitous, in which case it may be included but must then be replaced with !#@&$! so that my eldest child will not be able to read it while looking over my shoulder.
3. Relatives are not eligible to compete unless they self-identify as relatives and promise to send me a care package.
4. You may enter more than once, but you may not enter exactly seventeen times. Sixteen and eighteen are fine.
5. No reference to anything actually related to Dr. Who is permitted in the entry.
6. Entries that make reference to root vegetables get extra credit.

Without further ado, here is the picture:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Responding to bin Laden's Death with a Faux King Quote?

I intend to reflect as some length about Osama bin Laden's death, especially with respect to the image (indulged repeatedly on social networking sites and elsewhere) of bin Laden roasting in hell. Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of finals week and buried in grading--and I've already spent enough time away from my grading to record a stimulating conversation (for "bloggingheads.tv") with Kathryn Gin of Princeton University about the Rob Bell controversy and the persistence of the idea of hell in American culture (I'll provide the link when it's available).

But there is something I do want to quickly address here, since I have some expertise in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Specifically, in the wake of many celebratory announcements of bin Laden's death on Facebook and Twitter, the following quotation, attributed to King, spread like wildfire as a status update on Facebook:
I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
On Twitter, because of the character limits, only the first sentence was tweeted. Yesterday, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic received this message on Twitter and began to investigate. She noted in a short article that there was no evidence that these words actually came from King--and subsequently wondered why someone would attribute something like this to King falsely.

Here are the facts: Everything but the first sentence is a direct quote from King's sermon, "Loving your enemies," that is reprinted in the collection of King sermons, Strength to Love.  King liked the rhetorical power of the words so much that he reused them with slight modifications at least once, in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? I wouldn't be surprised, given how often King reused his own words, that the same message was repeated elsewhere as well.

So, everything but the first sentence is an authentic quote from King. What about the first sentence? Although it is possible that something like those words were spoken in some obscure speech of King's, I am not familiar with it. And, with McArdle, I find the precise wording a bit too closely tailored to 9/11 and bin Laden. And I can't think of a specific context in which King would have been commenting on a camparable situation (I looked up some of his references to the Holocaust, thinking he might have said something simliar in relation to it, but found nothing resembling this quote).

So here is what I suspect happened. Someone on facebook shared their refusal to rejoice in someone's death, even Osama bin Laden's--and then explained why with a quote from King. Unfortunately, in repostings the distinction between the personal sentiment and the King quote was lost. And then, when the message moved to Twitter, only the first sentence (which didn't come from King) was tweeted and retweeted--and attributed to King.

No conspiracy, I think. And the core idea--that hate begets hate, and that to overcome hostility and bitterness and cycles of revenge, someone needs to make a deliberate choice to love--does come from King.

Addendum: I see now, looking over Megan McArdle's essay, that she has realized the same thing and offered an update. So consider this post a fuller elaboration of what happened.

Addendum #2: I've just now seen that Megan McArdle has published a further article outlining the evolution of the misquotation--which confirms my theory and adds names.