Wednesday, August 31, 2011

God's Final Victory... now in stock at! There is at least some reason to believe, based on the price, that it doubles as a fully functional washing machinge. Or maybe just a toaster (the last possibility suggested by my friend Mary).

But seriously, the publisher has priced the hardback for library sales. While I may start shamelessly promoting sales of it in a year or so when the paperback comes out, for now I'll simply...shamelessly encourage you to recommend purchase to your nearest academic library.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Twelve Steps to Maximizing Hostility and Bitterness in Your Relationships

While going through some old papers over the weekend, I found a handout that I created years ago when I was regularly leading confict resolution workshops. While much of the substance of the handout sprang from my experiences facilitating Alternatives to Violence Project workshops (mostly in the women's prison in Washington State), I'm pretty sure (based on some of the language choices) that I wrote it not long after attending one of Marshall Rosenberg's workshops on Nonviolent Communication. In any event, the contents of the handout actually struck me as closely related to issues recently touched on in this blog--"moral one-upmanship," self-compassion, even religion as a "bifurcated essentially contested concept" and Pat Buchanan's defense of Norway's homegrown terrorist. In short, it seemed like something worth sharing here.

And so, without further ado, here they are...

Twelve Steps to Maximizing Hostility and Bitterness in Your Relationships.

To ensure that all your interpersonal conflicts end with as much bitterness, hostility, and resentment as possible--and, hopefully, culminate in some form of violence, even if only psychological--it is important to take appropriate steps. The following twelve steps have proved especially effective in making relationships as polarized and hostile as possible. For maximum effectiveness, it is important to follow as many of them as you can not only when you confront actual conflicts, but when you worry that you might.

1. Remember that in every conflict there must be a WINNER and a LOSER. It is crucial that you be the winner. While you may not always be able to think of the other party in the conflict as your enemy, it is essential that you at least think of them as an opponent. You and your opponent are in a zero sum contest (like football) where every loss for them is a gain for you, and the important thing is to win. Thus, if you can find out what they need and make sure they don't get it, they become losers and you win. Winning won't necessarily make you happy, but at least you're not a loser.

2. Insist that PEOPLE ARE THE PROBLEM. When a problem exists, try to find out who is to blame. Since they're the problem, the only way to solve the problem is to knock them out of the way or beat them into submission (which can be just as invigorating even if the beating is purely psychological).

3. Put LABELS on people. When others are doing something you don't like, decide what kind of person that makes them: a liar, a coward, an idiot, a jerk, an irresponsible wastrel, etc. That way, you know what they are and how to handle them. You cannot expect them to change their behavior, since they are the kind of people who do that sort of thing. If you can't avoid them, you'll have to rely on manipulation, threats, and violence to control them. (Bonus: You can really magnify the effectiveness of this technique if you apply it not only to other people but to yourself).

4. PSYCHOANALYZE people and let them know how screwed up they are. When in conflict with someone, try to figure out what's wrong with them. Are they suffering the effects of childhood trauma? Are they anal retentive? Are they just plain stupid? Let them know your findings, starting with phrases like, "You know what your problem is?" or "You know what you need?" Explain how they can change their lives to become better people. If this technique does generate advice for improvement, it is important that it be focused entirely on others. The technique can, however, be effectively turned on oneself if it aims purely at producing more sophisticated labels (see #3 above).

5. Always REASON WITH PEOPLE to show them that they're wrong. When you disagree with someone else, this means that they're wrong. You need to set them straight, ideally by giving them a lecture where you prove to them that you're right and they're misguided. If this doesn't change their behavior, they are the kind of people who just don't listen to reason. And we all know what you need to do with people like that.

6. Get people to do what you want through MANIPULATION and CONTROL. The important thing is that people do what you want them to do. Their motives for doing it are secondary. If you honestly share with them your needs and make requests to have your needs met, you risk being hurt. Don't give up control in this way. Instead, threaten some kind of punishment if they don't do what you want, or offer a reward if they do. Try to shame or guilt-trip them into doing it. Make them believe that they have to do it whether they like it or not. 

7. Use expressions such as ALWAYS and NEVER. When another person's behavior hurts you, it is important that they realize the severity of their crime. So point out that they always act in the hurtful way, or that they never act in ways more supportive of your needs. This way, they realize that it's not just a specific behavior they have to change; it's their whole lives. If they feel overwhelmed, tell them to grow up.

8. Use expressions such as "CAN'T" and "HAVE TO." Always keep in mind that you don't actually have choices. The reason you act as you do isn't because the behavior promotes what you value. Rather, you act as you do because you have to. Since you have no choice, you aren't responsible for what you do. When others don't do what they have to do, try to make them do it by convincing them they have no choice. If they still don't do it, blame them. They are responsible.

9. When someone criticizes you, become either DEFENSIVE or GUILTY. If another person criticizes you, then one of you has to be in the wrong. In order to avoid being the one who's labeled as wrong, defend yourself against the criticism by showing how it's the other person's fault (explain how they started it or do the same thing, or tell them that they "asked for it"). If you cannot do this successfully, then you must be the one who's in the wrong. Feel guilty and beat yourself up. The experience will motivate you in the future to be more aggressive in your defensiveness.

10. Keep in mind that you are not responsible for your feelings; OTHERS CAUSE THEM. When upset, angry, or afraid, look for who is causing you to feel that way. Blame them. Focus on changing them so that they stop making you feel bad. After all, you cannot change yourself since your feelings are caused by others. You have far more control over what happens to other people, so direct your energies there.

11. Live in the PAST rather than the PRESENT. If others' actions in the past have hurt you, dwell on that. Constantly remind them about it, and base your present treatment of them entirely on these past actions. After all, their past actions prove what kind of people they are (see #3). Since they can't change the past, there is nothing they can do to change your view of them or your treatment of them. They are helpless. You have all the power, which means you're more likely to win (see #1).

12. Be MORALISTIC rather than MORAL. The most important use for moral principles and values is not as a guide for making personal choices ("being moral"), but as a tool for judging others ("being moralistic"). Use your principles and values for the latter purpose exclusively. If others don't measure up to your values and principles, it's clearly because they don't care about right and wrong. They are bad people. Since all the problems in the world are caused by bad people (see #2), a morally good world will magically spring up around you as soon as you get rid of the bad people.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Religion and Essential Contestability: Excerpt from an article

Today in my philosophy of religion class, we discussed the complexity of the term "religion" and the ways in which competing usage leads to misunderstanding and confusion. I talked about religion as a family resemblance concept, and then proposed my theory that in the contemporary "God debates," the concept of "religion" functions (or fails to function) as an "essentially contested concept with a twist."

Some of these ideas will be familiar to regular followers of this blog, since I've discussed them here before (such as the last time the topic came up my my philosophy of religion class). However, since much of the background ideas probably went by quite quickly in class, I decided that I would post on this blog--for my students as well as for anyone else who is interested--the way I described and developed this theory in a a recent article, "Moving the Goalposts? The Challenge of Philosophical Engagement with the Public God Debates," that came out a little while back in  Philo: A Journal of Philosophy. What follows is an excerpt (and may be the penultimate version, since it is what I had on my computer). Those interested in the entire article can find it in Philo vol. 13 (Spring-Summer 2010), pp. 80-93.

In my book I hold that “religion” is a family resemblance term, which makes univocal talk about the merits and demerits of religion difficult. One needs to specify what one is talking about to avoid equivocations leading to false generalizations. A main contention of the book is that the New Atheists fail to do this.

Precisely because I was so explicit about this point up front, the charge that I was “re-defining” religion to make it immune to New Atheist criticisms puzzled me. But then I noticed a pattern. Progressive religious readers of my book had no trouble seeing what I was describing and defending as religion—in fact, their kind. Conservative Christian readers, while unhappy with my failure to defend their religion (and with my heresies), agreed that what I was defending was a species of religion. It was those in the New Atheist community who were apt to accuse me of “re-defining” religion. When I’ve been able to investigate the matter (mainly with my students), I’ve found that those most likely to level this criticism are precisely those who have been most “stung” by oppressively narrow-minded forms of religion (such as those common in the Bible Belt where I teach).

So what are we to make of this? What I’ve concluded is that Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” notion is of less value for understanding contemporary use of “religion” than W.B. Gallie’s notion of essentially contested concepts. Put simply, I’ve become increasingly convinced that “religion” is an essentially contested concept, but with a twist.

To call it an essentially contested concept is to say that part of the normal use of the term is that different users attach different senses to it, resulting in differences in extension. But this competing usage is unified by a shared set of complex paradigms (which embody numerous features) and an agreed appraisive meaning. With an essentially contested concept, the competing definitions represent competing views about which features of the paradigms warrant the appraisal associated with the term.

The idea here is that some terms have come to be so closely aligned with a certain kind of normative appraisal that we cannot sever the term from the appraisal. If anything is univocally intended by the term, it’s this appraisal. Hence, to insist on a specific descriptive definition among rivals is to insist that the extension of a particular normative judgment should have these parameters rather than some alternative. Rather than risk having legitimate normative disputes silenced by an insistence of uniformity of meaning, Gallie advocates treating some terms as essentially contested.

In short, acknowledging essential contestability is supposed to ensure that a normative dispute—about, say, which acts should be condemned in the way that paradigms of terrorism are condemned, or which human creations should be honored in the way we honor exemplars of art—is not shut down by a kind of definition fiat. But unlike “art,” whose appraisive meaning is positive, or “terrorism,” whose appraisive meaning is negative, “religion” has come to be used such that there are two competing communities of discourse, each using the term in an essentially contested way. But whereas one community of discourse treats “religion” as a positive appraisive concept and seeks to gauge which features of the paradigms warrant the positive appraisal, the other treats it as a negative one and seeks to judge which features warrant the negative appraisal. When a concept comes to be used in this way, we might call it a “bifurcated essentially contested concept.”

My book adopts the language game of that community of discourse which attaches a positive appraisive meaning to “religion.” As such, I look at the complex paradigms of religion in the world (which contain many elements I view negatively), and then seek to isolate the elements which justify the positive appraisal. What results is a picture of theistic religion which preserves those features of the paradigms that warrant the positive appraisal while acknowledging that much in the “real religions” of the “real world” deserve the criticisms of the New Atheists.

But if religion is understood to be an essentially negative concept, then if all the features that justify the negative appraisal are purged from it the result will not be seen as “religion” at all. And so the cry of “That’s not religion!” makes sense. It’s as if one community of discourse attaches to the term “sex” the appraisive meaning that typically attaches to “rape,” while another attaches to it the appraisive sense of “making love.” The former group looks at the range of phenomena that go by the label “sex” (ignoring, of course, those phenomena which no one would ever call rape) and tries to identify what justifies the negative appraisal. The latter does the same (ignoring the phenomena, such as rape paradigms, which no one would ever call “making love”), in the attempt to identify the parameters within which the positive appraisal is warranted. The latter holds up its results, saying, “This is the kind of sex (by which we mean making love) that deserves label!” The former protests, “That’s not sex (by which we mean rape) at all!”

Once again Christopher Hitchens offers an excellent case study for this phenomenon. Not long ago Hitchens was interviewed by a Unitarian Universalist minister, Marilyn Sewell—and one of the most striking features of their conversation is just how much they agree upon. Not only do they agree about the presumed offenses of conservative religious communities, but also about the importance, for human life, of a sense of what Hitchens calls “the numinous”—a sense which Hitchens himself describes, at one point in the interview, as the experience or feeling “that there is more to life than just matter.”

But, of course, Marilyn Sewell not only describes herself as religious but is a clergy person for the liberal Unitarian Universalist Church, while Hitchens describes himself not merely as an atheist, but as an “antitheist,” by which he means someone who is actively opposed to religion and belief in God. How is it possible that two persons can have such similar views not only about specific religious communities and their practices but about what Hitchens calls “the numinous” (a term coined by theologian Rudolph Otto to describe the human encounter with the transcendent), and yet can take such antithetical stands towards “religion,” one identifying with a religious community and the other insisting that “religion poisons everything”? If the former attaches a positive appraisive sense to the term “religion” and sifts through the paradigms of religion to identify what justifies the positive appraisal (leaving off what is negative), while the latter attaches a negative sense to the term and so defines it in terms of those things left out of the former’s understanding, we can readily understand what has happened. If, as seems to be true of Hitchens and Sewell, the underlying value systems according to which the paradigms of religion are assessed by each are substantially the same, the one will include in her understanding of religion the very things that will be excluded from the other’s.

And so, from Hitchens' standpoint, Sewell’s religion isn’t religion at all. Likewise in relation to the new atheists, what I defend in my book isn’t religion all. And this may be why I am accused of “moving the goal posts.” While I’m not sure what to do about this kind of “bifurcated” contested usage, there is no doubt that any scholar who wants to engage the God debates needs to be aware of it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Christianity, Self-Compassion, and Wemmicks

In a recent post, I mentioned my knee-jerk urge to write a systematic rebuttal to a blog post by Sarah Hippolitus arguing that Christianity is damaging to psychological health.

Now I don't mean to go back on my decision not to offer such a rebuttal. But the other day I stumbled across the research of a UT Austin professor, Kristin Neff, on the psychological benefits of self-compassion--and thinking about her research immediately set me on a trajectory of reflection that brought me back to Hippolitus's claim that Christian teachings are damaging to psychological health--especially her claim that the doctrine of original sin is psychologically demoralizing insofar as it undermines healthy self-esteem.

Let me explain. Neff's research into self-compassion was motivated by her own religious practice as a Buddhist. Self-compassion is an important concept in Buddhism, and she became interested in studying the empirical effects of such compassion. Some of her central conclusions are neatly summarized in the following abstract for one of her professional articles:

This article focuses on the construct of self-compassion and how it differs from self-esteem. First, it discusses the fact that while self-esteem is related to psychological well-being, the pursuit of high self-esteem can be problematic. Next it presents another way to feel good about oneself: self-compassion. Self-compassion entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself. Finally, this article suggests that self-compassion may offer similar mental health benefits as self-esteem, but with fewer downsides. Research is presented which shows that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem, but involves less self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness,and self-enhancement than self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem entails evaluating oneself positively and often involves the need to be special and above average, self-compassion does not entail self-evaluation or comparisons with others. Rather, it is a kind, connected, and clear-sighted way of relating to ourselves even in instances of failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection.

Neff defines compassion in terms of three elements: first, you notice or attend to a person's suffering; second, you feel FOR the suffering person in a manner characterized by "warmth, caring, and the desire to help"; and third, "when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. 'There but for fortune go I.'"

Now as I reflected on this account, what immediately came to mind for me was a book I sometimes read to my children: "You Are Special," by Max Lucado. For those unfamiliar with it, here's the summary of the story that I offered in a post from a couple of years back:
Punchinello, a wooden man, lives in a village of wooden people. These wooden people are called Wemmicks, and all of them were carved by the same craftsman, a man named Eli who lives in his workshop on a hill looking down on the village. The Wemmicks are all in the habit of putting stickers on each other: gold stars on those who impress them with their good looks or talents, dots on those who fall short, who are scratched or clumsy or awkward. Punchinello is one of the latter. He’ s covered in dots.

But one day he meets a Wemmick who has neither stars nor dots on her; and when he asks her why, she smiles and tell him that the stickers don’t stick on her because she visits Eli every day. And so Punchinello goes to see his maker. Eli is delighted by Punchinello’s visit, and offers him a warm welcome, as well as words of wisdom: What the other Wemmicks think of Punchinello doesn’t matter. What matters is that Eli loves Punchinello just the way he is, without conditions or qualifications. The stickers, Eli says, only stick if they matter to you. And once Punchinello is secure in Eli’s love, they won’t matter at all. Punchinello hears, and believes. And a dot falls to the ground.
The last time I talked about this story, it was to share the profound disconnect between the metaphorical way that Lucado shares the Christian gospel narrative in a children's book, and the way that too many Christians, too often, turn evangelism into an ugly bit of "come to Jesus or roast in hell" coercion. But what I want to stress now is that the elements of sin and grace that play such a central role in Christian theology can be pieced together in both of these ways--Lucado's way, and the ugly way that lends itself to the "come to Jesus or roast in hell" message.

It is, of course, the latter that Hippolitus picks up on. She takes the doctrine of original sin to be about "believing you are irredeemably defective without someone else," and she notes that this way of thinking has a crushing effect on self-esteem. She likens the Christian's relationship to God to the destructive dynamic that can arise in a relationship when one mate feels wholly inferior to the other and latches onto the merits of the other for the sake of being "saved" or rescued.

This is, clearly, one way of seeing the Christian doctrine of human sin and divine grace. And if you see the doctrine in this way, then the key message becomes this: Unless you get yourself rescued--that is, let God rescue you--you're doomed.

But what Lucado does in his story is offer us a different way of seeing this same doctrine. In the Wemmick's story, the key point is that all the Wemmicks share a common condition: All are flawed, all make mistakes, and what talents and strengths they have are largely out of their hands. Seeking approval through achievement, judging others for their successes and failures--these are tendencies that divide us and make us lose sight of our shared condition. Such comparative judgments need to give way to a higher perspective.

Years ago I remember reading a painstakingly stitched verse on a wall-hanging in the home of an elderly Christian woman I was visiting. It said this: "There is so much good in the worst of us/ And so much bad in the best of us/ That it doesn't do for any of us/ To talk about the rest of us." Perhaps it's cheesy, but I remember that it struck me at the time, and I shared it with my grandparents (my grandfather was a Baptist preacher). They nodded sagely. This, they said, was what Christianity taught in the doctrine of original sin.

But the doctrine is only a piece of a larger fabric. The higher perspective from which our shared finitude and imperfection are laid bare is also, at the same time, a perspective from which that finitude and imperfection cease to define us. We are not fundamentally defined by our finitude, but by the gaze of love--a love that knows no conditions, that does not wait on worth. And, like Punchinello, we are invited to see ourselves from this perspective--to see ourselves as God sees us, that is, as gracious love sees us. In other words, we are invited to look at our failings and finitude with the eyes of compassion. Looking at ourselves with those eyes, we can be honest about our failings rather than trying to hide them or rationalize them in the way we feel compelled to do when our worth hinges upon our achievements.

And hence, paradoxically, we are freed to achieve more. We want to help ourselves because we love ourselves--not because we aren't worthy of love until we're perfect. And because we can be honest with ourselves, our projects of self-improvement and growth are guided by a kind of clarity that just isn't possible when we define our worth by how many gold stars are stuck to us.

When I facilitated nonviolence workshops in prisons, I encountered many inmates who had undergone a transformation in self-perception of precisely this sort. The source of that transformation? Prison ministries, Christian ones that taught the doctrine of sin and grace. They came out of their encounter with that doctrine not with their self-esteem in the gutter, but with greater self-compassion.

It didn't always happen. But I think there is something about the character of those who choose to take the Christian message into prison, and something about the way they tell the Christian story, that conveys an understanding of it fundamentally similar to what emerges in Max Lucado's parable of the Wemmicks.

What we have here is one very traditional way of seeing and experiencing the Christian doctrine of sin and grace--a way of seeing and experiencing this doctrine that differs from Buddhist notions of self-compassion in its trappings, but a way of seeing that nevertheless fits the mold that Kristin Neff is studying. And yes, it is every bit as traditional as that other, uglier understanding. Both have been around a long time.

And I think that if we want to promote greater self-compassion in the world, we are better served by nurturing the former than by identifying Christianity with the latter and pretending that the former does not exist.

Monday, August 22, 2011

And Over at Undeception...

For those who haven't seen it and are interested, Steve Douglas--over at his admirable blog, Undeception--posted an excerpt from my recent "On Heresy and Universalism" essay, and it generated an interesting conversation (in which I ended up spending far more time addressing comments than I intended to).

Kantian Ethics, Part 3: The Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

Before such things as proof-reading, indexing, vacationing, and preparing for a new school year distracted me, I was offering on this blog a series of posts (here and here, and a briefer aside here) explicating Kant's moral theory. I want to offer the last (for now) post in that series, looking more deeply at the Second Formulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative (hereafter the 2nd CI).

The 2nd CI is, I would argue, the most influential piece of Kant’s moral philosophy. The idea that persons should never be treated as just a means to an end is a recurring trope in the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the undergirding principle of the notion of “informed consent” that drives so much of the ethical decision-making in contemporary medical practice. As our ethical and legal thinking about sex has moved away from the patriarchal conception of it—in which the chief wrong of rape is that it violates a man’s proprietary claim on the sexual use of “his” woman (and in the case of an unpledged virgin, the future husband’s right to exclusive use)—what has replaced it are Kantian conceptions embodied in such ideas as “sexual objectification” and the primacy of consent in distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable sexual acts.

This is just a partial list, but it gives a sense of how deeply influential Kant has been in shaping our modern understanding of morality. So let's look at the 2nd CI. In Kant’s words, it runs as follows:

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.
The first thing to keep in mind here is what Kant takes “humanity” to designate. For him, that term is simply short-hand for a being with a rational nature. While there is more to us than rationality, our rationality is what Kant has in mind when he speaks of our "humanity." And Kant understands reason as a faculty that discerns what can be consistently generalized. On the level of “pure reason,” it sees experience in terms of general or universal categories and recognizes what is consistent with (or contradicts) what is given in experience. On the level of “practical reason,” it legislates principles of behavior in terms of this same standard of consistent universalizability.

In order to be rational on the practical level, Kant thinks we must act in accord with principles or rules of action that can in theory apply to more than the particular case at hand. That is, we need to follow rules that abstract from the particulars of who is doing the act, to whom, where, etc.. The rule should be formulated without any particular referents at all (including, especially, reference to oneself). But, insofar as it is a rule of action, it is directed to a being that is capable of acting on such rules—in other words, a rational agent.

Rational principles must thus have the form, “Under conditions of this sort, a rational agent is to perform an action of such-and-such kind.” When my reason legislates rules for me, it thus doesn’t lay down a rule for me alone, but for all rational agents. If I cannot, without some contradiction in my will, endorse the rule as universally binding on all rational agents, then I am treating myself as a special case—and as such, the rule is not a rational rule in the indicated sense. Reason is the faculty that sees the general in the particular, that abstracts from this isolated experience, this person, this situation, and finds a pattern that can apply to all relevantly similar cases.

All of this, of course, is what Kant says in developing his First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative (1st CI). In a sense, the 2nd CI builds on the foundation laid in the first—insofar as it relies on the conception of rational agency defined in the course of explicating tghe 1st CI. What the 2nd CI says, in effect, is that rational agency is to be valued for its own sake, “as an end,” and that it is therefore illegitimate ever to treat a rational agent merely as a means to an end.

So: What is being said here? And why does Kant think this is an inescapable principle of reason? As to the first question, the key involves understanding what it means to treat rational agency as an end. What the 2nd CI rules out isn’t the use of rational agents as a means to an end, but rather their mere use. That is, you can use someone to further your own objectives so long as you also, at the same time, treat their rational agency as an end.

In Kant’s case, here, the means/end distinction picks out two ways of valuing something. When you treat some entity E as a means, you’re aiming at promoting or achieving some goal G, and you are making use of E in order to further this aim. To aim at G is to attach value to it. Either you desire G already and so are valuing it as the object of desire, or you have made a decision to treat G as worthy of pursuit.

But making G the goal of your activity isn’t enough for G to be valued as an end. That happens only if the attainment of G is what you’re after in such a way that you are, if you will, “content” with G coming about (or being preserved, etc.) whether or not anything else comes of it. This would not be the case if you wanted G to come about solely because you saw G as a good way to promote G*, and G* is what you’re really after.

In that case, if G came about (or were preserved) but G* did not come about as a result, G’s existence would have no value for you. Its value for you would be wholly parasitic on the value of G*, such that without G conducing to G* you could care less about G. In that case, you value G merely as a means.

Likewise, that something—say E—is valued as a means does rule out it being valued as an end. Even if I make use of E to achieve G, I might still be treating E as an end if I value E apart from its role in promoting G (or anything else). The key is that in pursing G, I do so in a way that also promotes E. If all I will is the attainment of G, and the promotion or preservation of E is a matter of indifference to me so long as G is attained, I am treating E merely as a means. If what I will is both the attainment of G and the preservation of E for its own sake (and not merely for the sake of being able to use it again to achieve other goals), and I make use of E in the pursuit of G in such a way that E is promoted by this use, then I may be treating E as a means but I am not treating it merely as a means. I am also respecting E as an end.

So, when Kant says that we must treat the humanity in ourselves and others as an end and not merely as a means, he is saying that the rational agency of persons must be valued for for its own sake, such that if we ever make use of a person for some further end of our own, we are committed to doing so only in such a way that we at the same time preserve/promote/respect their rational agency.

Now Kant connects rational agency in an essential way to autonomy. Autonomy is about being self-governed—being free to act on laws that we make for ourselves, rather than being determined by external laws (what Kant calls “heteronomy”). If we are determined in our choices by the laws of physics as they play out in the complex organic systems we call our brains, then we are subject to the rule of an external power. And so, when we act on desires that come to us through the interplay of biological predispositions and environmental conditioning (when we act on “inclinations”), we are being heteronomous rather than autonomous. It is only when we act on the “maxims” given to us by the exercise of our reason that we are being autonomous. To be moral is to be autonomous, and as such morality presupposes the possibility of being governed by rational laws rather than by our inclinations. It presupposes, in other words, the capacity of the will to be confronted with the urgings of inclination and the dictates of reason, and to choose reason for reason’s sake.

This, for Kant, is freedom of the will: the ability to choose between autonomy and heteronomy, between the universal moral laws legislated by our own reason and the particular desires produced in us by heredity and environment. Rational agency is thus a synthesis of two things: our reason does the job of establishing a law for us to live by, and our will chooses to be subject to that law. But in human beings, both of these capacities are limited. Sometimes we reason poorly. And we all suffer from “weakness of will.” Some desires are (or so it seems) just too strong to resist, even when we think that acting on them is wrong.

Now suppose I know something about human beings—namely, that when presented with certain stimuli (a gun to the head, say) their will becomes virtually impotent to do anything but follow the survival instinct. In other words, suppose I know that in general, the capacity for rational autonomy is limited because certain inclinations are just too powerful. And suppose I take advantage of this general limitation to get people to do things I want them to do—like open a safe so I can make off with the money inside. If I take advantage of a limit in the human capacity for rational agency by creating conditions under which I know that this capacity vanishes; and if, furthermore, I do so for the sake of achieving some further end (getting rich), then I am treating a person as a means to an end in a way that fails to value their rational agency. Rather than being regarded as something to be treasured and promoted, they rational agency is being treated as something to be bypassed as a pesky impediment to getting what I want.

Sometimes, rather than taking advantage of general limitations in the scope of human rational agency, I take advantage of a more specific or personal limitation. You might have been raised in such a way that you have a powerful guilt complex that essentially takes charge of your behavior when triggered. And so I trigger it deliberately in order to manipulate your behavior to get what I want. Such psychological manipulation, which takes advantage of an individual person’s “weakness of will”—treating such weakness as an opportunity to be exploited rather than as a limitation in rational agency to be overcome—fails to show respect for rational agency for its own sake. If I get you to do what I want through such manipulation, I am again treating you merely as a means.

Or suppose I decieve you--convincing you that I like you, say, when I really think you're a disgusting dweeb--in order to motivate you to do something that would serve my interests, such as drive me to the mall. In that case, I have attempted to arrange things such that what you think you're doing--driving a friend to the mall--is different from what you are actually doing (driving someone who loathes you). But in that case, you are not in a position to choose to do what you are in fact doing should you agree to drive me. I have deliberately sought to impede your capacity to get what you choose. Such general interference in choice-making also prevents rational deliberation about the maxim of one's action. I am at trying, therefore, to do something that would, if successful, block your capacity to act as a rational agent...for the sake of getting to the mall.
There are many more examples, but this is sufficient to get a sense of what Kant’s 2nd CI is saying. In effect, in order to treat humanity as an end, I must avoid making use of someone in a way that fails to respect their rational agency. Which means, in general, that when I make use of another person I must first ensure that their rational capacities are fully functional, that I am doing nothing to block or impede or sidestep their ability to choose to follow the dictates of their reason, etc. Put simply, at a very minimum I must secure their fully informed consent without taking advantage of (let alone cultivating) their weakness of will.

The question that remains is why Kant thinks that obedience to the 2nd CI is a demand of reason. Think of it this way. To be rational in one’s behavior is, according to Kant’s understanding of things, to choose to follow laws of reason rather than inclinations. To make such a choice is to value being rational for its own sake (as opposed to valuing it merely as a way of achieving one’s inclinations). But reason finds or endorses the general, not the particular. To act rationally is thus to value my reason as an instance of rationality, and hence to value (for their own sakes) all instances of rationality. To be rational is therefore to value rationality wherever I find it—for its own sake, or as an end. Thus, to be rational requires that I treat the rational agency of all persons as an end to be respected, and hence that I never treat a person merely as a means to my ends.

It is true, of course, that if I follow an inclination I am implicitly valuing inclinations as such. But insofar as I indulge my inclinations I am favoring inclination over reason. And while reason is a faculty that insists on consistency, inclination is not. It is irrational to be inconsistent. It is not “non-indulgent” to be inconsistent. So, if by an act of will I choose inclination over reason, there is nothing in that act of will which in any way forces or demands that I value the inclinations of others (or my own inclinations, for that matter) in a consistent way. But if by an act of will I choose reason, then failing to respect the rationality of others amounts to my not choosing reason after all. I cannot actually choose reason unless I consistently value the rational agency of all human beings as an end. That’s what it means to choose reason.

The upshot is this: Reason, by its nature, demands that reason be valued in a way that inclination, by its nature, does not demand that inclination be valued. To be rational calls for something in my relation to others: it calls for an attitude of respect for their rational agency. Following my inclinations calls for nothing at all, not even that I attach any worth to the inclinations I’m following.

There are two ways in which Kant’s theory, thus understood, raises concerns. First, it seems to narrow the scope of morality too far. If the nature of reason only demands respect for reason, does this mean that I can do as will with non-rational creatures? Kant says no, but his reason rests on the indirect effects of our behavior towards nonhuman animals. Put bluntly, if I abuse dogs I’m more likely to abuse people. But this just seems unsatisfying. It seems to me that if there is something wrong with abusing dogs (and I think there is), it’s because of how the abuse affects the dogs.

But perhaps this problem can be overcome by something like the following line of thinking: If I am in the domain of reason and thus called upon to respect reason itself, the demand for consistency "spills onto" inclinations. It would be inconsistent for me to care deeply about my own physical comfort and yet care nothing for the physical comfort of other beings capable of similar experiences. While my inclinations care nothing for such consistency, reason does. And so, once I’m in the domain of reason, the inclinations of other beings, rational or not, become something I should care about on pain of inconsistency.

But this point raises a deeper concern: Why care about reason in the first place? Doesn’t Kant just assume that the domain of reason is the domain we should operate out of?

One way to answer this question is as follows: To ask why we should care about reason is to ask for reasons. And when we ask for reasons, we are placing ourselves in the domain of reason—even if we accept inclinations as reasons. After all, if I offer inclinations as reasons, there is nothing in the domain of inclination that requires that I care one whit about the inclinations that have been thus invoked. Inclinations can be reasons only if we are in the domain of reason. To ask “Why be rational at all?” is thus to put oneself in the domain of reason—whereupon the question answers itself.

This line of argument is not beyond criticism, but I think a deeper concern is that the argument misconstrues the point of asking why we should care about reason. Maybe the real point of this question is not to ask for a reason why we should respect rationality, but to invite us to adopt the perspective of the person who is utterly indifferent to reason. Is there anything we can say that would speak to such a person? Is there any sense in which it is true of that person that they should care about reason even if they don't, and so should do what reason demands? And if not, should that bother us?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Moral One-Upmanship, Psychological Health, and Avoiding Hypocrisy

I just finished reading two blog posts back-to-back. The first, by Sarah Hippolitus on Secular Perspectives, focused on "The Psychological Harms of Traditional Christian Belief." The second, by my friend Arni Zachariassen, made an impassioned case against opportunistic moral one-upmanship in the debate between atheists and theists.

After I'd finished reading the post on Secular Perspectives, I found myself immediately wanting to write a series of blog posts addressing each of her six main claims about how Christian teachings damage psychological health--arguing, in effect, that for each of the teachings she brings under the crosshairs, much hinges on how the teaching is understood or interpreted. Her claims strike me as identifying dangers realized to greater or lesser degrees in some Christian communities--but not as identifying problems that are endemic to every expression of the Christian faith.

And in terms of the issue of psychological health, she completely ignores the empirical research that positively correlates religiosity (including its Christian forms) with happiness, at least in societies under stress and especially insofar as religiosity is linked to increases in religious experiences. There is little evidence, by contrast, to suggest that religiosity in general has a negative effect on happiness (in prosperous societies, the religious and non-religious seem to be comparably happy with their lives). In failing to consider such evidence, she also fails to ask crucial questions. Given here reasons for thinking that the specific doctrines she targets, interpreted as she interprets them, shouldn't be expected to promote psychological health--and given that these reasons seem quite compelling in the abstract--mightn't we conclude either that most Christians don't interpret these teachings in the way Hippolitus does, or that there are compensating psychological benefits to Christian belief and practice?

In other words, I found myself inspired to devote weeks of time and effort demostrating that her treatment is oversimplified and ends up throwing out the baby with the bathwater...something that anyone with any kind of rich understanding of Christianity already knows.

And then I read Arni's post. His post begins with what must have been a rather shocking doscovery: an internet acquaintance of his had been arrested on child pornography and child rape charges--and had confessed to at least some of these crimes. The acquaintance, as it happened, was not merely an atheist but "a bit of an atheist activist." What Arni notes is how easily and readily this latter fact might have been invoked as an opportunity for what he calls "moral one-upmanship" in the contemporary God debates. One gets the sense that, at least for a moment, Arni was tempted to do exactly this.

But the reality, as he points out, is that theists and atheists alike have been guilty of horrific offenses against their fellow human beings, and blaming someone's atheism or religion for their moral failings really doesn't capture the truth about the human condition, in which the temptation to do awful things is ubiquitous, and neither belief in God not belief in a naturalistic worldview has any special claim on making us better or worse. More significantly, Arni saw that using this horror as an opportunity for theistic one-upmanship "would represent precisely that curving in on oneself that Christian theology describes in the doctrine of sin. Because as much as I’d love to score some argumentative points and feel good about myself in all my moral superiority, doing so would be a betrayal of what morality is really about."

And what is morality about? "Morality is something you do, first and foremost. Only later is it something you talk about." Arni's point is not about moral theorizing. He is not saying that one shouldn't consider and push arguments concerning the greater adequacy of theistic (or naturalistic) accounts of morality. He finds theistic accounts of our moral experience more satisfactory, and is ready and willing to explain why.

But there is a difference between saying that a theistic worldview does a better job of accounting for morality than atheistic ones, and saying that theists are more moral than atheists. One might believe that God accounts for goodness, but it doesn't follow from this that one cannot be good without believing in God. What Arni is asking for is not the end to debates about the possibility of adequately grounding moral concepts in naturalistic worldviews. That isn't what "moral one-upmanship" is about. Moral one-upmanship occurs when a theist or atheist says, "We're morally better than you are! Nya, nya!"

Morality in the first instance is something we do. When we use moral standards more for judging others than for guiding our own behavior, we have taken the first step towards abandoning morality. And this is precisely what we do when we engage in moral one-upmanship.

So what does all of this have to do with Hippolitus's essay? It seems to me pretty clear that in secular circles, the concept of psychological health has come to occupy much of the same normative space historically occupied by moral language. Psychological health is a central action-guiding value, both in terms of self-development and in terms of the treatment of others. Now I don't make this point in order to criticize it. I think that psychological health is a very important value, one that should play an important action-guiding role. Although I don't think it can stand alone as a foundation for morality, my purpose here is not to attack secular moral theory but simply to note that there is a presumptive moral theory at work in secular circles, even when it is not named as such. Practically speaking, psychological health serves as a basis for utilitarian-style moral decision-making.

Seen in this light, Hippolitus's essay amounts to an exercize in just the sort of moral one-upmanship that Arni is criticizing. She is focused on attributing moral failings to Christians--arguing that their teachings undermine psychological health--rather than looking inward to explore how secular humanists can become morally better themselves.

But as soon as I say this I find myself confronting the specter of hypocrisy. If moral one-upmanship is itself a kind of "sin," then am I not simply focusing here on the sins of secular humanists like Hippolitus and ignoring my own? But then again, how can any of us avoid talking about the failings of others? Sometimes, at least, it seems that showing a proper respect for oneself demands that one point out the unfairness of what others are doing.

And here, then, is the lesson: It isn't that we should never point out the moral failings of others. After all, sometimes outsiders are in a better position to notice our moral failings than we are. If we want to work on being moral, we need the perspective that others can provide. And often, those who are best able to provide it are outsiders. As such, not only should I invite others to tell me when they think I've fallen short in some morally significant way (hopefully in a charitable spirit aimed at helping to lift me up morally, rather than for the sake of knocking me down), but I should also return the favor (again, in a constructive spirit, recognizing that I could be mistaken in my judgment about them).

The crucial point is that all this external criticism has got to aim at motivating internal self-reflection and growth. Thus, criticism must be offered in a spirit that is likely to promote such self-refection and growth rather than promoting defensiveness; criticism should be received with an eye towards self-refection and growth even when it is delivered in a manner likely to produce defensiveness; and the criticism of others should always be subordinate to personal self-reflection and growth. This last point means not only that we should care more about our own moral condition than that of others, but that we should treat the moral condition of others as a kind of mirror. When I see someone commit a certain kind of wrong, I should ask myself, "When do I do that?"

It's not that we shouldn't criticize others. Rather, it's that all such criticism should be part of moving beyond oneself into a more communal standpoint in which the criticism serves the function of collective development. I criticize you in order to help you grow, and at the same time look inward to see how and where I might need a similar kind of growth.

If this is what we should be doing--and I think it is--then the defensive response to Hippolitus that I originally envisioned should be viewed with suspicion. Of course, there has to be a place for pointing out that attacks and criticisms are misguided. But again, this cannot be our priority. And, having already devoted a book to responding defensively (in a sense) to new atheist attacks on religion, it might be that a series of posts doing the same sort thing in response to a comparatively obscure blog post is a misdirection of my priorities.

In this case, at least, I might be better served using that obscure blog post as a mirror, or looking for that within Hippolitus's critique that isn't just confusion or overgeneralization--something that might just apply to my own brand of Christianity, or something that is a danger I might fall prey to if I don't remain vigilant.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Heresy and Universalism, Part 2

In my last post, I used Roger Olson's recent post, "How serious a heresy is universalism?", as a starting point for exploring how heresy should be conceived. I argued that, from many important theological perspectives including Olson's own, we should not expect knowledge or certainty about the ultimate truth concerning God and reality to be available from our terrestrial epistemic situation.

This is not to say that we might not have some forms of guidance or direction in forming our beliefs, but these sources of guidance would be cognitively resistible: they do not demand (on pain of irrationality) acceptance of a particular worldview or belief system, since a rational person could doubt their credibility or veracity (even though a rational person might very well accept their credibility as well).

I argued that Olson's theological basis for rejecting universalism, when considered in the light of what I regard as a rather compelling Thomistic line of argument, entails that we are in just this sort of epistemic situation with respect to God and ultimate reality. That is, if we accept Olson's theology, we must also accept that our acceptance of that theology is not rooted in knowledge of its truth. It is, to use the traditional if ambiguous Christian language, a matter of faith.

But if this is right, then the nature of God and ultimate reality as such cannot serve as our standard for assessing whether beliefs are heretical or orthodox--because such assessment presumes access to the standard, access that isn't available.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't care about getting our beliefs in tune with ultimate reality. This, after all, is the ultimate goal of all inquiry and debate. But that it is a goal does not mean that it is, right now, an accessible standard for evaluating beliefs. If talk of heresy and orthodoxy is to be meaningful to us now, given the epistemic situation we are in now, then such talk should function as part of a broader epistemic project aimed at achieving the goal of bringing us in tune with the real nature of things. Treating the "heresy" and "orthodoxy" labels as identifying deviance from or conformity with ultimate reality amounts to assuming that the goal has already been achieved--and, as such, may actually stifle progress towards achieving this goal (one stops journeying if one thinks one has already arrived at one's destination).

So is there a "standard of orthodoxy" other than the truth about God and ultimate reality that we can meaningfully invoke in Christian discourse about such matters as universalism, and which may actually contribute to our ongoing quest to deepen our understanding of ultimate truths? Two commonly invoked candidates immediately come to mind: (a) the Scriptures, and (b) the authoritative pronouncements of the early Ecumenical Councils that, among other things, gave Christianity the creeds still recited to this day. A third standard might be a particular theological tradition, or the "weight" of that tradition (in terms of its dominant and pervasive teachings).

With each of these candidates, there are at least two questions we might ask: First, is it an accessible standard that can actually function (with greater or lesser degrees of precision and completeness) to distinguish "orthodox" and "heretical" beliefs? Second, does (or can) evaluation of beliefs in terms of this standard contribute to the aim of moving us towards a deeper connection with truth?

I think it is clear that Scripture, the pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils, and theological traditions are more accessible than ultimate reality. And I think it is clear that they can be put to use as a standard against which beliefs are judged--although Scripture, by virtue of its tensions and complexities and ambiguities, is a much more slippery standard that may require an interpretive hermeneutic in order to be applied effectively (which may mean that what is really operating as the standard isn't Scripture as such, but Scripture as read through a particular interpretive lens). A similar problem arises when attempting to test a belief against a theological tradition.

The deeper question, however, is the second one: Is there--or can there be--value in the project of subjecting beliefs to such a standard of orthodoxy? My instinct is that there can be, insofar as this serves as part of a broader Hegelian project of preserving the internal integrity of a system of beliefs so as to make it possible for it to evolve in the face of the lived encounter with ultimate reality. But that there can be does not mean that subjecting beliefs to standards of orthodoxy is always or even usually helpful in the situations where it is actually done. As such, I think great care should be taken in properly qualifying claims of heresy and orthodoxy. At a minimun, I one should (i) clearly identify the sense of "heretical" or "orthodox" one has in mind and (ii) be clear about the purpose for which one is making these distinctions.

For an excellent example of doing just these things in relation to the question of universalism, I'd recommend taking a look at Robin Parry's series of posts on the topic from June of 2010. At some point in the coming weeks (my start-of-the-semester schedule permitting), I will consider in a more substantive way the question of whether Christian universalism should be judged heretical based on a standard that is of particular interest to philosophers, and which Roger Olson at least implicitly invokes: the standard of coherence.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Heresy and Universalism

A couple of weeks ago, Roger Olson--a theology professor at Baylor University--took up the issue of universalism on his blog, asking, "How serious a heresy is universalism?"

Of course, this is a loaded question. It assumes that universalism is a heresy. But how do we decide that? To engage this question seriously, we'd first need to wrestle with the concept of heresy itself. Olson does offer a brief definition of heresy in a parenthetical remark, saying that heresies are "theologically incorrect beliefs," but he doesn't consider the adequacy of this definition in the face of alternatives. A "theologically incorrect belief" is presumably a belief about God that doesn't correspond with the way God really is. If this is what a heresy is, then we'd expect--as Olson immediately concedes--that all Christians are heretical about something or other, and that heresy needn't be a very serious issue. The (laudable, I think) implication of this way of conceiving the matter is that the cry of heresy loses much of its force. Being a heretic ceases to be an eggregious matter, at least as such.

But the reason why this definition of heresy (and the contrary notion of orthodoxy) has these implications is because it makes the objective nature of reality the standard by which beliefs are judged heretical (or orthodox)--and it seems inevitable that each of us will, in our beliefs about ultimate reality, get some things wrong. But I think this way of understanding heresy has deeper implications that Olson (and other evangelical Christians) would be unhappy to accept. Consider: on this definition, if atheists are right about the nature of reality then all Christians of every stripe are heretical in all their theological beliefs, since all their theological beliefs would then be wrong.

Is this a possibility we should concede? Part of the trouble here is that the way Olson is actually using the term "heresy" doesn't seem to fit with this possibility. He is asking, in effect, what is orthodox and what is heretical from within a Christian context. His starting point is that Christianity, in some broad sense, is correct about the nature of reality, such that the truth of atheism isn't really on the table. More to the point, if atheism were correct this would imply that there is no meaningful framework within which it makes sense to distinguish between orthodox and heretical Christian beliefs.

Now I don't have any trouble with adopting such a presupposition for the purposes of pursuing a more circumscribed discussion: "What should Christians believe about x or y?" seems the sort of question that ought to be askable apart from being able to definitively establish that the fundamental nature of reality is theistic. But if we are asking about what Christians should believe without committing ourselves to first resolving the deep philosophical questions about ultimate reality, then our standard of orthodoxy, if you will, has got to be something other than the fundamental nature of reality.

But perhaps Olson (or if not Olson, then some more fundamentalistic Christian) would like to argue that we can settle basic metaphysical questions, such as wehether God exists, and then use these answers (which are presumably in line with Christian teaching) as a framework for establishing what is orthodox and what is heretical. But as someone who has engaged philosophically with the atheist challenges to theistic beliefs, I am pretty confident that we are not in an epistemic situation where we can say that we know that the atheist is wrong. While I find some arguments for God's existence more convincing than atheists do, this is in large measure because I have a different intuitive response to the foundational assumptions on which these arguments build. As I've argued in Is God a Delusion?, these assumptions are ones about which apparently reasonable people can and do disagree.

Since these assumptions are, furthermore, foundational in character as opposed to being deduced from evidence or arguments whose merits are uncontested, it strikes me as ad hoc and presumptuous to simply assert that those who seem otherwise reasonable but who don't share one's immediate confidence about these assumptions are therefore unreasonable. Better to say, I think, that reasonable people can and do see the world differently at the most basic level, because when it comes to the fundamental nature of reality our epistemic situation is inescapably ambiguous.

In fact, there are reasons to think that this epistemically ambuiguous situation is precisely what should be expected on a broadly Christian theistic understanding of fundamental reality. As John Hick and Simone Weil and others have suggested in various ways, our status as individual persons who exist in some measure apart from or other than God requires that the divine in some sense "withdraw," producing a "distance" between creature and creator. And as Hick notes, if God is omnipresent this distance cannot be a spatial one. "It must be an epistemic distance," Hick observes, "a distance in the cognitive dimension." The world in which we live, he argues, must be "religiously ambiguous, capable both of being seen as a purely natural phenomenon and of being seen as God's creation and experienced as mediating God's presence."

Now to get to this conclusion, one needs a certain picture of the divine, one where God cares so much about establishing and preserving the otherness of the creation that withdrawal behind a veil of mystery is called for despite the costs. It is not my intention here to defend this picture of God, but rather to point out that, in saying that the fundamental nature of reality is in some sense unknowable, one is not ruling out a theistic understanding of reality--since such epistemic ambiguity might be the very thing we would expect under certain theistic worldviews. If one is to embrace those theistic worldviews at all, the embrace would have to be rooted in something other than knowledge of its truth. To embrace such a theistic worldview with an attitude of certitude would amount to a kind of contradiction. It would amount to saying, "I am certain that there exists a God who, if He existed, would guarantee that no one could be legitimately certain that He existed."

This is not to say that the believer in such a God couldn't acquire reasons for confidence--but the confidence would come after the embrace, not before, and the confidence would have the character of an inner experiential assurance as opposed to public evidence that could be trotted out for the sake of convincing the skeptic. If there is something that is public, it's the effects of belief on the life and character of the believer; but such effects do not count as "proof" in the sense of considerations that compel the belief of reasonable people who are confronted with them.

This may seem like a major digression from my starting point, but it bears directly on Olson's definition of heresy as "theologically incorrect belief." To define heresy in this way is to set the fundamental nature of reality as the standard for distinguishing between heresy and orthodoxy. If the fundamental nature of reality is hidden from us in a basic way--as it would be under at least some plausible understandings of the divine nature--then this standard is essentially inaccessible. And a definition of heresy that asks us to distinguish beliefs according to an inaccessible standard is basically useless. To define heresy in this way is to do more than just mute the force of cries of heresy. It is to say that there is no point in talking about what is orthodox and heretical, since we have no way of determining which is which.

I'm pretty certain that Olson did not intend anything as radical (from an evangelical Christian perspective) as this. But I'm also pretty sure that the broad theistic perspective Olson embraces commits him (however unwittingly) to the view that our life situation is epistemically ambiguous in something like the manner Hick describes. And why do I say that? Because of Olson's reasons for rejecting universalism.

According to Olson, universalism can only be a matter of pious hope, not a matter of confident belief, because of the nature of human freedom. Here's how Olson puts it in his essay on universalism and heresy:
I would have to wonder how a God of love can enjoy love from creatures that is not given freely. Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann). I would just call that optimism. There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

More significant, however, are Oslon's thoughts from an earlier post on eternal damnation as something that results from how we use the gift of free will. Olson distinguishes between "true freedom"--which is possessed only by "one who is all that God intends for him or her to be"--and "free will," which is that power of choice by which we can "move toward or away from that real freedom." According to Olson, "God graciously extends to all the possibility of realizing true freedom IF we meet a certain condition–acknowledge our dependence on him and his grace and cease our own efforts to achieve it apart from God." Our capacity to meet or not meet this condition is, according to Olson, itself a gift of love. It affords us the capacity to determine our own fates without divine coercion.

On a basic level, this is very close to Hick. Hick believes that a God of love would give His creatures a measure of independence and freedom--a freedom that extends especially to the freedom "to open and close oneself to the dawning awareness of God". But Hick argues that the only way to secure such creaturely freedom is for God to create an "epistemic distance" which is the condition for the "cognitive freedom" to reject a theistic understanding of reality.

Why think that? It is clearly what Aquinas thought, and the reasoning isn't that difficult to grasp. On the broadly Christian picture of reality, God is the infinite objective good Who is the source of all finite goods. And as such, all creaturely goods flow from God. To be cut off from God is to be cut off from one's own good. To see and understand the truth about reality, given this portrait of what that reality is like, is to see and understand that nothing good can come from alienation from God. And to see and understand this is to see and understand that there is no reason--NONE--to reject God. All possible motives for such rejection are exposed as vacuous.

Furthermore, it is hard to credit the idea that creatures who are a product of this infinite and infinitely good God would be designed in such a way that they would gravitate towards this ultimate good when presented with it in an unclouded way. We are naturally ordered to union with God, Aquinas maintains, in such a way that when presented with an unclouded vision of the divine we cannot help but love and long for it. Aquinas therefore thought that no creature of God, made for union with God, could, once presented with an unambiguous vision of God, choose to reject God. The clear sight of the summum bonum would swamp all other desires and expose all false beliefs about the choice-worthiness of rejecting God.

If one rejected God under those circumstances, it would have to be because human free will is subject to some kind of bizarre randomness that could act against all a creature's converging motives, leading them to do what they neither want to do nor think there is any good reason to do. And Aquinas did not believe that free will operated in this perverse way. Indeed, if free will were nothing more than randomness at work in human choices, it would hardly be a gift of God. More like a curse. To be saved or damned by a flip of the coin is hardly better than being saved by divine "coercion."

All of this is developed at considerably greater length and depth by John and me in our forthcoming book, God's Final Victory. The upshot of it for present purposes is this: The freedom to reject God depends on God creating an epistemic distance between Himself and His creatures. If God is as Christianity describes Him, then we would need a space of inescapable uncertainty about what God is really like in order to be able to freely reject God.

In other words, if one wants to defend the doctrine of hell by appeal to creaturely freedom--as Olson does--one needs to suppose that the human condition is suited to free rejection of God. And there is strong reason to believe that our human condition is suited to such free rejection only if it is characterized by an inescapable degree of epistemic uncertainty about God. And in that case, if "heresy" and "orthodox" are defined in the manner that Olson proposes, it becomes very hard to make any meaningful pronouncements about what is heretical and orthodox.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Secular "American" Case Against Same-Sex Marriage?

As I was putting together my syllabus for my introductory moral issues course (which has a unit on same-sex marriage) I was looking for something to pair against an essay of mine (in support of civil marriage for same-sex couples), and stumbled across a 2004 essay by Kay Hymowitz, "Gay Marriage vs. American Marriage."

The essay struck me as interesting in part because it sought to root a conservative position on this issue in something other than thinly-veiled (or not-so-thinly-veiled) religious arguments. Specifically, Hymowitz tries to argue that the American Founding Fathers' vision of marriage--and the conception of marriage that continued to prevail through the 19th and into the 20th centuries--is fundamentally at odds with same-sex marriage. But according to Hymowitz, this isn't because the founders were deliberately appropriating from their religious heritage certain moralistic ideas about what intimate life partnerships should be like. It was, rather, because they saw marital unions as a providing a very fundamental social unit, one on which the success of their republican project might stand or fall.

Hymowitz's argument, in brief, seems to be this: A democratic republic of the sort the Founding Fathers sought to build requires citizens suited to that kind of society--citizens who embrace the democratic notion that each citizen is an autonomous participant in government who has both the liberty and the responsibility to take an active role in shaping society.  If a democratic society requires such civicly engaged and autonomous citizens, then the success of that society depends on a child-rearing environment conducive to creating the these civic virtues.

This fact led to an interest in shaping the institution of marriage to reflect democratic ideals of autonomy and self-governance--so that, for example, marriages were entered into by consenting adults who chose their own life partners, rather than by children in unions arranged by their parents; and marriages were not confined to partners of the same social class or clan, but could be freely entered into in defiance of these kinds of non-democratic divisions.

But underlying this progressive reshaping of marriage, according to Hymowitz, is the foundational assumption that the marital unit exists for the sake of rearing the next generation. The entire reason why we should care about the character of the marital relationship is because it is the context within which the next generation is reared.

Marriage, in short, exists for the sake of providing a framework or context within which the next generation is shaped--for better or worse--for participation in civil life. As such, the government has a stake in marriage as an institution. There's a reason why the state is in the marriage business, we might say. And participation in marriage, by extension, becomes more than just a private contract with another person. It becomes, instead, an act of participation in a crucial social institution on which democratic society depends. But it is insofar as the marriage is the context for child-rearing that it serves this social role--and hence, it is insofar as it is a context for child-rearing that it imposes responsibilities on citizens rather than merely affording them a right of association.

In this light, Hymowitz sees changes in marriage patterns and policies over the last half century as posing a serious threat to the original understanding of marriage's role in society. Insofar as marriage has come to be seen as nothing but a contract between two individuals, one that can be broken by mutual consent at any time, it has ceased to be the vehicle through which individuals in their private lives contribute to the wider social life. Hymowitz blames the "severing" of the relationship between marriage and reproduction, between the private pair bonding and the social responsibility of child-rearing--a severing epitomized by no-fault divorce and its concomitant dismissal of the parents' shared commitment to acting as partners in the rearing of healthy and productive members of society.

Hymowitz sums up her argument in the following way:

Gay marriage gives an enfeebled institution another injection of the toxin that got it sick in the first place: it reinforces the definition of marriage as a loving, self-determining couple engaging in an ordinary civil contract that has nothing to do with children. That's no way for marriage to get its gravitas back. It is marriage's dedication to child rearing, to a future that projects far beyond the passing feelings of a couple, that has the potential to discipline adult passion. "The gravity of marriage as an institution comes from its demand that love be negotiated through these larger responsibilities [surrounding procreation]," Shelby Steele has written in response to Andrew Sullivan. Ignore those responsibilities and you get, well, you get the marital meltdown that this generation was hoping to transform.

I say this is an interesting argument. I do not, however, think it is ultimately a convincing one. As I was reading Hymowitz's essay, I could not help but think about the infertile heterosexual couple who, before they say their vows, know that they are never likely to have children. Or the elderly couple, both widowed, who meet at the community center and decide to get married (although both are far past their child-bearing years). Or the lesbian couple raising two children together, deeply aware of their responsibilities as parents to nurture and guide their children into a productive and healthy adulthood.

These cases highlight two fatal oversights in Hymowitz's argument. The first oversight neglects a distinction of real importance, one which is blurred by Hymowitz's use of such phrases as "the fraying of the marriage-child rearing bond". She blames this "fraying" for "increased poverty and inequality"--but in making her case for this harmful effect she doesn't show how married couples who don't have children contribute to this problem, but focuses instead on children growing up without the benefit of married parents:
Too often, single-parent families, whether divorced or never married, are poor—and very much poorer than their two-earner counterparts. Instead of being the self-reliant units the Founders envisioned, too many of them are dependent on a powerful nanny state, either for welfare payments or for determining custody and tracking down child support. And instead of being the self-governing institutions of republican theory, nurturing sturdy, self-governing citizens, too many single-parent families, as many studies have shown, bring up kids who as adults do markedly less well on average in school, career, and marriage than those who grew up in intact two-parent families.
Hymowitz concludes this line of argument with the following flourish: "Think of the past several decades of high rates of divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing the truth of the Founders' vision. The results are in: if we forget that marriage is both a voluntary union between two loving partners and an arrangement for rearing the next generation of self-reliant citizens, our capacity for self-government weakens."

But it is only by equivocation that Hymowitz can get to the conclusion she wants here. There are two ways to sever the connection between loving partnerships and childrearing. One can have children outside the context of such voluntary, loving partnerships--and one can have such voluntary loving partnerships without children. It is the former, not the latter, which is the source of the "increased poverty and inequality" that Hymowitz bemoans.

Let me put the point this way. If Hymowitz is right about early American thinking about the institution of marriage, much of that thinking was shaped by a desire to ensure that this institution embodied characteristics that would, when children are born into them, create productive citizens. But it is one thing to have children outside the context of such an institution. It is something else again to have this context in place without children entering into it. The latter poses no threat to the creation of productive citizens. Put simply, it's not marriages without children that are the problem. It's children growing up without the stability and partnership that committed marriage can help to foster.

But there's a nuance to Hymowitz's argument that I'm overlooking here. Hymowitz thinks that without the expectation of children in a marriage--without the idea that having and raising children goes with getting married--marriage loses its "gravitas." In short, she thinks that the character of the marital relationship changes, ceasing to have the properties that contribute to healthy child-rearing, once people stop thinking of it as inextricably bound up with having children. If having children is optional rather than expected, marriages will lose--even in those cases where couples do have children--the traits that make a marital relationship so conducive to producing productive and healthy citizens.

This is an interesting claim. Is it true? I don't know, but I'm skeptical. I know from my own life that my marriage took on a new meaning and significance once their were children. In fact, I've been married twice. The first, entered into when I was quite young (early twenties), ended in divorce before there were children--before there were even thoughts of children. The second is still, I am happy to say, going strong. I'd like to think it would still be going strong even if there had been no children, but my point is this: Our marriage became about something more than the two of us when we started having children. Staying together became about more than just the happiness we found in each others' company. It became about our shared commitment to raising these two precious children. My participation in a marriage that did not involve children in no way diminished the broader significance that my present marriage has for me because children are involved.

And so, based on this anecdotal evidence, I'm a bit skeptical of the claim that the existence of marriages which don't involve children or the expectation of children somehow diminishes the society-building virtues of those marriages in which children are a part. Admittedly, this evidence is wholly anecdotal, but I doubt Hymowitz can do better for her contrary view. It would certainly be much harder for her to muster up the wieghty kind of evidence that she is able to muster up in support of the idea that having children outside of marriage is problematic. This may explain why Hymowitz relies so heavily on blurring the distinction between children-without-marriage and marriages-without-children, making her case against the latter rest on the negative effects of the former.

But whatever we think about this, there is a second crucial oversight in Hymowitz's article, based on a second failure to make important distinctions. I have in mind the distinction between making babies and raising them. Married couples who can't make babies can still raise them. As such, married same-sex couples can still participate in raising the next generation. Many do. Many more want to. For many gay and lesbian friends of mine, marriage is about raising children in the sense that they see the finding of a life partner as bound up with the hope of raising a family.

The fact is that same-sex marriage would increase the number of married couples who cannot readily produce babies of their own to raise. But in a world where so many children lack the kind of stable partnership for child-rearing that marriage helps to create, this implication of same-sex marriage would hardly be the negative one that Hymowitz links to "fraying" the connection between marriage and raising children. In the end, her argument rests entirely on a blurring of distinctions.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shelter from the Storm

(A picture taken by Bruce Hundley of downtown Stillwater after yesterday's storm--which swept through like a brief but damaging hurricane)

It took very little time for the temperature to plummet from 106˚ F to 79˚ F. We were driving in the minivan when it hit. When I saw the force of the wind I gunned the engine to get off the tree-lined street we were on and onto a main road. The children, strapped into their car seats in the back, stared wide-eyed out the windows. The sky ahead of us was still blue, but behind us it was black, and it was roiling over us. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw lightning tear the sky in two.

“Were they predicting storms today?” my wife asked. I shrugged my ignorance, and she began urgently tapping the keys of her Blackberry to try to find a weather update.

We could be forgiven for not paying attention. For weeks now the weather had been the same: blistering heat and sun, temperatures approaching or topping 110 most days. And then, on Thursday, our air conditioning had finally groaned and shuddered to a stop. The repair crews were overworked and, because of the back log, couldn’t get to our house until Monday.

We boarded the dogs, carried the fish tank to the neighbors, and—since we had overnight guests—rented a hotel suite that could accommodate seven people. The next day, after our guests left, we moved in with my wife’s cousins.

When Monday finally arrived all we could think about was getting the AC fixed and getting settled back into our own house and our own routine. My wife’s cousins are wonderful people, and we enjoyed our unexpected long weekend with them. But it was time to be home.

The day was spent in a holding pattern, waiting for the AC people to call. An urgent conversation with our home warranty company, just before 5 PM, finally rustled up the repair crew, who declared our air conditioner operational again just before 6. We didn’t think to check the weather before deciding to run back to our relatives’ house, pick up our things, and then stop somewhere for dinner before heading home.

As we got into the van I noticed the dark skies—but they were to the north, and since I’m used to thinking of dangerous Oklahoma storms as moving towards the northeast, I imagined the storm would miss us. I felt a twinge of regret. We badly needed the rain.

We had managed to load our overnight bags into the car and start down the tree-lined lane before the wind really picked up. We’d made it out from under the trees before it became truly frightening (winds upwards of 80 miles an hour, according to this morning’s newspaper report).

We could see the dark streaks of torrential rain off to our left, but where we were it was still just spitting. The surging storm quickly consumed the last bits of blue sky. I thought at first it was hail that was beating on the car, but it was wind-blown debris. My son said something about a tornado, but my wife quickly assured him that it wasn’t the season for it.

But I could see the worry in her eyes. It may not have been a tornado, but the straight-line winds were dangerously tearing at every tree and pole that lined the street to our left.

Suddenly, most of a tree broke loose and blew across the road ahead of us. I slowed down and maneuvered around it. A minute later a lightning bolt struck a power line next to our van.

“There’s a church!” my wife gestured to our right. “Pull into the parking lot behind it.” Another bolt of lightning hit a field across the street, immediately sparking a fire in the parched grass.

It was a large church building, and there were a number of cars in the spacious lot—so we knew there were people there. I pulled up to the covered drive by the front entrance. My wife and kids jumped out and ran for the doors, but they were locked. They immediately turned and ran the length of the building, looking for an open door. As I turned the van around I saw a gust of wind bodily lift my son off the pavement. My wife clung to his arm and clutched my daughter to her breast. Then they disappeared into a doorway.

I parked the car and for a moment wondered whether it was safer to stay where I was. But my family was inside, and the large open lot didn’t threaten much in the way of blowing debris. So I ran for it. The door opened for me, and I was in.

I saw my family sitting in the hallway. My daughter was clinging to my wife, who was whispering soothing words. “Safe now, safe now.”

My son stared up the hallway towards a bank of windows, which offered a clear view of the storm. We watched as the rain finally hit, torrents beating down. “What’s that coming off the roof?” my son asked.

I looked at the sheets of white that were blasted off the roof by the wind. “That’s water,” I said.

“It’s like a waterfall!”

I became aware of others. A solidly-built older man with a cross on his t-shirt clapped my shoulder and offered words of welcome. And then a white-haired woman was leading me by the hand, saying something about all the food that was still left, asking if we’d eaten any dinner. I could feel the pressure of her warm fingers, the gentle tug.

A middle-aged man with a developmental disability came up to me and asked me how I was. When I said I was fine he smiled and wandered away. We were in a fellowship hall, with old 1950’s album covers propped at each of a dozen round tables. Older women began fussing over us. Our plates were soon heaped with casseroles and macaroni and three bean salad. “There’s homemade ice cream over there,” someone told me. “Be sure you try some of that!”

The storm continued to rage outside, but it didn’t take long for the kids to care more about the table full of desserts. And then the gathering began to move to a different part of the hall. Chairs had been set up in rows facing a low stage, where a grey bearded man was settling himself behind a keyboard. He’d used hair gel to pull his bangs into what I thought of as a “Sha Na Na” point.

Someone at an adjacent table said something to me which I couldn’t understand. I looked up. A heavy young man with slightly slurred speech asked me again whether I wanted a song sheet. I shook my head. “Maybe when I’m finished eating.”

But soon my family was sitting in the back row, singing “Ain’t That Ashame” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” The old woman who’d led me by the hand was trying to get someone to dance.

The place was called Countryside Baptist Church, and I have no doubt they embrace a theology that's far more conservative than mine. Many of their beliefs—about hell, about homosexuality—are ones I’d likely call harmful. But in this moment what they offered was hospitality, and shelter from the storm. There were no conditions placed on their welcome, no theological litmus test my family needed to pass before we could pass through their doors. They saw our need and they took us in.

And if we’d been two gay men, fresh from our honeymoon in Niagara Falls, I have no doubt they would’ve done the same thing. The doors would have opened. Had we been a Muslim family I’m convinced the welcome would have been just as immediate.

In either of those cases, at some point, someone might have felt the need to evangelize, to try to “save” a lost soul. The welcome would, then, have become infected with a thread of condescension: You aren’t like us, and your otherness makes you incomplete. To be whole you must become like us. Even if the words were never spoken, the guests might have sensed them in furtive glances.

But this impulse—this urge to draw dividing lines in the dirt (and then invite those on the far side to cross over)—wouldn’t have come immediately. For some it wouldn’t have come at all, and for others it would have felt out of place in the face of the original impulse to open the door. And for those who might have actually spoken the words—you are other; you need to change—it would have been out of duty, a duty born of doctrine.

The impulse to open the door was born out of something deeper than that—a force of solidarity and empathy that, while expressed in Christian doctrine, is experienced as far more than just a teaching.

But this is not to say that for the people at Countryside Baptist Church last night, their status as a Christian community played no role in motivating their unqualified hospitality. While I have no doubt that this force of love is at work in human beings across every ideological and religious divide; while I know that atheists open doors to those in need, and that what motivates them is the same immediate sense of care and solidarity in a world of troubles—while all of this is true, I also believe that the community of spiritually united people that Christianity calls the Church has the capacity to nurture this force of love.

If one runs to a private home, the welcome is always less certain—the impulse for hospitality at odds with fears about security and privacy. If we’d pulled up in front of the local country club, we’d have likely enjoyed a grudging welcome in the entry hall. Had we waited out the storm in a fast food restaurant, we’d have enjoyed the same canned welcome one typically receives, and the same invitation to order off the menu.

But here were people gathered, explicitly, in the House of the Lord. They were gathered for “50’s Night” rather than for a Bible study or prayer meeting, but that made no difference. By coming together within these walls they had put on an identity that went beyond their private one. They were the people of God, and with that identity comes a responsibility: to manifest God’s hospitality, to express God’s welcome and God’s love.

It’s true enough that a gay teen growing up in a conservative Christian church will experience much pain and isolation, even quiet despair, because of teachings that are imbued by the community with the obduracy of divine will. But in a raging storm, that same gay teen knows where he can run for shelter.

In contemporary debates about the harms and dangers of organized religion, New Atheists and other critics of religion have made much of the historic atrocities and the contemporary extremisms. And there can be no doubt that the structures and institutions of organized religion can be put to the service of hate. But in a considered conversation about whether organized religion does more harm than good, we cannot forget the less dramatic realities that organized religion can and does help to nurture: the day-to-day acts of goodwill, the gestures of welcome, the offers of shelter from the storm.

The question is whether organized religion’s power for nurturing hospitality and benevolence can be harnessed without the baggage of in-group/out-group ideology, without the false certainties that make productive dialogue about complex moral matters impossible, without the dogmatism that throws up walls against new insights and discoveries.

I believe it can. I believe it can because I believe that where people are gathered together in God’s name there is a force at work more fundamental than our human impulse for tribalism, greater than our individual hunger for certainty. I believe it can because, sitting here in my office today, I can still feel the pressure of that old woman’s hand, leading me and my family into the fellowship hall while, outside, the storm raged on.