Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Marriage Equality: The Loving Grandfather vs. the Biblical Exegete

My Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy are featured in a recent short video spot about marriage equality. So are my first cousins once removed, Jake and Caleb--but the focus here is an on a love story that's lasted more than 70 years. John and Dorothy know something about what a successful marriage is, and what it can mean for a rich and full life. And they want the opportunity for such a life-deepening relationship for all their grandchildren, including the two who happen to be gay.

John's career was as a Lutheran pastor--and there are some conservative Christians, of various denominations, who will be scandalized by the fact that someone who spent his life in Christian ministry would speak out so unambiguously in support of marriage equality for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. And so, as I was watching Uncle John on the video (with a bit of a pang, given how much he looks like a beardless version of his baby brother, my father, who died in the fall) I couldn't help but think of an essay that a friend of mine called my attention to recently.

The essay, a manifesto against marriage equality by Robert Gagnon, appeared a little over a month back on Mystagogy, the blog of John Sanidopoulis. And given what Gagnon says there, I have little doubt that he'd be indignant about someone like my Uncle John--a retired pastor who not only supports marriage equality, but in support of this position says that "Jesus was about love."

Uncle John's support of marriage equality isn't born out of some kind of willful betrayal of his Christian faith. It's an extension of it. In fact, at least as I see things, his position here is what typically happens when, instead of paying lip service to the idea of loving gays and lesbians while thumping biblical passages and invoking philosophically dubious arguments, you actually focus sustained compassionate attention on your gay and lesbian neighbors--that is, when the neighbors you sincerely seek to love as yourself happen to be gay.

Some people live in an isolated world where, in order to really connect in a sustained and loving way with gays and lesbians, they need to step out of their comfort zones, set aside their judgmental filters, and deliberately overcome habitual aversions in order to practice sincere empathy. For others, it comes quite readily--if, for example, you're defined by a spirit of affection, especially towards the family you hold dear; if you're the grandfather of some of the gay neighbors you're called upon to love; if you've watched them grow since infancy, held them on your lap, and seen the future in their eyes.

Of course, I'm describing here my Uncle John--a sweet, compassionate man by disposition, a pastor and church-builder (and, later, organizer of "Reitan Christian Tours") by profession, and a grandfather of two gay grandsons by chance.

And it seems to me that the best refutation of the kinds of argument we find hammered out by Gagnon and others may be the simple testimony of someone like Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to sit down and pick apart Gagnon's arguments. His main focus in the linked essay is the question of whether the Bible has elements which can be used to justify a systematic opposition to same-sex marriage--and Gagnon, as a biblical scholar, makes a number of valid observations. But I'd be the first to concede that the Bible has elements that could be invoked to oppose marriage equality. The Old Testament is dripping in patriarchy, so much so that, according to Deutoronomic law, a rapist of an unpledged virgin can erase the wrong of his crime by paying the father off and marrying his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28).

Such a rule makes sense if the crime of rape is that of taking a woman who doesn't rightly belong to you, and the chief victim of the crime is seen not as the raped woman, but as the man to whom she rightly belongs (the husband or, in the case of the unmarried, the father and future husband). It makes some sense if, in a patriarchal culture, women both depend on having husbands for their survival and will never find a husband if they are regarded as "damaged goods." But that such a rule makes sense on these patriarchal assumptions just goes to show how appalling the underlying cultural patriarchy, presupposed in so much Old Testament law, really is.

What we have here is a deep cultural blindness to the full humanity and dignity of women. And it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone that such a framework would not only have appalling implications for women, but appalling implications for the prospects of sexual minorities to live a rich and full life.

That Paul was inspired, by his revelatory encounters with a God of love, to shake off much of this patriarchal outlook doesn't mean he escaped it completely. And so it should come as no surprise that even in the face of transformative revelatory experiences--the moments of inspiration that moved him to say that in Christ there is neither male nor female--some vestiges of the cultural norms he'd inherited remained. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that one can find in Paul patriarchal ideas at odds with same-sex marriage.

The chief question here is not whether such elements exist, but how Christians today should understand the relationship between the collected writings of the Bible, the cultural presuppositions within which the authors were writing, and the revelation of God. Gagnon doesn't address this question. What he does do is supplement his biblical case with strained natural law arguments against same-sex intimacy. He concludes that because two men are joining together body parts that aren't designed to go together, they are violating their own dignity and harming themselves (resulting in what he calls "the degradation of the gendered self that comes from engaging in homosexual practice").

Such a line of argument begins with an abstract and contestable theory about human nature and human welfare to arrive at a conclusion sharply at odds with the lived experience of gays and lesbians. Rather than looking at how the lives of actual gays and lesbians go--a practice of compassionate attention which would lead one to conclude that those gays and lesbians are happiest who throw off the culture of condemnation and embrace an expression of their sexuality analogous to what we find in heterosexual marriage--Gagnon subordinates the lessons of such loving attention to a theory that affixes enormous moral weight on physical plumbing. Although I'm sure this wasn't Gagnon's explicit intent, this looks to me like a case of prioritizing the implications of a controversial human theory over the lessons that arise from living out Christ's call to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I could dig more deeply into what strike me as Gagnon's dubious assumptions and strange logic, but the truth is that what is on display in Gagnon's essay is what happens when biblical exegesis and moral theorizing take place divorced from the actual business of loving the people who are most directly impacted by one's conclusions. And to let loving attention and profound human relationships guide our moral sensibilities on this issue is to live out Christ's injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves, and taking seriously Jesus' call to look for Him in the neighbor who comes to us in need.

And so, while at some point I may have to sit down and dissect arguments like the one Gagnon offers more explicitly and rigorously, I think a truer refutation is offered by the voice of love speaking from a lifetime of love. Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy offer that voice in this video:

New Santorum Piece at Religion Dispatches

My recent satirical bit on Rick Santorum's disdain for higher education motivated something more serious, which is now up at Religion Dispatches. Check out "Santorum's War on, on Higher Education."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Santorum Unveils Radical Education Plan

In a bold move, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum unveiled his newest strategy for winning the presidency: Outlaw higher education.

"The more educated the American people are, the less likely they are to support my candidacy," he said in a candid Faux News interview."This seems pretty decisive proof that higher education is bad for the American people. The more they know, the more liberal they become and the more they oppose my obviously correct policies. But we all know that it's stupid to be liberal. So, higher education makes people stupid."

"Why stop with higher education?" asked the interviewer.

"You're right. I mean, home schooling is the only sensible option for anyone aywhere, since other options inevitably infect children with satanic ideas."

When asked by ABD News reporter, Nodiss Ertation, about the long-term effects of Santorum's proposals on American competitiveness in the global economy, Santorum looked the reporter in the eye and called him a snob, sparking thunderous applause from gathered onlookers.

"Some might argue," Ertation pressed, "that you're just pandering to anti-intellectual populism at the expense of the actual welfare of the American people. Making higher education available and affordable to everyone isn't elitism. Elitism is excluding some classes of people from access to the resources they need to reach their highest potential. What President Obama has been arguing isn't that everyone be required to go to a four-year university, but that the option of higher education--including 2-year technical colleges--be available for everyone who could benefit from it. That's the opposite of snobbery."

"You," replied Santorum, "have clearly been corrupted by some liberal college professor feeding you a load of socialist dogma. I rest my case."

"That's the ad hominem fallacy," retorted Ertation. "And the genetic fallacy. And probably a few other fallacies that I can't think of the names of offhand."

"Yup. Snob."

Ertation's further attempts to question the candidate were drowned out by the cheers of his supporters.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bad Oklahoma Bills, Part 2: An Excuse to Talk About Tenure

In my series on “bad bills” submitted to the Oklahoma legislature this legislative season, it would be remiss to leave out one that touches close to home: Republican Corey Holland’s bill, HB 2598, which would abolish the institution of tenure at state colleges and universities (at least for new hires).

From the little I've been able to find on the issue that speaks to Holland's motivations, it appears that Holland is worried about college and university faculty who have light teaching loads but do no research (and are poor teachers in any event), take home big salaries, and can’t be fired because they have tenure. That is, he invokes the tradition bogey of tenure opponents: the lazy professor sitting in his cushy job, doing little to nothing and getting paid a hefty sum for it. To this he adds a concern about students. He claims universities exist for the sake of students ("not faculty"), and that the institution of tenure does the students a disservice by lining the pockets of tenured professors who don’t contribute to their education.

There are oodles of problems here. First of all, the bill is premised on some false assumptions about what actually happens in colleges and universities when it comes to the assesment of tenured faculty. Second, Holland's case for the bill is premised on a mischaracterization of the mission or purpose of institutions of higher education, especially universities. Third, Holland has no clear sense of how academic freedom and the tenure system that protects it relate to the purpose of a university. Fourth, Holland has no clear understanding of how tenure actually works to prevent the "lazy professor" cliche of which he is so worried. I will consider each of these issues in turn.

Existing Post-Tenure Faculty Review Processes

First, Holland does not seem to be aware of the rigorous post-tenure review processes that are in place in Oklahoma colleges universities, or the fact that while tenure guarantees due process before someone is terminated, it is not a guarantee of continued employment. Tenured faculty can be fired, but only if their performance can be shown to be substantially deficient (not for unspecified reasons or vague considerations that could obscure politically motivated employment decisions such as an authority feeling threatened by the critical arguements). Furthermore, evidence relevant to determinations of deficiency are constantly being collected.

Speaking for OSU specifically (although other colleges and universities have similar policies), every course that every professor teaches is reviewed by the students at the end of the term using evaluation forms that solicit both quantitative and qualitative feedback. In many if not most departments, untenured faculty are additionally evaluated by classroom visitations from tenured faculty. All faculty are subjected to yearly review by their department head in terms of research, teaching, and service work, and faculty performance in each area is “graded” on a scale from inadequate to highly meritorious. These Assessment and Development reviews serve as the basis for determinations of raises—and there are no cost of living raises. You get a raise only based on merit, which means that to keep up with inflation you have to perform above and beyond the minimum requirements of the job.

Furthermore, OSU has a cumulative post-tenure review process (as does OU, the other major state university in Oklahoma). Every five years the faculty member’s total body of work is assessed as a whole for the purpose of identifying any substantial deficiencies, and if deficiencies are found a corrective plan is implemented. Failure to follow the plan can trigger the process whereby a tenured faculty member loses his or her job.

In short, Holland seems to have no comprehension of the scope and systematic character of the evaluations that college and university faculty undergo, formally and repeatedly, after earning tenure. It's true that once you have tenure you cannot simply be fired at will. You have more job security than is typical in business. The granting of tenure is a contract in which termination requires compelling evidence of incompetence, dereliction of duty, criminal behavior, or the right sort of financial necessity. But in exchange, faculty are subject to a level of ongoing, formal, systematic scrutiny that is rarely seen in other occupations. 

The Purpose of the University

Another false assumption Holland makes is that public higher education’s mission is mainly to teach a range of subjects to students--and that, as such, a professor is first and foremost a kind of teacher. As he puts it, “Colleges and universities exist for the benefit of the students not the professors.”

Now teaching is a very importand dimension of a university and a professor's job, but to define the mission of a university in terms of teaching mischaracterizes its more comprehensive function. Universities are centers of scholarly research, humanistic and artistic creativity, and critical (but constructive) reflection on social norms, practices, and institutions. They are places where such scholarly and creative endeavors are pursued by the most talented and innovative faculty that the university can attract, and the fruits of their work and learning are disseminated to the broader public—in part by enrolling and educating students, but also by reaching out in various ways to the broader community and bringing their expertise to bear on issue of public concern.

In the original conception of the university, it was an institution where students who wanted to become scholars could go in order to essentially apprentice themselves to established scholars. Apprenticeship is not quite the same as classroom teaching. For an apprenticeship to exist, the teacher/mentor has to actually be an active practitioner of what the apprentice seeks to master.

An apprentice blacksmith doesn't apprentice himself to someone whose profession is teaching; he apprentices himself to a professional blacksmith who also teaches. Likewise in the various fields of academia, the profession of the apprentice's mentor is to be a practitioner of the scholarly discipline that the apprentice seeks to master. The apprentice learns the discipline by working with a practitioner, by being given the chance under the practitioner’s supervision and critical guidance to try his or her own hand at doing the kind of work that the practitioner engages in.

This vision remains clearly in place at the graduate level, where graduate students learn to be philosophers or historians or research biologists or mechanical engineers by working with accomplished philosophers, historians, research biologists, and mechanical engineers--professionals who are busy doing philosophy, history, biology, and mechanical engineering. This same vision also remains in place in a more attenuated way in relation to undergraduate students who major in a given field.

But the scope of faculty responsibility has expanded beyond this role of active-scholar-mentoring-apprentice-scholar (and rightly so, I think, but I won't go into that here). Now, faculty are called upon not merely to do scholarship and take on apprentices, but to teach the basics of their discipline to those who have no intention of becoming apprentices but who would benefit from a broad, general understanding of a diversity of disciplines. In this capacity, they are acting mainly as teachers of philosophy, history, etc., as opposed to operating mainly as philosophers, historians, etc. But they remain more than teachers of the discipline. They are also practitioners of it. In fact, the university is built around the idea that best teacher in a given field, at least at the level of higher education, is a practitioner.

The point is that Holland is formulating his legislation without any clear sense of what colleges and universities are about. To regard the faculty as teachers by profession is to miss something important. The members of the philosophy faculty, for example, are philosophers by profession--but philosophers who teach. They teach about their profession to those who are interested, and they take on apprentice philosophers at various stages of development. Likewise for historians and biologists and mechanical engineers.

To summarize, a university is a center for scholarship, research, and original creative and critical work in humanistic and artistic fields. Faculty are practicing scholars, researchers, artists, etc., who teach others about what they do in addition to producing original work in their field. Universities are centers not only for teaching about but also for expanding human knowledge and wisdom and for producing creative and critical works of diverse kinds. They are centers for intellectual pursuits that often challenge existing ways of doing things, existing cultural presuppositions and standards.

The importance of academic freedom—and the role of tenure in preserving such freedom—is best understood in the light of this understanding of what universities and colleges are about. Insofar as Holland displays no understanding of this sort, it is no surprise that he displays no appreciation for academic freedom or the tenure system that furthers it. But that is the issue I want to explore here.

Tenure and Academic Freedom

Academic freedom refers to the substantial freedom of the scholar to develop a comprehensive scholarly program in the light of his or her own interests, passions, and commitments, without the range and substance of that scholarship being restricted by the fear of termination. The heart of any comprehensive scholarly program is the scholar’s research; hence, in its essence academic freedom entails that there are no restrictions on the direction or focus of a scholar’s research.

But a comprehensive scholarly program includes not only research, but also teaching and community outreach activities that are integrated with and complementary to that research. A true scholar’s research shapes his or her teaching; and insofar as much scholarship has implications for public life, the best scholars are often vitally engaged in civic discourse, public policy decisions, community service activities, etc. In fact, the relevance and importance of scholarship depends on its capacity to reach beyond the “ivory tower” and into the world, via the classroom and public outreach. Thus, the scholar’s academic freedom, to be authentic, must extend into these areas as well. The best scholars convey their research findings in their teaching and pursue the practical implications of that research in public life. Academic freedom entails that they be free to do these things without risk of termination.

The crucial importance of preserving and promoting academic freedom cannot be underemphasized. Academia is, in its purpose and mission, the place in which scholarly and artistic excellence, in all its rich diversity, is valued and promoted for its own sake. Originality and creativity are crucial components of such excellence, and guarantees of academic freedom are essential for fostering this creativity and originality.

One reason why this is so is because academic creativity and originality is often bound up with an openness to criticizing the status quo. Academia is often if not usually the primary institution within society that operates as society's "gadfly"--the prod that discourages complacency and encourages critical reflection on existing social practices. But as demonstrated by Socrates, the original "gadfly," this role can produce enemies among the beneficiaries of the status quo--namely those in positions of power. If faculty can be fired for the substance of what they say and the uncomfortable social implications of their research, then soon enough only those without the courage to serve the "gadfly" role will remain in the academy. Not only will this undercut an important social function of academia, but it will diminish academic creativity in general. Creativity depends on the willingness to push against existing boundaries, and tenure is a tool for keeping such creativity alive.

In sum, one dimension of academic freedom—and the version that typically receives the most attention—is the freedom to pursue work that may be unpopular with established authorities or the broader public without fear of being terminated. Without such freedom, fewer scholars would dare pursue the kind of boundary-challenging research that is often a prelude to the most important intellectual developments. Scholars won’t risk critically examining the assumptions that underlie existing social practices if doing so leads to conclusions likely to be unpopular with the wider public or their leaders.

But with respect to promoting academic innovation, there is another dimension of academic freedom that deserves attention as well: the freedom to risk the pursuit of ground-breaking research that might not bear fruit, or whose fruits might not be immediately appreciated. Very often, the ground-breaking research that has the highest payoffs when successful also has the greatest chance of proving unsuccessful. Furthermore, even when such research generates important results, it may take time for the value of these results to be understood and embraced within a discipline (especially if accepting the results would force a paradigm-shift within the discipline).

Such research, in short, faces a higher risk of not finding the level of peer recognition that more modest research enjoys, at least within a short time frame (say, six or seven years). This is why many scholars wait to pursue this kind of potentially momentous work until after they've received tenure. Scholars who, in order to keep their jobs, must show a consistent level of research productivity as measured by publication in peer-reviewed outlets, and who cannot afford to wait a dozen years for their insights to be appreciated (because they are likely to have lost their job in the meantime), are far less likely to pursue the riskier but more important and potentially ground-breaking lines of research.

There is a reason why, prior to tenure, scholars are measured in terms of their capacity to produce work that is well-received within their discipline. That, after all, is an important preliminary measure of a scholar’s promise. Universities are therefore prepared to limit the academic freedom of scholars for a short time (six or seven years) for the purposes of ensuring that these scholars are capable of meeting the standards of success that currently prevail in their discipline.

But giving scholars the freedom after tenure to pursue research that risks not being well-received is equally important for the sake of promoting intellectual excellence. If continued employment after tenure is made contingent on producing a steady stream of scholarly work that is generally well-received within the discipline, few will risk the kind of paradigm-shattering scholarship of which greatness is made. In a university where drops in scholarly productivity (as measured by conventional standards) pose a risk of termination, there will admittedly be fewer incompetent scholars on the faculty. But there will also be fewer great ones. Perhaps worse, some of the greatest scholars, who brilliance defies conventional measures of competence, and who might one day help to redefine those very measures, will be prematurely fired before their greatness is appreciated.

The best way to promote genuine scholarly excellence is therefore to hold scholars to conventional standards for a probationary period, temporarily limiting academic freedom for the sake of being able to evaluate the capacity of scholars to work to conventional standards. But once this probationary period ends, these restrictions of academic freedom must be lifted. If not, the university imposes constraints on scholarly creativity and originality that seem to be a recipe for institutional mediocrity. There is a reason why the tenure system, in which a probationary period is followed by the conference of a strong presumption of continued employment (barring evidence of substantial deficiency in meeting basic job requirements), has become the dominant model around the world. It has become dominant because it has proved through the generations to be the very best way to promote academic excellence.

Creating the Self-Motivated Academic
Speaking of academic excellence, there is another way tenure works to promote this besides giving proven scholars the freedom to experiment and explore new territory that might not bear fruit. Specifically, the entire academic system, of which the tenure process is an integral part, helps to cultivate the kind of inner virtues, the dedication and self-starting motivation, that is essential for genuine academic achievement.

Here’s how it works: First, you make those who want to work in the profession go through years and years of schooling in which they are tested over and over (and over and over) again by experts in the field, have to create a major original contribution to the field called a dissertation, have no guarantee of a job at the end of it, and if they do find a job won’t be paid nearly as much as less-educated people in the private sector. This step in the process helps to make sure that only those who have strong internal motivation to work in the field—those who do it out of love—end up in the running for academic careers.

Next, those who do find entry level positions in academia have seven years to prove themselves worthy of the chief “carrot” the academy offers (in lieu of high salaries): tenure. To earn tenure, they have to show a consistent record of achievement as a teacher and scholar. They don’t just have to pass muster with their immediate colleagues. No. Their scholarly work is sent to a slate of chosen experts in the field (from other institutions) to be evaluated, and those third-party evaluations play a crucial role in the tenure decision. To earn tenure, you must prove yourself to be really, really good at what you do—and if you don’t succeed in doing this, you are not only out of your current job, but you’re unlikely to get another job in academia. You will have devoted years—even decades—of your life to a career path that you must now leave behind.

This process ensures that those who do get tenure are not only qualified and knowledgeable in their chosen field. It also ensures that before they ever get tenure they will have developed solid work habits, inner motivations, and deep personal investment in their chosen field. In other words, they will be people who for reasons having little to do with external reward are deeply committed to pursuing excellence.

Before getting tenure, I wrote dozens of professional articles, but I didn’t write my first book until after I got tenure. It was an enormous investment of time and energy. So why did I do it?

I wrote my second book after I was promoted to full professor. That’s the highest rank you can achieve in academia, and there really isn’t much in the way of promotion or raises you can enjoy after that. But I still wrote another book. Why?

Because I cared about the topics of those books. Because, based on my body of learning and intellectual training, I had something of significance to say about those topics. And because by the time I had tenure, I’d become one of those people who, when they care about a topic and have something significant to say about it, can’t rest until they’ve communicated that as clearly and rigorously as they can.

Science faculty develop habits of curiosity, skills in the laboratory, and deep intellectual investment in the controversies and puzzles that dominate the world of science. Creative writing faculty develop habits that drive them to obsessively craft their poetry or prose, to produce the best poems or stories they are able to produce.

You get the idea. This long vetting process described above—of which tenure and promotion is the capstone—shapes the character and passions of those who go through it. If they pass through it successfully, they don’t just become scholars and teachers and researchers in name. These things become a defining element of who they are. They become the kind of people who do this sort of work passionately, even compulsively.

There are, of course, exceptions—scholars who burn out, or who suffer something in their personal lives that impacts their professional performance. But in all the years I’ve been involved in academic life, I’ve met a bare handful who fit this description. And I have never, not once, personally met a tenured professor who fits the stereotypical “lazy professor” portrait that operates as the motivator for the kind of legislation Holland is proposing. The reason is clear: people who do a certain kind of work passionately, even compulsively, are the very opposite of lazy. And the tenure and promotion process is specifically designed to help build potential scholars into people who do that kind of work passionately, even compulsively (and to weed out those without the disposition to become such scholars). Those too strongly motivated by laziness just don’t make it through the tenure process.

And Representative Holland’s solution to the non-existent lazy professor problem? Eliminate the process that is responsible for the non-existence of the problem.

I suppose he imagines that fear of unemployment will then prevent the laziness he imagines to exist but which doesn’t really exist. Arguably, fear of unemployment can prevent laziness. So can inner drive and passion for what one is doing. And as motivators go, when it comes to the kind of work that scholars do, the evidence is overwhelming that intrinsic motivators--passion for what you're doing, the autonomy to choose and direct your own work, and the desire to build on your talents to achieve excellence--are far better at producing results. In fact, with the kind of work that scholars do, the evidence reveals that an emphasis of extrinsic motivators--"carrots and sticks"--actually interferes with higher accomplishment. You want higher accomplishment, you take carrots and sticks out of the picture (in the way that tenure does at least to an important extent) but give someone the freedom to autonomously choose meaningful, creative work that challenges them (as tenure gives scholars the academic freedom to do).

Skeptical? Just think about how much time people are willing to spend, with no compensation, engaging in the complex problem-solving and dexterity challenges we call "computer games." Or if that doesn't convince you, check out this compelling and engaging summary of current research in a TED talk by Dan Pink.

Tenure is a well-spring of intrinsic motivation for scholarly achievement. Holland wants to do away with it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sins of Attention?

In the third installment of my series entitled "The Problem of Damned Sinners" (which also included parts 1 and 2 and an addendum), I argued that within the broader context of Calvinist theology, belief in the eternal conscious torment of the damned commits one to the view that the damned remain eternally mired in sinfulness. My case was of the form "A, but if you don't accept A then B; but if you don't accept B, then C"--where A, B, and C are all arguments for the view that the damned remain eternally sinful in a way that constitutes an ongoing affront to the good and to God as the supreme good.

Randal Rauser challenged the strength of my "argument C"--the argument that was directed towards those who claimed that the eternal conscious torment of the damned is so overwhelming that it utterly consumes them and thereby prevents them from actually sinning. In response to this, I argued that in order for the damned to suffer conscious torment, they would need to attend to their torment; and in order for this torment to wholly consume them, the torment would have to occupy all of their attention. But insofar as (on traditional theological assumptions) we ought to attend first and foremost to the divine, such fixation on oneself would qualify as sinful. Thus, the conclusion that the damned sin eternally cannot be escaped by insisting that they are too focused on their own torment to commit any sins.

Randal found this argument implausible and appealed to the analogy of someone being slowly skinned alive to highlight the implausibility of it. Now there's a sense in which I agree that the argument is highly implausible. But what I think makes it so implausible is precisely this: If someone is being subjected to extreme torment, the torment is driven to the very center of their consciousness so fully that they really cannot attend to anything else. And it seems implausible to hold someone accountable--as guilty of a sin--for attending to what they cannot help but attend to.

But to say that this is implausible is, really, to say that Calvinist theology in its strictest forms is implausible--because this theology holds that sinners cannot help but sin while still maintaining that the sinfulness they are incapable of failing to commit remains blameworthy. For the supralapsarian Calvinist, "ought" does not imply "can." What is required for sinful behavior is that the behavior is out of conformity with an established standard, whether or not behavior in conformity with that standard is possible.

But, clearly, what we attend to and don't attend to is an important dimension of sinfulness and holiness in the Christian tradition. To be holy, Christians are exhorted to "think on" the right sorts of things. We are called to love God and neighbor--but it seems impossible to love when we do not attend.

So, within the Christian tradition there clearly will be standards to which our attention must conform. And for the supralapsarian Calvinist, the ability to actually conform is not necessary in order for failures of conformity to be sinfully blameworthy. And so, if attending to God and neighbor and not just to oneself is the established standard, then the person who attends only to herself is sinning...even if the person is attending only to herself because she cannot help it, because the suffering she is enduring so swamps her that nothing else breaks through.

In fact, however, I think that this kind of fixed attention on your own torment isn't sinful, precisely because I think that when torment overwhelms your psyche in this way, the subsequent fixity of attention is a result produced in you by forces beyond your power to resist, and hence not something you can be held accountable for. But this way of thinking presupposes the very "ought" implies "can" principle that, it seems to me, the strict Calvinist theology I was assessing has to deny.

I might rest on that point, but as usual I think there is a more philosophically interesting set of issues lurking at the margins here. Specifically, I think that the psychological state in which we cannot help but attend wholly to our own suffering is precisely what the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil had in mind when she spoke of "affliction" (which she distinguished from mere suffering). And for Weil, such affliction has a unique place in Christianity--a place given to it by the crucifixion.

I think that there are lessons to be learned from reflecting on Weil's ideas here and bringing them to bear on the conservative Christian notion that some persons suffer eternal torment. In a near-future post or two, then, I want to explicate some of Weil's core ideas in relation to attention and affliction.

Before doing that, however, there are some more really mind-boggling bills being brought before the Oklahoma legislature that I want to call attention to as a public service...maybe tomorrow.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bad Oklahoma Bills: Pursuing Inequality--even if it costs the state money and diminishes local liberty, because increasing inequality is apparently THAT important

It’s hard to keep up with all the bad bills introduced by members of the Oklahoma legislature. But, as a public service, I thought that in the next few posts I’d hit on a few of the biggest clunkers. In the first post of this series, I begin with a pair of bills introduced by the Republican state representative Mike Reynolds.

The first of Reynold’s disturbing bills, and the one that I think has received the most public attention, is HB 2195. Thankfully, it was just today effectively killed by a House committee, and for good reason. But it’s a shame that Oklahoma’s legislature needs to expend time and energy on bills such as this one.

This bill has been described as an effort to reinstate, in the Oklahoma National Guard, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military--the policy that was recently repealed at the federal level. In fact, however, HB 2195 would apparently have gone further, permitting officials to questions soldiers about their sexuality and dismiss them based on what was learned. That is, it’s DADT without the “DA,” thereby allowing for witch hunts based on sexual orientation.

One's sexuality has no bearing as such on one’s ability to perform the duties of a soldier in the National Guard. What Reynolds was proposing, therefore, was to write unjustified discrimination into state law. He seems to thinks this is a good idea: legal discrimination that justifies firing people based on personal characteristics that don’t interfere with job performance.

The reason DADT was ultimately, finally repealed at the national level is because the obvious injustice of such discrimination finally won out over deep-seated anti-gay prejudice. But some have sought to justify the discrimination by arguing that private sexuality somehow is a relevant consideration for doing the kind of work that soldiers do. Usually, their argument invokes “morale.”

Now it is true that if a military organization is riddled with prejudice against a certain class of people, there can be problems if that class of people is allowed to serve. But surely the solution is not to pander to the prejudice—to legislate in favor of the “morale” of those who harbor prejudice against people fully capable of performing the job. If you have prejudices that interfere with your ability to work with people of a certain class, then you have a characteristic that interferes with your ability to do your job. Your prejudice interferes with your job performance, and you should be fired—not the person against whom your prejudice is directed.

It’s also worth noting that passage of this bill would have put the state National Guard at odds with federal level policy, jeopardizing millions in federal funding. Reynolds wanted so badly for Oklahomans to be able to unjustly discriminate against sexual minorities that he was willing to risk losing the state valuable resources for the sake of this cause.

Reynold’s other bad bill, HB 2245, is a bit less well-publicized and, as far as I know, has not yet been killed. Like HB 2195, this bill is also aimed at enabling discriminatory practices in government employment. That’s right: Reynolds is such a fan of engaging in discrimination that he wants to use his position as a state legislator to protect those who practice discrimination, rather than protecting their victims.

HB 2245 is written in response to recent efforts by local municipalities to include the protection of sexual minorities (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons) in their anti-discrimination ordinances. HB 2245 seeks to prevent such protections. The state government currently fails to mention LGBT public employees within its own anti-discrimination policies, so Reynolds’ bill works by prohibiting city and county governments from protecting from discrimination any group not explicitly protected at the state level. If passed, the bill would invalidate a number of existing local ordinances, including the one in Oklahoma City.

So, once again, Reynolds wants to protect the discriminator rather than the victim of unjust discrimination. That, after all, is what’s accomplished by HB 2245: existing policies protecting victims of LGBT discrimination are repealed and the world (or at least the state of Oklahoma) is made safe for those who want to discriminate.

And the discrimination in question here is clearly unjust, insofar as it makes private sexuality a criterion for employment—even though there is no good reason to think one’s private sexuality has any bearing on one’s capacity to fulfill the responsibilities of a city job. After all, no city job I know of requires the city employee to have sex with someone as part of their job duties. If makers of heterosexual pornography want to discriminate based on sexual orientation, I can see that being relevant. But last I checked, your ability to do the bureaucratic work of city government isn't a function of who you're attracted to sexually.

Furthermore, the majority of Oklahomans have long stood behind the conservative principle of limiting the authority of higher levels of government in order to maximize local autonomy. But passing this bill would be a precedent-setting expansion of the state’s power to intrude on local affairs. The key question is on what basis should higher levels of government have the authority to intrude on local autonomy?

HB 2245 answers this question in a way that, put bluntly, seems to be the very opposite of what makes sense. Local communities often have unique needs. This fact is best recognized when municipalities retain the right to construct policies that, while consistent with broad state requirements, can be tailored to meet local needs by going beyond what is mandated at the state level. HB essentially denies municipalities this right in the area of protecting threats to equality. I could see stepping in on local automony for the sake of promoting equality--but for the sake of inequality? Really?

I can only blink in mute astonishment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The State of the God Debates: Some lessons from Shook vs. Craig

Back in December, I was given two opportunities on the same day--and they conflicted.

That morning I got a phone call from John Shook, a friend of mine from graduate school and a former OSU colleague who now works for the Center for Inquiry (a kind of atheist think tank). He invited me to debate him at an event in California in February--perhaps on the topic of God and morality. Later that day, I was handed the violin part for "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." It was to run during February--encompassing the weekend of the event John had invited me to participate in.

My father having passed away just over a month earlier, I was thinking a lot about life priorities, about what goals matter the most for living a full, rich life. Participation in a debate about God and morality could certainly fit into a rich life, especially given my interests and profession. But so, too, could participation in the musical. The question was which would do more for me, at this point in my life, to help me build the best kind of life I am capable of.

I've been a violinist since the second grade--far longer than I've been a philosopher. In high school, playing the violin was central to my identity, and I very seriously considered a career in music. I've been involved with the local community theatre for far less time, but it has been a rich source of creative opportunity and community. And here was a rare chance to bring my long training as a violinist into the communal creativity of community theatre.

That's what I chose, and I haven't regretted it. In fact, the experience of connecting with this particular cast has been a great gift. I've made new friendships, deepened old ones, and laughed more these last few weeks than I have in years. The experience has also opened further doors for musical creativity. I've come to know the keyboardist, a very talented musician who does music (among other things) for a living and is eager to have me play with her band on numbers which call for a violin or fiddle part.

The debate with John would've looked better on my professional CV. It might have sold some of my books and helped get some of my ideas out to audiences who otherwise would've have heard them. These aren't trivial things, and I hope to have other opportunities to pursue these things.

But I doubt that flying out to California for a debate would've fed my soul the way that the last few weeks of communal, playful, joyful creativity have done. Part of the reason for that has to do with the current state of the God debates.

This morning, with the date for the debate-that-might-have-been drawing near, I found myself thinking about the option I turned down and I took another look at parts of John's debate with William Lane Craig from a couple of years ago. It reminded me of why debates of the sort exemplified there don't feed my soul (and why I wouldn't want to debate Craig).

Let me say, first, that intellectual exchange with those who disagree with me can feed my soul quite richly. I really enjoy going to professional philosophy conferences to present papers. And at such conferences, there is always a designated commenter on the paper you present. The commenter typically raises objections and critical questions. Sometimes the exchange that follows has some of the character of a debate. But it's also constructive. Each is afforded the space to develop his or her thoughts. If someone makes a good point, it is (usually) quickly acknowledged. And if someone is trying to make a potentially good point but is having some trouble finding the best way to articulate it, others will sometimes jump in (perhaps even a philosophical opponent) with a clarifying question: "Is this what you're trying to say?"

At its best, the aim at a philosophy conference is to increase clarity and deepen the collective understanding of the philosophical problem and the best arguments for alternative solutions.

That isn't the aim in most of the current God debates--where the objective is to win. When John first proposed a debate, my counter-offer (this was before I was invited to be part of the musical) was to have a philosophical conversation--that is, something more like what happens at a philosophy conference than like what happens in typical God debates. John thought that sounded great. But I know that even if we went into the event in that spirit, we would be doing so in a context defined by a different spirit--one in which the zero-sum model of a sporting event seems to prevail. And it's easy to get sucked in by that broader spirit--especially if you have an ego (as both John and I do).

One clip I looked at this morning from the Shook-Craig debate strikes me as instructive here. It appear on youTube under the belligerent title "Dr. William Lane Craig humiliates Dr. John Shook." Here's the clip:

There are a few lessons I want to extract from this clip. First off, the title of the clip is misleading. What appears here is a brief moment in a considerably longer exchange in which neither debater humiliated themselves, even if Craig did manage to trip John up a couple of times here. I'm not saying that Craig didn't make some legitimate points that should have been made--but the title of the clip treats this as equivalent to scoring points against an opponent in a win/lose sporting match. It's as if the video's poster is delighting in a good blow landed by a favored boxer in a title fight.

And then there's the applause. That doesn't happen at philosophy conferences. And when, in this clip, does the applause happen? When one debater "scores a point" against the other.

But the most important point I want to make is this: Presumably because Craig was interested in winning the debate, he didn't display any interest in unpacking the analogy that John was trying to invoke, to understand that analogy within the larger context of John philosophical convictions. Adept at debate, Craig piped in with telling questions or comments (verbal jabs) before John could fully develop his line of thought. This put John into a defensive posture which made it hard for him to collect his thoughts so as to be able to connect the example to its larger philosophical context.

Since I know John, I know that larger context. I pretty sure I know what he was trying to do. John is a specialist in John Dewey, an American pragmatist. Put in somewhat oversimplified terms, what matters most for pragmatism is how our ideas and beliefs are related to behavior. If two seemingly different philosophies have the same pragmatic impact--if they affect how we behave in identical ways--then they have the same pragmatic meaning. The test of truth, for pragmatism, is how an idea works in practice.

So how does that connect with the analogy John was trying to use, about investing money in the stock market? Here's the thing: If I have my money in the bank and I have no good reason to suppose that moving it to the stock market will be to my advantage--and I am risk-averse--then I will behave in the same way that I would if I have my money in the bank and believe that putting it in the stock market would be a bad idea, ultimately losing me money.

Craig is clearly correct to say that the lack of evidence for the view that the stock market will rise in the coming months is not evidence that it won't. But for the hypothetical potential investor with a conservative disposition, the absence of such evidence will have the same pragmatic significance as evidence that the stock market won't rise in the coming months. The belief clusters here are pragmatically the same. For someone who is a pragmatist, these two belief clusters have the same pragmatic meaning.

So, from this perspective, consider someone who (a) operates as if the natural world is all that exists until convinced otherwise by evidence of a supernatural reality, and (b) hasn't yet been convinced otherwise. Even if this person acknowledged that one cannot know that the natural world is all there is, this person would qualify as a naturalist from a pragmatic perspective. Why? Because the person operates practically in the same way that someone who is convinced that there is no supernatural reality would operate. Such a person is a pragmatic atheist. John has said to me before (not in these precise words) that he isn't big on the category of agnosticism precisely because self-professing agnostics typically operate as if there is no God--and so, from the standpoint of pragmatic philosophy, they are atheists.

John may very well have defined naturalism as the belief that the natural world we know through empirical inquiry exhausts what's real. But if he was operating with a pragmatic understanding of "belief," being a naturalist in this sense is consistent with being agnostic (in a more conventional sense) about the existence of a supernatural reality.

John is perfectly capable of making these points. But Craig's debating style, evidenced in this clip, interfered with rather than facilitated John's ability to lay out what he was really wanting to say. This made it possible for Craig to invoke more traditional terminology--which does recognize a distinction between agnosticism and atheism even when a person who professes not to know behaves as if there is no God. The result is that John's position could be neatly knocked down--but it was a mischaracterization that was being knocked down.

What John is committed to is the idea that, in the absence of compelling reasons to believe in a supernatural reality, we should operate as if there is none. We should be naturalists or atheists in the pragmatic sense. He is also committed to the view that there are no good reasons in favor of the idea that there are supernatural realities. Now, I disagree with John on both points. My first book, Is God a Delusion?, can in some ways be seen as an extended critique of both of John's commitments here, with special emphasis on the first.

But my point is this: We don't do the pursuit of wisdom a service by using the sort of debate techniques that interfere with the ability of others to lay out their position with the clarity needed to assess it on its own terms. Were Craig operating in professional philosopher mode rather than debate mode, he might have said, "If we take your investing analogy in such-and-such a way, it just seems silly. So I suspect you might mean something else by it. What would that be?"

But the current state of the God debates discourages that more philosophical approach. And it's not just theists who are guilty of favoring the pursuit of victory over the pursuit of philosophical clarity, even if in this clip it is the theist who's doing it. The new atheists offer plenty of examples of the same sort of thing.

Now none of this is to say that there isn't a place for debate. I think debate can be helpful in sparking more meaningful critical dialogue. Debates are exciting, and can attract interest in  toipc. The seductive power of the competition, the zero-sum face-off, can draw people into an issue in a way that exposes them to opposing arguments they wouldn't otherwise have heard, perhaps stimulating deeper reflection and more substantive dialogue. Unfortunately, this very same seductive power of zero-sum confrontation makes it always in danger of eclipsing and replacing more productive dialogue.

This is not just a danger in the contemporary God debates. Too much of what goes on in the exchanges between theists and atheists has just this zero-sum character. And that is why community theatre does more to feed my soul.

But real dialogue between people of opposing views can be deeply rewarding. It can be a creative and communal activity every bit as rich as working to create a theatrical production. I like to think that this blog is one place where such deeper dialogue can happen on issues about religion and God and ethics. The question is how we work to make that kind of dialogue happen more. How do we make meaningful critical discourse the natural outflow of those more sexy "debates" that bring attention to the issues--as opposed to allowing such discourse to be eclipsed by the debates?


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Is Everything Paul Says in his Epistles the Inspired and Inerrant Word of God?

It occurs to me (based on comments on my last post) that it's been a while since I've posted anything directly addressing the fundamentalist Christian belief that every word and sentence in the Bible is there through a direct act of divine inspiration, and as such inerrantly represents divine truth even if the application of it to human life seems to magnify suffering, alienate people from one another, inspire bitterness towards religion, etc.

The idea (in its original Protestant articulation called the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration) is that although God worked through human authors, they wrote precisely what he wanted them to write, thereby guaranteeing that what they had to say contained no mistakes. An this is taken to be so certain, such a given, any evidence to the effect that certain proof texts bear "bad fruits" when treated as inerrant truth is dismissed summarily. Jesus' injunction to distinguish between true and false prophets by their fruits is regarded as inapplicable to the teachings of any author whose work has made it into the biblical cannon.

I don't want to retread old ground here, but it occurs to me that there is a line of argument--a kind of "confutation" of this fundamentalist view--that I haven't shared on this blog. I'm not sure how convincing it ultimately is, but it's easy to lay out and, I think, worth considering. By a "confutation" I mean an argument that challenges a view on its own terms--that seeks to show that if you take the view seriously, you have to accept things that undermine the view.

Before laying out this possible confutation, let me quickly point out, for those who may not be used to thinking about the Bible in these terms, that there are a diversity of positions one can adopt concerning the Bible's relationship to divine revelation and its authority for Christians. Far too often, a false dilemma is presented according to which there are only two options with respect to the Bible: either (a) treat the Bible from cover to cover as the inerrant word of God, or (b) throw out the whole thing, regarding it as nothing more than a collection of superstitious writings by ancient peoples who knew next to nothing and surely weren't inspired by God, since there is no God. We might call (a) the fundamentalist Christian theory about the Bible and (b) the fundamentalist atheist theory.

These are not the only theories that you could have. You might, for example, believe that the biblical authors were endeavoring to report their own experience of God at work in their lives, or their community's experience of God at work among them. You might think that these authors were moved by profound revelations of the divine moving in their lives (or were trying to give voice the the collective revelatory experiences of their community)--but also believe that these authors were limited by their cultural and historical contexts, by their filters of prejudice and ignorance.

You might, in other words, treat these writings as a seminal collection of "testimonies" to God and his work. No evangelical Christian I know treats the witness testimonies of members of their congregation in terms of the sharp either/or that options (a) and (b) provide. If someone stands up in church and shares a moving story of how God has been at work in their lives, do evangelicals say, "Either we must treat this testimony as inerrant, or we must throw out the whole thing as rubbish?" Of course not. Nor do we treat our most trusted and admired pastors as inerrant, no matter how much we respect and attend to their sermons.

Likewise, one possible way of thinking about Scripture is along these lines: inspiring and inspired, but not inerrant. And you might treat the Scriptures as more than this, even without embracing inerrancy, because you might believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You might, for example, believe that even if the human authors were fallible, where several are gathered together God becomes present in a transformative way (a way He wouldn't be when one focuses in narrowly on what one author has to say while ignoring the broader context).

After all, many voices in conversation can serve as a mutual corrective, exposing the errors of some by bringing to the fore the most resonant truths. A police officer who wants to know what happened at the scene of a crime will appreciate the presence of many witnesses--and if he interviews enough of them he will become pretty darned confident about at least some core facts even though he treats no witness as inerrant.

What is true about facts and events may be even more true about persons. If four people tell you about someone they all know, and their portraits of this person don't always match up--one describes the person as serene and in control during a moment of crisis, the other as fiery and anguished during that same moment--their collective witness might nevertheless give us a more accurate portrait than we'd get if we listened to any one of them. In fact, sometimes when you hear enough stories about someone, from enough different people so as to get past the individual perceptual prejudices, the subject of the stories becomes multi-dimensional, coming alive for you in a way that wouldn't happen with just a single narrative.

You might think that Scripture not only does something like this in relation to the person of Jesus, but does so in a way that facilitates a genuine relational encounter--that the Bible is a "means of grace" in much the way that the sacrament of holy communion is treated by many Christians as a means of coming into relational contact with God. And here's the thing about the sacrament: the bread could be stale, the wine sour, the minister who speaks the words of institution rather rough around the edges. It doesn't mean the sacrament can't be a transformative experience in which God's presence is deeply felt.

In the greatest symphonies, there is something that emerges that is greater than the parts. In fact, as a violinist I know that even in the best orchestras, individual musicians sometimes miss a run or play a high note off-key. Some people fake their way through a section because they haven't managed to practice it. But despite the individual errors here and there, the performance as whole can be magnificent. But you won't appreciate the whole if you focus narrowly on one note being played slightly flat by the basoon.

The point of all of this is that a confutation of the fundamentalist view of the Bible, even if successful, doesn't entail that you must throw your copy of the Bible in the trash or cease to treat it is as a profound vehicle for building a relationship with God. This black-and-white either/or approach serves the interests of fundamentalists of various stripes, but it doesn't necessarily serve the interest of truth.

So with that preface, here's the confutational argument. According to the fundamentalist Christian, when Paul writes something in the epistles, he's serving as a channel through which God communicates His revelation to humanity. God is speaking to us through Paul's pen--and God is doing it consistently. Everything Paul says has the character of a divine revelation.

And yet, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her...
This is incomplete because what I'm interested in here isn't the content of the teachings about divorce, but rather about the distinction Paul makes in his paranthetical remarks. He is distinguishing between what he takes to be commanded by the Lord and what he takes to be his own injunctions. He distinguishes between what is coming from the Lord (perhaps he has heard various reports that Jesus himself issued a prohibition on divorce) and what is he is exhorting the community to do on his own authority.

This seems to suggest that Paul does not take himself to be doing what fundamentalist Christians claim that he was actually doing. Now, I suppose fundamentalists could say that God could work through Paul in this way even without Paul's knowledge. God could inspire every word Paul wrote, guaranteeing its inerrancy, even if Paul didn't himself realize that this is what was happening.

But if so, why didn't God keep Paul from erroneously distinguishing between his own exhortations and those that come from a higher authority--a divine one? Why does Paul set two sets of commands apart, indicating one as having a divine source in the Lord and the other as coming from Paul ("I, not the Lord")? If Paul is wrong to make this distinction, then Paul's letters aren't inerrant. If he's right to make this distinction, then the fundamentalist view of the Bible is mistaken.

Now I can imagine one rebuttal, that goes as follows: Paul was not saying that the second set of injunctions didn't come from God. He was simply distinguishing between injunctions that had been explicitly voiced by Jesus while Jesus was alive, and injunctions that Paul was now issuing. But that is consistent with both injunctions having their origin in God's will.

Now this move is possible, but it strains the natural reading of the passage. Why make a distinction of this sort if, as funamentalists maintain, Paul's injunctions have the same divine mandate, the same link to God's authority, that Paul took Jesus' words to have? The distinction becomes trivial on that assumption. It becomes a distinction not worth making. There is meaning not only in the direct sense of words, but in what is said and when. If you rush into my office and ask me urgently for a fire extinguisher, you'd have reason to complain about my deceptiveness were I to direct you to one three flights down if I knew there to be one right around the corner. There is something called "conversational implication." In this context, my directing you to a particular fire extinguisher conversationally implies that the one I'm directing you to is the nearest one. If this isn't true, I've deceived you.

You make a distinction because you think it matters. Paul thought the distinction between his own exhortations and those of the Lord mattered. This is conversationally implied by the text. If fundamentalists are right about the Bible, then this implication of the text is false. Paul was misled and expressed his false belief by treating his own pronouncements as relevantly different in authority from the pronouncements of Jesus.

Or maybe Paul wasn't misled. Perhaps the distinction he makes here is sound. In that case, we shouldn't treat everything Paul says as if it came directly from God. Either way, it seems that the extreme fundamentalist approach to Scripture has to go--although I don't think this undermines "high" views of Scripture more broadly.

So what do others think? Does this argument work, or am I missing something?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine Reflection on Romantic Love--and Some Lessons for Current Events

One of the picture books in my daughter's closet recounts the story of St. Valentine. According to the story, in ancient Rome there was a Christian priest named Valentine who married Christian couples in defiance of an imperial decree that young men remain single (on the grounds that single men made better soldiers). Valentine was subsequently arrested and martyred, but not before curing the blindness of his jailer's daughter...through the miraculous power of a letter he sent her, signed "From your Valentine."

So little is known about the actual Valentine that one would be hard pressed to claim that any part of this story book is factual. From what I can tell, the bit about marrying Christian couples in defiance of Roman law was a later addition to the legend. In the version that appears in Legenda Aurea in the 13th Century, this piece is not present. There, the story focuses on Emperor Claudius II taking a personal interest in Valentine and trying to convince him to save his life by disavowing his Christian faith in favor of the official religion of Rome. Valentine not only refused but tried to convert the emperor to Christianity, and so was put to death.

At some point, however, Valentine's Day became linked to romantic love, and so elaborations were added to the Valentine legend to justify this link. A quick glance at internet sources suggests that the jailer's daughter is more usually presented as deaf rather than blind, and that the miraculous letter is a pretty recent development (invented by greeting card companies, perhaps?).

But however tenuous the link between romantic love and the saint --actually more than one saint--for whom Valentine's Day is named, the rise of a holiday dedicated to romantic love tells us something about ourselves.

Part of what it tells us is surely about dominant culture. Not every human society has connected sexual desire, long-term partnership, and the cultivation of romantic feelings in the ways that we do.

Even so, culture elaborates on possibilities and dispositions that are part of human nature. Sexual appetite needn't be connected with that complex cluster of feelings we call romantic love. But it often is. And while culture can strengthen this connected or attenuate it, the roots of the connection are tangled up in our biological natures. That intimate bonding that expresses itself in cries of eternal devotion, that surging desire to melt wholly into another person, that addictive longing in which the mere presence of the beloved can bring a heady rush of feeling, and absence is an unbearable ache--all of this is the raw material for romantic love as we know it.

And as far as I can tell, this raw material manifests itself to greater or lesser degrees in essentially every culture and every human heart...whether or not romantic love is lifted up, whether or not it is cultivated, nurtured, and celebrated in the ways that we see in our culture.

And it's no wonder that our culture cultivates, nurtures, and celebrates this cluster of feelings and desires and attendant practices. Because wherever it flowers, it's wonderful. Our love lives can and do enrich us profoundly, even as they make possible heartbreak, jealousy, volatile waves of emotion, and the anguish of unrequited longing. The heights of romantic love, when attained, make all the attendant risks seem worth it. The mere memory of such heights can keep couples doggedly together through extended periods of alienation.

The peaks of volatile passion that hit early in a relationship cannot, of course, be maintained forever. It would be exhausting, and it would distract us from the business of living. But those peaks can set the stage for something else, something at times tender, at times comfortably intimate, at times (of course) frustrating and disappointing, and at times echoing and even reclaiming those early summits of intensity. At their best, those early peaks can help to forge the conditions for a lifelong partnership in which our capacity to love is explored in all its many forms, and deepened.

A few months ago my father passed away. My parents had been married 49 years. What they had in those years was a complex mix of shared experiences, early passion, comfortable closeness, mutual support--and, of course, all of the frustrations and conflicts that inevitable accompany human relationships. My father died as my mother held him, stroking his head. When she reflects on the loss, she says she had the privilege of spending 49 years with one of the best human beings she's ever known. Romantic intimacy served as a foundation for the creation of something beautiful--a lifelong love story that enriched both of the people who shared in it, as well as spilling over onto countless others.

Our bodies are intimately involved in this, of course. But romantic love cannot be reduced to the mechanics of sex. Romantic love isn't about putting this body part into that one. No one who has been in love would engage in such reductionism. What romantic love does is the opposite of reduction: It contextualizes and hence lift up the physical acts of sex, making it more than it would otherwise be. The kind of partnership my parents had likewise contextualizes romantic love itself--making it an integral piece of something greater.

Romantic love at its best is a very great good. It is a gift that can sometimes become an integral dimension of one of the greatest blessings of a person's life. This doesn't mean that a life can't be rich and rewarding without it, that there aren't a great multitude of ways that a human being can discover meaning and learn to flourish, even in the absence of such love. But our human longing for romantic love is not a trivial thing. The opportunities for real joy in this life are finite, and romantic love provides one important place where human beings can drink from the well of joy, where they can come to know depths and heights of value and meaning they might not otherwise have known.

To attempt to systematically deny anyone the opportunity for such love and the resources for nurturing it...this is a very grave matter. The legend of Valentine that is found in my daughter's picture book is really about just such an effort, and the heroic response of a saint who refused to bend before the coercive effort to shut down love. Who would do such a thing today?

Rick Santorum would. Numerous people who live in my neighborhood would. Those who push for constitutional amendments to prevent marriage equality are doing it all over the country right now. Because, of course, this is precisely what the categorical condemnation of homosexuality--and the attempt to deny marriage equality for gays and lesbians--amounts to.

Our sexual orientation does not merely determine who we are attracted to sexually. It determined with whom we are capable of experiencing romantic love. Because sexual orientation does not lie within our control, a rule that would prohibit sexual relations between two people of the same sex is a rule which would systematically exclude some people from romantic love.

It is a rule that says, to some people, the following: "You are never to have this very great good in your life. While those around you fall in love, get married, struggle for the heights of passion and the tender comfort of long-term intimacy, you are required to go through life completely cut off from this monumental human good. We permanently exclude you from access to this source of richness and meaning because of factors beyond your control. And if you happen to fall in love, to build an intimate partnership around this love, to nurture and support another person in all the ways that define the best marriages, we will call what you have forged an abomination, and we will treat it as something that ought to be destroyed. If we find that you are drinking from this well of joy, we will think it a good thing if you and your partner are torn away from one another, and the well filled up with concrete."

The part of the Valentine legend which says that Emperor Claudius made marriage illegal may be nothing but myth. But today, there is an Emperor Claudius. His spirit is at work in all those who seek to systematically deprive our gay and lesbian citizens of access to marriage, who seek to promulgate and enforce norms that would ensure that sexual minorities never know the joys of what is celebrated on Valentine's Day.

There are those who seek to justify this, who think there are good reasons for it. But given the enormity of what is being denied some people, the justification would have to be as powerful as the source of joy and meaning that some people are told they can never have access to.

Waving a napkin around the way Rick Santorum does isn't enough to justify such systematic exclusion from a profound human good. Pretending that it's just about sex and perversion doesn't cut it. Other arguments--appeals to a bare smattering of biblical proof texts or to a controversial working-out of a religious moral theory that roots ethical norms in the perceived purposes of biological plumbing--have never struck me as very compelling even within the Christian traditions that espouse them. And these arguments certainly can't be given decisive weight in a secular society that embraces the separation of church and state.

But it isn't my aim here to decisively refute the supposed justifications for the categorical exclusion of some human beings from one of the great joys of human existence. My aim is to highlight just how serious, just how presumptively wrong, such an exclusion is. My aim is to invite an application of the Golden Rule, to ask all of us on this Valentine's Day to think about what romantic love means to us in our lives, and to think about what it would mean for us were our deepest loves to be labeled abomination.

My aim is to invite everyone to imagine growing up being told something like the following: "Better to have never loved at all, or to have loved and lost, than to have found true love and been enriched by it."

My aim is to invite us to think about what we celebrate today, and then to think about living in a world where this good is celebrated by others but denied us. Imagine falling in love with a good soul, a beautiful person, being filled with all those feelings we call romantic love, and then being told, "Don't you dare act on those feelings. That would be an affront to the very creator of the universe. But that's just you, of course. I'm going to go home and drink deeply from the meaning that my marriage gives me. Look on and envy, but don't think of trying to commit such an awful abomination as to love in anything like the way I do.  That is a privilege reserved for people like me, who had the good fortune to be straight."
Only if we can appreciate what that is like can we have any claim on fairly assessing the moral status of condemning someone's propensity to love. Justifications for condemning same-sex love that don't begin with deep empathetic reflection on how it would be to have this done to us--justifications which so decisively ignore the Golden Rule--should never be taken seriously.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Opening Night for Love

Tonight's the night! It's opening night for the hilarious (and slightly naughty) musical comedy, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" at Town & Gown Theatre in Stillwater, OK.

The brilliant cast is depicted above. I provide the violin part. There are more than 20 musical numbers--and the violin is featured in almost all of them. So I've been busy practicing things outside my usual classical repertoire (tango, blues, jazz, even some serious rock violin!). Here's me posing with the pianist (Gloria) and music director (Cody):

I'm sure that were I to reflect on it for long enough, I could connect themes in the show with the kinds of issues I typically discuss on this blog...but I don't want to. So nya. Instead, I'm going to go practice the bit I stumbled over during dress rehearsal last night. Then I'll probably spend a few moments thinking and writing about Simone Weil.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Chris Trapper in Concert--What Happens When a Philosopher Tries to Write a Concert Review

I remember Chris Trapper as a lanky high school kid with Garfunkel hair and a lovely tenor voice.

More significantly, I recall that he was a genuinely good soul, a bit shy, and something of a goofball—which suited me well when we ended up wandering the swanky hallways of the city-in-a-building hotel in the Catskill Mountains where the New York State School Music Educators Association hosted its annual All State Music Festival.

I was there playing my violin in the orchestra. He, of course, was singing in the choir. But when we weren’t rehearsing, the two of us seemed to find some kind of special pleasure in disrupting the tonsil-groping passion of high school kids cooler than us who’d hooked up at the festival. We’d practice slapstick tripping-over-our own feet in front of them. Or we’d break into the “Love Boat” theme song in two-part harmony.

Last Sunday, for the first time in more than 25 years, I saw Chris again—in concert at the Performing Arts Studio in Norman, Oklahoma, as part of the Winter Wind Singer-Songwriter series. It was an intimate venue inside a converted train station. Trains still occasionally went by.

Chris's lankiness is gone, as is the Garfunkel hair. His tenor voice, which in high school still retained traces of that boy soprano timbre, has given way to something more mature and suited to the alternative folk-pop genre he now performs. But it seems that Chris has remained a genuinely good soul, a bit shy, and something of a goofball.

The weekend of his show was, for my wife and me, bookended by concerts. On Friday night we went to the huge BOK Center arena in Tulsa to see Darius Rucker (former front man for Hootie and the Blowfish) and the new country-pop group sensation, Lady Antebellum. It was a great show, polished and energetic, filled with great songs performed by tiny little people very far away.

Chris Trapper’s show on Sunday night was, for me, the more enjoyable event—and not just because I got a hug from the performer at the end of the show. Chris’s songs tell stories, and between songs Chris shares amusing, self-deprecating anecdotes from his life which often reveal the inspiration behind the songs in ways that add depth and texture to the music. And I laughed a lot, because, of course, he’s still a goofball (as evidenced by the autobiographical song he played during the second set, “Not Normal”)

The songs he sings in a performance are a mere sampling of a truly prolific songwriting career, and it’s hard not to be impressed with just how many really good songs he’s written. I’ll confess that while I knew he’d composed “This Time” from the Grammy nominated August Rush soundtrack, and I knew he (and his former band, The Push Stars) had something on the soundtrack for There’s Something About Mary, I hadn’t known what…until he sang “Everything Shines” and I found myself humming along with a song I really liked but never knew was his.

Chris started the evening without saying a word—just picking up his guitar and drawing us in with a pair of energetic songs. Finally he paused, smiled to the too-small gathering (it should have been a packed house, even if it was his first time in Norman and second time in Oklahoma). After being on the stage and singing his songs for a few minutes, he was ready to introduce himself. Within moments, everyone in the converted train station was caught up in Chris’s spell, his charm and humor and music.

Part of that spell is cast by what I’m calling his shyness. On Friday night, Darius Rucker moved across the stage with infectious energy, as if this were the most comfortable place in the world for him to be. The front man for Lady Antebellum was effortlessly charismatic, even slick as he owned the BOK arena stage.

Chris, by contrast, isn’t slick. He’s human. He pushes past an initial nervous stutter to tell a story about his own imperfect history—and you know he’s on the stage because making music, and sharing it with others, is what he loves.

Having just recently read the Time Magazine article about introverts, I can’t help but think of this contrast in those terms. The arena performers on Friday night struck me as classic extroverts: energized by the crowds, feeding off the adulation, the cheering masses waving their cell-phone equivalents of bic lighters. But were I to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chris’s prolific songwriting abilities are in part fueled by the same kind of introversion that typically characterizes writers and academics. In our solitude we are able to focus, to process our experiences and ideas, and to channel them into words or arguments—or songs. But at some point as we move into adulthood we realize that these creations need to be shared, that their true value and meaning is born when they resonate with another human soul, when someone else hears and understands and is moved.

And so we stumble, perhaps trembling a bit, out of our solitude and into the crowded room. And there we are, in all our vulnerable humanity, blinking into the lights because we have something to say.

In an arena concert like the one I went to Friday night, the crowds are entertained—often enormously—while the performers are fed by the adulation. In Chris’s more intimate show, the dynamic is different. I’d say that it’s the audience that’s fed.

I’m not going to make any sweeping generalizations, claiming that this is the difference between performances by extroverts and introverts or anything like that. But at least in Chris’s case, that goofy shyness I remember from when he was a kid has come to shape the dynamic of his shows. Here is someone in all his complex humanity, sharing songs about humanity in all its complexity.

And all of us who’ve had the privilege to be there are a little better off because he stepped out of his solitude and onto the stage.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Is Gingrich a Hypocrite? Should We Care? Some Reflections on Hypocrisy

It's a bit of an understatement to say that I’m not a fan of Newt Gingrich. But I’ll confess to feeling a pang of sympathy for him when I read about his recent exchange with Univision correspondent Jorge Ramos.

In that exchange, Ramos pushed Gingrich on the matter of Gingrich’s supposed hypocrisy, something Gingrich has been relentlessly accused of—by various media pundits and bloggers, students, academics, surfers, Chinese acrobats, perhaps a few dogs. The primary basis for the charge is that Gingrich led the charge against President Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinski sex scandal…while he was himself energetically pursuing his own extramarital affair. These hypocrisy accusations have gotten new life recently from the revelation—in an interview with Gingrich’s second wife—that around the time of the Lewinski scandal Newt approached his wife about an “open marriage,” presumably so that he wouldn’t have to give up either woman.

Gingrich deflected efforts at the South Carolina debate to confront him about his infidelities and supposed hypocrisy—by attacking those who would focus on such irrelevant concerns. Ramos, however, had more luck in engaging Gingrich on the issue last week at a forum in Florida. But before the charge of hypocrisy could even be leveled, Gingrich quickly stressed that his criticisms of Clinton weren’t about the affair as such, but about Clinton perjuring himself under oath.

Ramos doggedly pressed on with his line of questioning as if Gingrich hadn’t made this distinction. Three times, in fact, Ramos pushed the hypocrisy charge as Gingrich continued stressing that what he targeted Clinton for was not his infidelities but his felony perjury—a crime Gingrich stressed he had not committed.

Ramos essentially ignored the distinction Gingrich was making. The third time Ramos ignored Gingrich—saying that “people think that’s hypocritical to criticize President Clinton for doing the same thing that you were doing at the same time”—Gingrich snapped back with, “Okay, there is some place there where there’s a mental synapse missing.”

By that point, I wanted to say to Ramos the same damned thing.

Here’s the point: It is not hypocritical for someone with chronic infidelity problems to push for the impeachment of a sitting President if the reason is that the President committed felony perjury. To plow ahead as Ramos did, in the face of Gingrich’s explicit assertion that Clinton’s infidelity was not the issue—well, at best it seems bullheaded and evasive.

And Ramos is hardly alone. Gingrich has, essentially, offered two rebuttals to the argument that Ramos and others have been making: First of all there's the pre-emptive rebuttal, which he offered at the South Carolina debate: It doesn’t matter, it’s a distraction from the real issues that should define a campaign. Secondly, there's the substantive rebuttal offered to Ramos: He wasn’t guilty of hypocrisy in any event.

You don’t do anyone a service by simply ignoring these rebuttals and plowing ahead with the hypocrisy charge as if Gingrich had never opened his mouth.

So: Is Gingrich a hypocrite? And does it matter?

As to the second question, it’s important to be clear about something. Sometimes what hypocrites have to say is exactly right. If a pot calls the kettle black…well, if the kettle is black, then the pot got it right. That you’re being hypocritical doesn’t mean you’re wrong. So if there's a problem with hypocrisy, it isn't that it falsifies what the hypocrite is saying.

In fact, the ubiquity of human shortcomings means that anyone who preaches against moral failings--especially ones that involve falling prey to temptation--is bound to be a pot calling the kettle black. Does that mean no one should exhort us to resist various temptations on pain of hypocrisy?

Hardly. Real hypocrisy is more than just failing to live as you preach. Falling short of your own moral ideals isn't hypocrisy. It's humanity. Real hypocrisy involves a kind of self-righteousness in relation to what one is preaching against--a self-righteousness that invites others to abhor "those" people, people against whom the hypocrite hopes to present him- or herself in a favorable light. In other words, hypocrisy involves explicitly expressing and encouraging harsh judgments, punitive responses, and moral outrage against others who have behaved in a certain way—while seeking to avoid similar judgment in one’s own case (even though one has done the same sort of thing). In another variant, it involves making harsh judgments of people with whom one doesn't identify (such as candidates one doesn't like, or members of a different religion) while shielding from such judgment those with whom one identifies (even if they're guilty of the same thing.

Now suppose what you are preaching against is something you yourself have done in the past—but you explicitly disavow and condemn your past actions now. If, in fact, you really are reformed and you really don’t do that sort of thing anymore, we wouldn’t call you a hypocrite. Maybe we should call you a “remorseful moralizer” (there may be something troubling about moralizing in general, but not every case of moralizing is necessarily hypocrisy).

But suppose you adopt the attitude of a remorseful moralizer as a strategy for deflecting condemnation from the current you--in effect, trying to restrict that condemnation to the "past" you. Suppose you’re still just as bad as you ever were. Suppose you’re still a shameless womanizer with pathological infidelity problems—a “fornicator,” for short. You want to condemn fornication without tarring yourself (because you see an advantage to be gained from doing that), but there’s no hiding from your past fornication. Everyone knows about it. In that case, you might pose as a remorseful moralizer even though you’re not one. Instead, you’re a hypocrite.

And this example helps reveal why hypocrisy matters. Hypocrisy essentially involves misrepresentation. And it’s misrepresentation for a purpose—the purpose being to enjoy the benefits (whatever they might be) that come from condemning others while avoiding the costs of being condemned oneself. It is, in short, a kind of self-serving deception. A habitual hypocrite is, put bluntly, a selfish liar.

Of course, no one is fully defined by hypocrisy—no one is simply a hypocrite. But for some people, the propensity for hypocrisy is so much a part of their character that there is reason for us to be concerned about how extensively self-serving deceptiveness might shape their behavior (in, say, political office). On that level, the question of whether a person is guilty of hypocrisy—and how habitually—is indeed relevant in a Presidential candidate.

So: Is Gingrich a hypocrite? On this point, it’s important to remember that when Gingrich takes a strong stand on the campaign trail for “family values,” you can’t paint Gingrich as a hypocrite simply by dredging up past misdeeds—especially if he’s gone on record expressing remorse. Gingrich is putting himself out there as a remorseful moralizer. The question is whether this is an honest representation, or whether he is posing. It's only in the latter case that he's being hypocritical.

Along similar lines, the fact that Gingrich at one time sought an “open marriage” does not as such render hypocritical his current claims that same-sex marriage should be rejected because it violates the traditional “one-man/one-woman” model of marriage. After all, Gingrich might have undergone a profound change of heart. He might now look upon his past desire for an open marriage with horror. He might be deeply committed to the one-man/one-woman model now, even if he wasn’t then. In that case, he wouldn’t be a hypocrite—even though, of course, he’d still be deeply wrong in opposing marriage equality (and that’s a reason not to vote for him whether he’s a hypocrite or not).

Another thing to keep in mind: Even if Gingrich used to be a hypocrite, it doesn’t mean he is still a hypocrite. But a past legacy of hypocrisy is certainly admissible as evidence when trying to decide whether someone is a hypocrite now. Entrenched habits of character being hard to break, in the absence of clear evidence of character transformation it is often wise to be skeptical of someone who says, “But I’ve changed!” You don't go back to a wife-beater just on their say-so that they're no longer abusive. Likewise, you might not want to re-elect a chronic self-serving liar without clear evidence of a transformation.

So, in deciding whether Gingrich is hypocrite now, it will be helpful to take seriously his track record. But that goal is not served when people like Ramos throw out the hypocrisy label without considering the kinds of objections Gingrich offers. Taking a track recond seriously means honestly assessing it, which isn't served by ignoring objections. More significantly, Ramos's approach may lead many to pre-emptively dismiss the hypocrisy charge as nothing but groundless name-calling.

For a hypocrisy charge to be warranted, you have to demonstrate a conflict between what someone was preaching at a given time and what the person was doing at that time. And so, if Gingrich insists that in pushing for Clinton’s impeachment, it was all about perjury rather than infidelity, an astute journalist wouldn’t just keep plowing ahead with the same unmodified argument.

Suppose, however, that while Gingrich pursued impeachment based on the perjury charges (because those are the charges that would stick legally), he knew that the infidelity itself was what would have the most traction with the public—and so engaged in and encouraged moral grandstanding about Clinton's failures of moral character displayed by his sexual dalliances. If Gingrich had done that during the whole Monica Lewinski affair, he would have been deeply hypocritical then and a liar now.

So, did Gingrich engage in moral grandstanding about Clinton’s infidelity during the Monica Lewinski affair? Is that something he’s deceptively leaving out now, in order to avoid the hypocrisy charge? If so, that speaks to an ongoing pattern of deception and not just a past tendency towards hypocrisy. To be honest, my memory of those events is sufficiently hazy that while it seems to me that Gingrich did engage in such grandstanding, I can't swear to it. But a journalist has the resources to very readily determine the answer.

Speaking of lying, one could quite convincingly argue that no small measure of hypocrisy is displayed in taking a strong, self-righteous stand against lying under oath if, for example, you’ve just lied multiple times to the Congressional ethics committee in an attempt to get ethics violation charges against you dismissed. If you’ve been recently fined a whopping $300,000 for ethics violations that include deliberate deception aimed at deflecting an investigation of misconduct, there may be something hypocritical about leading the charge against someone else for doing the same sort of thing.

Maybe Gingrich can make a distinction here. I suppose, strictly speaking, lying your way out of an affair in a legal deposition isn’t exactly the same thing as lying your way out of an ethics violation in letters to the Congressional ethics committee. Legally, the two are different. Can hypocrisy concerns be derailed by appeal to such legal differences?

And for how long has the rhetoric of conservative “family values” shaped his political career? Was his rhetoric very much like it is now…back when he was cheating on his wives, divorcing them to marry different ones, asking for open marriages? If so, there is a pattern of hypocrisy here—and that pattern may lead us to justifiably ask whether anything has changed, whether his current thumping for family values is any less hypocritical today.

Again, my memory tells me that Gingrich has been thumping for family values in much the way he does now for a long while--but, again, a clear record of this (of the sort journalists could readily provide) would be much more helpful in substantiating hypocrisy charges that a bullheaded line of questioning that is so oblivious to Gingrich's rebuttal that even someone with no political sympathy for Newt wants to cheer when Newt spits a quip about missing synapses.

One final remark: Whether or not Gingrich is a hypocrite, anyone who has insisted of other politicians that their private sexual lives are highly relevant to assessing their suitability for political life would be courting hypocrisy if they treated Gingrich's blatant record of sexual infidelity and disregard for marital vows as politically irrelevant.