Friday, April 27, 2012

Science vs. Philosophy?

Given some of the recent exchanges in the comments sections of this blog, I thought this recent piece by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, responding to physicist Lawrence Krauss's dismissal of philosophy, is worth a look.

The piece is also of interest for its tangential relation to the cosmological question that drives much thinking in theology and the philosophy of religion (and, I would argue, implicitly motivates religious leanings in many ordinary people).

Leibniz stated the question in the following terms: "Why is there something and not nothing?" Physicist Victor Stenger claimed in his bestselling book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, that physicists have an answer to this age-old question. I argued briefly (but, I think, decisively) in Is God a Delusion? that the so-called answer he offers is no answer at all.

This brief exchange between me and Stenger is, in effect, being replayed by Krauss and his critics--insofar as Krauss has framed his most recent book, A Universe from Nothing, as offering an answer to the perennial question, and several philosophers have pointed out that Krauss simply does not answer the philosophical question at all--for reasons very similar to the ones I gave in response to Stenger. Krauss effectively concedes the point when pressed--but follows up with more dismissal of philosophy. He doesn't care about the philosophical question.

Fine. If he wants to confine himself to questions in physics, he has every right to do so. But he shouldn't pretend that answers to physics questions are answers to superficially similar philosophical ones. I would say he shouldn't pretend this even as a marketing ploy (which is what he basically concedes it was). And no one should pretend--as Dawkins seems to do--that Krauss has somehow managed to silence once and for all one of the deep wellsprings of belief in the transcendent.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Divide and Conquer: Another Harm of Partisan Politics

There are lots of things done by the US government that trouble me. What troubles me even more, however, is the way in which partisan polarization has served to divide and thereby trivialize opposition to certain business-as-usual government practices, practices that know no partisan affiliations. When it comes to deeply entrenched ways of doing things—troubling patterns of government behavior that transcend party lines—sustained bipartisan critique is the only real hope for positive change. But partisan loyalties and us/them thinking far too often impedes such critique.

I’m hardly immune. I was reminded of this the other night, when a conservative friend (having seen a blurb of some sort on his smart phone) abruptly voiced righteous indignation against Obama for issuing some sort of executive order denying protesters the right to gather anywhere in the vicinity of the president. He snarled about the unprecedented attack on free speech--and he included not only Obama, but Nancy Pelosi and political liberals generally, within the scope of his outrage.

I didn’t say anything. But I bristled defensively. Of course he was talking, not about an executive order, but about a bill that Obama recently signed into law—specifically HR 347, innocuously-named the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011." The bill passed by overwhelming margins in both the House and the Senate (only three “no” votes in the House). And Obama signed it.

I didn’t know much about the bill at the time. It was barely on my radar screen as something that the Occupy movement was unhappy with, but which mainly just modified existing legislation restricting disruptive trespassing—including by protesters—into areas under Secret Service protection. But when my friend burst out against Obama and Pelosi as the culprits behind this unprecedented liberal assault on American civil liberties, my knee-jerk reaction was to rush to Obama’s defense. He was just signing something that had been passed by Congress—including by the Republican-controlled House. And Congress clearly had the votes to override a veto. The bill was a slight revision of things already on the books. This was hardly some sort of evidence of fascist aspirations on the part of the Obama administration.

I didn’t say any of this, deciding it was better to hold my tongue. But the next day I decided to look more closely into the bill. It turns out it was introduced by a Republican: Rep. Thomas Rooney of Florida. It enjoyed huge bipartisan support. And the main changes it made to existing laws were two: (1) It took policies that had been applied to areas placed under Secret Service protection and extended them to the White House and the Vice-President’s residence. Previously, trespassing in these areas fell exclusively under local DC anti-trespassing laws. Now, it would fall under federal law--a federal felony offense. (2) Whereas previous law criminalized “willfully and knowingly” trespassing into such areas with disruptive intent, the new law deleted the “willfully.”

In other words, the mens rea for criminal liability has been broadened by the new law, effectively making it easier to prosecute and convict trespassers who enter a restricted area with “disruptive” intentions. Political protest is, of course, inherently disruptive. As Jeanine Molloff notes in a Huffington Post article,
…the bill…criminalizes 'disruptive conduct' in such vague terms that a 7th grader disrupting visiting dignitaries receiving Secret Service protection, over any issue -- (no matter how trivial), such as school uniforms -- would be potentially guilty of a federal felony. What Rooney, and so many government elites cynically ignore is the very nature of protest. Protest in its very nature, is intended to disrupt government business as usual, for without such disruption the protest would be as effective as a leaky condom.
Much hinges on what work the term “willfully”--or its deletion--does in the law. At least some legal scholars contend that this deletion may mean that a "disruptive" trespasser can now be held guilty of violating the modified federal trespass law even if ignorant of the fact that an area has come under Secret Service protection. Hence, protesters might inadvertently find themselves felons—and so face up to 10 years in a federal penitentiary—just for occupying an area in protest. This explains why the bill came to be called the anti-Occupy bill by people on the left. It was seen, in effect, as an attempt to make it easier to prosecute members of the Occupy movement.

But notice something: People on the left and on the right might have reasons to be concerned about such a bill. But at least initially, I was prepared to dismiss my friend’s outrage as nothing but an unfair partisan attack on the Obama administration.

Of course, given the facts (enormous bipartisan support, a Republican sponsor, etc.), to frame the concern as a problem with the Obama administration, or with liberal politicians more generally, clearly is a mistake. But that’s not the end of the story. Because one can disentangle the broader concern about free speech rights from the partisan framing of it. And I almost didn't.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, likewise, many on the right summarily dismissed the objections to HR347 that they heard, simply because they were coming from members of the Occupy movement. If so, they were falling into the same pattern of partisan defensiveness that I instinctively fell into when my conservative friend voiced his outrage.

Consider a slightly different example: the recent furor over the so-called "National Defense Resource Preparedness" executive order. By taking the order out of its historic context, conservative news sources and bloggers managed to represent Obama’s signing of the order as a frightening and unprecedented power-grab. They described the move in catastrophic terms, as a fundamental and dangerous assault on our civil liberties, lending the government carte-blanche authority to declare martial law, appropriate resources, etc.

Liberals in turn rushed to Obama's defense by pointing to clear evidence that versions of this executive order have been around since the middle of the 20th Century, that it was amended by the Bush administration, and that the new version is simply a change in wording necessitated by administrative changes in the federal government—with no substantive change in the scope of government powers. Not a new power grab, but bipartisan business as usual.

Of course, they were right. But once that became incontrovertible, what happened? The criticism of the executive order lost its public traction. Insofar as the motivation to press the criticism was to tar-and-feather Obama, not every presidential administration since Eisenhower, a national conversation about this long-standing executive order, its wisdom and its consistency with American values, ended before it began—simply because it couldn’t do the partisan work of painting Obama as a uniquely dangerous threat to liberty.

The pattern is as common as it is insidious: A Republican administration institutes a policy that restricts the scope of American liberties (the Patriot Act, let’s say). Liberal pundits deride it as another example of Republican power-grabbing, another conservative assault on the American people. The language of the critique, however, raises the defensive hackles of all those who self-define as conservative or Republican, essentially ensuring that they rally behind “their” administration. Conservative pundits go on the attack, painting the liberal critics as offering nothing more than a partisan critique. The critique is rooted in “their” politics, and so it isn’t "ours." Even if the concern is one that might have stimulated bipartisan protest, the framing of the concern as a partisan issue ensures that it remains safely limited to the opposition party.

And when, a few years later, the opposition party gets into office, the very same pattern continues in reverse. The troubling policies are perpetuated (in the form of an updated version of the Patriot Act, such as the National Defense Authorization Act)—and derided by conservative pundits in such a way as to stimulate a wagon-circling defensive response.

Part of what drives the pattern is the claim, by the opposition party, that the party in power is pursuing an unprecedented assault (on American liberties or whatever). The problematic government practices are catastrophized—likened, perhaps, to the ramp-up to the fascist take-over of Germany. But because the activities motivating the charge are business-as-usual government practices, the defensive response becomes something like the following: “Oh, come on! Your administration did exactly the same thing. This isn’t an unprecedented assault. And it’s not fascism. It’s just how government does things.”

And they’re right. Because the concern has been framed in the language of “unprecedented assault,” exposing the fact that there’s a lot of precedent is taken as a refutation. Because the behavior has been around for decades without leading to a Nazi takeover of the United States, those crazies across the aisle have been exposed as idiots. We win!

And everybody loses. Because, of course, a business-as-usual truncation of civil liberties is far more serious than an unprecedented one, precisely because it is more deeply entrenched. And such a truncation of civil liberties warrants critical attention in the context of a deliberative democracy even if it’s not as oppressive or as dangerous as fascism. Even if we as a society decide that the truncation of civil liberties is justified by other social values we want to preserve, this should be something society decides.

Instead, society is kept in a polarized state that impedes meaningful collective deliberation.

Or so it seems to me at the moment. Thoughts?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sam Harris writes about free will. Oh goody.

Note: This is not a review of Sam Harris's newest book, Free Will, which I haven't yet read. It is, rather, an account of why I dread having to read it.

After completing his PhD in neuroscience, Sam Harris--a former undergraduate philosophy major and my least favorite new atheist--has, it seems, chosen to continue his career as an unusually prolific and influential undergraduate philosopher.

I say "continue" because his first major book, The End of Faith (and its follow up "Letter to a Christian Nation"), tackled a core topic in the philosophy of religion--"What is faith, and is it a virtue?"--and his second major book, The Moral Landscape, tackled a core topic in moral philosophy: "Is there an objective standard for morality, and if so what is it?" Now, in his newest book, Harris turns to the perennial philosophical question of whether human beings possess free will.

This is a question I struggle with. I struggle with understanding the concept of free will (What do we mean by "free will," and under what conditions could we be said to have it?) and with the range of formidable arguments for divergent positions on the issue. When I read new theoretic accounts/defenses of free will (such as Stewart Goetz's admirable effort in Freedom, Teleology, and Evil), I do so as something of a hopeful skeptic. I'm looking for an understanding of freedom according to which it can be shown to operate as a coherent third alternative to (a) being determined to act by prior causes or by the weight of reasons for action, and (b) acting simply at random or arbitrarily. But I have not yet found such an account (my reasons for remaining unconvinced by Goetz appear in my Religious Studies review of his book). At the same time, I live my life as a practical believer in the reality of such a third alternative, because I don't know how to make sense of my experience as an agent--especially as a moral agent--in other terms.

In short, this topic interests me both as a human being and as a philosopher. So what can we expect from Harris's new book?

In his previous books, Harris demonstrated great eloquence and even greater confidence in the correctness of his own views, while largely failing to do what philosophers are trained to do in graduate school--namely (a) display an understanding and appreciation of the relevant philosophical literature and (b) carefully develop one's position in conversation with the best arguments one has found for opposing views. In short, they were books on philosophical topics written by someone with only an undergraduate philosophy degree...and they read like books on philosophical topics written by someone with only an undergraduate philosophy degree (albeit someone with a sharp intellect and talent as a writer).

Now it's clear from recent comments that not every reader of this blog will regard Harris's propensity to ignore what professional philosophers have had to say on these topics (especially those with opposing views) as a vice. But since I do, my expectations of this new book aren't all that high.

I don't expect Harris to lay out the range of possible nuanced views on free will clearly and completely and then locate his own position within this range. I don't expect him to faithfully engage with the best arguments for views different from his own, comparing the relative strengths of the arguments for these alternatives. I don't expect him to have gone through the literature to determine whether the arguments he develops have already been made, nor whether they have already been criticized...and if so to engage with those criticisms. I don't expect him to anticipate objections to his arguments that haven't yet been made by others, to develop those challenges as powerfully as he can and then respond to them.

I do expect him to display supreme confidence, despite his failure to do any of these things, that his own position is correct.

In other words, I expect the book to be very annoying.

Nevertheless I'll likely read it for the following reasons: First, I hope that his writing abilities will enable him to present his newly acquired knowledge of neuroscience in a manner conducive to deepening my understanding of this topic. Second, I expect that he will present an energetic argument from these neuroscientific starting points, one that might possibly introduce something new to the traditional philosophical arguments against free will. Third, the book is short, and so the investment of time isn't great. Fourth, it's likely to be far more widely read--and hence far more likely to shape popular thinking about this philosophical topic, including the thinking of my students--than will any of the articles and books on free will written by professional philosophers.

And in the end, I'll need to grudgingly thank Harris for precisely this reason: He'll succeed in generating wider interest in and dialogue about an important philosophical topic in a way that others, with less popular appeal, simply can't hope to do. He will have used his formidable platform to spark deeper philosophical reflection about free will than might otherwise occur. Maybe he'll motivate some readers to dig deeper into the topic, to explore what others have to say.

But that doesn't mean I look forward to reading it.

If anyone has actually read the book already and can disavow me of my grim expectations, I might treat the forthcoming task of reading the book as less onerous--and so might procrastinate less about it. But I'm not put at ease by the recent Scientific American blog review by John Horgan, "Will this Post Make Same Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?" (a blog review which, by the way, makes at least one crucial philosophical mistake that I may address in my next post).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Atheist Opposition to PZ Myers

For quite awhile now, I've been following with interest the conflict that exists within the secular humanist/atheist community--a conflict over how to engage with religious believers. In this debate, there seems to be something of a continuum between "friendly atheists" on one end and "hostile atheists" on the other.

That is, there are atheists who think reasonable, decent people can honestly disagree about the existence of God; and there are atheists who think that anyone who believes in God is a willfully blind, selectively irrational, dangerously misguided threat to all that is good and true. And there are atheists who fall at various places in between.

Those on the "friendly" end generally disapprove of the kind of polarization and animosity generated by those on the hostile end. Those on the "hostile" end, by contrast, are inclined to call their atheist opponents "accomodationists."

The authors of the new atheist bestsellers--most notably Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens--seem to be clustered towards the "hostile" end of the spectrum (although sometimes they are more hostile than at other times). But the epitome of the hostile atheist is, without much doubt, PZ Myers.

And some atheists are fed up with him.

Their objections are sometimes strategic (a minority group won't make much progress in changing hearts and minds by engaging in endless bellicose attacks on the religious majority), sometimes principled (religious believers as a class just don't warrant, at least not uniformly, the kind of assault that Myers directs towards them). Some, I'm sure, are worried that reason and truth aren't served by someone who puts together so-called "take-downs" of his opponents that, as was the case with the one blog post he devoted to attacking me, are almost nothing but fallacy and pseudoreasoning.

But in a recent Secular Perspectives essay, "General Myers and His Endless War on Error," Sarah Hippolitus may offer the most comprehensive expression of these complaints. If the other essay by Hippolitus that I've discussed on this blog is any indication, she isn't at the opposite extreme from Myers on the atheist spectrum. To argue that Christian belief is damaging to phsychological health, as she does, may not be precisely hostile, but it's not exactly friendly either. I'd put her somewhere in the middle.

But this is significant. Atheists in the middle of this spectrum--who are not afraid to make rather stinging critiques of religion--are less than happy with Myers.

I'm curious what readers of this blog think of Hippolitus's arguments.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What do identical twins have to do with Oklahoma's Personhood Bill?

A lot, actually. The process of twinning may pose one of the clearest grounds for challenging the proposed legislative assertion that personhood begins at conception.

In fact, the philosopher who is arguably the most important philosophical defender of the pro-life position, Don Marquis, has argued that his case against abortion does not apply prior to implantation--precisely because of the twinning issue. And the reasoning here (which has been laid out by a number of philosophers, including Peter Singer) has clear implications for Oklahoma's so-called Personhood Bill.

Since I've talked about the Personhood Bill on this blog, I thought I'd spend a few moments connecting the dots between this bill and some of the philosophical arguments that relate to it. Let's start with Don Marquis's anti-abortion argument.

Marquis recognizes that there are enormous problems in making one's moral case about abortion rest on the question of personhood. We simply don't have a clear enough understanding of personhood to do that. So, instead, Marquis begins by asking what is wrong with killing adults. What makes homocide so presumptively seriously immoral? His answer is this: it deprives someone of the future they would otherwise enjoy. And not just any future. It deprives them of a certain kind of future--what we'll call a human future.

But if the chief wrong-making property of killing an adult human being is that it deprives the individual killed of a human future, that immediately motivates Marquis's key question: What kind of future does a fetus have?

A human one, of course. All of us started out as fetuses. And every human fetus is on a developmental trajectorty to become "one of us," and as such has a future like ours. And this means that killing a fetus has the same wrong-making property that killing an adult has.

Now there are various ways to object to Marquis's argument, but the one I want to focus on--the one that's interested me the most--has to do with identity over time. If you kill me, you deprive me of my future--the future I'd otherwise have. There is, in other words, a victim here. Someone who is being deprived of something they'd otherwise enjoy. And in order for there to be a victim, the one who enjoys the future in question has to be the very same individual as the one who is killed. Marquis's argument here depends on positing identity over time. The question is this: At what point does the organism who possesses a future like ours come into existence?

I'm inclined to say that this question is related to personhood (I've made an argument to this effect in conference presentations and have been working on a journal article on the topic). A necessary condition for A and B being the exact same individual is that A and B are essentially the same kind of thing. Since a person is an essentially different kind of thing than a corpse, the body that remains after I die won't be me. The question is when, on the other end of the course of my life, I came into being. I think the answer is this: whenever the biological organism developing in my mother's womb became a person.

And since the notion of personhood is difficult to explicate in uncontroversial terms, it follows that the question of when I came to be is a vexed one.

Marquis disagrees (and has expressed this disagreement in an e-mailed critique of my conference paper). He thinks that what is essential to me is not my personhood, but my status as a living human organism. So, on his view, when the living human organism came to exist, I came to exist (even if my personhood only came later). Given this view of things, Marquis thinks he can sidestep the vexing question of personhood and still argue that abortion is presumptively wrong.

But despite our differences on this issue, he and I would agree, I think, that if the organism has not yet come to exist, then neither has the person. And if the person comes to exist at conception, so does the organism.

Here is where Oklahoma's Personhood Bill becomes relevant. The Oklahoma state legislature is, in effect, poised to declare that the organism identical with me comes into existence at conception (and that this organism is a person to boot). According to this law, I came into existence the moment my father's sperm fertilized my mother's egg. I am identical with that zygote--we are the same individual at two different stages of development. Likewise, my student, "Tammy," is the same individual as the zygote from which she developed. And her sister, "Bri," is the same individual as the zygote from which she developed.

If this is true, then each of these zygotes would have been deprived of its future--a human one--had it been killed.  But even Don Marquis argues that this can't be.

And why not? Here's where twinning poses a problem. The problem is born out of what logicians call "the transitivity of identity." It's a basic logical rule that goes like this: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. In terms of individual organisms, if A is the very same individual as B, and B is the very same individual as C, then A is the very same individual as C.

So let's apply this rule to my student, Tammy, and her sister, Bri. As mentioned above, according to the Personhood Bill Tammy has to be conceived (pun intended) as the very same individual as the zygote from which she developed; and Bri has to be conceived as the very same individual as the zygote from which she developed. But Tammy and Bri are identical twins, identical in the sense of emerging from the same fertilized egg or zygote. According to the Oklahoma Personhood Bill, Tammy would have to be conceived as identical with that zygote, and Bri would have to be conceived of as identical with that zygote. By the rule of transitivity of identity, Tammy and Bri are the same person.

But they're not. Tammy greets me enthusiastically whenever we pass each other on campus. Bri has no idea who I am. I've seen them walking down the hall side-by-side, and I can assure you that they're not merely different people, but physically distinct biological organisms.

Marquis follows up this line of argument with another one: Much of the early "conceptus" (the product of conception) develops into what, later in pregnancy, is the placenta and other extra-embryonic structures(amniotic sac, umbilical cord) rather than any part of the fetus. These considerations, along with certain others, drive Marquis to the conclusion that the human organism comes on the scene only after implantation, when the embryo begins to differentiate itself from the extra-embryonic structures. This is still, of course, very early in pregnancy--usually before the person even knows they're pregnant; certainly before most abortions are performed. But not at conception.

If you embrace the Personhood Bill, you embrace the idea that I was a person when my father's sperm met my mother's egg--and hence that the organism that is me came into existence at that point. But holding that the organism exists at conception leads to absurd results in twinning cases; and there are important developmental milestones (the differentiation of embryo from the extra-embryonic structures being a crucial one) that could readily be understood as the point at which the organism emerges without leading to such absurd results.

In short, there are good philosophical reasons not to hold that the fertilized egg is a person--even if, like Marquis, we maintain that the fetus is a potential person (at least) by the time most abortions are being contemplated; and even if we hold, like Marquis, that being a human organism that is potentially a person means that killing it deprives it of a future like ours and so is presumptively very seriously wrong.

You can, in conclusion, take a strong stand against abortion without embracing this Personhood Bill. And the philosophical reasons not to regard the fertilized egg as a person are, to my mind, quite strong. In my last serious post on this subject, I argued that legislative fiat is not the best way to try to settle an essentially philosophical dispute. The kinds of arguments offered here constitute a better approach...and even the arguments of a well-known philosophical opponent of abortion speak against the currently proposed legislative pronouncement.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Good Friday Reflection on Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS

“A man can’t be a Jesus in this world!”


So says Joe Keller, the tragic figure at the center of Arthur Miller’s first successful play, All My Sons. It’s a play I’m thinking about these days because, well, both my son and I are in it. That is, we’re in a production of it that opens next week.

But this week, as I’ve been thinking about the play’s harrowing conclusion, I couldn’t help but think of it in relation to Holy Week, and to the passion narrative that Christians remember in a special way this week. In a sense, Joe Keller’s tragic tale is a narrative of crucifixion, of the burden of sin, and—in its final terrible moments—of the tragically distorted pursuit of redemption.

By the way, this post will contain spoilers. If you’ve never seen or read All My Sons but plan to and want to be surprised, you might want to stop reading now.

The play is set in a single day, in a back yard somewhere in Ohio, in the wake of World War II. The yard belongs to Joe Keller, a businessman who, during the war, made cylinder heads for P-40 fighter planes. One day, the cylinder heads were coming out of the production process with cracks. They were shipped out anyway, the cracks covered over…and planes started going down. Ultimately 21 men died.

Keller and his partner, Steve Deever, were arrested, but while both men were initially convicted, Keller was acquitted on appeal. He had plausible deniability: he hadn’t gone into work that day. He’d been sick, apparently, with the flu. And so—at least as Keller tells the story—he never knew what Deever had done.

And now, on a summer day after the war, Keller sits in his lovely yard, enjoying his freedom and his wealth; and the only visible shadow over his life is that one of his sons, Larry, never returned from the war.

But there are portents. A storm has knocked down the tree planted in Larry’s honor. More significantly, Larry’s “girl,” Annie Deever, has arrived in town at the invitation of Joe Keller’s surviving son, Chris. Chris is in love with Annie and wants to marry her—a desire that is complicated not only by the fact that she’s the daughter of the business partner who took the fall for the cracked cylinder heads, but by the fact that Kate Keller, Joe’s wife, has never relinquished the conviction, even after three and a half years, that Larry is still alive.

But as the day’s events unfold, the truth of Keller’s complicity in the crime comes to light, precipitated in part by an unexpected visit from George Deever, Annie’s brother, who has just listened to—and been convinced by—their father’s account of what happened, an account that clearly implicates Joe Keller in the crime. The truth staggers Chris, whose idealism and love for his father never allowed him to believe anything but Joe’s version of events.

And as Joe Keller rallies in his own defense—appealing to the endemic corruption and dog-eat-dog realities of a system that made him no worse than anyone else in the business world, appealing to the bonds of family and his desire to leave a legacy for his sons—as Joe Keller argues his case, Annie comes forward with a letter that reveals the truth about Larry’s death.

Joe Keller utters the fateful words—“A man can’t be a Jesus in this world!”—just as Chris begins to read aloud Larry’s final message, a message written just before he took off in his plane intent on ending his own life. Larry had heard about what his and Annie’s fathers had done. Larry, a pilot himself, identified with each of the men who had died. And he was the son of the man responsible. He couldn’t live with it. He couldn’t go on living, knowing that his comrades, boys who risked their lives fighting for their country and each other, were casualties of his father doing business.

The letter brings home to Joe the full weight of his culpability. His sons, the sons for whom he had built his business and his wealth, for whom he had risked prison (and the lives of pilots) rather than allow the business to go under—these two boys, each in his own way, stood in solidarity with the men who'd died. For Joe, faced with this truth, the message of Larry’s suicide becomes clear: They are all my sons.

Larry killed himself to express, in the only way he knew how, the enormity of his father’s crime. He voluntarily shared in the fate of his father’s victims, declaring in a final fiery act, This is what your sins really mean. But even as he identified with the victims of his father’s crime, he also identified with his father. He could not help but feel that kinship, that connection, to recognize and bear the burden of his father’s crime—a burden he could only cast off by going on one last mission, a mission from which he knew he would not return alive.

And Joe Keller—who has been shifting responsibility for his crime to the broader system of which he’s just a part—now finds his scope of responsibility expanding beyond his immediate family. They are all my sons. Once ready to make the world responsible for his actions, he suddenly finds himself responsible to the world.

And from this new perspective he knows that “being sorry” is not enough. As he goes into the house, on the pretext of getting his jacket so that Chris can take him to the police station, Chris shares with his mother what he sees as the alternative to merely being sorry: “You can be better.”

Maybe Joe doesn’t believe it. Maybe what’s happened has convinced him of a paradoxical truth: His duty to the world exceeds what the world’s realities make possible. Confronted with what he’s done, and with a vivid personal awareness of the human capacity to rationalize and evade responsibility, he doesn’t believe he can be good enough. To be good enough, you need to be a Jesus in this world. But a man can’t be a Jesus in this world.

And so, Joe Keller’s moment of moral awakening is also his final moment. In that very moment when he realizes and internalizing the scope of his moral responsibilities, when he casts away denial and deception, he finds himself faced with a chasm of sin he cannot possibly cross. What he’s done is too terrible, and what he must do to be better is too unattainable.

And so the final gunshot rings out. Joe’s solution to the agony of it, to his moral crucifixion, is to follow in the footsteps of his son.

The play comes to an end with Chris weeping, saying “I didn’t mean to,” while his mother, Kate, urges him not to take it on himself.

Those final words are telling: “Don’t take it on yourself.”

But what is the alternative? One son takes on himself the weight of his father’s sins, and it drives him to a fiery end. A father refuses to take on the weight of his guilt, and it festers. A partner sits in prison, bearing alone the penalty for the crime. And the truth pushes its way to the surface. The gravity of the offense will be felt—somehow, irresistibly felt even through the veneer of pretense and rationalization, in spite of our efforts to hide behind pleasant routines, in spite of our carefully constructed imitations of the gardens of innocence.

Are these the only alternatives? Moral crucifixion or denial?

It is this dilemma that sits at the very heart of Christian theology. It is this dilemma that Good Friday is about. In a sense, Christian theology begins with a question: How do we face the truth of the human predicament, both our responsibility to the world and our inadequacy, without needing to crucify ourselves?

I don’t believe that Jesus’ passion story—from betrayal to crucifixion, from death to an empty tomb—can be understood unless and until the weight of this question is fully experienced, and the passion is understood as offering a narrative answer. That doesn’t mean the answer is easy to articulate in theoretic terms, terms that abstract from the details of the story. But Christians are united in part by their conviction that here, in the symbols of the cross and the empty tomb, lies God’s solution.

“A man can’t be a Jesus in this world.”

“Don’t take it on yourself.”

Joe Keller is right. He can’t be Jesus. Neither can Chris, or Larry, or any of the others in the play. And because none of them can be a Jesus in this world, all of them are trapped by the same intolerable dilemma.

Unless. Unless something greater than we are makes it possible for us to follow Kate Keller’s advice without sacrificing truth or integrity. Unless we can stand in the truth without being crushed by it, because there is someone who is taking it on Himself, someone better than we can be who is lifting the impossible burden of it without requiring that any of us deny its reality.

We can't be a Jesus in this world. But the hope offered by the Christian narrative is that this grim reality, played out in such harrowing terms in Arthur Miller's play, isn't the end of the story. Because we don't need to be. Because there's someone who is.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Conversation with Chris Tilling on the Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Evangelical Universalist forum is hosting a conversation between me and Chris Tilling, a New Testament Tutor for St Mellitus College and St Paul's Theological Centre, London. The starting point for our discussion will be the arguments and themes that John Kronen and I develop and defend in our recent book, God's Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism.

The conversation is just getting started. So far, Chris has posted an initial set of questions, and--just a few minutes ago--I posted my initial response. That response focuses on the first questions, relating to the main lines of argument in God's Final Victory, what I take to be its distinctive contributions, and what I hope it will achieve.

Readers of this blog interested in universalism and hell should definitely check out the conversation--and while you're there, browse the site. There are some interesting exchanges, including a spirited one between Glenn Peoples and Tom Talbott that makes for engaging reading.

In any event, I'll try to keep you informed here whenever there's a new post in the conversation there.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy: The Perspective of a Middle-Aged White Guy

I’ve been listening, mostly silently, while bits and pieces of the story have come together. I’ve listened to different versions of the story, woven from those bits and pieces, some stories more plausible than others. Sometimes I feel unqualified to comment. What possible relevance is my perspective?


The pieces themselves aren’t in dispute: A black teenage boy in a hoodie, with a box of Skittles and a can of sweet tea, walking back from a convenience store. A half-hispanic neighborhood watch captain in an SUV, armed and suspicious and noncompliant when the 911 operator told him not to follow the object of his suspicions. A “stand your ground law” that has, arguably, increased the incidence of lethal shootings in the state of Florida since its implementation. A confrontation. A dead body. And, to this date, no arrest.

A nation’s president declaring that if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon Martin.

What happened between the watch captain on patrol, George Zimmerman, and the teenager on a mission to satisfy his sweet tooth, Trayvon Martin?

I have my guesses, but before sharing them I want to talk about the perspective I bring to the conversation. Because my way of piecing together the story is rooted in that perspective--and the relevance of that perspective is something I want to focus on.

So what is my perspective? I’m a white man; a middle-aged, somewhat introverted college professor living in a peaceful college town in Oklahoma. In my free time I write fiction, act (in community theatre), and play my violin. I ask again: Of what possible relevance is such a perspective to the tragedy involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?

Late last week I had a conversation with a friend and colleague in the next office, Lawrence Ware, and we talked about our children. I have two young children, including an eight year old boy. My friend has two sons, both of them younger than mine. But unlike me, Lawrence is black. His sons are black. And because of their skin, he has fears for his sons that I simply don’t have.

He told me about advice he’d gotten from his father, advice that he intended to pass on to both of his children when they were old enough to understand. But passing on this advice wasn’t something he did cavalierly and without inner turmoil, the way you might pass on the advice to look for the good in others, or to remember to be grateful for what you have. This advice cannot help but have a bit of a bitter taste to it.

Here’s the thing: If you’re a black man in America and you want to run by the bank to cash a check, you might think about something that would never occur to someone like me—namely, changing out of your jeans and t-shirt, maybe putting on a button-down shirt and dressier shoes before you go. If you do think about doing that, a part of you might feel a twinge of resentment. “Why should I have to do that?” you might ask yourself. “White people don’t think about putting on a dress shirt before running errands. Going out of the house in comfortable clothes isn’t a crime. If there’s a problem here, it’s with the covert racism in society that leads people to immediately suspect me just because I’m black. Why should I have to accommodate that?”

You might ask yourself that. And if you have a son, you might ask why your son should be expected to accommodate that. “But when I don’t,” Lawrence said to me, “I have to deal with stupid questions. They’ll come up to me and ask what I’m doing there. Um…banking?”

This is just an example, but I think it helps to convey the reality that Lawrence, as a father, feels compelled to share with his sons. I’m not sure what words he’ll use. Maybe they’ll go something like this: “When you grow into a man, you’ve got to carry yourself in a certain way, dress in a certain way, so as to defuse the suspicion that would otherwise attach to you automatically, just because you’re a black man. Otherwise you court stupid questions.”

And sometimes, as the Trayvon Martin tragedy brings home—to Lawrence, to Barack Obama, to every black person trying to make a life in America—sometimes you court consequences far more grave than stupid questions.

“Right now,” Lawrence told me, “everyone looks at my sons and thinks how cute they are. But one day they’ll go from being cute to being suspicious.”

“My son,” I replied, “will likely go from being little-kid cute to being Justin Bieber cute.” My son, like me, is small for his age—the smallest kid in his class. He loves to dance and has been taking dance lessons since the age of three. He plays the piano. He’s got a small part in the current play being put on at the local community theatre, and he steals the scenes he’s in. He’s bright and funny and charming and argumentative. He’s writing a novel, and it’s orders of magnitude better than anything I could have done at his age.

I have fears for him, of course. I fear that soon enough his artistic qualities and his size will combine to make him a target for bullying. But there are things I’m not afraid of. I doubt he will ever be imposing to look at. I doubt anyone will ever see him coming down the street and be worried for their safety—crossing the street so as to avoid passing near him. If he runs to a convenience store to pick up some candy, I worry some bully might pick on him. But once he’s got his Skittles and sweet tea, what I imagine happened to Trayvon Martin is simply not something I worry happening to my son.

And what do I imagine happened to Trayvon Martin? Since only one person knows for sure, I think it’s best to share my version of the story in the language of maybes.

Maybe it never occurred to George Zimmerman, as he was on his nightly volunteer patrol, that his sense of suspicion had anything to do with Martin’s race. It was just a gut reaction: “I don’t know this guy, but he looks suspicious.” Of course, there’s a cultural template of suspicious characters, a composite portrait of who to fear, who to suspect of being up to no good—a portrait that springs from evening news snapshots, movies, warning gestures from a parent. But maybe Zimmerman wasn’t the introspective sort who’d think about such things. Maybe all he thought was, “This guy look suspicious.” He was volunteering his time to patrol the neighborhood because of some recent burglaries. He was out there on the street to catch the creeps responsible. And this guy looked suspicious.

And maybe Zimmerman was the kind of man who couldn’t see himself standing by and doing nothing while a “suspicious” person was in his neighborhood. Maybe such a narrative just didn’t fit with his idealized self-understanding, his image of the kind of man he was supposed to be. When he became the neighborhood watch captain, maybe it was in large measure because of that image he aspired to—the image of someone who took care of his own, who stood his ground against the bastards of the world. On the 911 tape, Zimmerman is heard lamenting that “the a$$holes always get away.” Maybe Zimmerman saw himself as the kind of guy who didn’t let them get away. That’s who he wanted to be. The guy who caught the a$$holes.

And this kid looked suspicious.

Of course, confronting a suspicious character is sure to get the adrenalin flowing—kicking up the fight-or-flight instincts we all have. But maybe Zimmerman didn’t want to be the kind of guy who chooses flight. That doesn’t mean he felt no fear. But he saw himself as the kind of guy who faces threats instead of running from them. In fact, a flutter of fear may have made him even more likely to stage a confrontation. Real mean don’t let their fears rule them. Real men take a stand.

And so, his whole body alive with a sense of danger, Zimmerman closed on the a$$hole who, by God, wasn’t going to get away this time.

And Trayvon Martin. He was minding his own business. Maybe he was feeling a little out of place. After all, this wasn’t his neighborhood. His father had brought him here after he’d gotten into a bit of trouble at school. He felt a little ashamed about that, but mostly now he felt restless and bored, and a little out of sorts. That’s why he went out in the rain, why he picked up a box of candy. Just to do something.

And then he saw Zimmerman approaching. Maybe Zimmerman’s approach was aggressive, triggering Martin’s own fight-or-flight instincts. Maybe Zimmerman immediately launched into accusations. “What are you doing here? What are you up to?” Maybe Martin said “That’s none of your business!” Maybe Zimmerman responded with something like, “Hell yeah, it’s my business. I’m the neighborhood watch captain.”

And maybe, just maybe, Martin suddenly felt profiled. Maybe he thought to himself, “I’ve got as much of a right to walk to the store for some Skittles as anyone else.” Maybe he thought, “I’ve got as much of a right as anyone else to pull up my hoodie when it rains.” Maybe he thought of how unfair it all was, that he couldn’t just live his life without someone suspecting him, judging him a criminal. And so maybe he decided, in that moment, to stand up for his rights.

Maybe he shouted. Maybe he got in Zimmerman’s face. Maybe Zimmerman, primed for aggression, shoved Martin. Maybe Martin shoved back. And maybe, then, something exploded inside Zimmerman. The a$$hole thief ain’t getting away with it this time. This time he’s met a real man, someone who stands up for his community, someone who ain’t afraid.

Maybe Zimmerman attacked, and maybe Martin flailed defensively against the assault, maybe landing a punch. Maybe Zimmerman’s fight-or-flight terror and rage made him fling Martin to the ground. Maybe Martin’s cries for help fueled that part of Zimmerman that was finally taking care of business, finally putting those a$$holes in their place. The cries of terror sparked, not empathy, but triumph and contempt. And before he even knew what he’d done, he put a final punctuation mark on that contempt. Take that, you pathetic little thief.

And then, in the silence that followed, Zimmerman found himself staring down at a corpse. The terror and aggression fell away in the face of what he’d done. “Oh my God. Ohmygodohmygod.” He stood there, perhaps trembling, as the police arrived. And in the days and weeks that followed, perhaps he’s struggled to maintain that portrait of himself, the portrait of the man who stands his ground, who confronts the a$$holes, who doesn’t let them get away.

Maybe, in moments of sudden and quickly repressed horror, he wonders if he’s the a$$hole who shouldn’t get away.

Or maybe not.

What I do know is that the fear that my son might end up like Trayvon Martin isn’t one that keeps me awake at night. And I know that my friend Lawrence does fear this very thing. Because he’s black. Because, even if his sons end up being interested in acting or dancing or theatre or writing, even if they’re small for their age, the color of their skin will be enough. Now they’re adorable. Now everyone wants to hug them. But the clock is ticking down to a day when—in the language of my friend—they’ll carry the weight of white America’s suspicions.

And I know that nothing will get better until we understand each others’ fears.

And this takes me back to my opening question: Of what possible relevance is the perspective of someone like me? Here, I think, is the answer: My perspective will help to shape how, as a society, we will change—or resist change—in the light of this and similar tragedies. Whether it is informed or not, whether it is wise or not, my perspective will have an impact. It is relevant because it has power.

And so I have a responsibility to shape it carefully and critically. To make it as wise and informed as I can. To give it voice, and to invite feedback that can correct my oversights and fill in my blind spots.

It’s easy for our perspectives to become solipsistic—defined entirely by our own narrow fears and hopes, ideals and anxieties. And sometimes, as we’ve seen, such solipsistic perspectives—even when unstated and unquestioned, perhaps especially then—can become the backdrop to tragedy.