Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

In my last post I gestured towards one of the ways in which we are limited: Whatever the real nature of time, our experience of it is like an inexorable current, carrying us into the future and away from the past. Only one moment is present to us. The past can be recalled but not revisited. The future can be anticipated, but will be experienced only when it becomes the present. And then that moment, too, will fall behind us, further and further back until even the memories are hazy.

This past week, I've found myself thinking about my childhood. Not surprising, since I'm visiting my parents, who still live in the house I grew up in. I type this from an office that used to be my bedroom. The bookcase behind me is the one that I used as a child--the results of my father's amateur carpentry, constructed before I was born.

For some reason, I keep thinking about station wagons with fake wood paneling on the sides--the minivans of my childhood. Even though my parents' station wagon didn't have the paneling, that particular design seems emblematic of a time in my life that I keep returning to in my thoughts, perhaps because my own children are coming into that same age. As they run through the house, I'm running with them, hiding in the same places, banging out the same nonsense on the piano.

The present and the past get knotted together in a strange way. And the traditions of this season--the rituals of Christmas and New Years--tighten those knots. But they also highlight the changes. Vince, a friend of my parents, passed away yesterday (following his wife, Ilse, who died a few years back), and I can remember a New Years Eve about fifteen years ago when they were with us to usher in the New Year. I remember playing Hava Nagila on my violin, and people dancing to it in a kind of parade through the house. I remember Ilse bringing out a tiny cast iron pan that she used to melt lead pellets, which were then dunked in cold water. We were supposed to read our fortunes for the coming year in the shapes that were created.

Whatever entanglements there might be between the present and the past, they cannot restore to us the years that lie behind us. And whatever fortunes we read in globs of metal, the future remains an undiscovered country. For humanity, time flows in one direction, and we have no choice but to follow.

This fact makes it important for us to think about time and its passing. On an individual level, we mark and commemorate each year of our lives on the anniversary of our birth. Couples commemorate each year that they have been together (as my wife and I did yesterday, commemorating nine years together).

And then there's the celebration of the New Year. Different cultures have chosen different moments to collectively pause for reflection and anticipation. But the Western tradition of celebrating the New Year at midnight tonight has spread to many parts of the world. Midnight hits at different moments. The ball drops at intervals of an hour. Cheers and toasts, kisses and laughter, melancholy and maudlin renditions of Auld Lang Syne--we face the future together with joy or trepidation, and the past with an ache or a good riddance.

Let it be so. Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Believing the Christmas Story

What does it mean to believe in the Christmas story? In terms of substance and significance, what does it mean?

I’m not asking about facts. I’m not asking for a recitation of one or more of the Christmas narratives with the concluding remark, “To believe in the Christmas story is to believe that these events really took place.” If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything about biblical literalists, it’s that their religion is, far too often, so shallow. Their faith becomes about affirming that this or that happened, that this or that factual claim is true. There is no effort to really dwell on what it means to live as if this is true, to let one’s attitudes and choices, one’s patterns of engaging with the world, be informed and transformed by a narrative vision. When I ask what it means to believe in the Christmas story, that’s what I’m asking for.

I ask for it in the midst of my own finitude. I live with a constant awareness of my limitations, limits which I feel in so many different ways. My wife is a triathlete. She’s run marathons, swum unfathomable (to me) distances. Recently, my 7-year-old son has taken up running—and I’ve found myself called upon to keep up with him in the fun run or the 5K at an area event while my wife runs a longer distance. And so I’ve been trying to run, to build my stamina. I’ve been feeling and pushing the limits of my aging body.

One can extend one’s limits, but they remain. I might find myself huffing less intensely after a mile on the treadmill. I might stretch the distance I can cover without a walk break, until I can run around Boomer Lake in Stillwater twice without a rest. But the limits will remain. And starting to run in my forties means that I do so with a clear awareness that whatever limits I stretch will soon close back in on me, as countless little signs of age have their inevitable cumulative effect.

My father was recently diagnosed with cancer. He will be having surgery in a little over a week. This fall, a fellow violinist and retired music professor in my congregation passed away, and I sat at his funeral listening to the testimonies of his violin students and remembering Bernie, my own wonderful violin teacher, who’d passed away decades ago. This summer my wife’s grandfather died, and so I found myself thinking about the deaths of my grandparents—one dying in indignity and anguish, the other with unexpected swiftness. A few months back, Dame Joan Sutherland—La Stupenda—breathed her last. Only recordings of her exquisite breath control remain (many of them in my music collection). All of us confront this ultimate limit, the outer boundary of our mortal life. The generations take turns pushing at it.

Our consciousness moves inexorably forward through time. Even if Einstein is right and we live in a “block universe,” one in which time is just another dimension of reality—even if my experience of “now” is a kind of illusion of consciousness, and that past (and future) are every bit as real, every bit as much there, as the present—even so, it remains the case that my experience of time is sequential, that I am caught in a current I cannot turn against or step out of.

That current not only points me towards the limit we call death, but constrains me at every moment—constrains me in every moment. I’m visiting my parents, who live in the same house I grew up in. Earlier this week I drove past the home of my childhood friend Doug. I’ve reconnected with him recently on Facebook, so I know he was in Buffalo this summer, emptying out his childhood home. I saw the “Sold” sign out in front of Doug’s house, and I saw the bronze eagle that his family had installed over the garage decades ago. I wondered how long that ornament would last once the new tenants moved in.

And I remembered playing in Doug’s basement. I remembered his mother coming downstairs with toast slathered with raspberry jam. I remembered the taste of it, the crunch of toasted Wonder Bread and the burst of sweetness. And for one anguished moment I want to visit then. I wanted more than just the memory, the ghost that haunts the present. I wanted to be that child playing with that friend, tasting the flavors of that moment. And it seemed a terrible injustice that one can travel to old familiar places but not to old familiar times.

The other experiences of limitation are more personal, having to do with my incapacities, my inability to find the right words or gestures to help or comfort those I love. Presented with their needs, I come face to face with my faults. Too often, because I don’t know the right thing to do, I do nothing when something is urgently required.

My “pleasure” reading these days is Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy novel, Against All Things Ending. If anything—like all his novels—it’s a narrative meditation on finitude, on the flaws and limits that not only constrain us but define us. His characters’ flaws are always extravagant, their brokenness almost unendurable. And he casts these broken people into a mythic universe which reflects and magnifies that brokenness as well as their beauty, an environment whose threatened virtues demand their self transcendence.

In this novel, Thomas Covenant—who in earlier novels sacrificed his humanity to become an integral part of the mythic Arch of Time—is thrown back into mortal life due to the extremity and reckless urgency of his former lover’s (Linden’s) efforts. Towards the end of the novel he finds himself wrestling with what it means to be a finite mortal creature again, and he has these thoughts:

Now he was human again: he could no longer see past his limitations. Like every creature that died when its time was done, he could only live in his circumscribed present.

This was the truth of being mortal, this imprisonment in the strictures of sequence. It felt like a kind of tomb.

In his earlier state, he had recognized that this prison was also the only utile form of freedom. Another contradiction: strictures enabled as much as they denied. The Elohim (mythic beings of pure “Earthpower”) were ineffectual precisely because they had so few constraints. Linden was capable of so much because her inadequacies walled her on all sides.

Now, however, he had to take that perception on faith.

In the Christmas story, Christians affirm something like what Covenant strives, in the midst of his limited perception, to hold onto on faith: the idea that limits can encompass redemptive possibilities.

One of the most extraordinary images to come from the Hubble Space Telescope emerged when the telescope was pointed towards an area of seemingly empty space. What would the telescope reveal? The answer was galaxies. Galaxies upon galaxies. Multitudes of galaxies filling that tiny sliver of darkness. The vastness of the universe, the immensity of creation, came to light in a stunning way.

To believe in the Christmas story is, first, to believe that behind that immensity is an infinite creator whose vastness dwarfs His creation. The creation itself is one that we cannot even begin to fathom, and which demands our stunned silence—but that stunning immensity is only a symbol of the magnitude of what lies behind.

Second, to believe in the Christmas story is to believe that this infinite creator descended into His creation to take on the boundaries of matter and time and vulnerable flesh. All that immensity, all that unfathomable vastness, became paradoxically defined by mortal limitations: the strictures of sequence, the inevitability of death, helplessness, susceptibility to despair.

Our anguished consciousness of our limits, our fallibility and fragility, finds no purer symbol than the wailing infant, the baby whose only power is to scream out its need. And in the Christmas story, that symbol of frail finitude is juxtaposed against the heavens: the blazing star over Bethlehem, the heavenly host that comes with terrifying splendor to the shepherds—or, in the language of our own age, the vastness of the universe, galaxies upon galaxies that fill up one sliver of darkness in the sky.

But part of the message is that what the child represents is something far greater that the teeming enormity of the physical universe, despite the strictures of sequence, despite mortality and frail flesh. The eternal Logos, the Word that from the beginning was with God, one with God, fully present in a child stripped of any trappings of grandeur. A stall. Hay. Outcast shepherds. Peasant parents. It isn’t the emperor who is exalted, who can claim the mantle of the infinite. The infinite presses itself into mortal strictures at that point where its meaning cannot be warped by artificial hierarchies, the imagined constructs we fashion to tame the vastness of what lies beyond us.

We exalt a man in a big room, on a big chair, wearing glittering clothes—and if such a man is the definition of greatness, then greatness is a miniscule thing. It won’t dwarf us. Such a parochial vision of greatness can help us not to think of the galaxies upon galaxies filling up one tiny corner of the heavens. If God came to Earth in such a man, we’d make God as small as an emperor.

But in the Christmas story we are asked, not to tame our vision of God, but to expand our vision of frail humanity. In the Christmas story, we are invited not to hide from the immeasurable vastness of the universe and its creator, but to confront it in the knowledge that we will not be lost or crushed or driven to despair by its enormity. Rather than taming God, rather than putting God in a manageable box, the Christmas story buttresses us in all our frailty so that we needn’t hide from what transcends us. It does so not by making us equal to God; not by erasing our limits. It does so by making the infinite God one with us, by bringing God down into those limits. To believe in that, to believe in the Christmas story, is to be capable of enduring and accepting our limits, our finitude, the strictures of physical existence and the one-way flow of time—capable of accepting them even when we honestly see them for what they are.

And this capacity in turn enables us to do what inevitably exposes every frailty and imperfection in a blazing light. It enables us to look to the infinite, to open ourselves to it, to face the mysterium tremendum with the joy of relationship rather than in despair over our own inadequacy.

And to believe in the Christmas story is to set aside the fear of inadequacy and all the ugly things that go with it: the jealousies of others’ accomplishments; the envy of others’ talents; the shame of being merely human; the other-directed judgments and condemnations that are really about misdirection, about getting those around us to look somewhere else so that they don’t see our own glaring sins; the self-directed loathing and despair that comes when we cannot hide from our own sense of insufficiency; and all the superficiality, the consumerism, the empty entertainments that we throw ourselves into in the hope of distracting ourselves, of keeping ourselves from noticing our staggering limitations.

To believe in the Christmas story is to look at all this friable life, in ourselves and others—this life constrained by mortality and sequence, impotence and ignorance, sin and fallibility—and to treasure the precious reality that dwells within those limits, rather than the vast nothing which lies beyond them.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas...erm, Happy, Season's Greetings?

Since I'm get ready to leave town today and will likely will be out of touch for the next few days, I thought I'd take the chance now to wish my readers a merry Christmas. Unfortunately, this has become a rather delicate and potentially controversial thing to do.

On the one hand, not everyone who might read this blog celebrates Christmas--or if they do, they inspire the outrage of conservative Christians because there is no "Christ," let alone a mass, involved in their celebration.

On the other hand, a generic "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" will make me a potential target of Fox News pundits, who would see me--the author of a critical response to the New Atheists--as treasonously becoming part of the War on Christmas.

I could, of course, start listing individual holiday celebrations from different traditions in a long disjunctive greeting, inviting you to select the disjunct that applies to you. But some of the celebrations which I might mention are already past (calling attention to the fact that I was insufficiently sensitive to offer a timely holiday greeting), some are still some time away, and there is always the danger that I might leave someone out, inspiring their ire.

Furtunately, James McGrath has provided me with a working alternative. Armed with The Articles of Christmas, I can safely wish you an appropriately qualified merry Christmas. May your travels be safe, your celebrations joyful, your feasts filling, your reunions happy, and your worship inspiring--if any of these things apply to you, of course.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Cousin Shakes the President's Hand

This morning, my cousin Jake Reitan--who has for several years been fighting on the front lines against DADT ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the discriminatory policy that has precluded gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military)--was on hand for the historic signing of the bill repealing DADT. It was a moving event for everyone who has been part of the effort to end what Jake has described as "the single most discriminatory [current] practice in this country."

A nice article profiling Jake and his experiences--including a star-struck handshake with President Obama--can be found here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Proof that the Best Satire Makes Fun of Everbody

Haven't laughed this hard in awhile. And since this is of such clear relevance to ongoing topics of conversation on this blog, I'm inspired to make the effort to post a video. (Thanks go to John Shook for calling this to my attention). Enjoy:

If the Shepherds had Facebook

Being a shepherd and hence a member of a marginalized group, Mark has few Facebook friends, all of them shepherds like him—and most of them don’t update regularly. After all, signal for a cell phone is rather spotty out in the pasture, and since the shepherds can’t afford Smart Phones they have to use a traditional phone keyboard to update their status, which is slow even with intuitive texting. Usually, this means that Mark’s Facebook newsfeed is pretty dull. But even a shepherd’s newsfeed can sometimes come alive. This is what it looked like one particular morning...

Zachariah My friends have been smoking that funny moss again.
about a minute ago

James So what do we do now? Just go back to herding sheep like nothing happened?
15 minutes ago via Mobile Web
Mark I guess so.
David I have a feeling herding sheep won’t be so bad. Not after last night. You know what I mean? It’s not like one of those big events which makes everything else seem smaller. It makes everything bigger. Even herding sheep. It’s like God is THERE, herding sheep with me.
James I want to see that baby again.
Zachariah You’re turning into a baby-stalker. All of you guys have *totally* lost it.

David wrote on your wall
What do you make of last night?
about an hour ago via Mobile God
Mark I don’t know. I mean, it was just a couple of peasants and a baby, sleeping in a stable, right? But it seemed like more. It seemed like the biggest deal ever.
David What about the stuff before that? Did you hear…not exactly singing, but it was LIKE singing. It was like…well, if the sky had suddenly exploded with light and a bunch of silver people with wings had poured down and started singing the most beautiful music…well, that would’ve blown me away in something like the same way. It was like I was surrounded by angels singing “Peace to all” over and over, except without words or notes.
Mark I think I know what you mean. To me it seemed like the brightest star in the world, brighter than the full moon, but instead of light it was love and peace shining out of it. I thought it might be...well, I haven't had enough sleep lately. Or food. But I know what you mean about angels. And I just knew I was supposed to go into the village. I just knew where to go. And then you were there, too. And James.
Zachariah You guys a freakin’ scaring me. What were you smoking last night?
James Show some respect, Zach. I had the same experience. It was…well, it was God.
Zachariah God doesn’t suddenly start talking to a bunch of shepherds. We're nothing.
James That’s just it, Zach. We’re NOT nothing. You should’ve seen that baby.
Zachariah What does a baby have to do with God?
David God was THERE, in that baby.
Zachariah In a stable. Yeah, right.
James Yes, in a stable. That’s the whole point.
Zachariah Whatever. You just got so *freakin* bored you started hallucinating. Happens to me all the time.
Usually babies don’t do anything for me. But I REALLY wanted to hold that baby.
2 hours ago via Mobile Web
David and Mark like this
Zachariah Was it *that* cute?
James No. I mean, yeah, I suppose it was cute. Babies are cute, right? But that wasn’t it at all. There was just something…I don’t know how to explain it. I was just suddenly really jealous of the mother, who got to hold THAT baby.
David Jealous? I don’t know if I could have felt anything like jealousy last night.
James Jealous is the wrong word. Envious. I think I want to be a daddy.
Zachariah Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. You’re a shepherd. You *stink*.
Wow. That was like…was I dreaming?
3 hours ago via Mobile Web
David likes this
David Probably. But I had the same dream.
James No. Definitely not a dream.
Zachariah Were you guys smoking that funny moss again?
This may sound totally stupid, but I’m never going to be the same again.
3 hours ago via Mobile Web
James I know what you mean.
Zachariah What’s going on?
What’s going on?
12 hours ago via Mobile Web

Bored. Bored, bored, bored.
14 hours ago via Mobile Web
Mark I know what you mean.
David Lucky Zach, getting the night off.
Zachariah Suckers! Enjoy your SHEEP.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Overactive Spam Filter

I want to apologize on behalf of the so-called "spam filter" that blogger has installed and that I can find no way to disable. It has been overactive recently--and since I have been busy grading, I've forgotten to check it's work. This morning it suddenly occured to me to look at what was in the spam box--and I found that a dozen legitimate comments had been directed there instead of being posted (whereas NOTHING that qualified as actual spam was there). There was too much, scattered over too many posts, for me to go back and check for each misdirected comment whether the commenter had finally succeeded in getting a version of the comment up. I did find a few such cases, which are hopefully now posted. And I prioritized posts from newer participants simply because the spam filter is supposed to "learn" from its mistakes--if it's been told before (by me) that you're not a spammer, it's less likely to treat your comment as spam in the future (but still will do so occasionally for inexplicable reasons).

Friday, December 17, 2010

University of Maryland Study on Misinformation Among the Electorate

As a grading break I went on Facebook, and I was promptly bombarded by links to liberal websites announcing the results of a recent university study. The recurring headline was this: Extended exposure to FOX News makes you stupid.

So I tracked down the website of the study's sponsor,, which is a project managed by the University of Maryland's Program of International Policy Attitudes. The summary of the study that I found there was both more interesting and more complex than what the liberal websites picked up on.

The study certainly did note that, on a range of key issues, regular viewers of FOX News were more likely than the general population to be misinformed (leading liberal outlets to announce that the more you watch FOX news, the less you know). And, of course, the issues on which these viewers were most likely to hold false beliefs were precisely those that favored Republican politican agendas (for example, the belief that the economic stimulus produced job losses or that the new health care policy was likely to increase the deficit).

But the study also noted that regular consumers of MSNBC and NPR/PBS were more likely to believe, falsely, "that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates." While the correlation between partisan misinformation and favored news source was more extensive and obvious with FOX than with other sources, other sources were hardly immune.

But in all of these cases, one can reasonably ask questions of cause and effect. For example, are FOX News watchers misinformed because FOX News is airing false and misleading information; or are FOX News viewers drawn to watching FOX news because of certain political attitudes, attitudes which in turn make them predisposed to believe the worst about, say, the new health care policy? Do NPR listeners tend to mistrust big business and see Republicans as in the pocket of big business, and so believe it when some less reputable online source announces proof of such a thing--even though NPR itself makes no such claim? While I have a tendency to regard FOX as consistently engaged in partisan deception in a way that, say, NPR is not, I don't think this study establishes anything of the kind.

In a sense, however, the important insight from the study is not how misleading FOX News is. That is hardly a new insight in any event (I've watched FOX enough over the years to raise my eyebrows over how overtly supportive of conservative political agendas it really is). The important insight of the study is twofold: first, American voters in general, regardless of political party affiliation, are seriously misinformed; second, American voters in general think (rightly, it seems) that they are being exposed to a great deal of false information. But the latter sense of being lied to does not seem to have a great deal of effect on how likely they are to mistrust those who are lying to them. It doesn't stop them from confidently believing lies.

And this leads me to wonder whether both survey observations--the level of false beliefs and the widespread sense of being lied to--have their origins in the same phenomenon: the growing ideological bifurcation of favored information sources. Voters are deceived because they trust a partisan source of information that has political and ideological motives for misleading its viewers. They think they are being lied to because there are rival partisan news sources saying things at odds with what they are convinced (by their favored news source) is true.

Their sense of being lied to, rather than making them more wary of those who are most likely to successfully deceive them, is an outcome of the deep trust they place in those who are most likely to successfully deceive them. That is, the reason they think they are being lied to is precisely because, in the polarized world of ideological echo chambers, they instinctively trust what is bouncing around in their own echo chamber--and so, when they glance over into other echo chambers, they see what appears to be a barrage of lies bouncing around.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Slice of Christmas Fiction

In honor of the season (and because I'm too busy grading to offer a substantive post), I thought I'd share with my blog readers the opening scene of my Christmas novel--a kind of fantasy in which the protagonist, a high school senior wrestling with grief and guilt surrounding the death of his sister two years before, finds himself seeking redemption in the world on the other side of a Christmas painting. So, here it is: the opening scene from...yeah, I'm terrible at titles.

When the first snow fell that second year after Clara’s death, it hurt like hell behind my eyes.

It came down heavy—fat flakes, the kind you get when the temperature hovers just below freezing. By dawn there was close to a foot on the ground and almost as much weighing down the branches of the oak tree outside my room. It was the first Sunday in Advent, and the world outside was dressed for the occasion in Christmas white.

It didn’t take long for the neighborhood kids to pour out squealing into the cul-de-sac. From my window I could see them in their yarn-bob hats, their mittens trailing bits of shattered snowballs. I imagined my little sister out there with them, making snow angels on the slope.

Abruptly, vividly, I remembered her calling me bubba as she hurled a hasty snowball at me. I could see it coming through the air, falling apart as it flew, shedding glitter until the last fragments barely dusted my boots.

I’d teased her for it, of course, because that’s what big brothers do. But I remember thinking it was beautiful. I remember thinking, That’s Clara’s kind of snowball.

How many years ago? Five, six. Some of the older kids out in the cul-de-sac would’ve been there. Perhaps she’d thrown glitter balls their way. I wondered if any of them even thought about her anymore.

“Stupid.” The sound of my voice startled me. I hadn’t meant to say it out loud. But I decided to say it again, deliberately, as if that could drive off Clara’s ghost.


The word was swallowed by the silence of the house. Somehow my parents had never received the memo that you’re supposed to be up by seven when you get to be their age. But I knew their alarms would be blaring soon. It wouldn’t do for them to be late for the 10:30 service. Not today.

A few more moments was all I had.

I wandered downstairs and found myself pausing in the living room, staring at the place where, later today, the Christmas tree would stand in all its tasteful, Scandinavian-inspired glory. A small table now sat where the tree would go, and on it was Delilah: the terra cotta sculpture of a young woman’s head, her face tilted upward, eyes mostly closed and lips parted. It was, of course, Clara who’d named her.

“You should be on my side,” I said aloud. “They’re going to put you away for at least a month. Stick you in a closet with nothing but linens for company.”

She seemed to be listening, but my words didn’t ruffle her serenity. “Alright, be that way. I’m just saying it’d be a whole lot easier for everyone if we just skipped ahead to January.”

I squatted down beside her and looked into Delilah’s exquisite features, at the hints of rapture there. “They really should listen to me, you know. I’m a certified genius. Just last week Mrs. Landry said I was the most brilliant student she’s ever had the privilege to teach in her thirty years at Dawson High.”

I imagined Delilah rolling her eyes. “Okay, okay. But just watch.” I made my voice conspiratorial. “Watch my mother. All perky, except that she won’t sit still, not even when everything’s put up. And then she’ll start talking about how beautiful it all looks—not because she’s actually stopped to look at anything. Just because that’s what you’re supposed to say.”

I’d seen her do it last year, that first full Christmas season without Clara: a rigid smile plastered to her face as she darted about the house, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Spirit of the Season turned up way too loud.

“Oh yeah,” I said, patting Delilah on the head. “I forgot. You’ll be packed away in the closet before it gets bad. In fact—” I stared at her suspiciously. “There’s a kind of Clark Kent thing going on here. Christmas comes, you go. Is there some secret identity business you want to tell me about?”

She didn’t answer, but I thought I could detect the trace of a smile.

“Never mind,” I said as I stood up. “Keep your secrets.”

I turned away and that’s when I felt it—so sudden and so total that for a moment I stood paralyzed. The dread was like something in my chest, pressing outward against my ribs. Except it wasn’t something. It was nothing. A great weight of nothing.

I wanted to say stupid again, but I didn’t have the breath for it.

And then something red darted across my vision, and for an absurd moment I was convinced it was a nisse, a little Norwegian Christmas elf hurrying by in his red wool hat and scarf. When I saw the cardinal preening on a snow-glazed branch just outside the window, my relief freed my lungs. But it wasn’t enough to clear away the bubble of nothing in my chest.

I sucked in air and turned from the window, hoping the mundane familiarity of the living room would cure me of this strange dismay. But instead, all around, I saw the places where the Christmas decorations would go. Today, of course—because it was the first day in Advent and by God the house would be decked for the season and the Christmas CD’s would come out, and it didn’t matter that none of us wanted to do it, that none of us could think of anything but Clara, almost two years in the dirt with an angel for a headstone (it had to be an angel, because my mother didn’t believe in subtlety).

There, on the end table—that’s where the red Norwegian candelabra would go. Just to the right the straw Advent star would hang in the window. Atop the low bookcase the brass angel chime would sit, and after dark the heat from four candles would set it spinning. And scattered through it all—perched on windowsills and tabletops, clustered around the hearth like some kind of bizarre Christmas orgy—would be all the little hand-stitched nisses, dozens of them with their white cotton beards and tiny yarn hats.

And the painting.

I saw it vividly, the painting of the Christmas sleigh that Clara had picked out one snowy December four years ago, just before she was diagnosed. I could almost stand the rest of it, but the painting…no. Just no. Somehow, in a way I still couldn’t understand, the painting was bound up intimately with what I’d done.

My parents’ alarms tore through the house. I jumped and let out a screech. Absurdly, both were going off at once as if neither of my parents had trusted the other to set theirs the night before.

I took a breath, sighed, and turned back to Delilah, trying to formulate something appropriately sarcastic. I was stopped by her face. It was as if her terra cotta features had taken on the hint of something new. I stared, and after a moment I saw what it was: she seemed to be looking at something through her half-closed eyes.

I couldn’t help it. I followed her gaze, followed it to the kitchen doorway, and beyond it to the place where the painting would hang.

I could almost see it there, but it wasn’t the sleigh or elves or village houses that I saw. It was the forest in the background. Not the outer edges where gestures of green and white suggested snow-laden pine boughs, but the interior—the dark places where snow and moonlight couldn’t reach.

I told myself, not for the first time, that it was just a painting. Nothing to be afraid of. But somehow I still couldn’t get myself to say stupid.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The No Hell Noel

So we had our department holiday party today, and one of the things we do at the party is sing "fractured" holiday songs. Over the years department members past and present have composed original lyrics to accompany familiar holiday melodies. Some are dated. Some remain funny ( such as the "Publish or Perish" song sung to "The 12 Days of Christmas" melody, which begins, "The first time I sent it off the critics said to me, you've just proven P and not-P").

One of the songs was written by me and John Shook (who's now at the Center for Inquiry) some eight years ago, and seems fitting to include on this blog--with some minor modifications. Specifically, a key line of the song originally named a colleague in the department, which is funny only if you know the person involved. So I've replaced that name with a more familiar one. Also, in the original song the one who "sees" the absurdity of the doctrine of hell is identified as "Reitan"--but since I am hardly the only person to find the doctrine untenable, I've replaced my name with a blank and invite you to plug in your own name in the appropriate spaces (or the name of your favorite universalist, in case you are benighted enough to disagree with me when it comes to the doctrine of hell).

So, here it is: the "No Hell Noel" (sung to the tune of "The First Noel")

The doctrine of hell, to Aquinas did mean
that some of God's creatures would not be redeemed.
And the Lutherans agreed, in spite of the creed
that held God's grace alone was what all people need.

No hell, no hell, no hell, no hell
If all are saved only God can tell.

The Calvinists believed that each of the damned
was predestined to hellfire by God's steady hand.
And the Baptists, they confess, if you're not born again
or if you're gay endless torment's your end

No hell, no, hell, no hell, no hell
When all are saved only God can tell.

Then _______ did see that these ideologies
were unworthy of God's love and majesty,
Whose benevolence extends to the good and the bad
bringing bliss even to PZ Myers and clan.

No hell, no hell, no hell, no hell
That all are saved even _______ can tell.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on Religious Exclusivism

In my last post I explored the religious pluralism endorsed by, among others, the theologian John Hick and my mother. Both see the various religions of the world as historically and culturally situated responses to a transcendent reality. But this transcendent reality is infinite, and our grasp of it is only partial (what “part” we see being a function of what our cultural ideas and presuppositions enable us to see). Furthermore, this transcendent reality defies literal description in terms of ordinary human concepts. As such, Hick and my mother see all religious belief systems as literally false. These systems of belief need to be understood as metaphors, as gestures towards a mystery that defies our understanding. As metaphors, their worth is measured pragmatically—by how well they help us to attune ourselves with this transcendent reality, and so live our lives in harmony with it. Insofar as different religious traditions succeed in achieving this goal, they are all pathways to “salvation” in the broadest sense, and they all have a share in “truth” in some non-literal, pragmatic sense.

Now there is much about this picture of religion that I admire and think is on the right track. Clearly, there is much religious language and narrative that is best understood as metaphorical—and that loses its value when treated in essentially literal terms (the first two chapters of Genesis come to mind). But this does not entail that all religious doctrines and narratives are purely metaphorical, that there is nothing implied by a statement like “God is good” that could qualify as literally correct. Respecting religious diversity doesn’t require denying this possibility. Nor does admitting this possibility undermine the pluralistic interpretation of religious diversity. The hypothesis that the diversity of religions is consistent with a common inspiration, that this diversity springs from the same well of divine revelation, doesn’t depend on the nothing-but-metaphor hypothesis.

Recall again the Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant. If the man who grasps the trunk says, “It’s a snake,” that will be literally false but metaphorically useful. But if the same man says, “It’s flexible,” that is not a metaphor. And when the blind man who grasps the tusk says, “It’s hard,” that is not a metaphor either. In this case, the diversity arises because, even though they are using literal language to correctly describe what they've encountered, they are in contact with different parts of the beast.

But whatever we think of the issue of just how much religious language is metaphorical (and this issue here is not one of all-or-nothing), the idea that divine revelation is limited to one faith tradition—and that there are no insights into ultimate reality that can be gleaned from serious attention to other worldviews, other traditions—is deeply troubling. We might call this view “extreme doctrinal exclusivism”: the view that divine revelation has only been poured into your faith tradition, and that all other traditions are mere lies and human invention.

(Notice that someone like PZ Myers, on this definition, qualifies as a certain kind of extreme doctrinal exclusivist, insofar as he regards all supernatural religious traditions as nothing but lies and human invention. This may help explain why, when religious fundamentalists give up their faith, they are more likely to become atheists in Dawkins’ or Myers’ mold than they are to become pluralists. From the starting point of “They’re all made up except one,” it’s a shorter step to “They’re all made up” than to “They’re all finite, partial, and fallible responses to the same underlying transcendent reality.”)

Much of my aversion to extreme doctrinal exclusivism is pragmatic. First of all, if different religious traditions do have insights to share with one another, and wisdom to gain through such sharing, then the idea that one’s own tradition has exclusive access to all the truths that matter would block the open-mindedness which is a prerequisite for such mutual learning. This seems a bad pragmatic bet.

Furthermore, this extreme exclusivism seems a pathway to a kind of ideological division, a cultural bifurcation of the world into “us” (those who have been enlightened) and “them” (all others, who’ve been left in the dark). If human history has taught us anything, it is that such divisions are a source of intractable conflict and violence. No good has ever come of them.

These pragmatic considerations can be supplemented with theological ones. If there is a God anything like what the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms, it would seem strange indeed that this God would limit divine self-disclosure to one small corner of the world, leaving the rest of humanity in the dark about the existence and presence of a caring creator until such a time as unsubstantiated testimonies should wend there way across the globe. And if there is some other sort of transcendent reality which has in some fashion impressed itself upon the consciousness of people in one cultural and historical context, it would seem strange that it wouldn’t happen in other cultural and historical contexts, given that it is the same human nature that exists everywhere.

None of this, however, implies that one religion won’t have insights that other religions lack, or that one religion won’t have been the only vessel into which some distinctive truth of great importance has fallen. In fact, the possibility of religious traditions learning from one another seems to presuppose that each religious tradition at least potentially carries insights that are unique—insights into the divine that are left out, underappreciated, or mistakenly rejected by the others.

Not only does it seem important not to deny this possibility when considering traditions other than one’s own. It seems important not to deny this possibility when it comes to one’s own faith tradition. In other words, it is consistent with this model of interreligious respect to believe that your own faith tradition has something important to contribute to the conversation, some insight into the truth that other religions might not have.

And if you do believe this--perhpas with respect to most central and distinctive teachings of your faith tradition--aren’t you then being an exclusivist about those teachings? Clearly, you’re not being a soteriological exclusivist—that is, you’re not ascribing to the view that salvation only comes through your faith, and that adherents to rival religious traditions are damned. Nor are you an extreme doctrinal exclusivist.

But you would be an exclusivist in a broader sense, encompassed by the following definition of exclusivism offered by Alvin Plantinga: “the exclusivist holds that the tenets or some of the tenets of one religion—Christianity, let’s say—are in fact true; he adds, naturally enough, that any propositions, including other religious beliefs, that are incompatible with those tenets are false." (emphasis added)

Another point to keep in mind about religious exclusivism is that the Hickian pluralist is an exclusivist on a meta-level. While Hickian pluralists do not hold that one religion is true and others false, don’t they hold that their pluralistic take on religion is correct, and that other takes on religion are incorrect to the extent that they disagree? It seems so, and this is what leads Kevin Meeker, for example, to conclude, “The real debate is not whether we should exclude, but what type of exclusion is defensible… In short, there is no sharp dividing line between exclusivism and pluralism; so we are faced with a continuum of options.”

In fact, it is precisely because progressive religion does exclude, does reject some modes of religious expression (most notably fundamentalism), that it doesn’t fall prey to Sam Harris’s overgeneralized critique of moderate religion. Harris accuses moderate religion of teaching the “terrible dogma” that “every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God.”

But religious progressives don’t believe this terrible dogma. They reject the image of God as a vengeful tyrant, insisting that such an image is dangerously mistaken. That’s exclusion. They reject the notion that God has entrusted His revelation to only one faith in human history. That’s exclusion, too. They reject the idea that God chose to reveal His will inerrantly in a single holy book. That’s exclusion. They reject the notion that God planted fossils of creatures that never existed and created evidence of great age in a world that is only a few thousand years old, all in order to test the faith of those who might question His inerrant literal revelation in the aforementioned holy book. That, again, is exclusion.

Without some measure of exclusivism, religious believers would fall prey to Harris’s terrible dogma. And so I don’t want to treat exclusivism in every sense of the word as an evil. There are reasons to exclude—some based on a preponderance of empirical evidence, some based on morally pernicious implications, some based on logical coherence, some based on pragmatic fruits.

But sometimes we don’t have compelling reasons of any of these kinds. What then? Under those circumstances, should assuduously eschew exclusivism in any form?

Perhaps not. Allen Stairs, a philosopher at the University of Maryland, attempts to offer a portrait of a certain kind of religious exclusivism—what I’m tempted to call a friendly exclusivism—that might be legitimate even if you have no compelling reason to reject those who disagree with you.

Stairs explains what he has in mind by offering a kind of portrait of a certain sort of religious believer: one who doesn’t “settle for a vague, free-floating theism” but has more concrete religious beliefs that exceed what the weight of evidence can sustain. But her belief, he says, “is not a sham; she thinks they might really be true and that even if they aren’t fully true, they capture something important about the Ultimate. They also flesh out her sense of the Ultimate into something that can form the basis for a religious practice.” Stairs goes on to describe the view as follows:

…Plantinga takes religious belief at face value; Hick maintains that all specific religious belief is strictly speaking false. The view we’re considering isn’t like either of these. It agrees that, broadly speaking, the believer is entitled to trust her sense that the skeptic is wrong. It allows that perhaps some one religion captures The Truth, and perhaps the Ultimate is a Kantian noumenon, entirely beyond our cognitive grasp. At the level of practice, however, the view is more like exclusivism; the Hindu will believe as a Hindu does; the Christian will believe like a Christian. But behind the belief there will be a higher-level lightness; not an ironic attitude, but trust coupled with a deep sense of epistemic humility.”
In capturing this “higher-level lightness,” Stairs offers the example of Paul, a Roman Catholic who accepts the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—that is, the belief that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ in the Mass. “Nonetheless,” Stairs writes, “he knows that most people, including many Christians, believe otherwise. I think the following is perfectly possible: actively believing this is deeply important to Paul’s religious identity. At the same time, actively disbelieving contrary doctrines isn’t important to him at all.”

Paul, as portrayed by Stairs, feels no urgent need to persuade those who think otherwise. They are as entitled to their view as he is to his own. Even so, he remains deeply devoted to this doctrine to the exclusion of others that conflict with it. He believes this and not that. But if you believe that, it doesn’t bother him in the least. And, says Stairs, “he might not be willing to say that people with this Protestant view are making a mistake, and if asked whether he thinks they are wrong, he might reply that the question seems beside the point for him; saying ‘no’ would do a bad job of capturing his attitude, but so would saying ‘yes.’”

Stairs offers a careful look at what he takes to be the underlying rationale for this kind of attitude. I won’t go into the details, but the core of it is a balance between two things: first, the inescapable sense (which defines the person as a believer) that “there is something Ultimate and that it is to be trusted or even loved,” a sense that excludes “beliefs that make the Ultimate morally ugly”; second, an awareness that the specific elaboration of this sense which grounds our religious life does not rise to the level of knowledge, and as such could be mistaken. Not only that, but on crucial matters other religious traditions could, on matters where they disagree with us, be right, or partially right—or the nature of the divine could defy our grasp in such a way that the tension between our own views and those of rival faiths might do a better job of capturing the divine reality than any of those beliefs alone.

The kind of “friendly exclusivist” Stairs has in mind (which Stairs is inclined to call a “pluralist exclusivist”) holds to her religious beliefs in a manner that does not rule out these possibilities—that one’s beliefs are in error, that one has mistaked metaphors for literal descriptions, that one can gain genuine insight from listening to and engaging with those who have an opposing view.

So, is this kind of exclusivism something we should hold up as legitimate, as expressing a way of cleaving to religious faith that is (in language I use elsewhere) intellectually respectable and morally benign? I think more needs to be said before reaching any final conclusions, but it does seem right to me that we should resist the urge to too quickly label exclusivism as “bad” and pluralism as “good,” and treat the two as incommensurable opposites. The situation, as usual, is muddier and messier than that.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Mother's Religious Pluralism--Formalized by John Hick

On Monday I turned to the last topic of the semester in my philosophy of religion class: religious diversity. This is a topic that, in a way, strikes close to home—specifically, the home in which I was raised. Not, however, because my home was characterized by religious diversity.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I am the son of two agnostic preachers’ kids. Growing up, I cannot recall my father ever talking about God or religion or anything supernatural. I think it was in college that he once told me about a time he found himself in church reciting the words of the Lutheran liturgy—only to realize that he was simply mouthing words that meant nothing to him (and which, when he reflected on their meaning, he didn't believe).

My mother, by contrast, was bitter about her fundamentalist upbringing and so spoke about it quite a bit. If she had a faith, it was in the worth and dignity of all people regardless of their religion. If she had a doctrine, it was this: If there is a God, that God wouldn’t give a damn what religion you are and certainly wouldn’t condemn you to hell for being raised in the wrong faith tradition...or for failing to convert to the right one when you encounter it (even though its being the right one is obvious only to those who happened to be raised in it).

I can’t count how many times my mother said to me growing up, “If I’d been raised a Jew, I’d be a Jew today. If I’d been raised a Hindu, I’d be a Hindu today.” And I’d snidely think to myself, “Then why aren’t you a fundamentalist Baptist today?”

Of course, her mantra was precisely intended to explain why she was no longer a fundamentalist Baptist: The faith of her childhood taught that those who had not explicitly accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior would suffer eternal hell after death. My mother’s point was that which beliefs seem reasonable to you will be largely a matter of upbringing. Someone raised Muslim would be as likely to believe that salvation depends on accepting Jesus as Lord as someone raised Christian would be to embrace the Koran as the inerrant revelation of God.

On this basis, my mother came to the realization that if salvation does depend on explicitly accepting Jesus as Lord, whether you're saved will be largely a function of how you were raised. My mother—quite rightly—found this implication intolerable. When my grandfather, a baptist minister, relocated the family from Norway to California in pursuit of a vision of joining an American evangelist in leading a great religious awakening in the United States (didn't happen), my mother found herself in the vibrant artistic and intellectual climate of the Bay Area. Other faiths took on human faces, faces that my mother could not in good conscience condemn to hell. Nor could she work up any enthusiasm for trying to convert them to Christianity. After all, what reasons could she give that would sound any more convincing to them than an argument for converting to Islam would sound to her?

And so, instead, her natural curiosity and open-mindedness inspired her to respond to people of other faiths in a different way--by seeking to learn about their beliefs and traditions. And the more she learned, the more wonderful she found all of that diversity to be. She became appalled by any worldview that would cast a negative judgment on such diversity. She condemned all religious exclusivism. She became a respecter of all faith traditions...but a believer in none.

I remember, once, telling my mother that in order to have a rainbow, you need to have discrete bands of color. And in order to have religious diversity, you need people who are committed to a particular faith--that is, people who really believe what their religion teaches. And to the extent that one's religious teachings conflict with those of other faiths, to believe in one's own religious teachings is to believe that the opposed teachings are mistaken. "What you value," I told her, "depends on there being people who are exclusivists. Take that away, and it's like the kid who starts a painting with all the colors of the rainbow but keeps blending the colors together. Eventually it's all just a uniform brown."

When I got more philosophically sophisticated, I diagnosed my mother's error in terms of a distinction between soteriological exclusivism and what might be called doctrinal exclusivism. The former refers to the view that was rampant in the fundamentalist world of my mother's childhood: the view that salvation only comes through one particular faith. Fail to follow the path laid out by that religion...and you are doomed. The latter refers to the belief that one's own religion has a unique claim on the truth--that other religions, insofar as their teachings differ from one's own, are in error. The point I wanted to make was that while the existence of the religious diversity my mother so valued did not require soteriological exclusivism, it did require doctrinal exclusivism. Furthermore, my mother's objections to exclusivism were really targeting the soterliological kind, and didn't have any clear implications with respect to doctrinal exclusivism.

I don't think I ever tried to make this argument to my mother in such technical terms, but in whatever form I did make it, she wasn't impressed. What did impress her (far more than my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy) was the Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the elephant's side and declares, "It's like a wall!" One grasps the trunk and says, "No, it's like a snake!" Another takes hold of a leg and announces, "No, it's like a tree trunk." Still another grasps the tail and says, "It's like a rope."

(I have a cartoon clipping that used to hang on my office door, of four bindfolded men touching a strange construct--a wall standing on tree stumps, with a snake coiling over one end and a rope hanging from the other. All the men agree that it's an elephant.)

Now this parable captures, in a narrative way, not only my mother's view of religious diversity but also the religious pluralism of John Hick. In its briefest form, Hick sees world religions as culturally situated interpretations of  "the noumenal Real" that transcends our conceptual and empirical grasp. As Hick sees it, all religions, "at their experiential roots," are "in contact with the same ultimate reality, but that their differing experiences of that reality, interacting over the centuries with the different thought-forms of different cultures, have led to increasing differentiation and contrasting elaboration..."

For Hick, the divine, as infinite, "transcends the grasp of the human mind." As such, "the God whom our minds can penetrate and whom our thoughts can circumnavigate is merely a finite and partial image of God." Culture and historical setting influence what aspects of this infinite reality one can connect with. In Hick's words, encounters with the same divine reality "from different historical and cultural standpoints" will produce "differently focused awareness of the reality."

More significantly, the language we use to make sense of our encounters with the transcendent will be in terms of concepts and images that our culture makes available, and which are at best metaphors for the reality we are attempting to make sense of. As such, religious teachings--in the manner of metaphors--will only gesture towards truths that they cannot literally describe.

In sum, then, our cultural context provides us with mataphors for understanding and making sense of divine self-disclosures, and it also impacts which features of the manifold mystery of the divine that we are prepared to encounter and grasp (even in a finite, metaphorical way). Put in terms of the Hindu parable, our culture determines both what part of the elephant we are likely to touch and what metaphor we use to describe it.

If we can recognize our religious language as metaphorical--and if we can learn to understand the very different metaphors of alien cultures--then diverse religions can begin to appriate the insights offered by other religions, leading us towards a truer and more complete understanding of the divine. Put in terms of the Hindu parable, if the blind men come to see that "wall" and "snake" and "tree trunk" and "rope" are metaphors for something that is none of these things--and if they can realize that these metaphors may actually be about different aspects of the underlying reality they've come in contact with--then they can begin to construct a more complete picture of what they've eoncountered. At first, that picture may be a bit like the one in my cartoon: the metaphors mashed together into a strange construction. But, perhaps, if the metaphorical nature of the language is kept firmly in mind, a more elephant-like understanding will eventually emerge.

One of the things about this "Hickian" pluralism is that it does provide a framework for respecting and valuing religious diversity--a framework that does not require that adherents to various religions be exclusivists in any sense. In fact, exclusivism may actually block religious diversity from achieving the good that it is uniquely suited to achieve, namely, supplementing the limitations of each isolated religion. And so, in a sense, Hick's pluralism succeeds in undermining my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy. My mother was right not to be impressed.

But, of course, much religion is explicitly exclusivist. Furthermore, much religion sees its teachings as more than just metaphorical. And so, if Hick is right about the nature of religion, then it is not the case that every religion deserves equal respect. Hick himself addresses the value of individual religions in pragmatic terms. In his view, the purpose of religion is to bring us into a kind of lived alignment with the ultimate reality, moving us out of a self-centered and towards a "Reality-centered" existence. That is, we live out lives with a sense of attunement and at-one-ness with the whole...what I am tempted to call a moral existence (and which is nicely captured in the quote from Simone Weil that serves as part of the header for this blog).

Not every religion bears such pragmatic fruits, and this provides Hick with a standard for critically assessing religion despite his embrace of diversity. Likewise, his commitment to the partial and metaphorical nature of every concrete religious understanding gives him a basis for critiquing religious communities that claim exclusive access to a satisfactory, non-metaphorical vision of the divine reality. Such communities are, in Hick's view, deluding themselves.

Now, my mother is clearly a Hickian pluralist. If she has a religion, that would be it. Am I a Hickian pluralist? Not quite. Instead, I think it's better say I'm a kind of Hegelian pluralist--a perspective which I sketch out, for example, in this post. And I'm not sold on Hick's tendency to view all religious language as metaphorical. I worry about the implications of casting too heavy a shroud of mystery over the divine, for reason I've gestured to here. And while I respect and admire many other faiths, I've preserved this much from my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy: To have a rainbow, you need fields of different colors. If everyone were like my mother--a respecter of diverse religions but an adherent to none--there'd be no religions to respect.

And I love religion too much to stand outside the rainbow. To be part of the rainbow, you need to fall somewhere in the spectrum of colors. And Christianity sings to my soul.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Most Perfect Holiday Gift Idea EVER

Have you been wondering what to get for that hard-to-shop-for person on your Christmas shopping list? Have you been wrestling with finding the right balance between the commercialism of popular culture (not to mention the consumerist expectations of your relatives) and the true spiritual meaning of Christmas?

Then I have the perfect suggestion! My book, Is God a Delusion?, isn’t merely a wonderful choice for the God Delusion-toting atheist in your family who rolls his eyes and snorts derisively when you start to read Luke 2: 1-20 at the Christmas dinner table. In addition to its obvious spiritual value, Is God a Delusion? is an ideal stocking stuffer for literally anyone on your shopping list. It’s suitable for infants (who enjoy chewing on and slobbering over the pages), preschoolers (who will delight in the rainbow corona image on the cover), teens (who can trade them with classmates after school, trying to acquire the most pristine copy), and adults (who can perch copies strategically on coffee tables and appear to be “cultured” as they tell visitors, “It was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009”).

In fact, it is such a perfect gift that you might as well just order multiple copies and so have all your Christmas shopping done with one easy order at any of these convenient online vendors: the usual one, the other usual one, and the publisher.

(And if you have no money to buy Christmas presents, then make my book the number one thing on you own wish list, being sure to badger your parents/grandparents/wealthy aunt repeatedly so you are sure to get one of the elegant hardbacks under your tree this year!)

But supplies are limited, so hurry! Order today, before this truly ideal gift opportunity disappears!

Either that, or you could go to Alternative Gifts International and make a donation on behalf of those on your holiday shopping list to help alleviate human suffering and advance the quality of life around the world.

(Seriously, if you haven't heard of Alternative Gifts--or Heifer International, which offers a similar concept of charitable gift-giving but focuses on supplying dairy cows to families in poor communities--then I highly recommend that you not only check it out but let others know about it. If you really want to offer a spiritually meaningful holiday gift in our consumerist culture, give to those who have enough a donation in their name to those who don't.)

(Last year, we gave my son the alternative gift of helping to rescue a child from slavery--and he STILL mentions it. He's completely forgotten about the toys.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Question for My Readers

I'm still swamped with the task of reviewing dossiers for an entry level position in our department, trying to sift through hundreds of qualified candidates (grateful that I'm not on the job market right now). On top of that, I now have final term papers pouring in. Hence, blogging is taking a bit of a back seat.

But there is a question I've been thinking about recently, and it seems a fitting one to ask on this blog--since it has to do with the blog. The other day, my friend and co-author made the observation that there seem to be an inordinate number of atheists and agnostics (and other kinds of secularists) who comment on my blog--by which he meant, I think, that a higher proportion of secularists comment on my blog than on comparable blogs.

Now his experience here is clearly anecdotal, and I certainly haven't conducted a systematic study on the proportions of secular to religious commenters on blogs like my own (nor do I know of any such study--or who would fund one). So I can't say whether his observation is accurate. In fact, it's hard even to say what is being asserted here until we have some sense of what counts as a comparable blog. That is, what is the broader class of blogs against which the comparison is being made? So-called "biblioblogs"? Philosophy of religion blogs that are sympathetic to religion and theism? Progressive religious blogs? The class specified by the overlap of these?

But whatever we're to make of the comparative claim, it certainly is true that (at least in the blog's recent history) there are at least as many comments coming from secular visitors to the blog as there are from more religious visitors (and, arguably, more from the former). I don't know if this is representative of the readership of the blog, since there clearly are far more readers than there are readers who comment. It may be that readers who agree with me are simply less prone to post comments (unlike PZ Myers' readers, where the reverse seems to be the case). It may also be that this pattern is a function of the small number of regular commenters (if only a handful post comments on a regular basis, then the fact that half of them are secular may be a kind of accident).

But still, my friend's observation got me wondering why the regular followers of this blog are here--especially the secular followers who comment regularly, but not only them. So, I throw it out to you: If you read and/or comment on this blog on a regular basis, why? With thousands of blogs to out there, what brought you to this one, and what made you stick around (especially once you figured out that I have a tendency to write REALLY long posts)? Are you here to blunt the impact of my message with telling critiques, because you worry that unwary readers may actually be convinced by my misguided views unless they are properly opposed? Are you here because I try address issues of religion and faith without demonizing or belittling those who disagree with my position? Or is it something else?

I'm also interested to hear from the "silent followers" who don't usually comment--in part because, as I've learned from years of teaching, if you can inspire a student who is generally quiet to talk in class, they're more likely to do it again.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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