Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Divine Sovereignty and the Horror in Haiti

No theist can seriously confront the horror of a global tragedy like the Haiti earthquake without feeling the weight of the problem of evil: How could an almighty, wholly good God allow such evil to occur?

It is one of the most significant arguments offered by atheists against belief in a sovereign, loving God. It is also, I think, one of the root causes for some of the most offensive and outrageous religious views. In the effort to explain why God would permit a disaster of such enormity to hit an already impoverished people, killing tens of thousands and shattering the lives of many more, some can be inspired to blame the victims, accusing them of bringing the horror on themselves through crimes real or imagined (a phenomenon we saw vividly on display just after the earthquake, when Pat Robertson offered his now famously insensitive and absurd remarks).

Robertson-esque outrageousness is especially apt to happen when theists attempt to make sense of horrors while maintaining a rigid allegiance to s strong doctrine of divine sovereignty. In the name of such a doctrine they can be inspired not only to blame victims, but to attribute truly horrific motivations to God…and then defend God’s goodness by stripping all meaning from the concept. The result is a God who possesses none of the qualities that might justify devotion.

When we try to solve the problem of evil by sacrificing God’s goodness at the altar of His power, we are left with a deity that can inspire fear but not love. More profoundly, power rather than goodness becomes our God…and our capacity for compassion starts to shrivel. Our life becomes about appeasing the tyrant or blaming those who suffer, rather than about loving more perfectly. And worship, rather than being a joyous expression of devotion to that which embodies all goodness, becomes an act of appeasement masquerading as a gesture of love.

Better, it seems to me, to become an atheist—or, alternatively, to rage against God, shaking one’s fists at the heavens and demanding to know why. Better to deny God or oppose Him than to practice fawning obeisance towards a god one conceives of as a vindictive megalomaniac.

If we look at the theologies that tend to most outrage atheist critics of religion, they seem to share this propensity to confront the tension between divine sovereignty and divine goodness, generated by horrors like the Haiti earthquake—and then resolve that tension in favor of a strong view of sovereignty. To be God, it is assumed, is to be wholly and perfectly in charge of the universe. Anything that happens does so because God has either caused it to happen or chosen to permit it. God is not only a direct agent in history, but an all-powerful micromanager who lets nothing happen without His stamp of approval.

If this strong view of divine sovereignty is embraced, then what are we to make of the horrific images coming out of Port-au-Prince? Can we avoid viewing God as a divine dictator who either signed the order to smite Haiti or, at best, nodded quietly when He saw the impending devastation and, fully capable of preventing it, allowed it to proceed without blinking? What other choices do we have but to recoil in horror at such a God or to become self-serving sycophants (or the religious equivalent of battered spouses)?

What this view of divine sovereignty denies us is the possibility of a God who cries out against the devastation, who suffers at every death, who struggles in empathetic horror along with those caught under the rubble, gasping claustrophobically along with every trapped and dying child. What it denies us, in other words, is a God who would stop the suffering if He could, but who cannot… and so cries out in helpless despair at every new blow that is struck against the creatures He loves.

The God who is crucified with us, who takes on the evils of the world and truly endures them as we do, is not the sovereign master of the forces of destruction but a being radically vulnerable to their power. A God who could sweep away the forces of evil with a thought but decides against it is hardly vulnerable to evil in the way that we are. And even if He suffers, it is a kind of sham, a show that cannot express genuine solidarity with our condition. Because our condition is not merely defined by suffering, but by our inability to escape it.

What a strong view of divine sovereignty rules out, in short, is a portrait of a God who can’t just wave His magic wand to prevent evils like the Haiti earthquake, but who can and does transform such evil by making Himself truly vulnerable to it, sharing our afflictions with us, and thereby turning evil into an avenue for profound solidarity with the divine.

For such a view of God to make sense, we need to see God as truly constrained. He needn’t be viewed as impotent or incompetent. In fact, He might be viewed in the way we view the great artist who does not choose the materials she has to work with but who, with what she is given, creatively and brilliantly turns them into magisterial works of art. Such an artist is hardly impotent. In fact, we might even admire her more than those artists who has all conceivable materials at their disposal, and so never have to find a way to work with resources and tools that don’t suit them.

No humane theology can insist that the horrors in Haiti suit God. As I see it, a humane theology must insist that in the children trapped beneath the rubble, in the child who needed to be amputated without anesthesia, in the hungry and homeless masses, the countless tragedies, God is confronted with something against which He can only recoil in dismay. But can we say that God recoils while also saying that there are no constraints that keep God from preventing these horrors? Is it coherent to say that God abhors what happened, and yet also say that He could have stopped the devastation with a thought but simply decided not to?

At least I cannot reconcile these things. And so I must view God as constrained. But if so, two questions follow. The first is how. How could God—the vastly powerful creator of the universe—be constrained and yet still be reasonably described as God? The second has to do with hope: How can we put our hope in God to redeem the evils of the world, if God is constrained in ways that keep Him from preventing them?

This latter question might be seen as asking whether it is possible for God to possess a kind of second-order sovereignty even if He is said to lack sovereignty of the more straightforward, first-order kind. Preserving such second-order sovereignty seems essential for preserving what I call, in Is God a Delusion?, the “ethico-religious hope”—the hope that, in Martin Luther King's words, "The universe bends towards justice," such that it is possible to put our trust in God to achieve what we cannot achieve for ourselves.

In answering these questions, one might follow the lead of the Zoroastrians and see God as opposed by an uncreated nemesis, a power of nonbeing and destruction that God cannot simply do away with but has to contend with in the created world. This nemesis needn’t be construed in quite the way that Zoroaster did, as a kind of evil being or devil. In fact, there is reason to take Karl Barth as offering a theology of this broadly Zoroastrian kind, but seeing the uncreated nemesis as an unavoidable by-product of creating a finite reality, one in which there exist being with limits, and who are thus confront with the vastness of a great “I AM NOT.” This is a view I sketched out in an earlier post.

If one opts for such an approach, then God can no longer be called sovereign in the sense of having complete control over everything that happens in the world. But we might still be able to attribute to God a second-order sovereignty, in the sense that God has the resources to prevail over the forces of ruin, and so will ultimately redeem all good things that these dark forces might seek to destroy. While God cannot simply wave aside the terrible I AM NOT, He can oppose it with an even vaster I AM--and so, incrementally, lift every creating thing free from the suction of the Void.

But there may be other ways to conceive of a God who is constrained but still sovereign in some second-order sense. For example, we might take seriously Simone Weil’s view (paralleling the concept of tzimtzum in Kabbalah) that creation is essentially an act of divine withdrawal: the establishment of a space within which the infinite divine reality is not, so that there might be room for a finite reality other than God to exist. We might believe, with Weil, that “were we exposed to the direct radiance of (our creator’s) love, without the protection of space, of time, and of matter, we should evaporate like water in the sun.”

And we might well view a strict observance of this distance between creator and created as a mandate of love, and so view God's constraints as moral ones that metaphorically bind His hands. We might think that love requires respecting the other as a distinct and separate self; but that when the infinite asserts direct sovereignty over the finite, the finite loses any semblance of selfhood it might have had. In short, we might think that love imposes on the infinite an absolute obligation to abdicate any claims of first-order sovereignty over the finite.

Put another way, we might think that the act of creation, if it is to be an act of love, might require that the creator impose profound and unassailable limits on how He can influence the world, so that it is free to evolve on its own terms, according to rules suited to a finite reality (and, if and when it gives rise to beings with wills of their own, then also in accord with their choices). These constraints may apply uniquely to God as creator, insofar as this status poses a threat to the otherness of His creation. His creatures do not pose such a threat to one another, and so are paradoxically less constrained than God in how they can act on one another. And so, by a kind of moral necessity, we might become God's hands in the world.

While God, on such a theology, could not simply do anything whatever to prevent unfolding events that weren’t to His liking, it doesn’t follow that He would be rendered helpless. There is a deep theological tradition which holds that love has a potency very different from that of coercive power but, nevertheless, far greater. If so, then might it not be possible that God could redeem the world simply by radiating it with an unremitting, unflagging outpouring of sustaining love—love that is palpable, that can be felt by those who open themselves to it, that can offer hope, compassion, forgiveness, and comfort? Perhaps a God of love, while constrained from staying the earthquake, has all that it takes to redeem every evil that an earthquake can produce.

In short, we might view the constraints that God faces as metaphysical ones that straightforwardly limit His power; but we might also view them as moral ones, as strict normative requirements that uniquely bind God precisely because He is God, making it such that God has less moral freedom than we enjoy. In either case, however, we must deny that God is sovereign in the naïve way that, for example, Pat Robertson seems to think that God is sovereign.

But given the horrific theologies that seem to flow from such a view of divine sovereignty, that may be a very small theological price to pay.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Evangelicals and Premarital Sex

A facebook friend recently posted a New Yorker article, "Red Sex, Blue Sex," by Margaret Talbot, that offers some interesting observations and insights about evangelical sexual attitudes and practices.

Drawing mainly from the book, Frobidden Fruit, by UT-Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus, Talbot calls attention to a number of important facts about evangelicals and sex. Among the highlights:

  • "(R)eligion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and...this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelicals."
  • "(E)vangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their 'sexual début'—to use the festive term of social-science researchers—shortly after turning sixteen."
  • "(E)vangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception."
  • "More than half of those who take (abstinence) pledges—which, unlike abstinence-only classes in public schools, are explicitly Christian—end up having sex before marriage, and not usually with their future spouse." (But, it turns out, they often wait a bit longer to have sex than evangelicals who don't take such pledges.)
  • "(C)ommunities with high rates of pledging also have high rates of S.T.D.s." (Some room for dispute about cause and effect here).

While these facts are interesting and important, the article links them to a broader observation about differences between conservative evangelicals and liberals that I found especially intriguing:

    Social liberals in the country’s “blue states” tend to support sex education
    and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teen-agers have sex
    before marriage, but would regard a teen-age daughter’s pregnancy as devastating
    news. And the social conservatives in “red states” generally advocate
    abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively
    unruffled if a teen-ager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn’t choose to have
    an abortion.

Put another way, evangelicals tend to take a strong stand against premarital sex, even to the point of discouraging sex education programs designed to protect teens from the more adverse consequences of failing to practice abstinence--but when their teen daughter comes home pregnant, they take it in stride so long as she "takes responsibility." More sexually progressive liberals are far more accepting of premarital sex--being more concerned with discouraging "unsafe" sex than with discouraging sex as such--but when their daughter comes home with a bun in the oven, they are devastated.

Essentially, evangelicals demand abstinence before marriage but aren't any better than the rest us at practicing it. And while there is every indication that they are judgmental and condemnatory towards "fornication" in the abstract, when it comes to their own children they are less inclined to make their pregnant daughters feel like dung for what they've done, focusing instead on present responsibility.

So what, exactly, is going on here? With respect to how evangelicals differ from liberals in their response to unwanted teen pregnancy, I suspect that several things are going on. First of all, for more sexually progressive families in contemporary America, the sexual choices of teens are regulated more by prudential considerations--fear of unwanted pregnancy, fear of STD's, worry over not being emotionally ready for that level of intimacy and the personal entanglements that sex creates--and less by concepts of moral duty. The danger posed by teen sex is not so much that it threatens virtue as that it threatens prospects for future flourishing. The announcement of an unwanted pregnancy is thus accompanied by a sense of shattered hopes for the child's future. This is what makes the announcement so "devastating."

Of course, evangelical families may feel many of the same things. But the response of devastation is tempered by other factors. First of all, there is the fact that if teens anticipate a parental response that is too harsh, they may opt for abortion in order to avoid it. Realization of this fact, coupled with a strong pro-life stance, may have shaped evangelical culture so as to encourage a more temperate and forward-looking reaction to unwanted teen pregnancy.

Furthermore, like all Christians, evangelicals embrace a doctrine of grace, one that acknowledges the ubiquity of sin and insists that we forgive it rather than beat people over the head about it. So they are in the habit of speaking out vociferously against policies that seem to endorse or minimize some sin or other, but when one of their own commits this sin, the appropriate response is to forgive and look forward.

But I'm pretty sure something else is going on here as well. An unwanted teen pregnancy is not just a threat to an adolescent's future, but to the virtue of both the girl and the boy--a fact that puts something else in the forefront, something significant enough to eclipse many of the concerns about a young person's future. The fact is that, given the way evangelical Christianity understands "virtue" in connection with sex, it follows that virtue can be (at least partially) restored after the fact by "taking responsibility" for the consequences of premarital sex--that is, by getting married and raising the child.

There's substantial biblical endorsement of the idea that the impropriety of premarital sex can at least be partially erased if the couple marries. But what is most important here is to understand why this is possible. The reason, I think, lies in the patriarchal norm--a norm which has it that a woman "belongs" to her husband in such a way that he has exclusive proprietary claim to her sexuality.

This norm explains why, if a man has sex with a woman who "belongs" to someone else (either through marriage or pledge), the problem is so grave that (according to the authors of Deuteronomy) it requires the execution of the man in cases where the woman was clearly unwilling, or of both man and woman if there is even a chance that the woman was willing--as indicated by the fact that she was in an urban area and didn't scream loudly enough to be discovered and rescued (see Deut. 22:22-27).

But if the woman does not belong to another man, then instead of death the penalty is a fine paid to the father and a requirement to marry the woman--and this is called for even in cases in which the woman was raped (Deut. 22:28-29). The horror of being married off to one's rapist didn't seem to bother the writer(s) of Deuteronomy, since the perceived crime of rape was that a man was taking what didn't rightly belong to him--a crime that could be erased if his victim came to belong to him through marriage.

On this view of things, a teenage boy's sexual virtue lies in sexually claiming only that woman who rightly belongs to him. A girl's virtue lies in giving her sexuality freely only to the man to whom it belongs. And marriage defines what woman belongs to what man.

Although contemporary evangelicals would probably not be inclined to marry their daughters off to rapists, the patriarchal conception of marriage as the proper context for sexual expression persists--and insofar as it does so, much of what it perceived to be wrong with premarital sex can be neutralized by subsequent choices. This helps to explain why evangelicals are inclined to focus less on the past sin of fornication and more on what happens next.

But none of this explains why evangelicals are not only no less likely to engage in premarital sex than others, but arguably even more likely to do so. Let me reflect on this issue for a bit.

Human sexuality is potent stuff. The urgency of sexual desire is so intense that even "good little Christian" teens have a hard time resisting it altogether. And we live in a culture in which adolescents who are attracted to each other have substantial opportunity to interact and explore their mutual attraction. Not even evangelical parents are typically prepared to enforce draconian rules against contact with the opposite sex (assuming their kids are straight--which raises an entirely different issue).

After all, such rules would so conflict with the norms of the broader culture that they would not only trigger resentment but defection. Put simply, if the broader culture allows me to flirt and date and follow my instincts for romance but my conservative Christian parents don't because they're afraid it might lead to a prohibited end--then there's a good chance I'll rebel against my parents and their values. A prohibition against sex is one thing. A prohibition against living the American way of life is another.

American teens may swallow the former, but they're not likely to happily embrace the latter. And so it's the former that becomes the expectation for evangelical teens. So long as they don't cross the line--so long as it's just kissing on the park bench--they've done nothing wrong. And so they kiss on the park bench, and their sexual longings are enflamed. They find a moment alone, and the kissing continues in private. So long as they keep their clothes on, everything's okay. So they do, fondling each other madly through their clothes. Then under the clothes. But, of course, the clothes stay on, so they're safe.

They don't plan for sex, because they have a rule against that. But they push against the boundaries of the rule. And somehow they're convinced they'll be able to resist. But all the while they're becoming at home with one incremental stage of intimacy after another. They linger at each stage--far longer than their secular friends are inclined to linger--thereby ensuring two things: first, that they become entirely comfortable with each other at that level of intimacy, entirely trusting; second, that they are fully immersed in the maximal sexual urgency that such a step is capable of producing. And so when the urgency drives them forward to the next incremental step, there is no sudden flare of distrust, no fear of boundaries violated or in danger of being violated. And there certainly is no talk of going to get a condom.

In short, by taking it slowly they may actually make the culmination of their sexual explorations more inevitable than if they moved more quickly. If they moved more quickly there'd be a greater chance of triggering fears that could derail the progress of their intimacy. But what makes them take it so slowly is the very same thing that ensures that, when they finally have sex, it's unprotected: their moral inhibition against having sex. It isn't strong enough to stop the fire of adolescent desire, at least in the absence of rules segregating the sexes except under conditions of strict supervision. But it is strong enough to ensure that when they finally take that last step, it's an unexpected stumble.

For months, perhaps, they've flirted with the edge of actual sex but resisted it. They don't expect that this time will be any different. But there are forces at work that conspire together to make that stumbling step into sex almost inevitable--not just the power of sexual desire itself, but certain other impulses that are uniquely bound up with evangelical Christianity itself.

Evangelical Christianity in America is not just about biblical inerrancy or accepting Jesus into your heart. It's also characterized by views concerning family. In fact, a former colleague of mine, Betty DeBerg, has argued in Ungodly Women that American evangelicalism has had, as one of its driving impulses from the beginning, the aim of preserving traditional Victorian-era family values against a variety of so-called threats.

For such idealization of an earlier sexual era to succeed, I think there has to be an important streak of romanticism to it. Only if the Victorian-era marriage is seen through rose tinted lenses can it endure compelling challenges based on its inequity towards women and its restrictiveness with respect to human liberty. To sell restrictive gender roles to the women who are most trammeled by them, it helps to wrap them up in chivalry and lace. When a suitor asks a father for the daughter's hand in marriage, the blatant patriarchy of it--the fact that men are deciding the fate of a woman as if it were some kind of commercial exchange--can be more readily swallowed if it's defined as a romantic gesture.

Girls must be taught from a young age to swoon over such objectification, or they'll rise up in rebellion against it. Likewise, they must be trained early on to idealize the selfless wife who quietly works in the shadows to lend her husband the strength to achieve great things. The saying, "Behind every successful man there's a good woman," must become a role that each young woman aspire towards--because she sees it as a badge of honor. She must be conditioned to see the world through her husband's eyes, to identify his achievements as her own, so that her own subservience becomes viewed as the means to her own success. For this to work, empathy for her husband's desires must be so great that she confuses them with her own. That level of self-subordination needs to be sold early or it won't stick. And to sell it early requires that an aura of romantic idealization be wrapped around the whole affair.

And the same must be done with respect to the prohibitions on premarital sex, which cannot be seen as just an outmoded constraint on individual liberty. In a post-sexual revolution era, in which so much that we see and hear through the media is infused with sexuality, the restraint on sexual expression must be romanticized. The reason for restraint has to be rooted in the almost sacramental grandeur that sex can achieve between a husband and a wife. Premarital sex is then seen as debasing something of exquisite beauty. Within the bonds of marriage, the sexual act can serve as a crucible of love that unites husband and wife, deepening their connection to one another in ways that will hold them together throughout their lives. To pursue sex outside of that context is to trivialize it.

A part of me is inclined to think there is a fair bit of truth in these latter ideas about sex and its context. I certainly do think that sex can be trivialized, and that located within the context of a stable, enduring relationship, it can acquire a meaning and value that it would not have apart from that context.

But there's a problem with selling this romanticized foundation for premarital sex taboos as a basis for discouraging Joey and Susy from having sex after months of romance and passionate intimacy. The problem, simply put, is that when you've built up your intimacy slowly, achingly over time, what you've forged together does not seem even remotely trivial. Joey and Susy are awash in love, practically bursting with it. They want to melt into each other, to become one. They gaze into each other's eyes and know that they are meant to be together forever, that this is what all the songs and stories and movies are about, that here is something unbelievable, wonderful beyond compare: true love.

If anything, they are less inclined than their secular peers to be realistic about what tomorrow will bring. Since what they are feeling has the scent of a sacramental act, the ugly realities of facing the morning after are more readily lost behind the idealized image of marital love that they have been fed since childhood.

One of the most important sexual inhibitions in the evangelical toolkit--Susy's fear that Joey will lose all respect for her--might have been operative up until that moment when they finally stumble into sex. But in that moment of passion, when they are lost in the romantic ideal of their eternal union, what she sees in Joey's eyes reassures her utterly that he cannot disdain her for what she's about to give. Perhaps, later, the fear of his contempt will surge back up--perhaps even poisoning their relationship. But in this moment it's gone.

In its place, for her, is a vivid awareness of his desire, which has now reached the level of agony. And she has been trained well, all these years, for her future role as the good wife--a role that requires her to subordinate her own wishes to those of her true love, to see the world through his eyes and his achievements. And so, in that stumbling moment of passion, her own fears about pregnancy, which otherwise might rise up to halt the tide of desire, are subordinated. All that exists is his desire--but because it is for her, giving into it becomes a way of reclaiming herself. He wants her so badly. He wants her so badly. Her patriarchal training ensures that this is the ultimate validation of herself: this young man's whole self is straining towards, longing for, desiring her. In this moment she is the most valuable thing in his world.

This narrative probably doesn't account for every case of premarital sex among teenage evangelicals. But I suspect it is an important piece of the puzzle.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Belief in Search of Evidence

An occasional commenter on this blog, Dan, recently posted on his own blog, Rationality Now , a reflection inspired by a church sign. The sign said “Begin to weave and God will provide you with the thread”—which, as Dan pointed out, could be taken as a variant on the common saying (among Christians), “Just have faith in Jesus and He will show Himself to you.”

I should point out that this is only one possible reading of the sign. One might also take the intended message to be about projects that urgently need to be done, but for which you lack the resources. On this reading, the sign is meant to encourage you to begin such projects anyway, operating in the hope that once you are underway, the needed resources will begin to come in (provided by God).

And yet it seems plausible to claim that faith in Jesus, properly construed, is really a kind of life project. If so, then Dan’s interpretation of the church sign might not be so far off the mark. I suspect that most Christians will agree that “having faith in Jesus” is much more than just believing in a set of propositions. It’s a way of leading one’s life. (Agreement among Christians is likely to break down as soon as we ask what way of life is implied by faith in Jesus.)

But even if faith in Jesus is much more than belief in a set of propositions, the way of life implied by such faith will certainly presuppose a set of beliefs. To have faith is, in part, to live one’s life as if certain things are true. In the broadest terms, having faith in Jesus means living as if Jesus’ life and ministry express the ultimate reality, the divine, in some unique and profound way. And having faith in Jesus as savior means living as if Jesus has secured the redemption of the world; as if the evils that shatter human lives and infect human hearts are never the final word; as if somehow, because of Christ, even the most devastating horrors and malignancies have been stripped of the power to deprive our lives of meaning and value.

Living as if something is true—that is, exhibiting both outward behaviors and inner dispositions that make sense only given a set of presuppositions—is at least one definition of what it means to believe something. More specifically, this is the pragmatic sense of belief. When you live as if X is true, then you are giving pragmatic assent to X even if you withhold your intellectual assent. On an intellectual level you might say, “I have no idea if X is the case”—by which you probably mean that you have no more reason to think that X is true than you have to think otherwise, or something to that effect. But if you still live your life as if it is true, then you express pragmatic belief.

In his post, Dan pointed out that the common Christian saying, “Have faith in Jesus and He will show Himself to you,” amounts to the injunction to reach a conclusion before seeing any evidence for it—an injunction that many agnostics and atheists view with great suspicion, to say the least. After all, shouldn’t we form our beliefs on the basis of the evidence? Dan clearly thinks so, calling this kind of "belief-in-search-of-evidence" a species of "cart before the horse" thinking. He then goes on to criticize what he takes to be the essence of religious faith—which involves, as he sees it, not merely the act of embracing a conclusion before seeing any evidence (in the promise of evidence to come), but a broader indifference to evidence.

Now I agree that much of what goes by the name of “faith” in the lives of religious believers (but not all) is just as Dan describes it here: belief without any regard for evidence. And I also think that many who follow the dictum, “believe it first and evidence will follow,” do so improperly. Doing so would obviously be improper if one ought to withhold belief until the evidence comes in. And we can all agree that waiting for the evidence is quite frequently the proper way to proceed. But is that always the proper way to proceed? This is the question I want to explore here.

Put simply, the question is whether there are occasions when it’s legitimate to “believe first” (at least on some sense of “belief”) in order to see if the evidence follows. To assess this question, it may be helpful to consider some examples.

First, there is the matter of hunches. At least sometimes, a researcher or investigator has a strong sense that some hypothesis is true, and this sense inspires her to keep doggedly pursuing evidence in favor of the hypothesis despite setbacks that would have discouraged those less convinced (sending them off in pursuit of an alternative hypothesis).

Put in ordinary language, the researcher “has a hunch” and acts on it. To “have a hunch” means that you are willing to invest time and resources into investigating a possibility that, on the clear or explicit evidence available, seems no more worthy of investigation than countless other possibilities. You have “the hunch” that something is going on which, if it were, would leave certain traces. And so you don’t just proceed to look for these traces, but do so with an attitude of expectation. Perhaps, because of the strength of your hunch, you look longer than you might have otherwise. If you finally do uncover the traces that confirm the hunch, it may well be that the only reason you did so is because you kept looking long after others would have given up.

Were there explicit clues that suggested you should start your investigation with this hypothesis rather than some other one, you wouldn’t be acting on a hunch. You’d be acting on the initial evidence. To have a hunch means in part that, based on the explicit evidence, you could as readily have started with any number of other lines of investigation. But in the case of a hunch, your decision to start where you do isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t based on the mere fact that you have to start somewhere, and starting here is as good as anywhere. It is, instead, based on some level of conviction—some initial sense, not rooted in the explicitly available evidence, that this hypothesis is true. You choose to start here because there is a part of you that expects to find the traces you are looking for.

Put yet another way, the person with a hunch believes in the hypothesis more than do those who are simply going by the available evidence. There is at least a level of belief here that precedes the evidence and which may actually help to generate confirming evidence. At least on one level, the belief at issue here is pragmatic: the person with a hunch had different behaviors and dispositions than do those who lack the hunch. On the level of what they are inclined to do and expect and feel (e.g., surprise when the traces aren't there), they are like the person who thinks the hypothesis is true.

In short, there’s a real sense in which a hunch is a certain kind of belief-in-search-of-evidence. But I can’t imagine any researcher or investigator who would categorically condemn those of their colleagues who have hunches and act on them. In fact, I doubt that there are many researchers out there who don’t have occasional hunches, or who consistently resist them when they do.

That said, it is also true that, in scientific or forensic research, hunches can be dangerous. The decision to follow a hunch flirts with the kind of bias that undermines objective inquiry. A hunch becomes a bias, for example, when the researcher refuses to give up on it even once contrary evidence starts to pile up. It also becomes a bias when the researcher reads confirming evidence into ambiguous observations.

Let me clarify this last point. A body of clues often permits a variety of interpretations. If one interpretation supports one’s hunch while others don’t, it can be easy to accord preferential status to the supportive interpretation even though there are no other compelling reasons to do so. In short, one can ignore or fail to notice one’s own interpretive bias and so slide without realizing it from “The evidence is consistent with my hunch” to “The evidence favors my hunch over other hypotheses.” The police detective who falls prey to this danger when following a hunch may not only ignore a trail of evidence leading to the real killer, but may help put an innocent person behind bars.

But these risks do not constitute a decisive basis for ignoring hunches altogether and condemning those who don’t. If one is aware of the dangers, one can guard against them. And the fact is that acting on hunches sometimes bears important fruits.

Consider a different example: the act of trusting someone. Often, the only way you can find out whether or not someone is trustworthy is to actually trust them. That is, you begin by acting as if they are trustworthy. You invest them with responsibility and don’t hover over them to see whether they will fulfill it. You put yourself in their hands. You adopt behaviors and dispositions premised on the trustworthiness of the person, and in this sense adopt a belief in the pragmatic sense. When it comes to trustworthiness, it is often the case that only once you do this—only once you adopt a pragmatic belief—does the evidence for or against it becomes available.

Of course, here things get tricky, because often the decision to trust inspires someone to be more trustworthy than they might otherwise have been. Trusting can often operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy: give a dog a good name to live up to, and the dog is more likely to do so.

In my prison work with the Alternatives to Violence Project, we routinely introduce an array of trust exercises—trust circles and trust lifts—that call upon some participants of the workshop to voluntarily put their trust in others. Part of the point of these exercises is to give participants the chance to take the risk of trusting to see what happens (to believe in the trustworthiness of others as a way of discovering evidence of the same). But part of the point, I think, is also to inspire inner transformations in those who are given the experience of being trusted. The act of trust attributes to them a good character trait that they want to live up to. In doing so, they begin to own this character trait in a way that, perhaps, they hadn’t before. By being trusted, they become more trustworthy.

But this is an interesting point. Sometimes what we pragmatically believe shapes the reality around us—a fact that can operate both for good and for ill. In short, there may be circumstances in which it behooves us to believe the best hypothesis, even when there is no evidence to think it likely, precisely because expecting the best often makes the best more likely.

Finally, consider the case of a convicted murderer who seems to most everyone to be a kind of moral monster, a psychopath incapable of remorse or compassion towards his victims. But one person—a nun, say—is convinced that there is something good in every human being. Armed with this conviction, she seeks to reach that something in him. She really believes that it is there, and that a real human connection with this man, a mutual acknowledgment of shared humanity, is therefore possible.

There is, we can suppose, nothing in the man’s behavior that gives the nun any indication that he really possesses the capacity for such a connection with others. Everyone else has dismissed him as a psychopath lacking the kinds of human emotions and dispositions that make love, empathy, and compassion possible. His behavior is entirely consistent with such a dismissal of him. But this nun is convinced, in spite of this evidence, that somewhere buried beneath all the crud is a spark of human goodness. And so she reaches for it—persistently, sincerely.

Here’s what I think about such a case. If that “spark” is there, it’s only someone who is sincerely convinced that it’s there—someone like the nun—who’s likely to find it. Someone who doesn’t believe this will be neither persistent enough nor sincere enough to get through the crud. The vulnerable humanity of this criminal, if it’s there, is only accessible to those who are already convinced that it’s there, and who therefore have the behavioral dispositions and feelings necessary to reach it. Evidence for the existence of this spark will come only to those who believe in it before any evidence is available.

So here’s the question: Is the nun’s conviction inappropriate? Should we condemn her for it? Should we insist that belief must follow evidence, and thus conclude that she ought to reject the claim that this man has a tender human core she can reach, at least until evidence comes in—thereby guaranteeing that the evidence will never come in? Or should we, rather, declare along with William James that “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule”?

The point is this: The decision to follow a hunch, or to trust a stranger, or to have faith in the potential of a human being who shows no evidence of potential, can be legitimate (even though it isn’t always so). But such decisions are cases of belief-in-search-of-evidence. That is, they involve pragmatic belief—acting as if something is true—before the evidence is in, while at the same time facilitating the acquisition of evidence.

And so I conclude that there are legitimate cases of believing in the hope that evidence will follow. The question, then, is whether there are theistic correlates for such cases—ways of having faith in God that exemplify legitimate belief-in-search-of evidence. Is there such a thing as a legitimate God-hunch, or a legitimate act of trusting in that which transcends the world of ordinary experience, or of seeking sincerely to establish a personal connection with the transcendent based on the conviction that it is there and has some the personal character that makes relationship possible? If so, what are the parameters within which such faith must fall in order to be legitimate?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Brit Hume Causes Controversy with Suggestion that Pat Robertson Convert to Christianity

For those of you who may not have caught it, this following bit of faux news may be of interest. Please note that, while wholly fabricated by a blogger who will remain unnamed, this news item is, nevertheless, deeply true.

This morning on Fox News, commentator Brit Hume sparked something of a firestorm by suggesting on the air that televangelist Pat Robertson convert to Christianity. “From what I understand, in terms of religious beliefs, Robertson ascribes to Stupid-A** Fundamentalism,” Hume remarked. “But I don’t think Stupid A** Fundamentalism offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.”

Hume went on to catalogue an array of offenses that, in Hume’s words, “can be directly attributed to the core doctrines of Stupid-A** Fundamentalism”—such offenses as his “total” agreement with Jerry Falwell’s view that the 9/11 attacks could be blamed on pagans, abortionists, feminists, and gays, and his more recent insinuation that the devastating earthquake in Haiti could be attributing to a legendary “pact with the devil” made by Haitian slaves revolting against Imperial France.

“These offenses have all the hallmarks of Stupid-A** Fundamentalism,” Hume said. “First of all, they’re stupid. Second, they’re the kinds of things that only an a**hole would say.”

The newest Fox commentator, Sarah Palin, was incensed by Hume’s remarks. “Our country was founded by Stupid A** Fundamentalists,” she retorted. “It was built on the values of men like Robertson. And to be quite frank, I thought this news station is supposed to serve as a bastion in the defense of Stupid A** Fundamentalist precepts. That’s why I came on board, and to have you mouthing off against my faith in this venue is simply intolerable.”

But Hume was undaunted by Palin’s outburst. “My remark is really more about the resources that Christianity can offer to people like Robertson. Even if we don’t blame his Stupid A** Fundamentalism for all of these scandalous remarks and behaviors, it’s pretty clear that it hasn’t helped him. If he’d only convert to Christianity, he wouldn’t keep making such stupid a** comments. Plus, people might forgive him for being such an a**hole in the past.”

“That’s what Christianity is about,” Hume went on to say. “Grace and forgiveness and compassion. This business of God holding the great-great grandchildren of oppressed slaves accountable for desperate choices they may or may not have actually made in response to imperialist oppression, and therefore laying waste to a whole nation of mostly Catholic and Pentacostal Christians—well, it’s about as unchristian as anything can get. So my message to Robertson would be, ‘Pat, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'”

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kissmiss Wights

Yesterday we took down our Christmas decorations. For the first time both children eagerly participated in the process. And as I watched my three-year-old daughter pull down ornaments from the “kids’ tree” and help to put them away, I couldn’t help but remember how she had been last year at this time—a toddler then, still on the edge of infancy, more babbles than words. Now she was a little girl—a stubborn, articulate little girl who knew the difference between handmade ornaments and store-bought collectibles, and could put them (if she chose) in separate bags.

Last year, in the weeks following Christmas, I’d drive her around every night at bedtime to look at Christmas lights. The holiday had thrown off her schedule, and she’d become impossible to put to bed at a decent hour. And so I suggested driving her around at bedtime to look at Christmas lights—an activity she was eager to do. Of course, the drone of the engine and the movement of the car, the darkness and the stillness—these things would do what Mommy and Daddy could not. Within twenty minutes she’d be fast asleep.

It would always happen rather suddenly. One minute she’d be shouting from the backseat about the Santa or the reindeer or the “binking wights” she saw out the window. Then, silence. I’d crane my neck to see her in the rearview mirror, and her little head would be slumped forward in sleep. And so I’d turn the car around, head on home, and carry her to her crib (still a crib, then). She’d feel tiny in my arms, her little face pressed against my neck, just as when she was a baby.

It was an effective way to reset her internal clock, but I continued the ritual longer than necessary for that purpose. And every night, the number of houses with Christmas lights diminished. In the days following New Years they were still blazing in every neighborhood. But within a week, many of houses that had blazed with lights went dark. Elaborate displays came down. Santas vanished. Grazing reindeer constellations returned to their sheds. A week after New Years the rate of disappearance accelerated, until only a few hold-outs remained.

My daughter and I continued to drive around, looking for the displays that remained. And her excitement when we found one seemed almost greater than before. Until, finally, all of them were gone. But even then, she insisted that the lights shining from the miniature golf course were Christmas lights—Christmas lights which were never taken down, which blazed on in memory and anticipation.

Few a few days more I continued driving with her, driving in memory and anticipation. I resisted giving up our nightly ritual, because I knew that it would never be like this again, that my little girl was growing so quickly, that a year would change her in astonishing ways. A year from now, she wouldn’t look at the golf course and see Christmas lights. A year from now, if I drove her around the neighborhood at night, it would be a little girl in the back, not a toddler with the contours of infancy still shaping her speech and face.

And so I drove with her, past the golf course, waiting for that little voice to shout out “Kissmiss wights!” And I held onto the sound of it, and the emotional space, holding it as if it were a prayer. And then, finally, I let it go.

For me, in a way, that is the essence of religion--to savor the good, embrace it and experience it, and then to follow that with an act of release. Relinquishing the dream of control. If there is an enduring meaning to ritual sacrifice, some meaning that transcends the ugly and bloody propitiation of the gods, it is this: to hold out all that is limited, and to acknowledge that we cannot keep it by our own efforts. We release it in an act of trust, giving ourselves and every finite thing we have, trusting that all that is good, all that is true, will somehow endure in the bosom of the infinite.

Now a year has passed, and my daughter dresses herself—in fact, she insists on it, and her clothing choices are always interesting (usually featuring either her pink cowboy boots or the ruby slippers from the Dorothy costume she wore for Halloween). A year has passed, and as before the holidays did a number on her sleep patterns.

But this year I didn’t propose driving her around to look at Christmas lights. After all, we’ve put in place an effective bedtime ritual now, one that not only does the job but which it would be better not to disrupt. But that’s not the only reason I didn’t propose it. The deeper reason is that it would feel too much like attempting to reclaim something that can’t be reclaimed.

There’s a sequence from the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character has his first authentic romantic evening with Andie McDowell’s character. They play in the snow at night, and it’s spontaneous, alive with real emotions. But the pretense of the film is that Murray’s character keeps reliving the same day—and so he attempts to recreate, moment for moment, word for word, the romantic evening he had with this beautiful, sincere young woman. And it all rings hollow.

That’s what it would have been like. I would have tried too hard to recreate those after-Christmas drives with my two-year-old baby girl. And my daughter’s sincerity would have collided with my pretense, and the result would have been little more than an ache. And so, instead, at bedtime I lean my head against her mattress and she wraps her arms around my head and tugs my ears, and I sing “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and she sings along in her little three-year-old voice. And I whisper, “May you dream of all the people you love, and all the people who love you.”

And I know that this moment will pass. And so I hold onto it, closing my eyes and embracing the emotional space, holding it like a prayer. And then I let it go.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Lutheran Marriage--Expanding on Comments Made on Another Blog

For those interested, I left a lengthy comment concerning Martin Luther's views about marriage on polycarp's blog, "The Church of Jesus Christ," in response to a blog post considering whether the government should stay out of the marriage business.

Luther, for those unfamiliar with his thought on this matter, would have likely found this to be the entirely wrong question. For him, the regulation of marriage was properly a civil matter, and it was the church that should stay out of the marriage business--except as witness and support to the married couple. As far as the establishment of a marriage goes, Luther thought that this was done by the married couple, not by the church or by the state. This is the point I make (although in greater detail) on ploycarp's blog.

So--let individuals marry (which happens when they make a commitment to one another to be spouses); let the state regulate those marriages in a manner consistent with the natural rights of persons and the interests of a well-ordered society; and let the church witness, celebrate, and support the marital unions that individuals make with one another.

This "division of labor" in the marriage business does not by itself resolve the disputes about marriage--concerning, for example, how wide the divorce escape hatch should be, whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry, etc. To settle these matters, we need a fuller understanding of the rights of individuals with respect to the creation (and dissolution) of marital bonds--their scope and limits.

But that it is a matter of individual rights on the Lutheran view is very important. Marriage is not an institution of the church or of the state but a matter of individual rights--rights which impose moral constraints on what both church and state may legitimately do in relation to marriage.

And this means that, for example, the question of same-sex marriage must be settled by asking whether same sex couples have the right to establish a marital commitment with one another. If they do, then the state has a moral responsibility to include them within the legal regulative structures of civil marriage. If they do, then churches are morally in the wrong when they discriminate against same-sex couples by refusing to celebrate and support the bonds they have forged, even though they routinely celebrate and support those forged by heterosexual partners.