Thursday, March 25, 2010

Second New Book Excerpt: Species of Hell

Over the next few weeks I hope to be posting a number of short excerpts from the early chapters of That Damned Book (the philosophical critique of the doctrine of hell that John Kronen and I are co-authoring). The excerpt I post today comes from Chapter 2, our chapter in which we outline different species of both DH (the doctrine of eternal hell) and DU (the doctrine of universal salvation).

John and I actually revised and reshaped the first section of that chapter into a stand-alone article on species of hell, adding a section in which we identify the main hurdles than each species we identify would need to overcome in order to be defensible within a broadly Christian context. That essay has now appeared in the just-published anthology, The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology, edited by Joel Buenting and published by Ashgate. It's a lovely book, comprised of more than a dozen articles requisitioned specifically for the anthology and written by the some of the top philosophers working on the philosophical problem of hell. For those who want a foretaste of some of the main lines of argument we'll be developing in our book, take a look at our contribution to The Problem of Hell (titled "Species of Hell").

The excerpt reproduced here lays out what all species of DH have in common, and then sets the stage for distinguishing different species according to a pair of parameters. The first part of the excerpt (the part before the ellipses) is almost identical to a parallel passage in our essay for this anthology. The second part (after the ellipses) is unique to the book manuscript, although the ideas expressed in it are expressed in different terms in our essay for the anthology. Without further ado, here's the excerpt:

For Christianity, God is taken to be the highest good. This is a claim about what is objectively valuable, and as such imposes an obligation on our subjective values: if we fail to value God above all things, our subjective values are defective—and our moral character is more broadly compromised. When we fail to order our values appropriately, we inevitably fail to behave in ways that display appropriate respect for the inherent worth of things.

On traditional Christian moral theology, then, rational creatures are fully moral only when they make God the object of their highest devotion—in other words, only when they love God above all else. Loving God above all else completes the moral nature of rational creatures. By clinging to God—the sovereign good—and loving Him because of His perfection, creatures are perfected in both intellect and will, so that all their inclinations and actions are in accord with right reason.

But the traditional view here is that this kind of rightly-ordered love of God can only be fully achieved by a direct vision of the divine essence. Thus, Melanchthon asserts that “although the law points out what God is like, such righteousness cannot be in anyone unless God himself dwells in him and gives him his light and glory. Thus the law is entirely fulfilled in us only in eternal life, in eternal righteousness, when we have eternal joy in God, and God has become all in all.”

In sum, salvation in the Christian tradition means a spiritual union with God that brings about both eternal moral perfection and perfect happiness. With this notion of salvation in mind, it should be clear what it means to say that some created persons are never saved. It means that some are never granted the beatific vision, which is the only thing that will fully complete them as rational creatures. Their intellects are thus eternally darkened by false notions of what is true and good, leading to disordered desires that overvalue some things and undervalue others. Not only will they never love God with their whole hearts, they will never properly love their neighbors or themselves…

…the core of DH in all its forms can thus be taken to consist in the everlasting deprivation of the beatific vision and the unending moral and spiritual vitiation which necessarily attends it.

But if this is common to all species of DH, we can see immediately why there is something controversial about DH. To put the point simply, permitting or imposing damnation amounts to either allowing or causing some persons to be eternally confirmed in two evils: not only or even primarily the loss of the joys of heaven, but also, and more significantly, eternal moral wickedness. To be deprived of the beatific vision is to be deprived of the only thing that can wash away sin.

And so the question immediately becomes: Why would a perfect God, a God Who is not only benevolent in his love for His creatures but who hates sin, permit (or bring it about) that some of his creatures are eternally marred by both misery and sinfulness, and so fall eternally short of the end for which He made them? Why would a perfect God allow sin to reign forever victorious over His divine purposes in creation, at least in the souls of the damned?

If God is morally perfect and omnipotent (conceived in the sense of being capable of doing whatever is logically possible), then there must be either (a) some morally sufficient justification for permitting or inflicting these evils or (b) some logical impossibility associated with saving the damned from these evils. Given God’s omnipotence, (a) seems more plausible than (b). Of course, it might be logically impossible for God both to save the damned and to meet some further demand of moral perfection. But in that case, meeting the relevant demand of moral perfection would operate as the morally sufficient reason for God’s permitting (or causing) damnation, and so we have a species of (a).

Nevertheless, we don’t want to rule out (b) in advance. In either case, (a) or (b), there is a sense in which God would be justified in not saving all—either because he has a morally sufficient reason not to do so or because he cannot do so (and so cannot be morally required to do so). In either case, God’s failure to save all would be shown not to be wrong, and so we would have what might be called a “God-justifying reason” for eternal damnation.

As one might expect, hellists have historically proposed a variety of “God-justifying reasons” for damnation, and these alternatives correlate with different species of DH, especially in two key areas: the nature of the evils endured by the damned, and the causes of damnation. In effect, God’s reasons for permitting or imposing damnation will lead to different ideas about what the damned endure. If, for example, one thinks that God is justified in imposing damnation because of the demands of retributive justice, then one will be likely to think that the damned suffer from an array of torments inflicted by God as a punishment for sin. If, by contrast, one thinks that God is justified in permitting damnation out of respect for the free choices of the damned, one will be less inclined to think that the damned have suffering heaped upon them by God and more inclined to think that the suffering is nothing more than what in some way naturally accompanies alienation from God.

Likewise, alternative views about God’s justifying reasons for damnation will generate different accounts of its causes. If one thinks God’s justifying reason for permitting damnation is respect for the free choices of the damned, one will think that hell is a kind of self-imposed prison, that damnation’s “impelling cause” is the free choices of the damned. If, however, on thinks God is justified in imposing damnation for retributive reasons, one will think that damnation’s impelling cause is God’s choice to righteously smite evildoers.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Prayer for Our Times

Introductory Remark: There is, of course, much that can be said for and against the details of the recently passed health care legislation. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that by trying to “patch up” the current system rather than overhaul it more thoroughly, and by making key concessions to the beneficiaries of the existing system, the real gains in coverage are weighed down by inefficient bureaucratic complexities and pointless “appendixes” which can only serve as a source of infection. I remain hopeful that despite this Rube-Goldberg-like clunkiness, it will offer more benefits than costs in terms of social justice…but I don’t know. Only time will tell.

But, of course, my concerns are trivial, since the real problem—as we all know thanks to FOX News—lies with the fact that the new legislation is socialist, that socialism is by definition un-American, and that this health care legislation will therefore ruin the American way of life.

And so, for all my friends who have digested the teachings of FOX News, I offer the following prayer.

Heavenly Father,

In this time of unprecedented national crisis, when the Democrats in Congress have brought the nation to the very brink of national catastrophe—nay, Armageddon itself—by passing socialist health care reform legislation, remind me of those things about our nation for which I can still be grateful.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the fact that the Socialists who are running this country haven’t messed with our nation’s system for building and maintaining its infrastructure. Thank you that it is still entirely in the hands of for-profit private enterprise, without government regulations restricting private industries from doing what they please with the bridges over which I drive. Thank you that none of my tax dollars are being spent to maintain roads I don’t personally…Oh wait. Scratch that one. Back up. Try again.

Thank you, gracious God, that our nation’s defense isn’t controlled by big government bureaucracies (which would likely be housed in some large hexagonal or octagonal structure) or paid for with my tax dollars, since that would be Godless socialism, and therefore evil and un-American. Thank you that we have seen fit to entrust our national security to privately-run for-profit mercenary firms…Oh wait. No, no, no. I didn’t mean to call our U.S. military un-American just because it happens to be entirely run by the government and therefore qualifies as socialism under the loose definition I’ve inherited from FOX News. All socialism is evil except the military. Alright. Deep breath. Let’s try again.

Thank you, Lord, that the reach of un-American socialist ideology hasn’t infected the way in which we educate our children. Thank you that no one has had the gall to propose a “public option” in education, since that would be evil commie stuff and…Oh wait. Crud. Um…Lord, thank you that at least the post-secondary education system remains outside the intrusive reach of state-run…Oh, crap. I teach at a state university. Forgot about that.

Okay, try again. Thank you, Heavenly Father, that at the very least our domestic safety is preserved by private security firms rather than some shamefully socialist public police force paid for through tax dollars, since we all know the government cannot be trusted with something as important as…Oh wait. No, no, no. Police are our friends. Love the police. Technically socialist, yes, but police are an exception like the military. Okay. Good. Try again.

Thank you, Lord of Life, that we’ve seen fit to ensure that fire safety in this country is overseen by unregulated, privately-run, for-profit fire protection businesses that charge clients a fee and only respond to fire emergencies affecting their paying clients. After all, public fire departments paid for through taxes would amount to socialism and therefore would destroy the American way of life. Thank you that our Founding Fathers, people like Ben Franklin, had the wisdom to set up safeguards against such…Oh wait. Dang.

Thank you, God, that the financial industry remains blessedly unregulated by the government, since innovation and greatness is achieved not through regulating American entrepreneurs but by giving them full freedom to pursue wealth in a competitive marketplace. Unregulated free enterprise, without the meddling of heavy-handed government bureaucracies, has made and continues to make the financial industry an ongoing engine of economic prosperity. Nothing can go wrong so long as the government stays out of…Oh, crud.

Never mind.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Podcast Interview at "Common Sense Atheism"

For those interested, Luke Muehlhauser over at "Common Sense Atheism" recently interviewed me about my book for his "Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot" podcast series. The interview itself lasted for more than two-and-a-half hours, but Luke was able to edit it down to just about an hour. A few things had to be left out, of course--including a lengthy discussion about a Hegelian approach to developing and refining our worldviews, some not-very-well-worked-out reflections on a Schleiermacherian approach to ethics, etc. But what remains is an excellently edited presentation of the substance of the interview. Check it out here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Take Two: Ariel Sightings and Atheist Faith

Reposted here is one of my earliest blog posts, from back in October 2008. It's worth revisiting for the "Ariel Sighting" alone, I think. Enjoy!

A few days ago, as my family was getting loaded into the car for a thrilling afternoon of shopping, we all noticed a bird dropping on the rear driver’s side window—a mostly white SPLAT with, of course, the requisite dribbles (now dry).

Actually, I should say that my wife and I noticed it, as did our five-year-old son. My daughter, who is two, didn’t notice it until a little while later, as we were driving away from a visit to Goody’s Department Store.We were pulling out of our parking space when my daughter shouted out, “Ariel!”

I glanced around and saw no obvious images of the Little Mermaid, but my daughter is good at spotting them even when I don’t. A few months ago, at the airport, her Ariel radar proved to be especially keen, and whenever she cried out “Ariel!” or “Mermaid!” I would eventually (after looking around for a few minutes), find some tiny Little Mermaid bookmark in a shop window or an Ariel backpack disappearing around a corner (attached to the back of a flouncy five-year-old with pigtails).

But this time I could see nothing of the sort. “Where?” I asked.

She pointed insistently out her brother’s window. I looked out across the parking lot, in the direction she had indicated, but saw nothing…until I abruptly realized she was pointing at the window.

To be precise, she was pointing at the bird poop. And as I looked at it, the splat of excrement took on a new meaning. I could see Ariel rising in the water, her hair streaming behind her, her fish tail lost in a roiling swirl, clearly about to be transformed into legs. The poop bore a remarkable resemblance to the scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid in which Ariel is rising to the surface of the ocean just after visiting with the sea witch, as her wish for human legs is in the process of coming true.

And I thought to myself: “Too bad it doesn’t look like Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then I could remove the window, laminate it, and sell it on e-Bay for $28,000.”

Instead, when we stopped to fill gas, I went after the Ariel image with the blue window washing liquid and squeegee courteously supplied by the gas station. In moments, Ariel was no more.

The lesson, of course, is this: bird poop is always forming patterns. Most of the time these patterns don’t match any to which we’ve attached special significance. Sometimes they match ones that are deeply important only to two-year-olds. And, every once in awhile, they’re going to match images that someone, somewhere, invests with religious meaning. The same is true, of course, of patterns in toast and chocolate drippings.

And so, when it just so happens that an image imprinted in toast looks like the Blessed Virgin, it really doesn’t make any more sense to view this as a sign from God than it does to view Ariel-in-bird-poop as a sign from Triton the Sea King.

But many religious people are hungry for signs of this sort—tangible images which we can see or touch or (God forbid) taste. They long for a world in which God shows up not just as a quiet presence in a moment of meditative prayer, but in more straightforwardly empirical ways.

Of course, there is a long theological tradition which claims that God does show up in the empirical world all the time because the very existence of the empirical world in all its wonder and mystery is a constant manifestation of the divine. Such a theological view has no need for Virgin Mary sightings, because the entire created world in every aspect is a constant testament to the glory of God. (I should note that this tradition of thought, although it needn't exclude talk of miracles, is very different from the tradition of religious thought which is fixated on miraculous suspensions of natural laws).

But this idea that the empirical world is an ongoing manifestation of the divine is a WAY of seeing the world—and there are other ways to see it, too. A religious worldview offers one set of glasses through which to interpret and understand the meaning of our ordinary experience. But there are non-religious worldviews that do this, too. So long as these worldviews do not call upon us to reject or deny empirical facts or the best understandings of the patterns by which the material world works (in the way that, say, Young Earth Creationists do), there is nothing in the empirical evidence that will force us to prefer one such worldview to another. There may be more broadly philosophical reasons to favor one general worldview over another, but the empirical data by itself is “polysemitic”—that is, able to be invested with alternative fundamental meanings.

And this means that the embrace of a broadly religious worldview will always be a matter of choice and hope, not a matter of certainty. But many are uncomfortable with living in hope. For a variety of reasons they long for a certainty that is impossible to have, at least in this world we live in.

We see this hunger for certainty not just among the religious, but also among many atheists, who insist that their naturalistic worldview—according to which the world we encounter through our senses and through scientific investigation constitutes all that there is—is an incontrovertible truth established by the empirical evidence. But it should be plain that the question, “Is there more to reality than meets the eye?”, will not be answered by pointing out that I cannot see more to reality than meets my eye. Empirical evidence cannot settle the question of whether there are orders of reality beyond the empirical one.

But the hunger for certainty leads many to look for empirical evidence that confirms in some way their worldview. And this is why so many cling to Virgin Mary sightings. They want something in the empirical world that settles the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the world. The problem, of course, is that nothing will really do this trick. Even if the heavens parted tomorrow and a booming voice declared to the entire planet, “I AM,” it would still be possible to be an atheist. After all, the manifestation might be the work of space aliens (or the result of a freakishly rare confluence of natural events that produced a sonic boom which, by virtue of our tendency to discern anthropomorphic patterns in natural events, we interpreted as the words “I AM”).

In short, to look for proof that your way of seeing the world is the right one by pointing to images of the Blessed Virgin in a grilled cheese sandwich is just shifting the problem of interpretation down one level. The image in the grilled cheese is itself polysemitic, and to treat that image as the deliberate product of a transcendent God is to offer one possible interpretation among many.

In the words of the theologian John Hick, “the true character of the universe does not force itself upon us, and we are left with an important element of freedom and responsibility in response to it…I would suggest that this element of uncompelled interpretation in our experience of life is to be identified with faith in the most fundamental sense of that word.”

If there is a God, he hasn’t created a universe in which His presence is unambuously attested to, perhaps because such an uncompromising testament to His presence would stifle our development as autonomous selves. And if there is no God, then nothing in the universe cares enough about us to make the fundamental nature of reality manifest to us. And so we are left with the “element of uncompelled interpretation” that Hick identifies with faith.

In other words, even the atheist has faith when we get to the most basic level of interpretation. I would argue that even agnostics have faith in this sense, insofar as some kind of implicit worldview is needed in order to live one’s life in any kind of coherent way. At least on an implicit or practical level, we make a decision about what the world is like at its root. And it’s just that, inescapably that: a decision. It's a decision that ought to pay attention to the facts. That is, we should make sure as best we can that our interpretation fits with the facts.

But I am sceptical of anyone who claims that only one worldview, or one kind of worldview, will offer such a fit.

Friday, March 5, 2010

New Book Excerpt: The Possibility of Christian Universalism

As I mentioned in my last post, I will occasionally be posting some very brief excerpts from the book on hell I'm working on with John Kronen (hereafter referred to simply as That Damned Book), if and when they work as blog posts. I offer the first of these today.

First, some context: "Christian universalism" refers to a version of Christianity which rejects the doctrine of hell (DH) in favor of the doctrine of universalism (DU)--the view that ultimately all created persons are saved--but which, in other ways, preserves core Christian teachings. Some critics of this view argue that the doctrine of hell is so bound up with core Christian teachings that it would be impossible to be a universalist AND a Christian.

Early in That Damned Book, John and I briefly touch on this subject in the wake of pointing out that a number of our arguments for universalism are based on premises likely to be shared by a number of theistic religious traditions. In other words, we offer arguments for universalism that do not invoke or make use of any distinctively Christian teachings. Here's what we go on to say:

This last fact might cause some Christians to worry—perhaps sharing C. F. W. Walther’s view that one cannot be a universalist without denying the necessity, if not the fact, of Christ’s Atonement. But this worry is unwarranted. One may be convinced that a good God wants to save all, can do so, and hence will, without so much as considering the specific steps God might take or need to take in order to do so—and hence without considering whether the means He used (or had to use) are those Christians affirm.

As such, an argument for universalism that makes no reference to the Incarnation or Atonement does not thereby rule out the belief that universal salvation is achieved (indeed, can only be achieved) through the Incarnation, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Such arguments may still be compatible with the Christian doctrine that every human being is saved through Christ’s redemptive work.

Of course, not everyone embraces Christ in this life, even in the implicit sense of placing their trust in an “anonymous” Christ. Hence, universalists cannot hold (as so many conservative Christians do) that sinners need to perform the subjective act of placing their trust in Christ before death in order to be saved. But this does not mean that universalists have to deny the role of Christ’s Atonement in human salvation. First of all, one might take it that we are saved by what God does for us through the Atonement, regardless of what we subjectively do in response. But it is even possible for universalists to treat subjective faith in Christ as necessary for salvation so long as they hold that there is no time limit for performing this act of faith, such that it could emerge for the first time after death. This possibility is central to several key arguments we develop here.

Admittedly, the idea that one can be converted after death is contrary to what most of Christianity taught up until about the 18th century. But the discovery of the New World and the vast empires of India and China produced a gradual shift in the Church’s thinking. Beginning, arguably, with certain 17th century Jesuits, Christian intellectuals began to hold that those who had no way of knowing Christ during their lives could be saved as long as they did not reject the grace given them. And many otherwise conservative Christian thinkers now hold that all will be given an adequate revelation of Christ, at least at death if not before.

But Walther’s worry that universalists must deny the necessity of Christ’s saving work is related to another worry, expressed by Jerry Walls, that also deserves preliminary mention. Walls worries, in effect, that if the doctrine of hell is set aside, Christianity becomes trivialized. He claims that, in traditional Christian theology, hell “is the alternative to salvation,” a fact that lends “a sense of urgency and moral seriousness to the quest for salvation” and also highlights “the majesty and glory of God’s work to save his fallen children.”

But it is entirely compatible with DU to hold that, apart from God’s saving work, our fate would be horrific. That is, universalists can agree with Walls that the alternative to salvation is hell—that eternal anguish is what we would endure but for God’s saving work—even if they think no one actually endures this alternative. Furthermore, many universalists hold that there are those who do endure this alternative, although not eternally: while all are ultimately saved, some of the most recalcitrant sinners actively resist God’s saving grace for an extended time, enduring a finite “hell”—that is, an immediate experience of what it means to exist in the “outer darkness” apart from God—the experience of which ultimately breaks down their recalcitrance.

On this view of things, none of the “urgency and moral seriousness” attached to the quest for salvation needs to be set aside, let alone any sense of “the majesty and glory” of God’s saving work. A rescue boat that comes to the scene of a shipwreck is no less worthy of praise because it succeeds in saving all the passengers rather than only some. It is what they are saved from, not how many of them are saved, that determines the relative importance or triviality of the saving work.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Launching "Take Two"

I have just been cast in the play/musical, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" (based on the books of Robert Fulghum)--a fact that has at least four significant implications for my life.

First, since I was cast to play the youngest male role, I will need to shave my facial hair to achieve a more "youthful" look. The first stage of this transformation is complete as of last night, and I now sport a dashing goatee. Since everyone says it makes me look younger, a part of me secretly hopes the director will say it's enough and allow the remaining facial hair to remain--but I'm not optimistic.

Second, I will be called upon to do something I haven't needed to do since college: memorize stuff. More specifically, a whole bunch of lines. The play is a series of vignettes and extended storytelling monologues. One of the monologues I'll be doing (an exhuberant oration on the transformative power of Beethoven's 9th), is probably the longest thing I've ever been called upon to memorize (the second-longest being Mr. Lundy's monologue from the musical Brigadoon, which my high school put on my senior year; the third-longest being the first simile from The Illiad, which I chose to memorize in high school for its perceived seminality).

Third, I will be missing my kids' bedtime for evening rehearsals five nights a week. And yes, this bothers me more than losing the beard I've sported for two decades.

Finally, I will be losing a big chunk of my free time. This fact, combined with my renewed commitment to getting serious about finishing the manuscript for my next book (a co-authored critique of the doctrine of hell that I've been working on with a colleague for several years), has forced a monumental decision. For the next two months I will be featuring only two things on this blog: (1) reruns of some of my favorite posts from early in my (short) blogging career--that is, from before most current readers knew that this blog existed (such posts will be marked with the "Take Two" moniker in the title); and (2) key passages from the book-on-hell-in-progress ("That Damned Book"), but only if and when I find excepts that are brief enough and clear enough on their own to work as blog posts, and which I think might either stimulate useful discussion or benefit from the kind of critique a blog post is likely to inspire.

Oh, and just in case anyone was in doubt, I still remember that first simile from The Illiad. It goes as follows (and no, I didn't look it up; and no, I can't guarantee that my recall is perfect):

"Like the swarms of clustering bees that issue forever in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone and hang like bunched grapes beneath the flowers in springtime, fluttering is swarms together this way and that way, so the many nations of men, along the front of the deep sea beach, marched in order by companies to the assembly; and rumor walked blazing among them, Zeus's messenger, to hasten them along."