Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Damned Sinners Addendum

My God's Final Victory co-author, John Kronen, has been pushing me a bit on my arguments in this "Damned Sinners" series. Specifically, he's been stressing that there's an idea embraced by supralapsarian Calvinists (not by infralapsarian ones) that I don't seem to take seriously enough in these posts. And he's suggested that it's this failure to take that idea seriously that might've led someone like Steve Hays to think that the Problem of Damned Sinners could be so quickly dispensed with.

I think John has a point. You see, on supralapsarian Calvinism the ultimate purpose of creation is to display God's majesty, which is found both in God's merciful love and in His justice. But this theology assumes that God cannot fully display both together (an assumption that I think wreaks havoc on some of the most important and profound understandings of the Atonement, by the way, but I won't get into that here). To fully display both and thus achieve the full purpose of creation, the creation must be such that there are appropriate beings on which to manifest the glory of His justice--"vessels of wrath"--and others on which to manifest His merciful love--"vessels of mercy."

It follows from this that the supralapsarian God couldn't fully achieve the purpose of creation without the existence of vessels of wrath to serve as proper objects of the divine displeasure. And so, the existence of sin and sinners is taken to be required in order for God to put His majesty on full display. In other words, the supralapsarian Calvinist believes that God wants there to be sinners--and actually designed His creation so that there would be--because in their absence He'd only be able to display half of what is so majestically wonderful about Him.

If this is right, then what I say about sin and divine retribution in this series of posts is incomplete. It's not simply the case that divine justice neutralizes the negative value of sin (althought that's part of it). And it's not simply the case that sin justly repudiated by God is "as good" as no sin at all. Rather, on this theology a world without sin would be worse than a world with sin--at least so long as in the latter, all the sinners end up writhing in eternal anguish for the sinfulness that God guaranteed they'd possess in order to be able to justly punish them for all eternity and thus display His justice.

Or, put another way, this theology takes it that the act of neutralizing the negative value of sin with a punitive response produces a meta-level good (the display of divine justice) that wouldn't have otherwise existed. On this theology, the problem of explaining why there is so much wickedness in a world created by a morally perfect God is answered as follows: God wants wicked people to be there, because only then can His justice be fully put on display through His smiting of them.

And so, on this view, God really is like the government that would rather have the murder rate spiral out of control, so long as every murderer is justly punished, than have a society without murder. On this theology, God positively wills sin as a means of displaying His justice, and as such does not want a world without sin. On this theology, the existence of that which is fundamentally opposed to God is better than its nonexistence, so long as it's properly punished. On this theology, sin simply isn't as thoroughly bad as other theologies (including my Lutheran one) take it to be.

But here's the thing: this theology strikes me as so morally awful that the thought that there are people out there who really embrace it at a fundamental level (not just playing pious lip service to it out of communal allegiance) makes me spiritually nauseous. I think that if I could get myself to really believe that deep down anyone wholeheartedly embraced this idea, I'd be pushed in the direction of a species of supralapsarian Calvinism in which God created supralapsarian Calvinists so as to have vessels of wrath on which he could heap his just outrage against people who harbor such awful convictions.

I'm kidding of course. I'd remain a universalist even if I could be convinced that anyone wholeheartedly embraced supralapsarian Calvinism. Really. My point is that since my aversion to this theology is so potent, part of me doesn't believe that there are people who honestly think it's right; and so I find myself developing my arguments as if there were no such people--and this means that some of what I say may end up begging the question in relation to anyone who really does embrace this theology deep down.

Reviewing my previous posts in this series, it seems clear to me that I did not ever take very seriously the following idea: Murder punished is better than no murder at all because the former not only fully erases the negative value of murder but in the process of doing so manifests the meta-level good of justice-having-been-done. And hence, God deliberately acts to ensure that there are murderers (and other kinds of sinners).

I never took this idea seriously, and hence never show how my arguments bear on it. But this idea is one that some Calvinists explicitly endorse. As such, my arguments don't seriously and explicitly engage with an idea that at least some Calvinists explicitly endorse.

Mia culpa. 

That said, I don't think my core argument is undermined by this oversight. Even if the existence of justly repudiated sin is taken to be better than no sin at all because it makes possible the meta-level good of manifesting God's justice, we still have to confront the intuitively implausible idea that an act which guarantees the propagation of sin succeeds in neutralizing sin's negative value. You can't get the meta-level good if the evil of sin isn't neutralized by the punitive response. And I just can't see how this punitive response is supposed to achieve such a result.

It seems pretty clear that (given Calvinist assumptions about grace being a necessary condition for overcoming sinfulness) being cast eternally from God's presence does guarantee that one persist eternally in a state of sin. The punishment for sin thus perpetuates sin, and this magnification of sinfulness in the universe is supposed to produce the meta-level good of manifesting God's just wrath against sin.


One answer I anticipate runs something along the following lines: "It's a mystery we can't understand, but we know it's true because of divine revelation in Scripture." But even if you grant a high view of Scripture according to which Paul's use of the "vessels of mercy/vessels of wrath" language (Romans 9:22) was God-inspired, it's an enormous challenge to holistically interpret such passages in light of other ones--such as, for example, all of Romans 11, which is following up on the same issue that motivates Paul to ask his hypothetical "vessels of wrath" question (Paul asks "What if" God operates in the way that the supralapsarian Calvinist insists God in fact operates).

In Romans 11, the "hardening" of Israel against God, and the concomitant divine repudiation, is described as a stage in a process aimed at saving both "the full number of the Gentiles" and "all Israel" (vs. 25-26). This chapter ends with the striking claim that "For God has bound over all men to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (vs. 32). This starts to sound as if, on Paul's view of things, each of us is both a vessel of wrath and a vessel of mercy, albeit at different stages in our moral and spiritual evolution--and it sounds as if serving as a vessel of wrath is always in the service of the ultimate goal of mercy being shown to all.

But, of course, at other points it doesn't sound as if he's saying this at all. Limiting ourselves to Paul's epistle to the Romans, sometimes Paul sounds like an outright and blatant universalist (e.g. Romans 5:18-19 and elsewhere); at other times he sounds as if this is merely a fervent hope and prayer (Romans 10:1). And at one point he asks a hypothetical question that, if treated as if it were a veiled assertion rather than a question, would support supralapsarian Calvinism.

The attempt to read the whole, to understand the parts in light of the whole, and to extract from such a complicated text a coherent theology that does justice to the whole given the apparent tensions and conflicts--that task isn't easy. And it seems to me that part of what Christians who pursue such a task need is to recognizing when a particular interpretive effort has, for example, implications that clash with the voice of conscience, or produces internal problems that raise concerns about consistency.

In other words, even given a very high view of Scripture there is an important place for philosophy in the assessment and development of doctrinal views--an important place for the pursuit of such philosophical tasks as tracing out the counterintuitive implications of a view, or calling into question its internal coherence, or determining what other plausible beliefs have to be rejected if one is to hold to a certain view.

But all such efforts are, of course, fallible and shaped by human prejudices. Which is why it is so important to engage in such efforts in thoughtful conversation with others who might not share our particular prejudices (although they'll have their own), who might know things we don't (and vice versa), and who might notice where our reasoning goes astray even as we notice where theirs does.

Philosophy done best is philosophy done in community. One reason I appreciate my co-author, John--and other philosophical interlocutors in my life, and the various thoughtful contributors to this blog--is because they help to provide me with this community of discourse.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Damned Sinners, Part III: Why Think the Damned Would Sin Forever?

This is the third part in a series of posts. If you haven’t read the first two, they can be found here and here.

In these posts I am considering two responses to what I am calling “The Problem of Damned Sinners.” The problem is one faced by traditional vindicatory views of hell, which see damnation as a just punishment for sin. In brief, the problem is that damnation involves alienation from God, and alienation from God deprives persons of a necessary condition for overcoming sin (arguably the necessary condition), namely divine grace. So damnation punishes sin by making sure that sinners can never escape their sinfulness. How in the world is that supposed to erase the negative value of sin and make things right?

In my last post I looked at a response offered by a conservative Calvinist, Steve Hays, and I argued that the response fails to appreciate the force of the problem, and as such faces two difficulties: First, even if its chief premise is acceptable, it fails to undercut The Problem of Damned Sinners; second, its chief premise is not acceptable.

In this post I want to consider a question about the Problem of Damned Sinners posed by Randal Rauser in a comment on his blog. Now Randal seems to understand the problem, and I think he senses the force of it. But he raises an important question: Why suppose that damnation has to involve endless sinning? We might reframe this question as an argument against the Problem of Damned Sinners, as follows:

1. If we adopt a conception of damnation according to which the damned do not endlessly persist in sin, then we escape the Problem of Damned Sinners.

2. There is nothing that prevents us from adopting such a conception of damnation

3. Therefore, we can escape the Problem of Damned Sinners

Now Randal, an astute thinker, already anticipates some responses to such an argument: First, it appears that passages of Scripture naturally lend themselves to interpreting the state of damnation as essentially involving rebellion against God—such that if you view this state as eternal, you will be called upon by Scripture to view the rebellion as eternal, too. (And, of course, to rebel against God is to sin.)

Second, even if we escape the Problem of Damned Sinners by adopting a view of damnation in which the damned don’t sin forever, this solution may generate new problems relating to the justice of inflicting eternal damnation on creatures who at some point stop offending against God. You might end up with a kind of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” response.

I will pursue neither of these responses here. I do, however, think it is important to stress that there has been, over the centuries, a range of conceptions of hell (John and I, both in GFV and in our contribution to The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology, provide a kind of philosophical taxonomy of possible species of the doctrine of hell). And it is important to stress that problems that arise for some conceptions of hell may not arise for others.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Problem of Damned Sinners does not arise in relation to more liberal conceptions of hell, such as C.S. Lewis’s, according to which the gates of hell “are locked from the inside” by the autonomous choices of the damned. The interesting question, then, is how extensive the problem is. It would not be very extensive if the notion of ongoing sinfulness were logically and conceptually separable from other things that defenders of eternal damnation have been committed to.

Since my formulation of the problem specifically targeted the coherence of a Calvinist conception of damnation, I will concern myself primarily with that perspective. Unless my grasp of Calvinist theology is deficient, traditional Calvinists believed all three of the following:

(a) The damned are permanently alienated from God as a just punishment for sin
(b) The damned endure eternal conscious torment, again as a just punishment for sin
(c) The damned continue eternally in a state of sinful rebellion against God

If this is right, then I could, in principle, rest my case and simply note that here is a traditional view of damnation that faces the full force of the Problem of Damned Sinners simply by virtue of its affirmation of (c). But the philosophically interesting question is whether one could give up (c) while continuing to endorse (a) and (b). If one could, then defenders of a fairly traditional Calvinist view of damnation could escape the Problem of Damned sinners readily enough, without having to give up too much.

What I want to do here, then, is argue that this can't be done--that, at least within a broadly Calvinistic theology, embracing (a) and (b) requires also embracing (c). If you want to hold to a punitive view of damnation in which God casts sinners away from His presence and subjects them to eternal conscious torment, then eternal sinfulness will also have to be part of your view. And so, the Problem of Damned Sinners will be one you'll need to confront.

I am thus not going to argue here that the Problem of Damned Sinners is a problem for views of hell that give up on (b). For example, one might hold that the damned are eventually so overcome by the horror of their state that they retreat into perpetual unconsciousness to escape their suffering (something God permits). While we could imagine such a view of hell, I will concede for the sake of argument that it avoids the Problem of Damned Sinners as I have been posing that problem here.

But making this concession requires that I pause to draw a distinction between what I am doing here and what John and I do in our book. As I noted in the previous post, the version of the Problem of Damned Sinners that John and I develop in GFV is a bit different from the version I’ve been considering in these posts. In GFV, we argue that a perfectly good God would not will sin, but that by imposing eternal alienation as a punishment for sin, God would be willing sin by withholding from the damned what is necessary to avoid sinning.

This problem would not disappear, even if we conceded that the damned eventually fell into a state of permanent unconsciousness. My argument here, then, is that there is a further problem confronted by those who want to say, not only that being cast away from God is a just punishment for sin, but that those who are justly cast away experience eternal conscious torment. By including the traditional idea of eternal conscious torment in their view of hell, they thereby commit themselves to the idea that the damned keep sinning forever—that the very offense which warrants the punitive response is endlessly propagated by the punitive response. And it is hard to see how the negative value of an offense can be erased by a response that propagates the offense.

One thing to note up front is that much of the Christian theological tradition (not just Calvinism) has been committed to (c), that is, to the idea that the damned are eternally mired in a state of extreme sin. John and I, in our book, look at why the tradition has done so. In briefest terms, if damnation involves being preserved in a state of permanent alienation from God, then damnation involves being preserved in existence while being forever cut off from the only thing that can (given Christian theological assumptions) result in a non-sinful reorientation of our values. At the very least then, we should conclude that the damned will never succeed in overcoming their fundamentally disordered values and the sinful dispositions which accompany them.

Some might challenge the strength of the case for this conclusion, and I invite those who do so to look at what John and I say in GFV. But that invitation aside, it would be hard for a Calvinist to challenge our view on this point, given their theological commitments. Calvinists hold that we are lost to sin without divine grace, and they hold that damnation means being cut off permanently from divine grace. My original argument was directed to a Calvinist theology, and it’s pretty clear that on such a theology the damned could never overcome a sinfully disordered value system.

Even so, a Calvinist might claim that, while the damned never cease to have sinful dispositions, they do stop sinning actively. When Randal says, “But the doctrine of hell doesn’t require that we view the final state of the lost as consisting of ongoing active rebellion,” we might view him as gesturing to a rebuttal along these lines: The damned, while surely doomed to a state of eternal sinfulness given Calvinist theology, needn’t be construed as actively sinning against God for all eternity. Could the problem posed for Calvinist theology be escaped if we see the damned as (eventually) pushed into a passive state in which they are unable to act on any of their intolerable dispositions?

Let me approach the question this way: It seems to me that essentially every theological tradition that embraces some variant of the doctrine of hell holds that the damned hate God. And hatred of God is, of course, a grievous sin in any remotely orthodox theological tradition. But when it comes to something like hatred, we might reasonably ask whether we can meaningfully distinguish between actively hating God and simply possessing a hateful disposition. At least some might wonder whether, when it comes to an "attitudinal sin" of this sort, such a distinction can be drawn. If you “harbor” hatred for God but don’t have the opportunity to “do” anything about it—not even shake your fist at God, or curse God in your thoughts, or gnash your teeth—is your hatred any less actual?

In other words, there's a difference between merely having the potential to hate God if certain conditions obtain, and actually hating God. And surely the damned actually hate God. And so, it might be argued, they are actively hating even when they can't act on their hating.

Again, we’re assuming a view of hell in which the damned endure eternal conscious torment. In other words, they’re conscious. And they hate God. And they are in torment because of the rejection of this God they hate. Even if they’re not doing anything about their hatred—even if they’re not making active choices in which hatred is the motive—wouldn’t the hating itself nevertheless be active under those conditions?

But let’s set that worry aside, and imagine that this distinction can be made. What would prevent the damned from actively hating God, given their disposition to do so? The only answer I can think of appeals to eternal conscious torment itself: The damned, we might imagine, are so caught up with their subjective suffering that all their attention is focused on it, leaving them no time to “act on” any of their sinful dispositions, even their dispositional hatred of God. There’s still a sense in which they hate God here, but they aren’t “actively” hating him because they’re too fixated on their suffering.

This picture strikes me as problematic on a number of fronts. First, it seem that the perpetuation of dispositional hatred of God, even if the person is prevented from activating it, is an orientation of the self so opposed to God that it would constitute an ongoing affront to God’s majesty whether it could be actively expressed or not. Why think that futile gnashing of one’s teeth against God is an affront, but it isn’t a comparable affront to harbor a hatred that would result in such futile gestures were one not screaming in agony?

But I won’t develop that argument here. Instead, consider the following. If we are supposing that the damned are in a conscious state of suffering, one in which they are so fixed on their suffering that they cannot attend to God enough even to actively hate him, it follows that their attention is fixed wholly on themselves and their own misery. Let’s call this the self-fixation of the damned.

I would argue that, on an essentially conservative theology of sin, attention lies at the heart of sin. Those who hate God do so because they are not attending to God as such (were they to see God as He is in Himself, there would be no room for anything but love). They are instead focused on themselves and “seeing” God only through the filter of that self-absorption. They have made their (confused) self-seeking desires the object of their fixed attention, and when they think of God at all, it is in terms of the imagined effects of God on the satisfaction of these desires.

Because, of course, they see enough to recognize that God challenges the single-minded pursuit of their subjective desires. What they don’t see is that, were they to attend fully to God, those subjective desires would be displaced by desires that would truly satisfy them (in a way that the attainment of their existing desires simply can’t). They don’t see that God’s opposition to their subjective desires is an opposition to what harms them. Because they are so fixed on their own self-seeking impulses rather than on God, they are fundamentally confused about both their own good and about God. This is the heart of sin—it’s root, if you will: Sin as an act of misdirected attention, attention that focuses more on the self than on the Ultimate Good.

And the self-fixation of the damned, whereby their attention is so focused on their own suffering that they can pay attention to nothing else, seems to be nothing but an intensification of the misdirected attention that is the root of sin. And attending is something we do. To attend is active. And so the damned would, it seems, be actively sinning.

Of course, we are assuming that their suffering is so overwhelming that it’s impossible for the damned to focus on anything else. God has brought this about, imposed upon them suffering that (given their psychologies) totally consumes them. But if that’s right, mightn’t someone argue that, since they haven’t chosen to attend as they do, their attention isn’t active?

Let me make two points here. There is a difference between potentially attending to something and actively attending. Surely the damned here are actively attending to their suffering. In that sense, it is clear that their attention is active whether they chose it or not. Second, the idea that their attention can’t be something they do because they couldn’t have done otherwise rests implicitly on the assumption that an action isn’t an action unless it is free in the libertarian sense.

And this is something that conservative Calvinists have to deny. Following the biblical claim that sinners “are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves,” Calvinists (and not just Calvinists) insist that, in the absence of divine grace, our sinfulness is entirely determined. Hence, Calvinists have to believe that our sinful actions remain actions even though they are determined. More broadly, I would suggest even those who believe in some kind of libertarian freedom aren’t committed to the view that only libertarian free acts are acts. Even if there are cases in which, in doing something, one could have done otherwise, it doesn’t follow that when one couldn’t have done otherwise one is no longer doing anything.

In any event, Calvinists have to believe in actions that, even though determined, are still actions. And so no Calvinist could coherently insist that, because it wasn’t freely chosen in a libertarian sense, the self-fixation of the damned isn’t actively sinful.

In sum, then, the point is this: Human consciousness attends to things. As such, so long as the damned are conscious, they are active at the level of what they attend to.

Hence, if damnation is characterized by eternal conscious torment, the damned (being conscious) would of necessity be committing sins of attention—unless, of course, they attended wholly and purely to God, in which case their attention wouldn’t be sinful. But in that case, they wouldn’t be damned, either.

It seems to follow that the only way to avoid the conclusion, within a broadly Calvinist theology, that the damned actively sin for all eternity, would be to deny that they are eternally conscious, and so to deny that they suffer eternal conscious torment.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Damned Sinners, Part II: Can the Negative Value of Sin be Erased by Eternal Damnation?

This post picks up where the previous post left off. You may want to look at Damned Sinners, Part I, before turning to this follow-up.

In this post, I want to consider Steve Hays’ response to what I’m calling The Problem of Damned Sinners. The problem, in brief, is this: Some theologies (e.g. traditional  Calvinist ones) hold that God damns some sinners as a just punishment for sin, thereby repudiating sin clearly and forcefully. But by damning some persons as a punishment for sin, God is responding to the “affront” of sin by guaranteeing that this affront continue for eternity. But how is that supposed to repudiate sin? How can you repudiate something by guaranteeing that it never stop?

In a nutshell, Steve responds to this problem by denying that, on Calvinist theology, there is any meaningful sense in which sin as such is “intolerable” to God. What is intolerable is sin unrepudiated, sin for which just punishment has not been meted out. In other words, he takes it that the main challenge I’m raising in the Problem of Damned Sinners is this: By tolerating the never-ending sinfulness of the damned, the Calvinist God “tolerates the intolerable.” He then responds by saying that never-ending sinfulness as such isn’t intolerable, so long as it is fittingly punished.

But here, Steve is both misconstruing the main force of the Problem of Damned Sinners and, in responding to the misconstrued argument, relying on a premise I find highly implausible.

Before making these points, I should stress something that my co-author, John Kronen, wants emphasized. The argument I presented first on Randal’s blog and then in the previous post—which I’ve dubbed “The Problem of Damned Sinners”—is adapted from an argument in God’s Final Victory and brought to bear on certain Calvinist claims. But it is not identical to that argument. In our book, the argument John and I develop is not premised on God’s finding sin intolerable, but on the premise that God would never will sin. We argue that by permanently casting the damned away from the only thing that can save them from their own sinfulness, God does end up willing sin. In the book, we consider and respond to a host of objections to this argument--both to the claim that God would never will sin and to the claim that God would be doing exactly that were He to impose eternal alienation as a punishment.

In other words, as formulated in our book, the argument doesn’t even rely on the premise that Steve attacks. As such, Steve's rebuttal is irrelevant to the argument formulated in our book. That said, it may at least seem as if it is relevant to my formulation of the argument. In either formulation, however, the main focus of the argument is on whether imposing eternal damnation as a response to sin makes sense—whether this is a coherent “response” to sin, given what sin is to God (namely, something fundamentally opposed to God’s nature).

Even formulated in the terms I've used here and on Randal’s post, the argument isn’t reducible to the claim that, on Calvinist and similar theologies, God tolerates the intolerable. Rather, the focus is on the coherence of damnation as a response to sin. In terms of the tolerable and the intolerable, we might say that what the argument challenges is the idea that eternal damnation can make sin tolerable. In short, it doesn't quite capture my argument to say that sin is intolerable even if repudiated with just punishment. Rather, the argument is that you can’t properly repudiate sin with a response that guarantees its continuation.

Think of it this way. Even if Steve holds that punished sin is tolerable in a way that unpunished sin is not, to make sense of this position he has to hold that sin as such has a negative value that needs to be “erased” (if you will) through appropriate punishment. Thus, sin as such is bad, and what just punishment does is somehow “balance the scales” that have been set off kilter by sin. Steve himself uses this language of scale-balancing, which makes sense only on the assumption that sin in its own right throws things off balance.

In short, Steve and other Calvinists would be disingenuous if they claimed that, on Calvinist theology, sin weren’t deeply offensive in itself. Its profound negative value is what generates the demand for justice, the need to make things right.

Put another way, in order to hold that eternal damnation makes things right, you first have to hold that sin “makes things wrong.”

In short, Steve has to hold that sin has significant negative value. In fact, if sin is going to warrant endless punishment, that negative value would have to be very grave indeed. In fact, traditional Calvinists follow Anselm in explicitly embracing the view that sin is *infinitely* grave insofar as it affronts God’s infinite majesty. Sin—moral wickedness—is that in the created order which is most contrary to God, the gravest “turning away” of the creation from its creator.

One concise way to put all of this is as follows: sin is intolerable.

Now part of what Steve wants to say is that this way of putting things is misleading, since what might be intolerable all by itself needn’t be intolerable when combined with something else. Sin may be intolerable without a scale-balancing retributive response; but with such a response, justice has been done and the situation as a whole isn’t intolerable.

Even if Steve is right about this, I don’t think it solves the fundamental issue at stake in the Problem of Damned Sinners. But before making that point, I want to explain why I think Steve isn't right about this. Take the case of murder. We find murder to be such an “intolerable” crime that, as a society, we respond to it with the strongest punishments we consider intrinsically permissible (life imprisonment or capital punishment). Is it adequate to say that murder unpunished is intolerable, but murder justly punished is just fine since the scales of justice have been balanced?

Think of it this way: Suppose the murder rate in a country of 1 billion people is enormous: say one million murders every year. Does this become a tolerable situation if every murderer is caught and subjected to proportional punishment, but the murders continue unabated at the same rate? Is that state of affairs “just as good” as a society in which no murders happen? When confronted with a horrific offense, is it enough for the offense to be justly punished or does the horrific nature of the offense also entail that it should stop happening?

Intuitively, it seems we should go with the latter. Doesn’t it? Given that murders occur, we might agree that proportionately punished murder is better than murder going unpunished. But far better that no murders occur at all. And what would we think about a government that thinks the wrongness of murder is communicated most clearly in just punishment—and so, in order to demonstrate how bad murder is, enacts policies that magnify the murder rate so as to have more murders to justly punish? Do you really repudiate murder if you make sure more murders happen so as to have more murders to repudiate? Or is repudiation what you do in response to something that you think shouldn’t happen at all?

Put simply, if some behavior is so bad as to call for serious punishment, that’s a reason to want the behavior to be reduced or eliminated. As such, it seems you've got a distorted theory of retributive justice if you think there’s nothing wrong with the murder rate spiraling out of control so long as every murder is justly punished. In fact, I'd be so bold as to insist that any retributive theory that calls for the punitive repudiation of an act would also have to regard the act's non-occurrence as preferable to its occurrence. And if so, there’s something amiss in Steve’s claim that, for God, there’s nothing intolerable with sin as such, but only with unrepudiated sin.

But despite the deep intuitive difficulties with Steve's claim, let’s grant it for the sake of argument. Let’s suppose that appropriate punishment can somehow fully erase the negative value of sin, such that the sin taken together with the appropriate punishment does not have a negative value. Even if sin taken in isolation is intolerable, justly punished sin isn’t an intolerable situation at all. This is the point on which Steve Hays rests his rebuttal.

But how is appropriate punishment supposed to achieve this “erasing” of sin’s infinite badness? John and I actually develop a theory of this in our book—a theory of “vindicatory justice” that follows the lead of the Lutheran Scholastics. But explaining that theory here would take us too far afield. For now, it’s enough to note that what is needed in order to erase something of enormous negative value is something of comparable positive value. But even that’s not enough. If I owe a hundred thousand dollars in credit card bills, and my neighbor Joe has a hundred thousand dollars in his bank account, the existence of his money doesn’t erase my debt. In order for my debt to be erased, Joe's money actually needs to be applied to my account. To get to zero, the positive sum has to be “added” to the comparable negative sum. Only then can the negative value be “erased.” Only then is the intolerable situation turned into a tolerable one.

(In fact, as John and I argue, it is Christ’s Atonement that is thought to do this vindicating work in theological traditions following Anselm—and one section of the book is devoted to making the case that if you take that view seriously, you can no longer argue that the demands of justice require eternal damnation…but that's a different argument which I won’t pursue here.)

The point I was making in my comment on Randal’s blog was simply this: It doesn’t make much sense to suppose that you can erase the negative value sin by acting so as to guarantee that it never stops happening. How do you erase the enormous negative value of sin by propagating it? It seems that you would then be magnifying the negative values that need to be erased, as opposed to erasing them.

In short, suppose we grant Steve Hays’ claim that the continued existence of sin is a tolerable situation to God so long as sin’s negative value is erased by God’s justly punishing it through eternal damnation. Even if we grant this, we still have to ask whether eternal damnation really could erase the (infinite) negative value of sin.

Steve Hays supposes that eternal damnation can do this. In our book, we consider more than one reason to be highly skeptical of such a supposition. The focus in these posts is on one of them.

Here’s the thing about eternal damnation: Its central feature is eternal exclusion from the beatific vision. Whatever other positive evils might be thought to accompany damnation, the heart of hell is that the damned are decisively cast out of God’s presence and cut off from God’s grace. But Calvinists (along with other Christians) hold that the only cure for sin is divine grace. Without grace, ongoing sinfulness is inevitable. On this theology, eternally withholding divine grace amounts to eternally withholding the necessary condition for not sinning…and as such guaranteeing that sin continue unabated. The essential feature of the state of damnation—exclusion from the grace of God—can thus be characterized as the act of making sure that a person’s sinful state never be overcome.

And so the conservative Calvinist view can be summed up as follows: Some sinners have the negative value of their sin neutralized by being deprived of what is necessary to stop sinning. God punishes sinners by doing the one thing that guarantees their sin never ends. And somehow, THIS is supposed to neutralize the negative value of sin, making an otherwise intolerable situation tolerable?

Let’s put this in terms of a metaphor (however imperfect all such metaphors inevitably are): For the Calvinist, if sin is the disease, then divine grace is the only cure. Without grace, the “disease” of sin will continue unabated. And this disease is taken to be so bad that it must be repudiated—by forever withholding the cure and making sure that the disease continue unabated.


Or to invoke an earlier metaphor, it sounds as if one is saying something like the following: If unpunished murder is intolerable, then of course we must erase its negative value with just punishment. So let’s punish murderers in such a way so as to guarantee that they continue to commit murder after murder eternally. Then the negative value of murder will be erased! Adding countless murders to the first one will eliminate the badness of the first one, bringing about a condition which is no longer bad!


Or to invoke yet another metaphor: Suppose someone owes a debt. How do you get rid of it? Suppose someone answered, “Make sure the debtor keeps wracking up more debt forever! THAT is sure to make the debt go away!”


Even if we don’t object to Steve’s claim that the negative value of sin, properly neutralized by divine punishment, ceases to be intolerable, the central concern at issue in the Problem of Damned Sinners remains. In some way, depriving sinners of the necessary condition for ceasing sin is supposed to do this work of neutralizing the negative value of their sins (even as it guarantees that the negative values requiring neutralization grow without bound).

Now maybe there is some way for the Calvinist to make sense of this. But it is a problem—a pretty big one. And I think the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the Calvinist to resolve it. Otherwise, those of different theological persuasions have a right to be deeply skeptical. Simply asserting that, mysteriously, God depriving sinners of what they need in order to avoid sin somehow neutralizes sin’s negative value—well, that doesn’t cut it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Damned Sinners, Part I: An Argument Adapted from GOD'S FINAL VICTORY, and Two Responses

A month ago I commented on a post on Randal Rauser’s blog entitled “Does God hate those he does not save?” The post was a brief, critical engagement with traditional Calvinist theology. Here is what I wrote in my comment:

Here is, for me, the big problem: God’s preordaining some sinners for reprobation is supposed to reflect God’s justice, which tempers His mercy and love (or the other way around?). The idea is that sin is such an intolerable affront to God’s holiness and majesty that divine justice demands that it be repudiated. And so God casts some sinners away forever as a display of His just wrath against sin, even as he elects others for salvation to display His mercy and benevolence.

The problem is this: In casting sinners away from His presence, He casts them away from the only thing that (according to the very theology underlying this theory) can overcome sin. Thus, God guarantees that this intolerable affront to His majesty continues eternally in the souls of the damned. In short, the view essentially amounts to this: sin is so terrible that God decisively acts to guarantee that this intolerable thing continue in all its intolerability forever and ever. “What you’re doing is so inconceivably unacceptable that I am going to make absolutely sure that there is no way for you to ever stop doing it!”

And making sure that this intolerable affront to His holiness never stops is supposed to be God’s justifying reason for not electing all, and so for truncating the scope of his benevolence? Is that a coherent understanding of divine justice?

I think a variant of this problem obtains not only for Calvinists, but for any adherents to that understanding of hell according to which the God-justifying purpose for damnation is to justly punish sin. It is not a problem for those understandings of hell that are more like C.S. Lewis’s, in which damnation is a regrettable outcome of divine respect for the free choices of rational creatures.

But if I go on, I’ll end up summarizing John’s and my entire book in a blog comment, and then no one will buy it even when it comes out in the affordable paperback version…
In brief, the problem I was posing was this: According to traditional Calvinist theology, damnation is supposed to be a just punishment for sin that somehow repudiates and so sets right the affront of sin. But whatever else damnation involves, it is essentially characterized by being cut of from God and His grace. Calvinist theology teaches that divine grace is utterly necessary to overcome our disposition to sin. And so, by damning some sinners, God guarantees that they keep being sinners for all eternity.

So: Sin is so terrible that it demands an extreme response to repudiate it. And the extreme response that supposedly repudiates sin is nothing other than an act ensuring that sin persist unabated for eternity. But can you really erase the stain of sin by an act that guarantees that sin never end? Isn’t that kind of like trying to remove an ink stain on your coat by putting your coat under a hose that eternally pours ink all over it?

Let me call this, for ease of reference, “The Problem of Damned Sinners.” It’s adapted from an argument that appears in the first part of Chapter 6 of John's and my recent book, God’s Final Victory. This particular line of argument originated with my co-author, John Kronen, as he was studying with care the writings of the Protestant Scholastics. Of course, as with all parts of the book, the final formulation and development of the argument was a collaborative effort…and as my adaptation of the argument to specifically target a conservative Calvinist position indicates, I’m a fan of it. I not only think the argument makes a significant point, but I think the problem it raises for traditional Calvinist theology (and similar theologies) may be one of the most serious that defendes of such theology need to overcome.

Shortly after posting my comment on Randal’s blog, Randal suggested a line of challenge in a follow-up question, and a reader of Randal’s blog, Steve Hays, posted a response at Triablogue under the heading “Sloppy philosophers.”

At the time, I ignored both responses. Let me stress that this isn’t because further comment might compromise the marketability of God’s Final Victory. The closing sentence of my comment might have left that impression—and, in fact, both Randal and Steve, in their responses, seemed to take that remark seriously. Randal says, “Feel free not to respond to my comment if it will compromise further the marketability of your book,” while Steve derisively says, “I’d like to thank Reitan for sparing us the need to read his book. Given the quality of his summarized argument, it would be poor stewardship of time and money to invest in the book.”

In fact, the closing remark was a bit of a self-deprecating joke. I seem to find myself incapable of being especially concise in blog posts…or even in blog comments (the current post is no exception—in fact, it’s getting so long that I’m breaking it up into a series of three posts!). My natural inclination, it seems, is to write articles and books.

Part of the reason for this inclination is that, even given my propensity for long-windedness in blog-writing, blog-appropriate summaries of arguments cannot be as clear and precise as what can be laid out in a book, cannot be as complete in anticipating and responding to objections, and cannot be coordinated with all the other relevant arguments that should be addressed in a comprehensive book-length treatment of a subject as substantial, say, as the doctrine of hell. The advantage of blogging is that, however inadequately, it can get the ideas and arguments out to more readers.

In any event, the argument in question is featured in one part of one chapter of God's Final Victory. There’s really no way I could do justice to all the work John and I put into that book in a blog comment, and I really doubt that what I say in the blogosphere will negatively impact sales. (The price of the book does that well enough all on its own.) In short, I have absolutely no objections to addressing questions and criticisms relating to my books in blog-format—although, again, anything I say here will be more comprehensively treated in the book.

So, why did I ignored Randal’s thoughtful response and Steve’s…response? Well, the day after they were posted, my mother came to visit for the holidays…and promptly fell, breaking both arms (three fractures total, two of them pretty serious).

And so, with real life intruding on my blogging life, I had more important things to attend to. It happens more often than you'd think!

But now, at last, I find my attention turned back towards this topic. And so, without further ado, here are the concerns raised about The Problem of Damned Sinners. The first, thoughtfully and respectfully posed by Randal, runs as follows:

Your comment assumes that those who go to hell continue to sin there. Of course that is one common view which is suggested by the reference to “gnashing of teeth” (e.g. in Acts 7 the Pharisees gnash their teeth in rage at Stephen). But the doctrine of hell doesn’t require that we view the final state of the lost as consisting of ongoing active rebellion.

While there is some advantage in claiming that the reprobated get to a point where they no longer sin (perhaps they are inert, maximally remorseful but not repentant creatures), this view raises more sharply the morality of hell as eternal conscious torment.
The heart of Steve’s response (with intrusive numbering, ad hominem attacks, and self-congratulatory chest-thumping deleted so as to focus in on what may actually have philosophical merit) runs as follows:

As for Reitan’s argument (such as it is), he tries to contrive an artificial dilemma by casting the issue in terms of tolerance. As he frames it, the Calvinist God tolerates the intolerable. Hence, Reformed theism is self-contradictory.

But he’s burning a straw man. In Calvinism, “sin” is not “intolerable” to God. “Sinners” are not intolerable to God.

What’s “intolerable” (if you wish to put it that way, which may not be the best way to put it) isn’t sin, but injustice. Isn’t sin, but allowing sin to go unpunished. What’s “unacceptable” isn’t the existence of sinners, but justice denied. Sooner or later, the scales of justice must be righted.

It not a question of “overcoming” sin, but exposing sin for what it is, then meting out a suitable punishment. That, in turn, reveals the moral character of evil–for the punishment fits the crime.
I want to consider Steve’s criticism first, since what I have to say may set some groundwork for more efficiently addressing Randal’s (to my mind more interesting and challenging) question. But because this post is already as long as it is, a consideration of Steve’s response will have to wait. So, look forward to “Damned Sinners, Part II,” coming soon to a blog near you (probably Monday, since I rarely blog on weekends).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Orwellian Obfuscation and the Christian Struggle over Homosexuality

As part of my research for my new book project, I’ve recently been looking into the “Biblical Witness Fellowship” (BWF) within the United Church of Christ (UCC)—a denomination I and my family belonged to for four years when we left the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) to protest its failure to allow for the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy. We chose the UCC then because of its inclusive stance towards gays and lesbians.

But that inclusiveness has not gone uncontested within the UCC—and the clearest, most organized voice of protest appears to be the BWF. The Biblical Witness Fellowship describes itself as a “confessing movement within the United Church of Christ” committed to opposing what its members see as “decades of continued denominational decline that has resulted from the UCC’s theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture.”

This last bit grates on me, because I've heard it so many times. It seems to be something of a defining narrative that conservative Christians carry with them into disputes with their more progressive brethren: the commitments of progressive Christians spring from “theological surrender” to modern culture.

But is this narrative right? Probably sometimes. But always?

For members of the BWF, one of the clearest signs of this supposed “theological surrender” came in the form of the UCC’s 2005 resolution in support of same-sex marriage, which the BWF blog describes as an “idolatrous decision…to attempt to tell God that marriage was whatever we, in our human delusions, wanted it to be,” a decision that “placed the UCC beyond the boundaries of reality.”

In opposition to this “idolatrous” betrayal, the BWF offers the following position statement on human sexuality:

Human sexuality is a gift from God, a reflection of His creative plan. God ordained sexual intimacy to be expressed within the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside of that covenant dehumanizes, destroys and leads to fragmentation, social chaos, violence, and death. We believe our contemporary culture to be a vivid parable of this truth.
What are we to make of this statement? First of all, given my own experience in the UCC, I can attest that the less conservative majority would agree with much that is said in the statement. Specifically, they’d be inclined to agree, right along with the BWF, that sexuality expressed outside the confines of marital commitment is fraught with dangers, risking personal and social harms that the covenant of marriage helps to ward against.

In fact, this is a main reason they support same-sex marriage. Excluding gays and lesbians from access to the marital covenant deprives them of the option to express their sexuality within the stable, intimacy-building context of marriage. Without the social supports of marriage, it’s far easier for sexuality to fall into promiscuity and the various harms this entails—including, arguably, social and psychological fragmentation (as intimacy and sexual pleasure become severed), increases in relational instability and emotional volatility (jealousy and heartbreak and the forms of inner and outer violence these things engender), not to mention the potentially lethal effects of sexually transmitted disease.

But implicit in the BWF statement is the conviction that were the covenant of marriage to become generally available to same-sex couples, sex within the covenant of such marriages would then somehow contribute to the same dire results. Here is where progressives in the UCC differ sharply with the BWF. Both agree that the covenant of marriage plays a crucial role in securing a healthy and life-affirming sexuality—sexuality as God intended it. But while progressives argue that for this very reason the covenant should be available to gays and lesbians, members of the BWF think that extending the marital covenant to same-sex couples would sanctify a kind of relationship that (somehow) brings fragmentation and death even when it otherwise embodies all the virtues of an ideal marriage.

The BWF statement obscures this point by treating “heterosexual marriage” as a single monolithic norm—that is, by attempting to frame our thinking such that we are discouraged from thinking about the heterosexuality of a relationship apart from its conformity to what might be called the "marital ideal," by which I mean the relational ideal that is held up in the institution of marriage and that married couples strive to approximate: lifelong loving commitment, life partnership, sexual fidelity in a monogamous bond in which sexuality nurtures and expresses a multifaceted love that is also nurtured and expressed through emotional openness and honest sharing of oneself with the partner.

Anyone who has known a loving same-sex couple knows that this marital ideal can be pursued by them as well as by any heterosexual couple. But by lumping the marital ideal and heterosexuality together, as if they couldn't be promoted apart from each other, we are discouraged from distinguishing between two very different questions. The questions I have in mind are these:

(a) Are there long-term and pervasive social costs for rejecting the marital ideal as the normative model for expressing sexual intimacy?

(b) Are there such costs for expanding the marital ideal to encompass non-heterosexual couples?

If we do distinguish these two questions, it becomes clear that the framers of the BWF statement want to answer “yes” to both—but this seems highly implausible. If broad cultural rejection of the marital ideal leads to “fragmentation, social chaos, violence, and death,” then it would seem that the more we expand the scope within which this ideal holds sway, the better off we are in terms of reducing these harms.

Think about it. If communities that aren’t bound by the marital ideal are more likely to exhibit promiscuity and fickleness in their sexual lives—and if this brings with it both tangible health costs in terms of the spread of STD’s and less tangible social and psychological costs—then shouldn’t we conclude that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples will mean greater promiscuity and fickleness—and concomitant costs—in the non-heterosexual subculture (a subculture that is in part created by the exclusion of sexual minorities from a social institution as foundational and pervasive as marriage)?

Let’s spell it out clearly. To extend the marriage covenant to same-sex couples would mean that these couples are afforded the same social supports for practicing fidelity in a monogamous life partnership that heterosexuals enjoy. Such supports can only reduce promiscuity and encourage relational stability—thereby both reducing the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS and reducing various forms of relational and psychological fragmentation.

Excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, by contrast, means excluding them from two things: first, the basic unit of social life in our culture; second, our primary model of responsible sexuality. By virtue of the former, gays and lesbians feel excluded from society and so gravitate to one another, forming a subculture of their own at society’s margins. Society as a whole becomes more…fragmented. By virtue of the latter, the sexual constraints characteristic of the broader society are less likely to be carried into the LGBT subculture. Their sexual relationships thus become less permanent, more…chaotic and fragmented. And with greater promiscuity comes dissociation of emotional and physical intimacy—an inner psychological fragmentation. Not to mention the spread of deadly diseases.

If sexuality without marriage really does have the negative costs that the BWF identifies, then this will be as true for gays and lesbians as it is for heterosexuals. Which means that restricting marriage to heterosexuals will promote greater “fragmentation, social chaos, violence, and death” within the LGBT community.

In short, a “yes” answer to question (a) above would seem to call for a “no” answer to question (b). The BWF’s capacity to say otherwise depends on obscuring the distinction between these two questions. By obscuring them, the “yes” answer to (a) can be implicitly attributed to (b) in a way that is simply not plausible when we are clear about the distinction.

The obfuscation here makes possible a kind of Orwellian double-speak. An institution is identified as a necessary guard against fragmentation and death; and so, in the name of avoiding fragmentation and death, some people are denied access to this very institution. True means false. Peace means war. Language has become a smokescreen for motivating people to embrace the opposite of reality.

But why throw up such a smokescreen at all? The reason, I think, is this: the BWF is committed to a strong view of biblical authority, one which requires them to treat as inerrant the negative judgment of homosexual relationships coming out of Paul’s epistles. And if such relationships really do embody everything that Paul apparently attributes to them--if they really are just an expression of "shameful lusts" inspiring "unnatural" acts that are "indecent" and "perverted" (Romans 1:26-27)--then how could we officially sanction them by enshrining and uplifting them with the same legal institution that we use to honor the marital relationship that we treat as having such positive worth? Taking Paul's comments here as literally authoritative seems to have some clear implications for how we should and shouldn't treat same-sex relationships.

But the progressive majority within the UCC is concerned that such biblical literalism can be and often is a source of unloving behavior. In effect, the view of the UCC's majority is something like this: If we really pay attention to the actual effects that following through on certain biblical teachings have, we see that those effects are harmful to our neighbors. Using love for our neighbors as the measuring stick for making judgments of “good” and “bad,” what can we say about the categorical condemnation of homosexuality that springs from an uncritical appropriation of isolated scriptural passages? All we can say is that they bear bad fruit.

And so, if we are to be faithful both to the core scriptural call to love our neighbors and to Jesus’ injunction to distinguish true prophecies from false ones by their fruits, we have to set aside certain teachings that seem to flow from an inerrantist approach to Scripture.

This is a deeply Christian—and, in a way, deeply biblical—critique of certain teachings that seem to flow from certain ways of approaching the Bible as a source of moral teachings. At the same time, it is a deeply Christian and biblical challenge to those ways of approaching the Bible. But conservatives have embraced a narrative according to which progressives are not motivated by deeply Christian concerns or by a fidelity to the actual content of Scripture. They are have, instead, “sold out” or "surrendered" to secular culture.

But the actual motives of Christian progressives (at least many of them) don’t fit with this narrative. Instead, progressives are (generally) motivated by a spirit of Christian love, and they look at the world and their neighbors through loving eyes…and find themselves noticing the “bad fruits” of some very traditional Christian teachings.

The harm that is done to gays and lesbians by the traditional condemnation of homosexuality is a case in point. The eyes of love see bad fruit growing from the tree of Paul’s un-nuanced treatment of same-sex relationships. The eyes of love give an empathetic appreciation of what it's like to be gay, an appreciation that is nowhere in evidence in Paul's comments in Romans. It's as if (surprise, surprise) Paul were writing his comments out of a deep well of ignorance, as if he had no notion of homosexuality as an orientation, no notion that some people might actually pursue monogamous same-sex relations out of such an orientation as opposed to being driven by an excess of lust to have sex with anything that moves, even someone of the same sex. And those of us who have paid compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors know the kind of debilitating effects that result from being told that their impulses to love, to build romantically intimate relationships, can never be anything but sinful (since they can never be towards people of the opposite sex). We know the potentially crushing psychological effects of being systematically excluded from participation in the bedrock social institution of marriage, of being set at the margins of society.

What is going on in the BWF position statement is, if you will, an attempt to turn the tables on this way of approaching the subject—to argue that if we look into the world with the eyes of Christian love, we will see the bad fruit that results from turning away from “heterosexual marriage.” The modern world becomes a “vivid parable” that attests to the costly consequences of rejecting traditional Christian teachings--including Christian teachings about restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

There is an attempt, if you will, to show that this approach of loving attention to our world—one with deep Christian roots—has implications which converge with those that result when we approach the Bible in the way conservatives are inclined to do: as inspired by God from cover to cover, as the ultimate authority for Christians, as authoritative in its “plain sense” at least when the meaning and authorial intentions are clear. In short, the BWF seeks here to reconcile two deeply Christian ways of reaching moral conclusions: the path of compassionate attention to how practices and policies actually affect individual and social life; and the path of appealing to the authority of clear biblical teachings.

If that argument can be sustained, then progressives who claim to be challenging the latter path on the basis of the former will be exposed as disingenuous. The conservative narrative—according to which progressive Christian ideas are ultimately the result (however unconscious) of selling out to secular culture—can be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, that argument is convincing only with the help of Orwellian obfuscations of the sort we find occurring (perhaps inadvertently) in the BWF's position statement.

Once such obfuscation is cleared away, I think we are left with the following picture: There is a real tension within traditional Christianity, one that has been brought to light by our current understanding of what it's like to be gay. Christian conservatives on the issue of homosexuality think that a certain traditional way of approaching the Bible, a certain way of approaching its authority for the purpose of reaching moral conclusions, is utterly central to an authentic Christian faith. Among other things, they believe that this sort of allegiance to the Bible and to the resultant teachings have to trump the lessons that emerge when we carefully attend, with compassion, to the actual effects of such teachings. Christian progressive, by contrast, think that the lessons of compassionate attention--a deeply traditional Christian approach to engaging with the world, one which is rooted in core biblical teachings--should trump the traditional approach to the Bible that conservatives cleave to. Progressives argue, furthermore, that a different kind of allegiance to the Bible favors giving compassionate attention such trump-card status.

This picture of things doesn’t support what, for conservatives, is surely a rather comforting narrative: “Progressives are sell-outs to modernity, while we conservatives are faithful to tradition.” Instead, we are left with a picture of things according to which the current Christian debate about homosexuality is a debate about what should be held as most central to Christianity—at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that some deeply traditional elements of the faith are in conflict.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Remarks About Christian Love

Neither politics nor human character are simple things. It's rare to find politicians whose motivations are wholly unsavory, even if one disagrees strongly with their platform. In my last post I argued that, while cloaked in explicitly Christian language, Rick Santorum’s political rhetoric targeting gays and lesbians actually violates the spirit of Christian ethics.

But it's important to stress that when I say this, I'm not saying that Santorum's character and motivations should as a whole be judged in these terms. Reflecting on the last post, I think I didn't stress this point enough. In fact, there is reason to suppose that in many respects Santorum's political platform is driven by his allegiance to Christian love as he understands it, leading some to see him as the return of compassionate conservatism. Some conservatives even take him to task for this. Santorum is less inclined to let national borders define the boundaries of our concern, and so is more willing to speak out in support of a duty to provide foreign aid.

His homophobic obsession with villifying human beings who seek to overcome marginalization based on unchosen sexualtiy is, in an important respect, an anomoly. More significantly, perhaps, it is a kind of poison at the heart of his outlook, all the more eggregious because of what it is poisoning. But if I'm going to defend these claims--both the claim that his anti-gay rhetoric violates the spirit of Christian ethics, and the claim that much of his broader view expresses that spirit--I need to offer an account of what I take to lie at the heart of Christian ethics.

To offer a full account I’d need to do two things: explain what I take the heart of Christian ethics to be, and explain why I take this to be the heart of Christian ethics. Since I can’t adequately do both tasks in a short blog post, I focus here on the first—the task of explicating my understanding of Christian ethics.

On this issue I follow in the footsteps of theologians such as Anders Nygren and Paul Ramsey and Christian moral and social leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. The tradition of ethical thought they represent is deeply rooted in New Testament interpretation as well as in early Christian beliefs about what it meant to live as Jesus lived. It is a tradition that understands Christian ethical life as being fundamentally characterized in terms of the call to consistently practice agape—that is, a distinctive kind of love, one believed to be exemplified in Jesus’ life and described in Jesus’ twin calls to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love even (perhaps especially) our enemies.

How do we love ourselves? And how in the world can we love our enemies, those who wish us ill? These questions are actually interconnected. One feature of self-love is that it involves care for our own good simply because it is good for us, apart from questions of desert. Self-love is an immediate concern for personal welfare that doesn’t spring from such things as reciprocity (what would reciprocity even mean in relation to oneself?). Furthermore, rather than being conditioned on a judgment of our worth, self-love immediately motivates an interest in warranting a positive judgment of worth. Where we perceive ourselves as not warranting such a judgment, we are motivated by self-love to act and choose so as to warrant it.

Not that this motive is always going to win out against other motives. We might despair of any capacity to change for the better, in which case the very desire that would otherwise motivate us to change might lead us to reject the values that inspire a negative judgment of self-worth. We adopt, perhaps, an attitude of disdain for these values and concern ourselves exclusively with hedonistic ones. We make ourselves "good enough" by tailoring our standards of good enough to fit our failings.

Despair over our capacity to change for the better might also lead us into a state of conflicted self-loathing in which the part of us that is moved by self-love wishes for us to be good and happy, while another part of us, gripped by the widespread idea that love should be conditioned on desert, sabotages everything that might enrich our lives. Not all of us are ruled by self-love, and Jesus' injunction to love others as we love ourselves doesn't assume that we are. Rather, it assumes that we all have some instinctive self-love, even when it is overridden or stifled by other things. And that love is one which is directed towards our own good--both our happiness and our moral worth--in a manner that isn't conditioned on whether we deserve it or have earned it.

To love others as we love ourselves is thus to care for their good--including their character and self-development--in a similar way, a manner which is unconditioned by matters of merit or reciprocity.

And this is where the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves dovetails with the injunction to love our enemies. The latter makes sense only if love is unconditioned by desert. A.J. Muste, at a Quaker meeting in 1940, put it this way: “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all.”

When you think of it, that’s a pretty staggering statement. In making it, Muste was making a definitional point about what’s involved in agapic love: To love in this way is to love in a way that does not attend to matters of reciprocity or desert. And the ultimate test of whether one is actually loving in this way is whether one’s love extends to one’s bitterest, most hostile, most villainous enemies. If it doesn’t, then one isn’t loving in this distinctive way.

In short, the idea of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and the idea of loving our enemies, converge on the same idea: We are to be concerned about the neighbor’s good—including the enemy-neighbor—for the neighbor’s own sake and without regard for whether the neighbor deserves such care.

Following Simone Weil and Martin Luther and others, I am convinced that such love is first and foremost a matter of attention. We attend to the neighbor as another subject like ourselves. Instead of seeing them through the filters of our own wants and needs and beliefs, we attend to them in the same way that we ordinarily attend to ourselves: experiencing as best we can the range of their wants and needs, hopes and fears, convictions and doubts--in short, empathizing.

But this is not to say that we abandon our best understanding of the truths of the human condition, adopting those of the individial with whom we empathize. It does not mean endorsing their choices and sharing their ends. After all, a Christian call to empathize with Hitler is not a call to adopt his lack of empathy for his victims. The empathy that is an essential piece of Christian love is not the limited, truncated empathy of someone like Hitler. It is, rather, the kind of empathy that involves rising above such limits. The empathy that is the starting point of Christian love is thus an attempt to expand our discernment of truth by wearing our neighbor's shoes (including those of our enemy-neighbor), not to truncate our discernment of truth by limiting ourselves to what is seen while standing in our neighbor's shoes.

The ultimate goal here is a kind of global empathy in which decisions are made as if each and every neighbor were as much a part of me as I am. What is being described here, of course, is a God's-eye view. We are called to love as God loves, to be vessels through which divine love operates. And this is something none of us can actually do. We cannot, in fact, adopt the God's-eye view, the universal empathy, that we aspire towards; nor can we in fact make decisions from such a standpoint. We will fail to love Hitler as if he were our own child, with all the concern for Hitler's good that we have for our own children (a concern, by the way, that wouldn't merely be for Hitler's happiness, but for his moral character; a concern that wouldn't pander to his actual desires, but seek what is in his best interest; and this, I believe, means wishing for him that he satisfy the desires he would have were he to actualize his potential and be the best person he could be, as opposed to being the moral monster he became).

In a sense, then, Christian love is merely aspirational. But in another sense it is not. Because the Christian love ethic is embedded in a broader theology which affirms the existence of a God who actualizes what we aspire for--a God who is love, and whose loving will operates in accord with the kind of universal benevolence and profligate empathy we cannot attain. Within this broader theological context, there is something we can do beyond merely aspiring: We can submit ourselves to that God who realizes what we can only hope to approximate. We can make of ourselves channels of divine benevolence.

And this is what it means to love God: It means giving ourselves over to a love that isn’t limited and constrained in the way that finite human love is limited and constrained. It involves saying “Your will, not mine, be done”—and so subordinating our will, not to an arbitrary tyrant, but to the being who is love.

None of us do this—except, perhaps, in rare flashes. Most of the time we cling to our own egos, our own finite perspectives, our own wills...defined as they are by a restricted scope of love. Or we want to be universally benevolent but we want to be responsible for it--a vestige of our allegiance to the notion that good will should be merited, and hence that to be loved as we long to be loved we need to achieve moral perfection on our own terms. And, of course, we fail. And we respond to that failure either by truncating the scope of the moral demand to fit better with our limits, or by beating ourselves up. Or we flicker from one response to another--at one moment justifying our behavior as good enough, at another smacking ourselves for not being good enough. The third alternative--so tritely but accurately captured in the saying so often repeated by evangelicals, "Let go and let God"--is a rare and difficult achievement even for those who believe in God.

But this third alternative is what Christianity calls for, what is at the core of the injunction to love God with all one's heart and soul and mind. And the Christian notion of divine grace at work in the world is the conviction that this third alternative is not merely a fiction, but that "letting go and letting God" actual makes a difference. To believe in grace is to believe that it is possible for us to realize levels of love we could not achieve on our own, by become channels for a love greater than our own. It also means the possibility of escape from the twin traps of rationalization and pathological guilt.

I see in my own life the failure to love as widely as I should--and the propensity to alternately justify it or beat myself up about it. I see it in something as minor as the uncharitable messages I almost post in the comments section of this blog. This is, I think, a real failure—a “sin,” to use the language of Christianity—even when I ultimately resist the temptation. The fact is that often enough I don’t resist it, and even when I do I typically find myself indulging my animus in private. That I don’t publicize it doesn’t eliminate it.

The truth is that there’s a ubiquitous human impulse to exclude some persons from the scope of our love. We want to push some people onto the other side of a divide. On this side there are those who have value and dignity, who deserve basic respect, whose needs matter, whose good is something to be sought. And then there are the people on the other side.

Sometimes this impulse manifests itself in genocidal wars. Sometimes it manifests in verbal slights against colleagues that cause them to fume even as we smirk. Sometimes it manifests in something as small and seemingly trivial as thinking that a particular commentator on my blog has finally crossed outside the line within which human decency is called for. We call it “taking the gloves off” or “no more Mr. Nice Guy.”

This is not, in my view, a trivial issue. And, unlike certain other human dispositions, it is universal in its scope. Everybody is prone not only to lashing out, verbally if not physically, against those who offend against us, but to convincing ourselves that the requirements of love do not apply to them--that lashing out is okay because they don't deserve any better, and hence that the lashing out needn't be constrained by questions such as "How would I react if someone said/did that to me? Would it motivate me to be a better person or would it be more likely to inspire retaliatory vindictiveness?"

Let’s be clear about a distinction, however. Loving someone isn’t the same as being nice. Sometimes it requires being honest in a way that’s painful to hear. Sometimes it may call for a refusal to enable self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes love means saying no.

But too often we call our behavior towards others “tough love” when it is neither tough nor love. We are following the easy path of lashing out in a way that’s purely spiteful, that’s nothing more than a desire to see the other person suffer. We feel the surge of testosterone, the fist-pumping delight in knocking down the enemy. This has nothing to do with love.

If the essence of the good is a love that knows no boundaries, then the essence of sin is any impulse that truncates the scope of love. And to affirm this is to be forced to acknowledge our own sinfulness. Far easier to focus on dispositions that other people have, and to call them sins. Far easier, for example, for the straight majority to obsess about homosexuality and to treat the disposition to be romantically attracted to the same sex as if it were a disposition to sin. Then sin is something that other people do, something in relation to which one can feel self-righteous.

Real sin isn’t like that. Real sin is found in the failure to live up to Jesus’ model of radically inclusive and sacrificial love. Expressing romantic feelings in the context of committed monogamy, and working hard to build a relationship of mutual trust and care, to overcome conflicts and build a life together—such a thing is the crucible from which virtues are built, from which admirable character traits can be cultivated. How exactly is such a thing rendered sinful, let alone perverse, simply because the person with whom one works to build such intimacy and partnership happens to be of the same sex?

To ask this question is, admittedly, to question the inerrancy of the apostle Paul. Paul clearly had no concept of committed homosexual monogamy. He seemed to think that all homosexual love sprang from an excess of lust, a lust so indiscriminate that one couldn’t limit oneself to those one was naturally attracted to, let alone to a single partner in the context of fidelity and life partnership. We know better now, at least those of us who listen to our gay and lesbian neighbors and who have witnessed the lives of fidelity that many have pursued despite the odds.

But there are those who have been steeped in a view of Scripture that makes no distinction between an example used by Paul (to exemplify a broader theoretical point) and the very word of God. And they sincerely wrestle with the tension between the implications of this view of Scripture and the seemingly admirable character of a same-sex relationship they've encountered. Their moral intuition is at odds with the moral authority to which they have been taught to defer, and so they struggle.

Many who struggle in this way are genuinely trying to live out a spirit of love. They wrestle with how to be authentically loving towards their gay and lesbian neighbors in the face of the biblical injunctions that, faithfully pursued, would seem to call for their social marginalization, their exclusion from bedrock social institutions such as marriage. They strive to figure out how to do this because they are convinced that the God who is love has, in fact, categorically condemned all homosexual acts. To my view, their struggle is rooted in a failure to see the difference between the word of God and a what their own theory about the Bible implies concerning the word of God. They confuse question the latter with questioning the former.

But there's a difference between struggling to reconcile what I take to be Paul's ignorance and prejudices with the ethic of Christian love, and treating Paul's comments about same-sex activity as an opportunity to indulge feelings that might otherwise be viewed with moral suspicion. There are those for whom "defending God's word"  opens the door, perhaps unwittingly, for guiltlessly letting loose those darker, meaner human impulses--indulging in the tribal impulse to divide and exclude while congratulating oneself for righteously defending God's will.

For many, the biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality do not merely provide an opportunity for such guiltless indulgence; they provide a way to distance oneself from sin. The serious sins, after all, are the things the perverts do. “I may have my failings, but I’m not a pervert.” Being a decent human being becomes easy. After all, it is astonishingly easy for a heterosexual to avoid having gay sex—about as easy as it is for a white person to avoid being black. Avoiding the worst sins becomes a matter of having the good fortune of being born into the right group.

This is an exercise in not taking sin seriously. And yes, paradoxical as it may sound, I am arguing that those who trumpet against the supposed sins of some group or other--some "them"--are thereby not taking sin seriously. They are making sin someone else's problem rather than a shared feature of the human predicament. We take sin seriously when we see its ubiquity…most especially when we see it in ourselves. We take sin seriously when we take the serious sins to be precisely those forces of alienation that abide in every human heart, including our own. We take sin seriously when we see it as the negation of love, and when we understand the essence of love that is captured in A.J. Muste’s words. We take sin seriously when we don't seek to truncate the demands of love to suit our limitations, but seek instead to transcend those limitations by opening ourselves up to being moved by a love that is not so limited.

This inspiration to reach for grace--to earnestly yearn to be more loving that our natures incline us to be--is what is most clearly poisoned by divisive ideology.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Partisan Politics in Christian Guise: Santorum's Disturbing Success

Mitt Romney's win in Iowa may have helped strengthen his case for being the Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination, but the more surprising story is that he beat out Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes. Apparently, Santorum's propensity for attacking same-sex marriage by flapping napkins around struck a chord with conservative Republicans in Iowa.

This bothers me. It bothers me because Santorum's support base undoubtedly self-identifies as Christian, and because, to my mind at least, Santorum comes closest of the Republican candidates to overtly defying the fundamental spirit of Christian ethics. And, more eggregiously, he does so in the name of Christianity.

As I've argued before, Santorum deliberately seeks in his stump speeches to establish an us/them ideology, one that pits the "Christian" in-group against an out-group encompassing, in particular, sexual minorities. He represents the latter's pursuit of social equality as an attack on Christianity, one against which Christians should rally. And he, of course, is the champion of the chosen group, the one around whom the rallying should occur.

Since I've looked closely at these rhetorical moves before, I won't do so again here. The point I want to make here is that, in pursuing this politics of division, Santorum abandons in the most overt possible way any real concern for living out the love ethic of Christianity. He abondons it in favor of using Christianity as a group-category for establishing a form of what, in Is God a Delusion?, I call "religionism." Here's how I summarized this idea in the last chapter of that book:
When one racial group brutally oppresses another, we blame racism, not race. When people of different nationalities go to war out of misplaced pride, we blame nationalism, not nationality. When rival ethnic groups practice "ethnic cleansing," we blame ethnocentrism, not ethnicity.

Likewise, I would suggest that what we should blame for all the violence that has been done in the name of God is not religion but what might be dubbed religionism. Behind each of these "isms" is a common human tendency: the drive to divide humanity into in-groups and out-groups, to define oneself in terms of group membership, and to define one's group against rivals.
In Is God a Delusion?, my purpose for bringing up this distinction was to challenge the New Atheist argument that religion is pernicious because of its propensity to motivate intergroup hostility and violence. My claim was that the source of the problem lies not with religion as such but with divisive ideology--and such divisive ideology can but needn't be built around distinctive human systems of religious belief and practice.

Of course, the line between religion and religionism is blurrier than the line between race and racism, insofar as both religion and religionism involve beliefs and practices. I may say more about this in a later blog post. For now, however, my point is this: Santorum's invocation of Christianity in his stump speeches has the clear markings of religionism. It is about dividing people, defining battle lines, and mobilizing one group by placing it in opposition to another.

And such divisive ideology is the very antithesis, I would argue, of the love ethic that Jesus taught and modeled. In the name of standing up for "biblical" teachings about homosexuality, it seems to me that Santorrum has ignored what lies at the very heart of living out the Christian ethical life.

A claim like that requires some account of what I take to be at the heart of the Christian ethical life. Obviously this is something I can't do full justice to in a short blog post (maybe I'll devote more attention to it in later posts). But the essence of the Christian approach to ethical life is, I think, beautifully characterized by Simone Weil in the quotation that appears at the header of this blog. It's about a lived connection to the transcenden that breaks down distinctions and divisions among each of us "here below." It's about seeing the divine in terms of agapic love, a love that does not wait on worth, that does not distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy...and then deliberately pursuing connection with the divine by loving the creation in this same extravagant way.

When I hear critics of religion talk about the deep moral failings of Christianity or other faiths, it is clear to me that while they are putting their fingers on real problems, they are also missing something fundamental (not only in Christianity, but in other religious traditions that teach very similar things). But it is also clear to me that it is the very public claims and arguments of people like Santorum that make it so easy to miss this fundamental something. When the heart of Christian ethics is missed by those who most visibly thump their chests as exemplars of the faith, who can blame outsiders for missing it too?

Santorum's propensity to do this, however, is not the main thing that bothers me. Santorum, after all, is a politician. And divisive ideologies have been invoked by politicians throughout history. What bothers me the most is that many of those who most visibly wear the "Christian" label in our society are so apparently sucked in by such invocations of faith in the service of partisan politics. It's not just that the spirit of partisan divisiveness in Christian guise is mistaken for the introduction of Christian values into political life. More disturbingly, that spirit seems to have succeeded, again and again, at introducing partisan divisiveness into Christian life.