Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gay Rights and the Victory of Christian Values

There's been an astonishing cultural shift in the last few years, an amazing and accelerating change in attitudes towards homosexuality. The trajectory is clear: history is moving in the direction of treating gay relationships as warranting the same kind of legal and social recognition afforded heterosexual relationships.

According to the conservative Christian narrative, this trend is a disaster. Conservative Christians typically view America's cultural struggle over gay rights as a conflict between those swept up in the permissiveness and moral laxness of secular culture and those who remain steadfast in their allegiance to Christian values.  An the recent victories for marriage equality are, in this light, a defeat for Christian values.

I think this narrative is dead wrong. Whatever you think of the ethics of homosexuality itself, the cultural shift we are now seeing can only be a victory for core Christian values. Let me say that again, in a slightly different way: Even those Christians who think that homosexuality is morally wrong (which I don't) should see the cultural shift towards inclusion as a victory of Christian values.

I don't mean to say that American society has no problem with permissiveness and moral laxness. We don't help the poor nearly as much as we should. We indulge in meaningless entertainments and luxuries while children are starving. We think the command to love our neighbors as ourselves is satisfied if we take in their garbage cans and bring the new people next door a plate of cookies.

Americans routinely fail to live up to the demanding ethic of Christianity--and even those of us who self-identify as Christian typically shrug off these failures as if they were nothing. Moral laxness and permissiveness are big problems. But they don't explain the cultural shift towards accepting gays and lesbians and their relationships.

They can't. Laxness and permissiveness can account for the gradual bleeding away of standards, but they can't be what motivates an active process of changing our social institutions to include people who have been historically excluded.

I suppose that laxness and permissiveness might, when combined with a sufficiently widespread desire for self-indulgence, motivate people to eliminate barriers to self-indulgence. But gays and lesbians have always been and still remain a small minority of the population. More visible than they used to be, but still a tiny fraction of the US population. And if you aren't gay, none of your self-indulgent motives could conceivably inspire you to work towards eliminating the barriers to same-sex intimacy. Because if you aren't gay, you won't have any desire to indulge in same-sex intimacy.

So even when laxness and permissiveness are combined with a penchant for self-indulgence, we won't get the social energy to motivate the large-scale cultural and legal changes that we've witnessed. There aren't enough gay people out there for that.

More significantly, the vilification of homosexuality has, especially within Christian communities, served as a cover for moral laxness. If homosexuality is the Big Sin, then most of us can avoid the Big Sin without any effort at all, without having to rein in our sinful impulses one whit.

Since most of us aren't gay and have not the slightest desire to sleep with someone of the same sex, a fixation on homosexual acts as exemplars of sin lets us off the moral hook without having to do anything. We can feel good about ourselves even as we buy a new widescreen TV with money that might have saved the lives of starving children. At least we're not gay.

Thus, a deliberate cultural shift towards accepting homosexuality amounts to a deliberate decision to wipe away an easy excuse for moral laxness. Our penchant for moral laxness and permissiveness, our self-indulgent natures, can't explain a shift of that sort.

If we want to explain why homosexuality is coming to be more widely accepted, why gays and lesbians are for the first time in history confronting the prospect of full social inclusion, we need to do it by appeal to the motives of a majority with absolutely zero interest in having gay sex themselves--and who might actually find a convenient mask for their self-indulgent impulses through a continued prohibition.

What could that motive be?

I think it's love. Not romantic love, but the kind of love that Jesus talked about. If there is a reason the straight majority has come to increasingly support a lifting of the historic condemnation of homosexuality, it has to do with our human capacity to identify with and empathize with those who are different from us. It has to do with the fact that not only have gays and lesbians been coming out of the closet to tell their stories, but more and more straight people have been listening with compassionate attention.

Within Christianity itself, there has for some time now been a struggle over the moral status of homosexuality. And there's a common thread to the arguments of those Christians who have stood up for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There's a common theme among those Christians demanding that the meaningful intimate partnerships of gays and lesbians, their loves, be afforded respect rather than treated as an abomination to be torn asunder.

That thread is this: If we listen to our gay and lesbian neighbors, we will learn that a condemnation of their romantic impulses can't be restricted to a condemnation of outward behavior. It cuts to who they are. Sometimes, treating something as a sin is an impediment to love. Conservatives are right to say that you can always love a sinner while hating what really is a sin. But this dictum cuts both ways: if we can't love our gay and lesbian neighbors as we should when we treat their intimate relationships as a sin, we must conclude that homosexuality as such is no sin after all.

If we listen with compassion, rather than stopping up our ears with traditional denunciations, we will hear the serious damage that comes from viewing their love as abomination. If we listen with love, rather than refusing to hear their cries out of fear that they might jar us from our comfortable certainties, we cannot resist the conclusion that condemning homosexuality in a categorical way amounts to a failure to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves.

That message--which progressive Christians like myself have been voicing in different ways for decades--expresses an approach to the cultural conversation about homosexuality that is rooted in an ethic of love. It is rooted in the ethical seeds planted by a certain carpenter from Nazareth some two thousand years ago. And if anything can explain the seismic shift in cultural attitudes towards homosexuality over the last few years, it is the emergence of this message, not just within the sequestered walls of the church, but within the broader cultural conversation.

We are a far cry from living out an ethic of love faithfully in America or anywhere else, but there are moments when the spirit of love makes itself felt on a national level, when it has the power to tip the scales in favor of hard changes, changes that don't serve the interests of the majority but instead favor a marginalized minority. There are moments when love is strong enough to help us move beyond the deep tribal impulse to preserve the us/them dichotomies, to keep in place ideologies of division that enable us to feel good about ourselves just because we aren't one the them.

If anything can explain the energy for change that has been moving this country on the issue of homosexuality, it is this spirit of compassion, of fairness, of love. You may happen to think (as I do not) that something is amiss in the thinking that has led persons of love and good will to push for marriage equality and gay rights. You may be convinced (as I am not) that genuine love for gays and lesbians is compatible with the continued denunciation of their loving relationships and tender intimacies. Even so, you should not thereby overlook that it is love for gays and lesbians that is fueling the passions of social reformers, motivating straight allies in growing numbers to stand in solidarity with their gay and lesbian neighbors, and shifting the consciences of witnesses.

The fruits of love are here. And even if you continue to believe that homosexuality is a sin even in the context of loving and faithful monogamy, you should not overlook the fact that in the current cultural struggle about homosexuality, a spirit of love is at work among those who are advocating for gay rights, and much of what opposes them is something opposed to love--forces that seek to perpetuate division and scapegoating and easy righteousness.

The fruits of love are here. But they are, as ever, fragile. The darker forces are mustering themselves. They are striking back. The enormous gains, while they put us on a trajectory, do not imply inevitability. Divisiveness and hatred and self-righteousness might still prevail over love.

There is something I beg of my Christian brothers and sisters who are committed to an ethic of love but remain convinced that homosexual acts are uniformly sinful. It is this: In pursuing this belief, don't unwittingly ally yourselves with the dark forces that are striving to silence and marginalize and alienate.

And one of the easiest ways to be drawn into an unwitting complicity with forces opposed to Christian love is to misconstrue the nature of what has happened in the fight for marriage equality. Don't let a confused narrative, one which sees the struggle over homosexuality as being primarily about permissiveness versus Christian values, blind you to the way that the most profound Christian value of all has energized the advocates for equality.

Don't let the battle over homosexuality eclipse the far more important ethical battle: the one between inclusive love and divisive hate.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Universalism and the Argument from God's Love for the Blessed: Considering an Objection

In God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and I put forward a number of initial “prima facie” arguments for universalism as a starting point for our subsequent case that universalism has more going for it than hellism (given Christian starting points). One of those arguments, which we call “An Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed,” runs as follows:

1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.

2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.

3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).

4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.

5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).

6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.

7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6).

Versions of this argument have been advanced by both Friedrich Schleiermacher and, more recently, Thomas Talbott. Thanks to the blogging efforts of Fr. Aidan Kimel, this argument has received some recent attention in the broader blogosphere.

One blogger, Brandon, raises an objection to it in a recent post on his own blog. I started to respond in a comment, but the comment quickly got so long that I decided it was better to post my reply here.

Brandon’s objection rests on the following key premise (which I will henceforth, with great creativity, refer to as Brandon’s Key Premise):

“The particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself (which is all that can be meant by perfect bliss in (1)) consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will.”

Based on this premise, Brandon argues that the sufferings of the damned cannot take the perfect bliss of the damned away. Since the bliss flows immediately and essentially from union with God, being in such union is sufficient to guarantee such bliss no matter what else might be going on. As Brandon says, “since by nature it flows directly from God in that union, it is not in the power of the blessed not to have it, regardless of anything else that may happen to them.”

The substance of John Kronen’s and my reply to this line of objection is already articulated in God’s Final Victory (see pp. 81-89). But sometimes it can help to connect the dots in connection with a particular objection. That’s what I mean to do here.

In a nutshell, Brandon’s Key Premise begs the question and relies on a parenthetical claim which is false.

Let me begin with the parenthetical claim. By “perfect bliss” John and I mean unalloyed joy that is fitting to one’s circumstances—in other words, joy that is (a) faultless, in the sense that it is appropriate to feel that level of joy given the state one finds oneself in, and (b) maximal, in the sense that it is the greatest joy of which beings of our nature are capable. Hence, what Brandon takes to be “all that can be meant” is decidedly NOT all that can be meant by “perfect bliss”—and is, in fact, not what we mean.

Now the question is whether the distinctive kind of blessedness of heaven—what the blessed have necessarily by virtue of being in the state of blessedness—includes perfect bliss in the indicated sense. Brandon’s way of putting matters does not allow for this question, which is why I say it begs the question.

Let me approach this another way. While I think Brandon’s Key Premise is problematic, there's a near cousin to it which I think is correct—namely, the premise that results if you swap out “the particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself” with “ the particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself,” resulting in the following:

“The particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will.”

This is, if you will, the non-question-begging variant of Brandon's Key Premise. And the question that isn't begged is whether the blessing of union with God includes perfect bliss. In effect, what John and I (and Schleiermacher and Talbott) argue is that the blessing of union with God includes certain things necessarily—such as moral sanctification and an unfiltered encounter with the divine–but that it cannot contain perfect bliss necessarily unless, necessarily, all are saved.

The reason is because emotional states are about something. A state of perfect joy has a cognitive dimension to it: there is a judgment to the effect that one is in circumstances that warrant perfect joy. One could experience perfect joy that was, in fact, unwarranted only if one were either (i) ignorant of relevant facts about one’s condition, or (ii) morally imperfect (and so had a distorted value system which led one to treat imperfect conditions and perfectly wonderful). But the nature of blessedness—what is essential to union with God—precludes both (i) and (ii) with respect to perfect joy in the face of the eternal damnation of some of God’s beloved children.

Let’s step back and work through the thinking here in a more systematic and complete way. The blessing of salvation, as Brandon notes, involves being “energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will”—which includes moral sanctification. In other words, it includes loving as God loves. (Anyone who was “drugged” into a stupor of self-focused delight by the experience of being united to God, to the exclusion of caring about the fate of others, would not be in a state of blessedness because they would not be perfected in love). The blessing of salvation also involves not being blocked from knowing about what can only be of profound significance to God (since one cannot be united to God through one’s understanding if things that are of utmost significance to God are hidden from one).

The fate of the damned would be of utmost significance to God. That His plan of salvation and desire for the salvation of all were ultimately thwarted—that some of His beloved creatures were mired eternally in the worst conceivable state that a being can endure—could not be anything BUT of utmost significance to God. Thus, anyone who has the distinctive blessedness of heaven would be conscious of the fate of the damned. Anyone perfected in love would be grieved by the fate of the damned. Thus, anyone who has the distinctive blessedness of heaven would, if they knew of it, be grieved by the fate of the damned. Thus, both God and the blessed would be grieved by the fate of the damned.

To be grieved by some aspect of reality is to be in a state that falls short of perfect joy. Put another way, you are not perfectly happy if there are aspects of reality that you can only regard as a profound tragedy to be grieved, and which you actively do grieve—a profound tragedy which never comes to an end, and which you therefore never stop grieving.

Hence, the particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself—possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding—will result in something substantially less than perfect bliss if reality includes elements that warrant grief as the fitting response (that is, the response exhibited by anyone who is morally sanctified).

To the extent, then, that the traditional doctrine of heaven has included perfect bliss within its conception, heaven will be experienced by anyone only if no one experiences hell.

Now one could (as we note in our book), bite the bullet here and conclude that the blessed in heaven don’t enjoy a state as wonderful as what the tradition has held them to enjoy. But one should reach that conclusion only if one is forced to it by the overwhelming weight of the arguments.

That’s why, in our book, John and I introduce this as an initial “prima facie” argument for universalism—one of four such arguments that we put forward initially as offering a presumptive case that the hellist must overcome by weightier arguments. So: are there weightier arguments for the conclusion that God’s salvific aims are finally and ultimately defeated in the souls of the damned? We think not, and make the case for that at length in God’s Final Victory.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Simone Weil on Religion as a Social Structure

Academics who study religion will tend to focus on it as the sort of thing amenable to academic study. For neuroscientists this might mean an interest in mapping the brain activity of people engaged in meditation or meditative prayer.

For social scientists, this usually means treating religion as a social or cultural phenomenon, a form of human organization whose dynamics can be analyzed.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this--as long as the academic doesn't jump to the conclusion that religion is reducible to what falls within the academic's sphere of study. "Religion is just a distinctive kind of brain activity," or "Religion is just a social structure of a certain kind, organized to achieve a particular purpose in the human world."

Because social scientists have a higher level of academic interest in religion than one finds in the natural sciences, the latter mistake strikes me as more common. For Emile Durkheim, religion just is a particular way of organizing human beings for social purposes. If it has effects that aren't strictly related to these social purposes, they're epiphenomena.

It's been said that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Were it up to me I'd change the saying to this: To a person with a gun, everyone looks like an intractable threat. Of course, in neither case is the saying strictly true. People with hammers don't always start smashing away at their own kneecaps, mistaking them for nails. And gun owners haven't universally shot their sleeping children and then claimed self defense.

But the exaggeration highlights a point: We like to use the tools we have. And so we look for ways to make things fit those tools. Enough people start doing this and effects can ripple. In a world with lots of guns, even those without guns are more inclined to see the world as a place full of bad guys who won't respond to anything but a gun.

Let's call this the "hammer effect," in honor of the usual adage. When it comes to religion, I see the hammer effect most clearly in a pervasive tendency--especially among those who aren't themselves religious--to view religion as essentially a social phenomenon, to the exclusion of other things.

Let me be clear. I think the social dimension of religion is real, and it's important. But to reduce religion to its social dimension makes it difficult, to say the least, to know what to do about someone like Simone Weil, the early 20th Century French philosopher, political activist, social critic, and mystical theologian.

It would be hard to speak of Weil without seeing her as deeply religious. Leslie Fiedler has called her "a special exemplar of sanctity for our time--the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint." This description captures, in a single breath, the fascinating paradox that Weil embodies. She was raised by secular Jews, became a religious mystic fascinated with the crucified Christ, whom she claimed to have encountered in transcendent religious experience. She rigorously--I would say religiously--recited the Lord's Prayer with "absolute attention"--starting again from the beginning if her thoughts strayed even once.

And she consistently rebuffed the efforts of her Catholic friend and confessor, Father Perrin, to convince her to be baptized. She held herself forever the outsider, self-consciously so. When pressed by Father Perrin, she explained her reasons in many ways. Here is a notable excerpt from her correspondence with him:

What frightens me is the Church as a social structure. Not only on account of its blemishes, but from the very fact that it is something social. It is not that I am of a very individualistic temperament. I am afraid for the opposite reason. I am aware of very strong gregarious tendencies in myself. My natural disposition is to be very easily influenced, too much influenced, and above all by anything collective. I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi...
There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. I cannot help thinking that they were in the wrong. I cannot go against the light of conscience. If I think that on this point I see more clearly than they did, I who am so far below them, I must admit that in this matter they were blinded by something very powerful. This something was the Church seen as a social structure. If this social structure did them harm, what harm would it not do me, who am particularly susceptible to social influences and who am almost infinitely more feeble than they were?
Weil, here, seems to be trying to stake out a way of being in the world that deliberately resists any participation in religion as a social phenomenon. But her way of being in the world is so powerfully religious in so many ways that it seems absurd, at least to me, to say that in separating herself from religion as a social structure she was separating herself from religion.

That's not it at all. For her, religion and the Church were much more than a social structure. And what she sought to stand apart from was only this social aspect of something with roots far deeper and wider than can be encompassed by the social. Her success in doing so is a measure of the extent to which the religious transcends the social.

In sharing her example here, I do not mean to advocate her trenchant resistance to participation in the social aspect of religion. My point is to offer Simone Weil as an example of someone who found faith outside the boundaries of religious communities, who staked out her religion in the space between faith communities--or, perhaps, in the space where all such divisions break down.

My own instinct would be to advocate, not her self-conscious resistance to belonging, but a way of belonging that is informed and transformed by a self-conscious allegiance to what is universal, what unites, what spills over or dissolves social boundaries, what cannot be subject to social control and cannot be locked within a social structure. Any social organization that isn't defined by such a higher allegiance--that isn't transformed by it--isn't ultimately religious at all.

As I see it, what Weil was resisting was that within real human religious life that has the power to eclipse what is most essential to religious life. And she resisted it not because she hated community and social organization but because she loved that essence more.

Is it possible that when religion is defined as nothing but a social structure, and when it is described and characterized with that assumption in place, that what is being described is precisely what is left when Weil's fears are realized, when religion has been stripped away and all that remains are its social trappings?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In 9/11's Shadow

Today there are Republicans and Democrats eyeing each other suspiciously across the aisle.

Just as on any other day, we are polarized and divided and frustrated with one another. But today isn't just another day, and there is something that unites us in the face of our differences and disagreements. Today we remember a tragedy born of ideological hatred, and we remember the sacrifices of first responders who didn't ask whether the people in danger were black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Muslim.

Today we all stand together in the shadow of both the worst and the best that humanity can be. Let us, then, aspire for the best, and so make this day about those we would honor.

  Firefighter at the WTC recovery site

(Image, found here, is on display at the Ground Zero Museum Workshop)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Salvaging Leviticus?

Maurice Harris, a progressive rabbi, has written what appears to be a fascinating new book: Leviticus: You Have No Idea. You can find excerpts and a table of contents on his website for the book. Here's a choice quote that convinced me to buy it:
Why do I think Leviticus can be a valuable book for people today who have—for lack of a more precise way of putting it—a progressive approach to religion? Because when it comes to Leviticus, we really have no idea. No idea of the surprisingly relevant questions and insights it contains, and little idea of how to integrate its strange, authoritarian, and intimidating worldview with our commitment to progressive values. 
As with so many other parts of the Bible, we tend to miss a lot of what’s there in Leviticus by not taking the time to explore it and greet it freshly with the question, “What might we learn today from studying this text, from bringing our current problems and struggles into dialog with even this text?” And if, in the course of greeting Leviticus with those questions, we are willing to let our sacred texts be imperfect—let them be a record of our ancestors’ understandings of God, not of God’s literal words beamed down to us never to be challenged—then the potential for what we can learn that’s directly relevant to our moment in human history expands dramatically.
The final message here resonates powerfully with some current work I'm doing on the concept of divine revelation. My philosophical question--rather different from Harris's scriptural one but, I think, leading to complementary insights--is this: What implications does one's view about God have for one's understanding of divine revelation? More precisely, does a particular understanding of God--say, the understanding of God as being essentially loving--require or preclude any specific views about how a God would self-disclose or what content should make us suspect/doubt revelatory origin?

My argument (which should come as no surprise to readers of this blog) is that if we take seriously the view that God is love, we should not expect to encounter God most clearly in the pages of a text, but rather in the context of loving relationships--that is, in the context of loving and being loved (including but not limited to our experience of loving and being loved by the divine, our passional reaching for the infinite and our occasional sense of "being in the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face," to quote Simone Weil's account of her first mystical experience).

But lessons drawn from our experiences of love need to be formulated, and it seems that if God is love then we should place our deepest trust in those lessons that emerge out of a community of loving discourse. In such a community, I think a holy text can serve as the proxy voice of those who have lived long ago. Their wisdom and insights can become part of the loving conversation--not an authoritarian conversation-stopper that we must silence in order to have a loving discourse at all (which is what fundamentalism would turn holy texts into), but a voice in the dialogue, as Harris suggest in the words above.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Surgery, Swimming, and War: What Does Diana Nyad's historic achievement have to do with Syria?

Thanks to my wife, I watched Diana Nyad's historic achievement this weekend--swimming from Cuba to Florida--through a more engaged and passionate set of eyes than I might otherwise have done. Were it not for her I would have been fixated on the news about Syria. As reports came in of Diana's astonishing effort and ultimate achievement, the realization of her "Xtreme Dream," I would've distractedly thought, "That's cool," and then been sucked back into the prospect of missile strikes.

For several years now, my Ironman wife has pushed her physical limits through swimming, biking, and running, but her greatest love is swimming. As I write these words I am sitting in a surgery waiting room while my wife undergoes surgery on both her feet. The surgery is cutting short her season, hopefully with the result that she will be better equipped to "do her impossible" into the future ("Do your impossible" are the words that frame her Ironman tattoo). But it means that she will not be participating in Oklahoma City's Redman triathlon later this month, as originally planned.