Monday, May 28, 2007

The ground on which liberals dare not tread...

I've just finished reading Michael Sandel's Public Philosophy, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. I found myself agreeing with Sandel more often than not (though I have been know to do that with many philo books I read). He's been labeled a communitarian by some, and he is openly uncomfortable with that label. Sandel does not endorse total rule by the majority or communities having the right to always impose their own values on their members, but he does think that the role of the community (and civic virtues) has been ignored too much in modern political discussion. Sandel rejects the individualistic ethos of modern political thought, and he tries to find a balance between the rights of individuals and their roles in the communities in which they live. Central to his dicussion is the role of morality in politics. Sandel understands better than many poli-philosophers I've read that poltical life cannot (and should not) be stripped of its basis in morality. Liberals do not dare discuss the moral foundations of their political philosophy, lest they offend somebody's fragile sensibilities. And I think the liberal line is the weaker for it. Not only do liberals loose political popularity when they abandon "values talk," but they also end up with a position that is more or less void of substance. Why are rights important? If the right is before the good it protects, and if we aren't allowed to discuss the merits of that good, then on what grounds is the right itself important? Is the right to live relatively autonomous lives intrinsically good? I can't see how... Autonomy is good in so far as it is useful for the person to live a good life that they can identify with, and so the good of this right is centered on the end that it achieves.

When you justify rights by the intrinsic goods they serve, you fall into the teleological/perfectionist camp (according to Sandel), a camp that I think I may belong to. This, of course, raises lots of objections because you have to actually make a moral judgement about the intrinsic worth of the goods in question. Some goods will be better than others, and those rights will have a stronger justification because they achieve greater goods. As sensible as that sounds, the obvious objection is that in a morally pluralistic society, there will be quite a bit of disagreement as to the worth of said goods. So, what is the political philosopher to do? Should she try to realign with the liberals and take a more neutral stance towards rights? Should she try to appease as many people as possible?

I think the answer to this is no, and I'll tell you why. Liberals only think that they are acting neutrally when they refuse to judge the worth of the ends that rights promote, but in actuality they are themselves promoting certain values (ends) over others. In Sandel's essay on assisted suicide, he rightly points out that the liberal position is in fact promoting a particular set of values. There was a council of six philosophers (Dworkin, Nozick, Rawls, Nagel, Scanlon, and Thomson... wouldn't you have liked to been on that panel!) that was assembled to advise the Supreme Court in two cases. The panel advised the court that it should remain neutral on controversial moral and religious questions because reasonable people will disagree on what the right answer is. So, the people should be allowed to choose for themselves what answer they will live (or die) by, and the court shouldn't ban assisted suicide for everyone (though the court ignored this advice and did so anway). While that sounds about as neutral as it gets, their advice was far from it. Sandel explains:

"The philosophers' argument betrays a certain view of what makes life worth living. According to this view, the best way to live and die is to do so deliberately, autonomously, in a way that enables us to view our lives as our own creations...The philosophers' emphasis on autonomy and choice implies that life is the possession of the person who lives it. This ethic is at odds with a wide range of moral outlooks that view life as a gift, of which we are custodians with certain duties. Such outlooks reject the idea that a person's life is open to unlimited use, even by the person whose life it is. Far from being neutral, the ethic of autonomy invoked in the brief departs from many religious traditions and also from the views of the founders of liberal political philosophy (Locke and Kant)..."

So, is neutrality even possible? By being neutral you endorse the value of neutrality itself. Not that neutrality isn't good, but you'd have to make a some sort of case that it is better than the alternatives, which makes even neutrality non-neutral. It's also not clear that liberals really do avoid values-legislation, because they legislate toleration, freedom and fairness. While I think these are worthy ends, they may not always be more worthy than other ends. Assuming that they always trump competing values is to take a definite, non-neutral, position.

Liberals don't escape this when it comes to justice either (and not just other moral issues). Rawls is willing to allow reasonable pluralism on moral convictions, but he makes a pretty strong claim that there can't be this sort of pluralism in justice. People may differ about how to apply principles of justice, but they should agree on the principles themselves. Well, no, that's not true. The libertarian and the egalitarian aren't disagreeing about the application of a common set of principles, but rather on the principles themselves. Sandel claims that Rawls reply to this justice pluralism must be that "although there is a fact of pluralism about distributive justice, there is no fact of reasonable pluralism." When libertarians disagree with Rawls, their disagreement is not reasonable and would not be sustained "upon due reflection." While I'm sure that Rawls really believed this, I highly doubt the libertarian would see it this way. So let's say there is reasonable pluralism regarding the principles of justice, Rawls (among other political philosophers) is not afraid to claim that his view is better than the others. Well, so much for toleration of all viewpoints. I'm sure you can see the game now. It's one I've always kind of wondered about, and Sandel did a wonderful job of pointing it out.

Now I'll tell you why this worries me. I may have sounded a bit harsh towards liberals, but don't get me wrong, I still have some liberal tendencies myself. I think there is something important about respect and toleration of other people's moral convictions. My departure from liberals is at the point where they would banish all talk of morality from political discussion. Ignoring people's conceptions of what makes life meaningful is not a great way of engaging them into political discussion. The best thing to do, according to Sandel, is to engage people's religious and moral convictions by challenging them and sometimes even contesting them. You respect a person's convictions when you acknowledge their importance, and you discuss them, and you evaluate them, and you evaluate your own, and you have a real discussion! Ignoring them doesn't do any good to anyone.

The real problem is that when liberals are too afraid to tread on this ground, other (less reasonable people) will tread there, and they will win people over for the sole reason that they are the only ones there. When the democrats avoided the values discussion in the 80's, the Moral Majority swooped in and they were the only ones discussing it. If people are hungry to engage their convictions in their politics, and if the only groups willing to participate are ones like the MM, then you can guess what happens. Liberals mustn't be afraid to talk about values, because when they don't, other people do and they may not promoting values that are good for our society.

But, alas, values talk isn't always safe. There is bound to be disagreement when you abandon neutrality. So what? Some of the most important movements in our nations history were rooted in serious moral convictions. The abolitionists defied neutrality, and they sought to impose their values on the rest of society. Was it okay for them to do that? Certainly, because the values they promoted were good and they were worthy of being integrated into our nation's laws. What about the civil rights movement? Things would be very different today had it been left up to the individual whether or not he or she wants to discriminate. Stores would be segregated on a store by store basis, and no amount of neutrality could prevent that. Sandel's point in many of his essays is to draw our attention to the fact that there are bound to be political issues that require a judgment of their value/worth. Allowing a practice is, in effect, condoning it. Allowing slavery or segregation is a way of saying that it's okay for some people to do so. But it's not okay, and so neither of those practices should be allowed. There are moral issues today that are similar to these, and they require a decision. Abortion, for example, requires a verdict. If abortion really is as bad as the Catholic Church says it is (on par with murder), then neutrality won't cut it. But if it's not, then we need to figure that out too (if you're curious what my views are on abortion, look here...). Leaving it up in the air does not solve the problem, and refraining from talking about the moral implications of abortion doesn't bring us any closer to a solution either. The same goes for other political hot topics that we shy away from. So I think its time we had a values discussion once and for all.

There was much more in the book that I'd love to discuss, and perhaps I will another day (affirmative action, stem cell research, advertising in schools, state lotteries, the list goes on). The book confirmed my suspisios that I'm not as liberal as I thought, but it also showed me that I'm not really a communitarian either. I'm somewhere in the middle, which is where I like to be anyway. It did show me, though, that I'm definitely a perfectionist (which I thought I might be after thinking about parenting issues) which doesn't exactly help me make friends in the philosophical world. Oh well. I encourage you to go read Sandel's book, and I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Dangers of Patriotic Christianity

So there's been an interesting discussion at Crooked Timber about a recent poll:

"Rightwing bloggers are making a big fuss about a poll in which 47 per cent of US Muslims stated that they thought of themselves first as Muslim, and only 28 per cent as Americans first (18 per cent volunteered “Both” and 7 per cent Don’t Know). By contrast, for self-described US Christians, the results were 48 per cent for American first, and only 42 per cent for Christian first, with 7 per cent saying “Both” and 3 per cent Don’t Know."

So here's the question: is it wrong for Christians to be patriotic? By patriotism I mean "love of country" or "devotion to country." Love and devotion in themselves are not wrong, but they can be if they are misdirected. I firmly believe that patriotism, in it's usual sense, is wrong for Christians. There are several reasons for this, the first being that we should serve no one and no thing before God. If our love of country trumps our love of God, then we are completely missing the mark in our relationship with Him. He (rightly) demands that we place our identity and all of our loyalties in Him and Him alone. 'No other God before me' wasn't a joke. If our country is our god, then we are in trouble.

Now the poll above could be interpreted in many different ways. Maybe Christians just think of themselves as American before Christian but they still place God before America. Well that's problematic in itself. If the first way you describe yourself is by your national identity then you've completely missed the point. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ we aren't supposed to see ourselves in worldly terms anymore, for we are all sons and daughters of the Lord. So why do the sheep continually discriminate amongst themselves?? How you think of yourself is reflective of how you live. So if you are an American first, then you occupy yourself with Americaness first, and only second do you bother with Godliness. You may think that your loyalties are first to God, but the actions of American Christians suggest otherwise. From what I can see, it looks like the poll was right on the mark.

Let's just say that you really do put God above country, but you still love your country. Is that bad? Well, it depends what you mean by love here. I love America in the sense that I feel very blessed to be able to live here and freely practice my love of God. I also love America because my living here is equipping me with the skills and resources to do more in the spiritual kingdom. My education and my resources are a wonderful gift, but they don't do anyone any good if I don't put them to good use. Luke 12:48 says, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” So while I love the gifts that I've received in virtue of living here, I must realize that they by no means my own. I am obligated to use them to benefit everyone, and everyone is not limited to my American neighbors. So while I may love this country, I don't love it in the sense that I'm proud to be American instead of Canadian, French or Japanese. My love is merely an appreciation of the opportunities afforded to me by growing up here. The real problem with love of country is that, while innocent enough on its own, it is often accompanied by neglect of other countries. God did not call us to love and serve America alone. We are here to make an impact on the world. We are called to bring justice, peace, love, and kindness to all peoples. If we love our own country too much, we will forget that God has commanded us to expand our horizon of service. Love of country should not mean complacency and ignorance in regards to the plight of the world.

Unfortunately, love of one’s country too often means love of one's country above other countries, which is especially bad. The ancient Israelites had this very problem, and look at how they treated the Samaritans. Christ came for all of that to change. Regrettably, remnants of that order are still alive and well, as evidenced by the poll (and more so by the rightwing response to it). The Muslims answered in the way Christians ought to answer (if by Muslim they meant the beliefs Islam holds and not just the cultural/tradition aspect...same here for answering Christian first, but that's a whole post in itself). Why the rightwingers are in a huff, I’m not sure. But then again, the Pharisees never did get it.

I think this excerpt from Prof B's comment hits the nail on the head (which makes me think he understands Christ's message better than a lot of American Christians):

"Christianity is a universalistic religion, with a God who loves all impartially. That’s in the new testament and nothing contradicts it. Putting country before God surely makes a mockery of one’s attitude to God. It is like putting one’s country before one’s spouse or one’s children. Who does that simply fails to love their spouse or kids in a morally right way. Now, putting justice, or good, before one’s spouse and kids, that’s a different matter. Perhaps, but one that doesn’t arise with respect to God (given what Christians believe about God)."

CS Lewis also had some interesting thoughts on this which appear in the Screwtape Letters. Here is an excerpt from what an elder demon told his nephew (who was in charge with leading a man away from God):

"Let him begin by treating Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of the partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion merely becomes part of the 'Cause'...Once you have made the World an end, and Faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing."

And if you're a Christian but you're still not convinced, take a look at these Biblical passages. This is a running list (by no means exhaustive) of just a few of the verses that warn us against putting faith in nations/worldly powers:

Psalm 33:16-18 : "No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those who hope in his unfailing love."

Matthew 8:20 : "Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" (In other words, Jesus didn't make himself at home anywhere, because he needed to go everywhere...)

Luke 10:28-37 : "[a man] asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?' insert Good Samaritan story... Jesus, 'Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?' The expert in the law replied, 'the one who had mercy on him.' Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'"

John 15:19 : "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. "

John 18:36 : "Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.'"

These are just a start. The Bible is full of warnings against trusting in worldly kingdoms. That's because we are called to trust in the one true King who reigns supreme over both the spiritual and physical kingdom. He remains constant while worldly powers rise and fall. He has also made it clear that his followers will come from all over the world, not just one nation. He has sent us to this world to live in this world but not be of this world. You get the idea. So patriotism? Really?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Screwtape Thoughts

I've just finished reading (for the first time, believe it or not) CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters and the book was wonderful. I've always been a fan of Lewis, namely because he writes honestly and doesn't get tangled in theological squabbles. He writes about how regular Christians should live, and that's that. His musings on the other aspects of faith (like spiritual warfare in SL) are interesting though he doesn't claim to have any special authority on these matters. Screwtape reminded me very much of Frank Perretti's book, Piercing the Darkness.

So, my thoughts. Well, I'll start with my concern for modern Christians in general. I worry that by living in the world we do, we too often forget that God is not material. We think of God like we think of a physical person. He isn't, and our concept of Him is skewed mainly because we have no better way to envision another rational being apart from ourselves. Not only do we picture God as a physical being, but we limit him to our physical world. We either err on the side of Deism and think that God is just sitting back somewhere watching the world unfold, or we forget about Him all together. The God of Christianity (and many monotheistic faiths) is personal, yes, but He is also active. His activity is not confined to this physical universe. Why should it be? But Christians today are hesitant to talk of anything too spiritual, lest we turn into mystics or something. Well, we're wrong. God is a spirit. God works in a universe that is not physical. So, why shouldn't there be goings on in a spiritual universe? Personally, I've never bought physicalism in any form (even the most lenient), because I'm convinced that this world is effected by forces we can't detect.

Now that you think I'm crazy, let me explain. Have you ever wondered if maybe the cliche image of the good angel and the bad angel on your shoulder are real (sort of). I mean, have you ever felt so torn inside (or compelled to do something that is 1. not in your interest 2. nothing you would ever rationally consider or 3. felt no will to do what you know you ought to do) that you are paralysed. Have you ever had someone say something that was the perfect thing to hurt you? Something that they could never have known to say, nor would they would ever normally say, yet it hit you at your most vulnerable spot? Have you done that to someone else? Have you ever felt super distracted by things that aren't worth your time, that you don't even enjoy? Have you ever focused so hard on being "close to God" that you loose sight of him completely?

I think it's easy to go through life and be blissfully unaware of what drives your thoughts/decisions/etc. But, the more conscientious you become, the more you see that half (or more) of what you choose to do and say are not what you really want to do or say. Why is that? Often I can't even pinpoint the cause to some sort of personal gain. I do things that are completely useless and counterproductive (in every sense). And the more I think about it, the more I sense that I'm not alone in my own thoughts. I'm influenced in good and bad ways by things outside of myself.

In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes about an uncle demon who is teaching his nephew how to make his "patient" (human) turn away from God. The advice he gave him was so creepy because most of what he told his nephew to do are things that I've struggled with. Not even general things, like very specific struggles. Here are some examples of the parts that stood out the most in my mind:

"Keep his mind on the inner life. He thinks his conversion is something inside him and his attention is therefore chiefly turned at present to the states of his own mind -or rather to that very expurgated version of them which is all you should allow him to see. Encourage this. Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones. Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious."

"[God] really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself -creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and overflows."

"He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy sitting beside the barber on Sunday just because he remembers that the barber could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited Saturday evening; and contrawise, to enjoy his friends all the more because he is aware of a "deeper" "spiritual" world within him which they cannot understand...[He thinks he is the] complex man who sees round them all."

"As long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one..."

"One of my patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.' The Christians describe the Enemy (God) as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.' And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them..."

"It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one -the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

"You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption 'My time is my own.' Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours....The assumption that you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels."

"Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that 'only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.' You see the little rift? 'Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.' That's the game."

I'll let the passages speak for themselves, and I'll leave it up to you to figure out why these particular parts struck me the most. If you haven't already, go read it yourself.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy and Christian Morality

I've read some interesting posts about the integrity of the Bible and the place of Christian morality, one christian blog and another atheist blog (I suggest a look at these last two links if you have time). There are several questions on the table in these posts. The first is just how literally should the Bible be read (if at all). The second is how can a God who both created the Universal Moral Standard also be connected with largely immoral OT (and NT to a lesser extent). I've done a great deal of thought on both subjects, and while I have no definite answers, I have sorted out some of my views (though they are subject to change!).

In response to the integrity of the Bible, I've gradually moved from one end of the spectrum (literal truth) to the middle. This is NOT because I think that the Bible is any less relevant or any less important in my faith, but rather because I have grown in my understanding of literature, history, and philosophy/theology as a whole. I used to read the Bible as though the events took place or were written in this era, bringing in all of my modern baggage. This is dangerous, obviously, as the context of both the OT and NT are worlds away from our own. As Pastor Chris says, it's important to remember that the Bible was written FOR us (our benefit, to better understand God and his relation with the world) and not TO us (with our culture/context specifically at hand). Of course even after grasping this concept, it's frighteningly easy to read our own morality into the texts (ie, enlightened humanism, of sorts). So we must strike the balance between a) understanding the context within which God was working with humanity and b) being as carefully to learn what God expects from us and not what we expect from Him. I'm of the opinion that the Bible is the written witness to God's revelation of himself to humanity. From the beginning to the end we have learned more about God's character and his will for us in our lives, culminating in Jesus' commands and salvation. Is it possible, and likely, that some of the OT authors praised (or at least didn't condemn) some (extremely) morally questionable acts. For some (see the 2nd and 3rd link), this is a deal breaker for the Christian God (or at least Bible).

Take Lot, as an example. He was entertaining guests (angels, we're told) in Sodom. A mob comes demanding the men so they can have a giant orgy sex fest (didn't know the Bible was so racy huh?). Instead of defiling his guests, he offers up his virgin daughters instead. What a wonderful father. Now, the Bible is clearly full of sinners. We often forget that every character has a dark side. Every David has his Bathsheba. So why does Lot's story (along with the rest like it) anger the non-believers? Because God did not explicitly condemn Lot for his proposal. In fact, God saved Lot from the destruction of the city. If our God really is behind the Moral Code, then he can't be the same God that appears in the Bible. The Bible is full of morally questionable acts, many of which are not condemned and even venerated by (at least) the authors of the Bible. So that's the complaint. Here's my response...for what it's worth...

The story of Lot shows us only the events as perceived by Lot (who, I would assume, thought he was making the best decision) and not as perceived by God. It's a bit of a stretch to read God's lack of condemnation into the story (as God's thoughts on the matter weren't recorded), especially because the angels stopped the gang-rape from going down: "But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door" (19:10-11 NIV). Though, even if they had allowed it, that still doesn't make us privy to God's judgement of the decision. It's a bit arrogant to assume you know what God was thinking (though I'll admit, Christians do it all the time). They still object that even if God didn't say he approved of Lot, he certainly must have because he didn't let Lot die along with the rest of the city. But how is that an objection?? God saves sinners all the time! If he only saved the morally upright, well we'd all be done for. God didn't have to think Lot's actions were commendable in order to save him. Perhaps he had more in store for Lot, who knows. Some still object that the author didn't condemn Lot, and Lot never repented, and of all the stories in history why include one that is so morally shady... Well, that's what you expect from your construction of what a God like ours should do. Unfortunately for you, if God really does exist, he needn't be obliged to act as you decide he should.

Let me reiterate something. Even if the authors didn't see some actions as wrong, that doesn't entail that God doesn't see them as wrong. Yes, the OT contains many instances of God making his opinion on such matters known, but it is by no means exhaustive. Nor do the shaky morals of the authors condemn God, even if he largely inspired the OT. God is under no obligation to include an exhaustive list of moral judgements. Also, our so called *enlightened* morals of today only seem so to us, just as the OT authors thought that they too had it right. It's hypocritical to blame the OT writers for doing when you do the very same thing in the process. There is no guarantee that our morals are correct. So don't be so quick to judge. As a philo student, I've studied more than enough philosophers who've thought they they'd finally discovered the true moral code (and who were wrong, at least in part) to know that we shouldn't be so arrogant.

But then again, I operate under the assumption that while there's a great deal for us to learn, we can by no means possess a complete and flawless grasp of morality (makes you wonder if my study of philosophy is a bit futile). I do see what the non-believers want out of a Christian God, but wanting God to operate a certain way doesn't make it the case that he does or even should. Nor does God failing to act the way we want or expect him to disprove his existence or his morality. At least, not in my opinion.