Sunday, February 24, 2008

Religion and Respect

I've just read this article by Simon Blackburn, about respect and religion. Blackburn address the question: “Why should I respect belief systems that I do not share?” He concludes that, in fact, he does not have to respect belief systems that he disagrees with. Not too long ago, I think I would have agreed with Blackburn on this. Now, though, I think I was, and he is, wrong about this. This is a question that I grappled with earlier this year (in the context of religion in schools). I wondered whether it was even possible to respect other people's beliefs. My initial response was no, I can't really respect other beliefs (if they are too far from my own), and this was mainly due to the fact that I wouldn't be able to fully understand a belief system that was too foreign to me. I thought respect , in the important sense (beyond toleration), required a level of understanding that could only be reached by actually agreeing with that person. Blackburn's article has changed my mind, surprisingly enough.

Blackburn recognizes a spectrum of respect that can range from mere toleration (live and let live), to admiration or esteem, to reverence. Basic respect, or toleration, is easy enough. But can you really respect someone's belief system in a thicker sense if you don't yourself agree with that belief system? Blackburn says no, because he can't bring himself to respect (in a deeper sense, though not the deepest sense) a person who holds a false belief. Blackburn says,

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.” (emphasis mine)

I want to draw your attention to the text in bold. This is where I take issue with Blackburn's stance. Blackburn cannot respect a person who holds a false belief, because he operates under the assumption that if someone believes something different than he does, then she must be wrong. Blackburn targets this criticism mainly towards religious people, because he, obviously, is an atheist. He believes that his atheism is correct, and he has every right to believe that. However, he misses the point of respect here. Respect does not equal “agreeing with” someone. Of course your atheism leads you to believe that my belief in God is false, but it does not follow that my belief actually is false. And this is the crucial part. It is because of our fallibility that we should respect opposing beliefs held by others. Blackburn could be right, God might not exist. But he could be wrong. He believes he's right, and I believe he's wrong. It is a belief, and none of us is infallible. Because we cannot know, we have a compelling reason to give some credence to other belief systems. This is where respect comes in. Part of respecting someone with opposing beliefs is recognizing that you might be wrong and she may very well be right. It's about having some humility in the way you treat another person, because you can't assume that you are infallible. That's not to say that you don't strongly believe that you are right, it just means you accept the humbling fact that you can't really be sure.

Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. It's the type of respect I have for my atheist and agnostic friends. I don't agree with them, but I don't have to. I recognize that they have some good reasons to believe what they do (even if those reasons doesn't sway my own beliefs). That's the type of respect that is important to have. It's about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.

Granted this leaves open the possibility that I won't respect the belief systems of some people. Whether I agree with their beliefs or not, if I don't think they hold those beliefs for legitimate reasons or with intellectual honesty, then I can't (and shouldn't have to) respect them. It's also why I have a hard time respecting some militant atheists and extreme Christian fundamentalists. There's a lack of humility in the way some of them hold their beliefs that makes me uneasy, regardless of whether I agree with said beliefs. This lack of humility will undoubtedly affect their willingness to engage in reasonable and open discussions with persons holding opposing beliefs, a willingness that is at the foundation of the sort of respect I'm getting at here.

So I guess what this amounts to is that I used to think I couldn't fully respect (in the esteem sense) someone I disagreed with. I now think that I can, and for many people, I think I should.

update: This post is really just a rough outline of my intuitions, so I encourage you to check out Harry's post here for more thoughts on this topic.

and yet another update: In light of comments appearing at CT, I thought I'd add some more thoughts (that also appear in the comment thread, but I'll put here anyways).

John M writes at comment #13 that you can't truly respect a person and allow them to continue to hold what you think are false beliefs. I think he has a point, but only to a certain degree. I think you have a good reason to engage with the person about her beliefs, show her where you think she is false, discuss where she thinks you are false, and overall try to learn something from each other. I don't think you have to be on a mission to make them change their beliefs. Admittedly, I, and many Christians, do try to persuade others to believe in God (because we believe that we hold a true belief, laugh all you want). In the same way, Harry also engages with Christians (or at least me) about my beliefs, making it clear why he doesn’t believe and that he's genuinely interested in why I do. He’s not bothered if I don’t change my mind (in the end), but he does engage my beliefs nevertheless. So in that sense, reasonably discussing our different opinions is our way of both understanding and respecting each others beliefs, and I suppose in our way we are each trying to show each other why we believe the other holds a false belief. But that doesn’t amount to an outright campaign to change each other’s minds.

I don’t think that you can both respect someone’s belief and ignore it (or merely tolerate it). Real respect, in my opinion, requires you to treat that belief as one that is worthy of both consideration and critique. If you didn’t respect it, you wouldn’t bother to critique it. Whether you care if the person actually changes her mind is not the same as treating her belief as something that is worthy to be evaluated (for both its merits and shortcomings).

Brian W writes at comment #15 that I'm misreading Blackburn's stance. He doesn't think Blackburn is being too harsh in affirming the falsehood of religious beliefs. He says this, I think (though I'm not quite sure), because that assertion isn't necessarily an admission of infallibility. I suppose that's true. I often claim X, when I'm not completely certain of X. But if I only claim X when I am completely certain about X, then I doubt I'll ever be able to claim much at all. Point taken (I think?). But I do think there's more of a disagreement there than my uncharitable reading of Blackburn's position.

Blackburn's article came off to me (and I think, to Harry, though he can comment on that himself), as though he was not only claiming his inability to respect religious beliefs, but also that he was basing that lack of respect on the falsehood of those beliefs. He just said they were false, plain and simple. There was no "I believe (strongly) that such beliefs are false." This attitude was pervasive throughout the article, and it was easily recognizable in the sense that I’ve come across it all too often (not least among Christians, and yes, even at Crooked Timber --think the comment section). It’s the idea that I can’t respect you because you just are wrong, when in reality you don’t respect them because you think they are wrong. You may, as Harry said, be “very-close-to-certain” that you are right, but that’s quite different from being completely certain. Perhaps this has no effect on how we should evaluate each other’s beliefs per se, but having this sort of humility does enable the process of respect formation. Because I am aware that I could be wrong, I find it easier to engage with and appreciate your (opposing) beliefs. I think that a lack of this sort of humility is a block to respecting others. That doesn’t mean you and I can’t draw conclusions, even fairly close to certain conclusions (as we all do), but it does mean we have to at least approach opposing view points with a different sort of attitude. Maybe you don’t think that’s important, but I think it is precisely because I see humility as a key to respect. If I was completely convinced in my own infallibility, then I would not bother to even consider opposing beliefs, because it would be a non-question. And perhaps Blackburn doesn’t have this attitude, but after reading the article, he could’ve fooled me.

Further down someone remarked that I give atheists automatic respect, and that clearly misses the mark. I will respect your atheism when you show me why you hold it and how you live by it. Many (militant) atheists forfeit their respect because they can’t be bothered to do just that (and the same goes for the more militant brands of fundamentalism). Respect is not the default. It is earned. I'm still not clear on how, though I think Harry did a fine job of outlining what might be going on there.

Someone else asked why we should bother with respect at all. Well, we do live in a pluralistic society. If you and I want to coexist, we have to figure out just how that’s going to work. We may, upon thoughtful collaboration, discover some surprising similarities and agree on some policies, etc. But this stage is hard to reach without the type of respect I’m getting at. Also, fwiw, the type of respect that Harry and I have for each other’s beliefs has, surprisingly, helped me navigate my own beliefs. Because I respect what (and how) he believes what he does, and because he respectfully engages my beliefs (not without pointing me to where he thinks I’ve got it wrong, mind you), I have a better sense of what I believe and why. My beliefs have a more solid foundation than before because his respect led me to further examine and reexamine what I believed. This could have resulted in me giving up my beliefs, and for those who care, it did result in my giving up my strange sort of political conservatism to embrace a more socialist-oriented outlook.

However, in the case of God our discussions have served to strengthen my beliefs. I'm certain this was not Harry's purpose, at least I don't think, and perhaps you’d see that as a disadvantage to respect. Of course the outcome would be different for each person depending on just why they believe what they do and whether those reasons hold up to further scrutiny. Again, my respect for Harry (and for his disbelief) has made me more responsible with my own beliefs, and that, I think, is an advantage of this type of respect.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sneaky Christians or Reasonable Pluralists?

So here's an interesting post over at TC. For the most part the post is about the ID movement (and how ID is just a backdoor way of teaching creationism). The broader question, and the more interesting question, is how this sort of technique is employed in other debates by Christians. Here's a bit from the post:
Go to many Christian websites or books about abortion and you’ll find a lot of arguments about why abortion is a dangerous procedure, can cause health complications in women, can lead to emotional problems for women, etc. These arguments are legitimate, but the real reason that Christians are worked up is not that they’re concerned about the health risks of abortion—it’s that they believe abortion is morally wrong and against God’s will. They just don’t dare phrase it like that.... I see something similar in the way a lot of Christians talk about premarital sex. They’re against it, and have a load of good reasons why: it’s unsafe, it can result in disease, it can produce children you’re not ready for, it can be emotionally damaging—all good reasons, but lurking behind them is the real reason: God.
So my question is: are these tactics employed because Christians are too cowardly to be honest about their real reason (God) OR are these tactics used because a pluralistic society necessitates them? I don't doubt that often times we, as Christians, talk about the "other" reasons not to do things like have pre-marital sex instead of just outright saying "because God says not to" because we are afraid to be honest. But, cowardliness aside, I still don't think it's a bad thing to do. Actually, I think it's what Christians should be doing when we discuss our moral principles in the public arena.

Why should Christians leave God out of the discussion? Well for one, our moral foundation makes sense (and has authority) only to us. We are supposed to hold fellow believers accountable to living up to the belief system that we hold, but we can't expect a non-believer to also comply with our beliefs. That's not to say that God won't hold them to his own standards, it's just to say that we have no right to ourselves. But, and here's the great part, God tends to give us his commands for a good reason. Like the whole no-pre-martial-sex thing, well there are some damn good reasons to follow that command (emotional, health, avoid pregnancy, etc). So yes, maybe as a Christian you won't have sex before marriage because God said not too, but if you still believe its important for others to do likewise, then you can explain how, even without God in the equation, it's still better not to mess around before you're ready. That's not to say this is true of all of God's commands, but for the most part you can pretty easily see why God would want us to stay away from certain activities. If you can see why God would want you to avoid certain activites, then you can explain that to a non-believer and they may even come to agree with you.

Why do I think being able to explain why is so important? Well for starters, we cannot and should not enforce our beliefs on other people (in so far as they are not harming anyone other than themselves). God allows us to choose if we want to follow him, and we have to let each other choose if we want to follow him. You can't force God onto somebody, and you can't force his commands on them either. Jesus didn't overthrow the Roman government. He did what he was supposed to do and he let society at large decide for itself. Why? Because you can't legislate love for God. It can't be done. The Puritans tried it, the medieval Church tried it, and it just doesn't work. People will always have to make that choice for themselves.

And then there's this whole reasonable pluralism thing. In a democratic society, you can expect to have a fair amount of disagreement, esp about what the foundation of a good life really is. The disagreement is pretty much unavoidable. So to make such a society function, it's members literally have to agree to disagree about certain things. But they don't have to stop there. They can disagree about moral foundations, but still agree about overall principles, or better yet, policies, that are derived from those foundations. They may not be able to agree on these, but they must try if they are going to coexist in the same society. The must let each other choose for themselves and then they must figure out how to get along after those choices are made. The best way to reach agreement, therefore, is by figuring out what you do agree on and building from there. So maybe you don't believe in God, fine, but do you believe in (insert alternative reason)? There is enough consensus on overarching moral standards (killing is usually bad, life is worth keeping and living to its fullest, children need to be taken care of, etc) that regardless of the base that they come from, you can agree on something. If Christians want to participate in this discussion, I hate to say it, but using "the Bible says so" will not get you very far. But it's not the end of the world! God knows if/why you are living the way you do, and He sees your effort to contribute to society. So simmer down and concentrate on how you can serve people instead of picking fights with them....

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't hate the saints...

I've just read this paper on Moral Saints by Professor Wolf at UNC- Chapel Hill. It's not exactly recent, but still pretty good, and here's my attempt at dissecting it. First off there's the thesis that moral sainthood is not the ideal you would think it is. A moral saint, she claims, is a person who forgoes their own interests (or whose happiness depends upon) serving the interests of others. The moral saint will always choose to serve others over herself, whether she does so happily (the Loving Saint) or out of duty (the Rational Saint). Naturally, such a person is likely to be lacking in certain nonmoral virtues, such as well-roundedness and pursuit of fulfilling personal potential in various ways (music, relationships, athletics, etc). According to Wolf, the moral saint lacks such nonmoral virtues because the pursuit of said virtues is likely to conflict with the interests of others. Without such extra-qualities, the picture of the moral saint begins to look less rosy. Nevermind the objection that we would most likely find such a saint to be vexing or obnoxious (in the best way of course), for the saint's own sake it would be preferable for her to serve herself every now and then.

(As an aside, about the brief objection above: Of course, this objection is more likely fueled by some sort of envy rather than substance. It's likely that you wouldn't get on well with someone who has achieved "moral sainthood" because of your own inability to be as saintly as the person in question (and that, of course, cannot hold much philosophical weight as far as objections go). I find swimmers like Ian Thorpe rather annoying, but my envy at his natural athletic ability doesn't diminish the awesomeness of his accomplishments, nor should it make my goal of becoming as fast as him (I wish) any less worthy of a goal.)

Now at first this article struck me as a bit off, precisely because I have always assumed that moral sainthood is an admirable goal (though I highly doubt our ability to achieve it). The article claims (quite convincingly) that it's not that great a goal after all, but I shan't give up that easily. So let's start by taking a closer look at Wolf's picture of moral sainthood.

According to Wolf, a moral saint is, essentially, any "person whose every action is as morally good as possible... a person who is as morally worthy as can be." Okay, that's a good start. But what qualifies as being "as morally good as possible"? That will obviously depend quite heavily on the moral theory to which one subscribes. A utilitarian, for example, will always pursue the maximum net happiness, whereas the Kantian will always act on moral principles that should be universal. There are two ways in which this picture of sainthood, under either ethical theory, begins to look grim.

The lesser problem is the commitment to determining what is, in fact, the moral thing to do. Moral decisions are not always easy (esp if you are trying to make the best moral decision, not just a good enough one). Wolf calls this the problem of having "one thought too many." In other words, the person would end up spending an excessive amount of time trying to decide what to do, and that time could be better spent do something else. I can see how in the actual world this objection has quite a bit of sway, but I don't think it holds so well in the ideal world (and I'm allowed to bring this up because of the next objection). I say this because you could argue that a real moral saint wouldn't have to try so hard (that it would just come naturally), in which case it needn't be an obsession or waste of time, but rather the natural behavior of the saint. But, matters, the next objection is the important one.

So the real problem is that the moral saint must be lacking in many good nonmoral virtues if she is truly be as morally good as possible (even if this is in the ideal world and she does it all by second nature). Why? Well for starters, if she is more concerned about others than herself, then developing her own person is not likely to be one of her goals, at least in so far as developing her own skills and desires takes time or resources that could be going to someone else. Wolf acknowledges that perhaps self-development could be seen as a way to better help others (becoming a surgeon or something, probably not a philosopher though...), but that doesn't solve the problem that the moral saint is limited from pursuing the type of self-enrichment activities that we consider good for their own sake. If being a moral saint means that you can't pursue things that we consider good, then perhaps the goal of being perfectly morally isn't such a great goal after all. Wolf has a point. There is a tension between perfectly serving others and living a well-rounded life. So what's a saint to do?

Well I think there a two possible ways out of this jam. Both will require an altered perspective of what constitutes moral behavior and what scope morality really does have over the saint's life. The first solution is to ask why the saint must consider her own life after or below the lives of others. I'm fairly certain that most moral theories would at least put the life of the agent on par or equal with the lives of others, certainly not beneath. That being said, you could argue that the saint not only has a responsibility to help promote the wellbeing of others, but also her own wellbeing. In fact, you could go so far as to say that each person has a duty first to develop or work towards her own wellbeing, if only because that is the most efficient way of starting the whole "well-being protection" process, because each agent can do the most to help herself, and since she ought to use her power to help people, and her own self is included in people, and she's in such a great position to help herself, then she needn't deny herself her own attention (at least not to a reasonable degree). You could even say she is morally obligated to at least do what she can for herself, because if no one did, then everyone would be the worse off and no one would be helped at all. So if there's some moral obligation to help yourself, then within limits, this would be part of the morally best course of action and wouldn't diminish but rather would increase the moral worthiness of the saint. So this route says that the saint should at least give herself as much attention as she gives to others, which may open the door for her to pursue nonmoral virtues.

Another route (along the same lines) would be to outright claim that we have a specific duty to make the most of our own lives (again, within reason and with limits --and no, I won't outline any here, sorry, but I will acknowledge that this needs clarification). You could draw a bit on the thought process in the previous paragraph and appeal to our unique position to help and develop our own selves. This unique position demands action, because no one else can do for us what we can do for ourselves. No one else can live your life, and it's up to you to make your life worth living. You have a responsibility to do so. Is it a moral responsibility? Morality is a code of conduct, right? And part of conduct is how your take care of and develop yourself. Now I'm not advocating selfishness or every man for himself, but I am making a claim that perhaps we have moral duties to ourselves before we have moral duties to others, namely because we can do more for ourselves than others can do for us. Stupid example: I have to feed myself everyday. If I decide not to bother, then I can't really be upset that I'm starving. Other people could feed me, and that'd be great, but it's sort of wrong to make them feed me if I'm perfectly capable of feeding myself. Now if I wasn't able to feed myself (for whatever reason, maybe physical or financial or something), then okay, I may rely on help from others. Do you see what I mean? The moral saint need not completely neglect her own life in order to serve the interests of others because her life is just as important as theirs and there are things she can do for herself that others can't, so she has a duty to pay special attention to her own life.

Now that's fairly obvious on the "how we actually live" scene, but it's not that obvious we think of the perfectly moral person. Sometimes our idea of the moral saint is someone who devalues her own life to the point of ridiculousness. But she needn't do that, because it wouldn't be very morally praiseworthy to value a life less than others, even if that life is her own. Now this is a far cry from an argument that the moral saint can pursue Russian literature or her passion for the oboe, but it's a start. There's something to the idea that we ought to live a life as full as we can. Why? Maybe because life is a "gift" (for the less spiritually inclined, you can say that you only have this one chance and you're lucky you have it so try to make the best of it). If being well-rounded is valuable, and if morality is essentially a code of conduct that would be put forth by rational persons (SEP), and if rational persons pursue what is valuable, then why not? I see no reason why the saint shouldn't be able to pursue what Wolf labeled "nonmoral" virtues. I actually think she may have a moral duty to do so. So I guess what I'm saying is that wasting your life is, essentially, immoral.

Now I can't help myself, so here's what I see to be the Christian perspective on the moral sainthood quandary. I think that God gave us this life as a gift, and He wants us to use it and reach the potential that He created in each of us. You know the parable of the talents? The master entrusted each servant with some money, and he praised the servants that took what he gave them and made the most of it. He praised the good stewards of his blessings. If you squander your talent or natural gifts, then you're not living up to the potential God created in you, and that's not exactly a moral victory. Of course the greatest thing you can do is to fulfill your potential in such a way that you give back to others in the process. We should use our potential to serve God, and in that sense you have a win-win. You can have both a rich life full of all the blessings God has given you and still turn those blessing back to those around you in service. Moral saints need not be boring and dull with empty lives. Far from it. But of course, it all turns on what you take to be morally required. I just think our moral responsibility is not to everyone other than ourselves, but rather we are responsible first to God and He wants us to live up to what He has planned for us, and then we turn that over in service to others.

So I guess that was all to say that I think moral sainthood is a worthy goal, however hard it is to achieve. The end. :)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bible thumping Ephod worshipers

Update: I've been getting a lot of traffic from google for people looking up what an ephod is. If that's you, this post won't be very helpful (though perhaps somewhat). This post doesn't have a historical description or explanation; it's more like a critique on how we misuse the Bible (in the way that the Isrealites misused the ephod). Hope that helps.

Via TC, I came across this powerful article by Darin Hufford over at Ooze. Essentially, the article is about how we have exchanged God for the Bible, and we glorify the Bible in such a way that God is almost out of the picture completely. Darin is a Biblical scholar who can't seem to understand why the modern church (and modern Christians) have fetishized the Bible. He uses this example from the OT:
At the end of Gideon's "deliverance career" the Israelites wanted to make him their king. Gideon refused, and said that instead of becoming their king he would like them to each bring him a gold ear ring from the plunder. Everyone brought a portion of gold and Gideon melted it down and made a "golden Ephod". The Ephod was the vest that the priests put on when they entered the Holy of Holies. In the pocket of the Ephod were the lots, which were used when they "caste lots" in order to determine God's will in a certain situation. When the priest entered the temple wearing the golden Ephod, he could actually hear the voice of God audibly. You might remember one time when King David told the priests to "bring him the golden Ephod". David put it on and went into the temple to ask God whether or not he should attack the Amalakites. David heard the audible voice of God tell him to attack.

The story of Gideon goes on to say that after the golden Ephod was made, "all of Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping the Ephod". Think of that for a moment. They actually worshiped the way in which to determine God's will over worshiping God Himself. The story later goes on to say that it became a snare to Gideon and his family.

So what does this have to do with the Bible? One of the things we are taught about the Bible is that it is the way in which to determine the will of God. I believe that just as the Israelites prostituted themselves after the golden Ephod, modern day Christians do the exact same with the Bible. We have prostituted ourselves after the Bible and there is no doubt in my mind that it has become a thorn and a snare to almost every Christian in America. In fact I think many Christians have actually traded God for the Bible. Many others have even come to the point where they think God IS the Bible! I truly believe that the Bible has become the "golden Ephod" of our time. (emphasis mine)
I think he has a point here. There is a difference between using the Bible as tool or a guide versus making it an object of worship. He goes on to say that our attitude towards the Bible is not only unbiblical (if you'll excuse the irony) but is a horrible snare to having a genuine relationship with God. He says, "Most of the things we are taught about the Bible are found nowhere in the Bible; they come from a religious spirit that seeks to whittle people down to a spiritual nub in an effort to gain control over their minds. Without a doubt, this wonderful book has been used to cuff the spirits of millions of sincere hearted people who honestly want to connect with God's Heart."

Now before I continue let me add that both the author and I are on the same page about the importance of the Bible. While it's important to remember (and act) like the Bible is a tool from God, not god itself, it's also important to delve into all that the Bible has to offer about God's interaction with people over time. It's there for a reason: to help us understand more about God and our purpose and grow as believers. But it is not the end all be all of one's spiritual life. Reading the Bible everyday does not replace genuine communion with God. The Bible is NOT God. Consequently, we do not have to be so jumpy to defend the Bible. If the Bible is God, and if the Bible has errors or inconsistencies, then yeah, there's a problem. But the Bible is not, nor will it ever be, God. The Bible is supposed to be a helpful guide, a reference book, but not the obstacle that keeps people from growing in their faith. This point in the article is rather poignant:

I understand that most of us have never stopped to think about these things, but if you step back and take an honest look at the landscape of our religion, I think you'll be surprised at how right I am. The American Christian system has wholeheartedly exchanged God for the Bible! This is precisely why so many sincere hearted people go into a full fledged panic attack the moment anyone suggests that there might be errors or discrepancies in the Bible. Most Christians will outright tell you that to even entertain such a thought is blasphemy. Because we have made the "God exchange" we have to insist that the Bible now takes on the attributes of God Himself. This is why it is imperative that everyone believe the Bible is infallible. It is equally grieving to my heart when I hear people say things like, "If there is even one thing wrong in the Bible, our entire faith is worthless". Their entire existence as a Christian stands on the belief that there are no errors in Scripture. If they were to be shown a true discrepancy in Scripture that could not be explained away, it would literally cause their entire religion to come caving in on them. I've heard people openly admit, "If you can't believe it all, you can't believe any of it". Their entire faith stands on Scripture instead of Christ. Make no mistake about it, there has been an exchange of monumental proportions! (emphasis mine)
It's sad really. I'll be the first to admit that the Bible has done a tremendous amount of good in my life, but I will also admit that I often make this switch for God and Bible. It's just so much easier to have something concrete, something I can actually see and touch and read. It's my Ephod. What was a tool for helping discern God's will becomes God to me. Let me flip to this chapter and see if I can't answer my own question. No luck? God, why didn't you put that in there? Or, even better, I (knowing enough of the Bible) flip to the section that I know in advance will confirm my own desire. If you go back to my recent post on wealth, you'll see that on both sides of the wealth argument there is scripture. Because you see, the Bible is not God, it is from Him (I really believe), but it is not Him. But if you think it is Him, then you can go to whatever verse fits your desires and hold it up as a banner testifying to God's approval of your choice. Not so my friends. You know who else used to do this? The Pharisees:
We are no different in this generation from the Pharisees in Jesus' day. They had a very similar view of their Old Testament scriptures. Jesus confronted them and said, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:39-40). The Pharisees were making the same trade that millions of Christians have made today. Another point about this passage is that Jesus clearly makes a distinction between "studying the Scriptures" and "coming to Him".
So I guess the point of this post is a warning. The Bible is not a replacement for God in the same way that just going to church on Sundays does not replace an actual relationship with Him. The Bible and fellowship together are great things, but they are not the thing. Remember that. And next time you get all riled up about thumping that Bible over somebody's head, remember that God never intended the Bible to become a beating stick. It is for edification, but NOT division, driving seekers away, or cherry-picking verses. Remember that.

Okay I was going to end there, but I've just read through some of the comments over at TC and I can't help but add some more thoughts. Some of the commentators are worried that the attitude promoted in Darin's article will lead people to disregard the Bible entirely. Now, obviously, Darin will be the first to admit (and he does early in his article) that he truly believes the Bible is God-inspired and God-given for us to use and learn from. That much we all agree on. The question isn't whether or not the Bible has truths for our lives, it's what status or value we give the Bible itself. We call the Bible the "Word of God" but the Bible doesn't call itself the "Word of God" because it wasn't even complied until much later. The Bible calls Jesus, not the Scriptures, the Word of God. We are the ones calling the Bible by Jesus' name, but it does not call itself that. We DO know, however, that even Jesus used and believed in the Scripture (after all, the Scripture is what he came to fulfill), but remember, the devil too cited scripture while trying to ensnare Jesus. The Bible can be used for good (as Jesus did in the desert) or for bad. God can not be used for good or bad, he just is good. So obviously they are not interchangeable. That means we must use the Bible with caution, remembering that inevitably we come to it with our own baggage and narrow interpretations. It is a good thing. But again, it is not the thing. We all know how to get what we want out of the Bible, but we mustn't do that and we must use it with care and humility. It is not a beating stick. It is not God. Yes, Jesus used scripture, and yes it is really important. But, that's all the more reason to come at it with care and to use it for constructive purposes. After all, this is what it says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
God-breathed, not God. Equipping us for good work. So let's do some.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Changing the Game

I've recently stumbled upon a new blog, Gender, Race and Philosophy, and in particular this post about Obama's political vision. Personally, I've never been interested in politics, but that's mostly because I don't think the game is played well. Politics, in the US, is usually some sort of media-hyped hardball. Without fail, in every election one of the candidates initiates the game of hardball, and the others follow suit for fear of letting the other candidate get ahead. The game escalates, and madness ensues. It's not the meaningful politics that we should be participating in, but rather another version of bad reality tv (which I watch a lot of, so I should know). The post reminded me of a paper I wrote last year in reaction to a chapter in Galston's The Practice of Liberal Pluralism. So here are some of my further thoughts on the matter, in conjecture with GRP's wonderful insight on this year's campaign.

I hate to sum up Galston unfairly in a paragraph or two, but this is a blog, so I haven't much choice. I'll preface this by saying that this is how Galston's argument seemed to me, so if it's not as charitable as you'd like, well I'm sorry. This is primarily about Galston's chapter on political toughness. Essentially, he recognizes that there are certain valuable goals of the government, and the leaders that are able to achieve such goals need possess a certain toughness (roughly construed), firstly to gain a position of power and secondly to put those goals to work while in power. Toughness is the balance between squeamishness and callousness, wishfulness and cynicism, and innocence and calculating. The right balance of on these three spectrums will achieve some toughness equilibrum whereby the politician can "contemplate the performance of intrinsically distasteful and objectionable acts, but only at the right time and in the right manner.” Fair enough. Certainly life is full of trade-offs, and you don't have to be Machiavelli to occasionally sacrifice a principle or two for the sake of more important principles or demands. However, Galston applies this toughness to the race for power in a way that, to me, defeats the whole purpose of a deliberative government.

He assumes that democratic politicians have a responsibility to act on the behalf of others in the pursuit of ends “that others have a good reason to expect him to pursue." These ends are likely to include the minimization of summum malum, the underlying purpose of the political system as a whole. To be a politician, you must take this responsibility seriously and act accordingly, even if that includes employing disagreeable means. In addition, your tactics must be shaped according to how the world actually is, not just how you think the world should be. Adjusting to the world as it is, according to Galston, includes considering the decisions of your opponents. Accordingly, if your adversary initiates a game of “hardball” (the use of disagreeable, but not utterly reprehensible, tactics to achieve an end), then you are obligated to play hardball as well. You must use similar distasteful tactics because they are the only effective means to win and hold power in our society as it is. However, playing hardball in the political arena condones the existence of the game in the first place. By playing the game, the leader essentially accepts the rules by which the game is played. Also, if politicians make use of underhanded tactics routine, then the public becomes desensitized to these tactics. They begin to see such means as acceptable and normal, which in turn makes it harder for a politician to opt out of the game. The game has become a routine and anticipated feature of the political system. Moreover, continual use of such tactics usually leads to the escalation of the distasteful tactics employed. As the game progresses, the only effective strategy is an increased use of disagreeable means. The truly balanced political leader should find it difficult to use such means, and it should be noted that this difficulty increases as the need to use such tactics increases. Eventually, the game will change from hardball to “dirtyball,” where the means are not only disagreeable but also unacceptable. In such a case, the leader’s moral balance is lost. This, to me, is unacceptable.

American politics is a prime example of this cycle. The public no longer sees the initial purpose of the government, because they've been bombarded by this game that the politicians play, a game that has nothing to do with what's really at stake. When the game becomes bigger than the needs of society (with the "good of society" as a banner for the game itself), then it's time to change the game. That's where this post on Obama comes in. Essentially, Hillary sees the tactics of the right and she reacts. By reacting, she perpetuates the game as it is currently played. Her mentality is that to win you must get in that arena with your opponents (the attack dogs), which means she must become one herself. Obama's vision (I won't comment on his implemenation of said vision) is to abstain from the game. He wants a new game with new rules, where genuine debate and deliberation are the keys to a successful government (and campaign, for that matter).

GRP says:
"Why should progressives take Obama's metapolitics seriously? Two reasons. One is that it is an attempt to transform the political culture. That is, to break with the Clintonian style of responding reactively to the attack dog mode of Republican politics that aggressively sides with allies against enemies. The reactive Clintonian style simply reproduces this mode. The short hand for Obama's critique of this mode: "they are willing to say anything to win." The key idea, however, is that poltical culture should be geared less to the ally/enemy distinction and more to the idea that, the diversity of the polity notwithstanding, ordinary, democratically energized Americans can mobilize/debate their way towards common understandings of the common good." (emphasis mine)

And that's just it. I think toughness, as promoted by Galston, is Clinton's strategy. But all of this toughness is blinding everyone to the real reason for the game in the first place, and I hope our political culture can actually transform into something worthwhile. I'm not sure if Obama can do it, but at least he's trying (or says he is).

I leave you with this last bit from GRP:
"A successful transformation of the political culture along these lines (which Obama compares to Reagan's transformation of American political culture--an analogy that Hillary has gone out of her way deliberately to misrepresent) may be needed for the establishment of an enduring progressive coalition (in Obama's words--democrats, independents, and some Republicans) that, rather than constantly react to and compromise with post-Reagan Republican ideas (an important part of Bill Clinton's legacy, as is evident, e.g., in the compromise over welfare reform), articulates in new terms (talk of common sense and of a common good) a new progressive agenda. The insistence, in short, that overcoming a reactive political style is the indispensable first step moving towards the articulation of a nonreactive, progressive political agenda." (emphasis mine)

So there you have it. Maybe if the game gets a makeover then I won't loathe it so much. Maybe.