Saturday, April 19, 2008

Faith, Politics and Philosophy...broadly speaking

I've recently been brought into on ongoing discussion about faith, politics and philosophy (courtesy of Russell at IMR). Essentially, the question is: what role should religious belief have in a democratic and pluralistic society? While I think the more general question of religious belief is important, for now I will focus on the more specific question about the role of Christianity in a pluralistic society. I'm narrowing my focus for a few reasons, mainly for lack of space to elaborate further, but more importantly, my knowledge of Christianity far out strips my knowledge of other religions. So I'll stick with what I know, so to speak. For background reading of what's been discussed already, check out this review by Damon Linker about Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity, which is then discussed by Russell over at IMR. I encourage you to read both Damon and Russell's thoughts, because I don't have the space to adequately discuss them, and will be (for all intensive purposes) diving straight into my own thoughts on the matter.

There are two problems we can look at, and I'm unsure which is better to start with. There is, as Marsh and Damon argue, the problem of modern American evangelicals' involvement in politics, an involvement that could be accused of betraying the very faith they are fighting to protect. This is a big issue, one that deserves serious thought and discussion, but for the moment I will put it aside. That our current system is rife with trouble doesn't surprise me. That a future system could be better --well that's what I'm concerned with. More importantly, I want to know how our system should operate. In an ideal system, we would know how to balance the demands of a liberal and pluralistic society with our individual faith (or lack there of). Again, I will stick with Christianity, in part because I'm unsure if all other faiths could strike the appropriate balance. To me, the question is a very important one because I am deeply concerned with the structure and affects of our society on individuals, but I am even more concerned with serving the God in whom I believe. I'd like to work for both, but if push comes to shove, I know which of the two I would give up, and it isn't God (my priority is, as Marsh argues, as it should be for a religious believer). This priority surfaced earlier in my post about patriotism and Christianity, where I argued that a genuine believer will serve God first, country somewhere further down the list (I would hope not second, but I'll settle for not first). This doesn't mean I don't care about my fellow citizens; on the contrary, I care about them a great deal as fellow children of God, and I want us all to live together in harmony. But my care for them comes after my love of God, so my role in our political system is looking fuzzy. It seems that I have a compelling reason to find a balance between the demands of my society and the demands of my faith, lest I feel forced to abandon one for the other.

My intuitions tell me that a balance is possible, or better still, that is required by the faith that I profess. I will even entertain the idea that part of the reason why I retain my faith is because it doesn't force impossible tradeoffs, at least not when it counts. So in one respect, I am able to balance my faith with the demands of my society, but in another, my faith is affirmed because it (can) positively contribute to securing justice in our society. One reason why I will focus on Christianity is because I believe that the core principles of the Christian faith promote justice and harmony; they not contradict them. If they did contradict them, I'm unsure if my faith would survive. To put it inadequately, my very conception of God is intertwined with the belief that He is loving and just, and so He would (I can presume) want me to promote love and justice in society. But that's sort of off topic, and I'm unsure quite how to explain what I mean, so I'll leave it at that for now.

Let's start by examining the typical liberal tradition, easy to see if you look at Rawls (and other contractualists), where we must find universally acceptable justifications for policies and other measures that coerce or otherwise affect our fellow citizens. "Because God said so" is not, on a Rawlsian account, a good enough justification. It's not good enough precisely because it can't justify your position to your atheist neighbor. So if God said so, that's great, but it's like having inadmissible evidence in a trial. It can't be used, even if it's the key to proving a defendant's guilt or innocence. I think this analogy isn't a bad way to look at it. If, for example, you are right that God did in fact say so, that would settle whether or not such a policy or law should be put into effect. In other words, it would answer the more objective question of whether said policy is right, good, or overall the best option. However, it won't convince the jury, and for better or worse, the jury gets to decide (and yes, the jury may be wrong, but in the end it's the verdict that matters). In our society, your fellow citizens must be convinced, regardless of the objective answer to the question, just as in a trial the actual guilt or innocence of a defendant must be proved in such a way that it will convince reasonable people. That's the system, and I think that system has the right idea. The justification must convince other reasonable people because we believe that reason can lead to truth (or if you want, Truth), and because we are more fallible working alone than together. It is true that we are often wrong when working collectively, but hey, the more minds you have reasoning it out, the better chance you have to get it right. So, we want numbers, and we want numbers because we work on the assumption that reason does in fact lead to truth, or at least to better decisions, and two minds are better than one, etc etc. The assumption that reason leads to truth is not self-evident, though it may be common sense. I, for one, believe that our cognitive faculties have some worth, and they have the ability to reach answers. I also believe that they tend to reach right answers, if used properly and in concert with others. I could be wrong, and if I am, then everything I say here is pretty useless. But I'm not an epistemologist or philosopher of the mind, so I will take my common sense and role with it.

So the assumption is that we make people use universal justification because we believe that everyone has, or most everyone has, the capacity to reason out the solution, and consensus is our best way to figure out which solution is the best one. So for that reason we make this pretty hefty demand for justification on a group of people who have, no doubt, a very diverse spectrum of foundational beliefs. Problematic? Perhaps, but not crippling so. This view does favor "conceptions of the good" that support reason and common sense epistemology. But is that a bad thing? I don't think so, because I think the alternatives are worse. The alternative is that we just can't know, not by reason, and if we can't use reason then there's no way to reliably compare other possible justifications (ranging from God told me so to I just knew it when I saw a ladybug on my windshield). Reason has to matter. If it's worthless, then we might as well live in chaos. Even if reason is worthless, it's better to pretend it's not, so we'll go from there. Reason counts, and it counts for a lot. That will be my starting point.

I will pause here to answer a question that you may be wondering at this point. How, as a deeply religious person, could I elevate reason above God (this quick answer is: I'm not). Wouldn't I vote for the "because God said so" over "because I have rational justification"? You'd think so, wouldn't you? But I don't, and the reason I don't is the same reason why I'm restricting my focus to Christianity. In my Christian conception of God, He created us with the internal capacity to know and discover truths, truths about Himself, about moral laws, and about the reality in which we live. I believe that He equipped us with reason to use it, and I believe that He equipped everyone, regardless of what you end up believing in life. That is an important part of this discussion, and it's one that may be true in other religions. In the case that another religion casts doubt on that assumption, that religion may not be able to strike the same balance that I believe Christianity can (and this goes for secular positions in philosophy that cast doubt on morality as a whole, or on our rational capacities, though I won't venture to discuss this further at the moment). So, a central part of the balancing act is this fundamental agreement between Christians and other rationalists that people can, in fact, reach the truth (or at least part of it) through reason and experience. We believe this because we believe God equipped us this way, but how we got this way is not the important part for the moment, it's that we are this way. That being said, you can refer to some of my prior posts on religion and political issues to get a sense for what I mean here. I'm not shy about using secular justifications because I believe that God commands what He does for a reason and I believe that He makes those commands accessible internally to everyone. My scriptural justification for this is somewhere in those older posts, and I think another day I will revisit that more thoroughly.

So this is where I stand so far: we should appeal to universal reason because reason works, and using reason is not contradictory to my particular faith. I can't vouch for other faiths, but the Christian God (and more broadly, the Judeo-Christian God) is probably happy to see us use the gift He gave us, so let's do so. Now, that doesn't mean that I don't take "because God said so" seriously in my own life. I think often that when "God says so" (in the case that I truly believe God did say so) it is much more reliable than reason, because God is in the know (so to speak). But that's like equating what God believes or says with the objective innocence or guilt of the defendant, of course it's more reliable than what the jury decides. However, for practical purposes, it's what the jury decides that matters in our terrestrial society. So, even if God did say so, we have to use other alternatives to convince the jury. Does that make my faith worthless? Far from it. My faith, I'd like to think, gives me a sneak peak into the truth. If my faith is right, then it's sort of like being the best friend of the defendant, and the defendant confessed to me that she really did do it. I know the truth, and I have a reliable source for it. But, that doesn't mean other people will believe me, so I have to work with whatever else I have. Luckily, my inside knowledge can give me direction as I seek other evidence (even if it can't stand alone), and that's the beauty of faith.

My faith helps guide my reason, but my reason could (in theory) get to part of the truth without it. Happily, my faith (if I'm right, at least) can get me there quicker, and show me what to look for and what direction to reason in. That's where faith affects our politics. God is just, and God created us to be equal in worth. So, I want to find a way to make sure my society treats all of its citizens like they are equally worthy even if I can't use the justification that everyone is equal "in God's eyes." I still know what to shoot for, and I can still appeal to everyone else's moral compass because I believe that God gave us all the ability to discern moral truths, at least partially. Do you see where I'm going with this? Our faith guides our reason. It's like having a road map. Let's say I have a map that shows that I-94 will get me from Madison to Milwaukee. I trust the map, but my neighbor doesn't. We can both agree, however, that Milwaukee is at least east of Madison, so we have that in common, and even if we end up taking a longer route there --we essentially agree on the goal. I have to prove to my neighbor that the information on my map is reliable, but I can't just rely on the map to do that. That doesn't mean I discount what the map says, not at all (it was my map that clued me in that Milwaukee was at least east of Madison). I just can't give the map to someone else and expect them to trust it in the same way I do. And here's the great part, if the map is right, then it will get me to where I want to go. I will be able to confirm it's reliability through experience or some other way. In the same way, the God I believe in should give us fundamental moral commands that are confirmable through other means, if He did indeed equip us to figure them out independently. "Thou shall not kill" should make sense even in a secular context if killing really is wrong, and if God really did equip us in the way I believe He did (and in a way that would make sense for Him to do).... (I admit, this is surface level, but I'm trying to cover more ground than I can really do thoroughly, so my apologies)

Now, here is where the conflicting foundations problem becomes an issue. Let's say that we do reach some tentative agreement, you for secular reasons and me for religious ones. Even if we came to the same conclusion, are we really in agreement? Or more specifically, is our surface agreement sufficient for political purposes? I'm unsure what to do about surface agreements that stem from starchily opposing foundations, because part of me wants the jury to (roughly speaking) come to the same verdict for similar reasons. My question is, should that matter? Take this extreme example. Let's say that I think the state should outlaw murder because I believe that we ought to respect the life of another person in the same way that we would want them to respect our own lives (or something to that extent). Now let's say Amy believes murder should be illegal because peanut butter tastes really good with jelly on bread. We have the same surface agreement, that killing should be illegal, but our foundations are wildly opposing. Can we, in good faith, agree to outlaw murder? Is our agreement really an agreement? Maybe on the surface it is, but deep down, I think that Amy's reasons are ridiculous and I do not agree with her. In fact, even if we both vote the same way, I will (in the public square) try to convince Amy that her foundations are wrong and she should find a more plausible one.

How is this important? Well there are many issues on which Christians and, oh I don't know, let's say "secular progressives" coincide. Both can reasonably, but on different foundations, support the promotion of equality and social justice, etc etc. If their reasons for that support are too different, are they really in agreement? Have they convinced each other (in the way Rawls intended) of the justifications for such a stance? I'm unsure. But part of me thinks this matters more than utility concerns would suggest. My hesitant solution, from a Christian perspective, is to appeal to (at a minimum) some moral standard that we all at least have cognitive access to. Perhaps the nature of said standard, questions of its source, or how we came to recognize it, can all be tabled for the sake political agreement. Perhaps there's some point at which we can agree, even when our deeper foundations part ways, but where those deep foundations are not essential to the common base we have found. The true deeper foundation is perhaps intrinsically important, but is it necessary for political agreement? I think perhaps there is some middle level, where we agree on substantial moral claims, but where we disagree on their source and/or nature, yet where said level is deep enough to ground our agreement. If you agree any higher up, on more superficial level, then you must still agree at some deeper level, though not necessarily at the most basic level. And no, I can't elaborate, because this is uncharted territory for me and I have no idea how to better explain my intuitions on this one.

I say this because I think, as far as I am a moral realist, that there many other moral realists who would agree with me a great deal of things and at a deep level. Yet I think we would often disagree on the most basic level. Perhaps it's important that I think their beliefs about the most basic level are at least plausible (unlike Amy's), but maybe a working democratic society doesn't need me to actually agree with them at the most basic level. What would constitute as reasonable to a theist? Or vise versa, what would be a reasonable theistic foundation to an atheist? I'm think right now of the book I'm reading by Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods. I'm also thinking of a conversation I had with a very well know philosopher in ethics while I was visiting grad schools. She admired Adams' work, but not as a theist. She saw common ground there, principles and ideas that could explain morality in a such a way that belief in God fit rather well, but it wasn't necessary. Maybe work in ethics should be more like that. We could look for that point where our moral principles can be both reasonably grounded in a theistic or atheist outlook. I do lean towards the side that thinks, ultimately, God is necessary in this equation, but I don't think that rules some deeper level agreement about moral principles. And it's that deeper, yet not foundational, agreement that I'm looking for to strike the right balance.

So what am I committed to? I'm committed to the belief that there's nothing contradictory with the Christian belief system and also believing that (at least partial) moral answers can be arrived at from a secular perspective. That gives Christians a strong motivation to go beyond "because the Bible says so" when jumping into public discourse. I don't, however, think that our faith should be abandoned completely, because I think it can prove to be a trustworthy guide, giving us hints for where to look and what to worry about. A Christian would be guided by her faith, but would bring more than her faith to the table when participating in our political system. She looks for more because she believes that we are all equipped to do the right thing, and she believes that God commands what He does for a good reason. So she looks for those reasons, and she uses them to justify her position to her fellow citizens. Faith is everything in the personal, but not everything in the political. That may not jive well with all faiths, and that may be a problem for those believers. It not jiving well seems to me to be a strike against that faith. Either way, I don't think this is a problem for the Christian. But I do think it gives the Christian a good reason to reconsider what she thinks the state should impose on others.

I think I'm now rambling, so I'll stop here, even though there's much more to be said. Even after writing all this I'm unsure if I even agree with myself, but hey, these things are a part of a process. More thoughts later, hopefully.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Stuff Christians Like...

So there's been some internet buzz around the new blog: Stuff White People Like. I've read a few posts, and yes, a few have hit close to home. Though, I'd like to think I'm not really a yuppy. But then I found this blog: Stuff Christians Like. Now they got me. If you have grown up in the Church, then you will probably find that blog pretty funny. It's okay to laugh, I promise, God won't smite you.

Some of my favorite posts are about...
And that's just to name a few. Too funny. The sad thing is, it's funny in a convicting kind of way... yikes. I should clarify, this is really "stuff white protestant Christians like"...but even if you're not one of those, you can take this opportunity to get a sneak peak into our alternate universe.

(it may be awhile before I get another serious post up...)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Brief Hiatus

I leave soon to go back to the States for about a week or so. I'm excited as you can imagine, but when I get back I have some decisions to make, and am letting you know now that I will be neglecting RLN for awhile. I have been immersing myself in philosophy articles/books and I hope to have some time to write up some of my thoughts on the more interesting ones when I get back. So mid-late April I should get back to posting. Just thought I'd let you know.

About RLN

This is late in coming, but I thought perhaps it was time re-post some information about this blog, and why I write what I do here. For those of you who are new, welcome, I'm glad you found your way to RLN.  I'm a (soon-to-be) graduate student in philosophy, who also happens to be a Christ follower. While I don't think this blog is very philosophically rigorous, I do think it's a good place for me to test the waters with my thoughts and ideas, and share those ideas with friends and family. I started RLN mainly to prove to myself that a person could be both a religious believer and also a serious thinker, but I think my stage of needing to prove that to myself is waning. Now I write what I think, be it about religion or philosophy or any of the subsets therein, and I do it for anyone out there who's thinking about the same questions I am. It's okay to believe in God and still ask tough questions, and it's okay not to find the answer. It's also okay to study philosophy and not agree with the standard naturalistic/empiricist line. I'm a firm believer in both the spiritual and the rational, which makes me a rarity of sorts, but being different hasn't bothered me before. And whatever side you happen to be on, or if like me you pursue both, then I'm glad you're here and I hope you enjoy what you read.

That being said, I think it's probably a good idea to end with two more thoughts. First, do not expect posts to be consistent. I'm young and doing a great deal of thinking, and inevitably I will change my mind (a lot). So don't be surprised if something in an earlier post contradicts something in a more recent post, and don't be surprised if I then revert back to my previous stance. It happens, but that's the price of publishing your thoughts. I think my thoughts on these questions are less important than the questions themselves. I say that because I don't expect to solve much here, or offer up many solutions, but rather my goal is to show people that not only is it okay to be asking these questions, but it's also quite important to be doing so (for what that's worth). Secondly, If you ever want to know more about something that I've written, would like to know more specifically what I believe and why, or if you have a post/website/book you think I should check out, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email (regardantlesnuages at gmail dot com).

Oh and for those who are wondering, regardant les nuages is a french phrase that means: gazing at the clouds.