Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Nigerian: Terrorism and the Limits of Love

Last week, the world became Charlie Hebdo.

After a pair of Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine, killing twelve, "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") became a Twitter hashtag, a slogan on signs, a message on buttons pinned to celebrity lapels at the Golden Globes. There were marches. There was intense international attention. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the world stood with the victims of the attack.

A related attack in Paris, two days later, targeted a Kosher market, killing four and spurring the Grand Synagogue of Paris to cancel Shabbat services for the first time since World War II. It received somewhat less attention.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram engaged in a slaughter of the innocents, killing perhaps as many as two thousand villagers. The news was reported, and the world went back to its usual routines. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they went back to announcing their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

CNN has offered a nice overview of the differences between global reactions to the two disparate terrorist attacks--the one in France that has stimulated a display of international solidarity not seen since September 11; and the far bloodier one in Nigeria, which was received as another bit of bad news somewhere out there in the world. The report goes on to offer some explanations for the differences in reactions, ranging from the symbolic resonance of the Charlie Hebdo attack to the real-time reporting of unfolding events that was possible in France but not in northern Nigeria.  

My aim here is not to denounce the expressions of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, but to reflect on the limits of our solidarity. There would be something amiss in the world, I think, had the international community not offered the kind of show of solidarity for the victims of the Paris attacks that it did show. But if that is true, then there is something amiss in the world--because the reasons why it is right and good to show that kind of solidarity for the Charlie Hebdo victims are also reasons why it is right and good to show solidarity with the victims of countless other brutal and pointless tragedies.

The kinds of considerations that CNN invokes to explain the differences in our reactions do merely that: they explain. They don't justify.

We are flawed, finite creatures. We live our lives, absorbed in our own small concerns. And every once in awhile something breaks through--"Je Suis Charlie" enters our world in something like the way that a new fad sweeps in. We're caught up in the fad, and maybe the fad sparks some real compassion. But compassion is not a fad.

I am as guilty as anyone. In my case, my guilt is bound up with my academic leanings. Some events raise issues that I can't help but intellectually gnaw on, given my academic training and the direction of my scholarly concerns. The Charlie Hebdo massacre raised issues about freedom of speech, about the legitimacy of critiquing crude and disrespectful speech even in the wake of extreme and intolerable violent responses to that speech.

It raised issues about the ways in which extremists try to provoke retaliation--seeking to inspire those they attack to strike back in ways they hope will get out of hand, thereby helping to fuel the polarization and hostility that breeds extremism. Increasing Islamophobia is, for extreme Islamists, a victory: It means that Muslims will feel more alienated, more threatened. Fear and exclusion breed the kind of disaffection that may help the extremists identify and nurture new recruits.

Trained as I am in nonviolence theory and the study of conflict resolution, I find myself drawn in by these kinds of issues. But when I consider the ongoing violence in Nigeria, all I can see is blood. It's too much. The scale of it shuts down the intellect, and all I can do is turn away in mute horror.

It's so much easier to think about Charlie Hebdo, because I am able to hold it at arm's-length and think about it in intellectual terms. I'm a limited creature, and while I know I have within me the potential to push against those limits and even rise above them, too often I'm just too tired. I call that weariness sin.

If I loved deeply enough--if I loved with the kind of love that Jesus called for, the kind of love that encompasses everyone, even my enemies--I would be driven by a fire of love that would overcome my weariness. But too often the weariness wins, because my love is too limited. I call those limits sin.

I do not weep enough for the world, because I don't want to spend my whole life crying. I call that sin. I call it sin because it means my hope is frail.

And so I want to say that I am Charlie, but I also need to say that I am the Jews killed in a Kosher supermarket, and the Nigerian villagers slaughtered in their homes, and the Muslim who is horrified by the Charlie Hebdo killings and afraid of what it will mean in the weeks to come. I am the Palestinian suffering in Gaza, and the Jewish family in Tel Aviv cowering in a basement while bombs are lobbed from afar.

I want to say it because I want to feel it, because I want to be more than I am. And I want to encourage others to do the same.

Perhaps it is too much to weep for the whole world, for all its victims. Perhaps we must concede that our limits would turn such efforts into empty gestures. But at least we can cry for the Nigerian dead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Atheist Purification and the Case of Ryan Bell

I’ve been following with some interest the year-long journey of former Seventh-Day Adventist preacher Ryan Bell, who made the decision a little over a year ago--in the midst of a crisis of faith--to try on atheism for a year. His Year Without God has generated some strong reactions and is nicely chronicled not only in various media pieces but on his own blog.

Bell, at the conclusion of his year-long journey, has announced that he isn’t going back. "I don't think God exists,” he told NPR's Arun Rath. His year without God will be, it seems, longer than a year.

So what do I think of this? Do I share William Lane Craig's catastrophizing view that Bell's journey is "spiritually disastrous" and that "If this man really does consistently live out an atheistic lifestyle, it could do irreparable harm to the Christian church"? 

No. In fact, it may do the church some good. Much hinges, I think, on whether Bell's journey towards atheism reflects more of the spirit of Simone Weil, or more of the spirit of Blaise Pascal. Let me explain. 

When I first heard of Bell's existential experiment, one thing that immediately came to mind was Simone Weil’s notion that atheism can be a “purification.” This idea may seem strange coming from a religious mystic committed to relinquishing herself to God. But it makes more sense once we pay attention to the terrifying danger she saw in gods of the imagination

As Weil puts it, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” Put another way, our imaginations are very good at constructing false gods that block the pathway through which the genuinely divine might enter our souls. (I would add that cultures are good at it, too, so if we simply adopt our notion of God from cultural institutions rather than our own imaginations, we aren't any better off.)

The divine, as Weil sees it, defies conceptualization. At one point Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.” But she pairs this atheistic assertion with a contrasting claim that is more suggestive than clear: “I am quite sure there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory.”  And as she puts it, “that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Weil’s theistic counter-claim becomes clearer when we recall key features of her spiritual journey. Her love of God was sparked by unexpected mystical experiences that shattered her understanding of what was possible—mystical encounters with a love “like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” But she still “half refused” to accept what she had experienced. As she put it in a letter to her friend and confidante, Father Perrin, 
For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.
Weil made it clear to Father Perrin that it was her intellect, not her love, that resisted the urgings of her mystical experiences. I get the sense that her intellectual resistance was in service to her love. She did not want her love to fall on a false object. She wanted her love to be true. And to keep it true, she had to be rigorously critical of any particular conceptualization of the divine. 

On Weil's view of things, all false images of God must fall before the critical scrutiny of the intellect. Only then will the true God—who transcends our concepts but comes to us in profound experiential encounters—be the object of our love. This isn’t to say that nothing can be said about that to which mystical experience points. After all, Weil herself had things to say. But to treat what one has to say as adequate, and to place one’s hope and devotion in the image one has constructed through one’s words and thoughts—that is, for Weil, the real spiritual disaster.

Weil reminds me here of Socrates. Socrates famously held that one of the greatest impediments to knowledge was false certainty. To dislodge someone’s certainty, to cast them into a place of doubt, was for him a necessary first step in the journey towards truth. Paradoxically, this is so even if the belief happens to be true. If we have a true belief but our certainty exceeds what is warranted, then we are further from the truth than the doubter. We aren’t connected to the truth as the truth, because we cling to it in a manner that's indifferent to truth.

This is essentially the point Simone Weil is making about belief in God. It is what she means when she says, “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

Ryan Bell’s journey towards atheism might be just the kind of purification that Weil is talking about: a step in a journey towards truth, whatever that in the end may prove to be. If we are lovers of the truth about the divine, as opposed to lovers of our particular conception of God, then we have nothing to fear from such journeys and everything to gain.

Of course, Bell's atheism might be something else. It is possible that Bell’s shift towards atheism is a product of the kind of self-indoctrination that Blaise Pascal recommends at the conclusion of his famed “wager.” After arguing that we should bet on God’s existence because the costs of doing so are trivial and the potential payoff infinite, Pascal confronts the reality that beliefs aren’t so easily controlled by our decisions. It’s one thing to tell skeptics, “It’s a good pragmatic bet to believe in God”; something else for them to actually shake off their skepticism and believe. 

And so Pascal offers a strategy for attaining faith. And how do skeptics attain faith? “(B)y acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” In other words, by immersing themselves in the life of the believer, surrounding themselves with believers and doing as they do. Simone Weil despised this method, by the way, precisely because it could instill belief in anything.

The same method, of course, can be pursued to promote unbelief. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, if you pretend to be something long enough, you become what you pretend to be—whether it be a Nazi (as in Vonnegut’s novel), or a Christian…or an atheist. Is that what’s going on in Bell’s case? After a year of operating as if he were an atheist, did atheism sink in like an Aristotelian habit?

Only Bell can answer that for sure. But I doubt it. I doubt it in part because of the trajectory of his spiritual journey. According to one article, Bell was once so religiously conservative, so steeped in the anti-intellectual warnings of fundamentalist Christian culture, that in college he refused to read Voltaire because “writing such as Voltaire’s defiles the soul.”

There is a difference between immersing oneself in a particular worldview to the exclusion of rivals, with the aim of becoming a believer, and exploring an alternative worldview with an openness to being moved and transformed by it. The former treats the worldview in question as a final destination. The latter treats it as part of a journey whose final goal is not entrenchment into the worldview in question, but a deeper insight into the world. 

Pascal is recommending something more like the former—and it is something more like the former which motivated the young Ryan Bell to resist “defiling” his mind with ideas at odds with the worldview he’d chosen as his final destination. But at some point Bell broke away from that Pascalian pattern of belief-reinforcement. He left the rigid domain of false certainty for the realm of doubt and questioning. It seems to me unlikely that, in exploring atheism during his Year Without God, Bell would do so in the spirit of the very self-indoctrination he’d left behind. More likely, I think, is that his existential experiment and its outcome represent an ongoing journey.

In other words, I see Bell’s shift towards atheism as reflecting more of Simone Weil’s spirit than Pascal’s--more an exercise in spiritual purification than atheist indoctrination. Whether this is true or not will be seen in where his journey takes him next—whether he continues his exploration in the spirit that motivated his Year Without God, or whether he takes someone like Richard Dawkins as his model, and sets his heels into atheist ground as trenchantly as he once did into conservative Christian soil. 

But much of what Bell is saying these days reflects more of Simone Weil than Pascal. In one interview, he resists calling his expression of atheism a conclusion, because "conclusion is too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from." This sounds as if atheism is not so much a final destination into which he intends to dig his heels, as it is a place he has come to on his journey. 

And finally, there is this sentiment from his NPR interview: "I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality." Again I cannot help but think of Weil's words: "If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

If there is a God who transcends our understanding, Bell may be closer to that God now than he was a year ago. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Racism: We're All Victims

When I was a small child in the late 1960's, my family visited friends in a mostly black neighborhood in California--and my mother decided to warn me about playing out in the front yard while we were there. My memories of this are very sketchy. I think she said something about black people being mad at white people right now. Whatever she said, it caused me to have nightmares. I remember those vividly. In my dreams that night, coal-black men burst through the door of our hotel room and snatched me away.

Then we returned to the lily-white suburban neighborhood where I grew up, and the nightmares didn't follow me. I wasn't aware, for a long time, of any lingering effects. After all, there were only two black boys in my school district, and they were friendly and familiar.

But a dozen years later, I was at a Lutheran summer camp. It was the first day, and activities hadn't started yet. After dumping my things on a bunk in the boy's dormitory, I walked around the campground for half an hour. Then I decided to read under a tree, and so headed back to the dorm to get my book.

Three black teenagers were there, chatting and laughing. I froze in fear. I almost turned in the doorway. But I stopped myself. I forced myself to walk into the room, say hi, and get my book. They didn't beat me up. Instead, they said hi back. And I, still flushed with adrenalin, went and found a tree to read under.

In light of recent news out of Ferguson and New York, I've been thinking quite a bit about my childhood nightmare, and about my encounter with my gut-level racial fears in that summer camp dorm room. They are evidence of something--namely, that I've been harmed by growing up in a racist society. My best self has been harmed.

One of the things that profoundly shaped Martin Luther King, Jr.'s approach to fighting segregation was his conviction that the struggle was not between white people and black people, but between human beings and the racist system.This is one crucial reason why he insisted on an approach that eschewed violence and expressed love for the white oppressor: We're all in this together. All of us should work together to overcome racism, because all of us are its victims.

Let's be clear: King didn't mean that blacks are just as racist towards whites as the other way around, and that we're therefore all on the same footing. When a social system--defined by deeply rooted cultural practices and patterns of thinking and feeling--causes one group to enjoy privileges at the expense of another, there is no equal footing. And when members of the marginalized group lash out against the privileged group, it has a very different meaning than when members of the privileged group invoke their privilege to put the oppressed in their place.

Racism is not just about harboring animosity towards members of a racial group. It's about the oppressive use of social power. And unlike the frustrated lash-back of its victims, such oppressive use of social power can look very subtle, almost benign, to those who aren't its victims. When the oppressed behave badly, it looks like rioting. When the privileged behave badly, it looks like business-as-usual.

King called on all of us to stop behaving badly--but that call demands different things from the privileged than it does from the oppressed. It is one thing to resist the urge, in the wake of years of frustration and resentment, to lash out with flailing fists. That can be hard, especially in moments of acute outrage at specific injustices. But that challenge--to resist behaving badly in the face of an acute injustice--is very different from the challenge of resisting the urge to do what is socially acceptable, what is invisible, what you don't even know you are doing when you do it.

Racism drives the oppressed to moments of acute frustration, where it becomes hard to be your best self. But racism confronts the privileged with easy injustice, and it sometimes takes moments of acute emotion to begin learning to resist temptation. Racism harms me, a white male, not only because it make me unjustifiably afraid of my fellow Lutheran campers. It harms me because it makes it so easy, so painfully easy, to fall short of my moral aspirations.

And this is what King meant when he said that the racist system harms us all. White supremacists have been inhumanized by racist ideologies even as their black victims have been dehumanized. Well-meaning white people have had their best intentions undermined by subconscious prejudices that they don't even know are there, and black people have felt the accumulated weight of the micro-aggressions that result.

Research shows that even people who loathe racism are affected by unconscious prejudices. And no one is immune. Those in my profession are as guilty as anyone, as a recent study of college professors reveals. The evidence also shows that black children feel the effects of this unconscious racism very early on--starting as early as pre-school. Black children who behave the same way as white ones are perceived by white authority figures as a problem in a way that their white peers are not. It starts in preschool and just keeps happening. For some personality types, this may lead to a kind of cowering effort to avoid notice. In some, it may inspire a concerted effort to be better-behaved than everyone else, so that one can come off looking to unconsciously racist eyes as almost respectable.

But for some personality types, it can lead to growing frustration, growing anger, a growing sense of injustice. And if those personalities don't also possess uncommon resources for expressing their sense of injustice with eloquence and creative nonviolence--if they don't have the uncommon resources of a Martin Luther King, Jr.--they may strike back in more antisocial ways, creating a kind of feedback loop. Authorities treat you as a problem, so you react in ways that lead authorities to treat you as a bigger problem, and so on--culminating, perhaps, in a black teenager lashing out in explosive rage at a white police officer who orders him off the street, and a white police officer seeing a problem so terrifying that shooting seems the only way to get home to his family alive.

I've thought quite a lot about the tragic encounter between Officer Darren Wilson and teenager Michael Brown, and I'm uncomfortable with knee-jerk reactions in either direction. It was a black police officer who said, at a panel discussion I attended in early September, that the evidence available to him pointed to a justified police shooting. But if we accept that judgment, and also the judgment of the Grand Jury, it doesn't mean that racism isn't deeply implicated in what happened in Ferguson. Rather, it points to the deep truth that the racist system in this country has victims who are both black and white.

If Darren Wilson was justified in pulling the trigger, then it's because a system of anti-black racism worked itself out in the history of Ferguson, MO, and in the lives of the people involved, in ways that put that police officer into a desperate corner. Black boys grew up unfairly singled out as problems rather than people. A system evolved such that a city of mostly black citizens was policed by mostly-white officers who lived elsewhere, who were both physically and racially segregated from the community they served and so were unlikely to feel deeply connected to the community and its members.

The police have been targeted for a special kind of scrutiny by recent events, and given their important role in our society, and the power with which they are invested, I suppose such scrutiny makes sense. But the problem of racism is a social problem, not a police problem. I know a number of police officers and respect them all. They are good people devoted to serving the public good. As in all professions, there are bad apples. And as in all professions--including my own--the broad social influence of systemic racism will have its effects.

One of those effects is unconscious racial bias. The thing about such bias is that, unlike deliberate prejudice, we are not morally blameworthy for it. The enemy is the racist system; the fact that we acquire unconscious racial biases is a sign of the way that we all are victims. When blacks internalize such bias, it leads to self-destructive patterns, an internalized racism that leads them to underestimate their own potential. When whites do, it cuts them off from the full fruits of fellowship with their black neighbors, and leads them to unconsciously carry out patterns of behavior that defy their own values.

The moral questions comes into play when we wrestle with what to do with our racial bias.

When I came face-to-face with my own racial bias at that Lutheran summer camp, it awakened me to something I hadn't been aware of before. I might have pretended that race had nothing to do with my reaction--that I was just following a gut instinct that the teens standing there in the dorm were bad news. But I saw my own racial bias in that case, and over the years I have become convinced that there are many forms it takes which I don't see.

So what do I do with that? Here's one thing I do with it. You know that instinct you have, sometimes, not to get in an elevator when you see who's inside, or to cross to the far side of the street when you see who's coming towards you? I have that instinct. And here's the thing: I am probably more likely to feel it when the person in the elevator or coming towards me is black. But for that very reason, I am more likely to act on it if the person is white. Because if the person is black, chances are it's the legacy of the racist system at work within me--and that's something I ought to ignore. But if the person is white, I may be intuitively responding to something that I should pay attention to.

In other words, I am more suspicious of my instincts when it comes to my reactions to black strangers than to white ones, because I know how insidious covert racial bias can be. In relation to intuitive responses to white strangers, I hesitate less because there is less reason to mistrust my instincts. In relation to black strangers, I hesitate more. Now this still means I treat whites and blacks differently--perhaps differently in ways that might be noticed, that might still work in ways that are harmful. But it is the best I know how to do under the circumstances.

There's reason to suppose that white police officers in general have internalized the same lesson. A recent Washington State University study shows that, despite the evidence of unconscious racial bias in police officers (mirroring the unconscious racial bias in the general population), in circumstances that mimic real-life decision-making, white police officers hesitate more and make fewer errors when shooting black suspects. This is true even though the same study shows that the participants were more likely to perceive black suspects as threatening.

One way to understand this finding is that the police trust their gut more when the suspect is white, and so don't hesitate as long (and so make more errors). When the suspect is black, they have developed a meta-level instinct not to take their first-order fear-response as trustworthy. And so they hesitate longer, and make better decisions.

If this is right, then when it comes to the split-second decision-making of whether to fire their weapon or not, most police officers are doing the best they know how to do under the circumstances. Of course this is just one study, but it is a hopeful one. While there is little reason to suppose that the police are any more immune to unconscious bias than the rest of us, there is reason to think that, in general, police have some awareness of racism's potential to bias judgment and have--perhaps unconsciously--developed meta-level instincts to counteract those effects.

But racism is a many-tentacled monster, and doing the best you know how to do in split-second decision-making isn't enough to overcome a long legacy of oppression and injustice. Racism will sometimes rear its monstrous head in the form of overtly racist officers. Some police departments may foster a culture that discourages self-reflective awareness of racial bias and its effects, so that that the meta-level instincts to counteract such bias never take root.

But the bigger problem is that the police cannot be expected to become immune to racism in isolation. They cannot be expected to cope effectively with a society that treats black boys as suspect from earliest childhood, and reinforces that message so deeply through the years that it becomes a struggle not to internalize it. They cannot be expected to take responsibility for the whole range of social forces that turn the police into a group of outsiders entering a community they don't belong to and being received as an occupying force rather than as officers of the peace.

The police, like the rest of us, are victims of a racist system. As King insisted half a century ago, that system is the enemy. It's not the police, and it's certainly not the protesters in Ferguson and New York around the country who are rising up to say that black lives matter.

Racism has made victims of us all, but we don't have to stay victims. The trick is to remember who the enemy is, so that we don't turn against each other, human against human, and thereby allow the many-tentacled monster of racism to continue to do its terrible work unresisted.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Divine Revelation and Cultural Filters: The Human Journey to God

In the discussion section of my post on Abraham and Isaac, an interesting question came up: Would a God anything like the one envisioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition allow divine revelation to be filtered through (and possibly distorted by) the cultural lenses of the human recipients?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, my progressive theology is premised on an affirmative answer. Here's what I said in the discussion thread:
I believe in a transcendent creator whose self-disclosure is difficult for humanity to grasp and understand properly given the cultural filters through which that revelation is received. As such, any historical report of revelation will be a distortion, and the task of historical religion is to attempt to work through the distortion by gradually evolving in the light of critical conversation about experience. 
Christian progressives are often accused of "cherry-picking" the Bible or the tradition, when in reality what they are doing is approaching their religious inheritance in terms of the perspective described in the quote: They see it not as the very revelation of God, but as the product of divine revelation being filtered through the limitations of merely-human, culturally-situated recipients. Such an understanding calls for critical appropriation--which is not the same as cherry-picking.

Here, in a nutshell, is the idea behind a progressive understanding of divine revelation and human religion: God is imperfectly encountered in experience, filtered through the assumptions and prejudices and conceptual categories that we bring to our experience--our worldview, if you will. But experience also transforms our worldview. When a square peg is forced to go through a round hole, the hole may not be the same afterwards. And the more malleable the hole, the more this is true. A hole made of clay may actually take on the shape of the peg being pushed through it. Likewise, our worldview is transformed by our experience, including our experience of God.

Revelation stretches the limits of our worldview so that more authentic revelation can make it through, in turn leading to further stretching in an ongoing cycle. While the transformed worldview remains imperfect at each stage in the cycle, it is hopefully closer to the divine reality than its predecessors. This does not only mean that future revelations are less distorted, but that some revelations make it through the filters which would have been entirely blocked out before.

On this view of revelation, we can't be biblical literalists, and we can't be so tied to traditional theologies that we refuse to let new experiences transform our understanding. All inherited accounts of the divine, all traditional theologies, are the product of limited human worldviews both filtering and being transformed by the self-disclosure of God. They represent centuries of human progress--and so must be treated with reverence. But we do not revere that progress if we strive to shut down its trajectory of unfolding revelation. That trajectory is an arrow--but what it points to isn't our worldview and our understanding of God. It points beyond us, to the truth that lies at the end of an ongoing human process--one that we are called to participate in, not try to freeze in place.

One frequent commenter on this blog, Burk, doesn't buy it. Here's how he puts it:
Why is that revelation received through cultural filters? Isn't that an argument that the various and sundry revelations might rather be culturally constructed & psychologically actuated, instead of culturally filtered? The revelation could have been brought far more directly (not to mention uniformly) to each person, given the theory you have of it, yet it is not. The epistemological situation seems highly suspicious.
In other words, the cultural variation in accounts of revelation--both across cultural and religious traditions and through time--might well be explained in the following terms: Different cultures aren't encountering a divine reality and then understanding and interpreting it differently based on diverse cultural lenses and human limitations. Rather, they are making it up to meet varied psychological and social needs.

But Burk does more here than offer an alternative interpretation of religious diversity across time and cultures. He thinks there is a reason to prefer his interpretation, based on his conviction that were there a God, that God could (and presumably would) bypass cultural filters to produce a clear, direct, and cross-culturally uniform understanding of the divine.

Burk's implicit reasoning here parallels the reasoning in the traditional argument from evil--that is, the argument that challenges God's existence based on the evil in the world.That argument goes roughly as follows: God, as traditionally conceived, would be able to eliminate evil, would know how, and would want to eliminate it. Hence, if there is such a God, there would be no evil. But there is evil. Hence, there is no such God.

Burk's remark can be formulated along the same lines: The Judeo-Christian God would, in the act of divine self-disclosure, be able to bypass cultural filters, would know how, and would want to bypass them. Hence, if there is such a God, there would be a perfect revelation undistorted by cultural filters. (Interestingly, Christian fundamentalists routinely argue along the same lines.)

There is one big problem with this argument that I want to note right up front: It assumes a particular understanding of what God is like--and argues that if God is like this, then God would reveal Himself perfectly, without the distortions of cultural filters. Bit this assumption is seriously problematic from the standpoint of the progressive vision of divine revelation sketched out above. On that vision, we cannot ever be confident that our historically and culturally situated understanding of what God is like is beyond criticism or refinement. Hence, an objection to that progressive vision which is premised on the correctness of a particular understanding of God is really setting aside the progressive vision in the act of critiquing it. In other words, it's begging the question.

But let's put aside the problem of question-begging for the moment, just to see whether we can really be so confident that the understanding of God in play would lead where Burk (and many Christian fundamentalists) think it leads--to a God who would bypass cultural filters in the act of divine self-disclosure, in order to make sure that divine revelation is clear and accurate and uniform.

In fact, a few years ago on this blog I wrote a post that directly addressed an argument along these lines--an argument formulated by Christian funamentalists to support a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I drew the parallel between their argument and the argument from evil, and noted that some of the "theodicies" that attempt to reconcile God's existence with the existence of evil might also be invoked to explain why God might not create a perfectly clear and inerrant revelatory text.

I think what I say there about an inerrant text can apply to any direct, clear, and unambiguous revelation. But my reasons for being suspicious of Burk's argument go beyond what I said there. If we are, indeed, creatures made by God, then God is responsible for us being the kinds of creatures that we are. And part of what is essential to us is that we are social creatures who form cultures and engage with the world through our cultural lenses. We meet reality as historically and culturally situated beings with concepts and assumptions and stories shaped by that context, which in turn shape our experience of the world.

That's part of what it is to be human. To bypass that would be to bypass our humanity, and to connect with us in a way that defies who we are. But a critic of theism might at this point regard this aspect of who and what we are as a defect--at least insofar as it interferes with our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Our cultural context imposes limits on our ability to grasp our world, precisely because it puts up filters between ourselves and unvarnished reality.

Such limits and imperfections make perfect sense from a naturalistic standpoint, where we are nothing more than the products of blind forces operating through the mechanism of natural selection. But if you assume that the world is created by a God who cares about forging a relationship with us, we are forced to ask, "Why would such a God make us such that our capacity to experience the divine is limited by the filters of culture (among other things)?"

The mistake, I think, is in treating this as a rhetorical question. Because there are answers. John Hick, in his soul-making theodicy, offered a theological portrait according to which God, out of love, sought to create otherness--beings truly distinct from the divine who were afforded a space in which to develop themselves in accord with the rules of their natures and their own choices. Here's how Hick puts it:
For what freedom could finite beings have in an immediate consciousness of the presence of the one who has created them, who knows them through and through, whi is limitlessly powerful and well as limitlessly loving and good, and who claims their total obedience? In order to be a person, exercising some measure of genuine freedom, the creature must be brought into existence, not in the immediate presence of the divine, but at a "distance" from God. This "distance" cannot of course be spatial; for God is omnipresent. It must be epistemic distance, a distance in the cognitive dimension...this "distance" consists, in the case of humans, in their existence within and as part of a world which functions as an autonomous system and from within which God is not overwhelmingly evident...it is religiously ambiguous, capable both of being seen as a purely natural phenomenon and of being seen as God's creation and experienced as mediating God's presence. In such a world one can exist as a person over against the Creator.
Thomas Talbott has similarly argued that "an initial separation from God" is crucial to the creation of persons at all. If God wanted to create persons distinct from God, Talbott thinks God would have no choice "but to permit their embryonic minds to emerge and to begin functioning on their own in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and indeterminism." This creates a distinct kind of dilemma, which Talbott characterizes as follows:
Some of the very conditions essential to our emergence as rational individuals distinct from God are themselves obstacles to perfect fellowship (or union) with him, and these cannot be overcome until after we have already emerged as a center of consciousness distinct from God's own consciousness.
 But this means that the very project of connecting with God will require that God come to us through the filters that our self-development apart from God have put in place. Those filters--fashioned through our upbringing as ignorant children by parents of limited understanding--are part of our self-understanding and identity. For God to simply bypass them or erase them would be to refuse to pursue a relationship with us. A change in those filters--an opening up that allows more of God to enter in--is consistent with preserving our identity if that change is progressive and incremental, and if at each stage the development is based on the recognition that the change is called for by insights or discoveries that one can discern from where one is at the moment.

And this is true at both the individual and collective levels. What it means is that if there is a God something like the Judeo-Christian God, we should not expect divine revelation to blast through our filters and presuppositions all at once--to essentially erase our identities in order to have a relationship with us.

To have a relationship with who we are in all our otherness, God must meet us where we are, cultural filters and all. But that doesn't mean we stay where we are after God has come to us. Instead, that's the start of a new journey of discovery.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Despair, the Hard Work of Theology, and Abraham's Test

I have a son. The other day my wife and I went to his first parent-teacher conference as a middle-schooler. We were told what an awesome kid he is. Afterwards, we got ice cream. Then we headed to the theatre to rehearse for a play he and I are in together.

Ice cream. Shared activities. Involvement in his education. These are things I associate with being a parent. Here are some things I don't associate with being a parent: Tying him down to a rock. Gathering kindling. Preparing to slit his throat and set him on fire.

Those are things I associate with being evil.

A couple of weeks back, Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac--you know, that story in which (at least on a straightforward reading) God tests Abraham by asking him to kill his son as a sacrificial offering. Evans declared, up front, that she would have failed that test.

So would I. More importantly, I share Evans' wariness of treating a straightforward reading of this story with anything but suspicion. Here's how Evans puts it:
While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.
Of course, there are metaphorical ways to approach the story. You can stress that child-sacrifice was not uncommon in Abraham's day, and treat the moment that God stays Abraham's hand as the key revelatory part in the tale--a kind of divine repudiation of a practice that was accepted at the time. Or you can see the story in terms of its narrative place within a Christian story where God gives His son up to be sacrificed for the sake of all humanity.

But Evans' discussion is about the story when you approach it literally and treat it as an accurate depiction of what God has done. In that case, we are left with an image of God that is starkly at odds with the urgings of a conscience shaped by the Christian ethic of love.

Evans asks whether such a God is worthy of our worship--and sees those who answer yes as forced towards a theology that worships power, that sees omnipotence rather than love as God's defining attribute. And she calls us to a Christian faith that engages our conscience, that allows the richness of our moral experience to shape our reading of the Bible.

Based on this message, Samuel James accuses Evans of being "too tired" to do "the hard work of theology." He likens her to Brittany Maynard, the young woman diagnosed with brain cancer who has recently become a poster child for physician-assisted suicide. In James' analysis, Maynard lacks the perseverance to continue to hope in the face of her grim diagnosis, and so seeks to end her life rather than continue to affirm life's value by fighting to the bitter end. Evans, he thinks, is shaped by a similar despair. But in her case it's her faith, not her life, that's put upon the sacrificial altar.

This strikes me as dead-wrong.

Why? Let me begin by explaining why I can't approach the Abraham story as a straightforward account of what God did in His relationship with Abraham. The story, as it's told in the book of Genesis, takes the following as given: God really did order Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham knew this.

The story asks us to assume that this is true, and to read the story with that assumption in place. For me, this is kind of like someone telling a story about a guy who cuts out a perfectly round square from construction paper and gives it to his girlfriend as a Valentine. If the moral of the story comes out only if one assumes that round squares are real, the storyteller might ask me to assume this for the sake of the story. Maybe, for that purpose, I could momentarily pretend that I believe in round squares. But I could never actually believe in them. And I don't know how long I could sustain the pretense.

Likewise, maybe I can pretend to believe, for the sake of extracting from the story the lessons it intends to teach, that Abraham really knew that God was commanding him to kill his son. But I'm not sure how long I could maintain the pretense.

Someone once asked me to imagine the story of Abraham's testing through Isaac's eyes. I did, and for me the most harrowing part was the trip down the mountain, after Isaac's trust has been violated, his childhood ripped away, his father stolen irreparably from him by an act of treason. Once I imagined it through that perspective, I could never unthink it. In the biblical version of the story, Isaac is incidental. He's just there to serve as the pawn in the test. But if we treat the story as something that really happened, then we can't ignore Isaac's experience. We can't ignore the question of what God would command--and what He wouldn't command--if he genuinely loved not only Abraham, but Abraham's child.

Let me put it this way. Were a voice to thunder from the heavens, "I, the Lord your God, command you to go and kill your son," I would assume I'd gone crazy. And if my sanity wasn't in question, I'd assume I was the object of some high-tech hoax. And if it came down to believing in a supernatural power as the source of the experience, I'd have to conclude something along the following lines: "Satan has taken to thundering commands from the heavens in the name of God."

Under no conditions would I believe that it was actually God who was commanding me to betray my son in defiance of the very meaning of parental love. And why not? Because to do such a thing would be evil. Even if I was sure that God would intervene at the last minute, my child would still be traumatized for life. A good God would not issue commands that, if followed, would inflict such horror. And I have an unwavering faith that God is good.

Put another way, to believe--even in the face of the most astonishing pyrotechnic display of supernatural fireworks--that God was actually commanding me to kill my son, would be to give up my faith in the goodness of God. It would be to stop believing that God is love.

Here is where Samuel James would accuse me of failing to do the "hard work" of theology. Apparently, to do that hard work is to do the hard work of believing the following two things simultaneously:

(a) God is perfectly loving and good.
(b) God might  (and sometimes does) command people to fundamentally betray the trust of the children who love and depend on them, simply as a test or as a sign of loyalty to God.

Sure, I can say the words, "God is love AND God commands people to kill their own children." But I can also say the words, "There is a square that is perfectly round in its shape--but remains wholly a square for all of that." That I can say it doesn't mean I can think it.  

I cannot possibly think it would be anything but evil for me to grab my beloved son, who trusts me and loves me, strap him to a stone, and prepare to slit his throat and set him on fire. I can say the words, but I can't think it.

I could pretend to think it, but such pretense would be hard work--the hard work of pretending to be someone I'm not. The hard work of repeatedly asserting what my conscience thunders against. Sometimes, betraying your integrity is hard work. Is that the "hard work of theology" that Samuel James is talking about? If so, he's turned theology into something ugly.

Let me be clear: Real theology is, indeed, hard work. And that work often includes the effort to determine whether two things that appear to be at odds on the surface are really compatible at a deeper level. When dealing with realities that transcend our limits, we may confront truths that we cannot readily understand. Wrestling with those truths is hard work.

But so is maintaining the pretense that you believe a contradiction. So is pretending to believe in what you can't coherently even think: that round squares exist, for example, or that a God of perfect love lovingly commands us to fundamentally betray the children who put their trust in us.

If James wants us to believe that there is a theological reconciliation that's possible here--a pathway to reconciling the apparent evil of commanding fathers to betray their young sons and the doctrinal commitment to the perfect benevolence of God--then he should do the hard work so that the rest of us can see what he sees. Instead, James simply accuses Evans of giving in to despair.

Presumably, James thinks that, unlike Evans, he has not given in to despair. But this seems wrong to me, too. If Evans has given in to despair, then so has James. And if James hasn't, then neither has Evans.

Why do I say that? Because Evans and James are both confronted with the same theological dilemma--and the difference between them isn't that one gives up in the face of the dilemma and the other does not. The difference is that, while both are forced to give up something to address the dilemma, they choose different things to give up.

Imagine that a parent is confronted with the following horrific dilemma: The house is on fire, and the parent can only bring two of her three kids to safety before it's too late to save the third. The parent who, in the face of this, curls up in a ball and cries while all three children perish has surely given in to despair. The one who charges in and saves as many as she can has not. Do we really think it matters which two the parent saves? If she saves little Billy and Cathy before the house collapses on Mary, she's given in to despair; but if she saves little Billy and Mary, then she hasn't?

Consider the following three claims:
1. The biblical stories that purportedly report God's commands and activities, understood in their straightforward sense, offer an accurate portrait of God's commands and activities.
2. God is perfectly good.
3. My conscience is a product of God's creative work within me, and as such is not profoundly unreliable.
And now imagine that the following is true:
4. My conscience recoils in horror at enough of the things that God purportedly does in biblical stories--at least in their straightforward readings--that I cannot embrace both the resultant portrait of God and the belief in God's perfect goodness unless I treat my conscience as profoundly unreliable.
"4" is like the burning building. It forces us to choose which of 1-3 to give up. And I think it is fair to say that both Evans and James are in this burning building. Unless I'm profoundly mistaken, Samuel James, like me and like Evans, would be deeply hesitant to slash open his son's throat just because a voice claiming to be God told him to. And the reason would be the same one that moves Evans and me: our consciences recoil in horror at the prospect of doing something so unremittingly awful. Surely no God of perfect love and goodness would command something so evil. Like me, I suspect he'd say, "I'm either having delusions or being misled by malicious agents. Surely this is not the voice of God."

And when genocidal maniacs lead campaigns of brutal slaughter and assert a divine mandate, I suspect that Samuel James is just as skeptical of the purported mandate as I am--and as Evans is. And for the same reason: Our conscience recoils.

And this means that 4 is true for all three of us--because the Bible has stories in which God commands genocide, and stories in which He orders child sacrifice.

And given 4, we each have to give up on 1, 2, or 3. It seems that Evans and I have, under these conditions, given up on 1, while James has given up on 3. That is, Evans and I have given up on a certain human theory about how the Bible is related to the revelation of God, while James has given up on a certain human theory about how the human conscience is related to the revelation of God.

How is one of these choices any more a matter of religious despair than the other? Perhaps it would be a matter of despair to give up on all three. I would argue it would be a kind of theological despair to it to give up on #2. But in the choice between 1 and 3, why is one choice any more reflective of despair than the other?

It isn't. Rather, it reflects a difference in theology--a difference in our theology of divine revelation, to be precise. It reflects different answers to the question, "How do we discern the self-disclosure of God?" Developing and defending your own answer to that question in the light of challenging cases that force us to make choices--that is doing the hard work of theology, not giving up on it.

To slap the label of despair on those who develop one theology of revelation rather than another is, it seems to me, simply a refusal to take seriously theologies that differ from one's own. And it seems to me that taking seriously theologies that differ from one's own is part of the hard work of theology.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Political Liberalism and California's Affirmative Consent Law

I recently read an LA Times piece by Jonah Goldberg about California's "affirmative consent law," a strategy for attempting to grapple with the problem of rape on college campuses. In that piece, Goldberg sees liberal support for this law as evidence that political liberals are inconsistent or disingenuous when it comes to their views on government intrusion into private sexual behavior. While they cry "theocracy" every time conservatives try to legislate what's allowed in the bedroom, they are here supporting just such sexual legislation themselves. Is Goldberg right?

He opens his piece with this general rant about political liberals:
 You see, for years I've been railing and ranting about the ridiculous myth that liberalism is socially libertarian; that liberals are "live and let live" types simply defending themselves against judgmental conservatives, the real aggressors in the culture war.
That thinking runs counter to most everything liberals justifiably take pride in, as liberals. You can't be "agents for change," "forces for progress," or whatever the current phrase, and claim that you're not the aggressors in the culture war. Liberals have redefined a millenniums-old understanding of marriage while talking as if it were conservatives who wanted to "impose" their values on the nation...
...Liberals, meanwhile, are quite open about their desire to use the state to impose their morality on others. Many conservatives want to do likewise, of course. The difference is that when conservatives try to do it, liberals are quick to charge "theocracy!" and decry the Orwellian horror.
Goldberg then uses this rant as a springboard for claiming that liberal defenders of the affirmative consent law are doing the same kind of thing that conservatives are accused of doing when, say, they endorse sodomy laws. They're trying to regulate private consensual sex.

But there's much that's wrong with Goldberg's opening rant. First of all, it's hardly true that all (or even most) liberals and social progressives try to represent themselves as socially libertarian--although much hinges here on what the qualifier, "socially," is supposed to mean. Liberals certainly see a place for government in remedying social problems, such as systemic discrimination and the exploitation of laborers.

Nor would most liberals claim that they are "simply defending themselves against judgmental conservatives." Liberals and progressives see a world that is not perfect, a world in which social injustice is always a reality and is often entrenched in long-standing systems, And they think people have a responsibility to identify social injustices and work for change. The civil rights movement--which combined nonviolent grass roots activism with lobbying for legal remedies--offers a model for the approach to promoting social justice that liberals and progressives typically endorse. And while "aggressors in the culture war" is not even remotely apt as a description of what the civil rights movement was about, neither is it right to say that civil rights activists were "simply defending themselves against judgmental conservatives."

But beyond the mischaracterization of liberals, there is a deeper misconstrual of the nature of liberalism itself. A hallmark of political liberalism as a philosophy is that it draws a distinction between two things: (a) public principles of justice and (b) the values (both personal and communal) that define a holistic way of life--what the political philosopher John Rawls called "a comprehensive conception of the good life." Political liberals believe in a conception of public justice arrived at by attempting to answer the following question: What kinds of public principles would reasonable people, with different comprehensive value systems, agree to when no one had distinct bargaining advantages?

The principles which emerge from answering that question are ones that, in principle, every reasonable person should accept, regardless of what their holistic value system looks like. When a government shapes public policies in the light of these principles of justice, they are doing so without having to side with one sectarian worldview over another. These rational principles are supposed to provide a framework that allows everyone to live out their own comprehensive conceptions of the good life--usually in community with others--in a manner consistent with everyone having a comparable chance to do the same.

If you look at what Goldberg says, it's as if he isn't even conscious of this structural feature of political liberalism. The distinction between public justice and private values plays a crucial role in the arguments of liberals on topics such as same-sex marriage--but it's entirely missing from Goldberg's rant.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the political liberal argues that equality under the law is one of those public principles of justice that everyone can reasonably accept (assuming they can step out of their sectarian commitments long enough to ask themselves what principles are needed in order for everyone--regardless of their sectarian principles--to have a comparable chance to live together peaceably as they try to live out their values). Political liberals argue that discrimination under the law is therefore impermissible unless there's a sufficiently powerful justification for it. But such a justification has to itself be based on principles that every reasonable person can accept, regardless of their particular worldview--for example, the concerns about public safety that would justify treating the blind differently under the law when it comes to issuing driver's licenses.

Most notably, political liberals cannot accept a justification for discrimination that appeals to sectarian religious ideas not shared by everyone. If the state did that, it would be adopting the values of that religious sect in a way that compromised its capacity to serve the mediating role it's supposed to serve--the role that's supposed to enable everyone to live out their comprehensive conception of the good life in a manner consistent with everyone else having a comparable chance to do the same.

When liberals cry "theocracy," it's because they fear that social forces are trying to push the state to adopt a particular sectarian value system, rather that operate from neutral principles of justice. And when liberals want the state to legalize same-sex marriage, they don't see themselves as asking the state to impose "their" values on everyone. Rather, they see this as demanded by a neutral principle of justice.

One could, of course, argue that there are no neutral principles of justice, that the distinction political liberals make is a false one, and that their purportedly "public" principles of justice don't spring from objective reason but rather from the liberals' own preferred private value system.

This is not an uncommon criticism, and there may be some truth to it. But if Goldberg wants to make that criticism, he needs to make that criticism. In other words, he needs to acknowledge that liberals perceive this distinction and rely on it in making their case...and then show why he thinks the distinction is illusory. Goldberg does no such thing. He simply assumes that there is no such distinction and interprets liberal politics through the lens of that assumption.

But this amounts to assuming that political liberalism is false and then criticizing it based on that assumption. That's called question-begging.

So what does all of this have to do with California's affirmative consent law? It's worth asking whether the philosophy of political liberalism could justify the kind of sexual regulations at issue in this law. In other words, its worth asking whether there is a relevant difference between California's new approach to regulating sex and the approach on offer in the old sodomy laws that political liberals condemn. But we don't answer this by doing what Goldberg does: mischaracterize the law itself, make sweeping claims about its overreach, and then without argument throw it in the same category as conservative efforts to legislate what happens in the bedroom.

So how do we answer it?

At the heart of political liberalism is the ideal of a society comprised of free and equal citizens with the opportunity to live out their vision of the good life on an equal footing with others. And control over one's body--what is done with it and to it--seems central to anyone's capacity to live in accord with their values. Thus, any reasonable person, regardless of their value system, could endorse a public principle according to which the state uses its power to protect such bodily autonomy. This is presumably why nobody complains about laws against kidnapping, assault, and rape.

In a broad sense, the California affirmative consent law has been passed in order to protect the bodily autonomy of women on college campuses. Hence, in terms of its intent, the law falls within the scope of what political liberals would see as a legitimate exercise of state power. But intentions don't always match with reality. Does the new law, as some critics argue, micro-manage private sexual activity in a way that amounts to an excessive imposition on individual autonomy?

To answer this question, we need to look at the substance of the law.

First of all, we need to be clear that the new law is not defining rape for purposes of criminal law, nor is it about standards of evidence in a court of law or elsewhere. It does nothing to answer the difficult questions of how we determine what really happened in an encounter where the parties are telling competing stories--or when such disputes engender "reasonable doubt."

Rather, the new law is about how to define consent in sexual encounters. It isn't defining consent for the sake of criminal rape cases. It's defining consent for the sake of shaping more useful rape prevention and response programs on college campuses. Specifically, the law ties state financial aid moneys to the implementation of college rape prevention and response programs that adopt an affirmative understanding of consent.

The idea behind affirmative consent is this: Consent is not the absence of a no but, rather, the presence of a yes--verbal or nonverbal. Goldberg is just wrong when he says that the new law "will require a verbal 'yes' at every stage of amorous activity on college campuses." I've read the bill, and it makes no such requirement. He's either deliberately lying in order to make the law an easier target, or he hasn't bothered to read the law carefully before writing an op ed piece against it for a major newspaper. Advocates of affirmative consent consistently insist that there are many ways to convey affirmative consent, both verbal and nonverbal, and the law says nothing that contradicts this widespread understanding.

If it did, then the complaint that the law is engaged in micro-managing bedroom behavior, requiring specific moves of a specific kind at various places, would be legitimate. And such micromanagement would, I think, be hard to justify on political liberal grounds.

So, if affirmative consent doesn't specifically demand a verbal "yes" to every escalation in a sexual encounter, what does it require? The main thing it does is reject the idea that consent is implied in the absence of overt verbal refusal or physical resistance. You can't assume, just because your partner didn't say "no" or fight you off, that she was consenting.

On an affirmative consent model, your failure to actively refuse is not the same as consent and shouldn't be treated as consent. There may be reasons why you fail to say "no" explicitly or forcefully--reasons having to do, for example, with fearing the consequences of such overt refusal. But silently lying there like a stiff log while someone starts using your body isn't the same as consenting to sex. Consent is a positive thing, as opposed to the absence of overt refusal.

There's enormous confusion about this, some of it (I think) willful. But think of it this way. Suppose Joe enters his son's bedroom in order to take money from his son's piggy bank to use for beer. Suppose Joe is carrying a switch with him--a switch that he's used in the past to beat the boy. Suppose the boy watches sulkily from the corner, not saying a word, while Joe takes $40 out of his worldly savings. Has the boy consented to Joe taking his money? Of course not. The boy has uttered no word of refusal and has engaged in not a single act of resistance. But he hasn't consented. Who would assume that he has?

The problem is that, for too long, that's exactly what we've been assuming in the sexual arena.

Understanding consent in affirmative terms doesn't require couples to kill the mood or shut down the rhythm of passion in order to whip out a consent form. If the rhythm of passion is really there--for both parties--then that fact by itself amounts to obvious, in-your-face affirmation of consent.

Let me say that again: If you're in the midst of a sexual encounter and you and your partner are passionately kissing each other, mutually ripping off each others' garments, and eagerly grabbing for each other, you both have very strong evidence of affirmative consent--and no reason to stop to make sure the other person is really into it. When everything your partner is doing is literally screaming out a "Yes! Yes! Yes!," you don't need to stop to ask for a verbal yes.

But if your partner is hesitating, crossing her arms across her chest, pulling away, not returning your kisses, or freezing up as you begin to unbutton her blouse, it's a different story. In that case, pausing to ask whether this is welcome isn't "killing the mood," because there is no mood to kill. At least not for her. And if the worry is that pausing to ask if she really wants this is killing the mood for you--and her moods be damned--then you're acting like a rapist.

Let me say that again: If you don't care about whether she wants to have sex with you or not, and so you charge ahead with your plan to have sex with her no matter how mixed the signals are, because you are indifferent to what she wants, you are acting like a rapist.

The affirmative consent approach is focused on how to treat ambiguity and mixed signals. For too long, people have adopted the idea that if one partner (usually the woman) is giving mixed or ambiguous signals or no signals at all, then she hasn't said "no"--and so the guy should just feel free to assume "yes" and take what he wants. And if it turns out later that her wooden silence happened because his aggressive advances triggered memories of childhood abuse, and she retreated into that same psychological hiding place that she went to when her abuser came into the room...well, how was he supposed to know? After all, she was just lying there like a corpse. Isn't that what people do when they're into having sex with you? Lie there like corpses and stare off into space?

In what other context of human life do we treat such absence-of-active-refusal as default consent? When it comes to something as central to living out our values as control over our own bodies, do we really want to adopt an understanding of consent that is as weak as "If you didn't vigorously refuse, that's as good as saying yes."

Part of the problem here is that, more often than not in cases like this, the woman did actively refuse, did actively say no, and her partner kept pressuring her, often in intimidating ways. And because she saw the trajectory of the evening, because she saw his indifference to her expressed preferences, because she was afraid, she decided it was safest just to stop actively resisting. If he was that indifferent to her wishes, what would happen if she refused more forcefully? Would that just lead to a more forceful response from him? Would it lead to a violent rape? Better, perhaps, under these conditions, to just become a log.

And for too long, when this sort of thing happened, the guy has congratulated himself for his masterful seduction skills: She started out saying no, but--hey!--she stopped saying no! I've won her over!

No. You've worn her out.

The affirmative consent perspective says that becoming a log isn't consent. In other words, this perspective says that something which obviously isn't consent...isn't consent.

Of course, ambiguous signals and silence don't necessarily mean refusal--but they do generate an obligation to check in. And if you don't check in--if you just plow ahead--then you are displaying indifference to your partner's will in the matter. What the affirmative consent approach demands isn't that you kill the mood, but that you check in if your partner doesn't seem to be in the mood. It demands that you not be willfully indifferent to what your partner wants when it comes to the use of her body.

In terms of implications for disciplinary action in response to rape allegations, adopting an affirmative understanding of consent won't resolve any of the "he said/she said" uncertainties that plague these cases. The affirmative understanding of consent will impact disciplinary actions only when the defendant's defense against the charge is that the alleged victim really consented. And what the affirmative understanding will mean in such cases is that we won't be able to evaluate this defense by determining whether the alleged victim was sufficiently diligent in screaming out her refusal. Instead, we will need to assess whether he really had good reasons to think that she wanted to have sex (as opposed to conveniently imposing this assumption on an unclear situation).

To adopt such an understanding of consent, far from being "beyond idiotic" as Goldberg contends, amounts to adopting an understanding of consent that reflects what consent actually is. Consent is more than just not refusing. Consent is affirmative. And adopting such a standard seems eminently reasonable if our goal is to advance individual bodily autonomy.

The California law does not seek to do this by writing such an understanding of consent into the criminal definition of rape. It's unclear how doing so would impact rape prosecutions, given the reasonable doubt standard that applies to criminal cases. It may be that, for the purposes of establishing reasonable doubt, there's little difference between the kind of evidence that could lead to reasonably doubting that the alleged victim refused and the kind of evidence that could lead to reasonably doubting that the alleged victim never consented.

But this law brings the affirmative consent standard to bear in a context where it clearly can make a difference: College policies, including prevention policies that educate the student body about conditions of consent and the difference between saying yes and not saying no.

Political liberalism maintains that certain principles are ones that everyone, regardless of their comprehensive value system, should adopt. A principle of respecting bodily autonomy is one such principle. Such respect is better served by an affirmative understanding of consent than by a negative one. So for me, the only question at issue here has to do with the specific way in which the State of California is acting to promote bodily autonomy--by tying state financial aid money to college rape education, prevention, and institutional disciplinary approaches that reflect the affirmative understanding of consent.

Such a policy has very little in common with laws that seek to criminalize "sodomy"--laws that say it is a criminal offense to insert body part A into body part B even if everyone involved is an eager participant. While the conservative champions of these sodomy laws would be hard pressed to invoke a non-sectarian principle of justice to warrant criminalizing what they want to criminalize, the affirmative consent law can readily point to such a principle: respect for bodily autonomy.

But this is not the same as saying that the way the law expresses this principle fits with the broader constraints of public principles of justice. To show that, we'd need to dig deeper.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Marriage Equality Denialism: The Case of Matt Walsh

You've probably heard of global warming denialism and evolution denialism. And of course there's Jesus mythicism, which denies the existence of an historic Jesus. But have you heard about marriage equality denialism?

I'm not talking here about the people who recognize, quite rightly, that marriage equality is not yet a reality in the world. I'm talking about those who deny that marriage equality is even a possibility. I should probably call it "the-possibility-of-marriage-equality denialism," or IPOME denialism...but, well, no.

The other day, the Supreme Court refused to consider appeals of lower court rulings, rulings which overturned same-sex marriage bans in several states. This opened the door for same-sex marriages in Oklahoma and elsewhere. In the wake of this, blogger Matt Walsh--who is good at constructing arguments that include a few true premises--came out as a marriage equality denier. Here's how he puts it in his post, "There Is No Such Thing as Marriage Equality":

I have no problem with marriage equality — except that it doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. It never has existed. It never will exist. ‘Marriage equality’ — that is, the idea that the union between a man and a man can achieve equality with the union between a man and a woman — is nonsense. 
How would I oppose that which cannot be? That’s like trying to pass a law to deny Santa Claus his voting rights.

On one level, Matt's claim here is silly in the way that willful pig-headedness tends to be silly. When people talk about marriage equality, they typically have in mind granting to same-sex couples equal access to the distinct bundle of legal rights that come with civil marriage, rights which are presently available to heterosexual couples.

Is this possible? Of course it is. The proof is in the pudding: There are states which have extended this bundle of legal rights to same-sex couples. Same sex couples in these states have been able to make use of them.

In this straightforward sense of "marriage equality"--the sense that most people actually intend--marriage equality is clearly possible. So what's going on with Matt Walsh's strange assertion? Well, what's going on is that Walsh is deliberately using the term "marriage equality" in a sense different from the one that people today actually have in mind when they discuss marriage equality. This is the willful pig-headedness that I mentioned.

More precisely, what Walsh is doing in this essay is adopting an understanding of what marriage is that's especially popular among Roman Catholic theologians (although, interestingly, is rather different from what one would expect were one to use Roman Catholic marriage vows as one's standard for defining marriage). Walsh then takes "marriage equality" to mean a same-sex relationship "achieving" the same thing that a heterosexual relationship achieves when it becomes a "marriage" in this distinctive sense. And since, in this distinctive sense, a marriage is essentially a procreative union--and since a same-sex couple can't be a procreative union (although they can make babies with third-party help and raise them as a couple)--he denies that same-sex couples can have a marriage. If they can't have one, then marriage equality for them is impossible.

Given that this is what Walsh means, it turns out that his marriage equality denialism denies none of the following:

(1) The legal recognition and rights bestowed through civil marriage can be equally extended to heterosexual and same-sex couples. (They can, even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(2) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming a loving, intimate, monogamous relationship. (That's true, too, even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(3) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of making lifelong commitments of fidelity and mutual support. (Yup. True--even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(4) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming life-partnerships in which they join their personal, material, and emotional resources together and jointly face the challenges and opportunities of life. (Can be done, even absent baby-making powers.)

(5) Same-sex couples are just as capable of promising "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part." (No promise to make babies is included on this list, so there's nothing keeping same-sex couples--and infertile straight ones--from making these vows.)

(6) Same-sex couples are just as capable of keeping those promises. (And just as capable of breaking them. Baby-making involves a different skill-set than what's required for faithful monogamy.)

(7) The chance to publicly make these promises before a religious community--and be held accountable to them by that community--can be equally extended to heterosexual and same-sex couples. (Yup. Communities and societies can do it, even if the couple lacks baby-making powers.)

In other words, when Walsh says marriage equality is impossible, he's using the term "marriage equality" in such a narrow sense that his claim does not rule out...well, marriage equality--at least when that term is used in the ways that most of the people fighting for marriage equality have in mind.

Or let's put it this way: There are all kinds of ways in which same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual ones of doing what married couples do. Some of these things are really central to what it means to be married--so central that they are expressed in the traditional marriage vows, something that can't be said of what Walsh treats as essential. 

Furthermore, it's clearly possible for both the state and religious communities to extend to straight and gay couples alike the same opportunity to publicly vow to do these things. It is clearly possible to equally support them in their efforts to live up to these vows. It is clearly possible to hold them equally accountable when they fall short.

All of this means that Walsh's claim that same-sex marriages can't possibly exist amounts to little more than an oddity of language--"If you happen to ascribe to this particular definition of 'marriage,' then same-sex marriages are impossible"--unless Walsh can give compelling reasons why marriage must or ought to be defined in terms of procreative potential instead of in terms of all the other things that characterize marriage as we understand it. And he needs to make this case even though what he treats as definitive isn't even mentioned in the traditional marriage vows.

This is an important point, because it is widely held that marriage vows are performative, in the sense that the act of making those vows before witnesses and appropriate authorities establishes a marriage. If that is true, and if the things that one vows to do are things that same-sex couples can do as readily as heterosexual ones, then it is indeed possible for same-sex couples to be wed, whether or not we think they should be.

It's as if Matt Walsh wants same-sex marriage to be impossible so that he doesn't need to defend his controversial claim that it's wrong.

To be fair, however, Walsh recognizes that his argument won't go very far unless he can make the case that his preferred definition of marriage is the one society must (morally?) adopt. His strategy for making this case is fairly conventional. In recent years, Margaret Somerville and Jean Bethke Elshtain have made essentially the same argument Walsh makes, but at greater length and without Walsh's Wonder Twins simile.

Yeah. The Wonder Twins. Remember those guys? They had super powers, but they had to touch each other to activate them. Walsh likens the human reproductive power to them. You see, most of our powers as human beings--the power to walk and talk and digest potatoes, for example--are powers that we have in the way that Superman has his powers. He's got them all by himself. But our reproductive power is activated only when a man and woman come together and have sex. Which is kind of like the Wonder Twins, except that they don't have sex (I think).

So, this unique and important power requires that a man and a woman get together. Neither has the power alone. And that's pretty special. It is. It's pretty amazing that the power to make a baby requires collaboration between two people, one from each side of what is probably the most visible and significant divide in the human species. It's also pretty amazing that the same collaborative act which makes babies can be an expression of love and intimacy of a uniquely powerful kind (although it can also be an act of violation, an act of mutual recreational use of another's body, a chore, etc.)

But what do we do with these facts? Do we use them as an excuse to marginalize people who are different? Do we make second-class citizens of those whose capacities for sexual intimacy are disconnected from their reproductive powers (disconnected because they are capable of genuine romantic intimacy only in sexual relationships with persons of the same sex)? Do we deny their intimate partnerships the legal standing of civil marriage?

Walsh thinks so. But this isn't a matter of "It's impossible to include them." It's a matter of "I think it's wrong to include them." The language of impossibility is simply operating as a smokescreen in his argument, perhaps because it seems less discriminatory, less deliberately marginalizing, if what you're doing is just describing the cold hard facts.

Walsh wants to avoid the appearance of deliberately trying to exclude same-sex couples from the social and legal goods of marriage, and so instead of taking a stand for discrimination and trying to show why he finds it justified, he says the following: "Marriage is essentially a procreative unit. Your partnership isn't a procreative unit. Hence, it's a sad but inescapable fact that you can't have a marriage. No one's denying it to you. It's just not possible for you to have it."

What's funny is that he recognizes that such a message would be seriously troubling to many (maybe even to himself) if its target were an infertile couple rather than a same-sex one. And so he flails mightily--with rhetorically empty rhetorical questions--to cast the illusion that he has made an argument that somehow immunizes infertile couples from the marginalizing message.

But let's be clear here. Infertile couples are, by virtue of their infertility, non-procreative. They don't make babies. Marriage, by Walsh's definition, is reserved for procreative pairs. So doesn't it follow that in addition to excluding same-sex couples from marriage, we should also exclude couples known to be infertile prior to marriage, including elderly couples who fall in love at the Bingo table?

Walsh tries to say no. He makes the point that infertility is like deafness in humans. Humans have ears--the natural structures whose function is to transfer auditory stimuli to the brain in a useful form. But in some people these structures are broken somewhere. They have a disability. What Walsh notes is that while the non-procreative character of infertile couples springs from a kind of disability like deafness, the non-procreative character of a same-sex couple springs from the fact that their kind of couplehood is incapable by nature of making babies.

This is a difference, but is it a relevant one? I think I mentioned early on that Matt Walsh is one of those bloggers who can be relied upon to use some true premises in his arguments. But more is required of an argument before we call it a good one. Even if all the premises are true, the argument is bad if the conclusion doesn't follow.

So let's explore Walsh's deafness analogy just a bit further. Imagine there's a species of persons in the world who lack ears. Unlike humans, they have no sense of hearing. In their case, their inability to hear isn't a disability. They just aren't designed to have hearing. And suppose that these persons are systematically denied jobs as music critics because they lacked the power to hear. They aren't being denied it because of a disability. They're just members of a species without hearing. But if their inability to hear is the reason we withhold music critic jobs from them, then consistency demands that, for the very same reason, we withhold music critic jobs from the deaf--even though, in their case, the lack of hearing is a disability. If it's just not possible to be a music critic without the power to hear, then it makes no difference whether the lack of hearing is "natural" to your kind or a disability.

Likewise, if our reason for withholding marriage from same-sex couples is that they don't form a procreative unit, then we should also withhold marriage from infertile couples for the same reason. And if we don't withhold marriage from infertile couples, it's because we think that it is perfectly possible for non-procreative couples to have marriages that are fulfilling and meaningful.

In other words, we don't think that lack of procreative capacity is to marriage what deafness is to music criticism. Instead, we think that marriage is the sort of thing that people can enter into for a range of interconnected reasons. People do it for the sake of having a partner in life, for the sake of establishing a crucible of monogamous commitment in which they can better learn how to love in the face of challenges, for the sake of support and nurture and the joy of companionship in life's ups and downs.

While we tend to think marriage provides the best context for child-rearing, it doesn't follow that child-rearing is a necessary part of marriage. While we encourage amorous pairs to limit potentially reproductive sex to marital contexts (for the good of the children that may result), it doesn't follow that we must limit marriage to amorous pairs who engage in potentially reproductive sex.

Of course, there's more to be said. But we can't even begin to explore our moral disagreements about what marriage should be about, and which policies best serve our interests and responsibilities, if we hide behind a smokescreen of impossibility.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage in Oklahoma (!!!)...and Gov. Mary Fallin's Response




Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court refused to take up an appeal of a lower-court ruling that declared Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. This paved the way for same-sex marriage here in Oklahoma. It was a joyful day for many couples, including a number of friends of mine, who suddenly had a right they'd been denied their entire lives: the right to marry the person they love in their home state.

In other words, for the first time in their lives, gay and lesbian Oklahomans found themselves free from the systemic legal discrimination that Oklahoma has enforced for its entire history (even writing it into its constitution in 2004).

And while friends of mine cheered and cried in joy, while many rushed off to get their marriage licenses and lined up in churches and courthouses to finally receive the legal recognition they'd always been denied, the Governor of our state, Mary Fallin, issued a public statement condemning the decision and its implications.

Earlier today, one of my friends said how grateful he is that his belief system doesn't force him "to stand against love and commitment." Apparently, Mary Fallin's belief system does. For this, I pity her. Consider how hard it must be to be forced by your beliefs to utter words of outrage and condemnation in the face of the joy and tears and hugs of people who love one another, who finally are free to express their love and commitment in the public way that the state has always made available--for everyone but them.

How sad it must be, to feel obligated to throw wet towels on love and laughter.

Here is the wet towel she threw:

"The people of Oklahoma have the right to determine how marriage is defined. In 2004, Oklahomans exercised that right, voting by a margin of 3-1 to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

"The will of the people has now been overridden by unelected federal justices, accountable to no one. That is both undemocratic and a violation of states' rights. Rather than allowing states to make their own policies that reflect the values and views of their residents, federal judges have inserted themselves into a state issue to pursue their own agendas.

"Today's decision has been cast by the media as a victory for gay rights. What has been ignored, however, is the right of Oklahomans – and Americans in every state – to write their own laws and govern themselves as they see fit. Those rights have once again been trampled by an arrogant, out-of -control federal government that wants to substitute Oklahoma values with Washington, D.C. values."

Fortunately, as wet towels go, this statement wasn't very wet--and it didn't have much effect on the celebrants.

Let's briefly consider the details of Mary Fallin's claims. As she sees it, Oklahoma should be free to continue to practice marriage discrimination against its gay and lesbian citizens, in defiance of the court ruling that doing so violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

She thinks it is the right of the people of Oklahoma, if the majority so chooses, to systematically exclude a portion of its population from access to the social goods of marriage. For her, this is a matter of "state's rights" and "democracy." Put simply, she thinks it is the right of the majority of the state to exclude select minorities from equal access to legally-conferred social goods, if that so happens to be in line with the majority's values.

But we live in a republic where democratic rule is not absolute. It is not absolute because the founders of this country recognized the importance of protecting individuals and minority groups from a distinct danger: the tyranny of the majority. What the majority of a state has the right to do is and has always been constrained by considerations of individual rights and the obligation of the government to preserve equality and liberty in the face of majorities that sometimes don't care about these things.

The question, then, is this: Does the majority in Oklahoma have the right to systematically exclude persons with a homosexual orientation from access to a valuable social good that the state provides to persons with a heterosexual orientation--namely, marital recognition for their intimate partnerships (and the attendant legal rights and protections).

Put another way, do the people of Oklahoma have the right to legally discriminate against gays and lesbians when it comes to marriage? (For those who are under the impression that there is no legal discrimination going on, see here).

This amounts to a question of justification. Legal discrimination can, in some cases, be justified. For example, the state can justifiably exclude the blind from access to driver's licenses. But legal discrimination is the kind of thing that requires justification. Absent a compelling state interest, legal discrimination violates both the political philosophy on which this country was built and the founding documents that express that philosophy.

The federal courts ruled, in effect, that the State of Oklahoma failed to meet this burden when it comes to its same-sex marriage ban. Hence, the ban was declared an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of persons to receive equal treatment under the law.

In the face of this, does Mary Fallin explain what she thinks is wrong with the federal court rulings? Does she build the case that legal discrimination is justified in this case?

She mentions the values of the people of Oklahoma, as if this were a sufficient basis for justifying the ban. But "majority values" in a state are precisely the sorts of things that cannot, by themselves, justify discriminatory treatment under the law. "Majority values" supported Jim Crow laws in most southern states. The majority can be wrong, its values unjust. If laws are discriminatory, then majority values have to give way. The alternative is to open the door to the untrammeled tyranny of the majority.

If the federal courts made a mistake, then we need to look at where the mistake lies, by looking at the substance of the court arguments. Does Fallin do this?

No. Instead, she throws a red herring. She asserts that the federal judges in question here--who were duly appointed according to the procedures written into federal law--are "unelected" and "accountable to no one." This sounds like she disapproves of the federal judicial system in this country, and thinks it should be radically restructured.

But even if she's right--even if there are good reasons to be unhappy with the design of our federal judicial system--why is that relevant in this case? Does she think the purported flaws in the federal judicial system have compromised the soundness of the ruling against Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban? If so, she needs to show that this is so. Simply calling the federal judges "arrogant" and "out-of-control" shows us nothing--except that Mary Fallin can fling put-downs.

If you want to show that a flaw in the federal judicial system has compromised one of its rulings, you show this by, first of all, showing that the ruling is unsound. She makes no effort whatsoever to do that. Hence, her vague unhappiness with the way that federal judges get their positions is nothing but irrelevant distraction.

Think of it this way: Our judicial system is at the front lines of our nation's founding commitment to ensure that legal discrimination is not taking place, or when it is, that there is a sufficiently compelling reason for it. Given this fact, Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban is clearly suspect. A court ruling against it sounds quite reasonable. If Fallin thinks that, despite this, the ruling is wrong, she needs to dig into the substance of the arguments and identify the flaws. Vague complaints and put-downs simply won't do.

What we have here is a fallacy taught in most freshman-level critical thinking classes: the ad hominem fallacy, which is roughly the mistake of attacking a person instead of their views and arguments. Instead of speaking to the substance of the federal rulings, Mary Fallin calls the judges names while vaguely deriding the system that put them in office.

We deserve better than freshman-level logical fallacies from out governor. Really, we do. Until we get it, those who are enjoying their new-found freedom to marry should treat Mary Fallin's statement for what it is: not so much a wet towel as a dirty dishrag.