Thursday, October 23, 2008

Consciousness and the Culture Wars

It’s been quite a while since my last blog post. And what does it take to awaken me from my blogmatic slumbers? Headlines like this: Creationists Declare War over the Brain. Not again! Not another surd in the so-called culture wars. Say it ain’t so; please, say it ain’t so.

I’m afraid it is so. Apparently, there was an “international symposium” titled Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness held in New York last month. And in August, the Discovery Institute (home to Intelligent Design thinkers and supporters) held their annual Briefing on Intelligent Design, at which two putative neuroscienists—(I say “putative” only because I have not yet had the opportunity to review their credentials and because I have suspicions about agenda-driven “science” whether it emanates from the Discovery Institute or from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens; and I put “science” in scare quotes because usually when you’ve got cultural agenda in the neighborhood a lot of stuff gets called “science” which isn’t)—as I was saying, the Discovery Institute hosted their annual confab at which two putative neuroscientists spoke, two scientists who also headlined the “international symposium." These “scientists” (and for all I know they may have impeccable credentials; but until I get the chance to check them out, I'm going keep "science" in scare quotes) these "scientists" claim that the fact of consciousness constitutes “Darwinism’s grave.” And in the aftermath of “Darwinism,” with “Darwinism” (whatever that is; about as helpful a term as "evangelical" or "postmodernism") having been buried, there’s now room for what they call “non-material neuroscience” a “science” they themselves allegedly practice.

Well, there are many, I say MANY, issues embedded in this “non-material neuroscience” movement that deserve attention. I’m going to address a few of them. I do so not as a neuroscientist, but rather as a Christian philosopher with a keen interest in consciousness and neuroscience, a professor who regularly teaches a course called Minds, Brains and Persons, (a course in which we puzzle over the mystery of consciousness and just how it relates to neural goings-on between our ears), and someone who has published a couple of articles and books on related issues.

First, although there are others more competent than myself who can speak to the ID movement as such, notably among them my colleague, Steve Matheson, I will say this: to the extent that ID claims that the level of complexity found in biological systems exceeds that which evolution, i.e., natural mechanisms, could have produced, then if God has in fact brought about biological systems through natural mechanisms (i.e., through evolution), I think God’s going to be pretty surprised to learn that God could not have in fact done this! I can state the point much more succinctly: isn’t it a bit presumptuous to lay down a priori how God has to do things?!!! Of course it is; it’s presumptuous (as uncle Al Plantinga might say) in excelsis.

Second, let me say something about consciousness and the brain. For starters, it’s no secret, no new revelation to any of us—hard core dualists, atheistic materialists or even Christian materialists like myself—that consciousness has so far escaped the materialist-naturalist net of explanation. Why is that? Why hasn’t consciousness yielded to natural explanation? Is it because no naturalistic ‘link’ exists between neurophysiological goings-on in the brain and ‘technicolor’ phenomenology or is there a solution to the mystery that characterizes the relation between the mental and the physical and that solution is to be found in an immaterial mind or soul?

According to one atheistic philosopher there is indeed a natural property that accounts for the psychophysical link. Says Colin McGinn, a notable philosopher of mind,

Resolutely shunning the supernatural, I think it is undeniable that it must be in virtue of some natural property of the brain that organisms are conscious. There just has to be some explanation for how brains subserve minds. (From Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem,
Blackwell's, 1994, p.6)

Now McGinn thinks that we are constitutionally incapable of ever discovering that link. But, he assures us, it is a natural link and indeed it has to be. It has to be because we must—as good materialists/naturalists—shun the supernatural.

Well, it’s clear that by “resolutely shunning the supernatural” McGinn means to rule out--again, a priori--the existence of God, the soul or anything supernatural or immaterial. To put it another way, McGinn is a metaphysical naturalist, i.e., a naturalist about everything: the natural world is all there is and so it is exhaustive of reality.

But look: one needn’t embrace that exaggerated claim in order to believe that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious. I, for example, am a theist, a supernaturalist you might say. I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And since I believe in the God of the Christian Scriptures, I believe neither that the natural world is all there is, nor that the natural world is “causally closed.” I believe, in other words, that God can intervene in the natural world, that God has done so and, sometimes, continues to do so. And I believe that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that we are conscious.

Furthermore, I believe that, for the most part, God does not directly intervene in the natural world. Since the natural world has yielded in so many ways to scientific (i.e., naturalistic) explanation over the past several hundred years, it seems eminently plausible to believe that God created the world—the natural world—with its own integrity and such that it operates according to regularities that can be grasped and understood, not only by those who acknowledge its author, but by those who do not and whose explanations, though natural and accurate, do not appeal to the author of nature.

Since God created the natural world, and all that it contains, with its own integrity, it is also reasonable to believe that consciousness itself—a feature encountered in the natural world—has a natural explanation. That’s my position anyway. So it seems clear to me that we can accept the claim that it is in virtue of a natural property of the brain that organisms are conscious without accepting metaphysical naturalism.

Perhaps some distinctions will help. Begin (and for our purposes, end) by distinguishing metaphysical naturalism from both methodological naturalism and what we might call chastened naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism, again, amounts to the claim that the natural world is all there is and is exhaustive of reality. Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, amounts to a presupposition about the practice of science. It says that scientific explanations must exclude reference to supernatural or immaterial entities.

Now if science is in the business of discovering natural causes, this ought not to surprise or offend. Methodological naturalism, as I understand it, is perfectly compatible with a robust Christian theism insofar as it does not rule out explanations that appeal to God. It simply will not count such explanations as scientific explanations. Moreover, what I want to call chastened naturalism recognizes the enormous contribution science has made to our understanding of the natural world and takes the natural world to possess its own integrity and to exemplify regularities that can be understood without reference to any immaterial or supernatural entities. What makes it chastened naturalism is its refusal to go “metaphysical” and to claim that the natural world is all there is and, therefore, that the sciences are the only source of genuine knowledge. Chastened naturalism is compatible with there being religious experience and Divine revelation. Such experience and revelation provides for religious knowledge, which is genuine knowledge even if not visible to the practice of science and by definition not scientific knowledge.

In short, to grant to atheistic naturalists that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious does not require us to sacrifice our theistic or Christian commitments. It doesn’t even require us to deny that consciousness is a result of Divine activity. Why? Because since when is God precluded from acting through naturalistic mechanisms? Did God fashion you in your mother’s womb? Yes. Well, how did he do that? I suggest picking up any biology textbook and reading the chapter on embryology. There you will find the answer. You are not, however, likely to find there any mention of God. That’s not surprising, though; is it? What you find there is the naturalistic explanation for your coming to be. And there's nothing atheistic about it. Who made up the rule that natural (explanation) is incompatible with God? I didn't get that memo.

So, what is the solution to the problem of consciousness? I'll say it again—and say so with no embarrassment—I have no idea. Like McGinn and Leibniz before him I think consciousness continues to prove itself intractable. It remains a mystery. But I'm not convinced that we will never solve it.

But doesn't the fact that materialist neuroscientists have so far failed to solve the problem drive us ineluctably to substance dualism? Well, the “neuroscientists” funded by the Discovery Institute think so. I, however, think not. Let me tell you why, why the fact of consciousness, though profoundly puzzling to materialists, ought not to be viewed by dualists as grounds for celebrating victory in the mind-body debate.

Here’s a little argument for dualism, based on consciousness:

(i) Materialism or dualism is true
(ii) We human beings are conscious creatures
(iii) It is a mystery how it is that we human beings are conscious creatures if materialism is true
(iv) The fact that we human beings are conscious creatures is a good reason for believing dualism is true

This is not, of course, a good argument. Suppose we know about John only that he is either a full-time auto-mechanic or a full-time janitor. Suppose too that we know that John attends philosophy colloquia at Calvin College every Tuesday afternoon. The fact that it is difficult to see how it could be that John attends philosophy colloquia at Calvin every Tuesday afternoon if John is an auto-mechanic is no good reason to believe he is a janitor. In other words, it needs to be shown how John's attending philosophy colloquia makes it more likely that he is a janitor than that he is an auto mechanic. Likewise, just because we can’t see how consciousness emerges from matter makes it no more likely that it owes to an immaterial soul.

But isn’t it much easier to see how it is that we human beings are conscious if dualism is true than it is if we are wholly physical beings, i.e., if some version of materialism is true? I don’t think so. Is it really any easier to see how an immaterial soul could be conscious than it is to see how a material being could be? If anything it may seem harder, owing simply to the fact that it is difficult to imagine an immaterial soul. Peter van Inwagen—a Christian and philosopher who is recognized by his philosophical peers as among the very best analytic philospophers currently working—has argued for the claim that since we know quite a lot about physical objects the mystery of consciousness is glaring. There is, he believes, a corresponding ignorance about non-physical objects that has had the tendency to conceal the mystery for dualists. But the fact of the matter really is this: consciousness is a mystery for all of us. It is no less a mystery for dualists than it is for materialists.

So the fact that consciousness has not yielded to natural explanation is not, despite the claims of the non-material neuroscientists, Darwinism’s grave. (I still want to know what view or views “Darwinism” is supposed to pick out. But that’s a topic better left to my friend Steve over at Quintessence of Dust. And it’s probably already been addressed there.)

I can think of at least two reasons for believing that naturalism--in terms either of consciousness or evolution--poses a problem for theism. (i) assume that God cannot work through natural mechanisms or (ii) identifiy naturalism with metaphysical naturalism. I see no reason to embrace either (i) or (ii). Until I do, I will remain a (chastened) naturalist and a Christian theist. And with any luck, I will also remain employed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick, Pigs and Politics

Politics makes me sick. And I don't generally blog about it. But, blog about it today I must. You will find below a 47 second clip of Obama's "you can put lipstick on a pig; but, it's still a pig" line. How anyone could possibly hear that as directed at Sarah Palin is baffling. That McCain allowed his campaign to pick up on it and use it in their own campaign ads to misrepresent Obama as sexist is shameful. It's clear by what immediately precedes Obama's remark that he's talking about McCain and the policies he's pushing under the banner of "change." You can call them by whatever names you want, but it's the same bill of goods we've been sold the past eight years. That is clearly Obama's point. And he's right, at least about the philosophical point. For as Lincoln taught so long ago, calling a horse's tail a leg does not make a horse to have five legs. Calling the same old policies by different names does not make them different policies.

If there's anything worth discussing it's whether there are substantive differences between McCain's proposed policies and Bush's. But this business about sexism and Palin bashing by Obama is just plain politics. And it's ugly. About as ugly as I suspect lipstick on a pig would be.

Would to God that most Americans will be able to see this for what it is.Alright. 'nuff said. Here's the clip:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thinking Through Homosexuality

I've been sitting on this one for a while now. I am going to begin by laying out a few assumptions. Then I'm going to present a few thoughts and questions concerning the moral permissibility of the practice of homosexuality. I will follow this up with a discussion of a common line of argument against the moral permissibility of homosexual practice. Then I will extend an invitation to you to share your thoughts and concerns.

For the purposes of this discussion (please read those six words again, carefully; I'll wait....okay...finished?) I make the following three assumptions. First, I will assume that homosexual practice is at cross-purposes with God's design for human sexual behavior. Second, I will assume that one's sexual orientation--whether one is attracted to members of the same or opposite sex--is not, generally, under one's voluntary control. Just as I did not awake one day and decide to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, I assume that most homosexual men and women did not awake one day and decide to be attracted to members of the same sex. Finally, I am going to assume, based on the biblical witness, that under less than ideal conditions God sometimes makes accommodations to those condtions and makes allowances for activities and practices that run orthogonal to God's ultimate purposes and intentions.

I'll have more to say about the first and third assumptions as we proceed. For now, I want to note that the following practices would seem to be at cross-purposes with God's intentions for human relations (sexual and otherwise): war, divorce/remarriage, polygamy (I'm assuming for the sake of this discussion that God's design for human sexual practice was one man/one woman couplings until death does part the couple). In the case of the first two (war and divorce/remarriage), many of us believe that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in these practices which are at cross-purposes with God's good intentions for human relations. The idea might run something like this: these practices, while not the best all things being equal, are sometimes the best all things considered. In other words, under ideal conditions (when things go the way originally intended) these practices would not be engaged in. Sadly, however, under less than ideal conditions, such as the actual conditions under which we live, engaging in these practices can be morally justified and so are morally permitted.

Interestingly, in the case of polygamy, the bible never explicitly forbids the practice, although most of the readers of this blog, and the communities to which we belong, surely would forbid it.

The question is obvious: what is the relevant dissimilarity between the practice of homosexuality and the practices of war and divorce/remarriage? Granting (again, for the sake of this discussion) that all of these practices are at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions, why does the bible, and why do many of us, make allowances for war and divorce/remarriage, holding them to be morally permissible under certain circumstances, but fail to make any such allowance for the practice of homosexuality?

That is a question worth pondering, and worth answering, but only after you've first pondered for a spell. Here is one common line of response:

Well the relevant difference is that in the case of war and divorce the
bible itself makes allowances whereas in the case of the practice of
homosexuality, this is not so; and in fact, in the case of homosexuality
the practice is explicitly forbidden in scripture. Since the scriptures
make no allowance for it neither should we.

First let me just note an interesting asymmetry. There are sexually immoral practices that the bible does not explicitly forbid (e.g., polygamy), but which we do; and there are sexually immoral practices the bible does explicitly forbid and, so the argument goes, so should we, unless the bible itself makes accommodation for them. That's interesting I think. It's interesting, first of all, that a sexually immoral practice like polygamy is not explicitly forbade in the bible. (I say 'sexually immoral' based on the assumption above that God's original design was one man/one woman.) And it's interesting, not to mention relevant, that there are practices that are at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for human (sexual) relations, and which God forbids, but which the scriptures (or God) makes allowances for and permits (e.g., divorce).

Here is what I find most interesting and what I would like for you to help me think through. There is an interesting and relevant similarity when it comes to the sorts of reasons behind a biblically based accommodation of war and divorce and the sorts of reasons that might be offered for extending an accommodation to the practice of monogamous homosexual unions.

Consider: why would a practice like war or divorce be morally permissible when such practices result in fragmentation, disintegration and human impoverishment, features of human existence that are far, far from God's good, life-enhancing purposes for creation? Well, sadly, in this broken world of ours, as I've already mentioned, these sorts of practices can be better, all things considered, than any of the available alternatives (e.g., in the case of divorce the alternatives might be perpetual abuse, a marriage partner whose addictions threaten the welfare of the family, etc.). Likewise, it might be argued, that the practice of monogamous homosexual unions can be better than any of the available alternatives, e.g., a life of serial partners, a life w/o love and companionship, a life of self-loathing and flagellation, etc. Might the words of St. Paul to heterosexuals apply here too: "Better to marry than to burn."

But why, it might be asked, doesn't the bible and church history make such allowances for the practice of homosexual behavior when it does for such a practice as divorce? If St. Paul had reasoned the way suggested in the previous paragraph, wouldn't he have made just such an allowance?

Here I wonder whether or not there is a relevant dissimilarity in the social structures that existed in the ancient world and those that exist now, differences that might provide an answer to our question. Let me put it this way, had the social structures that exist today existed in biblical times would the biblical writers (St. Paul or the OT writers) have made an allowance for the practice of monogamous homosexual unions? What I have in mind here is this. It seems to me to be the case, for example, that contemporary configurations of family would be scarcely recognized in the ancient world. I'm told in fact that in the early church (and I need to verify this; so, if you have some evidence I'd like to become acquainted w/it) people with multiple wives and children were welcomed into Christian community. Again, assuming such a practice is at cross-purposes with God's intentions for human sexual practice, one can only imagine the churches were faced with a conundrum: these people came to Christ already embedded in a certain family configuration. What was the church to say to such people, "I know you have three wives and seven children between you, but I'm afraid you must sever your family if you are to be a part of the community?"

It could be argued that we are in a similar sort of situation vis a vis homosexual families. Suppose a homosexual couple with children come to Christ and seek membership in a Christian community. Is the community to say, "You are welcome here; but, first you must sever your family."?

What may be well worth considering in such a discussion as this is whether the relevant comparison is not between war or divorce and the practice of homosexual behavior, but that between the practice of homosexual unions and the practice of polygamy in the bible and the early church. Granting (for the sake of argument) that both practices run orthogonal to God's intentions for human sexuality, might accommodations and allowances be made when it comes to homosexual unions in recognition of the less than ideal conditions under which we live?

And with that, I throw it open to you. I would greatly appreciate your help in thinking through these issues.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sin, Death and Original Conditions

This past week there were two very interesting posts around the blogosphere that are related, even if not obviously so. The first was a post over at Jason Clark's by Stephen Webb. This was the third post in a three-post series on creation care and animal rights. The second was a post at Scot McKnight's on Augustine (or really, St. Paul) and the doctrine of original sin. Both posts raise important and interesting questions or puzzles about evolutionary creation and the biblical narrative . (The phrase evolutionary creation is one I am very fond of and picked up from my friend Steve Matheson, whose blog is always worth a visit or two or sometimes three. EC is a more apt locution than theistic evolution in that the latter might suggest such things as theistic chemistry, theistic embryology or theistic whiffle-ball. But there's really just chemistry, embryology and whiffle-ball. Likewise, there is really just evolution. Some, like me, think that's how God created the natural world; but, adding theistic to evolution is as strange, I think, as adding it to whilffle-ball.)

Let me start with Scot's post. Scot's provocative question was simply this: is there a gospel without original sin? Now to my ears, that's not a difficult question to answer at all. The answer is, no! There is no good news without the bad news of things having gone terribly awry, without there having been a cataclysmic fracturing of creation and ensuing misery. In any event, the puzzles and questions are just beneath the surface of Scot's question (and my answer), especially for those who accept evolutionary creation (as opposed to what the ID defenders are pedaling and what old-school creationists hawk) .

The puzzles are these. According to St. Paul, sin and death are related as cause and effect. The sin of the old man, the dirt-man--Adam--resulted in death and destruction. Death, on this view, is an intrusion into God’s good creation. It is the new man--Jesus from Nazareth--who undoes, atones for, puts to rights, and otherwise deals with sin and, according to St. Paul, it is the incarnation, life, death and especially the resurrection of Jesus that gains victory over both sin and death. See Romans 5.12, for example.

The problem or puzzle is how to reconcile the biblical story with an evolutionary account of our origins, especially the idea that death is an intruder into a previously deathless, earthly paradise. (There is also the problem of reconciling the idea of a historical, single Adam. Though, I myself find that issue less troublesome than the issue of death, and sin.) If you believe that God reveals himself in both books, that of nature and the bible, then you’ve got some explaining to do, as the two witnesses seem to give conflicting accounts.

Do you think the two can ultimately be reconciled? If so, how?

Now, over at Jason Clark’s blog, Stephen Webb suggests that animals were originally domesticated and that, apparently, either those ferocious fangs of the saber tooth tiger did not, pre-fall, exist at all or, if they did, they were not used for ripping to pieces its prey. In fact, to hear Stephen tell it, the predator/prey structure of the non-human animal kingdom is not original to creation.

Obviously, Webb’s view is also incompatible with an evolutionary account of our origins, with the very idea of common descent. One way to handle this problem is simply to dismiss the notion of evolution/common descent and embrace one of its rivals, ID or Young Earth Creationism. To do so, however, comes at a significant cost, namely, the cost of discounting the overwhelming evidence of common descent as a piece of Divine Deception. In other words, it may look for all the world like all living things are related by common ancestry, but they’re not really.

With respect to the first issue—death and evolution—I have some thoughts. But I’m really interested in how you folks think about these matters.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

All is Quiet

Today I leave for Innsbruck, Austria for a week. I'll be delivering a paper at the How Do We Survive Our Death: Personal Identity and Resurrection international conference. Here's what I have to look forward to greeting me Sunday morning, as I pull into Innsbruck:

My contribution to the conference, a paper titled Constitution, Resurrection and Relationality, presents the Constitution View of human persons, which I've been talking about for the past ten years, and most recently in Rethinking Human Nature. In the paper I situate the view as a materialist alternative to dualist views, on the one hand, and reductionistic versions of materialism, on the other. I then address a theological criticism of the view to the effect that my account of human personhood doesn't take the fundamentally relational nature of human persons seriously, and in fact contributes to social isolation and a sort of introspective atomism. I show how relationality is actually essential to human personhood on the constitution view and I try to demonstrate that human persons are always--from the beginning of the Christian narrative to its very end--persons-in-relation. So relationality is not just compatible with the Constitution View, and not simply congenial to it, it is in important respects essential to the view. I also sugest that if we are to survive death, either in the sense of immediate survival or resurrection from the dead, then these very bodies must survive or be raised. If you're interested, the paper will appear along with the other papers being presented (including papers by Dean Zimmerman, Hud Hudson, Eric Olson and Stephen Davis--the rest of the U.S. contingent) in a forthcoming volume on the same topic.

All of that to say--things will be a little quieter than usual around H-SAB over the next week. I do aim however to queue up a post to appear while I'm gone, and I hope you find it interesting and have some thoughts on the subject it addresses.

Monday, July 21, 2008

What Does Human Flourishing Look Like: Part II

This is a follow-up to the previous post. The video below is eminently relevant to that post, and I would be interested in your thoughts concerning the video, as they relate to that post. Be sure to watch this all the way through to the end.

What Does Human Flourishing Look Like in the New Jerusalem?

I have always believed that in the New Jerusalem or the New Earth, human beings will realize the end for which they were created. I still do. I have believed that in that consummated kingdom, there will be healing and wholeness, that crooked spines will be made straight, that the lame will walk and the blind see. I have believed that anything that impoverishes human beings--mentally, physically, spiritually--will impoverish no more. That there and then all will be made well, and that human beings and all of creation will flourish. I still believe this.

But what, exactly, counts as flourishing and what as impoverishment? Will we all have the same IQ in heaven, or will there be a range such that anyone within that range is flourishing? Will we all have 20-20 vision? But what about those like my brother whose vision is 10-15? Is that flourishing and 20-20 not? Again, will there be a range and a threshold such that everyone will be above the threshold but some higher than others? Suppose someone is born color-blind. Is that an impoverishment? Or suppose someone is mentally handicapped. Will their being made well mean that in the New Jerusalem they will me? Am I the standard of flourishing? Are you?

This subject came up a couple of weeks ago at our subversive little group In Vino Theologica (in wine there is theology). One of our new members asked about one of their children who has special needs. (I'm not certain what her diagnosis actually is.) The idea that this member was struggling with was that perhaps what we have labeled a defect or ab-normal may be part and parcel to who their daughter is. Why think that what we have labeled a defect actually is? Maybe in the consummated kingdom there are ways that we will be more like her than her like us.

What do you think? What does human flourishing look like? Granted that all that impoverishes will be no more in the New Jerusalem, how do we tell what truly impoverishes? Will all that we label "handicaps" or "defects" be done away with or is it possible that in some cases we've mislabeled? And how can we tell? Here and now?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monkey See Monkey Do

Spain has recently passed legislation granting legal rights to apes. Animal rights activists in Austria are taking legal action to have a chimp named Matthew declared a person. They have as yet been unsuccessful but are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights in the hope of prevailing.

Like the issues of gay rights and abortion rights, the rhetoric that generally attends 'discussion' of so-called "animal rights" can tend to produce copious amounts of heat and very little light. On the one side are the animal rights activists who sometimes say and do things that strike us as mad, or just plain silly. To cite just two example, there is Matthew's supporters in Austria who contend that everyone has a right to a fair trial, even chimps. And of course the notoriously zany Leona Helmsley who, upon her death, left her dog some 12 million dollars and directed that that her vast estate (estimated in the billions of dollars) be used to care for dogs.

On the other side are the opponents of animal rights, some of whom are Christians, of course. They argue that God gave us 'dominion' over the animals, and that, I take it, is somehow supposed to mean that we can treat non-human animals anyway we like, thank you very much. There is also the argument that if we grant (say) chimps rights what's to prevent us from extending rights to earth worms and gnats? Moreover, extending rights to chimps, dogs, earth worms and gnats has the effect of diminishing the significance and value of peculiarly human life. Or so the argument goes.

In a NY Times Editorial a couple of days ago, Adam Cohen introduces a very sensible voice into the discussion. Essentially, he suggests the reverse of this last charge. He writes:

Critics object that recognizing rights for apes would diminish human beings. But it seems more likely that showing respect for apes would elevate humans at the same time.

American law is becoming increasingly cruel. The Supreme Court recently ruled that states are not obliged to administer lethal injections in ways that avoid unnecessary risk that inmates will suffer great pain. If apes are given the right to humane treatment, it just might become harder to deny that same right to their human cousins.

For what it's worth, here's what I think, as a Christian. We human beings are of a piece with the rest of the natural world. Indeed we are animals, human animals. So that animals should enjoy a conscious life ought not to worry us since we ourselves enjoy a conscious life. Conscious lives come on a continuum, of course. The conscious life of gorillas, who seem to feel emotions and to understand and utilize language to communicate with humans, is more complex than the mental life of a dog; but, dogs too seem obviously to enjoy a robust conscious life. At the far end of the contimuum are those animals that are also persons, their conscious lives have a complexity sufficient for producing what I, following Lynne Baker, call a first-person perspective. So far as we can tell, in the natural world a first-person perspective is had only by humans.

There are two issues relevant to the discussion of extending rights to non-human animals that I want to discuss very briefly. First, I think Cohen is correct. Our practices toward non-human animals are character-forming, they shape the kind of people we become. Compassionate treatment of all living things, other things being equal, will tend to produce compassionate people. Treat non-human animals with compassion and you are likely to treat humans compassionately too, other things being equal.

Second, is extending rights to non-human individuals really that crazy of an idea? We extend rights of various sorts already to collectives such as corporations and groups. And rights, like conscious lives, come on a continuum. The sorts of rights that non-human animals may have coming to them in virtue of being created by God will be different than the sorts of rights persons have in virtue of being created in the image of God. Granted, there are difficult issues in the neighborhood; but, really, is the very idea of extending a right to an existence free of torture and exploitation to a non-human animal with a sufficiently well developed central nervous system that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain really that crazy?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wor(l)d and Sacrament

In this morning's NY Times there is a terrific article in the business section titled Warning: Habits May be Good For You. (You'll need a subscription--which is free--to be able to view the article.)

What the article does is essentially express what many of us
concerned with church and culture have been saying for a long time, namely, that the world, like the church, is in the business of formation, spiritual formation. And when you're in the business of spiritual formation, liturgy and sacrament--i.e., concrete practices-- are two very powerful means of creating, cultivating and cementing desired dispositions or characters.

In the church, it is virtues or the fruit of the spirit that we aim to form within us by cultivating various sorts of practices or disciplines. In the world, where the bottom economic line is the measure of success, it is an insatiable appetite for consumables that the prophets and priests wish to form within us.

For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed,” said Dr. Berning, the P.& G. psychologist. “But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.

This is a fascinating article. It tells the story, a good story, of an anthropologist with a desire to end the unnecessary spread of disease (especially in children) by getting people in certain parts of the world to wash their hands with soap. In Ghana, for example, they found that most homes have soap, but that only 4% of people used it after toilet use. After many unsuccessful educational campaigns to change the sanitary practices of the people in Ghana, the anthropologist turned to the prophets of our culture, multinational corporations, together with their priests, i.e., social psychologists and the advertising industry who consult them. The goal? To produce in the Ghana people an emotion or feeling (in this case the emotion of disgust), and then move them to cultivate a practice--handwashing--that would address the emotion and, in so doing, contribute enormously to ending or at least significantly diminishing the spread of certain diseases. And guess what? It's working.

Advertising is ubiquitous in our consumer culture. As Christ-followers, we are not immune to it or its effects. It could be argued in fact that the liturgy and sacraments of our consumer culture have more impact on our spiritual formation than the liturgy and sacraments of our churches. (Of course, part of the explanation of this fact, if it is a fact, might just be that most evangelical churches have abdicated the practice of meaningful liturgy and sacraments to our culture.)

In any case, we ought not fool ourselves. The life of consumption is, at bottom, a spiritual quest. It emerges out of the same restlessness and longing that are part of our created nature, and that drive us toward others, and God.
Consuming may be a misguided quest, but it is a spiritual quest all the same.

My question is this: how can we, the church, be the counter-cultural community of Jesus that we are called to be
(a community primarily of formation) in a culture whose sacraments and liturgy are more formative for us than the very society to which we claim primary allegiance?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Obama and Abortion

This past Tuesday Relevant Magazine published an interview with Obama. In that interview Obama is asked about his stance on abortion, specifically his stance on third-trimester and so-called partial-birth abortions. Here's how Obama replies:

I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

Here is one response to Obama's answer in the Relevant Magazine interview, by Jan Crawford Greenberg:

...there's no mistaking that Obama says he no longer will support what's long been a cornerstone of the abortion rights debate: The Court's insistence that laws banning abortions after the fetus is viable (now about 22 weeks) contain an exception to allow doctors to perform them if necessary to protect a pregnant woman's mental health.

Others, in comments throughout the blogosphere, are pointing the finger and saying, "there, you see; he started out left of center and now has not only shifted center, but has blown right past center on his way to the right."

A couple of thoughts. First, the binary opposition of right and left and the impulse or drive to pigeon hole and demand absolute loyalty to one "side" is as much a proclivity of the "left" as it is the "right". On this issue, Obama is not flip-flopping or threatening to take away what is now a woman's "right" to choose an abortion. And he's not opposing the Court's insistence that laws restricting late-term abortions include an exception to protect a woman's mental health. He's simply saying that states can restrict or prohibit late term abortions so long as there is an exception for the health of the mother and that mental distress does not qualify as threatening the health of the mother. Surely there is a distinction between mental "distress" and mental "illness" or "disease" where a pregnancy in the context of the latter, we might imagine, would qualify as threatening the health of the mother. If mental distress was sufficient for ending a pregnancy the exception might have the effect of eliminating the very rule for which it is an exception.

The problem, of course, is that nuance and distinction are not the stuff of mainstream america or the media that creates it. Ms. Crawford is a part of the media that creates mainstream american culture. I fear that she, and those like her, are once again making political mountains out of moral mole hills.

In any case, I suspect there are increasing numbers of people who are tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of demanding that everyone who champions life agree with them on every aspect of every issue. And let's be honest. Roe v. Wade did not create abortions. Abortions existed LOOOOOONG before Roe v. Wade. On one plausible reading, what Roe v. Wade made legal was the performing of abortions by trained medical doctors. It essentially said to women, "as full and equal citizens, you deserve better; you have a right to an abortion that is safe."


Friday, June 13, 2008

Hopkins vs. Hewson?

Man's spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best
But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bones risen.

Those are the closing lines of one of my favorite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Caged Skylark.

I love Hopkins' poetry.

Glory be to God for dappled things- For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim...

And then, from the same poem, perhaps my favorite lines in all of poetry:

All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

Those lines from Pied Beauty.

There's another poet I'm quite fond of too. Here are some of my favorie lines from his works.

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

It was a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Beautiful day

What you don't have you don't need it now What you don't know you can feel it somehow What you don't have you don't need it now Don't need it now Was a beautiful day

Yes, those are the words to Beautiful Day penned by none other than Bono (aka Paul Hewson). Here are a few more pearls:

She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

It's a name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

If you're interested in art and culture I want to recommend an online magazine that I learned about this year called Catapult. I learned about it because a friend of mine, who is a terrific writer, had an essay of hers about the sacrament of laundry published there. They've just published a brief exchange between my colleague Jamie Smith and myself concerning dumbing down culture. This discussion was originally published in a student led publication at Calvin College where both Jamie and I teach in the philosophy department. Jamie worries over the loss of high culture among our students (and probably all twenty-somethings) and laments the fact that popular culture is "revelationally thin." I, on the other hand, reply to Jamie and defend the depth and substance of both popular culture and our students. I also confess there my low tolerance for arrogant academics. You be the judge as to who wins the argument about culture. And then, if you want, come back here and share your thoughts.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Breaking News: Stonehenge Mystery Solved

It's been a long time coming, but the secret of Stonehenge is finally revealed by National Geographic.


My friend Steve, a biologist, will often say "it would be great if we could run an experiment" on this that or another interesting claim or theory. Well, Nigel's is not just another theory. He's got lab work to back it up.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Tony Jones and The New Christians

We last left Tony in chapter four, The Theology Stupid. Today we pick up in chapter 5, After Objectivity: Beautiful Truth.

Tony notes that emergents place a high priority on interpretation and thus conversation. The more interlocutors, Tony suggests, the more likely we are to come to a better interpretation, and the closer to truth. (That's right--truth.)

Now some who listen in on conversations that take place here, whose identities lay safely hidden behind online handles that provide a safe haven from which to launch vitriol and self-righteousness, which shower down like dirty bombs causing injury to the name of Jesus and contributing to the uglification of the Church, some such as these I say, may think:

But, c'mon; multiplying stupidity will never add up to intelligence. Hundreds of inept interpreters sitting around on couches, sipping lattes from s-bux and pontificating on blogs and in books about social justice after they just drove their hummer the 1.5 miles to the coffee shop is no more likely to get you closer to the truth or to a better interpretation than two such imbeciles chattering away to each other on facebook.

It’s like the C student who comes to me and asks if he could write a couple of extra papers to raise his grade. How do you tell him, without crushing his spirit, that more average work will not eventuate in an above average grade?

I get the point of the naysayers (although I don’t think I’ll ever get the ad hominems and inflammatory rhetoric such folk characteristically employ). But here’s the difference between what Tony’s saying and my imaginary student. Emergent Christians speak and listen. And they are forever extending the boundaries of conversation.

It’s not unlike Wikipedia. While I advise my students that consulting Wikipedia when writing a philosophy paper is as useless as consulting a dictionary to discover the meaning of words when writing such a paper, there is a dynamic at work in the writing of Wikipedia that is absent in the case of my student. And the difference is network. Wikipedia is open to all via the world wide web and experts with access generally do not allow misinformation to last very long on Wikipedia before it is revised and corrected. Likewise in the conversations that animate emerging. Hearing the voices and stories of others can have the effect of enlarging your world and sometimes making you think “you know, I’ve never quite thought about it that way before. That does seem a more faithful reading than mine, now that I think about it.”

I’m going to keep this short and invite others to throw in. But let me pick up on just one more aspect of this chapter—beauty.

Tony tells a story of a young boy who after hearing a lecture and discussion on the (im)plausibility of the Virgin birth went up to the lecturer and declared that he himself believes in the Virgin birth. The speaker asks him why and he says “Because it’s too beautiful not to be true” (p.160).

I’ve said this many times on this blog, but it bears repeating. If I were asked why I believe in the Christian story, why I believe in a Creator God who pursues his fallen and perverted creation with the urgent love of a mother or father, I think I’d be tempted to answer as the boy. I really can’t help but believe it. I think when you really, truly sense that you are a “crooked soul trying to stay up straight”, when you sense that you are sick and in need of healing, when you sense that you don’t have it all together and stand in desperate need of love and forgiveness, when you recognize that both you and the world you live in are broken and you feel deep down in your bones that a better world and a better you are possible, then the Christian story overwhelms you with its beauty. There’s a fittingness to it. It fits your experience of yourself and the world. It’s too beautiful not to be true. Messy? Yes. But beautiful in its messiness.

What do you think about that? What do you think about beauty or aesthetic qualities as indicators of truth? Is it the case that in math and science we discard one theory in favor of another sometimes because the replacement theory is more elegant, more aesthetically beautiful than that which it's replacing? Granted, the replacement theory is generally expected to have more explanatory power. But is there nothing to the idea that elegance or beauty is truth indicative?

Well, that's enough for now. I'll blog about the final chapter next time. But let me say here that while there have been places in Tony's book where I’ve paused and thought “I don’t know about that” or “That seems a little self-indulgent to me” the major chords being struck in the book and in emergent are ones that resonate very deeply with me. Very deeply indeed.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Where Things Are Headed at HSAB

Hello Strangers! A spate of grading, followed by a roof tear-off and re-roofing job on my house kept me very busy (and sore) over the past couple weeks. But, all that is behind me. Standing before me now, wide-eyed and inviting, is my friend summer. And she is beautiful!

For the first time in four or five years I am NOT teaching a summer session. Instead, I will be focusing on three different writing projects. One is a paper on human nature and life after death which will be delivered in Austria at the end of July as part of a conference jointly sponsored by the metanexus institute and the departments of philosophy and theology at the University of Innsbruck. I'll be joining Dean Zimmerman, Eric Olson, Hud Hudson and Steve Davis as a plenary speaker. What an incredible privilege to be on the same bill as these folks. I'll be delivering a paper titled Constitution, Resurrection and Relationality.

The other two projects I'm working on may also be of interest to readers of this blog. Both are books. One is a book I am editing and it includes chapters by Scot Mcknight, Jason Clark, Pete Rollins and myself. I'll tell you more about it later. The second book is one I started working on over a year ago and is currently laboring under the title Incurably Human. This one is a combination of coffee house philosophy, theology and spiritual autobiography. In it I puzzle over such things as suffering and evil, pluralism and tolerance, the Christian doctrine of hell, community and consumption, what it means to be moral, creation and evolution, what it means to be human, etc.

Summer has proven to be my most productive with respect to writing and research. What that means for this blog is that I am very likely to post only two or three times per month. I'd like to finish blogging my way through Tony Jones' The New Christians and follow that up with more topical posts. So stay tuned!!!!! I'll have another post on Tony's book before next week.

Looking forward to conversing with you again.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


The youth have been corrupted. The piper has been paid. It's now judgment day. Last week was spent catching up on pre-exam, paper grading and administering final exams. This week coming I will be knee deep in grading exams and final papers. That means things will stay pretty quiet in these parts. I'd say to expect a new post some time during the middle of week after next (27th/28th).

pax vobiscum,

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Kingdom of God: Ever Coming Never Arriving?

Tony J got me thinking. He got me thinking about God's kingdom, and the way in which Derrida and Caputo represent it as a perpetual deferral. Tony finds the D&C conception alluring and attractive. I suspect many in the emerging movement do. I myself don't find it appealing. I want to know what others think. And I want to wonder aloud about whether it might not actually be something else that Tony, et. al. find appealing in the D&C model, something that they misidentify as the doctrine of eternal deferral.

I make no pretense at all to being a Derrida scholar. So, I am open to correction in what I'm about to say, and I would invite others more knowledgeable than I to weigh in here and to offer correction where correction is needed. Let me lay out what I understand to be the gist of the D&C model of the impossibility and undeconstructibility of the kingdom, and say why, as a Christian, I think we ought to reject it.

As I understand it, the kingdom of God or Justice or The Wholly Other or Messiah is never fully present on the D&C model but always a reality yet to come, always a reality beyond, a future, a hope, an aspiration. Indeed, God is not even to be thought of as a being, an individual, but rather as an uncontainable, unconditional, undeconstructible Event that is, as some who talk about such things put it, "astir" or "harbored" in the name of "God".

Why is the kingdom eternally deferred? Because words and worldly structures are finite, contingent, particular, limited, deconstructible and thus inhospitable abodes for the Wholly Other and the un-deconstructible. At best what we are ever presented with are "traces" of the Event that is God, and these traces call us beyond and invite us into a transformed way of being in the world.

As I said, I'm certainly open to correction here as I am admittedly outside my own areas of professional expertise. But, to the extent that I've got Derrida/Caputo right, I'm inclined to think that this discarnational model of the kingdom is utterly foreign to the incarnational kingdom of Christian faith. Whereas the D&C "gospel" regards the contingent, particular and deconstructible with suspicion and as inhospitable to the Wholly Other/Messiah/Kingdom or Justice, the God of Christian faith dwells within, inhabits, incarnates himself precisely in the particular, deconstructible and contingent. And far from "traces" of God within the particular, deconstructible and contingent the gospel suggests a fullness of presence.

Moreover, while the idea of a transformative event lies at the very heart of the gospel, the Trinitarian God of Christian theism is not himself an Event, but a God-in-three-persons. Events don't have intentions, aims, loves, etc. I can't enter into a reciprocated relationship of love with an event.

What, then, might Tony and others find so appealing in the D&C idea of eternal deferral? I'd like to think that it's not so much the eternal deferral and impossibility of the kingdom that they find so attractive, as that hardly strikes me as good news. That's about as "good" as the news delivered up in Waiting for Godot. At least in the case of the latter the two main characters believe Godot is coming, though he never arrives. Not so in the D&C story where God's coming is impossible.

Perhaps what TJ and others find appealing is the perpetual deferral of understanding, the realization that no matter what we come to understand of God and of his justice it is inexhaustible; there is always more. I wonder if it's not the idea that we ought never to be satisfied or settled with a particular theology or political arrangement, for example, but always questing, always reaching and searching.

In a way, insofar as the emerging movement can be viewed as a development within evangelical protestantism, it is easier for me to see how some of Derrida's ideas are consonant with emergent sensibilities than it is for me to understand how Caputo, a Catholic, would be attracted to such discarnate, disembodied, otherworldly notions. Catholicism's emphasis on the Eucharist, a place where Christ is really present (one almost wants to say re-incarnated) would seem to more easily prevent one from flights of disembodiment than the thin "commemorative" understanding of the Eucharist in low-church protestant denominations and non-denominations.

In any case, what do you think? Have I misrepresented the D&C model? If not, do you find the notion of an eternal deferral of the kingdom appealing?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

In Reply to Mr. D and All Christians Who Sow Seeds of Division by Demagoguery

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4.1-6

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Theology Stupid: Humility and Relativism

This is a long, fun chapter (chapter 4) of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. And there's a lot we could talk about. After hitting a couple of the highlights, I'm going to focus on two charges leveled at emerging Christians and discussed by Tony in this chapter. The one charge is that emerging Christians lack conviction in their Christian beliefs, owing to their embrace of epistemic humility. The second charge is that emerging Christians are relativists. Both charges, Tony responds, are false.

But up first, a couple of bottom-of-the-ninth, two out, two men on, game-saving diving catches and last-second, buzzer-beating three-point shots with a hand in the face.

Theology, Tony tells us, is what Augustine did in City of God, Michelangelo sculpted in his Pieta, John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Peter Paul Rubens painted in The Allegory of Peace and War, Dostoyevsky wrote in the The Brothers karamazov and Bono sings in "Mysterious Ways" (p.105). Theology, in an important sense, is any human activity that reveals what it is we believe to be the case about God, who we think God is and what we think God is up to in the world.

In short, "human life is theology. Virtually everything we do is inherently theological. Almost every choice we make reflects what we think about God. There's no escaping it" (p.106). To which I say, Amen and amen.

And there's this:

the emergent church movement is a counterreaction, a retrieval of the deep theological tradition of wrestling with the intellectual and spiritual difficulties inherent in the Christian faith
(p. 109).

Yes, there are spiritual difficulties inherent in the Christian faith. Take something like the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian formulation of the two-natures of Christ, for example. It is tempting to think that these formulations of Christian belief were the last words on matters of Christian belief and doctrine. That would be a mistake, however. What the creeds do is to establish parameters or fences, inside of which is the Christian faith and outside of which is not Christian faith. But within those parameters spiritual difficulties remain. We believe that God is a Trinity. But just how to understand the Trinity is difficult business and open to exploration and a variety of acceptable interpretations. Jesus was both human and divine. But how to understand that is an open issue, and one as deeply mysterious as is the Trinity itself. Christian formulae such as the creeds circumscribe for sure, but they don't eliminate mystery and they most assuredly leave room for a variety of views and understandings of the various truths they seek to express. As one of Tony's friends says "to every answer there is a good question" (p.110). Indeed.

And to those emergent detractors who claim that folks like Tony are infatuated with novelty and disdain tradition, let me quote from the horse's mouth, where he says of theology that it is only:

done in the aftermath of the multifarious theologies that have gone conversation with two thousand years of Christian theology and four thousand years of Jewish theology before that (113).

A couple of bloopers and then the main event: humility and relativism.
At the very beginning of the chapter, Tony suggests that both the methods and the message of Christianity "are bound to be reconceived over time" and he says that "if one changes the methods one will inevitably change the message (p.96).

Well, I dunno. The message of Christianity, as I understand it, is essentially this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. I know Tony won't like this, but that seems to me the Christian message in a nutshell. To human beings and a world broken and fragmented by sin, the Christian story comes as good news: God's response to sin and lovelessness is love and redemption. If that message should change, it would simply cease to be the Christian message. Now I agree with Tony that the gospel is always already enculturated. And I agree that to try and freeze any particular articulation of the gospel, actually does an injustice to the gospel. But there is a gospel. It has a particular content. And if the content should change in such a way as to entail that God was not in Christ reconciling the world to himself, or change in such a way as to entail that God did not become incarnate in Christ, and did not suffer, die and rise again to reverse the curse of sin and death, well, then, it is, in my view, no longer the Christian message.

Granted, how best to tell the story or show the story or live the story, all of that may change. But the story, should it change in its essentials, it doesn't become something else. It simply ceases to exist and gets replaced with a different story, a non-Christian story.

Tony also says that God is a being whose activity is, by definition, not contingent. And I'm not sure what he means by that. It is, of course, a long standing belief that God's existence is not contingent, that God exists a se or in himself. You and I and all created things, by conrast, are contingent beings. God, it has long been believed, is not a contingent being but a necessary and utterly independent being.

I bring this up because it seems to me that at least some of God's activity is, indeed, contingent on the activity of humans and Tony says that the bible suggests otherwise. I guess I don't see that. Suppose God does not have knowledge of the future free actions of human beings. It would seem to me that if that's the case, then what God does in the future (if God should act in response) is at least partly dependent on what free actions human beings perform in the future. God's getting angry at human beings before the flood, for example, was contingent or dependent on human beings having displeased him. Had those living on the earth not displeased him, he would not have been displeased and sent the flood in response. So, the biblical witness itself seems to point in the opposite direction than what Tony suggests, i.e., that at least some of the activity of God is contingent on the activity of humans.

Okay, from page 115, Dispatch 11:

Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position--to God, to one another and to history--breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy.

Conviction is one thing it seems to me emerging Christians have in spades. They believe, and believe strongly, lots of things. Apathy is not one of their trademarks. Yet I have heard it said that emerging Christians lack conviction. That seems false. And yet their convictions are tempered with humility. The humility comes in when one realizes that one's forebears also believed, and believed strongly, lots of things, things we now believe they were dead wrong about. For example, the moral permissibility of slavery and the moral impermissibility of inter-racial marriage. Emerging Christians, although they hold very strong convictions on lots of things, they realize that they are finite, frail and deeply situated creatures and, as a result, it might actually be them that has blindspots. So, they're more inclined to say, "look, this is how I see it and why. How do you see you see it, and why?"

To go along with that, emerging Christians are also aware that cultural realities such as marriage and family did not drop down out of the sky fully worked out and unalterable. They realize that such institutions even within the church have been thought of differently at different times. Even friendship--same-sex and cross-sex-- has been understood differently at different times in Christian history. In fact, to read Saint Augustine and other of our theological forebears on friendship many today would be certain they were gay, for the language they use in correspondence witht each other and the language they use to describe their same-sex friendships sound borderline romantic to our ears.

It is such talk as this that leads critics to charge emerging Christians with being relativists. And Tony's response is "well, we're all relativists" (p.117). And he goes on to offer examples of how all of us work with biases, and how every English translation of the the ancient Jewish and Christian sacred manuscripts is biased. And we, when we read the scriptures, we each of us employ what one might call a canon within the canon. In other words, some believe women cannot be pastors or teachers and believe that this is what the bible teaches. Others believe the bible teaches that in Christ there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. The first allows one set of passages to serve as his or her controlling texts (his or her canon within the canon) while the other allows other passages to serve as his or her controlling texts. Both are working with biases when it comes to their understanding of what the bible teaches about women pastors and teachers.

Now, my own view is that what Tony is talking about is not exactly what most people have in mind when they charge emergents with relativism. Usually relativism is thought to have something to do with truth or morality. The contrast to the relativist is usually thought to be the absolutist or objectivist. So when someone charges the emerging Christians with being relativists, I take them to be saying that emerging Christian believe (say) that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but only relative to the Christian story. The critics want to know, however, is it true that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself? The charge is that the emerging Christian will say something like, "well, for the Christian it is, but not for the Hindu."

So when it comes to relativism, most people do not have in mind the problem of canons within the canon. They have in mind relativism. Are homosexual unions wrong? Full stop. The moral relativist is likely to say, well, they're wrong perhaps from a Christian perspective, but not from all perspectives.

Are emerging Christians relativists? Certainly not all. At least most (if not all) of the ones I know are not relativists. They think it's true that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Period. Now they might go on to say something like, "But of course, I sometimes wonder if I've been duped. I sometimes wonder if this story can really be true after all." But that's perfectly consistent with their believing it's true.

And as for homosexual unions being wrong, an emerging Christian might says something like: "Well, as I understand it homosexual unions are at cross-purposes with God's ultimate intentions for human sexuality and so they're morally wrong. But I also recognize that war is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for human relations and so too divorce. Now, why are we willing to say when it comes to war and divorce--which we believe to be at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for the world--that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in these activities? And why aren't we willing to say that about homosexual unions?"

Now let me add this: imagine that you find yourself in the following psychological predicament. You believe (say) war or divorce is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for the world, but you also believe that you have exhausted every conceivable avenue that might avoid going to war or getting a divorce, and you decide to engage in the war or get the divorce, fully recognizing that it is not the best all things being equal decision, but is, to your lights, the best all things considered decision. And so you decide to embark on a path that is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for the world. And you think it is morally permissible to do so. That would be a psychologically hellish place to live.

In any case, many of us believe that war is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for human relations and yet we believe that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in war. Why do we not think the same about homosexual unions? That's the sort of question emerging Christians might ask and worry about. And, so far as I can see, there's nothing relativistic about it.

I'll close this off with another quote from the book, p. 122:

Like myriad Christians through the ages, emergents are attempting to...figure out where God is in the world, what God is up to, and how the biblical narrative jibes with our own 21st century lives.

If I were to have written that sentence, I might have changed that last clause to this: "...and how to fit our 21st century lives into the biblical narrative." But Tony gets it.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Theology Stupid (chapter 4): But Not Quite Yet

A post on chapter four of Tony's book is on its way. But before we go there, I wanted to make an observation. I discovered this past week that there are people out there in the blogosphere who don't just think emerging Christians are wrong about this, that or the other thing, but think too that they are a bunch of people with various sorts of character flaws. I for example have been identified as a slothful, sophmoric half-wit by some of emergent's critics. Now, there's no doubt that emerging Christians have character flaws. We all do.

To see me taken to the mat (quite unfairly, I think) go here. That link will take you to a blog of someone whose name we do not know and whose identity remains safely hidden behind the blog handle "dissidens". Dissidens' prose is crisp and easy on the eye. He's a good writer. The problem (to my mind anyway; certainly not to his) is that he has no desire to listen, to try to understand or to engage in a discussion. Well, actually, that wouldn't be a problem if that was a place he came to after an earnest attempt or two at engaging and listening.

Here's a difference between what I hope can go on here (on this blog) and what (apparently) goes on over at his. Here I hope there can be disagreement, even spirited disagreement, without impugning the character of someone who disagrees with you. For example, I have voiced pointed disagreement with Pete Rollins and John Caputo and worried over some things Tony J has said. So far as I know I have never engaged in ad hominem attacks against anyone and neither Pete nor Tony has ever said to me with guerilla-like rhetorical flourishes "What? You disagree with me? Well obviously you're an idiot then, because if you were an honest and sincere truth-seeker, you'd agree with me; since you don't agree with me, you're not just mistaken, but there's something wrong with you."

Over at "dissidens" blog, it's pretty clear that since he and I don't see eye to eye about semantic plasticity or biblical interpretation, I'm an idiot or if not an idiot at least a half-wit. Apparently he doesn't like the way I used the English word "sexed" or the Latin word "secare" in a previous post. Forget for the moment that he attributes claims to me that a close reading would reveal I didn't make, still it's obvious that we disagree about what words can mean and about how to interpret the scriptures. (We do actually agree on how to spell half-witted, but on typing my comment at his blog I apparently misspelled it only to discover that that was sufficient for showing that I was, in fact, a half-wit, as if there wasn't enough evidence already.)

Now, you'll recall from my previous post on Stanley Fish that I am not immune to dishing out pointed criticism clothed in equally pointed and colorful rhetoric (minus the ad hominem). And some commenters on this blog rightfully and respectfully pushed back. The tone from all interlocutors in the discussion that ensued struck me as civil and respectful even if the passions of many of us were not always packaged in tame words.

I thought perhaps dissidens might actually be interested in engagement, the kind I'd like to think goes on here when what goes on here is at its best. So, I asked him a couple of questions on his blog, which he published. He answered those questions and in so doing made it quite clear that respectful engagement was not among his interests. So I left him a curt and pointed reply to that effect. He removed that comment, and has continued to add to the scorn. That's fine. It is very much in keeping with his handle dissidens. He apparently enjoys sitting apart and disagreeing from a distance and not from a position of engagement. That's fine, too. But in that case why invite comments?

Maybe it's because I've been in the academic world for a decade now that I've gotten used to spirited disagreement sans the character assassination. (How a half-wit like myself was ever allowed into the academy and into the society of analytic philosophy I can only guess remains an utter mystery to dissidens.)

If given the choice (and I guess all of us are) between a fox-news style of "engagement" (replete with caricatures and sniper-fire) and the style of engagement we aim for here on this blog, I'll stick with this style. It seems to me more productive, more fruitful and, quite frankly, more Christ-like.