Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Cheery Subject for Leap Day

Today is Leap Day, the day when once every four years nothing particularly special happens around the world. I suppose it is too difficult to create a commercial industry around a holiday that occurs so irregularly, otherwise the stores would be lined with their Leap Day themed decor rather than already displaying giant, stuffed, egg-laying rabbits to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Meanwhile, as often as it happens, Leap Day is also the feast day of St. John Cassian. In honor of that, here are some thoughts from Cassian's Institutes, Book IX ("Of the Spirit of Dejection"), that are resonating with me at the moment:

Sometimes [dejection] is found to result from the fault of previous anger, or to spring from the desire of some gain which has not been realized, when a man has found that he has failed in his hope of securing those things which he had planned...The pains of [dejection] are not always caused in us by other people’s faults, but rather by our own, as we have stored up in ourselves the causes of offence, and the seeds of faults, which, as soon as a shower of temptation waters our soul, at once burst forth into shoots and fruits.

For no one is ever driven to sin by being provoked through another’s fault, unless he has the fuel of evil stored up in his own heart. Nor should we imagine that a man has been deceived suddenly when he has looked on a woman and fallen into the abyss of shameful lust: but rather that, owing to the opportunity of looking on her, the symptoms of disease which were hidden and concealed in his inmost soul have been brought to the surface...

We must then do our best to endeavour to amend our faults and correct our manners. And if we succeed in correcting them we shall certainly be at peace, I will not say with men, but even with beasts and the brute creation, according to what is said in the book of the blessed Job: “For the beasts of the field will be at peace with thee;” for we shall not fear offences coming from without, nor will any occasion of falling trouble us from outside, if the roots of such are not admitted and implanted within in our own selves: for “they have great peace who love thy law, O God; and they have no occasion of falling.”

...And so we must see that dejection is only useful to us in one case, when we yield to it either in penitence for sin, or through being inflamed with the desire of perfection, or the contemplation of future blessedness. And of this the blessed Apostle says: “The sorrow which is according to God worketh repentance steadfast unto salvation: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.”

Monday, February 27, 2012

On This Day in Cow History

By chance, while browsing for all important cow news, I recently came across an article entitled "Slick Trick Frees $1,000 Cow from Her Silo Prison," which appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on this day in 1949. The touching, amusing story (carried in several other papers nationally) reads thus:

Yukon, Okla -- It took a slick trick--but Grady the cow was freed from her silo prison yesterday. The white-faced Hereford--whose ins and outs of the 40-foot high silo had North America guessing--was liberated with cup grease and the old heave-ho.

At 8:09 a. m., (c.s.t.) the first of hundreds of suggestions to get the bovine damsel in distress was used. The scheme was devised by Ralph Partridge, farm editor of The Denver Post, who flew here to Grady's assistance after word was flashed over the nation.

It all started when Bill Mach's $1,000 cow bolted into the silo through a 17 x 25 1/2 in door. It was unbelievable to see the 1400-pound cow quietly munching grass in the circular, concrete silo. The nation learned of Grady's feat and Mach's problem.

Hundreds of solutions from 45 states and Canada poured in. Partridge arrived here with what he called his "secret cow freeing device." It turned out to be the grease, plenty of muscle and the axiom: "If a cow can get through a door into a silo, it can get out of the same door."

With 40 witnesses braving the chilled, Oklahoma sunrise, the experiment began. Grady was generously rubbed down with grease and put on a greased platform. Her forefeet were put through the opening. The veterinarian, Dr. L. J. Crump, then jabbed Grady with a hypodermic syringe loaded with nembutal. There was a winch truck standing by with a long cable to pull the cow through. But it wasn't needed. There was a heave-ho on her rump with strong hands and then she rebelled. With one quick jerk, she jumped through the door and lumbered into the barn yard.

The citizens cheered!

The knockout drops, which the vet thought might relax Grady, weren't needed. Apparently they had no effect.

After Grady was freed, Dr. Crump gave her a thorough examination. Grady would be all right in 10 days and back to her normal milk production. He prescribed plenty of rest and food. She also got a generous bubble bath.

Bill Mach said he was glad it was all over. He couldn't understand why so many people were interested in his pure bred cow. "Why, we got calls and telegrams and letters. They suggested getting Grady out by using a derrick, and by cutting a hole in the silo, and even by fattening her up and killing her. But I couldn't do that. She was too valuable."

What's in store for Grady? "Well, I believe she's earned peace and quiet the rest of her life," Mach said. "She's had more excitement than most cows."

I'd like to believe that Grady did live out the rest of her life in peace and quiet. Of course, I'd like to believe that she died in her sleep of old age and is buried in the family cemetery plot, but I'm just sentimental like that. The article evokes that kind of sentimentality, nostalgia of a time when there was a sense of national community, a sense of common brotherhood, a sense of simple wonder at something other than the tawdry, sensationalized melodrama that dominates our modern press. Such a time is, undoubtedly, more a wishful construct of our collective memory, but nevertheless stories like this reenforce that ideal. There's nothing wrong with that. Whether Grady's plight and rescue represent a simpler, better time or not, it gives us a simpler, better ideal to cling to and to strive for when the incessant, hateful, pornographic present gets to be too much for us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Disciple of Peace: A Qaulified Endorsement

Craig M. Watts' Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State is not an academic text. Watts, a pastor and a doctor of ministry, is not a historian. It is important to keep these facts in mind when approaching the book. It is filled with great, accurate information, but it suffers from myriad deficiencies when evaluated against the standards of scholarly history. Particularly disturbing would be the unqualified use of Stone-Campbell history books written during the dark days of Restoration historiography when authors were more hagiographer than historian. This is mirrored by the almost completely absence of citations from relevant periodical literature. The limited and superficial engagement with antecedent and contemporary thinkers outside of a very narrow sphere is also suspect. Moreover, Watts breaks essentially no new ground and offers no new avenues for research. All this needs to be specified because the below recommendation of the book is based on what it is, a brief and interesting primer to the pacifist thought of one of the premiere thinkers of the early Restoration Movement. For a more in-depth, critical engagement of Campbell's thought on this or any other point, you would need to look elsewhere (and then be disappointed by the dearth of quality material on the subject).

For what it is, Disciple of Peace is a delightful read. While lacking in any overarching organizational pattern, each chapter makes for a concise, targeted treatment of some aspect of Campbell's pacifism. These range from the more predictable (and shallower) overviews of the relationship between pacifism and Campbell's postmillennial eschatology to the more interesting and insightful examination of the apparent hypocrisy involved in opposing war and promoting capital punishment. The truth which makes all of this possible is the trenchant observation--which ought to be obvious, but all to often is not--that "pacifism is not an ethical oddity unconnected with the main themes of Alexander Campbell's thought." The assumption that any feature of Christian ethics can somehow be isolated either from the ethical system as a whole or the heart of Christian theology is ultimately naive. This holds true nowhere more strongly than the ethic of peace. How a Christian thinks about peace and violence must be influenced by and influence how a Christian thinks about the nature of God, His purpose in creation, His method of salvation, and the telos of the material world. It is fitting, therefore, that Watts' work does more than simply establish that Campbell was a pacifist. Instead, Watts draws lines of connection between this pacifism and Campbell's understanding of the state, the Bible, the eschaton, and the other pertinent ethical issues of his time (e.g. slavery).

Even making allowances for the non-academic nature of the work, the great weakness of Watts' work is its historical naïveté, particularly as it manifests in relation to the way the Bible functions in Campbell's thought. Watts is unapologetically a member of the Stone-Campbell tradition and is writing for a press based out of a Stone-Campbell church. This bias bleeds fairly obviously into his reconstruction of history. When addressing the influences on Campbell's pacifism, Watts notes a wide range of social, historical, and hermeneutical forces which came to bear on Campbell's thought: church unity movements, dispensationalism, Seeder Presbyterianism, and ongoing American and British peace movements. Yet, again and again, Watts returns to the naive conclusion that all of these influences are ancillary. It is the Bible, plain and simple, that motivated Campbell to believe what he did. This conclusion makes for a nice historical sermon on the merits of pacifism, but it does not stand up to even lay scrutiny as history. The same assertion could be made of any Christian advocate of any ethical position on war. The most hawkish clergyman in the States would display a primarily Scriptural motivation for his ethical stance. It borders on the tautological to say that any religious thinker would ground any religious thought primarily in the religious text of his religion. Watts seems to be endorsing the Restorationist fallacy that there is a Bible--objective and unencumbered by our socio-historical baggage--to which Campbell can finally and authoritatively appeal. Watts would have done better to simply explain how Campbell used Scripture to justify his pacifism rather than contending, indefensibly, that the Bible independently motivated Campbell toward pacifism. (And this, coming from someone who clearly believes that the Bible endorses clearly and without qualification a pacifist ethic for Christians.)

Disciple of Peace is wanting in one other notable way. Watts, as already noted, spends very little time analyzing the connections between Campbell and those of his contemporaries who engaged the same subject, with a few token exceptions. Some of this oversight can certainly be attributed to the limits of space and scope. A comprehensive examination of pacifist thought during Campbell's life would have radically lengthened Watts' project and distorted its scope. Nevertheless, there is a certain sense in which the books lacks substance because it lacks critical comparisons between Campbell and his contemporaries, especially his contemporaries in the Restoration Movement. When Watts does bring in outside thinkers, it is primarily from other religious streams of thought. He seems willfully ignorant that there were other prominent proponents of pacifism within the movement who Campbell might have interacted with intellectually. Barton Stone springs immediately to mind as a comparably prominent thinker swimming in the same intellectual stream as Campbell. This is to say nothing of "lesser" figures like Tolbert Fanning, Raccoon John Smith, J. W. McGarvey, Benjamin Franklin, and Moses Lard who, among others, are rattled off in an introductory list of pacifist Restorationists and then quickly forgotten. In introducing Campbell's pacifism to the reader, Watts declares, "Pacifism takes a variety of forms...[Different forms] can differ in rationale, limitations and goals, among other things. Pacifism is not a single position." Given that he recognizes this fact, Watts would have done his readers a great service if he could have included a short chapter introducing how Campbell's pacifism fit into the broader Restoration vision of peace ethics.

Wherever it is lacking, however, Watts compensates in his closing chapter which reveals the true nature of his book. In his conclusion, Watts unashamedly sets out to demonstrate why Campbell is right in his construction of Christian ethics, except where Watts thinks he is wrong. This may sound like a brazen apology for Watts' own pacifism, and it is. Even so, his analysis of the shortcomings of Campbell's thought and his proposed correctives are sufficiently insightful to make the argument worth considering. He makes four crucial points in his conclusion which bear further thought. The first, as a critique of Campbell, is that pacifism must be cruciform; it must center on and take as its archetype the supreme act of Christ on the cross. Watts observes that in all of Campbell's thought on pacifism in the Gospels, the cross is notable absent, giving pride of place to the Sermon on the Mount instead. Watts pinpoints this shortcoming--with some accuracy, I believe--as the fault which makes possible the contrary stances on war and capital punishment. Taking his cue from Campbell, Watts then takes up the theme of church unity and its relation to Christian pacifism. By incorporating this concern into the pacifist ethic, Watts believes that we can heighten our sense of community and sharpen our critique of competing loyalties such as the self and the state. He then continues his adaptation of Campbell's thinking to criticize modern perceptions of pacifism as a strategy rather than a core belief. The perception that a commitment to pacifism can be evaluated in pragmatic terms is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be committed to peace as Christ endorsed it. (Whether or not Campbell can really be said to understand this critique is debatable, given his optimistic belief about the potential of human peace efforts, but as an ongoing criticism Watts' point still stands.) Finally, Watts concludes on the familiar terms of peace and Christian eschatology. This is not merely limited to arguing that peace is the eschatological ideal but that the church is the eschatological community proleptically living out the ideals of the eschaton in the present.

In the final evaluation, Disciple of Peace must be seen as a mixed bag. Certainly its value rises as academic expectations are lowered. In view of this, it may unqualifiedly recommended to the average reader who is interested in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement generally or any Restorationist ready to critically engage questions of war, peace, and the state in view of the great thinkers of the tradition. Certainly, I believe that members of the Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ would all profit from taking the small amount of time necessary to breeze through this work. The number of adherents in these churches I encounter on a regular basis who have no concept of the rich pacifist history of their traditions is astonishing. Beyond its function for these demographics, however, Watts' work has serious shortcomings which hamper its critical value for the well-educated reader.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Complementarianism: Olson's Gordian Knot

The following is part of an ongoing response to Roger E. Olson’s critique of extreme complementarianism. For the origin and nature of these posts, see Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody.

Let us shift now from complementarianism in theory and Olson's critique of it to a subsequent post where Olson attempts to upend complementarianism. He proposes to offer "a true conundrum that exposes the impossibility of consistent complementarianism" and solicits in response possible solutions from "leading evangelical complementarian theorists." Unfortunately, I am not a leading theorist in any respect, and thus my opinion has only marginal weight for Olson--as I am forced to conclude does the opinions of the millions of regular complementarians who go around every day not treating their wives like children or living in abject, debilitating subjugation to their husbands. Nevertheless, I will present Olson's Gordian Knot and, with my meager skills, attempt to untie it from the complementarian position I have outlined previously.

Suppose a married couple comes to you (the complementarian pastor or counselor or whatever) for advice. They are both committed evangelical Christians who sincerely want to “do the right thing.” They are trying to live according to the guidelines of evangelical complementarianism. However, a problem has arisen in their marriage. The wife acquired sound knowledge and understanding of finances including investments before the couple became Christians. The husband is a car mechanic who knows little to nothing about finances or investments. A good, trusted friend has come to the husband and offered him an opportunity to make a lot of money by investing the couple’s savings (money for their childrens’ college educations and for retirement) in a capital venture. The husband wants to do it. The wife, whose knowledge of finances and investments is well known and acknowledged by everyone, is adamantly opposed to it and says she knows, without doubt, that the money will be lost in that particular investment. She sees something in it the husband doesn’t see and she can’t convince him that it is a bad investment. The husband wants to take all their savings and put it into this investment, but he can’t do it without his wife’s signature. The wife won’t sign. However, after long debate, the couple has agreed to leave the matter in your hands. The husband insists this is a test of the wife’s God-ordained subordination to him. The wife insists this is an exception to their otherwise complementarian marriage. You, the complementarian adviser of the couple, realize the wife is right about the investment. The money will be lost if the investment is made. You try to talk the husband out of it but he won’t listen. All he’s there for is to have you decide biblically and theologically what she, the wife, should do. What do you advise?

The scenario Olson describes is difficult, admittedly, but perhaps not in the way he thinks. It isn't difficult to resolve logically; its difficulty lies in the existential turmoil it evokes. The force of his argument rests primarily in its appeal to the universal human inclination to be covetous of what we own. Anyone who has been married for any period of time has weathered some kind of financial difficulty and, in all likelihood, has butted heads with his or her spouse over the proper course to take. When you pair that shared experience with the ubiquitous presence in sinful humanity of a desire to possess and preserve "treasures on earth," it is understandable why Olson's straw complementarians have shied away from answering.

The resolution, such as it is, comes first through reorienting the ethical priorities. For Olson, the clear focus is on the ethics of financial stewardship (to use a gross euphemism). When presented with the potential objection that the limit of submission is sin, he counters that "[the complementarian] has to define “sin” in such a way as to exclude from it the wife’s knowing participation in financial ruin for their whole family." What looms large in the ethical picture then is the suggestion that the possibility of financial ruin is more critical than the possibility that some tertiary Christian principle (something totally incidental like submission) might be violated.

Instead of focusing on the dire prospect that "money for their childrens’ college educations and for retirement" might not be there--concerns which smack of an affluent Christianity foreign to the apostolic age, or to most Christian ages for that matter--the primary ethical question ought to be whether or not the foundational Christian principle of self-sacrificial love is at play. With this being the new focus, there are a number of actions which would be morally virtuous regardless of the consequences (and thus undermining Olson's utilitarian vision of ethics). For example, it would be morally virtuous for the wife to opt to submit to the husband and allow the money to be invested. If the money should be lost, credit God with using the wife's sacrifice as a tool for teaching the husband humility. If the investment should prove profitable, credit God with using the husband's prudence as a tool for teaching the wife humility. In either case, whatever happens to the money is incidental. The wife's choice to submit is morally virtuous.

Before any objections to this are raised, let me continue by adding that it would also be morally virtuous if the husband opted to forgo the investment out of sacrificial love for his wife. It is a fool (or a polemicist) who believes that true leadership consists of always getting your way. Plato understood leadership to be whatever actions best ensured that all those led were maximizing their potential. Paul had a less calculating but nonetheless compatible vision when he told husbands that they should give themselves up for their wives as Christ gave himself up for the church. If the investment turns out to have been unsound for others, credit God with using the wife's prudence as a tool for teaching the husband humility. If the investment turns out to have been sound for others, credit God with using the husband's sacrifice as a tool for teaching the wife humility. In either case, the husband can only ever act virtuous when he sacrifices his will out of love for his wife.

The ultimate issue at stake here is not how to make sound investments but how to have a sound marriage before God. The key to this does not lie in equal rights or even in a calculated, non-traditional division of labor. It lies in the willingness of the spouses to emulate Jesus Christ, who submits himself eternally to God the Father and who gave himself up ultimately for his bride the church. As the hypothetical couples counselor, I don't care at all what happens to their money. I'm not their stockbroker. My concern is helping them to grow into conformity with the image of Christ, for which submission is essential. Olson frames the question as a conflict between doing what is good and doing what is legal, but in reality it is a clash between doing what is right and doing what is desirable. The focus on the money betrays who our true master is. If it is God rather than Mammon, then the issue comes into sharper focus.

Not, I imagine, for Olson, mind you. It is clear from his proposed dilemma that he sees unsound investment as a sin (a damning judgment on so many in America and the world right now). There is a more unsettling undercurrent to Olson's argument, however, a response to which may sum up my point here. In his opening salvo, Olson poses this question with apparent indignation: "What is permanent, docile, subordination and submission if not a curse?" I would suggest that it is the appropriate human disposition before God. If submission is a curse, than the Son is accursed of the Father. If submission is a curse, then Adam and all of creation were cursed before Even ever arrived on the scene. If submission is a curse, then Paul enjoins all Christians to be cursed by one another and by God. In fact, the permanent, docile, and voluntary (an adjective that Olson always seems to omit) submission before God is the wonderful disposition in which God exalts and beatifies all creation. That wives may be asked to practice this before their husbands ("as to the Lord"), Christians before one another, congregants before elders, children before parents, slaves before masters, and on and on is not the shame of anyone but to their glorious and eternal benefit.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Fallacy of "More Accurate" History

In some work he has done for The Modern Scholar series, James W. Loewen tackles one of his favorite subjects: what the standard history narrative gets wrong. What Loewen offers is a cursory but accurate critique of the way history is perceived by the general public. History is not, as it is often presented, the simple and objective recording of what really happened. It is the ordering of what happened through the lens of the historian. As Loewen describes it, history is as much about forgetting as remembering. We forget not only that material which is deemed unimportant (by our fluid and largely arbitrary modern measure) but what is deemed objectionable. History is like building a dresser from IKEA. The builder has a vision of what the finished product should look like and constructs it to the the best of his ability. If there should happen to be some unaccounted for pieces leftover at the end that don't seem to fit anywhere, they can be discarded as unnecessary, extraneous. That is why so much history--like so much build it yourself furniture--doesn't stand up to the test of time.

Like so many thoughtful historians, however, Loewen suffers from short-term memory loss. One of the ways he prefers to evaluate the popular understanding of history is to look at grade school textbooks and state historical markers. He uses both to make his point that history often says more about the time when it was written than about the time it supposedly records. Specifically with historical markers, he suggests that a Gettysburg marker is more likely to reveal something about the 1960s when it was erected than the 1860s it describes. It is then, curiously, that Loewen makes an almost unbelievable suggestion. He states that, in his travels, he finds that the more recently a marker was set up, the more accurate it is.

Without a hint of irony, the professor genuinely seems to argue that modern man has begun to correct the inherent bias in history. It never seems to occur to him that, rather than being more accurate, recent historical markers simply more nearly align themselves to what Loewen himself has termed the prevailing mythology of the time. Loewen, in his quest for more accurate textbooks and markers, seems to have completely forgotten his criticism which cuts to the very heart of how history is done. There is no past apart from the present and the contemporary paradigm through which history is reconstructed. History is not an artifact which is picked up and held, measured and weighed. It is the constellation of supposed facts which makes sense in the present only by passing through the prism of our historiographical biases. In thirty years (or for that matter, at the rate of our current progress, in five) the landscape of how history is done and the theories which govern its writing will be so drastically unrecognizable that Loewen's own meticulously accurate textbooks will be subject to the same kind of criticism he leveled against the textbooks of the 1960s (and, in turn, that they leveled against those of the 1940s, on and on ad nauseum).

Loewen's argument would be better made if he could slip out of the modern fallacy of objective accuracy in subjective pursuits like history and allow instead there to be more constructive measures of the value of historical work. It is more appropriate to say that recent markers and textbooks better reflect contemporary understandings of history or better measure up to current historical standards or even, as would seem to be Loewen's main concern, more closely align the popular reconstruction of history with the high academic reconstruction of history. Ultimately, it all boils down to whether or not the history currently being propagated in our schools and our public consciousness is functional and beneficial for our society. As does Loewen, I would contend that it is not. The correct charge to be made to historians is not, however, simply to create more accurate histories--as if such a mythic goal were even possible--but to press for a public history which is both defensible (based on the facts as we understand them through our chosen historiographical lenses) and pragmatic (based on the function of history in constructing, preserving, and benefiting society).

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Scariest Teacher Ever

In an interview on The Daily Show last night, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Jon Stewart:

We need to educate our way to a better economy.

Meanwhile, eighteen years ago, historian Eugene Genovese wrote:

Despite considerable internal diversity and dissent, the political and ideological organs of the Left have typically suffered from the congenital disease of a utopianism based on the assumption of human goodness or of a morally neutral human nature that must be shaped by education--which often means manipulated by an elite that invokes the rhetoric of egalitarianism and anti-elitism.

Then later in the interview on The Daily Show, Duncan said:

We need to educate our way to a better economy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Complementarianism: Will To Power

The following is part of an ongoing response to Roger E. Olson’s critique of extreme complementarianism. For the origin and nature of these posts, see Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody.

I suppose there is very little to offend in my previous thoughts about the theoretical value of understanding men and women as different but equal. After all, even Dr. Olson admits that to one degree or another this is a universally recognized truth. What was controversial, and will be addressed at greater length here, is the suggestion that those difference cannot be neatly compartmentalized into the incidences of anatomy. There are, to put it crudely, substantial economic distinctions between males and females that cannot be reduced into prescriptions about whether God intended semen to come out of your or go into you. It is a tragic inevitability that more time should need to be spent on this latter fact than on the former, since the truth that God is a God who delights in constructive difference ought to be (and in my experience is) the focal point of complementarian thought. I regret that by focusing on the secondary, pragmatic aspects of complementarianism I legitimize, in a sense, Olson's complaint that for complementarians the "emphasis is not on males and females complementing each other but on females being submissive to males." Yet it should be recognized that this criticism is self-propagating. After all, if egalitarians and complementarians disagreed about value and function rather than on women in the pulpit then the conversation would be dominated by the former issue and the latter would be ignored. It is out of polemical necessity more than anything else that the debate has been translated from the core issues into mere accidents. Insofar as complementarians through repetitive arguments and microscopic focus on application forget to stress the essential truths of what is a more comprehensive anthropology, that shortcoming is ours as humans not a flaw in the truths which we feel compelled to express.

With that said, the other shoe is ready to drop. I believe that wives should submit to their husbands and that women should not exercise authority over men in the congregation. These do not encapsulate my complementarian beliefs, but they are nevertheless an undeniable product of them. From here, there are countless directions I could go. I might attempt to counter Olson's assertion that only unabashed and "never really consistently" literalism can produce complementarian readings of Scripture by pointing out how theologically dangerous it is to excise under the guise of "cultural particularity" commands which are rooted in creation and yoked with soteriology. I could talk about the countless other social norms which Jesus and Paul were willing (even eager) to transgress and contrast it with their marked reluctance to do so with certain features of gender economics. I could trace the full and rich biblical picture of complementarian gender relations as they are depicted as fruitful and righteous throughout Scripture, demonstrating a marked consistency between Old and New Covenant gender economics. But I won't, in large part because my point here is not to prove complementarianism. It is to demonstrate that there can be and are complementarians whose interests lie beyond (and even exclude) the end of subjugating women, to correct Olson's egregious characterization that in complementarianism "adult women have pretty much the same role as children vis-à-vis adult men."

Ultimately, I think the concern most egalitarians express (by which, I of course mean the revulsion most egalitarians feel) regarding complementarianism is born out of a capitulation to modern ideas of rights, authority, and power. In essence, there is a suggestion that unless women are given authority, they are somehow devalued. Unless they are presented with a full compliment of rights, they are second-class citizens. Unless they have power, they are helpless and destined for abuse (a specter Olson proves all to eager to conjure). In short, it is hard not to be left with the impression that, whether consciously or unconsciously, many egalitarians have bought into the anthropology of a post-nietzschean West which glorifies the will to power. If women are fully human they must have the opportunity to pursue their ambition to seize the highest clerical offices, command the most powerful pulpits, vie for control in their marriages, and to become the Übermensch (rather than, as in Nietzsche, simply to birth the Übermensch).

Egalitarians, I imagine, would balk at that depiction of their beliefs and particularly its marriage to so dark a figure as Nietzsche. (Though, for my part, I find it less offensive a picture than that of complementarians as domineering patriarchs seeking eagerly to have paternal authority over all 3.5 billion women in the world.) Certainly, I am open to the idea that the above has at least as much rhetorical flourish as it does substance. Egalitarians would surely not debate, however, that there motivating impulse is equal rights, rich as that term is with savory left-wing utopian connotations. The problem arises, however, in that I don't believe in rights. I don't believe we have them, and I certainly don't think it is expressive of the Christian ethos to pursue them for ourselves. The quest for power, authority, and rights--which I will from here on collapse into the concept of authority, since it is primarily the right to have authority and the power derived from it on which the debate centers--is found nowhere in the Gospel. Instead, all authority is derived from God and given, qualified as it is, as a gift from Him. It is not a right to be seized but a commission to be accepted.

Instead, the Gospel is a narrative of submission and self-sacrifice. Jesus Christ, to whom all authority had been given, is the prime example of this. Consider the way he exercised his authority throughout his ministry. It was not in dictatorial commands to his disciples (male or female). It was not in domination over them. Instead, he assumed the role of a servant: feeding the hungry, encouraging the downtrodden, forgiving the sinner, and washing the feet of his disciples. The same ethos will carry into the earliest church. Though we occasionally see Paul making appeals to his authority (acknowledging always its derivative nature), the overwhelming example given by the apostles is one of unqualified service and the exhortation for Christians to do the same. Christ foreshadows and Paul recalls the cross as the central image of power, ironically redefined by the Gospel, for the whole Christian system. It is in dying the Christ ultimately defeats death and in our participation in that self-sacrificial act that Christians ultimately free themselves from it. Christian virtue is defined by and emulates this core self-sacrificial act. It does not strive after positions of power; it deliberately eschews them, allowing Christ to become a new kind of king. If our understanding of authority--its scope and function--were genuinely cruciform, then the Bible could place women in a perpetual and inviolable state of servitude and, far from making their position lamentable, it would glorify them in so doing.

Of course, it doesn't and no self-respecting complementarian thinks that it does. The biblical picture of gender economics is one of mutual self-sacrifice and voluntary submission, because the virtues embodied in the cross are by no means exclusive to one sex. The most complete and wonderful picture is in the much maligned household codes in Ephesians, which gives two interrelated commands: wives submit to your husbands (as the church submits to Christ) and husbands sacrifice yourself for your wife (as Christ sacrificed himself for the church). It is important first to note that all submission and self-sacrifice is related directly back to Christ as the exemplar. It is not the Christ came and made himself a servant because he was less than those he came to serve. He humbled himself in spite of his superiority. Moreover, Christ did not sacrifice himself as it suited him and to the degree it suited him but completely and in ways which most profoundly effected him. What is depicted in the relationship between Christ and the church is not the degree of authority which is being conferred upon husbands but the nature of the relationship. What is being prescribed for wives and husbands is, in its essence, a common disposition toward one another. After all, Christians are exhorted to submission (the same kind of submission that wives are specifically enjoined to choose) to all other Christians in the verse immediately prior. The image is of a husband who empties himself in the act of sacrifice for his wife so that there is nothing in him that self-centered. He acts purely in love for his wife. The wife, in turn, empties herself in the act of submission to her husband so that there is nothing in her that is self-centered. She acts purely in love for her husband. The beauty here--and the implicit critique of systems which are overly concerned with assigning rights--is that the focus and the blessing here is not on who has authority but on who is the greater servant to his or her spouse.

There is no domination in this. No women being treated as children relative to men. There is no concern for authority at all, and the obsession with who is "in charge" is a contemporary battle being waged because we have forgotten that self-sacrifice is a Christian virtue and equal rights a secular one. I do not believe that women should be in the pulpit. I don't pretend to understand why, entirely, Scripture indicates that, but I can see fairly clearly that it does. Certainly, I can imagine a comprehensive Christian theory of gender which validates that viewpoint without creating a value disparity between the sexes. Ultimately, if there is some person (of either gender) out there who is indignant over his or her inability to rise through the ecclesiastical ranks of power, my concern is not with whether or not the individuals rights are being protected but with whether or not that person (and our church culture as a whole) has a firm enough grasp on the central tenets of the Christian ethos. We certainly ought to stand up for what is right and there are battles worth waging. It is my belief, however, that more pernicious than the threat of patriarchy--which I contend our culture has put aside in all its darkest forms--is that of self-motivated ambition and the undeserved sense of entitlement. Without putting too much rhetorical weight on it, I dare say that rather than lamenting the prospect of women being treated like children we ought to all rejoice at the idea that we may humble ourselves and become like children so as to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mental Health and Asexuality: A Double Standard?

For the purposes of this post, I (and probably most of those reading) will need to suspend certain beliefs and accept others as true. For many, that simply means stepping outside of prevailing heteronormative assumptions about human sexuality. For my part, it will mean operating within the framework of inherent sexuality, as if the psycho-sexual categories this produces were real or even meaningful rather than the aberrant constructs of the modern imagination. I trust, however, that we are all capable of entering into countervailing belief systems to analyze them, not with the end of determining whether they are true but whether they are self-consistent.

A BBC feature article last month sought to introduce the world to asexuality and, of course, to legitimate it as a sexuality on par with more established categories like heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. There is an extent to which this is noble. From a strictly secular perspective, it stands to reason that if someone can be genetically hardwired to prefer someone of the same sex, someone of the opposite sex, or some admixture of the two preferences, then they can also be programmed to be entirely without sexual attraction. After all, those would seem to be the only four logical categories: one, the other, both, and neither. That there are no parallel organizations campaigning for the rights of asexuals in the way there are for the LGBT community (which is conspicuously lacking an "A" in its acronym) is something of a failure on the part of postmodern proponents of sexual choice. (Choice, which ironically, they would argue you have no part in choosing.)

In a less overt way, the effort to give a face to asexuality ought to resonate with Christians, who should embrace a critique of our culture in a similar vein. In the hyper-carnal culture of the post-sexual revolution West, the virtue of celibacy has been transformed into a vice, or, more in keeping with the modern euphemism, a disorder. On occasion, you will hear a preacher or Christian academic make a token gesture to "singleness" (because celibacy has a nasty Catholic ring) as an acceptable alternative to the more appropriate heterosexual marriage. In reality, Christian singles are under the same crushing social pressures to couple as anyone else, and in the case of those who want to formally serve in the church, being single is looked on with a certain suspicion. This is a far cry from the language of Paul, who saw singleness as a higher path and spoke of it as if it were a spiritual gift. It strikes me as closer to a Christian approach to sex to appropriate the language (or even the biology) of "asexuality" to describe a special dispensation of the Spirit for Christian service.

But my purpose here is really not to discuss the value of advocacy for asexuality and the recognition of asexuals in Western culture. There is a disconcerting tendency in the article to draw lines and as precisely define and subdivide asexuality as possible. The real issue, however, is not the proliferation of neologisms but with a distinction that the article introduces into asexuality which would be completely untenable if applied to any other sexual orientation. Consider how the BBC distinguishes asexuality from HSDD:

Asexuality is distinct from the condition of people who lack sexual desire but find that problematic.

"There has been lots of research on hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is classified as a personality disorder, and it is if you do not experience sexual attraction and it's causing you suffering."

Imagine, for a moment, if that definition were applied to homosexuality. Homosexuality is the orientation in which a person is attracted to others of the same sex. Homosexual desire disorder is a sexual dysfunction in which a person is attracted to others of the same sex and finds that problematic. Imagine the outrage in the LGBT community if such a definition were offered. After all, anyone who has ever known a person struggling with his sexuality, coming to the belief that he may be gay, knows that the knowledge is troubling. Frankly, that is putting it mildly. Grappling with your sexuality has become the signature right of passage for our generation. Sexual self-discovery, especially through sexual experimentation, is the hallmark of graduating out of adolescence and into adulthood for an entire millennial culture. There are people who never fully come to terms with their sexuality (possibly because the process and the whole ideology undergirding it are sick), those who will always find their homosexuality or bisexuality or asexuality problematic.

If such a thing as inherent sexuality exists, its normalcy cannot be defined relative to whether or not a person accepts or is happy with any given sexuality. The attempt to define HSDD by whether or not a person is troubled by it is essentially to say that asexuals are the mentally ill who are okay with their illness. They are schizophrenics who don't mind their schizophrenia. It's nonsense. If asexuality is going to be incorporated into the cultural mainstream of human sexuality, it should be judged by the same rules and standards as any other sexuality. The association with HSDD and the way the two are distinguished needs to be understood as a relic of a antiquated system of categorizing sexuality. After all, it bears remembering that until 1973 homosexuality was believed to be a psychological disorder. If our culture is going to be internally consistent, perhaps it needs to stop thinking about people with HSDD as heterosexuals (etc.) whose desire needs stimulating but as asexuals who need help coming to terms with their sexuality.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Complementarianism: Value and Function

The following is part of an ongoing response to Roger E. Olson’s critique of extreme complementarianism. For the origin and nature of these posts, see Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody.

I imagine that many, perhaps even Dr. Olson (who, while a real person, has taken on for my purposes here more the role of a fictional foil against which to cast complementarianism), consider the distinction between value and function as far as gender economics is concerned to be a thin veneer behind which to hide overt sexism. The distinction is, nevertheless, one which I believe to be substantive and necessary for approaching the question of gender economics. In simpler terms, it is the philosophical underpinning for the idea that things can be different but equal. That phrasing has the nasty connotation of racist ideals of “separate but equal” which were in fact merely a façade for separate and deeply unequal treatment. The problem both with “separate but equal” and the distinction between value and function is not in the abstract but in the improper application.

Distinguishing function from value is an assumption that we all operate with uncritically with on a daily basis. For example, consider the question, “Who do you love more, your spouse or your children?” Even as someone without children, I realize that question is nonsensical. The only appropriate, healthy answer is, “I love them equally.” And yet, you do not have the same expectations from your spouse as you do your children. You value them equally and yet you recognize that there is a fundamental difference in the way they operate relative to you. In theory then, at least, I hope everyone can agree to the possibility of ontological equality and economic distinction.

Even Olson admits that essentially everyone agrees that men and women were created for different functions. After all, it is hard not to look at a male and a female and realize that they are not quite the same. On the other hand, Olson’s only practical example of this is to point to anatomical distinctions: “even feminists believe men and women have different roles insofar as only women give birth!” At the core of complementarianism, however, is the belief that God chose to create men and women with more important differences than the ability of men to urinate standing up.

In fact, an appeal to pregnancy—or anatomy more generally—as a key functional difference between men and women seems to treat the problem in reverse. It forgets, in essence, that God was not constrained by the world He had not yet created and the reproductive strictures He would produce. In other words, there was nothing preventing God from creating a vast hermaphroditic biosphere in which there is neither maleness nor femaleness. For that matter, He might just have easily have made all life reproduce by mitosis and save us all the trouble of coupling to begin with. For my part, this realization of divine freedom calls into question any model of gender economics which asks how men and women are different and turns to anatomy for the crucial answers. Instead, we ought to ask, “Given that men and women are obviously biologically different: why?”

It should be striking to all of us that God built inadequacy and incompleteness, cooperation and dependence into the most basic relationship of human existence. There is no sense in which any human is ultimately self-sufficient biologically because God has placed in us an imperative to reproduce and the almost ironic inability to do so on our own. And why shouldn’t He? The cardinal human sin from the garden up to the present has always been a desire for and a false sense of autonomy: the belief that we know better than God, that we can get along without God, and that, given time, we can become gods unto ourselves. Yet the very human condition is structured to teach us that we are incomplete on our own, dependent on another, different someone for ultimate wholeness. This incompleteness and this wholeness, however, are more than a mere physical incompleteness (i.e. the inability to satisfy the biological urge to have sex and reproduce). It is a deeper, metaphysical incompleteness which is touched on with the complimenting natures of the sexes but which speaks to the greater incompleteness of a creation which has forgotten or rejected its Creator.

Lost in all this discussion of difference, however, is a more foundational, more important fact which egalitarians and complementarians agree on: men and women are created equal. It is an understandable oversight. After all, people spend very little time arguing about what they agree on. The comparably subtler and more minor difference about what I and Olson believe respectively is the extent and nature of functional differences between the sexes is a great deal more fun to argue about. Nevertheless, it is critical to realize that a reasoned complementarians (and the only one I have encountered outside the pages of history books) believes no less strongly in the truth that women are of no less value than men (nor, it should be noted, are men of any less value than women).

This equality is not incidental. God did not create one kind of human (male) and then another kind of human (female) and then calibrate their respective values so they would even out. Men and women share a common humanity, bear a common divine image, and have a common genderless standing before God—which is to say that God does not love men and love women, He does not save men and save women, but loves and saves people. Were anyone able to list a thousand ways in which men and women are different, such a list would not begin to compare to the way in which the sexes are the same by virtue of their common humanity. If anything, the ways in which we are different and how that plays out in the economy of the home and the church and society at large are the incidentals, the merely exterior features on the surface of our identical core substance.

We see this reflected in the narrative of creation which first speaks of the simultaneous creation of all humanity, male and female, in the image of God before taking a more precise look at the creation of a distinct male and then, in response to his recognition of his incompleteness, a distinct female. The same will be true of Paul who, in his earliest letter, insists to his audience that there is no male and female, no slave and free, no Jew and Gentile before later writing about the way masters should behave relative to their slaves, how Jews and Gentiles approach God differently, and how men and women should interact in the home and the church. There is reality in the difference between male and female and a divine intentionality which is apparent in Scripture, but always embedded in it is the underlying, overarching (and, yes, I realize those are somewhat contradictory images) truth of the essential equality of the sexes. We are one humanity with a single standing before God.

So, yes, I do believe that men and women are different, even different in ways which transcend anatomy and transcend fluid cultural norms. But even if I believed that God made men to be bankers and women to be housewives (and I certainly do not), a fair representation of complementarianism respects that I can hold such a view without in anyway denigrating women, lessening their value, or making them second-class citizens before God.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Wisdom of the Pilgrim

The following are some interesting quotes I collected quite a while ago while reading The Candid Narrations of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father. The story, more commonly known in English as The Way of the Pilgrim, is of a 19th century Russian mendicant practitioner of hesychasm. In addition to being a wonderful tale and an edifying spiritual text, the narrative offers an enticing look into the Russian tradition of hesychasm and the idiosyncrasies of Slavic monasticism with its emphasis on starets. I imagine, were I to take it up again, I would find many more inspirational quotes. Below are simply the notes I had from some years ago:

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life.

And one of the most lamentable things is the vanity of elementary knowledge which drives people to measure the Divine by a human yardstick.

...from now on call on the name of Jesus without counting. Submit yourself to the will of God in humility, looking to Him for assistance. I firmly believe that He will not abandon you but direct your steps.

And now, I am wandering about repeating incessantly the Prayer of Jesus. To me it has greater value than anything else on earth. Occasionally I walk seventy versts or so and do not feel it at all. I am conscious of only one thing, my prayer. When biter cold pierces me, I say it more eagerly and warm up in no time. When I am hungry I begin to call on the Name of Jesus more often and forget about food. When I am ill and rheumatic pains set in my back and legs, I concentrate on the prayer and no longer notice the discomfort. When people to me wrong, my wrath and indignation are quickly forgotten as soon as I remember the sweetness of the prayer of Jesus. In a way I have become a half-witted person; I have no anxiety and no interest in the vanities of the world, for which I care no longer.

And when I prayed in my heart bearing all this in mind, everything about me appeared to be pleasing and lovely. It was as though the trees, the grass, the birds, the earth, the air and the light were saying they existed for the sake of man, in testimony and proof of the love of God for mankind. It was as if they were saying that everything prayed and praised God.
A soldier's response to a monk who suggested reading the Gospels as a cure for alcoholism:

I listened to him and Said: 'How can your Gospels help me when my own efforts and medical treatment have failed to stop me from drinking?" I spoke in that way because I never read the Gospels. 'Don't say that,' answered the monk. 'I am sure it will help you.' And he brought me this very book the following day. As I glanced at it and tried to read a little, I said to the monk: 'No, I won't take it. I can't understand it and I am not familiar with Church Slavonic.' The monk, however, insisted that there is grace-giving power in the words of the Gospels, for they relate what our Lord himself said. 'It is unimportant if you do not understand; just go on reading,' he urged me. 'A saint said once upon a time: you may not understand the Word of God, but the devils do, and tremble.'

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Wisdom of James Cruickshanks

These thoughts on the sacralization of the American military were offered by Worcester, MA preacher James Cruickshanks on a Union fast day during the Civil War. They offer not only a relevant critique of an ongoing trend in American culture, but also a strong implied censure for those Christians who believe that they can be both patriots and politicians without having any blood on their hands:

If indeed God be a God of peace, and he is Almighty, we ask, why is war, with its untold evils, permitted to brood over this fair land?...In a word, the army is the people’s God. They idolize it—they worship it...We are then as a people a nation of idolaters. We are at once, the most religious, and the most idolatrous people on the globe.

The quote is taken from Harry S. Stout's Upon the Altar of a Nation.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody

I find it important to begin here by pointing out that Roger E. Olson is a scholar for whom I have the utmost respect. Having studied for years under noted Arminius scholar Keith Stanglin, I have learned to appreciate Olson's impassioned defenses of classical Arminianism. More directly, his 20th Century Theology (co-authored with Stanley Grenz) has a place of honor among my contemporary theology texts and is the book I find myself most often recommending to people who struggle to navigate through the quagmire of modern Christian thought. With that political caveat out of the way, however, Olson recently posted an article concerning "extreme complementarianism" which raised my hackles. In it, Olson quickly does away with the "extreme" qualifier, and paints a sweeping picture of complementarianism as a system dedicated first and foremost to the subjugation of women, the depressing them into the roles of children in relationship to men. That's alright, I suppose. After all, everyone should be used to having their beliefs misrepresented for polemical ends. My problem didn't really arise until sometime later when Olson's own hackles were raised by a similarly biased treatment of Arminianism by a Calvinist. When I suggested to Dr. Olson that this may give the impression of hypocrisy on his part, he demurred.

In fairness, his suggestion to me was entirely reasonable: cite well-known complementarians who clearly and consistently present a philosophy of gender economics that contradicts his caricature. Whether or not he would be sincerely interested in such an effort is irrelevant. As a historian, I lack the resources and the expertise (not to mention, in large part, the desire) to offer such a response. I simply do not swim in those academic streams. I don't know who the well known complementarians are nor how they treat their wives. My vision of gender economics comes from a less vaunted source. It comes from being mentored at the feet of couples in my childhood and adolescence who believed "that men and women are both created in God’s image but assigned different roles" without all the nasty baggage of infantilization and domination that Olson imputes to all complementarians. It comes from studying under professors who are complementarians and respected in their respective fields but who would by no means qualify as the kind of "well-known complementarians" who might impress Dr. Olson. It comes from having a strong, intelligent, unashamedly complementarian wife who is in no respect a child relative to her husband.

So without making any claims to prove anything by anyone's standards and without even trying to argue in a way which might convince Dr. Olson, I do hope to undertake here to sketch in brief a reasoned vision of complementarianism which believes that men and women are created equal and different, that the former of these facts is more foundational and more important than the latter, that it is nevertheless possible and necessary to respect economic gender differences, and, finally, that a proper understanding of Christian submission purges the discussion of gender economics from unChristian conceptions of power.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Komen vs. Planned Parenthood: The Real Story is Hypocrisy

The news media, blogosphere, and (of course) posturing politicians all have some new and exciting news to howl about: Susan G. Komen for the Cure has ended its financial partnership with Planned Parenthood. The story, only a few days old now, has provoked vitriolic responses from the masses, or at least from masses of Democrats, feminists, and pro-choice advocates. The assumption fueling the hue and cry, in spite of denials from Komen, is that the charity has collapsed under political pressure from pro-life groups who criticized the partnership with a program that provides abortions. Responses have ranged from denunciations from members of Congress, calls to arms by political commentators, and withdrawn support on the part of every day people.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Komen did terminate its partnership with Planned Parenthood as a result of abortion controversy (and frankly it is hard to imagine that isn't the case). Surely those voicing their strong negative reactions to this decision can see the hypocrisy in their response. Yes, Planned Parenthood does so much more than provide abortions. Yes, in fact, abortion services are only a very small portion of the many wonderful services being provided by Planned Parenthood. Yes, this move may very well make it harder for some poor women to receive cancer screenings (although that appears to be more scare tactic than fact). So, yes, I can understand frustration over Komen's decision to generalize a small portion of Planned Parenthood's activities into the entire identity of the program.

But Planned Parenthood was only a small part of what Komen did. In the past two years, Komen gave $1.25 million in grants to Planned Parenthood. Extrapolating from those numbers, that is roughly $7.5 million dollars since the partnership began in 2005. When you consider that Komen has donated more than $1.9 billion dollars to breast cancer related causes since its 1982, the portion of funds that had been dedicated to Planned Parenthood were less than 4%. In other words, to condemn the entirety Susan G. Komen for the Cure for a single politically driven action is no different than Komen condemning all of Planned Parenthood for a single politically charged service. Just as Komen's move is likely to inadvertently effect, for the worse, the health of many women who might have received help from Planned Parenthood totally unrelated to abortion, going to war against and boycotting Komen is bound adversely effect the health of the same women protestors self-deludedly purport to represent. It is the height of hypocrisy.

One blogger, joining loudly in the politically fashionable rage against the machine (the heartless breast cancer fighting machine), has argued that to claim to be pro-life and be against Planned Parenthood is oxymoronic. Any such oxymoron isn't truly concerned about life but about propping up a worthless self-image. In truth, the whole battle--and contestants on both sides--are actually only interested in projecting their own values into the public sphere for the purpose of triumphing over another's values. If either party were primarily concerned about women's health, they would realize that Komen is a fantastic tool for saving lives, that Planned Parenthood is also a fantastic tool for saving lives, that neither is perfect, and that condemning either outright on the basis of their imperfection is nonsensical. Mostly they need to realize that lambasting any organization that has dedicated nearly two billion dollars to preserving women's lives is not feminism. It's partisanship, an ugly, self-interested, doctrinaire contest in which their are no winners. Ever.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction is Truth

Paul Auster's aptly named Travels in the Scriptorium takes the reader on a journey through the human condition, which is astounding, exhausting, and fulfilling all because the reader has a sense throughout that the books delights and disappointments are life's delights and disappointments. The book is not, in any traditional sense, pleasurable to read. Make no mistake. With his deliberately dry, encyclopedic style of narrative, Auster is not prone to cheap titillation. He is an absurdist author, as much as anything, and his novella deals with deep-seated questions of identity, knowledge, and existence. Travels will not make you laugh and cry and scream (except from boredom). It will make you think.

The premise of the story (and I give nothing away here, because there is nothing to give away) is that a certain Mr. Blank finds himself in an unfamiliar room almost completely without memory. Within moments of beginning the account, the narrator reveals to us that Mr. Blank, because of his strange condition, will find himself grappling not with trivialities but with more basic questions: "His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him. Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain? With any luck, time will tell us all." As is so often the case, however, it turns out we don't have any luck at all. At the end of the story--through the means of a less than sophisticated plot device--the narrator reintroduces the questions to us as if to say, "Just in case you forgot, these are the important questions that didn't get answered."

The questions that form an inclusio for the entire piece are presented as peculiar to this unfortunate man in this extreme situation, but it should be immediately apparent to the reader that these are the very questions which are universal to mankind regardless of circumstance. Who am I? Why am I here? How long do I have? These are the most foundational of existential quandaries which transcend time and culture. In perfect concert with his absurdist forefathers, Auster sidesteps the primal impulse to construct answers to these questions. He clearly finds it more compelling to thrust the reader headfirst into the brick wall of reality: these questions never get answered. They are phantoms which disappear the moment we try to grasp them, like the "figments" that dance around in Mr. Blank's head throughout the story. Laments Mr. Blank, "I walk around the world like a ghost, and sometimes I question whether I even exist, whether I've ever existed at all." He cannot prove that he is, not even to himself. How is he then to demonstrate conclusively where or when or even why he is? Unifying theories are no sooner expressed than they prove to be inadequate, the falter under the crushing weight of everyday experience.

It is this everyday experience which forms the meat of Auster's tale and which makes the reading so dense. Auster takes pride in describing in minute detail every occurrence within the very limited frame of the story. Because of this, the story--like life--is both mundane and disgusting. Auster takes note of activities ranging from putting on a shirt to moving one's bowls. The narrative consequently proves dreary, non-linear, scatological, and pornographic in the way that life really is. There is a certain irony to the realization that in spite of the fact that we must constantly stand up, sit down, bend over, consider inconsequential choices, and actualize our decisions, we can barely stand to read about Mr. Blank doing all these things and more. At one point--apparently not above teasing his audience--the narrator declares that he sees no point in describing with microscopic precision some normal activity of Mr. Blank's, and the reader lets slip a deep sigh of relief.

This exhaustive account of nothing is not (or at least not entirely) simply to fill out the pages of what might otherwise be a very brief and hackneyed philosophical point. The reader's navigation through Mr. Blank's world becomes a kind of a reflection on how all life is supposition and inference and memory. Mr. Blank will dramatically vacillates from thoroughgoing empiricism (e.g. Mr. Blank sees no closet ergo he refuses to believe there is a closet, even though he seems to see the effects of the closets existence) to a fantastic epistemology which assumes causality in the most tenuous of circumstances (e.g. Mr. Blank health improves and so he assumes it has to do with proximity to Anna). Mr. Blank is a case study in the way humanity, no matter how noble our efforts or how convincing our self-deceptions, engage the world in ways which are ultimately inconsistent and indefensible. What Mr. Blank seems to know is suggested to be untrue. What he believes is impossible, the circumstance would seem to indicate is the case. What he considers important, the reader is inclined to think is trivial. What he disregards as inconsequential are the questions forefront in the other characters minds. Mr. Blank is a child and an old man and a type for all people.

There are of course countless other avenues which Travels offers to the reader's mind. One that particularly delighted me was the narrator himself, who takes great pains to present his narrative as if it is the result of hidden cameras and microphones yet he has no qualms about telling us not only what we can see and hear but what Mr. Blank thinks as well and how many seconds it takes him to think it. The narrator is, at any given moment, a character in the story, an entity on the same plane as the reader, and an omniscient observer. (The conclusion is likely intended to shed light on this, but I won't tip Auster's hand.) At the same time, the story often seems to be trying too hard. Still struggling with the question of existence, Mr. Blank wonders, "When was the last time someone took a photograph of someone who did not exist?" This strikes one, or at least struck me, as more akin to a lyric from a hipster anthem than a serious philosophical musing. Then again, it would be possible to argue that Auster does this deliberately since only rarely do people express themselves with any marked profundity.

That, in the end, is the beauty of Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium: it is as much or as little as the reader wants to make it. Any reader may pick up the work and decide, with equal justification, that Auster is a deeply engaging philosophical novelist or a tiresome author whose lack of compelling plot leaves the reader with only a drudging, unrewarding prose to suffer through. For my part, I would recommend the novella to anyone who delights in absurdism, fiction with a philosophical bent, or offbeat novels in general. With the exception of an extremely disappointing ending--which was a grossly transparent attempt to dress cheap Hollywood tricks like serious discourse--I found the work to be successful at its most obvious goal: provoking thought.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Leading Atheist on What's Wrong with Atheism

Prominent atheist Alain de Botton recently gave an interview to Talking Philosophy regarding his latest book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. The purpose of the book is to look at how religion has functioned for society and, insofar as religion has been successful in its more beneficent efforts, to identify areas in which a purely secular culture may profit from the adoption and adaptation of religious ideas and methods. In fairness then, my admittedly sensationalist title might better read "Leading Atheist on What's Right with Religion." One of the features of the interview, however, that makes it immediately inviting for believers to read is that de Botton is upfront and candid about what he sees as four potential dangers that atheism faces and to which theism is not (or at least less) susceptible. It is critical to note that de Botton rightly sees these as pitfalls to be avoided rather than inescapable defects in atheism. Below are his four dangers of a purely secular worldview, with my own elaboration of each included.

  1. Individualism: When the absolute and transcendent "other" in God is removed from the equation, humanity becomes a level-playing field. More destructively, as the only human who is me, I am faced with the overwhelming temptation to understand and interact with the world as if I am somehow special within it, to behave as if my will is intrinsically more valuable (because it, tautologically, coincides perfectly with what I want). One feature which finds near ubiquitous emphasis in the world's religions, as universalists are quick to point out, is some version of the ethical imperative "Treat one another as you would like to be treated." In a world without religion, such an ethos need not necessarily exist.
  2. Technological Perfectionism: Even among the religious, there seems to be a pervasive belief that technology is marching inevitably toward social utopia. It plays out in every corner of our society. With enough research, we will do away with cancer and heart disease and AIDS. It never occurs to us that there may be new incurable diseases just around the corner. With enough research, green energy will replace oil and give us peace in the Middle East. It never occurs to us that we were making war before we were making cars. Accurately, de Botton critiques the prevailing myth that "it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition." In a world where science is the ultimate arbiter of truth, there is a temptation to create a techno-soteriology that is unrealistic and, to a degree, dangerous.
  3. Contemporary Exceptionalism: A world without God is more prone to lack not only a sacred history but also a normative image of the future and an eschatological vision of an ultimate telos. The result is the mistaken belief that the now is somehow privileged because we live in it. There is a tendency to want to downplay the achievements and importance of past humans who lived in past moments and to ignore the possible achievements and importance of future humans who will live in moments that we will never experience. By virtue of our presence in this place and moment, there is tendency to lose sight of just how transient our time is and how qualified the importance of our achievements is.
  4. Ethical Nihilism: This is not to suggest that one cannot be an atheist and be ethical. I have atheist acquaintances who are at times genuinely upset that I won't embrace the common evangelical tactic of claiming that there are no morals without God. It is impossible to deny, however, that there are internally consistent ethical systems which are entirely atheistic. The fear here is not whether or not someone can be ethical without God but what it is that compels them to be ethical without God. Evil, such as it is, becomes blurred in a system where humans are left to identify it independently. As we struggle to decide what is right and what is wrong, there is not ultimate, incontestable arbiter of whose definition of evil is correct. There is nothing to compel me to accept your ethos, nothing to make you accept mine. Rampant ethical relativism, unchecked, quickly resolves itself into a society incapable of mustering the kind of moral majority necessary to resist corruption by evil. Ethics is possible for atheists, but the issue certainly becomes cloudier with the removal of God.

Of course, none of this commends theism any more than it condemns atheism. It certainly wasn't my purpose to try to do either, nor was it de Botton's. It does, however, represent a necessary exercise for atheists who want to have a rigorous understanding of their own worldview. The impulse among so many New Atheists is to expend all of their available energy finding every conceivable flaw in theism. It is fruitful, therefore, to see de Botton critique this emphasis latter in the interview:

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining...Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

What de Botton ultimately recommends to his atheist readers is a middle path between belief and militant unbelief. It is a perhaps a more genuinely reasonable path that is not ashamed to disbelieve but that at the same time recognizes the real role that belief has played in society. It recognizes the importance of religion has played in addressing central human questions that are not done away with simply because religions are done away with. It applauds the good, abhors the bad, and, at the end of the day, finishes in a more satisfied and stronger position than the New Atheists.

Not to beat a dead horse, but...

An op-ed put out on Fox News yesterday by the Executive Director of Beta Upsilon Chi, a national Christian fraternity, details yet another instance of "non-discrimination" trumping freedom of conscience, not to mention common sense.

In the fall of 2010, Vanderbilt University began investigating the constitutions of every religious organization on its Nashville, Tenn., campus after a discrimination complaint was filed against a Christian fraternity. During the investigation, the university changed the student organization handbook to remove a section protecting religious association. The university eliminated a clause that read, "In affirming its commitment to this principle [of non-discrimination], the University does not limit freedom of religious association and does not require adherence to this principle by government agencies or external organizations that associate with but are not controlled by the University."

In a letter to Vanderbilt students and faculty on Jan. 20, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos insisted that the university "does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion. We do, however, require all Vanderbilt registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy. That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."

Contrary to the university's stated goal of inclusion and tolerance, the change in policy jeopardizes the operational freedom of all religious organizations on campus. Patricia Helland, an associate dean who oversees religious life at Vanderbilt, defended the change in an interview saying "organizations can have core beliefs, but that organizations can't require their members or leaders to abide by or adhere to those core beliefs."

It is this final quote which brings into sharp relief the insanity of "non-discrimination" in its present form. Essentially, the position of the university is that a person may believe whatever they want and may even create a society which shares those core beliefs, but that society cannot refuse membership to anyone simply because that person does not share the core beliefs which constitute the very identity of that society. It ultimately reduces all societies, religious or otherwise, to totally amorphous and pointless entities. The article points out that a Jew could not be barred from leadership in a Muslim society, nor a Christian from a Jewish society, but it extends to even more ridiculous examples than that. The next Paul Ryan couldn't be barred from membership or leadership in a society for Democrats, the next New Gingrich from a society on marital fidelity. It's nonsense.

If students are to flourish in a learning environment that values diversity, community and debate, college administrators must return to the nationwide practice of allowing an exemption in their religious nondiscrimination policy for religious organizations – organizations whose very reason for existence is to promote a particular religion. Policies like Vanderbilt's irrationally discriminate against such groups, and fail to fulfill universities' duty to protect students' rights to associate and operate under their constitutionally-protected beliefs.

The casual observer is left to wonder why a Jew would want to be head of a Muslim organization, a Republican the head of a Democrat organization, or a homosexual the head of an organization whose founding principles are heteronormative (and it is this last one that is likely the hidden impetus behind all the controversy). But that insignificant bit of pragmatism doesn't seem to be the point for either party. What this ultimately boils down to is one group of activists with a self-defeating vision of liberalism that will tolerate anything but intolerance squaring off against another group of activists who firmly believe that their right to restrict access trumps another's right to access. Both views seem repugnant on the surface, but at least there is common sense working (de facto) in favor of the latter. If core beliefs do not define the bounds of membership in a voluntary organization, what should? Consider Justice Alito in his concurring opinion on Hosanna-Tabor: "Religious groups are the archetype of associations formed for expressive purposes, and their fundamental rights surely include the freedom to choose who is qualified to serve as a voice for their faith."

Then again...(or Positive Secularism Fights Back)

Perhaps my last offering was prematurely triumphant. I awoke this morning to find an article analyzing President Obama's decision to press the issue of faith-based organizations providing sterilization, contraceptives, and abortifacients as part of their health insurance regardless of any moral qualms or religious conscience. The position taken by the executive branch seems more ideological than practical, forcing Catholic groups to provide birth control which is freely and widely available elsewhere. For the author of the article, the message the government is sending is clear:

Obama's decision also reflects a certain view of liberalism. Classical liberalism was concerned with the freedom to hold and practice beliefs at odds with a public consensus. Modern liberalism uses the power of the state to impose liberal values on institutions it regards as backward. It is the difference between pluralism and anti-clericalism.

I don't know that this can necessarily be cast as "anti-clericalism," and I certainly reject the provocative claim that "the war on religion is now formally declared." This is, however, indicative of this shift in American conceptions of liberalism that I referenced last night, away from the idea of non-intrusive freedom that dominated, at the very least, in the antebellum period and toward a new idea of government sponsored, socially mandated positive pluralism. It is no longer enough to merely not infringe upon the life and liberty of another; in fact, infringing on that liberty can be seen as a moral good provide it is done in the service of securing an increasingly bloated list of rights on behalf of another. (Imagine suggesting to an American two hundred years ago--or one hundred, or fifty, or twenty--that abortion, sterilization, and birth control were inalienable human rights that trumped religious liberty.) There does some to be a clash in cultures occurring here--though again, not some vague war on religion--which no longer sees conscience as the liberty so essential that it became enshrined in the very first amendment to the Constitution, but instead considers it to be a private peccadillo to be tolerated so long as it doesn't interfere with the liberated mindset of post-sexual revolution America.

Without climbing too high onto my soapbox, I'd like to suggest that this viewpoint is only possible because of the trivial way contemporary Christians have handled their faith, allowing it to become more about politics than piety, more about sexual ethics than kingdom ethics. I am ultimately convicted that if Christians were to take faith in Christ as the all-consuming, life-transforming, community-constituting reality that it is and allowed it to distinguish us from society at large rather than trying to conform it to social expectations, perhaps it would be harder for the world to see faith as secondary in importance to the all-powerful right to have a thin, lubricated layer of latex between you and the sexual partner of your choice.