Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vaughan Roberts and same sex attraction - Where to from here?

The magazine Evangelicals Now has been making some noise on the net with an interview with a minister, Vaughan Roberts, discussing his “struggle with same sex attraction”. The article has been mentioned on the Gospel Coalition site, a major U.S. evangelical and reformed theology site and by several Christian bloggers.

The article has also been blogged about by Andrew Brown of the Guardian. I found his post to be pretty poor in its insistence on re-labelling Vaughan Roberts as gay. I don’t object to re-labelling someone entirely – I’d re-label the Pope sexist and John Howard racist against their own identifications. But I don’t think it’s justified here. Vaughan Roberts gives reasons for not calling himself gay and I can respect them without agreeing with them. I don’t need to re-label him.

I disagree with Vaughan Roberts that gay sex is wrong. I think about right or wrong in such a spectacularly different way to Vaughan Roberts that saying gay sex is wrong is a little nonsensical to me. I have to consider the harms of any action to condemn it. I also consider matters of consent and rights and intent but harms are crucial. When looking at harms I don’t take broad statistics and say whether or not generally speaking something is harmful either. I try and be as specific as possible. Take driving a car for example. Is that wrong or right? Surely that depends on why and how you are driving a car. It would require me to adopt a supreme moral simplicity to ever be able to say that all gay sex is wrong… or right for that matter. It actually feels a lot easier to say that all car driving is wrong. (Except ambulances and fire engines … see what I mean)

In this regard I am not different to even those Christians who think homosexuality is wrong. If you asked many of those Christians if it was wrong to kill somebody almost all would answer that it depends. Many U.S. Christians took the same position about torturing people in Abu Ghraib; it depends. That’s something I find much harder to swallow. Certainly if you asked them if it was ok to drive a car they, like me, would recognize harms and benefits and ask for more information before making any call. A simple yes or no in these areas is generally considered as too simple by all of us.

In the matter of homosexuality, however, Vaughan Roberts and the Gospel Coalition take a dim view of any practice of it at all. I imagine that they might possibly consider homosexual rape worse than a homosexual date but even the latter is never “good”. They are able to give a simple no answer to all gay sex.

This moral position is hurtful to those who are trying to live good gay lives, who have made sacrifices for their partners, and whose loving relationships may feel like one of the best things they have done with their life. This moral position is saying all of that good feeling is misplaced and that in fact the moral heart of the universe (God) is deeply opposed to all that effort.

Vaughan Roberts specifically describes same-sex attraction as a temptation. He calls acting on that attraction sin. However before we respond to Vaughan from a position of hurt we should listen to what he doesn’t say to justify his attitude to homosexuality. In that silence I found reason to question exactly how I disagreed with him and whether any hurt made sense.

Vaughan doesn’t say anywhere that desires for a homosexual relationship reflect different priorities than desires for a heterosexual one. The very real possibility exists after this interview that gay desire is understood as just like heterosexual desire in its motivations. That’s huge. And by huge I mean massively, humongously gigantic.

Consider the difference between recognizing that:
a)      gay and straight relationships are both sought by people equally looking for someone to share their life with, to feel passion with, to make sacrifices for and to hold them while they cry over Amy and Rory’s story in Dr. Who and;
b)      Straight people are looking for the above but gay people are instead motivated by a desire to get back at daddy, spit in the eye of God, get one’s rocks off in any way possible and so on.
There is a long history of pathologising homosexual desire. This has been a cruelty to gay and lesbian people in and outside the church. Take the time to feel your desire to hug and hold your love. Imagine it being translated for you by counselors and ministers into hatred of a parent or of God or of your self. Imagine being taught to think in that language. The part of you that wants to creep a hand forward to touch the back of someone else’s, that does so timidly and lovingly, is supposed to be thought of as rebellious, God-hating, gladly perverse and mean. Challenging that language has been the preeminent struggle against church and psychology of the gay movements’ history. But Vaughan Roberts seems not to be found on the other side of that struggle.

The other thing that Vaughan does not say is that people’s lives are more terrible when they act out homosexuality than when they do not. That again is stupendously enormous. Indeed Vaughan recognizes celibacy as hard (and the way of the cross) while open gay relationships are attractive (though he attributes that to the devil). Vaughan does state that the benefits of remaining faithful to the bible have been promised in this life as well as the afterlife; however he specifically relates that to the loss of family (as in not getting married and having children in this case) and to persecutions. Vaughan doesn’t make a case for his choice of celibacy over homosexuality being reflected in emotional, material or health benefits intrinsic to those choices.

Consider again the differences between;
a)      If you experience same sex attraction you may obtain happiness if you pursue loving relationships with someone of the same gender or;
b)      No matter what the propaganda of the gay community, people who actively engage in sexual behaviour outside of married heterosexual relationships have short, unhappy and tragic lives.

Recently the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (an organization that is an embarrassment to many Christians) described homosexuality as more dangerous than smoking. Peter Jensen, Archbishop of the Sydney Anglicans shortly afterwards refused to distance himself from the comments on Australian television. “Catholic Answers” a website and magazine composed of Roman Catholic apologists makes similar claims that “homosexual behaviour kills homosexuals”. Opponents of homosexuality have tried to fold their morality into a concern for people’s health for as long as they have been prevented from just calling gay people witches. They tend to abuse general statistics on gay health indicators to support their case.

The gay movement has successfully improved this conversation about health by showing that a myriad of factors are involved. Evelyn Hooker, as long ago as 1957, proved that if gay people have communities to belong to with a positive self-image then there are no differences between straight and gay mental health. Increasingly the positive lives of gay people who are not reeling from family exclusion and social condemnation have been able to be public examples to younger gay people. Gay advocates have exposed the hypocrisy of shaming and isolating organizations like the Catholic church claiming to teach what is best for gay health. There are real parallels between this struggle and the struggle of indigenous people in Australia to challenge the language of their oppressors in calling them “a doomed race”. However Vaughan Roberts just isn’t on the other side of this struggle either.

Vaughan Roberts seems to answer both the question of the motivation of homosexuality and of the harms with what I listed as option a. (see both a) and b) points above). However the b) points are what I assume to be implied by those Christians who say that homosexuality is wrong. That’s because of the people in the name of Christianity who make those specific claims and it’s because it’s hard for me to see how you could agree with position a) in both questions and yet still say that gayness is wrong. I could only say that gay sex is always wrong if I believed that;
  • homosexual and heterosexual desire for relationship are not basically the same aspiration
  • and a gay life is consistently observably harming.
Grossly simplifying the whole discussion, people advocating for the celebration of same sex relationships want to move people from position b) to position a) in regard to the above two questions. That is really the entirety of the debate for someone like myself. In Vaughan’s piece it very much seems to me that he is already there or at least is able to be there without contradicting anything he says in his interview. My arguments and indeed those of any gay movements whose history I know are exhausted once Vaughan gets to option a) in both questions. How then can he and I still disagree?

Vaughan gives one reason and one reason only, for saying that he shouldn’t act on his same-sex attraction. He believes that it is the opinion of his scriptures. I do disagree with him on this. I disagree both that his scriptures are all that clear on the issue of homosexuality and that his scriptures reflect anything more than opinions on moral matters. I don’t believe they are authoritative in the way he uses them. But seriously what am I going to have to do to win those arguments? His opinion that these texts are authoritative and inerrant (and mean what he thinks) is really beyond my hope of changing with argument. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, it can be possible for a person to have a magic book that simply can never be properly tested. I remain pessimistic about that kind of discussion.

What really interests me is the question of if that is his only argument, does it matter? If both he and I agree that homosexual and heterosexual attraction should be viewed as similar motivations and that a person might find (and bring to others) happiness in a same-sex relationship then can we oddly agree to disagree on the actual morality of homosexual behaviour? Vaughan really seems to be saying that the only reason homosexuality is wrong is the attitude of his God. That puts a gay lover at risk of metaphysical harms – i.e. Gods punishment, however I don’t believe in either that God or his punishment. It follows then that Vaughan hasn’t said anything with meaning for me. Can I therefore feel hurt by that? Should I simply say that that is his religion and I have mine?

I’m not sure about any conclusion to this. I am not interested in either sowing dissension or even striving for consensus for no good reason. Vaughan sounds just as concerned as I am about the lack of love shown people who experience same sex attraction. Maybe we should just agree to disagree. I really like his views on whether sexual orientation can change as well. But so much still seems unresolved. If a happy and healthily motivated gay relationship can still be called sin that’s not where I’d hoped we’d end up. I thought being able to convince people that gay lives weren’t sick and suffering ones would mean they would also say gay is ok. It may not though, because of some people’s allegiance to the words in their magic book.  I really don’t know where a conversation could go from here.

I realize I have made “an argument from silence”, that is I have made an act of speech out of what Vaughan hasn’t said. This ignores that he might say it elsewhere (such as in his book which I haven’t read). Or that his silence may mean something else than how I’ve interpreted it. If you think that’s the case based on knowing him better please comment. I do think it’s a pretty loud silence on his behalf given the history and context I’ve outlined.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Just say no to drugs (as a word).

This piece is partly a response to a book by Peter Hitchens titled The War We Never Fought. It sounds to me like possibly the worst book to be written about drugs and drug use conceivable. What it might usefully do however is bring together all our logical inconsistencies around the word drugs into one volume. It's prompted me to write why I think the word "drugs" itself starts us off on the wrong thinking track.

All substances affect our body. There is no meaningful category of substances called drugs in contrast to other substances that are not drugs. A drug is a substance which enters your body and which affects your mind and mood (a quality called psychoactive). In institutional settings people have been known to get “high” from drinking too much water. The increase in water affects their electrolyte balance and gives them a dizzy, out of sorts, experience that I imagine would liven up life a little on a hospital ward. Similarly anyone who has ever looked after a child knows any dehydration equals complete rattiness and at those times a drink of water is a powerful mood lifter. Hence even water is a drug.

Kids on drugs!
It is therefore better to think of substances as just more or less psychoactive with the understanding that how psychoactive a substance is depends on the state of a person taking it. Water is pretty psychoactive if a person is dehydrated or alternatively if a person has drunk gallons of the stuff already. Outside of those circumstances though, water is hardly psychoactive at all.

To use another example I knew a truck driver who took amphetamines. He reported just as powerful an awakening effect from magnesium (a mineral) one time but said taking it again had no effect. That makes sense because he was probably seriously low on magnesium when he first took it. His first state meant the magnesium had a strong psychoactive quality. After that however his body couldn’t use any more, so additional doses had very little effect.

All substances may be drugs, however all drugs are not the same. Magnesium is completely different to Methamphetamine. Cannabis is different to alcohol. Heroin is different to cocaine. All of these are different to water which is different to sugar and so on. This is because each of these substances has a different effect on the body. This may seem like a very obvious point but it amazes me how easily it is forgotten.

When people used the word “drugs” they may or may not be including coffee, cigarettes or alcohol. They are almost definitely not including water and magnesium. However they often are grouping together such diverse substances as MDMA (Ecstacy) or L.S.D. with Heroin and Coccaine. Sometimes they are also including petrol sniffing. That’s such a broad category that it makes discussing them fairly meaningless. Is it hard to stop a pattern of using drugs? Often if you mean Heroin but not if you mean L.S.D. Can drug use trigger a panic attack? Yes if you mean L.S.D. but not if you mean Heroin. Do people recover from the harms of using drugs? That depends on the harms and the substance and even the person. Alcohol damage to the brain is irreversible (though people can adapt) however damage to the liver can be repaired unless liver disease (Cirrhosis) has set in.

When I was working as a drug and alcohol counselor in Canada I heard another worker talk about the hypocrisy of parents freaking out if their child used crack cocaine when they would be okay with their kids using cannabis. That’s not hypocritical at all because crack cocaine is a different substance to cannabis. The two have massively different effects on the body and mind. They have different patterns of addiction and withdrawal. They belong in different subcultures of use. They have different costs; legal, and just plain financial. That’s not to say you can’t argue a parent should have the same attitude to both crack cocaine and cannabis use. You could still argue that a broad blanket policy is best – though I would disagree with you. It’s merely to say that a different attitude to the different substances is not hypocrisy. Insisting that a singular view of all “drugs” (whether affirming their use or condemning it) is the only integritous position to take is like teaching colour blindness as the right way to see colour.

That’s also a shout out to all those stoners who say that having a pipe every night is no different to having a glass of wine over dinner. They mean by that to say that if the latter is permissible (even recommended if you trust the wine industry) then cannabis use should be too. Maybe they’re right that the two substances should be treated the same, or maybe we should even encourage cannabis use over alcohol, however those arguments need to be actually made on basis of the merits and harms of their use. The fact that both substances get called drugs is not sufficient to tell us whether this is true. It is a completely useless indication of what those substances are doing. Meanwhile the “drug” that is the carbohydrates in the chip portion of the actual dinner is being overlooked entirely.

Substances also affect different people differently. Even when we are talking about a single substance it needs to be understood as different when it enters Jim compared to Jenny. That’s because it’s our own chemical factory in our brain that’s required to get us high (or low) in response to the substance. Notice for example cannabis doesn’t get your ashtray stoned as an ashtray has no brain chemistry to interact with. (South Parks Towlie is also not a real life possibility.)  The effect of the drug is really “of us” rather than the drug.

This is the same principle in operation with the varying psychoactive nature of water. It only improves your mood if you are dehydrated. However people are not just different in terms of fluid states (such as when dehydrated or not). People are also different in more fixed ways. Jim might always get sleepy on dope whereas Jenny might commonly get agitated. It therefore makes no sense to talk of who uses what substances at dinner time as if one was the same thing as another. It would be worse for some people to have a pipe and worse for others to have a glass of wine.

So if we want to define drugs meaningfully we have to recognize that;
  1. Drugs are substances which affect the mind and mood of those who take them.
  2. But all substances can affect our mind and mood.
  3. But every different substance affects our mind and mood differently.
  4. And the whole range of effects depend on us.
That leaves the word “drugs” as pretty much meaningless which is exactly why I prefer to talk about substances, as in substance use, substance abuse and so on. In particular I like to talk specifically about the affects which are at the root of our concerns over certain substances, namely addiction or dependence or tolerance, harms including the risk of overdose, intoxication and come-down or recovery, and so on.

We’re not completely in the dark about all of these concerns. Human physiology is both diverse and relatively the same. With some clarity about what we are talking about we can proceed with careful science, around specific substances and the range of responses they provoke with people depending on their prior state. We’re aided by our increasing understanding of how the brain works and the key role of certain connections and chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine.

In an ideal world I would like us to talk even more holistically about what affects our moods as well. Music, exercise, our environment, our body temperature, the company of friends are all influences on our mind and mood. In fact remembering that it’s our own bodies and brains that really produces a drugs effects should lead us to think of all inputs that affect what we produce in response as at least drug-like. Heroin only has any effect on us because of its effect on dopamine. Dopamine is therefore the real drug and laughter can give us doses of it as well.

Ultimately the question of our attitude to drugs is not a meaningful question. We should be asking instead “what is our attitude to our mind and mood?” How do we want to shape it, support it, agitate it, relax it and suffer it? A small part of that answer will be what usually gets called “drugs”, a larger part will be all substances (from chilli sauce to icecream) and the whole of it will be our life.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Are we evil? - A response to Paul Washer.


The above video shows a preacher, Paul Washer, responding to a young mans’ open query about the doctrine of election (transcript here) The doctrine of election is the belief some Christians have that people are chosen solely by God’s free will (from before their birth) to be made able to be true Christians and thus to be spared the fate of the rest of humanity, hell. In fact Paul Washers explanation takes a while to get to election specifically. He is almost entirely focused on describing the complete evil of humanity. That’s his take* on a connected doctrine called total depravity and it’s also what I want to focus on in this post.

When I watched this clip I was fascinated. I was fascinated because there are statements made in this video which are excruciatingly difficult to refute. That isn’t because they are supported by a mountain of evidence or any evidence. Instead they are hard to refute because although the video shows those statements being made and being agreed to they are the sorts of statements I can’t figure out the how of disagreeing or agreeing with them. They are not nonsense but neither are they proper conclusions.

We could call these statements “first principles”; original premises we simply have to accept or not. First principles frame our discussion but they themselves are virtually impossible to actually talk about. An example of a first principle in rationalism might be that “Truth is constant.” If one person accepts that and another doesn’t then their conversation is going to be deeply difficult. It’s the sort of statement that defines the frame of conversation rather than exists within it.

A greater concern than how can two people with different first principles communicate is a question for our selves alone; How can we decide to accept or not “first principles” if we can’t say anything about them?; Are we obliged to just choose randomly between frames of conversation?; Or can we have a means of choosing one over another?

All this philoso-waffle about these statements doesn’t remove from us the responsibility of responding to them. Here they are filmed being received by a young man. I feel a moral responsibility to have something to say to that young man myself. Repeatedly they are being led to confess in this video that humanity is evil. My instinctual desire is to protect this young man from these ideas. To know oneself as evil seems to me to be a very primal harm. At least I want him to know he is not being given clear and obvious “facts”. Can I justify myself?

The claim that humanity is evil is also being received by me in viewing the video. What do I do with it? Is there really no way to test this? If I reject it am I doing so arbitrarily? Where does my disagreement come from?

Is the statement “humanity is evil” actually uncriticisable?
Are we all evil? This is a bit like asking if E.T. is a terrible movie. On the one hand, of course it isn’t. I can’t think of anyone who would say it is all that bad. It’s a bit cheesy but as a kid’s film it’s definitely not Care Bears 2. However what exactly is a terrible movie? Imagine that a perfect children’s film exists in the ideal although it has never been actually made. If my standard of a decent film is that high then even E.T. becomes terrible.

Arguing over whether humans are evil stands on similar shifting sand. If we define evil as incapable of any goodness then it’s hard to say all humans are evil. Fred Hollows comes to mind. If we define evil by some higher standard ie. you are evil if you ever told a lie then probably not even Fred Hollows isn’t evil. If our intent is to say that all humans are evil then we can simply achieve that by claming that an ideal standard exists which is both just a measure of decentness and which no-one has achieved.

Furthermore what if the very nature of our evil is to not think we are evil! What if that pride alone is sufficient to be evil? This would put us in a neat Catch 22 situation; either we think we are evil or we are being evil. My own experience of evangelical Christianity included just such a scenario.

The problem with defining evil by any specific criteria is that evil is a moral word. Moral words don’t translate to IS statements so much as they translate to SHOULD statements. So although some of us might think that Evil is committing murder without remorse, or that Evil is having told a single lie, someone else could just as easily say Evil is not worshipping God or Evil is not thinking you are evil. We are only trading measures not true definitions. The only common definition that we could ever establish for evil is something like evil is what should be condemned and shouldn’t be praised.

What “should” does humanity’s evil refer to? And what that uncovers.

Paul Washer is very specific about the type of should he is talking about with human evil. Paul provides an explanation of humanity as the orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Sauruman makes orcs come out of the ground evil.** Aragon and the others slaughter those orcs “like insects” and this is always to be celebrated because those orcs are always evil. Paul says his listener’s problem with the doctrine of election is because he doesn’t think that people are truly evil. It follows that treating human destruction as anything less celebratory than the destruction of orcs is an error based on that. That’s what human evil means when Paul is talking about it; we should celebrate humanities destruction.

The problem with this definition is that “should” is a word with its own variety of meanings. Usually we use “should” to indicate chains of positive consequences with a moral end. A common moral end is the quality of life for intelligent beings, particularly humans, and even more particularly “innocent” humans.
Eg. You “shouldn’t” drive while drunk. It could lead to hitting a pedestrian. They could end up brain-damaged or dead.

(Note: Killing the pedestrian is given more moral weight than killing yourself who as the drink driver is not innocent. However killing yourself and thus bereaving your child who is innocent has a similar moral weight as it also involves an innocent.)

Paul Washers “evil” employs a very different type of should to the common use above. Firstly in Paul Washers scenario there are no innocents; All people are evil by nature and this makes all peoples welfare an unimportant moral end. Here Paul has conflated a general badness with non-innocence. This is something which we all do.
Eg. You “shouldn’t” drive while drunk past a wanton child abusers house. It could lead to hitting them. They could end up brain-damaged or dead. Actually who cares?

However it is also something which we are wary about doing. The wanton child abuser may be generally evil (as in the orc/human of Paul Washers theology) however they are not specifically responsible for the drink driving so in regard to this crime they are an innocent (ie. just a pedestrian). Maintaining the relevance of specific innocence is a key way to maintain moral actions. Losing that distinction can be the basis for committing terrible acts precisely because people lose their status as moral ends.
Eg. The people in the world trade towers may have shared in a (very) loose collective responsibility for the policies of the United States, also they were possibly consumers of pornography and no doubt late returners of library books. Only the first of those points and even then by a huge stretch could be said to make them non-innocents in regard to any terrorist attack – no matter how “evil” they were.

Paul Washer doesn’t just stop with the erosion of the category of specific innocence however. For Paul it is not even a tally of peoples unrelated crimes that make them deserving of any destruction but their very nature. This means that even people who have yet to earn their destruction, such as children, already warrant it. This is a moral reasoning that goes far beyond that of the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Towers. It is actually more akin to the rationale behind the Holocaust.

None of this necessarily shows us that Paul is wrong. It merely shows us the historical implications of referring to a group of people as “evil” (on the basis of a broad tally of their crimes or worse on the basis of their nature). In Paul Washers defence he is not talking about a Holocaust of Jews only, but of Jews and Germans and all people equally. All we can really say is that Paul Washer is saying that we should delight in the coming holocaust against all humanity by God. And that’s where we were at the beginning.

Although we’ve added very little, if anything, to our understanding, we have uncovered along the way a means of provoking our self to disagree with Paul. That is the reason why even the death of a drink driver in their own accident can’t be celebrated; our children. There were eight children killed on the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York. That’s a surprisingly low number given the total deaths. The youngest was two and a half. In the Holocaust 1.5 million children were killed. The circumstances of some of those deaths are what I would recognize as evil. The children however were not. They were innocents in the truest sense.

Another way of looking at morality.

By focusing on children we can recognize that there are two (amongst many) very different ways of looking at morality. Paul Washers use of “should” is a super-rational approach which imposes right and wrong over our instincts. If all are evil like Suaramon’s orcs then Aragon’s murder of them is to be enjoyed. That enjoyment is something Paul Washer encourages his young listener to identify with even though they are an orc (metaphorically speaking)! After all if something is right then it is right from all perspectives. Or rather if something is from Gods perspective then we should share it.

A very different way of looking at morality would notice that what is key to Tolkiens’ orcs is not that they come out of the ground universally evil but universally adult. There are no children orcs. If there were, then the adult orcs would need to look after them. That would create a dilemma because even if an adult is “evil” and their child is “evil” we would recognize the looking after the child by the adult as good. If we are orcs ourselves then we have such a moral responsibility to our children. This does not change if our children “are” evil in nature by any criteria ie. a propensity to lie or a taste for Hobbit flesh. We should never delight in their destruction. Essentially we should never see our children as evil (meaning that which we should condemn) even if they actually meet some objective measure of evil such as not wanting to worship God. Why? Because we should never condemn our children.

This second way of looking at morality doesn’t imbed it in a universal perspective but a parental perspective. The basis of morality is a tribal love of our children rather than a super structure of absolute truths. This is then universalized to others. Everyone is someone’s child and thus falls under a broadening umbrella of our love based on our sympathy with other parents.

This second way of looking at morality also presents us with a very different way of critiquing immorality. Immorality is not so much a matter of incorrect reasoning but of an incorrect intuitive, emotional and even physical response to a situation – such as a child’s destruction. No matter how sound a string of moral reasoning might be, if it contradicts a loving response to a child then the reasoning is itself immoral.

What I would say to the young man in the video.

I would encourage the young man to realize that what he has been told by Paul Washer should be forgotten if he ever holds a child, especially his own. The only definition of evil that we can all share is that evil is that which ought to be condemned. Paul takes that to mean the celebration of evils destruction. That child however is deserving of not being condemned, especially by their own father, not because of any innate meeting of good or bad criteria, but because of our right role as adults. Quite frankly if you aren’t prepared to feel that way then the rest of us are morally obliged to keep you away from children.

The very basis of morality is not our opinion about the opinions of a supreme being towards us. No matter how adamantly those opinions can be asserted (or how long ago they were written down even) this is clearly a shaky ground to stand on. The very basis of morality is our right response to our children, whether they are orcs or not.

*Paul Washers take on total depravity is not the same as everyone who uses that phrase. Paul Washers spends time on actually legitimising humanities destruction whereas others might merely mean total depravity as the human incapacity to know God or do good for the purposes of salvation. The two are connected but the latter leaves alone any actual justification for judgement. More importantly, Paul Washer is NOT representative of every Christian, many of whom do not even believe in any variation of total depravity.

 **If we take this metaphor to its logical conclusion, then God who supposedly created humans is Sauramon. I suspect that wasn't Paul Washers intent. As I mentioned in this old blog post if we are going to say humans are evil we have the problem of sourcing that evil in humans.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Beyond Logical Theology

Recently I published a post about intrinsic worth. What I put up on the blog was a severely abridged version of everything I wrote on that topic. The problem was that while writing that post this topic kept on trying to be written instead.

Logical argument is just a subset of communication. Communication in its broader sense permits an infinite range of positions - if we don’t have the right words we can make them up or use a tone or gesture to add nuance. Communication can play outside the rules of logic.
Three areas that logic struggles with are:
  • Nonsense or Absurdity
  • Ambivalence or Indifference
  • Moderation or the Middle ground.
Generally we praise logic for its exclusion of nonsense. It’s fair to say that nonsense can often look like a cogent argument and that logical thinking can help uncover that deception. I’m not certain excising nonsense and absurdity all the time is good. The benefit of nonsense is not making any concession to others from the personal goal and pleasure of speaking it. It has a place. However I think if we are going to employ absurdity then we should do so with full self-awareness. Then we won’t expect others to respond as if we have spoken in a common language. I’m very grateful that logical thinking works towards encouraging nonsense to show some restraint at least.

In my post on Moralising I hopefully showed how ambivalence or indifference is a valid position to take outside of logical argument. Logic proceeds from concern for an issue. Sometimes we ought not to be concerned. That’s a position that should be subject to criticism (even using logic) but there is still a time for saying that a question is unimportant or even silly rather than always answering it.

Moderation is something which is not entirely excluded by logical thinking. However logical thinking has a natural tendency to create extreme positions. If I can logically argue that X is right and Y is wrong then I am likely to be also saying X is very right and Y is completely wrong. The distinction between these positions (X is right and X is very right) is not easy for logical thinking to notice. The issue is usually one of a poverty of language that creates an either/or proposition when a richer palette of terms would allow lots of in between ideas.

It’s this lack of room for moderation that I want to explore in this post. In particular I want to look at a central theological position that I hold, how it usually argues with it’s opposite and how that logical argument creates a well of silence in which possibly most people fit somewhere in between. I’m a fan of “most people” and so while I like my own position best I hope I can throw up some ways this middle ground can be articulated better.

My own theology in a nutshell: The Attributes of God are more important than God.

I believe that the why of a person’s worship is much more important than the who of it. When Christians praise God they often will use words like loving, merciful and kind. My own view is that if you have found ultimate love, mercy and kindness in your God then you indeed should worship them. It would be odd if you didn’t. If I found those things there I would worship there too.

Similarly if I have found the greatest source of love, mercy and kindness somewhere else then I hope you would encourage me to my knees. So long as religious conversations remain in praise of love, mercy, and kindness I see reason for agreement far outweighing any differences. We can have reasonable arguments about whether one source or another is indeed loving, but we at least begin on the same page. We are essentially worshipping the same "things". In fact the tendency to discourage that agreement is a failing of the Gospels and the biggest reason why I’m not an unqualified fan of Christian philosophy.

Now even I can see I hold this position in its extremity. This came up when I had a chat with a Christian involved in a missional community. They made the fairly common statement about Jesus; “What matters about Jesus is whether or not the claims that he is God are true. If he was just some guy who said interesting things then that wouldn’t matter anywhere near as much.”

My reply was quite forcefully in disagreement. “Of course it matters more if what he said was interesting. If he is God but said nothing interesting then God is uninteresting and we shouldn’t bother with him. If however what Jesus said was interesting, if it genuinely would make a positive difference to our lives to listen to him, then whether or not he was God is neither here nor there.”

The opposite theology in a nutshell: Who are we to say if God is good enough?

There is a position which is directly contrary to my own. This position agrees that God is loving, merciful and kind; however those words are rendered meaningless (so the agreement is tokenistic). This is done by asserting one or both of the following;
  • We are so worthless and our suffering is so insignificant, or we are so indebted to God for everything, or we are so sinfully deserving of punishment, that anything at all that God does to us should be considering loving, merciful and kind. Even if God was to punish us for eternity we would be deserving of double punishment for double eternity so God is still being merciful in that case.
  • God is in fact the sole arbiter of what is loving, merciful and kind so we can use no standard beyond them to measure these attributes of God. In fact God is Love is not meant to describe God but to define love.
Both these assertions deny loving, mercy and kindness their common sense meaning. This raises the question of why worship God which can be answered in one of two ways in this theology. Firstly God’s power, in particular their enduring authorship over creation, is considered to be the basis for a natural authority. God’s will is supreme and thus to not worship it is really foolishness at a very basic level. Equally a natural gratitude is owed to our creator. There’s no perceived need to justify it further.

Secondly this question of why worship God can be pretty much rejected as nonsense. God is God and our being and theirs simply demands a relationship of worship. We are not able to even begin to evaluate God in terms of whether they should be worshipped. Even notions of gratitude are going to be ridiculously understated in our minds. In fact if we have any feeling other than complete awe (and personal shame) in the sight of God then we haven’t truly encountered them.

My view and the second view are fiercely opposed. They are so opposed that, without understanding their opposition, each particular view might not make sense to you. It is important for my view to bang on about separating God’s attributes from God precisely because I am arguing against the second view.  That view has combined God and their attributes to the extent that God could never be unloving (even if they drowned infants) and thus loving becomes an empty term. That’s a direct attack on my god.

Equally the second view needs to make a big deal out of the impossibility or inappropriateness of our judging God precisely because of my view being the end of that road. My view renders knowing anything specific about God secondary at best and completely irrelevant at worst because why we like God rather than God them self is what’s essential. Proponents of the second view consider that to be deeply tragic. They suspect that we will wander wildly off the mark of what is loving when we try to discern it, but also it is because they consider the who of worship to be the most relevant aspect for its own sake.

Stuck in the middle; Maintaining a relationship.

Just as these two views make sense of each other, from their black and white perspectives what is neither one nor the other can vanish from sight. It’s like two mountain peaks that can’t see the vast terrain between them for the clouds. Yet most people seem to occupy some part of that middle ground.

Rabbinical Judaism is all about arguing with their text. The most common belief is that no one interpretation can ever be definitive. The story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel is sometimes used to represent this. Further, this conflict is meant to be governed by a compassionate heart over and above a literal reading. Despite this a Rabbi does not put down the Torah and pick up the Koran with the same reference. They may worship God only with the right attitude but they are still monotheistically and historically particular about the revelation of God they worship.

Similarly my partner’s brother recently visited us. He is a church-attending Christian. Yet he felt great affinity with a non-theistic guest who shared with him the importance of acting ethically above all else. He stated he often experiences such affinity. However he also involves himself in small groups with other Christians with whom he reads the bible for guidance. He is loyal to the particular way of inspiring his ethics that being a follower of Jesus offers him. But he definitely feels a connection between himself and atheists who also want to make the world a better place.

When I try and articulate this middle ground I think of “relationship” as being the best word to describe it. It’s a bit like my own relationship with my partner. I want her to be with me for the right reasons. That’s deeply important. If she was with me but for any reason or none it would be completely wrong. However I also don’t want her to just be with anyone for those same reasons. I want her to be with me for those reasons.

In my view and it’s opposite you need to decide which is more important, the attributes of God or God themselves. Then you evaluate one with the other. In a relationship however you don’t begin with a list of ideal partner traits and then find the person who suits. However neither do you find a partner and consider ideal whatever traits they have. Instead you work things out as you go along. You wrestle with each other. You have some deal breakers but you compromise stuff you mightn’t have expected you would. It’s messy.

I’m not sure I’m nailing this here. That’s to be expected given my own stance. I have my theological position and I like it. I’m not aiming to change it. The diametrically opposed position is one I am comfortable railing against too. That makes this middle ground difficult to see let alone articulate. I’m just aware that it is there and populated by a great many people I admire.

Uncovering the middle ground in philosophy requires more than just logic. It requires a willingness to hear new languages and that requires listening beyond what my own language can describe - just like a relationship.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Questions of Intrinsic Worth.

What does it mean to say that something has intrinsic worth? Intrinsic means “from itself”. The Merriam Webster describes it as; “belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing” They then go on to give two examples; “the intrinsic worth of a gem” and “the intrinsic brightness of a star”.

These examples show us how fraught with difficulty it is to say exactly what intrinsic means. A ruby for example has a great worth given to it by human economies. A magpie would cherish a sapphire for its glamour. However a cow would nudge a diamond to one side for a lovely tusk of grass. What gives a gem its worth is not its essential nature or constitution but the value people (and some birds) give it. This is the very definition of an extrinsic not intrinsic value. It comes from “outside” the nature of something.

A star’s brightness is perhaps a stronger example of an intrinsic quality. If we compare a star to a moon whose light is reflected then we would say that it is the star itself causing the brightness. I would consider that a conditionally legitimate use of the word intrinsic. Adjectives are comparative after all. (A mouse is not really “small” it is small in comparison to something else). A star’s brightness is intrinsic compared to a moon’s brightness. That’s probably also the sense in which you could say a gems value is intrinsic. It’s more intrinsic that a single countries dollar bill is (which more clearly draws its worth from its society).

However neither the star’s brightness nor a gem’s value is absolutely intrinsic. Just like the gem’s value being related to our economy, the brightness of a star is related to our eyesight. To a mole even reflected sunlight is brutally bright. To a rock this whole conversation is meaningless (or at least it certainly seems to be). Only to an average human’s eye is a star “bright”. Furthermore a star is bright only in the night sky. In the day the stars are relatively dim, unable to stand out against a blue sky. What gives a star brightness could be said to be a great many things beside its own essential nature.

Whether any quality at all is absolutely intrinsic has become a matter of some uncertainty for western cultures. We live in an age of physical relativism. Our scientific picture of the cosmos give weight, motion and even time as much permanent meaning as the words up and down have in outer space. Maybe we will be able to retain certain constants (like the speed of light) or maybe even they will be discovered to be floating values in relationship to others. It’s worth noting that the latter possibility wouldn’t floor a modern high school physics student in a way it would have perplexed and astonished an 18th century scholar or for that matter a citizen of first century Rome. We take relativity for granted nowadays. We have adjusted to it like a Himalayan Sherpa has to great heights or an outback resident accepts an open sky. The vertigo that once would have been common when pondering a relativist universe is an increasingly foreign, increasingly retrograde condition.

“Worth” is a moral description not a physical one. It is essentially a word that tells us the esteem we should afford something or the value we should give it. As such it lies outside the province of the natural sciences. Physics can’t tell us whether or not we morally should do anything let alone how that relates to intrinsic worth. However physical relativism and cultural relativism are still co-operative philosophies. The notion that intrinsic worth (or meaning) can’t be located anywhere is called existential nihilism and its expansion post Einstein suggest a relationship between this and the movement away from intrinsic physical properties.

There’s nothing new here. Our physical models of the universe have always shaped and been shaped by how we understand non-physical “objects” like worth. They are part of one and the same world view. Eastern thought particularly such as in India, China and Japan has tended to have both a relativist model of ethics and a relativist model of physical reality. There is a greater emphasis on pragmatism and consensus and a lesser expectation of knowing the truth of our moral claims throughout Asian philosophy.

In the West however, despite our movement in this Eastern direction, two words I have used are ones which still tend to be viewed negatively. Relativism and nihilism are sometimes treated as almost interchangeable with cultural disaster/collapse/paralysis. There is a circulating view that both relativism and nihilism leave us powerless to critique evil like the Holocaust for example. Only by finding intrinsic worth in something like human flourishing, familial love or personal dignity can we stand against the phenomenon of the Holocaust and call it for what it is.

I’m critical of that conclusion. I recognize it exists in that people feel that a relativist and nihilistic cosmology does constrain their ability to name injustice. They feel their moral claims must have grounding in the perspective of the universe itself or be purely arbitrary. However I think they are mistaken. I think they have confused what is reality, with what policy we should take towards what is reality. To explain;

There really is no up or down in space. As the earth is in space there is similarly no up or down on earth. However if you are running out of breath underwater you hopefully know to impose an “up” on the situation and swim in that direction.  The “up” doesn’t belong to the essential nature of the world. It’s not intrinsic. Sometimes we say then that it mustn’t be objective, it must be subjective. We assume it belongs to our “mind”; we must have thought “up” up. Following that thinking it’s easy to start drawing a picture of the world in which nothing has any reality. All we have is minds making up subjective realities. In such a picture perhaps even the wrongness of the Holocaust becomes impossible to express, just as impossible as distinguishing between true up or down. Maybe even the events of the Holocaust become a matter of mind along this line of thinking. However we have made a mistake. We have reduced extrinsic meaning to opinion when it is more than that.

Rather than seeing our choice between absolute objective and subjective reality we can express our situation differently. “Up” when we are drowning comes not only from “mind” but from our need to breathe, an objective condition of our continuing subjectivity. “Up” when drowning is certainly not just one possible idea of a hypothetical brain in a jar. It’s a product of the conditions of our existence and our longing colliding. Yes, without us there is no “Up” but without our desire to live, our inability to breathe water and the gravity of our planet, there’s no up either.

We need to remember we are both in this world and we have an interest in this world. We are policy creatures. It’s what we do. It is our humanity to make policy – call a spade a good or bad spade - to swim up rather than in any direction when we’re drowning. Policy isn’t just our free opinion; it’s our mediation with reality. But this is also to say it’s not reality either. Our policies are not likely to be shared by the universe. For example, the universe doesn’t share our attitude to the Holocaust; raining and shining sunshine on good and evil alike is its bag – but not ours. The idea that we and the universe are supposed to share attitudes is a fallacy of comparison. We can recognize relativity as an aspect of the universe (there is no “up”) but separately make policy based on privileging a particular non-relative perspective (swim “up” when drowning). We are different to the universe in total.

In fact I would go so far as to say that there is a refusal of our humanity and paradoxically the way of the universe itself when we simply try and live according to the way of the universe in total. The universe seems to me to be purely indifferent and being similarly minded may protect me from being out of sorts with it. I am however a specific part of the universe that is particular – that loves and that is appalled by genocide. Asking myself to switch that off is opposed to what my part in the universe is. I might as well ask a rock to notice a star.

This is essentially what I would hope to have the bravery or perhaps even the insanity to do with my life. Just be myself in this universe. I can recognise that much of the universe (For example rocks or the universe as a totality) has no moral stance on the Holocaust, anymore than it contains genuinely valuable gems or actually bright stars. I oughtn’t see that as the best truth for myself however. I have a human life to live.