Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Imaginary Amazon Review

Occasionally I visit the Amazon website for my book to see how it’s doing and to read any new reader reviews that have been posted. The other day, when I checked the site, I noticed two things. First of all, there was a new review up (by someone named “Marco”) that accused me (once again) of simply sidestepping the challenges of the New Atheists by “redefining” religion. Here's how Marco puts it:
Unfortunately in responding to the New Atheists, Reitan followed the
standard strategy of first re-defining religion so that it no longer matches the
target that the New Atheists attack, then defending the re-defined religion, and
then finally claiming that since re-defined religion is so easily defended, that
the New Atheists are therefore wrong.

The other thing I noticed was that an older negative review, which makes a similar argument to Marco's—written by someone pseudonymously named “Greywizard”—had now risen to the top as the “most helpful” review.

A word about this older review. “Greywizard” is a frequenter of Richard Dawkins’ website. I know this because he posted a comment on the page there devoted to attacking my book. (On the Dawkins site, books critical of The God Delusion are called “fleas,” and whenever a new “flea” is discovered, a discussion threat about it is created on the site). Greywizard was one of the more measured voices in the discussion thread. He chastised those who were engaged in raucous name-calling and knee-jerk dismissals of my book based on PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply."

He then pointed out what to me is pretty obvious--that making fun of a book they hadn’t read wasn’t enough. While noting that not every critique of the New Atheists called for a rebuttal, Greywizard maintained that with respect to the more measured replies, “if no response is made, the theists will be in firm possession of the high ground when the dust of battle has cleared.” He went on to stress that there were “strategic considerations here regarding the image that atheism will leave if it keeps repeating the mantra that religion can have nothing to say.” That is to say, it’s good strategy in the war against religion to know which enemies to attack, and then to attack them in an intellectually rigorous way.

A few days later (about a week after his comments appeared on the Dawkins site), Greywizard’s negative review appeared on the website of virtually every major online distributor of my book. Apparently, he’d read my book very quickly, and then felt the need to post a scathing review as promptly as he could and as widely as he could.

When I first read that review I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a nicely packaged and authoritatively written bit of confusion paired with a dollop of fallacious reasoning.” And then I went on with my day.

But now this review has come to be ranked as the top review on the Amazon site.

Seeing this, I found myself suddenly, uncharacteristically mad. How in the world could such an obviously erroneous critique of my book be viewed as “helpful”? Of course, part of the problem is that the people who find it helpful haven’t read the book, let alone read it carefully enough to see where Greywizard goes wrong. They haven’t read the book because they haven’t decided whether to buy it yet…a decision that will be made in part by reading reviews such as Greywizard’s.

I suspect that one reason I got mad was because I want people to buy my book and think about the arguments there, and Greywizard’s review might discourage some of the very people who would most benefit from those arguments.

But the bigger issue is just the frustration of it. The other day a student dropped by after having read my book, and he raised the same confused objection that Marco and Greywizard raise. It took me two minutes to explain where and why this objection goes wrong. The student saw clearly that it was based on a misreading and thus could focus on the real philosophical controversies. What followed was a lively discussion about issues that really matter.

The frustration is this: it would be easy for me to explain to everyone who’s reading Marco’s and Greywizard’s reviews where they go wrong, and so set aside a red herring that only gets in the way of wrestling with the deeper issues and controversies. But to do that—to make sure that readers of these reviews are also exposed to a lucid explanation of how and why these reviewers are confused—I’d need to post my response on the Amazon site, either as a comment on the review (which probably wouldn’t be read) or, more likely, as a “response review” of the sort that some people post on Amazon. But to do either of those things with respect to my own book would be bad form, to say the least.

Then I imagined writing such a review and posting it anonymously—even worse form, and something I’d never actually do. But I wrote it anyway—a third-person review in response to Marco and Greywizard—just as a cathartic exercise. And while I can’t legitimately post it on the Amazon site, I can post it here. So here it is:

Marco and Greywizard are Confused: An Imaginary Amazon Review

It is surprising to me how many reviewers of Reitan’s book critique it by saying, in effect, that he redefines religion so that the term no longer refers to what the New Atheists are attacking. The fact is that Reitan is quite clear from the very start of his book that “religion” is a term that encompasses a range of phenomena, and his problem with the New Atheists is that they attack one species of religion and then apply their conclusions to religion generally.

Dawkins, for example, says up front (on page 36 of
The God Delusion) that he isn’t interested in refuting just one “particular version of God or gods.” He wants to refute “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” One couldn’t get much more sweeping than that. In response, Reitan sets out to show that Dawkins’ arguments do NOT succeed in refuting the existence of “anything and everything supernatural” and so do not succeed in doing what Dawkins sets out explicitly to do. This is not “talking past” Dawkins as Marco claims.

Furthermore, what Reitan ends up defending isn’t religion “redefined.” It is one kind of religion among a range of options. It may not be the most popular kind, but it exists—in progressive Christian churches, liberal Jewish congregations, Quaker meetings, etc. Reitan’s point is that the New Atheists think their criticisms apply to religion generally, when in fact their criticisms apply only to religion in certain forms.

For example, one of the arguments made by both Sam Harris and Dawkins is that “moderate religion” is complicit in the moral crimes of religious extremists because it teaches that blind faith without regard for reason is a virtue. In this way they try to implicate ALL religion in the moral horrors perpetrated by, for example, the 9/11 terrorists. Both Dawkins and Harris are plain about this. As Dawkins puts it, “The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism” (
The God Delusion, p. 306). “Religion itself” is, according to Dawkins, the problem.

Reitan takes this argument head-on by arguing that not all “moderate religion” teaches that blind faith is a virtue. He then goes on to offer an understanding of “faith” that can actually serve as a basis for condemning the actions of extremists. That Reitan’s critics ignore this says more about the selective ideological lens through which they seem to be reading the book than about the weaknesses of Reitan’s arguments.

At one point in his review, Greywizard makes his criticism in the following way:

At the end of his book, after redefining religion, Reitan says that "It's now
time to directly consider whether religion IN THIS SENSE 'poisons everything'."
(209; my emphasis) However, this is clearly not a response to Hitchens, because
Hitchens didn't have 'this sense' in mind at all.

Reitan would surely agree that Hitchens didn’t have “this sense” of religion in mind. That, for Reitan, is precisely the problem. Hitchens seems utterly blind to the existence of the kind of religion that Reitan thinks is intellectually respectable and morally benign. And so Hitchens concludes that RELIGION—not fundamentalism, not exclusivist religion, but RELIGION—poisons everything. To show that Hitchens is wrong, one needn’t defend the intellectual and moral credentials of the kind of religion he’s aware of and specifically attacks. One need merely show that there is a kind of religion that isn’t touched by those attacks. Hitchens’ problem is that he’s making a sweeping dismissal of religion as such, based on arguments that just don’t touch at least one important kind of religion—the kind that Reitan wants to call attention to and endorse.

The critics of Reitan would be right if the New Atheists were saying basically this: “We don’t think all religion is bad and we certainly don’t think it is unreasonable or morally bad to believe in the existence of a God defined as the fulfillment of our ‘ethico-religious hope’ (which is how Reitan defines God); but we do think that religious fundamentalism is bad, and we do think that it is unreasonable and wrong to believe in a God who is a big tyrant in the sky.”

But that’s simply not what the New Athiests are saying. They are saying that religion is bad and belief in God is irrational and wrong. Reitan sets out to show that there is a kind of religion that isn’t bad and a species of belief in God that can be rationally defended and may be morally beneficial. If Reitan is right, then he hasn’t committed some fallacy. He’s refuted the New Atheists.

But to be fair, Greywizard offers a follow-up argument to the effect that the kind of religion Reitan seeks to defend just isn’t a
significant kind. He calls it a “shadow religion” that couldn’t exist except by hanging onto the “coat-tails” of the sort of religion that the New Atheists attack.

His first point is that “most religion is not as Reitan describes it, a matter of belief that the universe trends towards the good, and that faith is a matter of trusting in the religious-ethical hope that all the evils and harms of existence will be redeemed by the infinite personal spirit whose essence is love.”

Maybe not. But this is a pretty good description of the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a rather significant social movement in the 1960’s based on this kind of religion. I suppose if you think the civil rights movement is a trivial historical event, then you’re likely to dismiss as insignificant the religiosity that inspired it. But I happen to think the civil rights movement was one of the most significant events of the 20th Century.

But, again to be fair, Greywizard is not merely saying that “Reitan’s religion” isn’t significant in its impact on human life. He’s saying that it can’t survive without “piggy-backing” on the kind of religion that the New Atheists attack. In other words, he thinks that Martin Luther King’s kind of religiosity—the spiritual vision that inspired his rhetoric and rallied the southern black community behind an astonishing nonviolent campaign—could not exist except as a
parasite hanging onto the religiosity of, say, Pat Robertson.

Unfortunately, Greywizard offers little in the way of supporting arguments for this view. At best, he makes a series of undefended pronouncements about the way that religion HAS to work in order to survive: It HAS to offer certainty and exclusive ideologies; it HAS to establish us-them dichotomies. That is, if a religion is to endure over time, it HAS to be the kind of religion that the New Atheists attack. But, at least in the review, Greywizard offers no reasons to think this is true.

Perhaps, however, Greywizard is gesturing towards the sociological understanding of religion offered by the likes of Durkheim and Marx. If so, then Greywizard has conveniently ignored the final section of Reitan’s book in which Reitan addresses Durkheimian religion explicitly. To put the point bluntly, Greywizard is begging the question against the kind of religion Reitan is endorsing by assuming that religion is essentially a social phenomenon that exists and survives by virtue of the social functions it serves.

While there is no doubt that religion of this sort—religion that is fundamentally a social construct—exists, Reitan’s point is that there is also a religion of another sort—one that has its origins not in social forces which dictate the structure of religious institutions and the content of religious teachings, but rather in the immediate experience of something transcendent (an experience which often challenges the dictates of these very social forces).

In saying that the sort of religion which has its origins in such numinous experience cannot survive apart from the religion attacked by the New Atheists, Greywizard is assuming, among other things, that numinous religious experience is NOT an experiential encounter with the transcendent creator. Because if it were, then its survival would depend on God, not on the cultural forces that determine which social institutions survive and which don’t. Put simply, Greywizard is assuming that there is no kind of religion that exists as a response to the divine impressing itself on human life and consciousness. He is assuming that religion is
always nothing more than a social construct whose survival depends on a cultural analogue to natural selection. In short, he is assuming that there is no God and then critiquing Reitan’s book with this assumption firmly in place.

There’s a name for that kind of thing. It’s called begging the question.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Divine Mystery and Divine Goodness

In a comment on my previous post, “Gods of the Imagination,” Speaker for the Dead raised an important issue: if one takes God to be entirely outside the sphere of rational conceptualization, we’re afforded no basis for being critical of claims that are made about God.

Consider hellists—by which I mean those who think that God consigns some of the creatures He loves to an eternity of excruciating torment, torment that does them absolutely no good. While some hellists seek to offer a “theodicy” of hell—that is, an account of why such divine activity is compatible with the goodness of God—others retreat behind the cloak of divine mystery. They point out that God’s ways are not our ways, that divine goodness transcends our comprehension, and that it is therefore simply presumptuous for anyone to question the (supposedly clear) biblical teaching that God expresses his perfect goodness in part by subjecting some creatures to unremitting anguish more extreme than we can possibly fathom.

And the same strategy is, of course, available to anyone who wants to reconcile God’s goodness with their pet views, no matter how horrific: In some mysterious and inexplicable way, God’s perfect benevolence is compatible with commanding genocide, or endorsing the patriarchal subordination of women (or the social marginalization of gays and lesbians), or calling for a terrorist strike on the Twin Towers, etc.

In short, if we shroud God in total mystery, the claim the God is good becomes compatible with any motives or behaviors or commandments we might possibly attribute to God. But if that is right, what are we saying when we say God is good? If saying this about God is compatible with asserting simply anything else about God--if nothing is either implied or excluded when we say it--are we really saying anything at all?

This is an important concern, and one that becomes very real if we fail to make some crucial distinctions. While I think it is important to stress that God is, in many ways, a transcendent mystery, it should be clear to all who have read my work that I do not want to cloak the divine in such a shroud of mystery that “anything goes” in what we attribute to God.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean when I say that the God who is the proper object of religious devotion defies the imagination. When I speak of the imagination, I mean that faculty which takes concepts and ideas derived from empirical experience—from our engagement with the physical world of matter and energy—and recombines them in ways not seen in empirical experience, producing “pictures” of possible states of affairs and entities that we have never actually encountered in experience.

Using this faculty of imagination, we can come up with sea serpents and unicorns and screaming banshees—things we have never experienced, but which are, in a sense, possible objects of experience insofar as they are made up of more basic elements which we have experienced. Any God constructed in this way would be a spatio-temporal God, a God who is a part of the physical world and a possible object of scientific study. Zeus and Odin are examples.

When I say that God defies imagination, I mean that the kind of entity I refer to with the term “God” is not something that can be depicted imaginatively in this way. More significantly, if the numinous experience which seems to be at the foundation of so much religious life cannot be adequately described in terms derived from empirical experience, it follows that the object of such experience cannot be a construct of the empirical imagination. Why? Because the empirical imagination lacks the building blocks to construct an experience of that.

In this sense, there is an enormous difference between someone who claims to have encountered a pink elephant in the kitchen or a golden dragon in the woods, and someone who claims to have encountered God in the way that mystics claims to have encountered God.

But if no God-concept constructed by the imagination will track onto the object of numinous experience, on what basis is the mystic even justified in using the term “God” to name the object of that experience? The answer comes when we admit that there are non-empirical concepts, and that the mystic’s understanding of God is primarily in terms of such concepts (even if the mystic's experience of God exceeds this understanding).

Although Hume would deny this (insofar as he insisted that all concepts are empirically derived), I am convinced that there is a difference between saying that God cannot be conceptualized at all and saying that God defies imagination. One of the points I made in the previous post, but failed to elaborate on, is that I believe in non-empirical concepts and that “goodness” is one such concept. This point, I think, is crucial for avoiding the kind of “anything goes” approach to theism that Speaker for the Dead is worried about.

As anyone who has read my book will tell you, I define God primarily in moral terms—as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope,” that is, the hope that the universe is in some ultimate or fundamental way on the side of the good. The object of Simone Weil’s experience can justifiably be called “God,” on this definition, because among other things it is experienced to be fundamental (a non-empirical concept, I think) and good (another non-empirical concept).

I want to focus my comments here on the latter: goodness. Goodness is not the object of ordinary empirical experience (no scientific instrument can measure it), but seems rather to be a concept we have from some other source and bring to bear on the objects of empirical experience—a fact which has led some to treat it as nothing more than a projection of psychological preferences (more about this in a moment). Put another way, although we recognize a good act and are prepared to call it good, goodness isn't some feature of the act that we see or smell or taste or touch (or detect through sophisticates scientific equipment). So if it's an actual property of the act, it's not an empirical one, and our concept of it isn't derived from empirical observation.

But I want to endorse the idea that “goodness” is and actual, objective property of things, even if it's not an empirical one. It is true of a certain action that it is good, even though this goodness is not reducible to any empirical fact about it.

That the latter is true is clear enough. A scientist could exhaustively study all the empirical properties associated with my son’s act of giving the entire contents of his piggy bank to the Salvation Army bell ringer outside Walmart (it was his idea to do this, by the way)—but the goodness of the act would not be included in the description.

Logical positivists, of course, conclude on the basis of this that “goodness” is nothing but a projection of our attitudes onto the field of experience. Based on their prior commitment to the view that all objective properties are empirical, they’re forced to subjectivize the wickedness of child rape and the goodness of a generous gesture. These things aren’t real features of the acts in question, but just attitudinal responses to them. The effect, in my judgment, is that logical positivists are forced to impose on moral claims a meaning that is entirely at odds with what actual people actually mean to say when they use moral language.

I can only sketch out my reasoning here, but a sketch is better than nothing, so here goes: When we say that child-rape is evil, we’re not merely expressing out attitude of disapproval. We mean to be saying something about child-rape, something that is true of it. And when we say this, our utterance is intended to imply that any who deny the wrongness of child-rape are failing to recognize something that is true of it. In short, when we call something “good” or “bad,” we mean to attribute to that something a property which (we think) it actually possesses--but a non-empirical property.

The ethical subjectivism of logical positivists does not permit us to do so. As such, this subjectivism implies that when we make claims to the effect that child-rape possesses this property of wrongness, we are attributing to child-rape a property that nothing can possess, since there are no non-empirical properties and wrongness is clearly not an empirical one. In other words, ethical subjectivists are really saying that all moral utterances are false, at least when these utterances are given the meaning that we intend them to have when we use moral language in the ordinary way.

Put more simply, ethical subjectivism is really moral nihilism in disguise. It claims to offer an account of morality (to the effect that it's nothing but a projection of our attitudes); but this account attaches to our moral utterances a meaning at odds with what we intend when we make such utterances, and denies that what we do intend to say can ever be truthfully said. Sounds like nihilism to me.

Notice that universalizing subjective dispositions does not solve this problem. If all of us happen to have the same subjective reaction to child rape, this is a collective fact about us, not a property of child rape. And so, universal horror at child rape is not the same as child rape having the property of being wrong. The latter would entail that horror is fitting, not merely a fact. What would make horror fitting is that child-rape possesses the (non-empirical) property of being morally horrible. And if it has that property, then horror is fitting whether it’s universally felt or not. And we are justified in condemning the attitudes of those who fail to feel horror.

(I should point out here in passing that one of the big problems with Dawkins’ effort to ground morality in evolutionary theory is the fact that all he can do is show how natural selection might generate a general disposition to feel horror at child-rape. Evolutionary theory cannot show why it is true that child-rape is horrible, and hence why it is true that evolution in this case has generated in us responses which fit with morality).

To avoid moral nihilism, I'm convinced we must treat goodness as a non-empirical property. In fact, I would go further (although I cannot make the case for this here) and say that we need to adopt a metaphysics according to which the good has a foundation in reality that is not reducible to any set of empirical facts. But if we do so, then our grasp of goodness cannot be somehow derived from our engagement with the empirical world, but will be something drawn from something that "transcends" the field of empirical experience (even if it may very well be part of the same reality that we encounter in empirical experience).

Put simply, our concept of the good will be drawn from a “transcendent” source--in the technical sense according to which “transcendent” refers to empirically inaccessible dimensions of reality, that is, dimensions of things-as-they-are-in-themselves that we cannot see, hear, smell, or taste, but which remain real. And if our concept of the good is to have such a source, it must be the case that we, as moral beings, are somehow in touch with this transcendent source from which the concept of goodness immediately derives, even if our connection to it is not empirical.

And so, to say that God defies imagining (to say that any construct of the empirically derived imagination will not map onto God) is not to say that our concept of the good cannot be invoked to assess claims about God. Because our concept of the good might apply to God even if no empirical concept does.

The concept to which Weil refers when she uses the term “God” is not one constructed from empirically derived concepts but is, rather, the object of an experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized…except in this crucial respect: there is a pure, unvarnished sense of goodness that attaches to the otherwise ineffable object of experience.

Of course, the sense of goodness isn’t the whole story. There is also the sense (well-documented by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience) that the experience is of something vastly more real or “fundamental” than what we encounter in ordinary empirical experience, as if we have seen past the surface of things and are in direct touch with the source of reality. In any event, it is these features of the experience—the conformity of it to these non-empirical concepts—which justifies the appellation “God.” We have the immediate sense of our relatedness to something fundamental and good, and so the immediate sense that our ethico-religious hope is indeed fulfilled.

By contrast, were the object of experience every bit as ineffable but shrouded in an aura of malevolence, the mystic wouldn’t be justified in calling it God--because this wouldn't be an experience of encountering something whose existence fulfills the ethico-religious hope.

My own view here is that our ordinary moral sense is the immediate intellectual appropriation of the transcendent insofar as it has implications for how we engage with the empirical world, whereas numinous experience is “the immediate awareness of an existential relation” (to quote Schleiermacher) with that same transcendent. Moral sense and numinous religious experience are thus different ways of relating to the same thing. And I think that both the substance of numinous experience and its pragmatic effects in terms of character transformation support this view. While goodness isn't something we can see, hear, smell, or touch, in mystical moments we seem to do something very like this: goodness seems to become the direct object of experience in something like the way that blueness is the direct object of a visual experience of the sky.

The result of all of this is that even though God is unimaginable in the sense of being impossible to reconstruct in terms of empirically-derived concepts, moral concepts can be properly (if fallibly) attributed to God—in fact, it is these moral concepts that provide the conceptual parameters for what counts as “God” in the first place. The reason why Weil is justified in calling the object of her experience “God” is precisely because, despite being ineffable, despite defying all attempts to define it in terms of empirically-derived concepts, it is experienced as good in a profound way. Empirically-derived concepts don’t fit with the experience except in metaphoric or poetic terms…but the concept of “goodness” not only fits the experience but is enlivened by it. It’s as if numinous experience deepens our understanding of the good.

A being that is said to behave in ways radically at odds with the good is, therefore, a being that falls outside the conceptual parameters for what counts as “God.” And our conceptual grasp of the good is not to be dismissed as inapplicable to God in the way that empirical concepts are to be dismissed. Rather, we should presumptively trust our moral sense (or at least its clearest and deepest urgings) when it comes to claims about the transcendent.

As such, we should presumptively trust that if a claim about God flies in the face of the clearest and most vivid urgings of our moral sense, this claim should be rejected. In other words, moral concerns pertaining to religious doctrine cannot be dismissed by a hand-waving invocation of mystery.

It is for this reason, by the way, that I think the problem of evil poses the most substantial challenge to theism and must be wrestled with seriously by theists. While it is not impertinent to note that God may have morally good reasons for allowing evils, reasons which are inaccessible to us, I believe that more than this is called for in response to the reality of evil. Theists cannot ignore the project of attempting to account for why a good God would permit evil—what is called the project of “theodicy.”

But neither does the legitimacy of theistic belief hinge upon a fully adequate theodicy that completely explains why God permits every evil that there is. What the credibility of theism requires, I think, is that the project of theodicy offers a framework within which it makes sense to say that God is not on the side of the evil found in the world despite God’s unique relation to the world as its creative principle. My problem with the classical doctrine of hell is that it attributes something to God that my moral sense finds repugnant. Likewise, if it were maintained that God endorsed the Holocaust or regarded its occurence as ultimately a good thing, my moral sense would revolt. As such, my moral sense revolts against certain theodicies because they attribute to God horrific motivations and intentions.

There is a difference between doing that and attributing to God nothing but motivations and intentions in keeping with my deepest and most stable moral sense of good and evil, but then puzzling over why, if such a being is the fundamental reality, there is so much evil in the world of a sort that would horrify such a being. It seems to me that a crucial part of the task of theodicy is to listen to our moral sense in these things, and to reject any account of why God permits evil which makes horrors out to be anything less than horrors.

The crucial question then becomes this: Can one reasonably believe that the most fundamental reality is on the side of goodness given that there really are genuine horrors in the world, monstrous evils that would make any being on the side of goodness weep? If there is a God who is on the side of goodness, why wouldn’t He act? Why wouldn’t such a God stop these horrors? That is the anguished cry that demands an answer.

Theists cannot hide from that cry. They must, instead, honor it. The deep question is how best to do so. While some atheists will glibly say, “You honor it by abandoning belief in God,” the problem with that response is that the very same anguished voice that cries out for an explanation also cries out for redemption. And the atheist’s response takes the hope of redemption off the table.

I do not think that the human experience, taken as a whole, either forces such a move or is best made sense of in terms of a worldview in which the hope of redemption is lost. And while I think much of the answer to the anguished cry—“Why, God? Why?”—will inevitably be shrouded in mystery, the mystery does not extend to whether genocidal campaigns are really evil. They are. And so, even if it remains a mystery why God is prevented from acting, given the horrors in the world we must believe in a God that weeps.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gods of the Imagination

In a recent post over on Miss Atomic Bomb, nuclear.kelly offers reflections on the doctrine of hell in which she refers to a passage from Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, a passage in which Huxley bemoans “the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world.”

One reader of her post quickly retorts with the following: “Sorry, but these are one and the same—all gods, headed or not, arise from our imaginations, whether positive of negative. I agree that trying to make sense of these constructions in any logical, physical way leads us grievously astray. But that is simply a comment on the overall concept, which can not be reconciled with any sensible system.”

This exchange got me thinking about gods of the imagination, and I was promptly reminded of some of Simone Weil’s comments in Gravity and Grace, in which she sees atheism as “a purification” insofar as it cast off gods of the imagination, and hence makes it possible for us to experience that which cannot be imagined.

Weil is not a fan of the imagination. She says, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” She calls it “essentially a liar.” What has value, for Weil, is the immediate experience of a God who cannot be imagined. And we can experience that God only if we make a space within us into which a transcendent reality might flow. But our imagination keeps filling up these spaces.

So how do we distinguish between gods of the imagination and the experience of “the true God” (if there is such a thing)? For Weil, making this distinction is a matter of rejecting all gods that we can imagine, but being open to the experience of loving relatedness to that which defies imagining. And so Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Nuclear.kelly’s (and Huxley’s) call for resisting “the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed…from eternity” appears to be of the same sort as Weil’s: an insistence that true religious consciousness needs to reach beyond the limits of our empirically-defined imaginations, to adopt a posture of openness to that which transcends our ordinary concepts. And nuclear.kelly’s critic responds with a quick dismissal of that call, a dismissal premised on the assumption that there simply is nothing beyond these limits, or at least nothing that could justify the appellation “God.”

Both agree that there is something seriously wrong with gods of the imagination. The question is whether it is even possible for religion to be a response to anything other than a god of the imagination.

Here, it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the empirical philosophy of David Hume. Hume pointed out that our imagination—at least in the most common sense of that term—is bounded by empirical experience. In other words, what we imagine is always a construct built up from elements derived from experience. The one-eyed purple monster with razor teeth and antlers and weeping pustules all over its body is not itself an object of experience, but each element of which it is made is derived from experience.

Empirical experience is always temporal and spatial. As such, any construct of the imagination is bounded by space and time. In other words, no construct of the imagination can be what orthodox Christianity takes God to be: eternal, self-existent, infinite. These are not spatio-temporal properties, but the properties of that which transcends the limits of space and time.

To believe in God in this sense is therefore to think that there is something which defies imagining. No construct of the imagination can correspond with God, and so any such construct is a false God. When one begins to make such an imagined construct the object of one’s devotion, one has become an idolater.

But to say that God cannot be imagined is not to say that God cannot be thought or conceptualized in any way. It is, rather, to say that God cannot be univocally conceptualized through depiction. If God is conceptualized at all, it will be in terms of non-empirical concepts.

Where Hume went seriously wrong, in my judgment, is in denying the existence of such non-empirical concepts. In so doing, he set the stage for logical positivism and its various spiritual children. (My reasons for opposing Hume and the logical positivists on this point are sketched out in an earlier post).

In any event, if there are non-empirical concepts (and I think the concept of “goodness” is one), then there may be ways to conceptualize God without being able to “imagine” God—an issue I touch on in Chapter 6 of Is God a Delusion? This is not to say that we can expect to have a fully adequate understanding of the divine, but only that we have the conceptual resources to make “God” a meaningful concept, one which points beyond the empirical world to a referent that defies imagination. And so the statements “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” can be meaningful ones. They say something, even if what they say is not something empirical or empirically testable.

What Huxley and Weil and others are claiming is that when “God” is defined in terms amenable to human imagination, the object thus defined is something that does not exist and which does not deserve the kind of devotion or worship that God supposedly warrants—in fact, when devotion becomes directed to these spatio-temporally bounded artifacts of our imagination, the results can be very bad indeed.

In this they agree with most of the new atheists. But unlike them, they do not stop there. There is another way to understand the meaning of “God,” a more profound way, an understanding of the divine that casts off the limits of the imagination and points beyond the empirical surface of the world.

And when it comes to the question of whether God in that sense exists, dogmatic assertions to the effect that every concept of God is a product of the imagination shouldn’t be confused with a compelling answer. In fact, it is just about the only answer that must be rejected on the facts. For the fact is that people have had and continue to have encounters with what Rudolf Otto dubbed “the numinous”—that is, experiences which defy imagination, which feel like a direct relational connection to something that cannot be depicted, which cannot be represented in terms of the categories derived from our engagement with the natural world.

The gods of the imagination don’t fit with this experience but are, instead, driven out by it. They are rendered trite. In their place is a sense that there exists something vast, mysterious, and fundamental…but also something capable of love, love unlike any love one could ever hope to feel—and so something that warrants the label “God.”

It is a fact that for people like Otto, and Weil, and Martin Luther King, Jr., “God” does not name a product of the imagination, but the object of an experience which is characterized, among other things, by being unimaginable. Call it a delusion if you will, but don’t call it a product of the imagination. It’s not that.

Of course, it might still be a false notion. Perhaps this sort of experience is just a side effect of a sudden upsurge of DMT production in the pineal gland. But to believe this is to dismiss the significance of the experience. While one can, perhaps, enjoy such an experience of encountering the numinous while believing it’s nothing more than a side effect of chemical surges, one cannot treat it as the profoundly important and transformative event which it immediately seems to be.

And it is better—morally better, I think—to do the latter: to dwell in that experience fully, to immerse oneself in the sense of union with a deeper truth, in short, to respond to and relate to the experience as if it were veridical. It is better, first of all, because of the substance of the experience itself, because it would be better if the world were as this experience represents it as being; and secondly, because living as if the world is like this is a better way to live.

In short, my reasons for endorsing the decision to respond to the numinous affirmatively are moral ones—because no other reasons are decisive. When all the philosophizing and empirical study is done, the existence of the transcendent God who conforms with numinous experience (as opposed to the various gods of the imagination) is neither decisively refuted nor positively established. I think philosophy can show that belief in the transcendent is reasonable (as I argue in my book)—but not in the sense that reason demands such belief.

And so, when one’s life brushes up against the numinous, when vistas of joyful possibility seem to open up (if only for a moment) to kindle our deepest yearnings and inspire our capacity for compassion and forgiveness—when we encounter a God Who puts all our idolatrous imaginings to shame, we have a choice to make. It won’t be made for us by a knock-down argument or a decisive bit of empirical evidence. I think the best way to make that choice is to tap into the very consideration that, at their best, motivates the New Atheists’ outrage against the great sea of imaginary gods: Love for the good.

Were there such a thing as a diabolical mystical experience (an experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized, that seems to be of something fundamental and ultimate, but which feels like an encounter with something unremittingly horrific), the very same reasoning would apply in reverse: to dwell in such an experience fully, to immerse oneself in it, to respond and relate to it as if it were the ultimate transcendent truth about the nature of reality—well, that would be a terrible thing to do, because it would be better if the world were not like this; because it would be better to live as if the world were not like this.

My own sense, however, is that while there are experiences of evil that defy imagination or ready conceptualization, they don’t resonate with what I’m inclined to call the flavor of the Absolute. They don’t feel like an encounter with the root of all being, but feel instead like an encounter with something that exists in opposition to being. And for me, what is most telling is the fact that those who have had the most profound sense of the reality of evil and who then come to have an encounter with the numinous are transformed by the latter, as if the latter puts the former into perspective rather than the reverse. This, it seems, is one of the chief lessons of William James’ study of the religion of so-called “sick souls.”

Love for the good, then, cries out against the diabolical theology that traps the Godhead within the sphere of empirically-defined imagination. And it cries out against deifying our quasi-mystical experiences of evil. But when it comes to the numinous, and the question of whether we should embrace it as veridical or dismiss it as “a bit of undigested beef,” that same love for the good cries out for embrace.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New RD Piece on Responding to Terrorism

For those interested, I have a new featured essay in today's Religion Dispatches, in which I reflect on our persistent reliance on forceful interdiction as our solution to problems such as terrorism, and I ask what it might be like if we started taking seriously that quiet, prophetic religious voice which calls us to respond to evils such as terrorism with greater compassion and empathy, rather than more force and fear.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hitchens and the Atonement

Christopher Hitchens has a problem with the Atonement. At one point in the recent documentary, Collision—which follows his debates with evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson—Hitchens puts it this way: “I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all—that is, the one of the vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else.”

His opposition to this doctrine predates his debates with Wilson. In fact, he devotes a section of his book, god is Not Great, to trashing the doctrine. But if you read what he says there, you quickly realize that his numerous objections to the doctrine are based on an understanding of it modeled on the ancient practice of human sacrifice performed in order to appease an angry tyrannical deity.

Although I have a great interest in defending the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, I have no interest in defending this particular version.

Even as I say this I'm conscious of the kind of outraged response Hitchens and his followers are likely to voice. It’s the kind of response that’s repeatedly been expressed in response to my book—most recently, in the latest Amazon reader’s review. According to that reviewer, I am guilty of “first re-defining religion so that it no longer matches the target that the New Atheists attack, then defending the re-defined religion, and then finally claiming that since re-defined religion is so easily defended, that (sic) the New Atheists are therefore wrong.”

But here’s the thing. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, does not claim to be targeting the particular version of theistic belief dominant in mainstream religion (or something along those lines). He claims quite explicitly to be “attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (p. 36). To point out that his arguments only address one species of theism, and that a more nuanced species exists which is immune to his attacks, is not a case of “talking past” Dawkins. It’s a matter of showing that he’s guilty of a faulty generalization.

And the fact is that the New Atheists in general are on a campaign to stamp out, not fundamentalist religion or dogmatic religion, but religion as such—and they make pains to include “moderate” religion within the scope of their assault. They claim that core religious notions are to blame for the crimes of religious extremists—most notably the concept of “faith,” which is the target of Sam Harris’s unrelenting assault in The End of Faith.

And so, when I say that I am interested in defending the doctrine of the Atonement, but not the version which Hitchens explicitly attacks, I can already see the critics lining up to call foul. But the fact is that Hitchens makes no nuanced distinctions between different versions of the doctrine of the Atonement. He simply says, “This is what the doctrine holds. It is evil.” And it is not illegitimate, in response to such an argument, to say something like the following: “The doctrine admits of many alternative interpretations, and even if the one that you single out is evil, it doesn’t follow that we should throw out every interpretation on those grounds.”

And the fact is that there is no singular, agreed meaning that all Christians attach to Christ’s crucifixion, no one univocal theological understanding of how His death at human hands is supposed to lift the burden of sin from human shoulders.

In a Religion Dispatches article not too long ago, I sketched out one way of conceiving the Atonement. But although I find that understanding important and moving, I am not prepared to declare it to be the One True Doctrine of the Atonement. I have no interest in such entrenchment, in large measure because it shuts down what is perhaps one of the richest fruits of the gospel narrative: namely, the ongoing creative human response to it.

For me, the core gospel narrative, in which Jesus suffers on a cross, dies in agony with the full burden of human sin on His shoulders, and then rises again—this core narrative is like one of those resonant high points in a work of fiction, in which metaphor and symbol merge with human drama to create a wellspring of alternative meanings. At once mysterious and profound, such a narrative comes alive for readers precisely because they must bring themselves to the text, creatively engaging with it in the light of their own experiences and concerns. With such a narrative, we can keep returning to it and each time discover something new, something that speaks to who and what we are today.

The Jewish practitioners of midrash believed that the entirety of the Scriptures were like this, living texts rich with undiscovered meanings. As Karen Armstrong puts it in The Bible: A Biography, the early practitioners of midrash “were not interested in recovering the original significance of a given scriptural passage. Like Daniel, they were looking for fresh meaning. In their view, there was no single authoritative reading of scripture…Scripture was inexhaustible” (p. 81).

In part, this approach was motivated precisely by their conviction that Scripture was a gift from God and a pathway to relationship with God. As the literal surface meaning gives way before the rich array of interpretations, we are afforded a glimpse of the Infinite pushing out against the boundaries of the finite words. As new meanings blossom with each new reading and each new reader, it becomes clear that revelation is found not in the text by itself, but in the living engagement of persons with the text. On this view of revelation, it isn’t the Bible (or some other holy book) that is the revealed word of God. It is, instead, the vibrant, living human engagement with the Bible through which God speaks.

The cross, while not a text, is like that. Its significance cannot be bounded by a single interpretation, a single theological treatise. For Christians, Jesus is the place where the human most perfectly intersects with the divine, and the cross is the place where the import of that intersection is fully realized. The full weight of the infinite is pressing up against that moment of crucifixion, that space between anguish and death.

What does it mean? The answer doesn’t plunk out like a stone to sit there, dead and solid at our feet. To engage with the crucifixion is to pierce a rock behind which endless waters flow. What results is a torrent.

One moment, I look at the cross and I see God manifesting the relentlessness of vulnerable love, persisting even in the face of the most hostile conceivable rejection.

At the next moment I see the incarnate God crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; and I find in that cry God’s paradoxical way of standing in solidarity with us at the point of utmost affliction, the point at which God is experienced as wholly absent.

I look again and I see God’s repudiation of sin. “This is what sin means. This is how bad it is. It is like nailing God Himself to a cross!”

I look again and I see what it means to choose the good regardless of the cost, in defiance of the torture that a fallen world imposes on those who do not submit to the demands of coercive power. If only we could hold unflinchingly to the good even under the threat of torture and death, then death will have lost its power to destroy who we are. If only the powers and principalities would find themselves unable to manipulate us with the fear of death, then, paradoxically, we would no longer have anything to fear from death. But even when we stand our ground against the darkness, we flinch and are changed by it. By death. But here is Christ, unflinching, forging the pathway to the empty tomb.

I look again and I see the physical crucifixion as but a symbol of a deeper and more profound spiritual one, as Christ faces what we cannot face and endures on our behalf what we cannot endure: the honest subjective understanding of what we have done and left undone in our lives, the unvarnished truth about our finitude and our failings. We do not know the depths of our sin, the gravity of it, because we cannot bear the truth. So Christ bears it for us.

And I hear the words: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But when Hitchens looks to the cross, this "man of letters" sees none of these things. Ignoring the rich and varied interpretive tradition, he focuses on the most banal and literal understanding, the narrow fundamentalist one in which an angry tyrant demands blood sacrifice to appease his wrath.

Like most of the New Atheists, he wants to pin poetry to the dirt. And then he furiously points to the dirt stains and declares it filth.

“Yes, that’s filth,” I want to say in response. “But what about the poem?”

What about the poem?

My response to the New Atheists is consistently this: What about the poem that you persistently and almost willfully ignore as you delight in pounding banalities into the ground? It’s true that I am not defending what the New Atheists are most directly attacking. Rather, I am trying to wave in their faces the thing that they aren’t seeing, which they don’t seem to know exists, which they are content to consign to the dump right along with the junk they are explicitly heaving in the trash.

And yet, when it comes to Hitchens’ attacks on the Atonement, my response cannot be purely this. Because there is something that he targets for attack which I have to own. Hitchens accuses the doctrine of vicarious redemption of affording us the chance to “throw our sins onto somebody else.” If the Atonement is about anything, it is about this: the cost of sin, the burden of our errors, is (somehow) lifted from our shoulders and borne in our stead by Christ.

The how may be a richly rendered mystery of the faith, an invitation to endlessly creative re-appropriation—and insofar as Hitchens attacks a particularly banal rendering of the how, his critique means little. But when it comes to the what, Hitchens stands on firmer ground. Amidst all of the diversity of understandings, there remains this consistent them: Christ lifts from sinners the wages of sin.

Of course, not all Christians understand the implications of the Atonement in the same way. One of the chief points of contention has to do with scope. Are all human sins objectively atoned for on the cross, as Lutherans typically believe? Or is the Atonement only hypothetical until the sinner actively accepts Jesus as savior?

My own theological predilections fall in line with the former. But it is the former that is most obviously susceptible to Hitchens’ challenge. He thinks it is wrong, immoral, for us to embrace a teaching which says that we can “throw our sins onto somebody else.” His view seems to be this: We should be responsible for our own actions. And the practice of making someone else a scapegoat for the worst of them is morally abominable.

Of course, there are a number of problems here. First, the Christian doctrine of the Atonement is not one according to which we make Christ into a scapegoat for our sins. It is, rather, one according to which Christ adopts a burden on our behalf that we cannot conceivably bear ourselves, but which Christ can and does bear. This isn’t something we do to Christ, but something that Christ does for us. We aren’t asking Christ to do something that we should be doing ourselves. Christ, out of love, is doing for us what, otherwise, would not be done at all, because we couldn’t possibly do it.

And the doctrine of the Atonement isn’t about responsibility for our actions so much as it is about responsibility for our salvation. It’s the wages of sin that Christ bears on our behalf: guilt, shame, denial, indifference, despair, resentment; all the things that poison loving relationships or cut us off from them, all the things that therefore keep us from the beloved community—either because we think we don’t deserve to be a part of it or because we have put ourselves so deeply into self-righteous denial that we can’t participate. Loving community requires honesty and vulnerability. It requires a sharing of one’s authentic self. The wages of sin are precisely those things which stand in the way of taking that step into true intimacy. Salvation is about removing those impediments, so that the doors of heaven—the doors that close on our own hearts—are cast open.

So what does this mean for Hitchens’ critique of the Atonement?

Obviously, one of the most fundamental differences between Hitchens’ atheism and the Christian worldview is this: for Hitchens this life is all there is, and when it’s done then all of us, the good and the bad alike, come to the same end: oblivion. What does this mean for the wages of sin? It means that, once we are dead it makes no difference. The worst sinners and noblest souls face the same fate in the end.

It means, in other words, that if there is a reason to be good, a reason to cultivate compassion and openness rather than resentment and defensiveness, a reason to favor forgiveness over revenge, empathy over hatred—if there is a reason for any of these things, it won’t be found in some heavenly rewards or hellish punishments. It will be found it what it means for your life and the lives of those you affect, to be good rather than wicked.

In a sense, the doctrine of the Atonement, if it does anything, makes the theistic worldview more like the atheist one in this respect than it would otherwise be. If the wages of sin are borne by Christ; if they can no longer stand between us and our eternal participation in the Kingdom of God, then heavenly rewards and hellish punishments will no longer function as the reason to be good. In a theistic worldview according to which the wages of sin are overcome by the Atonement or something like it, our attention is turned to the intrinsic merits of a life of virtue, rather than towards extrinsic rewards.

In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, I think that anyone who takes the doctrine of the Atonement seriously cannot consistently sustain anything like the traditional doctrine of hell. But even those who do not go this far must, I think, admit something more modest: if there is a hell, given the doctrine of the Atonement it cannot be the case that what puts someone in hell is that they deserve it on account of their wickedness.

Instead, if any are damned, it will likely be because, first of all, damnation just is being so full of resentment and hatred and bitterness and petty self-righteousness that one cannot enter into genuine loving communion with others; and secondly, one has failed to subjectively appropriate the divine gift whereby such things are lifted away.

Once again, it is the intrinsic merit of our moral character that becomes the important thing, the thing that matters. This is what the doctrine of the Atonement does: by lifting the wages of sin from our shoulders, it puts the focus not on the extrinsic rewards and penalties of our actions, but on the intrinsic worth of being a moral agent rather than a wicked one.

And this, of course, is precisely where Hitchens says that the focus ought to be. It is therefore deeply ironic to me that Hitchens’ sparring partner, Douglas Wilson, challenges Hitchens atheism on precisely these grounds.

Wilson repeatedly challenges Hitchens with the example of the prosperous atheist villain who, on his deathbed, declares that he’s “gotten away with it.” Let’s suppose that this is a man who’s truly villainous, having committed horrible atrocities of genocidal proportions, and who has enjoyed immense earthly fortune in the process (I assume it is a man only because the legacy of patriarchy entails that few if any women could achieve the position of influence necessary both to effect genocidal massacre and to become filthy rich in the process). What can you say to such a villain, Wilson asks, if the villain is convinced he’s about to meet the same oblivion he would’ve met anyway had he been saintly all his days?

In response to this challenge, Hitchens makes the standard move: being moral out of a desire for a heavenly reward or fear of a hellish one is not really being moral at all. To be truly good is to do the right thing because it’s right.

But while I agree with this, it doesn’t answer the question. What do you say to this atheist when he chuckles and claims to have “gotten away with it”? Do you really just say, “You should have done the right thing just because it was right”? I think the atheist can say more—at least an atheist who is attuned to the moral life, and knows something about what it’s like to live in the light of justice, compassion, and mercy.

So here’s the answer I propose: “You lived a bad life. You go to oblivion having not mattered to the world, except in a negative way. That you don’t feel bad about this is evidence that you have missed the point of life, and you die in a dark pit of ignorance, having lost out on the sweetest nectar that life can give. You die thinking you got away with something, when in fact you got away with nothing. You came in with nothing. You leave with nothing. And while you were here all of the very greatest goods, goods which are available to those who live with compassion and respect, have utterly eluded you. You will go into oblivion having experienced empty pleasures in abundance, but never any real joy. And so you are the most pitiable of creatures, more pitiable than the many victims of your crimes.”

And this seems to me to be a better answer than the one that Wilson seems to think Christians have at their disposal. Of course, Wilson’s answer to the atheist would be a blunt, “You won’t get away with it! God will smite you in the afterlife!” Perhaps, assuming that Wilson rejects the doctrine of the Atonement or selectively ignores its implications, such an answer is available to him. But it is precisely the doctrine of the Atonement, the doctrine that Hitchens so reviles, which would force Wilson (if only he’d take it seriously) to offer an answer more like the atheist one that I proposed.

Put simply, the manner in which our sins are “thrown” onto Christ in the doctrine of the Atonement has implications that should either lead Hitchens to condemn his own atheism or view the doctrine of vicarious redemption as the best part of Christianity, insofar as it puts Christianity (at least in one important respect) into moral waters similar to the ones in which atheists sail.

Of course, there is something Christians who take the Atonement seriously can say to that atheist monster on his deathbed, something Hitchens and atheists like him cannot say. It isn’t that he won’t get away with it. It is, rather, that despite his wasted life, despite living all his mortal days without ever having tasted anything of real value, despite existing in a pit of meaninglessness in which all the deepest and most fulfilling goods of existence have eluded him completely—despite all of this, and despite the fact that nothing remains of his mortal life in which to find what has eluded him, there’s still hope.

Because God still loves him and doesn’t cast His precious children to the void.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What's in a Name?

After years of being housed in a run-down, cockroach-infested and asbestos-contaminated building, the philosophy department at OSU has finally moved into a new venue: a freshly renovated building, elegantly appointed, that is nestled between a café and Theta Pond (my favorite place on campus, where I used to take my son just about every afternoon for the first two years of his life). My office window looks out onto a lovely courtyard where I expect I may spend some quality time on pleasant spring days.

I wasn’t prepared for just how psychologically uplifting this new environment would be. And yet I feel conflicted about enjoying it—and not just because I really should be missing Amanda, the squirrel who’d made a nest in my office window a couple of years ago and has been living there ever since.

Philosophy's new home is in a building called Murray Hall, an old residence hall that was largely unused for the two decades prior to the start of renovations a couple of years ago. It’s named after William H. Murray, an important figure in Oklahoma history. He presided over the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, served as the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and, later, as Governor during the Great Depression. If Oklahoma has a slate of founding fathers, Murray would be among them.

Murray was also a racist and an anti-Semite. In his capacity as president of the Constitutional Convention, he pushed for a “Jim Crow” constitution—an effort which proved successful largely because the move had such broad support. During his tenure as Speaker of the Oklahoma House, he continued his segregation efforts by pushing hard for the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the state.

In fact, if there is a person who might be singled out as the one who most clearly spearheaded the efforts to make Oklahoma a Jim Crow state, I think no one would be better qualified for that dubious honor than Murray. He was not just a vocal public champion of one of the greatest American injustices of the 20th Century. He was the lead figure in bringing it about that this grave institutional injustice was implemented in the state of Oklahoma.

On matters more directly relevant to higher education, Murray doesn’t come off much better, at least in terms of my own educational philosophy. Murray thought that education in the humanities and the sciences was wasted on most citizens, and he advocated a system in which the two state universities were restricted to the intellectual elite. He thought, furthermore, that it was a waste of resources for two universities to have overlapping programs, and so thought that Oklahoma A&M (now OSU) should focus largely on agricultural education while leaving the arts and sciences to OU.

The idea of a university system which affords a large percentage of the population the chance to pursue a well-rounded four-year education, in which specialization in some discipline is balanced with broad exposure to our cultural heritage and intellectual discoveries—this idea is not one that Murray endorsed. But it is the very thing, of course, that OSU and other state universities embody in their explicit mission statements and philosophies.

The more serious issue, however, is how Murray’s bigotry infected his views on higher education. In a speech during the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, Murray spoke the following words with respect to blacks and education:

He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers and many lines of agriculture, horticulture and mechanics in which he is an adept, but it is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions… I appreciate the old-time ex-slave, the old darky—and they are the salt of their race—who comes to me talking softly in that humble spirit which should characterize their actions and dealings with the white man…The worst negroes of which I know in my territory are in the Creek nation, where they have been allowed to vote, hold office, (and) attend school with the Creek Tribe…
In short, Murray thought that not only was higher education wasted on blacks, who purportedly lacked the intellectual ability to take advantage of it; he thought, furthermore, that blacks who had access to such education lost sight of their place in the racist hierarchy. And this, of course, he took to be a very bad thing. He appreciated “the old darky” who was fawning and submissive. Those who came to him as equals made him (as he admitted in the same speech) want to punch their lights out. This goes a long way towards explaining why, when Oklahoma A & M instituted a scholarship program in his name, blacks and Jews were excluded.

Murray also publicly declared that he thought Jews should be deported from the United States and relocated to Madagascar. This so-called “Madagascar Solution” has a long history and was also proposed by the Nazis in their early efforts to pursue “racial purity” in Germany—a precursor to their more horrific “Final Solution.” And while Murray was never a Nazi sympathizer, his ideological affinity for the racist and anti-Semitic commitments of the Nazis is one of the most disturbing facts about the man and his life.

Had Murray not been around, Oklahoma would surely still have become a Jim Crow state. He was part of a generation in which the things he stood for were not uncommon. If he had not taken the public stage to champion them, someone else would have done so. But as a matter of history, it is Murray who led the efforts to make Oklahoma a Jim Crow state. It is Murray who wrote the hateful anti-Semitic and racist tracts that defined the latter part of his career. Murray's name cannot be severed from Oklahoma’s legacy of racial oppression, because Murray was an instrumental figure in the creation of that legacy.

While Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, he didn’t found the institution of slavery. What he helped to found was a nation organized around principles of representative democracy, liberty, and equality under the law—principles which were later invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights movement to denounce the system of segregation. Symbolically, then, Jefferson’s name is bound up with distinctive historic contributions that are worthy of being honored, even if not everything the man did or stood for should be honored. The question I ask myself is what Murray’s name is symbolically bound up with. My answer is that it is bound up with distinctive historic contributions that should not be honored today—even if, as is surely the case, there are things Murray did and stood for that deserve respect.

And I can see no reason to think that OSU has any obligation to preserve the name. The building wasn’t named after him because he financed the building or in other tangible ways supported the university. Rather, university administrators were worried that, because of Murray’s strident opposition to FDR and the New Deal, he would block their efforts to secure federal funds to build a new women’s dormitory. And so they cleverly decided to flatter him by promising to name the building after him. Such motivations are hardly the sort that we are duty-bound to respect today.

For all these reasons, as Murray Hall was being renovated I became part of the efforts to change the building’s name. There have, in fact, been numerous such efforts. Petititions to rename the building after Clara Luper, the most prominent leader in Oklahoma’s civil rights movement, have been circulating for years. Forums--including one in which Clara Luper came to speak--have been held. Most, if not all, of the departments moving into the building sent or signed off on letters to the administration in support of a name change. The Student Government Association voted in support of a name change. The Arts & Sciences Faculty Council initiated an official recommendation to un-name the building. This recommendation was supported by the University Faculty Council, and thus forwarded to the administration for a decision.

Also in the fall of 2007, I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by OSU’s Ethics Center on the topic of un-naming Murray Hall. There were two panelists: an English professor who spoke forcefully in favor of unnaming the building (citing considerations very much in the spirit of those I’ve offered above), and a member of the history department (the only person we could find who was willing to advocate publicly for preserving the name). His argument, interestingly, was that we should not hide from our history, even the ugly parts of it. He was worried that renaming the building would simply be an effort to sanitize the past, and that we would be better served by keeping the name (at least for now) and using it as a springboard to talk about Oklahoma’s history and its significance.

This is not a foolish argument. In fact, I became convinced as I listened to it that, even if the building’s name were to be changed, it was important to make sure that the history was not brushed under the rug. Even if, administratively, the building came to be called something else, the “Murray” name etched into the outside walls of the building should remain—and an explanation of the disparity should be offered through some kind of historical display discussing who Murray was.

From what I can gather, the administrative committee responsible for making the decision interviewed both panelists from our fall 2007 event, in addition to considering a letter sent to them by the Oklahoma Historical Society. To my knowledge, this constituted the bulk of their external research. That is, as far as I know they didn’t interview representatives of the African American student body or Jewish faculty slated to move into the new building, or anything along those lines.

But I don’t actually know everything that went into their deliberations. What I do know is that their decision was announced shortly after school was let out for the summer, in May of 2008—that is, shortly after students, staff, and faculty who might otherwise have come together to express outrage at the decision were scattered hither and yon for the summer. Whether this timing was coincidental is a matter about which I can only speculate.

And what was their decision? Obviously, my new office is in Murray Hall. But that’s not the whole story. There is also an historical display set up in the atrium on the lowest level of the building—an honest discussion of who Murray was, what he stood for, how the building got its name, and the controversy surrounding the name. The display was created by the same historian who was on the panel. While the administrative committee voted against changing the name “for now,” they supported the creation of such a display as part of an ongoing conversation about the building’s name.

When I first heard about this decision, what I felt can best be described as moral outrage. I viewed the display as little more than a bone thrown to the opposition. Now, while I still disagree with the decision, my reaction is more nuanced and emotionally muted.

I’ve walked through the display several times, and it’s good. So good, in fact, that its presence in the building changes the symbolic meaning of the building’s name. In the absence of that display, the default meaning of a building’s name is veneration: the person named is lifted up and symbolically affirmed. In the case of a donor, the affirmation is one of gratitude (or, put more cynically, an affirmation of fiduciary indebtedness). But in the case of someone who hasn’t funded the university’s efforts, the name is more purely a gesture of honor (even if the purpose of making that gesture might have been nothing more than appeasement).

But this display changes that default meaning. In it, we learn what Murray stood for and did with unflinching honesty. His more positive contributions to Oklahoma’s history are included, of course, but so is the substance of what I discuss above. From now on, this building will be unique among all buildings on campus, in that there will be a face and a history attached to that name.

And most people who come to know that the building is named for that Murray, the bigot who spearheaded Jim Crow in Oklahoma, are likely to have gained that knowledge from a display in the building itself. And so, if they are disturbed by what the name represents, it will be because an honest display in the building gave them reason to be.

And this is important. It conveys, in effect, the following message: “We, today, do not affirm the venerative gesture that was made decades ago when the building was first named. Instead, we question it and treat it as a lesson in history.”

For me, this helped make it possible to move into the new building without feeling as if I were betraying my values. But is it enough?

It would, for me, have been intolerable to actively honor, even on a perfunctory symbolic level, what the Murray name has come to represent. In the absence of the historical display, the refusal to change the name in response to an official recommendation would have been a symbolic act whose significance was precisely that: to lift up what should not be lifted up. This intolerable message has been largely neutralized by the display.

But the university could have done more. It still can. It’s one thing to neutralize a negative symbolic message. It is something else again to express, symbolically, an opposing positive message. Changing the building’s name could be a way to do the latter.

As of now, the university has managed to declare, “This name, etched on the walls of this building, is not what we stand for.” But that is only half the message that, in my view, needs to be expressed. I think the university can and should do more: Plant a new name in the grass outside the building, a name that resonates with the ethics of inclusion that Murray opposed. A name like “Clara Luper.” Let the university declare, “This name, planted here amidst the petunias, represents what we strive to be.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Collision? Hardly--New Religion Dispatches Essay

I've got a new essay in today's Religion Dispatches. It's a reflection on the significance of the recent debates between atheist "public intellectual" Christopher Hitchens and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson, chronicled in the new documentary, Collision. The RD essay doesn't delve into the merits of the arguments laid out by either man (I may take that up in a later post on this blog), but focuses instead on the form of the debate--a form which, unfortunately, has become all too typical of the so-called "God Debates."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What do you get...?

While going through old papers, I found this little gem: a list of philosophical jokes of the form, "What do you get when you cross X with Y?" I believe that all of these were created by John Shook and myself in the fall of 2000, while we were driving back from a conference in Austin. I'm also certain that there were more. And if any readers of this blog are inspired to add you own to the list, please feel free. Anyway, here they are:

What do you get when you cross ...

...G.E. Moore with a producer of flash-in-the-pan pop music groups?

Here is a band. Here is another.

...An Aristotelian virtue ethicist with Diana Ross?

A philosopher who looks for the mean between the Supremes

...Leibniz with a dervish?

The best of all possible whirls

...Hegel with Albert Camus?

Thesis, antithesis, Sisyphus!

...Schopenhauer with John Stuart Mill?

The Principle of Futility

...Kant with a maker of meat pastries?

The Categorical Impenada

...Kant with Freud?

The anal-ytic/synthetic distinction

...Augustine with a fisherman?

The City of Cod

...Kant with a careless deep sea diver?

The Kingdom of Bends

...Descartes with an Olympic backstroke champion?

Cogito, ergo swim

Intellectual Archeology

This week my department has been moving into a new building. In a future post I want to say something about this move--specifically, about the building's controversial name and the failed efforts to change that name. But in this post I want to share the results of a bit of intellectual archeology.

My new office is smaller than my old one, and it doesn't have a closet. What this means, among other things, is that I have to go through those boxes of old papers and notebooks that have been sitting in my office closet for years. There is no place to shove them and forget about them, so I need to make some decisions about what I'm going to keep and what I'm going to discard.

This morning I started leafing through some old notebooks which were clearly from sometime in the 1990's. One of them looked as if it were nothing but my notes for an introductory logic course I was teaching--and I was about to toss it when I flipped to a page of scribbled thoughts.

I noticed several things as I read through the three notebook pages of unpolished ideas. First, I'd obviously been reading Simone Weil, probably Gravity and Grace (this was especially obvious with respect to the final scrawled paragraph). Second, some of the phrases were familiar--early formulations of ideas that I would later refine in different ways. Third, some of my thinking from back then is impenetrable even to me. Fourth, I've evolved alot in my thinking over the years. Fifth, some of the main themes in my thinking about religion and reason, themes which have found expression in my book and elsewhere, were first scribbled in logic notebook years ago.

So I thought I'd share the contents of those pages with readers of this blog. If you find the views expressed outrageous or absurd, feel free to take issue with the younger me. I may or may not jump to his defense, depending on whether I agree with him.

Although there's no dating in the notebook, changes in ink color or spacing indicates entries made on different days (although all but the final entry seems to be a development of a single of thought). To capture this, I have numbered each new entry consecutively. Other than that, the notebook entries are unedited. However, in a couple of places I've been unable to resist interjecting a comment. While the text from the notebook appears in italics, the occasional comments do not (and they are enclosed in parentheses). So here they are, in order of appearance:


Consider the claim that human reason is not enough, that we must have faith.

This is at once one of the most important and most dangerous claims ever uttered: important because, when correctly understood, it teaches us that the absolute is beyond our grasp, and that to reach the absolute we must abandon the search and, instead, wait attentively; dangerous because, when misunderstood, it deprives us of both faith and reason, and leaves us more hopeless and helpless than the staunchest atheist.

(Did I really believe that staunch atheists were hopeless and helpless, or did I just say this because it had a nice rhetorical ring to it? From what I can recall about my earlier self, I suspect the latter. Also, since my earlier self could not have expected my later self to betray his trust by publishing what was intended as a private activity, I suspect he felt more freedom to indulge rhetorical flourishes such as these, just for the fun of it.)


"Faith" is used in two senses. In one sense it is something that we do: believe without reason. In another sense it is something that happens to us when we permit it: when we empty ourselves enough to let the divine presence in; when we are seized, as it were, by God; when the light of divine truth illuminates the limits of our intellect and lifts us beyond those limits; when we are humble enough to let go and allow this to happen--which requires, of course, that we let go of words, forsaking our desire to neatly box experience.

Faith in the first sense deprives us of both reason and God. To believe without reason is to believe without human reason, but it is also be believe without divine reason. Faith in this first sense is either arbitrary--the deification of your will--or a submission to personal history--the deification of culture. It is what we mean by "idolatry."

(The ideas here find their way into my book--especially the idea that willful belief amounts to idolatry. See especially pp. 185-186.)


To believe that God exists ON FAITH is either dangerous or irrelevant, depending on the sense of "faith." To believe that God exists by an arbitrarty choice of will is to vaunt your own will in a way that makes obedience impossible--true faith involves permitting God's will to usurp your own; this so-called faith is therefore the opposite of true faith. Such affirmations of God are not welcomed by God.

If, by "faith," we mean a connection to God which happens when we let go of our egos, then it makes no sense to say that we believe God to exist ON FAITH. It is like saying we believe the food in our mouth to exist on faith. We chew our food and let it nourish us. We believe IN it. But believing THAT it IS has no relevance once it is in our mouths. Likewise, believing THAT God exists has no relevance once He has entered us. Unlike food, the advent of God makes human beliefs irrelevant.

(The last paragraph of this entry puzzles me. Did I really mean "unlike food"? And was I really convinced that belief is irrelevant when one is in the grip of God? Irrelevant for what purpose? I suspect one would need to make some distinctions here in order for this to be acceptable. If all I meant was that the experience of being in the grip of the divine, and what one does in light of the experience, is more important than what one believes about it--that is something I can probably endorse today.)


In the domain of beliefs, reason is our surest guide. To say that reason is not enough is to say that the most important truths are not only beyond reason, but beyond belief--they can be felt and known, but not propositionally, and not without divine intervention.

Divine revelation produces a species of knowledge that is not a species of belief.

(Here, I'm pretty sure I was deliberately trying to sound profound. If I were interested in clarity, I would have said that what divine revelation produces is an immediate experiential acquaintance rather than propositional knowledge--the distinction between knowing Fred and knowing things about Fred).


This is not to say that all divine truths are beyond reason, or beyond propositional expression. There are things that we can say about God. Some of what we say can be evaluated with reason. Some of what we say is metaphorical, and can be understood only in the light of faith. Some of what we know in faith cannot be said.


The act of creation is an act of withdrawal. Before creation, God was everything. In order to create, God must bring it about that there is something which He is not. To exist as part of creation is to exist at a distance from God. To preserve us in being is to perpetuate that distance. God creates out of love. God's distance from us is a sign of that love.

(This is pretty obviously my own restatement of ideas I took from Simone Weil.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What I Might Have Said

Last week I gave a luncheon talk for the interdenominational “Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff” at my university. I’d been invited to talk about my book, but it occurred to me that for a group such as this it might be more meaningful to talk about how the book fit into a broader personal, spiritual, and intellectual journey.

After all, this was bound to be a group of people who had in one way or another confronted questions about the intersections of the religious life and the life of the intellect. And my book, whatever else it may be, is a milestone in my own personal journey to answer questions raised by these intersections. And so I thought it might be valuable to talk about the personal journey that took me from a child of agnostic preacher’s kids to the author of a liberal religious critique of the new atheists.

It was not a prepared talk. Instead, I took the informal luncheon format as an opportunity to explore in conversation with others a question I wasn’t sure I knew all the answers to. At some point I might try to write up the lessons I gained from that exploration, but what I want to discuss here is something that came up at the very end of the luncheon, when at least half of those in attendance had already left. I want to talk about what I might have said had the conversation not been abruptly derailed.

The line of conversation we were pursuing at that time was started by a thoughtful question from the minister who strives to maintain and mediate the fellowship (no mean feat, I think). It was a sincere personal question about interfaith dialogue, about finding the balance between personal conviction and genuine openness towards and respect for other faiths. Having written about this issue in a recent blog post, I shared some what I’d said there.

My answer prompted one of the more theologically conservative persons in attendance to speak up (let’s call him Jim). Jim pointed out that in John 14:6, Jesus is purported to have said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” After quoting this verse, Jim went on in something like the following terms: “When I am having conversations with people of other faiths, I must remain true to this foundation. And this means I have to let them know, as hard as it is to say and to hear, that unless they accept Christ as their Lord and savior, they won’t be saved.”

This comment prompted me to launch into a very brief overview of some of my thinking about Christianity and universalism. I began by distinguishing between two interpretations of John 14:6: the interpretation which takes the passage to say that no one comes to the Father unless they adopt the right beliefs about Jesus and/or make the right choices with regard to Him, and the interpretation which has it that no one comes to the Father except on account of the work that Jesus does on sinners’ behalf. While the former interpretation entails that only Christians who explicitly accept Jesus as savior are saved, the latter interpretation does not imply this at all.

I then confessed to being a universalist, at which point Jim promptly said, “That’s not biblical.” At that point I briefly sketched out what I took to be the explicit universalism of Paul, in Romans and elsewhere. And then I offered a metaphor that might be of some help in reconciling Paul’s universalism with the scriptural idea that it is Jesus alone through whom salvation comes. What I said, roughly, was something along these lines:

“Imagine that there are a number of people drowning in a lake, and a lifeguard—call him Chris—dives in and, one by one, rescues them all. Not everyone knows or acknowledges that it was Chris who saved them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t save them. Their being saved doesn’t depend on these things. It certainly doesn’t depend on Chris leaving some to drown. If those who do recognize and acknowledge their savior have any advantage over those who don’t, it’s that they know whom to thank.”

There are serious limitations with this analogy as a basis for a comprehensive theology, but for the purposes that I was using it for—to show how it’s possible for salvation to come from one individual and yet to extend universally, even to those who know nothing about that individual—I thought it was pretty helpful. And it also expresses my Lutheran theological disposition that our salvation is rooted in something God does rather than in something we do. Our salvation is not on account of our works but on account of God’s work on our behalf—and believing the right things or explicitly “accepting Jesus as Lord and savior” clearly qualify as our works.

I want to take time to say something more about this “theology of grace.” In part I do so because it may help readers to understand my reaction to what happened next. But more significantly, I do so because what I have to say here is precisely what I might have said next, had the conversation not been derailed in the wake of a remark that led me to lose my composure.

One of the greatest fruits of a theology of grace is that it liberates us to think, to question, to doubt, to admit uncertainty, and to take challenges to our views seriously. If we believe that our salvation does not hinge on our getting it right, we become free to be humble, to admit our finitude, to admit our inability to get it right—in short, to be intellectually honest about the human condition. And as I see it, an absolutely crucial feature of the human condition is that the fundamental nature of reality is beyond our grasp. We can theorize and speculate in ways that are more or less in line with what reason and evidence reveal, but we cannot know.

Our enormous material universe might be catalogued, its structure and mechanisms and history described to the minutest detail, and we would still face the same fundamental questions: Is there more than this? Is this world of immediate sense experience, this world whose structures and patterns we can describe, just a surface appearance? Or is it just a small part of something far vaster that is beyond description? Or is it, instead, the whole story?

We cannot know. We can be moved by the voice in our heart that encounters a hopeful vision, the voice that says, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” We can treat its urgings as emerging out of the part of us that IS, rather than the part of us that experiences and knows—the self insofar as it is a part of reality, rather than the self that stands back from it in an attempt to understand reality. We can treat our deepest longings as if they are a homing beacon, and their YES as an instinct that immediately apprehends what the discursive intellect cannot grasp. Or we can be moved by the voice that says, “I’ll believe it when I see it”—knowing that this is something we can never, ever see.

We can be moved by longing or evidentialism, but we cannot know. And the theology of grace allows us to admit this. Paradoxically, if we are convinced of this theology, we are freed from the pathological need for certainty. And while such certainty may not be the root of all hostility and intractable conflict, it is one fundamental source of these things. When we can admit we do not know, we can come together and hear each other and be more fully open to each other’s humanness. And insofar as the theology of grace facilitates that, it bears pragmatic fruits that speak in its favor. We have pragmatic reason to live as if the theology of grace is true, as if our salvation doesn’t hinge on getting it right, because only then can we break free of the psychological forces that push us into trenches of false certainty.

All of this was lurking in the background of my thoughts as I laid out the metaphor of the lifeguard. And what Jim said next opened the door to elaborating on these ideas.

“But Christians,” he said, “have to choose their own lifeguard.”

I took him to mean that the lifeguard only swims out to rescue those who ask him for his help. I remembered a Lutheran pastor who strongly influenced me years ago, who tried to explain Lutheran theology by saying that, on the Lutheran view, if any of us have a right relationship with Christ it is because Christ has beaten down the walls around our hearts and seized hold of us from within. It is not by what we choose or believe that we become connected with the transcendent. That connection is forged because the transcendent loves us enough to reach through all our crud.

I'd found that message transformative in my own life. And so I said, “I disagree with that.”

And Jim replied, “Then you disagree with God.”

His facial expression as he said those words might, at a quick glance, have been viewed as smug. But I don’t think that’s right. Because I’ve felt that expression on my own face. It emerges when I’m containing something far more potent than smugness, something that’s surging up into my face in a tidal rush: The need to be right.

I’m no stranger to that need. In fact, I worry sometimes that it drives me more than it does most people. And that is one reason why I hold so fiercely to the theology of grace: as a ward against the more dangerous demons of my nature. (Again, I'm not blind to the paradox here).

But one of the forces that’s most likely to trigger my need to be right is precisely the kind of comment that Jim uttered in this exchange, in precisely the tone in which he uttered it. Like begets like. When he said, in essence, “If you disagree with me you disagree with God,” I felt the schoolyard impulse to reply with, “I know you are, but what am I?”

But just then, one of my friends from another department spat out his indignation in something along the following lines: “That’s just the kind of arrogance that fuels Dawkins and these other new atheists, giving their accusations against religion credibility!”

I sputtered something about these sorts of utterances being “anti-evangelical.” Then I went on to say that such a statement is a conversation-stopper. I said something along the following lines:

When you say to me, “If you disagree with me you disagree with God,” what I
think is this: “Here’s someone who isn’t open to genuine conversation, someone
who’s just in it to try to impose his views on me rather than offering reasons
and arguments and ideas that I can consider and learn from. This is certainly
NOT someone who will listen openly to my reasons and arguments and ideas—so why
should I bother to listen to what HE has to say.” That’s what goes through my
head. And so productive dialogue ends.

Openness begets openness. Self-righteousness begets self-righteousness. Entering an interfaith conversation with the assumption that one has the truth and that the point of the exchange is to make the other person accept it—well, that begets a similar response. Instead of a conversation, one has a battle of wills. One has polarized confrontations that are more about grand-standing than about sharing, more about impressing those who are already on your side than about building bridges across rifts of difference.

In fact, the trumpeting arrogance of Dawkins and the other new atheists doesn’t come out of nowhere, but is a response to those who end conversations about Darwinian evolution by saying, “This is not in line with my religious beliefs. As such, it conflicts with God’s truth.”

I said something along these lines, but I might have said it more eloquently had I not been caught up in the moment, allowing my emotional response to be dictated by Jim’s invocation of divine authority on his behalf.

And then the exchange ended. And the luncheon ended. And what I might have said about the theology of grace—how I am a better person when I live as if it is true; how it affords me the space to pursue my intellectual curiosity, to speculate in ways that draw from both reason and hope; how it frees me from the fear that arriving at the wrong beliefs will be disastrous (a fear that is at work in different ways among both religious believers and atheists)—none of that was spoken.

And, ironically, the reason it wasn’t spoken was this: in that moment when Jim declared that I disagreed with God, the theology of grace eluded me.