Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Grandfield Project

It’s interesting to consider what kinds of events are likely to awaken a town from its “dogmatic slumber,” forcing the citizens to reflect on their local culture and the values they’re endorsing. I want to consider two towns, both driven to engage in such reflection. The towns are connected, and their struggles similar. In many ways, the struggles of one town were caused by the struggles of the other—but only indirectly, through the influence of a play.

The first is the town of Laramie, Wyoming. I have a thread of a connection to that town, since my uncle went to the university there. At the time, it seemed an innocuous little western town, one that few people had heard about. But my uncle enjoyed his time there. He thought it was a nice, quiet place, a friendly town and a good place to go to college. Once, in the ’80’s, I was passing through Laramie with relatives and we bought a T-shirt sporting the words, “Where the hell is Laramie, Wyoming?” We gave the T-shirt to my uncle, who groaned good-naturedly as he held it up.

That T-shirt wouldn’t be funny today. Laramie is no longer an unknown college town somewhere in Wyoming. In the public consciousness it’s become something else: the place where Matthew Shepard, a college student, was brutally murdered by two young men--Laramie natives--who targeted Shepard because he was gay. According to the evidence, they relentlessly beat him with a pistol before tying him to a fence post. Shepard was in a coma when he was discovered, but later died from severe head trauma.

And in case that wasn’t enough to shock a quiet little town out of its routine, Shepard’s funeral was picketed by the gay-hating congregation of Westboro Baptist Church. They carried signs bearing such messages as “Matt Shepard is burning in hell” and “God hates fags.” Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro (whose congregation is made up mostly of Phelps’ relatives), also sought unsuccessfully to erect monuments in Wyoming indicating the date at which Matthew Shepard “entered hell” for defying God’s law.

These events and the trial that followed brought the town of Laramie into the national spotlight. And the citizens of Laramie, or many of them, couldn’t help but reflect on the meaning of these events. How could a quiet little college town give rise to such hatred and brutality? Was this act of horrific violence an aberration, or was there something in Laramie’s culture, something dark, that helped to give it birth? What did it mean that Laramie was no longer this unknown little community, but had become the scene of one of the most publicized hate crimes in American history?

It was this internal questioning that became the focus of the play (made into an HBO movie) called “The Laramie Project.” The play drew on news reports and extensive interviews, and it depicted a town’s efforts to understand itself in the light of such a horrific defining event. “The Laramie Project” has been widely used as an educational resource in schools and other venues, largely because of its capacity to inspire critical reflection on ideological hatred, homophobia, hate crimes, and the role that community attitudes can play in giving rising to explosions of violent hate.

Recently, a teacher in Grandfield, Oklahoma, decided to use “The Laramie Project” for just such a range of purposes in her “Ethics and Street Law” class. In addition to showing the HBO film, she had students work on developing scenes from the play that they’d then film and show each other in class. The teacher, Debra Taylor, had sought and received approval from the principal to pursue this activity.

Much of what happened next is a matter of controversy. What isn’t controversial is that Ms. Taylor was instructed by the school superintendent, Ed Turlington, to stop teaching the material. She complied, but not before pursuing one final activity: a kind of “funeral” for the play in which students went to a park across the street from the school and released balloons containing favorite lines from the play. This was, reportedly, a way to help students find closure after the disappointment of being told they had to stop work on the play.

Ms. Taylor was subsequently suspended, and shortly thereafter resigned under pressure.

Other details of the case are more contested, including the reasons why Ms. Taylor was instructed to stop teaching “The Laramie Project” and the justification for her suspension and forced resignation. I’ve immersed myself for a couple of days in various online reports and articles on the subject, but what really captured my attention was an online conversation—often angry and full of venom—that emerged among Grandfield students and other Grandfield natives in the form of comments on an Austin-based web article by Frederick Reinhardt.

The article was a brief, early report on the events surrounding Ms. Taylor’s suspension, but the hundred-plus comments that followed offer a portrait of a community in conflict, a town that, like Laramie, had been awakened from its dogmatic slumber and forced to reflect on itself and its values (although many of the comments were really an effort to shout the town back to sleep, to end the process of reflection). I don’t doubt that this online exchange could be effectively mined by a talented playwright to create a script. We might call it “The Grandfield Project.”

According to several Grandfield High students who posted on the site, the recent events in Grandfield were largely driven (surprise!) by homophobia. A number of students reported that Superintendent Turlington came into the classroom of his wife, an English teacher at the school, and delivered a “rant” against gays in which, among other things, he blamed them for AIDS. At least one student indicated that the action against Ms. Taylor first occurred only after the superintendent’s wife, Mrs. Turlington, heard from some students that Ms. Taylor was teaching a “gay play.”

Officially, the administration claims that the decision had nothing to do with homophobia and everything to do with offensive language in the play--and Ms. Taylor’s termination had everything to do with insubordination.

Given the number of students who have corroborated the superintendent’s alleged classroom rant against homosexuals, my inclination is to believe that this event actually occurred. And for a number of reasons, it seems to me unlikely that the bits of profanity in “The Laramie Project” were really what inspired a moratorium on teaching it. After all, the play does not celebrate the profanity that its characters, for reasons of authenticity, occasionally use. As a number of Grandfield students noted, they hear far worse in the school cafeteria. And there’s profanity at least as bad in numerous works of literature that are routinely taught in classes without commentary or intervention.

I’m not a playwright, and I’m hardly qualified to even attempt to create “The Grandfield Project” from the substance of the comments posted on the Austin-based site. But after reading through the angry name-calling, the urgent story-telling, the impassioned pleas and the harsh accusations, I emerged with my own picture of what happened in Grandfield, Oklahoma. For what it’s worth, I want to share it.

This is, of course, a bit presumptuous, given that I don’t know any of the players involved. But sometimes what is needed is an outside perspective, someone who can look at the tangle of individual stories and perspectives that make up the fabric of a story, and can stand back far enough from it all to see the pattern. And I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the kinds of interpersonal dynamics I find myself observing as I pore through the blogged monologues of Grandfield students and residents. My version of the story emerges as I bring these personal experiences to bear on this messy tapestry of conflict and accusation and impassioned narrative.

To start, I should say that, while I doubt Superintendent Turlington had carefully read “The Laramie Project” before he made his decision, I suspect he knew something about it. He surely knew it had something to do with Matthew Shepard, that gay college kid who was murdered. He probably had some suspicion that the play didn’t just condemn the acts of the murderers, but was trying to make a broader point. And I suspect Ed Turlington knew or guessed enough about the play to find it a threat to the kind of ideology he embraced, one which was strong in his community, an ideology which he wanted to preserve.

In “The Laramie Project,” pervasive cultural homophobia emerges as a dangerous force that can help to spawn brutal violence. What does such a message say about those who vilify gays and lesbians as a group, who blame them for AIDS, who endorse an “in-group/out-group” dichotomy according to which part of being a good citizen involves being straight and seeking to marginalize those who are not?

The play is intended to deliberately challenge the bright line that so many of us draw between cultural attitudes and individual actions, between widespread community sentiments and the extreme actions of a few.

When someone says, “I’m condemning those sick people who practice this AIDS-producing lifestyle offensive to God, but I don’t think anyone should beat them up or kill them,” the play responds in the following way: “Hate is a volatile power. It is something that flows in the bloodstream in a community, and one never knows when and where it will concentrate itself, when and where it will become so potent that it explodes outward with deadly consequences.”

When someone says, “I’m condemning the sick, depraved things that those sinning homos do, but of course I love the sinner,” the play replies in the following way: “The line you wish to draw is hard, especially when being gay is as much an identity as it is a pattern of behavior, and especially when condemning this behavior amounts to saying to gays and lesbians that they are denied any legitimate expression of their unchosen sexuality.”

In short, my theory is that Superintendent Turlington sensed or suspected that Ms. Taylor was teaching a play that challenged the legitimacy of some of his community’s values, calling into question an ideology that he and many in his community endorsed. At least on some visceral level, Turlington knew that the play’s message accused him and others in Grandfield of fostering the conditions that breed hate crimes.

And because he saw neither himself nor his community as evil, he responded with defensiveness and outrage…and expressed those feelings in two ways. First, he went to his wife’s classroom and preached to her students the very ideology that the play was challenging. Second, he exercised his authority as superintendent to shut down the teaching of the play. He was, in a real sense, “defending community standards” by stopping something whose message was, in effect, that at least some of his community’s standards were dangerously wrong.

It would be a mistake, I think, to treat the message of “The Laramie Project” as a blanket condemnation of Laramie or communities like it. But it is quite possible that the superintendent made this mistake. Mr. Turlington’s love of the town in which he lived may have become wedded to his own attachment to certain community values, and he may therefore have treated an attack on those values as amounting to an attack on Grandfield.

The truth is, of course, more subtle. Like most communities, Grandfield is surely a rich mixture of virtues and vices, wisdom and foolishness. To say there is a streak of ideological homophobia in Grandfield, just as in Laramie and so many other places, is not to say that the citizens of Grandfield approve of brutal violence against gays and lesbians. And it’s certainly not to deny the reality of neighborliness, of a widespread mutual concern, of community traditions that give many a sense of belonging, of institutions that help support families, of real friendliness and solidarity.

Rather, it is to say that these virtues do not extend to everyone. It is to say that if you’re gay in Grandfield, OK, you’ll feel as if you’re standing at the margins, looking in like the little match girl in H.C Anderson’s fable: alone in a dark alley, cold and hungry, while just beyond the wall a family gathers for the Christmas feast.

If you’re gay in Grandfield, you’ll never fully experience that sense of belonging that others take for granted. You’ll know that the community can’t fully accept you as you really are. You’ll know that the full experience of Grandfield’s friendliness and neighborliness comes with conditions of membership.

Mr. Turlington was a defender not merely of the community, but of those very conditions of membership. He thought that the marginalization of gays and lesbians was a good thing. It was something to be defended.

And how did Ms. Taylor respond to this effort to defend these “community standards”? By treating what Turlington had shut down as a loss to be grieved. What Turlington called bad and wicked, Ms. Taylor called valuable. And she invited her students to do the same. With a ritual in the park, she invited her students to say along with her, “Mr. Turlington is wrong to think that this play is evil, and to believe that the homophobic values in this community are worth defending even at the cost of shutting down an activity aimed at inspiring critical reflection.”

And this was the “insubordination” that inspired her suspension, the threat of termination, and ultimately her forced resignation. Other things she might have done—taking students off school grounds without the proper paperwork (even if taking students to the park in this way was a common practice), allowing students to use iPods and pop popcorn while engaged in class projects, leading a class activity that involved the play after she’d been asked to stop teaching the play—these were merely excuses. The real problem was this: Ms. Taylor didn’t merely tell Superintendent Turlington and all those who supported him that they were wrong. She invited her students to do the same.

And many of them did. And, of course, they were right to do so.

And I don’t mean they were right to challenge Turlington’s allegiance to a homophobic ideology. I do think that, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. What I’m referring to is this: When people use their position of authority to shut down critical reflection on community values, they are using their position of authority to shut down one of the most crucial aims of education. If there is one thing that the best teachers teach, it isn’t some piece of knowledge or even an ability to read or do math. It is, rather, the willingness and ability to engage in sound critical reflection, a kind of thinking that does not take established norms (or their rejection) for granted but raises critical questions about pervasive ideologies.

After all, it is only through such critical reflection that we have any hope of improving the world.

The reason why a number of Ms. Taylor’s students and their parents have become so vocal in their opposition to what happened is precisely this: As they see it, Ms. Taylor was challenging and inspiring these students to learn and think in new ways. And the school superintendent shut that down. Rather than facilitating their education, he used his authority to block it. They are angry because that is the very opposite of what a school administrator is supposed to do.

And so battle lines have been drawn between those who support Turlington’s efforts to defend community values against the threat posed by a play, and those who condemn him for using his authority to pursue agendas directly at odds with the goals of a public education.

This, then, is my version of the story, a version I’ve teased out of a hundred and eleven passionate and often vitriolic comments, posted in response to Frederick Reinhart’s short article. It’s only one version, and I’d be fooling myself if I thought it was the whole story, or if it didn’t leave out important truths. But it’s a story that I think will resonate with at least a few of those who live in Grandfield and are therefore participating in the more complex story.

And it’s not the most flattering story. And that, of course, is the point of all of this. Communities often have a shared mythology about their town and what it’s like. And most of the time, that story goes unchallenged. But then something happens, and the happy myth is threatened. Outsiders start to scrutinize the community and tell new stories about it. People both inside and outside the community reject the myth or modify it, and the members of the community find themselves forced to ask whether these alternative stories have any truth to them.

It happened in Laramie. And, thanks in part to a play about what happened in Laramie, it is happening now in Grandfield, Oklahoma.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Baby's Big Adventure

I recently mentioned to my wife, Ty, that our new dog Max is kind of like Buddhist meditation on legs. When I said it, I was thinking about how I’m drawn into the present moment when he plunks his big black head on my lap. My usually racing mind stills itself, and for a little while I’m existing in the Now, just experiencing the presence of this furry Other. Worries and preoccupations fade away, and I get some inkling of what Buddhists mean when they talk about “mindfulness.”

But a couple of weeks ago, Max helped to give us all a different lesson, an “ethico-religious” lesson about responding to change and loss. With the help of Max and some good friends, we were all reminded of how minor tragedies can be transformed into something lovely and delightful.

You see, Max decided to turn Izzie’s home-made baby-doll, Baby, into a chew toy. He gnawed off her hair and punched some holes into the fabric on the side of her head.

This wasn’t wholly surprising, given Max’s penchant for chewing on things. It took us awhile to figure out that he wasn’t limiting himself to what we’d inadvertently left lying around on the floor. He was actually lifting the lid of Izzie’s toy box to extract what he wanted from inside. Since joining our family, Max has helped himself in this way to a number of toys. But chomping on Baby was more serious than some of his other offenses. To understand its full significance, a bit of history is required.

A couple of years ago, when Izzie was still a few months shy of her first birthday, we spent a weekend with friends at a rented cabin in an Arkansas forest. It was a wonderful occasion in which we had the chance to connect with old friends, walk in the woods, eat good food, and watch our children play together.

One of our friends, Leslie, brought everything that was needed to make cloth baby dolls. While my wife and a few others struggled to create baby dolls, Leslie made several, including one for Izzie. The result was Baby. It was the first doll Izzie ever became attached to, and it remains her favorite—although it was temporarily dethroned by a plastic Tinkerbell.

Incidentally, Max also chewed enthusiastically on Tinkerbell a few days after going to town on Baby’s scalp. We considered attaching a hook in place of Tink’s gnawed-off hand, but decided instead to buy surreptitiously a replacement. We didn’t want Izzie to start thinking of Max as The Favorite Doll Killer.

But Baby couldn’t be replaced so easily. It isn’t hard to imagine the sentimental value that all of us attached to this little doll made of brown cloth and black yarn. And it’s not hard to imagine how we felt when we came home to learn that Baby, of all Izzie’s toys, had become the target of Max’s separation-anxiety-induced destructiveness.

It would’ve been easy to turn on the poor dog in outrage, or to see the doll’s destruction as the severing of a thread linking us to Izzie’s infancy. We might have looked at this little girl who was growing up so fast, who was no longer even a toddler anymore. We might have noted how quickly it was all going by, vanishing into a past that could never be reclaimed. And we might have attached all those feelings to this object of sentimental memory, now wet with dog slobber.

And I suppose, for a little while, we did all of those things. But then my wife picked up the phone, and she called her friend Leslie, Baby's creator.

Leslie promptly offered to try to stitch up the puncture wounds and make Baby a new head of hair. But the offer wasn’t really about restoring what was lost. It was about embarking on a new journey. And a journey is precisely what it became—a journey in which all of us participated, if only vicariously.

It began with a trip to the post office. Ty took Izzie with her, and together they sent Baby off to “the doll hospital.” And by a coincidence of timing, Baby arrived at Leslie’s just as she and her family were about to leave town for spring break. And so Baby went along.

And that’s when the photos started to arrive. At first it was a bald-headed Baby, unrepaired and ready for a trip to New Orleans. Then it was Baby in front Graceland. At some point Baby got a new head of hair, longer than it had been before. And so, by the time we received the pictures of Baby in Mississippi and Louisiana, she was a new doll. In some of the pictures she began sporting new outfits that Leslie had made for her.

There were pictures of Baby posing with Leslie or her daughter--or, in one case, with another doll.

And then at last we got the message that Baby was on her way home. On the day that she arrived, Izzie squealed with delight. We opened the box and took out a baby doll who was now sporting pig tails (her old hair had been short) and a new pair of flannel jammies. Izzie joyously swept the doll into her embrace while Ty read the “discharge papers,” which instructed us on follow-up care to ensure a full recovery (the most significant instruction being to keep Baby away from the dog).

In many ways, Baby’s journey isn’t very important, especially in a world where there are children who go to bed without food. But it is a story which carries with it some lessons that are less than trivial. One of those lessons is this: Had Max not chewed off Baby’s hair, Baby would never have been shipped off to Leslie. The gestures of friendship that followed wouldn’t have happened. And Baby’s wonderful journey, photographed for our delight, wouldn’t now be a part of our lives.

This is not to say that the destruction of a sentimental toy isn’t bad. What it means is that through creativity and humor and love, people were able to make this bad thing into part of a bigger story. Baby’s unfortunate encounter with Max became an integral part of something good, something that gave meaning to what might in a different context have been nothing but an unfortunate loss.

It matters what we do with the events that occur to us. The stories we jointly weave around those events can turn a minor tragedy into one episode in a lovely tale of friendship. But the stories we weave can also turn a minor tragedy into the start of something far worse, a deeper tragedy defined by hostility and regret. The latter is more likely when we cling to the past and won’t move on, when we won’t accept the finitude of things and refuse to journey into the unknown future.

Change is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. We cannot freeze things in place. Dolls will be destroyed. Relationships will end. Friends and loved ones will die. These realities are among the pieces from which we build a life. And the choices we make about what kind of life we’ll build do not just affect our own story. We also impact other lives and life stories, just as they do our own.

We don’t tell the story all by ourselves. We can’t control its course. We can only make choices about what we’ll do with the pieces that fall before us, and then wait to see what falls before us next. The challenge is to focus on building the best life we can out of the pieces that tumble into our path, and to help others do the same.

As soon as we say, “I need to acquire these pieces or the story is ruined,” we’re in trouble. That’s when we resent the pieces that tumble in our path rather than doing the best that we can with them. As soon as we say, “All these pieces need to stay in place or the story’s ruined,” we’re in trouble. Some losses are horrible, and it may well be that part of building a good life is treasuring those pieces that are most precious and preserving them from loss as best we can. But we can’t control the story. Loss is inevitable. And when loss happens, even bitter loss, we have to decide what to do, what story to build around that loss…and then strive to build the best story we can.

It’s easier to do that, and do it well, when the loss is relatively minor, when it’s a doll that’s been chomped on by a dog. But it’s by doing it well in such cases, when the loss is small, that we develop the habits of character that will carry us through the more brutal losses, the times when we confront in all its dark terror the finitude of this life.

All of this can be said without any reference to God or the transcendent. I suspect that secular humanists and die-hard naturalists will agree with the wisdom of striving in this life to make the best of what comes without trying to control what comes, to achieve that balance between accountability for ourselves and acceptance of what is beyond our control—in short, the wisdom embodied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s extraordinary Serenity Prayer, which has been embraced by twelve step programs around the world.

But it’s hard, this task of taking responsibility for how we engage with the world while letting go of the outcome. Nobody does it perfectly, especially in the hard times, no matter how much we practice when the stakes are less high. When the finitude of this life slaps us in the face, and we confront in an unfettered way own limits and the limits of everyone and everything we hold dear, it is easy for some of us to allow a pretense of indifference to replace acceptance, and for recklessness to replace responsibility. For others, it is easy for angry defiance to reign, inspiring a futile effort to take control of the world, to defeat the inescapable boundaries of our existence.

And so, it may be that what we most need to practice when the stakes are less high, what we most need to learn from hapless dogs and shredded toys, is how not to be afraid of finitude. And one antidote to this fear, perhaps the only true antidote, is what Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite”—that is, the sense that beyond our limits, instead of finding Barth’s dark and terrible “Das Nichtige,” the Nothingness, we will find instead a boundless Yes.

To trust this sense, despite the impossibility of proving that it is veridical, is the essence of religious faith as I understand it. It is to decide to live in the hope that this boundless Yes we sense in fleeting whispers is not an illusion, not a mere projection of our desires.

Sometimes our capacity for such faith is strengthened by the smaller but important yeses that come from our friends, perhaps in a series of photographs. Or in an affable dog who, despite a penchant for chewing up toys, can lift you out of yourself with the weight of his head on your lap. Or in a doll that is suddenly sporting a new pair of pig tails.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Misguided Desire to Stifle Dawkins

This past Friday, Richard Dawkins came to Oklahoma and gave a talk at OU. I didn’t make it down. When I first heard of his impending visit I toyed with going, but then decided against driving the hour-and-a-half, fighting the crowds, and missing my children’s bedtime and one of the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

But events that unfolded in Oklahoma on the day of his talk led me to feel some regret at this decision. I’m speaking about the resolutions filed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in advance of Dawkins’ arrival. The first, HR 1014, is a directive targeting OU and its Zoology Department for “indoctrinating students in the theory of evolution” and for inviting Dawkins to speak on campus. The second, HR 1015, is a spin on the first, with the focus being on chastising OU for inviting Dawkins and then urging OU to engage in an “open, dignified, and fair discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution and all other scientific theories.”

Let me reflect on these resolutions with a couple of points in mind. The first is this: neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is not just some speculative account of the development of life on earth. It is an explanatory model for the development of life on earth that beautifully synthesizes the best research in a diverse array of disciplines ranging from genetics and microbiology to paleontology and ecology and geology. It is, as one friend recently put it, “massively explanatory.” It fits so many diverse empirical observations together, creates such a cohesive account of the development of life, has such enormous predictive power in terms of what we should observe within nature, that it would be something of a miracle were the theory not substantially correct.

In short, this is not a controversial scientific theory. To pretend otherwise in the course of teaching relevant science to college students would be to seriously mislead those students. Since no reputable university should be in the business of seriously misleading students, no reputable university should present a theory as controversial when it is not.

None of this means there are no puzzles or problems to be wrestled with, or that these puzzles and problems should be obscured in the course of teaching evolutionary theory (they're not). But given the enormous explanatory power of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, the most reasonable thing to expect is that further research into these puzzles and problems will result at most in revisions and refinements, not in the abandonment of the theory. So, it would be a mistake to present these puzzles and problems as if they were more threatening to the overall plausibility of evolutionary theory than they are.

When I say all of this, it is not as an expert in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Rather, it is as a reasonably educated lay-person who knows what the overwhelming majority of experts have concluded based on sustained, evidence-based research over many decades. A critic recently accused me of professing to be unqualified to assess the criticisms of evolution coming from the Intelligent Design community, and yet at the same time being perfectly willing to side with the evolutionary theorists whose ideas I profess to being unqualified to assess. In other words, he was accusing me of applying a double standard.

But here’s the thing. If you’re not an expert in a field, it seems that the most reasonable course is to defer to those who are. If there is an overwhelming consensus among those experts, and if the field is one in which reason and evidence govern research, in which new research is rigorously reviewed according to adherence to an objective methodology rather than conformity to established dogma—if all of this is the case, then the reasonable course for a non-expert is to defer to the consensus of the experts unless and until that consensus changes.

It isn’t to side with a challenger whose views are widely denounced as pseudoscientific by the consensus of experts. It isn’t to decide that until one has been able to assess the merits of the challenge for oneself, one should remain neutral in the debate. It isn’t to conclude that there’s a vast conspiracy going on in which the supposed experts are all in cahoots to silence the few brave voices who dare to challenge their dogma. The consensus of the experts may be wrong—but you’d darned well better have real expertise yourself if you’re going to try to make that case.

And so, as an educated lay reader when it comes to biology (I was a biology major for two years before switching to philosophy), I accept the consensus of experts when they explain in lay terms why evolutionary theory is massively explanatory, and why the most significant puzzles and challenges currently faced by biologists do not give us reason to think that there is anything substantially or fundamentally wrong with the theory.

But we need to be careful to distinguish between what the scientific theory of evolution actually holds and implies, and what amounts to controversial philosophical speculation in the light of the theory. And this is the second preliminary point I want to make.

Science studies the empirical world of matter and energy with an eye towards discovering the patterns or “natural laws” by which that world operates. But some of the things that happen in that world are not required to occur by some fixed natural law. When this is the case, scientists are inclined to say that these events happen “by chance,” although they might note that natural laws determine a framework of possible things that might happen, and affix probabilities to these various possibilities.

Genetic mutation is one of those areas in which specific occurrences aren’t determined by natural laws. And genetic mutation is a crucial element of evolutionary theory. From the standpoint of science, an event that occurs which is undetermined by natural laws will look the same whether it happens by chance or by the influence of some agency that lies outside the empirical world studied by science. In either case, no regular pattern observable in the empirical world determines what precisely occurred.

This means that a purely scientific examination of the world can never rule out the thesis that some intelligent agency is at work in the “chance gaps” left by natural laws. But such an examination can’t establish this thesis either. In brief, to infer intelligent agency at work in the “chance gaps,” we’d first need to know how such an intelligent agent would influence the course of events were there such an intelligent agent, and then we’d need to see whether events follow that course. In other words, we’d first need to have some serious insight into the MIND OF GOD. But science studies the empirical world, not the mind of God. So arguing for God’s existence in this way just isn’t science. “Intelligent Design Theory” therefore isn’t science, whatever other merits it might have as scientifically informed theology.

What all this means is that from a purely scientific standpoint, we need to be essentially agnostic with respect to the thesis that God is working in and through the processes of evolution. Science as such neither affirms nor denies this thesis. As such, it is a mistake to treat science in general or evolutionary theory in particular as the enemy of religion. And it is just as big a mistake to treat “Intelligent Design” theory as if it were science. I happen to embrace the theory that nature looks the way that it does because an intelligent agency lies behind it. But this is not a scientific theory.

There is, in short, a crucial difference between the scientific theory of evolution and the philosophical worldview--what we might call reductionistic metaphysical naturalism--which has so often been wedded to that theory. By “reductionistic metaphysical naturalism,” I mean a worldview according to which the empirical universe of matter and energy studied by science exhausts what is real, such that scientific explanation offers the ultimate explanation of every element of human experience--including morality, religious experience, aesthetics, consciousness, and the experience of being an agent who acts for reasons. All of these experiences, according to this philosophy, are ultimately caused by nothing but physical processes in our brains. They are mere by-products of events taking place in brain systems that have gradually evolved through natural selection because they advanced reproductive fitness.

To accept the scientific theory of evolution does not require one to accept reductionistic metaphysical naturalism (and by implication atheism). The conclusions of science may have bearing on the essentially philosophical arguments that address which fundamental worldviews fit best with the totality of human experience. But when scientists defend worldviews that limit reality to the scope of what science studies, they are doing philosophy, not science. And their arguments therefore need to be assessed in philosophical terms--something which I feel eminently qualified to do.

And so when Dawkins wades into philosophical waters, as he does in The God Delusion, I am more than ready to assess the quality of his efforts. I think they fall short…really far short. Put bluntly, whatever his merits as a scientist, he’s not a very good philosopher of religion.

But I would be the last person to want to silence him, even when he wanders into unfamiliar territory and wants to argue philosophy of religion. After all, as a friend of mine once said to me, even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut. And Dawkins is a very bright man. Even when he wanders outside his area of expertise, some of his thinking may be worth engaging with.

More significantly, Dawkins has done all of us in the philosophy of religion an enormous favor. For as long as I’ve been in the discipline, we philosophers have been debating such questions as the conditions under which it is legitimate to have beliefs that go beyond the evidence. And for as long as I’ve been in the discipline, the general public has been happily ignoring our conversations and debates.

That changed with the publication of The God Delusion and the other “new atheist” bestsellers. Suddenly, a wide swath of the general public became interested in the kinds of philosophical questions that people in my discipline have been wrestling with. Suddenly, I found myself with the opportunity to write a serious introduction to the philosophy of religion that had a good chance of being read by a wide readership. Our insular academic debate was suddenly taken up by a much broader audience than ever before. In this respect, Dawkins used his platform as a recognized public intellectual in the best possible way: to engage the general public in intellectual conversations which they had largely been ignoring.

I disagree with Richard Dawkins. I think he’s just wrong to think that evolutionary theory gives us compelling reasons to question religion. More broadly, I oppose his sweeping condemnation of religion, his insistence that beliefs about the transcendent are “pernicious delusions” and that “faith is an evil.” I think he is guilty here of making hasty generalizations on the basis of the worst that religion has to offer. And I find many of his arguments not only bad, but offensive in the sense that they amount to making fun of what he clearly doesn’t understand.

But none of this changes the fact that he is probably the best known living defender of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, that he is an expert in this theory, and that he ranks among the most renowned public intellectuals alive today--one who has used his notoriety to stimulate a broad public conversation. Scholars like this are precisely the kinds of people that we want college students to hear, even when they stray outside their areas of expertise, even when they’re wrong. We don’t, of course, want our students to listen without their critical faculties. But we want our students to hear them.

HR 1015, which of the two resolutions targets Dawkins most directly, chastises a major university for inviting a prominent public intellectual to speak on campus as part of a series on Darwin (a topic which no one would deny is an area in which Dawkins is expert). And why does this bill chastise OU for extending this invitation? Because Dawkins’ views are “contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma” and because Dawkins demonstrates “an intolerance for cultural diversity and diversity of thinking.”

We may wonder about the absurdity of accusing Dawkins of not tolerating diversity in a document that effectively seeks to silence a minority viewpoint on the ground that it offends the majority. Where, exactly, is the tolerance of diversity when one thinks majority opinion ought to dictate whose views should be given a platform?

But let me focus a bit more deeply on this charge of intolerance. When you call a belief system “evil” and “dangerous” and “pernicious,” there is a sense in which this expresses intolerance. And there is no question that Dawkins is on the record calling religion all of these things. But I’m pretty sure that I am on the record calling Nazism evil and dangerous, and nobody has accused me of doing anything objectionable.

Why not? Because Nazism is evil and dangerous. Now I don’t think all religion is evil, and so I think Dawkins’ judgment here is way off base. But the point is this: the species of intolerance which Dawkins is guilty of here isn’t the sort that we condemn just because it’s intolerant. This kind of intolerance--this willingness to stand up and denounce something as dangerous and wrong--is a virtue when its target really is dangerous and wrong.

So the question is which belief systems are dangerous and wrong. How do you decide? You decide by having spirited debates on the matter. You decide by hearing the arguments for various viewpoints and critically assessing those arguments. This can’t happen if those who believe that some belief systems are dangerous aren’t free to make their case. It can’t happen because they are shunned or excluded on the grounds that their viewpoint is “intolerant.”

When we speak about “intolerance,” we need to distinguish between two very different things. On the one hand, there’s the use of coercive power, usually by someone in a position of authority, to censor certain beliefs or persecute those who adhere to certain beliefs. On the other hand, there is the act of passing a negative judgment on some belief--either the judgment that the belief is mistaken, or that it’s dangerous--on the basis of reasons that are publicly shared and can therefore be subjected to critical assessment.

It is the former kind of intolerance that we need to avoid. That kind of intolerance amounts to political oppression. And if we want to avoid the former kind of intolerance, we need to allow the latter kind. Doing the latter is essential not only to academic discourse but to participatory democracy. It is by permitting the free and open discussion of ideas--including the critical evaluation of those ideas in what may be starkly negative ways--that we are most likely to discern which belief systems are good ones and which are bad.

And history teaches, I think, that if there are ideas and belief systems which really are dangerous, it is not a good idea to deal with them by legislating their censorship or suppression. Instead, it is far better to foster a climate in which the harmfulness and irrationality of those ideas can be brought to light through reasoned argument. Let the social discourse expose harmful ideas for what they are, and allegiance to those ideas will begin to wane. In the meantime, what we should legislate against are the overtly harmful behaviors that dangerously irrational ideas might be prone to inspire.

And so when Dawkins argues that religious ideas are dangerously irrational, we should listen to what he says without seeking to suppress it, and critically assess the merits of what he says. And when someone argues that Dawkins’ ideas are dangerously irrational, we should do the same. What we should not do, in either case, is attempt to stifle the open and critical discourse upon which both academic progress and deliberative democracy depend.

Despite what the House Resolutions claim, the science departments at OU are not stifling open and critical discourse when they design their teaching around the judgment that evolutionary theory offers the best scientific account of the phenomena it’s intended to explain. Rather, they are designing their teaching around the consensus that has emerged as the current outcome of ongoing open and critical discourse. At the same time, they are teaching students why evolutionary theory has emerged as the dominant theory, and they are teaching students how to participate in open and critical scientific discourse. If, in the end, it should prove that evolutionary theory is seriously defective, this will be demonstrated by students who understand why scientists have for so long found the theory convincing and who are well-trained in the methods of critical scientific inquiry. It won't be demonstrated because ideologues have succeeded in bullying their way into science programs with theories that aren’t science.

In these recent events surrounding Dawkins' visit to OU, there is an instance of someone with an intolerant desire to stifle open and critical discourse. In filing HR’s 1014 and 1015, Representative Thomsen is expressing that desire. The good news is that even if these resolutions pass, they lack the power to make Thomsen’s intolerant wishes a reality.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An Open Letter to a Conservative Christian Blogger

This post is a response to a conversation started on another blog, and takes the form of an open letter to the author of that blog. I was invited by a new acquaintance to read a blog post critical of Christian universalism (the version of Christianity which holds that all will eventually be saved, even if some must suffer in alienation from God before they finally accept divine grace). Among other things, the author of that post was under the impression that universalists emphasize God’s love at the expense of God’s justice and holiness. I responded to this in part by summarizing some arguments concerning justice and holiness that I have developed in philosophical articles. The blog’s author opened her reply with a comment that, to put the point bluntly, stunned me. This open letter is an extended reply to that comment. In brief, it is an attempt to highlight the need for approaching the Bible holistically and philosophically.

Those interested in seeing the (ongoing) discussion and debate at the blog site that sparked this entry, or want to read this post in the context of that debate, should go here.


You wrote:

On the issue of justice, if you believe (as I do and as Steven is arguing) that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, it is not necessary to argue about God’s justice philisophically (sic). What you have done is try to explain how God could or should punish or atone for sin. But in taking the Bible as absolute truth we know that “the wages of sin is death.” The Bible states over and over again that God’s punishment for sin is “death” as in eternal separation from Him, the opposite of life. It is not up to us to rewrite this simply because we do not agree with the length or severity of the punishment.

I want to make a few points in response to this.

That you think your theory about the nature of the Bible’s authority implies you needn’t think in a sustained and careful way on the matter of God’s justice (or attend carefully to those who do) is disturbing to me on many levels.

First, it’s just not true that a doctrine of biblical inerrantism has this implication. The complexity of the text (not to mention the apparent contradictions when every passage is read literally), the enormous difficulty of interpreting lines of thought whose language is often ambiguous, and the challenge of piecing together a theology from the raw material of a book that is often more about telling stories and exhorting believers in metaphorical and poetic hyperbole—well, all of these things entail that on any major issue, such as the construal of God’s justice, we will need to think systematically and deeply—that is, philosophically—in order to figure out which theological position fits best with the entirety of the biblical witness.

Second, the fact that so many who ascribe to biblical inerrantism are quick to abandon careful thought in favor of shallow proof-texting is just one more of the “bad fruits” of this theory (and yes, it is one theory among many concerning how to understand the nature of the Bible, its authority, and its relation to divine self-disclosure). For more bad fruits, see the chapter on “Divine Tyranny and the Goodness of God” in my book. I'd be interested in seeing how you would defend your inerrantist theory against my concerns raised there.

On this point, let me just briefly comment on you concluding remark, namely this: “I believe what God has revealed to me (to all of us) in His Word. To not do so is to not only limit Him but reject His very revelation of Himself.”

Of course, every theist, not to mention every Christian, should trust in God’s self-disclosure or revelation (no matter how difficult it may be to capture that self-disclosure within the limits of merely human concepts). The question is how the Bible is related to that self-disclosure. You seem to think the Bible is the ultimate self-disclosure of God. But I think the more clearly Christian view is to hold that Jesus is the ultimate self-disclosure of God in history. In fact, the Bible never calls itself “the Word” of God. In the opening passage from the Gospel of John, it is Jesus who is named by that title.

And as I argue in my book, there is good reason to think that God would favor revealing Himself in loving relationships with living persons over revealing Himself in the static pages of a text--the Word made flesh, rather than the Word made ink-and-parchment.

What does that make the Bible? Perhaps the Bible is a powerful human testament to God's self-disclosure in history, especially in the person of Jesus (but also in many other, lesser self-disclosures).

Like all human testimonies, if the biblical testimonies are merely human they will be prone to human error. Inerrantists, confronting this implication, are prone in my experience to leap to the conclusion that if one admits the possibility of human error in the Bible one needs to abandon all reliance on the Bible as a source of wisdom and insight into the transcendent. In their view, it's all or nothing: Either we accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, or we throw the whole thing in the flames.

But the Bible collects the testimonies of many witnesses, from many different times and places. The biblical accounts of the divine are written by people from different cultural contexts, who are therefore likely to bring different prejudices and biases to their understanding and interpretation of the divine self-disclosure (rather than having all the same biases). And all of this means that, if the Bible is a human testament to divine revelation in history, it may be extremely helpful in giving us insight into the divine, even if it's human authors are fallible.

A police officer can pretty effectively figure out what happened at the scene of an accident by interviewing fallible witnesses, assuming that there are enough of them, and assuming that he can discern their respective prejudices and biases, discounting what they say when those biases might be in play. Likewise, if the Bible is a human testament to divine self-disclosure in history, it is an extremely diverse one. Internal criticism and historical criticism can therefore be invoked in ways analogous to the methods used by the officer, to discern the common themes, the common thread of divine meaning which weaves through the whole. In short, on this view it isn’t isolated passages ("proof-texts") that carry the deepest insight into divine revelation, but rather the conclusions drawn from a critical, historically informed, holistic reading.

Reading the Bible in this way is hard work that demands we make use of all our intellectual powers. It requires, in short, that we be philosophical. And it may be that our insight into the divine may be deepened even more if we take into account the testimonies of other faith traditions, and bring those testimonies into sustained philosophical and critical conversation with the Christian witness.

But let's think about the challenges of interpreting the Bible and discerning its message in a more practical way. You say that the Bible states, "the wages of sin is death." But how do we understand this? Here is a theory drawn from a literal interpretation of Genesis: It is by virtue of Adam’s sin that death (terrestrial death) was brought into the world. On that reading, it has little to do with questions of the afterlife.

Of course, context may dictate against that reading, so here is a less literal but theologically orthodox interpretation: Sin in its essence is a state of alienation from God, which amounts to alienation from the source of life and all that is good. The natural consequence of such alienation, in the absence of some act to prevent it, is not just to lose touch with all that is good and hence be miserable and spiritually corrupted. It is, more profoundly, to go out of existence altogether. To die in the true sense. On this theory, “the wages of sin is death” is not about God’s justice but about the natural consequences of cutting oneself off from God, insofar as God is the source of all being.

Notice that, on this interpretation, if hellism is true (and by “hellism” I simply mean the doctrine that some of God’s beloved children endure eternal suffering in hell after death), then God intervenes to prevent the full wages of sin from being experienced by the damned. He preserves them in being, in effect not letting them achieve the full alienation from God that they seek. If he did let them, they would go out of existence, and the result would be annihilation rather than hell.

My point here is simply that we need to do a great deal of interpretive work to figure out exactly what this means, how it’s related to divine justice and other core biblical themes, etc.

But the challenges run even deeper. The Bible clearly states that the wages of sin is death. But the Bible is also clear that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And yet the Bible is also clear that not all of us endure the full wages of sin because of what God did through Christ.

To fit all these things together into a holistic understanding of the biblical message, we cannot interpret “the wages of sin is death” to mean that all sinners suffer eternal damnation. Instead, we have to take it to mean that “death” (however that is to be understood) is what happens to sinners barring divine intervention on our behalf. The question is about how broadly God’s salvific intervention extends.

The Apostle Paul argues that it extends to all. And yes, I know that hellists are habituated to dismiss and interpret away Paul’s universalism, but it’s there, plain as day.

One of the things that really struck me reading your original post was how you chastised universalists for taking a few biblical passages and ignoring the broader biblical context. But then you promptly did the same with Romans 9:27, which reads as follows: “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.”

The broad section of Romans in which this passage occurs is prefaced by such straightforwardly universalist statements as Romans 5:18-19: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

Romans 9:27 itself is a quotation from Isaiah, in which Isaiah talks about how a particular remnant of the nation of Israel—“the survivors of the house of Jacob,” to be precise—are saved from earthly calamaties (not from eternal damnation) when the rest of Israel is not. Paul uses this passage as a metaphor for what is happening to the Jews of his day, insofar as only a small percentage became followers of Christ.

Paul thinks that God has ordained this in order to more effectively reach out to and convert the Gentiles. In Romans 11:25 he makes it clear that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Note that Paul speaks of the full number of the Gentiles. All but a remnant of Israel is kept out of the church as part of a project that will bring in all the Gentiles. All of them. And then what happens to the rest of Israel? Damnation?

Not according to Paul. In the very next passage, Roman 11:26, he tells us explicitly what will happen to Israel. What does he say? This: “all Israel will be saved.” In case anyone doubts the scope of God’s salvific plan here, Paul concludes this section of the epistle, in Romans 11:32, with the following statement: “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Not some. All. Not just the obedient. All. All are disobedient. All are the objects of divine mercy.

So, who is ignoring context here? The universalists? Or is it the hellists? And what do we do with the even broader biblical context, one in which God is depicted as being boundless in love and mercy, as desiring the salvation of all, and as being infinitely resourceful in getting what He desires?

Of course, these two biblical images of God do not make the case for universalism all by themselves, since there are other things God may want, the attainment of which is incompatible with saving all. One might suppose that, despite being infinitely imaginative and infinitely powerful and infinitely wise, God just won’t be able to creatively shape history in ways that will make it possible, even for Him, to attain all of his objectives. In the end, God will fail, and in some human souls (the damned) the power of sin will reign forever victorious over God’s redemptive efforts. One might suppose this, and hence embrace hellism.

But the point is that a holistic reading of the Bible gives us an interpretive framework that is, to put the point mildly, congenial to universalism. It is the hellist who needs to work at explaining why a God of extravagantly unconditional love and almighty sovereignty would fail to save all those for whom He died on a cross in mortal anguish. Perhaps this work can be successfully accomplished (perhaps by some kind of appeal to human free will, although the case for hellism based on human freedom is not nearly as easy to make as many seem to think). But let us not pretend that the holistic context of the Bible is friendlier to the hellist than it is to the universalist.

And let us not pretend that any of these questions of ultimate significance can be answered by simple proof texting, without philosophical struggle and reflection. The Bible doesn't spoon feed us answers to life's mysteries, even if it may provide resources for wrestling with those mysteries.