Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buchanan Defends Breivik

Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, but right-wing anti-Islamic voices in Europe and the United States have been coming to the defense of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of last week’s brutal terrorist attacks in Norway.

Admittedly, they haven’t defended his violent actions. What they’ve defended is his cause. Breivik conceived his terrorist acts as part of a crusade against the intrusion of Islam into European culture, and against the “multiculturalists” and “cultural Marxists” he took to be abetting this invasion. Breivik’s defenders are denouncing what he did—denouncing it as the wrong way to pursue the cause. But they want to say that the cause itself is just.

It is tempting to respond with nothing but indignation—but such a response is insufficient. Let’s be clear about something: An idea may be sound even if it is espoused by a violent fanatic. If Hitler declared that 2 plus 2 equaled 4, he’d be right. Right-wing defender’s of Breivik’s cause (such as Pat Buchanan, whom I'll get to in a minute) want to say something along these lines: Yes, he’s mad and his means are horrific, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Let’s not discard the anti-Islamic, anti-multiculturalist worldview just because one man systematically slaughtered summer campers in its name.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that there is real reason to believe that Breivik’s ideas here lend themselves to violence. It’s no accident that those who see the world in terms of an intractable conflict between “us” and “them” are also those who are most likely to resort to terrorist violence. And even those who don’t resort to violence themselves nevertheless contribute to the polarization of social groups, the animosity and distrust across ethnic and religious lines that in the long run breeds violence.

Consider Pat Buchanan, whose recent essay, “A fire bell in the night for Norway,” reflects on Friday’s terrorist atrocity. He rightly anticipates that Breivik’s acts will inspire some thinkers to dig through Breivik’s manifesto to uncover the ideological seeds of violence—and he anticipates that those on the left will call attention to the lurking dangers in at least some of the right-wing notions Breivik espouses.

But rather than acknowledge the power of ideas to shape behavior—and the responsibility for caution that therefore falls on those with a public platform—Buchanan instead frames an international tragedy and the efforts to understand its etiology as a left-wing smear campaign against the American right:

[Breivik’s] writings are now being mined for references to U.S. conservative critics of multiculturalism and open borders. Purpose: Demonize the American right, just as the berserker's attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson was used to smear Sarah Palin and Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing was used to savage Rush Limbaugh and conservative critics of Big Government.
One can’t deny that some on the left will be opportunists in this way—although hardly everyone on the left was being merely opportunistic in calling out Sarah Palin and others for using militant “lock and load” rhetoric after a madman’s assassination-attempt against one of the politicians Palin had put in the crosshairs. Some (like me) were motivated by a sincere concern that such rhetoric contributes to a cultural climate in which violence is more likely.

Likewise, the existence of political opportunists on the left doesn’t mean that those who draw connections between certain right-wing ideas and Breivik’s violent mindset are necessarily wrong to do so. The question is whether a sound case can be made for this connection. It certainly cannot be made with respect to conservative political ideas taken as a whole. And I'm not inclined the think the right is alone in harboring dangerous ideas.

But I think a case can be made that certain pugnacious ideas enjoying popularity among right-wing pundits today played a role in shaping the horror in Norway. More specifically, I think it can be made with respect to the core idea from Breivik’s manifesto that Buchanan endorses—namely, the inescapability (and justifiability?) of a “Crusader's war between the real Europe and the ‘cultural Marxists’ and Muslims they invited in to alter the ethnic character and swamp the culture of the Old Continent.”

Here is what Buchanan says:

But, awful as this atrocity was, native-born and homegrown terrorism is not the macro-threat to the continent.

That threat comes from a burgeoning Muslim presence in a Europe that has never known mass immigration, its failure to assimilate, its growing alienation, and its sometime sympathy for Islamic militants and terrorists.

Europe faces today an authentic and historic crisis.

With her native-born populations aging, shrinking and dying, Europe's nations have not discovered how to maintain their prosperity without immigrants. Yet the immigrants who have come – from the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia – have been slow to learn the language and have failed to attain the educational and occupational levels of Europeans…
Buchanan is right that Europe confronts important challenges brought on by the introduction of diverse cultures into its previously homogenious populations. What is deeply troubling is the lesson that Buchanan reaches from this, expressed in his concluding flourish:

As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world that is growing in numbers and advancing inexorably into Europe for the third time in 14 centuries, on this one, Breivik may be right.
With these closing words, Buchanan seeks to evoke the specter of armed invasion, of Muslim armies coming to conquer. But immigration is not invasion. And while there are legitimate issues pertaining to regulating immigration and promoting the healthy integration of an immigrant community into the society into which it settles, it is easy to confuse the desire to preserve one’s cultural identity in a new land with a resistance to healthy integration. Likewise, it is easy to confuse conflict with violence, and so to see the inevitability of cultural conflict as the inevitability of violence.

These confusions are ones that pundits like Buchanan routinely exploit. The result is that previously homogeneous societies, rather than looking for ways to transition peacefully and painlessly into the greater multiculturalism that demographic realities and globalization make inevitable, find themselves resisting even the small-scale diversity one finds in places like Norway.

The result is as predictable as it is paradoxical. The accusation that immigrants refuse to integrate is used as a justification for practices that further isolate and marginalize the immigrant communities. Rather than looking for ways to promote integration, communities are encouraged to resent the immigrant communities. On a deep cultural level, a wall is built up around the immigrants. And their further isolation and failure to integrate is used to vindicate the resentment.

In other words, Buchanan’s species of rhetoric contributes to a feedback loop that deepens the divide between immigrant communities and the societies they have come to inhabit. The difficult challenge of building bridges of community across ethnic and cultural divides—a challenge that must be met if healthy coexistence is to happen—is not just made harder. The cultural resources needed to meet that challenge are instead redirected to building higher walls.

And behind those walls, resentments fester. Without sustained positive interactions with the broader population, there is little to neutralize or mute the resentments. Extremist elements become more potent and are more likely to be quietly supported—or at least not actively opposed.

In short, the accusation that immigrant communities are a “problem” that pose a “threat” becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The polarization, the in-group/out-group ideologies, becomes increasingly entrenched—and parties on both sides view the other with growing paranoia and hostility. Until, finally, someone strikes out with shattering violence.

While we cannot deny that there are extremists who wear the mantle of Islam—any more than we can deny that there are extremists who wear the mantle of Christianity—the kind of mistrustful anti-Muslim sentiments expressed by Pat Buchanan and those like him can only fuel the fires that generate extremists of both sorts. If terrorism has a cause—a root cause in the human psyche—it is the pattern of us-them thinking encouraged by Buchanan and others like him. Although Buchanan’s rhetoric is more cautious than extremist manifestos of people like Breivik, this may not be a virtue. It may only serve to make a pernicious ideology more palatable, and hence more likely to be swallowed.

Polarizing us-them thinking needs to end. Breivik’s crimes show us why. Buchanan, astonishingly, reaches instead the conclusion that when it comes to his vision of a Crusaders’ war between Europeans and Muslims, “Breivik may be right.” I can hardly think of a more inverted lesson to draw from last week’s terror.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Atrocity and Empathy: How to Answer Anders Breivik’s Desire to Speak

Anders Behring Breivik, the homegrown Norwegian terrorist responsible for murdering close to a hundred Norwegians on Friday, wants a chance to explain why he did it—or more precisely, why his acts were “atrocious but necessary”. It’s as if he thinks mass murder should give one a public platform.

In a sense, it already has: Who would’ve paid attention to his more-than-thousand-page manifesto and other internet writings (or helpful summaries of them) before he set off a bomb in downtown Oslo and then went on a killing rampage at a youth summer camp?

Other extremists, perhaps. Scholars trying to understand the character of European neofascism and related groups. Anti-terrorism agencies trying (imperfectly) to anticipate when words and bluster are about to spill over into overt violence. But the general public? Before Breivik’s horrific acts, they could’ve cared less.

And their indifference is perfectly justified. Breivik has nothing new to say. He’s just repeating the same old formula of hate. Jean-Paul Sartre already provided a brilliant analysis of the psychological underpinnings of that formula in his classic Anti-Semite and Jew. Recently deceased Brown philosopher John Ladd has helpfully spelled out the main structure and precepts of ideological group hatred, in the pursuit of an understanding of what drives collective violence, why it’s so intractable, and how we might respond (I've outlined his thinking in the last chapter of Is God a Delusion?, but the original article appears in the anthology Justice, Law, and Violence). These things are worth reading, if only for the sake of recognizing in ourselves the attenuated traces of such thinking, the stamp of ancient tribalism.

Breivik fills in Ladd’s framework with his own anti-Muslim, anti-multiculturalist details. But it’s the same old stuff. He embodies and lives out the psychology Sartre described. But explosions and atrocity don’t make this sludge any more worthwhile.

Nevertheless, our need to understand drives us towards news accounts of who he was and what motivated him. The need to understand what lies behind atrocities is very basic, and I think it is especially felt by the victims—both direct and indirect—of horror. “How could you?” is not simply a rhetorical question.

And so I say let him speak.

But not yet. If he spoke now it would just be the same drivel we’ve heard before, devoid of insight. All he knows is his mad rhetoric. He doesn’t yet understand how such falsehoods, such twisted ideas about reality and the human condition, could drive him to do what he did. At this moment he remains under the delusion that he did what he did because it was justified. Justified. Sharing such delusions will not answer our need. It will not answer the anguished “How could you?”

And so I say let him speak, but not before all the surviving victims, the families and loved ones of the victims, and all those affected by Friday’s horror have first had the opportunity to confront him with their pain and rage and loss. This may take awhile.

And it isn’t enough that the victims have the chance to confront the man who shattered so many lives. They need for him to really hear and understand.

In other words, let him speak, but only after his surviving victims have not only had their say, but succeeded in breaking through the defensive walls of ideology and self righteousness that keep people like Breivik from truly comprehending the experiences of their victims and confronting the evil of what they’ve done.

Let him speak, but first make sure that “atrocity” is more than just a word to him. Require that before making his case for what he did, he sincerely feel in his very bones the trauma of each child he stalked and the shattering agony of those whose loved ones were lost to his bullets and his bomb.

After all, what does it mean to say an atrocity is “necessary”? Breivik surely does not mean that he was determined by the laws of physics to do what he did—in which case we should view Breivik’s actions in the way we view deadly volcanic eruptions and tornados. Breivik doesn’t mean that. He means that his murderous acts had to be done in order to achieve a greater good.

In other words, Breivik wants to say that the “good” achieved by his deeds is greater than the evil done. If that’s what he wants to say, then let’s insist he actually try to understand the magnitude of the evil he’s done. And he won’t understand that until he can genuinely empathize with those he’s harmed.

My first cousin’s daughter, Marin, was in downtown Oslo when the bomb exploded. My relatives in Norway were frantic, terrified they’d lost this promising, beautiful life just before she was about to embark on a high school exchange year in the United States. Thankfully she was safe, in a different part of the city from where the bomb exploded.

But two of her cousins were less lucky. They were at camp.

No one immediately understood the magnitude of this greater crime at the campground on Utøya island, this mass murder of children and young adults—no one except those who were there. Marin’s cousins were. Both survived, although the older sister was shot in the leg and lay for an hour surrounded by the corpses of her friends, listening to him shooting and, as she describes it, whooping with glee (her harrowing account--in Norwegian, I'm afraid--can be found here). The younger sister played dead and was not physically injured.

Both survived, and yet I do not doubt that something profound was killed in each of them that day. Witnesses reported that Breivik was being meticulous about his murderous work, and so was blowing the heads off of those who were already on the ground. Marin’s cousins survived because they were lucky, because Breivik didn’t have time to finish his work. Did they know that he was walking among the dead, putting a bullet in each brain? What would that have done to them? What was shattered in them by what Breivik did that day?

Perhaps it was the capacity for trust, for optimism, or for sleeping peacefully at night. So let’s tell Breivik that before he’s allowed to make his case to the Norwegian people, he must first share the terrified dreams of each survivor. He must wake up screaming as he imagines himself swimming desperately for safety, unwilling to trust the boats coming to help him. He must sob through dreams of lying in a heap of dead bodies as a murderous madman fires again and again, extinguishing human lives for the sake of an ideology of hate utterly disconnected from Goodness and Truth.

Until he is in a position to demonstrate that he is not just pretending empathy, but really feels every bullet fired as if it were shot into his own flesh, every bit of shattered glass as if it were tearing through his torso…until he experiences the magnitude of the evil he’s done as if it were shredding him from within…until then, he should not be allowed to make his case. Because until he feels all these things, he won’t understand the atrocity he wants to call necessary.

There’s another name for what I’m describing. It’s the pain of redemption. It’s the experiencing of being welded back into the good, and seeing what one has done from the standpoint of the good. To stand at such a place—the only standpoint from which anyone can, with authority, declare that achieving an aim is worth the cost—is to experience with absolute clarity the depths of one’s own evil, and to experience it as one who is devoted fully and truly to the good.

There is no anguish greater than this. It is hell. And in this sense of “hell” I hope to God that hell is real. Because hell in this sense is no different from salvation.

Of course, when Breivik meets this condition for being given the opportunity to speak—when he is redeemed—he’ll see that his aims in perpetrating horror were nothing more that the projections of his ideological hatred, and hence, being evil, could not possibly outweigh the atrocity of his means. He’ll come to see what he’s done as evil all the way down.

Is it possible for someone like Breivik to be redeemed in this way? I believe it is, but this belief is a religious one. A religious hope. It is the hope that the kind of God described by Christianity is real. If so, then love wins. If so, then Breivik will experience something more profound than the outward suffering that condemnation and punishment can inflict. If so, then the power of ideological hatred will not ultimately prevail, even in the hearts of its most brutal advocates.

But if there is a transcendent God like this, our experience of evil rampant, of horrors unchecked in this life, speaks to a distance between us and the divine. It is a distance imposed, perhaps, by the strictures of material existence, of time and space—a divine withdrawal necessitated by the logic of creation, by the need to fashion a space for that-which-is-not-God (an idea expressed in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum). In such a world, we cannot sit and wait for God. We must be His instruments, through which redemptive power can move and change the world—or the twisted spirit of a man like Breivik. And even our wrath, our outraged “Look what you’ve done! Look and understand!”—in other words, our insistence that the agents of atrocity empathize with their victims—even this can be a channel for redemptive grace.

My hope is that Goodness is, in the end, strong enough to blaze like sunlight even into the darkest places, even into the souls of the damned.

When it does, then by all means let Breivik speak. Until then, let him listen in silence.

Monday, July 25, 2011


It is hard to think of other things. It hovered over my journey home--which, because of flight delays upon flight delays, took two exhausting days. As I started to become irate after the fourth gate change in as many hours of delays (this after missing my connection in Detroit and spending a night in a hotel), I thought about my cousin's niece, bleeding from a bullet wound in the leg, surrounded by the corpses of her friends, and listening to the killer stalking around the island, letting out whoops of glee between the crack of firing bullets.

On the phone with my mother, listening to her sympathizing about my travel troubles, I found myself thinking about the profiles I'd been reading of Norway's homegrown terrorist. I felt strangely claustrophobic as I imagined myself into his head, into the ideology and rage and paranoia that defines the violent extremist.

It is hard to feel sorry for yourself, or to feel indignant at flight delays, when there are things so much more terrible pressing in with such vividness.

It is hard to think of other things. And so I think about this, about shattered windows, about a peaceful country's shattered innocence, and the shattered innocence of kids attending summer camp. But to know what to say, how to organize one's thoughts about something so terrible--it almost feels like a kind of exploitation to reflect on the significance of Anders Breivik's crimes. And yet there are things I want to say, things which I think are important--about xenophobia, about mislabeling motivations, misdiagnosing the causes of terrorist violence, about the difference between a spirituality that years for the transcendent and an ideology of division that use religion as the basis for hate.

Thankfully, many of the things I want to say have already been said beautifully by others. Arni Zachariassen offers a powerful reflection on the connections between the recent terrorist act and issues in theology, especially as they relate to Christian-Muslim relations.  Øyvind Strømmen offers an excellent portrait of what motivated Anders Breivik.  Over at Religion Dispatches, while Mark Juergensmeyer offers a striking comparison between Breivik and Timothy McVeigh, his desire to call both "Christian terrorists" is helpfully qualified by Julie Ingersoll, who offers insight into the character of Breivik's idenitity as a Christian--without in any way undermining the force of Juergensmeyer's point that Breivik has as much of a claim on the "Christian terrorist" label as Osama bin Laden has on the "Muslim terrorist" one. James McGrath makes a similar point.

And yet there are still things to be said. Some of these are things I need to say. But not right now.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Horror in Norway

I'll be getting home from my vacation late tonight, and will hopefully find time tomorrow to reflect more deeply on the horrific and tragic events in Norway. Two nieces of my cousin's wife were attending the youth camp where the shooter gunned down 80 people. Both survived by playing dead, although one received gunshot wounds in the arm and leg.

As I go through the motions of packing and getting ready to fly home, my spirit is elsewhere--with the people of Norway, my friends and family there, the victims and their loved ones. I tremble at the reality of evil, at its crushing noise and shattering spectacle, and yearn for the good, which so often works in silence.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Read the Bible, Feed the Poor...but Oppose Same Sex Marriage

A recent study out of Baylor University explores the correlations between frequency of Bible-reading (by Christians) and the likelihood of ascribing to a range of political and social views. Basically, the more often a Christian reads her Bible, the more likely she is to say that the pursuit of social and economic justice is important, that we should use less stuff, that science and religion are compatible, that abortion is wrong, and that gays should be excluded from the institution of marriage.

Now I'm pretty sure that what is at issue here is what we might call "devotional reading," as opposed to literary reading, or scholarly reading, or skeptical reading. The question is what effect Bible-reading has on someone who sees the Bible as a source of wisdom or as a moral authority, and thus turns to it for guidance and insight.

The effects described above are not surprising ones, given dominant biblical themes. The more you read the Bible, the harder it is to avoid the consistent emphasis on meeting the needs on the poor. At the same time, the more you read the Bible, the harder it is to escape the patriarchal and heterosexist worldview that colors the thinking and writing of so many biblical authors. And if you treat the Bible as a uniform authority, you'll come out of your devotional reading convinced that we ought to care about the unmet needs of the poorest among us...and that we ought to model our social lives in accord with a benevolent patriarchy, with families built around heterosexual marriages in which the husband leads (but, of course, with compassion and wisdom gained through humble submission to God).

And as a devotional reader, you're likely also to discover tensions, anomalous passages that don't conform (at least in their literal reading) to the overarching theme. This, I suspect, will  inspire you to resist "proof texting" on the grounds that isolated passages need to be read in the light of the whole. You won't be quite as much of a biblical literalist as you might be able to be if you were less familiar with the content of the Bible.

But there are different sorts of anomalies. In my last post I gestured towards one sort of anomaly--a striking idea that challenges dominant cultural norms, a moment of insight breaking through the weighty indoctrination and habituation of previously unquestioned ways of life. By contrast, sometimes people can have blinkers on in one narrow area of their life, perhaps caused by a cultural prejudice--blinkers that prevent them from seeing the implications of a moral or religious insight in that area, even though they have applied the insight more generally in areas where the prejudice isn't in play. Anomalies can, we might say, be rays of light into a darkened room or places of shadow in an otherwise well-lit space. Or they might be neither one. How does one decide which is which?

While a frequent Bible-reader is likely to be conscious of anomalies, and so is unlikely to be a strict literalist who accepts "proof texting" as definitive, it doesn't follow that the typical Bible-reader is going to distinguish among different sorts of anomalous passages. And it may be that, unless cued into the notion that certain passages as so significant they call for moderating the authority we attach to dominant messages, devotional readers will tend to form their views in accord with whatever themes are dominant. Such an approach would be fine if we knew that following principle is correct: If an idea or message is more frequently endorsed than rejected by biblical authors, then that idea or message is correct. But such a principle makes loads of assumptions about the Bible. Among other things, it rules out the possibility that there are "luminous passages" that are there because divine revelation has broken through human prejudices that otherwise predominate. 

As such, it would be interesting to consider how different theories about the nature of the Bible's authority, or different levels of exposure to alternative hermeneutics, affect the impact of devotional Bible-reading on social views. Would a biblical scholar deeply familiar with the cultural and historical context out of which the biblical authors wrote, well-versed in the original languages and in interpretational controversies--but nevertheless a devotional reader--respond in the same way as lay readers? I doubt it.

What about pastors? Clergy are likely to be devotional readers, and frequent devotional readers at that. And, of course, they will generally have a more extensive theological training than people in the pews. But clergy read the Bible differently, typically in terms of their denominational training and theological predilections.

The Baylor study is interesting, but it raises lots of new questions.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pastor M Gets Heckled

BACKGROUND: What follows is inspired by recent events in the world of mega-church evangelical preachers and their more progressive Christian critics. For those unfamiliar with these events, here's the lightning speed recap: Mark Driscoll, founding pastor of of the enormous Mars Hill Church (not to be confused with Rob Bell, founding pastor of the enormous Mars Hill BIBLE Church, which is entirely unrelated) posted a Facebook status update inviting people to recall the most effeminate "anatomically male" worship leader they know. Rachel Held Evans, an articulate Christian writer (author of Evolving in Monkey Town), posted on her blog a forceful indictment of what she saw to be Driscoll's pattern of bullying behavior. She also encouraged her readers to write letters to the Mars Hill deacons, expressing concern over this pattern of behavior. Apparently the strength of the response prompted a meeting between the deacons and Driscoll. Driscoll has since issued a nuanced statement which, while not exactly an apology, acknowledges the complexity of the Christian debate concerning gender, and promises more sensitive engagement with these issues in the future.

DISCLAIMER: What follows is a fantasy and a satire. "Pastor M" should not be construed as a fair portrayal of the real, complex person who is being caricatured. Among other things, Mark Driscoll's actual reaction to the critical response was far less pompous and far more thoughtful than "Pastor M's" reaction. Nevertheless, there can be value in caricature. And these events give me a chance to share in a less dry way some ideas about the Bible and gender hierarchies. 

A strange hush fell over the people in the pews as Pastor M--founding pastor of an enormous complex of churches that have absolutely nothing to do, thank you very much, with a similarly-named enormous church founded by a heretic who hates God so much he is prepared to insist that God is radically and extravagantly loving to the point of, maybe, but probably not, bringing all humanity into His eternal embrace--as I was saying, a hush fell over the gathered congregants as their leader (his chest almost popping the buttons of his flannel shirt) walked onto the enormous TV screen (with only an abbreviated electric guitar intro) and prepared to deliver the message which was about to be broadcast into church campuses all across Washington State (and one in the deserts of the southwest for reasons nobody is quite sure of--but absolutely NOT one anywhere in Michigan).

(Yes, that was all one sentence. Sort of.)

Although Pastor M still looked manly (how could he not, given his testosterone levels?), it became immediately clear to those who loved him best (namely Mary Little and her BFF Sarah Iverson, who were sixteen and had birthdays one week apart and practically swooned every time they caught sight of Pastor M from a distance) that something had changed. There was, it seemed, an air of humility about him. 

This caused a collective gasp. While the fine folks of the mega-church were used to seeing feigned humility in their beloved celebrity pastor, the slight bow of his head on this day--and the even slighter frown, the softness in his downcast eyes, the extra-scruffiness of his five o'clock shadow--all of these things suggested either real humility or an even better pretense than usual.

The last time they'd seen anything like this on his face was when he publicly apologized for suggesting that a televangelist's dalliances with gay prostitutes were to be blamed (in part) on the man's wife for letting herself go and not putting out (in other words, for her failure to be a sufficiently godly wife). But all speculation ended abruptly as Pastor M began to speak.

"Not long ago," he began, "I posted the following words on Facebook: 'So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?' This seemed a great idea. After all, I've built my ministry on reaching out to manly-men, showing them that there is a place for cage fighters and would-be professional wrestlers in God's family. And to be a manly-man means ridiculing those men who aren't. You can't be a manly-man if you think it's okay not to be one. And so, for my ministry to really draw in manly-men and teach them that there is a place for them at the Lord's table, I had to make it clear that there is a place at the Lord's table for those who want to kick effeminate men out on their wimpy a##es."

At this point Pastor M paused. He turned away, swallowing back emotion. When he could finally speak again, his expression was pained. "But I've been singled out for abuse BY A WOMAN, who's likened me to a high school bully. Can you believe it? She is calling me a bully just because I will not tolerate girly-men! Just because I do what every God-fearing man ought to do: ridicule those who are anatomically male but behave like the inferior sex.

"And yes, there are clear gender-specific behavioral guidelines that you must follow if you want to honor the gift of masculinity that God has bestowed on you--or, if you're a woman, honor the masculinity that God has bestowed on your husband. The rule book is RIGHT HERE!" He paused to dramatically pull forth a book. It was quickly plain he was holding up an old home economics textbook. "Right here, in verse--" Pausing, he began to leaf through the pages of the book. His expression went from puzzled to exasperated. He sighed. "Okay, who's the joker?"

A sudden snort of laughter came from off to the left. "Sorry! Little joke." A man in an oxford shirt dashed up to the podium, smiling sheepishly as he traded out the old textbook for a Bible.

Shaking his head, Pastor M went on: "As I was saying, it says here in God's word...hang on here, I've got it bookmarked...Yes, here in... First Timothy 2:12... it says, 'There is neither Jew nor--'" This time he was interrupted by a explosive guffaw from off to the left. Pastor M looked off in the direction of the practical joker. "Wait. This is Galatians. You moved the bookmark, didn't you?"

"Sorry! Couldn't resist!"

"Oh, never mind. Just trust me. The Bible says women should shut up and let men be in charge. But this woman has started a movement against me. As if a woman has the right to chastise me, not just a ROCK STAR mega-church preacher with thousands of loyal followers, but a man!" He almost roared the last, as if all the dignity of being human resided in the possession of his maleness; as if all those men who weren't sufficiently male were failing to affirm this fact; as if all the women who failed to bow and scrape to their husbands were failing to acknowledge the rock-bottom principle upon which Pastor M had made his self worth hinge, as if...sorry. Launched into thinly-disguised progressive philosophizing for a moment there.  Returning you to Pastor M's sermon, now.

"I mean, who does she think she is?" he bellowed. " I've got theme music! What does she have to compare to that? Some little memoir? I bet you she's--excuse my language--a FEMINIST! And if there's anything that's clear as punch in the Bible, it's that God hates feminism."

"Punch is cloudy!" shouted the voice off to the left.

"If you don't shut up, you'll see how clear a punch can be!"

"Yeah. Sure. You're no bully."

Pastor M paused, quirked a lopsided smile, and shook his head. "Don't let anyone tell you we don't have a sense of humor here at Mars Hill."

"Hey, I'm being serious!" said the voice from the left. "I mean, what do you do with Galatians 3:28?"

"How about I give my next sermon on that?"

"Do it! I'd love to see you flail about with that text. I mean, let's be serious. If it's right that in Christ there's neither male nor female, doesn't that mean that within the church, the body of Christ, gender divisions and hierarchies are erased? How do you reconcile that with all your emphasis on masculine and feminine gender roles, with your idea that God wants men to fit some 1950's era masculinity template and avoid at all costs any girly traits? If God wanted THAT, would he inspire Paul to say that in Christ--in the community united by Christ, the BODY of Christ--gender becomes meaningless?"

 As Pastor M stared, dumbstruck, his heckler (another minister, perhaps?) leapt into the silence: "I mean, let's think about this for a moment. Sure, the Bible's full of traditional patriarchal stuff, stories and messages that put all this importance on gender and traditional gender-based hierarchies. But then you also find this luminous passage that says gender and other divisions don't matter for those who belong to Christ." 

"Paul isn't talking about this life," Pastor M cut in, finally finding his voice. "He isn't saying that people in the church should act as if there weren't any difference between men and women, let alone that women shouldn't submit to their husbands. Women submitting to their husbands in Christian marriage is the very definition of there being neither male nor female in Christ!"


"Oh, come on. You really expect us not to pay attention to gender?  That would be nutty! Men are men and women are women!"

"Yeah. But then there's that little verse about God choosing what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." 

"Oh, come on. The Bible's full of stuff that makes it clear that women are subordinate to men, that men are supposed to be one way and women another, and on and on. And there are at least half a dozen ways to interpret the Galatians verse to make it fit with all of that."

"Of course. But don't all those interpretations just sort of, well, do violence to that shining passage in Galatians? It's like you come across this brilliant flower growing out of the dirt and you just crush it underfoot so that it becomes indistinguishable from the dirt.

"Think about it this way." And at this point the interlocutor rose to his feet and stepped onto the raised platform from which Pastor M was used to holding forth alone. "Of course the Bible's going to be full of patriarchal stuff. Every single freaking biblical writer lived in a patriarchal culture. They sucked in patriarchy with their mother's milk. It wouldn't take a divine revelation to inspire them to endorse patriarchy. They'd be writing patriarchal stuff whether or not God had anything to do with the Bible. What would take a divine revelation is getting some biblical writer to BUCK the patriarchal norm. If you have to choose between them--the patriarchal stuff and the Galatians passage--it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which one is more likely to spring from an encounter with the transcendent God, and which is more likely to be nothing more than a regurgitation of the dominant mores of the time."

"Are you suggesting it isn't all inspired by God?" 

"Well, if you're going to insist on that doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration--which, by the way, wasn't invented until after the Protestant Reformation; or, better yet, if you're going to insist on the adulterated version of that doctrine, born out of the fundamentalist movement--well, to put it bluntly, it seems to me that insisting on that doctrine will force you to crush the flowers of divine revelation underfoot in order to make them fit with all the other stuff that's in the Bible.

"But suppose I'm wrong about that. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong. Either way, you can't pretend that it's only those who challenge the doctrine of literal inerrancy who risk missing out on God's self-disclosure, while those who insist on inerrancy face no risk of distorting or dismissing divine revelation. If, in one way or another, God has communicated to us through the Bible, then whatever your theory of the Bible you're taking a risk of getting the Bible--and God--wrong.

"If you don't like the flower metaphor, take the one that Martin Luther used. You know Martin Luther, the guy who came up with 'sola scriptura'? He likened the Bible to the manger in which the baby Jesus lay: It contains the gospel, but it also contains straw.

"At one point Luther called the entire epistle of James 'an epistle of straw.' Sure, if inerrantists are right then those who agree with Luther might dismiss as straw things that aren't straw. They might throw out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe they mistakenly think there is bathwater when it's really all baby. (Sorry, shifted metaphors again there.) But if inerrantists are wrong, they risk putting the bathwater in bed with the baby! And they risk not noticing the baby at all amidst all that water. They risk thinking the bathwater is the baby, and so getting everything all confused.

"So here's my challenge to you, Pastor M: Are you prepared to admit that you're taking a risk with your theory of the Bible--that you might just be wrong about the Bible and God, about men and women, about those who don't fit into our gender boxes? Or are you going to live up to the rock star theme music at the start of all your video-taped sermons?"

At this point it became clear to everyone present that what they were witnessing was entirely fictitious, since Pastor M would never have permitted this heckler to go on for so long. And so everyone stopped listening and went home.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

And if GOD'S FINAL VICTORY doesn't convince you...'s a nice look at one of the "proof texts" often invoked to support a doctrine of eternal damnation.

In the linked post, Trig Bundgaard turns to the original Greek text to argue that what is being talked about in Matthew 13:40-42 is a purging and redemptive process culminating in salvation, not a punitive rejection leading to endless fiery torment. Bundgaard's point isn't new, but he makes it concisely...and it's a point that apparently needs to be made repeatedly to a Christian community so steeped in the presumption that the Bible "clearly" teaches eternal damnation.

Both John and I have been intrigued by the fact that the Eastern Fathers--and the Eastern Orthodox Church through history--have been historically far more open to universalism than what we find in the Western Church. One explanation for this--an explanation that gets some added support from the considerations raised by Bundgaard--is that the Easter Fathers were reading the New Testament in the original Greek, in which translational issues would not obscure the original meaning.

Gregory of Nyssa's universalism is precisely the version of universalism we find emerging out of Bundgaard's reflection on Matthew 13:40-42: What the Western Church has conceived of as a place of burning punishment is, on the contrary, a refiner's fire--and those who are cast into it are cleansed and purified, and thereby saved.

There are different ways to unpack this refiner's fire metaphor. One can, for example, take it that the experience of alienation from God, at least if it is permitted to continue indefinitely, burns away any illusions and self-deception about what it actually means to exist in alienation from the source of all being and value. Those who choose such alienation are given what they choose, and it is through having what they have chosen that they learn how utterly un-choiceworthy it is.

This notion of a post-mortem "hell" that actually purges away impediments to salvation is, by the way, not original with the New Testament authors, let alone with Gregory of Nyssa and Origen and others like them who read the New Testament in universalist terms. The Zoroastrians, who strongly influenced the Jewish community out of which Christianity was born, held that the damned were seduced by a lie and thereby fell into the clutches of Ahriman (the Zoroastrian Devil). But once in Ahriman's grasp, the lie was exposed--by the Devil's own gloating! And so the Devil himself sowed the seeds of the damned's eventual salvation.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On Vacation

While I have occasional access to a computer and may offer some posts over the next couple of weeks (and have opportunities to address comments), I can't make any promises about frequency. But I do have several posts in the pipeline on interesting topics, so keep checking in.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mangling Me at The Jesus Creed...

Not literally...but Scot McKnight has another piece on universalism over at The Jesus Creed this week--this one about my argument that appears in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (edited by Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge). Unfortunately, McKnight misconstrues my arguments there in a significant way--perhaps influenced subconsciously by his desire to push the challenge he posed in relation to his earlier article on "Thomas Talbott's Gauntlet". His challenge, in effect, is this: What scriptural basis is there for thinking God would afford the unregenerate an ongoing opportunity to repent and seek salvation after death?

In effect, McKnight wants to argue that I am making a case for universalism that rests on the assumption that God would do exactly this. But that is not what I am doing in the essay. Rather, I am investigating the coherence of a particular approach to defending the doctrine of eternal damnation--an approach that appeals to the freedom of the creature, and to the idea that God's moral character inspires Him to respect that freedom, even if it leads to damnation. And freedom alone would inspire damnation only if it were possible for the creature to choose freely to remain forever alienated from God.

Freedom would explain eternal damnation only if a creature could either (a) freely choose to be alienated forever, or (b) forever freely choose to be alienated. Doing (a) involves making, at some point, a final and decisive choice for alienation. That is, the person decides at some particular moment, "I choose to be alienated from God FOREVER." Doing (b) involves, at every moment ad infinitum, making the choice to be alienated from God at that moment.

In my essay in the Universal Salvation? anthology, I don't devote much attention to the distinction between (a) and (b). On reflection, this may be a defect of that essay. But for various reasons--some of which can be extracted from the arguments I do lay out in that essay, I think (a) makes little sense. Whether I can freely choose at some moment to make a permanent commitment depends not merely on me at that moment, but on other things as well. If what I am presented with is a "limited time offer," then it clearly is true that the choice to reject the offer, if unreversed by the time the offer runs out, becomes a choice to forever reject the offer. If, by contrast, what I am presented with is a standing offer--one that just isn't ever revoked--then I can't really choose to forever reject the offer unless I follow course (b). While I might say to myself at some given time, "I reject this offer FOREVER," I remain free to change my mind precisely because the offer is a standing offer. So I can't really CHOOSE at some particular time to forever reject the offer when the offer has the form of a standing offer--because I remain forever free to change my mind given the nature of the offer, that is, given something outside my control (something that is, instead, a matter of the choices made by the one who extends the offer).

If--as liberal defenders of the doctrine of hell assume--we suppose that there is nothing in God that operates as an impediment to salvation, but that eternal damnation is wholly explained by the free choices of the creature, then we must, I think, take it that God's offer of salvation is a standing offer. If it is a limited-time offer, then at some point God withdraws the offer such that even if an unregenerate person later freely repents and earnestly seeks salvation, God withholds it. Here, it is not just the freedom of the creature that explains eternal damnation, but some active steps on the part of God. It is not merely the creature who rejects God, but God who, in effect, rejects the creature (at leat after the limited-time offer of salvation has expired).

So, the liberal doctrine of hell must suppose that the damned are those who follow course (b)--they forever reject God. My question in the essay that McKnight discusses is whether this is possible. My answer is that it is not. (John and I, in God's Final Victory, develop these arguments far more rigorously, but only after we tear apart the arguments which suppose that a God anything like the God of orthodox Christianity would ever decisively reject creatures). In any event, my conclusion in that essay is that the liberal doctrine of hell doesn't work. And this negative project does not depend on me illegitimately presupposing, without scriptural warrant, that God never withdraws His offer of salvation. Rather, I am simply asking whether, on the assumption that God never withdraws this offer (an assumption made by those who support the liberal doctrine), one can coherently defend the view that some are eternally damned by their own free choices. My answer is no.

My defense of this answer turns on some principles about the conditions under which a choice can be legitimately called free. McKnight takes these principles to identify the conditions under which God can be justified in damning someone--that is, conditions under which God can justifiably reject creatures forever. But in making this move, McKnight is considering a very different approach to justifying eternal hell--not the one I am considering in the Universal Salvation? essay. And in asking whether there is a scriptural basis for thinking creatures might freely turn to God after death and so be saved, McKnight is not merely asking whether there is any scriptural basis for the assumption that some universalists rely on to make their case for the salvation of all. He is also asking whether there is a scriptural basis for the assumption made by those who embrace the liberal doctrine of hell.

Now, with respect to this question that so concerns McKnight, I would argue that he is illegitimately restricting the scope of what counts as a "scriptural basis." My view is that, given a fairly orthodox understanding of God's character as developed by the Christian tradition through its earnest engagement with Scripture, we have prima facie (fancy philosophy talk for "presumptively") good reason to suppose God would never decisively reject His creatures. And from this it seems to follow that if a creature turned to God after death, they would be welcomed into the bosom of God as surely as if that choice were made before death. And so, if I (and John Kronen, and others like us) are right about what Scripture teaches concerning God's nature and His attitude towards His creatures, there is a scriptural case for the view that salvation remains possible after death even if no isolated scriptural passage says this.

Are there any considerations that might overcome this prima facie scriptural case? Many have been offered. John and I consider the most important of them in our book and find all of them unconvincing.

(On a more amusing note, I offered a fairly brief--for me--correction of McKnight's misunderstanding of my argument in a comment on his post--and the discussion in the comments section continued as if I hadn't said anything. The very first comment after my correction offered an interpretation of what "Reitan" is presuming that might have been forgivable had I not already piped in, but...well, let's just say that I often get the sense that interpreters of dead scholars are often grateful that those scholars aren't around, and would ignore them if they were.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Talbott Endorses GOD'S FINAL VICTORY

Speaking of Thomas Talbott in conjunction with John's and my new book, Talbott has just provided the following endorsement (actually a mini-book-review) of God's Final Victory:

In their comparative case for Christian universalism entitled God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and Eric Reitan display an exhaustive knowledge of the relevant philosophical and theological literature; and even though they make no claim of completeness for their study, they may in fact have produced the most complete discussion to date of the relevant philosophical and theological issues. No philosopher or theologian who in the future addresses the issue of universalism will be able to ignore the arguments of this book, and even many parishioners in the pew, however impatient they may be with finely drawn philosophical distinctions, will benefit greatly from specific chapters, such as Chapter 1: Introduction, Chapter 4: Universalism and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, and Chapter 9: Final Concerns. The final chapter in particular will be of interest to the Christian community as a whole, because it includes an easy to digest summary of the overall argument and also addresses the issue of evangelism as well as other practical Christian concerns.

The book’s most important contribution to the contemporary discussion lies in a sustained and powerful critique of the so-called Argument from Freedom, the argument that, for all we know, God cannot save all sinners without violating their freedom in inappropriate ways. Kronen and Reitan demonstrate first how, given the traditional Christian understanding of his nature, God is in a position to confer efficacious grace on anyone, or on any combination of persons, without violating the rational autonomy of any individual (see Chapter 7). But they also have an additional surprise, albeit one that Reitan has articulated in previous papers, for those who insist that salvation requires an undetermined libertarian free choice that could have gone the other way. For as they also argue in Chapter 8 (successfully, in my opinion), the assumption that sinners retain their libertarian freedom indefinitely together with the Christian doctrine of the preservation of the saints yields the following result: We can be just as confident that God will eventually win over all sinners (and do so without causally determining their choices) as we can be that that a fair coin will land heads up at least once in a trillion tosses. One can hardly expect everyone to find such arguments as persuasive as I do; but even those who remain unpersuaded will at least find in them a formidable challenge to be met.
All I can say is...Woot! Also, if you check out the link to the book's Amazon page, you will notice that the hardcover price has been SLASHED to a mere $85.71!!!! That's $34.29 off the list price! WHAT A DEAL!!!! Pre-order your copy now, before this deal disappears!

(Can't tell you the exact release date yet, but it'll be sometime in the next few months, and there are no glitches in the production schedule that I know of--just turned in corrected page proofs yesterday afternoon and the index is coming along on schedule).

Scot McKnight on Talbott's Case for Universalism

Over at The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight has offered a post, Thomas Talbott's Gauntlet, that's sparked an interesting discussion on universalism. Those interested in the topic might like to look it over (as a kind of appetizer for reading John's and my book on the subject, of course). I've posted my own rather lengthy comment (lengthy because I'm psychologically incapable of doing less). I'd reproduce it here, but then I'd also need to reproduce parts of McKnight's original post and subsequent comments to which I am responding. So, just click on over and check it out!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Were I a Solipsist...

...I'd say that 45 years ago today, the single most momentous event in the history of reality occured. Not being a solipsist, I'll settle for wishing myself a happy 45th birthday.