Friday, September 30, 2016

Richard Swinburne, the Ethics of Homosexuality, and the Ethics of Love

(Note to readers: I ran out of time on this before being able to track down and embed links to all the discussions I reference--but I thought it would be better to get this up while it is still timely than to wait. I may embed links later when I have more time.)

As most readers of this blog know, I'm in the midst of writing (actually revising) a book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic.

What readers might not know is that I was part of an effort to bring Richard Swinburne, the eminent Christian philosopher of religion, to the Oklahoma State University campus--a visit that took place this past week. On Monday I met Swinburne, had lunch with him, and tried to help him figure out how to answer calls on his new cell phone (I wasn't much help). That evening I moderated his talk on arguments for the existence of God, which had an audience of 600 people not counting those watching on the live-feed from home. The following day, I introduced his lecture on "Humans have two parts--body and soul." I had him sign my copy of his book from which that lecture drew.

All things told, it was a delightful visit, and I was honored to have the chance to meet and interact with such an eminent and important leader in my field.

None of this would be fodder for a blog post were it not for what happened in the days just before Swinburne came to OSU. On the Friday before his visit, he gave a keynote talk at a divisional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His topic was a departure for him: Christian sexual ethics. As part of that talk, he offered an argument in defense of the traditional, conservative Christian stance on homosexuality--a stance that I unrelentingly challenge in the book I'm now revising.

A member of the audience--J. Edward Hackett--got very upset, and not only objected to Swinburne's remarks during the Q&A but published a blog post about it, calling Swinburne's remarks "toxic." The post was widely disseminated on social media. The President of the Society for Christian Philosophers, Michael Rea, wrote a Facebook post expressing regret for hurt feelings, indicating that Swinburne's views do not necessarily represent the views of the society, and affirming the society's commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.

This triggered its own wave of outrage: A philosopher apologizing because another philosopher gave an argument for a controversial conclusion at a philosophy conference? A Christian philosopher apologizing for another Christian philosopher for defending a traditional Christian view?

All of this in the days leading up to Swinburne's visit to OSU, a day I'd been looking forward to for some time.

Of course the topic came up when I had lunch with him. After all, I was working on a book on the very topic that had just embroiled his name in a social media firestorm. He'd apparently read at least one of my articles on homosexuality, but was more interested in talking about an article I'd written with the provocative title "Swinburne's Lapse."

He knew my position on homosexuality, and I knew his. We disagreed--but since the topic was both peripheral to his career focus and unrelated to what he would be talking about at OSU, we didn't devote a lot of time to it. We ate pizza and tried to figure out his phone.

Of course, philosophers disagree about things all the time. In a sense, it's what we do for a living. And we disagree about things that impact human lives for good or ill. Some of the ideas that my fellow philosophers espouse are ones I think damage real human beings. They probably think the same about my ideas. And we have a beer together anyway. Or a pizza. Anyone unable to do that couldn't be philosophers--not and have any friends within the field.

That said, the topic of homosexuality is more than just an "issue." It's about people I love. It's about my gay best friend and my cousin. I can get very emotional about it. When I am engaging those who espouse the traditional view, my emotions give me energy to remain engaged. But I try not to be controlled by them. It is much more helpful to get opponents of LGBT equality to articulate their reasons clearly, and then examine their merits. When they are fellow philosophers who don't need to be prodded to clearly lay out their arguments, it can be downright refreshing.

There are important questions here about how we should live out the love ethic in relation to those who disagree with us. Swinburne is one of the greats in my field, a highly accomplished scholar who has earned my respect with his body of work. He is also a neighbor in the Christian sense, and I believe I am called to love my neighbors as myself. I am also called to love my gay and lesbian neighbors as myself--and Swinburne is endorsing a view that I think is harming them.

What is the best way to live out the love ethic in this situation? I can't answer that question in a blog post, but there are several things I want to say that are relevant to it.

1. Paying compassionate attention

I think Swinburne's view on homosexuality is mistaken. I think that the promulgation of that view, as a teaching of the church, has done immeasurable harm to my gay and lesbian neighbors over the centuries. I won't defend that view in this post, but I think it is important to state it.

From what I've gathered of his argument, Swinburne thinks that while not "intrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong in itself") same-sex sex is "extrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong because of some sort of external relation, such a violating an authorized and justified command or contributing for contingent reasons to some undesirable state of affairs").

This makes his condemnation of same-sex sex softer than what is common among conservative Christians. For him, it's not wrong in the way that lying or abusing people is wrong, but in the way that driving on the left-hand side of the road in the US is wrong. I can't tell you what I think of his case for this conclusion, since I haven't been able to study it. But I've looked at a lot of arguments, and I have yet to find any that can meet what I take to be an extremely powerful burden of proof created by the fact that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is harmful to gays and lesbians who belong to those communities. Depending on native dispositional qualities, some can be driven to the brink of suicide.

An abstract argument that doesn't get down and dirty and wrestle with the actual life stories of gays and lesbians whose lives have been broken on the wheel of condemnation is unlikely to be very compelling to me or anyone else who cares deeply about their gay and lesbian neighbors. Unlike abstract questions in philosophy of religion or epistemology--which have been the focus of Swinburne's career--ethics, especially applied ethics, often demands serious engagement with human stories. This is even more true for Christian ethics, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such love demands compassionate attention to the experiences and life stories of our neighbors. Unless and until Swinburne offers an argument that is deeply informed and shaped by sustained attention to the lived experiences of gays and lesbians, I doubt his argument will convince me--and nothing I have heard suggests that Swinburne's argument at the SCP was informed by such attention.

(Note: there is a big difference between saying an argument of a certain kind is unlikely to convince me and saying that it won't enlighten me, deepen my thinking, or in other ways be useful in shaping my intellectual development. Swinburne's argument may well be very useful--offering distinctions and qualifications that may have bearing on my thought--even if it is of a kind that's unlikely to convince.)

One way I can show love in this case is to stress the importance of not exploring the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage without paying compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors. There is nothing unloving about offering such advice to my conservative Christians brothers and sisters--some of whom I greatly admire as eminent scholars in my field who have shaped me in many ways. I suspect that advice will do more good that calling them "f***ing a**holes," as one Yale philosopher has done.

But if I offer such advice, I cannot then refuse to pay compassionate attention to Swinburne and others who espouse the traditional teaching. And such compassionate attention requires honest and fair assessments of their convictions and motives. This leads me to my next point.

2. Recognizing motives 

I am certain that Swinburne does not think the traditional teaching on homosexuality causes harm. He is not defending it in order to harm our gay and lesbian neighbors, even if I believe that is the actual effect. Or, more precisely, that is what I take to be the effect on gays and lesbians who belong to a community in which this view is treated as normative and significant. It's belonging to a community that teaches this which is harmful, not the arguments of a single philosopher, no matter how eminent. But I'm sure Swinburne does not agree with that, and in trying to preserve such a community he is not doing it in order to cause harm.

To put the point another way, if Swinburne believed that the teaching were a source of harm, he wouldn't be publicly defending it. Swinburne believes that this teaching is good and helpful as sincerely as I believe that it causes harm.

It may be worth pointing out that he didn't decide on this keynote topic on his own. He didn't set out to beat up on gays. I don't think I'm breaking any confidentiality when I say that during our lunch conversation, Swinburne told me how this came to be his topic. He'd offered some advice to philosophers of religion, to the effect that they should apply their distinctive training and expertise to contemporary social questions such as sexual ethics. And that advice prompted an invitation to follow the advice himself in his SCP address. Since he'd given the advice, he didn't feel as if he could refuse. And so he put something together.

This is not an issue that he has focused his career on or written a book about (I think it comes up briefly in his book on revelation). Rather, he was treading into largely new territory at the request of the conference organizers. If he did not display the kind of awareness of LGBT issues that others do, the most helpful response is to educate him, not denounce him.

Swinburne was asked to talk on a topic that was new to him, and he thought that resources from his own discipline might be useful in clarifying some of the moral issues. Were they? I wasn't at the talk, but I have learned lots from people I disagree with. Philosophers whose views I find misguided often provide ways of thinking about those very issues that deepen my insight even while I reject their arguments and conclusions. Is that true of Swinburne's thinking in this case?

I don't know. But I do know that Christian love calls for grace. And this leads to my next point.

3. Choosing our words with care and showing grace for failures

Given everything I know about Swinburne through reading his work, given what he told me about the argument he delivered at the SCP meeting, given the little I have gleaned about his argument form third parties, and given the talks I have now seen him deliver, I am convinced of the following: Swinburne offered a thoroughly dispassionate, analytically careful, abstractly intellectual argument for a conclusion he wanted to defend--with plenty of distinctions and deductive arguments and no deliberate personal attacks. I am pretty confident that he approached this as an issue of intellectual interest, as opposed to thinking of the faces of gay and lesbian loved ones (as I do every time I approach this topic).

That said, he reportedly used language that, when I read it in Hackett's post, immediately made me cringe. One premise of his argument was that gays and lesbians suffer from a "disability" insofar as their romantic sexual unions can't produce children. Another was that this is an "incurable condition." This language choice displays the kind of lack of familiarity with the LGBT community that is unsurprising in an elderly Christian philosopher who has spent his career focused primarily on traditional questions in the philosophy of religion, travels in circles where most gays and lesbians probably remain in the closet, and has not spent a long time considering these issues.

But here's the thing. These claims on Swinburne's part are claims I make in my book--but in different terms.

I do not call homosexuality a disability or an incurable condition, because I know that this language invokes the idea of "sickness"--and I know how that language has been used to abuse sexual minorities. But in my book and elsewhere, I argue that same-sex couples are like infertile heterosexual couples in that they can pursue the "unitive" end of sexual intimacy but not the procreative end. Of course, my aim is to argue the following: It would be unloving to bar infertile couples from marrying and pursuing loving union just because the union won't be reproductive; and it is likewise wrong to prohibit same-sex marriages for this reason.

But here's the thing: infertility is usually considered a disability. By comparing gay couples to infertile ones as part of my argument for their right to marry, I am likening them to a class of people who are often called disabled without anyone blinking an eye. But I know that many gays and lesbians have been kicked out of their parents' homes with the word "sick" ringing in their ears. I've held the hands of gay friends who were still scarred by abuse that was couched in the language of "sickness." And so I try to steer clear of such language.

Similar remarks apply to the other claim of Swinburne's that evokes the language of sickness--the claim that homosexuality is an "incurable condition." I have argued time and again that gays and lesbians cannot be expected to change their sexuality, that so-called conversion therapies and ex-gay ministries don't work. My gay and lesbian friends agree with me on this. If one were oblivious to the experiences of LGBT persons and the way the sickness label has been used to abuse them, one might make this point using the words "incurable condition"--and have no idea how that will stir up all sorts of painful crud among gay and lesbian listeners.

The thing about analytic philosophers of religion is this: Many if not most of them spend more time in their heads thinking about things like modal logic and probability theory than they do reflecting on how word choices are related to human feelings. While this is perhaps a human failing, all of us have failings and we need to treat each other with grace.

This means we shouldn't react as if an elder scholar whose career has focused on completely different issues, for whom all of this is mostly new, should know better. Oblivious use of terms that hurt is an opportunity to share stories about why they hurt, not to repudiate and shame.

The issue in these cases is not with the claims Swinburne is making but with his choice of words. I'm not saying that the words we use to express an idea don't matter. What I'm suggesting is that we need to engage one another in a spirit of grace, understanding where other people come from and not going on the offensive every time their word choice offends.

Let me offer an analogy from grading. Sometimes, I assign an essay on a topic and student after student makes the same oversight. The first time it happens, I calmly explain the oversight in the margins. The twentieth time it happens, I'm feeling exasperated. I want to scream, "How many times do I have to tell you this?!" I have to remind myself that I haven't told the same person this twenty times. For each of them, it is the first time they are hearing it. And for each of them, that first time may open their eyes, give them an "a ha!" moment, and lead their thinking in a new direction. But not if I make the point in a tone of outraged indignation as if I've been telling them this over and over and they haven't been listening. That'll just inspire defensiveness.

I remember, years ago, being at a discussion on homosexuality and the church where I used the phrase "gay lifestyle." A gay man in the discussion calmly explained the associations that term had for him, and the reasons it grated on him. I don't how many times he'd made that point. Probably many, many times. But for me it was the first time. His sharing was personal. It didn't make me defensive. And I stopped using the term. I doubt things would've gone so smoothly if he'd said, instead, "How many times do I have to tell you people that there is no *#$@! gay lifestyle!"

4. Embracing (rather than shutting down) discussion opportunities

Finally, if I'm right about the negative impact the traditional Christian teaching has on gays and lesbians who belong to communities that teach it, there is good reason to have serious discussion and debate within communities--such as conservative Christian ones--that still teach it. Such discussion and debate is not facilitated by efforts to shame and silence people who lay out, with admirable analytical clarity, their reasons for supporting this teaching. Especially in philosophy, every such effort to lay out arguments is intended as an invitation to raise objections, level criticism, and engage in discussion. That's what philosophers do.

When philosophers who are conservative on this issue try to spell out arguments for their view at a philosophical conference, this is the perfect opportunity to have a discussion. That's what a philosophy conference is for. When it's a conference for Christian philosophers, what that means for me is the discussion is happening where it needs to happen: in a community whose members still widely teach that all homosexual acts are sinful. Swinburne did not merely offer an argument for the conservative Christian position. He did so in a venue whose norms and standards invite vigorous critical discussion. As such, he created an opportunity to critically discuss the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage exactly where I think that critical discussion most urgently needs to happen.

The question is what we should do with such opportunities. What did Hackett do with it? What did the rest of us do in the aftermath? Will these choices make it more or less likely that such opportunities will arise again?

To respond to opportunities for meaningful dialogue with repudiation and attack probably isn't the most productive strategy, and it certainly isn't the most loving.

That said, I know that many people carry deep hurt and anger over the ways in which the church has perpetuated and magnified anguish for gays and lesbians. It is too easy to dismiss someone like Hackett, who rises up to offer an angry rebuke to an elder statesman in the discipline, as offering nothing but a"semi-coherent rant." But behind such anger there is human pain, and pain cries out for compassion.

Philosophers are used to engaging with issues on a purely intellectual level. But when the topic is something like homosexuality, what is at stake are the lives and loves of real human beings, with histories and emotional lives. This fact may have actual bearing on what conclusions we should reach; but it also has bearing on which approaches to argument and debate are likely to be most productive. Patience and grace and compassion may, on this level, prove to be important philosophical virtues.


I want to say something about Michael Rea's "apology," which many have denounced.

On the one hand, I don't think it is wrong for a philosopher at a philosophy conference to give a talk defending a view that the philosopher accepts, with the understanding that others are encouraged to ask critical questions and raise objections. Hence, it isn't wrong for Swinburne to give such a talk, whatever we might think of the view being defended.

So, in that sense, there wasn't anything to apologize for. But strictly speaking, Rea did not apologize for what Swinburne said. He expressed regret for any hurt caused at the meeting, clarified that Swinburne's view was not that of the society, and affirmed a commitment to welcoming diverse people and perspectives (while affirming the shared foundation of Christian faith of the society's members).

Can anything be said for issuing such a "disclaimer"? I'm still not sure what I think of his decision to explicitly distance Swinburne's views from those of the SCP. Ordinarily, this distance is taken for granted at philosophy conferences, which may lead some readers to suppose that the real message is that those with Swinburne's views are not welcome to express them at the SCP. But much hinges here on the history of the SCP on this issue and the broader perceptions of the philosophical community. And this distancing is related to something I am sure about, which I turn to now.

Gays and lesbians have a long history of not feeling welcome in Christian communities. And the SCP is a Christian community. Absent any statement by SCP officials to the contrary, it is quite possible, even likely, that at least some gays and lesbians upon hearing second-hand about Swinburne's keynote address would get the impression that the SCP does not welcome their perspectives, their ideas, or their presence. Even if this impression is inaccurate, it could stifle the diversity that Rea talks about nurturing.

Furthermore, gays and lesbians have lived what for me and other straight Christians can only be an hypothesis--that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality causes harm to gays and lesbians. Other straight Christians may doubt its truth, but many gay and lesbian Christians experience it not as an hypothesis to which they might give intellectual assent but at a painfully inescapable feature of their personal histories. As such, an assurance of welcome that does not include something about the views of the society might be experienced as disingenuous.

But this is tricky. Some are afraid of any community where the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is granted hegemony and significance, because they have experienced the harms that such a community does to its LGBT members. Out of such fear, they fear any community that allows this condemnation to be expressed without rebuke. But there is an enormous difference between a community that preaches this condemnation and a community which cultivates an environment where people who believe in this condemnation feel welcome to make their case for it, knowing that there will be challenges and critical discussion (but not efforts to shame and silence). A philosophical society surely should be the latter--and there is need for the latter. And for reasons already mentioned, the SCP would be a particularly valuable place for the latter.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #2: Loving the Sinner but Hating the Sin

Posted below is the second of my promised excerpts from my work-in-progress, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. This is the introductory section of a chapter exploring the uses and misuses of the "love the sinner but hate the sin" mantra. Enjoy!

The story is common enough. Joe and Mary are walking out of a college classroom where the topic of homosexuality just came up. Joe, a conservative Christian convinced that all homosexual sex is sinful, expressed this conviction during the class discussion. Mary, a lesbian, isn’t quite ready to let that go. She’s tired of staying quiet.

“You really think I should break up with my girlfriend,” she says, “even though we love each other?”

“The Bible says it’s wrong. I can’t go against that.”

“But what about love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that in the Bible, too? You really think it’s loving to break apart people who love each other?”

“I’m not breaking you apart. You’ve got to decide to do that for yourself.”

“But you think we ought to break up. You would encourage us to break up.”

“That’s what God says.”

“You really know what God says? How arrogant can you be!”

“I…it’s in the Bible. I don’t have anything against you or your girlfriend, but the Bible is clear. What you’re doing is a sin, and I can’t condone sin.”

“This is the most meaningful relationship of my life. Anyone who knows me knows what ending it would do…it would be…” She falls silent, seething with frustration. She doesn’t know how to say it. He seems to her like a wall of righteousness. She gropes for words: “If you think the world would be improved by Katy and me breaking up, what you really think is that the world would be better if both Katy and I lost the most meaningful, beautiful, loving relationship either of us has ever known. You think the world would be a better place if this beautiful thing were destroyed, if it were taken away from us, if both of us were left heartbroken. How is that love? How can you possibly claim to love me and Katy if that’s what you think should happen? You think it would be loving to tell a happily married couple they should break up, that it would be wrong for them to grow old together? You think it would be loving to call what they have an abomination?”

“I didn’t use that word.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“But it’s not the same thing. A married couple—”

“It is the same thing!”

“It’s not! One’s a sin and the other isn’t!”

“I’m telling you that Katy and I have something beautiful together, and wanting to tear us apart is wanting to destroy something that makes our lives better. That’s not love.”

“I don’t want to tear you apart. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“You don’t? So you think it is fine for us to stay together?”

“No! I’m saying I’m supposed to love the sinner while hating the sin.”

“That’s a f**king copout!” she shouts. “If you hate my relationship enough to insist that it should end, then you don’t love me and you don’t love Katy. You can’t call what we have a sin and still love us. That’s bulls**t!”

Mary storms away. Joe stands there, shaking a little in the aftermath of her fury.

So is Joe right that he can love Mary while condemning as sin her most intimate relationship? Is Mary right that to hate her relationship is incompatible with loving her?

The question is important. Setting aside extremists like Fred Phelps with his “God Hates Fags” signs, conservative Christians typically agree that we ought to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves—in other words, that the Christian call to love one another includes sexual minorities. But they typically hold that such love is fully compatible with condemning homosexuality—because we can “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

For many of my gay and lesbian acquaintances, they’ve heard this phrase so much it has become an emotional trigger. They react as if it were nothing but a smokescreen for perpetuating hateful practices and policies, a false promise of love to make the reality of hate more palatable (that is, more palatable to the agents of hate and third-party observers, not to the victims).

In a recent Tulsa World op-ed, Mike Jones expresses just this sort of cynicism. He concedes that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” phrase could be used in beneficial ways. “But what can be a helpful, even comforting phrase, under the right circumstances,” he says, “has been hijacked by those whose purpose is to hand down judgments . . . ” And instead of being a general remark about sin and sinners, it has acquired a focus. In Jones’s experience, the phrase “is used now almost exclusively for those who disapprove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.”

The widespread LGBT suspicion of the phrase doesn’t spring out of nowhere. James Dobson, for example, repeatedly says that we should love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves. The following statement is typical:
Christians have a scriptural mandate to love and care for all the people of the world. Even those who are living in immoral circumstances are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. There is no place for hatred, hurtful jokes, or other forms of rejection toward those who are gay.
But as we’ve already seen, Dobson has persistently used rhetoric that feeds anti-gay ideologies of division, including claims that homosexuals are a threat to children. Dobson founded the Family Research Council and remains closely tied to it—the same Family Research Council that published the slanderous pamphlet we looked at in the last chapter, in which homosexuality was falsely linked to pedophilia through egregious misrepresentation of the research.

When such public figures pay lip service to loving gays and lesbians at the same time that they pursue and supporting unloving practices, it is not at all surprising that when gays and lesbians hear “love the sinner but hate the sin,” they find it a kind of disingenuous double-speak that is mostly about making hateful practices tolerable to the wider public by wrapping it up loving words.

But in my experience, most individual Christians who talk about loving the sinner while hating the sin are sincere. There was a time when I used the phrase myself in relation to my gay and lesbian neighbors—and I was earnest enough when I did so. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t mean it. My problem was that I didn’t wrestle with what it means to show love for gays and lesbians. The phrase became a mantra that I could fall back on to avoid confronting a real difficulty—the difficulty highlighted in the exchange between Joe and Mary. What is involved in believing that homosexuality is a sin—that is, really believing it, acting as if it were true? And what is involved in really loving my gay and lesbian neighbors? And are these things compatible?

There is a tension here, and conservative Christians who invoke the “love the sinner, hate the sin” dictum are often dodging that tension. The dictum becomes an easy conversation-stopper, a way to hide from challenging questions about what it means to show love. Gays and lesbians have every right to complain when Christians do that.

Nevertheless, I think the dictum is an indispensable part of the Christian moral life. No Christian who seeks to live by the ethic of love can deny that we must love sinners while hating sin. The problem doesn’t lie with the dictum itself, but with how it is invoked and with the challenge of figuring out what it implies.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #1: The place of emotions in loving debate

As promised, I start this week sharing excepts from my forthcoming book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. For the first excerpt, I've chosen a passage from the last chapter of the book, in which I move away from the question of what the love ethic demands with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors and focus on how sincere people who disagree on these matters can pursue their disagreements in a spirit of love.

Let me offer just a few words of context. I reject the notion that any of us should simply "agree to disagree" when the actual fate of people we are called to love is at stake. If we're convinced we have an important truth to share, we do no one a favor by hiding it or obscuring it in an effort to be nice. What love calls for is honest debate that avoid psychological manipulation and seeks instead to illuminate truth. We are called to share why we believe in ways that may move others if our reasons are as compelling as we think they are, and may expose the weaknesses in our thinking when they're not as compelling as we think.

One question that arises in this context is the place of emotions and emotional appeals in loving debates. After exploring an example of an illicit appeal to disgust (an example I addressed a few years back in this blog entry), I move to a broader discussion of the place of emotions in loving discourse and debate. Without further ado, the excerpt:

Appeals to misleading emotions are one of the most potent forms of improper manipulation, and the appeal to disgust is just an example. Consider a slightly more complex case involving shame, fear of ridicule, and the desire for belonging. Suppose I’m having a conversation with several people, talking about my gay best friend, and I notice that one member of the group—call her Jane—starts to shift uncomfortably. She finally asks how I deal with the biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. Imagine that I respond with something like the following: “You don’t actually think homosexuality is wrong, do you? I mean, that’s ridiculous! This is the twenty-first century. You’re smarter than that, right?” 

Such a comment is designed to manipulate Jane with the fear of appearing a fool. Instead of inviting an open sharing of perspectives, it shuts down such sharing. A hint of flattery—“you look smarter than the kind of person who would think that”—is really a basis for invoking the specter of public shame. More often than not, the person most influenced by such a tactic may not be Jane, but the fence-sitting bystander—let’s call him Joe—who hasn’t thought much about the topic but sincerely longs to belong. The more he witnesses those with another view being shamed and silenced, the more he gravitates to the socially safest choice. At its worst this strategy can generate an arms-race of shame, in which each side of the debate escalates the social costs of rejecting their view in order to ensure that siding with them represent the socially safest choice. The winner of such an arms race has done nothing to illuminate truth.

While invoking misleading emotional responses for persuasive purposes is inimical to debating issues in a spirit of love, this does not mean that our discussions and debates should be divorced from our feelings. Not every emotion is an irrelevant emotion. 

Sometimes a compelling story generates a strong emotional response, and the reason is because the story has stimulated our capacity for empathy. We are suddenly in the shoes of another person, feeling what it’s like to be them. Our eyes tear up because we vicariously feel their suffering. We smile because we suddenly understand their joy as if it were our own. 

That kind of emotional resonance is crucial for loving our neighbors as ourselves, because it gives genuine insight. We can’t make wise decisions about how to love our neighbors if we can’t empathize with how they feel, if we can’t discern the truth about what it is like to be in their situation. 

Sometimes, in disagreements and debates, what we have to offer is a way of looking at an issue that invites and encourages this sort of empathy, thereby eliciting an emotional response. That emotional response is hardly irrelevant, because it is part of the insight into truth. If I didn’t feel some vicarious anguish at the story of a mother who can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby, that means I’m not seeing the truth about her situation. 

Likewise, there are some emotional responses to the experiences of others—compassion for those who suffer, anger at injustice—whose absence betrays a failure to appreciate what is going on. While our emotions are tricky, there is a strong intellectual tradition that sees them as having cognitive content: emotions are about something. Anger, for example, is a response to a perceived wrong. If injustice does not anger us, if it’s just some fact about the world that our intellect tells us is wrong, then a part of us has failed to see that it’s wrong. Our emotional selves have become blinded to the injustice, and so we aren’t discerning the injustice with our whole selves. 

In discussion or debate, part of our aim might be to awaken others’ emotional selves to a truth they have failed to see (even if their intellects have discerned it). In other words, we might not limit ourselves to making an intellectually dispassionate case that something is unjust. We might go further, looking for an analogy or image or narrative that helps to expose the outrageousness of the injustice. This is not an appeal to an irrelevant emotion, but rather a way of extending the intellectual argument beyond the merely academic, theoretical level. It’s a way of helping the heart, and not just the mind, to see. 

But because the emotions can be misled—because some rhetoricians have the power to paint something as outrageous even when no wrong has been done—it is best to wed such emotion-evoking arguments to more intellectual ones, to argue in a way that awakens the heart along with the mind, as opposed to awakening the heart alone (while, perhaps, the mind is kept deliberately asleep so the heart can be more easily led astray). 

Christian love, whatever else it is, is emotional. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to feel for them and to feel with them. Any strategy of debate and argument that is cut off from our emotions is therefore at odds with the very nature of Christian love. But truth-oriented arguments that extend to our emotional selves are not the same as manipulative ones that evoke emotions in order to confuse and obscure and misdirect. Love calls for the former, and rules out the latter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Coming Soon: Triumph of Love Excerpts!

Some of you may have noticed that my blogging dropped off this spring and vanished entirely over the summer. There is a reason for this: I've been pouring all my writing energies into finishing my newest book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, in an effort to beat the December contract deadline.

The good news is that I am now working on the final chapter of the first draft, and with my sabbatical this semester I have no worries about being able to revise the whole manuscript in time, so long as I stay focused. The bad news is that I still want to resist blogging about current topics so I can be sure to meet my deadline. This is probably a good thing, since the current election season would likely inspire posts that are nothing but expressions of incredulity.


There is no reason why I can't, over the next few months, post a few choice excerpts from my work-in-progress. Look for the first one next week.

I post these for two self-serving reasons. First, to generate some interest in the forthcoming book. Second, to elicit critical feedback.

Just a word about that second aim. I don't take all critical feedback seriously, because I don't find all critical feedback helpful. Some of it doesn't even qualify as critical feedback. I generally find feedback of the following sort unhelpful: it commits formal or informal fallacies; it does little more than accuse me of being a heretic; it is an exercise in creative name-calling instead of a critical engagement with the substance of what I have posted; it expresses righteous indignation over my utter failure to consider argument X (which, while I don't address it in the excerpt, I address elsewhere in the book).

Of course, with respect to the last issue, you can't know whether I consider argument X elsewhere in the book or not. So you should feel free to point out that argument X is relevant to issues raised in the excerpt. I'm likely to be quite receptive if you use something like the following form: "This excerpt made me think of argument X, which I think is relevant for reasons R1 and R2. Do you address that argument in the book?" I just get irritated when you use something like the following form: "What an idiot you are for failing to consider argument X! And to think you call yourself a philosopher!" If you do use the latter form, it is helpful to include a winky-face emoji at the end.

(That said, if I really did miss arguments that strikes me as important, I will likely look up scholarly articulations of them and find ways to work them into the manuscript even if you direct me to them in an a$$#0l-ey way.)

If you do feel motivated to offer serious feedback that engages with the substance of what I argue in a posted excerpt, I will be appreciative. I may not, however, take the time to engage in the kind of back-and-forth discussion that I pursue when I have more time. My energies will be directed primarily towards revising the manuscript, and I know from experience that the discussion section of a blog post can be a serious time-suck if I start responding to comments there. So my engagement may be minimal, although you may find that other readers of the blog are eager to engage.

Finally, my main aim with posting excerpts is to generate some interest and give those who are already interested a foretaste of what's to come. I have volunteer readers for the manuscript who are likely to offer far more substantive and authoritative feedback than what I can get from those who happen to read a few pages out of context. But if you surprise me, it's not totally inconceivable that the acknowledgments section of the book might include a sentence like this: "Thanks also to the various commenters on my blog, some of whom offered feedback on early excerpts that ranged from actually helpful to only moderately perplexing."

I know, I know. Heady stuff.