February 2010 Archives

The 317th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at Jevlir Caravansary. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:
This is the 54th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post introduced the subject of personal identity. This post moves into the first personal identity view to be discussed: the dualist view of personal identity.

I've already discussed dualism at length earlier in this series, starting here. The dualist view of personal identity, however, is not the same view as dualism in philosophy of mind. The dualist view in philosophy of mind takes us to have an immaterial mind or soul. The dualist view of personal identity not only believes there is such a thing but takes that mind or soul to be definitive of who we are.

In the terms of my last post in this series, then, the mind/soul is the key essential aspect of who we are. It's what makes me what I am, and I couldn't lose it while still existing. According to the dualist view of personal identity, my mind/soul is the only thing essential to me. You could do all manner of things to my body, and provided that there's nothing done to my mind or soul I'd still exist. (What condition I might be in is another matter.)

I mentioned in my last post that I would be following somewhat the arguments of John Perry's A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Perry has one of the characters in his conversation give some criticisms of the dualist view.

Objection 1: We notice if it's the same person by seeing if they have the same body. The dualist view identifies our most central features completely independently of the body.

Response: Maybe the soul is always in the same body, so we use bodies to tell if it's the same person. Sameness of person happens to go along with sameness of body, but that doesn't mean it has to be that way.

Also, this isn't the only way we identify people. If we're on the phone, over email, or in chat rooms, how do we tell? We pay attention to mannerisms, personality, character, beliefs, memories no one else should know, etc.

Objection 2: Can I tell if I have the same soul I had yesterday? I usually think of the Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul to Milhouse, and they show people's souls tagging along behind them, but Bart's (which looks like Bart) is tagging along behind Milhouse, along with Milhouse's own. Maybe our souls move from body to body, or maybe our souls die off and get replaced by new ones very quickly. It would be crazy to rule that out as a possibility without strong argumentation, and  yet the dualist view seems to deny that.

Response: This assumes a certain dualist view according to which there's nothing distinctive about the soul. You can have a view according to which the same soul might go from one person to another, without all the mental characteristics continuing on with the soul in the new body. That's just not Descartes' dualist view, so it's unfair to say dualism doesn't allow life after death on these grounds. You can't object to one view by saying a different view has problems. In other words, Descartes accepts that the mind/soul and the mental properties of a particular mind go hand-in-hand. Thus he considers the soul to be an essential property, but he also thinks other properties will always go along with the soul.

If you lose all your memories and beliefs, what we take to be distinctive of you, are you a different person, even if you have the same soul? A radical version of this appears in Babylon 5 (see especially the third-season episode "Passing Through Gethsemane"), called death of personality. By the 23rd century, they'd replaced the death penalty with procedure that became colloquially referred to as a mind-wipe. The memory and personality characteristics of the convicted criminal get removed from the brain, and a new set of memories and personality replace them, with a desire to serve.

In the episode, a monk discovers that he was once a serial killer. At least that's how he describes it. Some will say he's a new person now. Are they right if they mean that literally? We say a man just out of prison totally changed is a new person - but not literally. It could be the same guy much changed. So this isn't much of an objection to dualist accounts.

We have no sure way to tell if it's the same soul, but does it need to be absolutely sure or just reliable? If dualism is true, the methods we do use to tell if it's the same person will be reliable until death, so what's the problem? Having the same soul would involve the same beliefs, character, memories, and those don't allow body-switching or soul replacement without the person knowing.

So I conclude that the original challenge Perry sets up at the beginning of the discussion is met. He has his Weirob character ask for an account of the possibility of her survival beyond her impending death from terminal illness. She says she'd be satisfied not with a full expectation of eternal life but with the mere possibility. Doesn't the dualist view provide that? Sure, there are dualist views that have problems as discussed above, but those aren't the standard dualist view, and objections to those don't show problems with the dualist view itself. Perry thinks he's removed the dualist view from his set of options for this reason, but that seems premature.

Now it's another matter entirely whether the dualist view is true. I haven't given any arguments for it yet. You might happen to think it's true because you're committed to dualism already and find it plausible that such a mind/soul just is you or is central to your being you. But the arguments for dualism, discussed earlier in this series, are not all that convincing to most philosophers today. I hope that by the end of this personal identity discussion we'll be much more inclined to consider dualism, because it seems to me to be the best way to handle all the problems that occur in personal identity discussions. But for now let's move on to other views to see their difficulties before returning to a view that has much less of an argument for it in the views of most philosophers today. The next post will look at psychological accounts of personal identity.

Christian Carnival CCCXVI

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The 316th Christian Carnival is up at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet.

Race Thought Experiment #7

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If a couple in Africa with no European ancestry somehow naturally conceived and gave birth to someone who grew up to look just like Sarah Michelle (Gellar) Prinze, would she be white? If a couple in Norway with no recent African ancestry naturally conceived and gave birth to a child who grew up to look just like James Earl Jones, would the child be black? If you think the cases aren't parallel, and one is yes but the other no, why is that?

The 316th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Craig Blomberg has a pretty detailed review of Philip Payne's Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters, and because of Denver Journal's new comment feature there's a lengthy comment in reply by Payne right below the review. There's a brief statement in Blomberg's review that Payne spends a good deal of time responding to that caught my interest.

The primary debate is over a particular issue in biblical interpretation between complementarians who insist that functional subordination is compatible with ontological equality when it comes to human relationships and egalitarians who resist such a compatibility. Most complementarians consider a similar kind of functional subordination to occur between the Father and Son in the Trinity, and so any egalitarian argument against it has to take into account both levels of the analogy, which makes things tricky to say the least. My own concern with Payne's argument lies primarily in its significance for the Trinitarian debate, but it also has an application in the gender-role issue that gave rise to the overall book that Blomberg is reviewing. I'll quote the relevant part of the exchange before offering my sense of where I think Payne's argument is mistaken.


Payne finds the concept of functional subordination within ontological equality virtually non-sensical


This misrepresents my position. I believe that ontological equality is perfectly compatible with functional subordination as long as that subordination is voluntary and temporary, as was Christ's voluntary and temporary subordination to the Father in the incarnation (e.g. Phil 2:6-11). It seems to me that if subordination in necessary and eternal, it is then an aspect of one's essence. As Millard J. Erickson says in Who's Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 250, "If the Father is eternally and necessarily supreme among the persons of the Trinity, and if the Son eternally is subordinated to him, an interesting consequence follows. The Son in not merely accidentally, but essentially, subordinate to the Father. That means that there is a difference of essence between the two--that the Father's essence includes supreme authority, while the Son's essence includes submission and subordination, everywhere and always." It is the simultaneous affirmation of equality of essence of the persons of the Trinity with this sort of difference in their essence that I find self-contradictory.

I'm not sure I agree. It depends on a couple issues. In the case of the Trinity, it partly depends on what you mean by "ontological equality". Suppose functional subordination is correct, and the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father eternally and necessarily. Does that imply ontological inequality? Well, it implies a difference that is ontological, if it counts as an ontological difference for the Son to have an essential property not shared by the Father and the Father to have one not shared by the Son. If the roles are eternal and necessary (meaning there is no possible world in which the Father and Son don't have these roles), then there is an ontological difference, yes.

But is it inequality? Only in the sense that two things that are different are not equal on the mere ground that they are different. An apple and an orange are different and thus not equal. But they're an apple and an orange and are thus not comparable. It's not as if the apple is superior to the orange or vice versa just because they're different fruits. They're just different. Ah, but isn't the hierarchical relationship of the Father and Son going to be comparable, since one is in authority over the other? Thus it won't be like apples and oranges. That's true. But what the apple-orange relationship illustrates is that you can have differences without having the kind of ontological difference that amounts to inequality. Does a hierarchical relationship involve the kind of inequality we should care about when talking about equals?

Not necessarily. In the congregation I grew up in, the pastor and chair of the elder board was an unpaid volunteer, who had a full-time job in the human resources office of a local manufacturing plant. A member of the congregation was the human resources director and thus was his boss. So they simultaneously were in authority over each other in different respects, one on a spiritual level and the other in a workplace-supervisory role. Each was functionally subordinate to the other. It's true that in this case both are temporary roles, but my point with the example isn't that it's permanent but ontologically equal. It's that a functionally-subordinate role relationship can be hierarchical without being unequal. These two men were fully equal in their rights as U.S. citizens, as members of our congregation, and as employees of their company, but in certain respects one was in authority over the other, while in other respects the other was in authority over the first. So a hierarchical relationship can involve functional subordination with ontological equality.

So it seems to me that functional subordination is compatible with equality in the important sense, and whatever sense ontological differences of the sort Payne points out will be true in a case of eternal and necessary ontological differences, it's not the sense that undermines the relevant kind of equality.

But I think there's another problem with Payne's argument. Should we assume that eternal functional subordination implies necessary subordination? Should we think eternal functional subordination of the Father to the Son involves some essential property of the Father involving authority and a different essential property held by the Son involving subordination? I'm not sure myself that such a view would be heretical, as Kevin Giles claims. As long as the property is relational, it need not be part of the essence of the Father or the essence of the Son (which on traditional orthodox assumptions should be the same essence and thus have the same properties). After all, there has to be something that distinguishes the Father from the Son for them to be two persons, even if they are also the same God and thus can't have essential properties that are different. Perhaps an essential relation between them, a functional one rather than an ontological one, that would do that trick. (By a relation here, I mean a property corresponding to a two-place predicate that's held between two things rather than a property corresponding to a one-place predicate held by one thing.)

But you might instead be able to make sense of the Father-Son relation as contingent but eternal. In other words, isn't it possible that the functional relationship between the Father and Son is a voluntary, agreed-upon relationship that the Father and Son eternally and timelessly settle on but that in another possible world they might have eternally and timelessly settled on a different relation, namely one that puts the person who actually is the Father in the Son role and the person who actually is the Son in the Father role? I'm not aware of anything in the creeds or the scriptures that precludes such a view. Something's being true at every time certainly does not imply that it had to be true. If that truth is grounded in a timeless decision that God might have made differently, then in a different possible world God would have had some other contingent fact true of him timelessly and eternally. So it simply isn't true that functional subordination across all time implies necessary functional subordination.

I think there's yet a third problem too. Complementarians think functional subordination relations among human beings in this life should not involve a woman in authority over a man in marriage or in spiritual authority over men in the church. Regardless of whether that view is correct, I don't think it's true that they hold this to be true eternally. Marriage relationships end in death, and there's no reason to think elder-congregation relationships continue with any authoritative relationship post-death. So, for the only two functionally-hierarchical relationships most complementarians today even believe in, there's no reason to think complementarians must extend those relations beyond death, and thus that functional subordination isn't even an eternal relation, never mind a necessary one. I'm sure most complementarians would insist that women will not be in authority over men in the resurrection in any way like the husband-wife or elder-member relations in this life. But that doesn't mean such relations will continue. It's consistent with complementarianism that no human being (besides Jesus) will have any authority over any other human being in the resurrection. So even if Payne were right that eternality implies essentiality (which he certainly is not), he'd have the further problem of extending his critique toward complementarians who won't even insist on eternal functional subordination, and I don't see why complementarians should insist on that.


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I'm reading through the glossary in Elizabeth Meyer's Gender, Bullying, and Harassment, which I've been reading for an invited book review, and I noticed something that seemed odd to me in the definition for 'gay':

The preferred term for a person who engages in same-sex relationships and identifies as a member of this community. It is preferred to the term homosexual, which has scientific meanings that apply specifically to same-sex behaviors and does not consider a person's identities and relationships. Gay can refer to both men and women, although many women prefer the term lesbian.
Now I can think of three different things that could be distinguished here:

1. The sexual orientation: to use Meyer's own glossary definition, "the genders and sexes to which a person is emotionally, physically, romantically, and erotically attracted" -- such as homosexual, bisexual, omnisexual, heterosexual, and asexual -- and is informed by innate sexual attraction." This is a factual issue about which kinds of people the person is attracted to.

2. The identity: how someone identifies themselves in relation to sexual orientation. This isn't the same as sexual orientation, which is a question about who someone is attracted to. It's a question of how the person defines themself.

3. The behavior: how someone acts with respect to people of different genders or sexes. e.g. actually engaging in romantic and/or sexual relationships, making efforts to pursue such relationships, and so on.

I know people who would consider themselves homosexual according to sexual orientation as it's defined in 1 but who do not see their identity defined that way and in fact want to resist it. It's not clear that they are gay in the sense of Meyer's definition. This observation is completely independent of the moral question of whether they should resist it. They in fact try to, which means they don't identify as gay according to how Meyer defines that term.

What I find odd is that they also don't count as homosexual, the way Meyer defines that in the definition of 'gay' above, but they do count as homosexual by the definition of 'sexual orientation' in 1. If they are celibate or engage in heterosexual relationships (two men I know in this category are heterosexually married and, as far as I know, faithful to their wives), despite that not being their innate preference, then they do not participate in homosexual behavior as in 3. They merely have the attraction as their primary attraction, simply 1. The definition of 'sexual orientation' in 1 specifically allows for this possibility. But the definition of 'gay', which excludes it, also excludes it from what it says about the term 'homosexual', which it says "has scientific meanings that apply specifically to same-sex behaviors and does not consider a person's identities and relationships".

So is being homosexual a matter of sexual orientation, as in 1, or is it a matter of behaviors as Meyer distinguishes it from being gay in her definition of 'gay'? Or is the term ambiguous between the two and can sometimes mean one and sometimes the other? I thought I knew what it meant, but now I'm not so sure if she's capturing an important use of it that I haven't noticed before. If that's so, then perhaps we need to make distinctions clearer and figure out a term for the sexual orientation that doesn't imply anything about behavior.

Christian Carnival CCCXV

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The 315th Christian Carnival is up at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

Views on Baptism

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Marcus Maher reviews a new book called Three Views on Baptism. It basically covers the two main views of baptism found among Protestants along with a third view by Anthony Lane that is very close to what my own congregation does, and I've hardly ever seen anyone argue for such a view in print (which I think is the best practice, for the record).

The idea is that scripture isn't clear enough on the issue of baptism to justify a congregation requiring either believer's baptism or infant baptism. Instead, a congregation should leave it to the parents to decide whether they will (a) baptize their infant in anticipation of a later confirmation or (b) dedicate in anticipation of a later baptism (with pretty much the same content expressed at whichever one ends up occurring).

I happen to be of the view that each practice is functionally equivalent to the other practice. One of them conceptualizes it in a more biblical way, but the other does the same thing under a less-biblical way of describing it and conceiving of it.

As I commented on Marcus' post, I think there are two issues going on here, one of which isn't remotely settled by Lane's approach. Here are two separate questions:

1. What should a church allow in terms of its practice (only infant, only believer's, leave it to the conscience of the parents)?
2. What should a parent do (which might involve how parents choose a congregation to be members of or mighty involve choosing what to do in a dual-practice congregation)?

Even if you answer the first question with dual-practice (as I would), you still need an answer to the second question. I belong to a dual-practice congregation, and I think they made the right choice to allow both. But I think the scriptures do favor believer's baptism. Someone else might disagree with me (as several members of my congregation do, including one of the three elders). But I don't think that disagreement is grounds for division, which is why I favor the dual-practice approach.

What I don't think Lane really answers, though, is the second question. Favoring dual-practice in a congregation doesn't mean not taking a view on which to do when it comes time to decide between them, and it seemed to me from the review that Lane doesn't take a stance on that question. He thus hasn't answered the main question the other two authors are debating in the book, which is a little strange if the book is supposed to cover three views on the same question.

The 315th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Holy Vestments

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In Sartorial Eye for the Clerical Guy, Christopher Benson points to the Mosaic law's requirements for dazzlingly beautiful uniforms for priests as a reason for Christian ministers to wear nice clothing today, with an emphasis on the majestic robes of the more liturgical denominations as compared with the three-piece suits of the congregations I grew up in.

In the comments, someone made the argument that Paul doesn't exactly say anything to Timothy, repeating such provisions for New Testament times. I suppose that's true, but it doesn't go far enough, because Paul did discuss vestments at one point:

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works.[I Tim 2:9-10]

as did Peter:

Do not let your adorning be external--the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear-- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. [I Pet 3:2-4]

This is of a piece with the holy expanding to all things [edit: see my Scripture and Worship for the biblical theology of worship I'm working with here], as opposed to the holy/common divide of the Mosaic law. If all vestment can be holy, as all food, all containers, all buildings, and all days are now holy, then the principle of wearing clothing to glorify God becomes more about the inner than what it looks like. So a biblical theology that recognizes this isn't going to apply the levitical dress in a way that requires uniforms for the so-called professional ministers (on the ground that they are the replacements for priests at least in the sense of being the ones paid for ministry) or for the ordinary believer (on the principle of equality). It requires recognizing what Rick Warren wears as being just as capable of holiness and glory to God as what N.T. Wright wears.

When I raised this issue in the comments (I actually just lifted my comment verbatim above), Christopher responded:

Thank you for invoking relevant New Testament passages on clothing. Those passages deepen our conversation. I am wrestling with your contention that "the holy/common divide of the Mosaic law" is gone under the New Covenant, so that the holy is expanded to "all things." All things? Holiness can be conceived in different ways. One way is "a condition of being set apart." What is set apart about a minister who wears the same clothing at the pulpit that he wore for the Super Bowl party or neighborhood BBQ? What is set apart about going to a building on Sunday morning that resembles the bar I visited on Friday night or the mall I strolled through on Monday afternoon? Holiness quickly begins to loses its set-apartness and becomes quotidian and pedestrian.

If we think of holiness as being set apart, then it is a little strange to say that all things are holy, since then there would be nothing to be set apart from. But I think what I said is still true (and what follows is repeated from a comment I left in response). I meant that the holy/common divide of seeing the priestly/tabernacle things and the ordinary life things breaks down in the NT. Every day is equally holy, not just special festival days or sabbaths, as Paul says in several places. Every location is holy and suitable for worship rather than just a centralized temple or tabernacle, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4. All food is clean, as Jesus declares and Peter and Paul reiterate. There are no special holy silverware items for use in a special holy building (e.g. what some people wrongly call a church) used for special fellowship meals. There are no special seats that have to be used (e.g. pews). Why should we retain the idea that some clothes are special?

That doesn't mean there's no purpose for clothing. We should still be clothed, for example, and it shouldn't be too revealing. But I don't see why a T-shirt, even one with a rip in the sleeve, or a bright Hawaiian shirt pattern should be any less appropriate for worship than a three-piece suit or dress. There's something special about worship that takes place corporately, yes. But it's not as if that's the only time we worship, and the principle that we should care about our appearance should apply as much during the week when we worship with our lives as it does when we happen to be worshiping corporately with other believers.

Race Thought Experiment #6

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In C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, Aslan modifies a normal horse to make him a talking horse and then later gives him wings and makes him a flying, talking horse. What if he transformed him further so that he looked and acted just like a human? Would he be a horse still? Would he be human?

Christian Carnival CCCXIV

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The 314th Christian Carnival is up at You Can't Mean That!

A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that 40% of diagnoses of brain disorders are misdiagnoses. These are people diagnosed with conditions such as being in a persistent vegetative state, which is often taken as sufficient for removal of life support because of the assumption that no person remains.

This study finds that a significant percentage of people who are diagnosed as being in such a state are not only conscious but can even be made to communicate simple "yes" or "no" by being told to think about some concrete thing if they mean "yes" and a different concrete thing if they mean "no". Different parts of their brain would be active if they were conscious and given these instructions, and that could be detected, A number of these patients were thus able to communicate after being declared to have brains of jello with no possibility of consciousness.

This calls for a massive rethinking of how we should interpret what's going on in persistent vegetative state diagnoses. Either there are different conditions that look the same for all that can be detected (prior to this new method of detecting consciousness, anyway), or the one state that's been called a persistent vegetative state is fully compatible with consciousness, despite what doctors have assumed. Our courts have relied on that judgment to excuse what turns out to be the killing of a conscious human being. This new research raises the standards pretty steeply for when we should make life-or-death decisions based on such diagnoses.

The LifeNews article about this study includes a suggestion in the opposite direction. If these patients can indicate, consent, can't they be asked if they want to die? The doctor the article quotes as being interested in this does acknowledge that there are still problems with consent. I don't think the article shows much awareness of how significant such problems are. It's notoriously difficult to know when someone has rationally consented even if they can communicate in complete sentences, and this doctor thinks he can get patients who can only use this roundabout method to give legal consent to being killed? How will they determine whether the person is being rational in consenting? Congress prohibited the selling of organs, because it's too easy for people at the lower end in terms of income to be manipulated into giving up their organs. Shouldn't we extend at least as much courtesy to those who might be manipulated into giving up their lives?

[cross-posted at Evangel]

The 314th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at You Can't Mean That! The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

In the new season of Lost (stop reading now if you haven't watched through the sixth season premiere yet and don't want to be spoiled), the writers have introduced a new storytelling device. The first three seasons filled out the backstories of the characters by means of alternating between the current story and flashbacks, usually from before the characters were on the island, focusing on a different character each episode. The fourth season changed the device to flashforwards. The main story continued where it had left off the previous season, but in most episodes it alternated with what happens to some of the characters after they leave the island. At the end of the season in the main story, we see the events that lead up to them leaving the island.

The fifth season splits in two pieces. For the first half of the season, we have the continuation of the characters who remain on the island, as their location in time becomes unstable, and they shift from one time period to another across various periods in the history of the island. This is alternated with the characters who left the island, as they move toward returning. Mid-season, we see those characters arriving, and the time-shifts end. The characters who had remained on the online got stuck in 1974, and the characters who returned to the island have arrived, some of them in 2007, three years after they had left, and some in 1977, three years after their compatriots had arrived in the past. At the very end of season five, we see them initiating a plan to try to change the past and prevent themselves from ever having arrived on the island. The fifth season ends as it looks as if they have achieved what they intended, but we see no effects from it.

Now the sixth season has begun, and the new storytelling device is neither time travel, flashbacks, or flashforwards. They're calling it flash-sideways. One storyline involves the original characters in the aftermath of their plan. They seem to be in an unchanged timeline, back in 2007, where they will presumably meet up with the other characters who arrived on the island in 2007 as planned. The new storytelling device adds a story about people who look just like the characters we already know but who have led very different lives, as if the world has been different since 1977. The plane doesn't crash. The island seems to be underwater. We see small differences, some of them attributable to the island's demise in 1977. Hurley is lucky rather than unlucky. John Locke isn't depressed, and he at least seems to indicate that he went on the walkabout. Jack is nervous and Rose calm. Charlie is suicidal rather than just addicted. Desmond is on the plane rather than on the island pushing the button. Some characters who were on the plane are not there now (e.g. Boone couldn't get Shannon to come back with him). I'm guessing that some of the slight differences in personality or life-path are due to Jacob not meeting up with some of the characters (whatever it is he did to them by touching them), and some from other aspects of the island being changed (the numbers not being broadcast for Hurley to encounter them, the island not being there to be found by Desmond or maybe even Charles Widmore not being alive to send him on his trip to begin with).

What seems to have happened (and I'm guessing we might end up being surprised to find out something else is actually going on, judging my the executive producers' cryptic comments about this) is that the time-traveling characters did something in 1977 that didn't change anything in their own timeline but did cause a different timeline to take a different path. This sort of fits with what J.J. Abrams and his associates have done with time travel in another franchise, namely the latest Star Trek film. The time-traveling characters in that movie traveled back to the past and changed it. But the past they changed wasn't their own past. It was the past of a different reality. That's the similarity, but there's a big difference with Lost. The world Nimoy-Spock ends up in is another reality, the changed one. He's there with his alternate-past self. In Lost, the characters don't see any change whatsoever, even though they're present when they presumably cause the change. So the cause of the change is in their reality, and it has an effect in a different reality that they never enter. The Star Trek version involved the time-travelers simply going to an alternate world and causing the different path of history in that other world, while their past remained the same without them in it.

The problem with the Star Trek way of doing it is that all time travel would have to be really just alternate-reality travel in the cases when it seems to be past-changing, but then why would some time travel be that and others be going to your own past (the ones where you don't change anything)? Why would events after you arrive (i.e. whether you change anything) determine whether you went to another world, when you've already been wherever you are the whole time before those events? So it must be that all time travel is alternate-reality travel to avoid such a problem.

The Lost way of doing avoids that problem, because you go to your own past, but anything you do that you might think changes anything has no changing effects in your own reality but does in the other one. The problem now is that something you do in one reality causes a different reality to have a different history, when nothing in its own timeline causes the difference. But if you don't actually do anything different from what had ever occurred all along in your own reality, why does an action you don't even do have an effect that makes the other timeline different? So something's really confused if the story the writers want us to believe is really the explanation for the flash-sideways.

Robert Orci explains the rationale for treating time travel as alternate-universe travel in this interview, which I've commented on previously. He rightly opposed the idea of changing the past. Damon Lindelof, who worked on that film with him, is one of the two executive producers of Lost who run the show (and both projects are under J.J. Abrams' ultimate leadership). Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have said several times that they opposed time travel stories with paradoxes, and presumably they mean the kind caused by changing the past. Here is one instance from Lindelof:

We're not going to tell you that we're against bending the time-space continuum. We are very for it. Carlton and I are PRO time-space continuum bending! But we're ANTI-paradox. Paradox creates issues. In Heroes, Masi Oka's character travels back from the future to say, ''You must prevent New York from being destroyed.'' But if they prevent New York from being destroyed, Masi Oka can never travel back from the future to warn you, because Future Hiro no longer exists. Right? So when we start having those conversations at Lost, we go, ''This show is already confusing enough as it is.'' To actually have characters traveling through time has to be handled very deftly.

That sounds to me as if they're committed to having stories that don't change the past despite allowing travel to the past (which must be what they mean by bending time). That does in fact seem consistent with everything they've done in the show so far with genuine time travel. Anything time-traveling characters do is something that always had happened that way. The only possible exceptions are the few instances of consciousness-time-traveling, but even in those the small variations are explicitly said to change nothing, since attempts to change things fail to make a significant change (and they were pretty much done with those before they got to the genuine time travel, so they may have solidified their view more fully by then, and it's also possible that those instances of consciousness-time-travel that had slight changes to the past were travel to alternate timelines anyway).

So what's this business about a timeline where the island is underwater and the plane doesn't crash? For it to make sense, some event in the flash-sideways timeline (as opposed to an exploding bomb in the original timeline we've been following, or a non-exploding bomb in the original timeline we've been following) needs to have caused the island to sink, and we get to see the effects of there having been no island for a few decades, presumably with no Jacob to visit people, no numbers to be broadcast, no characters like Desmond or Juliet being brought to the island before flight 815 passes by, and all the characters on the island at the time being dead (presumably all the Dharma Initiative members still there along with all the Others still there, which should include Charles Widmore, Eloise Hawking, and Ben Linus if it's in 1977).

Also, how is this going to connect with the original reality we have cared about for five seasons? If it's to make sense, it better involve something funky, because it doesn't make a lot of sense for the event that causes things to go different in reality B to be in reality A, unless the island involves not just space and time anomalies but causal gateways to affect other realities. By exploding the bomb in 1977 in reality A (or perhaps by not exploding it; it's not clear whether it exploded in reality A), Juliet causes the island of reality B to sink (when there should have been no time-traveling characters to see off any bomb in reality B). It doesn't make sense. My guess is something else is going on. There has to be some device to connect both realities, because they reportedly will end up with one storyline with no switching back and forth (according to what Matthew Fox has said, anyway), and I don't see why they'd start flash-sideways stories without some impact on the original story's reality. I can't imagine how this will all work out if it's going to make sense, but I don't want to rule out the possibility that they just don't have a coherent view. Enough stuff has come together that I suspect they do, and they handled "what is done is done" time travel over a whole season with expert finesse, which isn't easy to do. So I'm looking forward to seeing what they do, but I'm hoping it's not what they want us to believe from what we've seen so far this season. Ultimately, I have to say that this show stands or falls by how it ends, just as Battlestar Galactica did. The writers of that show pulled it off to my satisfaction, and I've liked this show enough that I want it to end well too. I just hope the writers are aware of some way to avoid these sorts of problems.


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A lot has been said about last week's flap over President Obama's scolding of the Supreme Court during the State of the Union. FDR was the last president who criticized a particular Supreme Court decision in a State of the Union speech. Justice Alito's mouthing the words "that's not true" in response have also been much-criticized, even by those who acknowledge that the justice was correct. I don't want to repeat everything that's been said, but I did notice something that I haven't seen anyone else picking up on.

Here is what President Obama said:

Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.

The most natural way to read that first sentence is that he's accusing the Supreme Court of doing this in order to give the special interests a chance to spend without limit. It's not just that it has that result but that such a result is the very reason they did it. He said they "reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests". I don't know if he really meant to imply that the reasons they gave in the opinion are not their real reasons or if he was just uncareful in what he said, but what he said does seem to me to imply that they didn't really do it because they think the Constitution requires giving corporations and unions free speech rights that don't allow for these limits. Instead, it was because they wanted special interests in particular to have no limits.

That strikes me as a pretty uncharitable reading of their motives, especially given that this isn't all that surprising a decision for most of these justices. Justice Kennedy in particular is a free speech absolutist. He thinks hardly any limits on free speech are constitutionally allowable. Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia along with Chief Justice Roberts are more willing to allow exceptions for freedom of speech than Justice Kennedy is, but they've tended to oppose campaign finance restrictions on free speech grounds. The fact that some special interest groups will benefit from this is a mere effect. Accusing the Supreme Court of voting merely to get a political result can make sense if the argument they give in the opinion is extremely out of character for the kind of reasoning the justices in question usually give, but that's no so with this decision. It's extremely unlikely that this was motivated by some tie to special interests (as if special interests are only on one side of the aisle anyway; such a decision would go both ways, and given that Obama got more support from corporations than McCain it's also unlikely that this was motivated by a desire to get the Republican Party more money, as some conspiracy theorists have claimed).

But then this president, not very long ago, was a senator who made some pretty uncharitable comments to both Roberts and Alito when explaining his votes not to confirm them (and his vote to filibuster Alito). I'll quote one of my comments on a previous discussion:

I don't think what he said about Bush's Supreme Court nominees was all that respectful. He basically accused Roberts of having a callous heart toward the weak and being dismissive of attempts to eradicate discrimination. Then two paragraphs later he complained that Democrats were attacking Senator Leahy's motivations for supporting Roberts, as if it's bad to attack people's motives, something he'd just spent a couple paragraphs doing with Roberts.

He did something similar with Alito. He spoke about how civility is a good thing. He did say that Alito is a man of great character, which is at least better than how he treated Roberts. But then he went on to accuse him of siding with the strong, the state, and corporations in every case where he didn't have to follow Supreme Court precedent, as if it weren't about what he viewed the Constitution as requiring but were just about seeking to get certain results that favored the strong, the state, and corporations.

Of course, then-Senator Obama's arguments against then-Judge Alito applied just as strongly to then-Judge Sotomayor when President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court. So he has a history of making charges about the assumed motivations of conservative judges but unwilling to hold his own nominations to the same standard.

It strikes me as disingenuous and extremely unfair to assume hidden motives when judges and justices actually give arguments for their decisions. It might also be unfair and uncharitable to assume a line like this one must mean he thought they were intentionally doing this to achieve the bad result he predicts will happen, but that is the most natural way to read the sentence he used (and I'm sure this speech underwent much effort to get it just right). I do hope this line in the speech wasn't intentional on his part, because I don't like the kind of partisan spirit that attributes bad motives to those who disagree. But I see exactly that kind of partisan spirit in President Obama's consistent stance toward judges who are to his right but well within the mainstream, and that inclines me to think he probably wouldn't change a line like that if someone pointed out to him that it seems to indicate that he's attributing bad motives to these judges.

I have a feeling that's exactly what he wants to convey, because it's a way of dirtying those he disagrees with without sounding as mean as he would if he just talked explicitly about bad motives. It's an effective way of motivating the base who agrees with him while flying under the radar of those who might miss the nuance of language, and in this case the fact that his fact-checkers allowed him to misrepresent the decision so badly led critics to focus entirely on the issues of fact, with some also criticizing him for his nearly-unprecedented move of criticizing a recent Supreme Court decision in a State of the Union. No one seems to have noticed the attribution of bad motives. My suspicion is that Justice Alito did, however, and I have to wonder if that's more what he was responding to than the misinterpretation of the decision that came after. From watching the video, assuming the audio is synced properly, I have to say that the timing of his response suggests so.

Christian Carnival CCCXIII

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The 313th Christian Carnival is up at Who Am I?

James Sennett's chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy considers several views on the extent of salvation:

Universalism: Everyone will be saved.
Pluralism: There is no one, true religion. Multiple religions are legitimate paths to God.
Inclusivism: There is one, true religion, but some who are technically in other religions are nonetheless on a legitimate path to God by means of the correct religion, even if they don't know it.
Exclusivism: There is one, true religion, and the only path to God is through explicitly following that religion.

Sennett argues, correctly I think, that Lewis was an inclusivist. He allows for Emeth to be saved without any explicit trust in Aslan, but he insists that Emeth was following Aslan while falsely believing he was following Tash. Aslan clearly states that Aslan and Tash are not the same being, and the followers of Tash are evil and do not make it into Aslan's country. Universalism and pluralism are as easily ruled out as exclusivism. I haven't spent an awful lot of time thinking about inclusivism, because it seems so hard to square with Paul's train of thought in Romans 10. But Sennett has helped me see that Lewis' inclusivism makes sense of one puzzling element of the Narnia stories, and he's also helped me think a little more fully about what an inclusivist view should look like.

Sennett argues that inclusivism best explains something that might otherwise be puzzling in the Narnia stories. See The Mouse Trap Theory of Atonement at Green Baggins for a serious discussion of Lewis' theory of the atonement in the Narnia books. After reading Sennett, I'm now wondering if the discussion makes any sense. It's an attempt to get an entire theory of atonement out of an event that isn't really atonement for anyone but Edmund. Sennett has a much better alternative. He insists that the Narnians' following of Aslan is not Christianity. You don't have anything in Narnia like salvation by means of faith in a work of atonement. The stone table was one event for one person that turned the tables in one war against one opponent. It's much better to think of Narnians who follow Aslan in a way more like how Christians generally see faithful Jews before the time of Christ and how Lewis saw Emeth following Aslan without knowing it when he thought he was serving Tash. I think what Sennett is suggesting is that the real atonement for Narnians is the same one for us, namely the cross in our world. The Narnians don't know this to put explicit faith in it, but it's enough that Aslan does when he initiates the work of faith in their lives to guide them along in their progress toward greater understanding, some of which may only come after their death (as was the case with Emeth). I think this makes much better sense of what Lewis is doing with the stone table and how he might say that Narnians are saved.

Anther intriguing statement Sennett makes is that Aslan is not Jesus. I thought it was obvious that Aslan is Jesus. Isn't the stone table supposed to refer to the cross, even if it isn't really salvation for all the Narnians? Well, yes, literarily. But in the world of the fiction, Aslan is a lion. Jesus is a man. The incarnation of the first person of the Trinity as a man in our world is not the same incarnation as his incarnation as a lion in the Narnian world. The incarnation is hard enough to figure out philosophically, but a double incarnation? Fortunately, Prosblogion has already had two discussions of that issue for those who are curious.

Finally, it occurs to me that inclusivism fits best with a Calvinist model of divine sovereignty. Sennett's way of describing who among other religions is genuinely on the path to salvation is that they're the ones God is working in to move them toward the right attitudes and practices, despite not having the right information to know what the gospel even is. Without that, and without the evidence of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, it's very hard for there to be objective criteria for someone to be saved. The easiest way around that is for the criteria to be simply whoever God is genuinely working in, a work that will always be brought to completion, but that requires Calvinist views of divine sovereignty over human salvation. There may be other ways to do it, but that's certainly the easiest answer to the problem. Ironically, Calvinists are probably more likely to be opposed to inclusivism than other groups, and inclusivists rarely want to be Calvinists.


The 313th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at Who Am I? The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

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