July 2010 Archives
There's long been a narrative among haters of Justice Clarence Thomas that he's not very intelligent and just goes along with whatever Justice Antonin Scalia does. The reverse is actually closer to the truth (but not all that close). It was Thomas' outside-the-box thinking that got Scalia to rethink a lot of the assumptions in his legal philosophy, and he was far more willing to take less moderate positions because of Thomas than he had been before Thomas was on the Court.
I've sometimes wondered if it's some kind of residual racism that's driving this narrative, with the stereotype of lower intelligence driving people to assume that Thomas is likely the less intelligent of the two, and since they so often vote together....
But no one ever suspected such a thing of Justice Thurgood Marshall, even though he so often voted with Justice William Brennan, the leader of the liberal wing of the Court for decades. So it's not just plain assumptions about black Supreme Court justices not being able to be as smart as white ones. More likely it's an assumption that no black justice who thought carefully and honestly would come up with the positions Thomas holds. Since I know people who explicitly hold such a view (when the reality is that no careful, intellectually honest, and fully-informed person could hold that view), this is highly plausible to me.
What's ironic, besides the fact that Thomas influenced Scalia more than the other way around and that Thomas is widely-viewed by Court-watchers across the political spectrum as one of the most original thinkers on the Supreme Court in decades, is that it turns out Marshall and Brennan may have in fact had the relationship that so many have accused Thomas and Scalia of having. According to a new biography of Justice Brennan by authors generally favorable to him, Brennan didn't think all that highly of Marshall as a justice. It's not that he was unimpressed at his intelligence. Anything but. He was so thoroughly impressed at his work as the chief counsel of the NAACP that he had high expectations of Marshall as a justice, and he simply failed to live up to them, except on a few issues, largely because (on Brennan's account) Marshall just didn't maintain the interest in the issues to think independently and carefully about them, pretty much just going along with whatever Brennan said in the way that many have claimed Thomas does with Scalia.
It was a complete surprise to me to read about this, because Marshall has long been heralded as a champion for liberal causes on the Supreme Court in ways that none have gone since he and Brennan left the Court. Most of the liberals on the current Supreme Court are noticeably closer to the mainstream on several issues, including capital punishment, affirmative action, and the intersection of first-amendment religion and speech rights. The idea that he chose not to think on his own and just went along with Brennan most of the time doesn't fit with the usual narrative.
Someone sent me a link to the 7 Craziest Westboro Baptist Church Protests Ever. I knew these people were far gone, but I didn't realize just how far until I saw some of these. I knew of a few of these, but some are crazier than I'd imagined. It's almost a parody of some of the worst excesses of the most extreme fundamentalism.
I've long argued that Christians who think there's something wrong with homosexuality, who see it as a perversion and see engaging in an actively-gay lifestyle as morally wrong will too often prioritize that one issue (or that one among a few they prioritize) over issues that are given as much or more serious attention in the Bible that they have little to say about. This isn't true of all who try to speak to their culture about homosexuality in this way, but it's true of too many, in my opinion. One reason I think this happens is that it's a minority opinion, and hardly anyone is expressing opposition to the claim that child sexual abuse is wrong. So the fact that child sexual abuse is far worse than homosexuality on virtually any account doesn't seem to matter to those who want to be culture warriors, because they don't see that as a battle to be fought, ignoring entirely that the only battle the New Testament sanctions with our culture is the battle for people's souls, which requires pointing out which things are genuinely sin but doesn't justify a disproportional response to your favorite sins that you don't commit over the others that appear in the same sin/vice lists in the New Testament, such as disobedience to parents, envy, spite, complaining, divorce, heterosexual lust for another person's spouse, not giving people your coat when they ask for your shirt, and so on.
It goes one step beyond that to find things that have no or virtually no connection to homosexuality to protest, as happened when Jerry Falwell infamously picked on the Teletubbies, because one of them carried a purse (as if carrying a purse has something to do with same-sex sexual relations; my wife carries a purse, and I carry her purse for her, and neither of us is gay). Westboro Baptist Church [sic] takes Falwell's folly to a new level. They protest the Kansas City Chiefs games, claiming that they're a haven for homosexual activity. They protest stores that sell vacuum cleaners made in Sweden, because Sweden legalized same-sex sexual acts in 1944. They protest funerals and large-scale memorials because, you know, it's immoral to mourn gay people and large-scale deaths must be God's judgment and must be for that particular sin rather than the ones they commit. They even held up a sign contradicting John 3:16 ("God hates the world") at Michael Jackson's funeral. I won't link it from my blog (it's one thing to link from Facebook; my blog is too highly Google-rated), but the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan has a disclaimer on the front page of their website denouncing and repudiating the Westboro Baptist Church [sic]. I truly says something that even the KKK doesn't want to go near them because of their extreme views and tactics. (To be fair, the Westboro website has a statement from Phelps distancing himself from the KKK. But it's not this prominent disclaimer on the main page of the website, and the Arkansas KKK has also distanced themselves from current and past chapters of the KKK for similar tactics as what Westboro engages in.)
Even so, I'm a little hesitant about a couple things I see in this list. They protested Lady Gaga. What they said about her was way over the top, but isn't there something to their claim that what she stands for amounts to rebellion against God as revealed in the Bible? It's true that Westboro is hateful and divisive, but I won't let me disgust for their words and tactics prevent me from rejecting the materialistic, self-absorbed, sexuality-obsessed pop culture that Lady Gaga stands for that hordes of teenagers are being sucked into in ways that cause much psychological damage and train them for dysfunctional relationships.
Similarly, Comic-Con isn't exactly the first place I'd think of when trying to find the most idolatrous events in American culture, but it's also not exactly free from sin as defined by the Bible. There's much in the way of elevating things to higher priority levels than they ought to be. There's plenty of idolization that does go on, especially of celebrities (but not so much of superheroes as much, as Westboro seemed to be claiming). Any reordering of priorities that has them not match up to actual intrinsic worth is a form of idolatry, biblically speaking. But the same can be said of flea markets, sports events, state fairs, shopping malls, internet sites that catch too much of someone's attention, and so on. Singling out Comic-Con and making some of the particular claims they made is just plain dumb, but a biblical critique of American culture as a whole would include some criticism of it, and I have to distance myself from the author of this list on that point.
I can't end this post without mentioning one thing. Twice in the last week I've seen people claiming that Westboro Baptist holds to Reformed theology. That is incorrect. They're quite clearly hyper-Calvinists, and the label "Reformed" is reserved for those actually in the Reformation tradition, which has never included the hyper-Calvinists, who were dismissed as heretical as soon as they appeared. Westboro teaches that God doesn't love those who won't be saved. They teach that they shouldn't pray for the salvation of unsaved people. They call non-believers the enemy when scripture is quite clear that no flesh and blood is the enemy of the followers of Christ. They think that God's desire that none perish only applies to the elect (which, taken alone, is less hyper-Calvinist in my view than their entire view, but it's clear that in their entire theological system they see this as part an parcel of their rejection of God's love for the unsaved and their view of unbelievers as enemies rather than lost sheep despite recognizing that they have no clue who is elect).
Welcome to the 111th Philosophers' Carnival. For more information on the Philosophers' Carnival, please see here. Most hosts just present the posts neutrally, but sometimes they comment on them. I'm going to take the latter course this time around, although in some cases I'll have more to say than in others. I've extended a little grace and included posts outside the three-week range for this carnival if they otherwise met the criteria for inclusion and if the date wasn't too far back (the submitted post from May will not be appearing).
Deuteronomy insists on relating, not just classifying. Poor and needy people belong, [sic] they are not just social statistics. They are part of "your" community and are not to be marginalized, excluded, and victimized as an underclass. Alienation is incontrovertibly one of the worst effects of poverty and dependence. Social policies that increase, and even institutionalize, that alienation (even in the name of "welfare" or "charity") are fundamentally contrary to the relational language and community-preserving intention of the biblical vision. -- Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (NIBC) pp.191-192.
One of the things I really like about Wright's commentary (unlike the work of another biblical scholar of the same last name) is that he says things chastising people on both sides of the political spectrum in the same breath and rarely picks on just one side. [I can't help but mention the one puzzling statement so far that might be an exception to this, though.] His concern to draw out the social justice implications of the text is impossible to miss. If you're not paying attention, you might respond the way Glenn Beck would and think he's claiming Deuteronomy supports socialism. He isn't offering any particular economic model, however, and one thing he says here is quite interesting if you're tuned into it.
He doesn't say the issue is whether the poor are fed and supported in some way. He doesn't here get into any issues about whether people should do so privately, through their taxes via government assistance, or simply as a function of the church. What he does say is that there are ways of doing this that come across as welfare and charity that in fact increase and even institutionalize the alienation of poverty.
There are plenty of conservative critiques of the U.S. welfare system as it stands or as it was before the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms of the late 90s (and I note that Wright is not an American, so he probably doesn't have the American system in mind). Some of them are, I would say, inapt. One of the better critiques, one that was at least partially mitigated by the Gingrich-Clinton reforms, is that the welfare system, not by design but by unintended effect, actually perpetuates the conditions that it's designed to mitigate. I've in fact seen this sort of complaint from conservatives and socialists alike. It's mostly progressives/liberals who don't go as far as socialism who try to underplay this kind of argument, but it's mostly conservatives who make this point in the public sphere. Academics (and most on the far left are either academics or revolutionaries) tend to make these arguments in the privacy of their own intellectual circles, i.e. academic journals.
It strikes me that Wright, who is spending quite a lot of effort motivating social justice concerns, something hard not to do when commenting on Deuteronomy, is also quite insistent on something that conservatives who have serious problems with the U.S. welfare system are insistent on. Those on the left who disagree with conservatives on these issues are often too willing to act as if the only resistance to the safety net of a welfare state comes from those who don't honestly care about poverty. But what I think Wright is saying here illustrates something that became pretty clear to me very early in my political awareness that so many on the less-than-socialist left don't see.
At least a notable strain within conservative resistance to what they call the welfare state is motivated specifically by concern for the dehumanizing, alienating, motivation-sapping, dependence-creating effects of a government safety net with no or not enough strings attached. Some of this is probably still inordinately obsessed with how such things indirectly affect the rest of society rather than having actual love for those who are badly off. But it's always struck me that a significant strain within opposition to certain forms of welfare and certain ways of engaging in charity is motivated not by contempt or disinterest but by love, in the same way that parents love their children by depriving them of things they want very much but that will be harmful or pedestrians refusing to give money to homeless people might be (but probably often are not completely) motivated by concern for that person and the harmful effects of simply giving them money.
I read this after writing this post, but it captures several elements of what I've been thinking about, completely outside any political ideology sorts of issues. It's difficult to evaluate a system that does actually help immediate problems and in some ways makes things better but at the cost of the crucial elements that a more ideal way to handle things would have, and the current foster care system certainly is alienating in the extreme and almost certainly does institutionalize some of the problems it's supposed to solve, perpetuating them from generation to generation.
The 111th Philosophers' Carnival is coming up here at Parableman on Monday. Check the Philosophers' Carnival site for more information, including the submissions form.
Update Tuesday July 20: The carnival should be up by this evening (EST) sometime. Sorry for the delay.
A friend of mine who blogs under a pseudonym has an excellent post criticizing the way a lot of schools and similar child-focused organizations run their fundraisers.
I couldn't resist chiming in and saying that it's pretty evil for anyone to assume of any particular family that they can produce the person-hours to engage in this kind of fundraising and to have negative consequences for those who can't. For a family with limited financial resources, expecting them to come up with the money whether they raise it or not is downright evil, and families with particularly high time commitments simply cannot devote their very limited time-resources to helping their school or organization raise the money that they need to keep operating the way they do.
It becomes not just inconvenient but pretty much impossible in a family with five children, two of them autistic, one of them a newborn, and heavy time-commitments outside just ordinary ways of taking care of the children (say, involvement in a church, several activities throughout the week related to the disabilities of the children, the extra time necessary for dealing with behavior and safety issues raised by serious developmental delays, divided responsibilities between work and education for the sole wage-earner, both of which get sidelined much more frequently than in most families). If any organization our children were involved with were to engage in this kind of behavior, I would simply ignore them, and if they pushed they'd get an earful.
But, even in a family where the parents can sit down and relax even while their kids are home, where they don't have to assign one parent to monitor a very active and destructive seven-year-old for his entire waking existence on top of whatever else might need to go on, where after bedtime the parents can assume they can sit down and do something relaxing for a few hours before going to sleep, it seems to me to be contrary to the usual norms of social interaction in our society to think that you can expect a certain level of commitment from people for this sort of thing. It's one thing to ask parents to put in some time and effort asking some people they know to contribute. It's quite another to expect the huge time commitment that's required to ensure that every family gets a certain level of results. There are much more fruitful ways of raising money that don't involve roping in reluctant people, sometimes those who simply cannot devote their time or energy to anything of the sort. Why can't people use the same standards of moral decency that they apply to most of their interactions with other people when it comes to these things?
In this discussion, one of the commenters makes the following argument against Reformed views of divine providence:
On a related topic, I still don't quite get Reformed theology. God desires all to repent, but He doesn't desire all to repent. How does one believe something one is incapable of understanding? It's like saying I "believe" that the round plate before me is also a square, as if my saying it makes it so.
What follows is an expansion of my response in the comments there.
What the commenter has hit on is a formal contradiction, at least if no fallacious equivocation is going on. If the word "desire" is being used in the same sense, then the statement that God desires all to repent and the statement that God does not desire all to repent do indeed result in a formal contradictiom.
But there's no problem if the two uses of "desire" are in fact different senses in which God desires. That is in fact what the Reformed view means by both claims, but the basic distinction required to take such a view isn't limited to Reformed theology. Any adequate response to the problem of evil needs something like that, as has been known at least since Thomas Aquinas. (At least you need something like this if you want to avoid open theism, but I've long thought open theism doesn't really have the resources to respond to the problem of evil anyway, because it can't guarantee a full victory over evil, not to mention being overkill, so that becomes a null option.)
You need to have some sense in which God wants to evil to happen if God in any sense knowingly allows it, so those with models of divine sovereignty that are more commonly associated with Wesleyan or Arminian theology will need to say the same thing this commenter is criticizing. God allows something rather than preventing it. Why? Perhaps the reason is because God thinks human freedom is more desirable than the desire to prevent that particular evil. You need not be a Calvinist to appeal to this sort of thing. But you better not say that God wants it to happen in every sense. God certainly disapproves of the evil, and wouldn't desire it if it weren't for whatever issue led God to allow the evil.
Once you have that distinction between desiring for its own sake and desiring for some other reason, when for its own sake God would want it removed, you have exactly the thing you're criticizing. God can desire something and not desire the same thing.
I would say that Arminians need to say this even about the salvation of non-believers if they want to avoid universalism. If anyone dies in their sins and goes to hell as a result, then God will be desiring that fate for them given their rejection of him, even if God desired them to repent and thus avoid that fate. So God both desires it and desires that it not happen, even with Arminianism. Only an open theist or a universalist can avoid saying something like that about these cases, and I don't think either can avoid saying it entirely. Even to allow one bit of evil or even the risk of it is a tradeoff in one sense, with God choosing one thing over another that would be good and desirable if all things were equal.
I think I've hit on one of the things that's been lurking in the background in my resistance to the idea of an age of accountability. Now this post will largely be assuming some things many here will not grant, e.g. exclusivism about who gets saved, Christian particularism about how they get saved, perhaps Protestant soteriology, and traditional or classical models of divine knowledge (as opposed to open theism). One reason I assume these is because I think they're all true, but it's more important for this post that most people who hold to the age of accountability as I'm about to explicate it do in fact assume all these things. Perhaps denying any of them, or at least certain ways of denying them, will get around the problems I'm about to raise. I think it might still take some work to do so, however.
The standard age-of-accountability view includes the following claims:
1. At some age (which may not be the same for everyone), each person becomes morally responsible.
2. Before that point, (a) it would be unjust for God to hold the person responsible for their sins, or (b) they aren't really sins until that point, or (c) God would always be merciful in such cases when justice might still be deserved.
3. After that point, the gospel message applies, and those who repent and follow Christ are saved, while those who don't are not.
Now there's an unspecified fourth issue that an age-of-accountability view might go either way on. What criteria determine what the age of accountability is, and do the criteria admit of vagueness such that there isn't a clear line between being morally responsible and not being morally responsible? So we get the following two views:
Suppose there is no such vagueness. Take the case of a hypothetical child Fergus. Fergus is currently below the age of accountability, and thus if he dies he'll be saved eternally. Once he hits that age, he'll magically become morally responsible overnight, even though that transition is based in capacities that admit of vagueness such as cognitive abilities, recognition of one's own sin, grasp of the concepts necessary to understand the barebones gospel message, and so on. Thus the age of accountability seems arbitrary.
What if there is vagueness, then, in how God determines whether someone is accountable? The capacities undergirding the age of accountability are matters of vague boundaries, and thus also is the age of accountability. Children become more accountable as they become more able to understand the gospel message and apply it to themselves. This means the degree of responsibility they have for their own sin and for not responding to the gospel depends on how far along they are in their moral development.
The problem with the first view is that it's arbitrary and thus seems unjust. If God draws the line of salvation at a certain point of responsibility, when one iota less would bring someone into salvation, it seems as if the consequence is far more severe than the difference in level of responsibility should warrant. With two possible outcomes of infinite difference in value, a tiny difference in how responsible someone is shouldn't be enough to put someone in one and someone of slightly greater moral awareness, say, in the other.
The problem with the second view is that it doesn't fit well with the exclusivist position that most people who believe in an age of accountability accept. I don't happen to think vagueness problems are a problem for exclusivism in general, because in my view the basis for those who are past the accountability age is still objective and clear: Is there a genuine work of divine grace in the person's life? That doesn't come in degrees. God intends salvation for someone or doesn't. God doesn't sort-of-intend things. Those with a weaker view of God's sovereignty in salvation have to say more here, but I have no problem with vagueness problems and exclusivism per se.
But once you add in the age of accountability, there is a problem, because it becomes vague whether the person is responsible for having to trust in Christ and be committed to him. Such people are on the borderline for whether they ought to be sent to hell if they haven't repented.
Now there are a couple ways someone might still hold to an age of accountability despite this problem. God could simply ensure that no one dies while in the vague area of moral responsibility where it (a) isn't clearly enough to count as a fully participating morally responsible child but also (b) not clearly small enough to count as not yet responsible. So God could avoid the unjust outcome by working it into his providential plan that no one ends up in that position.
You could instead think there are degrees of punishment and good in the afterlife. A lot of people think that anyway. But to make this work, you'd have to think the level of punishment in hell for those in the borderline of responsibility would be so close to zero that it's very near the level of good in heaven for those who are near the borderline of responsibility and end up just making it into heaven.
I wouldn't rule out the first, but the second sounds implausible given the accounts of the afterlife that you see in scripture, and even the first has to attribute to God a lot of activity that is never spoken of anywhere in Christian scripture. It brings in considerations that we're expecting God to care about that aren't countenanced anywhere in scripture. A lot of people are so resistant to the idea that infants are morally accountable for the sin nature they're born with that they might be willing to accept these sorts of things, but it's not clear at all to me that we should prefer these adjustments to the idea that there's no age of accountability and children with no capacity to reflect on their lives morally are nonetheless morally accountable to God for their sin.
Now perhaps a more helpful way to capture what I think is motivating the age of accountability idea is to recognize that what an act of divine regeneration might look like will be different for those with diminished capacities. Presumably we're not being told that John the Baptist understood the full implications of who the Messiah was to be when we're told that he leaped for joy when his pregnant mother came into the vicinity of Mary when she was pregnant with Jesus. We're being told that he was excited somehow, and perhaps a work of regeneration at that early age included an additional sensitivity even in his pre-natal state to being in the presence of divinity. Nothing I've said here tells us one way or the other about how many infants or how many of those with diminished capacities into adulthood experience something like what John the Baptist did (or at least whatever part of it was sufficient for salvation).
So it doesn't follow at all that all infants go to hell or anything like that. That's consistent with everything I've said, but it's also consistent with all this that none do, or perhaps some do. I'm not really commenting on that issue in general, just on this one approach that I think ends up with problematic elements. So I'm not sure we should try to handle this kind of problem with the idea of an age of accountability that bases moral deservingness on capacity to understand. That doesn't mean I have a clear view on the best way to approach it, though. But positive views have never been my philosophical strength.
a few days ago:
Ethan: (listening to radio) Hey, I have that song on one of my CDs, except it's in a different key.
me: What key is this in?
Ethan: It's in G.
me: What key is the other one in?
(He hasn't ever tried to play the song on the piano or use any other method to figure out the key.)
me: Hey, aren't you learning to play this song in your piano lessons?
me: Is it in the same key?
me: What key do you play it in?
me: What key is this version in?
I didn't check to see if he was right. He might have trouble with sharps and flats, and he may not be precise yet with it, but this is well beyond most musicians even after lots of training. So we can add this to the ability to drum a 7/8 rhythm at age 6.