Monday, November 23, 2009

A Healing Salve for my Temper

A website that you love as well as I prompted me to read up on the Salvation Army, courtesy of their own website.

Here is what they have to say about homosexuality:


The Salvation Army holds a positive view of human sexuality. Where a man and a woman love each other, sexual intimacy is understood as a gift of God to be enjoyed within the context of heterosexual marriage. However, in the Christian view, sexual intimacy is not essential to a healthy, full, and rich life. Apart from marriage, the scriptural standard is celibacy.

Sexual attraction to the same sex is a matter of profound complexity. Whatever the causes may be, attempts to deny its reality or to marginalize those of a same-sex orientation have not been helpful. The Salvation Army does not consider same-sex orientation blameworthy in itself. Homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, requires individual responsibility and must be guided by the light of scriptural teaching.

Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.

Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.

In keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation. The fellowship of Salvation Army worship is open to all sincere seekers of faith in Christ, and membership in The Salvation Army church body is open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army's doctrine and discipline.

Scriptures: Genesis 2:23-24; Leviticus 18:22; Mark 2:16-17; Romans 1:26-27; Romans 5:8; I Corinthians 6:9-11; I Corinthians 13; Galatians 6:1-2; I Thessalonians 4:1-8; I Thessalonians 5:14-15; I Timothy 1:15-16; Jude 7

One ought to expect that when an organization begins its commentary on homosexuality by claiming a positive view of sex that the remainder of the commentary will reveal just the opposite. I am confident that the contradictions in the above are clear enough for an attentive reader.

Here is an excerpt from their stance on abortion:

It [The Salvation Army] is opposed to abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection or for any reason of mere convenience to avoid the responsibility for conception. Therefore, when an unwanted pregnancy occurs, The Salvation Army advises that the situation be accepted and that the pregnancy be carried to term, and offers supportive help and assistance with planning.

The Salvation Army recognizes tragic and perplexing circumstances that require difficult decisions regarding a pregnancy. Such decisions should be made only after prayerful and thoughtful consideration, with appropriate involvement of the woman's family and pastoral, medical and other counsel. A woman in these circumstances needs acceptance, love and compassion.

Neatly bundled, this passage carries all the apologies of sexism and the dislike for women as intellectual and moral beings. First, "the responsibility of conception": one does not ovulate with premeditation. Given the persistent efforts of christian organizations to limit access to birth control (for example, cutting funding to and protesting Planned Parenthood; and advocating for abstinence-only education), equating conception with responsibility--and limiting this, too, by physiological necessity, to the responsibility of women--is at best patronizing, certainly and flagrantly underestimates the complexity of pregnancy, and at worst constitutes a violent appropriation of the bodies of women by the church. This holds even if the Army does not itself actively discourage birth control; objective political reality denies any scrupulously made argument which equates responsibility to conception.

The second maneuver that acts to cut women off from agency with respect to their bodies is played softly here; while it is true that I may be over-reading, the point I would like to make here is surely applicable to other anti-choice arguments. We may notice that, after patronizing the woman whom they fully intend to speak for, she is directed to be sure to seek first the council of God and her family, pastor and doctor. Two of these people are men, one of whom likely doesn't exist and likelier still will not answer even the most sincere calls for help and advice, and the other is bound already to a dogmatic and unsympathetic refusal of consideration. The other two are surely great resources (I ought not to sell pastors short in advance, but I'm being polemical, so indulge me) and I would of course suggest to anyone considering (and I mean that term strictly) and abortion to turn to just such people for sought-after advice. But to suggest to know that a woman is incapable of deciding for herself what best to do with her body, after you yourself have already told her there is only one legitimate option (bearing the child) reveals the unspoken assumption that women--especially those irresponsible enough to have sex before first offering themselves up as a man's property, I mean getting married oops--lack the capacity for intelligent moral deliberation, and more specifically are stupid enough to hear you say "no never do this" and then take you seriously when you follow that up with "but if you want to anyway, be sure to ask for advice first" (This followup ought more properly to read: but be sure to give me enough time to guilt you into doing what you already have decided is wrong).

I recognize that my tone is a little strong; I'm cranky today and this is a good way to cheer me up. I will happily acknowledge that the Salvation Army has done a great deal to help a great many, and that the policy stated on their website is to aid even those whom they feel behave immorally (like by having sex with the loved ones you won't let them marry). There are surely better targets for my anger and frustration, and I will gladly indulge in being mean to them--I'm looking at you, Mark Driscoll, you misogynist, ignorant tool--and I apologize for making a charitable organization the object of my ridicule...though I'd be much happier if they'd also apologize for being bigots. The ethical dilemma, dear reader, is yours to resolve: do you withhold your funding on the grounds of principle, or do you compromise by funding the good actions of an unethical organization (we all pay taxes after all). I have the advantage of being too poor to worry about whom I give my money to.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Responding to ethics.

This is sort of about two things that I've been pursuing the last few days.

This morning I read part of a thread on Reddit reminding us of the common place claim on the part of theists that non-theists cannot account for ethics or morality in either their origins nor their content. The leading comment thread at the time disrupts this accusation by pointing out both that it is not the purpose of non-theism to define ethics either historically or structurally, and that a theistic construction of ethics does not itself serve as a defense of theism. Put slightly differently, the validity of a belief in a higher power does not validate the subsequent claims to moral truth, nor does the truth or falsity of a moral claim retroactively validate a belief in a higher power. To claim that God must exist or else we are lost to moral relativism is a sad reflection indeed upon the strength of one's faith, and rather oddly subordinates belief to pragmatics, in a way that one might suppose most theists ought to find repulsive. It seems, contrary to the theistic argument, that if faith indeed is the virtue in question then the question of ethics itself ought not to arise until after the question of God's existence has been resolved; to point to ethics as a reason for belief is to rather greatly discount belief itself, and ought to be regarded more properly as cynical, in the spirit of Pascal's Wager.

This says nothing whatever of the claim itself that religion (and implicitly this is Christianity, at least here in the US), and more specifically God, is the origin of ethics. Now let us even be so bold now to leave aside the fact that any sophisticated and compassionate European/American theory of ethics is inevitably supported by a rich history of writers whose argumentation self-consciously avoids specific recourse to an originary text (read: The Bible). Too, we shall leave behind the question of whether or not these men and women were theists, and whether or not there was even the possibility for them, culturally, of being avowedly non-theistic and heard at the same time. We can instead explore the possibility of deriving ethics from The Bible.

(Now this is a tired point by now, done to sleep if not death, so I will be brief.) Presuming for a moment that The Bible is the (adultered or not) word of God, we are immediately faced with the question of how to resolve a seemingly impossible and lengthy set of contradictions, and not of the merely factual or historical sort, but of the sort pertaining directly to ethics. The often bizarre dictates of Leviticus seem at odds with the terse list of generally pragmatic rules put forth in Exodus, though these, along with Numbers, etc., are superseded when Jesus tells us to put aside complex rules and merely love others as we love ourselves. Why then the earlier books? If God wrote the Book, why put in a passage that tells us not to listen to much of it?

Kierkegaard gives us a troubling answer, and this leads me to the second thing on my mind. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard closely reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain, and at the last second rescinds the order. Kierkegaard remarks, as many others have, that if we ever found a modern-day Abraham, he would at best be shunned from decent society, and more than likely would face charges. His conduct, in short, is unethical.

But K. won't leave this alone; there is something else going on here, and it goes by the name of Faith. Derrida, reading Kierkegaard (in The Gift of Death) points to silence, reminding us that Abraham told no one what he was about, or what God had told him (it is a little unclear in Derrida's text which points are his and which K.'s, and it's been too long since I read Fear and Trembling to sort out the different points, so I'm going to allow these authors to drift together). Abraham's silence (K.'s pseudonym for F+T was Johannes de Silencio) is an indication of the conflicts of two different sorts of responsibility: to the universal and to the absolute.

In Hegelian (and Kantian) ethics, the ethical is determined by one's responsibility to the universal (in Kant this manifests as the categorical imperative): one submits one's actions to the universal collection of humanity for judgement, and when one's choices are disclosed, we, collectively, can see if they are ethical. Further, we can judge their ethicality by determining whether or not the agent behaved responsibly with respect to the universal. Responsibility is meant in all its senses. In order to be responsible, to respond, to the universal, Hegel argues that we must practice full disclosure. Secrecy is anathema to responsibility, and thus to ethics.

And yet Abraham is silent. This is due to the difference between the universal and the absolute. Abraham's responsibility is not to the universal--he is not behaving how he would have everyone act, nor in a way that is "universally intelligible"--his responsibility is to the Absolute, to the divine. And while responsibility to the universal requires full disclosure, responsibility to the absolute precludes it. The absolute is unrepresentable, which places it outside the reach of language. To speak one's responsibility to the absolute is to make it universal (see, for example, Hegel's preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, as well as Adorno's "Sacred Fragment"). As such, in order to be responsible to the absolute, one cannot be responsible to the universal. In other words, acts of faith, religious acts, are a priori unethical, in the strict sense. For Kiekegaard this amounts to a new category; Abraham was unethical, but not wrong, because his faith superseded the ethical.

Now for a non-theist it is tempting to leave this here. The story of Abraham, for those of us with no faith in God's existence, is rather abhorrent, and a chilling reminder of the length's to which faith can drive people. And if faith is seen as a choice, then Kiekegaard's reasoning would point us rather clearly away from theism. I can say with conviction, however, that my non-theism is not deliberate or optional; I do not believe, and have the option of owning that fact or lying to myself about it. Others do believe, and presumably they are being honest when saying so.

The sticking point is this: if faith is not optional, but if religious behavior (responsibility to the absolute) is unethical, what is the proper stance with relation to theistic behavior? In some senses, this is clear; where religion leads one to oppose gay rights, safe sex practices, and the right to abortion (etc.) its actions must be opposed--the ethical question with respect to these religious organizations is secondary at best; stopping them is the first priority. But in all cases, the question of whether or not those who behave in accordance to a non-optional faith in the divine can properly be said to be wrong is complicated. For Kiekegaard, this is clear (he was a theist): the religious supersedes the ethical. For the non-theist, unethical religious behavior is symptomatic of a non-optional condition of faith, but while the actions themselves may or may not be condemned as unethical, the source of the decision lays outside the realm of choice, and cannot then be the object of ethical judgement: one is not responsible for one's faith, since faith is not a response.

I do not mean this as an apologia for what problems faith has wrought, but more of an exploration of some of the problems of the intersection of faith and ethics, and primarily as an illumination of why it is absurd and unsound for theism to make claims to ethics, particularly when what passes for ethics in religious discourse avoids responsibility itself--that is, responsibility to origins, responsibility to reason, etc.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Gift Exchange

I've just finished the first section of a book called The Gift of Death, and want to put a few things down on keys before I forget what it's about. Since I've been dealing a bit with religion here, I figure this is as good a place as any.

Derrida hangs his first chapter on a reading of Jan Patočka's Heretical Essays on the History of Philosophy. Patocka is telling the story of the journey from the ancient demonic orgiastic, through Platonism, into Christianity. This is the history of responsibility, which is written as identical to freedom (that is, you cannot be responsible for your actions if you are not free, and you cannot be free to choose unless you are made responsible for your choice.) Platonic philosophy incorporates and subordinates the orgiastic by theorizing the "soul" (which we might read as a subject separate from the body, or desubjectified), which is introduced to responsibility by its relation to "the abstract Good," a similarly extra-objective essence. Christianity in turn reverses and represses (and therefore also retains) the Platonic model by introducing the mysterium tremendum, the terrifying mystery of God, whose gaze arrests us, but who is always outside our own vision. The gaze of God (strangely Derrida avoids the term "God") arrests us not from without, but internally, and replaces (incompletely and in excess) Plato's "Good" (it exceeds the Good both in its capacity to elude witness and in its ability to judge).

It is with the Good that we become immortal, or rather that we gain death as a gift. Patocka says "Platonic 'conversion' makes the gaze upon the Good itself possible. This gaze is immutable, eternal like the Good... It is, for the first time in history, an immortality of the individual, since it is interior, since it is inseparable from its own fulfillment. The Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul is the result of a confrontation between the orgiastic and responsibility." (114, 12 in Derrida) Immortality is granted through identification with the Good. Christianity retains immortality, but the direction of the Gaze is reversed: we, our souls, are the objects.

Too, Plato's constitution of the soul, and Christianity's borrowing of this constituted concept, amounts to a new relation to death, a vigilance over and anticipation of death, and as a result the soul, the subject, becomes a philosopher: "Philosophy isn't something that comes to the soul by accident, for it is nothing other than this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche of life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying." (15) This comes as a result of the responsibility/freedom afforded the soul by its new relation to the Good, and later to the gaze of God.

Now for Patocka, the point of this exploration is to uncover the reason for the decline of European civilization. Tacitly taking a cue from postmodernists, Patocka points to WWII, where we lost so much (Patocka was born in 1907, so this means quite a bit more for him than it possibly could for me). The loss Patocka is interested in is the front, the zone of combat where two opposing sides meet and become one: "the loss of the frong [:]...the disappearance of this confrontation which allowed one to identify the enemy and even and especially to identify with the enemy. After the Second World War, as Patocka might say in the manner of Carl Schmitt, one loses the image or face of the enemy, one loses the war and perhaps, from then on, the very possibility of politics." (19)

This is disturbing indeed. On the one hand, I am sympathetic; we can read the above quotation as identifying a change in government technology, in the sense that changes in the manner of conducting war--conducting war without fronts--prevent the domestic population and members of the army from identifying with the enemy (though I suspect this is more a question of creating a mythic history of the front than about identifying a substantive change in our ability to relate to those for whose deaths we vote). On the other hand, this hypothesizes our mode of warfare as determining the moral quality of civilization, rather than supposing that our capacity for war--rather than the style in which we conduct it--indicates an inadequacy in our politics of morality.

Patocka's solution is equally disturbing: he suggests that the decline of European civilization can be stemmed not simply by a return to or resurgence of Christianity, but by a more complete thematization of it, which is to say by actually becoming Christian (which to date, he seems to say, we have not quite yet done). Derrida explores the implications of this call by examining the paradox of responsibility, since Patocka's claim is that Christianity, through the mysterium tremendum, is the ultimate avenue for responsibility. Now on the one hand, responsibility is necessarily a question of knowledge, "For if it is true that the concept of responsibility has, in the most reliable continuity of its history, always implied involvement n action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done..." (25) However, because the link between theory and practice is irreducible, responsibility will always function outside of knowledge: "It will have to decide without it, independently from knowledge; that will be the condition of a practical idea of freedom. We should therefore conclude that not only is the thematization of the concept of responsibility always inadequate but that it is always so because it must be so." (26) I'm getting a little muddled down in the text, but we might summarize by saying that responsibility relies on knowledge to function, but must operate independently of knowledge (which is theoretical, not empirical--this is a Kantian distinction, and runs contrary to certain more conventional definitions of knowledge), or else our actions become pre-programmed, a mere result of circumstances and therefore neither free nor responsible in the sense meant by Patocka.

It is bed time, so I won't track down the last bit of this thread--though I expect it would do better to read the next chapter and see if Derrida himself elaborates it further. I will end with a tangentially related quotation that Patocka takes from Durkheim:

The aptitude of society for setting itself up as a god or for creating gods was never more apparent than during the first years of the French Revolution. At the time, in fact, under the influence of the general enthusiasm, things purely laical by nature were transformed by public opinion into sacred things: these were the Fatherland, Liberty, Reason. (22)