Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Should Religion Be Kept Out Of Politics? (2)

There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.” - G.K. Chesterton

We're addressing the question, “should religion be kept out of politics?” to which I'm answering “no”, and explaining why by unpacking (as simply as possible), Charles Taylor's lecture, “The Future of the Secular”. Last time I presented Taylor's view of what a properly functioning “secularism” is like by outlining its two core values and its third mediating value. I argued that when this healthy form of secularism becomes contaminated with a single-minded focus on “restraining religion”, these values are violated.

It should have been clear from the first post that, if restraining religion is our focus, then religious expression will be curbed even when it hasn't stepped on the toes of impartiality. What's interesting is that, from what I've encountered from people who hold to this view of secularism, to them it doesn't seem like that is what's going on. Or rather, they concede that religion should not be free to exist in politics or public life, but they don't see why this is such a big deal. Indeed they view this restriction as the very thing which enables any sort of freedom of conscience whatsoever. How has this happened? I'm going to argue that it comes out of a butchering of the second goal of healthy secularism: equality and impartiality. Charles Taylor's lecture doesn't explicitly follow the analysis I'm about to give, but I do think it's within the same current of thought.

Clearly, it's right to say that impartiality really is required to have genuine freedom of conscience. That's important to note. If I'm a Hindu and the whole operation of government is prejudiced against Hindus then I'm not going to have a great amount of freedom. Or if I'm a naturalist and the whole of the state's dealings are prejudiced against naturalists then, again, I'm not going to have a great amount of freedom. It's not hard to find real historical examples of how partiality (read: prejudice) has restricted freedom. The problem isn't in the construal of that relationship. The problem is that “impartiality”, in the case of contaminated secularism, has been misinterpreted.

See it is easy to re-cast “impartiality” into the language of “neutrality.” And "neutrality" can do the job well enough, but it is also more ambiguous in a certain sense. Allow me to explain this with an illustration (courtesy of my MS paint skills)

You see there are two very different ways of reading neutrality. Neutrality 1 is neutral in that it allows every colour and tone into the frame equally. It is neutral between colours. Each colour gets to participate. But with Neutrality 2, every colour is shut out. It is a colour-free zone and is neutral in that sense. And these two readings can also take effect within politics and public life. Read neutrality in the first way, and every view-point gets to participate. Read neutrality in the second way and every view-point gets shut out. You can't bring your convictions, religious, philosophical, or otherwise, to the table on the second reading.

Neutrality 2, I would contend, is the reading that supporters of a contaminated secularism have become used to operating with. According to this misreading, neutrality is about political discourse (or the public arena generally) being free of reference to any partisan views. But how does this end up translating into the exclusion of specifically religious views only?

Some readers might have noticed that I've done something a little sneaky in my graphic illustration of Neutrality 2. I described Neutrality 2 as a frame absent of colour, but of course it isn't literally free of colour. It is, after all, full of the colour grey. The picture isn't really neutral at all - it is totally biased toward grey. Everything except grey is shut out. But that bias may not have been immediately obvious. Grey isn't so obviously a colour as red or blue and so it's easier for it to slip under the radar. But grey is still a colour. This illustrates well exactly how it's possible for people, consciously or not, to hold onto Neutrality 2, but single out religion while keeping other views safe.

A religious view, say, Christianity, is obviously a particular view, or position, or philosophy, or ideology, or meta-narrative, or stance, or outlook, or way-of-life, in the same way that red is obviously a colour. Christianity, with its explicit doctrines, rituals, and communities, grabs your attention immediately, like red draws your eyes instantly. But we shouldn't forget those things that are more subtle. A colour being subtle doesn't make it any less of a colour. Likewise, a particular position being subtle doesn't make it any less of a position.

Neutrality 2 plays right into the hands of a massive cultural blind-spot (one that Taylor argues in his book, Sources of the Self, is near the heart of modernity itself). The blind-spot is the perception that many of us have that we simply don't hold any particular views. That we are without philosophies and ideologies and cosmic narratives and ethical visions. That those are what religious people have, perhaps shared only by the rare non-religious person who view themselves a Kantian, or Utilitarian, or what-have-you. The rest of us just get by without any of that stuff.

I think this is a deep error that could be unearthed in many ways, but perhaps it is best to demonstrate it with a particular focus on our notions of The Good Life. A couple weeks back I wrote an entry on whether it's shameful to be a virgin or not. I noted that many of us would regard a 40 year old virgin to be a pitiable character (there is a comedy dedicated to such a character, after all). But note that in these disapproving attitudes there is no accusation that the virgin has violated a moral obligation. He or she hasn't flouted their ethical duty (so long as they aren't one of only a few post-apocalyptic survivors anyway!) They've done nothing they ought to be arrested for. Rather the sense is that there is something valuable missing from their life, which, as a result, has made their life more impoverished, or diminished, or unfulfilled, or lacking, or lower in some generic sense.

In other words, the disapproval of the 40 year old virgin reveals the belief or sense many of us hold that The Good Life (or A Good Life, if we're feeling more pluralistic) is one that includes sex - that a worthy or truly rich life includes that particular good in it. This stance need not be a religious one but it is a stance nonetheless. Indeed it can clash with certain religious stances. It isn't in some neutral position-less territory. Of course, some people won't feel that they have a satisfying articulation for why this good is so special and worthy (though some might, e.g. “because of evolution we are a species wired primarily for sex”) but these people are nonetheless attracted and orientated toward such a good. Any articulation which denied its worth would be rejected by such a person questing for a satisfying articulation. Such people are still facing one particular way and not another.

Although quite a common, mundane view, the understanding that sex is a necessary component of a fulfilled life is still a view. It may not have been obvious right from the get-go, but that doesn't change its status. And that is just one example – there are many more we could draw upon to highlight how even very culturally taken for granted views are views. This mistake of thinking one is without views is usually down to a lack of self-awareness but it needs correcting (although some folk strike me as being more duplicitous in this error, as with the pop-atheists who claim that they merely "lack" belief, a notion I shall refute more targetedly elsewhere). To single out religion, then, would be to exclude red while letting all the grey in. It would be totally biased. That bias, I fear, is where our country may be heading.

Well okay then, some might say, what we need is to stick to Neutrality 2 while making sure we catch all the grey as well as the red. In response to this I'd say that a totally view-less public arena is impossible. Consider public media, for instance. How on earth can a TV show not present a particular message? How can songs not convey the viewpoints of their singers? Should we ban TV and music? No. The only real option before us is to be open to TV shows that express and defend Christian views, and shows that do the same for Muslim views, and Atheist views, and so on. The solution is not to try the impossible task of shutting every view out. Rather, the solution is take Neutrality 1 and be open to every view participating.

This is especially important for political discussion itself. If we feel that we cannot bring our deep convictions to the fore, we will feel unable to really articulate and share what actually matters to us. To a certain extent we have simply bitten the bullet on this point here in Britain. This is surely one of the primary reasons why politics has become so horrifically uninspiring. Politicians will voice their concern for tolerance, and freedom, or whatever, but will refrain from articulating why these are goods worth pursuing. Granted we (hopefully) do think these are real goods, but these whys are the very things that motivate us to care for them. The lack of strong political leadership is down to our self-imposed restrictions and taboos; leaders present visions that inspire their followers, but we have cut off the access to these visions.

To have a fair and healthy politics we must read neutrality in the first way – as a frame that allows every colour in. A contaminated secularism, with a focus on restraining religion, misreads neutrality and fosters an unbalanced and discriminatory practise. In the concluding post we will explore more of what equal participation, the third mediating value of a healthy secularism, looks like, drawing more heavily again on Taylor's analysis.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Should Religion Be Kept Out Of Politics? (1)

More and more I find myself coming across the view that “religion should be kept out of politics.” The idea is that religion is something you should keep to yourself, if you must have it all; you shouldn't bring it into the public square, and should certainly keep it away from our politics. Something about it is supposed to make it particularly inappropriate for participation in that arena. Religion, supposedly, properly belongs to the private existence of those individuals so inclined. "We don't do God", as Alastair Campbell said. Although these are just my subjective impressions, I sense that this stance is gradually becoming that of accepted "common sense". The slide towards this understanding of religion's role (or lack thereof) in politics is understandable, but I think regrettable.  

To explain why, I'm going to draw upon an on-the-money analysis given by Charles Taylor in this lecture, entitled "The Future of the Secular". Taylor has quickly become my main man philosophically. Not only is he familiar with a broader range of philosophical perspectives than most, he is also well versed in history, sociology, and politics. Things are understood better when put into perspective, and Taylor has such a grasp on where the West is in relation to the unfolding of history and to the wider world that his insights are penetrating. Additionally he co-chaired the The Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Difference in his home province, Quebec. My aim is to summarise, clarify, and commend what he says on this topic. Although the man is bursting with learning, I aim to make my exposition of his thought very readable. Hopefully I'll do a good enough job that you won't need to have seen the lecture to follow along, but of course you may wish to view it for a deeper understanding (in particular, my version will miss out a lot of the historical details that nourish the account). A shorter but very similar lecture is available in audio over here as well if you prefer. 

So what is the lecture all about? It is an analysis of "secularism", something that's often brought up or invoked when the role of religion in political life is being discussed. We might describe our government as "secular", or call for it to be "secularised". But just what is secularism? What is it about, or for, or aiming towards? Well guess what, we're in luck: that's the very thing Taylor hopes to explain.

He puts on the table two views of what secularism is really all about. As you can probably guess, one of them is the "bad guy" in the story he wants to tell and the other is the unsung hero. The bad guy is the view of secularism that many of us, if we have an opinion about secularism at all, are used to working with, and the hero is the more unusual one, but he pleads, has far more going for it. I'm going to run with these two accounts while taking some liberty (and perhaps presumption) in explaining their relation to one another in a way which I think makes Taylor's understanding of them more transparent than his own language sometimes allows.

The more familiar way to understand secularism, Taylor says, is that it is fundamentally about religion. That is, it is about restraining religion, or setting the parameters of its legitimate practise, or marking the space in which in can operate, or something generally along those lines. Kind of like how you'd be careful to separate different materials into different sections for recycling (plastics, paper, glass or what have you), so you have to separate religion from politics, this view says. Supposedly, religion is a special problem which makes politics very messy and that if we can just push it out, things will run more smoothly.

What Taylor advocates is a breaking of this special connection between secularism and religion. He wants to steer us toward a view of secularism which doesn't see religion as a particularly special case, or a central point of concern. This might involve breaking some long built-up habits, but while Taylor proposes this as an alternative view, he understands it as the original view which we need to recover. It's like we've been teaching ourselves a musical instrument all the while developing poor techniques that need to be undone to truly progress. What he's arguing is that this other, older view is secularism, properly understood. What he's claiming, rightly in my opinion, is that the special concern with religion is a contamination within proper, pure secularism. To make this clearer it will be good to explain further Taylor's view of secularism-minus-the-special-religious-connection which he calls the "diversity view" but which I will call the "healthy" view (although "diversity" correctly emphasises the aims of proper secularism, "healthy" emphasises its visionary priority over the contamination).

A healthy secular government, arrangement, or regime, has two main goals or values;

1) Freedom of conscience: This is the understanding that everybody should have as much freedom as possible to live out their lives in whatever way strikes them as best. For instance people should be free to be Christian if they want, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheist, or vegetarian, or conservative, or some strange possibly not well-articulated combination of certain views, or something new entirely. That is, they should be free to live out their lives according to whatever ethical or ideological sources that happen to impress them.

2) Impartiality between outlooks: This is the understanding that there should be no special priviledge given to persons of one stance over another. So, Muslims shouldn't be treated differently to agnostics, Buddhists no differently to Kantians, the uncertain spiritual seeker no different to the convinced deist etc. And of course, this even-handedness should especially apply to how the state itself is operated. 

And on the healthy view, the concerns generated by these two goals are negotiated by a third value;

3) Freedom and Equality in Participation: This is the understanding that, in the process of determining how these first two goals are to be put in practise in a particular context, people should be free to have a maximally open discussion in which they are allowed to stake out their concerns with reference to whatever aspect of their own beliefs they wish. 

That then is what real, pure, healthy secularism looks like, according to Taylor. It seems to me that though interpretations of the first two goals may differ, all of us in the modern west feel their pull. But notice that none of the goals are principally concerned with just religion. Yes, religious outlooks are under the purview of these goals, but so are non-religious or anti-religious views. The real issue that healthy secularism is concerned with is how to handle the diversity of views amongst the population, not how to handle religion as such. 

We'll get to see what (3) entails as we go on, but what's important to notice about it first is that it comes as an acknowledgement that (1) and (2), when they co-exist, can rub against against each other, and sometimes it isn't clear how to remain faithful to both of them in a particular dilemma. Taylor uses the example of the debate about whether Muslim school-girls should be allowed to wear the hijab or "head-scarf" in public schools. In France it was eventually forbidden, within Germany school-girls were allowed to wear it but not teachers, and here in Britain nothing of the sort is under restriction (officially).

What this shows, Taylor argues, is that we are sensitive to both (1) and (2), and holding to both of them causes dilemma. We are sensitive to the freedom of children and teachers to express their religious convictions (value 1). But we are also sensitive to the fact that schools are extensions of the state, and we wonder whether it is appropriate for these extensions to bear the markings of any particular religion, which might seem to priviledge it (value 2). The differing decisions of the governing bodies reflect the fact that this dilemma does not have an obvious, simple solution, ready-made for it. The challenge here, indeed the great political challenge of healthy secularism, is that there are two cherished values existing in tension with each other; over-emphasing impartiality might stamp on freedom of expression, but over-emphasing freedom of expression might hinder impartiality. In some circumstances, freedom of expression will have enjoyed too much power, and will need reigning in. In other circumtances, impartiality will have been over-reached, and will need to be loosed. In other circumtances, the two values might not have any obvious imbalance, but will still be running at each other, seeking a compromise.

What this means is that, if there's a case in which freedom of expression has been given dominance, and its religious beliefs concerned, then yes, in this circumstance it will be appropriate to curb religious expression back a notch. Perhaps, say, we should have churchmen less heavily represented in the House of Lords. But we might find in another case that commitment to impartiality has slipped into the illegitimate restriction of religious freedom. In this case it will be appropriate to encourage religious expression where it previously hasn't been encouraged. So perhaps, say, we should encourage greater freedom to wear religious symbols in the workplace. In other cases it just won't be clear that there's any inbalance at all, and they'll have to be serious debate and discussion between different parties to reach a compromise. The point is, there isn't just one solution, restraining religion, which we can just steamroll ahead with and apply across the board.

The problem is that the more we think that secularism is just a single across-the-board principle, the more the real issues are hidden from us. This way of thinking obscures and hides the fact that what we're really committed to is the two goals of freedom and impartiality, and we need to work out ways to remain faithful to both, handling real dilemmas which, prior to negotiation, can't be settled by a appeal to some simple principle. If you hold to the contaminated view of secularism, then you'll inevitably do violence to both freedom and impartiality.

A contaminated view of secularism, which sees restraining religion as its goal and leaves the real commitments of (1) and (2) out of direct sight or distorts them, will restrict religious freedom even when freedom isn't overbalancing impartiality, and downplay impartiality even when religious freedom isn't being over-reached. From this post it might be easier to see how religious freedom would be the thing jeopardised since to restrain something just is to restrict its freedom in some way. But in the next post we'll see how a contaminated secularism also jettisons impartiality, leaving it an oppressive and unjust bully.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Apologetics Parables #1

After Bill Craig had finished speaking to the crowds and teaching them many things, the naturalists, who deny all transcendence, approached him saying, "we have heard you say that all goodness and virtue dwell in and exist from God. We follow no religion, but all day we have been feeding the poor!" To this Craig replied, "to what shall I compare this generation? They are like sailors who, though thinking the world flat, sail around it anyway. Or again, they are like fishermen who, though thinking the lake empty, cast their rods all the same. Or again, they are like diners who, though thinking the wine spent, go to pour another glass."

Monday, 13 February 2012

Religion And "Credibility Maps"

I'll be honest, I'm not a completely open-minded person. 

Certain things have come to strike me as automatically suspect of silliness. That is, there are some views that I consider to be "on the table" for serious, intelligent thinkers, and some that, frankly, aren't. These other views are the ones I'd think of as kooky, fringe, nutty, downright absurd or laughable. Some positions are genuine "live options" for me, examples being other forms of theism, say, or naturalism (the view that the natural world is all there is). These position are the ones I take serious thought over - the ones that I assess against my own in assessing whether I'm still doing okay rationally. "Where does this new argument X place naturalism against theism?" I might think. But the views that sound off my nonsense alarm never make it that far, at least not any more. I haven't just rejected them, they're not even on the cards for me.

To be more concrete, I'm pretty certain that if a person approached me and said, "hey mate, look you aren't gonna believe this, but every member of parliament is actually an alien; I've laid out my case, bit by bit in my new book - give it a read", I'd probably be more than sceptical. Downright dismissive even. No doubt, there are objections I'd want to raise; why, if his case is so good, is this not a matter of serious discussion amongst scholars? But the fellow, with added sincerity, anticipates my objection; "I know it's initially weird that nobody is talking about this stuff, but I explain all that in my book. It's really too complicated to tell you now; you need to sit down with the book and give it a proper read." What do I do then? Do I carve out several hours of my time to give the guy a shot, if only out of pity? Probably not. There's plenty on my reading list already and I have a prior confidence that it's all stuff that will be far more profitable to read than this loon's book. Looks like my nonsense alarm has well and truly been blaring; I'm just not prepared to give this idea considered reflection any more.

I think we've all developed nonsense alarms toward certain things. They're not necessarily bad. There are genuinely ridiculous viewpoints out there, and if our "alarms" have developed properly, following serious thought at some prior stage, they'll prevent us from wasting valuable mental energy on nonsense. What's interesting about them, however, is that they are self-perpetuating. If a position drops so far off my "credibility map" that it starts to ring the alarm bells, then I'm not going to invest any more serious thought in considering that view. And of course, because I'm not seriously open toward thinking about the view (at least any more), the probability of me changing my mind about its implausibility status is low. After all you're hardly likely to change your mind about the merits of a position if you aren't concerned about engaging with its supporters and seriously wrestling with their arguments. All good and well if your sense of nonsense is on track. But what if it's been wrongly attuned? What if you made mistakes when setting it up? What if it starts going off at the wrong things? What if it prevents you from properly thinking about view-points that actually are worth your time?

Obviously, I'm a religious person. There are some religious positions which strike me as a little wacky, but not all of them. Religion just as such doesn't trigger off my alarm. Some forms of it, I think, are worth serious thought both because of their importance for understanding human nature, and because their central claims aren't obviously false. I don't think you have to be religious yourself to have this understanding either. You could be an atheist who thinks all religions have got it wrong. But you can do so while thinking that it's not just apparent to anyone with half a brain cell that this is the case. You can see why intelligent people don't have to undergo some mental dysfunction to believe it. If you are such a person, or religious like myself, then you think nonsense alarms that fire off toward any religion haven't developed properly. That is, they've become sensitive to the wrong thing. They're drowning out the sound of something that really is valuable and serious.

I think it's indisputable that for a good chunk of people, religion, in any form, is way off the credibility map. For these people, religion is just obviously false. For some people this takes on the form of shear disinterest. They're not hostile, they're just not bothered. It lacks credibility to them so they just get along with their lives. For others, it takes a more virulent form.

Occasionally on my facebook feed, I see quotes or images from some of the pop-atheist communities that have grouped there. The contempt for religion and the religious the members of these groups have is staggering. Here's some quotes I pulled from a single thread...

People throw the term 'religion' around so loosely now, it's not really surprising. Especially when you're dealing with people that suffer from the mental deficit, known as 'faith'. They'll 'believe' the most ridiculous things. I have come to the conclusion that their 'minds' (for lack of a better word) work in terms of 'believe or disbelieve' There is no alternative like 'fact' or 'conclusion from data expression'
It's like trying to explain, to a dog, how to meow...

Trainer: So you see, it has to be.. "me-ow"
Dog: "oh.. so what you're saying is "bark" so therefore...Wuff..!"”

"Atheism is simply celebration of reason and refraining from mental masturbation. The arguments for cosmic tooth fairy which dwells outside space and time can be destroyed by five years old kids."

"You're brainwashed into religion. Atheism is clarity of the mind." 

For these folks it's pretty clear: religion is obviously, transparently false such that to buy into it just means that you are hopelessly ignorant or mired in delusion. Now as I've already explained, I think they're mistaken, but I shan't argue for that conclusion here. If you are one such "angry atheist" I don't expect anything I say here to change your mind. I'm certainly not going to sit here screaming at you that you're "blinded". Rather I want to flag it up as a real issue for those of us who don't see things that way. How exactly can people who have this particular sort of atheism be reached?

Some religious folk have overly restricted credibility maps too obviously. But we're probably not so used to thinking of this as a possibility for atheism, which is after all a much more recent cultural force, and there is a certain popular image of atheists which portrays them as coolly reasoned figures.

Still, rather than ridicule, a pressing question ought to grab us. What social movements push certain views out of widely shared credibility maps? And, more pressing, how do we pull folks out of these self-perpetuating traps? Direct reasoning is obviously not very effective, for the very nature of the thing prevents reason from being listened to. So what do we do? Well, I truly welcome your suggestions. My inklings are that it takes love and open friendships. I think there might be a special place for literature and art here too. But clearly, a good argument, set out premise by premise, isn't going to do the trick. For any apologists out there, that may mean thinking about more creative ways to make your case.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Is it Shameful to be a Virgin?

Okay last post on sex, I promise - this one from a slightly different angle. Is it shameful to be a virgin? 

Well it certainly ranks darn high on the uncool scale. Even higher than the replacement of 'damn' with 'darn'. And this amusing little Simpsons clip illustrates just how embarrassing we take it to be for anyone past a certain age to be a virgin. Even hinting that this post will take a negative answer places me within the range of ridicule. Most of us think it's 'sad' in the same way it's 'sad' for a fifty year old man to spend his evenings doing nothing but playing pokemon cards. And it isn't a reaction we feel ought to stop at private distaste; we think such a man should himself have a sense that his life choices are subpar, or unworthy, or trivial, or unfulfilling, or diminished, or generally lower in some sense. We want him to feel the sense of failure that we ourselves draw from his heavy investment in children's card games. The same would go for the virgin: pity them and think that they too should see the defect in their life and not be content with it. But should every virgin really have this feeling toward their life? I don't think so, and certainly the Christian virgin has no need to.

Seymour Skinner, the Simpsons character mocked in the video above, is a character designed to be a bit of a 'loser'. Even at his mature age, he lives with his mum, frequently takes orders from her, and generally doesn't have any real sense of power and control in his life. But what makes Seymour such a loser isn't the mere fact that he has these lacks, but the fact that he has them whilst wishing and striving not to.

Look it at this way; if I were to spend all the years of my life trying to win the X Factor, I wouldn't get very far (not being vocally talented and all). Of course, I could try; I could enter every year, spend thousands on vocal lessons, and dream about it daily. But I'd never get anywhere. I could pour all my time and effort into that goal to the exclusion of all else and never even have a chance of attaining it. Surely we'd think that, were I to do all that, I'd be a pitiable character. It would be a waste, a sad life; I should surely get over that dream, move on, utilise the talents I actually have. If all that effort paid off we might look at my life with more favour, but assuming that miracle wouldn't happen, my not coming anywhere close to winning the X factor would be seen as a lack that marks my life as a little wasted.

Of course, I have no such ambition to win the X factor in the real life I'm actually trying to lead. But note that in my real life these lacks are still present; I haven't won the X factor, nor do I have any chance of doing so. But these lacks don't seem to count against the richness of my life. Why? Because they aren't lacks in regard to a goal I'm actually pursuing. They are irrelevant to me. I have plenty of such lacks; I haven't won Wimbledon, or achieved grade 8 violin, or ran a successful business. But none of this is sad - these lacks don't represent failures so much as disinterest. I have other goals. But the same is likely true of the Christian virgin in regards to sex. He or she hasn't set sex as a goal. He or she might want it, eventually, within marriage, but they don't want it just as. Quite the opposite, they might find such an approach to sex contemptible - to be avoided.

This person is clearly quite different from the sort mocked in every sex-heavy comedy - y'know the one: the character (usually a guy) who's fixed on getting laid but who's woefully clumsy at every stage in getting there. Their desperation, coupled with their failure, does indeed strike us as pathetic. But what about the person who just isn't out for that? Who just isn't playing that game? Who has his/her sights set elsewhere? Surely, I would contend, there is nothing laughable in their virginity.

There is more to be said, however. It might be objected that there are lacks a person might have which he/she would lament, despite their current goals not relating to them, were they to see things properly. For instance, a life without friendship or companion is surely a pitiable one, but we can conceive of people who profess not to care about such things - people who live their lives with no real concern for them. We would rightly think that, contrary to these persons' own beliefs, their lives would in fact be richer for taking stock of friendship and loyality and the like. These people, we would think, are misguided about what makes for a full life. Likewise, the objector would claim, the Christian virgin is mistaken about the value of sex outside marriage. But it is important to note the relation between different conceptions of what a full life is, and different conceptions of what human beings are. 

A life without companionship is dimished, we surely think, because in some sense human persons are relational beings. It is natural, or God-intended, or cosmically ordained, or true to the forms (give it whatever articulation you like) for humans to have meaningful relationships with each other. The truth of the value of friendship in some sense depends on the truth of certain views of what humans are. The same goes for the importance of sex and whether it exceeds the confines of marriage. Hold a view of human persons in which it is natural (in a strong prescriptive sense) for us to have sex a lot, or that it is the point of our lives, or that it expresses some deep core of who we really are, and sex, in whatever context, will, as a result, come to take on a great importance in constituting a rich and full life. But these are views of human personhood that the Christian rejects.

If Christianity is true, then humans were created for sex in a certain narrow context - engaging in it outside that context would in fact be contrary to our "nature". The Christian, then, is able to see that sex is good, but has no basis for thinking that it is a necessary component of a rich life. Of course, if you hold a different view of human personhood, one more akin to those described in the preceding paragraph, then you'll think the Christian is wrong. And you're entitled to think that. But you shouldn't expect the Christian to share your evaluation. You're on different pages to one another as things stand. Of course, you can try and get him/her to see things your way, but that's the point - you'd need to bring them over to your side; as their beliefs/inclinations stand, they have absolutely no reason to feel shame if they're a virgin.

So Nelson can "ha-ha" at the Christian virgin if he wants but he's better off having a serious inter-ideological dialogue!

Now on to other topics...

(Note: I am not presuming in this post that all unmarried Christians are virgins. Many are not and many of us, alas, are only "technically" virgins.)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Is There Gospel For Homosexuals? (Conclusion)

This is the concluding article in the guest series by Rolo that began here. As before, while I acknowledge that this is a sensitive matter, I ask that potential commenters respond to Rolo with respect, recognizing that he doesn’t approach it as an aloof academic


The word translated gospel in our English Bibles is based on the Greek noun euangelion and the Greek verb euangelizo. Both Greek words have a base meaning of either good news or the announcing of good news.  While elsewhere in the Roman Empire these words were used to herald all sorts of good news from military victories to political events, in the New Testament these two words are used primarily to describe what had occurred with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In fact, collectively the New Testament uses these words 130 times. On top of this, all four sources of the life of Jesus we have in the New Testament are called Gospels. Clearly, the New Testament pounds away the notion that Jesus Christ in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection inaugurated something worthy of the label Gospel or good news.

Throughout this series we’ve discussed many roadblocks gays face in accepting Christianity. Undoubtedly, they are numerous and diverse. Equally so has been criticism of the church’s response to such objections. Some say the church hasn’t done enough to address leaving homosexuals out in the cold. Others argue the church has been so vigorous in addressing the issue that it’s become an obnoxious obsession of the church. I think both of these criticisms are fundamentally flawed.   If there’s anything I’ve learned as a gay man interacting, reading, and listening to Christians it’s that many of them aren’t shy about voicing their disapproval of homosexuality. In fact, I would argue the church has done a down right brilliant job arguing that the Bible unanimously and overwhelming condemns homosexuality. The evidence for such a claim can be found in the numerous, rigorously argued articles, essays, and books linked to at the end of this essay which all make solid cases for the traditional Christian perspective.  Even the great Greek hero Achilles, however, had his weak point; a weak point which his enemies eventually used to defeat him. Despite the relative vigor which Christians have thrown into the issue an Achilles heel remains. The weakness can be illustrated in the following scenario.   

Tim is a perfectly healthy young man. He has his whole life ahead of him, and is looking forward to making the best of it. One day a man claiming to bear good news arrives at his door. Not just any good news, but the best news Tim has ever heard. Initially, Tim’s more than a little skeptical. The man, however, manages to skillfully procure more than enough evidence to convince Tim of the veracity of his claims. Delighted at the good news but still somewhat skeptical, Tim asks, “Well this is all wonderful, but is there a catch to what you’re saying?” Chuckling a bit, the man replies, “Oh yes there’s a cost, but it’s a trivial price to pay for the benefits before you. All you have to do is chop off your legs and live the rest of your life in a wheelchair. Easy enough.” Tim’s delight evaporates.

The above scenario is very much analogous to what many homosexuals feel when offered the supposedly good news or gospel of Jesus Christ. Like Tim, they hear the good news, but balk at its extreme costs.  To put it simply and bluntly, the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t sound like a gospel at all to their ears. In fact, it sounds like downright terrible news. We have made an extremely persuasive case that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but have allowed our inability to present the gospel of Jesus Christ as gospel for homosexuals to make such a case irrelevant.

When I first converted to Christianity, I too gave little thought to what made the gospel of Jesus Christ good news. I had investigated the truth claims of Christianity found them to be more than sufficiently supported by the evidence, and thus converted. Not much thought was given as to why I was sacrificing my sexuality for this religion I joined. Metaphorically, I had chopped off my legs and chosen to live in a wheelchair for the rest of my life for no reason.

This changed as the months went by and the enthusiasm of my initial conversion experience tapered off. The hard realities of not only being a Christian, but being a gay Christian which I described in part one of this series began to seriously occupy my mind. I knew all too well that the Bible condemned homosexuality. Now, all I needed to know was what that meant for my life and the lives of other homosexuals. Did being a gay Christian mean living a miserable, sexless, and lonely life, or was there perhaps more to it? Was there a gospel for homosexuals after all?

A turning point came when I read John Piper’s “Desiring God”.  While this book didn’t convert me to John Piper’s Christian hedonism, it did open my eyes to some important Biblical truths that are often overlooked when discussing not only homosexuality but the Christian life in general. In particular it brought me to examine verses like Mark 10:28 to 10:31.

10:28 Peter began to speak to him, “Look, we have left everything to follow you!” 

10:29 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel 10:30 who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much – homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life. 10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

In this Gospel scene, Jesus rebukes Peter’s assertion that by following him he has given up on everything. He informs Peter that by choosing to follow him he has actually done the exact opposite.  Peter has gained significantly because of the sacrifices he has made for Jesus. Verses like these made me drastically reconsider my self-pitying attitude towards my present suffering. Suddenly I began to scour the Bible for similar passages; passages that explicitly promised a grand payback for all the sacrifices we make this side of eternity.  Below are just two of the passages I found that describe how humble obedience to God is by far the best investment a person can make.

Matthew 6:19 “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for you treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

First Corinthians 15:58 So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.  

What these and many other verses have in common is an emphasis on the fact that through Christ no sacrifice is in vain. These verses explode the great myth that Christianity unfairly oppresses GLBT people since they say to those you are obedient and dedicated to him, God not only promises to reward them, but He promises to reward them far beyond what they’ve sacrificed here on this Earth. What this means for me and other GLBT people is that like Peter in Mark 10:28 to 10:31 by faithfully following God we are not denying ourselves, but like Matthew 6:19 to 6:21 we are simply investing in our future life with God.  Furthermore, instead of complaining and whining over the things we have to give up in this world we should rejoice like Paul in First Corinthians 15:58 in the confidence we have in our God to give us eternal life overflowing with abundance. This is a significant part of good news of the Gospel. It is also the Biblical teaching that finally eased my struggles with being gay and Christian.

Of course, there are some objections to the solution I just proposed. “Well, all this talk about eternal rewards sounds great and all, but what about here on Earth,” is probably the primary objection. I would begin answering this objection by pointing to part 3 of this series.  As I argued in that part, suffering and disappointment isn’t just a normal part of life, but it’s something every Christian should expect and prepare themselves for. Jesus suffered, the apostles suffered, and Christians throughout the centuries have been persecuted, tormented, and martyred for their faith throughout history. Gay Christians are no exception. With that said, I don’t think God has simply doomed gay Christians to a lifetime of misery. The exact opposite is true. One of the most wonderful epiphanies of my journey as a Christian has been realizing that the good news of Jesus Christ is good news even before we get to Heaven.  

John 15:10 If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.

2 Corinthians 5:5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment.  

Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

As verses like John 15:10 say if we humble ourselves before Christ and dutifully obey his commandments then the result will not be abandonment and utter misery by God, but rather we shall obtain both the gracious patronage of God and the completion of our joy. Even further we have verses like 2 Corinthians 5:5 and Galatians 5:22. These verses promise us the support of the Holy Spirit right here, right now as we live our lives in faith. Yes, suffering even intense suffering may be the price we have to pay for following Jesus. Nonetheless, if what Jesus and the rest of the Bible promise is true, as Christian apologetics have vigorously argued for centuries, then God has not simply abandoned us on this Earth. Whether straight, gay, transgender, or bisexual, God supports all those who call on His name.

Admittedly one of my biggest sins has a Christian has been self-pity. While other people are busy figuring out what love is and perhaps even enjoying it, I’m on the outside looking in. It is difficult sometimes to see what other people are experiencing that I can’t. If, however, there is anything I wish the reader of this series to take away it is this, “Some things are worth sacrificing for.” In this article, I have described some of the insights that have led me to believe that the good news of Jesus Christ is indeed good news. For me the gospel is more than worthy of any sacrifice I could offer in this life. As I said in the beginning of this series, I make no delusions of providing an exhaustive answer to the issue of whether or not there is a gospel for homosexuals. Hopefully, though, through this series I’ve been able to open minds and hearts to a gospel for everyone including and maybe even especially gays.


Helpful links addressing the issue of whether or not scripture condemns homosexuality

All Bible quotes from the NET Bible.         

by Rolo Baez