Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A bogus charletan and and old fart

The Question of God | PBS

Can't PBS do better than this? The visuals, including Klimt paintings and scenes from the folk culture of North Oxford, are nice even if the dramatization is embarassing--representing Freud, predictably, with a comic German accent. I'm watching this monstrosity even now as I write. Between the vignettes of life in Oxford and we return a focus group, including a black male in dreadlocks whose profession is given as "independent filmmaker," discussing Love.

When I was an undergraduate the paradigmatic popular debate on religious belief was a BBC4 program featuring Mr. Bertrand Russell and Fr. Frederick Copplestone, S.J. They worried the Cosmological Argument at some length. Russell posed the Problem of Evil; Copplestone parried with the Free Will Defense. So it went.

Security Moms

The New York Times > Washington > Campaign 2004 > Kerry in a Struggle for a Democratic Base: Women

"This year, Ms. Lake said, the gap between how married and single women expect to vote is greater than it has ever been, largely because of the emergence of what analysts call 'security moms,'' who tend to be white, married women who have children and who are fearful of another attack within the United States. 'Security moms' are an outgrowth of the 'soccer moms' who had emerged in previous elections as important swing voters. But soccer moms tended to live mainly in the suburbs and could vote either way. Security moms live everywhere and are leaning Republican"

Now I wonder: is the gap between single women and married women a consequence of the moms' instinct to seek out a strong male protector for their young, as this article suggests (though not in so many words) or their failure fully to appreciate the extent to which Bush's policies handicap them.

Most married women work outside the home, but relatively few are breadwinners. Even if they are de facto locked into the labor force, many regard their work as an optional extra, don't regard their work as essential to their family's survival, don't expect to earn wages comparable to their husbands', and don't worry about wage gaps or discrimination in the way that single women, particularly unmarried female heads of households, must. That isn't to say that they wouldn't respond if these issues were brought to their attention.

If Kerry is worried about losing his female base why doesn't he make a strong case on the bread and butter issues that affect the majority of women? Why doesn't he say, ladies, you know as well as I do that discrimination is a fact of life: there are jobs you cannot get, promotions you will not get and wages you forfeit just because you are female. Changing this is not an impossible dream: it is feasible with the aggressive enforcement of existing regulations prohibiting discrimination. I will not let firms get away with flouting these regulations. I will agressively work to promote equity in the workplace. Discrimination is not only bad for women--it's bad for business and bad for the economy and I will work to make fair and equal treatment a reality.

Why not?

I just find the suggestion in the article that (married) women across the country, urban and suburban, are shaking in their shoes in fear of terrorist attacks offensive. What percentage of women? The article doesn't say. It's insulting: it assumes that women are cowards.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Time to get out of the ethics business

Almost 10 years ago a committee of Episcopal Bishops produced a "teaching document" human sexuality declaring that the Church's traditional moral prescriptions ought to be modified to eliminate "discontinuities" between moral judgment and actual practice, that is to say, the rules had to be changed to agree with the way people actually behaved.

I circulated this document amongst some of my colleagues for comment. All of us had taught ethics courses required of all students which most take as sophomores. We agreed that by the standards we set for students in these classes, the bishop's study document should get a C+, and that purely for basic literacy and spelling.

The bishops declared that Freud was an intellectual giant, on a par with Galileo and Darwin, with whom the Church had to reckon. They had no clear understanding of the standard ethical theories that undergraduates were supposed learn about in their sophomore ethics class, appealing alternatively to Kantian notions of persons and ends in themselves and to natural law theory. They did not seem to have heard of utilitarianism or any consequentialist accounts at all. They cheerfully deduced "ought" from "is" and generally relied upon rhetoric and sentimentality in place of argument. This was a bad term paper.

I agreed with the bishops' conclusion that the Church's traditional rules for sexual conduct were overly stringent and often damaging. Indeed, I would have gone further: I believe that all sexual activities between, or among, consenting parties, heterosexual or homosexual, whether in the context of loving, committed, monogamous relationships or not are morally ok. It was the poor quality of the bishops' arguments that that set my teeth on edge.

It was after reading this that I realized it was time for the Church to get out of the ethics business. It would not have been quite so bad if the bishops had claimed that they received their conclusions by divine revelation. But they did not. They assumed that they had expertise in ethics, and that they were competent to assess the results of scientific investigation, decide controversial moral questions in light of scientific discoveries, and pass the results on to the laity. They imagined that they were qualified to issue a "teaching" in virtue of their expertise.

The Church has gotten into trouble repeatedly by making claims that competed with the results of secular experts including notoriously Galileo and Darwin. Most clergy now recognize that they have no expertise in the hard sciences and no business issuing teachings about the age of the earth, the structure of the solar system or the origin of species. Still, they assume, with no more justification, that they have expertise in ethics. And as bishops and priests duke it out about sexual ethics, that assumption has wreaked havoc on the Church.

When I suggest that ethics isn't the Church's business I draw incredulous stares from people who would not turn a hair if I had ridiculed the Trinity as "a sort of committee God," announced that the idea of a God "out there" was as absurd as the idea of a God "up there" or asserted that no educated modern person could take theism seriously, all views that bishops, within my lifetime, have taught. Theology is negotiable; ethics is not. Since the Enlightenment it has been a commonplace that ethics was the Church's most important business, indeed, some have suggested, it's only business. People worry that lopping off the ethical component of Christianity trivializes it, leaves something that is not Christianity at all.

This worry is unfounded. The Creed, which says absolutely nothing about ethical issues, proclaims that there is a God in three Persons, that God became incarnate, and that we shall survive death and enjoy him forever. Such claims about the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being and personal immortality are momentous. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people imagine that getting out of the ethics business would trivialize Christianity because they do not believe these metaphysical claims are true, or even worthy of serious consideration, and have reconstructed Christianity as "commitment to an agapistic way of life" in order to make it out as plausible and significant.

Since Kant made metaphysics disreputable, the Church, in the interest of self-preservation, has been quietly divesting itself of its theological stock while promoting its ethical sideline. Now, ironically and deservedly, the Church is being undermined by the arrogance of priests who imagine that they are in a position to offer intellectual leadership and moral guidance--as if anyone took their half-baked notions seriously. The Church might have done better minding its own business.

There is plenty of legitimate business for the Church to do: baptizing, marrying and burying, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and comforting the dying, maintaining buildings and conducting services. Most of all, the Church's business is mysticism--maintaining church buildings as sacred spaces, openings into another world and doing liturgy through which people can participate in the cosmic drama and experience the thrill of transcendence. That is the Church's area of expertise, something which only it can do, something we cannot do for ourselves. Ethics, by contrast, is something we can do perfectly well for ourselves, in which the Church has no special expertise.

So the Church should get out of the ethics business, and back into the mysticism business. Even if there are few takers for mysticism, there are none for its moral oracles on sexual conduct or anything else.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Glass Houses


I don't know anyone who went to Vietnam--do you? Guys I knew had student deferrments. When, incredibly, the government switched to a lottery system and ordinary, unmarried undergraduates were no longer exempt, Lyle went to Divinity School, George got a shrink to certify that he was gay, and poor Alex, who got the worst of it, was forced to join the National Guard, which tied him up for 6 years.

People like us didn't do military--any more than we bowled or drove American cars. During the student strike of 1970, in the absence of an ROTC program, the SDS chapter at Lake Forest College considered a proposal to name the pump house, a small ornamental gazebo-like structure at the entrance to Faculty Circle, "ROTC building" and blow it up. Or at least to take a few turns around it waving signs.

Maybe when the story of George Bush's career in the National Guard breaks out of the elite media into the news shows and papers that the General Public actually reads and watch, and they get a view of what it was like for the privileged, and even semi-privileged like me and my contemporaries it will give them a turn.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Anglicans ready to ostracise US church

By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

via the Beliefnet Anglican Debate board

THE Episcopal Church in the United States faces exclusion from the worldwide Anglican communion as punishment for ordaining a gay bishop, The Times has learnt... The suspension of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, known as ECUSA, from the 75-million strong Anglican Church is expected to be recommended at the final meeting of the Lambeth Commission in Windsor next week.

Don't say I didn't say I told you so. Members of the Beliefnet board where the whole article is reprinted are dismayed and, surprisingly, surprised. As one notes, "who among us really thought that it would even get this far?" I did. See The Limits of Management

Others express fear that if the Episcopal Church knuckles under and abandons its policy of ordaining openly active homosexuals and blessing same sex unions they will be excluded from the church. Leaving aside the obvious fact that Episcopal churches are semi-public facilities that anyone can use, no questions asked, they don't seem to have gotten the idea the question of whether homosexual activity is morally permissible is separate from the question of whether the Church as an institution should ordain openly active homosexuals or bless same-sex unions. They should have read my article "Is Homosexuality Sexuality?" in the May/June issue of Theology.

Some suggest looking on the bright side--the "ostracism" of the American church is not intended to be permanent. Eventually the rest of the world will come around. In the meantime however I'd bet the ostracism could have interesting legal repercussions. A number of conservative congregations in the US have announced their intention to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the US Episcopal Church and affiliate with more congenial Anglican churches in Africa and elsewhere. There was some question of whether they would be able to keep their property which is, as I understand it, held in trust for them by the diocese in which they are located.

The idea behind this arrangement, I heard, was to protect individuals who contributed to the construction and maintenance of church buildings, and their furnishings, on the understanding that they would be used for Anglican religious purposes. A congregation couldn't, legally, auction the church plate on eBay, turn the building into condos and pocket the proceeds or use the property in other creative ways that the donors could not have forseen or intended. It's unlikely however that Episcopalians who contributed to the building, maintenance and furnishing of most Episcopal churches in the US anticipated the exclusion of the American church from the Anglican Communion. They surely intended to contribute to their local Anglican church or, in the case of churches built before the Revolution, to their local Church of England parish. Even a temporary "ostracism" would create a splendid window of opportunity for conservative congregations to get favorable decisions in the inevitable litigation over church property.

Now at this point you many wonder why I, an unrepentant Liberal, am cheering on the Conservatives, with whose views I disagree. Far be it from me to defend conservatives of any kind in the interests of fairness--I am pissed at the arrogant, thoroughly illiberal policies of the Episcopal church represented in the persons of clergy who imagined that they could, and should, make the Church over in their own image.

They imagined that they were the gentlemen of their parishes and dioceses, like the holy Mr. Herbert at Bemerton, providing intellectual leadership and moral guidance to the clueless yokels in their charge. They never doubted that their half-baked sophomoric notions, culled from undergraduate sociology courses, self-help literature, soap operas and Psychology Today were the received wisdom of the intelligencia. It never occurred to them that anyone who disagreed with them could have the intelligence to resist their therapeutic manipulation or the power to withstand their bullying. At the same time they assumed that the world was watching them, that their "teachings" on human sexuality would promote healthy attitudes, that their statements on public affairs would influence policy and that their liturgical practices would form the character of participants and shape their behavior.

It was the last item that got under my skin. In the later part of the past century, liberal clergy, many of who had ceased to believe in God and so did not see any point to worship as traditionally understood, concluded that the primary function of liturgy was didactic and pushed through a revised liturgy to suit their purpose. Members of the congregation were to mouth formulae about "justice, freedom and peace" and "stewardship" of the environment to encourage political activism and ecological concern. They were to shake hands with their neighbors to send the message that Christianity was not a narrowly individualistic relationship with a transcendent being but that love of God cashed out as love of ones fellow man. Kneeling was discouraged because, clergy said, it was "penitential": guilt-ridden, puritanical Episcopalians had to learn life-affirming attitudes that were more conducive to good mental health.

When the dust had cleared, a few parishes that did high liturgy remained as specialty items, featuring commissioned works of art and precious boy choristers in ruffs, while in the majority of churches every scrap of the numinous was stripped away and all emotion flattened into bland suburban cheer.

The arrogant fools who stripped the altars, scrapped the liturgy and destroyed my religious life, are now pulling down the church. In the end it will scarcely matter to the Culture Warriors on either side. The conservatives will have their evangelical tabernacles, affiliated with dioceses in Botswana and Timbuktu, with Bible studies, Promise Keepers and the Alpha course, where family values and male headship are preached. Liberals will maintain their community centers for elderly ladies financed by schools catering for families that want class-segregated education at an affordable price. But anyone who imagined that the Episcopal church was the venue for unrepentant liberals who were, in the ordinary sense of the word, religious will seriously disappointed.

Maybe it was inevitable--an epiphenomenon of the larger culture war in which religion is understood primarily as a tool for the promotion of a socially conservative agenda and Liberals are, by the very nature of the religious landscape, virtually defined into being secular.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Instant Runoff Voting action

Visit this terrific site on various alternative methods of voting and how they work! Mathematically interesting but accessible even to the likes of me. There are links at the site to non-partisan activist organizations that promote alternatives to plurality voting.

I've been converted by my daughter, who is a Green. The Greens' preferred method, IRV, has problems which, ironically, thwart third party candidates but there are other alternatives. Anything has got to be better than plurality voting in a winner-take-all system.

The simplest alternative is Approval Voting (see, e.g. Citizens for Approval Voting. Voters check off the candidates they approve of without ranking them and the candidate with the most votes wins. It can't be too flakey since the Mathematical Association of America (32,000 members), the American Statistical Association and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (377,000 members).

We now know what's the matter with Kansas: working class social conservatives are sacrificing their economic interests to buy support for their preferred policies on "lifestyle issues" and cynical plutocrats are happy to throw them a bone to get their own economic agenda through. Given the current system however there is no fix because the center will not hold. Neither party can win without the support of socially conservative working class voters but given the current agendas of both parties, working class conservatives lose whichever party they support. And if a viable third party emerged to represent their interests, we could end up with a three-way deadlock instead of a two-way one.

What can't happen in any case is the emergence of any nuanced political position--as distinct from an incoherent politically motivated compromise.