Friday, July 11, 2008

My Faith and Politics

Obama has been useful recently for inspiring a lot of conversation. Landon, a good friend of my mine, recently sent me the following letter:

I rather liked this article:
feel like Obama's argument is one that you would give: that in a pluralistic
society, even if a strongly held belief is motivated by matters of faith, it
should be argued for in the public realm by means of arguments that can be made
on common ground. Having spent a lot of time arguing with Dobson's followers
(Dobson's Focus on the Family is based in Colorado Springs), I know first hand
that they are not willing to engage debate at that level; they will cite the
bible as their only point of argument and consider the matter to be settled,
regardless of the faith or lack thereof of the person with whom they are
debating. I think that a lot of my frustration and resentment of religion and
religious people would be absent if I had grown up around people who were
willing to engage with me on common ground, rather than around people who think
that if you don't treat their interpretation of the bible as absolute truth then
you are going to hell.
My response:

Thanks for the article--I appreciate your articulation of why you found Dobson's followers so frustrating; I think it is sentiment many of us share. I do indeed feel that if you are going to argue convictions based on faith in the public realm, you should do so in terms that can be made on common ground. However, my own understanding of my faith and its implications as shaped by a Lutheran understanding of Christ makes this a more complex issue. Before I talk about my faith in the public sphere, let me first explain a few things about my faith:

1) I believe that humans can only love if they have first been loved.

2) I believe that having been loved, humans will respond with love.

3) I believe that God loves all people unconditionally as was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and that God's love is present and active in the world today through the power of the Holy Spirit.

4) I believe that humanity is subject to the brokenness of sin, which is the heart curved in upon itself. Because of this sinfulness humans try to place limits and conditions on love. This occurs notably in the Bible, a series of documents which both I and my denomination feel are divinely inspired but which are written by culturally-conditioned humans who are subject to sin and hence twist to their own images and purposes the Gospel of God's unconditional love.

5) Having experienced God's love, I desire to go forth and love others as God as loved me (doing so with the knowledge that I am, and will be as long as I live, subject to sin and never perfect in my love; yet God loves me anyway and gives me strength to keep trying).

6) In political terms, what this means is I try to foster a society which will encourage people to love as much as possible. The question then becomes how does a society do this.

7) While I feel the Bible (and other non-Christian religious documents) present useful insights, because of 4) I am wary of taking Biblical suggestions for our context whole-cloth.

8) This leaves me pretty much in the same place as a lot of secular humanists. I must rely on psychology, economics, sociology, and history to try to figure out what policy decision would really have the desired effect. In this sense, my beliefs motivated by matters of faith can and should be argued for in the public realm by means of
arguments that can be made on common ground.

9) However, there may be people who do not feel that the goal of society should be to foster love (I pray that this is not the case,but it may be). I am not sure there is any rational way to convince someone through argument of this one of my beliefs. In these situations, I can only love those who disagree with me and hope my trust in 2) is well founded.

10) I know for a fact that there are many people who disagree with 1)and 2) for theological, philosophical, and "common sense" reasons.These people believe that fear and punishment can be effective (and sometimes even necessary) means to produce love. Once again, I do not believe that I can convince someone of 1) and 2) (or 3), for that matter) through argument. Instead, all I can do is love those who disagree with me and trust in my faith.

11) Alternatively, I feel it is often useful to argue for a policy based on reasons that may not actually be common ground because you do not share them but your opponent does.

12) In conclusion, yes, I do agree that if you are going to argue convictions based on faith in the public realm, you should do so in terms that can be made on common ground. Furthermore, I do feel it is important that people of faith bring their convictions to bear on the political process. However, personally, I think people are only willing to listen and engage with open minds with those who disagree with them when they have first been loved as individuals within a community--but then, that's why I'm in ministry, not politics. ;)


Landon said...

I think you are right, there are some assumed goals that aren't shared, so they can't be part of the common ground even if the reasons for those goals are temporarily bracketed. So yeah, while your argument about how to attain the type of society you want can be argued for in neutral terms, it might be harder to convince people that their goal should be to foster a society which will encourage people to love as much as possible. I'm not convinced though, that it is impossible. I seem to recall a conversation with you in commons where you argued for a similar (albeit less extreme and less specific) position without any use of religious assumptions (the argument had to do with fostering community in general, and you argued for it well using an evolutionary model). [For the record, I agree with your premise 1), but have problems with each of the other beliefs, to varying degrees ranging from terminological to believing the antithesis.]

Ben Colahan said...

Thanks for the imput. If you don't mind, I would appreciate simply for my own edification some more detail as to which of the statements you believe the antithesis and which you just have terminological difficulties.

Ben Colahan said...

Also, I this this article is a good example of the type of faith active in the public sphere that I appreciate:

Landon said...

To take each numbered belief at a time:

1) Yes, though I would probably say the same of any concept/emotion/whatever-it-is-that-love-is.

2) This is rather vague. Is it that having experienced love people will love the people who loved them, that they will love some people some times, or that they will love in an abstract sort of way that either applies to everyone indiscriminately or is a feeling that applies to no one in particular. The 'some people some of the time' version is somewhat plausible, though I find it rather optimistic that this is the case for everyone who is loved. I expect that there are numerous counterexamples. Perhaps the case could be made that it is the case in general if not universally. However, you seem (as evidenced by later points) to be leaning toward the universal or general love interpretation, and I'm entirely too cynical and elitist to believe that. I feel that if I were to love everyone it would cheapen my love, which is currently directed toward a small number of people whom I value highly, and the fact that they are so important to me is made all the more compelling by the fact that I don't even really like--much less love--most people. I think most people, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, also feel that love is something special, only to be shared between those who matter most. Think of the horrible gut-dissolving feeling one gets when one thinks about a significant other loving someone else. If we really believed that it was good for everyone to love everyone else then we wouldn't have such visceral aversion to even the thought those we love most to also love others the way they love you. Perhaps a god, supposedly infinite in so many other respects, could be all loving, but we mere mortals are far too limited to love everyone. I for one wouldn't even want to try. (I will admit though there are many arguments against my stance, namely that the loss of someone in whom you have invested so heavily [side note: there is some irony here in that I find economic terms to be the antithesis of loving terms but have continually used them in speaking about love...] --or of the love between you--is lost in one way or another it is devastating. However, I'd rather take my chances with a few deep connections rather than have a safe netting of many shallow connections. Some might say that the options I've outlined offer a false dichotomy and that really one can love everyone deeply, but I would maintain that our finitude [spatio-temporal, emotional, just to name the most obviously relevant] prevents this.)

3)Yeah, I don't believe this one even a tiny little bit, as you know. An omnipotent god is logically absurd, therefore impossible (in my reality). Beyond that, while I think a deist god that is indescribably (though not infinitely) powerful is technically possible (albeit absolutely useless or worse in terms of trying to explain the universe),I have no more reason to believe in such an entity than I would to believe in unicorns. A god that cares about us, though, I find just plain ludicrous. I find it incredibly egotistic to think that we matter enough for a being capable of creating the universe to even pay attention to us as a species, much less care about our individual actions, much less be so insecure as to care about whether or not we believed in it, as if this supremely powerful entity needed us for validation. Even if I could believe in the Judeo-Christian god, I would be his sworn enemy because of his injustice. Even putting aside all of the incredible suffering that occurs in the world as part of some ineffable plan, God has the power to make us (or, to be generous, allow us) to do any set of actions. The idea that god sets us up to perform certain acts, and sometimes interferes to prevent us from doing 'wrong' or guide us to do what is 'right', and then judges us for those actions is cruel injustice. As for Jesus, I have to agree with Nietzsche that the story of his resurrection puts us in a debt to god that we cannot ever hope to pay and so it can only be forgiven. That doesn't sound like love to me; it sounds like loan-sharking.

4)I agree a with some elements of this one, if you change a lot of the religiously charged terms to more neutral ones. My version loses some important parts of what you want to say, but there is at least moderate overlap: I believe that humans are finite in many respects and are incapable of aligning their desires in a manner such that there is no conflict between them and are even incapable of always act upon the desires that they think they have most reason to act upon--that they identify with. All human thought and artifacts, including all writing, is culturally conditioned, and everything is experienced through a viewpoint dictated by one's desires and beliefs.

5) [This one is more of a desire than a belief. I don't share the desire for obvious reasons.]

6) I'm unsure what sort of society I even consider to be optimal, and I don't have any idea of how to implement any of the varied ideas that I do have.

7)Yes, though I probably find less of it insightful than you do, and certainly less inspirational.

8)Since this was my whole point in the first place, it would be rather odd of me to disavow it now.

9 and 10) I've seen you argue, and I think you're selling yourself short. You've convinced me, one of the most militant atheists one is likely to find, on many points. It has been your rational argument, not your love that has convinced me of them, though the love has probably been a more important and healthy influence in my life. Really, it's probably the combination that is so effective: the love making it easy to talk to you and to know that you are seriously considering and valuing what I have to say, while the reasoning offers counterpoints to my arguments. (Seriously though, I'm more grateful for the love than I've probably been able to express. Thank you.)

11) Agreed. [It looks like I accidentally lumped this one in with the disagree pile earlier. Oops.]

12) This one is a mixed bag. I don't like the influence of religious conviction in politics. It gives people too much of a feeling of being unassailably right and so they don't really listen to any counter-arguments because reason pales next to convictions for most people [I seem to be an exception to this probably healthy generalization]. Further, I just plain disagree with most of the political positions that are explicitly argued for on the basis of religious conviction (separation of church and state, evolution, gay rights, birth control, abortion, etc [obviously this isn't a really fair characterization since I know you are probably much closer to my end of the spectrum on most if not all of these issues than the vocal evangelical christian positions I oppose, but they are the most religiously charged issues at the moment. I do like the change in emphasis that religious politics is taking in beginning to emphasize decreasing poverty, environmental stewardship, fighting AIDS, and creating peace. In the near future I may very well be aligned with the major religious voting blocs, but at the moment the major voting blocs have other priorities.]

I agree that that personal and community-based love and general connectedness is vital, though I'm not sure that there is any correlation between that and open-mindedness. I can easily imagine a very loving but dogmatic community.

Anyway, I hope none of the readers are too offended by my brazenly anti-religious sentiments. I think that religious community-building can be incredibly helpful (as the article you linked to demonstrates) and I think that even individual faith is quite important. I wish I could belong to such a community or could have faith in something--anything--and though I can't and don't I don't wish to do anything to damage that community or faith.

Ben Colahan said...

Thank you again for your candidness and your time.

I'd like to clarify a few points where I was either unclear or just left out lots of information.

9 and 10 response)Perhaps, although in the examples to which you refer I argued for the idea of religious communities in general, not my personal theology. I feel what I have done is more an example of 8). However, the next time we meet in person we can discuss a theology of sheer love on rational grounds and then reevaluate the issue.

2 response) I agree that this is the part of my faith which experience would most clearly seem to contradict. Also, at the heart of your response seems to be apprehension that I did not define love--a valid concern. I cannot define love. Furthermore, our language conflates erotic and romantic love with familial and philanthropic love. But so as not to stifle the conversation altogether, let me say that the love to which I am referring, on some level, requires accepting the inherent value and dignity of that which is loved and a willingness to be changed by it.

As for my original statement that "I believe that having been loved, humans will respond with love," I intended this to be taken as a general statement with the understanding that each individual will respond to love in varying manners and degrees. Some people will respond to love by loving those who loved them. Others will respond by loving some third party. For some, a small experience of love will cause them to love many people deeply; for others, a large experience of love will result in tenuous love for few people. But ultimately, I feel the only way to produce any love at all, is through love.

That said, to expand upon 4), I think that no human will ever love perfectly in this existence, which in my view involves loving all people. Indeed, unless divinely inspired (and we'll get to God in a moment) I don't think people even want to love perfectly. You are right to point to the pain of imagining your lover loving another in your place (this is why it is important for many Roman Catholics that Jesus and priests not be married--the intensity of their love should not be limited to one other person...please save your disagreements with Roman Catholics for another conversation). Love that is not limited is certainly painful and difficult, and its loudest proponents tend to end up dead. And so while I believe that all humans will try to resist it, I believe that at all times the spirit of love that permeates and gives being to this universe is trying to express to us the love we need to love all things.

Why doesn't this spirit I call God just make us love all things? I don't know. Ultimately, Lutheranism leaves most questions unanswered and those who embrace it must live in paradox and unanswered riddles. This brings me to:

3 response) Your disagreements seem to be founded upon an understanding of Christianity that is not my own. I understand that you will take issue with basically any theology of mine, but I want you take issue with my theology, not someone else's, so let me differentiate myself from the theologies that you are reacting against.
I do not believe that my understanding of God is useful for trying to explain the universe. I do not believe that God cares whether or not we believe in God. I do not believe that God condemns us for our actions, no matter what those actions may be. In fact, I believe that the only things that I can know about God are those revealed through the life of Jesus. As I understand the story, Jesus enters a world of pain, suffering,and death, and goes about changing it, not through violence, or force, but by caring for individuals that he has no business caring for. He feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and calls out the religious and political leaders on their injustice and hypocrisy; but most of all, he loves whomever he encounters. Jesus encourages others to love as he loves by gathering people together in open and inclusive community to support one another. With these people he tells stories and riddles, goes fishing, gets drunk, and creates performance art. And when people still don't get the idea that he is the revelation of God dwelling among us with unconditional love, Jesus allows humans to brutally torture him, degrade him, and nail him on a cross to die, and his dying words are still words of love. And just to make sure we get it, he even comes back to life to say that yes, humans killed God, but God still loves us anyway. And so while there are certainly some Christians who believe that Christ's death and resurrection put us in debt to God, I believe that Jesus came to make us understand just the opposite. No matter what bullshit we try to invent to claim that some people do not deserve love, either from ourselves or God, or that they have to do something to earn it or pay it back, Jesus always says, "No, I love those people without condition, just as I love all people, just as I love you--always have and always will." That's pretty much the extent of what I think about God; I tend to feel any more investigation into the nature of the divine is pretty much futile. Instead, I try to focus on how to encourage love.

The rest of your responses seem to make sense given everything else. Honestly, 1) is the point I feel most strongly about.

Anonymous said...

No me gusta la satira ni ridiculisar a nadie por eso creo que este articulo tiene mas de discriminacion que de ridiculo. Artemisa Hicks

Daniel said...

A tangent: Should the love of God as reflected in and perpetuated by humankind be reserved only for other people (and presumably God) and hence limited, or rather should it extend to the entirety of God's creation, including all creatures and all things?

Ben Colahan said...

All creation

Daniel said...

Good. I was hoping that was just an unintentional ommission/ambiguity.
I think that I am largely inclined to agree, despite reaching that place in a very different way. I would very much like to open the hearts and minds of my fellow man; I fear that too many have a heart that is so "curved in upon itself" that they recognize only the self as worthy of love. Part of my fairly drastic recent political shift derives from the acceptance of "the inherent value and dignity of" all people, and more importantly, all things.
Oddly, due to the ambiguity inherent in the word love, I feel that this acceptance has not kept me from loving only a few people quite deeply, and even from failing to like most people.
However, I worry about the feasibility of translating this belief into a political/economic system because of the nature of power as it has evolved amongst human beings. I do feel that the extent of freedom of the individual will has a great deal to do with this infeasibility. However, our society is finding ways to limit and narrow the freedom of the will in powerful ways. Perhaps if these tools could be employed consciously, with the recognition of this goal in mind, it would be possible to condition people to show respect for all things within a range of variability (freedom) that increasingly approaches that “perfect love” even if it can never fully reach it.

Ben Colahan said...

Dan, I share your concerns about the feasibility of translating my (dare I say our?) beliefs into a political/economic system. However, I think your optimism tempered with humility and honesty is the only way to move forward.

As a side note there is a difference between "like" and "love," and I don't think they necessarily require one another ;)

Mark said...

This has been an extremely interesting post to read. Here are a few things I had thought about while reading:

Ben, I had a question (to which anyone else is more than welcome to comment on): Do you consider "objective," lying out in the world in an unchanging manner, equal to all that look upon it, or "subjective," lying in man's heart alone, hidden from all but God?

An example: Let's suppose a man's mother is suffering from a terrible illness that has rendered her unable to speak or otherwise communicate her wishes. He does not want her to suffer any longer, and slips poison into her IV so that she may die in peace. Out of his love, he acts to prevent any further pain. However, when the man's sister finds out what he has done, she is horrified. For her, life is sacred and should always be respected. She thinks her brother is cowardly and selfish, and should have cared for and loved his mother until her natural end. How does this situation fit into your theology? Is a person's love intention based, knowable only by the person and God alone? Or are there certain actions that are innately Love or anti-love?

That is another thing I pondered as I read: What is the opposite of Love? Does such a thing exist?

Should he win the election, I hope that Obama's emphasis on common ground becomes the centerpiece of his administration. However, I fear that if it does, it will upset many, many of his supporters who expect him to blanket the government with partisan liberal policies.

My favorite example of this is when Obama worked to pass mandatory video tapes of confessions in Illinois. This is an issue that, unless you support beating confessions out of suspects, no one can really argue with. Of course, not everything is going to be this cut and dry. Most everyone can agree that we all want people to be healthy. There is common ground. Determining the best method to bring this about, however, will be more difficult.

Another thought: It seems that we all accept Ben's first premise: "that humans can only love if they have first been loved." Is it possible to have a human whom has never been loved? If it is, what do we make of this? Are they still human? What is the moral status of their non-loving actions?

Ben Colahan said...

More with the trying to get me to define love!

While I still won't offer a definition, maybe I can give the concept more texture. I do not think there is one objective way to express love, nor do I think that certain actions can be inherently loving or un-loving. That said, there are certainly actions which I cannot currently conceive of a way in which they would be loving--but all things are possible.

Ultimately, I feel that trying to create blanket statements about what love does or does not look like is counterproductive to my theology (how's that for a blanket statement about love). The world is an incredibly complex and constantly changing place; the more we try to pre-define what love should entail, the more limitations we place on honestly encountering and recongizing the state of existance around us. Love allows us to be with others and for others as they are, not as we would like them to be.

This understanding of love doesn't seem to be the most practical for giving straight-forward answers to people in difficult situations, which may be why Lutheranism does not have the mass appeal of other religions. But let me take a crack at the practical example of the hospital situation described in Mark's response:

I would not want to present love as a dualism, i.e. love vs. anti-love. I would even be hesitant to quantify one person's love as greater than another's. However, there are things which in this situation (which is similar to things I am currently dealing with on a regular basis) that might hinder the children from responding to their mother's situation in a loving manner that seeks to understand and respond to their mother's needs while respecting their own. For instance, the son's desire to end his mother's pain may be rooted in his own inability to watch his mother suffer; or the daughter's anger may be rooted in her own fear of dying or desire to have said some final words to her mother. Ultimately, however, in this situation, trying to determine who is more loving is not useful. Instead, both siblings need to sit down and be open with one another about how each other's actions effected them. This will probably be a painful process as emotions of betrayal, jelousy, sorrow, and anger are all expressed, but love is also the willingness to be present in the brutality of truth.

I do not think it is possible to have a human who has never been loved. There was once a study done with newly-born infants who were denied human contact--all the infants died. I do feel that many of us are starved for love in the truest sense--perhaps it is a hunger that can never be compeletly filled.

Still, I think the idea of a human who has never been loved would make for an excellent science fiction story!

Mark said...

Maybe I’ll write a story about the infant who survived without human love.

I’m not surprised that you don’t carry around a pocket definition of love in your pocket. However, you didn’t address one issue that I tried to hint at, so I should put it more bluntly: Is love based in a person’s intentions, or a person’s actions? If you don’t feel that this is a relevant question, why? I guess I am trying to place the problem of love in the same lens as the old theological debate between faith and action.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the English language needs more than one word to describe what we describe with the word “love.” Without that, I agree that any attempt to render a definition acceptable to most everyone is futile.

That said, I want to latch on to two things you said as a possible beginning of a useful outline that I don’t think would be counterproductive to your theology. First, you said, “Love allows us to be with others and for others as they are, not as we would like them to be.” This is an incredibly individualistic statement that for me firmly positions your theology firmly in the classic Western liberal tradition. Love is not adult re-education programs.

Later you added that, “love is also the willingness to be present in the brutality of truth.” I really like this quote (and am borrowing it without your permission for my latest blog essay), though I agree that it is an addition to other aspects of love, and not love’s sole aspect. I’m in the middle of reading Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side, about the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11. Though the reasons for the administration’s transgressions are numerous, I think one of the core preconditions was not only an unwillingness, but a purposeful effort to not be present in the brutality of truth. Bush, for one, refused to be “put on the couch,” his name for self-reflection (and really reflection of any kind). The whole thing was driven by fantasies of how they thought the world and people should work. No thought was put into dealing with how things actually are.

But I digress. Love is definitely an important concept, and while I think I understand why defining it is counter-productive to your theology, I find that there is a great deal to be learned in a discussion of the subject.

Daniel said...

Actually, I think that Ben did answer that question, stating that love can only be based upon intentions because opposing actions can both be pursued out of love. If I am wrong and he did not say this, then he at least said something that I think makes such a question moot: the actions (or intentions) that characterize love are so personal, varying from situation to situation, person to person, etc., that it is conceivable that any action (or intention) could be a reflection of love.
I really think that he said the former (which to some extent implies the latter).

In any case, perhaps it is because I believe that I brought a similar concept when I approached this discussion but, I feel that Ben has provided a very illuminating outline to flesh out his concept of love. Personally, I am more inclined to think of it as a recognition and respect of the inherent value of all things, latching onto such quotes as: “the love to which I am referring, on some level, requires accepting the inherent value and dignity of that which is loved” and “the love we need to love all things”. Prior to joining this discussion, I placed the greater emphasis on the aspect of respect in this concept; however, now I realize the importance of the recognition aspect as well. The recognition aspect must, in fact, be epistemically prior to the respect aspect because of the importance of seeing things for what they truly are. Coming to this place of love from a place of disgust rather than from a place of blind love, I think that it is important to see that “Love allows us to be with others and for others as they are, not as we would like them to be,” does not present the only dichotomy possible with reference to this kind of love; this love also allows us to BE WITH others and FOR others DESPITE our knowledge of how they truly are. It is important to see others for who they who they are so that our respect may be genuine; it is relatively easy to be present with others, but “to be present in the brutality of truth” is far more demanding.

Ben Colahan said...

Wow. What Dan said. Seriously Dan, you have clarified and expanded quiet well what I was trying to say.

Mark, in response to your question about the faith vs. works debate, I think it's irrelevant. That debate is about what you have to do to achieve salvation (i.e. get God's love)--have faith or do good works. As a Lutheran, I reject the notion that you have to do anything to recieve God's love, including having faith. My fear with your line of questioning is that you are trying to make the completely reflexive and gratuitous act of loving into a requirement with measureable standards for success and failure. That said, I do agree with you that probing the issue has great benefit, and I would like to thank you for keeping on me about it. At any rate, I feel Dan response (in its entirety) is good answer to your question.

I agree that English has too few words to describe love. Greek does a little better with three. There's eros (erotic love), philos (familial love), and agape (God's love). Clearly I'm referring to agape in this conversation, however, as with Greek, the edges between eros, philos, and agape can be blury at times.

And while yes, I do place myself in the apparently individualistic Western liberal tradition, I do not think such a tradition can maintain itself without the constant and conscious efforts of a community to instill such values into its members. Some might call this adult re-education; I call it honest reflection and loving affirmation; Luther called it Law and Gospel. ;)

Mark said...

Ben, you are correct that I was trying to place some sort of measurable standard on love. I didn't realize that Lutheranism doesn't require faith or actions to be in God's good favor. I guess I had Roman Catholicism in mind. This might be getting slightly off topic, but do Lutherans not believe in the ultimate judgment of the soul by God?

I think I do see the pitfalls of turning love a requirement with measurable standards for success and failure. And each religion can make their own standards for love.

What concerns me is the question of how to transfer this idea of love into a legal code or governing principle, as opposed to applying it in a religious community. Such a goal basically requires some sort of measurable standards. I think the spirit of your idea of love can be integrated into many government policies, especially the correctional system, drug war, and legalization of torture (ending it, not supporting it). But at some point, I feel that a measurable standard must be applied. Do you agree, or am I hopelessly legalistic? If you do, I'd be curious to know how you see your role as a citizen is balanced with that as a Lutheran (I feel that this might have been discussed earlier in this post, but I'm running out of battery so I don't have time to go back and look. My apologies if its already there).

Dan, I would be curious to know more about your idea that there is inherent value in all things (perhaps a subject for outside of this thread). My main familiarity with this is the Buddhist belief as posed by American Buddhists. However, "inherent value" could mean a lot of things.

Daniel said...

I wrote the following in an email response to Mark, but then I felt inclined to share it here, mostly to hear your thoughts Ben. I had intended to clarify "inherent value" as per Mark's request, but I ended up saying some radical things about political ideology. I'm not sure how Ben [or Landon, for that matter] will feel about it, but I thought that you'd both be interested.

As for inherent value, I'm honestly not sure that I have a firm grasp on it myself. I think that it has something to do with the recognition of the complex yet completely integrated system the composes the Earth (and indeed the whole universe, maybe) and the relationship between individual things and that larger system of which it is a part. Now that I think about it, I think that it might have something to do with determinism and stoicism as well; everything is in some sense a necessary outcome of the inescapable past pushing us toward the inescapable future (determinism) and thus a respect and acceptance of the ultimate forces at play (which someone like Alex might call god) should lead us to confer a certain level of respect and acceptance of all those necessary pieces, recognizing the inevitability of their existence just as they are. However, while this belief leads to distribution of a base level of value to all things, it is by no means the only value (though perhaps the only value that is not derived from personal/individual evaluation). Oddly enough, I feel that this inherent value translates well into a political system like Ayn Rand's ideal laissez-faire capitalism (that is, if this inherent belief applied only to human beings) and her Objectivism, which takes the individual human being as an unquestionable value and allows natural forces thereon to decide the greater or lesser value of these individuals. However, I now believe that this value must extend beyond human individuals to all things (and yes, I know that this is not the only problem with Objectivism and laissez-faire capitalism, but for me it is its primary failure). [Also, speaking of Ayn Rand, I just finished reading a collection of essays entitled "Capitialism: the Unknown Ideal" that addresses the moral aspects of capitalism and is really interesting. It has helped me to reconcile some internal problems with the worldview that I once held and revealed to me the ways in which I now disagree with that worldview.] Thus, I am inclined to pursue a totalitarian, socialist regime "Brave New World"-style, but with more well-defined goals. This is all off-the-cuff, but I kind of like it...

Ben Colahan said...

Sorry it's taking me a while to respond. It is currently finals week in my Clinical Pastoral Education program, so I'm kind of bogged-down. Let me try to give a quick response to Mark's question about God's Judgement, and I'll tackle the whole government-thing with Dan's additional comments in a few days.

Question: Do Lutherans not believe in the ultimate judgment of the soul by God?

Answer: Sure Lutherans believe that God ultimately judges each soul. After this point there is dissagreement within the Church. For many Lutherans, that's a good place to leave it. We don't know God's judgement, and neither does anyone else. For those Lutheran's who want to take it farther, some might say that while God loves each person unconditionally, a person can actively reject God's love and therefore be condemned (which I would point out is another form of works-based salvation, and antithetical to Lutheranism). If I am pressed to try and delve further into God's judgement than saying it's in God's hands, I respond in the following:
As Lutherans, we believe that Jesus is God, and the only way we can fully understand God. Jesus had some choice words for people he disagreed with, but Jesus never damned or harmed anyone he met, instead he ate dinner with them; and even after he had been brutally tortured and left nailed on a cross to die, still he prayed "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]." When someone comes up with a sin greater than killing God we can reconsider the issue.

Mark said...

Ben, I think you hit upon a fault line that might help us with the idea of love. From your posts, it seems that you believe in God's unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness. Now, I can't argue with you on religious grounds since I don't really believe in God (I still consider myself a pessimistic agnostic).

However, on the basis of textual evidence, I would argue that Jesus (or God, whichever way you prefer it) still left room for condemnation. In my reading of the Bible, I agree with your Lutherans who want to "take it further," and believe that though, "God loves each person unconditionally, a person can actively reject God's love and therefore be condemned." This is why Jesus tells his father to forgive them because, "they know not what they do."

Now, I know that there are as many interpretations of the New Testament as there are people, but I do think the evidence for the possibility of condemnation by God is hard to ignore. Some examples (all spoken by Jesus):

Mathew 12:37: "For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

Mark 16:16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."

John 3:18-19: "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. (19)This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil."

To me, these quotes show two important elements for salvation: Faith and Action (I won't say "works", but its close). The selection from Mathew would fall under the action category, Mark under faith, and John includes both aspects. These two themes are found in other parts of the NT, and I think cannot be ignored. Whether you think they are paramount, I guess, is your call.

To try and answer your question, the sin worse than killing God is knowingly killing God. Again, Jesus points this out when he points out that they don't know what they have done.

I think this lesson can be applied to the non-Christian world and definition of love. What love is may differ from person to person. But if a person knows what love is, and then goes AGAINST love, that is evil. I do not believe it is necessary that the person stand in the brutality of the truth that their actions violate love, because I think that is very rare. They might make excuses or justifications for their actions, but I think in general people know when they are violating their idea of love.

I sure tend toward positive (not in the technical philosophical sense) arguments when I'm writing after midnight.

Ben Colahan said...

I knew I was opening myself up for trouble when I decided to quote scripture and use the phrase "sin greater than...."
First, the Lutheran conception of sin (as I mentioned in point 4 of the original post) is not an action, but a state of being which all humans suffer of the heart curved in upon itself. There is therefore no greater or lesser sin--instead there is only Sin, which prevents us from loving perfectly and we are all therefore justly condemned. However, God loves us perfectly, and for this reason God became human in the form of Jesus to show that our Sin is forgiven and that death has no power; we are therefor free from all fear of God, harm, or death to love recklessly as Christ loves us.

In terms of biblical hermeneutics: See again original post point 4. The Bible contains everything and its opposite. Every denomination must decide how it is going to interpret scripture. The ELCA speaks of reading the bible through the lens of the Gospel (not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but the Good News that God loves each person unconditionally and that Christ died for the forgiveness all people). So yes, there are (many) biblical passages which contradict Lutheran theology, but there are also passages which support it. Ultimately we have decided as a community that the passages of limitless love are the ones in which we feel the Holy Spirit speaks most clearly Christ's message through the authors' biases. Remember, modern hermeneutics has its origins in German theologians such as Schleiermacher.

Ben Colahan said...

An interesting definition of evil. As a pastor though, my first concern is what our response to evil should be. John McCain was asked this question by Rick Warren (so was Obama, but I don't know how he answered), and McCain answered, "defeat it." I disagree. I say, love it. Admittedly, if someone is conciously working against love this may be difficult or even dangerous, which may bring us into the field of government and the topic we were trying to get to.

At the moment, however, I need to stop using this to procrastinate. I'll write again in a couple days and go back to the government question.

Landon said...

I'd like to re-enter the conversation by talking about a topic that has come up a few times in this thread: unconditional love.

Ben, you talk about unconditional love as an ideal only attainable by god, but I disagree in that I both think that unconditional love may be attainable and (much more importantly) that it is a terrible idea. I believe the latter for a couple reasons. First, I think that humans have a finite capacity for love, and so we should use this most valuable of resources wisely. However, this says nothing against universal unconditional love as an ideal, just in practical terms, so I will focus on my second reason.

To give some background on my second reason, I need to explain some of my other views. I believe that humans, like everything else, are simply elements in the universe whose behavior is dictated by the rules of physics. We are admittedly quite complicated, but essentially we are systems that take some inputs (experience), do some processing (dictated by biology and chemistry), and give some outputs(behavior). At a slightly less abstract and more human level, I think that what determines how we will react to some stimulus can most strongly be influenced through conditioning. I think that our customs, our ability to use language, our dispositions, and even our very way of experiencing and conceptualizing the world are a result of conditioning. Whether we are homicidal rapists or loving neighbors depends upon the lessons that were drilled into our very being by conditioning. Our conditioned responses are slightly more complicated than a rat pulling a lever to get a food pellet or Pavlov's dogs salivating when they heard a bell, but it is essentially the same thing.

Given my views on conditioning, I think it should be clear why I am disturbed the concept of unconditional love, and especially universal unconditional love. Love is incredibly important to people--they are willing to die for it and risk great suffering for it--much more important than a good meal or pretty much any other incentive(at least to me). If one is receiving unconditional love, there is little incentive to behave in one way rather than another. After all, what do the slight changes in quality of life caused by other factors matter if the all-important incentive of love is received regardless of behavior?

Unconditional love makes the discouragement of any behavior difficult at best. I suppose this is only a problem for me because I want to change people. I've long wanted to make people better (which I used to think meant making them objectively better but now think merely means making them such that I like them more). I would like to see people who are intelligent and value intelligence and information, who are kind and creative, who make life more interesting without causing suffering. If you are satisfied with the racists, sexists, rapists, murderers, warmongers, greedy short-sighted hyper-consumers, torturers, etc., then by all means love everyone unconditionally, but I want to change them.

You might argue that you aim to hate the sin but love the sinner. I think that this is simply incoherent since I don't think that we essentially just are our actions and dispositions, so the two can't be separated.

On a different note: Dan, could you explain how you came to the belief that there is inherent value in everything? I'm frankly very surprised that you believe that there even is such thing as an inherent property or that you would believe in any normative property, much less the specific claim you made.

Ben Colahan said...

Elana would like me to make clear that although the answer I gave in the August 18, 2008 8:01 AM post has historically been a fairly common Lutheran understanding, it is by no means the only Lutheran understanding. In fact, for the Lutheran congregations that I have been part of, the question of some judgement at the end of time is largely irrelevant (I've only ever heard the issue raised by someone is one of the smaller more conservative Lutheran denominations). Many Lutherans I know would say that all people are already forgiven through Christ's death and resurrection. Others (I among them) would say that the whole spiritual guilt/forgiveness thing is a human construct that comes out of our constant need to try to limit God's love; God has always loved humanity in its imperfection (God after all created us this way), but our awareness of our imperfection and our inability to truly appreciate unconditional love caused humanity to try and create rules and restrictions and ideas of sacrificial atonement around God in order to make God fit our own image. In response to our desire to create conditions and requirements for God's love, God sent Christ to satisfy whatever requirements we had created so that we could actually believe that God loves us.

Alright, on to Landon's most recent comments (which will lead to government, I promise!). Landon, we seem to have a different understanding of the word "unconditional." By your statements I don't think you actually believe unconditional love (at least as I conceive of it) is possible. In your most recent post, you write that "I think that humans have a finite capacity for love, and so we should use this most valuable of resources wisely." I would argue that if humans have only finite amount of love, it cannot be unconditional. In your understanding, human love is inherently restricted by its limited supply. One person could arbitrarily give away all his or her love without reason, but at some point that person will not be able to give away any more love. The free giving of this love is only possible under the condition that it has not been used up;it is therefore not unconditional. I would like to distinguish your concept of what I will label "arbitrary love" from what I mean by "unconditional love," which loves all people (and all of creation) at all times without requirement.
As for your statement that you don't think unconditional love is a good thing, I think that we share enough common ground that I can actually attempt a counter-argument (though I do so against my better judgement). Without bothering with metaphysics, which I don't think are either useful or discernible, I completely agree with you that "what determines how we will react to some stimulus can most strongly be influenced through conditioning." I also agree with you that "Love is incredibly important to people--they are willing to die for it and risk great suffering for it--much more important than a good meal or pretty much any other incentive(at least to me)." And with one caveat, which I have inserted in brackets, I even agree with your statement that "If one is receiving unconditional love, there is little [negative] incentive to behave in one way rather than another." Finally, I too "would like to see people who are intelligent and value intelligence and information, who are kind and creative, who make life more interesting without causing suffering." I believe the best means to achieve this is through unconditional love [love as understood through the above conversation between Dan, Mark, and me]. I believe this because I think, like you, that ultimately the most powerful motivator for humans is the desire for love, and that the majority of "racists, sexists, rapists, murderers, warmongers, greedy short-sighted hyper-consumers, torturers, etc" to which you refer are people who have been denied love and/or were conditioned to feel that they are only worthy of love if they prove themselves superior to others (often through violence but also through racism and sexism, numerous other forms of bigotry, or even dumb obedience), or have been conditioned to accept material objects or fleeting physical sensations as replacements. I believe that if children were conditioned in such a way that they were loved unconditionally, they would not need to try and earn love by diminishing others, fearfully accepting what they are taught, or seeking to fill their need for love through consumerism. I believe that within each person, at some level, being loved creates a desire to love (and I call this process God). However, even within a child who had always received loved, there would need to be a constant process of discernment as how best to love others, and a community to make the child aware when she or he ignorantly caused harm--but ultimately, when that child understood the consequences of his or her actions, the child would want to rectify them. So then, even with a healthy child who is conditioned to know nothing but love, creating the type of people both of us desire is a complex and time consuming process. How much more so with humanity as it stands, with all its brokenness and hatred! First, I must acknowledge that there are people born with chemical imbalances that will cause them to always act with fear and violence no matter how much love is given to them. I must also acknowledge that there are people who have been so damaged by the existing hatred and violence in this world that they would harm or even kill those who would try to love them before they could even experience the love. Perhaps this is where the government finds its role. We need an organization that is capable of restraining those people who, out of their own painful conditioning or chemical disorders, would seek to harm others in ways that pacifist communities cannot counter. The goal of restraining these harmful individuals is not punishment, which only further perpetuates the painful and love-denying conditioning, but healing, which requires identifying the source of the individuals' desires to harm others, and then addressing that source either medically, psychologically, economically, socially, or spiritually. I also feel that there needs to be an institution which can redistribute resources in a way that diminishes harm caused by economic, medical, social, and educational disparity and lack. In the past, this redistribution organization has been the Church; currently, people seem to prefer that government take on this role. This is preferable in my view, because people with power and wealth have a tendency to confuse it with love, and because power and wealth are finite, they tend to try and horde it for themselves. Thus, if the government controls the distribution of wealth and police and military power, and is separate from the Church, the Church is more likely to honestly criticize the failures and abuses of the government. And so Mark, I feel as a Lutheran, I am called to be the first to encourage the government to use its power and resources to reduce barriers to people loving one another, and to be the first to call the government into account when it does not (exactly how the government should actually do this is something we can debate as a whole separate topic). This is why I must object to Dan's final political comment. I could never approve of a totalitarian government because ultimately I know that humans will always try to limit love whether consciously or not; there must always be room for dissent, critique, and the prophetical call to love. Also, I cannot speak of "greater or lesser value of these individuals;" I can speak of people being more or less suited to serve the community in different roles, but all people share the same inherent value because all people are equally loved by God.

Daniel said...

Ben, I really do feel that we are largely in agreement. I even share your distaste for totalitarianism:
"Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
"Every generation needs a new revolution."
Etc. -Jefferson
However, every government is a legitimization for some men to control others. I think that perhaps the revolution of our generation is to rest power from the wealthy and place it into the hands of the educated. The totalitarian aspect will allow us to exert greater control over the conditioning of our youth, thus preparing the new generation for an era of love and and revolution of liberty to work toward that love. Before I can trust others to love and to love responsibly, I feel that I must see to it that these are the right kind of people to assume such responsibility.

As I think may have conveyed in our conversation yesterday, I do not believe that anything has any property (except, perhaps, necessity, if such a thing could even be called a property), let alone a normative one. I was speaking colloquially and so wasn't really expecting my comments to be taken with such a rigorous philosophical reading. I would consider the attribution of value to all things to be an attitude; an attitude that is quite valuable to interaction with others and to government. I consider it to be in many ways a Stoic attitude: "Everything is in some sense a necessary outcome of the inescapable past pushing us toward the inescapable future (determinism) and thus a respect and acceptance of the ultimate forces at play (which someone like Alex might call god) should lead us to confer a certain level of respect and acceptance of all those necessary pieces, recognizing the inevitability of their existence just as they are." Because of our inability to grasp the laws at play and to see the future destined for our universe, we need not be content with the current situation or with the path that we seem to be on, because it may not in fact be the path that we are following (hence, our seeming free-will).

Perhaps we are on a path leading to a world full of love, with individuals that value intelligence and information, kindness and creativity, but we are only on that path if we work toward the realization of that world.

Elana said...

Dan, would you mind clarifying what you mean by a totalitarian regime as it would be applied towards creating an "era of love and and revolution of liberty to work toward that love?" Maybe I need to re-read "Brave New World," but I do know that the phrase "totalitarianism" is an extremely loaded one, and I would be interested in hearing what your thoughts are on it, or even where they come from (if there is another source besides Brave New World).

Daniel said...

I'm not sure how illuminating I can be in a blog comment, but I would be happy to talk about it with you at some point.

Basically, the idea is that, since people influence government and government influences people, a totalitarian regime would rely on the government by a select few to design structures and institutions that will change people, generating a society that is more inclined toward love.