About Me

Phoenix, AZ, United States

Friday, September 23, 2011

All You Need is Love?

In my epistemology seminar last night we discussed a couple articles by a famous philosopher of epistemology, Jim Pryor (NYU) who writes against a particular kind of skepticism about the external world. One of my fellow students made a joke last night that we should agree with Pryor in what appeared to be a stalemate of a dialogue because at least he was featured in Esquire magazine wearing a $2K suit. My curiosity getting the better of me, I looked him up this morning and sure enough there was the NYU professor, one of many in a photo gallery titled, "The Meaning of Life Meets Winter Style" which included a number of "academics" and "religious leaders" playing dress up for the camera and sharing some words of "wisdom". Among the participants was Jay Bakker (the son of Jim and Tammy Faye). What he said stood out to me:
"It's all about compassion for each other. A lot of times, people are too busy arguing over what their theology is or what their politics are or their sexuality is, and they miss out on all the good stuff in life. All the connecting with other people and loving them for who they are, not for who we want them to be."
Even before my encounter with this electronic edition of Esquire, I have heard many a believer criticizing Jim Bakker. This is because he has been for some years an advocate for homosexuality and gay marriage at the same time being an evangelical pastor. If his quote is any indication of his general philosophy then it isn't at all surprising to me that he is quite liberal in his account of Christianity.

The thing that gets me is that I know a number of Christians that would agree with Jim Bakker's sentiments here. I have heard these words almost verbatim among a number of my fellow believers, usually intended as a criticism against my views about what faith in Christ consists of. So then why do these same persons find Bakker's sympathy for homosexuality offensive? That part is quite vexing to me...

If you think Christianity is summed up in being accepting and compassionate to others (in the rather unqualified way that Bakker seems to intend), then you should certainly extend this inclusiveness to those of a different sexual orientation than you. Otherwise you will have to get caught up in one of those nasty theological and political (and ultimately philosophical) debates. The problem of course is that it wouldn't make sense to stop at this issue (that is, stop at criticizing or arguing over homosexuality). Rather if you are being consistent, any and all issues of a "theological and political" nature should be off limits for fear of "not getting along." But then imagine what such an account of the Christian faith might amount to. By "loving people for who they are" (in contrast to asking them to change) the straight and narrow path will be replaced by to something akin to a five lane autobahn which may seem liberating at first, but will in the end render the Christian worldview utterly unrecognizable and thereby emptying the cross of any intelligibility.

Now I can imagine some of my well intending friends saying that homosexuality is explicitly spoken against in scripture and so they have grounds for rejecting Bakker's specific position on homosexuality while adopting his general philosophy of inclusiveness. Such a view would mean that whatever is explicitly stated in scripture is non negotiable (i.e., this constitutes the core of the faith) while all the other issues which have divided believers are not worth arguing over.

But this is hardly an improvement. For one thing a great number of "orthodox" Christian doctrines are not explicitly stated in scripture. For instance the doctrine of the trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the rulings against the practice of polygamy among others. If you think that Christianity consists solely of express statements in scripture then you will have to do away with such ideas. After all, each of these has historically been the topic of much controversy (see Arianism, and Docetism, Christian Polygamy), that is, they have been the source of great debate, schism and worse. Furthermore, there are homosexual "believers" that simply claim that any part of the bible condemning homosexuality isn't actually the "word of God." The acute difficultly this brings to the surface is this: if you think only what is explicitly stated in scripture is what makes up the Christian faith, then how do you know what should belong in the canon and what should be excluded (i.e., how do you know that the canonization of scripture wasn't arbitrary) in the first place.

Obviously to say that the bible tells you what should be included in it would be a very unsatisfactory response on pain of circularity. The persons that compiled the books of the bible did not have the bible to go off of...

A few more notes on Bakker's quote:

1) Bakker says it's all about compassion. I have heard something to this effect quite often. In fact, Christ is said to exemplify compassion if anything. As I previously noted, the problem is that this sort of notion is far too vague and presupposes that we all have a univocal view about what it means to extend compassion. I used to work with the homeless population in town, and some of them honestly just wanted money to buy meth and preferred this to the food and water we were offering. Now there are some persons (of questionable intelligence) that believe that compassion should move one to acquiesce to such absurd requests (that is, to buy such persons drugs) while others would find it simply egregious to feed such a destructive habit. So saying, "it's all about compassion" isn't very helpful by itself; we need to get clearer on what we mean by "compassionate".

But now notice that only as we begin to define what compassion means, then disagreements inevitably arise. We start to learn that we don't share a single view about what it means to be compassionate much less how to apply this principle in various circumstances. Rather we find that we have conflicting accounts. In light of these disagreements we can appeal to another vague notion e.g., we might say, well since we don't agree on compassion, let's say it's all about love but then the same issue arises of course. What does it mean to "love?" And aren't there mutually exclusive views about love out there? Otherwise, people tend to act like there are not differences: that is, agree to disagree but then this is to make light of the disagreement and I think this doesn't make much sense. I say this because if you simply ignore that there are differences or diminish them by saying that the disagreements do not matter, then I question how much the original principle in question matters in the first place. To illustrate, imagine that I get one of my papers back with two grades on it. It has a red 'A' and then right next to it a equally red 'F'. Now if I simply shrug my shoulders at this event, then I probably didn't care for the meaning of either of the grades in the first place. If this is so, then the original philosophy of Bakker (that one should be compassionate) is a vacuous one. 

2) "A lot of times, people are too busy arguing over what their theology is or what their politics are or their sexuality is, and they miss out on all the good stuff in life."

It is true that arguing over some things is just not worth the cost of air. We could argue about the best burger joint in the world, but that likely won't get anywhere, and perhaps such a discussion is misguided because it plays fast and loose with what we mean by "the best burger joint". It might actually be that when we assert that "Five Guys is the best" we actually mean something closer to, "Five Guys is most pleasing to me" in which case we are speaking of our subjective states and so the argument should be diffusible. In any event, I am admitting that some arguments don't make much sense because they are either wrongly formed or not so important). What isn't so obvious is that political, social and theological arguments (at least the ones that I hear most commonly) are equally so empty. They aren't just about one's own inner states (like in the case of what flavor of ice cream most pleases me), rather they are (either directly or indirectly) about when life begins, what it means to be a moral person, and even what the nature of God is and what it isn't. And perhaps within this category of what I hold to be substantial discussions, we could include the question of what it means to be compassionate both per se and in application. Now it is important to distinguish between how in fact people go about arguing and the principle that we should debate these matters. I have a suspicion that part of what inspires this Jim Bakker kind of disdain for debate is that when such discussions occur, they don't often go very well. But this fact should only get us to revise our approach and work on improving rather than abandoning the discussion altogether, which would only be to throw the baby out with the bath water.

3) "All the connecting with other people and loving them for who they are, not for who we want them to be."

Again, "love" is a lot like "compassion" in that there isn't a single view on what love is and what it looks like to love another. For instance, if I told you to love Hitler, what would that mean to you? He wants to exterminate an entire population of people. So should your "love" for him mean you help him in his endeavors? Should you be there aiding his development of the concentration camps and flipping the switch to the gas chambers? Or should your love for him rather move you to resist him in his committing of the atrocious plans? Shouldn't you want to change him rather than accept him as he is?

There is also the problem that Bakker's philosophy (again in its unqualified form) is self-undermining, but I don't think I need to spell that out...