Friday, July 21, 2006

Chesterton's Orthodoxy

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

It has been just over a month since Ernie suggested I read three books. I have previously posted on C.S. Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress and Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy. The third book Ernie recommended was G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which I finally got from the library two weeks ago. As it turns out, the book is freely available for download as well: you can find several different formats here.

Orthodoxy was written to answer a challenge from a Mr. G.S. Street, issued in response to Chesterton's earlier book Heretics in which Chesterton (apparently) criticized the philosophies or beliefs of some of his contemporaries. Street said, "I shall not begin to worry about my philosophy of life until Mr. Chesteron discloses his." Orthodoxy was intended to be this disclosure.

The book is not long, only 168 pages. Even so, I have only read two-thirds of the book and am unlikely to finish. While there may be some redeeming features in the last sixty pages, I am not hopeful. I cannot recall ever using the term sophistry to describe a work before, but I would be sorely tempted here. In fact, in the course of reviewing the early chapters of the book as I write this, I find in the first chapter that "Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused." If his other works were similar in character to this one, I would tend to side with his accusers.

The first chapter is the introduction. The meat of the book begins in Chapter 2, "The Maniac", and its very first paragraph made a poor impression. He relates an anecdote wherein a publisher made a comment in reference to somebody else "That man will get on; he believes in himself." Now when somebody is said to believe in himself, we normally mean that they have a certain amount of self-confidence. Chesterton responds that those who truly believe in themselves are found in lunatic asylums. But this is an extreme literal interpretation that I would expect from my eight-year-old son. Yes, it is possible to have too much self-confidence, but that hardly means that we should have none at all. According to Chesterton, the publisher eventually said, "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?" By the second page, Chesterton has already introduced a false dichotomy: either you believe in yourself so completely as to be insane, or you cannot believe in yourself at all.

This practice of contrasting his views with their extreme opposite is far too common. Much of Chapters 2 and 3 are spent criticizing other philosophies propounded by his contemporaries. Perhaps some of them really did hold the extreme views that he attributes to them. If so, while he was right to reject those views, he cannot validly draw conclusions that exclude more moderate positions without addressing those positions, and this he does not do. (Of course, if his opponents did not in fact hold the views he attributes to them, his case is even worse.) For instance, on pp 28-29 (of the 1995 printing by Ignatious Press), Chesterton is attempting to demonstrate that materialism is more limiting than any religion. Now there is a sense in which this is true, insofar as religions (typically) involve a material world plus some sort of spiritual world. But Chesterton takes this too far when he says:

The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel...

Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it.

I would suggest that most materialists adopted that position based on insufficient evidence for anything non-material. Materialists' disbelief in imps and immortality does not prevent them from considering them; rather, their consideration of them does not extend far beyond the positive evidence for them. Since such evidence is lacking, so is their belief. This "limitation" thus stems from a superior epistemological method, as it excises belief in unsupported (and sometimes unsupportable) propositions, so long as they remain unsupported.

This sort of skepticism is anathema to Chesterton. On pp 36-37, he writes:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert - himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason...

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table...

I may be wrong, but I think he is quite wrong in this.

In Chapter 4, "The Ethics of Elfland", Chesterton contrasts the natural world with the world of fairy tales, a world that is somehow more pure or more real because its characters and rules are so stereotypical. In fairyland, the laws are laws of reason, laws of necessity. They cannot be broken: "If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack" And then he writes,

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened -- dawn and death and so on -- as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit... The men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling.

So laws in fairyland are unbreakable laws, while so-called natural laws are merely inductive "it has always been that way but it could be different" statements. Now, that may be a worthwhile distinction to make. But what I found ten pages later was most curious:

In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken, for the definition of a law is something that can be broken. But the machinery of this cosmic prison [the natural world] was something that could not be broken; for we ourselves were only part of its machinery. We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them. The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them.

So, in fairyland laws cannot be broken, but they can be, else they would not be laws. In the real world, the laws are not true laws because we could imagine breaking them, but they are not true laws because they cannot be broken.

Chapter 6, "The Paradox of Christianity", Chesterton continues to describe what finally led him to return to Christianity. He had observed that some skeptics of Christianity would accuse it of one thing, and others would accuse it of the opposite. Christianity, they said, was too pessimistic and too optimistic. Christianity advocates fighting too little (turn the other cheek) and fighting too much (causing wars and their attendant misery). Christianity drags women away from their families into the cloister, and Christianity forces marriage and family upon people. Christianity shows contempt for women, and only women go to church. And from this, Chesterton eventually concludes, Christianity must be correct because it brings together and balances such paradoxical ideas.

There is, however, another explanation. Christianity does none of those things because Christianity is a religion, a belief system or even a family of related belief systems. It is not itself an actor, an agent. Christians do those things. Some do one thing, some its opposite. Some do one thing at one time and its opposite another. Christianity as an institution is complex; it is possible for both one thing and its opposite to be true in different parts of the overall whole, or at different times. The same can be said of many complex institutions. Why should we therefore look to Christianity for truth and not these other institutions?

In addition to reading the book, I have done a small amount of reading about Chesterton himself, and one point that I found not at all surprising was that C.S. Lewis apparently held Chesterton in high regard, calling his book The Everlasting Man "the best popular apologetic I know". When I read in Chapter 4 that

In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.

it reminded me immediately of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, it reminded me of that which I find least convincing in Lewis' writing, an "I'd like it if this were true, so it must be" sort of reasoning.

These are some examples of what I found lacking in Orthodoxy. Obviously there is more to the book than just this, but yet, in some ways there is not. That is, I did not find anything remotely compelling. I generally hate to leave books unfinished once I get started; I like closure. But after reading two-thirds of this book, there was still nothing that had been opened, nothing that led me to think, "that's a good point, I wonder where it leads." Perhaps I was just too dense to see it, or too biased, but I am afraid all I got from this book was a rather poor impression of G.K. Chesterton. Sorry, Ernie.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dobson on Modern Education

We still get a monthly newsletter in the mail from Focus on the Family, usually written by James Dobson. June's edition, titled "Education Turned Perversion" arrived today. I still sometimes read them, and this one deserves comment for its inflamed rhetoric, dishonesty and irony.

The primary focus of the letter was to examine the ways that "homosexual activists and their allies on the far left" have been trying to advance their cause by influencing education. Dobson describes this as an effort "to gain control of children", "a brilliant plan, hatched in Satan's own lair." I am not sure if Godwin's Law applies to snail mail, but it took only until the third paragraph to mention Adolf Hitler.

Dobson discusses (if you could call a diatribe a discussion) three bills under consideration in California as examples of what is being done, SB 1437, AB 606 and AB 1056. You might want to read them quickly; they are not long. But before you do, make sure you read Dobson's newsletter first, so you will know what to look for.

SB 1437 amends existing law to forbid educational materials from "reflecting adversely" on people based on sexual orientation, in addition to other categories that are already protected. It also requires that social science classes include study of the role and contributions of various social groups (again now including sexual orientation), and it requires that educational materials reflect the diversity of our society. Each of these are to be done in "an age-appropriate manner". This is the closest that any of these three bills come to actually promoting homosexuality, and that only by recognizing the contributions to California of homosexuals among many other groups. It does not directly promote homosexuality or any other sexuality.

According to Dobson,

AB 606 would authorize the California Superintendent of Public Education to withhold two-thirds of a school district's budget from any district that does not, in its judgement, promote homosexuality, transsexuality and bisexuality in school policies.

His footnote for this claim references an article on WorldNetDaily, which includes the above statement, not quite word for word, but very close. Unfortunately, this is an inaccurate description of the bill. Discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation (again, among many other characteristics) is already illegal in California. However, such descrimination and harassment continues to be a problem. This bill requires school districts to develop and publish anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, update other documents, display information on training, curricula and other materials that address these issues, and so on. It does also specify the means by which the Superintendent can enforce the law. To claim that anything in this bill forces school districts to promote homosexuality, transsexuality or bisexuality is simply wrong.

The third bill Dobson references, AB 1056, would authorize up to $250,000 for pilot programs for "tolerance education" ($25,000 per school for up to ten schools). Each school would run its program for three years. Dobson takes pains to point out that this $250,000 would come from an almost bankrupted state treasury, and while that may be true, that figure represents only 0.0005% of California's annual education budget of the $48 billion estimated for 2006-20007. Again, the focus of the programs is on tolerance, not of various sexual lifestyles particularly, but of any of a large variety of criteria. It certainly does not promote homosexual lifestyles, but only promotes the kind and respectful treatment of students. It does not require students to respect homosexuality, as Dobson complains, but to respect (among many others) homosexuals, a distinction fully compatible with the old "hate the sin, love the sinner" idea, if you happen to view homosexuality that way.

After these misleading and outright incorrect descriptions of the bills, Dobson asks

Is there any doubt about the commitment of these people to the task of controlling children's minds? All the ranting and raving about "tolerance" is a ruse. The real purpose here is to promote sexual "lifestyles" among the young. Hence the fate of California's children, and by extension, the children of the nation, hangs in the balance.

Controlling children's minds? I think not. Teaching people to be kind to each other, even when people like Dobson are trying to fan the flames of intolerance? Yes. And who is ranting and raving?

Dobson includes a few more accusations to fan the flames a bit more. He claims that the bills will require textbooks "to depict same-sex couples in romantic and family settings." There is no such requirement. Dobson also "presumes" that because the law (SB 1437) would prohibits material that adversely reflects on gays and lesbians (on the basis of their sexual orientation!), it would also prohibit "references to sexually transmitted diseases among both heterosexuals and homosexuals." Why would he presume that? Not because the law would actually prohibit that, any more than it would prevent discussions of any other disease. No, he would presume that, I think, because it will further inflame the fear and anger he is trying to generate.

And that is where the irony comes in. Dobson quotes an associate of Ted Trimpa, a political strategist that works with Tim Gill, a Denver businessman involved in gay political issues. Dobson includes this quote:

"You have to create an environment of fear ... the only way to do that is to get aggressive and go out and actually beat them up..."

Uh, oh. Ellipsis alert. Time to go and track that quote down and see what was really said. I'll add context and then bold the elided parts:

McFarlane quotes his boss on another key aspect of their political strategy. "Tim says you have to turn down the volume [of opponents' antigay rhetoric]. They can't just say and do everything with license. They have to know beforehand that it is going to cost some votes and some serious money to play like that. It certainly doesn't stop it, but it turns it way down." And when they do spew antigay rhetoric, they often look extreme.

"You have to create an environment of fear and respect," added Trimpa. "The only way to do that is to get aggressive and go out and actually beat them up [politically]. Sitting there crying and whining about being victims isn't going to get us equality. What is going to get us equality is fighting for it."

Well, in this case, including the elided parts and context does not change the meaning entirely, as sometimes happens when people "quote mine", though I would suggest that the differences are sufficient to change the stress a bit unfairly. In the original context, you can see that McFarlane was speaking about their goals in influencing politicians, who they want to understand the possible repurcussions of opposing the legislation the Gill Foundation is advocating.

Now, I do not condone the intent to instill fear, nor do I really want to spend any more time talking about the context in which the statement was originally made. The reason that I brought this up is that Dobson through this very letter is himself seeking to (continue to) create an environment of fear among his supporters. His volatile words and imaginative interpretations serve exactly this purpose, at the expense of accuracy. This from the man who wrote "I always considered my responsibility to the children and their parents to be a sacred trust that demanded the highest degree of integrity." (Emphasis mine.) Dobson may want to review the definition of the word, because the dishonesty in this letter contradicts this claim.

I found it ironic too that Dobson would complain about a judge in Georgia ruling that a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was unconstitutional (oh, those unelected activist judges, you know), while also complaining about the elected activist legislators and governor in California. According to Dobson, the California legislature "is controlled entirely by gay activists and radical liberals" and "they can impose the most extreme social experiments without serious opposition from conservatives... they can do whatever they want to children..." (Ellipsis alert. Better go check up on me!) How true that is of California I do not know. But when something similar happened at the federal level with conservatives in power, I do not recall him complaining. Rather, I believe he was rather pleased.

By the way, one of the roles of the judiciary in this country is to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. Rejecting a measure that was approved by a majority is quite reasonable in this light. (That is not to say that the particular case he mentions was rightly decided; I have not looked into it, and my opinion would not count for much anyway.

One final bit of irony. Dobson mentions several times that children are vulnerable to believing everything adults tell them. In fact, he specifically says that God made them this way, and that there are "those who would subject them to carefully designed propaganda." With this, I partially agree. Not the God part, but the rest. And I might suggest that some of the carefully designed propaganda includes many Sunday Schools, AWANA, even Adventures in Odyssey.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Review: A Generous Orthodoxy

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

A couple weeks ago, Ernie suggested that I read three books. The first one I read was "The Pilgrim's Regress", by C.S. Lewis, which I reported on earlier. I am still waiting for G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" from our library, which somebody has checked out and which is now ten days overdue. But I did get "A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLaren a week ago Friday and finally finished it last night.

After reading only a few pages, I could see why Ernie would recommend this book, and in fact I recommended it to my wife (a Christian). This is not because I was suddenly convinced that Christianity was true, but rather because I appreciated McLaren's approach to the topics he would be addressing. I have been considering what I would consider the most defensible sort of Christianity, and an important facet of that would be a recognition that our understanding of God (assuming for the moment that he exists) has been exceedingly poor in the past and is still very uncertain. A Christian of the sort I have in mind may hold and act on his beliefs as they currently exist while still holding them tentatively and acting in recognition of their potential inaccuracy, and while continuing to test and refine those beliefs.

McLaren appears to do that. In his introduction, for instance, he says:

If I seem to show too little respect for your opinions or thought, be assured I have equal doubts about my own, and I don't mind if you think I'm wrong. I'm sure I am wrong about many things, although I'm not sure exactly which things I'm wrong about. I'm even sure I'm wrong about what I think I'm right about in at least some cases. So wherever you think I'm wrong, you could be right. If, in the process of determining that I'm wrong, you are stimulated to think more deeply and broadly, I hope that I will have somehow served you anyway. See Chapter 0 for details.

And in Chapter 0, titled "For Mature Audiences Only",he writes:

Scandalously, the generous orthodoxy you will explore (if you proceed) goes too far, many will say, in the direction of identifying orthodoxy with a consistent practice of humility, charity, courage and diligence: humility that allows us to admit that our past and current formulations may have been limited or distorted. Charity toward those of other traditions who may understand some things better than our group -- even though we are more conscious of what we think we understand better. Courage to be faithful to the true path of our faith as we understand it even when it is unpopular, dangerous, and difficult to do so. Diligence to seek again and again the true path of our fatih whenever we feel we have lost our way, which seems to be pretty often. While I see this practice as a way of seeking and chrishing truth, some will interpret this approach as an abandomnent of truth, doctrine, theology, etc. You are free to be among them.

I appreciate the attitude that underlies these words.

The book is subtitled "Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian." The bulk of the book is devoted to describing these various branches of Christian thought, how McLaren finds something good in all of them, even when there are problems that have been associated with them as well. McLaren appears to be attempting (in his own life) to appreciate and integrate the good while leaving out the bad, surely a noble goal. In fact, in the chapter "Why I am Incarnational" McLaren advocates dialog with members of other religions wherein a Christian should be open to learning what good those other religions have to offer. It is in that context that he writes:

In other words, we must be open to the perpetual possibility that our received understandings of the gospel may be faulty, imbalanced, poorly nuanced, or downright warped and twisted... In this sense Christians in missional dialogue must continually expect to rediscover the gospel.

In fact, this is one of the great benefits of missional interreligious dialogue for the Christian community: it puts un in situations where we may discover misconceptions and distortions we never would have seen if we were only talking to ourselves in self-affirming, self-congratulating conversation.

There is something to be admired and emulated in this approach to our beliefs, and its applicability is certainly not limited to Christians.

Still, I have some criticisms that I hope I can offer in a generous way. While McLaren advocates willingness to refining beliefs, this is not without limit. Again, back in Chapter 0, McLaren writes:

Many hold a minimalist concept of orthodoxy, seeking "the least common denominator," which limits the list of requirements for orthodoxy to a few core essentials. The generous orthodoxy of this book never seeks to dispute those lists, but rather, it consistently, unequivocally, and unapologetically upholds and affirms the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds... It also affirms (this is so Protestant) that Scripture itself remains above creeds... [hyperlinks mine]

After (or actually before, as presented in the book) going to such lengths to describe how open he is to , this struck me. It was as if he said, "I'll go whereever the journey for truth takes me, as long as it does not cross these lines." This may not be what he meant. Strictly speaking, this was a statement about the orthodoxy described by this book, not about where he would allow himself to go at some future time. But throughout the book, except for the briefest hints (as I quoted above), there is no substantial acknowledgement that those creeds may also be mistaken or that scripture may be nothing more than a purely human endeavor.

Instead, while discussing the separate problems of conservative and liberal Christianity, McLaren says:

Meanwhile, liberals had another set of problems. Just as conservative biblical interpretations could "prove" almost anything, liberal free inquiry could question anything. Their questioning and research could arrive at conclusions that left the Christian faith severely -- some would say fatally -- wounded, depleted, and drained of content. When the Bible's trustworthiness was questioned, then the divinity, resurrection and existence of Jesus were questioned; even the existence of God was suspect. What was left to believe in? Had liberal Christianity self-destructed? Had Christianity become a wrapper with no contents, an excuse to gather and hear exhortations to be nice folks, good citizens, and safe drivers? What happens when the methodology of free inquiry that unleashed your movement now turns on your movement and threatens to suck the life out of it?

What happens? McLaren's unstated answer does not allow that perhaps Christianity is a wrapper with no (divine) contents. Must there then be a problem with free inquiry? McLaren does not answer the question, but it certainly appears that there are answers he is not prepared to accept. Is that surprising? Not really. But it does temper my appreciation of what he is trying to do.

It will not be surprising, in light of my comments so far, that I found McLaren's chapter "Why I am Biblical" lacking. He spends half the chapter trying to explain how the Bible can be inspired while also being the product of personality, community, culture and historical context. In this attempt, he uses several analogies, including an analogy with how God creates individuals through "a complex synergy of biology and community and history", thus explaining one mystery with another. He also rejects emphasis of the terms "authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute, and literal" even while maintaining "that they are important within certain contexts" (emphasis his) but without saying anything about what those contexts are. I came away from that section without any good idea of what point he was trying to make.

He does advance this statement: "The purpose of Scripture is to equip God's people for good works." This is in contrast to its role (according to others) "as a weapon to threaten others, as a tool to intimidate others and prove them wrong, as a shortcut to being know-it-alls who believe the Bible gives us all the answers, as a defense of the status quo...".

The last part of the chapter McLaren devotes to a defense of the problems that the Bible causes for him. When he talks about this to people outside the church, he says:

I try to explain that the problem isn't the Bible, but our modern assumptions about the Bible and our modern interpretive approaches to it. I try to explain that there is a better way to understand and apply the Bible, a largely new and unexplored way that can be summarized like this: We need to reclaim the Bible as narrative.

We must begin with a recognition of how violent the world of the ancient Middle East was. The violence of the Jews entering Canaan in 1400 B.C. was not extraordinary; it was typical of their day. And so we ask: in that context was God commanding the people to do, not what was ideal or ethically desirable for all time, but what was necessary to survive in that world at that point.? Was there a viable alternative at the time for a group of wandering, homeless, liberated slaves seeking a homeland?

And later,

According to the Torah, while God is commanding the destruction of Canaan, God simultaneously commands that once it was subdued, the Jews should treat their neighbors and aliens with respect and kindness. God never commands them to build a divinely sanctioned empire that will conquer all their neighbors and destroy or assimilate them; after all, they had been the victims of empire themselves in Egypt. Instead God strictly limits the violence and leads the Jews to create a society that was a step above that of their neighbors ethically.

I believe this defense fails for a number of reasons. First, it only addresses one class of biblical atrocity, the manner in which the Promised Land was (supposedly) occupied. While important to this discussion, there are a number of other problems that this defense does not address, problems like slavery and treatment of women, or the killing of forty-two children who mocked Elisha (as just a few examples). Second, to say that God "strictly limits the violence" is misleading at best. While the violence and conquest did not extend across the entire world, the destruction within Canaan was extreme. Group after group are "utterly destroyed". Israelites are punished for failing to be complete in their destruction on some occasions. On other occasions, the Israelites are commanded to kill everyone except for the young virgin women, who can be, uh, kept. This is not limited violence, and it would take more than mere assertion to convince me that this level of violence was both typical and necessary. Third, while McLaren seems to try to deflect responsibility from God by claiming that God was simply working with people who were violent, and by asking whether God should have withheld is blessing to a people of such a nature, when that nature was entirely typical. But God did not merely associate with such violent people, he actually commanded the violence and sometimes inflicted it himself.

In addition to these failures, McLaren does not address or even acknowledge other substantial problems with the biblical text, some of those very problems that led liberal Christianity to ask those questions that he so quickly dismissed earlier. Now it was not his purpose in this book to explain or defend all of those problems, but there is a sense in which the Bible and the history of the Jewish nation and of the early church is a foundation for all that follows, and because McLaren fails to address my concerns about those topics, I am left with a rather mixed opinion of the book.

To a Christian, this book presents a valuable message about the importance of humility, of generosity, in one's interactions with other branches of Christianity and with other religions. In fact, that general message (if not most of the details) is useful in other contexts of our divisive culture. Judging from the reviews at Amazon, this message is not universally welcome, however. Not really too surprising, that.

Again, I'll ask Ernie to bring up anything about the book that he found to be particularly significant to our discussion, if I failed to mention it.