Tag Archives: Theology

Modern marriage, theology, and the state

Three pieces about marriage for your consideration. First, theologian John Milbank writes at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. He offers a complex and intriguing argument against same-sex marriage – one that makes a lot of assumptions that I don’t share. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting attempt to defend the status quo without, supposedly, invoking homophobic attitudes in any way. Milbank concedes that he is likely backing a loser, and he suggests attitudes that the Christian churches might take in a world where same-sex marriage is increasingly provided.

Second, my piece on the same site defends same-sex marriage, but more or less in passing in the context of a wider discussion of marriage in a fully secular society. I prefer the state abdicating entirely from the marriage business, but that is an ideal that I don’t consider achievable even in the medium-term future, let alone the short-term future. If we are going to make realistic policy in current crcumstances, we should support same-sex marriage. I go on to discuss how the state should regard traditional polygynous marriages and, on the other hand, modern concepts of polyamory. The article as a whole is adapted from my discussion of these issues in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This piece may read like a reply to Milbank’s (it appeared a day, or indeed some hours, later) … but they were written independently.

Third, Stephanie Zvan replies to me (and gets some interesting discussion going) on her Almost Diamonds blog. She is largely in agreement, but worries about one particular issue that I brought up in defending same-sex marriage, namely that of rights as next of kin. Should this really transfer automatically to the spouse (from parents, or whomever) on marriage? Zvan sees a downside to it.

There is also a thread about the first two pieces over on Richard Dawkins’ site, if you’re interested.

Whatever their other merits or otherwise, all three pieces argue the issues in ways that are a little different from the usual posts and op.eds on same-sex marriage. Hopefully they might enrich the current debate.

Meaning Machines

The question of the meaning of life is an old one. However, it is unclear exactly what the question means. Normally, we have little trouble with meaning. Clouds mean rain. Joe meant to warn me. Sentences, words, signs and signals have conventional meanings. The question of the meaning of life is different. It is not simply the definition of a word that we seek. Philosophers and those drawn to various religions tend to be the ones to ask it, and the question can be taken on three levels. We can ask about the meaning of all life, of human life, and of the individual’s life.

I would argue that the question has little meaning when taken in the first two senses. Life has no meaning in itself, it is simply here in the universe. The same goes for human life considered as the life of a natural species. Species come and go in the geological record, and it is not clear what meaning they can have. However, when it comes to questioning the meaning of an individual’s life, then the question comes alive.

Notoriously, in philosophy, the question of meaning is difficult and complicated. What is the Meaning of Being? What is the Being of Meaning? What is meaning anyway? Does it even make sense to ask about the meaning of life? If we decide that the question makes sense, what sense does it make? Various ideas are at play. Anxiety appears to be the motivation.

Sometimes we are worried that all our efforts will be for nothing if life has no meaning. A meaningless life may appear pointless, ‘superfluous,’ or ‘de trop’. Existentialists and absurdist playwrights hammered away at this theme with great gusto.

The question of the meaning of the lives of humans arises more or less acutely at different historical junctures. At times of great religious devoutness, the question is less pressing. Religion has an easier time than philosophy with the question of meaning. First, in religion, the question clearly has meaning; second, the question has an answer, and that answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Gods or spirits render mute the question of the meaning of human life, by folding it within a higher-than-animal purpose. We may be the ones asking the question, but the answer has always been foretold. There is actually no question about the meaning of human life.

Philosophy cannot take this way out. The question is a live one. If there is no ‘foreordained’ meaning to life, then what sort of meaning is there? It is not that we have the option of living in a world totally devoid of meaning; for, if that were possible, the question of meaning would not even come up. I can only worry about the possible meaninglessness of life if I suppose or hope it might have a meaning after all.

David Hamlyn, my old supervisor in graduate school, used to remark that we get our first idea of causality from our own powers to make changes in the world around us. You want to roll a rock. You push on it and it rolls. You learn from experience which rock will roll and which will not, no matter how hard you push it. We think of causality as ‘out there’ but our understanding of the concept begins within us.

Similarly, people look for the meaning of human life, and would be glad to find it ‘out there’, ready made, a transcendent meaning that surpasses mere animal existence. This is to get things backwards. We are the ones who bring meanings into the world, and then, looking around, find them there.

Human beings are little meaning machines who cannot help but create and then leave meanings on everything that pertains to a human world. This morning I am sitting, typing on my laptop, in the courtyard of a hotel in Los Angeles, looking out on a beautiful blue-sky, palm tree morning by the pool. The only reason I am comfortable here and now, is that everything around has a fairly stable meaning. My meaning machine is turned on and working. If I were to come down suddenly with early stage dementia, and lose many of the concepts by which I now understand my being in the world, in Los Angeles, beside a hotel pool, I would be as frightened as a small child abandoned in a strange place. The interesting question is not how human life can have meaning, but how it could ever be a worry that it might have none.

Debating Meat II: Theology of Meat

Thomas Aquinas was the most important Western ...

Image via Wikipedia

While religion is often used to justify eating meat, it is rather interesting to note that some significant Christian thinkers have seriously considered the ethics of the matter. This does make perfect sense. After all, the bible is clear that killing is a sin and it would certainly be unfortunate to end up in hell for eating a hamburger.

St. Aquinas addressed the matter of killing living things in his Summa Theologica. His approach is to raise and reply to three arguments against the killing of animals (primarily for the purpose of consuming their flesh).

In his first argument he contends that it appears to be unlawful to kill living beings. His concern, is of course, that breaking God‘s law leads to damnation. He further notes that divine providence seems to command that all living beings be preserved. As such, killing would be against divine law. Given his ethical theory, this would also make killing animals an immoral act.

In response to this, Aquinas avails himself of St. Augustine’s argument about eating meat. Augustine’s argument for the acceptability of eating meat actually has three parts.

First, he contends that the injunction against killing does not apply to trees (because they “have no sense”) or animals (because they “have no fellowship with us”). Thus, the injunction against killing does not apply to plants or animals. Of course, there are those who contend that trees do have sense (or at least some sort of awareness) and fairly strong case can (and has) been made that animals to have fellowship with us. As Hume argued, animals seem to differ from us mainly in degree rather than in kind.

Second, Augustine makes use of some of Aristotle‘s philosophy to present a teleological argument for eating meat. He begins with the assumption that it is not sinful to use something for the purpose for which it was created.  Following Aristotle, he notes that there is an order of things in the universe and asserts that the “imperfect are for the perfect.”

Interestingly, he notes that this follows the process of reproduction: beings go from a lower to a higher state. In the case of man, he asserts, there is “first a living thing, then an animal, and last a man.”  he then returns to his main focus, and contends that because plants have mere life, then they exist as food for animals. Since animals are inferior to men, they are thus food for men. As such, it is morally acceptable for humans to eat meat.

This argument, obviously enough, assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings and that being lower down on this hierarchy allows the higher ups to eat one. This would certainly seem to imply that beings higher than man could lawfully eat men.  Fortunately for us, angels do not appear to have a taste for human burgers (perhaps they subsist on angel food cake).

Put a bit more roughly, his argument seems to be that we are better than animals, so we can eat them. This “we are better than you” reasoning has, of course, been routinely used in history to justify a wide variety of misdeeds ranging from oppression to slavery to outright genocide. As such, it certainly seems to be a justification that is morally questionable. After all, if we are truly better than them, we should act that way.

Third, Augustine presents a theological argument for eating meat. He begins by noting that animals need to eat plants and men need to use animals for food. This, of course, typically requires killing the plant or animal. This is justified because the bible says it is:  (Gn. 1:29,30): “Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth” and  (Gn. 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

This argument assumes that God exists and has given us permission to eat animals. Obviously enough, those who do not share these assumptions will find the argument rather less than compelling. Another point that can be contended is his assumption that humans need to eat animals. While this might have been true in the past, today there is no such necessity. As such, while we might still have permission from God to eat meat, this still leaves us the option to chose not to do so.

The second argument that Aquinas considers is based on the assumption that murder is sinful because it deprives a man of his life. Since animals and plants are also alive, it would seem that it would also be sinful to kill them.

Aquinas responds to this by using what certainly appears to be views taken from Aristotle. To be specific, he claims that animals and plants lack reason and are driven by mere natural impulses. Because of this, they are “naturally enslaved” and exist for our use.

This is, of course, another version of the “we are better than them so we can eat them” argument.  If we take this principle literally and apply it consistently, then it would seem that rational humans could thus consume humans who are not rational (such as infants).  After all, as Augustine argued, a human infant would seem to be on par with a mere animal.

Various people have also argued that some animals do possess reason (such as elephants, primates and whales). If so, killing them would count as murder under Aquinas’s view of the matter.

Aquinas’s third argument is purely theological. He notes that divine law requires special punishments only for sins. There is a special punishment for a man who kills another man’s ox or sheep, so it would seem that killing animals would be sinful.

His reply is a very easy one-the sin being committed is not a sin of murder but of theft. This is because the killer is depriving another man of his property. This, of course, does make it sinful (and immoral given Aquinas’s moral theory) to kill animals that people own (such as pets).

My main thought on these arguments is that while they do argue that eating meat (and plants) is morally and theologically acceptable, they do not show that we must eat meat. After all, even if it is agreed that we can eat meat, it does not follow that we are required to do so. In light of the concerns raised by Aquinas and Augustine, it would seem reasonable and ethical to avoid eating meat except when we must do so to survive.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

God’s Love

I recently finished a section on faith & reason in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As per tradition, I included a discussion of the problem of evil and used David Hume‘s writings on the subject. Condensing down his argument, he contends that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all powerful, all knowing and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world. After all, there seems to be a significant tension between all the evil in the world and the existence of such a perfect being. Hume does note that the existence of evil is consistent with God having the qualities commonly attributed to Him, but he thinks that this is not what we would expect.

Reflecting a bit on this, I think that Hume is correct on both points. After all, inferring that a perfect being exists based on the available empirical evidence seems like quite a leap. This would be like looking at a student’s tests and papers, seeing an average grade of D and inferring that despite all the evidence, the student really is an A student. While I have had students make such a claim (that they are A students, despite the lack of A grades), this is hardly good reasoning.

In regards to the second point, Hume does seem to be correct that the evil of the world is consistent with God being good and so on. After all, being good is consistent with being a bit rough. To use another teaching analogy, being a morally good professor is consistent with giving the students challenging and difficult assignments. It is also consistent with applying failing grades when such grades are earned. Naturally, a student who fails or dislikes the work will not see these things as good, but she would be wrong about this. Of course, the analogy does have some weak points. After all, I do not smite my students with random diseases, nor do I tolerate violence in my classroom. However, I do smite them with paper assignments and I do tolerate active discussions in which students sometimes strongly criticize one another. So, perhaps God is good, but he runs a very tough classroom.

Of course, many people hold that God is not just good. God is also supposed to be, on some accounts, a loving God. This raises the question of whether the available evidence can be reconciled with this claim.

While goodness is consistent with being a bit rough and also consistent with being objective, love seems to be different. While it is said that people hurt the ones they love, this seems to be a claim about what people do and not what love is really about. Love seems to involve a special concern for someone else and a desire to not only do well by that person, but also to be rather biased in his favor. As such, there is a difference in the behavior of a person who loves someone else as opposed to how that person would act towards someone he did not love.

To make the discussion a bit more concrete, I’ll use my own fall and surgery as an example. Back in March, I had a ladder go out from under me, thus dropping me about eight feet. My left foot hit the ladder and this tore my quadriceps tendon. While a good person watching me about to be hurt would have tried to help me, it could be consistent with a person’s goodness to let me fall. After all, doing so would certainly teach me to be more careful about ladders and such in the future. To use yet another teaching analogy, this could be seen as failing a student for making the bad choice of cheating-that will teach her. Likewise, my bad choice of getting on a ladder during a storm taught me to never do that again.

However, someone who loves me would not have let me fall, if she could have prevented it. After all, someone who loves me would not want me to suffer such an injury and have to endure such a long and painful recovery. Suppose, for example, someone who professed to love me was standing by the ladder and she saw it slipping. If she did nothing to try to stop it and just watched me fall, I would be inclined to say that she did not love me.

Obviously, if God exists, then He was aware of the ladder slipping and could have easily prevented this. However, He let it slip and hence let me fall. That hardly seems to be a sign of love. As such, if God exists, then I can be fairly sure that He does not love me.

Naturally, someone could counter by arguing that if being good is compatible with being a bit rough, then so  is love. After all, a parent who loves his children will let them endure the discomfort of getting their vaccines so as to keep them safe. A person might, also out of love, allow someone he loves to learn a lesson the hard way, knowing that is the only way the person will learn. And, of course, love hurts. So, perhaps it is consistent with God’s love that he allows us to fall, get terrible diseases, murder, be murdered, rape, be raped and so on. However, it certainly is a strange sort of love. I’m certainly glad my friends and family do not love me that way.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]