Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Lesson in Necessary and Sufficient Conditions, Compliments of Mr. Sowell

Every now and then I like to find the most ridiculous thing written by a conservative columnist, and hold it up to the light for a moment. I don't do this very often, probably because the process of finding said ridiculous bit of bloviating is, frankly, more than a little annoying, and from time to time inspires violence against my computer (I can't read this stuff on my laptop, lest it launch itself across the room!)

I generally pick on Cal Thomas, because if anyone knows ridiculous, it is Cal Thomas (though I am on the record agreeing with him once - I won't make a habit of it, I promise). Today, however, I'm going to diversify a little, bringing just a hint of light to a particularly flagrant bit of ridiculous from Thomas Sowell. In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Times, Mr. Sowell takes up the subject of the kinds of judges a president Barack Obama might appoint. (And he gets extra credit for his use of scare-quotes around the word "change" in the first paragraph - I could see John McCain's sarcastic shrug jumping off my computer monitor!)

He writes:

Mr. Obama has stated very clearly what kinds of Supreme Court justices he wants - those with "the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old."

Like so many things Mr. Obama says, it may sound nice if you don't stop and think - and chilling if you do stop and think. Do we really want judges who decide cases based on who you are rather than on the facts and the law? If the case involves a white man versus a black woman, should the judge decide that case differently than if both litigants are of the same race or sex? The kind of criteria Barack Obama promotes could have gotten three young men at Duke University sent to prison for a crime neither they nor anybody else committed.

I don't know whether or not Mr. Sowell is accurately quoting Sen. Obama - you don't need to offer citations for an op-ed piece, and your readers wouldn't thank you if you did. Since I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this quote, I'll take Thomas Sowell at his word when he writes that Obama said this. However, I seriously doubt that this is the only thing that Barack Obama, a lawyer who taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago - one of the world's finest academic institutions - has ever said on the subject. Yet that's what Mr. Sowell would have you believe. It is, in fact, the premise on which his entire argument depends.

Barack Obama says that judges should be able to empathize with the experience of the marginalized, therefore the defining characteristic for a judge, according to Barack Obama, is empathy with the experience of the marginalized. Knowledge of the law? Bah! All you really need to be able to do, to be a good judge, is to side with the minority against the majority, every time. A case between a woman and a man? You don't need to know the facts of the, or the relevant legal principles and precedents. Just side with the woman! A case between a black man and a white man? The black man should win every time! Gay v. straight, poor v. rich? These are easy decisions!

Now, it gets tricky when you have to choose between a black man and a white woman. Which is the trump, race or gender? I guess you could just flip a coin.

Does Sowell really believe that a lawyer and a scholar of Constitutional law would use this, and this alone, as his criterion for entry to the federal bench? I certainly hope not. Sowell has, frankly, written some whack-out shit in his time, but this would take the cake, calling not only his intelligence but his very sanity into question.

The most reasonable take on the quote from Sen. Obama that Mr. Sowell offers us is that Obama believes (rightly, I think), that the ability to empathize - and especially to empathize with those who so often stand powerless before the court - is a judicial asset. The strongest reasonable reading is that such ability is a necessary condition for being a good federal judge. That is, that empathy for the experience of the marginalized in our society is a quality that would be present in any good federal judge.

But is this the only quality? Heavens no! And no serious person would suggest otherwise. It should go without saying that any lawyer - much less someone who has taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago (have I mentioned that enough?!?) - would value some knowledge of *gasp* the law and the Constitution! Yet clearly Mr. Sowell needs this spelled out for him.

So, Thomas Sowell, let me be (hopefully not) the first person to tell you that you have committed a flagrant violation of logic, and should be chastised accordingly. You have made the elementary mistake of confusing a necessary condition with sufficient conditions.

For those of you keeping score at home, a necessary condition is a condition that must be met. A baseball, for instance, must be round. It is not sufficient, in that there are a great many round objects that are not baseballs; but it is necessary, in that there are no baseballs that are not round.

Similarly, if we are to read the statement of Barack Obama's that Mr. Sowell devotes an entire ill-conceived column to in the strongest reasonable way, it is necessary for a good federal judge to show empathy. That is, per Sen. Obama, there are no good federal judges who are unable to empathize with the experience of the oppressed. (This may well mean that, by this standard, a good many federal judges are not good, and that is a problem that I certainly hope an Obama administration would address!) So, it is necessary that a good federal judge be able to experience and express empathy, allowing that empathy to factor into judicial rulings. However, it does not follow from this that empathy is sufficient, that it is the only quality of a good federal judge.

I really shouldn't have had to type that.

Did I mention that Barack Obama taught Constitutional Law at the University of F-ing Chicago?!? They don't just let ANYBODY do that! (that's as close to shouting as I get)

But I'll give Mr. Sowell some credit. As ridiculous as his assertion is, it is by no means the most ridiculous assertion made at the page on which I found his column. For a real taste of true wingnettery, check out the comments, which include claims that Barack Obama - because he once clumsily used the phrase "spread the wealth" (as though that weren't the point of all taxes!) - would outlaw private property! However, the lunatic claiming that didn't get paid for his/her contribution.

Thomas Sowell: Thanks for trying. Better luck next time.


Reader survey:

Should we indict Thomas Sowell for crimes against logic?

If so, and if he is convicted, what should his sentence be?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Process Eschatology and the Power of God (Part I)

Last week I wrote an update of sorts on my Thesis, my first overtly theological post in more time than I care to remember. In that post I explored James Cone's eschatology - especially his assertion that for eschatology to have any value it "must be grounded in the historical present." That is to say that for eschatology - the study of the eschaton, the "end" - to have any value it must not be the sort of useless speculative nonsense that comes from the Tim LaHays and Hal Lindseys of the world, who offer visions of a future that detracts and distracts from the here and now. Rather it must draw one into the present moment, forcing a stark and jarring contrast between the indignity of the present moment and God's hoped-for future.

Beyond this, Cone argues, that hoped-for future itself must be able to be made present. It cannot remain forever some beautiful yet perpetually unrealized dream. How it gets made present, however, is the subject of some debate.

One of the challenges of my Thesis is that, while I am attempting to bring aspects of Liberation and Process theologies into some kind of synthesis, Process thought is in general wholly uninterested in this kind of eschatological vision. Eschatological language has next to no place in a Process system. The future is, after all, undetermined, ultimately indeterminate, the product of both random events and the vast chorus of free agents acting out of their freedom. To speak of some ultimate end that represents God's final vision for creation - which is what eschatology often does - is, in Process thought, nonsense.

This is where it becomes even more evident that John Cobb is a perfect fit for my project. Not only does he have the social and political interests so often absent from at least early Process thought, which was more interested in articulating a philosophically credible concept of God and God's role in ongoing creation than anything else; he also *gasp* offers something of a fledgling eschatology.

In his book Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice (a book that represents the social and political nature of his theology) he speaks to what he calls "the eschatological attitude," and about what he means by living "eschatologically." In offers this as a responsible alternative to Christian realism, an political ethic more interested in what is possible than in articulating what God's ultimate desire for the flourishing of God's creation. Of Christian realism he writes:

Since it accepts the existing structures of power, and since these structures are part of the total world system that moves toward catastrophe, Christian realism alone is not an adequate Christian response.

There is no doubt for Cobb that Christian realism has a place, a value. Christian realists offer, after all, not only "moral exhortation," some articulation of what should be done, but also an appreciation of the difficulties of the task and the complex nature of reality. Christian realists understand how to navigate systems, how to form alliances, working within structures to do concrete good. But that strength is also a weakness, tying the Christian realist to amoral or even immoral structures that themselves ultimately represent the problem. Christian realists become entangled with worldly powers, unable to articulate a prophetic critique of those powers, unable to stand apart from them an offer some alternative construct.

That is where eschatology comes in. Cobb does not shy away either from eschatological language or eschatological thinking. He instead embraces it, offering a defense of what he calls "the eschatological attitude" against attacks that such an attitude does no real good:

Some Christians may elect to live now in terms of what they envision as quite new possibilities for human society even when they do not know how to get from here to there. We may not know how to bring about a society that uses only renewable resources, but we can experiment with lifestyles that foreshadow that kind of society. We may not know how to provide the Third World with space and freedom to work out its own destiny, but in the name of a new kind of world we can withdraw our support from the more obvious structures of oppression. We may not know how to shift from a growth-oriented economy to a stationary-state economy, but we can work out the principles involved in such an economy.

To exert energies in these ways is not to live in an irrelevant world of make-believe. It is to live from a hopeful future. It may not affect the course of immediate events as directly as will the policy of Christian realism, but it may provide the stance that will make it possible, in a time of crisis, to make constructive rather than destructive changes.

To live eschatologically, then, to live life with an eschatological attitude, is "to live from a hopeful future." That is a wonderful phrase, worth unpacking. But before it gets unpacked - before we flesh out what it means "to live from a hopeful future," there is other business to attend to.

Aspects of this articulation of eschatological living remind me a great deal of Cone. Most important is the necessary connection between the vision for the hopeful future and present activity. Simply put, for Cobb and Cone no less than for the apostle Paul (see I Thessalonians 5, especially v. 11) eschatology is an entry-point for ethics. It is the vision of the hopeful future that informs present behavior. That hoped for future thus means something right now. It motivates a certain lifestyle. Eschatological living means, to paraphrase NT scholars Marion L. Soards, living in such a way that the hoped-for future has a determinative effect on the present.

In Cone, as we saw last week, this bonding of ethics and eschatology means that the hoped-for future motivates resistance in the present moment. It means that the oppressed see in that hoped-for future a dignity that informs their present struggle. Thus, for Cone, eschatology weds itself to an ethic of resistance. God's vision for creation does not include large sections of humanity being placed under the thumb of a powerful minority. For blacks and other racial/ethnic minorities in America, this means that God's vision for creation - that vision of a hoped-for future - does not include racism; therefore, racism and its equally evil twin, white supremacy, must be opposed in the present. That present opposition is informed and strengthen by the vision of a hoped-for future.

For Cobb, living eschatologically would undoubtedly include this. However, Cobb is less interested in articulating an eschatological ethic of resistance for the oppressed, and more interested in articulating an economic and ecological ethic that assumes an audience not of the outcast but rather of the privileged. For Cobb, then, this means first world Christians, motivated by a vision of a hoped-for future, opting out of exploitive economic systems. Freely choosing to live more ecologically sustainable lives, while also attending to the extent to which their past economic activity participated in the systematic oppression and exploitation of large chunks of humanity.

It should be added, however, that this eschatological ethic, this structuring of life in accordance with a vision of a hoped-for future, this living out of an eschatological attitude, is messy business. The future is by no means certain. And how they future - or, at least, this vision of the future - affects living in the present is equally uncertain. We don't "know how to get from here to there." We aren't even certain where there is. We just have certain principles which, coupled with a vision of a hoped-for future in which these principles are actively lived out, inform our faulty and often piece-meal attempts to live more responsible lives.

The question, then, is how this hoped-for future is made present, not only in the often tentative attempts of those who wish to more intentionally live out their faith, but in reality. Cone after all rightly notes that unless this hoped-for future can be made present, eschatology is insignificant, or worse, a distraction. This is where some discussion of the power of God becomes necessary.

I've written more critiques of divine omnipotence than I care to count. I won't waste more space here on the problems I and others see with doctrines of divine omnipotence. The biggest counter-argument - the one I wrestle with the most - is that if God is not all-powerful, if God cannot impose God's will on creation, then ultimately God is ineffectual. What is the point in believing in and praying to a god who cannot alter the course of events in creation, who cannot ultimately shape everything in accordance with a perfect plan.

The strength of eschatology lies in a kind of certainty. The future can determine the present if and only if that future is bound eventually to become present, or, at least if those acting in accordance with that vision of a hoped-for future believe that it must come to pass. The oppressed can rise up against their oppression, resisting it even when the price of that resistance is death, because they know that God is on their side in their struggle for liberation, and that that means something.

For an eschatological vision, God's vision for the ultimate end of creation, to have any value, God must have power sufficient to make that vision real. But if God is not omnipotent, if God cannot do anything, if God's will is not irresistible, God's plans not inevitable, unthwartable, if God's ultimate victory not certain, not already won, how can anyone assert that God does in fact have power sufficient to make this vision of a hoped-for future real, present?

In my next theological post I will engage a Process description of divine power, principally that articulated by Catherine Keller in her newest book On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. I will bring this description of divine power into dialogue with Cone's eschatology, and argue that ultimately the vision of the hoped-for future itself is the very power by which God brings that vision into reality. thinks Obama is a Terrorist?!?

How else do you interpret this?

As Chris Brown notes on his post at Political Base, they have now "removed the item called 'Barack Obama Mask' from the "terrorist costume" category page." Good for them. But how did this happen? And, because of this, why shouldn't I boycott them?

I'd hate to do that, because most of my theology books - including and especially books that have long been out of print - come from I'm not sure where exactly I'd find many of the books I'm looking for. But, damn it, this simply can't stand! Selling a Barack Obama Halloween costume as a "terrorist costume"! It's simply beyond words!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Think of Me

The newest song for Tom's latest project is up, and yes, that's me wanking on a violin on it. For the first violin part in it, I was trying to be the cello he couldn't find on short notice. (Play low legato, keep it simple, and be forlorn, he told me.) For the second one, well, let's just say that Tom's artistic direction (play something high, weird, and angry) was good. As for the execution... Well, I think it sound's better if you're not the violinist.

On the bright side, I always wanted to be Colm Mac Con Iomaire, the awesome violinist for the kick ass Dublin rock group The Frames, so it was cool to at least try to channel his mojo. Now if only I could borrow his talent.


Cool song, anyway. Check it out!

Friday, October 24, 2008


What Would Jesus Brew?

That's the question that emerges from CNN's coverage of the 27th Great American Beer Festival. The article - like anything from CNN - barely skims the surface, but it is a decent exploration of the delightful mixture of beer and religion, a topic I (whose favorite beers are brewed by Beligian monks!) much appreciate.

I have to agree with the Beer Advocate forum commenter who said that Jesus wouldn't brew anything... he'd just turn water into beer.

Monday, October 20, 2008

God is for Losers

No, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity hasn't gotten his wish - despite his prophetic (and, I might add, mildly complimentary, even if it did involve predicting that I'd lose my faith) pronouncement a couple of years ago that soon I'd be writing for him, my Christian faith is still stubbornly clinging to life. My blog, well, not so much.

As those of you who used to follow this blog no doubt know, I've been on a blogging hiatus to concentrate on my Thesis. It is that Thesis in fact, rather than a loss of faith, that is the catalyst for this post and the source of its title.

My Thesis - which at the moment suffers only from the intellectual inadequacies of its author - is an attempt, using the theologies of James Cone and John Cobb, to articulate the beginnings of a Process Liberation Theology. That's quite a trick, for more reasons than would fit here. But it is not an entirely hopeless project.

For starters, there is the hope posed by Cobb's theology itself. While Process thought has tended toward the ivory tower and the social detachment that accompanies it, Cobb's own work - including his landmark book Process Theology as Political Theology - has been very socially and politically engaged. He has weighed in on the subjects of both global and local economic injustice, racism, and the ecological crisis, to name just a few. So, at least - unlike some other Process figures - he doesn't need to be persuaded of the need for socially engaged theology.

In fact, he has argued that Process thought even has something of worth to offer socially and politically engaged theology: namely, its articulation of God. For instance, in Process Theology as Political Theology he wrote:

Where readers are not helped to arrive at a new concept of God, they will continue to hear in the word 'God' what that word has meant in tradition. These meanings have often been in tension with the thrust of political theology.

The "traditional" understanding of God than Cobb attacks here entails two ethically problematic assertions:

1. That God is external to, over and above creation, and

2. That God is omnipotent, all-powerful; with such power understood as irresistibility. That is, God is a power such that God cannot be prevented from doing what God wills.

These two assertions, held together, lend implicit and perhaps explicit support to unjust, hierarchical power differentials. To put it simply, if God is, as Elizabeth Johnson asserts, the central metaphor for any religious community, a metaphor that functions in that community, both shaping and expressing what that community "takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty;" then when God is a tyrant, tyranny has solid theological support.

Cobb's quote above, then, points to the need to reformulate not only the concerns of God, but even the very nature of God. It is not enough for God to be concerned with the poor, the weak, the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed; God's very nature must pose a challenge to the hierarchical power structures that hold them down.

James Cone is aware of the ethical problems posed by the traditional theistic understanding of God, and especially of its use and abuse by the church of the dominant culture. In fact, he even expresses some sympathy for those who wish to discard the word "God" altogether, writing this in A Black Theology of Liberation:

Realizing that it is very easy to be co-opted by the enemy and the enemy's God-language, it is tempting to discard all references to God and seek to describe a way of living in the world that could not possibly be associated with "Christian" murderers. Some existentialist writers - Camus and Sartre - have taken this course, and many black revolutionaries find this procedure appealing. Reacting to the ungodly behavior of white churches, and the timid, Uncle Tom approach of black churches, many black militants have no time for God and the deadly prattle about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. Christianity, they argue, participates in the enslavement of black Americans. Therefore an emancipation from white oppression means also liberation from the ungodly influence of white religion.

This approach is certainly understandable, and the merits of the argument warrant a serious investigation. As black theologians seeking to analyze the meaning of black liberation, we cannot ignore this approach. Indeed it is quite intellectually tempting.

Thus, at least in 1970 when he wrote this, for Cone the word "God," which he said is "a symbol that opens up depths of reality in the world," had become so corrupted by its appropriation by an oppressive and racist power structure, that it may need to be discarded. "If the symbol loses its power to point to the meaning of black liberation, then we must destroy it."

Why then, doesn't Cone discard the word "God," a word that too often and for too many has meant, as I noted above, an irresistible tyrant sitting atop an unjust cosmic hierarchy? Why then doesn't Cone destroy the symbol that has been so corrupted by its association with power?

Simply put, because, in the experience of the oppressed, that symbol has not yet lost its power to point to liberation. And that experience is ultimately, often in spite of a great deal of pressing evidence, a hopeful one. Liberation theologies are, as best as I can tell, never without an eschatological vision, never without some vision of God's ultimate end and aim for creation, the liberation of the oppressed. And Cone's Black Liberation theology is no different. But Cone's eschatology, his view of the end, the ultimate aim, of creation - unlike the religion that white missionaries tried to instill in slaves - is not rooted in some pie-in-the-sky afterlife. It is rooted in the hope for not just a future but also a present change, and he makes this point forcefully in several places:

The eschatological perspective must be grounded in the historical present, thereby forcing the oppressed community to say no to unjust treatment, because its present humiliation is inconsistent with its promised future.

An eschatology that does not challenge the present order is faulty. If contemplation about the future distorts the present reality of injustice and reconciles the oppressed to unjust treatment against them, the it is unchristian and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christ who came to liberate us...

Unless the future can become present, thereby forcing blacks to make changes in this world, what significance could eschatology have for those who believe that their self-determination must become reality NOW!

For Cone, then, the reality of that which the word "God" points to is found in the experience and the hope of the oppressed. The word is not to be discarded so long as it points to the power to bring the long-hoped for vision of liberation into reality, to make the future present, the "not yet" now.

This concept of God, this unpacking of the symbol presented us by the word "God," is not inconsistent with Cobb's challenge to the "traditional" understanding of God. While Cone does not here speak to, much less challenge, divine omnipotence, the very assertion that God stands on the side of the oppressed is, in and of itself, an implicit challenge to divine omnipotence.

That point finally brings me to the title of this unwieldy post. It is ultimately a scandal to say that God sides with the oppressed over and against their oppressors. It is, in fact, no less scandalous than the cross.

If God were all-powerful, with God's power being understood as a kind of irresistibility, then - assuming God is involved in creation, and cares about the ordering of human affairs - the social order would reflect God's favor. A God whose will must be done in human affairs is, in a world full of "winners" and "losers" (and a great many more of the later) a God who has preemptively sided with the "winners." Their power is given by and participates in God's power; their wealth, their social standing, their ability to impose their will on the social order, given to them by a God whose will must of necessity be done. Divine omnipotence thus, carried to its extreme, baptizes inequity.

In the face of this, Liberation theologians assert not that God doesn't play favorites, but that God's favorites lie at the bottom, not on the top. They assert, simply, that God is for the losers. Such a view necessarily conflicts with the traditional understanding of God's power, for if God is in fact a power such that God cannot be prevented from doing what God wills, then those whom God favors would not starve in the streets, or be gunned down by police, or lack access to clean drinking water, or be segregated, quarantined, ghettoized.

Process theology articulates a different understanding of God's power, and that understanding - one of the main subjects of my Thesis - ultimately aids the cause of liberation. Thus Process theology ultimately ought to be a Liberation theology.

Or, at least, that's what I hope to prove.

That Thesis is not without major complications, but that's what I'm working on.