“Moderate” Christianity

Sam Harris (I’ve referred to him before: he has been debating Andrew Sullivan on the question of whether God exists) places theists on a spectrum of belief. “Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness”, he says:

  • “At the center, one finds the truest of true believers — the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.”
    (NB. I think this interpretation of Dominionism is a straw man; I’d like to see Harris substantiate it.)
  • Next, the ordinary fundamentalists who share the views of the maniacs but lack their zeal.
  • Further out, the pious multitudes who disagree with their deranged brethren on “small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.”
  • Still further out, religious moderates and liberals: “people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.”

Harris comments, “The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism.” In other words, “moderate” Christians are enablers of fundamentalism.

Christian moderates (characterized by their “lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus”) protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals ("who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally") deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality.

And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

(Hat tip, Simen)

I could probably publish a series of posts in response to Harris’s argument, and perhaps I will. But for now, let me comment on a preliminary issue: the use of the adjectives “moderate” and “liberal”. Like most labels, these adjectives are problematic.

The word liberal has at least two discrete meanings.When we use it to describe theology, a “liberal” Christian is someone who denies certain orthodox dogmas (though liberal doctrine is hardly uniform). Liberals typically deny the virgin birth, the ascension, and the expectation that Jesus will someday return to earth to destroy it. They are split on whether Jesus was resurrected bodily (most believe in at least a spiritual “resurrection”), and similarly split on the question of Jesus’ deity. Liberals accept that one can be in good standing with God without having to convert to Christianity.

Liberal has a different definition when we apply it to social and political issues. Here it may include a pro-choice stance on abortion, support for gay marriage, and support for the Palestinian cause coupled with a critical posture toward Israel. If we bear in mind that these are two separate spheres, is becomes possible to be theologically liberal but socially conservative, or vice versa.

Personally, I am consistently liberal in my theology but it’s hard to pigeonhole me on social issues. On the conservative side, I am grieved by the number of abortions carried out in the West (though I seriously doubt that criminalization is the solution), and my sympathies lie with Israel in their dispute with Palestine and the Arab world. On the liberal side, I strongly support complete equality for women — I would not hesitate to vote for a female Pope, if I were Catholic and if the papacy were an elected office — and I also support same sex marriage.

Thus the phrase liberal Christian may or may not apply to me. I tend to describe myself as a “liberal Protestant” because of my theological commitments (or lack thereof!). But I’m aware that the term may mislead people in a society like the USA, where social issues are so hotly contested. Here in Canada, social conservatives are a rather small, marginalized minority. There are no laws restricting abortion; same sex marriage is legal; and there is no political will to revisit either debate.1

I object to the phrase moderate Christian on other grounds. Whether a particular theological position is moderate surely depends on one’s vantage point. If I deny that the virgin birth was a historical event (as I do), evangelicals might characterize my position as radical.

Moreover, I object to the label because moderate would seem to imply only a half-hearted commitment to the Christian faith. Harris derides moderation:

In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

Thus Harris implies that fundamentalists are the true believers. He’s entitled to his opinion, but of course I strenuously disagree. My convictions are not moderate: I hold to them strongly, in the face of criticism from atheists and conservative Christians alike.

I am a moderate only insofar as I accept that the state must be secular in its orientation. Even then, I deny that secular equals neutral: but I don’t see any practical alternative to the separation of church and state.

The best label for my position unfortunately fails to communicate much to non-theologians. An earlier generation spoke of “critical” scholarship. Critical is the most accurate description of my position: on both theological and social issues, I maintain a stance of critical detachment. And I do so with respect to both the Christian tradition and modern, Western secularism.

Hence the name of my blog — Outside the Box: defying categorization for over forty years. In my opinion, this is a radical — immoderate — position.


1Canada is less liberal than some European countries on other social issues. With respect to drugs, we have yet to decriminalize marijuana, although enforcement is limited. I’ve seen people smoke it on city streets, evidently with little fear of arrest. There’s certainly no opposition to the medical use of marijuana. Even with respect to hard drugs, there are publicly-operated safe injection sites in BC.

Assisted suicide is still illegal here. There has been some debate over the issue, but a few people have been imprisoned (the Robert Latimer case is noteworthy) with no sustained public objection.

BC and back

I haven’t had much time for blogging this week, because I spent four days in Vancouver, British Columbia. I wrote the previous two posts before I left Ottawa, but I haven’t had an opportunity to visit anyone else’s blog recently.

And I don’t have the mental energy to tackle anything very demanding today. But here are a few photos to provide some fresh content.

Ottawa from the air
Ottawa from the air
View from the wings … somewhere over Ontario, I think.
view from the wings
Take off, eh?
(Taken through the window of the taxi on my way into Vancouver. Canadians of a certain vintage will catch the allusion to Bob and Doug Mackenzie in my title for this photo. All I can say about the photo itself is, airplanes sure are phallic.)
Take off, eh?
North Shore Mountains ("a small subrange of the Pacific Ranges, the southernmost grouping of the vast Coast Mountains")
North Shore Mountains

The above photo is worthy of further comment. British Columbia is covered in mountain ranges — not just the Rocky Mountains.

Just this week, the Minister of Finance managed to insult British Columbians by saying that Canada’s beauty extends “from the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the rugged shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.” The Rocky Mountains are situated on the BC / Alberta border, so the Minister had inadvertently left out the whole province of BC. Oops!

(Rick Thorpe, the provincial Revenue Minister, commented, B.C. “actually does go to the Pacific Ocean.”)

Anyway, Wikipedia identifies 69 mountain ranges in BC! Who knew? Not me — I’m from Ontario, like the Minister of Finance.

Here’s a table showing the principle mountain ranges of BC, adapted from the Department of Natural Resources:

Range  Highest Mountain   Elevation 
 Rocky Mountains  Mount Robson  3,954
 Purcell Mountains   Mount Farnham  3,481
 Selkirk Mountains  Mount Sir Sandford  3,522
 Monashee Mountains  Torii Mountain  3,429
 Cariboo Mountains  Mount Sir Wilfrid Laurier   3,520
 Coast Mountains  Mount Waddington  4,015
 Cassiar Mountains  Thudaka Peak  2,751
 Vancouver Island Ranges   Elkhorn Mountain  2,210
 Queen Charlotte Mountains   Mount Moresby  1,143
 St. Elias Mountains  Fairweather Mountain  4,663

Fairweather Mountain is the highest point in BC. It is situated at the BC / Alaska border.
(This is the quick way to cross the Georgia Strait from the mainland to Vancouver Island: twenty minutes instead of 1-1/2 to 2 hours by ferry.)
pontoon plane
Vancouver International Airport (the city lived up to its rainy reputation while I was there)
Vancouver International Airport
Airport equivalent of a tugboat (the airplane is being towed by the little vehicle on the left, presumably on its way to a hangar)

Canadian Disgrace

For a long time now I have considered Belinda — need I say her last name? — Stronach to be the joke of Canadian Politics. Unfortunately, this does not help the case of bona-fide female leaders in maintaining a solid image. Well, she’s at it again, after a brief reprieve from the “Blonde Bombshell”, as the article refers to her.

A recent article at The First Post stoops to what I consider to be almost tabloid-like news (although checking out their other articles, the paper seems to be about that level of news) in speculating on Bill Clinton and Belinda as a couple. While I shudder to see that Stronach is given any consideration in the news at all because of her antics, what is worse is the fact that, as this news article states, Hilary Clinton’s political aspirations are potentially affected by this latest development.

While I am no Hilary Clinton fan (I tend to think she is riding a popularity vote as opposed to being an actual campaigner), the fact that Belinda Stronach is able to affect the chances of any other politician is revolting. Who cares that Clinton is a “skirt-chaser” and that he happens to have happened upon Stronach, the “fine catch?” What happened to politics remaining outside of the bedroom? What happened to politics that were actually politics, not tabloid scandals? Of course, I am unsure if I am old enough to use the almost-nostalgic tone I am, but the truth is that politics in the media today are nothing but a joke, and Belinda Stronach is the physical embodiment of this conundrum.

I did a post on the political decline in North America earlier in my time on Deus ex Machina. One thing I failed to mention at that time was that the media makes politics out to be nothing more than celebrity gossip. Surely that plays a factor in people not bothering to vote. After all, when you consider that Stronach was at one time considered to be a veritable candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, you have to admit that your faith in our political system is slightly shaken.

Or maybe more than a little. Ugh!

Personal tragedy appropriated for a political end

“The personal is political”, according to an earlier generation of feminists, and this is an important insight.

But the words also point to a very different phenomenon which is not so laudable. In a highly politicized context — like the ongoing debate over the Iraq war — personal tragedies can be appropriated for political ends.

I am responding to an AlterNet article discussing the suicide of Col. Ted Westhusing, one month before he was supposed to return from a six-month tour of duty in Iraq. The article is based on documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. It sheds much light on the events surrounding Col. Westhusing’s suicide. (Hat tip, Doug’s Darkworld.)

Ultimately the article left a bad taste in my mouth. There’s a sanctimonious “shame, shame” tone to it that I’m uncomfortable with. It treats a family tragedy — Westhusing was 44 years old, married, with three children — as an opportunity to score political points.

This is a subjective judgement, of course, and I can understand why the author took that point of view. Col. Westhusing was no ordinary grunt. He was the head of counterterrorism and special operations under General David Petraeus. As such, he was responsible for training the Iraqi security forces — a hugely important responsibility.

When he committed suicide on June 5, 2005, Col. Westhusing was the highest-ranking American soldier to die in Iraq.

From the suicide note and other information contained in the AlterNet article, I deduce that Col. Westhusing took his life for at least three reasons.

Col. Westhusing had high ideals, at least with respect to the war in Iraq. He had a safe civilian job (teaching English classes at West Point) and he accepted his tour of duty voluntarily. He fervently believed it was a just war, being properly executed.

Idealists are the Humpty Dumpties of the world, seated atop their high walls, gambling against gravity. When they fall, it can be devastating. In his suicide note, Col. Westhusing laments, “Why serve … when you no longer believe in the cause?”

Personal failure.
Col. Westhusing was self-disciplined and responsible, used to succeeding at anything he set his mind to. But in Iraq he was inevitably going to fail.

Col. Westhusing was overseeing “Virginia-based U.S. Investigations Services, a private security company with contracts worth $79 million to help train Iraqi police units that were conducting special operations”:

There were ongoing problems with USIS’s expenses. … [Col. Westhusing] received an anonymous letter claiming USIS was cheating the military at every opportunity, that several hundred weapons assigned to the counter- terrorism training program had disappeared, and that a number of radios, each of which cost $4,000, had also disappeared. The letter concluded that USIS was “not providing what you are paying for” and that the entire training operation was “a total failure.”

Westhusing was devastated. Even if the charges were accurate, there was little that could be done. Iraq had no functioning judicial system, and there were questions about jurisdiction in case the contractors were indicted.

There was at least one other issue preying on Col. Westhusing’s mind. The counterterrorism training program was always at risk of being infiltrated by members of Iraqi militias and criminal gangs. Westhusing told a colleague, “I just don’t see a way to resolve this problem.”

The suicide note asks, “Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission?”

There is one phrase in Col. Westhusing’s suicide note that I find objectionable. “Death before being dishonored any more,” he writes. It’s a clear allusion to the slogan, “death before dishonor”, and it’s an attempt to justify his decision to commit suicide.

Too many people see suicide as a noble act. I am biased in the opposite direction, due to several suicides by near family members. In my view, suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness.

Not to go all holier-than-thou here: Col. Westhusing was obviously depressed, and I don’t doubt that I would also contemplate suicide if I were in his place (being predisposed to depression myself).

But I don’t suppose “death before dishonor” sounds very noble to Westhusing’s widow or his children just now. He wasn’t trapped in Iraq: he would have completed his tour of duty in just one month. But then he would have had to return to his former colleagues and admit he had been wrong about the war, and face up to his own failures.

In other words, this is the story of one soldier’s inability to cope with circumstances I wouldn’t wish on anyone. He was disillusioned with the cause, he was failing personally, and the impact on his ego was enormous.

Is there a political message here? Sure. Col. Westhusing puts a personal face on the sordid mess that the war in Iraq has become.

The personal is political: but it’s a personal tragedy first, and a handy illustration of a political point second. Let’s not lose touch with our humanity because of the highly politicized context.

DON’T Look at this Photograph

Look right on through it. Because that is Photography. I show you a photograph of a person

You see a person. And a stove. And a plate with Omelette on it. You do not see a photograph so much as a situation that is eternally captured (or at least as long as the picture exists.)

This sets photography apart from other artforms and media. With Art, one witnesses an actual scene, insofar as our minds reflexively tell. If I throw you a painting of a person.

you first engage the art, then the subject. We look at the Mona Lisa and we see PAINTING. The reaction is altogether different than it is with photography. Upon our recognition of the painting being a representation of something real, we engage with it twofold: first as a representation, then as reality. We know that there is a person present at the time of painting, but the overriding premonition is that this photograph is certainly biased. Why is she smiling? Why are the tones darker than a normal painting? Why is the background slightly unbalanced? Famous questions as to the artist’s intent — despite the fact that this portrait is nothing more than a representation of a person sitting in a chair with a scene behind her — are rampant in our society.

With a photograph, Roland Barthes points out in Camera Lucida, there is something far more concrete and absolute in the way we engage with the subject. Our inital reaction is that this photo contains a person. Not a representation of a person, although that is in fact the case, but a living, breathing person who has simply been captured at a certain point in time.

It makes sense when you think of it in terms of poor photographs. How often is it that a person who “isn’t photogenic” complains about the picture not being good? Erase it! they scream with vigour, because for another person to see them with bad hair or slightly chubby cheeks would be horrible. Why? Because we assume that other people will think that that photograph is really us, and for that person that particular photograph suggests that they are ugly. Forget the fact that the photographer and all the people who are liable to see the picture are most likely people who know the unphotogenic individual, and know that the person is in fact quite attractive. That picture is reality, and as it stands that reality must be destroyed for fear of people seeing it.

There is, of course, an automatic denial that surfaces in our minds when we read the words I have just layed down. “I know that the photograph is not imperical”, we tell ourselves, “I know that the photograph is as much a representation as a painting.” That was my immediate reaction, as well. But the truth is, when I look at a photograph, I still do not interpret it as a medium through which we see the subject. Rather, I see the subject apart from the medium. It is the nature of the Photograph to disappear in this manner. The Photograph is the sneakiest of media, the escape artist of the family of Arts.

“I am not a photograph”, a Photograph screams. “I am you.”

An extraordinary monologue

Stand-up comedian Craig Ferguson confesses, on network TV, that he’s having qualms of conscience about his usual schtick. Not that he had been doing anything different from any other comedian: telling jokes about easy targets like Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears.

Britney Spears shaved headYou rarely see a public figure step out of his assigned role like Ferguson does here. It takes real courage. The audience has to adjust its role in response, and some people have a hard time figuring it out.
(hat tip, McSwain at Hildebrand Road)

Stolen Self

Last Wednesday, I was robbed of my self. And not in any normal fashion, either (if there is such a thing when dealing with Self.) Rather, my sense of self was purposely stolen by a film director.

Memento was by far the best film we have watched in Cultural Studies this year, and not just because the acting was solid and the plot was intriguing. The larger issues it dealt with — the subjectivity of memory, the results of psychological trauma, and the construction of Self — were ensnared in a genious cinematic performance that was strangely unfulfilling.

This, of course, was not the result of a lack of good points. In fact, it was just the opposite. The lack of conclusion concerning the facts leaves one desiring more. We naturally seek an objective portrayal of the events that occured. We receive none. And even more concerning, the main character whose point of view we have been following seems to receive none either. The discontinuous storyline lead to a climax that had the viewer lusting after some conclusion, and instead it left the audience hanging, unsure not just of the film’s events, but inevitably of the events that take place in reality.

Kudos to director Christopher Nolan. He has left me stymied, which is to say enamoured with the film Memento!

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