I have recently been engaged in a rather lengthy discussion on the subjectivity or objectivity of things like beauty. I don’t think I’m necessarily convinced of Agellius’s idea that beauty is objectivity (but the same is probably likewise true for him with my own position on subjectivity), but one thing that has been profoundly interesting to me is the sense that these disagreements go very far downward. When one of us tries to use an analogy as an attempt to explain, the other has a very different way of processing that analogy that is coherent with our worldviews, but utterly ineffective at reaching out to the other worldview.
So, for example, in trying to tease out a moment where he would perceive a difference between his subjective perception of morality and his view of what is actually objectively moral, I asked him if he could give an example of an instance where he personally found one thing moral while recognizing at the same time that he believed it to be objectively immoral. As an example, I gave:
On the moral front, it would be to search for an instance like “Abortion is objectively evil, but I subjectively feel that it’s permissible/not evil. I recognize I am wrong on this, and yet I still feel in favor of allowing abortions, being a Democrat, etc., etc.,” Can you think of anything like that?
To which Agellius responded:
I don’t think I have ever thought of morality in terms of how I felt about things. For me it has always been an external standard to which I either assented or didn’t. At times I have wondered at how seemingly cruel and difficult morality could be. For example in Dickens, it seems like he often has his heroes in situations where they voluntarily undergo extreme, prolonged suffering rather than take some seemingly simple, easy step that could alleviate their distress and provide them with an easy, comfortable life. But they won’t because of some principle or other which they would sooner die than violate. But this I think is what makes you love his heroes and get that lump in your throat when things work out for them in the end.
I wrote in response:
See, the way I would interpret this is that the heroes would voluntarily undergo extreme, prolonged suffering rather than take some seemingly simple, easy step because they *felt* that violating some principle or another would be personally, subjectively unconscionable to them. But one person’s “core principle” will not be the same as another, so one person’s sacrifices and suffering may not make sense to another.
But he still zigged instead of zagging:
My last post discussed the first two of a four-part episode series of interview between Dan Wotherspoon and John Dehlin co-published at Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories. In that last post, I focused on John’s interview of Dan, and in particular Dan’s closing comments.
I am now listening to Dan’s interview of John, and as many people on the various Facebook groups have noted, the perspectives are drastically different. I have seen several group posts asking: are you a Dan or a John? Just from reading the very different comments at Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters, the contrast in audiences is stark.
Anyway, the difference in perspectives — especially on perspectives on pursuing spirituality in flawed religious institutions — came out to me in something John said that heavily contrasted what Dan had said in his interview. In the second part of Dan’s interview of John, around 1 hour in, John says:
It’s not just these isolated positive emotional experiences that I had, that you have had, that others have had…it’s the fact that those are tied to an institution that brings vulnerable people — and I will say vulnerable, whether it’s investigators that are ignorant to many of these things, or young children that are brought up in it and then…get…you know…the young kid who masturbates and then is shamed or the gay person or whatever…they then get confronted with really difficult, sometimes toxic, and even life-ending situations because the book and the spiritual experiences are tied so tightly — before you’re able to become Dan Wotherspoon when you’re 40 with a Ph.D. and throw nuance at everything, you may have tried reparative therapy and committed suicide; you may have entered into a marriage where you then don’t believe anymore and the wife is taking the kids away; you may have, instead of pursuing a Ph.D. as a female, you may have married some guy and had five kids and now the future that you really would have chosen wasn’t really made available to you. And for me, the connection with the institution make full disclosure and the stakes of difficulty much more significant.
But if you can give full disclosure and blunt the negative impact of the institution, then yes, then at that point, it’s all about what good comes from your reading the text. How does it enlighten you? How does it expand you? But for me, I can’t turn a blind eye to those other things in this narcissistic rapture of that wonderful emotional experience I had as a teen…I’m not going to sit and marinate in the rapture of my spiritual thrill if it comes at the expense of all these other things; to me, they are all tied together.
(I’ll note that during the interview, Dan takes exception to John’s classifying the experience he had as “emotional”. As I have discussed elsewhere, Dan’s perspective seems to hinge on people having experiences that are “more real” than can be reduced to emotional/psychology/confirmation bias/etc., However, that’s not why I have picked this quote.)
Let’s contrast with a part of Dan’s comment from the earlier post:
I am aware from the many conversations I’ve had where people have run circles around me that I am not a particularly stellar philosophical thinker, but there is something that I’ve thought for a while that I wanted to try to put onto paper.
Frequently, in conversations, people argue for the objective existence of certain qualities that I perceive/conceive of as subjective — but even more, I perceive and conceive of these things as not really making a lot of sense as being objective. To this extent, while I may be able to conceive of objective models for these things, I don’t see how those models or definitions are particularly helpful, and sometimes, I think they may be harmful to our discussion of these things.
Morality is usually the biggest ticket item for which this applies. People seem to really like the idea of an objective morality in a way that I just don’t get the appeal of. Believers in objective moral values (as well as objective frameworks for other concepts I will discuss as well) seem to also believe that if something does not have an objective basis, then it does not actually exist, or it must be an illusion. I think I want to get to morality in a future post, but since I see parallels in a few other concepts, I want to discuss those first.
I want to put onto paper my thoughts about the subjectivity of the concepts in the title — sound, color, beauty [and eventually morality] — as well as sketch out why, to a subjectivist, objectivity isn’t necessarily the end-all, be-all for “what exists” or “what matters, etc.,
In the title of this post, I’ve arranged three concepts in terms of what I find to be “easy” to “hard” (and in my previous paragraph, I have a fourth concept that is even more “difficult”) in terms of my perception of how likely someone might be persuaded by my explanation. Instead of addressing the “hardest” of these (morality), or even the second “hardest” (beauty, of which the following post from Agellius’s blog has really inspired this blog post as Agellius’s thoughts seem to be a good representation of the “objectivist’s” viewpoint), I want to start from the easier ones.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
At times, I have had Christian and other religious commenters argue that morality was developed by religion. I think that many secular, agnostic, and atheist folks have heard this claim in one way or another — if we do not believe in God or do not adhere to a religion, from where do we get our morality? Recently, Jeff at Wheat & Tares used it as one of his points on his discussion of atheism.
One of the things I typically do in instances like these is to show examples of where Christian morality says one thing, show where that is disputed or disagreed with by others (especially secular/agnostic/atheist folks), and then point out that if morality came from God or religion, then we shouldn’t see that disagreement. Often, my religious interlocutor will argue that what is disagreeable in religion represents a distortion or an instance of hypocrisy…so I’ll point out that how that disagreement really isn’t a matter of people failing to live up to their religions, but them living up to their religions with stunning fidelity.
For example, conservative Christians will point out that the Bible is clear on homosexuality, and although liberal Christians will quibble around whether certain passages mean certain things or not, the relevant point is that when conservative Christians act on their beliefs regarding homosexuality regarding things like same-sex marriage, this isn’t just “Christians acting poorly” or “Christians acting hypocritically” — this is what their religion actually believes and they are following that. So someone who disagrees with that is basing their morality on a system separate from those religious precepts and that God.
Some of my interlocutors have gone one step further, however. They say that even secular people, when they are raised in historically Christian countries as in Europe or in North America, are steeped in Christian discourse and virtues, so even their departure from Christianity is particularly Christian. For example, they might say that the idea of the equality of people is a Christian idea, so people arguing for the equality of women, equality of LGBT people, etc., in the space of civil rights borrow that idea from Christianity even if Christians disagree on the application of that idea for various reasons.
There often goes this idea that I one should regard the church as a spouse, and one’s membership in the church is analogous to a marriage.
This idea has been put forth frequently, and I think for relatively good reason. I mean, the scriptures frequently have as running theme the motif of marriage: Israel is the often unfaithful bride of God; the Christian church is seen as bride of Christ.
Yet, this idea seems to come about most commonly in a Mormon context as an instructive analogy to discuss how people should and should not engage with the church, and how people should and should not discuss the church — especially to others. Most notably, this analogy is used to proscribe (or at least, strongly discourage) public criticisms of the church. I do not want to highlight every blog that I’ve seen approach, but I feel that if you have been around conservative Mormon bloggers, then you probably have seen it once or twice already. Instead, I’ll just highlight one particularly recent post as representative of them all: Nate Oman’s Covenant and Speech at Times and Seasons. As he writes:
…If we take the metaphor of marriage seriously as a model for covenants, then it should have an impact on how one speaks and thinks about the Church. Imagine that I subjected my wife to a constant stream of public criticism. It is easy to see how such criticism could be corrosive to one’s marriage, even if it was all entirely merited. My wife might be hurt by such criticism, but even if she was not, the speech could well change my own attitude toward her. Indeed, even if I did not vocalize the criticisms, a mental habit of constantly dwelling on her faults and misdeeds could be equally corrosive of our relationship. Rather, in a healthy marriage, I think that one cultivates a habitual tendency to accentuate the virtues of one’s spouse and treat their failings with charity and – as often as not – discrete silence.
Marriage as a model of proper speech is diametrically opposed to the dominant model provided by our society, namely the marketplace of ideas in a liberal democracy. This is a model that also imposes obligations on how we are to speak. In a democracy, we are to speak truthfully, fearlessly, and critically. Norms that seeks to circumscribe speech are inherently suspect, associated as they are with tyranny and authoritarianism. From the vigorous give-and-take of ideas emerges a world of greater truth and greater accountability for those who wield power, in short a better world. Notice that in this model, habits of affection play no role. Indeed, such habits are generally conceptualized as prejudices and condemned. The failure to vocalize one’s criticisms out of affection is to be a bad citizen, to undermine the social process of the intellectual marketplace.
In just this quote, several ideas percolate.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote, regarding the changing views regarding sin:
…Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.
I do not deny that human beings can have problems. But I suspect that I would run afoul in some sense of G. K. Chesterton’s “denying the cat.” The Christian narrative of the fall from grace and of original sin simply doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t see myself as hopelessly broken and in need of saving (although I can understand how some others might feel that way and I can see that there could be events in my life that changed my view on that [but i’m not going to try to purposefully wreck my life on the off-chance that I will then see the need for God]), and even further, I don’t see how a supposedly perfect creation could become so hopelessly broken (or even be empowered to break itself, as per the Christian narrative of the fall, in a way that could still be called “perfect”).
I recognize there could be a few reasons for this message not resonating with me. I have lived a fairly privileged life. My life really is going well and even when I have problems, they certainly seem within my own grasp to fix…
And even for problems that don’t seem within my grasp to fix, I don’t perceive that the Christian narrative of a fall has a lot of explanatory power for them. Maybe I’m spoiled by the Mormon narrative of the fall, where two major things differ from the traditional narrative: 1) God is arguably not as omnipotent as he is portrayed in traditional Christianity, and 2) the fall is not purely a mistake, but a planned necessity to accomplish the rest of God’s purposes.
Still, there is something that kinda sorta resonates with me and I wonder if any Christians have reconciled it to the Fall narrative?
Over at Wheat & Tares, my coblogger Kristine has written a post discussing her recent discovery that people have been taking her news of her faith “transition” in a way she did not intend. As she has written:
Four years ago I started to question things I’d been taught in the Church because I received an answer to prayer that I believe conflicted with church teachings. I started questioning almost everything, but never the core foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the basics of the Restoration. I thought it was more accurate to describe my journey from straight arrow orthodox to open, questioning, and unorthodox as a “faith transition.” I see things differently, but never felt there was any type of “crisis.” My lenses just shifted dramatically. You could say I navigated Givens’ “The Crucible of Doubt” path on my own before I read the book earlier this year.
It has come to my attention in the last 24 hours that not all people define “faith transition” the same way. Apparently there is a connotation that I’ve left the faith, or if I’ve stayed I no longer believe in Mormonism, just general Christianity and I’ve decided to stick around for other reasons. I’m trying to measure the amount of fallout or work that I have to deal with – I’ve been very loud and public about describing my last four years as a “faith transition.” It became apparent yesterday that I am misunderstood when I say that fairly often.
As I thought about the term “faith transition” to think about why Kristine might be misunderstood, I realized that to me, I can definitely see a sense in which ‘transition’ is simply a euphemism for crisis.
Things haven’t been going so well for Josh Duggar recently. TLC cancelled his family’s show 19 Kids and Counting after it came out to light that Josh had sexually molested five girls…including some of his own sisters.
But that was all in the past for Josh. After all, he made an apology. Yes, he screwed up, but his parents put him through counseling, and he was extremely sorry and regretful.
So, Josh probably wasn’t feeling all that great to find out that his email address was one of the exposed 37 million email addresses in the Ashley Madison leak. Not only that, but per some sites, apparently transactional data was also leaked suggesting that someone with his name had subscribed for two different Ashley Madison subscriptions from his grandmother’s address.
Now, to be fair, Ashley Madison apparently didn’t vet any email addresses used. So, anyone could put in any email address theoretically. But Josh has already gone public with an apology. A snippet therefrom:
I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife.
I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.
I humbly ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for my precious wife Anna and our family during this time.
(Oh yeah, did I mention that all this was happening while he served as Executive Director of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group championing traditional marriage?)
(Also, isn’t it interesting that while he shies away from particulars on the Ashley Madison thing, he does talk about everything starting with pornography on the internet…the gateway drug?) Read more…
This blog post has been going around some of the disaffected Mormon Facebook spots despite not really being specifically about Mormonism at all (as far as I can tell.) Isn’t it interesting how those things seem to be universal? A snippet:
This message is for Church People.
It’s for those of you who are part of a faith community every week; a physical place where you usually find yourself on Sundays. You come there willingly, expectantly, and in that place you receive encouragement and find community and feel acceptance, and where you regularly experience moments of challenge and inspiration and joy.
You feel at home there in that building, connected to those people, confident in the creeds you recite there, comforted by the songs you sing together. The sum total of what you find in that place makes you certain that God exists and makes that God feel close enough to touch. Your presence there on the inside of it all makes you better. It leaves you feeling lighter. It takes your faith deeper.
If that describes you, I celebrate what you’ve found and what you feel and what you have, because it is well worth celebrating.
But what you need to know, Church People, is that there are other people too (lots of them, in fact); those who used to have those things and used to feel that way—but who no longer do.