The “medium chill” and keeping Sabbath

Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.

In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.

But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.

And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).

Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.

He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.

All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.

Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,

[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)

This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.

In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)

This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.


Technology, love, and paying attention

I really enjoyed this post from Michael Sacasas at his blog “The Frailest Thing.” He argues that it’s not smartphones (or any other attention-grabbing gadget) per se that make it hard for us to pay attention to the people we encounter–it’s us.

It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

Even though this is a problem endemic to the human condition, technology can exacerbate it:

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

This made me think of a post I had recently read by Frank Schaeffer as part of his series of “12 commandments of happy parenting”:

Never give a child your divided attention once you’re playing with them, unless it’s an emergency. That doesn’t mean you should give them your attention all the time. Far from it.

Playing alone is good. But don’t be rude when you are being a hands-on parent.

Watching a young mother or father texting friends while his or her child is trying to talk to them is just plain cringe making. It’s teaching a lack of empathy and respect.

It’s also teaching all the wrong priorities about what is important in life. Don’t be surprised if you tune your child out and later your child tunes you out.

I see this all the time. I’m also guilty of it. Though I don’t have a smartphone and I generally avoid text messaging, it can be a challenge to give my kids my undivided attention. Not always, mind you–there are times when I’m fully and effortlessly engaged in some game we’re playing, or reading a book with my daughter, or making my son laugh through various facial contortions. But often–too often–my mind and attention are (at least partially) somewhere else. Maybe I’m thinking about work or worrying about something that needs done around the house. Or maybe I’d rather be reading a book or surfing the Internet.

It may also be, as some have suggested, that our multi-media, information-saturated lives (for some values of “our” anyway) are actually changing the way our minds work, diminishing our ability to maintain focused attention on one thing at a time. If so, that’s an even deeper problem.

Regardless, it does seem that Sacasas is right that giving someone our attention requires an act of will or a kind of discipline. Maybe this is partly why so many spiritual traditions have cultivated practices that require people to focus their attention. I’m thinking especially of various forms of meditation and contemplative prayer. What these practices seem to have in common is an effort to focus on a reality beyond the self–to the extent that the ego recedes into the background.

And one of the “fruits” of such practice is–ideally at least–that we become the kind of people who can more easily set aside our own desires and be attentive to others and their needs. We can certainly invoke here the example of Jesus, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to make each person he encountered feel the full force of his loving attention. To love others–including especially our children–as Jesus loves us would seem to require, at a minimum, learning to give them our attention.

“Sexual complementarity”–important but not essential

The main “philosophical” argument against same-sex marriage/marriage equality seems to be that it denies that “sexual complementarity” is at the core of what marriage is.

Some versions of this argument take what I think is an implausible view of the metaphysical status of what they call the “conjugal union” of a man and woman, but that aside, I’m prepared to agree that there is a strong connection between marriage, sexual difference, and procreation. That is, a large part of the reason why marriage exists in the first place is because when men and women have sex, they sometimes produce babies. And society has an interest in ensuring that children enter the world and are raised in a relatively stable context. So in that sense, SSM opponents are right that there is a strong link between sexual difference, procreation, and the purpose of marriage.

So, let’s concede that the coupling of a man and a woman, with offspring to follow, is the “typical” instance of a marriage. I’m even willing to call it the “central” instance if you like. What doesn’t follow from this fact is that marriage can’t be extended “by analogy,” so to speak, to cover other instances that resemble but also differ from this typical one. And of course this is already the case. Couples who can’t or don’t choose to have kids are just as married as couples who do–and no one blinks at this. This doesn’t mean that “man-woman-kid(s)” isn’t still the characteristic form marriage tends to take; it just recognizes that not everyone’s circumstances are the same and that marriage performs functions that are important even without the presence of children. (My wife and I were just as married during the decade prior to having children as we are now.)

Similarly, then, with SSM. It represents another analogical extension of marriage to cover people who depart in some respects from the typical form. People who want the monogamy, fidelity, and permanence of marriage, but whose chosen partner is a member of the same sex, can comfortably fit under the broad umbrella of marriage. This doesn’t require us to deny that there is an important link between marriage and procreation, but rather to recognize that marriage serves multiple ends–not all of which will necessarily be realized in every relationship.

Anti-SSM activists, such as those profiled in today’s New York Times, argue that if we stop enforcing the “norm” of sexual complementarity, we will also undermine the norms of fidelity, monogamy, and permanence. Adam Serwer pointed out that this is an odd argument since these are the values that movement for marriage equality is trying to uphold. But it also strikes me as a kind of category mistake. Heterosexuals aren’t going to stop being attracted to members of the opposite sex because gay people can get married. This isn’t a “norm” that needs to be enforced.* It’s a reality that needs to be recognized and accommodated. But then so is homosexuality. The question is whether marriage is big enough to include both straight and gay couples who want to make lives together–lives that will in many, if not most, cases include the raising of children. I think it is.


*I think it’s worth noting that there’s a case to be made that same-sex marriage could actually strengthen “opposite-sex” marriage, though not necessarily in ways that would make traditionalists happy. Consider this from theologian/biblical scholar L. William Countryman: “Spouses in heterosexual marriages will have much to learn . . . from partners in stable, long-term homosexual relationships. They have long experienced the difficulties of maintaining enduring relationships in a society which is even less supportive of them than of heterosexual couples; and they have had to do it without socially prescribed divisions of roles and labor. . . . On a deeper level, the re-understanding of womanliness and manliness in our changed circumstances will make headway only if the conversation leading toward it includes both heterosexuals and homosexuals” (Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, p. 260).

Atonement without violence?

Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver’s much-discussed book The Nonviolent Atonement is the most thorough treatment I’ve read of the problem of violence in traditional theories of the Atonement. According to Weaver, these theories–which include both satisfaction and moral influence types–rely on divinely sanctioned violence to achieve reconciliation between God and humanity. More specifically, in both cases, Jesus’ violent death is “engineered” by God to fill a slot in the divine economy, whether it’s satisfying the divine justice or bringing about the repentance of sinful human beings. Satisfaction atonement in particular, Weaver contends, is linked with a retributive theory of punishment and an image of God that is at odds with the Christian gospel.

Coming from a peace-church perspective, Weaver argues that the idea that God was the agent, or the object, of Jesus’ death is inconsistent with the character of Jesus (and by implication God) presented in the gospels. Jesus was nonviolent, and he revealed a nonviolent God. Weaver denies that Jesus’ death was willed by God, except in the sense that God foresaw that Jesus would inevitably be killed as a consequence of his mission. He concedes that there are passages in the New Testament that seem to support the notion of divinely sanctioned violence, but he offers some (admittedly non-consensus) interpretations to show that they can also be understood through a lens of nonviolence.

In place of satisfaction or penal substitutionary atonement, Weaver offers a theory he dubs “narrative Christus Victor.” According to this account, Jesus’ entire life and ministry was a manifestation or drawing near of the reign of God. Jesus showed, in the flesh, what it looks like to live under God’s reign. It is characterized by forgiveness, compassion, and nonviolent confrontation with injustice. This brought Jesus into conflict with the “powers” of evil–the forces of sin and violence that hold sway over both the human heart and human institutions. It was these powers–not God–that orchestrated Jesus’ death. This is what makes Weaver’s view a variant of the “Christus Victor” model identified by Gustaf Aulén in his book of that name: Jesus triumphs over the powers in that (1) they are unable to deflect him from fidelity to his mission to incarnate God’s reign and (2) God vindicates him and his message through the Resurrection. In Weaver’s scheme, the Resurrection, not the cross, is the pivotal salvific moment–it reveals and establishes that God’s reign as manifested in Jesus is the ultimate power in the cosmos. Salvation for human beings is “switching sides” from slavery to sin and violence to participation in God’s reign.

Weaver tries to show that his view is consistent with the concerns raised by black, feminist, and womanist theologians about the ways in which traditional atonement motifs have allegedly licensed abuse and passivity in the face of oppression. He also interacts with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and some of the more recent defenders of satisfaction theory to show that, however it may be qualified or softened, any version of satisfaction atonement (emphatically including the penal substitution theory of contemporary conservative Protestantism) ultimately means that Jesus’ violent death is necessary to accomplish salvation. “It can be kept and defended,” Weaver concludes, “only if one is willing to defend the compatibility of violence and retribution with the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 12).

However one answers that question, Weaver has put his finger on a crucial (pardon the expression) issue between defenders and critics of satisfaction-based atonement theories. The question is whether Jesus’ death, as such, is part of the divinely willed means to our salvation (rather than a consequence of Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission, as Weaver claims). And if God did will Jesus’ death, doesn’t that implicate God in the violence of that death? And is this consistent with the character of God that Christians believe has been revealed in Jesus?

Weaver observes that traditional atonement theories have often portrayed salvation as an ahistorical “transaction” within the Godhead. In this regard, they have often been driven more by abstract ideas of deity and justice than by the concrete biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To reflect the character of God as Christians understand it, theology needs to be thoroughly rooted in that narrative. And if Weaver is right that the NT portrays a Jesus (and by implication a God) who is fundamentally nonviolent, then how can divine-human reconciliation depend on violence?

You can read a summary of Weaver’s argument here.

Support for same-sex marriage from unexpected quarters

High-profile U.K. evangelical minister Steve Chalke describes how he came to an “affirming” position on same-sex relationships. Folks familiar with these arguments won’t find much new here, but Chalke provides a lucid overview of the bibilcal issues, and he frames the debate in a sensitive and sensible way.

Meanwhile, farmer-poet-novelist-essayist Wendell Berry, who’s always been difficult to classify politically but has been embraced by some religious conservatives, expands here on his support for civil marriage equality.

I’ve long thought that same-sex marriage could be seen as conservative in a “small-c” sense. Insisting that gay people, simply in virtue of their sexual orientation, remain celibate is pointlessly cruel. Far better to include them in an institution that provides for stability and fidelity and which can facilitate both their flourishing and ability to contribute to the well-being of the wider community.

Guns, civil society, and peacemaking

In the wake of the horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, a common reaction among some conservative/pro-gun folks has been that we should “arm the teachers.” This is consistent with responses to previous such events, like the movie theater shooting in Colorado this summer, when some gun proponents argued that if only someone else there had been armed, they would’ve been able to stop the shooter.

But apart from the logistical and safety issues this would raise, the more important reason this is a bad idea was well articulated today by two different writers. At the New York Times Opinionator blog, philosophy professor Firmin DeBrabander writes that “an armed society — especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country — is the opposite of a civil society.” What he means is that if your solution to gun violence is to arm more people, in more places, more openly, you’ve replaced a society based on mutual trust and cooperation with one based on fear.

At the American Conservative, Alan Jacobs offers a similar thought:

But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.

Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)

Is this really the best we can do? It might be if we lived in, say, the world described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. But we don’t. Our social order is flawed, but by no means bankrupt. Most of us live in peace and safety without the use of guns. It makes more sense to try to make that social order safer and safer, more and more genuinely peaceful, rather than descend voluntarily into a world governed by paranoia, in which one can only feel safe — or, really, “safe” — with cold steel strapped to one’s ribcage.

There can and should be vigorous debate about what kinds of gun control measures are desirable and practicable, but we also need to think about what kind of society we want to live in. The character of a society in which everyone walks around packing heat, Old West style, would be very different from one in which most of us feel safe enough to go about unarmed. There’s no question in my mind which is preferable.

In her sermon this Sunday, our pastor reminded us that Christians are to act as peacemakers as part of their calling to “bear the life of Christ” to the world. But there is peace based on fear, and there is peace based on love (or at least mutual respect). We’ll probably never eliminate the need for some “fear-based” policies, but the proper Christian stance, I submit, is to nudge social relations  in a “love-based” direction. By that standard, a more heavily armed and militarized society would be moving in the wrong direction.

Do we need a two-tier system of marriage?

According to The Book of Common Prayer,

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

So, marriage serves multiple, partly overlapping functions:

–Personal happiness and fulfillment (including sexual pleasure!)

–Companionship and support in facing the joys and vicissitudes of life

–A context for the having and raising of children

Even though the BCP refers to a “union of husband and wife,”  it seems obvious that same-sex couples also desire–and benefit from–the goods that marriage provides. And individual marriages will exhibit these goods in different combinations and to varying degrees. There are straight couples who don’t (or can’t) have children and perhaps don’t derive much happiness from their marriages, but who marry for support or economic security. Likewise, there are gay couples who have children, either from previous marriages, by adoption, or through assisted reproductive technologies.

That’s why I think people who suggest we have a “two-tiered” marriage system–one for opposite-sex and one for same-sex couples–are making things overly complicated. Marriage is big enough to accommodate a variety of different relationships. What would be the point of establishing separate, parallel versions of marriage when the existing institution is already flexible enough to accommodate same-sex couples? (As it already accommodates infertile or elderly couples, say.)

What proponents of such a system sometimes say is that we need to preserve a “straights-only” version of marriage to uphold the value of “sexual difference.” Now, you don’t need to buy into what some Christians call “complementarianism” to acknowledge that there are differences between men and women; if nothing else, their different biological natures are what make human procreation possible. But I don’t understand what purpose is served by setting aside a special institution just to express this distinction. Providing meaningful social support to people raising children strikes me as far more important than symbolically emphasizing the specialness of sexual difference.

A rare post on abortion

In this editorial, the Christian Century articulates a middle-ground approach on abortion that I find largely persuasive:

Over the years, mainline Protestants have expressed their own reservations and qualifications. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for example, declared that “the strong Christian presumption is that . . . all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it.” Therefore “abortion ought to be an option of last resort.” Voicing a similar position, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged the church to “seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.” Churches that backed legalization did not want abortion to be a routine means of birth control.

On those Christian grounds, it is good news that abortion rates in the United States dropped 5 percent in 2009 (the latest year of reporting) to the lowest rate in 40 years—15 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Rates have generally trended downward since 1981, when they peaked at 29. Health officials attribute the recent drop to more widespread use of contraception, especially by teens, and the use of more effective types of contraception.

U.S. abortion rates remain high, however, compared to other countries where abortion is legal. In Belgium and Germany the rates are below 10 per 1,000 women, and in the Netherlands, where abortion is freely available up to 21 weeks, the rate is 5, the lowest in the world. The Dutch have achieved that low rate through widespread education about family planning and easy access to contraception and by inculcating a general understanding that abortion is an irresponsible means of birth control.

The editorial concludes that this “nuanced position on abortion may not bring people to the barricades, but it points to a coherent, responsible policy.”

I think this is basically right, but it’s worth noting how this differs from the more absolutist pro-life position found among conservative Catholics and evangelicals. If you believe that abortion is morally comparable to killing babies, then nothing short of legal prohibition really makes sense. That’s why there’s a certain logic to not making exceptions even in the case of rape: why should an innocent child be killed because of the crimes of its father?

But the position sketched by the Century rests on a different view of of the value of pre-natal life–though one that also differs from a pro-choice position that assigns zero value to it. (I doubt this view is as widespread among pro-choicers as pro-lifers sometimes seem to think, but there probably are people who hold it.)

What this more moderate view presupposes is that pre-natal life has value, but that its value is not equivalent to the value of a newborn baby (or a 2-year old, a 5-year old, an adult, etc.). Moreover, it generally presupposes that this value increases as the pregnancy progresses: a very early abortion is less serious, morally speaking, than a very late-term one. To say, as the PC(USA) does, that “all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it” seems to allow for these kinds of distinctions.

I think that this kind of “gradualist” position makes sense of many people’s common moral intuitions. Most parents or would-be parents, I think, would say that a miscarriage at a very early stage of pregnancy would be a less grievous blow than one at, say, 7 or 8 months, much less the death of a newborn or older child. In other words, we generally act like the embryo or fetus is not, morally speaking, a fully realized person. Or to take another thought experiment: if you could save either a Petri dish full of fertilized embryos or a single child from a burning building, wouldn’t the right choice clearly be to save the child?

Now, just because many people have these intuitions doesn’t mean they’re right. And one problem that has always bedeviled the gradualist view is that it’s hard to draw bright lines demarcating the various stages of fetal moral considerability. By contrast, the hard-core pro-life view can point to such a bright line, namely conception. (Though even this is a bit fuzzier than people sometimes think: does it refer to fertilization? Implantation? The appearance of the “primitive streak” that determines whether an embryo will develop into one or two distinct beings?)

In my view, the clarity that comes from drawing such bright lines is purchased at too high a price if it requires treating a newly fertilized embryo as morally indistinguishable from a baby. It seems to me undeniable that nascent human life has value, but also that its value is less than that of a baby or child. Given this, a policy that places some value on fetal life while also recognizing that importance of women’s bodily autonomy makes sense and would aim at the “safe, legal, and rare” regime the Century recommends.

Do the evolution

As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.

Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.

But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”

Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:

when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Posner goes on to contend that

Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.

Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:

Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.

So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.

Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.

Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.

On Animals: Redemption

Picking back up the thread of David Clough’s On Animals, let’s look at the third part, which deals with animal redemption. Clough’s argument throughout has been that it makes more sense to understand God’s great acts (creation, reconciliation, redemption) as including non-humans than as exclusively concerned with humans. This is no less true of redemption than of the other two doctrinal themes. He goes so far as to say that they are “different aspects of a single divine act of graciousness by God towards all that is.” The question then is: Will animals share in human deliverance from sin, suffering, and death, or are they destined to be cast aside as a kind of cosmic detritus?

Clough cites John Wesley, who argued in his sermon “The Great Deliverance” that non-human animals needed–and would receive–redemption, just as humans would, and John Hildrop, who maintained that God brought each individual creature into existence for a reason, and thus God has reason to maintain them in existence. Clough writes that “[j]ust as we are accustomed to picturing human beings as being gathered up in Christ without regard to when they died, so we must become accustomed to think of other animals, too–ammonites and stegosaurs, dodos and Javan tigers–beign gathered up in the divine plan of redemption.” What God has created, God will redeem.

An alternative argument for animal redemption draws on considerations of theodicy–the suffering of animals should be compensated for by life after death. While he strongly affirms the reality of animal suffering, Clought rejects this line of argument on the grounds that theodicies generally tend to justify suffering–by seeing it as a necessary part of some overarching plan or system. This portrays God as having to compensate animals for an injustice experienced at his hand. Rather, Clough says, “God must be understood to be the redeemer of all creatures, human and other-than-human, because God has determined to be gracious and faithful to them in this sphere, as well as in their creation and reconciliation, not because they would otherwise have a legitimate cause of complaint.”

Animal redemption is part and parcel of a vision of cosmic redemption that has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Key New Testament texts here are those that speak of “all things being gathered up in Christ” and God being “all in all.” Origen took these and ran with them in his doctrine of universal restoration. In fact, Clough suggests, the same sorts of considerations that point many in the direction of universal salvation tell equally well in favor of animal redemption.

In the final chapter, Clough goes on to consider “the shape of redeemed living.” While he is postponing discussion of ethical issues to the second volume of his work, he offers some general thoughts on what redeemed relationships between human and non-human animals would look like. He draws on the eschatological vision of “peace between creatures” offered in key Christian texts. These include the early chapters of Genesis, Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, and the portrait of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, as well as the church’s stories of saints who “made peace” with wild animals. These suggest that God’s redemptive purpose is that “all creaturely enmity will be overcome in the new creation, and predator and prey will be reconciled to one another.”

This gives rise to a number of puzzles to which we can offer only speculative answers, such as: Will individual animals be redeemed, or only species? How can predators be reconciled with their prey without losing their essential nature? What does redemption look like for domesticated animals who have had their natures altered by human intervention? Are all animals ultimately to be “tamed,” or is their room for wilderness in the new creation? Clough offers some tentative answers to these questions with which I’m largely in sympathy, but he also cautions against dogmatic certainty when it comes to specifics.

But the trajectory, he thinks, is clear: the destiny of creation is to live in peace, even if it now “groans as in the pains of childbirth.” And this has practical implications. Whatever the details of our eschatology,

a vision of what the reconciliation and redemption of all things by God in Christ through the Spirit might mean for relationships between humans and other animals will cause Christians to be motivated to act in whatever ways they can to witness to redeemed patterns of creaturely relations.

I think the point here is that creaturely solidarity is, or should be, much more deeply woven into theology–and the Christian life more broadly–than has usually been the case. Animals are as deeply involved in God’s acts of creation, reconciliation, and redemption as we are. This has implications for ethics–and maybe also for community life and politics. For example, what would church life look like if we took seriously the view that we are part of a “mixed community” that includes many different kinds of animals? How should we anticipate the creaturely peace that is to characterize the new creation, even while recognizing that we still live in a fallen world? These are the kinds of questions I’d like to see Clough take up in his second volume.

Previous posts:

Reading David Clough’s On Animals

On Animals: Creation

On Animals: Reconciliation