cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
I've been engaged in debates recently with an interlocutor who is very fond of spouting the theoconservative rhetoric of the First Things crowd (Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, etc.). Because of this, I've returned to this 2006 book review by Ross Douthat in First Things on books about American theocracy. The best part is when Douthat quotes Ramesh Ponnuru's essay Secularism and Its Discontents:
It may be instructive to think about the wish list of Christian-conservative organizations involved in politics. [. . .] Nearly every one of these policies—and all of the most conservative ones—would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. That may be a very bad idea, but the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy.
Douthat comments:
This reality poses no particular problem if you simply disagree with religious conservatives about abortion or gay marriage or prayer in public schools. But if you're committed to the notion that religious conservatives represent an existential threat to democratic government, you need a broader definition of theocracy to convey your sense of impending doom. Which is why the anti-theocrats often suggest that it doesn't take mullahs, an established church, or a Reconstructionist ban on adultery to make a theocracy. All you need are politicians who invoke religion and apply Christian principles to public policy.
Douthat notes, correctly, that this understanding of theocracy would hamper liberal Christians no less than conservative ones:
Just a few weeks before he announced that a “Christian politics” was a contradiction in terms, Garry Wills was in the New York Review of Books celebrating the role of the clergy in the civil rights movement and wiping a nostalgic tear from his eye as he declared that “there was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.” After years of blasting any religious encroachment on the political sphere as a threat to the Constitution, the New York Times editorial page awoke to find Cardinal Roger Mahony advocating civil disobedience by Catholics to protest an immigration bill—and immediately praised the cardinal for adding “a moral dimension to what has largely been a debate about politics and economics.” After spending two hundred pages describing all the evils that would pour through any breach in the wall between church and state, Michelle Goldberg suggests that liberals should hope that “leaders on the Religious Left will find a way to channel some of America's moral fervor into a new social gospel.”
This is why I prefer Damon Linker's use of the term "theoconservative" over the more broad (and thus less useful) "theocrat": it resists the relativistic lie that all manifestations of religion (or of Christianity in particular) are equally valid in its recognization that the "existential threat" is not so much religion's involvement in politics in general as it is a certain brand of religious politics (be they Christian, Muslim, or something else) which is socially and politically conservative (a brand which undoubtedly includes the comprehensive natural-law ideology of Neuhaus and Weigel promoted in First Things) and which perpetuates and powers the Satanic system of sexism, homophobia, militarism, and economic injustice which exists in our society.

Douthat comes close to this truth with the cynical observation, "A Christian [. . .] is allowed to mix religion and politics in support of sweeping social reforms— but only if those reforms are safely identified with the political Left." This, of course, should only be true insofar as the political Left has actually gotten things right--but since, as a left-liberal, I think there are plenty of issues which it has gotten right (and plenty where it doesn't go far enough, especially on social issues), I don't think there's actually a contradiction there.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
I've realized that I tend to think of my brand of Christian theology as "liberal," and the resulting brand of Christian praxis as "progressive" (although the theology and praxis aren't as necessarily as intertwined as it might seem sometimes), and find it disorienting when they get switched (e.g., talk of "progressive theology"). I'm not at all sure whether this an idiosyncratism of my idiolect or if it parallels the way others might use the words, though.

In my usage, "liberal" and "progressive" are intended to call out a specific recognizable content in theology and in praxis which could, presumably, be contrasted with (say) a "conservative" theology or praxis, and are intended to be descriptive rather than terms of praise or critique (cf. "pro-life" and "pro-choice," where both terms assume certain assumptions which are rejected by the other side but which nonetheless provide a commonly shared set of descriptors).

So a progressive and/or liberal theology is going to start from certain recognizable assumptions (e.g. the validity of the historical-critical method) and a progressive and/or liberal praxis is going to work towards certain recognizable objectives (e.g. a left-liberal understanding of social justice). It makes sense then for that movement/thread of thought to understand movement towards the fulfillment of those objectives as "progress" (independently of whether or not the movement is right about what progress looks like or should look like). (My account of Christian progress is found at my blog essay History and Christ.)

For me, then, "progressive" is the much more politically-loaded word since it essentially refers to a mode of being-in-the-world, and thus of being-the-Church, while "liberal" has more to do with a certain post-Enlightenment understanding of the world and humanity's place within it which has as much to do with classical liberalism as with modern-day left-liberalism. Progressive Christianity has some set of (recognizable) reforms which it desires to enact within society and/or the Church; Liberal Christianity affirms certain (recognizable) things as true about the human person's (ideal) relationship with Scripture and Church tradition.

The question, for me, is how well the words are commonly understood to refer to the already-existent movements in Christian theology and/or praxis they are supposed to call out (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Leonardo Boff, etc.--what Wikipedia refers to as "the Christian left"). It's not at all clear that there is any real uniformity of usage in how "liberal," "progressive," and other similar terms get applied, although of course I think my way makes the most sense. :oD

The What-Is-Said

Tuesday, 16 March 2010 05:02 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
For any meaning μ and utterance θ, there is a context C in which θ expresses (would express, could express, should express) μ. This is not a particularly interesting fact; all that it demonstrates is that logical space is an exceedingly large place. It becomes a much more interesting question if we impose a constraint upon it: in a particular language system L, is it true that there will be a context such that the any given pair (θ , μ) will result in a possible juxtaposition of utterance and meaning?

An example. I am in discussion with a friend prior to prior to the 2008 election. This friend is encouraging me to vote for John McCain, and by way of doing so delivers a fatal refutation of Keynesian economics. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I understand very little of economics, and everything she says seems like nonsense to me. I reply by quoting Chomsky, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," and she understands me to mean—as I intended her to—that I found the economics lecture to be nonsense.

Certainly an act of communication took place. I was an English speaker speaking to another English speaker, using English words. Was I communicating in English? If so, was I communicating using Standard English? In American English? In my regional dialect? Would the answer be different if I knew French (which I do, sort of)? If I had used German words?

It is tempting to respond that my (purely hypothetical) Chomsky-quoting described above, while certainly an act of communication, is not a natural one. It does not grow organically from the language-system which is English (Standard English, American English, South Jersey English, pick your poison). It is simply too context-bound.

It is this notion of naturalness, set up against that of contextuality, which fuels all of the well-worn semantics vs. pragmatics debates. Sure, one might feel compelled to admit, any utterance could express any meaning under sufficiently ingenious conditions, like my Chomsky economics example, but there is a notion of meaning more robust which will not permit of such contortions.

Grice gives us such a notion, that of the what-is-said, set against that which is only implied or implicated:
In the sense in which I am using the word say, I intend what someone has said to be closely related to the conventional meaning of the words (the sentence) he has uttered. Suppose someone to have uttered the sentence He is in the grip of a vice. Given a knowledge of the English language, but no knowledge of the circumstances of the utterance, one would know something about what the speaker had said, on the assumption that he was speaking standard English, and speaking literally. (Paul Grice, Studies in the Ways of Words, p. 55.)


Implications are almost radically free, able to change wildly from context to context, but that which is said is much more constrained—although it too is subject to change with context. Even semantic minimalists like Herman Cappelen and Ernie Lepore admit that utterances involving indexicals like there or now are context-sensitive. So in a case of an implicature like uttering "There's a shovel in the toolshed" in order to indicate that the hearer should go and fetch the shovel in the toolshed, the speaker is first saying that there is a shovel in the toolshed, and then also implying that the hearer should go fetch it. Each of these meanings is complete in and of itself; the what-is-said is propositional, or has truth conditions, or has whatever it is one considers necessary for meaning in general.

But is really there a need for this more robust notion, this what-is-said, in the first place? This is the question I intend to address in future posts. Stay tuned.

On Real Christians

Thursday, 24 September 2009 10:16 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
Melissa McEwan has a great post, On "Real" Christians and Christian Privilege, at shakesville. The whole post is fantastic, but here's one of my favorite paragraphs:
Christianity has a 2,000-year history that has seen countless iterations of the religion based on countless interpretation of the text and shaped to fit countless times and spaces and needs in disparate cultures all around the world. Christians have done great things, and not-so-great things—and anyone who makes the personal choice to carry the Christian mantle associates themselves with a history that includes all the good stuff and all the shitty stuff, too. One can't say, "I only associate with the good Christianity—not the inquisitions and the genocides and the warmongering and the colonialism and the institutional misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism…"
Part of McEwan's reasoning is that she herself is an atheist: "I don't want the responsibility of deciding who's Christian and who isn't—and I can't imagine why any Christian would want to give that responsibility to an atheist in the first place. Yes, I have personal opinions about how closely self-identified Christians of all stripes hew to their own religious text, but it's flatly not my place to kick someone out of the Christian community, even semantically." But she goes on to argue that the process of delineating between "real" and "fake" Christians is a disingenuous one even for the Christian: "Christianity is about culture as much as it is scripture no matter on what part of the Christian spectrum one falls."

Some of my agreement with McEwan's post no doubt stems from my own position as a Christian who knowingly holds a number of heterodox positions (alongside a number of orthodox ones; most of the theological discussions I'm in anymore fall more along Protestant/Catholic lines than conservative/liberal ones). I'm much more worried about the accusations of "not a real Christian" that may be lobbed from the conservative theological camp than from the liberal one.

But my concern runs deeper than just that. McEwan's position stems from a pragmatic approach to linguistics--and since language is not a transcendent phenomenon (okay, there's a very important sense in which it is--the limits of my language are the limits of my world--but that's not a can of worms we want to open right now), talk of "real" Christians just inserts bad metaphysics into the dialectic, and that doesn't help anyone. It's an ideologically-loaded statement masquerading as an ideologically-neutral one, playing dirty pool by trying to obscure the fact that the premises by which one is framing the debate are ones which are themselves controversial. It begs the question.

Not all Christians are, say, trinitarians. (I am.) Not all Christians are monotheists--hell, not all Christians are theists, even. (Do you have a week?) Indeed, there is no position which is held universally by all Christians--except maybe for "identifies as Christian." There are trends, sure; generalizations can be made, and I'm not arguing that it's always bad to make them. (I'm not arguing that it's not, either, for the record.) But that's no excuse for throwing the random Christian who doesn't fit the generalization out of the tent. As McEwan notes, "They might not be the same kind of Christian as you are, but they are nonetheless Christians." Otherwise one is just playing power games with languages. It's a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Ziztur explains:
So, the No True Scotsman fallacy is employed when people are debating as to whether trait X is a necessary condition of belonging to group Y, and the person committing the No True Scotsman fallacy simply defines group Y as one in which membership requires trait X. Ones does not win such a debate in this way, as whether or not trait X is required for membership in group Y is the very matter under debate. So essentially, the No True Scotsman fallacy is a fallacy in which certain traits X are defined as essential to belonging to group Y before it has been established that this is the case.
After all, it is not as if one needs to steep to making arguments about the reality of one's Christianity in order to make normative arguments about how Christians should act, after all. There are other axes upon which to make such arguments: namely, there's the axis of good/bad. One can still be a real Christian while being a really bad Christian, and we can all happily disagree on just what it is that makes a good Christian good.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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