Monday, March 30, 2009

Federalists Nos. 2 through 4: the Argument for a Strong, Centralized Government in America

In the first three Federalists after the introductory essay by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay argued that the combination of unity and plurality of a nation, being both one and many, provides for not only a safer and stronger nation, but also for a more temperate and pacific nation. In Federalist No. 2, the argument is presented that America is a natural union and that the shared experience of bleeding together through the Revolutionary War and coming together to voluntarily adopt a constitution has cemented in fact what nature had implied. This argument is extended in Federalist No. 3, where Jay suggests that this unity will make wars far less likely by both reducing the number of just causes for war and by tempering hastily made decisions of individual states by needing to convince all states that war is necessary. This argument is then completed in Federalist No. 4 where Jay notes that just cause for war is most often an excuse rather than a true just cause and that a strongly united nation offers less of a target to other nations looking for an excuse to go to war in order to unjustly enrich themselves.

While John Jay does not explicitly state e. pluribus unum in Federalist No. 2, the idea that ``out of the many, one'' is certainly its dominant theme. He starts with geography, how America is contiguous. From there he lists the numerous things that bound together the Revolutionary era citizens of America: common descent from European ancestors, a shared language, unity in religion, widespread belief in democratic government, common manners and culture. These geographic and cultural ties were then strengthened by the bonds of fighting and bleeding together in a war for independence. This culmination of union brought about by nature, convention, and history leads Jay to offer up an argument that one does not hear very much in our modern era, that what God has united together, man should not pull asunder. 
This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence than an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.
Notice here, Jay's Aristotelian notion of why government arises. He argues that that the American system of government emerges naturally out of the strong unity of Americans as a people and should reflect the same unity he claims its citizenry so providentially enjoys. This is especially notable given that a large part of the climate in the Revolutionary era favored distrust as any government. Thomas Paine famously opened his pamphlet Common Sense with the observation that society arises because man is good but that government arises because man is evil. 
Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes out happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. ... Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state is a necessary evil.
Jay's notion of why government arises stands in stark opposition to Paine's. Where Paine, taking after Hobbes, thinks that government only serves to restrain human depravity, Jay holds that government can echo a natural reflection of humanity's goodness. While Jay would certainly admit that government can be warped and tyrannical, and he does just that in some of his reflections on certain foreign regimes in the very Federalists under consideration, his argument in No. 2 implies that he does not think that such wickedness is a necessary part of government. Rather a liberal, representative democracy like the Constitution proposed by Jay and the other federalists does do is show what lies in the hearts of its people when they come together as a unitive whole.

The coming together as a single people, Jay argues, led to the immediate establishment of a government, albeit one with defects due to the rushed nature of its construction. The strong unity of the people implies the necessity of a strong federal government and, contrary to what the anti-federalists argue, the solution is not to abandon a strong federal government, but to correct the flaws in the hastily constructed Articles of Confederation by replacing them with the proposed new Constitution. In doing so, Jay would have America avoid the sin of destroying the national unity that God has bestowed on the American people and prolong the peace and prosperity to be enjoyed by the American people. For, as Jay details in Federalists Nos. 3 and 4, without a strong federal government, America will face a far greater likelihood of entering into war.

Federalist No. 2 lays out the case from a consideration of two aspects of wars with just causes. On the one hand, Jay argues that if America were divided into several confederacies, the individual confederacies would be more likely drawn into wars through allegiances and treaties with other nations. Were one confederacy to make a defense pact with one European power and another to make the same with another European power, the two confederacies might find themselves justly at war with each other even though there is no real dispute. On the other hand, Jay argues that the united nature of America as a whole will temper the passions of single states that might otherwise be motivated to go to war. Noting that pride frequently causes States to justify their own actions and arguing that a federal government would less given to such pride of post hoc justification, Jay offers up some of the abuses of the native peoples of America as an example of the sorts of wars more likely to be fought without a strong national government.
Such violences are more frequently occasioned by the passions and interests of a part than of the whole, of one or two States than of the Union. Not a single Indian war has yet been produced by aggressions of the present federal government, feeble as it is; but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States, who, either unable or unwilling  to restrain or punish offenses, have given occasion to the slaughter of many innocent inhabitants.
In retrospect, it is clear that a strong national government at best only delayed US participation in a prolonged series of wars under false pretenses against the native tribes of America and most likely did not even accomplish that much. By the time that the Federalists were being composed in late 1787, the Northwest Ordinance had already been passed earlier that same year and American troops were already engaged combat to drive native American tribes out of areas that were attractive to settlers. A nation, no less than a state and an individual, is clearly subject to being overwhelmed by the passions in pursuing a given policy or even in prosecuting a war. Yet, there is some amount of truth in Jay's argument. An entire nation is harder to rile up than a single state. But what Jay does not consider here is that once riled up, an entire nation has much more vast means by which to impose its will through a state of war. Of course, to be fair, this is not Jay's concern. His rhetoric does not concern the safety of those whom America may face in battle but the safety of Americans.

Jay's point about the Indian Wars, while unsuccessful at proving his point about an entire nation being roused to war by irrational passions, does illustrate the truth of the topic he considers in Federalist No. 4, that human nature is such that nations are willing to go to war for any reason so long as the ruling powers perceive that there is something to be gained by such an engagement. While Jay does not point out how handsomely America profited from acquiring the territory of its native peoples, he does argue nations have been going to war for such unjust personal enrichment since time immemorial. Sometimes, he goes so far to say, that the personal enrichment even harms the nation as a whole and only benefits the monarch or other ruling party. A strongly united nation offers two chief advantages in such a world as the one we live in, it appears to be a more daunting foe which other nations are less likely to attack, and if it is attacked it can marshal far more resources with which to defend itself.

Jay suggests we perform a though experiment. Imagine what the history of Britain would have been if the Britain consisted of a loose confederation of Scots, Welsh and English rather than consisting of a strong union under a monarch. Likewise, he invites us to imagine a state of affairs where America consists of thirteen sovereign states each with their own militia, their own border disputes and their own trade conflicts. Such a state of affairs would be very similar, he argues, to the city-states of ancient Greece, a loose confederation, prone to internecine disputes. If attacked, such a regime faces a daunting logistical problem of orchestrating thirteen independent supply trains for thirteen independent militias and negotiating a chain of command among the members of loose confederation. Foreign nations, he points out, will see this disordered state of affairs and act accordingly to take advantage of the situation to further their own interests.

Historically, Jays argument about strong nations being less likely to be attacked appears to have panned out well for the United States. Admirial Yamamoto's infamous words about Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor serving only to awaken a slumbering giant and to instill within it a ``terrible resolve'' seems to accurately represent the attitude of would-be belligerent nations for much of American history. During the twentieth century when two world wars were fought, much of Africa has entered into war the United States only suffered one attack by another hostile nation. All other assaults on America have been at the hands of non-state actors with little to lose by having their homelands invaded. (In fact, one can argue that the goal of al Qaida's assault on September 11, 2001 was an attempt to get the United States to invade the middle east and provide the impetus for Islamic countries to unite in the face of a common foe. Fortunately, the expected Islamic revolution and united front against The West did not materialize.) The unity and the strong central government of the United States certainly seems to serve the safety of its citizenry very well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Federalist No. 1 and Political Discourse

When John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison first began writing the series of broadsheets that were to become known as The Federalist Papers, they first thing they did was to try to set the tone for political discourse. In one of the most serious and far-reaching debates that the early United States was to face, the form that the national government would take, it was important to these men to not only address the central question but to also highlight the manner in which the debate should take place. This was so because, in a way, the terms under which such debates would occur was the central question to the founding fathers. In the words of Hamilton who penned Federalist No. 1, the question was stark, ``whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.'' Or is it more the case that we humans are ``forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.'' Hamilton's question is still very relevant. Is society capable of coming together to work out differences in civil discourse or is the resolution of such disputes only to be found through either one side bullying the other and the whims of fate?

The position of the Federalists, while not precarious, was certainly contentious. They were embroiled in an effort to replace the US national government under the Articles of Confederation with a stronger, more-centralized federal government. Factions opposed to the newly drafted proposal for a new constitution frequently accused Federalists of being would be tyrants who wanted to impose a coercive form of government on the people. Hamilton's response was that the Federalists were not going to stoop to making the same sorts of allegations of the other political parties. He put forth two primary reasons taking the high road. On the one hand, he alleged that his interlocutors were not necessarily bad men but perhaps either had poor judgment or were not cognizant of all of the facts at hand. On the other hand, he conceded that not everyone on his side of the debate was arguing with pure motives. Consequently, he argued that the question of adopting the new constitution should be decided on its own merits rather than on allegations of despotism against either side. But this is an uphill fight in Hamilton's eyes. Human nature, after all, seems to tend towards absurdity on the matter.
Nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.
Unfortunately, the truth of Hamilton's observation about the eternal tendencies of political parties is still evident two hundred years after he penned Federalist No. 1. On one side of the field pundits such as Ann Coulter and Michael Savage do not hesitate to label those who disagree with them with descriptors such as traitor, faggot, slanderer, appeaser, mentally-ill, godless, and the like. Meanwhile on the other side of the field, Keith Olbermann has regular apoplectic fits of rage on the cable news magazine he anchors as he routinely condemns, not just the actions, but also the motives of his political enemies in segments called ``special comments.'' Worse, hyperbolic and unconstructive remarks of this sort are not restricted to those in the media. Senator Charles Grassley said of AIG company officers that ought to either ``resign or go commit suicide.'' The president of the College Democrats at George Washington university speaks of College Republicans as, ``conservatives who seek to destroy our country.''  Rather than discussing the relative merits of this idea or that idea, conservatives and liberals seem increasingly concerned about impugning the motives of those who disagree with them and crowding out the opinions of those who disagree. 

When, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did when she was the First Lady, we attributes our political woes to a ``vast conspiracy'', there is no room left to debate the substance of the issues at hand. The discussions shifts from the facts that pertain to the case to the motives of the people arguing for this side or that side irrespective of the merits of this side or that side. This makes it exceedingly difficult to discuss important issues at the level of seriousness and nuance in which they should be discussed. When, as at present, the US is facing one of the most severe financial crises since the Great Depression, it would behoove all politicians and editorialists to discuss the pros and cons of various economic theories in light of the historical evidence rather than discoursing by publicly hoping one side fails or tarring one side as socialists. But there is remarkably little discussion over what history can tell us about Keynesian economics, monetarist policy, supply side economics, marginal tax rates and so on. 

The closest thing to a silver lining in this particular cloud is that Hamilton's pessimism seems to not have panned out quite as badly as he suggested it would. Speaking directly to the idea of discussing public policy only in relation to the public good and not getting sidetracked by special interests, he claimed that such was close to being a pipe dream.
Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.
While it certainly is the case that our mass media tends to be more focused on sporting events, the untimely deaths of starlets, and escapades of Paris Hilton and Christian Bale. Sometimes, it may seem on the surface that no serious discussion is going on. But the fact of the matter is that as reprehensible and insincere as some of the political discourse is in the US, judged by historical standards, things are far better than they were. While the RNC may have tried to give the Democratic party a black eye by credentialing Michael Moore at the 2004 national convention in order to try to make him the public face of the Democratic party, a favor which the Democrats are currently trying to return by making Rush Limbaugh the public face of the Republican party, the abrasive and hateful rhetoric being used to day is an order of magnitude less than it was in the early days of our republic. One need only consider the venomous campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams with allegations of pimping, whoring, bigamy, adultery, and drunkenness on the parts of the candidates and their spouses on both sides to see just how far things have come. While there are certainly still partisans that use that sort of rhetoric, those that do tend to be marginalized by their respective parties. 

Whatever progress has been made, however, it has not been enough. Politicians and pundits all along the spectrum are spending far too much time playing to the camera to encourage book sales, Arbitron ratings, and campaign donations rather than fostering a real debate on the pressing issues that face the US. The news media, which makes its money by selling our eyeballs to advertisers, generally plays along because controversy serves up more eyeballs than a staid presentation of a multi-faceted policy debate. We as a nation still have quite a ways to go before we can say that we've reached maturity and, with that maturity, have attained the ability to speak with one another about contentious issues in a manner becoming adults.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Pilgrim Critique of Plato's Republic

When the Pilgrims first came to the New World, their economic structure was originally very close to that of the state socialism of the former Soviet Union. Being a private company with shares of the company equally distributed between the families that sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower, the Pilgrims initially organized their settlement along very egalitarian lines. (The most notable exception being the servants of the families well off enough to own them.) With the survival of their community at stake, every family gained a share of the produce harvested from the fields, the game brought back by hunters and trappers, the goods traded by the native Narragnsetts, and the debts racked up by the new community as they purchased goods from the European traders. 

This communal mode of organization served the Pilgrims well at first, especially when they ran into grave difficulties such as the great sickness of 1620. With disease striking the entire community and over half dead, ``that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained,'' that any survived at all is largely a function of the entire community pooling all of their resources [Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1952), 77.]. Each family gave according to their abilities and took according to their needs, so to speak. Yet the Pilgrims soon found this radically communal situation to untenable over the long term. Once the great sickness had passed, people began to make excuses so as to avoid labor in the common fields. This, predictably, led to low yields at harvest which created a new crisis of shortage of food.

The solution to this new crisis by the Pilgrims was partial privatization of farming sometimes around the year 1623.  Every family was given a plot of land on which they could grow as much as they could and keep the harvest for use by only their own household.
So they began to think h ow they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust  to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have through great tyranny and oppression.
This experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. [Ibid 120-21.]
Bradford's main point, of course, is to highlight the increase in productivity and willingness to work that came about by using private rather than communal plots of land for farming. The governor did not have to resort to force or punishment to goad those who formerly complained of being ill or otherwise occupied into working. The enticement of keeping the fruits of one's own labor was motivation enough to bring about a far larger harvest. And for the Pilgrims, such bounty meant the ability to live through the winter. Yet, we should also note that the Pilgrims did not entirely abandon the collective model in other areas. Nor did they give the plots of land they worked to the households to hold in perpetuity. Inheritance of the land was explicitly denied.

Criticism of Plato's Republic was not new to the Pilgrims. Aside from several works contemporary with the colonization of the New World such as Jean Bodin's de Republica, Plato's pupil Aristotle criticized the Republic on the grounds that collective farming will inherently lead to an  increase in conflict within the community, ``if both in the enjoyment of the produce and in the work of production they prove not equal but unequal, complaints are bound to arise between those who enjoy or take much but work little and those who take less but work more'' [Politics, 1263a]. Plato goes on to argue that Plato's attempt to redefine `mine' to mean `ours' results in what later authors would call `the tragedy of the commons.' When everything is common to all, no one person feels the responsibility that comes with ownership to the same extent as when `mine' actually means `mine.' Further, Aristotle claims that Plato made this mistake because he mistook the city for the family writ large. Seeking to make the relations that exist within the family the same as the relations between citizens, Aristotle argues, Plato fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be a city.

And even Plato himself moved away from the radical communism of the Republic in his later work on politics the Laws. In the Laws, the Athenian Stranger (whom some suggest is Socrates) architects a city where every household owns two plots of land, one close to the city and another on the outskirts and are free to use these plots as they see fit contributing a certain portion to city in the form of taxes. In this system, rather than the extreme egalitarianism of the Republic, society was modeled in four bands with each band having a floor and a ceiling with regards to wealth. Households that fell under the floor would be subsidized by the city. Households that exceeded the ceiling would have excess goods confiscated.

So Plato was obviously aware that his idealized city in the Republic was not without problems which would materialize if anyone used it as the model for an actual city. And in fact we have to ask if the Republic is even meant to be taken as a blueprint for a city. In the beginning of Book II of the Republic, Socrates posits that the city is a macrocosm of the soul and that, since a city is larger than a man, it will be easier to see what justice is in a city than it is to see what justice is in the individual soul. So if justice can be found in the thought experiment of an ideally ordered city, then perhaps the interlocutors of the dialog might be able to better understand justice in the soul. Hence, it would appear that the idealized city of the Republic is not meant to be a model city which can be used as a guideline for a political constitution. Rather, it is supposed to be a though experiment by which we who read it can follow in order look inside our own souls. The radical unity of the city that Plato proposes in the Republic is supposed to be the model for the unity that ought to obtain within our own souls rather than a model for an actual city.

Which leads to an interesting question. If the political life of a city really is analogous to the soul and if the radical unity of pure communism is untenable in actual political life, does that not imply the soul can also suffer an excess of unity? In the Platonic tradition, especially in the Neoplatonic school of thought, the unity of the soul plays such a role of tremendous importance. But in the experience of the Pilgrims, and that of countless others over the last twenty-five hundred years since the Republic was written, is that aside from unity, a city also needs diversity. By the end of the late Colonial period in the US, the Federalists gave explicit voice to this idea in their conception of political life consisting of competing interests reaching a public good by each pursuing their own private goals. Does the soul of a human being, then, need an analogous level of diversity in order to be healthy or would such a split within the soul be schizophrenic? Or, rather, does this point out to the failure of Plato's idea that the constitution of a city tells us something of the constitution of the soul?

Those questions are not easy questions to answer. Searching for answers to them invariably leads to more questions. All these years after Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, there is still no unproblematic definition of what political life entails, its relation (or lack thereof) to the human soul, or even what it means to be a city. That there are no completely satisfying answers to these questions should not inhibit us from searching for them. For in searching for these answers, we do find answers to unexpected questions. Take the Pilgrims as an example. If they thought through the implications of Plato's Republic perhaps in those early years they would not have repeated his mistake regarding an extreme form of communal production of food. They may not have been any wiser about political life but at least their bellies would have been more full.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Phenomenonological Account of Why Christianity Cannot Accept Gay Marriage

Many years prior to being ordained the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England, Rowan Williams gave a very interesting talk on the issue of human sexuality in front of a predominantly gay and lesbian audience, The Body's Grace. One of the first things that struck me was that the language Williams used was almost entirely phenomenological. Rather than formulating his argument in terms of deductive reasoning starting with Scriptures and Tradition as premises, Williams structured his argument in the philosophical language of Edmund Husserl who is the father of what is known today as the phenomenology. 

That Williams' argument is phenomenological is easy to miss if one has not been exposed to writings in the phenomenological tradition. Every day words such as `presence,' `absence,' `bracketing,' `intentionality,' `perception,' and `identity' take on subtle differences from normal usage when used in a phenomenological context. Yet, filling in the meaning of many of these words from the phenomenological tradition makes Williams' argument fairly simple to follow. Once we do this, the strengths and weaknesses of Williams' treatment of the issue become much more readily apparent. To his great credit, Williams main point about what he refers to as the grace of the body is apodictic. If one understands his argument, its truth should be evident. Apodicity aside, however, his point is not adequate, it is neither a full nor complete depiction of human sexuality. 

A key concept to understand before analyzing Williams' argument is the idea of bracketing. Phenomenology differs from most other approaches to philosophy because it considers the process of human perception of the world as a two way street. In the phenomenological attitude we bracket the world, we set ourselves apart from it in a manner of speaking. We do this in order to get a clearer idea of how things work, so that we can understand that our perceptions of the world are part of a manifold. On the one hand, they are given by that which is outside of us. But on the other hand, they are also created through our own cognitive processes. In the words Monsignor Robert Sokowloski when we bracket the world, ``we look at what we normally look through'' [Sokolowski, Robert. Introduction to Phenomenology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.]. When we do this, we perceive both our perceiving the world as a given and creating the world as an object of perception.

We need to keep in mind when we do this, that we are not simply creating our own reality. There are two sides of the coin that make our conception of the world into a complete whole. Only when we perceive reality as it exists in a manifold of the world as both given to us and in the cognitive structures through which we apprehend the world as given to us that our intention of the world is complete. If we focus entirely on our cognitive structures under our conscious and unconscious control to a certain extent, we miss the world as given to us. If we focus entirely on the world as given to us, we miss the structure through which we give the world meaning. And to make things more complex, we only know truth when these two different ways of looking at the world correlate.

It is in this twofold manifold of reality that Williams brings up the subject of human sexuality as depicted in the novels of Paul Scott. The character in the novel that Williams wants to use to address his point, Sarah Layton, is both given a sexual identity through her travails and eventually comes to perceive her own sexual identity through self discovery. I have not read the novels in question, but from Williams' treatment, it seems as if Sarah is straight rather than gay in Scott's novels. So it is important at this point to not conflate Sarah discovering her sexual identity with that idea that in doing so, she discovered that she is gay. From my reading, such is not implied. Williams starting point is not the question of homosexuality as sexual identity but the more basic notion of sexual identity is something both created by the subject and given by the world. Identity, which includes sexual identity, is part of the manifold of what it means to be human.

The above is the apodictic portion of Williams' argument, the reality of the discovery of an individual's sexuality as part of that person's identity. Williams does not address just how great of a mistake neglecting this issue has become within most Christian circles. To reject the notion that the sexuality of gay people is part of who those individuals are as human beings is to reject them for who they are. The manifold of identity is comprised of a tremendous number of factors. Some of these factors are given to the individual: genetics; the balance of hormones in the mothers womb during gestation; upbringing; accidents; and so on. Other factors are created by the individual: how a person perceives and interprets various events; feelings; emotions; cognitive structures; and the like. Who we are as human beings is found only in our identity in this manifold. To reject part of what is that manifold is to reject the reality of the identity of that individual.

Williams ends his discussion of Sarah with her comprehension of herself as a giver of sexual pleasure to others. While he does not explicitly link this to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and relationship of the triune Godhead to creation, it seems to me that he certainly trying to imply such a link when he states the following. 
The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ's body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God. 
The parallel that Williams sets up illustrates that Sarah's discovery of her own sexual identity, no matter how founded in immorality it may be, echoes the relationship that creatures are designed to have for their creator. Consequently, Williams seems to be saying that Christians have no standing to reject Sarah's sexual identity as a real discovery of the grace of God regardless of whether or not her identity as a sexual being falls within the traditional norms of Christianity. By extension, then, he seems to be implying that Christians certainly have no standing to reject the love of two gay partners for each other as expressed in a life long commitment. He is effectively suggesting that such love, to a far greater extent than Sarah's illicit affairs, necessarily illuminates the partners involved with the grace of God. Their love for each other brings them into greater understanding of the triune God.

As controversial as it may be in many conservative circles, I think that Williams' argument up to this point is undeniable. It is an argument about who we are as individuals and how we come to be that way. Unfortunately, shortly after this point in his talk, Williams moves away from a phenomenological method to one of historical overview and textual analysis of the Old and New Testaments. Rather than speak of the further implications of the human person, and the human family, being a reflection of the Holy Trinity, Williams goes on to critique a fair number of the traditional interpretations of the Holy Scriptures and deftly points out some of the problems that present themselves to theologizing about sexual identity. While calling for a new theology of the body's grace, he neglects the very tools he used in the first part of the essay to uncover some of the meaning behind human sexual identity. These same tools are at his disposal to offer such a theological account.

The first step in moving beyond the textual analysis and historical critique presented by Williams is to consider Sarah's discovery of her sexual identity as a giver of pleasure to others as not only part of her identity as a whole human being but also as part of her whole sexual identity. If we were to take this one aspect of Sarah's sexual identity and conflate it for the entirety of her sexual identity, we would have a very lopsided point of view of what it means to be a sexual being. Likewise, if we were to mistake Sarah's sexual identity for the whole of her being, we would have a very lopsided view of what it means to be human. To be fair, Williams journey into the Old Testament to discover what Holy Writs says about the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs as sexual beings is something of an attempt to do this. Williams failing is not the textual analysis he does so much as the purpose to which he puts his textual analysis. He does not apply the results of his analysis either to Sarah as a sexual being or to Sarah as a human being.

I would hope that no great controversy would be generated if I suggest that Sarah's journey into her sexual identity in Scott's novels does not represent the fullness of what a sexual identity ought to be. While I have absolutely no qualms in observing that her experiences have led her into an experience through which she can better understanding the love that Christ has for humanity within Christianity, it is also the case that Sarah's understanding of that Holy Mystery will not be as complete and full as it would be if her discovery of her sexuality had occurred in the context of a more full and loving relationship. Sarah's discovery of grace, as it were, is one of a lesser good. It is a good that lacks some aspect of goodness that ought to be manifest in her discovery of her sexual identity. This does not mean her discovery of her self is not genuine or that it is false. But it does mean that her discovery of herself is not full and is not whole. 

In fact, the events of her discovery of self put a limiting factor on that which she is able to discover. It is only by moving beyond the sorts of relationships she has had, that Sarah will be able to discover the full depth of her own humanity. This incomplete experience of grace presents an obstacle to Sarah in two ways, one limiting her in actuality and the other limiting her in potentiality. If she mistakes her actual partial understanding of grace for all of grace, she will never actually take the next step into the fullness of grace. If Sarah presumes that the partial way that she has experience grace is the fullest extent to which she is capable of experiencing grace, she will never realize that she has the potential to step beyond what she has already experienced into the fullness of grace. Without denying that Sarah's understanding of her sexual self is real, and without denying that her sexual experience helped bring her to greater state of grace from a lesser state of grace, we can assert that her understanding of herself is incomplete and a hindrance to her further spiritual growth.

In this context, I would argue that it should be clear that a life long commitment between two same partners would be a clearly superior context in which to discover and engage one's sexual identity than the experiences of Sarah. (Which I think is Williams' reason for using the example of Sarah to start with. But I could be wrong on that.) Such a relationship would offer many positive aspects of sexuality that Sarah's multiple relationships in Scott's novels lacked. And inasmuch as homosexual relationships offer much more positive aspects, they more fully reflect divine grace. But, even though they are a fuller and more complete good than many other forms of sexual union, in the Christian tradition such relationships are unable to be as complete and full as those desired for human beings by the Creator.

The text on which this tradition is made appears in the Old Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles of the Apostle Paul. In the words of Christ, ``Ye read, did ye not, that the One Who made them from the beginning `made them male and female,' and said, `On account of this a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall be into one flesh?' Therefore they are no longer two, but one flesh'' [Matthew 19: 4-6]. These words of Christ, quoting the book of Genesis, are referred to by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians when discussing how the relationship between husband and wife is a mystery through which we can begin to experience the relationship that Christ has with the Church. The words of the Apostle pertaining to the mystery of the relationship between God and humanity are commented on by Saint Symeon the New Theologian.
Truly, therefore, this mystery is great--and beyond great!--and so it will always be, because the same sort of communion, and union, and intimacy, and kinship, which the woman has with the man and the man with the woman, such--understood in a manner adequate to God and as transcending our reason--is the relationship which the Master and Maker of all has with all the Church, and with a single Woman: blamelessly, ineffably, inseparably, and individibly united to her, being and living with her as with the one whom He loves and holds dear. Thus in turn the Church, united to her most dear God, joins herself to Him as the whole body to its own head. [St. Symeon the New Theologian, ``The Church and the Last Things,'' On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, Col. I, First Discourse, VII.]
One can certainly argue, and many do, that there is nothing within Saint Symeon's analysis that prevents same-sex relationships from approaching the level of heterosexual relationships. But men and women obviously differ in biology and this biology presents the possibility of relationships between man and woman that are not possible between man and man or between woman and woman. In fact, if there were no substantial difference between the sexual union possible in heterosexual relationships and those possible in homosexual relationships, there would be no reason to be homosexual, homosexuality would add nothing of substance to a person's sexual identity. The argument that there is no difference in kind between sexual relationships between straights and gays is contradicted by the fact that being gay or straight is a substantial part of an individual's sexual identity.

Frequently, this difference between gay and straight relationships is reduced to the idea of reproduction. In his textual analysis, Rowan Williams took note of this and objects that if procreation becomes the primary, or even sufficient, focus of a sexual relationship that it harms our understanding of the relationship between husband and wife and, consequently, our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity and between the persons of the Trinity. But Williams does not sufficiently address the fullness of the proposition. He does not distinguish between the difference in relationships that occur because of the possibility of procreation rather than the necessity of procreation. Sexual union between man and woman, after all, does not necessarily result in reproduction but only the possibility of reproduction.

Further, Williams does not directly address whether or not the possibility of reproduction is part of why the union between man and woman is used by as a symbol of the love that Christ has for the Church. If we move back to the relationship of love between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, we can see that this love offers the possibility but not the necessity of generation. The overabundance of love that overflows into creation is an act of will, not an act of necessity, by the Godhead. This aspect of the relationships between the persons of Trinity, the possibility of generation, simply does not exist between two people of the same sex. 

But we also need to be careful to not make a mistake. If we were to take the generative act as the entire basis of the difference between the persons of the Trinity we would be making exactly the error of which Williams warns us. If the relationship between the persons of the Trinity differs by more than simply the possibility of generation, then it follows that the man and woman as material beings differ materially in more ways than the possibility of procreation and that those differences tell us something about the Godhead. Men and women in the Christian tradition are made male and female not simply to be able to procreate but to reflect the differences between the persons of the Holy Trinity.

So in conclusion, from the Christian point of view, even a committed, lifelong relationship between two homosexuals do not offer the potential experiential fullness of grace that marriage between man and a woman does. While it is true that marriages between men and women often fall short of what they ought to be, the marriage itself is not a barrier to what the married partners can experience and come to understand about the grace of God. Sexual relationships between people of the same sex, then, are sinful in the original sense of the word, they fall short, they miss the mark. For Christians to recognize same sex unions as the full equivalent of marriage would be an affront to one of the chief mysteries of the Christian faith. Putting such relationships at the same exalted level as marriage would be a hindrance to the spiritual progress of both those involved in the relationship and those marriages between man and woman where the participants now inform their understanding of their own relationships based in part upon same sex unions. Because it would do damage to the understanding of marriage not only between the participants in the relationship but also in the understanding of marriage of all those who are married in the Church, it would damage the understanding of the love of God of all.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Freedom of Religion in the Myth of the Pilgrims

Virtually every school aged child in the US is taught at an early age that the desire for the freedom to worship as the conscience dictates motivated the Pilgrims to brave a perilous ocean journey and come to the new world. And it is true that the Puritans left England in search of the freedom of religion. But that they found that freedom in Holland is generally not taught. Nor are the reasons for leaving Holland for the new world generally given. The freedoms that the Puritans sought in the new world were more economic in nature than religious and, in fact, they felt that Holland had too much religious freedom. In some ways, the Pilgrim flight to the new world was a flight from religious freedom.

The persecution of the Pilgrims in 17th century England is certainly hard to understate. Many of their members were imprisoned for their beliefs. Quite frequently charges were trumped up against them. It took them three attempts to even leave the country as at that time British subjects could not leave the country without permission of the crown. The first time they were stopped by the authorities. The second time they were betrayed by the captain hired to smuggle them out of the country who turned them into the authorities for a bounty while keeping all of their belongings. On the third attempt, they finally were able to leave the country and settle in Holland where they began a life of manual labor. While the Pilgrims did find the freedom to worship according to their own consciences in Holland, their economic choices were severely limited. Between language difficulties and Dutch laws regarding vocational occupations, the Puritans found that the only jobs open to them were ones of physical labor.

In his tome on the Pilgrim experience, Of Plymouth Plantation, the eventual governor of the Pilgrim colony William Bradford gave four reasons that the Puritans decided to emigrate from Holland to the new world. Their life of physical labor was difficult, so much so that many of the Puritans ``preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions'' [Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 1952), 24.]. Further, this life of manual work ill-suited to a congregation increasing in age whose servants and children would not remain in such conditions. And under such conditions, in a place where the practitioners of other Christian sects tended to celebrate on Sundays with games and festivities rather than keeping it holy in somberness and sobriety in line with Calvinism, the Puritans were fearful that their children would abandon their faith for the ways of the native Hollanders or even to leave the community to join the English army. Lastly, the Puritans wanted to spread the Gospel to the remote parts of the world and the Americas were seen as such.

These four conditions can really be broken down into three: economic freedom, a religiously united community of the correct form of Christianity, and the opportunity to proselytize. From Bradford's account, it would appear that the economic freedom was the chief concern. As stated above, the life of manual labor that was open to the Puritans in Holland was so hard that some preferred English prisons. Those that remained in Holland also feared that they would not be able to keep up with the grueling physical work as they grew older. Further, They were also concerned that servants would abandon their masters and, even more importantly, that children would leave their parents. So rather than residing in a religiously pluralized nation where some other faiths might be more attractive to the children of the Puritans, the Pilgrims desired a home where there was only one religion, their own, enforced by the coercive power of the government. This religiously united community could then serve as a base from which to proselytize the native peoples of the Americas.

This fear that the Puritans had for the marketplace of religion and culture turned out to be well placed. Samuel Morison makes a note in his edition of Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation that the ``fear of the Dutch `melting pot' was well taken; for the offspring of those English Puritans who did not emigrate to New England or return to England became completely amalgamated with the local population by 1660'' [Ibid, 25]. The twin engines of economic hardship and religious freedom threatened the very viability of the Pilgrim community as a community. It became clear to them that true freedom of religion was a threat to the their ability to preserve their way of life in the generations to come.

Those who are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims might object that the settlement at Plymouth did have freedom of religion. After all, in response to the accusations by preacher John Lyford that they only allowed those of their sect to settle, Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims, ``were willing and desirous that any honest men may live with them, that will carry themselves peaceably and seek the common good, or at least do them no hurt'' [Ibid, 153]. But this reply from Bradford neglects that freedom of conscience at Plymouth was a very Hobbesian affair. Honest men and women might be able to believe whatever they want, but if they did not conform their actions to Puritanism, they were punished. 

For example, on Sundays men were sent out to search all the places where it was common for people to socialize and anyone caught there rather at the Sunday morning service was forcibly brought to the service. As another example, when some complained that they ought not have to work on Christmas as it was a Holy Day, the day was given off but when some began feasting and playing games to celebrate rather than observe the day in solemn Puritan fashion, they were forcibly put back to work. In Of Plymouth Plantation one can further read the theological complaints lodged against this preacher or that minister as they were driven from the community. Throughout the work, one thing becomes very clear, that freedom to worship for the Pilgrims meant the freedom to worship in the correct fashion as defined by the community rather than the freedom to worship according to one's own conscience.

But one thing the Pilgrims did find in the new world was economic freedom. While the first years were incredibly difficult and over half of the original colonists died, the Puritans did eventually establish a community which thrived economically and in which their children could be ensured a somewhat secure future. That the search for and attainment of economic freedom did not make into the mythos of the Pilgrims taught to every American school child is a bit ironic. The myth that America was a land of economic opportunity and had streets literally paved with gold would eventually become known throughout the world. But rather than emphasize that aspect of the Pilgrim experience, what gets emphasized is the historically unsupported claim that what the Pilgrims sought in the new world was religious freedom.