Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Belief

I've been meaning to write about this for a long time, which means it isn't timely anymore, but oh well. I can't remember the last time I saw a convincing character of faith in science fiction. I suppose there aren't that many of them, but now that I think of it, I can't think of one. The first one I can remember is a Christian monk in Babylon 5who explains to a Minbari that the emotional heart of his religion is Jesus deciding not to run away in Gethsemane. Maybe that's the best one; I suppose his statement could be true for a person who takes his Christianity seriously. Shepard Book is a great character, but he feels to me like he's written by a man who doesn't understand Christianity. Maybe that's unfair of me. His remarks on faith in Serenity tweak a pet peeve that I have about belief, better illustrated by Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus. "Because that's what I choose to believe," her father tells her when asked how he knows that people go some place beautiful when they die. The idea clearly resonated with Shaw, who repeats the sentiment in environments that are certain to be hostile to it. She plants it like a standard, an iconoclastic banner ready to blow the mind of anybody with the guts to self-examine themselves. She states it as if it is brave. But it's not brave to believe something because one chooses to believe it. It's either craven or perfectly normal. It can be craven, because intellectually honest people don't choose to believe anything without reasons that support their choice, and intellectual dishonesty is cowardly almost by definition. It can be perfectly normal because the reasons we have to support our beliefs are never good enough to satisfy every critic. In the end, we all choose a standard of proof that we demand our reasons meet, but that standard is never high enough to answer every conceivable objection. The world does not admit of airtight proof. Either way - both ways - choosing to believe is not a salient feature of religion. I'm being guilty of projecting my own version of Christianity on everybody's version of religion here, but I'm pretty sure that statement holds up. Religion is not about the act of believing in itself, nor the act of choosing to believe. I can see how it seems that way to outsiders - if a person holds a belief that is surprising to you, one that seems inadequately supported, it's natural to look for reasons other than evidence to support their belief, and naked will is an attractive possibility. But that's not what it looks like from the inside. Real religious people don't go around telling each other that they hold their beliefs because they choose to. They don't evangelize by telling non-believers that they have to choose to believe. Real religious people think they have good reasons to believe their religions are accurate, the same way that they think they have good reasons to believe in anything else they believe. (I'm going to narrow the scope of my statements to Christianity now, because I'm beginning to tread in waters I feel less sure of - though I don't mean to imply that what follows isn't true of other religions.) Nevertheless, the idea of believing something based on will alone is an attractive one. Human beings love will; the notion that our own will can stand defiant against all forces that would change it is a romantic one. And religion - at least, Christianity - does promote such a scenario. But it isn't belief. Christianity never says that one should simply choose to believe. What it does say is that one should simply choose to love. All people have character traits, and commit actions, that make them unworthy of love. Christianity says not to care. It doesn't say that those things aren't true - people really are unworthy of love. It doesn't say to focus on people's good traits rather than their bad traits. That's just lowering the standard of worthiness, and Christianity assiduously avoids that. It never says, "Well, if you just focus on these characteristics, this person is worth loving." It only ever says, "This person, taken as a whole, does not give you adequate reason to love them. Love them anyway." I hate to adduce John 3:16 when it can be avoided (I don't want to sound like a tone-deaf placard-waving idiot), but this is one of those times when that verse is important. The great triumph of the will in Christianity is to say, "I love you." Not "I love you even though ..." or "I love you because of your ..." but just "I love you." God did not love us because we were worth it. He did not love us by ignoring our bad parts and loving our good parts. He just did, because that's the kind of entity he is. The nature of God, in essence, was more compelling than the extrinsic evidence. That is what this fantasy of choosing is really about - reaching inside ourselves and finding a motivation that does not change the evidence, but overrides it. When life gives us reasons to doubt our faith, Christianity does not tell us to choose to believe anyway. We're told to deal with them, and see whether they warrant our unbelief or not. But when people give us reasons not to love them, Christianity does tell us to choose to love them anyway. Not because they're worth it. Because that's what we choose to do.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Tolerance

Not too long ago I was involved in a discussion. The details of the conversation aren't important and might be private, so let me present it schematically. Party A engaged in behavior that Party B condemned. Party A called for "tolerance" by Party B. Party B continued to condemn Party A's behavior, on the basis of Party B's deeply held religious beliefs. Party A called Party B a "bigot" for continuing to condemn. Party B objected that Party A cannot call for "tolerance" with one hand while condemning Party B's religious beliefs as "bigoted" with the other. It was about this time that I entered the conversation, and asked: Why not? I think that tolerance is an important civic virtue - perhaps the quintessential civic virtue - but it seems to me that it's often stretched to the breaking point these days. The problem, I think, arises when people conflate tolerance with acceptance. By acceptance, I mean a personal belief that a thing is right or good, or at the very least not bad or wrong. Either way, a person who accepts something has no objection to it. Tolerance is very different. By tolerance, I mean a personal belief that a thing is wrong or bad, and a personal refusal to act against the thing. In order to tolerate something, you must believe that it is wrong or bad. I think these are self-evidently different concepts, though we might quibble over what to call them. To illustrate the intuition behind my definitions, let me give three personal examples. Example the first: I think that democracy is a truer governmental philosophy than autocracy. Example the second: I have no long-standing preference for pepperoni and pineapple pizzas over pepperoni and feta pizzas, or vice versa. Example the third: I believe it is bad when parents refuse to let their children watch TV or movies. Now consider the following: does it feel like vernacular English to say that I tolerate democracy? Or even that I tolerate pepperoni and pineapple (or pepperoni and feta) pizzas? Not to me. Does it feel like vernacular English to say that I accept parents refusing to let their children watch TV? Not to me. Not even if we add in the knowledge that I would abide by that parent's wishes with respect to those children. I don't accept that; I merely restrict the scope of my objection. In short, I tolerate it. And that is why I think tolerance is such an important civic virtue. People are going to disagree. Tolerance is the lubricant that allows people who disagree to get on with the business of living with each other. "Tolerance" has become enshrined in American culture as a treasured national virtue, so much so that people wave it like a flag over their cause du jour. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important that we keep in mind what tolerance is and isn't. Suppose I say to you, "I want everybody to show some tolerance for my lifestyle." If I really mean, "I want everybody to accept my lifestyle," then I am setting myself up for failure, disappointment, and likely bitterness. It is inevitable that people are going to disapprove of my lifestyle. That is the nature of people, and the nature of lifestyles. But it is realistic, I think, to ask that even those people who disapprove of my lifestyle not actively try to destroy it - or at least try to destroy it through specified, limited channels. It is not possible for my every neighbor to approve of my lifestyle. It is possible for me to ask my neighbor, who disapproves of my lifestyle, to limit his attempts to destroy my lifestyle to polite discourse. I use the term destroy advisedly, because I want to acknowledge that to disapprove of something is to deem it worthy of non-existence. Let's say I believe that women deserve political rights equal to those of men. This is a description of how I think the universe is structured, morally. It follows that, all else being equal, the universe would be better if there were no places where women have political rights unequal to those of men. So why don't I advocate for regime change in - well, pretty much the whole world? Because I think that the process of destroying this particular bad thing - unequal women's rights - would be worse than the thing itself. This is the essence of tolerance, this ability to say, "X is bad, but not as bad as getting rid of X." The essence of tolerance is not, "X seems bad to the ignorant and the bigoted, but the wise and enlightened recognize it as good." The virtues of this kind of tolerance are many. For one, it's an achievable ideal (at least compared to the ideal of "everybody should accept everything." For another, it respects the individual's right to believe. For a third, it encourages society to exercise its ability to discriminate moral issues. In order to have tolerance, a person must make two judgment calls: first, whether the thing itself is good or bad; and second, if the thing is bad, whether a given antidote is better or worse. Is this not the sort of society we want, where people are accustomed to making these calls? Are these not the very calls that underlie our most beloved tolerances? Consider religious tolerance. Surely nobody thinks that all religions are equally good, or even that all religions are good at all. Religious tolerance is founded on two beliefs: first, that some or all religions are bad; and second, that the evils engendered by religion are better than the evils engendered by a government trying to identify the good religions. Or, from the other side of the coin, consider the criminal code. Criminal codes arise when a society says, "We will not tolerate that; the punishment we inflict upon you may be evil, but better that evil than permitting you to continue unchecked." Sometimes society needs to make that call. Let us not get out of the habit.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

A Christian Argument for Homosexuality

There's been a lot of gay marriage in the news lately, and since I am not presently bound by an employee/employer agreement to avoid discussing potentially divisive political issues on my blog, now seems like a good time to revisit that issue. On the news front, if you haven't read, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional (I haven't read the opinion yet, but my immediate reaction, as it has been for the past six years, is "duh"). In addition, the Ninth Circuit has declined to revisit its decision earlier this year ruling Prop. 8 unconstitutional (again, duh - a motion to revisit boils down to asking the court, "Okay, I know you just gave me your ruling, and I don't think I'm entitled to a new trial or anything, but would you pretty please reconsider?" Three guesses what the most common response is). Oh, and of course the president's stance on gay marriage is becoming increasingly favorable.

What brings me to my keyboard, though, is a news article I read recently quoting somebody who lamented that the Democratic party is not articulating the religious case for gay marriage to what this person called the "religious left." I don't think I like the label of "religious left" any more than I like the label of "religious right," because I don't think anybody whose stance on sociopolitical issues is truly religiously determined reaches his conclusions on the basis of current politics (plenty of people, I'm sure, do reach conclusions on such issues on the basis of current politics, and then cloak those conclusions in religious terminology, but as that isn't religious activity I am not particularly concerned with it). However, I do think there is a religious (specifically, Christian) case for gay marriage, and I think it might be instructive for me and my hypothetical readers to articulate it here a la Natalie.

This will not be a short post.

Let me first take a new paragraph to make two points clear. Point the first, this is not necessarily my current thinking on gay marriage as a religious issue. Point the second, I don't much care what my current thinking on gay marriage is as a religious issue. I already know what my current thinking on gay marriage is as a political issue, so that equips me to wield my franchise on this issue any time it comes up. And, continuing the theme of my earlier post, I don't actually have a religious belief about gay marriage per se. What I have is a belief in the process of interpreting the Bible (with corollary beliefs about why I should care about interpreting the Bible). Let me dwell on this point for a moment to make explicit the implications. If somebody doesn't share my belief that Scripture is wholly sufficient to tell us what we need to know about God, and wholly accurate in that respect, then I don't care what their religious stance on gay marriage is because they aren't part of my religion. If they are part of my religion, then I don't care what their religious stance on gay marriage is so long as they have reached that stance as the result of an honest, best-efforts read of Scripture. Gay marriage is not integral to Christianity. Deciding our stances on moral issues on the basis of honest, best-efforts reading of Scripture is. If two honest, best-efforts reads of Scripture come to different conclusions on any given issue, well, that is the nature of reading.

Which brings me to the first thing I think should be understood whenever anybody tries to discern the Bible's stance on gay marriage, which is this: the Bible does not discuss gay marriage. It doesn't even discuss being gay (as I've previously said). It barely even discusses gay sex. Now, this does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say about gay marriage, any more than the fact that the Constitution doesn't discuss gay marriage means that the Constitution has nothing to say about gay marriage. It is a property of all texts that they may implicate issues they do not explicitly discuss. But it does mean that right-thinking people could reach more than one conclusion about what the Bible has to say on this issue.

This is nothing shocking. We deal with this all the time in Christian pop culture when we try to apply the Bible to dating. The Bible discusses dating even less than it discusses gay sex, but we remain convinced (rightly, I think) that the text contains principles that can lead us to some version of Godly dating. And while we're on the subject of Biblical ambiguity, let me take a moment to state the obvious fact that we, as Christians, generally continue in fellowship with people who share our core religious beliefs but reach different conclusions as to what the Bible says on specific issues. I know plenty of Christians who don't even think that Christ died for everybody, which is much more fundamental to the faith than gay marriage, and they are still in every sense my brothers and sisters in Christ. Shame on me, and shame on my coreligionists, if we can't stay in fellowship with believers who disagree with us on something as trivial as gay marriage, homosexuality, or gay sex.

So, on to the argument itself, as I would make it.

Let me start by positing the following principle: that as Christians, we should presume that any given activity is moral until proven otherwise. By "moral," I mean "not wrong in the sight of God." I think this is a fairly uncontroversial assertion, but let me try to give it some backup just in case. Paul once told Titus not to oppose those Jewish Christians in his community who were teaching morality based on Jewish traditions and mythology. "To the pure," he said, "all things are pure." (Titus 1:15). Again, Paul admonishes us that the general attitude of a Christian towards moral activities should be permissive in Romans 14. Observing the Sabbath? Drinking alcohol? Whatever, the apostle says. Abstain or not; the act itself makes no difference to God. The case of eating food sacrificed to idols has always seemed particularly instructive to me. Suppose one of my pagan friends invites me over for dinner. Before we eat, my friend prays over the meal, thanking Demeter for her bounty and offering the meal to her glory. Should I still eat this food? Paul's answer in 1 Corinthians 8 (which actually discusses a slightly more extreme version of my example) is, whatever. "Food does not commend us to God," he says in verse 8. Most interesting to me is the fact that Scripture's answer to this question is not predicated on the premise that Demeter does not exist. Maybe she does, Paul says in verse 5. And still the answer is that eating food consecrated to Demeter does not consecrate me to Demeter - this despite the fact that the whole reason one eats food consecrated to a god is to affirm the connection between the eater and the god. Despite all this, Paul says, it's just food.

If we are satisfied that in Christianity activities are to be considered moral by default, we must now attempt to demonstrate that gay marriage is specifically excepted from this general principle of moral liberty. How might we do this?

Let's start by treating gay marriage as a species of marriage. We often hear it preached in churches and at weddings that because God created one man and one woman as the first married couple, we should infer that God defines marriage as between one man and one woman. This argument does not persuade me. God plainly does not endorse the one man, one woman (1M1W?) model exclusively. David himself kept multiple wives, and in 2 Samuel 12:8, God says that he would have given David even more if he had asked. We might infer from Adam and Eve that God prefers marriage between one man and one woman, but if so, he apparently didn't prefer it enough to tell people like David (or any of the Bible's other prominent polygamists) to stick to one woman. Before we go drawing too much from Adam and Eve, I would point out that creating one man and one woman as the species' first family is also consistent with a world in which God doesn't give a fig for what form our marriages take.

But then again, we are told in 1 Timothy 3:2 and again in Titus 1:6 that a bishop should be the husband of one wife (or, if you prefer, a man of one woman). Doesn't that demonstrate that God's highest ideal is 1M1W? I would say no. That view postulates that God will accept many versions of marriage, but considers one to be a better version than others. I think it is clear from these passages that God prefers fidelity to infidelity, but when God says something is acceptable, it is acceptable. Consider the example of marriage vs. singleness. We know that Paul preferred singleness, but we also know - from Paul - that God does not rank one higher than the other. More to the point, I cannot swallow a metaphysics where God would tell "bishops" - little more than local pastors, in Paul's day - that 1M1W is the best form of marriage, and not tell the kings or priests of all Israel the same thing if indeed this was a universal principle.

As a last marriage-based objection to gay marriage, we might consider the fact that there are no married gay couples in the Bible. We might accept polygamy on the basis that Godly men practiced it with no objection from on high. But we have no examples of Godly men (or women) married to each other. This is all true, but it also postulates a rule of morality that states that something is only Godly if we can find Biblical precedent for it. As discussed earlier, I do not think that is the rule of morality that the Bible proposes. Besides, there is a perfectly sensible reason for there not to have been any gay marriages in the Bible, which is that no cultures in any of the Bible's time periods practiced, or even struggled with the issue of, gay marriage. Why should they? The very concept of a "gay man" thinking of himself as a "gay man" wouldn't be invented for almost two thousand years (depending on when in the Bible's timeline we are placing ourselves, more than two thousand years). And let's not even get started on the differences in people's reasons for marriage now as compared to two millennia ago.

Let this dispose, at least until somebody raises a new objection, of marriage-based objections to gay marriage. What about sex-based objections?

Before we start in (again) on the Bible's view of gay sex, we might observe that sex is not the whole of marriage. This is a point we are fond of remembering at heterosexual weddings, but fond of forgetting when it comes to gay marriage. Still, the fact remains that no marriage consists solely of sex. Many marriages barely include sex at all and are still, by many lights, successful marriages. I think we can all agree that sex is good for a marriage - but then again, I think we can also all agree that it is bad for any marriage to be primarily about sex. So I think we might justifiably be wary of any argument that says that gay marriage is immoral because one component of gay marriage is demonstrably immoral. Still, I don't think anybody gets married planning to have a sexless marriage, so let us proceed with sex-based arguments.

There are few enough passages in the Bible that discuss gay sex that I think we can treat almost all of them here. In roughly chronological order:

Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). Insert all the standard disclaimers about how "sodomy" is improperly named after Sodom here. What's that? You don't know what those disclaimers are? Go educate yourself; the post will still be here when you get back. Now that you know that, really, is there any doubt here that the evil Lot is trying to shield his guests from is not gay sex but rape? Okay, yes, it's gay rape, and yes, he offers his (allegedly) virgin daughters to the mob to be raped in their stead. Two possibilities there. One is that Lot thought having his daughters raped was okay, because that's heterosexual, but thought that having his guests raped was objectionable, but that's homosexual. Two is that Lot felt like his obligations as host required him to do anything in his power to protect his guests (and probably didn't have too high an opinion of women in general). Which seems like the more culturally appropriate interpretation to you? I go with the latter. If the angels visiting Lot had manifested as women (leaving aside all the weirdness it would throw into the story for two women to walk into a city all alone and visit a man they were unrelated to), I don't think his actions would have been different. I conclude that Genesis 19 has nothing to say about the proprieties of gay sex.

Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination."). At first blush this seems like a fairly clear Biblical prohibition against gay sex. But I think that is not really fair. To begin with the most pedantic objection, it says nothing about lying with a woman as with a man. If this was really about homosexual sexual activity, wouldn't God list that somewhere? Perhaps we should construe this as about procreation, or the supposed sanctity of the male body. To play devil's advocate to myself: well, maybe. Maybe women aren't mentioned because it's culturally appropriate to refer to male activity as including equivalent female activity unless otherwise specified. To play devil's advocate to my devil's advocate: ... really?

Okay, less pedantic. What does it mean to lie with a male as with a woman? Does that cover anal sex only? Plenty of men and women, homosexual and heterosexual alike, have perfectly fulfilling sexual lives without ever experiencing anal sex. If anal sex is the only way we think gay men have sex, we need a better sexual education.

Less pedantic still. If we think that everything God said to the Hebrews applies to Christians, we need a better religious education. This prohibition falls squarely under "the Law," which the very first pan-Christian council decided did not apply to Christians (Acts 15). As a religion, we encountered, debated, and answered this question within ten years of Jesus' death. If you are Jewish, Christian, and gay, maybe this poses a religious problem for you. I couldn't say, not being educated in Jewish theology, let alone Jewish Christian theology. Now, to be sure, plenty of Christians take pieces of the Law as devotional activity, ranging from waving hands as part of worship to tithing. But I think Paul is clear in passages like Acts 13:38-39, Acts 15 (particularly vv. 23-29), Romans 2-8:11 (particularly 6:14), Galatians 2:15-16, and Ephesians 2:14-16 that no part of the Law applies to Christians except as they choose to adopt it. Which, to be clear, raises the further implication: that the Law may be used to infer God's view of pan-cultural morality only with the greatest delicacy.

Leviticus 20:13 ("If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them."). See above.

Judges 19 (the story of the rape in Gibeah). Much of what is said of the story of Sodom applies here, although there is an additional wrinkle. For those who don't know the story, here's the gist of it. A man takes a concubine and displeases in some unspecified way, so she returns to her father's house in another city. The man, feeling remorse, goes to her and wins her back. On their way back to the man's house they stop at the city of Gibeah, where, not knowing any of the locals, they prepare to spend the night in the city square. A Gibean man takes pity on the strangers and invites them to stay at his house instead. As he is entertaining them, a mob of locals demands that he give up the traveler so that they can rape him. The Gibean host tries to placate the mob with his virgin daughter and his guest's concubine, but they will have none of it. In the end the host turns out his guest's concubine, who is raped to death. Her master finds her body in front of his host's house, her fingers stretched out towards the door. The man takes his concubine's corpse home and rouses the other eleven tribes of Israel against the entire city of Gibeah for permitting the crime. Gibeah's own tribe (Benjamin) rises to defend their tribe-mates, and the eleven tribes inquire of God whether they should go to war against all of Benjamin. God says yes. A bloody civil war ensues which almost sees the entire tribe of Benjamin wiped out.

Judges spends three chapters on the story of the rape, the civil war, and how the other eleven tribes manage to prevent Benjamin from dying out in the aftermath, so I think it's fair to say that the text of the story is not homosexuality. Still, if we want to focus on this one particular detail, it must be said that the Gibeans saw a man and a woman enter the host's house and demanded to rape not the woman but the man. The questions relevant to the instant inquiry are these: is this detail supposed to be evidence of Gibeah's depravity, and if so, should we take that as evidence that God finds homosexual sex depraved?

I would tentatively answer the first question yes. It's always dangerous to infer cultural attitudes from a single detail which is not the point of the story, but I think we have evidence in Leviticus that ancient Hebrew culture abhorred (or was thought by later Jews to abhor) male-on-male sex. However, I don't think there's evidence here for God finding homosexual sex abhorrent. For one thing, we're talking about homosexual rape here, which is not the same thing as sex at all (and even cultures which could view homosexual sex as a positive thing, as classical Greeks did, could view homosexual rape as a negative thing - you know, not unlike most people's attitudes towards heterosexual sex and heterosexual rape). But in addition, let's consider why this story is in Judges in the first place. Allegorically speaking, I think this is a story about God's wrath and restoration. The rest of Israel apparently found the rape and murder of the concubine unusually horrific; they rose against Gibeah "united together as one man" (Judges 20:11), which suggests the kind of mob mentality that only truly horrific crimes can inspire. That they have God's blessing to avenge the crime is explicit, and reinforced by the fact that despite Benjamin's initial success in the civil war God tells the other eleven tribes three times that they are doing the right thing. After the war is won the eleven tribes are distraught that Benjamin's resistance means the tribe will likely die out, and oaths taken during the war prevent the eleven tribes from intermarrying to repopulate the tribe. Judges then spends as much time as it spends on the war itself describing the ingenious solution the eleven tribes find to repopulate Benjamin without breaking their wartime vows. In other words, God will pound you back to the Stone Age if he has to, but even if he does he will raise you back up. Benjamin is pounded for failing to prosecute the rape and murder of a woman. To take all this story and say, "Thus, QED, God finds consensual homosexual sex abhorrent" is absurd.

Romans 1:18-32. This passage is too long to quote, and in any case I dislike quoting short passages Scripture except to adduce the larger context or where the passage really does stand on its own, as in the Levitican passages I quoted earlier. Paul's claim in this section is that all people know the essentials of God's nature from observing creation, and that when men turned to their various false religions, worshiping created things (e.g., storms, the sun, etc.) rather than the creator, God gave their cultures over to various forms of moral and cultural debasements, such as covetousness, murder, disobedience to parents, and gay and lesbian (both listed explicitly this time) sex.

In my mind this is among the strongest Biblical passages to support the proposition that God views homosexual sex as immoral. The argument goes something like this:

1. God does not inflict good things as punishments.
2. God inflicted gay and lesbian sex as a punishment.
3. Gay and lesbian sex are not good things.

Which is fine as long as that's a fair description of the passage. But Paul's aim here is not to give a list of immoral activities; his aim is to describe what it looks like when a society goes bad. So what are the "vile passions" with which men and women in a decaying society "burn?" Is it homosexual activity? Or simply infidelity? The Greek here could as easily be translated "husbands and wives," and if you replace homosexual activity with heterosexual activity the gist of the passage doesn't actually change. The problem here is that Paul doesn't simply say, "In these past corrupt societies, women had sex with women and men had sex with men." There is an element of lust to it. A non-religious view might cite that as evidence of cultural bias against homosexual activity (i.e., the stereotype that all homosexual activity is lustful), but as we are taking the religious view, that will not serve.

To illustrate the problem, take another example of the decayed society according to Paul: murder. Murder is not simply homicide. Homicide, as Paul points out elsewhere, and as religions of all stripes at all times have held, is not necessarily an immoral act. Paul gives the example of judicial execution of criminals as non-immoral homicide. When Paul lists murder as one of the things to which a decayed society is given over to, he is referring to a particular species of homicide.

So the question the reader of Romans 1 must answer is this: is Paul referring to all species of homosexual sex? Or merely to some species? If the former, we must ask ourselves why homosexual sex is listed with pejorative adjectives and adverbs whereas all the other behaviors a decaying society evidence are simply listed. If men having sex with men was, from God's point of view, for all cultures at all times and for any reason, wrong, why did God feel the need to say that men in a decayed society "burn in their lust for one another" (v 27) rather than simply saying that they have sex? Because God gets more worked up over homosexual sex than he does over other items in the list, such as being unloving, evil-minded, or unforgiving? I have a really hard time buying that.

1 Corinthians 6:1-11. In this passage, Paul remonstrates to the Corinthian Christians against the divisions that have sprung up among them, and how little they act as if they are all brothers and sisters (chiefly evidenced by their apparent zest for suing one another). In this context, he warns them that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, and goes on to list several examples. Among these is are the infamous (at least in circles that discuss Christianity and homosexuality) arsenokoitai. I transliterate that word because it is difficult to translate. To get an idea for the problem, consider Shakespeare. Everybody knows that Shakespeare made up words. Most of the time we can figure out what they mean because they were either adopted into the language (and thus used by subsequent authors) or appear in the context of a sentence. Now imagine that Shakespeare made up a word that was not subsequently adopted into the language and appeared in a list of bad things, with no other context. What does that word mean? How would you know?

This is exactly the problem of arsenokoites. Maybe Paul didn't make it up, but if so, other contemporary books that used this word did us the disservice of not surviving to the present day. From its appearance in a list of bad things, we may infer with some certainty that the word refers to a bad thing. Its most literal meaning is men-fuckers, from which we may infer that, whatever its precise meaning, it involves fucking men. The word is grammatically masculine, from which we may infer with a strong degree of certainty that it refers to men fucking men. The dangers of interpreting it to mean all men who fuck men are illustrated by the word that appears immediately prior, malakoi. The same literal reading of malakoi would give us "men who are soft," which might be what Paul is saying (only rough, un-gentle men will inherit the kingdom of God?), but I think most people would assume that Paul has in mind a more idiomatic meaning. The same may well be true of arsenokoites. The reader who intends to use 1 Corinthians to demonstrate that homosexual sex is incompatible with the kingdom of God must demonstrate by what means he knows that arsenokoites refers to all men who have sex with men (and by extension, presumably, all women who have sex with women?).

1 Timothy 1:3-11. This is a similar sort of passage to the prior one. In it, Paul urges Timothy to exhort his local pastors not to weave their teachings overmuch with Jewish legend or draw too much implication from who begat who or other Old Testament Scripture, reminding him that the point of the Law is to point out what is wrong, not what is right. In this context, he says, the Law is made for "the lawless and insubordinate, the ungodly and the sinners ..." and goes on to list several examples. In that list, the arsenokoitai make another appearance. I don't find this context meaningfully different, for purposes of determining precisely who the arsenokoitai are, than the 1 Corinthians discussion.

Finally, let me address one point that is commonly made but I don't think is commonly properly rebutted. I often hear it said from proponents of gay marriage that God made homosexual people to be homosexual, and it would be ridiculous - not to mention blasphemous - to pretend that their homosexuality is therefore sinful. This argument has a fine ring to it, but when made in a Christian context I consider it, frankly, a child's argument.

I am personally willing to stipulate that God made homosexual people to be homosexual, by which I mean that whatever causes people to be homosexual, I believe that at least some of that cause is not attributable to the individual's choice. But it does not follow, in a Christian vein of argument, that because God made something it is good. Maybe in other religions it does follow; I don't know. But Christianity would have it that I was born corrupted, that no part of me (physical, mental, spiritual, big, small, etc.) was wholly good. God "made me" that way, in the sense that he caused the universe to work as it does and thus for my life to come into existence, every bit as much as he has hypothetically "made" homosexuals to be born homosexual. The fact that I was born a certain way does not mean that way is good. Only children believe that.

Now, of course, it is common in Christian circles (particularly evangelical circles) to conclude that some aspects of the good, purified version of yourself can be deduced from your natural traits. I think there's reasonable Biblical support for this notion. However, we must distinguish between this principle and the principle that because it exists (i.e., God made it), it is good. Let us suppose that I was born with a predisposition to tell stories, and also a predisposition towards depression. God gave me both traits; are they both good? On what basis might we say that one is a gift I should exercise and the other something I must struggle against my entire life? The Christian answer to that question is the nature of God; the answer to how we are to describe the nature of God is a holistic study of Scripture. It always comes back to Scripture. So let us suppose that I was born with a predisposition towards homosexuality. God made me that way, but on what basis might we say that my homosexual disposition is a gift I should exercise or something I must struggle against my entire life? It comes back to Scripture, which is why this post spends a lot of time on Scripture and very little on the "but God made me this way" argument.

So there it is, the Christian argument for gay marriage (or, more precisely, the argument that Scripture does not disclose that God considers gay marriage immoral) as I would articulate it. If anybody has made it this far, this is a post I would particular enjoy reactions to. The comment box is little used, but it does work.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Having been immersed in D&D party creation lately, I was inspired to write my own taxonomy of the fourth edition party roles. This may be deathly boring to you, in which case, well, stop reading. But people seemed to enjoy my communication style on this sort of topic for WoW, and I like doing it, so there.

D&D 4e explicitly breaks character classes down into four roles: defender, leader, striker, and controller. However, when I think about how a class works, I just think about resources. Pretty much everything can be generalized as a resource. Spells? That's a resource. Hit points? Throw 'em on the resources pile. Potions, ammunition, special abilities, how many actions you can take in a turn, even how many warm bodies your side has - all just resources. Fights between the party and monsters are really just races to see who can deplete whose pile of resources fastest. When you think about how a character works, think of it in terms of how they (i) conserve the party's resources, and (ii) deplete the enemy's resources.

Defenders are characters whose special talent is making the bad guys use their resources inefficiently. They do this in a couple of ways.
Having good defenses, and marks. If your character has very good defenses, enemies who attack you are using their resources inefficiently. It's as simple as answering this question: if two party members are going to be attacked by an attack that deals 10 damage, and A has a 40% chance of being hit by that attack while B has a 75% chance of being hit, who would you rather throw under the bus? Now answer: who would the bad guy rather attack? Anybody can have a high defense. A defender is only making the enemy inefficient if she (i) has better defenses than the bad guys' alternative targets, and (ii) a way to incentivize the bad guys to attack her nevertheless. That way is called a "mark," and generally only defenders can mark the bad guys. When a bad guy is marked, he takes a -2 penalty to attack anybody other than the person who marked him. But note that merely being able to mark somebody is not enough. If you have high defenses, the enemy can sensibly not attack you. If you have marked the enemy and he wanted to attack you anyway, he's just doing what he wanted to do all along. But if you have high defenses and mark the enemy, you have degraded his efficiency no matter who he attacks. And the more inefficient the enemy, the more likely your side is to win the resources race.

Punishing the bad guys. A high-defense character who marks a bad guy is already making him use his actions inefficiently, giving the good guys a competitive edge in the resources race. Defenders also generally have a way to hurt the enemy if they attack somebody other than the character who marked them. For instance, if A marks bad guy X, and X still tries to attack good guy B, A will have some ability that interrupts X's turn and lets her deal damage to him. This is part of the Catch-22 that is how defenders contribute to the resource race, but note that now, instead of making the bad guys use resources inefficiently, you're directly depleting their resource pile by taking away hit points (and possibly a warm body or two).

Some defenders are better at having super defenses; others are better at punishing the bad guys, but I find that having a clear idea of which a character is best at helps me figure out how to best contribute to the team.

Leaders are characters whose special talent is in making their team use resources more efficiently. They do this in a couple of ways.
Healing. Restoring hit points to the team may seem like it's just restoring team resources, like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But that's only half the story. The other point of healing is that dead characters take team resources with them when they die. The sorceror who died with a devastating spell uncast, the knight whose plate armor is now lying useless on the floor - all those things are team resources. When a leader heals a party member, she should think not just about who is most likely to die but about who would take the most valuable resources with them if they did. If Johnny the wizard has used all his spells but Alice still has a special attack she's yet to use, all things being equal, Alice gets the heals.

Moving the party. Turns are resources just like everything else. If you have to spend a whole turn moving into position before you can unleash your devastating attack, you're being less efficient than if you could unleash that devastating attack right now. Some leaders are particularly good at moving party members even when it isn't their turn, which can ameliorate this problem. But note: only if doing so is more efficient than what the leader could do herself. Suppose A is a leader who fights with a bow. If she can deal 10 damage to monster X right now, or move B into position to stab X in the back with B's daggers, what should A do? Or suppose X is threatening B, and A can move B out of the danger zone - or deal 10 damage with her bow. What should she do? There's not necessarily a correct way to assign mathematical weights to this question (although sometimes there is, with the simpler versions of this question). The important thing is that A is thinking not just about her ability to move the party into attack position, or out of danger, but also about what resources she is consuming (i.e., her own turn) to do so.

Helping the party attack. The third thing leaders have in their bag of tricks is the ability to help the party attack directly. In some cases this literally means an ability for A to give up her attack so that B can attack instead - obviously only worthwhile if B's attack depletes more resources than A's. In other cases it's a bonus to the team's attacks - for instance, A hits X, and for the next turn, everybody else who attacks X is more likely to hit, or does more damage if they do hit. There is a double efficiency here: by making the party's attacks more likely to land or hit harder when they do, the party's actions are used more efficiently, and of course a successful attack depletes enemy resources as well.
As with all roles, some leaders are better at one trick than others. All of them, though, pretty much contribute through some combination of these three.

Strikers are characters whose special talent is in depleting the enemy's resources. There is really only one way to do this, and that is to attack the bad guys; to assist in this role, all strikers will have some way to increase the amount of damage they do, make their attacks more likely to hit, or both. The more a striker can maximize how hard she hits, maximize her chance to hit, and minimize the time she needs to get into position to hit, the more efficient she will be.

Solving that puzzle is only part of what a striker does, though. Consider this question: monster X has 100 hit points left, while monster Y has only 10. Striker A can attack either of them for 10 damage. Who should A attack? If you answered, "Well, how likely is A to hit each of them?" good for you. You have grasped a nuance in how A can best use the team resource that is her turn. Also note: if X is hit, he will continue to deplete party resources (i.e., attack the good guys); if Y is hit, he will not continue to deplete party resources (i.e., he will be dead). That certainly weights things in favor of hitting Y. A related wrinkle that a striker will often have to decide is this: if I can't kill X or Y, which is more likely to take away more party resources on its turn (i.e., if neither can die this turn, who should die first)?

These are problems that all characters should consider, but as strikers have the most direct role in taking away the bad guys' resources, it's particularly important for them.

Controllers are characters who specialize in making the enemy inefficient. They share this trait with defenders, but they inflict inefficiency in very different ways: Area of effect attacks. Attacks with an area of effect (often abbreviated "AOEs") can damage many enemies, but generally only kill very weak ones. Killing the weak may seem more like a matter of taking away the enemy's resources than degrading their efficiency - and you can think of it that way. However, the really weak enemies ("minions" is the technical term), pound for pound, do more damage than other type. Consequently, pushing them off the table with a broom actually takes away the bad guys' most efficient killers.

Moving the enemy. Moving party members into attack position, or out of danger, makes the good guys more efficient. By the same token, moving the bad guys into danger, or out of attack position, makes the enemy less efficient - and for that matter, can make your team members more efficient, as well. Some controllers do this by making it hard or impossible for the enemy to move in certain places - erecting an invisible wall of force, say. Other controllers do it by literally picking the enemy up and moving them.

Hindering enemy attacks. If the party is more likely to hit, its attacks are more efficient. Similarly, if the enemy is less likely to hit, its attacks are less efficient. Controllers have a variety of ways to hinder enemy attacks. They can blind or stun the enemy, for instance, but they could also cause the enemy to take damage when they move next to a party member, or perhaps immobilize the enemy so they can't even get into attack position.

Again, not all classes are equally good at all the signature tricks of their role. The point of thinking about things this way is that pretty much all classes' primary abilities fall into one of these categories. Knowing what they are is a useful way to keep straight in your head what you should be doing in battle. But it's also a way to keep your character organized in your head. Are you a defender? Which of the two defender tricks does this ability tend towards?

Well, that's all. Hope this was useful to you, or at least fun to read.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Having alluded a number of times to Mando'a now, and finding myself in more of a blogging state of mind lately, I thought I would meditate a bit on what exactly I'm getting out of all of this. Twilight observed recently that the whole Mando thing for me seems bound up in my relationship with Thayet, which is an accurate observation, so I thought it appropriate to determine the traditional Mando marriage vow. This consists of four first person plural declarative sentences. Owing to the time-elasticity of the Mando'a "present" tense, these are both statements of identity and promises of future behavior, but I'll translate in the English present tense.

Mhi solus a tome. Mhi solus dar'tome. Mhi me'dinui an. Mhi bajuri verde.

We are one together. We are one apart. We share all. We raise warriors.

The exchange of these statements is all it takes in Mando law for two people to marry each other. Neither witnesses nor synchronicity are required - if you want to explore the boundaries of what's legally allowed, you can think of it as a sort of offer and acceptance. For example, it wouldn't matter if one person makes the statements via text message on April 3, and the other made them via Skype on April 14, so long as the person who wanted to be married on April 3 still wanted to be married on April 14. Obviously this has not happened in my life, though fortunately for me I don't expect the validity of my marriage to be challenged under Mando law any time soon. And while an exchange of this kind would be super cool, the real significance for me of all this is as a shorthand to encapsulate what I think about marriage.

Mhi solus a tome.
We are one when together. We will be one when together. The value here - and this comes across better in the Mando'a than the English, I think - is as a declaration, a promise. I promise that I will be one with you when we are together. How so one? Not as halves of a person, surely. We are personal, but we are not a person. Only I, only you can be a person. I fall back on the only model I have of the super-personal: if I am to become part of something without diminishing my personhood, it must be something like my heart is part of me. My heart is my heart, separate and distinct and completely described as "my heart," but it is also part of me - and, crucially, while my heart is not less a heart if it is not a part of me, I am less a body if my heart is not a part of it. Of course a heart cannot survive without my body, so the analogy breaks down there. Call it like a family, if you are fortunate enough to know what it is like for a family that is a living, breathing, entity in its own right. I can survive apart from my family (as my heart cannot apart from me), but my family is nevertheless less my family - indeed, less a family, period - if I am not part of it. But - and this is where the heart is perhaps a better analogy after all - while I can survive apart from my family, I am diminished by not having its blood pump through me. Think of it like the Godhead, if you're used to thinking of God as a super-personal entity. God is still God if the Son is not part of God. And the Son is still the Son if it is not part of God. But God is diminished by separation from the Son, and the Son is diminished by separation from God.

When we are one, I think it is because we are part of a super-personal entity that is diminished by the lack of either of us. I am still me whether I am married or not. But I should also diminished by not being part of - by not being one with - that marriage. How so diminished? Not in that I should lack anything I possessed, or was, before I got married. More as if something good and vital pumped through me and is now pumping through me no longer. I cannot think of a very good analogy, but I am reminded of Lewis' observation that Christians have always pictured divorce as more like cutting a body than anything else. Cut off from my marriage, I am still me, but my riduur's blood, which surged through me and nourished me, surges through me no more.

How so together? Together in space and time, certainly. We are never one by default; we must choose to be one and God must give consequence to that choice (more on this in a later post, perhaps?). When we are together in time and space, when we have the opportunity to hold and touch and speak, then of all times we must choose to be one. But also together in beliefs and temperament. When it is easiest to be one, we must choose so to be.

Mhi solus dar'tome.
We are one when apart - or more literally, "not together." As we must choose to be one when it is easiest, so we must choose to be one when it is hardest. When we are not together in space and time. When we are not together in beliefs or temperament.

This is one of the must significant portions of the riduurok to me, and one of the things that drew me to Mando'a when I first discovered it. This sentiment already had a Natalian expression: "I will love you no matter what you do, or who you are." That is essentially how I understand God to love. This is not really even about love so much as the nature of promise. Suppose I promise to make it to my daughter's school play, or fencing match. What conditions are entailed in that promise? What if traffic is just really bad? What if a client has a problem that came up unexpectedly? What if I'm the only person who knows enough to fix it? When do I get to say, "I didn't break my promise. I never promised to make it if X happened."

Maybe some contingencies are implicitly included in a promise like that. If I miss a fencing match because I stopped to help the victim of a hit-and-run to the hospital, I didn't really break my promise, did I? I imagine a lot of people would say I didn't. I think I actually prefer to think that I did break my promise, and hopefully Meshparjai would forgive me.

But what if it isn't a promise to make it to an event? What if it's a promise to love somebody. What contingencies, if any, are implicitly included in a promise like that? One cannot know who another person will be in the next moment, let alone in years to come. If you love dancing together, what if that person later stops dancing? If you love that person's sense of honor, what if their sense of honor evolves to something unrecognizable? If you love their faith in something, what if they lose it? What if their personality changes in a way you would never have predicted and find utterly monstrous? What if? What if?

I recently saw Finding Nemo with Meshparjai, and I am reminded of Marlin's question to Dory: "How do you know something bad won't happen?" Dory's answer: "I don't." We never do, and God certainly offers us no assurances. "Nothing bad will happen" is not among the promises that God makes. So we have two choices. We can either try to anticipate all the things that will make it too hard to love somebody, and carve those out of our promise either explicitly or implicitly, or we can promise to love anyway.

Of course, no matter how thoughtfully we approach the promise, the time will come when we look at our beloved and wail, "I didn't sign up for this!" Something will come up over the course of a love relationship, probably more than once, that causes us to say, "I shouldn't have to love you like this." And we will be right. It will be something that nobody should have to love anybody else through. But for myself, I am ashamed to seize the excuse that fairness offers when I remember that Jesus had the opportunity to do as much for me, and refused. Why? Because he promised to love me, no matter what. Even when it was unfair. Even when it was unjust. Even when he got nothing out of our relationship. Even when acting on his love was to his personal detriment.

Insert the obligatory caveat about God being perfect and us not being perfect and not being God and blah blah blah here. But by God, I can try. Mhi solus dar'tome.

Mhi me'dinui an.
Share. We will ... share. Share what? Property, certainly. I think separate property regimes are fundamentally at odds with what marriage is. To be honest, I don't feel nearly as much pride about the fact that California recognizes my right to, say, religious freedom as I do about the fact that California recognizes that I do not earn income. We do.

So property, yes, of course. Do we share dreams? I don't mean hold dreams in common, though may there ever be dreams that we do. I mean do we tell each other about our dreams? Do we share our feelings? Do we communicate? We won't by default. It must be promised. What about when we're trying to avoid a fight? What about when what we have to share is only anger and hatred for each other? What about when we are empty and drained, and have nothing to share? Do we promise to share all, even then? I think we should. Mhi me'dinui an.

Mhi bajuri verde.
What makes a warrior? The silent workmanlike butchery of the Spartans? The refusal to admit defeat of the Romans? The passion of the Picts? Is it skill at arms, a strong spiritual core? Is it to embrace the desire to see one's enemies utterly destroyed? An ethic of victory that offers mercy to the vanquished? Esprit de corps?

I like to meditate on this question, but if I had to put down an answer, I would say that a warrior is praus as Jesus was praus (link). My understanding of that begins with a true assessment of what is a threat and what is not. I understand Jesus to have been a person who knew that many things that most people would think are threats in fact are not, and thus require no violent response. I also understand Jesus to be somebody who would fuck your shit up if you actually were a threat. I don't want Meshparjai to be a "violent" woman. But I do want her to be a woman of force. I want her to be the kind of woman who is serene in the face of things that would drive others into fits - but when she is presented with a real threat, I want her to have the will and the skill to obliterate it with absolute finality, with utter suddenness and unfettered by notions of fair play.

But of course, not just Meshparjai. And not just her siblings, God willing that she have any. I do not rear only the blood of my blood, but all children who come into my life. And as the childrearing lessons I teach my children are passed on to their friends, I rear those children as well.

So how so bajuri verde? On the one hand, by teaching her the skills of force. I would identify these, at least, as skills of force: How to kill, how to explain one's beliefs, how to question one's beliefs, how to acquire new beliefs, how to pray, how to engage demons. And on the other hand, by teaching her how, when, and why to use those skills. By teaching her just who Jesus was and was not, and in what way he was praus.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Beliefs and Consequences

On the way home from my new (temporary) job today, I saw an ad caught my eye. It showed two young women, one captioned a Jewish Israeli, and the other captioned a Palestinian Israeli. They were smiling and inviting the viewer to end U.S. military aid to Israel in the name of peace and Israeli unity.

My immediate thought, which is what inspired this post, was that a lot of Americans would probably object to ending military aid to Israel out of a Christian belief that Israel belongs to the Jews and America, either as a Christian nation or as a nation spends money to do the Right Thing, ought to expend her treasure to protect Jewish possession of Israel. (Speaking personally, I have no particular political beliefs about military aid to Israel beyond a vague suspicion that it's (i) a policy holdover from the mid-20th century and (ii) motivated by a lot more realpolitik than most Americans are willing to admit.)

And then I thought, how many Americans really believe that Christianity teaches that America (or any nation, or for that matter any entity) ought to expend its treasure to bolster the Israeli military? If you put it to them that way, probably not that many. I have a nagging suspicion, though, that depressingly few of the people who think Christians ought to bolster the Israeli military bother to make the distinction.

I think that's to our loss, and not just because it's probably indicative of intellectual dishonesty. From a pragmatic standpoint, Christianity survives in large part due to the fact that its core beliefs - the minimum that you really need to believe to be Christian - are both few and relatively well-defined (pro tip: they don't include anything about foreign aid). That flexibility has historically served us well; the fewer rules your organization has, the easier it is to adapt through time and space. The more that actual Christians lose sight of that core, the more they diffuse what it means to be Christian in real life. That will tend to take the religion "off message" in the short term, and in the long term, expand the term "Christian" until it doesn't mean anything.

It's also an unfortunate practice as a Christian. If I believe in military aid to Israel for Christian reasons, my actual chain of belief probably should go something like this: (i) I believe that the text of the Bible is the word of God (yes, I know this could be preceded by an infinite number of prior bullet points, but we have to start somewhere); (ii) I think the text of the Bible gives "Israel" to "the Jews;" (iii) I think that the modern nation of Israel can be equated with both "Israel" and "the Jews;" (iv) I think that, if "the Jews" cannot hold "Israel" with their own resources, they ought to be assisted in doing so; (v) I think that America's foreign policy ought to enact, at least in part, my personal beliefs about the universe. Now, if I, as a Christian, meet someone who doesn't agree that America should give Israel foreign aid, how am I likely to react based on that chain of belief? I venture that I will be much more likely to find common ground with such a person, since I recognize that my desire for our foreign policy is the result of not one but five beliefs.

If that person is a Christian, the odds that we agree about at least belief number (i) are pretty high. In fact, belief number (i) is the only thing I'm really committed to. All other beliefs flow from my interpretation of the text of the Bible. As long as I can recognize that, I shouldn't find it very hard to respect somebody whose honest interpretation of the text leads to a different foreign policy.

Why should I care about this sort of thing, other than a commitment to intellectual honesty and a pragmatic desire for my religion to remain relevant after I'm dead? Those are both good reasons, but I can think of another one: because when I have common ground with somebody, I am much more likely to treat them with compassion, and much more likely to love them without being a jerk about it - and those are things that, as a Christian, I want to help myself do (treating people with compassion and loving people without being a jerk being one of the fairly few things that actually is pretty core to the religion).

I got a good object lesson in this myself in college, when I was wrestling with Reformed theology. The implications of Reformed vs. Armenian theology can seem fairly significant; the principal implication, for those of you who have had the good fortune to avoid this particular schism within Christendom, is whether salvation is available to everybody or not. Like many Christians who run into this schism for the first time, I was kind of horrified. How could there be Christians who didn't believe that Christ died to save everyone? (My Reformed counterparts, to give them their due, have equally horrifying versions of Armenian theology). Were those people even part of my religion at all? It's one thing to be trying to describe the same entity and failing every now and then; were they even trying to describe the same god that I was?

The thing that broke the philosophical deadlock for me was realizing that I actually wasn't committed to a belief that Christ died for everybody. What I'm actually committed to is a belief that the text of the Bible is the word of God - and the text of the Bible doesn't answer this particular question (I know there are plenty of people on both sides who think it does, but really ... this debate is at least four hundred years old. Debates do not last that long for lack of reading comprehension). People can be committed to that same belief and come up with different theological answers.

Especially living in the Bay Area, where Christianity tends to be opposite the sociopolitical spectrum from many of the places where our religion is strongest, I often feel that this is a lesson American Christendom needs to relearn. If two Christians can recognize that they're committed to the text of the Bible, there's a lot of room for differences on sociopolitical issues. Now they aren't disagreeing about foreign aid, or homosexuality. They're agreeing about the Bible, and with respect to any given issue, they're doing what we have taught ourselves to do from the beginning - searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are true.

The other signal benefit of having a firm grasp on what one is really committed to as a Christian, I find, is an increased ability to deal with non-Christians without coming across as a jackass. Suppose somebody comes to me to discuss my beliefs, as a Christian, about homosexuality. If I think that I actually do have beliefs, as a Christian, about homosexuality, the odds are high that I will disagree with my interlocutor, and ... well, we've seen repeatedly what often happens in that case.

But I don't really have beliefs about homosexuality, as a Christian. What I have is a belief about the Bible, from which I derive beliefs about homosexuality. Forget talking about homosexuality. Let's talk about the Bible first.

I mean that, and not as an excuse to evangelize. For any discussion to be civil, let alone successful, you need to start from some kind of common ground (and if you don't want the discussion to be at least civil, well, you have bigger problems). Maybe we can talk about homosexuality from the perspective of Americans. Or fans of the Enlightenment. Or believers in the rule of law. But for a Christian to talk about homosexuality (or any other issue) as a Christian with somebody who doesn't share some more basic belief about Christianity is just looking for trouble.

And it's silly. Suppose somebody who didn't believe in quantum mechanics came to you with a question about superpositions. You can try to explain, but why would you do that? The first thing to do is make sure you both believe in quantum mechanics.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The End of the End

Well, it's been a long time since I've had a game post, and with the announcement of Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, the time has come.

There is no further part of this post that does not contains spoilers of the most intimate kind.

For those who don't know but are still reading this post, the ending of Mass Effect 3 has occasioned a large enough fan base kerfluffle that developer BioWare has actually agreed to change the ending. Well, sort of. They've agreed to "more context and clarity to the ending of the game, in a way that will feel more personalized for each player" through "additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes." Whether any existing content is actually being changed is so far unclear, though I'd be surprised if it was. I haven't had a chance to lay out my thoughts on the ending in detail, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to do so by considering which complaints extra ending content can and can't fix..

As far as I can tell, there's some appreciable portion of the fan base that feels that the ending off Mass Effect 3 fails to deliver on the promised multiplicity of endings and character closure. I can sympathize with wondering whether Garrus starved to death on Earth or not, but in the largest sense, I think this was always impossible. Like the Matrix "trilogy," the Mass Effect games tell a story in two parts and three products. Mass Effect is the story of how Shepard discovers that the Reaper menace exists. Mass Effect 2 sets up how the galaxy prepares, or fails to prepare, for the imminent arrival of the Reapers. Mass Effect 3, like the third Matrix movie, is simply an enormous climax.

You spend a lot of the first two games making decisions that one feels must surely have a major impact on the climax. Do you save the last of the rachni or destroy them? Does Wrex survive to unite the krogan or does he die for his principles? Do you save the Council or sacrifice it? Do you destroy the Collector base or hand it over to Cerberus? Even in the midst of the climax itself you're making these kinds of decisions. Do you cure the genophage or not? Do you win the support of the salarians? Do you kill the geth or make peace between them and their creators?

I suspect there were a lot of people who were hoping that Mass Effect 3 would tally all these decisions and present you with a way to defeat the Reapers that was the sum total of them all. In reality, all that has to happen - and, at least the way the game is presently constituted, all that can happen - is that Shepard reaches the Crucible superweapon, meets an avatar of the race that created the Reapers, and then chooses one of three equally unpalatable ways to use the Crucible to defeat them. No matter what you do, Shepard makes it to the Crucible. The only real effect that uniting the galaxy has is that more people are there to die while you do it.

My question to people who complain that this doesn't take enough account of all you've done before is, "How else could it end?" I don't think anybody seriously wants an ending where you don't stop the Reapers. But does anybody seriously want an ending where the combined might of the galaxy simply beats them? That would be ridiculous. The Reapers are supposed to have harvested the most advanced of the galaxy's races every 50,000 years for millennia beyond memory. What would make this cycle so much more militarily badass than the rest of them? The answer to the Reapers has to be a superweapon, and unless the entire trilogy was about searching for that superweapon, the superweapon has to be a deus ex machina. That's the inevitable consequence of having as your villain a race of sentient cyborg starships that has harvested the most advanced of the galaxy's races every 50,000 years for millennia beyond memory. So if you object to defeating the Reapers through a deus ex machina, well, that was always how it was going to end.

On the other hand, you could see exactly in which way the assembled races of the galaxy are inconsequential. That might not be as silly as it sounds. Right now, the only consequence of having the various races or other galactic war assets on your side at the final showdown is that your space and ground forces get decimated later rather than earlier. But you never actually see them fighting. That's something Extended Cut could conceivably fix. Would it feel better to see an Alliance soldier get saved by a geth before both are blown to smithereens - or alternatively, see him not get saved by a geth who wasn't there, before he's blown to smithereens? Honestly, yeah, it would to me. I can accept that all roads lead to the superweapon. But seeing how each road differs in the details would certainly make those details feel weightier.

I know there are also some people who object to the fact that all three endings destroy the mass relay network, thereby rendering interstellar travel beyond fairly short distances (galactically speaking) impractical. This has the unfortunate effect of, for instance, probably dooming the various alien forces you've brought to Earth who can't eat terrestrial food. So no matter what you do, odds are you've killed tens of thousands of your allies. Oh yeah, and plunged the galaxy into a sort of new dark age of isolation.

Well ... yeah. The relays themselves, and the very existence of pan-galactic civilization, have always been a Reaper trap; that much is revealed in Mass Effect. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the Reaper solution, whatever form it ultimately took, involved a galaxy without mass relays. And what about all those stranded aliens (and humans too, for that matter)? Or the destroyed mass relays, what about those - did they just burn out, useless artificial asteroids? Did they explode (and if so, why doesn't that wipe out their associated systems like it did in Mass Effect 2)?

Mike Krahulik has a point that worrying about this sort of thing is a lot like worrying about the Endor Apocalypse after Death Star II was destroyed. Yeah, it probably happened, but dwelling on it misses the artistic point. But even if you do choose to dwell on it, Mass Effect's strongest theme has always been that war requires you to make terrible choices - that no matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try, and no matter how special you are, every decision you make kills someone you don't want to die. So if saving the galaxy means dooming thousands and thousands of your allies to a horrible, anticlimactic death by starvation ... um, duh?

Of course, all this is conjecture. It does feel a bit anticlimactic to wonder what exactly happened to all those ships in Earth orbit after you destroy the mass relay network. Did any of them know what was happening? Did they try to use the relays one last time before they were burned out (the three endings sort of imply that, though there's no explanation of how anybody could have known to run for the nearest relay)? Did they all starve to death? Did any of those ships ever make it home, perhaps crewed by the descendants of their original crews? All those are questions that, sure, it would be nice for Extended Cut to show answers to.

Then there are the people who feel like the ending (or rather, the end of the ending - if you didn't feel like the entirety of Mass Effect 3 was the end, I'm not sure what's wrong with your artistic antennae)came out of nowhere. In some senses I think that's just people being tone deaf. For instance, of course the Illusive Man was on the Citadel with Shepard and Anderson. By the time you get to Earth you already have confirmation of what you've known for a long time - that the Illusive Man is indoctrinated by the Reapers - and you know that he left for the Citadel before the Reapers seized it. Why wouldn't the Reapers leave their powerful indoctrinated thrall on the station? On the other hand, finding out that the Citadel has had a secret core holding the digital avatar (or maybe the spirit? It's unclear) of the race that created the Reapers, just waiting for somebody to finally finish the superweapon and thus prove that the Reaper solution was unnecessary ... well, yeah, that kind of comes out of nowhere.

I think this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I was really expecting the end of Mass Effect 3 to come down to a binary choice, like Mass Effect 2 did: side with the Illusive Man and control the Reapers for humanity's benefit, thus advancing human civilization immeasurably but at the peril that they would fall into the wrong hands, or side with Anderson and destroy them, thus returning to the status quo ante. I was pleasantly surprised that it did not end that way.

I was less pleasantly surprised that, when all was said and done, I couldn't think back on the rest of the series and say, "Oh yeah, now I see where that was hinted at." That is my biggest problem with the end of the end. It isn't as if it came completely out of nowhere; characters do wonder who created the Reapers, and why, as early as Mass Effect. But there isn't very much of it, and I don't feel like you can look back after the credits and have an "aha" moment about all the seemingly unrelated pieces whose connections you can now see. You can't, because there simply aren't all that many pieces to begin with.

If I were to expand Mass Effect 3, I probably would still do it with additional dialogue and cutscenes rather than rewriting the whole game, as some people seem to implicitly prefer. But I wouldn't add a lot to the end. What I'd do is add more to the middle of the game, so when you finally meet one of the Reapers' creators, you have more pieces to connect.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

On Easter

Every year at Easter I am struck by how hard it is to get into the Easter spirit. I'm not even sure what the "Easter spirit" is. The Christmas spirit, by contrast, is so easy to define and get into that it can be found at events like Dickens Fair, where I'd be surprised if even 50% of the workers care (or even agree) that God invaded the world.

My strongest memories of Easter are of uncomfortable little-boy clothes, bizarre rituals, and awkward family gatherings. There were certainly fun parts of Easter growing up (such as the morning search for the Easter basket), but on the whole, Easter was a rather unhappy holiday for me. Now, there's an argument to be made for Easter not being a joyous holiday, but how are you supposed to get into a holiday that's unhappy?

Of course, there's an argument to be made for it to be a joyous holiday too, but I've never really been able to get 100% behind that. As an adult, the adjective that feels to me most appropriate to Easter is shell-shocked. A previously dead man is no longer dead. The executed deity is no longer executed. The one who descended into hell is no longer in hell. Those are good things ... I guess? My honest reaction to those things is not joy. It's more like just ... whoa.

When I need a handy lens through which to think about Christmas, I tell myself a Phoenix Earth story, where Alaen Kerona relates to Mackenzie Taylor what it was like to be there on Christmas night, when the armies of heaven were for just one brief moment unleashed on the world and battered a hole in the serried ranks of the enemy to allow the First to be born as a baby. For what? Nobody knew. Those were their orders; not for them to know why. And I think of the angels of the expeditionary force witnessing that invasion after millennia of fighting a losing battle and, even if they didn't know why it was coming, I can easily imagine myself standing on the sidelines shouting myself hoarse, roaring, "Go! Go, you magnificent bastards, go!"

When I need a handy lens through which to think about Easter, I don't really have one. I know the theology, just like I know the theology about Christmas, but trust is not maintained by knowledge alone. I'd almost venture to say the opposite: that the fabric of trust is primarily emotional, propped up and given stability by knowledge.

But I did have a thought today, walking Meshparjai to the store to pick up ingredients for an Easter salad. I was struggling with something that might make sense but that I don't want to do. It was (is?) all mixed up with outrage at other people, my dreams for what might have been, my fears for what might not be, but God directed my gaze, as always, at one particular aspect of my emotional hurricane - the pride that says, "I shouldn't have to do this." Maybe that shouldn't be the most salient fact. But, funny thing about being a Christian, pride always seems to become the most salient fact.

And I realized - or God pointed out to me - that, "I shouldn't have to do this" is a very Easter-y dilemma. Invading occupied Earth, well, that's one thing. Anybody can get behind liberating occupied territory. But then the liberation turns out to require the better to die for the worse. And ... well, you shouldn't have to do that.

I imagine that at some point the observing angels must have realized what their master and commander meant to do. I think of Alaen Kerona realizing what the point of the invasion had been all along, and thinking to herself, "He shouldn't have to do this." Reading the Gospels, I'm pretty sure that Jesus felt that way in Gethsemane, and it wasn't even a secret to him. Just ... it's one thing to commit to do something in the future, and another to stare at it from inches away.

And - and perhaps here's the most important thing to me - I agree that he shouldn't have had to do this. As any number of thinkers (mostly skeptics, perhaps) have pointed out over the years, God doesn't need people (or, if you don't think God exists, God shouldn't need people, were he to exist). If the nature of God is such that people can choose to walk away from him, and they do, well ... they made their own bed, right? Let them lie in it. If any of them have regrets down the line, well, we all have regrets in life, and you can't undo the consequences of your past actions.

It's the world we live in - and the world, I think, that we all accept. In my younger and crueler days (at least I hope I become less cruel as I grow older) I would look at parents dealing with broken teenagers and shake my head because, hey, it's too late. If you don't have a strong home by the time your kid is fifteen, well, it's too late to fix it now. It's too late to fix it when your kid is five. Heck, my kid is fifteen months, and you know what? It's too late to fix the mistakes I've already made. It's always too late to fix the past. All we can do is pick up the pieces and move on as best we can.

Isn't that how we all live? It's sad, but we accept it, don't we? How many of us really think that it needs fixing? Because that's the main theological point of Easter, I think - that it never has to be too late. For a better man to die for a worse man - a better man who doesn't need the worse man in the least - to fix something we are pretty much all okay living with, well ... he shouldn't have to do that. Who among us hasn't felt the power of that simple protest? I shouldn't have to do this.

And maybe you shouldn't. Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I don't. Maybe there's nothing requiring me, or us, to do it, than our own natures. And yet ... I shouldn't have to do this! Even when the only person demanding you do something is yourself, the power of I shouldn't have to do this can stop you cold.

Perhaps the spirit of Easter is overcoming that protest, that last ditch scream of an outraged pride. If Alaen Kerona had been at Gethsemane, I don't think she would have understood everything that was going on. And overcoming my own pride isn't going to create the possibility of redemption for the world.

But it may create a bit of the Kingdom in my own family's sphere. And isn't that what I should do? Isn't that what any good buir would do - isn't that, in fact, what makes a buir?

Last night Meshparjai and I saw a bit of Peter Pan. She lost interest, but I think I needed to see it. I needed to hear Mrs. Darling say once more that Mr. Darling was a brave man.

Says Wendy in the cruelty of youth, "Father. Brave."

"There are many kinds of bravery," her mother replies. "There is the bravery of thinking of others before oneself. Now, your father has never ... brandished a sword, nor - nor fired a pistol, thank heavens!* But he has made many sacrifices, and put away many dreams."

Michael perks up. "Where did he put them?"

"Why ... he put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the door. He does. And that is why he is brave."

* A good buir, of course, should be able to brandish a sword and fire a pistol. Working on it. Funds are presently lacking.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Dalyc'ade Kotla'shya

It is late, and behind me, Meshparjai sleeps on the couch while Kendall Payne plays on my iPhone. We have just finished watching Tinker Bell.

Meshparjai is almost sixteen months old now. She walks, she climbs, she begins to run. She begins to speak, and certainly understands some of the words that Thayet and I use. Mostly those words are English. When we are alone, I still speak some mando'a. In part it is for my own practice. But only in part.

There is a Mando saying, "Raise your children: raise your sons to be strong, but your daughters to be stronger." The Natalian appeal should be obvious, but it's probably less obvious that there's nothing about Mando culture that is pro-female or anti-male. This is one of the many reasons the Mando mindset appeals to me. It's ... a lens, I guess, through which to process my fatherhood.

In what does fatherhood consist? When I vowed to Thayet, "Mhi bajuri verde" (well, in my heart anyway; I try to avoid vocalizing too much Mando stuff lest it become silly), what exactly did I have in mind for a sixteen month old? She still needs her diapers changed and the turmoils of babyhood soothed, but now that she begins to understand ... what? How do you teach a sixteen month old to be a lady knight, a verd mandokarla?

I can't articulate an answer to that doesn't seem immediately incomplete. But I can name little things to do. Sing to her songs that explain who Jesus is. Watch movies and read books that dream of a better place than here - so she will know that here can be made better.