What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Leiter Reports, Wrongly

Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago has, again, misrepresented my point of view on Christian academic institutions that forbid their faculty and students to engage in extra-marital acts of intimacy including homosexual ones. I do not attribute this to malicious intent on Professor Leiter’s part. But rather, I think it is a consequence of a general lack of serious and respectful study and reflection on the philosophical beliefs that undergird theological traditions with which he disagrees.

Take, for example, one of the few professional articles in which Professor Leiter discusses religion, "Why Tolerate Religion?." Any reader with an even superficial understanding of the relevant literature will notice that Professor Leiter does not bring to bear on his thesis the works of thinkers in philosophy most relevant to his assessment of what he calls the "intellectualist" traditions in religious thought. He writes:

It is doubtful whether these intellectualist traditions capture the character of popular religious belief, but even if they did, there remain important senses in which they are still “insulated from evidence.” First, of course, it is dubious (to put the matter gently) that these positions are really serious about following the evidence where it leads, as opposed to manipulating it to fit preordained ends. Second, and relatedly, in the case of the sciences, beliefs based on evidence are also revisable in light of the evidence; but in the intellectualist traditions in religious thought just noted, there is no suggestion that the fundamental beliefs will be revisable in light of new evidence. Religious beliefs are purportedly supported by evidence, but they are still insulated from revision in light of evidence.

Given his article’s emphasis on evidence and its apparent necessity in proper religious belief formation, it is a mystery why Professor Leiter does not cite and/or engage Reformed Epistemology or any of the arguments by theist philosophers that address the relationship between evidence, belief, warrant, and rationality. How can a philosopher claiming to write authoritatively on the matter of religion's epistemic status (however briefly) not mention in a footnote, let alone engage, the works of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, Christopher Eberle, Jonathan Kvanvig, J. P. Moreland, C. Stephen Evans, or his former colleague at the University of Texas, Robert C. Koons?

It is certainly understandable why an academic writer cannot cite every source or engage every thinker on the matters about which he writes. In that regard, each of us is limited by time, resources, publishing space and venue, and subject matter. Nevertheless, I have on more than one occasion not been pleased with my own neglect in not reading one or two papers or books about which I should have been aware. Thus, I do not fault Professor Leiter for being less than comprehensive or leaving out a philosopher or two who I, or someone else, may think he should have mentioned. But in this article he ignores every single leading light in the field, and frames the question of religion's epistemic status not only in the language of "evidentialism" (e.g., "insulated from evidence"), a point of view that has come under trenchant philosophical criticism in the literature for over 40 years now, but he does so by attributing motives to ideas: "it is dubious (to put the matter gently) that these positions are really serious about following the evidence where it leads..." (emphasis mine) But "positions" can’t feign seriousness. That is only something that persons can do. And in that case, if Professor Leiter believes that the works of certain professional philosophers provide evidence of their authors’ unseriousness on the matter of religion's epistemic status he could have at least included one example in a footnote. As is evident to anyone familiar with the field, this would not have been too difficult to do given the large number of esteemed philosophers who have published in the area of religious epistemology. But he doesn't. So, ironically, Professor Leiter provides no evidence that "insulation from evidence" is a chronic problem in the philosophical works of his theistic peers.

Given his neglect in consulting serious religious philosophers when discussing religious epistemology, it is not surprising that Professor Leiter cannot seem to accurately present my defense of the right of Christian institutions to advertise in Jobs for Philosophers when those institutions require standards of behavior for faculty and students that include norms of sexual morality. (See my blog entries here and here). Professor Leiter claims that I defended "discrimination against gay philosophers." This judgment is superficial and misleading, something that a person with Professor Leiter’s intellectual gifts would not likely make if he were writing in the areas of study in which he has indeed provided valuable insight, e.g., Nietzsche, philosophy of law.

First, to defend the right of religious institutions to conduct its hiring practices within the ethical guidelines of their faith is not the moral equivalent of condoning those ethical guidelines, even if one condones those ethical guidelines within the confines of one's own personal life or religious community. For example, suppose I defended the right of Orthodox Jewish seminaries to advertise in Jobs for Philosophers even though such seminaries will not ordain Orthodox Jewish women or Roman Catholic men. Would that mean that I am defending "discrimination against women philosophers and Catholic philosophers"? No. It would mean that I am defending the right of Orthodox Jewish seminaries to practice their religion within the confines of the American Philosophical Association without being officially stigmatized and marginalized for holding an "unethical" position. And that would be true even if it turned out that I was an Orthodox Jew who would uphold those policies if I were an administrator or faculty member of that seminary.

Second, Professor Leiter seems unacquainted with the philosophical anthropology to which these institutions are committed. These colleges maintain that human beings are made in the image of God, which entails that human beings have intrinsic dignity. And this commits the Christian community to embracing a variety of goods, institutions, habits, and practices whose purpose is the flourishing and perfection of the human person. Thus, when a Christian college extols the virtue of the one-flesh communion of sexual unity between husband and wife within marriage it is expressing its deep respect for the image of God found in all the members of its community, just as it does when it condemns forms of vice including racism, bigotry, and defamation, for these in fact degrade both the souls of their victims and their perpetrators. This is why, Baylor University, the Baptist institution that employs me, presents in its Faculty Handbook our community's Christian ethics in the language of redemption and forgiveness, the sort of language one never sees in similar handbooks at secular institutions:

In all disciplinary procedures, Baylor University will seek to be redemptive in the lives of the individuals involved and to witness to the high moral standards of the Christian faith. Baylor will be guided by the understanding that human sexuality is a gift from the creator God and that the purposes of this gift include (1) the procreation of human life and (2) the uniting and strengthening of the marital bond in self-giving love. These purposes are to be achieved through heterosexual relationships within marriage. Misuses of God’s gift will be understood to include, but not be limited to, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication, and homosexuality.

Baylor will strive to deal in a constructive and redemptive manner with all
 who fail to live up to this high standard. Nothing will be done to encourage 
abortions or other drastic actions that might bring great harm to those
 involved. Dealing individually with each case, efforts will be made to 
counsel and assist those involved. Constructive forgiveness will guide all 
efforts.... (p. 186)

Third, Professor Leiter seems unacquainted with the catechism of the faith I embrace, Catholic Christianity. In its catechism, the Church makes a clear and understandable distinction between sexual orientation and sexual acts, one that I fully embrace (footnotes omitted):

Chastity and homosexuality

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

I know that Professor Leiter does not think that the distinctions articulated in the catechism, and by many other Christian communities, make much sense. But I can't see why he would think that way, since he in fact believes that it is permissible for Christian colleges and universities to have a Christian moral orientation (believing that extra-marital sexual acts are immoral) as long as these institutions do not act on that moral orientation in hiring and promotion of faculty. Thus, he fully grasps the orientation/act distinction.

Imagine that I was as blessed as Professor Leiter and found myself on the faculty of the University of Chicago, an institution that seems to maintain that it is not part of its mission to be concerned with the private moral lives of its faculty and students as long as no law or harassment policy is violated. Would I adhere to the university's self-understanding. Yes, I would. For example, I would not hesitate to vote for the hiring of a job candidate who was the most qualified for the faculty position to which she applied, even if that prospective professor were a left-wing atheist lesbian in a committed civil union under Illinois law.

Consequently, Professor Leiter is mistaken that I support discrimination against gay philosophers. What I support is the right of Christian colleges and universities to be treated with equal regard and respect within the community of academic institutions. This is a posture that takes seriously the true pluralism in which we find ourselves in early 21st century America. It is a posture that does not require that in the name "diversity" every institution look alike in both its composition and moral stances on contested questions. It is a posture that understands and empathizes with the differing factions of well-meaning and reasonable citizens who in fact have a deep disagreement on the nature of perhaps the most contested issue of our time: human sexuality and whether or not it has a final and formal cause that morally requires all those who possess this power to employ it consistently with its proper end.

When one's mind sees the world as neatly and unambigiously divided between the "Texas Taliban" and one's "right thinking" fellow travelers, it is difficult if not impossible to summon one's imagination to exercise the virtue of charity on matters over which such factions divide. For to do so would mean to call into question the very philosophical arrangement that has done all the work in one's mind defining and establishing one's moral superiority in what one perceives as a sea of steeples that house the dangerous practitioners of lowbrow ignorance. In other words, Professor Leiter has inadvertantly revealed that he, like his target of straw-theists, is insulated from evidence. In an age of irony, if Jack Nicholson were channeling Richard Rorty, he would say that's about as good as it gets.