Sunday, July 12, 2015

I liked white better

“I liked white better.”

The thought flashed across my mind the moment I saw the White House lit up in colors to celebrate the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage.

The thought need not reflect any particular position about the wisdom of that ruling.

Or about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography of one side of a still-far-from-over social debate.

Or even about the aesthetic preferences for exterior home lighting.

But in my case, I know exactly what it reflected.

The thought simply occurred to me, quite apart from my choosing to call it up, because I had recently read the exact same words in Tolkien, in Gandalf’s retelling of his fateful meeting with Saruman.
“So you have come, Gandalf,” he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.

“Yes, I have come,” I said. “I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.” And that title seemed to anger him.

“Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!” he scoffed. “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.”

‘I looked at him and wondered. “But if I am not deceived,” said I, “things are now moving which will require the union of all our strength.”

“That may be so,” he said, “but the thought is late in coming to you. How long, I wonder, have you concealed from me, the head of the Council, a matter of greatest import? What brings you now from your lurking-place in the Shire?”

“The Nine have come forth again,” I answered. “They have crossed the River. So Radagast said to me.”

“Radagast the Brown!” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. “Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
By this point some of my readers may be starting to lose patience.

They are either asking “Why is he giving so much context?” or else “How dare he compare the White House and the white robes of Saruman?”

“After all, it’s not like our leader repeatedly lied for the sake of increasing his power—like Saruman.

“And it’s not like our world has nine black-clothed people whose power is all but impossible to overcome—like Ringwraiths.”

“And it’s not like, in our world, the leader joined the side of the Nine.”

OK, I could go on, but if you have now lost all patience, good!—that’s exactly how Saruman felt with Gandalf at this point.
“You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends,” said he. “I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.”
That choice, as Saruman explained, was between joining him in the service of Sauron, or joining him to try and get the One Ring for himself, or becoming his prisoner. Gandalf choose imprisonment.

Let me here recognize something that may reassure some of you.

It really is the case that, despite their starting with the same English letters, the battle over Marriage Equality is quite unlike the battle over Middle Earth.

For example, those in favor of it are not necessarily in Sauron’s service. Nor, it should be said, are those who are against it.

And yet.

And yet I recently read that one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellen—who plays Gandalf, of all people!—boasts about regularly ripping pages out of hotel bibles whose contents are not to his liking.

This response to those with whom one disagrees is not what I used to expect from typical liberals. (At least he doesn’t do it, or boast about it, with the Koran.)

When McKellen was asked what he would like to ask Tolkien, he said this:

“Would he be the sort of Catholic who wouldn't understand why someone like me would be openly gay and think myself God's creature as he was?”

Seriously? Not one Catholic I know (or know about, save in someone’s fantasy world) would have any trouble at all understanding the things McKellen mentions, either separately or together.

The idea that being openly gay undercuts being equally God’s creature is a projection, entirely of some people’s own making.

And the suggestion that merely believing that certain sexual choices are wrong commits one to believing the above idea is a lie from the pit of hell.

Which brings us back to our story.

I know we might see our nine, not like Ringwraiths, but like the chosen nine in the Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps the four conservatives are like hobbits, the two remaining men like humans, and the three women like an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard (though one of the men already thinks he’s the wizard).

OK. Fine. But even those nine were tempted with a lie from the pit of Mordor…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. This bit resonated with me, Russell: "Or about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography of one side of a still-far-from-over social debate."

    I'm more often worried about the use of government coercion, but the messages it sends are significant, too and so I'm also worried about a government taking sides in this kind of way about this kind of thing, even though I support marriage equality. Maybe there are some (even important) differences, but in my post last week I wrote this about the Confederate flag at the SC Statehouse: "Whatever else that flag is supposed to represent, it’s also a big, government sponsored middle finger to something like 28% of the state’s population." As someone who (I think) doesn't support marriage equality, did you take the White House light show to represent something similar?

    I recently read a book that addresses this set of issues: Corey Brettschneider, When the State Speaks, What Should It Say?: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality. But I'm still not sure what I think about it.

    1. Kyle, thanks for the book plug. I did not take the White House light show to represent something similar to what you took the Confederate flag to represent in South Carolina: "a big, government sponsored middle finger" to a large part of the population.

      I suspect their motives were not "ha ha, we won, you lost" but genuine celebration at what they perceive is the victory of the right side of history on this one. LIke this apparently nice guy:

      In general, I find it hard to believe that the feelings of resentment by people who are offended by something are of the same epistemic and moral importance as the pronouncements of the government representatives who say "no, no, this symbol does not mean what you take it to mean; it's not representing that, but this…"

      But maybe I should take people's reactive attitudes on this sort of thing more seriously.

  2. Russell, greetings from an old friend! Read your post and couldn't resist a quick reply.

    Perhaps it's my lack of familiarity with Tolkien's work (scandalous, I know), or my general obtuseness, but your argument went a bit over my head here. So I thought I'd pose a question and see if you can restate your main point using some straight talk (pun intended :).

    Perhaps in error, I take the key sentence in the post to be this one: “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” My reading is that you are implying that marriage equality advocates risk "breaking" marriage in their attempts to expand (legal) access to the (civil) institution. (Or perhaps you are implying that the Obama administration risks "breaking" a certain view of the White House as a neutral governmental entity or institution?)

    If that is indeed the central sentence and my reading of your argumentative intention is accurate, and please tell me if either is not true, then I'm wondering what you take the implications of your story to be if it were applied in the wake of the Loving v. Virginia decision in more or less the same manner you appear to be using it here (including perhaps with the references to misrepresentations by the president and the extensive power of a 9 person SCOTUS).

    - Did advocates of marriage equality for mixed race couples risk "breaking" the institution when they sought to expand legal access to a civil institution? (This is, of course, only one example of change/evolution among many to what has turned out to be a quite durable and flexible institution where people raised this same objection about existential threats to marriage.)

    - Would you have been troubled if Nixon had lit the White House half in black and half in white to honor the decision and its meaning for millions of Americans? Similarly, should sitting Presidents be forbidden from displaying works of art in the White House that celebrate American political or legal developments that are/were disliked by many Americans at the time (e.g., Brown vs. Board of Education)? Would the claim "I liked the walls better bare" have the same ring to you in those circumstances?

    If the answer to these questions is "yes", then I guess I'm not really that persuaded by the argument, creative as it might be. I'm much more confident in my intuition that excluding mixed race couples from legal access to a civil institution is morally wrong than I am to any point that might be drawn from the exchange between Gandalf and Saruman. If the answer is "no", then please help me understand more clearly what take to be the morally relevant difference between the two cases.

    A loyal DR reader in Kansas City :)

    1. Jeremy, welcome back to the dance.

      I was wondering whether someone would notice that line. I confess that its potential relevance here had crossed my mind, even though I didn't know how to articulate it, or intend to make it the sticking point of my post.

      But your two interpretations of how one could take the relevance of that line sound like a good place to start, if we wanted to push it a bit.

      And your questions about how to handle a (hypothetical, I believe) Nixon-inspired "black and white" White House to celebrate the Loving decision is appropriate.

      My answer to your first question is "no" and my answer to your second one is "yes."

      I probably don't have anything new to say on why to me that same-sex "marriage" is a different way of approaching the institution than interracial marriage. To echo something I wrote several months ago on this blog (when I let Lefty and Righty go at it), is there anything at all on your view of what sorts of changes can risk "breaking" an institution like civil marriage so that, even though we still call it "civil marriage," it is a seriously broken version of the real thing?

      I would have been troubled if Nixon lit up the White House like you imagine, because the executive branch already has quite enough power already and does not need to meddle in iconographies. It's rubbing it in. It has other, and more awesome, tools at its disposal for taking sides--as it sometimes must. I think a thought-experiment might make the point here…are we to believe that, if Obama had told the truth in 08, and if as a result he lost his margin in a few swing states then, and if McCain was president, and if SCOTUS therefor had a different make-up in 2013 and 2015, and if the 2013 and 2015 SCOTUS decisions on SSM had gone 6-3 the other direction rather than 5-4 the way they did, and if whoever-was-president had decided to light up the white house with whatever icon he or she deemed most emblematic of resisting SSM--if we imagine all this, should we also imagine that people who are in favor of SSM would think it appropriate to use the front of the White House in this way? (The indoor art case is different; it's private enough that nobody cares.)

      But again, the original post was not meant to pack all this in, even in an embryonic form. So while you are playing the midwife here, you should know you are playing it on a merely potential pregnancy…

      Thanks for the loyalty here. Even if it's the loyal opposition. I'm sure you've got more that can be said, and I'll try to be accommodating in reading (and maybe responding?) to it.

    2. Jeremy,
      Good to hear from you! I appreciate your drawing a comparison to Loving, because it really is a parallel case, including the arguments about the central definition of marriage being at risk, this time between members of the same race. This element of marriage was presented as central then to the dominant conception of marriage as opposite-sexed-ness is now, and as coverture was a mere 100 years ago or so (with the USSC only finally striking down the last remnants of it in their 1980 ruling in Kirchberg).

    3. Chris, l see an obvious surface-level parallel. But, to elaborate a bit on Russell's point above, I don't think it goes very far. The arguments for opposing marriage equality for inter-racial couples that the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals cited were about preserving something they called "racial integrity". They were taking their cue from the "scientific" eugenics movement of the day. The arguments for opposing marriage equality for same-sex couples that, e.g., Roberts noted in his dissent were about the necessity of procreative relations for the union to count as a real marriage. He's taking his cue from the (to my mind, very odd) Robert George/Sharif Girgis "Metaphysics First!" approach to public policy that Russell discussed in a post last year.

      So (for what it's worth) the difference is that, as far as I know, Virginia didn't say that the Lovings never had a genuine marriage because of what marriage is. There was no disagreement about what marriage is -- only about whether states have the authority to prevent inter-racial couples from having one.

    4. Russell, thanks for your reply. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to a number of points. I unfortunately don't have the time to do much of that in return right now, but let me make one point and then plead with you to provide a more straightforward and precise statement of your exact argument.

      So, your reply to me now makes me wonder if all the "Lord of the Rings" dressing was necessary, or even useful in any way aside from entertainment and amusement, if your main thesis is simply the following:

      "...the executive branch already has quite enough power already and does not need to meddle in iconographies. It's rubbing it in."

      I had thought from your reply to Kyle that you actually weren't worried about this "rubbing it in" effect; indeed, you seem to suggest that you genuinely believe that exactly the opposite effect was intended. So there's that issue to be clarified: are you, or are you not, primarily concerned with the sense in which this is an act of rubbing it in (or, in Kyle's more colorful expression, an act of extending a giant government sponsored middle finger) to marriage equality opponents?

      Moreover, and this leads to my plea, what role does all the Gandalf-talk play in helping you make that case?

      I think all of us would benefit form seeing your argument restated in precise and straightforward form (ideally in an numbered step argument) stripped of all that. As Randy points out in his posts, I think this literary dressing actually gets you into some trouble that I'm not sure you need or want to get yourself into. And, as Chris and I have pointed out, several of us are struggling to see exactly what the original argument was attempting to do, so you're losing out on some potential converts (okay, probably not, but at least some additional spirited conversation!) by obscuring the main argument in dragging it through Middle Earth.

    5. Kyle, thanks for the discussion of Loving. Actually the case is much more deeply parallel. Virginia argued that 1. God never intended the races to marry (religious rationale) and that interracial marriage supports procreation which corrupts white blood (white supremacist eugenics version), I.e., can't or shouldn't procreate, and 2. That states have the right to define marriage. The Lovings were married in D.C. but when they returned to Virginia one of the punishments for violating the anti-miscegenation laws is the dissolution of the marriage. Here's the parallel to the current case, couples were married in another state, moved back to their home states which have anti-gay marriage laws and were faced with exactly the same choices as the Lovings, stay and have your marriage dissolved because it is not recognized by the state as a marriage or leave and go to a state which does. Rationale today, 1. God never intended gays to marry (religious version) and you can't procreate (old school biology version), and 2. States have the right to define marriage.

    6. I agree with Chris here that the parallels are pretty deep when properly reconstructed. But I'm not sure it matters in this case since Russell said in his original post that his position does not depend on any particular view of the wisdom of the ruling (which presumably includes both the degree to which they are legally and/or morally justified). Of course, as I just noted in my reply above, I'm still not sure that I understand exactly what position Russell is intending to defend here, so I'm hoping that he'll lay it out for us in a more straightforward argument.

    7. Jeremy,

      First, my apologies to you (and other respondents) for my recent absence here—I had an end-of-summer-session-grading-crush on top of a distracting health issue—but I will try to make up for that now.

      Regarding the consistency of my comment about “rubbing it in” with my earlier willingness (in reply to Kyle) to assume the best about the administration’s motives: you can rub something in, inappropriately, even when you are just trying to celebrate your side’s victory (even if you aren’t gloating over the other side’s defeat). I suspect most of us agree about this, and the question is merely one of degree. A loud prayer of thanksgiving for a political outcome might be appropriate in a synagogue; the same loud prayer right in front of the students you are about to teach in one of Sacramento State’s political philosophy classes would surely be out of place, and “rubbing it in,” even if one’s motive in vocalizing the prayer (before “official” class time began, mind you) was not to “rub it in” to those of one’s students who deeply identified with the other side of the political issue. Spreading your family dinner table with a rainbow colored tablecloth is one thing, even as the president; but appearing in rainbow-colored tighty whiteys on the cover of Vanity Fair is another thing if you are the president.

      But this point about rubbing it in was not (as you asked) my “main thesis.” Which brings me to your plea for me to state my main thesis, and for me to strip away the Middle-Earth stuff.

      Well, now, that’s complicated. But I’ll try something close.

      It’s complicated because the Middle-Earth stuff was both the efficient cause and the argumentative scaffold for me to make a number of comparisons. I tried to introduce this stuff carefully in the intro. I did not mean to say that my “position” (your word) does not “depend on any particular view of the wisdom of the ruling” (your phrase)—but I can see now that it’s easy to read me that way. All I said was that a particular thought – “I liked white better” – “need not reflect” (1) “any particular position about the wisdom of that ruling” or (2) [any particular position] “about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography…” or (3) [any particular position] “about the aesthetic preferences for home lighting.” By that I meant to say that a particular token (Tk) of that type of indexical thought (T) is not necessarily reflective of its thinker’s view of (1), (2), and/or (3). She could have thought (Tk) because it reflects (3), but she need not have thought it for that reason—and the same goes for (2) and (1).

      But I went on to say that “in my case, I know exactly what it reflected.” So even though the type of thought (T) is indeterminate as to what it reflects, my particular token of the thought (Tr, r for ‘Russell’) was not so indeterminate. Mine was triggered by having read that specific sentence recently.

      Well, fine. But how much of the surrounding context of that sentence was (in my own peculiar mind) connected with triggering it? And how much of the surrounding context of that sentence should any person carry over to the White House case?


    8. I wish I knew my own mind well enough to know whether the neural network that whisked that sentence from the part of my brain labeled “Tolkien stuff” to the surface of my conscious awareness was a network labeled “things that start off white but end up multi-colored” or a network labeled “things that lying leaders and those who try to resist them,” or both, or neither. But I don’t. So I won’t speculate further about that.

      But once the fuller context of that sentence is before us, I think any person can notice two comparisons, each of which I mentioned in my original post, albeit in a way that probably obscured more than it revealed:

      Comparison #1 (C1): Obama is like Saruman, (A) in being a powerful and trusted leader, (B) who repeatedly lied to and used those who took him for a friend and ally (Radagast and Gandalf and others in the fictional case, voters and key religious leaders in the factual case) in order to increase his own power, (C) who then aggressively aligned himself with a movement and individuals that many had trusted him to do his small bit to lawfully oppose (the movement of Sauron and the individual Nine in the fictional case, the movement opposing conjugal marriage and the individuals in an increasingly imperialistic Supreme Court in the factual case), (D) who now seeks others to join him in this movement, and (E) who chose to change something white to appear multi-colored.

      Note carefully, C1 does not require endorsing even the mildest moral affinity between the movement of Sauron and the movement opposing conjugal marriage, in part (C1.C). Of course it would strengthen the comparison if these movements had some affinity with each other. But the comparison gets off the ground even without such affinity.

      Comparison #2 (C2): The idea that believing certain sexual choices are wrong commits one to believing that the choosers are not equally God’s creatures is a lie from the pit of hell. Mordor may have no single lie that corresponds neatly to this one. But Mordor’s functional role in Middle Earth as the locus of such lies is what makes the comparison apt.

      In my original post, I got to C2 gradually, through the actor who played good old Gandalf in the movies. Alas, the actor seems to have believed the lie. Alas, he’s not the only one. This lie, or one of its mutant spawn, is what leads many to think and act like those opposed to same sex marriage are at bottom little more than bigots—sometimes polite, sometimes sincere, but bigots nonetheless. This lie played, and continues to play, an inordinate role in the public discourse over same sex marriage—including the recent SCOTUS majority opinion. (I finally sat down and read every word of it, along with the four replies—illuminating, and ominous.)

      So, then. When I set out to write my post, I didn’t have a main thesis. I still don’t. But if you want a sharp statement, which builds on what C1 and C2 have in common, then I just noticed there’s at least one possible place to start:

      Thesis: The road to the Rainbow House was paved with lies.

  3. Hi Russell,
    Thanks for this post, though I confess, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. Perhaps I need to be more up my Ring-ology.

    But I'm also not sure what to make of your response to Kyle's question about the possibilities of a parallel between the possible offensiveness of the white house aglow in rainbow colours and the actual offensiveness of the confederate flag above the state building in SC. Are you trying to be coy or especially non-committal?

    If so, I see no reason to be. Unlike the rainbow flag, the Confederate flag (whatever other meaning people want to give it) was the battle flag of a set of states declaring war against the rest of the country in defense of an economic and legal system premised upon the practice of human slavery. That the confederate flag is "offensive" is to render the mildest of legitimate criticisms. The rainbow flag at worst might be seen by some as a symbol of a cultural "war" over practices which harm no one, are private, and seek to challenge our concepts of liberty and equality for their expansion, not their contraction. At worst, it offends some people by contravening their religiously-based beliefs about proper relationships. As the principal state building of a nation which stands for liberty and equality, it seems perfectly appropriate that the state celebrate this ruling for what it primarily is, the expansion of personal liberty and social equality for individuals who not long ago were despised and suffered legally sanctioned discrimination in almost all areas of life.

    1. So I guess I'm reluctant to be dragged (further) into weighing in on the (a)symmetries between the rainbow flag's display on the face of our White House and the Confederate flag's display. I was trying to be non-committal rather than coy here, and "here I stand" in being non-committal on that.

      One thing that caught my eye in your post, if I understand your grammar right, was the juxtaposition of the claims that certain "practices...are private, and seek to challenge our concepts of liberty and equality for their expansion, not their contraction."

      I think it takes a fair amount of charity to accept the idea the practices in question are private. People have been increasingly public about increasingly more as each year goes on, although the icons are changing so fast its hard for even CNN to keep up:

      But set that aside. What I'm interested in is the juxtaposition of the privacy idea and the business about challenging our concepts. There's nothing private at all about challenging our concepts. It's a way of saying "let's all of us think and talk differently than we have." The proposal may be a good thing, or it may not. But private it is not.

  4. Hi Russell,
    Apologies for my confusing grammar. What I was referring to as private and as challenging our concepts of liberty and equality, is the practice of homosexuality and the choice of whom to love and marry. The flying of the rainbow flag in support of and as a demonstration of being proud of (rather than closeted about) people's being free in these ways is distinctively different from the flying of the confederate flag, which whatever else people might invest it with, was the battle flag for slave-owning southern states.

    You do know that "ISIS" flag that CNN reported on was a spoof flag, right? Poking a symbolic finger in the eye of a group which executes homosexuals for homosexuality.

  5. Thanks for this provocaitve post. I have a question and a proposition.


    What exactly do you mean when you say "the idea that being openly gay undercuts being equally God’s creature is a" falsehood? Can't you say exactly the same thing and in the same sense about pedophiles and bigots? If so, what sort of consolation should this be to someone like McKellen?


    You say:

    "Or about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography of one side of a still-far-from-over social debate."

    I bet that this debate is for all intents and purposes over in the U.S.. I bet that within 20 years people who object to gay marriage will be regarded as morally benighted as people who object to interracial marriage today. Currently about 60% of U.S. citizens support marriage equality whereas 85% support black/white interracial marriage. I specifically bet you 100 dollars that within 20 years the number of people who support gay marriage will be 75% or above. (I stipulate 20 years mostly because by then your kids will be out of college and it will not hurt too much to pay me.)

  6. I take it that "being equally God's creature" is a property human individuals possess inalienably, irrespective of their religious and moral practices. The consolation this should be to someone like McKellen is that there is a world of difference between thinking an individual to be

    (1) still equally God's creature, but erring, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot;


    (2) not still equally God's creature; a sub-human; an X-man.

    We've seen the sort of thing that individuals and groups are capable of doing to individuals they think meet condition (2). Individuals who meet condition (1), on the other hand, are like the "tax collectors and sinners" Jesus was criticized for eating with, and the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son Jesus told his critics about in some of his sharper parables he directed at them (see Luke 15:

    I'm actually a bit tempted by your wager offer. But, for one thing, my suspicion is that your prediction about percentages is probable. And yet there is a big difference between 75% of people "support[ing] gay marriage" and 75% of people regarding "people who object to gay marriage…as morally benighted as people who object to interracial marriage today." Yet it's the latter idea that has been used, even by those who know better, to make their case for the former idea. And that's one area where the lie I mentioned can be seen.

    1. Sorry, my penultimate sentence should have read…"those who ought to know better…"

    2. Thanks Russell. Your tendency to agree with the first claim surprises me a little, if you really think the debate is far from over as you said. So would you be willing to accept my wager if it concerned the latter claim? I think it is also a very probable outcome, but it is just a little more difficult to measure. Still, it would not be that hard.

      Regarding your first answer, I guess I would have to say that, to the extent that being equally God's creature remains consistent with being put to death or consgned to eternal damnation for your way of life, it is cold comfort.

    3. Randy,

      I'm still not jumping at the bet. I am not the betting type, and think the proverb about the fool and his money was written for me. I also know if I bet then I would be like Pete Rose, who bet in favor of his own team while he was still a part of it (not kosher), since I am hoping to do my bit going forward to affect the outcome of these statistics.

      Concerning being put to death or consigned to eternal damnation, well, when that card's played the typical polite thing to do is fold.

      So consider what follows as at least atypical...

      I think the sting, when there is a sting, of being killed or damned for an activity is primarily due to our sense that these are penalties that utterly fail to fit the crimes.

      But there’s a way of defending these, not as penalties “tacked on” (either fittingly or not) to certain activities, but as reasonably expected outcomes of the activities themselves.

      If human life is a continuous (not one-time) gift (not entitlement) dependent on the will of the giver at each moment (not an enduring thing of its own), then anything we do that can reasonably change the will of the giver can reasonably end our life.

      Consider: a nun has a nephew who she gives a crisp twenty to each Christmas. He turns around and makes a money shrine out of it and worships it. And boasts about it. Often. To her face. Even after her pleas to use it better. Now then: he can reasonably expect not to get a crisp twenty from her next Christmas. He certainly has no right to expect another installment of such a gift from her—not next year, not any year. If he keeps getting twenties from her, it may be that she is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do him or others—but it’s not like she owes it to him.

      Each of us is, to the giver of our life, much like that nephew to his aunt. We practically worship our own life, even if we ought to know better, and even when the rumor’s out that we have been told better. And yet the spicket supplying our lives to us remains “on.” Why? Because the giver is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do us or others.

      There’s a brilliant line that the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about someone who asked the following insensitive questions online:

      “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?...It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?”

      To which he replied (in part): “my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”

      Nice. But his point actually makes my point. We give the middle finger to God all the time, even when it’s not with our middle finger. And yet he is “patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

      And yet occasionally the spicket is abruptly turned off.

      For example, it's a bit surprising the things the earliest Christians (followers of a supposedly gentle Jesus, meek and mild) thought about the circumstances in which the giver of life could instantly and legitimately end, or begin to end, a human person's life: like a husband-and-wife each dropping dead for lying about how much of their own property they donated to charity ( ), or a Roman leader neglecting to praise God after the people praised one of his speeches ( ).

      When confronted by this sort of thing, it’s natural for us to think something—anything—that avoids the most straightforward reading: these things happened and were fully justified given the background dynamic of who is the giver and who is the receiver of the continuous gift of life.

    4. What about damnation? Well, the short story is that eternal conscious torment can come in many forms. The form some think of first is a huge cosmic barbeque, grilling people like hot dogs against their will for an everlasting Fourth of July party. But there are several other pictures more biblical than this one.

      The universe was created, in part, so that human persons would exist and have their deepest desire be a thirst for God (Psalm 63:1) that could be richly satisfied (John 4:13-15; 6:35; 7:37; Revelation 21:6; 22:17), but not without their cooperation. People, like horses, can be led to water but not be made to drink. And hell seems to be a realm for people whose continuous decision not to drink is continuously respected.

      In the famous parable about the comparative afterlives of a poor man in heaven (“Abraham’s side”) and a rich man in hell (“Hades,” Luke 16:19-31), one of the striking thing is how the rich man asks for the poor man “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”—he wants his thirst relieved—but there’s no suggestion of a willingness to turn to God to slake his thirst (the poor man does not apologize, or ask to visit heaven). Apparently his suffering (“I am in agony in this fire”) is compatible with many things—talking in his own voice, seeing people with his own eyes, reasoning about the best interests of his family members with his own mind—and yet his suffering is not so intense that it forces him to turn to God.

      An account of hell based on unsatisfied desire dovetails well with the metaphor of burning. Paul said elsewhere “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9)—the idea being that living with strong and unsatisfied desire “burns”.

      If people continually refuse to satisfy their desire for God with God, is it not utterly reasonable to expect they will continually “burn” for as long as this desire remains? Not in some medieval torture-chamber, but in the preserved dignity of their person, choosing thirst over satisfaction, apparently for a very long time?

  7. On another note, the line that Jeremy focused on: “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom," is gravid with hermeneutic possibilities, isn't it? When I read it I found myself thinking of Gandalf as espousing a kind of epistemological holism. If science has taught us anything it is that to understand a thing we must break it, specifically we must disassemble it to whatever extent possible and learn how it goes back together. Gandalf does not seem to appreciate that white just is a combination of all the colors of the visible spectrum. He sees real discovery as deception and disloyalty. A Gandalfian hostility to analysis has also been used by thinkers like Haidt and Singer to help us explain the persistence of dysfunctional moral intuitions.

  8. Randy,
    That's a good observation about the limits of Gandalf's line. Maybe there's an implicit restriction here--namely, "he who breaks a thing (merely) to find out what it is (without any intention to restore it back again) has left the path of wisdom"?

    That could be true of concrete substances--think of a scientist who wants to vivisect a living alien, the only one of its kind that we're aware of, just got get her next research grant, even if it means painfully killing the poor thing.

    But it might also be true of some of our own intuitions. Think here of the last lines in The Abolition of Man--which I recall you somewhat like:

    “You cannot go on seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see.”