Thursday, February 09, 2017

Symbolic sacrilege

Scorsese has the unusual distinction of making a movie (Silence) that's provoked a serious theological debate. That's rare. That's good. I'm going to comment on Lydia's analysis:

One attempt to justify Rodrigues can, I think, be easily dealt with. This is the attempt to say that his action is a "mere motion of the foot" and that what would be really wrong would be his rejecting Jesus in his heart. As long as he isn't apostatizing in his heart, goes this argument, it is completely okay to make a mere "foot motion" to save others from suffering.

This attempted justification makes a mockery of what is clearly taught in Scripture--that it is wrong to deny Jesus before men. (Matthew 10:33, Luke 12:9) In order to deny Jesus before men, one must use language or some external sign that is understood by other people. But any such sign could be said to be "merely external," up to and including the words, in a commonly understood language, "I deny and renounce Jesus Christ." One could say that uttering such words is "merely a movement of the tongue" or "merely a breath of wind out of one's mouth" and that, as long as one doesn't really deny Jesus "in one's heart," it's okay to apply consequential considerations and go ahead and say the words. And the same for the three young men and the fiery furnace. Bowing down to the image is a "merely external" act. So is pouring a libation to the emperor. So go ahead. It isn't really denying Jesus in your heart!

This sort of reasoning would negate the importance of resisting such acts that both Scripture and common sense attach to them. Scripture, overtly and repeatedly. Common sense, because we all know that the very reason that the persecutors are demanding the external act is because it is meaningful. Everyone involved in the situation realizes that they wouldn't be doing all these horrible things to try to force Rodrigues to trample on the face of Jesus Christ if it were a "mere foot movement." It is a significant speech act.

i) I agree with Lydia that it's a meaningful act. But it's meaningful in the same way lying is meaningful. A pretended "apostasy". The ethics of the symbolic gesture are similar to debates over the morality of lying to save innocent lives. That, of itself, doesn't legitimate the action, since it shifts the debate to whether lying is intrinsically wrong. But it reframes the nature of the issue. 

ii) I put "apostasy" in scare quotes because the question of whether this is an act of apostasy is one of the very points in dispute. It's not as if this text says to deny Christ before men is tantamount to apostasy. Rather, we're operating with a concept of apostasy, which we apply to this text. Now, this text may contribute to our concept of apostasy, but our concept of apostasy is based on a number of Biblical passages. If this was the only text we had to go by, would we classify the action as apostasy–with all the fateful and frightful connotations we now attach to that term? 

iii) Apropos (ii), even if public renunciation of the faith is a necessary condition of apostasy, is that a sufficient condition? Normally, an apostate is someone who publicly denies the faith because he has ceased to be a believer. At least, that's one paradigm-example of an apostate. He renounces the faith because he lost his faith. The assent is gone.

But in the scenario under review, the priest hasn't changed his Christian beliefs. Indeed, he's acting from a Christian conscience. 

iv) We might also consider the double effect principle, or something along those lines. The priest doesn't intend to commit sacrilege. That's not his aim. Rather, the symbolic act of sacrilege is a side-effect of his true intent, which is to spare the innocent.  

v) Furthermore, all parties concerned know that the gesture is insincere. That sends a very different message than a sincere act of apostasy. The priest is only doing it to spare others. Not only is his action disingenuous, but people can tell it's disingenuous, because they grasp the circumstances that are coercing his imposture. Same sign, but different significance. He isn't signaling loss of faith, but desperate compassion. 

The next argument is really just a plea from the extreme nature of the coercion involved. When Jesus said that we should never deny him before men, could he really have had in mind a scenario in which the evil men are torturing your children to try to get you to engage in some symbolic act of apostasy?

This argument is related to the claim, made in a 1989 philosophical article about Endo's book, that Rodrigues faces a genuine moral dilemma in which the command to love God with all your heart is at odds with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. (See quotes here.)

The problem with this whole approach is that it assumes that the act of publicly denying Christ is not intrinsically wrong. Those of us who believe in intrinsically wrong acts have been bombarded forever with increasingly horrific scenarios: But surely if the bad guys were going to do this, you would do that, right? There is this curious idea that the ethical concept of an intrinsically wrong act can be rendered null and void if only the consequences of refusing to perform it--even consequences brought about manipulatively by evil men--are bad enough! But the whole point of an intrinsically wrong act is that nothing can justify it, period. Hence it doesn't matter what the bad guys are going to do.

i) One problem with Lydia's response is her failure to grapple with the argument at hand. For if there are genuine moral dilemmas, then an agent caught in that dilemma can't avoid doing wrong, one way or another. To complain that the agent is doing something intrinsically wrong misses the point, for given moral dilemmas, he has no morally licit alternative. Perhaps Lydia doesn't subscribe the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. If so, that's what she needs to attack. 

ii) In addition, even if she personally rejects the possibility of moral dilemmas, that doesn't address the priest's duty in a hypothetical situation where he is confronted with a genuine moral dilemma. There's still the question of where his duty lies if we grant the possibility of moral dilemmas for the sake of argument. And since we're dealing with a fictional ordeal, surely that's a legitimate hypothetical question. 

iii) Moreover, Biblical commands and prohibitions have an implied context. In Mt 10:33 & Lk 12:9, the normal motivation to publicly deny Christ is to save your own skin. That envisions a situation where Christians face social sanctions (e.g. ostracization, financial deprivation, imprisonment, torture, martyrdom) unless they openly renounce the faith. That's the typical situation. A realistic prospect. 

There's no reason to think it covers more arcane scenarios where a Christian is acting, not to save himself, but to save others. And there's a crucial difference in Christian ethics between the two. Christian ethics is sacrificial. There's is a fundamental difference between risking yourself to save others, and risking others to save yourself. 

iv) Furthermore, since Lydia is a freewill theist, it isn't clear to me how she can rule out the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. In freewill theism, man's libertarian freedom limits God's providential options. Can God always arrange events to leave us with a morally licit option? 

v) Assuming that God lacks that degree of providential control, one might deny moral dilemmas in the sense that if we find ourselves in a hopeless bind through no fault of our own, then no forced option is morally wrong. What would ordinarily be wrong can't be wrong if we're boxed into a situation where every available choice would ordinarily be wrong. 

St. Paul quotes what was probably an early Christian hymn or creed to this effect:

If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us (2 Timothy 2:12).

That's equivocal since the situation under review not about my suffering, but my complicity in the preventable suffering of others. 

Indeed, Jesus actually says that we should "hate" our parents and children in comparison to our love for him. (Luke 14:26) Even allowing for Eastern hyperbole, the whole point of such an utterance seems to be that, if there is an apparent conflict between our duty to remain true to Jesus and our duties to those people, our duty to Jesus takes precedence. (Look, Ma, no ethical dilemmas!)

No, that oversimplifies the situation. That envisions a situation in which Jewish or pagan parents make you choose between allegiance to Jesus and allegiance to them. The parents are forcing a (grown) Christian child to choose. That's hardly analogous to the situation under review, where the human parties are victims. 

That denying Jesus before men is an intrinsically wrong act is clear not only from Jesus' teaching and other biblical teaching (e.g., the three young men in the fiery furnace) but also from the very nature of religion and Christianity. The whole point of religious commitment is that it is ultimate commitment. There are things to which one has given one's whole self, things to which one is absolutely committed. Christianity, as taught not just in verses about not denying Jesus but throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament (and Judaism in the Old) is similarly about absolute commitment of oneself. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. To live is Christ and to die is gain. We are crucified with Christ, yet Christ lives in us. We are to count all things as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. We present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable, which is only our reasonable service.

To the Christian, God, as revealed in the Son, Jesus Christ, is the ultimate value. If we don't have Him, we have nothing. We are therefore willing to die for him, to suffer for him. Nothing else is more important. Literally nothing. Nothing can compete with Him, nothing can take His place. If evil men choose to do evil things, yes, even evil things to those we love, that does not change the nature and importance of our own commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to be absolute, because that is part of what it means to be a Christian.

i) I agree with Lydia that apostasy is never justifiable. Of course, whether a symbolic act of sacrilege in this particular context is equivalent to apostasy is the very issue in dispute.

ii) In addition, this circles back to the issue of moral dilemmas. It's true that allegiance to God is typically treated as an absolute duty. But if freewill theism is true, does God have the right to be so demanding? If God puts us in a situation where we're essentially on our own, to fend for ourselves, because God's hands are tied; if God has thrust us into a situation where we must take our chances, then why should we suffer for a God who isn't looking out for us? Why should we value him more than he values us? Devotion is a two-way street. 

As a Calvinist, I believe everything happens for a good reason. But if I were a freewill theist, if I thought horrific things happen for no reason at all, then it's no longer clear to me why I'm supposed to have that unconditional level of commitment. I agree with Lydia that that's a part of what it means to be a Christian. The problem is whether freewill theism nullfies a necessary condition for absolute fidelity to be warranted. If the God of freewill theism shoves you out the airplane onto a wild island, wishing you good luck, and flies away, never to intervene, then where does your duty lie?   

1 comment:

  1. What is most interesting to me about the book (which I read about 10 years ago) is that Endo leaves his position deliberately ambiguous, it seems to me. When Rodrigues encounters Ferreira, it is revealed that since Ferreira trampled on the fumie, he has been living as a paid stooge of the shogunate and has actually engaged in counter-apologetic writing, publishing works directed at the Japanese population disproving the Roman Catholic religion.
    Similarly, after Rodrigues tramples, which the reader might think "well, that was kind of understandable", it is revealed that Rodrigues does the same thing. The implication seems to be that once they get you to do what you don't want to do by torturing other people once, they can get you to do pretty much anything the same way.
    Of course, that brings up the question whether trampling on some image of Christ is a bad thing. In Rodrigues' place, I'd probably go ahead and step on the thing. Who cares? But ask me to write substantive stuff about how God isn't God, using my expertise to turn people away from God? Nah. Ultimately, your torturing innocent people is on you and not on me.