Deconstructing Equality

Vinoth Ramachandra

The real test of whether we or our governments understand the concept of human rights is whether we or they are willing to defend the rights of our enemies.

I believe that the near-hysterical denunciation of the white far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with numerous calls on Twitter and elsewhere for their sacking from their jobs and expulsion from universities, is evidence of a lack of understanding about human rights.

The marchers were protesting the demolition of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, one of the leaders of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Whatever Lee’s political views, no historian doubts his military genius. And if city mayors and state governors are going to expunge memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia. And, in Britain, the memorials to Churchill and a host…

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Holy Spirit and Apologetics

The narcissistic curiosity of googling one’s own name could be a phenomenon worth reflecting on. It could be a form of taking a selfie– with the exception that it is indulged within one’s own cloistered spaces, and thus, exhibits a deeper level of sophistication on the gradient of vanity– a form of deconstruction where I watch myself watching me, unlike when I google someone else!

well, in the process of all the self-indulgence, the google tossed way too many Varughese Johns– 2,67,000 to be precise, and that in 0.68 seconds.

This somewhat explains my adoption of Aruthuckal Varughese John as the nom de plume hence forth. Aruthuckal happens to be my family– house name in Kerala. My efforts to find what it means has thus far failed. It probably means pirate! 🙂

Anyway, the first use of this variant has appeared in the chapter I contributed in this book edited by my friend, Roji T George. The volume is a fantastic collection. My article is titled Third Article Theology and Apologetics.

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My paper argues that the loss of the transcendence from a culture is maximally a loss of the Holy Spirit. After all, unlike the Holy Spirit, the other two members of the Trinity have a visible trail—the Father, his created order (natural theology) and the Son his historical presence (Theology of redemption). Whereas, the self-effacing Holy Spirit is “neither seen nor known” by the world (John 14:17) or by the Church that succumbs to the spirit of the age. In short, the cultural influence of naturalism has left the church Spirit-impoverished.

Thus, I explore how we may recover this loss and prioritize the Spirit? If we looked carefully, a Spirit priority seems to follow the structure of function within the economic Trinity. That is, while the Trinitarian order follows the Father sending the Son to complete the work of redemption followed by the sending of the Spirit to sanctify the Church, human encounter seems to always require an inverse Trinitarian order. It is the Spirit who testifies to the Lordship of Christ, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3), and it is in Jesus in whom the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), that we see the face of the Father (John 14:9).

Exploring the epistemic role of the Spirit, I conclude that the Spirit is the epistemic agency as well as the starting point in turning the Christian message into an intelligible account for anyone who hears it.

Given the self-effacing nature of the Spirit who points humans towards Christ, who in turn points us towards the Father, a Spirit priority inherently provides a Trinitarian mould for theological thinking and practice.

Uppsala_October (M)ending? 2 years since, still hopeful . . .

The Church of Sweden discussed a rather audacious theme, Mending the World? during October 2015 (13–15), in Uppsala, Sweden. The purpose was to explore “if, and how, and in what ways religion, church, and theology can contribute to the future of a global society in constructive ways.” My paper was titled Anti-Conversion Laws in India: Circumscribing Freedom of Conscience within Dharmic Assumptions and is published as a chapter in this edited volume (OR: Pickwick, 2017).

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My paper looks at the freedom of religion bills that have been adopted in various states of India against religious conversion. It also looks at the interpretation of the Article 25 in the context of religious freedom, which I believe, swerves away from the spirit in which it was originally envisaged. Would this be a betrayal of secularism that India is committed to? If it is, what challenges does this pose to its plural fabric?

@ the JNU Philosophy Colloquium

it was an honor to be invited to speak at the JNU Philosophy Colloquium earlier last year (April 2016) on the theme Freedom of Conscience: Navigating Between the Individual and the Community. It was hosted by the Centre for English Studies and School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies.

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I fumbled when I realized that they were recording the presentation. Yet, here I am engaging in shameless self-promotion, despite how insufferable it is! There were some great discussions that followed, although that was not recorded.

@ the ATA Conference: scribbles from my talk . . .

In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor writes, “It is easy to see how standard morality itself can come to be seen as inseparable from stifling convention. Morality as normally understood obviously involves crushing much that is elemental and instinctive in us, many of our deepest and most powerful desires.”

This shift is from defining moral freedom predominantly as the power to choose against my natural inclination to seeing it as a right to choose according to my inclinations. Clearly, the latter is a form of freedom and one should be free to choose what one wants. But when the culture more or less entirely shifts towards defining freedom in the latter sense, then, there is a slide.

What does this do to a culture where people see moral freedom fundamentally as a “right” to do what one wants?

~ It entails a culture of narcissism where I become the center of fulfillment.

~ One could expect a slide in the level intentionality in individuals to strive towards cultivating virtues held in honor within societies, gain mastery over natural appetites, overcome compulsions for immediate gratification.

What happens when you have a culture where everyone seeks immediate gratification? Follow the law of diminishing returns- quickly we’d then have a culture where, there are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain— (btw: I google even not so obscure literary references; and so, for those like me, this one is by Chesterton) and it can’t be said better: Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.

~The culture eliminates conventional virtues because traditional morality stifles who I am and comes in the way of my right!

Yet, no culture can exist without virtues. So authenticity replaces all other virtues. Of course, authenticity in the classical sense is great. But the redefining of moral freedom entails a redefinition of authenticity as well.

“Authenticity” now becomes the opposite of what it used to be: being true to who you are and how you feel in terms of your inclination or orientation– therefore, we embrace who we are, celebrate even, rather than change or fix us! After all, if authenticity is being true to one’s inclinations, it is one’s ethical duty to be true to oneself!

So it follows: if authenticity is the highest virtue, phoniness has to be the worst vice. So one can be an embezzler and an adulterer or whatever else one wishes . . . yet being honest about them makes him or her worthy of honor.

Btw: an interesting case is made that Trump won votes using this calculus! People could almost hear Trump retort these words to Hillary as one commentator said: “Maybe everything they say about me is true, but at least I’m authentic, at least I’m real: you, on the other hand, are a bloody, disgusting hypocrite.” But I guess people are free to advocate a particular logic and hate it when someone uses it really well.

This logic affects the church too: “by focusing on brokenness as proof of our ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity,’ we turn ‘being screwed up’ into a badge of honor, its own sort of works righteousness.” – Brett McCracken

Given that being authentic is to be oneself– an original, one would have to express oneself uniquely. One has to create something new and shun imitations.

“Artistic creation becomes the paradigm mode in which people can come to self-definition. The artist becomes in some way the paradigm case of the human being, as agent of original self-definition. Since about 1800, there has been a tendency to heroize the artist, to see in his or her life the essence of the human condition, and to venerate him or her as a seer, the creator of cultural values.” – Taylor

The artistic becomes both the means and the end. But what does this do to a culture?

~ We slide again– from those times when there were a few great poets to one where everybody is one, but none of them great. My guess is, if everyone is a poet, no one is!

and if there are no great artists, will there be a culture?

ps: of course, it isn’t all that hopeless as I make it sound! 🙂

“Thou, my Fellow Traveller as I Go”

Normally, I use this blog space to rant about random thoughts that cross my mind. The random thoughts are still there, but I could not write as much as I would have loved to. Partly, it is because, over almost the last couple of years, the thoughts have turned inward– toward failings, disappointments, and inabilities.

Becoming acutely aware of the need for a mentor, I went ahead and found one. He passed on to me an old copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, which has since become a treasure. Tucked in this morning’s prayer, I found these sweet words.

It has pleased Thee to withhold from me a perfect knowledge; therefore deny me not the grace of faith by which I may lay hold of things unseen. Thou hast given me little power to mould things to my own desire; therefore use Thine own omnipotence to bring Thy desires to pass within me. Thou hast willed it that through labour and pain I should walk the upward way; be Thou then my fellow traveller as I go.

So then, I reflect. The epistemic humility that we are forced to acknowledge, for “our knowledge is imperfect” and so are we (1 Cor 13:9), need not be resisted. The calm assurance of the fellow traveller will suffice.

Ashers Bakery, Gay Cakes and Freedom of Conscience

This piece is not an argument about gay marriage or the moral reasoning that undergirds the debate. This is a reflection on the grounding of the recent ruling against Ashers Bakery, especially its use of an improper comparator, which singularly tipped the judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

The Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled on the 24th October 2016 that Ashers Bakery, run by local Christians– Karen and Daniel McArthur, acted unlawfully when they refused to write, “Support Gay Marriage” on the cake that Gareth Lee, a Gay activist, ordered. The McArthurs were slapped with a fine of £500, which they are required to pay Lee unless the UK’s Supreme Court decides otherwise.

Peter Kreeft, the Christian philosopher, articulated the classical understanding of tolerance with the phrase: be egalitarian towards persons and elitist towards ideas. True tolerance is not acceptance of any/every idea. After all, not every idea is true or valid and therefore, not every idea is equal. There are clearly some stupid ideas out there!

But tolerance necessarily would have to presuppose that all persons are equal. The Christian concept of Imago Dei is robustly egalitarian. That everyone is made in the image of God accords a non-negotiable value upon each individual irrespective of his or her background, gender, status, race, etc. Accepting of an individual would mean that the rights that are basic and fundamental are extended to each person without discrimination.

The Bakers did not refuse to bake a cake for the Gay activist. And rightly, businesses established to serve the common civil society should not refuse services to people merely because they disagree with their lifestyle. The bakers claimed that they “would have supplied a cake without the message ‘support gay marriage’ and would also have refused an order from a heterosexual customer whose order included the same message as that sought by the respondent.” In short, they claimed that they were not discriminating against who was placing the order, but only with the message that conflicted with their religious belief.

Why would they refuse to write those words while not objecting to bake a cake? Cannot the words “support gay marriage” be construed as just a part of the decoration? Would it be different if it wasn’t a slogan and the words merely read, “Happy Anniversary: Adam and Steve”? When the cake finally made its way to its intended audience, would the bakers be construed as authors of those words? These questions could raise varied responses.

However, in this case, the bakers felt that they were forced to participate in a slogan which made them “responsible for the message”, which contradicted with their religious belief. The ruling, they felt, was a way of “coercing them into promoting other people’s views.”

Common as it is when called upon to pronounce judgments in such cases, the judge invoked a comparator.  The judge argued, “if a comparator is required, the correct comparator is a heterosexual person placing an order for a cake with the graphics either “Support Marriage” or Support Heterosexual Marriage.” The judgment argued that the bakers “would not have objected to a cake carrying the message ‘support marriage’ or ‘support heterosexual marriage.’” The ruling further argued,

We accept that it was the use of the word ‘gay’ in the context of the message which prevented the order from being fulfilled. The reason the order was canceled was that the appellants would not provide a cake with a message supporting a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation. This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community. Accordingly, this was direct discrimination.

In my view, it is the erroneous comparator that the judge employed that tipped the judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

Proper Comparator and Meanings

Key to answering the question whether the slogan “support marriage/heterosexual marriage” functions as a proper comparator to “support gay marriage” lies in surfacing the distinct meanings of the comparators in each case as understood by the parties involved. Merely juxtaposing two similar-looking statements does not ensure that they are the proper comparators. When drawn into participating in an idea, the slogans, “support heterosexual marriage” and “support gay marriage” don’t function quite the same way as the judge assumed.

The suggestion of the comparator in the judgment indicates that the judge failed to see that in one instance the message carries a contradictory view and in the other instance it carries a subalternate view. That is, in one instance, the message “support (heterosexual) marriage” can simultaneously (or subalternatively) be true along with the plaintiff’s belief, say, “I believe in gay marriage.” In contrast, the other message, “support gay marriage” cannot simultaneously be true along with the defendant’s religious beliefs and contradicts his belief that marriage is exclusively a heterosexual union. The bakers were asked to endorse a contradictory view and not a subalternate view. 

Tolerance, by definition, is reserved for that which one disagrees with. If one supports gay marriage, then it would be incorrect to argue that she is tolerant toward gay marriage. But tolerance should be equally directed towards those who believe differently on gay marriage. This case really surfaces the intolerance of the plaintiff and of the Equality Commission toward the defendants and their beliefs. [See Neil Midgley’s As a gay man, I’m horrified that Christian bakers are being forced to surrender their beliefs and Peter Tatchell’s It sets a dangerous and authoritarian precedent]

For instance, for someone who eats all meat, the particular message “eat beef” does not contradict his beliefs and thus does not cause the same offense as the message “eat pork” does for an orthodox Muslim. Therefore, the slogan, “eat beef” (when it is subsumed within acceptable alternatives– be it an instance of someone who eats all meat or someone who doesn’t eat all meat, as in specifically, say, an orthodox Muslim), is not a proper comparator to the slogan, “eat pork”, which is contradictory to his belief. If freedom of conscience is honored, then a Muslim or Jewish baker should legitimately be exempted from writing an endorsement that reads, “Eat pork” or “bacon is kosher”.

The undergirding assumption is that people should be free to hold their views and the state should not coerce them into leveling those views. This is precisely the kind of reasoning that would allow a similar right to a gay baker who’d want to be exempted from writing “support only heterosexual marriage” on the cake he bakes.

In short, a proper comparator is identified on the basis of how the meanings of the comparators are understood. While the law should rightly support those that are at each end of the polarity of beliefs, it is unfair for the Court of Appeal to require each party to also hold as true that which they in their good conscience cannot. That is, while the law can hold contrary and contradictory views as equal before the law; it is unfair to require someone to affirm a belief that is contradictory to his religious views.

Conversely, the ruling becomes an instance of discrimination of persons (the bakers) merely because of their ideology/beliefs. When the law of a land begins to discriminate against persons for their beliefs, we’re thrown back to a medieval societal calculus and becomes oppressive to one group or the other. That the bakers were happy to bake a cake for the gay activist clearly suggests that they were not discriminating of persons. One ought to have the right to refuse to subscribe to an idea. Unfortunately, the ruling takes a coercive turn in not leaving room to ideologically disagree with gay marriages.

In short, this ruling failed to differentiate between propagating an idea and equality of people. One must be egalitarian towards people and be elitist towards ideas. Some ideas are better than others. As to what ideas are better can be deliberated till all the cows come home!