Friday, July 04, 2014

Works before faith: against orthodoxies

We seem to care much more about what people believe than what they do. Or, rather, we care more about what they affirm than what they do and what their actions show to be their real commitments.
Maybe this is the result of the Reformation with its talk of the Inner and Outer Man and salvation by Faith but not Works. Maybe it is an expression of the older mind/body dualism that those Reformers inherited from Augustine. Maybe it's just the result of reading a lot of Plato; here I jest. Most likely, it is at least partially a result of the fantasy that there is a real—more authentic, more virtuous, and fully private—me independent of my actions, a true and hidden character; the fantasy that let's people say things like, "I wasn't myself yesterday," and, "I'm sorry for what I said, that wasn't me." And, then we can be told, contrary to all behavioral evidence, what a person really believes or what her character really is.
Whatever the cause or causes, this emphasis on belief (as affirmed) over action feeds into real strife. At least in the United States, we prize orthodoxy. We judge one another based on our political and religious ideologies. And, we use these ideologies as epithets. Someone is just a stupid liberal or a heartless conservative, a godless atheist or a deluded believer. And, too often, when someone is on the other side of such a divide, we immediately dismiss them. Of course, this damages discourse, because we disengage, but it damages other kinds of human interaction even more deeply.
When someone disagrees with us we are quick, I think, to dismiss them as a cooperator. Because one of us is a liberal and the other a conservative, we are unwilling to work together, even when what we want is the same thing. Lots of people on the left and lots of people on parts of the right are very concerned about poverty and, believe it or not, mothers and children. Working together, though, is too often forestalled by ideological difference: I can't work with those socialists; I won't work with fascists.
I remember several years ago Hillary Clinton—I'm not generally a fan—calling for cooperation between the left and the right on abortion. Since she thought both sides had an interest in reducing the number of abortions, they should come together to discuss those things that they could both get behind to achieve a reduction. But orthodoxies and principle continue to keep anything like that from happening. As always, the perfect is made the enemy of the good.
One more personal reminiscence: The year between university and graduate school, I worked at a  Church-sponsored meal program and clinic for the homeless and near-homeless. As you might expect, most of the people involved were unreformed 60's-style liberals, with a fair smattering of Catholic Workers. But, there were also deeply conservative volunteers, including a far-right Republican police detective who washed dishes at the meal several days a week. Rather than seeing an ideological divide, he and the other volunteers worked together for something they both valued. The fact that they disagreed about sociopolitical causes and solutions to homelessness and poverty didn't matter at that moment. What mattered was the work. (And, the work they were doing probably said a lot more about what their real beliefs were than their stated ones.)
Now, I don't want to claim that beliefs as affirmed don't matter. Of course, the causes of poverty matter, but so does feeding the poor. And, as a philosopher, I care deeply about beliefs. But, in interpersonal relations, I care more about actions and the real beliefs they express.
It's all good to deride deluded Christians, but if they are fighting oppression and you are doing nothing, what does the right belief matter? It's wonderful to scream about godless atheists, but if they are fighting human rights abuses while you are reading a devotional, who cares? It's fun to talk about heartless conservatives, but if with their heartless beliefs they are also helping refugees, what is more important?
Only last week, I was told that I lacked principle—utterly true, if for different reasons—because I teach at a Catholic university, and no gay atheist should do that. Leaving aside the mischaracterization of my beliefs, I can only mourn a viewpoint that says I should have nothing to do with those whose orthodoxy or ideological purity is suspect, or that I cannot cooperate with them in a project that we both find worthwhile, e.g., education.
I have colleagues and students and friends who I think are utterly deluded about all sorts of things and I have pretty serious philosophical and political differences with my partner of 18 years, but at the end of the day, it is by their works that I judge them. As it should be.