Guacamole substitute choices



One night last week, as I was leaving from meeting with some old friends at a bar (while staying entirely sober myself, so as to drive legally) I realized that I didn’t have any milk at home for having with breakfast. As it happened there was a little convenience store of Finland’s K-Market chain just down the street from the bar, so I took a quick buzz over there to pick up a few basics.

By way of cultural background, Finland has two major domestic retailers for foodstuffs and basic household supplies: the K-shop chain and the S-shop chain. In many small towns you have just two competing grocery stores, one representing each conglomerate. In both of the shopping malls close to my apartment there is a section for groceries with a large S-chain supermarket (named Prisma) on one side of the main aisle and a large K-chain supermarket (named Citymarket) on the other side. Between them they don’t quite have a monopoly, but they pretty much dominate the market. For various historical reasons if I have to choose between the two I tend to go with S-shops, but I don’t religiously shop at either, and I don’t hold a “preferred customer card” for either as a matter of principle: When it comes to groceries I’m a registered independent.

In any case, as happens once in a while, I found myself in a little K-Market. I found the milk and sundries that I was looking for easily enough but when it came to addressing the munchies I had developed while sitting in the bar most of what I might have found tempting was either out of stock or way over-priced. That’s when I happened to notice a jar labelled in Finnish simply as “Green Dip Sauce”…

The style of the jar was of the sort which K-markets and S-markets, and all of their smaller competitors, use to sell different varieties of generic imitation Mexican chip dip. Such products tend to come in three basic varieties: tomato-based, cheese substitute-based and imitation avocado-based. In bigger shops you can also find the tomato variety at least in the further variations of mild, medium and hot, though those designations are very relative to the Finnish palate. In fact there’s nothing especially authentic or Mexican about any of them, but as something to dip cheap corn chips in to keep your mouth and fingers busy while studying, driving or watching TV, they sort of work… most of the time.

With that in mind this “Green Dip Sauce” sparked my curiosity. It was clear what it was imitating, but nowhere on the front label did it contain the words “Mexican”, “avocado” or “guacamole,” even with the qualifier of “-style”. As it was moderately priced as such things go, and as I had a pretty bad case of munchies to deal, with I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Let me further confess here that such things are something of a guilty pleasure for me –– though in fact I don’t feel all that guilty about them and I actually don’t get that much pleasure out of them. Even so, I know that they aren’t really “good for me” or all that sustainable as consumer choices. At best they help me procrastinate eating “real food” and perhaps reduce the amount of “real food” I need to consume as part of my daily routines. It’s sort of a “for what it’s worth” question, which for me isn’t that much.

Real guacamole, on the other hand, is a fine “real food” for me to indulge in every now and again. Real guacamole –– the sort “so authentic that Donald Trump would build a wall around it” as that Mexican restaurant in Norway advertises –– should be made up of about half avocado mass, with the rest of its composition being a combination of tomato, onion, dairy products and spices. As long as the things you dip in it or season with it are relatively healthy (i.e. not corn chips) guacamole can be a valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet. Once in a great while I take the trouble to mix up a batch of it for myself at home. You can also buy some pricier gourmet varieties of pre-mixed guacamole here, which are pretty close to authentic, but to be honest with you I’m rarely ready to dish out the premium price for such. If I was stricter about eating healthy I would avoid such guacamole substitutes entirely, but I yam what I yam.

Yet the dip that I picked up that evening wasn’t even overtly pretending to be guacamole. Later reading the fine print on the label and comparing it to that on a jar of “Tex Mex Guacamole” from the S-market, I found that whereas the latter had only 6% avocado, this “green dip sauce… containing peppers, onions, cheese and avocado” had an actual avocado percentage of 0.7! At that level my ex-girlfriend, who is mildly allergic to avocado, could probably eat it without having any adverse reactions whatsoever!

At that point I effectively realized, this product was like the Donald Trump of snack foods. Its artificial color came from a completely different side of the spectrum, but other than that, the more I thought about it the stronger the analogy seemed to be. I guess I need to unpack that for you.

The Donald has become one of two products for people to choose between within his particular product group. The fact that there aren’t more choices available is a significant problem unto itself. In both American politics and the Finnish grocery distribution system both of competing operators seem to show little concert for product quality, assuming (for the most part rightly) that consumers can’t really tell the difference between authentic ingredients and cheap by-products used as fillers. But things have now come to the point where the choice is between a product that pretends to be somewhat authentic (Hillary, or the S-markets’ “guacamole”) and a product that is honest enough not even to pretend to be authentic (Donald, or the K-markets’ “green dip sauce”).

What, in terms of this analogy, would the real “avocado” be? In short, the democratic ideal. Democracy is theoretically designed to prevent those who own the most stuff from using their advantage to determine how the less economically advantaged are going to live. When it comes to how the government is run and how the basic rules of society are determined, in theory the rich man’s interests are no more important than the poor man’s interests: everyone’s vote counts equally, and thus no aristocratic minority can tell the less advantaged majority how they are going to live. The concept of a republic in turn stipulates that no royalty or oligarchy ––traditional or newly self-appointed –– is entitled to dominance over their country’s government affairs. Regardless of which word you use, in theory the principle is the same: it is the interest of the majority, organized within constitutional principles of “justice for all”, that determines how a government is to be run.

Well, fairly obviously in the case of American politics these days, neither presidential candidate has much of that sort of “avocado” in them. Ms. Clinton has got richer and built a stronger personal power base through insider favoritism and using the status quo power structures to her personal advantage than any other “public servant” in living memory. No matter how you feel about the good and/or harm she has done during her political career, and how much personal remuneration you feel she is justly entitled to, I don’t think the way she has played the system to her own personal advantage can be denied. It takes far more faith in femininity, or in humanity in general, than I have to believe that she honestly stands for the good of the people above and beyond promoting her own prejudices and selfish interests. If the generic “guacamole” from S-Markets here contains approximately 6% actual avocado, I’d say that could be a fairly accurate estimation of how much authentic public interest Ms. Clinton contains in matters that don’t serve her own personal interests.

It’s easy to see why many would be so passionately opposed to such a person leading the nation that they would choose whatever candidate most powerfully embodies their resentments in this regard. So it should come as no surprise that so many have gravitated towards a candidate whose campaign has been based more on hate-mongering, alpha-male posturing and naked personal ambition than any potential world leader since World War II. (A close second to Trump by those standards would be his soul mate, Vladimir Putin, but that’s beside the point.) Thus the mentality that anything must be better than Clinton has led to her political rivals marketing of a product that contains less than a quarter the minuscule amount of authentic public interest that Ms. Clinton has!

Representing Trump as the “lesser evil” in this election is, to me, as absurd as buying “green dip sauce” because you believe that it is “healthier” and “less artificial” than the competing “guacamole”! There is little credible evidence that he contains more than the smallest possible trace amounts of the sort of public interest we should be looking for in a president. Those who would attribute such interest to him are demonstrating but one thing: Trump is more intelligent than they are.

However the bigger issue is for us to consider is how, in terms of this analogy, we might get the United States onto something which more closely resembles a healthy diet. Given the woeful state of American education in social sciences and basic thinking skills in particular, maybe the country deserves such a completely junk food choice –– though tragically the rest of the world will have to live with this choice as well. Is there something we can do about this?

Going back to matter of green dips, in taking care of my own health it would be better for me not to dip my chips in either of the artificial alternatives available. Neither one offers the health benefits of consuming the “good fats” contained in avocados. If people here were to stop buying both forms of commonly available guacamole substitute, the conglomerates might simply reach the conclusion that people don’t really care for avocado flavored things in general, and they might pull all products representing themselves as avocado-based off of their shelves. But like, so what? I might actually be healthier for it. Likewise when it comes to the choice before American voters, though there is a clear difference between the products, the still greater discrepancy is still between either candidate and the standards that we should ideally be holding our politicians to. In those terms voting for either of the given alternatives seems to do more to condone a system that gives us such pathetic choices than it does to claim responsibility for our health and our future. Maybe we need to refuse to vote for either.

But here the analogy starts to break down a bit. It is pretty much self-evident that we will be force fed one of these two artificial alternatives. Furthermore, if the major political parties see that people aren’t voting in elections the equivalent to “taking the product off the market” for them is not to stop wielding authority, but to stop even pretending to care about the will of the people; pursuing their naked power interests with even greater impunity. Dismissing all pretense that a nation is governed according to the will of its people is the exact recipe for a shift to overt Fascism. We really do not want to see the United States go there!

What if we, by analogy, show the conglomerates that we are willing to defy their power by buying higher quality products from other distributors? In other words what if we vote for third party candidates as a way of sending a message to the big two? Could that work? Perhaps, though this year I’m having my doubts. The closer you look, the harder it is to take either the Libertarian or Green Party candidates as anything resembling healthy alternatives. Yet even so, the more votes which are actually cast this year for those other than the two-party alternatives, the greater the chance is that one or both of these major parties will wake up enough to start adding more genuine public interest into their products. No, I don’t consider that chance to be particularly strong in any case, but perhaps it is worth trying at least.

Given the trace amounts of arsenic that Trump as a candidate has been recently shown to contain (figuratively speaking), in terms of boasting of practicing criminal sexual harassment, it seems more likely that we’ll be faced with Ms. Clinton as part of our political diet for the next few years, though I don’t want to underestimate the stupidity of my countrymen enough to dismiss the risk that Trump could still win. That leaves many of us with a difficult decision: Is it more important to make sure that, in spite of ignorant prejudices of many of our countrymen, a toxic candidate with no redeeming moral values does not inadvertently become president; or is it more important to send a message to the establishment parties that these sorts of candidates with their near complete lack of concern for people’s best interests and the good of the nation, are unacceptable to us as citizens? I don’t really have a good answer on that one.

All that being said, there are three public statements about the race by American jesters of different sorts that I particularly appreciate:

Scott Adams:
“Keep in mind that a big part of Trump’s persuasive genius is a complete disregard for facts and reality.”

Penn Jilette:
“There are two things that I always believed about modern politics:
1. Everyone who had ever run for major office was smarter than me.
2. There was no one worse than Hillary Clinton.
Both of those things have been disproven by Donald Trump.”

Andy Borowitz:
“Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”

So, my dear American friends, please follow your conscience in voting next month, trying to do what you can to help the country, without being entirely stupid about it. And may God save us from what, largely through the influence of my fellow Evangelical Christians, the United States seems to have become.


Post Script: The empty jar of “guacamole style” dip, containing just 3.7% avocado, that I had at home, which I used for comparison when I started writing this actually did not come from an S-market, but from the Lidl chain. For purpose of the operative analogy  here that would make it something like the Gary Johnson of guacamole substitutes. On more careful examination I found that the S-chain of grocery stores sells a generic product which claims to be actual guacamole, containing 6%  real (Peruvian) avocado according to its content specifications. I have now corrected the above text accordingly. I wish to formally apologize to any representatives of Prisma and/or associated business for exaggerating the artificiality of their product in the previous version of this article.

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Filed under Change, Education, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Recovering from the Fall

Returning after a long time away from this blog, I have decided to take up a particularly religious theme that I have been discussing with friends, but which I want to make a more complete statement about. Those looking for easily accessible teenage level philosophical ideas may want to skip this one. My point in this essay is to get those who believe in the Devil to be careful how they apply that belief in their politics.


Most of my friends on the east side of the Atlantic know me as something of a political moderate. Most of those on the west side seem to think of me as more of a political liberal. This would have to do with the fact that I consider the priority of politics to be for people to find ways to work together –– across tribal, religious, economic and other cultural barriers –– to insure respect for all people as people. The basic term for this priority is “human rights”. It further classifies me as a “liberal” in American terms that I don’t happen to believe that the right to equip oneself to kill other people is a higher priority than the right to education, basic medical care and public service protection from prejudicial abuse for instance, but that is another essay.

I say all that as basic background to why I am not disposed to begin with to support American right wing causes in general, and the current GOP identity in particular. That being said, I have many acquaintances, and even a few friends, who remain existentially committed to a Republican political identity as something they consider to be part and parcel of their Christian faith. Previously I considered such people to be merely deceived by those who came to power together with Ronald Reagan’s struggle against the principles of human rights in the name of “Judeo-Christian morality” back in the 80s. Most of those who bought into this thereafter became victims of cognitive dissonance in terms of their party identity. This year, however, the absurdity of believing that to be a good Christian is to be a Republican has become so overwhelming obvious that I believe any genuinely sincere person of at least semi-normal intelligence should at least be aware of profoundly disturbing problems with attempts to harmonize their party standard-bearer’s positions with anything resembling the teachings of Jesus. Again though, another essay.

Under these circumstances I have recently been confronted by a particularly novel excuse for supporting the US Republican party: “Hillary Clinton is literally demonic, and in order to fight against the forces of Satan one must vote Republican!” As absurd as that may sound, former candidate Ben Carson has made this the focus of his justification for supporting Donald Trump. To make it clear to those defending Carson why I fundamentally disagree with this justification for the attack on Democrats it is necessary to go into some theological detail.

The key to that position is to associate Ms. Clinton with the 1960s social activist Saul Alinsky, who close to the end of his life included an epigram with reference to Lucifer in Rules for Radicals, a book about subverting status quo political power structures. Alinsky was a cultural Jew who didn’t believe very strongly in any supernatural powers whatsoever, but he believed that subverting status quo powers in general was a good thing, and he considered Lucifer to be the ultimate mythological symbol of that principle. As it happens, Hillary Rodham, towards the end of her “Goldwater girl” phase, wrote a respectful academic research paper about Alinsky’s strategic thinking (which holds hints that operatives from many different political persuasions have found useful in their attempts to bring about change through protest, but that too is another essay). From there the argument goes that everything that Hillary has stood for since is a matter of devil worship inspired by Alinsky.

Trying to reason with someone who has accepted this sort of argument might well be a fool’s errand. I don’t expect it is possible to change the minds of many who are existentially committed to a sub-cultural assumption that Democrats are inherently demonized, but in the interest of showing respect for the intelligence of some that I know who are entertaining such ideas (even though I think they should know better), I want to take the trouble here to explore the theological assumptions this entails and what I see as the misconceptions behind such an approach. There are a few basic questions we need to consider here:

  • Who is the devil and what are his basic strategic goals?
  • What is the essence of human sinfulness and how should we be fighting against such?
  • How does the pursuit of knowledge as such figure into this dilemma?

I have been trying to discuss this matter with a friend of mine who is fairly closely associated with the “Democrats are demonic” position in ways that I am not at liberty to discuss publically. I will continue here by trying to fairly summarize his perspectives on the above questions, and from there I will offer my own rather different perspectives on the matter. For purposes of protecting my friend’s privacy I will refer to him here as Vic.

When it comes to the basic identity of the devil, Vic follows the standard medieval reinterpretations of the taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 (which is the only place the name “Lucifer” is actually used in the Bible), together with the references to the Prince of Persia as a supernatural adversary in Daniel 10, and description of the dragon/serpent in Revelation 12 as the basis for understanding the origin of the devil. From there he follows the standard reinterpretation of Genesis 3 saying that the snake there was literally the devil in animal form, and from there all mankind’s troubles begin. In other words, based on rather sketchy Bible evidence, Vic, like most evangelicals, believes that the devil is a former chief angel who rebelled against God and got a number of other angels to join him, causing them to become demons, which God then cast into hell; but God hasn’t definitively locked hell down yet so we still have to fight against its forces. The chief goal of the devil –– also known as Satan and/or Beelzebub –– as Vic sees it, is to bring death, in a rather broad sense.  This is based on one interpretation of the binary opposition between the two great trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter, from which mankind eventually chose to eat from in the narrative in question, Vic sees primarily as the horticultural embodiment of the power of death that the devil wishes to bring mankind under. In his view we need to fight against the powers of death by challenging the devil’s destructive work in all its forms. Human sinfulness, according to this view, is primarily a matter of alienation from God caused by inadvertently joining into the devil’s rebellion against God. This is easily simplified to God’s work vs. the devil’s work and from there the point is to stay on God’s side rather than drifting to the devil’s side.

In order to explain how, in his thinking, this relates to the actual name given for the “bad tree” in the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Vic referred me to some of the writings of the pre-Maoist Chinese Christian theologian Watchman Nee. Nee’s perspective on the matter has some interesting Buddhism flavored aspects to it: he sees the question as one of mankind being separated from God through building the power of the human ego in terms of strengthening the soul through knowledge. In order to explicate a state that would be preferable to this soul empowerment through knowledge, Nee postulates that the human being should ideally be a three-part entity: body, soul and spirit. The spirit, in this view, would be the aspect of the person’s identity that forms the contact point with the divine. The human spirit ideally should govern the soul, but in the non-believing person it sits dormant or functionally dead, and in the “less spiritual” believer it remains overshadowed by the egotistical power of the soul. Thus the “death” of sin is first of all a matter of the human spirit, as distinct from the soul, ceasing to function in its original created capacity, and salvation and redemption are matters of resuscitating that spirit within the person. Thereby the Buddhist teaching of “awakening” through overcoming the ego is realized by postulating a “divine spark” that must master the ego within each of us, but in order to remain Christian in this perspective Nee held that the human spirit can only be brought to life through properly orthodox Christian faith.

This opens up an interesting can of worms. As I blogged last year, for those scientifically debating the nature of human consciousness there is an open question of whether the phenomenon can be explained in purely material terms of “the soul” being simply “software” running in the machinery of our bodies, or if the soul has its own ontological essence distinct from the body, beyond the realm of atoms and molecules even. As an argument within that field, however, the idea of postulating split within the non-material essence of human beings to include a third aspect called “spirit,” that only functions operationally in those which subscribe to the proper sort of Christian minority dogma, would be a bit of a non-starter. There is no “scientific” justification for such a teaching, so the only justification for Christians believing in such would be if it was so clearly stated in the Bible that, for the believer, no other evidence would be necessary. In short, that isn’t the case.

What does the Bible have to say about the human spirit as distinct from the soul? If we start out with the Old Testament teaching on the subject, the Hebrew word in question is ruach, which is variously translated into English as spirit, wind, breath, heart, mind, motives, temper, breeze, etc. As an internal characteristic of humanity, as opposed to a divine action temporarily effecting a person (“…the spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied…”) there are relatively few references to a human ruach as such. Among those we do find a person’s ruach can be understood quite literally as his or her breath –– as in that which smells bad when he/she eats too much garlic –– not necessarily having anything to do with an inherent capacity for the divine. When Joseph, of technicolor dream coat fame, was sent for by the pharaoh to interpret a dream it was because the pharaoh’s “spirit was troubled”. (Later in the same chapter (Genesis 41) that pharaoh hired Joseph because he had a “divine spirit” to him.) In 1 Samuel 30, David’s little freelance army found an Egyptian army slave who had been left behind because he was too weak to keep up, and through feeding him some high fructose snack foods “his spirit revived”. Then in 1 Kings 10 the Queen of Sheba was left breathless by the splendor of Solomon’s accomplishments, or in some translations, “there was no spirit left in her.” In all of these cases references to the human spirit relate largely to aspects of experience that effect our rate of breathing, quite literally.

The action of God breathing is a different matter entirely. God’s breath is said to be the source of life as such, and for man to become “a living soul” (nephesh in Hebrew) was the result of God blowing into him. Many miracles were based on God blowing, not the least of which was the parting of the Red Sea for the Exodus. God blowing on waters to overcome the destruction they entail can also be seen in Genesis 1:2 and 8:1. Fundamentalist Protestants in particular also tend to make a big deal of the idea of God blowing into the scriptures according to 2 Timothy 3:16, but that too is a whole different essay.

There is also a collection of references to ruach which are connected with neither God nor any particular human doing the blowing. This is a continuous theme of the book of Ecclesiastes in particular, where it is associated with vanity, emptiness, futility and meaninglessness. In this regard the Jewish understanding of “spiritual” was more like the way we use the word “mythical” these days: something with essentially nothing to it. If you’re talking about God doing the blowing then there’s some serious power involved, basically because it’s God we’re talking about, but the idea of blowing in general is anything but a big or important deal. The Old Testament therefore cannot be said to support Nee’s idea of a human spirit as a significant “spiritual” entity (in our modern sense of the word) distinct from the soul.

The Greek word used to translate the Hebrew idea of ruach, when Greek became the common language among Jesus’ followers, was pneuma –– the root word for “pneumatic” to describe the kind of drill a dentist uses, and for “pneumonia” as the sort of lung infection that was particularly deadly before antibiotics came along. Besides its simple meaning as “air” or “breath” in different contexts though, pneuma had its own connotations from the writings of Greek philosophers that stretched it a bit beyond just a literal or poetic reference to one’s breath. This was a subject of heated debate among Jewish intellectuals of New Testament times, and in Acts 23 Paul used the disagreements over this very topic to draw attention away from the less orthodoxly Jewish teachings about Jesus that he was on trial for proclaiming.

The main point to emerge in Paul’s own teaching regarding philosophical anthropology as such was that people, regardless of how many parts you break them down into, have a life after death, and that life does not necessarily entail occupying a physical body (2 Corinthians 5). In his day and age that in itself was a pretty radically Hellenistic sort of thing for someone of a pharisaical background to say! It further seems rather likely that this perspective came to him as the result of having his own out-of-body experience. In the subsequently talking about the possibility of non-embodied life, Paul does not speak of a spirit/soul distinction that showed up in his earlier writings. Time to back up a bit here.

The non-material essence of the person is variably referred to by different New Testament authors as either the pneuma (spirit, breath) or the psyche (soul, life), but whereas other New Testament writers use these terms rather randomly and interchangeably, early on Paul tries to draw somewhat of a distinction between them. His most direct teaching on the matter is found in the end of 1 Corinthians 15, as part of the discourse on his expectation of seeing Jesus’ return within his own lifetime. His perspective there is based on the premise (typical for Jewish thinkers of his time) that any form of human experience, whether in this life or the life to come, requires some sort of body to have the experience. The background assumption is that our bodies are essential to who we are as individuals. But in this regard Paul is already stretching standard assumptions by speaking of his expectation that our afterlife bodies will be of a radically different sort than the ones which characterize who we are now. In verse 45 he associates the natural body with the historical character of Adam and the anticipated supernatural body with the resurrected Jesus. In further distinguishing between these sorts of bodies, Paul speaks of the soul (psyche) as the operating principle of our current bodies, with the spirit (pneuma) as the operating principle of the type of afterlife body he anticipated. From there he goes on to explain to the Corinthians what he expected to see when “the final trumpet sounds” (vv. 50-53): First those who had died would get their bodies changed into spiritual ones, and after that “we who remain” will have our bodies transformed into the better sort. Life without a body was too strange a concept for him to talk about at that phase of his thinking on the subject. Thus his point was to say that our after-life bodies will be radically different from our present ones, and the soul/spirit distinction was part of his way of trying to explain the difference.

By the time he got around to writing 2 Corinthians, however, Paul’s perspectives on these matters seem to have undergone some significant adjustments, probably as the result of a personal near death out-of-body experience of the sort alluded to in the beginning of chapter 12. Thus he no longer speaks of the human body as what makes the person who he/she is, which is eventually destined to take on a more glorified form; Paul sees his body rather as a mere “tent” or “garment” that he was temporarily living in or wearing. Furthermore Paul seems resigned to the idea that, though he still believed that Jesus would come back again someday, he probably wouldn’t live to see it, and in fact that was just fine with him.

While these perspectives are not impossible to harmonize with each other, the contrast between them is quite clear. If from there we take the possibility of a non-embodied afterlife to represent Paul’s more mature thought on the matter, and if we recognize that he was mistaken in his expectation that he would live to see Jesus’ Second Coming, that throws somewhat of a shadow over the discourse in which he comes closest to speaking directly about a contrast between the human soul and the human spirit.

Moving on from there we find just two more Bible verses in which the words soul and spirit appear side by side in a way that would imply a distinction between them: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12. The former again has to do with Paul’s early expectation of living to see Jesus’ return. With that in mind he tells those in Thessalonica that he wants to present them in good shape to Jesus when he comes –– in completely good shape: “spirit, soul and body.” In the latter reference the anonymous author of the book of Hebrews gives a series of poetic expressions describing how deeply scripture, in the analogy of a sword, can/should cut into us: going so deep into the heart as to cut between our thoughts and intentions; going so deep into our physical being as to cut our very bones apart; going so deep into our non-material selves as to cut between our souls and spirits. For some reason Watchman Nee took this latter reference quite literally, saying that spirit and soul are separate entities that God’s Word needs to cut apart from each other so that the spirit can remain in charge of the soul. The Amplified Bible, on the other hand, places a footnote on this passage which directly contradicts such an interpretation:  “‘soul and spirit’ used here to emphasize the whole person, not two separate entities.”

A more common literary expression for referring to the whole person being involved in some matter or another is “heart and soul,” which as a pair is found over 30 times in the Bible. Distinguishing between the respective functions of the heart and those of the soul, however, is not seen as a particularly productive theological exercise. Even less then would I be inclined to distinguish between a person’s breath (spirit) and soul on the basis of a far more limited number of Biblical references to such a pair. Thus I am inclined to disagree with my friend Vic’s perspective taking Watchman Nee’s concept of man being an inherently tripartite being –– body, soul and spirit, with the last of these becoming disabled through the fall in Genesis 3 –– as a basis for understanding the essence of the devil’s work. Following the principle of Occam’s Razor, I don’t see a particularly good reason for postulating that there is an extra part of the non-material part of each of us that we need to bring to life with the proper religious confessions and rituals. This strikes me as a pseudo-scientific distinction, related to many different failed efforts to categorize human cognitive capacities in common-sensical ways –– ranging from the study of phrenology (built on the assumption that our cognitive capacities can be determined based on the shape of our heads), to the more dogmatic variations on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory (that Gardner himself has categorically rejected).

So if Watchman Nee’s theory that the devil is out to kill the spirit and replace it with extra soul energy in the form of knowledge doesn’t hold water, how are we to conceptualize the relationship between the devil, human evil and knowledge as they seem to be mystically tied to each other in Genesis 3?

Let’s start by looking at what the Bible has to say directly about Satan. The first real reference we have to such a character is where he is blamed for the census David decided to take in 1 Chronicles 21. That’s sort of an interesting stand-alone reference to a new character, quite certainly inserted into the story after this character had been introduced to the Jewish people in the first two chapters of the book of Job. There we have a rather odd back-story to explain Job’s suffering, with it being caused by a rather childish sounding challenge in heaven between God and this Satan character, in which God lets Satan screw up Job’s life and kill his children just to settle a random bet (with nothing actually wagered).  This depiction of disputes in heaven, with the mischievous gods messing up the lives of mortals on a whim, seems more in keeping with Greco-Roman mythology than with the rest of the Bible, but we’ll leave that for the time being. The main point is that Satan first appears as an incidental side character whose job is to challenge the worthiness of God’s people to be acceptable before Him. He plays this same role one last time in the Old Testament in Zechariah 3.

In the New Testament we have Satan first of all as spiritual force which tries to keep Jesus from completing his life’s work. In this regard it makes perfect sense for Jesus to address Peter as Satan when Peter stated his intention to prevent Jesus from being crucified (Matthew 16:23). Fighting against a spiritual enemy force organized by Satan then becomes more of a running theme in Paul’s epistles and especially in the book of Revelation. At times Paul implies that Satan has a legitimate positive role to play in the Church, as God’s “district attorney” prosecuting those who stand deserving of judgement (1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20). Most of those attacked by Satan, however, are merely weak and in need of God’s mercy and strength, and Paul suggests a number of strategies for not falling prey to these attacks (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:11). Paul also refers to the various things which limited his own effectiveness in his work spreading the Gospel as being “from Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 1 Thessalonians 2:18). So while Satan’s role is diversified to a fair degree in the New Testament as compared with the Old, his primary stock and trade remains accusation and prosecution against those who wish to be accepted by God. The devil’s primary task then is to insult, accuse, slander and belittle those to whom God wants to reveal His love. Satan is out to prevent people from loving God and each other, primarily by making them feel unworthy of God’s love, and perhaps even unworthy of human contact. The picture painted in the New Testament is more diverse than that, but the core element from the Old Testament remains the same.

The essence of human sinfulness, in turn, is whatever separates us from loving contact with God and each other. So then how does this relate to knowledge, as in the name of that bad tree? There are a number of ways of explaining it, but I would attempt to do so following two models in particular. First we have the factor that knowledge is inevitably based on comparison, which in turn requires separations and distinctions in order for comparisons to be drawn. Comparison is thus in many ways the opposite of connection, and love is all about connecting. This makes the pursuit of knowledge, especially of the good-and-evil-evaluating sort, directly opposed to love.

The other, rather related, way of looking at the knowledge question is that knowing good and evil is a matter of forensic accounting: keeping track of who morally owes what sort of debts and how those debts need to be paid. That is the essence of Satan’s job. The essence of Jesus’ mission and message, on the other hand, is to reveal the priority of compassion over vengeance; or as one radical Lutheran pastor these days puts it, Jesus is God saying to mankind, “I would rather die than remain in this sin accounting business that you’ve put me in!”

In order to avoid separation from God and our fellow human beings we need to recognize that all of us are rather uniformly distant from the divine ideal, and trying to find ways of justifying claims that some are less deserving of God’s favor than others is the primary thing that puts people on Satan’s side.

So how does all this come back around to the current state of American politics? I realize that I’ll probably be labelled as a radical leftist by some for saying so, but I believe the only truly Christian perspective on the matter is that followers of Jesus within a representative democracy should be using the degree of power God has given them in that regard to express their love for Him by using the government, to the extent they have any genuine control in that matter, as a means of caring for their neighbors in every possible way. The point is not to force others to live according to our moral ideals, but to try to organize things so that people respect each other and work together to insure care and respect for all. Just how paternalistic we can get about this process is going to be a complicated question at times, but the overall goal of caring for and respecting others based on the belief that all people are made in God’s image should clearly be our most basic political priority.

The amount of power we actually have may be far more limited than we think, however. In the event that the forces controlling a corrupt empire are beyond what we can control democratically, or by any other means that our Christian integrity leave open to us, we can simply trust God and know that there are greater powers out there than those determining the course of any given empire. (This certainly includes the United States.) On the other hand chasing after power or trying to cling to power for power’s own sake, regardless of how many victims this process may entail, is the polar opposite of the teachings of Jesus!

What then are the most dangerously satanic things to be avoided in this regard? Quite simply the urge to attack others as a means of gaining power. Hate-mongering, fear-mongering and continuous accusations against “the others” are what make the devil who he is. If your politics depend on these strategies you can be quite sure you are on the wrong side. Ironically, labeling others as being “of the devil” can be a strong means of doing the devil’s work!

To avoid being hypocritical I will not take the liberty to say that one party or the other is of the devil, but I would caution all of those participating in any political organization which claims to be doing “the Lord’s work” to be careful about what sort of kingdom their actions represent. This is a far more important evil to avoid than rumored associations with the devil based on bad jokes in the epigrams to non-fiction books which particular candidates have studied.

And when His disciples James and John saw this [a village rejecting Jesus], they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.”
Luke 9:54-55 (NKJV)

(Opening picture: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens)



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Letter to my Former Selves


Many of my friends and role models have, on particular occasions, done an exercise in fantasy time travel: going back to speak to earlier versions of themselves on a “if you only knew what I know now” basis. I’ve never actually tried such an exercise before, but as the calendar year 2015 draws to a close, with all of the various transitions and wild adventures that it has included, I think it’s time for me to give it a shot. I’ll take the tried and true format of speaking to my selves on the Christmases of each year of my life thus far ending in a 5.

Warning: this is bound to be very personal and perhaps somewhat self-indulgent. In some ways that’s the whole point of the exercise. If you don’t want to have TMI (too much information) shock about me perhaps you might want to consider skipping this blog entry. For those who have been close to me and shared particular aspects of my life, forgive me if I get a bit close to home on such things. I’ll try not to violate much of your privacy here, but I realize this could end up getting a bit uncomfortable.

And with that I take a deep breath and dive on in:

To David of 1965 –– Jackson, Michigan:

You are still too young to remember any of this Christmas, but it has been an idyllic one anyway. Your baby sister has started walking and talking and your young parents have done surprisingly well in getting ahold of their own little piece of the American dream. Having a college education paid for through their parents’ savings and their own hard work, your father being employed in the computer industry in what will come to be seen as its early days, and already having a respectable home of their own in the suburbs and two nice little kids while they’re still in their early twenties is quite the accomplishment –– something that was possible for no previous generation in their families, and in all likelihood will not be possible for any future generation of middle class Americans.

They’re good people. Always be thankful for their strong minds, their good hearts (in the figurative sense at least) and their strong but balanced sense of ambition in life. Even so, it would help for you to be aware of the fact that they got into this “rat race” far too young and they really don’t know what they’re doing at it. In the next few years, after moving to a different part of the country and giving you a couple of baby brothers to go with the package, they aren’t going to be able to hold it together any more. It’s going to be tough on all of you. Hang in there though; you’ll have some advantages that most kids from “broken families” can only dream of: your parents will never use you and your siblings as weapons against each other, and you’ll never have reason to doubt either of their love for you.

Your baby sister will be fine, even if she seems to follow you around and compete with you in bothersome ways at times. Try and avoid letting that get on your nerves. The little brother you’ve got coming next year will need more of your attention actually; not “leadership” but attention. Try to be there for him as much as possible. And be careful with all of the pressure to be “the man of the house” in your dad’s residential absence. Beyond that, be aware that believing that good things are coming in your life can be what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy.


To David of 1975 –– South Berwick, Maine:

In many ways you have already found your niche in life it seems. Your grandparents refer to the evangelical Christian religious community where your mother has taken you and your siblings to live as a “commune” and in some ways that’s not far from the truth. You sort of know that this lifestyle isn’t what people in “the world” consider normal, but you’re cool with that. There’s plenty of support and positive reinforcement from the ex-hippie Bible college students that you’re hanging around with, and that kind of atmosphere is helping you learn to think on a much higher level than is expected of kids your age. You can be thankful for that.

You can also be especially thankful for the opportunity to debate about these things with your father on a regular basis. Without that sort of strong contact with the outside world you could be in a rather risky place psychologically. Never doubt the sincerity of your father’s faith, even if he is far more “liberal” about it than your pastor is willing to accept. That doesn’t mean that his salvation should be in any doubt.

For all the good there is for you in this life though, there are still things you should try to understand. First of all you don’t really have to worry about Jesus coming back before you have a chance to experience adult life. You sort of know that already, and it wouldn’t do you much good to dispute this fact with those around you who are dogmatically convinced that the “Rapture” will occur before 1981, but just don’t worry about it. There are enough other stresses in life without worrying about that.

One source of stress for you to deal with more actively is your sexuality, but not in the way you might think. Don’t let the subject scare you, and don’t let the overall negativity towards the subject there “on campus” determine your perspective on the matter. There is nothing inherently evil about it, and it is not the devil trying to distract you from “your calling” or anything like that. Be aware of where the young people a decade or so older than yourself that you are hanging out with are coming from in this regard: they were part of a cultural experiment in stretching the boundaries of how public you could be about enjoying sex outside of marriage. They already have a variety of hindsight perspectives on that experience, and the main emphases in teachings from the pulpit on that subject are to get them to leave all that behind. Thus you may hear a lot about the role of the devil in sexuality and all that, and you need such messages with a grain of salt. You’ll want to find out more about the subject than what your community there wants you to know, and that would be a good thing. You’ll also want to work on learning to recognize when girls are or are not interested in you in a pre-sexual sort of way, and determining what you want to do with that information…

You will inevitably draw the wrong conclusions and learn the wrong lessons from your parents’ and your older peers’ experiences in this area. I wish I could tell you that everything will work out alright in that department, but it’s best to be honest about the fact that it will be tough for you. The best I can tell you is that knowing you are loved in non-sexual ways by so many important people will help you get through many of the frustrating and inevitably awkward times ahead. And beyond that, even though it is something cruelly joked about at times, there really is a certain value in sexual innocence, for guys as well as girls, even if it is largely involuntary.


To David of 1985 –– Helsinki, Finland

So you and Minna have decided to get engaged this Christmas. In some ways that was inevitable. It certainly provides you with a boost in hope and confidence levels. That doesn’t mean it is a wise or safe decision, but I’m not sure I should try to talk you out of it; there are important places for you to go and things for you to do that you probably can only reach by way of such a path.

Your efforts to help start a church in Wales, that you’re now about to call it quits with, will remain a sort of awkward footnote in your life, but the pain-to-lessons-learned ration on that one will make it one of the better learning experiences you will go through in adult life; no need for regrets over your misjudgments on that one.  And now you’re visiting Finland, seriously contemplating the idea of making it your home. That is a wild idea, but it can actually work for you.

The most important thing you should realize is that John Lennon was fundamentally wrong about the idea that “all you need is love”. Love is pretty thoroughly blind at times, but in hindsight you will realize the truth of something you are now actively trying to deny: Minna has deeper personal problems than what your love can fix for her. By making her part of your life you are setting yourself up to be blamed for those problems long-term. Eventually the truth will come out, but not before you’ve been through a horrible amount of wasted pain. Nor will this be the only time you make such a mis-judgement. The sooner you get over the idea that you can use love to repair dysfunctions in women who have that sort of interest in you, the better things will be for you.

Meanwhile Finland is about to start changing pretty radically, and you will have a great front row seat from which to watch history being made. Enjoy the show. Enjoy taking part in the process. If only you could do that without all the marriage messes you’ve got coming…

But here’s where your innocence is both part of the problem and part of how you will eventually get through it. Two virgins saving themselves for their wedding night is not actually a particularly good recipe for long-term sexual fulfilment in life. Eventually you will realize that. But coming into the relationship with that level of innocence also serves to protect you from feeling guilty for causing your own problems through your moral failures. You’re not wicked, just incredibly naïve. Realizing that when you face all sorts of accusations later on will be important for remaining at peace with yourself. It will also provide a starting point for rebuilding your relationship with God through this whole mess. Hang onto that. Don’t lose hope, regardless of what comes your way.


To David of 1995 –– Helsinki, Finland

Been quite a ride, hasn’t it! You’ve had some pretty serious ups and downs over the past decade. You’ve learned about the dangers of marriage, of recovery romances and at times of loneliness. After stints in different aspects of the Finnish food service industry you’ve discovered that teaching is what you are really especially good at. And in spite of all of your humiliation from association with crazy women and crazier church leaders, you’ve started to carve out a niche for yourself as a foreign scholar and a respectable theologian here.

Economically the worst is behind you already. You’re not about to become rich, but the days of not being able to visit with your sons because you can’t afford to provide meals for them during the visit are behind you now. The struggle to have your role as their father recognized and respected has a long way to go still, but don’t give up on it; they will remain the most important part of what makes you you.

Perhaps the best advice I can offer to you at this point, besides encouraging you never to give up, is to tell you to keep working on developing those writing skills. The worlds of e-mail, on-line communities and flexible electronic publishing systems are just beginning, and using them to get your ideas out into the world will be important for you. Try to stay focused on you writing projects, not letting them gather dust for months or years at a time. Every book you finish will be an important step towards gaining respect and justifying your existence to those who have doubts about the matter.

Beyond that be careful, but enjoy this time as a single university student now for all it’s worth. There will be plenty of good things to look back on from the turbulent decade.


To David of 2005 –– Espoo, Finland

At last it’s starting to feel like adult life is settling into a groove for you. At last you are officially qualified to do the sort of teaching work that you’ve been doing for the past eight years! Soon your efforts as a parent and spouse will also be (somewhat) vindicated. Your sons’ childhoods are effectively over already, so you won’t be able to have the sort of active role you spent so long hoping for, but it the vindication will be sort of satisfying regardless. The physical aging process is a bit of a bummer, but there’s some compensation to be had in having people start to take you seriously as an adult for a change. Both trends are set to increase as time goes on. Take it for what it is.

There are all sorts of little details in life that you need to beware of: pay attention to details of your dog Mac’s health. He will remain important in the process of trying to maintain your sanity for many years yet, and by staying alert to his little problems you can make his life a lot more carefree and painless. Likewise pay attention to your own health. Take the weight loss thing seriously and pay attention to issues of your circulatory system in particular.

What else can I suggest to you? Beware of letting anyone talk you into borrowing money to invest in real estate; you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of new adventures and major disappointments coming in the next decade for you. Be careful about getting your hopes up on some things, but don’t let new adventures scare you off. It’s true what they say that you’ll regret more the things you didn’t dare to try than the things you tried at and failed. Keep investing your time and energy, and what little money you have at your disposal, in people rather than things. In the long run it will be worth it.


Sincerely, your older self

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Larycia vs. Tashlan

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled this month regarding the issue of the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College. To me the fundamental dynamics of the case are somewhat self-evident. I’m under no illusions that Professor Hawkins needs my help in the matter, but I do find it rather interesting all the same. I thought it would be worth writing a little about in that I see some little details of the case that other sources haven’t paid particular attention to yet.

hawkinsThe most surprising thing to me about the whole case is that Professor Hawkins made it as far as she did. By all reports we are talking about a brilliant young black woman (a decade my junior) from the deep south of the United States (Oklahoma) with strong social justice convictions and passions, who has followed those passions to achieve the position of tenured professor in the field of political science at one of the strongest academic bastions of evangelical activism in America. I can only speculate that this college originally saw in her a means of presenting a political and intellectual challenge to Obama-supporting black churches of the Martin Luther King Jr. tradition. Her official research interest in “Black Political Churches Outside the Black Church Milieu” hints in that direction. That would sit nicely with the orthodox white Religious Right mind set. But according to reports from the Chicago Tribune these defenders of the post-Reagan evangelical political status quo have already repeatedly questioned whether this young lady’s independent ideas might be more trouble than they’re worth to them. Her orthodoxy has previously been questioned for her stands in defense of the rights of women, blacks and sexual minorities, and now she goes and stands up for Muslims! “What were we thinking when we hired such a person?” they must be saying to themselves. “Isn’t there any way we can get her to leave quietly?”

The issue of contention here is whether Professor Hawkins violated the college’s doctrinal position required for all staff members in saying that she agrees with the popes on the matter of Muslims, “as people of the Book,” worshipping the same God as Christians. Experts far more accomplished and noteworthy than myself have already addressed this issue at some length; in particular Yale’s Professor Miroslav Volf. Suffice it to say as a summary of his argument that there is a strong tradition in Christian theology of at least respecting Islam’s sincerity in attempting to follow the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus; and if you’re going to say that Christianity’s God, the Father of Jesus, is a different god that Islam’s Allah, for consistency sake you also really need to acknowledge that Christianity’s understanding of God is so fundamentally different from the genocide-demanding JWHW of the ancient Jews as to be a different character entirely.

The token response to this from the evangelical side has come from a former Muslim by the name of Nabeel Qureshi, who claims that he still as warm relations with Muslim family members, and that as a convert he still used to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, but not he has “outgrown” that position. It’s hard to understand what Qureshi actually means when he claims that “[t]he similarities between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are fairly superficial, and at times simply semantic.” The Islamic understanding of God is every bit as derived from the Christian one as the Christian understanding of God is derived from the Ancient Jewish one. Islam also has elements derived from Muhammed’s direct contact with Jews, and it remains far closer to the Jewish understanding of monotheism than Christianity’s is to either, but whereas the Jews considered Jesus to be a blasphemous messianic pretender, Muslims revere him as a great prophet. How then can this be a matter of mere superficial and semantic similarity?

Qureshi’s superficial response to Volf’s position, which he claims “should be obvious to those who have studied the three Abrahamic faiths,” is that “the Trinity is an elaboration on Jewish theology,” whereas “Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity,” etc. What I actually see as obvious for anyone who has studied all three faiths, however, is first of all that modern Judaism (which is less a parent faith to Christianity than a feuding sister) rejects Trinitarian doctrine every bit as strenuously as Islam does. Beyond that I would say that there’s a fairly strong scholarly consensus among those who study the Bible for a living that reading Trinitarian intent into the writings of the Old Testament prophets takes a fair among of intellectual dishonesty. The best we can say for the origins of Christian dogma in that regard is that the best minds of the second through sixth centuries worked extensively on finding ways to harmonize the mysteries of Jesus’ persona with his deep respect for the Jewish scriptures and the Trinity is what they came out with. To call Qureshi’s position a weak argument is perhaps the understatement of the month.

Besides trying to intellectually justify Religious Right politics, another thing that would naturally put the powers that be at Wheaton at odds with someone like Professor Hawkins is their regard for C.S. Lewis as something akin to a twentieth century apostle. In this case it relates in particular to various interpretations of the theological intentions and revelations contained in the Chronicles of Narnia.


It has been decades since I have read these classics, but some of the details regarding them have remained in my mind over the decades since my highly evangelical childhood. I remember in particular that, especially in the 70s, when I would have read these classics, with the “rapture” expectations that were sweeping through evangelicalism at the time, The Last Battle was considered to be the most theologically and culturally important of the seven volume series. This final book of the series aptly captured the end-of-the-world zeitgeist among evangelical Protestant Christians of the early rock-and-roll era in children’s fable form. This inevitably involved a battle between good and evil, with the primary force of evil in the story being the self-appointed religious rule of Shift, a deceitful Narnian (talking) ape, who devised a system for co-opting the religious reverence for Aslan (the Jesus-lion character) and blending it with the worship of Tash, the primary god of the Calormenes, Narnia’s neighbors and sometime enemies to the southeast. Thus the ape was able to get the other Narnians to work harder, for less pay, as part of the “will of Aslan” to prove their worthiness –– enabling the ape in turn to satisfy a number of his personal selfish desires at their expense.

PuzzleaslanTo pull off this deception Shift convinces a rather simple-minded donkey named Puzzle to dress up in a lion skin and pretend to be the real Aslan. This was said to work only because it had been many generations since they had seen the real Aslan, and they were desperate for something transcendent to believe in. It stretches the believability of the narrative to claim that even the most simple-minded of mythical creatures could believe that a donkey in a lion’s skin really was a supernaturally powerful lion, but that is rather Lewis’s comic point of the matter: It also rather boggles the mind that so many who claim to agents of the teachings and power of Jesus could be taken seriously, unless their followers have no concept of what the real Jesus was/is like, and they are painfully desperate to believe in something. But then Shift stretches their gullibility even further by claiming that Aslan is in fact the same person as the chief god in the Calormene pantheon, Tash. Thus he innovates a new name for this deity blending the two names together as Tashlan.

One common interpretation of Lewis’s intention in this story is to say that the Calormene people in Narnia’s magical world are supposed to represent the Muslims in our world. There are a number of problems with such an interpretation: First, that the Calormenes are polytheists, not strict monotheists like the Muslims. Second, the Calormenes believe in a myth of their leaders being the descendants of their gods, much like the Japanese Shinto followers prior to World War 2, but certainly not like the Muslims. Beyond that the Calormenes had a very specific physical form which they believed their god would take, again quite the opposite of Islamic teaching. But in spite of all of this it is entirely possible that, for mythical narrative purposes, Lewis took liberties of blending together different “other” cultures studied by “orientalist” academics of his generation in creating these enemies for the Narnians to fight against at the end of their world –– including a number of signature features of Islam as understood from a British colonial perspective.

Regardless of the problems associated with using The Last Battle as a justification for Islamophobia however, that is exactly what many around Wheaton and in its supporting evangelical spheres seem to be doing just now. They believe that the God of the Muslims must in reality be either a product of worshipers’ imaginations or, more probably, a demonic supernatural power that deceived their prophet into setting up a new false religion 1400 years ago. In the end of The Last Battle, the character of Tash, the demonic god of the Calormenes, actually comes to life and consumes his would-be representatives, before being banished by those representing the true authority of Aslan. In the same way these evangelicals are convinced that Allah is really a supernatural character of some sort from “the dark side” that is really out to destroy his followers, eventually to be banished by the Triune God of the Christians.


To hold this sort of position requires a rather loose understanding of the theological dogmas of all three Abrahamic faiths, together with a tendency to take mythologized versions of early twentieth century British orientalism far too seriously. In some ways this just serves to demonstrate how much more powerful narratives are than theoretical lectures as means of instruction: the official teachings are forgotten, but the dramatic interpretations of them remain in people’s minds.

What Jews, Christians and Muslims officially agree about is postulating that the sort of God whose CV gives rise to “the problem of evil” really does exist: The God who is worthy of worship and praise must necessarily be personal, all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, and completely benevolent. Thus all three faiths struggle with the issue of how evil can still exist in our world if such a God exists. They have a long history of quite freely borrowing arguments from each other in this regard over the centuries. To say that, in spite of this, and in spite of the extent to which Islam appears to be derived from reinterpretations of early Medieval Christian teachings, the God of Islam must be a different character from the God of Christianity, has two possible implications: either there are a number of different omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omni-benevolent deities out there in competition with each other; or there is no such metaphysical object for our respective faiths “out there” and every religiously worshipped deity is really just a human creation. The former alternative is a logical impossibility; the nature of those divine characteristics precludes that they could be spread around between various competing gods. The latter position sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a dogmatic belief in any deity to begin with. Thus it is logically rather absurd to claim that the Christian God is real and the Muslims worship something entirely different. Either there is a real God with these attributes “out there” and both religions are, to the best of their understanding and abilities trying to comprehend something about this God, making efforts to please him and at the same time call out for his mercy; or there really isn’t any such god “out there” and Christianity and Islam are offering very different types of imaginary friends to their followers. It sort of has to be one or the other.

elephantBut then at this point someone usually takes out the old fable of the four blind men groping the elephant. (“It’s like a tree.” “It’s like a wall.” “It’s like a sail.” “It’s like a rope.” …all as interpretations of parts of the same animal.) In spite of the pictures that some of my Kenyan Facebook friends have put up associating me with elephants, however, that cliché example is fairly distant from my everyday life. What I’m more familiar with is the various sorts of interpretations of what sort of person I am from people who know me through very different connections. Some know me as the nasty teacher who gave their children lower grades than they were expecting. Some know me as the fine teacher who inspired particular students to pursue the academic careers in which they have since made their own mark. Some know me as the guy who makes pretty good pizza for house guests. Some know me as they owner of a particularly nice dog. Some know me as an inspirational speaker or writer. Some know me as the ex-boyfriend or husband of some woman who has come and gone in my life… Some of these people know me better or more thoroughly than others. Some of their interpretations are actually mutually exclusive: I logically cannot be all the things that various acquaintances say that I am! Even so, I would not accuse those with more unfriendly interpretations of my personality of (necessarily) having me mixed up with some other David.

When it comes to God it somewhat goes without saying that no religion, and no individual believer, knows him perfectly. On the assumption that he really is “out there,” we can say that some inevitably know him better than others. We can say that some religions are more helpful than others in enabling people to relate to their fellow human beings according a principle of manifesting the love of God, but none have yet to get that “entirely right”. We can say that some have missed the mark pretty thoroughly in practice, but in theory they mean well. Given where we are each at in those terms it’s far safer not to accuse others of worshipping the wrong god or of worshipping God wrong.

Our focus needs to rather be on each “getting it right” for ourselves in terms of rejecting the temptation to “do religion” as a means of justifying our hatred towards those who are too “other”. That was the essence of Jesus’ message that Christians in particular should be paying attention to. That is what Larycia Hawkins has got herself in trouble for standing up for yet again. That is why I respect her far more than her current opponents.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Social identity

Uncle Ben and Other Myths

There has been a lot of talk over the past month about the versions of “truth” that have been coming out in debates between US Republican presidential candidates. Veteran conservative columnist George Will summed up the current atmosphere with the opening sentence of a scathing review of a book by one of his fellow News Corp. employees last week: “Donald Trump is just one symptom of today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

Politicians in general have had a “challenged” relationship with “truth” since forever, but this season the syndrome has gotten to the point where somewhat educated people on the political right are shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the things their candidates seriously seem to believe. People in other parts of the western world are generally reassuring themselves with the belief that this is just a show for the satisfaction of the craziest 5% fringe of the American population, and that the populace as a whole would not be crazy enough to elect one of these people as leader of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. I’d like to think so myself, but when I was 18 years old my country elected Ronald Reagan as president, and since then I’ve made a point of never underestimating the ignorance of the common man there.

There are effectively two things that are more important than competence and awareness of an outside world to Republican primary voters, and thus to their would-be presidential candidates: guns and “Christian values”. To have any hope of being nominated these people need the approval of both the NRA and the NRB: the National Rifle Association and the National Religious Broadcasters. To get those approvals you can’t be too interested in truth as such. For both you have to put fears and presuppositions way ahead of investigation and critical thinking skills of any sort.

So one of the front runners is now a blustering business man who has always instinctively known that what those with money are willing to pay for is more important than what is sustainable or capable of increasing the public well-being, and who has thus made a career of putting image ahead of substance.

The other is a retired surgeon whose personal priority is to stay as far as possible from the poverty he grew up in, who knows that both seeing patients through high risk procedures and getting fans to pay to hear his story requires a skill in instilling confidence in them, regardless what the facts of the matter are. So he has become something of an expert in delivering that sort of hopeful message to patients and paying clients.

Last week’s major trivial dispute between liberals and conservatives had to do with interpreting the various statements that Dr. Carson has put forward as fact over the years. There have been essentially 5 issues on which he has been particularly challenged, each with its own ideological implications. To take them in the order they occurred in his life:

  1. He claims to have attempted to kill someone with a knife as a teenager, marking a turning point in learning to deal with anger issues by way of his religious faith.
  2. He claims that during his high school years he met with the US military commander of the forces in Viet Nam, and that in association with this meeting he was effectively promised a place at West Point Military Academy.
  3. He claims that there was a write-up in a student newspaper about his superior moral character as a student at Yale when he was they only one to do a re-test for a psychology exam that was actually given as a gag.
  4. He has asserted a continuing personal belief that the great pyramids of Egypt were originally build by the biblical character Joseph, son of Jacob, as grain storage facilities.
  5. He denied his ongoing association with a dubious company making herbal remedies for cancer, which he gave speeches to endorse after he had been treated for prostate cancer.

The Daily Mail’s picture of the portrait of himself and Jesus which Carson has on his wall at home.

The spin put on each of these issues has been rather amazing. Suffice to say that neither the Koch-financed Carson campaign with its Fox News support group, nor the American left blogosphere will give you any sort of reliable picture of what has happened in Carson’s life and thinking since the mid-sixties. To understand where he is coming from and how far he can be trusted, there are a few cultural genres which it helps to understand:
– the ghost written autobiographical American Dream rags-to-riches tale,
– the evangelical “personal testimony” tradition in both African-American and Adventist churches,
– the paid motivational speech by the “successful black man” who made it up out of the ghetto (usually as a professional athlete, but on occasion through other exceptional skills),
– the motivational sermon from Old Testament narratives of God saving his people,
– the classic “alternative medicine” or “miracle cure” sales pitch.

What all these have in common is that their “honesty” is not based on what the ancient Greeks called “logos”, but rather on some form of “mythos”. They can be honest in the same way as Shakespearean histories and dramas: they provide the audience with important life lessons about the human experience, existential purpose and causes they can believe in, even if they tend not to get all of the historical details right. This is the sort of world that Ben Carson has been living in for the past generation, since he escaped the ghetto.

The promotional picture for a biopic about Carson, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

But there are distinct risks involved in this sort of mythical “honesty,” especially when its genres are not acknowledged and its “factuality” is taken too seriously by speaker and audience alike. The important thing is to keep things in perspective. So let’s look at the contexts these statements come from, consider the message they are attempting to give, and decide what sort of risks there might be in believing them.

I read Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” years ago, when someone close to me was going under his knife. At the time he was not considering a retirement career in politics yet. He was mostly trying to do as much as possible to secure his place in the upper class, and trying to establish something of a legacy for himself as a humanitarian on the side. If reading ghost-written motivational autobiographies is sort of your thing I can recommend putting this book on your list. If you want to take the lazier version of the task of finding out about his non-political understanding of himself, I’d recommend sitting through the hour and a half of his Mannatech promotional speech from a decade ago on Youtube.

Bear in mind that this is a company that quite literally sells sugar pills as a cure for cancer, to the tune of over $200 per customer per month; that in the 5 years following the speech on this video, the company was sued by the state of Texas for sleazy business practices, and their products were discredited by researchers at Carson’s own Johns Hopkins University; but he continued to give pep talks to their sales force at least until 2013; yet in the famously “media biased” MSNBC Republican debate he denied any association with them.

In this speech Carson skillfully endorses the company’s integrity without making any direct factual claims regarding their products. In between he tells now familiar stories from his childhood, the tale of his frightening experience with prostate cancer, and above all he gives multiple testimonies to the healing power of prayer.

One of his cleverly placed applause lines is about the impossibility of maintaining political correctness, which largely overshadows the point of the narrative he packed around it: that he started off majoring in psychology, and while he still plays with psychoanalysis on an amateur level, he switched over to neuro-surgery for purely materialistic reasons –– he wanted to go where the big bucks were. To put it in his own words, “I hated poverty! …In a way I think maybe that was a good thing, because it drove me. At times when I might have been willing to give up, it drove me to go on, because I didn’t want to go back there.” It’s important to recognize the power of such hatred as the unifying principle of his biography. We’ll come back to that.

Carson’s personal testimony of redemption begins with his parents’ divorce and his subsequent academic difficulties in primary school. In this video version he adds a few other condemnations of his father beyond the fact that his mother discovered him practicing bigamy. Carson here claims that his father keeping another wife and kids on the side was only “the straw which broke the camel’s back” after his father’s more traditional ghetto sins of drinking, drugs and financial mismanagement. Some straw! Makes one wonder how much the facts of this story vary depending on the interests and political proclivities of his audience.

In any case, as he consistently tells it, his first major turn-around in life came from his mother’s God-given wisdom to keep he and his brother away from television and require them to start reading and reporting to her on library books. In the middle of that success story he hits on many of the standard Bush II era GOP talking points: believing that those who work hard and live smart always succeed, insisting that welfare is an evil and disempowering force in people’s lives, complaining about the damage that malpractice litigation and the insurance industry were doing to the medical profession, and suggesting that people other than lawyers need to be more actively involved in the legislative branch of government. Then, building from his overall narrative of struggling with anger issues and egotism as a high school student, (at approximately 54 minutes into the video) he comes to the famous tale of attempting to stab another teenager to death with a camping knife. From there he tells of locking himself in the bathroom to work the situation out with God, reading heavily in the book of Proverbs, and gaining mastery over his temper from that point on.

There are plenty of historical doubts about this one: Carson has recently claimed that his would-be victim is still alive, a member of his family, and in somewhat regular contact with him to this day. That would narrow it down to his brother, one of his Bostonian cousins on his mother’s side… or, as some have suggested, a figment of his imagination. At the end of the day though, this doesn’t seem to be all that critical an issue. Another African-American hero coming out of the ghetto and succeeding in life through his unique skills is Professor Cornel West. Dr. West speaks of being intellectually saved by being sent to school in “the vanilla side of town”, but spiritually being saved by receiving the love of God by way of his family and those at Shiloh Baptist Church. With less specifics given in the matter, West speaks of having been a gangster before meeting Jesus, and now being “a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” In each case, if the hero in question wants to think of himself as a formerly murderous would-be gangster, as long as there are no victims of this gangster past still in need of compensation and closure, do the details really make any difference?

In Dr. Carson’s case the problem is not so much what he did or didn’t do in the years just after he hit puberty, but how he continues to moralize against those who are still stuck in the poverty he was able to escape from –– something Dr. West refers to as being “niggerized”.

The same sort of consideration would apply to Carson’s claims of having been offered a “scholarship” to West Point. Since no students at West Point pay fees or tuition of any sort, it would be fair to say that every student in the history of that institution has been there on a “full scholarship” in some sense of the word. As the student leader of the army ROTC at his high school, with high grades to boot (facts that investigators have not disputed), during the time when the army was trying to lure in as many new promising young leaders as possible to replace those lost in Viet Nam, it would be rather surprising if his professional army supervisors did not try to convince him to stay in the service, promising him the moon and the stars in terms of education in the process. The fact that he never applied, and therefore no offers on paper ever would have been sent to him, are rather beside the point. The fact that his way of describing the episode sounds rather clumsy at best to anyone who knows how America’s institutions of tertiary military education work is also beside the point; it can easily be written off as a ghost writer’s misunderstanding in his attempt to build a legend about the subject. The major question is what Carson was trying to prove in even raising the subject. Perhaps that in spite of his lack of actual adult military experience he was interested in and committed to the culture of the military industrial complex, in case any conservatives might otherwise have doubts about the matter. There seems to be little doubt regarding the truth of that underlying fact of his value orientation here at least. The rest is trivial details.

Was it true that Carson was the only one who fell for a practical joke of being told to sit an especially difficult “make-up exam” for a basic psychology class, with no chance to study? Quite probably. What does such an anecdote say about him –– both that he fell for the joke and that he mixed up so many of the details in retelling the matter afterwards? Perhaps that he was supremely self-confident already then, and that his exaggerated self-confidence is thus more than just “surgeon syndrome” –– the effect of his career on his personality. It also shows a lack of interest in principles of fairness for those who are struggling. After all, if people like his classmates would have been just as honest and hard-working as him…

But it is the last two questions that raise the most serious questions regarding Dr. Carson’s honesty and potential political leadership capacity. Regarding his theory on the pyramids, this shows either a complete lack of respect for scientific expertise –– of the academic, peer-reviewed sort –– in an area of scholarship somewhat distant from his own. It is rather disturbing for a “man of science” to have so little awareness of and respect for other scientific disciplines. For him to base his conclusions on all scientific claims outside of the field of medicine on their compatibility with a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and pre-modern Christian traditional understandings of such things, does not speak very highly of his ability to assess new and process new information. If he, as president, would treat the perspectives of experts in economics, constitutional law, military intelligence, natural resource management and/or domestic infrastructure management with the same aloof disregard with which he relates to experts in Egyptology, the resulting catastrophes could be too horrible to contemplate! On the other hand, if Richard Dawkins is correct, and Dr. Carson really doesn’t believe all the scientifically absurd things he says ­–– he only says them because he knows that is what his less educated Christian fundamentalist followers want to hear –– that might make the case even worse.

And that brings us back around to the matter of Mannatech. In all fairness, Dr. Carson’s speech linked here was given before this company’s scandals properly came to light, and we don’t have any evidence of how he might have changed his tune in this decade after it had been legally and scientifically established that those who were paying his speaking fees there were hucksters of the least respectable sort. But we do know that in spite of this new information he continued to accept payment to speak at their sales meetings in recent years, and that he really couldn’t claim to have done so out of sheer ignorance regarding their operations. Nor, having so thoroughly endorsed their corporate philosophy in this video, and having continued to take their money, could he credibly claim that his face on their web page was some sort of unauthorized use of his image that he hadn’t had time to look into yet.

This points to what is perhaps the corest of Carson’s core values: hating the experience of poverty and doing everything in his power to insure that he never has to experience anything like it ever again. Part of that is keeping actual poor people at a distance and moralizing against their “lifestyle choices” which keep them poor. Part of it is continuously doing high paid publishing and speaking gigs to further feather his retirement nests, even when such gigs might call his intellectual and professional credibility into question. Yes he has generously donated money to try to encourage academic performance in America’s disadvantaged middle schools, by making sure that the best performing students get a prize with his name attached. Yes, he has spoken eloquently about Christian values pointing to some things more important than money. But all the while he has remained focused on being one of the rich who keeps getting richer, while having no qualms about letting the poor get poorer and explicitly blaming those in poverty for their own problems. He continuously faces the challenge of synchronizing this compulsion to “build bigger barns” with the message of Jesus, but fortunately (or unfortunately) for him there are plenty of “prosperity gospel” preachers out there to help him square that circle. The sacrifice they are most likely to ask for in return is in terms of surrendering his intellectual integrity to support their simple answers to complex problems –– things like curing cancer with sugar pills.

Running for president seems to be something Dr. Carson has allowed others to talk him into. He is useful to the oligarchs in terms of supporting their message that the rich should be allowed to get richer and the poor should be allowed to get poorer, and if he can further cement his place as part of the new oligarchy through this gesture, earning a few extra millions in the process, what’s to stop him? None of his major backers really expected anything more than that out of his campaign. They’ve really already got their money’s worth out of him, but if they can keep milking his message for another six months or so, so much the better for them. And if against all expectations he actually does become president (American voters have made crazier decisions) given how little he actually knows about the job, the seasoned oligarchs don’t figure that he’d be too hard to control.

It is those factors, rather than the details of Carson’s teenage rage, that people really need to be paying attention to. Put another way, he admits in the Mannatech video to having an ongoing tendency to take what others see as crazy risks. Given this risk-taking tendency of his, his lack of awareness of how so many non-medical things work, his pathological fear of poverty and his moral condemnation of the poor, how willing should we be to risk him becoming commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest military, and the chief executive of the world’s biggest economy? From there, what kinds of potential tragedies are we talking about if Americans vote to let “Jesus take the wheel” in this sort of way? I rather hope we don’t have to find out.

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Filed under Epistemology, Politics, Pop culture, Religion

Another Shooting Tragedy

I’ve got a number of half-finished essays that I’ve been writing since my little brush with death, but today I think it’s worth writing something fresh regarding the ten people who died in the senseless shooting incident in Oregon this week.

What deserves to be said here? I have to admit, in some way I sort of don’t want to know the details. Some crazy guy (it always has to be a guy, and to kill a bunch of strangers on purpose, without a commanding officer telling him to do so, we’d pretty much automatically label him as crazy) goes on a spree at a college of some sort. Of all those he gets bullets into he only manages to kill about half of them; maybe intentionally only killing those who identified themselves as Christians. One army veteran with a gun happened to be around, but his self-preservation instincts were strong enough to keep him from doing any stupid vigilante stuff with it. That thus screws up all the Second Amendment fundamentalists’ talking points, so “conservatives” need to find other fodder here. They turn to the fact that this particular crazy had a bug up his but about Christians, so they are thus able to make martyrs out of those who were senselessly gunned down. Meanwhile another former soldier, this one unarmed, but motivated with the intent of honoring his six-year-old son, rushes the crazy gunman, takes a few bullets himself, and somehow lives to tell about it.

So what are we supposed to think about all of this? Let me try to be brief for a change.

  1. Christians, especially West Coast style evangelicals, should not be proud of their ability to get people pissed off. Of course there is no justification for this shooting on religious grounds, but there is also no justification in taking pride in identification with the type of religious practice that prioritizes self-righteousness over social justice and sustainability, and which thereby has a tendency to drive those with weaker mental stability to start with over the edge. There isn’t really any justification for a martyr cult being built around this incident, and I would appreciate it if people I know would resist the temptation to participate in such.
  2. The most tragic element of a cliché shooting spree at an American educational institution is that it is such a cliché. We’ve seen this movie before, too many times. Talking points on both sides are strongly at risk of becoming self-parodies. From my perspective the worst of it is the Republican presidential candidates being in a race to trip over themselves in stressing how firmly opposed they are to common sense in limiting the civilian use of firearms in light of cases like this. But regardless, the victims here have become less important as people – victims of human tragedy – than as props within a repetitious argument over one of the more absurd aspects of the American political process. There is something about that that we need to be fundamentally disturbed by.
  3. On the other end of the issue, there is something disturbing about these particular 10 individuals who ended up dying last week getting more ink spilled in the international press than the thousands who have died from other preventable causes due to our collective political negligence. While the deaths of would-be martyrs are treated as abstractions rather than as tragic personal losses to the human family, at least they are somehow recognized. The hundreds who die in traffic accidents, for lack of proper health care, in drug-related street violence and through the business of routine remote warfare in the Middle East keep just getting swept under the rug. It’s hard to even suggest how we could keep these things in better perspective so that we don’t let these more “media-sexy” deaths distract us from other routine tragedies with far greater numbers of casualties involved. Maybe it’s good that cases like this no longer hold our attention.
  4. Once again the painfully ironic issue with a shooting at an educational institution in the United States is that it is the result of how utterly incompetent educational institutions in the United States have been in terms of teaching the basics of human rights theory. Only in the United States are people prone to think of the right to equip oneself to kill other people as a greater basic human right than education and/or health care for the general public. This gross blind spot is due to an essential failure in both curriculum planning and teaching practice in public education. This in turn is largely due to an obscene prioritization of military spending over education and social service spending as a matter of government policy since World War 2, and especially since the Reagan administration. It further adds to the irony of this tragedy that very few Americans understand the absurdity of this situation enough to be embarrassed about it.
  5. If there is something about this situation worth celebrating or commemorating, it is indeed the heroism of the single father, Chris Mintz, who took a number of bullets in an effort to make his world a safer place on his son’s sixth birthday. His son wasn’t in the room, but North Carolina native Mintz was in Oregon to begin with his on account of his son. He had begun the day by wishing his son a happy birthday, and after trying to block the shooters attacks on his college English class, his final words to the shooter before passing out were, “Today is my son’s birthday.” People really need to remember not just how brave this man was to risk his life for others, but how the thing he was willing to sacrifice his life for if necessary was the importance of fatherhood. Other fathers need to see how their children can and should be the most important thing in their lives. Other people should be more ready to respect the importance of this relationship to the men in question, even when the romance with the child’s mother doesn’t work. Fatherhood is different from motherhood, but just as important. This week’s tragic event should be taken as a reminder of that.

The rest I’ll leave up to each of you to ponder for yourselves. I just recommend that you do so in a spirit of thankfulness that for most of us life goes on this month.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights

A Long Delayed Post-surgery Update Here

Most of my blog readers here are, I believe, among my circle of personal friends, so most of you are well aware of my recent crises in life without reading about them here. Even so, as I am now able to do so, I feel that providing an update on my personal and philosophical perspectives regarding these crises here is in order.

For those of you who are not aware, I have had a relatively close brush with my own mortality lately, in the form of emergency surgery to treat major heart failure, and the long-term prognosis on this actually at the time of this writing remains somewhat uncertain. Three months ago, at the time of the TSC conference, this condition was, in hindsight, clearly beginning to set in already, but at that time I never could have imagined what was happening, or that it could come to such a radically life-changing point so quickly. Here is my best retrospective summary of the situation as I now understand it:

In the late winter and early spring I suffered a serious case of bronchitis, which was at its worst during the time of my second Kenya trip. I received various sorts of treatments for that illness, but its primary source remains largely shrouded in mystery. In any case, I looked at most of the health challenges I experienced over the spring as being related to after-effects of this event. During the spring it seems I was never entirely free of some form of coughs and aches, but I felt well able to go on with life, including purchasing and beginning work on my “country place” in the village of Matku. Beginning the deconstruction of the old farm house there also involved its own health risks in terms of moldy air and chances to injure myself, but in the current level of hindsight, that project seems not to have been the source of any of my later symptoms.

The first significant alarm to go off regarding my long-term health came about in April, while I was actually in Matku: I woke up there on a Saturday morning with no vision in my right eye. I have experienced temporary “grey-outs” of parts of my field of vision relating to stress and fatigue for many years, and I was told that such are quite normal for middle-aged men, so I didn’t panic in relation to this, but over the course of the day the vision didn’t return as usual; or it did only partially, for about half of that eye’s field of vision. For a few days I continued trying to go about my business as usual with it, waiting for it to sort itself out, but eventually I went to the health center to have it looked at, and was in turn referred to Helsinki’s main ophthalmological clinic for testing. I spent two days there as an out-patient, going through a battery of tests that never really got to the bottom of the situation. This may or may not have been the first strong hint that my heart was in trouble.

This combined with an increasingly disturbing cough over the course of May and June. I maintained my full, legendary vocal power through the middle of June at least, but increasingly as I spent time speaking with people I would have powerful coughing outbursts, combined with ever increasing dizziness and shortness of breath. Friends began increasingly to tell me that I needed to see a doctor about that, and I largely agreed. That wasn’t particularly convenient though: Presenting my coughing symptoms at the health center in June, they didn’t see anything urgent about the matter, and they did not have any non-emergency appointment times available until later in July. I had already booked flights to spend most of July in Kenya, and with that work being very important to me I decided to let it slide. So with an increasingly nagging cough and occasional shortness of breath, I left on my speaking trip to Kenya regardless.

I tried to pace myself carefully over the course of that trip, which still involved plenty of elements which would be physically challenging even for a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. I was able to keep up most of the time though, and able to control the cough during public speaking events by keeping sufficient supplies of bottled water and tea close by. Later on I will publish a more detailed account of the new perspectives I gained from the Kenyan visit; for now I’ll just say I survived it physically, but by the time I boarded the plane for home I knew I needed to get to western medical services as soon as possible.

I got back into Finland on a Tuesday evening, and got to my local health center first thing Wednesday morning. I was given an emergency appointment with a GP for that afternoon. The doctor in question was very young and obviously rather nervous about venturing a diagnosis with all of the variables in my case, but he had the laboratory there run an EKG on me, and from that he could see that things were not entirely normal. He sent me over to have tests at Jorvi, the local general hospital for the area, with his first concern being to rule out the risk that my violent coughing had led to a blood clot making its way to my heart.

I spent the next 7 hours at that hospital. They did a chest x-ray, more EKGs, more blood test and more stethoscope listening, without finding any clear evidence of what was wrong with me. By that time my heart was certainly down to less than 40% of its normal capacity, but they heard no murmurs and saw no clear sign of damage in the x-ray, so in the end they sent me home with a new inhaler system to ease my breathing difficulties and instructions to come back if things got worse.

The following day, Thursday, I spent running an errand of picking up my van from a repair shop where I had left it while I was in Kenya, and getting it back home to Espoo to be re-inspected for the year. That once again was an exercise in pushing my strength to its limits, and knowing that things were just not right. The next day at lunch time I returned to the health center, prepared to be sent back to the hospital for a longer stay… only that wasn’t to happen just yet. The duty doctor there looked at my paper work and told me that there could be no risk of heart problems after all the tests I had just had done less than two days earlier. She told me I was probably suffering from dehydration in addition to the cough, she wrote me a prescription for a heavier narcotic cough syrup and told me to go drink lots of mineral water. The help from that advice was marginal. The main thing it did was to cause rather sudden bloating in my legs and stomach area as the mineral water stayed in my system as excess fluid.

From there, with the school year soon to start, I took my business over to the city workers’ employment health service. The doctor there, who has the job of trying to keep city workers physically able to do their jobs, wasn’t quite sure what to make of my condition. He did all the routine examination sorts of things, gave me papers excusing me from my first week’s work, sent me to have more lab tests done, and told me to book another appointment with the secretary for the next week. The next week he told me that my blood was running somewhat low on iron, but that nothing else obvious had popped up in the lab results. They had ruled out a few rarer diseases that some of my co-workers had suggested might be the cause of my problems, but they didn’t answer the question of why I still couldn’t breathe or operate normally. So from there I was given another week’s worth of sick leave, sent back for more lab tests related to the anemia issue and told to come back again in a week. The next time it was much the same song and dance, but this time the order for lab tests I was sent away with included a fresh EKG. That’s where things started to move real fast all of the sudden.

It had been an early morning appointment so I went over to have the tests done right away. I had to climb one flight of stairs to get to the laboratory, and when the EKG was done 15 minutes later my pulse was still racing from that level of basic exertion. The lab tech took a look at the readout and said, “You should probably show this to the doctor right away.” So back across the street to his office I went. The doctor seemed more puzzled than anything else by the paper, but from there he said, “Well, just to be safe, the city can pay for you to see a private cardiologist on this one,” and he proceeded to write up the basic referral paperwork. So from there I drove over to the closest office for the private medical associates’ office that the city of Espoo has this sort of arrangement with, stopping off at school along the way for a brief chat with my substitute teacher, colleagues and boss. At the first office of the private medical company that I went to they told me that their own in-house cardiologist had his next available appointment time in a week and a half. I told them it probably needed to be sooner than that. They made a few phone calls and asked me if I could see someone in Helsinki already that afternoon. Of course. So at 3:00 in the afternoon on Thursday, August 20th I saw my first cardiologist. This veteran doctor read through my papers, ran a quick blood pressure check and EKG test of his own, took me across the hallway for a look at my heart with his ultrasound machine, and pronounced, “You need to be in a hospital!” The only new information he gave me was that there was a layer of fluid surrounding the heart over a centimeter thick, and that tests needed to be done to see where that was coming from. So from there it was directly back to Jorvi hospital with me.

The hospital’s cardiologist had already gone home for the day already by the time I got there Thursday, so they just got me into their stylish hospital pajamas and onto a bunch of monitors and under general observation that evening. To the best of my knowledge it was the first night I had spent in a hospital since getting out of the one I was born in over 53 years earlier. It was a pretty good run while it lasted.

Jorvi’s cardiologist arrived on rounds with his ultra-sound machine after lunch the next day. Notes from the hospital’s other doctors and my papers from the city health service hadn’t given him a clue as to what was actually wrong with me. He spent a while poking around and pressing into my chest with that jell-covered wand and after a period of uncomfortable silence I asked him it my valves looked OK. He said they looked quite good, and I was starting to joke about that side of things when suddenly his face went grey. “I spoke too soon about the valves,” he said.

He continued poking around and pressing buttons to capture images for a couple of minutes before he began to address my growing shock. The aortic valve at the bottom of the heart seemed to be entirely calcified –– frozen in place –– and the rest of the heart was literally fighting for dear life to keep some sort of blood flow going through this obstruction. This seemed quite clearly to come from a defect that my heart carried basically from birth, which had probably been giving a murmur before, but which, as it decayed further and hardened up with age, became less audibly noticeable in routine check-ups and the like. Now it had gone critical. It was clear to the doctor that I would need surgery on this right away, but he was trying to say so indirectly out of sensitivity to my shock.

The doctor packed up his papers and went to make some phone calls. He came back with a couple of the hospital’s young interns in tow about 10 minutes later to give them a quick guided tour of what a real live heart in critical condition looks like, giving them turns with the ultrasound wand to help them learn to track down such a defect for themselves. They seemed quite fascinated and appreciative of the learning opportunity. For me this was somewhat strange: I’ve always sort of wanted my body to be of interest to intelligent young women, but not quite in that way.

I was still laying there sort of digesting the shock when the cardiologist returned again, announcing that, because they would not have any heart specialists on duty at Jorvi over the weekend, he had arranged to send me to Meilahti: Helsinki’s main hospital for specialized heart treatment. As I started calling to inform my sons of this up-coming transfer I still had no idea that within 24 hours I would be undergoing massive open-heart surgery! But there it was. By the time the boys stopped in to see me in Meilahti that evening the surgeons and specialists had already taken a further set of high resolution images of my heart to guide them in the surgery scheduled for 9:00 the next morning…

My chest 15 days after the surgery.

My chest 15 days after the surgery.

So skipping over some of the details of the ups and downs of the recovery process since, that brings me to where I am now. For two and a half weeks now my heart has been pumping through a man-made valve, and trying to figure out how to relate to this new situation. It’s not as though my heart is saying, “Wow, now that you’ve got those restrictions out of the way I feel so much better! I can really get into this work again!” Nor is it saying, “What the hell are you doing to me? I can’t take this shit anymore!” It’s more of an in-between reaction like, “This is really strange. I’ve never tried anything like this before and frankly I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it. Isn’t there anything else you can tell me?” So they’ve been watching it carefully and trying to give it all the chemical encouragement they can to adjust to this new situation, but still with no guarantees that it’s going to work long-term. That’s sort of a freaky place to be at. All this beside the fact that I never really had time to prepare for the idea of joining the ranks of open heart surgery veterans to begin with.

So how have my religious and philosophical perspectives come into play here? What help has all my extra thinking on “the big questions of life” given me under the circumstances? What new thoughts and feelings come to mind in light of these transitions?

In some ways the experience is comparable to losing one’s virginity: Before ever having sex I sort of knew already how these things work, what sort of feelings should be involved and what the experience might mean in terms of the connection between my partner and I, but then there is a whole different level of understanding that comes with actually experiencing it. So it is as well with the existential experience of facing the possibility that your body has reached the end of its lifespan. Not that this is the first time I’ve realized that an ever so slight shift in recent circumstances could have resulted in my death, nor was it the first time I’ve realized that my body is showing signs of being past its prime; but I’ve now come to the point where I have to admit that, had I lived more than 100 years earlier in history, I would have inevitably have been dead now. I’m not that old, but for the body I was given I’m now on borrowed time already. That’s just the medical fact of the matter. That new experiential perspective does something to all of my contemplations of the meaning of life and all that where it’s almost like, “Yes, I get it more now.” Not that I felt like I hadn’t got it before, but there’s something about the actual experience of a strong encounter with one’s mortality that only comes with actually facing that experience.

The other significant thing that comes to mind in all this is the issue of finding a balance between maintaining a passion to live in every possible way and being at peace with letting go of things that I’ve always known were meant to be temporary. That’s one I’m still working on though. I’ll try to update you as I learn more about myself as that process goes on.

Meanwhile, however, going through this sort of experience, especially in the digital age, has given me wonderful opportunities to see the sort of warm and caring friends I have around the world. There’s something humbling about having people on six continents aware of my crisis, caring about what happens to me and in their own ways praying for me. I am full of gratitude for being able to have such a rich life in this regard. For those of you who have been part of this support network, may God richly bless you with the same sort of support you have given to me when you face your own times of crisis. I can think of nothing better to wish for you.

Peace, David


Filed under Death, Empathy, Spirituality

Homosexuality and African Ethics

I will be in a challenging position next week. Over the next few weeks I will once again be visiting Kenya, working on building cooperation with local churches there so that they can do their own work and fulfil their own spiritual calling better. This will inevitably involve extended discussions of the core ethical teachings of Christianity, and that in turn is rather likely to come back to the matter of toleration for and even full acceptance of homosexuality in (post-)Christian western cultures. My perspective is inevitably going to be very different from theirs, and I want to carefully consider how to approach the issue in a way that opens fresh perspectives for them without scandalizing them or frightening them away.

20150218_112840For some of my more secularized friends the phrase “fulfil their spiritual calling” may be rather scary sounding, so let me try to partially unpack what that means to me. I believe that the strongest teaching Jesus gave to his followers regarding the difference between those who are on God’s Kingdom’s side and those who are functionally in opposition to God’s Kingdom is in the end of Matthew chapter 25. (The connection between this teaching and the two parables which preface it is an interesting sermon unto itself, but we’ll leave that for another time.) In short, in the last 16 verses of this chapter — which is where Jesus comes the closest to talking about heaven and hell in the sort of terms that evangelicals and Catholics are most familiar with — the factors which distinguish those bound for heaven and those bound for hell are simply their efforts to care for those lacking food, drink, shelter, clothing, medical care and companionship. Nothing there about doctrinal purity; just a strict emphasis on showing God’s love to others in practical terms. That is what I believe churches in Africa in particular are spiritually called to do. Many of them do it quite well; others miss the mark by a considerable distance.

Meanwhile, for myself and other western Christians who take Jesus’ message seriously, finding partners who can help us help others is an extremely important part of following the Lord’s teaching. In the case of finding ways to help those in Africa with the six sorts of needs Jesus talks about, the options are essentially of four sorts: 1) supporting the work of local governments, 2) establishing or patronizing successful businesses there which work with responsible local partners (Fair Trade produce, etc.) 3) giving direct assistance by way of trustworthy secular non-governmental organizations, or 4) giving direct assistance by way of faith-based organizations (churches). Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, and all of them have their fair share of con-men involved. In simple terms though, those who are acting out of a sense of responsibility to a higher power do, on average, the most efficient work in terms of channeling the practical aid they receive to those who need it most. More human suffering is eliminated per dollar donated through church groups than through any of the other three channels.

But besides basic dishonesty and greed being found in churches as well, when it comes to the process of helping others, church leaders are also among the most poorly educated and most naïve of partners there at times. Also it is sometimes difficult for them to see a connection between providing practical aid and preaching the message of the Bible as they basically understand it. And like western Christians, African church leaders also have a tendency at times to believe that their prejudices and cultural traditions represent God’s will for mankind. Thus part of what I am trying to do on these African adventures is to build a sort of educational network to help keep church leaders there honest and responsible to each other, and to help them build a greater practical understanding of how the gospel message can be understood and applied in ways that make us more like the “sheep” than the “goats” in Matthew 25.

DSCF2920There are strict atheists who don’t believe that Christianity really does any humanitarian good, and there are Christians who believe that convincing as many as possible to swear allegiance to their brand of belief is more important than humanitarian work per se. I believe both are wrong, but I don’t want to take the bandwidth here to argue against those positions. If you disagree with my premises as stated above all I can say for now is that I wish you the best of luck in finding your own purpose in life elsewhere, and goodbye for now. Meanwhile, back to the challenge stated at the beginning: dealing with the questions of homosexual rights and gay marriage in the context of this mission.

Let me state a few things from the outset regarding this issue. First of all I happen to have friends –– good friends in fact –– on both sides of this issue, for whom the whole idea of calling their convictions into question even is highly offensive. Those on both sides are thus just going to have to bear with me; or otherwise walk off in disgust and stick to your respective safe social circles where no one contradicts your views on this highly polarized issue. Second, Kenya, and equatorial Africa in general, has a series of very different cultures than our own when it comes to sexuality, gender roles, family ties and social acceptability in all of these areas. Europeans have, over the past few centuries in particular, frequently tried to step in and “repair” Africans’ “primitive” social structures in these regards. Some of these interventions have been more justifiable than others. As it is, Kenyan culture and the ancient Jewish culture of the Bible are probably far closer to each other than either culture is to that of the modern west. This necessitates a certain caution and humility on the part of any and all of us who wish to try to help there in any sense. Third, this relates to profound questions regarding the basic essence and purpose of sexuality, and how that in turn relates to spirituality, in ways that I can barely scratch the surface of here and in ways that could be very difficult to speak about to essentially uneducated African churchmen. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, I can easily anticipate critics of my ideas here from the conservative side saying that by raising questions about what these leaders are dogmatically motivated to fight against in the name of Christ, I could be seriously damaging their motivation and effectiveness as Christian leaders (and in the same regard some aggressive atheists might hope I will limit the effective spread of the Christian message in this sense).  To these people I say that, as powerful as hatred and dogmatic false certainty are as motivational tools, in the long run they do more harm than good, and the Christian message will go forward stronger and healthier without them. Your perspective may differ, but I’m sticking to my convictions on that one.

So let me start the actual discussion of the matter with a premise from my own personal philosophy: The most ultimately fulfilling forms of human pursuits are those which give us a sense of either confidence or connection or both. The most satisfied and fulfilled people are those who are convinced that they are good at what they do and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The point of religion and/or spirituality –– including the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus came to proclaim and enact –– is to enable people to find these forms of satisfaction in life in deeper ways. If a person’s or a group’s faith isn’t working in these regards, then it isn’t working, period. But that being said, there are always difficulties involved in choosing what sorts of things to base our confidence on; and there are limits as to how deeply we can love which sorts of people without driving ourselves crazy, literally. Loving everyone, completely, would involve making all of their problems and conflicts in life part of my own life, and none of us have that sort of capacity. Thus religion provides us with standards by which we can have some idea of what to expect of ourselves, what we can justifiably feel proud of or confident about, what we can justifiably expect of others behavior-wise, and what sorts of abusive and destructive behaviors we should stand up against.

So there are good practical reasons for having doctrinal standards in general, and those of the Christian tradition have stood the test of time fairly well, but there are still good reasons to think critically about how important those standards have become to us as ends unto themselves, rather than as means enabling us to better love God completely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There are a number of good reasons to frame the question in these terms, but the simplest might be in terms of telling the story of King David.

David had a pretty adventurous life, in which he “bent the rules” on plenty of occasions. One particular occasion which stands out is in 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22, where David is on the run from crazy King Saul. In making his get-away he stops off in the town of Nob to talk to the priest there and get supplies. David flat out lies to the priest, saying he is on an urgent secret mission for the king, and he then takes as basic food the bread which has already been ceremonially dedicated and set aside for only priests to eat. While he was there he also saw a character he didn’t particularly trust, a foreigner named Doeg, but he didn’t actually say anything about his suspicions or warn the priest that if he was caught helping him he could be in big trouble with Saul. And as it happened, this foreigner did go and tell Saul that the priest of Nob had been helping David. Saul went ape poop crazy about this, and when he wanted the priest and his extended family massacred in a revenge killing, and none of his regular soldiers were willing to do it, this same Doeg took care of the bloody deed for him. One kid from the priest’s family did manage to escape with his life though, and he ran to tell David about the matter. David basically told the kid, “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll protect you.”

Skip forward to the Gospels. One of the tales which is told in each of the synoptic gospels is how Jesus responded when the Pharisees tried to bust him for breaking some of the more trivial rules regarding manual labor on the Sabbath day. Jesus and his disciples were picking heads of ripe grain, rolling them between their palms to get the kernels out, and snacking on them. From the Pharisee’s perspective this was clearly “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response was to first of all remind them of the story from 1 Samuel 21: “David was not blamed for bending the rules; why should you condemn my friends and I for a far more trivial infraction?” (Mark 2:23-26, for one telling.)

032311_2057_REVIEWINGTH10But then going back to the Old Testament history of the matter, David was never actually condemned for this rather questionable move on his part, nor for the vast majority of his careless, selfish or bloodthirsty maneuvers during his life. In fact, when David’s descendants turn out to be a batch of first class idiots, over and over again we read that in spite of their misadventures, “for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah” (e.g. 2 Kings 8:9). And in particular there was only one event in his life for which David was morally censured by the Old Testament historians: “the case of Uriah the Hittite.” We’ll come back to that one. The point is that strict observation of the rules was not the thing that made David, or Jesus, so important. Loving God completely and caring for those around them continuously (or nearly continuously in David’s case) was what set their lives apart. The rest, from their perspectives, was details.

So how does this relate to the Bible’s, or Christianity’s, rules about sex? Touchy subject, but I sort of have to tackle it here. Basically it is recognized that sexual release is something that all healthy people want, perhaps even need, but that letting that go unrestrained can cause all sorts of problems. The spread of disease was not actually mentioned by the Biblical writers, but it is an obvious related issue. More important to the ancient Jews was the matter of keeping their bloodlines going. In essence sex, from the Old Testament legal perspective, was supposed to be used for that procreative purpose and that purpose alone. Stated briefly, that made a lot of sense for its time, but it doesn’t really work so well these days.

Going through this rather quickly, there are three essential problems with maintaining that procreation only standard for sex today:
1) It relates to a scientifically outdated perspective coming from Aristotle that there are complete “souls” contained in a man’s sperm, and that these souls need to be respected and only released in places where they can grow into complete human beings. We now know that sperm contains no complete patterns for people, making its sacredness as such more questionable.
2) Maximizing human populations is, for many reasons, not a particularly wise or even moral strategy these days: It leads to millions of children ending up in pain and suffering, and strains the resources of the environments in which these clans try to sustain themselves. And then,
3) There are many valuable things about sex as a bonding experience between the couple who share this experience with each other, whether or not they are hoping to make babies in the process, that religion would be foolish to belittle as such.

So with these things in mind, how should sex be regulated and restricted so as to enable the greatest benefit in terms of enabling people to feel good about themselves and connect with each other in positive ways; yet without spreading diseases, without abusively using each other’s bodies for otherwise meaningless sexual satisfaction, without making excessive numbers of babies who are doomed to suffer hunger and neglect, and especially without cheapening the meaning of sex as a way in which two people can become part of each other in the deepest sense?

To be honest, we really don’t have any new set of rules that perfectly answer all the complicated questions involved in balancing the harms and benefits of different aspects of human sexuality. In every society we still have problems of rape, STDs, children in crises from physical and emotional neglect, and couples in crises with issues of jealousy, possessiveness, sexual frustrations and unfaithfulness in their relationships. It would be perhaps a bit naïve to say that there was a time or place where people didn’t have these problems, but it would be even more naïve to believe that we are getting closer to ideal moral solutions to them. The main issue is that within churches and communities we need to remain honest regarding the challenges we are dealing with here, and we keep trying to share our “best practices” with each other when it comes to confronting these issues, without attacking those who fail to meet our standards for purity in the process. (One exception is that those whose sexual carelessness and cruelty seriously damages the lives of others –– rapists, child abusers, reckless sexual adventurers breaking promises to committed spouses, and the like –– thoroughly deserve to be condemned for these practices. These are not matters of lacking ritual purity; they are matters of selfish cruelty.)

All that being said, the perfect ideal which the vast majority of people have in mind regarding their sexuality –– which has been remarkably standard for the majority in most human cultures throughout human history –– is for each of us to be able to find some healthy partner of the opposite sex, who shares a desire for the two of you to share life with each other. This should theoretically involve completely satisfying each other’s sexual desires so neither feels a need to look elsewhere for such satisfaction, and in this process the two of you would parent a manageable number of children together, each of whom feels completely wanted and each of whom can aspire to someday having for him- or herself the same sort of wonderful relationship that you have with your spouse. Those are the primary aspects of our ideals for sex and marriage; the rest is details.

Sadly in real life things hardly ever work out that way, so in hundreds of little ways we need to work out how to deal with situations where key aspects of this ideal break down on us. What are we going to accept as “close enough” to be acknowledged as a socially acceptable pair bond, with an assumed private sexual practice involved? How do we regard those who have children outside of the context of a legally committed sexual relationship? What are acceptable grounds for dissolving such a bond between two people? Who will we allow to raise children that are not born into an ideally functioning family unit? In what ways can we allow these sorts of compromises without further weakening the standing of the generalized ideal within the society?

In practice these are issues that each couple, each church, each local community, each ethnic traditional culture, and each level of civil government needs to work out for itself. The bases for deciding which “non-ideal” practices are acceptable and which aren’t really isn’t something that God has carved in stone and given a simple, eternal blueprint for mankind. Those who are looking for simple, absolutely certain answers to moral questions, particularly regarding sexuality, face continuous disappointment in reading the Bible. What we do have there is a guiding pair of ideals –– to love God and to love each other –– and a complex, immanently human set of stories and guidelines for realizing those ideals. We need to acknowledge that our societal rules are very much a work in process in this regard.

Part of this challenge is for churches to work out their own systems for stabilizing family relationships within their community of faith. In doing this sometimes they need to set stricter standards than the rest of society regarding how close to their religious ideals for marriage a couple has to be before the church is willing to formally acknowledge their relationship as legitimate –– in other words, to marry them. It is part of freedom of religion in most countries that churches are allowed to make such decisions for themselves. If someone has been divorced and remarried five or six times, the church is not required to conduct a new wedding ceremony for them, or to acknowledge their remarriage as “accepted by God”. Likewise religious communities are not forced to ceremonially accept mixed marriages, where someone from their community chooses to take a spouse from outside of that community. Sometimes these decisions are made purely on the basis of prejudice, but often they are made in good faith as an attempt to keep their system for reinforcing family life as viable as possible.

So then we come to the question of what to do about that minority within our communities whose sexual attraction is primarily to those of the same sex. Can we somehow “cure” them so that they can fit in with the standard ideal for sexuality as a basis for, and restricted to, the process of building a family with someone of the opposite sex? Can we just require them to live without sex for their entire life and leave it at that? Should we consider this orientation to be a form of sexual irresponsibility on their part and punish them for having such desires? Frankly religious communities have tried all three of these approaches, and many imaginative combinations thereof, with rather problematic results: Some are “successfully cured”. Others are driven to suicide. And then we find a broad continuum of results in between these two extremes.

What has been historically changing over the course of my lifetime is that same-sex attraction is no longer treated as an illness by medical and social work professionals, and from there the process of accepting those who experience such attractions as “normal” members of western societies has been moving forward relatively rapidly. Now last week the United States as joined a number of other countries in which same-sex couples who wish to have their personally committed homosexual relationships legally recognized as marriages have the right to be married, and to have their marriages legally recognized as such wherever in the country they happen to go.

In different cultures –– particularly those where the “proper roles” of men and women are very much separated and distinguished from each other –– this sort of development creates an especially painful crisis: for a man to sexually “play the role of a woman,” or visa-versa, messes up their whole perspective on how life is supposed to work. For a society to fully accept such a private sexual practice as normal is just too mind-blowing for them. This seems to be particularly true in many parts of Africa.

To my African brothers and sisters who are particularly bothered by this issue I would like to stress the following:

  1. Churches are not being required to sacramentally accept homosexual marriages as unions “joined together by God”. Any given church can still choose whether it will see whether such unions are close enough to what family is intended to be to offer their blessing. What they cannot do is legally refuse to acknowledge these people as full members of the secular society, having the same legal rights based on commitment to each other that “traditional married couples” have. Churches are still allowed to preach against homosexuality as much as they are allowed to preach against divorce, but when it goes as far as encouraging attacks against those who are divorced or gay, that becomes a different matter, regarding which what was wrong before is still wrong now.
  2. In spite of what some evangelists or radical Muslims may try to tell you, recent natural disasters are not the result of people in those areas getting too free with their sex lives. That isn’t how God works. I have my own perspective on what motivates some people to preach those sorts of things, but that’s for another time.
  3. Gender roles are changing, and that really has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is still true that in many African villages that women still must eat separately from men, after they have finished serving the men. Such practices are not seen as “normal” in western society, even if they are quite in line with how things were done in Jesus’ time. Trying to prevent these things from changing, or trying to change them back to the way they were in the times of our forefathers, is really not going to do any good. The roles of women and the roles of men are getting closer to each other all the time as a function of education being available to both boys and girls, and modern technology that is used in the workplace being just as easily operable for men and women. Blaming homosexuals for the way these things are changing, and the uncertainty these changes may cause in family life, is certainly unjustified.
  4. Again I must stress that rather than reacting with hate against things we find sinful or distasteful, the emphasis of the Christian message needs to be on building our capacities to love God and each other. The balance here is that part of loving each other is preventing people from doing things to harm themselves and each other, and that would include matters related to sexuality. But whatever we may agree or disagree about in terms of the details of what constitutes “harm” here, we need to keep the premise of learning to better love God and each other in mind when addressing the issue.

Beyond that I’m not going to tell people what they have to believe on this matter. It is a very complicated and culturally relative thing, and it is not my job to tell them how to organize their societies in terms of gender roles. I will continue to preach the Twin Commandment of Love, and I will continue to do what I can to improve education equally for girls and boys, and to improve access to technological means of improving productivity there for both women and men, but I will leave it up to the people themselves to work out the implications of these things for family life. After all, it’s not as though I’ve proven that I have that whole business figured out for myself…

But I promised that I’d come back to the case of Uriah the Hittite. Perhaps you know the story already. One of David’s main commanders, who happened to be a foreigner in Israel, had a particularly hot wife named Bathsheba… But before going any further with the story (which you can read for yourself in 2 Samuel 11), let me toss in a speculative detail to the reading that might put it in a different light: what if Uriah was actually gay?

It is not unknown for attractive women to feel most comfortable with gay men, who are not so overwhelmed by their attractiveness and thus find it easier to talk to them as people. It is also not unknown for gay men of the ancient world to have taken wives for themselves as matters of keeping up “normal” social appearances. For a Hittite immigrant to ancient Israel and a convert to the religion of Israel, keeping up appearances would have been particularly important. Then we have the fact that Bathsheba was being a bit of an exhibitionist, washing nude on her roof below the castle, in the spring when the armies had gone off to fight but the king was known to have stayed home. She had just finished with her period, reminding her once again that her husband wasn’t about to get her pregnant any time soon, so…

6581240257_e1a86586cd_bDavid gets all excited, has her brought up to the castle, spends a night with her, accidentally gets her pregnant, and then has to figure out what to do about it. He does everything in his power to get Uriah down to the house and into bed with his wife soon enough so that he’d think the child was his, but none of it works. Even stoned drunk, with an engraved invitation from his commander and chief to go spend some conjugal time with the Mrs., Uriah feels more inclined to go be with the guys in the barracks. What does that tell you?

So then David does the one thing that, of all of the crazy things he had done in his life, God gets angry with him about: he has Uriah killed. He puts matters in the hands of Joab, a real Machiavellian sleaze if ever there was one. He lets Joab know, subtly, that Uriah should die in battle. They were in the process of starving out an enemy city, but Joab has a sudden change in strategy: he sends Uriah’s unit up against the main fortifications so as to rattle their defenses a bit. Strategically it was a bone-headed move, but Joab told the messenger, “If the king gets pissed about this just tell him, ‘Uriah died in the attack,’ and that should cool him off.” So it went. So God became displeased. Of all of David’s misadventures, that was the one where he actually intentionally betrayed someone loyal to him; someone who perhaps happened to be gay, with that playing a role in why the king had him killed.

The point: hating and attacking people because of their sexual inclinations is not something we can excuse as being in any way part of “God’s work”. Thus however you need to work out your system for making families stronger, scapegoating and attacking gays as a source of the problem is not an acceptable way of doing things. Chew on that for a bit.

Sorry for rambling on for so long!

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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Tolerance

Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Philosophy, Respectability

Robots, Drones or Holographs?

This past week I’ve had the privilege to attend the twenty-first annual “Toward a Science of Consciousness” conference here in Helsinki. It was a brilliant opportunity to meet with leading intellects from around the world in fields of physics, psychology, neurology, philosophy, social sciences, etc. Part of the organizers’ strategy was to keep building on the popularity of David Chalmers’ “Hard Problem” approach, while making room for Deepak Chopra’s brand of mysticism, Susan Blackmore’s post-parapsychological perspectives, various quantum physics possibilities, the latest in neuro-science research, and plenty of philosophical speculations in between. I guess the coolest part has been just having the chance to hang around chatting with all sorts of respected thinkers who are really into this sort of thing.DSCF0039

Last year’s conference in Arizona, as I understand it, featured an interesting intellectual show-down between Chalmers and Daniel Dennett. I would have loved to sit in on that one, but I was pretty sure from the start that it was beyond what I could indulge myself with. Hearing that they would have the conference in Helsinki this year though, I made a point of getting myself signed up as a volunteer worker for the project as soon as possible. I’m very glad I did.

Dennett was not involved this time around, and taking his place this year in terms of providing scientific skepticism regarding the concept of an explanatory gap in conventional scientific research regarding the phenomenon of consciousness were noted neuro-scientist Patricia Churchland and philosophy professor David Papineau. Like Dennett, their perspectives were effectively that, on the basis of something like Occam’s razor, there is really no reason to assume that a non-physically based phenomenon of consciousness exists. Physics, and the sciences derived therefrom, have yet to convincingly explain why we have sensations at all –– why life should feel like anything; why our self-preservation mechanisms involve emotional aspects, empathetic responses and the broad phenomenal world of self-conscious reflection –– but it is still theoretically possible to dismiss those sensations as irrelevant abstractions or as abstract illusions produced by our “selfish genes”.

DSCF0013The primary defender of the perspective that phenomena of conscious experience need to be considered as part of the basic data that scientists and other academics need to find explanations for was Philip Goff, who argues for a metaphysical theory known as panpsychism. Chalmers has previously voiced some sympathy for Goff’s perspective on things, but this time he showed no particularly strong commitment in that direction. In fact in his keynote address to the conference this year Chalmers offered up another perspective on things which, he readily admitted, would effectively necessitate a rejection of panpsychism: consciousness as the “m-factor” in quantum physics.

Without going into too many technical details (especially since Chalmers himself did not go into too many technical details), the idea relates to the fate of Schrodinger’s poor little cat. According to the most basic understanding of quantum theory, in the random situation where this cat might or might not be killed as the result of random sub-atomic forces, until a measurement is taken that “freezes” the situation, we have to think of the cat as being both alive and dead. Something about taking measurements –– properly investigating the situation –– however, creates a more definitive state of affairs. Once we have somehow looked into the cat’s box we can either say that the cat is alive or the cat is dead; it can no longer be both. In this sense the investigative process–– the measurement, m-function, or whatever you want to call it –– “collapses the quantum wave function,” giving us a precise set of points of reference rather than a field of non-specifically localized energy vibrations.


David Chalmers offering his basic perspective on quatum physics

That much is pretty much generally accepted among physicists who are into this sort of thing. The unknown is what it is about the measuring process which causes this wave collapse. Is there something about the energy of consciousness itself which causes physical entities to take on perceived solid form? Is conscious energy then its own force within the quantum universe that brings about specific points of reference in the physical world? Or is the cause and effect the other way around: Is consciousness a form of energy which is released at the point when a quantum wave collapses and particular particle locations come about? What would the ramifications for this sort of theory of quantum dynamic be?

20150613_134849[1]Meanwhile, on the level of macro-physics, there are all sorts of things related to neurological function worth exploring, which various conference participants were playing with in various ways. One of the most interesting was the use of ultrasound projection into the brain as a means of mood regulation. Apparently the new thing among those who are fascinated with various means of self-medicating to alter their states of consciousness is to project various forms of energy into their brains, ranging from electric current to magnetic fields to various frequencies of radiant energy above and below the x-ray range. All of these forms of energy are commonly used as means of diagnostic imaging; they are projected into the brain and other parts of the body as means of looking at the hidden structures and activities going on in there without cutting the patient open for the doctor to see directly. As side effects these energies can alter the operation of the tissue they pass through, increasing or decreasing metabolism there. The very newest thing here is ultrasound. As it happens, when it comes to ultrasound, there are devices which have already been approved for experimental use among those who are trying to improve their mental function in military situations, or in gaming simulations of military situations. Within the range of what that same experimental permit allows, the University of Arizona is now experimenting with the use of ultrasound machines to alter people’s moods and eventually try to treat monopolar depressive illnesses. In practice this involved voluntary participants putting a little speaker up against their right temple, having pulses of sound that only dogs can hear blasted into their brain for less than a minute, and seeing how that effected their mental processes. I didn’t try it myself, but for the different volunteers there were different drugs that the experience brought to mind. Private experimentation, dangerous as it may be, seems rather likely to follow on this matter.

So speculation remains open, not only about what the underlying principles are for our conscious experiences, but as to whether the various forms of research being done in the field at this point in history are really even asking the right questions. One thing that seems rather obvious is that the brain plays a key role in the whole process, but there are different models regarding the ultimate metaphysical principles involved in brain function. I would summarize the alternatives that were being bounced around last week as falling into three categories; those given in the title of this essay.

DSCF0019The first would postulate that people are essentially physical machines, or in a sense robots, with the human brain as a particularly powerful self-programming computer which operates the body according to certain basic principles that are “hard-wired” in, and others which it picks up as it goes. The old analogy of a clockwork mechanism explaining things is rather outdated, but the sort of robots that sci-fi authors like Philip K. Dick wrote about could still be used as an explanation for the idea. According to this way of thinking, conscious experience is just a side effect of the ways in which our genetic programing realizes itself through our bodily functions. “Free will” is just an illusory sensation that goes along with these bodily functions as they develop through the ways in which our genetic programming adapts to and is realized within our material environment(s). Even so, from this perspective it is speculated that as Google’s self-driving cars and other such technologies are further developed, as a by-product of their increasing complexity they will start to have their own subjective experiences of something like emotional satisfaction or frustration with the ways in which they are able to carry out their given tasks. From there they may eventually begin doing something akin to our own processes of moral decision making. This is the sort of belief which characterizes the physicalist approach to consciousness. As unlikely as it may seem in many respects, this is the clear majority perspective in the field at this point.

A rather different approach, but holding many common features with physicalism, would be to recognize all of the self-regulating physical functions of these bodies –– with all of the genetic, bio-chemical, semi-automated environmental adaptation mechanisms, etc. which they include –– but based on what it feels like to operate within one of these units, to believe that there’s more to it than that. In other words there could still be a non-material dynamic or force of some sort which is effectively operating the controls for our bodies. Think of this in terms of drones –– the unmanned aircraft that are continuously being flown over the Middle East by the one branch or another of the U.S. government these days. Semi-secretly, somewhere in North Dakota (probably), tomorrow morning a man will have breakfast with his family, maybe drop off his kids at school, and then go to “the office”… to sit there for the day piloting a little unmanned aircraft called an MQ-9 over on the other side of the world, searching for “enemies of freedom” on which to unleash its hellfire missiles and other implements of destruction.

dronestrikes630x420As with a self-driving car, everything about the operating capacity, guidance systems and automatic responses to environmental conditions in an MQ-9 predator drone can be explained purely in terms of its internal equipment and the programming of its on-board computer systems. Yet unlike the purely robotic vehicle, the drone actually does not “decide for itself” where it will go, what it will deliver and who it will kill on any given day. There is some conscious agent controlling this mechanism, external to the mechanism, who ultimately decides what it does, and who is ultimately morally responsible for its actions.

To the outside observer it might be impossible to determine which vehicle being actively remotely controlled and which is robotically self-directed. If an enemy (or commercial competitor) would capture either sort of unit, it would be a rather challenging and uncertain process to determine whether it is self-controlled or remote controlled based solely on evidence gained from the machine itself (especially if they were not able to monitor the various sorts of radio signals that the machine in question would give off and receive as it operates). They might easily mistake a drone for a robot, or a robot for a drone. If you fire a bazooka at either, destroying significant parts of its on-board electronics or mechanical controls, the resulting reduction in its operational capacities will be pretty much the same for both. So in terms of this analogy, how can we say whether or bodies are entirely self-controlled units, or whether we have conscious “souls” which somehow operate our bodies?

In any case, those who assume, on the basis of the conscious experiences we have of our bodies and what lies beyond them, that each of us is essentially a conscious entity of some sort, with an essence distinct from the our bodies and brains, and that this conscious essence is that which (under normal circumstances) ultimately controls the body and experiences the sensations generated by the body’s sensing apparatus, are classified as functional dualists. This position entails the possibility that there could also be some bodies around us that operate without any sense of conscious experience, famously referred to by Chalmers as zombies. Dualism as such is generally seen as a respected minority position among consciousness researchers. It is still subject to critique from some strict atheists for being a little too close to a religious world view for their taste. Even so, this is how I would currently classify myself, with a fair amount of acknowledgement given to the possibility of error of course.

There is a third alternative view as to how our conscious selves and our bodies relate to each other though: the body and its brain can be seen as a projection generated by either individual or collective consciousness, analogous in many ways to a holographic image. From this perspective, while the body and its environment can be experienced on all sorts of different levels, none of these experiences prove beyond doubt that the reality of what is being experienced is essentially material. This way of conceptualizing things is best known in the history of western philosophy as Berkeley’s radical idealism. It also has strong connections with the “Christian Science” religious orientation, and it is quite strongly associated with the sort of Hindu mysticism currently being popularized by Deepak Chopra and his fans who were present at this week’s conference. According to this view the primary focus in the study of consciousness should be on self-awareness and meditative focus as means of projecting a healthier identity into the bodies and brains which our consciousness is continuously creating through its capacity to project such things. I’m not really sure what to say about this, other than that it remains an interesting though counter-intuitive possibility for explaining life as we know it.

Ultimately, however, from my perspective, the important issue is still the Kirkegaardian one: rather than determining with absolute certainty how our conscious selves and our physical selves relate to each other, what we really need to determine is what is worth doing with ourselves, whatever we happen to be. Needless to say, our starting assumptions regarding what ultimately makes each of us who we are have a significant impact on what sort of meaning we try to find for our lives; but if these speculations don’t have any impact on how we live our lives, from my own perspective at least they have extremely limited value.

20150610_173457[1]On the other hand, however, I must admit that my view in this regard as well is probably a minority position; and given the number of people who have demonstrated a fascination with the subject by gathering in Helsinki to talk about it last week, there seem to be plenty of people who find other reasons for exploring the subject of consciousness and seeing it as valuable. And regardless of the differences in viewpoint I have with some of the positions presented last week, it was a truly fascinating experience unto itself. I certainly hope this isn’t the last time I will be able to take part in such a conference.

Cheers to all of my new friends from the occasion.


Filed under Education, Metaphysics, Philosophy


Since this is such a fiercely debated topic, particularly among religious types this month, I’ll take a moment here to weigh in with my perspective on Mr./Ms. Jenner issue for the record. In doing so though I’ll make an exception to my regular habit of posting a picture or two with each blog entry, because the general obsession with this individual’s visual appearance is clearly part of the problem.

When I was 14 years old I actually dated a girl who had a bit of a crush on Bruce Jenner. He was definitively masculine, but in a suitably moderate way, well-spoken, strongly ambitious and self-disciplined, and capable of winning competitions across a fairly wide range of sporting events. He was sort of “vanilla” in a number of senses –– nothing particularly edgy or dramatic about him –– but as disposable breakfast cereal advertising mannequins of that era went he had more of a claim to public respect than most.

In the years thereafter then I get where he, as Bruce, struggled to maintain his role as a husband, a father, a step-father, and most of all, as a B-list celebrity. I haven’t really bothered following the details, but I get that, while he never went through the trauma of a post-celebrity “riches to rags story” (like Tina Turner’s era living on food stamps after her break-up with Ike), life has been quite complicated and challenging for him in his four decades in various intensities of limelight. The common thread holding his life together though was that he could always make a safe, comfortable living off of just being a handsome man in the public eye in the company of beautiful women, with nothing beyond that really being expected of him. We call it celebrity for celebrity’s sake –– being famous mostly just for being famous –– going through the effort to remain fit and healthy looking, but exhibiting no particular special talents beyond that. That’s obviously a rather superficial way for anyone to live, but there are plenty of minor celebrities who play just such a role in American society in particular these days, and all-in-all Bruce probably played it with as much dignity as any of them.

One significant chapter of this story that I never really noticed first-hand as it was happening was his role in the whole Kardashian saga. Obviously I’ve noticed the pin-up competitions between the different sisters, and heard about the celebrity marriages based on the family’s “reality TV” fame, but other than Survivor I have to say that I’ve never really followed that genre, so I didn’t actually realize how much Bruce had to do with all that absurdity. Would those girls ever have become so rich and famous without building their own celebrity for celebrity’s sake on Bruce’s celebrity for celebrity’s sake? I really cannot say, but then again I really can’t think of many questions based on events in the international news media which are less relevant to life as I know it.

While on that topic, it’s also worth considering, how should the Jenner/Kardashian celebrity be compared to other such reality TV based vacuous celebrity producing enterprises such as The Osbournes, Duck Dynasty, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and/or “Real” Housewives of Wherever? To what extent are all of these signs of the post-Reagan cultural shift and decline in the American empire? Another question I can’t really definitively answer.

Whatever the case may be, Bruce, as Bruce, was clearly profiting from and enjoying his celebrity status during those years, but at the same time he was experiencing its fade into irrelevance –– thoroughly eclipsed by his step-daughter Kim’s breaking of the internet and all that. The “well-endowed” women with pretty faces were getting all of the major attention, and the big bucks. Could that have anything to do with his decision to become one of them? (For pronoun critics out there, the currently self-identified “she” was still a self-identified in the masculine while making that decision.) How far can this case of surgical self-reinvention be compared, for that matter, to the disturbing case of Michael Jackson? I don’t feel justified in drawing strong conclusions in this area, but since what we’re talking about here is the absurd arena of celebrity for celebrity’s sake here, I believe that these questions deserve to be asked.

As it happens, this week I’ve been spending quite a bit of time taking an on-line course, without credit possibilities, by watching Stanford University’s Youtube channel lectures by Robert Sapolsky on human behavioral biology. I strongly recommend the series for anyone who has a hundred hours or so to spare this summer for such things. In this series Professor Sapolsky strongly considers many aspects of what it means to be masculine and/or feminine, for many other species and for many mutated versions of humanity.

There are many fascinating aspects of the basis of gender and sexuality that we don’t have absolute scientific explanations for. It is clear that some parts of the brain tend to be bigger and more active in women than in men, and visa-versa, and that those with ambiguous gender identity do in fact often have brain morphology closer to the opposite gender than to the one they are physiologically identified with. So should they be allowed to change their physical gender identity to match their sense of self otherwise? Without allowing for any definitive ontological determination of what makes someone “really a woman” or “really a man,” Professor Sapolsky remains open-minded about the prospect of allowing people to have surgical gender reassignment to give them a greater sense of harmony with themselves. In evolutionary terms that may reduce one’s possibilities of passing on one’s genes, but there’s more to being a person than just reproducing. So how else might this sort of self-reinvention be a threat to anyone else, particularly to those outside of the gender ambiguity sufferer’s family?

It would seem that the reason this is considered to be a threat, by religious folks in particular, has to do with a concept of screwing up “God’s design” within each of us: that there is something holy and absolute about a man being a man and a woman being a woman. What can we say about that?

First of all, let’s be honest: the optimal situation for any person is to accept themselves for who they are, physically, mentally and in every other way; “warts and all.” Our bodies all vary a bit from what we might ideally like them to be, especially as the aging process moves along, but accepting my body as it is, as one of the primary determinants of what makes me me, and being at peace with it regardless of where it fails to measure up to my Platonic ideal for what sort of body I would like to have, is part of being a mentally healthy person. Yet that being said, I don’t have any crisis of conscience over the idea of having particular aspects of my body that might come to trouble me fixed: getting warts removed, getting treatment to keep my eyes working properly, and should it become necessary, having surgery to improve various aspects of my body’s to function, and perhaps even its appearance. (The latter is an extremely abstract idea for me, but I wouldn’t have a crisis of conscience over having it done.) So from there, when it comes to our bodies not matching up to our ideal self-image pictures of what they should be like, how do we go about deciding in which cases the body should be fixed and in which cases the conscious identity should be adjusted to accepting the body for what it is? Can I condemn those who have particular difficulties accepting the current state of their bodies gender-wise for wanting to get them “fixed”? I mean besides this being very much a “First World problem” –– related to abstract vagaries of identity dis-satisfaction, which are often based on the sort of dysfunctional media culture that we live in –– what’s the problem?

When it comes to things ranging from separating conjoined twins or correcting other birth defects, to reconstructing one’s appearance following a major accident or something like cancer surgery, I don’t think many religious people have a serious problem with doctors playing a major role in changing a person’s bodily identity. But when the “problem” is the body not matching the sense of gender identity that the person senses within her-/himself, why is that a more touchy matter for them? Perhaps the biggest question that disturbs people about the whole transsexuality issue here is whether manhood and/or womanhood as such are under some sort of threat. Most relevant in this case, is it still culturally acceptable to be proud of being a man? If so, what does that even mean these days? And then on the other side, can someone who has lived for over 60 years as a man really have any accurate idea about what his life really would have been like as a woman? This is to say nothing about the marketing confusion caused by having someone whose professional identity was very much based on providing a physical ideal for masculinity all of a sudden choose to physically be a woman instead. For those who draw their sense of gendered norms from the mass media, what does something like that do to their whole idea of what it means to be a man? I can sort of see where some might be a bit threatened by such a situation. And for those who believe that there is an eternal absolute standard for masculinity and femininity, each proscribed by God himself, I get where this sense of threat is all the more acute in relation to the Jenner case.

So what does it mean to be a man as such these days? Going back to Professor Sapolsky’s lectures, there are a few things worth noting in this regard. Most important, there is not a set “natural” mode for relations between the genders for humanity. Biologically speaking, as a species we are pretty seriously mixed up, being half way in between classic “tournament” species like baboons and “pair bonding” species like ostriches. We are neither naturally prone to monogamously mate for life, nor to accept the idea of only alpha males getting to mate with as many desirable females as they want and the rest going without. We have certain tendencies in both directions, but we are bound to neither orientation. Nature as such does not give us any particular moral imperative in terms of the “right way” for the genders to relate to each other, either in terms of our mating practices or in terms of our economic production practices. Toss in the added complication of the technology assisted lives we now lead reducing the logistical need for maintaining traditional gender roles based on physical capabilities and things have gone pretty thoroughly beyond of the realm where “proper” roles can be readily defined. We are cursed with rather extensive freedom in this area, and with a great deal of individual responsibility for what we do with that freedom, with little hope, in Western societies at least, of holding our sexual partners, or anyone else for that matter, to some eternal transcendent standards in these matters.

But beyond that there are at least two things which seriously set mankind apart from any other type of mammal or other animal: we have a far greater capacity for rational self-control, and a far greater capacity for empathy than the rest. No other creature can stop and think things through nearly as far as we do, and no other creature is capable of the sort of compassion that we, in the best case, are able to exercise towards those we see in conditions of unjust suffering. Through taking advantage of those traits, hopefully we can work our way through the current crisis of uncertainty regarding gender roles and mating practices. Hopefully individual couples can find ways to care for each other and work out the ambiguities of their mutual responsibilities well enough to keep societies going while these roles remain in flux.

Meanwhile it’s worth remembering, and/or pointing out to fundamentalists of various sorts who still don’t get it, that sticking to tradition for tradition’s sake –– in gender roles just like everything else –– just isn’t going to work.

So with all that taken into consideration, the celebrity formerly known as Bruce Jenner is really the least of our problems when it comes to the on-going significance of masculinity, or femininity. The process of gender reassignment surgery does involve somewhat more complications than most other forms of reconstructive surgery, but it need not be any significant threat to the rest of us. The more people there are who “get” that, the healthier society will be.

Frankly the thing that bothers me about Caitlyn’s new identity is not so much denial of her masculinity, but rather her denial of her being a 65-year-old has-been. So she has chosen to turn to the sort of doctors that are most easily found in the immediate vicinity of Hollywood to radically alter her persona, in ways that makes her a hero to some and a freak to others… which, for someone seriously addicted to the limelight, is far more satisfying than irrelevance at least. In other words accepting that transsexuals can be perfectly healthy and well-adjusted members of society in their reassigned gender identity does not automatically imply that this particular individual should be considered as either mentally healthy or “normal” in any other context than the abstract world of reality TV’s system of producing celebrities for celebrity’s sake. And yes, I do see that whole industry as both reflecting and producing some serious societal dysfunctions.

I don’t deny that there might be some other sense of normal existence possible for her still, but in the unlikely case where something like that could come about, I don’t see any possibility of it having relevance to life as I know it. Still, for what little it’s worth, I do see Caitlyn’s post-surgical persona as slightly closer to “normal” than Michael Jackson’s at least. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Religion, Respectability, Tolerance

Fresh Apologetic Challenges

The academic year has now drawn to a close. I’ve been accordingly occupied with a number of issues in relation to the finale season, and of course there have been other life transitions to distract me lately, but I’ve had plenty of philosophizing on my mind that I’ve been planning to write about. Let’s see if over the next week I can get caught up a bit here. Now I have no more excuses for not working some of these things through here.

One of the most important things from last month that I want to do some “thinking aloud” about here is what I was trying to say in the last university post-graduate seminar I attended this month. It was my turn to offer a critique of my colleague Lari’s presentation, and I don’t think I really did it justice. I also believe that the subject in question deserves to be discussed with a broader audience than in our little research group. Lari will be making other public presentations of his material, but I hope he doesn’t mind my spreading my take on it to the little collection of readers I have here.

The basic topic of Lari’s paper was the alternative strategies that Christians (and other theists) can use to counter the most recent variations on the Occam’s Razor argument: the claim that all god-concepts can be quite thoroughly explained in terms of the operations of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, that no further explanation is necessary for them, and that they should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.

As the argument goes, we humans are instinctively prone to attribute random occurrences to some sort of agent or intelligent being. Not only are we ready to assume that consciousness exists outside of ourselves; we are prone to see evidence of conscious activities in all sorts of places where, on closer examination, we can actually be relatively certain that they don’t exist: What looked like a monster posed to attack me from my closet was actually just a pile of dirty laundry. The noises coming from the attic are not ghosts, but old timbers contracting as they cool in the night air. No one stole my keys; I just misplaced them.

In terms of evolutionary theory, it is better for our imaginations to be hyperactive in this area than for them to be insufficiently active to identify potential enemies and allies.  As with a fire alarm at home or in a public building, it is better to have dozens of false alarms than to have the alarm system “not notice” one actual fire. Thus our mental programming, designed to detect other “agents” in our environments, tends to be a bit high strung, causing us to see intentionality and strategic thought in many things that we later realize were entirely random or accidental matters.  The question from there is, how well are we able to identify all of these “false positive readings” for things we take to be the activity of other minds after the fact; and if these tend to go undetected, might they essentially explain where all of our beliefs in a spirit world “out there” come from?

In its most aggressive form, this argument asserts that the most common intuitive reasons people have for believing in God all come back to dependence on their ability to detect “agency” –– the results of conscious actions committed by others –– in the world around us; an ability which is inherently flawed. Therefore, since spiritual beliefs are easily explained away as the products of the buggy “agency detection devices” that are programmed into each of us, it is most rational to reject all spiritual beliefs out of hand.

Lari’s argues, quite fluently, that in broad terms there are two strategies for committed theists to use in countering this sort of argument: We can either claim that we have entirely separate –– and more “respectable” –– reasons for our beliefs in various spiritual entities and phenomena, or we can claim that our agency detection device programming is not as faulty as its critics are prone to believe. The former style of argument he refers to as an internalist-evidentialist strategy; the latter, an externalist-reliablist strategy –– as good of names as any. From there he contends that both strategies can be useful, but whereas the evidentialist strategy makes it easier to construct reasonable sounding counter arguments, the reliablist strategy while more difficult to defend, may provide a more useful tool in terms of defending the faith of the average active church member, given the number of believers whose faith really is based on a combination of traditions they have been socialized into and the function of their agency detection devices.

As far as he goes with that, I have little argument with Lari’s analysis. My problem is with the way in which these arguments attempt to address epistemological questions in abstraction from their ethical implications. I categorically reject the idea that we can search for some ultimate truth about the existence of God separately from practical questions of how we should live and what the purpose of our lives should be. The whole issue of “respectability” within epistemology as an end unto itself –– as a holy calling regarding which philosophy takes on the role of a priesthood of sorts –– is effectively a continuation of the Hegelian tradition, and I firmly believe that Kierkegaard’s critique of this tradition makes a legitimate point, especially when it comes to questions of what it means to believe in God.

There are two particularly famous Kierkegaard quotes that sum up the issue rather succinctly:

“If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought… then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, 1844)

And then,

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose… to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Journals, 1835. Emphasis added.)

Kierkegaard’s primary critique of Hegel concerned the old German’s lack of basic humility in his epistemological perspective. Acknowledging our fallibility is a very necessary starting point in these matters. There are two challenging aspects of the philosophical search for truth that we, as humans, are never going to overcome: our finitude and our biased personal perspectives. Any honest philosophical inquiry needs to keep these limitations in mind throughout the process; not claiming to have found infinity within oneself, nor to have found a level of truth that isn’t based on what we can discover within our human limitations. Those who turn to either philosophy or religion as a means of trying to escape life’s uncertainties and ambiguities fundamentally miss this point.

If, however, we set somewhat more modest goals for ourselves of determining what truths are worth acting on, and what sorts of actions are justified on such bases, both philosophy and religion can provide useful guidelines for choosing a course of action. (Many will disagree with me about the usefulness of either. For some of them philosophy might provide a useful framework for discussing the matter at least. For the rest, c’est la vie if they disagree.)

jack and jillTo follow on Lari’s choice of hypothetical character names, let me illustrate this with a story of Jill and Jack: This couple first met at a student gathering one fine spring day, and over the subsequent weeks they began dating. This took some courage for Jill in particular, as she was just getting over the rather bitter ending of a previous dysfunctional romance with Joe. Jack, however, showed himself to be a kind, respectful, funny, intelligent and seemingly emotionally mature sort of guy, so in spite of her wounds and fears Jill decided to keep seeing him. Then one night Jill had an especially vivid dream, in which she saw herself and Jack as an old couple snuggling together on a porch swing as their grandchildren arrived for a weekend visit. Jill believed that this dream was somehow prophetic; that she and Jack were just meant to be together.

When she told Jack about this dream though he seemed a bit skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated even, as though his new girlfriend might have a few screws looser than he had first realized. Nevertheless he deeply appreciated her otherwise quick wit, her sweet smile, her gentle affectionate nature, and her overall sense of style, so he too wanted to keep the relationship going. Some months later an occasion arose where Jack thought it would be appropriate to take Jill to meet his family. Jack’s parents were immediately smitten with Jill, and made every effort to make her feel completely at home with them. Jack’s mother, June, in particular wanted to get in some one-on-one time with this sweet thing her son had brought home, so she asked Jill to come help in the kitchen. While the two ladies were in there alone together, June suddenly became rather confused mid-sentence and then collapsed on the floor. Jill instantly reacted to the situation with complete composure, kneeling down next to the older woman and trying to revive her. June soon came back to consciousness and apologized, making excuses of being overly excited and not having eaten properly that day, but Jill could see that things were not entirely right. She immediately yelled for Jack to come in and told him, “I believe your mother is having a stroke. We need to get her to the hospital right away!” As it turned out, Jill’s diagnosis was entirely correct, and getting June into immediate treatment prevented any major damage from resulting from the incident. She was thus able to make a quick and complete recovery. Jill’s rapid and well-informed reaction had saved her from suffering paralysis and loss of speech, and may have even saved her life.

Jack’s gratitude to Jill for saving his mother in this way seriously intensified his feelings for her and his commitment to her. Two months later he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed.

Now the question is, was it wise for these two to believe that they had found a true love that was just meant to be?

In Jill’s case her original decision to entrust herself to Jack was based on a naïve belief in the power of dreams. To try to defend the general validity of seeking guidance from one’s dreams is a rather difficult and problematic matter to say at the least. This can be associated with all manner of superstitions that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems in one’s life, to say nothing of the relational conflicts that could arise if Jack wouldn’t happen to share such beliefs with her. On the other hand though Jill’s dream might still be seen by a non-believer in the magical power of such things as a subconscious indication of how much healing Jack had succeeded in bringing about in her life. Thus even if there was nothing prophetic about it, the dream could be taken as a sign that he really was good for her. Her epistemological premise for believing in the value of the relationship may well have been flawed, but it is possible that the conclusion which it brought her to could have been the right one, and perhaps even “true” in a practical sense.

Jack’s more careful and skeptical consideration of the value of their relationship may be easier to rationally defend on some levels. It was not dependent on any magical concepts or superstitious beliefs as such. To the less romantically inclined he could justify his decision to marry Jill on the basis of the significant practical value of having her around, as seen in the way she saved his mother. Did that prove beyond doubt that Jill was the ideal woman for him and that they were destined to live “happily ever after”? In itself of course not. Telling that story to Joe would by no means be enough to convince him that he had made a mistake in letting Jill go. But even so, this experience, taken together with Jack’s other reasons for appreciating Jill, provided him with as good a rational justification for making a romantic commitment as people can really expect to find these days.

None of this excludes the possibility that within a few years Jack and Jill would end up driving each other crazy and getting divorced. If that were to happen inevitably both of them would have to reconsider the thought processes that led them to believe in their relationship to begin with. If either were naïve enough to believe that their reasons for choosing each other were matters of absolute rational certainty, a marital crisis could end up shaking their personal existential foundations in really horrible ways. But even in that case we wouldn’t have enough information to say that marriage was a mistake for them. One or the other might well have made later mistakes to screw up what otherwise would have been a beautiful thing for both of them. Whatever the case their epistemological premises for believing that they belonged together were not the best determinant of the validity of the proposition, nor a particularly strong indicator one way or the other regarding the strength of their future marriage.  (There’s also a lot to be said these days for people daring to love each other in spite of all of the risks involved, but that’s another essay.)

So how does this relate to the question of our grounds for believing in God? One aspect of the matter is that neither an externalist-reliablist strategy nor an internalist-evidentialist strategy –– neither “a sense of God’s presence” nor attempts to prove His existence on the basis of historical events and the like –– is entirely foolproof. Our means of knowing by way of such means are always going to be flawed, and we need to acknowledge that.  But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that faith can have significant value even when it doesn’t have an epistemologically “respectable” basis.  A lot really depends on what you do with that faith.

Let’s go back to Jack and Jill. One significant risk for their relationship would be if Jill would somehow start expecting Jack to live up to all of her wildest dreams –– daydreams and night dreams. Getting angry at him for not living up to such an impossible standard would be a certain recipe for disaster in their relationship. Just as bad would be if Jack were to start seeing preserving their families’ health as one of Jill’s essential roles in the relationship, thus (perhaps secretly) feeling bitter against her whenever a family member would get seriously ill. Those aren’t the sort of things that their decision to join their lives together should have been based on, but then again many couples have married based on similarly irrational expectations. If, however, based on their differing epistemological premises, they were able to form a mature, caring, supportive commitment to each other’s happiness, the inherent flaws of their respective epistemological processes need not become an issue.

Likewise when it comes to faith, magical expectations and false certainties can do all sorts of damage. Thus I believe that addressing these practical concerns may in fact be more important than justifying the foundations for one’s faith.

In Lari’s seminar paper he mentioned an old quote from a particular Finnish “Christian Democrat” politician that he and I both happen to be acquainted with. Some years ago this fellow made a public statement to the effect that God had caused a particular volcanic eruption in Iceland as a way of getting Europeans’ attention. This sort of rhetoric rang true with enough people here were this guy has now been elected as a member of parliament here! I would pretty much expect such foolishness in the United States, but not in Finland. I know this fellow to be fairly well-meaning and relatively harmless character overall, but the idea that he might seriously believe that his job is now to try to pass laws to keep Finns from doing “sinful” things so that God doesn’t cause natural disasters… is more than a little disturbing to me.

The question is not one of whether this politician is epistemologically justified in believing in God, but whether he is justified in politically attacking what he sees as the sinfulness of others on that basis. Or perhaps that question needs to be expanded a bit: Does he feel called to fight against things like greed, hate-mongering, lack of caring for the poor, and the destruction of the environment, because of the ways in which such sins can be seen to have a destructive impact on the lives of others; or is he more interested in keeping too many people from enjoying the wrong sorts of sex as a means of magically preventing earthquakes and volcanoes and such? From there comes the question of what sort of justifications various sorts of believers would have in voting for (or against) a political party characterized by such positions.

By Kierkegaard’s standards these would more important questions to consider than that of whether or not, in the abstract, one is justified in believing in God. At the very least I am convinced that abstract arguments regarding justifications for believing in God have little value without their ethical implications being taken into consideration.  From there I’m prone to see the internalist-evidentialist vs. externalist-reliablist discussion as a matter of relatively minor concern.

But then again, if some academic theologians are able to get grants to study such things I wish them all the best with their endeavors.🙂

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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Religion, Respectability

Mac’s Obituary

I’ve been rather lax about posting here lately, but I have far better excuses than usual this month. Besides the usual difficulties and distractions that go with end of school year routines, I’ve been confronted with the death of my best friend over the past 14 years: a Springer Spaniel by the name of Mac. Given the role that Mac played in my life –– and the role he played in other people’s lives, both directly and through me –– it is appropriate that I take a moment here to commemorate the value that his life had.

Mac was an accidental puppy which came to a new breeder of spaniels and retrievers from just outside of the Helsinki commuting region. His mother was only 11 months old when she had her first litter, including the little fellow my sons and I ended up with. This was in the summer of 2001. During the previous winter our pet rabbit, Whiskers, had died rather tragically of an accident caused by blindness, brought on by diabetes we didn’t know it had. I promised my sons that after we returned from our long-planned trip to the United States that summer, to celebrate my father’s sixtieth birthday with the rest of the family there, we would get a dog as our next pet. True to my word, as soon as we returned from that trip I started scouring the classified ads for mid-sized dogs which cost less than a small car. The ad for this litter of spaniels without papers fit our requirements perfectly. I called the breeder and she happened to be bringing another of the puppies from the litter into the city that Saturday, and so she agreed to bring along a few of the puppies which hadn’t been reserved yet and meet us at a parking lot not far from my apartment. So we encountered these little bundles of cuteness there outside the local gas station that morning, and after playing with them for a bit my younger son, Kris, picked out one of them from among his brothers. It’s fair to say he made a very good choice.

My older son, Robert, in particular had the idea that the movie Beethoven showed the best way to name a puppy: by seeing what sort of music he responded to. Obviously in real life it doesn’t quite work like that, but with that starting point in mind we began a family project of searching for an appropriate dog name within my record collection. After tossing around various possibilities, Mac… as in Fleetwood… just seemed like the name which suited him best.

I should back up to say that at that time I was a divorced “weekend father,” and due to the absurdities of Finnish divorce law at the time, in spite of their mother’s conspicuous mental illness, she had been given sole legal custody over my sons. In practice it was my ex-mother-in-law who got to make all of the legal decisions regarding them, and it’s best if I don’t say anything about what I think of her. Suffice to say, she had nearly prevented them from attending the American get-together that summer and there was plenty of bitter tension left over from that struggle. On top of that I had just had a subsequent marriage collapse on me, in part due to the stresses related to my sons’ custody that I brought into that relationship. It was a very tense time in my life indeed. Under these circumstances the puppy was an instant bonding agent and source of healing for all of us, a role he fell into completely naturally, as though he was made for it.

From the moment he sat on my lap as we drove to an ATM to get the money to pay the breeder for him, he seemed to consider himself fully part of our family. The first time I heard him cry was when we had to leave my sons off at their grandmother’s house the next evening.

To refer to Mac as the bastard son of royalty was true on a number of levels. He never had any official pedigree, but a few years later his mother and his presumed father were brought together again, intentionally this time, to produce another batch of puppies, this time with pedigrees, with hopes that they would be just as handsome and good-natured as Mac. Many of his cousins and partial siblings went on to become champion show dogs. Mac himself once appeared on the cover of Finland’s spaniel association’s magazine, in a picture taken at a dog-and-child camp that he and Robert went to. There was no denying that Mac was particularly handsome, and that he carried himself with an elite air of self-confidence at all times.

Mac was the easiest dog in the world to house-train, at least as far as his droppings were concerned. He would mischievously get into various things that weren’t intended for him, and chew on various things that I didn’t want toothmarks on, but from his first week with us onward, never when he was healthy and properly attended to did he have any “accidents” on the carpets. After the first time I saw him squatting and moved him onto the newspaper he was like, “Oh, OK, not in here then. Fine. I’ll wait until we can go out.”

In other ways as well Mac proved himself to be exceptionally intelligent and an eager problem-solver. On one particularly memorable occasion when Mac was still quite young I took him along on a date. As the puppy, the lady and I were walking in the woods together we came to a bird watching platform overlooking a pond where migratory birds would stop on their way in and out of town. The lady and I proceeded to climb up to look around. The puppy sat at the bottom of the steep stairs and began to whine a bit. I then called him to come on up and his response thoroughly impressed me: He stretched his little legs to work his way up the first three steps and from there stopped to look at me. Then he looked back at the ground. After a few glances in both directions he turned around and tried climbing back down. He succeeded at that with no serious difficulty, and so, satisfied that he wasn’t getting himself into something he couldn’t get out of, he then proceeded from there to climb the rest of the way up to the observation platform. That made me think, if only more young people would have that much foresight in their learning adventures…

Mac would follow me anywhere he could, and he would bark up a storm if we weren’t together and he believed I could possibly hear him. In visiting a seashore cottage we used to regularly go to, it was impossible for me to get into a rowboat without either taking him along or locking him into the cottage. If someone accidentally opened the cottage door he would be out like a shot, swimming after the boat in seconds. He also became very adept at working basic door handles under such circumstances, and he could also climb remarkably steep stairs and ladders. Pretty much anything I could climb without using my hands –– stairs, ladders, rocks, mountain paths –– Mac could climb after me. Some friends who liked Mac a lot did not want to mind him for the afternoon when I asked mostly for fear of how he tended to complain if I wasn’t there. Robert perhaps summed it up best with his joke, after reading Dilbert and Dogbert cartoons, that perhaps we should call Mac “Dog-vid”.

For the most part he was also quite at home in all of the various cars that I drove during his life, though in his own funny way: On the motorway he could sit quietly for hours, but when we got onto country roads he always got restless, as if trying to say, “Hey this spot looks really interesting. Can’t we stop and check it out for a bit?” As he became too large to safely sit in my lap as I drove it was difficult for him to adjust to the idea of not being allowed there any more. For a long time he kept up a habit of trying to slowly creep into my lap as I drove, first sitting as close to me as the car’s seats would allow, then putting is left front paw on my leg to check my response, then resting his chin on my leg, then slowly trying to inch his way further across… until I finally had to pull him back by the scruff of his neck for safety reasons.

But though he was particularly attached to me personally, from Mac’s perspective there was was always room for new members in our pack. This was seen in particular in his relationship with the kids at the school where I taught. Whenever possible, when the temperatures were neither dangerously hot nor cold for him, I took Mac to school with me and let him sleep in the car during my lessons, then took him out for walks around the paths surrounding the school when I had breaks or skip lessons. At times I snuck him into the playground, the teachers’ lounge, and even some of the classrooms to play with my students and colleagues. If there was anyone with a fobia or an allergy, it was understood that he would not be allowed into the area, but when no one had that sort of problem… rules tended to get bent. In that way students came to appreciate his presence just as a matter of principle. Thus Mac became very much the unofficial mascot of Espoo International School during pretty much its entire time at the Louhentie building. He also became a very familiar face to the students of Etelä Tapiolan lukio over the years.

In all of my romantic involvements over those years Mac also played a significant role. One ex-girlfriend from that time, who became very attached to Mac, commented that “if only I could find a man with his personality…” Another long-term relationship I had essentially began with the friendship between Mac and that lady’s Labrador. Essentially it became something of a precondition for dating with me: I learned that it was best not to bother with any woman who had a problem with either my sons or my dog.

From an early age, however, Mac began having problems with his eyes and ears. These sense limitations as he got older never seemed to limit his general good nature or interest in meeting new people (and dogs) and making new friends, especially among children. They were sad to witness though.

I don’t think his vision was ever particularly strong: Playing in a park together, it was always easy to hide from him behind bushes and the like, and he always seemed to play fetch primarily on the basis of smell. But it was when he was six years old that glaucoma struck, painfully blinding him in one eye. There were fears that he might lose the other eye’s vision as well, or that the blind eye would have to be surgically removed, but neither fear ever ended up being realized. The condition was managed surprisingly well with some basic eye drops.

His ears were another matter. As a puppy he had very acute hearing. It was six months after he came into our family that I finished my master’s degree, and during those months of studying intensively for my very last exams he would be sleeping on my feet most of the time while I was on my computer. But whenever he heard the click of either my computer or my television shutting off he would instantly jump up, ready to go for a walk or for some other form of action together. But over the years, in spite of rigorous cleaning routines and careful diet regulations, bacterial and yeast infections under those big furry ears of his became chronic. By the time he was five he had notably reduced hearing, and by nine years old he was stone deaf.

The major crisis in my relationship with Mac came when he was 10 years old. Kris, my younger son, had officially become an adult, so I didn’t have children to care for in Finland any more. Another romance in my life had come and gone. Due to curriculum changes in the schools where I taught some of my favorite classes to teach were being discontinued, and overall I was starting to feel burned out with Finnish school teacher’s life as I knew it. At this time an opportunity arose to spend some time in South Africa, and to look into the possibilities of carving out a more permanent niche for myself there. But what about my half-blind and deaf old spaniel?

I searched around among connections from the breeder, among friends and neighbors, former students and anyone else I could think of, but didn’t find anyone willing to adopt him. I looked into the possibility of taking him with me, and even went as far as having a microchip implanted in his shoulder and buying an airline carrying cage for him… but those logistics weren’t going to work. I was starting to get desperate. Eventually I started placing announcements in every on-line advertising medium I could find, and finally a promising reply came: a family about an hour’s drive away, with two school-aged girls, had an old female terrier that they wanted an older four-legged companion for. It had to be an older dog, not particularly large, who was particularly good with children.

They had a lovely little lake shore home out in the countryside where the dogs could run free much of the time, and it seemed like the perfect ideal for an old dog’s retirement living. We arranged for Mac to go over and visit with them for a couple days to see if it would work, and after that they were fully convinced that they wanted to keep him. That brought me very close to crying for joy.

My South African adventure turned out not to be anything permanent, but when I returned to Finland the following year I decided that it would be fairest for all concerned if I would not ask to have Mac back. I was free to stop over and visit him whenever I chose (and whenever I could find the transportation to do so) and I got to have Mac stay with me when the family went on a vacation to the south seas over Christmas the year before last. Mac was always happy to see me, but things were different of course. He was clearly at home there and very much part of their family as well now; always “supervising” when their girls went swimming, always anxiously awaiting when their father would return home from work. Those were good years for him.

This month those years came to an end. It was last summer when the family’s old terrier had passed on, and though the two dogs didn’t seem particularly close, Mac’s health had taken a turn for the worse since losing this companion/competitor. When I had last visited him at Christmas time the most recent (presumably benign) tumor to show up on his back was getting rather large, he was having a hard time climbing basic porch steps, and though he didn’t appear to be in any pain the mother of the family said that he had been doing a lot more whimpering as he lay around the house lately. There was an unspoken understanding that the end was starting to come into view.

As I was leaving, Mika, Mac’s new man, promised to call me if/when any major changes would occur. That call came a couple weeks ago.

It turned out to be relatively short notice, but it was probably best that way. On that Wednesday Mika had called the vet to check on a time for Mac’s final visit and he was told that the best time for them would be already the following afternoon. So he called right away to let me know. It was sudden, but I could accept that it was time.

I skipped the university seminar I was supposed to go to between the lessons I had to teach that Thursday, and while Mika was still at work and no one but Mac was home, following his instructions, I let myself in to have one last visit with my old friend. Mac was sleeping soundly on the dining room floor when I arrived and didn’t sense me coming in. I took off my shoes and jacket and lay down on the floor in front of him. I gently stroked his head and he immediately woke up and struggled to his feet to come give me a kiss. He sniffed around my backpack to see if there was anything special there for him, which sadly there wasn’t, but he was cool with that. We then went out together for a walk down to his lake shore. He took a few sips from the lake, had a rather belabored bowel movement in the bushes, and basically seemed to say, “Let’s not bother with anything particularly strenuous, OK?”

I took him over to my old van then. He sniffed inside the door and moved in such a way that he clearly would have jumped in right away… if his legs would still have worked that well. I lifted him up to the bench seat, got in and we set off to drive into town together. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and though my appetite wasn’t all that great at the moment, I needed something to balance my blood sugar. In his youth one of Mac’s favorite foods to share with the boys and I had been pizza; any pizza really. For most of his life since this had been forbidden for him though: both dairy and wheat products brought on worse ear problems for him. That day, however, we didn’t need to worry about his ears any more, so I decided to take him out for pizza. Even eating pizza had become a laborious process for him though. It was an experience that reminded me of what my father had said about spending time “on the other end of the spoon” from his mother in her final days.

From there it was back to the house to meet Mika, for the men to have a sad cup of coffee together, for final goodbyes, and for me to return to work as Mac continued on his final journey in Mika’s van.


Even though he hasn’t been so much part of my day-to-day life for the past few years, of course I miss Mac strongly. In some ways the world is that much of a poorer and crueler place without him in it.

I’m not ready to toss out anything trite about animal souls and after-life expectations for them, or us, or the like. All I can really say to myself is something along the lines of what I said to my son Robert as he stood crying next to the fresh grave of our rabbit, nearly 15 years ago: One thing you learn in the theology business is that people will never be able to properly come to grips with the whole idea of death; we have no means of properly making sense of the experience. What we can know is that the most important part of life before dying though is loving and feeling loved. This furry friend of ours was certainly loved. In the rabbit’s case I’m not entirely sure, but in Mac’s case I know beyond doubt that he very much loved us back.

There’s a line from The Unbearable Lightness of Being where, as the couple at the center of the tale are putting down their old dog, Karenin, the wife says to her husband, “I loved her better than you; not more, but better.” It is beyond my literary skill to unpack that in a way that non-dog people would get it, but my feelings now are something close to that. For all the people that I have loved and been loved by during the course of my life, none have really appreciated me for who I am as a person –– without expectations regarding what they can get out of me or what they can train me to do for them –– nearly so thoroughly and purely as Mac did. And I in turn could appreciate him entirely as he was, without him having to help me hunt birds or attack my enemies or anything else he was bred for, besides just being part of the family and showing that he cared.

Someday I hope I will be able to experience that quality of love again. Someday it would be nice to relate to other people as purely and as satisfyingly as I could relate to Mac. For now though I just savor the memory of my most beautiful friendship ever, and I thank all of you who have cared enough to share this pain with me this month.

Rest in peace, dearest friend.

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Filed under Philosophy

Hating Islam vs. hating Catholicism

I’ve decided to tread the fine line regarding my fast on expressing hate here. There has been an abundance of hate speech going around on my social media news feeds this month, and it’s been hard not to respond to the intellectual and moral inferiority of much of it. But that would involve expressing how little respect I have for certain individuals’ intellectual and moral capacities, which I have promised to spend some time not doing. Even so, perhaps I can permit myself to address the issue of hatred for a particular group of people in a more constructive manner. The hated group in question is of course Muslims.

CatholicMuslimOn the issue of relating to Islam I am pleased to have people pissed at me on both sides. I have Muslim friends –– genuine friends –– who are offended that I do not consider some aspects of their faith to stand up well to intellectual and moral scrutiny, to the extent that I would not remotely consider converting to it at this point in life. I also have Islamophobic friends –– again, genuine friends –– who deny the legitimacy of the very word “Islamophobic”, saying that Islam is a force of evil that all rational people should have a fear of. For them it is offensive that I am willing to give the vast majority of the world’s Muslims credit for pursuing a life of peace, at harmony with the highest powers and principles in the universe.

In any case, from this DMZ-walking perspective on the issue, I found Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent interview with the Huffington Post, promoting her new book, Heretic, to be particularly interesting.

This author and thinker has become infamous as something of a patron saint among secular islamophobes, so the mere mention of her name will have some people closing this blog right here with a quick curse on me, and others tingling with excitement that I might join them in their prejudices; sad on both accounts.

All I can say is that I merely wish to give credit where credit is due for her suggestion that Muslims can (unlike her) remain Muslims, subscribe to the five pillars of Islam, and pursue what is best and most uplifting about their faith, even while calling for its modernization in five key areas:
1. Allowing critical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet Muhammed.
2. Prioritizing the present life over concepts of the after-life.
3. No longer giving religious law precedence over secular civil law.
4. Ceasing to take mandatory commands as the basis for morality and civil order.
5. Ending calls to arms and killing others in the name of defending faith.

Another thing I found interesting about the interview was how, as a lady 7 years younger than myself, Hirsi Ali kept referring to herself as a representative of an older generation, but that’s sort of beside the point here. Her main point is that by accepting these sorts of challenges to their traditional orthodoxies, the other major monotheistic religions have become in many respects much stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of modernity; and in terms of its impact on world culture, it would be by far the best thing for all concerned if Islam would go through the same sort of internal revolution of self-reevaluation. On this I largely agree with her.

The counter-arguments to this position fall into two basic categories: a) The evil powers that be within Islam will never allow these sorts of reevaluations to happen, or b) If these sorts of changes would occur among the followers of Muhammed, the change would be so profound that they would no longer be justified in calling themselves Muslims.

The first is a matter of speculation regarding the future that is rather fruitless to argue about at any length. Suffice to say, there are certainly Iranian ayatollahs and ISIS supporters, among others, who wish to do all in their power to prevent any such reforms from taking root with their religion, but they probably won’t get the historical final word on the subject. We’ll see.

Regarding the second point, I am of the understanding that, first of all, we outsiders can’t really try to tell Muslims what their faith should mean to them and where its limits should be drawn, but then beyond that they’re not particularly keen on letting other Muslims draw those lines for them either. There isn’t any Pope of Islam, and as bitterly as Muslims may disagree with each other on all sorts of theological and moral issues, hardly any of them take it upon themselves to determine which other Muslims are to be recipients of Allah’s mercy in the after-life and which are doomed to damnation. In theory that sort of open attitude should make reform that much easier to bring about, though in practice it looks inevitable that any steps forward on Hirsi Ali’s five points will only come as the fruit of bitter and bloody struggles.

Needless to say, the time when Christianity went through its equivalent major struggle was nearly 500 years ago already. It may not justifiable to refer to Hirsi Ali as a potential Muslim Martin Luther, but she could end up playing the role of something like a Muslim Erasmus: eloquently pointing out some of the problems in the way the faith is being practiced so that other, less intellectual radicals who are more deeply involved in the religious system might become motivated to bring about changes from within. Yet it should be acknowledged that whether or not such reform happens, the resisters to reform are likely to remain in the majority, and the protesting, reforming minority will continue to be branded by the majority as “heretics” for many generations to come.

This brings us to the question of how we relate to those closer to home who identify with ideologies which famously resist reform. In the Christian case, up until the time of my birth at least, that primarily meant those evil Catholics. Without having to  go back as far as Martin Luther and his polemics against the popes of his age as the world’s biggest pimps, we can see all sorts of ways in which, over the past couple of centuries, hatred against Catholics has been a major factor in world politics in general and in US politics in particular. Nor did the Vatican do itself any favors by holding to a hard line against officially recognizing members of any other churches as fellow Christians until only about 50 years ago. When it comes right down to it, the matters that Hirsi Ali wishes to see reformed within Islam are the very things which radical Protestants have pushed to bring into the Christian theological debate for centuries already, and which many Catholics (and now more conservative Protestants) have been at best hesitant to accept.

Considering “sacred scriptures” to be human documents, subject to human perspectives and limitations in their attempt to reveal the divine, has been a difficult matter for many Christians to accept. Beyond that, as with Muslims, there has been the tendency among Catholics authorities to consider the traditional understandings of what God expects of us from within their official framework also to be beyond question. Daring to ask, “Has God really said…” remains valid grounds, among the most traditional monotheists of both persuasions, to burn someone as a heretic, at least figuratively if not literally.

Likewise focusing on the after-life at the expense of responsible living in our present, material lives is hardly an exclusively Islamic problem. Catholic preaching about possibilities of earning extra rewards in heaven, and avoiding extra sufferings in purgatory –– abuses that Luther railed against in is 95 Theses –– has remained a staple of their (and again, many conservative Protestants’) populist message, frequently at the expense of teaching people to love their neighbor and to act as peacemakers.

The question of the relationship between religious law and civil law in turn was the primary emphasis of Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” in which he condemned anything that gave the Church less official authority in the lives of its members, including public education, civil marriage, civil divorce, separation of church and state, and priests’ liability to civil prosecution. The implications of Shariah law are actually quite mild by comparison. The same document goes a long way in promoting the sort of thinking which Hirsi Ali wishes to challenge see eliminated from reformed Islam in terms of “Ending the practice of ‘commanding right, forbidding wrong’”.

Finally we have the matter of religious leaders in both traditions declaring either “crusades” or “jihads” (very much equivalent terms) against those whom they label as “evil”. Even though this practice effectively reduces their affirmation of the ideal of being instruments of God’s peace to nothing more than the grossest hypocrisy, Catholic leaders have been more than a little hesitant to renounce the practice entirely, and to condemn their predecessors’ practices in this regard.

Am I saying all of this to revive a hatred for Catholicism among Protestants? God forbid! My point is that even though there are what I see as significant intellectual and moral failings within official Catholic doctrinal positions –– which are not only historical embarrassments, but issues relevant to contemporary morality and world peace as well –– I am not really even tempted to see Catholics as inherently morally inferior people. Most people, it seems, got over that issue when JFK was elected as president. The last stalwarts to cling to such a prejudice were probably the Protestant Ulstermen of Northern Ireland, and now even they seem to have outgrown it. So why then do so many people think that Muslims should be held as morally suspect for their lack of will to reform the tenants of their faith?

Let me summarize this matter as clearly as I can: I strongly believe in the value of religious faith to motivate people to do good, to see themselves as inherently interconnected with others, to find purpose in their earthly existence, and to enable them to forgive themselves in spite of all their experiences of failure in life. At the same time I recognize the risky tendencies within many (all?) religious traditions to validate tribal prejudices, to use blind dogmatism as an antidote to life’s uncertainties, to manufacture a sense of self-righteousness among their believers, and to hatefully attack others on these bases. I personally maintain a continuous crusade, or jihad, against these evils within my own life and within my own faith as much as God grants me the strength to do so.

On these bases I see all people of faith –– and most of those who currently lack a sense of faith –– as living with the same struggles in terms of their everyday moral practice. Some are more self-aware about it than others, but it’s not my position to issue final grades for them in this respect. Thus I wish to evaluate people as neighbors and fellow citizens of the world, not based on the extent to which the dogmas they subscribe to are compatible with the dogmas I subscribe to, but based on how they personally prioritize between their purposeful interconnection with others and their more dogmatic tribalistic impulses.

Yes, that includes Muslims. Yes, there are particularly disturbing aspects of the dogmas they officially subscribe to, just as there are with Catholic dogmas. Yes, I would like to see those dogmas reformed so that they are more conducive to achieving the sort of goals that Kareem Abdul Jabar outlined in his column this winter: “people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship.” I do believe that the kind of reforms that Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggests would better enable Muslims to live that way. I also believe that more thoroughly accepting those kind of reform principles would help Catholics to more thoroughly live that way. But I don’t consider these reforms to be a prerequisite for any Muslims or Catholics, or Protestant fundamentalists, or secular humanists even, in gaining my friendship and respect.

If people from each of these tribes can better learn to respect the others then, so much the better.

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Politics Without Hate

It’s been a challenging week to keep the promise I made to myself in my last entry here, especially when it comes to my interactions with Americans. It’s only a year and a half before they elect a new president, and for various reasons all of the advance campaigning I’ve been seeing on line seems to be based on trying to scare people away from “the other” guy, or gal.

Meanwhile in Britain there’s a general election heating up, reflecting their on-going struggle in trying to become a genuine European multi-party democracy rather than a traditional two party state based on pre-industrial societal dynamics. No one there seems to like the two party system much, but getting properly beyond it doesn’t look like it will be happening any time soon. And in an effort to get out of a need for coalition building and to get back to simple dominant party ruling dynamics, the conservative prime minister took Easter as a time for posturing regarding the traditional “Christian identity” of the U.K. It was extremely difficult for me to resist the urge to lecture on line about everything that is wrong with that idea, but I’m glad I did resist the urge.

As it happens though, there is also a Finnish parliamentary election going on this month –– the first since I have acquired Finnish citizenship. I’ve always been active in the discussions of such matters here, but now I finally get to vote myself in a national election.


For a long time as a permanent resident here I’ve been eligible to vote in municipal elections, which I have done with a fair amount of diligence, though hardly ever successfully in terms of getting my candidate of choice elected. In the last two city council elections I voted for different friends of mine who happened to be running on the Green Party ticket. Neither made it. In fact is somewhat of an inside joke among my colleagues at work that my candidate received a total of three votes in the precinct I voted in, and I can know for sure exactly who the other two were. Even so, I took part.

Elections here also have their own entertainment value. All of the special purpose billboards full of slogans and candidates’ mug shots, and all of the posters tacked to telephone poles and sheds and farm equipment by the roadsides, are the ripest field possible for new comedy material. Some jokes about such things become part of the shorthand of coffee shop conversation. Others become one-off giggles such as the truck driver speaking to a call-in radio show about which parties and which provinces seem to have the ugliest candidates on their posters this time around. To me this time one of the funniest things to notice is how Jussi Saramo –– a neo-Marxist candidate for my district who some of my11073554_10153190797429645_7993621622386281772_n more liberal friends are supporting, who is advertisingd6c7603472c8e98660515c7c8f682c9a_5 quite heavily on Facebook these days –– is a dead ringer for Ryan Dobson –– a second generation would-be provocateur for the US Religious Right. It’s little ironies like that which keep the smile on my face…

Like most European countries, politics here are not a simple, binary process of the old party of the business owners vs. the old party of the manual laborers. With less than a hundred years of independence under its belt, Finland has largely overcome the traditional divisions of management vs. labor, Swedish-speaking vs. Finnish-speaking, Marxist sympathizing vs. Anti-Marxist reactionary politics, and for the most part even urban concerns vs. rural concerns. As I wrote earlier, Finland is now in an unsettled interregnum period between major political eras. No one is really sure who or what will replace the Nokia cell phone production and design operations as the dominant economic motor and political interest factor in national politics. People are clearly a little nervous about that, but so far they have not been panicking and running to extreme new “answers” to the current dilemma. That is probably a good thing. That is the running theme of the current election season.

The center-right party which is currently leading the coalition in power has been suggesting that, with the collapse of the Nokia revenues to keep the generous social welfare system going, a new round of belt-tightening is in order. They would rather do that than put new taxes on those who have most benefitted from the Nokia era, which could conceivably scare them away to tax havens further south, where international venture capitalists are known to hide their resources from their respective governments. The belt-tightening idea has limited support here, however, because human rights as the basic task of government is quite thoroughly understood and respected here. For Finns human rights are not an excuse for invading other countries, but in theory at least an operational guiding principle for all levels of government. Supporters of all mainstream parties seem to fundamentally agree that freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear of attack and freedom from extreme poverty –– ideas picked up from FDR and company when as a nation Finland was still going through puberty –– are the primary responsibilities of any government. Beyond that there is a strong public consensus that education is not only a basic human right, but a strategic priority for building a sustainable national future.

The functional challenge is in finding ways to get people to work together to enable these rights to be better realized. The center-right National Coalition Party is talking about supporting these same goals and priorities, using “encouraging private sector job creation” as the means of getting there, but the public isn’t really buying it. And in fact they are unlikely to be able to bring about the sort of “business friendly” adjustments they would like to see introduced. They can speak in vague terms of a need for austerity and lower taxes, but in terms of actually cutting services and/or taxes there is little they can get away with. Cutting public support for those in seriously disadvantaged positions and especially reducing investment in education systems are largely out of the question as far as the electorate here is concerned. So it seems that all they can really do this time around is to make people nervous with their cutback talk. In spite of their efforts at responsible and intelligent management over the past few years then, they are more than likely to lose power this time around.

Altogether there are somewhere between 10 and 15 other parties on the ballot, where winners are chosen in proportion to the number of votes each party receives over a broad geographical area. (Gerrymandering is a very foreign concept here.) Among these parties there are some distinctly reactionary, single issue oriented and hate-mongering fringe groups. Some are out to reduce the number of foreigners or foreign influences in Finland. Some are obsessed with preventing various industrial “bad guys” from having their way with natural resources and the local labor forces. Some are out to prevent what they see as “moral decay” in a vague, broad, religious tradition-based way. Many of these sorts of groups will probably come to have a seat or two in the parliament, where they will play a role in making other politicians lives a little more difficult, without really doing much damage overall. In between there is a pretty broad mainstream, wearing all sorts of different labels.

I was somewhat surprised when I started playing with the on-line “candidate matching” data-base games that news organizations here have set up. After asking about everything from potential NATO membership to educational spending, to opposition to marriage equality, to areas for tax increases the “election machine” offered me a list of candidates whose public positions and campaign promises are closest to my own preferences. The surprising thing was that the party platforms for pretty much all of the mainstream parties –– from center-right to nominally neo-Marxist to the Greens –– were over 70 % agreed with the personal preferences I typed in. That says something rather positive about the political atmosphere here, in spite of all the current challenges and uncertainties.

This broad political agreement leans towards an understanding that there is no going back to any sort of “good old days” or to the moral standards of some earlier “greatest generation”; the only way we can move from here is forward, even if we don’t know what that means in practice. A few things that this future direction has to emphasize though are education, diligence and mutual trust: Whatever new hope there will be for Finland’s economy, it will not be based on doing things cheaper than they can be done in warmer climates closer to main international trade routes. The only way to be economically competitive up here is to continuously be thinking of new, more efficient, less traditional and more interesting ways of doing things. This requires taking education at all levels seriously. It also means being ready to work hard and work together with others to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. That can’t be based on complaining about how lazy or greedy or careless the next guy is; it has to be based on believing that he wants many of the same things I do, and if we work together in a smart way we can improve our odds of realizing those personal goals. Building this sort of trust must be at the core of the new political and business culture if anything positive is to come from either.

Whatever the other flaws in the structure of the system here, it has the advantage of having to vote for someone you believe in, because there’s not any way to use your vote to prevent an offensive candidate who happens to be popular among local idiots from getting in. Voting your hatred for alternative candidates just doesn’t work in this system, and I believe the political system here is healthier for it.

So with all that in background I’ll go ahead and give you who reasons for endorsing my own candidate of choice for this year: Tommi Läntinen.Tommi LŠntinen 1

Tommi is an aging Finnish rocker whom politicians have been trying to recruit as a minor vote magnet for their parties for as long as I’ve lived in Finland. For some years he stepped out of the spotlight, living abroad with his wife and son as she pursued her own international career. When they returned to Finland Tommi’s son then ended up in the international school where I teach. I thus got to know Tommi from parent-teacher conferences as one of the most personable, helpful, cooperative and positively oriented parents I have ever had to deal with. There was never anything awkward or intimidating about his minor celebrity status; it was just part of the glue that ended up bonding the kids in his son’s class and their parents into an exceptionally mutually supportive unit. Those are the skills Tommi most wants to take into the parliament. Those are the reasons I believe he could be an excellent MP.

Beyond trying to play a role in improving the atmosphere in the parliament in terms of communication, cooperation and creative positive thinking in general, Tommi has taken on the personal issue of improving mental health services for young people in particular. The stress of remaining internationally competitive, together with all of the traditional factors which have historically tended to make Finland a rather melancholy nation, are taking a toll on young people here in a number of measurable ways. Doing more to make sure that, regardless of how tight things get economically, these young people get the support that they need in order to move forward in life, is something that I completely agree is a worthy goal in politics.

Tommi’s choice of the Social Democrats as a party to run with is neither a motivational factor nor a problem for me in supporting him. The SDs are another mainstream group with a long history of contributing to public affairs management in mostly competent ways. They’ve had their fair share of scandals, but they also have had their fair share of exemplary statesmen over the years. For the last decade or so they’ve been sliding down the popularity scale, largely because for all their years in power they never really initiated any recognizable positive changes in society. They are identified as the party of status quo, particularly in terms of protecting the status quo for blue collar unions, though that actually ceased to be a particularly important topic in political discourse here soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.

If I was looking for substantive changes in the system I might find this a disappointing choice. But I’m not actually looking for substantial changes in the system. I’m looking for representatives with a positive attitude towards the future, who are not prone to panic reactions in the difficult times we may have coming. I’m looking for competent management of basic structures that keep protecting human rights and encouraging cooperation. For those things the SDs are pretty much as good as any, probably. For those things I trust Tommi more than any of the others I’ve seen on the local billboards.

This is the sort of style I’d like to see politics done in. What do you think? Could it ever be made to work this way in English-speaking countries? I’d like to hope that maybe someday, but… life goes on.

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My Post-Lenten Fast

This year I’ve let tradition slip a bit. In most recent years I have given some nominal observance to the season of Lent, but this year, with its various distractions, I didn’t really manage to give it much thought.

It’s never been a particularly critical matter for me; my Lenten fasts have always been something relatively trivial. I have lots of little guilty indulgences that I know that I would be healthier to give up every now and again. Nothing particularly big, but little things that I know I really don’t –– or really shouldn’t –– need. In recent years these have included coffee, red meat, computer games and television.

This Lent on Ash Wednesday I was off teaching a seminar in Kenya. I was fighting with a cough that was trying to eliminate my voice. I was dealing with little running expenses that were sending my credit card more and more into the red. I was trying to evaluate the extent to which the language barrier was limiting my audience’s perception of what we were talking about, and I was contemplating the potential lasting value of that program. With all that in mind, somehow I didn’t stop to think of guilty little habits I could be giving up.

Lent is now winding down for the year already, and I almost feel like I’ve missed something by not missing anything. But I’ve made a decision that, starting next week, after Lent, there is something in particular that I will live without for 40 days: all resemblances of hate-mongering.

As a researcher into politics, as an active participant in social media and as a school teacher there are many aspects of my everyday life where I am tempted, if not required, to think less of other people, and to make my negative opinions about them known to the general public. From there it is a very short slide into the phenomenon of considering such people worthy of hatred, and trying to convince others to hate these people with me. In some ways, I have to admit, I get a certain amount of pleasure out of being rather good at this.

I do try to temper my attacks on others. I try to make a point of not labelling large groups of people as inherently hate-worthy because of the various circumstances they were born into, and most of what I attack is people’s tendencies to attack others. I justify most of the bile I allow myself to spill as moves to defend the innocent who are being attacked, or as moves to limit the abuse of demagogic power by others. Consequently one reoccurring theme in my attack writings is political conservatism, especially hitting on the sort of conservatives which work overtime to justify their prejudices against people of particular ethnic backgrounds, professional positions (against school teachers in particular), and sexual orientations; which holds a tacit belief that freedom of religion and conscience should in practice only apply to those who are “close enough” to their own (“Judeo-Christian”) beliefs; which operate on the assumption that if someone is poor it is because they must be lazy, and it would be harmful to their motivation to assume that they have any natural right to the basics of life. I admit, I have little patience for such a political orientation, and I tend to do what is in my power to discourage those who are capable of self-critical thinking from holding such positions. Frequently, however, those who are most dogmatic in their conservatism lack any capacity for self-critical thinking, and thus I frequently feel compelled to point out that they are simply stupid.

But this, I must admit, is something of a guilty pleasure. I know that taking part in battles of wit with those who are unarmed for such combat is a cruel and disrespectful thing for me to do, even when I tell myself that I am doing it for the sake of others. In many ways such polemic exercises run the same risks as American foreign policy in the Middle East over the past few decades: pouring resources into attacking “bad guys” leads to an ever increasing level of hostility, and frequently to the very resources which aggressors have dumped in being re-directed to attack those who supplied them. It also relates to my everyday experience as a teacher: just because I am capable of shouting down a seriously distracted and disruptive group of students doesn’t mean that I should do so. Rarely is matching volume with volume a wise thing to do. Likewise, rarely is matching hatred with hatred a wise thing to do.

I’m not swearing off all political polemics for life, but as with coffee and television in my previous Lenten fasts, as useful as they can be at times, there’s a lot to be said for showing myself that I can go without; and in choosing to do so for a designated period of time as a gesture of worship.

For this exercise I’m designating for myself the period from Easter to Ascension Day: another 40 day stretch after Lent, and for this purpose a particularly appropriate one. This is the time of year when Christians are supposed to remember the contact Jesus had with his followers after he defeated the power of death. The Gospels tell of how he ate food, displayed his wounds and in other ways showed himself to be a physical being, but how he didn’t seem to be subject to basic laws of physics any more, mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, going through walls and all that. Finally, after keeping them guessing with a month and a half of such stunts, Jesus gathered a bunch of his followers together and let them watch as he levitated off of this planet, promising to come back later. So using this as a time to step outside of my natural reactionary and hate-prone tendencies towards those I disagree with, with hopes of a better world to come, seems more than appropriate.

So let me publicly pledge here that from Easter Sunday until Ascension Day I will not be publishing anything to tell people how ignorant, stupid, immoral, dangerous or otherwise hate-worthy any particular individuals or groups of people are. If I can find ways to talk about positive goals for politics, NGO work and faith-based initiatives I will freely do so, but for this time I set the limit on myself that these statements must be absent of any critique of competitors or of those who presumably have had a role in causing the problems being addressed. I’m asking all of my readers to pay careful attention to what I write about over this period, and keep me honest on this. I don’t deny that this will be difficult, but with God’s help I believe it is possible.

I would like to challenge as many of my friends and acquaintances here as possible to try to keep the same type of fast for yourselves this spring. I believe it could have a very beneficial cleansing effect on many of us. This is in part a selfish request from me: I know that I will be seeing plenty of hateful messages going around during this time, mostly ignorant people attacking others they know little about. As anyone who knows me can testify, not being able to say anything back to refute those sorts of ignorant allegations against anonymous others is something which goes against my basic nature! But I pledge to keep my fast regardless; so I kindly ask of those of you who are prone to post such attack posts –– for your own sake as well as mine –– could you please see if you can try to refrain from doing so until after Ascension Day (May 14, 2015). I would deeply appreciate it. But as with the other types of Lenten fasts that I have kept in years past, this is not something that I can pressure anyone else into.

The most common groups for “liberals” to attack would be Bible-belt evangelical Christians, fossil fuel companies, “too big to fail” banks and all sorts of traditional “whites only” groups. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, seem to find it hard not to attack Muslims, non-theists, sexual minorities, inner city dwellers, people who are sexually active outside of marriage, those associate with abortion services, and those who prioritize environmental over economic concerns. For both I’m asking, regardless of how stupid, morally deprived, greedy, lazy, careless, psychopathic or otherwise bad you happen to consider any such people to be, would you please join me, just for 40 days, in not talking at all about why you believe they deserve to be hated.

Just see if you can do it!

You can go back to preying as usual afterwards.

Meanwhile, peace be with you.

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Muhimu Matata

Having returned from my second trip to Kenya this week, I owe it to my friends, readers and spiritual supporters to give some sort of report on the matter. So what should I say? It was a wonderful time, full of contact with warm and sincere people who are looking for ways to be better Christians and to make their country a better place, yet there came many new perspectives on things there in need of repair. Both aspects were expected before I went; both were reinforced in surprising ways.

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language...

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language…

On my first visit to Kenya 8 months earlier I was somewhat surprised by the language situation I discovered. I was not surprised to find a variety of tribal languages with none of them having particular dominance, but I was surprised to learn that the public education system there operates in just two languages, neither of which either teachers or students tend to have native proficiency in: English and Kiswahili. Staying in predominantly Luo-speaking areas on my first visit, I got the impression that Kiswahili was nothing but an African version of Esperanto: an artificial language designed to be equally easy or hard for all of its second-language speakers, native for no one, serving as a lingua franca among those who speak it as a hobby but of little use outside of clubs for those who have such a hobby. Pidgin English seemed to serve as a more practical lingua franca for those who didn’t share a tribal language with each other, and who do not find each other’s tribal languages to be mutually understandable (on the level of potential interaction between speakers of Danish and Norwegian).

Being in the central part of the country this time around, however, I got a much more sympathetic perspective on the role of the Kiswahili language in Kenyan society. Particularly for older people with moderate levels of education, who neither want to stand for their particular tribe’s identity nor accept the heritage of British colonialism as their linguistic norm, Kiswahili is a very functional and living language. It plays a valuable role in many levels of social interaction in rural but inter-tribal areas of Kenya in particular. English still seems to be the language of choice among urbanized, well-educated and internationally traveled Kenyans of all tribes, and those rural people whose social interactions are only within their own tribe still tend to speak neither English nor Kiswahili with any proficiency, but in between those at the highest and lowest levels of integration there is in fact a broad band of people who function primarily in Kiswahili on a day-to-day basis. This was an interesting discovery for me.

DSCF2862So this time around my hosts were making a point of trying to help me pick up a smattering of polite social expressions in Kiswahili: “Asante sana” (thank you very much), “karibu” (you’re welcome), “sawa sawa” (OK, fine), and off course “hakuna matata” (no problems). This last phrase though, I must confess, started to bother me a bit, in that it seemed to always relate to papering over some sort of cultural misunderstanding. I usually heard it in contexts like, “By the way, we didn’t say anything before because we didn’t want to get you upset, but we need another 10,000 shillings from you to cover the cost of the afternoon tea service we ordered for the group… but hakuna matata.” Thus when it came to financial matters in particular I had to learn the opposite to this expression in their language: “Muhimu matata” –– there’s actually a significant problem here!

There is a difficult balance question in terms of how far to go in pointing out such problems for those of us wishing to make ourselves useful in post-colonial Africa these days. The message that colonial powers struggled to drill into the indigenous peoples there –– “You can’t get by with out us, so you need to thankfully cooperate with us and do whatever we tell you to do” –– has left all sorts of scars on modern Kenyan society. Some go to extremes in pre-colonial nostalgia, claiming everything was wonderful there before Europeans screwed things up; others still subconsciously believe the colonial propaganda and wallow in a consequent sense of helplessness. Both are thoroughly wrong. Both are conspicuously evident in various aspects of Kenyan society. So of course there are significant problems there. If there weren’t significant problems there I wouldn’t be involved in matters Kenyan to begin with.

DSCF2903Constructive paths for the future can be rather hard to build under such circumstances, but there is a certain human and especially Christian obligation to at least try to help build such paths forward. Expressing compassion while avoiding condescension towards those we are trying to help is easier said than done, but it is very much worth trying to do. Balancing an acknowledgement of Europeans’ collective historical guilt with an awareness of African traditional cultural dysfunctions that predate colonization –– and then putting all of that background information aside when it comes to helping individuals in critical need –– can be a very tiring process, but still very much worth doing.

The purpose of my previous trip to Kenya was to look into ways of providing help to those in the greatest need which could do long-term sustainable good. It was also a time for building initial contacts with those on the ground there attempting to help orphans in particular. Many of those who could provide the best assistance it seemed (and it still seems) are those who are motivated by a sense of Christian responsibility in the matter: church people. Kenyan church people in general, however, are a fascinating mixed bag, with plenty of problems of their own. They’re trusted more than politicians and government officials, but just barely.

The most financially and numerically successful churches tent to be those which preach a Christian version of something very close to the message of African traditional religions: “If you follow the proper beliefs and rituals, and believe in the spiritual powers we tell you about, you will get supernatural help in gaining the sort of material blessings you most desire.” Not surprisingly, this message has little credibility with more educated Kenyans, and it creates its fair share of crises of faith for those who sincerely believe in such. But worst of all, it actually does damage not only to the credibility of the Christian message, but to churches’ capacities to express God’s love by helping those in need.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

Yet scattered among those who are preaching a magical Christian route to material success are many sincere and devoted pastors and Christian leaders who believe in the love of God as expressed through the person of Jesus, and who want to share that message with those around them and order their lives accordingly. What many of them lack is a thorough understanding of what they are doing, and how the message of the Bible can be related to the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized world that we live in.

Among those I met last June, the average level of education among preachers in independent churches seemed to be about 7 or 8 years worth of compulsory public schooling followed by 3 to 6 months worth of some sort of Bible School in Nairobi or some other relatively close by African city. That’s it.  All of them wished they could get more education, but they generally cannot afford the luxury. I had the idea of trying to arrange to provide such teaching for them as freely and ecumenically as possible. With that in mind I sketched out a rough proposal for what has now become the “Kenya Christian Leadership Development Mission”.

Driving with David and Wilfred

Driving with David and Wilfred

Bringing this project together were a couple of young men, David and Wilfred, whom I had never met in person prior to their picking me up at the airport on Valentine’s Day. Somehow they had got their hands on the proposal I wrote in June. As far as I understand both of these young men work as freelance chauffeurs to keep their families fed, but they both have strong interests in preaching, evangelizing and in building relations between churches. They managed to bring together a group of pastors from 5 or 6 different families of independent churches in central Kenya to organize this seminar, with hopes of building a continuous movement around such seminars. They proceeded to establish an official organization, open a bank account for the project, and reserve a rural public education center to rent for the occasion. It seemed like a good start.

There were some clear cultural misunderstandings between my Kenyan friends and I when it came to the groundwork for this seminar though. My understanding was that they would collect enough money among participants and their churches there to rent a classroom and provide a place for the participants from out of town to stay, and to pay for whatever catering would be necessary to make things work. I would pay my own expenses and I would further ask around here in Europe for sponsors for pastors who could not afford to participate otherwise. Their understanding, on the other hand, was that they could make all of the logistical arrangements there and get the pastors together for the event, and I would find European churches willing to pay for the whole project.

Their cultural frame of reference, it seems, related to American church organizations which have come to Kenya in the past with plans of establishing a foothold for their own denominational brands in that expanding market. With their significant denominational or mega-church funding, such groups could painlessly pay for food, lodging and entertainment for a week for as many future representatives for their brand as could be recruited. Such seminars, I now understand, have traditionally included free distribution plenty of professionally published teaching materials free of charge, and at times as a parting gift each participant has even been given a bicycle courtesy of the organizers to help him spread their message and thus increase their market share. It seems that David and Wilfred and their local helpers there didn’t really understand the concept of me coming as a solitary volunteer, without any sort of financial backing to pay for such things.

DSCN9973There was also a bit of a challenge in terms of finding the optimal target participants for such a seminar. My idea had been to make it available for anyone who was interested enough to take the time out of their other work to be there, and who could either pay their own basic expenses or find sponsorship for their participation for the week. As the organizers there never conceived of a seminar budget based on the participants’ own contributions though, their cultural premise was somehow to select those who were most deserving of such teaching being provided by foreign benefactors. Rather than everyone who was interested enough and who could afford to come being welcome on that basis, the operational principle became one participants being chosen on the basis of relationship factors. This led to some “important” pastors taking part, on whom much of the teaching seemed to be lost, with many others not having the possibility to join in.

As it came to be realized, the seminar ended up being a series of difficult logistical compromises, with lots of last minute practical support coming from the participating Kenyan churches, and with a bit of financial sponsorship coming from two of the churches in the Helsinki area which have a significant number of African members, but with the majority of the downsized budget ending up being paid for in the end on my personal credit cards.

Rather than pitying myself for my vulnerability on this one though, I have to say that many of the others involved also contributed everything they possibly could and then some. It would also be fair to say that this is not the first time I’ve been taken advantage of in trying to “do the right thing”, and over the years I’ve had plenty of “learning experiences” that have been more expensive than this one even. And when all is said and done I still have every confidence that David and Wilfred and their colleagues, given their own understanding of how such things are supposed to work, did everything they knew how to do to bring this seminar together in the best way possible.

DSCF2824So now the big question is, what good did it do? What did the participants in this seminar actually learn from it, if anything? What did the take home with them besides copies of my PowerPoint slides and a 25 cent participation certificate?

It is rather impossible for me to make any properly objective claims in this regard. I must admit that if my task would have been to prepare them to succeed in a standardized examination on the fundamentals of philosophy of religion, I would be more than a little bit nervous about their chances. As it was, however, my goal was just to provide them with a valuable learning experience which would at least marginally increase their capacity to interact with intellectuals, skeptics and/or non-believers in a fruitful manner. I don’t think many of them became ace apologists for the faith last week, but I do believe they all stopped to think about some of the basic issues involved a bit more carefully, and that especially for the younger ones this could have a very positive effect on their work as they go forward.

The week’s lessons were in practice squeezed down to three days of classroom work. In the first day’s talks I provided a crash overview of the field of philosophy: the focal issues of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics; and the broad outline of how academic philosophy relates to the history of western thought. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of this material went straight over the heads of even the youngest and sharpest participants there, but it gave them at least some sort of introduction to what philosophers do, and how it relates to matters of faith. Some participants strongly stated that this gave them a new interest in looking into such matters further in the future. That’s as much as I could have realistically expected.

20150218_090551Our second day was focused on the philosophical arguments for and against religion and the existence of God in general. I chose three on each side that I hoped would be most interesting and relevant for them. As arguments against religion I tried to explain the Theodicy issue, Occam’s Razor and the issue of evils committed in the name of God. As arguments in defense of the faith I offered the most convincing variation on the Cosmological Argument I could give, a Kierkegaardian argument from existential purpose, and Pascal’s Wager. All of this was very new territory to all of them and I did my best to make such matters at least somewhat accessible to them. Here too, however, I think the best I can hope is that they have a new awareness that such debates exist, and that these debates are relevant to their work as Christian leaders. Hopefully those with an interest in such things now have a basis for moving forward in investigating such matters.

Our third day was for many the most important. I confessed to them that, as important as many of the tools and understandings we had talked about thus far were, they were in many regards rather abstract concepts –– to the point that all of the defenses of faith I had offered could just as easily be used to defend Islam as Christianity. So the task remained to define in clear, somewhat philosophical terms, what precisely we as Christians believe.

I started by introducing the term “canon” in relation to scripture and comparing it to the term “benchmark”. We then explored together the question of what certainties we as believers are looking for in life; and how believers’ hopes, desires and certainties in life are the same and how they are different from unbelievers’. I then proposed a “mind map” regarding the key factors that identify Christian believers as such:

  • A sense of being forgiven and accepted by God’s grace
  • The interactive dynamics of faith, hope and love; particularly expressed in an ethic of kindness rather than cruelty
  • A mission to be “salt and light” to the world we live in
  • Rejecting the temptation to continuously compare ourselves with others
  • Following the moral teachings of the Bible in day-to-day life as an expression of our thankfulness to God.

Things got really interesting when we came to discussing questions of “spiritual warfare”. I proposed two premises on the matter as a basis for discussion: 1) The devil probably gets more credit than he deserves for the problems we have, and 2) The area of “evil” is broader than the work of the devil, per se.

20150218_112756As it happened, God had conveniently “blessed me” with a very troublesome sore throat over the course of the week, and this made a very apt illustration: My throat problems could have come from any combination of three factors: environmental stress (dust, weather changes, bicycling in freezing conditions the previous week, etc.), bacteria, and/or a virus. The warm concoction of lemon, honey, garlic, etc. that one dear sister there made for me, and menthol drops which they were watching me sucking on the whole time in an effort to keep my voice working, were going to be at least marginally helpful regardless of the cause, but a decision as to whether or not to take antibiotics was another matter. If it was a virus causing me to cough so much then taking antibiotics would do far more harm than good! The same principle, I proposed, is relevant to any decision they might make to try to cast out demons for example.

From there I opened the floor to a discussion of why it can be important to preach against the devil. It was clear that some of the older and more experienced pastors disagreed with each other about these matters, but there were some very useful and constructive debates on the matter without any trace of animosity between the participants. That in itself was a very useful result.

I tried to keep clear the whole time that I was not coming in as any spiritual father figure for these men and women, and that within their churches there are leaders to whom they should properly address more specific doctrinal questions. I was there merely as a teacher, not a pastor, to offer them more tools for thinking things through more thoroughly and communicating them more effectively.

DSCF2749I did have one piece of advice to offer regarding building their churches though, which I told them they were unlikely to hear in any Bible school: There are two methods of building a group of followers which are extremely effective, but which you should still always avoid because, because the success they bring to the organization is not worth the damage they cause to individuals: dogmatism and hate-mongering.

Many large churches have been built on the principle that you find on a humor sign that hangs in some offices: “Office rules: 1. The boss is always right. 2. When the boss is wrong, see rule #1.” As effective as it may be to insist on such absolute and unquestioning obedience to human authorities and even doctrinal standards though, in the long run it is neither honest nor constructive. I strongly encourage leaders not to make unquestionable certainty for its own sake the operational principle of their churches.

Beyond that one of the most effective ways of getting people to work together is by giving them a shared object of hatred. Hitler did that. Racist organizations around the world still do that. Too many churches also still do that. Don’t make yours one of them.

From there my message was, don’t be intimidated by large churches whose “fruit” is the result of operating according to such principles. If your church is worth building, its worth will be based on offering people faith, hope and especially love. Don’t ever lose sight of those priorities.

Needless to say, there were plenty of other important questions that we talked about over the course of the week, but these are the things I hope the participants remember, and which I hope stimulate further intellectual and spiritual growth in their lives. If this experience proves to have been important for them, if the senior pastors who were involved want more of their protégés to receive the same sort of teaching, and if the financial issues are properly settled –– if this message proves to be more important than the problems we had in getting it out –– this work will continue.

DSCF2840For myself, I’m just extremely curious to see what will happen next.

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Filed under Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality, Travel

Charlie and the Martyr Factory

Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.

The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.

In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.

Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.

Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.

But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.

The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.

political influence levelsIf you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.

Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.

That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy.  Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.

From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.

Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.

The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.

Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.

Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!

20150111_213743All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.

Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, News, Politics, Pop culture

Whiteness and Good Will

One of the most satisfying types of compliments I have received over the course of my life have been when people from very different backgrounds from mine either mistake me for or claim me for one of their own. This has phenomenon taken a few different forms over the years, ranging from a drunk boss saying of me at a party during my teenage teetotaling years, “David’s the sort of guy that when you’re talking to him stone drunk it’s easy to forget that he’s sober,” to Muslim friends who have told me, “You’re really a Muslim; you just haven’t realized it yet.”

When it comes to my actual ethnic identity though, people rarely guess it. Those who do not know me by name can usually (though not always) guess that I come from somewhere in the US, but that I am somehow not a “typical American.” That’s usually about as far as it goes. Rarely do they come anywhere close to guessing that I am a Michigander from entirely Dutch ancestry, or that my grandparents were all staunch Calvinists. At best, if this comes up after some hours of conversation, those who casually hear of my background and who are familiar with this sort of sub-cultural heritage might say, “OK, I can see that.” But to most my background remains somewhat of an enigma, and I am generally happy to have it that way.

There are, however, three aspects of my identity which are obvious to everyone at first glance these days, and which appear to be rather inescapable for me: I am a white, middle-aged man. It would be rather difficult to keep someone from noticing any of the three: no one with functional eyes could possibly mistake me for being young, feminine or of non-European ancestry. Of course this leads to a certain number of stereotypes, both positive and negative.

jackMost of these stereotypes, I admit, work to my advantage. It’s been a long time since any security guard, policeman or customs official has randomly followed me around, searched me or questioned me about anything suspicious. I also receive a certain amount of preferential service at shops, libraries, swimming halls, etc. just because I happen to look like a white, middle aged man. But these stereotypes often feed into a certain resentment of my perceived advantages as well. Frequently it is assumed that, as someone with social liberal sympathies, I should be using my advantages better to help those without such advantages. At times I feel like Robin Williams’ character in the movie Jack, or Tom Hanks’ character in Big: having the appearance of a middle aged man entitles me to certain things that my peers may be jealous of at times, intimidated by at times, and anxious to take some advantage of at times. All the while this world of appearance-based privilege feels more than a little unnatural to me. Yet even so I have to admit that, relatively speaking, it does work to my advantage. the tributes to Edward Herrmann, the actor who played Richard on The Gilmore Girls, who died rather unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, there have been collections of his best quotes in that role floating around on line over the past few days. One that is both poignant and disturbing at this point in history is where he says to a pair of bothersome policemen, “Look, it’s getting late, so either shoot us or go away.” Feeling like I might be able to get away with saying something like that to an unfamiliar police officer myself is as close as I come to a sense of white privilege: Whereas I could probably get away with such wise-assery with little more than a rebuke, recent history has shown that that sort of comment could easily get some of my darker skinned friends killed. I get that. I’m not entirely comfortable with the sort of injustice this implies. I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradoxically conflicted position this puts me in.

Economically I am in a rather awkward position as well. If you take the gross global production per year and divide it by the number of people in the world, my income comes quite close to the resulting global average. That means that while I am functionally as poor as they let people here in the Nordic countries get, in a world where the median income is just under 100 € per month, compared to most I am, admittedly, obscenely rich.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, especially over the turn of the year. In recent weeks I’ve faced some attacks from people politically to my left (for a change), accusing me of not being appropriately embarrassed about my whiteness and my masculinity in particular. I also happen to be quite committed to the heterosexual and Protestant Christian aspects of my identity, which for some just makes matters worse. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I should do about that. I make a point of not acting “entitled” to any advantages which my unearned status gives me. I always try take a stand against those who unjustly abuse others because they happen to be different than I am in any of these regards, whether this be in person on social media. But in spite of acknowledging many prejudices and resulting injustices as “real things”, I am not ashamed of what I am in terms of my masculinity, my age, my heterosexuality, my Christianity or my whiteness; and I find it rather tasteless and absurd when some people imply that I should be.

The particular paradox that I am faced with in practice, however, is not dealing with the hatred of those who can’t resist the urge to hate (and there are plenty of such people on both sides of all “difference” questions), but rather the challenge of how, from where I sit, to go about trying to make the world better in these regards. As I see it there are three primary approaches possible to righting historical wrongs of these sorts. All of these approaches can be necessary under given circumstances, but none of them is without its own inherent risks and fundamental flaws. These approaches would be: 1) revolutionary reversal of dominance patterns, 2) voluntary aid programs and 3) educational assistance initiatives.

There are certainly times when revolutions of various sorts are the only way to overcome particular patterns of abuse. If one group of people is using their accrued power to systematically deprived another group of basic human value, essentially treating them as inferior animals, sometimes the only solution to the problem is to forcibly remove the dominant group from power. The most obvious positive example of this within my lifetime has been the overthrowing of Apartheid governance in South Africa. Yet how far the post-Apartheid governments of South Africa should have gone in stripping that country’s white elite of their traditional power and privilege compared to what they actually did about the matter is a balance question where they could be fairly critiqued in either direction: On the one hand control of the mining sector of the economy remains firmly in the hands of white managers, leading to the deaths of miners protesting for more humane living and working conditions still in this generation. There is some justification possible for indigenous people going farther in stealing back the natural resources that those representing colonial powers stole from their ancestors a couple centuries ago. On the other hand there are many aspects of everyday administration where playing on resentments of what has gone before has been used as a means of distracting from problems of corruption and flat out incompetence in the current administration.

For all of its problems, the vast majority of the people of South Africa, of all races, see things as far better now than they were a generation ago. Elsewhere on the African continent, however, many of the “new bosses” who theoretically represent the formerly oppressed majority, seem to be making things at least as bad for their people as the colonial “old bosses” did. Sadly, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe seem to be far closer to the post-colonial norm for African leaders than Nelson Mandela.

The same dilemma faces all revolutionary initiatives hoping to improve the lot of oppressed people. It is not good enough to say, “Those [whites, men, Christians, heteros, whatever] have been making life horrible for us [blacks, women, non-believers, LGBT folk, etc.] for centuries; so now it’s time for us to show them…” Bitterness over previous abuses is not a functional basis for improving people’s lives. Yes, radical power transitions may be necessary, but assuming that will be sufficient is a highly flawed theory. As painful as it may be, each revolution needs to look not only at what the old guard did wrong, but what they did right, both morally and logistically. Revolutionaries who have the cool-headed composure to “win the peace” after the battle are a rare commodity indeed. To do so, more often than not they need to turn to those they’ve vanquished for help in the practical running of things, which can indeed lead to deep questions of what the point of their struggle was if so little changes. To say that it’s complicated is a bit of an understatement.

The opposite end of the spectrum from revolution is simply for those in power to give as much assistance to those under their de facto dominion as they feel inclined to give. There is much to be said for voluntary charity, especially when it is based on a sincere desire to build personal contact with those on the receiving end, and when it is intended to bring about lasting good in their lives. The problem, of course, is that charity is frequently used as a means of protecting and reinforcing the systems which put the disadvantaged people at a disadvantage to begin with. Nicolas Wolterstorff tells of how seeing “generosity” used as a means of justifying gross injustices in pre-Apartheid South Africa fundamentally changed his perspective in such matters.

Even when the donors and volunteers are not trying to maintain some repulsive status quo, there is still the risk that they may be assuming, and/or reinforcing an assumption, that those whom they are trying to help are fundamentally incapable of getting by without their help. Too often in a post-colonial charitable context the hidden message given by charitable organizations and charity organizers is one of, “Yes, our conquest of these people may have been morally questionable, but we were able to do so because they were fundamentally weak to begin with. Their culture was fundamentally dysfunctional before we got here, which is precisely what enabled us to colonize them all those centuries ago. For that matter, once we took over the technical improvements we brought into their lives rather balance out the damage we may have done with what we stole from them. And now, even if we were to stop exploiting them in any way –– or even if we were to restore a significant part of what we took out of their land –– they would still be an inherently weak people in need of our help.” Offering assistance without this sort of hidden message attached is often far easier said than done; doing less harm than good with our charitable efforts can turn out to be a rather complicated matter.

In between the extremes of revolution and voluntary charity then we have the alternative of a structural enabling approach, especially focused on education. The premise here is that one of the main things keeping certain groups at a disadvantage is that they have not had the chance to investigate and develop the sort of systems and methods which have brought relative stability and prosperity to others, particularly those who have the greatest power advantages in the world today. This basically assumes that those in the disadvantaged group are not inherently weak in terms of learning abilities and problem solving skills; just that historical systems of oppression have prevented them from realizing their capabilities in these regards. By teaching them the understandings, approaches and techniques which have enabled people elsewhere to properly thrive, we can help disadvantaged people to help themselves overcome their current disadvantages.

This approach is also far from trouble-free. It tends to assume that there are certain “right understandings” of all elements in the curriculum, regarding which those in the disadvantaged position must be ready to submit themselves to the “expertise” of their (former) oppressors. This can perhaps best be illustrated in terms of gender relation conflicts in the West: Ideally both sexes should be allowed to venture into the other’s traditional territory without having to completely conform to the other’s norms for how things “have to be done”, but in practice it tends not to work that way. Men have clear cultural advantages over women in terms of their positions in business and political power structures. While women now increasingly have opportunities to learn these skills and compete in these fields, many women are justifiably resentful of the idea that in order to be respected in business or in politics they have to learn to do things in a typically masculine way or according to masculine expectations. On the other hand, women have significant cultural advantages in terms of respect for their nurturing abilities, and while opportunities for men to participate in care-taking professions and in the active raising of their own children are progressively increasing, many men are justifiably resentful of the way in which respect for their contributions in these fields depends on their compliance to stereotypical feminine standards.

The same principle of respect for the other’s perspective on things needs to be applied to the teaching of social sciences and other “western” academic disciplines in post-colonial contexts. This too is far easier said than done. The problems of “Orientalism” and respect for cultural autonomy in relation to the formulation and application of basic human rights is a long debate unto itself.

Yet even with these risks and underlying tensions taken into account, I still believe that the educational empowerment approach might provide the best chance to overcome problems stemming from historical abuses of power, to build mutual respect between those on opposite sides of the old power struggles, and to initiate a constructive orientation towards the future. It is not safe to assume that peace and justice can be brought about merely by removing a particular group of abusers of power, nor by trusting the good will of those who have historically abused power. The best hope is to be found in respectfully enabling those who have been traditionally disempowered to work together constructively with those who have traditionally held exclusive rights to power, and to do so in a manner that respectfully considers the contributions offered by those who have previously been excluded from the processes in question.

This is how I, as a white, middle-aged man, still hope to improve the world I find myself in. Accuse me of patriarchy or ethno-centrism if you must, but I still believe that some of the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the years are potentially useful for people around me, and not only in a European context. I realize that in sharing what I have to offer I have to be ready to carefully listen to others’ perspectives, but that does not mean that what I have to offer is without value.

To the limited extent to which I am able, I will also try to keep offering direct material aid to those in greater need than I am, and I still offer what moral support I can to revolutionaries with hopeful, constructive orientations in their revolutions; but for myself I don’t see those as primary means of reducing injustices, helping those in need or making the world a better place.

My personal concrete starting point in this regard for 2015 is to do what I can to help empower some of the poorest people in Kenya, beginning with the personal contacts I was able to make there last June. Anyone who would like to join in this particular project is more than welcome to get in touch with me regarding details. Meanwhile I wish all my readers and fellow idealists a blessed and productive new year. May all your dreams of this year finding ways to leave the world a better place than you found it come true.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Holidays, Racism

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

With Christmas coming up I have to admit that I’ve always found this passage from the Nicene Creed, defining the details of the Church’s teachings on the virgin birth, a bit troubling on a number of levels. What does it actually mean in literal, concrete terms? What is its authority based on? How does the authority of this creed compare with the authority of the Bible? Is it still possible to believe this in any literal sense? What does it say about someone’s faith if they don’t believe it? What does it say about their standing within the Church as an organization if they don’t believe it?

The process of fathering a son is something I know a little about in practice. As most parents have known for quite some time, it has to do with sufficiently well-timed intercourse culminating in male orgasm occurring within the vagina. Once that happens, biologically speaking, the father’s reproductive work is done. Any other contributions to the “begetting” process have to wait until next time. So what the heck is this “eternally begotten” process all about? I agree that the begetting process is at its best when it is not done too quickly, but stretching it out eternally? How is that possible, even for God?

Obviously a divine eternal erection was not what the delegates to the Council of Nicea 1680 years ago had in mind with this phrase. Painting a picture of God as the ultimate copulater would have been the furthest thing from their minds. Of all the fourth century church fathers St. Augustine had the most to say about the matter of sex, due primarily to his sense of guilt issues regarding his pre-conversion sexual hedonism, but he was far from the only one to consider sex to be “yucky” and inherently sin-producing, if not directly sinful. The image of God in the Christian Church of the fourth century was anything but sexy. Likewise their honorary titles as “church fathers” had nothing to do with their sex lives as such. So what were these stodgy old bishops on about with this eternal begetting shtick?

My own first-begotten son, chilling with the cat after a family dinner to celebrate Christmas.

My own first-begotten son, chilling with the cat after a family dinner to celebrate Christmas.

The only way to make sense of this attribute for Jesus is in the context of an antiquated understanding of reproductive biology, based on the teachings of Aristotle. In simple terms, Aristotle believed that the best analogy for what the sperm does to the bloody reproductive material found within the woman is what a signet ring does to hot wax, or what a branding iron does to a cow’s ass: it sets a distinct pattern on the material there, making it conform as much as possible to the father’s trademark design. Where the mother contributes the basic raw material; the father was believed to contribute the complete functional design for the new person. Using another analogy, the mother provides the clay; the father’s sperm “sculpts” it into a person.

Furthermore, according to this way of thinking, the male “imprint” brought about through copulation is never an entirely perfect one. The better the “begetting” goes, the more like the father the resulting child turns out to be, but human men never entirely get what they want in this regard. Since a man can’t actually see the target that he’s shooting at in there, sometimes his liquid branding iron misses its target entirely, and no baby at all results. Sometimes it hits the target indirectly, or not completely square on, resulting in a baby that less perfectly displays on the pattern that the father’s ejaculate was trying to imprint. Some little details end up missing sometimes. According to Aristotle (and Aquinas) that is actually where little girls come from: slight mishaps in the process of men trying to father sons.

But God being God, as the church fathers saw it, He was not limited in his pattern-setting to that one critical, passionate moment where the sperm hits the bloody stuff; God could keep on “re-branding” Jesus and re-establishing the fatherly pattern in him throughout his life. This process of producing the paternal image in the bloody material substance found in his mother would not be limited to just getting the girl pregnant; it would be an on-going from before the time of Mary’s birth until after the time of Jesus’ death. The virgin birth was just one incidental step along the way; God was and is continuously re-shaping Jesus to make him more completely typical of the divine.

Except that reproductive biology really doesn’t work that way. Aristotle and his students were fundamentally wrong about how sex works, and how light works and how souls works for that matter. We now know with a fair amount of certainty that the pattern for the baby comes in equal parts from mother and father, and as products of the begetting process, daughters are not somehow partially defective sons, but complete human beings unto themselves, demonstrating just as much begetting success as any son does. Both in pattern and in physical substance, children are a combination of their fathers and their mothers. Asserting otherwise is just factually, and in many respects morally, wrong.

So there’s really no getting around the fact that the Nicene Creed is based on a complete, and rather sexist, misunderstanding of reproductive biology. Mendel’s work in genetics in the late 19th century essentially proved this. So now what can we do about it?

To start with we have to deal with the issue of the presumption of authoritative flawlessness in ancient religious texts in general. Fundamentalists’ frequent favorite verse in the Bible, which I had to memorize at about 12 years old, is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness.” This verse is taken as proof that every word in the Bible must be taken as flawlessly straight from God. But there are more than a few problems with such an interpretation. Strictly speaking, the “scripture” that St. Paul was referring to here would be the Jewish Torah; so rather than emphasizing the flawlessness issue, what is really being addressed here, in context, is the matter of maintaining respect for the Jewish scriptures among the increasing Gentilized body of Christian believers. Beyond that there is one other reference in the Bible to something being “God-breathed” (as the better translations have it in 2 Timothy): Adam’s human soul (Genesis 2:7). If we don’t consider human souls to be inherently flawless, in terms of logical consistency we shouldn’t take the turn of the phrase in 2 Timothy to indicate that Biblical writings are inherently flawless either.

But setting aside the literal meanings and proper hermeneutics for the moment, according to church tradition, due in large part to religious people’s emotional need to feel “sure” about things, the idea of “God’s inspiration” giving authority to the official pronouncements of the church underpins the whole concept of “sound doctrine,” which provides the grounds on which systematic theologians and “canon lawyers” of various sorts professionally distinguish between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”. Acknowledging that the core assertion of the Nicene Creed is based on nothing but a scientific mistake that was broadly accepted as fact in fourth century culture fundamentally screws up this whole system! If you can’t trust divine inspiration to keep the teachings of the Nicene Creed flawless, how can you trust the flawlessness of the canon of the New Testament, which these same church fathers progressively adopted over the course of the generation following the Council of Nicea? If you can’t trust Nicea, what can you trust?

Even more fundamental than that though, how do we go about making sense of Christology and the doctrine of the trinity when our most foundational and authoritative statement on those subjects is based on a complete scientific misunderstanding? We’re talking about a much bigger conundrum here than just the early church’s flat earth assumptions and misunderstandings of the physical locations of heaven and hell; we’re talking about the core understanding of who/what we worship, and why!

It’s sort of like getting down to filling in the last ten numbers on a rather difficult sudoku, and then realizing that somehow you’ve ended up with two sixes in the third column; somewhere along the way you’ve made a basic mistake, and seeing how far back you have to go to undo that mistake can be a very frustrating and aggravating process. What we know for sure here is that the description of how the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, the Son, works in the Nicene Creed is based on a fundamental biological misunderstanding. How far back we have to go from there to straighten out this mess has yet to be properly determined.

I’m not going to offer my personal revised solution to this theological puzzle in this blog entry. I think it would be most fair to leave it open as a doctrinal question and allow leading members of each particular confessional tradition to offer their own dogmatic solutions. I thus ask each reader’s help in putting this matter forward to those they accept as theological leaders to see what they are able to do with it. Skeptics, meanwhile, can play with this consistency issue in the Christian tradition in whatever way they find most amusing.

For my part, I will close here by offering a few related personal meditations, for what they’re worth, for you to ponder over the remaining days of the holiday season:

  • Certainty in matters of faith is over-rated. As good as certainty feels, there are always things about life that we can’t know for sure, and that apparently God doesn’t want us to know for sure. That doesn’t mean we should give up on further developing our understanding in theology any more than we should give up on physics or biology; but it does mean that in theology, as in natural sciences, we need to be careful how seriously we take the “laws” we discover or formulate, and we need to remain ready to have reality keep surprising us, in both positive and negative ways.
  • Humanity is a marvelous puzzle unto itself. In thinking about the core theological mystery of Christmas –– how God could become man and still remain God –– we inevitably need to come back to the question of why we are so occupied with “god questions” to begin with, and what makes each of us (potentially) valuable as individuals to begin with. We still haven’t got the concept of how God’s breath makes each of us a living soul figured out entirely. That’s something we need to work out in more detail before we can finalize our Christological dogmas it would seem.
  • Love doesn’t have to make sense to be valuable. In fact love hardly ever makes sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most valuable aspect of the human experience, and the strongest predictor of personal happiness in our lives regardless of our religious persuasions. The core message of Christmas, and Christianity in general, is that in spite of how screwed up we are, we are still loved, and that in turn should give us a capacity to love each other and live at peace with each other regardless of the other’s flaws. Granted, some people totally do not deserve to be loved. Since when is that a surprising realization? No, we will not be able to love everyone in the world without destroying ourselves in the process, because none of us have the capacity to make everyone else’s problems our own. The point is rather that we can at least get beyond issues of who deserves to be loved and who we can profit from lovingly connecting with. God’s love, shown through the life and death of Jesus, should give us a broader perspective than that.

And with those matters to mull over, I wish all of you a pleasant Christmas and a joyous start to the New Year.

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Love, Religion, Sexuality