Category Archives: Empathy

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.

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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.

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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

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

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Spirituality

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.

rs_634x1024-141231114734-634-gilmore-girl-Edward-Herrmann.ls.123114Among 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

Love, War, Schizophrenia and Trinity: Toying with the Debate over God’s Nature

As part of my effort to gradually get myself back in an academic frame of mind for the coming autumn, among other reasons, for the past week I’ve been going through a bunch of old debates between Muslims and Christians over doctrines the former find disturbing. I don’t have any magic bullets by which either side can decisively win these debates, but I’ve actually been struck by the extent to which both sides actually miss what I consider to be the main point of the matter. Both sides seem to have been thoroughly preoccupied with justifying their attempts to build military empires loosely based on their concepts of what God is like. Whatever else can be said about the nature of God, one thing I consider to be most certain: the creator of the universe isn’t interested in putting his stamp of approval on any piss-ant human militarily empire.

1185679_10201871936464462_1708824034_nLet me give a partial disclaimer regarding my pacifist sympathies to start with: I have three siblings who have served in the US military, and a vast number of veterans in my extended family as well. I have no problem with that. None of them have been involved in combat so far this century, and if they had I might want to have a longer talk with them about the role they played in killing people they didn’t know for reasons they didn’t really understand, but for me that’s hypothetical. In principle I believe in the idea of each country at least maintaining a military deterrent against foreign invaders, and against domestic radicals who would want to start civil wars as well. I also believe that militarily taking part in the legitimate defense of the human rights of people in other nations, particularly in terms of international cooperative missions, can be quite justifiable under many circumstances. So with all that in mind I have no problem whatsoever with the fact that the older of my two adult sons currently has a career as a drill sergeant in Finland’s military. I’m quite proud of the work he does and its value for this country and the world.

What I can’t get behind is the idea that we can solve the world’s problems by bombing the hell out of people who don’t conform to our dictates of what sort of people should live where, or those who don’t readily enough hand over natural resources to corporations that want them. This implies some critique of the United States, of course, with its unjustifiable mega-spending on military hardware –– with some of the brass somehow having managed to convince their congressmen that American really needs to have more machinery for killing people than all the rest of the nations on earth put together, and that unilaterally taking on the role of policing the rest of the world is somehow the United States’ moral responsibility. But this month it must be said that both Russians and Israelis have been outdoing Americans even in terms of promoting crazy aggressive warmongering…

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

But that’s actually beside the point of what I wanted to talk about here, which is all the debates over the nature of God.

You see, if the point of having a religion for you is to get some sort of magical advantage in the process of “smiting your enemies” it doesn’t really make any difference which type of God you believe in. Whatever theological excuses you make for yourself in that process, what that sort of faith ultimately comes down to is playing some version of “Age of Mythology” inside your head: you try to build enough temples and do enough ritual offerings so that your demiurges fight harder and stronger than the next guy’s demiurges. In practice having that sort of faith can give you a powerful psychological advantage in warfare, or in sports even; but that does not mean that there really is some supernatural power out there, related to the powers that brought the universe into being, which for some reason has now become dedicated to helping your side kick ass.  Deluding yourself into thinking that you do have such a supernatural advantage is key to maintaining the psychological advantage, but that doesn’t mean that there is any transcendent truth to it.

games-like-age-of-empires-1So for those purposes the point is not to discover what is ultimately “out there” but to get your team unified in and excited about the idea that some great big something out there is going to ensure that you guys are going to win. If it helps build that kind of excitement for you to paint pictures of this big “something out there” as having claws or fangs or giant wings, or some exaggerated signs of human masculinity or femininity, or just to tell everyone that your god is too powerful to depicted in such fashions, that all ultimately comes down to psychological tactics, not spiritual sensitivity.

There is, however, a whole different approach to “doing religion”, which I far more strongly recommend: searching for some sort of evidence that we’re not alone in this vast universe, that our lives have some significance, and that we can be part of something bigger than just our isolated selves. The problem is that this ultimately runs into direct conflict with Age of Mythology style religion: Searching for that “something beyond ourselves” which can ultimately give our lives meaning inevitably entails recognizing, at some point, that connecting with the ultimate source of our life inevitably involves connecting with the source of everyone else’s life as well –– including those whose asses we’d so like to kick. And if we’re going to believe that this power is benevolent enough to take an active interest in our little lives, that automatically implies then that he/she/it would have the same benevolent interest in those who aren’t actually part of our tribe. Exploring that series of connections can really screw up the whole Age of Mythology thing, so many of those for whom religion is a means of tribalistic or nationalistic self-promotion would prefer not to take their theology quite that far.

If we’re interested enough in these ultimate cause and connection matters to set aside our tribal power interests though there are all sorts of interesting places that can take us. In some ways it can bring us right to the border of schizophrenia! Schizophrenia is basically the sort of brain malfunction where the sufferer can’t entirely tell what is part of him/her and what isn’t; what experiences are coming from inside the head and what is coming from the outside world; where exactly the border between “me” and “non-me” falls. So if your religion starts to blur the lines between who you are and all the rest of the world’s psychic experiences, that can lead to some serious malfunctions!

But on the other hand if we remain strictly and carefully isolated from any sense of connection with the “non-me” world out there, we live lives of miserable and meaningless isolation. However you set out defining such things, love remains THE key element of the human experience that makes it worthwhile. When you truly and deeply love someone then, you become willing to let down your border defenses; you let that person inside of you a bit. Their joys become your joys. Their pains become your pains.

The problem with love though is that it radically increases the risk of internal conflict within our minds. Many of us are prone to having all sorts of conflicts within ourselves even without getting other people involved. We find all sorts of different perspectives competing for control of our lives –– all of which ultimately come from the same genetic predispositions and collection of human experiences that make each of us who we are. So with that level of conflict already going on inside of our heads, how much worse could it get if we allow others to become part of who we are? Plenty! When, through loving others, we bring their conflicting perspectives into ourselves, coming from entirely different genetic predispositions and collections of life experiences, the conflicts can get A LOT nastier!

And actually that conflict potential is where both love and schizophrenia can become problematic. The trouble isn’t so much the confusion over what is part of you and what isn’t, but the huge powerful struggles waging war within one’s mind or soul. If we could have the interconnection of love without all the conflict potential that goes with it, that would really be perfect. So that really should be the ultimate goal of any and every religion which manages to transcend tribal contests as its reason for being. God, from this perspective, is the force that we can connect with which in turn enables us to connect with each other on a deeper sort of level without literally driving each other crazy. Or as the Apostle John put it, in much simpler terms: “God is love.”

So then we come to the question of what form this all-powerful force of love has to take in order for it to have relevance to life as we humans know it. How can this Ultimate Love from “out there” enable us, with our own human limitations, to connect with itself (or himself) and thereby with each other –– again, without driving each other crazy? This is the fundamental dilemma that every non-tribal-success-oriented religion has to work out.

Christianity’s way of doing that has to do with the cluster of doctrines that we refer to in short-hand as the Trinity; which has a unique ability to drive other monotheists, Muslims and Jews in particular, entirely crazy. “How can God be one and still somehow be three?” But puzzling over this matter, however, we easily get sidetracked from the real primary issue: how can pathetic little creatures like ourselves hope to meaningfully connect with the ultimate source of life, the universe and everything? How can we learn to transcend borders of our own selfhood through love in ways that give us a more satisfying understanding of who we really are and how we can relate to each other? If we’re going to have a faith which values both personal identity and transcendent connection, we have to base that on an understanding of divinity where God also has a clear form of personal identity but where he also transcends the limits of a simple fixed identity in the process of loving.  In short, because love inevitably makes distinctions in identity ambiguous, for God to be love inevitably means that there will necessarily be an element of ambiguity in the process of interconnection within God’s identity.

The relevant question from there is how we can get our heads around the idea of ambiguous personal identity through perfect loving interconnection without that entailing the sort of internalized conflict that always goes with the human experience of love? This relates back to our tendency still to picture gods as military support devices. To that way of thinking, each individual god has its own personal ambitions and tactical objectives. The only way to eliminate conflict between gods from this perspective is to have one god capable of dominating all the other ones entirely. But in slipping back into that warring mindset the purpose of believing in a loving God has already been forgotten.

www-St-Takla-org--the-prophet-jeremiah-when-jerusalem-was-takenThe prophets of ancient Israel and Judah, whose message was foundational to the teachings of Jesus, struggled with this issue on a number of levels. They were very much coming from a place of thinking according to the Age of Mythology paradigm: If you lose the war it’s either because you’ve got a weaker god or you didn’t do enough to keep that god satisfied with you. Leaving the possibility of their god’s strength being limited entirely aside, they set to work explaining what the people must have done wrong for their warrior god to have stopped fighting for them. Much of the time they did this with graphic verbal images of sexual infidelity: JHWH rejecting his chosen people because they spent too much time screwing around with other gods. But once in a while, just once in a while, they seemed to grasp that if they were really dealing with the creator of the universe, not just some little local tribal god, it was rather inappropriate to relate to him on the level of saying that his primary “job” is to help our army dominate the other one in battle. They also started to realize that there were limits with how far they should take that jealous boyfriend motif. They started recognizing that treating people, any people, as disposable commodities was at the root of many of their problems. They started to see that an addiction to violence as a means of dealing with things and cycles of vengeance just weren’t going to work out well for anyone in the long run. They started to preach that the point of religion should be recognizing “God’s heart of compassion”… for all nations. Those are the principles that Jesus in turn really drove home.

I could proof-text this out for you, but hopefully you get the idea without.

So yeah, once we get beyond playing supernatural war games with our faith –– once we learn to focus on compassion and connection that overcomes conflicts being the true core issue of faith –– the intellectual problems inherent in the doctrine of the trinity become far less critical. That doesn’t make it rationally comprehensible, but it can be argued that love never is logically comprehensible, and if love is going to be the point of our lives we’re just going to have to learn to deal with that.

Those are my meandering meditations for this week. I hope they hold deeper meaning for some of you. Cheers.

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Filed under Empathy, Human Rights, Love, Purpose, Religion, Warfare

Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

Somewhat in contrast with my recent Kenya experiences –– but yet in a way in complete harmony with them –– this past week I allowed myself what for me is a major luxury expenditure; but one I can also write off as an important investment in my relationship with my younger son: I bought tickets for he and I to go to a concert by one of the great music icons of my generation: Stevie Wonder. Some would say it just goes with my ethnically Dutch heritage that I felt a certain pain in paying as much as I did for these tickets… just to be allowed to stand out under the afternoon sun on a dusty gravel sporting grounds, crowded together with a sweaty mob of mostly drunk people, to listen to music I’d actually heard hundreds of times before… but I still believe it was a necessary expenditure, and in the end well worth it.

029While I was off on my most recent African adventure I had missed my son’s birthday, as well as the celebration after he completed his required military service, so I felt I owed it to him to do something particularly special together this week. But in all honesty once again the present that I bought for him (like so many of his birthday toys from previous years) was something I probably bought at least as much for my enjoyment than for his. As a strongly professing fan of Motown music in general, and Stevie Wonder tunes in particular, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to witness his performance live. OK, so the promoter’s arrangements left something to be desired. It was still an experience that will rank among the most important lifetime memories I will share with my son. It was also a rather spiritual experience for me.

I actually got confused as to which Helsinki park the concert was in, somehow convincing myself that it would be in the grassier and shadier of the two where concerts are regularly held. With the more idyllic venue in mind I packed a small picnic for us and tossed that into a bag together with my digital camera of course, only to face significant disappointment when we arrived at the actual gate of the venue.  As I said, the concert site was actually a city sandlot on which kids’ soccer and baseball tournaments are held fairly regularly. There was no place to comfortably spread the picnic blanket and they had a policy of not allowing in any full sized cameras. (Hundreds of people were shooting video with their cell phones with seemingly nothing the promoters could do about it, but that was beside the point: Cameras like mine were not permitted.) So I was told I’d have to leave my belongings at the baggage check point they had set up outside the gate.

This gave rise to another minor problem in that I didn’t bring any cash with me to pay the fee for such an additional service, but in the end that problem was rather pleasantly worked out. As the first opening act took the stage my son and I just sat down on a grassy knoll just outside the concert venue and enjoyed our little picnic together. It was just as the second act was coming on that I went to check my bag. It was a slow moment for those working at the baggage check area and so when I explained my dilemma to one of the attendants there, Hannu, had a bit of spare time to negotiate with me. In the end he was willing to take 10 minutes of interesting conversation as “payment in kind” for keeping an eye on my bag for the rest of the show. He had noticed that I was carrying the printout of my on-line concert ticket tucked into a small paperback history of Kenya, and he was interested in hearing the whole background story about my trip, and how I also considered Stevie to be a positive role model in promoting justice and compassion for the poor of Africa.

021Hannu was further interested in hearing about my work as a religious education teacher and why I consider such work to also be important, but we didn’t explore that avenue of conversation too far. After the fact I had somewhat of a feeling that perhaps I should have. Many of my evangelical friends might fault me for missing a golden opportunity to steer the conversation around in the sort of way that I could have “led him to the lord”. Instead I merely answered his question about why such lessons are important by saying that it is important for children in this country to have a functional understanding of what different sorts of people believe in religious terms, and how all that relates to their own (official, nominal) beliefs and let it go at that. He proceeded to tell me how cool it had been a few hours earlier to listen to Stevie and his band play “Yesterday” and some other Beatles cover material in their sound check, and to talk about his own perspectives on the value of intercultural experiences.

That level of conversation actually gelled better with the rest of my summer’s spiritual experiences thus far –– including the Kenya trip as a whole, the background factors that led to me taking such a trip, and the significance of Stevie Wonder’s life and music for me as a person in relation to that context –– than an attempt at “personal evangelism” would have. That subject in turn is actually worth meditating on a bit here, so let me take some time to explain (to you and to myself) what I mean by that.

It was actually by way of former student of mine, Sandhja, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented singer and performer, that I first met the people from Bondoaid, whose work in Kenya I’ve taken the active interest in. The core group of active members in this organization are evangelical Christians of one stripe or another –– ranging from the Pentecostal to the more radical Baptist to the mainstream denominational Protestant branches of that spectrum. Sandhja is none of the above. Having been her religious education instructor throughout her teenage years I know something about her personal religious perspectives and how pressure to adjust them might feel to her.

047I know her to be highly sensitive in the most beautiful sense, and deeply interested in the sort of spirituality that goes with caring for others on many different levels; but prone to see that spirituality in part through the lens of her mother’s Hindu background and in part through a general secular humanist perspective. She was willing to give of her time and money to help Kenyan orphans, not because she saw it as a means of bringing them into some particular faith, but because she is genuinely prone to caring for others wants to help reduce human suffering when it is in her power to do so. That’s just the sort of person she is, and over the years she has consistently impressed me with her emotional depth in such matters. It was part of my job to make sure she understands the most basic concepts of what it means to be a Christian, and how that compares with other spiritual paths, including her own. It was never part of my job to try to convert her to my own way of thinking on such matters though, nor was it ever my inclination to try to do so. As I see it her life provides a closer reflection of the teachings of Jesus than most professing Christians that I know, so I’m not about to condemn her to hell for putting the wrong label on it.

But it’s not my job to decide her eternal destiny anyway. It’s ultimately up to a source of justice way beyond what I can access or administer to do the final evaluation Sandhja’s life. So when it comes to that call, I’m happy to treat it the same as I did the predictions I was asked for regard World Cup Soccer this summer: Here’s how it looks to me, but it’s beyond my expertise to say anything for sure in advance, so I’m ready just to step aside and watch and see what happens. Meanwhile I have my own job to do –– what I believe God requires of me as a believer –– which is to “pay forward” the blessings I’ve received, in particular towards the poor, the outcasts, the prisoners and other disadvantaged people.

I happened to bump into Sandhja last week at a beachfront coffee shop, and we ended up sitting together for a bit discussing my trip, the Kenya project in general and the values behind it. She basically said that in her experience the evangelical Christians she had been working with on the project are truly warm and wonderful people, but there has been a continuous underlying tension over their expectations that at some point she would also become a “born-again Christian”. I could relate to what she was talking about not only from knowing the “born-again mind” intimately from the inside, but also from the similarities between what she was talking about and my experiences among the Cape Malay Muslims of South Africa during the year I spent there. Those folks too were generally very warm and hospitable, and accepting of my religious and cultural difference as a matter of respect for the most part; but not far below the surface was something between a hope and an expectation that someday, if I was honest enough and “my heart was open enough,” I would let go of my preconceptions about my own heritage and religiously become one of them. That wasn’t about to happen though, and from where I sat it wasn’t a matter of my having an insufficiently open heart or mind.

So Sandhja’s awkward situation was more than familiar to me. I couldn’t really apologize for the others’ expectations, but I could well appreciate the difficulties involved for her. I know how deeply ingrained the urge to win converts is in such circles, and how, for them, pursuing the objective of converting as many others as possible is considered to be the most virtuous behavior any person can possibly take part in. I know how thoroughly many have convinced themselves that the best way for them to truly love others is to coerce conversions and extract confessions of faith out of them by any means possible. I also know how –– even if one accepts such a premise regarding “the need to evangelize” –– the most sincere efforts to reach out to help others (both materially and spiritually) can easily morph into systems by means of which to gain and maintain abusive control over those being “helped”.  I have seen many times how there is actually no form of religion –– or secular ideology for that matter –– which is completely immune to being corrupted by the thrill of having power over the beliefs of others, and that when it comes right down to it Evangelical Christians are probably the worst by this disease (with Muslims coming in a close second). So I’m pretty sure that those with a powerful urge to “lead this girl to the Lord” were quite blind to their own motivations in wanting to do so. So in the end Sandhja and I agreed that it’s not always easy but we do what we can to overlook other people’s cultural blind spots in the process of attempting to do good together with them.

And that brings me back to the Stevie Wonder show. When it was finally his turn Stevie came out onto stage to the tune of one of the few songs in the set which were not of his own composition: “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. This provided a glorious opportunity for an audience sing-along right from the start, and Stevie was continuously working us throughout the show to try to turn us into a sweeter sounding choir –– including drilling us on the harmony parts to be sung. But more to the point, after the third chorus and some harmony suggestions on this number, Stevie offered a bit of explanation for its choice as the opener: for him it also contains an element of prayer. He’s not on the road this time promoting a new album or anything like that; he’s just out thankfully enjoying the experience of doing the work he loves and feeling the love of the international audiences in the process. And as part and parcel of that motivation he wanted to publicly thank God for the opportunities he has had in life and career, and to encourage others to join him in appreciating God’s great love.

helsinkiclassic2014-11The appreciation for this perspective seemed to be somewhat limited among those in the highly secularized and fairly drunk Finnish audience, but Stevie didn’t let that discourage him. He qualified it right away by saying that he wasn’t promoting any particular religion. Like Pope Francis, Stevie is perfectly fine with people of good will being of other religions, or even being atheists. But still he wanted to stress the message that there is something greater than all of us to which we owe a certain awe, respect and thankfulness, and on the basis of which we need to learn to love each other. From there this implicit prayer of thanksgiving was a running theme throughout the rest of the show.

The one classic song of his included in the show that seemed to least harmonize with this principle of respect for the divine and loving each other on that basis, was “Part-Time Lover,” a tale of appreciation for a forbidden and conflict-laden relationship. His way of setting up that number with the audience had its own interesting humor to it. He asked the audience, “How many of you are in love?” A moderate number of hands showed murmured positive responses arose. “How many of you are in love with just one person?” Some giggles, but otherwise pretty close to the same level of response as for the previous question. “OK, now be honest: How many of you guys would really like to be in love with more than one lady?” While the audience was still chewing on that one the band started playing the intro. After the first verse then Stevie gave the audience their harmony parts for the song: guys scatting “bum, bum, badada-bum…” and women singing, “no, no, no, no, no…” Overall Stevie gave the impression that the experience this song talks about were as distant from his personal experiences as the unspoken eye-contact of unrequited love that he sings about in “My Cherie Amour”.

When it came to a song being intensely personal for him and intimately tied to his own life experience, on the other hand, the high water mark came with “Isn’t She Lovely,” which he wrote for his newborn daughter back in the seventies. She has since made a grandfather out of him and she was on the road with him as one of his backup singers –– the tall one on the far right. Savoring, appreciating and thanking God for that sort of love is where Stevie was clearly most in his element.

After that the next priority in his message to the audience was to pray and work together to eliminate the sort of suffering and social injustice described in the most pessimistic song in the set: “Living for the City”. How much more specific than that does the “gospel” message need to be in a pop concert? How much more specific than that can it be without the added detail getting in the way of the core message of peace and love?

If I were to analyze Stevie’s perspective on organized religion further I would have to turn to a song not included in his recent concerts, from his 1985 “In Square Circle” album: “Spiritual Walkers”. It is a somewhat cryptic musical comment on evangelical practices in general, and perhaps on Stevie’s fellow Motown veteran Michael Jackson’s propensity at the time to keep promoting his Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief:

They knock on your door
You laugh in their face…
Walking places they should not be
But they will walk their lives
With a never ending light
They will walk their lives
’til they shine the light
Of truth into your life…
You run from their sight
Not to hear the holy word…
They have no defense
Except inner sense
And knowing the Almighty Friend

Stevie doesn’t actually come out for or against such people; he merely respectfully reports on what he “sees” and rhetorically asks others what they think.

In terms of his own core message though, Stevie remains focused on things that should be central concerns to people of faith, but which too many conspicuously religious folks remain silent about: fighting against such tragic injustices as racism, extreme poverty, various forms of segregation, handgun violence and “stand your ground laws”. Promoting particular religious dogmas just isn’t his thing. Nor is lecturing on ethics for that matter. He didn’t come to Helsinki to preach morality; he came to help people to feel good by getting them to sing along and share the love. If anyone else is interested in spreading the love in the same sorts of ways Stevie seems perfectly happy to have them on his side, regardless of their religious perspectives.

The only way I can remotely compare myself with Stevie is in saying that he and I are very much on the same page when it comes to understanding that the basic point of religion, when it’s done right, is building a genuine capacity for love and caring about others. As I said, he and I are on the same page with that one, though Stevie’s been reading from that page a lot longer than I have. I don’t have his same creative genius as a means of sharing that message with others, so I have to rely on being able to get just a bit closer to those in serious need than he can. At the same time I need to follow his example in limiting myself a bit in picking the causes I fight for carefully and sticking with the ones I choose.

No, I don’t think that religion can or should be reduced to nothing more than neutral “warm and fuzzy feelings” between “people of good will.” There really has to be something bigger “out there” to hold the whole system together for any religious teaching to have distinct value as such. My point here isn’t to redefine or defend my beliefs in ways that disregard the transcendent. My point –– and Stevie Wonder’s point as well, I believe –– is that what God has called each of us to do is to express the sort of love and mercy that he has given to each of us in turn to each other; not to bring everyone under the control of our favored style of religious system or to attempt to become the instruments of God’s vengeance and judgment upon the earth, the way so many religious folks seem to be longing to try their hand at. If we can remember what our basic task before God is in this regard, and if we can stick to working on that task rather than letting ourselves get distracted with religious power struggles, that is how I believe we can really bring the greatest glory and honor to God –– far more than by amassing huge numbers of new members or suitably preparing ourselves for an extended siege leading up to the battle of Armageddon.

Daring to care for others is the truest expression of true faith. Thus I would far rather work together with those with whom I have major philosophical and theological disagreements in the process of caring for those whom I believe God has instructed us to care for than to casually sit and endlessly discuss theories of the Second Coming with those who happen to theoretically agree with me on the mechanics of the redemption available in Christ. Furthermore, I honestly believe that those who genuinely care for others who are made in God’s image will stand in better stead before divine judgment than those who expect to pass through on the basis of having said the right evangelical magic words and participated in the proper rituals. But again, speculating over who God will judge how harshly, and on what basis, is really not our job as believers.

So regardless of how similar to or different from my own Stevie’s and Sandhja’s spiritual perspectives happen to be, I draw strength from the aesthetic satisfaction I get from their performances and I join together with them in doing what all believers properly should be doing: spreading the love, increasing the peace and treating the world around us (and all the people I share it with) with respect. Feel free to join us if in that effort if you’re so inclined.

 

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Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.

 

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Misungu Life, Part 2

Having completed my second weekend in Kenya, there are still many aspects of the novelty of my situation here which dominate the experience. Two doors down from my hotel is a half-finished commercial building of sorts which is currently being used as a preschool. I have been greeting these four and five-year-old children as I pass by each day, and on Tuesday I stopped to shake hands with a few of them. Before I really knew what happened I was walking through town on market day with a small troop of them trailing behind me and trying to hold onto my fingers wherever I went! I tried to make it clear to all of the local adults that were watching with my facial expressions and body language that this really wasn’t my idea, I wasn’t trying to steal children, and that I wasn’t grabbing their little hands in return. Most were able to laugh at me about it. Walking further out into the countryside later on that day another crowd of children started to gather to stare at me, but as I took out my camera one little boy jokingly yelled to his friends (as my guide translated it), “My mother says that white men eat little children!” So many interesting levels of irony there, but I’m glad they’re being taught some caution at least.

027In visiting primary and secondary schools as a guest speaker I have been most enthusiastically received everywhere I have gone. My stories of a land far to the north where the sun never sets in the summer and where in the winter it gets so cold that my facial hair ices over as I walk to school drew as much wide-eyed wonder from the teachers as from the pupils at times, but very few seemed bored anyway. I have also fielded many rather difficult questions from these young listeners. One of the ones which stretches my competence a fair distance has been when I have been repeatedly asked honestly and innocently by these children, “Why is your skin so much lighter than ours?” My best guess at an answer is to say that my skin doesn’t work so well to protect me from the potentially harmful rays of the sun, so I tend to burn more easily; but one thing that light skin does slightly more efficiently than dark skin is to enable the body to produce vitamin D from sunlight, and given the limited amount of sunlight at times in the northern part of the world where I live we need all the vitamin D advantage we can get. But that being said, I know many dark-skinned people who have adjusted just fine to life in the frozen north, and I know it is quite possible for pale folk like me to adapt to climate conditions in equatorial Africa. Making a show of putting on some additional sunscreen as I said so tends to add to the comic effect.

A more difficult question has been, “Why do white people tend to be so much richer than black people?” Again, my best guess at an answer has been that some would say it is because in the part of the world where I live the struggle for survival against the brutal climate means that people have had to work harder just to survive, and that hard work in turn has generated many different forms of wealth. Others would say that the differences are based mainly on a history of white people coming and stealing from darker skinned people in various ways over the years. My guess is that the truth would lie somewhere in between those explanations. The important thing is to work on building a greater sense of solidarity between peoples of all skin colors, for which those with the greatest advantages must take the greatest responsibility.

Addressing the fact of the inequality between their lives and mine has been an omnipresent factor, as has the question of what they should be praying for God to do about the situation. The people of the Ahero area as a whole are deeply devout Christian believers, who struggle with the fact that God has quite apparently chosen not to materially bless them in the same ways he has blessed many countries dominated by white people. So when some tell me with a tight-lipped affirmation of their faith that they believe God will soon perform some miracle to help them out of their suffering and state of acute vulnerability I must confess it makes me rather uneasy. One young man who is a local school teacher of subjects similar to my own told me that there are churches of different sorts on average every square kilometer in Kenya, but many of them are based on a desperation for God to reach down and miraculously sort out their economic and health-related problems for them. Not coincidentally, as I have noticed, the word “miracle” figures strongly into the names of many of these churches.

013Another aspect of this type of Christianity seeking miraculous relief from suffering found here, which has its most problematic roots in the United States, is the idea that perhaps rather than trying to fix things we should just wait for Jesus to come back in the role of warrior god to destroy everything and then let him rebuild afterwards. Even setting aside the whole question of “smiting the heathen” being problematically inconsistent with the character of Jesus’ message, this sort of belief makes me uneasy in large part because of the dangers of frustrated “rapture” expectations I witnessed in the US back in the 1970s. Sadly many of my friends from that period still haven’t learned from that experience, or outgrown that mentality.

The best I can offer as both medicine for this dysfunction, and as encouragement for those who come to church for such reasons, is a sermon I’ve given in the two churches here I’ve been invited to preach at: Defining the difference between faith and hope. My texts for this message have been 1 John 3:1-3, Hebrews 11:1, Romans 5:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 13:13; all relatively frequently memorized passages actually, but I’ve rarely heard them preached on in conjunction with each other.

The passage in 1 John is particularly interesting in its emphasis on John’s expectation of Jesus’ second coming. John could never have imagined in writing this letter that would reverently be read in churches over 1900 years later; he fully expected that Jesus would return during his own lifetime. The Gospel of John concludes with an anecdote of Jesus hinting that John could well stay alive until the second coming, but it finishes with a bit of back-pedaling on the matter: Jesus never actually promised that John would live to see the second coming, he only hinted along the lines of “Well, what if he does?” This is probably the earliest recorded excuse for high hopes for Jesus’ immanent return being frustrated. There’s a long history of later expectations and predictions of his immanent return causing more than a little embarrassment for those promoting such claims. But in 1 John 3 the “beloved disciple” takes a somewhat different angle on the matter. He’s basically saying that we believers are primarily citizens not of any earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom soon to come. But the awesome thing, he’s telling his audience, is that they are already counted as God’s children, and the mystery of what sort of roles and privileges they could look forward to in the kingdom to come would just be icing on the cake. So the point, John is saying, is to appreciate what we have in terms of knowing that we are part of God’s family, and beyond that to keep pushing ourselves to be the best we can be because of the possibilities that lie ahead of us.

This brings out the most central aspect of the difference between faith and hope: Hope is a matter of being encouraged by a range of possibilities that we really can’t know about for sure. This is distinct from faith which is a matter of being sure about things that we can’t prove to ourselves purely on the basis of empirical data. Thus “faith is the substance of things hoped for…”

This is where Paul picks up the thread in Romans 5. Through faith in what Jesus has done for us we know we have peace with God. That’s the big thing. Beyond that we get excited about the possibilities of God’s glory coming and making all of our dreams come true. But that’s not the end of it; we can also be thankful that we have difficulties in the meantime because of the character that they build in us. That character that comes through facing difficulties (the old “no pain, no gain” principle) is a huge part of why we can somewhat expect good things to come, even though we’re not sure about them.

Beyond that, the hope we have because of knowing that we are part of God’s family and believing this will bring to us good things on all sorts of other levels is a different matter than crying out that Jesus is coming and that he is going to show everyone that we were right and they were wrong all along –– or believing that we really don’t have to worry about the mess we’ve made of our lives and our societies because Jesus is coming back soon to clean up after us. That latter kind of hope has a long history of making people rather ashamed. The hope based on being able to genuinely connect with God and his people, and expecting that in one way or another we will reap benefits from that, is a whole different kettle of fish.

This goes back to my personal 5 Cs of happiness theory: Faith is a matter of certainty about the top two: Confidence and Connection. We can know for sure that we are important in God’s eyes in spite of ourselves through faith. That kind of confidence is key to believing in my value as a person. Beyond that, the evidence that I can have to justify such confidence is the capacity God gives me through this faith through connection –– to be part of something bigger than myself in terms of loving and being loved by others. Those are the faith issues –– the matters that I believe God wants us to know for sure about. The lower three Cs of happiness –– Comparison, Comfort and Control –– are not intended to be matters of faith, but rather matters of hope for us. We don’t really know for sure whether God will enable us to come out better than the next group in terms of various measures of success. We can’t be sure about having freedom from physical suffering in life just because we are believers in God. Having freedom to do whatever we would like –– even when those are really “good things” –– isn’t something we can count on in too many specifics. What we can do in those areas is to continue to hope based on the strength we gain through faith in the two more important areas of happiness.

This is not to say, however, that factors of comparison, comfort and control are irrelevant to the believer’s life. We are still taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are expected to expect blessings from God also in these “lesser” areas. Beyond that, chapter 2 in the New Testament book of James makes it clear that if we genuinely do connect to God and each other through faith, we will be paying attention to the comfort and control needs of others as part of our connection with them: If we say we love God but don’t care about his people, we’re lying. If we say we care about his people but don’t bother to do what is in our power to help them, we’re lying. But that is more a message that Europeans need to hear than a message that the poor of Africa need to hear. The message that the poor of Kenya need to hear is that there are three things that abide –– that will always be important –– faith, hope and love, with love of course being the greatest.

046As I start winding down my adventures here I am incredibly thankful for all of the experiences I have had. Connecting with the poorest of the poor here has been infinitely more gratifying to me than a safari to see lions and elephants. Nothing against those who travel to this part of the world to see lions and elephants, but what I’ve been doing here is just far more “my thing” and the way I appreciate being able to spend parts of my vacation time. Now the challenge is to see if I can take what I’ve gathered here back to Europe and use it to do some “real and lasting good” for those whose needs I’ve been confronted with.

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“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.

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What the Hell?

One last blog entry here before I embark on my Kenyan adventure.

It relates to another subject that I generally try to avoid: the meaning of hell. This is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a hot topic lately though, in that it is the primary inconsistency in the Christian concept of a loving God for some, and the primary test of Christian Orthodoxy for others.

In particular this last week one Louis Gohmert, a politician representing the conservative theological hot spot of Texas (again, excuse the pun), decided to make more of a name for himself by going after a less conservative clergyman –– Barry Lynn, who stands for the issue of maintaining freedom of religion (in the more traditional sense of the phrase) in the United States. Gohmert did so by tossing out the implication that, in order to count as a proper representative of Christianity, Lynn needs to explicitly state that all those who don’t follow the proper evangelical formula for receiving Jesus are destined for an eternity of torture in hell.

130625_louie_gohmert_ap_328To say that Gohmert missed the point of the hearing in question may miss the point. Lynn had gone to Washington to address the issue of government slipping in the direction of indirectly requiring religious observance of various sorts from its citizens. Gohmert wanted to make his own point that, in the name of freedom of religion as he sees it, people should be free to believe that those who don’t meet their requirements are going to hell, and they should be free to use the political process as a means of promoting their beliefs and pressuring those “hell-bound” others to get right with God. Whether or not that can be done in a fashion that respects the beliefs of those who believe differently from him and his evangelical base supporters is a secondary matter; the important thing for Gohmert was to send a sound bite back to his base which tells them that he is fighting the good fight and standing for the principles of the “true faith” up there in that heathen city of Washington –– the litmus test for being part of that true faith being belief in a literal hell of some sort for those who don’t “come to the Father” by way of Jesus according to the proper formula.

There are plenty of Christians who deny the existence of hell, and who have paid the price for their disbelief in this regard. The story of Carlton Pearson in particular comes to mind on that one. For me Pearson is neither a hero nor a villain, but an interesting anthropological case study in how important this issue is to how many people. Gohmert chose his emotive hook wisely it would seem, at least in demagogic political terms for impact in Texas.

In looking up the link for Pearson’s story I also stumbled across Addie Zierman’s recent comments on the subject. Mrs. Zierman is apparently working on promoting her recent memoir about dabbling around the edges of adultery as a formerly good evangelical girl, and the effects that had on her faith. She has thus been giving various radio interviews on the subject, in which she’s also tried to shore up what remains of her evangelical credentials. On one such occasion last winter though she got significantly stuck on the question of whether she believes in hell –– in the doctrine of unbelievers automatically being destined for eternal torment in the after-life. She didn’t really know, and she is mildly self-critical about the lack of erudition this caused her.

She had thoroughly believed in this concept when she was an elementary school child. Back then she was proud to tell her classmates that they were going to hell and she wasn’t, even if her teacher didn’t necessarily understand how this was supposed to be an optimistic message… but the complexities of adult life had made her a bit less sure about the matter. She lets herself off by saying, “What the hell do I know about hell? I’m not a pastor or a scholar. I’m a writer. An English Major. I sat in the back row of my Christian Theology class senior year of college and slept through much of it.”

Unfortunately I can’t let myself off that easily. I too have certainly slept through more than my fair share of lectures on dogmatics, but even so… I’ve been considered an expert of sorts on all things religious since long before I knew what I was talking about, and for the last quarter of my life or so I’ve made a living explaining such matters to teenagers in the Finnish public school system. So how do I explain what I believe about hell? I guess I’d have to say that I’m in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs on the subject as well.

Like Jesus’ ascension, the concept of hell definitely contains certain aspects that fit a lot easier with a medieval world view than with a modern one. The idea that hell (and/or purgatory) would be physically somewhere down below our feet, heated by the sort of molten magma that bursts out of volcanoes every now and again, makes slightly more scientific sense than the idea that, somewhere above a relatively flat earth, on the other side of the clouds, there is a physical realm of heaven where God and his angels and saints live and party every night –– but just barely. It doesn’t really address the question of whether there is some physical essence to the soul being tortured there. If there is, what sort of sentient physical form would that be? If not –– if the soul lives on after death as a non-material conscious entity –– what difference would the physical conditions surrounding it actually make?

Then there’s the whole question of what basis we have for believing that a disembodied yet conscious soul can be a real thing. Assuming that such things do exist (and will exist for each of us), what is the basic essence of the soul in such a state? If we take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 somewhat literally in this regard, the thing that makes each human a living soul is the “breath of God,” breathed into Adam by God and spread to all of his offspring from there. Aristotle’s take on the subject, which I was analyzing here last month, is that the only part of the soul which would survive death is the nous or “mind” –– the divine spark within each intelligent person that enables them to perceive non-material realities in general. Either way, if the part of the soul which survives separation from the material body is actually divine in its essence and origin, how can that divine part of the person –– the trace of God within the person –– be the object of God’s wrath?

Then there’s still the question of where the whole concept of hell came from to begin with. There are actually two concepts that get mixed together here: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the abode of the dead; and the image of the Hinnom Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Hades-childhood-animated-movie-villains-25060468-1024-768Sheol is translated from Hebrew to Greek as “Hades”, but it’s hard to say exactly how much the concept of death in the time of David’s kingdom had to do with the fiery lord of the underworld in Greek mythology. The main image we get in relation to this place is one of detachment, non-feeling, non-knowing and emptiness. The hope given is that after their time in the cold, dead grave, significant persons will be brought back to life to receive God’s favor or face further manifestations of his wrath (Psalm 49:14-15, Daniel 12:2), but these hopes remain rather vaguely expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Hinnom Valley, also known as Gehenna, was a spot outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side, where, in the lowest ebbs of Israelite and Jewish culture, human sacrifice would take place –– particularly the killing and burning of young children to offer them to various local gods who were seen as able to supplement JHWH’s power in helping them out in battle and the like. The prophets had all sorts of good reasons for condemning this practice, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which they were more worried about: God’s jealousy or the disrespect for the rights of children. In any case, this same valley was, at least by legend, the place where the bodies of losers in battle were disposed of, frequently by burning for health protection purposes.
GehennaThis is the place that Jesus warns his followers to be careful so as not to, figuratively speaking, end up getting tossed into –– to the extent of chopping off limbs or gouging out eyes if that is the only way to avoid it! He describes his worst ideological enemies, the Pharisees, as the children of this valley and destined to burn there (Matthew 23: 15, 33). But that’s about it for Bible teaching on that one.

Beyond specific references to Gehenna, without specifically naming the place, twice Jesus spoke of torture by fire for the dead in the after-life. In both cases it was a matter of rich bastards who refused to have mercy on the poor: The tale of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus in the end of Luke 16, and the prophecy of the judgment of the “sheep and the goats” in the end of Matthew 25. In the portion in Luke, the grave, “hades,” is referred to as a place of burning torment where the rich man “gets what’s coming to him” for being such a jerk in his treatment of the beggar. In the story in Matthew the nations which ignore the plight of the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned are sentenced to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That kind of leaves open the question of individual versus collective punishment in such cases, but the main point is clear: fires of judgment in the after-life are especially intended for those who callously disregard the basic human needs of others. Somehow then this got twisted around to mean that an unending sensation of burning would be the fate of those who didn’t swear allegiance to the proper religious team according to the correct ritual formula. We’ll come back to that.

There are actually two other forms of torture besides burning referred to in the Bible in terms of the after-life experiences of the damned: the worm and the bottomless pit. The worm is referred to in the very last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24), where it is part of the punishment for those who will rebel against the new messianic order that God is supposed to bring. From there they make an appearance in Jesus’ warnings in Mark 9 about the tortures of hell for those who commit any form of child abuse. The bottomless pit, or the Abyss, is where many of the bad guys come from in the epic battle between good and evil in the book of Revelation. Ultimately good wins and the forces of evil are locked back into this torture chamber for an extended utopian period; after which they are once again released, stomped on decisively in a final battle, and permanently thrown into a lake of fire (chapter 20).

My previous understanding and personal interpretation of these combined references was that the fire, the worm and the abyss –– as combined metaphors for the tortured state of the disembodied soul –– pointed to one thing: progressive destruction which is never finalized. It would be sort of like any radioactive isotope, e.g. carbon 14: As long as a living organism is interacting with other carbon based life forms in the biological world this isotope remains at relatively stable levels in all of its structure. Once the organism dies, however, and no new C14 is being circulated through its system as part of the metabolic process, the C14 starts to break down, so after 5730 years there is roughly half as much C14 in the organism than there would have been while it was alive. But the C14 never disappears from the remains of the organism entirely; after millions of years the breakdown process remains on-going. (In this way paleontologists can make their best scientific guesses as to how long the fossils the find have actually been dead.) So it is for the soul that dies without forming a lasting connection with God –– the source of that “divine spark” within which ultimately makes us human: Like a radioactive isotope, without the refreshment that life offers, such a soul begins to break down, without ever finally getting to the point of being completely broken down. It can feel itself perpetually dying, yet never reaching the restful state of having entirely nothing left to lose. That would be the non-material hell to be avoided –– of which physical pains, and more specifically experiences of alienation and social detachment within this life, are merely something of a foretaste.

There are a number of levels on which I am no longer so sure about that theory. To start with there is the matter of determining which analogies, if any, to trust as the basis for our conceptual understanding here. Literal fire and literal worms eventually burn out or finish consuming all tissues which they find edible. We don’t find thousands of years old glowing embers or obese worms. Nor does any pit on earth extend further than about a quarter of the way through the crust of the planet. By the original analogies the torture at worst would still be of limited duration. In the literal case of the Hinnom Valley fires could and would be kept going non-stop and worm colonies could thrive for years by continuously adding new fuel and bodies, but that does not mean that any given body would be perpetually burning forever. So why should I put more faith in my isotope metaphor than the original ones given in the Bible? Assuming that there really is an experience of disembodied torment for the soul and time of regret after the death of the human body, is it really necessary to believe that this is inevitably something unending?

Secondly, if the ultimate reason why human souls exist to begin with is God’s desire to express love, is there any reason to believe that God would not eventually have mercy on such tortured souls and allow them to rejoin their transcendent source? Could God really be so “heartless” as to ignore the suffering of particular human souls as lightly as factory farm managers ignore the suffering of unwanted male hatchlings which they dispose of as useless by-products of their egg production operations?

Is this really the way God thinks of our "unsaved" friends?

Is this really the way God thinks of our “unsaved” friends?

While agreeing with the rabbi who says that believing in an afterlife is an essential corollary to believing in God –– there is clearly no justice in this world and so it’s impossible to imagine a just God who does not make distinctions between an Adolf Hitler and an Anne Frank “on the other side” –– and while I’m willing to “let God be God” and not make my own declarations of who has to go to which sort of Hell, and who doesn’t, I no longer take that to mean that the evangelical hellfire and brimstone message is a “thus sayeth the Lord” issue.

Interestingly it is only in the end of the book of Revelation where there is any hint of the possibility of “normal people” –– those who actually live conscientious and compassionate lives without association with Jesus –– still potentially ending up in eternal torment: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Evangelicals take that to mean anyone who does not “receive Jesus” in such a way as to have their name on his team’s roster is doomed to hell. Revelation 20:15 is the only verse they have to support that interpretation. The idea that it will be everlasting torment comes from verse 10 of the same chapter, referring to the fate of the devil and his leading generals on the side of evil: “They will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.” Two aspects of this part of John’s apocalyptic vision frequently get overlooked: First, as John saw it, this further torture of the dead requires re-animating their bodies. This “second death” can only happen after the bodies of the damned dead are brought back from the grave and reassembled in such a way as to enable them to face God’s judgment at the final end of human history. There is no talk of disembodied souls being in everlasting torment on the sole basis of not being found in the “book of life” prior to this great final resurrection. (For those who abuse children or ignore the needs of the poor it is a different story.) Secondly, it is repeated in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter that these walking dead will be judged “according to what they had done”, not according to how well they kept the ritual formula of properly receiving Jesus. One of the main themes of Isaiah 66, referred to above, is how little God thinks of those who attempt to do enough religious rituals to compensate for a crude and selfish lifestyle. The New Testament is not intended then to just provide better rituals to justify continuously abusing others.

These are mostly my own somewhat random deliberations on hell, which isn’t really my area of expertise. The most interesting expert on the subject that I can point to these days is Brad Jersak. Brad’s take on the matter is basically that:
1) The vengeance mentality and the fear tactics used as a revivalist motivation to get people to “come to Christ” which significantly motivate belief in this doctrine are in many respects socially and psychologically unhealthy.
2) The doctrine of hell evolved in the western church in particular well after the time of the Nicean Creed, based on a number of leaders’ personal and political concerns about the motivations of the masses.
3) There are essentially three competing views on the matter that can be equally well “proof-texted” from the Bible:
a) infernalism, the eternal torment for unbelievers theory;
b) annihilationism, believing that those outside the scope of God’s love eventually fade away and are no more; and
c) universalism, believing that eventually everyone will inevitably “love big brother” enough to be welcomed into heaven. Finally,
4) God probably doesn’t want us to be too sure about what sort of justice follows this life, leaving the subject broadly open because it is healthiest for us to have some balance of a bit of the fear of God for ourselves and a strong awareness of God’s mercy for everyone else.

I would broadly agree with each of these main points. (If you need them further unpacked I’d recommend surfing around Brad’s web site for a bit, or maybe even buying his book on the subject.) In other words even the best of theological experts are best off agreeing with Mrs. Zierman and other less theologically informed believers in saying, “I really don’t know.” Those who pretend to know for sure are often the most dangerous people to listen to on the subject.

From there we can move on to trying to motivate people less with threats of divine violence and more with not just promises but offers of God’s love starting here and now. Even if some churches find that they are able to boost their statistics by tossing in the occasional (or not so occasional) hell-fire message, on many levels I believe that such an emphasis does infinitely more harm than good.

So that’s about all I know about that. If some find this theoretically helpful, so much the better. If some feel more justified in condemning me to whatever sort of hell they believe in on the basis of what I have to say here, they’re welcome to go for it. Being detached from people like Gohmert and the gods they make in their own image for all eternity is actually a form of punishment I think I can handle. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d prefer it.

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The Best Politicians Money Can Buy

In keeping an eye out for the Hobby Lobby decision coming down, I’ve been watching the news regarding the US Supreme Court  this week, so of course I noticed with great consternation the decision that they handed down on the McCutcheon case: On a strict party line vote (I dare you to claim there was nothing political about that!”) the “conservative” justices have taken yet another step towards undermining the democratic process in the US by removing limits on how much the rich can spend on buying politicians.

surpreme-courtYet even so, the reason this bothers me is not because it represents some radical new problem for American politics, but rather because it further manifests the symptoms of the disease which has affected the US political process for some time, which has expanded exponentially in the time that I’ve been an expat: There is an ever growing perception there that the proper way of deciding political contests is by seeing which side can get donors to chuck the most cash at them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I do get a fair amount of regular information about this matter: By signing various on-line petitions against some of the more gross injustices and political absurdities I’ve seen and heard about over the years, I’ve somehow ended up on a couple of candidates’ fund-raising mailing lists. In some ways I don’t mind; deleting these posts takes relatively little of my time, and meanwhile the titles on these mailings make for an interesting barometer of the political climate in the States. But as a matter of principle, even if I had the money I would not donate to them. I believe that if Americans are too stupid to see through the “bath salt” (regular readers know what I mean by this expression) of political advertising –– if they are not capable of making informed decisions in their own best interest without letting political image consultants, professional spin doctors and media barrages make up their minds for them –– it won’t help for me to toss money at the problem to try to counter-balance what the oil companies and arms merchants are contributing to the other side.

This goes with something I try to remember to practice as a teacher: Even though I’m quite physically capable of screaming to make my voice heard over those of literally hundreds of rambunctious teenagers when necessary, tempting as it is to use that ability to quiet down the classroom at times, I know that in the long run it is counter-productive. There is really nothing to be gained by having a continuous acoustic arms race with my students. The best hope for maintaining a productive learning atmosphere is for me –– through some combination of humor, human interest and rational argument –– to convince them that what I have to say worth listening to, and that there is a certain value in ordered discussions in which we show respect to each other by taking turns talking. If they can’t get those ideas into their heads then shouting them down doesn’t really do much good.

unruly_classroomThe analogous political situation in the US has long since become a hopeless screaming contest in this regard. This week the Supreme Court further ratcheted up the volume with all of the justices there who were appointed by Republican presidents voting to remove limits on how much advertising billionaires can buy unlimited for their candidates of their choice. This is quite directly intended to increase the political power of interests which are working to make more and more of America’s public water supplies undrinkable, destroy forests, increase cancer risks, equip more people with hardware enabling them to kill each other, prevent corporations from being held responsible for injuries and deaths caused by the defective products they’ve been producing, prevent consumers from finding out about the “efficiency boosting means” which have been utilized in producing the food that they eat  , and to prevent basic nutrition, health care and education from being recognized as human rights. But that can only work if Americans continue to let political advertising make up their minds for them and cause them to vote against these most basic interests of their society. As long as political advertisers are capable of “convincing turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving”, and American voters show less enlightened self-interest than the poultry species in question, I seriously doubt that the situation can be improved by lower income people like myself contributing to further increases in political advertising!

Turkey_3Yes, I realize that “if everyone were to think like me” on this one it would lead to a situation where the only message that the “turkeys” will hear is that of what a privilege it is for them to be part of the Thanksgiving celebrations. The psychopath billionaires could declare automatic victory within the status quo political system, blackmail candidates to support the agendas they dictate or be locked out of the corridors of power, and in the process increase their power do whatever they want with their workers, and with the lands and seas from which they extract their raw materials and into which they dump their refuse. My point here, however, is that unless people develop a basic understanding of who is pulling their elected leaders’ strings, and until they cease to let paid-for media propaganda make up their minds for them against their own basic interests, limiting the amount of political propaganda they are exposed to from one side or the other –– or trying to “balance this out” by further increasing the propaganda volume “the good side” –– will remain either useless or counter-productive.

Sadly it comes down to this: if the American people really don’t want to come together as a society and work together to make things better for everyone –– if a sense of solidarity and a neighborly ethic of “having each other’s backs,” regardless of differences in race, religion, ancestral origin and social class really don’t have any place in their thinking –– then there’s no point in trying to convince them to vote for officials who would insist on sensible government programs for things like protecting their basic drinking water and making sure children don’t suffer from malnutrition. Recent history has taught me never to underestimate the sheer stupidity of large sectors of the American electorate in such regards, but that’s not a problem that can be solved through campaign finance reform or increased political spending in favor of “sensible” candidates.

1999_Mijail-Gorbachov-There is relatively faint hope of halting the process of cultural decline that this is causing in the United States. Sooner or later, unless the “Muricans” suddenly become far more capable of thinking for themselves in defiance of what the best financed PACs tell them to vote for, the US will inevitably go the way of their Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union: the level of environmentally careless industrialization and military spending being carried out at the expense of the basic well-being of the population will become intolerable, leading to calls for “Glasnost” (greater political transparency), inevitably followed by “Perestroika” (the re-structuring of key bureaucracies), after which they whole oppressive house of cards comes tumbling down. So what remains to be seen really is how much worse things have to get before a critical mass of American people start to stand up for the principle of Glasnost against super-PAC action.

Thus rather than pinning my political hopes for my homeland to a process of economic competition for propaganda dominance, I will continue here in my own Quixotic ways using whatever networking tools are freely at my disposal to try and convince people around the world, and citizens of the US in particular, of some very basic political principles:

1)      Democracy cannot work without a strong public education system, particularly in social sciences and humanities subjects. If the people who choose their nation’s leaders are not aware of the issues at stake when they make such decisions, or if they leave these decisions to be made by those who have even less understanding and/or moral conscience than they do, societal decay is more or less inevitable. The best hope of preventing this is for society to make a significant investment in training all members of future generations to play an active role in the political process.

2)      The extent to which people are working together to build a better future for all concerned is not reliably measurable by GDP statistics. Economic growth for its own sake is an unsustainable policy direction and a futile rallying cry. Far more relevant statistics for measuring the health of a society are those regarding infant mortality, violent crime, school drop-out rates, imprisonment, chronic illnesses and other factors reducing people’s active life expectancies. If you want to look at the positive side of what we need to do the indicators actually become more difficult to statistically measure: mutual respect between neighbors, quality of life for young people, available means of contributing to each other’s well-being (with employment being the most tradition and problematic measure of this), and freedom to pursue constructive personal goals. “Productivity” is at best an imperfect means of achieving these more important human goals, not an end unto itself. This is too often forgotten by competitors on both sides.

3)      The greatest risks for humanity as a whole involve competitive polarization in society choking out cooperation and compassion. When we stop thinking of others as fellow human beings worthy of our care and respect as such, and when we start accepting excuses for allowing other people to be treated as disposable commodities or morally inferior opponents in the struggle to survive, it’s not only these others that we put at risk. The alienation of the super-rich from those whose work makes their fortunes possible, and the self-alienation of religious and ideological extremists from anyone who doesn’t accept their dogmas or live up to their moral requirements constitute the greatest threats to humanity in this regard.

4)      The fact that the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle are “dirty” does not excuse total passivity in the political process, or voting for those who advance the interests of wealthy sociopaths and others seeking to further polarize society. One essential moral responsibility that all citizens of (even theoretically) democratic nations have is to use their voting rights responsibly. If you haven’t figured out how to do that in a way that expresses implied respect for the rights and needs of all members of society, you are part of the essential problem in your nation’s system of government. Fix that about yourself!

It’s probably best to leave this week’s rant at that. Of course I’ll be accused of America bashing again here by some, but I can live with that. Let me just say that the more evidence I see of people in the US respecting themselves and each other in the political process, the greater my respect will be for the national culture there as a whole. As long as the ignorance and gullibility of the population there at large facilitates a court-approved, multi-billion dollar industry in the buying and selling of politicians however, my respect for the intelligence and integrity of my countrymen as a whole will remain rather limited.

You don’t like it? Take an active role in fixing it!

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A Theological Alternative to the Creationist Dogma

I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.

It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.

As a theist I'm the first to admit, the slogan "God's way" has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

As a theist I’m the first to admit, the slogan “God’s way” has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.

Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.

Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.

In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.

Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.

239335To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.

The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.

Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things.  We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.

Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.

The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context.  Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)

In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.

Ham's slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

Ham’s slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.

Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.

When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)

I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.

If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…

Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering...

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering…

Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)

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“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!

 

 

 

 

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‘Cause I Know I Don’t Belong…

This week I got a link from Eric Clapton’s Facebook page to the video of his most recent rendition of Tears in Heaven. That sent me on a minor binge of listening to some of his classics on line and from my old CD collection.

ClaptonColorDannyClinch

It doesn’t take much actually –– just a reminder, some free time and a temporarily working web connection. I’ve been a Clapton fan for as long as I’ve been able to independently define for myself what sort of music I like. The back cover blurb for the philosophy textbook I wrote has a brief list of facts that, in my experience, pretty much all high school students I’ve ever taught would agree with me on:
–         The world is round.
–         This shirt is red.
–         My mother loves me.
–         Clapton rules!
–         Mosquitoes suck!

But in posting the link to my own Facebook page I made what might strike some as a pretty radical and superficial comment: I find Tears in Heaven to be “probably the most beautiful and sincere original Gospel song of the past generation.”

What? An aging old rocker/bluesman who has done more to promote souls being sold to the devil than any other musician still recording today gets to have his music labeled as “Gospel” just because he uses a Christian afterlife motif in mourning the loss of his son?! Yes and no. Yes, he does get to be included among Gospel artists regardless of his history. No, it is not the passing references to heaven which make this a Gospel song. Time to unpack.

What makes Tears in Heaven Gospel for me is that it is a song about grief, searching for the essence of personal identity, discovering unworthiness, accepting redemption and choosing to move forward with a new openness to life on the basis of finding the grace of acceptance in spite of continuing grief and awareness of unworthiness. Those elements are what the Christian Gospel, in its most basic terms, is really all about. Let me unpack that a bit further still.

Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same…

Beyond the incredible hurt of having lost someone who had given his life profound new meaning –– his first son, Conor –– Eric is asking if souls beyond bodies are capable of recognizing each other. That’s not an easy question to answer with certainty, no matter what sort of basis one is working from. The hope that those who have passed on are not relationally lost to us for ever is certainly one of the reasons people in every part of the world are so prone to be religious. But beyond that there is the question of, in the areas where it most matters, what is one’s fame and reputation really worth?

Or as Jesus put it, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  (Matt. 16:26)

Building name recognition in terms of our personal “branding” processes is one of the most important aspects of human ambition, regardless of one’s area of specialty. Recognizing the importance of that, I find it deeply embarrassing when I am unable to remember former students’ names when I meet them in public, and I in an odd way I find it somehow comforting when other old acquaintances get my name mixed up as well. Shakespeare implied within his plays that this sort of reputation building is the closest thing to eternal life we as humans can really hope for. Among other places we see this in the words he put into the mouth of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt:

…Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d
;

But more than whether or not his fame will last, what Eric really wants to know is if he would continue to be significant to the one he loves –– if love, parental love in this case, can survive the tragedy of death. Can love really be as strong as death, as the Bible says (S of S 8:6)? That, more than his professional reputation, could provide a means of not loosing his own soul as such. And with this realization comes the awareness that he cannot acquire this lasting connection of love on his own merits:

Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven? Would you help me stand…

Grace is all about coming together with those who don’t deserve acceptance, and being accepted even when we don’t deserve it. Eric was painfully aware of his slow learning curve in adjusting to being a father. He is asking not only for his son’s acceptance but his son’s help in being able to stand. For someone who had a history of substance abuse in various forms as a way of dealing with deep personal sadness, being able to stand after a tragedy like the death of a pre-school aged child is not a foregone conclusion. One cannot buy this sort of strength on the basis of one’s other merits. It can only be found through reaching out for acceptance from a point of vulnerability.

This acceptance of those in need, regardless of how powerful or powerless, how ceremonially clean or ceremonially unacceptable they happened to be, really is core to the message of Jesus. When those in need came to him, be it the powerful Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) or the shy woman with bleeding problems (Luke 8:43-48), the synagogue supervisor (Mark 5:22-24) or the prostitute (Luke 7:36-39), for whatever reason, he took their hands and helped them to stand. Being able to make that sort of undeserved connection and being “made whole” by it is the gift Jesus came to give us.

I must be strong, and carry on, ‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.

This lyric really sums up the whole experience of redemption then. A sense of connection has been found which provides a perspective of being “here in heaven”. Heaven, more than anything else, is the state of knowing that love has given us a secure identity and existential foundation for the rest of what we hope to do or become. This isn’t something we get on credit to pay back later, nor is it something that we can claim to have earned in advance. We are forgiven for our flaws and accepted for who we are, and in spite of our on-going weaknesses making us aware that we “don’t belong,” heaven begins to open up to us as an experience. This in turn invites the proper response of wanting to “be strong and carry on” through the on-going sadness that life involves. It makes us want to be better people and gives us the strength to become better people. This isn’t the full extent of our hope as Christians, but it is our fundamental starting point.

Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure…

What lies beyond this life is something we cannot explore in any scientific way, other than to see how it relates to the forms of “heaven” we reach in this life. We hope to escape from the ways in which “time can break you down” without losing the peace of being connected through love with important powers beyond ourselves. There are good reasons to be humble about how certain our knowledge about such things is, but there’s really no good reason not to believe in and hope for a state of timeless connection with all our tears dried once we get “beyond the door”.

conor clapton grave

The one thing that Tears in Heaven does not do is to promote a particular brand of Christian or any other metaphysical belief as such. It doesn’t give any magic words or creedal formulas for reaching heaven. It doesn’t automatically lend itself to particular churches borrowing it as part of their organizational marketing campaigns the way most gospel music throughout history has. I find that to be an integral part of the song’s beauty actually. If the above message can be presented in a way that doesn’t depend on such formulas, so much the better. If this leaves some people feeling uneasy about the ambiguity of the message, I can only hope that the uneasiness causes them to dig deeper into their own understandings of love and redemption and heaven.

Since the death of his son Clapton has embraced sobriety and fatherhood as deeply meaningful elements of his life and lifestyle. I can respect that as much as I can the music itself. I’m still not going to pretend to have the right to claim him as a kindred soul or anything, but I can say that clearly the message of redemption in this way has been real for him. I add my voice to the millions who both sympathize with his loss and appreciate where the experience has brought him, both as an artist and as a person. So I repeat my starting assertion: I believe Tears in Heaven really is the most beautiful and sincere original Gospel song of the past generation. And as a father prone to grieve about the state of my own fatherhood at times, I fully join him in appreciating what forms of heaven I am able to find in these relationships in spite of myself. I hope others find the same in their own journeys.

Let us pray.

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95 Theses for Evangelical Churches of the 21st Century

Thinking about the meaning of Halloween, there is the playfully superstitious side of things, and then there is the historical factor: It was on this day, in 1517, that a particular German monk got terminally ticked off with the corruption he saw within the institutional church, and thus perhaps inadvertently started the Protestant Reformation. Luther has a mixed record historically as a moral and spiritual leader. The one thing that he can be given unqualified credit for, however, is seeing corruption and having the courage to speak out.

luther_wittenberg_1517-21

Though my own moral record is far from spotless, and some might anathematize me on this basis, I too see some major problems and disgusting forms of corruption in the church of my age –– in the evangelical Protestant tradition in which I was raised in particular. So in honor of Luther’s historical courage, I will hereby follow his historic example on this day. I claim no great originality in doing so, and for me this requires nowhere near the same level of courage as it did for Luther, but I believe challenging others to consider the essential message of Jesus and the Gospel is as worthy a way to celebrate this Holiday as any this year.

So think of this site as my cathedral door: Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed here under the supervision of yours truly. Those who are unable to debate orally with us may do so by letter.

In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.

  1. The essence of Christian life and identity is not to be determined by whom we hate, but how we love.
  2. Our Lord defined the essence of the law he came to fulfill as being to love God completely and to unreservedly love our neighbor (the Twin Commandment of Love).
  3. Our Lord also made it clear that our neighbor is not to be designated in ethnic, geographical or religious terms.
  4. As “a friend of publicans and sinners,” Jesus had a further reputation for not basing a person’s worthiness of love on sexual purity or social respectability.
  5. Those who construe the Gospel to be primarily a message of ethnic, cultural or moralistic control and border-setting thus miss its most fundamental point.
  6. Loving God with one’s whole being is not demonstrated by outstanding morality so much as by moral humility.
  7. Moral humility is demonstrated through a recognition of the gap in moral worthiness between each of us and God as being infinitely greater than that between the best of humans and the worst of humans.
  8. To love God with all one’s being is therefor to see no other person as being personally repulsive to us. This is the high standard to which Christians are called to strive towards attaining.
  9. Sexual sin as a preoccupation of the church is entirely alien to the message of Jesus.
  10. As Jesus stated that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” this same principle should be applied to all aspects of Christian moral teaching.
  11. Jesus did not reject the Mosaic Law –– which prohibited all forms of sexual expression that could not lead to legitimate procreation (prostitution, adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, intercourse during menstruation, etc.) –– but he rather expanded it to include prohibiting any form of sexual objectification of women: “I tell you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully…”
  12. By expanding on the essence of the Mosaic Law, Jesus demonstrated to his hearers that preaching moralistic sexual restraint was a lost cause, because none could honestly claim to live up to an ideal of having no forbidden desires.
  13. Beyond demonstrating the need for moral humility, Jesus’ teachings on sexuality emphasize the importance of not using other people as disposable means of physical or material gratification.
  14. While heterosexual monogamy is strongly recommendable as a means of naturally enabling procreation and socialization of children born as the result of such a union, this is not an exclusively sanctioned norm within the Bible.
  15. The ideal of lifelong committed romantic love between a man and a woman is worth aspiring to and socially supporting as a norm for child raising (in other words it should be the norm for a child to be raised by his/her own biological parents, who remain partners, at least in that task, whenever possible), but should not be used as a basis for punishing those who are unable to conform to such a standard.
  16. Seeking to control a person’s entire life by seeking to control her or his sexuality does not conform to the essence of the message of Jesus.
  17. Early and medieval church teaching on sexuality was based on the premise that the basic form or soul of the child was contained entirely within the father’s sperm. Genetic research has since proven this to be untrue.
  18. Knowing now that the “pattern” for the infant is established at the moment of conception rather than at the moment of ejaculation does not provide us with any greater certainty than the medieval church had as to when the embryo or fetus obtains an “eternal soul”.
  19. The absence of any absolutely definitive transition points within the course of pregnancy from “non-ensouled” to “ensouled” does not prove that a soul must be present from the moment of conception.
  20. In pouring a drink into a glass there are no definitive transition points between the wetting of the bottom of the glass and an acceptably full portion having been rendered. Yet at some undetermined point before the liquid stops flowing into the glass we could already say, “The drink has now been poured.” This does not prove that the drink was already poured when the bottom of the glass first became wet.
  21. While the moral uncertainty regarding when a fetus should be given human rights should give pause to those contemplating abortion, our Christian duty to love our neighbors should be particularly focused on loving those who already draw breath (the original basis for the idea of a soul in Genesis 2:7).
  22. There is a special absurdity to the political action of those who work harder to protect fetuses than to protect children suffering from malnutrition and inadequate medical attention.
  23. This absurdity is quite apparently related to the desire to have greater control over the perspective mother’s sexuality as a goal unto itself.
  24. All women and all men are worthy of being loved and cared about as having precious souls. Respect for this principle must be the basis for all Christian ethics, especially sexual ethics.
  25. The priority of sexual ethics, beyond providing the strongest possibilities we can for children to be adequately raised by their biological parents, should be to discourage or prevent people from using others as disposable means of sensual gratification.
  26. Under no circumstances should it be socially acceptable to use the bodies of those who are unwilling, or unable to express willingness, for sexual gratification (the most basic definition of rape). This moral standard goes beyond those given in sacred texts, but it should nevertheless remain as a binding principle for all believing Christians.
  27. For the good of all children raised in our societies, both men and women should be respected and treated with dignity both as workers outside of the home and as nurturers within the home. Neither sex’s dignity nor value should be belittled or denied in either context.
  28. Provisions for the care of fatherless children should be of far greater concern to Christians than the matter of how they became fatherless to begin with.
  29. Especially in the all too common situation where a child cannot be raised by his/her biological parents, one’s value as a nurturer should not be determined on the basis of one’s sexuality, or lack thereof.
  30. To prevent fatherlessness happening to children in our societies, our first step should be to ensure that poor workers are not placed in the hopeless position of not being able to safely and adequately provide for their children no matter how hard they work.
  31. Promoting regional economic growth at the expense of just treatment of laborers does infinitely more damage to family stability than uncontrolled sexual immorality does.
  32. Thus, rather than focusing on condemning the behavior of those whose sexuality is outside of ecclesiastical control, to be faithful to the message of Jesus churches should be condemning those who fail to pay their workers a livable wage, or who support businesses which do so.
  33. When the apostle said not to “love the world” he was speaking of not accepting moral compromises for purposes of social or economic advancement. In that respect his exhortation remains more relevant than ever.
  34. Nowhere in Jesus’ teachings is the pursuit of wealth idealized or justified, particularly when it is obtained at the expense of meeting the basic needs of the poor.
  35. To the extent that Jesus’ followers were participants in systems of government, he instructed them to make justice for the poor the priority of their work.
  36. Thus any participation in government which provides dishonest advantages to the rich and refuses to tax the rich adequately to meet the basic needs of the poor is a direct violation of Jesus’ teachings on civil matters.
  37. Christian humility is not about accepting a condition of de facto slavery for yourself and your peers, but about rejecting the ambition of rising to the position of slave master yourself someday.
  38. The additional rewards given to those who are most fortunate and who work the hardest in our societies must not extend beyond the point at which those attaining the higher status cease to recognize their shared human condition with those who have the least.
  39. This may require laws which prevent the sort of extreme income disparity which we have today.
  40. It is not “playing God” to develop technologies that prevent people from suffering and dying.
  41. It is “playing God” to insist that only those who obey our commands can have access to means of preventing suffering and early death for themselves and their children.
  42. Like rape, enslaving others and slave trading are practices not directly forbidden in the scriptures, but which Christians must recognize as violating the basic underlying principles of Jesus’ teachings.
  43. Limiting the amount of stress placed on those who earn their living by manual or semi-skilled labor, and restricting the number of hours of labor required of them to earn enough to meet the laborer’s and his/her family’s basic needs, is part of the meaning of preventing slavery.
  44. Means of keeping oneself and one’s family alive, which are not in short supply within the society, should be considered as basic rights for all, especially if we consider the lives of others as sacred on account of their being formed in the image of God.
  45. This maintenance of life for all members of society should include access to nutritious food and to regular maintenance health care, not only emergency services.
  46. Restricting access to means of maintaining life out of greed to obtain higher profits through the sale of such means effectively amounts to murder, and it is a disgrace for Christians to condone such practices.
  47. Preventing theft and the spread of contagious diseases were considered valid grounds for border protection in biblical times; preventing an influx of cheap labor was not.
  48. Allowing the price of labor to be set strictly according to principles of supply and demand, without considering the importance of the laborer as a fellow human being who is entitled to certain rights as such, is a gross violation of the Twin Commandment of Love.
  49. Though the commandment not to kill (generally considered the sixth) has been traditionally granted certain exceptions, a generalized fear of the other person’s skin color or ethnic origin is not an acceptable excuse for killing him.
  50. Having a right to keep oneself equipped to kill those one considers to be a threat to one’s lifestyle (which Americans refer to as the Second Amendment) is not a principle of Christian teaching; quite the opposite.
  51. As we advance technologies beyond what the apostles, prophets and church fathers could have imagined, we are responsible to find ways of regulating these technologies so that neither their intended nor their unintended consequences harm people in ways that are contrary to the spirit of the teachings of the Gospel.
  52. Technology which serves to enslave people by restricting their access to necessities of life if they do not pay tribute to given authorities must therefore not be permitted.
  53. The process of justifying genocides, mass enslavement, monopolization of vital natural resources, and destruction of living environments in the name of promoting Christianity or “Christian nations” has been a historical disgrace to our faith, and is something which all true believers must fight against in the current generation.
  54. For Christians to offer collective restitution to (the descendants of) those who have been exploited and abused in the name of our faith is “fruit worthy of repentance.”
  55. For Christians to assist the Jews and the people of Israel in establishing a secure life for themselves can be seen as an act of making just restitution.
  56. Supporting the state of Israel should not, however, be seen as a means of bringing about Christ’s Second Coming.
  57. It is not Christians’ moral responsibility to try to bring about what they see as future predictions made in the Bible.
  58. This is particularly true regarding their expectations of the end of the world and a final climactic battle for all of humanity over the Middle East.
  59. Furthermore, in strictly genetic terms there is no reason to believe that contemporary Israelites are any more the “seed of Abraham” than the Palestinians, the Jordanians or any of the other traditional peoples of that land.
  60. Abraham was said to be a pretty potent guy in his old age, and over the millennia all of these populations have become genetically mixed to a considerable extent.
  61. Supporting the abuse of and ignoring the basic human rights of those being pushed aside by the on-going expansion of the state of Israel falls well outside of Christians’ moral duty as believers.
  62. History is littered with movements initiated by crazy people who started various sorts of fights or projects believing that Jesus would come and finish them for them. He didn’t.
  63. Reading the book of Revelation as “a future history lesson for our times” is one of the worst forms of hermeneutical abuse that the scriptures have ever been put to.
  64. Recognizing the abuse that the Roman emperors heaped on the early church, and the hopes that this persecuted church held to in order to endure such persecution, should be the starting point for the study of biblical eschatology.
  65. Preventing ourselves from becoming complicit in the same sort of abuses that the Roman Empire heaped on the early church should be our first moral and political priority when looking at apocalyptic literature.
  66. Believing in the return of Jesus does not justify failures to act responsibly in terms of preserving the life and blessings God has given us.
  67. Claiming that one particular political leader or another is “The Anti-Christ” based on speculation regarding “coded messages in the Bible” and hype generated by lying hate-mongers does a gross disservice to the Gospel.
  68. This is especially the case when the political leader in question is a professing Christian, working sincerely to promote a culture of respect for the Christian principle of loving one’s neighbor.
  69. The sincerity of a person’s faith, or lack thereof, cannot be determined by artificially assigning numerical values to the letters in his name.
  70. Nor can the sincerity of a person’s faith be judged by the religious background of either of his parents.
  71. Nor can the sincerity of a person’s faith be judged on the basis of what abstract categories of people he refuses to hate.
  72. The ultimate test of a person’s faith must be left up to God, the only true judge.
  73. The provisional, earthly understanding of who is a sincere believer and who is a hypocrite should be based on “the fruits of the spirit”, the first of which is a manifestation of love based on God’s compassion for all mankind.
  74. Pluralistic representative democracy, with universal suffrage regardless of sex, religion or status within the social hierarchy, is a relatively new form of government, not anticipated in the writings of the Bible or any other religious text more than 500 years old.
  75. Rather than taking this new democratic condition as a threat, believing Christians should be embracing this structure as an opportunity to return to the roots of their faith.
  76. One of the primary differences between Christianity and the related monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam is that Christianity has no built-in norm of its believers being in political control of the societies in which they live.
  77. Having a secure position within society without being connected with the authority structures of the empire was the primary political goal of the writers of the New Testament.
  78. Traditions of interaction between empires officially sanctioned by the church and churches officially sanctioned by the empire are the basis of much of modern Western culture, but this is has been based very loosely on the teachings of Jesus, if at all.
  79. It is the acceptance of, and accommodation to, the political power of the Roman Empire (and subsequent empires) which the book of Revelation was warning the church against.
  80. Lust for political power, in this sense, represents the greatest threat to the original essence of Christianity. (Luther himself was too close to the medieval tradition to see this.)
  81. Thus the current international norm of secular, pluralistic democracy, not based on any official connection between religious and political powers, pioneered in the modern era by the United States, while breaking with long established European tradition, is in many ways idea for enabling Christianity to break free of these chains.
  82. Thus rather than fighting against the secularization of the state and the social diversity this allows for, Christians should be embracing this opportunity to draw closer to the roots of their faith.
  83. Efforts by Christian groups to reserve the right to sanction the legitimacy of governments and to be sanctioned as legitimate by governments run counter to this purpose.
  84. To say that Christian ethical standards take precedence over national laws is only true in those cases where the laws in question are intended to prevent us from loving our neighbors as ourselves.
  85. As a fundamental aspect of the Twin Commandment, the rejection of slavery and the maintenance of functional democracies, all young people should be given an education adequate for enabling independent thought and active participation in the processes of government.
  86. As a matter of ensuring the freedom of all, such education must be publicly provided, without disadvantage to the poor in terms of enabling independent thought and active participation.
  87. As a function of enabling the maintenance of pluralistic democratic societies (as the most promising environment in which Christians can strive to follow the teachings of Jesus), schools should not be used as means of reinforcing our identity in faith.
  88. As a matter of instilling the broadest sense of neighbor-hood possible, so as to optimally equip young people to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, schools should not become segregated on the basis of religion, class, gender or perceived race.
  89. The failure of Christians to pursue these goals within their school systems, particularly in the United States, has been a disgrace to the cause of promoting the Gospel.
  90. Jesus’ greatest moral outrage was over the dishonest use of religious observances as a source of material gain, reflected especially in his cleansing of the temple.
  91. The acquisition of wealth and political power for their own sake, using the “Christian brand” as a means in the process, is the most painful on-going example of everything Jesus rejected in his teaching.
  92. “Mega-churches” can have moral legitimacy only in so far as they use their acquired wealth and power to meet the needs of those Jesus referred to as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”
  93. If the leaders of the “Tea Party” and other organizations of the “Religious Right” were truly interested in following the teachings of Jesus they would start by ceasing to work to free the rich of the burden of helping to care for the poor.
  94. We must remember that, not being gods ourselves, the only moral requirements we are justified in placing on those who do not share our faith are those needed to protect the innocent from suffering within this (mutually acknowledged) lifetime.
  95. We must remember that the only evidence we have to offer to non-believers of the legitimacy of our faith is the extent to which it enables us to be compassionate to those outside of our own tribes.

I’m perfectly willing to change my mind on any of these… as long as someone can provide me with good reason why I should. But like my man Marty says,

luther1(1)

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In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.

 

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Autumn Flowers

Apologies, to anyone who might have noticed and been disappointed about it, for not posting anything last week. I have been working on a more ambitiously contemplative piece on “othering” while at the same time attempting to get some “real academic work” done, so I didn’t end up getting anything finished enough to publish here. I’ll be putting that essay up when I’m satisfied with it, Meanwhile I thought I’d put up a quick random stream of consciousness piece about my afternoon walk in the autumn air today.

Autumn flowers 006I went to the morning mass at my local Lutheran church this morning, which I don’t actually do that often. It’s a quiet local parish with a pretty, relatively modern chapel less than five minutes from my house by bicycle. This morning I just happened to wake up at an hour where it was easy enough to get there, and I just decided that I’d like to go to a Eucharistic worship service today, so I got on my bicycle and went.

I actually got there about 5 minutes late, and was surprised to see an old lady outside the church selling long-stemmed roses from white plastic buckets in front of the door. Inside the chapel was surprisingly full for a regular autumn Sunday morning, and soon I realized that the reason was a confirmation celebration for 20 of the local young people. It’s a bit late in the season for those, but why not.

This made the ritual significantly different from the normal routine. It would be longer than usual, and more oriented towards providing a rite of passage for the families in question than a worship experience for outsiders like myself. I slipped into the back and settled in to observe and marginally take part anyway. There were a number of neo-cliché efforts at being hip with Finnish church camp style worship choruses accompanied by violin, guitar, piano and drums. There was a much larger than usual delegation of families with young children, who were just familiar enough with the setting to be bored by it. And besides those being confirmed there were a number of other teenagers present trying to be both ceremonially formal and “edgy” in their own way.  Two rows in front of me there was a teenage couple consisting of a boy in a formal black blazer with a hot pink shirt underneath, accompanied by his heavily made-up girlfriend, who looked like she got a lot more sun than he did, and who kept adjusting her short, strapless cream colored dress to keep it in the tiny strategic area where it would not entirely expose either her top cleavage or her bottom cleavage. Every now and again she would turn to talk to her boyfriend, showing her conspicuous false eyelashes to the back rows. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that show for me was to find myself viewing it with something resembling Buddhist detachment.

The epistle reading was one of the portions where Paul talks about circumcision not being that important. The decidedly un-hip female priest who gave the sermon didn’t seem to notice that she wasn’t speaking into the pulpit microphone, so it was rather hard to hear her over the restless children in the back third of the chapel, but I don’t think I missed much. She was trying to provide some basic life lessons for teenagers who are rather unlikely to darken a church door again within the next few years. There was one part about the dangers of excessive computer gaming; the rest pretty much went past me. No one was there to hear an inspirational sermon anyway. Most were just there to celebrate these young people, none of whom I happened to know this time, officially becoming adults in the eyes of the church. And other than the acne scars on most of the boys, they did actually look quite adult already.

Autumn flowers 007I didn’t bother to stay for the “third sacrament” –– church coffee hour. Instead I headed home to try to get some writing done, but I was struck by a few beautiful images along the way, so I took a walk around with my camera before settling into my little home work station.

Autumn flowers 022Autumn has definitely arrived. The birches and maples still have some green leaves, but they’ve also lost quite a few of their yellow and orange ones already. Most of the bushes on the sides of the road and along the paths through the woods are in one way or another making their last ditch efforts to get their seeds into places where they’ll have reasonably good chances of forming new plants in the spring. The aronia bushes are bent over with the weight of their fruit that no one other than me seems to have a use for, begging for birds to come and gorge themselves on the berries so their seeds can be shat out into new growth frontiers for the plant. The fireweed stalks, meanwhile, have gone entirely greyish brown, having blown out the last of their wind-born seeds weeks ago. Rose hips are starting to shrivel and drop to the ground, with their seeds ready to endure being deep frozen close to the mother bush. We haven’t had any frosts yet, but all around there is this glorious swan song of nature starting to shut down for the year.

Autumn flowers 016But in wandering around capturing this sort of visual magic I noticed something out of place: Some plants seem not to have gotten the message that it’s time to shut down. Some wild rose hedges are still trying to flower, and among the falling leaves there are still pink and white flowers trying to lure in bees to help them pollinate. I feel like telling them, “You’re running a bit late, aren’t you?” But they seemingly reply, “Hey, why not? We’ve still got the energy, the bees can use the late season nectar, and we gave you a smile, didn’t we? Besides, who knows; we might still get an extra seed or two out of this process.” To that all I can say is, “Respect!”

Autumn flowers 027Maybe that is also what was happening in the church this morning. There are plenty of indications that the season for growth in that sort of traditional church is pretty much over, and that these young people are no longer particularly interested in the beliefs behind the traditional rituals, and the rituals themselves are fading in importance. Yet there they go, attempting in this late season to somehow blossom – to put on the sort of display that would make you think they think it’s spring. Well… why not?

Autumn flowers 034I’m not sure how far this analogy applies to my personal life, as I move beyond the age where I would seriously consider fathering more children yet continue to search for what satisfactions I can find in single life. How much effort should I put into “blossoming” at this point? Should I just realistically accept that it’s no longer spring for me and avoid looking like a fool in pretending otherwise? Yet on the other hand, what else should I do with my remaining energy in life than to continue trying to find ways of somehow being beautiful and hopeful, albeit in more subtle ways as my autumn deepens?  Something for me to keep contemplating.

Autumn flowers 039Just some random thoughts on a partially cloudy September Sunday afternoon. Take them for what their worth. Enjoy the accompanying pictures. And beyond that I guess I would say, dare to be beautiful, even if you can’t really expect to get much in return for your efforts and even if you have to break with the expectations of your environment in doing so.

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“Why doan he TALK like a Man?”

One of the factors about my up-bringing that I rarely mention these days –– in part, I admit, out of concern that people might label me a certain way and think of me as less intelligent because of it –– is that in the 1970s I went to a private Christian high school: an abstinence only approach to sex, homophobic to the max, unapologetically creationist, the whole nine yards. I don’t want to go into an evaluation of my socialization into that sort of belief system just now though. I mention it only as necessary context when I say that I had a few outstanding teachers there who found subtle ways of encouraging me and my classmates to think outside of the box which that system created.  One in particular was an English teacher by the name of Charlie Reed who tried to “save our souls,” in a less religious sense of the term, using the writings of Mark Twain. One of the most interesting and memorable parts of these lessons had to do with chapter 14 of Huckleberry Finn.

Due to lesser teachers’ lack of capacity to bring such literature to life for students, this book has frequently been banned in American schools. I have little sympathy for such perspectives. Sure, there’s a certain amount of risk involved in considering the slave-holding society of the 19th century south –– including their use of the word “nigger” –– in such a sympathetic way, but the greater danger is in ignoring that era and its effects in terms of on-going problems in social dynamics in the United States and the post-colonial world elsewhere, or failing to consider the humanity of all those involved. In his masterpiece here, Sam Clemens / Mark Twain tells a particularly exciting and funny story which opens a window into the diverse mentalities of those living along the Mississippi, with all their profound virtues and vices clearly on display. Thus anyone who would use passages like the closing line of chapter 14, “you can’t learn a nigger to argue,” as a racist joke is either showing their own incredibly blatant stupidity or reflecting the gross incompetence of their teachers in terms of introducing literary context.

This chapter came to mind for me last week, as I sat through some less than thoroughly stimulating lectures on the question of the connections between language learning and culture learning. It occurred to me that these professors could learn a lot if they would start reading Mark Twain rather than European Union directives on these matters. The problem, I suspect, is that they’ve never learned the former language. Twain was a pioneer in the art of writing so as to capture the subtle nuances of the heavy dialects spoken by former slaves, which makes his writing particularly difficult to grasp for those who have never heard such speech. Professors such as Mike Byram who have recently declared themselves to be the arbitrators of “intercultural competence,” in turn, write in the largely incomprehensible dialect of European Union directive-writing bureaucrats. I got the impression that, somewhat ironically, those in this particular “chattering class” are rather uncomfortable stepping outside of their mother tongue of Bureaucratese, and they are blissfully unaware of the extent to which teenagers and non-academic working folk find their language far less comprehensible than the dialect writings of Mark Twain.

The lecture series I’ve just completed seemed to have been intended, more than anything else, to provide the equivalent of CLIL –– “Content and Language Integrated Learning” –– in Bureaucratese, for aspiring bureaucrats and for the sort of academics who wish to reach a point in their careers where they no longer have to deal with people. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, very few of us taking the course actually had those particular sorts of ambitions. I actually consider such ambitions to be a particularly pernicious form of social maladjustment, and for those who suffer from such I’m not sure if anything can be done to fix it. I don’t think bureaucracy addicts and anti-social academics can be forced to acknowledge their problems and seek therapy, and I don’t think they can be educated out of it. (Actually believing such problems can be solved by means of theoretical education is part of the problem.)

The best hope I can offer is for them to carefully read and consider the sub-text of Huck’s debate with Jim in this cultural classic. The original is freely available on line, but I suspect that translation will be required. Hence this essay.

Briefly setting the narrative context, Huck, the poor white boy with extremely limited education, who has run away from his foster mother, “the widow,” and Jim, the escaped slave owned by the widow’s sister, have just had a spot of particularly good luck: successfully stealing a boatload of loot from some riverboat thieves, including a small library and a few boxes of particularly good cigars. This in turn led to them having a rather philosophical discussion about the concepts of “nobility” and “cultural difference” in general, setting the stage for much of the conflict which is to follow in the novel.

Their discussion is intriguingly multi-layered in that it involves abstract discussion of exotic “others” that neither of the conversers really knows anything about, the partial deconstruction of power dynamics in both familiar and exotic cultures, and an exploration of assumptions about the communicative implications of what it means to be human. In short it covers the full thematic range which Byram & company have attempted to communicate about.

huck and jimThe discussion begins with the general topic of kings. For Jim the concept of a culture of kingship opens up a whole new range of ideas for contemplation. His previous associations with the word “king” had been limited to the biblical character of Solomon and the cards ranked between queens and aces. There is a brief discussion of the economics of being a king: how much they make in exchange for doing what sort of work. Huck clearly has no reliable data about this target group, but he relishes in the opportunity to step into the role of “expert” based on having read more than Jim about the matter. Yet from the start of the discussion Jim is able to point out inconsistencies and likely errors in Huck’s account. Huck finds this in turns intimidating and frustrating, but he continues to play the “expert” role as far as he can on an improvisational basis. Thus within this passage there’s a powerful implied moral critique regarding how expertise is constructed in academic contexts in general.

Solomon of Huck FinnEventually the discussion comes back around to the assumption that, like Solomon, kings tend to have thousands of wives. Solomon being the only king Jim had ever heard of by name, this premise goes unquestioned. Jim, as the student, follows up on this shared assumption that Solomon at “had about a million wives” with pertinent questions about what that would imply regarding Solomon’s legendary wisdom. Even discounting for all of the factual errors and inter-cultural misunderstandings involved in the dialog, most contemporary theologians would have to admit that Jim has a valid point here: The inevitable domestic friction and the lack of appreciation for individual intimate relationships that would result from polygamy on such an absurd scale certainly call into the question the wisdom of any man who would crave such a lifestyle. Huck, as teacher, argues back against these claims with a somewhat weak appeal to the widow’s authority as a higher academic expert in such matters, but not having been properly socialized into the academic tradition of citing established authorities as a means of proving points, Jim refuses to accept this rebuttal.

He goes on to further argue his point by citing the narrative from 1 Kings chapter 3 –– of Solomon settling the argument between the two women as to whose child the live one was and whose was dead one was by offering to cut the live child in half –– as evidence of Solomon’s hyper-polygamy having numbed him to the human value of children. Here Huck points out, correctly, that Jim has broadly misunderstood the context and intent of the king’s command, but as Huck lacks the intellectual sophistication to explicate the psychology of Solomon’s bluff as a test of maternal affection, he replies with a line that’s actually been tossed at me by a few of my own teachers over the years: “You don’t get the point!” This in turn leads to a bit of a power struggle over the question of who is entitled to determine what “the point is.” Not being able to argue through this impasse, Huck switches topics.

dauphin coat of armsHe picks up on the matter of Louis XVII of France, the son of the king beheaded in the French revolution, who presumably died of disease while being kept imprisoned and in isolation by the revolutionary authorities, about whom there were also some rumors that he had escaped to America. Here Huck’s information is surprisingly accurate, including his reference to this would-be king as “the dolphin,” which is actually the literal meaning of his French title of “Dauphin”. And in fact there was a pretender to this title who was active as a missionary to the Native Americans on the north end of the Mississippi River valley at the time depicted in the novel. Jim in turn found the idea of a young king living on in America both comforting and disturbing. If I translate his concerns about the matter into the sort of English that even bureaucrats might understand, Jim says, “He’ll be rather lonely though. There aren’t any kings here for him to associate with. Nor will he be able to find employment in his own profession. So what might he end up doing?”

Huck answers these concerns by stating that a French noble in the United States stood a reasonably good chance of getting a position in law enforcement, or as a teacher of French as a foreign language. This leads to a particularly interesting comic exchange in which Jim is baffled as to why anyone would want to bother with such a thing. From his perspective the only natural way for humans to communicate would be in some variation or another of English. He might not even have known the name of the language as such, no name being necessary for what he considered to be such a universal aspect of the human experience. There is a particularly funny line where Huck asked Jim what he would think if someone were to say to him, “Parlez-vous français?” Again, translated into what bureaucrats would consider to be a “standard speech,” Jim’s response was, “I wouldn’t think anything; I’d hit him in the head, hard –– as long as he wasn’t white. I wouldn’t let any black man call me that!”

The ensuing debate over whether French is a natural way for humans to communicate with each other has Huck trying to justify the concept of people speaking different languages using an analogy of animals speaking different languages within their respective species. Cats and cows each have their own natural languages which are incomprehensible to us and to those of other species. So just as nature allows for many different languages among various species of animals, it is perfectly natural for nature to allow for many different languages among humans. Jim deconstructs this analogy, however, with the simple question, “Is a Frenchman a man?”  Huck doesn’t actually know any Frenchmen, but based on his reading on the matter he assumes that this would be the case. From there Jim goes on to ask why a Frenchmen don’t talk like men: my title question here.

Comic jabs as Francophiles aside, this portion of Twain’s text invites the reader to explore his/her own prejudices as to what forms of speech and action might be considered “natural” for humans in general. One theoretical approach to this matter, seemingly popular within Bureaucratese culture, states that there are particular proper forms of action and codes of behavior that are properly associated with given linguistic spheres. Humans are inherently flexible as to how they learn to act and communicate, but together with each particular form of communication we as humans develop, there comes a proper set of cultural expectations that should be learned together with the language. Teaching students to be able to switch back and forth between these codes –– to appreciate differences in language, and as part of that, differences in culture –– is intended not only to expand the range of individuals with which the student can communicate, but also to deepen the student’s understanding of and appreciation for her/his own language and culture. Exploring such matters with confidence, while still allowing a privileged position for those who have attained a particular bureaucratic status, is the intent implied in the title of the book I have sitting next to me at the moment (left over as background reading for the lecture series I’ve recently endured): Becoming Interculturally Competent through Education and Training.

The problem, however, comes when “culture” becomes a normative rather than an analytic concept. It is one thing to say that the French tend to be a particular way; it is quite another thing to insist that someone must be a particular way in order to qualify as Frenchman, or as a participant in French culture. The epitome of using “culture” in a normative way is what is known in philosophy as the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

There is some potential value and some potential bovine excrement involved in an assertion that education and/or training can and should bring about “competence” in basic human inter-relational skills. In order for each of us to be able to accept others as people –– to relate to them in a way that automatically assumes neither superiority nor inferiority, nor automatically prioritizes conformity to a particular set of linguistic/cultural norms –– each of us needs to be personally secure in where she/he comes from. We need to both recognize the value in the way we were raised and to see that this isn’t the only way things could have been done. We also need to see how others, who were raised in significantly different ways, have certain advantages and disadvantages in terms of what they are consequently capable of and how they view the world. Ideally we should develop a capacity to learn by comparison, to search for “best practices,” and not to assume that our own cultures have already found all of them. Education can help with that. Genuine human interaction with those we are prone to think of as “other” can help much more. But there are some forms of insecurity and maladjustment that neither social interaction nor education can fix. I believe we’re best off just recognizing those problems for what they are.

In the story of Huckleberry Finn, the “poor white trash” boy learns that the black man, in spite of his dehumanizing background, and in some cases because of it even, has developed many particularly important and useful skills for wilderness survival. He also comes to see the black man’s feelings and intuitions as important, and he adjusts his moral practice accordingly. He becomes “inter-culturally competent” in ways that no bureaucracy or contemporary education program would sign off on, but in ways which actually matter in real life. He still considers liberating slaves to be socially unacceptable, and he still doesn’t categorize an anonymous “nigger” getting killed as a human tragedy; but he’s willing to repeatedly risk his freedom and his very life to protect his black friend, and his friend more than returns these favors.

The question of how one should be expected to talk and act in order to count as “a man” –– as a human being entitled to rights as such –– remains open here. Our standards for speech and cultural action always have room for improvement. Blatantly abusive language and prejudiced practices certainly need to be reduced, where they can’t be curtailed entirely. But far more important in practice than such bureaucratic measures of “intercultural competence” is a practical capacity to form interpersonal connections with “the other”.  The more native speakers of Bureaucratese learn to “talk like men” in this regard, the more functionally competent they will actually become.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Human Rights, Linguistics, Racism, Respectability, Social identity, Tolerance

Ben Carson for Mayor of Detroit!

The other morning I woke up with this ingenious thought that I thought I should develop and share with the world. That is what I’ve placed in the title here. Frankly I see it as the solution to a whole pile of problems at the same time. I really think this idea needs to be spread around thoroughly, ideally going viral and becoming a mass movement. As an idealistic statement it’s far more realistic than Michael Moore’s “Oprah for President” idea anyway.

I will try to avoid polarizing and polemic language here, because, honestly, I believe that this is an idea where constructive thinkers of good will among both Democrats and Republicans could come on board, and I don’t want to mess that up by presenting the idea either as some flaming liberal or some calloused out-of-touch white guy (even if I might be a bit of both).

The basic idea is relatively simple: We have a formerly major US city that is currently way up “Poop Creek” without a paddle, and we have a world famous brain surgeon (literally) who happens to have been born as a poor black child (literally) within the city in question, who is getting on towards an age where he could comfortably retire from the stressful business of getting rich by cutting open white people’s heads and dealing with their brain problems for them (literally), instead focus the rest of his life on giving something back to “his people” in the broadest sense (literally). Why not bring these two situations together as the best hope for both?

headshot_scrubsBen Carson is already being touted by some political pundits as the next great hope for the Republican Party. A regular performer on the Washington public speaker circuit these days, he gave what some consider to be a particularly inspiring talk at a Washington prayer breakfast last winter, where in front of President Obama and the rest of America’s most important leaders (literally) proposed a set of values and solutions to address Americas “spiritual concerns” which were music to Republican ears. The problem was that he also clearly demonstrated that he had no concept of how political administrations need to work to get things done.

I’d say Detroit would be the perfect training ground for him in this respect. If he were to dive into that project this year or next, at age 62, and if he would succeed in turning that city around, then even at 69 years old I would consider him to be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination for 2020. But more importantly this year I believe Detroit needs him and he needs Detroit. And let me stress again, even though he more strongly identifies with Baltimore these days, the city in which he built his reputation as a great surgeon, he originally comes from the ghettos of Detroit.

Dr. Carson began his breakthrough prayer breakfast speech quoting from a few verses in Proverbs 11, followed by 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” His great hope is that through prayer, moral discipline and a restored sense of self-belief, American society can be turned around. I believe that if he wants to pursue that vision he should begin by doing so on what might be called a “Gideon scale”: winning a truly miraculous victory on a very local level, and there is no better place for Carson to start than in the city of his birth.

Among the most conspicuous and least tenable ideas that Dr. Carson tossed out in his prayer breakfast speech was that of a flat tax system. His rationale on this was as simple and elegant, and probably as ultimately unworkable, as his tax proposal itself: “When I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. […] So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. […] Now some people say, ‘Well that’s not fair, because it doesn’t hurt the guy who made ten billion dollars as much as the guy who made ten.’ Where does it say that you have to hurt the guy?”

On a national scale the unintended consequences of assuming that the Old Testament is the ultimate standard for fair and just government could ultimately be disastrous. I won’t even begin to argue that point here. But in Detroit operating on the basis of that sort of standard could be a very good thing! What Dr. Carson’s native city needs is a restored sense of fairness and compassion and belief in its future, based on significant transcendent values. If that city sees its leaders as holding themselves accountable to a higher standard, rather than pursuing whatever personal advantages they can get away with as long as the loopholes of American law allow for them and joining the Romneys in stashing their loot in the Cayman Islands, that could inspire its residents to come together and work to realize these same higher principles.

Heck, let him try to restructure the finances of that city on a flat tax basis. Let him work with the neighborhoods there on a basis of everyone chipping in proportionately. It’s not like he’d end up making their situation any worse, and he could learn some valuable lessons about practical public management in the process.

But more than his conservative fiscal policy theories, Carson has a true zeal for something close to my own heart; something I believe is key to turning around US culture in general and for salvaging Detroit in particular: education. Again from his prayer breakfast speech: “Our system of government was designed for a well-informed and educated populace, and when they become less informed they become vulnerable. Think about that.”

I have thought about that, and I quite entirely agree. I also fully agree with the aims of Dr. Carson’s own personal charitable organization, The Carson Scholars Fund,  which was initiated in the 1990s to address the problems in American education that studies like PISA (which make those of us in Finland’s education system look so good) have pointed out. His goal has been to give “intellectual superstars” the same sort of social status within schools that sports heroes have –– a Quixotic quest if there ever was one, but an incredibly noble one all the same. The basic idea is to pass on to the most vulnerable in society the same sort of hope and vision that Ben Carson himself found as a very vulnerable young man between covers of books that the tax payers provided for him in the Detroit public library!

The ideal of Carson’s scholarship program is not only to build self-reliance, but community involvement among its beneficiaries: “Unless you cared about other people it didn’t matter how smart you were. We got plenty of people like that. We don’t need those. We need smart people who care about other people.” Those they set out to help are “kids who come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the ones who drop out, and we need to truncate that process early on because we can’t afford to waste any of those young people. For every one of those people that we keep from going down that path of self-destruction and mediocrity, that’s one less person you have to protect yourself and your family from; one less person you have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system; one more tax-paying productive member of society, who may invent a new energy source or come up with a cure for cancer. They’re all important to us and we need every single one of them.”

Beyond that, Carson sees education as the key to preventing the US from “going down the same pathway as so many pinnacle nations who have preceded us” to self-destruction from within, in spite of their massive military dominance. This has obviously started to happen in America already, but as Carson says, “We can fix it. Why can we fix it? Because we’re smart.”

Dr. Carson’s appeal to Republicans is not only based on his religious ideals and his message of “not accepting helplessness,” but that he is a front line expert in medical matters and health care. The intense and ongoing efforts to block and repeal “Obamacare,” they feel, need a (preferably black) compassionate yet firm and unquestionably well informed human face. This was one of the main issues that Fox (or Faux) News’s Sean Hannity put to Carson in an interview following up on his prayer breakfast performance. To his credit, Dr. Carson replied in terms that largely ignored the bile built into Hannity’s question, with the constructive suggestion that rather than focusing on destroying what they hate, Republicans need to focus on building better alternatives, which shouldn’t be that hard to do. Public health care needs to be arranged in a way that places the emphasis back on local community needs, and on the doctor/patient relationship. He’s probably quite right about that, and Detroit would be the ideal place to start building, from scratch really, a health-care infrastructure based on those principles. While he’s at it he can rebuild the rest of the city’s social service infrastructure in this sort of a way that “puts power back in the hands of the people”.

Republicans have blamed Detroit’s problems on generations of labor union centered Democratic administration. Whether or not that’s a cheap and unfair charge (and I believe it probably is) at this point there’s not much left in terms of entrenched power structures there. The city is ripe for starting over, and rebuilding based on fresh ideas. If there is an idealistic, intelligent and successful black man with a track record of public speaking out about such ideas, who would like to show the world how they would work in practice, Detroit would be just the place for him to do it. In the same Hannity interview he said, ”Part of the problem we’re having right now is that there are a lot of people who lack courage, who always want people to adore them and that just are not willing to take stands based on real convictions.”

Amen! So let’s give him a practical laboratory for putting these educational and economic principles into practice, to show the rest of the country and the world what a difference pride in education and community involvement can make. With the bankruptcy proceedings currently underway in Detroit, let’s insists on emergency replacement of the city’s managers, with an expedited election of a replacement mayor under the supervision of state and federal emergency managers. Let’s come together behind Dr. Ben Carson as the man for this job, not as another political lawyer but as a man focused on fixing things, to give kids very much like him 50 years ago a chance to develop an awareness of their own potential greatness. Let’s let him put his money where his mouth is, not only in helping individual children with promise, but in terms of administrating substantial reform and renewal.

Carson claims to want to follow his mother’s spiritual leadership model. After ignorantly getting married at just 13 years old to a man of very limited integrity, his mother went on to divorce this shyster and raise two sons as a single mother in a ghetto in the troubled times of the fifties and sixties the best way she knew how: by setting very strict rules and high standards, and not accepting excuses for any form of poor performance. This included strict limitations on television and requirements for regular reading and writing outside of school. During his childhood Carson never actually realized that his mother herself was illiterate.

On this basis Carson really has no excuse for distancing himself from Detroit’s problems. Everything he is, and every value he promotes, finds its starting point and its future relevance in what used to be Motown. The fact that it seems unlikely that he could succeed in of solving Detroit’s problems is all the more reason that he should focus on trying to do so! With so much of his rhetoric focused on not accepting excuses for defeat and not being the prisoner of preconceptions, to be consistent about things he really has to apply these ideals to the city of his birth. He might not be able to get away with bluffing as much as his mother did in insisting on high performance from those under his leadership, but that is no excuse for not believing in himself and his city and not trying. Not to try would be worst form of failure in this case. Carson should know this on the basis of being a doctor rather than a lawyer. Back to his prayer breakfast speech, “What do lawyers learn in law school? To win! By hook or by crook, you gotta win. So you’ve got all of these Democrat lawyers and all these republican lawyers and all their side wants is to win. We need to get rid of that. What we need to start thinking about is how do we solve problems.”

I really can see where Detroit doesn’t need more well-meaning white liberals telling it what to do. Detroit needs one of its own –– a kid who grew up poor but somehow made it anyway –– to return and restore a sense of vision, combined with a conviction that none of the little black kids in decaying neighborhoods can be treated as disposable.

So seriously, let’s get a movement started to draft Ben Carson for the job. I know that some of you actually know him. Put this idea to him. Light a fire under him to get him moving on this. Detroit needs him, and the world needs the hope of seeing Detroit rise out of its ashes.

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Filed under Economics, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Risk taking

Forms of Freedom

In case you haven’t heard, Finnish is a rather funny language. It has a particularly unusual grammar structure, and the vocabulary is less inter-related with other languages than pretty much any living language in the industrialized world. There is a word for borrowed words which is in itself rather interesting: “sivistyssanat”. There is no literal translation for the word “sivistys”, but it implies something of personal refinement and development. So borrowed words used in Finnish are thought of somewhat as signs of cultural refinement. Nevertheless, there is an intense effort to find alternatives to these “sivistyssanat” in day to day use. The inventive ways of using the basic etymological building blocks of Finnish to develop conceptual equivalents to terms used in English, German, French and Russian is an art form unto itself here. Some of my favorites:

unique –– “ainutlaatuinen” -> literally “of a solitary quality”

simple –– “yksinkertainen” -> literally “of a one time sort”

complex –– “monimutkainen” -> literally “having many twists/turns”

This week I became aware of another Finnish alternative to a particular borrowed term: I’ve always freely used a Finlandized variation on the English word “spontaneous” when speaking Finnish: “spontaaninen”. A paper by one of my university course-mates, however, pointed out that the properly Finnish term for this is “omaehtoinen” –– literally “having one’s own conditions”. In other words the Finnish understanding of spontaneous action is to do things on your own terms, not being submitted to conditions set by others. I had to ask about this, because in many ways this strikes me as an interesting linguistic effort, but a bit of a near miss conceptually. Our professor confirmed that this is a standardized official translation, but the philosophical contemplation of how spontaneity actually works would be a long discussion unto itself.  Fair enough. So for this weekend’s blog I’ll just toss out my own preliminary perspectives on the meaning and value of spontaneity as it relates to the cultures I’ve lived in, and open the matter up for further debate here if anyone is interested.

The process of setting standards to live by is indeed an interesting one to analyze. There are animal trainers which will tell you that “an obedient dog is a happy dog,” and there might be some truth to the adage. Continuous contests of wills between the dog and the humans in question make everyone a bit stressed and frustrated; if the four-legged family member has accepted a more submissive role within the pack that is completely natural and satisfying for the dog, and for all others concerned. That is not to say, however, that in order to have a satisfied life the dog should lose its own will and personality entirely; in my opinion quite the opposite. A dog has a greater degree of satisfaction in life, and makes a more satisfying companion for humans, when it can decide some things for itself, and communicate its own joys, interests and desires to other members of the family at times.

My old dog Mac is generally well house-broken and capable of following most necessary commands for contented life with a family, but he is also quite prone to do things occasionally according to conditions he sets for himself. In his old age he is deaf as a post, and he tends to use that as a bit of an excuse for wandering off in the directions of interesting smells. He knows where the limits of his territory are supposed to run, according to the conditions set for him by others, and when he reaches those limits he generally stops to check as to whether or not there is anyone interested in enforcing his boundaries. If not, he will happily wander off in search of whatever adventure life has to offer.

Mac on a spontaneous trip to the beach last year.

Mac on a spontaneous trip we took to the beach last year (my spontaneous decision, not his ).

If any blame needs to be assigned for Mac’s tendencies in that regard it falls squarely on me. It could be said that he’s sort of been socialized into my own bad habits: doing things less according to standardized norms and more according to whatever seems workable on any given occasion. This goes with the territory of being what Jungian analysts refer to as a type-P (for “perceiving”) as opposed to a type-J (for “judging”) personality, and in that regard I admit to being something of an extreme case. I tend to allow myself to work on things that interest me in the moments when they interest me, even if that totally screws up my sleep schedule at times. I tend to leave things where they lay and deal with cleaning tasks and the like only when the clutter becomes a practical hindrance to my random activities. I have to put a serious effort into being places and doing things according to an agreed schedule; it never comes naturally to me. I don’t consider myself to be lazy, just… overly spontaneous. That spontaneity allows me to be inventive, humorous, problem-solving and personally open to the sort of surprises life always throws at us in ways that J-types have more difficulty with.

But this doesn’t mean that I consider myself to be a better person than the J-types. Nor do I consider them to be less free than I am in the sense of being able to set their own conditions in life. When I visit with the sort of friends who always have a place for everything and everything in its place –– who have a regular schedule that they keep week in and week out that they don’t want to have disturbed –– I can see that they have their own sort of freedom: they have the ability to set their own rules in ways that enable them to feel entirely in control of their own lives. The rules they follow are ones they have fully chosen to adopt, at least as completely as I am capable of choosing when I allow myself to do things more randomly. When I am their guest I try to make a point of not stealing their sense of control from them by messing with their carefully structured lifestyles, and when they come to visit me I try to make some effort to have the place at least minimally sanitary and organized according to socially accepted principles. Inevitably I slip somewhat and I try their patience at least as much as they try mine, but among those I care about and who care about me in return we’ve learned to deal with that and accept each other in spite of our differences.

This comes to where I would question the Finnish etymology for their word for spontaneity: I agree that freedom has something to do with setting your own conditions, but I would argue that J-types are more thorough in setting and consciously owning such conditions, whereas we P-types are more properly spontaneous in terms of being capable of doing things without dependence on plan or structure.

There are many, however, who would say that those of us who live without properly structured guidelines for our lives lack a fundamental sort of freedom. Whereas I might be prone to think of my more organized friends as “slaves to the clock,” they could just as justifiably label me as a slave to my own uncontrolled whims. This can be tied to an idea that, like the obedient dog, humans can only be properly in harmony with life when they are able to do things rationally and logically. Some theologians would go as far as to say that the fall of mankind that got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden had to do with losing our capacity for submission to God’s completely rational and transcendentally ordered standards by drifting off to do “our own thing”; and the practical goal of religious redemption should be to enable us to return to a more completely rationally organized and self-disciplined and thus sinless state. Their savior, they believe, came to make life more controllable and less unpredictable and messy. I am more inclined to believe that our savior came to embrace life in all of its structure breaking messiness –– to heal the sick and spontaneously pluck grain on the Sabbath –– and to enable us to accept all of the things about ourselves and each other that we can never control and predict as much as we’d like to.

What is worth recognizing here though is that neither the P-types nor the J-types have a right to remake God in their own image –– the greatest and most dangerous of religious temptations, that we never completely escape from. What Jesus preached was that we should place a personal attachment with God ahead of all other pursuits in life, and that we should learn to empathize with those around us as completely as possible: the twin commandment of love. This means P-types having compassion on J-types in spite of what we might in Freudian terms call their anal fixations, and J-types having compassion on P-types in spite of their slovenly lack of discipline at times.

Meanwhile, when it comes to a sense of freedom in terms of both self-regulation and spontaneity, we are confronted with the question of raw determinism and what, if anything, we can do to escape it –– or if it really is worth escaping from in the questionable event that it is possible. What is the form of slavery that we need most to liberate ourselves from? What addictions are most dangerous to the process of learning to thrive in our most basic human essence (which religious folk call “the image of God” within us)?

My take is that this is a very individual question. Each of us is faced with a variety of things that functionally prevent us from being able to live at harmony with ourselves and each other. Some of these are problems caused by holding ourselves and each other to overly strict abstract standards that have little to do with the genuine process of human thriving. Some of these problems are caused by a lack of impulse control and capacity for delayed gratification. Pretty much everyone I know has to struggle for balance between these factors so as to achieve a lifestyle that would generally be regarded as “free”.

Such is my spontaneous deliberation on the contrast between spontaneity and living according to one’s own conditions. If native Finns in particular would like to challenge my perspective I’d be more than happy to spontaneously discuss the matter further and perhaps adjust my standards.

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My Missionary Position for 2013

Apologies again to anyone who was disappointed not to find a fresh blog here last weekend. For family members and friends who are looking for an excuse to be proud of me, I did finish one rough draft of a longer academic essay, but it needs a lot of work before I submit it for peer reviewed publishing anywhere. (My professor tells me I need to develop a “dryer” writing style for an academic audience.) Meanwhile the middle school students’ final testing season for the academic year has begun in earnest already. So to keep myself honest here I thought I’d toss out a quick essay on an exam question that I gave to some of my ninth graders last week:

If you were to give money to support missionary work, what sort of things would you expect the missionaries to do with it? Explain why.

This is one I’ve had in my files of potential exam questions for the required unit in Christian ethics in the Finnish curriculum for some years already. In some ways this is a “give-away”, since it doesn’t require that kids have been paying attention in class to be able to give a reasonably good answer: They don’t need to know any names or dates or philosophical theories to formulate a mature response. Thus it is a popular question for them to take a crack at. Yet it is a deceptively difficult question; one which most adults may have a hard time formulating a coherent answer, and one on which I rarely end up giving the maximum number of essay points.

This actually says something about the rather non-American philosophy of education which I have developed in practice. I believe in being fair to kids in terms of rewarding them both for sincere effort and for intellectual accomplishment. I recognize that the grades I give make a difference in their lives both in how much television time their parents will give them and in what sort of school they will be able to get into next, after they graduate. I don’t want to punish them in either of these respects and I want the evaluation to be as fair as possible in those regards. Yet I don’t have any set matrix of talking points to be covered in answering the above question, nor any pre-determined range of correct answers I will accept.

The ethics and religious education units in the curriculum here are not primarily designed to indoctrinate kids into a particular world view or to make them aware of the more trivial historical characters in the field, though I’m sure many of my Finnish colleagues use them that way. For that matter extremely few of my students are considering going on to careers specialized in this subject. Thus what I am trying to instill, and trying to measure in part with my exams, is an ability to function in the various ideological and human relational situations in the world in which they are likely to find themselves in a tolerant and constructive manner. So in their answers to this question I’m looking for evidence that they are stopping to think about how their way of looking at the world relates to other people’s ways of looking at the world, that they recognize other people’s rights to see the world differently than they do in some key respects, that they are possibly interested in helping others by offering them useful perspectives and beneficial social structures based on their own religious faith, and that they acknowledge other important ways of helping their fellow human beings besides preaching at them. I might disagree with them about many of their specific suggestions, but that is not the point. If they can demonstrate a fair amount of maturity in formulating an answer –– showing a desire for cultural mutual respect balanced with a desire to improve on the status quo of life among those they are trying to help, or “minister to” –– I’m willing to give them the sort of grade that will make their parents happy and help them get into a more prestigious school. Many in the field may consider this to be too subjective and insufficiently standardized, but they won’t get me fired so I can live with their rejection of my way of doing things.

But all of that sidesteps one important question which, after the exam, students are perfectly entitled to ask me: What would I expect missionaries to do with money that I might donate to their work? That’s actually an important matter to me, one that is actually quite relevant to life as I know it, and one where my perspective has been continuously changing over the years. Within the various Christian fellowships I’ve been attending over the past year I’ve been subject to a few different low key appeals to support various sorts of missionary work. Some bright young theology students have come to worship services looking for sponsors for their participation in missionary training programs in the southern hemisphere. One church was taking up a collection to enable a preacher’s family in a tropical region to buy a car, since it was becoming rather dangerous to use two-wheeled transportation with their young children. One of my doctoral research supervisors is investigating the question of the proper role of missionary hospitals within the health care systems of developing nations, and one of the bus stops near my house currently features an advertisement for a fundraising drive for a church-based international charitable organization providing food for children in famine struck regions of Africa. If I am to make some personal sacrifices so as to have some spare money to give to such causes, which should I be contributing to?

Bus stop missionary fund-raising display

Bus stop missionary fund-raising display

First of all there is the basic question of why we need to convert people to our own particular religious or ideological views. As an accessible, non-religious example of what I’m thinking of here, let me tell you about Mika: Mika is a fellow that I first met when we were both doing relatively menial jobs at a shopping mall over 25 years ago, and after not having seen each other for quite a while he has been in touch with me again this spring. Mika is rather unusual in that the one thing which has remained entirely consistent in his life over these years is his commitment to the sport of American baseball. In years past when I have travelled to the US he used to ask me to pick up various official Major League Baseball products for him, and recruiting Finns into the sport has been an element of the conversation every time we’ve met or talked since. True to form, in our last Facebook chat he wanted to know if any kids from our school might be interested in joining the junior baseball league he is still working on organizing.

Baseball may be as good as any random humanitarian cause to promote. It teaches physical self-discipline, hand-eye coordination, specialized skill development, teamwork, strategic thinking and international relations; all while requiring limited physical endurance and allowing players of very different skill levels to work together with each other on the playing field. I certainly have nothing against my friend’s “calling” in this area; I just find it hard to personally relate to his missionary zeal in the matter. I mean I know that he knows that there are plenty of other sports more firmly rooted in Finnish culture which provide the same sorts of personal benefits to players that baseball does. So why bother struggling to import some new custom, which is in fact one of the most boring spectator sports ever to be televised?

The short answer in this case: I believe it provides him with a broader base of people that he can feel personally connected to, and being able to personally connect with others is really a significant part of what life is all about. Having a broader group of baseball players in his country and in the world enables Mika to find friends to hang out with and enjoy the company of, even if they have nothing else in common. It enables him to contribute something positive to the development of young people, and to pass on some part of his personal identity to his own children. I’m sure Mika could talk to you for hours about what, beyond all of this, makes baseball uniquely valuable in our world, but to me that’s beside the point.

So from there one question which arises is, do we actually need to convert others to our own way of thinking in some significant way to be able to establish this sort of human contact? The immediately obvious answer would be no, but there are in fact many times when it helps still. In spending time among more secular Muslims in South Africa last year, for instance, many of them were interested in converting me to their faith, not because they necessarily believed that I needed the spiritual input of their beliefs to be OK with God, nor because it would necessarily make me a morally better or happier person, but because it would make it much less socially awkward for them to be close friends with me. I see variations of that same dynamic in many religious and ideological communities, and I suspect that this is why many people are interested in various forms of missionary work. But we can also initiate personal connection with others by being personally kind and caring to people without necessarily trying to change anything about them, and this can be at least as satisfying a personal experience as making successful conversions.

In addition to making connections with other people though, missionary work also puts those who succeed in converting others in a position of power or advantage over them. The converts become the missionaries’ “apprentices”, and often the faithful servants of the denomination or empire which sent the missionaries to begin with as well. The satisfaction of gaining power and influence over others is undoubtedly a significant part of the motivation for being a missionary and sending out missionaries. In this respect, however, missionary work has many sad connections with the projects of the colonial period, where dominance was clearly more important to some mission organizations than authentic connection with people they were trying to convert. Are modern missionaries truly able to avoid the motivations and temptations to establish dominance with their missions? Probably not. Can this form of motivation take on benign forms regardless? In many cases I’d say so, but I’d also say that the human desire for power within missionary work always creates moral risks.

What about just helping people with their physical needs then? The missionary fund-raising ad at the bus stop is trying to emphasize children’s rights to nutrition and other basic needs. Why not stick to this level of missionary work?

Part of the answer there lies with the tired old “give a man a fish” homily. If there are structural factors that are causing people not to be able to feed themselves, it is more important to deal with those than with the immediate symptom of hunger –– even if that is easy to say with a full stomach. It is also important to see how both colonial abuses and self-defeating traditional customs –– careless selfishness perpetrated both by people outside of their culture and by people within their culture –– need to be dealt with for the long term elimination of suffering. This sort of missionary work cannot be done without intentionally trying to change people’s minds and cultures about some very fundamental moral and spiritual values. But to be successful and beneficial to those being converted it needs to studiously avoid efforts to gain power over them for the sake of having power over them –– easier said than done.

Finally we are left with the question, is there anything about our own message that is uniquely valuable, that these people cannot get from elsewhere and that is something that they positively require in order to have ultimately happy, successful and meaningful lives? What sort of “gospel” do we have that is uniquely worth promoting in our missionary work? If we look again at the baseball example, how does this sport create more physically fit, coordinated, teamwork oriented and mentally disciplined players than, let’s say, ice hockey, soccer, swimming and/or track and field? In terms of religion, how can we be sure that what we are preaching will improve people’s relationships with each other and with the supernatural world better than things they already have?

This is an especially difficult question to address objectively and constructively. All I can say about it here, in simple, general terms, is that to answer this question we need to tease this factor apart from all of those mentioned above, and rarely do missionaries or missionary organizations bother to thoroughly do so.

In any case, beside some sense of moral obligation in the matter, I believe that a significant part of our motivation in contributing to missionary work, and any other form of charitable giving, must involve an immediate personal, emotional sense of satisfaction in being able to connect with other people, and being able to experience their happiness as part of your own happiness. One former student of mine told me of his positive experiences riding on a train through North Korea, where few blue-eyed westerners tend to be seen on a day to day basis, and just being able to wave and exchange eye-contact and smiles with people on the streets and peasants in the field as the train rolled by. One Christian minister friend of mine tells of how, when visiting in countries with extreme endemic poverty at times, even though he knows that it will do little good in terms of solving the problems people live in day to day, he will sometimes go out with a pocket full of coins and “let the beggars have a field day”, just to experience the sense of positive connection that this brings. I deeply respect the value of both of these experiences, and I wish to have as many of the same as I am able in this life. That’s a big part of my motivation in remaining a school teacher. So I acknowledge that when I am making a donation to support missionary work I am effectively buying a particular service: I am paying that mission organization or that individual missionary to help me feel connected to other people and to a process that I believe is doing good in the world.

Now writing that bit has taken me more than four times as long as I give students to write their answers in a test situation. I don’t know how much of that I’d be able to produce if I were in their position. Nor can I discount the fact that I’ve had more than three times as much life experience as they have in which to contemplate such matters. Even so, between the various bluff and filler answers that I inevitably get stuck reading during exam season, there are always kids who positively surprise me with their insights into such complicated social/spiritual phenomena as missionary work. There are times I really hate grading stacks of test papers, but I have to admit, there are also times when it provides its own sorts of joys in life.

And so, back to work I go.

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Filed under Control, Empathy, Ethics, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality