Category Archives: History

What if the order had been reversed…

This is an exercise in fantasy, relating to something that is for many reasons entirely impossible, but still worth thinking about. What if Donald Trump had been elected as president two generations before Adolf Hitler had won the election that made him chancellor of Germany? How much more guilty of civil carelessness would the minority of the German public who considered Hitler to have been “the lesser evil” be? And to what extent could they all be accused of being morally bad people because of this electoral decision?

Of course both Trump and Hitler are products of their own times, and could not realistically have risen in other eras of history and still been the same persons. Two generations before Hitler no conspicuously rich second generation immigrant without political experience but with a rare skill for gaining media attention; based in New York and representing all the evils that city is famous for, but drawing his primary support from the south and the “heartland”; building a campaign around all the things that white men lived in existential fear of; could have realistically took the White House. Something like Trump could only happen in the 21st century. Likewise Hitler could only have risen to power at a time when Germany was failing in its recovery from a world war, and it is highly unlikely that there would be enough left in the aftermath of any future world war for yet another Hitler to rise to power in. Thus it seems impossible to imagine another Hitler arising after Trump. Most impossible though is the idea that the path of influence between them could have been reversed: Trump read Hitler’s speeches and was clearly influenced by them, but it is unimaginable that Hitler would have turned to someone like Trump for inspiration.

But regardless of the impossibility of it, as an exercise in civil conversation between (even tacit) Trump supporters and those who see the sort of disaster that Trump’s sort of politics could portend, let’s imagine what the discussion between a Hitler supporter and an intense Hitler critic in post-Depression Germany would have been like in the time after Hitler had won his major election but before he had properly risen to power… if they furthermore would have had the advantage of looking at Trump’s election in hindsight.

Given the completely unrealistic premise this is based on, I want to try to give both sides a fair and realistic hearing on this. So let’s say that this is an open discussion between Dietrich, an avowed Social Democrat and anti-Hitler campaigner, and Reinhold, an independent who had chosen to vote for the Nazis in the recent election. Let’s randomly say that this discussion would have taken place on March 10, 1933.

D: As much as I respect you as a person, Reinhold, I still find it hard to believe that you could vote for that hemorrhoid Hitler. How could you honestly do such a thing!? Don’t you see what kind of danger you are putting our country into?

R: Dietrich, Dietrich, first of all the election is over a week ago already. Whether you like it or not, Hitler won. Why don’t you just relax and give him a chance to sort things out and see if he can fix the sort of mess that your Social Democrats and the rest of the corrupt old guard have got us into?

D: Why don’t I?! First of all because all of the hate-mongering that Hitler used to wheedle his way into power, and all of those psychotic brown shirts he’s got working for him stand a good chance of destroying everything that we hold dear about our German heritage! He practically makes Donald Trump look reasonable for crying out loud!

R: Ha ha! Heinz’s Law. You lose.

D: What?

R: You know: “As a political discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Trump approaches 1.” It goes with the same premise that whoever mentions Trump first automatically loses the debate.

D: That’s a stupid, ad hoc rule and you know it!

R: Is it really? Come on! You guys on the left have been calling every semi-competent center-right leader since the Bismarck “another Trump”. Face it: that’s a losing tactic.

D: OK, I’ll concede two things here: First of all there have been other elitist, populist hate-mongers since Trump’s time concerning whom Trump’s name has been thrown around a bit too freely. Secondly I admit that, whatever Hitler’s flaws, when it comes down to it no one can be another Trump.

R: Good… so why do I feel like there’s a “but” coming here?

D: There certainly is! The similarities in their campaign styles alone were big enough where the German people should have been able to learn something from the Americans’ mistakes back then!

R: That’s just ridiculous. First of all Trump had no connection at all with the people he was manipulating into voting for him. He was a spoiled little rich boy, not a committed patriot like Hitler. Secondly there really wasn’t any major crisis in the American economy back then. Production and markets were functioning just fine. There was a structural change going on regarding the sort of work that would need to be done in the future, and there was a need for the government to play a more active role in the changeover, but it wasn’t anything like Germany is today. We’ve got a real crisis, not one made up by opportunists to discredit their opposition! Beyond that the Mexicans and Muslims that Trump laid out as the enemies of the people were not in any position of power in their society, or in the world at large. Hitler’s point regarding the Jews is far better grounded. All in all they’re nothing alike!

D:  OK, another point I can grant you: Hitler does seem to be more sincere than Trump was overall. He does seem to have some sort of moral convictions rather than being pure con-artist to the core. But (yes, of course another “but”) that hasn’t stopped him from continuously changing his message to tell people what they want to here and push their particular panic buttons. And furthermore if you take the kind of hatemongering that brought Trump to office and combine it with a sense of sincere dogmatism of conviction about the matter that may make him even more dangerous than Trump. And even though the target of Hitler’s hatred is more thoroughly rationalized, it’s still the same sort of nastiness against other people that Trump was selling. Those Brown Shirts are really in no way morally better than the “Alt-Right” folks who supported Trump.
Now I know that you’re not the sort of person who believes in attacking Jews just because they happen to be born Jewish. I’m not accusing you of being that particular kind of deplorable. What I’m saying is that you really should know better than saying with your vote that you find that sort of policy to be morally acceptable and politically supportable!

R: You seem to be equivocating on whether my voting for Hitler makes me a bad person or not. I guess I’ll just have to live with that. Our country is pretty seriously divided right now, not only from this rather nasty recent election, but from all of the ways that your Social Democrats have been screwing things up over the past 15 years. Of course Hitler was not my first choice, and of course I don’t believe in attacking all Jews for the evils that a small minority of them are doing. But given how screwed up things have become, for basic working people in particular, you can’t really say that leaving the old guard in place or letting Otto Wels and Ernst Thälmann turn this country into some sort of Marxist nightmare would have been viable solutions. Hitler was clearly the lesser evil here.
All that being said, whether you and your leftist friends like it or not, Hitler is now our chancellor. The people have spoken and your leftists lost. So now you really should give him a chance to see if he can follow through on his promises to make Germany great again. Or are you going to join all those putzes who promised to move to Switzerland if the Nazis won? (Good riddance if they do go!)

D: As you know, as was the case with Trump, Hitler and his cronies still got less than a majority of the popular vote. I won’t deny it though: I’m still stunned that they got as much as they did. I honestly thought and hoped that the German people were smarter and more civilized than that; you included. All I can say at this point is that if Hitler gets what he wants then moving to Switzerland could turn out to be an excellent decision.

R: Come on now, Diet! We still have a system of checks and balances in this country. Old man Hindenburg is still in place trying to insure some resemblance of sanity in the system. Hitler and his boys still need to convince the other 2/3 of the Reichstag to go along with it before they do anything too radical. Things can’t really get too bad. So for now let’s just come together as Germans and see what we can do to rebuild this great nation.

D: In many ways I hope you’re right. The scary part is that I’m sure that back in the day Trump supporters were saying the same thing right after he was elected…



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Filed under Ethics, History, Politics, Respectability

On Bergdahl, Bird Dogs and Constructive Politics

Actually folks, with school now out and with my mind sort of chilled as I prepare to visit Kenya next week, I’m not feeling so motivated to theorize about the deeper questions of the meaning of life further this week. So for this week’s entry I’m just going to let myself ramble a bit… about what for me are some of the more obvious facets of life in the interconnected world we live in that the people of my native land still don’t seem to get. If anyone wants to argue these points in greater depth I’m up for it, but for now I’m just going to spout a bit off the top of my head, or out the other end of my anatomical core, like a regular blogging pundit. Take it for what it’s worth.

The big name in the news so far this month has been Bowe Bergdahl. Thanks to President Obama’s solo efforts against popular whims of Congress or his own party even, Bowe is coming home from being a POW in Afghanistan, at least physically. His parents have now appeared on international television with the president, showing in the process that they cared about and respected their son more than their country. If that didn’t raise enough animosity, reports after the fact indicate that Bowe had more than a few loose screws before he was deployed to Afghanistan, that he either defiantly or deliriously he managed to wander off base and get himself captured. From there commands from the geniuses who put him there to begin with ordered the unit he wandered away from to go out and find him, which may have caused a few extra combat deaths in the process.

366176_Jani Bergdahl-ObamaTo top all this off there is plenty of grumbling to go around about what may have been given in return for this soldier, who some are now implying wasn’t really worth getting back. The Taliban got at least 5 combatants from Guantanamo in exchange, and there’s plenty of speculation as to what else in terms of monetary rewards and/or propaganda points they got besides. For those whose political interests are limited to looking for ways to discredit the president, and ways to rally people together around a hatred for Muslims, this is a golden opportunity. If such pundits are showing any restraint it is only to create an illusion of rational strategic thinking in terms of not over-playing their hand, but I haven’t noticed them showing much restraint. From their perspective the main issues are that Obama has once again shown more interest in helping the enemy than supporting the military pride of the nation, bypassing political debates in doing so, all in the interest of getting back a soldier who may well be a criminal anyway.

The most obvious question to ask from my perspective is why was this fellow over there to begin with? There are a number of levels on which this needs to be answered: Why is the US still involved in combat operations against a country which we originally attacked because they were harboring the (now dead) head of a terrorist organization over a decade ago? What rational objectives are there for the military to achieve there still, and at what expense? Is the US still continuing to make new enemies in that part of the world faster than they can kill off the old ones? Then who’s in charge of quality control in terms of what sort of men get shipped over there as 21st century cannon fodder? Who is supposed to be evaluating which ones might be more of a risk to themselves and those around them there than they would be a help in achieving whatever the hell we’re trying to achieve there?

The next big question is one that has been weighing heavily on President Obama’s mind for over 6 years already: What are we supposed to do with all those prisoners we’ve got stuck in that little piece of Cuba still controlled by the US? Giving them fair trials under due process of law at this point is a logistical impossibility; the GWB team screwed that pooch a long time ago. So do we continue to house and feed and torture these men at the sort of taxpayer expense that could put 10 kids through college to each one detained until they all die of old age 50 years from now? Do we invent some excuse for killing them off earlier than that? Is there honestly any way at this point to convince them that Americans aren’t really such bad folks after all, and then let them go as rehabilitated people? Or do we use whatever excuse we can find to release as many of them as possible within the coming years, regardless of how much they are hated by the more Islamophobic sector of the American electorate?

The next question is, what new forms of danger might this deal expose US troops in the Middle East to? Will the enemy now be looking more carefully for the sort of soldiers that happen to deliriously wander off base, knowing that they could turn out to be worth something? (But again, what would such men be doing there in the first place?) Will the Taliban shift their tactics from improvised explosive devices to ambushes aiming to take more Americans alive (and would that be such a bad thing)? Will the hatred for Americans in war zones be increased by the enemies knowing that prisoners could be strategically worth taking? Will some Afghanis who were indifferent towards the American military presence in their country before now be shaken out of their complacency by this deal so that they work harder on attacking Yankees? Or is there something about getting a soldier back that might encourage other soldiers with loose screws to wander off more freely, believing that their unit will have to rescue them anyway? Or might this demoralize the commanders who should be attending to the preparedness level of those under their command, leading to them making more dumb mistakes that get more soldiers killed, because the government cut a deal with the enemy to get back this one they didn’t happen to like so much?

Carefully considered answers to those questions would be deeply appreciated, but they are not really expected. Overall it seems that when it comes to constructive and solution-oriented thinking about such matters, the Republicans just have the wrong sort of dogs. The only kinds of dogs they seem to have, in terms of their media allies, are guard dogs and attack dogs: bred to intimidate and cause a maximum amount of pain to those perceived to be a threat, and make a helluva lot of noise in the meantime. I don’t want to go into specifics of comparing particular media corporations to particular breeds of dogs because I respect all breeds of dogs too much to insult any of them by comparison with Rupert Murdock’s minions, but you get the point.

Concept sketch courtesy of

Concept sketch courtesy of

What I will say, however, is that the kind of media the US needs in order to improve the function of the political process would not be attack dogs, but something more comparable to bird dogs: spaniels, setters, retrievers and the like. Such dogs will bark if they feel they have something important to say, but generally speaking they are bred for an ability to remain quiet under normal circumstances, and even under stress; quietly sneak up on birds and point them out to the hunter, and then stay put and not freak out even when there is gunfire next to them. These qualities, together with a heightened impulse to communicate with their humans, make such dogs the ideal choice also as seeing-eye-dogs and service dogs in general.

That’s what I believe news outlets and bloggers should ideally be doing as participants in the political process –– at least if they are to play a useful role in enabling voters to make intelligent, informed decisions: They should be pointing out potential prey to the voters –– food to be shared –– opportunities to improve the sorry state of society; not just bitching about those they don’t like.

Now it could be said that my statements here are just the equivalent of a smaller dog growling at a larger dog in a territorial sort of way; and that when it comes to serious dog fights we Retrievers, Setters and Spaniels will always be at a disadvantage compared to the Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Dobermanns on the other side. Perhaps. And if the point of politics for you is to watch a fight purely for its entertainment value, trying to pick and root for the tougher combatant, I can understand how Fox News would appeal to your mindset.

Finland 2012 310

I’m a lover, not a fighter.

I would encourage all of my US Republican friends, however, not to fall into such a trap. Rather than taking the political process as a gladiatorial distraction from everyday life, take it as a potential means of improving everyday life by bringing people together in something resembling a spirit of mutual respect. I realize that respectful politics is a major oxymoron, but for things to get better for any of us in terms of our children’s future safety, and for the reduction of needless tragic suffering in the world, we have to start seeing each other less as lethal opponents and more as potential partners in improving things. We don’t need more excuses for hating each other; we need causes for which we can come together and work as a team.

Humans in general and Americans in particular have a rather poor track record when it comes to building solidarity on the basis of something other than a common human enemy. It is no surprise that when it comes to raw efficiency in motivating cooperation, perhaps the most efficient period of political action that any human society has ever seen was Nazi Germany –– everyone in the social mainstream joining forces in attacking those among them, and those abroad, who were seen as a threat to the grand and glorious Arian identity.

It would be nice to think that humanity has learned something from the scale of mistake that turned out to be, but that doesn’t really appear to be the case; the only significant sources of solidarity we find working in the world today are based on hatemongering against particular sets of “others” that everyone can join in hating. In order not to give up on the idea of a future for my children and potential grandchildren, however, I have to believe we can do better than that.

Historically perhaps the best examples of such solidarity have been in times of recovery from natural and man-made disasters, when rather than facing eradication as the results of their own over-extension and poor judgment (as has so often happened in the course of human history) given societies have recognized the sorts of crises they were in and come together to do something about them. These have never been particularly lasting or monumental in terms of major empires arising from them, but there have been periods of peace and prosperity in the sense of people sustainably helping each other out and building a workable vision for the future together at such times. Which ones dare I mention even?

–          Irish society (at least compared with the rest of Europe) in the end of the first millennium
–          The period of cooperation between European settlers and Native Americans following the first Thanksgiving
–          FDR’s “New Deal” program following the Great Depression
–          The former Axis Powers under the Marshall Plan…

Yes, I recognize the human limitations and significant problems seen in all of these examples, but they at least show that once in a great while people can be motivated to work together by something other than hatred for someone they see as worse than those next to them.

God knows there are plenty of problems that we can come together to confront other than the human groups we are being told to demonize:

–          Safe and reliable fresh water supplies for major population groups
–          Basic nutrition (without causing obesity risks) for young people in particular
–          Eliminating carcinogens from the air and other aspects of our environments
–          Reducing imbalances between consumption and replacement processes that keep destroying particular environments and species
–          Reducing the harm we do to our environment and each other with our solid, liquid and gaseous waste products
–          Further preventing deaths from preventable diseases
–          Preventing any people, children in particular, from being treated as disposable sources of service or amusement, particularly sexually.

The arguments we hear against focusing our energies on dealing with these sorts of issues, as compared with more traditionally appealing political initiatives –– like trying  to police the rest of the world, invading potential oil producing areas, blasting sections of the earth apart to extract anything burnable from under its surface, and creating more intense forms of amusement for ourselves –– are that maybe certain people don’t deserve to have safe and dignified lives; and we can’t reliably limit the damage that others are doing, so why limit the damage we ourselves are causing?

Really? Stop and think about those arguments for a moment. Take just the last example: Is it OK to rape children and/or use them as slaves because if they had better parents they wouldn’t be in their predicament to begin with, and if you don’t abuse them someone else will?! If those arguments don’t work to justify participating in and/or turning a blind eye to slavery and human trafficking for such purposes, nor do they work for participating in or turning a blind eye to environmental destruction and basic health and safety issues effecting massive numbers of people.

From there I encourage you to stop and think about how many political initiatives you are being asked to support –– or you are being manipulated into supporting –– are based on coming together to confront the sort of challenges that we need to confront together, and how many are providing excuses for hating other people, ignoring their needs and blaming them for their own problems.

From there you can decide what sort of “dogs” you really want, and what you should be training them to do for you.

Enough for now.


Filed under History, Politics, Sustainability

My Ascension Agnosticism

Something that few other than those of us whose work is related to religious matters realize is that we are currently in the week between Ascension Day and Pentecost. In other words we are in that time of year that commemorates that period of uncertainty that hit Jesus’ followers a month and a half after his execution and after the thrill of his grave being empty, because after 40 days of visions of Jesus in his post-death state –– sort of physical and non-physical at the same time –– they had watched him levitate up through the clouds, after which they received an angelic message: “He’ll be back later, now get busy!”

But get busy with what? The closest thing Jesus’ followers had to a leader after his aerial departure was Peter, and for all his bluff and bluster this guy still felt more at home in a fishing boat than he did leading a worship service or holding an outreach strategy meeting.  The rest as well were really just trying to figure out whether this Jesus movement thing was worth bothering with any more or not. Their messianic hopes weren’t going to be realized in the ways they had first hoped for anyway: There wasn’t going to be a new system of civil government in Jerusalem right away anyway, which is what a lot of them had in mind when they signed on. The other-worldly ideas that Jesus had talked about still seemed more than a little abstract to them. They had watched Jesus rise up through the clouds, but in many respects they were stuck trying to work out for themselves the answer to the basic question: Which way is up?

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

That may sound like a silly question, but in so many ways it remains critical and indeterminate matter for most believers still today. I mean, to start with the obvious, the whole concept of the earth being a spinning sphere –– not really recognized at Jesus’ time but fairly self-evident to anyone who has been through elementary school or travelled internationally by air these days –– sort of screws up the idea of “up” pointing in any given direction within the solar system, our galaxy or the universe. So from that perspective, where did Jesus go?

The basic physical perspective of his followers at the time was pretty clear in this regard at least: After defeating death Jesus’ body had taken on a miraculous form that the empire could no longer kill. He then went to someplace on the other side of the clouds, where his father’s kingdom lies, to gather an army of angels together, and to commission the building of some sort of concrete homes and offices for his followers who were to have significant positions of authority in his kingdom up there. From there their general hope was that he would be returning with his celestial armies of angels in a few weeks, or months… or years… to set things right in the lands God had given to Abraham seed, and then take all of his true followers to the grand and glorious kingdom physically up there somewhere, which he had ascended up to supervise building on. The rest was details to be worked out and revealed when his actual coming would occur; they just sort of had to trust him on that.

Obviously some aspects of that perspective were very much wrong: We have now thoroughly explored the regions on the other side of the clouds, littered that area with satellites and sent out investigative equipment thousands of times further from the earth than the highest clouds, all without encountering any distant kingdom up there as those in the early church would have expected we’d find. Likewise since the ascension there have been hundreds of generations of believers in Jesus, each believing that they would most likely be the ones to experience his glorious return from wherever he went when he levitated off that Jerusalem hilltop way back the –– each eventually facing the disappointment of dying like those before them. Obviously they misunderstood some parts of the system and God’s long-term plan in the matter. How deep did that misunderstanding really go? Did they have any of it right? Troubling questions for those who still choose to identify as followers of Jesus.

The things that these original followers of Jesus knew, or at least clearly and strongly believed, not on the basis of faith and speculation but  on the basis of their personal sensory experiences, were that Jesus’ body had not remained dead, that they had actually seen him in this post-death state, and that a reliable group of witnesses among them had watched as, a month and a half after coming back from the dead, Jesus did his levitation through the clouds thing. Speculations by historical scholars since then that the gospel reports were fabricated simply as a means of maintaining the cult revering this visionary martyr of one of the Jewish restorationist movements of the time don’t come across as particularly credible. To repeat the familiar argument, these apostles all allowed themselves to be put to death for what they believed rather than changing their story to make it more politically acceptable. That doesn’t sound like the actions of cons or fakers.

So there isn’t a credible argument to be made that the whole thing was a giant scam right from the start. Claims that they were the victims of an incredible mas psychosis also seem a bit historically problematic. Somehow they all saw something after Jesus’ execution that gave them a profound existential certainty about the matter of Jesus as the great victor over death, whose side they definitely wanted to be on. Nor do we have any viable reason for doubting their soundness of mind in doing so.

But though we can’t dismiss the apostles as cons or flakes, nor can we credibly belief that everything these guys held as true was the absolute, God’s honest truth of the matter. I find it disingenuous either to claim that they were intentionally deceitful or collectively schizophrenic on the one hand, or to claim that their perspectives –– even those recorded in the New Testament –– were infallibly accurate on the other. There were more than a few things that they didn’t understand, that didn’t work the way they anticipated, and regarding which they were just factually wrong.  So somewhere here we have a disconnect to be rectified, and I’m honestly not sure exactly how and where. All we can know is that somewhere around the ascension ––  somewhere between the sincere eye-witness testimonies to the resurrection and the shared belief within the early church that Jesus had physically taken off to go up there somewhere to work on the material logistics necessary for his return –– we have a breakdown in the narrative credibility. We don’t really have any good answers as to where Jesus would have gone, in what material sense, other than that he just went away, and that opens up a few cans of worms of its own.

Every effort I’ve seen to square this circle involves a fair amount of epistemological bluff on one side or the other, strongly influence by the faith position taken by the person offering the answer. Either they are dismissing the whole account as myth and fabrication, or they are holding to the absolute accuracy of the historical account in the book of Acts as a matter of personal faith. I believe the truth must be somewhere in between these two positions, but I cannot be sure where. So this makes me a proper agnostic with reference to the implications of the story of the ascension: I don’t know what exactly happened that day and how the tale came to be recorded as we have it; and so far I don’t know of anyone whose claim to know about this matter I can take particularly seriously at this point in my philosophical and spiritual journey. Fortunately I’m not one to be particularly afraid of mysteries. Not knowing which way is up has become a fairly familiar experience for me, and I’m almost at the point of being comfortable with it.

There are essentially two important practical matters of faith relative to the ascension that make the story relevant beyond the expectation of Jesus coming back through the clouds in a reverse action sequence of his departure: First we have the matter of believing that Jesus lives, even though he is not with us here on a day-to-day basis. Second we have the matter of taking Jesus as an example of life after death so as to give us hope of someday having life after death ourselves. Let me unpack those a bit.

One of the technical differences between a religion and a cult, sociologically speaking, is a matter of how long it has been since the departure of its founding leader, whatever title that leader is known by. Any new religion begins by revering some particularly charismatic character that walks among us and seems to have all the answers. People live in awe of this individual and turn to him (inevitably it has to be a him) for moral, spiritual and political guidance. Obeying the word of this leader is considered more important than thinking for oneself. It is only two or three generations after this leader’s departure from the scene that his followers start to digest his teachings and experiment with thinking for themselves on the basis of the principles introduced in those teachings. Moving beyond the blind subservience phase to the responsible representative phase is an important aspect in any religion’s maturation process. In this regard Christianity really has been no exception. For the faith to mature into a significant cultural force, its followers had to start thinking for themselves. Some Christians still aren’t capable of thinking for themselves much, but in order for us to at least have a fighting chance at doing so Jesus had to leave to give us the space to do so.

Beyond that the matter of the soul living on, as I’ve been contemplating for the past month, gets rather complicated in Christian theology, and in any other thoughtful perspective on the matter. A bit of exegetical research makes it quite clear that Jesus’ early followers did not have any concept of a soul existing without a body: “the resurrection” was to be a physical matter of each of God’s people receiving back their bodies in their most essential form, though perhaps without their most painful and troubling limitations such as handicaps and diseases. The whole idea of one’s soul being separable from one’s body came rather later in the writings of St. Paul. This is actually one of the primary evidences for the “Apostles’ Creed” predating the “Nicean Creed”: whereas the latter confesses to belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, the former carefully specifies that this is a matter of “the resurrection of the body”.

Jesus’ post-resurrection body was seen as the primary example of this principle; he was, in both St. John’s and St. Paul’s words, “the firstborn from among the dead” (Revelation 1:5, Colossians 1:18). But this was not merely to be understood as a matter of experiencing the joys of earthly life in some semi-detached immortal manner indefinitely, but rather of the potential for experiencing a world beyond this one, which Jesus continued on to. Jesus’ ascension was thus an important aspect of expanding believers’ concepts of possibilities for a life beyond the present one.

I’m not going to use this space to try to change anyone’s personal beliefs about how life after death might work. That’s not the sort of thing blogs are suited for –– even long-winded ones like mine. I would rather like to emphasize something that on one level or another all of my friends from various branches of Christianity, deism, agnosticism, Judaism and other world religions can probably relate to: The key to my soul having relevance beyond the limits of my skin is love. When I love someone, and/or I am loved by someone, that creates in me, and beyond, me a sense that I am relevant to more than just myself. It is this sense of security in one’s broader and deeper relevance that psychological researchers tell us is the strongest corollary to a subjective sense of happiness in this life. Ironically it is this sense of connecting with others that financial ambition tends to rob people of on all sorts of levels.

Having the security to love and be loved regardless of our acknowledged failures and limitations, and regardless of how it relates to our evolutionary biological motivations, is in many ways the core element of the Christian message, but I’ll make everyone uncomfortable by saying that I don’t see this as something Christians should try to lay an exclusive claim to. In fact for Christians to claim exclusivity in such a message rather defeats the purpose of the message. Exclusivity is a matter of setting advance limitations on who we are willing to connect with; on who has the rights to our love in one sense or another. There can be value to that in terms of sexual exclusivity, for instance, but when it comes to shared participation in God’s love there is little excuse for exclusive claims to such love. The foundational premise here should be that God has made all mankind in his own image, and therefore none are to be categorically excluded from the sphere of his love. There is even less excuse for violent attack on those who fail to meet one’s exclusive religious standards.

Whatever we do and don’t know about what lies beyond death and “beyond the clouds”, we can be quite sure of one thing: building a capacity to love in ways that overcome our natural violent and competitive inclinations is an extremely beneficial way of exercising one’s faith. It builds a sense of personal satisfaction in life. It is conducive to building a sense of harmony with those around us, and it lends credibility to any claims we may wish to make regarding our love for God. By loving others I know that I am able to transcend the limits of my body. I am able to become part of someone else; part of something outside my own skin; something that gives my life value beyond the simple physical pleasures and pains that it involves. This enables me to live at peace with what I don’t know about the historical and physical details of the ascension. This even enables me to live at peace with the false certainties that I hear fellow Christians proclaiming on the basis of their personal Pentecosts. And if some people find my attitude towards their would-be certainties offensive and condescending, I do my best to love them anyway.



Filed under Epistemology, Happiness, History, Religion, Science, Skepticism

In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 3)

So now we reach the final entry in Aristotle’s deliberations on the soul –– on what makes living things live, and what makes us human. In book three he continues on with all of the lines of thought begun in the previous two books, exploring areas that we would call neurology, psychology, epistemology and metaphysics –– in such a way, actually, where it is unlikely that he would have any defenders these days who would stand by all of his final conclusions in any of these four fields. Even so, he makes his mistakes in such a way as to open up all four subject areas in interesting ways for further speculation and development.

Regarding what we would call neurological phenomena, his basic conclusions are that there logically cannot be any more than five senses, and that the purpose of each of these senses is to help us identify “the good”, which, in each case, is in fact good by virtue of its concord, pleasing ratio, or overall balance. “That is also why the objects of sense are pleasant when the sensible extremes such as acid or sweet or salt being pure and unmixed are brought into proper ratio; then they are pleasant” (part 2, 6th paragraph).

He rather leaves open the question of whether this balanced goodness is something inherently good of itself, of if it is good as a means of preserving human life as such. It is possible that he sees the value in human life in its connection with some greater good beyond itself, revealed in such inherently virtuous things as harmony and balance; it is possible that he would see harmony and balance as instrumental goods which we take to be good because they preserve human life. These days we’re more prone to accept the latter way of looking at things: we have developed preferences as a species which are conducive to our continuation as a species, including the Goldilocks factors of not too hot, not too cold / not too hard, not too soft; and on that basis we are prone to see such things as good. It might be overly charitable though to assume that is what Aristotle had in mind. His medieval interpreters at least were more likely to read into his work an understanding that getting close to Godliness, in the form of the ultimate form of forms, is what makes human life valuable, and that a natural attraction to harmony and balance is part of God’s way of drawing us unto himself through the senses he has given us. It would seem then that Aristotle’s own perspective would be closer to that of the Thomists that of the Darwinians.

Was Baby Bear's bed the best  for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear's bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the Platonic ideal for such things?

Was Baby Bear’s bed the best for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear’s bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the divine “Platonic ideal” for such things?

Beyond that, when it comes to the function of the empirical senses, Aristotle sticks to the old “it takes one to know one” concept –– only like can know like. In other words just as only women can really understand women (and to the extent that men can understand women it is by way of getting in touch with their own “feminine side”) and only Greeks can really understand Greeks, so only that which has sound within it can perceive sound, only that which has color within it can perceived color, only that which has sweetness within it can perceive sweetness, and so on. Thus, “error is contact with the unlike; for that is the opposite of the knowing of like by like.” This presupposition that there must be some common element between the perceived and the perceiver, which functions as the basic means of perception, leads to some other interesting conclusions later on. Suffice to say, on a neurological level there is no particularly good reason to continue to hold to such a belief with reference to our senses. Appreciating the smell of roses does not imply that one is a partial rose, or that one’s nose bears particular similarity to a rose, anecdotal evidence not withstanding.

From a psychological perspective Aristotle comes to some interesting if mistaken conclusions regarding the interrelation of different cognitive functions in both humans and simpler-brained creatures. How do sense perception, imagination, desire, opinion, speculation, strategizing, practical judgment, moral conviction, argumentation and strength of will all relate to each other? Which of these can we identify in the behavior and interaction of other animals, and which are uniquely human capacities (perhaps also exercised by the gods we bear resemblance to)? Suffice to say, Aristotle’s speculations about where the border lies between human cognitive function and cognitive functions common to other animals –– like his speculations on many topics related to the natural sciences –– demonstrate a lack of experimental data on the matter. In particular on this question it seems clear that if he ever had a dog he would have seen many of his mistakes readily through the human/canine interaction. Me being very much a dog person, I find it hard to trust the psychological perspectives of those who aren’t, but I’ll set aside my biases on that one for the time being.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this speculation on animal versus human psychological function though is his assertion that animals cannot have opinions, because opinions inherently involve beliefs, beliefs inherently involve convictions and convictions inherently involve reasoned arguments (part 3, 7th paragraph). Besides a lack of familiarity with animals, this also clearly shows the early stage in the evolution of democratic government that Aristotle was exposed to in his day as well. In modern party politics throughout the western world we regularly find that opinion formation as a cognitive function, far from depending on rational argument, tends to be the polar opposite to rational argument! The two phenomena come very close to being mutually exclusive in many cases. If you don’t believe it, attend any rally of “social conservatives” anywhere in the world and try to identify any factors which are both rationally argued and strongly held matters of opinion within their rhetoric…

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense rational...

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense based on rational argument…

But let’s set that aside and move on to the question of epistemology as such –– Aristotle’s perspective on the soul’s capacity for knowledge and what in general counts as knowledge. Here things start to get chewy. Besides the “like knowing like” premise mentioned above, another basic factor in Aristotle’s theory of knowledge is that the empirical perception “is never in error, or admits the least possible amount of falsehood” (part 3, 10th paragraph). In other words you should always trust your eyes more than your imagination. That is not to say that we always correctly process the data that our senses give us, but we should trust that sense data as a reliable starting point for access to a world beyond ourselves. Yet this leaves an important issue hanging: where does sensing end and interpretation begin? Clearly Aristotle was unaware of blind spot phenomenon and so many other forms of scientific evidence which now tell us that our sense experience is far more actively constructed within our brains than what we realize as we go about our day-to-day routines. Would he have remained as firmly epistemologically committed to empiricism had he known? Perhaps not. It’s hard to say.

In fact for all his naïve trust in his eyes and ears and mouth and nose, and especially in his sense of touch, Aristotle considered there to be more to life, the universe and everything than just the physical. One of the areas in which he remained a committed disciple of Plato was in terms of the doctrine of forms. And here his teaching on one aspect of the human soul –– the nous or mind –– becomes rather intensively metaphysical and mystical.

The mind, as Aristotle sees it, has an analogous function to the physical senses. Whereas the sense of vision provides a sense of connection in the soul’s experience between the light that is “out there” and the light that is within the eye, and the sense of touch provides a sense of connection between the textures and temperatures of the external world and those within the body in the soul’s experience; so the mind provides the soul with a sense of connection with the world of ideas, or Platonic forms. “As the hand is the tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms” (part 8, 3rd paragraph).

The difference between the mind and the senses, however, is that the senses, in order to function, are dependent on the physical presence of the stimuli they are designed to detect; the mind can connect with things that are not at all physically present. And since it can have a sense of things that are not physically present, it follows for Aristotle that the mind would itself be inherently non-physical. In order to function as a bridge between like and like in the experience of the soul, mind needs to have the same non-material, spiritual, perhaps even eternal essence as the forms themselves. This “spiritual sense,” if we can call it that (not Aristotle’s or his translators’ term, but my synopsis of his treatment of the nous), is then intermixed with the living physical aspects of the soul, but it is ultimately something greater than the physical.

Part 5 of book 3 is one of the shortest and most central to the argument on this point. It comes back to the hylomorphism idea of “matter” and “cause”, or what we today would tend to think of as “hardware” and “software” as necessary elements within the soul, but it gets a bit deeper and more mysterious than that: “[M]ind as we have described it is what it is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things. This is a sort of positive state like light… Mind in this sense of it is separable, impassible, unmixed, since it is in its essential nature activity… When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal.”

Mind as such is only regarded to be a part or a function of the human soul. Humans, like lower animals, also have appetites. When we suffer from “weakness of will” those appetites overpower our “form of forms” minds, but when we overcome our moral weaknesses and live according to the ideal form for human dignity we become more than mere animals. We hook into something unmovable and everlasting. While imagination and appetites may be misguided, “mind is always right” (part 10, 3rd paragraph). While physical needs and empirical senses involve constant motion, “the faculty of knowing is never moved but remains at rest” (part 11, 4th paragraph). This makes the moral law within a matter of still greater magnificence than the starry heavens above: Whereas the heavenly bodies (from the standard ancient perspective) are in constant aesthetically pleasing circular motion, mind as such is inherently and essentially at rest within us. It is an element of “unmoved mover” within each of us that makes us at one with the deepest principles of the universe. Such a bold metaphysical claim about the most rational part of the human soul is fascinating, to say at the least.

From Aristotle's perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

From Aristotle’s perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

Aristotle concludes his discourse on souls as such with a discussion of the ways in which empirical senses improve the quality of life for all animals. This again provides an interesting mix biological folk wisdom and non-systematic zoological analysis. It concludes by saying that for animals touch is the minimum sense which makes life possible, whereas the other senses are necessary “not for their being, but for their well-being.”

For further investigation as to what makes humans human from Aristotle’s perspective, there is also book 7 of his “History of Animals” to be considered, with its extensive misinformation regarding human sexuality and reproduction –– and I mean serious misinformation, like saying that for a woman’s labia to be moist and swollen reduces the possibility of conception, so to increase the chance of making babies the man should avoid letting the woman get too wet! He furthermore suggests that for recreational sex where conception is not desired rubbing in some extra lubricant like cedar or olive oil should do the trick!

It is from within this same highly scientific chapter (3) of this work that medieval thinkers arrived at their formula of male embryos developing into human beings capable of thought and action faster than female embryos –– “ensoulment” happening at roughly 40 and 90 days into pregnancy for male and female fetuses respectively. A careful reading, however shows Aristotle actually presents this as a rule of thumb at best, with many exceptions and variations admitted.

With all this funky speculation and blatant misinformation regarding what souls are, where they come from, how they interact with the human body and so on, it becomes a little embarrassing to have so much of Christian doctrine and Western tradition based on such teachings, but there we have it. So what should we do with this pile of speculations now that we see them for what they are?

In closing here it’s worth going back to the beginning of the books on the soul to remind ourselves what the main point of the exercise was to begin with –– the thing that Aristotle set out to promote as inherently valuable in writing about the soul.  We find that from the very first pages of book 1 through with his mystical discussion of the mind in book 3, Aristotle promotes rational thought as the greatest source of human value: Genius must be promoted and preserved; people who are somewhat lacking in rational skills aren’t all that significant unless they play a significant role in enabling genius to flourish. Other forms of soul clearly exist, but the important part of one’s soul is that which facilitates the greatest experiences of the mind. That part he sees as important and eternal; the rest, fleeting and disposable.

It’s worth further backing up to consider the pre-Aristotelian ancient Jewish understanding of the basis of life and life after death, which forms the other particularly deep root for our western concept of the soul. This was less based on the concept of a disembodied soul having fellowship with God than on a glorious final day when the bodies of the faithful will be reassembled according to the requirements of their souls so that there can be a wonderful extended life on that basis. The “resurrection of the body” was thus a very key part of the earliest church teaching about the afterlife, because the idea of any other type of afterlife didn’t really make sense from their cultural perspective. The idea of being “present with the Lord” without any body to be present in was a rather later development in St. Paul’s teaching, reflecting his progressive interaction more with Greek ideas and less and less with Rabbinical Jewish ideas.

Even so, Aristotle’s world view seems to have been closer to the ancient Jewish perspective than to the modern western concept of individual immaterial souls going on to face reward or punishment after death in some disembodied state. For him the substance of the individual soul is the body that houses it, without which it is essentially meaningless in most senses. The part of the soul that he sees as not dying with the body is the “mind,” which as such is not tied to the ego of the person in whom it functioned. This “mind” is the unmoved, unmovable, non-material spirit substance which is uncomfortably attached to one’s restless, hungering, lusting and aching human soul and body. It might be compared to a quantity of precious metal suspended within a lump of ore. Once the lump of ore has been broken down and that precious metal has been liberated, the continued existence of that metal, mixed together with the metal from other lumps of ore, would not necessarily imply the continued existence of the pattern for the lump of ore it came from. So it would seem to be with Aristotle’s teaching on mind and soul: The everlasting, ethereal mind we each have within us will continue on after the body which houses it and the dimensions of soul it is mixed with have broken down, but there is no reason to believe that this mind will continue to be identifiable as “my mind” in its “liberated” state. Adjusting Aristotle’s teaching on the soul so as to reinforce the church’s teaching on the soul which evolved thereafter thus seems to have required a fair amount of Thomist creativity.

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

It could be argued that the last philosopher to unsentimentally follow something resembling an originally Aristotelian perspective on the soul –– considering all other parts of it than the capacity for intellectual greatness to be relatively disposable –– would have been Nietzsche. From a bastardization of his teachings then came the somewhat ignorant and arrogant spectacle of Fascism, treating particular people as outright disposable because they lacked the sort of soul elements that those in power considered to be worth advancing. This shocked the world enough so that for the last few generations at least we’ve been looking for a broader basis for human value than just gratification of the egos of some self-appointed master race.

But if we set aside Aristotle’s concept of the nous/mind –– a rational capacity to connect with all of the transcendent truths of the universe –– as the one eternal and valuable thing about the human soul, his style of reasoning gives us little reason to believe in an eternal soul in any other sense either.

So this leaves us with three rather complex unsolved puzzles:
– What should we make of the “eternal soul” concept once we stop basing it on a misunderstanding of Aristotle?
– What non-Greek basis might there be for considering human life to have some universal value to begin with?
– And in this state of uncertainty, how to we go about setting ethical standards concerning practical issues related to the beginning and ending of human lives?

It has also been said that the essential difference between philosophers and scholars of other fields is that, whereas at the end of the day scientists, theologians, historians and the like are uncomfortable to leave a question unanswered, philosophers are more uncomfortable if at the end of the day they leave an answer unquestioned. With that in mind perhaps I should just be philosophical about this matter and leave those three questions standing for now. I leave it to you, dear reader, to suggest the next answers to be questioned in this journey of soul discovery. Meanwhile, if you can help it, try not to lose too much sleep worrying about what sort of soul you may or may not have.

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 2)

aristotle1Continuing on with my efforts to grasp the basic principles of ensoulment that religious thinkers over the years have borrowed from Aristotle, I now move on to Book 2 of the man’s work on the subject. It starts out with Aristotle basically saying, “enough on those other old farts; let’s get down to business on analyzing the subject itself.” This dives pretty directly into what the professionals in the field these days call “Hylomorphism”: how the essence of what something is relates to how its form or shape is determined.

To put it in Aristotle’s terms, there are three ways in which what we might call “things” can exist: 1) they can exist as entirely physical objects (like the pillow I am using for back support); 2) they can exist as formal patterns (like this blog itself, which you are probably reading without any physical object having been transferred between you and I); or 3) they can exist as a combination of the physical and the formal (like my computer, and actually most other things around me to one extent or another). In these terms every living being is a category 3 thing –– a composite –– a combination of material substance and formal, functional (we would say genetic) design. So the soul, as Aristotle conceptualizes it, is more or less identical with a living being’s functional genetic design –– the category 2 aspect of our basic being. Thus Aristotle’s summary definition for the soul is, “substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive form of a thing’s essence,” or in simpler terms (in Smith’s translation), it is “‘the essential whatness’ of a [living] body.”

From there the distinction comes up between the realized and potential function of a given composite (category 3) item. Can we refer to an apple seed, for example, as having a soul –– as a living thing? Well… potentially. But how is that seed being a potential apple tree different from a pile of snow being an actual snowman which just needs assembly?

ikea snowmanThe difference of course is that the apple seed contains within itself all of the pattern information necessary to produce an apple tree. It still needs lots of soil and rain and sun and time, but the “whatness” in terms of the basic model and all that is already there. The snow, on the other hand, does not contain the information within itself of how it could be packed together to form an abstract representation of a human being; that has to imparted to it by some crazy individual like myself.snowman karhusuo

In this regard Aristotle considers seeds to have soul in a sense that corpses and porridges do not. From our modern perspective we could say that the DNA is still there, (and thus cloning might still be possible), but it no longer either actually or potentially meets the two classical Greek standards for being alive that Aristotle subscribes to: independent movement and sensation.

Aristotle concludes his sketch of the basic nature of the soul in general in the first chapter of book 2 by once again concluding that, at least in its most basic sense, the soul cannot exist in any disembodied form: “[T]he soul is inseperable from its body, or at any rate […] certain parts of it are (if it has parts) for the actuality of some of them is nothing but the actualities of their body parts.”  Yet within that sentence we see him hedging his bet a bit, which he actually continues on with as the work progresses. Some aspects of soul, he speculates, might not be “actualities of any body at all. Further, we have no light on the problem of whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.”

(These days we would use the driver and automobile analogy for soul and body in that sense, but back in Aristotle’s day sailors and ships was the best he could do.)

He goes on to expand on this by saying that in plants, lower animals, more intelligent animals and humans alike we find “soul” in a sense of some combination of “the powers of self-nutrition, sensation, thinking and movement.”  Can these be distinguished from one another? A problematic endeavor, yet right away Aristotle comes back to his basic reason for studying the soul to begin with: considering what it is that makes the glories of thinking possible for us. “We have no evidence as yet about mind [nous] or the power to think. It seems to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable. It alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other [soul-based] powers.

Aristotle is thus, while trying to remain as “scientific” as possible, starting to explore two different meanings for “soul” in the human context: the design of the body and the driver of the body, and trying to figure out how the two essentially relate to each other. Regarding both, however, he reaches the conclusion that they are not physical substances like air (breath) or blood per se, but rather the “formulable essence of something that possesses a potentiality of being besouled.”

He goes on to build something of a hierarchy of biological of soul functions. He basically concludes that plant souls are capable of little more than the “nutritive” functions of self-perpetuation through acquiring nutrients from their environment, growing, reproducing and dying. Other, slightly more advanced life-forms are also capable of sensing or feeling things. It would seem, however, that sensing and feeling are only revealed and relevant when the organism in question also wants things; thus what Aristotle calls the sensory and the appetitive aspects of the soul tend to go together with each other. At their most primitive even the simplest of animals (and though Aristotle didn’t recognize them as “wanting” in such a way, perhaps many plants as well) manifest desires for food, suitable temperature and moisture conditions, avoidance of pain and sexual opportunities. The next level of soul activity Aristotle recognizes then is the ability to physically chase after the objects of our desires through physical motion or locomotion. Above that though, in a category limited to mankind and “possibly another order like man or superior to him” is the power of thinking proper: mind. The extent to which this property of mind is a separate matter from the rest of the soul, and the extent to which it is universal even among humans, are questions regarding which Aristotle’s answers seem to be tentative at best.

Aristotle soul functionsTo state again what is obvious to all who have studied the subject even superficially, in Aristotle’s day, and for the next 2000 years thereafter, there was no distinction made between “science” and “philosophy” in the way we now distinguish between them. So it would be a gross anachronism to say that Aristotle goes back and forth between “playing scientist” and “playing philosopher”; he didn’t see any sort of distinction between the two. These days we tend to take such a distinction as self-evident, perhaps creating more problems than we solve in doing so, but that’s another long story unto itself.

In any case, given our contemporary way of looking at such things, we can say that from our perspective Aristotle goes back and forth between the scientific, biological view of soul, considering it as both the “life-principle” –– sort of like what we’re hoping to find on Mars –– and the philosophical view of soul as “the miracle of consciousness” and cognition, enabling us to somehow connect with the world around us in ways that, near as we can tell, no animal is capable of –– formulating, theorizing, exercising artistic imagination, etc. This leads to a fair amount of ambiguity and inconsistency; sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that the miracle of consciousness is merely a manifestation of biological processes, and sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that consciousness has to be a spiritual phenomenon that must have its origins in something beyond the material.  He doesn’t really seem to be sure. My sense is that for this reason his modern interpreters are all able to find ideological reflections of themselves in his text.

There is also a third sense of soul that Aristotle tosses into the mix: that of purpose or end for the life of the individual organism. Why do plants and animals and us “higher life forms” keep struggling to go on with this process called life? Because our souls make us do so. This “natural law within us” (a term used by Medieval philosophers, not Aristotle himself in this context at least) in this sense operates as follows: “[F]or any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated […] the most natural act is the production of another like itself […] in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive” (ch. 4, 2nd paragraph). In other words the continuity of life is something of a spiritual principle that all living creatures instinctively attempt to take part in, giving their own lives meaning in the process.

Thus we can say that the soul is the cause and source of the body in at least three distinct senses: it is the design principle behind the body, it is the driving force in the body, and it is the teleological destination giver for the body. In this last sense, “Nature, like mind, always does whatever it does for the sake of something, which something is its end. To that something corresponds in the case of animals the soul and in this it follows the order of nature; all natural bodies are organs of the soul. This is true of those that enter into the constitution of plants as well as of those which enter into that of animals. This shows that the sake for which they are is soul” (ch. 4, 5th paragraph).

From there Aristotle goes into a long “scientific” rather than “philosophical” discussion of the functions of “lower” aspects of the soul in terms of its nutritive and sensory aspects. Much of this amounts to a historical curiosity in terms of early theories regarding aspects of neurology that Oliver Sachs has marvelously popularized the current scientific understanding of in recent years. This includes, among other things, Aristotle’s speculation as to how vision works given his premise (which I quoted last time) that there is no credible reason to believe that light actually travels. Another classically mistaken “scientific” premise which he states here is that the soul within animals in general “is due to the action of the male parent” (ch. 5, 9th paragraph). This corresponds with his acceptance in Book I (end of chapter 2) of Hippo’s argument that the soul as such cannot be contained in the blood, since “the primordial soul” comes from the father’s seminal fluid, which is a non-bloody liquid.

Another would-be scientific statement here, which has fascinating poetic potential in spite of its failure in scientific terms, is, “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice” (ch. 8, 12th paragraph). He goes on to say that to speak of the “voice” of musical instruments is a metaphorical use of the term, and to speculate about the multiple natural functions of the respiratory system, before further expanding on this idea: “Voice then is the impact of the inbreathed air against the ‘windpipe’, and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body. […] What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is sound with meaning […] not merely the result of any impact of the breath, as in coughing.”

So, from Aristotle’s perspective, if you are looking for some core physical location for the soul within the body, don’t search between the ears or in the heart, but rather look down the throat.

Most of the more “philosophically interesting” questions relating to the “higher levels” of the soul are reserved for book III, but one last matter worth considering in book II here is the starting comparison between sensation and knowledge. Both are soul functions that can exist either actively or passively/potentially. Thus being a seeing being can either mean that the brain is actively registering incoming light at given moment in question (Aristotle had the technical aspects of this all screwed up, but that’s beside the point), or it can be the opposite to blindness, indicating a fully developed capacity for such function. The same with hearing; it can be an active process of “using your ears” or it can be merely the opposite of deafness. So what about thinking? Well, as Aristotle puts it, “We can speak of someone as a ‘knower’ either (a) …meaning [she/he] falls within the class of beings that know or have knowledge, or (b) when we speak of [her/him] who possesses a knowledge of grammar,” thereby having a capacity to absorb knowledge of other sorts. The former has what we might call a neurological potential to develop knowledge; the latter has what we might call a culturally adapted potential. These in turn then imply a third category for those who actually know stuff that is somehow worth knowing, like math, biology, politics, etc.

So from there Aristotle wishes to consider what the proper role of the teacher is. “What in the case of knowing or understanding leads from potentiality to actuality ought not to be called teaching, but something else.” I take it for granted that there are semantic aspects of the question of choice of terms here that are going to get lost in translation, and which probably weren’t particularly clear to Aristotle’s own students in the original Greek either. The point though is to stop and consider what sort of change the teacher is attempting to bring about in the student. Is he trying to do something analogous to farming –– burning off or ripping out what is naturally growing in the field and replacing it with the sort of seed that he has in mind; then helping those seeds to grow in order to yield the desired crops? Or is the teacher’s work more a matter of nurturing and coaching the student to develop and more efficiently use what he already has within? Aristotle seems to be leaning towards the latter option. He also seems to be resisting the idea of educational interaction in the sense that the teacher and student would learn from each other, or that the teacher would himself learn in the process of teaching: “[I]t is wrong to speak of a wise man as being ‘altered’ when he uses his wisdom, just as it would be absurd to speak of a builder as being altered when he is using his skills in building a house.”

But once the learning has taken place, the difference between sensing and knowing is that “what actual sensation apprehends is individuals, while what knowledge apprehends is universals, and these are in a sense within the soul. That is why a man can exercise his knowledge when he wishes, but his sensation does not depend on himself; a sensible object must be there.”

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for further speculation regarding the inherent connection between the knower and the known. Does it really “take one to know one” in a definitive sense? Can only Greeks understand Greeks; only men understand men; only dogs understand dogs, etc.? If so, does that mean that for everything we are able to understand, there is necessarily some part of that object of understanding within ourselves? Does this make some degree of pantheism a prerequisite for epistemology?

For the answers to these and other fascinating questions, tune in next week…

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 1)

This time I’m going to use this space for thinking allowed about some ideas I need to unpack for my doctoral studies. Please excuse my calloused selfishness in dumping such abstraction on you here, and feel free to skip over this one if you’re bored by theoretical matters of religious philosophy. But before you go, stop for a minute to think about one basic question: When we refer to a soul, what the hell are we actually talking about?

I’m not going to provide any complete survey of the religious or philosophical consideration of that question here, obviously, but in the process of opening up my thinking on this question I believe it is important to go back to one of the earliest extant consideration of the subject: Aristotle’s On the Soul (Greek: Psyche / Latin: De Anima). I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar of the ancient text in terms of deep nuance of the original language and all that, but I feel as though a careful consideration of its translation is a necessary task for me to take on this spring. I don’t think we can really intelligently discuss the basic concepts of human rights and social ethics without considering the basis of the value of human life; I don’t believe the basis of the value of human life can be discussed without at least some reference to the concept of the soul as it is used in western philosophy; and I don’t believe the concept of the soul can be intelligently discussed in much detail without an awareness of the ancient understandings and presuppositions related to the term that trace back to the writings of Aristotle. So with the goal of building a workable foundation for discussions of human rights and human value in this regard, I’ve set myself the task for this week of reading through and intellectually digesting the text in question.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Interested? Keep reading. (And if philosophy students start finding this to be a valuable cheater’s resource, I’ll be flattered.) Bored? Bye for now.

The soul, in all of the various senses in which Aristotle uses the term (psyche) in his study of the subject, is what makes living things fundamentally different from non-living things: it is the basic life principle in the broadest sense of the word. In a basic Greek way of thinking, if it is alive, it has soul. Aristotle’s starting point in investigating this phenomenon is the premise that knowledge itself is a wonderful thing, and knowing is something that, near as we can tell, only living things can do. In fact it seems that it is a tiny minority of living things that are capable of knowing anything, at least in the sense we like to think of knowledge. So how does the capacity for knowing relate to what makes living things… live? That is the essential matter that Aristotle sets out to explore here.

It should go without saying, but it needs to be said right from the start anyway: this text was written at a time when the Ptolomean view of the universe –– everything “out there” just spinning around a completely unmoving earth –– was accepted as self-evident truth; long before neurology, genetics, cosmology, nuclear physics, behavioral psychology or medicine developed into sciences as we know them today. But even without what we would now consider to be a proper scientific understanding about these matters, in the process of trying to work out the essence of what makes living things live Aristotle speculates a bit about all of these fields, basing his conclusions about the human soul on what we must now consider largely mistaken observations and conclusions. One particularly interesting example of this is the following:

“Empedocles… was wrong in speaking of light as ‘travelling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; …where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.” (book II, 7)

Thus the task of sorting through all of the mistaken observations and erroneous speculations here to find concepts that have had strong seminal influence on Western thought, and especially those which remain potentially viable, is actually a rather daunting one.  Still, for reasons already stated, I believe this is a project worth tackling.

Among the starting questions Aristotle tosses out are whether soul, in the broader life-principle sense, is a homogeneous general category or not. Is livingness somehow the same in all living things? For that matter how reliably can we divide such livingness into useful sub-categories? And can such “livingness” properly exist outside of a particular sort of living body?

Aristotle’s starting point in all of this is surprisingly conservative in a materialistic sense: “Soul,” in the sense in which it is definitive of all living things, is analogous with “straightness” –– it means nothing unless there is some material embodiment of the principle. You can’t find “straightness” floating around in some mystical unembodied form; only in rulers and plumb lines and arrows and the like. For the same reason it is rather problematic to talk about souls outside of bodies. Beyond that, every manifestation of the soul in the sense of human personality –– anger, courage, desire, love, fear, pity, etc. –– has a certain biological component to it, which is, as the man says, “precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature.” The one possible exception to this principle, he notes from the start, is thinking, but if thinking inevitably involves the processing of input received through our five senses, it’s sort of hard to imagine it not being body-based at least in some senses.

Not that this speculative materialist perspective was particularly more reliable than a more “spiritual” speculations of the time. The physical explanation given for anger for instance, would be a build-up of particularly hot liquid around the heart (book I, 1).

So how do we go about distinguishing between living and non-living things –– between things with soul and things without? The established state of the art in addressing this question in ancient Greece came back to two primary characteristics: independent movement and sensation. By these standards a vast variety of man-made devices these days could be said to have “soul”: production robots, security cameras, vending machines, etc. Whether Aristotle would be naïve enough to consider such things to be truly “alive” is another question. Actually he probably wouldn’t. Aristotle dismisses Thales’ speculation that magnets are alive, or have souls, because of their capability to sense and move iron, so intuitively he knows that there has to be a more precise definition for soul in terms of livingness. But as he pursues these arguments they become thoroughly entangled with speculation about which of the four primordial elements –– earth, air, fire or water –– the soul’s function should be associated with. Suffice to say in this regard that the ancient Hebrew theories of breath (Genesis 2:7) and blood (Leviticus 17:11) alternatively being seen as the primary physical manifestations of soul were well represented within the Greek world as well.

Another interesting aspect of these speculations is the idea that the motion of living beings would somehow reflect something divine, seen especially in the motion of the sun, moon and planets above. Aristotle cites Plato’s Timaeus dialog as an example of belief in the soul reflecting the pattern of the movements of these heavenly bodies –– these tracing back to the Demiurge bending the primordial straight line into a circle, bringing about various sub-divisions of that circle from there, and on that basis setting important spiritual forces in pleasing circular motions. Thus the motions of the planets would be inherently related to the actions of our souls, providing what passed for a rational justification for astrology for the next couple thousand years, even among Christian theologians as it turns out.

There are many things about this understanding of soul that Aristotle finds dissatisfying however. To start with, the motions of plant and simple animal souls are not really circular in any meaningful sense. The only justification he finds for speculating that the highest part of the soul of man is in circular motion is that it obviously is not entirely at rest, and if complete rest is not possible then circular motion is the next best thing. It is in this context that Aristotle begins to speculate about the possibility that the mind –– the highest functioning part of the soul –– might be happier if it could escape from the continuous restless motions of the body. He goes on from there to reject the premise the soul having a circular motion and to theorize about thought, motivation, anger, fear, pleasure and pain as the proper movements of the soul –– or at least movements originating in the soul.

Mind (nous) is a separate matter for Aristotle: “It seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. […] Thinking, loving and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has. That is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they were activities not of mind, but of the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassible.” Thus in many respects it would be this “mind” aspect of the soul which is uniquely valuable in human beings, and which from a traditional Christian dogmatic perspective would be “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) at the moment of death.

Going back to Aristotle’s speculation on the essence of soul though, at the end of the first of the three books within this work he lays out four essential functions of the soul:

–          Cognitive functions: knowing, perceiving, opining

–          Emotional functions: desiring, wishing, appreciating, longing

–          Movement functions: animal body motions

–          Lifespan functions: growing, maturing, reproducing, decaying

From there he leaves two relevant questions about the soul somewhat hanging: Can the soul –– the life principle in plants, animals and humans alike –– be meaningfully and usefully divided into sub-sections? Then secondly, does the function of knowing require a sort of affinity between the knower and the known which would in turn imply that there must be some sort of soul imbedded in everything in the universe that we are capable of knowing?

Book 1 is the part of this investigation where Aristotle allows himself to get bogged down with the critical consideration of all earlier Greek studies and speculations about his topic. He attempts to critique them in ways that his students can learn something from these old masters in spite of their mistakes. He clearly would not like it to discover that his own ideas would someday be considered among learned men and women with the same assumption of pervasive error throughout, and effort to locate useable lessons regardless, with which he considers the works of Thales and Empedocles, but such is life. (I, on the other hand, hardly expect to be read in any other way than with a presumption that I am by and large wrong about things, but that there might be something useful within my perspectives regardless, so…) In books 2 and 3 he proceeds to lay out his own scholarly perspective on the matter from scratch, so to speak.

The analysis above is based just on book 1, and that’s probably quite enough text for any blog reader to deal with in one go of it. It would be most fair then for me to give my analyses of books 2 and 3 as separate posts then. Meanwhile corrections and feedback here are more than welcome.


Filed under Education, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Philosophy, Religion, Science


Two dead men have been in the news this week, though neither on the front pages. Both have been portrayed rather broadly as heroes, though for very separate causes. Both have been the subject of Hollywood films of limited historical accuracy, made mostly to energize the believers in their causes. Both have been subject to critique from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Both deserve the deepest of respect for confronting injustices in the sixties, achieving unexpected global celebrity for their causes in the seventies and winning decisive victories in their fields in the eighties. Both also deserve to be critiqued for their human failures, however, in ways that may make them less useful as icons for their causes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to Karol Wojtyla and Rubin Carter, better known respectively as Pope John Paul II and The Hurricane. The Hurricane died this last Sunday, just shy of 77 years old –– a respectable level of seniority for a man whose fame was based on his reputation for violence of all sorts. Pope John Paul II died 9 years ago, just shy of 85 –– also a respectable level of seniority for a man who had stood up in opposition to both Nazis and Communist totalitarians, and then took an assassin’s bullet to the chest in later life and lived to tell about it. The final official touches on his sainthood are taking place on Sunday, April 27.

Back in the 1960s Wojtyla was one of the radical young intellectual archbishops sent to Rome to stir things up at the Vatican 2 conference (in part just as an excuse to get the trouble maker out of Poland for a few years), which permanently changed the public face of Catholicism: eliminating claims of an exclusive institutional right to declare who could have God’s grace and who couldn’t, with all those not explicitly submitted to papal authority being damned to hell; embracing freedom of religion and rejecting the doctrine that all good Catholic rulers and political leaders should work to eliminate people’s freedom to worship in non-Catholic ways; expanding the role given to active participation by the laity in Catholic rituals in general; and somewhat in counter-balance to all of these liberalizing tendencies, explicitly emphasizing the church’s right to regulate people’s sex lives.

hurricane_carter_wall_01bBack in the 1960s Rubin Carter was building a reputation for being everything that middle class white Americans feared about young urban blacks: a gun-toting, hard partying fighter who had been dishonorably discharged from the Army prior to the Viet Nam crisis. Carter was pulled over one hot June night in 1966 for “driving while black”. Circumstantial evidence from that contact with the police was used months later to convict him and the friend he was riding with that night of shooting up a Patterson, New Jersey bar, resulting in 3 deaths.

In the 1970s Bob Dylan wrote an extended ballad about Carter’s case that drew international attention to the matter. In 1976 Carter was given a retrial, which he also lost, but not without a lot of international attention being drawn to the problematic issues involved in the case. In 1978 Wojtyla became Pope –– the first non-Italian to get the job in over 400 years. In the process he managed to draw a great deal of international attention to the problems of official anti-religious actions being taken by governments under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Pope John Paul II - Voight
In the 1980s both men “won” their battles, sort of. Carter’s convictions were overturned on procedural grounds and the Soviet bloc discovered that “Glasnost” – openness – was more than their oppressive systems could handle, leading to its systemic implosion. Carter, living out his remaining years in Canada, and John Paul, living out his remaining years in the Vatican, had gained the status of moral heroes of the oppressed in the countries they had left behind. Both continued, in their own humanly flawed ways, to fight for the rights of those they saw as oppressed for the rest of their lives.

Their epic struggles not withstanding though, both men suffered from a certain credibility deficit with regard to key aspects of the causes they came to represent: Carter in terms of being violence-prone; Wojtyla in terms of personifying the Catholic Church’s head-in-sand approach to sex problems. No one can credibly accuse Carter of being any sort of urban warlord, and no one can credibly accuse Wojtyla of not having kept his pants zipped, but in their respective zeals for their causes both can be said to have overlooked major issues that some “normal people” have a certain justification in feeling angry about or threatened by.

It is true that many young black men who have been raised under circumstances of systematic injustice and oppression become dangerously violent and disrespectful of any abstract concept of the rights of others. Just because they are victims themselves does not mean that they are not dangerous. Carter’s case and his work over the course of the last third of his life, after his convictions were overturned, seem to belittle these risk factors.

It is true that emotionally meaningless recreational sexuality has got grossly out of control in the past couple of generations, and that some form of deeper motivational force for personal restraint in that regard may be in order, but that does not make it safe for any authoritarian religious organization to claim the right to control people’s sex lives. This is especially the case when isolated individuals within such organizations’ ranks are prone to use their position of power to sexually dominate vulnerable individuals under their charge, and this is especially objectionable when the vulnerable individuals in question are (pre-)pubescent children. John Paul’s obsession with maintaining a hard line on issues related to sexual control, together with his inability to deal effectively with matters of priestly abuse of power and especially pedophilia within his organization, have seriously sullied his saintly reputation in ways that his conservative fans largely fail to grasp.

Those who would wish to use these men as saints of their respective causes –– fighting against racial prejudice and abuse within the criminal justice system of the United States in particular, and maintaining an emphasis on sexual moralizing over social justice issues within the Vatican hierarchy and the American Religious Right respectively –– would prefer that their heroes continue to be presented in as sympathetic and unsullied a light as possible. It is far easier to promote their causes if they don’t have to content with attack sound-bites and negative talking points from their opponents. Neither group can be accused of being excessively honest and open about their heroes in this regard. Yet meanwhile the general public seems to realize that both heroes had their serious weaknesses; thus the public enthusiasm for both hagiographies is running rather thin this spring, keeping either Carter’s death or Wojtyla’s canonization from being front page news.

I have read far more of John Paul II’s writings than I have the Hurricane’s, so I’m in a better position to deconstruct that hagiography than the other. For the casual reader here though, suffice it to say that by the end of the first Bush presidency the Pope’s political sympathies had been thoroughly co-opted by his Cold War comrades in the United States, with Ronald Reagan as their own patron saint. This can especially be seen in John Paul’s supremely naïve statement in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, where he says (in § 41), “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society.” It can also be seen in the complete absence of concern for the poor in his encyclical writings from that point onward.

It wasn’t that these problems were all magically solved once the Cold War was over; it was merely that the Pope had become convinced that after playing a role in defeating communism he now needed to focus his energies on defeating all forms of promiscuity an unauthorized sex. Abortion was part and parcel of this evil, and a particularly conspicuous issue to be raised politically, especially in the US political market. It might also be said to have served as a convenient form of PR offensive by which the church could attempt to draw attention away from scandals regarding cover-ups of priests’ pedophilic practices, which may have been going on since time immemorial, but which came to light in steadily increasing ways over the entire course of John Paul’s papacy.

The relevance of all this is not in terms of reducing Wojtyla’s personal historical significance, or discrediting him as a virtuous and intelligent human being. The point is more to say that a continued emphasis on his moralistic “pro-life” heritage is problematic at best, and trying to maintain momentum in that movement on the basis of his personal heroic stature is looking like less and less of a winning strategy. His shift of emphasis in his post-Cold War years away from “social issues” and towards “moral issues” –– arguably due to the influence of American political conservatives on his thinking –– has probably done Christendom in general and the Catholic Church in particular far more harm than good. Pope Francis’ primary historical role thus far has been to push the boundaries of how far he can take the matter of shifting the emphasis back in the other direction. This in turn has won Francis blanket condemnation from those within the US Religious Right, and universal praise from pretty much every other possible source. This makes his presiding over John Paul’s canonization this weekend all the more ironic.

As for the Hurricane, it doesn’t take too much research to reach the conclusion that when Denzel Washington claimed that he was “all love”, that was more than a little bit of an exaggeration. Carter certainly had a lot of love of various sorts within him, but there was a lot of ugliness as well. How far that ugliness goes in justifying the actions of the US “prison-industrial complex” that he spent the last half of his life fighting against is another question. Unlike John Paul, however, the Hurricane achieved no major shift in the status quo from which the pendulum might now swing back the other direction. There are still many people who resent the extent to which darker skinned people can be treated as their equals, but there is no sense that now we’ve got to the point that we’ve been doing too much for black people and now we have to start working on putting them back in their “natural” inferior position. Thus Carter’s human failures cannot be taken as a valid excuse for re-enslaving black people or otherwise reducing the civil rights they have been fighting to gain recognition for. The problem is just that, given his mixed legacy, Carter’s death will probably have little effect in terms of energizing people to fight for the cause he has represented for the past 40 years.

The lessons in all this? Choose your heroes and icons carefully, and be prepared to be disappointed by them; but regardless of this risk, seek inspiration for the courage to change this world for the better wherever you can find it, and don’t let your heroes’ failures keep you from fighting for worthy causes which they stood for.

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Filed under Ethics, History, Human Rights, Politics, Pop culture, Racism, Religion, Respectability, Social identity, Spirituality

The Balance of Solidarity

This weekend’s entry is sort of a stream of consciousness follow-up on one of the afternoon sessions I attended at the university this week regarding a phrase that carries a very positive connotation in Finnish, but translated into English, especially in with reference to the US political scene, it comes off more as something of a curse these days: “The Welfare State”.

The afternoon in question featured a PR event for a research project jointly sponsored by an insurance company and the university itself, basically looking at the theme of how the societal values that are of deep cultural importance to the Finns can be protected from the draconian “invisible hand of the market” which, taken from an Americanized perspective, would seem to point to the law of the economic jungle inevitably leading to the ever greater polarization of developed societies into a “financial class” and a separate “service class”. Ironically perhaps, the name of the research initiative is “Masterclass”.

I won’t go into the details of the theories that were being tossed about this week by the business interests, Green Party politicians, left-of-center social theory researchers and professors representing the “ivory tower” academic establishment. Suffice to say, the main topics of discussion related to theories regarding how the private, public and tertiary sectors of the economy should ideally relate to each other. For me this simply led to my mind wandering in a number of interesting directions. Interesting to me at least; it remains to be seen whether anyone else finds the paths my mind started to wander down interesting or not.

The core thought that struck my mind that afternoon was that I would agree with one point that Pope John Paul II kept coming back to throughout his papacy, even though he drifted further and further from it the older he got. It was the motto he chose for himself: “Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity” (from his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39). I’m firmly convinced that he was right about this: the only way for us to have peace is if we find ways to build solidarity with those around us.

Solidarity4The essence of the hope that Finns have in the welfare state is in the idea of the state serving as a mechanism by means of which all citizens come together, in solidarity, to confront the challenges faced by vulnerable individuals or smaller groups within society –– whether it be in terms of the harsh climate and likelihood of famine when dependent on Finnish domestic agriculture for the nation’s basic food supply, or the risks posed by having a long border with a massive country historically governed by unstable megalomaniacs to the east, or the human tragedies of personal and family breakdowns caused by people self-medicating in various ways in reaction to the stresses of day-to-day life. With all these factors taken into consideration, if life is going to work at all in this country it has to work on the basis of people coming together in a sense of solidarity –– no one gets left behind; everyone counts. Nor is this strictly a Finnish dilemma or solution; more and more the same lesson is being seen in other parts of the world as well, even those where life is not as naturally stressful as it is in this little corner of Europe: we either build solidarity or we build internal conflicts that will inevitably destroy us.

Building this kind of solidarity, however, is no simple matter. It involves a number of forms of delicate balance in order to function. The key to a viable society, which is not on its way to becoming a failed state, is for the people to sense that they have a stake in the system of government, which in turn is able to bring people together, in spite of their differences, with the conviction that they have greater enemies to face than each other. This doesn’t mean that all of the people of the country need to feel like one big happy family together, but it does mean that they have a sense of mutual respect in their interactions, and an awareness of their dependence on each other.

I would define requirement this as finding a workable balance between dynamics of competition and cooperation. If people lose all of their competitive drive in the process of performing traditional tasks and coming up with valuable new ideas, their societies will inevitably drift down through mediocrity into irrelevance. But if the competition becomes so cut-throat that they are no longer able to work together to achieve important shared goals, the competitive instinct starts to do far more harm than good. Thus, as I have written earlier here, I’m inclined to consider competitive comparison, when it serves as an end unto itself, to be the lowest basic form of human motivation. Throw it away entirely though and you’re also in very deep trouble. Like I said, balance.

bmp_republicans_support_corporate_greed_bumper_sticker-rf99478b65c83442898c1641ecfe6dab2_v9wht_8byvr_324Related to this is the process of establishing a healthy level of ambition within the society as a whole. To state the matter in negative terms, when it comes to ambition there are two extremes that can destroy the potential for solidarity within a society: greed and laziness. Those who are driven to get every possible form of reward for themselves, hell-bent on domination of all human and material obstacles in their path, cannot learn to treat other people as anything else than stepping stones on their path to ultimate domination. Solidarity will never be possible with such people. Likewise those who cannot be bothered to do make any effort beyond the minimum needed to avoid acute personal pain, who have no interest in improving life for themselves and those they care about in the long run, lazy-democratscan never be trusted or respected as valuable partners within a communal spirit of solidarity. Thus when others are seen as either too greedy or too lazy, solidarity inevitably begins to break down. So in order for solidarity to function, we need to have some sort of limits on the amount of greed and the amount of laziness that we consider to be socially acceptable, and we need to have means by which we limit extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum.

More importantly in this regard though, we need to avoid falling prey to hate-mongering regarding others who wish to demonize those at a different point than they are on the continuum from least ambitious to most ambitious. The extreme of laziness at which a person becomes useless to society is actually quite rare. Likewise the prevalence of abusive psychopaths among the most greedily ambitious leaders in the worlds of politics and business management is probably quite exaggerated. When we find excuses to think of other people as less than human, and either toss them aside by blaming all of their misfortunes on their inherent laziness or demonize all good fortune as a sign of psychopathic greed, solidarity ceases to function no matter how hard those at the bottom and those at the top try to work together with those in the middle. In order to build solidarity we need to resist the temptation to demonize each other in such ways.

This leads to yet another balance factor that needs to be considered in the process of building solidarity: the balance between trust and incentivizing. Solidarity cannot function in a police state where the only form of personal motivation people experience is the fear of getting caught doing less good or more harm than what they are officially allowed. There needs to be a certain level of trust between people for anything resembling solidarity to function. Yet at the same time there need to be some sort of mechanisms in place by which appreciation is regularly shown to those who make significant efforts to accomplish things for the good of all, and sanctions are regularly given to those whose behavior damages the sense of solidarity within the group. Neither complete absence of official control nor dependence on absolute authoritarian control is functional in this regard. There are, however, countless variables regarding cultural norms, individual emotional maturity factors, social adjustment processes, etc. which play roles in determining how much trust and how much incentivizing is needed to enable solidarity to grow within any given society. There are many cases where we just need to take chances on other people, hoping for the best in terms of future solidarity.

expl no smThat leads to one final balance factor required for the solidary society: risk management. For any society to grow and flourish there need to be chances taken with new and different ways of doing things, many of which “break the rules” of traditional ways of doing things; yet at the same time we as a society have strong vested interests in preventing people from taking particular types of risks such as drunk driving, smoking in places where explosives are stored, and (sorry Second Amendment fundamentalists) carrying loaded firearms in crowded public places. Thus, while we need to both allow and encourage some risk taking, we also need to restrict and penalize other risk taking. The best guide we have to go on in terms of which risks should be encouraged and which risks should be prevented is our collective historical experience, but that will never provide us with a completely reliable guideline as to which risks are worth taking and which risks are unjustifiable. And beyond all the risks that are taken on purpose, some of the most fortuitous new discoveries in human history have happened because of risks people never intended to take. What else can we say about such things beyond reciting back to ourselves Alexander Graham Bell’s famous panicked words, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!”

In calling attention to all of these balance factors I am quite aware that all I am really doing is offering a contemporary application of the principle of the “Golden Mean” that Aristotle articulated in his Nicomachean Ethic. His primary examples, for individual life, were that in order to flourish as a person, every man needs the proper amount of three things in particular: food, wine and sex. Too much or too little of any of those could prevent him from properly flourishing as a satisfied and virtuous person, but the precise optimal amount of any of them is rather impossible to determine by some basic generalized formula. The same balance principle, writ larger, is then in many ways the best starting point for enabling solidarity within a healthy society.

If we are able to work out these factors of solidarity in practice we really have relatively little else to worry about in life these days. When it comes down to it, the greatest risks that each of us face on a day-to-day basis are not those of natural disaster, attack by wild animals or a complete unavailability of the material resources needed to maintain human life. The greatest risks we face are those brought about by conflicts with other human beings and the long-term effects on our environment being caused by other human beings. If we find ways to work those things out, the rest is a piece of cake. But saying that this is our only serious concern is, as an old classmate of mine once said, “like saying that the Titanic’s only problem was ‘too much ice.’” People’s instinctive drive towards solidarity is rather limited at best. Finding ways of building solidarity as a means of enabling peace and sustainability is indeed far easier said than done.

One thing that needs to be remembered in this process, however, is that “laws of economics” are not to be taken overly seriously in this process. Such laws are not “God-given precepts” regarding how human labor and cooperation need to function; they are human inventions and evolving social conventions that we as humans are entirely free to change if and when we find more functional means of incentivizing solidarity on all different levels. If economic structures do more harm than good in terms of enabling solidarity, there is no transcendent natural law out there to prevent us from changing things. The problem is merely that the people who currently have the most power within the system would of course have a vested interest in preventing change, even if it would be massively better for humanity as a whole.

Thus the excuse that “we don’t have enough money” as an excuse not to build greater solidarity within our societies is actually rather abstract at best. Money is nothing more than a means of keeping score of who is willing to do what for whom. Wealth, in concrete terms, is ultimately not based on such value calculating games, but on people’s willingness to work together and contribute to each other’s well-being through their various constructive and cooperative efforts. (While in most matters I strongly disagree with the philosophies of Karl Marx and Joseph Ratzinger, and while they too have very limited areas of ideological agreement, on this point they entirely agree with each other and I agree with both of them.) So when we so that so-and-so has this much money, and that this-and-that is this far in debt, what that actually means is that according to the current mechanisms for enabling cooperation between people, the wealth holder is in the position of justifiably expecting more to be done for her by others in the future and the debtor is in the position of being expected to do more for others in the future in exchange for favors he has already received. That’s really all there is to it. As long as such understandings provide the most reliable means of maintaining and improving human solidarity, we should accept their continuation. When it is clear that they are doing more harm than good, we should start some sort of revolution to change them… before those currently holding the reins of power destroy the possibility of peaceful and sustainable human life on this planet entirely.

There are many other theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological and political arguments I could try to toss out in favor of the points made above, but it’s probably best to leave my rambling thoughts at that for now. As a means of summarizing all of this and tying it all together though, let me just say that in order to protect all that is dear to us we really need to improve out means of building solidarity with each other, and to do that we need to achieve a sense of balance in four basic areas: integration, ambition, trust and risk-taking. Perhaps someday I can arrange those into a catchy acronym that will help people remember them and build on those principle in order to help us save the world from ourselves. For now I’ll just keep doing the best I can to build on the solidarity I’m already experiencing in life.

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Filed under Change, Control, Economics, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Risk taking, Social identity, Sustainability

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)


Filed under Education, Empathy, Epistemology, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Spirituality

Life in the Interregnum

This week, at a sweet little academic event in Estonia, I got to meet the legendary European intellectual Zygmunt Bauman, arguably the greatest surviving theorist of the old postmodern movement. It was a great collection of moments, giving me among other things a chance to ask if I had properly interpreted his intent with the blogs I wrote about his ideas last summer. I didn’t get particularly direct answers on that, but I would have been rather shocked if I had. Not only does Bauman have better things to do in his late eighties than to contemplate my ideas, but he has a well established reputation for finding ways around talking about things he doesn’t wish to talk about.

058Bauman’s trademark term these days is “liquid modern”, which is broadly taken as a euphemism for the same vague collection of ideas as “postmodernism”: the loss of old certainties, borders being washed away, everything being in a state of flux and flow, etc. It remains somewhat of an open question whether this state of affairs should be considered more of a tragedy or an opportunity. That’s one of the things Bauman particularly wants to avoid being pinned down on. In his trademark self-irony regarding his advanced age he merely states that there’s no going back to the past, and the long-term future is really not his problem anymore.

Bauman’s focus in this week’s talks was his current theme of the contemporary Interregnum. This word, he tells us, was first used in dealing with the crisis following the “loss” of Rome’s first king, Romulus. Romulus had ruled for 38 years, which was longer than the average life expectancy in Rome at the time. Thus the vast majority of Romans had never known any form of life where King Romulus wasn’t “guiding their lives”. As far as we know this is also the first case of a legend being established for a ruler not dying but being swept up into heaven while still alive to rule among the gods. But this left the people with the question of now how were they going to turn for direction. Soon enough another king came along and commenced ruling in much the same style as Romulus, and there followed a string of kings of that model which continued until the aristocracy got tired of them and set about to form a republic. That transition involved a whole new form of interregnum. Thereafter history has tossed many other sorts of transitions at us that we can call “interregnums”, some more hectically dangerous than others; with the common feature, to paraphrase Gramsci, of the old ways no longer working, but the new ways having yet to be invented.

In this sense it seems entirely fair to say that we are in a particularly significant global interregnum at present, in terms of both power and ideology. It’s happened before, but not on this scale in quite a while. Bauman theorizes that what we are witnessing is nothing less than the collapse of the final remnants of the Peace of Westphalia. The privileged position of nation-states to determine the religious norms within their borders, to negotiate in a binding way for all of their citizens and to be the ultimate loci of diplomatic and economic authority is effectively gone. It could even be said that the primary role of nation-states had its last hurrah when the Berlin Wall fell. In place of all the grandiose monuments of competing republics from the Cold War era, Berlin is now the site of grandiose monuments of competing multi-national electronics corporations. The de facto ruling principle of the world for the last few decades has been not the state, but the all-powerful “invisible hand of the market,” with its little minions manipulating state governments as they see fit, with impunity.

083The market, however, has already proven itself to be an incompetent mechanism of social organization. The rampant inequality, continuous high tech war-mongering against non-state entities, the incoherent “culture wars” brought in as a distraction and the continuous scattered protest movements that characterize contemporary societies together provide ample testimony to the fact that the current crop of sociopaths at the top of the laissez faire economic pig-pile are unlikely to remain there for long. Nor is there any particular reason to defend this dying system other than perhaps out of a general fear of change. Bauman gave a glowing endorsement to South African novelist and intellectual J. M. Coetzee before quoting him as saying, “God did not make the market –– God, or the spirit of history. If we human beings made it, can we not unmake it and re-make it in another form? Why does the world have to be kill or be killed (gladiatorial amphitheater) rather than say a cooperative […] atrium?”

The relevant question, however, is less one of what needs to be done, but rather how we can go about empowering someone to do it. We’re not ready to hand this authority over to Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, David Koch, Vladimir Putin or Martti Ahtisaari, or anyone else you might imagine as a new global statesman. The closest think that Bauman suggests to an answer to this dilemma is to start looking to the pragmatic flow of life in cities in particular as the starting point for democratic solutions. Cities have a dual role in contemporary society: they are the dumping grounds for all forms of socially discarded individuals, and they are the experimental laboratories for developing new means of cross-cultural and inter-cultural cooperation and communication. On this basis Bauman is ready to tentatively endorse Benjamin Barber’s suggestion of letting mayors rule the world.

But this is endorsement is quite tentative. “The only certainty is uncertainty.” The analogy he uses is one of “primeval mountain climbing”: “When you’re climbing a steep slope you know one thing for sure: you can’t settle there, because there are gusts of wind blowing from all directions that can destroy your camp in no time. So you have to keep going, you have to keep climbing if you want to stay alive. But, and that’s a very big but, until you reach the mountain pass you have no idea what is on the other side of the mountain. …We can’t rely on any temporary traction settlement.”

Meanwhile, while we’re climbing, waiting to see what is on the other side of this historical mountain and hoping for the best in terms of whatever sort of reign comes next, there remains the question of “Which way is up?” How can we maintain some sort of climbing momentum? How do we act in a morally responsible and constructive way in terms of our political participation, in the broadest sense of the word?

huisjen bauman tallinnI put the proposal to Bauman that his take in On Education seems to imply that building active citizenship skills in the next generation might be a valid starting point. I didn’t get a direct answer. Here’s how he responded:

“I admit that I am here making virtue out of necessity, because the ability to dialog –– the ability to live profitably with others holding to different views, others holding to different predilections, different preferences, different values and so on –– that is effectively required. The problem with liquid modernity, since I’ve already used this term, is that it erodes the social or the foundation or morphology of solidarity.

“The choice state of modernity could be charged with very many crimes, very many mis-doings, but one advantage it had over the present time, and that was precisely that the massive industrial production created by the imperial side of modernity, whatever these factories produced, they also produced, in addition, also human solidarity. They were cast into the situation where spontaneously, automatically almost, created this feeling of being in the same boat, sharing faith, necessity to come together, solidarity and so on. It was a time of collective bargaining, and what’s important really, mutual dependency. If you take the typical Fordist factory, of course the workers working for Ford were dependent on Ford for their living, but Ford on his side was dependent on his workers for their work. They were mutually dependent. He couldn’t pack up his Detroit factories and transfer them to Bangladesh or to other places where there is more docile working class and where people are prepared to work like those …who were killed in the recent catastrophe in a Bangladesh factory, working for $38 per week. He wasn’t able to do that. He knew that his future, his work depended on his workers. When both sides know that they are doomed to live together, that they are bound to meet again tomorrow and next week and next month and next year, and for the next ten years, then they sit around the table and they quarrel and they go on strike or whatever, but they quarrel and fight in order to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi which is acceptable to both sides. So those factories were factories of solidarity, not by desire but by default. That was their nature.

“Today places of employment are factories of mutual suspicion. There is no collective bargaining. There is no ‘one for all, all for one.’ It is everyone for himself. When it comes to the next round of redundancies you have to prove that you are working better than the next person, and therefore the next person rather would be the victim of redundancy, not you. That’s a situation which puts you under a condition of enforced antagonism or suspicion. So we are losing our ability of spontaneous solidarity. We are also losing another ability. (I’m not a prophet. I’m only noting the present day tendencies. I am trying to bring them to your attention.) We are losing the skills of dialog.

Allegedly, and this is my great, great frustration, universal access to Internet is already happening. It should precisely do the opposite –– open the variety of the human species in front of everybody, expose them to different arguments, to variegation of the human condition, and so on. Ladies and gentlemen, we have replaced communities with networks. Networks have the one great advantage over communities that they are created and re-created constantly with two activities. One activity is connecting and the other is disconnecting. Internet gives you the perfect opportunity to connect with the world, while virtually all researchers of actual use of Internet by people document exactly the opposite: that it is a very powerful instrument of separating yourself from the differences in the world.

“It is so childishly easy on Internet to do what is tremendously difficult to do on any street of a big city. If you go to the street of a big city today and you cannot avoid the trial of coming face to face with different colors of skin, different views, different ways of behavior, different ways of dressing or whatever. When you are spending your average, according to the latest research, 7½ hours in front of a computer screen, not another human being. It is childishly easy to switch to another website and forget about all of the differences in the world. You are closing yourself into what can be called an echo chamber. The only sounds that you hear are the reflections of your own voice… You listen only to like-minded people. Therefore Internet, the network, is a trouble-free area. You don’t have any trouble. You don’t have to dialog. There’s no one to dialog with. You just go on through the rules of repeating the same views, the same slogans, the same ideas of what is interesting, and so on.

“Real dialog is confrontation with otherness, in which you are acting with a dual role. You must be some sort of a teacher, otherwise there would be no point for the other person to engage in dialog with you. You must bring some sort of a dowry, otherwise there’s no meaning. But also the role of a disciple, of a pupil. You must be prepared to learn from the other. You must assume from the start not that you are starting your speech at a university seminar, where the assumption is ‘I am right and I will prove that they are not.’ You have to be open to share your own experience and be prepared to be shown to be wrong –– to take the risk of being proved to be not as good as your other member of the dialog. So dialog is a confrontation, but because of being a confrontation it is also a non-zero-sum game. A real dialog does not divide the conversationalists into winners and losers. Everyone emerges from the dialog a winner. Everybody’s enriched by adding another experience to your whole and by getting rid of some mistakes you have made before. So you are richer than before. That’s the art of dialog, which is tremendously important in contemporary life and we all need that meta-task in a sense. Without learning the art of dialog and practicing it, I think we can’t really seriously, earnestly ever come towards resolving otherness.”

So yes, education is key to moving forward through the current interregnum, and philosophical education in particular is key to this process –– but perhaps not in the sense of pressing set facts and formulas into young minds, but rather teaching them to confront otherness without fear and to find ways to be enriched by it. This isn’t easy, because there are indeed many who have vested power interest in maintaining hatreds and tensions over areas of difference. That too is part of the challenge of the current interregnum. But another thing that can be both a prerequisite for dialog and the fruit of dialog is a “fusion of horizons”, according to which we realize that the other is a lot more like us than we thought, and that in order to get what we want out of life it seriously helps to enable the other to also get what he wants.

It would be more than a little naïve to assume that dialog will always work this way. Borrowing from folk wisdom in the field, Bauman allows himself the cynicism of admitting, “We never resolve an issue, we only get bored with them and take them off the agenda.” Nowhere is this more relevant than in regard to the uses and abuses of religion in the western world today, which another audience member asked the venerable old professor about. That question, however, he ducked even more thoroughly, stating the Europeanness as such is sociologically shown not to be that big a deal to anyone in particular, and that its relevance is not so much in terms of cultural heredity markers by rather in terms of the same “fusion of horizons” he spoke of earlier.


059Besides the thrill of meeting an important intellectual celebrity there was a lot to chew on from this lecture and the following formal and informal discussions. The interregnum theme applies in many different areas of life as I know it: old restrictions and certainties having crumbled to the point where we can neither restore them nor trust depend on them as a basis for cultural certainty; new rules and identifiers still taking shape, without any clear image yet of how they will work once they’ve properly taken hold. In the case of Finnish culture this relates quite directly to the transition out of the Nokia era, with its cultural emphasis on the whole PISA shtick, into God only knows what comes next. In African culture and post-colonial culture as a whole we have just come to the end of the Mandela era, with all that he symbolized for so many –– coming entirely expectedly and yet in a way that still felt sudden this winter. There is a distinct lack of a replacement moral hero for those who Madiba inspired in the world today. Then in the world of Christian influence on society we are arguably seeing the major implosion of the Fundamentalist reaction against modernism in general, seen in the US in particular in the way that the progression from the Moral Majority to the “Tea Party” has so thoroughly discredited itself with its moralistic lack of interest in anything that Jesus ever taught. People continue to need a sense of existentially significant shared identity as God’s people, and neither “New Atheist” nor Muslim fantasies about the demise of Christianity as the world’s largest religion in terms of meeting that need for people are likely to come true any time soon, but within Christianity we could easily now be facing the greatest era of re-definition of the faith since the time of Luther. That too may deserve to be called an interregnum.

So while we wait and watch to see what forms the new bosses take, I believe Bauman is entirely right that we need to keep building our dialog skills and keep actively involved in promoting the values of solidarity and sustainability. These exercises will have value regardless of what we happen to find on the other side of the mountain pass. Do I hear an Amen?

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Filed under Control, Education, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Social identity, Sustainability

In Search of Objective Morals without God

I’ll finish off the year here by addressing an issue that I promised some critics I’d eventually get back to back in October. My excuses for not writing about this matter sooner are a rambling tale unto themselves that I’ll leave aside for the time being. The question that I wish to consider though is what, if anything, outside of postulating the existence of the divine, can make a moral code “objective”?

While I don’t join such Christian apologists as William Lane Craig in using objective morality to prove that there has to be a God, I am a theist and I do believe that there are certain moral “facts” that are absolutely true, which have their root in what we might call, for lack of a better term, “the mind of God”. I don’t consider all morals to ultimately be objective matters and I freely acknowledge that religion is the source of much immorality in the world, but I still believe that those aspects of morality which are indeed timelessly and absolutely true can only be so if there are rooted in something beyond the contingencies of life as we know it and experience it on a day-to-day basis. I find myself part of a very respected and mainstream position in this regard, while at the same time finding that there are a vast number of ways in which relatively intelligent and well-informed people could reasonably disagree with me about such matters. But my point remains, search as I may, I can’t seem to find any convincing argument for morals being absolute without it coming back around to morals having their basis in the same transcendental realm as other principles of theology.

Discussing this in the autumn with my regular interlocutors on such matters, James and Aaron, I put it to them that I remain agnostic on the question of whether such an absolute but non-theological basis for ethics is “out there”, inviting them to give me reasons for believing in such. James’ style of writing about such things tends to be relatively dry and carefully structured. Aaron, on the other hand, tends to shoot from the hip, blasting away at the points he disagrees with in rapid fire mode, often missing, but making it perfectly clear what he has a distaste for.

Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Let me make it clear from the start here that if either of these gentlemen have serious moral flaws in their day-to-day life and behavior (and I don’t know them well enough to be aware of any such problems), I would not blame them on their lack of belief in God; nor, I believe, would they blame my moral flaws on my religious inclinations. On political matters we are more likely to agree with each other than I am with many fellow theists, than Aaron is with many fellow agnostics and James is with many of his fellow atheists. For instance, while none of us are prone to respect papal authority as such, I believe we would all agree with the Pope Francis’ recent statements that promoting nutrition, education and health care for children is a significantly higher moral priority than protecting the wealthiest citizens’ rights to their private property. The question here is not one of serious disagreement about practical issues then; it’s one of looking for mutual understanding on why children’s well-being in these areas is a moral priority –– and has that always been a “moral fact” or is rather something that has been emerging as a fact over the past couple centuries or so?

The analogy can be drawn with the heliocentric understanding of our solar system. It is generally accepted these days that, regardless of its not having been generally accepted in the past, the earth has for millions of years rotated around the sun, not visa-versa. That is a fact that humans have discovered, not invented. Can we say something similar about the “fact” that enabling all citizens to have access to basic education and health care is a higher moral priority than protecting millionaires’ exclusive rights to determine how all of their money will be spent? Obviously that is part of the teaching of Jesus, but equally obviously as of two or three centuries ago such a moral position was broadly considered to be a utopian absurdity. In our own day and age we still have Ayn Rand disciples (some of whom also, mistakenly, consider themselves to be followers of Jesus) who fundamentally disagree with the concept of such positive human rights. Does that make them any less “morally factual”?

Overall, are we humans in the process of making these into facts or are we in the process of discovering them as facts? And if they are something pre-existent that we are in the process of discovering, where and how have they previously (always?) existed, if not in/with God?

It is that last question that I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to among my atheist and agnostic “moral objectivist” friends. They would like to believe that there are grounds for believing that foundational moral principles are “facts” analogous to those in physics and mathematics in some respects, but that this has nothing to do with religious understandings of such matters. I have seen many unworkable variations on this theme, but so far none that I find completely workable. When it comes to the existence of such a rationally consistent, epistemologically defensible and morally binding ethical theory, I remain an agnostic: such might exist, but I have yet to see one. My purpose here is to explain why the ones I’ve been presented with thus far don’t meet the standards I’m trying to elucidate here.

Let me start by recalling my own variation on Karl Popper’s famous “Three Worlds” perspective (I actually wrote my earliest version of that essay years before I first encountered Popper’s perspective, but that’s beside the point): I believe that a fourth “world” is quite necessary, and when it comes to their ethical implications I don’t believe these worlds can reliably be put in a fixed hierarchical order. The additional necessary world would be that of the divine, or transcendental absolutes, which to one extent or another atheists and strict materialists make a point of categorically denying. From a religious point of view this transcendent “world” would contain the first cause(s) for all and everything in the universe. From an atheistic point of view, if it is acknowledged at all, it is perhaps seen as something of a culmination point for “World 3” matters, and at the same time as a set of principles observable in “World 1”, as Popper calls them.

This world’s exact content is difficult to quantify since, unlike the other three, it is not directly observable in any empirical sense, nor is it subject to change based on human volition. It can be approached in both “left brained” and “right brained” manners –– both rationally and mystically (or intuitively) –– and the elimination of either approach leads to rather warped perspectives. The content of this transcendent realm would include much that has been rejected as being “unscientific” but also much which has been acknowledged as “a priori”. This would include such mathematical concepts as the ultimate value of pi and prime numbers, theoretical concepts used in physics such as the properties of objects travelling close to light speed, moral ideals such as justice and inter-connectedness, and many of the vast varieties of investigations conducted in the name of systematic theology.

In addition to postulating that there must be at least these four “worlds” –– the transcendent, the physical, the individual consciousness and the social/societal –– I would theorize that our ethical structures, to one extent or another, depend on all four. We have some moral matters which concern necessary means of preserving our material environment, but it would be somewhat absurd to reduce all ethics to questions of sustainability. We have some moral matters which are questions of reducing personal suffering in practical terms for major portions of our societies, but that too is in many regards a seriously insufficient standard for morality. We also have moral standards that we conform to in order to protect the social structures we are part of –– be they ethnic traditions, cultural artifacts, patriotic exercises or constitutional procedures –– but those too are insufficient as comprehensive bases for ethics, at least as ends unto themselves. All of those relative and variable factors must be included in the pie we call ethics, but beyond that I too believe that there are some things which we must recognize as absolute matters of moral principle, belonging to the transcendent realm. These would include prohibitions on things we recognize as inherently evil or destructive of things we recognize as inherently good. How broad a category this last one turns out to be is a matter to progressively be discovered, but given its rather sublime nature the discovery process will always be somewhat complicated and methodologically problematic. Sad to say for some, but I believe that much of this discovery process will necessarily continue to fall under the heading of “theology”.

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as the basis of ethics, involving a mix of variable, absolute, subjective and objective considerations. So from this perspective the operative questions are,
1) How much of the field properly belongs in the absolute, objective, “factual” arena?
2) Can the “factual”, objective side of ethics be based in any other realm (or “world”, as Popper calls them) than the transcendent? and
3) To what extent is the transcendent realm, as defined here, inherently related to the person of the supreme deity –– “the one true God”?

Rather than further expanding on my own understanding though, let me move on to explaining why all meta-ethical theories I have thus far encountered strike me as inconsistent, unconvincing, culturally conditioned, theologically based, or some combination of the above. This does not imply any problems in terms of reaching cross-cultural understandings on what norms should be observed and respected within any given context. It’s only a problem if you feel the need to convince me that morality is an inherently objective and non-theistic matter.

In response to my question of what standards they would appeal to, from a non-theistic perspective, in saying, e.g., that slavery has always been inherently evil, Aaron replied, “There are dozens. Hedonism. Egoism. Utilitarianism. Kantian Deontology. Rossian Deontology. Divine Command. Natural Law. Virtue. Social Contact. Intrinsic value. Take your pick. Any one of them could be the rational, objective basis of moral facts.”

Fine, let’s take those ones to start with, one at a time, and see if any of them lead to a good excuse for seeing ethics as an absolute matter without inadvertently falling back on the old theological presuppositions of Western Culture, without coming back to human subjectivity and without theoretically imploding. I’ll necessarily be painting with rather broad brush strokes here, so forgive me for not covering as many details as fans of these particular theories might like.

Hedonism in terms of ethical discussions is going to be largely synonymous with Utilitarianism here. Skip it for now.

Egoism here can be taken as sort of like Utilitarianism with a greater emphasis on the good of the subject than the good of society at large, so it has no particularly unique merits as a basis of moral theory, especially if we are looking for objectivity here.

Utilitarianism then is the first point worth looking at seriously here. In its simplest form: pleasure = good / pain = bad, evil. Its particular distinctive teaching as a meta-ethical theory: the only measure of moral goodness is end results, not means of accomplishment. This, in a nutshell, is also the basis of would-be philosopher Sam Harris’ up-coming challenge. My simplest rebuttal: In Buddhist terms there is truth to the matter that life inherently involves suffering, and Utilitarianism offers no objective answer to the question of what is worth suffering for or how factors like freedom or self-respect figure into the equation. If/once those factors are taken into consideration, it is no longer a factual or objective matter.

Kantian Deontology is in many regards the most basic paradigm for absolute, objective ethics and it highlights the essential difference between Kant’s first and second critiques: The idea of a transcendent metaphysical reality “out there” is something about which our scientific investigations can say very little, but it is precisely this realm which must form the basis for our moral justifications. As one course book I had memorably put it, “what Kant took away [from theology] with his right hand, he gave back with his left.” It’s a long debate, but in the end it’s clear that Kant himself saw “moral facts” as coming from God, and using his theories as a jumping off point for atheistic moral philosophy thus has its own inherent problems.

Rossian Deontology, based on the thinking of William David Ross, to quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia article about him, “presents a unique and compelling form of deontology, according to which there are a plurality of both moral requirements and intrinsic goods. There is no one master principle that explains why the particular things that we believe are wrong/right are in fact wrong/right. Instead, there are a number of basic moral requirements which cannot be reduced to some more fundamental principle.” That seems to me a valid starting point, with much in common with my own intuitive perspectives. This, however, is built not upon objective standards and transcendent moral laws so much as on what Ross saw as the “moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people.” While I’m sure those were very nice people, the resulting standards will, by definition, not be objective in the way that theorists here are hoping for.

Divine command obviously is going to provide a theocentric view on moral absolutes. Enough said.

Natural Law is a predominantly Catholic intellectual tradition based on Aquinas developing Christian interpretations of Aristotle. There is little point in looking further there for grounds for absolute ethics for atheists.

“Virtue Ethics” is the label generally given to the neo-Aristotelian position on the subject. This is closely tied to the logic that Aquinas drew from Aristotle in formulating his 5 proofs for the existence of God. The principles from the Nichomachean Ethics, while not inherently theistic, they contain a rather vague description of the virtue that a good man should develop and trade on. This would tend to be taken as some combination of what Popper would call “world 3” factors and what I would call transcendental factors. It won’t give you absolutes without God in any case. If you don’t believe me ask Alstair MacIntyre.

Social Contract ethics, a la Hobbes and followers, is certainly a suitably atheistic in structure, but likewise it is nowhere close to meeting the standard for objectivity that these guys are looking for. It’s based on what societies’ members theoretically want as part of their rationalized greed, not some eternal principle to which they must conform. It will be by definition variable according to the same subjective bases that Ross uses.

Intrinsic Value is generally used as a more neutral term for the moral principle originally formulated in Latin as Imago Dei: because people are “created in the image of God” they are inherently deserving of respect, just due to the value they have as people. There are any number of variations on this principle, and I believe it would be fair to say that any system of thought which does not grant a certain amount of intrinsic value to people as people –– both individually and collectively –– does not deserve to be called “ethics”. But that leaves the matter unresolved as to why people are to be considered intrinsically valuable. No offence, but the less theological those rationalizations have been, the less rational and convincing they are.

So none of Aaron’s off-the-top-of-his-head suggestions on the matter really bear any fruit in terms of providing non-theistic absolutes as ethical foundations. From there he suggested that I go read a book or two by Russ Shafer-Landau and get back to him when I know more. That is the equivalent of an evangelical telling an agnostic that they could continue their talk after the latter had read enough of William Lane Craig to meet the former’s standards, but such is the nature of chats with Aaron at times. Anyway…

I’ve since done a bit of digging into Shafer-Landau’s thoughts on the matter, though probably not enough to satisfy my interlocutors here, and here’s what I’ve found: “Russ” is in many respects sets the modern Platonic ideal for how professors would like to see their students structure their arguments –– an ideal blend of ordinary language and formal logic, tying together “ivory tower” and “Main Street” perspectives. He’s an atheist but not the sort of “new atheist” who sets for himself the task of convincing others to share his enlightened lack of faith. Rather he comes across as a seeker of wisdom in the old model: finding rational justifications for what he personally believes, and framing the discussion so that those who believe differently can come to some mutual understanding with him as to where they each are coming from and what is important to them. In this way he earns significant respect from all who read his stuff and listen to his lectures. Beyond that he is the heir apparent to G.E. Moore’s meta-ethical empire, whatever label you want to put on it. So it would fall to Russ, if anyone, to provide a palatable answer to Bertrand Russell’s post-Moorean dilemma of: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it” (volume 11 of Russell’s papers, 310-11).

As I understand it, Shafer-Landau’s justification for believing in the sorts of objective, external, intuitively accessed, factual moral principles that he does, without any reference to God being relevant to the subject, is that these facts are what he considers to be self-evident: “such that adequately understanding and attentively considering just p is sufficient to justify believing that p.” That standard is more than a little bit problematic in itself. It effectively supports its favorite propositions by moralizing against the studiousness and/or the attention span of all who would disagree. His primary point seems to be blocking any ideas which may “conflict with our most important moral convictions and platitudes.” (Quotes from here.) Thus, as a proof that there must be something morally absolute “out there,” I don’t think Russ’s findings would come anywhere near changing Russell’s mind about the matter.

In a video series covering one of his guest lecture he where discusses his ideas’ relationship with religious ideas, Shafer-Landau divides the issue up into two questions: 1) Does objective morality depend on God in order to be viable? (a question of dependence) and 2) Do arguments against the existence of God also work as arguments against the existence of objective morality? (a question of parity). Each of these questions he in turn divides up into two separate aspects to be considered. The dependence question he divides up into consideration of the “authorship argument” and the “reason argument” which might also be called the enforcement argument.  The parity question he divides up into consideration of metaphysical arguments and epistemological arguments.

Regarding the authorship argument –– Can we have “laws” without a “law giver”, which in order for the law to be “objective” could not be human or societal law giver? –– Shafer-Landau argues that, yes we can, since we have the “laws of thermodynamics” operating in just such a manner. This seems to involve a fair amount of equivocation, however, when it comes to the difference between prescriptive and descriptive laws which he introduces later in the same lecture. I’ll come back to that.

Regarding the reason argument –– Can moral laws really make any difference in terms of compelling action without a divine judge to back them up? –– Shafer-Landau confesses that there are some popular atheist arguments against the premise of a divine judge being necessary that he would actually not accept because they would undercut his understanding of the absoluteness of moral standards. His preferred tack on this one is to say that if moral laws are true/factual, then whoever violates them becomes “blameworthy”, and avoiding “blameworthiness” provides a compelling motivation to follow the laws in question. This gives rise to the obvious question, Blameworthy before whom? There would seem to be three basic alternatives here in terms of how the blameworthy thing could motivate people to stay on the straight and narrow, corresponding with Popper’s three worlds: It could be a matter of damaging the material order of things, it could be a matter of falling into a rut of self-rejection, or it could be a matter of facing social stigma. It is “self-evident” however that none of those negative reinforcements are limited to those who have broken objective moral laws, and many who have broken such laws are handily able to escape from all of those consequent forms of suffering. The explanation doesn’t seem to cut it.

On the parity side, when it comes to epistemological arguments against being able to know if there’s a God, Shafer-Landau essentially admits that the same arguments work just as well against being able to know that there are such things as objective moral standards. Challenges to the mechanisms of knowing, factors of historical contingency in the understanding of the matter, the lack of scientific methodology in investigating the issue and the level of disagreement between leading believers in the subject area, he admits, have just as much bite against moral realism as they do against theism. All of these can be argued back against, but only at the expense of alienating some fellow atheists. His honesty in this matter is to be commended.

On the metaphysical side of the parity question, however, he does see essential differences between arguments against religion and those against objective morality. These he sees the challenges essentially as two: the problem of why evil and suffering continue to exist in unjust ways, and the problem of “parsimony”, better known as the Occam’s Razor principle. His argument for differentiating between the degree to which these critiques discredit his program of moral objectivity and to which they discredit the concept of the divine is to be found in the prescriptive/descriptive distinction mentioned above. Moral laws are not required to say how things are; merely to set standards for how things should be done. Religion, he believes, has a greater self-inflicted requirement to describe given states of affairs.

The problem here is that this lower standard for “truth value” for morals than for religion then undercuts their autonomous status with regard to the “law giver” issue. If we are talking about an idealized norm as something distinct from actual states of affairs, the only way that “language game” has any functional currency is if there is some form of consciousness –– be it human, collective, digital or divine –– in which those norms find their origin. The character of the consciousness which effectively institutes and maintains those norms would in turn determine the essential characteristics of the norms in question. So if you can accept the idea of moral laws being just a function of an emergent collective human consciousness, contingent on the various drives and flaws characteristic of that consciousness and not fundamentally aspiring to any higher standard than that, you don’t need any God to get there from here. But if you’re hoping for more than that…

Stopping to consider my interlocutor James, I’m under the impression from his ample writings that he would not like to distance himself too far from Shafer-Landau’s position on these issues. They also both have a certain fascination with terminological distinctions between themselves and their relatively close associates in their field, which seem analogous to the distinctions between “Arminians” and “Neo-Pelagians” or “post-millennialists” and “a-millennialists” in Christian theology. You’ll have to forgive me for not sharing that particular fascination. But I’ll close here with reference to one factor both Russ and James wish to raise in the process of distancing themselves from religious folk: Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue.

The dialog in question, starring Socrates as always, asks the basic question, “Is what is reverent reverent because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is reverent?” Reverence here is a sub-category of moral virtue in general, and thus the debate is taken as a classical investigation of the relationship between virtues and divine will, implying that the former cannot be dependent on the latter. There is one essential point of agreement between many theists and atheists on part of this matter: basing our moral decisions exclusively on what we take to be “God’s specific commands” is a highly problematic practice. Beyond that though, the relevance of this dialogue to the question of determining what is absolutely morally true and how that relates to the divine is somewhat limited and “challenged”.

First of all there is the matter of Plato’s presupposing a polytheistic world, in which part of the problem was dealing with the discrepancies between the various gods’ desires. This debate then would be more analogous to a modern discussion between two men regarding the proper way to show a woman that you love her, given that it works a bit differently for each of them. But it still relevant to ask the general question, Are particular signs of love and respect for women taken as such because they fulfill the woman’s basic desires, or do they desire such things because they are seen as signs of love and respect? Underlying this is the question of what is it in general that is essentially pleasing to women, thus setting standards that all men would benefit from operating according to with regard to all women? A tough and mysterious question indeed!

Following through with that analogy then, we might say that, yes, women desire evidence that they are loved and respected more than they want, for instance, the convenience of having doors opened for them, or the sight and smell of flowers in the room, or maybe even the taste of chocolates. But we cannot jump from there to a conclusion that the challenge of expressing love to a woman can be met by following some abstract standard which fails to consider the desires of the particular woman in question!

From there the analogy could be applicable to a theistic understanding of ethics. A transcendent moral law based on “pleasing God” should not be doing so as a matter of blindly following what we take to be his commandments, but nor would it be a matter of following some abstract pattern which shows no consideration for the essential character of the one we are attempting to please.  What Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro does not prove in this regard is that the character of God would be irrelevant to ethical questions.

Beyond that it’s worth considering the debate in the context of the specific forms of “irreverence” that the Athenian democracy was, in this somewhat fictionalized account, punishing people for. In Socrates’ case his “irreverence” took the form of “corrupting the youth” in various ways. History leaves us insufficient evidence to determine whether or not pedophilia was one of the background factors in this charge being made, but that is a distinct possibility. Whatever the case, Plato’s opinion was clearly that the collective social conscience of the people, based in part on their religious inclinations, was an insufficient moral standard on the basis of which to condemn so great a man.

The character of Euthyphro, meanwhile, was using the same vague irreverence prohibition in Athenian law to prosecute his own father, raising quite a few eyebrows in the process. His father’s offence was nothing serious really; all he did was accidentally kill a slave. There was some question of whether or not the slave deserved to die anyway, and slaves were considered more or less disposable, so nothing was likely to be done about it otherwise. The only thing that gave the slave any form of protection was that particular forms of cruelty to slaves were considered to be punishable on the basis of being “irreverent”. So while from Plato’s and Socrates’ perspective this was a matter of some kid using a patently absurd provision in the judicial code disrespectfully condemn his own father, from Euthyphro’s perspective the issue was that the old bastard had killed another human being and no one else was going to do anything about it, so he felt that it was his moral duty to do so. The gods would not have it any other way.

Regardless of all his difficulty in arguing the meta-ethical foundations of his case with Socrates, in context of the crime in question I believe that any modern ethicist would have to say that Euthyphro was in fact morally in the right with what he was doing. The fact that Plato didn’t see it that way shows just how culturally conditioned his purportedly “objective” ethical standards really were.

I’m available to take this discussion further with any who are so inclined but the cultural standards I hold myself to say I should have found a way to finish this essay about 2000 words ago! So let me just summarize by saying:

–          I’m not arguing here that theists are inherently better people than atheists.

–          I personally believe that ethics needs to contain a mix of subjective, inter-subjective and objective factors to properly “work”.

–          In appealing to absolute and objective standards in ethics, philosophers need to be clear regarding how those standards fit into the rest of their meta-physical world view.

–          Thus far in western intellectual history I have yet to come across a workable absolute and objective ethical standard that does not end up leaning on theological premises or (other) subjective cultural perspectives in its basic formulation.

–          Thus, for the same reasons that Bertrand Russell abandoned G.E. Moore’s ethical system, I find it highly problematic for atheists to attempt to profile themselves as ethical absolutists.

–          Even so, I’m ready to let them pursue their seemingly irrational faith in this regard as far as they want to take it.

God bless all of you who have bothered to read this through, and may you all find ways to become “better people,” whatever that means to you, in this coming year.


Filed under Basic logic, History, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Tolerance

Mandela and Other Heroes


One of the issues I promised to discuss here, while I was still in the middle of my recent papal series, was the death of Nelson Mandela. I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to write an insightful essay about the meaning of his life after his passing, but while the issue is still relatively fresh and while some of the debates about his legacy are still swirling, I believe it is appropriate for me to toss in my two cents worth. Not that mine is a particularly important voice in such matters, but having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa during the past few years, and having set the task for myself here of discussing major topics related to the meaning of life in general, Mandela’s life is one I definitely should say something about.

“Madiba,” as his admirers call him, had the sort of death that all people, men in particular, hope for: “full of years,” in bed, surrounded by those who loved him, internationally admired and deeply mourned by those who wish to carry his legacy forward. Those factors to a great extent compensate for his having lost the prime of his life to forced labor mining limestone on an island in South Atlantic, for having lost many friends to a violent conflict with an evil regime, and for having lost a son to a terrible disease which has come almost to typify the country which counts him as its father. All in all then I both would and at the same would not want to have a life like his.

It has been almost inevitable to draw comparisons between Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. At the very least they were both black men of deep principle who came to symbolically represent the struggle in the 1950s and 60s in particular to prevent people from being unjustly essentialized based primarily on their skin color and/or the continent of their ancestry (as of, say, 500 years earlier). Both paid a heavy price for taking on the role of symbolic leader for their people against the injustices they were experiencing: Mandela with his freedom, King with his life. Both knew the risks in advance and were quite ready to pay this price if necessary. Both, very centrally, preached a message not of revenge but of overcoming historic hatreds and divisions between peoples. Both were men of moral failings, particularly as husbands, but that is ultimately irrelevant to their heroic life’s work. (Had it been traditional sexual morality and “family values” that they were fighting for, their failures in those areas would be more directly relevant.) Both of them recognized that the question of racism could not be entirely separated from the problem of “classism”: denying the importance of manual laborers within economic and social processes, and treating such workers as expendable commodities. Both, it could be argued, succeeded in breaking down many of the borders of race at the expense of reinforcing many of the borders of class. Both were deeply hated and demonized by the forces of “conservatism” in particular, yet both have had conservatives attempting to casually symbolically exploit their heroic status since their deaths in ways that should be revolting to anyone for whom integrity in historical interpretation has any significance.

Then just as Martin Luther King was subject to verbal abuse from both Malcom X on the left and Jerry Falwell on the right, Madiba too had been critiqued both by those on the left and on the right. Those on the left cite his failure to live up to the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” in terms of their government acquiring a significant portion of the massive wealth being generated by gold and diamond mining in particular, held quite exclusively by the white population, and to use that wealth to provide safety and basic services for the country’s poor blacks. Those on the right critique him for having attacked the country’s “job creators” both ideologically and militarily in the process of revolutionary struggle, and for not giving them all they were hoping for in the aftermath of the revolution. And for many people’s taste Mandela remained far too friendly with all sorts of abusers of power in the world –– ranging from the Anglo-American mining group and the Oppenheimer banks managing their ill-gotten gains, to homicidal maniac African dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe. For old school American Republicans, meanwhile, it is enough to know that Fidel Castro was able to number Mandela among his personal friends, and Ronald Reagan counted Mandela among his personal enemies.

But rather than morally discrediting Madiba, this flack from both sides may be an indication of his greatest merit: Any true peacemaker (other than those manufactured by the Colt Corporation) will be hated by those on both sides of the conflict he is mediating who are addicted to their own violent mentalities; and those who are not able to listen to and deal civilly with those who wield power badly are essentially doomed to perpetual ineffectiveness. Making peace between those existentially committed to hating each other will involve this sort of attack from both sides, inevitably –– open question of whether the fruits of peace will be enough to encourage people to allow the peace to last and to overcome the hatreds in question.

The real questions concerning Madiba’s legacy for coming generations is really not whether there was merit in his words and actions, but rather whether those words and actions will be followed by up-and-coming leaders, or whether calloused greed and corruption will doom the country and the continent to a perpetual state of widespread human suffering and on-going low to medium-grade civil wars.

The problem of cleaning up the mess created when a portion of society is treated as a disposable resource is an ancient one, which no portion of the globe has been immune to. When massive changes in the base economy –– in the basic systems by means of which one is able to keep one’s family healthy and fed –– leave some people tossed aside as no longer needed by “respectable folk,” there are strong reasons, both moral and practical, for doing something to help them. Yet the “industry” of providing aid to those in such tragic circumstances has always been rife with corruption and abuse. The poor are not in any solid position to critique the quality of work being done among those who have been sent to help them, and rarely can donors justifiably blame the continued existence of widespread problems on the incompetence of those they are paying to help deal with such problems. Thus, with no reliable means of holding the aid workers responsible for achieving results, and with a seemingly endless supply of problems for them to deal with, there is little to stop those who are so inclined from keeping a significant amount of the resources they are supposed to be using to help the poor for their own private use. This problem remains the same whether we are talking about government organizations, religious institutions, privately run NGOs and “development funds” or UN-based charities: there will always be a “cookie jar” for some to get their hand stuck in. Still in each case the question remains, will those who prioritize compassion and solidarity over greed outnumber the greedy by a large enough margin to make the process of caring for those in need effective regardless of the corruption that inevitably keeps creeping in?

Citing the ways in which such welfare programs get abused at times, both by those within the aid delivery mechanisms and by aid recipients themselves who know how to “play the system” properly, there are many calloused individuals who believe this work should be set aside, and we should focus our efforts on more “productive matters” in the economy. At the very least they would like to see government step entirely out of the role of caring for the poor, leaving such a task to the good will of private sector individuals with their own random religious and/or humanistic motivations for occasional generosity. Preventing South Africa from becoming prey to such a mentality needs to be the top priority in maintaining something of Madiba’s legacy there. Jacob Zuma’s general incompetence at meeting the needs of his country’s poor and at regulating industry for the good of the workers and the environment must not be taken as evidence that government should just give up on such matters. Here Mandela would want his legacy to reflect the principle stated by Pope Francis just before his (Mandela’s) death: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There are two essential means of dealing with such a deadly economy of inequality and exclusion (which sadly we find in some of its most abusive forms these days in South Africa and the United States): government redistribution of resources and disparity limitation laws. The former involves taxing those who have become rich –– not stopping to judge what combination of good fortune, personal hard work and taking advantage of the hard work of others enabled them to get that way –– and using those funds to provide services that allow even the poorest to have basic human dignity in their lives. The latter has historically taken the form of minimum wage laws, but it would be far more effective if it were rather set in terms of maximum wage laws. The question can essentially be posed, within any given economic system, how many times more should the maximum contributor be given relative to what the minimum contributor gets? Ten times more? A hundred times more? A thousand times more? Ten thousand times more? If we can reach a basic understanding within our societies on that matter, then from there it can be made a matter of law that those who are at the highest level in a mining corporation cannot give themselves salaries over that multiple of what they are paying their basic workers –– their miners, cooks, cashiers and cleaners.

walmart protest messageTo avoid stock option loopholes on this making such a law meaningless, there would also need to be certain limits set on how much of the profit a company makes each year be distributed to shareholders as dividends, as opposed to being paid in salaries and bonuses to all those working in the company –– right down to the men and women with shovels and mops in their hands. Nor does the effect of such laws need to be limited to corporations: laws functioning on the same principle can be implemented for entire states, or nations, charging substantial tariffs on goods being brought into their territory which are not produced according to these basic principles.

These systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. We can have both systems of redistribution and disparity limitation working side by side with each other. The point is that leaving income disparity, social exclusion, extreme poverty and injustice (in terms of a lack of protection for basic rights) untreated to the extent that they are now still is not a morally acceptable option, nor an economically viable one in the long term. Madiba’s legacy should give South Africans –– and other global citizens inspired by this legacy –– the courage to face such problems and not allow them to be swept under the rug.

One tactic I have seen used in attempting to neutralize this message though is to accuse those who wish to carry Madiba’s legacy forward of tasteless hero worship. An old distant acquaintance of mine, somewhat typically for those of this mindset, said last week, “People seek a savior, like Gandhi or Mandela to have hope. A hope orchestrated by those in power to pacify the masses. Mandela was on the terrorist list until 2008 and now those who imprisoned him or supported it give speeches of his sainthood. A bone they throw to the masses like a lottery ticket. (…) Do not trust those who make saints which where their enemy.” So in other words, don’t get sucked into this whole admiration of Mandela thing. It’s really nothing but hype designed to manipulate you.

In one sense I agree with him: As stated above in my brief survey of the comparisons between Mandela and Dr. King, both of these great men have had those who had no stomach for their message still attempting to associate themselves with these leaders’ moral status. It stands to reason that not all who claim to respect Madiba’s heroism and to be following his moral example deserve to have their claims taken seriously. (Rick Santorum’s effort to compare his political agenda with Mandela’s has to be the most absurd thus far, but I’m sure it will get worse.)

Even so, I’m not sure if the fellow I’ve just quoted honestly believes that moral leaders like Mandela and Gandhi are nothing but some sort of insignificant manikins which conspiratorial forces on the left have propped up purely for show. If so, he’s been listening to way too much right wing propaganda pretending to be “news”. Nor is it clear to me exactly which conspiratorial forces he believes might be trying to “pacify” the masses by means of such figures of hope, or for that matter what dangerous forms of “pacification” he is afraid this might lead to. The implication seems to be merely that for those in the political center or on the political left to have heroes that symbolize hope for change should not be considered a good thing. In terms of that principle I fundamentally disagree with him. Yet the question of how seriously we take our heroes does deserve some consideration here regardless.

Within hours of Mandela’s death being publicly declared I posted the brief comment, “Humanism can now get to work on the last remaining rituals for the equivalent of canonization.” I wasn’t being cynical about it; I merely saw it as inevitable that immediately after his passing there would be people lining up to declare his greatness to the world, holding him up as an example for all mankind without even getting religious about it. They always do that when someone of great moral status dies. (The political right tried to generate the same sort of heroic remembrance for Margaret Thatcher when she died this year but they failed miserably.) With Madiba, deep reverence for his memory was a fait accompli. Equally inevitable though were the resulting misgivings in some circles over this “equivalent of canonization” being enacted.

Sympathetic heroes leaving this life can have profound motivational effects on their admirers, and whether you consider that to be a good thing or not depends on what you think of the agenda of the hero in question. Religious Right leader Ralph Reed famously criticized the Democratic National Convention by saying, “And unlike the other side, we haven’t gathered in this city this week to anoint a messiah, because you see we already have a messiah.”  What Reed failed to mention in that particular speech is that the messiah that the Religious Right has already found was in fact Mandela’s personal enemy, Ronald Reagan.ronnie

I personally object to Reagan being chosen as a hero for a generation because his primary role in history was to eliminate as many protections for the world’s poor as possible and to expand income gaps in the United States and the rest of the world as far as possible. But I don’t object in principle to those who fundamentally disagree with me on political matters having their own heroes who help them find the motivation to “get up and do what needs to be done.” If there was one thing that Reagan did almost right it was to motivate Americans to work hard through a naïve belief in their own national greatness. He was painfully mistaken about that sort of pride being the theme of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but he was correct in asserting that he had succeeded in raising such pride.

When people have the hope necessary to work hard in order to build a brighter future, that generally has positive effects on the society in question. It might have had that effect on the United States following the Reagan years as well, were it not for the effective dynamic that Pope Francis has astutely pointed out this month: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”  The rich benefited from the harder work that Reagan motivated people to do, and consequently the rich found new ways of getting more productivity out of their workers for less pay in the process. Things have been getting progressively worse and less secure for basic laborers in the US economy ever since.

Mandela is also the sort of hero which was capable of giving people hope, motivating them to work harder and believe more in the future. Whether or not this additional motivation will provide a better long-term pay-off for South Africa’s poor and middle class than what America’s equivalent demographic got out of the Reagan revolution remains to be seen. Some believe Zuma has already screwed things up too far for much good immediate good to come of Madiba’s legacy, but hope for growth and restoration still remains. Whatever the case, Mandela succeeded in convincing people that they can work together for the common good, regardless of differences in class, religion and skin color. He succeeded in convincing most people to put their bitterness behind them and to use the newly available democratic means of influencing the society they live in rather than the violence they had to use when that was the only tool at their disposal. He also made significant progress in convincing some of the wealthy whites there of the truth of another point restated quite forcefully by the pope last month: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. …When a society… is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Peace with justice might be a rather naïve hope in many respects, but it is still the greatest hope we have for the realization of spiritual virtues and for the preservation of human societies on this planet. If “canonizing” Mandela helps increase hope for that sort of future I say canonize away!

Concerning the risks involved in hero worship in cases like this, one friend of mine recently posted the quote from the Tao Te Ching: “If you over-esteem great men people become powerless.” And yes, many times in following a profoundly charismatic leader people cease to think for themselves and act on their own initiative. But I qualify this with the tongue-in-cheek observation that if we are to apply Lao Tzu’s ancient words of wisdom to our current political situation it is clear that it is the US Republican party he is specifically warning us about. The proof is found in the stanzas directly below the warning against over-esteem: “If you overvalue possessions people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds… and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion…” Sort of obvious who what party he’s talking about, isn’t it?

But seriously, the risk of making Mandela into a saint should be really be looked at in the context of what Mandela himself had to say about the matter: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Let’s all keep pushing ourselves to keep following his “holy example” on that one.


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Life after PISA

I have to interrupt my series on the Pope for other breaking news. It’s Finland’s Independence Day today, a day where of course my adopted countrymen try their hardest to find things to be proud of. But this year that’s particularly difficult: Their two biggest claims to international fame have just collapsed. Nokia’s cell phone division, the central pillar of the Finish economy, has been sold to Microsoft by way of an ethically questionable move on the part of their first (and last) non-Finnish CEO. And perhaps worse as far as the official PR people here are concerned, the official rankings of middle school quality in the world no longer put Finland at the top. In fact in math they no longer put Finland in the top 10 even.

yard 1The national rankings Finland received from the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) was a dubious but powerful source of pride for the Finns over the first decade of the 21st century in particular. The questions of how they did it –– by luck of the genetic draw, by skill among teachers or by finding ways to flat out cheat and skew the test results –– have fascinated researchers from around the world. I keep a bookmark menu of “Finland fluff” on my computer for tracking this very thing. But insiders have been telling me for months what I sort of intuitively guessed already before I took my sabbatical year in 2011-2012: this “miracle” was destined to fail relatively soon. The news began to leak in November, and this week it became official: Finnish kids’ math and reading skills are officially recognized as being nowhere near what they used to be in terms of international rankings.

There have been a number of excuses given for the steep decline: the rise of video game distractions, the major competitive efforts being made by those in the Far East, complacency among leaders after having been on top for so long, cuts in school budgets caused by the economic austerity measures needed enable this country to participate in the global competition at “keeping up with the Caymans” in terms of low taxes on the rich, moral decline in the nation in general… In my humble opinion, some marginal truth elements to all of these, but overall they have a relatively weak truth to “BATH SALT” ratio.

The key to understanding these trends, I believe, lies in observing the remarkable rise of Estonia past Finland on the PISA math skill scales. Our little southern neighbor that we’ve been trying to help out in so many ways for the past 20 years has suddenly bested us one of our areas of specialty! How did that happen? Simple really: After going through many fascinating forms of hell in the process of rebuilding in their post-Soviet era, Estonian families are able to credibly say to their kids, “You guys have incredible new opportunities open to you. You don’t have to remain stuck in the same sort of mess that we’ve had to live in for generations now. The future is open to you. So get an education to take advantage of it!”

Back in the end of the Kekkonen era (see my brief history of Finland from last year if you don’t know what/when I’m talking about here) Finnish families could say the same thing to their children. There were noticeable improvements in living standards. Hard work was paying noticeable dividends to the society as a whole. The secondary education system had just been massively expanded so that everyone had the choice of going for white collar careers, regardless of how many generations of farmers and factory workers they came from. There was still insecurity about relations with the Soviet Union, and a certain inferiority complex regarding the Swedes with all of their Saabs and Volvos and Abbas and Electroluxes… but things were going completely in the right direction, and those who worked hard seemed to have real good chances of success.

The recession that hit with the collapse of the Soviet Union further motivated kids to study hard: The old system of believing that if school didn’t work out so well you could always get a job at the factory where your dad worked, making copper cable for export to the Soviet Union for instance, all of the sudden went “Poof!” The only significant hope for success through hard work was in engineering, electronics or entrepreneurship. For those you really needed to do well in school.

Such was the ethic through the end of the twentieth century; such was the soil in which Finland’s PISA successes took root. Schools were not necessarily outstanding so much as capable of providing most kids with the knowledge they wanted and needed to pursue the sorts of goals that the rapidly changing society was throwing at them.

The change in the other direction began in Finland when Nokia started moving from a heroic bunch of “home boys made good” to a bunch of sleazy greedy businessmen like everywhere else in international business. Youth unemployment didn’t come down when their stock went up. Their international ventures went from enriching the lives of the poor in developing countries (by improving the spread of information as to where they could get the best price for their crops and services) to searching around the globe for places in which they could get the biggest sweat shop bang for their buck. Then they miscalculated and missed the first boat in terms of  getting in early on the “smart phone” market, and they’ve been playing careless catch-up ball ever since… until they entirely sold out –– literally –– a couple of months ago.

So what hope do young people have these days? What should they come out of school knowing how to do? What skills can really make a difference to life as they know it? Frankly we don’t have any viable promises to offer them. All we can say is that luck favors the diligent: The harder you work at this school stuff, the better your chances of being lucky later in your career. They’re smart enough to see that that is not a very complete answer though.

The most promising economic motor for the local economy these days, interestingly enough, is one of the things some of the moldy old educational bureaucrats are blaming for the decline in PISA scores: computer games. An interesting illustrating anecdote in this regard: The new flag ship company for Espoo in this regard is that of the “Angry Birds” boys: Rovio. Doing my social duty of attending the city of Espoo’s gala Independence Day celebration this evening, I was there to see a dozen or so people being given city medals of honor, and thus I couldn’t help but note that the only private business sector representative to be so honored this year was Rovio’s marketing director… and that he happened to be one of the three recipients who were “unable to attend” the occasion. So many ironies there.

So finding imaginative ways to kill time and entertain each other, while building some basic math and language and fine motor coordination skills, seems to be what kids these days are most motivated at. Academic study and thinking skills and the basic disciplines of rote learning fall way in the background for the mythical “average Finnish kid” these days.

So the next question is, how worried should we be about this?

About the symptom of the lower test averages and the loss of international prestige, I wouldn’t be worried at all really. It was somewhat of an artificial honor and distinction to begin with. It remains true that the Finnish school system is actually rather old fashioned in some respects and rather forward looking in others, but those matters really don’t set it apart from its competitors. Its primary virtues are in terms of it being quite homogeneous and egalitarian on the one hand, and less conspicuously dysfunctional than school systems in most other countries on the other. The lessons beyond that were never as great as the hype would have implied. Without the pressure of living up to a false reputation now, maybe the school system here can get back to work on meeting growing challenges of the future –– chief among them: the ever decreasing homogeneity of the population and the ever increasing need to improve cross-cultural interactive skills, at which most Finns recognize their overall under-achiever status as a nation.

About the motivational factor of young people having no greater dreams in life than those of perhaps developing new ways of bombing lethargic green pigs with little feathered balls of cathartic violence… I’d be very worried! Not that there’s anything wrong with creating new variations on our patterns of casual escapism; I’d just like to believe that there should be some greater sense of purpose to the “reality” that we use such toys and games to escape from. The sense that things aren’t really getting any better, that many forms of “proper effort” will end up being useless and wasted, and that kids don’t really have any clear idea about what is worth putting effort into should certainly scare our political and cultural leaders.  This is not a specifically Finnish problem, but one in which Finland seems to be catching up with the rest of the world at the moment. Sadly, it is quite likely to come up in Estonia’s future as well, though maybe not as powerfully for another decade or so.

Meanwhile, what can I say in closing that would be suitably positive and up-lifting for the conclusion of the national holiday here?

The patriotic war film The Unknown Soldier is probably on television at the moment, as part of the holiday ritual. (Or maybe it’s over already.) I’m not sure. In any case, Finns still have a strong sense that their country, whatever it will turn out to be like in the post-Nokia era, was still worth fighting for, to keep free from Soviet control back in the day and to maintain in some form or another has history moves forward. They’ve evolved in this mythical identity building process far enough, though, where they no longer see ethnic purity and isolation from the outside world as necessary or even desirable means of maintaining this national identity. They have their own languages in all their richness, but that doesn’t mean they’re afraid of having other languages spoken freely within their borders. While the future is indeed uncertain in many respects, it is quite certain that it will involve a combination of holding onto Finland’s own ancient traditions and opening up to new forms of international adventure.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the Finnish education system is that it still has room for kids to explore these sorts of considerations and concerns. Perhaps with the PISA championship era behind them, Finnish educators will start taking this particular challenge more seriously. Perhaps, more than just churning out competent “raw material” to be converted into diligent and docile corporate personnel, schools here will start focusing more on helping kids build their own rich personal identities, while at the same time genuinely appreciating their neighbors’ alternative identities without feeling threatened by them. That is what former students from Finland’s international schools have found to be of particular lasting value in the education we’ve given them. Maybe that process could be solidified for the country as a whole, and that could become one of the next big export products here.

That would be a good thing to hope for. So I’ll continue into the Advent season with just that hope in mind.

Peace with you and yours as the season progresses.

And yes, on the big international story of the week, may Nelson Mandela find peace in his hereafter, and may his own legacy regain its sense of hope and direction in honor of this great leader who has now passed. More on that here in weeks to come.

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Filed under Education, History, Purpose

“What Does the Pope Say?” (Part 1)

There has been an ongoing political struggle within the Catholic Church for the past generation that has once again come to a head this last weekend with the publication of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’s first major letter to the faithful as Pope. In short, this “apostolic exhortation” has further clarified the new pope’s strong personal distaste for the ways in which certain politically right-wing Catholics have been fighting against the interests of the poor in the name of “resisting socialism.”


This was not entirely unexpected, and also rather predictably it has already been quoted extensively and somewhat out of context. The document has also been scoured for signs of Francis’ position on “marriage equality” and “pro-life” issues, with rather dubious reports coming out as a result. As it happens this is whole matter falls precisely in the middle of what I’ve been working on in terms of my doctoral studies for the past month. Thus I’ve had good reason to spend much of this week studying the document in question. (The official Vatican website is a wonderful resource for such things.) And the more media reports I see about this text, the more I feel I should get my own perspectives on the matter out there right away.

So I apologize in advance to those who come here looking for lighter intellectual entertainment; this is bound to be a bit on the theological theoretical side. Nevertheless, I find this to be an extremely important current development in the world we live in, which might well have profound effects on political structures and the future of our planet. So for those who happen to be interested in such matters… let me begin by laying out the basic historical and ideological background for Pope Francis’ first epistle last weekend.

A lot of this goes back to the legacy of John Paul II –– one of the longest serving pope’s in history, the last pope of the Cold War era, and the first pope of the Internet generation. John Paul’s papacy, however, divides into two very separate and distinct periods. These could be referred to as the Cold War era and the Internet era of his papacy, but I’m inclined to think of them more as the social justice and the sexual moralism periods of his papacy respectively.

For the first half of John Paul’s papacy the key word in his writings was “solidarity”. In the middle of this era he proposed as the motto for his pontificate “Opus solidaritatis pax: peace as the fruit of solidarity.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,1987, 39). It was not entirely coincidental that this also happened to be the name of the labor union movement in his native Poland which was effectively working to bring down the “Iron Curtain” across Eastern Europe. But John Paul’s principle take on political economy in general was that any political/economic system which dominated people’s lives to the point of preventing the families of basic laborers in particular from living with freedom and dignity was essentially evil. In this regard neither Marxist nor libertarian capitalist systems could be trusted. The main point was not to promote one political system in order to tear down the other, but to promote an understanding of the transcendental value of every human being and the moral requirement for all people –– Catholics in particular –– to recognize the essential value of all other human beings. The key to a dignified human life is recognizing the image of God within each other, and not allowing “real politics” or “economic growth concerns” to discount that essential foundation for moral values.

The evil to be fought against in this process, more than any other, was alienation –– not in a Marxist sense of workers not having access to the fruit of their labors due to lack of control of the means of production, though the essence of that problem was also acknowledged in passing –– but more in the sense of people living in fear of totalitarian rulers, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the continuously growing risk of a loss of a livable income due to economic competition, and/or the addictive frenzy of consumerism blinding them to the immoral ways in which their consumer goods were being produced; and all of these factors causing people to lose essential contact with their fellow human beings, with whom solidarity could provide peace, justice and essential meaning in life.

This basic theme ran through all nine of the encyclical letters that John Paul wrote between 1979 and 1991 –– from “Man cannot […] become the slave of things, the slave of economic systems, the slave of production, the slave of his own products. A civilization purely materialistic in outline condemns man to such slavery, even if at times, no doubt, this occurs contrary to the intentions and the very premises of its pioneers” (Redemptor Hominis, 1979, 16) to “The advancement of the poor constitutes a great opportunity for the moral, cultural and even economic growth of all humanity” (in Centesimus Annus,1991, 28).

John Paul did start to become more than a little naively optimistic with regard to the fruits of the free market system: “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society” (CA, 41). But he was not willing to give capitalism absolutely free reign either: “freedom in the economic sector [must be] circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality […] the core of which is ethical and religious” (CA, 42).

The emphasis of John Paul’s papacy fundamentally changed in his following encyclical, however. In Veritatis Splendor he essentially shifted from a compassionate, social justice oriented perspective to a moralistic rationalist perspective. The core argument was that there are essentially two types of commandments given in the Bible and in church tradition: positive commands to actively love our neighbor as ourselves and to live sacrificial lives of devotion to God, and negative commands to refrain from abusing our neighbor and to not partake in practices which God finds repulsive. As a matter of establishing peace between ourselves and God, and our fellow man, the positive commands would be the more critical ones, but the concrete requirements that these commands would place upon believers and upon communities would be variable –– culturally relative. The negative commands, on the other hand, would be matters that cannot be considered as in any way culturally variable: perjury, murder, adultery and theft cannot be justified by way of relative cultural norms. By the same token then, chemical, mechanical or surgical forms of birth control must be considered morally wrong under all circumstances. So rather than setting absolute standards regarding matters which will in the end be culturally relative anyway, John Paul set out to establish absolute standards in the areas than leant themselves to setting absolute standards: telling people what they weren’t allowed to do, in particular sexually.

From this point on in his papacy John Paul ceased to mention the “preference for the poor,” “the rights of the laborer” and “social justice” in his writings. He ceased to be the charismatic pope of compassion and reconciliation, and he came to be seen rather as the doddering old moralist, preoccupied with “pelvic politics.” Maintaining a firm line on the church’s resistance to “illegitimate” forms of sex became more important than feeding the hungry, protecting the rights of workers and providing hope in life for economically disadvantaged young people. Meanwhile the scandal of isolated priests within the Catholic Church repeatedly taking sexual advantage of children proceeded in stages to blow up in his face, leaving the increasingly feeble pontiff looking all the more out of touch and out of control.

The shift in John Paul’s emphasis can also be seen in the dramatic shift in political emphasis by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1986 these bishops published what was considered to be a very politically liberal statement of their basic moral principles entitled “Economic Justice for All”. Its fundamental practical emphases were on: 1) employment, 2) poverty, 3) food and agriculture, and 4) the U.S. role in the global economy. The role of Catholics in politics, as they saw it, was to counteract “Reaganomics” by prioritizing, respectively, “new jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions” as the basis of economic development; fighting poverty and homelessness as “a moral imperative of the highest priority” based on “the norms of human dignity and the preferential option for the poor”; protecting family farms and “maintaining a wide distribution in the ownership of productive property” as a basis for social and environmental sustainability; and moving from a “national security” concern to a “human needs” concern in matters of foreign policy.

Times change. Popes get old. Competing systems of government with more centrally regulated economies fail. So in 2007 this same organization published a new political agenda for the United States entitled, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”. Here (on page vi) the emphases have become: 1) fighting against abortion and euthanasia, 2) preventing “Catholic ministries” from being forced to “violate their consciences”, 3) combating efforts to “redefine marriage”, 4) reducing public spending in order to reduce economic crises, 5) promoting “true respect for law” in the immigration system, and 6) questioning “the use of force and its human and moral cost,” particularly in the Middle East.

The risk has thus shifted from that of the Catholic Church in the US being “the Democratic Party at prayer” to their being “the Republican Party at prayer”. Much of this shift can be credited to conservative intellectual leaders among US Catholics –– currently Robert George in particular. A relatively sympathetic feature article about Professor George in the New York Times in 2009 tells of him having confronted the nation’s Catholic bishops that spring and told them, “with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on ‘the moral social’ issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ ‘making utter nuisances of themselves’ about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — ‘matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,’ as George put it.”

Meanwhile John Paul’s physical limitations finally caught up with him, sending him to join his predecessors in the Vatican crypt. His replacement was a fellow who had the reputation of being John Paul’s doctrinal guard dog: “the German Shepherd,” Joseph Ratzinger, who chose the papal name Benedict XVI.

Benedict never had a period of initial popularity as pope, and he never really even tried to step out of John Paul’s political shadow. He did, however, make a profoundly important though largely unnoticed position statement with reference to John Paul’s two-part legacy in his third encyclical letter, Caritas In Veritate. There Benedict attempted to reconcile these legacy aspects by showing the inherent interconnection between them. Essentially, in order for the ideal of an ethic of “openness to life” to work in practice –– only allowing sex within the context of potentially procreative marital relations –– Benedict realized that there would/will have to be massive global systems for wealth redistribution established. These would act sort of like the United Nations, only far more powerful, with “real teeth”: “Such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums” (Caritas In Veritate, 2009, 67).

By burying this statement under vague condemnations of the socialist welfare states in general and appeals to the central authority limiting principle of “subsidiarity,” and by keeping the world’s press otherwise preoccupied with his absurd statements against condom distribution in Africa and the like, Benedict succeeded in keeping his friends on the political right from actually recognizing what a radical proposal he was making. It’s hard to imagine that Benedict imagined that such an organization for world economic justice could ever be established; but by offering this sort of abstract possibility he could still defend the theoretical possibility that his (and John Paul’s) idealized version of “pro-life” politics could someday be put into practice without destroying the world in the process –– even if that too remains a political impossibility. The point though is that, even though he didn’t really want to go too far in publicly admitting it, Benedict intellectually recognized that for the rest of Catholic social teaching to remain coherent, a radically expanded system of international socialist wealth redistribution would have to be added into the mix.

For whatever murky psychological, medical or political reasons there may have been, Benedict surprised the world in February by announcing that he would be stepping down as pope before it was time to bury him. As his replacement the College of Cardinals selected a fellow who, on paper at least, looked like a reasonable political compromise figure: in many ways a fresh and new sort of leader, yet very much a product of staunchly traditional orientations within the church. Before taking on the name of Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was recognized as a friend of the common people, yet not in any politically radical way. He is South American by birth, but a respectable Italian by blood. He was no friend of Marxists, but was not on particularly friendly terms with his country’s military dictators either. As a Jesuit he has a pedigree for being impeccably rational and doctrinaire, yet having his feet planted solidly on the ground where laymen walk. Overall he seems to have come across as someone who might be able to restore some of the popularity and credibility the church enjoyed during the first half of John Paul’s reign without screwing up the status quo too badly in the process… or so they might have thought.

Francis is actually off to a far more radical start to his papacy than anyone expected. No, he’s not about to start performing same sex weddings or ordaining women, but those are about the only radical reforms he’s taken off the table. When it comes to reaching out to the common people and being in touch with the laity’s concerns he has been out John-Pauling John Paul. He has made strong public statements against homophobia and against the corrupt “old boy network” within his organization. Without naming them directly, in a homily on October 17th of this year he unmistakably referred to the conservative political ideology adopted by the American bishops as a “sickness within the church”. Now he has taken the social justice realizations of his three immediate predecessors and offered them up in their starkest and bluntest form yet, without the slightest bit of anti-communist, anti-socialist gloss over them.

But the central point of Francis’ fresh opus, Evangelii Gaudium, is not to attack the world economic system as such, but to lay out a game plan for the Catholic Church’s self-promotion over then next decade or two. Analyzing that will have to be a separate entry here. If you’ve read this far though, you’re obviously one of those rare people who has a deeper interest in such things than most, so now you’ll have something to look forward to. 🙂

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Filed under Ethics, History, Politics, Religion, Sexuality

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.


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,



Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, History, Holidays, Love, Politics, Racism, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Travel

Debt and Making Money

There’s a pretty serious crisis in government going in the United States so far this month, which relates to a slightly lesser crisis in government throughout Europe and many other parts of the world which are making a believable pretense at democracy. The crisis is basically this: the burden of pretending to be democratic is getting in the way of those who would wish to run things in a more autocratic fashion, and therefor there are major efforts underway to undermine people’s faith in the institutions of democracy, potentially clearing the way for a group of self-appointed moral guardians of the people to take charge of the running of things without the messiness of the “less moral” populace getting involved in the process. This is the definitive essence of fascism. This is effectively the partially considered strategy of the “Tea Party” faction within the US Republican Party.

Tea party vs democracyThe scary part about this is not that, as in the time of St. Augustine, we are witnessing the inevitable collapse of a dominant empire in the world; but rather that in previous historical eras when an empire controlling more than half of the world’s economic systems and armed forces was collapsing the dangers of their technologies falling into the hands of unscrupulous warlords were not nearly as great. Thus I write this hoping that I can play some small role in convincing some would-be moral(istic) Americans not to go along with the ideological destruction of systems of democratic government in the United States, for the safety of all of us –– American and non-American alike –– who still have to share this planet for most of the foreseeable future.

Besides childish objections to the idea of health and education being seen as basic human rights, the basic excuse that the Tea Partiers are offering for discrediting democratic institutions and trying to shut down the US government on a longer-term basis has to do with deficit spending. In the words of my friend Joel, who seems to have marginal sympathies in that direction: “Every single hour, of every single day, the U.S. government spends about $200 million that it doesn’t have… For a point of reference, consider that in just two months, the government borrows more money than the combined annual profits of the 100 biggest publicly traded companies in America.

“That’s absolutely incredible, isn’t it? Keep this up and we won’t have a country that allows us to debate and work through issues surrounding voting, immigration, privacy matters, military intervention, terrorism, social justice, abortion, guns, drugs, race relations, gay marriage, religious rights, taxes, health care, national security, national parks, et al.

“Most every citizen feels absolutely impotent as to what to do about this mess, while watching the ‘clowns’ (no disrespect to actual circus clowns) in Washington — run by TWO party machines (and lobbyists) that do not truly care about the tax-paying citizens. All these politicians (not statesmen) care about is acquiring or staying in power. And they seem to use ANY means to do so…until they run out of tax-payer’s money.”


With all due respect to Joel and other Tea Party sympathizing PhDs, the basic problem is that he seems to have forgotten what money actually is and where it comes from. Or I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t know. In real terms the system is designed so that no one can really understand the system of money creation entirely –– sort of like the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in that regard.

It actually reminds me of the time I spent as part of the board of directors for the oldest continuously operating student organization in Finland: the University of Helsinki’s theology student organization, currently going by the initials TYT. TYT got to be the oldest in this sense by surviving the Tsars’ purges of “potentially subversive” student organizations back in the 19th century by taking advantage of the complexity of the Finnish language and its absurd potential as a tool of bureaucracy. The founding theology students, with a little secret help from their friends in the faculty of law, put together a constitution for this organization in the most obtuse Finnish Bureacratese ever written, so that when the Russian governors of the time came to inspect to make sure things were operating in a proper and respectable manner they were able to make neither heads nor tails of the proceedings. Consequently no official protest against their operations were ever filed and useful forum was preserved for gathering bright young minds who worked on building a respectable Finnish culture as such –– and eventually a state to go together with it –– through Finland’s final years as a grand duchy of the Russian Empire.

The international banking system in use in the world today uses much the same tactics, only rather than using it to keep imperial inspectors at a distance, they use it to keep common citizens at a distance. Bankers go to great lengths to play their own games at the expense of everyone else in the system, keeping things just complicated enough so that when they are caught breaking the rules everyone else remains too confused to get upset about it.

But let’s break it down into simple terms that pretty much everyone can understand. The most important thing to wrap your head around is this: There is no form of money which is intrinsically valuable. As Eric Garland wrote in The Atlantic  last year regarding the gold standard, “Unless you decorate state capitol domes for a living, nobody really needs gold — but it is tangible and limited, though you can mine more if you happen to be really motivated.” But the main point is that it “can be exchanged directly for goods and services, if you find someone who will take the trade.” The value of any currency then is not God-given, but based on who is willing to give you what in exchange for it.

These days there are a number of local exchange programs based on the concept of certificates worth a given number of hours. I spend a certain number of hours mowing your yard or splitting your fire wood or tutoring your children, and in exchange for that you give me the appropriate number of hours’ certificates so that I can use those to get someone else to fix my teeth or pick berries for me or wash my laundry. For some types of work fewer than 60 minutes’ effort is considered to be worth an hour’s worth of “normal labor” but that can be negotiated between those who are willing to trade on such a basis. The point of these systems is to get local people to work together and provide each other with the things they need to maintain their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness. National and international currencies are effectively based on the same principle, but the question is, who gets to write out the certificates to start with, and what is to stop them from writing out more of them whenever they feel like it just to get people to do what they want them to do while offering no other service in return?

Imagine that there are a few hundred of us stranded on a deserted island, as in Lost on a bigger scale, before it starts getting seriously mystical. If we accept that rescue is not immediately forthcoming, money, jewelry, etc. from the outside world will come to be of little value between us. Power and cooperation is not going to be based on who has such symbolic items. Rather, in the short-term, it will be based on who is able to seize control of resources others actually need for survival; and in the longer-term on what people are able to do to help each other out.

lost-1If the society is small enough where literally everyone knows everyone, your word and honor is your currency: Someone helps you out on the expectation that they can trust you to help them out in the future. People contribute to the “general good” so that they will have access to others’ contributions to the “general good” later on. But if things get too big for us to know and keep track of everyone then we need some form of written records or symbolic items to help keep track of who has contributed what to the well-being of which others. So let’s imagine that within our little society we appoint some authority to produce a set of certificates that help us keep track of such things. These certificates will have a number of different denominations, but we might say that the basic unit will be worth an hour’s labor. So what makes these certificate valuable is a general public agreement of what people are willing to do to get them. They have no value in themselves, their value will be in what people are willing to do for them.

That’s actually the same with any sort of money we have in the world today.

Now imagine that the fellow who is physically producing these certificates starts treating himself to all sorts of extra favors with the power that this gives him. He want’s someone to build him a bigger house than anyone else’s, so he writes out all sorts of hour’s work certificates to those who agree to build this fancy house for him. It doesn’t cost him anything to do so, and the certificates go into circulation in our little society from there pretty freely and productively. Is there any harm done in the certificate writer using his power to his advantage in this way?

One risk is that he writes out so many of these certificates that everyone ends up with piles of the things and no one really cares to bother to do anything anymore to get them –– they cease to serve as a measure of exchange value because they are in unlimited supply. But what if the fellow who is writing out these certificates is being subtle enough about it so that there aren’t too many of the things around, but still the only way anyone gets any new ones is by doing what he selfishly wants them to do? How far can this go before it leads to some sort of revolution?

Perhaps to keep one guy from abusing the system in this way we should appoint a group of guys to do this together and keep tabs on each other in the process. But what’s to stop them from forming a sort of cartel which enables them to work together in effectively cheating everyone else? The fundamental question remains the same: How far can their corruption go before it brings the whole system crashing down?

This is the basic situation in the world of banking today. Central banks are organizations somewhat separate from governments which have been given the right to literally make money that people within the societies in question can use as a basis for working together and exchanging services. They give the money they make out of thin air to governments and others who wish to borrow it from them in exchange for promises of getting whatever they want in return. Bankers are thus able to write obscene salaries for themselves in exchange for doing nothing more than roughly keeping track of how much money they print and pass around. They’re not doing anything to make this money valuable; the people who are willing to work for that money are the ones who give it value.

so-true-34-pics_3Meanwhile (most) governments have sort of removed themselves from the process of making their own money, mostly to keep people from getting too spooked by the idea that money is being made out of thin air to start with. Governments “borrow” this money from the banking organizations who make it out of nothing, on licenses granted by the governments themselves. To keep this process believable, governments have to be able to pretend to pay this money back to the banks, and to private parties who have made deposits in these banks, not so much from new money being produced, but from the value of the work done for that money coming back around to the government in the form of taxes.

In the little island society example and in the global financial system in practice today, the most important issue is not how much debt there is –– how much service has been promised but has yet to be delivered –– but rather what and how much are people capable of and willing to do for each other, and on what basis can they believe that they will be fairly compensated for their efforts. This is imperfectly measured by the ratio of new money creation to the GNP, and the national debt is relevant to this primarily as one of the factors driving the former variable.

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but...

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but…

People are generally willing to allow a certain number of individuals to be exempt from actual productive labor so that they can keep things organized for the good of all involved in the system, but when those doing the organizing start to get too distant from those whose labors they are trading in to care about their well-being any more, and when the people who are doing the actual production lose trust in those who are organizing the interaction between them because of the obvious corruption they see at the upper levels, that’s when the entire system is in the greatest danger of collapse.

Democratic institutions, or some believable pretense at such, seem to be the best means humans have yet discovered for maintaining some stable sense of trust between those doing the organizing and those providing more concrete services to each other. Keeping banks sort of at arm’s length from the legislative process also seems to be a useful strategy for keep people trusting in the value of the money that the banks make. This trust would be significantly improved if more governments were able to do like Iceland did recently and seriously punish the most corrupt and incompetent members of their banking communities. But the last thing we should be worried about these days is debt: making sure the bankers keep getting back their fair share of the fruits of everyone else’s labors. Our primary concerns need to be arranging things so that people continue to feel as though they have something of value to offer each other, and so that helping each other out –– by way of both market activity and non-market activity –– is something people remain motivated to do.

A significant part of this in moral terms is to base as little of that motivation as possible on threat and blackmail. We don’t want societies operating on the premise of, “You do what I tell you to or your child dies!” It’s easy to forget sometimes just how close we are to such a dynamic.

There was a time, just a few generations ago actually, when it was more the rule than the exception that most families would lose a child or two before they reached adulthood to malnutrition, disease or accidents caused by lack of safety precautions (which would have been too expensive). Poor people worked hard to reduce the odds of that happening to their children, as long as they believed that their work could make a difference in the matter. For some of the psychopaths in charge of large businesses having a few poor children die every now and again was a necessary part of keeping the system going.

These days we are more inclined to take it for granted that all children, even poor ones, have a right to live into adulthood, but there are some corporations which are doing everything in their power to return us to the “good old days” in those respects. In parts of the United States they have been quite successful in this regard. The thing that is slowing them down in this process though is a (pretense at a) system of (small d) democratic government which is based on a premise of “the little people” being able to come together to stand up for their rights, including children’s rights to education and health care that keeps them from dying of preventable causes, regardless of how much their parents do or don’t get paid for what they do for work. So it would be far better for business if they could shut down as much of the system of democratic government as possible.

As I said at the start here, my fear is that if the psychopaths behind the Tea Party movement fully succeed in this process not only will thousands more poor American children lead sad lives and die young (and I’m not being melodramatic here), but the tools of economic and military dominance which have been developed over the past century or so will come to be used with even less pretense of restraint. This could lead to the de facto enslavement of billions more people and further reckless exploitation of limited natural resources, leading to billions more unnecessarily early deaths. Some in the American Religious Right would disagree with me on such matters, but I still hold to an ethical position that contributing to such processes is a morally wrong thing to do.

My strongest hope is that enough Americans will start believing enough in the idea of democracy as such to make it true again –– in some ways for the first time –– within the United States; that people they will stop letting those who are milking the system by doing nothing more than finding creative ways of telling others what to do for them run things without even a pretense of interest in the well-being of those they are abusing in the process. I realize that a lack of philosophical content within the education system has seriously reduced the likelihood of many there figuring this problem out, but there are some smart people there who might get it anyway, and it remains remotely possible that they might be able to wake up just enough of their (our) countrymen to stop the complete collapse that things now seem to be headed towards.

Joel, others… care to help?

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Filed under Economics, Education, History, Human Rights, Politics, Sustainability

Defining Freedom of Religion

Among the other scandals I’ve seen spillage of in postings by my fundamentalist friends in recent weeks, there has been a matter of the US military making efforts to clamp down on the extent of the “witnessing for Christ” being done by its officers. One Coast Guard Rear Admiral in particular has vocally objected to being told that he is not allowed to share his faith when and where he chooses. As this is fairly directly related to the subject of the doctoral studies I am just getting started on, I thought this would be a reasonable opportunity to see if I can put some of the theory I am working on shaping on this matter into terms that even fundamentalists can understand it. Please let me know how I do here.

lee0503The practical issue, as I understand it, is whether or not people in high positions of authority, being paid by the government to tell people what to do, can from that position of authority suggest to those working for them what they should believe in religious terms. In the case of the United States there is a delicate balance between every person at any level of society being free to believe whatever they are inclined to believe religiously, and to express that belief publically, and then the requirement that the government itself would not officially sponsor or endorse any particular set of religious beliefs, or tacitly require them of citizens or government workers.

This goes back to the question of to what extent the United States can be said to be a “Christian country” and what we are really talking about when we speak of the importance of freedom of religion and the separation between church and state. There is a lot of noise and confusion about these topics these days, and sorting them out is no easy task.

I’m inclined to start sorting these matters by following Nicolas Wolterstorff’s lead and going back to the middle ages. There we had something called “Christendom” which was a social system based largely on an assumption that everyone who mattered in society was a baptized and believing Christian. Yes, there were some non-believers or different believers within the system, but their perspectives on things didn’t really matter when it came to the rules by which society functioned, and they could be kept in their place through the judicious exercise of the righteous sword of the rulers. So this system operated on the assumption that all those who mattered recognized two intertwined systems of organization within the society: the one dealing with heavenly concerns and the one dealing with earthly concerns –– the church and the empire(s). There was more than a little overlap between these ruling systems: the church was involved in taxation, war, policing and the legitimizing of the secular rulers; and the emperors made it their duty to cultivate morality and “true religion” in their people. This led to more than a few power struggles between representatives of the state and representatives of the church, and you don’t have to follow The Borgias to be aware of how bad it could get at times.

borgias ironsFor many good reasons this system started to break down, most definitively with the Protestant Reformation, but the resulting systems of organization were not so much tolerant and pluralistic societies as what Wolterstorff calls “mini-Christendoms”: systems in which tried to keep the same sort of Christian consensus within their societies, but with a purer and more focused doctrinal basis. Among the bravest and most ambitious of these mini-Christendoms were those that took shape in the New England colonies in America in the 1600s, where governor Winthrop boldly proclaimed that Massachusetts would become the proverbial “city on a hill” that the rest of western society could look to to see how a truly godly society would operate. Much later on Ronald Reagan dusted off that same imagery, and there are some who seem to think that there is clear thread of “Godly governance” in America that stretches from Winthrop to Reagan, with the odd liberal aberration here and there in between and since.

The fact of the matter, however, is that mini-Christendoms didn’t really work that smoothly. Pluralism started creeping into even the most carefully exclusivist of them, causing all sorts of practical and political problems. This is where the real American innovation came in: the radical separatists who determined that their government would be better off independent of English governance also decided that there would be no officially sanctioned church for the nation. It took some time to break free from the mini-Christendom mentality –– and it could in fact be argued that this is still an on-going process in the US –– but the radical innovation that the American founding fathers brought to world politics was a system of governance in which, to quote Wolterstorff again:

  1. Church (synagogue, mosque, etc.) and state are to be separate and distinct institutions, without any administrative connections between them.
  2. Religious exercise is to remain free from any state interference.
  3. The state, when distributing benefits and burdens, is not to discriminate between citizens on account of their religion, or lack thereof.
  4. There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice.

The first of these is what we are talking about when we talk about the separation of church and state; the following three are the essential standards for what we call freedom of religion. These are separate but related issues: it is possible to have separation of church and state without freedom of religion, and visa-versa. It is fair to say that the former is more important in the US than in most other countries, but the latter is more freely ignored in the US than most other countries –– at least those which publicly endorse the concept of human rights. The challenge is to allow all religious and non-religious people freedom to express their convictions and attempt to build coalitions based on their shared perspectives without allowing them to silence or put special burdens on those they disagree with. This is many times easier said than done.

One of the most influential theorists in this field has been John Rawls, and American social scientists who started out in academic life training for the priesthood, but who lost his faith due to the emotional struggles he went through as a soldier during World War 2. Rawls’s basic principle when it came to religion and politics is that in order to have a mutually respectful public debate about the principles on which a democratic government should operate we need to base our arguments on premises that all participants in the debate can accept as starting points. So for instance if we are talking about what sort of laws we would have restricting the practice of summer barbeques, it is perfectly justifiable to base these arguments on limiting damage to the environment and limiting the smoke and smells that drift into your neighbor’s space, because those are things we can all agree are important things to take into consideration. But we cannot, from Rawls’s perspective, limit people’s right to cook pork sausages in public just because Jews and Muslims find them to be religiously offensive. If Jews and Muslims don’t want their neighbors to be allowed to grill such summer delicacies in public they will have to find some secular justification for their objection. Otherwise it just won’t fly.

Much of the current argument against religious content in politics these days is based on Rawls’s premise here, but this is not without its philosophical problems. Briefly, to find abstract principles that everyone can agree are valid starting points in all relevant political discussions is probably too demanding a standard to put on a genuinely pluralistic society, and we can still hold to the principles listed above even if we do allow religious believers to voice their political opinions on the basis of their religious beliefs. It is thus perfectly legitimate for someone to stand up in an American town hall meeting in an area where Jews and Muslims between them constitute a sizeable amount of the population and say, “On the basis of my faith I do not wish for my family to be constantly exposed to the smell burning pig meat all summer, and therefore I suggest that all who agree with me band together to pass a resolution to keep others from being allowed to afflict our senses and sensitivities in this way.” Others are freely allowed to argue back on the basis of whatever ideological principles they subscribe to, and eventually the matter will have to come to a vote.

So how do these principles relate to Christians promoting their faith within the military? To start with there is the matter of military officers, as official representatives of the US government, not using their position as a means to promote their religious beliefs. It would effectively violate the principle of separation between church and state if participation in a particular form of worship is expected of soldiers as part of “following orders.” If military officers –– again, as official representatives of the US federal government –– are actively working to build up active membership in their own religious communities, that effectively violates the First Amendment principle prohibiting government support for particular religious institutions.

But what if officers, not as officers per se, but as believing human beings who “happen to wear the uniform” want to share the joy of their faith with those around them, and in particular reach out to those who are hurting or traumatized, as military service so often makes people feel? This is the justification that Rear Admiral Lee, referred to above, has to offer for his actions in promoting the gospel while performing his command duties.

Here I believe we need to bring in the analogy of sexual harassment, and apply the same principles limiting what we consider to be acceptable behavior. It is true that when someone puts on a uniform he or she does not cease to be a spiritual being, but it is also true that putting on that uniform does not cause a person to no longer be a sexual being either. The military has come to realize that they should not attempt to prevent all romantic or even sexual encounters between their personnel, but what they need to be most careful about is allowing those in positions of authority to use those positions of authority as means of fulfilling their sexual desires. Beyond that they need to make sure that among those of comparable rank, without either one being under the other in the chain of command, the military does everything in its power to enforce respect for who say that they’re not interested. Thus putting on the uniform, figuratively speaking, really does require a greater degree of sexual restraint than what is required of civilians and lower ranking soldiers. I believe the same principle needs to apply to the desire to share one’s faith.

Unfair analogy? I really don’t think so. The urge to religiously convert others has more in common with seduction than most people realize. In both cases the core motivation is (ideally) that of building the satisfaction of a deeper interpersonal connection with the target individual in a way that the object of this attention will also gain greater satisfaction in life in the process. In both cases, however, there are many who are more interested in “scoring points” and racking up impressive statistics for themselves than actually caring about the objects of their attentions as people. In both cases the sincerity of the love involved is extremely difficult to judge. In both cases it is better to ere on the side of caution, but to avoid institutional paranoia wherever possible.

Military chaplains are specially trained not to convert soldiers to the chaplain’s beliefs, but to help soldiers find a sense of comfort, purpose and connection in the soldiers’ own beliefs. That too is a complicated matter, but overall the professionalism of these men and women is held in high regard. For a soldier to talk with the chaplain about religion is rather like a soldier talking with a psychologist about sex: the chaplain cannot do his job properly unless he can relate to the soldier as a fellow spiritual being, but preventing any expectation of the soldier participating in the chaplain’s own religious identity is part of the basic safety of the interaction. Those who are not so trained need to be much more circumspect with regard to their efforts to provide spiritual guidance and support. As with sex, it’s perfectly natural that other officers would want to participate in meeting the needs of those under their command at times, and under certain circumstances it might even be the morally right thing to do, but there are good reasons to have rules against it as well.

To me it is obvious that many consider the conversion of as many as possible to their religions or personal value systems to be the ultimate purpose of their lives. They carry this sense of mission with them whatever they do and wherever they go. In fact I have deep personal respect for many people who live like that, even when the sorts of religions or ideologies they are promoting are not the sort I can identify with. But… and there’s always the “but” in these cases… I believe that those who have this sort of mission and identity, as a matter of personal integrity, need to recognize the rights of others to disagree with them. I believe that those who cannot resist the temptation to continuously compel others to join them in their belief systems probably need to excuse themselves from certain sorts of tasks within society. When they are unable to make this sort of judgment for themselves, I believe that sometimes it will have to be made for them.

Within government service, especially within the military, it is vitally important that each individual can do his or her duty without compromising his or her identity as a Jew, a Muslim, an Atheist, a Sikh, or even a born-again Christian. It is entirely expected and respectable for any of those to be allowed to stand up for his identity and to explain what this identity means to him. If he ends up winning a convert or two, fine. The problem comes when someone from one of those perspectives expects everyone else to share his perspective, and succeeds in making life difficult for those who refuse.

People of good will on all sides of these matters will continue to work on functional compromises that enable practical cooperation. People on all sides who are looking for excuses to hate those who disagree with them will continue to do so, and feeding them excuses for their hatred will continue to be a big business for certain “news outlets”. I can only hope that those I care about will tend towards the former.


Filed under History, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance


Over the Easter break I got a chat message from K., one of my fondly remembered students from years past, currently living well on the other side of the world. I’m actually not sure of the state of his own religious beliefs, but K. was telling me that he was recently challenged by a dogmatic atheist who asserted that the ways in which religious people are still trying to penalize homosexuality and prevent same-sex couples from being fully accepted into society is further evidence that religion always does more harm than good in society. So knowing that I am a relatively open-minded and believing sort of person, he wanted to get my take on this question.

My standard brief response on same-sex marriage was that as a committed hetero the status of this legal and cultural innovation isn’t of particular personal importance to me, but as a multiple divorcee myself I believe that I have personally already done more damage to the institution of marriage than any same-sex couple ever will. Beyond that I’m sort of traditionalist still in the sense of believing that ideally children should be raised with positive role models of both sexes at home, but I still see gay couples of either sex raising kids together to be far preferable to a single parent struggling to raise children on his/her own. The main thing is that the child feels loved and secure, and witnesses emotional maturity and adult cooperation between her/his parents. That’s about as far as I’m willing to take a stand on the matter.

K. then wanted to know what I thought of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. I told him that the Old Testament teaching on the subject was basically that sex should always be done in such a way as to potentially make babies –– “be fruitful and multiply” –– and any sexual activity which lacks that capacity is considered sinful. I consider that to have been an important, useful policy relative to the ancient Jews’ and Israelites’ cultural situation back in the day, but not an eternal moral requirement. In my own life I have done my part for the race in terms of producing enough offspring for replacement purposes, but the vast majority of my sexual experience has been of the sort where baby-making was not a possibility. Thus I cannot in good conscience judge others whose sex lives are of non-baby-making varieties.

In terms of the New Testament teaching on the subject the only serious consideration given to homosexuality there was that the Apostle Paul was clearly a bit homophobic in Romans 1, and quite possibly he was a latent homosexual himself and angry at himself regarding his attractions in that direction. If you read his epistles with that in mind it opens up a fascinating new human perspective on things.

K. thanked me for my input and said that he’s been meaning to read more of the Bible for himself sometime, but that he had this nagging feeling that parts of it that just don’t work. He sometimes felt a bit of sympathy with the perspective of the “genius girl” character on the sci-fi series “Firefly” when she wanted to “fix” the preacher’s Bible by trying to take out the parts that didn’t

I knew basically what he meant in terms of that urge. It has a long and prestigious cultural history: Thomas Jefferson was one who spent some time with his own version of such a project. Beyond that lately I’ve been reading a book by Chris Hedges in which he says (p. 6), “Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. …Until this happens … these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate and eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God. And the steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means that these churches share some of the blame.”

I get what is meant there, but I still basically disagree with the sort of project in question. I don’t think we can go through the Bible censoring out the offensive bits. This might make me sound like an NRA anti-gun control nut, but I don’t believe that scriptures cause genocides; people with tribal mentalities using scriptures as weapons cause genocides. I believe that people need to let go of the idea that through their interpretation of the Bible (or the Qur’an, or the Adi Granth, or the Analects…) they can arrive at perfect and unquestionable certainty about everything in life. Once they set aside their cravings for simple absolutes to use as their epistemological and moral foundations, the scriptures that they turn to for guidance will cease to be a threat to those around them. If they continue craving such simple certainty, however, any moral code that they turn to, no matter how enlightened and inherently benign it might be, will become a deadly weapon in their hands. So for me going through the Bible and blacking out the hateful bits as a means of protecting mankind is a project doomed to failure.

But all that being said, I must confess, I didn’t really know what K. was talking about with his “Firefly” reference, so I had to go and look it up. And given my studious dedication to such matters, over the past week I had to watch the complete series through. (It only had one production season, so it wasn’t that big a task.) I have to admit, it provided me with an interesting perspective on a bunch of different things.

firefly_cast2The series basically lays a thin sci-fi veneer over the 19th century archetype of honorable Confederate soldiers, admitting that they lost the war but never admitting that their cause was not the more just one, forming a sympathetic band of outlaws moving around out on the fringes of  known civilization. This band is made up of  basic assortment of archetypal elements:

  • The captain of the gang, who was a heroic sergeant during the war –– a leader down in the trenches –– who used to be quite a devout Christian but now wants nothing to do with matters of faith 
  • His Stoic and faithful sidekick who quietly and competently takes care of most of the practical details involved in realizing the leader’s strategies (who in this version of the myth happens to be a darker skinned woman) 
  • The crazy wizard of a “wheel man”/driver, capable of getting the gang out of all sorts of scrapes with the law and other menaces through his imaginative maneuvering skills (who in this version of the myth happens to be married to the commander’s faithful sidekick) 
  • The uneducated, unpolished technical genius with a mystical ability to repair and “soup up” just about any machine known to mankind (who here happens to be a “poor white trash” girl) 
  • The simple-minded, high testosterone human killing machine that can never be entirely trusted, but who continuously proves himself to be rather useful in the ever-present gun fight scenarios 
  • The elegant high-end prostitute who relies on the gang’s protection and provides them with an air of refinement at times when they need it, who shares a secret attraction with their commander that neither is willing to admit to anyone 
  • The renegade preacher who has a deep and sincere faith, and lives according to monastic vows, but is fully ready to participate in a righteous battle every now and again (who in this case happens to be black)
  • The young, highly intelligent and highly educated but socially awkward “Yankee” doctor who has his own reasons for running from the law and from his own people, whom the gang keeps on because they find him useful 
  • The doctor’s helpless but gifted little sister, whom the gang band together to protect from the mean, cruel world out there 
  • The outside menaces of “Feds”, hostile tribes, local warlords, chain-gang bosses and the like.

The plot elements in this series, such as they are, are really nothing more than means of exploring the inter-relationships between these archetypal characters, under circumstances that glorify “God, guns and guts” as approaches to greatness. To me the amusing and interesting part of all this is the sheer transparency of the myth being retold in this manner. I’m also fascinated to consider how all this relates to the ear of cultural history which the show falls into just over 10 years ago, in GWB’s first term as president. It came out less than a year after the 9/11 tragedy, and perhaps for that reason it didn’t succeed in building the sort of cult appeal that it was looking for –– that time of exceptional national unity and solidarity in the US was not the ideal time for the telling of a myth of Confederate nostalgia and the honor to be found in resisting the federal government’s encroachment on the lives of heroic southern gentlemen while dreaming that eventually the South can rise again. The writers, producers and directors of this series couldn’t have known when they went into production that such a dramatic change in American consciousness would occur before they would be ready to broadcast. Their tragedy as it turns out: the show never saw a second season.

My guess is that without 9/11 it would have had a much longer run. Or perhaps if it had come out after GWB had succeeded in thoroughly re-dividing the country into “red states” and “blue states”, or after the election of the nation’s first black president brought Confederate nostalgia to its greatest high since the death of the original Civil War veterans, Firefly could have become a long-running cult classic among redneck nerds to rival the status of Lost or Game of Thrones among yuppie nerds. Then again, perhaps the cultural coup of creating a demographic of “redneck nerds” would have been too much to expect of one TV show even under the most ideal political circumstances.

So it remains unclear how much market there might have been for a myth set in a futuristic world where space ships are equipped with rough-sawed hardwood tables and mismatched wicker chairs; where heroes chase down levitating rocket scooters on horseback; where modified six-shooters, pump-action shotguns and 25th century laser cannons are all used in the same gun battles; and where the good guys are once again those who lost their war for independence and are thus forced into submission to a larger federal government, whose powers they continue to resist with the help of guts, guns and perhaps God. Sci-fi/fantasy as a genre has always “pushed the envelope” of seeing how many cultural and scientific impossibilities they can get the audience to overlook. If this one would have succeeded commercially it would have set a new benchmark for enabling an audience to suspend disbelief.  


Perhaps with a longer run the show could have explored how the commander, having been disillusioned of his faith when he saw that God was not there to help out in the righteous war that they lost, could come again to appreciate the importance of having something transcendent to believe in. There were certainly hints in that direction. Or perhaps once these mythical characters were properly familiar to and respected by the audience, the script could have tossed in more intellectually challenging and stimulating variations on the archetypes and mythical structure in question. Then again, maybe they would have just played it safe and stuck to feel-good themes that rednecks are traditionally comfortable with: the married couple deciding to have children in spite of the continuous struggles they are facing, the educated outsider and the down home poor girl managing to fall in love and get married in spite of their clumsiness and cultural differences, the gallant captain eventually making an “honest woman” out of the pure-hearted call girl, the dumb gorilla eventually developing a sense of honor  in terms of appreciating some values more important than his base hedonistic interests, the captain’s honor continuing to cause him to triumph against impossible odds in spite of his gullible trust in others (exploited by his “wife” and his old army buddy in the first season) …

But from my non-southern perspective there are also significant risks in this sort of mythical world gaining prominence in the national psyche. The more committed people are to a belief that resisting any central government is in their best interest –– materially and spiritually –– the less any honest democratically elected government will be able to do to limit the sociopathic powers of big businesses, protect the environment against unsustainable exploitation, or protect the human rights of those who are seen as “different” against local bigotry. The more that people subscribe to a myth that personal gun toting can solve all of their security concerns, the greater the arms race between neighbors will be and the more people will end up getting killed unnecessarily. The more the idea of a new civil war is glamorized, the greater the risk of some hot-heads succeeding in starting such a war. The more people are ready to believe that God is on their side in their honorable killing sprees (wars), the more intense those killing sprees can get. The more elements of nostalgia people depend on –– particularly nostalgia for the “good old days” before civil rights were federally enforced in the US, or for the “good old days” of Apartheid in South Africa –– the less motivated people will be to confront the abuses of “the good old days” and the need to keep working on building a more truly just society.


Then again, I admit, maybe I’m just taking a piece of escapist pop culture a bit too seriously.

Whatever the case, though this show did provide me with some hours of amusing distraction this last week, I still think that since the American education system is coming nowhere near equipping kids to critically examine what sort of myths they absorb, it’s probably for the best that Firefly ended up getting cancelled. Then again, if it would have actually succeeded in creating a sub-culture of truly redneck nerds, the sheer entertainment value of watching such creatures trying to function in everyday society might have outweighed the long-term cultural dangers of having the show continue.

My take on a passing trivial matter. Your mileage may vary.


Filed under Education, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Pop culture, Religion, Sexuality, Time, Tolerance

The Great Santa Debate

(This is based on an entirely true story, but given the limits of memory and the need to make it accessible to an international audience here the names have been Anglicized and the events simplified in places and embellished in others. If you happen to know any of the kids in question you can ask them freely and they can set you straight on some of the details here.)

Coming back to school after the Christmas break, the first class of the calendar year for class 9B, at 9:00 Monday morning, was religious education with yours truly. We had been debating questions no less weighty than the meaning of life and death, and who gets to say whether or not other people get to live or die in cases of euthanasia and abortion.  I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them; that’s just too heavy a subject to throw at kids the very first thing after their Christmas holidays. And in all honesty I wasn’t 100 % in sync with academic routines myself, so I thought I’d try to make more of a lightweight game out of the lesson.

The kids in the B class are some of my favorites to teach in that, even in such early morning classes, they tend to be active participants without any intellectual pretensions but with strong maturity for their age, regularly coming up with interesting, outside-of-the-box ideas. So I decided to have them debate a completely random topic just for the sake of practicing informal debating techniques.

I swung my arm towards the middle of the group, counting 6 students on one side and 8 on the other. “OK, we’re going to divide into two teams from here, but Oscar, you come over to this other side.” They cooperatively went into motion to form the groups I designated. “As a matter of fact, Oscar, why don’t you take charge of this team? Your task is to put together an argument to convince the others that there really is a Santa Claus.” A slight groan and roll of their eyes. “And Sandra, you can take charge of this team and together you can argue the case that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.” A bit of a bobbing of heads and mildly pained expressions from that side. “This won’t affect your grades, but one of the skills you really need to develop is to be able to argue a position even if you don’t actually believe in it. So this is as good a subject to practice on as any.”

“So are you trying to teach us to be hypocrites?” Jonny asked.

The kid is sharp. I tried to give him an approving look as I replied, “No, it’s more that in order to think through your own position thoroughly it helps to be able to understand what the rational objections and opposing views might be. If you can’t but yourself in the other guys shoes, so to speak, you won’t be able to think through your own beliefs carefully and critically.” He didn’t look completely convinced, but he saw enough consenting nods around the room where he decided to let it go at that.

“So is 5 minutes enough to put together your opening arguments?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Oscar said, speaking for the rest.

I set to work on logging some basic information in at the teacher’s desktop terminal, and looking up a few funny Santa Claus articles to pass around after the debate. Oscar took his group out into the hallway to plan their strategy. After a bit more than 5 minutes I called them back together. I didn’t have a coin with me to flip to decide who would go first, but after limited discussion we agreed to put the pro-Santa side up first. The sort of looked around at each other nervously and Oscar finally spoke out, “Well, we have a few different ideas. What do you actually mean by Santa ‘being real’?”

“Ah, good question,” I replied. “That’s something where you guys get to define your own terms as to the position you are defending in your opening argument. So you tell us what you think it means for Santa to be real.”

By way of background, they would have had plenty of cultural material to draw on. There was the Finnish film that came out a few years ago to provide an alternative cultural context for the myth. There is the national broadcasting network’s Santa Claus hotline on the morning of Christmas Eve each year, for kids to call and speak with the man himself on the air before he takes off to start making his deliveries. There are the abundant sources within Finnish literature to draw on. And then there are the various imported cultural reinforcements of these perceptions, ranging from the original 19th century poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore  to Tim Allen’s take on the matter in the 90s. And then there is the classic clipping from the New York Sun of 1897 which made famous the expression, Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. The question was, which material could they build the best argument on?

Apparently Oscar and Nick had the idea of working from the perspective of trusting the factuality of video documentation and the like, but Edith had the idea of working more from an idealistic perspective, more related to the reply to Virginia: “It’s like Santa is this ideal figure that takes on human form whenever someone puts on the suit and properly steps into the role.”

Not everyone had a clear picture of what she was talking about, so I tried to help her flesh out the idea a bit. “Remember at the Christmas concert you all sang John Lennon’s ‘So this is Christmas’?”  There was a general round of nodding and eyes rolling painfully at the memory of so many changing voices looking for the pitch in the sing-along where the regular pianist had called in sick. It didn’t make it any easier for them when I tried to hum and scat the first few bars. “So you all recognize that song as the same one that the former front man of the Beatles wrote then?” Again, general nodding. “Well what is it that makes what you sang that night the same as what came from Lennon? There wasn’t anything there that actually physically came from him. There wasn’t any sheet music in his handwriting. But you still are willing to say that it really was his song that you were singing. Could Santa Claus be real in the same sort of way that that song is real and recognizable no matter who sings it?”

Nick looked over at Oscar and back at Edith and said, “OK, we’ll go with that argument.”

Jonny’s body language made it quite clear that he had a problem with that. “That’s impossible to disprove then!” he proclaimed.

“Not necessarily,” I commented, wanting now to be fair in the sense of being an equal opportunity offender to both sides. “I mean the whole idea of ‘Joulupukki’ has actually changed a lot in the time I’ve lived in Finland. How many of you read the ‘Miina ja Manu’ books when you were younger?”

“I still have them,” Anna volunteered.MM joulu

“I still read them,” Robbie piped in.

“So you remember the one about Christmas Eve?”

“Sure, of course,” came many voices.

“I remember when I first came to Finland and started learning the language I was surprised by how different the image of Joulupukki there was from the image of Santa Claus that I grew up with. It has the big guy in a runnerless, more traditional Laplandic sled, being pulled by just one reindeer, which didn’t actually do any flying. So from there you could argue that there isn’t really such a consistent idea of Santa Claus for the actor to step into even.”

Sandra turned towards Oscar’s group and said with aplomb, “OK, yeah, what Huisjen said.” I’m not supposed to let her get away with those sorts of protocol violations, but I couldn’t help joining in with the giggles that went around.

“But what does this have to do with learning about religion and stuff?” I heard Dustin muttering.

“Well it could sort of relate to the different ways people believe in God,” Missy quietly said in reply.

IconNicholasI didn’t actually have that in mind when we started the class, but it was interesting to see how things had moved from there. We were getting close to the bell ringing, so I tried to steer towards some summary points that wouldn’t kill the conversation. “You remember the icon of St. Nicolas that we saw in the Orthodox Church that we went to visit a couple months ago?” Strong nods of assent on that. “Well he was clearly a real guy, and he had a strong reputation for kindness to children. Somehow a bunch of different legends took off from there and people sort of adapted these legends to their own cultures and needs. Digging out the different levels of ‘real’ from there can be an interesting challenge, if you’re into such puzzles. Obviously it’s scientifically impossible for all of the legends to be true [passing around a few copies of this article] but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to them.”

The bell rang while I was giving that spiel, so I waved them out from there with a “see you next time.”

Pretty much all of these kids have just last summer been confirmed into the religious identity that they were baptized into as babies. They are all more or less still in the process of deciding what they actually believe about religious matters. There is a delicate balance question as to how far I can, as a teacher, go in either reinforcing or questioning such beliefs. I consider it to be a small victory though whenever they start to actively discuss such matters among themselves in such a way that would indicate serious thought about the matter.

How much of what we believe, and how many of the standards that we set for ourselves and each other, have arisen from generation after generation of adaptation and embellishment of traditions and legends, resulting in rather inconsistent and incoherent positions that we pass on to others in less and less coherent forms? When we dig down through all of the myths and legends looking for the “truth” underneath, what are we really hoping to find? What are we afraid of finding? What might we be willing to accept as true regardless of how disconcerting it may be for us to start with?

At some point within the class I tried and failed to bring in the question of Žižek’s chicken joke from one of the videos I had watched on line over the holidays. It basically goes like this: A man goes to his psychiatrist and says to him, “Doctor, I’m still afraid of being a piece of grain, and being eaten by this giant chicken!” The doctor says to him, “Now Fred, we’ve been through all this, and you know that you’re not a piece of grain and that you’re too big for any chicken to swallow.” “Yes,” Fred replies, “I know that and you know that, but does the chicken know that?”

From there Žižek goes into the question of worrying about synchronizing our public behavior with what we assume other people believe, and how in some ways this becomes inevitable for us. One classic example of this is the question of true belief in Santa Claus: parents don’t want to forsake the tradition for fear of cruelly disillusioning their children, and children will deny that they are naïve enough to believe in Santa, but they don’t want to raise the issue for fear of disappointing their parents. Nor is this sort of interaction limited to the young, the religious, the consumerist or the communist; it seems to be everywhere.

But in pointing this out Žižek is not suggesting that we drop all culturally conditioned unbelievable beliefs, but rather that we look for “a better chicken”: a less harmful set of illusions to interact with each other on the basis of. And the more credible our “chickens” are, the healthier our interactions on these bases are likely to be.

Now I realize that this level of philosophical discussion might be a little much even for very bright 15-year-olds, but I’d still be willing to bet that the kids of class 9B will probably end up with “better chickens” than many of you. Or might that just be one leg of my own chicken?

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Book Review: James’ Gospel of John

One of my more interesting virtual friends whom I have never met is James David Audlin. He was referred to me by a mutual friend who saw us both as strongly interested in philosophy, writing, personal spirituality, music, intercultural relationships, theology and comparative religion. It also turns out that he is a “dog person” and a long-term expat from the US who is rather frustrated with our home country’s human rights record at home and abroad. So yes, he and I have hit it off fairly well.

James is a former clergyman of a liberal Protestant persuasion who, after a bit of globe trotting, has settled in Panama these days. He apparently makes just enough off of book royalties from the various novels and poetry and essay collections that he has written over the years to provide for a simple life among the poor there, using the Internet pretty much daily to stay in touch with the “developed world”. As a divorced grandfather he has found a widowed local grandmother there to share his life with, and they officially married during the past year. James’ new wife is a Jehovah’s Witness, but according to him that group is far more mellow and dialog-oriented in that part of the world than their stereotype in the US and Europe. So in spite of cultural differences and technical challenges they seem (from this distance) to be quite happy together.

This year James has been working on finalizing a long-term project of his: an extensive re-formulation of the Gospel of John. Now to explain my perspective on this project, because there are so many Jameses in the gospel itself, I will have to switch over to referring to my friend James by his surname: Audlin.

The "mockup" for James' book's cover

The “mockup” for James’ book’s cover

Audlin is comfortable in his Greek and basic Aramaic skills, and back in his seminary days the bug of historical redaction critique got under his skin, so this project goes way back for him. As he figures it, the text of the fourth Gospel has at least 3 or 4 layers to it, and if it could be “restored” in the same way as the Sistine Chapel –– stripping away the extra layers and touching up the older layers underneath –– it might provide an even more beautiful and striking portrait of Jesus. The risk, however, is that he might end up “restoring” this portrait more along the lines of what was famously done this year to the portrait of Christ in Borja, Spain this year.

frescopicThis well-meaning labor of love on Audlin’s part stretches to some 600 pages in total, 120 of which are the “reconstructed gospel” itself, with 60 pages each for the Greek text and the English translation thereof, on pages facing each other. This is preceded by an 80 page summary of what was driving him and what sort of methods he is attempting to follow, and then there are over 350 pages worth of commentary and theoretical justifications for his conclusions in rearranging the text as he has. It takes a fairly serious commitment to such matters to read such a tome; one can only imagine what sort of effort it took to write it!

The starting premise here is rather uncontroversial in one sense: If you take the Gospels to be human creations based on some form of contact with the divine then the human mistakes they may contain, and the puzzles of how they came about in their current form, cease to be a threat to our faith and they turn into a fascinating puzzles. The different names given to key characters, the strikingly different chronology and the inclusion of entirely different episodes than the other three gospels make the Gospel of John a particularly fascinating puzzle. It almost seems as though someone dropped all of the pages in the manuscript on the way into the publisher’s office, leading to its page order getting scrambled, with a few of them lost. What if we could get things back in the “proper order”? It also seems as though someone in the second century may have done a re-edit of the text to put it into its current form. (Audlin suggests Polycarp of Smyrna as the most likely suspect.) What if he tried to take out some politically offensive elements and add in some more “orthodox” elements in the process? Would there be some way of undoing this process? Like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Audlin has a sense of having nothing to lose, so he’s decided to give it a try.

Actually this reminds me of two different personal perspectives I have regarding research challenges. To start with redaction critique has always reminded me of the passage in book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels where the hero is among normal sized people for a change, who are so lost in their own theoretical world that they’ve lost all contact with practical realities. In particular it brings to mind the classroom in which a blind professor is trying to instruct a group of blind students as to how to tell the difference between colors of paint based on texture, consistency, smell and taste; but unfortunately their investigations into such sciences were in a rather “imperfect state” at the time when Gulliver had his chance to observe. So it seems when it comes to those who attempt to make a living at this sort of textual analysis.

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of text editing myself, and it would be fair to say that I’ve developed my own relatively distinctive way with words in the process. But no matter how well someone might know my style and pour over texts that have my linguistic fingerprints in them, I have never met anyone that would presume to even hazard a guess as to which paragraphs and which sentences there were my own contributions and which parts were entirely from the authors’ original text. If they did I could readily confirm the “imperfect state” of their speculations, and this would likely prove too frustrating for them to continue with the method. But when it comes to Bible scholarship based on the early 20th century German tradition, they’re willing to give it a go pretty much continuously. Audlin is merely stretching the boundaries of this bizarre field of academic endeavor here.

So how might an ambitious newcomer to the game of redaction critique set about determining –– in terms of the above analogy –– which colors are which? He would have to employ some general theory of what the original author was trying to say and how he was prone to saying it, and how the style and message of the later editor would have significantly differed from this. This in turn involves identifying the main characters in the story, and reaching some conclusions about their relationships to each other, and the author’s relationship to each of them.

In the Gospel of John this provides a rather fascinating challenge. Is Nathaniel the same character that the other gospels call Bartholomew? Is Alphaeus the same fellow as Clopas/Cleopas? Is the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus seen at the crucifixion in John the same lady as the mother of the sons of Zebedee seen at the crucifixion in Matthew? And how are we to sort through all of the Johns, Jameses, Judases, Simons, Josephs and especially Marys that crop up in the tale?

To cut to the chase here, Audlin has concluded that the “Da Vinci Code” theory is correct: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and furthermore this Mary is actually the same person as Mary of Bethany, who is also the same person as the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4, and the same person as the prostitute who came to pay homage to Jesus by perfuming his feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. To take this counter-intuitive leap to even greater heights, Audlin further theorizes that Mary was a single mother when she met Jesus, that she had worked as a temple priestess/prostitute previously (which her “five previous husbands” would have been a cultural reference to), that Lazarus would have been her son rather than her brother, that by her Jesus would have fathered John Mark, who went on to be the author of the second gospel, and that the “beloved disciple” on whose recollections the Gospel of John is based is none other than Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

Anointing of Jesus' FeetTo briefly summarize how he reaches all of these conclusions is a bit beyond my skills as a writer, but in many ways it relates to the second research challenge that this work brings to mind: About 7 or 8 years ago my son got me interested in tracing back our family’s roots in the Netherlands, and as it turned out, with recently published records on line, I was able to get much further in tracing my male lineage than anyone of my father’s generation ever had. But in these newly digitalized records from the 19th century there were plenty of confusions with first, second and third cousins sharing the same first names, and with family names changing as my pauper ancestors’ families acquired new farms that had family names attached to them. Also it seems that many of my ancestors from the 18th century were semi-literate at best, and the official records of their marriages, children’s baptisms, funerals and inheritance bequests often varied between 4 or 5 alternative spellings for both their given names and their surnames. Top that off with the fact that official surnames for Dutch peasants were effectively non-existent prior to the Napoleonic era and you start to see what sort of puzzle I became engrossed in for that time.

I know, for instance, that my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s name was Jan Hendrik, that his son was Arend (or Arent, depending on where you look), and that his son was again Jan Hendrik, and that his son in turn was Arend Jan. I know that within these clans there was something of a moral duty to keep other men’s names in circulation as well, including Fredrick, Gerrit, Albert, Willem, Derk and Lucas. What I still haven’t figured out though is who the original Hendrik in the lineage was, how closely the other Huisjens of the Ommen area were related to my family before they died out, whether my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s brother, who changed his name when he married into money, has any living male heir who would share my paternal bloodline still, and whether or not there were any associations between my ancestors and their village’s tiny Jewish community.  Even if I were completely fluent in Dutch and intimately acquainted with the geography, parish histories, economic history and local legends of the Overijssel, I still wouldn’t be able to do much more than speculate about many of these questions. The various speculations that Audlin tosses about in the process of his investigations into the Gospel of John strongly remind me of some of my earlier speculations in this personal genealogical project. The level of uncertainty in Audlin’s project appears to be much greater though.

Anyway, another major German speculation from the pre-Nazi period that Audlin has bought into is that Jesus as the God-man was something that Saul of Tarsus basically invented when he reinvented himself as the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ ambassador to the non-Jews; and that underneath this motif you can find a tale that is more authentically Jewish and historical.  Whereas the other gospels were written under Paul’s influence from the start, as this story goes, John started out with eyewitness accounts that originally weren’t so corrupted by Paul’s viewpoint. Jesus was just a fantastic moral teacher, a legendary local miracle worker and a friend of the poor –– a campaigner for “truth, justice and the Davidic way,” but without so many other Superman-like characteristics.

Alright, that theory inevitably means that there are certain things about the presumed divinity of Jesus that Audlin’s going to leave out on purpose because he’ll assume that they are later innovations on the text and he’s shooting for the “original”.  How does it end up working? In some ways not so bad as conservatives might expect.

Reading the actual gospel text in Audlin’s rearranged version is actually a rewarding aesthetic –– perhaps even spiritual –– experience unto itself. Though, for reasons given above, I’m not able to take it as the new benchmark in Johannine scholarship as Audlin might hope, taken more as a creative work of literature based on ancient texts –– read with the same sort of open-minded appreciation one would bring to a new musical based on the life of Jesus, for instance –– the text does have a punchy dramatic flow to it in this new form.

It is divided up into four acts, each with their own coherent themes and story lines within the overall plot. Much of it actually makes a lot of sense: for instance taking the final section of chapter 14 in the received text, ending with the words, “Come now, let us leave,” and putting it at the end of the whole Last Supper monolog rather than in the middle, makes complete dramatic sense. Many other sermons and debate sequences in the text receive a certain added impact through Audlin’s dramatic touch in rearranging the order of the text.

Where things run thin in terms of keeping the drama moving in a steady fashion –– where Audlin believes that the redactor has chopped out important parts that would have been necessary to the poetic flow of the original –– he patches in some bits and pieces from the Gospel of Mark and from some rather obscure papyruses. This provides one extra miracle to go together with the teachings of Jesus –– getting grain to instantly grow and ripen before his followers’ eyes by scooping out handfuls of Jordan River water and tossing it on the shore –– but other than that there are no significant surprises here. Overall one gets the impression that if Audlin doesn’t already have a musical score ready to play in the background as this text is being performed it wouldn’t take him long to write one.

Audlin is also kind enough to emphasize the way in which this gospel has Jesus repeatedly saying I AM in ways that imply a unique connection with God in terms of God’s self-description to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:14. He points out quite correctly that within the text the narrator never refers to himself in the first person, adding to the mystery of his identity, but also leaving the expression “I am” to be used almost exclusively by Jesus. The only other character who utters this “I am” is the man born blind that Jesus heals: All of the townspeople see him afterwards and say to themselves, “No, that can’t be the same blind dude that always sits by the gate begging,” to which the formerly blind fellow says quite emphatically, “No, I AM the same guy!” But this is only possible for him in the narrative because of being so directly and powerfully touched by Jesus’ “I AM”. And the “blasphemous” implications of Jesus claims before the Pharisees that, “before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58) couldn’t really come out more come out more clearly than they do in Audlin’s version of the text.

In fact in spite of his efforts to dispose of Pauline “God-man veneers” in this gospel reconstruction, the resulting portrait of Jesus is one that ever more strongly brings to mind the famous claim of C.S Lewis that Jesus does not leave us with the option of thinking of him as just a good man: he must either be a stark raving madman: a psychotic megalomaniac on the level of someone who thinks of himself as a fried egg; or he must be the most cynical psychopathic con man that the universe has ever known; or he must be who he says he is: the unique, divine “anointed one” of God, sent to provide salvation to all who believe in him. Sounds pretty God-man-like to me!

So while I don’t agree with many of his starting assumptions or final conclusions, I greatly appreciate Audlin’s invitation to dive in and play with these ideas found there. Speculating about Jesus’ family relations, for instance, is almost as much fun as speculating about my own ancestry. For instance less radical than Audlin’s speculations would be the idea that Jesus grew up staying in touch with two sets of cousins: one set by way of Joseph’s brother’s family down in Judea, and another by way of Mary’s sister’s family in Galilee. These cousins could have accounted for as much as half of his original band of twelve disciples, and their immediate contacts could have accounted for the other half. Wouldn’t that be interesting! Such speculations aren’t particularly important theologically, but they’re interesting in their own way, and many of them I’d never stopped to think about before looking at Audlin’s version of the text.

But for some that is not as interesting by half as the possibility of shattering long-standing traditional ideas, such as Jesus being celibate, or Mary being a perpetual virgin, or even the well-established legend of John, son of Zebedee being the primary witness for the text of the Gospel of John. Trying to stake out his own radical ground in appealing to those interests is a big part of what Audlin seems to be doing here. That may or may not be the best way to start a conversation on the matter: many who could most benefit from reconsidering their presuppositions on such matters will be too offended –– or too tingly at the idea of having some new “scholarly critique” to toss at their traditionalist Christian opponents –– to actually stop and consider such matters. All in all then I’d be rather (though pleasantly) surprised if this work reaches a particularly wide audience.

So if you are the sort of person who likes intellectual literary analysis puzzles and theological speculations for their own sake, if you are not particularly thin-skinned about your presuppositions concerning the text of the New Testament and if you are facing a serious shortage of reading material for 2013 otherwise, I can heartily recommend Audlin’s new project as something to occupy yourself with. I don’t see it as earth-shatteringly important piece of scholarship in the sense that I don’t expect it will start any new major international debate among historical Jesus scholars, and I rather doubt that the target audience for such a work is as broad as my friend James might expect or hope, but for what it is and for those few who fit into the sort of reader profile I’ve outlined here, this is a fascinating reading project in its own sense. If you play around with analyzing Audlin himself as part of joining him in analyzing this gospel that would be fair game, and that makes the reading experience all the more interesting.

And whether or not you fit into this sort of profile, I wish my readers here one and all a very Happy New Year!

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