Category Archives: Holidays

The True Miracle of Christmas

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1:11-13

This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about the whole question of the dogma of the Virgin birth of Jesus, and how important that is to the Christian faith. The most basic question is, what is the basic reason for believing that Jesus was born without his mother ever having had sex with anyone? Besides proving that one’s belief in the Bible narrative is stronger than one’s trust in a scientific understanding of such matters, what might be the point in such a belief?

I don’t toss out the rhetorical jab against scientific thinking in complete cynicism. I have many friends, on line in particular, who consider my faith to be somewhat suspect because I don’t prioritize a doctrine of the Bible’s “verbal plenary inspiration”: essentially the belief that the complete factual flawlessness of the Bible needs to be the starting point for any discussion of Christian belief between believers. This teaching is loosely based on one verse in Paul’s epistles (II Timothy 3:16) but more essentially it is based on a medieval understanding that any rational argument requires some sort of fixed starting point, and that is what the Bible is supposed to provide us with. Belief in the Bible’s reliability in this way was important to medieval monks in the same way that belief in the fixed position of the Earth within the universe, built on a firm foundation placed there by God himself (Psalm 104:5), was important to their attempts to rationally analyze the motions of the planets and stars in the sky. And for Protestants, who tossed aside the foundational function of church councils and papal decrees, this role for the Bible became even more critically important.

Thus one argument for believing in the virgin birth of Jesus is that it goes with the broader collection of things that Christians have historically believed in. Thus the argument would go that to consider oneself a truly believing Christian one must consider every word of the Bible –– especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament especially the message of the Gospels –– to be beyond factual reproach. This would mean that one should never dream of questioning the veracity of Mary’s reported reply to the angel in Luke 1:34. So believing for the sake of believing as a starting point for discussion among Christians has its own relevance and importance… but is there more to it than that?

One huge part of the question has been the idea that there is something essentially “yucky” about sex, and for Jesus to have been a perfect human being he could not have been, like everyone else, the product of such a yucky process. This is not a directly biblical teaching (though it is perhaps implied in some interpretations of I Corinthians 7:7), but it runs very deeply in Christian tradition, particularly in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions Augustine makes it clear that as a young man he was deeply troubled by sex, in that he had a very difficult time thinking with his “big head” rather than his (ahem) “little head”, and when he became a believer God delivered him from this “curse”. Thus one of the principle blessings of Christianity, according to Augustine and his followers, was to deliver us from the power of sex. But for those not ready or willing to become completely sexless beings there was always marriage. There the yuckiness of sex could be “redeemed” by its function of making lots of new members for the church.

One of the big questions of the Protestant Reformation was whether this Augustinian perspective on sex could be rejected outright. Besides allowing priests to marry, part of Luther’s basic emphasis seemed to be that sex (within marriage at least) was not merely a regrettably necessary means of procreation, but wonderful gift of God unto itself. From an Augustinian perspective, which the Catholic Church clung to dogmatically at least until the time of World War 2, this sort of perspective opened the door to all sorts of problems. It was only with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that the Catholic Church started to admit that Protestants might have some legitimate points in these (and other) matters. Shortly after this council the Pope Paul VI declared that as long as sex was only practiced between people who were married for that purpose, only done in a vaginal penetrative way, and not utilizing any “artificial” means of preventing pregnancy, it could be done for its own sake rather than primarily as a means of making babies. But the whole question of how sexlessness relates to Mary’s perfection as the mother of Jesus has not been substantially re-thought since then. Nor has there been a significant Protestant tradition of promoting the beauty and potential for deep spiritual experience within sex that would counter-balance the Augustinian tradition in this respect. For Christians of all sorts with advanced enough English skills to understand the lyrics, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah remains something of a guilty pleasure. Thus Jesus’ mother still needs to be seen as a virgin.

A completely different perspective on the matter has to do with the ancient understanding of the biological workings of sexual reproduction and the role of fatherhood therein. In simple terms the ancients, at least as far back as Aristotle, believed that within each potential mother there was a reserve of some bloody mass that provided the material from which babies could be made, and then there was this milky stuff that came out of potential fathers which contained all the pattern information necessary for baby-making. When this male-determined pattern properly imprinted itself on that bloody mass within the mother-to-be’s uterus the miracle of pregnancy would begin. If this happened in the optimal way it would result in a strong and healthy male child. If the “imprinting” of the sperm upon the bloody stuff was a partial miss, the result could be a female child, or a baby with some other sort of birth defect (the Ancient European perspective, not mine!). If it missed entirely, pregnancy would simply fail to happen. The point was that every sperm was seen as having all of the data necessary for making a baby, and thus the essence of what makes the baby who he or she is was believed to come entirely from the father’s side.

On the basis of this understanding of biology the church fathers who gathered for the second official church council, in Constantinople in 381, added a clause to the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds”. In other words the perfect pattern for Jesus, ready to be imprinted onto the bloody stuff with Mary, was already up in heaven with God, fully conscious and ready for action, before the world was made. This was part of the understanding of how Jesus could really be God. From there once this pre-existing and fully conscious pattern was able to sexlessly stamp itself onto the bloody material within Mary the fact of Jesus’ complete humanity and simultaneous complete divinity became a reality. Except we have since discovered that biologically it doesn’t work that way…

I’m still sort of amazed that Gregor Mendel was never tried as a heretic, since his scientific discoveries, published while he was a monk on the payroll of the Catholic Church, totally exploded the reasoning behind this dogma that had been a core teaching of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Maybe it was that they had just got done “rehabilitating” Galileo for daring to point out the church’s mistake in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth rather than visa-versa, so they didn’t want to challenge any scientists for a while. Perhaps it was just that the offices of the inquisition had too many other fish to fry at the time. Perhaps they actually never heard of this Czech monk until it was too late and he was already dead and gone. Whatever the case, by proving that fathers and mothers play equal roles in determining the genetic pattern of their offspring, and that this pattern cannot exist prior to the sperm uniting with the material within the mother, he completely undermined part of the core theological reasoning behind belief in the virgin birth, and he was never made to pay for this arrogance.

But then what remaining idea could there be for believing in the virgin birth if we dismiss the reliability of belief for its own sake as , the idea of sex being inherently yucky and fatherhood consisting of imprinting pre-existing patterns on stuff in the mother? Speaking strictly for myself, while having a bit of residual respect for Christian tradition for tradition sake in spite of its epistemological limits, the main point remaining in the idea of the virgin birth is Jesus’ message of completely breaking with the tradition of alpha male power. To state it in the sort of terms that have recently become acceptable as basic “locker room talk,” Jesus was not the heir of a long line of “pussy grabbing winners.” In fact he completely rejected everything this tradition stood for. This is the true miracle of Christmas; so miraculously unexpected that many today are still unable to conceive of it as such.

The Jews, at Jesus’ time in particular, were looking for a sort of ultimate macho man Messiah, who could do like Gideon and mobilize a tiny army, against all rational odds, to overcome all the oppression that the people of JWHW faced. The rest was details. The fact that Gideon managed to have 70 sons from his “legitimate” wives, and more on the side (Judges 8:30-31) went with the territory. Conquering heroes were entitled to all the women they wanted. Why wouldn’t the same apply to the long expected Messiah?

That is not to say there weren’t some mixed messages involved the Jews’ Messianic expectations. The “hymn of the suffering servant” in Isaiah 53 in particular seriously messed with their testosterone-stoked images of a conquering hero. But even Isaiah painted this suffering Messiah as being a bit of a bad ass when he had to be: ready to bring revenge against all those who had made life miserable for the Jews. Isaiah laid this out in chapter 61, where the second verse says that the Messiah’s job is “to proclaim… the day of vengeance.” Then along comes Jesus, who the local folks hoped might be the sort of conquering leader they were looking for. Everyone is stoked for a major declaration as this local boy goes into the synagogue and takes his turn to read the worship text, which happens to be the very portion of Isaiah which tells of the vengeance proclamation. Everyone waits with bated breath he reads the part leading up to it, about good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and all that, but then right when he gets to the part they were most interested in –– the vengeance part –– he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down!

Jesus went on to teach the sort of stuff we have recorded in the Sermon on the Mount: All the people he regarded as blessed were those who alpha male competitors would label as losers. Rather than taking vengeance, love your enemies. Chill out and trust God the way the grass of the field does. How is this guy supposed to free us from our Roman oppressors the way a messiah is supposed to do? Turns out that isn’t at all what he is about. He’s rather come to free us of our own need to think of ourselves as “winners”.
Jesus’ point is to set the whole question of “being a winner” aside; to completely adopt the form of a servant so that his followers can do the same. He was deeply passionate about going after those who misrepresented God as a nasty, demanding ogre, or who tried to turn a sleazy profit off of people’s desire to know God; but for everyone else the point of his teaching was for people to accept forgiveness in spite of their failures, and to pass that forgiveness forward in terms of forgiving others. As his “beloved disciple” John summarized the matter in the introduction to his gospel, quoted from at the beginning of this piece, Jesus gave us the right to be God’s children, but this is completely not a matter of passing on the sort of macho heritage based on the power of (sexual) aggression that Gideon and company represented: “not of blood [the presumedly biologically female bit], nor of the will of the flesh [the presumedly biologically male bit] nor of the will of man [the macho aggression factor], but of God.” In other words John is saying that God gives those who are truly his people the capacity to act outside of the control of their “selfish genes”; to live a life not programmed by their “pussy grabbing” urges.

This was not written as a description of Jesus, however, but of his followers, to whom he gave the right to become children of God. John’s point here was not to emphasize Jesus’ supernatural heritage, nor his mother’s sexual purity, but the essence of his followers’ relationship with God. The core question is whether we are ready to live beyond our urge to associate ourselves with the alpha male thing that Jesus so definitively set aside. What do we need to believe about Jesus and his biological origins to live according to the sort of values that John points us towards? Then on the other side of the question, for those millions of professing Christians who are using that label primarily as a means of advancing their macho power interests, what good does a profession of belief in Mary’s virginity (either at the strategic moment, or perpetually thereafter) do them before God?

I do not claim to have special access to God’s own perspective on such matters, but the more I consider these issues the less worried I become about being accepted as sufficiently orthodox by those who set out to conquer in Jesus’ name.

Meanwhile my wish for the season is this: may the true miracle of Christmas –– the defeat of the alpha male drive thing within each of us –– come into the lives of all those who truly wish to be God’s children, towards the end that someday there truly may be peace on earth, and among God’s people in particular.

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Sexuality, Skepticism

Thinking of the Senior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Post-Lenten Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just see if you can do it!

You can go back to preying as usual afterwards.

Meanwhile, peace be with you.

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Politics, Religion

Whiteness and Good Will

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

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

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

jackMost of these stereotypes, I admit, work to my advantage. It’s been a long time since any security guard, policeman or customs official has randomly followed me around, searched me or questioned me about anything suspicious. I also receive a certain amount of preferential service at shops, libraries, swimming halls, etc. just because I happen to look like a white, middle aged man. But these stereotypes often feed into a certain resentment of my perceived advantages as well. Frequently it is assumed that, as someone with social liberal sympathies, I should be using my advantages better to help those without such advantages. At times I feel like Robin Williams’ character in the movie Jack, or Tom Hanks’ character in Big: having the appearance of a middle aged man entitles me to certain things that my peers may be jealous of at times, intimidated by at times, and anxious to take some advantage of at times. All the while this world of appearance-based privilege feels more than a little unnatural to me. Yet even so I have to admit that, relatively speaking, it does work to my advantage.

rs_634x1024-141231114734-634-gilmore-girl-Edward-Herrmann.ls.123114Among the tributes to Edward Herrmann, the actor who played Richard on The Gilmore Girls, who died rather unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, there have been collections of his best quotes in that role floating around on line over the past few days. One that is both poignant and disturbing at this point in history is where he says to a pair of bothersome policemen, “Look, it’s getting late, so either shoot us or go away.” Feeling like I might be able to get away with saying something like that to an unfamiliar police officer myself is as close as I come to a sense of white privilege: Whereas I could probably get away with such wise-assery with little more than a rebuke, recent history has shown that that sort of comment could easily get some of my darker skinned friends killed. I get that. I’m not entirely comfortable with the sort of injustice this implies. I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradoxically conflicted position this puts me in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Holidays, Racism

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Love, Religion, Sexuality

Kingdom Come, revisited

Finland’s Independence Day, 2014.

I’ve celebrated thus far by letting myself sleep in this morning, then bicycling through the rain and sleet to the cemetery where the cremated remains of my dear ex-father-in-law are interred. As he was one of the war veterans who did more than his fair share to keep this country independent, and has he remained a friend to me regardless of the mess of my divorce from his daughter, it is important to me on a year to year basis to remember him with a candle on this day.

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On the cycle trip each way I noticed that the majority of businesses open here today are actually immigrant owned restaurants. That doesn’t bother me. In many ways it makes sense. I actually went and had a kebab at one Turkish-owned place on my return trip just to support my fellow outsiders within Finnish society with that trivial gesture. But I hope that ultra-nationalist Finns will not start using that as a further justification for their racism against outsiders from Muslim countries in particular.

After the kebab I decided to stop over to my work place, assuming it would be empty today, to use the computer to do a bit of reading and writing. When I arrived, however, I discovered that two of my colleagues –– also foreign men who first came to Finland for matrimonial reasons –– were having the same idea. There are plenty of machines though, and it’s good not to be alone.

But en route I got to thinking about my conflicted perspectives on militancy. I have absolutely no moral reservations about my older son’s work as a drill sergeant in Finland’s army, and I appreciate how those of his maternal grandfather’s generation put up a brave fight to convince the Soviets that Finland would not be worth re-colonizing. On the other hand though, over Thanksgiving I gave Arlo’s Alice’s Restaurant another listen, and between that and my friend Brian’s recent posts, and some academic research I’ve been doing into the meta-ethical structures of Bertrand Russell’s pacifism over the past week, I’m more than a little convinced that there is no moral justification for the vast majority of the killing that the US military in particular has been doing over the past couple of decades.

So how can war be justified? Or can it?

My growing conviction on the matter is that the only valid justification for war is to defend the basic human rights of the basic population of the land in question, and then only if it can be done without prejudice in favor of those who are “our friends” or who are able to promise good business in the future to those who are selling the tools of destruction being used. A very high threshold indeed is needed in these matters, and ideally those who stand to gain heavily from the fighting itself should not be given a say in the matter.

The way in which both fossil fuel and military industrialists continue to get everything they want politically, both in terms of economic and foreign policy decisions, is morally reprehensible. Neither party in the US political system seems prepared to do anything to limit this abuse (though the Republicans seem just a little more gung-ho in supporting it). This in turn leads to other abusive psychopaths like Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Kim Jong-un sounding almost justified in claiming that their militant actions are necessary to challenge presumptuously high-minded and over-extended force of the American military machine.

I am thoroughly convinced that if the United States sincerely wants to play a positive role in promoting human rights abroad (which, according to the diplomats I met last month at the US Embassy in Helsinki, is the ongoing political priority of American foreign policy, regardless of which party is in power), the only way for them to effectively do so is through promoting education in social sciences. This is rather difficult for the US to do, however, because it lags significantly behind the rest of the developed world in this particular area. Were this not the case, I stress yet again, conservative organizations so dogmatically proud of their own ignorance would not have the sort of foothold that they do in American political culture. This in turn makes it all the easier for companies that make gasoline and implements of death and destruction to de facto run the country. I could not be more ashamed of my native land in this regard at this point.

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But climbing off of this political hobby horse of mine for the moment, this subject brought to mind a song I wrote over 20 years ago with my dear friend Juuso Happonen, called Kingdom Come. It was inspired at the time, in the early 90s, by an original melody Juuso had given me a recording of on an old C-cassette tape, and how that in turn reminded me of my experiences visiting Northern Ireland during the time of the “troubles” in the early 80s. I wrote lyrics for two verses and a chorus on some old scrap paper at the time, and the tune soon found its way into Juuso’s troubadour set list. Since then, however, it has gathered a fair amount of dust.

For some reason, however, this song came to mind as I was on my bicycle this afternoon, headed to leave a candle at the grave of a soldier I had come to love and respect years after his war. And as I pedaled a potential third verse for the song came to mind.

So here’s for Juuso, and Brian, and all my other friends out there who believe in working for peace on earth in their own little ways:

Kingdom Come (revised edition)

When all our troubles are over,
will there be any point in what we have done?
Will our castles still be lived in?
Will our flags be flown by the sons of our sons?
When we’ve buried all of the soldiers,
can we truly say that the battle is won?
Can we glory in the destruction?
Can we till the land where the fighting was done?

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

There’s a family down on the corner;
they should know better than to live around here.
They don’t speak the respectable language.
They don’t seem to care about what we hold dear.
So the town boys taught them a lesson,
and they made it clear that they were not welcome.
Now I’m left with only one question:
Was it them who turned this into a slum?

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

We’ve all got our own little treasures;
some we’ve earned, some acquired at the point of a gun.
And we hope for even more pleasures,
though with vague ideas about how that is done.
For the thing we’ve become the best at
is to hold our own ground when push comes to shove;
with the consequential effect that
we’ve got no idea about brotherly love.

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

Oh why won’t the kingdom come?

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Filed under Death, Education, Ethics, Holidays, Politics

An Open Letter to the Arctic Polar Vortex

Dear Vort,

How have you been? I looked out my window this morning and for the second day in a row the reading on my little thermometer there was south of -20 C, so I said to myself, “Oh, looks like the vortex is back.”

We were looking forward to seeing a bit of you around Christmas time, but then we heard you decided to spend the holidays in America. How did that work out for you? Canada certainly has some beautiful spots to visit. I heard you particularly enjoyed Niagra and Montreal this winter. The Canadians are also on fairly good terms with you overall. They’re good folk.

Niagara Falls WinterFrom what I hear your visit to the US was somewhat more problematic. What can I say? My old countrymen aren’t exactly known for their hospitality to outsiders these days, no matter how white they are. Most of them had never heard of you before, and even after your visit, surprisingly many of them still think you’re a myth. Some there tend to think that as long as they regard the system of biblical interpretation that they’ve been socialized into as absolute fact, that’s as much abstract thinking as they can be expected to carry out. The rest of the more difficult process of understanding the world around them tends to go over their heads. They tend to consider those making such efforts as abstract leftist intellectuals. Go figure.

ARCTIC-WINTER-WEATHER-2013-570Very few realized that your visit was at the invitation of some of the country’s major business interests. Even the more educated ones, vaguely aware of why you decided to do some travelling this winter, seem to have the idea that the Chinese sent you. And all in all, in spite of their bravado and defiance against all natural phenomena like yourself, many of them found themselves entirely helpless to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate your visit. Whatever the case, I’d recommend not going back there any time soon if you can avoid it.

032Over in this part of the world, in the European countries on the Arctic Circle, we’ve sort of got used to having you around. Yes, we too tend to piss and moan about your work here, but even so, you’ve become a significant part of life as we know it, and even if we don’t admit it, we sort of miss you when you’re gone. I mean, pussy willows out at Christmas and New Year’s –– that’s just too strange for Finns and Swedes! Yes, some folks have enjoyed taking a break from having to clean up after you all the time, and those doing the bridge repairs just down the road from my house were able to get their work done much faster without you around; but then there are some folks who have been waiting for you to help them build their ice roads and the like, and it seriously screws up their system when you don’t show up.

002Beyond all that, we’ve come to realize that your work is important, not only in giving us the sort of rhythms we’ve got used to over the years and built our infrastructures around, but in keeping things in balance by holding back the flow of some significant water reserves. Even if they don’t believe in you, it remains true that if those from the U.S. succeed in killing you off, we’re all pretty much screwed. Going down to visit them really doesn’t help; it really only makes them all the more anxious to kill you off. So please, stay home and stay strong.

What else can I say? I’m sort of surprised that after crossing the ocean on your way back you haven’t brought more snow with you, but then again we had plenty of precipitation while we were waiting for you. It doesn’t really help to complain to you about it. Speaking for most of my adopted countrymen here (the Finns) we really just want to say welcome back. Please take it easy on us now, but stay cool.

Yours, DH

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95 Theses for Evangelical Churches of the 21st Century

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

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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,

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Another Lent

wanhat-1This past week I there was a series of “important days” that I failed to properly recognize: the pope’s resignation announcement, followed by Mardi Gras, followed of course by Ash Wednesday, followed in turn by Valentine’s Day. On Friday, and in between, were all sorts of birthdays, anniversaries, annual formal dances for Finnish high school students and all sorts of other things which I should have probably properly paid more attention to, but which I just let slip this year.

Nor am I paying particular attention to Lent this year. Last year I made a point, primarily for health reasons, of spending the season without red meat. I slipped a couple times, but overall I did pretty well at it, and I have since managed to cut back my beef, pork and lamb intake considerably. But having the occasional meat ball or lasagna dish so far this Lent is not a crisis of conscience for me; I’ve decided not to bother repeating last year’s experiment in that regard. The same goes for giving up caffeine, alcohol, pastries, candies and other “vices” that I’ve made a point of setting aside for the season in years past: I don’t feel particularly guilty about my current consumption levels on any of them, and I haven’t had the motivation to plan something along those lines to live without just to prove to myself I can live without it. Nor do I think that God thinks any less of me for my lack of participation in this ritual this time around.

The best I can promise myself is to spend the time until Easter avoiding all sorts of PC time killers, such as solitaire and mine sweeper. Those are on-going little challenges for me: not to waste time with such trivial mind-emptying challenge games. Just as well I could give up Sudoku, crosswords and other things I do on paper to keep my mind semi-active with no other rational purpose. As I don’t own my own television set at this point, intentionally giving that up would seem rather pretentious at best.

Rather than giving things up, what I really need to do in order to feel better about my state of personal discipline and/or spirituality067038-pope-john-paul-ii is to focus on better fulfilling my positive purposes and intentions: to better prepare the lessons I teach, to write more profoundly and creatively, to jump into my new post-graduate studies with both feet… But as the previous pope pointed out, it is much harder to set firm standards for positive requirements than it is for negative ones. It is more important to love your neighbor as yourself, but it is easier to set a solid standard for not stealing and not perjuring.

And once again this brings me to the question of how valuable ritual for ritual’s sake can be in terms of keeping us on track with our day-to-day pursuit of meaning, purpose and direction in life. When we do things the same way every day, every week, every year, how far to those routines serve to enrich our lives, and how far do they go in preventing us from doing things that would otherwise make our lives as wonderful as they otherwise could be? Not a simple question. We all need some things in life to be just automatic matters of habit in order to save energy that would otherwise be needed for contemplating such matters. This is why some people get pissed at philosophers in general; for forcing them to re-think things that they had been comfortably ignoring as routine matters. You don’t think about taking part in daily, weekly or annual worship rituals; you just do it. You don’t think about fastening your seat belt when you get into a car; you just do it. You don’t think about buying your wife or girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day; you just do it. Once such things are properly settled in your mind if you stop to think about them you are just wasting time, unless… unless there is good reason to reconsider why you are bothering, and what difference it actually makes. Even then the process can be rather uncomfortable and bothersome.

And there are those for whom strict, unquestionable rules are the only way they can avoid self-destruction –– people for whom, if alcohol would be considered an acceptable lifestyle alternative, they would be seriously drunk every week, and therefore it just makes the most practical sense that they never let themselves drink; not even to think about it.

But as those who know me are aware, when it comes to rituals as a means of keeping my life together, that’s just not my style. The best I can hope for in such regards is to have a set of positive habits in place that can serve as a useful automatic structure for all of my spontaneous decisions. And even there I am nowhere near as regular as I would like to be. For instance you might notice that for the first time this calendar year I have failed to get my blog up over the weekend, like I’ve been making an effort to do. Perhaps I could have done better, but I had other spontaneous priorities. It may be enough by way of explanation to say that I am writing this in the guest room of my son’s apartment in Sodankylä, in Finnish Lapland.

lapland trip 019I am very proud of my older son, though I am far more distant from him than I want to be these days. I spent a year where I chose to live more than 10,000 kilometers away from him, and after I returned we were only spending time together a few hours per month. Then relatively soon thereafter he took his current job as an army drill sergeant within the Arctic Circle, about an even 1000 kilometers from my house. So this last weekend, as this is my last full week off from school during the school year, and as this is the week before my French car goes to “that big parking garage in the sky” and I start using my bicycle and public transportation, I decided to spontaneously drive up and see him.

While I have been here we have not had uninterrupted “quality time” but we’ve been together more than really any time in the past two years, and while he was off of work for the weekend I didn’t want to spend extended amounts of time on line or writing. Thus I have allowed myself to break my “good habits” regarding this blog and post it late, and I actually feel better about myself for doing so.

My son, by virtue of the sort of work he does, lives a rather structured life compared to most people I know. He wakes up early each morning and makes himself some instant oatmeal and coffee. He then commences with whatever active physical routines he has set for himself for the day, most of which involve interaction with the Arctic nature in one way or another: bicycling, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, playing with his Jeep… His life is rather Spartan, with no extra luxuries or ornamentation visible in his shared GI bachelor apartment. He is neither a teetotaler nor a heavy drinker; neither passive about his career nor obsessed with ambition. I strongly respect him for where he’s at. In some ways I wish I had more of the sort of rituals he does to keep his life regular; in other ways I’m glad I don’t.

lapland trip 015On my first full day up here he asked if I was interested in climbing up one of the better known skiing hills in the region, which is actually next to the Bible society lodge where he met with friends to see in the New Year. I happily agreed, while posting disclaimers about my physical condition being significantly worse than his. “Well, there’s one way to take care of that,” he said. And predictably, as we climbed he got considerably ahead of me, slowing down only enough to make sure I saw where he was going and didn’t give up. The obvious reversal of leadership roles would have been interesting to observe were it not for the physical strain involved. The joys of having fathered a drill sergeant!

lapland trip 022What time I was spending to myself while up here was mostly reading the library book I brought along: Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It is the story of another rather Europeanized American man who grew up very religious; who had some significant accomplishments relative to that earlier in his life, though he never properly conformed to the mold he was cast in; who has also set out to reinvent his identity in middle age, partially at least as a writer (in spite of struggling with dyslexia); who also has a military son that he is rather proud of; who also hopes for his children to accept him and find things to respect about him in spite of himself. A lot I can relate to there, obviously.

So I’ve begun this year’s Lent in a rather un-Lenten way, but looking rather for non-ritualized, positive ways to spontaneously “improve myself”. I recognize that many would recommend a more ritualized approach to life than what I’ve taken –– and in many respects they may be right about things –– but like, so what? I live free and focus on connecting with those who are important to me as much as I can. Rituals which don’t serve such purposes –– or which take away from such purposes –– I largely live without. I don’t have the whole thing figured out by any means, but I don’t have a great deal of trust in those who would like to set better ritualized norms for me. I still respect the value of the ritual of Lent, but this year I’ve decided to go without. I guess you could say that I decided to give up Lent for Lent.

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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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Filed under Education, Epistemology, History, Holidays, Philosophy, Religion, Respectability

Immediate Sandy Hook Reflections

Today I had the sort of work day that few others have, but which was sort of par for the course for me. I’m only teaching part-time right now, so I only had morning classes for this day. I had to stay into the afternoon however for efforts relating to connection with my students: helping some eighth graders run a bake sale to raise a little money for a class trip later on, and getting those who will take active rolls in the school’s Christmas worship service next week (something that goes with the official connections that remain between the Lutheran Church and the Finnish state) prepped on their lines and queues. Following all that I took care of some basic paperwork and came home and treated myself to a little nap before setting to work on some writing. But as I turned on my computer to get to work I indulged in a bit of international on-line radio news, and consequently caught the Sandy Hook story just as it was breaking on NPR. It’s hard to focus on other things right now, so I’ll just take a moment to let some of the thoughts and feelings this gives rise to flow here.

BathFirst of all it is interesting to me that there has been repetition of the fact that this has been the second-worst school shooting in US history. I can see where that would be strictly speaking correct, but I am disturbed none the less that this once again sets aside the matter of the Bath School Massacre, which was technically more of a bombing than a shooting, and thus it is deprived of recognition as the greatest school killing in US history on this occasion. That puts Virginia Tech in the lead, followed by Sandy Hook today, knocking the University of Texas sniper of 1966 back to third place and the Columbine boys to fourth.

It also adds a new twist to the psychology of such things. The reports are still being untangled as I write this, and they will be for some days; but what we seem to have here is not someone who is protesting about having to pay high taxes to cover the cost of educating other people’s children, as in Bath, nor a psychologically isolated and tormented student reacting against the environment where he felt the most pain, as in Virginia, nor a dramatic reaction to bullying taken to extreme, as in Columbine and its imitations. Initial reports indicate that the shooter had a troubled family relationship with one particular teacher in this idyllic little school for 5-10-year-olds, and so he decided to attack this teacher in her place of employment so as to not only destroy her, but to attack as much as possible of what her life stood for.

This leaves us with few lessons to draw morally. There is nothing the school could have done to make things safer. The shooter was buzzed into the school as a family member of a member of staff — someone who had probably been there many times before, and not something that normally presents any significant risk. It wasn’t the sort of place where security frisking or metal detectors would have been appropriate. And tightened gun control laws wouldn’t have stopped this fellow from getting the small caliber hunting weapon he was carrying, nor limited his access to the sort of ammunition he used. The students had been drilled on “lock down” procedures, and they apparently carried out their emergency routines flawlessly, but it not plausible to say that this is likely to have saved lives in this case. If anything it gave the teachers a sense of duty and mental focus that helped them get through the crisis in better shape than they would have without such training.

So why did these 20 young children die this day? Sadly, almost ironically, because their teacher cared deeply about them, and because someone who really wanted to hurt this teacher in the process of killing her knew that. It is not likely to be fruitful to speculate on the matter here any further than that in terms of how this gunman came to be so angry at this teacher, or what could have been done to prevent either his anger or means of expressing it. In those terms perhaps this was just a tragic accident of unfortunate circumstances, like all of the car accidents that were being mentioned in passing on the traffic reports that were interspersed with coverage of this tragedy that I was following.

But in spite of all of the sorrow and uncertainty still involved in any analysis of this tragic event, I am already convinced that there is one thing that people need to take from it: It yet again shows how much teachers’ work means to them in terms of the connections they (we) pupils/students. Had the killer been a disgruntled family member of a banker or businessman he might have attempted to destroy a bank building or office or retail outlet, but that wouldn’t have had anything like the painful impact of his attacking a teacher’s working place and current pupils. More than those in the vast majority of other professions, teachers invest deeply of themselves in their work; in those they teach. This killer apparently knew that all too well, which made hatred for these innocent  pupils part and parcel of his hatred for their teacher. So the only real lesson that can be drawn from this tragedy on a broader scale may be for those who are not as aware as this killer was of how personally teachers take their work to also stop and think about that for a bit; to see how much of themselves teachers invest in those that they teach, and to in turn to offer them a bit more respect than usual this Christmas season. elementary

President Obama spoke of emotionally of doing what he was sure all parents will do after hearing of this heinous crime: hugging is own children more tightly than usual, recognizing once again how fragile life can be for all of us. He will also probably be motivated to take stronger action than he otherwise would have to reform the sheer insanity of US gun ownership laws. What he may or may not get around to doing is acknowledging how this tragedy reflects the deep connection that teachers share with those they teach. Though this time it has led to an unspeakable tragedy, far more often this connection leads to unspoken benefits to the places we live and to important parts of our lives that many take for granted.

Newtown, Connecticut is, and will continue to be, one of the most desirable middle class places in America to live because of the deep sense of community there, in no small part because of the work that the teachers like those at Sandy Hook Elementary have been doing.  Perhaps in the very shattering of this ideal the value of what such teachers contribute to their communities will become less taken for granted.

In an ideal world this would also lead to greater resources being given to this important work in terms of  building on the value of what great teachers contribute; focusing less on preparing kids for standardized tests and genuinely caring about helping them develop as well-rounded human beings with important dreams that their schools should help them realize. But for me as a teacher to dream that such a tragedy might lead to structural improvements in education systems is too great a stretch, even for the most romantic of dreamers.

In any case, here’s wishing peace and comfort to all those in Sandy Hook area, all of whom will be going through Christmas in a state of shock this year over losing so many of the familiar little faces they would otherwise see having snowball fights in front of their houses over the holidays. My prayers as well are with you. As they are for all those in southwestern Connecticut and other semi-rural areas of New England, and everywhere else where the illusion of safety based on mutual trust has been so badly shattered this week.

All I can add to the platitudes coming from politicians and media professionals is this: Just because the way that teachers personally care for learners has led to tragedy in this case, that doesn’t stop it from being a wonderful thing worth celebrating otherwise. Please don’t forget that, and please let teachers you know know that you remember it.

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Filed under Disaster relief, Education, Holidays, Insanity

A Brief History of Finland

I first met Finns and became aware of Finland in the mid-1970s, when the country was fifty-some years old. At the time of my first visit to this country in the autumn of 1983 it was still 65. The first Finnish Independence Day that I witnessed in person was when the country turned 69. Today it turns 95 years old. Not only have I had the opportunity to witness nearly 30% of this nation’s history personally, but I’ve had the chance to become personal friends with people who were born here before the nation even became independent. That’s sort of a remarkable thing for a foreigner to stop and think about in an adopted homeland. So in celebrating this country’s aging process today I think I’ll offer a stream of consciousness perspective on the matter from my position as one of this country’s veteran outsiders within already.Flag reflection in window

If we break up Finnish history into significant eras, I propose that we call them the Mannerheim Era, the Kekkonen Era and the Nokia Era. All of these deserve profound respect both for the named leadership force and the national accomplishments that Finland achieved during these eras. All of them deserve to be looked at critically for the victims they left behind.

The Mannerheim Era of Finnish history can be designated as the time running from Finland’s struggles to establish an independent identity in 1917 through the direct aftermath of World War 2. Field Marshal C. G. E. Mannerheim, as he is still most commonly and respectfully known, resigned as president of Finland in 1946 due to old age and ill health. He died in 1951, in Switzerland, at 83 years old. My closest connection with him was that when I first moved to Finland I worked with his grandson at the McDonalds on the street named after him in Helsinki.

Mannerheim was considered by many to be a conservative’s conservative in every sense: promoting rugged individualism, libertarian personal autonomy, the right of the rich to remain rich and the role of a strong military in enforcing these principles. Historians are divided on the question of how deep Mannerheim’s personal sympathies for the Tsar ran, and how willing he would have been to keep the Russian empire going in Finland, but he clearly saw the writing on the wall before it fell, and by the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia he was well positioned to lead an autonomous force representing the interests of Finland’s bourgeoisie against Lenin’s revolution spreading into this part of the empire. It was because of Mannerheim’s military acumen that, in the civil war that followed Finland’s declaration of independence, the country did not become a communist country. The Red Armies were soundly defeated and in the aftermath many of their supporters died in POW camps. Finland thus started out its history as a deeply divided country.Mannerheim and assistants

Mannerheim was actually independent Finland’s second official head of state, holding the title of “regent” in 1918 and 1919. While Mannerheim was still busy fighting the Reds a fellow ironically named Svinhufvud (Swedish for “pig head”) officially held down the administrative side of things for him. A little known fact of history is that briefly during this period Finland was officially a kingdom, with a minor German prince appointed to the role of King.  But the two month “reign” of Finland’s “Charles I” saw the defeat of his native Germany in World War I, and rumors are that he tried to study the language that his subjects spoke and the weather conditions they lived under, so he soon decided it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. He abdicated his throne without ever setting foot in his kingdom or actually trying on his crown. Rather than a king, Mannerheim had to break in a president of Finland as a republic as the next head of state.King of Finland's crown

Back in Russia there were rumors that Mannerheim and his cronies lacked the support of the common people, and that if the heirs of the defeated Finnish Reds were given sufficient tactical support they could take over the country and gladly join into the Soviet Union’s bold social experiment. Whether this was a widely held belief among Stalin’s inner circle or whether this was just a convenient propaganda excuse for expansionism, in December of 1939 it was acted upon. The Soviets appointed a Finnish government in exile in the town of Terijoki and proceeded to attempt to assist them in assuming their “rightful authority” over their nation. This is what is known as the Winter War, where approximately 1000 Finnish civilians died in Soviet air attacks, about 26,000 Finnish soldiers were killed in battle and the tiny Finnish army lost most of its tanks and aircraft; but under Mannerheim’s ingenious leadership again they succeeded in holding off an invasion force more than ten times their size, with hundreds of times more equipment, proving decisively that there was no popular sympathy among the Finns for the idea of becoming Soviet citizens.

Finland was still the official loser of this 3½ month conflict, and the resulting peace did not hold. Mannerheim decided to form a tentative alliance with the Nazis in pushing back Russian advances, which restored some Finnish pride but in the long term may have done more harm than good. When all was said and done, against all odds, Finland still had its pride and independence, but its losses were by every measure far greater than what the Arab states lost at the hands of the British with the founding of Israel. As the Palestinian question was to the Arabs, so the Karelian question became for the Finns a matter of existential purpose to correct the injustices done to them… only not quite.Finnish_areas_ceded after WW2

Enter the Kekkonen Era. Urho Kalevi Kekkonen fought as a teenager in the White Army, under Mannerheim, in Finland’s Civil War. In the 1930s he went from being a hotshot young lawyer to being a member of parliament, and he quickly rose through the political ranks, holding many ministerial level positions by the time war broke out. Kekkonen was conspicuously bald from a young age, and had distinctively thick eyeglasses, but in every other way he was the very image of machismo. His political base was among the agrarian Center Party supporters, but he pulled in support from many sides of the spectrum with his personal charisma. Yet for many Kekkonen was, for better and for worse, Finland’s equivalent of “Tricky Dick” Nixon, only considerably more successful at the games he played.

Kekkonen giving speachKekkonen’s influence was already noticeable in the Mannerheim Era.  In the ten years between Mannerheim’s retirement and Kekkonen’s presidency, the latter served varyingly as Minister of the Interior, Minister of Justice, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finland, Speaker of the Parliament and Prime Minister. The big question was, how would Finland deal with the new reality of being a securely independent country, but living under the shadow of a nuclear armed Soviet Union that no Western country was going to step in to protect them from? Kekkonen turned out to be the strategic master of dealing with this tricky problem. In turns he could suck up like the best of them, do tough guy posturing, play good ole boy drinking games with power brokers and find brilliant bureaucratic excuses for screwing over his opponents. It was just before Kekkonen became president, and reportedly as a result of Kekkonen’s wheeling and dealing, that Porkkala, the coastal area west of Helsinki which had been involuntarily leased to the Soviet Union as a navy base for 50 years starting in 1944, was returned to Finnish control, less than a quarter of the way into the lease.

During Kekkonen’s time the term “Finlandization” came to be used for any country that did what its big powerful neighbor told it to in exchange for not getting stomped on. That was probably never a fair accusation, but to say that the Cold War was a tense time for Finland would still be a significant understatement. Yet during this period of history dominated by Kekkonen Finland successfully hosted a summer Olympics, gained an international following in architecture and design, went from being a primitive agricultural to an advanced technological nation, initiated educational reforms which (only in the 1970s) gave every child a right to a high school education and egalitarian access to a university education, and established their country as one of the primary gateways and buffer zones between the Eastern bloc and the West. It could be said that these advances were gained at the expense of some basic freedoms and on conditions of self-censorship, but recent history in other parts of the world has shown how relative such freedoms can be at times.

Kekkonen’s reign was in many ways quasi-dictatorial. Some jokingly referred to Finland under his authority as “Kekko-slovakia”. He negotiated the broad outlines of economic and foreign policy with the Kremlin, he appointed a small army of bureaucrats to finalize the details, and he made sure that everyone basically did what he told them to. For 25 years that how things worked in Finland. But things were continuously getting better for the peasants, so no one really complained too loudly. Finland never got Karelia back, but other than that things were steadily going in the right direction.

When Kekkonen reached his late 70s, however, it became clear that he had been covering up some Alzheimer’s and other little problems for some time, and so in October of 1981 he semi-voluntarily resigned as president and retired. His last prime minister, Mauno Koivisto, whom Kekkonen had unsuccessfully attempted to fire in his final days in office, took over as the ninth president of Finland.

Koivisto was strong enough to stand up to the aging and delusional Kekkonen, and for that he has earned an important place in Finnish history, but beyond that Koivisto’s greatest show of strength was in his willingness to be weak. During Koivisto’s administration the office of President of Finland started in a process of decline from being one of the more significant de facto dictatorships of Eastern Europe to being the rough equivalent in power to the king of Sweden, only without the wealth and job security that a monarch has.  Thus the era following Kekkonen’s can’t really be attributed to any politician, but rather a corporation that in many regards has taken over the country: Nokia.

Old Nokia CityThe Nokia Corporation is named for a grimy little suburb of Tampere, one of Finland’s older inland industrial centers. Where the name of the town came from is unknown, but it could well be related to the word noki: Finnish for soot. When the Finns were required to pay war reparations to the Soviets the creditors demanded payment in durable goods rather than currency, and two of the commodities that they demanded were rubber products (boots and tires) and copper cable. To meet these demands the Finnish government turned to a little company in Nokia which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and gave them this massive public contract. By the time that this “debt” was paid off in the late 60s Nokia had become an international household name in boots, tires and electronics. In the 80s, when I first arrived in Finland, they had evolved into an overly diversified consumer goods manufacturer, making radios, televisions, telephones, stereo systems, kitchen wear, everything rubberized… and starting to dabble in IBM clone personal computers. But later in the 80s they made a profoundly wise decision: they should focus their corporate energies on one product line in which they had a significant head start in research and development over most of their international rivals: hand-held mobile telephones. The rest is history.Samsung overtakes Nokia in mobile telephone shipment

In fact the expansion of the Nokia Corporation in mobile communications began as the center piece of the Kekkonen legacy –– a successful relationship with the Soviet Union –– was definitively collapsing. In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev was taken by surprise in a public gathering by having a Nokia mobile handset given to him with his communications minister on the other end of the line. The Soviet leader being wowed by this new technology was a major PR coup for the company. Within five years, arguably thanks to Gorbachev on both accounts, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Nokia mobile phones had taken off like a rocket.gorbachev-1987-nokia-mobira-cityman_528_poster

In the deep economic depression that hit Finland in the early 90s, with the collapse of bilateral goods-for-goods trade with communist countries, Nokia and its spin-offs and subcontractors were the one bright spot on the Finnish economic scene. They became one of the most important contributors to tax coffers and political campaigns, and they started getting pretty much whatever they wanted in terms of legislative action. Nokia played no small role in convincing Finns to become part of the European Union and the Euro currency zone. They got major university technology departments started to feed them a fresh supply of bright young engineers specialized in their areas of R&D interest. They even got the Finnish parliament to grant them legal rights to spy on their employees’ e-mail. They’ve actually had a really good run in many regards.

But like the Mannerheim Era and the Kekkonen Era, the Nokia Era of Finnish history might be starting to fade. Since Apple got into the cell phone business the competitive environment has not been the same; and even if they make a remarkable comeback, it is unlikely that things will ever be as good for Nokia again. It remains to be seen whether or not Finland can continue on the remarkable growth trajectory that these first three eras of its national history have delivered. Can the Finnish school system –– initiated under Mannerheim, universalized under Kekkonen and made exceptional under Nokia –– continue to lead the world in generations to come without some new economic miracle corporation to back it up? Or will an internationalist orientation, a cultural emphasis on increased knowledge and a proud heritage of continually facing difficult circumstances and overcoming them regardless continue to serve the Finns well regardless of what global market conditions throw their way?

In my adopted homeland, as in the land of my birth, there are many things I can be thankful for in recent history, but many areas of concern where I can only hope and pray for the best in years to come. This being the holiday that it is though, it is best to focus on the thankfulness side of things. So join me in raising the toast: To the proud Republic of Finland! May her future continue to be brighter than her past!President's castle

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Faith in God vs. Faith in Faith in God

Some years ago in my high school philosophy class I was conducting the regular exercise of staging a panel debate over the proposition of the existence of God when one of the students who volunteered to take the affirmative position asked to modify the proposition slightly: He wished to argue that it is overall good for people to believe in God. We had gone over the subject of Pascal’s Wager, but that was not what he was talking about. He firmly believed that God is worth believing in for purposes of maintaining a sense of purpose, a belief in justice of some sort and a basis for social capital between believers. He was willing to join Pascal in saying that the nature of the subject is such that strictly rational proof wasn’t going to be forthcoming on the subject one direction or the other, but he did not believe that the “wager” on the matter needed to be based on the hypothetical hereafter; he wanted to argue that faith in God made sense as a presuppositional basis for one’s lifestyle choices regardless. Rather than arguing for the reasonableness of faith in God, he wanted to argue for the reasonableness of faith in faith in God.

As a debating tactic this was rather questionable. As a general principle one is not allowed to modify the proposition under consideration once the debate has begun. I nevertheless let him run with it for a little while in the name of encouraging original thought on the subject. Members of the opposing team were neither prepared to refute this modified proposition nor were they prepared to concede such a point. In coming back to the original subject then this provided a bit of a polemic advantage to the affirming team in terms of the whole burden of proof matter.  I don’t think that either side really “won” in terms of converting significant numbers of their classmates to their perspective, but it was a particularly successful class in terms of encouraging deeper contemplation of the matter on both sides and building respect between those of opposing viewpoints.

Switch to a much different anecdote: During my time in South Africa over the last year I got to know one particularly pleasant older couple who married later in life, after the children both of them had from previous marriages had become adults already. The wife came from a traditional Muslim family but over the years she had seriously allowed her religious practice to wane. Her husband came from a European agnostic background where religion had no particular meaning in his life whatsoever. But because he felt he had nothing to lose in the matter and because he didn’t want his wife to suffer further social alienation from her community, he chose to officially convert to Islam prior to their getting married. This fellow, an atheist friend of his and I as a Christian had some intense discussions of religious matters that went on for most of the night on occasion. These discussions didn’t bring any of us closer to the others’ positions, but we grew to be far better friends in the process. But one thing that came out in the process is that my Muslim convert friend still isn’t entirely convinced that there’s a God named Allah out there, or that his religious exercises –– which he has put a very sincere effort into learning to do properly –– will get him into some sort of paradise in the world to come. He sees these things primarily as a matter of appreciating the cultural lifestyle of his wife’s people. He wouldn’t have tried such an experiment were it not for romantic motivations, but he is now firmly convinced that the sort of secularized Muslim practice that he has adopted is far better for him that the religiously uncommitted life he had before. In his own way this fellow too his less committed to faith in God than to faith in faith in God.

In recent years many atheists have challenged the validity of the theist position on just these sorts of grounds: They claim that the majority of those who claim to believe in God have not actually considered this distinction properly; that of the 90% of Americans who claim to have some sort of faith in God, the majority really just have faith in faith in God. They appreciate the comforting sensations they get through prayer and various church rituals. They appreciate the sense of community that arises out of their religious observances. They like the sense of rhythm and flow that traditional worship times add to their weekly and annual routines. What they don’t necessarily stop to consider is whether there is a bona fide transcendent being out there that actually corresponds to all of the teachings they get from their religious communities. What they have faith in is the practical value of the traditions themselves; they haven’t really stopped to consider any of the evidence (or lack thereof) for what these traditions claim to refer people to.

There’s probably a fair amount of validity to such charges when it comes to religious practice in the United States and many developing countries. Religion is not something that most people bother to think through, and what information they do seek out on the subject is designed not to open their minds to other possibilities but rather to reassure them of their reasonableness in sticking to their comfortable traditional beliefs. There are plenty of clergymen who know that this sort of comfort and reassurance is what they are being paid to provide, and who therefor quite intentionally gloss over any of the difficulties inherent in their communities’ chosen dogmas.

And yes, this can spill over into rather lazy thought processes among religious people when it comes to participation in democratic processes. Rather than carefully analyzing what sort of circumstances we find ourselves in in terms of economic conditions, the state of our environment and our relations with other countries, and rationally weighing the proposals offered by various candidates for improving things, many continue uncritically supporting the representatives of whatever party ideology they’ve been brought up to trust in. This does not bode well for the political future of America, or other countries following similar patterns.

It does not follow from here though that following tradition for tradition’s sake –– for the basic sense of comfort and harmony it has to offer –– is necessarily a bad thing for the traditionally religious. Nor does it follow that if someone were to actually find a way to force those who remain comfortably and blindly committed to religious dogmas to stop and think rationally about them for a change then that would be the end of religion as we know it. Nor yet does it follow that critical discussions of the mentalities associated with belief in God can be taken as evidence against God’s actual existence –– if you separate the phenomenon of faith in God from that of faith in faith in God in terms of not giving credence to the positive implications of the latter in defense of the former, then you can’t justifiably take the latter in evidence against the former either.

Bertrand Russell was certainly right in saying that many people would rather die than think, and many of them do; but this does not mean that those of us who actually appreciate the human thought process for its own sake are always morally superior to those who prefer to avoid thinking. Non-intellectuals of many types can nevertheless be valuable members of society and morally outstanding individuals, and often their faith in faith in God –– even if they lack the conceptual sophistication to think of it in those terms –– can further enhance these positive qualities. In other words if they have to be ignorant it doesn’t really hurt for them to be religious as well. In fact it may actually be of considerable benefit to them. Non-religious ignoramuses can be even more dangerous than the religious ones at times.

It is also somewhat obvious that just because a large group of ignorant people believe something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be true. Yes, there are ignorant people who, for religious reasons, still believe the universe is less than 7000 years old, and to anyone with more than a fifth grade understanding of geology they are obviously wrong. But the fact that these same people also believe that the water in the ocean is salty, that dark clouds bring rain, that crude selfish acts have negative consequences, and that forgiveness and harmony with our fellow human beings are nevertheless possible doesn’t stop any of these things from being true. Those with the hubris to claim that their beliefs are infallible have a strong penchant for making idiots out of themselves, and deservedly so. But setting that attitude problem aside, those who practice religious faith with a certain intellectual humility aren’t necessarily wrong just because they have faith of this sort.

Regarding the evidential disconnect between faith in God and faith in faith in God, let me say something about my experiences today celebrating the first Sunday of Advent.

Of all the self-identified religious believers I know, I actually don’t know any who are less formal about participation in sacred rituals than I am. I can sincerely say that as much as I believe in God, I have very little faith in the power of religious observances to please God or to make me a better person. I have a particularly weak faith in faith in God. But regardless of this weakness in my faith, I still find a degree of aesthetic satisfaction in playing along with various sorts of religious rituals every now and again –– be they “high church” or “low church” rituals of western style Christianity, or something more exotic to my up-bringing. I also enjoy the experience of strengthening loose personal acquaintances and meeting with people who are otherwise strangers to me in the process of “believers’ fellowship.” So with that in mind I decided to make a more concentrated effort to get to one of the worship services today marking the beginning of the season leading up to Christmas.

Being in the mood for a bit of “smells and bells”, I made my way to the local late morning Anglican service. I got there about five minutes after the scheduled starting time, but I clearly hadn’t missed anything yet. There were five other people sitting in the chapel, candles were lit on the altar, the wine and wafers for the Eucharist were sitting ready on a side table, and the building caretaker was busily attending to various logistical matters in the back room still, but there were no hymn numbers on the board, no organist in place and no priest in sight. Over the next five or ten minutes two other worshippers drifted in, but still no sign of the professionals. Finally, 20 minutes or so after the scheduled starting time, the caretaker came and said she didn’t understand what was happening, but she was unable to reach the priest or his boss, the vicar, by phone, but there was obviously some miscommunication because it was unlikely that both the priest and the organist were out with sudden illness or car problems with neither of them calling to notify the congregation. She offered to make us some coffee anyway, but we all just shrugged and smiled and decided to be on our way.

So instead of that worship, later in the afternoon, I went to a loosely Lutheran styled Evangelical service There things were very relaxed and family-oriented, they sang a couple of the more traditional hymns for the day together with a mix of traditional Sunday school worship choruses, and afterwards everyone sat down together to a little pot-luck dinner. During the worship service itself, over the continuous buzz of active young children, who made up about a third of those present, the priest carried out the ceremony of lighting the first of the four Advent candles next to the pulpit. Then there were the formulaic Bible readings which tied into the words of a beloved Finnish hymn for the beginning of Advent: “Hosanna, oh son of David”, and from there the sermon was based on a retelling the story of Palm Sunday on a children’s level. (It’s interesting to see how elements of Christianity’s two biggest holiday seasons get blended together sometimes.) It wasn’t the most aesthetically moving religious experience I’d ever had, but it was fun in its own cutesy sort of way.

The thing that was emphasized about the story for the children was the importance of the donkey –– the ass –– in Jesus’ efforts to follow the script laid out for him in the book of Isaiah. In other Bible stories as well the donkey is symbolic of God’s intention of making himself known in the least intellectual, least ceremonial, most humble and most unlikely ways possible. God regularly uses donkeys to show that who he uses really isn’t all that important. So sitting there among all of the mumbling and moaning children, I decided that if I ever have the chance to design an official coat of arms for the Huisjen family, our heraldic beast will have to be a donkey. It would just be so appropriate on so many levels.

AssThe failure of today’s rituals to live up to standard expectations creates no crisis of faith for me; I had no faith in the rituals to begin with. If they happen to work and provide their own satisfying stimulation, fine. If they collapse under their own weight, it’s no big deal as far as I’m concerned. If someone else has alternative rituals which they find to be more dependably satisfying than the ones I take part in, good for them; it’s no threat to my faith to admit that the various ceremonies I take part in frequently leave much to be desired.

As many of you are already aware from my Facebook statuses, I am currently in the process of returning to the academic study of theology, to do my doctorate in philosophy of religion. In this process I am more acutely aware than ever of the misleading nature of the word “theology.” Etymologically it would mean the study or science of God; but in fact its object of study is never God himself, but rather the character of people’s faith in God. In many regards this simplifies the question of the position of the subject within an academic context: regardless of whether or not academics actually believe in God, or believe that anything can actually be known about God, they cannot deny that there are people in the world with faith in God or gods, and that these people’s beliefs have profound effects on the lives of everyone around them. For this reason if no other, the nature of this faith needs to be studied from a number of different perspectives.  But the more I study the variety of ways in which such faith operates, the less faith I have in faith. But my point here is to say that my lack of faith in faith should not be construed as a lack of faith in God.

And if you aren’t confused by all this yet I’ll try again later to get you that way. 🙂

Happy Advent season to all.

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Filed under Education, Holidays, Philosophy, Religion, Tolerance

My Green Christmas

The closest thing to a white Christmas I might experience this year is that one of Cape Town’s shopping malls has built a giant ice slide that rich people can pay to go down for the exotic experience of it. I could afford it actually, but I’d prefer to get a steak dinner for the same price. And while I admit that my credentials as an eco-warrior are rather shaky, I really don’t see much ecological sense in my patronizing such a project.

This month began with South Africa hosting a climate change conference that was supposed to, yet again, find a way of continuing on with the Kyoto process. I take the fact that I haven’t heard much about the outcomes there to be a sign that a) I haven’t been tracking on the news so much this month, and b) they didn’t accomplish much worthy of international attention there in Durban. Both are rather sad in their own way, but neither case is hopeless: my landlord has reconnected the BBC/CNN service on the little TV in my apartment now, and there is still a chance that the environmental awareness education initiatives now in play will yield fruit before we entirely fry this planet.

For now my biggest contribution to limiting the environmental damage I do at Christmas time is just personally not consuming that much. I haven’t taken part in any of the shopping orgies or the mortal combat that goes with them these days, mostly because I don’t have that much to spend (though that obviously doesn’t stop some people). But also, I must admit, I’m too lazy to attempt to prove my love for those I care about in that particular sort of way.

What money I have comes primarily from a process of selling knowledge and ideas. I am a teacher, and what I have been paid to teach, in a nutshell, is a general idea of how our minds work, what our cultures expect from us, what various cultures consider to be important, how we can decide what is true and how we can be “good people.” I’ve established a reasonably sound professional reputation regarding the quality of my knowledge in such areas — enough where members of Finland’s upper middle class have trusted me to impart such knowledge to their children. In exchange for that I was given enough to nearly get by with a lower middle class lifestyle there. I don’t feel sorry for myself about such matters in the slightest: teaching those things to children has been the most personally fulfilling work I ever could have asked for. It just goes with the territory, however, that at Christmas time in particular I’ve never been in a position to express my love to family and friends in flamboyantly materialist terms.

Now in the olden days the way things worked is that Christmas presents were things people made for each other in whatever spare time they could take from their basic struggle for survival, out of whatever they happened to have on hand. Handcrafts were quite common gifts, but they were never cliché because every such toy or decoration reflected the idiosyncrasies and personal affection of its maker. Tradesmen, meanwhile, could offer some extra of whatever they specialized in making as gifts: Bakers would give pies, cakes and cookies to those they cared about. Carpenters would give chests, cabinets, tables and chairs. Butchers would give fine pieces of meat. Musicians would give private performances, and so on.

rag bunny

A crazy handmade gift I gave to my godson a few years ago.

Over the years I have tried to use a bit of both of these old-time systems. I don’t think that many of the handcrafts I’ve made for people have survived, but hopefully one or two are still in someone’s attic somewhere. More importantly though, I hope that those who received such thing from me recognize the amount of sincere care for them that went into such projects.

As to my attempts to give products of my trade to those I love, it has been a more inadvertent process: over celebrations and in a state of good cheer I have regularly slipped into lecturing or debating mode. Occasionally other guests have enjoyed this, but more often it has merely been tolerated. Very rarely has it been taken as a gift.

Regardless of that fact, in talking with friends lately I’ve been tossing out an idea that some consider to be potentially quite valuable, and not only that but particularly healthy for our environment. I certainly hope it might be, but I’m still rather pessimistic about my chances of selling it, so as my Christmas present to whomever can benefit from this I give it freely in the spirit of the season:

A couple of months ago my very special friend and I took a trip up the northwest coast of South Africa, and against the recommendations of the tourist information services we went to see a little town called Kleinzee. This town is on the southern end of the African Atlantic diamond mining and prospecting range, but it is no longer much of a jewel. In fact the De Beers Corporation –– which owns the town, lock, stock and barrel –– has concluded that the expense of extracting diamonds and keeping them from getting stolen on the way to market, even while paying miners’ wages far lower than what I have made as a school teacher, is no longer profitable. Kleinzee has thus become a high security, wind-swept ghost town.

The Kleinzee mine shop

In the old days, as Ernie Ford used to sing, miners would have "sold their souls to the company store." These days the company store isn't buying.

Prior to its industrialization as a diamond town, the Kleinzee area was populated primarily by nomadic herding people, grazing their small flocks on the scrub grasses growing in the area. The lack of fresh water and the vicious winds blowing up and down the coast kept it from being useful for much else. So with the diamonds mostly gone, what the area has left is a lot of sun and wind and surf, plenty of recently abandoned housing and residential and industrial infrastructure, and not much else. To my mind, however, this presents an outstanding opportunity.

The first thing to be built in Kleinzee would be a wind power generating site. Power cables supplying vast amounts of electricity from the coal fired national electric grid to the diamond mines are still in place. There is no one around to complain about the aesthetics of windmills, and the exposed bedrock of the abandoned mining facilities could provide the most solid anchoring points for tall masts that anyone could hope for. As for the strength of the wind itself there, the amount of power available is legendary.

A very wind swept beach from which they used to send men out to dredge for diamonds.

But that would just be an immediate starting point. With wind power construction finished and turning a quick profit for the town, human energies could then be turned to constructing facilities to utilize the other resources available in the region: continuous intense sun, sea water and arid scrub land. One of the simplest ways to generate electricity from solar power is by setting up a large field of parabolic mirrors to direct the sun’s heat to some sort of large cauldron in which you boil water, thus creating steam pressure with which to turn a turbine. The inevitable by-product of such a process is either steam released into the atmosphere, or more sensibly, distilled water. Besides meeting the fresh water needs of the local population, this solar distilled/desalinated water could be used to efficiently irrigate the land on the banks of the dried river bed that “flows” through Kleinzee. At a minimum this land could then be used to grow large quantities of indigenous grasses with outstanding carbon capturing properties. On a more ambitious level it would be possible to initiate an agricultural operation there which could provide for the nutritional needs of the local power station population with a bit left over for export.

And with that sort of infrastructure in place, the town could then turn to developing its own tourism industry. With sun, sand and surf aplenty; with people coming to see the exemplary use of relatively simple technologies in reviving a dead, one-company town; and with the potential added bonus of De Beers allowing amateur diamond prospectors into the old mining areas to try their hand at finding genuine diamonds in the rough; this could be a major business unto itself.

On that last item, it would basically be taking a page out of the playbook of old gold and silver mining areas. With most of the big fortunes to be made having already come and gone, rather than attempting to capitalize on industrial profits from these resources such towns can still turn a tidy profit off of tourists who come to play prospector. The last such place I visited was Finland’s Ivalojoki region, where my sons, then in elementary school, asked me to take them on our summer vacation, with dreams of finding a gold nugget that would make us rich. It plays off of the same psychological drives as a casino: everyone coming with a dream of getting rich against the odds, even though they know that in the end the house always wins.

In this case the house can no longer turn a profit at mining the area, but they can clean up the mine area enough to make it impeccably safe for tourists and then sell tickets down into it which would include hard hats, pickaxes, specimen bags and instructions in mineral identification. A certain number of tourists could then spend the day chipping away at the cavern walls to their hearts’ content, and when they would come up from their adventures they could then sit down with an expert who could go through their finds with them, helping them identify and certify any genuinely valuable stones they may have discovered. The company could then offer to buy any merely industrial grade diamonds they might come out with, encouraging them to hang onto their more beautiful gems. Meanwhile, in addition to collecting fees for the actual certification of any diamonds tourists happen to find;  De Beers could also have jewelers on hand to cut the stones and make the rings, earrings, necklaces and whatever that the finders would want; and eventually they could even set up genuine casinos there to win back a portion of the quick riches found by the fortunate few. High security would still be needed to keep explosives, firearms and organized crime out of the area, but these things could be readily paid for by the new sources of revenue the town would start generating. One or two such tourists might actually get a small fortune in the process, but most would be simply paying for the sense of adventure, and doing so gladly.

Then the final kicker for this idea would be that Kleinzee is far from the only site in the world with a plenty of sun and wind and sea water, but with a shortage of fresh water and employment opportunities. By bringing these elements together in a profitable manner this town — and the company that owns it — can pioneer a new era of sustainable development for warm coastal desert regions of the world. From Spain to Australia to Mexico, the market for such technology could be vast, especially after it has been proven in practice by someone bold enough to use it to rebuild a ghost town.

The major drawback of this whole scheme that friends have presented me with is that the ones who stand to profit from it most extensively are the robber barons of the De Beers empire. Why would anyone want to toss out ideas that will help make them richer? For that I have two answers. First of all any company which would have the resources and the initiative to set up the sort of environmentally friendly, carbon reducing and employment providing scheme I am talking about in my honest opinion morally deserve to profit from it, regardless of how checkered the history of their fortune might be. Secondly, I believe that even within companies with the most sinister business reputations there are men of conscience who want to protect our planet for the use of their own grandchildren, and who might even care about reducing unnecessary human suffering to for their neighbors, regardless of their skin color. Under such circumstances Assisting them in finding the means to “do good by doing well” is not at all against my principles.

So there it is –– my utopian idea of how a significant number of challenges on the local and global levels could be simultaneously addressed here to the benefit of all. Please feel free to point out the logistical limitations of such a plan if you can think of any. Please pass this on into any significant debate forums you happen to know of on environmental issues to drum up support for such common sense initiatives. Please pass this on to anyone you happen to know who is close to a decision making capacity on such matters. And above all, please join me in continuing to wish “peace on earth, good will towards man” in line with the ideal essence of this holiday season.

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Risk taking, Sustainability

A Psalm of Salvation

For various reasons I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading in the Old Testament lately. I could get distracted here in itemizing some the reasons for that or in struggling to avoid alienating non-Christian readers here by taking time to justify my use of the Christian term for the books in question, but I’ll leave those aside for now. I’ll just say that when I went to church last Sunday and the text for the Second Advent Sunday’s sermon was Psalm 96, it pricked my interest because it related to things I’d been thinking about.

The Psalms are a fascinating literature collection on all sorts of levels. I don’t pretend to be either a great scholar of such literature (I passed my basic classes in Biblical Hebrew and then forgot all of it) or a great mystic who gets regular messages from God via these texts. It’s just a fascinating game for someone with my level of knowledge to try to put together a reasonable guess as to when each of them might have been written and what the writer was going through at the time. Then from there it is interesting to consider how many of the very human emotions, reactions and self-assurances given there relate directly to life as I know it, and how many are exercises in empathy with those with an entirely different range of experiences. This game (or exercise) is directly relevant to the faith of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is in particular, who all officially recognize these writings as reflecting “prophetic” experiences of men (and perhaps some women) who had direct contact with the one true God, but they are really of interest to anyone who is interested in exploring the “spiritual” aspects of the human experience.

This isn’t to say that everything in the Psalms should be taken as a benchmark for spiritual experience. The most obvious example to the contrary is Psalm 137: 8-9: “happy is […] he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Anyone who would take that as a standard for their own behavior is not what I would call a spiritual person, or even a moral or psychologically healthy person. Justifying baby bashing and other such practices on the basis of such a scriptural precedent is the worst form of aggressively non-thinking religious observance. Let each reader examine his/her own heart to determine how he/she might avoid such barbarism in the name of faith.

The way I take such verses, in context, is as an honest reflection of how it feels for even the most spiritual person to be in a state of total oppression; or in other cases being overcome by feelings such as victorious jubilation, profound guilt, bitterness over unfair treatment, sublime thankfulness and/or awe at the majesty of the world around us, to name a few. The message I take from these psalms is that faith isn’t something reserved for spiritual supermen. The most profoundly spiritual people were often the most confused and messed up of individuals by other standards. Thus the threshold for being a prophet really wasn’t all that high in terms of emotional intelligence and all that. The primary virtues required were honesty and openness to the importance of things beyond oneself –– and even in those the prophets and psalmists failed miserably at times. But even in their failures they were doing exactly as God had planned because in doing so they were providing the sort of hope that a basket cases like me needs not to give up.

One of my Old Testament professors at the University of Helsinki claimed that the Psalms probably represent the oldest writings in the Bible, at least in terms of their taking the final shape they each have. When challenged on that, however, she acknowledged that the Psalms also include some relatively recent writings by biblical standards. In fact it would be fair to say that the Psalms as a whole cover the full historical scope of ancient Israel and Judah, starting with works credited to Moses and running all the way through to the post-exilic period. The bulk of them seem to have been written during the time of ancient Israel being a united kingdom but then without warning you can find some from way earlier or way later tossed in here and there. Sometimes the clues to the changed time perspective are very subtle, and easy to miss. So it was for me with Psalm 96 last weekend.

This particular Psalm is in the middle of a section called Book 4 within the Book of Psalms. One of the pieces there (#90) is attributed to Moses and another (#101) to David, but the rest are open to scholarly guessing as to exactly who wrote them when. In Psalm 95 the only historical reference points are in verses 8 and 9, rephrasing God’s message about not screwing up the same way that the Israelites did back when Moses was running things. That would seem to indicate that it was written pretty early on, before any particular scandals or tragedies of the kingdoms needed to be explained away, but there’s no guarantee there. Psalm 97 in turn refers to other nations seeing God glorified in Zion and the villages of Judah in particular. That would seem to indicate that it would have been written after the “northern kingdom” had already been taken over by Assyria, but while Judah was still autonomous and worshiping “the God of their fathers”; perhaps during King Hezekiah’s reign. But none of this gives a clue as to when Psalm 96 would have been written.

The key to finding the historical context for Psalm 96 comes down to its very last verse: “…for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in truth.” That would indicate that this poem was written during the time of messianic expectation, after the Babylonian Captivity. That would also explain why some Anglican bishop decided that this text would be appropriate for the Advent season. Allow me to unpack that a bit.

There’s a fair amount of truth to the cynical summary of world religions that came out sometime in the 1980s, which I’ve seen in many different versions since. It always starts with the message of Taoism being “shit happens” and always ends with the message of Rastafarianism being “let’s smoke this shit.” In between, among other things, it summarizes the essential message of Judaism as being a question: “Why does this shit always happen to us!?”

This was something that the Jews had to start asking themselves after, in spite of claiming that their god was the all-powerful creator of the universe, over and over again they got their asses kicked in battle. If they had such a big god, why did they keep losing?

The essential answer which they eventually arrived at for this question is that they lost because God let them lose because they weren’t taking their submission to him seriously enough, and once they would get their act back together in that way God would send them a hero to put things right and restore the glory that they had back in the good old days –– when David was king –– only somehow better.

So a psalm talking about how God was on his way to judge the world and set things right would have necessarily been written around the time that the Jews were coming to those sorts of conclusions about their purpose in life; at the time when the Persians were enabling them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. It was a time when –– in terms of an analogy I’ve used fairly often –– they thought they could see a light at the end of their tunnel, but when they couldn’t exclude the possibility that it was an on-coming train.

In the times since, the Jewish people have had many experiences of hope for improvement in both spiritual and political terms, but time after time those hopes have been rather brutally dashed to bits. Yet the true genius of their faith is that for all the times and ways in which this hope has been sickeningly deferred, it has not been lost. They still wait for the Messiah to come and set things permanently right –– just as Christians and Muslims both await the second coming of Jesus, each with the expectation that he will definitively prove to the others that they were right all along.

Years ago, when I was working for an exclusively Jewish retirement resort in the US, there was one old fellow there, Henry, who smoked a rather rare form of tobacco in his pipe. He used to tip fairly well for the favor whenever someone would pick up a pouch of this blend for him from the designer tobacco shop in the city, and whenever he got his fresh supply he would tell the same joke: “You know, David, when the Messiah comes I will never run out of tobacco ever again.” He knew that some people would consider such a jest sacrilege, but in private he didn’t mind. Everyone has their own sort of hopes for how the world could best be made into a better place, he figured, and for him, at his advanced age, as good an improvement as any would be to have an unlimited supply of his favorite pipe tobacco.

Hope can be a wonderful and terrible thing in these sorts of ways. Years and years ago I read a quote in some psychology magazine that has stuck with me. (I’d be happy to give the proper person credit for it if someone could tell me who it is, but I honestly don’t remember.) The quote goes, “Hope is the memory of the future.” I rather like the way that sums up the whole issue. We can only hope for things that we find traces of in our memory. We can only aim towards that which we can see based on where we’ve already been. Thus, for example, much of my experience here in Africa hasn’t at all disappointed me, but it hasn’t been what I’d hoped for, simply because my experience had not equipped me to hope for the sort of things I’ve encountered here. I wouldn’t have been able to hope for or to fear the sort of things that have happened to me here because of how different they have been from all that has gone before.

an exotic forest of sorts

Hope therefore has a bit of a nostalgic element to it. In that regard the hope that the psalmist reflects in Psalm 96 is based on a type of nostalgia for the peak years of the ancient Israeli empire, back when David was king. Those were the days!

Or were they? We justifiably complain about the continuous state of war that our politicians seem determined to keep us in, but that is really nothing new. In fact I came across a rather ironic verse in the Bible recently describing the status quo during King David’s time: 2 Samuel 11:1 – “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…” So the historian who was writing this considered war to be just as inevitable a part of life in “the good old days” as the changing of the seasons. Is that sort of perpetual conflict really what we want to look forward to?

But Psalm 96 doesn’t actually speak directly to what sort of victories are expected or any other specific hopes regarding what “the coming of the LORD” will bring. It doesn’t even say anything directly about whose side God is going to be on. It only says that the Lord is strong enough so that nobody’s going to stop him from doing what he’s decided to do, and he’s going to be perfectly fair about things. In other parts of Old Testament as well, the message of the messianic prophets starts to morph from, “in the end we win!” into, “in the end there will be justice!” So with only those criteria established, if we’re asked if this coming of the Lord is a good thing, some might be inclined to quote Borat in saying, “Not for me!”

What if that’s really what it all comes down to? Rather than waiting for God to do something supernatural to clean up all our mistakes for us, are we ready for God to just start more thoroughly enforcing a principle of kindness, fairness, decency and respect coming back to those who have shown kindness, fairness, decency and respect to others? News flash: that might be all the salvation we have coming; that might be the basic essence of what heaven has to offer. And the fact that we don’t yet know how to hope for this properly because it still falls outside of the realm of our experience doesn’t exclude the possibility.

But then we come back to the general lesson of the Psalms as a whole: even the holiest of men and women screw up every now and again. We all have our basic human tendencies to react badly to certain situations at times, but that doesn’t stop God from caring about us and even helping us out every now and again. We can’t worship a God whose only primary attribute is perfect justice, because such a God would inevitably have to fry us all. We also need to believe that the almighty is also capable of being merciful, which leads to the conclusion that we in turn need to be ready to be merciful to others. So there’s a bit of a balance to be found: we make a point of caring about others with hopes that we too can receive a bit of care when we need it; and we need to acknowledge our error when we get careless towards others and treat them as though they’re less important to God than we are.

This, I admit, is a more directly religious version of the message of hope than I usually post here, but I have to acknowledge that if the point of this blog is to shoot for basic honesty in searching for truth, this too is part of how I personally tend to go about it. If someone wants to challenge my presuppositions here, feel free to have at it. I guess my main point would be, as I was implying last time, religion shouldn’t be a means of justifying ourselves in spite of not caring about others; it should be a means of enabling ourselves to go beyond our natural limitations and start caring more about others. And towards that end, here’s wishing you all a blessed continuation to the Advent season.

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Filed under Empathy, Holidays, Religion, Spirituality

ADVENTures

Where does time go? I’ve known for a while that being out of working routines leads to a lot of this dimension passing unnoticed at times, but it still surprises me that the Christmas season has snuck up so quickly.

At the moment I’m further from everything that I have associated with Christmas than I have been at any other time in my life: snow, darkening days, carols everywhere, Laplandic culture spin-offs, orgies of commercialism and young children. So it is small wonder that it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas season here at the moment. Then I notice a friend posting a Facebook status of “Hosanna has now been sung” and I realize just how close the holiday is getting.

I went to church last week, acting like something of an ecumenical tourist in the Anglican chapel closest to my apartment. It was mentioned there that it was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and that all of the Christmas things were coming, but that was sort of overshadowed by other aspects of the service. In particular there was a veteran organist and choir director whose 80th birthday was being commemorated with all sorts of official recognition for his 62 years of service to the denomination in various capacities as a church musician. The officiating priest spoke of having pulled out all of the stops (an appropriate analogy) at getting every possible high church element included.

Besides all of the “smells and bells” then, part of the celebration was to borrow a batch of choir boys from the darker skinned Anglican congregation on the other side of the mountain. And the retired priest who delivered the main sermon –– an old classmate of the honoree for the day –– made a minor key mention of the fact that it was by rights their church where this celebration was being held. It was in the mid sixties that the Apartheid government had declared the area around the harbor of Simon’s Town to be “whites only,” forcibly moving those too dark to deserve respect over to an inland slum ironically named “Ocean View.” As the old priest pointed out, this chapel where the octogenarian musician was being honored was the same place where these young people’s parents had been confirmed and where their grandparents had been married. The implication was that they were quite welcome there as full participants these days, not just as liturgical guest minstrels. Even so, there was sort of an understanding that the status quo of the white retirees there remaining in control would not be disturbed. From a tourist perspective I found all of this fascinating, but I’m still not quite sure how to relate to it.

So what should Christmas mean in this land of slowly healing wounds, where the solar significance of the holiday is entirely reversed in any case? Last year I wrote a piece about the significance of candles in my life as a means of surviving darkness this season. Now I’m living in a land where the darkest times are in June, and even then candles aren’t so critically important. But regardless of the seasonal reversal, there is a strong need here to maintain hope that the light –– in the more figurative sense –– will return soon. But what light might that be?

The concept of Jesus as the light of the world is as relevant here as it is in every other part of the world, but there is probably more fresh and raw scar tissue from nasty things done in Jesus’ name by his professing followers here than in just about any other part of the world. Then again, there has also been much good done by Christians here in terms of encouraging forgiveness rather than vengeance as power has changed hands. But some still ask, has that simply led to the villains going unpunished through their ingenious move of religiously neutralizing their victims’ will to fight back? Under these circumstances what form should the light of the Gospel message take so as to provide genuine hope for the weary and down-trodden?

Part of the question fundamentally becomes, is there some way that we can learn to respect –– even love –– each other without using that as a means or excuse for manipulating each other? History has given us ample reason to be pessimistic about this. Nor do I have a solution worthy of a peace prize for my contributions, but here’s the best I can suggest: The opposite of manipulation is trust, and so the greatest hope that we have is that these people –– who have been conditioned to hate each other while at the same time looking for ways to take advantage of each other –– will some day find a way of learning to trust each other. Of course that’s infinitely easier said than done, but trust does provide us with something of a star to look to in our moral navigation process.

In some senses the easiest way to build trust in another person is by showing them that you are willing to trust them first. Loyalty is a basic instinctive tendency for most psychologically healthy people. OK, people are never as loyal as dogs, but most people are at least somewhat capable of the trait. So if you can show a person that you care about them personally and you mean to do them good, and if you are sincere about it, in the vast majority of cases that person will do good by you as well. Among other displays of this in pop culture we have the transformation in the character played by Eddie Murphy in the film “Trading Places” –– a wild fictional exaggeration, but demonstrating a completely valid point.

When trust building with other people doesn’t work I would attribute it to one of four basic reasons: The first would be that the person you are trying to win over still (perhaps justifiably) sees you as still taking more than you’re offering. This could mean that they suspect you of playing a con game in your attempts to win their trust, but it could also be a matter of simple calculation: If I have been working for you and you have been paying me 30% less than what I’m rightfully entitled to, a 10% Christmas bonus is unlikely to make me start completely trusting your good will towards me.

In the second case though, even if you really are being more than fair with the person you’re trying to win over and you have no ulterior motives for them to suspect, you might fail to win them over because they have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that you cannot be trusted because you are… X. Some believe that they can never trust someone from outside of their own religion, or their own gender, or their own social class, or their own political persuasion, or their generation, or any number of other standards by which the difference between “us” and “them” is operationally defined for them. Some such people are more closed-minded than others. Sometimes this can be overcome with patient personal investment in friendship across such borders, but not always. For some the most important part of their personal identity might be what they see as their strength in standing strong against what “someone like you” represents.

With others the issue might not be a consciously held prejudice against something you represent, but a subconscious wound that they can’t help but associate with you. If a girl has been brutally raped by a man who, for reasons I can do nothing about, I strongly remind her of, it should come as no surprise that she will be highly unlikely to trust me. The same principle applies to any who have been exposed to traumatic violence or dehumanizing humiliation of any sort: If they are personally afraid of me for reasons that are entirely not my fault, I am probably the wrong person to help them through their trust issues.

And then finally there are those who are bona fide sociopaths –– incapable of human caring or loyalty on any level. How large a group this is is a difficult matter to determine, but they are certainly out there. When you find someone in this condition, no amount of kindness will ever earn their trust or make them a trustworthy friend to you in return.

All that being said then, I do recognize that there are at least two groups of people with whom I shouldn’t even try to build trust; with whom the best I can do is to interact cautiously and honorably, but giving them plenty of space. With others though –– and I believe that this includes the vast majority of those in our world with trust issues –– there is a very good chance that through a persistent enough display of kindness and fairness trust can be established. This trust in turn can be contagious, and the more it spreads, the greater our chances are of realizing the Advent message of “peace on Earth, good will towards mankind”.

The best way for me to find the strength to pursue a goal of becoming an instrument of peace is to feel secure in who I am and what I’ve been given. The less I worry about people taking the things I treasure most from me, the more I can allow myself to open up to them and care about them rather than just worrying about myself. I admit that this too is easier said than done, but in all honesty I find the Advent message really helpful here: God is reaching out to me where I am at, making it possible for me to be part of his kingdom in spite of myself, giving my life more significance than I could ever earn for myself by my own merits, and not leaving any of this at up to the whim of whatever religious authorities there are who would want to use this as a means of manipulating me.

What more could I ask for? Well… plenty, but what more could I justifiably demand? Absolutely nothing. And what I have beyond that is a rich life on entirely different terms than I ever would have imagined and a fascinating new adventure taking shape in what remains of my time here on Earth.

So here’s wishing all of my friends in the frozen north and in other still darkening parts of the world a joyous Advent season, and here’s asking that you keep working for peace and keep praying for me as I try to do the same.

 

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Purpose, Religion, Time

Current Adjustments

Greetings friends and other readers.

Again I must apologize to any who’ve been looking here for regular inspiration, stimulation or information about yours truly. Allow me to sum up the last month a bit. Following my return to Finland from the United States I jumped straight into the process of settling my affairs in there to free myself to move on to South Africa. Without going into too many details about that process I can just say that I managed to get an extended multiple entry visa, sell my car, find a new home for my dog, secure my sabbatical pay for the academic year and sell, give away, throw away or temporarily store all but the 60-some kilograms of personal belongings that I was able to take with me. No mean feat, believe me!

The final emptying out of my apartment and settling of accounts with my landlord was the last thing that was left hanging. Since the former colleague who verbally agreed back in May to take over my lease this summer reneged on his promise in the end of July, I was rather left hanging. Curses on that individual aside, I had to leave my largest pieces of furniture in the house waiting for the people from the recycling center to come fetch them. My younger son who had shared the apartment with me thus inherited the job of letting them in and showing them what to take. As it turned out though, they refused to take most of my furniture even as donations, and poor Kris had to recruit some friends and rent a van to take most of it to the dump! Talk about adding insult to injury…

But with all of that said and done, as of August 5th, I have now arrived in South Africa and set up camp for myself in Cape Town, or more specifically on the False Bay side on the peninsula just south of the Cape Flats. Life here is sweet in many respects, but there are still many things that will take me months to adjust to properly: driving on the opposite side of the road, shadows moving counter-clockwise, a variety of local accents with entirely different vowel sounds than what I’ve learned to recognize thus far, and a heightened sense of security awareness necessary to prevent baboons (yes, real live, human-sized hairy creatures that I’d never seen in the wild before) and extremely poor people from attacking one’s belongings.

Somewhat complicating the process of adjusting to those matters is an entirely different adjustment: Ramadan. As many of my contacts here are from the Cape Malay Muslim community, I have chosen to join them in observing their sacred month of fasting from dusk until sundown each day. As it is now winter in South Africa, this is not a major physical hardship, but it does put some added stress and limitations on my mind and body. It has also involved its own learning curve for me in terms of what is and isn’t allowed, what works for keeping one’s blood sugar and mental energy at sustainable levels, and what is traditionally expected in terms of rituals to start the fast each morning and break the fast each evening. I’m not complaining; I’m more just providing explanations / making excuses for how little I’ve been able to observe and write about in the past few weeks.

Truth being told, I have at least 3 half-written or mostly written blog entries on file here. I still haven’t provided my personal perspectives on the philosophy teaching conference I was at in June, I still haven’t commented about the recent Norwegian tragedy, and I still haven’t given a retrospective on the half of my life (thus far) that I spent in Finland. (And to answer the obvious question: I’m officially scheduled to return to Espoo next year as my career default setting, but I’m not at all sure I will do so. Watch this space for further information as it develops.) But with my contemplations on each of those issues still somewhat “in process” I thought it the proper thing to do to at least provide this scrap of personal information for those who wish to know where my subjective perspectives are coming from.

As to the whole Ramadan thing in itself, it is important for me not to pretend that I entirely get it, but I can say a thing or two about what it has meant to me. To start with I feel there is a certain value to restraining ones appetites on purpose for a certain period of time every now and again, regardless of what religious or secular motivations one has in doing so. On other blog forums I have mentioned how giving up certain things for Lent has been a positive experience for me, even if I don’t necessarily believe that it brings me closer to God in the process. I can merely appreciate being able to overcome my own silly habits and mild addictions for such a time. Some people, however, are not so prone to do follow “suggestions” on temporary lifestyle limitations. It takes a pretty strong religious compulsion for them to inconvenience themselves in such a way. So if an absolute religious mandate is what it takes, that may well be the best thing in the world for them. Thank God some of them have Ramadan.

But beyond the individual experience of controlling one’s appetites, Ramadan also gives Muslims a sense of solidarity in their shared feelings of hunger. As I see it, the balance between a personal, individual sense of spirituality and a shared communal experience of worship is one of the key issues in any religion. Both aspects are entirely necessary, and emphasizing one at the expense of the other is inevitably problematic. Knowing that my own brand of Christianity probably errs a bit on the side of the individualized then, I can at least respect the practices of another faith which enforce a shared experience. Of course I see risks in going too far in the collective direction as well, but I’m not going to pretend that I know enough to judge my Muslim friends on such matters. For now I’m just trying to respectfully follow along with this aspect of their communal experience for its own sake, even though I’m not really part of their religious community.

To me it is obvious that the biggest reason for the difference between where my Muslim friends are at and where I am at is that we were born into different traditions and cultural customs. The fact that every human tradition has some gross human problems associated with it also goes without saying here. Mutual respect will be necessary regardless of the practical shortcomings of those on “the other side”, which are far too many to itemize here. As one old friend of mine who was a Baptist minister in northern England once told me that a wise old Imam once said to him, I don’t think we know each other well enough to argue yet. I very seriously doubt that they will convert me or that I will convert them, but that is not the point. The point, for me at least, is to understand each other in terms of the value we find in our respective traditions, and to eliminate as much of the ignorant and irrational hatred between our groups as possible. For me that has to begin with my making a sincere effort to understand and appreciate their teachings and rituals for what they are. In that I’m only in the very early stages, so it is no surprise that when it comes to the deeper spiritual meaning of this month for Muslims, beyond just the state of mind brought on by shared voluntary self-deprivation, I really can’t get it, yet.

Is it just crap luck or a good thing that this year Ramadan happens to fall right on my first month in a new country, where I am trying to build contacts with people of as many different backgrounds as possible? That I can’t say, other than it just is what it is. The bright sides of it include a certain element of taking things slow as I get started here, and a possibility to build some mutual respect through my voluntary participation, even if I am rather clumsy about it.

So in short there is a bit of mea culpa here, as usual, combined with a renewed claim that things are just getting interesting, so stay tuned. And until next time, for all of my friends and other readers –– non-theists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or from points in between –– I wish you a sincere “as-salamu alaykum”: peace and blessings be with you –– hoping that a bit of such good will bounces back at me.

 

 

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Filed under Change, Empathy, Holidays, Religion, Tolerance, Travel

Abrahamic Certainty

I’m going to make this week’s blog a double. In part this has happened by accident, in that I was inspired to bite off a bigger theoretical piece than usual here, and by the time I’d finished chewing my way through it I had about twice as many words as I usually allot myself for one of these things. But in part that is a happy accident because I was planning to allow myself to set my writing aside next weekend anyway, as I celebrate Easter in my own radically untraditional way this year. I could have broken this up into two chunks to keep readers coming back more regularly, but why bother? If you find this to be too heavy an intellectual snack for one weekend, read half of it now and save the other half for sometime next week.

Let me also warn you that this entry is written from the perspective of a sincere but questioning faith in God. If you are the sort of person who finds a presupposition of the existence of God offensive, you might want to skip this essay. I have elsewhere explained at some length why I believe in God and what sort of role that faith plays in my life, and this piece is more than long enough without adding in a repetition of those arguments. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sort of religious person who finds it offensive to have the authority of your own tradition seriously questioned, you too might want to skip this particular essay. I operate here on the assumption that even the most sincere prophets and saints have made serious mistakes, and that when it comes to seeking for direct spiritual guidance, a certain amount of uncertainty goes with the territory. You are fully entitled to disagree about these matters, but accommodating all of the various authoritative dogmas that might take offense at my approach is another thing I don’t really have time for this weekend.

All of this starts with a personal re-evaluation of Kierkegaard. For many years if people would ask me to list my favorite philosophers I’d have to stop and think, and a different list might come out each time, but Kierkegaard would always come out within the top 5. Kierkegaard prioritized finding meaning in the absurdities of everyday life as the essential task of both philosophy and Christian faith. He drew on both the Bible and on classical Greek and Latin materials to demonstrate how the respectable Lutheran status quo of his time had a fair percentage of BS involved. On those merits I still believe that he was probably the most outstanding and influential genius that the Scandinavian countries have ever produced. At the same time, however, Kierkegaard was rather open about his own human limitations and fallibility. He never claimed to be a prophet, which as I see it is quite a good thing; especially as lately I’ve noticed areas in his thinking where, as a product of his own time and culture, he seems to be quite seriously mistaken.

Kierkegaard is at his best as the cynical humorist and critical analyst. Where has been seen as intellectually weaker is in terms of giving his own final answers to life’s persistent questions. After recognizing that life can only be analyzed by looking backwards, but it can be only lived by looking forwards, and that the analytical
process itself inevitably includes more than a little bit of paradox; for everyday decision making Kierkegaard turned to a form of faith that was riddled with paradox and thin on proofs, which was precisely what he loved about it. For many, however, this involves unjustified and unjustifiable risks: diving into things that you can’t be totally rationally sure of, but where “something in your heart” tells you that it’s right.  (Quotation marks there refer to the term being borrowed from pop culture, not Kierkegaard’s writings.) For some the question follows from there, “Can’t we do better than that?” leading to the answer “Maybe not.”

Recently, as I’ve been contemplating some major decisions in my own life and talking with some close friends about these matters, one of these confidants raised the issue of Abraham’s faith, as considered by Kierkegaard. For those unfamiliar with the story it goes something like this:

Like any rich nomadic herdsman of his time, Abraham had dreams of raising a huge family… but it just wasn’t happening for him. He was on the north side of middle age already, as was his beloved and hot looking wife, and as hard as they worked on making babies, they just weren’t coming. At one point then Sarah, his wife, told Abraham to try to deal with the situation by seeing if he could get her slave girl pregnant. That worked pretty well, and Sarah sort of adjusted to the idea of her new step-son, Ishmael, taking over the family fortune. But then, after they had given up on trying to make babies, and got back to intercourse for the fun of it, as sometimes happens in such cases, Sarah managed to get pregnant and have a son, Isaac. That’s where things started to get complicated. Abraham really loved both of his sons, but his wife clearly came first in his life, and she loved her surprise biological son to the total exclusion of her step-son; and Ishmael, it seems, was not adjusting to this very well himself. Finally Abraham, on Sarah’s orders, sent Ishmael and his mother packing, to go live further south, where they wouldn’t be the subject of so many arguments.

In the next chapter then (Genesis 22) comes the real climax of the story. It says that “God tested Abraham” by telling him to kill and roast his dear son Isaac. Abraham was pretty secretive about this, but he set out to take care of what he believed God had commanded. He took a couple helpers and his son, along with some wood and butchering utensils, and snuck out one morning before his wife woke up. They rode for a good three days “to the place God had shown him,” and then he left the servants behind so he could go do a secret ritual with his son using the wood and a butcher’s knife. The kid was smart enough to notice that something strange was going on, in that there was a conspicuous lack of a sacrifice animal with them, but Abraham just cryptically told him, “God will provide one.”

The happy ending then comes when at the last second God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and says, “I was just testing. You passed. Don’t hurt the kid!” Then Abraham sees a ram with its horns stuck in a bush (not the smartest animal in the pack, it would seem) so he kills and roasts that creature instead. Ever since then, however, there has been burning speculation about what was going on there. To start with, how did God give these messages to Abraham, and how could Abraham be sure that it was God talking to him? And after that, what lessons does this story really hold for the rest of us? It is one of the major turning points in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, so it can’t really be ignored; yet it seems to have nothing to do with principles of kindness, trust, cooperation and understanding that religion “should be promoting.”

Kierkegaard latched onto this tale just because it makes so little sense in terms basic humanistic ethical principles being manifest in religion. His take on it was that sometimes you just have to trust God for no other reason than that he’s God. He gets to give the orders because that’s part of what he gets to do, being God and all. So if you try to crunch any religion –– Christianity in particular –– down to a sweet little set of humanistic principles, you’ve rather missed the whole point.

Thus far, in terms of coming to grips with the foundational metaphysical assumptions that monotheistic faiths are based on, I strongly sympathize with what Kierkegaard is saying. My problem with all this comes when I start to look for an answer to the question my friend puts to me: “What would you do in Abraham’s place?” My provisional answer: “I’d make damned sure of my epistemological reasons for believing that it was God talking before I’d do anything.” And that’s the crux of the matter: can any form of personal emotional experience ever be enough to provide absolute certainty that it is God with whom we are dealing?

The alternative of looking for rational certainty of God’s will –– discovering the divine through a series of systematic algorithms –– is something that Kierkegaard has adequately shown to be inconsistent with the core understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least. (And as I understand it, Al Ghazali made a similar point from an Islamic perspective 700-some years earlier.) Beyond that it would seem to me to be an implausible proposition on a number of different levels.

In brief, if God had wanted to provide absolute certainty about his intentions and desires for mankind, there would have been a number of ways in which he could have made that more clear. That, however, would have entailed an increased risk of various religious groups claiming that their authority is based on enforcing God’s revealed will for everyone else. That would have turned “true religion” into the most impersonal and authoritarian bureaucracy imaginable. Even without true, divinely inspired intellectual certainty we have some pretty serious problems with authoritarian religious bureaucracies. We can only imagine what it would be like if one of these groups really
did have God’s unequivocal stamp of approval!  Thus God, in all his wisdom, in the interest of remaining personal and relational, has chosen to remain somewhat mysterious and non-systematizeable. All this is to say, faith in God does not necessarily entail an assurance of being perfectly aware of what the God wants in every possible situation; somewhat the opposite in fact.

Now of course no authoritarian religious organization which enforces orthodoxy in its standardized teaching can readily accept the idea that they have anything less than a mandate from God himself to maintain such standards. Thus it would be more the rule than the exception for the ideas in the above paragraph to be labeled as the most evil sort of heresy. But the more dogmatically a religious group insists on maintaining absolute control as God’s sole (or primary) representatives, the more damage they do to their own credibility. The ultimate nature of God clearly beyond human understanding, and thus any group which claims to have an exclusive understanding of him is either bluffing or they really don’t get the question.

In any case, this brings us back to the question of a less rational, more mystical or emotional awareness of God’s intentions and desires for us; and how far we can trust such sensations. Is it possible to “just know” what God wants of each of us, and of each other? If so, to what extent?

Some would say that these matters are best left to those who have a legitimate claim to being apostles or prophets. But what gives such individuals the right to claim such authority? Short answer: we don’t really know, but some individuals’ “messages” in this respect just sort of ring true for their followers and for future generations. But on careful consideration that really isn’t such a great epistemological standard. Given the mutually contradictory nature of prophetic messages from different sources, each seen as “obviously divine” by millions of faithful followers, the only obvious thing is that the vast majority of those “prophets” or “apostles”, (to be charitable about it) must have got at least some of their basic details mixed up. On the other end of the spectrum, the standard job description for a prophet or an apostle says that you’ll be rejected in terms of popular opinion, at least in your own time and your own village, because others just won’t “get it.” So external confirmation in terms of reinforcement from other (potential) believers really can’t be taken as firm evidence of whether or not any given apostle, prophet, guru, etc. is the real deal or not.

Yet even if the authority of a prophet’s or apostle’s message can never be fully confirmed in terms of its overall popularity, that still leaves open the possibility of inter-subjectivity: to one extent or another the issue always comes back to a question of a particular prophetic message “resonating” with what “God says to the heart of the believer”. Along these lines each of the Abrahamic religions officially holds that each believer’s status as a believer is ultimately between the “believer” and God –– not something that anyone else can competently judge; and the voice of God within the heart of the believer –– confirming for that believer the message of the Prophet(s) –– is the only thing which ultimately matters. On this Jews, Christians and Muslims theoretically agree: if God is not in fact speaking directly to your heart, all the rest is really just an empty show.

Such a doctrine actually poses a very limited risk to those who have a vested interest in enforcing orthodoxy. For starters this can easily be turned into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic: everyone inevitably claims to see the beauty of the message, because not to do so is tantamount to proclaiming one’s own moral and spiritual inferiority! Then once you have enough people proclaiming their personal affirmation of the beliefs in question, a sort of Asch social conformity dynamic kicks in (see, e.g., http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/normative_social_influence.htm), and people start sincerely seeing things “the way they are supposed to” because everyone else claims to see them that way. So when people are told to “judge for themselves” as to whether or not the “divine message” they have been given resonates with them, chances of dissent are pretty limited.

[And for those who do not have the time or patience to read this all in one sitting, this might be as good a place as any for you to take an intermission. See you after the break.]

But if we set aside the question of why others claim to believe what they believe, and if we ignore the risks inherent in believing differently from the mainstream, if we then take these admonitions to judge for ourselves at face value, we find ourselves in a position
where there is really no categorical difference between the prophet and the true believer: personal spiritual intuition of one form or another is the thing that really counts. What makes the prophets’ or apostles’ spiritual intuitions special is that they are intended to serve as benchmarks for improving one’s own spiritual intuitions.

So when it comes to getting messages from God that might instruct us to do things which go against the grain of popular opinion, as Abraham is said to have, we really can’t flog that one off on the prophets –– leaving it to authority figures to make our spiritual decisions for us. Each truly believing Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc. is personally responsible to listen for God’s voice for her- or himself, and to follow that voice to the best of her/his God-given ability.


But this brings me to the point where my good friend Kierkegaard and I part company. I realized this in going through my personal library this week, thinning out the materials that are not worth lugging around or cramming into my limited personal space. In the process I picked up a book of his essays that I hadn’t opened in a while, and had a read through Of the difference between a Genius and an Apostle. His main point there was to say that, contrary to the message being preached in the various churches of Copenhagen at the time, the Apostle Paul was no genius; or even if he was it would be rather irrelevant. The relevant matter is that he spoke with authority, as one having a message from the Almighty. That much I don’t necessarily have a problem with either. Where I disagree is when it comes to his categorical assumption that acceptance of authority and careful epistemological investigation should be treated as separate, unrelated issues.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard was thoroughly adjusted to his role as the subject of a king rather than being a participant in a democracy. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a leader who pandered to the masses; whose authority was based on being likeable or convincing: “There is something disturbing in the idea of a king who is witty or an artist. […] To ask whether a king is a genius –– with the intention, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lèse-majesté; for the question conceals a doubt as to whether one intends to submit to authority. […] To honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

Obviously the cultural assumptions which the reader is expected to bring to such a passage have changed a lot in the past 150 years. Does that mean that we have slipped further from God’s intended design for humanity? I rather doubt it. I don’t actually believe that there ever was any true “divine right of kings.” Frederick VII having ruled Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time was no more a manifestation of God’s will than Berlusconi’s presidency of Italy is today. The practical opportunities for citizens to influence matters may be limited in both cases, but that does not mean that anyone who has succeeded in gaining such power has Carte Blanche from God himself to run things as he pleases. Every holy book worth its salt contains passages on what constitutes good governance and what standards rulers should be held accountable to. Rulers which do not live up to their responsibilities are to be peacefully removed from office wherever possible. Unwise rulers are no longer routinely obeyed merely because they are rulers, and overall the world is a better and safer place for it. This clearly goes against the grain of Kierkegaard’s understanding of how authority is supposed to work, but then again he probably faced far worse disillusionments in other matters.

Part of what this entails is that citizens are at least in part responsible for the state of the government they live under. Rather than unquestioning obedience, what we theoretically owe to our rulers is respectful awareness of the issues they are dealing with, and active participation in the process of encouraging wise decisions. Thus respect for authority, rather than being a passive matter entirely distinct from epistemology, becomes an active matter acutely dependent on epistemology. And for reasons outlined above, this also applies quite directly to spiritual authorities as well.

So that brings me back to the question of what I would do if I were Abraham…

Perhaps, like Gideon and so many other holy men who have been faced with counter-intuitive instructions, I would ask for specific signs to prove to me that the instructions were at least coming from something more than my own disturbed emotional state. Perhaps I’d look up my old friend Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) who comes from an entirely different religious tradition but still worships and gets messages from the same God, to see what sort of wisdom he could impart on the matter. Perhaps I’d just try to decompress for a while; leaving my foreman in charge of the flocks and all and spending some time just traveling, either by myself or with the wife and kid, depending on which would most effectively help me to be sure that I was thinking straight again. I figure if God would want the kid dead he wouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry about it anyway.

My overall take on old Father Abraham is that he meant well, but he may have seriously got his wires crossed in trying to figure out what God wanted of him. Isaac actually comes across overall in the narrative as sort of retarded, and given how he was born long after his mom should have stopped having children, that’s more than possible. Having just kicked his smarter, stronger son out of the camp on his wife’s demand to improve the chances for this cute little weakling must have been rough on him. The chances of this little mommy’s boy ever amounting to anything seemed pretty slim. Maybe if he sacrificed this kid to his God, the way his neighbors sometimes sacrificed their kids to their gods, that would earn him extra favor from up above to make sure good things came to the kid who seemed to have better prospects anyway.In spite of all of his confusion though, God somehow got the message through to him just in time not to do it! So Isaac was saved, and Abraham was left with a feeling of God telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything’s cool. I know you meant well, but I have plans for this kid.”

Isaac went on to lead a limitedly successful life. He wasn’t really interested in any other women than his mommy until after she died. His dad then arranged for him to marry one of his cousins, who sort of a became substitute mommy for him. After failing at it for quite a while he finally managed to get his wife pregnant… once. And from there the rest of the stories about Isaac have to do with his wife and son taking advantage of his blindness and stupidity. Meanwhile Abraham remarried and had a big bunch of kids with his new wife, but then left the family fortune to Isaac and his family.

So when it comes down to it Abraham’s success is less down to him earning it through his heroic readiness to kill his weaker son, and more a matter of God being merciful to him in spite of his occasional screw ups, of which killing his son could have been by far the worst. Overall, if I would have been in Abraham’s position I believe I would have made an entirely different set of mistakes than he did, but God could have been merciful to me too in spite of myself. As things stand, some 4000 years or so later, Abraham’s legacy lives on, and those of us who follow in the different variations of the spiritual
path which he pioneered keep doing our best to get the message right in our own contexts. That includes me, and every true believer in any faith, who throws him- or herself on God’s mercy and then tries the best he/she can to live worthily of the mercy thus received. And as near as I can tell, that would also include Kierkegaard.

Like Kierkegaard, I make no claims at having prophetic gifts, but I listen for God’s instruction the best I can anyway. Ultimately, in spite of our uncertainties, we all must live our lives looking forward. We seek whatever help we can get from above. We fail on a regular basis, but we keep trying. Not giving up hope can be easier said than done.

Trusting that God will be merciful to those who call out for his mercy, and who are willing to show mercy to others on that basis, is the first order of business. Seeking valid general rules for living wisely and relating to others respectfully comes next. Getting special wisdom and guidance for unique circumstances where the general rules don’t necessarily apply would come after that. None of those are the exclusive territory of prophets or exceptional saints; they are available to all believers. None of them require special genius, but all of them require careful consideration of what information and sensations can be trusted. All of them require a certain humility, but none require blind obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

And with this in mind, may we each experience his mercy then this Easter, this spring, in our own surprising and revitalizing ways.

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Old Clichés and New Beginnings

New Year’s Day. Every time this silly little ball of rock we stand on completes another trip around its star we stop to think of how the last round went and we take stock of what we got done and how close to or far from our hopes and dreams that puts us. Then we consider whether this next round could really bring us any closer, and what we might have to do to get there. Most of the time we make some trivial promises to ourselves to do the sort of things our parents and teachers would have wanted us to do, with some vague sort of hope that God in heaven will see our goodness and reward us for it; or that by behaving ourselves better we increase our chances of having a long and happy life, even if we rationally know better. So we start trying to exercise more, or we try to indulge in certain foods less, or we go for some time without drinking or smoking, or we try to focus on reading things that are “good for us,” or God knows what all else. Then at some point we lose faith either in ourselves or in the usefulness of these self-discipline programs, and we cynically go back into our old patterns of life. And then the next year we come back to the same evaluation point, and we try for the same old new beginning, just in slightly varied form.

How far should we dare to stray from such a pattern? What can or should we do, besides all of these “sensible resolutions” to bring our hopes and dreams closer to the reality we life in? What about really big changes in our lives? What stops us from making them? What should stop us from making them? What tragically keeps us from making them? What is it that enables us to make truly major changes in our lives in spite of ourselves… sometimes?

In discussing such matters one word that comes up very often is commitment. We don’t change things because we have a certain commitment to keeping things the way they are. Sometimes this is a commitment to other people; sometimes a commitment to a particular set of values or cultural norms. Sometimes we assume that this is part of loving, and indeed it can be. Sometimes, however, “commitment” seems to be nothing more than a noble sounding label to place on our fear of change.

We are all a bit loss-averse: we’re prone to take risks in terms of trying to get greater gain from a turn of the card or the like, but we’re not ready to take the same sorts of risks in terms of losing something we already have. There’s a recent study showing how it works the same with monkeys as well: Faced with a choice of taking a payout for what it is or playing double or nothing, monkeys––like people––are prone to play double or nothing a fair amount of the time; but if it’s a matter of losing something, they’re more likely to agree to a readily predictable loss than to gamble on a bigger loss or none at all (http://www.ted.com/talks/laurie_santos.html).

So it is with us in our everyday life situations: we have far less than what we truly want, but we prefer to hold onto what we have, taking minimal losses at it along the way, rather than to risk greater loss in the interest of finding what we’re really most hoping for and dreaming of. It’s not about the odds; it’s about the fear of losing something that we think belongs to us already. Kris Kristofferson wrote, and Janis Joplin made famous, the words, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In the above sense there’s a certain amount of truth to that. The more we have that we are afraid of losing, the less free we are.

But that being said, we all have things we should not want to lose, the gift of life itself chief among them. We have people we care about, causes we believe in… perhaps even physical treasures we long to preserve for what they may symbolize to us. Are these things worth being committed to? At times, I’m sure they are. Things that make our lives meaningful can’t really do so if we don’t have the emotional strength and maturity to hold onto them. But that’s a whole different matter from not wanting to lose anything (more than necessary) because of some idea that losing is always bad, thus being imprisoned by a fear of loss.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about all of the different forms of harmony that I would hope that religion could help us achieve. In some ways my ideas of what would be worthy things to commit ourselves to would follow the same lines: commitment to live at peace and harmony with nature, as much as we are able; commitment to be true to ourselves, as much as we can discover about who those selves really are; commitment to be loyal to our family, friends, neighbors and others on whom we are directly mutually dependent, as much as we are able to do so without sacrificing important parts of ourselves in the process; commitment to “our own people” in a broader ethnic or national sense, to the extent that this does not lead to the all too common atrocities that ethnocentrism and nationalism are prone to generate; commitment to our brothers and sisters in faith, to the extent that this does not lead to the de-humanizing of those of other faiths and beliefs; and commitment to seeking fellowship with God, to the extent that we can be sure that this is not a means of dogmatizing some system or another of random hatred and prejudice.

But commitment to some status quo, for its own sake… is something I really can’t believe in. I mean there’s something to be said for having a certain flywheel effect for our emotions: sticking with something that we overall feel like doing even when we happen to feel a bit less excited about it, but that only works when the overall sense is that we really do want what we are committed to. Thus those who really want to develop their athletic abilities go to team practices even when they’re tired and stressed about other things. But should we be forcing ourselves to remain part of things that serve no greater purpose than themselves, that make our lives poorer rather than richer in the long run, just as a matter of “building character” or “commitment”? This is something that I tend to see as a personal tragedy for many people. It’s something I’ve seen drilled into children by parents, not as a means of helping them balance a present orientation with a future orientation, nor as a means of increasing their sense of empathy and personal connection with others––both of which I deeply respect––but as a means of stifling their individuality and interest in exploring less traditional options in life. “You’re going to those lessons because I’ve paid for them and I say you’re going: end of discussion!” No guilt trips for parents intended here, but as I see it that’s just not right.

So what of those that do leap out and make major changes in their lives; who dare to rock the proverbial boat with their own wild initiatives? For some we have more respect than for others in the long run. We look at Socrates, Siddhartha and the biblical Jeremiah as heroic champions of ideals over social respectability. We look at Vincent van Gogh, James Morrison and Chris McCandless as tragically impractical and self-destructive romantic dreamers. We look at the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche and Timothy Leary as examples of the absurd and repulsive state to which people can sink when they reject social respectability. As one considers the possibilities of taking a new year, each time one comes, and doing something totally radical with it, all of these heroic and cautionary tales come flooding back to mind. Thus most people stick to making safe resolutions. But the fact that we still keep getting new tales of radical adventure into our cultural mythologies says that not everyone plays it so safe.

The biggest single reason for taking risks and doing radical things with one’s life would have to be the contemplation of death. Life has its limits, and whatever we’re going to do with our lives have to be within those limits. When we stop to realize just how tight those limits can be––when we become aware that we won’t live for ever, and what we’re going to do in this life, we sort of have to get moving on doing––factors of respectability and social commitment become considerably less important.

Not that commitment and respectability are always bad things though. The best life has to offer, and the most important thing we can do with our lives is to genuinely love and be loved for whom we are, and anything that deserves to be called love must involve some level of commitment. I cannot claim to love someone if there isn’t a certain stability to my feelings for them, and a genuine intention to continue caring and wanting the best for that person long-term. So commitment can be a vitally important means of achieving something worth achieving in life. It just isn’t an end unto itself. The same might be said of respectability: in some cases it enables us to accomplish things that enrich our own lives and those of people around us. There’s nothing wrong with having people respect you, and having earned that respect. It’s just not a particularly worthy purpose to live for unto itself.

I’m not a believer in the Mayan calendar apocalypse predictions for next year, nor do I take other end of the world scenarios particularly seriously. The world is changing incredibly fast; that much is obvious. But that doesn’t mean I’m worried about the end of life as I know it right away. But even so, as I start out into this new year, I’m struck with a sense that, for myself and many people around me, this could be a year of more than cliché resolutions, but profound, meaningful changes, risking much of our old bases for security and in the process maybe getting just a little closer to our hopes and dreams. Hopefully you, dear reader, are one of us.

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Angels’ songs

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the issue of harmony, in particular what might be called spiritual harmony. Strictly speaking this is a different matter than that of connection, which I blogged about this fall, but they are somewhat related. In particular I believe that both are included in the proper task of religion in general. As part of my little Christmas present to the virtual world for this year then, I offer here my personal considerations of what sorts of spiritual harmony are important to life as we know it, together with some thoughts on the pros and cons of religious means of attempting to achieve such harmony.

It’s sort of in style these days to refer to oneself as “spiritual but not religious”. In other words such a person acknowledges that there is “something out there,” and that contact with that “something” is a significant part of life, but as they see it religions as organized systems for arranging such contact just aren’t worth the hassle they cause. In one sense that is a very noble thought, and easy to sympathize with; in another sense it can be rather superficial and naïve. It is one thing to doubt the details of particular understandings of that “something” that the prophets and gurus of various traditions have promoted; it is another thing to say that understandings of the transcendental which have provided peace, purpose and a sense of belonging to literally hundreds of generations already have nothing to teach us. Of course these religions can’t all be right, and of course they all have been used in horrific ways over the centuries, but if they weren’t actually providing some value we wouldn’t have them still. Those who have predicted the demise of religion have thus been continuously mistaken about the matter.

In many ways religions are like languages: they give us a conceptual framework for relating to a particular level of experience. Just as the limits of the vocabulary in some particular language can blind us to the fine details of the human experience that the language in question has no words for, so the limitations of particular religious perspectives sometimes blind us to aspects of the transcendental––the truth “out there”––that don’t fit into it the traditional myths, dogmas and commandments that the religion in question has to offer. Yet even so, just as one is able to perceive the world more fully by conceptualizing it in terms of a primitive language than by trying to conceptualize it with no language at all; I believe that any religious perspective that enables people to consider non-material, inter-personal and existential realities, and moral issues––especially when this consideration can be carried out in an open and systematic manner––is healthier than no religious perspective at all. Carrying that analogy a step further, I believe that when one is able use more than one language to think about the world in, and when one confronts the challenges of translating profound theoretical concepts between very different languages, one comes to realize something about a how far one’s reality has been determined by one’s native language, and one begins to overcome such limitations. Likewise when one dares to look beyond the strict limitations of a fundamentalist perspective in one’s own religion, and when one dares to consider the ways in which other religions address similar issues of justice, mercy, love and purpose in life, one’s spiritual perspective becomes far richer as a result. I remain first and foremost an English-speaker, and my spiritual perspective continue to be based on Protestant Christianity more than any other tradition, but I’ve come to realize that the world as we know it can be described as well or in some cases even better in other languages; and I’ve also come to realize that my own way of “doing religion” is not the only way in which God is able to speak to people.

Just as I cannot entirely step outside of the biases that are inherent to the English language in writing this, I cannot entirely step outside of my moderately secularized Protestant Christian perspective in considering the purpose of religion in general. Nevertheless, just as I hope that this text will be relatively easily translatable into most Indo-European languages at least, I also hope to speak of what religion has to offer in such a way that those of other religious persuasions can relate to what I have to say, and maybe even some non-believers as well.

To start with, pretty much every religion involves a dimension of harmony with nature. In Christianity, and the rest of the Abrahamic tradition, this is referred to as Creation Theology. The basic concept is that the earth belongs to God; God made it for us and we should be respectful of his handiwork. In other religions this takes the form of taboos against things that upset the balance of nature, or concepts of spiritual forces within nature that can only be harnessed through careful interaction with nature. Sometimes these teachings take the form of very abstract rules that once upon a time helped mankind get along better with nature, but which now continue on as a tradition with no obvious meaning.

Needless to say, if we entirely destroy nature, nothing else we do will make any difference, because we just plain won’t survive. Any religious principle which motivates people to act in responsible harmony with nature would thus be a good thing. It would be fair to state, however, that when it comes to the practical task of protecting nature we are far better off trusting in biological, geological and chemical research to determine what the risks are and what we should do about them, and then to turn to our religions for motivational reinforcement, rather than taking our religions as the basic starting point for what we must do in terms of environmental protection. If beyond that we want to follow particular religiously based agricultural, hunting, dietary or animal husbandry laws that can also have a positive influence on the environment… why not? I can imagine a number of arguments fundamentalists might have against this point, but I believe there is probably something close enough to consensus among my readers here where I can let it stand at that for the time being.

After the matter of finding harmony with one’s environment, the next issue for religions to address is that of harmony with one’s own nature. It could justifiably be argued that religious perspectives on what makes people tick are in many cases just as functionally reliable as many “scientific” theories of psychology. The processes of establishing a trustworthy perspective on basic human needs––as well as determining what is best and most important about each of us as people, and what we most need to control about ourselves to avoid self-destructing––are all things that are subjects of disagreement between different schools of psychology and different religions, and different schools of thought within different religions. And nowhere is this diversity factor more evident than within Protestant Christianity. But the fact that other religious groups have more uniform perspectives on such questions does not mean that they are necessarily more accurate. Many of the greatest crises of faith that religious people face, in fact, have to do with the descriptions of how people are supposed to work within the teachings of their religions not matching up to personal experiences. How honestly these crises of faith can publicly be acknowledged varies greatly from religion to religion and culture to culture, but people of all faiths have such crises, and they are always worth dealing with honestly.

Considering one particular set of scriptures or another to be our maker’s instruction manual for how to operate human life can be comforting in some circumstances, and utterly destructive for particular individuals in others. Here too, troubling as it might be for those who are most comfortable having absolute standards to appeal to, and as valuable as these scriptures can be in so many other respects, I would recommend respectfully considering the possibility that any holy book contains its own human elements, relative to the culture(s) in which it was written, and thus it might be prone to some inaccuracies about the fine details and practical recommendations which would lead to healthy personal adjustment and self-fulfillment in our own day and age.

The next dimension of harmony that religions in general attempt to promote is that within our own local communities. How must one behave in order to be a proper neighbor?  What responsibilities does each of us have as believers when we see a person in need? What sort of care is the community supposed to offer to strangers and passers-by? What does it mean in practice to treat each other decently? In some regards this class of religious teachings too often leads people to look at what the see as the absolute negative prohibitions (“NEVER let a woman…”) and not nearly often enough to look at the basic kindness that most of the great religious teachers taught their followers to prioritize. This has led to believers acting like obnoxious idiots rather than compassionate spiritual individuals, and it has led to unbelievers throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak, when it comes to the great moral teachings of the religions we follow. My recommendation: those of us who are religious believers in particular should keep our priorities straight. We should not “strain at the gnats” of social prohibitions or required forms of punishment from millennia ago, while “swallowing whole camels” in terms of allowing ourselves to hate those who we see as different from ourselves. We should encourage those of all religions to follow the highest principles of respect for one’s neighbor, in the broadest sense of the word, which are included in their own moral codes.

After this, virtually all religions include a dimension of harmony within one’s tribe or nation. This part, while having its own pragmatic value, is often not so noble. Often this includes language akin to “One nation, under God, indivisible…” which is then taken to mean that the way to have a strong country is to enforce religious homogeneity within its boarders. There are endless numbers of variations on this theme, often depending on how far the theocracy project had progressed at the time of the death(s) of the founders of the religion in question, or the writers of its scriptures. At the time of the closing of the Christian canon of scripture, the followers of Jesus’ teachings were a relatively tiny persecuted minority group within a vast empire, thus the New Testament has little to say about how a Christian state should be run; but that didn’t stop the nations of medieval Europe from believing that they had a divine mandate to kill off those who didn’t share their beliefs about how God wanted things. This took the form of Crusades, pogroms and inquisitions that, Christians today varyingly admit were an embarrassment to their faith and apologize for, or try to excuse as just reactions to the stresses of the era. Islam, of all younger faith traditions, had developed the greatest level of religious control over the state at the time of the death of their Prophet, so the fact that there are more political directives and requirements for religious uniformity within their own lands is easily explainable in human historical terms. Many Muslims find such speculation about human causes for the writings in the Qur’an to be blasphemous and offensive, but there really are those who are brave enough to entertain such questions. Other religions tend to be far more open about the issue of the political ambitions of their faith and the basic morality of freedom of religion within any modern nation as a basic human right.

My recommendation for relating to the theocratic teachings within various religions––and to strictly anti-religious autocratic ideologies within secularist societies––is to apply the same principle as for communal justice: Focus on those aspects of the political teaching which genuinely lend themselves to compassionate spirituality. Don’t assume that you know enough about God’s will (or social scientific principles) to claim justification for killing of those who disagree with your pet prohibitions and claims to exclusive rights to ideological acceptability. I would find it easy to respect those of any religion who can follow such a principle, and very difficult to respect those of any religion (or lack thereof) who try to violently force their beliefs onto others so as to achieve ideological homogeneity. The mark of a strong nation is not that everyone has the exact same beliefs, but that everyone has a strong enough respect for their neighbors that no religious or ideological differences need to be considered a threat to others.

After that we find the general teaching in major religions to seek harmony with one’s brothers and sisters in faith. While this solidarity among believers can have its ugly side in terms of allowing for the killing and enslavement of non-believers in some ancient traditions; when practiced in sincerity it must be said to serve as a positive overall purpose. Adventists from anywhere in the world can turn to fellow Adventists in any corner of the globe for fellowship, assistance and practical support; reaching across racial, political and economic divisions between them. Many other religious groups aspire to and even practice the same high standard of care for their own, and once such empathetic practices get started they can easily spread beyond the limits of one’s religion as well.

But beyond all this, the obvious first purpose of any religion is to enable people to experience some sense of harmony with the Divine, the Eternal, the great First Cause… “God” by any other name. Obviously this purpose is inter-related with and has implications for all of the above, but that does not mean it can be reduced to such considerations. In fact one of the major challenges for any religion, as its surrounding culture changes from generation to generation, is to determine whether its teachings in relation to contact with the Divine can be considered as a separate matter from its teachings concerning gender roles or punishments for criminals, for instance. My perspective is to believe that it can be.

Given my own personal biases, I believe that the message that God is both just and compassionate––that God can remain perfect while still accepting imperfect people who call out for his mercy, and that God can give us strength beyond ourselves to share his mercy with others––reaches its greatest expression within Christianity, but I also recognize that other people get the same message from other religions and at this point I’m not inclined to tell God who He is and isn’t allowed to talk to, or what languages and religions He’s allowed to use in the process.

“…and on earth peace, good will toward men [and women].”

Merry Christmas, all.

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