Category Archives: Priorities

Letter to my Former Selves

 

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

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

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

To David of 1965 –– Jackson, Michigan:

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

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

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

 

To David of 1975 –– South Berwick, Maine:

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

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

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

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

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

 

To David of 1985 –– Helsinki, Finland

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

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

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

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

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

 

To David of 1995 –– Helsinki, Finland

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

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

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

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

 

To David of 2005 –– Espoo, Finland

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

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

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

 

Sincerely, your older self

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The Children and the Tools

I’m still contemplating what to write here about the philosophical perspectives the conference I attended in Brighton last weekend got me thinking about, but meanwhile I’ve decided to set those matters aside for the moment and consider something else that has been the subject of discussions which have been directed at me elsewhere recently –– which actually might be more relevant to more readers here than my deconstructive take on logocentrism. The issue is the hatemongering which has been going on regarding immigrant children in the United States, and whether or not I see any potential for constructive solutions on the matter.

The problem to a great extent relates to the personal emotional dysfunctions of Texas governor Rick Perry, and the emotional dysfunctions of a disturbingly large number of Americans that his position resonates with. Perry tosses out the statistics that those who have crossed into his state by way of Mexico without official permission to do so since Obama became president account for nearly 1% of the population of his state, and that these “illegals” account for nearly 10% of the violent crime in his state. Then pretending to be some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger (in the role of tough guy actor, not in the role of semi-competent governor) he says that if the federal government isn’t going to deal with the problem then he’s going to have to deal with it himself. If that means that there will be less money for things like education and keeping children from dying of malnutrition or preventable diseases in his state… well… those are the breaks. The first priority is to keep these little kids that keep showing up on the Texas border from being used as tools to help others to get in –– forming “anchor points” which enable their big bad parents to gain access to Texan resources. If a bunch of them end up dying after being sent back by livestock transport… well… that’s just how life goes.

photo-rick-perry-hunting-refugee-children-in-mom-jeansA friend of mine posted the following “Christian” perspective on the situation to me: “Like many Christians, I support their desire for a new life, the dignity of and the ability to eat. Like most Christians I support them just so long as they are not in my neighborhood; could take my job; or release infections into the community or, heaven forbid, affect property prices. Like most Christians I support their rights, but don’t really want to meet one. But I also support our right to live in luxury whilst the rest of the world supports my lifestyle.”

So what would I suggest as a means of fixing this situation? Short answer: Texan culture is too broken to fix properly in the short-term. Rather than creating hell for those who the self-righteous believe deserve hell, I would hope that they would start focusing on learning to think of other people as fellow bearers of the “image of God” and to treat them accordingly. But I don’t see that as happening any time soon.

The problem of immigration is a tough one on many levels. As someone who’s done more than his fair share of attempted immigration and border crossing, and having built a career out of teaching the children of habitual border-crossers, I have a more personal perspectives on the matter than the average American –– or the average Finn for that matter. Ultimately there are three primary issues involved: resources, personal competition and safety concerns. New people coming into an area can be a source of all three and a factor in reducing all three. Newcomers can both use and create resources. Newcomers can stimulate new forms of competition in both positive and negative senses. Newcomers can serve to make life more risky in some areas and less risky in others. Now let me see if I can explain what I mean by that in terms so simple that even a tea partier might understand.

When I first moved to Finland one of the mild surprises I experienced was seeing Mallard Ducks that seemed to be convinced that they were pigeons. Yes, Boston, Massachusetts also has a culture of caring about ducklings and all that, but this was taking the idea a bit further. These were birds which were losing their fear of humans and their migratory instincts entirely. A small population of such birds seemed to have undergone an evolutionary mutation which changed what “came naturally” for them, causing them to hang around begging for food from humans rather than looking for seeds and fish and the like to eat, and keeping them from migrating when the weather changed. This change had taken place over the course of a set of especially mild winters, and some environmental ethicists were trying to convince people to stop feeding them and let them go back to their “normal lifestyle” of flying south when their natural food sources became unavailable. If we were to have a really cold winter these creatures would freeze to death in a particularly cruel manner. This besides the other matters of taste in which certain people dislike city ducks for the same reasons they dislike pigeons, seagulls and/or mice. But then a funny thing happened: there was a record-setting cold snap where for over a month temperatures were below -20 degrees Celsius… and the ducks managed just fine. So those who didn’t want the ducks to be fed because they don’t like duck droppings all over the parks lost one of their best excuses for their position: it could no longer be said to be for the ducks’ own good.

IMG_5118Arguments that certain people don’t belong in certain parts of the world “for their own good” tend to be even more transparently dishonest, but there is a variation on them which gets used fairly commonly regardless: “There isn’t enough ______ here for everyone, and what there is already has been claimed by others. If you let more people come in from outside they’ll end up fighting with us over our already overtaxed resources.” In some cases there can even be a marginal element of truth to such claims: in the Sahara Desert there is a serious lack of drinking water, and any newcomer who plans to just wander out there looking for more space for themselves could either end up fighting to the death for scarce water resources or just simply dying for lack of water. To a slightly lesser extent the same logic applies to the various sorts of beggars from southern climates who attempt to come to northern Europe and go around asking for money on the streets: In the summer they’re just a nuisance, but in the chill of an Arctic winter the lack of readily available heated shelter for such people can put some of them at serious mortal.

But for the most part when we are talking about limited resources in the western world the problem actually comes down to an abstract understanding of financial resources: “We don’t have enough money.” For that there’s a simple answer: make some more money by fiat, just like the rest of the money we have in circulation.

imagesMoney is ultimately nothing more than a government backed scheme for setting value on the services people trade with each other. As long as you have people who are willing to do stuff to get it, money “works”. When you don’t have enough money in free circulation for people to be able to use it as a means of trading what they are willing and able to do for others in order to get what they want and need for themselves, the money has stopped working properly. Likewise when you have too much money floating around, and people cease to be willing to do so much to get it because they aren’t sure that others will be willing to do anything for them in exchange for it, then too the money has stopped working properly. As long as you have people who are willing to work for it then, money maintains its value. The harder people are willing to work to get it, the more practical value money has. So when people come into a country willing to work for whatever sort of money they have there, “lack of money” is not a valid reason for trying to keep them out. The only problem with just “making more money” out of thin air under such circumstances is that it gets people to stop and look at the obscene levels of corruption with which the whole monetary system functions. It when you need to put more money out there so that more people are able to get work done by more other people it gets harder to ignore all of the nasty greedy people pulling the strings at the top, siphoning off well more than their fair share of the money they create.

The amount of actual physical resources available is not a serious limitation on the number of people the richer countries of the world can allow in. The amount of food that gets thrown away, the amount of energy of all sorts that gets wasted and the number of buildings that sit abandoned and derelict give ample testimony to the sufficiency of physical resources, if they could somehow be used just a bit more intelligently. The problem is getting a distribution system to work so that everyone can play a role in contributing to providing what everyone else wants and needs in exchange for what they are hoping to get out of the system for themselves. Part of the problem from there is determining what useful roles we might play in each other’s lives (i.e., what counts as “productive work”), making sure that people can learn how to do the sort of “return favors” we expect of them (i.e., having a functional education system), and making sure that people are rewarded well enough for their efforts to keep doing what we hope they will keep doing for us (i.e., just wage structures).

Some see “maintaining a healthy economy” as a matter of finding ways to push others to work harder for less so that we in turn can have more toys while paying less for them. If potential workers are otherwise unwilling to do what you tell them to, make sure that you seriously threaten their children’s lives to get them properly motivated! To this way of thinking the government’s job to be to keep workers and consumers “in line” for the corporate interests, and if government tries to protect people from de facto slavery to these corporate interests then it has overstepped its proper bounds. This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the abuse of power.

Meanwhile those who are “wage slaves” within this system see it as being in their best interest to prevent those who are willing to work harder for less from having access to their same labor market. Their masters have convinced them that they are nothing more than disposable tools to get a certain job done, and if there is a cheaper tool available to get the same job done for less, they can expect to be thrown away. Thus the only way to prevent themselves from being thrown away is to keep other disposable tools from becoming available to the masters, in part through immigration control.

This defensive position is always rather short-sighted. Beside the fact that industrial production continues to move to whatever country in which wages slaves can be had the cheapest, making protecting jobs by protecting borders a meaningless endeavor, if the only way you can prove that your work is valuable is to prevent others from being able to do it, your respected role in society is doomed to fail relatively soon anyway. If you aren’t replaced by an immigrant right away you can pretty much count on being replaced by some computerized device long before you’re ready to move on from your current task. The alternative is two-fold: Workers need to focus on being genuinely good at what they do in such a way that they are too valuable just to be tossed aside; and people need to be treated with dignity “as ends unto themselves” as Kant would put it, not merely as disposable tools. If you aren’t working under the duress of literally trying to keep those you love from dying, and you are able to have confidence that what you do is genuinely valuable, then having more people out there in the labor market together with you ceases to be a threat. The more other workers you have around you, the greater the number of services you can potentially get in exchange for what you have to offer. From that perspective, as long as they are able to learn skills which are valuable in their new place of residence, immigrants are far more of an opportunity than a threat to life as I know it.

Of course there are many “ifs” or “as long ases” in this perspective. The economic system needs to focus a sufficient amount of energy into basic education, newcomers need to be willing to acquire useful skills, those within the system need to be willing to adapt to change, and there needs to be an overall ethic of solidarity within the society for this sort of openness to function in practice. When any of those factors fail –– especially the last two –– a dynamic of managing the mutual threat that people pose to each other takes over. Life becomes, to varying degrees, an ongoing state of war; in Hobbes words, “nasty, brutish and short”. The “right to bear arms,” i.e. being equipped to kill other people, becomes a more important right than education, food, shelter or any other basic human need. This is where I see much of the US, Texas in particular, as being culturally rather too broken to fix any time soon.

simpkins3When you have that sort of basic level of hatred functioning in a society, of course the problem gets further compounded with every new form of human difference or “outsideness” that you introduce into the war zone. Immigrants, religious minorities, significant ethnic identities, sexual minorities and skin color varieties can all serve as bases for considering some people to be a worse threat than everyone else. Sometimes having someone else to hate can bring together some sort of alliance between “insiders” but in the long run it’s never truly “worth it.” When solidarity is based on shared enemies neo-Nazis and the KKK become far more the cultural norm than the exception. This is a tendency that all civic and religious organizations should be guarding themselves against, but few do.

There is some further excuse for hating outsiders possible in claiming that they pose a serious health risk to the local population. There is some precedent for this, in that Europeans managed to wipe out as many of the populations they set out to colonize with various forms of pox as they did with their firearms. We don’t want any darker skinned people to do to us what centuries ago we did to them! But these days the level of vaccinations available to anyone who is worried about imported diseases really makes the point moot.

The flimsiest argument I have seen in defense of hatred towards immigrants creates a hypothetical situation in which children from the unofficially war-torn northern cities of the US, like Chicago and Detroit, start getting sent north across the border into Canada, where life is safer and where they have the possibility of getting basic education and medical care that wouldn’t be available to them at home. Would US citizens have a right to get angry at Canadians if they were to refuse to allow such children into their country?

To the extent that this is a plausible scenario at all, the thing which makes it such is that Canada has not wasted nearly so great a portion of its economic output on means of killing other people as the United States has. This has left them in a better position to care for the basic health, education and welfare of their citizens, and others who happen to drift into their nation. Canadians are not angels, but they don’t have nearly the ingrained culture of mutual hostility that dominates US politics these days. So if kids from Chicago run away to Canada with their parents’ blessing, Canadians would, I would fully expect, try to re-integrate them with their families, but they would not treat them like wild animals or dangerous criminals the way US border guards are treating children from Latin America. For proof of this one need look no further than at the number of young people from the US who ran away to Canada in order to avoid being sent to fight in Viet Nam fifty years ago, and eventually became productive members of Canadian society. How they were treated? Thus Canada’s lack of militancy in relation to outsiders, and the safer life there that results from this, does not really provide anything like a rational basis for justifying US militancy against foreigners. Efforts to build such an argument really only prove how clueless some in the right wing of US politics really are.

There are certainly no perfect countries in the world when it comes to their approach to immigrants –– both to actual immigrants and to potential ones. There are also many existing cultures based on raiding and stealing from their neighbors, which create a serious challenge for those who would try to welcome those who have been raised in such cultures into their communities. My primary point, however, would be that immigrants in general aren’t a major source of danger to receiving societies which have a healthy culture to start with; immigrants merely play a troublesome role in making societies’ existing dysfunctions all the more obvious.

So what should we do about the immigration crises we see around the world? IMHO we just need to keep moving forward towards building genuinely just and functional multi-cultural societies. Meanwhile, on an individual level, we should get into the habit of seeing people not as abstract threats, but as people.

PerryRioGrandeRiverI admit, it’s hard for me to see people like Governor Perry and his fan club as real people sometimes. That’s probably because they only relate to many people whom I consider to be important by –– literally and figuratively –– looking down their gun barrels at them. This puts the “border defenders” in a sort of hell of their own making. For the moment I don’t see any alternative but to leave them there. Such “tools” can remain as isolated as they feel they need to be in order to maintain their abstract concept of safety. Poor children, however, I have no excuse to think of as anything other than valuable human beings. Your mileage may vary.

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The Balance of Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of Objective Morals without God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finland’s Future in Philosophy of Religion

Clarification to outsiders who may not have been aware: My weekend blog entry actually had nothing to do with professors of philosophy per se, nor with professors of philosophy of religion, within my own department in the university these days. Whatever the flaws of these professors, pretentious misapplications of Bauman are not among them.

As it happens, one of my current supervising professors is retiring soon, and this morning (September 30, 2013), as part of the process for selecting his successor, the faculty of theology held a sample lecture audition of sorts for the three top candidates for the chair. So as one last little tidbit for September I offer my readers a quick review of the event and my initial impressions as to how I would like to see the selection process go.

Another fresh perspective from Helsinki's concrete cubicles...

Another fresh perspective from Helsinki’s concrete cubicles…

I won’t bother to name off the candidates, but for those who wish to discover who I am talking about here it shouldn’t be hard. Of the three one was a Norwegian man, one was a Finnish woman and one was a Finnish man. The presented their stuff in that order. Their approaches were rather different from each other –– one might even say distinctive –– and which is chosen for the position will have a major impact on the future of the subject area within the University of Helsinki, and thus within Finland as a whole. Based on the candidates’ presentations I would go as far as to say that the faculty’s hiring decision in this matter will provide an important indicator of the status quo of academic politics within Helsinki’s concrete cubicles (rather than ivory towers).

All three candidates were given the task of lecturing for exactly a half hour on the topic of “The Challenges of Philosophy of Religion in the 21st Century”. This was intended to serve less as proof of how much they know about the subject than what sort of teaching skills they happen to possess. In brief, the Norwegian fellow tackled the subject by providing an ambitious survey of 9 challenge areas he considers to be important, the Finnish lady tried to construct an interactive classroom situation to get people talking about one aspect of the question, and the Finnish man took an approach somewhat in between the former two –– involving showing his expertise in two particular areas of concern within the field and mixing samples of his personal expertise with token elements of audience interaction. It might be worth noting that the female candidate was the only one to use Finnish as her presentation language: both of the men presented in English, though in the case of the Finnish fellow he also interacted with the audience a bit in Finnish along the way.

I can honestly say that neither language nor gender had anything to do with my personal view that among these three the female candidate would be the least suitable for the position. What she set out to show was that she has been reading up on the latest trends in constructivist pedagogical theory; what she failed to show is that she has a confidence-inspiring grasp of the subject matter –– rather to the contrary in fact. The premise of her sample lecture was that if we have rational grounding in theoretical mutual understanding, greater religious tolerance will follow. She thus attempted to initiate discussions on what we thought of the religious tolerance situation in various historical and cultural contexts, writing up on the chalk board some general themes from the audience responses. There was nothing resembling disciplined philosophical inquiry involved, nor was their evidence that she knew more about the topic than audience members. At best it was amateur café philosophy, in the looser sense of the word, looking for a place within the university walls.

On the other extreme, sort of, we had the Norwegian candidate, who did not make any particular attempt at audience participation nor at demonstration of awareness of current fads in teaching practice. The challenge he set for himself was to provide a particularly ambitious theoretical overview of the whole field within his allotted 30 minutes. He did so with a brilliant young man’s zeal and charisma, all the while letting a certain level of performance anxiety slip. Some commented after his lecture, rather justifiably, that it had more the feel of a research conference presentation than a lecture to be presented as part of a master’s level course on the subject. He also failed to make a token mention of the fact that next year there will be a five-year academic “Center of Excellence” project starting in the faculty on the theme of “Reason and Recognition in Religious Research” which the person who gets the position he is applying for will have a key role in. He did show that as the outsider in this process he had done his homework and he knew of the important role of Wittgensteinian thought in Helsinki in general, together with factors of heavy Lutheran traditionalism, heavy theological liberalism and light cultural progressivism. His 9-point presentation was based on a 3 x 3 structure: three points each within the categories of classical questions within the discipline, post-structuralist debates of the recent past, and future directions he sees the subject going in. I was particularly impressed by his emphasis of building dialog with other disciplines and establishing societal relevance in general. His weak area though was in terms of proving that he was not just a talented performer, but an interactive team player.

The Finnish man –– the proper insider for the position both in terms of gender and ethnicity –– was positioned last to show his skills in the best possible light. He came across as a compromise or middle ground figure between the two presenters which preceded him on the stage, making some attempt at charismatically displaying theoretical competence and some attempt at bona fide audience participation. It must be said, however, that he fully succeeded at neither.  In terms of proving his theoretical merits he passed around a book that he had got published this year and he presented a very dense 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, not all of which he had a chance to go through. The core message within this dense package was that there are, according to his theoretical paradigm, two primary categories of challenges for contemporary philosophy of religion: 1) boundary crossing in terms of recognition and communication, and 2) providing something resembling existential relevance. Valuable perspectives, but not very well unpacked within the course of the sample lecture. At the half-way point he slipped into nervous spouting of theory, stuttering and looking at the ceiling as he went. One of his slides contained a couple of pictures in addition to text: a depiction of the stereotypes associated with the battle between science and religion, which didn’t really increase his contact with the audience by much. Three of his slides announced “group exercises” which seemed to be stuck in in order to be able to formally check off one box on his pedagogical methodology checklist. In a hypothetical graduate seminar these would have provided starting points for research papers to be presented by students to the rest of the class, but in this context they merely provided breaks in the rhythm of things to enable the speaker to regain his composure.

Thus none of these presentations were perfect, though all of them were respectable in the sense of doing better than I would have done under the circumstances. All things considered though, I have to say that at this point I’m rooting for the Norwegian fellow. My primary reasoning would be that he demonstrated clear performance skill and charisma, general competence and open-mindedness in the field, and a good balance between self-important promotion of his own theoretical perspectives and the laissez faire café philosophy approach. The point of the exercise wasn’t to demonstrate what sort of research supervisor the person would be, but I got the strong impression from the exercise that this guy would be the most useful research supervisor of the set.

The lady candidate, based on her performance, would be a significant disappointment to me if she gets the job. She seems like a nice enough person, but she doesn’t inspire confidence or a desire to pursue academic excellence. If she is selected it will send a message that anti-patriarchal gestures and promoting formal compliance to current pedagogical fashion is more important than encouraging deep, original and disciplined thought within the department. Stranger things have happened, but I would not expect them to in this case.

The male Finnish candidate shows potential as a promising young academic, and I would hope he remains a department staff member whether or not he gets the job. My primary reservations regarding him are in terms of his being the candidate who represents the greatest risk of academic in-breeding: a Helsinki theology man whose influences seem to be Helsinki theologians and whose professional merits are based on his performance in Helsinki. He speaks and performs in a fashion clearly utilizing the best of insider information on the matter –– showing that he has the sort of theoretical and technical skills that the selection process bureaucrats are looking for. What he doesn’t show is fresh perspective or a vision to make the work of the department more relevant outside of the department… other than within the sort of international academic sewing circles that professors in general tend to use to legitimize themselves. I won’t be majorly disappointed if he gets the job, but I really don’t think he has the most to offer.

It would be a major innovation for the University of Helsinki to hire someone not fluent in Finnish to take a professor’s chair not specifically designated as “multicultural” or “Swedish-speaking”. In exploring this sort of innovative possibility, Norway is really the most conservative choice they could make in terms of a potential candidate’s background: another Nordic Lutheran country of about 5 million people with a mix of traditionally religious and liberally-minded folk, looking with some reservation at the innovations going on in the larger Nordic countries (population-wise) of Sweden and Denmark. But given the limited range of adventure possible in this context at present, the adventure of having my current professor replaced by a Norwegian seems like one of the more interesting ones to embark on.

So there’s my $0.02 worth, with interest, on the state of affairs here. I’ll provide further updates as I learn more.  As always, comments and alternative perspectives are more than welcome.

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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Religion, Respectability

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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Filed under Control, Empathy, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Priorities, Respectability

The Borders of Bigotry

I got labeled as a bigot once last month.

To the best of my knowledge this is a fairly rare event. I’m quite frequently labeled as a bastard, a slob, a hard-ass, a space shot, a fantasy merchant and virtually every other negative epitaph that is commonly associated with middle-aged divorcees, religious thinkers or ENTPs. “Bigot” usually isn’t one of them.

The occasion was one of the debates over gun control that I got entangled in post-Sandy Hook. My interlocutor was presenting a variation on the naturalistic fallacy to argue against restrictions on what are commonly called assault rifles. I’m not sure where he got his figures, but he made a claim that there are somewhere between 5 and 10 million AR-15s in private use in the United States. Thus, he argues, given how few people actually end up getting killed by them, there’s obviously nothing wrong with keeping such high-end killing machines at home in private hands.

How much "prejudice" am I entitled to regarding these gentlemen?

How much “prejudice” am I entitled to regarding these gentlemen?

Now like I said, I’m not sure where these figures came from, or if they take into account all of the AR15s which were purchased in the US, just because that’s by far the easiest place in the world to get them, by private armies from countries that supply the US with drugs –– the Central and South American countries that actually have higher gun violent rates than the US –– which have since been illegally exported from the US. But even if it is true that one in 15 US households is equipped to blow the s**t out of a crowded restaurant, I don’t see any rational reason why they need to be so equipped. I would go as far as to say that those who feel a need to own such equipment, for whatever psychological reasons they may have, should be justifiably subjected to deeper official scrutiny than the rest of the general public merely on the basis of their compulsion to be so massively equipped for violent action. And this, dear friends, is what is said to qualify me as a bigot.

Let me clarify my position on this matter just a tad: I am not saying that those who feel a need to own assault rifles should be categorically labeled as insane or clinically paranoid and delusional, or even as inherently bad people. I recognize that while many assault rifle owners may have been convinced by advertisers to acquire such equipment as a means of compensating for certain insecurities about their masculinity, this would not necessarily be the case for all of them, or necessarily even the majority of them. For those who wish to use such equipment as toys –– to periodically blast the hell out of inanimate objects as a form of emotional release –– I don’t see this as any more harmful or dangerous than drag racing: As long as it is restricted to the confines of secure areas where it doesn’t endanger the general public, fine by me.

What I am saying is that I find the whole idea that certain people feel a need to be equipped to kill large numbers of other human beings to be deeply disturbing, and I believe that those who feel such a need should be subject to enhanced official scrutiny on that basis alone.

Jerry: hero of a generation or two

Jerry: hero of a generation or two

I do not think of this as being equivalent to racial profiling, discrimination against religious groups or even enhanced scrutiny of those who follow particular styles of music.  Of these examples I consider the last to be the closest though, and in that regard I would be willing to be scrutinized on the basis of my tastes if that’s what it came down to: I happen to deeply appreciate many aspects of the artistry of the Grateful Dead, and I consider Jerry Garcia’s death of a heroin overdose to have been one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the 1990s. But unlike many (most?) other even moderate “Dead Heads”, I have never experimented with any form of pharmaceutical recreation beyond basic alcohol. Even so, I recognize the cultural connection between this band and a certain sort of drug culture, so if I were selected for a random drug test on the basis of my taste in music in this regard I would feel rather cynical about it, but I would not take it as a violation of my basic rights. I wouldn’t be inclined to accuse the police of bigotry for checking.

It’s sort of like police having breathalyzer patrols out more heavily on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s not as though everyone who drives on those evenings is considered to be a likely drunk, but among those out on the road at such times there is a far greater likelihood of finding drunk drivers than among those in commuter traffic on a Tuesday afternoon, for instance; thus it makes a certain amount of practical, pragmatic sense for the police to run such patrols at such times. And if I’m pulled over and asked to blow at such times I don’t take offense at it. I certainly would never accuse the officer with the breathalyzer of bigotry just for being at it on the weekend!

Just as it would be absurd to accuse a cop of bigotry for breathalyzing random drivers near a bar on a Saturday night, it would also be absurd to call it bigotry if law enforcement were on the lookout for abusive forms of pornography among those with large dildo collections… or to be on the lookout for those with violent tendencies which could put the public at danger among those who collect particularly powerful killing equipment.

Charlton Hesston’s “cold dead hands” shtick, sponsored so effectively by the NRA, makes the siege mentality among gun owners –– and defensiveness regarding their identity as gun owners –– a far more emotional issue than the consumer identity of any other product line I can think of; and the higher powered the killing equipment they feel a need to possess, the higher the emotional pitch of their argument seems to get. So on that level it doesn’t really surprise me to find myself labeled as a “bigot” by a self-appointed representative of AR15 owners. Even so, it might well be time to reconsider how we use the word “bigot” and who is justifiably labelable as such.

One place where this has come out in broader public discourse over the past few weeks has been in relation to the battle over the political confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Hagel is openly critical of American expansionist neo-colonial wars in the Middle East, and thus those factions of the right wing press and the Republican Party which have the deepest commitment to such military adventurism have made a committed point of labeling him as a bigot. Why?

Chuck_Hagel_Iraq_5-635x357Well, he’s actually given them two excuses. First of all, as a military veteran and a resident of what is now called a deep red state, Hagel has apparently been socialized into a fair amount of homophobia, and 14 years ago he let a certain amount of that fly by joining in on a Republican attempt to block the appointment of an openly gay man, politically active in support of gay rights causes, to the minor post of ambassador to Luxembourg. Hagel has publicly retracted his statements of that time, but it would still seem reasonable to assume that he retains a certain amount of edgy suspicion towards those of the LGBT persuasion; and visa-versa.

That seems to be a side issue however: Those who are particularly concerned for gay rights tend to be concerned with respect for human rights across the board. The core issue for those who prioritize this issue is to insure that people are respected as people, regardless of factors that are beyond their control, such as their race, their gender, their national origin, their tribal identity and, yes, their sexual orientation. One of the primary means by which people tend to lose their basic rights most commonly and most thoroughly is through military expansionism, by whatever excuse it is carried out. Hagel’s personal priority is clearly limiting military expansionism; driving home to his fellow Americans the lessons of the Viet Nam war that he learned better than most. That gives him a common cause with the main current of the LGBT community, for which they are largely willing to look beyond his past indiscretions and lingering suspicions. As has often been the case, Senator Barney Frank has been the one to express this most eloquently. What seems to remain at issue is efforts by those who stand to profit the most from military adventurism to stir up these animosities and suspicions, which the people concerned have largely worked through already, to keep Hagel out of a position where he could cramp their style.

The more significant bigotry charge against Hagel is in relation to “anti-Semitism” purportedly reflected in his critical stance toward military expansionism by the state of Israel. Here too his critics have been able to use Hagel’s own choice of words against him: In 2006 he is quoted as referring to the unquestionably powerful pro-Israeli lobbyists on Capitol Hill as “the Jewish Lobby.” It  makes it harder for Hagel’s allies to draw a distinction between sensitivity to “Jewish concerns” and unquestioning support for militant Zionist expansionism when Hagel himself blurs the line with his careless choice of words.

That being said, there is a distinction to be made there, and the Jewish-American journalist to whom Hagel made this unfortunate statement actually defends the legitimacy of Hagel’s viewpoint in context. In order for Israel to be a sustainable project, and for it to eventually develop stable and respectful relations with its neighbors (which may not be possible until its Arab neighbors run out of oil in any case, but it is still worth hoping for), they need to start treating the Arab minority among Israelis and displaced Palestinians overall as people worthy of respect as people. Creeping further and further into Arab held lands with Jewish settlements, and backing up this expansion with the Israeli army being ready to fire on anyone who throws rocks at the “settlers” is a policy well worth critiquing. Hagel’s willingness to say so is one of his chief merits.

The elephant in the middle of the room here is actually the pro-Israel American Christian Evangelicals. Among other places this is fairly clearly laid out in Barbara Victor’s book on the religious dynamics behind the GWB presidency: “The Last Crusade”. In short, there are numerous American Christians who believe that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is a sign that Jesus Christ will be coming back very soon, that as part of this process Israel needs to completely control all lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea at least, and that supporting the state of Israel is one of the most important ways for believers and believing nations to earn God’s favor. This is combined with a strong suspicion that the UN (and/or President Obama) represents the interests of the Anti-Christ. Among Americans who uncritically and unquestioningly support Israel’s expansionist policies, this sort of Christians is a more potent political force than secular Jews hoping for a secure homeland for their people.

But back to the topic of bigotry: We all have been raised with our own suspicions about “the Others,” whoever they may be. The question is how well we are able to critically reconsider our prejudices in this regard, and what sort of heuristic devices we can use without diminishing the human value of others.

Backing off to a less emotionally charged example: last summer I bought the cheapest semi-reliable looking car I could find with a larger than average amount of cargo space. As it happened, this one turned out to be a Citroen. I’m still driving it, but it has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through the basic safety inspection next month, so I’m just seeing how much I can still get out of it before throwing it away. This is in fact the fourth French car I have owned, not counting one I helped my son pick out, and I can say that it has strongly confirmed certain preconceptions I have about French cars in general. In particular I believe now more than ever that the basic electrical systems in all French cars are inherently unreliable. There are about a dozen little electronic controls on my car that work intermittently at best (seat warmers, intermittent wipers, electric windows, dashboard lights…), and a few months ago it actually had an electrical fire –– smoke and flames and all –– which, with some help from charitable passers-by, I managed to get extinguished quick enough and repaired far enough to keep it drivable. But I still pass on the practical advice to whomever it may concern: if you’re going to buy a French car, be prepared for electrical problems.

You can actually barely see the fire damage.

On the surface you can actually barely see the fire damage.

Does that mean I hate the French or their cars overall? Not at all! Under similar circumstances I would still consider buying yet another French car some day; I’d just be prepared to experience electrical problems with it. Does this count as a prejudice? Perhaps. Does it have a rational, empirical basis? I’d say. Could it be overcome in the light of new evidence? I believe so: if Peugeot, Renault and Citroen get their collective act together with quality control in this regard, and consumer testing starts to demonstrate a surprising new level of reliability, I could overcome my generalized suspicions on such a basis. Should I feel guilty about my current frame of mind on such things then? Please.

Now what about when this relates to groups of people? There is one very fundamental difference: whereas cars only have instrumental value, we have good reason to postulate that people have inherent value. In other words people aren’t just valuable for what use we might find for them; people have value in and of themselves. There is something very close to an ethical consensus that those who don’t believe this are not to be trusted. This is one of the defining elements of bigotry: dismissing the overall value of particular groups of human beings based on preconceived notions and generalizations about what “they” are like is as good an explanation as any for what makes someone a bigot.

But that does not mean that all heuristic analysis of fellow human beings is inherently immoral. I have complete respect for Indonesians as persons, but if I were to be scouting for promising basketball players I probably wouldn’t spend much time in Indonesia, given that the average height of men there is about 20 cm shorter than most other countries. If I were recruiting high-rise construction workers I might show somewhat of a preference for indigenous Americans, as I understand they are significantly less susceptible to vertigo than those of other ethnicities. Even in these limited examples individual excellence or personal limitations should not be overlooked of course, but the main point is that the generalized capacities in question are perfectly acceptable heuristic devices so long as human value is not assessed on such bases.

Heuristic analysis of functional capacities and risk factors relating to different groups of people –– especially when it is based on consumer decision patterns that they demonstrate –– is not a matter of calling the human value of such individuals into question. Thus I have no sense of guilt over feeling less comfortable with people for whom AR15 ownership is an important part of their identity than I do with others who find the mass distribution of such killing technology to be rather problematic and disturbing. I am equally at peace with my relative unease with extreme body modifiers, porn addicts, show wrestling enthusiasts and street racing participants. I recognize that such lifestyle choices do not eliminate the human value of such individuals, and there are undoubtedly many wonderfully warm, kind and stable human beings within all of these categories. But I still find such lifestyle decisions to be both inherently dangerous and potentially symptomatic of deeper psychological issues. I see no bigotry in suggesting that social workers and law enforcement personnel should pay particular attention to the behavior of those who make such lifestyle decisions –– especially to those who are emotionally attached to their assault weapons.

On the political side, I really cannot say whether Chuck Hagel is more or less prone to bigotry than the average former Republican Senator. I suspect less so, but that, I admit, may simply reflect my own prejudices. The point is that he has demonstrated a clear recognition of the human value of both gays and Jews –– those he has been accused of being most bigoted against –– and he has firmly committed himself to working with both groups towards reducing destructive stupidity and unnecessary aggression in US military policy. While that goal may be more Utopian than bringing about lasting peace in the Middle East, it is still good to see someone intent on making sincere efforts in that direction at leastFor arms manufacturers and their political allies to attempt to block such efforts at restraint and re-thinking in the name of “exposing a bigot” is the height of political immorality.

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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Priorities, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance

If the World Might End…

Of all my old friends who have remained among the American Republican faithful, because since the 1980s they have considered that to be “the Christian thing to do,” Vinnie is one of the ones I would credit with having the most intellectual integrity. He is no one’s intellectual overall, but he stops to think about things more than the average Republican, and in doing so he avoids towing the party line with reference to hate-mongering strategies that are so common in the US these days.

This might be because he actually has friends among the sort of people that Republicans are taught to distrust: poor people, darker-skinned city dwellers, gay people, even Muslims. Recognizing the human value in all these suspect sorts gives Vinnie a bit more of an open mind and a sense of harmony with the world than most others in the religious and political circles he still identifies with.

So on one level it wasn’t terribly surprising last week to see Vinnie taking the bold step for a Republican of admitting that human caused global warming is in fact a tragic reality of the world we live in. For most people in the world this is no longer a big deal, but for an American Republican affiliated with the “religious right” this is still an incredibly bold position to take. I mean for most Republicans, if they address the subject at all these days, it is in saying that it makes a lot less difference to them than stimulating the American economy.  The number of Republican climate change skeptics on congressional science commissions is frankly one of the biggest scandals in the history of government involvement in science since the imprisonment of Galileo. So to for someone associated with these circles, even at a very layman level, to actually come out and say that people are screwing up our planet in ways that will decrease the quality of life and even the chances of survival for most of its population within the next few generations is almost as bold as for a Saudi Muslim to sit around in a coffee shop and say, “you know, I think Muhammad probably just made up a lot of the stuff in the Qur’an.” But then again, Vinnie is the sort of guy who is prone to speaking his mind in ways that aren’t always acceptable to his political allies.

As much as I applaud Vinnie’s moral courage on this matter though, I still have somewhat against him on the implications he infers from it: he’s phrased his acceptance of this uncomfortable truth in ways that exclude the expectation –– or even the possibility really –– that he or anyone he knows will actually do anything about it.

It has to do with which people he is acknowledging are doing permanent damage to our global ecology. Vinnie’s new position is that the irresponsibly expanding industrial producers in developing  countries are to blame for the globe’s current and growing environmental crises, and no matter what Americans or westerners in general do, the boat we’re all on is inevitably going to sink.

Therefore, rather than trying to keep things afloat –– rather than adjusting our lifestyles to live in such a way that, were all others to do the same, it would enable 7 – 10 billion people to sustainably share the resources available to us on this planet –– Vinnie’s new perspective is that we need to either fight our way onto what few lifeboats there may be available, or we need to pray that Jesus comes back before things really get messy. This sort of wavering between defeatism, calloused self-interest and fantasy escapism seriously bothers me.

Having lived among Nordic Lutheran theologians for a good portion of my life now, one of the areas where I still have difficulty relating to them is in the area of eschatology: the theological study of what the end of the world is supposed to be like, and what sort of final contest between good and evil we should be gearing up for. The Nordic Lutheran approach to the matter, in a nutshell, is to distinguish between “future eschatology” and “present eschatology”; the former being a Hal Lindsey fantasy land not worth taking all that seriously, and the latter being an analysis of the ways in which “the Kingdom of God” is represented by the Church, perhaps including some consideration of how the Church should and can be better represent such a Kingdom through implementing wiser and more moral political strategies. Thus one of the key questions of systematic theology is functionally eliminated; to the extent that eschatology is talked about at all it tends to be subsumed into the category of ecclesiology: the study of the nature of the Church as such.

I say that to say this: the consideration of how life as we know it could come to an end, how we should relate to that possibility, what goals we should have beyond maintaining some part of the status quo of life as we know it (for no better reason than to keep what is familiar to us going) and what sort of ultimate hope we should be motivating ourselves with is too important an area of philosophical and theological consideration to just sideline it the way most Nordic Lutherans seem to have.  People like Vinnie need better answers to these questions than an escapist  self-deception of telling themselves, “Jesus is coming back soon, so in the big scheme of things it doesn’t matter if the world is going to hell,” and the alternatives need to include something more substantial than various churches’ organizational self-promotion strategies.

That being said, one of the wisest and most profound things ever said in the field of eschatology, in my humble opinion, came from Martin Luther himself. When asked what he would do today if he knew for certain that Jesus would be coming back tomorrow, Luther reportedly said, “I would plant a tree.” That is what I want to convince Vinnie, and all those who share his new found awareness of how screwed up our world is, to do with whatever time we have remaining: keep planting trees.

What do I mean by that?

Tree planting is an exercise of belief in the future, regardless of whether or not we personally stand to benefit from it. It is a matter of providing future generations with means of harvesting the sun’s energy, cleaner air to breathe, sometimes fruit to eat and at some point in the future wood for building, furniture-making or fuel.

One of the things Vinnie has acutely realized as part of his awareness of the damage mankind has done to the environment is how we have taken away too many of the trees that we need for survival –– crucially including, but not limited to, those in distant rain forests. Luther lived in a simpler time; in a world where there was not yet any shortage of trees. Yet he was aware of the uses he got out of trees that had grown before his time, and he saw the common sense in continuously replacing the resources he utilized so that there would be some for future generations. He considered this to be one of the most concrete forms of exercising responsibility for the future, and he pointed out that even if there were to be no future he would still want to act responsibly in this regard. He figured that if he were to stand before God before the week was out, having to give account for his life, he would want to say that he was grateful for the mercy he had received from God, and thereafter, as part of his expression of gratitude for this mercy, he had continued to pay it forward as a matter of principle. He would want to say to God that right to the end he had been “paying in” to the common good as his way of showing his appreciation for what he had received.

This stands in stark contrast to the behavior of many over the past couple of centuries who, believing that the end of the world was coming anyway, proceeded to treat their day to day responsibilities as irrelevant, only to find themselves destitute, humiliated and even suicidal at times when Jesus didn’t come to pull them out of the hole they dug themselves into. But even if Jesus would have come back as they expected, it seems rather unlikely that He would have afforded them much glory in gloating to their neighbors, “See, I told you so!” Their irresponsible actions would have been just as irresponsible even if they would have got away with them in the pragmatic materialist sense.

It’s sort of like drunk driving being just as immoral a thing to do whether or not you happen to kill anyone while doing so on any given occasion. Luther had the right idea on this one: in a genuinely apocalyptic situation the responsible, “Godly” thing to do is to behave as though you expect life to go on, whether it will or not. And part of what that means is to do what is right and responsible even if no one else does.

This is part of what is called a deontological approach to ethics. In simple terms, our actions should be based on what is right in principle. Deontological ethics is generally ready to postulate that there is someone/something “out there” that sets the standards that humans should follow –– right and wrong aren’t matters of random taste –– but at the same time we can’t use “special divine revelation” as the final deciding factor in defining our morality either.

The most obvious principle that transcends all religious borders, which needs to be part of anything which calls itself morality, is some variation of what Christians call “the Golden Rule” and what philosophers call “altruistic reciprocity”: You behave in the way you would ideally like others to behave, not because you expect that they will necessarily follow your example (though there is a good chance they will) but merely because it is just the right thing to do.

When it comes to human caused global climate change, the right thing to do is for each of us to work on reducing our “footprint” to sustainable levels where, if everyone else would do the same, we would not have to worry about having enough resources to feed, shelter and educate the rest of the world’s population, and to keep things going for generations to come. Even if other’s remain hell-bent on destroying our planet and we can’t effectively stop them, and even if Jesus is coming back and history is coming to an end in the coming few years, that doesn’t keep this application of the Golden Rule from being the right thing to do.

Now part of being ethical in this sort of way is to be aware of relevant problems, like climate change, and to recognize how, in practical terms, we can each personally do things to keep ourselves from making it considerably worse. Not wasting energy which comes from burning fossil fuels in particular might be a good common sense starting point. Not buying fundamentally needless crap to bolster our otherwise failing self-images and personal relationships is another fairly obvious step for all of us to take, even if that is far easier said than done in Western societies, especially at Christmas time. This kind of thought, I would argue, needs to be part of every Christian’s day-to-day moral contemplation (and obviously not only Christians, but I’m not going to explore why non-believers or believers in other traditions should follow deontological standards this time).

So what am I actually doing about this in practice? Besides living within my means as a part-time teacher, besides preparing to live without a car once the inspection expires on my old Peugeot next month, besides largely boycotting the sort of retail insanity that runs from Black Friday to Christmas Eve each year for mental health reasons, besides cutting back on red meat for cardio-vascular health reasons… I have to admit I’m actually not doing that much. I can’t really preach that everyone should follow my own example, because most of the concrete steps I’ve taken to reduce my environmental footprint have had other practical reasons besides saving the planet. I could say that there are others far worse than me, but that’s a lame excuse, I realize. Here too, to live up to my theoretical moral principles I need stronger self-discipline. My main point is that making more of an effort in this direction is relevant to any sincere attempt to live a Godly life these days.

But I’ll give an example of an initiative that I’d strongly support on a number of grounds: mandatory methane trapping using sealed manure composting tanks for all commercial meat and poultry production operations.  It works like this: unbeknownst to many people, the methane that comes from cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, and their excrement, actually do more harm to our environment than CO2 emissions. The release of this potential fuel source directly into the atmosphere is the essential reason why meat production is seven times less energy efficient than it would be for humans to eat directly the corn and grain that we feed to the animals that we in turn eat as meat: most of the energy that could come from this feed ends up being belched and farted up into the atmosphere as untapped flammable gas.  Now while we can’t feasibly and humanely capture all the methane that comes out of these animals’ mouths and rectums in gaseous form, we can do something about the gas coming off of their manure. We can require that all such commercial operations scoop or pump this manure into air-tight tanks from which all the methane that is a by-product of the composting process can be  simply piped off and filtered and used it a fuel for cooking heating or operating internal combustion motors rather than allowing it to escape to directly mess up the ozone layer.

pig-in-mudA side effect of such regulation would be that at least in the short-term it would make meat products more expensive to produce, driving up prices of foods that are in fact less environmentally sustainable and unhealthier in general: another win for both the environment and public health. The major minus of such a proposal: farm lobbies throughout the Western world would (excuse the analogy) scream like stuck pigs. Can our political processes ever become so functional as to prioritize the common good over the voice of powerful economic interests? That remains to be seen. It is so far unprecedented, but theoretically possible… if people start to take our environmental problems seriously enough.

There are plenty of other actions that can be taken within our local and national economies if we dare to defy the power of commercial interest groups. Some would require infrastructure investments in public utilities, requiring higher taxes and user fees for businesses that depend on the trash collection, sewer services, gas and water being piped in, and a reliable electrical grid. This has to be done in such a way that it increases local employment and so that the costs for these basic services are not passed on directly to those who are the most poor and economically vulnerable.  This, in turn, leads to a long policy debate unto itself, but if we are going to be responsible for the world we are leaving to future generations this is a debate we have to have.

Suffice to say, we can’t blame all of the problems on developments taking place in countries trying to catch up with the European and American standard of living, and we can’t keep letting business and industrial interests get away with irresponsible destructive behavior when we really know better. A start would be to live in such a way where if all 7 billion of the people on our planet were to feel entitled to the same sorts of things we consume on a day-to-day basis, things would still be OK. If we then learn to deal with our biological and industrial waste the way we’d expect them to, and then help them to do the same for the good of the generations to come, that would be a reasonable next step.

What I’m firmly opposed to is pretending that the same rules we lived by when there were 10 million people on the planet will be sufficient for managing a world population of 10 billion in peace and harmony with each other. We can’t assume that our scriptures give us all the rules we need, and that nothing which goes against a standard given in the Bible or the Qur’an can be a legitimate law. Situations have changed, and the standards we need to set for ourselves need to be adapted to this new reality if we are to survive. Call me a heretic if you must, but we need to move beyond moral and spiritual standards set for us over 1000 years ago. In this regard the traditional standard of not allowing any sexual activity that doesn’t potentially lead to procreation isn’t that relevant these days; living by the Golden Rule  –– by the standards we would hope and expect others to live by  –– is. That remains true regardless of how soon life as we know it may be coming to an end.

So what sort of eschatology would I hope for? In some ways I’m actually not so sure any more. I know that the New Testament apostles were never expecting human history to run nearly as long as it has already before coming to its climactic end. And in my own brief life I’ve already lived through too many predictions of the end of the world coming to take any of them seriously any more. That being said, I see things all around me getting much better and much worse at the same time, all the time. I believe we need to trust something beyond ourselves and our human genius and collective goodness to fix things: to relieve the needless and unspeakable suffering that so many are experiencing these days, and to save us from the risk of driving the human race to near extinction in a generation or two. I believe we need something transcendent to pin our hopes to. Even if I don’t expect to live to see the final climax of human history, even if my faith in the various variations of the Zoroastrian  end times narrative have weakened with time, I believe some vision for the future remains important; something that doesn’t depend on the absurdities of various factors beyond our influence, but which gives us a sense that giving our best remains a worthwhile venture.

There might be more to that than what Luther had to say, or there might not be. Something to ponder over the holidays.

 

 

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Religion

Simplicity

In recent weeks I’ve had a few people politely and privately comment on my blogs that they would like to follow them, but that the writing is in fact a bit too difficult for them. This is disappointing to me in a few respects, and I will make some efforts to improve in this regard if I can do so without “losing my voice” in the process.

Part of my point in starting into blogging to begin with, if I’m honest about it, was looking for ways to market my book designed to teach philosophy to teenagers. The book is regarded by many as a fairly successful attempt to put complex philosophical ideas into interesting and relatively easily accessible English for those who are not looking to go pro in the field of academic philosophy. So the point of the blog was originally, at least in part, to give free samples of the sort of language I use to explain philosophy in the book. But as my blog has sort of taken on a life of its own it seems I’ve sort of drifted away from that purpose.

My most popular entries here have been those which tackle religious or political concepts that outsiders find to be mysterious and incomprehensible on some level, but which they still want to understand in order to follow what people who are into such things are talking about: “Objectivism,” “Angst,” “the Rapture,” “Meritocracy,” “Pro-life,” etc. But these blogs tend to run well over 2000 words each, involving more intellectual lifting than the average non-academic wants to do as a leisure activity. Thus for one of my blogs to generate over a hundred hits makes it a pretty big hit by this page’s standards.

Compare that with my old friend Jim. Though we haven’t met face to face for nearly 30 years now, during which time our few mutual interests have sort of faded, Jim remains a friend. Jim has also become an amateur blogger in later middle age, but unlike me he is doing it “right”: He publishes about a blog a day, averaging something like 200 words each; usually brief rants against Democrats spiced with anecdotes of his day to day life as a grandfather and candy salesman. No one can accuse Jim of getting too complicated or intellectualized about his blogging, and thus all in all he manages to reach a much larger audience than I do.

Now I’m not really jealous of Jim. His blog reflects the simplicity and the group conformity inherent in the life path he has chosen, which in many ways I can respect in spite of how different it is from the life path I have chosen. The question is, regardless of the differences between his approach and mine, what can I still learn from my old friend? How can I make my blog ideas –– and perhaps my life in general –– more simple and accessible to “normal people”?

I decided to start with something that was easiest to relate to in Jim’s post-election comments this month: he talked about sharing traditional Lebanese vegetarian recipes with families of friends of his daughter. Jim is nothing like vegetarian himself, and not particularly health-conscious even as near as I can tell. He considers no-meat Fridays as part of Catholic tradition to be a Godly thing, but Mondays without meat for environmental or humanitarian reasons to be positively Satanic… but that’s beside the point. Jim’s mom is Lebanese, and the Lebanese are known for having one of the nicer forms of peasant cuisine to work its way into the American blend, so his discussion of such matters piqued my interest.

The dish he was talking about is based on lentils and rice: rather familiar culinary territory for me. Combining grains and legumes to get a whole protein is one of the basic vegetarian nutrition principles I am well familiar with, and lentils are the fastest cooking dried legume I know of. One basic bachelor lunch I’ve done more than a few times is to toss some lentils and 10-minute parboiled rice into a sauce pan with the appropriate amount of water to soak into them, plus about a half cup or so extra, and once the basic ingredients have softened up enough I season the quickie casserole with a packed of instant cup of soup mix of one sort or another. It’s cheap and cheerful, and usually keeps me going for a good while before I start getting hungry again. So doing such things “right” –– i.e., from scratch, and in a healthier form –– was of significant interest to me, and I could trust that Jim’s mother’s recipe would be a good contribution to my repertoire in that regard.

The name for this traditional delight, Jim tells me, is m’judra. While I was waiting for him to type out the recipe as we chatted one night I started looking for other evidence of such a concept on line. The closest thing I found was “mudra”, a collection of Hindu dance moves. Jim assured me that the two concepts are entirely unrelated.

The first surprise with this recipe was that it calls for about an hour’s worth of cooking –– more than four times as much as I’m accustomed to putting into my lentil foods. He suggested leaving things to soak to cut down on that time, but that wouldn’t actually help much in my case. Even so, with my open floor plan apartment it’s not a serious hardship to have something cooking in the kitchen area while I’m typing, reading or watching videos for hours at a time in the same room. So I even if I couldn’t do it for a quick lunch I could still try it for a dinner experiment for one some night.

The main ingredients are about a pound of brown lentils mixed with rice and fried onion. I usually go with red lentils more on a day-to-day basis, but I wanted to try it his way at least once. He also recommended brown rice rather than the long-grain white stuff I usually use for convenience. So I went shopping before trying this out. Unfortunately the local gro here only carries two sorts of lentils: red and green. So I decided green would have to be close enough. They were a sort of brownish green anyway.

The starting point was to put the lentils into the pot with about twice their bulk in water, and to add a relatively small amount of rice, as a glue of sorts, once the process was at about the half-way point. Since the recommended cooking time for brown rice as a side dish is actually far longer than that for lentils I went ahead and put both of these right in at the start. The water seemed like a very small amount, and indeed I did have to keep adding during the process, but perhaps my “vigorous boil” was a bit more vigorous than what Jim’s mom used to do operate at.

The next step was to dice and fry up the onion in oil, and to mix the onion and oil in with the rest. Jim said to get the onion nearly black, and I thought that might be a bit of overkill, but in frying on high I actually got closer to his instructions than I intended to. That part was actually seemed to be fine though. The idea seemed to be that with my glasses off I wouldn’t be able to tell what was lentil, what was rice and what was onion. It was all one homogenous looking brown mass.

The challenge really came with the spices: salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice. I thought I had all of those, but it turned out that allspice was missing. Normally I keep allspice in the house for Christmas baking if nothing else, but I had not bought any since returning to Europe from Africa in May… so I decided to improvise. I substituted some “Christmas cookie spice mix” that I had for the cinnamon and allspice, and the ginger and clove in that mix turned out to have a bit more kick than anticipated. I saved the dish (for my solo eating purposes) by adding a little molasses to take the edge off, and at that it actually ended up going down quite nicely with a bottle of Christmas beer I happened to have in the fridge. What it lost though was its simplicity and Lebanese purity. I’ll have to try again in that regard.

In other areas of life as well I struggle to find a proper balance between simplicity for its own sake and the sort of complexities that I trust to bring safety, convenience and efficiency into life as I know it.  Let’s not even bother discussing how dependent I am on electronic gadgets and fossil fuels; I’m as hopeless as any white man in such things. What I really want to work on is finding the right balance in terms of reducing the intellectual complications that tend to dominate life as I know it. Can I ever get my life down to the same level of mental simplicity as my friend Jim? Do I really want to even?

Rather than seeing things in terms of tales of the virtues of our ancestors that we need to find our way back to (Jim’s conservative perspective) –– or in terms of some broad narrative about the primitive prejudices, superstitions and ignorance of our ancestors that we need to overcome (the archetypical political liberal perspective) –– I see our societies as a complex mix of both. I’m thus unable to divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, super-ego and id factors so easily as my friends with more monolithic world views. So I’m continuously complicating what they see as simple issues with what they see as impurities or unnecessary added ingredients. This keeps me from being able to write the sort of pure and simple polemics that both friends and foes would be able to use to conveniently categorize my ideas.

This cattle ranch, currently for sale outside of Great Falls, Montana, is actually bigger than the whole Gaza Strip.

One place where my tendency to “complicate issues” has got people on both sides angry at me in the past week is over the Gaza issue, where I don’t see either side as having the high moral ground or as deserving of my public support. At the heart of the matter is the fact that both Hamas and Israel consider themselves to have a God-given right to this silly little piece of land smaller and more naturally unproductive than some Montana cattle ranches. If either would effectively admit that their claims to that territory are based on ethnocentric hubris rather than an unquestionable divine command –– opening the way for them to find some other stretch of God-forsaken mountain and desert terrain to live on –– or if both could come together and say, “Fine, leave us in peace and you can have this stretch of land over here for as many generations as your descendants care to stay there. Don’t you let any of your people attack us and we won’t let any of our people attack you,” the hostilities could be done with this week already. Neither side has demonstrated the integrity to do either of these things though.  Meanwhile the Gazans seem to have an obsession with turning themselves and their children into martyrs –– in both literal and figurative senses –– and the Israelis seem to be more than ready to assist them in this process. To say that they deserve each other would be callously cruel to both, yet in some basic sense quite true.  All I can say for sure is that the situation it is too complicated for me to take up the moral cause of defending those on either side.

A slightly less complex issue perhaps, but one I likewise do not presume to take sides on, has to do with developmental projects in the Philippines taking place at the expense of traditional ways of life. A former student of mine called this subject to my attention this weekend and asked me to sign an on-line petition on the subject, which I am not yet ready to do. Basically it seems that a major economic infrastructure development program has been rushed through official channels and forced onto the local people through a process of eminent domain seizures.  The protests against this could very well be a worthy cause to support, but based on what little I know I am not ready to assume that I know what is best for the Philippine people in terms of what their leaders should and shouldn’t be allowed to do to encourage economic development and to provide basic services for their citizens. It could well be that government officials there are taking bribes from business interests to allow them to build industrial complexes and tourist infrastructure that could end up doing the common people more harm than good, but then again this could also be a means of increasing these people’s life expectancy by ten years or more through better health care, more dependable income and a more nourishing diet. I’m really not in a position to say, and compared to other environmental and human rights crises in the world I am aware of, this doesn’t seem to be among the most critical. But with further information I reserve my right to change my mind about the subject later on. That’s the way things go for us complicated people.

Yet there is one form of simplicity that I treasure more than virtually any other joy in life: interaction with children of all ages. The highlight of my Thanksgiving week this year was in fact sitting and doing barnyard imitations with a 4-year-old, and being called back for endless encores. From newborns to teenagers, every phase of childhood and youth provides its own rewards for adults who have the inclination and opportunity to interact with those at such a level. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive, though teenagers in particular seem to be easily tricked into thinking otherwise. The main point is that life is continuously moving forward for all of us, and appreciating the opportunity to make the simplest forms of human contact along the way –– especially with those who are likely to continue on with it long after we are gone –– is one of the experiences that makes the process of life most rewarding.

So as we once again find ourselves racing into the Christmas season, I would like to encourage all of you to stop and consider the combination of complexity and simplicity that the holidays are bringing into your lives. Don’t try to simplify your life by making crude generalizations about people and things you don’t really know that much about; and don’t let the simple basic pleasures of life, like the time you spend with those you love, get unnecessarily complicated. In all your Christmas shopping and partying don’t get tricked into trying to prove something about yourself through some artificial forms of ostentation, and remember to appreciate the value of those around you, from the closest loved ones to the most complete strangers. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

I might consider my old friend Jim to be a complete jerk when it comes to politics, and he might well feel the same about me, but underneath all of that crap there is a kind-hearted fellow that tried to keep me interested in doing art photography and with whom I could commiserate over our difficulties finding girls to go out with back when I was in my late teens and he was in his early twenties. If I can still make basic human contact with him regardless of all of the complications that try to come between us, I believe my life will be far richer for it. If there’s something I can learn from him in terms of connecting with other people in a more simple and straight-forward way via this medium, so much the better.

To those I have alienated with my unnecessary complexity, I’m sorry, and I will try to improve. That doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to join into causes that I see as more complicated than you do, or that I’m willing to convert to your particular brand of religious experience, but it does mean that I want to better learn to keep such complications from isolating us from each other. If within those limits you feel like you could help me with this process, I’m quite available to consider whatever hints or instructions you have to offer.

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Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Love, Priorities, Tolerance

On the Abortion Question

I must confess that I’ve become a regular follower of the new television series, ”The Newsroom”, and I was particularly touched by one aspect of episode 6 that was on here a couple weeks ago. In it a gay black man, working as a teacher, was coming out in support of a candidate who didn’t believe gay men should be allowed to work as teachers. His reason for supporting this candidate was that he believed that the most important political issue that he could possibly confront was abortion, and this anti-gay candidate happened to be, in his opinion, the best possible candidate to advance the agenda he saw as a priority. The anchorman, “Will” had a crisis of conscience after the fact for harassing this fellow about the seeming contradictions in his politics: supporting a candidate who wouldn’t respect him as a person because of his sexuality. To this the fellow replied, quite heatedly but eloquently, that he didn’t need any liberals to stand up for him, and that he refused to let anyone define his politics for him based on his race, his sexuality or anything else. He could choose for himself what he will stand for, and what he chose to stand for was to fight against abortion.

I in fact know many people from the US for whom abortion is THE political question, most commonly on the basis of a perception that this is the only possible “Christian” position on the subject. Most of them go on from there to look for ideological and religious justifications to agree with other aspects of their favorite candidates’ positions, provided that these candidates are sufficiently dogmatic in their opposition to abortion.  I respect the moral character of these old friends of mine to stand up for a cause that they believe in and to make that a political priority even, but I don’t like what it does to their integrity when they find themselves drawn into supporting other positions which would seem to be fundamentally opposed to their basic identity in the process. But then again, I want to try to limit myself in terms of my rights to define what their basic identities are –– politically, socially, spiritually or in any other sense.

For many people abortion is a major emotional issue because the whole idea of babies tugs pretty hard at the heartstrings of pretty much all human beings. Toss around magnified images of second trimester fetuses which look even more baby-like than newborn babies themselves and we’re talking maximum emotional stimulation for women in particular. Telling someone thus stimulated that the subject causing this reaction in them is not actually a person is a fool’s errand at best. Toss in a few verses from the Psalms about God shaping us in the womb and you have a perfect emotional storm.

When I was still in Bible college in Massachusetts in the early 80s I was assigned this sort of suicide mission. It was an English class that I would have been exempted from, were it not for the fact that I naturally write rather slowly; thus I didn’t get enough of the essay questions on the proficiency exam done to get the points needed for exemption, but that’s rather beside the point. Suffice to say the basic course material was hardly challenging for me. The areas in which the course required effort was in speeding up my writing and keeping myself out of trouble regarding my attitude.

In any case, part of the course was oral and written debating skills –– areas in which I was already supremely over-confident at that point. Those who were less confident in the matter picked out propositions that they were quite confident they could defend, regardless of their limited rhetorical skills. Others were randomly assigned to argue against the propositions they came up with.  Most of these were things that someone could present a counter argument on without being branded as a heretic: like whether “speaking in tongues” was the definitive evidence of “being filled with the Spirit,” or whether complete abstinence from alcohol should be a moral requirement for all Christian believers.  All well and good until this one sweet and sensitive young lady stated that she was going to argue for the proposition, “All abortion is premeditated murder.” Guess who was assigned to be the opponent on that one.

Needless to say, I chose to lose that debate on purpose, with the potentially lower grade being far less of a risk than being labeled as the campus abortion advocate.

I still don’t feel particularly comfortable defending the whole idea of abortion. Sometimes this still puts me in a rather awkward position. Next month I’ll once again be coming to the part of the ninth grade religious education curriculum where I will have to conduct classroom discussions about the morality of abortion, and in over a decade of teaching this subject I have never been able to do so without feeling rather stressed over it. My basic approach has evolved into a method of introducing the subject by saying that there are four forms of ending human life that are legally permitted in various parts of the western world. In alphabetical order those would be abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and warfare.  All of these are morally problematic, but for various reasons some people find some of them more morally acceptable than others. I then take an in-class survey of which of these the ninth graders themselves find to be the most and least immoral. Almost without exception the vast majority within each such class finds warfare to be the most immoral and abortion to be the least immoral of these four ways of taking human life. From there I attempt to Socraticly question why they have chosen as they have, and if possible I try to organize a more formal panel debate over some of the issues raised, but rarely are there any students here (in Finland) who wish to take a public stand against abortion in such a context. I’m generally left in the position of stating a few distinct facts about the matter:

  • Whatever else can be said about abortion, it is a physically and emotionally traumatic experience for the girl in question, and I would seriously hope that none of the young ladies before me there would ever have to go through such an experience.
  • The risks inherent in sex should be taken seriously, and even if one does not believe in the traditional morality of only having sex after marriage it is important to be very careful, very selective and not at all in a hurry about finding sex partners.
  • If they are not able to talk frankly and honestly with a potential partner about all aspects of sex, including birth control, intercourse should be quite out of the question, and there should never be an attitude of, “well, if you get pregnant there’s always abortion.”
  • All that being said, in my experience it is more than likely each of these kids, prior to graduating high school, will have had a classmate or two who has had an abortion, though it would be unlikely that they would actually find out about it. Hopefully if they do find out about such matters they will be able to treat the girl in question with an appropriate level of tact, respect and if necessary, personal support.

I’m not legally or morally in a position to say much more than that. They have classes in health education which cover the physical side of things more thoroughly. Beyond that I believe that any attempt on my part to give heavy sermons on sexual abstinence would not only be hypocritical at this point in my life, but also rather counter-productive. And any attempts to further shock or traumatize them regarding the process of abortion itself could justifiably get me fired. So I leave it at that, hoping that if any of the students are in dire need of someone to talk to about such matters I am one of the people that they can trust. Fortunately very few have turned to me in that capacity over the years.

As to the moral arguments concerning abortion itself –– the arguments I intentionally chose to lose some 30 years ago –– there is very little worth my repeating here. The essential question remains, at what point along the way from sexual release to fertilized human ovum to embryo to fetus to healthy newborn baby, does “the soul” –– a fully functional expression of individualized human life, worthy of our protection and respect due to its own inherent value –– come into play? There is no obvious biblical teaching to clarify this matter, nor is there any clear medical consensus on the subject that I am aware of. Thus more often than not it comes down to a set of emotionally held dogmas that cannot be logically proven to be wrong and thus they are held to be foundational truths.

Over the centuries science has narrowed down the debate somewhat. During the Old Testament period it was somewhat axiomatic to say that knowing what happens in the womb as the baby takes shape in there is just one of those things that, like weather patterns, is beyond human understanding (Eccl. 11:5). All that could be said for sure was that once a man shot his seed into the woman there was potential for something miraculous to start happening in there, which in the best (or worst) case could result in a baby. When along the way this thing inside the mother became “a living soul” remained controversial.  Some took Genesis 2:7 to mean that it was only in the process of actually breathing that a person becomes a living being. Some took Exodus 21:22-23 to mean that causing a miscarriage is the equivalent of manslaughter, and justifiably subject to brutal retribution, thereby indicating that the fetus is already a living being before it starts breathing at least.

The first “scientific” approach to the subject that the Church took seriously was that of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas repeatedly quotes from Aristotle’s “On the Generation of Animals” in his Summa Theologica, accepting the basic idea that in distinguishing between “form” and “substance,” the baby’s form is determined by what the father shoots in, whereas the substance of the baby comes from what the mother contributes during the course of the pregnancy. As Aristotle put it, “While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male, for the soul is the reality of a particular body.” This also provided a handy explanation for the Christological problem of how Jesus could be entirely divine and entirely human: his form/pattern/soul was perpetually being given by God, whereas his physical substance was contributed entirely by Mary. In fact it’s really rather difficult to make sense of the “eternally begotten” bit in the Nicene Creed outside of this paradigm.

But part of the implication of this teaching is that, as the Monty Python boys put it, “Every Sperm is Sacred.” The soul would already exist within the seed that the potential father ejaculates, and thus it is forbidden to masturbate, or practice oral sex, or (male) homosexual acts of any sort, or bestiality, or condom use, or even early withdraw; because all of these things would place the souls already present in the semen in someplace other than the sacred receptacle it was intended for.  From there it was up to God to decide which of these souls he would provide bodies for.

The scientific basis for this traditional moral perspective was actually debunked by a monk, Gregor Mendel, less than 150 years ago. The idea that we each get 23 chromosomes from our moms and 23 from our dads, and the unique combination of those determines our forms (which was actually discovered less than 100 years ago) definitively proved Aristotle’s theory of where the soul comes from to be wrong. But at that point in history the church was so busy fighting against the Darwinist perspective that it hardly noticed the far deeper heretical implications of this monk’s discoveries.  One can only imagine what Mendel would have had to endure had he tried to publish his findings 300 years earlier.

So the science of genetics has fundamentally changed the church’s understanding of where the pattern for individual humans comes from, but what it hasn’t done is provide a basis determining whether the sin of abortion is closer to the sin of masturbation or the sin of murder in terms of the old understanding.  If we think of the “soul” in the terms in which it is used to translate Aristotle’s ideas, it takes shape whenever there is a pattern established according to which a new human being could be formed. The medieval understanding was that these souls existed at the moment of ejaculation, and they were thus unanimous in the understanding that most of those patterns would never be realized, and it was sort of up to God which ones got all the way to breathing “the breath of life”. The guilt associated with preventing an actual human life from being realized based on that pattern was variable, depending on how close it actually got.

We now recognize that those patterns take shape at the moment of conception, and that in the long trip from potential human being to actual human being conception is a more monumental step along the way than the actual first breath, in that it is at the moment of conception (rather than ejaculation) when the pattern becomes fully formed, but it is unclear whether either marks the definitive transition point from potential to actual. A more realistic transition point would be the point at which pre-natal consciousness has taken shape, but even that is somewhat problematic, both in terms of diagnostics and in terms of establishing a philosophically consistent standard on the matter.

But what all of this comes back to is a question of what we mean when we talk about the intrinsic value of human life.  Are we saying that all humans are incredible treasures, and we should thus try to fill the world with as many of them as possible? Are we saying that intelligence as such is the highest value that evolution has produced, and the thing most worth saving and defending in the universe, in particular in the form in which it occurs within our own species (implying that the more intelligent one is, the more entitled one should be to survive)? Are we saying that there are certain things in terms of personal flourishing for each of us as humans that require contact with other humans, and we must thus consider (all of) them to be instrumentally important? Are we just saying that the moral tenants of empathy and reciprocity should be applicable first and foremost within our own species? Or are we saying that there is some other “spark of the divine” within every actual living, breathing human being that deserves to be protected purely on the basis of religious dogmas with no other explanation necessary?  All of these positions have their champions even today; all of them have their problems in terms of fully consistent application.

All that uncertainty being on the table, I still believe that every actual human life has its own value, which can’t be applied to lives that might have been under other circumstances. I believe that, if anything, our moral responsibility at this point in history is to limit the number of children we bring into the world, not to maximize our reproductive potential. So when it comes to miscarriages I believe that they are tragic events for those who experience them, but not an indication of sinfulness or moral failure. I don’t believe that married ladies in their 40s who allow themselves to get pregnant in spite of the high risk of miscarriage at their age are guilty of reckless manslaughter when such miscarriages happen. Thus I don’t believe that fetuses and babies actually belong in the same category with each other as moral objects. And on that basis I don’t believe that the suffering of fetuses being aborted, or the loss of those potential contributors to our societies, really belong in the same category with the tragedy of actual children dying every few seconds from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Thus to me abortion is not the political issue.

If it is the issue for you I would hope that you first seriously consider why it bothers you so much compared to other causes of human suffering or loss of life. If this is a “back door” way of trying to evangelize and proclaim to the world the values of your own religious convictions, I would suggest that you prayerfully reconsider the implications and effectiveness of such a strategy. If you are honestly afraid that God will cause earthquakes and tornados and other forms of judgment on nations that practice such sins, I would strongly suggest that praying for mercy is a better safeguard than trying to legislate the morality you believe God wants. If it is the genuine human suffering and tragedy that bothers you, for consistency sake I hope you would also fight against other forms of human tragedy that I have mentioned above, particularly contributing to aid for girls and young children in Africa and the Indian subcontinent (even if taxes on the wealthy must be raised in the process). But most importantly, while I fully respect your right to believe as you do, I hope you realize that someone can still be a good Christian and a good person while believing differently than you do on these matters.

And when it comes to the current election cycle, may God have mercy on us all and protect us from each other’s stupidity.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Priorities, Religion, Sexuality

The Borderland

This week I’ve had the first set of extra days off school since getting back to work for Espoo this autumn, so I treated myself to a bit of time in Estonia. I’m spending most of this time in the little university town of Tartu, which I can recommend to anyone as a fascinating cultural experience unto itself.  But on the recommendation of one of my new friends from Tartu I actually spent the day on Friday back up in the all too familiar city of Tallinn. It was the second day of an academic conference there, mostly run by Estonians, but including a fair number of international academics, on the subject of “borders”.  So being the habitual border crosser that I am, I had to dive in just for the fun of it.

Being me, of course I talked too much, but I don’t think I irritated too many people too badly in the process, and I had a wonderful time of it. I won’t try to summarize all of the fascinating discussions I listened to and took part in; I’ll just let some of my thoughts flow in relation to this event.

The borders to be discussed there were opened up as widely as possible thematically: from national borders to language barriers, to artistic framing processes, to borders created by religious difference, to the process of smuggling, to borders of good taste, to the cultural novices knowing their place in relation to experts. Some that I didn’t hear discussed were the thin border between genius and insanity, the difference we sense between what we are and what we feel we ideally should be, and the extent to which we have to keep others at an emotional distance at times to maintain our sanity. Perhaps there were talks on those aspects that I missed, but that’s beside the point.

In the past 20 years or so since I first crossed the border between Finland and Estonia on a number of levels this border has faded significantly. One of my more permanent memories was crossing over for a day trip just as Estonia was in the process of leaving the Soviet Union. They had already changed the official time zone to match Helsinki rather than Leningrad, but you still got a sense of the old joke, “Set your watch one hour forward and 30 years backward.” They still had the Soviet rubles as the currency, there were still signs of a Russian military presence around Tallinn, and even on a brilliant sunny day there seemed to be a dank grey cultural mist hanging over the decaying medieval and Stalinist monuments of the city. I got off the boat and was herded into a line where I had to leave my passport as assurance that I wasn’t going to run off on some spying mission around the country. I then proceeded to the currency exchange, where for a ten dollar bill I got a stack of rubles too thick to fold, that allowed me to walk around the town like I owned the place. It was also the first time when I went to a shop where they had an abacus instead of a cash register. Guess who ended up making an idiot out of himself there. It didn’t take too long after that for such trips to become something of a habit though. The next time I went they had their own currency already, and there were fewer and fewer remnants of Soviet life every time thereafter.

Since then Estonia’s own currency, the krooni, has come and gone, the shock of post-Soviet organized crime has given way to a spirit of respectable law and order, and it is no bigger deal to wander around Estonia than it would be to go from New Hampshire to Vermont. Things are still noticeably cheaper here than in Finland, but quality of goods and services suffers less and less by comparison. Gone are the flea markets with people selling for a pittance anything that could live without. In their places are standard western shopping malls. Stalinist monuments have been replaced by monuments to western consumerism. Medieval elements have been face-lifted and modernized to better attract wealthier sorts of visitors.

Tartu I visited for the first time in January of 1994, just after getting my permanent Finnish resident visa stamped into the second passport I ever owned. I was part of a mission to try to increase contacts between Finnish and Estonian theology students; the latter having just been legalized again following the end of the Soviet era. Not only that, but Tartu had only recently become accessible to foreigners again following the closing of a major Soviet air force base there in the late 80s. To say that it was a different world would be no exaggeration whatsoever.  But in spite of the major gaps and borders that still existed back then, the will to come together and the belief that we could overcome the remaining boundaries were infectious.

In some ways that experience reminded me of a quote from Mark C. Taylor that figured into my master’s thesis work around that time. I can’t find the exact reference on line so without running to the library I’ll just say that I think it was in “Erring” and it basically said that the things that make us alive are acts which violate the borders between what is inside of us and what is outside: “eating, drinking, shitting, pissing and fucking”, and it is no accident that most of those words are considered indecent.

But that brings me to the question of balance in these matters. While I’m not one to promote extensive fasting, constipation or celibacy, I do feel that there need to be limits on these processes. As I’ve said before, sexual abuse is one of the chief evils I see in the world. And even if you don’t religiously follow some code like veganism or a halal diet, there need to me some limits on what you allow yourself to eat if you wish to remain healthy. Likewise releasing bodily waste products needs to be done in a way that the smell and remains do not offend the aesthetic sensibilities of others or put their health at risk any more than necessary. And this is not even touching on some of the other means of violating the physical border between inside not mentioned in the Taylor quote: slashing, stabbing, injecting, shooting…

So while there is a certain thrill in overcoming certain kinds of borders, there is also a functional benefit in respecting and maintaining some sorts of borders relating to our personal integrity.  How do we decide where to draw that line?

One significant area of border crossing that needs to be considered is that of language. The Bible presents the Tower of Babel and the resulting difference in languages as a curse, intended to limit mankind’s ability to “reach to the heavens”.  If we take that at face value, how far do we want to go in overcoming that boundary in the interest of searching for universal theological truths that God was seemingly trying to prevent us from finding? Should we just accept language barriers as literally God-given limitations and just be content not to understand each other? I’m not enough of a Fundamentalist to believe that.

There are other complicated questions there though. Language is a blessing as well as a curse, even in the differences it creates. I had a very difficult time communicating with the building supervisor of the dormitory I’ve spent the weekend at, as she only speaks Russian and a little Estonian, and I only speak English and Finnish, but neither of us would want to wish any of those four languages out of existence. And to the extent that I am able to express the same thing in different languages, and express things in some languages that can’t be properly expressed in others, my life is richer for it. For all their problems and limitations, languages are important manifestations of the people who speak them, and worth maintaining on that basis. But at the same time the limitations of one’s language should not be accepted as the proper limitations of what one is able to or allowed to think about. Allowing the freedom to think beyond the current limits of one’s language while still using that language as a vehicle for one’s thoughts will inevitably corrupt the purity of that language. How big a threat is that really? For that matter how far do we need to go in the process of trying to artificially resuscitate dying languages, such as that of the Votian people living in a few scattered villages southwest of St. Petersburg? I don’t have an answer for that, but I plan to continue enjoying and corrupting the languages at my disposal regardless.

In some regards the same applies to religion. We have many different systems of faith that we use in our attempts to interact with the transcendental and with each other. Sometimes those help us understand each other better; other times they put us at each other’s throats. Sometimes maintaining doctrinal purity is more important to people than reaching any greater understanding of what is “out there”. For this reason my light hearted jest in the last sentence of the last paragraph could be much more dangerous to apply to religions. There is a word for those who corrupt them on purpose: heretics. And while heretics haven’t been burned at the stake in western society for many years, death for threatening doctrinal purity is still almost commonplace in the Muslim world.

Regardless of these risks though, there is much to be said for dialog between those of different religious traditions; for learning to communicate with each other regarding “spiritual matters” even when our traditional formulations of how such things are supposed to work come under threat in the process.  Yet this needs to be done in a way that respects religions’ individual integrity and means of expressing things. Just as I don’t want to try to stomp out the use of Russian because “English can say things so much better”, I don’t want to stomp out Islam or Hinduism on the presumption that Christianity’s world view makes them redundant. I know that many Christians don’t share my views on that one, and that relatively few Muslims would be ready to reciprocate the mutual respect in this regard, but such is life. I’ll pursue these ideals regardless.

However one of the most interesting papers I heard at the conference Friday was on the question of “merchandizing” ethnicity. It is clear that, in the process of seeking out the thrill of crossing various sorts of borders, there are many of us who search for the exotic, and who are drawn in by the lure of interacting with those who are in some ways radically different than we are. Estonia has recently been beefing up is PR campaigns specifically to attract habitual border crossers like me. But researcher Elo-Hanna Seljamma has come across people whose ethnicity is being merchandized in this sort of way who are actually sort of resenting it. Even if this is not done in a sanitized Disney style production, is there something “indecent” about taking the most intimate aspects of a person’s life and a culture’s self-identification processes –– its religious convictions and rituals, its language and folk art –– and displaying them as part of a broader national promotion package? Is this somehow akin to pornography and sacrilege? There’s a very legitimate question to be pondered there.

That being said, not to cross such borders or boundaries at all, from my perspective, would be to surrender the most important aspects of what really make us alive. In that regard I believe that Mark C. Taylor’s point still holds. I don’t believe in a literalist, Fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 11, either as a historical record of how the world’s languages began or as the basis for an ethical norm of avoiding interpretation and attempts at mutual understanding. I want to be careful and sensitive about forcing others to culturally interact with me against their will, but I make no apologies for wanting to understand them better as a means of attempting to (selfishly) enrich my own life. I only hope that in going forward from here I will able to find the right balance in these regards.

And on that note I’d like to say thank you to all of the fascinating people I’ve had a chance to interact with over the past week and I hope that we will continue to enrich each other’s lives as time goes on.

 

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Filed under Education, Linguistics, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Social identity, Tolerance, Travel

KE, part 2 (Evaluating Happiness by Comparison)

I have promised a few people that I would come back to the project of re-editing my and re-blogging my old series from elsewhere serializing the digest version of the manuscript I have written over the years providing ethical instruction to my younger son, Kristian. I started this a month ago, and having now got a bit of political and theoretical reaction to what I see as silly ideologies out of my system, it’s time to continue with this –– setting aside my problems with what others believe and systematically laying out some basics of what I believe in myself.

I basically believe that personal happiness is a goal all of the best ethicists (as well as some of the worst ethicists) since Aristotle have been concerned with, but few have seriously worked through the psychological and practical implications and applications of what it takes to make us happy even as far as Aristotle himself did it. So in doing my part to try and fill this gap I’ve formulated the 5 Cs (comparison, comfort, control, confidence and connection) mentioned in the intro last month. I believe that each of these really deserves an essay unto itself.

So I start out here looking at the item which represents the weak end of the scale –– the thing we turn to for happiness that in the end provides us with the least satisfactory results: happiness by way of comparison. We all have a semi-controllable urge to match ourselves up against others to see who is tallest, fastest, richest, strongest, prettiest, smartest, funniest, most coordinated or whatever else. This is in some ways one of our most infantile and yet most enduring forms of motivation in life. It begins with our inborn instinctive urge to imitate others. As I wrote for Kris years ago:

…a common sight in daycare center play rooms is a toddler who doesn’t talk very well yet sitting alone, miserable and bored in a room full of toys. He cheers up some though when another child, perhaps a slightly older one, comes along and starts to play with one of the toys there––let’s say for example a toy fire truck. The first kid, who had no interest the thing a moment before, suddenly realizes that the most important thing in his little world at that moment is the fire truck that the other kid has. He might look for a similar one for himself from the toy box so as to play together, but the more likely reaction is for him to do everything in his power to get that truck away from the child that is playing with it. What this kid who has just turned aggressor isn’t capable of realizing though is that what makes the little fire truck so interesting to him is not so much its bright color, its exciting motion or the different sounds that it can make, but simply the fact that the other child is playing with it! If he wins, once the other child is no longer playing with it the fire truck will cease to be so important. If it was any other way the first kid would have already been playing with it before the newcomer’s arrival.

“Mine!”

We’ve all witnessed the same sort of behavior with children of both genders and all ages: wanting something just because we see others with the same. A recent study conducted by a Finnish newspaper concluded that the most reliable indicator of what sort of car a person is likely to buy is what they see their neighbors driving on a day to day basis. This is basically the same motivational force in play. And though these examples are stereotypically male ones, the comparison urge is, if anything, even stronger among the females of our species.

This drive to compare ourselves with others generally takes two primary forms: 1) striving for equality: the need to similar to or to be as important as, or have as much as the next guy; and 2) striving for excellence: pushing ourselves to be better than the next guy at something at least. In fact as a teacher I use both as means of motivating students. Sometimes I will say things like, “I know you aren’t that interested in this stuff, Peter, but if everyone else can sit still for 10 minutes, you can too.” Or then I will have contests to see which team within the class can remember the most from the previous month’s lessons. As comparison is such an integral part of students’ psyches, why not at least use it to some practical advantage?

So what’s wrong with basing our happiness on comparison with others then? Well, plenty.

First of all there are all the stupid things that kids do, particularly in their early adolescence, as part of trying to “fit in”: trying to impress their friends by ignorantly experimenting with beginners’ versions of sex and drugs and rock and roll––smoking, drinking, seeing how much nasty language they can get away with, and ignoring basic safety rules their parents taught them as part of an unofficial competition to show how bold and daring they can be. As anyone over 16 probably knows already, these are not reliable ways of finding long-term happiness in life. Yet in spite of knowing that these things don’t work as means of staying happy, many people never manage to outgrow this sort of behavior.

Then there is the sheer misery of what Americans used to call “keeping up with the Joneses.” People live in slavery to having the same sorts of toys that the neighbors have, even if they have no practical use for them, just as a matter of fitting in.

Sprint cheaters anonymous… when winning isn’t the main thing, but the only thing.

Then, when it comes to being “a winner” the problem is that the glory never lasts. In the 90s Carl Lewis was the world’s best sprinter and a sporting legend, taking the moral high ground after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson became the first Olympian stripped of a gold medal for doping. But now Lewis himself has been stripped of his medals for the same offences Johnson committed, and since Usein Bolt has come along the public has pretty much forgotten that Lewis ever existed. The ancient Greeks gave their champions laurel leaves rather than gold or silver to symbolize this very fact: the glory and joy that go with victory are very fleeting.

Beyond this, as a Christian I have a particular respect for the teachings of Jesus, but even for non-believers the moral lessons he taught in story form deserve special consideration for their moral wisdom and historical influence on Western thought. One of these stories in particular is specifically about the problems of comparison. It’s commonly called “the parable of the workers in the vineyard,” recorded in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 20. In my own paraphrased version it goes something like this:

During his peak season, a local wine producer went into town early one morning and recruited some temporary workers to put in a long, hard twelve-hour day on his estate picking grapes. He promised them a wage that was somewhat above what they could normally have expected, and they gladly hopped into his wagon and went on out to work for him.

During the course of that day the vineyard owner made four more trips into town, and –– more out of concern for the local unemployment problem than for his actual labor needs it seems –– he hired on a few more extras each time, right up until one hour before quitting time. At the end of the day then, this employer told his paymaster to line the men up, and starting with the most recent arrivals and working down to the first comers, to pay them all the same wage promised to those who he had picked up first.

Well, the fellows at the end of the line got rather upset about this arrangement, and like any modern trade union would do, they started yelling, “No fair!  Those newcomers are getting over ten times as much pay as us for the amount of work that they did!  If you can afford to throw away money like that then we deserve a bonus!”

They made such a fuss that eventually the owner had to come out to quiet them down.  “Look,” he said, “this morning you agreed that I was paying you a more than reasonable wage. Now if I want to be generous to those who I hired on at the last minute what right do you have to try and stop me?  It’s really none of your business how much they get. Just take your own money and enjoy it!”

Can we get rid of all competition and comparison as elements of human psychology? Of course not!  Nor certainly should we. I can’t even write this sort of essay without littering it with terms of comparison!Beyond that, I’m all for such forms of entertainment as watching a good ball game and screaming at my lungs out in support of my favored team. What I’m saying is that we need to recognize that this doesn’t work as a primary source of happiness in life.

Those who base their lives trying to pick out winners and losers, so as to be able to identify themselves more closely with the winners, ironically end up being the world’s biggest losers, regardless of what form of competition they peg this to. Those who spend their lives making sure no one gets more than anyone else, if they have any success in this fool’s errand, inevitably end up holding everyone back and making everyone miserable in the process. While using comparison as a tool for gaining greater efficiency and as a source of extra spice and excitement in life, we also need to live beyond this level of satisfaction. There needs to be more in life than just being the same as or trying to be better than everyone else.

It should also be pointed out that those who destroy their bodies in trying to prove how much faster or stronger they can be than the next guy aren’t the only ones whose lives get destroyed by competition. Particularly destructive to the world we live in these days are those who need to prove to themselves and each other that they can make more money than the next guy. This abstract form of competition leads to the destruction and hoarding of natural resources that are in limited supply, and that we all need in order to survive, just so some guy can try to prove to competitors at his country club, or in his alumni association, or on the Forbes 100 list, how successful he is. There are millions of people around the world today suffering and dying as a direct result of the comparison games western millionaires feel compelled to play with each other.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with financial success per se. To claim that all millionaires are crooks is not true either, and to be motivated by envy of millionaires while condemning them for being motivated by comparison would be the height of hypocrisy. As we will see in future installments in this series, money can serve many other functions than enabling comparison. Those other forms of happiness can be far less destructive and provide far more lasting happiness than continuous personal competition for attention.

There is also something to be said for the sort of competition which requires someone to be the best they can be in order to get a particular job or sell a particular service. At that sort of moderate level competition within society brings out the best in all of us and enables us to provide each of us to acquire higher quality goods and services than we would if we lived in a purely command based economy. This does not, however, justify children dying of starvation and preventable diseases, families going bankrupt from medical expenses and school teachers being laid off due to budget cuts so that billionaires can pay 30% less taxes. There is no justification for someone who makes more than a thousand times more money than most honest workers within the economy to complain about contributing to meeting the very basic needs of others, even if they are forced to do so. If an addiction to competition keeps people from seeing that point, it really is time to tone down the competition by a notch or two.

Of course if someone out there has a better idea of how to base your happiness on competition… I’d be willing to listen.

 

 

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Egalitarianism vs. Meritocracy

This weekend was a literary festival, South African style. There were three days worth of discussions among those who are most likely to sell books in this country; which mostly meant political commentators, crime writers, comedians and a few token school administrators and the like. Some were representing minority niche markets, some were looking for big new trends, some were networking with other members of the academic and intellectual elite of the country, some were practicing intellectual self-gratification. It’s sort of hard to say what I was doing there.

The town hall clock of Franschhoek, home of the literary festival. Notice anything slightly odd about this picture?

In talking with some of the country’s more respected political thinkers though I came away with the following basic realization regarding politics in South Africa and around the world really: they need to be driven by an idealistic vision backed up by competent basic management and accountability to the population being served; and that vision needs to involve a balance of egalitarianism and meritocracy. The fundamental questions then are how to build a more direct system of public accountability into our democratic processes, how to limit the various forms of corruption that keep creeping into politics, how to improve respect for human rights in general, and how to achieve the necessary balance of ideals.

On the left side of the political spectrum we have the social ideal of egalitarianism: the basic concept of justice based on a fundamental equality between humans of all colors, sizes shapes and sexes. White people shouldn’t be allowed to get away with things that black people automatically get punished for. What is wrong for women needs to be recognized as wrong for men as well. No one is to be excluded from (public) education, housing or basic employment on the grounds that they don’t go to the right sort of church, or their grandparents spoke the wrong language, or they don’t show the right sort of attraction to the opposite sex. These ideals are nearly universally held by responsible politicians of all sorts around the world. They are the basis of the US constitution, the ideals of the French Revolution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the moderate forms of major monotheistic religions that these are drawn from. Yes, there are radical Muslim clerics and neo-Nazis that deny basic principles of racial and gender equality, but I would not consider them to be “responsible politicians”. Accuse me of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy here if you’d like, but I believe the point stands.

On the right side of the political spectrum you have the ideal of meritocracy: the ideal that everyone should have equal possibilities of becoming unequal. The chance to become a president, a business millionaire, a great artist, a high ranking military commander or a respected intellectual should be open to everyone; and rewards should be given to those that achieve such statuses accordingly. Our societies should encourage excellence from all their members, and they should focus on mobility rather than mediocrity. This has been the functional basis of American society in particular throughout its history; and with the collapse of rigid class systems in Western European societies over the past few generations it has become a matter of ideological consensus there as well. It has been a long time since anyone has made a strong public argument that members of the traditional aristocracies are simply “more evolved” than other members of society, and that the maintenance of their privileges is justified on such a basis. The furthest right responsible thinkers tend to go these days (There I go again!) is to claim that by and large rich people got that way by working harder and smarter than others, and thus they deserve to keep everything that they have earned.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. One can believe in both social justice and free markets. The question is more a matter of how to go about balancing these concerns. If a society becomes too focused on the egalitarian concerns it loses track of the pursuit of excellence. Ayn Rand’s style of dystopia might remain an impossibility, but the sort of stagnation seen in the final days of the Soviet Union, and in Cuba still today, is real enough. An assumption that no one should rise up above his brothers and sisters in terms of power and influence can easily lead to a form of anti-intellectualism –– an idea that no one should be too capable of outsmarting everyone else, and that competition is ultimately a bad thing. Thus we need to avoid getting stuck in a belief that we can and should achieve ultimate happiness and social stability by finding ways to completely equalize everyone.

Yet on the other side of the spectrum if we become entirely preoccupied with “letting the cream rise to the top” we can end up accidentally ignoring and even belittling the humanity of the “dregs” or “curds” at the bottom. Meritocracy in some senses becomes a bit of an abstraction when there are millions of people who never get any chance to show what they are capable of because of the circumstances they were born into. Even in a prosperous and largely homogeneous state like Finland it is rather unfair to say that everyone who is poor or socially disadvantaged got that way entirely through their own fault; to make such a charge against the poor of Mexico, the United States or South Africa shows a patently absurd level of bigotry. In the process of encouraging competition then we need to take the human rights of everyone seriously, even (or perhaps especially) the losers.

So the challenge for the political future –– in South Africa and in all functional democracies –– is to find a balance between these ideals, and then to find honest and competent functionaries to carry out the practical side of them. Ideally speaking then there needs to be an education system which creates mutual understanding between all parties involved in the democratic process; which instills an ethic of honesty, trust and cooperation in the population at large; which equips workers at all levels to carry out their tasks dependably and efficiently; and which makes people aware of the potential unintended consequences of their actions. From there we need leaders with enough charisma to inspire the population to reach towards a better future –– where resource holders, innovative thinkers and basic workers to can come together and cooperate in ways that benefit all involved; and where no human beings are treated as disposable commodities. Then we need government officials who carry out their jobs as a matter of honor –– thinking of their work as a sacred trust rather than as a means of extorting personal advantage from the system. Then there needs to be a level of authentic choice available to the voters, where through electoral participation reasonable and well informed individuals can have a say in both keeping their representatives honest and influencing the ideological balance on the basis of which the government operates. Alas, we’re a long ways from things working that way in practice.

In South Africa the political elite is divided into fractions that represent the followers of Apartheid era (white) liberalism, Apartheid era revolutionary African nationalism, and Apartheid era revolutionary socialism. Effectively the ANC party (which has just celebrated its hundredth anniversary as an organization) tries to bring together all of these fractions under its rainbow colored umbrella, enabling it to govern as a strong single party majority in virtually all levels of government, albeit with a smaller and smaller majority in every election cycle. Yet this form of political organization is rather problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that it tends to prioritize the maintenance of party control over any coherent ideological direction for the party and the country.

From the discussions I listened to over the weekend it seems I am not alone in believing that the presence of a loyal opposition party –– or two, or three –– and regular changeovers of power between ruling parties would make the system far healthier and more responsible to the needs of the people. Each party could/would/should represent one particular emphasis within the overall necessary political balancing act: one representing the ideals of meritocracy; another, the ideals of egalitarianism; yet another, concern for the importance of a sustainable relationship with the environment; yet another, the importance of active participation in a global economy, and so on. By voting for competent and inspiring members of particular parties citizens could then influence the overall balance of ideology in terms of which issues the government should be prioritizing. This would enable citizens to have some other means of expressing their will than holding protest marches. This sort of functional representative democracy may be a distant utopian dream, but it is still a dream worth dreaming.

A protest march in Durban recently, though none of the bystanders seemed to know what they were protesting about this time.

Comparing this to the American situation, we can only hope that the two party system is in a bit of a crisis and some stronger, more sensible system will arise in the years to come. The dialectics on which American politics have been based are business (trade, investment banking and industry) vs. agriculture, isolationist vs. internationalist, empire building vs. cohesion building and Cold Warrior vs. peacemaker. Since the “Reagan Revolution” it could be said that the primary party dialectic there as been between a coalition of conservative religious moralizers and promoters of big business interests on the right vs. a coalition of civil rights activists and environmental protection campaigners on the left. Along the way plenty of sleazy tactics and stock insults have been developed, and a great deal of idealism has been lost. At no point has the debate evolved to the point of looking for a balance between egalitarianism and meritocracy as the “founding fathers” might have envisioned. (The problem of idealized visions of the American founding fathers is of course a blog unto itself.)

In theory the two party system there could be developed in the direction of the sort of dialectic I am hoping for –– the Democrats taking the role of the Egalitarians: pushing for the rights of the poor and middle class to have greater dignity and opportunities in life, and for the rich to be taxed to the extent that the country can afford to give all children the sorts of opportunities that they had; and then the Republicans taking the role of the meritocracy promoters: insisting on excellence being encouraged at all levels of education, R&D, production and artistic expression, with the understanding that these programs are not necessarily going to benefit everyone equally, but that they will nevertheless provide opportunities that are open to everyone, at all levels of society. In practice it isn’t going to work that way though. The Republican Party has actually shown little interest in promoting excellence in education or anything else. On the contrary, it wishes to belittle the Ivy League academic elite of the country as “liberals” (enunciated with distain) who “think too much” and are out of touch with “hard working normal people”. Thus the pursuit of excellence is really the last thing on their agenda. Far more important to their identity and strategy is the fear of change, growth, innovation and “otherness” in general. Their party slogan could well be, “Let those who have traditionally been in authority remain in authority, and then everyone will be happy.” The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has built an identity based on a bit of a hodge-podge of those interested in social change in general without a particularly strong sense of core direction or identity.

Hope for both countries –– for all democratic nations really –– I believe lies in education in “the humanities subjects” (and philosophy in particular –– my own bias) going forward, regardless of what US Republicans and other anti-meritocratic interests have to say about the matter. This could, in the long term, lead to the development of a generation of politicians with integrity, competence and ideals worth believing in –– egalitarians willing to fight against abusive greed and meritocrats willing to fight against sloth and mediocrity. That in turn could lead to politics once again becoming the sort of business that decent people (a tip of my hat to Jonathan Jansen [http://www.ufs.ac.za/content.aspx?uid=38] here) can feel comfortable getting involved in.

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Ideal Religion, part 3

One of the most important aspects of religions that I haven’t yet discussed in this mini-series is the fact that they are inherently social and communal. Born Again Christians in particular often seem to forget this: it’s not only about a personal relationship with Jesus, having your sins forgiven, becoming a better person; it’s also about being part of a community of believers –– recognizing a sense of connection with others who, in spite of their weaknesses and outright stupidity at times, in some fundamental way share a sense of spirituality with you.

This is far easier said than done. The more you accept others as part of yourself, the more conflicts you risk internalizing. Yet for all the difficulties and problems inherent in loving others in this way –– in the broader, non-sexual sense of the word –– being able to do so is probably the most important aspect of religious observance. Various religions have various ways of doing this, and for overcoming the conflicts inherent in doing so. Thus no collection of writings exploring ideal forms of religion would really be complete without looking at this aspect of the question.

I must confess though that this aspect of religious life has probably been the most theoretical of all for me personally. I am a bit of a radical individualist in all aspects of my life, and somewhat to my shame, nowhere is this more true than in terms of my religious observance. I try to compensate for this lack of communal religious identity in my life with an openness to casual association with a rather broad range of religious communities, but I know that doesn’t really cover it. I’ll come back to addressing this particular form of “sinfulness” in my life in closing here. Meanwhile I’d like to look at what I think might make an ideal religion in terms of holding people together and creating a sense of communal belonging.

Could a perfect religious system better enable imperfect people to relate to each other, and to a transcendental purpose greater than all of them, in such a way that would bind them all together as a unit without causing all of the evils of tribalism? Perhaps not, but the possibility is worth exploring. And even if religion as we know it wouldn’t be able to fulfill such a task –– even if there would not be any god –– we would still need to find some sort of institution to serve this purpose if our species is to have any hope for the future.

After some contemplation I’ve come to the conclusion that there are essentially three means by which religious communities are socially bound together (and this is a new theory for me, so please, by all means help me shoot it down if it’s crap or work out the bugs in it if it’s worth saving). Even though the acronym is already taken, I’ll call this my DDR hypothesis, for Dogma, Discipline and Ritual.

The first means by which religious folks distinguish “us” from “them” is in terms of a “purity of faith,” a.k.a. dogma. In order to be accepted as a believer in most religions, one must make a certain standardized profession of faith, and thereafter follow the standardized teachings of this religion. These teachings are not taken to be subject to question or revision. One must be very careful not to “blaspheme” by saying things that go against the official dogma if one wants to be acceptable in such circles.

I have rather mixed feelings about the value of such dogmas. On the one hand they serve the same function within a religion that grammar serves within a language: they provide a sense of “properness” and order, making mutual understanding a much simpler process. On the other hand they frequently block the process of investigation, discovery and intellectual growth. When universities have religious authorities telling professors what they are and are not allowed to teach and investigate, more often than not that’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.

Religious people aren’t just expected to believe what their communities accept as true though; they are also expected to live up to the standards that they believe in as a matter of day to day morality and self-control. This I refer to as discipline.  For those who fail to do so, the religious community has various means of censor and punishment at their disposal, ranging from gossip and social isolation to actually going out and killing the person. (Islam is probably the only religion actively exercising the latter extreme, but there is a history of its use in the vast majority of the world’s older religions.)

Regarding this too I have rather mixed feelings. One needs to have some form of personal self-control to be part of any community, and a community needs to have some means of enforcing their norms in order to remain viable as a community. The problem comes when religious standards (or any other standards) for disciplinary procedures are used as an excuse for unthinking cruelty and for rejecting the value of other people as people. Of course every religious community claims to exercise compassion as part of their disciplinary process, and they all believe that the particular balance they have found between attempting to redeem and attempting to destroy the fallen individual is the right one; but inevitably those looking at such matters from the outside have a more difficult time accepting such dogmatic proclamations regarding how discipline should be carried out. Every religion has testimonies of people who have been saved from themselves through submission to their discipline, and every religion has its tragic victims who have been terribly damaged through the “discipline” inflicted on them.

Perhaps the most inherently and definitively social aspect of religion though is ritual. Rituals, in the strictest sense of the word, are routines followed by a community as part of their religious observance. These include rites of passage such as weddings and funerals; annual holiday observances involving periodic self-denial and self-gratification; ceremonial observances that are built into one’s daily or weekly schedule, such as gatherings for prayer, worship or meditation; and norms that are kept as part of the daily life of the community, such as protecting the ceremonial purity of one’s food, following set patterns in social interactions (e.g. bringing flowers to certain people at certain times) and keeping particular standards in one’s personal dress and hygiene.

The distinction between ritual and discipline as I use the terms here (and I recognize that there are other everyday uses for the terms as well) is that ritual is not a matter of ethical behavior as such. They are not things that it is understood that everyone –– regardless of their personal beliefs –– must do in order to be a good person. For example a good Jew, as a matter of living up to the standards of his faith, should never commit perjury, theft, murder or adultery; but he would also hold Christians, Hindus, agnostics and atheists to the same standard. He might take the offense more seriously if a fellow Jew cheated on his wife than if an atheist did the same –– and he would be less likely to consider the latter case to be any of his business –– but he would still consider the atheist to be a morally inferior person for doing so. But then a strictly observant Jew would also hold himself to standards of not eating beef broth and breakfast cereal from the same bowl, keeping his head covered in public and not wearing wool and linen at the same time; but on those he would not be inclined to morally condemn someone from outside of his faith who fails to keep such standards. These are matters of ritual, which bind together those who practice them as part of their identity, not things which those who practice them take to be general standards for human decency.

Obviously there are some rituals can be extremely harmful and dangerous –– such as Appalachian snake handling, Shamanistic use of hallucinogens and North African “female circumcision” –– but the vast majority of them are basically harmless. The thing that gives rituals a bad name is that they also tend to be senseless. That’s because they really don’t have to make sense to work. What they do is first and foremost to bind together those that follow them as a community, and any other influence they have on one’s practical life is secondary at best. If they serve no other purpose than that, so what? A.J. Jacobs makes an important point in talking about his “year of living biblically”: one should never disrespect the irrational when it comes to rituals. Of the thousands of rituals that we all live by a very small percentage can actually be rationally justified. Yet even so, those who have a certain amount of ritual built into their lives are probably happier and better adjusted than those who don’t.

Is there really any logic in the ritual of young children's birthday parties? Does there have to be?

The challenge with all three of the above is that in order to serve their purpose in holding the community together they can’t be optional. Dogmas are only valuable for holding a community together if everyone believes in them. Disciplines are only useful in building trust between believers if everyone follows them. Rituals are only capable of building solidarity if everyone observes them together. Nor is this matter of universalizing the DDR exclusively a religious concern: Marxist societies and other ambitious ideological groups have had their own dogmas, disciplines and rituals that citizens/members are not allowed to question or ignore. The unique strength –– and the essential failure –– of religions in this regard is that they tend to reinforce these three by telling people that they come directly from God (or the ultimate truth of the universe by any other name). This I have a problem with in principle. It might make religious community functionally stronger to have such a belief, but as I said in my address to all forms of fundamentalism in my last entry here, it’s just plain wrong. The almighty creator of the universe has never given any group an eternal and exclusive understanding of how life, the universe and everything are supposed to work. What we have at best are people who have grasped some small inkling of what is “out there,” how things work and how we can accordingly live in confident humility and mutual respect. To claim that any religious or ideological system of thought is any more than that –– out of fear of living in uncertainty –– is to live in blatant self-deception of the most common sort.

And this brings me back to my “sin” of individualism: Not accepting all of the dogmas and disciplines of any particular religious group as ultimate and eternal, and not following rituals carefully enough to please the faithful in such circles, has left me as a bit of an outsider within all such organizations. I remain a believing Christian in the sense that that tradition provides me with the greatest satisfaction in terms of the criteria I laid out in the entry before last here, but I have yet to find a community of faith that I have felt completely comfortable submitting myself to. In my experience they either tend to take their own systems far too seriously in a presumptuously exclusive sort of way, or they to lack hope and vision for working together to make our world a better place –– or both!

So for me the greatest improvement I could ask for in religion as we know it would be to have the sort of DDR set that builds a powerful and effective of believers without being divisive and without taking ourselves over-seriously. This should ideally enable people to bond with each other in a strong sense of searching for truth together, even while admitting to themselves how wrong they might be. It should provide believers with social support in being the best people they can possibly be, while still remaining open to new understandings of how “best” should be defined in this context. It should enable believers to build and maintain stable routines and celebrate special occasions together, without assuming that these rituals are based on anything more than our human need for routine and solidarity.

I believe that most religions could be practiced in this sort of way at. The shift away from a fundamentalist approach –– always searching for certainty and absolutes –– would be harder for some than for others, but I believe there is hope for sincere communities of all sorts in this regard. There’s nothing impossible about it. It just goes against the historical norm of how religious communities have always promoted themselves. But let me clarify in closing here that though I believe this perspective is applicable to pretty much any sincerely held set of dogmas, disciplines and rituals, I do not consider the specifics of the DDR set itself to be irrelevant. I believe that there certain understandings that are closer to the truth of what is “out there” than others, and we should search those out and take our guidance from them as much as possible. I believe that morality is more than just a matter of taste; that there are certain standards that we should hold ourselves and each other to, and these should not be taken lightly. I further believe that there are some rituals and routines which –– besides being random expressions of solidarity –– really can make us happier, healthier and more productive in and of themselves. All I’m trying to say here is that our understanding of such things will always be less than absolute; and that in terms of the practical matter of building social solidarity, how close our DDR are to the truth really isn’t all that critical anyway.

Beyond that I guess I could sum up by saying that in my personal life I’ve always erred on the side of sincere seeking and open-minded investigation rather than social conformity –– and I don’t regret that for a moment –– but I also see a deep value in the sense of community that hasn’t been among my priorities. In a perfect world I’d like to believe I could have both.  We’ll see.

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The Case for Secondary School Philosophy

I’m still very much playing catch-up here. I’ve been blogging a bit less regularly than I’d ideally like to require of myself, and not for lack of things to say. In any case, without further excuses, one of the most important issues that has been on my mind for the past few months in particular has been to give my own thoughts on the PLATO conference that I had the privilege of attending at Columbia University this summer.

For those who haven’t heard, PLATO is an acronym for Philosophy Learners’ And Teachers’ Organization (http://plato-apa.org/). Its goal is to bring together those interested in promoting the teaching of philosophy and ethics at a pre-college level in the United States in particular. Being part of such an organization is in many respects one of my dreams come true. The founding conference for this organization left me with mixed feelings, however. As with all radical new initiatives, there was some internal skepticism, some division between parties with different priorities, some posturing among would-be leaders and lots of evidence of a long road ahead if we are going to have an impact on American and global education. Yet on the other hand it was a glorious moment in which many people who had wondered if there really was anyone else in the world who shared their thoughts and vision were able to come together and encourage each other.

Within this new organization there seem to be two primary fractions to start with: those focused on elementary school philosophy teaching, and those focused on high school philosophy teaching. The elementary school emphasis stems from the work of Matthew Lipman and the international “p4c” movement. The emphasis here is in telling stories and getting children to respond and interact regarding the values and knowledge issues contained in these stories. Leaders in this movement that I was able to meet at this conference included Jana Mohr Lone, Chairperson of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Pre-college Instruction in Philosophy; Maughn Rollins Gregory (http://www.philosophyinpubliclife.org/Why/previousepisodes/episode30.html ) ; Sara Goering (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DLzXAjscXk); and Thomas Wartenberg, to name a few. By comparison those of us interested in philosophy as a high school subject were much more modestly represented, and among our ranks were a number of differences of emphasis and perspective. There were those who still see philosophy as primarily a college or university subject that smart kids can get a head start on through advanced placement programs and the like; there are those who provide a sort of ad hoc follow-through to the philosophical background that some kids received in elementary school p4c classes, and then there were those who for one reason or another had more freedom to pursue their own subjects of interest than is normally the case.

Of particular interest and encouragement to me was the pilot project being carried out by the Columbia Secondary School, loosely connected with the University there on New York City’s upper west side. This is not an elite school, in the sense that the majority of the students are just local kids from Spanish Harlem, but using its partnership with the university and implementing a vision for pursuing excellence and pride, one key element of this school’s curriculum is an intense emphasis on philosophy as an academic subject. Within their justification for this aspect of their program (http://www.columbiasecondary.org/philosophy) they state quite confidently that, “Developing a philosophical way of thinking –– a disposition to ask why and to examine issues deeply and from multiple perspectives –– will serve students well, in all of their academic course work and in their lives outside of and beyond school.” They also point out that it is a shame for the U.S. to be behind many other countries in this respect. It would seem then that the best hope for philosophy as an academic subject making inroads into the American public education system would be for programs like that at Columbia to start yielding fruit in ways that others determine that the idea is worth borrowing.

The debate over who needs philosophy lessons, and why, rages on however. For most it remains, sadly, an element of the more elite education that those attending college are entitled to, if they so choose; not something that is normally even offered before that. Or when it is offered, it takes the form of a children’s cognitive play club, which has its own profound value but does not prevent a catastrophic lack of critical thinking skills among those who have completed such a program.

Obviously my bias on this issue is showing, so let’s see if I can rationally (philosophically) justify it. What are the things that a course in philosophy, presented in standard academic fashion at the high school level (whether or not it is preceded or followed by other courses) has to offer, that those not given such a course will miss out on? I should start by saying that Maughn Gregory deserves a great deal of credit for providing the most systematic defense of philosophy teaching per se at the PLATO conference. I am borrowing his ideas here quite a bit, but I am also putting my own twist on them, and so he should not be blamed for any short-comings or radical opinions in what follows here. I will move from what I consider to be the weakest to the strongest arguments, with that judgment based entirely on my own perspective.

 

1. The Insider Thrill

One of the main reasons that people do philosophy as an academic specialty is because once you get into it, it’s actually a lot of fun. What’s more, the thrills of philosophizing aren’t restricted by equipment requirements or the use of a particular sort of venue. There is no reason for it to be just a rich boys’ game. All you really need is a mind, a shared language and an interest in exploring ideas with whoever else is involved. Of course, like most hobbies, the better you get at it, the more interesting it becomes for you. Those who can’t stand to have their ideas or beliefs criticized, or those who like to have simple rules to follow so they don’t have to bother with active problem solving, will never find philosophy a particularly enjoyable pastime; just like short, obese people tend to get little joy out of playing basketball. But if enjoying the game is part of our reason for getting kids into ball sports of various sorts, it also provides a good reason to get them into philosophy. They should come to see using their minds in looking at some of the deeper questions of life as a cool experience. As someone who has a lot of fun with it myself, and having seen where kids are particularly good at it, I see no reason why all kids shouldn’t have the opportunity to philosophize. The weakness of this argument of course is that it doesn’t provide any necessity for philosophy learning, just a potential benefit. But it is a really cool benefit.

 

You need no special equipment to philosophize.

2. Building a better smart-ass

Those who become particularly good at philosophy can often use it as a tool to be “hyper-clever”. Philosophy can have its own inside jokes and its own tool kit for making yourself look smarter than the next guy for the fun of it. This is something that actually tends to happen when someone is less interested in the joys of finding wisdom and valid new perspectives on things, and when they more just want to mess with people’s heads for the fun of it. In this sense philosophy can be a form of intellectual combat, though usually on a more playful level. And like all forms of combat –– boxing, wrestling, fencing, judo, karate, rugby, etc. –– knowing what you are doing can keep you from getting hurt, from accidentally hurting the other guy more than you intended, and it can keep others from trying to kick sand in your face, so to speak. So when someone tells you that you don’t know what you’re talking about on some subject, you can snap back at them by questioning their grounds for assuming that they have a higher degree of epistemological certainty than you do. If you know what you’re doing with these things you can save yourself a lot of grief, and/or have a lot of fun just messing with people in a mostly harmless way. All kids should be taught some basic skills in standing up for themselves intellectually, sometimes by clever use of classical ideas, sometimes just be straight-forward awareness of principles of sound argument.

 

3. Overall academic improvement

It should be an intuitive no-brainer in some ways, but it is amazing how many educators miss it: when kids start enjoying the process of using their brains in clever and creative ways, that joy of thinking makes them better at it for other subjects as well. Philosophy is all about having a passion for asking those difficult questions –– for seriously getting a charge out of exploring problems where there is no single right answer. Skills at seeing what makes one possible answer better than another, and at defending one alternative against another which might be just as hypothetically plausible –– especially when they’re having fun with it –– will inevitably improve students’ performance in other academic subjects as well. Thus for those familiar with the teaching of philosophy it comes as no surprise that those who study this subject inevitably do better in other subjects as a result. So even if a school narrow-mindedly wants to put all of their resources into improving standardized test scores in core subjects, they should be teaching philosophy, because philosophy lessons will help raise performance levels in those core subjects also. Not that academic accomplishment should be the purpose of life, but sometimes that’s all school administrators or parents even care about. So if that is to be the yardstick, there too philosophy as a subject measures up.

 

4. Providing functional B.S. detectors

John Dewey pointed out that one of the major roles for education in the Unites States, or any functioning democracy, is to equip voters to understand the issues they are voting on, and to enable them to tell the difference between rational and irrational arguments; just and unjust proposals; responsible and irresponsible policies. Without a functional education system, a democracy cannot survive. One need look no further than the ratings for Fox News, and the absurdity of the presidential primary campaign speeches going around this year in the U.S. to see how horrendously the education system has failed to live up to Dewey’s hopes and expectations. While it could be argued that civics and social studies classes should provide these basic skills, it certainly wouldn’t hurt at this point to provide further support in the form of philosophy lessons. To study more directly the issues of what make a valid argument valid and what makes a moral perspective moral is an area where students deserve more than they are getting; and that is really the focal point of philosophy as an academic discipline.

These same skills also need to be applied to media literacy in general and awareness of advertising strategies in particular. We should be empowering learners to make informed decisions to get what they ultimately want out of life, in a just exchange with those who provide them with what they need to achieve their goals. We should be helping them avoid getting ripped off. To the best of our professional ability as educators we should be keeping them from becoming slaves to the abusive practices of commercial interests. As our top priority we should be providing them with valid means of judging which information and authorities they can trust and which they can’t. If they can’t sniff out B.S. for what it is, the education system has entirely failed them.

 

5. Creating true personal autonomy

Enabling learners not to be slaves to the system should not be a matter of providing them with a different system of thought to be submitted to than the commercial one. Our reasons for educating young people should not be to make them as useful as possible to business or industry. We should be teaching them to help them more fully realize their value as people. In this regard I must tip my hat to a young lady named Erica (http://americaviaerica.blogspot.com/2010/07/coxsackie-athens-valedictorian-speech.html) whose irreverent speech at her high school graduation has become something of a classic already. It includes the lines:

I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. […] I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. […] When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed.

 

Frankly philosophy teachers are rarer than “avant-garde tenth grade English teachers” in American high schools, and in most of the world’s school systems for that matter, but our task is the same: to open young minds to ask questions before accepting doctrines. This shouldn’t be rare, and having a specific class to encourage kids to think about what it means to be thinking –– philosophy by any name you care to give it –– could save many more Erica-like kids from the sort of doom she refers to.

Why at high school level? By no means do I mean to exclude earlier or later instruction in philosophy, but I believe that high school –– the final stage of education freely available to all and intended for the majority of the population, whatever that be called in various cultures –– is the place where philosophy lessons are most critical. Within that phase of formal education every young person should have the opportunity to revive the fun in learning, learn to defend their views (and adjust them when necessary), prove what they are academically capable of, establish functional criteria for knowing what information to trust and what not to; and most importantly come to respect themselves as human beings, thinkers and adventurers, not just workers. If this aspect of education is discontinued after elementary school (for those lucky enough to have had it there) or if it is only provided for those who are fortunate enough to reach the tertiary level of education, schools will continue to broadly fail at their most essential tasks in relation to the age we live in.

So let’s join together with the folks from Columbia Secondary, PLATO and other scattered idealist in setting out to give every adolescent the empowerment he/she deserves as a human being just beginning the process of self-definition, by providing them with a specific area of subject teaching that invites them to question how we know stuff, what is most important to life as we know it, and what it takes to be a “good person”. And since such a subject has been traditionally known as “philosophy”, why don’t we just use that for a name? Aren’t our kids worth this kind of effort?

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The Rapture for Dummies

My timing and rhythm with these blogs has been pretty bad lately. I’ve sort of set myself the task of writing one each weekend, but then lately I’ve missed some here and there or published mid-week instead. If I had been hired to write these for a periodical or something, I probably would have been fired by now. But my bad timing on this is nothing compared to that of people who keep predicting “the Rapture”.

This past week, as an American and religious education teacher in a Finnish public school, I’ve been repeatedly asked by students, “What is the Rapture?” Nor are my current students the only ones wondering about such things. What is all the strange fuss about among these American radical Christians? Is the end of the world supposed to be coming or something? Then some of my students have also seen one of my former acquaintances and “Facebook friends” joining into the chorus of apocalyptic predictions (admittedly without any  May references) giving rise to even more of these questions. Thus I should probably take this time to do some ‘splainin’ here.

I should also insert a basic disclaimer first: what I have to say is based on my own experience of, and readings about, a wide variety of conservative (and not so conservative) Christian movements over the years. I have figuratively had one foot in and one foot out of many of these (I seem to have lots of figurative feet!), but I have no particularly strong alliances with or rights to speak for any of them. Take it for what it’s worth, and if you want to make sure you have the details of their positions straight turn to these groups’ more official messengers. This is just an overview for those who are trying to get some basic handle on what the hell such folks are talking about; and perhaps a bit of helpful perspective for others who, like myself, have seen a lot of Rapture predictions come and go over the years.

The starting point for all this is the fact that Christianity began as a radical, viciously persecuted, underground religion. Nobody liked these “little messiahs” (the literal meaning of the etymological root term for “Christians”) with their weird secret rituals, unorthodox perspectives on the Jewish scriptures and complete lack of political loyalties. The first historical reference that we have to Christians by a non-Christian was from Pliny the Younger, who was asking the emperor Trajan how aggressively he was supposed to be hunting them down. His basic take on Christians was that they seemed to be utterly insane, but basically harmless. That leaves an open question with no solid documentary evidence to answer it as to why they were being hunted down in the first place. But whatever the case, “Christian hunting” remained one of the major pastimes of Roman governors for the next couple of centuries thereafter, hardening the idea of a battle between good and evil, and expectation of divine intervention and deliverance into the basic Christian psyche.

An important part of these early Christians’ understanding of “spiritual warfare” was based on a book that Jews take as general fantasy literature, but Christians consider to be prophetic: the book of Daniel. Daniel is all about the experiences of the Jews as the colonial vassals of the Persian Empire, with Zoroastrianism as their state religion. That religion is all about the battle between spiritual forces loyal to the creator of the universe and forces which have rebelled against the creator; so it seems to be more than coincidence that, after some exposure to Zoroastrian religious influences, Daniel began to write about an awesome battle between supernatural forces of good and supernatural forces of evil as applied to Judaism.

This added a whole new dimension to Jewish mysticism. No longer was their religion merely saying, “We screwed up and we’re being punished, but if we get our act together God will help us out and put things right for us.” Now there was an added element of, “the Devil is trying to stop us from realizing God’s plan for our nation, and for all humanity, but if we join God’s forces in fighting against this cosmic enemy, victory will eventually be ours.” That theme from Daniel was eventually picked up and expanded upon in the last book of the Christian canon: Revelation, the mother of all end-of-the-world tales.

Meanwhile, however, there was the issue of Jesus’ disappearance to take into consideration. A few days after he was brutally tortured to death by the Romans, in a way that left no room for credibly believing that he lapsed into a coma and later recovered, no one could find Jesus’ body. From there many started to claim that they had seen him alive again, but in a form where, even though he could eat normal food and stuff, he could also walk through walls like a ghost. Then after a month and a half of theses kinds of sightings a bunch of his followers said that they had gone up onto a hilltop with him and watched him levitate up into heaven, after which a couple of angels told them, “He’ll be back later. Get busy.” Then another week and a half after that they experienced the mass euphoria of the “Holy Spirit coming,”  and all heaven broke loose.

Diplomacy was never these early Christians’  strong suit, and they soon made a lot of powerful enemies and started getting themselves killed even. But whenever things got really tough for them, they would tell each other, “Don’t worry. He’ll be back soon enough, and when he does come those bastards will be sorry for what they did to us!” That sort of hope and expectation gave them an incredible level of power and confidence to face those who were hunting them.

With this sort of expectation that Jesus would be coming back again, after which they would see a climactic kick-ass showdown between Good and Evil, Christian traditions regarding the apocalypse developed in a number of interesting ways. One particular part of the New Testament which is often referred to as part of this debate is St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Here in particular, Paul wrote about Christians’ sufferings for their faith being part of a battle between Jesus’ army and Satan’s. He made it perfectly clear that he expected to see Jesus’ return within his lifetime, to give the bad guys what they had coming, but he also wanted to comfort the Thessalonians about those who have died already,  in disappointment at not seeing Jesus come back within their lifetimes. “Don’t worry,” he says, “Jesus will come get those of his believers who have died first, so they’ll be get the front row seats to in heaven to watch this final battle. Then after that he’ll come back to get the rest of us who are still alive at that point” (I Th. 4:13-17, Huisjen paraphrased edition).

But then after that apparently someone was spreading rumors and forging letters in Paul’s name saying that Jesus had in fact returned already, sorry you missed it. So in his second letter to this church Paul tells them not to believe such crap. He makes some veiled references to some secret information he gave them in person about who the real bad guys were and tells them that the wheels leading to the final showdown and the end of history were already in motion. He goes on to tell them evil was already on the rise, but it would have to raise its head just a bit higher before Jesus could come and lop it off. Don’t worry though, he insists, our deliverance is coming real soon.

Paul was part of the late first generation or early second generation of those who ended up dying in disappointment over not being able to witness Jesus’ return to Earth. There have been many more since. And in spite of the fact that things didn’t entirely go down as Paul expected, his words to the Thessalonians –– together with those of old Daniel, “John, the revelator”, the Muslim prophet Muhammed (yes, Muhammed, who had one Christian wife, also talked expectantly about the second coming of Jesus) and Nostradamus –– have been continuously analyzed by various sorts of believers as key to deciding what kind of apocalypse to expect. The essential elements in all of these messages are that A) the world is getting more and more evil all the time, B) eventually the forces of evil will get so strong that God will have to send Jesus back, together with an army of angels, to deal with them, C) this final showdown will be a literal blood bath, and D) after that there will be a long period in which the good guys will be in charge, until the final end of human history, another 1000 years or so later.

One thing that those who take these predictions seriously disagree with each other about, however, is whether or not believers will be involved in that final battle between good and evil. Many interpret the book of I Thessalonians as saying that since this is a matter of God’s judgment on mankind’s evil, and since believers have had their own evil deeds entirely forgiven already, it only makes sense that God would take all of Jesus’ followers out of the picture before this final blast of excrement hits the rotary aerating device. This is known as the “Pre-tribulation Rapture” theory. It has a long history of making people say and do stupid things.

One of the most famous and embarrassing cases of rapture anticipation came in the northeast US in the 1840s. They were called the Millerites. William Miller, a Baptist minister from New York state, calculated that Jesus would be coming to take all of his followers out of the world by the 21st of March in 1844. When that one missed he tried again for a lunar month later: April 18th. After that miss it was actually a colleague of his, Samuel Snow, who made a third try at predicting the Rapture for that year: on October 22nd. For those silly enough to get their hopes up on that October day this became known as “The Great Disappointment”. An appropriate name, don’t you think?

Out of the Millerites came a group of Christians that later became known as the Adventists. They basically calmed down about making predictions about the coming of the Rapture and focused on other radical forms ways of living out their faith, like swearing off all meat and caffeine consumption, or moving the Christian weekly worship day back to Saturday. Other groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, took over the Rapture predicting racket. Yet out of this Adventist branch of Christianity we’ve had such phenomena over the years as the “Branch Davidian” movement, with their famous show-down with the FBI in Waco, Texas.

My personal associations with Rapture predictors came about in the mid-1970s, when I was in my early teens. The basic theory among those inclined to look for the climax of history at that time was that the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 related to a coded prophecy given by Jesus in Matthew 24:32. As he was talking about the end of the world and all that there, Jesus said, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” That fig tree was seen as an obvious reference to the people of Israel, and its leaves coming out must be in reference to them forming a nation again. So that would mean that all the rest of the stuff Jesus was talking about in the chapter must be right around the corner. And sure enough, two verses later Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Since Jesus’ own generation passed away without all those things happening, he must have been talking about the generation in which “the fig tree” would “put out its leaves.”

OK, so how long is a generation? Well, since the Israelites got lost between Egypt and their promised land for 40 years as God’s means of disposing of an unworthy generation, a Biblical generation must be 40 years. So within 40 years of 1948 all the stuff talked about in Matthew 24 should be over and done with. That would include a 7 year period of hell breaking lose that believers aren’t destined to experience, so that would mean that Jesus would be destined to come and take all of his people out of the world by 1981.

Embarrassing as such beliefs are in retrospect, that was what the majority of the people in the church my family was going to at the time believed was about to happen. At the time this was a rather depressing thought for me. I mean heaven was supposed to be cool and all, but I was afraid that I’d never get a chance to get married and have kids and all that, because the end of the world would be coming too soon. But eventually I realized that such speculations were just that, and really nothing to be afraid of. By the time 1982 rolled around and life continued on as normal, I really wasn’t all that surprised. I did become rather cynical about immanent rapture predictions after that though, and these days the most I can muster for such forecasts is a half-hearted pity smile.

I remember in the mid-eighties getting into a ridiculously heated argument with one guy who still insisted that expecting Jesus’ Second Coming within our lifetime should be taken as an essential article of Christian faith. After I shot down all of his major arguments on the matter, his final tack was to challenge the orthodoxy of my faith by saying, “So I suppose that you think I Thessalonians 4 and 5 don’t belong in the Bible.”

“On the contrary,” I replied, “I think that portion is as relevant now as it was when Paul first wrote it.” Now having a bit more than twice as much life experience as I did then, I would no longer bother arguing about it with such an individual, but I still hold to the same sort of belief I had then: I still believe that some day life on Earth will come to an end, and when it does good will triumph over evil. I still believe that having the assurance that our team is destined to win is vitally important for getting through tough times. And I still believe that expecting Jesus’ immanent return to get us out of all the crap we keep getting ourselves into is a rather foolish form of faith for people to keep subscribing to.

The word “rapture” literally means to be raised or lifted out of oneself by divine power. When it’s not being used by religious nuts to talk about their expectations of escaping from history’s final battle though, these days it refers to something very much like ecstasy. “He sat in a state of rapture as he poured over each line of the long-awaited letter from his sweetheart.” That’s really the only kind of rapture I’m anticipating these days: the thrill of enjoying peak moments in life as a gift from God. Even that sort of rapture isn’t a sure thing: Obviously many horrible things have happened to many wonderful people over the years; and obviously, if this life is really all there is, cosmic justice is a pretty screwed up thing to believe in. But even so, hoping for small favors from God in the form of rapturous moments here and there that make life worth living still makes a lot more sense than hoping for Jesus to come and stomp on my enemies right away.

Last week’s predictions that the Rapture was to happen on Saturday then didn’t really even spark my curiosity. If I had seen it as even remotely likely to happen I wouldn’t have paid that parking ticket. If Jesus were to return this year or next I wouldn’t be particularly afraid to face his critique of my life, but nor am I in any big hurry to see him bring everything to an end either. Such an idea may have a lot of appeal to self-righteous, Obama-hating baby boomers; but it would be a bit of a disappointment to my young adult sons, both of whom would like to be fathers themselves some day. But all things considered, I very much doubt that the Second Coming will prevent the boys from getting their chance.

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Shall We Dance?

I’ve always professed a certain moral gratitude to Phil Collins for two things: 1) making it respectable for a man to walk around with 3 or 4 days of unshaved growth on his face and 2) writing a hit song about an inability to dance. The former has done quite a lot to save my face in a literal sense; the latter has done me immense good in terms of saving face more figuratively.

My father has sometimes commented that if he were to have his childhood to do over again, the one thing that he would make a point of doing differently is that he would learn to dance. Among Dutch Calvinist farm boys in western Michigan in the 1950s dancing just wasn’t considered to be an important or respectable thing to do, and he feels sort of sorry to have missed out now that he understands it better. By the time I came along the family culture had changed and loosened up quite a bit, but I too was raised in an environment that considered anything that encouraged “youthful lusts” to be inherently dangerous, and nothing encourages youthful lusts like certain forms of dancing. Thus, somewhat by design, I never really had a chance to learn to dance so well.

Frankly though, I can’t really blame my upbringing entirely; maybe not even primarily. My sense of rhythm has always been a bit shaky at best, and in terms of Howard Gardiner’s multiple intelligence theory, the kinesthetic has always been my weakest point. One of my mother’s moral priorities for her children was to make sure we all learned to swim properly, so I had more swimming lessons than I ever wanted, and I still suck at swimming. Dance probably would have gone the same direction for me. So when it comes to basic physical fitness routines, exercises in charm and attempts to develop romantic attractions, I’ve just had to use other means.

This hasn’t kept me from “messing around” with dance every once in a while though. There are certain forms of dance where, as in karaoke when it comes to singing, it is somewhat taken for granted that those taking part don’t really know what they are doing; where I can thus feel entirely at home. This has included the odd square dance parties I’ve been invited to, school discos, employee Christmas parties and live band performances at restaurants for the middle-aged set. Places where I’ve felt less at home are those where people take their dancing quite seriously. In Finland this would potentially include the “lavatanssi” pavilions scattered around the country. Spilling over from there, some of the dance floors on cruise ships to Sweden or Estonia can be a bit too intimidating for someone of my caliber. Other times, however, these same places too can be strictly for clumsy amateurs, enabling me to fit right in.

One of the places where the serious and clumsy elements of dance get most thoroughly mixed is in the continuously evolving tradition of the “elders’ dance” in Finnish high schools. The idea of this event, held every February, is that it marks the point at which the high school seniors in practice finish taking lessons and focus purely on their national final exams, leaving the juniors effectively as the eldest students in the school. The tradition is thus designed to make these juniors feel accomplished and mature, by giving them the opportunity to do a very grown-up set of formal dances together. In the past couple decades this has become THE event for Finnish young people to prove that they have reached their full potential for physical beauty and coordination. Their families often spend thousands to buy or rent the most glamorous possible outfits, cars, grooming services and follow-up party locations for that weekend. They spend months in advance learning and practicing the waltzes, tangos, boogies, line dances and structured partner swap dances that they end up giving a series of two-hour performances of. Yet another part of the tradition involves an audience participation round, where parents, younger siblings, aunt and uncles, younger class members, etc. are invited out onto the dance floor to pretend to know how to do some of the simpler dances that the “elders” have so elegantly performed. The secret there, as in many forms of dance, is to have no fear of making an idiot of yourself; and the structure of the event provides a fair amount of safety in that respect.

For me, however, this year’s school elders’ dance, which my younger son was involved in, took on a rather different aspect for me, because I invited a date along: my partner in a budding long-distance, on-line romance. I sent her some links to Youtube video clips of previous years’ dances, which seem to have caused here to take the event far more seriously than I had intended. She too had grown up with a fair amount of religious and cultural prohibition against learning to dance “properly,” and she too, in adult life, has had some fun just playing with dance. So on seeing the polonaises and cicapos and the like that these young people were doing so well, she became inspired to start taking intensive dance lessons, which she has subsequently kept going with over the course of the spring. This in turn has become an important new hobby for a person who is becoming increasingly important in my life… so guess what I have to do.

Last week I was introduced to the famous dance instructor, Tony. I had prepped myself slightly on line on the most basic theories involved, but I had not taken the effort to pull the blinds and clear the floor in my office or living room to do any physically practice. So as I began the basic moves with my partner I managed to avoid giving either of us any serious bruises, but I never advanced to the point where Tony could stop calling out the cadence: “Left… right… left-right… left…” Then once in a while, “Slow… slow… fast-fast… slow…” until I’d lead with my right instead of my left, bringing the chant back to, “left… right…”

All the time in the back of my head I could hear my father’s voice: “It’s to your left. No, your OTHER left!”

These are the sorts of things that one does not do without very deep personal motivation. Contemplating the matter, however, I’ve found that it actually provides a very useful metaphor for many other aspects of life: questions of individuality vs. conformity, the need for personal discipline as a structural foundation for all of our later improvisations, and choices concerning where we want to focus our energies.

Dancing is one of many areas of life where the basic purpose is to learn to do things the same as everyone else, only different. Dance actually helps clarify this paradox. Once one has found the 4/4 groove, locked into a few basic routine moves and established a basic line of physical communication with one’s partner, there are all sorts of twirls, dips, spins and other variations to be tossed in to enable a couple to stand out from the crowd. That does not mean you can use such improvisations as a substitute for knowing what you’re doing; but then again, sometimes only a trained eye can tell the difference, and if such a trained eye becomes a thing of the past, or a sign of pure snobbery, who is to say what the value of the “proper” system is?

But it’s not really that simple either. In order to find satisfying and interesting moves to make to the music, and to make these moves in a way that partners are able to fall into sync with each other, and where these moves can be repeated at will, there really needs to be some form of standardized movement involved. One needs to have a clear idea of what is generally expected and accepted as the norm before random variations really work. The same actually applies in writing, in expressionistic painting, in home decorating and in teaching: Breaking the rules is what makes any given example of greatness great, but that only works when the writer/artist/stylist/instructor has a clear grasp of the rules she/he is breaking. Ultimately greatness in most human endeavors has little to do with how closely one follows the rules; but everything to do with understanding what the rules are, why they became rules in the first place and what sort of purpose the rules serve, before setting out bend and break them.

Sunday school teachers love to give examples of classical musicians, whose solos appear to be so free, soaring, flowing and uplifting, but who must spend hour after hour practicing basic routine scales and mind-numbingly repetitive finger exercises to get to that point. Behind the seeming freedom is always a tremendous level of restraint and pressure. The moral of the story is always to encourage young people to forego playfulness and immediate gratification in favor of long-term development. In some ways that makes sense; in others it doesn’t. As I’ve said, there is a certain understanding of underlying order and structure required for creativity to function, yet on the other hand the whole point of that structure is to enable and enrich playful creativity. Those who are stuck in a fixation on order and discipline quite frequently cannot see the forest for the trees. In stressing the means necessary to accomplish wonderful things, they often forget what it is that is worth accomplishing in life. Structure and discipline are never ends unto themselves; they are means of getting to where we want to be in terms of realizing the unique potential and value that lies within each of us. And a lot of that has to do with wild and crazy playfulness.

So how do we find a proper balance between these factors of disciplined striving for technical mastery and wild and crazy playfulness? For advice on that one might want to turn to someone more “successful” than myself. Near as I can tell though, the best guideline to go by is passion. The great musician playing those mind numbingly repetitive scales isn’t doing so out of fear of discipline from some authority figure, or out of a need to impress his mother or something. He does so because he has a deep internal drive to pursue excellence at his craft. Rather than discipline for its own sake, I believe what we each need to find is some purpose to relate our efforts to… passionately. Going back to the dance analogy, we need to have some sort of music that moves us, and from there we can develop more skillful, sensual and syncopated ways of moving to that music. But without the passion for the music and the motion, the mastery of the discipline can be fundamentally useless, or worse.

At various points in my life I have developed passions for 35mm photography, bicycling, religious thought, cross-cultural interaction, making foods of various sorts and pleasing members of the opposite sex. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I’ve put into each of those hobbies/passions, but in each of those cases I did what I did because of a deep sense of connection that I felt with the endeavor itself, as though it was something that I could be uniquely good at, or that would provide a certain sense of purpose and direction for my life. Obviously in some of those areas I’ve since discovered that my talents are not so formidable or unique, and the efforts I was putting into them were unlikely to yield much in return, but that gave me no sense of regret for the efforts I had already put into them. In other senses I’ve been left with a feeling of longing –– wishing that I could have had the luxury of focusing my life’s on things I could feel passionate about, rather than routine things like writing reports and cleaning up after myself. Sometimes I wish I would have had just a little more discipline, so maybe I could have hit that threshold of greatness. And then sometimes I just settle into a reasonable level of contentment with life as I’ve known it, recognizing that in some respects I’ve been damned lucky to experience the variety of passions that I have.

Shifting to another analogy, one game that I never became much of a master at is Monopoly. It has been pointed out to me by those more skilled at this particular game than myself that I had a tendency to spread my assets around the board too broadly, not focusing enough on particular areas of earning potential. I always told myself that the purpose of my strategy was to allow for variations in luck, where if no one happened to hit the properties where I had my largest resource concentrations, I could still get them on the lesser properties. But if I didn’t have enough on those alternative properties to do much damage and improve my position, my diversification strategy really didn’t do me much good. I suppose the same should be said for my life’s passions. On the one hand I haven’t wanted to risk everything on just one or two endeavors that may or may not succeed; on the other hand I’ve probably put too little of my personal energies into any particular passion to have significant chances of success.

So along comes the possibility of learning to dance. On one level it seems to be something that my personal aptitudes are still not ideally suited for, and which is unlikely to pay for itself in terms of personal benefits that justify the efforts I put into it. On an entirely different level dancing could be as good a later middle age physical hobby for me as any: taking me beyond my old set of limitations and opening up new worlds of experience to be passionate about. In fact, however, the only real motivation for me here is caring personally about someone who, partially because of my own inadvertent actions, has started caring about dancing. So that being the case, I’m planning to make some effort to learn to do it “right,” even if I do cling to my own ridiculous levels of playfulness in the process. So… wish me luck.

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Filed under Happiness, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Priorities, Purpose, Respectability, Risk taking

On Tunnels, Pink Bathrooms and Increasing Light

It occurs to me that I should write something of a follow-up to my piece about candles in the Nordic darkness about 4 months ago already. Seasons change, and the literal and figurative darkness that I myself and people around me where struggling with back then has become a far less daunting enemy. Here in the northern part of the northern hemisphere we’re on the winning side of equinox already. The snow is gradually starting to melt off, thoughfar too gradually for many people’s taste. In some ways that makes for a suitable metaphor for other areas of life as I know it this season: clear experiences of improvement, and clear hope of still better things to come, but many leftover manifestations of the cold dark period we’re coming out of.

Another apt metaphor is traveling by car, bus or train along a route that has a series of tunnels blasted through hillsides. You know the sun is out, you know that you are getting where you have to go, but sometimes there are these passing periods of darkness that you go through. Sometimes these tunnels have openings in their sides or ceilings through which shafts of daylight are able to pass, where you can see the light in a more distant sort of way. But the point is not to get too freaked out by the darkness that you’re passing through. When it comes down to it, 5 minutes of darkness here and there in the course of an otherwise beautiful trip on a cheery spring day mean nothing.

This late winter / early spring for me has been characterized by such moments of daylight interspersed with tunnels along the way, metaphorically speaking. I hesitate to share too many details of my private life here, for obvious reasons, but for those who have followed my references to change here without knowing enough about me to read between the lines I guess I should explain a bit. This winter I have come to the end of a nearly 6 year long co-habiting relationship. Some may be scandalized to think that I could call myself a Christian and live with a woman for so long without getting married. Others may be scandalized that I would let go of a relationship that had gone on for so long without more of a fight to save it. Such is life; scandals come and scandals go. If that gives someone grounds for ad hominem dismissal of my thoughts in moral philosophy, I’ll just have to live with that.

But as it happens, dark as this time of life was in many respects, my need to find new housing corresponded with my younger son’s need to find new housing, and so nowadays for the first time in his life he and I officially live at the same address. This opportunity, together with a set of highly encouraging future prospects elsewhere, have provided me with some much needed “sunlight” during this time when the days have been getting longer otherwise. Our tiny little shared “bachelor pad” is far from perfect, but it allows for some bonding opportunities that I’ve been waiting for for over 18 years.

Even so, among the little details of this apartment that are almost comically inappropriate is it’s bathroom. In one sense it is ingeniously compact: I can’t imagine how any mobile home could squeeze as many functions into as few cubic meters of space as this does. In another sense though it is pathetically claustrophobic. Directly in front of the toilet there is nearly a half meter of leg room, but other than that, with our little washing machine installed, there is no direction in which there is more than 30 cm of open space. Basic washing routines involve taking turns doing the shimmy and the stretch over the 70 cm high ledge into the sit-down bathtub. This is pretty much functional as long as my son and I both remain relatively thin and agile, but only God knows how someone who is obese, pregnant, arthritic or otherwise physically limited could manage with such an arrangement.

And to make it that much more comical, it was apparently a single mother who rented this place before us and who made the decorating decision to paint this bathroom the brightest possible carnation pink. I really cannot imagine a less suitable color for a men’s bathroom.

Like a still more thorough spring cleaning (in terms of giving or throwing away things that no longer are needed and no longer fit into my life) stripping down that bathroom of cabinets, mirrors and appliances and re-painting it to some more neutral, functional color remains one of the top 10 items on my “when I get around to it” list. Will I ever get that done? We’ll see. No matter what we do, next year the whole bathroom will be torn apart to replace the building’s aging plumbing; so in some ways the idea of bothering to repaint feels like bothering to mow the grass at the end of the summer, or bothering to plow the last of the snow as the spring thaw begins.

This too provides a bit of a metaphor: how much energy do I really want to devote to “taking charge” of the irritating little details of my life, or how much do I just want to “go with the flow,” in a Taoist sort of way, towards the seasonal changes that are inevitably coming regardless? And regardless of my efforts, or lack thereof, in some of these silly details of life, things really are getting better. Literally and figuratively speaking, seasons are changing and spring is coming.

So the yard is still full of snow and slush and ice. What of it? Inevitably the sun will take care of that. There’s no point in going out and trying to chop the ice out of the ponds or shoveling the snow off the flower beds. Those things will take care of themselves in their own time. The balance factor is just that, when the time is right, farmers and gardeners need to be ready to spring into action and start planting.

As discouraging as pink walls and April snow storms can be then, it’s important to remember that they are temporary states of affairs. This isn’t about self-hypnosis or self-fulfilling prophecies and all that. This is about drawing strength and keeping ourselves going by recognizing that some things really aren’t worth worrying about, and other things really are worth believing in. Spring really is coming. When you drive through a tunnel it really isn’t worth panicking about the moment of darkness.

But even so, I do still have to decide what is worth doing about those damned pink bathroom walls.

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Filed under Change, Control, Happiness, Priorities, Time

Clean-up

This weekend I’m back to an “in between” stage of life: one of those periods where there is no serious crisis, and overall things are pretty hopeful, but if this were to be the last weekend of my life I sure as hell wouldn’t want to spent it like I’m expecting to spend this one. I’ve got to basically plow through a bunch of less inspiring things and get some fundamental details taken care of so that relatively soon I can move on to the sort of things that I find make life properly worth living. I’ve been told that one of the basic things I need to get taken care of during this time is some house cleaning.

Why is this such a reoccurring theme in my life? Philosophizing about it may or may not make it less tedious and painful.
What is the point of what they call “cleanliness” anyway? I suppose there are a few. Let’s see if I can convince myself that some of them are important.

First would have to come the health aspect. We should have the sort of environment which limits the concentrations of bacteria, parasites, mold and other sources of physical irritation that could damage our health. If your house is in the sort of condition where there are smells which stick to your clothes, where your bedding makes you wake up itchy, where preparing food your kitchen entails risks of poisoning and where the dust bunnies under your furniture are growing ferocious, it may well be time to clean up for health reasons.

When it comes to my apartment though, rumors of fleas are actually unfounded thus far. The worst health risk is probably dog hair, which is only a problem for those who happen to be allergic to such. And in fact it could even be argued that a certain amount of exposure to other mammal species on a day-to-day basis is natural and healthy for humans, educating our immune systems to the difference between genuinely harmful bacteria and totally benign biological materials. Studies show that kids who grow up with pets are far less likely to develop all sorts of allergies. (Don’t ask me to find those studies for you; I just know…) After that the biggest risk is microscopic dust mites, which are killed by hot washing your sheets regularly, and which are far less likely to multiply in your bedroom if you don’t bother making your bed. So I can claim that regardless of the mess, my apartment is actually healthier than average.

The next consideration in favor of cleaning would have to be an advantage in terms of finding what you are looking for on any given occasion. Not being able to find papers, keys, tools, gloves, etc. is one of the banes of my existence. It also figures into the problems I’ve passed on to the next generation: my son as well regularly misplaces official papers and keys, and hand a major scare this last week when he couldn’t find the keys to his work place for a couple of days. If there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place, arguably such difficulties would not arise, at least so easily.

Experience tells me otherwise on this one though. My particular genius for misplacing things functions perfectly well even within the most sterile and systematic of environments. No amount of added cleanliness would have saved me the trouble of spending hours last month looking for items that I had misplaced in plain sight at home, at work and in my car. Likewise for my son, when the keys in question finally showed up in a duffle bag in the back of the trunk of my car, in hindsight no amount of cleanliness could have counteracted such absent-mindedness.

The closest thing I can think of to a correlation between cleanliness and ability to locate items of temporal importance is that the further someone is towards the J end of the J-P scale in the MBTI system, the less problems he/she will have with both slovenliness and misplacement issues. In simple terms it’s a fair bet that a control and regularity freak like Immanuel Kant never had a sloppy room and never misplaced a key in his entire life. Neither would have been consistent with his hyper-organized personality. For those of us who are more prone to live spontaneously, creatively and improvisationally, however, a certain amount of chaos is the price we pay for such freedoms. Sure, some balance will always be necessary in these matters, but in a choice between the extremes I will always prefer my own lifestyle to a more Kantian one.

What other reasons are there to clean up here? Perhaps a certain sense of harmony with one’s environment can be brought about by means of maintaining some aesthetic order in one’s personal space. Perhaps we all need a certain level of feng shui to get by. Even if you don’t take the concept of Qi or the process of balancing yin and yang literally, there is something instinctively appealing about the idea of balancing tranquility and stimulation within one’s environment. It sort of helps not to have so much visual or spatial clutter that it messes up the sort of life flow we want to have within our personal space. Perhaps, for sensitive souls in particular, having a sense of pattern, order and visual simplicity in their environment enables them to function more efficiently.

Interesting as it is to speculate about such things though, I doubt that anything I can do will put a dent in the messed up energy flow inherent in the design of my current residence; nor have I noticed anything noteworthy about the effects of such disturbed energy flow patterns on my personal sense of balance and productivity. Financial security, for example, strongly affects my basic productivity; as do sleep rhythm variations, exposure to daylight, romantic success levels, family health concerns and a host of other considerations. The general sense of order in my environment, on the other hand, seems to have little if any discernible impact on what I am able to accomplish. If anything it would seem that cleaning as a process creates more stress and eats up more time than are pragmatically justified by its positive effects on my productivity levels.

This leaves me with just one reason for house cleaning that I can’t really wiggle my way out of, which in the big scheme of things is actually pretty weak, but which has a significant effect on pretty much everything else, all else being equal: social acceptability. As individualistic and self-sufficient as I may be, and as self-determining as I strive to be, I want to be able to share my space with others, most of whom care deeply about image questions and societal expectations. In particular I want my son to feel more or less at home here, I want each of us to be able to have friends over with limited embarrassment and I want this space to be usable for minor social events like small parties and informal meetings. For those things to be able to happen I need to find more or less permanent places for things that are still in cardboard boxes and other impromptu “miscellaneous” files, I need to assemble storage systems that are not so prone to collecting dust, I need to reduce the free floating dog hair levels here, and I need to do something about the God-awful color of our bathroom.

In some ways it goes against my grain to limit my laziness and quirkiness just to satisfy others, but in other ways it feels oddly rewarding to be able to do things for no other reason than that there are people you care enough about to make sacrifices and personal adjustments. If this is part of an understanding of reciprocity or voluntary commonality, so much the better. What greater sense of simple connection with others can I really hope for?

So here goes (deep breath): I get this sent, I hang out the laundry and then I break out the vacuum cleaner. 1… 2… 3….

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Filed under Control, Priorities, Respectability

Me and Time

I still haven’t finished with the office cleaning part of my current responsibilities that I gave as a reason for posting a rather brief blog (by my standards) last week, but I’m getting there; and I did get quite a bit of other stuff taken care of this past week, but not entirely enough. So once again I have to make this a short one and get back to all the varieties of “real work” that are waiting for me. There’s just not enough time…

Time is actually pretty funny stuff. Or if I anthropomorphize, time and I have a very complex relationship. I don’t always use what time I am given to the greatest possible advantage, and time doesn’t come to me in the ways I often need it to. It’s ebb and flow never cease to amaze me with their irregularity!

Now of course part of this has to do with being an extreme type P when it comes to the MBTI scale. My blog here is one of many things that I sort of spontaneously make up as it goes along. Many times I try to cram too much into certain periods of time, and of course it comes back to bite me. Then again, sometimes there are things to be done that can make a difference in terms of improving life as we know it, and other times we just have to sit back and not fight the inevitable. Sometimes we are in a position to change our worlds; other times we are not. Ideally I’d like those opportunities and inevitabilities to space themselves just a tad more regularly in my life. Thus my rather complicated relationship with time.

I currently count 5 major project areas in my life which need to be attended to within the next few weeks to keep myself out of trouble in one level of severity or another. That leaves no excuse for solitaire, random web surfing, TV sit-coms and adventure shows and any other customary “waist of time”. Some would count this blog and my on-line interactions with friends around the world as further things I should be cutting back on if not eliminating these days. But then start thinking of other aspects of time: time as a test of what really has importance and what doesn’t. Which of these looming project deadlines involves matters that will ultimately “stand the test of time”? When it comes down to it, I suspect my writing and my on-line friendships are at least as likely to be remembered in the next generation as anything else I need to get done now.

The flow of time, like a river, is an over-used metaphor, but some part of it holds true. I can make some difference in the lives of the students I’m teaching this year, but inevitably they will grow up and move on regardless of what I do. The boxes left un-ticked on their records will only be important if such forms enable them to, or prevent them from being able to, accomplish the great things they are capable of. The rest will inevitably be swept away by the flow of time. The same applies to all of my other current concerns: some relate to things that could significantly affect the world I live in; others far less so. Time is my friend in terms of cleaning up after me continuously, and sweeping away what ultimately doesn’t matter.

But as trivial as some of these things are in the big scheme of things, all things in moderation and with some attempt to maintain a sense of honor and respectability within my current cultural context, I should now sign off here for this time and get back to matters that various others consider to be important. The fact that most of it will be forgotten and irrelevant a year from now does not negate the fact that, as Frost so eloquently put it, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Until next time then…

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Filed under Priorities, Purpose, Respectability, Time