Category Archives: Purpose

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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Filed under Happiness, Love, Priorities, Purpose

Muhimu Matata

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

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

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

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

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

Driving with David and Wilfred

Driving with David and Wilfred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality, Travel

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

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

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

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

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Spirituality

Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

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

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

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

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

Kenya’s major problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Change, Economics, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity, Travel

“Misungu, How are You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And Still We Keep Trying

I started trying to write this last weekend as a stream of consciousness piece, attempting to overcome a bit of writer’s block. Then I got distracted and blocked again before finishing it. Let’s see if I can finish it now and purge some of the overall despair from my system in doing so.

The past couple of weeks have been a more or less continuous exercise in overcoming despair worldwide. It’s not that things are particularly bad right now where I happen to be, and I’m not feeling especially sad or depressed at the moment, but there’s a sense with virtually every area of life that my/our chances of influencing things in a positive/safe/dignified/sustainable direction are especially limited.

Vladimir PutinI’ll start with the most globally obvious source of stress: Putin. It’s more than a little scary to see that the world’s most evil dictator is less than ten years older than me, and that he has been a de facto dictator for 15 years already. And for anyone to claim that Vlad is a popularly elected head of state that the people are free to vote out of power… I hope that the turf battles between the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t get too violent in that world you live in.

To make matters worse, his closest competitor is this little psychopath in Korea, who happens to be younger than my sons! So besides the fact that our world has some fundamentally messed up structures to it, I’m continuously reminded that my limited time for playing an active role in influencing matters here is speeding by, with little sign of progress!

1936 scupturesPutting aside my aging angst and going back to the Putin problem though, the Sochi Olympics last month were the closest thing in my lifetime to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in terms of their efforts to glorify the accomplishments of a dictator. The main things that were missing from that picture were German technical competence and a heroic Jesse Owens figure to steal the limelight from the dictator for part of the spectacle. The most enjoyable moments for me were watching the Finnish ice hockey team beat Russia and then the United States. (Sorry hockey friends there. It’s just more culturally important here, and you have to admit, Selanne did deserve to go out on a high note like that.)  My mother enjoyed watching the ice dance and figure skating events when we happened to have the television open while she was visiting. My nephew developed a certain technical fascination with curling it seems. I couldn’t go much further than politely respecting their tastes on either. It hardly made for inspiring viewing for me overall.

bear tearIt’s hard to say which was more fake in the closing ceremony:  the IOC chairman’s praise what a wonderful job Russia had done or the synthetic tear of the ananmatronic bear on skates. While I strongly support the whole concept of the Olympic spirit and all that, I cringe to see it used with such transparent corruption, and I really don’t know what can be done to fix that problem, or keep it from further snowballing in years to come.

Syria-uprising-At-least-88-protesters-were-killed-This problem has tragically dovetailed into the events featured in other sections of our daily newspapers over the past month: the popular uprisings in Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine and other countries attempting to overthrow lesser dictators than Putin. Many of these public square demonstrations and coup attempts have been getting very messy, and journalists don’t really seem to know what to say about any of them. It’s hard to sympathize with the struggling strongmen in any of these countries, but regardless of the on-going messy legacy of Bush’s Iraq fiasco there is still something to be said for a residual respect for Westphalian principle of nominally acknowledging national sovereignty in such matters. Not to mention how various rebel groups tend to have their own unsavory supporters and bedfellows for us to worry about, especially in this generation when the CIA’s accidental creation of the Taliban is still fresh on everyone’s mind.

So with all of this confusion up in the air Putin somehow decided that this would be a real good moment to cash in on his political capital from the Olympics and invade Ukraine.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-UNREST-POLITICS-CRIMEANot that anyone was under the illusion that Ukraine had ever really achieved complete national sovereignty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have made some significant strides towards join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in sliding over into European culture and NATO’s sphere of influence, but the orangeness of their revolution wasn’t nearly enough to break free of the bear hug they’re still in. And besides a Black Sea coast that for some obscure reason Putin considers to be strategically important, the outside world has a hard time seeing much in Ukraine really worth fighting over. So what’s to stop us from just letting this expansive dictator have his way with little pieces of this lesser neighboring country?

Just one thing actually: The only thing worse than Putin making delusional efforts to restore the glories of the Soviet empire is for the last remaining military superpower from the Cold War era to find new excuses for expanding its “military-industrial complex” at its own people’s and the rest of the world’s expense.

iraq war troopsThat reminds me of a whole other can of political worms that seems rather hopeless to untangle. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since 2002, the United States has been more or less continuously involved in a series of military police actions around the world involving American soldiers killing and being killed for causes that overall have less to do with American national security than Viet Nam did. Yes, there was some justification in attacking a country which was providing refuge to a terrorist leader who had engineered a series of attacks that succeeded in killing thousands of Americans within their own country. No, that did not provide moral justification for the use of that conflict as a political smoke screen under which to attack other dictators in the region; even if they did control significant oil reserves and even if they had succeeded in making a fool out of the president’s daddy internationally.

The only “logic” to justify the state of perpetual war that the US has found itself in for my school-aged nephews’ entire lives thus far is that it appears to be good for business. Companies which make bombs, guns, airplanes, troop transport vehicles, armor and fuel for all of these are making trillions (literally) off of these adventures, and some small portion of the income from these government contracts is actually filtering down to American workers and voters. In this way the military-industrial interests, and those who depend on them, have more at stake, and more invested in maintaining political influence, than any abusive sector of the economy since the black slave trade of the 1850s. The military industrialists have thus eclipsed the tobacco industry of the Carolinas, the steel and railroad industries of the reconstruction era, the automotive industry with their lobbies in favor of highway infrastructure development, and even the modern pharmaceutical industry. When you consider the mammoth amounts of political corruption that went into those other lesser endeavors already, and the immense dishonest fortunes built off of them at the public’s expense, you can’t help but experience a sense of awe at the sheer immensity of the evil involved!

The number of human beings who have been treated as disposable in the process of building these fortunes –– as sub-subsistence laborers, soldiers, other casualties of war, ignorant and addicted consumers, involuntary supporters of corporate welfare programs via taxation, and tragic human failures among the homeless or imprisoned whose fate serves as a negative example to keep others in line –– cannot be rationalized away as an acceptable trade-off, an inadvertent misfortune or a hiccup in the process of human advancement. We are clearly talking about one little group of people having explicitly chosen to treat other massive group of people as un-deserving of human dignity, just because they can. This tiny privileged group has clearly made it their goal in life to prove to themselves that their excessive privileges at the expense of others are part of the way things are supposed to be. If a few million need to die earlier from causes like war, hunger and preventable disease in order to bring this about, so be it. The fact that they have succeeded in using association with certain factions of Christianity as means of constructing their self-justifications makes the situation all the more obscene.

Behind_Barbed_WireThis state of affairs is made all the more absurd by political initiatives intended to limit the extent to which public resources can be spent to reinforce the dignity and opportunities of those in the least advantaged positions in society. The idea that a society can somehow afford to police the rest of the world and force its business practices onto the rest of the world, but it can’t afford to provide food for its own hungry children and basic health care for its own ill, is quite conspicuously the most absurd political argument of the 21st century. The only argument that even comes close on the absurdity scale is that a proliferation of privately held handguns serves to make people safer. Having accepted those arguments, when the right wing faithful hear from their trusted sources sound-bite sources that they should never trust scientific claims that continuous burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels is doing irreparable damage to our eco-system, it comes across sounding to them like the most basic common sense!

The thing that makes me/us feel helpless and despairing about all this then is that there are so many people who I know out there, who are not only falling for these absurd arguments, but who’ve been falling for them for so long that they have become emotionally committed to defending them at all costs! As long as that remains the basic state of affairs even for a significant minority in the United States, and as long as momentum from the last century keeps the United States in the position of being the most powerful nation in the world, human rights will continue to be downplayed in the rest of the world as well, the global environment will continue to be ignored whenever protecting it is inconvenient to business interests; and the risk of there being no future whatsoever left for grandchildren I may happen to have some day, regardless of where in the world I might try to hide them from such problems, continues to expand unchecked.

IRAQ-WAR-GAMESThe number of ways in which humanity could drive itself to a state of mass extermination if not borderline extinction within the next generation or two is deeply intimidating to say at the least. The limited number of means at our disposal for limiting these risks and promoting more positive life directions for those we care about are even more disturbing. There’s only one thing that can be said in terms of resisting the temptation of total resignation: The worst thing we can do is to give up entirely.

david-simonDavid Simon made this point particularly strongly in his last interview with Bill Moyer (here starting approximately 7:00 in). Where I would disagree with his statements in that interview is in terms of the best hope being in campaign finance reform. While that certainly can’t hurt, I believe the best hope is in improved public education, so that those who are involved in the democratic process as voters and campaigners actually understand the issues they are struggling over, and the cause and effect factors involved. Until the education system is fixed, people will continue not to know any better than voting either for whoever they find the most entertaining, or whoever appeals most powerfully to the darker sides of their natures. But in the meantime, as Simon points out so eloquently, we indeed don’t have the luxury of opting out of the electoral process and leaving voting up to psychopaths and those weaker thinkers whom they can most easily manipulate.

The same applies to all other areas of life: We can’t just give up and passively let whatever’s going to happen happen with regard to our families’ health, our children’s education, our consumer alternatives, our communal solidarity or any other aspect of life where our active participation can conceivably make a difference. We never can tell which of our actions will make a difference in the world as we know it, but we can be pretty sure that if we do absolutely nothing we will have no effect on the world whatsoever. Thus making an effort is always worth attempting no matter how bad things look.

Titanic_sinkingNow of course there are some exceptions here: The most effective tear-jerking scene in the film Titanic was the simple shot of the mother in the discount cabins, knowing they had been locked into their compartment and that she and her children were soon to die, bravely singing them to sleep as the water rose. But with all due respect for all in that sort of situation, it should be obvious why I don’t want to see people I care about adopting that sort of strategy on a broader basis.

In short the maxim I’m recommending is: Act as though your actions might make a positive difference in the world, even if that difference is unlikely to be realized through any given action you might take, because some of your actions might in fact make a difference in the world.

Thus, regardless of their overall limited impact, I keep writing and posting these things…

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Filed under Control, Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Parenting, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Sustainability

Reconstructing Hillbilly Values

NBC peacockI grew up during what might be called the second half of the first television generation. My parents came from lower middle class farm families that never had televisions at home during their elementary school years at least but they became aware of that side of American culture by way of their richer friends with more liberal parents, and by the time I came along living rooms were being designed around these ubiquitous devices. Broadcasting in color was an innovation that occurred in the United States during my childhood, so these days my personal antiquity is well established.

From its earliest years though, television has had seriously nostalgic elements to it. It has always promoted an ideal of simpler times. Sometimes this was a matter of providing a secondary market for B-movies of the 30s and 40s, but besides the actually old stuff they broadcasted, there has seemingly always been a market for comic depictions of the world as it was in one’s parents’ times and earlier. In some ways this would explain how the “cowboys and Indians” genre became established in film in 20s and 30s, about one generation after such lifestyles had faded into the mythical past.

In any case, in my earliest memories of television the golden age of half-hour sitcoms was blooming, including some that looked back nostalgically at “simpler times” a generation earlier, when the US was particularly pumped up about their glorious role in World War 2 and the subsequent reconstruction, such as McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes. Then as we shifted into the 70s, the nostalgia wave began to target the 50s, most memorably with Happy Days and its spin-offs, but also with MASH and Grease in their various televised incarnations.

bevhillBut there was also, from the start, another common variation on the theme: looking at various Rip Van Winkle-like characters who had somehow managed to culturally sleep through all of the changes that had been occurring in society, thus interacting with “normal people” from a comically antiquated and out of touch perspective that was somehow nevertheless refreshing to watch. It could be said that this accounted for much of the appeal of Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show (later known as Mayberry R.F.D.). But the archetype for this sort of comic nostalgia format was really The Beverly Hillbillies. This show has been on my mind for the past few weeks, in part because it explains something of the recent Duck Dynasty debacle, and in part because of how it relates to the problems of PISA ratings as such.

0412_jed-clampett_280x340This show basically focused on six main characters: each with their own interestingly mal-adapted forms of intelligence. The Clampetts of Beverly Hills consisted of the patriarch Jed, who had become a millionaire through the accidental discovery of oil on the property he owned back somewhere in the rural Appalachians or Ozarks, his daughter Elly May, his late wife’s mother “Granny,” and his second cousin and foster-son Jethro Bodine. From the time of their arrival in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills, this quartet in was effectively being kept in a comfortable semi-reality by their banker and neighbor, Milburn Drysdale, and his indispensable secretary and the all-around brains of the operation, Miss Jane Hathaway.

Granny-Beverly-HillbilliesJed and his family are all super-human strong, with outsized appetites for food to fuel this energy level. Granny, the feisty matriarch of the clan, keeps them stocked with enough home-style “vittles” to maintain this energy level as well as keeping the mansion clean and brewing up various forms of back-woods magic to help in difficult situations. Jed in turn spends much of his time sitting around whittling, though within his own limits he is always ready to dive in and sort out various problems that fall to the head of an old-fashioned household to take care of. Jethro is the primary “project” for the family. He is apparently the most literate member of the family, the holder of a driver’s license to operate their family car (a vintage truck from the 20s, held together with a fair amount of bailing wire it seems), and in spite of his overall cluelessness, he is the one they are expecting to someday find a wife and establish a brilliant career for himself to do the family proud. Elly May, meanwhile, occupies herself with caring for a Snow White-like menagerie of semi-tame animals while struggling part-time with the dilemma of why she as a girl is not given the same amount of investment that Jethro receives as a boy. Then we have the “plain Jane” Miss Hathaway continuously struggling to be subtle about her major crush on Jethro and trying to maintain a certain level of “this world” reality into her boss’s crazier efforts to make the Clampetts feel at home in Beverly Hills rather than withdrawing their eight-digit fortune from his bank and crawling back into the wilderness from whence they came. It was an interesting enough dynamic to keep the show running for nine production seasons, remaining immensely popular through its entire run.

The best explanation I have heard of for the logic behind the reality TV show Duck Dynasty is that it attempts to recapturing some of the marketing magic of these hillbillies of the sixties, combining that with a bit of the “real family business” appeal of shows like American Chopper, Pawn Stars and the rest: a “poor white trash” rural southern family which is comically out of touch with the modern world, yet through a fluke of their own good fortune they have become rich enough where the modern world sort of has to take them seriously in spite of their on-going cluelessness.

That makes sense actually. Not enough sense where I’d personally be motivated to try and find the means by which to watch the show (as far off the grid of American cable television as I am) but still, sense. The problem is that while CBS could entirely manage every word that came out of Jed Clampett’s mouth, and not really have to worry about the ignorance that made Jed entertaining on TV coming out of actor Buddy Ebsen’s mouth in his private life, A&E have nothing like that sort of control over the Robertson family in general and patriarch Phil in particular.

They say that a big part of what makes the show so interesting and entertaining (I’ve never watched it myself, and I have no plans of ever watching it, unless I need to do so as part of my academic research into American theocratic impulses, so I sort of have to go with what “they” say in this case) is that it showcases a sub-culture as far from the mainstream of modern society as that of any bounty hunter, biker gang veteran, Vegas pawn broker or obese junior showgirl showcased elsewhere in the genre. So… if the exotic culture they’re setting out to exploit in this way just happens to spill out as homophobic, naively racist and almost comically narrow-minded… what are they supposed to do about it? Isn’t that part of the point of reality TV in general –– to add the excitement of an unscripted, unpredictable “authenticity” into the mix? Weren’t they aware of the fact that racism and homophobia are as much part of the “white trash” sub-culture in the southern US as substance abuse is part of so many of the other sub-cultures exploited in this medium?

duck-dynasty-walmart-display4So when it blows up in their faces what are they supposed to do about it? They’re too addicted to the money they’re making off of this franchise, and enthralled with the merchandizing honeymoon this has sent them on with Walmart, to seriously consider quitting now. So one way or another they just have to find a way to stay on that ‘gater and ride it to the end of… whatever.

It has to be said though that this sort of show is put on the air primarily to communicate a message that is important enough to its creators where they are willing to take chances with what they see as trivial matters regarding like the Robertsons’ religious obsessions. The primary message they want to get out is that in America anyone has a chance to become a millionaire, so everyone should keep taking their chances and no one should start taking privileges away from those who have been able to realize their dreams in order to deal with trivial matters like childhood nutrition, health care and education. It effectively reinforces the truth of quote somewhat questionably attributed to John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” 

By feeding this fantasy self-image via the Duck Dynasty dudes, A&E and their programming competitors have successfully campaigned to maintain public support for “anti-socialist” policies that continue to handicap over 99% of their supporters –– turning turkeys into the world’s most dedicated fans of Thanksgiving as it were. As long as they can keep doing that they’re willing to take their chances with what people think of the Robertsons firmly believing that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, or that blacks were happier in the “good old days” before Martin Luther King and company screwed things up, or that public acceptance of homosexuality is a slippery slope towards all sorts of other unspeakable forms of immoral perversion. In terms of getting Phil and his boys to tone down their message, the network’s “suspension” efforts in December may have entirely backfired, but like, so what? It boosted their ratings and reinforced their own primary message that any idiot can become rich and famous someday all the more. The rest is details as far as the bosses are concerned.

BevH886But I was actually thinking of The Beverly Hillbillies well before this quacker-maker scandal story broke last month. As I said, the show also relates quite effectively in its own way to the problem of PISA testing which I wrote about here a month ago. You see, part of the alternative reality world that dear old Mr. Drysdale was trying to construct for the Clampetts to keep them in California was that it was a land of opportunity for them, particularly in terms of Jethro’s educational possibilities, leading to advances in his career potential. The episode where this message peaked was the finale of season 4: “Jethro goes to college”.

Through paying sufficient private school tuition fees to get schools to overlook his serious lack of academic ability, Jed had managed to enable Jethro to academically make it as far as graduating from sixth grade. As far as Granny was concerned that was about as far as any young person should expect to go in education, but Jed had heard that not only was college the key to career success but perhaps the key to getting Jethro’s love life started. So they went to talk to Mr. Drysdale about it, looking for advice about how to get Jethro into some sort of college. He and Miss Hathaway proceeded to try to talk them out of this scheme, until Jed turned to Jethro and said, “Maybe we can get ye into one of those schools back home.”

bev hills bankAt the mention of his major client possibly leaving town Mr. Drysdale instantly panics and suddenly becomes far more optimistic about the idea of finding some local college for “the boy”. When the hillbillies leave the office he starts to discuss with Miss Hathaway the possibility of paying some college enough to take Jethro in in spite of his short-comings. She sums up the dilemma by asking rhetorically, “What college in the entire country would corrupt its standards to that extent for mere financial gain?” In the mid-sixties that was still a laugh line. These days it would merely sound naïve, with such institutions obviously being more common than those who would refuse to do so.

It doesn’t take too long, however, before Jethro, driving around the streets of Los Angeles, comes across a second floor window advertising a “business college” on the premises. This basically amounts to a small institute where girls were taught basic secretarial skills of typing, taking shorthand dictation, business telephone answering formalities and the like, intended to turn them into somewhat useful little secretaries. A dialog there just before Jethro walks in is scripted to tell that this school is in desperate need of money to keep from going under. So when, for all his obvious cluelessness, Jethro pleads with them to take him as a student, and in the process starts physically throwing the tuition money Jed had given him at them in the process, they relent and allow him to enroll.

Jethro later speaks of it taking two hours to pick up some of the basic skills they taught him, but in the compressed world of half-hour sitcom time it takes precisely 2½ minutes from the moment Jethro walks into his first class until the dean of the school realizes he is a hopeless case and instructs her assistant to “prepare a diploma” because “Mr. Bodine is going to graduate.” The diploma he receives is actually just a blank sheet of paper, but it is fine enough quality parchment so that it’s enough to make Jethro happy. It’s enough to make the family feel that now that Jethro is a “college graduate” he is qualified to work as an investment manager at Mr. Drysdale’s bank.

BevH330Elly May, meanwhile, is left with a very bitter taste in her mouth concerning her own college adventure. Even though Jed cautions her that she “ain’t got whatcha call the ‘educational background’ Jethro does,” he gives her permission to try to find a college that will take her. She immediately rushes out to dig through the yellow pages, and finds a place for herself at “The College of Judo and Karate”. She too “graduates” on her first day, but not with the same sort of satisfaction as her second cousin. As she relates the experience to Granny,

“I went in this big room with this real thick rug on the floor and the teacher come out wearing his pajamas! And when I told him I wanted to enroll he got madder than a rattle snake with a sore tooth… He commenced shouting and chopping away at me. He even tried to trip me! …so I gave him what fer! Bounced him around that rug like a basketball. I didn’t stop throwing him until he offered to grajiate me. But he didn’t give me no cap and gown. All I got was this skinny old black belt!”

And for some reason this seriously reminds me of how many things about our processes of academic evaluation continue to work nearly 50 years later.

Some kids we pass through the system with minimal effort from both teachers and student –– to match their minimal interests and learning capacities –– just to be rid of them; still giving them enough recognition in the process to keep their powerful parents satisfied, grudgingly admitting to ourselves that we make the education we offer that much less meaningful and more abstract as we do so, but… it keeps us fed. In other students we see incredible signs of natural talent and promise, and we do our best to encourage them at it, but as often as not this ends up being in ways that don’t quite match up with the ideas of prestige that their parents have had in mind, so we just back off and leave it at that. What else can we do at times?

To say that the standards by which we evaluate young people in our schools are somewhat abstract –– not necessarily either a fair assessment of their natural abilities and effort nor the most suitable from of preparation for the life challenges that lie ahead of them –– would be a polite understatement of immense proportions at times. Efforts to fix this problem with a greater emphasis on standardized testing have, obviously to those within the profession, made things considerably worse. We can only hope that it will all come out in the wash; that our investment and encouragement in some will bring them that much closer to realizing the potential we see in them, and that the difficult cases that we end up just whisking through will end up doing relatively little damage to themselves and those around them at subsequent stages in their life before they take it upon themselves to backtrack and learn the necessary thinking skills and working habits which we were not able to teach them, or they find a role for themselves in society where such skills are not necessary. We can only hope that the theoretical dynamics of cultural evolution will eventually take place in our educational institutions: dysfunctional aspects, however nominally prestigious they happen to be, will be seen for what they are and eliminated, and genuinely student empowering and enabling programs are set up in their place. The question is really how bad things have to get and how many types of trial and error the systems have to go through in the meantime. Sadly there’s also the undeniable factor that many of the powers that be really don’t want people to be educated enough to seriously question their authority, or to question the importance of continuing to buy so much of the useless crap they keep trying to sell us. But still we can hope…

I’m not holding my breath though. I’ve seen how absurd ideas and practices have a way of going on for generation after generation. One significant part of the whole Beverly Hillbillies background legend was the way Granny would never admit that the south had lost the “War between the States”, and she had all sorts of alternative historical interpretations in place to support the theory that her side had won. I know plenty of fundamentalists of all different sorts (theistic and atheistic) who are still doing equivalent mental gymnastics to this day. I don’t think any form of education reform will succeed in solving that problem any time soon. How long cultures and sub-cultures built on self-deception can last is not something we can predict with a particularly great level of accuracy. We can only hope that they destroy as few lives as possible while they continue.

But that’s not the worst of it. Not only are some hillbilly values and world views slow to die out; there are a surprising number of anti-intellectual folk in the US that consider such perspectives to be worthy of revival; and those who shamelessly speak out in favor of such absurdities, heroes. It’s sad really, though sort of understandable.  As I was saying though, the best we can hope for is that our education systems, dysfunctional as they are, will progressively improve young people’s capacities to critically evaluate the various antiquated and “radical alternative” value systems they continue to be presented with.

Meanwhile then we can still enjoy the comic value of these alternative perspectives on life, bearing in mind that, as with any joke, when a significant part of the audience takes the comically absurd seriously it ceases to be funny. So get what laughs you can as Rome burns.

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Filed under Education, Freedom, Materialism, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Mandela and Other Heroes

mandela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Death, Economics, History, Human Rights, Politics, Purpose, Racism, Respectability, Social identity

Life after PISA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace with you and yours as the season progresses.

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

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Filed under Education, History, Purpose

‘Cause I Know I Don’t Belong…

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

ClaptonColorDannyClinch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

conor clapton grave

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

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

Let us pray.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality

Opiates of the Peoples

I spent the end of last week and the weekend working on a seminar presentation for this week, speculating on who Pope Francis was referring to as an ideological illness in the church. It involved a lot of background reading, and there is much more I need to do on the subject, but so be it. So I’m writing my weekend blog on Monday again.

When it comes to use of time the perennial question come to mind: how much of my time am I actually wasting along the way? There’s two aspects to this: How hard should I be pushing myself (to accomplish what sort of goals), and then what non-goal-oriented activities –– stress relievers –– should I consider to be particularly dangerous or harmful? Let me explore that latter one for a bit here.

Those of you who are moderately well read in humanities subjects would obviously recognize my title here as a play on one of Marx’ dictums regarding religion in general: it numbs people to the painful realities of their otherwise unrewarding and essentially meaningless existence, and rightly so. If they have to have such an unrewarding and meaningless existence at least we can allow them to become comfortably numb by religious means. It was Lenin who gave this turn of the phrase its more condemning connotation: the religion of Rasputin and company as a vile addiction that keeps people from moving beyond their miserable, abused condition. Of course the issue that both polemic approaches are missing is whether religion has a particular value in and of itself beyond providing a means of escape from the mundane stresses of everyday life. Might there be some eternal value system that is more important than the implications of the “selfish gene” –– the drive to have as many offspring as possible and to keep them alive long enough to have offspring of their own?

KarlMarxFriedrichEngelsShanghaiChina2009_500

But let’s set that aside for the time being. Let’s just assume that we all have goals in life that we spend a certain amount of our time working to achieve, that such work largely defines us as people, and that beyond our work we each have our own forms of “play” that are psychologically necessary for us in order to be able to continue on with our work. Let’s further assume that the balance between how important we consider our work to be for its own sake and how much we do in just to get other things that we “really want” will vary quite a bit from person to person, as will the things that we are ultimately trying to get as rewards for our work. So we have our goal-oriented behavior and we have our personal-amusement oriented behavior. How do we keep those in balance with each other? For that matter how important is it to draw a distinction between them?

Lots of different distracting directions those ideas could take us in. Given that I’m not actually being paid to write this, and I don’t have anyone reviewing this and telling me what is expected of me in this essay, I could easily chase off down one rabbit hole or another here just for the fun of exploring what’s in there, but I’m trying to stick to the job I’ve set for myself in the title here of talking about “opiates” in the figurative sense, and what is potentially wrong with them. The main thing that all such “opiates” would have in common is that they provide a form of distraction from our more goal-oriented behaviors which may end up preventing us from accomplishing our more goal-oriented behaviors. My basic theory here though is that all of the different forms of condemnation of such “opiates” are based on somewhat unquestioned assumptions regarding the value of different forms of work, defined in turn as focused goal-oriented behavior.  This would apply to everything from Marx’ and Engels’ condemnation of religion, to Neil Postman’s condemnation of electronic etertainment culture, to the Catholic Church’s strict limitations on forms of sexual satisfaction, to programs to keep people off of heroin and other actual opiates. All of these are trying to keep people from gaining some false or dangerous form of satisfaction that keeps them from working for more important “true” forms of satisfaction.

Amusing-Ourselves-headlessThere are a number of considerations that follow from this observation. First and foremost perhaps is the question of whether Marx’ observation deserves further analysis here: the idea that people turn to some “false” form of satisfaction because unjust and dehumanizing circumstances prevent them from being able to experience –– being able to reasonably hope for even –– “truer” forms of satisfaction.  Industrial workers of the 19th century drank heavily and then sometimes prayed heavily because those were the only forms of personal satisfaction in life that were open to them at that time. If they would have had some hope of gaining more control of their own destiny in terms of someday owning their own land and workshops, or even enabling their children to get an education and step onto the path of upward mobility, maybe they wouldn’t need to numb their pain so much. By the same token, if more people were able to properly enjoy genuinely satisfying and committed long-term romantic relationships maybe there wouldn’t be such a big market for porn. Are we numbing ourselves just because things around us don’t work well enough for us to be able to hope for better? Is there some way that we can trick ourselves into genuinely hoping for better so that we can achieve more in our goal-oriented behavior? Are there ways in which we can improve society to increase people’s hopes in more or less honest ways? And if we can’t “fix” the situation to allow people sincere hope for a better life through their efforts, are we actually justified in condemning their “opiates”?

In terms of where the rubber meets the road on this one, the breakdown of family structures in the western world has been blamed by moralists on increased mobility, and access to information about other possibilities than that of women staying home and making babies while men go out and push themselves to do whatever they can to provide for the needs of those back in the nest.  There’s some truth to the idea that many people these days don’t have the same sort of family lives their grandparents had simply because they don’t want them, or they aren’t willing to make the same sort of sacrifices their grandparents made to get them. But more to the point, breakdowns in the political systems protecting the basic rights of workers have led to a situation where no matter how hard a man would try to work at basic labor these days he can never make enough to keep a family provided for on his own; and no matter how submissive, loving, nurturing and “wifely” a girl is ready to be, she can’t expect to get the sort of deal her grandmother had as a stay-at-home mom. So why should they behave in a traditional manner designed to improve their odds of getting into such a situation? And can we really condemn behavior that decreases their chances at such a life? After spending much of the weekend reading papal encyclical letters from over the past 40 years, I’ve sort of realized that that is where Catholic moral teaching is really at these days.

pope_john_paul_ii

Beyond that we have the question of whether there are certain types of goals to be pursued in life that should be “natural” for everyone, that our cultures must be designed to reinforce. This would include, but certainly wouldn’t be limited to, questions of reproduction and genetic continuation of family lines. Should people naturally want to have tribal identities reinforced? Should people’s lives be defined by whatever “competitive edge” they are able to find for themselves? Should ease for its own sake be a value worth relentlessly pursuing, and if so how do we deal with the inherent contradiction in such a proposition? Beyond that then, if none of these goals can be reasonably taken as moral imperatives for everyone, what argument is there for condemning behaviors which limit one’s possibilities of achieving them?

The tragedies we keep finding ourselves faced with are when someone we know –– personally or through their public image –– has the possibility to realize all the sort of things we think they should naturally want, or all of the sorts of things that they’ve seemingly dedicated their lives to attaining, and they “throw it all away” over the “uncontrollable” urge to “play” in some particularly dangerous way, or to numb themselves in some unacceptable fashion.  We sometimes feel sorry for them for not being able to master their inner demons. We sometimes condemn them for “setting a bad example for young people” and “contributing to the breakdown of society” –– defined as a group of people informally cooperating to realize the sort of goals we see them carelessly neglecting. Do I see them as evil? It depends.

injectionYes, I do get angry at the idea of predatory individuals selling drugs near a school yard. Getting kids who don’t understand the risks involved hooked on self-destructive forms of amusement purely in order to profit from their ignorance, without concern for the fact that it could lead to early and painful deaths, is something that I would consider to be objectively wrong… evil even. So how far do I want to take that principle? If I want to protect kids from drugs, what do I want to enable them to have that drugs would steal from them? What else might steal the same things from them just as effectively as drugs?

In my own ideological way I guess the most important thing I’d like to enable kids to have is the possibility of choosing for themselves what sort of goals they wish to pursue in life, be it the standard reproductive/tribal/competitive ones that most of our societies seem to be built around, or more individualized pursuits of their own choosing. Whether such a priority on personal freedom is sustainable in the long run or not is a complicated question unto itself. Suffice to say, things are rapidly changing regardless of whether or not we try to prevent change by maintaining traditional mindsets in our children. So if traditionalism for its own sake, and/or as a means of preventing uncontrollable change in society is a lost cause, why not let them have their freedom?

The limitations on this freedom in turn are of two sorts: there needs to be some form of justice to prevent people from carelessly or maliciously harming others, and there needs to be some possibility of forming connections of love with others which can in turn become more important to us than our own self-determinations. As I was saying to Daisy last month, those are what I consider the ideal essence of religion to be about.

So going back to the “opiate” issue, I’d hope that those who wish to keep people away from these “wrong” forms of satisfaction would really stop to think about why they consider them to be wrong, acknowledging that on more careful consideration sometimes they can be seen to do objective harm and other times they can’t. I would hope that the motivation for condemning such “opiates” would run deeper than just trying to get others to live according to the moralizers’ personal tastes. I would hope that it involves enabling the person in question to be genuinely free to choose what goals they want to work towards, and to seriously consider what forms of “play” could prevent them from realizing those goals. Then rather than considering those “opiates” as in themselves wrong, I would hope that those who condemn them would do so based on what greater forms of satisfaction might be chosen without them; and that from there they would work first and foremost to enable people to have hope of attaining those “better” forms of satisfaction rather than simply moralizing against the ones they don’t like.

And beyond that, no matter how important someone’s work is to them, they will also need to play sometimes. How much of their time, how riskily, involving what sort of extra rewards along the way… are all important questions to be considered. We can perhaps enable people to play in less addictive and time consuming ways, with greater safety for themselves and others, and offering greater opportunities for thrills in the process, but what we won’t be able to do is stop them from playing entirely.  Ideally one should find some form of work that is as much like play as possible –– serving as a continuous form of satisfaction unto itself rather than just being a form of suffering to endure as a means of reaching some goal outside of the process. If work has its own “play” element to it in that sort of way, the amount of play needed outside of work will be considerably less for it.

I must confess that blogging and online interaction are somewhere between work and play for me. I’m not getting paid for this, but it is something I do in a certain goal-oriented manner regardless, feeling ever so slightly guilty when I’m late like this. Yet it is also something I do mostly for the fun and challenge of it. It is a form of “opiate” for me in terms of enabling me to escape from my mundane routines of getting 14-year-olds to remember facts about faraway religions, processing paperwork to let others know how much this information has sunk in for them, and keeping my simple bachelor apartment in relatively livable condition. Does it work? Most of the time. Is it bringing me closer to the realization of other goals in life? Rather hard to say. Is there something more important I should be doing with my time? Not that I know of at this point, but systematic time management has never been my strong suit to begin with.  Are their parts of it I should be ashamed of? Some may be angry at me for spreading heresies here, but I can live with that. Do I have other, more problematic “opiates” in my life to get rid of? Perhaps… but at this point I’m not going to start stressing about playing too much and not working hard enough. Give me a new specific hope to work towards and I might change my mind about that.

So here’s hoping that all of you as well are more or less at peace with yourselves regarding what you’re working for and what play you allow yourselves along the way. Here’s hoping you’re able to live at peace with others in terms of the choices they make along the same lines. Enough for this week.

 

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In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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For the Love of Liquidity

I recently began correspondence over research matters with a professor from a distant city whom I have never met but with whom I have a number of shared interests. In the course of establishing a rapport I was rather surprised to find that, based on my recent blogs and other writings, she got the impression that I harbored a resentment towards academia as such and towards postmodern theory in particular. Given that among my teaching colleagues over the past decade and some I’ve been frequently labelled as the most abstractly academically theoretical and postmodern thinkers in the school, it’s one of those ironic situations where I don’t know if I should laugh or cry –– and when in doubt I always go with the former.

But regardless of that fact, given that I have managed to give at least one highly intelligent person such an impression, it is more than possible that others might have come to similar misconceptions about me, and therefore I should take the trouble to further unpack my perspectives on some of the more abstract aspects of humanities theory within academia that I have been writing about here lately.

To start with let me make a somewhat obvious observation: it is factually untrue and thus a gross mis-characterization to refer to those who are lost in their own theoretical abstractions as “tucked away in their ivory towers.” University towers are not made of ivory, and I doubt that they ever have been. In concrete terms university towers (to the extent that universities have any use for towers these days) are made of… concrete. Some older university buildings made of wood, brick or field stone are still rather heavily used, but those materials don’t provide a particularly distinctive image of academia as such. Newer university buildings made of steel and glass are becoming more common, but steel and glass structures are more emblematic of venture/vulture capitalists than of academics per se. Professors can’t really be said to be looking down from their steel and glass towers, literally or figuratively. In practice these days we’d have to say that those professors who suffer from a lack of contact with the non-academic world are seeing that world through the tiny windows of their concrete cubicles, literally and figuratively.

The University of Helsinki's main campus area: No ivory towers to be found anywhere.

The University of Helsinki’s main campus area: No ivory towers to be found anywhere.

For those in the humanities, concreteness is a rather uncomfortable image to relate to. In one sense many of them would much rather be out in the world of Platonic ideals rather than stuck in the hard, cold material reality in which we all find ourselves; thus they try to avoid speaking in concrete terms in general. In another sense they would like to believe that their work has more flexibility to it than do the crude forms of man-made stone in which they find themselves encased. In yet another sense they would like to believe that their work has some sort of inherent nobility and superiority, relating to some more refined substance, like silver or marble or… ivory. In still another sense they want to fantasize that their work is both highly reflective and transparent, like glass or crystal, only without being so fragile. Yet they do not want their work to take on the image of something so pedestrian and practical as Plexiglas.

So with the ivory tower fantasy shot, if they are to establish an alternative image to that of looking at the world from behind their concrete walls, what image are they to use? Given all of these contradictory symbolic elements they are trying to project in their self-images these days, one image that younger professors have started turning to as emblematic of their professional identity is… water. Beyond representing aspects of potential refinement, reflectiveness, transparency and naturalness that professors like to associate with their work, the image of water involves aspects of flow and vitality that every academic would like to believe characterizes her/his work. Images of drinking from pristine bubbling brooks spring to mind, or those of daring young athletes riding wild rapid currents through uncharted territory. Why not? Academics are also entitled to their fantasies.

South Africa 2011 579The water analogy also provides a functional excuse for their separation/alienation from more practical concerns of everyday life: some would like to think of their theories as being like fresh springs, gushing out a cool, clear stream of life-supporting liquidity, which must be fenced off to keep crude animals from tromping through them and/or pissing in them. Those who can respectfully and responsibly protect and direct the flow of this precious liquid can in turn appropriately channel it down the line to make it available to other users, but at its source they must, for the good of all, painstakingly protect its purity –– or so the fantasy picture goes.

baumanThe irony is in how far this image is from the thought of the current father figure of “liquid modernity” theory, Zygmunt Bauman. In his discussion of the “liquid modern,” the liquid in question is not a pure, clear stream poetically flowing across and cutting through solid stone with its life-giving power; it is more a tsunami of sludge plowing its way across traditional landscapes, taking out whatever farms and temples and government installations stand in its way, leaving anarchy and mayhem in its wake. Some of the structures this tsunami takes out are indeed prisons and oppressive fortifications, but its destructive power is not focused against these systems of oppression. The liquid modern is also destroying traditional means by which life has been protected, order has been maintained and personal meaning has been established. The name of this tsunami which Bauman has been trying to caution people against is consumerism, and his recommendation is that education, rather than riding this wave, should be positioning itself as our last, best hope of somehow limiting the senseless destruction it is wreaking on our societies. Rather than becoming part of the liquid in question, education should establish certain concrete channels, dams, breakwaters and levies; not to overcome the force of this flood, but to direct it in less destructive, more functional directions. The problems I have a with academics are with those who don’t get what Bauman is saying here.

718146-floodsThe essence of postmodern theory in this regard –– a la French speaking post-Marxist-Hegelians such as Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard –– is heralding the collapse of metanarratives of human cultural evolution and the grand march forward from ignorance and superstition towards enlightened self-interest and social harmony. In various ways and from various perspectives, over the past half-century or so French, English and German-speaking theorists, in roughly that order, have been calling “masculine bovine excrement” on the remains of this enlightenment dream. We are not becoming one big happy family, and we probably shouldn’t even try to be. We need to recognize that much of what was done in the name of enlightenment and “progress” was a matter of morally questionable power interests stomping out any form of difference and dissent which got in their way. Over the course of the twentieth century colonialism gave way to international capitalism as the dynamic by which this took place, but for those on the receiving end this makes little difference. Corporations, rather than nation states, have forced their will onto semi-cooperative populaces around the world, proclaiming their benevolent intent, yet crudely stomping out any resistance to their dominance and their control of natural and human resources. But rather than proclaiming a Marxist revolution as the solution to this problem, which has been exposed as just one more means of international power-brokering under false claims of benevolent intent, the postmodernists have promoted “deconstruction,” to use Derrida’s term on the matter. Rather than reinforcing the power of any of the particular elite forces in government or business, the intelligentsia should be pointing out the moral and rational flaws inherent in all of the competing parties’ thinking, encouraging a diversified social order in which no one can claim absolute hegemony.

As noble as these ideas may sound, the de facto anarchy of eliminating all existing structures while replacing them with nothing in particular is highly problematic to say at the least. The hopes of the postmodern theorists were not in fact to pursue a cultural “nuclear alternative” of “mutually assured destruction” of all aspects of culture as such, even though few of them put much effort into coherently stating were the new levies should be built. Bauman, in part due to what he sees as the sheer accident of his extremely long life, has gone further than most of his former contemporaries in the field in contemplating this problem. His basic conclusions, like those of his former fellow postmodernists, are stated in terms that are intended to defy simplification, but I will give it a shot anyway.

One thing that must be accepted as a given here is that people are as lazy as they dare to be. No one likes to do tedious and painful routine tasks that they are told they have to do if things remain pretty much the same whether they do them or not. The old cultural and economic status quo was based on social discipline reinforced by scarcity: People were kept from being lazy because struggle for survival was a natural state of affairs. We sometimes forget how difficult life was just a couple of generations ago –– and how difficult it still is for the poorest 2 billion people on this planet these days. A century ago for families to lose a child or two to some form of disease was more the rule than the exception. When it happens these days it is a rare event, caused by someone out there being the sort of person that cannot be described in polite language. There are plenty of remaining problems in today’s post-industrial societies but there are in fact plenty of resources to keep everyone fed, housed, medically cared for and educated even. The problems have to do with extremely morally deficient individuals preventing these resources from being used to meet these basic needs. Which in turn presents the question, how do we motivate people to work together and to overcome their natural laziness in a situation where they can easily tell that the threat of shortage is quite artificial?

black-friday-shoppers-at-macy-sThis leads to the instant gratification problem of the liquid consumer society. Rather than delaying gratification and disciplining themselves to work hard and produce before consuming, the current expectation is to get a few credit cards, experience whatever you (are told that you) want instantly, and sell yourself into slavery to the system to keep up with the consumer addiction you have entered into. You thus become a cog in the machine feeding the snowballing greed epidemic is endangering the future of the whole planet. If you happen to be one of the less important cogs in this machine you can easily find yourself in the sort of de facto slavery where if you (and your spouse) work less than 60 hours per week (each) for whatever wage you can get, you are likely to lose your family through not being able to afford housing, food, health care and the basic status symbol products that are seen as needed to prevent their children from becoming socially marginalized –– not being seen as a good enough provider. If you happen to be one of the more important cogs in this machine you are expected to be available to the needs of the production system 24/7 as befits your position, so to compensate for your consequent absence from your loved ones’ lives you are expected to provide them with a continuous flow of mass-produced, disposable forms of entertainment and means of superficial human contact. Children raised within these systems, meanwhile, have less and less of a sense of any human relationships, social traditions or status symbol items having a lasting value. They have a vague sense that all of this could lead to oblivion, but for the moment all they feel they can do is go with the absurd flow of things, hoping to eventually find some form of love and meaning in life along the way… whatever those things are.

Given the choice between children on the edge of malnutrition and the problems of Black Friday, most of us would still take the problems of Black Friday.

Given the choice between children on the edge of malnutrition and the problems of Black Friday, most of us would still take the problems of Black Friday.

Bauman is by no means suggesting a nostalgic return to the “good old days”. What we don’t want is to go back to the old system of shortage-driven desperation and authoritarian discipline for its own sake –– even if that is one of the places that the consumerist tsunami is likely to leave us when it ebbs back out again. What we want is to be left with a sense of what and who makes our lives important, and to feel a firm sense of connection with those principles and people –– preferably of our own choosing, and not vulnerable to be taken from us by those who see things differently. Whether we will succeed in finding ways of so anchoring ourselves under the current tsunami conditions remains to be seen, but from Bauman’s perspective our best hope in this matter lies in the development of suitable concrete structures within the education systems of so-called developed countries.

This isn’t a matter of clinging to some pre-modern cultural monuments for the sake of faithfulness to the monuments, nor is it a matter of pretending to have some sort of fixed reference point while being swept along with the tide (a “Janus-faced” approach, as some have tried to call it). It is a matter of getting to know ourselves and learning to care for ourselves through our contact with others –– “Ubuntu” as it is called in many parts of Africa –– without letting the madness of the mob mentality sweep us away in the process. If we can teach young people to seriously look for this sort of beauty within themselves and within the world around them, there is still a chance that we can save the world from ourselves.

Closing disclaimers: This is an amateur essay (in the sense that there ain’t no one paying me to write it) based on my perceptions of the writings of Zygmunt Bauman and company from my recent reading. I can claim with reasonable certainty that I’ve got Bauman’s message right, but unless Bauman himself endorses this essay it remains just my voice among all of his friends and admirers and scholars of his work. Some may dispute my interpretation, but it’s currently not worth my time to take the effort to prove them wrong further than this. Thus please take this for what it’s worth as passing academic perspective, personal advice to fellow educators and a statement of hope for our world. Meanwhile, please don’t anyone else subject me to any further BS about your role in promoting the virtues of liquid modernity as though you were advancing Bauman’s perspective in the matter. And please don’t attempt to label me as anti-academic or anti-postmodern for saying so.

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Autumn Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bauman, Ballistics and the Purpose of Education

This week I have begun my autumn studies again, taking an intensive “summer school” course run by the University of Helsinki. Already my cynical and contrary nature has got me into trouble with the lead instructor of the course, but that was sort of to be expected. Also as expected I have met some fascinating individuals and thinkers from a number of different countries, and I have been challenged to expand my frame of reference accordingly.

The essence of the course curriculum thus far has been to reinforce that cynical adage, “Remember, you are entirely unique, just like everyone else.” More specifically, the idea has been to de-essentialize the concept of culture –– to make “culture” something of a dirty word –– to imply that within each given “culture” there is too much variety for the word to have a proper meaning. The focus of the ideological agenda underlying this denial is to completely subjugate acquired statuses to achieved statuses. According to the ideology in question, one’s ethnic heritage, sex, land of birth and genetically determined physical attributes should be considered entirely irrelevant; and one should be assigned status based strictly on ones chosen identity constructs and one’s accomplishments within one’s chosen field: Native born, taller, lighter skinned or more masculine individuals should never automatically have a higher status than immigrants, short people, dark skinned or feminine/effeminate folk; but academics should always have a higher status than manual laborers and “scientific” thinkers should always have a higher status than “less scientific” thinkers. Stereotypes must also be limited to areas of achieved status: the instructor is perfectly comfortable saying that wives who have converted to their husbands’ religion of Islam are all a certain way, but God forbid if anyone say that Finns in general are prone to display particular cultural characteristics.

Those of you who are familiar with my style of thought and interaction might understand then how my responses to such premises might get me into trouble. I’m all for as much equal opportunity and acceptance of idiosyncratic identities as we can possibly socially engineer, but I also believe in accepting human variety and the rich quilts of identity factors that make each of us who we are for what they are. I find denial of the existence of ascribed status factors on ideological grounds to be naively counterproductive at least; a mark of deep social-psychological maladjustment at worst. Anyway…

Donskis in HelsinkiProbably the most valuable academic input I have received from this course thus far has been a reminder of the value of the works of Zygmunt Bauman, and encouragement to read some of his works of the past decade. My last consideration of Bauman was actually back in the 90’s, by way of a philosopher of my own generation (actually 2 weeks younger than me) named Leonidas Donskis. Donskis visited in Helsinki briefly as he was finalizing his doctorate here, and through mutual acquaintances I became his unofficial tour guide for part of that time. Among other things he told me that Bauman would have been his official opponent in his defense of his PhD dissertation, were it not for the fact that Helsinki refused to make an exception to the rules to allow the distinguished professor to smoke within the university’s auditoriums: The chain-smoking Bauman refused to put himself in a position of having to philosophize for over two hours without his pipe!

bauman w pipeI remember enjoying immensely my chats with Donskis about Bauman and other intellectual matters, but since then I hadn’t read any of Bauman’s subsequent works… until this week. After the first day’s summer school lectures I went and raided the B shelf of the sociology section of the university library, to my own deep satisfaction. I have found Bauman’s works thoroughly inspiring again, providing a fresh yet familiar and suitably authoritative perspective on many of the issues which occupy my mind these days. In particular, in the interview-based book On Education, “co-written” by Riccardo Mazzeo last year (2012), he has provided a beautifully elegant explanation for the varying purposes of education, which contains the best argument I have yet to come across as to why philosophy needs to be part of compulsory schooling, especially in “Western” countries in our current era.

Bauman tosses out the analogy of ballistic missiles as a starting point here. The earliest forms for these were cannonballs and artillery shells, where if you knew the weight and aerodynamic properties of the projectile, the positioning of the barrel out of which it was fired, and the explosive force of the gun powder propelling it, you could calculate with little or no error where that sucker was going to land and what sort of damage it would do once it got there. By adjusting the charge, the barrel position and perhaps the flight properties of the projectile, within certain technical limits you could pretty much choose where you wanted it to go and how much damage you wanted it to do… as long as you were shooting at a fixed target. If you wanted to take out a fortified wall, with enough power and persistence you could do it. If you wanted to take out a bunch of soldiers dug into their trenches, the right sort of rocket would do the job. But if you’re shooting at a fast moving rider, or tank, or fighter jet, which can see your missile coming and change course to get out of the missile’s path, the missile’s usefulness becomes much more limited.

ArtilleryEnter “smart bombs”. These weapons are equipped with electronic sensors which either pick up on the heat signature or the magnetic properties of what they are designed to destroy, and to continuously change course while in flight until they make contact with their desired target. They are designed to “think for themselves” somewhat about how to achieve their pre-determined goals. They can still be fooled by some rather basic strategic expedients, but their advance over basic pre-aimed rockets, bullets and artillery shells is obvious.

This sort of military technology could be taken significantly further though: A further robotized missile could, conceivably, be fired into an enemy encampment with programming that would allow it to “choose” the most valuable target that it would be capable of destroying once it got there. So if the missile in question were able to sense and identify a strategic bunker which it would not be able to penetrate, a fighter/bomber jet idle on the runway and a mess tent with two soldiers in it having coffee, its programming could enable it to automatically target the jet rather than the less strategically valuable individual soldiers and the less plausibly destroyable bunker.

These levels of sophistication in military technology correspond, albeit imperfectly, in Bauman’s analysis, with three levels of educational sophistication identified over 50 years ago by Gregory Bateson. At the most basic level you have what has elsewhere been called “mug and jug” education: where the teacher pours information from her ample reserves of such (the “jug”) into the passively receptive student’s intellectual receptacle (the “mug”), with hopes that this information to be uncritically accepted and reliably remembered. This strategy was effective and perfectly workable when the student was expected to follow a preset pattern of performing simple repetitive tasks with relatively few variables involved, yielding reliable results. If the student was to be a factory worker, a farm hand, a plumber or a vending machine maintenance man, having a basic knowledge of mathematics, language, physics and biology which enabled him to perform these routine tasks was really all that was necessary. By analogy it was a simple matter of treating the student like a basic ballistic projectile to be fired at given “fixed targets” of working life.

Education in "the good old days"

Education in “the good old days”

As these targets have become less fixed, however, it has become more necessary to “program” students to track on moving targets, leading to what Bauman describes as Bateson’s “deutero-learning” formulation –– aimed at developing a “cognitive framework” by means of which to absorb and process information, thus allowing for continuous “course corrections” throughout working life. The current vogue for “life-long learning” is based on this sort of premise.

The third level is where the military analogy begins to break down in terms of capturing Bateson’s original formula. It involves the deconstruction of the cognitive frameworks used in the second level of education, thus enabling the learner to critically analyze, reject and/or maybe rebuild the cognitive structures in question. In other words the student can question the prescribed targets of her/his education and choose for herself/himself what is worth “shooting at”. Bateson (according to Bauman) speaks of this as a “counter-educational” phenomenon to be avoided. Bateson saw it as pathological; Bauman sees it as inevitable.

From Bauman’s perspective, given the unpredictability of the future for which we are educating young people, we cannot reliably tell them what challenges they will be facing once they arrive at their “target”. Thus, rather than giving them solid instructions as to “the only right way of doing things” or “the goals of professional life” they should set out to attain, we should be equipping them to “choose their own targets” based on criteria we can help them develop. We need to enable young people to decide for themselves what sorts of goals are worth pursuing once they see what the as yet unknown future looks like. This entails the risk that they will choose entirely different sorts of goals than their parents or teachers had in mind, but it puts them in the position of being equipped to make responsible decisions based on better information than what we can offer them, given the distance at which we stand from their ultimate objectives.

I really couldn’t agree more with the implications of Bauman’s ideas here. Given the uncertainty of the world in which we live, the most important thing we can educate our young people to do is to think for themselves about what is ultimately important to them and how they can best realize the broader goals they set for themselves. This makes some form of education in philosophy absolutely essential at the primary and secondary levels of education –– “Philosophy” being the best name currently available for instruction in the collective skill set needed to evaluate the reliability of information we are basing our decisions on, contemplate the significant variables which lie beyond the scope of currently available information, and consider alternative means of determining the best course of action. School systems ignore and belittle these skills to their own peril. We can do far better in these regards, so let’s get moving on the revolution which enables us to do so!

But meanwhile I must get back to the tasks at hand: hopelessly trying to show some resemblance of sincere respect for the powers that be in the academic contexts in which I find myself. Wish me luck…

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Filed under Change, Education, Individualism, Philosophy, Purpose, Social identity

Is there an Alternative to Secularism and Fundamentalism?

In trying to be a good little boy and use my summer vacation from teaching productively in terms of my doctoral studies, over the past week and a half I’ve been reading a fair amount of theoretical literature about the sociology of religion. Part of what I have realized in the process is that there are effectively two paradigms that dominate the discussion in the field: secularization and fundamentalism.

secular marchThe sad narrative goes something like this: Starting in the late 1700s a series of revolutions started to seriously weaken the political authority of churches within the western world. Priests were allowed no role in government in the United States, the power of the cardinals was demolished with the collapse of the monarchy in France, and the political authority of the papacy became a thing of the past in southern Europe in general. This led to Copernicans being allowed to come out of the closet, and other ideas that would have previously been considered dangerous heresies to develop and advance –– the most infamous being Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the mid- to late 1800s the Vatican states had collapsed entirely; Comte, Marx and Freud were each predicting the complete demise of religion as a force within society; and Nietzsche was declaring that God was already dead. A concerted effort to phase out traditional Christianity and to realize a new, “more advanced” sort of social structure started to take shape among western intellectuals.

Within Christianity some German theologians in particular started working on developing new variations on the faith which would be less at odds with these modern ideas, but rather than making Christianity more relevant this merely made it more relative: rather than putting the faith in touch with new realities these theologies had the general effect of making it harder to see how there could be any distinctively Christian message left. It sort of helped the secularists prove their point. Other Christian leaders, however, particularly in the United States, went to work with great vigor on trying to defend the traditional understandings within their various branches of Christendom as eternal and unchangeable truths. They declared that there are certain basic ideas which are absolutely essential, or fundamental, to anything which could dare to call itself “Christian”. Thus within this sort of siege mentality the social phenomenon of “Fundamentalism” was born.

Over the course of the twentieth century secularism and fundamentalism continued to do battle with each other. After starting out as a Protestant Christian reaction to modernization, variations on fundamentalism began to spring up within other religious traditions as well, most notably within Islam. Effectively those religious movements which remained “mainstream” and interactive with the modern world have become less and less relevant culturally and politically, while those who have been seen as taking a strong stand in promoting the implementation of God’s will –– sticking to “eternal truths” regardless of how unpopular they are with the mainstream –– have managed to draw significant numbers of new converts continuously. While these new, radically conservative religious movements have not been able to establish anything like the sort of power base that the Medieval Catholic Church had –– or even the sort of pull that the first generation Protestant Reformers had within central Europe –– they have progressively become the most politically significant forms of religion in the world today. Particularly intimidating in terms of world peace over the next generation are the Saudi, Pakistani and Iranian variations on Islamic fundamentalism, and the US “religious right” variations on Christian fundamentalism together with some of its radical off-chutes in developing countries.  BRAZIL-MARCH FOR THE FAMILY

The information revolution of the past generation has further intensified the battle between these trends. Anyone can find as much reinforcement for their extreme positions as they could hope for, 24/7 –– telling you why you should ditch all religion as nonsense, or telling you that you need to stand and fight against the global conspiracy to destroy your faith, whatever your taste may be. The question is, is there any alternative left between these two extremes?

Before taking this question further, I think it is useful to unpack one current distinction in terminology: between secularism and secularization. Secularization is a matter of sociological theory which addresses the fact that religious institutions do not have the sort of power that they did a couple of centuries ago, or even a couple of generations ago. This much is in many ways self-evident in most western societies, even in the United States. This is not necessarily an indication of a victory for a group of politically and intellectually anti-religious activists who can be referred to as “secularists.” Such activists undoubtedly exist, and have a significant audience, particularly in Europe, but they don’t really deserve much of the credit or blame for the reduced role of Christianity in, for instance, determining what hours shops will be open, or determining which children are “legitimate” these days.

What I am talking about here though is the ideological battle between secularism –– the socio-political effort to phase out religion as a factor in public life at least –– and fundamentalism –– the religious belief that the teachings of a particular faith tradition need to remain unchanged and unquestionable as a social norm, with subsequent claims over all aspects of public life. For both of these ideological movements the social realities of secularization make up the essence of the cultural environment in which they function.

So is there some viable middle ground to be found between secularism and fundamentalism then? To address this challenge we have to stop to consider what we regard as the basic point of religion is to begin with. There are a few alternatives to be considered. It seems that most secular sociologists are making a combination of two assumptions on the matter: the point of religion is either to enable social control or to secure magical help in day-to-day life, or both. On the first account it could say that a cultural assumption of a religious or biblical standard being binding in society was once useful as a means of creating cultural solidarity and mutual trust and the like; but this also had its down-sides in encouraging things like gay bashing and witch burning as accepted social practices. The second consideration puts Christianity on even footing with Shamanism: rather than worrying about pleasing God or building an ethical code for its own sake, it implies that people are worried about God sending the rains so that their crops grow. Then if they get beyond worries about this life then maybe they’ll start worrying about life after death as well, needing magical assistance in securing a favorable position for themselves there as well. As far as the basic purpose of Christianity goes I believe both of these assumptions are fundamentally wrong, but in terms of understanding portions of the social dynamics within particular societies they are worth taking seriously at least.

Knowing where you want to go is an important part of getting there. If what you really want is a safe, comfortable and controllable life in the material world, and that’s really all you want, then a secularized technological perspectives on life is probably the most effective means of getting you there. Not that prayer and use of technology are mutually exclusive. If I were to become seriously ill I would definitely use both, and I really don’t think I’m alone in that matter. But I would not substitute prayer for taking medication or whatever else a trusted medical professional would recommend on a purely materialistic basis. In many very fundamental respects we all depend on modern technology to keep our lives functioning safely and dependably. In the western world one important fruit of this technological perspective is that, unlike just a few generations ago, having a few children in each family die of disease before reaching adulthood is no longer the norm within society. Another significant effect of the technologically driven world that we live in is that I can sit here and write this in my low budget teacher’s apartment, with no significant financial backing for my ideas, and with minimal skill in using publicly available technologies I can send out this essay realistically expecting it to be read in 50-100 countries. So overall I think it’s fair to say that rather than depending on prayer as a means of magical control of our environment we can more reliably turn to technology to help and protect us in practical terms.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing luck.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing rituals to improve our luck. If improved luck is the point of religion for you…

This deserves two important qualifications though: First, our technological approach to life can have many horrible unforeseen consequences, which we need to be watching out for continuously. We have not yet mastered the art of using our technological skills and possibilities in sustainable ways. We as humans have burned out many habitats where we have set up shop, sometimes successfully moving on to other places afterwards; sometimes dying out en masse as the result of our mistakes. The only thing that’s really changed about that dynamic over the generations is that we’ve got fewer and fewer alternative habitats to move on to when we burn out our old ones these days, and our impact on the planet as a whole is more something we need to pay attention to than in the old days. So in this respect we need to limit the faith we put in technology as we now have it, carefully insisting that it serves us and not visa-versa.

Secondly, there are many aspects of faith healing –– involving feeling a sense of purpose and in our lives and a sense of connection with forces beyond ourselves –– that really do work in terms of helping our bodies to heal at times and helping our technical operations in this world to function more efficiently. Praying really does help people to be more successful on all sorts of different levels. Regardless of your understanding of why that might be, there is really no point in trying to deny this fact. This is not to say that prayer is as effective as modern technology in terms of realizing many basic goals, but as a factor operating in conjunction with technology, or in the absence of technology, there is plenty of evidence that it really does work somehow. At a bare minimum it reinforces a sense of being loved, which any medical doctor can tell you is not something to be belittled.

In any case, on the other end of the spectrum, if the strongest possible sense of social control in society is really what you are looking for, then fundamentalism is probably the most effective way of getting there. As one old agnostic acquaintance of mine on line pointed out some years ago, “Just look at the pyramids. Religion gets s**t done.” The less you allow religion to be questioned, the more s**t it is able to get done. There are a number of more politely expressed and politically accepted variations on this theme, ranging from the writings of Nicolo Machiavelli to those of Francis Schaeffer, with the common theme that if people can be assumed to share certain religious values, you need far less authoritarian brutality to keep them in line. And when you do use authoritarian brutality, if you do so in the name of a god that everyone trusts in they are far less likely to revolt and make a (literally) bloody mess of things as a result.

Beyond that, as a matter of temperament many people do not want to live in a state of uncertainty about any more than is absolutely necessary. They want things to be cut and dry and simple; clearly understood by all as operating according to “proper principles”. If that’s the way things have to be for such people, an absolutist understanding of religious tradition is the most tried and true means of keeping things that way for them.

But such pragmatic considerations aside, these aren’t the most important aspects of religion –– or “spirituality” –– to be considered. Part of the broader perspective necessary has to do with the qualifications stated above regarding the usefulness of prayer at times, but more to the point would be the consideration of the enduring role of some traditional religious practices even in secularized societies: rites of passage, the most important of which are affectionately known as “hatching, matching and dispatching.” What is it that continues to make baby dedications, church weddings, and religious funerals –– and to a slightly lesser extent coming of age ceremonies of various sorts –– within religious settings popular even with essentially non-religious people? It could be argued that these rituals have been used as means of controlling people and bringing good luck to those participating, but neither of those explain why people want to keep doing them these days. There’s obviously something more to it than that.

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

These rites are means of marking out times when the overall meaning of life is most profoundly being considered and open to question –– when people are thinking about why we’re here, what it means to be human, what we might hope to accomplish in life, what meaning our lives have to others, what makes someone a “good person,” and the possibility of something more “out there” that ties all of this together. It is in its capacity to consider these matters that religion distinguishes itself from being just an expedient of politics or a crude form of control to be replaced by technology.

The essential Christian answer to these questions of the meaning of life is in what Jesus taught were the most important commandments given by Moses –– the Twin Commandment of Love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. We must first find a way of relating to the transcendental principle that gives our lives true meaning, and embrace it fully and without reservation; and once we have that established we must recognize that each of us is essentially connected with all of those around us, and we need to treat them accordingly. It is the process of developing this sort of meaning in life, not the politics or the luck improvement rituals, which is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian –– perhaps what it means to be a religious or spiritual person in general.

It must also be recognized, however, that while there is a very generalized seeking and vague awareness of the challenge of finding meaning in life, that makes particular religious rituals at different phases of life feel particularly comforting, it has always been a small minority within the population who truly “get it”. In this regard I believe that Sören Kierkegaard was on the right track –– in the generation before secularization and fundamentalism became significant social dynamics in northern Europe –– in saying that the religious mob mentality that was dominant in his time had little to do with the message of Jesus. True faith is a matter of individual connection with a power beyond ourselves, in a way that is not intended to win popularity contests. What the masses are into as means of establishing social acceptability is never going to be a matter of loving God with one’s whole being.

kierkegaardFrom Kierkegaard’s perspective then secularization is hardly to be regarded as a threat to true faith; quite the opposite. It is only when faith can be seen as a matter distinct from social respectability that it can truly have significance as a dynamic unto itself. This does not mean that Kierkegaard would have been happy about the program of secularists –– those whose political agenda includes the elimination of religious observance as part of everyday social interaction. He would have wanted God to remain important in people’s lives in ways that these folks have made it their mission in life to deny. But secularization as a progressive historical trend towards less mass religiosity within mainstream culture is something that Kierkegaard certainly would have received as very good news.

Fundamentalism would have been a greater problem for Kierkegaard. Trying to distill the essence of Christianity down to a set of doctrinal standards intended to provide a safe basis for social identity and a valid criteria for controlling and judging others is precisely what the gospel is not about. In fact this is a greater threat to the processes of learning to find meaning in our lives through loving God and truly connecting with our neighbors –– believers and non-believers alike –– than either secularization or secularism. But I believe that Kierkegaard would believe that in spite of the Fundamentalists who attempt to dominate religious dynamics these days, those who truly seek God with all their hearts will still be able to find him.

There is still something to be said for the argument that human beings have a near universal sense of spiritual craving, unfulfilled and ignored as it may be for most people. But somewhere deep down inside, almost everyone wants to find a sense of transcendental purpose and social harmony based on connecting with factors beyond themselves. In our secularized age many people turn to experiences other than religion to fulfill these longings. In this regard, while reading up on the passing of “Funky Claude” Nobs this year, I was rather struck by a quote from Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan, saying that for 40 years he’d never done a concert without Smoke on the Water because “it’s almost a spiritual experience. The song no longer belongs to us… we just accompany the crowd.”

Deep+PurpleThat sounds about right actually. Rock concerts involving standard anthems enable people to experience a sense of transcendent connection with those around them in ways that few other things do these days. If religion fails to enable people to find such experiences they will seek them elsewhere… with varying degrees of commitment and success in finding what they are looking for.

I’m not really sure how important it is in the big scheme of things, but I’d sort of like to see more sociologist of religion actually get this point.

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Filed under Love, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Social identity, Spirituality, Tolerance

The Problem with Death

This week’s post-grad seminar session began with our professor recommending that we be a little more disciplined in our discussions than last time… when I was rattling on about my viewpoints on things until a professor from another department knocked on the door and said it was her turn to use the room. I wasn’t singled out for discipline in any sense, but there was clearly a hint for me to take: new students in particular need to avoid the temptation to say everything they think they know about whatever subject comes up. This is one of the advantages of having a blog though: when I feel like I have something to say about a subject, and I’m not sure if anyone is actually interested or not, I can put my ideas up here for the perusal of those who are interested, and those who don’t really care can easily ignore my comments.

As it happens, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the question that was up for discussion this week’s seminar gathering: the moral acceptability of suicide. To me the most important aspect of the question is to prevent kids from doing it, or even getting to the point of seriously considering it even if we can prevent that. The question is, can we find a philosophical justification for preventing suicide, especially in an across-the-board sort of manner?teen_suicide_in_black_and_white_tollie_international (1)

By way of background perspective, I had some friends who, in the 1980s, got to do a trans-Atlantic crossing together on a rather small ship. In fact one of them “accidentally” took my camera tripod along on that adventure to film the motion of the ship at “calmer moments” from the bridge and the deck. They all had plenty of stories to tell about the joys of extreme motion sickness under such circumstances. A common turn of the phrase for them was, “First you get to the point that you’re afraid that you might die. Then you get to the point where you’re afraid that you might not die!”

Émile_DurkheimI’ve known many people who have come to feel that way –– fearing that they might not die –– for many reasons other than sea sickness as well. Taken to the extreme where someone feels that all life has to offer is suffering, and the only way to escape from that suffering is to die as soon as possible, this leads to what Durkheim called fatalistic suicide. I find this particularly tragic especially in the case of young people, where there are so many possibilities beyond the horizon of pain that they are not able to see beyond, which lack of perspective robs them of. I would go as far as to say that adolescent suicide is, in my honest opinion, the greatest of all human tragedies, bar none.

From extensive first-hand and second-hand experience I can say that tragically painful situations, when (like seasickness) they don’t end up resolving themselves and going away entirely on their own, are things you end up getting used to. The human mind automatically starts to block out useless information about on-going states of affairs. As I sit writing this, for instance, no matter how hard I listen I can’t hear my own heart beating. I rationally know that the vibrations that my heart is sending to my ear drums are stronger than those coming from my refrigerator about 5 meters away, which in the quiet of my apartment I can actually hear. But since I can take for granted that if I am conscious my heart is actually beating, there is no real benefit to be had from hearing this organ’s function; so my mind blocks it out, enabling me to pick up smaller, less continuous stimuli that the sound of my own heart might otherwise cover up. My mind does the same with many other continuous physical and emotional stimuli as well. If it isn’t changing we can’t help but learn to ignore it. Or to put it in the terms that one friend said to me as I was struggling with the pain of my first divorce, “’You can get used to anything,’ said the man on his third day swinging from the gallows.” The sad part is to see how many people give up on life before they reach the point of peace with automatic acceptance of new sorts of limitations in life.

Two significant Hollywood films have tackled this question from the perspective of the tragically injured quadriplegics: Whose Life is it Anyway? and Million Dollar Baby. The question that such films and stories raise is, what is actually morally wrong with suicide in such cases? If the source of my basic joy in life is permanently gone, without the slightest hope of it returning, and I have nothing to look forward to in life but on-going, useless suffering, why should I be required to continue on with such an existence? Who has the right to place such a requirement on me? What gives them such a right?

The standard answer given in such cases is that if people would be allowed to give up whenever they cannot see beyond the horizon of pain they are faced with, society would suffer from too serious a series of deaths as a result. The suicide epidemic would be worse in this respect than the African AIDS crisis. And since we can’t just let everyone who feels that way go ahead and die, we need to set legal and moral standards which prohibit anyone from committing fatalistic suicide. The problem with this approach is that it frames the question as being one of a power struggle between the interests of the individual and those of the society, with an assumption that the good of the society has to take priority over the good of the individual. The same essential weakness is present in any argument that requires people to continue living just because it is “against God’s will” for them to die until “He takes them”: it assumes that individuals have the moral duty to suffer for some “greater good” regardless of what it does to their personal possibilities for satisfaction or thriving.

This is inherently related to questions of what makes human life as such valuable, who has the right and duty to defend particular human lives, when is it “natural” to allow lives to end, and on what authority can anyone be kept alive against their will. All of these questions have a long tradition of finding answers in the theological realm, and the process of attempting to answer them on purely non-theistic bases –– as a matter of principle for those who wish to avoid any morality based on theism –– has caused at least as many problems as it has solved thus far.

I could open up the question of whether or not we actually need to assume that humanity has any inherent value. Finland’s pioneering mass school shooter, Auvinen, posted on-line pictures of himself in a t-shirt which read, “Humanity is overrated.” Is that a philosophically and morally defensible position? My guess is that in the current age finding “serious moral philosophers” to defend such a position would be more difficult than it would have been for Anselm in his age to find the sort of “fool” who doubted the existence of God enough for him to test out his arguments properly. The postulate that human life has inherent value is the one thing that all ethical thought in our age seems to hold in common. Treating people as valuable only when they serve some purpose for those in positions of power is an age old problem, and many would say that such an attitude is the basis of the fundamental evils that any system of thought calling itself “ethics” has a duty to fight against.

Treating people as mere means of achieving some “greater good” rather than considering them (us) as inherently valuable entities unto themselves is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to prevent; this being, from the UN founders’ perspective, the most obvious means of preventing the evils of Nazism from freely reoccurring. It is fair to say that both religious and strictly secular authorities have had their own ideas of what sort of people are less valuable and more disposable than others, and these ideologies should be seen as equally evil. What we all theoretically agree on is that people should be considered important and valuable, and entitled to certain rights, just because they are people.

The question remains, however, as to how we are to conceptualize the basic human value that our ethical systems must be sworn to defend. Should it be on the basis of sentience, or intelligence, or capacity for empathy, or shared evolutionary interests, or some more “spiritual” factor? On this we have no consensus, and on this basis I continue to believe that religious approaches to the question deserve to be taken seriously. The only paradigmatic alternative is to postulate that evolutionary competition is the basis for all morality, and the risk of eugenic approaches following from such a paradigm cannot be readily dismissed. Suffice to say, I accept the proposal that we agree that human life is valuable in and of itself, and for the time being (for purposes of considering the moral status of suicide) the issue of its metaphysical reasons for being so can be set aside.

A related question that I believe can also be set aside as unresolved here is that of the complete extent of authentic volitional choice available to the individual with suicidal tendencies. Choice is never absolute, yet choice exists, else this whole debate is nonsense. It must be accepted as a basic given that nothing we do as human beings is the result of some abstract “free will” operating within a metaphysical vacuum. Everything we do has causes involved, including hormonal, environmental, genetic and behaviorally conditioned factors. Likewise it must be accepted that conscious choice as we experience it, to the extent that it is not demonstrably an illusion, should be accepted as a reality of the human condition. There are some things that we decide for ourselves, and were this not to be the case then to accuse any person of acting immorally would be as absurd of accusing the Atlantic Ocean of acting immorally in flooding New Jersey last October. We must postulate then that there is some extent to which people intentionally choose their actions, and some extent to which we can justifiably attempt to limit the extent which others can choose actions that we find particularly risky or offensive in some sense. And while it is theoretically possible that this choice factor is key to what makes human life valuable, we are not going to reach the point of basing or conditioning our defense of human life on such a factor.

Sea-sick-while-fishingAll that being said, when it comes to dealing with the issue of fatalistic suicide –– a person wishing to end her life because she sees no alternative path that it could take beyond continuous and meaningless suffering –– I’d like to come back to the question of my seasick friends. One of them actually did fall overboard and was rescued on that voyage, but none of them actually died, and some 30 years later the vast majority of those trans-Atlantic adventurers are happy to still be alive. Fearing that they might not die in their deepest moments of suffering was a passing phenomenon. Most of them were intelligent enough to realize this at the time, and for those who weren’t, their friends took responsibility for keeping them alive even if was against their will at the time.

The logic of preventing suicide in these cases is obvious. These friends were able to return to life very much as they knew it before their painful experiences. But what about those who lose some significant part of their physical and intellectual joys in life? What if they can no longer walk, or drive, or use their hands, or see, or hear, or have sex? What if their brains become damaged to the point where they can’t they can’t any longer appreciate great literature, or recognize their loved ones, or control their emotions in a dignified manner? At what point are they allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? And how can we find a way to draw the line between these cases and those in the above paragraph?

Obviously there are no black and white moral answers here, especially in cases where medical science keeps bodies functioning long after their diminished capacities would “naturally” have shut them down. But we also need to remember that human life as we know it is a terminal disease. All of us are getting older all the time, and all of us are continuously, progressively losing particular important abilities. Eventually this process kills us –– every one of us. The real moral question here is, how far we can justifiably intentionally slow down or speed up the actual dying process under given circumstances? What is lost when death comes sooner than it “rightfully should”? What is gained by “getting it over with” in certain sorts of particularly hopeless cases?

I believe there need to be two operative rules of thumb here: First, with time the transitional pains that go with the onset of illness, injury or personal trauma of any sort have a tendency to pass or to become easier to live with, and we need to allow time to “do its work” in this regard before making room for rash decisions. Of course certain things may never be the same, and certain opportunities and capacities can never be restored, but life has a way of offering us surprising new forms of satisfaction when we let it. Getting those who are depressed due to acute pain and sense of personal loss past their immediate crisis is thus the first moral priority. Second, though there may be some cases where things have become irreparable and new joys in life are entirely out of the question –– where continuous entropy is entirely inevitable and justifiable to avoid –– it is still far better to ere on the side of preserving life too long than on the side of ending it too quickly.

But all this this really only covers one of four aspects of suicide that Durkheim’s seminal work on the subject identified. At the other extreme from the fatalistic we have the case of anomic suicide, where the individual feels that his or her life is too far out of control to be enjoyed any further; where rather than certainty of pain, the person feels lost in a sense of uncertainty about all that she considers to be existentially important. In such cases the act of ending one’s own life can be the last ditch effort necessary to prove to oneself that there is something I’m still in control of. For these people I believe that it is important to put them into the sort of therapy where they come to realize that there are more important things in life than a sense of control. The fact that many people never realize this is tragic enough, but it doesn’t have to be something worth dying for. Then again, when dying becomes the symbolic object of a power struggle against others and the world, there are limits to how much you can help a person with therapy.

That covers the suicides caused, in Durkheim’s analysis, by too much or too little predictability in life. That leaves those which are caused by too much or too little personal connection with those around us. Those who feel detached from society –– who give up on life because no one seems to care, or who decide to end their lives as a form of revenge against those who “should have cared more” –– commit what Durkheim’s translators called “egoistic suicide”. The opposite extreme to this is those who risk or sacrifice their own lives “for the good of others,” thus committing “altruistic suicide.” In both of these cases our moral priority seems to be to avoid these suicides being based on mistaken premises and, ironically in both cases, to encourage all the greater level of social connection.

When an egoistic suicide attempt is viewed as a “cry for help,” we are actually prone to actually give the suicidal person what they want in some form; that is unless we consider them to be unreasonably demanding and incapable of recognizing the importance of others in turn. But rather than a moral issue or an individual mental health issue, we tend to take egoistic suicide attempts as a sign that we have some repairs to do on our social structures. Thus the prevalence of teen suicide in Finland and Japan is one of the strongest signs we have of a need to fix some aspects of the school systems in these countries. Some blame goes to the individuals in question, but more goes to the system.

spocks death scene

The classic scene of Spock’s self-sacrifice is something that no one would dare to moralize against.

When it comes to altruistic suicides, unless they are suffering from a tragically delusional messiah complex we tend to treat them as heroes: the soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, the firemen who rush into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11, the nuclear power engineer who goes into the highly contaminated reactor area to shut down the reaction and save the local village, the mother who is killed in defending her daughter against brutal rape by invading soldiers… all heroes. As long as they are doing something authentically important in sacrificing their lives, we tend to praise them for doing so. That may be a matter of society callously encouraging people to consider their own lives less important than the society’s shared objectives, or it might be a matter of recognizing some things to be more important than the prolonging of the physical processes of human life for their own sake.

In the latter sense these altruistic suicides can be compared with recreational drug users and extreme sports enthusiasts. In both cases it could be argued that the risk of death, or the extreme likelihood of death, is not the primary objective of the action, but it is considered a valid risk to take / price to pay for the benefit potentially gained by the action. So the question is whether or not the audience offering the moral evaluation agrees with the pro-and-con assessment implicit in the risk-taker’s actions. To save other people’s lives, sure, we’ll morally accept that choice. To experience an ever increasing heroin high, no, we’re not likely to accept that as a valid trade-off. To get the adrenalin rush of pushing out the envelope with your stunt performances, reviews are likely to be mixed. In any case, whether your actions are accepted by others or not there’s some truth to the adage that there’s no point in prolonging your survival if you never really live; and if this process of really living shortens your period of survival in some cases, you can be at peace with that –– even if, strictly speaking, you might not be able to “live with that”.

Life is short; there’s no getting around that fact. Eventually, inevitably, death has to become part of life for all of us. But if we can keep ourselves and those around us from making life even shorter than it has to be, that has to be a step in the right direction. I still agree with Kierkegaard though, that the point of life is to find something worth living and dying for, and no amount of longevity can replace that sort of purpose in life. A death that reflects a deeper purpose is far to be preferred to an extended life without such. But some sort of life has to keep going for that purpose to be revealed and realized, and the longer that extended life can be my own, the more successful I will consider myself to be at the art of living. I wish that as many others as possible would have the same sort of success, and that as few as possible would end up getting short-changed in this regard –– especially by their own hand. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Philosophy, Purpose, Risk taking, Spirituality

KE part 5 (evaluating confidence-based happiness)

Continuing on with this re-blogged series, I am now coming to the part of the general theory of happiness I have written for my son that involves the most philosophical heavy lifting. But before we get to that, let’s start with some relatively simple observations.

There is a fairly strong consensus among philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and people in general that, in terms of my alliteration on Cs here, confidence is more important to human happiness than either comfort or control. If we go over to alliterating with Ps rather than Cs, more significant than pleasure or power is a sense of pride, combined with a sense of purpose in life. In order to be truly happy, we have to be convinced that our lives mean something, and that somehow the world will be better because we were here.

On its most basic level this can be a matter of people just having confidence in their personal abilities at something they’ve chosen to do with their lives. My father has told me, and written in his own memoirs, about how his father took a certain pride in the aesthetics of his farm fields. The neatness and symmetry of the rows of vegetables and grain were part of his satisfaction in being a “good farmer”. Happiness by way of confidence begins with things just that simple. I’ve met other people who have found satisfaction in life through being able to put a perfect shine on a hardwood floor, or to make perfectly fitting joints in their carpentry framing projects, or to knit sweaters exactly to size and made to last, or any number of other practical skills that can be done with pride. These aren’t a matter of competition, but a matter of feeling a certain dignity and importance through being able to “do things right.”

The problem with basing one’s happiness on such basic things though is that technology is making many of these sources of pride and purpose redundant. Skilled workers have been replaced by more and more precise and efficient machines. These machines can be operated by pretty much any idiot, and can produce many times more of whatever the product is per man/hour. The more technology proceeds, the harder it is to find necessary simple routines to take pride in being good at.

But even without the changes brought on by technology, the justification for people taking pride in things like shiny floors and symmetrical fields was probably pretty thin to begin with. I mean, in the big scheme of things, what difference do they really make? Are these things really any more important than my Sudoku skill? What is there that we can do in this world that can really give our lives honest meaning? Perhaps you are now starting to see how this could get complicated, and where the philosophical heavy lifting comes in.

In order to consider what is ultimately important in life, we first have to consider what is ultimately real in life as we know it, and in the universe in general. In other words we have to critically examine the field philosophers refer to as metaphysics. This is in fact one of the most notoriously problematic areas in academic philosophy, where some brilliant thinkers (no less than the likes of Hegel) dive in and make total idiots of themselves, and others (no less than the likes of Kant) step aside and say, “it can’t be done, so stop trying.” And yet all of us, on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis, keep doing things to prove to ourselves that, on some higher level, we have value. Those that don’t find any such functional projects for themselves tend to become mentally ill, literally. So like it or not, we all keep coming back to our different metaphysical assumptions about what is out there and what we should do about it. But how should we go about deciding what is most important in our world?

Being as I am also a religious education teacher, the easiest way for me to open up this topic further is to summarize the Bible’s take on the matter, and then use that as a starting point for looking at other alternatives. I can hear choruses of “free thinkers” screaming “No Fair!” on this just from that last sentence, but bear with me. Have a look at the framework that comes up, and see if you find it useful before you make you final judgment on the matter.

The first four words of the Bible are something that any educated person in Western society should know for their place in cultural history, if nothing else: “In the beginning God…” According to this view it all starts with “God,” however He (or She, or It) may be defined. There is some supernatural force out there that is the source of everything. Given the source there’s no big surprise in this perspective, so what’s next?

Well, this God “created the heavens and the earth.” The next reality that we are presented with here, after the divine, is the basic material realm caused by God. Fine. Straight-forward enough. What’s next?

Well, there’s a chapter’s worth of poetic stage setting, in two different epic styles, as the material world gets properly organized before man is finally formed “from the dust of the ground”. The first man is depicted very much as an individual, on his own in relation to the material world and his creator. Eventually, as the story goes, God had to give him a mate at least, but that was sort of an after-thought. And after that everything started going downhill.

Let’s watch this recording in scan-forward mode for a bit: The woman gets curious about new forms of knowledge introduced by a snake. She then “educates” her husband. They become self-conscious and alienated, and get kicked out of their garden paradise. They start making babies. The oldest starts into agriculture while the second starts herding animals. God likes the herding brother better, so the older brother gets jealous and kills him. As punishment the older brother has to leave the rest of the family with his wife and go start his own city elsewhere. (Yes there are a few narrative problems there, but let’s keep going.) With this mention of the oldest son Cain’s city, we move into talking about societies as a significant factor in the narrative, and usually a negative factor at that.

Anyway, the third brother from the family does alright and his kids start seriously populating the world, but they start getting wild and crazy, and so God decides he’s going to flush this toilet; but first God tells this guy Noah what’s coming and how to save his family from the imminent flood. Noah and his kids ride out the storm in this huge smelly houseboat with thousands of animals in there with them, and eventually the water goes down and they all get to re-populate the earth. Then one of the first things they start to do is build a big city together called Babel. Let’s hit the play button and slow the film down now.

We’re looking at the construction site for the famous “Tower of Babel.” This is where, as the story goes, God got somewhat aggravated with the human projects he saw going on down there, so he decided to mess up their system by, overnight, making them all speak different languages from each other. But why would God do that? Was God really worried that they were going to build a tower so tall that it would end up stretching through the clouds and come poking up through his living room floor? Even imagining a world view where God’s home in heaven is physically directly above the flat world we live on, such a threat wouldn’t seem all that believable. So what were they doing that God got so upset about?

Short answer: they were getting religious.

Their tower, “reaching to the heavens,” was intended to systematically investigate the skies, so they could try to figure out something about what sorts of powers were out there. They were thus setting out to make their own gods. This is the sort of crap that happens in cities. God obviously couldn’t have that, so he scattered them around the world using the language confusion trick.

If we discount this final negation as part of the Bible’s bias, what we have is a cycle of four basic metaphysical factors: God as the source of the Material World; the Material World as the source of the Human Individual; the Human Individual (with all of his social and sexual needs) as the starting point for Society; and Society as the source for God(s).  My basic premise now is that in order to try and prove that our silly little lives have value, people generally need to pick one of these four factors as their starting point, and from there construct a world view where each of the other three follow.

It may seem counter-intuitive in one sense, but this cycle really can be broken at any of the four causal relation points. This results in four categories of metaphysical premises to base our personal values on. In fact all of them are in fairly common use these days, and all of them have their own strong defenders and significant problems. So as to not appear to be stuck on my religious biases here, I’ll begin summarizing them with the next premise after God, coming back around to belief in his supremacy as the last one.

A value system based on materialist metaphysics basically assumes that the world is the product of random occurrences between physical forces and particles, and everything else is an abstraction built on that foundation. Within Earth’s biosphere people evolved, between people societies evolved, and within societies religions evolved; and in fact all three processes are on-going. Based on this premise then, the purpose of life would be to keep these evolutionary processes going in what we might consider to be a positive direction.

Right away one problem with this premise becomes apparent though: Can we really presume that we know which direction this evolution “should go”? History is full of cases of individuals, tribes and nations taking false pride in being the “most evolved,” all with somewhat embarrassing end results. Or maybe it should be a matter of entirely “getting back to nature” and not letting our technologies disturb the natural balance of things so much. In other world we should stop trying to save sick and dying children, leaving them so that “nature can have its way”… or should we?

In fact probably the worst factor that materialism-based ethical systems have in common, beyond their silly false conceits and uncertainty of purpose, is their lack of regard for individual humans as being valuable unto themselves. If humans really aren’t made in God’s image and don’t have a God-breathed soul –– if we are all just accidental products of nature –– that allows us to think of people as sort of like snowflakes: each is a unique individual, containing its own fascinating pattern and intricate beauty that is worth stopping to appreciate; but at the same time it’s no big deal for me to crush a few million of them each snowy day as I drive to work, or to break them up and smash them together as part of playing with kids in the back yard. What’s to stop us from treating other people like that?

It was in reaction to the disregard for individual human beings based on “evolutionary” ideologies during World War 2 that we got what is now known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In other ways as well, a new, somewhat anti-materialist, individual-based form of ethical thinking arose in the mid-twentieth century, known as Existentialism. Its most radical and ideologically consistent spokesman would have to be Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre basically claimed that each person is his or her own starting point. No other causes or influences excuse us from taking full responsibility for everything about ourselves and what we do with our lives. Each of us chooses who we associate with and how, what higher ideals (or gods) we will subscribe to, and what significance we will assign to physical characteristics of our environment. We are each “radically free.”

Does such an approach work? Not entirely. In practical terms Sartre had a difficult time saying why he believed some wars needed to be fought but not others, and it is probably no coincidence that his girlfriend ended up writing one of the most famous books in feminist literature about how little respect women get. Beyond that it’s just plain naïve to assume that there is nothing about our genetics and environments that make us into who we are. Existentialism solves some of the problems of materialism, but it creates more than a few new problems of its own.

One way of dealing with these challenges is to assume that society should be the starting point for our functional reality. The most direct statement of this I have seen is by an academic named James W. Carey, who says, “Reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication.” Many other philosophers and social scientists also operate on variations of the premise that language makes our reality what it is. If I can’t explain it in words (or other symbolic performances) then odds are it isn’t all that real to me. So all reality starts with social interaction and builds from there into shared ideals, which effectively become our “gods”. Those ideals in turn tell us how we should relate to the material world, and lastly comes the matter of finding a role for the individual within that system.

This at least has the benefit of limiting our ego-centrism and helping us see our place in a system that is much bigger than we are. And perhaps political agreement can lead us down a more virtuous path than doing whatever makes me feel individually important. But it must also be pointed out that “stupidity becomes concentrated within a crowd,” and just because everyone else believes something, or acts on such a basis, doesn’t mean that you should. In fact it could be argued that it was in reaction to the stupidity of the masses bringing about the death of Socrates that the European philosophical tradition properly began.

After tossing out social consensus as a valid basis for human values, Plato postulated that there had to be some sort of collection of “forms” out there which we should base our standards on –– something which was prior to and more important than the physical. That sort of speculation puts him in good religious company. The search for enlightenment as to what lies beyond the physical is the essence of all mystical traditions, and these mystical traditions are the foundation for all religious world views. The problem, however, comes when those who assume that they have really found the ultimate truth as to what is “out there” then decide that they are justified in killing off any who don’t share their vision, or in encouraging young people to go out and die for the glory of their faith. Enough said about that.

Without going into too much detail, I can think of at least two philosophical approaches which manage to avoid falling into any of the above categories. One is Spinoza’s pantheistic mysticism, which effectively says that all of the causes and effects listed above are continuously operative and impossible to properly separate from each other. We are part of a big cosmic whole which we can talk about in either spiritual or material terms, but none of that effectively changes the fact that we will never be able to control any part of it. We are caught in the cosmic tide and all we can really do is go with the flow.

The other exception to my four-part breakdown of our human search for purpose that I am aware of is Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction. His basic idea is to say that any given metaphysical starting point can do at least as much harm as good, and the follow-through from each premise to the next stage will always be questionable, so we shouldn’t bother to assume that any of the above premises are going to provide us with purpose or confidence. We should just enjoy the randomness of life for what it is and leave it at that. But many have found that trying to build an ethical program based on Derrida’s philosophy is like trying to build a home based on an Escher etching. This sort of belief in randomness, while theoretically justifiable, has limited constructive value. They don’t call it deconstruction for nothing.

Obviously none of these systems provide a foolproof means of establishing my personal importance in the universe. It is also obvious, however, that each of these foundations has been used by particular individuals to reshape the world we live in today. Regardless of which of these premises you base your own sense of confidence on, you have to acknowledge both the harm done and the contributions made by individuals building from each of these premises.

I happen to believe that starting with a search for God –– or the ultimate Platonic forms, or the transcendent, objective source of all virtues, or whatever else you want to call him/her/it –– is the strongest basis for personal confidence, but that’s another essay unto itself. The big question for now is, is confidence of the sort I am talking about here really the highest we can hope to reach in terms of happiness and virtue in life?

Abraham Maslow seemed to think so. Maslow believed that the pinnacle of psychological strength was when people could determine themselves what was actually most important in life as they know it and change their worlds accordingly. He referred to such people as “self-actualized.” A lower level of this same principle would be to have a reasonably strong sense of self-esteem. He further believed that this was only possible for people to achieve after they had solved the problems of meeting their most basic physical needs, feeling safe about their basic survival, and having a basic sense of social acceptance. Loosely translated into my 5 C vocabulary then, Maslow’s ordering of these factors would be: Comfort -> Control -> Connection -> Comparison -> Confidence. I respect his scholarship and his pioneering work in this area immensely, but when it comes to basic priorities in life I have to fundamentally disagree with that order. Then again, Maslow and I are actually asking entirely different questions. Maslow was starting off with the premise that the strongest people in the world psychologically are those who have the strongest sense of self-confidence, and he was trying to find what was necessary to get people to that point. I in turn am trying to determine which sorts of pursuits that we engage in for their own sake are ultimately the most satisfying and useful in life.

On this basis I firmly believe that comparing myself, even favorably, with those around me is really the least satisfying form of the pursuit of happiness. This was the point in part 2 of this series. On the other end of the spectrum I am strongly prone to believe that the most fruitful way in which to pursue happiness is not necessarily by way of strong personal confidence –– as vitally important as that is –– but through a deeper sense of connection with others.  That is where this series is going next.

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Purpose, Religion

Reintroducing KE

With what energies I’ve dedicated to my blogging this week I’ve been researching the matter of populist anarchy. That seems to be a significant new/old meme, in that many bright young people seem to be getting hooked on it these days. I want to see why, and see if I can point out the logical problems inherent in the promotion of such ideologies.

But that is going to take some time for me, so in the mean time I’ve decided to cheat: In the interest of providing fresh content here on a regular basis I’ve decided to dust off some of the more popular essays I wrote while I was still using Myspace as a blogging platform. (Yes, I know, I was terribly lame and retro to bother with them to begin with four years ago, but to quote Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then. I’m so much younger now.”)

By far the most popular thing I wrote there back in the day was an attempt at serializing an abbreviated version of an unfinished manuscript I have tucked away in various forms of storage called Kristian’s Ethics. For a few months I presented to the world some of the basic ideas about what I personally wish to pass on to the next generation, written with the intent of being accessible to any bright person with at least a junior high level command of English (or whatever other language these ideas might later be translated into).  This series raised my average hit level there by at least a factor of 3 or 4, so apparently it rang true for many. Here then is the original introduction to that series, slightly re-edited for typos and the like.

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In fact these ideas are rather central to my thinking on a number of levels. This started as a manuscript for an ethics book for my younger son, Kristian, when he was an infant that I was struggling to get visitation rights with, after his mother had left me before he was born. I was thinking about what life lessons I would most want to pass on to him, that circumstances made it look like I would not be able to teach him in a normal father-to-son sort of way. Without going into too much detail, I am relatively satisfied with my relationship with Kris these days but I still resent the limited time I’ve been able to spend with him over the years, the absurd boundaries that certain forces have put between us and how little influence I’ve had in key areas of his life. Those who know me well personally know exactly who/what I am talking about; those that don’t shouldn’t worry too much about it.

A picture of Kris from the brief time that he and I actually lived together

In any case, I determined that the most important life lessons I should pass on to my son had to do with learning to be happy. I took two precedents in using this approach: Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Taken in a holistic and balanced way, I believe that a wise search for personal happiness is the best starting point for developing personal virtues, a sense of empathy, a sustainable lifestyle and all of the other things that are generally associated with ethics. I’m happy to argue that point with anyone who might disagree, but for now I’ll just move along with the summary here.

I believe that there are five general categories for sources of happiness, and without doing too much violence to the English language, it is possible to give each of these categories a name beginning with the letter C: Comparison, Comfort, Control, Confidence and Connection.

“These are set here in what I see as a rough order of importance, from lowest to highest, but this is not to be taken too seriously.  Every one of these categories includes things that are in some respects necessary in order to lead a balanced, happy life, and any one of them taken too exclusively or too far can do more harm than good. You should also remember that these categories are only tools for general understanding. As Aristotle also wisely pointed out, we should not try to define an area with greater precision than the area itself allows for. Such a list can never completely cover every possible goal, and in fact I don’t intent it to…

“What I’m trying so hard to say is that when it comes to real life, I don’t want you to try to fit all reality into this or any other set of neat little categories. I hope that you would rather just use these categories to make life a little less confusing for you so that you can enjoy it just a little better.”

To briefly summarize what I have in mind with each of these categories I’ll give you a quick outline of the main points in the chapter I wrote about each.

Comparison involves elements of being the same as and trying to be better than everyone else. The former has to do with concepts of “fairness;” the latter, competition. These can be useful means of achieving things, but they are particularly dangerous as ends unto themselves.

The next category, Comfort, is here taken to refer to basic biological urges to do things we are genetically programmed to appreciate and enjoy on a physical level; things which can easily be explained by a “selfish gene” theory. These would include sub-categories of at least flavor appreciation, intoxication, sexuality and smooth, painless function. The problems with this approach relate to the disconnect between the physical feelings and the practical risks involved in doing whatever physically feels good, ranging from obesity problems to STDs.

Moving on to my next category, Control, this includes many things related to the term “empowerment,” in which there really isn’t any clear border between what we call “freedom” and what we call “power.” This power/freedom can be exercised in terms of physical power––the ability to make physical items move the way you want them to, socio-political power––the ability to influence and change other people’s minds about things, economic power––the ability to buy whatever you desire, and philosophical power––the ability to formulate ideas and paradigms that regulate societies. Power trips have their own limits though in terms of the long-term satisfaction they provide. You need something worth doing with that power, more than just fulfilling your animal desires.

That leads to the matter of Confidence: having a sense of “being a good person” and “making the world a better place” according to some standard or another. The standards that are applicable here are inevitably based on some metaphysical premise of where the world comes from and what is most important in it. (This relates to chapter 8 in my book, Thinking Aloud is Allowed.) Besides all of the uncertainties involved in metaphysics though, this sort of approach to happiness doesn’t entirely work in the sense that confidence that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong isn’t a very satisfying feeling.

Kris connecting with my brother’s middle son on our last visit to the States together

That leads us in turn to the importance of Connection––with other people, other animals and the world as a whole––for enabling us to live truly happy lives. This can involve nurturing instincts, functional partnerships, an aesthetic sense of harmony, romantic feelings related to sexuality, literal or figurative kinship, Platonic mental stimulation or mystical connections related to religious experience. All of these enable us to experience a sense that “myself” goes beyond the limits of my skin. That may be as good as the human experience gets, but it still needs to be balanced out with some sort of “individual integrity factors” coming from the other sources of happiness to be stable.

Consideration of those factors makes up Part 1 of this manuscript. Part 2 explains how I recommend pursuing these factors in terms of my religious identity as a “post-evangelical” Christian. Then Part 3 –– the most essentially incomplete section as of yet –– relates to applying these ideas in concrete socio-economic situations and in terms of everyday moral decision making.

In the weeks to come, when I don’t have any particularly inspiring thoughts related to current events or personal experiences, I will continue on with summarizing the details of this theory and showing its practical application to everyday life as I see it. Meanwhile I am hoping for comments, critiques and feedback in general here to help sharpen these ideas towards the end of properly publishing them someday, or at least leaving them to posterity in some more systematic form.

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Just out of curiosity, how many readers here actually followed this series on the retro site back in the pre-Obama days? (The original blog heading was, My General Theory of Happiness.)How many new readers are seriously interested in seeing it repeated in full? Comments are still more than welcome here.

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Filed under Philosophy, Ethics, Parenting, Happiness, Purpose, Control