Category Archives: Sexuality

Youthful Indiscretions

The following story, to the very best of my knowledge, is entirely true, based on information which has been made public over the past couple of months in hearings in the US Senate. The names have been changed, however, to protect the ignorant.


Somewhere between their fourth and fifth beers Ted turns to Bill and says, “Dude, face it: you’ve got a serious problem here. Yeah, you’re really good at writing my history essays for me. Yeah, you can hit hard and take hard hits on the football field. And yeah, you can almost keep up when it comes to drinking. But when it comes to girls you are a total dork.”

Bill is clearly hurt by his friend’s critique. He begins to slur out an answer: “Look, I get along fine with all the girls at St. Joe’s. They all hug me when I come in. They enjoy my company. They laugh at my jokes and they like having me around. I don’t want to f— that up by trying to get into their pants.”

Ted takes another swig and sympathetically goes on, “OK, but face it. Like when Roxy had her kissing booth thing going at the party last week. Everyone goes in for a hug and a kiss, and I admit, I slipped her a fair amount of tongue, I reached a bit low from her back in pulling her close, and she could definitely feel my hard-on. But like, she was totally into it, playing along and grinding right back against me. Then Moose had his turn and you could tell by the look in his eyes that it was all he could do not to come in his pants right there!”

Beer sprayed from Bill’s mouth, and nearly from his nose as he burst out laughing at the idea of the defensive lineman struggling to avoid orgasm. They roared together for a few minutes before Ted went on: “But when it’s your turn you go up and put your hands on her shoulders and kiss her about like I would kiss my grandmother. I mean, come on! What the f—‘s up with that?”

Bill went silent, chugged down the rest of the beer in his can, opened another and sat contemplating. “I don’t know,” he finally said, “It’s not as though I’m worried about offending her or any shit like that. I’ve heard her joke about ‘you can’t rape the willing’ and all. But like, if I tried to score with Roxy and she lets me just because it turns out she’s easy like that, I could never be friends with her again! And if I tried to go for it and she pushed me away it would be even worse! The same goes for all of the girls I hang out with.”

“Yeah, I understand, it’s tough being a clueless virgin. I remember when I was 13…” Ted said with mock sympathy.

“F—you!” Bill came back with a laugh.

They sat in silence for a while before Ted finally went on, “OK, so we’ve got to find a way of getting you laid. I’ve got an idea.”

“Look, hookers are out of the question!” Bill shot back.

“Yeah, I get that,” Ted said, “it just has to be someone other than the girls you hang around with. Young pussy is really the best, but you’ve got to hurry because after you turn 18 it’s off limits!” They exchanged wry smiles before he went on. “So here’s the idea: there’s some folks getting together at Jill’s house tonight. I’ll make some phone calls and see if we can get a girl or two from the club to come over. We’ll loosen one of them up with a few beers and then you can try out your moves to see how far you can get. If she shoots you down, no harm, no foul. You’ll probably never see her again, and she won’t be spreading rumors of what a clumsy dork you are. But if she lets you in, score!”

“Dude, I don’t know,” Bill whined, but they could both tell he was hoping such a thing really could happen.


Cindy was laying in the sun poolside after her regular laps. Her one-piece suit was dry already and some dry strands of her fine blonde hair were starting to pop free from the damp mass that she had pulled back in an unbound ponytail. At 15 her slim body was just starting to take on the sort of womanly curves that she wished to be admired for. The club had lots of good looking guys from rich families hanging around and while she wasn’t exactly hunting for a boyfriend, she certainly didn’t mind having them check her out and smile.

She was basically killing time at this point. Her parents were out for the evening and so she only had microwave food and cable TV to get home to. She had come by bus and she was also sort of hoping to bum a ride home from someone, but most of the other girls she usually swam laps with either didn’t show up today or they had done their workout earlier and left already. As she lay there on her back, with her eyes closed, thinking about what to do next she felt a shadow fall over her. She looked up to see Freddie, the pool boy, standing over her smiling. She smiled back and said, “Hi Freddie. Closing time already?”

“Hi Cindy. You’re looking lovely today,” Freddie began. “Getting close to closing time, but actually I just got a call from Ted Jones. Remember him?”

Cindy nodded, and gave a somewhat contemplative smile. Ted was one of the rich boys at the club who hit on her on occasion. He seemed like a mostly harmless stoner by nature, but she understood that he went to this private Catholic boys’ school, that apparently tried to keep him in line a bit, but ended up just increasing the pressure of his wildness by trying to restrain it; sort of like holding your thumb over the end of a garden hose. She sometimes wondered if all the rich Catholic boys at his school were like that.

Freddie went on, “Well apparently Ted is at this house party a couple miles from here, and he says that a bunch of the people who were supposed to come have bombed out, and so now they have too few people and too much beer. So he was wondering if I could find anyone here to join them. In his words, ‘the cuter, the better.’ He actually mentioned you as one to try to invite. What do you think?”

Cindy considered the idea for a moment. “Anyone else I know there?”

“I think Leah and Bob might be there, but mostly kids Ted knows from the Catholic schools. Anyway, just passing the message as requested, but if you’re interested I could give you a lift over there, and if it looks too stupid for you to be interested then I can bring you straight home from there.”

Another pause before Cindy said, “Yeah, why not? I’ll go have a look.”

“Cool,” said Freddie. “I do have to lock up now, but how about we meet at my car in about 15 minutes? You know, the green Subaru.”

“Sure, fine.” Cindy grabbed her towel and things and headed for the locker room. She spent some time brushing and blow-drying her hair before realizing that Freddie was probably waiting for her already. She quickly pulled her top and jeans on over her swimsuit, tossed her other things in a bag and rushed out to the parking lot.


The house was a non-descript upper middle-class suburban colonial — a cookie cutter design for particularly upwardly mobile cookies. Leah and Bob were indeed there, together with a little less than a dozen more vaguely familiar kids. Leah gave Cindy a big hug and handed her a beer as she arrived. Cindy took a sip and nodded to Freddie that this would be OK with her. He smiled and waved goodbye, and was on his way.

Maybe 10 minutes later Ted (literally) stumbled in from somewhere, with this other tall, handsome but even more drunk friend in tow. “Cindy!” Ted exclaimed. He rushed forward and grabbed her into a bear hug, rocking from right foot to left as he gave a satisfied, “Mmmmmm!” Cindy had to laugh.

Ted then broke the hug and turned to his comrade in inebriation: “Cindy, I want you to meet my dear friend Bill. Bill, this is Cindy from the country club.” He gave Bill a subtle wink before turning back to Cindy to say, “When he’s sober, Bill is the smartest and most Catholic guy at Georgetown!” Bill and Cindy smiled and shook hands. In a weak romantic gesture Bill pulled Cindy’s hand up and kissed her knuckles. That deepened Cindy’s smile and made her blush a bit.

Ted patted Bill on the back and excused himself to use the toilet. When he came back he found the two in the sort of innocent conversation he had sort expected. Bill was slurring a bit, but he seemingly had intelligent things to say still about Fleetwood Mac, Wizards basketball and movies starring members of the original cast of SNL. Time for a bit of coaching. Ted grabbed Bill by the arm and said to Cindy, “Excuse me. I need to borrow him for just a minute.” He then steered Bill out onto the back porch. They looked in through the sliding glass door as Cindy joined a group of kids dancing to some Michael Jackson tune.

“So what do you think?” Ted asked.

“She’s definitely cute, and she seems like she’s pretty smart too,” Bill answered.

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s gonna win a Nobel Prize in something someday, but that’s not the point. Does she get you hard?”

“Do you have to be so crude about it?” Bill asked a bit defensively.

With the demeanor of a stern teacher Ted looked him in the eye and said, “If we’re ever going to get you laid, in a word, f— yeah!” That was two words, but Bill decided not to point it out. He said nothing, just looked at his de facto coach in depravity expectantly for his next round of instructions. Eventually they came: “It looks like if I set you up alone with her in a room here you’d just sit there and talk about music and shit with her until it’s time to go home. So, awkward as it might be, for this project to go anywhere I’m going to have to come along. I’m doing this all for your own good though, so try and stay with me and follow my hints.”

Cindy smiled as they came back in and walked up to her on the dance floor. Ted smiled, put his hand on her shoulder and said in her ear to be heard over the music, “Cin, there’s something Bill and I need to ask you about. Can you come upstairs for a moment, where it’s quiet enough to hear each other?” Cindy was a little apprehensive, but she smiled and nodded. The three of them went up the stairs together. There was one couple making out half way up the stairs that they needed to push past, but it didn’t break the couple’s concentration. They stepped into an empty bedroom across from the bathroom and Ted closed the door.

Bill was clearly nervous as he polished off yet another beer which he had in his hand. Cindy was not sure how scared she should be at this point. Then Ted spoke: “So Cindy here’s the thing: you’ve seen me at the country club with Mary and Sue and Anne and some of the other girls I’ve dated, so you know that I do pretty well for myself in those regards; but  poor Bill here has never actually had a girlfriend. And it’s not as though he’s gay or anything. He’s really interested in girls; he just doesn’t know how to make a girl interested in him. So first, as a girl, do you see anything obviously wrong with him that would explain his problem?”

Bill was blushing a bit, and had a confused air of not being sure whether to laugh or tell Ted to f—himself or both. Cindy answered honestly: “No, he’s actually a nice looking guy, and when he’s sober I’m sure he’s quite charming to talk with.”

“Well, to be honest with you I had to get him drunk to get him over his shyness,” Ted went on. “But maybe you could help me help him with that. Would you mind if he were to kiss you?”

Cindy looked at Bill somewhat apprehensively. Should she take a chance with such? He was obviously painfully shy and probably at least as innocent as she was. Maybe a quick kiss, with Ted sort of chaperoning them, and then back to the party downstairs, would be safe enough, and the best strategy overall. “Oh OK,” she said.

Bill walked up to her and put his left hand around her waist to pull her closer. She could smell both the extreme nervousness and drunkenness on his breath. At first his lips barely touched hers. Then as he built up his courage he began sucking on her upper lip slightly. Ted began laughing hysterically behind them. “Oh come on! I know you can do better than that!” he bellowed. Then suddenly Ted pushed Bill hard toward her and she fell backwards onto the bed with Bill on top of her. In that position Bill suddenly started going wild. He reached his right hand between them and grabbed her tender breast as he mashed his mouth against hers much more aggressively. Now she was seriously scared. She felt his erection grinding against her and she began to flail about trying to get free, but he was far bigger than her and she wasn’t nearly strong enough to push him off. When he finally came up for air she tried to scream, but before the alarm could properly be sounded his left hand was pushed up against her nostrils and covering her mouth. It was hard for her to breathe.

Ted’s laughter was all the while intensifying from the chair where he sat by the far wall. Bill joined into the laughter as he sat up on top of her, continuing to hold her mouth as he fiddled with the buttons of her top. After struggling with them for a while he managed to get enough of them open to see the nylon of her swimsuit. “Oh shit! This isn’t working,” he groaned before changing tactics and moving his free hand down to try to open her jeans. She was then sure he intended to rape her. Her mind was in complete panic mode.

“You f—ing klutz!” she heard Ted say as he rose from the chair and approached the bed. Were they both going to rape her? Yet before she realized what was happening though Ted made a leaping football blocking move to knock Bill off of her. Again the two boys began laughing hysterically as Cindy rolled off the bed onto the floor and raced for the door.

With their victim gone Bill turns to Ted and through tears of laughter says, “Look, I know you meant well, but you really are a total asshole!” This only brought them both into another fit of laughter, after which Bill went on, “The important thing is that you damn well better remember that none of this shit ever really happened!”


Somehow in a traumatized daze Cindy made it home that evening. Somehow she made it through the following school year, and the rest of high school. She continued to struggle with the trauma of that afternoon through her first years of university studies, but eventually she went on to get a degree in psychology and to establish herself as a respected intellectual in that field, all the while holding these deep traumatic scars inside. After her university years she moved to the other side of the country to escape the memories of being pinned under Bill that evening, but it wasn’t far enough.

Ted went on to write commercially successful novels about the depravity of his high school years. Then after his drinking and chemical recreation nearly killed him, he went on to have a religious conversion experience in which he entirely cleaned up his life, but not without some scars of his own from his previous lifestyle.

Bill continued to struggle with the stigma of his awkward virginity well into his university years, and he continued to make drunken, clumsy and at times outright abusive sexual approaches to women even after he finally managed to gain some sexual experience. For a while he became somewhat of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in this regard, until he found a new outlet for his social insecurities and aggressions: politics. He became an aggressive prosecuting lawyer and then a legal advisor to promote the power interests of his peers within the more elite wing of a major political party. In this role his vicious aggression and intellectual pride were able to come together to help him build one of the nation’s most successful careers at the intersection of legal practice and politics. His boyhood interests in truth and integrity became casualties of this process, but if you have enough power and prestige who needs truth and integrity?

Though he never saw her again in person, Cindy’s ghost returned to haunt Bill many times over the years, however. At one point her exposure of his youthful aggressions nearly cost him a major career advancement. This brought him right to the brink of a complete nervous breakdown. His powerful friends have continuously done what they can to protect him from this darkness though, particularly since he has proven so adept at returning that sort of favor in terms of the exercise of power. The final ending of his story remains to be written.


So now, a generation later, what do you think should be done about this situation? Prosecuting “Bill” for sexual assault seems rather impractical and perhaps even unjust at this point, even if his powerful friends would allow it to happen. Ideally something resembling a “truth and reconciliation commission” would be healthiest for all involved, but that could also end up destroying “Bill’s” career. Then again, if “Bill’s” career is significantly based on finding ways to destroy political enemies by dishonest means, would it be such a great loss to  the world for it to come to an ignoble end?

The main thing is to honestly ask, how does that sort of “training” influence the sort of person one turns out to be, and what does it say about a society that such matters do not seriously bother people?

The real problem is not the end result of this political battle; the problem is that there are so many people that find the sort of character that develops by such a path morally acceptable.


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Filed under Empathy, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Sexuality, Social identity

The True Miracle of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Sexuality, Skepticism

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Hobbies, Lobbying and Religious Freedoms

Those of you who are following the major American ideological debates have probably heard of the “Hobby Lobby” case coming up this month before the US Supreme Court. For those that haven’t, it basically comes down to this: The new Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” by any other name) basically gives bureaucrats the right to decide what form of “preventative health care” insurance companies should be required to provide for all patients. The current bureaucrats in charge of these things have decided to make pretty much all birth control measures short of surgical abortion part of that category. This first and foremost has got various Catholic employers of all sorts upset because, they claim, that this is requiring them to participate in “anti-life” activities which go against their religious convictions. But in addition to that, other anti-promiscuity-enablement oriented Protestant owned businesses as well are saying that they don’t want to be forced to have a hand in paying for the prevention of pregnancies for their employees. One such business is a chain of “artsy-fartsy” hobby supply shops called Hobby Lobby. They are now suing the government for making them pay for health insurance coverage for their employees when enables those employees to get free birth control pills and which covers “getting their tubes tied” if they so choose. This is what the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about this month.

hobbylobby003This, dear friends, is the sort of controversy that can only happen in America, for two reasons: 1) Though the United States has been making steady progress of late towards joining the civilized world in terms of recognizing health care as a basic human right, it still remains culturally addicted to allowing corporations’ obscene profit-taking off of health care provision as a higher political priority than patients’ rights to receive basic care regardless of their capacity to pay. This is the factor that prevented “single payer” or even “government sponsored alternatives” to the highly profitable health insurance industry from being enacted in the recent rounds of reform. This means that what would in any other country be paid for by the government –– covered by taxation or a publicly managed insurance scheme –– in the US is still being paid for by employers and private citizens (with a little bit of government backing where private citizens can’t afford the payments that insurance companies demand). And 2) religious organizations in the US are closer to being able to control the political process in the US than in any other traditionally Christian majority democratic country in the world, and in the interest of proving their continued relevance in the process these religious organizations have a certain need to take opportunities like this to try to prove to the world how bad ass they are. Go figure.

It is in cases like this where I am prone to agree with Pope Francis’ famous October homily where he referred to those whose Christianity has become a political ideology as “a serious illness” within the Church.

The argument being put forward by Catholic intellectuals on the matter is that they’re really not out to make sure that other people conform to their church’s religious teachings prohibiting all “artificial” forms of birth control (saying that any form of birth control, other than women crossing their legs to keep men from getting in to impregnate them, is immoral); they’re really just trying to prevent good Catholics from having even a semi-active role in the process. But if that’s true –– if all that Catholics and their fellow anti-recreational sex Christians really want is plausible deniability in the process of actively participating in a culture that approves of such practices, that’s really not all that hard to arrange. There are plenty of ways for them to (figuratively) close their eyes, or to make blindfolds available for them. But effectively, when they’ve been offered such blindfolds to enable deniability, their objection has been, “No, we’ll still know what’s going on, and we just can’t have that.” From there the question becomes, are they really sincere about allowing others not to share their religious convictions and prohibitions or not? Is the point really to maintain deniability, or is it more to make this “sin” that much more inconvenient and thus less frequently practiced among others who don’t happen to share their beliefs? If the deniability argument is really just an excuse for a strategy aiming to reduce the sexual sins of others, freedom of religion should not provide them with an excuse for pursuing such a strategy, even in America.

RS824_MartinEdstrom-SE-130521-5619-960x640I am reminded of the story I heard, about 20 years ago, regarding Muslims in the Swedish higher education system. One provision of the Swedish system for enabling young people to complete university studies in state universities was to provide government guarantees for student loans from commercial banks. This was a problem for Muslim students because their religion strictly forbids them from taking out loans on which they would pay interest. Attempts to set up a properly Islamic shadow student loan organization fell apart, for all sorts of logistical reasons. It was starting to look like self-segregation into a more permanent lower class for lack of higher educational opportunities would be the fate of Sweden’s devout Muslims, but then one imam came up with a solution: He issued a fatwa declaring that, because a non-Islamic government had made the loan system the only available means of attending state universities, as a minority group living within that country without means of decisively changing the situation, young Muslims could take such loans anyway by not thinking of the interest as interest. Because it was money that the government told them they had to pay, after the fact, in order to get an education, it could either be conceptualized as a form of taxation, which sharia law has no problem with. Thought of in this way, a good Muslim could participate in the student loan system and make these interest payments to “corrupt institutions” without being guilty of contributing to an unholy private financial system in their host country, even while nominally participating in such, because in doing so they were really just “paying their taxes”.

Again, assuming that their motivations are purely a matter of seeking deniability in terms of supporting the sins of others, the worst hardship that the Hobby Lobby people and their co-plaintiffs could be forced to endure in terms of a loss of religious liberty is actually a milder version of the crisis of conscience that the Swedish Muslim students went through in the late 20th century. In fact the moral provision is already in place in this regard: in upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in the first legal challenges against it, the Supreme Court already ruled that, while the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to tell insurance companies how to run their business, it does have the authority to decree forms of taxation which it deems necessary for promoting public health, and in that regard what the whole “Obamacare” system comes down to at the end of the day is an elaborate form of taxation to promote public health. The question from there is whether or not religiously oriented businesses can be required to pay this sort of tax. After that the primary question becomes whether or not the US court system feels justified in telling religiously oriented businesses to “suck it up”.

surpreme-courtRefusing to pay such a tax –– or such a set of insurance premiums –– from there becomes the same sort of civil disobedience as a pacifist refusing to pay federal income tax because she does not want to financially support the United States’ drone bomber program in Pakistan. It is true that tax money from every tax-paying citizen and business in the United States is being used for very immoral purposes according to a pacifist perspective. It is true that pacifists have the moral right to protest against this practice by any means at their disposal, and that no one has a right to attempt to silence them politically. It is true that in choosing the path of civil disobedience –– not paying what the government tells them they have to pay as a matter of placing their moral conscience ahead of government decrees –– they may end up legally suffering in support of a higher moral and political purpose. It is somewhat unimaginable, however, that any US court would make them exempt from paying income taxes on such a basis. Yet this is effectively what Hobby Lobby and company are asking the court to do for them.

It should be obvious that the evangelical fundamentalists at Hobby Lobby are at least as free to practice their faith, in every possible sense, as Swedish Muslim students are to practice theirs. The government is not stopping them from displaying anti-sexual materials in their shops, requiring them in any way to promote sex within their shops, requiring them to remain open on Sundays rather than going to listen to anti-sexual sermons on that day, or in any other way forcing them to accept America’s sexually promiscuous culture. What the government is effectively saying to them is that we need to recognize that sex, for purposes other than making babies, is something that the vast majority of Americans wish to practice, potentially including many of their employees. As part of taking care of the health of such people then, the government of the United States has chosen to join every other democratic government in the Western world other than Ireland in declaring that preventing people from experiencing unwanted consequences of recreational (i.e., non-procreative) sex whenever we are safely and reliably able to do so needs to be part of “health care”. And just as all tax payers are required to contribute to the drone bomber program, all employers are required to cover health care costs for their employees, including forms of health care which enable these employees to have sex without making babies if they so choose. Just as pacifists do not have the right not to pay taxes just because they don’t believe in supporting war, employers do not have the right not to pay for broad health insurance coverage for their employees just because they don’t believe in enabling recreational sex.

ReligiousFreedomRally1_wide-5ef89e31d8b4bb636bcf5f59083eb7f0873704a1-s6-c30From there this is no longer a question of freedom of religion; it becomes a question of the perpetual hobby of the religious right to flex their lobbying muscles. Unlike Sweden’s Muslim students, joint Catholic-Evangelical right wing political pressure groups in the US don’t feel like they are in a position where they must helplessly accept the government’s decrees on such matters. They have been fighting tooth and nail against everything they believe President Obama stands for for more than 6 years already (ever since he began actively campaigning for the office), and the goal of finding excuses to tear holes in his health care legacy appears to be much more important to them than working to strategically reduce the sinfulness of their fellow citizens even. This makes their illness, as Pope Francis defines it, all the more acute. We’re not talking about any manifestation of Christ’s compassion here, but its polar opposite: a power struggle based on purely on hate of the “other”.

obamacare_1_590_396Being as I see the Pope as being on the same side of this issue as I am, I hope it is clear that I’m not in some paranoid way anti-Catholic, but there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in claiming “freedom of religion” as a defense for traditional Catholic beliefs in this matter. It is easily forgotten by those who insist on this ancient tradition’s right to respect that it was not until two years after the Catholic president John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the Catholic Church issued its first statement nominally accepting the whole idea of freedom of religion as part of its official teaching. This went directly against centuries of Catholic teaching explicitly rejecting such a principle, and there are still Catholics today who consider the Second Vatican Council to have committed heresy in making such a statement. This group is a rather small minority within the Catholic Church, but then again so are those who strictly adhere to the church’s official teachings on sex and birth control. The difference is that the anti-religious liberty faction no longer has official status within the Catholic Church; the anti-birth control faction does have such status.

But from an American constitutional perspective all that is beside the point. The point is that, in principle, no one should be telling these most ideologically conservative Catholics what they are and are not allowed to believe, even if they have been historically prone to try to tell others what they are and are not allowed to believe. We cannot tell them what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith, even if their goal is still to tell others what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith.

From here it must be acknowledged that the specific combined case coming before the Supreme Court this month involves strictly Protestant plaintiffs. Does that make it unfair to specifically critique the Catholic position on this one? I don’t think so. As any of the evangelical Protestant opinion leaders on this issue will tell you, when it comes to “pro-life” political activism such as this, thanks largely to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop in the late 70s and early 80s, Protestants have been progressively “catching up” with Catholic positions on these matters over the course of the past generation. They share a political goal of restoring Christian ideologies to a position of dominance within the political process and in other cultural arenas. In efforts such as the Manhattan Declaration they have set aside their doctrinal differences for the time being, until the cultural dominance “Judeo-Christian values,” as they loosely define them, is restored.

IX-PiusIt would be fair to say that the Protestant partners in this effort haven’t really thought this matter through yet in philosophical terms. The Catholic position on the question is based on cultural norms predating the American Civil War and other scientific discoveries and cultural crises of the period of the industrial revolution. Catholic teaching against birth control goes back in practice to the teachings of Pope Pius IX, whose long and dysfunctional reign left many cultural scars on Western society in general. Pius’ understanding of sexual reproduction was still based on the Aristotelian understanding of the subject adopted by Thomas Aquinas: the basic soul of the baby was contained in the father’s sperm, and the material for building a body to house that soul was to be found in the mother. It was thus a wife’s job to provide as many bodies as possible for millions of little souls contained in her husband’s sperm, and for a man to never intentionally ejaculate in any that did not give these little souls the possibility of finding bodies for themselves within a woman’s uterus. Obviously most of these souls would never find bodies, but that was beside the point; masturbation was still tantamount to murder.

Later scientific discoveries of 23 chromosomes coming from each parent and all that made little difference in the matter doctrinally: the main issue remained enabling the Church to exercise as much control as possible over people’s sex lives and encouraging Catholic families to procreate as much as possible.

The mandate to maximize procreation made a lot of strategic sense in an era when most poor families would lose as many children to childhood diseases as they would see through to adulthood, and when many young men would die in battle, fighting “for God and country” and many young women would die giving birth to their first or second child. So of course it was only natural that you wouldn’t want to reduce your odds of your bloodline’s survival by limiting the number of children you had. These days, however, the effort to make strategic sense of a mandate to raise large families is a much more abstract process. Our instinctive desires have evolved more in the direction of taking better care of every individual child we chose to have, and not accepting the routine loss of two or three of them in each family as “the will of God” and part of the proper order of things. This largely eliminates the need to have as many children as possible to increase one’s odds of evolutionary survival, with women regularly dying in childbirth being seen as “acceptable collateral damage” and also part of “God’s will” for them.  We have become completely comfortable with “playing God” in matters of limiting childhood and maternal deaths, so it should follow from there that we are also ready to “play God” more in terms of how many babies we keep making.

benedict-2010Now in his last encyclical letter Pope Benedict XVI did have an argument to offer in favor of the socio-economic benefits of continuing to make as many babies as possible: Basically, the more kids you have, the more human resources we will have in the global society as a whole. And as long as we don’t waste any of these human resources, their efforts and ingenuity will translate into greater technical innovations and greater expanded wealth for everyone in the future. To make that work all we have to do is to insure that every kid has enough to eat, adequate medical care and optimal educational opportunities to realize his/her potential. Towards that end we just need to establish a major international organization –– sort of like the United Nations, only “with teeth,” as Benedict says (§ 67) –– for the massive global redistribution of wealth to make sure these kids are provided for. As long as we can establish the sort of global socialist mega-bureaucracy necessary, there’s really no reason to have any form of “artificial birth control” in the world… or so Benedict believes… or at least so he claims… but somehow I don’t see that happening.

So until the social structures Benedict envisions globally are in place, enabling couples to freely decide how often they want to make babies in the process of sexually satisfying each other seems to make an abundance of sense –– for reasons of defending social stability, domestic economics, and yes, for women’s health even. If that involves allowing and even enabling people to have sex without making babies –– thus taking a bit more control over how many babies are born and over how many woman die making them –– more than some religious folk are comfortable with, I think we can live with the idea of limiting the realization of their religious ideals in that regard. Not that this will do much to limit their lobbying hobby, but hopefully it won’t affect the court decision this time around.


Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, News, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance


A passing thought in as the second or third day of Christmas (depending on how you count) draws to a close here: I have to wonder how Leonard Cohen feels about the Cloverton cover of his classic, “Hallelujah”.  I mean on the one hand I imagine that the increase in his royalty check from this version of his song going viral will be many times more than my annual salary, so I can’t imagine him complaining about it too loudly, but on the other hand it is an out and out rape of the original meaning of the song in question. Cloverton effectively offers those who are incapable of appreciating the poignant and sublime message of the original lyrics an opportunity to sing along with the beautiful melody of the chorus without having any farting idea of what it was meant to be about. How does that really make an artist feel?

cohen hat offOther than the one-word chorus, the only part of the cover that quotes directly from the original lyrics at any length the is the middle of the first verse: “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…” but the follow-through from there loses all poignancy. Rather than noting King David’s confused and desperate pursuit of the transcendent (“the baffled king composing Hallelujah”) it becomes an evangelical cliché (“with every breath I’m singing Hallelujah”). It almost completely fulfills the prophecy of the second line of the original version’s first verse: “but you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

The core message of Cohen’s original lyrics is found in the song’s third verse: “It’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light. No, it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.” The Cloverton version, by contrast, is all about a group of young “pilgrims who claim to have seen the light.”

The cover version goes through all the essential core elements of the western Christmas hymn tradition: the failed search for the inn, the shepherds hearing from the angels, the “wise men three” and finally a summary of the passion of the Christ, which contains the most historically and theologically problematic lyric of all: “That rugged cross was my cross too. Still every breath you drew was Hallelujah.” Forgetting about the rife pronoun confusion throughout this verse (you really can’t tell from one second to the next whether “you” is being used to refer to Jesus or fellow believers), the one thing believers really shouldn’t be claiming is to have shared in the process of making Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. This is the essential meaning of “Pelagian” as a label for a particular heresy. Beyond that, in the tale of his very real suffering, Jesus’ words on the cross were not “Hallelujahs” but rather “why have you forsaken me?” and “it is finished.” But the cover version is crafted carefully enough to keep too many people from actually listening to the lyrics in anything like a rational or critical manner it would seem.

It’s not just the complete castration of the song’s original message and the details of the new lyrics that I find mildly disturbing about this cover version; there’s also the video setting, made to look like a pseudo-Irish pub, just stripped of all offensive references to alcohol. You have a crowd of adults of roughly pub-going age sitting around chatting calmly in a sparsely furnished wood paneled room with steamy windows and wall-to-wall shelves that look as though they were meant to hold bottles, but completely empty. On careful examination of the audience shots you discover some people drinking from cans that could contain pretty much anything, and others drinking from ceramic vessels that fall somewhere between coffee mugs and beer steins. But if you take this investigation to the next level you notice that there’s a donut box that intermittently appears on one of the front tables, and in a couple shots they accidentally capture the name “Varsity Donuts” on the windows and pub-style etched mirrors.

This in turn reveals something fascinating about the band in question. Running a web search for “Varsity Donuts” got me nowhere, so I went to the band’s home page to see where in the US they were from, so as to get to the bottom of this mystery. It says there that they are “Manhattan based”. Fine, so what kind of place is Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts? Plug that into a search engine and you find this. Pictures of the shop there leave little doubt that this is where the band shot their video, and that in turn leads to one obvious conclusion: the “Manhattan” that these boys come from is not the most densely commercialized part of New York City, but a little town west of Topeka, Kansas! Not that you’d ever realize this from their poses in generic hipster outfits in front of generic urban concrete walls, but…

Photo by "William H." of Manhattan's Varsity Donuts

Photo by “William H.” of Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts

So rather than normally being a setting for getting people drunk, the video was shot in a place where people go to get an intense junk food sugar buzzes. And rather than being part of some major city’s music scene, we’re talking about about a band from the wind-swept prairie that Dorothy left to go to Oz. From there it’s no big surprise then that the “pub crowd” consists of mostly over-weight and exclusively white people. It seems we have a number of factors pointing towards rather pretentious image building. No out-and-out lies, just images being projected that have little to do what is actually happening. All this focused on marketing a sanitized, white bread version of a song that they clearly “don’t get”. This doesn’t speak very highly of the critical faculties of those who have been writing rave reviews for the video.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too cruel. Musically the cover is actually quite tastefully done. A somewhat imaginative quartet arrangement, going for a predominantly acoustic sound (though the guitarist still needs his wa-wa pedals), featuring a cello in place of bass and a variety of classical percussion instruments in place of a standard drum kit, really works quite nicely with Cohen’s sweet melody, perhaps better than Cohen’s tour band arrangement even. The technique of building musical complexity as the song progresses, from a lone vocalist on an old upright piano at the beginning to an impressively orchestral sounding quartet with everyone in the “pub” singing along at the end, achieves the overall effect they’re aiming for quite resoundingly. Setting aside the inconsistencies between audio and video in building this mini-narrative, it is clear that these young men are talented musicians who are quite capable of drawing in an audience. The lead singer sounds for all the world like a young Cat Stevens, and the band jells behind that vocal style magnificently. All that’s missing is integrity.

The “about” section of Cloverton’s web site starts out trying to build an image of stylistic independence and solid integrity –– a radically indy and radically Christian band fighting to make it without major label support. All I can say is that if such values are important to them, as opposed to being nothing more than cheap, cliché advertising copy, based on this single it would seem they are going at it pretty seriously bass ackwards.

Not that there is anything particularly new or unique about this case in some regards. It actually brings me back to parts of my childhood among “Jesus freaks” who routinely “borrowed” songs like Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend and Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water, with the lyrics ever so slightly modified to slip Jesus’ name in every now and again. I remember, on such a basis, being able to relate quite thoroughly to an article I read in some Christian youth magazine in the early 80s complaining about the widespread phenomenon of “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Modifying generic love songs so as to speak about “loving God” really isn’t that much of a stretch; in many cases it’s just a matter of trading one disposable cliché for another quite similar one. In American English in particular it’s real easy, in so many ways, to go from singing, “I’m yours, Lord,” to “I’m yours, love,” and back again without terribly many evangelicals noticing the difference.

To break free of such clichés and to build integrity into the Christian/Christmas message in music, you have to start with ceasing to pretend to be something you’re not –– in this case pub-going urban hipsters who are really into what Leonard Cohen has to say with his music –– and it can’t end there. As the pope has pointed out so powerfully in his various messages this year, and as evangelicals should broadly be able to agree, the point of Jesus’ message is to go beyond religious clichés and dig into the messy business of relating to the non-utopian lived experiences of “the poor in spirit” –– those who need to know they’re loved in spite of their misfortunes and failures, and those who cry out for justice in a world where sometimes justice is hard to find. A good second step for Cloverton in finding such integrity then, after dropping the pretenses, would be to actually listen to what Leonard Cohen has to say in his original version of “Hallelujah”.

The first verse there tells of the composer’s struggle to touch something transcendent in his music, much like what we see with Kind David in the psalms. From there the second verse comes to consider the transcendent quality that King David, and many since, have found in erotic connection. For those whose religion is based more or less exclusively on a message of erotic restraint, Cohen’s message here may be rather hard to listen to, but there is still truth to it. Painting the scene of David’s first tryst with Bathsheba, Cohen brilliantly mixes biblical and contemporary motifs to explain the effect this had on the king: “She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the ‘Hallelujah’.” If you want to break out of the standard mold of gospel music, guys, dare to talk about the spirituality inherent in sex, even the sort of sex that the religious establishment fails to properly control. I dare you!

The third verse, as I said above, comes to the central point of the song. After confessing to religious agnosticism and to love having become an area of violent conflict for him (“…all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who out-drew you”), Cohen tells of the “hallelujah” being a cry of anguished searching. And folks, if you can’t honestly accept to the experience of such anguish, and relate without condescension to those who are stuck in it, you have no business trying to present any form of spiritual message to the world, especially the Christian message!

The fourth verse further reinforces this honest message, talking about his familiarity with loneliness and reminding us that the “Hallelujah” experience is not about arches of triumph or victory marches, but rather a very cold and lonely place at times. The fifth verse goes from there into a prayer of sorts: looking back on spiritual experiences of the writer’s youth, crying over the loss of the epiphanies he used to have, but in prayer fondly remembering “how I moved in you, and the holy dove, she was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!” (the source of a the problematic lyrical adaptation in the Cloverton version which I pointed out above). From there, in the sixth verse, comes Cohen’s plea for divine mercy of sorts. He stresses that he has given his best efforts, though mostly without success, and that there’s no point in pretending otherwise. This leads to the song’s final sentence, leading into the concluding chorus, of, “even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!’”

Yes, amen, hallelujah! Let us come to the Lord ––  in whatever form we are able to relate to his lordship –– confessing our weaknesses in understanding both God and each other, and in the brokenness to which this brings us let us cry out asking for the connection with what lies beyond us that we haven’t been able to earn. Let’s ditch the kitsch and dare to move towards the heart of the broken human experience in this matter, for it’s only in relating honestly to that that we can find the salvation we long for –– that Jesus came to bring us.

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year...

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year…

I write this in the middle of the night after finishing the last of the Christmas celebrating I had scheduled for this year, with nothing resembling the generally dependable “white Christmas” in this part of the world, no presents properly exchanged and overall a very broken Hallelujah to be sung. Yet a “Hallelujah” I still sing, because in spite of my failures, and circumstances the sort I would not normally choose for myself, I still have a sense of being connected with people and things well beyond myself. That is ultimately what I want and need to keep building on in my own broken way in the year to come.

Here’s hoping that this post-Christmas message touches your hearts, and brings you to an honest place of looking at your own world not as you would like to fantasize it to be but how it really is; yet with the hope of not being stuck within the limits of your own skin but being able to be lovingly part of something far greater than yourself. In spite of my limits as a saint and/or a poet I selfishly wish to share that with you. Please pass this general message forward then, for the greater joy of all of us.

057So as part of the same wish, for what remains of them, Happy Holidays.

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Filed under Love, Music, Pop culture, Religion, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

“What Does the Pope Say?” (Part 1)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Ethics, History, Politics, Religion, Sexuality

95 Theses for Evangelical Churches of the 21st Century

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

Open letter to Daisy

For those of you not familiar with the case, going on two years ago now, one cold winter night two young teenage girls snuck out of the house to go to a party with some older boys from school, and ended up getting raped. One was dumped, undressed and obliviously drunk, in the snow outside her house. She lived to tell of it and to seek justice, but so far the only result of this quest has been that her (widowed) mother was fired from her job, her siblings have been threatened with violence, her family was driven out of town and local terrorists on the side of her rapist(s) burned her family’s house down. Last week she took the trouble to tell her story on line, mentioning how it has, among other things, made her stop believing in God . This is my response back to this deeply wounded girl.  


Dear Daisy,

First let me say that I’m sincerely sorry for your pain and all of the suffering you and your family have been through. I don’t pretend to know how it feels not only to be raped and treated as disposable, but then to have those who care about you terrorized for caring about you. I have my own problems in life, but I’m not going to pretend that they match up with yours.

By way of introduction all you really need to know about me is that I’m a man roughly three times your age, a school teacher to kids your age in Europe, and I’m currently working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. What that basically means is that I’m supposed to be some sort of an expert in helping kids work through the question you asked (yourself) repeatedly in your blog about your recent trauma: “Why would a God even allow this to happen?”

Don’t take this as someone trying to defend the idea of God to you. You certainly don’t need that, and if there really is a God (probably best if we leave that question open for the time being) he wouldn’t need someone like me to organize his defense team for him. Think of me rather as one more well-meaning expert of sorts, who in the abstract knows something about what you’ve been through, and in his own particular area of specialization really wants to help if he can. The doctor who treated your vaginal injuries probably didn’t know what it felt like for you, but she/he knew something about how to prevent infection and help your organs to heal. Likewise (I would hope) you’ve had a social worker who probably doesn’t know how it feels to be you still trying to help you to return to something like a normal social life. The same would go the lawyers you’ve talked to, counselors you’ve been sent to and many others. Think of what I have to say as analogous to what they might try to say to help. I know you have been “spiritually wounded” in this series of events and that has left you with some deep and troubling questions. As that’s supposed to be my area of specialty, and as your blog caught my attention, please humor me as I try to offer what little help I can.

First let me say, as you probably know quite well already, your questions are nothing new. In fact they reflect what is probably the oldest and most important questions in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an old running joke, with hundreds of variations on line, which sets out to explain world religions in terms of the old adage, “Shit happens.” They always start out by saying that the basic message of Taoism is simply that shit happens, and always end with the basic message of Rastafarianism being “Let’s smoke this shit!” In between, among others, the basic teaching of Judaism is always summarized as, “Why does this shit always happen to US?” There’s quite a bit of truth to that summary. Rather than the existence of unjust suffering being the death of their religion –– and consequently all of the other monotheistic religions in the world –– this question has become the most basic starting point and foundational consideration for their religion, and mine/ours. (I self-identify as a Christian. I know you don’t believe in any God at the moment, but I would assume it is some variation of the Christian God that you have recently decided not to believe in. Am I off by much?)

As you may know, the books of the Bible as we now have them are not arranged between the leather covers in the chronological order in which they were written. It’s a long story that I won’t bother to go into right now, but it is commonly believed among those who make a living investigating such matters that the oldest book in the Bible is the one we call Job, about why this guy who hasn’t done anything wrong goes through all sorts of hell anyway. I’ll come back to that later, but for now suffice to say, historically speaking at least, the problem of unjust suffering is just the starting point for belief in God, not the inevitable ending point for such belief.

But before getting into that, let me say that there are definitely a couple sorts of God beliefs that, based on your experience, you certainly should trash –– two common sorts of ideas about what God is that you should no longer give any credibility to.

First there is the idea of the tribal God: the sort of god who “is on our side” and helps us to “smite our enemies.” As a matter of building social solidarity and getting large groups of people to work together on major projects, almost all major human societies throughout history have had one sort of god or another, or some collection of local gods that they could call on, for this basic purpose. But in spite of how useful such beliefs can be as a team building shtick, and in spite of how much of this sort of belief has worked its way into various forms of American Christendom in particular, the sort of god that people make up to help them distinguish between their own tribe –– “the righteous” –– and everyone else –– “the heathens” –– is more useful to socially powerful jerks like Matt than to those like you who need protection and justice. Don’t be surprised if the sort of God that people make up to reinforce their tribal identities is of no use to you then, and don’t be surprised when some people claim that the Christian God is like that.  I could try to prove that such people are idiots, but rather than bothering with that let me just say that, as a Christian, that’s not the sort of God that I worship.

The other sort of God that you should not bother believing in any more is the sort of magical helper “upstairs” who takes all of the risks, uncertainties and unpredictability out of life. There are a lot of people who become religious because they have a hard time dealing with things being unpredictable and out of their control. For them religion doesn’t really work any differently than superstitious practices like rubbing lucky rabbits’ feet or nailing up horseshoes over doorways and the like. (Two sorts of people who are said to particularly depend on religion for superstitious luck improvement in this sort of way are competitive athletes and sailors.) But it doesn’t really work like that. As the Bible says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good people too can have random bad things happen to them. For instance a preacher friend of mine has a grandson who has been battling with cancer for most of his preschool-aged life. If God were in the business of showing favor to his favorite people and keeping them from experiencing random suffering, why doesn’t he start there? No, life will always involve risky situations. You can limit those risks somewhat by following certain sorts of safety rules and by taking advantage of different forms of technology we have these days, but those things too can only go so far in stopping bad things from happening to good people.

So tossing those sorts of religious habits aside, what is left for you to believe in? Plenty actually.

You used an interesting turn of the phrase: “I lost all faith in religion and humanity.” I think I know what you mean there, but if we were talking face-to-face I’d still ask. I mean, if you were to say that you lost faith in God that might mean that you know longer believe that God exists, but when you say that you’ve lost faith in humanity you obviously know that humanity still exists. Likewise for religion. So maybe you’re saying that you just believe that, even if those things exist, you can’t trust them to “be on your side” any more. Part of that could be that you had rather unrealistic expectations about what humans in general are like. Might the same be said of your expectations regarding religion and God?

If this were a proper dialog I’d wait for your response on that and frame my comments based on how you actually feel about such things. Since we’re not in direct contact I have to sort of make up the next part not knowing if you can relate to what I’m saying or not.

Anyway, your blog has this (old?) picture of you holding a puppy. I’m glad to see you have such a friend. I hope you still have her/him. (A boxer?) My own dog is a Springer Spaniel, and without him I swear I’d be in a mental hospital today! Dogs are far more dependable as friends than people, beyond doubt. But dogs too have ways in which they can’t be entirely trusted. My dog, for instance, knows that he’s not allowed to have pizza, among other things, but if I were to leave him alone in the house with a pizza in a box on the kitchen table, even long enough to go take the laundry out of the washing machine, I could not be sure that he would behave himself and leave my pizza alone. That doesn’t make me love him any less; it just makes me more careful about was sort of chances I give him to do things we’ve agreed that he shouldn’t do.

Perhaps your experiences have, in some analogous way, taught you to be more careful in how you relate to people in general, and in what ways you need to avoid risks with them. Hopefully, as with our dogs, seeing the limits in how much people can be trusted doesn’t stop you from appreciating their value in other ways. The same might even be said of religion for you, but from here I can’t say; that may be pushing it a bit.

But whether through religion or through purely secular therapeutic perspectives on things, in terms of wishing the best for you I hope that you come to believe in two basic principles that are in some ways very, but not exclusively, religious: love and justice. Finding ways of learning to believe in both of these again is key to regaining a sense of your own beauty and of joy in life for the long term. These may sound impossible to believe in at this point, but please hear me out on this.

Justice would be the tougher one for you to believe in just now I’d imagine, so let me just say I believe in justice to the same extent that I believe in biology, and maybe you can too. In my first couple years in high school I had a syrupy sweet lady as a biology teacher; not the kind that any boys had crushes on, but the sort of kindly middle-aged woman that many kids wished could be their mother. As part of her personality she taught the subject in a rather fuzzy sort of way that sort of bothered my rational mind. We’d do an experiment with the different variables in growing pea plants for instance. We saw the difference that varying amounts of sun light, water, soil types, etc. made, but in any given sample group of plants you could never tell which ones would turn out tallest or have the most flowers, and she never tried to explain that to us beyond a sort of naïve assumption that “some things are up to God.”

Physics and chemistry didn’t have that sort of unaccounted variability to them it seemed. Once you knew what the input parameters were and how the system worked, you could predict pretty exactly how each experiment was going to turn out. Those sciences didn’t seem to have the same “slop” to them that biology did. Later I learned that it’s not that simple. If you get down to the microscopic and atomic level –– if you see the exact composition of every molecule within the seed or cell –– you can tell very exactly how it will behave or how big it will grow under given conditions. Biology isn’t actually as “sloppy” a science as it looks from a simple high school level. Likewise physics, when you get down to the sub-atomic level, gets a lot more random, requiring things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and “Schrödinger’s cat” to make sense of it all. But that’s not important right now.

The point is that when it comes to justice, seeing that in individual cases it doesn’t seem to work the way it should on the surface of things doesn’t prove that there’s nothing to it. Problems of accounting for the slop in the system not withstanding, there really is something to the principles of justice, ethics and morality.

Of course this is not to say that you deserved to be raped or that your family deserved to have their house burned down! Anyone who tries to write off those tragedies as something you “had coming to you” cannot be properly described in vocabulary that teachers are allowed to use. The point is that there is a complex set of dynamics behind such events and a complex set of results that progress from such events, but dismissing it all as totally random doesn’t really help anyone.

Obviously you know in hindsight that you could have reduced your risks by not secretly experimenting with alcohol and not bypassing your older brother’s judgment in this case. No need to beat yourself up any further emotionally over those matters. The more constructive perspective on the justice of the matter at this point is in looking forward. The point now is that Matt in particular, and Maryville and Missouri collectively, cannot escape from “paying for this” on some level. Besides the different variations on the mystical idea that “karma is a bitch” and it’s bound to get them, if not within this life then thereafter (and those shouldn’t be entirely written off), there is the factor that by in practice denying your value as a human being and treating you as disposable, they have seriously discounted their own value as human beings as well, and effectively categorized themselves as disposable. That inevitably will have effects that cannot be ignored. Just as slavery and racist abuse throughout American history have seriously messed up not only the abused peoples but the abusers themselves, for Maryville to accept the treatment of teenage girls as disposable sexual objects cannot help but seriously mess up the individuals involved and the society there as a whole. Ultimately it has the effect of seriously reducing, if not eliminating, their capacity to love and to be loved, which leads to the other point I wanted to make.

At the risk of getting all fuzzy-wuzzy in ways you totally cannot relate to at this point (and sappier than my high school biology teacher to boot), love is something vitally important for all of us. Love is about more than sex and genetic survival and all that; it is about recognizing that my importance is not limited to what’s happening within my skin. I am, as a person, important to others, and they are important to me. I matter to people (and to my dog) and they matter to me. Love is about seeing others as more than tools for your physical enjoyment and competitive self-promotion. Sex, at its best, can be one of the ultimate expressions of love; though sex as you’ve experienced it is pretty much the polar opposite of love. But in spite of that, love is particularly worth believing in for you.

Believing that we can find these sorts of connections with others is a huge part of what makes life worth living. Lacking a capacity to connect with others in these sorts of ways is actually the basic essence of what hell is all about. In that regard your rapist certainly deserves to be in his own form of hell, and there is every reason to believe he is. No one can do what was done to you and still have a capacity to connect with other people as people. He may be admired for his athletic skill or for his family’s social position, but he can never know what it is like to matter to others as a person if in practice he treats other people as disposable. Through his actions then his life has come to mean nothing. Likewise a community or society which thinks it is OK to treat certain people as disposable is more than likely to become hell for most of its members. This is what turns countries into what are known these days as “failed states.” In the same sense Maryville may well be a “failed community” already. Those are more common than you realize.

In fact as the emotional wounds from your trauma heal, in your case it should be relatively easy to believe in love again: After the whole #justice4daisy campaign there are thousands if not millions of people around the world who feel your pain and see your value as a person as important. As you have inadvertently come to stand for thousands of other young women who are to one extent or another treated as disposable sexual objects, you must be acutely aware of the fact that you matter. Let the sheer volume of that love you are receiving soak in for a minute or two. Through your pain you have become important to many of us who will probably never have a chance to meet you even, not just as a symbol, but as a person. That has to be a good thing for you.

The whole question of love and importance becomes far more difficult for girls who go through variations of your same trauma every day in many countries around the world –– from victims of sex tourism in Thailand, to child brides in Arabic countries still, to those raped as an act of war in the continuous conflicts happening in much of Africa today. It is much harder for me to imagine how love and justice can come into their lives than to see how it could come into yours.

I don’t want to trivialize any young rape victim’s suffering by saying, “Don’t worry. It will all work out.” For many I know it won’t. That’s where I comfort myself by believing in a form cosmic justice that lies beyond the limits of this life, and where I keep working on doing what I can to promote justice and caring for others within this life as well. I haven’t definitively solved the problem of unjust suffering. I’m quite sure no one has. I can only keep working on doing my best to reduce it in ways that still enable life to go on for all of us.

Let me close by coming back around to that oldest book in the Bible I was talking about. The introduction chapter in the book of Job is actually the silliest part of the story: How could we imagine God still being God if he would intentionally choose to let a good man suffer excruciating agony of all sorts just to settle a silly random bet with the devil? Forget about that part for the time being. The important part is to acknowledge that Job really didn’t do anything to deserve to suffer. From there the thing is to look at the series of debates which make up the core of the book.

Job has three peers who come to see his situation and try to help him figure it out, all assuming that somehow he must have done something to deserve it. First we have this guy named Eliphaz, who responds to Job’s statement of depression by telling him that God is just and justice always works, so he should just pray about it and comfort himself in trusting God. Job basically responds to him by saying, “No offence, but it really doesn’t work that way. If you think there’s some justice in this then show me how it works.” Then comes a this guy named Bildad, whose basic message is that you shouldn’t pretend that you’re in a better position to say how things work than God is, and if you’re a good guy God will always put things right in the end. To him Job goes on a rant and says that he fully understands how much wiser and more powerful God is than him, but that doesn’t really solve the question of why this shit keeps happening to him. Then comes the third one, Zophar, saying, “How dare you mock God and claim that you’re right and he’s wrong on this one?!” To this Job basically says, “You’re not the only one to give me that sort of crap. People who have it easy always treat those going through rough times with contempt. But besides joining in to what the crowds have to say, what do you really know about it?”

From there they each take a couple more rounds going after Job, with increasing antagonism as things progress. Eliphaz says that Job’s mouth is getting to be the cause of his problems. Bildad says that Job in turn is not being respectful enough towards their perspectives. Zophar finds a particularly long-winded way of saying, “I feel rather insulted here, so to hell with you!” Job gives abuse back to each of them as good as he gets. Finally they all give up on trying to change each other’s minds about things.

That’s when a kid about your age, named Elihu, gets involved in the discussion. Elihu had waited to talk because young guys weren’t supposed to interrupt older men in their debates in those days, but he found it particularly frustrating that Job was trashing the whole idea of justice and that his three “friends” were ready to attack him without really having any grounds for their accusations. So when all of the others are done talking he lets them have it. After deconstructing their arguments (for 5 chapters) he basically points out that nothing we can do as people would really have that big an effect on God one way or the other. Rather than worrying about what we can do for God, and what God is ready to do for us in return, the point of religion should be to look at the incredibly majesty and mystery we see in the world around us and to ponder the wonder of being able to connect with something that incredible.

After Elihu’s speech then a huge tornado comes up and God starts speaking to these guys from the tornado, saying basically, “You know, the kid’s right.” It then goes on with 4 chapters’ worth of itemizing the marvels of the universe that make people and our problems seem pretty tiny by comparison.

The ending of the story is almost as problematic as the beginning: God tells the three friends that they owe Job a pretty massive apology, so they follow through with that, killing a truckload of livestock before God and Job to say how sorry they are. Job then forgives them and asks God to forgive them, and after that God makes Job all rich and successful again… as though, in spite of everything that was said in the debate, that would be what really matters. But some people need to see that sort of thing in order to find what God has to say before that as important. Such is life.

So what can you take from this long speech? (Sorry. Sometimes I talk too much: teacher’s occupational hazard.) Hopefully that you have a value that doesn’t depend on you being a “winner” in any sense. Your importance doesn’t depend on being the prettiest or the sexiest or the most athletic or the smartest even. Your value is based on your being able to connect with something greater than yourself –– being loved and being able to love in return. For all your sufferings, that principle is still worth believing in. Many religious people fundamentally miss the point on that one, so they might try to give you the same sorts of messages that Job got from his “three friends.” You may want to avoid such people if you can. But if you can find people who really “get” the message of Jesus –– about being able to love God and each other in spite of all our problems –– you might find their company and support quite helpful.

Whatever else happens, I hope you do come to believe in love and justice again in the aftermath of your tragedy, Daisy. I hope the same goes for Paige and for all others who suffer great travesties of justice in our world. Speaking not only for myself, but for the thousands who still believe in God and who have been touched by your story, our prayers are with you.

David Huisjen


Filed under Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

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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Filed under Aesthetics, Education, Empathy, Epistemology, Freedom, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Pop culture, Purpose, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality


The dilapidated signal tower of Muizenburg station a couple years ago.

The dilapidated signal tower of Muizenburg station a couple years ago.

This month I’m following the lead of Carol, one of my South African friends, in participating in a hobby photographers’ activity of posting a current picture for a given theme for each day of the month. I’m pretty sure that the initiators of the event are from South Africa, but there’s a fair number of us from the northern hemisphere also participating. But for today I feel the theme is a bit of a disadvantage to those outside of South Africa: “Dilapidated”. There are probably more picturesque dilapidated buildings, vehicles, monuments and people within any given square kilometer of the Cape Town area than within all of southern Finland.

001Thinking about the subject was an interesting way to start the day though. Since I junked my dilapidated old car in February, limiting my access to more remote ruins in the Finnish (and Estonian) countryside, probably the most dilapidated sight I come across on a week-to-week basis these days is the sight of my face in the mirror each morning.

Or is it? Is that really a fair thing to say? What does dilapidated actually mean anyway?

So of course I looked it up. Etymologies are always fun in such events. To dilapidate something literally means to get the building stones –– “lapides” in Latin –– of the property in question out of their proper places. In traditional British law “dilapidation” is the basis for a tenant not getting his security deposit back when he moves out of property left in bad repair. The same could be applied to a parson or other churchman being fined for letting the parsonage or parish properties get run down during the time they were in his care.

So how badly are my own stones, figuratively speaking, shifted out of place these days, and what sort of penalty might I be liable for in that regard? Hard to say. All things being relative, I could perhaps be taking better care of my body, but so far it’s holding together as well as can reasonably be expected at my age –– significant as that qualifier is.


The dilapidated breakwater at the harbor down the road from my apartment

This also brings to mind my recent Zygmunt Bauman readings again. How badly has consumerism and the “liquid modern” situation shifted the foundation stones of contemporary society? What are the most important foundation stones in that regard, for that matter, and what should we be doing to keep them in place? In Liquid Love (2003)  –– the last of my Bauman summer reading books, currently late for return to the library  –– the old social theory guru takes on perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the human experience: the relationship between love, sexuality and economic self-interest. After exploring the concept of “pure sex” as a commodity in the consumer economy for a while he makes the speculative statement (p. 47), “Intimate connections of sex with love, security, permanence, immortality-through-continuation-of-kin were not after all as useless and constraining as they were thought and felt and charged to be. The old and allegedly old-fashioned companions of sex were perhaps its necessary supports (necessary not for the technical perfection of the performance, but for its gratifying potential).” These stones, however, are rather thoroughly out of such a place these days. Does that mean that sex has become dilapidated? Can the de-commercialization of sex put these stones back into place? Is the de-commercialization of sex merely a necessary condition for some other cultural force, like religion, to reconnect sex with its former necessary “intimate connections”? How willing are we to see the clock turned back in this regard?

033One significant part of the question is the extent to which we are willing to defy the capitalist/consumerist status quo. How far can we escape the urge to put a price on everything as the measure of fair exchange? How much can we allow ourselves to give and receive without price “merely” for purposes of having a sense of connection with each other? To do so is to defy the market system’s absolute sovereignty over our lives; to enter into some level of “unofficial” or “underground” economic activity. Not to do so is to accept that our lives have no value beyond what someone is willing to pay for them in an officially recognized “legal tender”. Taken to its furthest extreme, allowing the market to maintain absolute sovereignty might well make human life itself untenable and unbearable. What hope do we have for fixing this? De-dilapidating sex and social life may well, according to Bauman (p. 48), call for “consumer rationality to be deprived of, and to shed, its present-day sovereignty over the motives and strategies of human life politics. This would mean, however, calling for more than could be reasonably expected to happen in the foreseeable future.”

Some stones are best left right where nature put them.

Some stones are best left right where nature put them.

In some regards Bauman is taking this discussion back to Kant. Commenting on Kant’s minor 1784 treatise What is Enlightenment?, Bauman (p. 125) says: “Sooner or later, Kant warned, there will not be a scrap of empty space left where those of us who have found the places already occupied too cramped or too inhospitable for comfort, too awkward of for whatever other reason uncongenial, could seek shelter or rescue. And so Nature commands us to view (reciprocal) hospitality as the supreme precept we need to  –– and eventually will have to –– embrace and obey in order to bring to an end the long chain of trials and errors, the catastrophes leave in their wake.” Thus in Bauman’s perspective (and mine) striving to create a cultural atmosphere which encourages treating of others as ends and not means –– loving your neighbor as you love yourself –– considering the well-being of others to be part and parcel of our own well-being –– is the best utopian hope we can harbor for reducing the likelihood of humanity’s self-destruction.

This also relates to the eschatological dystopia spoken of in the Bible’s book of Revelation. The mysterious “mark of the beast” –– the number 666, or some close variation on such –– near as we can tell, was a coded reference to Caesar Nero, in whose honor the most commonly distributed CD-ROM burning software package these days is named. Nero, according to legend, started the major persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire as an exercise in scape-goating with regard to the great fire of Rome in the year 64 of our calendar. As the story in Revelation goes, there is a dragon, a beast coming out of the sea, a junior beast and a big statue of the first beast, all being strongly connected with the number 7 (as in the 7 hills of Rome) and the number 10 (perhaps related to the fact that Vespasian, Caesar at the time of the Roman legions’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem, was the tenth Caesar of the empire); who together form the ultimate opposition to the forces loyal to God/Jesus. It is the first beast from the sea which gets the famous triple-six number. This beast is basically considered to be invincible by its fan club, and it comes back from seemingly certain death a time or two. But its trademark characteristics are waging war against the righteous and establishing dominance over economic affairs.

018Leaving aside all of the numerological puzzles contained in the text for the moment, assuming that Nero did have a hand in the great fire and that the Christians were innocent scape-goats in the matter, the purpose of lighting such a fire would have been to eliminate part of the city market area that was outside of the emperor’s control and to enable him to rebuild in a way which gave him far greater control over the economic structure of the city. This would fit together quite well with the idea that the human name based code number for the “mark of the beast” was/would be Nero’s name, and that its purpose was/would be to control all economic activity: “…so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:17). The next chapter declares a major curse on anyone who goes along with “the beast’s” economic control program: “There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Rev. 14:11).


There are a number of fantasy interpretations of this text popular these days, as there has been in many phases of the history of Christendom, but I would propose a more practical application, in line with what Bauman has to say about the sovereignty of market forces over our lives: Those who place a higher priority on economic power than on love, loyalty and justice –– who are willing to turn a blind eye to the abuses that are perpetrated by the economic powers that be, which enable these powers to strengthen their grip on things  –– create their own personal hell for themselves and set themselves up as the enemies of God/goodness/righteousness/justice. To be on God’s side we must be willing to prioritize non-market values over market values. Not doing so leaves us thoroughly spiritually dilapidated.  012Meanwhile, while contemplating visual manifestations of dilapidation, I took Luna, the dog I am baby-sitting this weekend, and walked down to the little harbor closest to my apartment. I knew that there is a relatively new breakwater there which is somewhat prematurely dilapidated in the more literal original sense of the term. I also suspected that there might be some boats down there in less than ideal condition. Along the way we went to explore a hilltop ruin of some sort, which at one time would have commanded the best sea view in the district. I can’t say what the original building was, but these days it seems to provide a location for young people and rebels of all ages to party and practice their graffiti skills. It was as definitive an image of dilapidation as I might have hoped for.

This in turn opens another contemplative aspect of the dilapidation question: is it healthiest to sometimes just allow certain stones to slip out of the places we had in mind for them –– to let the dynamics of life to somewhat break free from the structures we try to use to contain them, even if that significantly damages the structures themselves? Sometimes perhaps so.

016I appreciated the fact that the ruins I explored today were not entirely fenced off, like some of the more interestingly dilapidated sections of Suomenlinna, the island fortress outside of Helsinki. I respect the local authorities’ judgment calls in both cases though. The ruins above the Haukilahti harbor which I visited today are of little historical value as such. Preserving them in some nostalgic form would not serve to genuinely enable a deeper sense of contact with the struggles and accomplishments of previous generations. One of the most important purposes they can serve is as an outlet for dilapidation as such; a place where those who feel a need to be unruly can be so with relatively limited risk to themselves and others. Outside the opening in the rusty chain-link fence around the ruins there is a sign with a mildly stated warning that there are certain risks involved in exploring such dilapidation, so be on your guard and don’t try to blame anyone else if you end up hurting yourself in here. Suomenlinna, on the other hand, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with all sorts of associated rules and restrictions and preservation requirements. It also has significantly higher walls over rocky coasts, offering significantly greater risk of self-injury. I would still like to be allowed to climb around in some of the areas they have fenced off these days, and I believe I could do so with relatively limited risk, but I get the idea of why they’d want to try and stop me from doing so, and I’m willing to abide by those limits in that case.

A "re-lapidated" section of Suomenlinna I explored a bit at Midsummer

A “re-lapidated” section of Suomenlinna I explored a bit at Midsummer

Finding the right balance between keeping our rocks in the places we want them and letting them slide around a bit as they are wont to do –– literally and figuratively –– is one of those matters about which general rules can have limited validity in their specific applications, generally speaking. The important thing is to keep believing that we each have a value that consumerist dynamics cannot quantify, and that we must never allow market forces to take from us.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Economics, Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Sexuality

Regarding Obama and Homosexuality in Africa

I’ve been dragging my feet about finishing a more thematically ambitious essay I started more than a week ago, but while working on that I have been actively involved in various other debates that I haven’t blogged about here. To get something up here while semi-blocked on the other project, allow me to toss out a response I gave via social media to an acquaintance of mine in central Africa this morning. He wrote:

President Barack Obama should know that we africans [sic] have our ways life. We don’t just copy anything done in the western world. Its shameful to hear president Obama advicing [sic] african governments to ligalise [sic] homosexuality and gay marriages! The American president should be made to know that we make our laws based on our ways of life, not on the uncalled for advices [sic] from foreign leaders. If there is nothing usefull [sic] he can tell african leaders and people, then he better shut up, enjoy his african tour and go back home.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn't actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don't have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn’t actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don’t have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

This sparked a lively conversation, strictly between Africans, on topics ranging from the irrelevance of the homosexuality question to the pressing problems of poverty, Obama’s personal vanity and his mother’s potential Jewish roots to the extent to which Africans are expected to mimic western cultural standards. So in response to that my wake-up rant this morning was as follows:


OK, as an American with no pretense at fully understanding Africa, but having tried, having only spent a year in South Africa, and having worked teaching humanities subjects in international schools in Europe for most of my professional life, I still feel I have to say something here.

President Obama is the first American president to be in touch with his African ancestry, as well as the first to have spent a significant amount of his childhood in a Muslim country. He doesn’t make any particular claims of cultural connection with your cultures beyond that, and those who have false expectations of him on those bases only have themselves and their own social echo chambers to blame.

By American political standards Obama is a moderate liberal. That means that his policy priorities are focused on better reinforcement of human rights for all both within the US and around the world… in theory. In practice of course he has his own cultural blind spots. This does not mean that he is going to start lecturing Africans on the meaning of marriage from his own cultural perspective: He will not be preaching to Jacob Zuma about the dangers of his polygamy or his adultery. But with his general human rights focus he will be telling Indians who didn’t get the message from Gandhi that they can’t treat Dalits as disposable human beings. To Africans, I honestly believe, he is fully justified in saying that there are certain abuses that cannot be tolerated in the name of “protecting cultural tradition”. These would include genocidal wars, the sexual abuse of children, and yes, killing homosexuals for no other crime than being homosexual.

It is rather difficult to say if homophobia in Africa is a cultural feature which goes back to the time when sangomas dominated religious life there, or whether homosexuality was something that Africans learned to hate and fear with the coming of Muslim and Christian missionaries. There is little question about the matter that in all cultures there have always been certain small minorities of men who are more sexually attracted to other men than to women, and that the same has gone for women as well. Westerners did not introduce this phenomenon into any culture. Westerners may have actively tried to change attitudes towards such people, in both positive and negative ways. In this regard for Obama to preach tolerance towards homosexuality in Africa is, probably to his mind, and in my mind quite justifiably, a matter of attempting to undo the damage that has done by other westerners and outsiders with their various forms of hate-mongering. There isn’t any God-given or other need for Africans to hate and attack the sexual minorities among them. Those people too are people, having value as such and capable of making important contributions in their societies.

I’ve been studying the phenomena of “Theonomy” among western Christians and “Qutbism” among Muslims as radical programs for establishing modern civil law on the basis of “God’s eternal decrees” — including a religious decree that homosexuals should be killed for their “perversion” just because “God says so.” This is not a traditional African perspective on such matters, but foreign missionary groups have very actively and successfully promoted such views on the African continent. In the name of respect for indigenous culture those messages should be rejected at least as vehemently as President Obama’s message of tolerance — preferably far more vehemently.

I say all this not as the outsider who is “so much more intelligent that you” but as the outsider who can perhaps see your situation just a little bit more clearly for not being entangled within it. You might have the same advantage in analyzing problems of European culture. I ask that you kindly consider my words here not as those of a wannabe cultural imperialist, but as those of someone who wants to be your brother in spite of having been born white and far away. Peace all.


That’s a strictly “take it for what it’s worth” perspective, but if any of you would like to add your own $0.02 worth here, feel free.


Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance

Master Statuses

As a number of my former students have gone on to study social sciences in Scotland in particular, please forgive me for retelling a crude old Scottish joke that I was reminded of lately. Please forgive me as well for any mistakes I make in approximating the classical form of the joke:

An old Scotsman was sitting at a bar, well into his cups, bemoaning the unfairness of life. “Y’know,” he says to whomever might be listening, “I’ve probably pulled more fish out of the sea than any two of these blokes in here, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the fisherman’.” He takes a sip on his whiskey and goes on, “I fought in the royal marines and have medals for bravery in combat, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the marine’.” Another sip. “Give me a bagpipe and I can play you any tune these hills have ever heard, just as loud and sweet and pure as you could ever hope to hear, but no on calls me ‘McDuff the piper’.” Then with quivering lip and a repressed tear he says, “But ye shag just one lousy sheep…”

This basically explains what sociologists mean when they talk about someone having a “master status.” Whatever other virtues and vices a particular person may have, if there is one particular distinction which overshadows all others, which prevent the other things about him or her from being recognized as important, that becomes the person’s master status. Regardless of what else he does in life, Paul McCartney will always be primarily known as “the ex-Beatle.” Regardless of the genius he demonstrated in other areas, Ted Kaczynski will always be known by most simply as “the Unabomber.” Regardless of what artistic and philosophical contributions he may have to offer to the world in his own right, Frank Schaeffer (the fifth) will always be known to most people who have ever heard of him as Francis Schaeffer’s renegade son.

The thing that reminded me of this joke and this state of affairs is the story of Geronimo Aguilar that has been making the rounds this past week. “Pastor G,” as he is said to be known among his friends and admirers, for whatever else his virtues and accomplishments in life, will be known according to the combined master statuses of “megachurch pastor” and “sexual predator,” and he stands a good chance of going back to prison for the rest of his life on that latter account. This isn’t a unique combination of master statuses; they almost seem to go together in the public imagination as readily as “Catholic priest” and “child molester”. Needless to say, the vast majority of megachurch pastors are not sexual predators, and the vast majority of sexual predators are not clergymen of any sort; just like the vast majority of Catholic priests are not child molesters, and visa-versa. But the overlap is familiar enough where it brings a cynical grin to many a skeptic’s face.

pastor-g-geronimo-aguilarIt doesn’t really help that the individual in question looks far more like a porn star than a preacher. With his shaved head, is conspicuously muscular build, his exposed tattoos and his close cropped goatee, one could easily stereotype based on appearances that having his way with women would be a significant part of his life. But then again, reaching out to the unchurched and those caught in cycles of self-destructive behavior in a thoroughly street-credible way might explain most of that image. Or then again, it might not.

Other aspects of the image portrayed in the coverage of this event fit squarely within the stereotype of American evangelical megachurch culture though: acres of retired school busses used by the church to bring in kids from the community to be evangelized; a headquarters composed of a set of strip-mall-style buildings just off a major freeway; an Israeli flag flying next to the stars and stripes on the church roof; a luxurious colonial styled “parsonage” for their leader in the suburbs; a combination of admiration, jealousy and suspicion expressed by outside “community leaders”…

I must also say, however, that frankly the reporting on this scandal is riddled with inconsistencies. To start with it claims in one place that Aguilar started this “ministry” in 2003 (ten years ago by my math), but then he is quoted as saying in his resignations speech that “Serving you all and leading this church have been the best twelve years of my life.” Then that mathematical mismatch is further complicated by the accusation that a girl whose family joined into the church in question when she was 5 years old was seduced by Aguilar just after she turned 18. Something here just doesn’t add up. That seems just to reinforce the message that none of us really know enough to judge, but with such a juicy gossip topic at hand that lack of actual knowledge about the situation isn’t going to slow things down much.

Without rattling off a series of names of guilty parties in such matters, why is it that so many men in high positions of spiritual leadership have such a hard time keeping their pants zipped at strategic moments then? And beyond the question of finding it hard to resist temptation when presented with adoring fans who want them sexually, why is it that so many seem to be prone to using their influence to pressure others (usually women, but not always) into physical intimacy? I can’t claim to know too much about this from personal experience or from having such leaders confide in me directly, but I have been close enough to such cultures to make some valid conjectures about the matter.

Elmer_Gantry_posterMy primary point would be that this is really not based on an Elmer Gantry narrative, at least not as a general rule. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sinclair Lewis’s character, Gantry is an “elegant drunk” who becomes a fundamentalist preacher just for the thrills and sensual benefits the job has to offer, while never really taking the message to heart or constraining himself to live according to it. This character has really set the standard for condemnation of religious hucksters ever since. The problem is, it doesn’t really connect with what makes corrupt religious leaders tick. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, had as difficult a time controlling his erotic urges as any religious leader ever, but that makes him neither a huckster nor even a hypocrite –– just one more screwed up human being who was doing his best to leave the world a better place while somewhat carelessly appreciating what life had to offer in the brief time he had it.

The core of the issue, as I see it at least, involves the interaction between the top three ways of searching for happiness in life: control, confidence and connection. (See my “Kristian’s Ethics” series starting here for further explanation of the terms.) Depending on the individual in question, some powerful preachers are essentially motivated by the thrill of being able to have a major impact on the lives of others; other preachers, more by being able to change the world –– put a ding in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to say –– in what they consider to be a positive way; still others, more for that satisfying mystical sense of being deeply connected with God, the universe, and people around them. All of these things can be related to a requirement of having mastery over one’s sexual urges, but all of them also relate to basic forms of satisfaction in life that can have a very sexual element to them. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

Especially those preachers who are in conversion-oriented churches and denominations, when they’re good at what they do –– getting people to make significant changes in their lifestyles and religious affiliations –– they get a certain thrill in the “win” that each convert represents. It is the same sort of thrill that a good litigating lawyer gets from presenting a successful closing argument; that a politician gets from winning a hard-fought election; that a salesman gets from closing a big deal. To deny that much good can come from people having such motivations at times is foolish. Obviously seeking such a thrill can cause people to do some particularly admirable and some particularly disgusting things morally. The danger is that an addiction to the sort of thrill that comes with being able to control people in this sort of way can have the effect of reducing the leader’s moral judgment as to which types of “wins” are morally justified and which are not. Take that far enough and seduction becomes just one more form of victorious control over others to feed that habit.

The sense of confidence in one’s moral value can function in much the same way. When someone is particularly good at problem solving, conflict resolution and social reform, that too brings its own addictive high. It isn’t necessarily about being able to get people to do what they want so much as being able to establish a vision for how things should ideally be and to bring that vision to pass. It starts with wanting to see people getting their thrills from being among believers singing worship choruses rather than being drunk in a pub singing karaoke or high on heroin in some ghetto shooting gallery. Being able to give people hope of better things, make society a safer place, setting up organizations that reduce suffering and increase the peace… all make us feel better about ourselves in a very satisfying way. Part of how that works is also being gracious about allowing some people to do nice things for you in return, so that they too can feel good about themselves as part of the exchange. And when it comes to doing simple things to make each other happy, sexual tensions are often not far below the surface.

Then there is the sensation of feeling deeply connected with others. In some very basic ways the ecstasy of religious euphoria can affect the brain in much the same way as chemical “E” –– “the love drug.” When you start to really feel that you are part of others and others are part of you, and we’re all part of something much bigger than all of us, hugs and kisses between participants become very free and natural. From there the temptation to allow the physical and emotional closeness to keep building becomes very powerful at times. Some are better at keeping this on a Platonic, brother and sister level than others.

So from the perspective of these three forms of satisfaction being intensively in play, it is not terribly surprising that so many religious leaders end up getting caught in embarrassing moral situations. This doesn’t justify their indiscretions, and certainly not their predatory practices, but it might explain how they tend to slip into such so easily at times. From this perspective the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy –– keeping the whole possibility of sexual intimacy off the table once and for all for all of their professional promoters of spiritual love –– might not be as crazy as it sounds to many outsiders. Then again, that clearly has not been a foolproof solution either. The best we can do, I imagine, is to remain on our guard in terms of which trusted individuals might be hoping for what extra forms of satisfaction at times; and to bear in mind what we want our master statuses to be, and how our various actions might end up affecting them.  I still believe that control, confidence and connection are the greatest factors to be developed in having a satisfying life, but I also believe that we need a certain amount of mastery over where they might lead us.

The idea of the master status is that you have one status which takes over everything about your life to one extent or another. It is not that you have a status which causes you to be recognized as a master; it is that the status itself is master and you end up becoming its slave or prisoner. Some statuses make better masters than other. Some we have more control over than others. So as much as it is within your power, choose your potential master status carefully.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Freedom, Love, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Spirituality

Defining Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday’s Losses

Monday, April 8, 2013 will go down in history the day on which two particularly significant women passed from this life: Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher. I put them in that order on purpose. Maggie was the older of the two and the more recently famous, but Annette comes first alphabetically, and I honestly believe that she had the more positive influence on the world we live in. I stated in a Facebook status on Tuesday morning that I would not want to see Annette’s death overshadowed by Maggie’s, and this received mixed responses. So I thought I should explain why I see things that way.

Not that I am a huge fan or deep resenter of either of them –– and they each had plenty of both –– but I recognize both of these women as having reshaped people’s perspectives on how society should work and what makes people valuable. I don’t think either of them actually thought particularly deeply about the matter, but in following the paths that came naturally to them they both left a huge mark on the world in this regard –– probably greater than I ever will in both cases. Some consider the world to be better off for what one or the other of them contributed; some consider one or the other of them to have profoundly damaged the basic values that we should live by. I’m ready to take something of a middle position on both accounts.

Both of them had relatively full, rich and long lives. Both had been out of the public eye and profoundly disabled by degenerative diseases that eventually killed them for over a decade already, so it’s hard to consider either of their passings to be particularly tragic. Rather both provide especially good opportunities for reflection on what makes particular individuals, and human life in general, valuable. What values should we be fighting to protect from women like these, and what new perspectives represented by women like these should we be heartily embracing?

bikini-beach-annette-funicelloAnnette was the embodiment of two monumental cultural aspects of the 20th century: the Disney princess cult and the early years of rock and roll. Both have a rather mixed cultural legacy in terms of providing purportedly harmless entertainment while sending conflicted messages to young people about what they should be looking for in life and trying to make of their lives.

Disney was never edgy in the same way as Warner Bros cartoons. It was perfectly natural to see Bugs Bunny in drag starting to seduce Elmer Fudd, or to see Daffy Duck flying up to join a migrating flock of his own species promising, “I’m good company! I know lots of off-color jokes!” Mickey Mouse would never do or say anything of that sort. Even the pants-less Donald Duck gave no indication of ever being a sexual being in those sorts of ways. Old Uncle Walt was a stickler for traditional propriety. His amusement parks were famous not only for their wiz-bang adventure rides and tie-ins to children’s films of various sorts, but also for the clean cut, white bread image that all of their workers were required to maintain.

But Disney’s stock and trade was folk tales and fairy tales from various parts of the white-skinned world, with most of the brutal violence and sexual innuendo of the originals scrubbed out and replaced with post-war American Dream optimism of various sorts. Then to increase their market appeal new abstract forms of sex and violence were introduced: Chaotic but bloodless chase scenes, gun fights and brawls helped maintain the myth within Disney versions of these tales that with sufficient courage, determination and magical weapons of various sorts, good could always defeat evil in violent conflict. When it came to sexuality, all of the Disney female role models are built like Barbie Dolls, and boys’ and girls’ abstract desires to hug and kiss each other, and perhaps to run away together to take things further, were part of the essential dynamic of most classic Disney stories. Annette was basically a live action model who enabled Disney to present this fantasy princess character in more than animated form.

The sixties fundamentally screwed up that clean-cut cultural image for everyone though. Attempts to keep depicting the Beatles, the Beach Boys and their clones as “really nice young men” were destined to failure, and at the end of the decade Woodstock provided the perfect symbolic funeral for that fantasy of traditional respectability living on in popular youth culture. Annette, however, even while surrounded by armies of corny rockers and bikini-clad go-go girls, never stepped out of the wholesome, principled yet drool-worthy image of the real life Disney princess.

But regardless of the wholesomeness of her image, very carefully guarded by the Disney apparatus, Annette became the first child starlet of the television generation to go from being a cute little pre-pubescent girl to watch cartoons with to being a full-blown glamour girl and sex symbol. Her essential commercial value was based on being “lovable” in two very different senses. In this regard she paved the way not only for later generation Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but for many other little show business girls who have had identity issues in the process of becoming sex symbols. The open question remains, is this a bad thing? Should we rather be steering little girls away from having a value based on their capacity to make boys hornier –– from living according to expectations set by men’s sexual fantasies? Or on the other hand, if some girls are able to play this sort of role while still maintaining a capacity to carefully choose their mates, and if they can eventually establish the sort of family life that they want for themselves, like Annette did (sort of), where’s the harm in that?

It could be argued that the whole underlying theme of the musical Grease –– written as a nostalgia piece about the fifties already in the seventies, and still running strong as a popular DVD and a staple of amateur theater nearly 40 years later –– was to explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in Annette’s public image. Whatever the case, she simultaneously played the roles of both the Disneyesque “good girl” and the object of teenage erotic desire with a rare sort of dignity. With her open display of intense sex appeal combined with her deep traditional values she leaves us asking ourselves how much we are willing to respect women who live up to our other cultural standards but willingly allow themselves to be sexually objectified–– a question worth asking ourselves repeatedly from era to era.

margaret-thatcherAnd then there’s Maggie. No one could accuse her of allowing herself to become a fantasy sex object –– quite the opposite. It is said that no one who really knew her would ever think of calling her “Maggie” even; such a casual nick-name was the total antithesis of her persona. But as she was a public figure who is otherwise a stranger to me, I’ll take the liberty.

Margaret Thatcher’s image and impact is based quite directly on not being attractive, and not being particularly lovable in any sense. To the extent that she is loved by anyone it is for her unsentimental attacks on the post-war socialist norms of British, European and global politics. She didn’t seem to care about people as people. She was more interested in whipping the lazy plebes into shape and getting things operating as efficiently as possible to fulfill the desires of the rich and powerful, and for this she made no apologies.

The hallmark of Thatcher’s reign was the Falklands War of 1982, where she sent the Royal Navy and Air Force to keep the Argentinians from permanently taking over these chunks of rock out in the south Atlantic. In order to keep these islands –– and the 3000 British subjects and 500,000 British sheep living on them –– British, as a matter of principle, Mrs. Thatcher decided that it was worth expending £3 billion and a thousand or so lives. More importantly, she couldn’t have remained in power to solidify her tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the poor without such an exercise in reinforcing what was left of British imperial pride.

It says something further about Maggie that she considered Chile’s General Pinochet to be a good friend and Nelson Mandela to be a dangerous terrorist. Yet this was perfectly consistent with the rest of her agenda: busting up labor unions as far as possible, selling off government-owned corporations to finance tax cuts, arguing that economic polarization is not a bad thing, reducing government spending on poor families with children and offering them some potential savings in turn by making late-term abortions easier to come by. Yet many of my acquaintances in America’s religious right still want to see her as a cultural hero. Go figure.

Some consider Mrs. Thatcher to have been the British female equivalent to Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan is somehow seen as having improved the world, Thatcher too must have been a force for good. Their combined opposition to Communism and all political phenomena associated with such are believed to have been the final factors bringing about victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance.

After Thatcher, Reagan also began a new era of military adventurism and wars of choice. Seeing how well Thatcher’s little war off the coast of South America played out, a year and a half later Reagan decided to declare a little war of his own in the same region, seizing control of the little island country of Grenada. Grenada had become independent of Britain less than a decade earlier and it had been going through a string of unstable Marxist dictatorships ever since, so it looked like a pretty good place for the US to start restoring order in the world and telling these Marxists where to go. After that came the covert proxy war for control of the Central American country of Nicaragua, paid for by secretly selling weapons to Islamic dictatorships that the US Congress had refused to sign off on. Without Thatcher’s example of rebuilding national pride through military adventurism, Reagan might never have gone down such paths. Had that not happened, conceivably the Soviet house of cards that Thatcher’s other dear friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, was trying to keep standing, might have collapsed a bit more slowly. Revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania might have begun a little more hesitantly or they might conceivably have been quashed a bit more aggressively. This is probably just idle speculation, but it is the best justification I can think of for according some sort of historical respect to the Iron Lady.

The only other justification I can think of is that there were certain industries in Britain that were effectively stagnated and collapsing, but which were being kept standing by the government’s fear of civil unrest and voters’ rage were they to face the inevitable and close down these losing operations. Chief among these was their national coal mining industry. In order to get to a place where these hopeless ventures could be phased out and people would start looking for more sustainable long-term economic alternatives for their families and their villages was to have the sort of political leadership that didn’t care about causing pain to working people. Thus Thatcher’s natural lack of empathy may have enabled the country to make necessary transitions that a more humanly attuned leader would have kept trying to resist.

All the same, I find it rather tasteless for the British political left to have street parties celebrating Maggie’s death. I can appreciate the humor in playing “Ding-dong, the Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz privately in honor of the occasion, but I can’t see a justification for marching down the street with banners making such a proclamation. Even less do I go along with further reinforcing this message by changing the W-word to the B-word there. It just becomes grossly inaccurate; Maggie had none of the loyalty, empathy and protectiveness that typifies female dogs, so she should not be posthumously referred to as such!

In any case, as I was saying, both of these ladies which passed on Monday were “important” in terms of having a significant influence on the world they lived in, albeit not necessarily an entirely positive influence in either case. In both cases their legacies leave us with the question of what makes particular people valuable and/or important. In Annette’s case her importance was based on the abstract, sanitized sensual attractiveness that she came to represent. In Maggie’s case it was a cold-hearted rational consideration of what particular people are useful for politically and economically that characterized her thinking and her impact on her era. Neither of these perspectives represent a value system that I can heartily endorse, but there are aspects of each worth paying heed to.

Something of a middle ground between Thatcherite and Funicelloian values can be found in Aristotle’s thought on the matter. Aristotle famously advised his son, Nichomachus, to establish his personal value through recognizing what various things make people happy –– things people come to desire for their own sake, not as a means of getting something else –– and to build strategic friendships and alliances with those who are the most capable of providing such happiness for others. The good man is one who can fairly exchange means of gaining happiness with others at the highest possible level. Some people have more to offer than others in this regard, but everyone has something to offer, even to his or her superiors, in terms of appreciation and respect. The satisfaction to be gained by receiving these intangible goods in exchange for other favors is not to be underestimated, but nor can it be assumed that having enough respect for another can be currency enough to settle all debts. In any case, however one does it, one must always take care to give as good as one gets, and get as good as one gives.

That taken into consideration, this would seem to leave us with a risk of seeing other people merely as means of satisfying our selfish, animalistic desires for physical pleasures or social dominance. The solution to this, and the point of life as I see it, is to move beyond that level of thought and desire, towards a more interconnected one. In this regard I agree strongly with the point made recently in a sermon by my good virtual friend, Brian Zahnd, where he cites Dostoevsky in defining hell as a place of not being able to love. Being able to meaningfully connect with others, not just as a means of getting “stuff” from them and not just in order to establish some sort of dominance over them, is what makes life truly worthwhile –– what keeps life from becoming hell for us. While I didn’t know either of them personally, of course, I have the strong impression that Annette seemed to get this a lot more clearly than Maggie did.

Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace, and may the better parts of their legacies go on to overpower the results of their limitations.

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

On the Abortion Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

KE part 7 (evaluating connection-based happiness)

So now I come to the peak of my “Five Cs” of happiness: connection. I should probably start out with a couple of qualifications here. First of all, as I’ve said already, there are many philosophers and psychologists in the field who are dogmatically convinced that confidence is the true peak of happiness and self-worth, and I’m not going to try to conclusively disprove their theory on the matter. It’s not the sort of thing that can be scientifically proven one way or the other. Both are important, and I recognize that happiness can come in many forms for many people. Secondly, just because I consider connection to be the most important source of happiness does not mean that as long as you have that, nothing else matters. All of these sources remain important and need to be balanced with each other, right down to the comparison business I started out with. I have some ideas about the limits of connection as source of human happiness but that is an essay unto itself.

All that being said, and my personal experiences aside, there is one powerful theoretical justification for putting connection at the top of my sources of happiness list: all the others are limited to the scope of a person’s natural lifespan. It’s highly unlikely that I have more life ahead of me than I do behind me at this point, and no one who is old enough to read this will be alive 100 years from now. So that brings me to one inescapable conclusion matter how well you live it, life is just too damn short. The limits of what happens within my own skin are just too tight. We have a certain need to feel that we are part of something that goes further than that. The author of Ecclesiastes (3:11) put it this way: “[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done.” Even Aristotle recognized that in order to count as truly happy and successful in life, a man has to leave some sort of successful heritage. To do that, he has to connect with something beyond himself.

And then beyond that there is my subjective evaluation of things that have made me happy and common traits I’ve noticed among the happier people I have known. People who feel cared about, part of a group of “significant others,” in touch with something greater than themselves and in general “loved” tend to be far happier than even the most powerful and self-confident of all loners out there.

Looking at what I wrote to my son on this subject years ago, I now see some things that are very dated about this text, but it’s worth sharing anyway:

This form of happiness can begin with the most trivial of things. At its most basic level, I can experience the happiness of connection through such simple things as a bicycle ride; as I stand up on the pedals and start pumping my legs to get up a hill, I start to feel like my old Raleigh ten-speed just becomes an extension of my arms and legs, moving according to my will as a part of my very being. The great gun-slingers of the American Wild West said the same thing of their revolvers; they just felt as though they became part of their hands. For the skilled jockey or cowboy on horseback, or for a shepherd working with a well-trained sheep dog, the same principle goes a step deeper; instead of a machine, a living, breathing organism with a mind of its own effectively becomes part of that person’s “self.” There is a special thrill as these two operate entirely as one. But it is only when two people somehow have the experience of effectively becoming part of each other that this satisfaction reaches a plateau where it deserves to be called love.

Since I wrote that the Raleigh has long since been stolen and I am no longer in very good cycling condition, and since it is entirely fair to say that my relationship with my dog has been one of the major factors in preserving what is left of my mental health, I might be a bit more inclined to recognize the proper use of the L-word as relating to “lower species” as well, but other than that I still stand by this quote. It does, however, make it necessary to consider more carefully the ways these connections are formed and how they become meaningful to us.

To start with, I would deny that love is merely the emotional component of a complex set of self-defense and self-promotion reflexes which, on Freud’s authority, are seen as related to the sex drive. Besides reacting to the offensiveness of the implied reductionist claim that all of my interpersonal connections are nothing more than instinctive hormonal reactions, I would point out that we can see the difference between love and sexual preoccupation by studying psychopaths. These particularly sick individuals lack the capacity to experience any form of love, but not sex. A psychopath can experience sexual satisfaction just as well as the next guy; he just can’t experience any sense of closeness with his partner in the process. A certain sort of love should be part of sex, and at its best sex is an expression of a very profound sort of love, but love is far more than that and comes in many more forms than that.

It should also be noted that love is one of the areas of human experience where human language is at its most inadequate. Poets of all different languages, styles and cultures have been trying to capture the experience of love for at least as long as we have had written languages, some doing better at it than others but none of them succeeding entirely. The nature of the problem here was captured as well I have seen anywhere by the recently deceased Finnish poet Tommy Taberman, whom I jokingly refer to has being a distant relative of mine by way of marriage (long story). Taberman got a bit of a rise out of critics by describing a sunrise as being “the color of an orgasm.” Now what color would that be? Obviously the experience of an orgasm cannot be captured in a particular shade of color (though if it could it would probably be something warm and dazzling like the most intense sunrise you’ve ever witnessed), and just as obviously the experience of love cannot be captured in a particular verbal expression. However you say it, there will always be more to it than that.

But that still leaves an open question of what we are really talking about when we speak of love in sincere, non-lustful terms. Christian devotional writing on the topic has spent a lot of time and ink going over the three basic Greek words for love used in the New Testament, but in my opinion that doesn’t really answer the question; in some ways it may just muddy the waters. Not that I consider myself to be wiser or more verbally skilled than the inspired writers of scripture or their army of commentators, but perhaps if I toss out my own ad hoc set of categories for types of love—or interpersonal connections in general––it might at least inspire some fresh thinking on the subject. I’ll show you what I’ve got then and await a variety of different critical responses. Here are Huisjen’s basic categories for what might be meant by “love”:

1. “Warm Fuzzies”
Borrowed from the name for emotional images used in Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, warm fuzzies is a term used to refer to an unthinking, instinctive sense of emotional attraction. This is where someone or something is presented in a way that makes them appear “totally huggable.” Some people, women in particular, live for warm fuzzy experiences, and media experts are all too happy to provide such experience for them as means of manipulating people into consuming whatever product they’re being paid to sell. There are some very basic tricks of that trade that we could discuss, but I’m trying to keep this brief. The point here is that these sorts of feelings are a bit like the rabbit my sons and I had as a pet prior to our spaniel: soft, tender, endearing, mostly harmless and incredibly stupid.

Cynical as my approach here is though, warm fuzzies can have their own legitimate role in helping us find happiness. As long as you’re careful about it and recognize the inherent limits in this kind of relationship, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in appreciating cuteness and non-sexual cuddliness.

As to the risks of becoming obsessed with “love” strictly in terms of warm fuzzies (at the risk of distastefully speaking ill of the dead) two words: Michael Jackson.

2. Synchronized Function
There is a slightly deeper sort of “love” than warm fuzzies that goes with working smoothly together with someone, sort of like what I spoke of above relating to bicycles and sheep dogs. There’s just this certain bond which comes about when a rock band plays really well together for a long time, feeding off of each other’s energy and creating great art in the process; or when a military unit functions so that every member can literally trust every other member with their lives because of how well they have learned to work together; or even when a restaurant staff is able to function reliably and efficiently under pressure, giving each customer what they want when they want it with pride and finesse, regardless of how swamped they get. In any of these cases it’s entirely appropriate for members of the group to say to each other, “I love you, man!” This sort of love has its limits though, in that it is obviously based on each person’s performance abilities and similar skill levels. It may provide help for a colleague who gets wounded or even stumbles under pressure, but it has no place for weaklings and wannabes. Less able folks also need love, so we can’t leave it at this.

3. Aesthetic Connection
In the film (and theatre play) Shadowlands (based on the life of author C. S. Lewis) there is an important line repeated a few different dialogs: “We read to know that we’re not alone.” I would strongly agree with that assessment, and apply it to many other forms of appreciating human creativity. Literature, like all fine arts at their best, gives us a sense of connection with the experience of the author/artist and other members of the audience; it helps us know we are not alone. Knowing that there are others out there who feel something at least quite similar to what I feel gives me a sense of being part of something important. Sometimes this is a matter of sharing an appreciation for the artist’s awesome talent; turning to the guy next to you and saying, “Damn! How does he do that?!” Other times it is just admiring the elegant simplicity of a particular creative solution to a difficult challenge. Other times it is a matter of recognizing the feelings being expressed as ones you’ve gone through yourself, or that you could easily imagine yourself going through, but you hadn’t quite been able to express them; and through this art you now discover a certain community of those who’ve had the same sort of experiences. Or it could be any combination of these forms of connection through the art. Of course not everyone “gets it,” but that can be part of what makes it special.

4. Romantic/Sexual Union
I’ve already discounted hormonal attraction as a form of love, but sometimes there is something intense that physical lovers experience that goes beyond the sexual. Plato talked about a legend of the gods cruelly splitting souls in half and putting each half in a separate body, so that people spend their lives looking for the other half of their primordial true self––someone they can “become part of” not only physically but, through the physical passion, on a deeper level as well. While on a fundamental level I do not believe in this sort of “soul mate” idea, and while my personal experience in looking for romantic partnership has been mixed at best, I do deeply respect and appreciate the value of the sort of bonding that couples who are “meant for each other” are able to achieve. Of course it doesn’t “just come naturally” for anyone, but when two people are able to build the sort of life together where, after spending more than half of their lives committed to each other, they still get profound satisfaction from being together, those are some of the most enviable people in the world. The institution of marriage may or may not help people build this sort of partnership in any given case, but when this kind of love is established between the partners even a cynical second generation divorcee like me can see marriage as a potentially beautiful thing. But the problem with this sort of love is that “authorities” who claim to have sure-fire ways of making this sort of relationship work––from conservative religious leaders to neo-Jungian relationship therapists––are never as effective at it as they claim to be.

5.  Kinship
In addition to the pair bonding aspect of building happy families there is also the matter of people having a semi-instinctual urge to protect and build solidarity with those they have the most in common with genetically; especially their own children, but also siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins and even more distant relatives. This sort of connection can be very powerful and important regardless of one’s pair bonding success. Especially in the case of parent/child relationships here, this sort of love can easily trump all others. Like romantic relationships, it can very seriously misfire at times, but when it does you can’t divorce yourself in the same way from your parents, or your children, or your siblings, as you can from a spouse. That sort of involuntary certainty in the relationship can actually have a very positive effect at times.

6. Intellectual Stimulation
As a philosopher and a theologian (in the looser senses of both words at least) I’m inclined to believe that there are levels of personal connection that transcend all physical or biological considerations. More important than biological kinship, in other words, is our search for “kindred spirits.” Beyond knowing that each of us is part of a particular family tree, beyond having that “special someone” in your life, and beyond sharing a certain level of emotional experience in relation to the arts, we all need to experience the sense that our basic world views and the foundations for our personal values are more than just our quirky individual ways of looking at things. Finding others who can share those views with you and who can help you refine those views can in fact be one of the most important experiences of love that a person can have. This can be seen as a combination of the aesthetic and the synchronized, cooperative forms of love mentioned above, but it also goes beyond that. It is a matter of my overall world view somehow becoming profoundly connected with someone else’s world view. This need not be a perfect or comprehensive match in order to be a profound source of joy for those fortunate enough to experience it. Perhaps the joy that many think they are getting from personal confidence in their intellectual processes more properly comes from this form of connection with others that they get be way of these intellectual processes. This can also be related to…

7. Spiritual Union
Some may consider this to be a delusional form of connection by way of intellectual stimulation, but I am also prone to believe that there is indeed “something out there” beyond the metaphysical limits of the material realm; something which is the ultimate source of our being and which ultimately defines our purpose in life. As an unabashed member of the Christian tradition, for lack of any better name, I refer to this “something” as “God” when I am speaking English, with rough equivalents in any other language I might try to use. More than connecting with other people, but at the same time as one of the primary focal points for my connection with other people, I wish to have a connection with this ultimate source that I call God. Again, in my experience, people who humbly reach out in search of this ultimate source, and who find satisfaction in building a connection with such a transcendent source of peace and harmony, whatever religious tradition they happen to base this sense of connection on, tend to be some of the happiest and most enviable people in the world. This is why, for example, I believe the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are able enjoy such a profound sense of connection with each other, regardless of their theological differences. This is a form of love that I strongly hope to include in all of the other loves I feel and express.

There’s still a lot to be said about the relative importance of each of these types of love, and the risks and rewards involved in pursuing them as sources of happiness, but I already have more verbiage here than the average blog reader has the patience for, so I’ll leave it at that. And since this series isn’t really generating a lot of traffic this time around I’ll leave off on this here for now. Here’s hoping then that each of you finds the sorts of connections in life that you need in order to be genuinely happy, and if any of you want to connect with me personally in some of these more important ways, feel free to contact me about the matter.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Love, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

On Not Being Gay

This blog is going up late because for the past week and a half I’ve been traveling around the more rural parts of South Africa, seeing parts of this country that are more exotic to my western eye: sugar cane fields ripe for harvest, cows and goats wandering the streets, zebras and giraffes in their natural habitat, economies based on frantic informal buying and selling everything on the side of the road, black children in school uniforms flooding the dirt paths through villages together with their livestock, women cutting marsh reeds for making wicker items, mothers of all ages with babies strapped to their backs and large parcels balanced on their heads…

I never did see any elephants crossing the road though.

It would be too easy under these circumstances to associate the international headlines coming out of rural South Africa at the beginning of this month with this same sense of things here being radically exotic and non-western: Over the May Day holiday weekend among the younger high school boys of this province there was a particularly nasty gang rape of a retarded girl, that one boy shot a cell phone video of that started getting passed around on line; and then on the eve of May Day, in the same sugar cane fields I drove past a few days later, a teenage boy brutally raped a girl just more than half his age, attempting to strangle her and gouge her eyes out in the process. In the latter case the girl survived –– barely –– blindly crawling out of the sugar cane fields in what remained of her school uniform, so badly mutilated that her family didn’t recognize her. The prognosis is that she will eventually regain sight in one eye, but beyond that hope for a normal life for her is fairly limited.

It feels natural to try and distance ourselves from such atrocities. We can’t be talking about normal teenage boys here! There must be something profoundly messed up in the culture which leads to these sorts of inhuman actions among those who are still effectively children.

From enough of a distance it may seem that this is part of childhood being stolen from African children by guerilla fighters and underground armies and the like. People like Kony are making children into monsters that do horrible things to each other. But in these cases civil tensions really have nothing to do with the situation. South Africans regularly march in protest about their poor and risky lives, but there is no risk of civil war here. So far the most radical left wing politicians here have just been big mouthed clowns who talk about state takeover of larger businesses; but their campaigns remain purely democratic at this point, and their conspicuous incompetence is seriously limiting their potential impact in that arena even. (For further perspective on this see my Julius and Rick blog from a couple months ago.) Children in South Africa are not being trained to commit atrocities, especially against other children.

How then can we explain the messed up motivations behind these particularly heinous and obscene crimes, committed by those who aren’t even men yet? One journalistic analysis of the eye gouging rapist has brought out two factors that might explain matters somewhat: The boy was being raised by his grandmother, with little by way of masculine role models in his life; and he was being bullied at school in the typical way that other boys jokingly accused him of being gay. This makes the problem a distinctly African one in some senses, but not so exotic or different from Western culture any more.

A lack of positive male influence in life is a tragic problem in many parts of the world. Men have been isolated from families by the economic demands of industrialized working life, and where they have not been able to find work outside of the home their value as men has been severely marginalized. Thus to prove that they are “real men” many fathers resort to drinking, violence and other testosterone boosting activities that destroy what little chance they might have of building a relationship with their children. This leads to a matriarchal network of young mothers and intense grandmothers doing the child rearing, and boys having little idea about how their masculinity is supposed to (or allowed to) work. If all forms of masculinity –– other than “providing for the family” and other than that staying out of the way –– are just as thoroughly disrespected within a boy’s childhood home, it is little wonder if he starts to express his own masculinity in highly anti-social ways.

This problem is particularly acute in Africa, but it is a well known dynamic in all industrialized nations really. Across the world school boy cultures are increasingly polarized between the “tough guys” who make no apologies for their anti-social masculinity, and “wimps” and “faggots” who do what women tell them to and are thus accused of acting like women themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with women, per se; it’s just that no self-respecting young man wants to be one. If someone finds a functional solution for this problem they should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for the century.

Bullying is something we all know about from personal experience of being bullied, or taking part in bullying others before we knew any better, or from watching it happen and not really daring to do anything about it. It’s a near universal form of competition for dominance within a group, particularly among more immature individuals: bullies trying to win social acceptance by proving to others that they would be more valuable allies than the “oddballs” they have singled out for torture. This can be particularly brutal at times, and sadly many of the other evils we find in society trace back to the emotional scars left by school bullying, sometimes generations ago even. This can be the first link in a chain of violence that escalates and becomes cyclical, leading to all sorts of other evils.

Kids get teased for any number of reasons at school: for being fat, for being foreign, for having weak hand-eye coordination, for being physically or intellectually under developed or over developed for their age group, for having speech impediments, for having unusual coloring… or for having the wrong sort of emerging sexuality. This last one is particularly nasty because it is so indefinite, especially in the years immediately following puberty. You can pretty easily tell when a kid is unusually tall, or clumsy, or of conspicuously different ancestry from the rest of the group; you really can’t tell when a kid will turn out to be more sexually attracted to his or her own gender than to those using the bathroom on the other end of the hall. If suspicion of this is grounds for social rejection, isolation, public humiliation and physical abuse –– if neither the tormentors nor the tormented can be entirely sure about whether the assumed grounds for this nastiness is real or not –– that makes the seditious evil of the bullying all the more destructive.

If a kid is bullied for being of the wrong “race” he can usually figure out what it is about him that the idiots tormenting him have used as a basis for singling him out for torture, that it’s not something he can change, that it’s not something he did anything to deserve and that it’s actually a not a flaw. From there the emotional adjustment process is a lot easier. Such kids still have to deal with the brutality of the attacks they are subjected to but they know they are on higher moral ground than their attackers, and with the sense of confidence this gives them they can fight back or ignore the abuse far more effectively. But when a kid is bullied for “acting gay”, it’s actually not always clear where such an idea comes from, whether or not he’s voluntarily doing anything socially unacceptable, whether it’s a matter of simply learning to act more “normal”, whether he actually is more sexually attracted to members of his own sex and whether that would be something horrible if he is. A young victim of homophobic bullying cannot be sure whether he should lash out against his tormentors or against himself, or against someone else entirely.

Other grounds for teasing are things kids outgrow in one way or another. Size differences even out considerably when young people are finally full grown. Those who are less coordinated either develop the necessary coordination as they get older or they learn to compensate for it in other ways. Those who are too bright for their peer group either dumb themselves down or find new circles of friends that can relate to them better. Immigrant kids learn the new language and culture and find ways to fit in, and others come to see the variety that outsiders bring as a cool thing. Kids with who have been marginalized because of doubts about their sexuality have it much worse. If they are in fact homosexual by inclination in most parts of the world they will suffer lasting social stigma and moral condemnation for who they are. If they are in fact heterosexual by inclination, having suffered such abuse can seriously damage their chances of finding a desirable partner, and of building a stable relationship –– sexuality is always a matter of proving something, not of enjoying the depth of personal inter-connection it can bring.

If I relate this all to my own personal experience, I was teased in school for being different, but not for any serious suspicion that I was gay. I’ve had friends among fellow bullying victims who were gay, some of whom may have had a crush on me even, but it never occurred to me to have any sort of romantic interest in another guy. In retrospect I wish I could have been a better and more supportive friend to some of them, but of course there were things I just didn’t understand back then. At first I saw gay men as just clowns, in a tradition running from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Gomer Pyle. They were nothing more to me than a silly joke. When I came to know a few gay fellows of my own age at first I was almost always the last one to believe that it really was the case; labeling someone as gay was something that left a very bad taste in my mouth. When it became clear that someone really was gay my immediate reaction was a mix of nervousness and pity.

It took quite a while before I could start to relate to openly gay acquaintances as friends without really worrying about their sexuality. For me a lot of it had to do with my time in the restaurant business: in all types of food service establishments I encountered a continuous stream of both fellow workers and customers of that persuasion, and learning to relate to them in a friendly, cooperative and unreserved manner was a functional necessity. Sometimes their ways of expressing their identities still came out as a bad joke but more and more it became clear that they were just people like all others: trying to do good to others in hopes of receiving good in return, defensive regarding things over which they’ve been attacked in the past, looking for acceptance wherever they can find it, hoping to find love of many different sorts as life goes on.

I’ve come to realize quite thoroughly that a fear of homosexuality is a far more dangerous thing than homosexuality itself. Sexuality of any sort has its own beauties and dangers to it, and we all have to find a balance between enjoying our drives and restricting our urges. This applies quite equally to both women and men, both gay and straight. The fact that we tend to more easily accuse those who are different from ourselves does not give any of us the higher moral ground in these matters. Yes, the majority of the human race will continue to be heterosexual and sexuality will continue to be a source of strife within the human race for as long as we succeed in avoiding extinction. That doesn’t mean that any of us are justified in issuing blanket condemnations towards others’ sexuality. The most important thing is to stop kids from bullying each other on such a basis, and to keep them from doing horrible things to themselves and each other to prove something about their sexuality.



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Filed under Education, Ethics, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity