Category Archives: Social identity

Larycia vs. Tashlan

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled this month regarding the issue of the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College. To me the fundamental dynamics of the case are somewhat self-evident. I’m under no illusions that Professor Hawkins needs my help in the matter, but I do find it rather interesting all the same. I thought it would be worth writing a little about in that I see some little details of the case that other sources haven’t paid particular attention to yet.

hawkinsThe most surprising thing to me about the whole case is that Professor Hawkins made it as far as she did. By all reports we are talking about a brilliant young black woman (a decade my junior) from the deep south of the United States (Oklahoma) with strong social justice convictions and passions, who has followed those passions to achieve the position of tenured professor in the field of political science at one of the strongest academic bastions of evangelical activism in America. I can only speculate that this college originally saw in her a means of presenting a political and intellectual challenge to Obama-supporting black churches of the Martin Luther King Jr. tradition. Her official research interest in “Black Political Churches Outside the Black Church Milieu” hints in that direction. That would sit nicely with the orthodox white Religious Right mind set. But according to reports from the Chicago Tribune these defenders of the post-Reagan evangelical political status quo have already repeatedly questioned whether this young lady’s independent ideas might be more trouble than they’re worth to them. Her orthodoxy has previously been questioned for her stands in defense of the rights of women, blacks and sexual minorities, and now she goes and stands up for Muslims! “What were we thinking when we hired such a person?” they must be saying to themselves. “Isn’t there any way we can get her to leave quietly?”

The issue of contention here is whether Professor Hawkins violated the college’s doctrinal position required for all staff members in saying that she agrees with the popes on the matter of Muslims, “as people of the Book,” worshipping the same God as Christians. Experts far more accomplished and noteworthy than myself have already addressed this issue at some length; in particular Yale’s Professor Miroslav Volf. Suffice it to say as a summary of his argument that there is a strong tradition in Christian theology of at least respecting Islam’s sincerity in attempting to follow the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus; and if you’re going to say that Christianity’s God, the Father of Jesus, is a different god that Islam’s Allah, for consistency sake you also really need to acknowledge that Christianity’s understanding of God is so fundamentally different from the genocide-demanding JWHW of the ancient Jews as to be a different character entirely.

The token response to this from the evangelical side has come from a former Muslim by the name of Nabeel Qureshi, who claims that he still as warm relations with Muslim family members, and that as a convert he still used to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, but not he has “outgrown” that position. It’s hard to understand what Qureshi actually means when he claims that “[t]he similarities between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are fairly superficial, and at times simply semantic.” The Islamic understanding of God is every bit as derived from the Christian one as the Christian understanding of God is derived from the Ancient Jewish one. Islam also has elements derived from Muhammed’s direct contact with Jews, and it remains far closer to the Jewish understanding of monotheism than Christianity’s is to either, but whereas the Jews considered Jesus to be a blasphemous messianic pretender, Muslims revere him as a great prophet. How then can this be a matter of mere superficial and semantic similarity?

Qureshi’s superficial response to Volf’s position, which he claims “should be obvious to those who have studied the three Abrahamic faiths,” is that “the Trinity is an elaboration on Jewish theology,” whereas “Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity,” etc. What I actually see as obvious for anyone who has studied all three faiths, however, is first of all that modern Judaism (which is less a parent faith to Christianity than a feuding sister) rejects Trinitarian doctrine every bit as strenuously as Islam does. Beyond that I would say that there’s a fairly strong scholarly consensus among those who study the Bible for a living that reading Trinitarian intent into the writings of the Old Testament prophets takes a fair among of intellectual dishonesty. The best we can say for the origins of Christian dogma in that regard is that the best minds of the second through sixth centuries worked extensively on finding ways to harmonize the mysteries of Jesus’ persona with his deep respect for the Jewish scriptures and the Trinity is what they came out with. To call Qureshi’s position a weak argument is perhaps the understatement of the month.

Besides trying to intellectually justify Religious Right politics, another thing that would naturally put the powers that be at Wheaton at odds with someone like Professor Hawkins is their regard for C.S. Lewis as something akin to a twentieth century apostle. In this case it relates in particular to various interpretations of the theological intentions and revelations contained in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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It has been decades since I have read these classics, but some of the details regarding them have remained in my mind over the decades since my highly evangelical childhood. I remember in particular that, especially in the 70s, when I would have read these classics, with the “rapture” expectations that were sweeping through evangelicalism at the time, The Last Battle was considered to be the most theologically and culturally important of the seven volume series. This final book of the series aptly captured the end-of-the-world zeitgeist among evangelical Protestant Christians of the early rock-and-roll era in children’s fable form. This inevitably involved a battle between good and evil, with the primary force of evil in the story being the self-appointed religious rule of Shift, a deceitful Narnian (talking) ape, who devised a system for co-opting the religious reverence for Aslan (the Jesus-lion character) and blending it with the worship of Tash, the primary god of the Calormenes, Narnia’s neighbors and sometime enemies to the southeast. Thus the ape was able to get the other Narnians to work harder, for less pay, as part of the “will of Aslan” to prove their worthiness –– enabling the ape in turn to satisfy a number of his personal selfish desires at their expense.

PuzzleaslanTo pull off this deception Shift convinces a rather simple-minded donkey named Puzzle to dress up in a lion skin and pretend to be the real Aslan. This was said to work only because it had been many generations since they had seen the real Aslan, and they were desperate for something transcendent to believe in. It stretches the believability of the narrative to claim that even the most simple-minded of mythical creatures could believe that a donkey in a lion’s skin really was a supernaturally powerful lion, but that is rather Lewis’s comic point of the matter: It also rather boggles the mind that so many who claim to agents of the teachings and power of Jesus could be taken seriously, unless their followers have no concept of what the real Jesus was/is like, and they are painfully desperate to believe in something. But then Shift stretches their gullibility even further by claiming that Aslan is in fact the same person as the chief god in the Calormene pantheon, Tash. Thus he innovates a new name for this deity blending the two names together as Tashlan.

One common interpretation of Lewis’s intention in this story is to say that the Calormene people in Narnia’s magical world are supposed to represent the Muslims in our world. There are a number of problems with such an interpretation: First, that the Calormenes are polytheists, not strict monotheists like the Muslims. Second, the Calormenes believe in a myth of their leaders being the descendants of their gods, much like the Japanese Shinto followers prior to World War 2, but certainly not like the Muslims. Beyond that the Calormenes had a very specific physical form which they believed their god would take, again quite the opposite of Islamic teaching. But in spite of all of this it is entirely possible that, for mythical narrative purposes, Lewis took liberties of blending together different “other” cultures studied by “orientalist” academics of his generation in creating these enemies for the Narnians to fight against at the end of their world –– including a number of signature features of Islam as understood from a British colonial perspective.

Regardless of the problems associated with using The Last Battle as a justification for Islamophobia however, that is exactly what many around Wheaton and in its supporting evangelical spheres seem to be doing just now. They believe that the God of the Muslims must in reality be either a product of worshipers’ imaginations or, more probably, a demonic supernatural power that deceived their prophet into setting up a new false religion 1400 years ago. In the end of The Last Battle, the character of Tash, the demonic god of the Calormenes, actually comes to life and consumes his would-be representatives, before being banished by those representing the true authority of Aslan. In the same way these evangelicals are convinced that Allah is really a supernatural character of some sort from “the dark side” that is really out to destroy his followers, eventually to be banished by the Triune God of the Christians.

tash

To hold this sort of position requires a rather loose understanding of the theological dogmas of all three Abrahamic faiths, together with a tendency to take mythologized versions of early twentieth century British orientalism far too seriously. In some ways this just serves to demonstrate how much more powerful narratives are than theoretical lectures as means of instruction: the official teachings are forgotten, but the dramatic interpretations of them remain in people’s minds.

What Jews, Christians and Muslims officially agree about is postulating that the sort of God whose CV gives rise to “the problem of evil” really does exist: The God who is worthy of worship and praise must necessarily be personal, all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, and completely benevolent. Thus all three faiths struggle with the issue of how evil can still exist in our world if such a God exists. They have a long history of quite freely borrowing arguments from each other in this regard over the centuries. To say that, in spite of this, and in spite of the extent to which Islam appears to be derived from reinterpretations of early Medieval Christian teachings, the God of Islam must be a different character from the God of Christianity, has two possible implications: either there are a number of different omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omni-benevolent deities out there in competition with each other; or there is no such metaphysical object for our respective faiths “out there” and every religiously worshipped deity is really just a human creation. The former alternative is a logical impossibility; the nature of those divine characteristics precludes that they could be spread around between various competing gods. The latter position sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a dogmatic belief in any deity to begin with. Thus it is logically rather absurd to claim that the Christian God is real and the Muslims worship something entirely different. Either there is a real God with these attributes “out there” and both religions are, to the best of their understanding and abilities trying to comprehend something about this God, making efforts to please him and at the same time call out for his mercy; or there really isn’t any such god “out there” and Christianity and Islam are offering very different types of imaginary friends to their followers. It sort of has to be one or the other.

elephantBut then at this point someone usually takes out the old fable of the four blind men groping the elephant. (“It’s like a tree.” “It’s like a wall.” “It’s like a sail.” “It’s like a rope.” …all as interpretations of parts of the same animal.) In spite of the pictures that some of my Kenyan Facebook friends have put up associating me with elephants, however, that cliché example is fairly distant from my everyday life. What I’m more familiar with is the various sorts of interpretations of what sort of person I am from people who know me through very different connections. Some know me as the nasty teacher who gave their children lower grades than they were expecting. Some know me as the fine teacher who inspired particular students to pursue the academic careers in which they have since made their own mark. Some know me as the guy who makes pretty good pizza for house guests. Some know me as they owner of a particularly nice dog. Some know me as an inspirational speaker or writer. Some know me as the ex-boyfriend or husband of some woman who has come and gone in my life… Some of these people know me better or more thoroughly than others. Some of their interpretations are actually mutually exclusive: I logically cannot be all the things that various acquaintances say that I am! Even so, I would not accuse those with more unfriendly interpretations of my personality of (necessarily) having me mixed up with some other David.

When it comes to God it somewhat goes without saying that no religion, and no individual believer, knows him perfectly. On the assumption that he really is “out there,” we can say that some inevitably know him better than others. We can say that some religions are more helpful than others in enabling people to relate to their fellow human beings according a principle of manifesting the love of God, but none have yet to get that “entirely right”. We can say that some have missed the mark pretty thoroughly in practice, but in theory they mean well. Given where we are each at in those terms it’s far safer not to accuse others of worshipping the wrong god or of worshipping God wrong.

Our focus needs to rather be on each “getting it right” for ourselves in terms of rejecting the temptation to “do religion” as a means of justifying our hatred towards those who are too “other”. That was the essence of Jesus’ message that Christians in particular should be paying attention to. That is what Larycia Hawkins has got herself in trouble for standing up for yet again. That is why I respect her far more than her current opponents.

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Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

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

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

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

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

Kenya’s major problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hagiographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Balance of Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Politicians Money Can Buy

In keeping an eye out for the Hobby Lobby decision coming down, I’ve been watching the news regarding the US Supreme Court  this week, so of course I noticed with great consternation the decision that they handed down on the McCutcheon case: On a strict party line vote (I dare you to claim there was nothing political about that!”) the “conservative” justices have taken yet another step towards undermining the democratic process in the US by removing limits on how much the rich can spend on buying politicians.

surpreme-courtYet even so, the reason this bothers me is not because it represents some radical new problem for American politics, but rather because it further manifests the symptoms of the disease which has affected the US political process for some time, which has expanded exponentially in the time that I’ve been an expat: There is an ever growing perception there that the proper way of deciding political contests is by seeing which side can get donors to chuck the most cash at them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I do get a fair amount of regular information about this matter: By signing various on-line petitions against some of the more gross injustices and political absurdities I’ve seen and heard about over the years, I’ve somehow ended up on a couple of candidates’ fund-raising mailing lists. In some ways I don’t mind; deleting these posts takes relatively little of my time, and meanwhile the titles on these mailings make for an interesting barometer of the political climate in the States. But as a matter of principle, even if I had the money I would not donate to them. I believe that if Americans are too stupid to see through the “bath salt” (regular readers know what I mean by this expression) of political advertising –– if they are not capable of making informed decisions in their own best interest without letting political image consultants, professional spin doctors and media barrages make up their minds for them –– it won’t help for me to toss money at the problem to try to counter-balance what the oil companies and arms merchants are contributing to the other side.

This goes with something I try to remember to practice as a teacher: Even though I’m quite physically capable of screaming to make my voice heard over those of literally hundreds of rambunctious teenagers when necessary, tempting as it is to use that ability to quiet down the classroom at times, I know that in the long run it is counter-productive. There is really nothing to be gained by having a continuous acoustic arms race with my students. The best hope for maintaining a productive learning atmosphere is for me –– through some combination of humor, human interest and rational argument –– to convince them that what I have to say worth listening to, and that there is a certain value in ordered discussions in which we show respect to each other by taking turns talking. If they can’t get those ideas into their heads then shouting them down doesn’t really do much good.

unruly_classroomThe analogous political situation in the US has long since become a hopeless screaming contest in this regard. This week the Supreme Court further ratcheted up the volume with all of the justices there who were appointed by Republican presidents voting to remove limits on how much advertising billionaires can buy unlimited for their candidates of their choice. This is quite directly intended to increase the political power of interests which are working to make more and more of America’s public water supplies undrinkable, destroy forests, increase cancer risks, equip more people with hardware enabling them to kill each other, prevent corporations from being held responsible for injuries and deaths caused by the defective products they’ve been producing, prevent consumers from finding out about the “efficiency boosting means” which have been utilized in producing the food that they eat  , and to prevent basic nutrition, health care and education from being recognized as human rights. But that can only work if Americans continue to let political advertising make up their minds for them and cause them to vote against these most basic interests of their society. As long as political advertisers are capable of “convincing turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving”, and American voters show less enlightened self-interest than the poultry species in question, I seriously doubt that the situation can be improved by lower income people like myself contributing to further increases in political advertising!

Turkey_3Yes, I realize that “if everyone were to think like me” on this one it would lead to a situation where the only message that the “turkeys” will hear is that of what a privilege it is for them to be part of the Thanksgiving celebrations. The psychopath billionaires could declare automatic victory within the status quo political system, blackmail candidates to support the agendas they dictate or be locked out of the corridors of power, and in the process increase their power do whatever they want with their workers, and with the lands and seas from which they extract their raw materials and into which they dump their refuse. My point here, however, is that unless people develop a basic understanding of who is pulling their elected leaders’ strings, and until they cease to let paid-for media propaganda make up their minds for them against their own basic interests, limiting the amount of political propaganda they are exposed to from one side or the other –– or trying to “balance this out” by further increasing the propaganda volume “the good side” –– will remain either useless or counter-productive.

Sadly it comes down to this: if the American people really don’t want to come together as a society and work together to make things better for everyone –– if a sense of solidarity and a neighborly ethic of “having each other’s backs,” regardless of differences in race, religion, ancestral origin and social class really don’t have any place in their thinking –– then there’s no point in trying to convince them to vote for officials who would insist on sensible government programs for things like protecting their basic drinking water and making sure children don’t suffer from malnutrition. Recent history has taught me never to underestimate the sheer stupidity of large sectors of the American electorate in such regards, but that’s not a problem that can be solved through campaign finance reform or increased political spending in favor of “sensible” candidates.

1999_Mijail-Gorbachov-There is relatively faint hope of halting the process of cultural decline that this is causing in the United States. Sooner or later, unless the “Muricans” suddenly become far more capable of thinking for themselves in defiance of what the best financed PACs tell them to vote for, the US will inevitably go the way of their Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union: the level of environmentally careless industrialization and military spending being carried out at the expense of the basic well-being of the population will become intolerable, leading to calls for “Glasnost” (greater political transparency), inevitably followed by “Perestroika” (the re-structuring of key bureaucracies), after which they whole oppressive house of cards comes tumbling down. So what remains to be seen really is how much worse things have to get before a critical mass of American people start to stand up for the principle of Glasnost against super-PAC action.

Thus rather than pinning my political hopes for my homeland to a process of economic competition for propaganda dominance, I will continue here in my own Quixotic ways using whatever networking tools are freely at my disposal to try and convince people around the world, and citizens of the US in particular, of some very basic political principles:

1)      Democracy cannot work without a strong public education system, particularly in social sciences and humanities subjects. If the people who choose their nation’s leaders are not aware of the issues at stake when they make such decisions, or if they leave these decisions to be made by those who have even less understanding and/or moral conscience than they do, societal decay is more or less inevitable. The best hope of preventing this is for society to make a significant investment in training all members of future generations to play an active role in the political process.

2)      The extent to which people are working together to build a better future for all concerned is not reliably measurable by GDP statistics. Economic growth for its own sake is an unsustainable policy direction and a futile rallying cry. Far more relevant statistics for measuring the health of a society are those regarding infant mortality, violent crime, school drop-out rates, imprisonment, chronic illnesses and other factors reducing people’s active life expectancies. If you want to look at the positive side of what we need to do the indicators actually become more difficult to statistically measure: mutual respect between neighbors, quality of life for young people, available means of contributing to each other’s well-being (with employment being the most tradition and problematic measure of this), and freedom to pursue constructive personal goals. “Productivity” is at best an imperfect means of achieving these more important human goals, not an end unto itself. This is too often forgotten by competitors on both sides.

3)      The greatest risks for humanity as a whole involve competitive polarization in society choking out cooperation and compassion. When we stop thinking of others as fellow human beings worthy of our care and respect as such, and when we start accepting excuses for allowing other people to be treated as disposable commodities or morally inferior opponents in the struggle to survive, it’s not only these others that we put at risk. The alienation of the super-rich from those whose work makes their fortunes possible, and the self-alienation of religious and ideological extremists from anyone who doesn’t accept their dogmas or live up to their moral requirements constitute the greatest threats to humanity in this regard.

4)      The fact that the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle are “dirty” does not excuse total passivity in the political process, or voting for those who advance the interests of wealthy sociopaths and others seeking to further polarize society. One essential moral responsibility that all citizens of (even theoretically) democratic nations have is to use their voting rights responsibly. If you haven’t figured out how to do that in a way that expresses implied respect for the rights and needs of all members of society, you are part of the essential problem in your nation’s system of government. Fix that about yourself!

It’s probably best to leave this week’s rant at that. Of course I’ll be accused of America bashing again here by some, but I can live with that. Let me just say that the more evidence I see of people in the US respecting themselves and each other in the political process, the greater my respect will be for the national culture there as a whole. As long as the ignorance and gullibility of the population there at large facilitates a court-approved, multi-billion dollar industry in the buying and selling of politicians however, my respect for the intelligence and integrity of my countrymen as a whole will remain rather limited.

You don’t like it? Take an active role in fixing it!

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Social identity

The God Abstraction

Like most who claim to be theists, an important part of my religious experience is my sense of a “personal relationship with God”. I have a sense of personal security in the idea that there is “someone listening to my prayers,” in being cared about by forces bigger than my human community, etc. In talking about meta-ethics, however, I readily recognize that this sort of faith does not in itself entail objective evidence of a shared foundation for debating practical moral issues with those who do not share my faith. For purposes of discussing that matter we need to turn, not to personal experiences as such, but to consideration of abstract principles which work for a broader spectrum of individuals prone to think in terms of abstract principles.

Old Man PraysIn fact there are probably far more people in this world who can personally relate to my “believer’s testimony” than who can relate to my meta-ethical arguments as such. The global community of those who share this latter hobby is actually painfully small –– a tiny academic priesthood dutifully preaching to their own choirs with very vague hopes of their message spilling out into the broader world. Even so, while the process of “doing ethics” based on debate over abstract principles will never be a matter of consensus with the broader spectrum of society, there is good reason to believe that many of those who are paid to figure out basic principles of human cooperation at least –– diplomats, constitutional lawyers, bishops, social service administrators, etc. –– tend to take such rational processes seriously, providing such arguments with greater practical value than the number of participants in such would otherwise imply.

Thus, though it is rather abstract from the meaning faith in the divine has to those who share it, I recognize the importance of being ready to discuss God, or the spiritual realm, as an abstract concept for ethical purposes. Doing so has the same sort of utility and limitations as speaking of “marriage” in very general terms. In practice every marriage is unique, involving its own dynamics of competition and cooperation between the partners in question, with varying levels of legal, logistical, cultural and hormonal ties binding the couple together.  When we speak of “marriage equality” or “the defense of marriage”, underneath all of the abstractly simplified polemics we basically recognize that we’re speaking in very generalized terms about constantly evolving cultural standards in terms of which to relate to literally billions of very different and very complex personal relationships. The same qualification applies to ethical discussions of “religion” as such.  The point isn’t to capture the essence of each individual spiritual experience, or even spiritual experiences in general, but rather to find a way of categorically defining these experiences as some sort of collective phenomenon, and to see how this phenomenon relates to our cultural processes of understanding what we are entitled to expect from ourselves and each other in moral terms.

So setting aside personal experiences of faith I wish to now fulfill a promise I made last month in on-line dialog and consider, in rather abstract terms, why I consider it to be useful to include concepts of God in meta-ethical debates. There are, I believe, effectively three arguments to be considered here: the Platonic tradition in deontology, Dostoevsky’s dilemma, and what I will call the Challenge of Connectivity. In considering these arguments, let me one more time remind you of the marriage analogy: I do not claim that these capture the most essential aspects of any given religion, or that they prove that all religions are right or even valuable; any more than speaking of the need to preserve the institution of marriage in some form or another implies that all traditional marriages involve healthy interpersonal dynamics. These are merely abstract reasons why I believe that the debate over defining moral absolutes is most constructive when religious perspectives are respected within the process. So with no further disclaimers, let’s move into the arguments themselves:

The Platonic Tradition

Jean-François-Pierre_Peyron_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_WGA17398Nowhere is Whitehead’s playful claim about Western philosophy being nothing more than a footnote on the works of Plato more true than in the field of meta-ethics. The questions of what it means to be morally good and why bother with such a project are the core issues debated in Plato’s best known work: The Republic. His perspective in approaching these questions is clearly colored by one intensive practical consideration: true moral goodness cannot be left as a matter of rational self-interest, or as a matter of personal taste, and especially not as a matter of social agreement within society. We need to find some “higher standard” for moral goodness than the sort of social contract mechanism that ended up condemning Socrates to death. In Plato’s mind this more or less automatically implied looking for standards “outside of the cave”, particularly in the realm of the gods. That is by no means to be taken as an endorsement of his own polytheistic culture as such, or of any other given religious system, but in looking for answers to the question of a basis morality beyond the material advantage, existential preference and social contract levels, Plato’s reasoning has more or less continuously been interpreted as pointing to an other-worldly basis for ethics. From there, painting in very broad brush strokes, it can be claimed that St. Augustine “Christianized” Plato’s perspective, Kant “rationalized” Augustine’s perspective, and the rest of the deontological tradition since then has been attempting to “enlighten” Kant’s perspective by looking for ways around the other-worldly premises it is built on… with rather limited success.

Basically, if you’re going to keep “writing footnotes on Plato” you sort of have to confront the issue of how he relates virtue to something greater than human experience, and it’s hard to do that without stumbling into religious territory. Deontology –– defining principles of right and wrong as important objects unto themselves rather than means of getting other stuff you want –– can be pretty abstract stuff under any circumstances, but it becomes ever more so when you try to deliver it without the religious element. It gets to be like decaffeinated energy drink, or alcohol-free vodka; you start to wonder what the point is. It intuitively makes more sense to more people if you postulate that there is some spiritual principle involved –– some god who is pleased when you do things the right way, or some mechanism like karma that rewards those who respect the rights of others.

Dostoevsky’s dilemma

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov is frequently used by those on all sides of the issue outside of its narrative context. The novel in question is the third of the three great work by this hero of Russian literature, following Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. All of these are epic tragedies with mildly consoling endings. Crime and Punishment is the tragedy of anarchistic idealism, The Idiot is the tragedy of religious idealism (sometimes referred to as agapism), and The Brothers is the tragedy of hedonism and the idealism of following one’s passions. Within this context the most intellectual of the Karamazov brothers had written philosophical articles largely to the same effect of the advertising campaign that British atheists put onto London busses a few years back: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

theres-probably-no-godw500h283A personal adaptation of this advice, however, leads directly to his illegitimate brother murdering their father, with his other half-brother ending up taking the fall for it. As in Crime and Punishment and less directly in The Idiot as well, we’re left with the questions of “What’s wrong with murder, if it’s done for noble reasons?” and “Are there principles which are more important than the sacredness of human life as such?” The famous quote above is then essentially used, in functional terms, as a means of contemplating the various justifications for murder in just these terms. If “enjoying life” requires the elimination of someone else’s life, someone who has a direct role in limiting your own enjoyment of life, what’s to stop you from doing so? The norms of a rather dysfunctional society and its semi-functional legal system? Perhaps in some cases, but certainly not in others. Evolutionary pressures of some sort? Highly unlikely. Without the restraint of believing in some higher power which enforces rules against such, killing becomes a lot more excusable in such cases.

I am not trying to set aside all of the horrible deeds, including murder, which have been carried out in the name of various god-concepts over the centuries. I am merely saying that Dostoevsky has a very legitimate point in saying, through his characters and plot lines, that by removing the “fear of God” from those who are struggling with passionate desires to do what is not socially acceptable, risks become substantially increased. From there we can come back to considering the potential literal truth value of Ivan Karamazov’s dictum. On one level he is obviously wrong: There will be many things that any sustainable society will forbid as matters of expedience, regardless of whether there is a God there to enforce them or not. Thus, in the strictest sense, some things will certainly not be permitted, at least in terms of societal norms, regardless of whether or not there is a God involved. Is that enough in terms of providing us with principles to live by though? Like Plato, most philosophers these days would tend to think not. The question is whether they can do any better than that without postulating some “higher” source of justice beyond the material realm, a.k.a. (in the vast majority of cases) “God”.

The Challenge of Connectivity

Somewhat, though not entirely, interrelated with the above arguments is what might be called the non-forensic aspect of spirituality and spiritual experience: the sense that, regardless of legal and moral justification factors, on some level we are all (or we all want to be) part of something significant, virtuous and bigger than ourselves. This has been conceptualized in thousands of different ways, in both religious and secular terms, none of which are completely flawless regardless of what their fundamentalist defenders have to say about the matter. Yet regardless of the formulation challenges involved, I would propose that the most viable basic premise and source of motivation for ethics must stem from this drive to be part of something greater than ourselves.

community-e1287223431337There are two major challenges involved in this search for connectivity that we are hard-wired to participate in: the problem of maintaining personal integrity and thus avoiding schizophrenia, and the problem of avoiding things we see as evil. We need to have some functional sense of the borders between “self” and “other” on many different practical levels; and we want to avoid connecting ourselves too directly with genocidal dictators, mass-murdering psychopaths and child abusers of various sorts. In short, we need to find ways of not only conceptualizing our “star dust” connection with things beyond ourselves; we also need to find ways of conceptualizing limits in our associations with things we would choose not to be part of. Religion in general is a collection of systems progressively being worked out to meet that dual need. “God”, in abstract analytical terms here, is a personalized form associated with the ultimate power(s) that connect(s) the virtues, circles of empathy and harmonious elements of life we feel the need to connect with, while excluding the evils we wish to distance ourselves from. There are good reasons to question the ways in which particular religions draw these lines, but there are also good reasons for respecting the process of considering these broader connectivity questions in religious terms. Ultimately happiness and misery, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, have a lot more to do with these factors than with naïvely conceptualized matters of hedonistic calculus.

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I present these perspectives not as a means of attempting to prove that those who do not share my faith must necessarily be irrational, dishonest or morally corrupt. I believe that many who reject religious beliefs do so because they have “issues” with matters of connectivity in general, but I also believe that many religious people also struggle with similar “issues”. If I can help some on either side learn to relate constructively to those on the other side I find that personally gratifying, but I’ve no illusions of being able to solve all such problems. Likewise I see belief in a purely subjective or genetically and socially conditioned set of moral principles, for all their foibles, as the best we can do, as a fundamentally honest and consistent approach on the matter, and something that can lead to many practical moral principles that I can strongly align myself with, regardless of my differences in premises. I am with the majority of professional thinkers on these matters, however, in daring to believe in and pursue an understanding of something greater than that. Yet unlike the slight majority of those who take part in such a pursuit, I dare to continue to conceptualize this “something greater” in non-materialistic, spiritual terms. I find that efforts to do “moral realism” on any substitutionary basis –– replacing the supernatural realm, in one form or another, as the primary locus for moral absolutes as they have been primarily conceptualized since the time of Plato, with some vague concept intended to harmonize better with a reductionist materialist world popularized by the natural sciences –– tend to lack persuasive power in terms of finding viable alternative foundations to point to. I’m not writing them off as stupid, but I do question the thoroughness with which they have thought things through in this regard. And if they wish to challenge the thoroughness of my own thought in turn, I’m entirely cool with that.

So let the dialog continue from here.

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Life in the Interregnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Open Letter to Daisy, Addendum

Dear Daisy,

I wrote to you here a few months ago to encourage you to reconsider the ways in which your crisis had rocked your faith in God and in society. I don’t know if you ever had a chance to read it through. It was sort of a long and dense text. Apparently a lot of people who care about you did read it anyway (some who strongly agreed, some who strongly disagreed), but that’s not the important thing right now. The important thing is that you find the sort of hope and faith that enables you to move forward.

Hearing about your recent setbacks and hospitalization really breaks my heart. I really wish I could find a way of comforting you and convincing you not to further increase the damage that’s been done to you. Setting all other issues of belief aside for the time being, I really hope that you, Daisy, start believing in Daisy again. I hope you stop in practice agreeing with all of the Maryville idiots who would like you to believe that your life is worthless. Thus I’m writing to you again. Humor me here as I take a shot at trying to convince you, without, I must confess, even really knowing you that well, that your life is important and worth somethingI would prefer to present my case in more personal and individually caring terms, but given how far I am from your situation I have to make my case rather philosophically instead. Forgive me for not having better to offer. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got.

Daisy hospitalizedAnyway, in philosophical terms we have to start out with the whole question of what makes anything or anyone valuable to begin with. The obvious answer that springs to mind for such things is how much someone is willing to pay, and how much competition there is to “get” that person or thing. That’s what we call “market value” and some would tell you that all other forms of value are just variations or sub-categories of that. Bovine excrement!

I’m not denying that market value is one very real form of value, but I’m very firmly convinced that it is not the only form of value, or even the most important kind. In fact I am firmly convinced that placing too much emphasis on market value, at the expense of all other sorts of values, is the fundamental reason why so many things are screwed up in our world today. I want to help you step back and look at the question of values from a somewhat broader perspective.

I propose that, to get an overview of all the different sorts of value in the world, we start with four general categories: material/instrumental value, personal/existential value, social/cultural value and spiritual/transcendent value. While I want to try to make this a bit less wordy and dense than my last letter to you, I still want to try to show you what I mean by each of those categories, and then show you how your crisis has probably rocked your believe in your own value in each of those four categories but how you –– as a human being, a young person, a lady and for many a symbol of courage –– continue to have value in each of those sorts of ways. Let’s see how I do.

Material/instrumental: Whatever else can be said about you, you are certainly a material, physical being. You may be more than that, but at the very minimum we can be pretty sure that you are a biological organism: You have a body, which happens to have been badly abused in the past few years. The important thing here is that, while I would encourage you to think of yourself as more than just a body, I want to remind you that your body is still a beautiful thing. Just because there’s an idiot who treated your body as a disposable form of amusement and pretty much got away with it does not mean that your body is without value. Nor is your body’s value based on its ability to stimulate male hormones. Every human body, like every snowflake, but infinitely more so, is an intricate marvel of design, deserving of respect and admiration for its own awesomeness. Not to “shove the Bible down your throat,” but this point is made as well in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament as anywhere: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

I don’t want to minimize the pain and complication of this matter, but I strongly encourage you: please respect your body again; it really is a wonderful thing. Get comfortable in your own skin. There’s nothing wrong with who you are physically. You remain beautiful. Your body remains suitable and capable of performing all sorts of amazing tasks and experiencing all sorts of positive sensations, besides being a work of art unto itself. And again let me stress, your body’s capacity to get boys or men excited is not what makes it valuable. Probably best if I leave off on this one here, but I hope you get the point.

Personal/existential: In addition to your basic physical form, one of the beauties of who you are is your mind or soul: the part of you which is capable of experiencing sensations of meaning and purpose in life. This part of you too has been brutally belittled in Maryville, but don’t let the bastards there have the final word on the subject. I know it’s rather cheap and superficial, and perhaps even factually wrong at this point, to say that you can decide for yourself what your life is worth. At this point I recognize that in your young mind things might feel pretty hopeless and out of control. But they will and do get better. The mind is an amazing thing in terms of its resilience. You will find yourself capable of making good on your promise not to let the events of the past couple years define who you are. As long as you don’t give up at this difficult point you will be able to decide what it is that makes you important, and you will be able to build a sense of purpose from there.

If there is any aspect of your life that your trauma will have a lasting effect on in fact, I’d predict that it will be the extent to which it has forced you to look deeper into yourself. You might not like all of what you see there –– there’s a lot of broken and ugly bits inside of all of us, even the best of us –– but I hope and expect that you can also see the brave, poetic, tender parts of yourself that are worth developing. These are things that others can encourage you to love about yourself, but ultimately it’s up to you to recognize this beauty within. It’s up to you to, without shame, accept and celebrate who you are as a person, and to love yourself as such. Please, please, please… do not let anyone take that away from you.

Social/cultural: Perhaps the worst part of your experience has been discovering that the kids at school sided with your abusers rather than sympathizing with you as the victim. Teenagers can be vicious creatures at times. I know something about this from working with school anti-bullying campaigns.  So this makes it more difficult to recognize another key factor in what makes you valuable: Besides being comfortable within your skin, you can be confident in having importance beyond the limits of your skin. There really are people around you that love you and care about you as a person –– thousands of us actually.  No one can belittle your personal value without directly insulting all of us who care about you at the same time. Don’t ever forget that.

There’s an important word in African philosophy that perhaps you heard regarding the funeral celebrations for Nelson Mandela this winter: “Ubuntu”. Roughly translated, this is the principle that “I am what I am because we are what we are” –– that identity is never a completely individual matter. Or to quote the classic line from the English poet/theologian John Donne, “No man is an island.” This does not mean that you have to let the social environment of Maryville determine who you are, but it does mean that you cannot forget about the impact your life has on others. If you let the idiots belittle you, you let them belittle all of us.  If you let them insult you, you let them insult all of us.  I hope this gives you courage to stand up to your detractors, with and for all of us.

Spiritual/transcendent: There is always the question of what makes those who are on your side in this matter “better people” than the vicious little bastards that have used the “s-word” and the “w-word” at you at school. This is no easy matter to sort out philosophically. Suffice to say, most of us tend to believe that, to quote the opening sequence of the X-Files, “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” when it comes to these things. There is something that goes beyond social and cultural norms that makes sexual abuse bad and compassion good. There are values that we should subscribe to that are more than just material expedients or means of personal meaning making, or cultural conventions. Again, without trying to “cram any religion down your throat,” believing that there are moral principles like this “out there” is, for me, part and parcel of believing in God. That is not to say that I believe that any particular religion has God’s message entirely right, but that is to say that I believe that the “something” out there which makes rape inherently wrong and compassion inherently good is best understood as a “someone”, and that that someone is on the side of those who suffer injustices, who want peace and who care about others. So from this perspective, Daisy, I am confident in saying that another reason for you to keep going is because God is on your side.

There’s a famous anecdote that might be applicable here, telling of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was said to keep a good luck horseshoe hung over the door of his home in the countryside. Someone asked him about this: How could such an intelligent man with such a scientific world view believe in a horseshoe over the door bringing better luck? His response was to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but they say it works even if you don’t believe.”

Even if you don’t share my belief in God at this point, I hope you can still find means of accepting the basic principle that those who are on your side are part of something “better” and “more important” than those who would belittle your value. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

All of this is strictly a matter of “for what it’s worth” but I sincerely hope that this provides some sort of additional motivation for believing in yourself and moving forward in confronting the challenges you still face. We’re here hoping for you and praying for you, and we’re doing what we can to encourage you never to give up. Hang in there for us, but more importantly, hang in there for yourself!

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Filed under Control, Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Philosophy, Social identity, Spirituality

Reconstructing Hillbilly Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandela and Other Heroes

mandela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!

 

 

 

 

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95 Theses for Evangelical Churches of the 21st Century

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

luther_wittenberg_1517-21

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,

luther1(1)

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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.  

daisy

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

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For the Love of Liquidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rebranding

Every time I go in or out of Helsinki I pass the Nokia international headquarters in the southeast corner of Espoo. I didn’t have any business in Helsinki on Tuesday (September 3) so the first time I saw the building after the sale of its guts to Microsoft had been announced on Tuesday morning was late Wednesday afternoon. It was sort of surreal feeling.

vallila, etc 246The structure of this “iconic” headquarters is such that in certain light conditions the steel framed glass outer walls give the impression of construction scaffolding, of the sort that encases the significant number of buildings that are continuously being put up, structurally repaired, resurfaced or gutted in the Helsinki region at any given time. It’s hard to say which of those processes is the most apt analogy for Nokia this month. People might or might not continue to work in Espoo on designing phones for their new masters in the state of Washington; that remains to be seen.

Sitting in front of me on the mostly empty bus was a fellow randomly playing with his iPhone. I assume he was texting to whomever he planned to meet when he got to wherever he was going; I didn’t pay much more attention than that. I glanced out to consciously read the sign over the plywood encased construction area along the new subway/metro/underground route they are constructing outside of the now former Nokia headquarters. Sometime next year or the following the bus I was on will cease to run that route, and travelers will start to go on a faster, cleaner running, high speed underground trains instead. The sign at the construction area there between the Nokia building and the motorway says that they are putting in a service tunnel entrance, not a passenger station there. I wonder when they made that official decision.

vallila, etc 237So it’s official now: the Nokia phenomenon has come and gone in the time I’ve lived in Finland. I wrote last year about Finnish history thus far being roughly divisible into the Mannerheim era, the Kekkonen era and the Nokia era, with a bit of uncertainty about what might come next. That has now been “announced in church” as the Finnish idiom says. The uncertainty of it all is a bit intimidating.

My hindsight perspective on “what went wrong” for Nokia is simpler than most: Steve Jobs. This patron saint of user-friendly electronics, as his life’s last thrust to put another “ding in the universe,” reshaped people’s expectations of what their little pocket computer/phones were supposed to do. Nokia had some interesting R&D going into similar ideas, but they weren’t really ready for Jobs’ swan song when it came. Nokia made phones that could pretend to be personal computers; Apple started making functional mini personal computers that also worked as phones. Sometimes image is everything. Now without Jobs around to further bend their fenders, Nokia’s cell phone division might have made a significant comeback on its own; but now that they’ve been commandeered by Apple’s arch-rival, Microsoft, such speculations have become entirely hypothetical.

Microsoft is a brand which says to people “familiar, functional software for generic computers”. Nokia is a brand which says “sleek and dependable basic communication devices”. It’s hard to guess which, if either, of those names will go on whatever new sorts of phones this new joint-venture might start coming out with. They may have to create an entirely new brand to capture the imaginations of the clients they are targeting, sort of like what Toyota did when the invented the Lexus line. What this new brand might stand for, beyond “imitation iPhones,” remains to be seen.

vallila, etc 118Nokia is not the only aspect of Finnish society (and yes, more than just a corporation, Nokia has been an aspect of Finnish society in many senses, and while the grieving process continues it remains so) that is now contemplating rebranding. A friend of mine in the mid stages of theology studies in the University of Helsinki was griping this week about an absurd required-subject lecture about “personal branding” that he had to attend. Since Finnish educational institutions, from kindergartens all the way through to the university, are being told that they have to seriously consider their “brand status” these days, of course they are passing on that pain to all of their teaching staff, who in turn are passing it on to all those they are teaching. The further up the academic ladder one goes, the more permissible it becomes to pass this sort of abuse on to one’s students.

This subject also came up in the university summer school course I took last month, under the supervision of a new professor from the department of teacher education in the University of Helsinki. The fact that I was rather unimpressed with this particular professor’s skills was a rather poorly kept secret; but he and I did agree quite strongly on three things in this regard: 1) Finland currently has a very strong brand in education. 2) This brand may be somewhat endangered, as the means by which it has come about may be fading (though he and I disagreed about what those particular fading sources of brand strength may have been). And 3) His department has very little to offer in terms of safeguarding the strength of the brand. Meanwhile, Fred, the professor in question, is very optimistic about the value of his own personal brand, but rather fuzzy about what this personal brand value is based on, or what he has to offer –– besides an abundance of published academic articles that no one reads, and access to an international sewing circle of somewhat like-minded individuals. To say that he’s not doing the University of Helsinki’s brand any good is a substantial understatement.

Irja+Askola,+Helsingin+piispa+116348It may or may not be coincidental that the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki came out with her own statement about branding this week, or at least so one tabloid has to say. The sensationalism-prone Iltalehti claimed on Wednesday that Bishop Askola had given an interview to the daily business digest Kauppalehti (which the latter publication’s web site shows no record of) in which she seriously critiques the institutional church that she represents for screwing up Christian identity by making it a judgmental brand. The brief article goes on to say that the bishop is having a hard time adjusting to the slow pace of change within the church, that Christian identity –– based on justice, mercy, caring, and prioritizing the good of the community –– is as appropriate for our age as for any, and that she remains firm on the principle that the church’s message is mercy, not judgment.

Assuming that this report credibly represents the bishop’s thoughts on the matter, it would seem that she is continuing to work on distinguishing her own personal brand from that of Finland’s Minister of the Interior Päivi Räsänen’s brand –– the latter emphasizing the rejection of “inappropriate” forms of sexuality. (For my own take on this matter see my last blog for July this summer.) These women have clearly agreed to disagree, each hoping that she can win over a majority within the church to her own position, somewhat marginalizing the other in the process, all the while claiming that the church is big enough to allow for both of their positions within it. This raises the question, is either woman more guilty of abusive brand manipulation than the other? Or perhaps more importantly, if their mutual brand does not provide any definitive identity markers regarding the sort of major questions on which they disagree, what good is it? If the Evangelical Lutheran brand doesn’t actually say anything about any moral questions over which reasonable people may disagree, and if it refuses to distinguish between insiders and outsiders in any meaningful way, what remaining significance does the brand have?

Within Finland’s Lutheran church brand confusion is a fairly serious issue. When it comes to anything resembling regular worship (not exactly their brand’s strong suit) there are actually many sub-brands that mean more to “consumers” than the overall brand. One of the most successful sub-brands has been the Tuomas messu or “St. Thomas Mass,” which got started in the late 1980s –– just as Nokia was establishing itself as a mobile phone maker –– in the church in Helsinki dedicated to Mikael Agricola. This “mass” format combined a lot of safe feeling “high church” ritual and liturgical elements with various forms of contemporary music –– including everything from Taize worship music to rock and roll variations on traditional hymns –– and an open invitation to those who didn’t necessarily believe particularly strongly, to come up with a pretty successful combination in its day.  But now, 25 years later, the distinctive appeal of the Tuomas messu brand has pretty well died out. Its image is that of a bunch of older middle aged folks who are trying to act spiritual, deny their aging processes and find a sort of weekly mutual acceptance. Young people of my sons’ generation who are interested in spiritual experiences don’t find it to be their worship of choice any more. I still go to these at times, but I don’t always find them particularly inspiring, or comfortable even. Sometimes the more traditional forms of Sunday morning worship feel less awkward these days.

So with that brand pretty close to dead, I heard by way of my sons last year that “the new thing” is the mid-week Agricola messu, in the same traditional church building where the Tuomas messu system got started. The Agricola messu has the same basic ethos as its older sister, just with more “updated” effects to appeal to a new generation of religious skeptics: smoke machines and a computerized concert lighting effect board, more English used in their worship music, younger priests leading the events, trying to dress like hipsters while displaying their “dog collars” to identify their role; shorter sermons, clearer and lighter weight “therapeutic” aspects to the ritual.

The lighting effects that the "Agricola messu" brand is shooting for.

The lighting effects that the “Agricola messu” brand is shooting for.

I went to one of these gigs last winter to check it out, and I was neither overly impressed nor overly bothered by it. This week I got a notice that as part of the orientation time for new theology students at the university a bunch of them were going to attend this mass together, so I thought I’d give it another shot. (That was actually where I was headed as I passed the Nokia headquarters by bus late on Wednesday afternoon.) It turned out to be a significant disappointment. Getting warmed up for the first time after their summer vacation, the whiz-bang special effects special effects system appeared to have some bugs stuck in it. The music this time seemed overly ambitiously arranged, but the band was noticeably under rehearsed. But most distractingly, the majority of the participants this time were teenagers who clearly were only there because they needed to rack up a given number of church attendances over the course of the year to be officially confirmed as church members this fall. So the atmosphere was one of a hall full of junior high students restlessly waiting to collect their required signatures from the priests and get out of there. The whole thing was played out at a volume loud enough to cover up the drone of these semi-voluntary participants, who seemed to be chatting with each other the whole time, and as soon as the Eucharist portion of the ritual was starting to wind down the background noise began to rise, with kids preparing to jockey for position to get their attendance cards signed by priests so they could leave as soon as possible. All I could think was, here goes another ambitious attempt at religious rebranding down the drain.

vallila, etc 119Brands can indeed be disposable commodities. When I was a bar tender I learned that certain breweries would regularly introduce new beers onto the market, with all sorts of advertising fanfare, and then pull them from the market a few months or years later with no particular regrets. The idea was to give consumers something new to be fascinated with for whatever little time that fascination might last –– nothing more than that. Brands come and brands go; blessed be the name of the market.

Some brands can be worth protecting on a longer term basis though. Back in the 1980s, when I first came to Finland I was working for McDonalds, and I remember reading in one of their in-house propaganda magazines about how the corporation had cleaned house disenfranchised their major French franchisee earlier in that decade, and they were optimistic about having rebuilt their brand image within that country with a new, more reliable set of operators and a more “culturally sensitive” branding approach there. I guess they’ve been happy with the results since. Of all of the problems with the McDonalds brand these days, lack of conformity to corporate standards in Europe doesn’t seem to be one of the major ones. Whatever else can be said about the McDonalds brand –– and I’d have plenty to say against it –– they are remarkably effective at defending it and keeping it consistent from country to country. This level of corporate discipline and standardization management is the primary reason why McDonalds is much more successful in Europe than Burger King, for instance. Thus the McDonalds brand, like a McDonalds cheeseburger, is something that lasts for years and years, showing only subtle changes as it ages. Some would consider that to be a marketing ideal; I have mixed feelings about the matter.

Is success really to be measured by the volume of quick fixes and disposable commodities which can be sold under a succession of given brand names? In some ways it is undeniable that this is the operational standard that industrialized economies operate according to. In other ways hope remains that we can learn to live beyond these sorts of wasted lives and liquid love that Zygmunt Bauman speaks of in his books of those names. We hope to be part of something more lasting, more permanent than just the ebb and flow of temporary sources of emotional satisfaction distributed under various brand names. Sometimes we turn to rituals for ritual’s sake as an emotional safeguard against this, not realizing that these rituals too are in their own right branded commodities in an economy of branded commodities. A greater hope lies in finding some form(s) of “true love” as means of connecting with something beyond ourselves, but for that pursuit brands, it turns out, are fundamentally useless. Yet on a more superficial level we continuously use our own image identifiers to “brand” ourselves in our attempts to gain customers, partners and friends of various sorts. Few of us can be secure enough in our lasting relationships to escape from this sort of personal marketing culture.

angry bird perfumeIt is perhaps particularly ironic that the newest iconic Finnish brand these days, setting up shop in the section of southeastern Espoo that Nokia will no longer be calling home,  is “Angry Birds” –– based on a computer game of the simplest possible sort, designed to be easily installable on any sort of “smart phone” or PC. The idea of the game is to slingshot these little avian attitude bombs at a set of temporary structures in which a group of pigs are hiding, eliminating as much of the structures and as many of the pigs as possible with the birds at your disposal. This silly little pastime has captured the public imagination enough where there are now candies, soft drinks, cosmetics, fashion accessories and playground equipment being marketed on the basis of this brand. The whole concept of trying to build lasting economic hope on such a self-consciously disposable premise boggles the mind; but for the moment it seems to be working, so no one wants to say anything.

Meanwhile I struggle on with the process of rebuilding my own brand. Having rather limited success in promoting Finnish style secondary school philosophy teaching and “values education” in general for the English-speaking world, and not having discovered any significant new markets for my skills during my African adventure last year, I’m now working on getting into a routine of marketing myself as a “doctoral researcher in philosophy of religion”. Ideally within this role I’d like to help people discover more permanent sources of value for their own lives. In practice though this probably has more in common with “Angry Birds” than I’d care to admit. When I’m done figuring out how to use this role to knock down as many of the pigs’ hiding places as possible we’ll see where it gets me.

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Old Heights

As I type this I am listening to the comforting sound of my fermentation tank bubbling away in the corner of the room. I skipped a few years at this hobby, primarily out of sensitivity to the feelings of particular people about the whole subject of alcohol use in general, but I’m over that again. Even so, given all of the complexities there are regarding questions of alcohol use and intoxication in general, I think the subject is worth deliberating on a bit here.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

It all goes back to my childhood. I was raised as a teetotaler in the sixties and seventies. Many if not most of my friends were regular drinkers and casual smokers of marijuana, but I always kept my distance from both habits as a matter of principle. There were a few aspects to this choice, all having to do with my rather religious up-bringing.  First of all this was before the term “pro-life” had been invented. If anyone had talked about being “pro-life” in those years it would have meant that they were anti-war and opposed to young men getting sent to kill and be killed in Viet Nam. Homosexuality, meanwhile, was seen mostly as a bad joke in Mel Brooks movies, not a major threat to family life. For lack of any other distinctively Christian political issue, opposition to alcohol use in any form was one of primary ways in which conservative Christians “stood up for what they believed” still the late sixties/early seventies. Billy Graham was seen by many as a too much of a compromiser; what was needed was preachers who had the same sort of fire as Billy Sunday: someone who dared to scream out against alcohol “for the demonic force that it is.” Good kids in our church didn’t question this.

Second, perhaps somewhat more relevantly, many of those I hung out with and was friends with in my early teens were former hippies, 5 -10 years older than me: “Jesus Freaks” by any measure you care to use to define such a phenomenon. Many of these guys had experimented with booze and drugs during the height of Timothy O’Leary’s popularity as a chemical recreation guru, enough to know that there was more harm than good to come from such things. A few still were rumored to sneak the occasional joint on the side, but they were pretty intensively ostracized from the rest of the group. Overall they found the absolutely sober lifestyle to just be more interesting and fulfilling, and I was quite ready to take their word on the subject. This perception was all the further reinforced by my observations of my peers “partying” when I got into my late teens and early twenties. I knew some chronic drunk drivers and some people with other fairly serious problems when it came to addictions and chemical escapism.

But besides all that, among those I knew whose drinking and other chemical hobbies seemed to be pretty well under control, I occasionally received the complement of sorts that “David’s the sort of guy that you can be standing around talking with him stoned drunk, and you can forget that he’s entirely sober.” Sitting around after the shop closed on Friday evening, the other guys who were not driving anywhere would sometimes have 3 or 4 beers while chatting about the events of the week before heading home, and I with my ice tea or fruit juice could be just as loose and animated and talkative as any of them, without needing anything to loosen me up. I really didn’t see the need. I never drank for the same reasons I have never, to this day, smoked tobacco or anything else: I knew the basic dangers and I just never felt like it was something I had to do.

My habits in this matter gradually changed as I got into the restaurant business. I was selling wine to go with fine food, and I thought it was important to know what the various sorts tasted like. I didn’t need the buzz, but I wasn’t afraid of the slight experience of it. It was my own variation on the Buddhist principle of detachment: being preoccupied with avoiding something can be as emotionally harmful as addiction to the vice in question.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

Since then I’ve adopted habits of very moderate social drinking, that I can easily live without for months or even years at a time, but which doesn’t bother me in terms of my conscience, my health or my lifestyle stability to have a glass or a pint every now and again. I’ve never had any serious worries about slipping down the slope into alcoholism. I can still count on my fingers the number of times in my life that I’ve been drunk enough for the hangover to cause me to throw up afterwards. If anything, for purposes of optimizing the health of my circulatory and digestive systems I don’t drink quite enough alcohol. Even so, of all the regrets I have from my teenage years and early twenties, spending them entirely sober isn’t one of them.

There are two activities for which I make a point of having no alcohol whatsoever in my system: teaching and driving. I’ve never even toyed with the idea of doing either under the influence. Even if this wasn’t a matter of strict regulation, I can’t imagine the risks involved in either being worthwhile. I have, I confess, done both at times under conditions of fairly extreme tiredness, where I knew my brain was functioning at a level equivalent to if I had had a few glasses of wine. I did not run into any crisis situations because of this, but I’ve learned to carefully avoid such risks regardless.

Overall alcohol is not a major factor in my life, but it is a significant matter, pro and con, for many people close to me. Some find a certain amount of alcohol particularly useful as a form of self-medication under certain circumstances, and as an aid to social interaction. Some have had bitter personal experiences of their own alcohol use, or that of someone close to them, getting seriously out of control. It can be noted that in all countries bordering on the Arctic Circle the risks of alcohol abuse run pretty high. Under those circumstances I’m entirely ready to go without alcohol if I’m with someone who, for personal reasons, has a problem with it.

For me this clearly corresponds with the New Testament debate over neat which was leftover from butchering that was done as part of pagan rituals (1 Corinthians 8). Paul’s basic perspective is that the gods which were worshiped in these rituals were nothing but figments of the worshipers’ imaginations, and that isn’t any reason not to eat the meat. But if there are those who have a serious crisis of conscience about it, there’s no point in trying to prove that you’re stronger and that you know more than they do. Just don’t harass them by doing what they’re bothered by in front of them.

At the University of Helsinki's botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

At the University of Helsinki’s botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

But these days this leads to the question, “If you’re cool with alcohol, is smoking pot also cool with you?” My short answer: I do not have enough experience on the matter to take an expert opinion either for or against. I’m prone to believe that significant self-medication is more common with marijuana than with alcohol, and that attempting to deal with stress and depression in this sort of a way has its own significant dangers no matter what chemical you use. I know more people who’ve done significant damage to themselves with alcohol than with marijuana, but I’ve seen enough to know that the latter isn’t as harmless as some of its missionaries would have us believe. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m certainly not in strong enough need of the experience to break the law to get it; and even if it were legalized, I’d probably continue to think of it the way I do tobacco: I don’t think much the less of my friends who do use it, but I don’t see much sense in starting myself. For the problems it causes there’s no particular reason for me to bother. There’s probably not much more for me to say about that matter.

So why do I bother making wine? Honestly, part of the reason for taking up this hobby again is just the creative challenge of it. I enjoy working on producing flavors that I can enjoy and that my more seriously culinary friends find particularly nice. I had a fair amount of beginner’s luck in this regard, and I’ve learned to duplicate my successes and somewhat to build on them.

The raw ingredient

Aronia berries: the primary raw ingredient for my brew

Beyond that I believe that consumed in small amounts, as I tend to do, this stuff might actually improve my health somewhat. My primary ingredient is aronia berries (aronia melanocarpa in Latin), which are supposed to qualify as a “super food” for their health effects these days. According to the current Wikipedia entry on then, these berries, with their record-breaking richness in flavonoids, are currently being given to test animals to test theories that they can cure or prevent everything from heart disease to colon cancer to arthritis to eye irritations. Fermenting their juice certainly doesn’t appear to pose any serious health risks. They are currently grown as landscaping plants all over my home town of Espoo, and it seems like I’m about the only one doing anything with them. Given my Dutch heritage (as good an excuse as any in such matters) I hate to see such a resource go to waste.

When it comes to my social life, the overall effect of this endeavor is probably going to be quite minimal, but while there are some minor risks involved, there are also potential rewards. I suspect that overall the effect will again be positive. If I had pubescent children around who would be at risk of getting into my stash, I would probably think more cautiously about the matter. Likewise if I were to have friends with problems with alcohol one way or the other visiting on a regular basis, I would make more of a point of not bothering them in this sort of way. I do remember a few people in particular to whom I shouldn’t offer this year’s product as Thanksgiving table contributions or Christmas presents. But overall my friends find this a pleasing hobby to passively participate in, and for those few casual acquaintances I have whose world view is so narrow that they will think less of me for my wine production, I can easily live with that loss of prestige in their eyes.

So anyone here in southern Finland who wants to stop by and share the experience at the end of the month, or try my recipe for themselves, be in touch. I’m sure we can work something out. And regardless of how you think about such matters, I wish all of you a pleasant start to the autumn season.

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“Why doan he TALK like a Man?”

One of the factors about my up-bringing that I rarely mention these days –– in part, I admit, out of concern that people might label me a certain way and think of me as less intelligent because of it –– is that in the 1970s I went to a private Christian high school: an abstinence only approach to sex, homophobic to the max, unapologetically creationist, the whole nine yards. I don’t want to go into an evaluation of my socialization into that sort of belief system just now though. I mention it only as necessary context when I say that I had a few outstanding teachers there who found subtle ways of encouraging me and my classmates to think outside of the box which that system created.  One in particular was an English teacher by the name of Charlie Reed who tried to “save our souls,” in a less religious sense of the term, using the writings of Mark Twain. One of the most interesting and memorable parts of these lessons had to do with chapter 14 of Huckleberry Finn.

Due to lesser teachers’ lack of capacity to bring such literature to life for students, this book has frequently been banned in American schools. I have little sympathy for such perspectives. Sure, there’s a certain amount of risk involved in considering the slave-holding society of the 19th century south –– including their use of the word “nigger” –– in such a sympathetic way, but the greater danger is in ignoring that era and its effects in terms of on-going problems in social dynamics in the United States and the post-colonial world elsewhere, or failing to consider the humanity of all those involved. In his masterpiece here, Sam Clemens / Mark Twain tells a particularly exciting and funny story which opens a window into the diverse mentalities of those living along the Mississippi, with all their profound virtues and vices clearly on display. Thus anyone who would use passages like the closing line of chapter 14, “you can’t learn a nigger to argue,” as a racist joke is either showing their own incredibly blatant stupidity or reflecting the gross incompetence of their teachers in terms of introducing literary context.

This chapter came to mind for me last week, as I sat through some less than thoroughly stimulating lectures on the question of the connections between language learning and culture learning. It occurred to me that these professors could learn a lot if they would start reading Mark Twain rather than European Union directives on these matters. The problem, I suspect, is that they’ve never learned the former language. Twain was a pioneer in the art of writing so as to capture the subtle nuances of the heavy dialects spoken by former slaves, which makes his writing particularly difficult to grasp for those who have never heard such speech. Professors such as Mike Byram who have recently declared themselves to be the arbitrators of “intercultural competence,” in turn, write in the largely incomprehensible dialect of European Union directive-writing bureaucrats. I got the impression that, somewhat ironically, those in this particular “chattering class” are rather uncomfortable stepping outside of their mother tongue of Bureaucratese, and they are blissfully unaware of the extent to which teenagers and non-academic working folk find their language far less comprehensible than the dialect writings of Mark Twain.

The lecture series I’ve just completed seemed to have been intended, more than anything else, to provide the equivalent of CLIL –– “Content and Language Integrated Learning” –– in Bureaucratese, for aspiring bureaucrats and for the sort of academics who wish to reach a point in their careers where they no longer have to deal with people. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, very few of us taking the course actually had those particular sorts of ambitions. I actually consider such ambitions to be a particularly pernicious form of social maladjustment, and for those who suffer from such I’m not sure if anything can be done to fix it. I don’t think bureaucracy addicts and anti-social academics can be forced to acknowledge their problems and seek therapy, and I don’t think they can be educated out of it. (Actually believing such problems can be solved by means of theoretical education is part of the problem.)

The best hope I can offer is for them to carefully read and consider the sub-text of Huck’s debate with Jim in this cultural classic. The original is freely available on line, but I suspect that translation will be required. Hence this essay.

Briefly setting the narrative context, Huck, the poor white boy with extremely limited education, who has run away from his foster mother, “the widow,” and Jim, the escaped slave owned by the widow’s sister, have just had a spot of particularly good luck: successfully stealing a boatload of loot from some riverboat thieves, including a small library and a few boxes of particularly good cigars. This in turn led to them having a rather philosophical discussion about the concepts of “nobility” and “cultural difference” in general, setting the stage for much of the conflict which is to follow in the novel.

Their discussion is intriguingly multi-layered in that it involves abstract discussion of exotic “others” that neither of the conversers really knows anything about, the partial deconstruction of power dynamics in both familiar and exotic cultures, and an exploration of assumptions about the communicative implications of what it means to be human. In short it covers the full thematic range which Byram & company have attempted to communicate about.

huck and jimThe discussion begins with the general topic of kings. For Jim the concept of a culture of kingship opens up a whole new range of ideas for contemplation. His previous associations with the word “king” had been limited to the biblical character of Solomon and the cards ranked between queens and aces. There is a brief discussion of the economics of being a king: how much they make in exchange for doing what sort of work. Huck clearly has no reliable data about this target group, but he relishes in the opportunity to step into the role of “expert” based on having read more than Jim about the matter. Yet from the start of the discussion Jim is able to point out inconsistencies and likely errors in Huck’s account. Huck finds this in turns intimidating and frustrating, but he continues to play the “expert” role as far as he can on an improvisational basis. Thus within this passage there’s a powerful implied moral critique regarding how expertise is constructed in academic contexts in general.

Solomon of Huck FinnEventually the discussion comes back around to the assumption that, like Solomon, kings tend to have thousands of wives. Solomon being the only king Jim had ever heard of by name, this premise goes unquestioned. Jim, as the student, follows up on this shared assumption that Solomon at “had about a million wives” with pertinent questions about what that would imply regarding Solomon’s legendary wisdom. Even discounting for all of the factual errors and inter-cultural misunderstandings involved in the dialog, most contemporary theologians would have to admit that Jim has a valid point here: The inevitable domestic friction and the lack of appreciation for individual intimate relationships that would result from polygamy on such an absurd scale certainly call into the question the wisdom of any man who would crave such a lifestyle. Huck, as teacher, argues back against these claims with a somewhat weak appeal to the widow’s authority as a higher academic expert in such matters, but not having been properly socialized into the academic tradition of citing established authorities as a means of proving points, Jim refuses to accept this rebuttal.

He goes on to further argue his point by citing the narrative from 1 Kings chapter 3 –– of Solomon settling the argument between the two women as to whose child the live one was and whose was dead one was by offering to cut the live child in half –– as evidence of Solomon’s hyper-polygamy having numbed him to the human value of children. Here Huck points out, correctly, that Jim has broadly misunderstood the context and intent of the king’s command, but as Huck lacks the intellectual sophistication to explicate the psychology of Solomon’s bluff as a test of maternal affection, he replies with a line that’s actually been tossed at me by a few of my own teachers over the years: “You don’t get the point!” This in turn leads to a bit of a power struggle over the question of who is entitled to determine what “the point is.” Not being able to argue through this impasse, Huck switches topics.

dauphin coat of armsHe picks up on the matter of Louis XVII of France, the son of the king beheaded in the French revolution, who presumably died of disease while being kept imprisoned and in isolation by the revolutionary authorities, about whom there were also some rumors that he had escaped to America. Here Huck’s information is surprisingly accurate, including his reference to this would-be king as “the dolphin,” which is actually the literal meaning of his French title of “Dauphin”. And in fact there was a pretender to this title who was active as a missionary to the Native Americans on the north end of the Mississippi River valley at the time depicted in the novel. Jim in turn found the idea of a young king living on in America both comforting and disturbing. If I translate his concerns about the matter into the sort of English that even bureaucrats might understand, Jim says, “He’ll be rather lonely though. There aren’t any kings here for him to associate with. Nor will he be able to find employment in his own profession. So what might he end up doing?”

Huck answers these concerns by stating that a French noble in the United States stood a reasonably good chance of getting a position in law enforcement, or as a teacher of French as a foreign language. This leads to a particularly interesting comic exchange in which Jim is baffled as to why anyone would want to bother with such a thing. From his perspective the only natural way for humans to communicate would be in some variation or another of English. He might not even have known the name of the language as such, no name being necessary for what he considered to be such a universal aspect of the human experience. There is a particularly funny line where Huck asked Jim what he would think if someone were to say to him, “Parlez-vous français?” Again, translated into what bureaucrats would consider to be a “standard speech,” Jim’s response was, “I wouldn’t think anything; I’d hit him in the head, hard –– as long as he wasn’t white. I wouldn’t let any black man call me that!”

The ensuing debate over whether French is a natural way for humans to communicate with each other has Huck trying to justify the concept of people speaking different languages using an analogy of animals speaking different languages within their respective species. Cats and cows each have their own natural languages which are incomprehensible to us and to those of other species. So just as nature allows for many different languages among various species of animals, it is perfectly natural for nature to allow for many different languages among humans. Jim deconstructs this analogy, however, with the simple question, “Is a Frenchman a man?”  Huck doesn’t actually know any Frenchmen, but based on his reading on the matter he assumes that this would be the case. From there Jim goes on to ask why a Frenchmen don’t talk like men: my title question here.

Comic jabs as Francophiles aside, this portion of Twain’s text invites the reader to explore his/her own prejudices as to what forms of speech and action might be considered “natural” for humans in general. One theoretical approach to this matter, seemingly popular within Bureaucratese culture, states that there are particular proper forms of action and codes of behavior that are properly associated with given linguistic spheres. Humans are inherently flexible as to how they learn to act and communicate, but together with each particular form of communication we as humans develop, there comes a proper set of cultural expectations that should be learned together with the language. Teaching students to be able to switch back and forth between these codes –– to appreciate differences in language, and as part of that, differences in culture –– is intended not only to expand the range of individuals with which the student can communicate, but also to deepen the student’s understanding of and appreciation for her/his own language and culture. Exploring such matters with confidence, while still allowing a privileged position for those who have attained a particular bureaucratic status, is the intent implied in the title of the book I have sitting next to me at the moment (left over as background reading for the lecture series I’ve recently endured): Becoming Interculturally Competent through Education and Training.

The problem, however, comes when “culture” becomes a normative rather than an analytic concept. It is one thing to say that the French tend to be a particular way; it is quite another thing to insist that someone must be a particular way in order to qualify as Frenchman, or as a participant in French culture. The epitome of using “culture” in a normative way is what is known in philosophy as the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

There is some potential value and some potential bovine excrement involved in an assertion that education and/or training can and should bring about “competence” in basic human inter-relational skills. In order for each of us to be able to accept others as people –– to relate to them in a way that automatically assumes neither superiority nor inferiority, nor automatically prioritizes conformity to a particular set of linguistic/cultural norms –– each of us needs to be personally secure in where she/he comes from. We need to both recognize the value in the way we were raised and to see that this isn’t the only way things could have been done. We also need to see how others, who were raised in significantly different ways, have certain advantages and disadvantages in terms of what they are consequently capable of and how they view the world. Ideally we should develop a capacity to learn by comparison, to search for “best practices,” and not to assume that our own cultures have already found all of them. Education can help with that. Genuine human interaction with those we are prone to think of as “other” can help much more. But there are some forms of insecurity and maladjustment that neither social interaction nor education can fix. I believe we’re best off just recognizing those problems for what they are.

In the story of Huckleberry Finn, the “poor white trash” boy learns that the black man, in spite of his dehumanizing background, and in some cases because of it even, has developed many particularly important and useful skills for wilderness survival. He also comes to see the black man’s feelings and intuitions as important, and he adjusts his moral practice accordingly. He becomes “inter-culturally competent” in ways that no bureaucracy or contemporary education program would sign off on, but in ways which actually matter in real life. He still considers liberating slaves to be socially unacceptable, and he still doesn’t categorize an anonymous “nigger” getting killed as a human tragedy; but he’s willing to repeatedly risk his freedom and his very life to protect his black friend, and his friend more than returns these favors.

The question of how one should be expected to talk and act in order to count as “a man” –– as a human being entitled to rights as such –– remains open here. Our standards for speech and cultural action always have room for improvement. Blatantly abusive language and prejudiced practices certainly need to be reduced, where they can’t be curtailed entirely. But far more important in practice than such bureaucratic measures of “intercultural competence” is a practical capacity to form interpersonal connections with “the other”.  The more native speakers of Bureaucratese learn to “talk like men” in this regard, the more functionally competent they will actually become.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Human Rights, Linguistics, Racism, Respectability, Social identity, Tolerance

Bauman, Ballistics and the Purpose of Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education in "the good old days"

Education in “the good old days”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there an Alternative to Secularism and Fundamentalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Theology/Philosophy of Giving

I’m not going to church today, in part because I happen to be feeling ill. A bit of nasal congestion hit me out of the blue this weekend as the graduation parties were just getting started, and yesterday evening it blossomed into a full spring flu for me. Such is life.

But I was a bit uncertain about the matter already last Sunday. I’ve been attending semi-regularly at a small independent “community church” that is affiliated with a major international inter-denominational missionary organization, and that may be as good a fit for me these days as any, but as with all such organizations there comes a question at some point of where the money comes from. The functional assumption is that to some extent it operates on the CCR “Willie and the Poor Boys” principle: “It don’t cost you nothing just to hang around, but if you have a nickel won’t you lay your money down.” The problem is, that doesn’t make for a particularly stable economic base for church operations, particularly in a student community. So last week the leader of this group preached what he announced would be the first of a three-part series of sermons on “biblical principles of giving.” As much as I respect this guy’s sincerity and sense of mission, and as much as I recognize the logistical challenges of running his sort of operation, I found myself in such complete disagreement with everything he said in this particular sermon that I decided that I wouldn’t bother to sit there and mentally argue with him for the next two parts of the series.

Not that I consider Finland’s Lutheran alternative to be inherently more honorable. There too there are people that I personally respect as honorable and driven by a sincere sense of mission, trying to make the best possible use of the resources they have in terms of “doing God’s work” as they see it. They are not in any functional money shortage though, since in exchange for various minimal “faith-based services” –– primarily cemetery maintenance these days –– the government helps collect a certain surtax from church members and businesses operating among church members. Effectively this means that Finland’s Lutheran church receives approximately 1% of the country’s GDP just for being there. Given the minimal expectations that the average Finn has of their church (attendance statistics running something in the neighborhood of 1.3 visits to a church per year per paying member) this gives them plenty of money to play with. Thus I have never heard a Finnish Lutheran priest offer a sermon on the importance of giving. They do pass a collection plate (bag actually) every Sunday, but that is not so much to cover practical expenses, but to give people the opportunity to participate in various missionary enterprises just for the joy of feeling that they’re doing something good.

The whole philosophy and theology of how these things are “supposed to work” is a rather abstract matter. In many ways it is analogous to –– and in some respects historically tied to –– the economics of the music industry, and “arts and letters” in general. When someone writes poems and songs, gives public performances, expresses the basic feelings associated with the human condition of the age and brings people together through a sense of shared belonging, who is responsible to pay for that, how much, and through what mechanisms? There aren’t really any stable on-going cultural models to answer this question, to say nothing of eternal principles to appeal to. Rapid technological changes have enabled various performers (or their handlers) to suddenly get fabulously rich, and then suddenly discover that still newer technologies have suddenly caused their marvelous sources of income to dry up, making them feel like they’d been somehow cosmically cheated out of what they rightfully had coming to them. I find it frustrating that recording industry executives and various church leaders pretend that they have an eternal basis in justice for the financial demands they make on people. I recognize that there needs to be some functional mechanism by which this important work keeps getting done and paid for, but to claim that any given mechanism in this regard is anything more than an ad hoc formulation for the time being –– each with plenty of little economic leaches attached, sucking out most of the vital resources that are actually being contributed to the work –– is patently dishonest.

This guy puts on a pretty good show, but who is responsible to pay for it?

This guy puts on a pretty good show, but who is responsible to pay for it?

There are at least four primary models for the financing of such “public goods”: taxation, sale of access to the goods themselves, sale of rights to be associated with the church/artist in question, and the free contribution principle. Almost always these are used in combination with each other in some way. None of them are inherently immoral. All of them are subject to abuse. All of them create certain temptations to “cheat the system.” Finding a functional balance between them is easier said than done.

The taxation system goes back to the earliest roots of human government, and within the Abrahamic religions it goes back at least as far as the writings of Moses. Basically in the days of Israel’s most simplified tribal theocracy they had a flat rate income tax of 10%, with no deductibles, covering mostly cultural and ceremonial expenses, but with a bit of military and welfare also covered as part of the package. Discussion of this matter starts in Leviticus 27 and ends in Malachi 3, with few enough references in between to the principle where you can count them on your fingers. This was how the great ceremonial building and rebuilding projects in Jerusalem were financed, and how the writers of the Psalms and the books of history in the Old Testament were able to keep their families fed.

There are a number of Protestant theologians who firmly believe that this teaching should be maintained in the church today; that Christian believers should be setting aside one tenth of their income as a minimum to give to those who claim to be God’s representatives in their local community, and not to do so is to cheat God of what is rightfully his. That’s one way to keep the bills paid, but as a biblical ethical mandate it’s pretty weak. It’s based on a selective reading of the last book of the Old Testament: Malachi. Malachi was talking about covenant or contract theology between God and the nation of Israel as a nation. He was saying that the nation couldn’t succeed if it didn’t live up to its end of the bargain with God, which included the maintenance of reserves for those who had nothing of their own: widows, orphans and Levites –– the ones who had no land or productive function in society so they could specialize in some combination of bureaucracy and the arts. Contrary to common belief, nowhere does the New Testament transfer the rights of the Levites within the ancient Israeli order to the Christian clergy, nor establish tithing as the basis of church finance. The closest thing to an endorsement given to the system is in Luke 11:42, where Jesus ridicules the Pharisees by saying that they file their tax statements in the most minute detail possible –– which in itself is a good thing –– while still ignoring the most important part of Moses’ law: caring for those in need. So the basic message of this verse is twisted to say, “See, Jesus endorsed tithing!”

Not that taxation is a bad system for financing important causes, particularly when it is done openly and responsibly by those in power, where people can see what their tax money is being spent on and where social solidarity is built on such a basis. I believe that having a poet laureate receiving government support is a good thing. I believe there can be many positive variations on that principle. Within such a system, however, rather than supporting a flat tax rate I see Jesus’ teachings as emphasizing the distinction between taxing sustenance and taxing surplus income (Mark 12:41-44). But there has only been one phase in history during which the church has been powerful enough to impose its own systems of taxation on the society: the Medieval Period. That was hardly a utopian system. Overall there is little biblical justification for preaching that God expects us to give a certain part of our money to particular churches as His rightful share of the blessings He has given to us.

The next way of trying to arrange things is so that only those who pay get the goods: Only those who buy the records or concert tickets get to hear the music or see the show. Only those who buy the books get to read them. Only those who financially support the religious institutions get their sins forgiven… In some ways that seems fair; in other ways it seems hopelessly crude. Holding back the knowledge and cultural experiences that are “out there” already from those who cannot pay as much might not only be bad for social solidarity; it might be bad for the advancement of the arts in question. If religion or the arts only reflect the needs, interests and experiences of the wealthy who can pay the most, the arts fail to accomplish the most important part of their purpose: showing us something of the shared human experience. The fact that making contact with God more easily available for the rich than for the poor is the direct antithesis of the teachings of Jesus, in whose name much of this trade has been done, seems to be rather beside the point.

A more modern way of working out the finances of worship and the arts is to have people pay not for the consumption of the cultural product, but for association with the cultural product. The concert is free, but you pay $50 for the t-shirt. Or more commonly, some “refreshment” manufacturer pays for the show in return for having the band wear their logo on stage. There are thousands of variations on the principle, all of which come down to the artists or the religious leaders allowing their image to be exploited by those who gain some social capital from being associated with them in exchange for some direct financial sponsorship. This limits the ticket prices and the public support needed through taxation to keep the show going, but it also puts a bit of a ding in the integrity of the artist or religious leader in question.

Hardly any churches will be so crass as to allow fast food restaurants to advertise in their chapels, but they do publically thank them for their support and announce that the youth group will meet there on Wednesday, for instance. Or a particularly shady businessman can shore up his reputation in the community by hanging around with high ranking clergymen. In fact the basis of the state church system in Europe and many other parts of the world has been for the local royalty to sponsor the church financially in exchange for the church telling the peasants that God wants them to obey the royalty: a crude early form of image advertising that has done lasting damage to the integrity of the churches in question, which endures to this day.

The only real way around these problems is for religious leaders, and the most spiritually significant of artists, to make their goods freely available to the public, relying on the Aristotelian principle that honorable people will provide some form of good in return for what good they receive. If someone does good to me it is a matter of basic human honor that I should repay kindness with kindness. Beyond that there is the explicitly Christian teaching that when others fail to live up to this standard the believer and the Christian leader who keep doing good for others anyway are doing this favor directly for God, that following the example of the “Good Samaritan” we should practically contribute more that we can expect to be repaid for, and that in doing so we reveal the only true unique value of our faith.

Giving to help those who help others, whether or not you are personally among those being helped in any given case, done freely and privately to the extent that there is no potential reputation boost involved, is the most honorable way to return the favor of being cared for by those who give to others in a genuinely spiritual way. Other than that there is the principle that a community based on freely given and received kindnesses will have greater strength and resilience than one based on grudgingly honoring obligations which have been established on a competitive bargaining basis. The problem is that we have largely forgotten how to care for those who closest to us in non-competitive ways. We see everyone not as a fellow recipient of God’s bounteous gifts, but as a competitor for what scarce resources there are available. Thus churches resort to variations of taxation, ticket selling and advertising revenue strategies in order to maintain their operations –– in order to better compete with the other churches in town.

I’m not in a position to condemn any church for the way they manage their finances. I haven’t established any sort of spiritual community where people are ready to make donations to keep it going. In fact one of my greatest weaknesses as a theologian is finding ways of convincing people to pay me to keep doing it. I can only say that I seek to live at peace with those who are genuinely interested in working for peace and helping others, regardless of my personal reservations about their financial strategies. But when the marketing propaganda starts to get intense I hope they can forgive me for keeping my distance.

Now to get back to writing things I might hope to get paid for…

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality