Charlie and the Martyr Factory

Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.

The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.

In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.

Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.

Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.

But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.

The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.

political influence levelsIf you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.

Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.

That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy.  Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.

From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.

Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.

The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.

Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.

Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!

20150111_213743All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.

Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, News, Politics, Pop culture

Whiteness and Good Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Holidays, Racism

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Love, Religion, Sexuality

Kingdom Come, revisited

Finland’s Independence Day, 2014.

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

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

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

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

So how can war be justified? Or can it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kingdom Come (revised edition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh why won’t the kingdom come?

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Filed under Death, Education, Ethics, Holidays, Politics

The Cosby Contradiction

Like many people, I’ve been in turns surprised, disturbed and fascinated by the recent scandals and career collapse of Bill Cosby. In a strange way, however, I sadly have to admit, it provides me with a certain sense of closure. Let me work through this one here.

Bill Cosby - Best Of Bill Cosby (3)I first discovered Cosby when I was somewhere around 12 years old, with his classic comedy recordings like “Noah” and “Chicken Heart”. His stuff was both racially identified and completely white bread at the same time, which is part of what I could appreciate about it already in my pre-puberty stage. He spoke of the sort of trouble that poor kids can get themselves into in the process of enjoying life in risky ways: improvised rules for back alley sports, homemade toys made out of stolen and scrap materials, cruel practical jokes backfiring, and humor as a defense against the trauma of living with a violence prone alcoholic father. The thing that made it all funny was the extent to which it endeared all of the eccentric yet familiar characters to us, ranging from Fat Albert to Weird Harold, giving a certain dignity to all of them and without moralizing against any of them. His agenda seemed to be to defend kids against all of the threats that adults brought into their lives, ranging from jungle gyms to lumpy oatmeal, while at the same time working out survival strategies that a kid from a disadvantaged family could get by with.

bill-cosby-2Much later I discovered the aspect of his career which was in some ways in complete contrast and perhaps even contradiction with this funky Philly home-boy image: his ground-breaking acting role for a black man in the 1960s as the sophisticated sidekick for a would-be American James Bond in “I Spy”. Watching these reruns years after the fact, I was impressed less by the quality of the drama than just the cultural landmark they represented. Cosby played with distinction a role originally written for a white man. This became another aspect of his identity that made for an uneasy mix with the Fat Albert stuff: sometimes he was letting the disadvantages that came with his racial background hang out for all to see, offering dignity to those who shared those handicaps; other times he was playing the role of an urbane sophisticate, trying to send out a message that race really didn’t matter.

motherjugsspeedIn hindsight one of the most telling moments in his acting career, in terms of a role that defined Cosby culturally, would be his lead in the ambulance comedy, Mother, Jugs and Speed. This film was all about letting prejudices hang out to be ridiculed. It explored the ways in which Cosby’s character, “Mother,” the sole black man working for a sleazy white-owned ambulance company, related first of all to the sexy receptionist (Raquel Welsh) whom he alone could get away with calling “Jugs” while leering at her ample cleavage. Enter “Speed”: Harvey Keitel’s character of a Viet Nam vet coming into the company offering radical competitive intensity and questionable reliability. Throw in a cut-throat competition for a municipal contract between their company, “F&B”, and the completely black-owned-and-run “Unity” ambulance corporation.

Besides being the black man working to promote “white interests” in exchange for certain extra privileges within the company, Mother is also a bit of a sexual pervert and general mischief maker with a bit of a violent streak to boot. Mother has a habit of stopping off at erotic massage parlors while he is supposed to be on call, and for personal amusement he likes to try to use his custom ambulance to run down nuns on crosswalks. When the particularly distasteful character played by Larry Hagman makes a crude comment about Mother’s partner who gets killed in the line of duty, Mother calmly beats him into a condition where he has to be hospitalized. Then in the end, when the white-run “F&B” ambulance service is combined with the black-run “Unity” service (to operate under the new name “F&U”), Mother insists on keeping Jugs as his partner rather than accepting any of his new black colleagues’ requests for him to ride with them.Scratch the surface a little bit and all of this starts to look like nothing more than a complex analogy for Cosby’s own life.

Meanwhile Cosby was making most of his living in the seventies as an ad man: hocking poorly made cars and heavy doses of sugar for children in order to secure a relatively comfortable life for himself and his family. The only problem anyone seemed to have with this at the time was that Cosby was representing so many brands at the same time that when you saw his face pop up on TV you could never be sure what he’d try to sell you this time –– Ford Pintos or Jello pudding-pops or Del Monte peaches or whatever.

o-THE-COSBY-SHOW-GUYS-WITH-KIDS-facebookIn the mid-Reagan era Cosby finally found what he hoped would be his definitive role as “Dr. Huxtable” on The Cosby Show: the patriarch of the ultimate successful white-collar black family for whom race didn’t matter any more. The father was a doctor, the mother was a lawyer, and their kids never suffered for lack of attention from either parent due to the demands of their careers. The message was in many respects classic Reagan: Forget about historic injustices and all that. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Society should be structured in a way that those who work their way to the top are fully allowed to enjoy what they’ve earned once they get there, and if some people suffer because they haven’t worked as hard as they should, that’s their problem.

As Cosby has aged this conflict between the different aspects of his public persona–– between being Weird Harold’s best friend and being CIA agent Alexander Scott; between being Mother and Dr. Huxtable –– has intensified. As much as we want to love the endearing qualities of both, Cosby has increasingly shown the most objectionable aspects of both sides of himself. He has responded to the heartbreaks and disappointments that fatherhood has brought his way by implying that his major failure as a parent has been not being tough enough with them… more like what his parents, and the army, were like with him. He has referred to black people who he sees as lacking ambition as “no-groes” and while he holds records in terms of the most money donated to African-American educational causes, he has been increasingly defensive about insinuations regarding other ways in which he could be using his nine-figure net worth to help improve the lives of black kids today who have even fewer opportunities than he had growing up.

Bill CosbyCosby’s conspicuous aging process over the past couple decades has been disturbing to watch. In the nineties he was able to joke about his progressively failing health and the depressing diet restrictions his doctor put him on. He said then that he couldn’t wait to get to be his mother’s age, because her doctor told her that at that point she could eat anything she might want and it wouldn’t really make so much difference any more. Now he seems to have arrived at that age, and he is all the more cranky for it. He is conspicuously blind in one eye and his public appearances have mostly featured him sitting unshaven in front of a camera, looking as though walking across the room to get there was probably a painful exercise for him that he didn’t really want anyone to see.

The best information I’ve been able to come across says that he was born in July of 1937, putting him in his late seventies. So it seems that the rant published in his name last year, “I’m 83 and tired”, loses track of a lot of things about his early life:

I’m tired of being told that I have to “spread the wealth” to people who don’t have my work ethic.

I’m tired of being told the government will take the money I earned, by force if necessary, and give it to people too lazy to earn it.

Then after ranting on against Muslims, carbon emission restrictions, drug addicts, celebrity no-fault public apologies (!) and people with a sense of entitlement, he goes on to say,

I’m really tired of people who don’t take responsibility for their lives and actions. I’m tired of hearing them blame the government, or discrimination or big-whatever for their problems.

I’m also tired and fed up with seeing young men and women in their teens and early 20′s be-deck themselves in tattoos and face studs, thereby making themselves unemployable and claiming money from the Government.

Yes, I’m damn tired. But I’m also glad to be 83. Because, mostly, I’m not going to have to see the world these people are making. I’m just sorry for my granddaughter and their children. Thank God I’m on the way out and not on the way in.

Two questions come to mind when reading this diatribe:
1) Has his mind really deteriorated so far that he would write something like this for himself (including the 8-year discrepancy in his age), or has some Tea Partier anxious to spread anti-Obama ideas attributable to black celebrities written this apocryphally? (ed: This strongly appears to be the case!)
2 Is it possible for a black man to definitively be a douchebag after all?

With all of this in the background then, the recent allegations that for most of his career Cosby has been a womanizer and serial rapist –– but only now, for some strange reason (reportedly having to do with a little known comedian’s accusation against him as part of a stand-up routine) are people starting to take the evidence in this regard seriously –– takes on a whole new light. A tea party conspiracy theorist might claim that it is because Cosby has dared to speak out against “the abuses of big government” that the liberal media is working overtime to shut him down, but that doesn’t really ring true. More to the point, as the elder comic has become more and more aggressive in his absurd right wing rambling as his mind has deteriorated, the threshold for pointing out his personal moral failures has been lowered significantly. People have been forced by Cosby himself to recognize that as a person he isn’t so much like Dr. Huxtable, making it far less difficult for his accusers to point out how much, as a person, he resembles the character of “Mother”.

mother-568x244So with all this in mind how do I now relate to Cosby and his life’s work? Obviously it’s complicated. The most obvious thing for me, however, is to say that his most valuable work, throughout his career, has been when he has stayed in touch with his inner little mischievous poor black kid from Philadelphia. The stories he told about that era of his life are the reason he became famous to begin with, and his ability to slip back into that role at will was key to the most valuable moments of his acting, advertising and stand-up careers thereafter. When he lost touch with that inner black child at times by trying to be the respected operator in the white-skinned world for whom his skin color didn’t make any difference any more, he lost touch with what is most valuable about himself as an artist.

Obviously this is not to say that as a black man he should just “stay in his proper place”! By breaking down barriers in playing the I Spy sidekick, Cosby did indeed play a valuable role in improving race relations in the United States. The sad part is the extent to which his sense of self seems to have got confused in the process. Becoming both a serial rapist and a quasi-teabagger are quite likely symptoms of that loss of a secure sense of value in terms of who he is and where he comes from.

The hard part here is applying this back to my own life. How do I go about remaining in touch with my own formative childhood experiences that made me who I am, which took place in a cultural environment very different from that in which I have been living for the past 25 years or so? How much do I need to make a point of sympathizing with those who are perhaps stuck in a place that I like to think I have outgrown? What measures must I take in order to ensure that I remain honest with myself in terms of staying in touch with what authentically makes me me? The easy part is judging Cosby for his lost personal integrity; the hard part is figuring out how to learn from his mistakes.

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Filed under Politics, Pop culture, Racism

The Evolution of Public Understanding of Human Rights

I accidentally got preaching to my friends on Facebook this evening, and after the fact I realized that I had written a blog’s worth of material without sitting down and intending to do so. So since I’ve been posting so sparsely here otherwise I thought it would be worth taking a few more minutes while I’m at it to copy-paste together those diatribes and put it up here for all of your reviews and comments.

The basic issue being discussed was prejudice, racism and what we should be doing to stop them. (The stimulus for discussion was this video.) Part of the discussion from there had to do with problems associated with race, and whether black civil rights activists of the current generation are to blame form flaming racial tensions. I find that to be a rather absurd charge, and one that is constructed for ignorant use as an excuse for all sorts of abuse against darker-skinned people: “But they’re being even more racist!”

I jumped in on a rather heated discussion that arose over this matter by commenting: “As long as conservatives talk about the problem of ‘black-on-black crime’ race remains an important construct in their minds by which they differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It isn’t any Sharpton or Jackson forcing them to see the world that way.” I hold to that: race is not something that black people have constructed and reinforced in the public imagination. It’s not something that lighter skinned folk can just randomly pretend doesn’t exist when it comes to protecting basic rights (“There’s only one race: the human race; it’s just these activists like Jackson and Sharpton who are keeping people from seeing things that way”) and then invoke when it comes to explaining away problems in the structure of society (“All of these problems black people are having are not caused by white oppression so much as other black people”). I find this sort of inconsistency in rhetoric morally disgusting, and I hope to discourage ignorant people of good will from falling into such hate-mongering narratives.

From there, in the flow of heated rhetoric that I wasn’t actively participating in, the issue was raised –– somewhat as a red herring and somewhat as a clarification of a previous side issue –– of the United States historic role in promoting civil rights and human rights. This rhetorical tack is generally used to claim that since the American tradition has been the source of so much good we shouldn’t critique it too harshly, even when it leads to things like obscene levels of economic polarization, imprisonment of large percentages of the population, lack of legitimate opportunity structures for people born into the wrong sort of families, and excusing of blatantly hateful attitudes projected against darker skinned people merely because they have darker skin (regardless of the barrage of excuses routinely employed for such).

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this "American heritage" deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture.

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this “American heritage” deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture?

OK, what is uniquely valuable about American cultural heritage as such? What sort of new developments did the United States introduce into world culture? How are the other 6.7 billion people of the world better (or worse) off because of the existence of American political culture? It’s a question worth considering more carefully than it usually gets considered.

My very separate friends Aaron and Vinnie (who have never met each other and who have nothing more in common with each other than both being from the eastern United States and both being acquainted with me in some distant way) were going after each other on this point: Vinnie taking the position of defending “American Exceptionalism,” and Aaron downplaying this claim by way of introducing historical precedents and context. To this, in the midst of a bit of back-pedalling, Vinnie replied, “The American constitution was a large improvement on those documents. […] I am under the impression that the US constitution was a major evolution in the rights of human beings. […] I still stand by the US bill of rights being a major evolution in human rights built upon the magna carta, [sic] English documents, and French republican ideals.”

This was my cue. My reason for posting the video that started this whole discussion was that it included a tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as standard for making blatant expressions of racism unacceptable. If the US documents in question were “a major evolution in the rights of human beings” over their predecessors, the UDHR in turn represents at least as large a leap forward in terms of human rights compared to American writings of the 18th century.

So on this basis I wrote:

“[My point] in starting this thread was to point out to many, conservative Americans in particular, that there have been a vast number of improvements in human rights legislation since the slaveholders wrote the US Constitution, that people in the US simply haven’t been tracking on — larger improvements than the US Constitution represented over its French and British predecessors. Under these circumstances it’s even a bit absurd for the US to position itself as the global human rights police, when so many Americans are so utterly clueless about the subject. Reading the UDHR and getting its principles operational within the US should be a moral prerequisite for preaching to other nations about human rights and trying to enforce them as an excuse for invading lands whose natural resources we covet. End of this evening’s sermon.”

But for better or for worse, mea culpa, I found myself unable to stop there. I had to give my personal perspective on what was in fact unique and revolutionary about the writings of the American “founding fathers” in these regards:

“BTW, the major revolutionary aspect of the US Constitution was not its emphasis on rights in general, but its break with what scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the tradition of ‘little christendoms’: This new little nation was not officially seeking religious justifications for its power structure, as had been the European tradition, nor was it allowing religious authorities to reinforce themselves as providers of the basis for civil authority. IOW the truly revolutionary thing was the degree to which the US was not founded as a Christian nation! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tea Party sympathizers.”

Vinnie, sincere open-minded thinker that he is (and I say that completely sincerely) then put forward the next important question: “I believe that we want to ask, how is the UDHR superior to the US const and is there any deficiency?”

This I answered at length:

“The UDHR was built on the premise that the multiple tragedies of WW2 in particular were based on the problem of people not being treated with the sort of dignity that all people deserve to be treated with, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE PEOPLE. It was also built on the premise that, when it came right down to it, NONE of the nations involved could claim that they were treating all of their people with the full dignity to which they should be entitled. (The US was, by our current understanding, shamefully segregated still at that time, and couldn’t claim any high moral ground, in spite of FDR’s idealistic inspiration for the project.) Thus all the nations involved officially pledged to take their agreements on the matter forward by learning from and teaching the content of this document. The US in particular has failed to live up to that commitment. (The Soviet Union did too, which largely led to its demise.)

FDR's four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

FDR’s four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

“Substantive issues that the UDHR raises in comparison with the US Constitution is that it codifies positive rights for individuals. FDR famously spoke of basic rights to freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The first two of those were spelled out in the US Constitution. The latter two had yet to be properly codified. How should people, by virtue of being people, be protected from fear and want? What sorts of fears and wants do people deserve to be protected from, and by whom? (Fear of getting old or gaining weight is not something that people are entitled to protection from. Want is something that comparison-based cultures will never know the end of.) The UDHR explores these issues from a broadly multi-cultural perspective, trying to, for the first time, establish a set of standards for what people are entitled to as people that could be equally applicable in Russia, China, Japan, African nations, Arab nations, European nations, and yes, in American nations; acknowledging that all of these cultures had serious improvements to be made, and that none of them could claim the moral high ground in showing the others how they should learn to treat people.

“The primary problem with the US currently is an unjustified triumphalist mentality that the current (and transitory) period of global economic domination that American businesses have enjoyed for the past couple of generations is somehow a divine reward for a job well done. That attitude needs to be unlearned, and Americans need to get on board with the understanding that the point of governments isn’t to enable businesses to steal, kill, rape and plunder at will, but to insure that their people are respected as people. People need to seriously stop and think about what that responsibility for governments entails. They need to read through the UDHR and think critically about the issues it raises. They need to learn to hold their political leaders responsible to such standards, and in order to do that they need to learn what those standards are.

“A few hints in relation to the UDHR –– things that are self-evident to people in most other parts of the world, which the US hasn’t really caught on with yet:

– Corporations are abstract forms of human cooperation, not people which are entitled to rights as people.

– Being equipped to kill other people at will is not an essential right for all people as people.

– An education which enables the person to make informed decisions in the democratic process is something that every government must insure that all of its citizens have free access to, and which they are somewhat required to participate in.

– Insuring that workers are (primarily through their work) able to achieve a standard of living sufficient for housing, nutrition and health care for themselves and their children, is part of the governments moral responsibility as a government. These are not matters that the economically powerful should be allowed to grant or not grant to those they employ/enslave as they see fit.

“For further information on such matters start by actually reading the UDHR for yourself!”

Now in all fairness, Vinnie and Aaron are both among the minority of Americans who actually have read the UDHR for themselves, and who have started actively discussing the issues it raises. I hope the virus spreads from them to many others. I hope they respectfully learn from each other as they keep discussing such matters. I may even have reasonable grounds for such hope.

So what does everyone else here think?

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Racism

Boycott Hate-mongers

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a new blog here. You could say I’ve been on strike, but not really: I’m not holding out for better pay of benefits. It’s more a matter of running out of energy to do all the things I want to do for my own amusement and thus leaving this one aside for a while. In any case though, there’s now an issue that I want to both think through rant to the rest of the world about so its time to open this back up and dump some fresh verbiage on any of you who happen to be interested.

The issue which comes to mind of course has to do with next month’s mid-term elections in the United States. I try to be active in my US citizenship, but not being registered as an absentee citizen of any particular county in the US the way the law works is that I can’t really make my vote count no matter how I want to influence things. I also, as a matter of principle, don’t believe in dumping money into major party campaigns, with the idea that money should be the accepted means of determining election results. I know that in practice it often works that way, but that is only because too many Americans are too poorly educated to think critically about the crap that those control the airwaves dump on them. I don’t believe the political system can be improved until the educational system improves. Unfortunately the conspicuous decline in the integrity of the political system is leading to continuous decline in the education system, so the vicious circle is spiraling downwards rather than progress enabling the nation to climb upwards. Thus the decline of America as a superpower is inevitable and accelerating.

But rather than been all doom and gloom about it I really want to spread some sort of message of hope for my native land. For them to have hope, however, they will have to start working together as a people. That can only work if they find some greater unifying factor than who they hate. For the nation to thrive as a nation it needs some idea, not of who they want to fight against, but what they want to fight for.

If that has ever happened before in US history, though, it hasn’t been within my lifetime. Thus I’m not terribly optimistic about the prospect for American decline being reversed any time soon, but for all my friends there who are able to vote and who want to use your vote to try to move things in a positive direction here’s what I seriously suggest: Don’t vote for anyone on the basis of who they promise to fight against!

If they’re spending millions on convincing you to join them in hating particular bad guys and this message is coming across louder than any hope for the future they have to offer, you can be quite sure that by voting for them you will only make the problems in Washington worse, regardless of which party they represent.

Even when the forces of peace seem to be grossly overpowered by the forces of hate...

Even when the forces of peace seem to be grossly overpowered by the forces of hate…

It comes back to the principle of the classic thought experiment of the “Prisoners’ Dilemma.” In its basic form this comes down to an interrogator trying to extract confessions from two partners in crime, when in fact he has little other evidence to establish their guilt. So effectively he promises each that if either one confesses to the crime he will be immediately pardoned and the other will serve a heavy sentence. If both confess, a sentence will be served by both, but it will be lighter than what which would be served by just one who would not confess. Thus one viable version would be for two suspects of computer fraud to each be told, “If you confess to your crime and your partner doesn’t, you’ll be out of jail by the end of the week, whereas he’ll serve 5 years for the crime. If he confesses and you don’t, you’ll serve the 5 years and he walks. If you both confess, you’ll each end up serving 3 years.” What goes unstated is that if neither confesses they’ll both be released after a maximum holding time for the trial process of 2 months.  So for each individual, provided they care nothing about the other, it makes the most sense to confess: His time in jail will be 2 months less if the other doesn’t confess, and 2 years less if he does. But if he is thinking of their collective good he will not confess: By not confessing, even if the other fellow does confess, he can reduce their combined jail time by a year. If the other fellow doesn’t confess, by also not confessing he can reduce their combined jail time by 4 years and 8 months.

The lesson is that individuals who are most successful in their competition with others, if they care nothing about those they are competing with, in the long run they do collective harm for everyone. The only way for the pair, or team, or society, to succeed together is to start thinking of the collective harm or benefit that comes from a particular action rather than just “what’s in it for me”. Americans’ current lack of capacity to think collectively in this regard is what is driving the country towards decline. Nowhere is that more obvious than between the major political parties.

Beyond that there is what might be considered the Fascist mentality: hatred towards a mutual enemy really does draw people together, and if you want other people to work together with you towards the realization of your personal goals the best way to get them to do that is often to convince them to hate something you can be their hero in fighting against. If there isn’t some evil entity for them to hate you can always create one for them. Hitler obviously drew on a tradition of using the Jews for such a purpose. For Americans the bad guy has been variable, but always there: the dark skinned “savages” whose lands they were taking, or the British imperialists, or the rebellious and resentful former slaves, or the non-integrated newcomer immigrants, or the threat of Communism, or now primarily the threat of expansive Islam. Any (combination) of these threats could be used at different points in American history to rally people together to fight as a team.

If the common enemy wasn’t enough the other motivational tool in the fascist box would be fear of punishment by the powerful and fully legitimized authority structure. The secret police, the inquisition, the ministry of justice or “Big Brother” by any other name is always watching and always ready to pounce on those who don’t do its bidding.

Of course I don’t want people supporting Fascists, but to base campaigns on hatred towards any other group by labeling them as Fascists ultimately only reinforces a Fascist mentality in the society. The only way to escape this is to rather work towards a model of solidarity between citizens: working together towards the ideal printed on the dollar bill: “e pluribus unum” –– out of many, one. Unless we can clearly envision what we should be working together as one to achieve, common enemies can provide us with no lasting stable government structure, to say nothing of peace, happiness or security.

The ideals I suggest to build solidarity around would be basic human rights: setting certain goals for how all people should be treated just because they are people, and accepting no excuses for treating any human being with less dignity than what befits a human being. This was essentially the message of the “Four Freedoms” laid out by FDR and painted by Norman Rockwell to motivate Americans to fight in World War II. This was the essential message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted shortly after the last World War with hopes of avoiding another one.

Sadly most Americans seldom stop to think about the matter of what even their enemies are basically entitled to as human beings, and when it comes to “rights” they have the naïve tendency to consider “the right to bear arms” as more fundamental than the rights to “freedom of movement” or “asylum from persecution” (UDHR articles 13 and 14); to say nothing of rights to “social security” (art. 22), “equal pay for equal work” (art. 23, §2), “to form and join trade unions” (art. 23, §4), “an adequate standard of living… including… health care” (art. 25, §1) or an extensive “right to education” (art. 26). With that sort of mentality the basic threshold to building a sense of national solidarity based on a respect for human rights tends to be too high for most politicians to pass over these days. Consequently rather than building the world’s most technically or ideologically advanced society, the United States is currently building the world’s most extensive (and profitable) prison system. That trend is worth reversing. In fact in my humble opinion reversing that trend is actually infinitely more important than maintaining US military hegemony in the world.

I haven’t heard of any campaigns in the current election cycle which provide me with a great deal of hope in this regard, so I won’t endorse any particular parties or candidates. What I will suggest is for all voters to take a step away from the status quo in the system, taking a baby step towards a dynamic of solidarity: Don’t vote for anyone on the basis of who they promise to fight against! If both parties are campaigning on no other basis than that you really may not be able to do any good with your ballot. If, however, in any given race, one candidate is just a little less aggressively hateful than the other, and just a little less obviously clueless about the meaning of human rights, vote for that candidate.

Meanwhile take the trouble to read through international agreements and declarations regarding human rights in general. You don’t have to agree with all of them, but you owe it to yourself to stop and think about them in light of the question of what all human beings should be entitled to as human beings. From there work towards making the society in which you live, and in which you participate in the process of selecting the government, one which respects these sorts of rights, and one in which people work together in a spirit of solidarity to protect each other’s basic rights in these regards. Part of that is to discuss these rights with each other and to encourage your neighbors as well to stop and think about them.

If US citizens en masse were to start thinking in this manner it might not be enough to halt the phenomenon of cultural decline there, but it would certainly slow down the process. It would also make whatever sort of society we are moving towards far more livable and enjoyable for our descendants.

Any other hopes I have for the nation can only be realized from this starting point, so please work on sharing it and spreading it!

Those in other (nominally) democratic nations, please learn from the Americans’ mistakes and strive in your own lands as well to promote solidarity based on respect for each other’s basic human rights. The whole planet really needs this!

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Filed under Education, Human Rights, Politics, Solidarity

The Children and the Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Misungu Life, Part 2

Having completed my second weekend in Kenya, there are still many aspects of the novelty of my situation here which dominate the experience. Two doors down from my hotel is a half-finished commercial building of sorts which is currently being used as a preschool. I have been greeting these four and five-year-old children as I pass by each day, and on Tuesday I stopped to shake hands with a few of them. Before I really knew what happened I was walking through town on market day with a small troop of them trailing behind me and trying to hold onto my fingers wherever I went! I tried to make it clear to all of the local adults that were watching with my facial expressions and body language that this really wasn’t my idea, I wasn’t trying to steal children, and that I wasn’t grabbing their little hands in return. Most were able to laugh at me about it. Walking further out into the countryside later on that day another crowd of children started to gather to stare at me, but as I took out my camera one little boy jokingly yelled to his friends (as my guide translated it), “My mother says that white men eat little children!” So many interesting levels of irony there, but I’m glad they’re being taught some caution at least.

027In visiting primary and secondary schools as a guest speaker I have been most enthusiastically received everywhere I have gone. My stories of a land far to the north where the sun never sets in the summer and where in the winter it gets so cold that my facial hair ices over as I walk to school drew as much wide-eyed wonder from the teachers as from the pupils at times, but very few seemed bored anyway. I have also fielded many rather difficult questions from these young listeners. One of the ones which stretches my competence a fair distance has been when I have been repeatedly asked honestly and innocently by these children, “Why is your skin so much lighter than ours?” My best guess at an answer is to say that my skin doesn’t work so well to protect me from the potentially harmful rays of the sun, so I tend to burn more easily; but one thing that light skin does slightly more efficiently than dark skin is to enable the body to produce vitamin D from sunlight, and given the limited amount of sunlight at times in the northern part of the world where I live we need all the vitamin D advantage we can get. But that being said, I know many dark-skinned people who have adjusted just fine to life in the frozen north, and I know it is quite possible for pale folk like me to adapt to climate conditions in equatorial Africa. Making a show of putting on some additional sunscreen as I said so tends to add to the comic effect.

A more difficult question has been, “Why do white people tend to be so much richer than black people?” Again, my best guess at an answer has been that some would say it is because in the part of the world where I live the struggle for survival against the brutal climate means that people have had to work harder just to survive, and that hard work in turn has generated many different forms of wealth. Others would say that the differences are based mainly on a history of white people coming and stealing from darker skinned people in various ways over the years. My guess is that the truth would lie somewhere in between those explanations. The important thing is to work on building a greater sense of solidarity between peoples of all skin colors, for which those with the greatest advantages must take the greatest responsibility.

Addressing the fact of the inequality between their lives and mine has been an omnipresent factor, as has the question of what they should be praying for God to do about the situation. The people of the Ahero area as a whole are deeply devout Christian believers, who struggle with the fact that God has quite apparently chosen not to materially bless them in the same ways he has blessed many countries dominated by white people. So when some tell me with a tight-lipped affirmation of their faith that they believe God will soon perform some miracle to help them out of their suffering and state of acute vulnerability I must confess it makes me rather uneasy. One young man who is a local school teacher of subjects similar to my own told me that there are churches of different sorts on average every square kilometer in Kenya, but many of them are based on a desperation for God to reach down and miraculously sort out their economic and health-related problems for them. Not coincidentally, as I have noticed, the word “miracle” figures strongly into the names of many of these churches.

013Another aspect of this type of Christianity seeking miraculous relief from suffering found here, which has its most problematic roots in the United States, is the idea that perhaps rather than trying to fix things we should just wait for Jesus to come back in the role of warrior god to destroy everything and then let him rebuild afterwards. Even setting aside the whole question of “smiting the heathen” being problematically inconsistent with the character of Jesus’ message, this sort of belief makes me uneasy in large part because of the dangers of frustrated “rapture” expectations I witnessed in the US back in the 1970s. Sadly many of my friends from that period still haven’t learned from that experience, or outgrown that mentality.

The best I can offer as both medicine for this dysfunction, and as encouragement for those who come to church for such reasons, is a sermon I’ve given in the two churches here I’ve been invited to preach at: Defining the difference between faith and hope. My texts for this message have been 1 John 3:1-3, Hebrews 11:1, Romans 5:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 13:13; all relatively frequently memorized passages actually, but I’ve rarely heard them preached on in conjunction with each other.

The passage in 1 John is particularly interesting in its emphasis on John’s expectation of Jesus’ second coming. John could never have imagined in writing this letter that would reverently be read in churches over 1900 years later; he fully expected that Jesus would return during his own lifetime. The Gospel of John concludes with an anecdote of Jesus hinting that John could well stay alive until the second coming, but it finishes with a bit of back-pedaling on the matter: Jesus never actually promised that John would live to see the second coming, he only hinted along the lines of “Well, what if he does?” This is probably the earliest recorded excuse for high hopes for Jesus’ immanent return being frustrated. There’s a long history of later expectations and predictions of his immanent return causing more than a little embarrassment for those promoting such claims. But in 1 John 3 the “beloved disciple” takes a somewhat different angle on the matter. He’s basically saying that we believers are primarily citizens not of any earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom soon to come. But the awesome thing, he’s telling his audience, is that they are already counted as God’s children, and the mystery of what sort of roles and privileges they could look forward to in the kingdom to come would just be icing on the cake. So the point, John is saying, is to appreciate what we have in terms of knowing that we are part of God’s family, and beyond that to keep pushing ourselves to be the best we can be because of the possibilities that lie ahead of us.

This brings out the most central aspect of the difference between faith and hope: Hope is a matter of being encouraged by a range of possibilities that we really can’t know about for sure. This is distinct from faith which is a matter of being sure about things that we can’t prove to ourselves purely on the basis of empirical data. Thus “faith is the substance of things hoped for…”

This is where Paul picks up the thread in Romans 5. Through faith in what Jesus has done for us we know we have peace with God. That’s the big thing. Beyond that we get excited about the possibilities of God’s glory coming and making all of our dreams come true. But that’s not the end of it; we can also be thankful that we have difficulties in the meantime because of the character that they build in us. That character that comes through facing difficulties (the old “no pain, no gain” principle) is a huge part of why we can somewhat expect good things to come, even though we’re not sure about them.

Beyond that, the hope we have because of knowing that we are part of God’s family and believing this will bring to us good things on all sorts of other levels is a different matter than crying out that Jesus is coming and that he is going to show everyone that we were right and they were wrong all along –– or believing that we really don’t have to worry about the mess we’ve made of our lives and our societies because Jesus is coming back soon to clean up after us. That latter kind of hope has a long history of making people rather ashamed. The hope based on being able to genuinely connect with God and his people, and expecting that in one way or another we will reap benefits from that, is a whole different kettle of fish.

This goes back to my personal 5 Cs of happiness theory: Faith is a matter of certainty about the top two: Confidence and Connection. We can know for sure that we are important in God’s eyes in spite of ourselves through faith. That kind of confidence is key to believing in my value as a person. Beyond that, the evidence that I can have to justify such confidence is the capacity God gives me through this faith through connection –– to be part of something bigger than myself in terms of loving and being loved by others. Those are the faith issues –– the matters that I believe God wants us to know for sure about. The lower three Cs of happiness –– Comparison, Comfort and Control –– are not intended to be matters of faith, but rather matters of hope for us. We don’t really know for sure whether God will enable us to come out better than the next group in terms of various measures of success. We can’t be sure about having freedom from physical suffering in life just because we are believers in God. Having freedom to do whatever we would like –– even when those are really “good things” –– isn’t something we can count on in too many specifics. What we can do in those areas is to continue to hope based on the strength we gain through faith in the two more important areas of happiness.

This is not to say, however, that factors of comparison, comfort and control are irrelevant to the believer’s life. We are still taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are expected to expect blessings from God also in these “lesser” areas. Beyond that, chapter 2 in the New Testament book of James makes it clear that if we genuinely do connect to God and each other through faith, we will be paying attention to the comfort and control needs of others as part of our connection with them: If we say we love God but don’t care about his people, we’re lying. If we say we care about his people but don’t bother to do what is in our power to help them, we’re lying. But that is more a message that Europeans need to hear than a message that the poor of Africa need to hear. The message that the poor of Kenya need to hear is that there are three things that abide –– that will always be important –– faith, hope and love, with love of course being the greatest.

046As I start winding down my adventures here I am incredibly thankful for all of the experiences I have had. Connecting with the poorest of the poor here has been infinitely more gratifying to me than a safari to see lions and elephants. Nothing against those who travel to this part of the world to see lions and elephants, but what I’ve been doing here is just far more “my thing” and the way I appreciate being able to spend parts of my vacation time. Now the challenge is to see if I can take what I’ve gathered here back to Europe and use it to do some “real and lasting good” for those whose needs I’ve been confronted with.

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“Misungu, How are You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What the Hell?

One last blog entry here before I embark on my Kenyan adventure.

It relates to another subject that I generally try to avoid: the meaning of hell. This is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a hot topic lately though, in that it is the primary inconsistency in the Christian concept of a loving God for some, and the primary test of Christian Orthodoxy for others.

In particular this last week one Louis Gohmert, a politician representing the conservative theological hot spot of Texas (again, excuse the pun), decided to make more of a name for himself by going after a less conservative clergyman –– Barry Lynn, who stands for the issue of maintaining freedom of religion (in the more traditional sense of the phrase) in the United States. Gohmert did so by tossing out the implication that, in order to count as a proper representative of Christianity, Lynn needs to explicitly state that all those who don’t follow the proper evangelical formula for receiving Jesus are destined for an eternity of torture in hell.

130625_louie_gohmert_ap_328To say that Gohmert missed the point of the hearing in question may miss the point. Lynn had gone to Washington to address the issue of government slipping in the direction of indirectly requiring religious observance of various sorts from its citizens. Gohmert wanted to make his own point that, in the name of freedom of religion as he sees it, people should be free to believe that those who don’t meet their requirements are going to hell, and they should be free to use the political process as a means of promoting their beliefs and pressuring those “hell-bound” others to get right with God. Whether or not that can be done in a fashion that respects the beliefs of those who believe differently from him and his evangelical base supporters is a secondary matter; the important thing for Gohmert was to send a sound bite back to his base which tells them that he is fighting the good fight and standing for the principles of the “true faith” up there in that heathen city of Washington –– the litmus test for being part of that true faith being belief in a literal hell of some sort for those who don’t “come to the Father” by way of Jesus according to the proper formula.

There are plenty of Christians who deny the existence of hell, and who have paid the price for their disbelief in this regard. The story of Carlton Pearson in particular comes to mind on that one. For me Pearson is neither a hero nor a villain, but an interesting anthropological case study in how important this issue is to how many people. Gohmert chose his emotive hook wisely it would seem, at least in demagogic political terms for impact in Texas.

In looking up the link for Pearson’s story I also stumbled across Addie Zierman’s recent comments on the subject. Mrs. Zierman is apparently working on promoting her recent memoir about dabbling around the edges of adultery as a formerly good evangelical girl, and the effects that had on her faith. She has thus been giving various radio interviews on the subject, in which she’s also tried to shore up what remains of her evangelical credentials. On one such occasion last winter though she got significantly stuck on the question of whether she believes in hell –– in the doctrine of unbelievers automatically being destined for eternal torment in the after-life. She didn’t really know, and she is mildly self-critical about the lack of erudition this caused her.

She had thoroughly believed in this concept when she was an elementary school child. Back then she was proud to tell her classmates that they were going to hell and she wasn’t, even if her teacher didn’t necessarily understand how this was supposed to be an optimistic message… but the complexities of adult life had made her a bit less sure about the matter. She lets herself off by saying, “What the hell do I know about hell? I’m not a pastor or a scholar. I’m a writer. An English Major. I sat in the back row of my Christian Theology class senior year of college and slept through much of it.”

Unfortunately I can’t let myself off that easily. I too have certainly slept through more than my fair share of lectures on dogmatics, but even so… I’ve been considered an expert of sorts on all things religious since long before I knew what I was talking about, and for the last quarter of my life or so I’ve made a living explaining such matters to teenagers in the Finnish public school system. So how do I explain what I believe about hell? I guess I’d have to say that I’m in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs on the subject as well.

Like Jesus’ ascension, the concept of hell definitely contains certain aspects that fit a lot easier with a medieval world view than with a modern one. The idea that hell (and/or purgatory) would be physically somewhere down below our feet, heated by the sort of molten magma that bursts out of volcanoes every now and again, makes slightly more scientific sense than the idea that, somewhere above a relatively flat earth, on the other side of the clouds, there is a physical realm of heaven where God and his angels and saints live and party every night –– but just barely. It doesn’t really address the question of whether there is some physical essence to the soul being tortured there. If there is, what sort of sentient physical form would that be? If not –– if the soul lives on after death as a non-material conscious entity –– what difference would the physical conditions surrounding it actually make?

Then there’s the whole question of what basis we have for believing that a disembodied yet conscious soul can be a real thing. Assuming that such things do exist (and will exist for each of us), what is the basic essence of the soul in such a state? If we take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 somewhat literally in this regard, the thing that makes each human a living soul is the “breath of God,” breathed into Adam by God and spread to all of his offspring from there. Aristotle’s take on the subject, which I was analyzing here last month, is that the only part of the soul which would survive death is the nous or “mind” –– the divine spark within each intelligent person that enables them to perceive non-material realities in general. Either way, if the part of the soul which survives separation from the material body is actually divine in its essence and origin, how can that divine part of the person –– the trace of God within the person –– be the object of God’s wrath?

Then there’s still the question of where the whole concept of hell came from to begin with. There are actually two concepts that get mixed together here: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the abode of the dead; and the image of the Hinnom Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Hades-childhood-animated-movie-villains-25060468-1024-768Sheol is translated from Hebrew to Greek as “Hades”, but it’s hard to say exactly how much the concept of death in the time of David’s kingdom had to do with the fiery lord of the underworld in Greek mythology. The main image we get in relation to this place is one of detachment, non-feeling, non-knowing and emptiness. The hope given is that after their time in the cold, dead grave, significant persons will be brought back to life to receive God’s favor or face further manifestations of his wrath (Psalm 49:14-15, Daniel 12:2), but these hopes remain rather vaguely expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Hinnom Valley, also known as Gehenna, was a spot outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side, where, in the lowest ebbs of Israelite and Jewish culture, human sacrifice would take place –– particularly the killing and burning of young children to offer them to various local gods who were seen as able to supplement JHWH’s power in helping them out in battle and the like. The prophets had all sorts of good reasons for condemning this practice, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which they were more worried about: God’s jealousy or the disrespect for the rights of children. In any case, this same valley was, at least by legend, the place where the bodies of losers in battle were disposed of, frequently by burning for health protection purposes.
GehennaThis is the place that Jesus warns his followers to be careful so as not to, figuratively speaking, end up getting tossed into –– to the extent of chopping off limbs or gouging out eyes if that is the only way to avoid it! He describes his worst ideological enemies, the Pharisees, as the children of this valley and destined to burn there (Matthew 23: 15, 33). But that’s about it for Bible teaching on that one.

Beyond specific references to Gehenna, without specifically naming the place, twice Jesus spoke of torture by fire for the dead in the after-life. In both cases it was a matter of rich bastards who refused to have mercy on the poor: The tale of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus in the end of Luke 16, and the prophecy of the judgment of the “sheep and the goats” in the end of Matthew 25. In the portion in Luke, the grave, “hades,” is referred to as a place of burning torment where the rich man “gets what’s coming to him” for being such a jerk in his treatment of the beggar. In the story in Matthew the nations which ignore the plight of the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned are sentenced to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That kind of leaves open the question of individual versus collective punishment in such cases, but the main point is clear: fires of judgment in the after-life are especially intended for those who callously disregard the basic human needs of others. Somehow then this got twisted around to mean that an unending sensation of burning would be the fate of those who didn’t swear allegiance to the proper religious team according to the correct ritual formula. We’ll come back to that.

There are actually two other forms of torture besides burning referred to in the Bible in terms of the after-life experiences of the damned: the worm and the bottomless pit. The worm is referred to in the very last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24), where it is part of the punishment for those who will rebel against the new messianic order that God is supposed to bring. From there they make an appearance in Jesus’ warnings in Mark 9 about the tortures of hell for those who commit any form of child abuse. The bottomless pit, or the Abyss, is where many of the bad guys come from in the epic battle between good and evil in the book of Revelation. Ultimately good wins and the forces of evil are locked back into this torture chamber for an extended utopian period; after which they are once again released, stomped on decisively in a final battle, and permanently thrown into a lake of fire (chapter 20).

My previous understanding and personal interpretation of these combined references was that the fire, the worm and the abyss –– as combined metaphors for the tortured state of the disembodied soul –– pointed to one thing: progressive destruction which is never finalized. It would be sort of like any radioactive isotope, e.g. carbon 14: As long as a living organism is interacting with other carbon based life forms in the biological world this isotope remains at relatively stable levels in all of its structure. Once the organism dies, however, and no new C14 is being circulated through its system as part of the metabolic process, the C14 starts to break down, so after 5730 years there is roughly half as much C14 in the organism than there would have been while it was alive. But the C14 never disappears from the remains of the organism entirely; after millions of years the breakdown process remains on-going. (In this way paleontologists can make their best scientific guesses as to how long the fossils the find have actually been dead.) So it is for the soul that dies without forming a lasting connection with God –– the source of that “divine spark” within which ultimately makes us human: Like a radioactive isotope, without the refreshment that life offers, such a soul begins to break down, without ever finally getting to the point of being completely broken down. It can feel itself perpetually dying, yet never reaching the restful state of having entirely nothing left to lose. That would be the non-material hell to be avoided –– of which physical pains, and more specifically experiences of alienation and social detachment within this life, are merely something of a foretaste.

There are a number of levels on which I am no longer so sure about that theory. To start with there is the matter of determining which analogies, if any, to trust as the basis for our conceptual understanding here. Literal fire and literal worms eventually burn out or finish consuming all tissues which they find edible. We don’t find thousands of years old glowing embers or obese worms. Nor does any pit on earth extend further than about a quarter of the way through the crust of the planet. By the original analogies the torture at worst would still be of limited duration. In the literal case of the Hinnom Valley fires could and would be kept going non-stop and worm colonies could thrive for years by continuously adding new fuel and bodies, but that does not mean that any given body would be perpetually burning forever. So why should I put more faith in my isotope metaphor than the original ones given in the Bible? Assuming that there really is an experience of disembodied torment for the soul and time of regret after the death of the human body, is it really necessary to believe that this is inevitably something unending?

Secondly, if the ultimate reason why human souls exist to begin with is God’s desire to express love, is there any reason to believe that God would not eventually have mercy on such tortured souls and allow them to rejoin their transcendent source? Could God really be so “heartless” as to ignore the suffering of particular human souls as lightly as factory farm managers ignore the suffering of unwanted male hatchlings which they dispose of as useless by-products of their egg production operations?

Is this really the way God thinks of our "unsaved" friends?

Is this really the way God thinks of our “unsaved” friends?

While agreeing with the rabbi who says that believing in an afterlife is an essential corollary to believing in God –– there is clearly no justice in this world and so it’s impossible to imagine a just God who does not make distinctions between an Adolf Hitler and an Anne Frank “on the other side” –– and while I’m willing to “let God be God” and not make my own declarations of who has to go to which sort of Hell, and who doesn’t, I no longer take that to mean that the evangelical hellfire and brimstone message is a “thus sayeth the Lord” issue.

Interestingly it is only in the end of the book of Revelation where there is any hint of the possibility of “normal people” –– those who actually live conscientious and compassionate lives without association with Jesus –– still potentially ending up in eternal torment: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Evangelicals take that to mean anyone who does not “receive Jesus” in such a way as to have their name on his team’s roster is doomed to hell. Revelation 20:15 is the only verse they have to support that interpretation. The idea that it will be everlasting torment comes from verse 10 of the same chapter, referring to the fate of the devil and his leading generals on the side of evil: “They will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.” Two aspects of this part of John’s apocalyptic vision frequently get overlooked: First, as John saw it, this further torture of the dead requires re-animating their bodies. This “second death” can only happen after the bodies of the damned dead are brought back from the grave and reassembled in such a way as to enable them to face God’s judgment at the final end of human history. There is no talk of disembodied souls being in everlasting torment on the sole basis of not being found in the “book of life” prior to this great final resurrection. (For those who abuse children or ignore the needs of the poor it is a different story.) Secondly, it is repeated in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter that these walking dead will be judged “according to what they had done”, not according to how well they kept the ritual formula of properly receiving Jesus. One of the main themes of Isaiah 66, referred to above, is how little God thinks of those who attempt to do enough religious rituals to compensate for a crude and selfish lifestyle. The New Testament is not intended then to just provide better rituals to justify continuously abusing others.

These are mostly my own somewhat random deliberations on hell, which isn’t really my area of expertise. The most interesting expert on the subject that I can point to these days is Brad Jersak. Brad’s take on the matter is basically that:
1) The vengeance mentality and the fear tactics used as a revivalist motivation to get people to “come to Christ” which significantly motivate belief in this doctrine are in many respects socially and psychologically unhealthy.
2) The doctrine of hell evolved in the western church in particular well after the time of the Nicean Creed, based on a number of leaders’ personal and political concerns about the motivations of the masses.
3) There are essentially three competing views on the matter that can be equally well “proof-texted” from the Bible:
a) infernalism, the eternal torment for unbelievers theory;
b) annihilationism, believing that those outside the scope of God’s love eventually fade away and are no more; and
c) universalism, believing that eventually everyone will inevitably “love big brother” enough to be welcomed into heaven. Finally,
4) God probably doesn’t want us to be too sure about what sort of justice follows this life, leaving the subject broadly open because it is healthiest for us to have some balance of a bit of the fear of God for ourselves and a strong awareness of God’s mercy for everyone else.

I would broadly agree with each of these main points. (If you need them further unpacked I’d recommend surfing around Brad’s web site for a bit, or maybe even buying his book on the subject.) In other words even the best of theological experts are best off agreeing with Mrs. Zierman and other less theologically informed believers in saying, “I really don’t know.” Those who pretend to know for sure are often the most dangerous people to listen to on the subject.

From there we can move on to trying to motivate people less with threats of divine violence and more with not just promises but offers of God’s love starting here and now. Even if some churches find that they are able to boost their statistics by tossing in the occasional (or not so occasional) hell-fire message, on many levels I believe that such an emphasis does infinitely more harm than good.

So that’s about all I know about that. If some find this theoretically helpful, so much the better. If some feel more justified in condemning me to whatever sort of hell they believe in on the basis of what I have to say here, they’re welcome to go for it. Being detached from people like Gohmert and the gods they make in their own image for all eternity is actually a form of punishment I think I can handle. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d prefer it.

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Skepticism, Spirituality

On Bergdahl, Bird Dogs and Constructive Politics

Actually folks, with school now out and with my mind sort of chilled as I prepare to visit Kenya next week, I’m not feeling so motivated to theorize about the deeper questions of the meaning of life further this week. So for this week’s entry I’m just going to let myself ramble a bit… about what for me are some of the more obvious facets of life in the interconnected world we live in that the people of my native land still don’t seem to get. If anyone wants to argue these points in greater depth I’m up for it, but for now I’m just going to spout a bit off the top of my head, or out the other end of my anatomical core, like a regular blogging pundit. Take it for what it’s worth.

The big name in the news so far this month has been Bowe Bergdahl. Thanks to President Obama’s solo efforts against popular whims of Congress or his own party even, Bowe is coming home from being a POW in Afghanistan, at least physically. His parents have now appeared on international television with the president, showing in the process that they cared about and respected their son more than their country. If that didn’t raise enough animosity, reports after the fact indicate that Bowe had more than a few loose screws before he was deployed to Afghanistan, that he either defiantly or deliriously he managed to wander off base and get himself captured. From there commands from the geniuses who put him there to begin with ordered the unit he wandered away from to go out and find him, which may have caused a few extra combat deaths in the process.

366176_Jani Bergdahl-ObamaTo top all this off there is plenty of grumbling to go around about what may have been given in return for this soldier, who some are now implying wasn’t really worth getting back. The Taliban got at least 5 combatants from Guantanamo in exchange, and there’s plenty of speculation as to what else in terms of monetary rewards and/or propaganda points they got besides. For those whose political interests are limited to looking for ways to discredit the president, and ways to rally people together around a hatred for Muslims, this is a golden opportunity. If such pundits are showing any restraint it is only to create an illusion of rational strategic thinking in terms of not over-playing their hand, but I haven’t noticed them showing much restraint. From their perspective the main issues are that Obama has once again shown more interest in helping the enemy than supporting the military pride of the nation, bypassing political debates in doing so, all in the interest of getting back a soldier who may well be a criminal anyway.

The most obvious question to ask from my perspective is why was this fellow over there to begin with? There are a number of levels on which this needs to be answered: Why is the US still involved in combat operations against a country which we originally attacked because they were harboring the (now dead) head of a terrorist organization over a decade ago? What rational objectives are there for the military to achieve there still, and at what expense? Is the US still continuing to make new enemies in that part of the world faster than they can kill off the old ones? Then who’s in charge of quality control in terms of what sort of men get shipped over there as 21st century cannon fodder? Who is supposed to be evaluating which ones might be more of a risk to themselves and those around them there than they would be a help in achieving whatever the hell we’re trying to achieve there?

The next big question is one that has been weighing heavily on President Obama’s mind for over 6 years already: What are we supposed to do with all those prisoners we’ve got stuck in that little piece of Cuba still controlled by the US? Giving them fair trials under due process of law at this point is a logistical impossibility; the GWB team screwed that pooch a long time ago. So do we continue to house and feed and torture these men at the sort of taxpayer expense that could put 10 kids through college to each one detained until they all die of old age 50 years from now? Do we invent some excuse for killing them off earlier than that? Is there honestly any way at this point to convince them that Americans aren’t really such bad folks after all, and then let them go as rehabilitated people? Or do we use whatever excuse we can find to release as many of them as possible within the coming years, regardless of how much they are hated by the more Islamophobic sector of the American electorate?

The next question is, what new forms of danger might this deal expose US troops in the Middle East to? Will the enemy now be looking more carefully for the sort of soldiers that happen to deliriously wander off base, knowing that they could turn out to be worth something? (But again, what would such men be doing there in the first place?) Will the Taliban shift their tactics from improvised explosive devices to ambushes aiming to take more Americans alive (and would that be such a bad thing)? Will the hatred for Americans in war zones be increased by the enemies knowing that prisoners could be strategically worth taking? Will some Afghanis who were indifferent towards the American military presence in their country before now be shaken out of their complacency by this deal so that they work harder on attacking Yankees? Or is there something about getting a soldier back that might encourage other soldiers with loose screws to wander off more freely, believing that their unit will have to rescue them anyway? Or might this demoralize the commanders who should be attending to the preparedness level of those under their command, leading to them making more dumb mistakes that get more soldiers killed, because the government cut a deal with the enemy to get back this one they didn’t happen to like so much?

Carefully considered answers to those questions would be deeply appreciated, but they are not really expected. Overall it seems that when it comes to constructive and solution-oriented thinking about such matters, the Republicans just have the wrong sort of dogs. The only kinds of dogs they seem to have, in terms of their media allies, are guard dogs and attack dogs: bred to intimidate and cause a maximum amount of pain to those perceived to be a threat, and make a helluva lot of noise in the meantime. I don’t want to go into specifics of comparing particular media corporations to particular breeds of dogs because I respect all breeds of dogs too much to insult any of them by comparison with Rupert Murdock’s minions, but you get the point.

Concept sketch courtesy of zems.com

Concept sketch courtesy of zems.com

What I will say, however, is that the kind of media the US needs in order to improve the function of the political process would not be attack dogs, but something more comparable to bird dogs: spaniels, setters, retrievers and the like. Such dogs will bark if they feel they have something important to say, but generally speaking they are bred for an ability to remain quiet under normal circumstances, and even under stress; quietly sneak up on birds and point them out to the hunter, and then stay put and not freak out even when there is gunfire next to them. These qualities, together with a heightened impulse to communicate with their humans, make such dogs the ideal choice also as seeing-eye-dogs and service dogs in general.

That’s what I believe news outlets and bloggers should ideally be doing as participants in the political process –– at least if they are to play a useful role in enabling voters to make intelligent, informed decisions: They should be pointing out potential prey to the voters –– food to be shared –– opportunities to improve the sorry state of society; not just bitching about those they don’t like.

Now it could be said that my statements here are just the equivalent of a smaller dog growling at a larger dog in a territorial sort of way; and that when it comes to serious dog fights we Retrievers, Setters and Spaniels will always be at a disadvantage compared to the Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Dobermanns on the other side. Perhaps. And if the point of politics for you is to watch a fight purely for its entertainment value, trying to pick and root for the tougher combatant, I can understand how Fox News would appeal to your mindset.

Finland 2012 310

I’m a lover, not a fighter.

I would encourage all of my US Republican friends, however, not to fall into such a trap. Rather than taking the political process as a gladiatorial distraction from everyday life, take it as a potential means of improving everyday life by bringing people together in something resembling a spirit of mutual respect. I realize that respectful politics is a major oxymoron, but for things to get better for any of us in terms of our children’s future safety, and for the reduction of needless tragic suffering in the world, we have to start seeing each other less as lethal opponents and more as potential partners in improving things. We don’t need more excuses for hating each other; we need causes for which we can come together and work as a team.

Humans in general and Americans in particular have a rather poor track record when it comes to building solidarity on the basis of something other than a common human enemy. It is no surprise that when it comes to raw efficiency in motivating cooperation, perhaps the most efficient period of political action that any human society has ever seen was Nazi Germany –– everyone in the social mainstream joining forces in attacking those among them, and those abroad, who were seen as a threat to the grand and glorious Arian identity.

It would be nice to think that humanity has learned something from the scale of mistake that turned out to be, but that doesn’t really appear to be the case; the only significant sources of solidarity we find working in the world today are based on hatemongering against particular sets of “others” that everyone can join in hating. In order not to give up on the idea of a future for my children and potential grandchildren, however, I have to believe we can do better than that.

Historically perhaps the best examples of such solidarity have been in times of recovery from natural and man-made disasters, when rather than facing eradication as the results of their own over-extension and poor judgment (as has so often happened in the course of human history) given societies have recognized the sorts of crises they were in and come together to do something about them. These have never been particularly lasting or monumental in terms of major empires arising from them, but there have been periods of peace and prosperity in the sense of people sustainably helping each other out and building a workable vision for the future together at such times. Which ones dare I mention even?

–          Irish society (at least compared with the rest of Europe) in the end of the first millennium
–          The period of cooperation between European settlers and Native Americans following the first Thanksgiving
–          FDR’s “New Deal” program following the Great Depression
–          The former Axis Powers under the Marshall Plan…

Yes, I recognize the human limitations and significant problems seen in all of these examples, but they at least show that once in a great while people can be motivated to work together by something other than hatred for someone they see as worse than those next to them.

God knows there are plenty of problems that we can come together to confront other than the human groups we are being told to demonize:

–          Safe and reliable fresh water supplies for major population groups
–          Basic nutrition (without causing obesity risks) for young people in particular
–          Eliminating carcinogens from the air and other aspects of our environments
–          Reducing imbalances between consumption and replacement processes that keep destroying particular environments and species
–          Reducing the harm we do to our environment and each other with our solid, liquid and gaseous waste products
–          Further preventing deaths from preventable diseases
–          Preventing any people, children in particular, from being treated as disposable sources of service or amusement, particularly sexually.

The arguments we hear against focusing our energies on dealing with these sorts of issues, as compared with more traditionally appealing political initiatives –– like trying  to police the rest of the world, invading potential oil producing areas, blasting sections of the earth apart to extract anything burnable from under its surface, and creating more intense forms of amusement for ourselves –– are that maybe certain people don’t deserve to have safe and dignified lives; and we can’t reliably limit the damage that others are doing, so why limit the damage we ourselves are causing?

Really? Stop and think about those arguments for a moment. Take just the last example: Is it OK to rape children and/or use them as slaves because if they had better parents they wouldn’t be in their predicament to begin with, and if you don’t abuse them someone else will?! If those arguments don’t work to justify participating in and/or turning a blind eye to slavery and human trafficking for such purposes, nor do they work for participating in or turning a blind eye to environmental destruction and basic health and safety issues effecting massive numbers of people.

From there I encourage you to stop and think about how many political initiatives you are being asked to support –– or you are being manipulated into supporting –– are based on coming together to confront the sort of challenges that we need to confront together, and how many are providing excuses for hating other people, ignoring their needs and blaming them for their own problems.

From there you can decide what sort of “dogs” you really want, and what you should be training them to do for you.

Enough for now.

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Filed under History, Politics, Sustainability

My Ascension Agnosticism

Something that few other than those of us whose work is related to religious matters realize is that we are currently in the week between Ascension Day and Pentecost. In other words we are in that time of year that commemorates that period of uncertainty that hit Jesus’ followers a month and a half after his execution and after the thrill of his grave being empty, because after 40 days of visions of Jesus in his post-death state –– sort of physical and non-physical at the same time –– they had watched him levitate up through the clouds, after which they received an angelic message: “He’ll be back later, now get busy!”

But get busy with what? The closest thing Jesus’ followers had to a leader after his aerial departure was Peter, and for all his bluff and bluster this guy still felt more at home in a fishing boat than he did leading a worship service or holding an outreach strategy meeting.  The rest as well were really just trying to figure out whether this Jesus movement thing was worth bothering with any more or not. Their messianic hopes weren’t going to be realized in the ways they had first hoped for anyway: There wasn’t going to be a new system of civil government in Jerusalem right away anyway, which is what a lot of them had in mind when they signed on. The other-worldly ideas that Jesus had talked about still seemed more than a little abstract to them. They had watched Jesus rise up through the clouds, but in many respects they were stuck trying to work out for themselves the answer to the basic question: Which way is up?

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

That may sound like a silly question, but in so many ways it remains critical and indeterminate matter for most believers still today. I mean, to start with the obvious, the whole concept of the earth being a spinning sphere –– not really recognized at Jesus’ time but fairly self-evident to anyone who has been through elementary school or travelled internationally by air these days –– sort of screws up the idea of “up” pointing in any given direction within the solar system, our galaxy or the universe. So from that perspective, where did Jesus go?

The basic physical perspective of his followers at the time was pretty clear in this regard at least: After defeating death Jesus’ body had taken on a miraculous form that the empire could no longer kill. He then went to someplace on the other side of the clouds, where his father’s kingdom lies, to gather an army of angels together, and to commission the building of some sort of concrete homes and offices for his followers who were to have significant positions of authority in his kingdom up there. From there their general hope was that he would be returning with his celestial armies of angels in a few weeks, or months… or years… to set things right in the lands God had given to Abraham seed, and then take all of his true followers to the grand and glorious kingdom physically up there somewhere, which he had ascended up to supervise building on. The rest was details to be worked out and revealed when his actual coming would occur; they just sort of had to trust him on that.

Obviously some aspects of that perspective were very much wrong: We have now thoroughly explored the regions on the other side of the clouds, littered that area with satellites and sent out investigative equipment thousands of times further from the earth than the highest clouds, all without encountering any distant kingdom up there as those in the early church would have expected we’d find. Likewise since the ascension there have been hundreds of generations of believers in Jesus, each believing that they would most likely be the ones to experience his glorious return from wherever he went when he levitated off that Jerusalem hilltop way back the –– each eventually facing the disappointment of dying like those before them. Obviously they misunderstood some parts of the system and God’s long-term plan in the matter. How deep did that misunderstanding really go? Did they have any of it right? Troubling questions for those who still choose to identify as followers of Jesus.

The things that these original followers of Jesus knew, or at least clearly and strongly believed, not on the basis of faith and speculation but  on the basis of their personal sensory experiences, were that Jesus’ body had not remained dead, that they had actually seen him in this post-death state, and that a reliable group of witnesses among them had watched as, a month and a half after coming back from the dead, Jesus did his levitation through the clouds thing. Speculations by historical scholars since then that the gospel reports were fabricated simply as a means of maintaining the cult revering this visionary martyr of one of the Jewish restorationist movements of the time don’t come across as particularly credible. To repeat the familiar argument, these apostles all allowed themselves to be put to death for what they believed rather than changing their story to make it more politically acceptable. That doesn’t sound like the actions of cons or fakers.

So there isn’t a credible argument to be made that the whole thing was a giant scam right from the start. Claims that they were the victims of an incredible mas psychosis also seem a bit historically problematic. Somehow they all saw something after Jesus’ execution that gave them a profound existential certainty about the matter of Jesus as the great victor over death, whose side they definitely wanted to be on. Nor do we have any viable reason for doubting their soundness of mind in doing so.

But though we can’t dismiss the apostles as cons or flakes, nor can we credibly belief that everything these guys held as true was the absolute, God’s honest truth of the matter. I find it disingenuous either to claim that they were intentionally deceitful or collectively schizophrenic on the one hand, or to claim that their perspectives –– even those recorded in the New Testament –– were infallibly accurate on the other. There were more than a few things that they didn’t understand, that didn’t work the way they anticipated, and regarding which they were just factually wrong.  So somewhere here we have a disconnect to be rectified, and I’m honestly not sure exactly how and where. All we can know is that somewhere around the ascension ––  somewhere between the sincere eye-witness testimonies to the resurrection and the shared belief within the early church that Jesus had physically taken off to go up there somewhere to work on the material logistics necessary for his return –– we have a breakdown in the narrative credibility. We don’t really have any good answers as to where Jesus would have gone, in what material sense, other than that he just went away, and that opens up a few cans of worms of its own.

Every effort I’ve seen to square this circle involves a fair amount of epistemological bluff on one side or the other, strongly influence by the faith position taken by the person offering the answer. Either they are dismissing the whole account as myth and fabrication, or they are holding to the absolute accuracy of the historical account in the book of Acts as a matter of personal faith. I believe the truth must be somewhere in between these two positions, but I cannot be sure where. So this makes me a proper agnostic with reference to the implications of the story of the ascension: I don’t know what exactly happened that day and how the tale came to be recorded as we have it; and so far I don’t know of anyone whose claim to know about this matter I can take particularly seriously at this point in my philosophical and spiritual journey. Fortunately I’m not one to be particularly afraid of mysteries. Not knowing which way is up has become a fairly familiar experience for me, and I’m almost at the point of being comfortable with it.

There are essentially two important practical matters of faith relative to the ascension that make the story relevant beyond the expectation of Jesus coming back through the clouds in a reverse action sequence of his departure: First we have the matter of believing that Jesus lives, even though he is not with us here on a day-to-day basis. Second we have the matter of taking Jesus as an example of life after death so as to give us hope of someday having life after death ourselves. Let me unpack those a bit.

One of the technical differences between a religion and a cult, sociologically speaking, is a matter of how long it has been since the departure of its founding leader, whatever title that leader is known by. Any new religion begins by revering some particularly charismatic character that walks among us and seems to have all the answers. People live in awe of this individual and turn to him (inevitably it has to be a him) for moral, spiritual and political guidance. Obeying the word of this leader is considered more important than thinking for oneself. It is only two or three generations after this leader’s departure from the scene that his followers start to digest his teachings and experiment with thinking for themselves on the basis of the principles introduced in those teachings. Moving beyond the blind subservience phase to the responsible representative phase is an important aspect in any religion’s maturation process. In this regard Christianity really has been no exception. For the faith to mature into a significant cultural force, its followers had to start thinking for themselves. Some Christians still aren’t capable of thinking for themselves much, but in order for us to at least have a fighting chance at doing so Jesus had to leave to give us the space to do so.

Beyond that the matter of the soul living on, as I’ve been contemplating for the past month, gets rather complicated in Christian theology, and in any other thoughtful perspective on the matter. A bit of exegetical research makes it quite clear that Jesus’ early followers did not have any concept of a soul existing without a body: “the resurrection” was to be a physical matter of each of God’s people receiving back their bodies in their most essential form, though perhaps without their most painful and troubling limitations such as handicaps and diseases. The whole idea of one’s soul being separable from one’s body came rather later in the writings of St. Paul. This is actually one of the primary evidences for the “Apostles’ Creed” predating the “Nicean Creed”: whereas the latter confesses to belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, the former carefully specifies that this is a matter of “the resurrection of the body”.

Jesus’ post-resurrection body was seen as the primary example of this principle; he was, in both St. John’s and St. Paul’s words, “the firstborn from among the dead” (Revelation 1:5, Colossians 1:18). But this was not merely to be understood as a matter of experiencing the joys of earthly life in some semi-detached immortal manner indefinitely, but rather of the potential for experiencing a world beyond this one, which Jesus continued on to. Jesus’ ascension was thus an important aspect of expanding believers’ concepts of possibilities for a life beyond the present one.

I’m not going to use this space to try to change anyone’s personal beliefs about how life after death might work. That’s not the sort of thing blogs are suited for –– even long-winded ones like mine. I would rather like to emphasize something that on one level or another all of my friends from various branches of Christianity, deism, agnosticism, Judaism and other world religions can probably relate to: The key to my soul having relevance beyond the limits of my skin is love. When I love someone, and/or I am loved by someone, that creates in me, and beyond, me a sense that I am relevant to more than just myself. It is this sense of security in one’s broader and deeper relevance that psychological researchers tell us is the strongest corollary to a subjective sense of happiness in this life. Ironically it is this sense of connecting with others that financial ambition tends to rob people of on all sorts of levels.

Having the security to love and be loved regardless of our acknowledged failures and limitations, and regardless of how it relates to our evolutionary biological motivations, is in many ways the core element of the Christian message, but I’ll make everyone uncomfortable by saying that I don’t see this as something Christians should try to lay an exclusive claim to. In fact for Christians to claim exclusivity in such a message rather defeats the purpose of the message. Exclusivity is a matter of setting advance limitations on who we are willing to connect with; on who has the rights to our love in one sense or another. There can be value to that in terms of sexual exclusivity, for instance, but when it comes to shared participation in God’s love there is little excuse for exclusive claims to such love. The foundational premise here should be that God has made all mankind in his own image, and therefore none are to be categorically excluded from the sphere of his love. There is even less excuse for violent attack on those who fail to meet one’s exclusive religious standards.

Whatever we do and don’t know about what lies beyond death and “beyond the clouds”, we can be quite sure of one thing: building a capacity to love in ways that overcome our natural violent and competitive inclinations is an extremely beneficial way of exercising one’s faith. It builds a sense of personal satisfaction in life. It is conducive to building a sense of harmony with those around us, and it lends credibility to any claims we may wish to make regarding our love for God. By loving others I know that I am able to transcend the limits of my body. I am able to become part of someone else; part of something outside my own skin; something that gives my life value beyond the simple physical pleasures and pains that it involves. This enables me to live at peace with what I don’t know about the historical and physical details of the ascension. This even enables me to live at peace with the false certainties that I hear fellow Christians proclaiming on the basis of their personal Pentecosts. And if some people find my attitude towards their would-be certainties offensive and condescending, I do my best to love them anyway.

 

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Moderately Radical Christianity

While indulging in my usual Facebook distractions while finishing up my last entry on Aristotle’s concept of the soul, I found myself in a minor dispute with an old acquaintance of mine who was passing around a blog link for an essay which presented the New Testament book of Ephesians as an antidote to “radical Christianity”. I pointed out that I found such material offensive and briefly tried to explain why. He didn’t really get it, and others jumped in to say it was my problem, not his. I don’t expect to change their minds on that matter, but as a matter of respect I decided to spend some time this weekend explicating my perspective on the matter anyway. The rest of you can take this for what it’s worth.

The blog in question never actually laid out what sort of “radical Christianity” the author is specifically opposed to. It speaks generally about “radicals” as those who feel a need to “do something more” or “do amazing things for Jesus”. The author clearly has no problem, however, with Christians attempt amazing levels of self-control, self-denial or social ostracism. So in practice what form of radicalism does he really consider to be so problematic?

Between the lines is an implication that it would be those who wish to change the socio-economic status quo in the interest of the poor and the outcast. Rather than bothering with social issues, the implication says, we should keep ourselves occupied with “doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”, avoiding anything that might be construed as sexual immorality, maintaining patriarchal authority structures within the home, etc. If believers keep up with all of those moral requirements to the full extent of the law they won’t have time for, in Robert George‘s words,  “making utter nuisances of themselves like Old Testament prophets”.

I find this sort of perspective to be morally offensive on a number of different levels. To start with, in theological terms this anti-radical approach commits a sin that is especially common among right-wing evangelicals: using isolated teachings of St. Paul as an excuse for ignoring the most fundamental teachings of Jesus himself. “The Jesus Way,” as my virtual friend Brian Zahnd calls it, is all about putting love and compassion ahead of social and religious respectability; about stretching ourselves to love those who are considered too dangerous to love, and questioning the authority of those who attempt to put themselves in the position of saying who is acceptable to God and who isn’t. This isn’t just a matter of maintaining moral self-control and certainly not a matter of promoting status quo respectability. Yes, Paul has a point in telling believers exercise particular forms of self-restraint and to continue to function as responsible members of society, but using that as an excuse for ignoring Jesus’ core teachings and reconstructing the message of Christianity so as to make it one of sexual moralizing and unquestioned support for status quo economic power structures is just sloppy theological thinking!

Jean-Léon Gérôme's "Jerusalem"

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Jerusalem”

Somewhat in conjunction with the above problem, the anti-radical message here mirrors the problematic implications of Pope John Paul II’s famous transitional encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor –– basically saying that since it is easier to formulate negative moral requirements than positive ones in absolute terms, and since absolute moral requirements should always trump relative moral requirements, keeping all of the “thou shalt nots” should therefore be the primary focus of Christian life in general and Catholic life in particular. Over the past couple of decades since this encyclical was written its teaching has led to a gross neglect of the underlying core principle of Christian ethics, which the late pope in fact strongly acknowledges in the letter itself: the ultimate purpose of any Christian moral action is to express absolute love for God, and selflessly reciprocal love for those around us –– what is commonly known as the twin commandment of love. All other commands are merely means to those ends. By implying from there that the best way to love God is to absolutely follow the negative commands given by the church in his name –– or to otherwise make the keeping of negative moral imperatives the priority of one’s life –– the old pope and his followers have overlooked the core essence of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, which set the tone for so much of his teaching –– not to mention the core moral teachings given in the books of James and 1 John in particular:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers (James 2:8-9).

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. […] The wages you failed to pay to the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. […]  You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (James 5:1, 4, 6).

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another (1 John 3:11).

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8).

Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this commandment: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21).

If we get beyond the sort of screwed up moral priority system which John Paul II inadvertently (perhaps) implemented –– ­one of putting respectable rule-keeping ahead of compassion –– and if instead we follow Pope Francis’ example of setting rules aside and reaching out the outcast, we will inevitably end up being somewhat radical. Of course this in turn will be a major source of offense to Glen Beck fans, but that’s just something we should take as an added bonus.

That in fact brings me to the third issue I take with those who see an anti-radical agenda as essential to Christian morality and politics: I hate seeing the privileges of those who get rich by abusing the weak –– the ultimate antithesis of everything Jesus ever taught –– being justified through the cynical manipulation of believers’ sincere faith and sincere desire to love God. Jesus did not die as a means of helping to reinforce the abusers’ ungodly grip on power! I’m sorry, but that is totally NOT what being recipients of God’s mercy should be motivating us to stand up for!

Let me give you some background for the bug I have in my bonnet on this one: As part of my research for my dissertation I’ve been been reading some of the books Ralph Reed wrote when he was at the peak of his political influence within the religious right. There he speaks of what he saw among those who were working to maintain conservative Christians’ support for Ronald Reagan before he became actively involved in that particular aspect of Republican politics himself: To manipulate conservative Christians into continuing to vote for Reagan, Republican strategists carefully chose a theatrical political battle for the White House to fight on behalf of the religious right –– an initiative that strategists could be sure in advance would have no chance of passing into law, and which would be sure to have no practical impact on what sort of laws would get passed: a constitutional amendment providing a right to have prayer in public schools. Reed says that, in his pre-Christian days, he watched up close and personal as all this happened, and thought, “It was all rather sad and poignant. Much blood and treasure had been spilled in a futile effort that served to solidify Reagan’s evangelical base but did little to advance [their] agenda. The religious conservatives had been rolled by the White House and didn’t even know it.” He goes on to freely admit that, starting in 1980, Republicans kept trying to use such issues “as a wedge to drive Catholics and evangelicals away from the Democratic party [sic].”  (Reed, Ralph (1996) Active Faith. New York: Free Press — pp. 116-118)

Of course he never admits playing an active role in that process himself, but it takes a pretty intense amount of naiveté to believe in Reed’s personal innocence in such processes. The point here is that we have one of the most strategically connected people within the religious right, with the strongest possible interest in making the movement look good, freely admitting that the little men behind the curtain, controlling the movements of their movement’s greatest hero, cynically used them as political pawns; and that this sort of manipulation became a more or less continuous thing thereafter.

In the generation since the “Reagan Revolution” evangelical Christians involved in politics, far from learning from these mistakes, seem to have developed a certain fondness for “getting rolled” by Republicans. Those who question the value of rolling over for Republicans as an expression of one’s faith –– who insist on paying attention to the needs of the poor and the importance of limiting environmental destruction in the political process –– tend to be labeled as “radicals”. In that regard it’s hard for me to respect any Christian who is not at least a bit “radical”!

But while standing firm on everything I have stated above, I will now attempt to “balance it out” a  bit in an Aristotelian sort of way, and in doing so hold out an olive branch to my less “radical” brothers here. I realize that, like many other virtues, the “radicalism” I espouse would ceases to be a virtue if it is taken to the extreme of blinding its enthusiast to all other aspects of life. Thus Aristotle’s recommendation to exercise moderation in every virtue is applicable even with reference to what is being called “radicalism” here. In this context then the oxymoron of “moderate radicalism” makes quite a bit of sense.

More specifically in relation to the radical virtue of loving others in a Christian sense here –– and in fighting to make the world more just and more sustainable place accordingly –– one must also maintain a sense of personal equilibrium and grounding in one’s personal moral convictions in order for that love to be properly manifested in the world. Still more specifically, as radical as I am in terms of not accepting the idea of certain people deserving to be abused or of Christianity having a proper role to play in reinforcing the abuse being heaped on less “respectable” sorts, I still acknowledge the wisdom of living according to many of the principles from the second half of the book of Ephesians that my old acquaintances are promoting as a cure for such “radicalism”:

Being a radical certainly does not stop me from believing that I should keep working to overcome divisions within Christianity (4:3-5). Being radical does not stop me from seeking intellectual maturity and a stable, coherent theological and moral perspective in life; which is both consistent with the message of Jesus himself and based on a humble awareness of the grace that I have been given, and which I am therefore duty bound to express with patience to those who really don’t get it yet (4:13-15). My radicalism also includes a belief in the inherent value in honest communication, particularly among those who are “on the same side” (4:25).  Creative and/or strategic telling of half-truths and out and out lies in order to manipulate others is always an un-brotherly act of aggression to be avoided, including in the sort of political talking points that we pass around between ourselves.

Being the sort of radical that I am does not stop me from attempting to use what skills I have for the benefit of others, whether or not there’s something in it for me (4:28). As the sort of radical that I am I still recognize the dangers of operating on testosterone-fueled rage, and that as the aphorism goes, “Getting enraged at someone is like swallowing poison in order to make someone else sick” (4:26, 31). Being the sort of radical I am, I strongly object to impersonally objectifying and/or using of other people, either sexually or economically (issues Paul clearly addresses in parallel: 5:3-5). Furthermore, as the sort of radical that I am, I strongly believe in exposing evil processes, especially those which justify greed and abuse in Jesus’ name (5:11).

I must, however, confess that, more in spite of my radicalism than because of it, there are some standards which Paul preaches that I fail to live up to. In particular I confess my failure in not making music as important a part of my life as Paul recommends (5:19). I accept that order to better express my radical perspective I really should try to be more musical. (Right Juuso?)  As a moderately radical Christian I deeply respect and appreciate all those who use music to bring people together, bring about emotional healing and create a sense of interpersonal connection; who are in this way able to be far more radical than I am, yet still in a balanced sort of way. That is part of what made me so thankful and thrilled to be able to attend the debut album release concert by my former student Sandhja this weekend!

Like musicality, I must also confess that thankfulness (5:20) is something I need to work on more. My life includes plenty to complain about, but also plenty I can be thankful for. I appreciate the truth in what A.J. Jacobs says about a habit of thankfulness being one of the most beneficial things he took away from his year of living biblically. I recognize that being more thankful would be a happier and healthier way for me to live, and together with losing a bit of weight, it is one of the main self-improvement projects I am currently working on.

I must further confess, however, that some parts of Paul’s teaching in the end of Ephesians just don’t work for me. In particular, though I’ve always treated each of my wives and slaves with the utmost Christian respect, none of them ever submitted to me the ways Paul says they should have! Some of them said that if I had been more like Christ they could have been able to respect me more, but the underlying suggestion there was for me to allow myself to be crucified and to take things from there. That just didn’t work for me. Some folks on the other hand say that I should have dealt with their problems a bit more directly, giving them a good beating every now and again. But though I never tried it, I’m pretty sure such a tactic would have caused more problems than it would have solved for me. Whatever the case, keeping wives and slaves in their proper place these days is one of those projects that by-and-large I’ve just given up on. The way cultures have changed in the past 2000 years, slaves just don’t recognize their proper place in life any more; wives even less so. When I’m tempted to complain about this I just have to remember the importance of being thankful in life regardless.

Yes, I must further confess that some aspects of my current “radicalism” are the indirect result of my shortcomings both as a slaveholder and as a husband. Not being able to exercise my authority properly in those sorts of relationships has led me to a deeper consideration of ways in which to love God and love those around me in spite of all the ways that the cultural norms governing such relationships have changed in the past couple of millennia. Consequently there are some areas in which I no longer consider Paul’s teaching to be the final word on the subject of how we must go about loving God and each other. I recognize that this puts me at odds with Fundamentalists –– those who need to believe that everything in the Bible is perfectly true for all time and in every sense in order to be able believe that God is real and in to have some absolute source of certainty by means of which to make sense of their lives. What can I say? Turning back the clock to restore patriarchal authority structures just isn’t going to work for me, no matter how I might try. I realize that others remain more optimistic about this project and that they find my pessimism in these matters offensive. The best I can offer them is to say that as long as they aren’t too aggressive in their attempts to restore biblical systems of slavery, I can be just as patient and loving with them as they are with me.

All in all then, yes, I continue to self-identify as a radical Christian, albeit in a moderate sort of way. I find this consistent with most if not all of the teachings in the last chapters of the book of Ephesians, which have been posed as an antidote for such radicalism. Yes, I do tend to have problems with those who have problems with “radicalism” in general, but in that respect I can live by Paul’s guidelines for healthy and respectful interaction between believers if my opponents can. If some chose to anathematize me for my “radicalism”, however, I can live with that too. Jesus had the same type of experience with the religious people of his day, and if I can identify with him on that level at least, I can be thankful for the privilege.

 

 

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 2)

aristotle1Continuing on with my efforts to grasp the basic principles of ensoulment that religious thinkers over the years have borrowed from Aristotle, I now move on to Book 2 of the man’s work on the subject. It starts out with Aristotle basically saying, “enough on those other old farts; let’s get down to business on analyzing the subject itself.” This dives pretty directly into what the professionals in the field these days call “Hylomorphism”: how the essence of what something is relates to how its form or shape is determined.

To put it in Aristotle’s terms, there are three ways in which what we might call “things” can exist: 1) they can exist as entirely physical objects (like the pillow I am using for back support); 2) they can exist as formal patterns (like this blog itself, which you are probably reading without any physical object having been transferred between you and I); or 3) they can exist as a combination of the physical and the formal (like my computer, and actually most other things around me to one extent or another). In these terms every living being is a category 3 thing –– a composite –– a combination of material substance and formal, functional (we would say genetic) design. So the soul, as Aristotle conceptualizes it, is more or less identical with a living being’s functional genetic design –– the category 2 aspect of our basic being. Thus Aristotle’s summary definition for the soul is, “substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive form of a thing’s essence,” or in simpler terms (in Smith’s translation), it is “‘the essential whatness’ of a [living] body.”

From there the distinction comes up between the realized and potential function of a given composite (category 3) item. Can we refer to an apple seed, for example, as having a soul –– as a living thing? Well… potentially. But how is that seed being a potential apple tree different from a pile of snow being an actual snowman which just needs assembly?

ikea snowmanThe difference of course is that the apple seed contains within itself all of the pattern information necessary to produce an apple tree. It still needs lots of soil and rain and sun and time, but the “whatness” in terms of the basic model and all that is already there. The snow, on the other hand, does not contain the information within itself of how it could be packed together to form an abstract representation of a human being; that has to imparted to it by some crazy individual like myself.snowman karhusuo

In this regard Aristotle considers seeds to have soul in a sense that corpses and porridges do not. From our modern perspective we could say that the DNA is still there, (and thus cloning might still be possible), but it no longer either actually or potentially meets the two classical Greek standards for being alive that Aristotle subscribes to: independent movement and sensation.

Aristotle concludes his sketch of the basic nature of the soul in general in the first chapter of book 2 by once again concluding that, at least in its most basic sense, the soul cannot exist in any disembodied form: “[T]he soul is inseperable from its body, or at any rate […] certain parts of it are (if it has parts) for the actuality of some of them is nothing but the actualities of their body parts.”  Yet within that sentence we see him hedging his bet a bit, which he actually continues on with as the work progresses. Some aspects of soul, he speculates, might not be “actualities of any body at all. Further, we have no light on the problem of whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.”

(These days we would use the driver and automobile analogy for soul and body in that sense, but back in Aristotle’s day sailors and ships was the best he could do.)

He goes on to expand on this by saying that in plants, lower animals, more intelligent animals and humans alike we find “soul” in a sense of some combination of “the powers of self-nutrition, sensation, thinking and movement.”  Can these be distinguished from one another? A problematic endeavor, yet right away Aristotle comes back to his basic reason for studying the soul to begin with: considering what it is that makes the glories of thinking possible for us. “We have no evidence as yet about mind [nous] or the power to think. It seems to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable. It alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other [soul-based] powers.

Aristotle is thus, while trying to remain as “scientific” as possible, starting to explore two different meanings for “soul” in the human context: the design of the body and the driver of the body, and trying to figure out how the two essentially relate to each other. Regarding both, however, he reaches the conclusion that they are not physical substances like air (breath) or blood per se, but rather the “formulable essence of something that possesses a potentiality of being besouled.”

He goes on to build something of a hierarchy of biological of soul functions. He basically concludes that plant souls are capable of little more than the “nutritive” functions of self-perpetuation through acquiring nutrients from their environment, growing, reproducing and dying. Other, slightly more advanced life-forms are also capable of sensing or feeling things. It would seem, however, that sensing and feeling are only revealed and relevant when the organism in question also wants things; thus what Aristotle calls the sensory and the appetitive aspects of the soul tend to go together with each other. At their most primitive even the simplest of animals (and though Aristotle didn’t recognize them as “wanting” in such a way, perhaps many plants as well) manifest desires for food, suitable temperature and moisture conditions, avoidance of pain and sexual opportunities. The next level of soul activity Aristotle recognizes then is the ability to physically chase after the objects of our desires through physical motion or locomotion. Above that though, in a category limited to mankind and “possibly another order like man or superior to him” is the power of thinking proper: mind. The extent to which this property of mind is a separate matter from the rest of the soul, and the extent to which it is universal even among humans, are questions regarding which Aristotle’s answers seem to be tentative at best.

Aristotle soul functionsTo state again what is obvious to all who have studied the subject even superficially, in Aristotle’s day, and for the next 2000 years thereafter, there was no distinction made between “science” and “philosophy” in the way we now distinguish between them. So it would be a gross anachronism to say that Aristotle goes back and forth between “playing scientist” and “playing philosopher”; he didn’t see any sort of distinction between the two. These days we tend to take such a distinction as self-evident, perhaps creating more problems than we solve in doing so, but that’s another long story unto itself.

In any case, given our contemporary way of looking at such things, we can say that from our perspective Aristotle goes back and forth between the scientific, biological view of soul, considering it as both the “life-principle” –– sort of like what we’re hoping to find on Mars –– and the philosophical view of soul as “the miracle of consciousness” and cognition, enabling us to somehow connect with the world around us in ways that, near as we can tell, no animal is capable of –– formulating, theorizing, exercising artistic imagination, etc. This leads to a fair amount of ambiguity and inconsistency; sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that the miracle of consciousness is merely a manifestation of biological processes, and sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that consciousness has to be a spiritual phenomenon that must have its origins in something beyond the material.  He doesn’t really seem to be sure. My sense is that for this reason his modern interpreters are all able to find ideological reflections of themselves in his text.

There is also a third sense of soul that Aristotle tosses into the mix: that of purpose or end for the life of the individual organism. Why do plants and animals and us “higher life forms” keep struggling to go on with this process called life? Because our souls make us do so. This “natural law within us” (a term used by Medieval philosophers, not Aristotle himself in this context at least) in this sense operates as follows: “[F]or any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated […] the most natural act is the production of another like itself […] in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive” (ch. 4, 2nd paragraph). In other words the continuity of life is something of a spiritual principle that all living creatures instinctively attempt to take part in, giving their own lives meaning in the process.

Thus we can say that the soul is the cause and source of the body in at least three distinct senses: it is the design principle behind the body, it is the driving force in the body, and it is the teleological destination giver for the body. In this last sense, “Nature, like mind, always does whatever it does for the sake of something, which something is its end. To that something corresponds in the case of animals the soul and in this it follows the order of nature; all natural bodies are organs of the soul. This is true of those that enter into the constitution of plants as well as of those which enter into that of animals. This shows that the sake for which they are is soul” (ch. 4, 5th paragraph).

From there Aristotle goes into a long “scientific” rather than “philosophical” discussion of the functions of “lower” aspects of the soul in terms of its nutritive and sensory aspects. Much of this amounts to a historical curiosity in terms of early theories regarding aspects of neurology that Oliver Sachs has marvelously popularized the current scientific understanding of in recent years. This includes, among other things, Aristotle’s speculation as to how vision works given his premise (which I quoted last time) that there is no credible reason to believe that light actually travels. Another classically mistaken “scientific” premise which he states here is that the soul within animals in general “is due to the action of the male parent” (ch. 5, 9th paragraph). This corresponds with his acceptance in Book I (end of chapter 2) of Hippo’s argument that the soul as such cannot be contained in the blood, since “the primordial soul” comes from the father’s seminal fluid, which is a non-bloody liquid.

Another would-be scientific statement here, which has fascinating poetic potential in spite of its failure in scientific terms, is, “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice” (ch. 8, 12th paragraph). He goes on to say that to speak of the “voice” of musical instruments is a metaphorical use of the term, and to speculate about the multiple natural functions of the respiratory system, before further expanding on this idea: “Voice then is the impact of the inbreathed air against the ‘windpipe’, and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body. […] What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is sound with meaning […] not merely the result of any impact of the breath, as in coughing.”

So, from Aristotle’s perspective, if you are looking for some core physical location for the soul within the body, don’t search between the ears or in the heart, but rather look down the throat.

Most of the more “philosophically interesting” questions relating to the “higher levels” of the soul are reserved for book III, but one last matter worth considering in book II here is the starting comparison between sensation and knowledge. Both are soul functions that can exist either actively or passively/potentially. Thus being a seeing being can either mean that the brain is actively registering incoming light at given moment in question (Aristotle had the technical aspects of this all screwed up, but that’s beside the point), or it can be the opposite to blindness, indicating a fully developed capacity for such function. The same with hearing; it can be an active process of “using your ears” or it can be merely the opposite of deafness. So what about thinking? Well, as Aristotle puts it, “We can speak of someone as a ‘knower’ either (a) …meaning [she/he] falls within the class of beings that know or have knowledge, or (b) when we speak of [her/him] who possesses a knowledge of grammar,” thereby having a capacity to absorb knowledge of other sorts. The former has what we might call a neurological potential to develop knowledge; the latter has what we might call a culturally adapted potential. These in turn then imply a third category for those who actually know stuff that is somehow worth knowing, like math, biology, politics, etc.

So from there Aristotle wishes to consider what the proper role of the teacher is. “What in the case of knowing or understanding leads from potentiality to actuality ought not to be called teaching, but something else.” I take it for granted that there are semantic aspects of the question of choice of terms here that are going to get lost in translation, and which probably weren’t particularly clear to Aristotle’s own students in the original Greek either. The point though is to stop and consider what sort of change the teacher is attempting to bring about in the student. Is he trying to do something analogous to farming –– burning off or ripping out what is naturally growing in the field and replacing it with the sort of seed that he has in mind; then helping those seeds to grow in order to yield the desired crops? Or is the teacher’s work more a matter of nurturing and coaching the student to develop and more efficiently use what he already has within? Aristotle seems to be leaning towards the latter option. He also seems to be resisting the idea of educational interaction in the sense that the teacher and student would learn from each other, or that the teacher would himself learn in the process of teaching: “[I]t is wrong to speak of a wise man as being ‘altered’ when he uses his wisdom, just as it would be absurd to speak of a builder as being altered when he is using his skills in building a house.”

But once the learning has taken place, the difference between sensing and knowing is that “what actual sensation apprehends is individuals, while what knowledge apprehends is universals, and these are in a sense within the soul. That is why a man can exercise his knowledge when he wishes, but his sensation does not depend on himself; a sensible object must be there.”

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for further speculation regarding the inherent connection between the knower and the known. Does it really “take one to know one” in a definitive sense? Can only Greeks understand Greeks; only men understand men; only dogs understand dogs, etc.? If so, does that mean that for everything we are able to understand, there is necessarily some part of that object of understanding within ourselves? Does this make some degree of pantheism a prerequisite for epistemology?

For the answers to these and other fascinating questions, tune in next week…

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 1)

This time I’m going to use this space for thinking allowed about some ideas I need to unpack for my doctoral studies. Please excuse my calloused selfishness in dumping such abstraction on you here, and feel free to skip over this one if you’re bored by theoretical matters of religious philosophy. But before you go, stop for a minute to think about one basic question: When we refer to a soul, what the hell are we actually talking about?

I’m not going to provide any complete survey of the religious or philosophical consideration of that question here, obviously, but in the process of opening up my thinking on this question I believe it is important to go back to one of the earliest extant consideration of the subject: Aristotle’s On the Soul (Greek: Psyche / Latin: De Anima). I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar of the ancient text in terms of deep nuance of the original language and all that, but I feel as though a careful consideration of its translation is a necessary task for me to take on this spring. I don’t think we can really intelligently discuss the basic concepts of human rights and social ethics without considering the basis of the value of human life; I don’t believe the basis of the value of human life can be discussed without at least some reference to the concept of the soul as it is used in western philosophy; and I don’t believe the concept of the soul can be intelligently discussed in much detail without an awareness of the ancient understandings and presuppositions related to the term that trace back to the writings of Aristotle. So with the goal of building a workable foundation for discussions of human rights and human value in this regard, I’ve set myself the task for this week of reading through and intellectually digesting the text in question.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Interested? Keep reading. (And if philosophy students start finding this to be a valuable cheater’s resource, I’ll be flattered.) Bored? Bye for now.

The soul, in all of the various senses in which Aristotle uses the term (psyche) in his study of the subject, is what makes living things fundamentally different from non-living things: it is the basic life principle in the broadest sense of the word. In a basic Greek way of thinking, if it is alive, it has soul. Aristotle’s starting point in investigating this phenomenon is the premise that knowledge itself is a wonderful thing, and knowing is something that, near as we can tell, only living things can do. In fact it seems that it is a tiny minority of living things that are capable of knowing anything, at least in the sense we like to think of knowledge. So how does the capacity for knowing relate to what makes living things… live? That is the essential matter that Aristotle sets out to explore here.

It should go without saying, but it needs to be said right from the start anyway: this text was written at a time when the Ptolomean view of the universe –– everything “out there” just spinning around a completely unmoving earth –– was accepted as self-evident truth; long before neurology, genetics, cosmology, nuclear physics, behavioral psychology or medicine developed into sciences as we know them today. But even without what we would now consider to be a proper scientific understanding about these matters, in the process of trying to work out the essence of what makes living things live Aristotle speculates a bit about all of these fields, basing his conclusions about the human soul on what we must now consider largely mistaken observations and conclusions. One particularly interesting example of this is the following:

“Empedocles… was wrong in speaking of light as ‘travelling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; …where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.” (book II, 7)

Thus the task of sorting through all of the mistaken observations and erroneous speculations here to find concepts that have had strong seminal influence on Western thought, and especially those which remain potentially viable, is actually a rather daunting one.  Still, for reasons already stated, I believe this is a project worth tackling.

Among the starting questions Aristotle tosses out are whether soul, in the broader life-principle sense, is a homogeneous general category or not. Is livingness somehow the same in all living things? For that matter how reliably can we divide such livingness into useful sub-categories? And can such “livingness” properly exist outside of a particular sort of living body?

Aristotle’s starting point in all of this is surprisingly conservative in a materialistic sense: “Soul,” in the sense in which it is definitive of all living things, is analogous with “straightness” –– it means nothing unless there is some material embodiment of the principle. You can’t find “straightness” floating around in some mystical unembodied form; only in rulers and plumb lines and arrows and the like. For the same reason it is rather problematic to talk about souls outside of bodies. Beyond that, every manifestation of the soul in the sense of human personality –– anger, courage, desire, love, fear, pity, etc. –– has a certain biological component to it, which is, as the man says, “precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature.” The one possible exception to this principle, he notes from the start, is thinking, but if thinking inevitably involves the processing of input received through our five senses, it’s sort of hard to imagine it not being body-based at least in some senses.

Not that this speculative materialist perspective was particularly more reliable than a more “spiritual” speculations of the time. The physical explanation given for anger for instance, would be a build-up of particularly hot liquid around the heart (book I, 1).

So how do we go about distinguishing between living and non-living things –– between things with soul and things without? The established state of the art in addressing this question in ancient Greece came back to two primary characteristics: independent movement and sensation. By these standards a vast variety of man-made devices these days could be said to have “soul”: production robots, security cameras, vending machines, etc. Whether Aristotle would be naïve enough to consider such things to be truly “alive” is another question. Actually he probably wouldn’t. Aristotle dismisses Thales’ speculation that magnets are alive, or have souls, because of their capability to sense and move iron, so intuitively he knows that there has to be a more precise definition for soul in terms of livingness. But as he pursues these arguments they become thoroughly entangled with speculation about which of the four primordial elements –– earth, air, fire or water –– the soul’s function should be associated with. Suffice to say in this regard that the ancient Hebrew theories of breath (Genesis 2:7) and blood (Leviticus 17:11) alternatively being seen as the primary physical manifestations of soul were well represented within the Greek world as well.

Another interesting aspect of these speculations is the idea that the motion of living beings would somehow reflect something divine, seen especially in the motion of the sun, moon and planets above. Aristotle cites Plato’s Timaeus dialog as an example of belief in the soul reflecting the pattern of the movements of these heavenly bodies –– these tracing back to the Demiurge bending the primordial straight line into a circle, bringing about various sub-divisions of that circle from there, and on that basis setting important spiritual forces in pleasing circular motions. Thus the motions of the planets would be inherently related to the actions of our souls, providing what passed for a rational justification for astrology for the next couple thousand years, even among Christian theologians as it turns out.

There are many things about this understanding of soul that Aristotle finds dissatisfying however. To start with, the motions of plant and simple animal souls are not really circular in any meaningful sense. The only justification he finds for speculating that the highest part of the soul of man is in circular motion is that it obviously is not entirely at rest, and if complete rest is not possible then circular motion is the next best thing. It is in this context that Aristotle begins to speculate about the possibility that the mind –– the highest functioning part of the soul –– might be happier if it could escape from the continuous restless motions of the body. He goes on from there to reject the premise the soul having a circular motion and to theorize about thought, motivation, anger, fear, pleasure and pain as the proper movements of the soul –– or at least movements originating in the soul.

Mind (nous) is a separate matter for Aristotle: “It seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. […] Thinking, loving and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has. That is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they were activities not of mind, but of the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassible.” Thus in many respects it would be this “mind” aspect of the soul which is uniquely valuable in human beings, and which from a traditional Christian dogmatic perspective would be “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) at the moment of death.

Going back to Aristotle’s speculation on the essence of soul though, at the end of the first of the three books within this work he lays out four essential functions of the soul:

–          Cognitive functions: knowing, perceiving, opining

–          Emotional functions: desiring, wishing, appreciating, longing

–          Movement functions: animal body motions

–          Lifespan functions: growing, maturing, reproducing, decaying

From there he leaves two relevant questions about the soul somewhat hanging: Can the soul –– the life principle in plants, animals and humans alike –– be meaningfully and usefully divided into sub-sections? Then secondly, does the function of knowing require a sort of affinity between the knower and the known which would in turn imply that there must be some sort of soul imbedded in everything in the universe that we are capable of knowing?

Book 1 is the part of this investigation where Aristotle allows himself to get bogged down with the critical consideration of all earlier Greek studies and speculations about his topic. He attempts to critique them in ways that his students can learn something from these old masters in spite of their mistakes. He clearly would not like it to discover that his own ideas would someday be considered among learned men and women with the same assumption of pervasive error throughout, and effort to locate useable lessons regardless, with which he considers the works of Thales and Empedocles, but such is life. (I, on the other hand, hardly expect to be read in any other way than with a presumption that I am by and large wrong about things, but that there might be something useful within my perspectives regardless, so…) In books 2 and 3 he proceeds to lay out his own scholarly perspective on the matter from scratch, so to speak.

The analysis above is based just on book 1, and that’s probably quite enough text for any blog reader to deal with in one go of it. It would be most fair then for me to give my analyses of books 2 and 3 as separate posts then. Meanwhile corrections and feedback here are more than welcome.

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