Tag Archives: Christmas

The True Miracle of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Sexuality, Skepticism

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Love, Religion, Sexuality

Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Love, Priorities, Tolerance