Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Leading and Serving

October 31, 2019

The last six months have been interesting for our Sunday evening open house.  Two of our core  members moved away last April to pursue further studies across country.  Another of our early regulars will be leaving at the end of the year.  We’ve wondered how these departures would impact who showed up.

We’ve noticed a marked uptick in attendance by friends of our children.  We now regularly have a teen-aged Russian guy coming by to game with our kids (and enjoy taunting us with his predilection for eating everything with ranch dressing).  Others have been coming as well, but he’s our regular.  And with him, on an increasingly regular basis, comes his mother, a recently naturalized Russian.  She has become closer friends with my wife over the last year or more.

Two weeks ago we got into a religious discussion.  We invited her to join a new Bible study I am leading at my congregation.  But with her busy schedule between work and school, she hasn’t had time.  But she’s clearly interested.  So we started talking about how to get the ‘big picture’ of Scripture.  Then she asked for help for a scholarship program in her graduate work.  We talked about the difference between how the world (and business schools) talk about leadership and how Jesus and the Bible talk about leadership.  We talked about the difficulty of maintaining humility in a world that essentially values pride as a necessary qualification for leadership.

I shared with her Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:42-45, and showed her how Jesus made this teaching tangible in John 13:1-17.   And I talked about God as the ultimate example of humility and servant leadership and commitment to others in John 3:16.  We talked about the challenges and limitations of applying these truths in a business setting as a CEO or CFO or COO.  There, service to other is defined in terms of shareholders and perhaps clients/customers.  Commitment and service to others is often seen as a means to another end, like profitability, or employee retention/attraction.  We talked about how hard it is as broken, sinful people, to stay focused on serving others when the point of an MBA program is essentially the promise of skills necessary to make one successful in business leadership, and many people desire those skills and positions not for serving others but for pride, greed, etc.

All of this discussion with someone who is not Christian, but recognizes a universal need to have  some greater, deeper calling outside of yourself.

Christians should have a lot to say on this topic of servanthood and leadership but we all too easily are like James and John, confusing the standards and benefits of the world for the standards of the kingdom of heaven.  We can shake our heads and laugh condescendingly in at these two chuckleheads in Mark 10, but we share their assumptions, even though we have Jesus’ teaching and example in hindsight where they didn’t!

We talk about servant leadership, but we really mean doing things the way we want, presuming others are best served with our ideas until we quit bothering to listen.  We talk about serving but we often times mean ruling, dictating, demanding, forcing if necessary.  In the interest of higher ideals, to be certain, but reliant very heavily on the tools of the worldly leadership trade.  Tools that authorities have always kept on hand to ensure things run the way they want them to.

We don’t talk about servant leadership the way Jesus demonstrated it.  We don’t mean leadership that washes filthy feet.  We don’t talk about leadership that allows itself to be maligned.  We don’t mean leadership that suffers being called a liar and a thief.  We don’t mean leadership that leads by patience, day in and day out, year after year.  We don’t mean leadership willing to die for others rather than seek personal  protection or glory.  We hold these things lightly.  We see them as signs of weakness.

Just like the Jews did.  Just like the Romans did as they mocked Jesus with a fake royal robe and crown before leading him away to die.  What leader would suffer such a fate?  Isn’t it the mark of a true leader to avoid such shame, such failure?.  A leader who does things these ways, the way the kingdom of heaven does them, is no leader in our world today.  We don’t trust it if we see it.  We don’t respect it if we encounter it.

Challenging realities to face for someone who aspires to leadership, whether in the corporate world on in the church, which all too often prefers to borrow corporate principles rather than stick to Biblical ones.  Because it isn’t easy.  It isn’t perfect.  None of us have the perfect wisdom and insight of Jesus, and so have to make do the best we can with what we have.

I look forward to future conversations, and marvel how God the Holy Spirit continues to foster these possibilities.

ANF – Second Apology of Justin

October 9, 2019

This is another of Justin’s defense of Christians facing persecutions including torture and death at the hands of Roman authorities.  It is much shorter and far less complete than his better known (and longer) First Apology.  Here, as there, he points out the ideological inconsistencies with persecuting and prosecuting Christians as somehow degenerate when they live lives far more upright and moral than many of the philosophers and orators in Greek and Roman history who are admired and even fostered followings still extant in Justin’s time.  One of the common accusations levied against Christians is that they practiced cannibalism, through a misunderstanding/misinterpretation of the Eucharist/Holy Communion, wherein the bread and wine are also the body and blood of Christ himself.  Justin mocks such ridiculous assertions, indicating that anybody who so enjoyed any sort of sensuality or intemperateness would be quick to save their life so they could continue enjoying it, rather than welcoming martyrdom as so many Christians had and were doing.

Another benefit of reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers is to remember the context in which they lived and wrote – a culture that was polytheistic to some degree, and so I am constantly being presented with both philosophical figures as well as mythological references that I’ve either forgotten or never run across before.  In this case, the fact that Greek mythology has a flood narrative as well.  Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, as well as his wife survived a flood caused by an angry Zeus by building a floating chest.  I don’t remember reading this particular story when I was into Greek mythology as a teen-ager.  Never too late to learn something more, is it?

Book Review, Sort Of

October 7, 2019

The next of my gleanings from a pile of Roman Catholic texts is a typical college reader-style text, a collection of translated primary source materials.  The book is called A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham and is part of a larger series from the late 60’s to early 70’s.  It purports to be a good introduction to the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages (1100-1400), with the exception of Thomas Aquinas who gets his own volume.

I just finished reading Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s most famous work, Proslogion.  A passable translation can be read for free here.  It is here Anselm formulates his proof for the existence of God as a being than which no greater can be conceived.  This is also referred to as the ontological proof for the existence of God, and it arose out of Anselm’s desire for a single, simple proof of God’s existence that was not in itself reliant on any other argument.  It’s been some years since I read Proslogion, and the simplicity of the argument is sometimes seen as a reason to dismiss it.  While Anselm offers his definition in chapter 2 of this work, he goes on for another score or so of chapters, applying this definition to other aspects of the nature of God and to resolve apparent contradictions in the nature of God (mercy & justice, for example).

Of course Anselm’s argument has been controversial from the beginning, eliciting contention even from his contemporaries, notably Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, but continuing throughout Western philosophical history.  Anselm refutes Gaunilo’s criticism (the next selection in this book), but others have felt it necessary to address Anselm’s basic premise.

Good, short, but very thought provoking!

Speaking Out

May 28, 2019

Good to hear that there is growing willingness to speak out against the atrocity of legalized abortion on demand in our country.  Though for some folks not so inclined on the topic, the source of some of those words of outrage will be troubling – none other than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Justice Thomas rightly notes the troubling ideological roots of legalized abortion both in our country and in other parts of the world (like Nazi Germany), and notes the devastating effect  abortion has disproportionately on minority children, mothers, families, and communities.

If you want to know how someone could possibly not see the words of a highly educated African-American man as relevant to this topic, here’s an alternate perspective.

Note the headline, which aims to garner far broader empathy and sympathy not for abortion itself (though this is clearly presumed) but rather for birth control.  Rather than seeing this as an effort to preserve life – all life, as opposed to the far more selective range of life envisioned by Margaret Sanger – it is repositioned as a racist attack against black women.  The idea seems to be (and I pray that this isn’t actually what somebody says, though in this day and age that’s undoubtedly wishful thinking) that bringing up the disproportionate number of abortions by minorities is a means of making minorities racist against themselves.

While  some rather odd individuals might make this case, it’s not one I’ve ever heard in any pro-life discussion.  The idea is not that minority women hate their children, but rather that they are lured into aborting them by an ideology that denies the humanity of the unborn child (unless of course you’re excited to be having a baby, in which case, it magically is a human being!) and posits quick, secretive, and free abortions as the solution to communities where minority family and community life have been devastated over generations by many of the programs purporting to help them.

The argument links higher abortion rates to reduced access to contraception, and then goes on to paint the picture that ultimately, contraception is going to be threatened for all women, therefore women should get involved now to defend abortion and nip all this lunacy in the bud.

The reality is that I don’t think contraception will ever be in danger of being outlawed.  The largest Christian group to teach that contraception is sinful is the Roman Catholic church, and most of their own folks don’t agree with this teaching, and even if they did the Catholic Church has been so marginalized via scandalous behaviors that it has effectively lost any voice it might have once had towards larger moral issues.  Most non-Catholic Christian groups don’t have a problem with contraception, even if they oppose abortion.  And while I tend to think this is a rather poor bit of theology and Biblical exegesis, that’s not likely to change or catch on.

The reality remains that an unborn baby is a human being.  The law can’t change this, it can only ignore it.  Considering our divisive this issue has been literally since the Roe v. Wade verdict was handed down, I find it interesting how dismissive people can be of any theology or philosophy (or science) that finds it reprehensible.  I have hopes that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, but I have no illusions that this will be the end of the discussion by a long shot.  So long as pro-life positions are characterized as right-wing religious nut-jobs, and the clear science on the matter is ignored out of convenience, there will be no long-standing fix to this issue.  The next version of Roe v. Wade will already be in the queue before the ink is dried on any rescinding of the original.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to work and pray for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but it’s a good reminder that, at least for Christians, the more important work is relationship to the people around us – including those on the other side of the ideological fence.  The Holy Spirit changes hearts, and when hearts are changed, it matters far less what the laws on the books say.  If abortion remains legal, fewer people will avail themselves of it.

Empty Empathy

April 17, 2019

A great article on the decline of empathy in our culture over recent decades.

While I’ve identified as an empath and described at empathic by many people throughout my life, I never really gave much thought as to the history of that term (which is relatively recent) or more technical usage of it.  To me it just meant the ability to understand and respond to something another person was feeling or going through.  It’s a handy enough definition, and it avoids some of the technical and clinical definitions or nuances that I might be more hesitant to agree with.

I immediately thought about empathy in light of the Christian faith.  The Bible doesn’t utilize εμπάθεια, the particular Greek word from which the English term derives.  And yet it seems as though empathy is very much an expected response to the Gospel.  At a basic level, we are to have empathy with others as creations of a loving God, but sinful creations in the midst of a broken creation.  Our shared circumstances, existentially speaking, drive us towards empathy from the Biblical perspective as opposed to away from it.  Others might argue the Biblical injunction to love your enemy or offer forgiveness freely make no sense apart from a certain amount of empathy.  While I’m not sure I’d say it’s required, empathy certainly might help the process of obedience.

It isn’t surprising in a clinical book and on the NPR website that there is no effort to mention a correlation between a decline in empathy and the decline of Christianity in our country.  But I can’t help but think that they are very much directly related.

Christianity calls the individual out of themselves,  placing them in a larger communal context in the past, present and future.  Everything in the  Christian faith is, Biblically speaking, a matter of community.  And this continuous outward direction of the life of faith will help develop empathy with others if it isn’t something that was present in the individual prior to conversion.

It seems to me declining rates of empathy are indeed unsurprising where this counterintuitive life of faith is not practiced.  It is far more natural to not be empathetic to people I disagree with, fear, or dislike.  It is precisely for this reason that the life of faith as described in Scripture must direct me towards and empathetic posture to those around me.  Despite Richard Dawkins’ attempts to argue that empathy and altruism could be attributed to natural selection, we seem to be witnessing a return to a more natural human state, the state unmitigated by faith and trust in a God who created all things, redeemed all things, and is bringing all things to a conclusion.  If there isn’t anything beyond myself, existentially speaking, why waste the time and effort to try and understsand others, especially if I don’t like them or disagree with them?  Life is short, eliminate the negative baggage, as social media continually reminds us.

The conclusions drawn by the author of the book on this subject seem very much on point.  A lack of empathy can only lead to deeper division and polarization, something fatal to democracy.  This is, historically, where we’ve come from, and it appears to be where we’re returning to.  Our experience of “civil society” as Fritz Breithaupt, the author, describes it, is one inextricably linked to being people of faith, and particularly I would argue people either explicitly and personally Christian, or who embrace Christian ideals for ease and simplicity.  This association has long been recognized and noted by people such as Alexis de Tocqueville.

But we’ve either forgotten it or choose to ignore it.  The results are devastating.

Breithaupt’s solution, the development of a selfish empathy, is equally doomed to failure.  As we discovered with the ruse of tolerance in the last 20 years, people don’t act in one manner very long if they believe in something very different.  If you believe that you’re right and someone else is wrong, eventually this is going to come out in the wash and tolerance gets swept aside.  Likewise, pretending to be empathetic may work for a short while but will get smashed apart as soon as someone gets hurt or is rejected or otherwise sees no personal gain to be gotten from it.

Unless we are obedient to a Creator that tells us we were designed to live together and for one another and Him  rather than just ourselves, we are left with the meaninglessness of materialism and evolutionary theory and atheism which says there is nothing greater, no purpose to any of this.  And as such, we might as well just enjoy ourselves as much as possible for the brief span of existence we enjoy.  While the rule of law will prevent some people from taking that mindset to an unhealthy extreme, it cannot foster the positive sense of empathy that requires a meaning and purpose beyond oneself.

 

Book Review: Death in the City

April 15, 2019

Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer

 

I was skeptical of this book just based on the title, but I’m very glad that I set skepticism aside to just read it.  Schaeffer ranks up with C.S. Lewis in my personal opinion for his ability to blend Biblical, theological and philosophical ideas in a compelling fashion for our time.  He considers this an integral aspect of four core books, three written by himself (Death in the City, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason) and one written by his wife Edith (The L’Abri Story ).  I’ve read all of them except Escape from Reason, so you can trust I’m going to acquire that one before long.

Death in the City is a series of lectures Schaeffer delivered in 1968 at Wheaton College.  From some of the things he says, you can already see how much has likely changed not just in our culture at large but even at a Christian university in the past 50 years.  Yet Schaeffer sees already in 1968 what the  larger church in America is only just now admitting – our culture is post-Christian.  Christianity and the Bible are no longer defining aspects of our culture and,  what’s more, they are viewed more and more as contrary and undesirable by our culture.  These lectures diagnose the cause of this situation and offer preliminary thoughts on what to do about it, hopefully leading towards “reformation, revival, and a constructive revolution in the orthodox, evangelical church”.  Towards this end Schaeffer draws on the prophet Jeremiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

First he calls us to diagnose the root cause of the massive cultural shift he identifies in 1968 and we are dealing with more openly in the early 21st century.  That cause is a turning away from the truth and reality of God, as per Romans 1:21-22.  This leads to an isolation from God, and the necessity of hearing the Law of God on this issue.  People need to be told that they have abandoned God and his Word and are bearing his judgment.  This message needs to be given not only to the increasingly pagan culture around us but to the Church as well.  The Church has failed to teach and preach God’s Word fully and faithfully which has in part led to this turning away from God’s reality and Word.  He argues – contrary to what the Church has assumed for many years – that this word of judgment needs to come first in evangelism.  That the message of grace and forgiveness means nothing if there is no awareness of true moral guilt and therefore judgment by a righteous and holy God.

He then goes on to diagnose the malaise affecting our culture, as witnessed in skyrocketing rates of depression and other mental illnesses as well as attempted and successful suicides.  Evolutionary theory and natural selection have reduced man to insignificance, the mere accidental byproduct of millions of years of accidental genetic variation.  We have no significance, and we have no moral compass.  Everything is up for grabs and is ultimately meaningless and arbitrary.  If all we are is a random collection of atoms, and our fate is just the dissipation of those same atoms, then everything in between is a sham construction, the work of manipulative genes seeking to determine their continued existence with no other end or purpose than moving on to the next generation.  It is a bleak and dismal reality, one that many materialists try to rally against but ultimately fail.  Either man is significant and has meaning, as per the Biblical account of creation, or man is accidental and meaningless.

Schaeffer paints a picture of these two very different positions and their corresponding outlook on reality in Chapter 9, The Universe and Two Chairs.  He reduces reality to a single room with no doors or windows.  There is a man sitting in the Materialist  chair and a man sitting in the Christian chair.  The materialist begins an investigation of  the room.  It is his life’s work, and he includes everything and  utilizes the scientific method and every branch of science to compile multiple tomes on the nature of the room.  The Christian is duly impressed by this, but responds after reading through it all that the materialist’s compilation is incomplete as it does not take into account those aspects of reality that the scientific method is insufficient for.  He takes out a Bible and says that this book describes more  of reality because it includes the things that the Materialist’s observations and experiments can’t touch.  The Bible does not invalidate science, but it does specify limits to what it can (and should) tell us, and itself provides additional information that scientific compendiums can’t.

Schaeffer then points out that far too many Christians operate in what he terms unfaith.  They function primarily in their outlook on life and how they live their lives as though they sit in the Materialist chair, even though they claim to sit in the Christian chair.  They affirm doctrines but don’t see how those doctrines apply to their lives.

This is a good book.  It is a challenge to the Church not to hold back from saying the hard things that God says in his Word.  To say them in love, but to say them unflinchingly as well.  Schaeffer is convinced – as I am – that only Christianity can offer an adequate alternative to the materialist world-view adopted so readily by Western Christianity over the last 150 years.  While some of Schaeffer’s other writings are at times difficult to make sense of, this is a very clear and lucid diagnosis of Christianity and Western culture.  Well worth the time  for this relatively short (130-ish pages) read.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Pollution and the Death of Man

February 18, 2019

Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology

by Dr. Francis Schaeffer

I picked up some books at the used book store a looooong time ago.  Lost them, forgot about them, and rediscovered them recently and plucked the top one up.  While I’m a big admirer of Schaeffer’s practical theology and philosophy, I had forgotten how painful he can be to read.  It isn’t that the concepts are too technical or complex, but more that writing is just not his forte.  It’s one thing to think big thoughts, but an entirely different thing to communicate them in understandable terms!

But this book, after an initial rocky start, really is far more accessible than some of Schaeffer’s other writing.  The topic hasn’t gotten any less important in the last 50 years, and while his thoughts on it are something that anyone well-versed in the Bible might piece together on their own, it doesn’t seem to be a topic or a treatment that has attracted much attention.  Some of Schaeffer’s observations in this book are fantastic in that they apply in so many areas beyond ecology, yet they apparently elude so many Christians.

Schaeffer really hits his stride in Chapters 4-6.  He grounds Christian ecology on, logically enough, the creation account in Genesis.  He argues that Christianity is unique among religions and philosophies for providing the baseline argument of why we should treat nature kindly and gently: because God created it. Most other religions and philosophies argue for a certain treatment of nature that is far more anthropocentric – we should take care of nature because it benefits us, specifically, as human beings.  Schaeffer argues powerfully that such an anthropocentric view is dangerous, as is the other extreme – pantheism.

Schaeffer goes on to offer a compelling description of man and his place in creation, separated by a gap not only between himself and his Creator, but between himself and all the rest of creation.  That, endued alone with the imago dei, man is unique in creation but not separated from creation.  He is both unique in the imago dei and not unique in that he also is a creation.  Schaeffer offers an exploration of this and how man should treat nature.  The example that stands out is that man is free to rid his home of ants.  This is a necessity (at least most people would view it as such!) and so many does this.  But when he encounters the ant on the sidewalk, he steps over it.  The ant has a right to his antness in his proper habitat, just as man does.  And man does not have the right to arbitrarily destroy nature when there is no need for doing so.  And if there is a need to do so, man can choose to limit himself (in terms of time and profit, primarily) so that nature is not unnecessarily destroyed more than needs be.

This is really helpful reading.  It prevents us  from erring in the traditional way, but claiming that as God’s highest creation the rest of creation exists only for our own use or pleasure.  No, creation has a right to exist in itself, though man has the right to utilize nature towards his needs and ends, so long as it is done without losing sight of nature as a creation of God, just like mankind itself.  And it prevents us from erring with the pantheists or the materialists.  Pantheists see all things as divine and ultimately degrade humanity in the process.  Materialists do the same thing but because they lack any sense of divinity, rather than suffering from too great a sense of it.

Finally, Schaeffer rightly asserts that Christians should be living out these truths as witness to our culture and the world around us.  That our individual and corporate lives should be governed by decisions of self-limitation in order to preserve and respect the rest of God’s creation.  Powerful thoughts for Christians and their families and congregations!

 

 

 

Automated Vehicle Ethics

October 24, 2018

I’ve blogged before on the push for automated vehicles – self-driving cars.  While it seems an inevitable application of technology – and may in fact be safer in the long run, it’s still going to take some considerable work to figure out the nuances of it.  There’s the technology aspect, as well as the necessity to direct vehicles in how to behave if they think an accident is unavoidable.  How do  you teach a car to make an ethical decision?

Traditionally, this is talked about in terms of the Trolley Problem, a philosophical scenario developed in 1967 by philosopher Philippa Foot.  It’s a fascinating little thought experiment.  But the first problem is nobody has a good solution for it.  And the second problem is that it’s going to be difficult to program a car how based on it.

The third problem is the assumption that, in a split second reaction time, there can be a pre-defined way of solving the problem.  After all, it’s hard enough to solve given a few moments (or years) to contemplate it.  Save more or fewer lives?  Save more important people or less important people?  Save younger people or older people?  And how do you define and quantify more, fewer, more important, less important, young and old?

I’m not sure how I would react in a split second decision.  Reflexes and some sort of sub-conscious thought no-doubt kick in.  But would I regret my decision after the fact?  Would I castigate myself for what I viewed as an incorrect choice after the fact?  Would I be willing to sue myself to that extent?

I’m not sure I could answer these questions in advance (hence the compelling nature of the philosophical scenario), let alone in a moment of instinctual thought and action.  I pray I am never in such a situation, where such a decision needs to be made.  There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong decision, at least not in any sort of unquestionable and always-and-forever sort of sense.  I can say with a far greater certainty about who I wouldn’t intentionally set out to hurt, but in the midst of a split second decision between two equally undesirable choices?  That’s hard.

At the very least I feel bad for self-driving cars.  Just another reason I will likely never own one.

 

Heir of the Dog

October 15, 2018

Here’s a good essay by well-respected author and academic Gene Veith.  He asks the question whether adults should still be held culpable – even prosecutable – for crimes they committed as minors.

His basic point, one that is reflected in many of our legal forms and procedures (such as – in general – treating minors accused or convicted of offenses differently than adults, including lighter punishments and the possibility of having their criminal records as minors expunged or sealed permanently), is that we generally understand that children are children and held to different standards of accountability.  We all did things as  children that, having attained some level of maturity or at least age, we wouldn’t repeat.  The why we wouldn’t repeat might be sketchier – is it just a better understanding of legal ramifications or actual recognition that words or actions once somehow judged appropriate never really are?  But barring some extreme situations, I don’t presume to judge the character of an adult based on some random fact about their childhood, especially if what I know of them as an adult outweighs that random incident.  Such as, say, eating glue in third grade.

There are also times when a minor commits one or more crimes so heinous that they are no longer treated as children but as adults, because the fundamentals at play ought to be understandable even by someone under the age of 18.  There’s a line between adulthood and being a minor, but it can be a permeable one, as well as an inconsistent or inaccurate one.

What interests me, tangentially to this conversation, is our obsession as a culture with beginning to rescind honors and accomplishments by individuals based on a later-discovered moral failing or flaw, perhaps an isolated incident but more typically of an ongoing nature.  I first wondered about this with Bill Cosby.

For example, his honorary degree from Penn University was revoked in February 2018 as the nagging rumors of sexual foul play finally materialized and were acted upon, leading to his conviction and a 3-10 year prison sentence.  Wikipedia claims Cosby has over 70 honorary degrees from various institutions.  Many rescinded those degrees once his misdoings were verified.  Other institutions did not revoke their degrees, such as Virginia Commonwealth University.  Other schools removed the names of prominent honorees from buildings because of either real or perceived transgressions.

Obviously Cosby’s sexual behavior is deplorable and deserves punishment.  However on the flip side, does  such behavior counteract or overwrite a person’s other achievements?  Is this a binary thing – where you are either an accomplished professional or a disgusting criminal?  Can you only be one or the other?

That is problematic to me, as I don’t know many binary people.  I know many people who have wonderful characteristics but also who have some characteristics I don’t like so much.  And of course in my vocation as pastor, I am called upon to hear confession from time to time.  Very personal and specific confessions of actual bad or even illegal things people have done in their past.  And I am then charged and privileged to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ to that person, and to mean it.  I’m not allowed to distance myself from that person afterwards because what they confessed was too heinous.

Yes, there is a difference between the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and potential  legal liability for one’s actions.  But again, this isn’t a  binary thing.  We’re all guilty of some infractions real or imagined, large or small.  Did we make a full stop at that stop sign?  How often are we going over the speed limit?  Yet we generally say that such things don’t negate the good things a person has done or accomplished in their life. Sure, you ran that stop sign, but we’re not going to take away your Nobel Peace Prize because of it. 

As a Biblical Christian, I hold the tension that says that each of us is capable of amazing acts of love and grace, and at the same time capable of amazingly hurtful, cruel, even criminal behaviors.  The person is the same, capable of both sides of the coin, and therefore not binary.  Perhaps for short periods of time, but when considering the work and span of a person’s life, only in rare cases (Hitler, duh?) can we say that a particular person was practically universally bad.  Or good.

St. Paul fleshes this out in his amazing words in Romans 7.  This reality that we all live with – that there is a continual battle within us between the sinful and evil me, and the holy and righteous me.  I’m not binary.  By putting my faith in Jesus Christ, both mes exist within me – for the moment.  Only one is going to last, however.  Eventually I will be binary – I will be completely and only perfect.  But until that day, when Jesus returns and ushers in a new creation, I remain both saint and sinner.  The traditional theological phrase is simul iustice et peccatorAt the same time righteous/just and a sinner.

What this should lead to is not a glossing over or ignoring of sin, but the recognition that someone might be capable of a great sin, and yet still capable of accomplishing something great and praiseworthy, either before or after the period of time when they perpetrated the great sin.  It allows me to condemn Mr. Cosby for his sexual violence against women while recognizing that he is a legitimately gifted comedian, actor, and even thinker.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  And just as the sin needs to be punished, the gift remains worthy of praise.

And such praise is necessary, every bit as necessary as the punishment of sin or illegality is.

If  we’re only going to acclaim the admirable works of perfect people, we have nothing left to praise.  Nothing at all.  Which means what remains would be to determine which sins or illegal actions would be severe enough to counteract not only whatever good someone may have done in the past, but any good they might achieve in the future.  (And, for the Lutherans reading, I’m using generic terms and not dealing with a theological argument about whether we on our own are capable of any good works!)

And who will determine what sins or illegal actions those are?  And on what basis?  And what happens when a sin that is at one point considered heinous is eventually not viewed as a sin at all?  Can we counteract not the punishment that was due, but also the praise that was scrubbed out?  I don’t think so.

Hopefully Mr. Cosby learns from his sins and their consequences.  Not only that, I hope that others in positions of power or influence or wealth learn that such behavior is wrong.  Always.  But his accolades and accomplishments need to remain in the public eye as well, as reminders of what is possible despite our shortcomings, our failures, our sins, and as encouragement to others that good can be accomplished even if they get off to the wrong start.

Contextualizing Advertising

September 20, 2018

Despite a much-delayed and oft-sidetracked undergraduate career spanning 13 years, I did eventually graduate from Arizona State University.  It’s an accomplishment I am proud enough of but typically stoic and realistic about.  Going back to university at nearly 30 to complete a degree you gave up on years earlier because of a lack of direction or motivation is difficult, and I acknowledge that.  But what credit there is to be taken for that lies in me (by the grace of God), and not so much my alma mater.  I know folks from my high school that are die-hard fans of the universities they graduated from, and constantly sport the clothes, tail-gate parties, and hand signs of those institutions.

I’m not one of those folks, and anyone who knows me probably isn’t very surprised by this.

To be fair, I don’t feel an unusual attachment to any other institution I’ve ever attended, whether primary, secondary, or graduate.  It’s just not in my genes.

But that doesn’t stop these institutions from sending me their magazines every quarter, hopeful no doubt that perhaps I’ve improved my situation in life markedly from my earlier years and am looking for a place to devote some of my wealth.

I’m not one of those folks either, sorry.

But as I was quickly flipping through my alma mater’s most recent magazine, the only thing that really caught my eye was the back page and an advertisement from Starbucks.  An attractive and undoubtedly upwardly-mobile-minded female barista smiles glowingly at the reader, hands on hips in a pose of confidence.  The tag line, which claims to be a quote from her, reads:

Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions.

But if news these days is to be believed, this is the fundamental problem  in our culture.  People pushing for what they want.  The news is decidedly anti-male these days, highlighting a cavalcade of men past and present who followed the above mantra fully and are now paying the consequences for it.  I doubt anyone would recognize this mantra as appropriate in the context of allegations about Brett Kavanaugh.  Or Bill Cosby.  Or Harvey Weinstein.  For that matter would people agree with this mantra in the context of Trump and his tariff policies, or Obama and his health-care reform?  Would liberals agree with this in terms of who gets confirmed as a Supreme Court judge?  For that matter would conservatives?

Our culture is in the throes of chaos precisely because of people who follow this mantra.

It doesn’t sound like a bad mantra though, does it?  Doesn’t it sound warm and glowing and awesome?  Isn’t it inspiring and confidence-building?  Doesn’t it reek of the go-get-it attitude that once characterized America?

Yet on the other hand, we could argue this mantra is destructive, evil, patently bad advice.

How can this be?

Because this mantra, this slogan – as with any mantra or slogan – needs a context.  It needs a larger background within which it fits, and which determines how it is  applied.  Only a fool would assume  that marketing companies and companies should be dictating human behavior in any given country, right?  That would be chaos, with norms and expectations and standards changing every time a new, more compelling slogan or mantra came out.

It’s terrifying to think that for many people this is exactly what is happening.

It isn’t that mantras and slogans are new.  They’ve been around for centuries, and we all can think about the most successful of them.  Be all that you can be.  Just do it.  Have a Coke and smile.  Have it your way.  There’s a common theme in them – they’re all applied to the individual and designed to encourage the individual to activity, engagement, and eventually or ultimately consumption of one form or another.

As marketing campaigns these were wildly successful.  But as rules for living your life?  Not so much.  And over and over again we are reminded that while it sounds like a good idea to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passionsin reality this isn’t something that we should always do.  By a long shot.  Or perhaps ever do.  Because society is going to determine what is acceptable to push for, what is acceptable to love, and what sorts of passions are acceptable.  It may decide these things in retrospect years down the road.  It may change its mind about them.

What these mantras and slogans need is a context.  An overarching understanding of how one is to live their lives that makes sense of these urges or prompts, determining when they are acceptable or appropriate and when they are not.  And I think this meta-context is what our culture has discarded in the last half-century.

I suggest that the meta-context that used to be in place was Biblically based and easy to remember.  Love your neighbor.  While not everyone might know or agree with the person this meta-context is associated with (Jesus), they understood the basic concept.  It’s a concept that – on its own and out of the fuller context of how He said it and what else He said – isn’t even strictly Judeo-Christian.  It could be argued that this idea is implicit in all of the great religions and even philosophies of the world.  Of course each will define the terms and parameters slightly (or radically) differently, the basic underlying idea remains.

So then I’m free to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions, as long as it doesn’t cause me to cease loving my neighbor.  As long as I’m anchored in this larger meta-context, I can apply the mantras and slogans of the day in a limited fashion.  And of course the meta-context also provided the criteria to know what was loving my neighbor and what wasn’t, since we all tend to define this in ways that are easier or more convenient for us.

It’s not a perfect system, of  course.  There will still be anomalies and violations.  But we could at least identify them as such and deal with them as such.

Now, it’s a lot harder.  Oftentimes it seems to come down to who yells the loudest as to what constitutes a proper or  improper application of the mantras and slogans around us.  There was an effort a few years ago to come up with a new meta-context for life in our culture – tolerance.  It didn’t work so well.  It continues to not work very well.  And now we’re being told that in some situations, tolerance is actually the equivalent of refusal – which anyone with half a brain would have recognized right away.

So be careful what advertising or marketing mantra or slogan you grab on to.  Be careful what you quote to your kids or grandkids as inspirational and life-guiding advice.  They might just listen.  And they might just discover that it’s really not very good advice.  Not without something deeper and more reliable behind it.  Something not prone to the whims and waves of public opinion at any given moment (driven so often by slogans and mantras as well).  Maybe you should consider passing on something much deeper, and more  reliable.

For that matter, maybe you ought to consider adopting it for yourself.