Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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.

 

 

Book Review – Brave New World

August 25, 2018

Brave New World by Alduous Huxley

The above link is to an edition that includes Brave New World Revisited, which I’ll mention here.  It’s basically a set of essays written by Huxley 25 years or so after Brave New World was published, commenting on elements of the book and offering warnings about the direction of Western culture that could lead – much sooner than he had ever anticipated – to a world similar to his novel’s dystopian setting.

It was only mildly ironic that I read the majority of Brave New World while on a cruise ship.  Perhaps it is the perfect setting to see some of the concepts Huxley foresaw played out.  Soma is replaced by the ubiquitous encouragement to drink alcohol.  The emphasis is very much on the right now, and creating memories for a future completely detached from the present, which of course has no relationship at all to the past.  The descriptive blurb for a daily meet up for singles 40 and older suggested Looking for a soul mate, or just a ship mate?  What happens on the cruise ship stays on the cruise ship, right?  We’re all supposed to be very pneumatic, right?  Whatever that means.

As Neil Postman observed in his fantastic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, we’re much closer to Huxley’s dystopian dictatorship than we are to George Orwell’s 1984 version.  Most of us were force-fed 1984 as a form of vaccine against the wiles of communism and socialism, while Brave New World was relegated to the optional reading list.  Something good and certainly college-oriented, but nothing to stress about.  I read both in high school, and we certainly have slipped dangerously down the road to Huxley’s future.

Rereading it now, it’s not a great book.  Stylistically or even from a story standpoint.  Characters are rather flat, and Huxley is obviously more interested in playing with ideas rather than characters or plot.  The back-and-forth movement between scenes and characters early in the book is a good foreshadowing of Pulp Fiction and other modern efforts to shake up the linear narrative.

It’s not a great book to read, but it’s a necessary book to help us think about our current society and culture.  There are a lot of ways of dissecting where we are and how we might change course, such as this curious piece (warning, some unpleasant language there).  And I would of course argue that our predicament is far more theological than anything else.  But Huxley helps us to see that what we take for granted is dangerous simply in that we take it for granted.  That we are increasingly ill-equipped to think critically about ourselves or the things we are asked to do or buy, and that this is to the very real benefit of a select group of people capable of doing these things.  The fact that our newspapers don’t see it of great value to inform us – every single day – of the political doings in our state and national capital is a good indicator that a free press is not necessarily a helpful one.

Huxley’s reviews of his own work in a set of topical essays bundled together as Brave New World Revisited is obviously dated, but offers a few good reminders that we haven’t arrived at our current situation completely unawares.  There have been keen minds all along the way warning us of the consequences of media, advertising, eugenics, and other areas of inquiry and exploration and application.  Whether we can change direction or not on a societal scale remains to be seen, but it’s important and necessary first of all that individuals be equipped to do so in their own lives and families.  Towards that end, Brave New World should be just as mandatory reading as 1984.  It’s a lot closer than we think.

 

 

Sin and Sexuality

November 30, 2017

It’s on most everyone’s minds, whether they say it or not.  The recent spate of high-profile offenders only makes the topic both less accessible and more salacious.  We don’t talk about us, but we talk about it, and we talk about others.  I would argue this is the nature of most sexual thought and conversation that goes on in people’s heads and hearts as well as in rare exchanges with people they can be honest with.  We are forever removing ourselves directly from the conversation to project outwards.  This essay does some good work in talking about this from a male perspective.

Of course it’s a misleading essay as well, and certainly a misleading title.  As though only men are brutal or capable of brutality – sexually or otherwise!  It lacks the raw honesty of the Biblical take on the topic of human sexuality as well as sin, a take that understands that both men and women have issues in their sexuality and otherwise.  It might easily be argued that these issues are some of the deepest and most pertinent to who we are as people day in and day out.  I can’t imagine it’s for nothing that the first things we’re told about Adam and Eve after falling into sin by eating the forbidden fruit is they recognize their nakedness and cover it.  It isn’t just woman who recognizes the dangerous vulnerability in her sexuality, but man as well.  Both know they aren’t safe any longer.  It isn’t safe because of the opposite sex (or homosexual variations), and it isn’t safe because of ourselves.

A few comments on the essay.  The first paragraph is misleading and inaccurate.  Marche asserts that what a man says and believes have no bearing on their behavior.  I think this is patently untrue and a straw-man whitewashing of the issue for simplicity’s sake.  The reality is far more complicated.  What a man (or woman) believes, and therefore what he (or she) says, has a great deal of relationship and correlation to how he (or she) acts.  But it isn’t air-tight.  It isn’t bulletproof.  It isn’t perfect.  It’s marred by sin.  By a fundamental disjunction in the individual that makes the perfect  alignment of belief and practice at all times and in all circumstances impossible.  I believe that some of these men believe very strongly and practice very faithfully acceptable ideas about the relationship of men to women.  But I also know that in any particular moment, or even potentially multiple particular moments, their beliefs have not been enough to alter their actions, their words, and their needs or desires.  Sin crouches at each one of our doors, and its desire to have control over us, to eat us alive now and eternally is insatiable.  The life of faith is keeping that sin at bay as best as possible.  But such efforts are inevitably imperfect and flawed.  We all fail in one way or another, at one time or another.  Sexual sin may be the  bête noir of the moment (but hasn’t it always been?) but it is not fundamentally different from any sin in this respect.

Granted – I believe some of the accused are serial perpetrators, actual predators who may say things that people expect them to say but don’t really believe them and had no intention of living them out.  These are the folks who duly deserve to be held accountable in the fullest sense.   I believe others are guilty of actual sin that is not serial in nature.  Their failures are lapses in otherwise good belief and behavior.  They have fallen prey to sin in their hearts and minds, but this is Biblically a different situation than assenting to, endorsing, or validating their sin.  Some of these folks may have sinned in spite of themselves.  And as sin almost always does, this causes harm not just to themselves but to others, and ultimately and always is first and foremost an offense against God.  Should they be censured for these failures?  Certainly.  Should they be destroyed for them?  That’s a question that isn’t going to get much traction in the witch-hunt atmosphere currently gripping our culture.  If we’re going to talk about power imbalances, we should certainly note the huge one right now, where any allegation or accusation can instantly cause irreparable damage, even before it’s substantiated.  In the public court of Twitter, there is no legal principle of innocent before proven guilty.

But to simply say that men (and by implication only men) are incapable of ever being trusted in what they say or profess, and are always and only actively looking for ways to act contrary to their professions is dishonest and inaccurate to any sense of observable reality internally or externally.  Would the author characterize himself this way?  Then why should I bother even reading what he has to say?

The second place I disagree with Marche is in his  second paragraph, where he asserts that the men in question have nothing in common except their sexual misdeeds.  This is not true.  The men in question all share power.  They are all men in position of influence and control of one sort or another.  In other words, they are all men who in addition to the temptation to sexual sin have perhaps a greater opportunity to indulge it.  Impropriety can happen in a great variety of situations but it more naturally lends itself to power imbalance, as Marche rightly understands.  Unfortunately, Marche later in his essay makes the assertion that the nature of sex itself is power or a struggle for power, something inherently unBiblical.  Sexuality is intended not as a power struggle but as the very opposite, the most intimate act of vulnerability.  But of course such vulnerability is only appropriate in a mutually vulnerable situation, which is what Scripture describes in marriage.  Sin changes the dynamic, of course, so that Adam and Eve sense the danger right away, and we continue to live with it today.  But to make our sexuality into something inherently evil, as some feminists including the one Marche quotes do is to overstep the Biblical description.  Sexuality was created good!.  But it must be guarded now because there are sinful instincts to indulge it outside of the proper relationship.  Outside of marriage it is destructive to the individual, the other person involved, and society at nearly every level.  In the midst of sin we have to be careful with the good gifts of God.  We need to cover ourselves.

This is what we’re seeing.  For over 50 years elements in our culture advocated with increasing persuasiveness and influence that sexuality should be unburdened from the Biblical restraints placed upon it.  They have argued that sexuality should be freely enjoyed by practically anyone (including those who argue for decriminalizing sex with children and the ongoing sexualization of young adolescents in advertising), with practically anyone (including people of any gender and regardless of marital status), practically anytime (thanks to tax-payer funded contraception).  Sex is to be freed of any inhibitions and everyone should enjoy themselves without the worry of complications (the celebration of divorce as an option along with the government-enforced option of killing any unplanned on and unwanted children that might result).  Discarding Biblical notions of sexual propriety and protection (only between a man and a woman who have publicly committed themselves to each other for life in marriage), we’ve been told and shown that sex is easy and fun and simple and everyone should be doing it.

Is it any wonder that we have people who abuse that philosophy – or more accurately, take it to logical conclusions?  And instead of being celebrated as ideological idols they are crucified.  Careers are disparaged and destroyed.  Art and other creative works are immediately jettisoned and rejected.  As though everything a person was and did was bound up specifically with their sexual behavior.

Marche asks the critical question near the end of his essay – How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions where men and women are not equal?    The Bible has already provided an answer – put sexuality back where it belongs between two people who are equalized in the relationship of marriage.  Admit that the hyper-sexualized culture we’ve created – where everyone  and anyone is a sexual possibility – is unhealthy and dangerous to everyone, and teach people once again about respect and self-control rather than damage control and spin.  Preventing the abuses that are coming to light, whether predatory and ideological in nature or slips of otherwise good people requires an entire culture grounded in terms of the power, the danger, and the beauty of sexuality.  Such steps will not eliminate all abuse, but they will move towards minimizing it.

Towards this end it isn’t just men who need to examine their masculinity, but women who need to examine their femininity.  And more accurately, both need to examine the reality that there is always a break, a gap, sometimes a chasm between who they claim to be and truly to want to be, and who their thoughts and words and occasional actions show them to be.  There is always a difference between the ideal and the reality.

Modern society has no answer to that gap other than to deny it and excoriate anyone it catches publicly in that gap as some sort of misfit.  But the reality is that every one of us has that gap.  Denying it only exacerbates the problem, and modern philosophy and culture has no answer either for why it is there or what to do about it.  Both are convinced that it can be eradicated through proper breeding and education and controls, which explains the massive shock and indignation in discovering that decades of abortions, contraceptives, educational indoctrination, government dictates and other controls have not eradicated the gap at all.  Thus the shock to find out that people – even people we think are good – fail.  There is no mercy in this system of philosophy and culture.  No forgiveness.  So ultimately everyone dies because everyone fails – some are just better at covering it up than others, or some sin in ways that are more socially permissible than others.

Only the Bible gives an actual explanation for the gap, and offers a solution to the gap both here and now and in the long-term, eternal sense.  Only Christianity acknowledges that we cannot fix the gap on our own no matter how badly we want to.  It has to be closed for us, fixed for us  While that isn’t going to happen this side of eternity, we do have real reason and hope in fighting against our sinfulness, in little by little closing that gap a bit.  Not simply by our own force of will or through fear of societal punishments, but by the very power of God who created us and saved us, living within us and working with us and for us, leading us in the life-long process of battling against sin towards a day when we no longer have to because it will no longer be there within us.

Names will continue to be revealed and heads will continue to roll.  But until we acknowledge the abject failure of the sexual philosophy of the past 50 years, we aren’t going to make any progress towards positive change.  It’s only going to get worse.

 

Subject Thanksgiving Object

November 23, 2017

Grammatically, this makes sense.  But it’s easily reduced to simply subject thanksgiving, or more colloquially, subject give thanks.

This is the essence of Thanksgiving.  You or I giving thanks to someone.  It’s personal, you know.  I don’t thank the traffic light for changing color.  I don’t thank the computer for powering on.  We may do this inadvertently sometimes – thanking an object rather than a person – but we tend to catch ourselves a bit sheepishly, or at least realize that what we just did makes absolutely zero sense.  We don’t thank things, we thank persons.  We are grateful for some level of will or intentionality which require a personal source.

People like to short-cut this these days.  They give thanks to the universe.  But the universe is impersonal.  The universe is a thing, not a person.  To make the universe into a person would create an entity that bears a passing resemblance to God, and God is generally the one person someone thanking the universe is pointedly trying to ignore or deny.  Either the universe is impersonal and therefore a completely inappropriate object for our gratitude, or the universe is personal and now we have a higher entity on our hands which might possibly entail divinity.

Thanks requires someone capable of recognizing what they have received and acknowledging the person who gave it to them.  We might short-cut this by thanking our parents for everything, since without them we wouldn’t be here.  But they aren’t really a final source.  They’re an intermediate source of our blessings.  They didn’t give us everything, and more importantly, they received from their parents, who in turn received fro their parents, and so on and so on.  We live in a causal universe.  Everything and everyone we see is in a cause and effect relationship with what comes after and before.  In a technical sense, thanks can never stop with any one person in the universe but at some level must involve literally millions or billions of other people around and before them, each of which is also inadequate on their own to receive our thanks.

Philosophers and rational folks of varying other vocations and hobbies tend to agree that there has to be a starting point for this causal universe we find ourselves in.  It makes no sense to assume that there is a never-ending cause and effect relationship that extends out infinitely in both directions.   The Big Bang (or God’s creation of the universe) are both explanations for the fact that our universe – as close as our observations (and God’s revelation) can tell us – has a definite beginning.  Some would argue that this is merely the latest in an endless cycle of universal explosions and contractions, but it begs the question of where it all began.  Something had to start the cycle, right?  In other words, why this, rather than nothing?

For the Christian, Thanksgiving may start with the immediate things and persons around us, but always and ultimately leads back to the source of all things and all persons, God himself.  God is personal.  God acts with will and intentionality and thus is an appropriate object of our Thanksgiving.  He receives it.  It is appropriate to offer it.

It acknowledges that the in the ultimate analysis, God is the primal subject, and we are his objects.  He bestows us with existence and provides the materials both animate and inanimate necessary to our life.  We as subjects give thanks to God as the object because we are in reality the objects designed to give thanks and praise to God the one and only eternal – and personal – subject.

I’d argue that in the fullest and most consistent sense of the word, only theists can give thanks fully and rightfully because there is a personal object to direct the thanks to who is also the subject by which we are made capable of giving thanks.  This isn’t possible – in the fullest sense of the word – for a non-theist.  At best, they can be happy or relieved that they happen to be here, but there is no personal source of that momentary reality to give thanks to in an ultimate sense.  And for those who believe in some sort of impersonal source of reality (Buddhists, Hindus, etc.) there is no point in giving thanks either.  Either you view existence as a big mistake in the first place, which hardly seems reasonable to give thanks for no matter how nice your life looks to someone else, or you, like the non-theist, can be thankful for an arbitrary set of circumstances in your existence that had no prior intention or active causation.

Thanksgiving is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and understanding of reality and God.  We can give thanks in the fullest and most complete sense, and therefore in the most proper and reasonable way.  We give thanks to the Creator of the Universe, the author of our existence, and the one who has promised to us life in and with Him in a personal way.  We aren’t simply enjoying a passing notion of reality or existence.  We are participating in something meaningful which shapes who we are for eternity.

Heady stuff to enter into whatever traditions your Thanksgiving entails.  But give thanks, by all means.  To the God who created you and created everything and everyone in your life that you are remembering with gratitude, from the dearly departed relatives of our childhood to the dearly departed turkey we’re about to ea.