Monday, August 31, 2009

You're older than you've ever been...

XKCD has been on a roll lately.

Today's panel reminded me of a song by They Might Be Giants...

This particular performance was done in Charlottesville!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Just as I am

Hear my words, you wise men,
and give ear to me, you who know;
for the ear tests words
as the palate tastes food.
Let us choose what is right;
let us determine among ourselves what is good.
Job 34:2-4

This morning the sermon I heard was a classic Presbyterian sermon on how we have nothing in ourselves to bring before God.

Actually, it was a very good exposition of Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." It was fully contextualized in the framework of Matthew's kingdom pronouncement, and some common misunderstandings of the verse were corrected.

Even so, this idea that we have nothing to bring before God seemed to be the main point. I don't necessarily have any problem with this idea on one level. I have certainly learned my own limitations as a human being. I don't pretend I've earned anything from God.

Christianity seems built on certain paradoxes surrounding this idea that we don't have anything in ourselves, and yet we are valuable beyond measure. In the case of evangelicalism, though, I tend to find a somewhat cruel paradox.

We sang the song "Just As I Am," which is a song built entirely on this idea of bringing nothing before God, wholly relying on His mercy. And then there's this curious verse in the middle:
Just as I am Thou wilt receive
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve
Because Thy promise I believe
O Lamb of God, I come...
"Because Thy promise I believe." That really sounds like bringing something to God. There's a paradox here. We are told that we bring nothing before God, and that we need to recognize this fact. But is not the recognition of this fact actually something we bring before God?

What about those who bring nothing--not even faith!--before God? Wouldn't these people be the ultimate beneficiaries of God's pure grace? Yet, paradoxically, Christians say one must have faith, or else God won't save.

Maybe it's just the scientific materialist in me, but I always think of belief as a physical property of a person. Like anything else a person has, it really is a function of chemical compounds interacting in very powerful and intricate ways. So when I hear that nothing is necessary but belief in Jesus, I think, what an obscure physical trait to expect of people.

But I don't think you have to think like me to see what I'm getting at. I started this post with a quote from Job that makes me think, you know, expecting a person to believe something really is a lot like expecting them to have a particular taste in food. It's not entirely up to them, is it?

Such a comparison will naturally lead people to cry, "relativism!" and the like. But really, taste in food isn't completely random or up to the individual. We grow up in a certain culture that tends to eat certain food. Chances are your tastes in food will be related to those trends.

But you can always try new food, and you can learn to like a lot of it. Your tastes can change the more you experience. Still, a lot depends on your own taste buds, which you had no part in determining.

Aren't truth claims pretty similar? Can anyone explain exactly what makes anything convincing? Scientists give "proofs" and Christians give "testimonies," and those are all great, but what if your taste buds just haven't shifted, so to speak?

I suppose conversion is usually described in terms of "taste buds" changing--I was blind but now I see, and the like. Calvinism is consistent, after all: even the faith that saves you is not from you, but a gift of God. "Nothing in my hands I bring."

But why in the world would that be limited to any group of people? If one person can be healed from his blindness, why not all people? Why not right now?

In the end, whatever reasons people give for believing something aren't going to satisfy everyone. I say this just as much for science or mathematics as for religion. (Why not? It's the same thing, really.)

The only catch is that some claims are more intense than others. Maybe science makes truth claims about our changing climate and what we should do about it. Okay, well, meanwhile religion is making truth claims about eternal salvation and damnation.

Some would say that if you don't believe a certain truth claim, you're damned for all eternity. What's fascinating is that in our society, many people take this claim and, instead of being scared by it into humble acceptance, actually use it to make a moral argument against believing the claim. This claim becomes morally self-defeating. Interesting.

To be honest, I think there's something healthy about that. To me it doesn't scream "relativism" at all. Rather, it suggests that deep down we all believe that truth and goodness belong together. If the truth isn't good, then what's the point?

Doubtless someone will say that the truth can't just be whatever you want it to be, but I disagree. If you learn to want life to be what it is, then life is what you want it to be. There's always this combination of discovery and self-transformation that has to take place.

So we're back to square one, aren't we? How do we have the faintest clue which is better: to learn to love the food in front of you, or to order up a new dish?

I never said I had any answers.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mr. Potter's changed ways

I'm not afraid to admit when I might be wrong, and health care is one issue where I might be wrong.

This morning I read an op-ed about Wendell Potter, a former health insurance executive who is now testifying concerning the need for health care reform.

(I love that his name is Potter--it makes me think of the mean old man in It's a Wonderful Life.)

Stories like these about the health insurance industry should not go unnoticed:

Mr. Potter says he liked his colleagues and bosses in the insurance industry, and respected them. They are not evil. But he adds that they are removed from the consequences of their decisions, as he was, and are obsessed with sustaining the company’s stock price — which means paying fewer medical bills.

One way to do that is to deny requests for expensive procedures. A second is “rescission” — seizing upon a technicality to cancel the policy of someone who has been paying premiums and finally gets cancer or some other expensive disease. A Congressional investigation into rescission found that three insurers, including Blue Cross of California, used this technique to cancel more than 20,000 policies over five years, saving the companies $300 million in claims.


Mr. Potter notes that a third tactic is for insurers to raise premiums for a small business astronomically after an employee is found to have an illness that will be very expensive to treat. That forces the business to drop coverage for all its employees or go elsewhere.

All this is monstrous, and it negates the entire point of insurance, which is to spread risk.

The emphasis in the last paragraph is mine. For some reason that sentence triggered a suspicion in me that perhaps there are theoretical problems with the system as we have it.

Perfect competition in free markets depend on perfect information. Such a thing does not exist in the real world, so competition is never perfect, but the worse your information is, the worse your competition is.

In the case of health insurance, the information available is very bad for more reasons than I had realized. For one thing, insurance companies will look for any kind of loophole they can, and this creates huge uncertainties for a customer--you never know when you'll be dropped just when you actually need coverage.

I was already aware of this problem, and I do believe that it is the responsibility of government to do something about this. Laws are required to keep the market functioning, laws that make sure contracts between individuals are carried out faithfully.

But there's another problem, I realized, and it's a theoretical problem having to do with the nature of insurance. The problem is that insurance companies can defy some of the basic laws of competitive markets. Here's why I think so.

You don't need insurance now; you may or may not need it later, but you buy it just in case, to minimize risk. This means plenty of customers will probably go years without ever having a complaint about their insurance, because they never come into dire straits.

Now consider the 20,000 people in the story above who lost their insurance just when they needed it most. That's a lot of people who experienced a grave injustice--but relatively speaking, these cases don't happen that often to that many people.

That word relatively is critical. What it means is that insurance companies can save huge amounts of money by offering what is more or less an inferior product--except that they can count on a majority of their customers finding it acceptable a majority of the time.

So it's possible to see, in theory, why competition wouldn't solve this problem. Another company might come along and say to the customers who go screwed over, "Buy from us, and this will never happen to you." But there are two huge problems:
  • one, the damage has already been done, in the sense that customers have already paid lots of money into a plan that they now no longer have, and
  • two, because these unfortunate customers are relatively few (though not actually few--each of these lives matter) it's possible that it's not profitable for competing insurance companies to pick them up.
If you're a competing insurance company seeking to profit from another company's bad business, you have to win over a lot more customers than just the screwed-over customers, and that requires overcoming the problem of limited information.

It's probably just more efficient for all health insurance companies to adopt the same business practices as their competitors. But efficiency for health insurance companies is not what we really want; we want a system that's efficient for consumers.

I can't think of any great solutions. Having a public option seems like an inefficient allocation of resources, but what we have now is already enormously inefficient. I can't think of another feasible way to solve the problem.

My issues with the current proposed plan are much deeper than whether or not they violate market principles, so at this point I'm still not a fan. But who knows? Maybe some good will come out of this, after all.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Oh, the dichotomy...

Apparently the Myers-Briggs test is now all the rage on Facebook, reducing the once esteemed psychological survey to a time waster for people to post on their profile pages.

Okay, so naturally I just had to take it and post it on my wall. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Anyway, some of the questions are just so frustrating, because they just separate things that should remain together. For instance, the classic example: "Mercy, or Justice?"

Oh, for crying out loud! We all want both, don't we? At least Jesus did. In a sense, don't you think it's unhealthy to ask someone to choose?

But there was another question that kind of bothered me, and it was, "Do you prefer practical solutions or creative ideas?" As a mathematician, I have to say, that's a complete toss-up.

I'd say creativity and practicality are impossible to separate in mathematics. A creative idea often is the most practical solution to a problem. A professor once said to me, "Five minutes of contemplation can save an hour of computation."

That sounds pretty practical, no? But it also means you have to let yourself be creative before you start plowing through pages of calculations.

Anyway, yeah, sure, the Myers-Briggs personality test is really useful. All I'm saying is that sometimes we put too fine a line where there shouldn't be one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Of evolution and the created order

This op-ed I just read by Robert Wright reminded me that while I seek to have a faith in God that is compatible with modern science, there are certain compromises that leave me empty.
At first I had hopes that this article would bring something exciting to the table. What drew me in was this line:
Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

But then I realized that all this "creative power" amounts to for Wright is that of Spinoza's clock-maker:
The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection...
Unfortunately, this theology is not at all new. It's just Deism, straight out of the Enlightenment. This might be an appealing religion for some people, but it's not Christianity--it's not a story about a God who comes into the world to redeem it and make all things new.

In the end, though, the punchline of the article was just another statement of hopeful modernism:
A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.
Something inside me trembles when I hear the words "social cohesion." Doesn't anybody read Brave New World and get freaked out? Human beings do not become what they're supposed to be simply by living "cohesively" with one another.

I just think a part of being human is seeking for something that doesn't make sense, that is so Other that it can only be called holy, or perhaps awesome, terrifying, bizarre, absurd, or mystical.

People will beat themselves, starve themselves, pray day and night to find it; they'll use drugs, or experiment sexually; they'll go to concerts to be blown away by music of all kinds, or they'll create art ranging from absurdly beautiful to absurdly depressing; they'll go to church to get an emotional high from music and preaching; they'll read any book they can get their hands on, searching for deeper ideas; sometimes they'll just sit alone in their room contemplating.

All of these hope desperately to find that there's something beyond the curtain of reality. I just can't stand any system of thought that makes this aspect of humanity out to be an unfortunate byproduct of our evolution. Harmony is good, but all great music has dissonance. To paraphrase Einstein, God does not play the same four chords with the universe.

Wright's article ends with this:
William James said that religious belief is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
I just don't agree. I am compelled by my religious faith to believe not merely in unseen order, but in unseen fury, the kind that can so easily be caricatured into this quaint little image of a God distributing people into heaven and hell.

The kind of fury I'm talking about is evident in that utter speechlessness that you experience on the edge of reason, when you finally realize that what you really want in life is far too big for you to handle. It's evident in Jesus of Nazareth, who in his wrath died on a cross for his people.

A lot of people don't seem to experience this, and so much the worse for them. They will probably be swept up in the tide of whatever system that comes around to ensure them harmony with the "unseen order" that today's intellectuals want to imagine for them.

As for me, I don't think Jesus asks us to simply harmonize with some invisible order. I think he asks us rather to tremble at the fury of the kingdom of heaven, a fury so incomprehensible that violence does not fully describe its power.

Maybe after all what I want is not so much a vision of God that harmonizes with science, so much as a vision of Him that renders all opinions on the matter irrelevant.

Tautological Statistics

I found this Gallup poll interesting:
Parents Rate Schools Much Higher Than Do Americans Overall

Parents Rate Schools Much Higher Than Do Americans Overall
Little change in recent years
by Frank Newport

PRINCETON, NJ -- Three in four American parents (76%) are satisfied with the education their children receive in school, compared to 45% of the general public who are satisfied with the state of schools nationwide. These findings from Gallup's annual Work and Education survey are almost identical to what Gallup found last year, and have not changed materially since 2003.

I just wanted to point out that it is mathematically guaranteed that more parents would be satisfied with their own children's education than with education as a whole, given the following fairly reasonable axiom:
Axiom. A parent who is dissatisfied with his own child's education is also dissatisfied with education as a whole.

Now it is not hard to prove the claim I just made:
Proof: Let S be the set of all parents satisfied with education as a whole, and let P be the set of all parents who are satisfied with their own children's education. By the contra positive of the above axiom, S is a subset of P. Therefore, it follows that the size of S is less than the size of P.

In other words, often there's simply nothing remarkable about statistics. A little common sense (or deductive logic) will tell you what you wanted to know without doing any surveys.

On the other hand, what the survey really tells us is that nothing big government programs have done in the past several years has made any difference in results in our education system. That should have been the headline of the article.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Outrageous Myths

As you can see in this lovely video, Obama thinks that pro-lifers are making an "outrageous lie" when we say that the new public option will force us to pay for abortions:

When I watched the video, toward the end Obama's lips and his voice got more and more out of sync. Somehow that was fitting in my mind.

Here's a direct quote from, a non-partisan web site that monitors claims made by politicians:
"Despite what Obama said, the House bill would allow abortions to be covered by a federal plan and by federally subsidized private plans."

Technically, I suppose the federal plan wouldn't force abortions to be covered, but by allowing abortions to be covered, it would, in fact, force the public to pay for them. That is, if anyone with a government-subsidized plan used it to pay for an abortion, that would mean you and I would be paying for it.

Obama comes across as trying to wield some moral superiority on this issue, and what kills is me is how many religious leaders will follow him down that path. I think they might all just be blinded by some mixture of arrogance and ignorance.

Abortion is not health care; it is violence. Anyone who wants to belittle the concerns of pro-lifers on this matter has immediately lost all of my respect for their moral beliefs.

And by the by, here's another direct quote:
"President Obama has repeatedly said that under the health care overhaul efforts in Congress, 'if you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan.' But he can’t make that promise to everyone.
  • In fact, under the House bill, some employers might have to modify plans after a five-year grace period if they don’t meet minimum benefits standards.
  • Furthermore, some firms are likely to buy different coverage for their workers than they have now, or simply drop coverage and pay a penalty instead, leaving workers to buy their own private coverage or go on a new federal insurance plan."

Oh wait, what? Government getting involved in the marketplace would actually cause businesses to have to change the way they make decisions?

I agree with everything Obama says about how we are responsible to make real reforms to help people in need. We are responsible, and if we totally screw it up by ramming through yet another plan that increases government involvement in the private sector, we will only make things worse.

I hate to say it, but I might just be getting even more upset with Obama every single day.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What's in an idea?

About a week ago I wrote a weird little post about "unity and continuity in creation." Just as I said, that post was meant to be continued, and I think here's where I get to what I'm really thinking about.

I was listening to a talk given by Tony Jones called, "Smackdown--Plato versus Aristotle." That's almost nerdier than something a mathematician would come up with. I like it.

The reason he was talking about Plato and Aristotle is that these ancient Greeks disagreed fundamentally on what knowledge and thought really are. Jones argued that in our Western culture, we have inherited most of our vocabulary about thought from Plato.

I've noticed that I usually either consciously or subconsciously think that whenever I'm talking or thinking about big issues, my mind is ascending into some "thought land," some Platonic heaven where the Truth can be ascertained directly, if only we train our minds to see.

I think this is reinforced by the way we are taught in our culture from an early age. We go into a classroom to talk about those abstract truths we're required to learn. Then we leave the classroom to do what we actually want to do with our lives.

This pattern reinforces a Platonic separation between the "higher" and "lower" forms of knowledge, a distinction I think is false. I've never read the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, but I hear that it tries to combat this distinction, and for good reason.

I talked about in my previous post how we're completely created beings. Now I want to say that from this, we know that our thoughts and ideas are also completely created, and thus part of the continuum of creation.

What I really mean is this. If you separate knowledge into "higher" and "lower," then you get some people trying to reach for a higher plane of existence through their learning, while others just leave all that "fancy book-learning" to the weirdos in the academy.

In relation to what I do, mathematics, this is what I hear constantly: "How is this useful? How is this relevant to me? What can you do with that?" People want something they can hold in their hands, at least metaphorically (but often literally) speaking.

But in the academy, often knowledge for knowledge's sake is still a virtue. So you can see in the separation between different groups (almost different classes) of people how this Platonic theory of knowledge is played out.

What concerns me is that you can see this not just in an academic setting, but in the church, as well. Protestantism has actually prided itself on stressing orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy. This comes from a theological debate over justification by faith versus works, but I really wonder if what we're really doing is being Platonists.

Think about it: it's like those who have faith have some higher knowledge. We've sought the knowledge truly worth having, as opposed to something common people can "hold in their hands," so to speak.

Isn't that what lines like, "You just have to believe!" are really all about? You just have to believe because this kind of knowledge only comes to you when your mind escapes creation and enters the "spiritual" world. (Thus, things like scientific evidence will not help you.)

Whether it's the church obsessed with orthodoxy or the academy obsessed with, well, itself, what we get is this radical separation between different kinds of knowledge, and so people are given a black or white decision. Either seek the higher knowledge, or seek the lower knowledge.

This rather divisive choice is presented to people precisely because of our theory of knowledge, which coincides with Plato's desire to escape the world with his mind and find some purer truth.

But what happens when we say that actually all thought is part of the continuum of creation? I confess I don't fully know the answer, because generally speaking, our society doesn't think this way yet. I do have some ideas, but right now I think I'll just mention one.

It may sound cliche, but I think one thing we could use more of is togetherness. When we acknowledge that our minds are created things, and that therefore our thoughts all remain right here on earth no matter how sophisticated they are, we realize what is really going on when we talk about ideas that matter to us.

What we're really doing is what I talked about before: we're housekeeping. We're bringing some sort of order to God's created world. And because we're all part of that creation, we're all in this together. Ideas aren't meant to lift people's minds up out of the world, but rather to make the world better to live in.

I hear people say something like, "It's not about ideas, but about relationships." They say that because they're reacting to the old way of thinking about ideas. What we should be saying is that ideas are about relationships--our relationship to every created thing.

This is probably already being said by someone else much smarter and more famous than I am, but, it's nice to be able to say it the way I want to say it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pro-lifers be warned

This is pretty much all the big names in the pro-life movement on one video saying that Obamacare is going to be devastating to our cause. If you have any sort of pro-life convictions at all, I urge you to somehow get involved.

Hey, this is my 100th post. I think it's fitting that it should be about pro-life issues, since one of the main reasons I started blogging last fall was because I was so frustrated at people's lack of understanding of how liberal Obama was on certain issues, such as abortion.

I remember people telling me he was just so "inspirational," blah blah blah. Can anyone seriously say that matters now? Here we are waiting to see if Obama and the Democrats are going to pass the biggest government take-over of health care ever, which will have enormous consequences for future generations.

Right now, what kind of person Obama is, the way he makes you feel when he talk, and anything inspirational about him are all completely irrelevant. What matters is that he just doesn't have good ideas about the way our country should be going.

All I want is for people to think before they vote, and where we are right now seems to me to be a product of people voting on anything but real issues. Change, hope, inspiration are all meaningless words in the land of politics. What matters is the policies people actually put in place, and in Obama's case, they're absolutely terrifying.

There's my two cents. Maybe in three more years we can have another "change," so we can fix all this nonsense.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Unity and continuity in creation

This is just a meditation that's been percolating in my brain the past several days.

It began, oddly enough, when I was reading about how on August 21, Muslims will begin the fast of Ramadan. The mention of fasting got my thinking about how the use of food really is so integral to religion.

In the Christian tradition, the Eucharist, or Lord's supper, has always been a central part of worship. How interesting is that? Eating food is a sacred act of worship. Of course, it's been a part of numerous ancient religions, so it's hardly surprising, but it is interesting.

Food is pretty much life. That much never needs saying: without food, you die. So of course we would worship God by eating food. For the Christian in the Lord's supper, it's a way of saying Jesus is our true food. Thus Jesus is our life.

So naturally the next time I sat down to a meal (by myself--I've noticed how often I eat alone as a grad student) I pondered just what it means to eat food. Now this is probably not a thought that occurs to most people, but after all, I am a math grad student.

Maybe the stress of qualifiers coming up this week is really getting to me.

Anyway, what it really means to eat food is that matter that was outside of you is now inside of you, and it is now causing chemical reactions that fuel your life. You're taking stuff that was doing one thing, and you're making it do something else.

Matter doesn't ever go away--it just gets rearranged. This is a scientific fact that is also seriously spiritual. It's funny that we have this word "universe" to describe reality. It's a tacit acknowledgment that there really is unity to creation.

All that ever really happens in this universe is that matter gets rearranged into different forms. It would appear God spoke matter into existence but once; the rest was just housekeeping.

But housekeeping is precisely what it's all about. Everything we do is merely organizing the world around us into something. In fact, most of the organizing we do we can't even control.

From the time we are conceived a tiny cluster of cells starts working diligently to take nutrients from the outside, put them inside, and organize them into this beautiful thing known as the human body. This process continues on into old age--every time we eat, that's what's happening.

Okay, so aside from the fact that I enjoy contemplating freaky things, why do I care about this? Well, the reason is that I care about who and what we are as humans. I am interested in how we as humans think about ourselves, because I think it has real consequences.

We humans draw this distinction between "natural" and "artificial," a distinction which may be, well, artificial. We're part of nature. We are created, through and through. There is no part of us that was not created. We are part of God's continued housekeeping.

Everything we do, therefore, is part of nature. Many of us see ourselves as looking over nature, studying it so that we may understand and manipulate it. Others of us see ourselves as looking up to nature, inferior to it, and learning from it. I think we ought to see ourselves as parts of it.

There really is only one universe. What is a human? A human is a continued allocation of the matter in the universe into a thinking, feeling, relational being. We are part of a whole.

But that doesn't mean our purpose is simply to be dissolved back into this whole. It matters how matter is ordered. God said, "Let there be light," and then he separated light from dark. It is good for the universe to have parts, for exchange to take place, and for order to occur.

All of this causes me to meditate humbly about the sovereignty of God and the will of human beings. Behind everything, there is God--ultimately matter is one, and it is all in the hands of the One God.

But the human will does genuinely exist; it is created, just like all that exists. Human thought is part of that endless exchange of matter that causes the universe to have meaning. Perhaps, then, God is ultimately behind every human thought, but not in a way that makes it not our own.

If we are made in our creator's image, we ought to be good housekeepers. We ought to create intentional order around us. We ought to love beauty, harmony, and health. Our actions have real consequences, and contribute greatly to the ordering of this universe.

I could talk about so many areas of life this self-understanding affects: economics, science, art, politics, and so on. Maybe I will eventually write about all these things, but lately I'm most interested in how it affects religious practice and thought.

In particular, how might this way of understanding ourselves affect what we think "truth" really is? I think this thought needs a whole other blog post to write about, so I'll save it.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Power and pacifism

I listened to an old emergent podcast featuring Brian McLaren called "Power, in ways we don't understand." Overall I thought it was wonderful, and much of what McLaren is saying resonates with me.

Not that this is the subject of my post, but I was really excited about how he explained what the gospel really is. I don't have a transcript of the whole thing in front of me, so I'll have to paraphrase something he said.

The gospel today is primarily personal, with the emphasis on saving souls. Then there's a rather large footnote on how to have a better life here on Earth before you get to heaven. Then there's a bit smaller footnote on how to improve our communities, and then a tiny little footnote on how the gospel impacts the whole world.

McLaren proposes thinking about it the other way around--start with what the gospel means to the whole world, then think about what that means for our communities, and then about what it means for our individual lives.

Along the way he stumbles onto this global issue of war and peace. As McLaren looks up to Stanley Hauerwas on many things, he also finds himself attracted to Hauerwas' pacifism.

McLaren says he is a "pacifist sympathizer." He also says pacifists are "ahead of their time." I'm paraphrasing a bit, but he says something like we need a "peace race" rather than an arms race. This kind of attitude seems pretty typical among the emergent strain of Christainity.

I'm not sure what I think. We live in an interesting time in which to formulate opinions about war and peace. A lot of liberals have been crying out for the past eight years that we failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam, and we're repeating our same mistakes.

But let's be honest, the lesson a lot of conservatives learned from Vietnam is that pacifism seems to come wrapped in a package of absurd liberal philosophy that simply doesn't work in real life. Vietnam didn't teach America to be pacifists; it taught us that pacifists are weird.

I say this as a 23 year-old inhereting the conversation that was going on decades before I was alive, but this is what I hear through the maze of opinions.

Iraq isn't exactly my generation's Vietnam. There has been no draft (and no draft dodging). Both the Hawks and the Doves have expressed their opinions from the comfort of their own blogs. Hardly any opinions of the war, good or bad, are forged out of any sort of practical experience.

That's all relative, of course. There are many brave men and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps their opinion contain something in them that the rest of our opinions don't. It's just hard to say. But we do have a volunteer military. I think the dynamics would be very different if everyone were called to serve.

Anyway, how do we as Christians think about war? I get disturbed often by people who are way too decided. Either the Bible clearly teaches that war can be justified--I mean, just look at all the slaughter that God commanded Joshua to carry out--or it clearly teaches pacifism.

The words of Jesus on this subject are minimal, and at best they are cryptic. He did say, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword," (Mt 26:52) but this does not immediately condemn soliders. After all, those who perish by the sword are often given great honor because of it.

My own opinion at this point is that I cannot accept either "just war theory" or pacifism. How can theory really justify anything to do with killing people? It's like the problem of evil--it doesn't have a truly good explanation because it isn't good.

I have already expressed on this blog my frustration with ethics that try to come up with hypotheticals and "solve" them. I think the desire to solve hypotheticals is culturally conditioned, and it's something I think we need to train our culture out of as much as possible.

The way I view ethics these days is this. We are like a pianist sitting down to play. The music is already there in the keys of the piano; they just have to be struck in the correct order, with the correct timing and dynamics.

But what shall I play? thinks the pianist. He has this notion of beauty deeply embedded in his heart, and he wants to make that become real. He ponders this for a moment, longing for some perfect melody to come to mind. At last he takes a deep breath, and starts to play.

Is there any perfect melody? Is there any piece of music or art that can ever fully express the idea of beauty that is embedded in all of our hearts? Perhaps not. But the fact that the pianist listened to that longing in his heart, and then started to play--that is what made him a musician.

We long to see heaven on earth. As a Christian, I believe we will see it. But the only way we can make ethical decisions is to both desire to see heaven unleashed and then to act. Theoretical concerns do not make an action ethical or not.

Who is the soldier to boast that he was perfectly justified in killing his opponents? And then again, who is the pacifist to judge a nation for defending itself? Why do we all see this big need to justify ourselves, as if anything in this dark, corrupt world could really be justified?

I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist who plotted to kill Hitler. There was a man who understood ethics. There was a man who longed for heaven in his heart, and then tried with all of his might to somehow bridge the unbridgeable gap between heaven and hell.

To all the soldiers out there, I applaud your bravery. And to all the pacifists out there, I applaud your idealism.

We all have our cross to bear.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A wise quote from a conservative economist

From a "random thoughts" article today by Thomas Sowell:
Someone pointed out that blaming economic crises on "greed" is like blaming plane crashes on gravity. Certainly planes wouldn't crash if it wasn't for gravity. But when thousands of planes fly millions of miles every day without crashing, explaining why a particular plane crashed because of gravity gets you nowhere.

Neither does talking about "greed," which is constant like gravity.

I've always appreciated Sowell for his realism. It's like poking a little hole in the over-inflated balloon of liberal modernism.

Notice, though, that this quote by no means suggests that we ought to do nothing about economic hardships. It only says we ought to correctly diagnose the cause, so we can make a correct prescription.

Nor does it particularly suggest that we shouldn't try to do anything about greed. If it weren't for people trying to fight back societal greed, perhaps greed would steadily increase rather than remain constant.

Anyway, it's just nice to hear Thomas Sowell's common sense every once in a while.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The cross of the thinking mind

"For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow."
Ecclesiastes 1:18

Lately most sermons seem to depress me. I don't know if it's the content, or the tone. Maybe it's just the format of a sermon--a guy gets up there and talks about what he wants to tell you about a passage for a while, and you get to sit and figure out how that's supposed to fix your life.

This morning I heard a very evangelical sermon on the good news of how there really is a point to life after all, and sure enough, it's to fear God, and keep His commandments. (The text was Psalm 25.)

Somehow this message reminded me of all those people who say religion is a crutch--"whatever gets you through the night" and all that. People need meaning in their lives. The sermon this morning was basically about how you find that as a Christian.

Those who claim not to need a crutch find meaning for themselves. They say there's no real meaning to the universe, but the meaning we create is good enough. We just have to brave enough to accept that that's all there is.

The Christian counters by saying that we have to be humble enough to accept the meaning that is there.

It's a cruel dilemma, don't you think? Do you take up a crutch out of humility or do you embrace the absurd out of courage? Both humility and courage are good, but both weakness and absurdity are evil, are they not?

I think I hear voices telling me, oh, but it doesn't matter what's more courageous or more humble, does it? What's important is which belief is true.

But let's get real, here. Who believes anything about God or the meaning of life without evaluating it using some moral compass? We all want to know what's good, not just what's "fact."

Sometimes, though, it seems like what's good is just wishful thinking, and what's true is depressing.

After all, no matter how joyful a Christian may be that one day Jesus will come again, the fact is, he hasn't so far, and it's been 2000 years. There has been a lot of destruction and evil in that time. How can you avoid feeling some bitterness?

And no matter how certain an atheist might be that life is worth living only for the meaning we create, the fact is that if there is no transcendent meaning, then life is still a joke after all. How can you avoid getting depressed?

The Greek philosophers had this triad they liked to talk about--truth, beauty, and the good. But what happens when in the real world these three are torn apart from one another? We all want them to be the same, but they're not. Not now.

So what can I do with all the knowledge I've gained about just how far from good life really is? What do I do when there don't seem to be any answers--when all the good answers seem false, and all the true answers seem evil?

Somehow the image of Jesus stretched out on his cross comes to mind.

The mind craves harmony between truth, beauty, and goodness. If that harmony isn't there, what else can the mind do other than take up its cross and follow Jesus? It must stretch out its left hand toward the good, and its right toward the truth, and nail itself firmly in place.

Then it must bear the crucifixion--that horrifying tension between what we hope for and what we see.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A metaphor about scripture

So lately a lot of religious questions have been on my mind, and at the root of all of them is this fundamental question about how Christians approach scripture. This question is so basic that it usually just gets passed over.

But I have seen a lot of different approaches to scripture. Arguably, there is one for every person, but practically we can say that many people agree on a certain approach or another.

The evangelical approach that I've mostly been surrounded by in the churches I've attended is attractive in its simplicity: the Bible is true and authoritative, so take every word and try to make sense out of it.

As I understand it, this approach was solidified by the Reformers, such as Martin Luther--unless you can prove something by scripture and plain reason, the Church shouldn't believe it. I'll say why I have problems with this approach in just a bit.

There are many other approaches. The liberal approach is to treat scripture with either skepticism or sometimes patronizing--as if our primitive ancestors in the faith didn't understand God as well as we do now. There are some liberal interpretations I sympathize with, but I find the basic approach problematic, and a bit arrogant.

The Catholic approach is attractive for its continuity: the Church has been interpreting scripture for centuries, so you might as well start where they've left off. I don't agree that we should simply start where someone else has left off, but I do think it is a tragedy how far our culture tends to get from remembering where we came from.

And now there's this "post-liberal" or "emergent" way of interpreting scripture, which perhaps I most identify with, but I'm not sure. As I understand it, this way looks at scripture as a story, one which we enter into so that it becomes our story.

So, what exactly is my problem with the good old evangelical approach to scripture? A number of people who are close to me have been wondering, so I thought I'd compile some of my thoughts into a nice little metaphor.

The scriptures are really not just one voice, but a choir of voices singing various parts. The more I read, the more I learn about just how much scholarship goes into understanding these different voices.

The voice of Qoheleth ("the Teacher") in Ecclesiastes is different from the voice of David in the Psalms. The voice of Paul in his epistles is different from the voice of John in Revelation. The voice of the Prophets is different from the voice of the Proverbs.

The voice of Jesus towers over all of them.

There are harmonies among these voices, but there is also dissonance. Sometimes different parts of scripture just don't seem to say the same thing. Personally I find it hard to reconcile God telling Moses to kill a man for breaking the Sabbath law (Num 15:32-36) with Jesus having his disciples pluck grains on the Sabbath (Mt 12:1-8) and advocating nonviolence (Mt 5:38-29, 26:52).

But dissonance can be a beautiful part of music, and tension can be a beautiful part of the Bible. If you were thinking as you read those scripture references about how you can easily reconcile those different passages, then that's a sign you don't want to see any such tension in the Bible. You don't want dissonance in your music.

Whatever the particular merits of your method of harmonizing these different texts (and we could go through hundreds of examples), that's not what I'm really getting at. I'm really just asking, why exactly are you set on making it harmonize? Or worse, why force all of scripture to sing in unison?

What I see as I learn about the amazing number of different Protestant traditions is that a huge number all come out of this same mentality: the Bible simply has to fit into exactly one stream of thought from beginning to end. The scriptures have to sing in unison.

So then what you get is a bunch of people arguing over which melody the Bible is singing. Only one melody is allowed, so if there's any dissonance, someone is wrong.

But the sheer number of Protestant denominations in existence points to the fact that this task is impossible. The scriptures aren't singing in unison.

Of course, there are many many people I love and respect who will continue to hold out hope that one day we'll have all of these theological controversies figured out, and the One Interpretation of scripture will be commonly accepted by all "true" believers.

That's fine if you want to believe that, but then I worry that we'll get into wars not only about what scripture says, but who's really "in" and "out." It's so easy to think that maybe those people don't agree with my doctrine because they're just not really faithful to God. That would explain everything! But it would be horribly wrong in a great number of cases.

So I feel compelled by my conscience to listen to all the dissonance as well as the harmony (beyond just the unison) of scripture. And just as listening to music is both active and passive, so it is with reading scripture; we bring our own experiences and learning to the texts, and we respond to them, and we are shaped by them. It's interactive, not one way.

It's just a lot more complicated than taking the Bible seriously or not taking it seriously. If those were the only two options, that would make life simpler, but life is more complicated. Whether that's good or bad I can't tell. Maybe it's a good thing--God seems to like richness and complexity.

But after all, it really is all quite simple. Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. What more is there, really?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Bit Clunky

Now apparently some environmentalists aren't so sure about this whole "Cash for Clunkers" business. Fox News (who else?) reports on some of the potential screw-ups:
"Disposing of old products, a step required by most incentive and rebate programs, also has environmental costs," Gwen Ottinger, a researcher at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Center for Contemporary History and Policy in Philadelphia, wrote in an opinion article published in The Washington Post on Tuesday.

"It takes energy to shred and recycle metals; plastic components often cannot be recycled and end up as landfill cover; and the engine fluids, refrigerants and other chemicals essential to operating products end up as hazardous wastes," she wrote.


"Cash for clunkers is a historic mistake for America because it misapplies billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize more fuel inefficient cars that are bad for our dependence on foreign oil and bad for the environment," said Edwin Black, author of "The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops -- or the Day Before."

Black told that lawmakers had the right idea to get more fuel efficient vehicles on the road but executed it poorly. He said it's too early to say how many vehicles purchased get 18 to 20 mpg rather than 30 to 35 mpg.

So basically a lot of cars are just getting scrapped--and when I mean scrapped, I mean, "the government is advising car dealers to replace a trade-in's engine oil with a lethal sodium silicate solution and run the engine to ruin it before giving to selling the car to a scrap dealer."

Meanwhile, we don't even know for sure if people are actually buying more efficient cars. So this doesn't make good environmental sense or economic sense. We're basically just trying to push a failing U.S. automobile industry (using tax money) and wasting a whole lot of usable materials.

If you were hoping to buy a new car one of these days, well then, good for you. Here, I'll help you pay for it. Right around when I get my next paycheck--those taxes they withhold should do the trick.

I guess it just gets to me a little to see things go to waste. Anyone who knows me knows I always eat everything on my plate, I drive a car that gets at least 35 miles a gallon, and I pretty much never spend anything that wasn't already in my budget.

So why shouldn't I complain when the government is wasting tons of resources, and spending tons of money that will ultimately come from the American people? Does anyone even care how much $2,000,000,000 is anymore?

No, we do not need to just do something to help our economy and the environment. If we're going to do something, let's put some careful thought into what we're doing and not shove a ton of legislation through in a matter of months.

*sigh* The problem is that so many people who are in panic mode will take what they can get, and trust the government even with poor planning. In the long run, of course, this is absolutely a terrible attitude. But politics is always based on the short-term. Maybe that makes politics inherently flawed; I don't know.

Oh, well, what are you gonna do, blog about it?