Sunday, March 22, 2015

Human Flourshing

When I was seeking instead of avoiding a spiritual community 20 years ago I believed there was some value to scripture and to calling for some other worldly powers. I read Michael Lerner’s The Politics of Meaning, a book by a rabbi that applied some very traditional values from Judaism to modern problems in a very politically liberal fashion. I still like that book, but it was the high point of my searching. Every other modern scriptural interpretation has been a dead end that looked a lot like fundamentalism.

John Shelby Spong, Dominic Crossan, C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantiga, Tony Jones, Nadia Bolz Weber, Jonathan Sacks, Phyllis Tickle and pastors at churches that I attended, all have failed rather spectacularly. They may do great things, but their reasons make no sense. Their connection from what they say are decent values to the precepts of Christianity are tangential at best. I’ve never really stopped looking, and I occasionally find someone making a bold statement about non-belief in miracles or the possible non-existence of Moses or that writings of Paul were forged, but never a coherent, positive use of scripture and the stories of the Bible that inspires anything that couldn’t be arrived at easier and better using rational, natural means.

There are some former pastors, like Dan Barker, who can describe how they built community and counseled people in need, but they are former pastors because they got tired of making excuses for parts of the Bible they knew were not true, or worse, promoted bad behavior. Ryan Bell is a recent addition to that list. After being fired from his ministry work for “theological differences”, he took a year to decide if belief in God was right for him. It wasn’t. He recently tried to explain where he is at today by using the term “human flourishing”.

In a recent discussion with Michael Shermer about Michael’s book The Moral Arc, Ryan brought up how Miroslav Volf used this term. I did a little research. Volf seems like a nice guy. He is respected, he went to Fuller Seminary, his published works are highly regarded. I found this essay and that’s where I’ll probably stop. This is how it usually goes. Someone gives you a few words that sound nice, but when you look at their source, the whole story, it’s no different than a tent revival with Billy Graham.


I’ll give Volf some credit for pointing to some flaws in Christianity and religion in general, but those credits have no value when he solves the problems by telling us we must believe in Jesus. This is typical of liberal Christian teachings and sermons. They start out with an analysis of the outdated system and how it doesn’t work for us anymore. We know that, that’s why we’re listening to the new guy. Then it says something about modern philosophy or The Enlightenment and how it reacted to the old system, and makes the case that it failed too.

At this point a transitional theologian like Spinoza or Maimonides might be brought in to sharpen the comparison to Hume or Freud. And the magic moment, back to a common quote from Jesus or some wisdom from the 4th century. Volf wraps up his essay by telling us we must relate God to current ethical issues, make him plausible by showing he is good for us, and we must believe God is fundamental to human flourishing. I’ll go into more of the detail, but once you’ve heard that, do you need to know any more? He’s shown the problems with belief in God, then offered the solution of really, really believing in God.


He starts out talking about hope. He says hope is expecting something good that doesn’t come along every day. For Christians, hope comes from “outside”, not just an extrapolation of what could be based on what we have seen. It is the gift of God’s love. Then he asks, how this is related to human flourishing.

To answer that, he needs to look at the contemporary Western view of human flourishing. He says this is mostly about satisfaction. In the West, this is more strongly pronounced as “feeling happy” in the moment rather than a more stoic sense of having done well in the long run. Volf contrasts this with Augustine who said “human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good and beautiful.” Augustine says it’s okay to want things, but only if you want “nothing wrongly”. That is, want it in accordance with the Creator.

Well, okay, that was 360 AD or so. That’s how they talked then. Let’s see what happens when he starts applying this to modern times.

Skipping quickly over 1,500 years of history, Volf talks of the “anthropocentric shift” from God to humanism that doesn’t reference higher powers. The moral obligations were retained. Tribalism was transcended, at least in theory. And skipping to the 20th century Volf finds flourishing defined increasingly in terms of the self. He sums up this movement from love of God and neighbor to universal beneficence to experiential satisfaction paralleling it to the diminishing of hope, saying, if hope is love stretching itself into the future of the beloved object, when love shrinks to self-interest, and self-interest devolves into the experience of satisfaction, hope disappears as well.

That’s kinda beautiful. I can get that, because I have some sense of what hope and love are. He’s right, if we center our love only on ourselves, where is our hope? We can hope for a better car, but that’s not very satisfying.

Volf quotes Andrew Delbanco when he talks of what happens when we decouple pleasure from the love of God or hope for a common future. In Delbanco’s words, we are left “with no way of organizing desire into a structure of meaning.” We are “meaning-making animals” says Volf, so this must leave us unsatisfied.

We are only at the beginning of p. 10 of a 24 page essay, and he’s already lost me. I followed the historical movement from God to self, but he never offers anything about meaning coming from anything except God. He left a glimmer of that in the 18th century with a sense of community, but it’s gone as far as he is concerned by the 1960’s. Can he build a way out of this abyss? Let’s see.

He states this with no debate, “The most robust alternative visions of human flourishing are embodied in the great faith traditions.” Although in a moment of honesty, or maybe comic relief, he says, “True, you cannot always tell that from the way faiths are practiced. When surveying their history, it seems on occasion as if their goal were simply to dispatch people out of this world and into the next.” But he sees no alternative, he must look to thinkers from those great faith traditions.

He quotes Al-Ghazali and Maimonides, two major players, one from Islam, one from Judaism. He talks of how these traditions taught that we must know where we fit in with the ultimate reality. I don’t argue with that as a pursuit, even though many people get by perfectly well without even understanding what the equinox is or where babies come from. For these great religious thinkers, there is no escaping God. When quoting Maimonides, to have knowledge, is to know God, perfection consists “in the acquisition of the rational virtues—I refer to the conception of intelligibles, which teach true opinions concerning divine things.” So, knowledge leads to God.

Volf gives a little ground to non-theological intellectuals of the past, but immediately laments that an education formerly included a pursuit of life’s meaning. I think Volf misses that education today is specialized and we can’t acquire the breadth of knowledge that people used to have because there is so much more knowledge to be known. Where it was once normal to understand all that was known about literature, the cosmos and math, by sheer volume, that is no longer possible.

Also, this idea, that we can find our place in the universe by understanding it is an idea that didn’t die because we became more concerned with personal satisfaction, it died because we found out the universe is 13.7 billion years old and much larger than anyone could have imagined. What Volf fails to mention is that we also found out that the particles that were cooked in the first generation of stars are now part of us. We never found the connection he is looking for, but he ignores the one we did find.

The problem is not that science ruined the quest for a connection to the universe by finding we are just a little planet on the edge of just one of many galaxies, the problem was always with the looking for that connection out there. That connection is right here in the faces of people we care about. I make that connection, as Frank Schaeffer puts it, by getting my wife a cup of tea and then going on to the next mundane, simple act of kindness.

Volf only mentions Darwin in terms of the negative influence of the “survival of the fittest”. But Darwin wrote extensively of cooperation in Origin of the Species. In Darwin we find an explanation for how we climbed down from the trees and worked together so intelligence and skill could survive against larger and stronger predators. We found we could look to nature to learn where we came from. Nature wasn’t a frightening and brutish place that we were separated from after all, it was where we belonged. It wasn’t given to us by God, we evolved with it and we are here now because our ancestors had the traits that matched their ever evolving environment. One of those traits was hope for the future. Volf is right, hope is love extended beyond the horizon. Each of us was loved by many people long before we were born. If you care enough to leave this planet in better shape than you found it, then you are part of that chain.

Volf doesn’t mention anything like that. He does give a nod to secular versions of philosophers trying to find a fit for humans within the larger reality we find ourselves. He does this to compare these secular visions to the religious tradition of seeking where we fit in reality. He doesn’t use the word “utilitarian”, but he alludes to the more utilitarian forms of morality that were discussed in the years of the enlightenment, and I have no problem pointing out the problems with that. You can’t simply add up the happiness in a society to decide what is right. If you do that, you miss Martin Luther King Jr’s words that if there is injustice anywhere it is a threat to justice everywhere. But unlike Volf, I don’t have to justify the words of 17th century philosophers like John Locke or anyone from an earlier century. I can evaluate their words and provide reasons for discarding them or building upon them based on everything known today.

Volf instead covers Seneca’s “Cosmic Reason” and Nietzsche’s “higher humans”. Then he returns to his theme about the modern sense of how we fit into culture, saying, “Satisfaction is a form of experience, and experiences are generally deemed to be matters of individual preference.” I don’t think that’s true for everyone but here Volf goes somewhere I didn’t expect. He applies this to his fellow believers.

Even religious people can use their religious experience for personal satisfaction! Not surprising to me, but surprising to hear it from a theologian. By doing this, he says, they transform the “Creator and Master of the Universe” to “Divine Butler” and “Cosmic Therapist”. Volf now brings in the much more liberal Terry Eagleton, who blames this malfunction of religion on the “post-Nietzschean spirit” of the culture. Neither of them ever consider that the religious narrative has failed and can never again provide the type of transcendent experience it once did to those who had no idea what was above the clouds. He just keeps blaming some general decline of culture, and post-modern relativism caused by all these philosophers.

But again, he makes a statement that I completely agree with, “It is a mistake—a major mistake—not to worry about how well our notion of flourishing fits the nature of reality. If we live against the grain of reality, we cannot experience lasting satisfaction, let alone be able to live fulfilled lives.” This is in perfect agreement with The Amazing James Randi, who says, “wouldn’t you rather live in the real world?” Then Volf immediately returns to looking to religion for the solution, to find this “grain of reality”. It seems to never to occur to him that we now know how what we buy in the grocery store affects the farmer in Ethiopia. We know so much more about this “grain of reality” than any time in history. What is sad is he has the resources to meet a farmer from Ethiopia who sees these connections much clearer than I.

This is classic liberal sermon stuff right here. First, talk about the religion of your grandparents and say that’s not the right way. Then throw in some philosophers and show how they failed. Then bring in modern theologian/philosophers and start working your way back to a new way. At this point, I used to be on the edge of my seat, thinking all my time wasted singing hymns and washing dishes for the fundraisers was about to pay off. But as we’ll see, in the end, you walk off wondering if you’ve missed something. At least I did. I was a slow learner. Eventually I figured out there’s nothing there to be missed. What I was missing was the poetry of the cosmos and the beauty of the cycles of nature. And more important that there was a system for discovering the truth about that nature, things that my ministers weren’t integrating into our spiritual education.

Next Volf again tells us something we shouldn’t do, another malfunction of religion. We shouldn’t start with our preferred account of human flourishing and then construct an image of God to go with it, as if we are measuring ourselves for a pair of slacks. Volf knows that this is what Nietzsche says Christianity already did. He disagrees with Nietzsche who said they started out with perverse values and built a structure that supported them, but he agrees that even if you begin with decent, healthy values, it is still the wrong approach to God. He says “[this] divests faith of its own integrity and makes it simply an instrument of our own interests and purposes.”

Of course it does. That’s what people see churches doing and that’s why they are leaving. These are words Richard Dawkins could have said.

This is the point in any modern liberal theology that completely baffles me. He has so thoroughly and eloquently analyzed two major problems with religion. And he’s done it with minimal shaming of anyone in the present. He’s shown how we got here and how the invention of these traditions was a natural process driven by historical dynamics. But his very next sentence, on page 20, is the one where my heart sank. He says, “Let’s return once more to Augustine”. Let’s roll back 1,700 years of progress.

Fine.

To Augustine, God is not impersonal, it is loving. And to be human is to chose to love. To live well we love both God and neighbor, aligning ourselves with God. That’s how we flourish. He applies these ideas back to the earlier mentioned philosophies and shows how they just can’t work without God. That “tranquil self-sufficiency” of the Stoics or Nietzsche “noble morality” just won’t cut it. He even throws in Augustine’s comment on Epicurus, instead of “Let us eat and drink”, it should be “Let us give and pray.”


I should at this point offer some alternative. The language of morality and flourishing is difficult, and it’s unfair and too easy to simply bash the weaknesses of theology. I’ll give Volf and Jesus some credit for including “the least of these” in their philosophy. Most moral theories don’t talk much about the value of charity and the long term satisfaction of a life of sacrifice. If Christians actually embodied those notions and spent more time doing them rather than conquering land in the name of Christ or torturing those who wouldn’t profess his name, maybe the whole endeavor would have worked out for them.

And I know Christians hate it when we mention the worst aspects as if they are the norm. But when were they at their best? From the 5th to the 14th century they ruled Europe. What advances in democracy happened in those years? Science advanced for a while not in Christian Central Europe but in Baghdad and Muslim Spain because a few Caliphates listened to the few lines in the Koran that talked about acquiring knowledge. What great Christian literature came out of that time? When Erasmus wrote what are considered the earliest humanist writings, he wasn’t praised, he was suppressed. When Jan Hus tried to take it further, he was burned at the stake. When Galileo tried to teach what he observed, he was given a tour of the dungeon in the Vatican. So, why was there a dungeon in the Vatican? Sorry, it’s hard to get any distance from those worst aspects.

And how did we come out of those dark ages? We created nations that had religious freedoms instead of Kingdoms anointed by Popes. We created constitutions with words that can be directly traced to enlightenment philosophers and just barely mention a deist type of creator. We abolished slavery, which is too much to cover here, but there were and still are religious arguments for both sides of that issue. We created systems where you have a right to say that you have a special friend who is telling you something is true, but I have the right to say I think something else is true.

Those are the alternatives I have to offer. Words like “right” and “love” are the highest words we have. Poets have tried to help us express these words forever. You kinda just have to get them when you're young, not just understand them but let them become part of you. If you don’t, you just don’t quite fit. We have enough trouble trying to figure out what is right for a few dozen people in a room, figuring out a caring system for 7 billion is going to involve some arguments. So the question is not “what is the answer”, the question is “how do we deal with the questions”?

I think we can start with simple principles, like don’t step on my toe. If you are on my toe, you need to get off. There is no cultural reason for you to remain on my toe. If you have a toe stepping obsession, you need to work that out, and you need to get off of my toe. From there, we can build to determining which chemicals should be used where and how much, or who gets a bigger slice of the pie and why.


Volf instead, returns to the prophetic tradition, the fundamental movement of ascent to God to receive a message and the return to the world to bring the message to this mundane reality. He offers 3 aspects: 1, We must relate God to current ethical issues. 2, Make God plausible, by showing he is good for us. And 3, Believe God is fundamental to flourishing. And he puts that in italics, you have to “really mean” that God is our hope. That’s it.

This closing message, after all the history and philosophy and admitting the failures, is the same message of Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren, Torquemada, and Oprah Winfrey. It’s your worst High School coach. I know part of any difficult task is to have faith but at some point you have to say, coach, maybe we need a strategy, maybe we should have practiced more instead of listening to that Knute Rockne speech over and over. But if you say that, you become the problem, you’ve shown your lack of faith, so you are now the cause. So you just play along.

Even his first two suggestions seem so transparent, they are about the outward appearance, not the underlying structure that makes a system work. He says to apply this belief in God to current issues. But the Bible is not even a good source for ending slavery, let alone determining what we should do about anthropogenic climate change. I can easily use the Bible to make a case FOR laws against homosexuality. I wouldn’t do that by the way, I’m just saying it’s easy. Making the case for something like living with our Islamic neighbors, that’s not so easy.

When discussing the idea of making it plausible that the love of God is key to human flourishing, Volf shows a strong awareness of non-believer arguments. We non-believers have “railed against God’s nature”, which means “against theistic accounts of how humans ought to live”. He notes that we don’t believe God is good for us. He could be talking about a strident atheist, or someone just complaining about Sunday’s sermon. He notes that this idea that God is good is contested, but says it’s because Christians haven’t done a good enough job of showing God’s goodness. But isn’t that what every organization or philosophy tries to do? To produce results? That’s how you grow an idea, if it appears to be working, people will notice, then some will look into how you’re doing it and you build the next generation of leaders.

What Volf doesn’t address is the 99% of people in human history who were told God made them serfs and servants and soldiers and that’s just the way it is. That’s not a system that can survive outside pressure. It’s not a system that can progress. Of course people have contested these ideas. Through most of history they just had no power to do anything about it. Now that we have that power (and mean everyone, believers and non-believers), people like Volf are struggling to find other ways to get it back.

Volf never suggests that modern systems of listening to voices that traditionally were marginalized have anything to do with how the world is today. He never says that teaching more people math, reading, biology, history and ALL the philosophies has made the world more complicated but also has made it better. He never admits that we just don’t know how best to love our neighbor. We, like Christians since the earliest days, are still arguing about who exactly is our neighbor. He believes this one idea that has been tried a thousand times will finally work, if we just believe. He never considers we might be better off letting thousands of ideas be heard in the hopes that we find more ideas that have merit.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bruce Cost Ginger Ale

I usually stay away from the crafted ginger ale. It's usually too much ginger. This is not Canada Dry type mixer. But when I saw this one at Cub Foods, I had to try it. Look at the picture, you'll see the unfiltered part at the bottom. You have to give it a light shake, then be careful when you open it. I thought it would be best to put it in a glass. The sweetness was just right and the ginger did not overpower. It was like a sugar glazed bite of ginger. Not sure why, but they put it in the ethnic food aisle.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Everyday Wisdom

This is probably ill advised, but 3 things crossed my path last month and I'm going to combine them into one blog post. I finished Cheryl Strayed's "Wild", the story of a woman who walked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. I usually don't read books like that, but she grew up near here and I wanted to know about this friend of my friends. Throughout, she acknowledges the greatness of ordinary people she meets and ends with "It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred." Then, I saw a great post by Krista Tippet at OnBeing.org about a woman who was recently killed in Syria. A woman doing perfectly normal work who we now see as a hero. Then finally, Sam Harris talked for a brief 25 minutes and covered everything that needs to be covered about how we should listen to all the voices and not distort them.

Maybe I should let Cheryl tell her own story. Here she is at the end of the book, reflecting on the years since her hike and what the hike meant to her.

It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know. That is was enough to trust that what I'd done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn't need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”

We know about Cheryl because she wrote a book and an already famous movie star bought the rights. Oh, and Oprah liked it. But at the time of her experience of the hike, she was just another one of us, struggling to find her way. Millions of people we won't know are doing that right now. We probably would not have never heard from Kayla Mueller if she had not been kidnapped then killed while volunteering in Syria. We would not have heard her words that are as profound as any saint or mystic. Words she wrote while imprisoned by terrorists.

I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”


Krista tells us more about her and also talks of the three Muslims that were killed by a man in Chapel Hill North Carolina, apparently after arguing over a parking space. These three also were destined to do great things. We may have never heard of them, but people in their communities most certainly would have. See Krista's post for more about them.

But instead of them doing their good works, the person we will eventually hear from is the killer. People are speculating now. They looked at the killers Facebook page and found many posts about atheist writers, and have suggested this was a hate crime. By extension, some journalists have sad those atheist writers have blood on their hands. So we are having that conversation instead. Instead of building the world we want, we are arguing about motivations for violence and trying to assign blame.


It is obvious that some instances of Muslim violence have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, and I would never dream of assigning blame to the religion of Islam for that behavior. …
What we've built over the past few centuries is a world where we can discuss our beliefs and our aspirations openly. We've built a world where normal everyday people can accomplish amazing things in their spare time. But enough people want to return to a 7th century world or 1st century world, that the rest of us have to deal with them. As Sam says,

...there’s nothing about doubting that the universe has a creator, that suggests that violence in certain circumstances is necessary or even acceptable. And all the people who are comparing these murders to Charlie Hebdo – or to ISIS, as insane as that sounds – are really trivializing a kind of violence that threatens to destabilize much of the world.

If you listen to the audio from Sam, he plays the sound of gunfire that came into a meeting in Denmark where people were simply discussing the Charlie Hebdo murders. A woman is speaking about peace and free speech, then several shots are fired, chairs and desks can be heard scuffling across the floor and something like a pipe falling. It's disturbing, and I'm not easily disturbed. It's probably because it is real and it is in the present. Sam follows that with, "is this the world we want?"

Earlier in the talk, he talks of the differences in the types of violence we are seeing today and how we must be able to distinguish them and to speak out against the types that are dangerous. "The thing that very few people seem able to distinguish, and the distinction that Greenwald and Aslan obfuscate at every opportunity, is the difference between criticizing ideas and their results in the world, and hating people as people because they belong to a certain group, or because they have a certain skin color, or because they came from a certain country. There is no connection between those two orientations. The latter is of course bigotry and I would condemn it as harshly as anyone would hope."

We need to be able to criticize bad ideas and to recognize people quietly doing great things and not be afraid that pointing out either of those will somehow upset someone or lead them to violence.

Cheryl ends her book with a vision of hope for everyone, Sam ends his talk with a call to reasonableness, and Krista ends her blog post with an invitation to challenge ourselves. I'll quote her here:

I will look at their faces, and read their words, and ponder the world they are asking me to help them make. I invite you to ponder with me. How can we — and I use this “we” lavishly and presumptuously, challenging myself as much as you — now be present and supportive of all the beautiful lives which have not been extinguished, as a way of honoring those we have lost and found at the same time?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Can Coke be a "true" craft soda

Coca-cola seems to be trying to move in on the market of small batch, specialty sodas. This one is paradoxical mix of pure cane sugar and stevia. Stevia is a natural sugar substitute. The cane sugar is a throwback to a few decades ago when all soda used it. It's easy to find Mountain Dew and others putting out batches made with pure cane sugar. It's a little better. You can decide for yourself what kind of sweetener is better for you.

As for Coke Life, it tastes kinda like you would expect it to. It's sweet, but there is the diet taste there also. It's still Coke, which now tastes like Pepsi anyway. So, if you don't pick one of these up, you're not missing much.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Prayer Breakfast

I don’t usually do current events, but this Prayer Breakfast thing has got my knickers in a knot and I’m not seeing the kind of commentary on it that I think should be out there. There's a link to the video of the speech if you follow the Christian Science Monitor below. I’m not going to comment on anything that came out of “Right Wing Watch” or Breitbart or any other such extreme news sources. I’m mostly disappointed in the response by news sources that are still widely read and are supposed to be neutral. I’m disappointed too in the lack of response by those further left, who have mostly focused on the over the top response of the right, missing the actual message from the nation’s leader.
If you missed this news, here is the line that everyone is talking about. Taken by itself it could be critiqued in many ways. Taken in context, where he spends a few minutes talking about people misusing theology, then goes on to discuss the value of being humble in the face of violence and anger, it makes much more sense:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
I think these messages getting misunderstood is a symptom of the misplacement of the religion desk in media in general. It is off to the side, expected to come up with something around Christmas and Easter, but not much else. People who are not well versed on the topic are left to comment on it and we get a lot of bad information. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and hope they are not purposely giving us misinformation. In a time of war with nations and groups that justify their actions with religion, I think we need reporters who better understand the background.

Case in point, Chuck Todd on Meet the Press lauded Jon Meachem, his guest to start off the subject of the Prayer Breakfast speech. Chuck said if anybody knew this subject, Meachem did. They focused on the words “Crusades” and a little on “slavery”, and missed most of the rest of the speech. Chuck is supposed to talk politics, so I’ll give him a pass, but Meachem, a historian said, “Christianity has reformed itself”. That is inexcusable.

You can read my other blogs on that topic, as well as many others, or you can simply ask when did that happen? Everyone is tripping over themselves to point out the Crusades were 700 years ago, but I don’t remember them ending with a declaration that they were wrong. Nor did the Catholics elect reformists Popes when they had the chance in the years preceding Calvin and Luther. That’s why we call it the PROTESTANT reformation. And those two guys weren’t the most peaceful either.

If you think the reformation was some kind of peaceful transition of power, ask an Anabaptist. Their protests and demands for rights led to 100 years of war. Meanwhile people were heading off to America to escape religious oppression. Their progeny saw the contradiction of escaping persecution but having no problem with slavery in 1688.  It still took 200 more years and a Civil War to get actual legislation and if you think that settled it, read a book.

If you think the bad feelings ended in the 17th century, ask your grandmother about how big of a deal it was for Catholics to marry non-Catholics and ask yourself if you’d want your sister to marry an atheist. Or look at more recent events. In Vatican II, the church finally made some truly liberal declarations, that was 1963. They’ve done nothing but backtrack since, except a few like Oscar Romero, a priest who spoke for peace against right-wing violence in his country. He was gunned down in 1980. The military groups that did it got funding from the US and the Vatican was conveniently quiet about it until just a couple weeks ago.

Most states in the US had statements about official religions in their original constitutions. People didn’t come here and proclaim they want all faiths to be considered equal, they came here to start local governments with their religion as the basis and they wanted the federal government to stay out of it. The power of Kings to tell people how to worship was taken away from them by the people. Then, in the US, those state constitutional laws were declared invalid by the Supreme Court, and there are people alive today who are still not happy about it. So what does it mean that “Christianity reformed itself”?

But my litany here should not convince anyone. I could easily be missing or ignoring or deliberately hiding some history where religious leaders met and agreed to leave each other’s flocks alone. There could be speeches out there where religious leaders tell politicians not to mention their God in a speech about war. There could be someone other than Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn who said you can do my practices or not, it’s okay with him. There could be books co-authored by Imams and Rabbis discussing their mutual desire for peace and how both of their scriptures support it. Please link to them in the comments.

And please don’t list some obscure quote from Bonheoffer or Chrysostom or Erasmus. These people were oppressed in their time, just like Martin Luther King was in ours. Of course there were always dissenting voices speaking out against the violence and corruption in the church. That’s because there has always been violence and corruption in the church. It was the enacting of laws that tamed religion. Laws against burning people at the stake, the repeal of apostasy laws, laws requiring people to use doctors for their children not just prayer, the whole concept of a nation as opposed to a monarchy ordained by God reformed Christianity, not itself.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, what can we find in the press about this?


One of the few shining examples is PatheosProgressive Secular Humanist blog. It headlined with Obama’s mention of the right of every person to practice no faith at all and also covered the range of his comments. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum Bloomberg.com headlined: “Obama Trolls Prayer Breakfast” They included a full quote from Charles Krauthammer of Fox News, "What’s important is what’s happening now, Christianity no longer goes on Crusades, and it gave up the Inquisition a while ago. The Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood; that story is over too. The story of today, of our generation, is the fact that the overwhelming volume of the violence and the barbarism that we are seeing in the world, from Nigeria, to Paris, all the way to Pakistan, and even to the Philippines, the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, is coming from one source, and that’s from inside Islam."

It also quotes Rick Santorum who claimed Christians led abolition, Civil Rights and charity groups, and then he twists Obama’s words, saying he meant Christians “cannot stand up against” ISIS.

Not only does Krauthammer admit the Bible is violent then immediately dismiss it as irrelevant, he dismisses all the violence done by nations with Protestant leaders in the recent decades as if it has nothing to do with their religious upbringing or nothing to do with the wars and protests we are currently experiencing. Santorum tries to put words in Obama’s mouth and is just as fallacious in his logic.

The New York Times did a short balanced peice, highlighting the call for equality.

WaPo said Obama missed the mark, that the crusades were 700 years ago, and slavery was condemned by Christianity. Another simply lazy, 8th grade level of analysis of history. The US came late to the game of condemning slavery and Christians were divided on it as any cursory examination of the Civil War will tell you. And there are still people alive who think the South was right.

CNN choose to focus on the comments to the Dalai Lama who was in the audience and the significance of that to our relationship with China.

The IJReview tried to argue that saying Jim Crow laws are supported by the Bible is “tenuous at best”. That’s true in the sense that saying there is any connection from the Bible to any actual law on the books is “tenuous at best”. Other than that it is misleading and simplistic. They also noted the variety of references Obama made to bad theology promoting violence. I’ll give them points for that.


Christian Science Monitor did a great job. They quoted Limbaugh and others, and even allowed speculation of the “trolling”, but offered as a counter, “But it’s more likely that he was taking the ecumenical setting of the prayer breakfast to try to reiterate something that’s been a US talking point since the Bush administration: America is not at war with Islam. It is fighting individuals who use distorted versions of faith as a weapon.” They continue to follow the context and flow of the logic, “Then he tries to make clear that it is people who are doing the twisting and misusing here. It is not inherent in religion itself.”

I don’t completely agree with the idea that Islam or any religion doesn’t have some powerful messages about violence, but the way Obama said it is exactly what I want my President to say. Regardless of cultural influences, in a country that is founded on freedom, it is most important that we allow people the freedom to state that their culture does not define them, that their choice of church doesn’t define them. We’re the ones who are supposed to be promoting universal principles. If you want to claim those principles agree with your religion, you’re welcome to, and the rest of us welcome you. If you want to claim your God disagrees with freedom, fairness and compassion, I defend your right to say that, but expect you to respect my right to say you are wrong.




Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Craft Soda is a thing


I thought it would be fun to start talking about the great micro-sodas I’m discovering lately. It appears this is a thing.

I mentioned the “Craft” root beer on facebook, but I didn’t think to get a picture of it. It was fantastic, but hard to google for it, given the name. They don’t seem to have a website either, I’ve only found other bloggers talking about it. It’s made in Illinois and has a person’s face on the label. This root beer brought back memories of A&W when they made it on site with real sugar. I would swear it was actually better but that was a long time ago, so that’s not really a blind taste test.

I also came across one that had the flavor of a mojito when I was in the Florida Keys recently. Again, no picture since I hadn’t thought of starting this soda blog yet.  There probably aren’t too many like that, so if you see it, and you like mojitos, grab it. No rum of course, but a hint of mint and a smooth creamy texture. A nice thirst quencher on a sunny day at the beach.

Today, I had a Squamscot Cherry Cola. It was a disappointment. I found it at a mall Liqour store in Cloquet, which maybe should have been a clue. It didn’t go fizt when I popped the top and it’s possible it hadn’t been bottled correctly, it was definitely a bit flat. Even if the fizz had been better, I don’t think that would have made it worth $1.95. The cherry and cola flavors were there, but they were not impressive. It was the real cola flavor, but there just wasn’t enough of it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How to end any argument

Unfortunately not all arguments end well. I’ll get to ending them well by end of this, but I need to go over how they usually end first.

Children figure out how to derail a discussion pretty quickly. They just keep asking why. Some people never get over this, they become philosophers. “Why” is one of the most important questions in philosophy. They delve into the “ultimate why”. Most people don’t concern themselves with this on a daily basis. Some people find it annoying.

There are adult ways of presenting that why question without sounding like you are pontificating or being childish. Some people will suggest we’re in the matrix, or we are brains in a vat, or everyone else is a zombie. This is more of a sophomoric version, one you might hear in a dorm room. But it comes from a slightly more sophisticated tradition. Descartes’ first meditation, sometimes called “the evil demon”, suggests if we doubt all of our perceptions, we don’t know who we really are and could be under the control of an evil demon.

There are even more modern versions of this, maybe you’ve heard a few;

you’re completely misinformed, you’re mind has been controlled by advertising and bad schooling, you are privileged, you’ve been tricked (there is a facebook page for this, they call you sheeple), you are trying to trick me, you are a shill for a corporation, you were home schooled, you were born in Flint, MI.

That last one really happened. I was talking about Michael Moore and I told someone I was born there. You should have seen the look. It was as if being born in the same town as Michael Moore was as bad as being a child of Osama bin Laden.

All of these are nothing but prejudice. You might as well be using ethnic slurs. Granted each one has facts that lead to them being used in the first place. Our schools do have problems, we are products of our environment. That’s why racial slurs hurt. Regardless of those facts of social science, these are almost always distortions.

If, “you had bad schooling” is not followed by some legitimate help in educating the person, in providing them with the information they need to make an informed decision, then it is just an insult. It is usually a judgment made before gathering facts, before even inquiring into just what schooling the person had. This leads to the argument ending with, “You don’t even know me.”

There are also more positive sounding versions, such as;

there is a higher purpose that you are unaware of, it’s in the interest of national security, it’s nature’s way, it’s part of our great leaders vision, it’s just the way things are.

These aren’t necessarily aimed at anyone, but they are equally useless. They propose that no more facts are available, that further discussion is pointless.

All of these come from artifacts left over from the philosophers of the Middle Ages. Descartes, in his second meditation said, “I think therefore I am” and profoundly changed how we see ourselves. Too bad he was wrong. Rather than explain that last sentence, I’d rather stick to why it’s a problem today. The problem is we don’t talk about the context of how he came to it or the improvements that have been made on it since.

Descartes third meditation is sometimes called “the existence of God”. He posits that what we can conceive must exist so if we can conceive of perfection it must exist. It’s more complicated than that, but I’m not going to analyze it. I only point it out because it is probably the reason why Descartes is not covered in any detail in public school. Meditations 4 and 5 are about God too. They are his solution to the problem he created by doubting his senses in the 1st meditation.

So we’re stuck here, on an island as Simon Blackburn calls it, where we verify our own existence based on our own experience. Even if we are in the matrix we can still have the thought that we are in the matrix, so the machines controlling us have not taken that last piece of our self away. If we are so deluded that even that is not our self thinking, then none of this matters anyway. We can’t know ourselves and we can’t know that we can’t know ourselves.

But why do we need this hyperbolic doubt in the first place that then requires a solution? As I’ve shown above, it is used to confuse, to bring a logical discussion of valid choices down in to a spiraling pit of meaningless. To end an argument by destroying the other persons confidence in their argument. I say we don’t need it. The way to interrupt it is by saying, “I exist and I have value”, or if the argument is not about you, say you are arguing for feeding starving children, “they exist and they have value.”

David Hume later stated the problem of understanding ourselves is a problem of matching what we sense to reality. If we doubt everything our senses tell us, then anything could be true. We know our senses can fail us but we also know they serve us pretty well. We can look at other animals and see that those with better senses do better. But all that still relies on our self to make that judgment.

So you can still bring any argument to a halt without any evil demons, simply by pointing out the flawed nature of our senses. Usually this is done by someone questioning only the other persons senses or the superiority of their own. As in claiming to have a degree or having read a book or seen a documentary, something that mere senses can’t trump. This is still a complete foul. Unless you are willing to actually explain the facts you have, it’s just mean. Even if it is true.

A non-mean, fair way of employing this simple truth is agreeing that no one really knows anything. That we are perceiving any degree of reality is an act of faith. Whether you call that pure skepticism or pure belief in powers we can’t perceive, you arrive at it with similar logic.

For me, this is where all arguments should begin, that nobody knows for sure. From there we can only build towards greater probability of being accurate, of matching our perception to reality. We can share our perceptions with each other. We can create languages that describe things we can’t perceive directly. We can predict and test our predictions. We can challenge each other to be more accurate in our descriptions, more honest. We can be aware of our limitations and we can grow beyond them by working together.

We know there is a coherent consistent world that is available to us when we are awake and clear. We have built on that foundation for so long that it is now impossible for one person to obtain all the knowledge available. That knowledge is being refined every day. If everyone in a some field of knowledge said one person knew everything they knew, that could still change the next day with a new discovery. So everyone knows that they don’t know everything.

The criteria for certification of having the higher levels of knowledge are constantly reviewed and updated. Having that certification doesn’t mean you know everything in that field, and very few people are certified in more than one field.  Certification is still important, I have very few other tools for evaluating if my doctor knows what he is doing. But the idea of “authority” has limits. That’s a foundational principle of the modern world where we say we value the opinions of everyone, not just the King and the royal family.

The only adult, fair, sane way to end an argument is to not approach differences as arguments in the first place. You can have convictions, you can stand up for what you believe, you could also be wrong. As I have ended more than one of my blogs, all we really have is each other.