Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Courageous Pastor

I'd like to walk you through another post about one of those liberal pastors that I often write about. This one does not end with me being disappointed about how much like a fundamentalist she is. She takes a step beyond any pastor that I ever met. She is not afraid to let us know what she actually learned in seminary school. She's not afraid to challenge her leaders to move forward with her, even if it threatens her career.

In a letter to those leaders, she says belief in “the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined...” can lead to violence. There's a little more to it if you read the full article, but even in her more nuanced form, it's pretty strong stuff. She says something, that if I say it, I'm told I focus too much on the negative aspects of religion, and that Christianity has “reformed itself”. She says, “This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory.”

That's going pretty far, admitting that religion still has work to do to bring itself into a modern world where wars must be justified on grounds other than a difference in theology. Unfortunately this rather obvious statement has to be made by someone who is considered progressive and when she says it, someone calls for her resignation just for saying it. I think Christianity and all religion needs to go a lot further. She goes a little bit further with this statement, “If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.”

First, in case you don't recognize it, or don't know much about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, she is saying, all religions can't be right. Dawkins and Hitchens take this a step further and say, therefore, most likely all of them are wrong. But without going there, we are left with the choice of figuring out which one is right using some sort of method of discernment that we can all agree on, or killing anyone who disagrees. The latter has not worked out too well and the former is now called science. Like it or not, meditation and divine revelation are increasingly unacceptable in government or any institution, except theocracies and churches. When governments or businesses need a question answered, they turn to science.

But put that aside if you must and consider the implications of what she says. She is asking you to consider the consequences of choosing a supernatural explanation. By definition you have no natural explanation for that. You can't prove it, except by personal experience, and you are giving up the need to prove it, it's a choice made on faith. If you can do that, how can you turn around and deny someone else the right to do the same? Obviously you don't deny your fellow parishioners that right, but how do you feel about someone from a different religion, a different denomination, or someone who just doesn't understand Jesus like you do?

Greta simply asks that you extend the same courtesy to all believers that you would to your grandmother. I don't know enough about Greta, but my guess is she is calling for this level of tolerance because she believes it is a request that religious people will consider. I don't know if she sees it as a step toward something else, or as an end in itself. We all know that asking people to not believe at all is very unpopular.

But what is she trying to accomplish? This article was written right after a couple major events of religious violence. We look to the purveyors of reason and peace at those times, but is that the church? The argument is that if we lose the churches, we lose the holders of the rules, the houses of ethics, the ones with the soup kitchens and the shelters. Without them, it's anything goes. This works when the religion is in complete control. People do survive without it as history as shown with religions that have collapsed, but the culture is lost.

But look again at what she's asking. She's asking, let me choose my system of ethics based on nothing but tradition and I will leave you to choose yours based on a completely different tradition. Traditions that are well known to include justifications of violence. She is saying she has the right to choose an institution simply because it exists and has some history of doing some good. Well, Nixon opened negotiations with China and Clinton reduced the deficit, but I have a lot of other reasons for thinking which one of those is the better president. But I'm not arguing with her right to make that choice. I prefer a free world where such choices can be made and I'm willing to live with the consequences of that.

It's a bit ironic here that in her attempt to promote a world of reason, she suggests that anything goes. She ends up allowing for what all religions say about atheism. They say that if you are choosing atheism, you are choosing hedonism. Religions say they have the right set of rules to live by and they have the moral authority to set them. Some go as far as to say it is impossible to base moral rules on anything except their god. Without their god, there can be no basis for morality. Most at least claim a long standing tradition or the authority of many generations who have refined those rules.

We now have better ways of determining rules. We listen to the voices of not just those with land or weapons or those who happened to be born where the ground is more fertile or the animals could be domesticated or whose parents were in positions of power, but to everyone. These new systems still have some of the old problems, but solutions for them are not coming from the old voices.

Oddly enough, although I believe in freedom, I also believe in holding others accountable for their actions, in requiring explanations for actions. I don't accept someone else's moral system with the agreement that they will accept mine. If they are going to share my government, my schools, my health system, I expect some pretty complicated negotiations about just what is agreeable. I'll defend everyone's right to be free, but that doesn't include the right to restrict my freedoms without reason.

In a separate interview, Greta said her church has stopped most of the traditional rituals of a church. They stopped teaching the children the Lord's prayer because the parents said they didn't want them learning that they should believe those things and have to figure out for themselves later if they choose not to. If you have ever thought this, I encourage you to bring it up with your church leadership. If they aren't supportive, ask around, you might find out there are more just like you.

Interestingly enough, around that same time, a different pastor posted a statement that went quite a bit further. Greta even links to him via her blog page. I can't evaluate what this guy is doing, or if I'd join his “belief-less church” without spending some actual time there. But it's starting to sound like something that is truly workable in a tolerant pluralistic world.

Honey Cherry Vanilla

I grabbed this at the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth to go with my slice of bacon and dried tomato pizza. That's real Wisconsin honey! Not that Wisconsin honey is any different than any other honey, but they make a point of it. And you better like honey if you get this pop. It was the dominant flavor with my first sip. I looked in the bottom of the bottle and could see something syrupy swimming around there. I assume that was more honey, so I gave it a gentle whirl to mix it up. Not too fizzy, so no problems there. The honey definitely subdued the tartness of the cherries, which is fine I guess. But there wasn't much room left for the vanilla. A little less honey and a little more creaminess would have made this a better soda. But pretty decent, if you like honey.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Out of the philosophical trilemma

I stumbled across this little gem the other day. It expresses a misconception, that rational thought is not rational. This is common across every level of Christianity and other religions that I know, from the most fundamentalist to pagans and nature worshipers. I’ve seen it expressed by the highly educated, like the editor of the religion page for Washington Post. C.S. Lewis had a popular version in his time. This particular web page has a fundamentalist bent, but the graphic is laid out nicely and gives me something to build from.

This trilemma, 3 choices that all fail on some level, has been around since the Greek Skeptics. There is no ultimate solution, but a path can be built out of it. That path discussed here is the same, regardless of what belief system you start with.

The idea was first proposed by Agrippa in the 1st century. Although famous, religion continued to be tied into daily life with its clear rules and rituals, no dilemmas. Then Descartes sat down and tried to think his way out of the problem of not knowing where thoughts come from. Like the option on the far left of the chart, he theorized that maybe we don’t exist as we think we do, but our thoughts are being controlled by an evil demon. For Descartes, this was just a thought experiment. For some that is a real possibility, but it’s one I won’t pursue here.

Descartes determined that even if he was under such control, he still had the awareness that he was separate from that demon. That he existed. But Descartes still couldn’t solve the basic questions of knowing what is true or what is right. He decided that since he could conceive of perfection then perfection must exist, and that must be the God of the Bible. This was a bare assertion and dumps him back into the trilemma, and we’ll leave him there.

On the other side of the chart, we have the answer of divine revelation. Although different terms may be used, this is still widely used as a solution to the problem of a basis for knowledge. It is regularly invoked by elected officials at the highest levels of public office in modern democratic countries. In the WaPo editorial I mentioned, the woman explained how she grew up religious, then became an atheist, then thought about the difference and thinks either is a faith decision. She says she read a bunch of books with good reasons for religion, but doesn't share much of those reasons..

I admit it's a problem. We weren’t there in the beginning, so we don't know how we got here.

We came into consciousness in a world that was already over 4 billion years old. If you count the earliest proto-humans as having some kind of awareness, it took a few million years for us to figure out where we are in the universe. We’re still working on what that means. I don’t have an answer to that, but I have some thoughts on how to get there.

Digging into the trilemma, if you haven’t already, we are faced with three choices, circular reasoning, infinite regress, or making some bare assertions. The last one is expressed in a variety of ways i.e; axiomatic, self-evident argument, bedrock assumptions and others.

Circular reasoning is the easiest to spot, and to dismiss. The article that gave me the graphic does a horrible characterization of atheism, saying it assumes god doesn’t exist in its effort to prove god doesn’t exist. This wouldn’t be so bad if so many didn’t make the circular claim for god. There is even a verse for it, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness .” That's in the Bible, proving the Bible is the word of God. This usually gets confused during a discussion with some version of the Aristotelian solution to infinite regress.

Infinite regress is also easy to understand if you’ve ever played the “why” game with a 5 year old. They keep asking “why” until you run out of answers. Aristotle solved the problem by saying there must be some uncaused cause at the beginning. Descartes did something similar. A more sophisticated form is Anselm’s Ontological Argument. Spinoza also requires some sort of prime mover, although his is more of a pantheistic creation. Contemporary “spiritual but not religious” have some concept of how consciousness existed before the physical universe. All of these lend credence and intellectual rigor to the possibility of a real supernatural being of some kind. They all fail, but I'll leave those long arguments for another time.

Formal logic can deconstruct and find the flaws with these arguments. But those discussions are not satisfying for the average person on the street. Finding flaws with an argument does not mean the conclusion is wrong either. Worse, we still don’t know where our thoughts come from exactly, how we developed morals, when life began, or where the universe came from. The Big Bang seemed like a solution for a few decades, but we don’t even have the language to describe what that was. How do you say when time began? Beginnings imply time. They imply something existing to create creation. We have a mathematical language for it, but very few understand it and even those who do, don’t agree. We still have questions.

Bare assertions may be the easiest to identify. There is no reason given for them, circular or otherwise. They only have value when they are such a bedrock of an assumption that no one argues. Of course there are always a few out there who will argue anything. Some examples:

  • All complex things come from simpler things.
  • With regards to morality, pain hurts, I assume you experience it the same as me.
  • Consistent rules of nature that we figure out today were the same in the past and will be the same in the future.

Problems with the given solution

Our friend in the article suggests the trilemma is false, that by leaving out the possibility of God, it presents an unsolvable problem that actually has a solution. But his solution falls back into the trilemma. “Personally verifiable” is a bare assertion. Something that is true for you may not be true for someone else. I can only verify things that we can share and demonstrate. Your thoughts and feelings are true, but I have no way to know if you are lying about them or not. Or maybe you are not lying in the sense that you are misrepresenting your thoughts, maybe you are convinced of your own truth, but if I don't know how you arrived at it, I don't know if it is true or not.

“Whoever seeks Him finds Him” is circular. This is shown when people don’t “find Him”. They are told to go back to the scripture, and to repeat the rituals, because if they didn’t “find Him” then they must have done the seeking wrong. I actually have more respect for someone who states that they are in the “Assume God therefore God” box. They are being honest with their thoughts and reasoning and letting me know where they stand rather than attempting to apply logic and failing and then not accepting their failure.

There are also worse ways to do this. Attempting to apply Quantum Physics to escape our cause and affect universe for example. These states of matter that we have recently discovered, where the same particle exists in two places at the same time or things just appear and disappear, can only be maintained for fractions of seconds. They have only led to new theories, not to new principles that we can apply. We can’t apply these new data to psychology or spirituality. If you do, it is pure speculation. Not that there’s anything wrong with speculation.

Speculation is also something I respect. As long as you say you are speculating. It is the beginning of science. If we didn't look up with awe and wonder, we wouldn't have started asking questions in the first place. Sometimes science does not give us satisfactory answers and we can look to our dreams, our stories filled with allegory. Mythology opens our minds and leads us to new thoughts. Just call it what it is.

Building our way out of the trilemma
If you read the linked article, you'll see his chart copied below, showing four foundations of irrational thought and his one claimed rational process. My chart builds it's way out of two of those foundations and shows where the others fail.

There’s one box in this chart that shouldn’t be a box. It's called “infinite” so it's representation in the chart should go on infinitely. We can't do that, but even if we could make a box that contained all human knowledge it would still go on for, well, quite a few pages. We may not be able to ever answer every question “why”, but we can answer a lot of them. We've done that by choosing a starting point and building on it.

Darwin did this when he theorized about where species come from. His theory was incomplete, and he freely admitted it. He had evidence for differentiation within a few specific species and speculated on how that could explain where all of life came from. DNA was not discovered until after he was dead. How life came from non-life is still an open question. But having an open question does not destroy Darwin's answers.

This is the box where most people live. The box where there are no philosophical problems. There are answers that allow us to have lives, get to work, raise our children, see a movie now and then, enjoy a decent cup of coffee and hopefully enjoy old age. If you go to church, you may not be sure what the sermon is about every week, but it's close enough and the community offers you something, so no need to question it. There's nothing terribly wrong with living in this box. We accomplished quite a bit without knowing that we are a lonely planet on the edge of one of many galaxies. It's only a problem when people start defending the boundaries of their box and hurting others in the process.


But even a finite regression needs something to base itself on. This is where we finally get to the base assertion that religion has such a problem with; There is no supernatural. It's not proven. It's an assertion. When teachers in Catholic universities in the 13th century started considering it, they shut the schools down. They did re-open them, but with the agreement that the Church would decide about the supernatural. If they said it was a miracle, the philosophers were not to question that.


Some say this was suppression of science. Others say this was a clear boundary that allowed science to begin to define itself outside the walls of religion. There's no doubt that science began to take off after that and has not slowed down. The rules and guidelines are continually questioned and refined. There is no one place to go for a list of those rules. Like scientific knowledge itself, each generation builds upon the work of the previous. There are no authorities. The authority is the accumulation of evidence and logical reasoning that interprets that evidence. New evidence is accepted and new interpretations are made all the time.


The difference between religion's base assertion that the supernatural exists and science's base assertion that only the natural exist, is that science, by its own rule, allows its base assertion to be questioned. The difference is, you can question it without pulling the rug out from under it. So far, questioning scientific facts has only led to new facts. We look back in time when we look in a telescope and we don't see anything but the natural physical universe. If we ever see evidence of something else, we'll have to accept it, but provisionally, we'll stick with the original premise.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Joia soda

I'm not sure why anyone would put cardamon in a soda, but I guess they know what they're doing. I wouldn't say this was a bad grapefruit/chamomile/cardamon soda, but how would I know? If you were looking for a grapefruit/chamomile/cardamon soda, well, you could say you found one. I don't have anything bad to say about this grapefruit/chamomile/cardamon soda but I'm not sure what I would say if it was good. So, not bad, you know, for a grapefruit/chamomile/cardamon soda.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

NT Wright, another disappointmnet

I was recently given a recommendation to look into N.T. (Tom) Wright in this exchange on a Patheo's blogger's comment section. Rebecca Florence Miller is currently my favorite Christian blogger, and she's very responsive to her readers, so I wanted to take it seriously.
    Rebecca, you make a comment in passing, "neo-Platonic treatment of the physical as “lower” and the spiritual as “higher” ". I've heard this in many forms, but still can't see this as something neo-Platonism introduced into Christianity. It sure looks like it was there all along. Any references you could recommend? I know there are non-Platonic passages in the Bible, but that doesn't mean dualism came from Greece and Christianity is strictly about earthly renewal. I need more cultural context to make that case.
    Honestly, I would recommend reading N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. It deals with the argument for this far better than I could.
    For me personally, I think the incarnation is one of the best arguments for the earthy kingdom of God. God comes DOWN to us in physical, corporeal form rather than asking to rise UP to God in spirit form. The physical is hallowed because God created it. When God created it, it was called "good" and that is still true, though it is broken by sin. In the resurrection, we see Jesus being the "firstfruits" of the resurrection work God plans to bring about for all of creation. In the final book of the Bible, we see the new heavens and new earth coming DOWN to earth. Again the physical creation is hallowed.
    It's easy to draw out a proof text and try to make it say that the physical is bad in and of itself. But that ignores the larger narrative of Scripture and especially the centrality of the incarnation.

I've heard of N.T. Wright. He is referenced often by progressive Christians. But I don't feel like reading another book that I'm almost certain will disappoint me. So, I went to Google University to find out what I could. I found out he supports the defense of marriage, which is the nice way of saying he is against homosexual marriage. Somehow it interferes with the marriage of Christ and the Church or something. Really don't care. Strike one.

I found an hour long interview that touches on his latest book. It also includes a classic straw man argument against atheism, saying atheists view the physical world as inanimate and something to be exploited. Strike two. It ends with an open question. He is asked what he would like to highlight, what question wasn't asked in the interview that he would like to bring up. He says, Jesus. It's all about Jesus. We just need to keep learning about Jesus. We'll never completely understand him, but he's been important for 2,000 years, therefore he is important, Jesus. Okay, well, strike three.

Read on if you can. He has been called the successor to C.S. Lewis. I don't see how he has improved on that, and C.S. Lewis has been soundly refuted. If this is as good as it gets, progressive Christianity is in big trouble.

The interview begins with an introduction to Wright's book about "The Good News" which seems to be about acknowledging that Jesus is doing something and will continue. Exactly what that is, is not made clear. He discusses how Octavian proclaimed he had brought peace to the world, but of course he had done it through killing off his enemies. The wars in the Old Testament or people burning in Revelations is not brought at any point in this interview.

Wright denigrates how Christianity has devolved into the idea of scripture just being "good advice". Whether that be instructions on how to get to heaven or more practical knowledge about what you should do or believe at any given moment. To him, the Bible also gets you to consider what changes to the world happened when Jesus arrived, the coming of the Kingdom. Ideas that came up much later, like Purgatory are really not relevant to him. He calls these ideas a "corrupted" version of what the Bible teaches. Typical progressive stuff, begin by putting down old time religion without mentioning any names.

They discuss how Paul himself noted that the gospels are "foolishness" to some. That would have been even easier to see at the time when you consider how crucifixion was viewed. To say that was the messiah would seem ludicrous. The expectation of God stepping in solving all the problems of the Jews was not realized.

Even today, the resurrection is dismissed and people want to listen only to the ethical teachings of Jesus. Wright notes that Jesus speaks to the wicked things that come out of our hearts. The cure that he offers is his own sacrifice, not a psychology or method that can overcome that wickedness. He admits this is "cryptic", but states that it is clear that what Jesus is bringing is the Kingdom. It is also clear that we need the resurrection to be victorious over the "dark forces". All the teachings, no matter how good, can't do that. At this point, Wright says this is a difficult to get your mind around, "our whole thought patterns are not designed to do that, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are doing exactly that". In other words, don't think for yourself, just read the Bible. Throughout the interview, he continues to say the message is not a recipe, but he leaves it a mystery as to what the message actually is.

In keeping with every major theologian for the last couple hundred years, he blames Western individualism for the problem of people watering down the language of the Bible and dismissing the transformation of creation that Jesus brought. He brings in Platonism at this point too, saying Plato brought us this idea that the world we see is one of shadows and corruption and the answer to that is to find another world outside of that and figure out the keys to getting there. In the same breath, he makes sure that we don't think he is becoming a materialist. In the Biblical view, or I would say his view of the Bible, heaven and earth overlap and interlock.

I agree with his thoughts on not being a Platonist, but he offers nothing here to explain how this was strictly a Greek idea and that it somehow infected the Jewish tradition around the time Christianity was forming. Surely just the idea of God as lawgiver is an example of something better "up there" and nothing but sinners down here. If he explains this better in a book somewhere, please provide a reference.

He covers pantheists too, and makes a bit of a truce with them. He recognizes that there are Christians who act more like pantheists, reveling in the beauty of creation. Wright says, God will do his thing and we should support that. God has begun the work of radical renewal with Jesus, after already having given us the responsibility for the earth in Genesis. This is somehow better than doing good things because you feel called by the beauty and grace of nature itself.

At minute 32, he addresses the myth of progress. I happen to agree with that. Progress has not been a steady stream of great ideas, each better than the last. But he slides over into moral progress and points out that sexual norms were loosened in the 1960's and then "people were given carte blanche to abuse children and cover it up". That is so unbelievably slimey. Child abuse was not invented in 1972. The reason we know more about it now is that we have made it harder to cover it up. It get's harder to keep going at this point, but stay with me if you have the stomach.

He goes on to blame "The Western Enlightenment" for prejudice. He makes no case for it, he just says it. He describes the natural human response to seeing people who don't look like us, for example Muslim terrorists killing other Muslims, and says we feel something, but mostly we feel disconnected from them since we don't see them as part of our community. God's community of course is the whole world and that's how we should see them. He doesn't mention anything about "chosen ones" or "tribes of Israel" or Jesus being transformed into a handsome blue eyed man that would have been completely out of place in 1st century Palestine.

The next few minutes are a rambling dance through history about God doing new things just when needed and people corrupting the ideas of great theologians like Aquinas. He never describes good or bad or acknowledges that Aquinas' works were banned in his lifetime, he just says God is good and people are sometimes bad.

He also makes one of those points that baffles me about progressive Christians. He remembers being taught that The Reformation was a "great light" where God allowed the Bible to come forward and everyone would understand what was really in it. But as he later found out through his studies, opening up the question of what IS right led to wars among themselves. He recognizes, and realizes people today recognize, that is NOT the way to discover which interpretation is right. He also recognizes that recent history doesn't show that we've advanced much beyond that. He recognizes these are serious issues to be wrestled with, but offers nothing in the way of how to do that. Other than, Jesus.

This is immediately followed by a criticism of modern atheism. In it, he denigrates the very tools and methods which have been created to discuss our differences and learn how we can live together. He brings up pantheism again, saying that results from eliminating Gods. People still notice forces of nature that they can't explain. He somehow relates this to Nazism, again ignoring 2,000 years of antisemitism.

He compares God's creation to the naturalist view, saying God gave us the world as a gift and for us to be stewards, but God is still in charge, and the naturalist view is one of exploitation. I suppose every Christian throughout history who took God's commands to use the world as they needed was just wrong. Wright even relates worship to stewardship, saying we are here to articulate the joy of creation through our speech and our rituals. This, according to Wright results in a much better relationship with the world than one where you think of the world as "miscellaneous, inanimate stuff that we can do what we like with". He says this understanding of the order of things is "remarkably exciting" and leads to us being "humble of our role within it."

This is why I don't see progressive Christianity as progressive at all. What we have discovered by starting with a premise that we won't rely on a supernatural explanation, is that we are far more integrated into this world than we ever knew. We discovered the universe was billions of times bigger than we thought and not too long after that, we found that our very chemistry was part of the early stars that formed a long time ago.

We don't need an invisible hierarchy telling us we need to take care of this world, we have found that our very existence depends on us doing that. If that is not something to celebrate and at the same time make you humble, I don't know what is. At best, we can thank religion for an intuitive recognition of our connection to the universe and for finding a way to mythologize that intuition and encourage each generation to internalize it. But we now understand where those feelings come from and we can strip away the false parts of the belief system that are no longer functional and in fact harmful.

Next is ethics. He talks about baptism, sin, dying to sin and the resurrection and belief therein, taking up your cross, etc. I don't see any point in discussing it. The interviewer however makes an interesting comparison. He compares Plato's Republic, where reaching "the good city" is difficult, it is only dimly available to us, to how Jesus starts off the Sermon the Mount with "You are the light of the world." He and Wright think this is awesome, and who wouldn't? That is the appeal of religion. It would be a great message, if it were true. Someone is telling you how cool you are and how important you are. Then they tell you to give away all your stuff. I always wondered who actually ended up with all that stuff. The Bible doesn't mention it, but now we have accountants who can tell you.

At 53 minutes they start talking about philosophy. He summarizes the central questions that all philosophers are asking and have asked, what is there, how do we know things, and how do we behave. This is the triangle of physics, logic and ethics. He wraps them up beautifully, if you want to act ethically "and you are thinking clearly (logic) you should be able to see human behavior ought to be consonant with the way things are (physics)". He then relates this to Paul, but says Paul doesn't spell it out, but he is seeing the new way to behave, brought on by Christ, read Chapter 14 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God if you want more on that. He just overlays these claims of Paul and says they are central to the triangle. But, he says, this is not a different world, they overlap, because Jesus was here, new creation, something, something.

Wright offers a way out of fundamentalism, or he at least points to a flaw in it, that it looks for a new set of rules to live by, a way out of this world, but he offers no tools for what to do once you get away from fundamentalism. He drops you off in the new New Jerusalem, then turns the van around and goes looking for some new disciples. "Just don't sin", he yells as he drives off.

Logic and reason promise you nothing, in fact, to use them properly, you have to accept that they may lead you to discover that they don't work. The premise of naturalism is a premise, and it must be allowed to question it, or it's not a premise, it's a belief. They regularly lead you to conclusions that contradict earlier conclusions that were arrived at by logic and reason. This is not a bug, it's a feature. It is not a flaw of logic, it is the result of building on each new discovery and each new result of each new experiment arrived at using new data. Jesus just keeps leading you back to Jesus and the promise of a shining city on the hill. But it is never anymore than that, a promise.

The final question is the kicker. It makes it clear that everything I interpret from everything else he says is accurate. You have to wonder if you are getting the full picture in a one hour interview. But the interviewer allows Wright to pick his own topic and fill in whatever he wants. His choice, Jesus. Keep studying the gospels and learn about Jesus. Because we still don't understand him and can't. Intellectually or personally, you need to get back to Jesus. "Ultimately it all comes back to Jesus."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shouldn’t we just let them die?

I hear this phrased in more benign terms from some of the nicest people I know. And, if you’re being completely objective, the question of whether or not we should work to sustain a population of 7 billion and growing is a valid question, worth considering. But if you decide that it’s better for fewer people to be alive so that more of the living can have a higher quality of life, you have put a rather heavy burden on yourself. You have to choose who dies.

It’s been said that all great men are also bad men. If you look at all of the presidents of the United States, no matter how you rank them by greatness, all of them sent people to their death. Alexander THE GREAT, killed a lot of people. Ghengis Khan decided that it would be better if there were less Chinese and solved the problem the old fashion way. Recently, more and more women are joining the ranks of great leaders. But most of don’t think that way, and don’t have to.

It’s a little more benign to look at a population that is struggling, perhaps starving and instead of asking if we should kill them, ask how much help should we give them? Parents have to make that kind of decision with their own children all the time. How long do you allow them to live in your basement? Maybe a better analogy is our neighbors or friends. Do we keep letting them borrow our tools and giving them cups of sugar, or do we start dropping hints about their lifestyle choices?

If you just arrived here by spaceship and looked at the situation, you might see a hopeless situation in sub-Saharan Africa and wonder why any effort is being put into it. I could say those are not very compassionate creatures in the spaceship, but that would be only focusing on the compassion for the starving children in Africa. Maybe those aliens are feeling compassion for the countries who can grow plenty of food, but still need to consider how to take care of their own.

Now we’re into a classic moral dilemma of the choice of killing one person or five. Most people want to find a way out of having to make that decision.

The answer is easier than you might think. We didn’t just arrive here on a spaceship. We have well documented history of how we ended up with 2 billion people living on a few dollars a day.

One graphic example is Haiti. In the Western Hemisphere full of prosperous nations and fertile land, they are impoverished and hungry. Even on their little island, things get better just by crossing the border into the Dominican Republic. Both sides of that island get the hurricanes and earthquakes, how can they be so different? The reasons go all the way back to where Columbus happened to land and how Spain divided it up, how they cut the trees in Haiti and shipped them off to Europe while the Dominican Republic decided to create a slower growing but more sustainable economy, but a big part of Haiti’s problems happened in my lifetime.
Haiti border with Dominican Republic

Their problems are the result of a decision made early on when America first started sending food aid to other countries. The decision was to not make aid a burden on our farmers. If we were to help other countries with food, that should be something all of us participate in. To do that, our government buys surplus commodities in years when yields are high. Instead of letting the price drop so farmers lose money and even go bankrupt, we all buy that surplus with our tax dollars. Some of it is stored and some is sent to where there is drought or war or natural disasters or wherever there is need.

Haiti has been a recipient of aid like this. Then in the 1990’s, with bipartisan support, tariffs on U.S. rice imported to Haiti were dropped from 50% to 3%. Rice produced in Haiti that was selling for over $5, now competes with subsidized U.S. rice for around $3. Sounds great for us, but what happened there? Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure we have. They don’t have grain elevators. They don’t have loans for farmers. That doesn’t mean they don’t have farmers. It means those farmers bank on their crops coming in every year and getting a decent price. Economics 101, what happens when you dump a huge surplus of a commodity into a delicate economic system like that?

By providing aid to Haiti in the way we did, we made the work of all of those farmers worthless. It only took one season for many, over half of them had no choice but to sell everything, move to the city, try to find work, and take the handouts we gave them. We destroyed what fragile agri-business they had.
I said the answer was easy, and maybe I over simplify it, but in a sentence, what we should be doing is sending our technology, our ideas about building infrastructure, not just food. Sure, sometimes the food isn’t there, no matter what you do right, and we make the choice of letting our surplus rot or feeding someone who is dying. I don’t find that a hard choice. The hard choices are how much to give away, how to assist without creating dependency, and how to decide when a nation is ready to be on its own.

If you only take that spaceship view and ask why should we help them when they are doing nothing for us, again, look at history. Look at how we stripped resources from Haiti and Africa not to mention exploiting their labor. Europeans did not build the U.S. from a wilderness. It was being farmed and managed long before we got here.

We’re getting better at all of this. The Heifer project doesn’t give away food, it makes a loan of living animals or farming supplies with the expectation that will be paid back. And it usually is. Building infrastructure doesn’t need to be done for free. It may seem strange to profit from an impoverished population, but you’re wearing clothes and using technology that does just that. It can be done in a way that grows their economy and leads to sustainability instead of destroying whole environments. Acumen and Oxfam have been doing this for a long time.

The original question then looms up again, but in different a way. If we grow the economy in these starved areas, won’t they just have more babies? Historically, the answer to that is no. When people see a society that will care for them in old age, they don’t have a bunch of children in the hopes a few of them will live and be able to support them later. That’s the kind of decisions humans made for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s why you are here, but we have better ways of surviving now. When there is a middle class, when people can see a bright future for their children, they have less of them. The phenomenon of well off people having large families is very recent, and I hope it is isolated.
This has happened consistently for hundred of years, since we have been transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrialized one and hopefully now into a sustainable one. This is not a dream. It is not a fantasy. It’s already being done in small ways. We don’t have to choose between our own survival and the survival of millions of starving babies. Our actual choice is between ignoring our neighbors or getting to know them and how what we do affects them.