Practical Philosophy

The Spirituality of Softening

The only religions I find worth anything are those that soften people. This is a thing I’d felt for a while, and something I’m sure someone else has put into words before, but when it finally occurred to me it was something of a revelation.

The Christianities I’ve seen in America that turn me off so strongly: they’re aggressive, control-oriented, and strike off into the world to do battle against enemies. But I do, sometimes, encounter a different and much more appealing version of Christianity. This one has baked deep inside of it a sense of wonder, of uncertainty, and of deep humility for the grace of God.

One of the reasons that so many Westerners struggle to respect Islam as a religion is that they don’t see the humble men and women who go to the mosque weekly, pray five times a day, and read the Koran to learn about the forgiveness of God and how to be His humble servant. Instead the Muslims they see most, if not the only ones they’ve ever concieved of, are the strident and confrontational Wahabi-influenced (mostly) men that are likely to become terrorists.

Similarly, though inversely, Buddhism in America (and “the West” generally) is seen as an almost exclusively soft, humble, and inwardly-focused religion. But, where it is the majority religion, it inevitably also has a non-zero number of people who practice, in its name, an aggressive style.

This hardness or softness, it has taken me years to realize, is not simply a result of the religion itself. Rather, it comes from the context in which it is practiced. More martial people will want, and practice their religion with, a more aggressive style. More passive people will tend to bring forth a religion’s humility and caring.

Softness in a spiritual pursuit matters to me because the world has no shortage of aggressive certainty. People are sure that their self, sports team, city, idea, country, religion, or way of life is way better than the others. And they will plead their case with anything from a loud cheer to murder.

Surely, there’s something of a luxury and privilege in the ability to value softness over a more directly survial-enhancing martial style. Some aren’t so lucky to be able to feel safe without joining a violent tribe. But for those of us with the privilege, softening ourselves, and interacting with the world from a place of gentleness, is a prime way to be of service. That’s why I so value spiritual and religious traditions that put their emphasis there.

Softness is kind, generous, and humble. It offers before it asks, and it rarely demands anything. Those traits describe the role I most seek to play in the world. And the fellow-travelers whose religions I find most easy to honor.

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Life

The Action Gap and WWJD

There are things that we say that we want to do and things that we do. There are things we say we believe, and then there are the beliefs that the actions we actually do can clearly be read as meaning. I was talking with a friend recently when I–as far as either of us could tell–coined a term that I think is useful: the action gap. (A subsequent Google search revealed that the value-action gap is well known enough to have a good-sized Wikipedia page.)

I think almost everyone has at least some familiarity with the basic beliefs that are needed to make the world a better one than most of us can even imagine. Not only are we at least familiar with them, but many of use even talk of admiring people who demonstrate these beliefs clearly. You can be pretty certain that if everyone who said they admired Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, or Mr. Ghandi was striving at all times to act in a accordance with what they admire about them, the world would look quite different.

To my mind, the most vital part of this values-action gap is the difference between those things we know intellectually and those things we’ve integrated fully into our view of the world. I know–in a diffuse way–that the actions of Jesus were admirable, but when it comes to acting, Jesus is nowhere to be found.

Trying inexpertly to close this gaps is why people wear WWJD bracelets. At least then you can be sure Jesus is somewhere around.

Where a WWJD bracelet is admirable, in my estimation, is where it drives you to think again. By calling you ever again to the question of how a moral exemplar would have handled the situation in which you find yourself, you’re forced to think through your response and be more attentive to the reality before you. What you see on auto-pilot and what a fully awake and enlightened person would do can be too very different things, and a WWJD bracelet can help close the gap. (That’s not to say it will.)

External reminders to look more carefully, and consider the options fully can only get you so far. So long as they stay external they’ll be mere intrusions upon your auto-pilot which is what drives almost all of your actions. Maybe one time in fifty they’ll remind you to turn the other cheek, or understand the minor value of money, but mostly you’ll still be operating with your basic greedy monkey mind.

It’s not easy to integrate new ideas and procedures into your mind’s functioning, but it is both possible and worthwhile. It must inevitably begin as an external thing. Our minds are creatures of habit, which happily funnel us into the well-worn grooves of habitual patterns to simplify their task. We can react faster if don’t have to take the time to wonder if the proper response to seeing a lion is to run.

To make the external internal, then, will take a long time. Years even. If you don a WWJD bracelet today and will beat yourself up over every un-Christ-like action starting tomorrow, I’d encourage you to not even start. This struggle to better emulate our moral ideal is a life-long task, not something we can change in a weekend.

We have few tools we can bring to bear on this quest, but the truly important ones can be counted on one hand. All you need is your goal, your reality, and a method to change. Jesus may be your goal, the fact that you just exchanged blows with your brother because he said your hair looked stupid may be your present reality. Your method of change consists of simply asking yourself why you just got in fight with your brother, what a better response would have been, and how you can close that gap. If you stay attentive to these gaps and how you can close them, you will eventually do it. It may take decades, but I think if you’re honest, dedicated, and attentive, anyone has the potential to get there.

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OPW

OPW: “Far Out on the Uncharted Arm”

And now, the immortal words that began two of the five books in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quintilogy. In case you were wondering they’re The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

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review

Review: For the Bible Tells Me So

For the Bible Tells Me So, a recent documentary by Daniel Karslake is an interesting beast. Through at least the last twenty minutes, my eyes were wet and my nose was running. And though that’s surely a sign of something that’s emotionally resonant, I’m not without reservation in recommending it.

After the obligatory footage of traditional views of homosexuality, the film introduces a number of people. People who are easily understood as the ones we’ll soon find out are gay. There’s Gene Robinson, the man who has become the Anglican church’s first openly gay bishop. There’s Jake Reitan, who was raised in a Lutheran home. And Chrissy Gephardt–the daughter of Dick Gephardt, who was raised Catholic as per her mother’s parents wishes. And there’s Tonia Poteat whose parents are both ministers–if their faith was made clear I’ve forgotten it.

All of this goes through the typical patterns of denial, grief, acceptance, and love. And as I said earlier that did make me quite emotional even if it was a bit schmaltzy. And I enjoyed the lesson in liberal Bible scholarship that the film’s bank of scholars and theologians offer in a gentle and friendly way.

But at some points the film overextends this gentle friendly discussion of liberal Christianity and love and gets so preachy as to be off-putting. The first example is a clip–among the literally hundreds of clips from everywhere used in the film–from The West Wing. Despite being a fan of that show, Aaron Sorkin’s smug dialogue is hardly gentle. A fictional President Bartlett berating what has to be seen as a fictional Dr. Laura about the other wacky things the Bible says aside from Leviticus 18:22–the clip’s on YouTube–is not exactly a natural fit with the detached gentleness that gave me such high hopes for the film.

This sin would be completely forgiven, did the film not then do the same thing again. Dropped in the middle of the otherwise live-action film is friendly cartoon in the style reminiscent of of The Fairly OddParents and narrated by that deep, in-every-cartoon voice of Don LaFontaine. It’s purpose: to answer the question “Is homosexuality a choice?” (The clunker of a clip is also on YouTube.) Though the point may need to be made in the film–a proposition I would tend to doubt–the way it’s made disrupts the whole flow of the film.

Nor does it help that the narrator gives a stern talking-to to an ignorant straight boy named “Christian,” who is flanked by two hip-looking and knowledgeable gay people. The whole thing, aside from feeling deeply out of place, can be easily interpreted as condescending.

And that sin reduces to the film to the one thing it didn’t need to do: comfort those already on the “right” side of the issue. To say that those ignorant people–who don’t know that Sodom and Gomorrah, as the film ably points out, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality–are really uneducated and need to be smartened up and rehabilitated.

One of the films many intelligent talking heads made the point perhaps as well as I can. The Right Reverend Richard Holloway warns that we should be careful about being “prejudiced against the prejudiced.” And if the film–and these segments in particular–are guilty of one sin it’s that they have the distinct feeling of being just that.

There’s certainly value a film that encourages those on the right side of any fight to keep fighting. My hope for For the Bible Tells Me So–and it’s stated goal–was that it could do more than that, that it might sway people who condemn homosexuality to if not change, at least think critically about their views. Having watched the film, I think it could do that, but has handicapped itself unnecessarily. Surely those who agree with the film’s message of love and liberal Christianity will be moved, but I fear that those who disagree may bristle at a few of the film’s rather ham-handed and strident bits. Certainly For the Bible Tells Me So is a good and perhaps necessary film, but I fear it’s not a great one.

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OPW

OPW: ‘Radical Love Gets A Holiday’

This last Monday, this country celebrated–to the extent that it celebrates any federal holiday–Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, the New York Times ran an interesting essay by Sarah Vowell that I couldn’t help but agree with.

Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”

Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

The Bible is a big long book and Lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending “enhanced investigation technique” is not a synonym for torture. I happen to be with Dr. King in proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount’s call for love to be at the heart of Christian behavior, and one of us got a Ph.D in systematic theology.

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world

The Serenity Prayer

When you look around at the world, it’s easy to be angry. There are socio-political problems all over: Darfur, Myanmar, Iraq, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Somalia… the list could go on and on. There are also the scourges of poverty and hunger that never seem to leave us. And the more mundane but pervasive problems of theft, violence, and murder. And this is not even to mention the lower-key but no less troubling problems of racism, (hetero-)sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, general carelessness, ignorance, and outright selfishness. In short, “man’s inhumanity to man.”

I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control.

And though I don’t think anger at these things is bad–after all, these are ugly things–I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control. Any single man or woman, despite their dedication, power, and time available, cannot end any single force listed above. Even the American president–arguably the most powerful man in the world–requires a large bureaucracy and a number of allies to change anything in a noticeable way.

This is not to say that you cannot work to change things on a small scale. You can, for example, share your conviction that the rest of the world must act to end the conflict in Darfur. If you share this widely and well, you’ll probably convince at least a few others of that fact. But if you set out with the impression that you alone will end the conflict, you’ll only end up disappointed.

One of my favorite reminders of this is the Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how you feel about the Christian God, the use of the prayer by Alcoholics Anonymous, or the controversy over it’s authorship, I think everyone can learn something from it. The version I commonly hear says:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Interestingly, Wikipedia cites the original version as follows:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I think there’s a subtle and important difference between the two, but both are cogent explanations of the way one should act in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. Surely other people, religious or not, have said the same thing, but if they ever said it with greater brevity or beauty, I’ve not seen it.

One could rightly critique both versions of the prayer for not being completely clear about what distinguishes between “things I cannot change” and “things I can.” That would be “things that cannot be changed” and “things that should be changed” if you use the second version. I think that “things that should be changed” is a more useful idea on this account, though it is also less clear about the distinction between what one should and should not get angry and worked up about.

Certainly, you alone cannot end racism, but it’s a problem that should change, and one you can work on. I would find it impossible to defend the idea that you should permit it. Parents shouldn’t let their kids be (overtly) racists, friends shouldn’t let friends be racists, and maybe strangers shouldn’t let other strangers be racists. But trying to end overt racism is not going to immediately end racism everywhere, and maybe racism will still remain just under the surface. But you must keep trying to change the things you can.

I think there’s a troubling possibly, after hearing this prayer, that one could begin to accept all behaviors. After all, the behaviors of others are necessarily beyond my control. But by expressing a conviction that certain behaviors should not be tolerated, I can influence how some act. Only those who will let my opinions influence their behavior will change–but I’d be changing the things I can.

You alone will not change the world, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change what you can. That is the valuable reminder of the Serenity Prayer.

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OPW, religion

OPW: The Dilemma of Belief

Today’s “Other People’s Worlds” is about the age-old question of belief versus atheism. It’s also a rather oddly cited quote, for which I apologize. It comes from the philosopher William James’s “The Will to Believe,” one of the most famous Christian apologetics. In it, James argues that belief (in God) is a choice that one must make, and by equating agnosticism with atheism, he says there are essentially two choices. As an apologist, James argued in favor of belief.

However, in this passage, James is quoting Fitz James Stephen who talks about the religious choices that underpin a person’s life. (I have taken some liberties with the formatting.)

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him.

“What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? … These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them.

“…In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril.

“If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him.

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one.

“What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

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american society, politics, religion

The Two Greatest Commandments

While trolling the internet, I came upon a rather pedestrian claim that in the coming election the liberals will try to “get God” as a way to convince Americans that there are issues more important than ending abortion and stopping gay marriage.

The claim is profoundly absurd, not least of all because by now most Americans are probably convinced that the “war on terror,” or at least Iraq, is more important than most any domestic policy issue. Further, any concern about domestic policy probably begins with a desire to assure–through many possible means–that Americans can afford health care.

The BibleBut as I was composing an answer that would be as close to flame-worthy as possible without actually burning me–a rather difficult task, but one I felt morally obligated to take on–I remembered something from Sunday School. The Two Greatest Commandments–which I’m sure some conservative pundits will be impressed to know, are not “Don’t allow women to have abortions” and “Don’t allow gays to have state-sanctioned marriages”–seemed to me to be one of the many important parts of Christianity that the vast majority of pundits are vainly hoping Christian Americans will forget.

The two greatest commandments, to the befuddlement of my eight-year-old self, are not among the Ten. They were not given to Moses, but come directly from Jesus. I’ve forgotten the exact circumstance in which this occurs, but here’s Matthew 22: 34-40 (NIV):

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Shocking indeed. Conclusive proof that if Jesus was not a liberal (which some argue “Love your neighbor as yourself” suggests), his chief concerns were at least larger than gay marriage and abortion.

And though someone will probably claim that this text is also a compelling argument for the establishment of a church that will become the government’s moral compass, I think the vast majority of this country knows that is unwise.

The two commandments are instead a reminder that all the parts of the Bible which are presently emphasized are less important than love for God and your fellow man. That love, not condemnation, was Jesus’ central message. That politicians claiming to represent a “Christian right” don’t recognize that fact, perhaps even willfully ignore that fact, should be a source of embarrassment and not a point of pride.

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big ideas, politics, religion

The Problem of Heaven and Earth

This idea arose from something E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist, recently told Bill Moyers. He was essentially giving reasons that people, in this case Christians, use for not concerning themselves with the impact of human activity on the planet and other species. I hope I can lay out the argument with some clarity, separate from the rest of what Wilson was saying.

Few people would, a priori, think that there is any problem with Heaven. After all, if God rewards believers who live good lives with a trip there, it must be a good place. And though views vary about the nature of Heaven, a few facts about it can be fixed: it is eternal, it is better than life on earth, and it’s nature is not influenced by any factors on the planet.

This last point, that Heaven is not affected by life before death, needs some clarification. Certainly events that occur on Earth can have an impact on who is in Heaven, but they cannot change what the “eternal reward” of Heaven will be. That is: if I were to get in a fight, kill a man, or commit theft, that could certainly change my chances of being allowed into Heaven. But, beyond the few set actions that would bar me from entry, there is little in my life that will change the experience that is had after I entered, were I allowed to.

If you live in a giant house or a small house, drive a big car or a small car, cut down trees or plant them, none of this affects the nature of Heaven itself or your (eternal) time there. Whether you’re rich or poor, American or Polynesian, white or black, it doesn’t change you chances of getting into Heaven any more than it affects the likelihood of you sinning.

Because few of your earthly activities change your possibility of entry into Heaven, and because your time here is surely shorter than your time in Heaven, those who believe fervently in Heaven, and think they are going there, have little incentive to worry about Earth or its future.

The fact that there is little incentive for most Christians to worry about the future of the planet and the environment doesn’t stop them from doing so. More and more Christians are realizing the importance of protecting the planet. Richard Cizik, a vice-president at the National Association of Evangelicals has garnered a great deal of attention in the last few years for reorienting the groups mission to include “protecting God’s creation.”

Yet the problem of Heaven no doubt persists. There are still people, be them one or one million, who take little stock of what role their methods of living have here on Earth, worrying only about making it through their time here. Perhaps this is because they are thinking too much of their eternal reward to be much concerned about the present, or perhaps they simply don’t recognize their impact.

Obviously, the problem of conservation isn’t one fought merely against Christians who believe in Heaven, but they are an important factor. Surely atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs can also have a negative impact on the planet. But, their problems of conservation will have to wait for another time.

For now, I think anyone unconcerned about the future of the planet needs to take careful stock of why they don’t care, and ask if they really cannot. Further, I think those that are concerned about the future of the planet should think about what impact, positive and negative, they are having in their day-to-day life.

Surely Heaven is not the only reason people are willing to neglect the planet. Some strive to downplay their personal impact for political, economic, or social reasons. But I think religious reasons are an awfully poor reason to not be concerned about the impact of humans’ industrial and geographic expansion. Whether or not you believe in Heaven, it is a poor reason to willingly and carelessly sully the planet for future generations.

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american society, religion, review

Review: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary that examines the Evangelical movement in the United States. It does this by following a few Evangelicals (I believe they’re mostly Pentecostal) for a time. And on the whole, it does a fairly even-handed job of this, not seeming to judge its subjects, merely to present them.

This may be because the directors felt no need; the film’s chief evangelist (Becky Fischer) is herself somewhat reactionary and off-putting. Her essential claim, stated very early in the film, is that America’s children need to mobilized for Jesus because Muslims around the world are fervently converting their children and arming them for a coming conflict.

To overtly critique the film’s subject, the directors have relied on a single liberal Christian radio talk show host, shown making his own show about the dangers of the evangelical movement and his view that it’s essentially missing the message of Christ.

Visually, the film is very stark. But the subjects are generally lively enough to compensate. The most important players in the drama are children: there’s Levi, 12, who is aspiring to be a preacher. Rachel, 9, who feels moved to tell a twenty-something in a bowling ally that God loves her and is thinking of her, is also particularly memorable.

Overall, the movie paints a pretty useful, if somewhat frightening, portrait of the movement. It seems to gloss over certain aspects of motives and aspirations. The characters feel slightly underdeveloped, all getting enough time on camera, but none really probed or examined in any meaningful way. That is, we see these kids at church and at camp, but with little explanation of their motives for being there.

None the less, we are given a good look at what does occur at such camps. In one striking example, Becky Fischer tells weeping young children that there are fakers among them, and that they need to admit and cease their lying because “there can be no fakers in God’s army.”

This scene and others raise some interesting questions about the most radical elements of the movement. Levi, in some ways the film’s star, is home schooled by his mother in the ways of Creationist science. His book asks him, a middle-school aged child, to explain how global warming is clearly not a real problem.

Perhaps more jarring, is the scene in which a man speaks to the children at camp about abortion. I was shocked, not least of all because most of the children at this camp were between the ages of 8 and 13. This left the man on shaky ground, teaching children who probably don’t even know the biology of reproduction what abortion is and how it is bad.

Regardless of all of this, I couldn’t stop wondering about the future of these people. Repeatedly throughout the film, adults are telling these children that they are the most important generation, and that they can win back America for God. Most of the children shown seem enthused with this idea. I was left wondering how many of the children at this camp actually felt that way. How long those shown would continue to feel that way. Would they all, if revisited in 5 or 10 years time, still be a fervent in their beliefs, or would some become cynical.

Regardless of these questions, there is no denying that Jesus Camp tells some compelling stories, and in a fairly even-handed way. If you’re curious about evangelism (especially its extremes), Jesus Camp makes a good introduction.

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