Practical Philosophy

Waiting for Super(wo)man

It’s rather alluring, the belief that some outside force can swoop in from above and set everything right. Whether we call that entity God, or Super(wo)man, or “they,” we love to quickly and easily release our agency for the sake of not having to do any work.

We imagine that at Judgement Day God will finally smite the sinners and raise us, the righteous, to our proper position. We believe that the quickest and best solution to the problem of crime is an invincible crime fighter from another world. We believe that “they” should acknowledge our genius and give us what is ours; that “they” haven’t yet is simply an indication that “they” don’t really know what they’re doing.

If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to give up agency over your life and accept your fate as existing in the hands of some outside force. “They” is frequently bandied about by people in this state: we used to have a park but then “they” took it away. If only “they” would install a traffic light, this intersection would be a lot safer.

These people are waiting for Super(wo)man. Some outside powerful force to swoop in and change the world. But the real change in the world is rarely made — with a few noteworthy exceptions — by individuals. And even those individuals who arguably were primary causal actors don’t match the comic book image of Super(wo)man.

Instead the world is made better by banal and often thankless actions of normal people. The young teacher motivated to put in extra hours making sure Tyler gets out of third grade reading at his grade level and eager to get even better. By the aging citizen who is so insistent on the need for a stoplight at an intersection that she methodically bends the unreceptive city council into submission. By the middle-aged man who decides to give a few days a months to feeding the homeless with his own two hands. By the little girl who protests hard when her high school commits some injustice that every adult would rather ignore.

Some people setting out to make these sorts of contributions stumble or fail. But they can and do push the collective of humanity forward, effort by effort. There’s a stultifying impotence in waiting for Super(wo)man, and the idea that your effort will not solve the problem is the start of that impotence.

None of us can single-handedly bring peace on earth or an end to poverty. But we can make our small effort and slowly, over the course of our lives, see the world slightly better as a result. To do so we must accept that we are the Super(wo)men we’ve been waiting for.

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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

Loving the Mystery

There’s a lyric that’s been trapped in my head for nearly a decade. It’s from the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The lyric is this: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It’s the last line in the song.

The reason it’s stuck in my head didn’t have a lot to do with the song, really. The first fifty times I heard the song I didn’t pay much attention to its specifics, just that line. The line resonated with me because it so clearly states a deep truth: it’s really “strange to be anything at all.”

We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s the central unanswerable question of our existence. We exist, we know that. So clearly we’re a thing. A thing with the capability to think of itself as a thing.

But we can’t, as people, all agree on from whence we’ve come and to where we’re going.

Some of us — me included — think we came from a process which spans billions of years and a universe so vast we hardly have the ability to understand its size. Some of us think that the story of the Bible: it all started six thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden when God created the first people, Adam and Eve. Many doubtless know or believe in creation stories I’ve never been exposed to, never mind have the ability to summarize in a sentence.

Some of us think we die and get buried in the ground, where we decay and live no more. Some think that we separate from that body that’s buried and ascend to a place to be judged and separated. Some think that we return to this planet, to become a person, or whale, or dear, or fly.

All of these are attempts to answer this unmistakable feeling: it’s so strange to find ourselves here. As anything. At all. For some people the feeling of that strangeness — I’d describe it as having a vibrating warmth — is called “God’s love.” For others, it’s called “the mystery.” For others still it goes unnamed. Some call it “Allah.” Some think it can not be named. And some people have never experienced it at all.

However it works for you, you’ve got to think about it from time to time. I find it’s energy-giving, and an inspiration to try harder to be better. To be kinder. To be smarter. To be more me. To get all I can out of this strange existence. It is indeed “strange to be anything at all.” It is also fantastic.

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OPW, poetry

OPW: Assignment #1

Today’s Other People’s Words was selected mostly because I’m a sucker for clever titles. It’s not that I don’t like Philip Burnham’s poem, it’s that I wouldn’t have payed attention if not for that title.

Assignment #1: Write a poem about Baseball and God

And on the ninth day, God
In His infinite playfulness
Grass green grass, sky blue sky,
Separated the infield from the outfield,
Formed a skin of clay,
Assigned bases of safety
On cardinal points of the compass
Circling the mountain of deliverance,
Fashioned a wandering moon
From a horse, a string and a gum tree,
Tempered weapons of ash,
Made gloves from the golden skin of sacrificial bulls,
Set stars alight in the Milky Way,
Divided the descendants of Cain and Abel into contenders,
Declared time out, time in,        stepped back,
And thundered over all of creation:
                                       “Play ball!”

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OPW, poetry

OPW: Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”

There’s a large soft spot in my heart for broad and sweeping pieces of advice about how to live you life. Even if I don’t agree with everything such poems, columns, commencement speeches, or songs say, I still like them. And even if they seem to be off on a few points, they say things that are probably worth listening to. Such is the case with today’s “Other People’s Words,” Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata.”

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

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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, ruminations

On Missionaries, Religion, and the Police

This Saturday, two white men in white shirts with holy books in their hands rang my doorbell. I didn’t answer.

I assumed, for lack of a better explanation, that they were missionaries. I wasn’t expecting anyone to ring, and these certainly weren’t men I knew.

At first I thought nothing of not answering. Then I felt bad for having done this. And then, I thought about it some more and decided I had no reason to feel bad for my actions.

My rationalization was this: these men probably had one goal in mind: to share God’s love with me. Maybe they’d just want to tell me who they were, why they were at my door, and how to get to the nearest place of worship if I ever felt the need. That’s the best I can think that it would have gone.

Possibly they’d offer me a book. One that said The Holy Bible on the front. Maybe it would be a Book of Mormon. I can’t tell what their denomination was, having not spoken with them.

Maybe they’d want me to tell them about my relationship with God. Talk about prying!?

But it also made me curious about what they wouldn’t say. They probably wouldn’t have said, “Hello, I’d like to have an earnest discussion with you about God and spirituality.”

Even less likely, they could have asked what I thought of their religion. Why I though that. And then corrected any misconceptions I had and gone on their way.

I find it interesting that never having willingly undertaken this interaction I already think I know how it would go. I also can’t shake the feeling of disappointment that I may well be right.

Wouldn’t it be a trip to have a man knock on your door and, when you open it, say, “Hello, I was wondering what you could teach me. I think you can teach me something, what’ll it be?”

But even as I say that, I recognize another fact. That after that man rang the doorbell, I’d probably call the police.

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