About Me

Phoenix, AZ, United States

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Random thoughts.

I've more or less stopped writing here, but I've found a renewed interest in recording my thoughts. I was about to start an entirely different blog, but I feel sort of attached to this old thing. Despite writing and thinking being a huge part of my current work, I've found myself missing this outlet. That is, the informal and non-academic sort of writing. So I hope to be around a bit more.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

This Xmas...

It's been an interesting year.

We embarked on an interstate move. I started a new program, and she started a new job. Everything went from being too familiar to too foreign. We went from being known by many to anonymity. And I suspect we have changed the trajectory of our lives in ways that we can't begin to understand today.

We haven't been very successful in finding a community here yet. I guess we haven't really tried. We've met new people on occasion, but don't feel like a part of anything. Truth be told, I don't think I've felt a part of anything in a very long time. Don't get me wrong, I have really great friends, but as we grew into adulthood, careers, and lifestyles placed distances (in some cases geographic in others ideological) between us. For the most part, the nearness, the shared experiences, the growing up together has faded. And the lengthy, sometimes, meandering conversations that seemed so instrumental at one time in our mutual growth and development have been replaced with queries about work promotions, parenting, and gasoline prices. We used to talk about dreams, hopes and even grave disappointments. This seems to be the natural course of things. The kind of change that no one seems particularly happy about, but that we all (or at least most) give way to. But it strikes me as something particularly regrettable at the moment.

It's been a really difficult year.

The program has been incredibly challenging. I thought about quitting, daily. I've felt like an impostor, often---like they made a mistake in accepting me and that I'm somehow not properly suited for the gig. I've also gone to a lot of dark places this year. I've struggled with my inner demons and have come out losing more often than not.

But I've learned a lot. Not only about philosophy, but about myself...

This year has also brought with it a great deal of turmoil at large. We've had a lot going on in the world and in our country. Professors, students, and at least one well known celebrity have been accused of rape. Some police officers and the justice system have (to put it mildly) found themselves in questionable situations. Other government officials have been tied to the heinous treatment of prisoners. Conflicts persist in the middle east. School shootings continue. Sadly, I'm only scratching the surface. Countless lives have been violated or lost. It's hard to know what to be thankful for when one considers such tragedies.

It's taken as a platitude that one should count one's blessings, particularly during the holidays. That one should sit and reflect on all the good that has occurred in one's life. I suppose that's alright so far as it goes, but I worry that in some cases, this may incline us to think too narrowly. When we think about all the good in our lives, we may miss out on all the suffering around us (of course, there is likely to be suffering in our lives too).

The message of the gospel seems to be that there is hope for the world in a savior. But a savior comes because the world is in need of one. Not just you and me. I've heard people thank God for their salvation, but on rarer occasion, that he died for the sins of the world. Biblical tradition has it that the good news went out (or would go out) to the four corners of the world. That the blessing promised to Israel would not stay with Israel alone, but that gentiles would be ingrafted. So this Xmas, I'm trying to be mindful of all the suffering, and injustice in the world from my comfy middle class vantage point as it were. Maybe at moments, I can muster enough selflessness to think about what I can do to change things. But I'm also trying to think about a promise that seems to have very wide scope which would really be something to be thankful for.

For in Him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. -Colossians 1:19-20

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. -1 Corinthians 15:22

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. -Romans 11:32

Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. -Romans 5:18

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Just an update for AA.

Sunday evening is winding down and it's a soothing, quasi-fall night in Ann Arbor.  It's hard to believe that we have been here over a month already. It's interesting for me to think that if we were still in Arizona, we would be in the thick of what feels like an interminable summer-- and from what I gather from people there, a muggy summer at that from the recent downpours. I don't miss that weather in the least, but I know that I'll miss the desert soon, as everyone here is already talking about the imminent cold winter. But for now, Michigan is straddling the line between summer and a short fall and it's just really something.

I am starting to feel a bit more settled here as one might expect. After spending over 20 years in Arizona, there was undoubtedly an adjustment period to a cross-country move. As I had anticipated upon our initial arrival, it was hard to distinguish our move from being on vacation. The newness of everything is exciting. Every corner provides a new discovery and there is something about pursuing the unknown that I think is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. For better or worse, history is full of explorers --persons that were not satisfied with the all too familiar, the status quo. People have always sought out a new world, the foreign, the unusual. In a small way, I suppose this desire to explore in me, has been fulfilled for the time being.

It's quite beautiful here-- incredibly verdant. There are massive trees everywhere and it has rained every few days. The air quality is also something I have noticed.  it reminds us of being up in northern Arizona---in the evenings and early mornings, there is a briskness and the occasional whiff of a fireplace burning in the distance that I've come to associate with being in the mountains. Some nights when I look out of our balcony into the deep darkness (there are very few street lights in town), it feels like we are away at camp. At the same time, Ann Arbor, as a college town, is bustling with the sort of activity that only young persons, many of whom have discovered independence for the first time, can provide. I've also noticed that there are far more interracial couples than I am used to coming from Arizona. It's actually quite common here. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that there seems to be a diverse population in and around the town (which also means a lot of good restaurants featuring different cuisines). All in all, I guess you can say that I am really starting to like it here.

It is a strange feeling having relocated for school. I stayed close to home during my undergraduate and masters programs and didn't really think I'd ever move, particularly so late in the game. The majority of my time is dedicated to reading and thinking and it still strikes me as strange that I am getting paid to do this.

As for the program, it's incredible. It ranks among the top handful of Philosophy programs in the world, and I'm reminded of this every time that I interact with the other students that all seem far smarter than me. They are incredibly sharp, well read in philosophy, and have enviable academic backgrounds to boot. So while I feel fortunate to be here, I also find it very challenging at times. Truth be told, I've had a hard time adjusting to the caliber of this department and started questioning whether I really belong here shortly after the semester started. I just haven't had to work this hard to keep my head above water before. But I am told that this is a rather standard experience so hopefully it gets better in time. But I love being able to sit and read for hours on end about really interesting things--for it to be my sole job to research, discuss and write about philosophy.

The professors in the department that I have worked with are all extremely accomplished--many of them world-renowned in their subfields and yet manage to be very accessible and easy to talk to--the sorts of teachers that I hope to be like someday. They also treat the graduate students more like colleagues rather than subordinates and even use graduate seminars as opportunities to receive feedback on books and papers they are in the process of writing.  There are also a number of reading groups set up by students and attended by faculty members, and weekly talks, and also a big conference coming in October. So all in all, there's a lot going on here and a lot that I'm grateful for despite the challenges.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Time Travel

Last night, I watched a movie entitled, "Before Midnight." It's the third installment of a series that I have  liked (the other two being, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset").

It was a profoundly sad film, but not in any obvious manner. Nothing too egregious occurs. The plot isn't that complicated (well, it is, but not in a traditional way). It isn't the end of the world, no one has cancer, no one tragically dies in a car accident. Still, it left me feeling profoundly sad.

The first of the series was filmed in the 90's. On the surface, the story is simple. A couple meet on a train somewhere in Europe (he is an American 20 something and she is a French 20 something). They spend one full day together but don't exchange any contact information (because they think it is tragic when a relationship just sort of fizzles out over time). The movie is nothing but the two walking around in the streets of Vienna and having very realistic conversations about life, upbringing, relationships and (psuedo) philosophy, etc. It is about connecting with a complete stranger.

The second movie picks up 9 years later (both in the plot and in real time). They are now in their early thirties. He has written a book about their encounter and she seeks him out at a reading in Paris. They are both older, a touch more cynical about life. He is unhappily married to another woman but the film ends with the strong suggestion that the two main characters will end up together. Again the movie just follows them in (this time in Paris), talking.

This last installment that I just watched has them now in their 40's (again both in real life and in the plot). It's an incredible idea to have a trilogy that spans nearly 3 decades in this way. As the writers have it, they are now married with two little girls. They seem to get along fine, but both have resided into that middle aged couple role--it's about the kids, and mostly about negotiating logistics of everyday responsibilities, now. I think the writer could have easily made it about some super couple that is just as madly in love with each other in their 40's as they were in their 20's and in some sense, that may have been truer to the first two films (while in another, perhaps more important sense, it would have violated the spirit of the first two). But I guess, the writer knew better.

They are middle-aged now. Their faces and bodies are weathered from years of wear and tear. There is little trace left of the romantic idealism (and other sorts of idealisms)  once so prevalent in the previous two movies. They look upon another young couple (that are probably in their 20's) with a look that expresses, "I remember when..." It's as if their love story is no longer the stuff of stories--their time has passed. And the entire, what might be considered as the third act, (if there are separate acts in this film) centers around an incredibly realistic argument that occurs between the couple. Yes, it's like nearly an hour of arguing in a very realistic fashion. She feels like she has always had to sacrifice her life for his happiness; she says she isn't happy. She leaves their room repeatedly, before returning to make a further point. He feels like he's dedicated his life to her, (though he does not deny an occurrence of infidelity). In the end, nothing is really resolved, but they fight late into the night until they are both too tired to go on. If the story were to continue, the conflict would arise again inevitably and there would be no easy solution---at least that is the sense I get from the end of the film. But the movie concludes with the two of them sitting at a coffee table--her eyes are wrapped in tears from a recent cry, but they are trying their best to flirt as if to paint over the ongoing conflict for a time, to face it another day. The conflict is deep and unlikely to be resolved within the span of a film.

It is common to wince when say, a scene in a horror film is too realistic. When the blood and gore looks all too recognizable--to some extent we experience what we might expect someone actually in the portrayed scenario to experience. Even though we may not have ever experienced the scenarios depicted on film, we relate to them because it seems and feels real to us. Our mirror neurons fire, pupils dilate, muscles tense up, we go into fight or flight mode and somehow it all bounces around in our souls. I suppose I experienced something similar with this film. Of course, there wasn't any blood or guts, but it seemed so sincere and painful.

The arguments, the evolution of a relationship, the disappointment and impermanence.... it all seemed so real.

This morning, I was thinking about all of this on my drive to work. Mixed in among these thoughts were flashes of my goals and aspirations over the last decade or two. When I was very young, I wanted to be a lawyer (really because my mom said it would be good for me). But then I wanted to be a pro athlete (I think every boy goes through this sort of phase), then a rockstar, and now a professional philosopher. I've chased some of these dreams with more effort than others, and the last 5 years have been dedicated to my last endeavor (as will the next 5-6+). What hit me this morning though was the fact that pursuing a goal means making a sort of complicated transaction. The currency passed between hands isn't merely the effort and the financial investment it is also an exchange of time (and all that that entails). Years of our lives devoted to learning a skill or trade, climbing the corporate ladder, or what have you. And our bodies, our minds, our relationships will feel the strains of our time travel, they will flip the bill.  We will rush ahead through our lives and can never have that time back. I wonder if all that I would like to achieve or obtain in my life is really worth the cost....is it really worth my life?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter and Evidence

This morning Katie and I read John 20 together. It is the story of Jesus's empty tomb and his postmortem appearances to Mary and the disciples (including doubting Thomas). One thing I found interesting about the story is that while Mary recognized him when he called her name in the tomb (although she did not recognize him at first), when he appeared to the rest of his followers, the gospel records him as showing them his hands and feet. Of course, it is later noted in the same chapter that Thomas refused to believe it is the Christ (who has indeed returned from the grave) until he has touched his scars. But notice, Thomas wasn't the only one to see his markings (although, perhaps he got a closer encounter since he put his fingers through the holes). What this tells me is that, according to John, Jesus provides evidence of his resurrection to his followers. Note Jesus did not return in some unrecognizable fashion. He didn't return looking like an Eastern Asian lady, or the poster child Caucasian Jesus with long hair as depicted in the West or, God forbid, Judas Iscariot. Though, presumably he could have been embodied in any number of different ways (unless of course, he lacks an immaterial soul). I mean, he could have come in a different body and then talked just like the Jesus they knew and loved. So the question is, why did he show up in the form that his followers were familiar with? Plausibly because people wouldn't have recognized him otherwise and would have found it too incredible to accept that it was really him that had returned from the dead. No, he shows up as himself-- as they knew him. In other words he provides some empirical evidence that he is one and the same Jesus that they saw crucified, hence the revealing of his hands and feet. I find this interesting.

But then in the 29th verse John records these words of Christ: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Of course, the latter group represents the vast majority of believers. But we are not graced with the first-hand evidence afforded to the earliest followers. I must wonder then why the evidence was apparently important for those that knew Christ first-hand (during his worldly existence), but why it is withheld from the vast majority of humanity. What is the point? Is the faith that we are to exemplify in some tension with the having of evidence? Or is it simply evidence of a particular type? That is, empirical evidence? Or at least, first hand, empirical evidence? If so, why? What is to be gained? Can our belief in Christ's resurrection be as confident as those that saw the holes in his hands and feet? Can we believe as wholeheartedly as Thomas who not only walked with Jesus, spoke with him and saw him perform miracles, but also after having seen him crucified and killed, saw him alive again and even stuck his fingers through the holes in Christ's flesh?  

Are we, modern day believers, relegated to a shaky belief in the resurrected Christ? We have heard that Christ was risen from the dead (an otherwise outrageous claim) from the gospels. But can we trust what they tell us? Or is there some means, evidence of a different sort, to believe with sufficient confidence in the radical claim that Jesus rose from the dead?  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Where do we go from here?

A lot has been on my mind lately and things are changing as they have a tendency to.  It's been a long year for sure and I am exhausted.  Katie and I are on the precipice of a new chapter in our lives as we leave the church that we have been a part of for nearly four years time.  It is bittersweet as most all significant alterations seem to be, quite bitter though and I can only hope it will prove in time to be at least as sweet.

For one thing, I feel an embarrassment about leaving, because I spent so much time fervently defending this congregation and its unusual doctrines and practices from the criticisms of my friends and family.  But of course, it will strike no one by surprise that I am far from perfect.  Thus I can say that I was wrong.   

Also and more importantly, I feel a significant degree of disappointment.  We joined the congregation looking for answers to deep questions about life and faith, and the church promised to have them.  Initially I found them satisfying but the doubts began to creep in like small abrasions in the walls of an otherwise impressive looking ship.  I began to press on them, to see if they were anything to worry about and doing so allowed small trickles of water in.  Over time more and more of these imperfections seemed to surface and again I had the inclination to apply pressure to them also.  Eventually puddles were forming and making larger and larger cracks in the ship's planks until it was overwhelmed, and it became time to jump ship.  

But what will break my fall?  I am now taking a plunge into the deep, unknown, leaving what was familiar and perhaps even comfortable for a significant portion of my life. Sometimes, it's easier to stay on a sinking boat than it is to leave.  Like a faithful ship captain and crew who would rather die than abandon ship.  But I couldn't convince myself that this was the right thing to do.  I had to leap without having time to consider what would be there to break my fall.

Now I find myself in the cold, fluctuating waves of a vast sea of uncertainty, floating amidst a few distended pieces of wood wondering, "now what, where do we go from here?"

There will undoubtedly be those who won't understand why I jumped or how I could ever see the ship as a sinking one.  Some of these people I respect and deeply care about.  I do know one thing, that I have taken care in making my assessment.  Although I'm far from immune to mistakes, I can honestly say that I did the best that I could do.  I didn't leave hastily, at the first sign of trouble.  I watched and waited, and even tried hard to call attention to others about the compromise in integrity that the vessel seemed to exhibit.  I spent a significant amount of time and effort trying to convince them that there was something wrong and listened seriously to why they thought that everything was fine.  In fact, I would have continued to do so, but it became apparent that I was merely a siren blowing in the wind for which there was not room.

I will miss those that I have gotten to know and can only hope the best for them.  I very much wish that our paths will afford us occasions to sit and share a cup of coffee from time to time and to respectfully disagree about difficult intellectual matters.  This part is particularly hard for me at the moment.  Likely, our lives will diverge from this time forward, but I harbor no ill will for them but rather only that they will find rest and peace in the truth.  

Sometimes, things have to die in order to be born again.  When they die, it can really hurt, but what roots up in its place may be stronger, more beautiful, and perhaps worth the pain, at least this is what we can hope.  I feel scared and alone and I can't make out what lies ahead for us in the distance but I also feel liberated for the first time in a very long while.  Here's to the future.

"He who begins by loving Christianity more than Truth, will proceed by loving his sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all..." - Samuel Coleridge 

Monday, November 12, 2012

my words seem emptier somehow...

I don't know really how to start or where to end.  It seems like the more empty space I leave the better.

I'm devastated and I know a lot of others are as well.  How could we not be? Parents shouldn't have to bury their babies and 3 year old girls shouldn't have to go that way, they shouldn't have to go...   

I can only speculate about how my friends are doing.  How deeply it must ache so as to feel like one is nearly turning inside out and how empty, cold and indifferent the world must appear out there, moving, changing and spinning about even though their lives have now come to a complete stop...  

They must miss her profoundly in a way that wrings out the imagination, where words and thoughts can't go....

Suspended they are in something between reality and a bottomless dream...


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reflecting on This Christmas Passed

Winter break has been filled with travel, a week with my wife in Seattle, then an overnight run to Vegas, finally ending with a fly fishing expedition in the White Mountains. Needless to say, I've seen a variety of landscapes in a short amount of time ranging from the deserts to the bustling city emerging out of a peninsula, to the mountains with its trout filled streams and of course, the glittery City of sin.  As a result, my schedule has been anything but regular.  Upon my return home, it took me some time to remember what winter was like or should be like in Arizona and now as I begin to settle in, to recover that familiarity, I find that 2012 is just beyond reach.  

Christmas was for the most part pleasant but I think that means there was a great deal missing.  It gets increasingly more difficult to celebrate Christmas when it is all about hanging out with family, good times, presents and food.  To make matters worse, I find myself going along with the flow, wanting Christmas to be little more than a culmination of these banalities. As the Christmas tunes sing their last notes, and we begrudginly take down our decorations, stuffing them in boxes in which they no longer fit, I find a deep hollowness as cold as winter that is easy to suppress but difficult to ignore entirely.  How strange a feeling, to be filled with food and drink but profoundly empty.

I did realize something about Christmas this season that I hadn't in previous ones.  I have for a number of years struggled with trying to recover the "magic" of the holiday.  Most of you will probably relate to that overwhelming feeling of warmth and mystery that Christmas provided for you as a child.  And if you're like me, then you lament the fact that at some point between the threshold separating childhood and early adulthood, this experience of Christmas  disappeared, never to return again.  Well, I have missed that feeling for years and have tried in vain to recover it.  I have heard many a parent talking about finding something similar, as they experience the holidays vicariously through their children but it isn't quite the same, so they tell me.  So in past years I have tried to find the right tree, the right decorations, or listen to more Christmas music and the like, but I always end up disappointed.  After years of this nonsense, it finally struck me this year that perhaps what I have been trying so hard to again find isn't worth recovering in the first place.  I realize that I might sound like a heartless scrooge at the moment, but hear me out. 

There is a verse in scripture that has always resonated with me.  Paul in his letter to the Corinthians  writes, "When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man I put off childish ways..." (1 Cor 13:11).  When I was a child, I loved Christmas because it meant that I would get gifts and lots of food and desserts and get to see sparkly lights everywhere.  It meant that school was out for a couple of weeks and I could play without having to worry about homework or exams.  And I felt a sense of security being with my family in our home as if nothing could happen to us.  But I am starting to think that all of this is merely jejune thinking.  Life is not a matter of bodily pleasures, nor is it about food and drink or presents, or false senses of security.  Thinking as a child of course may be acceptable for children, but even here I think if we are good parents, we strive progressively to nurture and reform their cognitive habits. But it is utterly unbecoming to think like a child when you are an adult because it means you haven't quite grown up or matured.  Of course, you can refuse to grow up like Peter Pan and I think this is precisely what Michael Jackson attempted to do, but there was always something tragically sad about the unhealthy life of the king of pop.

I think that for good reason we do not often depend on the dispositions of children to guide the important decisions in our lives.  Sagacious parents who want to raise healthy kids will not leave it to their eight year olds to determine how to manage the household budget, or come up with the grocery list, or choose the best educational curriculum or institution.  Similarly, I wouldn't rely on the judgments of a child to tell me about the meaning of a fine piece of literature, art or music.  At times children may exhibit precociousness and we might heed such advice but this is only because it resembles the thoughts of a mature adult. And so it seems to me that perhaps I shouldn't let the child in me define the meaning of such a cosmically significant occasion such as Christmas and that if I do, I do so to my own peril.

Here's to striving towards a more meaningful holiday next year and leaving my childhood where it belongs, in the past.  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Finishing Strong And Rightly

Obviously, I have changed the look of my blog. After years of that old, dusty, rather monochromatic layout I thought it was time for a change. I even added one of those Ipod music players with some of the songs I often find myself listening to these days.

I am at school to complete a full day of reading, thinking, and hopefully writing.

By Saturday, this campus becomes a ghost town and I can go for long stretches of time without running into so much as a shadow of another.  As I write this, I am sitting outside in an obscure part of the school (as the library does not open for another twenty minutes or so).  It is lukewarm outside, silent, and empty and I feel at ease, truly a rare sentiment for me these days.

I have been fighting some persistent blues lately in addition to chronic heartburn (which is totally an old person's ailment). I'm sure there's an interesting metaphorical connection between heartburn and my heaviness of soul but for now, I lack the patience to draw it out.
"I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness..." - Ryan Adams
I've been hearing rumors of Fall (possibly the shortest, most beautiful season in the Southwest) for the last three weeks, but it's been persistently warm lately and I'm losing patience.  Truth be told, the climate hasn't been horrible in recent days, but this summer seemed unusually long for me and I don't like anything resembling it.

School has been difficult because I just feel so uninspired, as if I have nothing new or original to say. I find myself almost in perfunctory manner reading, memorizing (and often forgetting) a lot of things that others have said, but I find it rather difficult to make any sort of contribution, which is a problem if one wants to make it as a professional philosopher. Seriously, many of these philosophers are just REALLY bright; I don't think it necessarily makes them correct in all or even some of their beliefs, but a clever, incisive, and creative bunch they certainly are more than any other group of persons I have encountered by far.

I continue to waiver in terms of what it is that I want to do with my life.  I think I tend to feel this way whenever the going gets tough.

This morning I began reading a journal article on an epistemological view called "Fallibilism."  And as I peeled back the title page and began journeying through the first few lines, I was full of excitement.  One word naturally followed another as did line after line and page after page, flowing like an uninterrupted river.  It was effortless, and exhilirating and my mind was flooded by interesting thoughts.  This is how I feel often when I begin reading either a book or an article.  But then as the day wears on, things inevitably slow down and it get's laborious and my mind grows weary. I then have to start policing my attention to keep it from wandering, often having to reread entire paragraphs at which point I start to seriously entertain the idea of calling it quits.  And so it is with so many of my endeavors and so it is with life.  We set out on a journey, a road trip, a career path, a goal with great excitement at its onset.  Like a bat out of hell we leave the stables but then we encounter bumps and thistles, and grow tiresome and when the scenery hasn't changed for hours we begin to wonder why we left home or started out in the first place.  But it seems to me that hurrying through the first few pages of an article is of little merit in itself. Really, anyone can do that.  Armed with idealism and adrenaline most runners start the marathon just fine.  But the real race is long and difficult and the winner must cross not only the starting line, but the finish too.

I know I started talking about what to do with my life with regards to a career, but really this is all analogous to something more important; it is actually in part, the message found in the parable of the sower.

Sometimes I fear that I will wind up like those seeds that fell along the rocks, which with great enthusiasm received the word initially, but failed to be rooted and thus, as the troubles of this life came, fell away.  That is to say, they failed to finish what they with great zeal began.  I think it is easy to think of "receiving the word initially" as pertaining to an obviously short period of time like a day or a month or even a few years, but it seems to me that anything short of "finishing the race" might qualify.  What if I've been sitting on the rocks for a decade?

I am also reminded of the following, "what should it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?" Upon hearing such, I have most often thought of those persons that are obviously from the "get-go" after riches, or fame or what have you over and above seeking the Kingdom of God.  But I think that doesn't do justice to the rhetorical question.  What about the person that starts with a sprint, but at some point gets distracted along the way and ends up unawares, on the wrong path?  Perhaps such a person might even persist right through to the end, quite possibly being the first to break the finish line only to find himself having run a different race altogether, thereby also being disqualified (along with the seeds on the rock).  How pathetic a sight that would be. To exert a lifetime of effort all for naught. To have finished the wrong race.

In either case we find that there are more ways to fall than there are to stand up straight.  The race is long and difficult, the path is narrow and straight but it is the only one that leads to life.

Dear Self,

You often worry so much about "not making it" to the end of something like your semester, or your graduate program or your career path, or whatever, but these are in comparison, the least of your concerns.  You have foremost to make it to the end of this spiritual journey and it is one heck of a ride; it is going to be arduous and will take everything you have and more.  But take heart, for He is with you even to the end of the age and His grace is sufficient. 


Friday, September 23, 2011

All You Need is Love?

In my epistemology seminar last night we discussed a couple articles by a famous philosopher of epistemology, Jim Pryor (NYU) who writes against a particular kind of skepticism about the external world. One of my fellow students made a joke last night that we should agree with Pryor in what appeared to be a stalemate of a dialogue because at least he was featured in Esquire magazine wearing a $2K suit. My curiosity getting the better of me, I looked him up this morning and sure enough there was the NYU professor, one of many in a photo gallery titled, "The Meaning of Life Meets Winter Style" which included a number of "academics" and "religious leaders" playing dress up for the camera and sharing some words of "wisdom". Among the participants was Jay Bakker (the son of Jim and Tammy Faye). What he said stood out to me:
"It's all about compassion for each other. A lot of times, people are too busy arguing over what their theology is or what their politics are or their sexuality is, and they miss out on all the good stuff in life. All the connecting with other people and loving them for who they are, not for who we want them to be."
Even before my encounter with this electronic edition of Esquire, I have heard many a believer criticizing Jim Bakker. This is because he has been for some years an advocate for homosexuality and gay marriage at the same time being an evangelical pastor. If his quote is any indication of his general philosophy then it isn't at all surprising to me that he is quite liberal in his account of Christianity.

The thing that gets me is that I know a number of Christians that would agree with Jim Bakker's sentiments here. I have heard these words almost verbatim among a number of my fellow believers, usually intended as a criticism against my views about what faith in Christ consists of. So then why do these same persons find Bakker's sympathy for homosexuality offensive? That part is quite vexing to me...

If you think Christianity is summed up in being accepting and compassionate to others (in the rather unqualified way that Bakker seems to intend), then you should certainly extend this inclusiveness to those of a different sexual orientation than you. Otherwise you will have to get caught up in one of those nasty theological and political (and ultimately philosophical) debates. The problem of course is that it wouldn't make sense to stop at this issue (that is, stop at criticizing or arguing over homosexuality). Rather if you are being consistent, any and all issues of a "theological and political" nature should be off limits for fear of "not getting along." But then imagine what such an account of the Christian faith might amount to. By "loving people for who they are" (in contrast to asking them to change) the straight and narrow path will be replaced by to something akin to a five lane autobahn which may seem liberating at first, but will in the end render the Christian worldview utterly unrecognizable and thereby emptying the cross of any intelligibility.

Now I can imagine some of my well intending friends saying that homosexuality is explicitly spoken against in scripture and so they have grounds for rejecting Bakker's specific position on homosexuality while adopting his general philosophy of inclusiveness. Such a view would mean that whatever is explicitly stated in scripture is non negotiable (i.e., this constitutes the core of the faith) while all the other issues which have divided believers are not worth arguing over.

But this is hardly an improvement. For one thing a great number of "orthodox" Christian doctrines are not explicitly stated in scripture. For instance the doctrine of the trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the rulings against the practice of polygamy among others. If you think that Christianity consists solely of express statements in scripture then you will have to do away with such ideas. After all, each of these has historically been the topic of much controversy (see Arianism, and Docetism, Christian Polygamy), that is, they have been the source of great debate, schism and worse. Furthermore, there are homosexual "believers" that simply claim that any part of the bible condemning homosexuality isn't actually the "word of God." The acute difficultly this brings to the surface is this: if you think only what is explicitly stated in scripture is what makes up the Christian faith, then how do you know what should belong in the canon and what should be excluded (i.e., how do you know that the canonization of scripture wasn't arbitrary) in the first place.

Obviously to say that the bible tells you what should be included in it would be a very unsatisfactory response on pain of circularity. The persons that compiled the books of the bible did not have the bible to go off of...

A few more notes on Bakker's quote:

1) Bakker says it's all about compassion. I have heard something to this effect quite often. In fact, Christ is said to exemplify compassion if anything. As I previously noted, the problem is that this sort of notion is far too vague and presupposes that we all have a univocal view about what it means to extend compassion. I used to work with the homeless population in town, and some of them honestly just wanted money to buy meth and preferred this to the food and water we were offering. Now there are some persons (of questionable intelligence) that believe that compassion should move one to acquiesce to such absurd requests (that is, to buy such persons drugs) while others would find it simply egregious to feed such a destructive habit. So saying, "it's all about compassion" isn't very helpful by itself; we need to get clearer on what we mean by "compassionate".

But now notice that only as we begin to define what compassion means, then disagreements inevitably arise. We start to learn that we don't share a single view about what it means to be compassionate much less how to apply this principle in various circumstances. Rather we find that we have conflicting accounts. In light of these disagreements we can appeal to another vague notion e.g., we might say, well since we don't agree on compassion, let's say it's all about love but then the same issue arises of course. What does it mean to "love?" And aren't there mutually exclusive views about love out there? Otherwise, people tend to act like there are not differences: that is, agree to disagree but then this is to make light of the disagreement and I think this doesn't make much sense. I say this because if you simply ignore that there are differences or diminish them by saying that the disagreements do not matter, then I question how much the original principle in question matters in the first place. To illustrate, imagine that I get one of my papers back with two grades on it. It has a red 'A' and then right next to it a equally red 'F'. Now if I simply shrug my shoulders at this event, then I probably didn't care for the meaning of either of the grades in the first place. If this is so, then the original philosophy of Bakker (that one should be compassionate) is a vacuous one. 

2) "A lot of times, people are too busy arguing over what their theology is or what their politics are or their sexuality is, and they miss out on all the good stuff in life."

It is true that arguing over some things is just not worth the cost of air. We could argue about the best burger joint in the world, but that likely won't get anywhere, and perhaps such a discussion is misguided because it plays fast and loose with what we mean by "the best burger joint". It might actually be that when we assert that "Five Guys is the best" we actually mean something closer to, "Five Guys is most pleasing to me" in which case we are speaking of our subjective states and so the argument should be diffusible. In any event, I am admitting that some arguments don't make much sense because they are either wrongly formed or not so important). What isn't so obvious is that political, social and theological arguments (at least the ones that I hear most commonly) are equally so empty. They aren't just about one's own inner states (like in the case of what flavor of ice cream most pleases me), rather they are (either directly or indirectly) about when life begins, what it means to be a moral person, and even what the nature of God is and what it isn't. And perhaps within this category of what I hold to be substantial discussions, we could include the question of what it means to be compassionate both per se and in application. Now it is important to distinguish between how in fact people go about arguing and the principle that we should debate these matters. I have a suspicion that part of what inspires this Jim Bakker kind of disdain for debate is that when such discussions occur, they don't often go very well. But this fact should only get us to revise our approach and work on improving rather than abandoning the discussion altogether, which would only be to throw the baby out with the bath water.

3) "All the connecting with other people and loving them for who they are, not for who we want them to be."

Again, "love" is a lot like "compassion" in that there isn't a single view on what love is and what it looks like to love another. For instance, if I told you to love Hitler, what would that mean to you? He wants to exterminate an entire population of people. So should your "love" for him mean you help him in his endeavors? Should you be there aiding his development of the concentration camps and flipping the switch to the gas chambers? Or should your love for him rather move you to resist him in his committing of the atrocious plans? Shouldn't you want to change him rather than accept him as he is?

There is also the problem that Bakker's philosophy (again in its unqualified form) is self-undermining, but I don't think I need to spell that out...