Learning Gentleness

Lately we’ve been peppered with images of police and mob violence. It’s enough to make us begin to feel a bit pugnacious ourselves. We either look for people to slug or, if you’re like me, you look for people to mentally destroy. It starts to feel like we live in world where, as the Psalmist writes, “I am for peace: but when I speakthey are for war” (Psalm 120:7

All of this has been timed in my life in an interesting way. I am currently in a season where I get to spend a lot of time with a little baby, my son Samuel! He likes to spend his day toddling about and playing with his toys. He doesn’t speak much, but he knows how to get his daddy to answer him. So I am learning to be gentler than I knew I could be.

At the same time, I’m learning that God is gentler than I knew him to be. As David once wrote, “your gentleness has made me great” (Psalm 18:35). The prophet Jeremiah writes, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22:23).  Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). 

We live in a world where the since of meaninglessness, despair, lawlessness, and hopelessness tempts us to smash things. We either look into the heavens to dodge God’s thunderbolts or we foolishly in our hearts that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). But there is really good news. God does exist, and he loves us beyond our wildest dreams. The Lord is our Father and infinitely kind and merciful. But what he wants is faith, trust, hope in him. As we get to know his love, we can even learn to call him daddy like a small child. This is the answer to all our fears, our agression, our pride, our hopelessness. And we can experience this love more and more each day by simply meditating on his word (Psalm 1) and asking him to pour it into our hearts (Ephesians 3:14-19).

So don’t lose heart, my friends. Jesus can turn all your deslote places into springs of water. Just gently place your trust in him and peacefully, humbly learn to take up his yoke.

Mexico elects Marxist President, what does it mean for America? — WINTERY KNIGHT

Wintery Knight is always savvy; he is quite right in this case.  Socialism, far from being progressive, is a regressive and illiberal course of action which will only lead to more problems for our neighbors.  Rather than casting stones, let’s get our own house in order.

Mexico has held an election, and they decided to elect someone with the policies of Hugo Chavez (Venezuela). His name is Andrés Manuel López Obrador. What does it mean for America? It means we need to build a wall on our Southern border, and quickly, too. There were a couple of great articles about the […]

via Mexico elects Marxist President, what does it mean for America? — WINTERY KNIGHT

How Jordan Peterson helped me see that I should clean things

I’ve always been a messy person.  As a child, my military father would make me clean my room and do my homework.  But it never stuck.  I’ve struggled with organization my entire life.  Part of this is my Platonic nature.  I’m often more concerned with ideas than the physical world. At least that’s what I tell myself.  But recently I watched a video that actually changed my life.

In the short clip, Jordan Peterson explains very simply how our brain interprets things as either tools or obstacles.  He explains that for about five minutes.  When we see things out of place, we see obstacles. That does a number on our productivity.  It often makes me feel out of sorts, for example.  Tools, on the other hand, are things that are useful in our work.  Some degree of order is therefore a tool.  After his explanation, the good Dr. explains that this is the reason we should clean up our workspace.  Peterson had already been speaking my language, the language of ideas, science, and abstraction.  But then he connected it firmly to a very concrete thing: my workspace.

I’m not sure exactly how to explain this, but somehow that little bit of  commonsense has dramatically changed the way I function.  I now make my bed every morning, put away clothes after I wear them, clean up the kitchen and living room, and clean up my desk.  I even organize my days now with a tasklist, and I get most of the things done!  Anyone who knows me a smidge can testify that this is out of the ordinary for me.

I have continued my study of Peterson by reading his book, 12 Rules for Life, and even reading some of the books on his reading list.  He has expanded my understanding of this quest for order as a cosmic fight for the good, true, and beautiful.  And all this lines up perfectly with what the Bible says about our creation in the image of God as his stewards on the earth.  We’re here for order, creativity, and conservation of the good.  All of this ordering helps us begin to launch out into areas where we have never been before.  It can help us get a better handle on our very purpose for living.

How should we pursue equality?

Well-known philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, in his book, On Inequality, argues that extreme economic inequality is concerning because of its tendency to cause social unrest; yet he doesn’t think we should try to eliminate all inequality.  Instead, he argues that poverty is the major culprit that we should all agree to fight, not inequality itself.  But that’s not so much what I want to talk about in this article.  An intriguing part of Frankfurt’s book highlights the psychology of many crusaders for equality.  He points out that many equality justice warriors treat equality as an end in itself.  Yet, Frankfurt, like Immanuel Kant before him, believes that people are ends in themselves.  Mutual respect for the person should underlie any reasonable pursuit of equality.  Frankfurt argues that pursuing equality for its own sake can lead people into an inauthentic existence, to what the existentialists call “bad faith.”  It can lead, for example, to constant comparison with others; through envy we lay waste our souls, not to mention society at large.  Frankfurt argues that instead of this surface level envious pursuit of equality, we should take careful note of our gifts, abilities, nature, and context. Who are we? What are we? And what are we and other people able to accomplish in our current context?  If we do this, we will have a much savvier  perspective on how to advance both ourselves and others. If we do not start there, we can never have an authentic equality. The foundation for all this is always a respect for our shared humanity, along with knowledge of individual needs and abilities.  The answer is not always re-organization of society’s resources, institutions, and relationships as the cultural Marxists of today would have it.  We know from history, just as the book Animal Farm teaches, that even in “utopias,” some animals still be more equal than others.  I’m inclined to agree with Frankfurt that there are a lot of flakey pursuits of equality today that are not well-thought through, do not take account of nature, context, or ability.  Instead of shouting, we should learn through quiet reflection and study how we can make the world a better place.  We should look at the world in terms of respect for individual people, not merely social groups. And that also includes asking and answering the larger philosophical question posed by the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry, “what are people for?”

Four Reasons Jesus was not just another Avatar.

Remember the movie Avatar?  Humans could use a computer to plug into these giant purple aliens and live through them.  This idea comes from the venerable and ancient religion of Hinduism.  It was claimed that God often manifested himself in physical form.  Sometimes this is as a man.  Sometimes it is an elephant or another animal.  These manifestations, called avatars, were not considered a permanent state for the deity.  They were temporary scenarios where God or a god was attempting to change the karmic imbalance.  God was trying to tilt the world back towards moral harmony.  In Christianity, Jesus Christ is God made man as well who came to save humanity from their lack of moral wholeness.  Can these two pictures be harmonized?  Many in our pluralistic age have sought to do this.  It is surely a tempting route to bring together all the world’s great religions.  Perhaps it could help us co-exist as the bumper sticker puts it. But is this harmonization really an intellectually or existentially satisfying explanation?  I’m voting no on this.  Here are four reasons why.

1. Jesus permanently became a man

In the Christian Scriptures, God did not simply appear as a man.  He was made man permanently. John 1:14 says that the Word, that is, the 2nd person of the Trinity, was made or became man.  Everyone is familiar with the Christmas story where Jesus is born of the virgin Mary.  He grows up like a regular person and lives as a man from cradle to grave, eating, drinking, becoming tired and so on.  Other than his miracles and profound teaching, he is an ordinary man.  Also, Christian theology recognized that he stayed a man after his death and resurrection.  He now is man forever, performing the role of a priest and intercessor for all humans.  I need not harp on the fact that Brahman, the one God of Hinduism does not continue to retain his human or animal forms.

2. God is radically different in both faiths

Jesus believed that God was personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, loving, righteous, and good.  He often referred to God as “Father” and taught his disciples to do the same (Matt. 6).  It gets thicker though.  Jesus also claimed to be God in some sense, equal with the Father and yet having taken the flesh of a man (Matt 11:25-27).  This teaches that God is not just personal, but that he has always had a loving relationship within himself, so to speak.  God is so personal, he is three-persons.  That explains how God can be a loving being from all eternity.  Hinduism on the other hand, points in the opposite direction; God is ultimately impersonal and beyond all distinctions.  Therefore, God is really us and we are God (Atman is Brahman).  On Hinduism, God is also a banana, building, and a barrio.  It is true that some Hindu thinkers, such as Ramanuja, have argued that God is both personal and part of creation.  Creation is God’s body, so to speak, always existent.  But Biblical religion posits that creation is God’s workmanship, something he made out of nothing (Gen. 1:1).  Creation is more like God’s garments that he puts on or a tent that he stretches out (Psalm 104).

3. Jesus’ teaching contradicts Hindu Avatars

Jesus not only taught that God was the infinite personal creator, but he also taught a very different way of spirituality.  Hinduism has many different paths of salvation such as the way of knowledge, the way of devotion, and the way of works.  Krishna, an avatar of Brahman, explains the “way of love” as a form of devotion in chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita, for example.  All these ways imply action primarily on the part of humans to achieve salvation.  Jesus teaches to the contrary that salvation is something that God achieves and that humans receive by trust (John 3:16; 6:29; Luke 15).  Good works and spiritual disciplines are a response to that God-achieved salvation.  Salvation is not a human achievement at all.  We see this, for example, in the account of the sinful woman who came and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears (Luke 7:36-50).   Jesus says that her actions were a result of faith and being forgiven, not vice versa.  Loving relationship is at the center of Christ’s teaching, and it is always a gift, one where God himself is the giver and relationship with him the gift.

4. The reason for incarnation/manifestation is very different

Jesus’ came to save his people from their sins and fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures offering ultimate reconciliation with God to all people.  His life, death, and resurrection is a work that accomplished God’s plan, bringing his story to its climax.  God had created people to be his image bearers, his vice-regents on earth, but they have, sometime in the primordial past, turned away from him.  God chose a man, Abraham, and then his descendants to be a special nation to represent him on earth.  Though they failed as his representatives time and again, he sent prophets who foretold the coming of a Savior, one who would bring people into harmony with God, themselves, others, and the creation.  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and then, in a grand-reversal of everyone’s expectations, died as a sacrificial victim and rose again.  I don’t have time to go into all the stunning parallels and implications or facts about all this.  one thing, however, is that his resurrection is the beginning of the restoration of all of creation.   As N.T. Wright points out, “The point of Christianity is not… to go to heaven when you die. [Rather, it is] putting the whole creation to rights…”  This is vastly different than Hindu avatars.  Avatars come to shift the karmic imbalance which, as far as Hindu scholars know, has always been the case.  The material order has always been rife with karmic imbalance, so the manifestations of Brahman are there to bring things back around a little, as the endless cycle of balance and imbalance continues.  Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “For the protection of the virtuous and the destruction of evil acts, for the purpose of establishing dharma, I become fully manifest from age to age.”  This karmic imbalance is one reason that salvation in Hinduism is escape from the material order, not redemption of it.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, Jesus is vastly different than Hindu avatars.  Since he is different, he cannot therefore be another Avatar.  In fact, one way to look at these two religions is to see one of them as preparatory for the other.  Perhaps one is a vague shadow with some truths, pointing to a reality, and the other one is the concrete reality.  The question is, which one is a vague shadow and which one a concrete reality?  Is there any way to figure that out?  Contrary to popular sentiment, worldviews should be assessed for their truth value, coherency, factual accuracy, and livability.  This is not inherently dishonorable but can be done with gentleness and respect.  Now that we have distinguished between Messiah and Avatar, we can continue on that journey of discovery.

What is bullshit and why is there so much of it?

Harry Frankfurt’s influential essay “On Bullshit” is comically titled.  As the essay progresses, however, the comedy gives way to serious social commentary.  Frankfurt writes, “One of the most salient features of our culture is the proliferation of bullshit.  Everyone knows this.  Each of us contributes his share.  But we tend to take the situation for granted.”  Just as the fish does not stop swimming to notice water, so we, living in our time and place, scarcely stop to wonder, why all the bullshit?

What is bullshit?  According to Frankfurt, bullshit is when people represent themselves as being accurate when they have no concern for whether what they are saying is actually true or not.  The result could be true or not, but the communicator does not care much either way.  Bullshit might bring to mind a high school student’s college entrance essay sincerely describing beliefs that he does not in fact hold.  Or it may call to mind the typical argument between lovers where the man argues that he couldn’t get around to washing the dishes sitting in the sink even though he had three hours.

Another aspect of bullshit is when the speaker says something without much concern for the actual words she is using.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit starts off with an apt example.  Gandalf strolls up to the unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins, who quickly says, “Good morning!”  The wizard responds, saying, “What do you mean?  Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on.”  Bilbo responds, “all of them at once.”  Phrases like good morning do betray a lack of accuracy that we seldom examine.  Which meaning do we mean when we say it?  We tend to mean that we hope the person has a good morning, I suspect.  Later, when Bilbo tries to get rid of Gandalf, he says “good morning” in another sense, that of goodbye.  The ever wry and perceptive Gandalf points this out to the unadventurous Hobbit.  Bullshit often has this sense of inaccuracy of wording or thought.  So many of our expressions have the same quality.  How many of us have actually been in a butt kicking contest with a one legged man, for example?  I’d say none of us.  The point is that we ought to think about what we mean before we say it, just like Mom used to tell us.

Our inaccuracy often betrays our lack of concern for the truth.  This is the crux of the matter.  Many people in Western society today take the skeptical route, either rejecting  the existence of truth or of ever knowing truth.  If you cannot really know the truth, then why bother with accuracy of reasoning from evidence?  The result is an epidemic of unvirtuous intellects.  All the while, we often try our best to be sincere and authentic.  If we cannot know the truth, perhaps we can still be true to ourselves.  Yet the problem, as Frankfurt points out, is that if we cannot know truth, how can we know truth about ourselves?  Our own natures are just as illusive, if not more so, than any other object in the universe.  Being “authentic” without pursuing truth, is, in fact, bullshit.

What’s the anti-bullshit route?  It involves actually thinking about ideas, facts, and truth.  Yes, you may end up holding some false positions, but you can always improve as you learn more.  This is the anti-meme, anti-sentimentality, anti-mainstream media, anti-anti-intellectual route.  And, yes, this actually means we have to read good books.  These must be real books, not just short articles on the net.  From the looks of it, very few are taking this route today.  But just because that is the case does not mean that it has to be the case for any one of us.  The rebellion has begun…against bullshit.

How to be a pleasure-seeker

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote several works under the guise of an aesthete, a pleasure seeker.  He wanted to explore the psychology of this side of life to see where a philosophy of pure pleasure ultimately leads.   Here are some of his injunctions if someone wants to be a pure aesthete, a pure pleasure-seeker.

  1. Learn to remember and forget.  This will allow you to remember the good and beautiful things and forget anything painful or dismal.  Even painful experiences can be reimagined in clever ways to make them lead only to enjoyment.  For example, imagine someone you know has died.  During, the funeral, the speaker for the funeral gets up to speak but he is deadly dull.  His speech, meant to be a solemn reflection, is actually quite funny to you because his voice keeps cracking.  You can think back to that moment and consider the endless variations of his voice cracking.  With this method, you can try to breeze through the difficulties of life still only finding amusement.
  2. Avoid friendships as much as possible.  Friendships sneak up on one unawares.  Then, once we are in a friendship, we have less freedom and control over our lives, less freedom for enjoyment.
  3. Avoid marriage for the same reason as point 2 above.
  4. Avoid any gainful employment as much as possible.  Big boy and girl jobs are usually lame, boring, and constricting.
  5. Understand that boredom is the ultimate sin.  Yet it propels us into actions that will ultimately be more enjoyable if we learn how to use boredom properly.  Kierkegaard gives an example of a man who often likes to talk philosophy but is tremendously boring.  You notice that when he talks, he perspires profusely.  Sweat drips down his forehead in little rivulets until it gathers under one intense drop on the end of his nose before plummeting to the floor.  This process can become so enjoyable to watch that you even ask the man to discuss philosophy in the future.
  6. Learn to control your own moods.  A perfect example of this is in number five.

If you really live this way, you will discover what the life of the pleasure seeker has to offer.  When we distill the life of pleasure down to its basic parts, it is hard not to see this it for what it really is: utterly meaningless.  Kierkegaard’s method of exploration reveals the man behind the curtain of the pleasure palace for whom he really is.  This life leads to inhumanity, not to mention an ironic boredom.  There’s narcissism in it, a lack of concern for neighbor-love.  The way of the aesthete puts the master-idea of pleasure as the supreme talisman of life;  like every idol, the idol of pleasure ultimately demands sacrifice of other important things, such as friends, family, responsibility and so on.

Where am I going with all this   We often lack the nerve to think unabashedly about the emptiness of the life of diversion, of pleasure alone; we quickly try to convince ourselves that pleasure alone is enough.  If we want to see whether pleasure really works, we should take a keen look at it without use of our rose-colored spectacles.   But alas, most of us are too afraid of the answers we might find.  Even now we might be furiously searching for the remote control to numb the painful loneliness of existence with more instant pleasure.  But we should be a bit more like Kierkegaard, that psychological detective, and search the matter out to its very core.  If there is rot in our foundation, we better know about it before we purchase the whole house.

Am I suggesting that pleasure is somehow bad?  Far from it.  Our experience of joy here points to the existence of a transcendent joy, a beauty and a pleasure that is above all earthly experiences, one that brings meaning to earthly joys and gives us a reason to seek the joy of others.  That is what Jesus Christ offers.  “I have spoken these things to you that my joy shall be in you and your joy shall be full,” he says.  Was Jesus lying or deluded?  Or is he the answer to the deepest question, the fulfillment of the greatest story every told?  Most of us, even religious people, are too busy seeking short-term joys to ever really discover the answer to those questions.   We are trying dig our own wells of joy right next to a thunderous waterfall.  What C.S. Lewis once noticed is still true, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

 

A Romantic Age

We live in a romantic age.  We tend to live for experience, beauty, happiness, fulfillment and so on.  That appears to be the controlling motive of many people’s lives.  This philosophy yields itself well to a bit of skepticism, relativism, or pragmatism about truth.  If we can’t know truth or if it doesn’t exist, we can make truth into a wax-nose, bending it every which-way we desire.

The romantic thinkers of the past came to similar conclusions as many today.  The 18th century Romanticists developed a philosophy about individual experience, beauty, art, heroism and so on.  They were an extension of the skeptical philosophers like Kant and Hume who doubted that anything non-physical (moral norms, beauty, ethics, God and so on) could be known with any reasonable confidence.  Romantic philosophy focused more on human experience and the pursuit of human fulfillment.

Yet the old Romanticists had something we do not have today.  They believed in truth, though they were skeptical about how clearly one could know it.  They pursued truth which they believed they could experience in beauty.  Thus the poet Keats said “truth is beauty and beauty truth.”  Today, many are a bit double-minded about whether there is real truth or beauty.  In our best moments, we seem to believe truth and beauty are real.  But then we relegate them into our private lives.  It would seem to be intolerant to proclaim our truths in public.

But where does our obsession with pleasure and beauty to the exclusion of truth lead?  Our forebears were often concerned with the stability of society and the family, while we are more concerned with our own self-expression.  Life is like art to be painted and continually experienced.  History, on this view, is just the endless repetition of people seeking meaningful experience.  The sociologist Robert Bellah called this philosophy of life “expressive individualism.”  And one wonders where this obsession with self is going.  As Bellah himself asked, can a society continue to flourish if everybody’s end is ultimately himself?

 

A Beginners Guide to Happiness

Norman Vincent Peale popularized the idea of “the Power of Positive Thinking” back in the 50’s.  Since then the positive psychology movement has saturated many sectors of society.  From the fortune 500 company to the United States Military, we are all expected to think happy thoughts.  It is widely assumed that if we think happier, we will be happier.  We could call this the Tinkerbell philosophy of life.  Many recent studies, however, show a correlation between this positive psychology and a tendency among many to depression and even failure.  People are expected to be happy, and when they are not, we try to perk them up with a nice bumper sticker platitude.  People are expected to walk around with a plastered smile and a bubbly frivolity.  Why?  Because that is more productive, and we like productivity.  Productivity pays.  Like in Huxley’s Brave New World we strive for “Community, Identity, and Stability.”

And yet, ironically, positive thinking often yields negative results, non-productivity.  This is because many people cope positively through a bit of negativity.  Not all negativity is bad.  The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this a long time ago.  Ecclesiastes is supposed to be a dour and unhelpful book, one that is to be avoided once we’ve truly seen the light of positive thinking.  But nothing can be further from the truth.  Ecclesiastes reveals the ephemeral nature of our lives but also our need to recognize life’s limitations.

The power of Ecclesiastes is this reminder about the rough edges of life.  Nothing in this world can ever deeply satisfy.  Also, even the ethical quest to better the world will only yield meager results.  “What is crooked cannot ever be straightened.”  If we still think we can find satisfaction, we are kidding ourselves.  If we think we can put an ultimate end to evil and suffering, we haven’t tried hard enough and failed yet.  It’s almost as if we were made for something greater than these temporary diversions and ethical crusades.

We were made to surrender to a being “than that which nothing greater can be thought.”  If we tap out to lesser created beings, we will always have this gnawing suspicion that there is something greater, something happier out there.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that it is only to God that we must give an account.  That is the relationship that we can really lose ourselves in.  We lose ourselves only to gain ourselves back.  But which God, you say?  That would require a completely different article, but I will say this much: the God must be able to fit the key lock of our souls.  He must be able to humble us to the depths and also lift us up in infinite love, to show us our lowliness in his shadow but also conquer us with his humility.  Assuming that there are not multiple options that would work, who are the best candidates for the job?  Another question is whether we are able to slow down, turn off the tube, and cease from our clamor.  Are we able to create space for ourselves to listen, study, or pray in order to find out if there is a God and who he may be?  Or are we too busy trying to think happy thoughts in this modern never-never-land?

Are you Lost in the Cosmos? Part 2.

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…Percy explains a theory of semiotics, the study of how humans communicate with signs and symbols.  Semiotics shows that humans are the only creatures we know of that communicate ideas through symbols.  Chimpanzees and other higher mammals can communicate to get responses to stimuli.  That’s about as far as they can go.  Gee, that’s strange since we evolved from naturalistic, purposeless and blind forces.  The modern trousered-ape, upon encountering this conundrum, simply shrugs his shoulders and goes back to eating his sandwich.  But some of us raise an eye-brow, maybe two.  Some of us begin to breath a little more easily knowing that the men in the white coats appear to be incapable of figuring this one out.  (Don’t worry.  Just give them 500 years or so and they will eventually set us straight.)

Another idea Percy weaves together is that modern man can be described as either immanent or transcendent.  The immanent modern is the consumer.  He lives to get all the gusto he can every day while his inner life is hidden away like some back-alley abortion.  The transcendent man today is the scientist (or scientist wannabe, you know who you are) and the artist.  Both the scientist and the artist can achieve a kind of transcendent view of life through their disciplines.  Comically, however, they have difficulty re-entering the mundane world of the present without extreme difficulty.  Walker entertains with page after page of examples of aloof scientists and obsessive artists who crash and burn upon re-entry to ordinary life.  One of the troubles with being a god, you see, is that not many recognize your greatness.

Tongue in cheek, Percy says that science has relegated all forms of religion to the dustbin of history.  More’s the pity.  Science has improved our lives but ironically distanced us from anything that can seem to give us meaning, purpose, value, lasting joy, or ultimate explanatory power.  The book concludes with a narrative about a space odyssey in which two worlds are contrasted.  The first is the brave new world of eugenics and free-love to which we are headed.  The second is a free world that includes religion and normal familial life, along with people not always agreeing.  Both worlds involve limiting some kinds of freedom and allowing other kinds.  Which future would you choose?