Lessons for the Fully Ambulatory

I’ve been quiet for a little bit because in early January I finally learned what I had done to my knee playing ultimate frisbee last September — I tore my ACL. We went ahead with reconstructive surgery, which was done just over 3 weeks ago. I’ve been recuperating since then, and very slowly regaining a semblance of my normal everyday life.

It’s my habit to observe myself and my surroundings carefully, when entering a new situation. This one was no different; so today, some highlights from the past 6 weeks of observation … both internal and external.

1) We identify a lot with our bodies

In my unconscious I have long preferred to think of my physical body as something like “a 20-yr-old’s body that might just be a little rusty”. This is quite a delusion. And one that I’ve long told myself, to maintain my preferred self-concepts of youth, health, power, and ability. My identity has chosen (if you will) to clothe itself in those garments, and notice how very dependent they are on the physical body for validation.

But here I was confronted with my first real injury and my first real surgery. The effect was something like when a movie actor breaks the 3rd wall, and perhaps exposes not just the audience, but also the cameraman and the film crew and the entire soundstage apparatus, and the hollywood commercialism behind it too. Deconstruction, is the word.

I have long thought of “me” as this youthful, capable mix of flesh and mind. But this simple injury dispelled the illusion of such a tidy “me”, and drew my attention to how unrealistic and unfair the illusion was in the first place. In its place I have begun to accept much humbler facts:

  • I am just a human, no more and no less. My physical body is somehow part of the “me” that I know, but it is not the whole thing. More importantly it does not deserve the lion’s share of that constituency.
  • I am getting older, and one day far from now, I will definitely die. It is no use at all to fear the passage of time. It is even worse to deny it, and to ignore the wearing-out of my natural hardware.
  • If I want to set clear goals like “be able to play ultimate frisbee at age 50”, I will simply have to put in the work required for it, consistently, for a very long time. No amount of wishful thinking or delusion will help either way with that.
  • Some goals, such as “play ultimate at age 50” may turn out to be impractical. Initially such a thought fills me with dread. But, in the grand scheme of human history and the cosmos at large, it turns out this is not a huge loss.
  • There are still many ways to be a successful human, even without the ability to sprint, leap, change directions explosively, or squat 250lbs.

Such lessons might not be news at all to those who don’t take themselves so comically seriously; or, to those who aren’t as physically active as me; or, to those who have had much earlier histories of injury, illness, misfortune, and appropriate coping. But I don’t fit into any of those categories, so I am learning the above lessons at age 30.

More than anything, I think most of this comes down to a fear of death; not just any death, but the long slow decline of independence and vigor which leads to death that seems to characterize later life in western civilization. As youthful able-bodied people, we prefer not to grapple with the eventuality of that decline; instead we quietly imagine ourselves to be somehow immortal.

2) Our healthcare system is strange

This is the first time I’ve had to take full responsibility for any serious medical work. Even including the psychic shock described above, the very worst part of this whole experience was simply trying to find out how much the damn operation was going to cost us. And yes we’d like to know sooner than the day before surgery, please.

We’re well into the digital age but the right hand still doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing; everything is still processed manually, and might I add, with seemingly no urgency. I’m complaining just a bit about this, but I am a hyper-literate gainfully-employed member of the prestige class of our society who stood little chance of not being able to afford the estimated charges, even if they were high. But without those myriad advantages, what is this experience like? Say for a minority, single-mom with 2 kids working 50 hrs/wk?

The timing of all this makes me pay closer attention than ever to this election cycle’s discussion of our system. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “broken”, but it certainly deserves some optimization.

3) Social pressure seems to be born from capability

I’ve been repeating the joke that if anyone wants a magical pause button from the conventions of yuppie life, he or she should have ACL surgery.

For a couple of weeks after the operation, I simply couldn’t do much at all:

  • couldn’t concentrate on much due to narcotics
  • couldn’t stay out long in public or with friends due to lack of energy
  • couldn’t exercise or have any adventures, due to an insufficient number of functional limbs

Instead, my existence has been: napping, consuming a lot of YouTube, doing rehab exercises, trying to maintain an adequate calorie intake, and trying to remain relatively positive in my moods.

Here’s the thing: everyone was really great about this whole thing. People asked how I was doing but didn’t pressure me to do anything at all. Thus the internal flow chart of social pressures shifted to something like this:

I can't do anything >> Therefore I don't have to >> Therefore I won't

When I looked at this again, I realized it is just a negative image of the pressures that most of us feel everyday. Here’s what I think that looks like:

I can do tons of things >> Therefore I should >> Therefore I will

In other words, I am suggest that most of the “shoulds” that we experience are based first on the fact that we can. You should have a nice house because you have the means and the taste to decorate it. You should be an informed voter because the information is at your fingertips. You should stay out late with your friends because you don’t have kids. You should wake up early and exercise because you’re young and healthy. There are probably better examples. You get the idea.

By contrast, the last few weeks I’ve been living the life of an elderly man. I can’t do any of those things right now. And so the internal chatter, the herd-pressures from the reptile brain, the endless charades of identity-formation and -preservation … all of that has gone quiet, for a few very rare weeks.

Last week I took the slowest effing walk through the park across from my office. Everybody and their toddlers were moving faster than me on the gravel track. What a bizarre experience. A preview of life at the age of 85, perhaps. But what a remarkable privilege — to be relieved for just a few weeks of my own expectation that I will be healthy, fast, strong, and ambitious. And of everyone else’s expectation as well.

There was no speed or exhilaration to be enjoyed there. All I had was the slow ground beneath, radiant clear sky above, and the blur of happy bodies moving past me.

… and it was plenty.

4) Gratitude as spirituality

Every single tiny milestone along this healing journey is a momentary cause for sincere thanksgiving and celebration. Removing the outer bandages. Activating the atrophied quadriceps again. Achieving tiny gains in my range of motion, degree by degree. Removing inner bandages. Going off painkillers entirely. Fighting my way back to full extension of the knee. Raising a straightened leg, unassisted, off the therapy table.

Three days ago I was cleared from my crutches, freed to walk again. Full ambulation is one of those thresholds that, much later in life, marks the divide between independent, and dependent living. As I said, I’ve been living life as an elderly man for the last few weeks. Gradually, I am becoming younger again.

It’s profound to get to give thanks for such things. How often is one ever prompted to lose the thing he has always taken for granted … and then to regain it? Not often. Most of the time in life, those sorts of things are lost for good.

5) Therapy is close to divinity

My physical therapist provides me with such powerful support and wisdom that she might as well be my savior. That’s a weird statement, but it seems about right to me. I would feel lost in this process of healing and rebuilding, without her help as a guide and a champion.

I tend to be pretty guarded. I go to fair lengths to avoid situations that might cause me to feel weak, vulnerable, or confused. But this injury and operation has struck (as you noticed) very close to the heart of my self-concept. In the wake of the surgery then, I’ve had no choice but to feel weak and vulnerable — it is a fact of my condition, empirically verifiable even.

But my PT, and indeed any therapist of any kind who is gifted for the job, steps gently into that fog of weakness and says happily “It is okay that you feel this way. It’s okay to be scared, or confused, or frustrated, or impatient. I know the way out of here. Let me show you that trail. I’m on your team.”

And so the experience of doing my rehab exercises, and asking questions, and getting feedback, and getting my stats re-checked, and hearing the latest news and instructions, and milestones, and overall hearing her excitement at my progress … it all manifests as a shared gratitude. As though we are rebuilding my body, and indeed my safety and my self, through a shared effort.

I can’t do more justice than that to it at the moment. But what I’m saying is, I am very grateful for my PT. And I think therapists do holy work.




That’s plenty for today. I shall resume ye olde deconstruction topics soon enough.


Exit from Christendom (postmortem #1)

It’s been about 4 months since I casually announced that I was de-Christianizing. In the wake of that bit of processing, predictably it has been an interesting fall and winter. Today is for discussing just how exactly it has been interesting. In brief, anyway:

#1 – Experiencing the outside, after being on the inside

Inside the Christian bubble, I remember feeling that those who wrestle long with doubt, or who experiment with liberal theology, or who eventually abandon the faith altogether, ought to be viewed with a scintillating mixture of compassion, pity, mistrust, blame, and quiet judgment. Now certainly there are many millions of Christians who do in fact respond to these kinds of faith transitions much more lovingly than what I’ve described above — but I am only describing what I remember feeling, and what seemed vaguely common to most of my peers.

It is simply interesting to now be the object of those feelings, rather than the subject. There’s a strange amount of comeuppance to it. Also ironically, it seems surprisingly incarnational, very Jesus-like, to now know how it feels to be judged as an outcast by the (I may be reaching here) dominant religious majority. When I was supposed to be one of them, that is.

Final thought: for a Christian who is wrestling with intense doubts, everyday existence is already painful to begin with; when confident Christians then tell the doubter that their troubles exist because they opted out of community, because they stopped reading the Bible, because they have little faith, or whatever other chosen rationalization, the net effect of the message is “this doubting is your own fault, because you are doing it wrong”. This message does not help the doubter want to return to the fold.

Edit: nobody said to me literally what is written above. Well, presumably nobody who is reading this blog 😉

#2 – Creating life meaning outside of a religious narrative …

…. is effin’ hard.

To this day I really don’t understand how some people function quite affably in life without a central story of meaning or purpose undergirding their existence — religious or otherwise. Whatever that gene is that lets those people do that, I don’t think I have it.

As a result this fall entailed a good dose of trying to regain a sense of meaning, in a world that quite easily hints toward nihilism.

On the other hand,

#3 – The world outside the bubble is overflowing with wisdom and laughter

The allegory I’ve been toying with is that the Christian world is like a beautiful and expansive castle or manor, situated out in the countryside and surrounded by vast woods — maybe like this thing:


Maybe the world of Christian orthodoxy is kind of like this? For some people. Sometimes.

I’ve been living on that estate, surrounded by a clear and safe boundary against the philosophical wilderness, since 2007. But over the last two years I started playing outside the walls more and more. Then this past September, I inferred it was high time to take a permanent hike outside, in those scary epistemological woods. I brought a tent, but it was scary.

But actually wait a minute … I grew up in these woods! And I was just fine — everything is fine people.

More importantly, it turns out the woods are beautiful and not aimless, and there are mountains and lakes and even other manors to discover (if you will) out in those wilds — wonders waiting to be mapped, all of which were considered dangerous no-man’s-lands from within the comfortable grounds of the castle.

To jump out of the allegory now, this fall I have:

  • .. enjoyed a full relief from the burden of orthodoxy; I have been free to actually determine what seems true using my own head and heart, without the worry of sliding off a proverbial slippery slope, or of coloring outside somebody’s institutional lines.
  • .. finally connected or reconnected deeply and truly, with old friends whom I had long felt were not totally safe, not totally on the level, due to being non-believers. Not that I couldn’t trust them, but I couldn’t fully relate to them. It’s unfortunate that the dynamics went that way, but I didn’t know how to help it.
  • .. for the first time really begun appreciating the common currency of  wonder, awe, and transcendence that exist outside the Christian sphere. There is overwhelming and authentic beauty to be found everywhere, and through every lens: Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, humanist, astronomical, and so on.


#4 – I love The Liturgists, Peter Rollins, and Richard Rohr

If anything about my journey is interesting to you (regardless of your philosophical allegiance), you’ll probably find much to enjoy in the work of any of those three. All of them would (I think?) either loosely or emphatically identify as Christian, and yet all three have very fruitfully written and spoken about all of the same struggles that I have been working through over the past two years, and especially this fall and winter.

And (most amazingly to me) all three have cultivated and preserved a profound capacity to deeply and honestly converse with the world outside Christendom. Bullseye, headshot, multi-kill.

#5 – This is a process, and I am a verbal processor

Sorry to any of my poor readers and friends who are simply more philosophically committed, or more cognitively stable than myself … who I guess may have quietly wondered what I’ve gotten myself into (or out of) this time, or who have skeptically considered whether I will ever settle down in one spot for long.

Despite the turbulence, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In that case it’s important for any spectators (and for myself) to remember: this journey is far from over. In fact, I think it doesn’t end until I’m dead — er, at minimum.

In case you think I’m going batshit, just calmly read the disclaimer on the left side of this page, which echoes this older wisdom from Flannery O’Connor: I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

This means I’m not done. With anything here or otherwise. For that matter, there are already plenty of new / recent developments in this particular journey, beyond what I’ve written above, which I will share soon enough.

In the meantime, thanks for the love and concern, those of you who did happen to speak up (and no disdain for those who didn’t). If it is warranted, sorry for the late notice about this whole de-conversion thing. I’ll send a calendar invite next time.

Happy new year!



Superb books I read this year

Today is a break from my typical brooding. Instead, I’ll invite you to survey and possibly enjoy the things that inspired much of my brooding this year.

The Half Has Never Been Told

By Edward E. BaptistThe_Half_Has_Never_Been_Told__Slavery_and_the_Making_of_American_Capitalism__Edward_E__Baptist__9780465002962__Amazon_com__Books

We all basically agree that slavery is a shameful and nasty blight on our nation’s story. Horrible. Cruel. Abusive. Embarrassing to the American legacy. But the high school textbooks, and the national conscience, all seem to go no further than that. It was awful, and it took a terrible war to end it, but thank goodness that America still rose to greatness in spite of slavery’s dark stain.

But the author asks:

What if America grew to economic and geographic greatness not in spite of slavery, but absolutely and critically because of it?

In other words, is it possible that the meteoric rise of our nation was built directly atop the scarred backs of enslaved African-Americans?

Baptist, a 19th-century historian, spends his entire volume arguing that hell yes that is exactly what happened.

Southern slaves built the American economic machine by producing truly massive profits from the world’s most important commodity, cotton. In turn, that burgeoning cotton market gave birth to the 19th century’s industrial revolution as a whole. Those markets, and that revolution, created the entire modern economy as we know it.

This “Half” to which the title refers is frankly the entire shadow side of our rise as a nation — the half of the story that nobody wants to hear; the half told about the disenfranchised, the abused, the enchained, the coerced; and the half told about the exuberant, callous, entrepreneurial forces that repeatedly through decades compelled them, degraded them, exploited them, and dismembered them. All the way from Declaration to Proclamation, with echoes stretching forward all the way to the present.

And Baptist says that IF it is true that the American economic empire was built upon the backs of the enslaved, then it is an unrelenting and tragic joke that most of the immense wealth they generated is still today being withheld from their progeny.

The Half Has Never Been Told was thick, but profound. It was at times too academic, perhaps too detailed. But to his credit, Baptist set out to make a definitive history of this little-told half of the American story, and I say he succeeded. Thus his thoroughness was warranted.

While not always riveting, Baptist does a nice job alternating between (A) the gravitas of personal stories of the enslaved, and (B) the more analytical and broad pictures of politics and macro-economics that walked forward through time intimately bound up with slavery’s expansion.

Thus at times it was moving, but more than anything, always enlightening. I wish a less-dense version of this work could be made available for high school US history classes everywhere. Certainly worth the time investment to get through it.

My verdict: A-

Pick up The Half Has Never Been Told on Amazon*


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Hararisapiens

Authors have written plenty of books on “the human story” to lesser or greater applause … but Sapiens is exceptional due to its scope, depth, and sheer distance from the subject (which is us, by the way). Harari studies homo sapiens the way that we study chimpanzees, dolphins, or distant star systems. He is an unfamiliar, an outsider — a detached and extremely curious investigator.

And he makes some pretty profound observations, and asks some damn good questions, through the course of his investigation. Here are some of those:

  • Did we domesticate wheat, dogs, and cattle? Or did they in fact co-opt our efforts, and domesticate us? He suggests both could very well be true.
  • Has human history actually improved the average level of happiness or satisfaction for individual humans? Moreover, is there any reason to think that history will “favor” civilizations that improve the lives of their individual citizens? He suggests “probably not” to both.
  • Are the most powerful structures in the world actually just figments of the cooperative human imagination? Money, authority, corporations, and so on — yes, it seems largely these things are collective illusions, under which we voluntarily spellbind ourselves.

That’s just a scratch at the surface. Harari makes a thrilling go of telling the whole story of our species, in more-or-less linear form. He works forward from our surprisingly fraternal evolutionary prehistory, and progresses to tantalizing speculations about our future and perhaps our end, be it through self-destruction or self-transcendence.

As I went through this in audiobook form, I ended up dropping bookmarks and points of interest at a rate of several times per chapter, because it was so damn enthralling. Frankly I enjoyed this book so much that I quite seriously wish everyone I know would read it. It was deeply thought-provoking. This is one that I’m glad I actually own, because I will read it again for sure.

My verdict: A+

So go get it in your favorite format.*



*Yes these are referral links. If you buy one of these, consider the little bitty tiny fractional revenue that I receive as a little bitty tiny token of your appreciation for recommending these sincerely awesome books, which I have happily recommended repeatedly to my friends, sans referral credit of any kind. 😀

The Economies of Belief (pt 2)

Belief, and the humans who wear it

In The Idolatry of God, one of Peter Rollins’s main thrusts is to suggest that when we identify strongly with our beliefs, it is likely we are actually identifying with what he calls unbeliefs. That is, when I say that I am Christian, I might think I’m giving intellectual assent to some cosmological statements about the universe, ourselves, and the Christian God. But Rollins provides a more piercing lens — he submits that I, and all of us, are in reality extracting a hidden set of huge cognitive and emotional benefits from this creed, and that subconscious exchange is what drives and reinforces much of our belief. In that case, he says, we have a habit of maintaining belief systems that we do not really believe — thus the neologism “unbeliefs”.

It’s a powerful notion. This implies we put on ideologies like clothes or shelters, as tools to help with the hard work of being human. We use these “belief shelters” to help navigate the many contradictions inherent in our existence, to disarm the confusion of our societies and cultures. A belief system then is something to cut through the pandemonium, something to provide us with a true north.

This makes ideology a deeply essential part of the human condition. Everyone must believe something, because we all have a deep need for meaning and orientation; we need to feel we have some understanding about our environment, and even some measure of control; we need some framework of scripts and actions, to help us figure what to do with our time and energy; we need to know what is right, what is not right, and why pain exists.

Belief systems, then, provide us with the nourishment that is demanded by our most important cognitive and emotional voids.

So belief systems are a necessity. But in order to get this nourishment, in some sense you have to pay for what is being sold. How do you pay for an ideology that is freely given? Simple: you copy its ideas and structures into your head and your heart, study them, practice them, rehearse them, propagate them. That is the “cost” demanded by membership in any ideological movement, be it religious or otherwise.

Such propagation, of course, leads to more people doing the same. When all those people begin to aggregate and identify as a whole, what do you get?

There you have one of the most powerful and instinctively nurturing systems in all of human experience: a tribe.

If belief systems in isolation address mainly our cognitive needs, then these tribes of belief answer our deepest emotional and social yearnings: companionship for the rough road of life; bright lines that distinguish who your people are; a safe cradle in which to individuate and form an identity; a pool of potential mates, which eventually give birth to blessed generations, through ages, all within the same fold.

None of these things are trifles. They are the very fabric of happy human existence.

In that case, we could say that my old warrior philosophy was a belief system with no tribe. It had no hope of competing with what the Christian world could offer me — both cosmology and rich community.

Costs and compromises

It becomes clear that every belief system, along with its associated community, can be understood as a matrix of benefits and costs, or compromises if you like. Different ideologies tend to require different forms of practice and propagation, and by the same stroke offer a different blend of benefits to their adherents.

Living in our post-enlightenment world, we tend to think that a cosmology or philosophy ought to be judged simply by whether it makes good sense. But this is in fact not what humans do — not any of us by nature, at least. Whatever rational truth claims are being made by a movement, those claims are only the tip of the iceberg. The real merit of the ideology is in this powerful and hidden calculus, humming along assertively below the level of our consciousness. Many people remain unaware of these invisible economics for the whole of their lives. Others have the good fortune to read a book or two 😀

Would you like to call bullshit?

If so, that’s okay. This perspective on belief is thoroughly postmodern, and academically geared. But Rollins didn’t just pull it all out of thin air. He is mainly recycling the long-wrought wisdom of today’s social sciences.

Still, does that backing make this all plainly correct? Likely not. And to be sure, Rollins’s approach makes no useful statements about whether any of our beliefs are in fact true. So it can’t do everything for us.

But at bottom, I find Rollins’s picture to be at least a useful framework by which to understand how you or I (and mostly I) are prone to making certain ideological decisions, at certain times … and not others.


Remember, I stumbled upon this whole perspective while trying to answer this question: why has my interest and zeal for Christian life dissipated, as I have moved into post-adolescent married life? 

As I read Idolatry of God and took this all in, I projected the new lens backward in time. Without delay, an overwhelming hypothesis emerged:

I was first moved to jump aboard the Christian life raft because at that time, I desperately needed companionship, approval, and a safe place in which to form my identity. But in the last 2-3 years, all of those needs have become much less urgent.

Whether the Christian Gospel is true or not is outside the scope of this thesis. But what can be said surely is that, whatever intellectual hangups I had about Christianity in the first place, they could not stand up to my massive subconscious desire for these critical benefits — the bright new world, as I put it. At the same time and for the same reason, I was willing to accept the costs of adherence — abiding by the bright lines of the Christian worldview, and propagating its claims about the true nature of our reality.

But in the past 2-3 years, that original impetus has fizzled out. My adolescence has come to a close. I am largely at peace with who I am. And because of my marriage and my closest friends, I have a deep well of companionship and love, and it’s not going anywhere.

De-conversion, and re-conversion

For many people, the growth of love, identity, and security do not produce the same dissipation at all. The shift that I am experiencing mainly demonstrates how compromised my original motives were, and how my Christian practice has become unnecessary, and unsustainable, as a result. For others, it will likely be quite different.

For me alone, though, this life transition has kicked off a de-conversion process. Not only have the social benefits of Christianity become less precious to me (because I am not so poor as I once was), but the costs of continued membership have gone up. As I ventured out of the young vagabond bubble into a more confusing and diverse world, adherence to the bright lines of the Christian worldview demanded boundaries between myself and others that appear increasingly artificial. The doctrines I am responsible for have become more and more problematic, eventually giving rise to contradictions that have demanded a frustrated and sometimes robotic defense. This has all grown more painful and more costly than it used to be.

So as the underlying calculus has shifted, the fundamental impetus for my Christian existence — once strong and lively for years — has now largely unraveled.


What now, then?

My first step was honesty with myself about the true change that has happened. If I am outside the fold now, it is safe to admit such things to oneself, without horror or judgment.

The next step was to recognize that my digression, and the analysis in this post, offer no useful statements about the truth or falsehood of the Christian God, or about any god for that matter. I have only identified a powerful mechanism that once drove my conversion, and in turn is driving my de-conversion.

But I have no way of knowing whether that God might still be real.

What I can know is this: if I eventually find my way back into the Christian fold, it will necessarily have to be under different auspices, and by a different mechanism.

If I do embrace belief again, that belief will have to be of a new kind — less absolute, more tolerant of contradiction, less prone to bright-line distinctions, more conversant with the outside world. Because I am not in need of the same benefits that I once was, I am more skeptical of the old costs and compromises. In that case, it’s not that I have determined that Christianity is true or false. It is simply that my priorities have changed.


The Economies of Belief (pt 1)

The warrior phase interrupted

Around Thanksgiving of 2006 I was still trying to carry on with my warrior-vagabond worldview. I had just broken up with a girlfriend and had had a rough semester. Over the holiday I took a long walk with an old friend, a guy who had become a Buddhist the year or two before. He and I had always been philosophizing buddies together in high school. I had gone the atheist route as part of my whole self-propelled rationalist deal. He had chosen a different path.

At some point on this walk, he was listening to me ramble about how I was going to recover from the breakup by resuming my creative, self-determined, rugged individualist mindset. Get back on the proverbial warhorse, as it were.

Sensing that this was all an act to obscure my own loneliness from myself, he asked very gently:

“So … why are you doing all this?”

On this, I paused. It only took a moment. I conceded defeat of the whole charade:

“… I guess deep down, this is all basically to show the world that I don’t need them. But the whole point of that goal is to impress the world, and probably to get somebody to admire me and approve of me”

He just nodded quietly. This was a big moment for me. He let me stew in it.

All at once and for the first time in my adult life, I began to see my own frailty, as nothing but a normal man. I was no better or more distinguished because of my vaunted worldview. I was not immune, not even close, to the irrational and permanent needs that haunt our human condition: love, affection, companionship, approval, meaning, and identity.

I had just been using the Tyler Durden / Howard Roark train as a way to reach those things. But it wasn’t working for me.

So maybe it was time to look elsewhere.

So maybe religion after all?

Up to this point, one of the cornerstones of my worldview had been a determined, scornful atheism. But this moment showed my worldview as just a charade … so everything was unseated at once. If I was just going to be a normal human after all then maybe I should, for the first time, consider that dimension of life that so many normal humans seem to prize so highly: spirituality.

My old friend was very encouraging here. He said he’d love to open the door for me into Buddhism. He was sure that I was basically a buddhist at heart anyway. He thought I would find a lot of sustenance there.

I was interested. And, I knew that my epistemological boat was taking on water quickly, so I needed to find a life raft to jump aboard, and fast.

The bright new world

Then came December 2006. After finals, one of my roommates told me he knew a few people doing this 3-day backpack trip to Big Bend, and since I loved all that, maybe I’d like to come along. Turns out these few people were more like 15, and they mainly knew each other through the Texas Wesley, a Methodist student ministry at UT. I was duly cautious about this. I had never done anything at all with a “group of Christians”. Would they throw Bibles at me if I was found out?

But hey, it was hiking. And all of my epistemological doors were open at this time. So I went, and it turned out to be a great trip. These people from the Wesley were, to my great surprise, entirely thoughtful, curious, and sincere people. I got back from the hike with a feeling of curiosity. At the same time, my interest in Buddhism began to weaken.

Then after the holidays, in January 2007, my roommates and I met two girls, and they quickly became some of our best friends. One of them became like a sister to me. The other, I got the mad hots for.

Turns out these two girls were also Christians, and also had strong ties within that same Christian community, the Wesley. And both were just generally magnetic and alluring people. This all fascinated the hell out of me. Pun intended if you like.

So began the process of my conversion to Christianity. Over the next 3 months I gradually became involved in the weekly rhythms and practices of the Texas Wesley. I began sharing my heart and story with these people. They reciprocated it all very warmly.

By the middle of the spring of 2007, I committed my life to Jesus.

In so doing, I discarded the prospect of Buddhism, and besides that my native Judaism. These were unwanted items, then — left in the dirt on the side of the bright road to Oz.

As for Oz — my new Christian world was bright, pulsating, and energetic. The Wesley was easily the richest community of peers, mentors, and romantic options that I had ever encountered in my young life. And all of this abundance was set against a glowing backdrop: the deep meaning, the ultimate reality, the pervading gospel, the cosmic epic … of the Christian God.

I was enamored with this new rhythm. In the meantime, I was also enamored with a girl. In that case, were my motives suspect? Probably, and I knew it. But I reasoned with myself: hey, if God is real, maybe the best way for him to get my attention was to dangle a carrot out in space — something to get me chasing.

So I gave chase. The thing with that girl did not work out, but I still had my community and my Jesus, and these largely did not fail me. I remained immersed in Christian community, growing in my faith and my understanding of the world, for the next 6 years.

Then I got married.

An inverse correlation

By the time I met Nicole, I had spent most of my adult life deeply engaged with the rhythms and practice of young, idealistic, vagabondish Christian community. This meant dense roommate life, missionary travels, colonizing big houses and apartment complexes together, and lots of loud musical nights of worship; wrestling with faith; gradually figuring out how to adult together; celebrating, laughing, and mourning together — the way friends do. All of this was my existence from about 21 to 28.

Oddly though, it seemed that as my closeness with Nicole grew, and as she became my fiancé and then my wife in 2013, my interest in this old communal life seemed to quietly dissipate. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my friends anymore — I still kept up with a lot of people closely, mainly in 1-on-1 settings.

But as my closeness with Nicole grew, my attraction toward my old Christian communal existence behaved with an inversely proportional drop. As I became more and more married, I became less and less communal. And thereby, less and less Christian.

Had I simply become more introverted, as a corollary to growing older and entering a new life stage? Yes. Had I become distracted from old community rhythms by instead focusing on my new family’s budget, house projects, and our young careers? Yes. Had I spent lots and lots of quality time with just my wife, cementing our new marriage, and therefore robbing time from our communities? Yes. All of these culprits were in part to blame, but all of them were eventually kept in check; and none of them fully explain the sea change that I experienced.

Then this past spring, around the time of our second anniversary, I read Peter Rollins’s philosophical lark The Idolatry of God. Finally, this would begin to suggest one really good answer.

That will come in the next piece.


The tiny empire of orthodoxy

My 2015 has, unsurprisingly, seen further exploration of the many rabbit holes of 2014. As the pendulum continues to reset, I am now in the suspect position of actually wanting to reverse some of my concluding statements from my earlier Bible shipwreck.

Therefore today, as always, everything here is nothing better than a work in progress, awaiting further refinement. If you want to continue this conversation with me in any form, I would welcome it — please reach out.


My concern today is how accepted structures of systematic theology have a habit of shutting down authentic discourse with the surrounding world.

To get us kick-started, let me present Exhibit A — you only need watch the opening 1 minute or so:

[Recognition and disclaimer are due here — Dr. Craig is a Christian apologist, and more helpfully, a very thoughtful individual. This excerpt doesn’t even scratch the surface of his extensive analytical work, and it should not form the basis of a verdict on his ideology.]

But, on with the work of the day — a critique …

The audience question, and Craig’s answer, can be paraphrased as:

Q: How do you defend the Christian belief that Jesus is the only way to God?

A: Apart from the cross of Christ, there just isn’t any other provision to solve the problem of man’s sin.

Dr. Craig takes about 30 seconds to deliver his main point, above. He then wanders onward, into the consideration of why exactly we should consider the cross to be up to this task of atonement.

To start, then, a couple of thoughts are due here:

  1. Craig’s reply makes totally fine sense if we have already accepted all of the other cosmic presuppositions of the Christian worldview. For that reason it is perfectly responsive to the concerns of someone who is already a Christian. To be fair, perhaps the context of the video ensured that a Christian would be asking the question. No fault here.
  2. Craig’s reply says nothing at all to the listener who is not already a Christian. Without the presuppositions of the Christian worldview, his answer is not conversant with the concerns of a person living outside of the bubble. Moreover, it is likely to be heard by such a person as nonsense.

These observations together frame up the main contention of this post:

Religious orthodoxies tend to enforce such a limited sandbox of acceptable ideas about reality, that they struggle to genuinely converse with anyone outside that sandbox

To show you what I mean, we will spend the rest of today looking closely at (what is very likely) the orthodox sandbox in which Dr. Craig is playing.

As we’ve said, Craig’s answer only makes good sense if it is supported by a few prior assumptions about the nature of reality, humankind, and so on. Here I attempt to list out these supporting assumptions. They are given loosely in order of most broad to most exclusive.

[Notice: I have italicized the only two ideas that are definitely shared by the original inquirer]

Dr. Craig’s Presuppositions

  1. Some kind of God exists.
  2. God can be known by humans.
  3. Humanity is in some form broken.
  4. The New Testament gives a reliable description of reality.
  5. Humanity’s main predicament is sin, aka a basically evil-seeking nature.
  6. Due to this sin, we are destined to be apart from God.
  7. The death and resurrection of Jesus (and our faith therein) offers us an escape from the bleak fate created by our sin. (salvation)
  8. There are no alternative stories or disciplines in the whole universe that can offer humans a different solution, to escape our sinful doom.

[Extra credit]

Today we are not examining the integrity of the items in this list. Instead my focus here is: Jesus Christ, just look at how many items there are!

More importantly, notice how many are not necessarily shared by the audience member who asked the question in the first place.

Even worse than that, though, is how this list of presuppositions looks so similar to a typical evangelism tract.

Defending the gospel with ‘The Gospel’

Astute readers will have already noticed what’s going on: the above is not just a list of presumptions that underlie the Christian message — it more accurately is the Christian message. The presuppositions are indistinguishable from the conclusions.

In other words, the loosely-logical progression of statements above is precisely what an average western evangelical would share with an atheist, in the act of explaining the value and truth of Christianity. It is commonly referred to as “The Gospel”.

So you’re saying, Dr. Craig’s answer to the question is essentially a restatement of this basic Gospel message? Yes. Wait a minute. This requires a double-take.

Let’s play this all back, boiled down a bit. If the list of presuppositions is basically equivalent to the Gospel message, then we could reimagine the YouTube clip above as something like this:

Question: “How do you defend the notion that [the Gospel] is the only way to God?”

Answer: “[The Gospel]”

… This type of argumentation is recognized within informal logic: it is called begging the question, and it is a form of circular reasoning … which is very bad! To beg the question, you take your conclusion, and tuck it neatly into your starting presuppositions. From there, begin your argument. Oh look! My conclusion is part of my starting assumptions! This makes it so easy to argue my case! And so on.

Now, I know I said that we shouldn’t judge Dr. Craig from this very small sample. That’s probably still true.

But shit, this man runs a website called Reasonable Faith. He should know better than this. Yikes.

The empire of Gospel, visualized

But to return to the original concern, let’s look again at just how remote Dr. Craig might be from the person who asked the question.

To see this visually, I drummed up a fun diagram for us. Imagine that we have a circle, and all the points within the circle represent all the various things that humans can believe about the universe.

Then, let’s look at how Dr. Craig’s specific presuppositions successively carve up that circle into smaller and smaller pieces of territory. Not only does he believe that God can be known, but also he says that Jesus is the only way to know him. And so forth. The eventual, clustered intersection of all these nested presumptions should succeed in showing us visually just how specific Dr. Craig’s view of the world is. And by extension, just how specific your view of the world must also be, if you’re going to parse his response as anything other than nonsense.

Please enjoy:















Yes, of course this is a venn diagram! What else could it be?

Yes, it is irritatingly complex to look at. That is the point. On the bright side, it was also irritatingly complex to build.

And yes, sure, I suppose the precise intersections of these discs might imply some pretty weird and contradictory philosophies. But, I tried to imagine the full variety of permutations. Technically, it is possible for people to believe all sorts of funny things 😀

… Anyway …

Notice the “final” proposition: Jesus alone saves. Just look at how isolated that little sandbox is, amidst the vast playground of all things that human beings can fairly believe about the universe.

Again, the original inquirer in Dr. Craig’s audience may have freely roamed across at least 75% of open territory within that playground … but Dr. Craig’s answer to the question was going to be useless, unless the inquirer happened to live in a very specific neighborhood, about 1/10th the size of that open range.

Master of a Whole (Tiny) World

Let’s take the visualization just a step further: what if these spatial slices of cosmology were actual geographic territories of the earth? If this is the case, and if we (coarsely) assume that Dr. Craig represents the basic orthodox position of the Christian worldview, then we can also say this: Christian orthodoxy believes it has mastered the whole world of cosmology; but this is only possible because it believes that there is nothing valid beyond itself.

The way this reasoning works, it is not incredibly different from a chieftain on a remote Polynesian island who believes that he is the ruler of the entire world.

When someone like the 18th-century British explorer James Cook makes first landfall on such an island, let’s suppose Cook wants to investigate this chief’s curious worldview:

Cook: “But don’t you know there are other lands and other human cultures, across the sea?”

Chief: “Of course not. We have never seen them. We have never heard of them. There is only the great mother ocean, and this sacred and special land that she created. We are and have always been the only people on it. We are sacred. The rest of the earth is sea and darkness. Obviously.

“… For that matter, you cannot be a man, so what are you — an angel or a demon?”









It’s funny because it’s true. It was then, it still is now.

The bottom line

When ideological institutions demand adherence to a basic set of standard ideas about reality, those ideas form the building blocks of all subsequent cognition within the sphere of those institutions. What can and often does follow is a debilitating constriction of creative invention and critical discourse. Within such an atmosphere, the possibility to admit sincere ignorance slowly disappears. Such toxic air also cripples the ability of participants within that sandbox to communicate sincerely with whoever might be in the surrounding playground. That is, those within the sandbox become unable to imagine a universe that is not supported by their own accepted presuppositions. This is just the same as the Polynesian chieftain, who cannot imagine or understand the wider world that James Cook inhabits.

This does much to explain why we have something nicknamed a “culture war” boiling over in North America, and why conservative Christians are some of the principal combatants in that conflict. And if the political arena is one of the many theaters for that same war, then this goes far to explain the ongoing legislative gridlock that also plagues us.

To be perfectly fair and clear, the dangers of ideological orthodoxy are not at all confined to strictly religious institutions. The recent history of the modern age should demonstrate plenty well that secular ideologies are also quite capable of giving rise to stifling dogmatism, uncritical groupthink, and general assholery.

Food for thought. Quite enough for today.




  1. Did you notice anything odd in there? There is a strange problem in this list. It would seem that the main evidence for believing #4 results from the faith described in #7. But simultaneously, the main reason we know anything definite about #5 thru #8, is in fact because of #4 in the first place. How did that circular loop get in there, then? This is all for another day, and another post.

The obituary of Tyler Durden (2)

Last time on ‘arguments with figments of my imagination‘, I considered how I would have judged my present fairly-normal-looking middle class lifestyle, if I could rewind about 8 years.

My Young Self had caught me in the act of rationalizing away whatever hangups I still carry, about the inequity and hypocrisy of such a comfortable existence.

And so we resume, with my (real self’s) rejoinder:

“Your problem, Young Self, is that you are blind to your own fundamentalism. You are so consumed by your fear of compromise, so obsessed with moral and creative purity, that you have been forced to adopt an antagonistic worldview to compensate.

Your prejudice, then, is a defense mechanism, a pressure-relief valve. You sit in judgment against the world as a way to escape your own fears and insecurities — about yourself, and about who you will become.

In other words my young friend: you are just as guilty as I, of rationalizing. Your ideology is no more pure or moral than my own. But in the meantime, you are far less compassionate.”

If I could have heard these words at the age of 22, I hope that I would have dropped my sword, disarmed the defense mechanisms, and sought relief and rest.

And if this happens to be your position too, then I would advise you to consider disarmament, as well.

So then. What should I say, about the great cognitive distance that (apparently) separates my 2007 from my 2015?

Maybe the thing that has always deserved my suspicion was not compromise or moderation, but fundamentalism.

This week, I turned 30.

As I look back on my journey over the last decade, what I see is a saga that could be titled The Recovery From Extremism.

Which extremism exactly? The kind that is motivated by a fear of annihilation; that is, my fear of becoming so flaccid, so inoculated by our culture, that my life would be unremarkable, nothing fierce, and easily forgotten.

This extremism has many forms and puts on many different outfits … but at the heart, the engine of such movement is this base-level fear of fading away. Karen Armstrong would add that all kinds of fundamentalist movements are, deep down, innervated by the same trepidation.

In my early and mid-20s, I spasmodically quit jobs and changed life rhythms, took hasty risks, and battled with myself frequently. All of this was in pursuit of refusing submission to establishment, and thereby staying “true to myself”  … whatever the hell that was. Howard Roark would probably know.

The great irony is that at the heart of all this turbulence was nothing particularly noble or ethically refined — again, it was just the fear of amounting to nothing special, at the end of my days.

That ‘engine’ was also the hidden core of my old atheist / Objectivist prejudices. And ironically, this little reactor came with me happily into the Christian world, when I converted in 2007.

Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, apparently irrespective of the colors or doctrines it trumpets on the outside.

Only in the last few years have I begun to let this fear go. The engine has slowly dropped into a low idle. And right in sync, my once-fundamentalist ideologies have finally begun to relax.

What is it that finally abated this elemental fear?

I don’t totally know yet, and this post has gone way into the weeds from where I was originally headed.

But I’ll suggest that there was at least one keystone piece that resulted in a truly seismic shift: being loved deeply by my wife, with all my imperfections and failures in full view.

Why would this make such a difference? Well, even though today I intermittently drift into agnosticism, I have to say the New Testament hits a stupendous jackpot when it says: perfect love casts out all fear.

There is something uniquely transformative about being unconditionally affirmed and approved-of.

This force can enact such growth and healing in a person, that it makes even the most profound ethical systems look feeble by comparison.

But my 22-yr-old self could not have known this, because he had never experienced it quite like I do now. More importantly, he likely never suspected that his fear of ending up unremarkable in the future was underlaid by an even more primordial horror: being unknown, and unremarked upon, in the present.

“You mean to say” my young self would respond, “that if I just felt more connected, known, and loved, that I wouldn’t have needed to bother with any of this extremism and vagabondage?”

Damn right. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Being happily married, it is now at least conceivable that I could enjoy the aforementioned warm-fuzzies for the rest of my life. As a result, strangely enough, I have relatively little use for the disgruntled-warrior ideology of Roark or Durden.

Instead, for the past few years, I have found it much more productive and fruitful to focus on compassion, empathy, sincere dialogue, and humility. In a small way, these values are the undoing of my earlier fundamentalism(s), because they require me to extend official approval to the stories and beliefs of people who might be very different from me.

Ultimately then, I have not been mastered by the stupefying systems that Tyler Durden warned us about. But I do have to do battle with the moral hazards of being a middle class human who is gainfully employed in a western industrialized society — and by that I don’t mean #1stworldproblems.

Tyler seemed to promise us that if we would simply adopt his martial-ascetic approach to life, we would be free of these moral hazards entirely. When phrased this way, it should now be apparent that his promise has the same structure as any other extremist snake-oil philosopher.

Having cautiously laid Mr. Durden to rest, what should be said about him?

He was compelling, dynamic, totally sexy, seemingly untouchable, and easy to latch onto. But if I can read between the lines, I also suspect that he felt disconnected, unloved, and alienated — in those ways, he was a product of our depersonalized industrial world, much more so than he would ever admit.

As a result, I submit that when it came to life’s most important questions, Tyler was no visionary worth following. He was misguided. He meant well, but his most important theories were, finally, just wrong.


The obituary of Tyler Durden (1)

Evidently I am an adult now.

In the past 3 years I have stumbled into a package of life assets that could, judging coarsely, make me a so-called real grown-up:

  1. Wife
  2. House + mortgage
  3. A job that I want to keep
  4. (All of the etc. that comes with the above)

This rapid windfall has meant a major change in my life and rhythms. Obviously.

I’m grateful for everything I have. And lucky. And #blessed. Or whatever tripe you want to say about it. But sincerely it’s great. But that’s not what we’re here for today.

Today is about how I am becoming a biased individual, because now I have real and vital attachments to pieces of reality outside my own skin. This makes me a partisan, for the first time in my life.

I used to be afraid of all this …

I used to want to spend my life as a permanent vagabond, somewhere midway between Thoreau, Durden, and Rand.

What was my goal with such a non-conformist bent? Mainly, deep down, I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t sell out, didn’t waste my few short years. I wanted to avoid the well-trod paths of least resistance or greatest safety. I wanted to make sure that in A.D. 2073, slowly dying in a hospital bed, I could look back and see that the sweat and tears of my decades were well-wrought, lived thoughtfully and not on autopilot. Fear the autopilot.

A good and worthwhile aim, to be sure.

But that one good aim was diluted by fear and anxiety, personal insecurity, delusion, and the unexpected dogmatism of youth. My immaturity meant that I had only one main strategy to maintain my beatnik status: I stayed away from the normal trappings of adulthood, as long as I could. Mainly, this meant delaying full-time employment.

This was helped by my earning a degree that was not at all an asset in the job market. So after school I interned and apprenticed a bit. I traveled the world for a year. I worked in a banana stand. I drove a pedicab. All of this, I told myself, would keep me out of the infectious whirlpool of Evil Corporate America. Partly, I was afraid I couldn’t handle committing to a “real” job. Moreover, I was afraid of what such a job would do to me.

Those who have already been through this will recognize quickly: this avoidance tactic was rubbish. After a few years, it turned out I just needed some real income. So nervously, I capitulated. I took an online support job, and my technology career rode forward from there.

Five and a half years later, I am a certified modern yuppie with a two-car garage an Amazon Prime membership.

That’s a nice little bildungsroman. My favorite kind of story.
But so what?

So now, I am the grown-up whom I used to condemn

Astute readers will have already noticed: a key part of my old vagabond ideology was prejudice. Specifically, I maintained an aggressive, almost fundamentalist judgment against all of those who had chosen a normal, middle-class, consumerist life for themselves. I thought to myself:

“All these people have purposefully opted into blindness and myopia. They have confined themselves to the industrial-age hamster wheel. They have exchanged bold vision and passion, for faux security and shallow comforts … and khakis.”

Howard Roark and Tyler Durden would have been proud of me. They were the authors of my bigotry. They, and the usual excesses of angry male adolescence.

But now I have seemingly become the very object of this judgment. If I were to meet Younger Me today, he would probably spit bile and disappointment at me.

“What happened to you?”

… he would say.

So I have some business to do today, with my younger self.

Unexpectedly, I do not feel blind, caged, or mastered

“Nope. Sure don’t.” I would say.

“I feel more loved, more capable, better known, and happier than I can remember.

However … expectedly, this existence has come with a complex web of new powers, and consequently, new temptations. As our means expand, so too our expectations, ambitions, and the scale of our distractions. These years of transition and empire-building have not passed without the turbulence of existential conundra, nostalgia for simpler times, or nervousness about involuntary consumptive habits. Not by any means.

But importantly, the very presence of this continued turbulence and struggle is my signal that I am still very much awake. I don’t want to one day explain away the inherent inequities or hypocrisies of middle-class American life. The ability to still notice the pain of these compromises is exactly what tells me that I have not yet been fully anesthetized.

You don’t want that kind of pain to go away. That’s when you know you’re dead.”

All this being said … what if I’m just rationalizing?

Younger Me might not accept these nuanced defenses so willingly. Perhaps he would retort with due skepticism:

“Merely *knowing* that your industrial-consumer lifestyle is compromised is not enough. In order to escape its grasp, you have to opt out of it.”

Well spoken, little shit.

We’ll have to take this up in a subsequent post, then. Enough for today.



People are violent. Muslims are people.

Over the last few months I’ve sparred on-and-off with some friends on FB on the question of whether Islam is an inherently violent religion. In this intermittent discussion, a friend sent me this a couple of days ago, in response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

Islam Is The Most Violent Religion In The World, But Let’s Keep Calling It Peaceful Anyway

You should take a moment to skim through it, if you’re curious. Matt Walsh is in typical form as a convincing communicator, but a sometimes pitiful fact-checker. There are plenty of other places on the web to find similar arguments, and basically they say this:

Dear Western World,
Islam is a particularly nasty and violent religion, and we should wake up to this reality already.

I’ve only chosen the Matt Walsh post today as Exhibit A, and want to share some ongoing, in-process thoughts on the topic.


Let’s start with Matt’s thesis, which is summarized in his conclusion:

“No, there’s no way around this. Islam is more violent than any religion that’s ever existed anywhere.”

To start, this statement is so hyperbolic that it’s basically un-testable. We don’t have written records of all religions that have ever existed, much less of how much violence their adherents committed, and especially not whether those adherents claimed religious motives in that violence, or other impetus. But let’s give ol’ Matt the benefit of the doubt, and round his statement to something more empirically testable:

“Islam is the most violent major religion in recorded history.”

A little better. But Islam strictly considered is just a “system” of moral attitudes and cosmological beliefs, so it can’t commit violence by itself. It needs adherents to do that. Let’s change the phrasing again, and hope Matt would still approve:

“Muslims are more violent than adherents of any other major religion in recorded history.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is easy to test because (afaik) the majority of all people in recorded history, until the early modern period, were confessed adherents of some belief or another. Let’s take a look at this.

If we look at all historical violence in recorded history, we should see that the largest human death tolls have been caused by Muslims, right? Maybe I’m making a logical jump here, but I think this is a fair way (one of several) to test Matt’s claim. If you disagree with this leap, then please say so in the comments.

Let’s look here:

List of Wars and Anthropogenic Disasters by Death Toll – Armed Conflicts and Genocides

Not surprisingly, WWII ranks at the top of the list. Of the major belligerents in that conflict, none had Muslim civilian majorities or Muslim heads of state. Meanwhile, the principle aggressor state in the West, Nazi Germany, was overwhelmingly Christian at the start of the conflict. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

Religion in Nazi Germany

As we continue down the list we’ll find that even the presence of Islam is somewhat rare among the major wars and conflicts. The only one in the top 10 is the campaign(s) of Tamerlane, who at least made heavy use of Muslim imagery in his leadership. And out of this entire top-45 list, there might only be 5 conflicts or events that were determined strongly by Muslim belligerents, whether defensive or offensive.

So in the course of all violence recorded throughout history, it looks like Muslims have played a relatively minor role compared to adherents of other religions.

So far Matt’s thesis is not holding much water.


“But,” you or Matt might be saying, “it’s not fair to look at ALL violence, because only SOME wars and conflicts in world history were motivated by religion.”

Okay Matt, let’s play that game. I’ll get us started. Let’s look at the bloody streak that the Christian church has left on history:

I don’t have an exhaustive list of historical wars and violence rendered by Muslims, and to my knowledge Matt hasn’t provided one. But the links above account for tens of millions of lives lost due to wars and actions that were either validated by, or explicitly authorized by, the Christian church. So Muslims throughout history have an enormous deficit to contend with here. My instinct is that, if you were to go find comparable records for violence enacted by Muslim states and peoples, the tally would not come close to balancing out. Probably even accounting on a per-capita basis.

And it’s with this imbalance that my own point begins to emerge here:

If Matt and the rest of us think we’re making a comparative statement here, aka saying that “Muslims are violent [compared to Christians et. al.]” then we would do well to take a long hard look at our own historical legacy.

In other words let’s not be idiots please. We live in the internet age, where all of history is laid out for us like a 24-hour buffet. Let’s study at least some of it for Christ’s sake.
(pun intended)


“But,” you or Matt might say “while Christians of the past were very brutal, today we have reformed, and are peaceable and enlightened, whereas Muslims are still barbaric and twisted.”

Okay Matt, I hear you. Let’s look at that.

It’s not hard to say this, being a citizen of a modern industrialized state, living in North America or possibly western Europe. Matt (and probably you) is used to living in a society of relatively strong institutions that keep civil law and order, as well as religious freedom and pluralism. Because of all that, it’s relatively rare to find religious fundamentalists committing outright (physical) violence, because it would face immediate public censure and forceful reprisal.

So therefore, sure, Matt is right when he says:

“Can you imagine Christian radicals committing mass murder at The Onion offices because they’re upset about something they found on its website? Can you even fathom such a thing? Probably not, because it never happens.”

Matt thinks this would never happen because Christians would never do such a thing. But I disagree. I think this never happens because we live in a stable, modern, secular state, with strong institutions and legal enforcement. So he’s really not doing much, by comparing Muslim extremists to polite western Christians.

If we really want to compare apples to apples, we should look at how professed Christians behave in countries that resemble what we commonly call “the Muslim world” — countries that are poor, dominated by corruption, rife with tribalist loyalties, and lacking strong institutions. I wonder if Christians in those places would ever commit heinous violence and crimes against humanity. Humm …

  • Christianity in the Rwandan Genocide looks at how the churches of Rwanda played a key role in enabling the extermination of up to 20% of the population in 1994
  • The Second Congo War or “Great War of Africa” is the largest armed conflict in the world since WWII, and has killed more than 5 million people … all while happening in a region where more than 90% of the population identifies as Christian

My point here is that violence is mainly conditioned by societal factors, much more so than by religious doctrine taken in isolation. In fact, religious doctrine itself is highly conditioned by societal factors. Because duh.

In other words, we should expect that the kind of Islam practiced in stable and prosperous historical periods might appear just as enlightened and benevolent as (we think) we are today in the West. It turns out this isn’t hard to find:

[ … anyone know where the word algebra comes from? … ]

Meanwhile by the same reasoning, we should also expect that Christian societies have been especially brutal and militaristic during times of scarcity and conflict. Is this true? Duh it’s true. There are a billion links up above that show this.


Finally, Matt might say: “Okay fine, even Christian civilizations will do terrible violence, but today and in recent memory, Muslims are the worst offenders for explicitly claiming religion as the motivation for their violence.”

Let’s pick up that thread. I don’t know exactly how we want to define “worst”, but what if we just went with the total number of deaths caused by explicitly-confessed religious motivations?

Start here:
George Bush: “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”

And end here:
Why They Hate Us

“… a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities […] is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.”

So … yeah.

If you still insist on viewing the Christian west as a white knight, and modern Islam as a scourge that has been black from its beginning, then please help me understand why, in the comments section below. I can’t understand how this view can persist, when we have clearly rendered so much more violence as supposed Christians — whether implicitly or explicitly religious. Let us look in the mirror together, and consider our own sins before condemning our international neighbors.


Speaking of neighbors, my last point will focus on human relationships, rather than violence and war.

In another part of his post, Matt said:

“… we [should] stop putting Jihad into context and [we should] stop making excuses for it. These [Muslim extremists] are bloodthirsty barbarians. They don’t have a point. They don’t need to be understood. They don’t deserve any considerations at all.”

Yikes dude. Let’s spend a little time here before we finish this up.

Unless I’ve misunderstood him, Matt writes as a believing Christian as much as anything else. But his statement here is so far from my understanding of Jesus’s teachings that I don’t even find it recognizable.

If while saying this, we imagine that Matt had a big beard and was speaking Arabic, we would assume that he was an extremist himself. Interesting.

What would Jesus say to Matt, and to all of us? At very least, Jesus said we should not resist those who do evil; we should never call anyone a fool; we should care for our neighbor, even when we think our neighbor is our enemy. And above all that and more challenging than all of that,

He said we should love our enemies.

… And I admit … doing so is hard. For some reason in western Christendom we tend to gloss over such “basic” teachings of Jesus and focus on more complex topics like the nature of salvation, eschatology, and so forth. But I am humbled here by the simplicity and weight of Jesus’s words. One could easily spend a whole lifetime to learn this straightforward, challenging axiom.

… But Matt seems to have thrown it all out the window. Perhaps he doesn’t think it’s possible to love those who do harm to us. Instead, he unwittingly encourages the very same tribalism that actually motivates most of the ongoing violence in the Arab world (among other places). He draws a line in the sand labeled US and THEM; and he seems here to have decided that them Muslim extremists are insane animals who should no longer be loved, understood, or cared for.

I wish Matt would see that a huge chunk of extremist demographics (perhaps even a majority) are young poor men who face marginalization, unemployment, fear of everyday violence, and lack of any hopeful future. These are individuals who, because of myriad regional forces beyond their control, have been presumably denied exactly the love, care, and hope that Jesus teaches all humans deserve. They are instead manipulated and encouraged into militias from that state of vulnerability. And to be sure, they are responsible for their own actions as much as anyone is. But they face few other prospects that offer any hope to them.

And then, under the command of clerics and warlords who are often more motivated by power and politics than they are by the teachings of Islam as such … they are sent to kill, and to die.

In turn, they are burned in effigy by vitriolic western bloggers like Matt. And people here feel relieved when he does so, because like dominant whites in the Old South on a night of lynching, they are utterly terrified.

What Matt forgets, and what we all forget, is that all of humanity is thoroughly broken, and that Jesus had the closest fellowship with those who were most broken. If one day (like today) we look in the mirror and think that we see an image of Christian righteousness, we are likely instead seeing only the outside of the dish, masking an interior of fear, greed, and self-serving rhetoric.

Perhaps Matt thinks that by writing with such ardor, he is doing his part to preserve something worth fighting for. All too often, he is preserving nothing but the fight itself. He perpetuates this conflict to all of our detriment.


Post scripts:

  1. Do you think there’s an important message in this post? Great, I do too. I see today’s anti-Muslim sentiment as just another manifestation of fear, bigotry, and specious groupthink. If you agree, you should re-share this post.
  2. Did you find this thought-provoking? Want to talk more? Great. Let’s do it. Light up those comments below, or message me directly via any means you can find. I’d love to continue kicking this around. All thoughts are a work in progress.
  3. Recommended further reading: The Myth of Religious Violence

My Shift to the Dark Side (pt. 2)

When I spoke up in January to my two friends, I was working from the perspective that interfaith marriage is a clear and unequivocal no-no for Christians. I wrote my message, basically, as a well-intended defense of that thesis.

After things hit the fan, I had plenty of time to review and reflect. I went back to my words many times. Eventually, I noted something curious:

I was not necessarily 100% convinced of my original thesis.

The objective doctrinal matter of interfaith marriage is, like most things drawn from the Bible, more complex than we’d sometimes like it to be. Yet, I felt that it was important to present the matter as basically uncomplicated, because I was standing up for solid and accepted wisdom. And in this, I had the assent of plenty of my believing friends.

Why had I chosen to represent a complex issue as black and white, even when I didn’t necessarily see it as such? We’ll discuss more on this later.

Meanwhile, the World Vision fiasco came up. Read up on it if you don’t recall. By this time in the spring, I was reading more widely on diverse interpretations of scripture, which are commonly regarded as straightforward in the mainstream evangelical world. So my eyes were opened a little wider, and I had an awareness of the disingenuousness mentioned above … and then I watched, as prominent voices within the evangelical sphere basically replicated my mistake, on a grand scale. They decided that a complex issue full of nuance — human sexuality — was in fact cut and dry, with only one clear moral path.

It seemed the mistake I felt I had made, was in fact a demonstrated and exemplary method within Christendom, practiced by some of the church’s most prominent teachers.

Well, this was all very interesting.

So I quietly continued my exploratory reading throughout the rest of this year. I was on a search now for some kind of balance.

Having come to faith in college, I had spent most of the past seven years within the conservative evangelical bubble, if you will. To be sure, I have not always towed the party line, due to my willful and distracted nature, and due to my epistemological roots as a Jew and a skeptic. But for most of this time I viewed conservative orthodoxy as something that I would eventually come around to, and fully embrace. The same as many probably feel within this sphere.

When you’re inside the camp, it is commonly held that “liberal” theology is a slippery slope, and it’s best not to tread there unless you want to follow in the wake of e.g Rob Bell. You don’t mess with the authority of scripture, and so on. And if you do trust scripture, then you should believe it in these particular ways.

I mean no offense … but hey, it really is like that.

Luckily, I discovered teachers like NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Frank Viola, and other bright ones. And meanwhile, Shane Blackshear’s podcast was responsible for introducing me to dozens of other diverse perspectives, held by believers who are otherwise [sic] sincere and passionate about Jesus. This whole year amounted to the first sustained season where I deliberately studied theology and exegesis from those outside my traditional camp.

What I discovered, more than anything, is that this whole gospel can be much more expansive and flexible than we commonly acknowledge within the bubble. And I’d argue, it should be.

So what now?

Well, I’m still in process. And with any luck, I will be for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I have slowly begun to reconcile with my old friends. I’m hopeful for a full recovery, one day soon.

What about all these contentious matters, over which the church is frequently in conflict with mainstream culture? Or, even with other parts of the church?

One thing I know for certain: we need to be more humble with our certainty, because these issues are always more complex than we want them to be. In this transition, the main thing from which I am recovering is my own hubris and self-assurance. How did such arrogance arise in the first place?

Well for one, I am arrogant 😀

But for two, the church passively encourages this sort of thing.

How’s that you say? Here’s a totally brilliant short piece from Greg Boyd on the idolatry of certainty, and how we practice this far too often when we live in the bubble (filmed by the totally brilliant The Work Of The People). Regardless of your personal beliefs, you will want to watch at least the first few minutes of this, because it’s incisive: The Idolatry of Certainty

As for actually addressing those specific contentious issues … for the time being, I have a deeper interest in asking the good questions, than in unlocking the monolithically-correct answers. Call that a cop-out if you will. For me it is a return to the mode of thinking that characterized my Jewish youth. And if you’re interested, I’d be happy to chat more about that.

For now, arriving in late December, I feel good about this year. I am now likely treading ground previously marked as perilous by my younger self … but that sounds like growth to me.


In the spring, I’ll be shifting focus a little bit. I’ve determined that the most valuable kind of learning for me occurs via dialogue, rather than soliloquy. And, some would argue, this can be generalized to most people. In the spring I want to somehow move toward a more conversational approach here. I want to explore some of the challenging questions I’ve discovered this year, and not jump to overly hasty conclusions in their consideration.

If you’re interested in some exploratory and civil discourse with me, I would be thrilled. Or if you have any ideas on how this blog can effectively be made more “conversant”, from a technology and format perspective, please hit me up.

For the 50 or so of you that show up here regularly, thank you for reading. Enjoy the winter break.