Russia Is The New Benghazi

It’s hard to write something that implicitly defends President Trump, but this deserves to be said.

The people who have long opposed Trump, for all the high-minded reasons that we love, have embraced conspiracy-theorizing and shallow reasoning in their opposition to him. Liberals, moderates, and #NeverTrumpers now use “Russia” the same way Tea Partiers and far-right folks used to use the word “Benghazi” — as a one-word incantation, which signifies the obvious scandal which will eventually consume the administration they (you) hate.

I would say: don’t be so sure. Now on the eve of former FBI Director Comey’s testimony before Congress, we should hold ourselves back from the peaks of emotion, more than ever.

So how did Russia become the new Benghazi? Basically just how the brain works.

Here’s how it played out:
You felt desperately aggrieved and alarmed, that the most powerful position in the land is now occupied by a man who shows all signs of being (not only) hopelessly narcissistic and morally bankrupt, but also incompetent, even idiotic, and emotionally pre-pubescent. (And if you don’t feel this way, then thanks for at least dropping by to watch us commiserate.) The alarm and shock you felt brings your amygdala into the fight, among other emotional-regulatory areas of the brain. Why is this important? When you’re triggered like this, it is much harder to get full use out of your prefrontal cortex — and that’s where all your logic and critical thinking come from.

There is a cruel irony here. Trump appears to us like a man driven by pure emotion and instinct, without any logic or critical thinking. This gets us triggered, and consequently our own brains have a hard time keeping up with the critical thinking. He brings us down to his level.

And then we get the conspiracies. Our desperate wanting for Trump to be gone leads us to grasp onto any bits of news that seem to diminish his standing or offer a path to his downfall. We don’t exercise due skepticism. We don’t protest when headlines are clearly sensationalized. We don’t pull ourselves away from the kind of writing that would disgust us if it was slanted toward the other side.

This was on display during the Obama years too, of course. Think Birther-ism (hat tip to Trump). Or, how about Obama’s secret plot to round up all the gun owners and stow them in FEMA camps?

And then there was Benghazi. Not an Obama thing directly — but an extension of similar animus toward his chief diplomat, Hillary Clinton.

Benghazi presents as vaguely similar to Russia. Something definitely went wrong (the deaths of State Dept staff in Benghazi), just like something definitely went wrong in the 2016 election (according to at least half the country). Both of these events can appear as willfully evil plots when scrutinized through the right kind of biased lens. Benghazi eventually became one of the rallying cries of the growing Tea Party. At some point Sarah Palin concluded one of her rants with the phrase”… and then you get Benghazi!” … Which, I think was meant as code for “… and then you get evil people in government who purposefully kill their own people!

But Benghazi was subject to intense scrutiny via official (and unofficial) investigations. To my knowledge, the final verdict was that no malign intent led to the deaths in Benghazi. Instead, there was a pattern of negligence within the State Department as a whole — Hillary was but one exemplar of this negligence, but not its originator.

What about Russia?

I expect we’ll find something similar with Russia. A whole lot of circumstantial evidence, a whole lot of bad judgment and procedural incompetence, and possibly some willful collusion involving people other than Trump himself.

I’ll tell you why. Let’s start with what we know:

  • We DO know that Russia directly sought to interfere with the election via a huge digital propaganda campaign, AND through state-led spear-phishing against many levels of the national election apparatus (and this is bolstered by recent leak of NSA analysis).
  • We DO also know that the Russians like Trump’s unstable, anti-globalist stance, because it weakens the leadership position of the United States and therefore weakens all the alliances in which we oppose Russian influence (namely NATO).
  • We DO also know that Trump has a history of admiring Putin and other asshole dictators, and that he and his associates have had plenty of contact with Russian business over the last few decades.
  • Finally, we DO know that several members of Trump’s campaign, transition team, and administration have had an assortment of undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. These keep coming out of the woodwork with each passing month.

As far as I know, this is all we know.

The most important thing I can say in this post is: none of this necessarily leads us to a smoking gun. None of this shows us that Trump deliberately sought to collude with the Russian government in order to fix the election.

Here are the reasons we should not hold our breath for such a smoking gun:

1) There is not yet any evidence of Trump’s involvement. And EVEN IF some of his associates end up having colluded in this active fashion, it would not surprise me in the LEAST if such a scheme had gone on entirely without Trump’s personal knowledge. Seriously, would this surprise you? His staff has to babysit him. I have no doubt they also have to sometimes keep him in the dark.

2) The collusion scheme gives Trump too much credit. It would be difficult (for me) to believe that Trump could actually pull off something so well coordinated, under the radar, and escape public discovery for all these months. Look, this man is incompetent. His own staff can’t even leave him alone for an evening with his own smartphone, without his sabotaging his own long-term efforts via some random tweet straight from his inner child. To me, a sophisticated clandestine coordination with Russia may honestly be beyond his abilities.

3) None of the election hacking REQUIRED collusion from Trump. This is a key point. All Putin needed to do was notice that Trump was the candidate to root for, and then commence with a unilateral campaign of hacking, trolling, and propaganda. Trump in this way simply served as a useful idiot for Russia. Idiots don’t need to be complicit in order to be useful. You can see how this arrangement plays out presently — our international reputation is up and down, and our alliances are getting bruised on a weekly basis. All Putin has to do is sit back and watch the hilarity unfold from Moscow.

This all runs in the vein of David Frum’s observation about Trump: there are many secrets, but few mysteries. Everything we need to know is already out in the open.

The point in writing this is we ought to be prepared for Russia to NOT materialize into a silver bullet that ends this absurdist nightmare for us.

If anything, I expect Trump’s undoing to be his sheer incompetence. He is alienating our allies and his own senior staff, he constantly undermines himself via social media, and I have to think he is growing more psychologically isolated as the pressure mounts. He is just plain bad at his job, his administration has been extremely disorganized, they’ve delayed their own appointment process for months, and have so far achieved almost zero progress on their keystone campaign issues. I believe eventually he will either bow out in order to escape the public spotlight and save face, or do something in office that is so stupid that Congress will have no choice but to remove him.

In the meantime, we (the people who are currently triggered and desperate) ought to make a habit of being more careful in our reasoning, and exercising higher standards of truth than the object of our desperation. If you prefer to think in the noblest of terms — we will not save the republic by devolving down to the level of Sarah Palin or the Alex Jones crowd. Be careful what you read then. And be prepared for this to be a long fight.

*Addendum: this edit is being written on Wednesday June 7th, a day before the Comey hearing. It’s turning into a rich news week, that’s for sure.
It deserves to be said that I could be totally wrong. Maybe there will be a silver bullet coming up in the near future, but I still doubt it. That doubt motivated me to give all of the above warnings. Be prepared for your gratification to be slow in coming.

A big way that we totally miss the point

A day or two ago, this article / video from MSNBC showed up in my feed:

Trump, his supporters, and the persistence of the ‘reality gap’

Without poring over the details, here is the basic synopsis. National data *clearly* shows that during the Obama years the unemployment has gone way down, and the stock market has gone way up. A new national poll SHOWS: voters for every candidate understand these basic facts except for Trump voters, who get the facts totally backward.

The intended takeaway is rendered pretty plain by Rachel Maddow’s incredulous smirk at about 4:50 — these Trump people are laughably uninformed about the world, and this must explain their unconscionable decision at the voting booth in November.

Because my reptile brain has been starving for reassurance in the last few weeks, my initial reaction to these findings was indulgent glee. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this was the expected result.

But then my recent reeducation started to push back on me.

Asking why instead of laughing about how

The other day I heard Sam Harris say offhand that the “principle of charity” is paramount in any democracy. In order to make any progress in a public conversation, you must first grant that your opponent has at least some semblance of insight, intelligence, and recognizable human motivations. This should lead you to interrogate their reasoning — why do you think this? — instead of just “eviscerating” them as straw men or imbeciles.

This is really important right now — it always has been, but especially right now.

MSNBC had at least two options here, when deciding on how to present findings from the poll:

  1. They could start with the assumption that Trump voters are stupid because they voted for Trump. The poll is then understood easily as an objective confirmation to existing theories: Trump voters are indeed stupid, because look at how little they know about the state of their country! Lols.
  2. They could instead have started with the assumption that Trump voters are human, and the poll results are a reflection of their present lived experience. This could have led Rachel Maddow to ask why Trump voters would think the country is doing so poorly, when the national data would imply so clearly otherwise.

This here is how we (humans) too often miss the point. When our opponents think things that we don’t, we mis-categorize those wrong beliefs as corollaries of their inferiority. Doing so allows us to be reassured. In the process, we forfeit the chance to believe other people when they tell us what their worlds look like.

I wish MSNBC would try the latter approach, but hey that’s big media for you. Luckily, many other left-leaning and moderate writers have been shifting toward option 2 in recent months — perhaps because eventually the election results gave us no other recourse.

If we would ask why more often, more useful insights would become known.

Here’s one way to look at this problem: as humans with brains, one of our responsibilities in life is to build a mental model of the world. And most of the time, because we are not population scientists or wide-roaming journalists, our own models are just small. They usually reflect our own local pockets of reality, and not much more.

This perceptual problem makes it easy for someone like me to agree with the national data that Maddow cites in the video — the recovery is real, things are looking up, and Obama has done a fine job. I can agree with those things because I am college-educated, work in technology, and happen to live in one of the very strongest areas in the country for new firms and job growth.

So if you ask me or someone like me, the recovery is real and we’re doing great.

But outside of those precious few areas of strong economic recovery, one might be forgiven for believing that the recovery never came and the recession never ended.

Here is some of what I mean:

  1. America’s Divided Recovery, Georgetown University
  2. Number of new businesses in US is falling off a cliff, Quartz
  3. New Map of Economic Growth and Recovery, Economic Innovation Group
  4. Why Coastal Elites and Middle America see the economy differently, Vox
  5. Geographic inequality is swallowing the recovery, Citylab
  6. Explaining Trump’s massive upset in the deep-blue “Rust Belt”, Business Insider

Spend a few minutes with any of these, and you’ll get the point that Rachel Maddow may have missed: regardless of what the aggregate data might show, in many pockets of the country business is contracting and unemployment is rising. These indicators are correlated with other problems, like rising mortality rates (a demographic rarity, as I understand it) and the newly established epidemic of opiate abuse.

And by now, you won’t be surprised to learn that many of these pockets swung hard for Trump on election day. It may not be a story of outright cause and effect, of course, but the correlations are striking just the same.

So here is my contention: we who spend our lives on the internet ought to be humble enough and curious enough to discover these things on our own, rather than waiting for a stunning election result to pull the rug out from under our comfortable models.

We should ask why with an attitude of investigation instead of ridicule. And, it would help if the big media outlets would occasionally participate in the work of truth-seeking with the same charitable spirit. But they’re beholden to the profit motive, and “evisceration” is great for ratings.

To finish, I will offer some disclaimers, which will appease some readers:

The arguments and data here do not tell us what to do. They do not provide moral guidance. They do not offer excuse for Trump voters. They do not offer guilt or scorn to non-Trump voters. They do not address the many other factors that weighed in the election, and now either relieve or terrify us and our countrymen.

If you came here with a bone to pick about white privilege or homophobia, or the expansion of the military, or Hillary’s scandals or her agenda to destroy Christianity, or how we all should have voted for Bernie … you are reading the wrong blog post.

What I’m trying to offer here is a decent set of reasons to listen to what the other side is saying, instead of laughing about how they are wrong. That’s it.

Political Consciousness

There’s a big difference between #1 studying the world and knowing current events, and #2 knowing about the frames one uses to get informed about the world. And blind spots that come with the frames.

Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I did not notice the difference between these two.

I want to say I was operating much more in the first category than the second. Subsequently, I was shocked by the results of the election.

Whenever I get hit with this kind of shock and loss (it’s happened before), my reptile brain ends up shouting something like “HEY — you thought you had a handle on this situation, but you didn’t. It’s time to understand this problem more deeply, or else you’re going to suffer again.”

The reptile brain is a good motivator.

Last time, this was the impetus that led me to deeply investigate, and ultimately dismantle, my Christian faith. That may sound tragic to some who are reading this, but for Ian’s brain it has been healthy and relieving.

This time, it’s leading me into a big, challenging world of culture and political philosophy.

Before the election, I thought the situation was something like: Trump is clearly an idiot and a con man, so it’s a good thing the polls show that practically everybody in the country hates him! And hey, wouldn’t a “third term” of the Obama years be pretty fine by comparison, even for conservatives?

Turns out, this was the situation only in (very roughly) about half of the country. Which is way different than “practically everybody”. Ah, the naivête of October 2016. The good old days.

But the socio-media bubble that I inhabit made this very difficult to detect. Well, maybe only sort of. I discovered that I know several people who ended up voting for Trump, but none of them felt permitted to share that opinion because it was deemed unacceptable. Gotta say I can’t blame them for keeping it quiet.

So in a sense, the anti-Trump bubble could have known the truth. We didn’t want to know it though. We couldn’t have handled it. Er, not most of us at least. I guess Michael Moore handled himself pretty well.

Where to go next? Well, the big questions I’m interested in have seemed to unfold easily from there:

1) The obvious one: why did people vote for Trump?
Obvious to ask, but complex to resolve. Don’t fall for glib answers here.

2A) The output from #1 points to a very different lived reality than my own. What’s that like?

2B) Also important: how was I able to be “well-informed” but still thoroughly unaware of this different lived reality? Whatever the answer, it will point to major blind spots that deserve coverage.

3) As the answers to 1 and 2 gradually get filled in, then the big follow-up: Does any of this new information change my beliefs or sense of the world and my place in it? Our place in it?
It should. If so, how so?

This third question is the real prime-time, because it is a bottomless well of meaning and discovery; it never ends. Because look, by trying to interrogate the thoughts of the Trump-half of the country, I am forced also to interrogate my home turf.

This is not just an exercise in moving toward the center so I can be friends with the right — the point is to become more sure of what our world is really like, who our leaders really are, where the truth lies, and what goodness and justice actually look like.

You don’t just happen upon these things by sheltering in the bubble of your adolescence.

So this leads us into a thing I stole from Ta-Nehisi Coates: political consciousness. He says it is:

“… as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning — questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

Eventually, this leads into a richer awareness of self within a myriad whole.

That for instance, I am not simply a unique and remarkable snowflake, but I have also been demarcated by a race, and a class, and a gender, and a socioeconomic niche in our civilization; and that perhaps, many of my experiences and my worldview are inherited from my spot in the regimented order of things.

This is not about class warfare — it’s about self-knowledge. Because look, most of the time we get stuck thinking our own worldview and experiences are basically sound, even unassailable. But what if Ian’s opinions are largely a product of his station in society? What if Ian’s worldview is not actually well-considered, but is just “one of those things” that gets handed down through the years?

If any of it’s true, it means I get to reconsider all of my natural convictions with a lot more care. Because they were probably never so careful in the first place. And, I get to revise my categories of people. And pay more attention to the ones who are saying things I don’t agree with.

So that’s what’s going on right now.

I’ll probably be doing this stuff a lot more here. And in a podcast. And more.

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.

 

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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:

country-castle

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.

Revisionism

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:

venn-splosion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?”

Cook:
expressionless

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

###

[Notes]

  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.