Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dream Political Scenario for Republican 2012 Primaries

Disclaimer:  I am a registered independent with moderate political views who has cautiously supported Obama for the last several years.  With that said, I have been largely disappointed  by Obama's inability to accomplish much of anything in Washington (granted, much of the blame for that falls on the House Republicans, but Obama has caved to their demands far too often for the blame to only rest on them) and I recognize that the Democrats are going to have a very tough battle in next year's election.  So I have been watching the Republican race very closely to see what happens, often finding myself terrified by the prospects of any of these people being President.  I don't trust Mitt Romney, I think most of the other candidates are a joke, and the only one I would seriously consider voting for is Jon Huntsman, but he is getting little political traction outside of New Hampshire, where is currently polling fourth.  I suppose I could live with Gingrich with the knowledge that the president can't act unilaterally on very many things (and at least he has some experience getting things done in Washington), but wouldn't be wild about his nomination.

So with that said, here is my dream political scenario:

1.  Ron Paul wins Iowa, throwing the race wide open.  Supporters of Paul and Gingrich cast it as a major blow for Romney, he sees his first major drop in polls.

2.  Huntsman, who has been campaigning vigorously in New Hampshire, pulls off an upset win there and starts getting major national attention.

3.  Gingrich wins South Carolina with Paul in second and Huntsman in third.

4.  Gingrich wins Florida with Huntsman in second.

5.  Huntsman wins Nevada.  He and Gingrich are now battling it out going into Super-Tuesday.  Huntsman wins over both conservatives concerned with Gingrich's record and moderates concerned with Gingrich's sanity, wins big on Super-Tuesday, goes on to claim the nomination.

This scenario isn't actually going to happen.  I am fully aware of that.  So here is my more realistic hope for the next few weeks:

1.  Ron Paul wins Iowa, Gingrich takes second, Romney third.  Paul and Gingrich spin this as a major defeat for Romney, he sees his numbers drop significantly.

2.  Gingrich pulls off a win in New Hampshire (or maybe even a close second that he can cast as a defeat for Romney), Huntsman places a solid third, gets some major attention.

3.  Gingrich lands solid victories in South Carolina and Florida.  Romney is sinking fast at this point.  Bachmann and Santorum drop out at this point, their supporters are split between Gingrich and Huntsman, who has shifted focus to Nevada.

4.  Huntsman appeals to Romney supporters in Nevada who are disenchanted with their failing candidate.  He also plays up his credentials as former governor of neighboring Utah.  Pulls off an outright win in Nevada.

5.  Going into Super-Tuesday, Huntsman able to appeal to conservatives worried about Gingrich's record and moderates concerned about his sanity.  Also able to pull over many of Romney's former supporters.  Takes home big wins on Super-Tuesday, though nomination battle isn't totally finished yet.  Romney officially drops out, giving Huntsman more of a boost.

6.  In later primaries, Huntsman either wins the nomination or forces enough of a split with Gingrich to be on the ticket as VP nominee.

Not sure about the likelihood of this scenario either, but I think its a bit more realistic.  Will be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Meaning, Self-Determination, and Relativism

We left off our last post with some pretty big questions.  What I hope to do in this post is sketch in a very broad outline the direction I see answers to those questions as going.  Then in future posts I will flesh that out a bit more through some more concrete discussions of different issues.  What that means is that this post will probably be a bit more “technical” or “jargony” than I would like, but I hope it will still be relatively clear. 
First, meaning:  We ended by saying that meaning is defined by the one bestowing meaning.  That actually is too simplistic for the reason that we are all bestowing meaning on a shared collection of objects.  Further, we are influenced in our own bestowing of meaning by the meanings others have bestowed.  There is a back and forth going on that is far more complicated than a single direction of movement or even a two-directional dialogue between “object” and “interpreter.”  It is more like trying to pinpoint a person in a crowded room where everyone is moving and swirling around.  We can find the person-- we can bestow meaning-- but it involves a serious amount of maneuvering and jostling past other people trying to do the same.  This is what we can call the “hermeneutical situation.”  Objects exist a certain way in themselves.  But we can only comprehend them in the way we perceive them, in the way we bestow meaning on them or interpret them.  But these perceptions and interpretations are influenced by the way our culture has taught us to perceive and interpret objects.  But even that is filtered through our own sets of categories, which have been influenced by a myriad of factors from our family situation to our particular education to our conversations with others.  So in the end, we bestow a particular meaning on things, but that is not merely a process of us arbitrarily deciding something will mean x for us.  Understanding and parsing through all the various influences on us and how they impact our own understanding of the world (our own efforts to bestow meaning), what we can call the hermeneutical process, is as much an exercise in psychology as it is in philosophy.
Second, self-determination:  Just as all of the various cultural and experiential factors we have noted above work together to shape the way we understand the world, so they work together to shape us into who we are.  Seemingly this “determines” us and makes us products of our culture and situation.  However, there is a sense in which we do and must have freedom in the midst of this process.  That sense is in our choosing to embrace what we are.  We are self-determined in that we decide that we are satisfied with ourselves, that we are who we are and are not something else which has failed to accomplish its own being.  That sense of self-acceptance, of choosing ourself, is the existential endeavor.  It involves understanding ourself, just as with the hermeneutical process above, and deciding that the self whom we understand is in fact “us.”  That does not translate into a static existence-- we are always in motion and on certain trajectories.  But it involves us recognizing the trajectories on which we are moving and consciously choosing to embrace them, understanding and accepting their consequences for our being.
Third, relativism:  What needs to be kept in mind is that the things we have discussed are primarily epistemological and don’t necessarily translate into concrete metaphysical implications.  The limitation introduced by our subjective perspective is an epistemological limitation.  But what we are able to know has no bearing on what is.  The meaning we perceive in the world is not somehow imposed on the world by our perception of it.  So many perspectives exist and we must recognize the limit of our own perspectival viewpoint.  This is not the same as saying that all such perspectives are true in the sense that they correspond to metaphysical reality.  While the claim could be made that since we don’t have access to objective knowledge of the world the best we can do is formulate our own subjective understanding of it, this is not the same as saying that our individual subjective understanding describes the way the world actually exists.  In fact, to make this relativist leap, to claim that all beliefs are metaphysically true, is to negate the value of holding beliefs.  If no perspective can be valued as “better” or “worse” than another then there is no reason to choose any perspective.  This is not to say we wouldn’t choose-- that is a natural consequence of being human, we have a perspective and an understanding of the world-- but it would be to say there would be no basis for the choice except luck or chance.  This, in turn, fundamentally negates the value of our own existence.  To find our own existence meaningful we need to “choose” it in the sense of self-determination as we have already discussed.  To do that we need some reason to “value” it.  We find that reason by comparing different perspectives, thinking through issues in different ways, and embracing that which we find most compelling.  In effect, when we make this choice, we are claiming that as best we can tell the perspective we have adopted is the “most true” of all the options available to us.  This is not the same as saying it is “objectively true.”  But neither is it the same as saying that all beliefs are true, which is effectively the same as saying no beliefs are true and no beliefs are meaningful.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Blog is Back!! Essential Traits and Existentialism

This last semester was insanely busy and I took a bit of a hiatus from blogging to keep on top of everything.  But the semester is finally over and so now the blog is making a comeback.  There are several posts that I had started and never finished that will hopefully be getting revisited and prepared for posting in the near future.
This post aims to summarize some of what I have been thinking about this semester in my own studies and tie that in to some familiar themes on this blog.  Much of my work this semester has had to do, either directly or indirectly, with the school of philosophy known as existentialism.  I find this branch of philosophy fascinating because of the kinds of questions it is asking and the way it approaches these questions to posit answers for them.  Existentialism is very motivated by the kinds of epistemological limitations that I have discussed in previous posts to approach philosophy from a very different angle.  Rather than attempting to paint an objective metaphysical picture of the world, existentialism begins by noting our subjective perspective on the world and attempts to describe the way in which we might live "existentially" given this finite/subjective viewpoint.
A particularly famous example of this way of thinking is found in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  To briefly outline Sartre's claims, Sartre believes that as far as human beings are concerned, "existence precedes essence."  What Sartre means by this is that nothing "essentially" defines "me" as "me."  I simply exist as "me" and however I define or understand myself determines what the essence, or core being, of "me" really is.  To illustrate with a simple example:  If I cut my hair (which I should probably do, though I was just informed that I look like Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol…), have I become a different person?  Most people would easily say "no."  What if I dyed it blonde?  My girlfriend might be pissed at me, but I don't think this would constitute me being someone else.  These are relatively simple examples.  What if I do something more complicated- I get plastic surgery and replace my chin and my nose.  I am now unrecognizable.  Am I a different person?  I think most people would still say that it is "me" beneath these changes, not someone else.  Let's get really complicated- what if I underwent surgery to have my gender changed?  My gut is still to say that I would be the same person, even if in a very different physical manifestation (without getting into a discussion about transgendered persons, we are assuming in this example that it is me, a male who has no doubts about being a male, that is our subject).
So far we have only discussed potential physical changes.  Let's talk more abstractly.  What if I woke up one morning and decided I would no longer hold any religious beliefs.  I became an abject atheist and quit all associations with Christianity.  Would I be someone new?  What if I became convinced of solipsism- that I am the only person that exists?  Would that make me someone new?  What if I underwent therapy and radically changed my personality to become extremely extroverted and aggressive?  Would that make me a different person?  What if I lost my memory and could not recall who my friends and family were?  Would I still be "me"?
The point of this lengthy list of questions is simply this:  I don't think that any of these questions presents us with a "change" which would actually result in a new person coming into existence (at least not on most accounts of personhood that I am aware of).  So if I can change almost everything about me, from my personality to my appearance to my beliefs to my memories, and still be "me" what is it that is essentially "me"?  Sartre claims such an "essence," such an underlying core being, simply doesn't exist on its own.  Instead, that core being is whatever I make it to be.  I exist, how I exist is up to me to decide.
Now, I think Sartre might be willing to push this a little bit farther than I have thus far.  So far we have only talked about individual persons and their "essence" or core being.  What happens, however, if we broaden this to talk about the human race as a whole?  Is there anything that is "essentially" human-- anything that to lack would make us "un-human"?  The predominant philosophical tradition has been that rationality defines the essence of humanity-- the ability to think and reason is what makes us "people."  But what about the person born with a severe mental handicap?  It is possible to conceive of someone who was born without the cerebral capacity for reason even if their basic biological functions were intact.  Would such an individual, with their human DNA and human appearance but without any higher reasoning capacities actually be a person?  My sense is that most philosophers would be quick to say "yes" and seek some explanation for this seeming exception to the rule.  We could make similar cases, I think, about many other things- two arms are not required to be human.  Nor two legs.  Nor two eyes.  Nor any other physical feature, really.  DNA might mark off the human species, but everyone has slightly different DNA and human DNA is remarkably similar to the DNA of other species.  So does that minuscule difference from other species while accounting for variations within our species actually separate people from "not-people"?
In then end, we might come to a similar point: Nothing in particular defines the "essence" of humanity.  Humanity determines its own essence through the way it constitutes itself.  Now, however, I want to push this point farther than Sartre takes it, at least in my knowledge of Sartre.  Can we define the essence of anything?  Pick an object or a creature, any one, and see if we can find an underlying "core" that must be present for it to be what it is.  I think a case can be made that no such core exists for any object, that the meaning of things is defined by the one bestowing meaning on it.  That final statement is certainly a very radical one, and that is something we will have to explore in a bit more depth in other posts.  In particular, I want to address down the line three related questions:
1.  What does it mean for someone to bestow meaning?
2.  How is bestowing meaning related to determining our own essence in the way Sartre describes?
3.  What happens when we bestow different meanings on things?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Analogy

In some recent studies of mine I have realized that the epistemological limitations I have been arguing for, linking them to a modified version of Kant’s project, are in fact extraordinarily similar to the claims of another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.  Now, as with Kant, Nietzsche and I are going to have some other areas of disagreement, but in terms of discussing what we are able to know I am happy to adopt the label "Nietzschean."
I want to provide an analogy for how I think the epistemological limitations I have outlined work in relation to metaphysical questions about what actually exists in the world.  Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a field of boulders.  It is a clear day, and you can see that the field stretches about a mile in any direction.  You are tasked with providing a map of the boulder field from your present location.
Now, we can make a few observations that helps us get our bearings in terms of the project of this post.  First, we can note that there is indeed a way in which the boulder field exists.  There actually is a field, there actually are boulders on it, and they exist in an actual arrangement that can, in theory be mapped out.  However, the second thing we should note is that boulders are not transparent and in a field we don’t have a bird’s eye perspective.  The very things we are trying to map, therefore, become obstructions to our view and therefore limit our ability to accurately map them.  Certainly we can provide a very detailed and accurate map of the boulders closest to us, we can be more or less accurate in mapping the next few rings out which remain mostly in our line of sight, but the farther we get away from our present location the more difficult it is to see and we develop large blind spots where we are simply unable to make even educated guesses about the lay of the land.
This is something like how I believe our perspectival limitations in epistemology work in terms of mapping out the “lay of the land” to attempt to answer metaphysical questions.  I don’t think we have any reason for the extreme skepticism which would have us believe none of our impressions of the world reflect reality at all.  However, I think our limited perspective requires us to admit that we can only see part of the way things are, and that is usually the part that is closest to us.  The farther away from our immediate experience, from our own heritage, way of life, traditions, etc.- all things that make up our own subjective perspective, or what can be called our “hermeneutical situation”- that we get the more difficult it is for us to have an accurate understanding.  This seems at first remarkably trivial: of course I don’t know what life is like in China, I have never lived there!  So what?  Well, it is from these kinds of lived experiences, heritages, traditions, and so on that we develop our beliefs about what might be behind them.  We reason about the essence of being or about what constitutes morality, what God might be like, whether there is a life after death.  If we can extend the analogy, we reason about the path we might take to get through the boulder field- whether we will have to navigate around the maze of boulders, whether we might be able to climb some of them or go through them, etc.  We reason about the course of life we might take and why we should take it over some other course.  But we do all this from our place in the field, with limited lines of sight and large blind spots.
One of the most significant blind spots is actually fairly close to us.  We cannot see the other side of the boulders that are nearest us, how they would appear from another perspective.  But now lets imagine a change in the scenario.  No longer are we standing alone in the boulder field, there are now four people here in four different locations.  We cannot move from where we stand, but we can communicate with one another.  We can describe to each other what we are seeing and from that hopefully put together the pieces into a more full picture of what the field is actually like.  Some people will do that better than others, but what we are all doing is trying to put those pieces together, to get the best understanding we can.  And the more voices we have, the more descriptions of the field we have to work with, the more accurate a map we can create and the better we will be at finding our way through the field.
This, then, goes to show us the importance of what we have called before on this blog the “hermeneutical project.”  Before we can truly begin making a map of the world, we have to first understand the limitations of our own perspective and of those on whom we will be relying for the other pieces of the puzzle.  We have to understand the nature of our own blind spots, especially those closest to us, and have a relatively accurate understanding of our position on the field.  We have to engage in communication with others, but we need to understand something of their perspective, which is difficult because it is not our own, to be able to accurately understand what they are telling us.  Essentially, then, hermeneutics is, as I understand it, the starting point for all our other endeavors in philosophy.  And hermeneutics takes as its starting point our perspectival limitations in terms of what we are able to know.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Few Proposed Demands for #OccupyWallStreet

The #OccupyWallStreet movement has been capturing more and more of my attention lately.  My impression until very recently was that the group was a largely disorganized rag-tag band which stood no chance of affecting any sort of change because they had no unified goals or objectives.  As my interest in the group has grown, I began thinking about possible goals that it might aim to achieve.  After watching the above video tonight and being impressed with the articulate declaration put forward by the New York City General Assembly, I decided to post these goals for others to comment on.  I don't think these goals are in any way exhaustive, certainly they leave most of the issues listed in the General Assembly statement unaddressed.  But I think these four narrowly defined goals are attainable and would then open up the door to a host of other reforms which are impossible so long as the connection between Wall Street and Washington remains as tight-knit as it currently is.  So I submit now a list of proposed demands that the #OccupyWallStreet movement can take as its mission:

  1. Immediate resignation of all executives who have received bonuses in excess of $100,000 while the economy was in a recession.  Return of that money to the people via donations to charities that help the poor and the unemployed.
  2. Petition for politicians to categorically reject corporate donations to their campaigns.  Vow to boycott political parties that accept corporate donations in excess of $100,000.
  3. Breaking up of multi-state financial corporations (whether banking or investing) into smaller, more manageable entities.  Requirement that financial corporations sell off any non-financial sector subsidiaries and non-financial corporations sell off any financial sector subsidiaries.
  4. Ban on corporately funded lobbying groups or attorneys having access to public officials.
I, as always, would love to hear what others have to say about these ideas.  Would they be effective?  Would they serve any greater good?  Where am I being shortsighted?  What else needs to be on this list?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Telling Stories

Whenever we tell a story, we are being intentionally selective in the details we include.  I am right now sitting in the common room of the Divinity School at Yale.  There are people in the corner opposite me having a conversation.  There are several people at tables working on various things (I can’t tell what from my vantage point).  Occasionally someone walks thru.  Even though I am narrating events in this room, I am not telling a story.  There is no point to the narration, no movement, no plot.  I could sit here all day and list everything that happened in this room and we would have an extensive amount of observations about life in the common room at a divinity school, but not a story.
Likewise, if we wanted to describe a “science” or “philosophy” of something, we have to be selective. If we wanted to make some sociological conclusions about divinity school students based on my rambling observations of a day in the common room, we would need to choose particular observations and organize them in a particular way to come up with anything that made any bit of sense or held any significance.  We would need to look for patterns of behavior or something else that we could use as an organizing paradigm.
The same would be true of history.  A list or cataloguing of events is not really a history.  History attempts to explain why events happen, and to do that you need to be selective, look for patterns and connections, causal relationships, etc.
What I think this all gets at is that the universe in its raw form is simply too much to take in.  Which seems at first a very trivial statement, but I think it is one of extraordinary importance.  We can’t simply observe and soak in everything that happens around us, we need to organize it all in some useful way.  We make stories, scientific theories, philosophies, histories, etc., all for the sake of organizing and simplifying a literal universe of data that we could not otherwise make sense of.
Now, in light of what I said the other day about a subtle circularity in logic, I want to observe that the same kind of subtle circularity exists in almost every other “organizing scheme” we might develop.  When we narrate events, why do we choose the details we choose?  Because those details form the structure of the story we want to tell.  In other words, the story in its totality is already in some sense assumed by the details that make up its parts.  I think we could say the same of all our methods of organizing our experience of the world- they are all intentionally selective, and in the process of being selective are to some extent assuming themselves.
What does this say about how we organize data?  Does this mean all our reasoning is fallacious and that we can’t know anything?  If we just stopped here it might be taken that way, but I certainly hope that this is not were we stop.  I have written plenty of times on this blog about the idea of coherence, and I think it is the key to understanding how reasoning can function.  In a way, I am working with the ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, though there are plenty of ways in which he and I would strongly disagree with one another.  But he at least provides a starting point for us, which is the idea that we, functionally, must organize data.  The world is too much for us to take in as a brute reality, we have to organize our experience of it into some sort of system of understanding, some sort of paradigm.  That understanding or system can take a variety of forms, be it a story or narrative, a rigorously logical philosophical system, a strenuously tested scientific model, a quasi-mystical/otherworldly perspective, or perhaps some other way of thinking.  What matters, at least so far as this post is concerned, is not so much the form that it takes as that it “works”: that it makes sense of our experience and puts it all together into some sort of worldview that we can operate out of.  When it fails to do this, whether because of an internal “inconsistency” or because we encounter new experiences that we cannot make sense of in our old way of thinking, we are forced to abandon our understanding and seek out another one, a remarkably unnerving or “shaking” experience for many if not most of us.
That these understandings or paradigms in some sense assume themselves is, I think, a natural product of their selectivity which I think serves to underline our subjectivity.  Here is where Kant, who has given us a starting point, and I would diverge (or at least I diverge with some of his interpreters, I’m not as clear that Kant actually says what I’m about to attribute to him).  The “Kantian” view would be that we all have a common set of mechanisms for forming our understanding of the world and thus can come to some sort of “objective” understanding.  My own view is that our understanding of the world is much more individualized, that the selectivity required to tell a story or form a theory is rooted in our own individual, subjective selves and the viewpoint associated with that self, not an inborn or innate system of categorization.  So we all in some sense “assume” the story we tell because we are the ones telling and crafting it.  Is this fallacious?  Is this “subtle circularity” damaging to the credibility of our systems?  Perhaps, but I don’t think it needs to be.
This “subtle circularity” has the potential to be damaging if we make a leap to the claim that our assumptions objectively reflect reality.  If I make the claim that the story I tell is the only story that can be told about the day in the common room then I committed an error, the “subtle circularity” which guided my telling of the story has become a fallacy.  If I acknowledge that the story I am telling is one among several then the assumptions which shaped it are no longer damaging, they are merely acting to set off this particular story as its own story.
It is important to note here, as I wrap this post up, that what I am arguing for is very strictly an epistemological limitation.  I am not attempting to make any metaphysical claims about the nature of reality or truth via this argument.  There is much more to say about that, but it will have to wait for another post.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Saturday Morning Brunch

Here are some posts that caught my eye this week:

Justin Taylor wrote about the latest controversy surrounding Pat Robertson.  Perhaps I have just noticed it more this time, but this seems like the first moment that mainstream evangelical leaders have openly rebuked the guy.  Which is both good and bad.  Good that someone is finally saying "we really shouldn't pay attention to this nut."  Bad, or perhaps interesting, is that of all the ridiculous and controversial things he has said, it was a comment about divorce that brought the full wrath of evangelicalism against him.

From the Her-Meneutics Blog is a post about Christian education that I found particularly insightful.

From the Internet Monk comes an interesting post about the difference between a philosophical view of moral development and a psychological one.

A couple articles of note:

First, I found this article on the discovery of new planets (several of which may be inhabitable), coupled with the announcement of a new deep-space vehicle by NASA this week particularly interesting.

Second, this video on the exploitation (and even enslavement) of poor Londoner's was particularly disturbing to me.

Enjoy, let me know what you think, and let me know if you saw anything else of interest on the web this week!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Critique of Pure Logic

When I was in high school taking math, the thing I hated more than anything else was doing geometric proofs.  Not because I didn’t understand them or couldn’t get them right (which was, in fact, my problem when we moved on to trig...) but because they were so bloody meticulous.  I could usually see the solution pretty early on, but writing out every step to get there was such a drag and a bore and I hated it.
In college I was introduced to symbolic logic, which is effectively doing “proofs” with a sentence by replacing its clauses with symbols.  My professor, who remains one of my favorite teachers ever, was convinced solving logical proofs was the greatest thing any human being could aspire to do.  I had to disagree (actually, even though I respect this man tremendously, we didn’t agree on much of anything...).  Learning the rules of logic was extraordinarily useful, but it was not what got me going in the morning.
Logic was touted to me by my very analytic professor and a few others as a way of thinking objectively.  It was as if logic put limits on reality.  Which was an interesting notion that I never really dwelt on until very recently.  For whatever reason, I was thinking about the kinds of proofs we did in that logic class or in the geometry class I took in High School.  Some of those proofs were designed to “prove” the very rules we used to solve other problems.  In thinking about that process, it occurred to me that you can only “prove” one rule at a time.  Further, when you do that you assume other rules are true so that you can solve the proof.  It is as if the rules of logic are the supporting beams of a structure.  You can perhaps take one beam out at a time to inspect it, but if you do more than that the structure becomes unstable.  There is no such thing as starting a logic problem from complete scratch with no rules whatsoever.  It just wouldn’t work.  To me at least it seems that the implication of this is that the system of logic is dependent on itself, that the full system in some sense assumes itself.  There is, in other words, a subtle circularity to any system of logic.
Now by invoking the term “circular,” which is a term generally associated with fallacious reasoning, I seem to have just thrown logic out.  That is not actually the move that I would like to make, but I want this realization to be the kind of starting point for the next move I do intend to make.  So even though this post is insanely short compared to how much I normally write, here is where we end for now.  Later on I will consider how we might “redeem” logic as it were from the apparent problem we have uncovered.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Prayers for Peace on 9/11

This is the form for the prayers of the people we will use tonight at ECY as we remember the national tragedy of 9/11 ten years ago today:

One: From words and deeds that provoke discord, prejudice and hatred,
All: O God, deliver us.
One: From suspicions and fears that stand in the way of reconciliation, 
All: O God, deliver us.
One: From believing and speaking lies about other peoples or nations,
All: O God, deliver us. 
One: From cruel indifference to the cries of the hungry and homeless, 
All: O God, deliver us.
One: From all that prevents us from fulfilling your promise of peace, 
All: O God, deliver us.
One: To the freedom and forgiveness we find in you, 
All: O Risen Christ, deliver us.
One: To the tough task of loving our enemies,
All: O Jesus, deliver us. 
One: To joyful service in your name,
All: O Servant of All, deliver us.
One: To the promise of a new heaven and a new earth,
To the wholeness of justice,
To the power of your peace,
All: O Holy Spirit, deliver us now and in the days to come. 
One: Deliver us from our brokenness, we pray, O God, 
All: and by your grace and healing presence deliver us to You.  
Period of silence during which prayers and petitions may be offered.
Closing Prayer Charge our lives and our churches with the power of your peace, O God. Overcome our fears and self-deceptions with the promise of your presence. Make us signs of your generosity and justice. Light us each day with hope, we pray, so that we may walk in your truth and be love in your Name. Amen.
- Adapted from the World Council of Churches

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday Morning Brunch

It's not morning anymore, I know.  But I couldn't get to it this morning, I had other things to do.  Like play Irish folk music at a pub (not kidding).

So unsurprisingly late, here is a summary of some blogs and articles I have read this week that I find interesting:

First, from Rachel Held Evans, is a pair of posts that I personally resonated with quite a bit about her "journey" in search of a spiritual home.  As someone who is not quite sure what "category" I fit in either, I had quite a bit of empathy for how she feels here and here.  I also found reading this from someone else (and not merely thinking it in my own head) comforting in many ways.

Second, from the New Ways Forward blog, is another pair of posts, the first about the necessity of having a safe place for "doubt," and the second about the danger of seeing doubt as a virtue.  Together I think they make an interesting pair.  I'm not quite sure where the balance of the two leaves us, though I think good points are made in both posts.  Would be very interested to hear what some others think about this issue.

Next, David Fitch wrote a very interesting post about a phenomenon that I have seen a good bit of in my experience with Southern evangelical churches, which is the church-plant-turns-into-"mega-church"-with- a-personality-cult-surrounding-its-leader phenomenon.  I find it very difficult to talk to people who have been swept up in this phenomenon because of the "personality cult" aspect of it and I think Fitch does a better job explaining why this is dangerous than I have ever personally done, so I will in all likelihood defer to him from now on whenever this issue arises.

From the Her-meneutics blog comes an interesting reflection on the difference between "love" and "attachment" which I found helpful and suspect others might too.

A few articles that caught my attention this week:

An opinion piece on Republican political tactics (especially tea-party tactics) that appeared in the New York Times.  Its very long and obviously very one sided, but there are some very interesting and insightful points in there which are worth considering.

An interesting set of maps showing the "global impact" of 9/11 put up on the BBC's website.  Particularly I was struck by the Guantanamo Bay map, which shows the countries around the world whose citizens the United States has imprisoned since 9/11.  This strikes me as a stunning case of "American Exceptionalism."  What is also interesting is to notice which countries have not had their citizens imprisoned- you can see some clear indications, I think, of what parts of the world are outside of what America considers its strategic sphere of influence, and notice that most of those countries are economically "under-developed."

On a lighter note, there is this article from the Onion about a new GOP strategy in next year's election.

And my favorite news article of the week is this one about a drunk Elk in Sweden.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Some Political Recommendations:

In relation to the already begun election cycle in this country (I feel like we can actually say campaigning has been going on for four years in preparation for this election), and in light of the disaster that has been the last decade and a half of American politics, I have a few recommendations for radically transforming the shape of our political landscape:

1.  Constitutional amendment limiting terms in office for legislators.  I’m thinking something to the effect of this:  “No person shall serve more than twelve years as a member of Congress.”  That’s 2 terms as a Senator, 6 terms as a Representative, or 1 term in the Senate and 3 in the House.  No more than this for anyone, let’s not have career politicians anymore.

2.  Constitutional ban on political advertising.  You can campaign by making speeches, touting your record, debating, etc.  But no running ads.  Possible exception for yard signs and bumper stickers, they aren’t too annoying.

3.  Restructure the way Congress is paid.  Legislators will be paid a median (not the average) salary for their constituency with a housing allowance to pay for their DC residence.  Their office will be given a staff salary budget that is intentionally small.  No more chiefs of staff making 100K a year, no more 30+ person Senate staffs.  Outside sources of income forbidden (to prevent corruption).

4.  Requirement that members of Congress act as an official emissary of the United States at an overseas engagement at least once per term.  These trips will be paid for, so this isn’t a financial burden.  But it would be nice if people in Congress actually understood what happens in the world before they make decisions about what America’s role in the world will be.  And then they would all have some foreign policy experience.

5.  Ability of the president to veto particular amendments to a bill which add spending (in other words, pork-barrel amendments for pet-projects of legislators at home).

6.  Radically limit the access of lobbyists (particularly those representing any sort of industry or commercial interest) to all branches of government.  Ideally, ban them altogether, but this is probably not feasible.

7.  Encourage legislative advisors/researchers to have a degree in the field they are advising on, not in political science.

Essentially, my thought is we need to make the incentive to serve as an elected official the desire to actually serve, not the desire to have a career in politics or to get rich or to have a book deal when they are done.  Also, I think by making congressional representatives be, at least financially, on the same footing as the rest of us and forcing them to get out and see the way the world works outside their sphere of influence is more likely to encourage them to write good policy with real people in mind.  Limiting the access of lobbyists is another safe-guard for that in my opinion.  Rather than writing legislation based on the interests of corporations or industries or unions, they will be writing it based on their own experience and the knowledge of their advisors about what would make for sound policy.  I think these changes coupled with a ban on political advertising would radically alter the way political discourse happens in this country (and what the priorities of politicians would be) for the better.  Might also help our budget situation...  But I’m also not an expert in politics by any means, I’m more a cynic.  So those with more political knowledge and experience, I very much invite your comments.  Where am I being short-sighted or overly cynical?  What other suggestions might you have?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Saturday Morning Brunch

In honor of a tradition in my house (which sadly isn't happening this weekend because my flat-mate is out of town), naming what I intend to be a weekly digest of interesting posts from around the blogosphere "Saturday Morning Brunch."

First, a little theme music, which I was introduced to courtesy of the New Ways Forward blog:

From my dear friend Andy Byers comes a post on discerning the will of God which, in Andy's typical fashion, challenges our popular notions of how this is done.  I found this very interesting.

Dug up from the archives of history, Don Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz) gives us an old recording of an interview with JRR Tolkien.

Author David Fitch introduces us to a new book by Scott McKnight.  The video is kinda cheesy and not very well produced, but I am quite intrigued to see what McKnight has to say...

From the Cryptotheology blog comes an interesting take on how to read Paul's epistles which seems to avoid many of the historical-critical questions of current scholarship.  Not sure what I think of it yet, but I am initially intrigued by this idea, would love to hear what some other people think.

An interesting news article buried a little bit under the over-sensationalized hurricane reporting and the unfolding events in Libya: new details emerging about CIA rendition flights.  I am particularly taken aback by the CIA's response to all of this, which is essentially to say "we don't care what anyone thinks, nor are we going to help you figure out what evil things were done."  Alarming.

Another interesting article, this one from the Yale Daily News.  Guess who the reigning champions of the Grad-Pro Intramural Soccer League are...

Finally, to close this out here is possibly the best advertisement for a social network ever (courtesy of Justin Taylor's blog):

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back in Business!

Just returned a couple of weeks ago from a time spent as the Worship Coordinator at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center in New Hampshire, which is operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.  The summer was on a whole a great experience.  Our music team was amazing- we put together a band called 67 Strings (named for the number of strings we had broken as of press time on a CD we recorded, the final tally for the summer I think came to 78, which is well over the border into the territory of ridiculousness), you can listen to (and download for free) a sampling of our music here.  Other activities at camp included playing on ropes courses, kayaking, fishing from a floating dock we had rowed to the middle of a lake, chasing a bat out of a chaplain’s residence, leading back-packing trips, protecting our backpackers from a large bear and a pack of coyotes, and cooking on a wood fire in the pouring rain.  Like I said, on a whole I think this was a great experience!
I am now back in New Haven, have added to my list of adventures for the summer finding a friend left stranded in DC by the earthquake and living through a hurricane in New England.  Am hoping things settle down in the next couple of days so we can start classes... Lots of things I have thought about over the summer that I intend to write about here.  Should start posting again soon!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Tension to Be Worked Out

In the midst of reading and writing for my summer reading project at the Restless, Young, and Reforming blog a tension within my own theology has become apparent to me.  I’m not proposing a solution to that tension here, I’m just identifying it and there will probably be more posts to come which wrestle with it.
Here is the tension:
On the one hand, I want to affirm that Jesus is the Word of God incarnate and that as such he teaches us to be compassionate and to care for the marginalized (in many ways echoing the message of the prophets).  He calls us to a ministry which represents God’s kingdom on earth, and God’s kingdom is meant to bring good news to the poor and oppressed seeking hope.
On the other hand, I think that the narratives of the Old Testament (and to some extent the New, but there is certainly much more of this in the Old) portray God as uncontrollable.  God cannot be put in a box.  In many ways God is unpredictable.  God brings blessing and curse upon people and there is no way to manipulate God and ensure that we only receive the good.  Even the righteous are tested, and the tests are often like tossing a ring of gold into the fire to burn off impurities: they are intense and painful.
How do we make sense of these two images of God?  Some have proposed that this contrast actually points to two deities: YHWH vs. Jesus with Jesus ultimately winning.  The orthodox tradition of Christianity has consistently rejected anything that seems to suggest this, and I think for good reasons.  The solution to this tension is not to divide the deity into two beings.  With that said, I don’t quite know what the solution to the tension is yet...  So this may become a major interest in future writings here and elsewhere.  Be prepared.
For the moment, I have a possible metaphor that has occurred to me in the midst of my time here at camp.  My house here is overlooking a beautiful little lake and we often get a fantastic breeze blowing in off the water.  Both water and the wind are wonderful and nourishing and refreshing things to experience.  But they can also both be extremely dangerous and unpredictable.  A strong storm can be very destructive.  A hidden current can pull you far away from shore before you realize what’s happening.  Both of these natural phenomenon are as powerful and uncontrollable as they are beautiful and life-giving.  Somehow that tension must be worked into our theology as well.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Defending the Orthodoxy of Open Theism

This is an idea that occurred to me recently in the context of discussion about human freedom.  The idea might not be worth much of anything, but I think its at least worth floating here.  Open Theism is the theological claim that God does not know with certainty every even that will happen in the future because the future is “open” and might “change.”  Frequently this is lambasted by evangelical theologians as being an unorthodox view of God.  For instance, the polar opposite of Open Theism, the Reformed theological tradition, makes the claim that God knows with certainty every future event.  What is worth asking, however, is how God has this knowledge in Reformed theology, and the answer is that it is because Reformed theology is deterministic- in Reformed theology God knows every future event because God will personally bring about or orchestrate every future event.  With that in mind, I think we can construct two arguments for comparison:
Reformed Argument:
  1. God knows with certainty every event in the future that God will personally bring about or orchestrate.
  2. God will personally bring about or orchestrate all future events.
  3. Therefore, God knows with certainty all future events.
Open Theist Argument:
  1. God knows with certainty every event in the future that God will personally bring about or orchestrate.
  2. [Human freedom entails that] God will not personally bring about or orchestrate at least some future events.
  3. Therefore, at least some future events are not known by God with certainty.
The first thing we can notice is that both arguments have the same first premise.  The second thing we can notice is that the second premise forms the basis for the difference between the two arguments, with both conclusions following from the two premises.  So in evaluating these arguments, the real question is about the second premise of each.  Will God personally bring about or orchestrate all future events?  What I think this means is that the argument over Open Theism is not an argument about God’s omniscience but one about human freedom.  In other words, since both arguments have the same first premise, the question about the orthodoxy of Open Theism is actually a question about the orthodoxy of the second premise of the Open Theist argument- if “free-will” is considered an “orthodox” doctrine, then Open Theism is within the orthodox tradition, as “non-traditional” as its conclusion may seem.  Historically, it seems very apparent to me that free will is within the traditions of orthodoxy.  So it seems to me Open Theism can be considered an orthodox theological view.  What do others think?

NB:  This post is not a declaration that I am an open theist.  It is merely a thought experiment about whether or not open theism should be considered an orthodox "option" in theology.

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