Conservative Theology

February 02, 2010

Religion and Politics / The Abuse of "Story"

JB

Postmodernism has greatly increased the relevance of "story" in both the interpretation of the Bible and in interpersonal interactions (for those of you who are unaware of what this is, here is a really good short summary by a friend of mine).  On the whole, this is a good thing.  However, recently I have been reading books which abuse the notion of story as to become propoganda.  This is a phenomena which I believe we will see more of, and is an unintended effect of our culture's shift towards "story" as a way of understanding. 

The problem is that "story" can easily become a substitute for "rational argument".  When we overemphasize story, we fail to be able to analyze a situation critically.  The book I'm currently reading is about the "story of the universe," and, actually, it is much worse than previous books I've read on this subject.

With story, one need not give an argument.  One simply presents heroes and villains and victims.  It is not possible to ask of a story if the heroes were heroic or evil, or if the victims were actually villains in someone else's story.  Story prevents you from asking many questions which are essential for discerning truth.

That isn't to say that story can't be used to communicate truth.  I certainly believe that the Bible does that.  The problem is that "story" only communicates truth when the teller of the story is a trusted source.  The only difference between story and propoganda is the trustworthiness of the teller.

Therefore, the postmodern shift towards story, while it may be good for both Biblical studies and interpersonal relationships, could really damage us in the realm of public knowledge, because to rely on story for this critical aspect of life will mean that it is inevitably susceptible for anyone to create a good enough story, with beautiful looking heroes and mean, nasty villains, and, since "story" instead of "argument" is the key phrase, public villainizing can be substituted for public debate.

"Story" is not impartial, and it's usefulness depends on the trustworthiness - and shared ideals - of the teller.

December 19, 2009

Religion and Politics / Libertarianism vs. Conservatism, Pt. 2

Responses to Objections

JB

My good friend Rick did me the great service of making excellent criticisms of my essay on libertarianisms.  I started to post a response in the comments, but it quickly got too long.  In any case, here is my response:

"I disagree with your premise that giving a social norm the weight of (sovereign) law is distinguishable from governmental intervention. Sovereign law, for better or worse, IS government intervention."

The point was not that it was or wasn't governmental "intervention" - sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, but rather, a law doesn't require a government. See for example this post about the powers of text.

In fact, you find throughout history many laws that have no explicit punishments.  That is because, often, none is needed.  By intermarrying society and law, you can have laws that don't require governments.  When you separate them, the only thing that enforces law is a government.

"Rather than allowing individuals to define the terms of their relationships (or to choose NOT to define them, a possibility you've overlooked)"

I am unclear how an undefined terms of relationship would work in a legal context, except, perhaps, by ceding authority to social norms!

"A market would exist (in fact, already does exist) for ready-made contractual arrangements, especially for relationships as common as marriages"

But this is only part of the point.  The fact is that, (1) that there are always unexpected parts of a relationship which the law must handle.  These are handled according to societal norms and goals, precisely because that is what is left when a contract breaks down, and (2) marriage impacts much more than just the people getting married.  I pointed this out here.  If marriage communication is, in fact, privileged, then who receives this privilege is a societal issue, and not one of the contractants of marriage.  The possibility of children introduces players into the contract which were not a party to it.  This means that either (a) the children are treated as simple property, or (b) that society establishes norms regarding their handling, which would have priority above the contractural relationship.  In fact, even though there are many other places where society and law have a necessary interaction, the existence of children alone bring together societal norms and law in a very powerful way.

The fundamental problem of libertarianism is that it presumes that we can be, for the most part, disconnected from each other, and even elevates that to a societal goal - to be connected to only those people you choose. 

In reality, though, this is neither possible nor desirable.  Libertarianism, similar to liberalism, places extremely high value on the degrees of freedom that an individual can do.  While I agree that there shouldn't be any unwarranted restriction on degrees of freedom, I find this highly suspicious as an end-goal.   Is the ability to pick my nose in public really the purpose for which liberty aspires?  I should hope not, for if so it makes it a goal not worth persuing.  I agree that liberty is important.  I also agree that the nature of liberty requires that society allow things that it normally doesn't agree with, and that society and law, while overlapping in many areas, are not coextensive. 

Liberty is the combination of self-mastery, faith, and humility.  It is self-mastery in that none of us are free unless we can get control of ourselves - the biggest source of bondage is actually the lack of personal control over ourselves, not other people.  In addition, liberty is about the faith that others' may be persuing societal good by means which are radically different, and not necessarily completely understood.  Also faith in the fact that most errors in this direction are not fatal.  Finally, it is about the humility to accept that there is room for disagreement in everything.

From this perspective, while individual degrees of freedom are important, they are not the only consideration.  Freedom to err is vitally important for the freedom to be correct, but this doesn't mean that liberty implies that I should be able to just do anything I want.  That is the attitude of my children, I should hope that by the time they are adults they will have sufficient self-mastery to be beyond that.

"In addition, government recognition (aka regulation) of marriage also allows the government a guise of legitimacy under which to confer benefits on one group at the expense of another. Tax and other benefits are provided to married people but denied to gays, polygamists, and unattractive singles."

Just to point out, most of the "benefits" are actually to unmarried cohabitators.  We found this out this summer.  The state social workers were encouraging us to divorce so that we would have more access to benefits.  They determined that we were going to need $89,000 in assistance each year, but that my salary (which is less than that figure) disqualified me from receiving anything.  However, if we divorced, then Christa would be able to get the full benefits package.

"Your conclusions about contracts for burgers and lawyers attending weddings are nothing more than unsupported hyperbole."

I disagree.  The fact is that law is actually moving more towards your view with regards to basic human interactions.  And, with that, we are receiving a constant increase in the number of things we have to sign.  We have crazy lawsuits because we no longer have a societal expectation for self-responsibility.  Therefore, in nearly every interaction, we have contract which disclaim problems that occur from a lack of self-responsibility.  We have idiotic privacy forms we have to fill out at the doctor's office.  We have stupid EULAs we have to click through to install software.  Why do we just click through them?  Because we know what they say.  However, if, instead of everyone lawyering up, we instead had a means of social expectations interacting with the law, we could do away with (a) the lawyers to draft them, (b) the lawyers to fight with them, and (c) having to read them all. 

The problem with the libertarian position is that it assumes a lot of the societal interaction that it rails against.  Most libertarians agree that lawsuits about stupid things are stupid.  But that is just because they are assuming conservative, not libertarian, values.  In libertarianism, society doesn't affect legal expectations, so why should self-responsibility be assumed?

The nanny-state of liberalism is simply the byproduct of the libertinism of libertarianism.  When an ethical self-mastery is no longer part and parcel of what it means to be free, the only valid social response is the nanny state.

So, to sum up, I would say:

  1. Liberty is about more than individual degrees of freedom.  Increasing individual degrees of freedom is an important part of liberty, but other parts (such as self-mastery) are more important
  2. We are interwoven with each other.  A legal system (or a definition of freedom) that ignores this is simply anti-realist.  Marriage and children are interesting precisely because the point of them transcends the two people involved.
  3. Removing social norms from legal expectations does in fact mean that we will have to lawyer-up for the smallest detail.  The other option would be that those who don't have lawyers are at mercy of those who do (which removes their liberty more than just about anything else I can think of)
  4. When you intermix societal and legal norms, you get the advantages of law without having to have a large institution of government for enforcement.  It is their separation which causes us to have a large, coercive government which only has power due to its coercive abilities

 

December 17, 2009

Religion and Politics / Libertarianism vs Conservatism

JB

While I often assail the left-wing on this blog, I don't always find the time to do equal justice to the not-wing -- the libertarians.  Conservatives and Libertarians are often lumped together because of two things (and really they are both the same thing):

  • We both dislike the direction of the left-wing, and the attitudes with which they approach public policy
  • Many of the first steps that either position would take when in office would be the same -- removal of the massive governmental beurocracy which has developed

However, I think that because of these broad-stroke similarities, many people miss the issues with libertarians. 

I think there are a lot of ways in which you could separate libertarians from conservatives.  This post is going to concentrate on one of them:

  • Conservatives want to dismantle the governmental infrastructure in this country.  Libertarians want to dismantle the legal infrastructure as well.

Libertarians tend to be reductionists in their thinking.  They want all legal structures to follow contract law, and reduce everything else to that.

This is why many libertarians view marriage as an improper role of government.  According to much libertarian thought, marriage doesn't have any role in law, except as two parties wish to establish a contract with each other.  Only then should the law step in.

Conservative thought, on the other hand, views a number of different relationships as being governmentally important, and thinks that law should be engaged in dealing with those.

Here's are several reasons why I'm a conservative:

  1. I think that enabling people to live simply and peaceably with each other without undue interference should be a primary governmental goal
  2. I do think that society needs rules and boundaries to operate in a variety of circumstances
  3. I do not think that society needs a large government to accomplish #2, and that a large government is in direct opposition to #1

The thing that libertarians don't seem to understand is that it is precisely the fact that many of our social mores get encoded into law that allow us to operate with a small government, and with that government having minimal interference in our lives. 

By giving norms the weight of law, it allows people to live simply by following common and respected patterns, without requiring governmental intervention.  It is precisely these social forms and customs which make governmental intervention redundant.

Take marriage, for instance.  It is true that in many societies marriages do not need approval from the state (like a marriage license).  But that does not mean that marriage is any less within the bounds of law.  Precisely because a society has norms and customs surrounding marriage (which are utilized directly within the law) means that two people can be married without any need for permission or approval from the government. 

Can you imagine a society in which, in order to get married, you needed to lawyer-up and make an airtight contract defining the terms of your relationship?  That would be ludicrous!  It is precisely because we have social norms that are reflected in legal norms that two people who are in love can get married with minimal intereference with the government.

In fact, in absence of social norms reflected in legal norms, you wind up having to make a contract for everything you do.  So, instead of dealing with governmental red tape every time you interact with them, you have to deal with red tape in every single interaction you make with any person at all!  Our society is already moving this way, with all of the disclaimers, End-User-License-Agreements, privacy statements, and other idiocy we have to deal with every day.  All of these stem from the fact that our social norms are being segregated from our legal norms in the name of "neutrality" (whether religious neutrality or some other form of multiculturalism).

You might object that it is not the libertarians who are doing this but the liberals.  But in this aspect the liberals and libertarians are in complete agreement.  Both agree that social norms are mere contrivances, and therefore do not merit the coverage of law. 

Conservatives, on the other hand, view social norms as a vital part of an integrated society, which cannot be cleanly separated into "legal", "cultural", and "religious" aspects.  Our law is meaningless if it is separated from cultural norms, and cultural norms are derived from religious ideals.

The fact is that the liberals are right about one thing - if you want to treat social norms as mere cultural artifacts, it takes a big beaurocracy to do so.  The liberals want one big beaurocracy in the government, while the libertarians would like a signed contract completely stating all terms and assumptions when I go to purchase a hamburger, and for a team of lawyers to sit in the front row of the wedding ceremony.

Social norms, however, allow you to live peaceably in society with each other without the hassle.  In a conservative culture, you can focus on loving each other, and not on the legal hassles which will result from loving each other.

October 16, 2009

Religion and Politics / Is there evidence for evolution?

JB

A few days ago, Todd Wood (one of the leading creation biologists today) made a medium-sized splash in the blogosphere with this post.  In it, among other things, he said:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

This was followed by another post which clarified some of his statements.  The whole post is interesting, and I'll include a snippet here:

I think you've already figured out an important corollary to this line of thinking, that squabbling over low level theories has very little to do with the acceptance of the high level model. Scientists can argue over the effectiveness of natural selection without ever questioning the high level concept of common ancestry. Likewise, new fossils can be heralded as "changing our understanding of evoluion" in the sense that low level theories have to be modified. The strength of the high level model is relatively impervious to these changes.

Understandably, this post generated quite a bit of reaction among Creationists and non-Creationists.

So, is there evidence for evolution?  Certainly if you read most anything from Answers in Genesis or CMI, it certainly seems the answer is "no".  So what's up?  Why is Todd thinking there is lots of evidence and AiG and CMI saying there isn't any?

I think that, ultimately, the reason is that they are speaking to two different questions.

The question that Todd probably often faces as a researcher is this - "is evolution a useful and helpful heuristic for my scientific research?"  Or perhaps something like "is there a lot of corroborating evidence for evolution?"  Or maybe even "are there legitimate reasons for a person to accept evolution as a fact?"  The answer to all of these have in fact been a resounding "yes" for a lot of people - a lot of smart, educated people who are familiar with the data.

But that's not the end of the story.

There is a difference between something being a rational choice, and something being the only rational choice.

The problem is that many people not only use evolutionary theory as a valid framework for their own lives, research, and work, but that they require others to follow along or shut up.  That is, they don't allow for other people to have come to different conclusions, and say that doing so is simply irrational.

I hope you can see that having valid evidence for yourself is different than having compelling evidence for others.  Most people who are evolutionists believe that not only are they right, but that the evidence is compelling enough that you should think the same way, too.

And that, I think, is what AiG and CMI and the like are responding to.  When someone says "there's no evidence for evolution," I think most people who say that are really saying, "there's no evidence for evolution that is publicly compelling."  By "public" I don't mean the quantity of people who believe it, but rather that the nature of it is not universally compelling.

In the case of evolution, I would agree 100% with those people who say there is no evidence for evolution that is publicly compelling.

Now, of course, the question is, "what do you mean by evolution."  If, by evolution, you simply mean "things change", well, that is obvious.  If, instead, you mean "evolution by natural selection", then not only do I think that there's no evidence, I think it is logically unsound.  If, though, you mean "universal common ancestry", then I think that while there is plenty of corroborating data, there is no piece of data that is externally compelling.

Todd, in fact, does us the favor of listing the basic reasoning for evolution:

Take for example the idea that species evolved from a common ancestor. This is a very simple high level idea that lots of people thought of before Darwin. There are several observations that support this model: (1) the "progress" recorded in the fossil record, (2) comparative biology (e.g., comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, etc.), and (3) the biogeography of species of high affinity. If you like, you could add the philosophical "consilience of induction" of common ancestry to explain many types of data. In my estimation, and I think most evolutionary biologists would agree, these evidences are sufficient to support the common ancestry of all species.

I would agree, especially having read some of the papers from the 1900s time frame.  The main evidence for evolution is basically that (a) homologies exist, and (b) different fossils are found in different layers.  While I can certainly see why these facts might lead people to believe in evolution, there is nothing in them that would be publicly compelling.

Without even getting into young-earth Creationism, changes in the fossil record are also consistent with multiple acts of creation, multiple origins of life, and probably a number of other possibilities.  In fact, if you look at the major phyla of life, there is really nothing that would make someone think that there was a common ancestor to them. 

In his post, Todd separates out neo-Darwinism from common ancestry, pointing out that even if neo-Darwinism fails, it would do nothing to detract from common ancestry.  I agree with him if he is talking about personal reasons to believe in common ancestry.  However, the key point of neo-Darwinism is that this was the idea which is used to cover the ground between personally-valid beliefs about the nature of evidence, and publicly-valid conclusions which we should all reach.

Before neo-Darwinism, there was no mechanism to link the different stages of fossils.  Generally, if we know of a mechanistic method A of producing B from C, we tend to use A as the explanation for B when it occurs.  When we find bullets in someone's body, we do not presume of an unorthodox way for the bullet to have gotten in there - we generally assume, unless there is specific evidence to the contrary - that the bullet was fired from a gun. 

Thus, by this common mode of reasoning, many people used neo-Darwinism as the link to make personal views about evolution publicly compelling.  Because, as the logic goes, we now have an experimentally-verified mechanism (so they said) of how evolution works, we now can say that it is publicly compelling that the way in which the fossils in layer A gave rise to the fossils in layer B was neo-Darwinism.

Now, of course, the neo-Darwinian mechanism never showed any such thing.  Finally in the last few decades it has been realized that there is a fundamental difference between micro-evolution and macro-evolution.  People in evolution say that macro-evolution is no less proven.  However, I think that this confuses the boundary between personal validity and public validity.  The evidence for macro-evolution is the fossil record, but without a clear mechanism demonstrably capable of performing that task, the evidence is not more publicly compelling than any other explanation.

Now, of course, some people may say that nothing is publicly compelling.  I disagree, because there is a difference between being publicly compelling and being true.  The fact is, if we have schools, we have to teach something in them.  If we have a government, we need to have laws.  So the point of a point of fact being publicly compelling is that, as far as the public goes, it is taken as a likely truth.  This doesn't mean that it must be true or that you can't have a private disagreement, but that it doesn't carry much weight publicly. 

And this leads us to why anyone cares in the first place.  Most YECs, OECs, and IDists don't really care that scientists work using neo-Darwinism as a foundational truth.  You don't generally find right-wing Christians picketing evolutionary biology labs.  I've met a lot of creationists, but I've never met one who wanted to prevent a biologist from using evolution in their own work.

However, the fact is that science is currently a publicly-funded enterprise.  It is taught in publicly-funded schools.  It is used as an assumed truth in courts.  So in these and other areas, what happens with science turns public.

Therefore, if evolution is to be used to the exclusion of other ideas in these areas, then it must be publicly-compelling, and not just personally so, or personally useful.  It's one thing to teach evolution (which I think that there are publicly-compelling reasons to teach evolution.  It's another thing to teach that it is true.  It's one thing to allow evolutionary research.  it's another thing to only allow evolutionary research.

So, in the case of Todd's blog post, he says this:

I'm motivated this morning by reading yet another clueless, well-meaning person pompously declaring that evolution is a failure. People who say that are either unacquainted with the inner workings of science or unacquainted with the evidence for evolution.

I don't know who Todd is speaking of, but I'm tempted to agree with both Todd and his clueless, well-meaning friend.  Evolution has been very successful at producing a framework which has been useful to a number of people.  Evolution (either as neo-Darwinism or universal common ancestry) has also been an utter failure in providing publicly-compelling evidence for its operation.

One concession I will make, though, is that, even as a Young-Earth Creationist, I think that the arguments for an old earth are publicly compelling.  I disagree with them, and think that the evidence from history and scripture (as well as many interesting parts of the geologic column) points to a global flood.  However, radiometric dating provides just the kind of evidence I pointed to above that makes something publicly-compelling.  There are hints that radiometric dating is not the whole story, and it is my personal opinion that in the future we will find additional mechanisms by which radioactive rates can be dramatically altered, along with an understanding of how this fits in geology.  The RATE group has made important progress, but they have not yet achieved a result that I think is publicly compelling.  I find this information to be personally compelling, but I think that so far radiometric dating puts the question of the age of the earth as being publicly-compelling for an old earth.

Interestingly, that's also why I like academic freedom.  As I pointed out, publicly-compelling is not the same thing as true.  The freedom of conscience is always vital because even our most precious and seemingly self-evident assumptions about life are not guaranteed to be true.  But the public sphere must be operated on some basis, and that is why it is important to distinguish things from being personally or publicly compelling, and why both Todd and the person he was frustrated with are probably both right.

September 29, 2009

Religion and Politics / Gay Marriage, Pt. 3

Why Marriage is not Just About the Two People Getting Married

In the last post, we talked about why gay marriage is an inappropriate Christian option.  Now I want to focus on gay marriage as part of a society, and whether or not it has an appropriate place.

So, first off, why does the government say anything about marriage at all?

There are many reasons.  Modern social thinking tries to view humans as discrete individuals whose actions, in general, affect no one but themselves.  In fact, if your actions happen to affect someone else, this is often considered a bad thing. 

But in reality, humans live in relation to each other.  Therefore, if the law is to treat people like humans, it has a stake in certain relationships.

The worst argument I have ever heard of for gay marriage is that "if you disagree with same-sex marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex" (warning, explicit language!).  The argument is that gay marriage only affects the people getting married.  Unfortunately, our society's view of marriage has degenerated so low that people actually buy this argument.

The fact is, in marriage, one of the MAIN POINTS of getting married is precisely so that SOCIETY will treat you DIFFERENTLY.  Note that it is society that is the one who is now bound to do something when someone gets married.  Primarily, when someone is married, it is encumbant on the society to treat them as a unit, rather than as individuals.

Here are a few examples of the ways in which society's rules change for people who are married.  Note that this is just scratching the surface:

  • Presumption of partnership in business dealings - we don't get people to sign things separately - one signature works for the two of them.
  • Presumption of parenthood - no one has to perform a paternity check to see if someone's children are theirs.  Note that this works even if a partner is unfaithful - if someone sleeps with your wife, their kids are actually yours, because she is your partner, not theirs.
  • Privileged conversations - being married REMOVES the right of society to require testimony in a court of law against each other.  You cannot be compelled to testify against your spouse.

In addition, marriage law sets a norm of practice in many areas.  Many policies stem from marriage law, including:

  • Education - the way that marriage is presented in education is primarily dependent on the way in which it is described legally
  • Standard policies - as the government regulates more and more businesses, the way that businesses are expected to deal with their employees is based on the statuses assigned to them by the state.  If the state treats them as married, then before long businesses will be forced to do so as well. 
  • This can even get into churches.  Churches have been stripped of their tax-exempt status for not promoting the public good - and this is often based on whether or not their beliefs match up with the norms established by law.

So, as you can see, marriage law has VERY LITTLE TO DO with what people do as individuals, and VERY MUCH TO DO with how society is expected to respond to those who are married.  Therefore, the argument that "whether or not gay people get married doesn't affect you" is simply false.  Marriage is an important societal institution, and as such it very much affects all of us.  The decision of how we decide who gets recognized as married is a decision that affects all of us.

If two people want to take part in a religious ceremony that DOESN'T implicate the rest of society, there has never been anything stopping them.  I am not aware of any law that prevents a marriage ceremony.  However, marriage itself is not like that.  It not only requires things from the people getting married to each other, it also requires things from society at large as well.

September 27, 2009

Religion and Politics / Gay Marriage, Pt. 2

The Biblical View of Marriage

JB

Before we examine gay marriage from sociological views, I think it is most important to examine it from a Biblical view. 

Of course, there are the basic rules, laws, and admonitions against homosexual sex in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  This should be the first clue that gay marriage may be improper, but it is not definitive.  Certainly Biblical admonitions against certain things may be cultural or contextual, so it is always important to discern the operating principle to determine if the rule applies generally.

First of all, Biblically, sex should occur inside the confines of marriage.  I hope I don't have to convince you of that, and am going to assume that I don't have to.  So then you have the question, can homosexual couples get married?  To determine the answer to that one, we need to ask the question, "what is the purpose of marriage"?

Many people say that the Biblical purpose of marriage is children.  That is simply not true.  The Bible certainly places a high importance on children (Psalm 127:3-5), but it does not list it as the reason for marriage.  In fact, the Bible is explicit about why marriage occurs.

Genesis 2:24 says, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."  Therefore?  Whenever you see a therefore in the Bible, you should take a look and see what it is there for. 

The story is about the creation of woman.  Why was woman created?

"Then the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." (Genesis 2:18)

Here's the deal - man is incomplete without woman.  The purpose of marriage is the completion of God's creation.  That is why, Biblically, gay marriage isn't appropriate - it doesn't complete humanity, but instead represents and incomplete picture of God's creation.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can only be complete inside of marriage.  The Bible also gives another form of completeness in humanity - that of being completed by God Himself.  Therefore, single-ness can be appropriate, but only if it God's completion of you is treated as seriously as a marriage.

So, for Christians, it should be clear why gay marriage isn't appropriate.  In future posts we will talk about the social case against gay marriage in a plural society (i.e. a society which is not exclusively Christian).

June 18, 2009

Religion and Politics / Gay Marriage, Pt. 1

JB

I'm going to do a series of posts on the topic of gay marriage, discussing it from theological, sociological, and political perspectives.  But for starters, I thought I'd share a cartoon which fairly well sums up the difference between the way people often perceive the issue, and the way reality works (warning - cartoon is a little vulgar):

View Cartoon

March 25, 2009

Religion and Politics / It Takes a Family

JB

Rick Santorum has an excellent book out called It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good.  While many of us have grown up with an intuitive understanding of the importance of conservative principles, I think Rick Santorum has done a fabulous job of making the intellectual case for it in terms of living in community for the common good.  I'm not finished with it yet, but this book is awesome.

March 14, 2009

Religion and Politics / My Love Affair with a Buddhist Nun

JB

've been reading Sister Chan Kong's Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War for a class.  It is a very interesting first-person look at the Vietnam war from a Buddhist perspective.  Reading the book, I've grown to like Sister Chan more and more.  There are several reasons for this:

 

  • Unlike modern people in the "peace movement", Sister Chan's desire for peace was truly apolitical.  She took the time to look at the war from everyone's perspective, and to try to understand why different groups believed the way they did.
  • Unlike many modern people who want "universal health care", Sister Chan actually worked to provide real health care to real people.
  • Unlike many modern people who are concerned about jobs, Sister Chan actually worked to create real jobs for real people, and create new income streams and real productivity for the poor, and not makework jobs just to keep people busy.  At the end of the day, the people that Sister Chan helped were whole - they didn't depend on Sister Chan for their daily needs, but instead were able to provide for them themselves
  • Sister Chan worked almost exclusively through volunteer organizations.  That is, she never forced anyone to give anything, but instead allowed people to give generously to make a difference in people's lives.  

 

In the end, though she would never consider to label herself as such, I think Sister Chan is pretty much a model citizen of "compassionate conservatism" (NOTE - I am not talking about GWB's compassionate conservatism, which was often times a soft socialism).  She sees a need, she gets it met by working with others to achieve a common goal, and she works with people who give generously rather than forcing things from everyone.

 

It's also interesting that, while Sister Chan's organization had many problems with their Nationalist government (i.e. South Vietnam before the communists took over), it was nothing compared to their complete inability to operate under the communist government.  

 

This is also interesting because it seems, simply from the facts presented in the book (though I am certain Sister Chan would not argue this way), that there was indeed a justification for the Vietnam war - and that those fighting for the South knew exactly what the problems would be if the communists took over, and that those fears actually came true when they did.  I think a careful reading of Sister Chan's book reveals that the communist/socialist mentality actually squashed the ability for real improvement and real community to take place, rather than empower it.  Sister Chan was able to be compassionate before the communist takeover, and was basically forbidden to be compassionate afterwards.

 

So, while I respect and agree to some extent with the many criticisms of capitalism offered by many of its opponents, I think that they miss the big picture.  Compassion only works when it is done from the heart - which is another way to say "voluntarily".  Compassion is equivalent to oppression when it is mandated, because how could you mandate compassion?  As soon as you try, it becomes something else - namely, oppression.

 

Should capitalists be more compassionate?  Absolutely.  Should we work towards peace and understanding? Certainly.  Should we help the poor in any way we can? Without a doubt.  But to turn these excellent ideals into forced, governmental programs is to create oppression from compassion, and to exterminate all real compassion from society.

Anyway, the book is really good, although slow in parts.  It really offers a different perspective on the war than you will find from pretty much anyone in the United States on the right or the left.

February 26, 2009

Religion and Politics / Misinterpretation or Disagreement?

JB

In class today we had a discussion about social context and Jeremiah Wright's speech.  The claim was made that the problem was that white America didn't understand the black prophetic tradition, and therefore completely misunderstood what Wright said.  I think, however, was that, even if white America took Wright's views to be more extreme than they really are, that, for the most part, the problem was not misinterpretation, it was disagreement.

To emphasize the point, I'll examine both Wright's speech after 9/11 as well as another speech by Jerry Falwell.  Here's what Jerry Falwell had to say about 9/11:

And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

Here's what Jeremiah Wright had to say about 9/11 (see full sermon here):

Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonised Kenya, Guana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian decent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese decent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African decent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

The fact is, despite claims of misquoting and whatnot, these people do mean what they actually say.  It is true that Falwell did not put the whole weight of 9/11 on gays and lesbians, and if you understand his theology it's based not on these specific social categories as much as them being indicative of a larger move away from God's foundation, and more towards the organizations and institutions than the individual people themselves.  But so what?  With or without the nuances, the basics are the same.

It is also true that Jeremiah Wright wants what is best for America - in the general sense of "america", and that there is a long tradition of black preachers going overboard in claims.  But so what?  With or without the nuances, the basics are the same.

What Jeremiah Wright was saying is that we shouldn't ask God to bless America, but we should ask God to damn America.  He didn't say that we should watch out because that is what God is going to do (although he said that as well), he explicitly contrasted "God bless America" with "God damn America", saying that we should be asking God for America's destruction.  Wright was saying that the system of America is fundamentally bad and needs replacing.  Is that in line with the black prophetic tradition?  Sure it is, precisely because that's what a majority of the black prophetic tradition think.

The reason why some people are outraged at Falwell but not Wright, or Wright but not Falwell, or perhaps at both or neither, is not because they misunderstand the cultures, but precisely because they understand them very well.  Fundamentalist Christians tend to agree with Falwell and disagree with Wright.  This is not cultural miscommunication, this is a straightforward disagreement.

The problems people had with Obama attending Wright's church are the same types of problems that other people would have if a candidate was a member of Jerry Falwell's Church - in fact, the same kind of issues were presented against Palin for her Church affiliation and membership - it just didn't matter as much because she was the VP candidate.

Anyway, it annoys me when people say that we just need to "understand" Wright better - no, that's not the problem.  It's a disagreement.  If you want to present your argument to persuade, that's great.  But don't pretend that he's not a radical with fairly radical views - he is.  I think people need to accept that most of America fundamentally disagrees with Wright's view of the world.  To say it's a problem of "understanding" is to just dance around the real issues we need to be talking about, rather than address them directly.

For the record, I have some amount of agreement and disagreement with both statements.