Reason and Heterodoxy

April 24, 2011

John 1:1 states: “In the beginning was the logos, and logos was with God, and logos was God.” The Greek word logos can mean word, account or reason. Reason itself can be  subdivided into reasoned discourse, as Aristotle intended the word’s use, or divine reason when used as a verb, or a divine intermediary when used as a noun (courtesy Philo of Alexandria). What is the nature of the “reason” provided to man by God, according to the Book of John? Martin Luther did not see it as reason within the philosophical sense, writing: “Reason is the Devil’s harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does.” But things have changed since Martin Luther’s time. Can reason be removed from religion given our current understanding of the world? Are reason and religion mutually exclusive? Given that today is Easter, let’s consider this in relation to Christianity.

A literalist interpretation of the Bible does not fit within our current understanding of the world. We know too much about the workings of our universe (though there is still so much more to understand!) and our time on earth to consider the New and Old Testaments as even remotely accurate historical records. Those who disagree tend to be the illiterate (Carl “C-Rex” Everett), the ideological (Pat Robertson) and the disingenuous (for Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee the parable of the 3 workers in the vineyard is literally about the minimum wage, a sentiment that betrays either gross manipulation of Christian text or astounding stupidity – more likely the former as such a sentiment appeals to the Republican’s two main bases of support, pious Evangelicals and penny-pinching businessmen, both of whom Huckabee needs to win over in order to secure the 2012 nomination). Obviously these three categories aren’t airtight and “literalists” are simply a subcategory of believers rather than vice-versa.

The question is: does the Bible require a literalist interpretation? Is it a choice between accepting every part of the New Testament, including its more fantastic claims, versus rejecting it as a whole? Is there room for reason within religious texts?

Consider the claims of the New Testament. Did Jesus walk on water? Or are we meant to take this as a metaphor for his upstanding character? Did Jesus exercise people of physically manifest demons? Or were these “demons” more in the Jungian sense, personality disorders? The most important question of all is whether being a Christian requires the acceptance of Jesus’ divinity? Thomas Jefferson thought not as he removed all the supernatural elements in his chronological rearrangement of the four canonical gospels in the Jefferson Bible (it should be noted he left in references to the Devil, Heaven, Hell and Noah’s Ark). Unitarianism, so far as its beliefs can be construed as a whole, takes a similar point of view, seeing no departure between the coexistence of reason and religion. Unitarians believe that the life and teachings of Jesus form a model for how one should live with the supernatural aspects being superfluous to any proper understanding. In this sense, the New Testament becomes a collection of aphorisms and Jesus becomes a historical figure (of dubious historical veracity) not unlike Socrates or Buddha, for whom the more supernatural aspects of his life (his virgin birth for one thing) have been de-emphasized in recent times to make for an easier pill to swallow among an increasingly secular audience.

But is this heterodox understanding of Jesus Christ simply a new packaging of Christianity to make it more amendable to an increasingly skeptical audience? Can followers accept the veracity of the entire book if there are persistent doubts about the truth of its most fantastic, and not insignificant claims (ie. the divinity of Jesus and the source of that divinity)? Any definition of religion contains two parts: one, that it is a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of existence; two, that that cause, nature and purpose is related to some superhuman agency. If you remove the supernatural from Christianity, if you deny Jesus’ professed divine origins as deliberately false or even as a simple parable (aren’t we all supposed to be God’s sons/daughters according to the Old Testament?) than you remove that second fundamental characteristic that defines religion. It ceases to be religion and instead becomes a branch of philosophy. The only way that heterodox Christianity can be categorized as a religion then would be to deny Jesus’ divinity but accept that he was speaking upon his belief in (not on the instruction of or as the representation of) a higher power.

And here we get back to the original point: can reason and religion co-exist? A heterodox understanding of Christianity tries to bridge that gap, but can enough be done? In the end, in order to maintain its position as a religion, we are obligated to act against reason and take a leap of faith in accepting the unseen existence of a higher power. The Bible does not try to provide an argument for this higher power’s existence (hence its limitation as a philosophical text should it not be considered a religious one) it is simply an account by the divine or divinely inspired of the “Word” (logos) of God.  Faith then stems from a suspension of reason and that on its own may negate the possibility that the heterodox Christian is any closer to the truth than the fundamentalist. Even if both sides reach different conclusions about the character of the divine being they worship (the literalists would have a petty, insecure and downright schizophrenic god, while the heterodox god would be more benign) they are still both predicated on the unquestioned assumption of the existence of a supernatural being. That on its own does not make it untrue, “the ultimate test of religion” as Andrew Sullivan puts it. Instead, it simply speaks to the impossibility of ever knowing whether it is in fact true. Theists and atheists debate more about who carries the burden of proof within their debates than they do on the veracity of their claims, and with good reason: neither side can win. The question of the divinity of Jesus Christ, and through him, knowledge of the existence of God can never be settled. Under such circumstances the only response can be to take the good from each religion, ignore the bad and shrug your shoulders when asked where you stand.

Obama the Centrist? or A Eulogy for the American Left

April 14, 2011

On Sunday I ran into an old high school acquaintance protesting outside the US consulate in support of Bradley Manning.  Manning is currently in a military prison for allegedly supplying Wikileaks, the controversial whistleblower repository website,  with documents for its “Iraq War Logs”, “Afghan Diaries”, State Department cables and a video showing an indiscriminate attack by an American Apache helicopter in Iraq. If convicted, Manning will likely spend the remained of his life in prison for releasing the classified material, an outcome that looks very likely for the 23 year old.

The debate over whether Manning’s actions were criminal is an issue I’d prefer to avoid for now. I do believe that Private Manning’s actions were incredibly valuable in shinning a light on two largely under-reported wars, providing the public with important information about the gross stupidity, misconduct, criminality in the way that they have been conducted and the misinformation that domestic audiences have been provided. But my concern is what the treatment of Bradley Manning says about the Obama administration rather than the issues of how to deal with whistleblowers.

I think it is a fair assumption that under any American administration Bradley Manning would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The American military and the public at large would expect it of any sitting president. So, I don’t believe that the fact that Obama is proceeding with charges against Manning are terribly indicative of his administration’s character.

What I do think displays his administration’s character is how Manning has been treated since being placed in detention in May 2010. Under the terms of his detention, Manning has been kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day and is denied any interaction with fellow prisoners and guards. His one hour of physical activity, which consists of walking around a drawn circle, ends the moment he stops walking and he is returned to solitary confinement. He has also been placed on suicide watch against his psychiatrists recommendation which has entailed the following:

– he is forced to verbally indicate that he’s “ok” every five minutes, thus denying him sleep

– at night he is stripped of his clothes and forced to do roll-call naked

– he is not provided proper bedding or even a pillow

The mental affects of such treatment have become noticeable. Individuals who have visited Manning have described him as “catatonic” at times.

The treatment of Manning is reminiscent of the sadistic administering of al Qaeda suspects and Iraqi insurgents at Guantanomo Bay and Abu Ghraib that originated in the Bush White House – the practice of which was highly criticized by candidate Obama and suspended upon his ascension to the presidency in January 2009.

What then can we make  of the continuation of comparable practices during Obama’s administration, against a US citizen no less? While it is unlikely that Obama himself ordered the cruel treatment of Manning, his recent firing of State Department spokesman PJ Crowley for speaking out against what he termed the “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid” methods used to punish the young private speaks volumes about his support for the practice.

Consider also that it is alleged that an individual in the Justice Department put Bank of America in touch with a private company to attack Wikileaks and Wikileaks “supporters”, in particular Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald. If true this sounds more like George W. Bush (or even  Richard Nixon) than Hope & Change.

Here are some additional areas where we’ve seen Obama display the more conservative aspect of his character:

– doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan

– conducting an unauthorized air war across the border in Pakistan

– the suspension and then resumption of extra-constitutional military trials for al Qaeda and Taliban suspects

– the decision that terror suspects who are not tried or are acquitted can still be detained indefinitely

–  authorized the assassination of US citizens suspected of involvement in al Qaeda (this is primarily targeted at Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen)

– launched a war in Libya without consulting Congress

This is a damning list and one that most Obama supporters wouldn’t have expected to see the President’s name attached to back in November 2008.

Of course expectations back then were not consistent with the reality of the choices Obama was going to have to make as president. At the time, most anticipated a tangible shift in American politics – some welcomed it, some dreaded it. I remember the day after he was elected thinking, “this man is going to be too pragmatic for the idealists and too idealistic for the pragmatics, he needs to pick a side or risk collapse”. Compromise with the left and the center of the Democratic Party seemed impossible – both would be disappointed. I  assumed he’d choose the left, and pay a heavy price for it from a rejuvenated Republican Party in 2010 and beyond…

BUT, what I didn’t count on was the Republicans responding to their resounding defeats in 2006 and 2008 with the decision that they weren’t conservative enough. They embraced their base in a big way through the guise of the “independent” Tea Party and used its ability to mobilize the vote in 2010 to bring about a resounding defeat for Democrats. They won the battle, but they may have lost the war.

The Republican’s hard move to the right has allowed Obama to embrace his pragmatic side and capture the independents alienated by the irrational, flat tax loving, bible thumping, immigration hating, constitution fetishizing, and isolationist wing dominating the Republican Party. Obama has moved straight to the centre of the American political spectrum.

The thing is, based on the list of transgressions above, the center seems to have moved noticeably to the right. In relation to the Guantanamo detainees we shouldn’t be asking “Well, who can we convict in a military court and who should have no opportunity to ever see the light of day?” With regard to assassinating American citizens the first question shouldn’t be: “Do we need to have some pretense to actually capturing them?” And with Bradley Manning it shouldn’t be a question of, “How far can we push him before it’s considered torture?” These are terrible starting points for debates we should not be having.

It’s naive to think that the USA did not have any lapses in the past in enforcing its own Bill of Rights. Not everything was perfect until George W. Bush came along. There were abuses, sometimes on a massive scale (for example, being a Japanese-American in the early 1940s was dicey). But what we are seeing is a complete paradigm shift.  Since September 11 the American executive has been less concerned with enforcing the laws than how they can get around them. The Bill of Rights, separation of powers, executive authority, the basic components of the US Constitution have been treated as pesky nuisances. And Obama is no exception.

Fundamentally, I still believe that Obama is a good man. But what he believes in his heart does not matter if his actions contradict it. Obama’s dash to the center has left his moral values in its wake. So long as he is more concerned with getting re-elected rather than executing his duties “to faithfully  uphold the constitution”, there will be little difference between him and his fundamentally flawed predecessor.

What I wonder is if the left has become so politically dead that it cannot challenge Obama on this? Will it ever be a factor again? If I were Bradley Manning, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it.

Rousseau-so: An anti-anti-consumerism manifesto… of sorts.

April 7, 2011

Some blogger/writer  came up with what he calls the “100 Thing Challenge” an effort to combat “consumerism and live a life of simplicity, characterized by joyfulness and thoughtfulness”.  The writer, Dave Bruno, claims that people have become “stuck in stuff” and must “reduce, refuse, rejigger” in order to release themselves of the oppressive confines of consumerism. The emphasis of his blog, and subsequent book, is on the reduction aspect of his theory. He challenges his readers to go through their personal belongings and throw out (or give away) their possessions until they have only 100 “things” hence the name “The 100 Thing Challenge”. In order to stay beneath 100 things, you must refuse any additional goods unless, I suppose, you are prepared to toss one of your 100 things onto the trash heap. The overall goal of this exercise is to help “rejigger” your priorities which the author feels will allow the adherent to “spend the rest of your life creating a more valuable life, instead of wasting your money and time on stuff”. Sounds noble doesn’t it?

But there are a few obvious shortcomings.

First, the “100 Thing Challenge” can be circumvented by a gaping hole in the rules. While a participant is strictly limited to one-hundred of their own possessions, they are permitted an unlimited number of “common” or family use items. That $130,000 Mercedes in your drive way? The whole family uses it so it doesn’t count. Your 50 inch flat screen television, surround sound system with subwoofers, theater seating, and a library of blu rays? That doesn’t count as one of your “100” items. You see where I’m going…

Second, the act of excising yourself of your material possessions until you are down to just one-hundred items is assumed to be exceedingly difficult if not painful, like running a marathon or attempting the master cleanse diet. This may be true of middle or upper class Westerns, but it shows an audacious ignorance of the poor who would relish the fortune of possessing 100 items, not to mention enough in excess to throw away. The question is if poverty is relevant, than doesn’t the “sacrifice” of having only 100 items betray the very same decadence the “100 Thing Challenge” seeks to combat?

There are deeper criticisms to consider as well. The deeper goal of the  “100 Thing Challenge” seems to be the desire to, as the author puts it “live a life of simplicity”, an essentially ascetic lifestyle. But does asceticism lead to greater happiness and fulfillment? Would asceticism lead to a greater moral outlook?

The first place we could look would be among the poor.  Are they individually or as a whole deeper thinkers than the rest of Western society? Do they live a more joyous existence? Those who romanticize them (few in number since Dickens!) might say they lead a more noble existence, but any objective observer would note that their existence is far from ideal.

To be fair, you could counter-argue that the poor can’t focus on substantial issues or live more complete lives because they are preoccupied with putting food on the table and paying rent rather than philosophic pursuits. Survival, not consumerism dominates their lives. This might explain why the  “100 Thing Challenge” seems to have been written for those living at or above the average Western standard of living – those who would be “free” if not for the “slavery” of consumerism. If we let the “100 Thing Challenge” write the rules we can ignore the underlying message that only those of a certain class will enjoy the fruits of this project and simply continue with our characterization of it as being patronizing.

But it is more than patronizing.

The author of the “100 Thing Challenge”, Dave, is not the first to rail against the ills of consumerism. Playwriter Edward Albee, novelist  Herman Hesse, and theorist Karl Marx (who warned of how capitalism fetishizes consumption) all touched on this theme. HD Thoreau recorded a journal of his “Spartan-like” existence in Walden (he may have sought reprieve from “civilization” but he lived on the edge of Concord which he visited every other day) promoting the intrinsic value of a pre-modern lifestyle. However, the grandfather of Thoreau, Hesse and to a much lesser extent (if at all), Marx was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In his “Discourse on Inequality”, Rousseau argued that man was naturally good, yet he was corrupted by man-made institutions.  He argued against the products of modernity, land-ownership, science, the arts, stating that they were the sources of slavery. Accordingly, Rousseau lived by his maxims, adopting a simple life, purging himself of unessential items as the “100 Thing Challenge” would prescribe. The implications of this understanding are clear. If man is naturally good when living in conditions that would approximate a “state of nature” than surely the key to preserving this “goodness” would be, as Bertrand Russell writes in his critical analysis of Rousseau, to “abandon civilization”, asking rhetorically “for how can chains be imposed on those who go naked”?

Rousseau, and by extension the “100 Thing Challenge” would, if taken to their natural conclusion, have us reach back to our nomadic days (nothing “simpler” than living like a caveman, right?), aspiring for nothing greater than peace and restful contemplation in an ascetic paradise. Though would there be peace in such a world? I think back to the 1999 movie Fight Club.  Beyond the blood and grime, Fight Club presents a romantic depiction of anti-consumerism – if you happen to only watch the first half of the movie. The second-half of the movie rails against what is in fact its primary target: asceticism, more specifically the organizations that grow out of it. The movie is not simply a criticism of unchecked consumerism. It’s also a criticism of militant anti-consumerism. What Fight Club rightly points out is that there is a clear path (not perfectly straight) from Rousseau’s, and by extension the “100 Thing Challenge”, rejection of modernity to fascism (and to a lesser extent Buddhism) – you just need to add a dash of Nietzsche to the recipe and voila!

Anyone can understand and even sympathize with anti-consumerism, but the idea is more important than its physical representation (ie. the purging of goods). The act itself seems symbolic at best, a vanity project, something to wear as a badge of honor rather than alter your life in an appreciable way.

The goal should be about reducing, if not ending our preoccupation with consumer goods – and I don’t see how the serial self-flagellation represented by this exercise, this hyper consumer guilt, ends this preoccupation. One could argue that life would become equally if not more defined by the goods we own if the “100 Thing Challenge” is followed with precision. Orthodox followers would simply be guilt-ridden accountants.

(Vanity and self-hatred area a dangerous combination, hence the warning above.)

Finally, the key understanding is that we need to realize that the accumulation of goods is symptomatic of a larger evil that exists at a higher level – the culture that permits such thinking. Forgive the cliche, but the failure to see the forest for the trees is the overriding weakness of the “100 Thing Challenge”.  Mitigating the affects of consumerism starts with a conscious decision to reject the ideas that make a materialist existence desirable, not by symbolic gestures. Keep your hundred things.

God Lord this is longer than I wanted!!

New Grounds

April 2, 2011

Anyone (emphasis on “one”) that follows this blog will notice that I have spent pretty much the entire time writing on two topics: international relations and basketball.

Why those two?

I write about basketball because, without tooting my own horn, I am more familiar with the NBA than most. Equally important, is the undeniable fact that the stakes are low – meaning: I can sleep easy knowing that if I make an asinine argument about the Toronto Raptors the world will go on.

With topics in international relations, or domestic politics, I am a little less comfortable. This somewhat uneasy approach stems partially from the fact that there is far less objectivity in evaluating political issues. More than that I am often reluctant to address such topics because I do not feel that I am capable of giving them the respect that they deserve.

Of course this may sound incredibly silly. Obviously I’m not going to sway domestic and international political forces a fraction of an inch with my haphazard, inconsistent, and frankly, unclear arguments on a given subject.  Plus, one of the strongest criticisms of politics at any level is that the ultimate goal is to win with truth being secondary (hence the absence of objectivity), so it is rarely the realm of upstanding citizens – or even intelligent ones for that matter.

However, I implicitly feel that certain topics deserve a tremendous level of respect and need to be deftly handled when a definitive position is being taken. A writer needs a certain level of familiarity not just with the topic itself, but with the literature surrounding the topic. You need to know the arguments for and against a topic and the responses to each. You have to be able to deconstruct the implicit assumptions that stem from a writer’s theoretical base. This isn’t easy.

So why have I written about issues that essentially fit within the realm of political science and history (not coincidentally the two subject areas I majored in as an undergrad)? Because, as Social Sciences, there are “facts” to backup some arguments and demolish others.

I use the word “facts” somewhat loosely because the data that social scientists use is interpretive. A common misconception about History essays/books/articles is that they are a series of indisputable facts laid out in chronological order. For a layman, there is no need for interpretation or analysis, just record the sequence of events. For a professional social scientist that is never enough. Maybe we know for certain that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 at Runnymede but that is the only item that is “known” with regard to that event. The genesis, intent, and implications of that moment in history are left for endless interpretation nearly a thousand years later.

What I’m getting at is that I feel much less comfortable dealing with disciplines that are not based on empirical evidence (regardless of how faulty that evidence may be). Disciplines that are purely analytical scare me.

Philosophy scares me the most.

But Philosophy cannot be ignored. While political differences are real and can be exacerbated by historical grudges, these problems are secondary – issues that can be mitigated by good will and consensus building, but can only be solved by a change at a higher level. As such, Philosophy is the fundamental parent and overlord to them both.  It is the elephant in the room that threatens to annihilate the assumptions of those who acknowledge it. I personally welcome that outcome, but again, fear that I will not pay the subject enough respect to achieve the full benefit of this experience.

Given my discomfort and lack of experience in a realm that relies almost solely on rational argument (some philosophers took liberties) my lack of confidence is understandable. Throw in the fact that I have a 9 to 5 job, spend hours each day searching for and applying for a better job, perform volunteer work, and try to maintain some sort of a social life, and the idea of tackling any subject with anything but token depth seems faint.

But there is hope! Debate on fundamental issues does not have to be left simply to the experts – I don’t mean to give that impression. Novices, like myself, can touch on important debates in useful ways. A reductionist approach could prove affective. By looking at particular aspects of a bigger issue hopefully a degree of expertise can be developed, expertise that would prove useful when moving beyond the trees to study the forest as a whole.

Second, an inquisitive approach can be taken. Rather than feeling compelled to answer any question outright I can question the underlying assumptions of a given position, while at the same time consider deconstructing arguments (something I’ve never been strong at!).  This would require a format where I could revisit old posts as sort of a never ending continuation when a given topic expands. One of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan, is effective at keeping certain threads open for months, even years, though I think I’d have to develop a more appropriate format, which is a whole other problem…

So maybe I’ll just wade in cautiously, starting with pseudophilosophy!

Coming soon, the first baby steps…


… or my preview of the NBA Playoffs!!!