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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Confession of a Luddite Sympathist

 
It seems to me that if you are going to tell the world that modern technology and specifically social media type technology makes you uneasy, and you are going to say it on your blog, then you had better frame the statement as a confession. So here it is:

I confess - technological development makes me uneasy and I have a constant sort of background nervousness about what social media is doing to our ability to relate to one another in healthy ways.

And now for disclaimers: I do not actually disapprove of technology, I try hard to stay on top of technological development and I think that it offers great opportunities for good. My confession is one of inclination not of decision so while there is a little worried knot in my stomach every time some new device of website catches on, I go ahead and try to learn the tech and see what can be made of it.

Technology is essentially power. In fact it is an expression of power which is almost unique to humans (I think I remember that there are certain monkeys which do stuff with sticks and I heard somewhere that sea otters will hold on to especially useful "shellfish cracking" rocks). It is the manifestation of the power of thought, imagination and innovation and as such it really sort of deserves to be celebrated - all things are indeed glorious for being themselves.

I believe C.S. Lewis J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton each pointed out that the desire to develop technology is a manifestation of the same desire which leads people to try magic (Lewis has some really great things to say about this in The Abolition of Man). The technologist and the alchemist are the right and left hands of the same impetus. In fact when you get right down to brass tacks definitions it becomes surprisingly difficult to differentiate between the two. The major difference is that technology has worked while magic hasn't.

The problem is that technology is power - and exponentially increasing power at that - in the hands of a species with questionable moral character. Power only increases an individual's ability to do what they want to do, to "enacting their will on the world" as the philosopher would say. It is a good thing for a good person to enact their will on the world, but conversely it is a bad thing for a bad person to enact their will. And technology itself does not discriminate between good and bad, it simply amplifies. Technology makes bad people more able to do worse things and good people more able to do good things.

I think that Facebook gives a useful example. Facebook (together with other social media) has enable people to organize and topple repressive regimes. I take this to be a good thing, although I have not always been pleased with the "new boss", but that is another post. At the same time, I believe that Facebook (again together with other social media) has enabled people to create illusory relationships which save them from the difficulty and ultimate satisfaction of forging real relationships. It allows for someone to become increasingly antisocial without feeling as many of the negative effects of actually being alone.

All of this is because technology essentially amoral. It is not immoral, for then it could not serve and especially not amplify the good that it is so often used for. Neither is it moral, for then it could not be used in the service of harming people as it has so often been. Technology is a catalyst, an amplifier, to stake out yet another "mushy middle" position, it is what you make of it.

But maybe things are not quite so simple as that. As Spiderman is wont to remind us, "With great power comes great responsibility". We need to ask ourselves whether we are able to handle that sort of responsibility. After all, there was a time when the worst mankind could do with its power was to kill itself off. This would have been a bad enough thing and we managed to be responsible enough not to do it. But now, with much greater power, we carry much greater responsibilities. We now have the power to reduce our entire planet to a glowing slag heap, ending nearly all life; and we are responsible for how that power is going to be used.

So the question "is technological development a good thing?" turns out to be the question "is it a good idea for beings like us to be more powerful?" and our answer will have to depend on whether or not we think that human beings ought to be trusted with this much power. And this is a hard question to answer because in reality we all clearly observe that humans, both collectively and individually, are both incredibly evil and shockingly good. We are beings of unimaginable glory and holiness who have become corrupted and evil. We are just about as paradoxical a set of beings as can be imagines, veritable gods who have become demons and still aspire to godhood what the Greek Orthodox call Theosis. We are the only species that could have produced bothe Mother Teresa and Hitler and that species tension is at work in each of us. Indeed, to go back to C.S. Lewis, one of those two must be our ultimate destiny:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations." - The Weight of Glory

But then maybe a growth in human technological power is unavoidable, maybe whatever the answer to that question, we will still be faced with an inevitable increase in human power. So we might want to jump strait to another question: "how can we ensure that power is used responsibly? How can we keep from blowing up the world or turning the vast majority of the population into unthinking, consuming zombies?" After all, there are certainly people out there who project exponential and unavoidable technological growth over the next few years.

To my mind, the answer to these latter questions (I don't think that technological progress is something which can be effectively fought) is twofold: First we have to find a way to make people better - in spiritual terms we have to really focus on bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, we have to begin to really care about things like sanctification, maybe we need to go back and read James and Hebrews again. And secondly we need to never cease in doing good to the best of our own ability - and this must include the acquisition of the technological expertise which will enable us to become more effective peacemakers, more efficiently generous, more aware of the suffering that we are to be forever healing. After all, Spiderman works backwards as well: "With great responsibility comes the providence of great power" at least it must God was serious when He promised to provide everything necessary for the doing of His will.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Third Love...


I was recently asked whether or not I have a “safe person” in my life. I do. In fact I have several – my wife, my siblings and parents, and quite a few of my friends.  As the conversation went on though I caught on to a couple of things: that “safe person” meant something more specific than “someone you feel safe around”, and that friend doesn’t mean much anymore.  As it turns out, “safe person” in this context meant what I mean when I deliberately use the word friend. Those of you who talk to me on a regular basis may have noticed that I prefer to use semi-synonymous titles like “buddy”, “acquaintance” or the rather awkward “a guy/woman I know” when talking about someone I like and have a relationship with but with whom I am not friends.
  Let me say at the outset (granted the outset of my second paragraph) that this post will not get into the question of Facebook friending, it’s a fascinating topic but “beyond the scope of this paper”. I will also not be concerning myself with talking about whether men and women can be simply friends (though that may make a worthwhile topic for another post). What I do want to talk about it what friendship is supposed to be and what it isn’t, I probably won’t be able to restrain myself from a few thoughts on how things have gotten this way as well.
  The Turkish word for “friend” is “arkadash” which essentially means “someone who has your back” or more literally “supports from behind”. In contrast, our word, according to my online etymology source, comes from a Proto-Germanic word “to love”.  And then the famous four loves of the Greeks included “phileo” which was essentially non-sexual love. If I have been at all correct in my previous posts in claiming that we are essentially social creatures, then friendship has to be something more profound than a long-term playmate.
  And that begins to get at what I am looking for with friendships. When I think, talk or write about friendship I am looking for something that gets beyond “acquaintance whom I really enjoy being around”; I am looking for something to which words like “honor”, “loyalty”, “commitment” and “love” come naturally and for which words like “like”, “enjoy”, “pal” and “nice” feel too weak.
  Friendship is supposed to be a relationship you can rely on. Bill Cosby tells the story of a friend of his whom he could call at 2 am on a rainy night who would drive 70 miles to pick him up if he had a break down because that man is his friend. In college I had a professor who defined a friend as “that guy who would give you $500.00 just because you told him you need it.” C.S. Lewis suggests in The Four Loves that friendship grows out of a discovery that you share a fundamental passion with someone. Friendship happens when you have a connection with someone that first reminds you that you are not alone in the cosmos and then lets you know that someone else is on your side.  It is not an accident that soldiers form some of the deepest friendships we know of, theirs is an experience which demands and proves interdependence.
  To my mind the archetypal friend would be Sam Gamgee, though there are others though out history and literature. David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, heck Bert and Ernie are all encouraging, moving friendships. There isn't much bad that can be said about Sam, but if there is any one trait he is most famous for it would have to be his loyalty. Sam had Frodo's back. End of story. To quote Shakespeare, Sam's love "carries it out, even to the edge of doom" Mt. Doom in Sam's case.
  In fact hardship works this way. One of the great things about hardship (it has many bad aspects as well) is that it brings people together. I have written about interdependence in the past; hardship creates interdependence which, itself, creates one of the best opportunities for friendship. I would be fascinated to find out if there is a correlation between the experience of hardship and the occurrence of real friendship. I expect that there is a strong one and if there is, that would suggest one more reason for the depression and apathy which is so prevalent in our materialist society.  I certainly know that the last several years of financial difficulty have created and strengthened several of my friendships.
  I want to end by clarifying something: I am not saying that there is anything wrong with being an acquaintance. As a matter of fact I think that at least part of the problem is that we have begun to take it as an insult to hear that someone we like is not a friend. It shouldn’t be. There is nothing wrong with being a buddy or an acquaintance. It is simply a different thing, not a worse thing.
  So what do y’all think? Do you have friends? If not, have you felt the lack? If so, what is the benefit?

Monday, November 21, 2011

If you Can't Play Nicely Then None of you Get the Toy

 Big warning, I think that this is the most political and potentially divisive post I have written. Or maybe not. It's certainly on a topic for which I have little to no awareness of public opinion. To wrap up the waffling and prevaricating, I have no idea what you will think of this.
 
While I was growing up I was in the habit of getting into fights with my siblings, especially my younger brother. Many of those fights were over who would get to play with some much coveted toy. I am reasonably certain that at least once, my parents resolved the situation by confiscating the toy and informing us that if we couldn't play nicely with it then we wouldn't get to play with it at all. If that didn't actually happen to me then it did happen to so many friends and TV characters that I have adopted it into my own experience. Before anyone throws my parents (or some now-nameless TV parents) under the bus for this atrocity, let me suggest that it worked pretty well. I have very clear memories of making efforts to resolve fights over various toys before they escalated to the point that my parents would take a hand.
Yeah this was pretty much
me


I want to suggest that we take the same approach with marriage in this country. For quite a few years now, we have been fighting over who has the right to get married. The conservative crowd wants the government to define the word in such a way as to exclude certain times of lifetime monogamous commitment and the liberal crowd wants the government to step in and guarantee everyone the right to call their relationship marriage (and thereby receive the important social and legal benefits that married couples enjoy). So as a starting point I want to suggest that the kids have been fighting over this too long and it is time for us to take marriage away from the conservative and liberal politicians.
 
But that is really just a starting point. As I reflected on it, I realized that I don't think the politicians have any real right to claim power over the term in the first place. Historically it looks as though marriage first became an important legal term to the government (state governments I believe) when they decided to write bigamy laws. After that the federal government got involved with the income tax. Various child welfare and adoption laws joined the mix at some point as well. But all of this, with the interesting exception of bigamy which I am not going to touch, worked without any technical definition. A marriage was what everyone knew a marriage to be. No point in defining it.
 
Now we have various political interest groups trying to get their representatives to define a word in one way or another. Which is really silly. Can you imagine a campaign to define a chair as a "tool for sitting involving no more or less than four legs and a back"? The stool lobby would be up in arms. Why should the government have the right to define a marriage? The only answer I can come up with is that it is an important term in several tax and legal codes. But surely those codes would work just as well with the phrase "committed-cohabiting couple" substituted for marriage.
I like this document


And on further reflection, doesn't the idea that the government has the right to define marriage violate the free exercise clause of the first amendment? Historically, marriage is a religious concept. At least in western civilization, we hold that God makes or at least recognizes a marriage between two people (possibly more if you are an old school Muslim but again - not going there). And if that's the case then aren't my fellow religious people out there a little offended that our government has even thought about giving itself the power to define one of the sacraments - even if they want to define it in a way you like? After all, if they get to claim that power today what assurance do you have that they will use it well tomorrow. Today they define marriage as only between a man and a woman, tomorrow they define the Eucharist as the ceremonial partaking of cotton candy and soda pop.


Now it certainly is the government's job to protect contracts (see my earlier two posts on capitalism) and if Uncle Sam wants to give tax breaks and extend insurance benefits to people who commit to act as one unit for the rest of their lives, I say let him (I am generally in favor of tax breaks and insurance benefits for people who care about each other and are willing to make life-long commitments to one another, in addition to visitation rights and other basic rights of attorney and so forth). So my "solution" is to replace the legal concept of marriage with a number of standard domestic partnership agreements. Then those people who are legal domestic partners can go to the religious (or non-religious) institution of their choice and take part in whatever ceremony they think will create a spiritual union between them, and call their union whatever it is that they want to call it - probably marriage.

Update: Same sex marriage is now legal throughout the United States, a situation I thoroughly support (though I would not be sad to see the implementation of my recommendations above). You can read my series in support of LGB folks within the church starting HERE.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

And Here Comes Capitalism - Take Two.

  For those of you who are keeping score or who are possibly trying to make a convert out of me (love and appreciate the attempt by the way, if you think you are right about something, the nicest thing you can do is try to show me the truth you have found), the mission is not yet a success. I am still a pretty hard-core free market capitalist. A big part of that is probably the fact that I haven't yet heard (or read) a response to my "it is immoral to force people to spend their own money in a particular way" objection. Still waiting on one -really- so that I can at least be in dialogue with someone about it.
  In the mean time I though it might be worth recording some of musings on the strengths of free market capitalism in a modern liberal society and why it is that I think more and more good people find themselves against capitalism these days. I have been re reading The Abolition of Man recently and it occurred to me that we (the western world in a terrible over-generalization) used to combat the major flaws of capitalism in a way that is, at best, only minimally effective in modern culture. It used to be that the average westerner held two particular views in regards to the use of their financial (and material) resources: A) that their stuff was their stuff; only they have a right to decide how to spend it so that if anyone else tried to force them to use it in a certain way they would be justified in being offended, outraged etc... B) that they ought to be generous with their resources, help those less fortunate than themselves (especially their friends, family and neighbors) so that generosity and concern for people in need was a basic part of being a decent person.
  The result was a worldview which protected societies (in theory and at least sometimes in practice) from the worst impacts of a purely free market system. If people view charity (in the middle-old sense, "giving resources to the poor") as each persons duty, then the poor will generally be kept from starving.
  But we can't teach that any more. Back in the day, this moral obligation to help the poor was taught as just that, a moral obligation - usually a religious moral obligation. Today we don't teach children that they have any moral obligations other than tolerance (and something akin to but not quite the same as non-violence). We tell them that everyone has a right to their opinion and then we tell them that all statements of ought or moral sentiment are statements of opinion. And once we have taught them this moral subjectivism, a lesson they pick up with alarming speed, they are almost perfectly defended against any appeals we make to some duty of charity. We have already told them that they have a right to define their own moral code, thus we lose all right (in their minds) to tell them what that moral code ought to look like. So charity becomes a matter, not of moral obligation, but of pragmatic utilitarianism.
  This, by the way, is why I think so many older movies are popular as left-leaning films simply because they contain the message that the rich ought to be generous with their wealth. But that is not a socialist message, that is a capitalist message. It is the capitalist who says "the rich have a right to their riches and a responsibility to do the right thing with them. The truly evil man is the miser who has great wealth and does not use it for the good of his neighbors". The socialist thinks of the rich man as un-deserving of his treasure and insists that it be stolen from him and used to make the middle class feel better about the suffering of the poor.
  Now, the average schoolchild's reaction to poverty is not "I had better do something about that" but "that makes me feel bad so some thing ought to be done about it". Do you see the difference? In the first case, the problem demands concrete action (generosity) on the part of the individual. In the second it demands action on the part of "society".
  That is why I see it as only natural that good people, people who happen to care about the poor, the mistreated, the abused, are trending more and more towards socialism (not all have gotten there and I see no great shame in being a socialist - though I think that it is a very bad economic and political system). These are the people who want the problem fixed and have noticed that nobody is standing up to fix it. In short, socialism is on the rise because the free market capitalists have forgotten their moral duty.

  I believe that being truly moral (something I would still like to be) means not breaking either of two principles. I must not let other people suffer if I can do anything about it and I must not steal, even from those who can afford it, to alleviate the suffering I see around me. Being a free market capitalist means taking responsibility for my fellow man, not because the government forces me to but because it is the right thing to do. A socialist society is a society which does not provide it's citizens with as much of an opportunity to learn to be good; because it is a society with less freedom, it is a society for rule breakers (in Blue Ocean terms - socialism is a good system for a stage 1 society which needs rules and the threat of violence to make it be good). A capitalist society is an audacious experiment in free will. A wager that given the necessity, the rich will voluntarily give of themselves to feed the poor. Let us pray that the experiment does not fail.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Variations on a Theme by Shakespeare, Lewis and Kreeft

I was playing with different topics today and it occurred to me that I have not yet explained this blog's title. I have hinted at it and I think I may have even used it somewhere (though I can't find the post off hand) but I haven't ever posted on why I call it "Heaven and Earth Questions". In Hamlet when Horatio sees the ghost he is confounded more because ghosts don't fit into his understanding of the world, than because of any normal fear of ghosts. Hamlet responds with : "There are more things in heaven and earth. Horatio, than are dreamt of in  your philosophies." I read Hamlet quite a few times with out ever noticing that line. In fact, the line was pointed out to me by Dr. Kreeft in one of his lectures (he uses the line quite a bit and at this point I have no idea which lecture I heard it in first so let me just give him general credit).

Dr. Kreeft's point, building off of C.S. Lewis' work on the character and weaknesses of modernism as well as his own work, is that there are really only three possible relationships between an individuals epistemology (the study of what is know and how it can be know) and ontology (the study of being or of what is). Either there are more things in heaven and earth (in reality) than are dreamt of in their philosophy (their epistemology), there are the same number of things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy, or there are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. Crudely speaking - and I am already anticipating a few grumpy notes from post-modernists out there- the post-modernist holds that there are fewer things; the modernist, that there are the same number of things; and the pre-modernist, that there are more things in heaven and earth. 


For the post-modern, reality is a really tricky concept (and possibly an entirely meaningless word) to begin with. The post-modern approach tends to downplay reality as unknowable and therefore unreal. For many, many reasons, they have abandoned anything like a correspondence theory of truth (truth is when a proposition corresponds to reality) and then operate out of a desire to establish ones own "working" reality which they seem to simultaneously think must also be a fundamental illusion. However it plays out it will work out to a belief that reality, to the extent that it is a meaningful word, is smaller than the conceptions of each individual.


The modernist holds on to that initially exciting yet ultimately deadening idea that human achievement will one day be able to explain absolutely every aspect of reality and offer something like a scientific proof to verify those explanations. You hear lines like "if science can't prove it then it doesn't exist" from them. Here in America we have a very common religious form of this modernism which claims instead "if the Bible doesn't prove or affirm it then it isn't real". Both are modernist by this model. The claim boils down to the belief that human reason is capable of explaining or describing every aspect of being; that there are exactly as many things in heaven and earth as are dreamed of in philosophy. Thus prior to meeting the ghost, Horatio is a sort of proto-modernist.


But the pre-modern believes that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy; that reason works but isn't comprehensive. The pre-modern believes there is more to the world than what we can figure our. This does not mean (as I find many athiest apologists have construed it) that the pre-modernist gives up on trying to understand or that they believe that reality can't be known. "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honour of kings is to search out a matter." (KJV) Instead, the pre-modernist believes that there is always going to be more to know, that reality is fuller, more complex, more meaningful, more beautiful than we can comprehend - there will always be more to discover.

That is why I named the blog "More things in Heaven and on Earth". By now you must know that I am, or at least am trying to become, a pre-modern. Thus the title reflects my belief in infinite depth and breadth of the universe, of reality, of the cosmos, of the question and of the answers. There is bottomless joy in the search for truth because the truth is always being found and will never be exhausted.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

And the Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

About three quarters of the way through one of my notebooks is a reminder that "science fiction and philosophy would be a good blog post". I remembered to write this without it.


I am completely and unrepentantly partisan in favor or genre fiction. A friend asked me the other day why genre fiction gets such a bad rap in literary circles and as I launched into an answering diatribe it occurred to me that I am not precisely balanced on the subject. And I am alright with that. There are enough people out there fighting for the sanctity of "realist prose", and enough of them still occupy positions of power in various prestigious universities that I am able to feel as though I am still supporting the underdog in my defense of genre. Granted we are seeing more and more "sci-fi and fantasy" courses in English departments and I even know - oh frabjous day -  an instructor at the Naval Academy who was teaching a course on modern graphic novels (these are really long comic books like Watchmen and Persepolis for those of you who are not quite as immersed in geek culture).

Nevertheless, the wizened guardians of the literary canon are still debating The Lord of the Rings and Asimov's Foundation series. Let them bicker, history is on our side (well, mine anyway). But just in case it isn't; or in case I haven't made enough grumpy retorts to a nebulous literati, let me explain why and how I think that science fiction is the most philosophical of all genres (including realistic fiction).


Philosophers are huge fans of hypotheticals. Generally there is some attempt to make a hypothetical sound more impressive or intellectually worthy by calling it a "thought experiment" - this might also help with funding humanities departments - but ultimately the game is to imagine an unreal situation with it's own sets of rules for the purpose of playing out a theory to see how it might work in the absence of real world complications. And I think that this is a wonderful thing; hypotheticals give us all the opportunity to test something without having to worry about irrelevant details. A while ago I mentioned an ethical dilemma involving a train and several groups of people. The point is to imagine a situation in which someone's morality comes to the fore in a clear way. It does not matter that the situation is incredibly improbable, what matters is that it is a test case for at least two different ethical systems.


In science fiction, the author gets to do the same thing. What better way to explore philosophical anthropology than to imagine a world in which artificial intelligence is on a par with or even surpasses our own (Aasimov's Robot books)? If you want to expound a pre-modern cosmology in a way that modern thinkers will be able to understand how could you improve on a contemporary professor being shanghaied into a trip to mars (C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet)? Is there a more effective laboratory for investigation into the implications of a  perfect signifier-signified relationship than a novel wherein the enemy alien's doomsday device is an entirely accurate language (Samuel R. Delaney's Babel 17)? And how could there be a more thorough thought experiment into the cosmological implications if Plato's theory of the forms and their impact on multi-verse theory than a book about intellectual monks under attack from a world more distantly emanated the good (Neal  Stephenson's Anathem)? I could go on; and on and on and on.
 

Science fiction gives a writer the ability to imagine the specific set of circumstances which would most clearly demonstrate their own innate philosophies and world views. Of course when that is all they use the novel for (in fact when anyone uses a novel for much of anything other than as a medium for good story), they tend not to write very good books. But what if the author is a philosopher? What if they are writing not in order to preach a philosophy but to tell the excellent stories their philosophies inevitably produce? Some authors certainly are mere preachers - though sometimes they preach well - and some are tremendous story tellers and not very good philosophers (I would but Heinlein into this category). But some authors are genuinely both. Philosophers with a knack for recognizing a good story and the skill and craft to tell it well. It is probably going too far to call them philosopher poets but that would point in the right direction. That is why I find science fiction so intriguing, beguiling, thrilling and ecstatic.

Also laser guns, robots, space ships and aliens.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Golden Mask

So this post is one of those "being vulnerable because I am doing something I don't do well" deals. Having a friend who actually is an excellent poet and a circle of friends who write this stuff on a semi regular basis turns out not to have made my brief attempts in the arena any easier. Ah well, I'd better just take the plunge:

The Golden Mask


I tell a tale to turn from unknown truth; too long known
and seek instead a kindergarten color wheel.
Your palette is too subtle; your pastels strained my eye
I never could connect with grays and browns
and purples faded, washed in detail, tassels, minutia,
death.

Instead I long for fairy queens and war,
for melodies, trombones and marching bands.
The cross, the stone, the bread, the cup, the fish
smother my soul with a nuanced earthquake devoid of Flame.

But quiet winds, drifted from English pipes
to children's minds are lightning from the sun,
and dragons and ships and warriors and crowns.
a whispered wardrobe starts a carousel.

Such simple themes must overwhelm my eyes
with red and blue and brassy green and gold
And that fierce name by which I loved Him first
is Love and Death and Joy without renoun.

"My King is coming, riding on a fawn;
I could not love Thee till I loved Aslan"

By - me


Be gentle.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Really Think A Lot of Yourself, Don'tcha?


  My last post spawned a number of conversations (on and off line) which have lead me to question one of my standard operating assumptions about the modern, western anthropology. I remember growing up and being told that while we Christians believe that man is basically evil, those foolish non-Christians believe that man is basically good; that we start with different assumptions and that the other people’s assumption was clearly ridiculous and most likely a product of wishful thinking. That is not the operating assumption. Instead, I have assumed for the last several years that nearly everyone (except Presbyterians) believes that people are, by nature, somewhat good and somewhat evil. Granted not many of us would use those terms, but I thought that most people would say that the majority of the population have some goodness and some badness in them.
  
  I’m not certain I was right about that.  I’m sure there are many reasons but by limited and entirely anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that many people of all sorts of religious and philosophical persuasions actually believe (or at least claim to believe) that the mass of men are fundamentally good. Most of the reasoning I found behind this goes back to either cultural or general ethical subjectivism. The claim seems to be that we judge other’s actions to be bad because we have different ethical standards (which are arbitrarily ingrained in us thanks to culture and our parents), but that at the end of the day each person generally lives consistently with their own ethical or moral views.

   But this leaves me with something of a dilemma. You see, I don’t live up to my own ethical or moral views. I see myself as rather appallingly bad, and (per my last post) infinitely good. Generally we treat good and evil as being mutually exclusive such that a thing can be good only to the degree that it is not evil and evil only to the extent that it is not good. And this approach makes sense since the two are contraries. But we tend to then conclude that a person’s soul could be plotted on a sort of morality number line. We tend to think of others and ourselves as this good or that evil. But I don’t believe that it actually works that way.

  Instead I think that the human soul is incredibly good. It is glorious beyond anything we can currently comprehend. And it has also gone very wrong. I tend to picture my own soul as something like a diamond with pits and stains and scarring on it. The pits and scratches can be ground off, the stains can be cleaned. Evil is not an equal of good after all, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, and (I think) Augustine first pointed out, evil is a parasite on good; it cannot exist in the absence of good. So the soul is good but has become very bad. And now the task at hand is how can we be fixed?

  Does this resonate with any of you? Is there anyone else out there who is simultaneously aware that you are glorious and good beyond understanding and simultaneously twisted, warped and wretched? What do you think of mankind? Are we basically good or basically evil? Or are those no longer meaningful terms to you?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Impossible Love?

  I have been thinking about self-esteem a good bit over the last several years, largely because I am perplexed by it. The whole concept of having good self esteem confuses me in that I haven't ever been able to really empathize with the way contemporary authors, thinkers and pop-psychologists seem to want to talk about it. Then, when the topic came up on Not the Religious Type, I decided to see if writing about it would clear some things up for me. This is what I came up with:
  The problem for me is that the very idea of good self-esteem seems like an attempt at willful self deception in order to be happy. The reasoning seems to go like this:
1. People want to be happy.
 2. People who see themselves as bad or deficient are not happy about their badness or deficiencies. 
3. Therefore low self-esteem causes unhappiness. 
4. So if we want people to be happy we need to give them higher self-esteem. 
5. We should, therefore, convince unhappy people to see themselves as very good/beautiful/talented/intelligent - basically as possessing the qualities they value people for having.

  You will have noticed that this is bad reasoning. Statement 3 is guilty of non causa, pro causa; it treats a common corellative of unhappiness as the cause of unhappiness. There is no compelling reason to conclude that seeing myself as very bad should cause me unhappiness. At least not unless I want to be good, and improvement is an impossibility. And we have no reason to think that improvement is impossible. As a Christian I believe that perfection is ultimately guaranteed. I get to be perfect some day, so why worry about how far from perfect I am right now? In fact, shouldn't my awareness of my current imperfection give me some happiness when I realize that my God (whom I love) loves me even the gross way I am? If I were perfect I would be able to say something like "well of course God loves me, who wouldn't love this" and I could say it without any arrogance or pride. If I were truly as glorious as I hope to one day be, then any scrupulously honest self appraisal would have to conclude with perfection. I don't think that that would (or will) diminish my appreciation of God's love but isn't that love even more apparent when I see that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us"?
 I think the pop-psychologists have missed this. What do they do with someone who is genuinely untalented, physically ugly (by their own societies standards), not especially talented at anything, generally unkind to everyone around them, and effectively lacking in anything we generally consider lovable? How do you tell someone to look in the mirror and find something wonderful about themselves when there is nothing especially wonderful about them, or at least nothing that falls under the modern rubric of value? I know, generally we haul out the myth of balance to avoid even thinking about this question but when you look yourself in the mirror, the myth will fall to pieces. 
 Or even if a person does have something this world values; say they are especially beautiful. Anyone who is honest with themselves can easily pick out a dozen flaws, imperfections and "unlovable" qualities in their character. The pop-psychologists tell us to pretend they aren't there. Even Christians tell me, "but that's not really me". Really? Then who is it? If I am not the one who has all those terrible thoughts about my closest friends, who is it who does? Sure, I hope to get beyond all that someday but today certainly isn't that day. Today I am spiteful, envious, lustful, discontent and selfish. Pretending otherwise can only last so long. All lies, even self-lies, collapse in the end. All self-esteem based on self-delusion is nothing but a house of cards under the hurricane of life. Simple reality must ultimately blow the pretty bandages off of all our festering wounds. 

  And then where will we be?

  But I don't think that happiness or, even more importantly, Joy has to be built on high self-esteem. I think that the more honest, more real, more true our self-image is, the stronger a foundation it will be for Joy, and even for happiness. When I can look at myself as myself and see first that I am infinitely valuable simply because I exist (a quality I share with everything and everyone else) and then that I am nonetheless weak, twisted, often evil and ugly - when i can see all of that and know that I am loved, then how could anything shake my joy?
 What worries me is that our culture, Christian and secular, seems to be losing it's ability to love through evil.  There is an old Christian platitude: Love the sinner, hate the sin. Some people like it, some people hate it. I have opinions but I don't think they matter much since I don't think the phrase means anything to us any more. Nobody loves sinners. At least, nobody loves sinners as sinners. When we make any attempt to love sinners we seem to invariably begin by pretending that they aren't sinners. We only love sinners as saints. Which is why relationships fall apart when reality inevitably forces us to see the sin. When we just can't ignore their faults any more, we have not tools, no practice, no experience and only one example in the priceless skill of loving the unlovable. 
  Jesus said that they will know we are his followers by the love that we have for one another. Doesn't that mean that our love needs to be a new kind of love? Doesn't that mean that our love has to be a love that is impossible to those who haven't decided to follow Him yet? Is it possible that He was talking about the kind of love that He has for us? Love that loves such a worm as I?
  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Guess this Makes me a Patchwork Person

  I have a friend who is extremely Presbyterian. I have another friend who is extremely Objectivist. I am sort of jealous of them.  A while back I wrote a post about being a third-culture-kid and the impact that had on my views of culture in general. On that post Ben reflected on my take-what-I-like-and-leave-what-I-don't-like approach to culture and applied it to denominationalism and the search for a tradition. I am going to expand it a bit further and take a look at my approach to ism-ism (if I may coin the term) in general.

  Ben pointed out that it can be uncomfortable to not have a tradition with which to identify and I found myself sympathizing with him. First, because it is nearly always more comfortable to say "well what we believe is..." than to say "I believe...". There is strength in numbers, and that is not a bad thing, we are communal beings and it is natural and I think very proper to try and find our place in a greater family. Also it always feels a little arrogant to say "I believe this and I'm not really sure whether anyone else ever has". One seems to be saying "Nobody in the history of the world has been able to figure all of this stuff out until me; but now I understand".

  So I think that there are some very good reasons to want to find a tradition (philosophical or theological) to fit into.

 But I don't. I do have several terms or isms I will apply to myself but I tend to find that when I use them I have to do it with a lot of caveats: "I'm a capitalist, but I don't think that selfishness is a virtue or that it is better for rich people to get money than poor people, or that capitalism will necessarily make anyone happy" or "I'm think of myself as something of a Platonist but here are bunch of things I think Plato was wrong about" or "I'm basically a protestant but I'm not really sold on the protestant understanding of sola scriptura and I think that the Orthodox have a better understanding of the Eucharist than protestants, and I'm really very confused about what the Church is in a metaphysical sense but I kind of think that the Catholics have a better understanding of it than any protestant does". You see the problem? I can usually identify with some central premise or teaching of one ism or other but I haven't found one yet that I can swallow whole (with the possible exception of Mere Christianity as Lewis defines it - whether you are christian, atheist or other I bet you will be shocked if you go back through that book and look at how basic Lewis' definition is).

  And yet at the same time I don't pick and choose by fancy; at least I sincerely hope that I don't. I put a pretty high value on the law of non-contradiction and for as long as I have been trying to construct/discover/receive a complete worldview, I have insisted that no one part of it necessarily contradict any other part. Those of you who know me will know better than I whether I have been successful but I have always at least tried to reconcile any contradictions I saw in my own worldview and to reject one conclusion or the other when the reconciliation failed. Contradiction gives me a stomach ache.

  Let me try and describe the process: When I come across a bit of truth and recognize it as such, I go right ahead and believe it. This is a lot like trying on a new tie; I like the tie so I put it on, then I have to see whether it matches the rest of the suit. It may match my coat well enough but it may clash horribly with my shirt. Then I have to decide whether I like the tie or the shirt better. Say I decide for the tie. This means changing the shirt, but not any old shirt will do; it has to match the tie and not clash with the rest of the suit. Eventually I might find just such a shirt only to discover that the shirt comes with a pair of shoes which won't work with the belt.

  You begin to see? I am not complaining, as a general rule, I love the process. It's just that I might have
hoped by now to have found some tradition which contains or at least allows for everything I believe to be true and nothing that "clashes" with it. But I haven't.

  And I am beginning to be alright with that. I have said in the past that I believe that everything I believe is true. Not because I am arrogant (I probably am but it has nothing to do with this particular conviction) but because my answer to "What do you believe that isn't true?" has to be "Nothing, if I thought that something I believed was a lie then I wouldn't believe it would I". I understand the White Queen "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast" but I have only been able to believe impossible things by accident.

  As a result I have found that I am pretty much stuck where I am. I zip through political theories, philosophies, theologies, religions and I grab gems of truth where I see them and throw out falsehoods when I become aware of them. After all, Jesus claims to be the Truth, and I believe Him. So maybe my sifting process is a good one; maybe I am slowing cleaning the glass through which I view Him; maybe my frenetic truth sorting is really just a series of course corrections towards the center. Maybe your's are too; maybe as you seek the truth at all costs and no matter where you find it, maybe you are getting closer to Jesus. He did say that He is near to those who seek Him.

   In the meantime I will try to find community with anyone who will have me. Maybe this is why I care so much about reviving the ability to disagree without vitriol. After all, we are all sure to be wrong about a whole lot of things, even if we don't know which things they are.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

And They'll Know We are Christians by our.....Vitriol?

  My apologies for the lateness of this week's post. I have been somewhat overwhelmed because I got a new job this week (cheers all 'round) and have been so busy celebrating that I haven't been able to sit down and put my thoughts to keyboard.


  Last week I got my first-ever topic recommendation from a reader. I suspect that the particular observations in the e-mail I received were a result of our having officially (because I said so) entered election season 2013. At least we have on the republican side of the aisle. No, No! don't go away. I promise this is not going to be a post on politics; or at least not exactly. My correspondent commented that he has a number of Christian friends on different sides of the political spectrum - so far so good and a lot more than I could say back when I lived in the Bible belt. I, for one am hugely in favor of Christians not being tied to any particular political ideology, I have my own political opinions and I would hope that each of you have yours but I don't think that good things come from a giant, conglomerate, homogeneous, religious-political-moralist group think.
  Unfortunately, things go downhill from there. It seems that these politically heterogeneous Christians are engaging the political world with all the vitriol, and blinders we have come to expect from [insert your least favorite media outlet here]. Or maybe more. Each group seems to have chosen a favored demagogue or two and will defend that demagogue with all the loyalty and ardor we might hope to see directed towards the rest of the Kingdom of Heaven.
  Of course it needs to be pointed out that this attitude is not restricted to the Church. Nearly all media outlets seems to have spent the last few years lamenting the lack of civil political discourse in this country (not that I think we ever had much of a hold on it). So yes, Christians are not the only ones who can be downright hateful and nasty when it comes to talking about politics. But I seem to recall something about "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another" and somehow political, rhetorical venom doesn't seem to fit into this description. It has also been observed that this sort of approach to political discussion doesn't really reflect any of the improvements we are supposed to look for in people who have asked the Holy Spirit to start working on them. Putting aside love for a second, when was the last time you heard a political conversation between two Christians on opposite sides of the aisle which was just brimming full of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control?
  Now maybe this just has to do with our culture's loss of ability to engage in any sort of discussion or disagreement. But even if it is, shouldn't Christians at least try to correct the error?
  But I suspect that the real problem for Christians in this arena is how clear it always is that the other side is not just mistaken, they are nearly always disastrously mistaken and quite possibly thoroughly evil. After all those people can't possibly be "real Christians" - never mind that we are under even more stringent orders to love people who aren't part of the family yet - why "they" want to rob the poor, or destroy the family, or kill babies, or institute anarchy, or create a dictatorship or, or, or, or.....
 Or maybe, just maybe it really is more important to love one another than it is to be vindicated in our opinions, even if those opinions are true. So let me end by pointing to a couple of role models. One of the things I have noticed recently about my hero, C.S. Lewis and his best disciple Peter Kreeft is that both  engage in fierce dialogue and dispute without once giving the impression of disrespect or ill-will for their opponents.
  Maybe we ought to take a lesson from Pascal; a friend of mine recently drew my attention to the following:
  "When we wish to correct with advantage and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true." - Blaise Pascal, Pensees


Have you found an effective way to enter into genuinely courteous dialogue with other people on political subjects? Do you just avoid talking about politics because it "always gets ugly"? What is your strategy?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What a Solid Idea!

This ship has a dragon head... foreshadowing.

Last week I posted on my understanding of the non-material world in a purely philosophical a method as I could manage. My thought was, and still is, to talk this week about what impact those suspicions have on my theology. But before I get into that let me take a moment to admit that part of me sort of hates what I have done.

I think that the common distinction between philosophy and theology is baseless and damaging to both disciplines. In fact, so far as I can tell it is like trying to make a firm distinction between philosophy and ethics or philosophy and ontology. I tend to irritate a lot of Christians and non-Christians with the following statement but here goes: I think that theology is a proper subset of philosophy just like metaphysics, ethics, anthropology and the rest; and I think that it ought to be treated as such. I don't think that anyone can really develop a full philosophical worldview without addressing theology any more than someone can develop an un-philosophical theology. So just as ethics is philosophy thinking specifically about how we ought to behave, theology is philosophy thinking specifically about God.

Right, now that that is out of the way why don't I talk a little about what impact my understanding of pre-modern metaphysics has on my theology. The first observation I want to make is that it clearly undermines any purely materialist understanding of life. If the non-material world of forms has a greater participation in reality than the material world does, it would be nonsense to say that the non-material world is less real than the material world, much less that it does not exist at all.

Secondly, it makes a lot of sense to me to equate the non-material world of the forms with the spiritual world. Clearly, the spiritual world is non-material. But I realize that this will not work if we insist on a purely Platonic understanding of the non-material world. So I don't. I think that one of Plato's greater mistakes was to miss the fact that personhood is a characteristic quality of the real (I think that Lao Tzu missed this insight as well but that's another story). If things with greater being are things which are more person then it would follow that the world of forms is not merely the world of abstraction but is the domain of concrete reality in which all souls, all essential personhood, is anchored.
Eustace does look like
he almost deserved it


Another implication of this pre-modern paradigm is the idea that things and actions can have an intrinsic significance which may be even greater than their material significance. I mentioned in the last post that C.S. Lewis thought of himself as a pre-modern (he would have said medieval) thinker. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Rahmandu the Star tells Eustace that in our world, burning gas "is what stars are made of, not what they are". The idea here is that there is more to stars than just their material composition and properties. If you have ever had the feeling that you are more than a cloud of atoms even though a cloud of atoms is what you are made of, and you apply that feeling to stars as well as to yourself, then you begin to get at the point here. Or to put it in more platonic terms: the burning gas is a pale reflection, a material hint, of the reality of a star.

In the same sort of way, the bodies we interact with in our friends and enemies are pale reflections, material hints, of the reality of those persons. When I put it this way to myself generally "spiritual" or "ethereal" concepts like the immortality of the soul, or the impact that virtue and vice can have on a person, become almost self evident. Of course if the spirit has more reality than the body, there is no reason to assume that it should be subject to the same weaknesses (death) as the body.

But the biggest payout for my theology has been the understanding that certain acts may have genuine, profound, spiritual consequences which ought to be take at least as seriously as the material consequences. The clearest example I can think of at the moment would be my understanding of sex. From a pre-modern viewpoint, there is not contradiction and a great deal of gravity in the assertion that sex creates a spiritual bond between two people. If this is the case then it would follow that once one persons soul has been - remember that we are talking about events more "real" than even our physical world - joined to another, then these two people ought to make a commitment to love and support one another at least as long as their bodies stay alive; not to would be cruel and self destructive. 
Is this just or at least burning gas?

I want to leave it open from here. Do you find the pre-modern worldview compelling? Does it explain anything you might have struggled to understand? Do you think I have come to accurate conclusions about its implications or am I way off base? Of do you think that the whole project is a wrong turn? I would love to hear your takes, thoughts and suggestions. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

What a Flimsy Reality!

There is another way of writing about my topic today. In almost any other format it is a better way. I plan to talk about my suspicions about the nature of the non-material world. In another context I would do this by documenting the original publisher of the germ of every thought and observation I use to build my conclusion. I would provide comprehensive footnotes and I would address the primary objections that occur to me (I would also cite the originators of those objections). I would do that if I were writing a lecture or a formal paper. But this is a "heaven and earth questions" blog post. As such, I try to structure my writing as a conversation; partly because I think that make it a more engaging read for most people, and partly because I am way too lazy to implement the full scholarly rigor that an academic paper or lecture would require. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I have noticed one advantage that has risen out of it. This format allows me to write up and thereby work through ideas before I have them entirely worked through - it works as a great half step on the way to an academic paper.

More preamble! - this topic is, in some ways, focusing on one aspect of a larger topic I have been working on trying to develop a different way of understanding pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism. The more I research and read, the more I find myself in agreement with what I understand to be a pre-modern mind set toward philosophy and theology. I do want to make a distinction between the descriptive (the model in itself) and the prescriptive (my sympathy for one approach as the model would describe it). This post will be focusing on certain implications I draw from the pre-modern outlook as I understand it through the (new?) model. Also it could just be a poor attempt to justify some sort of odd contemporary neo-platonism.

As I have said in another post, I believe that pre-modern thinkers began with metaphysics. That is to say, they began with statements and arguments about what life, the universe and everything are really like. So far as I can tell, nearly everyone who did this was influenced by Plato's theory of the forms which (in a bare bones way that will certainly not cut the mustard if you ever find yourself in my PHIL101 class) basically claims that there is a world behind the physical world of our senses in which the essences or patterns or archetypes or abstractions exist. Something my students have a lot of trouble getting is that this "world of the forms" is more real than the physical world.

I am sympathetic to the difficulty. First, we are conditioned to think of the objects of our senses as the most real things there are. Even metaphysical relativists who like to go around talking about "my reality" and "your reality" - an absurd notion so far as I can see - tend to at least treat the physical world as a fundamentally shared, base line reality. On top of this, every time we run into a world "on top of" or "behind" the physical in literature or the media, it is nearly always presented as shadowy and/or ethereal; we get the sense that it is less real.


The only exception that springs to mind is C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce, which portrays people in purgatory/heaven as looking and functioning somewhat like ghosts because their environment is more real than they are. So he sort of inverts the popular portrayal. This sort of thing comes out in a few of his other works (notably his angels in the space trilogy and especially the ecstatic cosmic dance scene in Perelandra) But then, Lewis described himself as a pre-modern (De Descriptione Temporum) and seems to have been something of platonist as well.

But if I am going  to explain Plato, much less recommend co-opting part of his worldview, you need to understand that the world of forms genuinely is more real, it has more being, than the physical world. If it helps, you might try following Lewis' approach and imagine the physical world as ghostly in comparison to the world of the forms. Once you have this settled in your head, you will be in a much better position to understand the pre-modern approach.


Things in this world are merely things of seeming. Of course there is some reality to the world of seeming, things really do seem this way or that way. But if we can begin to think and talk about the world of being -  a world which this one reflects - then we can begin to get at understanding. Thus, "what is a human?" is a far more interesting question than "how does the blood circulate?"; "what is justice?" is far more profound than "did she hit him without cause?".


Furthermore, the greater reality of the world of forms is actually a really great thing for all of us. Anything which has a soul, has a connection to the world of forms and (to mix my philosophers and bring in our old buddy Aristotle) pretty much everything that lives or has lived has a soul of some sort. In fact, everything that has any being at all is thereby anchored in the world of the forms from which the seeming of existence gets its start (Plato would have said "emanates"). Basically, everything physical that you think of as real is based on its greater reality in the world of forms. Although the aspects of it that we tend to focus on are probably not its more "form-ish" aspects. 


Now I take this understanding of two worlds and I am inclined to modify it by denying the separation (that's not new people have been doing it at least since Augustine). I do not think that there are so much two worlds as that there is one world, many aspects of which we are not in the habit of experiencing. We pretty much orient ourselves around our senses. But that doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of reality that our senses just aren't designed to pick up. And if those aspects of reality are more profound, are more fundamental to our identities and being than the physical aspects we are so preoccupied with then it might just be worth thinking about them. 

This is one reason I have been so sympathetic to the pre-modern understanding of life, the universe and everything recently. Rather that assuming that our senses give us as much reality as there is and trying to be content with that (modernism) or assuming that what our senses give us isn't even real so that ultimately there is no real reality (postmodernism) I find myself much more persuaded by the idea that our senses communicate some of reality but that there is so much more to it. Maybe there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

P.S. I decided to make this a purely philosophical post. Next week I intend to post on what I see as the religious/spiritual implications of all this.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I'm a Capitalist, Am I Going to Hell?

Cigars make you rich
I spend a lot of time hanging out with and reading the works of people who are (among other things) united in being anti-capitalist american Christians. This is odd because I am a pretty hard line free-market guy. But I agree with them on so many other points. In fact my worldview seems to have much more in common with theirs than it does with most other Christians, especially with other Christians who tend to hold free-market type views.


Now a when I started to notice this discrepancy I wasn't too worried about it. I just chalked it up to "personalities and preferences". After all, it is an issue of economics, not exactly (despite what some modern theologians want to claim) a matter of deep doctrinal profundity. I didn't see my stance, or the stances of others, as integral to my understanding of what Jesus is like or what it means to be one of His followers.


But recently I have found that my position on this issue does have a pretty big impact on my beliefs about how I ought to live as a Christian in the modern world (for those of you theologaphiliacs, it has substantial implications for orthopraxy). If that is an accurate observation then it would seem that I was wrong to dismiss the debate as unimportant to my worldview. If I find that I disagree with someone about how a person ought to live then it is likely that we have some fundamental disagreement on a deeper level than personality and preference.


So this post is targeted at those of you who really disagree with me about capitalism. I intend to lay out 1. Why I am a free-market sort of person and 2. Why I think that being a free-market kinda person is more in line with following Jesus than opposing it would be. I hope that you will let me know where my thinking starts to diverge from yours and why I am so terribly mistaken.
Also smoke stacks... see... cigars?

Let me begin with some of my presuppositions. I think that Jesus is not interested in having us force people, especially people who aren't interested in following Him anyway, to behave in a "kingdom of heaven" sort of way. So Jesus isn't interested in us passing laws that make divorce illegal in the case of "irreconcilable differences" even though that doesn't look like something He thinks is actually good for people. He doesn't want us to make it illegal to "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit" even though He suggests that doing so will have pretty dire consequences. So it's not good to force someone to do good.


My second working presupposition is that capitalism creates wealth. But let me be clear about this. I'm not saying that wealth is intrinsically good (I see it more as a tool which can be used well or badly) and I'm not saying that there is any particular virtue in a countries acquiring wealth, at least not beyond the capacity required to feed the population. But I do think it's pretty clear from history that the capitalist approach has been more effective in creating wealth in general than any other system we have tried. That doesn't make it good, it just sets up a correlative and assumed causal relationship.

My third presupposition has do do with definition. I define free-market capitalism (the kind I am interested in) as an economic system which guarantees all members the right to make and enforce whatever contract they choose so long as that contract is made in good faith and doesn't infringe on the basic negative rights of anyone else. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article on the distinction between positive and negative rights).


As a consequence of these presuppositions I see free market capitalism not as an established economic system so much as an economic non-system which generally has to be defended from having systems like socialism, mercantilism, or crony capitalism imposed on it. Essentially, free market capitalism is what you get if you just let people do their thing and a)don't force them to be virtuous and b) don't let them violate one another's negative rights. Thus I see it as a system of minimal justice. Free market capitalism is not forcing the kids to share but not letting them steal each other's toys either.


But this is not complete. Surely a  Jesus follower wants people to do more than just "not steal each other's toys", surely it is important that people actually grow into practicing the positive virtues of love, generosity and compassion for others. Of course this is true. But remember my first premise: Jesus isn't interested in having us force our joy on people who don't want to follow Him (another way of saying this is that God's Kingdom grows by persuasion, conversion and transformation not by threat, violence and law). If this is true then following Jesus means living a life of love, generosity and compassion without ever trying to force anyone else to lead such a life.


And now I bring the two together. Free market capitalism leaves everyone free to do what they think God wants them to do with their money without forcing anyone. I am in favor of free market capitalism specifically because I see it as the economic system of maximal freedom. All the other systems I know of either force people to do what others think is right (socialism), or force people to contribute to specific injustices (mercantilism, crony capitalism, feudalism).

Apparently Jesus doesn't like flappers... not sure why.

I want to end by heading off a couple of objections by adding a couple of clarifications. First, I do not think that this country does now or ever has practiced free market capitalism. We have been both closer to it and farther from it in the past but we haven't ever fully practiced it so I am NOT arguing for the status quo or the "system that created the current financial crisis". Second I am not arguing that free market capitalism with it's at least tacit approval if not outright benediction of greed reflects the way we would go about dealing with possessions in a perfect world. And I am not saying that capitalism is a necessary evil. I don't happen to believe that there is any such thing as a necessary evil anyway. I am only saying that free market capitalism is the only system a Jesus follower can advocate for in the world as it is because it does not, of necessity, cause us to act in ways that are contrary to the life Jesus calls people to (though it does allow such actions to occur).
This visual pun is supposed to be
"The Communist Party"

In case this last point is unclear let me make an observation. In a society which restricts itself to enforcing only free market principles (a capitalist society) it is perfectly compatible with that societal structure for any given person or even for every person to behave in an economically socialist manner so long as they do not try to impose their socialism on anyone who doesn't accept it. Thus in a free market society I would be free to throw my income into a pot along with a group of friends or an established community and then distribute that wealth to each person according to their need. But the reverse is not true. In a socialist society, no person is free to behave in a free market manner distributing wealth to each person in accordance with a pre-defined, mutually agreed upon manner; instead all people are required to dispense with their incomes according to the direction of the state. Thus free market capitalism allows for socialistic behavior (so long as it does not force itself on anyone) while socialism does not allow for capitalist behavior. I note that this relationship does not exist between free market capitalism and several other economic systems (feudalism, mercantalism, crony capitalism) because they are integrally dependent on suppression of human rights.

So where have I gone wrong? Are my premises false? Is there a flaw in my reasoning? Have I overlooked some key fact? Please let me know.