Grendle hates Genesis

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for me,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.

-Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translation, l.86-98

What drives Grendle absolutely nuts? Not just mirthful singing. That’s obnoxious enough, but not worth leaving the safety of his forest den for. No, what he really can’t stand is someone reciting Genesis 1. ARRRRRRRR!!!! It drives some folks just as bananas today.

Taking leave of life

He [Shield] was well regarded and ruled the Danes
for a long time after his father took leave
of his life on earth.

-Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translation, l.64-66

“Took leave of his life” has got to be about the most gentle and optimistic way of describing death I’ve ever heard. It’s like he just excused himself to go to the bathroom or took a few days off work to rest up. What is fascinating though is that for Christians believing in the resurrection of the dead (just like the creed says), this is not so far from exactly what happens. The difference is that we don’t do the asking of permission to leave and then show back up when we are ready.

Only one man can do that, as he himself explains in John 10:

“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”

-John 10:17-18, NKJV

Deep Forest

Lately I’ve been listening to a bunch of this early 90s tribal techno from my childhood. I listened to hours and hours of this stuff on those Pure Moods compilation discs and such. Rediscovering it has been a real blast.

Notes on Small is Beautiful

It’s been a really slow month for reading, but I did make it through the 1973 “unorthodox economics classic” Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacker. The subtitle of the book is “Economics as if People Mattered”. Great title.

This was a pretty interesting work and felt in many ways like a companion piece (or possibly a bibliographic footnote) to Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, published a decade later. Schumacker deals more directly and narrowly with abstract economic theories and their dehumanizing effect while Barry deals with a wide range of cultural phenomenon. I appreciated that Schumacker has traveled widely and was influenced by the poverty and non-western culture of Africa and east Asia. A lot of the topics he deals with (such as questioning the holy cow of GDP growth) have been bothering me a lot this past year.

Overall, like with Berry’s works, I found the book to be full of wisdom, but also pretty depressing. It was written 40 years ago and the bulk of the things he worries about in the book are far worse today with no end in sight. A surprising handful of things are better though; his forecasts were sometimes amiss.

Schumacker was an interesting character in that he was originally a close personal disciple of Keynes, the man responsible for our toxic lets-print-unlimited-money-to-boost-the-economy practice today. He later did a 180 degree turn on many issues and eventually became a Christian too and highly interested in the Distributivist model advocated by Chesterton and Belloc.

I met an old hippie-type a few weeks ago that was excited when he saw I was carrying this book around. After reading it though, I find little in the book a liberal would enjoy except for the occasionally direct attacks on capitalism. Schumacker was ultimately advocating a sort of conservatism so conservative that it would make modern-day conservatives squirm.

I could blog a lot about the book, but I feel I want to move on to other things. Therefore, I’m just going to dump my highlighted excerpts here with a few brief comments. Boldface is mine.

On how economics is not a proper science.

“The great majority of economists,” Schumacher laments, “are still pursuing the absurd ideal of making their ‘science’ as scientific and precise and physics, as if there were no qualitative difference between mindless atoms and men made in the image of God.” He reminds us that economics has only become scientific by becoming statistical. But at the bottom of its statistics, sunk well out of sight, are so many sweeping assumptions about people like you and me – about our needs and motivations and the purpose we have given our lives. Again and again Schumacher insists that economics as it is practiced today – whether it is socialist or capitalist economics – is a “derived body of thought.” It is derived from dubious, “meta-economics” preconceptions regarding man and nature that are never questions, that dare not be questioned if economic science is to be the science it purports to be rather than (as it should be) a humanistic social wisdom that trusts to experienced intuitions, plays by ear, and risks a moral exhortation or two.

p.8, from the Introduction by Theodore Roszak

The idea of unlimited economic growth, more and more until everybody is saturated with wealth, needs to be seriously questions on at least two counts: the availability of basic resources and, alternatively or additionally, the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied.


This is one of the real money quotes from the book. Fantastic.

The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success. The question is whether such causes can be effective for long or whether they carry within themselves the seeds of destruction. If Keynes says that ‘foul is useful and fair is not,’ he propounds a statement of fact which may be true or false; or it may look true in the short run and turn out to be false in the longer run. Which is it?

I should think that there is now enough evidence to demonstrate that the statement is false in a very direct, practical sense. If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures. If whole societies become infected by these vices, they may indeed achieve astonishing things but they become increasingly incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence. The Gross National Product may rise rapidly: as measured by statisticians but not as experienced by actual people, who find themselves oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, insecurity, and so forth. After a while, even the GNP refuses to rise any further, not because of scientific or technological failure, but because of a creeping paralysis of non-cooperation, as expressed in various types of escapism on the part, not only of the oppressed and exploited, but even of highly privileged groups.

The assertion that ‘foul is useful and fair is not’ is the antithesis of wisdom. The hope that the pursuit of goodness and virtue can be postponed until we have attained universal prosperity and that by the single-minded pursuit of wealth, without bothering our heads about spiritual and moral questions, we could establish peace on earth, is an unrealistic, unscientific, and irrational hope.”


What is it that we really require from the scientists and technologists? I should answer: we need methods and equipment which are:
– cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone;
– suitable for small-scale application; and
– compatible with man’s need for creativity.


Here, he presents a really interesting theory that the amount of capital required to start a business should never exceed one-year’s worth of wages to be paid by the new business.

I have myself come to the conclusion that the upper limit for the average amount of capital investment per workplace is probably given by the annual earnings of an able and ambitious industrial worker. That is to say, if such a man can normally earn, say, $5000 a year, the aver cost of establishing his workplace should on no account be in excess of $5000.


On the recovery of work as a ‘good’ thing!

Above anything else there is a need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul’. Next to the family, it is work and the relationships establish by work that are the true foundations of society.


Here, Schumacker gets bonus points from me for quoting Sayers. Heck yeah.

War is a judgement that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe.

-Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos

The previous quote and this passage both discuss the root cause of war. Girard would give a slightly different answer, but envy would still be the centerpiece. Hence I think Schumacker’s take on it must in line with reality.

Man assuredly needs to rise above this humdrum ‘world’; wisdom shows him the way to do it; without wisdom, he is driven to build up a monster economy, which destroys the world, and to seek fantastic satisfactions, like landing a man on the moon. Instead of overcoming the ‘world’ by moving towards saintliness, he tries to overcome it by gaining preeminence in wealth, power, science, or indeed any imaginable ‘sport’.

These are the real causes of war, and it is chimerical to try to lay the foundations of peace without removing them first. It is doubly chimerical to build peace on economic foundations which, in turn, rest on the systematic cultivations of greed and envy, the very forces which drive men into conflict.


Excelled passage questioning the religion of the rise of GDP. (or GNP).

Having established by his purely quantitative methods that the Gross National Product of a country has risen by, say, five per cent, the economist turned econometrician is unwilling, and generally unable, to face the questions of whether this is to be taken as a good thing or a bad thing. He would lose all his certainties if he even entertained such a question: Growth of GNP must be a good thing, irrespective of what has grown and who, if anyone, has benefited. The idea that there could be pathological growth, unhealthy growth, disruptive or destructive growth is to him a perverse idea which must not be allowed to surface.


Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are a free from ‘metaphysics’ or ‘values’ as the law of gravitation.


Hahahahaha! Too true, and they aren’t the only ones.

Feminists might not like this section, but I think it should be considered by them anyway. It’s a provocative questions.

Women, on the whole, do not need an ‘outside’ job, and the large-scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure. In particular, to let mothers of young children work in factories while the children run wild would be as uneconomic as the employment of a skilled worker as a soldier in the eyes of a modern economist.


On the dead-end of materialist secularism:

Never has science been more triumphant; never has man’s power over his environment been more complete nor his progress faster. It cannot be a lack of know-how that causes the despair not only of religious thinkers like Kierkegaard but also of leading mathematicians and scientists like Russell and Hoyle. We know how to do many things, but do we know WHAT to do?


On the motivation for education, and it’s different kinds.

If a man seeks education because he feels estranged and bewildered, because his life seems to him empty and meaningless, he cannot get what he is seeking by studying any of the natural science, i.e. by acquiring ‘know-how’. That study has its own value which I am not included to belittle; it tells him a great deal about how things work in nature or in engineering: but it tells him nothing about the meaning of life and can in no way cure his estrangement and secret despair.


So where do you turn? To the humanities. And to the fear of the Lord.

Political thinking must necessarily become confused and end in ‘double-talk’ if there is a continued refusal to admit the serious study of the metaphysical and ethical problems involved. The confusion is already so great that it is legitimate to doubt the educational value of studying many of the so-called humanistic subjects. I say ‘so-called because a subject that does not make explicit its view of human nature can hardly be called humanistic.


SOOOOOO many disciplines today refuse to disclose or articulate their underlying philosphy or metaphysical theory. So what it is? Defacto concealed secularism of course.

Interesting take on education and not dividing it into hedgehogs and foxes.

Education can help us only if it produces ‘whole men’. The truly education man is not a man who knows a bit of everything, not even the man who knows all the details of all subjects (if such a thing were possible): the ‘whole man’, in fact, may have little detailed knowledge of facts and theories, he may treasure the Encyclopedia Britannica because ‘she knows and he needn’t’, but he will be truly in touch with the centre. He will not be in doubt about his basic convictions, about his view on the meaning and purpose of his life. He may not be able to explain these matters in words, but the conduct of his life will show a certain sureness of touch which stems from his inner clarity.


Worth considering for anyone trying to westernize the rest of the world:

An industrial system which uses forty per cent of the world’s primary resources to supply less than six per cent of the world’s population could be called efficient only if it obtained strikingly successful results in terms of human happiness, well-being, culture, peace, and harmony. I do not need to dwell on the fact that the American system fails to do this, or that there are not the slightest prospects that it could do so if only it achieved a higher rate of growth of production, associated, as it must be, with an even greater call upon the world’s finite resources.


Man cannot live without science and technology any more than he can live against nature. What needs the most careful consideration, however, is the DIRECTION of scientific research. We cannot leave this to the scientists alone. As Einstein himself said, “almost all scientists are economically completely dependent” and “the number of scientists who possess a sense of social responsibility is so small” that they cannot determine the direction of [their] research.


Schumacker is saying here that you can’t trust specialists to look at the big picture. They may resent that statement, but I think he’s pretty much correct.

When I first began to travel the world, visiting rich and poor countries alike, I was tempted to formulate the first law of economics as follows: ‘the amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs. However, the evidence is strongly in the other direction. If you go from easy-going England to, say, Germany or the United States, you find that people there live under much more stain than here. And if you move to a country like Burma, which is very near to the bottom of the league table of industrial progress, you find that people have an enormous amount of leisure really to enjoy themselves. Of course, as there is so much less labour-saving machinery to help them, the ‘accomplish’ much less than we do,; but that is a different point. The fact remains that the burden of living rests much more lightly on their shoulders than on ours.


This definitely makes me think of “Africa time”!

A friend of mine at work often annoys administrators by asking “when can I turn it off?” whenever any new project or service or technology is proposed to be implemented. Seriously though, this question MUST be asked and rarely is. Think about it.

Any activity which fails to recognize a self-limiting principle is of the devil. In our work with the developing countries we are at least forced to recognize the limitations of poverty, and this work can therefore be a wholesome school for all of us in which, while genuinely trying to help others, we may also gain knowledge and experience how to help ourselves.


It takes a good deal of courage to say ‘no’ to the fashions and fascinations of the age and to question the presuppositions of a civilization which appears destined to conquer the whole world; the requisite strength can be derived only from deep convictions. If it were derived from nothing more than fear of the future, it would be likely to disappear at the decisive moment.


This is the key problem with the “believe in yourself” motivation we spoon-feed our kids. It only gets you so far. At some point, before adulthood, you are going to have to believe in something very much outside of yourself.

No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worth while: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.


We’re not just talking about SkyNet and the Terminator folks. This stuff is real. This sort of thing is really the most hopeful part of the book. What is the way forward? Expand the imagination and cast out fear. I know something (someone) that does that.

The modern tendency is to see and become conscious of only the visible and to forget the invisible things that are making the visible possible and keep it going.


Gosh, this passage sure makes me think of Hebrews 11.

By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

Hebrews 11:3

Time alone will not be the healer [of our economic development problems]. On the contrary, the dual economy [rich and poor], unless consciously counteracted, produces what I have called a ‘process of mutual poisoning’, whereby successful industrial development in the cities destroys the economic structure of the hinterland, and the hinterland takes its revenge by mass migration into the cities, poisoning them and making them utterly unmanageable.


You see this all over the world now. The prosperity of the city is short lived as more of the poor move there and overload the infrastructure. Simultaneously, the rural agriculture is messed up by the migration.

The first need is to start work of some kind that brings some reward, however small; it is only when they experience that their time and labour is of value that they can become interested in making it more valuable. It is therefore more important that EVERYBODY should produce something than that a few people should each produce a great deal, and this remains true even if in some exceptional cases the total output under the former arrangement should be smaller than it would be under the latter arrangement. It will not remain smaller, because this is a dynamic situation capable of generating growth.

An unemployed man is a desperate man.


I confess that I have spent the bulk of my life thinking about work and accomplishments in terms of “what actually gets done”. No-brainer, right? But this will always dehumanize eventually and that is completely unsustainable. Man’s basic need for meaningful existence need to be taken into account from the beginning or your work will fail.

It is too often assumed that the achievement of western science, pure and applied, lies mainly in the apparatus and machinery that have been developed from it, and that a rejection of the apparatus and machinery would be tantamount to a rejection of science. This is an excessively superficial view. The real achievement lies in the accumulation of precise knowledge, and this knowledge can be applied in a great variety of ways, of which the current application in modern industry is only one.


The poor can be helped to help themselves, but only by making available to them a technology that recognizes the economic boundaries and limitations of poverty – an intermediate technology.


The aid-givers – rich, educationed, town-based – know how to do things their own way; but do they know how to assist self-help among two million villages, among two thousand million villagers, – poor, uneducated, country-based? They know how to do a few big things in big towns; but do they know how to do thousands of small things in rural areas? They know how to do things with lots of capital; but do they know how to do them with lots of labour – initially untrained labour at that?


(This screams parallels to religious missions too!)

The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvelous things they could do if they were already rich. This has been the main failure of aid to date.


But of course, people do not live by exporting, and what they produce for themselves and for each other is of infinitely greater importance to them than what the produce for foreigners.


Everything sounds very difficult and in a sense it is very difficult if it is done FOR the people, instead of BY the people. But let us not think that development or employment is anything but the most natural thing in the world. It occurs in every healthy person’s life. There comes a point when he simply sets to work In a sense this is much easier to do now that it has ever been in human history. Why? Because there is so much more knowledge. There is so much better communications, You can tap all this knowledge. So let’s not mesmerize ourselves by the difficulties, but recover the commonsense view that to work is the most natural thing in the world.


Only one must not be blocked by being too damn clever about it. We are always having all sorts of clever ideas about optimizing something before it even exists. I think the stupid man who says ‘something is better than nothing’ is much ore intelligent than the clever chap who will not touch anything unless it is optimal.


This sounds almost exactly like the great adage of computer programming: “Premature optimization is the root of all kinds of evil.”

Economists have ascertained that in order to put a man to work you need on average so much electricity, so much cement, and so much steel This is absurd. I should like to remind you that a hundred years ago electricity, cement and steel did not even exist in any significant quantity at all. I should like to remind you that the Taj Mahal was built without electricity, cement and steel and that all the cathedrals of Europe were built without them as well. It is a fixation in the mind, that unless you can have the latest you can’t do anything at all, and this is the thing that has to be overcome.


What sort of an education is one that prevents us from thinking of things ready to be done immediately? What makes us think we need electricity, cement, and steel before we can do anything at all? If we can recover the sense that it is the most natural thing for every person born into this world to use his hands in a productive way and that it is not beyond the wit of man to make this possible, then I think the problem of unemployment will disappear and we shall soon be asking ourselves how we can get all the work done that needs to be done.


Here, urban and economic “planning” gets smacked around.

The distinction between acts and events is as basic as that between active and passive or between ‘within my control’ or ‘outside my control’. To apply the world ‘planning’ to matters outside the planner’s control is absurd. Events, as far as the planner is concerned, simply happen. He may be able to forecast them and this may well influence his plan; but they cannot possible be part of the plan.


Once a large organization has come into being, it normally goes through alternating phases of centralising and decentralising, like swings of a pendulum. Whenever one encounters such opposites, each of them with persuasive arguments in its favour, it is worth looking into the depth of the problem for something more than compromise, more than a half and half solution. Maybe what we really need is not either-or but the-one-and-the-other-at-the-same-time.


Cast off the tyranny of the either/or and embrace the and!

Intellectual confusion exacts its price. We preach the virtues of hard work and restraint while painting utopian pictures of unlimited consumption without either work or restraint. We complain when an appeal for greater effort meets with the ungracious reply: ‘I couldn’t care less’, while promoting dreams about automation to do away with manual work, and about the computer relieving men from the burden of using their brains.


The real strength of the theory of private enterprise [modern capitalism] lies in this ruthless simplification, which fits so admirably also into the mental patterns created by the phenomenal successes of science. The strength of science, too, derives from a ‘reduction’ of reality to one or the other of its many aspects, primarily the reduction of quality to quantity. But just as the powerful concentration of nineteenth-century science on the mechanical aspects of reality had to be abandoned because their was too much of reality that simply did not fit, so the powerful concentration of business life on the aspect of ‘profits’ has had to be modified because it failed to do justice to the real needs of man.


Socialism that is just government-run capitalism is bad news.

There is therefore really not strong case for public ownership if the objectives to be pursued by nationalized industry are to be just as narrow, just as limited as those of capitalist production: profitability and nothing else.


Can the [Keynesian] system conceivable deal with the problems we are now having to face? The answer is self-evident: greed and envy demand continuous and limitless economic growth of a material kind, without proper regard for conservation, and this type of growth cannot possibly fit into a finite environment.


Remuneration for work within the organization shall not vary, as between the lowest paid and the highest paid, irrespective of age, sex, function or experience, beyond a range of 1:7, before tax.

This put the brakes on envy. Back when the factory worker made $20k and the CEO made $200k, we were closer to this more healthy ideal. Now the factory worker makes $40k and the CEO makes $40 million. They might as well live on different planets too.

The chance of mitigating the rate of resource depletion or of bringing harmony into the relationships between those in possession of wealth and power and those without is non-existent as long as there is no idea anywhere of enough being good and more-than-enough being of evil.


Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

Mankind has indeed a certain freedom of choice,: it is not bound by trends, by the ‘logic of production’, or by any other fragmentary logic. But it is bound by truth. Only in the service of truth is perfect freedom, and even those who today ask us “to free our imagination from bondage to the existing system” fail to point the way to the recognition of truth.


This sounds very much like some recent commentary from Slovaj Zizek where he proposes the thought experiment of trying to imagine a world without capitalism. We discover that we just can’t do it. I’m curious as to whether Aquinas would think we SHOULD be able to. The Sermon on the Mount sounds like it’s from another world sometimes.

That’s all!

The Seamus Heaney Beowulf translation

I’m reading the (relatively) new Beowulf translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I didn’t know what to expect actually. I was surprised to find it much more “prosey” than the old Gumerre translation that is in the public domain. This new one is much easier to read and understand and certainly still maintains the fun alliterative verse. It’s very different though and after reading Tolkien’s version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight last year, I can’t help but find the old alliteration-laid-on-thick version a bit more strange and enjoyable at times.

Here is a comparison Heaney translation (first) with the Gumerre, starting at line 115.

So, after nightfall, Grendel set out
for the lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes
were settling into it after their drink,
and there he came upon them, a company of the best
asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain
and human sorrow. Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.


Went he forth to find at fall of night
that haughty house, and heed wherever
the Ring-Danes, outrevelled, to rest had gone.
Found within it the atheling band
asleep after feasting and fearless of sorrow,
of human hardship. Unhallowed wight,
grim and greedy, he grasped betimes,
wrathful, reckless, from resting-places,
thirty of the thanes, and thence he rushed
fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward,
laden with slaughter, his lair to seek.


Stolen from a great stack of quotes posted at the Rabbit Room:

“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

-Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Ch.8

Syncretism you will always have with you

I’ve explored this topic before here:
What is an acceptable level of syncretism? (Mixing folk religion)

syncretism – noun
1 the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.
2 Linguistics the merging of different inflectional varieties of a word during the development of a language.

All religious practice is syncretism. Really. Its participation is by human beings and human beings mix things up, group them, categorize them, and cross-pollinate ideas CONSTANTLY, whether they are thinking about it or not. People that talk about how their tradition is free from syncretism are talking nonsense. This time of year, some folks like to point out how putting up a Christmas tree is syncretism since it has pagan origins. Who cares? Everything you are doing probably has some sort of origin outside of the most ancient orthodoxy you can dig up, or outside of the accounts of scripture.

Why do some priests wear a collar? Why do some pastors where a tie? Why are some pastors dressed like hip-hop artists? Why do some bishops where funny hats?

Why do we sing 4-part harmony? Why do they play guitars? Why do we meet in a building with pews? Why do we pray before meals? Why do we light candles? Why do we place our hands on a bible to swear an oath? (Aren’t we not supposed to swear oaths?) Why do we have an American flag in our sanctuary? (Or another flag for that matter, depending on where you live.)

Why do some Christians pray to Mary and always call her The Blessed Virgin Mary? Why do some absolutely insist on using a particular 17th century English translation of scripture (1611 KJV). Why do we meet on Sunday? Why do they meed on Wednesday night? Why do we try to get our kids married young? Why do they do the opposite?

Why does this group speak of old saints like they are demi-gods? Why does that group speak of old authors like they are demi-gods? Why does that group sing so loud? How come those people drink liquor at every festival? How come those folks never even have any festivals? How come those people Tweet during the sermon? How come those people just spank their kids during the sermon? Heck those people over there only have a 3-minute sermon. Waa?

Those folks have a Christmas tree! Pagans! My gosh, then even have Jack-o-lanterns! Boo! Those other people live in a McMansion. Materialists! Those people live in a yurt. Hippies! Those people live in a yurt too. Oh, but their yurt is in Africa and they live on $0.50 a day. That’s different. Their kids are well behaved too, but they can’t read. Hmmm.

(At a Christmas festival in Ethiopia) Wow, those people play trumpets when they worship God! Cool. God is worthy of trumpets. It’s really simple though – just long blasts. Are they real musicians? Maybe that’s all they know.

(At a church in Texas) Hey, there are some more people playing trumpets to worship God! Cool! But why are they playing old 70’s funk licks? I mean, I hope God likes that. But maybe that’s just all they know too. OK.

All of this is an overlap of culture with metaphysical spiritual truth. We are humans – made in His image and we can’t get ourselves out of our thinking and acting and living. It’s like trying to see your own eyeball and then make sure you have a theology that gets rid of the eyeball but keeps the seeing. You can’t do that. You are who you are. You are your parents blood, and your grandparents. You are your country and your education and the air you breathe and the food you eat. You are everything you know, and some of it, maybe more than you know, is by Revelation – not something you can put your finger on if you were to study it.

Syncretism is always denounced as heretical. This is just, but do we know what we are talking about? African charismatics are accused of mixing in old animist folk superstitions into their Christianity. Is this happening sometimes? Absolutely, maybe even really badly in some place. Is there any way to make it go away completely? No. Not unless you wipe their memory, take them away from their families and ship them to the moon in a space pod. Good luck. God works with us right now where we are, whether fearful or greedy or broken or more sound than not.

Christians in the middle east and north Africa might have developed some bleed-over in their culture from Islam. How could they not? If the presence of crypto-Christians in these countries is even half true (and I think Jenkins and other folks do a good job of arguing that it is), then it is impossible for this not to happen.

American Evangelicalism has absorbed all kinds of uniquely American ideas – rugged individualism, civic religion, etc. The church in the U.S. has been shaped by its immense wealth and its immense size. A community on the great plains HAS to look substantially different than one in a city on the coast. We have both and they are over a thousand miles from each other, but we are family. That situation is different from many other places on earth. This context is not without consequence.

There is all kinds of evidence that the extreme veneration of Mary seen in especially Latin America is syncretic of old forms of pagan goddess worship. This sort of thing is nowhere to be found in the official Catechism – in fact it is denounced. Yet it persists on the ground level because it is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the people there – from mother to daughter and more.

Does God just really really hate this stuff? (He says so very strongly in some places.) Or does he just roll his eyes and love us silly people anyway? Even while we were (rebellious!) sinners, Christ died for us. Surely he also died for the stupid sinners too.

So is there any value in drawing lines of orthodoxy? I believe so. I think the Apostles Creed and the Nicean creed and the cannon of scripture are very useful lines to draw with a sharpie. I am not as excited about larger documents like the Westminster Confession or the Roman catechism. Those are good documents for robots and mythical super saints, but not for stupid people like me and just about everyone else.

We cannot escape syncretism. We are doing it right now with (fill in the blank) tradition or cultural practice. And that is just fine. But that is also a FANTASTIC reason to be always reforming (ecclesia semper reformanda). Ideas have consequences. The love of Christ can be obscured or amplified by all the things we do day-in and day-out.

If we listen to the holy spirit, we will slowly, over generations, keep the noise down and let our hearts be shaped to make our thought sharper and truer but our speech and hands more graceful and less bloody. We will not cease to be our own people though. Jesus came to save people of ALL these nations and at least for the foreseeable future, they stay people of these nations, regions, etc. The plant and animal kingdom is wildly varied. I do not believe that God made Adam and Eve to be parents to a monotone race. What that means is that our relationship to God is always going to look a bit different across the spectrum. And He takes joy in that. (How else could David and Peter and Elijah and Paul all be God’s men?)

We are always going to be be mixing things up a bit too much, but love covers a multitude of sins.

Disclaimer: I am not advocating syncretism – just the opposite in fact. But I am advocating reformation with patience.

Ph.D. school as whip-cracker for hire

It is hard to discipline yourself, but very much worth it. (I’m exhorting myself here.)

I can be a hard worker, but more than that I am a procrastinator. I can get a lot of things done when someone is beating my butt. Gosh, that’s why school was so great, especially when the teachers were hard and the deadlines were strict! Success success success! – expending energy and seeing real results. But when the whip-cracking dries up, so does much of the accomplishment. It’s just so dang hard to motivate yourself to (fill in the blank) learn a new language, learn to play a new instrument, write a novel, etc.

What is school at the adult level except just paying for someone to beat you with a stick? Way back in the day, you maybe really needed to pay for the opportunity to learn from a tiny handful of really smart people or to have access to an incredible library. Now, all of that stuff is online. There are years worth of fantastic tutorial videos on YouTube that will teach you virtually ANYTHING you want to know. If you can self-motivate, the sky is about the limit. Unless your dream is to be a surgeon and you need a thousand of hours of practice suturing real live human abdomens, that grad degree is probably just an expensive whip cracker.

Everyone wants to write a book. So why the heck are SOOOOO many people going $100K into debt for a largely useless Ph.D.? Well, it’s like paying a personal trainer $100/month at the gym. Sure, you can probably figure out how to lift those weights on your own, but having someone there to make you do it increases the change by ten times that the lifting will actually happen.

A Ph.D. program is really just paid practice in research and book writing. You pay a bunch of money for someone to force you to write a book in 2 years. Can you do it? You had better!

Could you do it without chaining to a lifetime of debt? Figure out how to do that instead and save big!

On community and mental health

Here are some excerpts from this recent article on mental health:

Mental health is the biggest modern malady.

Psychotherapy is key but is currently a luxury product that must be democratized. Although psychotherapy has been proved to be highly effective, it is prohibitively expensive and inaccessible; paying $150 for a session is a huge entry barrier that must be disrupted. Imagine a session for $15.

Therapeutic conversations in groups are the future and will be key in solving many of the barriers mentioned here. Groups are essentially communities, and just like with group therapy, they create a sense of belonging, of continuity, of mutual support — of the safety of not feeling alone with our problems. Groups also allow modern participatory platforms to reduce the cost of the expert by splitting it between multiple users, and allow synchronous and asynchronous access — anytime and anywhere.

Wait, what’s wrong this line of thinking? It aims to treat the symptoms of a disease with the same tools that came out of the disease itself. Solution: Let’s pay (hopefully less money) to talk to someone with a 8-year specialist medical degree. Yeah, that will fix it – like cutting the price of bread in half so the poor won’t starve. Their completely broke. Zero dollars buys zero bread whether it is $4 or $2.  And what is the future? Group therapy(!) – invented community support groups. News flash, it was also the past, in fact, nearly all six-thousand years of our past. It was built around family (that cooperated and lived in the same tent, tribe, house, or at least town). It was built around shared worship of God. It was built amongst coworkers who lived where they worked or close by and who had the fruits of their labors overlap greatly with what their neighbor consumed.

Instead, we in the modern west have boldly asserted our liberty and independence with ear-splitting volume. We hop in our cars and move days away from our family at the earliest convenience. Our work frequently has nothing tangible to do with anything we interact with the other majority of our life – the time not spent at the office or the factory. We have abandoned the faith of our ancestors or we have let it morph into casual participation with a motor-business zoned inspirational message and concert in the ‘burbs. Free from close proximity and likely free of sacraments, it has also lost it’s power to keep community glued together. Even when its orthodoxy is technically maintained, its form thwarts itself.

We have listened to modernity’s preachers for so long and now we are free. And what do we have to show for our freedom? Loneliness and its cousin, despair. Community building specialists, come they with Ph.D.s or M.D.s or even M.Div.s cannot save us. They are a product of the same age. Only Jesus can save us, and he will do it through his own work in sanctifying us and our neighbors and finally by coming himself.

Some alternatives if Christ is not raised

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

(1 Corinthians 15:17-19 ESV)

As an exercise a few days ago, I thought about what some possible answers to saint Paul’s “if Christ is not raised” question.

If Jesus isn’t risen what options do we have left? Also, (secondarily) why still go to church?

Imagine some alternatives:

1. Judaism
2. Islam
3. Buddhism
4. Naturalism/Materialism/Nihilism/Humanism

1. We can still believe in YHWY, convert to some form of Judaism and continue to wait for a Messiah while living according to the OT law and communing with God to some degree – from a distance. The shadow of grace is still there. Always was.

Why keep going to church with Judaism? You probably shouldn’t. We’ll just confuse you with a bunch of hope in a false Messiah. To learn about God and how to live like he wants, you are better off studying the Torah at home or at the Jewish center on the other side of town.

2. Next, we could covert to Islam. Work hard to follow God’s (Allah’s) laws, especially those revealed to us through the prophet Mohammed in 610 AD. We can still study Matthew, Mark, and Luke because they are full of good advice from Jesus, who was, after all, a remarkable prophet.

Why keep going to church with Islam? Don’t. You’ll learn a lot more about how God REALLY wants you to live by listening to the teaching at the local Islamic Center. You can also start reading the Koran as it’s going to be much more helpful and prescriptive than what we study all the time in the New Testament.

3. We can continue to acknowledge Jesus as a great teacher and perhaps even prophet of some sort, but follow only a more generic spiritualism – akin to Zen Buddhism. Free yourself from what weights you down. Minimize your desires. Believe in yourself as you already are. Believe “God” loves you, sort of, as he loves all living things.

Keep going to church for Buddhism? Nah, you’ll probably hear too much about Jesus (who isn’t really a savior and whose significance is overblown). You are better off going to the meditation center, or perhaps the Unitarian Universalist church where you can get sort of a “best of” playlist of advice from various world religions and traditions, Christianity included. Why limit yourself?

4. Throw all this stuff out! Jesus was a fraud or mostly an idea invented by later religious leaders grasping for power. Religion is the opiate of the people (Marx). Jesus is potentially a force for good, but he’s largely imaginary. (Oprah, Deepak Chopra, etc.) You just worry about yourself. The cosmos is all there ever was and ever will be (Carl Sagan). Soon, you’ll be dust again, so have some fun (whatever that means to you) while you are here (just about every Black Eye Peas song).

If you really feel like going to church and hanging out with some stupid people, then go ahead. Whatever floats your boat. I’ll do what floats my boat and if I have to lie, steal, and break promises to do it – who cares? I got one life to live before my atoms return to the void. Can anyone talk me into leaving an inheritance? I hope not. I’m enlightened with regards to our meaninglessness. Go me! Also, I wish I had more money.