Sunday, June 25, 2017

Relative Poverty

James at I Don't Know But... has a link that reminds us in its thread that constant contact with very wealthy people can make you feel poor. It's a relatively easy exercise, and conservatives do it all the time, to note what it is that the poorest 10% in America actually own, complaining at them for having the temerity to think themselves poor.  Yet that is not only the poor who do that - it is everyone.

We go to church in a wealthy town, and many people in our congregation consider an exceptionally high level of wealth to be just a bit above average.  If you press them, they backpedal and do recognise at some level how amazingly well-off they are.  But that is not their initial reaction.  Nor is everyone in the congregation rich, and regardless of wealth their lives are not without serious suffering. Yet stray comments are revealing, and they don't look at things the same way I do.

Nor do I look at things the same way as many others in America who have left.  It takes effort, I think to remind oneself to feel grateful and not resentful.  It does not come naturally, which is why the problem made it all the way to the top ten Commandments for living. I don't think we hear many sermons on coveting these days.

Environment and Intelligence

This NY Times article about identifying a very few (52) genes that are associated with intellegence is more interesting for what it says about environmental effects. Paragraph 2 "Just as important, intelligence is profoundly shaped by the environment."  Rather a naked assertion, there.  Paragraph 14, lead can harm intelligence, and iodine is necessary for development.  That's not usually what people are thinking of when they talk about "environment." On the lips of social scientists, environment usually means good schools, books in the home, a culture that encourages learning, and not being subjected to prejudice.  Not really the same thing.  Paragraph 33 tells us that nearsightedness, which is strongly influenced by genetics, can be fixed by changing the environment - with eyeglasses.  Well, fine.  What's the eyeglasses equivalent for intelligence that we're working on at present? It looks to me that we are going in a different direction, trying to claim (by analogy) that nearsightedness doesn't exist or is just diferently-optic, or that farsightedness is also a problem so don't get snooty, Paragraph 35 reminds us of the lead again.

Pretty thin gruel.  After genetics, the second most important factor seems to be randomness, which is uncomfortably large. Environment isn't showing up very solidly.

Which is not to say that it won't.  Yet if they had something, you can be sure it would be trumpeted. Something from the nurture side that we haven't thought to measure, or haven't been able to measure well, may still show up an be very important, and that would be grand because it would be a great boon to mankind and save us an enormous amount of money. We could just do that.  Equally useful would be clearly identifying anything that helps compensate that is also amenable to environmental influence, like determination, focus, or fortitude. (And I think there will be some, though not by quite the roads we travel now.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Fraction of Jesus

There have been eras of the church when the kindness of Jesus has been less-stressed than some other attribute. Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries, now over thirty years old captures a great deal of that. Scroll down for the table of contents, which in itself will teach you a lot. Jesus seen as The Rabbi, or The Bridegroom of the Soul, or The Teacher of Common Sense, or The Man Who Belongs to the World. Each is somewhat true, but leaves a great deal out in its insistence on emphasizing the attribute it likes best.  Worse, attributes are not only omitted, but suppressed. A hellfire-and-brimstone age not only neglects to mention the kindness of Jesus, it obscures it.

Tangent:  Jonathan Edwards takes an unnecessarily bad rap for this.  His “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” became his only-known sermon precisely because it went so against the grain of a later era. It is held up as another of those chronocentric examples of how terrible they were in the old days, as a way of indirectly saying “ain’t we sumpin’ now!” Edwards preached hundreds of sermons, some quite different, and “Sinners” was not what he was known for at the time.  It is if some later age than ours said “The Beatles?  Weren’t they that skiffle band that did a cover of ‘My Bonnie’ with Tony Sheridan?” Yes, true, but…

We are currently in an era that obscures an uncomfortable part of Jesus’s judgment, and finality of judgment even in this world.  He sends out the 72 and tells them to preach in villages.  If a village will not welcome them, the disciples are to shake the dust off their shoes and go to the next. It will go worse for that village than for Sodom.  Well, that’s pretty harsh.  That isn’t what we would predict today’s Jesus would say.  Today’s Jesus would have seminars on Valley Outreach.  Today’s Jesus would collect data on which villages responded better, in terms of what each of the pairs of disciples did.  What did they wear?  How much did they pray and what did they pray? What part of the Good News did they lead with?  Did they go into the marketplace or the side streets?  Did they stand near the beggars or far away?

For that sort of evangelism we have to go to Paul, who in the 20th C had the reputation of being a harsh man who distorted the simple, kindly Gospel of Jesus.  The opposite is closer to the truth.  It is Paul who tells Christians that he becomes like Jews to save Jews, or gentiles to save gentiles – though even he acknowledges that this is in order that he might save some.

Jesus also told the story of a man finding himself in Hell and wanting to go back and warn his brothers, so that they, at least, could avoid his fate.  Jesus says don’t bother.  They had Moses and the Prophets and didn’t listen to them. They won't believe even if someone returns from the dead. That’s also harsh. Not the Jesus we expected.  Today’s Jesus would remind the man that his brothers had a devout aunt who guilt-tripped them, making it hard for them to accept the gospel.  Or that their local synagogue didn’t have a great teacher or good musicians, and so were part of a Palestinian subculture that was hard to reach.

I don’t like it much either, and people who have left the church like it even less than I do, but it’s what Jesus said.  Or at least, it’s a fraction of what Jesus said, and a fraction we suppress now. We expect the lesson that if we humble ourselves people will come. I suspect we are smuggling in an idea that if other Christians would be more humble - if those fundamentalists would be less crazy and not cramp our style so much, if the Christians would only be really, really generous with social action and tolerant 'n' stuff, why the churches might grow again.  Nonsense.  Fundamentalists were much crazier sixty years ago and the churches were full.  Nor is it because we no longer teach "Good Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran doctrine."  Fifty years ago the church was a confused mess of ethnic attenders, Unity Clubs, Masons, nuns that taught crazy superstitions, Southern Pride, Good Citizens, and Thoreau-quoters. the churches were full. I'm not saying we should go back to that, I'm saying the reasons we give aren't the real reasons.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Incident Identification

I followed an old friend's Facebook comment to another high school classmate I have not seen in 40+ years.  She had a link to a site called Angry Liberal which chided Donald Trump for being silent when white supremacist terrorists killed three Americans, two of which were veterans, but he congratulated a man who had choked and body slammed a journalist.  I know what the second incident is, but even a little googling did not explain to me the first incident is about.  What gives?

The Beisbol Experience

I haven't finished it - and I'm not going to - but so far all the interviews involve Latino players saying things about their culture that would be called racist if outsiders, black or white, said it about them.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I Was Wrong

I have asserted in a few places, and perhaps here, that the term Alt-Right was generic and a bit vague, referring to all nonstandard conservatism.  I took this from my understanding that internet discussion groups in the 90's described as alt-religion could include Wiccans, Buddhists, and Scientologists; that alt-sex could include transgender, bestiality, and a bunch of stuff I'm not mentioning.  I thought of alt-right as much the same, that paleocons, some libertarians, monarchists, and anything not currently popular could hold that title.

It turns out that this is not so.  According to John Derbyshire, Paul Gottfried coined the term, and while it may not be precise in definition, it is much closer to the popular conception (minus the insults and exaggerations, of course) than to what I was thinking.  Sorry if I have misled or confused you in any way.

Monday, June 05, 2017


It is possible to overdose on Borges. He becomes quite repetitive after a while. If you have read Ficciones you have read enough. Argentina (and Uruguay) with many knives, deaths, toughs, sufferings, and dreams figures more prominently in the rest of his work, so you will miss that flavor, but you'll get just about everything else.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Blogging Will Be Light

I will be reading rather than writing for a while.  There's no crisis or problem about it. At the moment I am reading a lot of Borges, who I have commented on before.

Monday, May 29, 2017


Edit 6/1:  I should have included forgiving others following my reference to "forgiveness" in paragraph 5. Interactive, community-building Christianity is big in my neck of the woods.

Attending an Anglican service at St. Mary's in Bergen I noticed the priest's reference to obeying God as deeply related to causes. The list he gave wasn't a bad one, though it was weighted toward liberal causes as expected.  I was reflecting on the Shelby Steele book, the mild sermonising from Norwegian Air, plus my own store of experience of liberals defining morality in terms of causes, even at church.

I asked myself what conservative or evangelical churches do instead.  How do they define morality? Not in their denominational or constitutional statements, but from the pulpit, in adult studies (maybe even children and youth studies), at their gatherings?

I know what we do at my church, and have heard a few dozen preachers from my denomination. We have denominational publications, which I scan. I have some old experience from what parachurch ministries used to be popular, and a smaller amount from the present day. I get secondhand information from people I talk to and people I read.  That's a limited sample, but from that I am going to make a guess.

There are a few common categories. We try to find Biblical understandings and weave them into the following:

We talk about Christianity as it is lived by the individual - the need for forgiveness, for repentance and confession, for prayer. We talk about suffering and whether it has meaning and in that context talk about Christians who have had very hard lives and what they have to say. We talk about learning, and faith. Loving others, and examples of this.  Hope - well, we don't mention that so much, actually. We do talk about discouragement, perseverance, redemption.

We hear preaching about Jesus, and who He is and is not. We talk about the pieces of his life and how they fit together and into history. Incarnation, healing, teaching, death, resurrection - what are the commonly-held doctrines and what are the odd ideas that aren't true but won't go away.

We do talk about causes, but not so much directly from the pulpit. Covenanters don't talk much politics directly from the pulpit, but there's some in the narthex and adult studies. (FTR, the clergy tends a bit liberal, the laity a bit conservative.) The causes don't have much to do with raising awareness, however.  Food or clothes or comfort has to change hands.

I have presented this as generally preferable - hardly surprising, seeing that I prefer it myself - but I am aware that the criticism of the conservative churches has been the neglect of larger justice, such as prejudice, even as everyday lives were being lived in kindness.  It may also be that political and social causes are much bigger in churches in other parts of the country and I am in a New England bubble.

Moral Tribes

I generally liked Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes. He is one of those characters I want to like, even when he causes me to sigh.  He is a liberal who clearly tries to understand conservatives, and sometimes gets it. His political leaning were clear even in the introduction, where he constructs an extended metaphor on northerly, easterly, southerly, and westerly tribes, with the northerly being more competitive/capitalist and the southerly being more redistributive. He fails to notice that in western societies, the capitalist tribes are already nearly as redistributive as the southerly, the remaining questions not being either-or but increase-decrease our redistribution. His example of the opinions of the Northern Herders, as he calls them, is not merely Ron Paul in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, but people shouting out from the crowd in that interview. He gives an example of misrepresentation and deception in the run-up to the ACA of the opponent's claim of Death Panels (which is actually not entirely false), but allows that if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor also turned out to be deceptive.  Well, thanks. I wish you had done better, though Joshua.  there was more material to work with there.

So even though he didn't acknowledge his own leanings until a fair bit later, I kinda guessed already.

When I hit this point in most books, I no longer push on without checking. Life is too short.  To the index! The index actually turned out to be encouraging.  In particular, his comments about Jonathan Haidt, who I like, were approving and seemed to be reciprocated.  His last chapter is a comparison with Haidt's ideas and why he likes his better. That's fair.  He writes a good deal about the ubiquity of bias; Marx, Rousseau, and communism get no mention; Aristotle comes in big in the end. So I tried again. I put the book down a few times, shaking my head, but I thought there was value anyway. He tries really hard to be even-handed to the people he disagrees with, and sometimes even succeeds. Usually not, but I've seen worse (far worse), and I haven't seen many conservatives make as much effort on their side to do the same.

What he arrives at is something he calls Deep Pragmatism.  My summary version of this would be Utilitarianism Informed By Virtue Ethics. Not attractive to me as a rule for living, but not a bad way to run a government.