Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Four Yorkshiremen - Original Version

Majoring In Majors

When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point "really matters" and the other replies: "Matter? Why, it's absolutely essential."  (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity,  Introduction.)

There is a verse I heard often in my Jesus people days, likely because there was a song attached to it. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6. In the structure of that chapter, two adjoining verses go together as a couplet frequently.  Though there are groupings of six verses or four, the most common is two. Because we were hugely concerned, even obsessed, with what God wanted us to decide in those days, we saw verse six in terms of where the Lord wanted us to go.  Should I go to Michigan or Washington? Should I take the apartment on Silver St or on Somerville St? Should we have chicken or fish chowder tonight?  The Lord will direct my path.  I think this bled back into the meaning of verse five, because I have heard it mostly applied in terms of decisions, or of maintaining one’s trust when circumstances looked bleak or even impossible.

I think there is a second, neglected meaning about doctrine.  When we decide what we believe, there is usually a lot of our own reasoning in there. Even if we associate with a denomination and pretty much accept what its doctrines are, we use its typical arguments to ourselves and to others when contemplating what our theology will be. They usually include a good chunk of human reasoning. We may think to ourselves and advertise to others that "we are only following the Scriptures," but if you press very hard the claim seldom holds.

This is not wrong.  It is inevitable with human beings and protects us from a false literalism about the Bible.  I have concluded over the years – note, I have concluded, I don’t have a direct Bible passage to prove it – that the paradoxes, the tensions, and yes, contradictions of Scripture are intentional, so that we always need the fellowship of the saints to understand doctrines.  There is no private interpretation, “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of private opinion.” (1Pet 1:21)  A Jewish minyan required ten for prayer, Jesus reduced this to two or three – but not one.  When I have fully and deeply understood that “He who is not against me is for me” (Luke  9:49-50), I need someone to assert back that “he who is not for me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).     But applying reasoning has limitations. People move with stunning rapidity to impression-dominated rationales, thinking they are strictly logical. “I just don’t see how God could reject someone like that.” “I believe that Jesus reached out to the oppressed.” “Jesus could not have meant that we shouldn’t save for retirement.” “Nonviolence is the heart of the Gospel.” “That’s the part of the Law that no longer applies.”  "If we don't defen our religious freedoms we won't be able to worship at all." All of those have some truth in them.  But each is also highly dependent, taking a jumping-off point from revelation and reasoning from that.

This came up recently in the ancestry searches. One of my ancestors (or another Samuel Moor nearby) was one of the founders of the Universalist Society in Bedford in the early 1800s. One other member was marked as "Unitarian," suggesting that the others were not. I forget that the U-U’s were once just individual U’s for a long time, that only got together about fifty years ago. Their buildings around here tend to be older than fifty years. I was surprised there was not a tighter connect even 200 years ago, because they have a theological similarity.  Both are based on an inherited concept of the biblical God that they then applied in forward reasoning, without regard to, and sometimes even in opposition to the scriptures.  They developed an idea of the nature of God, sometimes from long experience and study, and that becomes the new centerpoint. “A merciful God could not send people to eternal punishment.” “The New Testament doesn’t actually use the word Trinity.”  I see the point in both cases. I am not calling them false, nor am I calling the list in the previous paragraph false. I am only noting that we have moved from a biblical theology to a based-on-the-biblical God theology, and there is no bright line that prevents us from going to a knows-a-few-Bible-verses theology and beyond. A lot of people, some in orthodox Trinitarian congregations, are there already.

Also recently, this came up in a discussion of closed versus open communion, and a friend’s profound disapproval of anyone denying the Lord’s Supper to someone who wanted it.  Specifically, he was brought up Roman Catholic, has attended mostly Protestant churches for forty years, but feels eligible to receive when he goes to Mass. He believes no priest has the right to deny him. (This would be a rather Protestant idea, I mentioned.) It took a fair bit of discussion before I realized that my friend was arguing mostly from his impression who God is and what He is like – and he has a lifetime of belief, study, and devotions that have formed this impression.

I don’t want to throw more than one rock or two at this, because this is what we all do, as I mentioned above.  He just does more of it than I do.

I have very little trust in my impressions of what God might like or be like. I see such constructions as too easily influenced by my culture, my personal preferences, and my hidden motives. It is ironic that while those who would accuse me of having a culture-bound idea of God are correct, their appeals to see God in a different way are so deeply resonant with 21st C politics. The general accusation is true of all of us, but most true of the accusers. I am especially suspicious of any idea that is popular now that was not popular a hundred years ago.  The Spirit of the Age is never the worst of sins – there have been too many spirits of too many ages for any single one to hold the field against the others – yet it is rather obviously the sin that we should be most fearful of, as we will be most tempted to it.

…and lean not on your own understanding. I think that verse’s application to why you didn’t get the job you wanted is secondary compared to its application to what you believe about infant baptism or transubstantiation. Lewis’s solution was not merely to read scripture – we bring our culture to that – but to the beliefs of believers in other eras, as a counterweight to our own. The career of Athanasius is instructive. 

Upon Further Review

I was already scheduled to give blood tomorrow when I got a notice of critical need. The Red Cross tells me that the storms, plus the government shutdown meant that they collected less blood.  I was surprised that the shutdown had had this effect, as I had heard nothing of this, so I looked into it. Local news stations all over the country carried stories with exactly this theme: Critical shortage.  Storms.  Government shutdown. Looking deeper I found that the shutdown piece was because there had been blood drives scheduled at federal agencies and offices around the country which had to be cancelled. This was less than 20% of the problem, but it does at least register. I was annoyed at this, because moving them would have netted at least some blood, and the increase in inconvenience did not seem great.  When you commit to do something, you do it. 

I then rethought that a lot of people are not so much determined as hoping to fit it in, and they could be likely to drop out altogether for this round if schedules didn't match up.  That's fair. It also occurred to me that if the anti-Trump people got motivated to give blood even though they hadn't before or were sporadic, that's a good thing.  If liberals gave blood at the same rate as conservatives we would have no shortages. (Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares?). This despite there being a few categories of more-conservatives who are unable to give - military, missionaries, those who travel abroad for business. So if that group increases their giving, it's good.

Trump-haters unite.  The Donald has disrupted blood donation to critical levels and you all need to come donate blood as an act of protest.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Climate Science

If you are looking for a climate-catastrophe skeptic blog by a legit atmospheric scientist, I came across Climate, etc by Judith Curry. Her take is much as mine: there is slight warming since the end of the Little Ice Age; human activity may be affecting the climate, even if it is not the main driver; the evidence for looming catastrophe is simply not there. She likes to talk with reasonable people about "no-regrets" interventions - which also means low-cost. She attributes that to Richard Lindzen of MIT "Don’t take actions that are not otherwise justified.”

Monday, February 25, 2019

Green New Deal

The Truth About Success is Harder, Darker

One of CS Lewis’s markers for whether something is real or true is if it has a twist to it. He applied my suspicion of anything that was too simple, too perfect, not just to controversial political events, but to theology and science.  Real things turn out to be not quite as predicted, which leads us to the next real thing, at greater depth.  I don’t know if it was original to Asimov, but he passed along the idea that science does not progress by scientists saying “Eureka!” but by murmuring “Now that’s strange…” 

A religion or entire scripture that was too simple could be rejected on that ground alone.  Jesus came among a people who argued, at a time they were arguing more than usual, and emphatically did not make it simple. God did not just leave a one-page document at the Temple telling us what to do, with a footnote at the bottom saying “I’m going to be sacrificed tomorrow to pay the price of sins. It’s all good.” Right from the beginning he started teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we still only sorta know what that means. You can only get there by discussing it with other believers – where two or three are gathered, you see.  So also with the idea that we are forgiven only as we forgive, are judged by the measure we use to judge, and - hang with me here - to be grateful we were given the grace to work really hard for the salvation we receive by grace. If we try and explain it, we screw it up and mislead others, but if we try and live those out we see that they are true.

Lewis was essentially more normal of mood than I am, less cynical and harsh. I don’t think the truth is merely quirky, difficult, and unexpected.  I think the truth is hard, and truths that are not hard are likely to be hoaxes. What growth I have had has been bought with pain, so I have a natural inclination to pass that on. I am told even by sympathetic observers that this is not often persuasive. True.  

There are moments, even seasons, of sunlight, joy, and humor, but this is against a background of a fallen world. We are enacting God’s will when we bring joy out of sorrow, not when we pretend sorrow isn’t really there.

Insert: This got long and unwieldy. Let me give an overview for structure.
1. Groups or individuals who give themselves entire credit for success are wrong, perhaps dangerously.
2. Some confessions are just accusations. 
3. Not everyone will succeed.  Because I don't know what we should do collectively, I ask "What will we do about that individually?"

With that in mind, Point 1. I would like to examine how something common about our motives gets darker at every step. It is a comfortable thing to give oneself credit for success. If we are talented, or hardworking, or able to delay gratification, or devoted to our cause or customers, we received that from somewhere.  It comes to us because of genes, or parents; because of good teachers or hard lessons; of freedom in Christ or the many smaller freedoms of Western Civ in general or America in specific. We stand on the shoulders of giants. (Obama’s statement was unhealthy because it was half-true, on two counts. Even those who are supported by others do in fact build things; secondly, he was trying to transfer credit not to Founding Fathers, cultural legacies, and the institutions we enjoy, but to government, to encourage us to have more of that.  So half-true twice means one-quarter true, I guess.)

It is really angering when people don’t get that and are arrogant. That self-satisfied air, the implied contempt for those others who didn’t get so far is infuriating.  It makes you want to smack ‘em. Ronald Reagan observed that if you let other people take the credit, you can get a lot accomplished. That is true, but the deeper truth is harder. You aren't just letting others take the credit.  There are a thousand people out there who deserve it.

The next truth is harder, darker. Point 2.

Preaching antimaterialism has been going on as long as I can remember. Deploring the American obsession with things and displays of wealth used to be such a Christmas tradition that I wondered whether it should be added to the lectionary.  Third Sunday of Advent: The Condemnation of the Presents. It was preached not merely as a tactic, the preachers and the laity  softening  the blow by confessing to their own materialism, their own getting caught up in the whirl of presents. I, too, am guilty of this.  I am not putting myself above the rest of you, I am trying to journey as a fellow-soldier with you. Is this heartfelt? I have become suspicious. Public confession of sins can be sleight-of-hand, whether copping a plea or distracting from more serious issues.

There was a Doonesbury series decades ago in which Mark and someone were doing a retrospective on Vietnam on a radio station. One of the last strips in the series was a radio-style “contest,” in which listeners were encouraged to call in to answer who was at fault: the military, the congress, corporations, presidents? A call came in saying “All of us?” which triggered the announcers to play a typical We’ve got a winner! recording while saying “’All of us’ is correct!”

Here’s the thing.  None of these are real confessions.  They are all merely disguised accusations.  How sweet it feels to say “The people around me are very evil, but I only have a little of this.” Does that seem harsh?  I don’t claim it is people’s only motivation. No doubt people have genuine concerns about materialism, or racism.  There is a whole upbeat personality style that says “Come on gang!  We can do it! Yes we can.  If we all buckle down we can make a little progress, and then a little more on the way to treating everyone with justice.”  Nice people, usually.  They don’t seem mean.  Surely I am not suggesting that even those have this dark undercurrent of a more subtle, but more deadly pride?

Well yeah, actually, I am. Luke 18 "To some who trusted in their own righteousness and viewed others with contempt, He also told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the other men—swindlers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector."

Proverbs 30:11-14 and Matthew 6:1-7 are just the beginning of what else the Bible says on the subject. Jesus seems to care much more about this false attitude toward sin than to sins themselves. He treats materialism as a danger. We conclude an antiracism from his welcome of people outside the Jewish circle, but he doesn't mention it much.

The current discussion of privilege has become one more example of a reasonable concept taken over for purpose of virtue-positioning. It is ideal for the purpose because it is never seldom in a context of other eras, other places, offsetting virtues, or actual causes. It's not just moving the goal posts, it's Calvinball. I probably shouldn't have made light of it like that.Scripture seems to treat it as dangerous unto damnation, which makes it especially upsetting to me when I hear Christians doing it.  They do not know their danger.

The next step in discussing success is darker.  Point 3. Not everyone is going to succeed, so what are we going to do about that? In fact, a whole lot of people are going to screw up, and this may keep increasing. Conservatives try to convince themselves that if everyone just tried harder it would all come around right. Because accountability is a good thing for lots of people lots of the time, we pretend it's going to do much more than we think.  Well, in the old days we didn't rescue girls who got pregnant without a husband, so we had a lot less illegitimacy. So if we just stopped rescuing them now, it would go back to the old days. Well, no it wouldn't. In the old days we were less individualistic - how we did reflected on our family, our town, our groups. There were punishments for doing badly, but there were also rewards for doing well, because one felt an important part of the group. That world is long gone, and it's not coming back. Plus, that new culture isn't the fault of the girls/women, or the boys/men who impregnated them.  They didn't build that.  I think incentives and accountability are good things, helping people avoid drugs, general laziness, and poor impulse control in general.  But it's not going to do everything.  Worse, the usual way to do accountability well is to have the consequences be real. Which means some people won't make it. Whether by genetics or environment, they can't control impulses well enough in the culture that is actually here. (Not the one we think should exist instead.) Or they just aren't smart enough, never gonna be. They might improve some, but...they might not.  If we let them fall, our descendants will thank us, because the gene pool will be better.  I don't recall Jesus saying anything about gene pools.

Liberals may have the opposite problem, of believing that nearly everyone would succeed if conservatives didn't keep preventing it.  If we just let them have culture their own way.  Come on gang, let's all just try a little harder...I'm not sure I want to even discuss it. See Point 2 again.

Hmm.  I came back and decided I do have to discuss it. If one takes that attitude, that creating a few cultural changes will make it so those who aren't succeeding will begin to - which I, at least, know is not going to be true - what then happens when changes come, yet the unsuccessful remain so? Many will blame others even more.  They have to.  It's human nature. That's the situation we are in now. We have increasingly blamed the racist, sexist, trans-hating teachers and police - no matter how well they actually do, it must not be enough.

Okay, back to the conservatives, who are my real audience here. So if we know that some are not going to do better, and we are determined not to rub it in, what is there to do?  How do we have accountability, but secretly not?  We have to confront lies, sure, but there are truths better not to say. I have n o way around this*. Something that got overlooked in the subprime mortgage crisis is that a lot of people did actually succeed in keeping up with those mortgages.  Lending institutions make their money by figuring out what percentage of people will keep up, plus the return they get from those who partly keep up, minus those who do not pay.  Let's say the break-even number is around 90%.  When keeping up drops to 85%, their whole company is in danger of collapse, and if everyone is making the same bad calculations, the whole industry starts to totter. Yet that does mean that 85% of those people were succeeding, which is actually a good number.

There are charitable organisations which accept lower success rates.  They structure it differently, but in terms of housing, that what Habitat does. (They found it is even harder in other cultures, where volunteering for the good of others is uncommon, but that's another story.) There is a false kindness in some groups.  I know one which brings in refugees and supports them well to launch them - for six months, after which they drop services and hope they survive. They have decided they can bring in more refugees that way, because it's more efficient use of resources. Having watched this happens to mentally ill people they have brought to America and then tried very hard to abandon, I don't have a lot of respect for that. (Hmm, that was a distraction, a rant about a slightly different topic.  Should I edit that out? Nah, I really wanted to get that off my chest.)

When Scripture tells us to lend without hope of return, we should not just think in terms of hyperbole.  What if only 50% can pay you back? We can imagine a Christian billionaire, who says, I am not going to just give money to people on the street, but I am going to set up a loan program that I expect will lose money. That's one way to go. It is not the lending without hope of return that the New Testament talks about, but it's more than I do with my money, so I couldn't fault the idea. I think that general principle applies to the other forms of not-succeeding, not just mortgages. I also think it mostly works small-scale.  On a national scale, forgiving failure will lead to catastrophic lack of accountability.  They must give justice, but we are then freed to show mercy.

I have gone long. I should find some way to break this up. A video or two will occur to me, I'm sure.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

How Things Stand

As you know, I only check my stats every month or so.  This time it was more like three months.  I learned that very few people are reading this blog anymore. I can estimate the number who show up in a week, and I can likely identify almost all of you. All of the readers can identify some of the usual commenters.  I am aware of a similar-sized group who have commented in the past, or comment to me privately for reasons of their own, and I know still check in weekly or more.  Then there is another third who I can only guess at - sometimes people say things that suggest they are still reading, sometimes I know they used to read and know their cast of mind and so guess how much they read now.

A sensible person would modify content to increase readership.  I have a good sense what draws a link from Maggie's and others and on a bet could even draw referrals from larger sites if that was my aim.  If you make extreme statements on one side of an issue, you will get picked up by sites on that side. Conservative blogger renounces Trump!  NeverTrumper embraces Trump! Prolife writer really, really despises New York and Virginia! Liberals once again prove they are the devil's spawn!   Part of me says "Well, readership should be your aim," because what is the point of having ideas if people don't hear them? But there is no crisis of blogging here.  I started because I had things I felt I had not fully passed on to my two oldest sons and wanted to get it into print.  An audience of two, though I didn't tell them.  My second son no longer reads often, if at all. There was a secondary audience of six people in my Bible study of 40 years, and maybe a percentage of their children.  Maybe one of them is still on board.  The rest of you are gravy.  I think you new ones - some of you dating back a decade - have strongly influenced what I write.  But we area all writing for an audience of One, whether we know it or not, and that is still fun.

Just so you know, because I know some of you can relate.  I have a long post that is still unwieldy coming.  Please fight through it when it comes.  I can't promise it will be well-written, but the thoughts are good.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Hate Hoaxes

I was going to update my post How To Spot A Hoax linking to good articles by others, but when I hit three in one day I decide the topic is being well-covered without my adding to it.  The update is that there is no update.


We spanked.  I think I would spank less if I had to do over. But I have never been persuaded by the assertions of sociologists (one prominent one at UNH) that it was highly damaging.  It is nice to see a researcher who does not start from his field's usual bias coming up with a different conclusion.  It doesn't make much difference either way. The usual difficulty with the data is that abusive parents are more often also spankers. That I can believe.  When you take them out of the mix, the behavioral outcomes between children who are spanked and those who are not disappears. I oversimplify, but that's essentially it.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Common Non-reasoning

On all sides of cultural arguments the proposition will be put forth that some associated people are trying to effect a long-term change.  For example, that schools are promoting Marxism; or corporations trying to make us dependent on their product; government trying to weaken us in order to rescue us; Christians trying to control what we can and cannot do; activists vetoing what we can and cannot hear. There is a common counter argument that makes me crazy. There’s no conspiracy, you paranoid fool.  The idea is so ridiculous it does not require an answer. I recall that in the 1990s when Larry King had a radio show and a listener called in to complain there was media bias, King cut him off immediately “There’s no conspiracy, caller,” and hung up.  He then ranted for about a minute about how paranoid these kook conservatives are. Yet the caller had said nothing about a conspiracy.  (We have since learned that entities like Journolist did exist and informal versions likely still do, but that’s another story.)

Just because you don’t have meetings, collect dues, and issue proclamations doesn’t mean a movement does not exist. It is in fact most powerful when it is vague, when people aren’t so much thinking “The Green Party platform is…” as “The people who care all say…the people who have looked into this think…the educated people all know…the decent people in this country…” One does not have to teach cats to catch mice, the old saying goes. (I’ll bet they may need to be shown once, but the principle holds.) Cats don’t engage in a conspiracy to catch mice, but a lot of mouse-catching happens anyway, all over the world. Conspiracy is irrelevant to the point.

As with many types of non-reasoning, I don’t think that is always a cynical manipulation on the part of the nonreasoner to divert you from the obvious.  Sometimes people really believe that’s the point.  If college professors aren’t part of some Marxism club, then they can’t really be putting forth a Marxist agenda. That they switch sides on the idea when the parties are reversed is not proof they have thought this through and are being intentional hypocrites.  Choosing up sides usually precedes reasoning rather than flowing from it. Human nature. Still, it’s illogical and deserves to be noted.