Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Missed It By That Much" Dept

Snuck out the back for my daily nip over at Vodkapundit and came back with a joke:

Back in the '50's, everybody figured Canada was going to wind up with an American economy, a British government, and French culture. By the '70's, they had a British economy, a French government, and American culture.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How can the Trinity be three Persons and still only one God?

A few years ago, one of my favorite teenagers (now one of my favorite bloggers) joined an interfaith group at school, somehow managing to stay under the radar of the Supreme Court and the ACLU. Fairly early on the Jewish members challenged her by saying that the Trinity made no sense, and she discovered to her chagrin that if there was an answer to this assertion, then she, at least, had no idea what it was. So she very intelligently sat down and fired off an e-mail to several of us adults at St. Luke's whom she thought might be able to give her a hand. This was my answer.

UPDATE: A thousand thanks to Alexandra for the picture. Now I owe her a thousand words.

FURTHER UPDATE: The debt is paid and then some...

FURTHER UPDATE: That comment thread has turned into one of the most remarkable conversations I've ever been privileged to take part in. If you have not read it, go do so now.


I'll happily explain the Trinity some, as long as you remember that it's a trap to spend too much time trying to explain things that can't be understood. St. Thomas Aquinas once said, "Things predicated of God are predicated neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically," and what's truly sad about that statement is that (a) it's something you absolutely must understand to think accurately about God at all, (b) when you read that, you probably said, "What the....?!?!?!?", and (c) St. Tommy was actually trying to make it easy for beginners when he put it that way. But you really do have to understand this if you're going to try to talk about God or understand the Bible when it talks about God; so let me try to show you what it means. ...continue reading...

Human language was designed to talk about things we directly experience: things we see and touch, emotions we feel, etc. But when we try to talk about God, it's like talking about sub-atomic particles: we can't possibly imagine it, and we don't really have good words for it. So we come up with pictures that we use to talk about it...but the pictures that we imagine are just tools to help us do the right thing and get the right results. In physics, the image of electrons going around a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons (like a tiny little solar system) is just there to help us keep track of which equations to use when and to help us keep track of which elements readily bond with which other elements, etc. -- it's not that the atom literally looks like a little solar system. (It doesn't look like anything at all because its magnitude is far below the wavelength of visible light.) But in other contexts you don't want to use that image -- instead you want to imagine the electron as a probability field, sort of like a cloud rather than like a planet. Both images are just pictures, and their value is in helping us use the right equation in the right context. Neither is "the way it really is." But since we can't imagine "the way it really is," pictures like that are as good as it gets.

Now, God is outside of our experience, too; but we can still talk about Him meaningfully, using the same kind of speech (it's called analogical speech) that we use to talk about sub-atomic particles. You just have to remember four things.

1. Analogical speech is valuable only insofar as it serves its purpose of helping you decide what to do in ordinary life. The physics models are good models if they help you use the right equations at the right times; that's it. The things we say about God are intended to help us figure out how most effectively to love Him and each other, and that's it. When you hear Christians arguing over things that cannot possibly make any difference to any decision any Christian could conceivably be called upon to make (such as whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Son as well), then you have the sort of "quarrelling over words" that Paul condemns so bitterly to (I think) Timothy. Is understanding the Trinity going to make a difference in how you behave and in the emotions you feel and in the choices you make? If so, then we can keep going. If not, why then for God's sake (quite literally) don't get caught up in it. As the Psalmist says, "I do not concern myself with things too high for me."

2. Analogical speech isn't "true" the way speech about things within human experience are true. (In technical terms, it isn't "univocal" speech.) So things that would be contradictions in ordinary life may just be paradoxes in analogical speech -- places where the pictures we're using just break down. The pictures are valid as far as they go; but they will break down if you push them too far. You have to know not just the image, but also the context in which, and the use to which, you're expected to apply it. Two Christians arguing about predestination versus free will are like two silly high school physics students in a passionate argument in which one of them says, "No, light's not a particle, it's a wave!" and the other one says, "No, you moron, it can't possibly be a wave, because it's a particle." And any real scientist listening is sitting there thinking, "You two don't know anything about physics, do you?"

3. But that doesn't mean that there aren't things you can say about God that are false and damnable. It may not be "true" in the ordinary sense to say that electrons orbit the protons. But it's downright false to say that the protons orbit the electrons, even though that's still an analogy -- if you try to use that model then you'll absolutely fail. I mean, you might be able to work out some tortuous sense in which you can claim it's true, by violently wrenching about the terms of human speech; but anybody who teaches high school students that protons orbit a nucleus made of electrons and neutrons, ought never to be allowed to teach high school physics again. In the same way, while no doubt you could find many ways in which God is like a mother, still it is analogically true to say that God is our Father and analogically false to say that He is our Mother -- the misleading connotations overwhelm whatever truth might be wrested from that statement (at least for the average person who speaks English). We may not know why it's destructive for most people to think of God as a Goddess (I certainly don't know why myself). We just know that it is, though I'm sure there are plenty of Episcopalian feminists who would be enraged by that statement. There are ways about thinking of God that are very dangerous -- even if there are a few people who can use those dangerous analogies in a very restricted and careful sense, most people will misinterpret them and (if they buy into them) run the serious risk of damnation. God spent two millennia very, very carefully shaping the Jewish culture in order to get it to the point where when Jesus did come, His mission and teaching and nature could be understood, and most of that shaping had to do with driving out the false and seductive and destructive religious ideas that are the natural coin of paganism and Gnosticism and just in general the kind of religion that people always seem to wind up with when they set out to "find a religion that works for me." (Remember that, as every skillful liar knows, the most effective lie is the lie that has the highest proportion of truth, because lies have no power except what they borrow from the truth. Satan is a liar and the father of lies and the best liar in the business, and he knows better than the most skilled propagandist or the most beguiling Don Juan how to mix as much truth into his lies as possible. When Satan intends to seduce a person onto the broad path that leads to destruction, he puts together an attractive religion with plenty of truth -- so that it will have credibility and power -- but enough lies to ensure damnation. Thus most of the people who argue that "there is truth in every religion" are quite correct -- and also pitifully naive. Of course there is truth in every religion; do they think Satan is a complete moron? There is truth in every effective lie, in religion just as much as in political character assassination or in sexual manipulation.)

4. Just because we're talking about religious topics, that doesn't necessarily mean that we're using this kind of picture-language. If we're trying to decide whether, e.g., it's morally acceptable for a man to have sex with a woman who's married to somebody else, there's nothing analogical about that -- human language can address that issue with precision. People who try to pretend that morality is as subject to paradoxical language as is theology, are either people who are being disingenuous or else people who don't understand what it is about theology that makes theological language paradoxical and hence not necessarily subject to the logical laws of contradiction.

With all that as an introduction...okay, I'll speak to your questions about how the Trinity can be three Persons but still only one God, and about what the different roles of the different Persons are, but only as long as you remember (a) that it's all just pictures of something we can't really hope to visualize, and (b) that the most important question is, in the end, "What difference does it make in my life that God is a Trinity?" And while I don't really know any of the answers all that well, I can at least give you a place to start.

How can the Trinity be three Persons but still be only one God?

A cube is square, and a sphere is circular.

I like to start there when we think about the Trinity. For of course when we say that a cube is square, we know that in reality a cube is more than square – it’s cubical. It is, if I may put it this way, more square than a square is. A square is just a slice of a cube; it is as cubical as it can be in a mere two dimensions. By the same token, a sphere is more circular than a circle; and a circle is as spherical as it can be in a mere two dimensions.

What if we only lived in two dimensions, so that we had never seen cubes or spheres, but only squares and circles? What if somebody from the three-dimensional universe were to try to explain to us what a cube looks like? He would say, I presume, “Well, it’s square, only more so.” And better than that I defy him to do.

In fact I can show you exactly what I mean, if you are not one of those people who detests math, and especially if you are somebody who already has studied about vectors and therefore knows about four-dimensional space. Straight line segments, squares and cubes are all really the same thing, just in different dimensions; and there is a fourth-dimensional version called the hypercube. If you know what a hypercube is, then I challenge you to picture it in your mind. (You’ll fail, of course.) If you don’t know what a hypercube is, and don’t want me to go into an explanation of four-dimensional space, then all I can tell you is...Well, I can tell you that a hypercube is more cubical than a cube is, and I can tell you that a cube is just a slice of a hypercube, as hypercubical as it can be in a mere three dimensions. Can you picture it now? Didn’t think so.

Yet just because we can’t visualize a hypercube, that doesn’t mean that we don’t know lots of true things about it (such as that the hypervolume of a hypercube with sides 1 foot long is 1 quadratic foot) or that hypercubes aren’t very useful things to know about. Scientists and mathematicians and computer programmers know of all kinds of different four-dimensional “spaces” where hypercubes live, and they use hypercubes all the time. We just can’t get a good picture of a hypercube inside our heads, that’s all – but then, we can’t get a good picture of the atom inside our heads, or of the inside of a black hole, or of all kinds of other things that we know about.

Now the whole trouble with picturing the Trinity is that the Trinity exists in more dimensions of personality than we do. If we think of a person as a square, then the Trinity is a cube. So while we can know a lot of true things about the Trinity (just like we know true things about atoms and black holes and hypercubes), trying to picture the Trinity is really quite a hopeless business.

We can see a bit of what it means to say that the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are three separate Persons while still being one God, if we think of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost as squares and the Godhead as a cube. (Of course a cube has six sides, not three; but that’s just to say this isn’t a perfect analogy.) We can see, too, a bit of what it means to say that Jesus was “fully God” and “fully man.” Imagine that this world is a plane (like a table top) and the people in it are like plane figures (triangle and squares and circles and such), and the Trinity is like a sugar cube sitting on the tabletop. Then the square that is Jesus could be both fully God – there’s no part of Him that isn’t in the cube – and fully man – there’s no part of him that isn’t on the table top. And we can see how even if somebody else (some other shape on the table top) managed to become perfectly like Jesus (that is, perfectly square), that person still wouldn’t be God because he wouldn’t be part of the God-cube. But that person would be “in the image” of God – he’d be a square person.

It’s best to remember, though, that even when we’re talking about just one Person of the Trinity, we’re already talking about something we can’t imagine. We human beings aren’t even shapes – we’re just lines. We’re one-dimensional persons. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each two-dimensional Persons; they are each personal like us, only more so, and a perfect human being is as Personal as he or she can be in a single dimension. The Trinity is a three-dimensional Person; it is Personal like the Persons of the Trinity, only even more so still, and each of the Persons is as “Trinital” as it can be in a mere two dimensions of personality.

When God-the-Son decided to become a man, He wouldn’t all fit into our one dimension of personality (limited and finite and temporal and all as it is). So Jesus, the Jew of Nazareth, is like one of the lines in the square that is God the Son, Himself one of the squares of the cube that is the Trinity. He was born in the time of Caesar Augustus, and yet, “before Abraham was, I am.”

The thing is, Jesus the man of Nazareth is fully divine. And I must warn you very sternly that if you want to know who God is, then Jesus is the best image we have. For after all, a sugar cube is much less, really, than a human being is. In describing the Trinity as a sugar cube we are really describing the Trinity as less than a person, not more, just as people who think it's more spiritually advanced to talk about "the Divine" instead of "God" are moving further from the truth, not closer. God’s mercy is unimaginably more complex and rich and marvelous than the mercy Jesus showed; God’s love is unimaginably more complex and rich and marvelous than the love Jesus showed; all this is true. But if we try to “improve” our picture of God’s love so that it is “more-dimensional” than Jesus’ giving up His life for us, what we really do is make the picture worse. (In the same way, if you try to imagine a God who is “more than personal,” you find yourself imagining God as a gas spread out through space or as something else taken from the world of human experience – that is, as something less than a person, not more. If you want a positive picture of God, then Jesus is as good as it’s ever going to get.)

The reason we Christians insist so sternly that Jesus was fully God is not because we want people to try to imagine a deeper love than Jesus’ and say, “That’s really what God’s love is like.” It is precisely because we want to emphasize that, for human beings, Jesus’ love is the ultimate image we have of the love of God. Jesus was fully God – you can’t get more divine than Jesus was. So you can’t get a better picture of God than Jesus -- He is, if I may put it this way, as God as it gets. “Show us the Father,” Jesus’ disciples asked him once. But he answered, “How can you ask me to show you the Father? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

Now, when I say that, the natural response is, “Oh, well if that’s all you mean, then why not just say, ‘Jesus is God’ and be done with it? Why do you have to drag in all this other nonsense about other Persons?”

Of course, the answer to this is that Jesus constantly talked about having to do the will of the Father, and since a creation is not the boss of the creator, this means the Father has to be God, too. And then Jesus also talks about the Spirit, in terms that make it clear that the Spirit is God as well. Yet he talks about the Father and the Spirit as if they were different people. And so we find ourselves with three different God-people: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But they can’t be three Gods, because God had spent a couple of thousand years sternly informing the Israelites that there was only one God. Thus the Church eventually came to realize that a human being is indeed a person “in the image of God,” but that God is a personality in an unimaginably richer sense than we one-dimensional people can imagine. What it is like to be such a Person...well, we can’t imagine it and won’t ever be able to.

What are the roles of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?

For those who are not artists (and I mean no criticism by that), you can just think of it like this: the Father decides what needs to be done, the Spirit gives the Son the power to do the will of the Father, and the Son does it. In the life of the individual Christian, the Father sets out what he wants the Christian to do, the Son intercedes for us so that the Father “adopts” us as sons, and then the Spirit gives the Christian the power to do the will of the Father. Many, many, many Christians over the last 2,000 years have gotten along fine with no more detailed Trinitarian theology than that.

If you would like a rather richer explanation, and you have a little experience in creating art, then I recommend Dorothy Sayers’s very thought-provoking The Mind of the Maker. She argues that artists are themselves little trinities; that human artists create their own art by means of an internal “father,” “son” and “spirit;” and that in imagining creation as a play that God has written and in which he appears at the climax playing Himself, we discover that many apparently troublesome things like the seeming conflict between “free will” and “predestination” are not troublesome at all – they are the everyday experience of creative artists who passionately love their work and desire its perfection. It is a remarkable book. But I don’t know how much good it would do an audience of teenagers, few of whom, even if they have the artistic temperament, will yet have much experience in creating art of real quality. I certainly wouldn’t attempt that sort of explanation in your Interfaith group.

What difference does it make in my life that God is a Trinity?

This is something you’ll have to think out for yourself -- but as I say, if you don't get around to answering this question, then any time you've spent thinking about the Trinity is time wasted. If you put ten Christians in a room you could probably come up with fifty different relevant applications without even thinking too hard. But here are a few examples, to get you started. They aren't the right answers; just four right answers out of no doubt innumerably many.

1. Because the Persons of the Trinity have loved each other for all eternity, it really is true to say that God is Love. And since one of those Persons came and died for us, and the others allowed Him to, we can be 100% confident that God loves us, personally and passionately. If it doesn't reassure you to know that God shows His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us...well, then I don't know what could reassure you.

2. As I said earlier, because Jesus was "as God as it gets," people who turn away from Jesus to look for "alternative views" of God are always moving away from the truth, not toward it. If you go find an alternate image of God rather than Jesus, you may find one more to your personal taste, but it will be less accurate and easier for Satan to mislead you with. If you don't like Jesus (assuming you've actually met Himself rather than the more or less scurrillous portraits drawn by His enemies and frequently by His more foolish friends), then, um, sorry, but you don't like God. It's not a Hindu's fault that he's grown up with a less accurate model of God than the model presented by a godly Christian teacher, any more than it was the fault of medieval astronomers that they worked with Ptolemy's model of the solar system rather than Copernicus's. And I don't imagine that God will hold it against the Hindu in any vindictive sense. But that doesn't change the fact that the Hindu is working with a bad model and bad models generally don't lead to good results. I mean, even though I'm sure there are modern physicists who are jerks and medieval astronomers who were awesome people, still, if you took off on a rocket ship into outer space intending to go to the moon and used Ptolemy and Aristotle for your guides instead of Copernicus and Einstein, you'd have some surprises in store for you and they wouldn't be pleasant ones. People who decide to take for their guide the Buddha or Mohammed (peace be upon him), rather than St. Paul, are likely to be storing up some unpleasant surprises for themselves -- and I say this despite the fact that I'm pretty sure I'd've liked Siddhartha a lot and would have thought St. Paul was an arrogant jerk.

Not that I think you should necessarily point all this out to your interfaith group, as the likely result would be that somebody would rise up and smite you down with a three-ring binder or something. But just because there are truths that some people aren't yet ready to hear, doesn't mean they aren't still true.

3. Here's one Americans just hate...I mean, we hate this one. (I know that lots of us hate the previous one, too, but we all hate this one.) So what? Doesn't make it any less true; it actually probably means it's something we Americans especially need to hear: Since the Son has always been in submission to the will of the Father, even though they are both equal in divinity and dignity and worth, we know that authority does not mean superiority and that doing another person’s will instead of our own does not imply that we are inferior. This runs absolutely counter to one of the fundamental tenets of American culture, which sees submission to the will of another as being an essentially negative and degrading thing. I've actually heard it described as "intrinsically dehumanizing" (!) by people intelligent enough to have gotten accepted into Princeton. But because of the Trinity, and because of the example set for us by the Father and the Son, the Christian knows that hierarchy and authority and submission is part of the fundamental essence of reality and that if we are to be like Christ – Who was very God – then we must submit to valid authority, just as He Himself did. The fruit of the Spirit most misunderstood in America is gentleness; but the command of Scripture most detested in America seems to me to be, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." The doctrine of the Trinity shows us how utterly non-negotiable that particular unpleasant command really is. It’s not negotiable for God the Son Himself; and we think we can dispose of it for ourselves?

I hope all this is helpful. Let me know if any part of it doesn’t make sense. (Okay, I was talking about the Trinity; so almost certainly none of it made sense...oh, well.)


P.S. In case you're not the kind of math nut Erin [another of my favorite teenagers] is, here's a quick definition of what a hypercube is. A hypercube in n dimensions is a figure that, with appropriate translation and rotation of axes, can be said to consist of all the points meeting the following condition: all the components of the vector from the origin to the point are between 0 and a fixed value s/2 inclusive. In such a case s is considered the length of a side. In a single dimension, this is the line segment from -s/2 to s/2 inclusive. In two dimensions, this is an s by s square. In three dimensions, this is an s by s by s cube. In four dimensions, this is an s by s by s by s hypercube. You can keep going as long as you like.

A minor correction in the interest of perfect honesty

Um, to be honest, it's not really just three blogs that I read every day...there's also the one truly indispensable American blog.

Monday, November 28, 2005

New Year's Day (well, the day after, to be precise)

I have been thinking for two days about how possessed I've become by current events -- unable to make myself stop writing about what's happening now, this very instant, even though the political now has crowded out the post on adoption I've been meaning to write for a month; the exploration of religious metaphors that has ground to a halt purely because of my own preoccupation; the series of posts I wanted to write in which I would try my hand at making a single logical fallacy (the fallacy of hypostasization) seem fascinating and entertaining and inspiring and in the end, paradoxically, possibly not a fallacy at all but a foretaste of transcendental reality ...continue reading...; the discipline of writing a tiny meditation each week on the coming Sunday's readings; pulling together an article arguing for my own personal theory that I Corinthians 11:10 is a sarcastic quotation from the Corinthians' letter to Paul, or for that matter finishing the translation of and commentary on I Corinthians that I wandered away from after the eleventh chapter -- and that's just stuff I want to blog about. I haven't even talked about how long it's been since I added any new Scripture to my memory banks, or how rusty my Spanish has gotten and how I've forgotten all the Kazakh I had temporarily learnt, or how for the first time in three years I've completely abandoned the adoptive parents at PAKK (where I do immeasurably more good than I will ever do in any political discussion) and somehow keep meaning to go back but never managing to. I haven't mentioned how much good it would do my kids for me to spend as much time praying for them as I have spent wrapped up in conversation about politics -- and if there's one conversation that doesn't need my help, one conversation in which every possible viewpoint is already in play by people with far more eloquence and wisdom than I possess, it's the American political conversation. Meanwhile, if I don't pray for my kids, who's going to?

And all of that has only to do with the things I could do with the time I spend perforce alone in Houston (though, at least, I have for the last couple of months spent practically no time on-line at home during the weekends when I can be with my family).

I sat next to the altar yesterday at church doing some thinking during my second time through the sermon -- when you're on chalice-bearing duty for a Sunday at St. Luke's you hear the same sermon two or even three times, giving you after the first time a good chance to help out the priest because you know at precisely what points in the sermon a not-quite-so-strong-as-usual joke will need some help from somebody willing to encourage congregational laughter by example. But I digress.

At any rate, Sunday began the new Christian year, at least in the West. The old year came to its triumphant close the week before, on the Sunday of Christ the King, looking forward to the final and eternal consummation of human history. And this Sunday, we started back over with the waiting.

Fr. Phillip spoke of the difficulty we have in waiting, and of the difficulty he has in remembering that when he asks God for something, God's answer is frequently neither a yes nor a no, but often simply, "Wait." I thought of how I've spent the last year waiting -- waiting for an adoption to happen, waiting for a house to sell, waiting for things to get better -- and yet how unlike a godly, peaceful waiting it has been. How do you manage to be constantly going a frantic hundred miles an hour while you are, nominally, waiting? But that has been my whole last year.

All the way to Houston on my weekly commute two hours later, I thought of how all the things that really matter that have been crowded out. I find intoxicating the conversation of the internet, its unpredictable twists and turns, its vigor and brawn and hurly-burly. But politics is not where my heart really longs to be, and yet other than my sixty hours per week at work, politics has been where my spare time has gone for months. I felt the conviction growing that I wanted to return to where my heart is instead of where the noise is.

Then, just a moment ago, right before sitting down to talk about the flowering of our family's relationship with the two newest Pierces, I stepped over to The Anchoress, one of the three blogs whose every single post I make sure to read each day (the others being All Things Beautiful and Vodkapundit). I've been worried about Her Anchorship because her health has clearly taken a turn deeply for the worse. And here, in part, is what she has come back from her hospital stay to say, this first Sunday of Advent, about the snare of the virtual conversation:

Enlarged and enhanced within your 17 inch boundaries - enchanted - you don’t realize that your entire world is shrinking - your view is narrowing, as are your interests, until they may be illumined by the smallest of spotlights...A spotlight, or a telescope, or a square-shaped monitor - they disturb your focus. They encourage you to take your eyes off of what is all around, in favor of what is somewhere else. They help you to take your eyes off of love, both in the world and beyond it, for the created and the Creator. And that is never a good thing.

While in the clutches of an idol we cannot see beyond it. Once free we understand that while it is a good and wise thing to keep an eye on the world and all it’s spinning, and to pray for those who spin and are spun, we must not allow ourselves to get caught up in any of it. In this way we remain free, not trapped by an unwieldly force, nor entranced by a flickering light. And in that freedom is contemplation, and in contemplation - detatched, formless and full of wonder - we can tap into what is real and lasting.

In this season of Advent - this wonderful season of preparation and expectation - having been thrust from the spinning capsule, I have decided to remain outside of it. Decided, too, to take my eyes off of “the world,” to shut down the spotlight and close the telescope - to consider not whether the Associated Press predicts a gloomy shopping season or the Bloomberg press sees something sunnier but that all of the commercial madness is simply a sidestory to the real story that is love.

My dear Anchoress, I don't know your name and have no intention of ever learning it; yet here we two are, in the communion of the saints, walking the same road. It is one of the glories of the Christian year, that as the year shapes and directs the rhythm of our individual experiences in Christ, it helps to turn them into a communal experience -- the body of Christ, experiencing Advent together just as we will in a few months rejoice together in the Resurrection. In coming to the decision to step out of the political conversation during this season of waiting and preparation, I am sharply aware that I will sacrifice much of the great pleasure I take from the give-and-take with Alexandra and the regulars in her quite remarkable comments section...not that anything will get posted at ATB without my reading it, and not that Alexandra doesn't post on topics other than politics, but still she is a warrior and a gladiator at heart, carrying on the fight her father fought, and carrying on a fight I passionately believe she has been called to fight. But that fight is a fight I find myself called out of, at least for a season.

So it is a most unexpected grace to find that I step somewhat unwillingly away from Alexandra's side only to find myself shoulder to shoulder with my other beloved Lady of the Net -- or, rather, perhaps in the cell next to hers in the cloister. (Though my own cell has a back door that I'll slip out every now and then for a nip with Vodkapundit.)

My world, like Her Anchorship's, has become too narrow.

So for this penitential season of Advent, the purely political blogs are out -- no Instapundit, no Molly Ivins, no Daily Kos, no Ann Coulter, no Captain Ed. And no commenting on the political threads at ATB. I don't pretend to be a virgin, but it's time to trim my lamp all the same. To be still, and know that He is God. To hear again, to find again, the voice of love.

Coolest thing I've seen this past two months...

...and I'm not even a mechanical engineer.

HT: Chester via The Belmont Club via the Blogfadda.

"And Just What Place Might That Be?" Dept

[chuckling evilly]

And for those of you unfamiliar with, don't miss Adversity, Cluelessness, Conformity, Defeat, Flattery, Idiocy, Ineptitude (the picture on that one is particularly effective), Intimidation, Losing, Mediocrity, Meetings, Mistakes, Stupidity, Risks, and my all-time favorite, Apathy.

Of course, there are the two most relevant to my own self: Consulting and Procrastination.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Low-budget review: MOC's Jersey Chica

Artist: MOC (pronounced Em-Oh-See)
Album: Jersey Chica (debut)
Genre: hip-hop all the way, baby, but explicitly evangelical Christian (no longer nearly so odd a combination as it used to be)
Peril's rating: 4 1/2 stars out of five.
Where to buy it: wherever you can find it, to which I can only say good luck Googling...but it's worth the effort. I think I found my copy at Amazon, if that helps.


Nice variety of styles (sub-styles, I suppose I should say, since you're not exactly going to get a bluegrass number out of her), all well done. MOC can sing as well as rap, though her voice is a touch better suited for the rap -- she's not Cecilia Bartoli but she keeps her melodies within her range and hits the pitches in a quite adequately enjoyable manner. ...continue reading...VERY skillful rhyming; if we were rating elements of the album that would get a solid five-star.

I came to MOC by way of TobyMac (who features her on his cut "Whoops-a-Daisy"), and she suffers by comparison only because she is more unalloyed hip-hop, whereas TobyMac uses hip-hop as just one element of his musical palette. If you're coming to MOC having just listened to Diverse City, you'll be in a little bit of danger of thinking Jersey Chica is a bit monotonous by the end -- not much danger, if you like hip-hop, but a little bit. Had I instead been listening to a steady diet of hip-hop for the last month, I think MOC would be pulling five stars from me.

I suppose that means that what I perceive as her limitations are more likely simply limitations of the hip-hop genre. A first-rate C&W artist, for example, will cover a much wider range of emotional tone and musical stylings than big-name hip-hop artists seem to, and MOC is no exception there. Take "Forever On:" the opening raised my hopes that we were going to get a playful, perhaps even tongue-in-cheek number, as long as we were still just in the percussion intro with its handclaps; but when the keyboards kicked in they were in the typical minor key and MOC came in with that same edge to her voice that makes you feel like she's angry no matter what she's actually saying. Can she do playful and girlish? Dunno; it would be very interesting to hear her try.

But that's asking her to do what would interest me rather than what she has a heart for; and what she does, she does pretty darn well. "Blasé," "I Like It!" and "Come One Come All" are in the rotation on my primary playlist (along with Ella Fitzgerald, Shania Twain, Ukrainian pop artist Glyukoza, Tchaikovsky, Alison Krauss, Luis Miguel, Alanis Morissette, and obscure alternative rock band Chagall Guevara, among numerous others -- I have eclectic tastes but whatever it is you're doing, if you want to make that list you'd bloody well better make me think you're good at it for at least one full song). Every other cut on the album makes my secondary playlist, which means that she's got three cuts I'm always in the mood for and no cut that makes me say, "Oh, let's skip that one." That's better than a lot of bigger names manage to do on the Redneck Peril ratings -- including (at least as far as consistency goes) TobyMac himself, who generally manages more than three primary-rotation songs per album but can also be counted on for a couple of stinkers that I can't bear to listen to.

I'd be very curious to see how much energy MOC can infuse into a live performance. My guess is that she could rock the house and send you out fired up.

And, for what it's worth, based on the album cover I'd say she's pretty darn cute -- she may be a Jersey chica but she's got a good Kazakh girl's attitude to hair coloring. Though I doubt she much cares about a practically-forty-year-old Okie redneck's opinion in that respect; and also, she would have to prove to me that she's capable of giggling before she could command an unqualified thumbs-up.

Oh, and The Princess (for whom I bought the thing in the first place) likes it, too, and indeed when all of my eight kids (ranging from 8 to 18) are in the Suburban, Jersey Chica is a generally acceptable choice for traveling tune-age. Which probably means more than everything else I just said -- since I am, after all, a practically-forty-year-old Okie redneck, and therefore not the first person you're going to go to when you want an opinion about a Jersey girl's hip-hop debut.

Bottom line: Money well spent, sure hope there's more to come from her.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"Redneck Literacy" Dept

Candace passes on a personal anecdote from a Southern friend who eats breakfast and reads the paper every morning at the local diner. The other day he overheard the following conversation:

Redneck the First: Did you hear about that terrible accident last night?
Redneck the Second: Nope.
R1: A girl tore up her car somethin' bad up on Bernardsville.
R2: Really? How's the car?
R1: Oh, it's wrecked.
R2: What kind of car was it?
R1: Some kind of Chevy. Begins with an 'S'.
R2: An Escort?
R1: Naw, that's a Ford...

On rape and flirting

This post is a collaborative effort of All Things Beautiful's Alexandra and Redneck Peril's Kenny. If you want the full impact of the Rubens, then you have to go look at it under Alexandra's prize-nominated site layout, here.

For the curious: Alexandra noticed the poll, and I had stashed away in a corner of my hard drive a ten-year-old, thirty-page essay on the topic of whether a rape victim can ever be considered partly responsible for her rape (as part of an essay on the philosophical topic of causality, bizarrely enough). I tweaked the thirty pages a bit to refer to the story, and threw out a bunch of the technical language, and added some thoughts about flirting, and sent it over to Alexandra. Alexandra then went to work literally for hours to turn it into something postable (not even I am willing to put thirty pages of logical theory cum sociopolitical musings into a single blog post). So it's a hybrid style and perhaps at first blush an odd combination of topics -- but it was very interesting to start from the fact that we both had the same reaction, and then try to work out a common expression of that reaction. You'll have to tell us whether you think it worked.

This story caught our attention. It is troubling to both of us that so many modern-day Brits are willing to blame rape victims for their own rapes...and yet, in hindsight, perhaps we should not be surprised. ...continue reading...

When a woman is raped, how much of it is her fault? Our answer is immediate: none.

It seems an easy answer. And we'll also add something else, too. How much of it is the fault of the rapist's sexist-joke-telling, beer-drinking, woman-objectifying buddies? Our answer is just as immediate, and derives from the same logic, and is in fact the same answer: none.

Furthermore, we think flirting is a highly pleasant and innocent pastime, and we would like for our respective daughters to be able to indulge in the harmless varieties, and we think it's a very great pity indeed that modern Western culture produces sizable quantities of young men who think that to flirt is to ante up.

How did we get here? The young men of our father's generation would not have been nearly so likely to say that flirting was a rapable offense as were the young men of our college generation. It is troubling to both of us that so many modern-day Brits are willing to blame rape victims for their own rapes...

So what happened?

Flirty is a word whose meaning gets more elastic the more a society is male-dominated. In Pakistan, for example, just in 2002, more than forty women are known to have had acid thrown in their faces for the express purpose of causing horrific, permanent disfigurement. The acid incidents – quite well-documented – usually follow one of two basic story lines. In one, an extremist Muslim group such as the Taliban tries to terrorize all women who go unveiled, as part of their overall repressive regime. But in the other, a particular woman goes innocently unveiled; a male acquaintance sees her and desires her and attempts to seduce her; she spurns his advances – and he considers himself bitterly wronged and wreaks justice upon her. To such a man, a woman who simply goes without a veil is the equivalent of the girl in our first story. (And, sickeningly often, the punishment handed out to the man by the village elders is obscenely mild, or indeed the victim may face intense social pressure to demand no punishment at all from her attacker.)

The more insistent a culture is that there are no innate differences between men and women (generally speaking, of course), and the less a society explains to men and boys how women and girls think differently about sex than the guys do, the more likely it is that innocent female behavior will be wrongly – but honestly – misinterpreted by males as deliberately sexually provocative behavior, and thus the more likely men are to feel aggrieved and cheated when the girl who has been wishing it declines to follow through. This is, clearly, a mark against extreme American-style 'feminism-as-androgeny.'

But the more insistent a culture is that men have the right to dominate and to be gratified by their women, and that women are responsible to ensure (by restricting their own freedom) that men are never tempted, the more likely it is that innocent female behavior will be treated by men as deliberately sexually provocative behavior that gives male beholders the right to claim the promised gratification. And this is, clearly, a plea for one heckuva lot more feminism in places like Pakistan.

We could sum up our whole point in this post as, “Don't confuse condition with cause, and remember that men and women are different but equal.”

You see, to create by foolishness a condition conducive to rape, is a very different thing than to commit a rape. We would like to see a young lady in college not drinking herself to the point where she loses all common sense, and those of us who have not totally abandoned traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethics would like to see her behave in, to put it bluntly, a considerably more moral fashion than is common at frat parties. We would also like to see the boys being aware of the potential consequences inherent in the atmosphere they are creating, and we would like to see the boys behaving morally just as much as the girls. But a rapist is in a completely different category.

So, let's say the British pollsters ask us, "Is the woman partly or entirely to blame if she fails to say 'no' clearly to the man, wears sexy clothes, drinks too much, has many sexual partners and walks alone in a deserted area?" Our answer – because we know the difference between condition and cause -- will be, "To blame for what? Do you mean, to blame for getting raped? Absolutely not. Do you mean to ask whether her rapist's blame is diminished, and some of that blame is transferred to the woman? To say so would be despicable.”

What these poll results seem to hint at, and what our own experience with collegiate males in particular tells us, is that there are a significant number of men who feel that there's something dishonest about a girl's simply flirting with a guy and then not sleeping with him. Now, since we don't think that most flirts really intend to be sexually provocative, we think there's a fundamental communication problem here. And our personal opinion is that it comes in part from the fact that women and men in the West tend not be educated in the natural difference between the typical male and female experience of sexuality, in one particular respect.

We think many men, especially young men raised after the complete triumph of the sexual revolution, have no idea that it is perfectly possible for a woman to want men to think that she is pretty without wanting them to think she is sexy. There just aren't very many men who want to be handsome but don't want to be sexy, you see. Yet there are a lot of women who want all the men around them to think they are pretty, but who would feel quite threatened if they were suddenly to realize, "My God, all these men want to have sex with me."

Our respective daughters are delightful and playful and more than usually carefree, and each of us devoutly hopes they will all grow up to enjoy many an hour of carefree and casual flirting. It is, after all, one of life's more enjoyable pleasures, and is one hundred percent calorie-free. But each of us is (or will be, depending on the age of the particular daughter) careful to make sure that our respective daughters understand that flirting is, these days, a pleasure to be indulged in circumspectly. It is one of the great advantages of moving in devoutly religious circles that our daughters know an unusually large number of boys who have been carefully trained by their parents to understand that girls such as our daughters are not to be assumed to be interested in casual sex. At church, my daughters can flirt in safety. At the local public high school, well, they need to choose their flirting partners very carefully indeed. And flirting with a complete stranger, in modern America, can turn real ugly, real fast.

It ought not be that way. But that's the way it is. And, one other thing – it could be worse.

For there are parts of the world in which the men are so obsessed with sex, and so utterly incapable of seeing women as capable of any non-sexual relationship, that any interaction with a man at all is considered to be a sexual advance. When merely to go unveiled is thought to be the equivalent of saying, "I am available," then the innocent pleasures of flirting are denied to women to a degree utterly unimaginable in the West. We will not explore in detail these societies – societies in which the fact that women and men are not identical, leads the physically dominant men to conclude with satisfaction that women and men are not equal. We will simply close with this thought:

Those men in England who consider that a flirty woman is asking for it – they might ask themselves whether the difference between themselves and the Pakistani acid-throwers who say that women who go unveiled are asking for it...they might ask themselves, we say, whether that difference is a difference in kind, or only a difference in degree.

Pictures from a quagmire

Forgive the sarcasm. Or not. But either way, go look at these pictures. And then if you haven't read Michael Yon's whole history of the war in Mosul from 22 Jan 2005 to the present: he knows a heckuva lot more about what's going on than you do, and he's gone to a heckuva lot more personal risk to get the real story than anybody at CNN's even thought of going to, and if you haven't started at the first post in his archives and read through all the up to the present date (from bottom to top in the "Previous Dispatches" list), you don't yet have any business bloviating about how badly the war in Iraq is going. If you've read him, and you still think we are not winning this war and that all is hopeless, why then we have a difference of opinion, and I can respect that. But if you haven't read him, then, with all due and genuine respect, go do your homework before we talk any more.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Thanksgiving Hostess Secret of the Day" Dept

From Ann, 36, of Miami, Ohio: "Thanksgiving horror stories? I have none... I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it."

-- Via MSN

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"The Spectre of Domestic Violence Looms Over the Midlands" Dept

Hat Tip: The one indispensable American blog

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Non-Bush Bushism of the Day" Dept

"We've gotten to talk to Presidents, and to former Presidents, and to everyone in between."

-- Sean Hannity displaying his towering IQ on today's radio show, which I was stuck listening to while in the stretch of TX 71 that's too far from Houston to get the Houston sports stations but not close enough to Austin to get the Austin sports stations...have to say I didn't manage to make it through very much of it before deciding silence was preferable...sure would be nice if they'd give Alan Colmes his own radio show instead of Sean Hannity...[sigh] nobody asked me, though...

UPDATE: Considering that in this post as originally published, I referred to Sean's "towing IQ," I suppose I have a "towing" IQ as well, eh?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"Hilariously Bad Pun of the Day" Dept

From Mark Stein:
In Holland, a militant vegan killed the flamboyant homosexual nativist Pim Fortuyn during the election campaign - the first time in political history that a fruitarian had killed a fruit Aryan.
I'll never top that one.

Been long time gone

I'm coming back to the land of the living.

I have, as my friends can attest, largely dropped off the face of the earth, due to the most snakebit development project I've ever been a part of. On this three-month project...well, my whole adoption experience turned out completely differently than we'd expected and cost me three and a half weeks of work, and the second guy on our three-man team decided it wasn't fun to commute to Houston from Atlanta after all and quit, and then Hurricane Rita shut down our test servers for a week, and the girls' visas came through six weeks earlier than expected which was wonderful except that I had to go get them right then rather than after the project had gone live and that was another week lost, and when I finally was cleared for system testing my whole family including me got hit with a nasty flu-like virus and I spent most of that week in the basement trying to system-test in between bouts of narcolepsy with a brain functioning at about 80 on the IQ scale. But all of that pales in comparison to the fact that the new guy we brought in to replace the guy who quit, lost his wife in a car accident a couple of weeks ago and has since then been trying to figure out how to be a single dad to his two-year-old daughter. Just when you think your life really sucks, something like that happens to somebody in the next cubicle.

But we successfully went live last night, at last. And it was a red-letter day for other reasons as well. Yesterday I signed a lease that will let my family move to Katy a month from now, meaning that my year and a half of seeing them only on weekends is almost over. Our real-estate agent thinks she has high-probability offers on the house we're trying to sell, and they are offers at a price we are happy to live with. And yesterday Sally's therapist told us that she has progressed so spectacularly far in dealing with her Ambivalent Attachment Disorder, that in his opinion she no longer needs to come in regularly to see him.

So a whole bunch of burdens lifted yesterday. I didn't wake up this morning until almost 11:00.

Well, in the next couple of days I'll check back in on the PAKK list from which I've been absent for weeks and start catching up on all the threads I've missed, and I'll write a full adoption update, and I'll start scheduling payments to pay back the generous individuals who loaned us money to help get the girls home, and I hope Jim and Candace are still willing to pick up the discussion on religious metaphors. My sincere apologies to all the friends I've neglected, and especially to my long-suffering wife, who too often has been made to feel that my work is more important to me than she is. She deserves better than that.

It's been a good year, what with bringing the J's home and all. But I hope I never have another one like it...

The French have a word for it

I get a kick out of No Pasaran most of the time in general, but then I come up on this sentence in particular... "Mais, sérieusement, il n'y a aucune raison pour Ben Ali de prendre en compte les bêlements de la caste des politcards de ce petit pays de merde..."

Holy cow, can you imagine the exploding heads of Chiracesque Frenchmen hearing their country referred to as ce petit pays de merde? [guffawing with delight] I'm no expert on diplomatic niceties, but if I'm not mistaken, un petit pays de merde is even lower on the scale of national dignity than un pays pissant.

HT: Alexandra, whose most recent foray into the wonderful word of satiric political commentary by means of Photoshop, is particularly amusing, as is her neologism les Muslimerables.

Saves me the trouble of writing it myself

Thanks to Her Anchorship, I've just come across David Warren on the death of Europe. Money quote:
Then realize, that Europe did not create Christianity. Christianity created Europe. And will create new Europes, wherever its living seed may fall. Christendom is simply moving -- to Africa, to Asia, to the Americas perhaps; to wherever Christ is wanted, and away from where He is not.
To take an example that is highly relevant to me personally: Anglicanism is likely to figure out, in the next two decades, a way to get along without the Archbishop of Canterbury, the last two years having shown quite clearly that the heart and fire and living blood of Anglicanism is now the global South, as the Anglican Churches of England and Canada and America slide ever deeper into morbid impotence and theological vacuity and -- to be quite blunt about it -- global irrelevance.

For some reason, as I read Warren's final lines, I was irresistably reminded of the bishop at the end of A Canticle for Liebowitz, shaking the dust off his sandals before closing the door of the spaceship.

Las J's y yo, nosotros queremos mucho las novelas

And we have plenty of company.

Best line:
Townspeople in the Serbian town of Kucevo — so overwrought that they hurdled the boundary between reality and fantasy — drafted a letter to the Venezuelan government pleading the case of the title character in the hit show Kassandra.
Seriously, those things are freakin' hilarious, as I might have mentioned before. Plus, I can make Jenny laugh whenever I want to just by intoning portentiously the title of the particularly overacted Amantes del Desierto.

UPDATE: I asked Jessica last night whether she had ever seen Kassandra. Turns out she watched it religiously. So she got an even bigger kick than I out of the confusion of the Kucevites.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Great Chicken Non-Disaster

Those of you who have read Dessie's book will of course remember with delight The Great Chicken Massacre. Well, young Jessica's chicken adventure has a rather happier ending. Plus, there is an explosion. Bruce Willis, call your agent.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Thank you... our veterans and their families.

We do not forget.

UPDATE: Well, some things we forget. Like, I forgot that I meant to point to this thank-you message. After you've watched it -- several times -- you can go to the main page at Don't miss the history lessons on who the Kurds are, and -- if you're in the mood to be ashamed to be associated with the first Bush-league President but proud that we did eventually make up our mind to stand beside these people -- this history lesson on the Western powers' until-very-recently untrustworthy behavior.

HT: Gateway Pundit

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Sometimes reality sets in all of a sudden

From this article on Jordanians' shock over the latest atrocity, we have no trouble identifying the money quote. I feel awful for this guy. At the same time, imagine the degree of self-delusion necessary for him to have been able to hide the truth from himself to this point.

Truth is, guys, the West has gotten dragged into a civil war of Muslim versus Muslim, where one side has been trying to keep the other side from noticing that they are as much a target as the "infidel" -- and, before we went into Iraq, the wool was well and truly over the eyes.

It came off some of those eyes yesterday in Jordan:

“Oh my God, oh my God. Is it possible that Arabs are killing Arabs, Muslims killing Muslims? For what did they do that?” screamed 35-year-old Najah Akhras, who lost two nieces in the attack. Similar thoughts were heard over and over throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Because they hate you, Najah, you and everybody else in the world who doesn't roll over like a dog before them and slavishly follow their every whim. That's why. What, you thought they were good and godly people who gave a damn about your or anybody else's nieces?

Welcome to reality. I know it sucks, man. I know it sucks. I wish with all my heart it didn't. And if this is the only way you could find out the truth...I wish you had been able to grow old and die with the lesson still unlearned.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Required reading

From Vodkapundit, who is more like me in temperament and general outlook than anybody else on the web I can think of offhand, but who writes gooder 'n' me.

I'm not kidding; this is a very thought-provoking piece that anybody serious about American security pretty much has to read and engage with. Not agree with, necessarily, but in this case both reading and thought are definitely Required.

UPDATE: Link should be fixed now.

Friday, November 04, 2005

"Well, I'm Not In The Market Myself..." Dept

The internet is a strange and wonderful place.

Priceless? Hmm...well, surely we can trust her friends. Actually, for a blonde, she's surprisingly cute. A bit craic, though, I'd say...

UPDATE: And now that link should also work. I shouldn't blog under conditions of sleep deprivation.

HT: Kathryn Jean

Dad proposes, biology disposes

Keep forgetting to link to this delightful little post over at Jim's Guesstimate.

In a similar spirit:

Back when Sean and Kegan (now 12 and in severe danger of showing disrespect for their father by being taller than he) were still in car seats, I still had plans to have them grow up non-violent. I, having grown up with no siblings save a younger sister whom I was never allowed to clobber no matter the provocation ("no real man ever hits a woman," which I still pretty much believe), where was I? Oh, yes, I didn't punch people growing up and intended for my boys not to do so either.

So we're headed down the road and I look in the rear-view mirror of our Mazda mini-van, and there is Sean with Kegan in a head-lock, fist cocked gleefully. Before I can get my mouth open, bam! he clobbers him smack on top of the skull. I'm about to yank the car over to the side and wade in mighty in my wrath, but there's no shoulder...and then Kegan pops up, holding the top of his head in obvious pain...and giggling with delight. Then Sean obligingly leans over towards Kegan, who head-locks him, winds up, and bam! Sean pops up wincing and giggling. Then Kegan leans over...

Well, I went ahead and pulled the car over. But by the time the car had stopped, I had abandoned my non-violence scheme for good; might as well tell puppies not to wrestle and chew on each other. Instead I just told 'em, "Okay, look, you wanna play those games, you go ahead, but if it gets too rough and one of ya comes a-whinin' to me saying, 'He hit me!' don't think you're gettin' any sympathy from your old man..."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The most important common ground

Most of my "On liberals and conservatives" wasn't really worth reading; but I thought there was one nugget that at least provided a perspective most people won't have run into often. Figuring that was the only part worth reading, I've pulled it out into its own post so that people won't have to wade through the platitudinous meandering that preceded it:

...Now it occurs to me that there is another, even more important, piece of common ground, real estate shared by liberals and conservatives alike: we're all, pretty much, jerks. ...continue reading...One of the most saddeningly amusing things about the whole Miers civil war has been those bewildered conservatives who have whined, "We're acting just like liberals; I thought we were better than that." Um, hon, if that's what you thought, then you are, with all due respect, a complete ditz. Period. I'll tell you something right now: you hang around me long enough, and you talk about enough subjects with me, and sooner or later I will reveal myself to be one heckuva jerk. That is my solemn promise to you, and it's the one promise almost everybody in the world can make and be sure they'll keep. (Well, I don't think my friend Judy Stowell would be able to keep it, but most of you won't ever be lucky enough to meet her.)

If all the people who agree with you seem like nice folks...well, what do you expect? You agree with them; of course they're going to act nice around you. Try disagreeing with them about something they really want, some subject they really care about -- like, say, the Miers nomination -- and just see how fast they get nasty and foul-tempered.

So we're all jerks. And I think, myself, that that's (perversely) the best common ground of all to start with. If you, Mr. Liberal Democrat, and you, Mr. Religious Right Republican, and I, my anti-abortion anti-War-on-Drugs libertarian self, can all accept that each of us is periodically going to go off the rails and be a jerk, then we can all cut each other some slack when it happens, and we can get past the constant moral one-upmanship that makes most conversation between liberals and conservatives so difficult. You don't need to prove that I'm a jerk; I admit it. I don't need to prove that you're a jerk; you admit it. So we don't need to have an argument, do we? After all, the whole point of an argument is to prove that the other person is a jerk, and since we all admit that up front, there's nothing left to prove...which lets us get back to the topic at hand and start making some actual progress on the issue.

Really and truly, I may seem insane, but I think this is a fundamental key to getting along. A very dear friend of mine once told me that the single thing that amazed her most about me was how accepting I could be of other people, including people that she personally couldn't stand. She wasn't a Christian, and she had been raised to think that conservative Christians were intolerant of other people, and she knew that I was a deeply conservative Christian of strong and traditional moral views -- and yet I seemed genuinely to like all kinds of people that she thought were jerks and that, she knew, I knew were engaged in behavior of which I deeply disapproved. I tried gently to explain that one consequence of the doctrine of original sin is precisely that it frees you up to love everybody no matter how they behave -- no matter what happens, you're never disillusioned because you always know anybody is capable of anything given the wrong circumstances; and love is never conditional on your deserving it because nobody deserves it anyway. Liberals and conservatives are really all just people, which means we're all jerks; so, um...well, so if you're a jerk, so what? Like that's supposed to keep me from liking you? If I were going to refuse to have jerks for friends, I'd be one heckuva lonely guy. And if everybody else refused to have jerks for friends, too, who would put up with me?

If you want to go back and forth about whether liberals or conservatives are more morally admirable people, well, feel free, but if that's all it's about then I've got better things to do, like, say, watching a thrilling match of curling. If you want to try to help me figure out where I'm that's something I'm interested in.

Which brings me to the last way in which it is at least possible for liberals and conservatives to agree. In an argument, each side is trying to prove the other side is a jerk. In a debate, either each side is trying to prove they're smarter than the other guys, or else each side is trying to get their own way. But in a discussion, each side is trying to learn something. Liberals and conservatives seem to disagree on which side is morally superior; well, a plague on both your houses. Liberals and conservatives seem to disagree on which side is more intelligent, and since there are smart people on both sides, if that's what it's going to be about then nobody's ever going to get anywhere. Liberals and conservatives want to implement different agendas and policies; you're not going to agree about that.

But give me a liberal who wants to learn and a conservative who wants to learn, and that's something we can agree on: if I'm wrong about something (which I'm bound to be), I'd like to find out, and I'll be grateful to anybody who shows me. If we agree on that, then the more other things we disagree on to begin with, the more learning is about to take place.

In the end, it comes down to humility and intellectual integrity. Both virtues are available to liberals and conservatives, and there are liberals and conservatives who exemplify them both. And the house of discussion is big enough for all those of humility and intellectual integrity, however divergent our specific opinions might be, even though every now and then each of us is going to have a bad day and be a jerk.

And Europe is a counterexample how, exactly?

Francis Fukuyama writes, "We have tended to see jihadist terrorism as something produced in dysfunctional parts of the world...There is good reason for thinking, however, that a critical source of contemporary radical Islamism lies not in the Middle East, but in Western Europe."

I don't see the point of the "however." Shouldn't it be replaced with "for example"?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Why We Believe Lies (a chapter from a half-finished book called The Stupid Switch)

Why is it that we believe lies?

There are various explanations. When I was young, I assumed that it was stupidity, but then I found out that some of the things I had believed were lies, so of course I instantly abandoned the stupidity hypothesis. Besides, there are so many clearly intelligent people who run around buying into so many blatantly stupid arguments. Something more must be at work. (And a good thing, too, because if it were just a matter of natural brainpower there wouldn’t be much we could do about it.) ...continue reading...

Barriers to Clear Thinking

The Church has traditionally given a few basic explanations, some of which go as back as far as Paul. The first is ignorance. “How can they believe,” asks Paul, “in Someone of whom they haven’t heard?” (Romans 10:14). For example, we can hardly expect undergraduate religion majors to be aware of the discovery of portions of 1 Timothy and of Mark’s gospel in Cave 7 of Qumran. Nor do we expect them to have enough of an understanding of the principles of papyrology to be able to see the glaring deficiencies in such desperately tendentious analyses as (if memory serves) Graham Stanton’s.[1] For that matter, since they are religion majors, we oughtn’t really expect them to have received any decent training in historical method at all, even to the point of reading a basic text such as David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies. It is therefore only to be expected that they will buy into some of the sillier doctrines that pass for scholarship in various seminaries and Departments of Religion. Assuming they are honest, a wider acquaintance with recent findings and some exposure to the methodologies of professional papyrologists, archaeologists, classicists and historians will do wonders.

But of course that’s only if they’re honest, which brings us to the second major cause of self-deception: good, old-fashioned sin. “They will gather around themselves teachers who will tell them what their itching ears wish to hear” (2 Timothy 4:24). We are naturally gifted at finding excuses to gratify our pride and our concupiscence. Aristotle’s definition of man as “the rational animal” may be virtually correct, but if we want the actual definition a far more apt description would be “the rationalizing animal.”[2]

Now in attributing much self-deception to ignorance and sinfulness, I doubt that I have said anything new to most Christian readers. Unfortunately many Christians, some of whom are active in evangelism, assume that these are the only two reasons. They therefore take their friends aside and explain their version of the truths of Christianity, assuming that mere ignorance has kept their friends outside of the fold. When many of those friends persist in their unbelief (or in their allegiance to the wrong Christian denomination), the evangelist leaps to the conclusion that the problem is sinful rebellion. I believe this to be a profound error.[3]

It is an error I myself have made, as those who remember me from my undergraduate days will no doubt readily attest. In those days I knew logic and theology pretty well, but I didn’t understand people at all. Plus I was an arrogant jerk. Fortunately, sixteen years of marriage, to a godly woman with tremendous natural powers of empathy fortified by a psychology degree from Rice, have had their effect (though I am still not much of a prospect for the priesthood or other counseling professions). But I think that before explaining where in general my younger self and others like that self have erred, I would like to start with a specific illustration.

The word feminist has acquired bad connotations, even among women who in most respects support the basic elements of the feminist agenda. The reason, of course, is that the term has been so polluted by the one or two percent of women who constitute the feminist lunatic fringe, that most reasonable women are no more willing to be associated with “feminists” than are most reasonable gun-totin' Texans to be associated with “the militia.” Well, Princeton had its fair share (which is still a small share, of course) of the sort of feminists who have ruined the term for the rest of the fair sex, and they used to drive me absolutely insane.[4]

But then, several years ago, I happened across a document whose authors are lost in the mist of my memory (at the time I didn’t expect ever to be writing any books about quarrels between disagreeing parties of lesbian feminists, so, regrettably, I didn’t keep the reference). For the benefit of those who are less than perfectly au courant with the hot topics of discussion within the lesbian community, I should perhaps explain that the advent of in vitro fertilization brought to the fore the question of whether lesbian couples should bear, as opposed to adopt, children. Many considered the new technology a boon of the first order (surely I needn’t explain why). But there were others, including the authors of this document, who were thoroughly opposed to the idea. These two (I think) women felt so strongly about it that they put together a long list of reasons that lesbian couples should not conceive. All but one of those reasons has long since departed from my mind, but that one burned itself into my memory in letters of fire.

Lesbian couples should not conceive, claimed the authors, because there was a fifty-fifty chance that the child would be a boy. And if it was a boy, they continued, “the odds are overwhelming, no matter what you do, that he will grow up to rape and abuse women.”[5]

To this day I can hardly even type the words without tears. The depth of the pain behind that statement – the emotional crippling that such a belief betrays, including the complete inability to have any sort of healthy relationship with half the human race – how can it even be imagined? What unspeakableness must have been visited on these two of God’s beloved, and on all those others who can find such a statement anything but grotesquely, nightmarishly absurd? How can one feel anything but bottomless pity?

At that moment feminism, even in its most outlandish and vitriolic forms, lost all power to enrage me. I owe an eternal debt to those women, for it was through them that God opened my eyes to the fact that there are literally millions of people in the world who believe stupid things not because those people are stupid, not because they are ignorant, not primarily because they are stubbornly rebellious against their God, but simply because they are in pain.

We are sinful people, some of us to the point of depravity, and so we hurt each other, sometimes unspeakably. For many of us, the lies we believe are the only things that make our pain tolerable. Any psychologist knows that to strip away a patient’s lies without first equipping the patient with the healing and strength needed to face the truth is cruel and potentially even life-threatening. When a lie has us enslaved, only the truth can set us free. But sometimes even the truth does not set us free. Sometimes it literally drives us to suicide.

We must understand that when we force some particular truth upon another person, we may be ripping the crutches away from a cripple. What happens when we go kick a crutch out of the hands of a man with a broken leg? He falls; he aggravates the injury; he gets himself another crutch; and he takes pains to make sure he has nothing to do with us in the future. If, on the other hand, we heal the broken leg so that he can walk without the crutch, the odds are pretty good he’ll throw away the crutch of his own accord. Until the leg is healed we can, if we wish, say that he is “enslaved to a crutch.” But it is not the crutch that enslaves him; it is the fracture in his leg. A depressing number of brutally aggressive Christian evangelists go around attacking cripples’ crutches without the slightest regard for their crippled limbs, and when the cripples retreat in rage and hostility the evangelists wag their heads over the cripples’ hardness of heart and solemnly shake the dust off their self-righteous sandals. Indeed, of the nine fruits of the spirit, I fear the one most neglected by American Christians is gentleness.[6]

Nor should we forget that most of us are numbered among the cripples, usually without realizing it ourselves. We know that God is the Great Physician, but perhaps we are not accustomed to bearing in mind that he is also the Great Psychiatrist. God knows, of course, every nook and cranny of our hearts, and He could at any time set us down and say, “Now, here are all the places you’re messed up.” But He is in no hurry, and He is perfectly well aware of the need to give us strength to bear the truth before giving us the truth. No doubt He could perform a miracle of instantaneous healing and give us all the strength in the world to bear all the truth in the world in no time flat. Plainly, however, He does not ordinarily choose to do so. He stands ever ready to give us the truth we need as soon as we can bear it – and not all our impatience can force Him to give us that truth a day before He deems it time.

As long as we live in a painful world, then, lies will be believed. When our credulity is a result of our pain, the way to wisdom will involve healing as much as, and in fact usually much more than, reason and education.

We turn finally to one more force that impels us to folly, namely, fear of the unknown. Each of us has certain core beliefs that we have built into the very heart of who we are. When a particular belief has nestled in so close to our heart that it is part of us, and then somebody attacks that belief, we do not react with curiosity or academic interest. When those beliefs are under attack, we ourselves are under attack, for those beliefs are part of who we are, and if we lose them, we cannot predict what traumatic changes we may undergo. Our response is therefore instinctively defensive. Now, what exactly that response looks like is different for different people. Some of us are overwhelmed by the urge to shout down the other person; others are enraged; others feel panic-stricken and want to leave the room; still others find themselves fighting back tears. You may feel physically ill; you may feel yourself gritting your teeth; you may find it hard to breath – whatever it is, you need to know the signs. (In my case, for example, whenever I suddenly find that my lower lip is quivering uncontrollably, I know one of my buttons has been pushed.)

We must be able to recognize when we have gone into defensive mode, for four critical reasons.

In the first place, when we are in that mode we are not seeking to understand alternative viewpoints or to evaluate the possibility that we are wrong – we are trying to fight off a threat. Unless we make a conscious and strenuous effort to force ourselves to come to terms with that possibility, unless we deliberately choose to drive ourselves to vulnerability, we will not change our minds.

In the second place, false core beliefs can be absolutely crippling. False core beliefs keep us in bondage to chronic sins, and they stand as barriers between us and the joy God longs to give us. When we defend false core beliefs, we reforge our own shackles.

In the third place, unquestionably some of our core beliefs are wrong.

But the fourth reason is the most subtle. A significant number of our core beliefs are things that we don’t even know we believe. In fact, it’s common for our core beliefs to be buried so deeply that, if asked, “Do you believe thus-and-such?” we would in all honesty respond, “No, of course not.” The day will probably arrive when suddenly, for no apparent reason, we find ourselves in the middle of a core-belief-defense reaction. When that happens, it is crucial to recognize the reaction for what it is, so that we can examine ourselves to uncover the lurking core belief that triggered the reaction.[7]

The battle to love the Lord our God with all our mind, then, is a battle against ignorance, a battle against sin, a battle against our wounds and heartaches, and a battle against some of our deepest fears. It is not a war for the faint of heart – but neither is it a war we can afford not to fight.

Why Should I Believe That?

“Always be prepared,” advised Peter, “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[8] Here are some suggestions you might try:

“Because it makes me feel better; it’s a crutch.” This is always a convincing one. Makes folks want to run right out and sign up for your belief. Or how about, “Because I’ve been conditioned to by the prejudices of my culture.”

Trying to be serious, I would say that we put forth such explanations all the time – but always as explanations for our opponents’ (presumably false) beliefs, rather than for our own, with one exception that I’ll come to in a moment. Such an “answer” is not an answer at all. It is an attack.

You might hear the first one, for example, when some Jesse Ventura wannabe is pronouncing Christianity a crutch for Christians, primarily because it makes him feel better to think there’s nothing really valid in all those inconvenient moral demands that Christianity makes. As for the second, the reason that conservatives believe that homosexuality is a sin, is because they have been brainwashed into believing it by a hate-filled, patriarchal, homophobic society – at least according to some theologians on the far left. One never hears those same theologians, however, observe that their belief that women have a “right” to be priests is much more easily related to the agenda and buzzwords of the late twentieth century secular American left than to any specifically Christian documents or traditions.

You see, other people indulge in wishful thinking, but not us. Other people’s opinions (especially the ones that disagree with us) are often the result of their cultural myopia; but our opinions are always based on the application of our clearly superior intellect to clear and indisputable evidence.

Let’s be serious here. Obviously, if we really want to convince somebody that our belief is true, then we give as our reason some variant of the statement, “I believe it because the facts show that it’s true.” Even if we’re making a cynical appeal to self-interest or cultural chauvinism, we usually whitewash the appeal to make it appear to be an argument from the facts. In short, we use logical arguments – maybe they’re good arguments; maybe they’re bad arguments; but logical arguments they are, just the same.

In one area, and one area only, do we hear people freely and even proudly admitting that they have chosen their beliefs either because those beliefs make them feel better or else because they’ve been culturally conditioned to believe them. And that is in the area of religion. When I tell you that I have worked out a set of religious beliefs that “works for me,” what I usually mean is, “These beliefs make me feel comfortable and at peace.” When a Star Trek character defends a seemingly foolish decision on the grounds that she is “being true to her culture,” rather than with any appeal to reason or to moral philosophy, she is behaving like a true modern-day American.

I referred some time ago to the collegiate agnostic’s mantra that “there is no absolute truth in religion,” which never in history ever kept such an agnostic from, say, demonstrating angrily in support of divestment from South Africa (or whatever the cause du jour might be), as though it were actually true to say that racism is evil. It is important to understand what that cliché is really intended to establish. In ordinary matters we would ridicule any people who thought that they could reasonably ignore facts in order to cling to beliefs just because they made them feel better. In ordinary matters we would not (unless we are particularly extreme academic leftists) feel that saying, “This is how my culture has taught me to believe,” could provide justification for continuing in a stupid or evil belief, such as that female circumcision is a good thing. In ordinary matters we would agree that the facts should determine our beliefs.

But when we say, “There is no absolute truth in religion,” what often we are really saying is, “There aren’t any facts available to determine my beliefs and therefore there’s nothing wrong with my choosing my beliefs to suit my emotions or my culture.” Of course saying, “I believe this because it feels good,” or, “I believe this because I’m Jewish,” isn’t nearly as convincing as, “I believe this because it is substantiated by the facts.” But the person who denies that truth has any place in religion is not trying to convince anybody. He’s just trying to keep people from trying to convince him. His mind is comfortably made up. The last thing he wants is to have potentially inconvenient facts come sailing in and throwing all those core beliefs into question.

On American college campuses this fiat by which religious thought is excused from the intellectual responsibility expected in all other kinds of thought, is so firmly established as to be considered self-evident and closed to further discussion. If you challenge it, you are by definition “narrow-minded.” The condition can reach truly comic dimensions. At Princeton I had a Jewish friend who converted to Christianity solely because historical evidence convinced her of Christianity’s truth. Some time later the school paper did an article on people who had undergone religious conversions as undergraduates, and they profiled Amy. She explained quite clearly that she was proud of her Jewish heritage and intended to raise her children to be equally proud of their Jewish ancestors, and that she had converted to Christianity solely because the evidence led her to a belief in the Resurrection, and hence to the conclusion that Jesus was not merely Jewish, but the Messiah as well. The next issue held a sputtering, full-page attack written by the president of Princeton’s B’nai B’rith, expressing at great length his disgust that Amy had turned her back on her heritage, spit on her family and culture, et cetera, et cetera. At no point in his entire rant did he ever show the slightest comprehension that Amy had made her decision about whether to believe that Jesus was the Messiah based on fact and evidence rather than on her racial identity. Apparently, he simply could not conceive of religious belief chosen on the basis of fact rather than cultural allegiance.

And yet I’m sure that if you had tried to tell that young gentleman that southeastern Oklahoma Christian fundamentalists’ belief in seven-day creation should be respected because they were honoring the traditions of their redneck culture, he would have written you off as insane. For that isn’t religion, where your choice ought to be determined by cultural allegiance. It’s science, where your choice ought to be determined by fact.

I contend that the only reason to think that intellectual laziness is more acceptable in religious matters than in any other arena, is wish-fulfillment. At least, if you want to justify intellectual laziness in matters religious, you can’t do it by saying, “There’s no absolute truth in religion.” You have to show that there’s no absolute truth in religion – by showing that the facts support your contention. In short, you have to show that it’s true that there’s no absolute truth in religion, in the sense that you run no serious risks when you choose to believe whatever your emotions or family want you to believe, without concerning yourself about whether the facts support you. And that takes you, once again, back into logical arguments. In the end, if you aren’t willing to take the trouble to use good arguments and discard bad ones, no matter what the topic – even if the topic is religion – then you are resigning yourself to a lifetime of being a fool.

So how can we tell bad arguments from good? In brief, by understanding the basic structure of a sound logical argument.

Logical Arguments

Logical arguments have four parts: the conclusion, which is what we’re trying to prove; the terms, which are the words and phrases we use to communicate our meaning; the premises, which are the facts that we and our opponent agree are true to begin with; and the logic, which is the connection between the premises and the conclusion. When an argument goes bad, it does so either because the terms are unclear and misleading, or because the premises are false, or because the logic is invalid. If the terms are unambiguous and the premises are true and the logic is valid then the conclusion has to be admitted.

I could have constructed the rest of this book so that there was a separate part of the book devoted to each of these three elements; indeed, that was the original plan, and that’s how I constructed the first class I taught on the subject. But looking back on that class and the lessons I learned from it, I’ve decided to take a very different tack.

In Part II we do investigate the quality of our reasoning, i.e., our logic. However, there is very little of what one would traditionally find in Logic 101. The truth is that most logical arguments are actually patently stupid arguments. We only find them convincing because something within us wants to be convinced, which is why when two people are arguing, each one thinks the other’s arguments are stupid – and usually they’re both right. Therefore Part II does not bother to explain the parts of a syllogism or why an undistributed middle term is a bad thing or what the Latin phrase argumentum ad baculam means.[9] Instead the focus is on what causes us to “flick the Stupid Switch” and suddenly lose our ability to tell that a particular argument is silly. It closes with presenting first a short-term and then a long-term approach to getting the Stupid Switch off and keeping it off.

It’s not that I don’t think Logic 101 isn’t important; maybe someday I’ll write a book about that, too. And you could write a book about clarity in terminology, and certainly somebody should write a book about choosing your authorities wisely and handling the appeal to authority rationally (especially in the context of religious thought where people claim to be getting their ideas from some authoritative Holy Writ). But if you have to choose between knowing the names of the fallacies and knowing how the Stupid Switch works, I think you’re much better off concentrating on the Stupid Switch first. Of course you’re best off to understand all the different aspects of clear thought. But the Stupid Switch is where you ought to start.

The bulk of the book, then, is about the Stupid Switch and how to get it under control. And most of that material is about how to get our own Stupid Switches turned off and kept off. At the end of the book, however, we’ll turn our attention to the very ticklish question of what to do about our friends’ and loved ones’ Stupid Switches. When people we love have their Stupid Switches well and truly engaged, what can we do about it?

Thus Part III takes a little while to look at the ministry of persuasion, and on that note we’ll close the book.


[1] My memory may be doing Mr. Stanton a disservice in telling me that certain silly arguments against the Marcan hypothesis for the 7Q5 fragment, including the hilarious one having to do with the width of the letters, come from his book Gospel Truth. It’s been a while, and I got rid of a bunch of my more arcane theological texts in the last move. (When you are a family of ten, no one person gets to put very much stuff in the moving van.) If Mr. Stanton is not the man in question, then I humbly apologize, and I will be grateful to any reader who can straighten me out on this point.

[2] Here I’m using the medieval meanings of virtual and actual, wherein virtual means roughly “when it’s working as designed” and actual means “how it’s working now.” To steal Peter Kreeft’s untoppable illustration (from A Summa of the Summa), a duck swimming on a pond is virtually flying, actually swimming and potentially roasted. (A duck, you see, is a “flying animal” even when it happens to have taken a break for a dip in the pond.)

[3] Specifically, an example of the fallacy of bifurcation, for those who have studied logic.

[4] Sorry about that “fair sex” bit; couldn’t resist.

[5] I genuinely believe the quotation is close to being accurately word-for-word, though I won’t be able to confirm it until some generous and alert reader directs me to its source.

[6] See Galatians 5:22-23.

[7] For this reason, I have chosen to take my examples from real theological and political controversies, and from time to time I have chosen to use deliberately provocative language. Please understand that I am not trying to change your mind. This book is not about what you believe. It’s about why you’ve come to believe it. Feel free to be a Democrat, a Republican, a Communist, a pew-jumping Pentecostal, a bells-and-smells Catholic, a practicing lesbian, a deer-hunting redneck – for the purposes of this book I do not care. So when I take a shot at some belief you hold dear, and you feel yourself rising up in fury, stop and take an inventory of your emotional and physical systems, say to yourself, “So this is how I act when a core belief is threatened,” and then keep on reading. I have my beliefs, of course, and it’s not like they’re a secret; I’ll explain them at exhausting length to anyone foolish enough to inquire about them. But for this book they are irrelevant. You can’t even be sure I hold all the positions I defend; in order to push everyone’s button at least once, I’ve had to drag myself all over the intellectual map, including into some places I wouldn’t ordinarily go. And remember that even if I prove the reason you’ve had for believing something is a silly reason, it doesn’t mean your belief is false; it’s perfectly possible to believe something true for a silly reason.

[8] 1 Peter 3:15.

[9] But since I’ve mentioned it, I’ll not be so unkind as to not tell you now. Examples of the argumentum ad baculam (“appeal to the big stick”) would be, “If you don’t say I’m right then I’ll beat you up,” or, only slightly less subtly, “Well, if you’re so smart, maybe I should just let you pay for your own college education.”