Tag Archives: philosophy

Happy World Philosophy Day!

How is everyone celebrating World Philosophy Day? How about celebrating by pondering these four philosophical dilemmas, posed by the BBC?

  1. Should we kill healthy people to harvest their organs?
  2. Are you the same person who started reading this article?
  3. Is that really a computer screen in front of you?
  4. Did you really choose to read this article?

I’m off to plan a worship set, but when I’m done, I’ll drop some thinky thoughts in the comment section. Read the article, it’s cool.

Prayer, Suffering, and the Nature of God

So how’s your week? Oh yeah? Cool.

Mine included the two devastating, soul-crushing defeats of the Most Excellent Angels at the hands of the Boston Evil Sox of Boston. Which, of course, led me to contemplate the purpose of suffering, and prayer, and the nature of God. No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, why?

(WARNING: This post contains philosophy. Do not read while driving, or while operating heavy machinery. Some content may not be suitable for children or undergrads. The views of the author are not necessarily those of a rational person. Proceed with caution.)

Suffering poses a philosophical problem for those who believe God exists. If God is both omnipotent and loving, then why does suffering exist? Is he capable of alleviating suffering, but chooses not to, in which case how is he loving? Is he willing to alleviate suffering, but incapable, in which case how can we consider him omnipotent?

There is a classic solution to this problem. It argues that in God’s economy, it is the greatest good that counts, and therefore only as much suffering exists as is necessary to produce God’s best possible outcome, the most loving outcome for the most people. We’ll call those two concepts “necessary suffering” and “greatest good”. Like a doctor who causes pain in order to perform a life-saving surgery, some suffering is necessary in order to produce the greater good. A child may suffer with an abusive alcoholic father in order to produce a certain kind of character in that child, which will lead to great benefit for those influenced by the child when he grows up.

The greatest good requires the existence of free-will creatures, since so many of the great virtues (love, courage, integrity, justice, charity) are impossible apart from free-will. If we had been created as automatons, we would be incapable of any of those virtues.

There can be no world in which free-will exists, in which suffering does not also exist. God chose to decree a world with free-will, and allows only as much suffering as is absolutely required to produce the best possible outcome (either in overall human happiness, or flourishing, or if my undyed Evangelical roots are showing, numerical count of souls saved). So, God is constrained by these limitations, imposed by his own nature: the existence of free-willed creatures, the entailed existence of suffering, and the need to limit that suffering as much as is possible while producing the most loving outcome for the most people.

Each individual act of suffering can only be justified if it is necessary to produce the greatest good. If we hold that God is both loving and omnipotent, then we must hold that every actual instance of suffering is therefore “necessary suffering”.

We might rebut that some acts of suffering don’t seem connected to any redemptive good outcome, but we should acknowledge how limited our perspective on the matter is. We see a few things, for a few brief years, with limited understanding. God sees all things, and their eternal outcomes, with full understanding. On the basis of his character alone, we might yield him the benefit of the doubt and allow that all acts of suffering are necessary to produce some good that outweighs the bad.

Let’s lay out the classic resolution in nice tidy philosophy math!

  1. An omnipotent God can control all circumstances and outcomes for all given situations.
  2. A loving God would act to cause outcomes which produce the greatest possible good, and the least possible suffering.
  3. In a world where a loving and omnipotent God exists, every individual instance of suffering occurs only because it is necessary for producing, in the final balance, the greatest possible good.

If we accept this solution, the dilemma seems to resolve. I don’t think it does, though. I think it just shifts to the problem of prayer.

Does prayer influence God’s actions?

The knee-jerk response is “Yes, of course!” We are commanded to pray, and examples are held up to us of how to pray, those examples include petitions for actions general and specific, we are told that God moves in response to prayers, Jesus even gives us a handy parable that shows how important persistence is in having our prayers answered.

Let’s take a specific case of human suffering, a child with a painful and terminal cancer. Suppose that child is surrounded by loving people of faith, who pray fervently and earnestly for the child to be healed. I realize that in a reading audience of this size, there are undoubtedly people who have faced just such a case as this, and please, I mean no disrespect or insensitivity. I apologize for treating a freighted emotional circumstance as a math problem. Allow me though, if you will, to pose this case in a detached way in order to explore this dilemma.

There are 3 possible outcomes in this situation.

  1. God did not intend to heal the child, does not alter his intent based on the prayers, and the child dies.
  2. God did intend to heal the child, and intended so prior to any prayer, and actually does heal the child.
  3. God did not intend to heal the child, the prayers altered his intent, and so he heals the child.

The first two cases fit neatly into our previous perspective on necessary suffering. If the child does die, their suffering was necessary to bring about some greater ultimate good, even though we cannot possibly understand how or why. If the child is healed, then God was able to bring about the greater good without that particular instance of suffering.

It’s the third case that causes me to have mental hiccups. There are two states to God’s intent in the third case. Let’s call them (A) intends not to heal, which is the state prior to prayer, and (B) intends to heal, which is the state after prayer. In the classical resolution of the problem of suffering, only one of those two outcomes leads to the greatest possible good. If (A) leads to the greatest good, then (B) cannot. If, on the other hand, (B) leads to the greatest good, then (A) cannot.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we allow that (B) does, in fact, lead to the greatest possible good, on the basis that it is the course God actually chooses to take, then we must also say that, prior to (B), in the case of (A), God intended to follow a course of action that included unnecessary suffering. We must choose between two equally distasteful horns:

The Unloving God

  1. A perfectly loving and omnipotent God only allows suffering that is necessary to produce the greatest good.
  2. If prayer alters God’s intentions, then there are some cases in which God’s intention prior to prayer includes greater immediate suffering, and intention after prayer includes less immediate suffering.
  3. Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
  4. God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.
  5. A God who intends unnecessary suffering cannot be perfectly loving.

The Unhearing God

The alternative to the unloving God is to accept an unhearing God; we may strike point 2 from the argument above, and say that prayer does not alter God’s intent. Whatever he does, he always intended to do, and the earnest and persistent pleas of people of faith do not, in any way, alter God’s intentions.

I know there are some very smart, and very philosophically oriented people who hang out here, so if anyone can help me pick this lock, I would very much appreciate it. I don’t have a solution here, just the question. It seem like, in the end, we have three impossible choices: a God who is unloving, a God who is unhearing, or a God who is unable.

On Beowulf and Yoga

After last Friday’s discussion of MoCap, The Uncanny Valley, and 3D filmmaking, I thought it was worth a follow up to discuss my impressions of “Beowulf,” as I saw it in 3D later that very day.

Oh, and I’m going to talk about Yoga, too.

First, Beowulf. Beowulf will go down in history as a film unlike most, in that I loved it and despised it at the same time. I want to go see it again, and I never, ever want to see it again. It’s been a long while since I’ve been so totally transfixed, awed, and downright stupified by the immersion experience of a film… oh, and also hated it.

The look of this movie is done a total injustice by it’s previews, which struck me as only moderately interesting. Visually, the only word that describes Beowulf is “Stunning.” I was wishing they would rewind the opening animated logos for the production companies before the thing even started.

The opening scene is a celebration in the mead hall of King Hroogar, played by Anthony Hopkins. I found myself dashing around the screen, trying to take it all in. The depth of field created by the 3D presentation means that a virtual “prop” like a goblet can be seen in utmost clarity as it reflects the light of a virtual fire roasting a virtual pig.

To get right to one of the questions we posed last Friday, which is, “Do the MoCap characters look better then they did in The Polar Express or Final Fantasy,” and the answer for me is yes and no. For some reason, elderly characters looked “right” to me. Perhaps its the flaws in the skin that make it so.

Anthony Hopkins’ capture is one of the marvels of the film, for my money, leading me to ask the question that Jeremy can perhaps answer, which is, how much, in the brave new world of MoCap, does a great actor influence the final, rendered and realized portrayal? Is Anthony Hopkins just that much more skilled then Ray Winstone, or Robin Wright Penn, that his facial muscles just give more interesting information to the computer?

So, have I painted a picture for you? Remember the first time you saw, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Jurassic Park, or more recently The Return of the King, and you just thought to yourself, “I’ve witnessed something wholly new and groudbreaking?” It’s like that.

So why’d I hate it? Well… first of all, Beowulf is one of the most relentlessly violent, downbeat, depressing films I’ve seen a a long while. The PG-13 rating is totally disingenuous. If this film had been live action, it would have been rated a hard R for violence. Limbs ripped, eyes gouged, chests opened, organs cut out, all in the aforementioned crystalline clarity of digitally projected 3D.

But oh no… it’s not just the gore. It’s just… sad. George McFly’s Grendel is awful to behold, in every way. The cast-off bastard son of a demon witch and a drunkard king, murderer and eventual victim of mutilation and violence. Grendel’s Mother is momentarily sympathetic in her grief over her freshly dead spawn, until that is she gets a whiff of Beowulf’s man-scent or some such thing and then I guess she’s cool… or something. We’re subjected to Beowulf himself, in all his masculine emo discontent.

Bleh!

This film is made for teenage boys, and lowbrow teenage boys at that. Calling it an animated film for adults is a mistake, as butt, dick, boob, and even midget jokes are present in spades. Hey look! Beowulf is naked, and a sword is perfectly placed to cover his junk! Get it? Here it is again!!! GET IT?!?!?!?!? DO YOU EFFING GET IT?!?!!?

Yes. I get it.

Our “Hero” is a one dimensional warrior in a three dimensional world. He’s all balls and no brain, and he pays the price. I cared not what happened to him. In fact, the only character I actually cared about was his sidekick, Wiglaf, played by the wonderful Brendon Gleeson. However, the film is such that, quite literally in the final frame, we are robbed of something resembling a completed story arc for his character.

Even the 3D effects danced on the edge of immaturity.  For every shot that could be described as lyrical, there was a shot that screamed, “Hey!  Look at me!  I’m in 3D!”  Hey, filmmakers!  No more spears in the face, right?

Then there are these two really strange bits of dialog dealing with the spread of Christianity through Europe that left me sort of scratching my head. Odd Line #1 – John Malkovich’s character to Anthony Hopkins early in the film, referring to the priests praying to Odin in the wake of Grendel’s attack:

“Shall we also pray to the new God of the Rome, The Christ?” Interesting, I thought.

Fast forward to the 2nd act of the story, set 20 years later, and outta nowhere comes Odd Line #2 – Beowulf to Brenden Gleeson’s character as a band of marauders attempt to invade Beowulf’s kingdom, something like:

“No heros left in the world, the Christ God has killed them all.”

Huh? What? Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry? Aside: if anyone outside of my immediate family gets that obscure dialog reference, you get a gold star.

Beowulf will not be a runaway hit, because Robert Zemeckis is a boy, and he had new toys, and boys with new toys (even boys who are brilliant filmmakers) do not always the wisest decisions make.

*************************

For some reason, this exercise in masculine excess crossed paths with another train of thought in my head, which is that of Yoga, and they both happened to fall on the same weekend.

I’ve been stagnant in my weight loss for weeks. It’s been terribly frustrating. I up my running. No change. My knees ache and pop. No change. 7 miles. Yes, for those of you who knew me as a cheeseburger snarfing lard-ass, 7 miles. No change.

ARGH!

In desperation, Friday morning I followed Erica to the Yoga class at our local gym. I had tried Yoga before in a class setting a few months ago, and I made it about 10 minutes before I bailed. Feeling like a clumsy pig on ice is not my idea of weight-loss recreation. This time, I was desperate. I knew that I simply was not going to finish losing this weight the same way I started, and I was determined to see it through. I stuffed the mental protests from my conservative evangelical upbringing, took off my shoes, aligned my chakras, and went for it.

I loved it. By the end of the hour, I could feel every muscle in my body. The next morning, I REALLY felt every muscle in my body. They felt elongated. I felt as if I had been tested, and passed, albeit with a fair amount of sweating and near-falling. For anyone who thinks that Yoga is for hippies and soccer moms, I’d like to challenge you hold a Warrior 2 pose (considered basic, FYI) for 30 seconds and see how macho you feel.

Yesterday, Monday, I went again, by myself. This time, I wore longer shorts and a looser shirt so that I wouldn’t worry about revealing my junk to the instructor. (I didn’t have a conveniently placed CG sword handy, you see.) I came earlier, so that I could stretch my muscles instead of leaping right in like I had before.

I sat on my little mat for 5 minutes listening to the ludicrous plinky-plunky music and relaxed and prayed. It was the first time in awhile that I had taken 5 minutes to just pray when I wasn’t in immediate need of something, I’m ashamed to say. I think I had forgotten how powerful Jesus is, because He came to meet me in the group classroom at 24 Hour Fitness in Thousand Oaks. He’s cool like that.

Somewhere in between my prayer and the beginning of the class, two young college-aged Beowulfs walked in the room, swords a-clanging, if you know what I mean. They had clearly come upstairs after spending some time lifting weights and ravishing maidens. Their gym shoes squeaked in the erstwhile quiet, and their “Whispers” were audible to all. One of them was clearly dragging the other, who was mocking the whole endeavor. “It’s not as easy as you think…” was the last thing I heard before the instructor started talking to us about finding our center and becoming one with the earth.

“This is going to be awesome,” I thought to myself.

Sure enough, even as I experienced a phenomenal growth from one session to the next in terms of balance and flexibility, our young Beowulfs grunted, strained, squeaked, and cursed their way through the session. I think the rest of us were blessed with a delightful mixture of pity and smugness. No one grew discernibly agitated at them for their disruption, even though the instructor had to spend a majority of her time correcting their poses so they didn’t tear a hamstring. I think they were actually trying, which is always an endearing quality.

They made me feel like I was Madonna. I was centered over the earth. I was balanced in my space., or some crap like that.

Yoga is teaching me something, but I don’t know what. I don’t care that the teacher is a new age, post-modern, post-Oprah, fortune-cookie philosopher. I don’t care. Her spine is straight and she has an appropriate amount of body fat. She can touch her toes.

My spine is still bent at the top from all those years of carrying around a hundred extra pounds. I can see my toes now, but I can’t touch them. My right shoulder is slightly higher than my left. I’m a mess.

I’m reversing two decades of poor physical decisions, and I don’t care that a Hindu meditation art is going to play a part in that process. Jesus is cool like that. When she says find your “self,” I think, “Find who God made you to be.” When she does the relaxation thing at the end and gives a quasi-space-age-sermonette about not letting your family negatively impact your energy over the holiday season, I think, “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” and, “Husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies.” When she starts talking about modified plank pose, I think to myself, “Oh, the burning!”

You get the idea.

Dear readers, I don’t really have a way to link these experiences together for you in anything resembling a coherent thought, but they’re all connected in some sort of ironic, existential, spiritual cluster – eff.

Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

This is another in the series of ethical questions I’m having my class work through. I had just finished writing this up when i heard on NPR that Altria is shutting down it’s philanthropic work over the next two years. Good timing! Bonus points on this one if you can tell me what book I was reading when I came up with the names.

Gordon Struan is on the board of directors for Green Valley Orchestra (GVO), a professional regional orchestra known for its innovative programming and willingness to perform new works by modern composers. Struan’s role is to maintain and develop financial donors.

GVO, like many such ensembles, is having a difficult time meeting its financial obligations. Although their concerts are well-attended, the income from concert ticket sales alone is not enough to pay the salaries of the orchestra members. Without significant donations from outside foundations and wealthy patrons, the orchestra simply could not continue to perform.

Struan is faced with a dilemma. His three largest donors all lost large sums of money in the collapse of the real estate market, and have informed him that they are no longer able to donate to the orchestra. Struan must raise $6 million, or the orchestra will have to cancel their season and declare bankruptcy. Two potential donors have indicated that they might be willing to step in and give the needed money, but both come with strings attached.

smoking kidsThe first potential donor is a company named Altria. Altria has long been known in the arts community for their philanthropic activity; they support many regional performing ensembles, and seem especially interested in supporting innovative groups, like GVO, who perform new works. Altria is also the parent company of Phillip-Morris, a cigarette manufacturer that aggressively markets its Marlboro brand to children in 3rd-world countries. Altria’s support of the arts seems like a carefully calculated PR strategy to improve the public image of their company.

smokin grannyThe second potential donor is Victoria Wagner, a well-known and very wealthy member of the local community. Wagner has never shown an interest in supporting the arts before, so Struan is understandably curious when she contacts him with the offer. In the ensuing conversations, however, if becomes clear why Ms. Wagner has had a sudden change of heart. It turns out that her beloved nephew is a struggling composer, and has had difficulty getting his works performed by professional ensembles. Ms. Wagner makes it quite clear to Mr. Struan that if she writes a $6 million check, she expects the Green Valley Orchestra to debut his latest composition.

So, Struan is left with three options. He can accept the money from a cigarette giant hoping to buy some public good-will, he can accept the money from the doting rich aunt looking to launch her nephew’s career, or he can refuse both and close the doors of the Green Valley Orchestra.

Your job isn’t to solve this problem for Mr. Struan. In fact, I don’t even want you to tell me what you would do. Instead, I’d like you to think about the moral values that are in conflict in this dilemma. We will answer the following questions in class:

  1. If GVO takes the money from Altria, is it an implied statement of support for the company’s business practices?
  2. If a utilitarian were to evaluate the Altria donation, what consequences would they have to consider?
  3. Struan is having a hard time evaluating the Wagner donation. He has a sense that some moral principle is being violated by her request, but he isn’t sure exactly what it is. What do you think is wrong with her request? What kind of moral principle does it violate?
  4. Does it matter if the composition by Victoria Wagner’s nephew is well-written or not? Would it matter if he were already a well-established composer?
  5. Struan is a devout Lutheran, and believes that God’s commands are the final source of moral authority. Is there a biblical command that could help Struan navigate either decision?
  6. Kant said that we should act in ways that we would wish to see made universal rules. If Struan refuses to take money from morally tainted sources, is that an act that we would want to see universally applied? What would the consequences be if we applied that principle universally?

Previous in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

Fellow Travellers In The Valley of The Shadow

He who goes by Bill Metanoya emailed me the other day and told me that he was going to hold his breath until I blogged again, that he needed a fix.  I can only hope that he was bluffing.  If not, my most sincere apologies to Becky and Larissa. 

Here’s my blog.  Take a deep breath, Bill, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes obeying God feels like utter and complete shit, and the thing that pisses me off about most Christians is that they won’t admit it. 

God told me two years ago to do something, and I did it.  I completed the task.  I finished the race.  I fought a good fight.  I can say, without hesitation, that I obeyed Him. 

In the end, at least thus far, it hasn’t gone “My” way, or at least in the direction that I thought it should.  The end result has seemed like it in no way justifies the sweat, blood, and tears that I invested.  I felt like I was at the end of a big fat cosmic, “Eff You!  See ya sucka!”

Most Christians don’t like to hear things like that.  It makes them all twitchy.  The platitudes start flying fast and furious. 

The other night, some friends were over, and we were talking about this chapter in our lives, and this couple named Dan and Jaime listened intently to my story.  They nodded their heads and said things like, ”Yeah… we’ve felt like that before.”   

I told them how I felt like I had been stabbed in the back by The Almighty, and Jaime said something that finally meant something to me. 

It was along the lines of, “Well… you obeyed God and it didn’t feel good.  So what?  Congrats!  You’re now like every prophet in the Scripture.  You’re in good company.  The question is not whether or not it feels good, the question is whether or not you were obedient.”

It put my soul at something resembling peace for the first time in three months. 

Sometimes obeying God feels like shit, and I’m ok with that.  If, in the future, God brings someone into my path who says this to me, I will speak peace and truth and empathy into their lives like Jaime spoke into mine. 

You may now exhale.

Ayana and the Sacred Song

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

This is another in the series of posts I asked my Music and Ethics students to consider and comment on. Thought I’d toss it out to the wolves here as well:

Ayana and the Sacred Song
Ayana grew up the daughter of an international trade lawyer, and is an accomplished singer. Ayana moved around the world with her parents when she was young, and along the way learned several songs that were indigenous to the cultures she was living in. One particular song she remembered from a year spent in Australia, called YALKERI MURA MURA.

As her professional career advanced, Ayana often sang solo concerts, and used an arrangement of YALKERI MURA MURA as her encore. The melody was haunting and beautiful; people frequently approached her afterward and commented on how moving that particular song had been.

After one concert, Ayana is approached by a young Aboriginal Australian man, who confronts Ayana over her use of the song YALKERI MURA MURA. The young man informs Ayana that the song is a “naming song”, used by an artist when he creates a churinga, a sacred stone painting. The soul of the artist is imparted to the painting, and both the churinga and the song are considered sacred. The song is only to be sung while creating the churinga, and afterward only when handling it.

The young man tells Ayana that it would be considered highly offensive, even sacrilegious, among Aboriginal Australians to hear the song used to entertain listeners in a concert, instead of its intended ceremonial use. He asks Ayana to stop using YALKERI MURA MURA in her concerts.

What should Ayana do? Does the original cultural setting of the song have any moral weight in how she ought to use it?

Previous in series: Why Be Virtuous?

Next in series: Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

Why Be Virtuous?

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

As part of the Music and Ethics class, I post something on the course blog each week for the students to read, consider, and then comment on. This is the first of the blog assignments, and I thought it would be interesting to post it here as well, for you folks to interact with:

Blog Assignment #1: Why Be Virtuous?
In class today, I gave you Plato’s view on the interaction between virtue and the human soul, and how a life lived excellently must mean a life lived with virtue. Plato’s is not the only view on the matter, of course. There are other views, by other smart people, on the meaning and purpose of virtue.

Let’s start off the blog assignments by reacting to a few of those perspectives. Here are four statements on reasons to be virtuous. They aren’t quotes, they are my own paraphrases of the views held by different philosophers:

  1. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of the nature of the human soul – we were created to be virtuous, and we do damage to our own nature, our own souls, if we deceive others and act with cruelty.” (Plato)
  2. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of God’s decree – He commands us to do certain things and not to do certain other things, and out of either love or fear, we ought to obey his commands.” (William of Ockham)
  3. “The best reason to be virtuous is the force of social pressure – if you are dishonest and cruel to others, society will shun you, and your capacity to enjoy life will be diminished.” (Ayn Rand)
  4. “The best reason to be virtuous is for the cause of greater social good – society as a whole is better off when people are honest and compassionate toward one another.” (Peter Singer)

There are certainly more options than the ones I’ve presented (include the option to say we shouldn’t be virtuous!), but let’s start with these. Which of the four statements above seems the most true to you? This isn’t a survey, don’t just jot down your answer; give us a little insight into why you think your option is the best choice.

Next in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

A Virtuous Musician

Today was the first meeting of the brand new class, Music and Ethics. The whole class is built around the question, “What does it mean to be a virtuous musician?”

It was pretty electric – the students were excited about the course, and I was nervous (I still get nervous before every single class session I teach). I did something today that I’ve never done before. The students are all seniors, and I want to treat them like adults, so I let them decide their own class policies. They took the high road – two excused absences and their grade drops a letter, late work loses a grade a week, no excuses for missed reading and lack of participation in class discussion.

I had most of these same students as freshmen, in my Intro to Music Tech course. To see how much they’ve grown up in 4 years is encouraging. To watch them handle their business, and the maturity with which they embrace the challenges of the class, makes me want to do this every day for the next 20 years.

I’ll post some of the content from the course here at the Road House for your perusal, and you can follow along as I mold my own personal army of Virtuous Musicians.

Seasonal Affective Reordering

I love these kids.

These bright eyed recruits, fresh to the craft, newly minted and unpolished, these old and young all-at-once, these boundless excesses of energy, not yet stunted by perspective.

They are as unafraid of questions as any group I’ve ever seen, setting their frame-of-reference up against everything new and ready to see it changed and stretched and grown. They are wolves, and every new thing is their prey. Knowledge, experience, fear, wonder, they hunt it down with precision and abandon.

I sit down to eat with one of them, and hear confession. They are uncertain, and afraid, but they are undaunted. They are ill-at-ease with their received faith, with simplicity and steps and a church reduced to social gatherings, and are looking for some way of meshing old truths with the complexity of the world as they are coming into it. This is the very meaning of courage, to me, to lay aside old comforts in order to take up greater things.

UCO rehearsal campIn these days before the start of classes, there is the luxury of unhurried time, and a kind of egalitarianism. I am not yet their Professor, they are not yet at the mercy of my gradebook, and we can talk freely. We can be friends, for a few days more, and we can talk about ideas and their consequences. I think sometimes that I get to do my best teaching in these last few days of summer, when the campus is full of eager students, and my time is unbounded by lectures and grading.

I love this place, and these kids, and my place here with them.

Thinky Thoughts with Aly: Inequality vs. Inequity

It’s not my plan to make all Thinky Thoughts with Aly a Something vs. Something Caged Death Match, but thinky thoughts have a mind of their own (ha) and that’s just how they thunk this week. Actually, now that I think about it (double ha), pitting related concepts against each other to duke it to the death is one of the the ways we sort shit out. Maybe it’s part of the system Michael mentioned: “We take in data, organize it into a structure that makes sense of it, then use that structure to gather more data.” Maybe Conceptual UFC (RESPECT) is a good idea after all.

We’ll see. Onward…

This week I began editing Tony Campolo’s new book, Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith & Politics. (I’m excited and alternately petrified. This is My First Big Book.) I’m not very far into it yet, but it’s already got me thinking. [Side note: In days of yore, I used to think and write about politics a lot. This was until I came to the painful realization that obsessing about civics was a substitute for working out my issues, and I had to put on the kibosh to avoid the looneybin. Now that I'm fractionally less crazy, I'm allowing myself to put politics back on the cooktop, albeit on the back burner. Hey, they're important, but they're not Life.]

So I’ve been musing on the difference between inequality and inequity. In the U.S., “inequality” gets a lot of airtime, I suspect because we’ve got the holding of these truths to be self-evident thing going on as the bedrock of our democracy. (That would be “all men are created equal,” for any of you just tuning in.) But I’m not sure what ol’ Benji Franklin was thinking…it’s pretty clear to me that all people are not created equal. You’ve got tall people and short people, female people and male people (and sometimes in-between people), athletic people and clumsy people, smart people and dumb-as-a-stick people, musical people and hey-I-can’t-lift-this-tune-bucket people. If God created all men equal, She must be using a different dictionary.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure ol’ Benji wasn’t thinking that all people are actually created equal — he was just trying to find a poetic way of saying “Georgie, you’ve got about as much divine right to rule me as I have to fart on your face.” But we seem to forget the circumstances under which The Equality Clause came into being, and have a very bad habit of taking the words at face value, sometimes almost believing that we’re all the same with the lights off. But we’re not. And we’d do well to remember it.

Because aiming social reform at erasing our God-given inequality is about as smart (and effective) as using a paintball gun to screw in a lightbulb. It don’t make no sense.

I hate that “inequality” is so much more of an emotionally loaded word. I think that must be why we keep using it in place of “inequity,” which feels dry and math-ish in comparison. Dry or not, however, inequity is the real Nasty, the bugger we ought to strap on big boots to stomp out.

But it’s hard, and hard is difficult. Inequity is much less abstract than inequality, and that makes it uncomfortable. The numbers don’t lie. (CEOs getting paid 400% of the average worker’s annual salary, anyone?) It’s so much nicer to toss around Big Ideas like “All men are created equal” and golf clap until our hands bleed than it is to sit down with our slide rule and abacus and do the work.

Thinky Thoughts with Aly: What vs. Why

I haven’t been in a writing frame of mind lately, which is a bit unfortunate for one who aspires to make a living doing so at some point in the near future. Editing and writing, I have discovered, use different parts of the brain — or, at least, they use different parts of my brain — and I’ve found that switching between the two is like changing political parties: There’s a lot of paperwork and justification involved. I spend at least eight hours of my day in Editing Brain, and it’s hard to steel myself to fill out the triplicate forms and get my story straight (literally) to put on Writing Brain when I get home.

And also, hanging with my husband while knocking back a bottle of vino is a big distraction. Have I mentioned that he’s my favorite human and that kicking it with him tops just about everything? No? Well, consider that oversight remedied here.

Anyway, it’s been brought to my attention (mostly by said huz) that thinking thinky thoughts and writing about them is part of what keeps me sane, and hey! since we’re all for that, I’m going to try cutting through the mental red tape to put on Writing Brain once a week or so for — tada!: Thinky Thoughts with Aly.

[This is where I insert a disclaimer about my qualifications for thinking and writing about thinky thoughts compared to other authors' credentials, and ask for your patience with my rather elementary approach and tone. Disclaimer ends here.]

For today’s installment, dear reader, I’d like to write about What versus Why. I was actually inspired to think thinky thoughts about What and Why by a book proposal I reviewed this week as part of my editorial duties. (All the editors get together once a week to rip on the ideas of others, which we weren’t man or woman enough to come up with on our own. I love my job!) In the proposal, which was so excellent that I hope we don’t publish it, the author suggests that in this dear old Information Age — borne out of the Age of Reason and accelerated by yummy technology — we try to substitute information (What) for meaning (Why).

Why would we do such a nitwit thing? you ask. (I did, too…and this is where the thinky thoughts come in.) I think we do it because What is easy and Why is hard; because we secretly hope that if we can wrap our brains around all the What in the universe about a Thing, the Why of the Thing will become suddenly obvious and we can dispense with a little thingamajigger called faith (which is the only thing that makes sense of Why).

Here’s a poorly kept secret: I’m a trivia whore. I love to know shit from shinola, and I love even more to tell you the difference. Why? Because information is power. (And who doesn’t love that, can I get an Amen? ) Why does information equal power? Because we’ve predicated our entire society on the faulty premise that the What can save us. Think about the War on Terror. Or consider that the NY Times bestselling “religious” book of the year is based on the idea that we think reality into existence — that the What is the Why. Our sneaky negative thoughts (What) are the reason (Why) we’re in such a fix! (Damn. I wish we’d known this before, say…the effing Holocaust.)

I think you see where I’m headed. Our addiction to What is killing us.

I’m definitely not saying that What isn’t important — I think I may have mentioned that I like information as much as the next gal (and perhaps slightly more). My point is that only Why can make sense of What…not the other way around. To be didactic about it: We can use our What well only when we have a good Why.

Thus concludes the first installment of Thinky Thoughts with Aly.

Reflections on The Eternal City

If you are drinking water from the fountain in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, you should climb to the top of the Spanish steps, turn left, stop at the hilltop cafe to buy a lemon gellato, then walk another 500 steps up the bricked tree-lined walkway. All at once, the trees part, and you will find yourself standing on the garden terrace of the Medici Princes. It is the balcony of Rome, and from where you are standing, you can see everything.

To your right is the Vatican, the towering dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cathedral that birthed the Protestant Reformation. On the far side to your left, you can see the ruins of Imperial Rome, the city of the Caesars, just peeking out between and above the apartments and buildings. The arch and block architecture of Rome’s 1st empire on the left, and the dome and spire architecture of Rome’s 2nd empire on the right, and the whole city between is echo and cadence on those two themes.

The city is flowing with water. Every fountain in the city is fed directly from the Roman aqueduct, restored and doubled in capacity some 300 years ago. Is is fresh, clean drinking water, cool even on hot days, and the pride of the city. Romans will smile, and point to it, and say “Drink, drink! Is good!” Place your hand on the marble thigh carved by Bernini, stick your head into the stream of water, and drink!

Drinking from the Fountain

Rome invites you inside her history. I expected ropes and barricades, a history to be viewed and appreciated, but never touched, not stepped on, or leaned up against, or drenched under. Instead, I placed my hand on wall etched with an ichthus 1700 years ago, deep in the catacomb tunnels. When I was tired, I sat down on the marble foot of a column set in place by Raphael when he was the lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. I sat on a wooden bench in the Sistine chapel where Michelangelo paused to eat his lunch, those few days he did pause, while painting The Final Judgement on the front wall of the chapel.

Every ancient thing in the city is in the city, in the midst of a teeming and vital urban center, with people living their lives, just as people have lived their lives since the tribes of the Three Hills first met together to trade in the sunken valley that would later become the Forum. Rome is not a museum. Her bones are wrapped in flesh.

The Pantheon

Every ancient thing is a monument, a starting point and a prop in the telling of some great story, some story that moved the rudder of history, that set in motion some important thing still echoing today. This church, designed by this artist who was smuggled out of the French court by this pope, which caused this war between Spain and France, which is why this region is part of France to this day. This platform, from which Marc Antony delivered his impassioned eulogy of Julius Ceasar, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear,” which drove Brutus and Crassus from the city, opening a power vacuum in Rome that would be filled by Ceasar’s adopted son Octavian, whose ascent to the imperial throne sealed the fate of Rome as an empire ruled by tyrants, and no longer a republic. This dank and fetid hole, where Peter and Paul were chained to the wall for 19 months before being martyred for their faith. This archway, built in honor of Vespasian upon his return from Israel after destroying the temple in AD 70, the act that would cement his political power bloc and cloak him in purple, the act that would crush the national identity and religious center of Judaism for 1900 years. This chapel, where Michelangelo, the 33-year-old sculptor, who had never painted anything before, painted frescoes with such ferocity and realism that art changed around him.

Rome is the story of the church. She was incubated and born in Jerusalem, but she grew to maturity in Rome. Rome gave us engineering, architecture, and city planning. Rome gave us banking, and modern economic systems, and taught us how to build infrastructure. Rome is the story of the Renaissance, bankrolled in its prodigious infancy with papal commissions. Rome is a thousand stories, a hundred beginnings, all told with props and monuments that you can walk between, lay hand on, lead against, and on a hot day in July, splash your head beneath and drink deeply from.

Drink. Is good.

italy slideshow

(click to see a slideshow of pictures from the whole tour.)

the nightlies

You should go to sleep

I know.

Why don’t you go to sleep? You need to be up early in the morning.

I know, I’m trying.

If you don’t fall asleep soon, you’re going to be too tired to play well at your gig tomorrow.

Then why don’t you shut up so I can go to sleep?

I’m just saying, better hurry up and sleep. Like right now!

I can’t sleep until you stop talking.

[5 minutes]

Hey.

What.

Remember when you were 19, and you said that really smart-ass thing to your professor in front of some friends? You were too immature at the time to be embarrassed, but now you’re old enough to know better. Maybe now would be a good time to feel embarrassed about it.

WHY WOULD YOU BRING THAT UP! I was almost asleep!

I bet he’s still thinking about it.

He is not.

What if you run into him at a conference someday … what will you say?

I have no idea.

Well, why don’t you take some time right now to plan it out.

I just want to go to sleep.

“Sir, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m the kid who …” I bet you don’t even get that far before he punches you in the face.

It won’t ever happen.

But what if it does? You should spent some time being worried about that.

[10 minutes]

You know, you really embarrassed yourself at that gig today.

Hey, that’s not fair. I’m still worried about the imaginary conversation with my former professor … you can’t add a second thing on top of that.

I’m just saying …

Don’t just say!

You will probably never get called by those guys again. You didn’t impress them much. Didn’t you used to be able to read music? What happened?

I haven’t been practicing like I should be. I haven’t been practicing at all, really.

I know, it showed.

Shut. Up.

The bass player from tonight is pretty well connected in town. I wonder if he’s talked to anybody else about how badly you played.

It’s only been 2 hours since the gig!

2 hours is enough time to send 120 text messages.

Thank you, Mr. Math.

I wonder if you’ll ever get called for another gig.

What?

Well, why would they call you? You sure sucked it up tonight! There are hundreds, thousands of keyboardists in town who can do what you do, and they’re all better than you, and they practice more, and they’re younger, much younger, and they can work for cheaper than you can.

Thanks.

I’m just saying. Maybe tonight was your last professional gig ever.

I just want to sleep, man. Can you let me go to sleep.

Ok, sure. Sorry. Better hurry. Morning is coming soon, and the minutes are just ticking by. Even if you fall asleep right now, you’ll only get 5 hours of sleep.

AAARRRRGGGH!

[10 minutes]

OK, I have a question for you, jack-hole. How is it that you’re inside my brain, but I have no control over you.

I dunno.

I mean, shouldn’t I be able to shut you off?

Probably.

Why do you get to keep taking over my brain and forcing me to think of things that I don’t want to think about when I’m trying to go to sleep?

I have no idea.

It makes you wonder how much of rational thought is the product of free-will, and how much of it is us constructing a justification framework around impulses that are much less reasonable than we imagine. Maybe intelligence is just a justification scheme for decisions already made for us by lower level impulses.

Could be.

So, does that mean that rational justification for actions is a personal myth, nothing more? The very thing that gives meaning to our narrative is a sham!

Sounds likely.

So life, and rational thought more specifically, is just a continual state of Apophenia, functioning after the fact of the action or thought, instead of prior to it. It’s us trying to find patterns and meaning in assembled sets of decisions and actions, rather than us directing those actions.

Wasn’t there a study a while back that suggested this very thing? It showed the chemical reactions of certain brain processes relating to choices starting prior to any brain wave activity that would indicate that same choice being cognitive?

Yeah, I think so.

You think so?

Yeah, I think I read that, but I don’t really remember.

Well, don’t you think you should go look it up?

Yeah, probably, I think it was on … HEY, I’m trying to SLEEP! QUIT IT!

I didn’t start this one.

Crap.

[20 minutes]

Only 4 weeks until classes start. Have you finished planning out your lectures yet?

No.

This is the year.

The year?

The year that everyone finds out you’re a fraud.

I’m not a fraud.

Of course you are. You’re not qualified to teach any of those subjects.

My peers seem to think I am.

That’s because you’ve fooled them. But it can’t last forever. This is the year they discover that you’re just a fumbling, non-practicing, barely coherent, lazy fool. Goodbye, Academia. Goodbye cushy job, goodbye office, goodbye medical benefits, goodbye professional reputation.

I’m not going to get fired.

No, probably not. Worse, they’ll keep you around, but they’ll only let you teach Music Fundamentals. You’ll have to wander the halls of that place for another 30 years, never able to look anyone in the eye, because they know what you really are.

That’s a horrible thing to say.

Sorry.

You’re not sorry.

Of course not. I’m you, and you’re never sorry for anything you’ve ever done.

That’s not true!

Think about it. Think about all the awful things you’ve done that you’re not sorry about.

I don’t want to! I want to sleep!

So do I, but I can’t until you’ve thought about every embarrassing moment, every stupid thing, every failure, every wasted opportunity you’ve ever had, until you’ve thought about every obligation you can’t fulfill, every person you’ll let down, every responsibility you have to organize over the next 4 weeks, until you’ve processed every possible rabbit trail of thought in your silly little fraudulent head.

I will kill you.

Ha! How?

Scotch.

Yeah, that might work. How many more nights of this, you think, before you become an alcoholic?

SHUT. UP!

public anger

I’m sitting at an internet cafe, doing my e-chores. There is a married couple next to me having a very not-quiet fight. Something about some bills that didn’t get paid, and who dropped the ball, who is hiding mail from who, who is a control freak, who flirts more with coworkers at the Christmas party, whose still lives his life based on his mother’s approval … you get the picture.

All of the unhealthy relationship issues aside, I’m sitting here thinking about how rude public displays of anger like this are. Everyone else around is eavesdropping (no other option – they’re really loud) and everyone is uncomfortable.

I think I’m going to say something.

I mean, obviously not to them, because I hate confrontation, but to you all here on my super-blog instead.

Oh, and passive-aggressive angry couple, if you happen to stumble across this, he hid the letter from the DMV to force you to fail, because it proves that you need him to be in control, and she flirts with her coworkers because it’s her primary method of validating her self-worth. She gets drunk first so that she can claim she’s not responsible for her actions.

That will be $90.

mobile update: full disclosure

mobile update: full disclosure

I think that this whole thing, this whole twitter, last.fm, myspace, xanga, podcast, youtube, meebo, friendster, del.icio.us, icq, instant messenger, wordpress, flickr, mobile blogging, stickam, facebook thing is all really just about one thing.

The search for social connection is the search for meaning.

Pick a person 15 to 25 years old. Anywhere in the country, any city, any school. It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. You can find their favorite movies, what books they’ve read, who they’re dating, where they live, what music they’re listening to, how they did in their classes this semester, what major they’re thinking of taking next, what they did over spring break (with pictures!) their room number, their cell-phone number, and most of the time, exactly where they are and what they’re doing right now. Right. Now. Does that sound creepy? It should sound creepy.

You don’t have to go looking; they’re already broadcasting it for you. They’ve put it all down in easily scannable, pre-formatted columns. You can get it delivered to your morning email. It’s a flood of full disclosure, a blow by blow account of every single thing that happens, every single day.

They update facebook every 15 minutes with accounts of what they’re doing. They text their twitter account with book titles and bowel movements. They stare into a tiny webcam, and openly divulge the intimate details of friends and lovers. Then they upload it to a server, where the link gets passed around faster than a business card and a fake lunch invitation at NAMM.

The flood of self-disclosure is epic.

This is what I think. We took away the meta-narratives, the structures that gave significance to the mundane actions of life. We told them that there was no reliable test for truth, and they believed us. We told them that good and bad had no meaning apart from what we decided they should mean, and they believed us. We told them that the dust between their fingers was the end of the world, the full substance of reality, and even though they knew it had to be a lie, they believed it. We stripped away everything that gave purpose, structure, dignity, and value to life, and left them nothing but doubt. They are grasping for meaning in a world where we have left them none.

And they, and we, all of us, found ourselves on Descartes stoop, listening to him lecture on the one true thing; if everything else is false, if the world and its tenants are the elaborate deceits of a cruel demon, then one true thing would still remain. Cogito ergo sum,

“I ponder. I exist.”

And we fling this one true thing out into the world, to listen for echoes. We strain to hear the shouts of others in this dark wood, to find comfort in the fact that, if we are lost, we are at least lost together. We spit out the running dialog of our ponderings, because they are the only evidence we have that something real exists.

And every time someone hears, and responds, that ephemeral tendril is drawn between us, between the thinker and the listener, and it gives meaning to both. The connection is meaning. We may not know what is true, or good, or real, we may doubt everything and anything, we may doubt even the words that we hear from the person we listen to, but the meaning isn’t in the words. It’s in the speaking and hearing. The connection is the meaning. The validation of existence is the meaning. Thin, fleeting, fragile, impossible to parse, yet it is still meaning.

Because it is so thin, and so fleeting, it takes quite a lot of it to matter.

William H. Auden was one of the great poets of the last century, maybe one of the greatest poets of the English language who ever wrote. In his poem “September 1, 1939“, written on the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Auden writes about the futility of modern life, in its relentless and ever-failing pursuit of meaning.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

In this same poem, Auden asperses love as a great deceit, saying that it is not enough for a person to be loved; what a person really wants it to be the only person loved. To be at the center of the connecting tendrils of meaning. To fling every act of disclosure out into the world, and to have it lauded and embraced, and not only that, but to be lauded and embraced while everyone else is ignored. If love is the escape from the meaningless existence, then it cannot be the kind of vacuous, self-embracing love borne out by massive self-disclosure.

What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

But Auden holds out some hope. He hangs it on two words. The search for meaning ends in despair if the the goal is to be “loved alone”. If existence is to have meaning, it can’t be because of a flood of disclosure, or the apoplectic grasping of echoes to the exclusion of others. Instead,

We must love one another, or die.

The S-Word

There’s a new dirty word in town, and it’s the S-Word. No, not that one. No, not that one either. Nope. Wow. You really know a lot of dirty words!

No, the new dirty word in town is….. SKINNY! Yes, ladies and gentlemen… skinny. The F-word is still naughty as well, and we don’t like to say it (fat).

Scan your local supermarket checkout and you will be greeted with several well researched reports about who’s too F-word, and who’s too S-word. You may remember several recent stories about skinny models endangering the public safety, should someone stumble and be impaled on one of their shoulder blades. There are entire magazines and websites devoted to covering celebrity fitness (or lack there of)

Skinny used to be a word that seemed like it was a compliment. It implied that you were healthy, or looking after yourself. I used to wonder what it would be like to be called skinny, how it would feel, how I would look.

So, let’s have a little recap, shall we?

This is Chad, conducting the choir circa Christmas, 2003.

2003 Chad is fat. Bad 2003 Chad, Bad.

This is Chad circa 10 minutes ago, courtesy of the handy-dandy built-in iChat camera.

Hey look Ma! A jaw! 2007 Chad, good.

For those of you who don’t keep tabs on my personal life and the blogging related to it, in January of 2006, after 29 1/2 years of total disregard for my health, I started exercising and dieting and have lost about 80 pounds and counting. I lost the majority of that weight between January and August of 2006, and I’ve been re-engaged in my hard-core training routine for about the past five weeks in an effort to go get the 30-40 unnecessary pounds still hanging on my frame.

America does like it’s rock stars S-word, as you know.

This blog is actually not about me, but I had to give a little background to get to the meat of what I wanted to say. As you might imagine, having been on such an extreme journey in the past 18 months in this area of my life, I have many thoughts about obesity, health, fitness, and all of the judgments made by other people in regards to these issues, both good and bad.

The thing that’s been irking me lately is about the S-Word, but not related to me. See, people generally approve of this journey that I’ve been on. Fitness freaks welcome me like a freshly baptized convert. Overweight folks take me aside and ask me for The Secret, and are generally disappointed that there’s not a miracle wheat germ concoction that melts the pounds clean off while bronzing skin and removing unwanted back hair. I do always try and be encouraging, telling them that I was one of them, Chief of Sinners, and that there is a way out, a way that’s actually fun and tastes good, and after an admittedly painful adjustment period, you actually start craving it. That’s right, everyone, you can indeed physically manipulate your taste buds and cravings. The secret to weight loss is making the decision that you want to stop being fat, no matter what it costs you. That’s it.

No, the place where the S-word has really been pissing me off lately is when used in regards to my wife, Erica.

For those of you who don’t know her in person, Erica has always been someone who valued health and fitness. She was training for, and then ran, the L.A. Marathon while we were dating. She genuinely loves fruits, veggies, and shies away from grease, fat, and red meat. But for 6 1/2 years of marriage, she loved me as I was. She made a decision that I was lovable, even with 120 or so extra pounds of flab on me.

She lovingly protested (and often acquiesced to) trips to Carl’s Jr., and no, she didn’t want to split an Awesome Blossom. Yes, she would enjoy it if I went to the gym with her, and no, I would not be punished if I elected to work on my PlayStation skills instead.

In January 2006, when my life seemed like it was in pieces, and I decided that I was sick and tired of being a lard ass, she had just given birth to our second child, Zion. For the next few months, as I got zealous about my diet and exercise, she experienced a halo effect, enjoying a healthy and purposeful loss of her baby weight. Her hubby had seen the light, and she finally got to eat the way she liked, all the time. By the time we got to our 30th birthday party in late June of 2006, I had a new lease on life and she was totally back to normal, i.e., looking like a zillion dollars.

I think last time I asked, and she may kill me for this, her 5’6 frame weighed about 125 pounds. She appears lean and toned. I find her… exquisite.

For some reason lately, even as I get regularly praised for my appearance, more and more people have been commenting to both of us that she appears, well… too… S-word. It seems to mostly be women, but just this past weekend at church, one well meaning but often embarrassingly blunt gentleman told her that she shouldn’t lose anymore weight, that she appeared gaunt. Gaunt. She rolled her eyes and informed him that she hadn’t lost a pound in 6 months (the truth). She did not add, but I wish she had, that it was absolutely none of his F-wording business (very much the truth.)

**CUE RANT**

Folks, I’m gonna keep it really, really real. Some of you who may read the following words are overweight, and you may take offense. You need to know that what I have to say here is rooted in a deep, fresh understanding of what it means to be overweight, with all the seat belts that are too tight at Disneyland, and the airline seats that seem to be made to mock just you. I understand the pain of looking for that one pair of jeans that might fit you in the bottom of the pile, and still having to wrestle them onto your body. I know exactly what it’s like to look in the mirror and see someone staring back at you who wears one of their biggest failures and weaknesses like a Scarlet “F” on their chest.

I understand. I empathize. I love and value you. God loves you. You are more then your body shape.

With that said, back the hell off of my wife. She is not your problem. She is not too skinny. She does not starve herself. She loves ice-cream and Weinerschnitzel. She makes egg burritos with bacon and cheese in them. And you know what? She doesn’t have a “Perfect” body. She has body fat, just an appropriate amount. You’re starting to give her a complex, and guess what? It’s your problem. You’re projecting your own issues on her, and it’s not fair to her, and not even remotely helpful to you.

You just keep right on believing that “normal” people don’t look that way. You just keep right on believing that all fit people won the genetic lottery and are shallow, and obsessed with their looks. You just keep on believing that, but keep it to your-damn-self. In the meantime, you might see us running up Erbes Road, staying healthy and spending time together. It’s called moderation, ok?

You know why you’re threatened by her? Because she has self control and you don’t. Because you’re judgmental, and she’s not. Yeah, I know that some skinny people are judgmental, but not her. I know this for a fact. Erica loved me when I was fat. She really loved me. She’ll love me if I get fat again. She’s not judging you, either. You’re judging you, and your putting it on her, because you don’t want to deal with reality, which is why you’re in this situation in the first place.

I’m offended by your double standards, people. You tell me how great I look, and yet I have forty pounds to go. You wait about a second, and then, in hushed tones, ask me if Erica’s all right, and that you’ve been just a little worried about her. Some of you use words like “Gaunt.”

Have a little look here, shall we? This is a BMI (Body Mass Index) calculator. If you enter 6’2 (my height) and 240 (my weight as of this morning), you’ll see that I am just now, after 17 months of busting my ass, finally about to be not considered medically obese, just overweight.

Go ahead and re-enter a height of 5’6, and a weight of 125. You’ll find that places her squarely in the “Normal” category.

Reality isn’t fun, sometimes. But it is real.

**Rant Concluded**

Look, mean kids who make fun of fat kids should be tarred and feathered in the public square. People who are fit and callously judge the overweight should realize that they are only revealing that their beauty is solely external, and therefore have no grasp of the fact that beauty and value are not measured in the number of inches around our waists.

Women starving themselves to look like Nichole Richie is a bad thing. Yech! Hollywood does project unreasonable and unattainable (photoshop anyone?) images of beauty, sexuality, and desirability, and they deserve to get the collective crap kicked out of them for it (do so with your dollars, if you want it to really hurt.) They want you to feel inadequate and ugly so that you’ll buy their skin creme and lame exercise gear, when all you really need is a pair of good shoes and a desire to change your life.

The price of not obeying our bodies, which are equipped with endless sensors and signals to tell us all about how we are treating it, is high indeed. I know. You do, too.

Just leave my wife alone. She’s not part of the problem, she’s part of the solution.

Little Miss Manners

“Unggh Unnnnnngh!”

“Sophia, use your words. I don’t respond to grunts.”

“Momma?”

“Yes, Sophia?”

“Juice Please!”

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

(Dance break!)

This brief display of manners has been brought to you by 2 years of relentless consistency on the part of my wife. She has insisted, from the time Sophia started to be able to use words, that she use the words “Please” and “Thank You” with every request. We’ve reached the point where Sophia will do it about 30% of the time without being prompted, about 95% of the time when reminded, and about 5% of the time it results in a full raging meltdown of indignation. It’s not just her eyes that are Irish.

All of this please-and-thank-you-ing has gotten me to thinking about manners. It seemed odd to me that we were investing so much energy (consistency really is exhausting) in a few words of social convention. I mean, manners are nice and all, but they’re just the little polite handshakes of social interaction. Can’t we wait until later to let her learn some of this?

My wife is a pretty smart gal. In addition to that, she has a very astute sense of intuition, and will often do things that “feel right” to her, without having to know all the reasons behind why. In the 10 years that I’ve known my wife, I’ve learned that it’s usually best to assume that she’s right, and that I’m not on the ball enough to know why yet.

While my wife and I are building an intelligent and creative little girl from scratch, I’m also in the processes of assembling a linux webserver from scratch. It’s the long-term solution to last week’s tragic blog meltdown. Building a webserver from scratch involves a lot of typing things like "./config --prefix=/usr/local --use-bindings" into a text interface, which the magical computrix machine then executes for me. Most of the really important things I’ve learned in my life happen while I’m building linux installs for webservers. Well, OK, just one thing so far, but still.

Manners matter because they recognize the freedom and dignity of the person you’re talking to.

When I ask my wife to pour me a second cup of coffee, she has the freedom to do it or not do it. I am asking her to yield whatever she had planned to do with her time for a few moments, and to honor my request. By recognizing her freedom, I preserve her dignity when I add the simple word “Please”. My wife is not a servant, she is not a slave to my demands. She is a free person, and any act that she does on my behalf is done on the basis of that freedom. That’s what I mean by dignity. When I say thank you, it is a second recognition that whatever act she just performed was not compelled, but was a gracious act on her part.

My linux server has no dignity. It has no freedom. It simply executes whatever command I give it. To use “please” or “thank you” with my commands would be an absurdity. It’s not performing a gracious act, or a kind act, when it executes my commands, because it has no other option. There’s no basis of freedom out of which it does what I ask.

By insisting that our daughter use the words “please” and “thank you”, my wife is, of course, teaching our daughter that the people around her have freedom and dignity. She is teaching her that the things done for her are gracious acts of kindness, and not the automatic responses of life-like robots. My daughter may not understand any of this yet, but the most important lessons are often absorbed before we ever understand what they mean. The choice to be a grateful person, respecting of the dignity of others, is one of those lessons.

Also, we do it because it make the other parents at Gymboree insanely jealous.

Moral Theory: Natural Law

Posts in the Moral Theory series

  1. Moral Theory: Introduction
  2. Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics
  3. Moral Theory: Natural Law

Introduction

If you’re a fan of historical jurisprudence political processes (and, let’s be honest, who isn’t?), the 1991 confirmation of Clarence Thomas probably stands out in your mind. It was bitterly contentious, both in populist rhetoric, and within the narrow world of legal academia, for two very different reasons.

REASON 1 – The pubic hair.

REASON 2 – Clarence Thomas believed in an arcane ethical principle leftover from the dark ages, when beasts roamed the earth devouring maidens. Thomas actually believed in something called Natural Law. The horror! (nevermind for just a minute that almost every thinker who was important to the framing of our constitutional democracy also believed in this arcane theory). In spite of the public furor over the sexual harassment charge, it was this second objection from the legal academia that almost cost Thomas the nomination.

What It Is

Natural Law (I’ll abbreviate it as NL, in order to save myself a lot of typing during this post. I hate extraneous typing, so reducing those 10 letters down to just 2 makes my job a whole lot easier), or NL (which stands for Natural Law), holds that moral value is an intrinsic part of the universe, like the laws of gravity or energy. Moral value isn’t because of anything, moral value just is.

There have been many variations on the theme of NL, from the Plato to Aquinas, but there are some common threads running through them all. Most of the time, NL isn’t discussed in terms of ethics (right and wrong behavior), but in terms of moral value (what are the appropriate ends that we’re acting toward). For example, NL might not say anything about torture being right or wrong, but it would say that human dignity has a high moral value. From that value we can reasonably figure out what behaviors we have an ethical obligation to do.

If you think about it, this is similar to how natural laws, like gravity and energy, work. A few simple principles extrapolate out into very complex actions, based on the surrounding circumstances. Likewise, if moral value is a brute set of simple principles, ethical behavior can still extrapolate out into complex patterns based on the surrounding circumstances. You could (I won’t, but still) make the case that all ethical behavior can be governed by three simple principles: dignity of life, justice, and charity. Even if that’s the case, the interaction between these three simple principles leads to some very complex ethical decision making.

So … What Is It?

As soon as you start to talk about NL, you immediately run into a problem: what is it? What’s actually in the Natural Law? If this code of moral value is woven into the very fabric of the world, then it seems like 1) we should all know it, and 2) every culture across history should have the same ethical rules. If that’s the case, why do we have any disagreement over what’s ethical and what’s not? The variation in how cultures view morality seems like a strong argument against NL.

The !Kung people living in the Kalahari Desert have an ethical code that requires abandoning elders who can no longer provide for themselves. The Hmong people in Southeast Asia have an ethical code that requires honoring and caring for elders within the clan. If there is a universal natural law, how can there be that kind of wide disparity between what different cultures consider to be ethical behavior?

There are 3 arguments that someone might give here in defense of Natural Law:

  1. Even though different cultures have different sets of moral codes, the principle of morality is universal. There is no culture, today or in history, without some basic sense of ought. This argues for a universal law that crosses those boundaries.
  2. Saying that there is a universal moral law isn’t the same thing as saying that all people, everywhere, have perfectly understood that moral law. If we treat it like other natural laws (say gravity), then we can see that each culture created a convention (an agreed upon set of rules or interactions) for talking about the results of gravity, a theory that was refined and progressed as time passed. The law was universal, but the way people understood it wasn’t. If this is true, then we can compare the progression of moral understanding with the progression of theories about physical laws. Think about how long it took us to develop the idea of universal human rights; compare this with how even our basic theory of gravity is still in progress. Something can be universal without being universally known or understood.
  3. There is remarkable consistency in the underlying moral values of different cultures over time. The differences are sexy. The differences get a lot of play. Underneath, though, a relatively small set of moral values seems to be almost perfectly consistent. In the earlier example, the !Kung ethical obligation to abandon elders and the Hmong ethical obligation to care for elders seem to be polar opposites. It’s not too hard, though, to see how both might be derivatives of the same underlying moral value – the dignity of human life – set against very different environmental circumstances. One honors life individually, in it’s longevity, the other preserves the dignity of life in the whole community, by increasing the chance for group survival. The existence of simple consistent underlying principles, no matter how they gets extrapolated out into actions, argues for a universal and intrinsic kind of moral law.

Omnipotence / Omniscience

So, where does God hang out in all of this? In Divine Command Ethics, he’s the originator of morality. Now, in the Natural Law view, the moral value is separate from God, and prior to His creation of the world. When we say that “God is good”, we’re comparing his actions to a universal standard. How do we get around our earlier argument for DCE, that’s says if God has to obey some other standard of goodness, he is no longer omnipotent?

A philosopher who believed in both God and Natural Law might argue that moral law is the same kind of thing as the laws of logic. We accept that there are some things God cannot do (like microwave a burrito so hot that God himself cannot eat it), not because he lacks the power, but because the thing itself by definition cannot exist. This doesn’t mean God is any less omnipotent. God still has unlimited power to create any of the things that can actually exist.

NL defenders say that moral laws are the same kind of fundamental definitions. If that’s the case, then God’s adherence to those laws doesn’t limit God’s omnipotence. I don’t particularly like this argument, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll skip why.

So, if we buy into Natural Law, and God isn’t the origin of right and wrong, then what’s his role? He is omniscient, the only person who perfectly knows the content of the Natural Law, and how it ought to be applied to every circumstance. Therefore, when he says something is right or wrong, he is always perfectly correct. For us, then, as puny humans rolling around in the dust of this earth, we can take God’s commands as a true statement of moral obligation, because of His perfect knowledge.

This isn’t the last time we’ll see a moral theory move from omnipotence to omniscience for dealing with God’s relationship to morality – oh no, my friend! not nearly the last time! Muaaahahahahahahaha!

Concluding Thoughts

So, in conclusion, the pubic hair joke wasn’t that funny, sexual harassment is no laughing matter, but Natural Law theory is a pretty compelling way of understanding moral obligation. I think the most attractive part of it is the way that it accounts for simplicity and complexity in moral value vs. ethical behavior, and how it allows for progress in how we actually work out our ethical obligations. That, to me, lines up pretty well with how ethics and morality actually function.

Also, C.S. Lewis was a pretty strong supporter of Natural Law Theory. But, he’s British, so we don’t really count him.

Previous in series: Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics