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Archive for April, 2017

SURETY-DOUBT. . .

A few days ago my son, Nathan, and I were engaged in a conversation.  At one point we were exploring the difference between ‘surety,’ ‘belief,’ ‘doubt’ and ‘faith’ and the difference between an ‘agnostic,’ an ‘atheist,’ a ‘deist,’ a ‘theist’ and a ‘Trinitarian.’  Simple stated: we were engaged in a conversation about the philosophy of religion.  We are both searchers and seekers and so our conversation was not rooted in ‘having to find.’

This morning I found myself reflecting upon our conversation so I thought I would put finger to key and share some of what emerged for me this morning.  I will, this morning, focus on ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist.’

An Agnostic is a person who believes that God’s existence cannot be proven given our current evidence AND at the same time the agnostic will not deny the possibility that God exists.  The agnostic is, at times close to the deist, theist and Trinitarian and at other times the agnostic is close to the atheist.  The agnostic embraces ‘doubt’ and shuns ‘surety’ when it comes to the ‘God-Question.’

An Atheist considers the case of ‘God’ to be closed; the ‘God-Question’ has been answered: God does not and has never existed!  The atheist is rooted in ‘surety’ – like ‘God,’ ‘doubt’ does not exist.

Let us say that an agnostic and an atheist were walking along the edge of a lake together.  They were engaged in a heated debate about the ‘after-life.’  They rounded a bend and saw twelve men on their knees; their arms were outstretched and their faces radiated immense joy.  Our two wanderers then noticed a man walking on the water.  They asked one of the twelve ‘who’s the guy walking on the water?’  The man replied with great joy and enthusiasm that the water-walker was God.

Our two wanders continued on their way.  They walked in silence for some time.  Then the atheist asked the agnostic what he thought.  The agnostic appeared lost in his thoughts.  The atheist asked him again, ‘Do you think that guy is really God?’  The agnostic replied, ‘Could be – but I don’t have enough evidence.’

The agnostic then asked the atheist what he thought.  The atheist replied: ‘No way.  That guy was walking on water because he couldn’t swim!’

Philosophers don’t always agree (now there is an understatement).  However, there appears to be at least one thing they have agreed upon (and post-modern philosophers continue to agree with): It is fruitless for ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ to argue with each other.  Why?  Because they interpret things differently.  In order to argue (in the classical sense of argument), there must be some common ground, so that one of the participants might say, ‘Aha! If you concede ‘x,’ then you must also concede ‘y!’  Believers and non-believers never find an ‘x’ they can agree upon.  Thus, the argument can never begin – each sees everything from his or her own point of view.

The fundamentalist (whether atheist, deist, theist or Trinitarian) is rooted in ‘surety’ – there is no ‘doubt.’  The searcher-seeker (whether, agnostic, deist, theist or Trinitarian) is rooted in ‘doubt.’  The father of the child (Mark 9:23-25) is a great role-model for we doubters: ..I believe, help my unbelief!’  A role-model for an agnostic might well be Thomas.  Thomas did not believe the other apostles and wanted ‘evidence’ that Jesus had risen.  When Jesus presented Himself and only when Thomas was confronted with the living evidence did he move from being an agnostic to being a believer.

 

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This morning, gentle reader, I will continue to share more of my ‘considerations.’

Consider that two of the major factors that continue to limit, hinder and directly block us humans from developing our potentials are:

  • A lack of material and economic ‘goods.’ We humans must have our immediate material and economic goods satisfied before we have the time and energy (and motivation?) to focus on developing our potential.  In the past this ‘lack’ has been a ‘natural evil’: methods to ensure both were not fully developed so only a few could benefit; we were not able to guarantee a proper standard of life for all.  This is no longer true today; thus the ‘lack’ is now a ‘moral evil’ and it is remediable.  Under this, I include all questions of wages/income, food, housing, healthcare, insurance, etc.
  • A lack of education. Unless a person is free to obtain the fullest education possible (and in our society the fullest possible is a college/university degree).  This does not mean that each person should have the same kind of education; it does mean, however, that for the person who is capable a college/university degree should be able to seek to attain one.

In a democracy, at minimum, education must have two aims.  A democracy must provide ‘vocational’ guidance and training; it must assist each person so he or she can discern his or her talents and then provide the person the education opportunity so those talents can be developed.  A democracy must also provide a general education for all.  This means that each person will have an opportunity to develop his or her consciousness (provide the resources to help each person develop certain virtues – think: integrity, caring, empathy, etc.).  This second aim requires more time – hence a longer period of ‘being in school’ is necessary.

Consider that we humans will not seek to grow if we are not ‘happy’.  What does this mean?  Each of us wants to be liked and to like others.  Each of us wants to feel ‘valuable,’ and ‘needed.’  Each of us want to feel ‘free’ (this implies being ‘responsible’).  We do not grow if we are isolated, shunned, discounted, or ignored.

One major obstacle is that the post-modern community is too large.  It seems that we humans are, by nature, drawn to small communities.  We do achieve some major benefits from certain, smaller, communities (students who are with the same classmates for 8 or more years, for example).  How many of us have access – and actually become part of – smaller communities?  In our neighborhood when I was growing up all parents would watch over all of the children; we would, twice a year, have a ‘block party’ that would begin late in the morning and end after dark.  If a child was hurt he or she could, literally, go to almost any house and get help.  Sadly, my children did not have access to this type of neighborhood.

Consider that another obstacle to our development continues to be social injustice and inequality.  A human cannot be a ‘happy’ member of a community if he or she feels that the community is treating him or her unjustly.  The larger the community, the more impersonal the community and the truer this seems to be.  Sadly, in our society, the racial and ethnic divide that has haunted us for hundreds of years continues to be alive and well.

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own. –Cesar Chavez

 

 

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This morning, gentle reader, I will continue sharing with you some of my ‘considerations.’

Consider that a healthy society seeks to:

  • encourage the widest possible range of choices to its members to emerge, develop and follow the vocations they have emerged and developed;
  • discern, develop and provide new vocations which must emerge given the changes that are occurring (think: moving away from an industrial focused society to a society focused on technology). In 1990 it was predicted that by 2015 more than 56 thousand new ‘vocations’ would come into existence; few, if any would be in ‘industrial.’

Thousands of years ago the Greeks believed that the life of intellectual contemplation was the only really ‘true’ vocation.  It became clear, later on, that that view was only true for certain folks.  Today we know that there are many ‘vocations’ that are of equal value; we humans are truly more creative than the Greeks ever thought possible.

Consider that our (think: United States) politics, our view of what form our society and our government should take here and now, will depend on:

  • how far we believe the ‘bad/evil’ is due to preventable causes (no easy feat, as we well know);
  • what, if we believe the causes are preventable, we actually find them to be preventable (and what is the investment and ‘cost’ to us in finding out).

IF we take the extremely pessimistic view that the ‘bad/evil’ is in no way preventable, our main – perhaps only – course is the hermit’s, to retire altogether from this ‘wicked world.’  IF we take a fairly pessimistic view that ‘being bad/evil’ is inherited (i.e. that ‘bad/evil’ are NOT determined by social relations), we might well attempt to establish an authoritarian regime ‘for the ‘right/good’ (we humans continue to try to make this choice work).

IF, on the other hand, our society is fairly optimistic and we believe that ‘bad/evil’ are fed and supported by a certain type of environment (think: lack of good educational opportunities for all, and increased poverty among those not in the top 1%) then the society has an opportunity to change and history tells us that as imperfect as democracy can be it is still the best option when it comes to developing healthy environments for all.

Consider that at best a society can be fairly optimistic.  In the history of the human species there have been civilized individuals but no ‘fully civilized community’ – not one, ever.  Those who talk about ‘Our Great Civilization,’ whether European, American, Chinese, or Russian, are doing their countries a great disservice.  As societies we are still ‘barbarian-like’ and to deny this always puts us at risk (check history if you don’t believe me); at our best we are imperfect and at our healthiest we are living paradoxes of ‘good/evil’ and ‘virtue/vice.’

All advances in knowledge, for example, are, in the first impact, humbling; they begin by reflecting to us that we are not as grand or as smart or as free or as good as we thought.  It is only when we realize this that we can begin to study how to overcome our own weakness, our own hubris (think: climate change and how many still resist the concept).

I leave us this morning, gentle reader, with Margaret Mead’s powerful insight: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

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Early this morning, gentle reader, I was looking through a document that contains a number of my ‘Considerations.’  As I read through them and reflected upon some of them it occurred to me that I might offer some of them for you to ‘Consider.’  You might find one or more of these intellectually stimulating or challenging and then, as a result, you might spend some time reflecting upon them.  You might also find yourself emerging or re-visiting your own list of ideas to ‘Consider.’

Consider that there exists both ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil [Evil = anything causing injury or harm; characterized or accompanied by misfortune or suffering].

‘Natural Evils’ are determined and unavoidable limits to our freedom of choice and action, such as the necessity for destroying life in order to eat and live, extreme climate changes/natural disasters and accidents of various types.

If, on the other hand, I know that ‘healthy foods,’ ‘healthy exercise,’ and ‘healthy sleep’ are crucial to my ‘health’ and because I am lazy I choose not to do one or more of these ‘health-full’ activities I engage in choosing ‘Moral Evil.’  I choose self-violence.

Consider that only we humans, gifted with our conscious intelligence, are able, among all living beings, to choose to continue to evolve after our biological development has finished.  We are able to choose and to will what may be done.  We are, therefore, powerful (my definition of ‘power’ = the ability to choose to act rooted in reflection).

We humans have the widest choice of environment (why we choose to put our environment at risk is still beyond my comprehension) and in return, changes in environment have the greatest effect on us and on the world that we are stewards of.

Consider W.H. Auden’s words: Intelligence and choice can only arise when more than one stimulus is presented at the same time in the same place.

 Consider William Blake’s observation that ‘Everything that lives is Holy.’

Consider that the individual human being is the product of his or her social life.  We do, however, have choice for we are conscious of ourselves as thinking and as feeling beings; we have direct knowledge of our individual selves.  We also have the ‘power’ to increase our self-knowledge.  At minimum, the unexamined life is not worth living (thanks: Socrates); at maximum, to refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral (thanks: R.K. Greenleaf).

Consider that a non-human sentient being that has reached maturity does not continue to evolve, but we humans do.  As far as I know, the primary standard in the non-human sentient being world is physical fitness; in we humans a great many other factors are involved.  What has survival value for we humans can seldom be determined; we have survived as a species through the efforts of individuals who at the time must often have seemed to possess very little physical survival value.

Consider that we know what we must do in order to be physically healthy (there is also intellectual health, emotional health and spiritual health).  I know, for example, that it is crucial that I must take a number of long walks each week if I am going to contribute to my physical health.  When I choose not to take a walk I commit a morally wrong act (I choose to deplete myself; I choose to do violence to myself – one non-step at a time).  Sadly, I am not the only person that chooses to deplete myself (or worse that chooses to do violence to myself).

In closing for today, I offer us to Consider Walt Whitman’s observation: We convince by our presence.

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Consider that a mentor is someone who walks with us, who guides us, who challenges us, who calls out the potentials in us (especially the ones we do not know reside dormant within – ones waiting to be called forth).  In my early twenties (nearly fifty years ago) I learned that a mentor can be someone we never meet in person (think: author, for example).  I have had a number of mentors in my life that I have never met (some never existed for they were fictional characters).

One of my mentors, Robert K. Greenleaf, founded the Center for Applied Ethics (1964).  I was introduced to his writings in 1975 by another of my mentors, Lowell Colston.  Even though I never met him in person, Robert has been a mentor of mine ever since; I cannot recall the number of times I have read/re-read and been intellectually challenged and stimulated by his thoughtful writing.

‘Applied Ethics’ involves ‘doing ethics.’  For example, bioethics, feminist ethics, and the ethics that focuses on the honorable treatment of all sentient beings are concerned with ethics applied.  Greenleaf’s ‘Center for Applied Ethics’ explored ‘Professional Ethics.’  Professional Ethics involves, for example, the codes (values, beliefs, assumptions, behaviors, guidelines/rules, policies, etc.) that help regulate the relationship of the professional with his/her client, customer, patient, and parishioner (think: the one ‘served’ by the professional).  I have had the privilege of working with a number of professions: physicians, ‘clergy’ (ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, monks, nuns, and brothers), attorneys, military officers, engineers, educators, and elected officials.

One of the things that makes Applied Ethics interesting, intellectually stimulating and challenging is that these professionals often encounter paradoxes, polarities and dilemmas.  Of these the most challenging are the dilemmas.  Sometimes a dilemma can be dissolved; too often, however, a dilemma must be engaged and a choice must be made between two ‘paths.’  To complicate matters, there are ‘right-right dilemmas’ and ‘harm-harm dilemmas.’

Here is a common ‘right-right dilemma’: It is right for me to choose for the individual and it is right for me to choose for the collective (the group, community, department, team, etc.).  I cannot choose both (unless I am able to find a way to dissolve the dilemma).

‘Right-Right Dilemmas’ are challenging.  However, the most challenging dilemmas are the ‘harm-harm dilemmas.’  For example, in the late 1980s I was a thought-partner to the owner of an engineering company.  Overnight, literally, they lost 20% of their business.  The ‘harm-harm dilemma’ they faced was: ‘If we keep all employees the company might not survive; if we terminate employees they and their families will be harmed.’ 

The ‘Council’ that advised the Owner asked the following question: ‘How do we guarantee that we can keep all employed and keep the company open?’  Their eventual answer to this question allowed them to come close to dissolving the harm-harm dilemma (some harm was experienced by all employees, including the owner).  The company survived and thrived (it is still thriving today almost 30 years later).

Ten or eleven years ago, Randy Cohen, a humorist who wrote ‘The Ethicist’ column for the New York Times Magazine –1999-2011, offered us one of his ten best applied ethics questions never asked.  Shakespeare continues to be one of my mentors and so this question is, for me, a wonder-full one.  Here is the unasked ethical question:

Although I am happy in my current job, having recently received a promotion (I’m the new Thane of Cawdor), that’s not enough for my wife who is eager for me to get ahead.  I’m not saying I lack ambition, but I am reluctant to do what it takes to climb higher – the long hours, the bloody murders.  And yet, don’t I have a special obligation to consider my wife’s desires?  We are, after all, a family.  – Macbeth, Scotland

Thanks, Randy Cohen, for this applied ethical question that was never asked.  I wonder, how many of us might have been helped had we actually framed and emerged one of our own ‘unasked’ applied ethical questions?

 

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In a caring relationship I commit myself to the other [I make a distinction between being loyal to. . . and being committed to. . .]; I present myself as someone who can be depended on, as someone who is trustworthy, as someone who is consistent [‘constancy’ is a virtue I strive to live into and out of].  I am not perfect and so within the life of my caring relationships I say or do something that leads to an acute break – a betrayal.  This break is at times rooted in my indifference (at worst in my apathy) or neglect or in a ‘wound delivered.’  When I become aware of this – at times I am blissfully asleep when I choose to act in ways that lead to an acute break – I experience and feel remorse; I feel guilt.

My guilt results from my sense of having betrayed the other, and my conscience calls me back.  For me, the more important the person and the relationship are the more pronounced is my remorse (guilt).  I physically feel the pain of my remorse and like other physical pains my guilt-pain lets me know that something is wrong.  When I feel it deeply, when I come to understand and accept it, it provides me with the opportunity [it is only an opportunity for I do have choice] to return to my response-ability – my commitment – to the other and to our relationship.

I had to learn – no easy lesson for me – that forgiveness and healing do not restore the relationship as it was; there are scars that remain after wounds have been healed.  However, frequently the relationship becomes stronger for I take my caring and my commitment more seriously.  Here is an analogy (it is a bit weak, but it might suffice at this time): It is like the time I misplace something because I am not awake and aware; I am running on automatic pilot.  Then I realize what I have done and the ‘something’ takes on greater importance – often with a pledge that I will be more attentive in the future.  In a caring relationship I remind myself of how precious the other is and how important our relationship is.

I am reminded of Peter and Judas.  Both were invited into a caring relationship with Jesus.  Both accepted the invitation.  Both literally betrayed Jesus and their relationship with him.  Both wept bitter tears.  In his betrayal, Peter sought forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.  Judas took a step toward healing by throwing the 30 pieces of silver back at those who paid him and admitted that he had turned over to them an innocent man – but he could not be moved to reconciliation and healing; his remorse and guilt drove him to take his own life.  His guilt morphed into despair – “I am not worthy” and arrogance – “I am not forgivable.”

I feel deep sadness when I think about both of these men for I am reminded of my own betrayals. I identify with both.  Like Peter I have betrayed and I have wept bitter tears and I have sought forgiveness, reconciliation and healing and I have accepted them when offered by the one who then cared for me; and I grew from the experience.  AND, like Judas I have betrayed and I have wept bitter tears and I have despaired at ever being forgiven and I have become arrogant holding a belief that I was not forgivable (thus far I have not taken my own life but I have ‘taken the life’ of the relationship).

This morning I renew my commitment to the caring relationships that nurture me, sustain me and enable me to grow in many ways.  I sit here in deep gratitude for each of them.  I invite you, gentle reader, to pause and image and offer gratitude for the caring relationships that nurture you, that sustain you and that enable you to grow in many ways.

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For more than two thousand years now there have been, and are, groups (think: spiritual, political, philosophical, etc.) that have banned, and continue to ban, certain books.  They believed/believe that these books are DangerousDangerous = risky, hazardous, perilous, threatening.

Yesterday morning I woke up holding two words in my consciousness (was I dreaming about these words…I am not sure).  The two words: Dangerous Books.  I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and waited to see what might emerge into my consciousness as I held these two words.

Almost immediately book titles began to emerge into my consciousness.  As I held the titles and images of these books I began to realize why they are Dangerous Books.  More titles emerged, more authors emerged.  A few hours later I put finger to key and typed out a list of the books; as I typed others came into my consciousness and I added them to my list.

As I looked at my list I realized that these books are, indeed, ‘dangerous.’  They are books that challenge us, that nudge us or sharply jab us so that we might become more awake and aware and disturbed.  They are risky for they challenge our assumptions, or our beliefs, or our ‘sureties’ or our stereotypes or our prejudices or our views of the world, of others and of ourselves.

Here is a partial list of the books that emerged into my consciousness yesterday.  Perhaps, gentle reader, you have read and savored some of these.  I invite you to explore a few of those that are on my list, books you have not read.  I also invite you to emerge your own list of Dangerous Books – books that are risky, hazardous, perilous, and threatening; books that challenge you or nudge you or jab you so that you are more awake and aware and disturbed as a result of engaging them.

MY LIST (in no particular order):

  • The Grand Inquisitor – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trumbo
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  • The Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
  • The Analects – Confucius
  • The Torah
  • The Bible
  • The Q’uran
  • The Trial – Franz Kafka
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Women – Mary Wollstonecraft
  • The Stranger – Albert Camus
  • Awareness – Anthony DeMello
  • The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (also, his book ‘Common Sense’)
  • The Republic – Plato
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Antigone – Sophocles
  • A Confession – Leo Tolstoy (12 more of Tolstoy’s books are on my list)
  • The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith (also note his ‘The Wealth of Nations’)
  • The Art of Loving – Eric Fromm (also note his ‘Escape From Freedom’ and ‘Man for Himself’)
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard
  • Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865 – Abraham Lincoln
  • Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) – George Washington
  • Tao Te Ching – Laozi
  • The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
  • The Great Debate – Yuval Levin
  • Edmund Burke: Collected Works – Edmund Burke
  • Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships – George P. Fletcher
  • The Return of the Prodigal – Henri Nouwen (nine of his books are on my list)
  • No god but God – Reza Aslan
  • The Essays of Virginia Woolf (5 Volumes) – Virginia Woolf
  • The Open Society and Its Enemies – Karl Popper
  • Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  • The Quest for Community – Robert Nisbet

 A Question I hold: Why do I read dangerous books?

 Do I read in order to defend, in order to understand, in order to deflect, in order to be more open and receptive, in order to be influenced, in order to be affirmed, in order to be challenged, in order to discount, in order to seek and search, in order to find, in order to embrace, in order to dismiss, in order to convince, in order to find comfort and solace, in order to wake up, in order to become disturbed, in order to learn. . .  WHY do I read Dangerous Books?

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