Engaging the spirit, challenging the mind.

Joyful Vulnerability – Connections Forged in Meaningful Celebration

Vulnerability is seen not only in our struggles, but also in our triumphs. We seek not only those who will weep with us as we weep, but also those who will rejoice with us as we rejoice. We seek empathy, that act of entering into our experience without the other attempting to prescribe, fix, or resolve; and without envy, judgment, or discouragement from the other.

I have had the privilege of knowing a few pastors who exude joyful vulnerability. One in particular is the most joyful person I have ever met. They are easy to relate to, open to connectedness, and not above sharing what makes them afraid or frustrated.

I see vulnerability as simply being–not attempting to appear any particular way other than what one simply is, not to project an image of strength or to elicit pity through projecting an image of weakness. But like a pane of stained glass though which light beam, the light parts are light and the dark parts dark, and it simply is.

Ban Bossy? Not So Fast.

My problem with the “ban bossy” campaign is that bossiness is, one, a real trait, and two, an undesirable one. To be bossy is to overstep your rightful authority and impose your will upon others. Bossy people think that they know best and that it is acceptable to pressure others into complying with their wishes or deferring to their judgments. Bossy people do not realize they are bossy because they are convinced that they have authority in an area when in reality they do not.

Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In told a story of how she used to organize the activities of her classmates on the playground. She used this as an example of leadership skills. Clearly she had a well developed personality and the potential to become a good leader. But I’m sure at least some of her classmates found her overbearing. She may have had great ideas about what games they could play, but it wasn’t her place to decide for her peers how they should be using their free time.

Further, bossy crosses gender boundaries. Men and boys can most definitely be bossy. I used to tell my younger brother all the time to stop being bossy. I remember when he was five years old, my sister came downstairs, dressed and ready to go out. She wore a top that exposed one of her shoulders. My brother immediately began scolding her for the shirt she was wearing, climbed onto one of the kitchen chairs so he could be eye level with her, and told her that she needed to go upstairs and “put some clothes on” and she was not going to leave the house wearing that. I can only guess he was mimicking something he had seen on TV. It was a funny situation and I was charmed by his precocity, but at the same time he deserved the reprimand he received from our mother because it certainly was not his place to tell my sister what she could or could not wear.

Bossiness is not leadership. Bossiness depends upon pressure, coercion, and directives which disregard the will of the person receiving them. Leadership by contrast requires consent to be led, people buying into your vision, and individuals accepting your authority over them. Leaders arise informally when people grant those things without being asked. Leaders function in organizations when they act within their sphere of authority among people who have agreed to submit to the organizational structure in place. Bossy people undermine their own leadership potential in informal settings by being unable to respect the will and independence of others and in formal settings by being unable to recognize the appropriate sphere of their authority.

Essentially, true leaders do not have to be bossy because their authority has been granted, acknowledged, and accepted. I don’t know about banning bossy, but we should definitely ban bossiness.

Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect”

coldhearted scientist وداد

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did not…

View original post 1,628 more words

Re-Blog: My Dad Is a Right-Wing A-Hole (or, the problem with “Us vs. Them” thinking)

A friend posted this and it was surprisingly not at all what I expected to read.  It nevertheless embodies much of what I feel about political differences and the animus that people have about those on the “wrong” side of an ideological divide.  Just wanted to share.  Enjoy.  (Note: the language is PG-13).

Ask Andrew W.K.: My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole

Photo by Douglas Anson

[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions, and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask:]

Hi Andrew,

I’m writing because I just can’t deal with my father anymore. He’s a 65-year-old super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total asshole intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics. I’m more or less a liberal democrat with very progressive values and I know that people like my dad are going to destroy us all. I don’t have any good times with him anymore. All we do is argue. When I try to spend time with him without talking politics or discussing any current events, there’s still an underlying tension that makes it really uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I love him no matter what, but how do I explain to him that his politics are turning him into a monster, destroying the environment, and pushing away the people who care about him?

Thanks for your help,
Son of A Right-Winger

See also: Ask Andrew W.K.: My Boyfriend Treats Me Badly

Dear Son of A Right-Winger,

Go back and read the opening sentences of your letter. Read them again. Then read the rest of your letter. Then read it again. Try to find a single instance where you referred to your dad as a human being, a person, or a man. There isn’t one. You’ve reduced your father — the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you. And you don’t consider your dad a person of his own standing — he’s just “your dad.” You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two. The humanity has been reduced to nothingness and all that’s left in its place is an argument that can never really be won. And even if one side did win, it probably wouldn’t satisfy the deeper desire to be in a state of inflamed passionate conflict.

The world isn’t being destroyed by democrats or republicans, red or blue, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist — the world is being destroyed by one side believing the other side is destroying the world. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they’re truly better people than the others who think differently. The world officially ends when we let our beliefs conquer love. We must not let this happen.

When we lump people into groups, quickly label them, and assume we know everything about them and their life based on a perceived world view, how they look, where they come from, etc., we are not behaving as full human beings. When we truly believe that some people are monsters, that they fundamentally are less human than we are, and that they deserve to have less than we do, we ourselves become the monsters. When we allow our emotions to be hypnotized by the excitement of petty bickering about seemingly important topics, we drift further and further away from the fragile and crucial human bond holding everything together. When we anticipate with ferocious glee the next chance we have to prove someone “wrong” and ourselves “right,” all the while disregarding the vast complexity of almost every subject — not to mention the universe as a whole — we are reducing the beauty and magic of life to a “side” or a “type,” or worst of all, an “answer.” This is the power of politics at it’s most sinister.

At its best, politics is able to organize extremely complex world views into manageable and communicable systems so they can be grappled with and studied abstractly. But even the most noble efforts to organize the world are essentially futile. The best we can usually achieve is a crude and messy map of life from one particular vantage point, featuring a few grids, bullet points, and sketches of its various aspects and landmarks. Anything as infinitely complex as life, reality, and the human experience can never be summed up or organized in a definitive system, especially one based on “left or right,” “A or B,” “us or them.” This is the fatal flaw of binary thinking in general. However, this flaw isn’t just ignored, it’s also embraced, amplified, and deliberately used as a weapon on the very people who think it’s benefiting their way of thinking.

Human beings crave order and simplicity. We cling to the hope that some day, if we really refine our world view and beliefs, we can actually find the fully correct way to think — the absolute truth and final side to stand on. People and systems craving power take advantage of this desire and pit us against each other using a “this or that” mentality. The point is to create unrest, disagreement, resentment, and anger — a population constantly at war with itself, each side deeply believing that the other is not just wrong, but also a sincere threat to their very way of life and survival. This creates constant anxiety and distraction — the perfect conditions for oppression. The goal of this sort of politics is to keep people held down and mesmerized by a persistent parade of seemingly life-or-death debates, each one worth all of our emotional energy and primal passion.

But the truth is, the world has always been and always will be on the brink of destruction. And what keeps it from actually imploding is our love for life and our deep-seeded desire not to die. Our love for our own life is inextricably connected to our love of all life and the miracle of this phenomenon we call “the world.” We must give all of ourselves credit every day for keeping things going. It’s an incredible achievement to exist at all.

So we must protect and respect each other, no matter how hard it feels. No matter how wrong someone else may seem to us, they are still human. No matter how bad someone may appear, they are truly no worse than us. Our beliefs and behavior don’t make us fundamentally better than others, no matter how satisfying it is to believe otherwise. We must be tireless in our efforts to see things from the point of view we most disagree with. We must make endless efforts to try and understand the people we least relate to. And we must at all times force ourselves to love the people we dislike the most. Not because it’s nice or because they deserve it, but because our own sanity and survival depends on it. And if we do find ourselves pushed into a corner where we must kill others in order to survive, we must fully accept that we are killing people just as fully human as ourselves, and not some evil abstract creatures.

Love your dad because he’s your father, because he made you, because he thinks for himself, and most of all because he is a person. Have the strength to doubt and question what you believe as easily as you’re so quick to doubt his beliefs. Live with a truly open mind — the kind of open mind that even questions the idea of an open mind. Don’t feel the need to always pick a side. And if you do pick a side, pick the side of love. It remains our only real hope for survival and has more power to save us than any other belief we could ever cling to.

Your friend,
Andrew W.K.

Random Musings on Distributism

After taking a handful of economics courses, my ultimate conclusion was two-fold: 1) Control of the means of production by a few is inherently unjust, and 2) Profits arising from the production of goods and services should remain with the producers of those goods and services. As we are told, “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (2 Timothy 2:6) Though I’ve held this view for several years now, I never knew that this perspective has a name: Distributism.  And apparently I’m in good company, as G.K. Chesterton was a proponent of it.

Before I delve into distributism as a theory, let’s talk about what the means of production are in a capitalist society and their significance. In a capitalist system, profit is earned by producing goods and services and selling them for more than it costs to produce them. The means of producing goods and services are: Land (and other natural resources), Labor, and Capital. The first two are self-explanatory, and the third refers not to money, but to things like tools and machines that are used to create goods and deliver services.  Entrepreneurs then use these three two create an enterprise that will generate profit.  

Capitalism, it seems, is in the interest of the State as a means of ensuring the most efficient, productive uses of the means of production.  By permitting the means of production to be controlled by those with the most access and the most resources, the incentive of earning profit ensures that land, labor and capital will be utilized for the most profitable outcome.  More goods and services are produced and distributed more widely, elevating the quality of life overall.  There is something to be said for the fact that poverty in the developed world is in an entirely different dimension than poverty in the third world. I tend to think that the problem of poverty in the developed world is much more a problem of socio-cultural alienation than material lack, but that is another post entirely. For the purposes of this post, it is enough to say that it is unlikely that distributism would be as economically efficient as a capitalist system, and therefore would not be as productive.

But efficiency is a quantitative good.  Whether capitalism creates a qualitative good is a moral question.  In my view, the problem with capitalism is not with the economic inequality it produces.  It is in the way it changes our priorities, encourages consumerism, discourages responsibility for our own futures, and promotes individualism in order to more efficiently use the individual as a cog in the wheel and as a consumer.

What I see as the main economic problem today that distributism addresses:
–In Western society, unless one owns fertile land, which itself is expensive, one is completely unable to labor to support oneself unless and until someone with access to land and capital chooses to enlist you as a laborer. This is highly problematic because, as we see with the current dilemma of extended unemployment and the constant political rallying cry of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” people are more often than not completely dependent upon the business priorities of others in order to make a living. If everyone at least had land, some timber and water, they could at the very least eek out a subsistence living as indigenous peoples did and do, and as the rural poor globally did and do.  But the urban poor cannot even do that.  Those decrying the welfare state would do well to look at the unemployment rate and ask what the alternative is. When the means of production become controlled by increasingly few people, the ability to create productive work for oneself becomes that much more difficult.

Nevertheless, now that I have read more about this theory, I do see vulnerabilities vis a vis capitalism.  Most notably, I’m not sure that distributism would actually solve the inequality that seems to be the most problematic for people.  

1) Evenly distributing the means of production is no guarantee whatsoever that any individual or group of individuals will actually be productive. While doing so at least provides greater opportunity, opportunities must be seized and made into something good.  Whether through lack of will or ability, the quality and quantity of goods and services produced will vary widely from person to person, family to family, community to community. Ancient Israel, which seemed to deal with this issue through the Year of Jubilee, nevertheless had lazies in its midst, as the Preacher observes: “I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” (Proverbs 24:30-34, ESV) In our society today, I do believe that the poor in general are often mislabeled as lazy (see above comment) when the fact is that there are simply not enough opportunities for work. However, it is true of human nature that laziness is a common vice.  Even if distributism is a more just system in principle, we would still encounter the inevitable rise of inequality of outcomes as a result of differences in the amount of effort exerted.

We also can’t assume that everyone even wants more than they currently have.  I am reminded of my first job when the receptionist mentioned that she’d passed up opportunities to move into other departments with more responsibility because she just wasn’t interested.  She was perfectly happy where she was.  I know others–different ages, races, stages of life–who more or less said the same thing.  (It was clear that things would not work out with an incredibly smart date in college when he shared that his post-college dream was to become a wandering hobo).  And my experience with the homeless population in the U.S. has shown me that there are plenty of people who have no particular inclination to become “productive members of society.”  And they are not necessarily sad about their situations, either.  That’s not a judgment; it’s a recognition that different people have different desires for their lives.  Most everyone can enjoy more material comforts if those comforts are offered, but not everyone wants more work in order to have more material comforts or even for the challenge of it.  And in those cases, it’s not about laziness, it’s about desire.  “The lazy man desires but does not have…” but the one who does not desire more than he has is content.

Then there is inequality that arises due to inherent ability rather than effort.  While I definitely do not believe that those who are wealthy are necessarily smarter or harder working than most, and there are plenty of diligent tortoises that beat out the hares, I do believe that the development of those goods and services that really add value to our society (think the invention  of the automobile, the rise of PCs, Apple, and the internet), are the result of knowledge and creativity, which fall under the category “human capital”.  While there is definitely a significant educational component to developing such traits, the brilliance required to really innovate can only be nurtured, not taught. Thus, this form of capital–brilliance–is as unevenly distributed throughout the population as fertile land, forests, and freshwater are across the planet.  Not everyone has equal access to them.  Because of this, distributism seems slightly outdated.  We are now, and increasingly so, in a knowledge economy based largely on technological innovation.  Apple has reached #5 on the Fortune 500 list not because it is controlling the means of production, but because Steve Jobs and company came up with a great concept and honed it into products services that millions around the world are willing to pay top dollar to use.  And in that case, it is consumers who are transferring money (potential capital) up the economic chain–giving Apple $500 of their hard-earned money in exchange for the benefit of having an iPhone.  This leaves the consumer with less and Apple with more.  Apple will then use this money to invest in more capital and become even more productive.  The consumer will simply enjoy his phone.  The consumer could have bought a “dumb phone” and invested the remainder of the money in stocks or saved up to start a business that would ultimately bring him profit.  But once again, human behavior interferes with an ideal economic system.  

So, insofar as distributism is an attempt to correct inequality of outcomes, it’s a lost cause.  Zippy Catholic has been writing about modernity’s misguided attempt to make freedom a political objective.  It seems that there is a corollary to economic equality.  A variety of problems arise when resources are tightly controlled by only a handful, but it is unlikely that there is a system that will itself prevent inequality.  The path of justice never rests with a system, as human actions will always reap fruit according to the action taken, whether good or bad, regardless of the context.  Rather, justice rests with virtuous men and women choosing what is good.  






An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments–Faith Edition

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman


I happened upon an interesting little book by Ali Almossawi called An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments which is exactly that.  It takes the reader through a series of informal (and one formal) logical fallacies, explains what is wrong with the reasoning used (or lack thereof) and provides a nice little cartoon to go along with each one.  As one would expect from an author so devoted to logical reasoning, it’s fairly clever.  And in the spirit of service to the public good, it’s also free, and can be read online here:  An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

While reading, I was often aware of the tension that is posited between faith and reason.  To be more precise (which good reasoning requires), I often thought of the attacks upon religious belief lobbied at the devout mainly by those who consider themselves to be secularists or more scientific in their thinking.  I must admit that I could definitely think of fallacies that apply to reasoning by Christians; the “No True Scotsman Argument” very much reminded me of the knots reformed Christians tie themselves in (when apparent believers sin egregiously) due to their belief in eternal security.  It was also implied that political conservatives often use reasoning beset by an Appeal to Fear (for example: “Be aware–if gay people get married, it will completely destroy the institution of marriage”) and an Argument from Consequences (for example: “Implementing additional environmental regulations will make doing business more expensive and inhibit job growth; we maintain that climate change is natural, not man-made.”).  Any of those conclusions could be true, but the argument used does not support the conclusion because relevant evidence is not given to support it.

I found the book at an apropos time, as I had been thinking a lot about a seeming rise in the assumption that religious faith is fundamentally opposed to logical reasoning.  That is not really anything new (though Western society is becoming more secular) but it is sticking out to me more and more because I notice that liberal secularism in the culture is often less logically rigorous in the formation of its ideological beliefs than that of religious doctrine.  (Full disclosure–what I just did there could be considered an informal fallacy because I made a generalization that is not supported by any concrete evidence.  However, I am not asking you to draw any conclusions based on that observation; rather it provides context for understanding where I’m coming from.  You can decide whether my observations match yours.)

The main issue I see with die-hard skeptics is a failure to recognize the difference between logic and epistemology.  Logic is a process that enables one to move from a premise to a valid conclusion.    Epistemology is the study of knowledge, how we know what we know, and perhaps even what evidence is sufficient to induce belief.  Logic deals with conclusions, epistemology with premises.  One can reason logically about a premise that is entirely fabricated.  But a valid reasoning process does not make an untrue premise true; nor can a valid reasoning process assure you that your premise is true.  If you happen to have a false premise, then however airtight your arguments, your conclusion will be logically valid but nevertheless untrue.  When it comes to believing that one’s premise is true, there comes a point at which the nature and amount of evidence sufficient to induce belief is highly subjective.  There are some doubting Thomas’ who cannot believe something they have not physically touched or seen or heard even if plenty of others have said they have touched and seen and heard it.  There are others who have had experiences that they cannot fully or accurately communicate to others.  I know a bible scholar who converted to Christianity from athiesm.  He mentioned during a lecture that many skeptics dismiss personal experience as evidence for religious belief.  But personal experience is empirical.  It is an observation of a phenomenon and it does count as evidence, even if it is not evidence that is sufficient to induce someone who has not had the experience to believe.

Thomas AquinasThe Christian tradition in particular has generally evinced a stringent reasoning process through the Catholic Church.  It would be difficult to read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and find it anything but doggedly logical.  For every doctrine formulated, every question answered, one can generally find hundreds of pages in tome after tome of explanations, reasoning, history, etc for any given issue or concept.  In Christendom more generally, there remains a highly active intellectual tradition that has been and continues to be populated by brilliant minds.  But for all its reasoning, the Church recognizes that there is an uncaused cause, a premise underpinning its structure of belief that one simply either accepts or rejects.  The athiest’s view that the Big Bang is the uncaused cause (not whether it happened, but whether it is the only beginning) is not something that has been or can be proven, but is essentially an ideological choice.  And from that chosen premise, they reason in a manner that excludes any religious influence.

Beyond that uncaused cause, for Christians, is the question of Jesus of Nazareth whose identity as bodily resurrected Lord and God is explicitly posited by Christianity as its defining belief.  Even though by the standards of historical documentation, it is perfectly reasonable to accept the manuscripts comprising the biblical canon as authentic (and not fabricated in some grand conspiratorial fashion), there are plenty who offer alternate theories of Jesus’ identity–not because they have more evidence to that effect, but because belief in an alternate explanation is easier to grasp psychologically or more neatly fits their ideological preferences.  Like Thomas, though having good reason to believe, they either cannot or will not.  But note, the ability to create a sound theory starting with certain premises and proceeding to a conclusion that flows logically is not proof that one’s premises are themselves true or encompassing enough.  This is where the potential for self-deception on the part of the skeptic and the believer runs high.

Also, Carlos Flores writes a really excellent response to those he calls the “new athiests” that is short, clear, and really worth reading.  It’s called “Strawmen and the God of the Athiestic Philistine.”  You may read it here.

As far as those who are not really skeptics, but more or less secularists or humanists (those who don’t mind religion so long as it doesn’t interfere with what people want to do), I offer the following bad argument examples:

Argument from Consequences & Circular Reasoning: “If we allow prayer in schools or public displays of Christian images, non-Christians will feel alienated; therefore the separation of church and state demands that such things be forbidden”  (Whether or not the concept of separation of church and state requires the prohibition of public prayer and displays of Christian images cannot be determined by how certain people feel about it.  Furthermore, there is an unstated premise in the conclusion that the separation of church and state is, one, a Constitutional concept, and two, forbids feelings of religious alienation.  Neither can be taken for granted.)

Straw Man:  “With all of their talk about morals, you know those Christian conservatives just want to set up a theocracy with the Bible in place of the Constitution!” (Having strong beliefs about what is right and what is wrong does not constitute advocating for a theocracy, and such claims are caricatured versions of certain political views.)

False Dilemma: “Christopher loved science and his Christian upbringing, but he knew deep down he had to choose between his reason and his faith.”  (This dilemma falsely assumes that faith and reason are mutually exclusive.)

Hasty Generalization:  “I’m done with Christians–what a bad lot.  The people I went to church with were so gossipy and mean; and the pastor ran off with the deacon’s wife!”  (An experience in one church or even a dozen does not provide sufficient evidence to make a judgment about all or even most churchgoers, as one has only encountered a very small fraction of the whole.)

Appeal to Ignorance/Argument from Personal Incredulity:  “It’s ridiculous to think that a man rose from the dead.  As what, a zombie?  Surely such a tale is mythical.” (One’s feeling of incredulity toward an assertion does not provide any evidence that that assertion is false.)

No True ScotsmanNo True Scotsman:  Friend 1: No well-educated, reasonable person could allow his life to be dictated by some ancient religious text.  Friend 2:  Hmm…Chris has gone to good schools, has always been smart and level-headed, and he’s very devout in his faith.  Friend 1:  Well obviously, Chris is not truly well-educated nor reasonable.  (In any other context, Friend 1 would have accepted that description of Chris as qualifying as well educated and reasonable.  But when Chris had attributes that didn’t support his assertion, he moved the goal post.  The fallacy of Equivocation is also implicated here.)

Genetic Fallacy:  “The view that masculinity and femininity are natural differences and not socially constructed comes from the same patriarchal belief system that prevented women from voting and having careers.  We need to leave the 19th century behind and become true 21st century women.” (The question of the nature of masculinity and femininity is independent from any belief system, patriarchal or otherwise.)

Guilt by Association:  “Look at the hateful antics of Westboro Baptist Church.  With all of these crazy fundamentalists out there, I really cannot take anything Christians say seriously.”  (Guilt cannot be Assigned to all Christians because of what a particular group of Christians have done (usually independently) and to do so is using faulty logic.)

Appeal to Hypocrisy:  “Christians say that they care about the institution of marriage?  Ha!  Why don’t we talk about all the divorces that happen in churches.”  (The nature or significance of marriage does not depend on whether Christians have upheld that standard.  Also, there is guilt by association being used here, as there are plenty of Christians who are faithful in their marriages, so they would not be being hypocritical to speak about it.)

Appeal to the Bandwagon:  “Legions of young people are leaving their churches and not looking back.  Why would you hold onto something that is so outmoded?”  (People leaving their churches does not provide support for one doing the same.)

I thought it important to share these examples because I think they constitute about 90% of the arguments I hear most often against Christianity and faith in general.  The fact that they are fallacies is telling, as it indicates that people are making judgments based on completely faulty thinking while at the same time often asserting that it is Christians who are anti-reason.  Strange times we live in, indeed.

A note on ad hominem arguments.  While attacking a person’s motives does not address their argument, I do think that discerning motives can be relevant for deciding whether to engage someone in discussion.  The entire point of discourse is to reach greater clarity and truth.  Someone who comes to the argument not interested in either, but who is only attempting to deconstruct, is probably not someone worth spending time debating with, as they will not be willing to admit when you’ve made a sound argument.  There were times in the Gospels when Jesus refused to answer the religious leaders directly because He knew they were only attempting to trap Him.  As I recently heard someone say, “Just because someone invites you to an [argument] doesn’t mean you have to go.”

Remembering Maya Angelou

13214I was only about 9 years old when I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  It immediately became one of my favorite books, and I’ve often wondered what about it seemed so compelling to me at such a young age.  News of Angelou’s passing has made me think it over again.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical novel of Angelou’s youth and is a story filled with a lot of pain; and yet there is a core of strength throughout, perseverance, resilience…though I find that word a bit cliche.  I suppose if we look at the story from the perspective of who Angelou ultimately became, she “shouldn’t” have risen so high in esteem, she “shouldn’t” have had such joy and peace about her, she “shouldn’t” have been able to speak and carry herself with such beauty and grace.  And yet she did.  Angelou was a woman with an inner world full of life and beauty regardless of what she experienced and regardless of what the society in which she lived thought about her.  Through her writings and speaking and presence, she invited us into that inner space and painted pictures that enabled her audience to see more about themselves and others than they would otherwise see.

Angelou herself seemed to be very aware of all the “shouldn’ts” she was defying, seemed to be aware that her bearing and persona often presented an equation that some were unsure how to solve.  What was her missing variable?  Angelou addressed this theme in two of her most famous poems, “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman”.

Still I Rise


You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Phenomenal Woman


Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

’Cause I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.


Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)

Nothing New Under the Sun

Is there really anything new under the sun?  The Preacher would tell us “No.”  From complaints about shamelessness to frumpiness in women, I think we’ve seen it all before.  Here’s a perspective on the ills of the young women who came of age in the early 1920s:

flappersThoughtful-minded people have deplored the chaotic conditions which came as an aftermath of the Great War.  In no respect were these conditions more deplorable than as they found expression the ‘flapper,’ with her seeming disregard of all the social conventions that her elders had held sacred.  She was the target for anathema, ridicule and reprehension from press, pulpit and private individuals.  Her flippancy, her immodesty of speech, dress and deportment, her sacrilegious and supercilious disrespect have all been decried, and yet—

There is more than room for doubt that the average girl of today is different at heart from her mother at sixteen to twenty-odd.  Her flippancy and seeming immodesty is mostly pose—the result of wrong teaching or wrong thinking.  Wrong thinking, arising from the cataclysmic overturning of conventions by experiences growing out of the Great War—wrong thinking, resulting from the positive urge of wrong teaching, upon the one hand, and the absence of positive instructions in the right way upon the other—these and not anything inherent in the modern girl herself, are principally to blame for whatever is repulsive in the social atmosphere of the day.  In her heart of hearts, the ‘flapper’ is as sweetly feminine as was her predecessor of a generation ago.  In her heart she is quite as clean, quite as lovable and desirous of being really loved.

And then—there is the modest girl who does not know how to use her own powers.  A hint here, a caution there—and this demure little wren is transformed into a bewitching mocking-bird, luxuriating in the sunshine of popular favor because she has attained the ability to be her real self and to let it be seen that she is. 

[This book] points out, in no uncertain terms, how the superficial errors of the generation may be avoided.  It tells how the real attractiveness of genuine womanhood may be cultivated and expressed.

Fascinating Womanhood (note: *not* Hannah Andelin’s book)–Harvard University – Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America / Fascinating womanhood, or, The art of attracting men. St. Louis : Psychology
Press, c1922

An Easter Poem

Today we celebrate Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead–but more than that.  We celebrate all that He obtained for us through His death.  We could not obtain the good of new and everlasting life without death, as there is no Easter without Good Friday (and that is why we call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good”).  But often, we struggle to let the old things pass away that the new may live.  That is the hardest part–not clinging to what was or what we hoped would be.  If we cling to the old, we cannot have the new. All things, to grow and ascend, must die in some respect that something greater might be raised up from within.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24, ESV

And so, I’d like to share a reflection from Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing:

“On Easter Sunday morning, Mary Magdala meets the resurrected Jesus.  Initially she does not know who he is and she supposes him to be the gardener, but immediately upon recognizing him, she tries to throw her arms around him.  Jesus, for his part, tells her:  “Mary, do not cling to me!”  What lies behind Jesus’ reluctance to let Mary touch him?  Mary Magdala herself, had we ever found her gospel, would, I suspect, explain it this way:

I never suspected


  and to be so painful

to leave me weeping

With joy

 to have met you, alive and smiling, outside an

  empty tomb

With regret

not because I’ve lost you

but because I’ve lost you in how I had you–

 in understandable, touchable, clingable


 not as fully Lord, but as graspably human.

I want to cling, despite your protest

 cling to your body

cling to your, and my, clingable humanity

cling to what we had, our past.

But I know that…if I cling

you cannot ascend and

I will be left clinging to your former self

…unable to receive your present spirit.”

Have a blessed Easter.  Christ suffered, died, and rose again that you might have hope.

Global Morality & Economic Development

For a while now, something that has struck me is how similar standards of morality have been throughout human history, irrespective of a society’s dominant religious beliefs.  Religious doctrine provides an explanation, a narrative, of human existence on earth and how we might transcend the failings of human nature; and the world religions differ significantly on the details of that overarching narrative.  However, on matters of conscience, matters relating to our dealings with others and society on the whole, there has been much more agreement than disagreement between the Judeo-Christian faiths, Hinduim, Buddhism and others.  C.S. Lewis touched on this in Mere Christianity, “I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.  But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”  To a significant extent, the world religions possess a deep repository of human wisdom gleaned from millennia of reflections on life on this planet.  Given that the dynamics of human lives, families and communities are quite similar wherever one is born, it’s not surprising that sages within different religious traditions have come to similar conclusions about what is best for people and communities.

This observation is reflected in today’s release of the Pew Research Center’s “Global Views on Morality” report.  The Center polled individuals in dozens of countries around the globe, asking them to categorize a set of behaviors as unacceptable, acceptable, or not a moral issue.  The greatest moral differences are not between countries with different religious traditions.  The greatest moral differences are between countries at various levels of economic development.  It pans out pretty clearly that the Third World is the most morally strict and the First World is the most morally lax with Second World countries falling somewhere in between. (note: I use the “world” designations loosely–they essentially mean very developed, almost developed, and developing).


First World Representatives

 Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 2.53.35 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-15 at 2.31.39 PM









Second World Representatives

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 2.33.45 PM

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 3.07.29 PM









Third World Representatives

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 2.32.28 PM

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 2.33.08 PM












I find it quite interesting to note that the more economically developed a country is in terms of per capita wealth, the more likely they are to find that list of actions to be morally acceptable or to refuse to categorize them as moral issues at all.  Countries that are traditionally Protestant Christian, Catholic, officially secular, traditionally Orthodox Christian, traditionally Confucianist or Buddhist, and Hindu are all jumbled together in terms of their moral stances.  And not even public secularity makes a difference.  Rather, moral conservatism is inversely correlated with what the international community terms economic development.

My explanation for these findings is that, regardless of the Christian history of the West, it’s functional belief system is (and arguably has always been) nationalistic capitalism.  As a functional belief system, capitalism (as opposed to a free market in general) dictates that all human associations and interests be subjugated to the economic interests of the nation-state on the whole and personal economic advancement on the individual level.  It is a belief that the pursuit of self-interest will produce the best outcome.

The legal categories upon which our government operates are inherently individualistic in nature.   Because the law plays an important role in shaping the conscience of the citizenry, increasingly, many can see little rationale for moral norms which are not geared toward preventing the infringement of personal individual choice or advancement.  But whether the government should enforce those norms is a different question than whether those actions are, in fact, morally wrong.

The temptation of Westerners is to think that the economic prowess of the West is itself proof of its moral and cultural superiority.  It might be just the opposite.  The modern West succeeded so well in part because Western nations were willing early on to subvert moral norms for the sake of their nationalistic and individualistic advancement.  If masses of people are needed for labor to produce wealth for the nation, the capitalistic nation-state organizes and facilitates their kidnapping and generations of subjugation to serve its economic purposes.  If land is needed to grow the country, then the capitalistic nation-state forcibly removes peoples long living on those lands in order to make way for their settlers.  And if war must be waged to protect the availability of key natural resources, the capitalistic nation-state does so to protect its interests.  And a new morality is then crafted to buttress these actions which were taken purely to promote the economic interests of the nation on the whole.  Thus, nationalistic capitalism turns morality into the servant of its own self-interest.  This is what we see on an individual level as well.  Right and wrong become mere reflections of what one perceives to be in one’s own individual interest.  

For that reason, I don’t see Muslims as a threat, nor the Chinese, and not Putin’s Russia.  Pogo’s words hold true–We have met the enemy and he is us.