Sunday, June 28, 2020

Breaking the silence

I dislike politics. It is so polarized that entering into that particular arena can leave us dehumanized. And yet whether I want to enter or not, there I am. Recently I reached out to a friend that I hadn't heard from since the COVID lockdown began. At first she was glad to hear from me. But then during a second conversation she set a litmus-test for my politics, demanding a yes-or-no answer to a question that, for me, is not all-or-nothing. I answered honestly; she ended the call and has cut off all contact. Such is the destructive, dehumanizing power of polarized politics. There is too much hatred, too much unthinking rage, too much willingness to believe the worst of people. For me, entering a conversation on politics has the feeling of walking into a baited trap. And yet if I'm going to lose friends over it, I would rather pull off the bandage and have it done. The topic I bring tonight isn't the same one I discussed with my friend -- and yet in the same way it is a litmus test in some peoples' minds.

My early experience of polarized politics consisted of my very-liberal mother's contempt for all things conservative, which early in life I adopted by default. The first time I remember re-evaluating was when I heard some conservatives defend a pro-life stance. You see, my brother and I were unwanted children, back from a time now long-gone when there were laws to protect unwanted children. Later my mother volunteered at Planned Parenthood, underscoring what she told us in so many words: Sometimes she wished we had never been born. So when I met conservatives who affirmed that I had a right to exist, a right to breathe the same air as other people and not be ashamed of my own existence, that I wasn't an inexcusable burden for simply being alive -- well, those were new thoughts to me. I took a second look at the default assumption that "unwanted children don't count". When I considered another view, "unwanted children are just as human as wanted children", considered that the lack of a mother's love didn't mean I was less worthy of love than the wanted children, I could breathe better. I know that taking a pro-life stand paints a target on myself; politics is not a game that is played nicely, but is generally played as a blood-sport these days. And yet I affirm that I have a right to exist, and that my brother had a right to exist.

There is an argument sometimes made in support of abortion, that any woman who does not want her child will do a bad job raising the child. That certainly matches my own experience. The attitude that she didn't want us so we didn't count -- that attitude didn't go away when we were born. There was an amount of neglect that should have seen us placed in foster homes -- if the family hadn't been so good at keeping secrets, if the system weren't so practiced at turning a blind eye. Every now and then I'd see a news segment where some neglected children were found and rescued and all kinds of people would cluck disapprovingly how those people should never have had children. But my focus was the rescue to a foster home; I would find myself quietly squashing the forbidden-yet-familiar thought, "Where's a news crew when you need one?" There was abuse serious enough that it contributed to my brother's diagnosis of PTSD, which in turn contributed to his untimely death year-before-last.

So I would like to take one step back and look behind the argument that "a woman who does not want her child will do a bad job raising that child." Underneath that argument is a basic acceptance of the attitude of not wanting your own child. There's an implied acceptance of neglect of unwanted children; perhaps even an expectation of it. The potential tragedies of abuse and neglect are framed as the natural result of the unwanted child's existence, instead of as the natural result of the attitude of not wanting the child. I would like to challenge that attitude, and challenge its acceptance. The most basic of all social contracts is that parents love and care for their children. The most basic moral touchstone, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," forbids us to harm the innocent and helpless; it would awaken our sense of compassion for our own child, and our sense of justice as people who have reached child-bearing age to care for the life of the next generation. 

To be clear, I am not writing out of any expectation that I'll have covered all the ground on this topic; there are dozens of contributing conversations, and they have hardly been touched here. Or out of any expectation that I'll have made anyone reconsider their own "side" (the fact that we're divided, and there are "sides", is its own problem). I hope that some people become aware of how arguments for abortion can sound to those of us who were unwanted, as the arguments affirm our parent(s) in claiming that, as unwanted children, we have no right to exist. In my experience, that attitude hardly stops when we're born. And that's part of the argument for abortion: the parent's attitude will cause them to at least neglect their child. And so it does; can we stop accepting the attitude then?

It is readily accepted in so many areas of life that we are responsible for our attitudes, and that changing our attitudes makes a world of difference. The only change I am advocating is a change in attitude. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: Want your child. Even -- maybe especially -- if they have already been born.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Sabbath Rest

I once read a Jewish author who claimed that the best hope for the restoration of the world came from the Sabbath. If we allow "Sabbath" as a stand-in for the peace of God, it would definitely be a step in the right direction. There is so much exhaustion in the world; I include frustration as a type of exhaustion. People are tired of hatred, injustice, oppression, finger-pointing, fear-mongering, racism, scapegoating, riots, and so many other things. Tired.

At times like that, Sabbath brings relief and renewal. It is a time for beauty, for blessing, for holiness. (Is a lack of holiness one of the hallmarks of false morality? Something to ponder another day.)

The Sabbath carries with it a message: that the world is good. That pausing enables us to see it, to appreciate it. And without renewing ourselves, we cannot renew the world.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

"Empty promises" and paradise lost

Today for the first time since the pandemic started, our congregation baptized a new member. As is traditional at one point the pastor asked (paraphrasing), "Do you reject the devil and all his works and empty promises?" While the history behind that question would probably fascinate me, I found myself thinking about how many empty promises I have heard in my life. Car salesmen and politicians have a reputation for them. And I still remember an old joke about Satan not attacking lawyers out of professional courtesy, though lawyers have more of a reputation for simple dishonesty than for promising anything.

The first time that the devil makes an appearance in Scripture, it's in the Genesis account as the serpent. Again, regardless of your own personal approach to Genesis' "page one" problem, it's interesting to watch the action unfold: the serpent tells a half-truth that is fully misleading. As a result of being misled, in a very short time the people are living with shame and fear and enmity and suspicion. Those bad things happened before God imposed any consequences; the fallout to that point was all from natural consequences. The man hid, and was afraid, and was ashamed all before he saw God. And when asked to explain, the blame-fest began. It's traditional to chalk up "paradise lost" to God's actions, but they had already lost paradise. It had stopped being paradise -- a garden planted by God himself where all was in harmony with God -- and had started being a piece of territory. Honestly, they had been destined to leave the garden anyway ("Be fruitful and multiply; Fill the earth and rule over it"). They hadn't been destined to fear and shame and suspicion and enmity. They were no longer in harmony with God. That was the paradise lost.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Too soon to move on

Once again I will take a pass on posting about my more typical topics. I will observe respectful silence this weekend. I had considered a post on the topic, "Does the death penalty have a positive value?" in consideration of the former policeman being charged in the death of George Floyd. But I am not convinced that I have enough clarity on the topic, and thought it best to take a pass, at least for now.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

It starts with one cop

There are times when a pre-planned post would be inappropriate in light of current events. This is one of those times. I'm speaking of the unnecessary death of George Floyd, where information as it is now known looks damning for the police officer who, from what we know, looks culpable. I hedge my words in acknowledgment that all my information is incomplete and not directly acquired. That much said, if the facts as we know them now stand the test of time, I believe that in a healthy society that police officer would see time in prison. Not just on administrative leave, not just losing his job, but with a felony conviction. In general I believe that a deterrent to evil and violence is necessary and that is the intended role of the police. The officer in question does not look like part of the solution, he looks like part of the problem. Police are welcome and helpful if they pursue justice for all people and protect people from all those who would harm them, including those wearing a badge. When the police come after a cop who kills a man unnecessarily, then the police will regain their street cred. This cop doing time will send a message to other cops that there's a line. This cop doing time will set a precedent that we don't tolerate our police acting that way. This cop facing justice will give reason to believe that the cops are there to stop all perpetrators, not just the convenient ones. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The journey to clean up the police will start with one cop. Let it be this one.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Toward a Theology of Beauty (Aesthetics) in Worship

When I read the descriptions of the ancient Jewish tabernacle, then the descriptions of the later Temple, I have a growing realization of the sensuality of our worship tradition. It is full sights: the fine embroidery in rich colors, the woodwork, the gold inlay, the careful shapes and proportions. It is full of scents: incense, and paneling of sweet-scented wood. It has a feel: water for washing. It has tastes: even then, bread and wine. This is a faith which embraces the world and recognizes its goodness. More than that, it takes the elements of the world and displays them as gems to reveal the creator's goodness. It patterns the earth's elements to reflect a transcendent heaven.

I've always been particularly struck by the description of the lamp stand: gold in the shape of an almond tree or branch, with almond flowers. When lit, I imagine that it looked like a tree of gold with flowers of flame. That is a sight that could have mesmerized, could have coaxed even the hardest soul to believe that there is good in the world, undeniably right before their eyes.

This beauty is not for judging; it is not merely for admiring. Worship is a participation, a self-inclusion in celebrating the eternal beauty. We recognize the presence of God in the beauty of the world.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Tautology and Logical Necessity

It's been awhile since I did a post that was on the topic of logic and philosophy as such. Recently an on-line conversation reminded me that I have fonder view of tautology than many people. (If you know what tautology is but don't care, you might rather skip this post. If you're willing to follow along for the ride, it helps to muster some interest in logical proofs and how they work.)

Tautology is something that is self-referencing, and so basically true by definition. Consider the sentence "An apple is an apple" or the more generalized and over-used "It is what it is." A tautology is something so self-referencing that it couldn't possibly be false. You can fault it for being dull or obvious, but not for being false.

Tying in another thread: There is an argument for the existence of God that starts by arguing whether God is necessary or contingent. That argument itself isn't the point here; it's used as a touchstone to bring up the distinction about whether a thing is necessarily true or just happens to be true (but might have been otherwise). So I mean necessarily true in a more technical sense that "It's necessary for it to be true", like the fact that A equals A, or "It is what it is." Those things are necessarily true; they couldn't be anything else. (Still awake?)

Anything that is necessarily true is, ultimately, a tautology. That is: if we have our definitions right, if someone wants to prove that a thing is necessarily true, then they must prove that their point is inherent in the nature of the things being discussed: that once all the variables are reduced, what is left is a tautology. If a thing cannot be reduced to a tautology -- if it doesn't rest on the definitions of the things and the nature of the topic -- then it is not necessarily true. It may happen to be true but that's contingent or circumstantial. So even the most complex thing that can be proven to be true must rest on the nature of the reality beneath it. Anything else is chance.

Tautology has an evil twin, the circular argument. We can tell them apart: while tautology argues that A = A, the circular argument asserts that A = B and proves it by the assertion that B = A; each is used to prove the other. When a circular argument is reduced, there's nothing left. When a tautology is reduced, you still have what you started with, but maybe it's better understood.