Sunday, September 30, 2012

Controversies: A Tale of Two Axioms

There are some controversies where no amount of discussion seems to make any difference to either side. I think this traces to something that our geometry teachers called an "axiom". At the beginning of every logical system, of every rational argument, and of every train of thought, there is some starting point. The first point in any argument is assumed as given. If you don't believe that something is assumed in every argument, then consider this: the first point must be assumed; otherwise it wouldn't be the first point. If that point is not assumed, if it rests on something else -- then whatever it rests on would be the first point -- and that would be assumed. (For those who remember geometry -- which is the first formal system of logical proof that we meet in school -- the "axioms" are the things you assume from the start, considered so fundamental that there is no need for proof. Every other proof rests on those assumptions. More than that: every other thing that we know can be figured out from a good set of axioms. It is just a matter of time, and discovering all the basic axioms, and applying ourselves to reach all the other available knowledge.) So an axiom is something that is is so basic that it is impossible to prove, something that is assumed based on general life knowledge and common sense: like the idea that there is a straight line that connects any two points.

Atheists have a basic axiom about the world: There is no supernatural. It is generally agreed that no reasonable person acts as if things exist which do not exist. So they conclude that anyone discussing the supernatural seriously can't be a reasonable person. By the same chain of logic, any document that records (or claims to record) supernatural events must be unreliable. The other side is not given a fair hearing because the basic belief that there is no supernatural -- the axiom of atheism -- makes it impossible to give a fair hearing to those ideas.

Different groups of Christians have different axioms about the world: That the perfection they attribute to God also holds true for either the Bible, or for the church, or for the pope, or for their own personal moral compass. (I have met a good number of Christians who believe that the Bible is fallible, but that their own personal moral compass is the infallible thing. Of course they're open to instruction -- just not from anyone who disagrees with them on anything important.) So, depending on what their own starting point is, each group will conclude that anyone who believes the Bible contains mistakes (or that their church has a mistaken teaching, or that their personal moral compass is off) is simply wrong. We may hear different explanations as to why the other person is wrong. We may hear some kinder explanations -- but usually the explanation comes down to an accusation that the other side is blinded by the evil one or morally defective, along with complaints about the supposed lack of intelligence shown by those who disagree (by the act of disagreeing). Again, different views are not given a fair hearing precisely because that person holds some belief as an axiom. Any axiom will make it impossible to consider things that might contradict that axiom. (An axiom for the religious person is not exactly the same as dogma, but they are related.)

Everybody has axioms, and it is not wrong to have an axiom. You can't start any train of thought without one; they're necessary. Where would any serious thought have gotten without solid ground and a place to start?

And the fact that two sides won't listen to each other is not, by itself, proof that the beliefs are false. But it is proof that these particular beliefs cut off meaningful conversation with opposing views if they are taken as "given", as axioms -- as things that are not open to discussion. As long as someone holds those beliefs as axioms, they hold the view that the other side cannot possibly be right and that the opposing view is not worthy of discussion. Conversations between the two groups are generally full of personal attacks questioning the other side's sanity, intelligence, humanity, or morality.

The usual way forward is to suspend the axioms -- or take a softer version of them -- for the time it takes to have a discussion or a debate about some other subject of interest to both sides. But generally it doesn't work. The conversations get right back to amazement and disbelief that the other person starts where they start, and assumes what they assume. No matter what else is being discussed, those basic beliefs never quite leave the table, and the other side never quite gets a fair hearing. Each group leaves the conversation even more firmly convinced than when they began: the other side does not give them a fair hearing and never intends to do so; the conversation was not held in good faith but was merely a show for their own supporters; and the other side is completely blind to the things considered self-evident and obvious on the other side of the divide. 

It may be more helpful to put the axioms themselves on the table for discussion. If we put the axioms themselves up for debate, what would we ask? How about this: Do you believe that this axiom is the only possible explanation that fits our experience? Or, can we test this idea against another, and see which one makes better sense of a set of facts?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ten Encouraging Things To Say

Along the thoughts of The Gentle Art of Lifting Up Your Neighbor, here are some encouraging things to say to people who don't quite understand about their own talents.
  1. Wow. You are so good at that. 
  2. You are better at that than I am. 
  3. I'm sure you can handle it. 
  4. I really love the way you handled that. 
  5. I know I can count on you. It means a lot to me. 
  6. I trust you.
  7. You make that look so easy. 
  8. I could never have done that. 
  9. You've always been good at that. 
  10. That was so [kind / helpful / friendly / good-natured]. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

With gentleness and respect

I wonder if Peter called on people to speak of Christ "with gentleness and respect" because of the way Jesus himself dealt with those who were willing to learn. The Samaritan lady at the well could have been called unpleasant names -- probably had been called names at times. But Jesus treated her with gentleness and respect. Simon the Leper, the man who hosted the dinner where Jesus was anointed by a sinful woman, could have been criticized harshly when he tried to distance Jesus from the probably-uninvited guest, but Jesus dealt with him with gentleness and respect, setting up a story about two people who needed forgiveness, asking his opinion about it, giving him a chance to have the right answer to Jesus' question. When Jesus was criticized over having dinner at Levi's house, he turned that criticism into more than a teaching moment -- it was a faith-building moment as he took an opportunity to explain more about God's grace and our hope. (That was the occasion when he said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor" etc., explaining more about the hope for the spiritually ill.)

I have recently been reading a Harry Potter fan-fiction* that is written to show what good parenting might have done for Harry, and it shows "constructive criticism" done in an interesting way. Whenever Harry does something fairly stupid, he is told that his new guardian will not accept foolishness from such a bright boy, and he expects better in the future. Whenever Harry does something risky, he is told that he is valuable and important, and is not to risk any harm coming to himself. As opposed to the Dursleys who raised Harry with harshness and hatred, here Harry is treated with gentleness and respect (comparatively speaking). Even well-deserved corrections are delivered with ... whatever you might call the opposite of "backhanded compliments" ... maybe "complimentary corrections"? At any rate, his value is presented as the reason for the correction when he falls short of this.

It seems like this is a skill that a Christian should want to master.  Once a blog neighbor and I traded comments about a book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense; while there is good in that book, at times the responses are not fully Christian, and the book is more defensive than constructive. There may be room in the world for a book about the The Gentle Art of Lifting Up Your Neighbor. I'm wondering whether to start a collection of the most apt turns of phrase for that purpose. If the readers have any suggestions for good books to read along those lines -- or good movies, as the case may be -- I'd be glad to hear about them.

* I can't fully recommend the fanfic as the author has something of a ... fetish ... to put it politely. You'll spot it quickly enough if you try to read it. But it's PG-13, and if you're interested the fic is here. Like almost everything, it has pro's and con's, and let the reader use discretion.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why Christianity requires us to pray for members of violent Muslim mobs

"But I say to you: Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust." (Jesus, Sermon on the Mount)
Some people suppose that, because Christians do not retaliate in kind when people abuse us, insult us, or even attack us -- that we must not take our religion as seriously as the Muslims. But the more seriously we take Jesus, the more likely we are to return good to everyone, even those who have been evil in their treatment of us. The more seriously we take our religion, the less likely we are to retaliate in kind when someone does evil. Our response to the current attacks has been encouraging so far, for those of us who wonder if we still take Jesus seriously here in the U.S.

When we pray for Muslims, we are not to pray only for those who do not hate us, or pray for them by consoling ourselves that not all Muslims are willing to kill for their religion, or by concealing from ourselves that violence in Islam traces back to Mohammed himself and so is not likely to be disowned by the Muslim community, or by concealing from ourselves that many Muslims believe that such acts are holy rather than evil. All this effort is meant to make it easier for us to pray for them and befriend them, but it takes a wrong turn when it denies the reality that among them we find genuine enemies who genuinely hate and spitefully use and persecute -- and that these are the ones that Jesus singles out to make sure we do not forget them in our prayers and our acts of kindness. It is no good to imagine we have prayed for our enemies when we have merely focused on those who are not truly enemies.

When we pray for Muslims -- and particularly, the ones who genuinely are enemies -- we are not to blame their victims, as if the way we can love the Muslim community is to excuse any violence and blame their targets. We are called to be brothers and sisters to the oppressed. This does not mean that we imagine the people they hate and attack are some kind of saints who are free from any accusation of wrongdoing; no human is free from all wrongdoing. It means that we do not justify when someone kills those who have not, themselves, killed -- that we recognize that a wrong or an insensitivity on one side does not justify murder on the other side.

Jesus told us about our blindness when it comes to sin, how we tend to criticize the spec in someone's eye and overlook a log in our own eye. The same thing may happen even when we ourselves are not directly involved but are sympathetic to one side and unsympathetic towards the other in a dispute: our sense of proportion can be distorted so that we see a smaller fault in one side as graver than a larger fault in another. In fact, whenever we pay more attention to a small fault on one side than a large fault on the other side, we can be sure that our sense of proportion has somehow been distorted, and we must work to see clearly. We are not to look at a spec in one person's eye and say it justifies or causes the log in the other.

If an evil man insists that someone else's wrong justifies their own greater wrong, we should not embrace either evil; we also should meet the greater wrong with greater condemnation, so that we are not accomplices in self-justifying hypocrisy. When we find fault with the victims -- and everyone does have fault in them -- then it is easier for us to return good to those who do evil -- but we do this by implying that evil is good, a justified response to whatever fault may be found. If we do not recognize evil as evil, then it is no good thing to return good for it, and we have not followed Jesus.

If there is some case where we genuinely believe those who are attacked are the evildoers, then it is to these people that Jesus' command would then apply. When he says to return good to those who do evil, it would now mean to return good to those who are attacked. So it is impossible for Jesus' words to be used to support a hateful and murderous attack, even on people who really have done evil. Jesus' words about returning good for evil will turn us away from using someone else's evil as a justification for our own. His words are a cure for that particular kind of self-justifying vindictiveness and fault-finding to which religion is so easily corrupted whenever we forget Jesus' words, or in religions that do not hear or consider Jesus' words. We know too well that murder done in God's name has caused people all around the world to condemn religion as an evil thing; we must not stand by and justify something that desecrates God's name and causes the unbelievers all around the world to blaspheme God.

When we pray for those who do evil, that act can be misunderstood as support for that evil, so we must take particular care that we are clear: we do not pray because we excuse the evil, but precisely because we do not excuse it. We pray because here we find an urgent need for God's goodness.

When we pray even for the hateful and violent among the Muslims, we are not to pray for their destruction, as Jesus said: "bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray ..." -- here we cannot imagine that the blessing and good he has called for would suddenly become a curse when we pray for them. And again it is written, "As I live," says the Lord GOD, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." (Ezekiel 33:11).

How then do we pray for enemies? Here is a first try, but I think that better might be prayed, and invite you all to add your prayer to mine.

Lord God, who has mercy on the sinful, who has had mercy us, and whose mercy endures forever: we remember before you the sinners of the world: may they know you, and may their hearts turn to you. Lord, who takes no delight in the death of the wicked, we pray for the wicked: may they turn from their ways and live. May they despise all evil, even in their own hearts. Your heart, O Lord, is full of mercy: in your very nature, you are love. May all the world acknowledge that you are a God of compassion and mercy, and that those who truly serve you are people of compassion and mercy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Christian Response to Backhanded Compliments: Reprise

A couple of years ago I posted on a Christian response to backhanded compliments, which is an area where I struggle. Since backhanded compliments come up fairly regularly in my family, that is a subject that comes to mind fairly often; I have kept an eye out for better solutions for some time now.

I was sure there had to be a way to "return good for evil" like Jesus tells us. So I started a mental list of things where I might earnestly return good to the people who tend to comment on me. But the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized why I had trouble thinking of a nice way to respond to a backhanded compliment: I haven't put nearly enough thought into nice things to say in the first place. Why should I wait until someone insults me before I begin looking for kind things to say? Isn't that just asking for failure, in finding those kind things in my heart? Why should I walk into a family gathering and check to see how they treat me before I decide how to treat them? In that case, the best I can do is react (or refuse to react) to a bad situation. I hadn't been going to family gatherings with a clear purpose of making sure everyone felt welcomed and appreciated; I'd gone in defensively, hoping not to take any damage from the usual undercurrent of subtle digs. (In some Christian circles where "intentional" is something of a watchword for a set purpose, it might be thought of as "intentional goodwill".)

It's something of a feeling of freedom, to know that it doesn't matter how they treat me. Christ does not call me to be a weather vane, blown around towards now the good and now the evil depending on how we are treated ourselves. He calls us to follow his Spirit only in this. And for those we meet, if that day they are like a weather vane, we can turn them around by the Spirit of Christ.

My holiday preparation is now simpler: to follow Christ, to know what kinds of things love may bring me to say to them, and not to be sidetracked by petty things.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Learning About Spiritual Growth: An Academic Bias?

Have you ever tried to learn about spiritual growth and direction? There are some books on the subject. There are even courses on the subject that you can study at theological schools or religious schools. Again, I have read some of the books, and read another course syllabus or two. The courses generally have required reading from selected books; some also require journaling as a spiritual exercise.

There's a trend in there, a bias if you will allow the word when no hatred is meant. There is a quiet assumption that one way of learning is better than all others: books and writing. The quiet assumption is that spiritual growth is mainly achieved by reading spiritual books, and secondly by writing spiritual writings. These things do have their place. The Bible was written by people, and has been read by spiritual seekers through the ages. And I'm a bookworm by nature. So I can enthusiastically support reading and writing as full of spiritual potential. The problem comes when we believe that reading and writing is the majority of what we should be doing.

When we read the Bible, we find that the Bible asks more of us than to read it: it asks us to live it. If the Bible tells us to pursue fellowship, then reading a book is not the best thing to do about it: sitting down to a meal and being kind to the people there is a more fitting spiritual exercise for fellowship. If reading the Psalms is a spiritual exercise, then so is singing them -- or being in choir. If the Bible tells us to visit the sick and welcome the stranger, then it is a spiritual exercise to visit my shut-in neighbor (or reach out to her not-precisely-friendly daughter), or be part of the church's cooking brigade that sends out meals to those who need them.

Is there anything we do that is not spiritual? A thing may be spiritual in a good way, or in a bad way in the case of giving in to temptation. Anything we do for family, friends, or neighbors is spiritual in a good way. Our employment can be spiritual regardless of what kind of job we have, by how we treat people and whether we give a full measure, running over, when we work.

What would a spiritual teacher teach, if the goal was to reach beyond books and show how wide and full and beautiful the life of the spirit can be?

When we think of learning, we are used to thinking about books and writing. But what it would look like if we learned to follow Christ like we learn to play a sport: more of a "coaching" model, where there are practical and active things each day? What if we pictured discipleship more like apprenticeship, or an on-the-job training?

My daughter once had a very good soccer coach, and the team was nearly unstoppable. That coach had years of practice figuring out just the drills that would get the kids excited about learning how to block and pass and score. I think St Paul even had something similar in mind when he used sports and military analogies for spiritual growth -- and when he put two of his congregations in competition with each other over helping the needy.

What would a spiritual coach do? What exercises would a really good coach devise that would make us eager and enthusiastic about loving our neighbors, and become skilled at kindness and generosity? These aren't idle questions; I am trying to find ideas.