24 March 2005

Another Good Friday for a Protest

Tomorrow morning at around 6:45 the usual crowd of protesters plans to gather at a staging area to block traffic going into the laboratory where I work. It's a defense research lab, where among other things, scientists develop and maintain the knowledge necessary to maintain America's stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The protest is an annual Good Friday event. Head out West, do a little protesting, visit the kids. What they protest boils down to this: those of us who work at the Lab crucify Christ in a manner that is different from the way the protesters crucify Christ. They think they object to our content, but, given that they are as human as we are, I think its really just a matter of style. The world understands the dynamic of Crucifixion all too well, and admits that it does all too rarely.

What the world does not understand well is the dynamic of Resurrection. The real question those of us who are Christian should ask ourselves is "What are we doing with our lives if we really believe in the Resurrection?" The Resurrection changed the lives of the first Christians, and they changed history. Is the Resurrection changing our lives? Or are we living on autopilot, contributing to humanity's bad news instead of proclaiming and living out the Good News?

I can ignore a Good Friday protest. But a protest on the Tuesday after Easter, our first day back to work at the Lab after celebrating the Resurrection, well, that would get my attention.

23 March 2005

All Schiavo, All the Time, All Wrong

Radio and television in the US are saturated this Wednesday of Holy Week with the plight of Terry Schiavo, the 41-year old Florida woman who has been in a "Persistent Vegetative State" for the last 15 years. Or rather, the fight over the plight of Terry Schiavo. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Everyone is wrong.

We cannot know definitively what Ms. Schiavo's wishes were, because she left no written directive about what to do if she were to end up in such a state. Few 26-year-olds do. Her husband, who has moved on to a new relationship, claims she would never have wanted to be kept alive in these circumstances, and that he is only trying to comply with her last wishes by having her feeding tube removed and allowing her to die. Her parents claim that she is minimally responsive, and that they want to keep her alive, and to take care of her. Congress has passed a special law (which the President got out of bed to sign) to authorize yet another court hearing to decide the case. And the pundits all seem to have their opinions.

The only opinion we cannot get access to is Ms. Schiavo's. Exactly what state is she in? Wakefulness is controlled by the brain stem, while conscious awareness (possibly distinct from consciousness) resides in the cerebral cortex, the "outer shell" of the brain. Does she experience wakefulness without conscious awareness? Or does she experience both wakefulness and conscious awareness, but without functioning efferent nerves (ingoing connections, carrying sensory inputs like sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) or afferent nerves (outgoing connections carrying motor impulses that result in voluntary muscle movement)?

If she has no conscious awareness, then presumably she is not suffering. If she is conscious but unplugged (missing either sensory or motor connections or both) then she may be in a living hell, best described by the title of a Harlan Ellison short story, "I have no mouth and I must scream." In the face of the possibility of such profound and inexpressible suffering beyond human capability to imagine, I dare not mouth standard Christian theology on the "redemptive value of suffering" in this case! Therefore, a presumption to prevent or cut short suffering would indicate that she be allowed to die, with medication to mitigate any discomfort associated with hunger and dehydration. On the other hand, if she is not suffering, a presumption in favor of life, that life is an intrinsic and not a contingent good, would indicate that Mr. Shiavo should turn guardianship of his wife over to her parents, who want to care for her. That would at least mitigate their suffering.

We cannot know the interior world of Ms. Schaivo. Thus all parties are in a state of profound ignorance on the essential question necessary to decide this case. The pundits are irrelevant, and Congress and the courts have inserted themselves where they have no moral standing, because they have no competence. They are all wrong.

Frankly, I don't know what to do about poor Ms. Schiavo. Since no decision is still a decision in this case, I'm wrong too.

How about that? A situation in which it is impossible to know the right thing to do. It happens more often than we want to admit. That's why Forgiveness is so necessary, so powerful, and so Redeeming.

22 March 2005

American Empire

"Everybody in Europe says that America is an empire!" That's one of the things I like about travel. I was seated next to an Austrian radio and television journalist, who was kind enough to enlighten me regarding the attitude in Europe toward America's foreign policy.

"Every country in the world pays tribute to America," he added. On questioning, he stated that he thought buying US debt instruments (government and corporate bonds, I assume) was a form of tribute, of paying protection money to the seat of Empire. I pointed out that the Global Capital Markets don't see it that way. They see it as a good bet that they'll get a positive return on their investments. And that if America disappoints those markets, America will get poor in a hurry, just like any other country.

No, America does not maintain an Empire. If we did, we would be much more intentional about it, and we would run it better. The American People do not want to run the world. We want the world to run itself. But we do get cranky when it doesn't run itself our way.

13 March 2005

Psychology Trancendent

People I know who are currently doing graduate studies in Psychology in Northern California give me the impression that, if Religion is discussed at all, it is relentlessly pathologized. As if the only role that Religion could play in a person's life were as a crutch to make up for his or her deficiencies. I get the impression that most of the students and their professors are - in psychotherapeutic parlance - completely unprepared to deal with the counter-transferrence issues they would face, if they were to have a devoutly religious client.

How refreshing to read an article by Paul C. Vitz in the current issue of First Things entitled, "Psychology in Recovery." Vitz observes that psychotherapeutic psychology is outgrowing some of its early hubris as it turns from "negative psychology" (the study of traumas and mental illness) to "positive psychology"(the study of personal strengths and mental health).

A one-sided emphasis on negative psychology has changed our culture. Let me quote:

The general perspective provided by negative psychology is that we are all victims of past traumas, abuse, and neclect caused by other people. This victim mentality has been widely noted and criticized, quite legitimately, as having become extreme....

A further disturbing consequence of this mentality is the widespread belief that we are not responsible for our bad actions.....

Positive psychology, on the other hand, as Vitz quotes Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman from their book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification:

should reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry and informed societal discourse. By providing ways of talking about character strengths and measuring them across the life span, this classification will start to make possible a science of human strengths that goes beond armchair philosophy and political rhetoric. We believe that good character can be cultivated, but to do so, we need conceptual and empirical tools to craft and evaluate interventions.

Peterson and Seligman (the originator of the theory of "Learned Helplessness" as a contributor to depression) identify three conceptual levels in descending order: virtues, character strengths, and situational themes. They argue that their selection of virtues is universal, drawn from world cultures and traditions, and may even have a basis in the evolutionary biology of ourselves as a social species.

And their six core virtues are: wisdom and knowledge, humanity, courage, justice, temperance, and transcendence. As Vitz points out, these are not far from the Cardinal Virtues of prudence, charity, courage, justice, temperance, hope and faith. The mention of those last virtues, transcendence or its equivalent hope and faith, make me think here may be more than an incidental connection with Seligman's earlier work. It seems to me that if you have absolutely no hope or faith in anything, you are likely to be or to become depressed.

Psychology may be turning from an exclusive regard for the past to preparing people for the future. All things considered, it seems like a good turn to me. And I must admit, it is also refreshing to see someone pathologize un-faith for a change. Vitz is the author of a book called Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism.

10 March 2005

Predestination is just a Word

"How can I be blamed for something that God knows ahead of time I'm going to do anyway?"

Good question. Those of you who believe in Predestination are welcome to take a crack at it. I, however, think the doctrine of Predestination is the kind of trip people put over on God because they don't stop to think that the Author of Time is not bound by Time.

Time consists of one dimension only, and we move along it in one direction only - but only in this Universe. Since the Creator of this Universe is not stuck in this Universe, the Creator is not constrained like a bead moving on the wire of Time. So, "knowing everything in advance" and Predestination are human ideas that may have nothing to do with the way God relates to us.

God's relation to us seems to involve kenosis, a Greek word meaning the "emptying out of oneself." I think God comes all the way into our lives to experience them as we do. I think God gives up any priveleged position (comes down off God's "Throne") to do so.

Predestination and "knowing everything in advance" are human philosophical constructs that have no meaning in this context. Since this is all the context we know, it is meaningless to speak of any other. But we can still speculate, and I speculate that in the Universe to come all of our Time is Redeemed and made whole.

In the meantime, God lives and co-creates our lives with us. And Predestination is just a fourteen-letter word.

09 March 2005

Bleep my VCR!

If there is one thing that serves as the quintessential icon of bad human interface design it is the VCR. I mean, in my time, I've programmed everything from micro-chips to supercomputers. I can handle computers. But I fat-fingered the wrong button on the remote control to my VCR and got it into a state from which it would not exit.

The "Cancel" button would not cancel it. The "Menu" button brought up inappropriate menus. After dinner, I found the manual and turned to "Trouble Shooting." To my surprise there were two entries that mentioned something like what was on my VCR's front panel display. Both entries said the same thing: "Read Chapter 3." The longest chapter in the manual. Like I don't have enough to read.

Thumbing through Chapter 3 for a half-hour, I found that there was a button on the remote I should push. Nothing happened. A little experimentation soon showed that nothing on the remote did anything at all. I changed the batteries. Ah, success! Finally.

There used to be only one group of people whose minds I longed to illuminate with a flamethrower: the designers of the Application Programming Interfaces to ArcGIS. To them let me add the people who designed the user interface to my VCR.

Oh, yeah. And the twits who did the user interface to my long-discarded sports watch.

08 March 2005

Re-Dreaming Christianity

Beer and Belief
contributed by Peter J. Walker*

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. — 1 Corinthians 2:14
Have you ever seen two babies try to have a serious, intimate conversation? Each baby is entirely wrapped up in what he or she wants and never listens to find out what the other baby is asking for. One baby wants milk and the other wants its diaper changed and neither is interested in the other, nor in learning how to walk the road ahead. A life of Faith often starts like that conversation. I'm learning to listen. In doing so, I hope I'm learning to walk.

Lots of my friends are not Christians. That is to say, most of them don't go to church or read the Bible often or identify themselves by any religious label. Most of my friends are spiritual, though. The Bible says that we are supposed to meet together regularly and share things about each other. The Bible says this will make us stronger. I think that's true, but Christians like to use this as an excuse to stay away from anyone who doesn't agree with their theology. This is a mistake. There are lots of Christians who aren't very close to God and lots of agnostics who are closer. I don't think God is a doctrine or denomination or political party. He's bigger than all of that.

Lately God's been moving me to listen in on what atheists and agnostics are saying about Christianity. Sometimes I find these revelations in bars or cafes. More recently, I sat down with two old friends, Chris and Bryan, over a six-pack of Fat Tire Ale.

Bryan is quiet, friendly and unshakably agreeable. In college, Bryan joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He wasn't a Christian then, either. He just thought it would be a nice way to make new friends. Bryan and I have had numerous conversations about God but they always end in Bryan's openness to faith and his simultaneous lack of commitment. He doesn't feel any urgency to make a choice and it makes the fundamentalist parts of me squirm.

Chris is a self-identified philosopher and intellectual. He smokes lots of marijuana too. Once when he was high, Chris spent an hour explaining the beauty of human yearning that exists in the story of Pinocchio. When he gets started like that it's best to just let him go.

I began our conversation with a few questions: “I want to know what you guys believe about God and creation and eternity.” Not too broad, right?

“Well... okay,” Chris answered. He carefully began rolling a cigarette, first sprinkling his tobacco onto a small square of paper. “How about evolution first?” Chris licked the paper and sealed it tight. “I mean, if there's evolution, why is there still everything else? Like, why are there men and apes at the same time?” He flicked spilled tobacco leaves off his lap, “and why are fish and lizards and birds all here if they're all heading toward the same place?”

“It's random, so it doesn't affect an entire species,” said Bryan. He was staring out across the apartment complex. Not fully vested in the topic, I thought.

Randomly, Chris jumped on to a convenient tangent. He blurted out, “So, if God created Adam and Eve, maybe they were just super dope human beings! You know? Genetically! Maybe Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi were all in that bloodline,” he had a grin on his face as if that thought brought him some deep satisfaction.

I had little to say about Adam and Eve being “super dope.” I laughed and pushed into the subject Chris brought up himself with the Creation reference: “What do you think about Christianity?”
Chris thought again, paused, “Harmless.” Not what I expected. “Harmless... possibly benevolent. It's non-threatening to me… I guess the only threat is homogenization.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.

“If everyone became a Christian it would dilute the intellectual evolution of man. Just one big pool of similar ideas. No room to question things.” An interesting thought, since I've met few Christians who thought alike. I understood his point, though.

Bryan came in, “So what do you think happens when you die?”

Chris didn't answer. I followed: “Death? Do you think there's a Christian heaven?”

“That's a creatable thing,” Chris answered. “Either on earth or in actual heaven,” Chris paused on that thought, then, “If Christianity were good enough I'd be there now, but other things are good too. The path things enter my life through must be convenient. If I pick this beer up, it had better be convenient!” He gulped and Bryan rolled his eyes.

“Convenience,” Bryan chimed in now, “If you're looking for a spirituality, church doesn't have to be the end-all be-all of being spiritual. I can think about it on my own or hang out with friends like this. Church is fellowship. I can respect that. But there are so many ways to have that fellowship.”
I asked, “Then is there value in organized religion?”

“There's value in fellowship,” said Bryan. “It would have to be people whom I trusted and who were open minded. There's not a lot of value in going somewhere to have people tell you you're wrong.”

“Can I expand?” Chris asked. We nodded. “Churches are like support groups, you know, for people who want guidance... It validates them. I think marriage is a compact version of that. It's also easier for people to become excited when there are lots of people. It makes them zealous.”
“But some people go because they think they have to,” said Bryan.

“Yes. In Catholic church, my parents judged me from a standpoint of perfection instead of understanding I was imperfect,” said Chris. “I just wanted to sleep in on Sundays.”

“I wish people were more open-minded,” Bryan said. “It's intimidating to discuss all this with those who are so knowledgeable in their own religion. For me it's much more abstract. There's nothing I can gain from someone who doesn't value my questions.”

Something in that last statement rang true for me, like I needed to highlight it and pray about it and tell people to listen closely. No one had ever valued Bryan's questions; they had treated his curiosity as a battle to be won.

“And Hell is a good form of extortion,” Bryan continued, “Being good has a lot to do with it but it doesn't seem logical that someone could live an evil life and be saved on their deathbed,” A tough concept for us all. “I don't know. There are so many religions telling me so many things, and that if I don't choose one of them I'll go to hell. It just feels like extortion.” There was that word again. Extortion. Blackmail.

A part of me used to get frustrated that I couldn't “close the deal” with friends like Bryan and Chris. The other part was always left ashamed at the way my heart for God was still thinking in sales terms. That salesman will always be an embarrassing part of my inner-self, trying to turn my passions into marketable products.

So how do I make Christianity work for guys like Chris and Bryan? Do I tailor it to fit their comforts? Do I try to make it less offensive? I think not, but my humanism desperately tries to create a politically correct apologetic. Bryan himself said there was right and wrong — he even said that evil people shouldn't deserve heaven. So Christian or agnostic, we all have judgment hiding somewhere. God tells us to let that judgment go and trust Him to cover us with love. That makes all of this so exasperating: no matter how much I try to appeal to sensibility and logic, the Biblical God still flies in the face of all our wisdom.

* Peter Walker works with youth and worship ministries, desperately trying to forget the wrong answers and recover the right questions. He also creates the Essence Project.

07 March 2005

Speeding through Baghdad

"An Italian Intelligence officer was gunned down by Americans as he was escorting a newly freed Italian journalist, who had been held hostage in Iraq," say the meadia lead-in lines. The journalist, who was wounded in the encounter, implied that the Americans fired on her because America opposes paying ransom to terrorists.

Now lets see... The officer and journalist were driving through Baghdad at high speed at night. The Italian's car approached an American checkpoint at high speed, and tried to charge through it (presumably to preserve the secrecy of their mission, which had not been coordinated with the Americans). The driver disobeyed signals and other warnings to stop. The American soldiers had standing orders to fire at the wheels and engine of any car that tried to charge their checkpoint. If that failed to stop it, they had standing orders to fire at the driver. Now why would that be so?

Because they have had plenty of VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) driven at them, already. It's one thing to see the daily death toll that is the price of fighting an insurgency. It was quite another to talk with a young officer who was back in the States to get shrapnel from an IED removed from his knee.

So now we know that it is dangerous to drive a car at high speed at people who are armed and jumpy. This isn't rocket science, folks.

The Americans should apologize, of course, for this tragedy. But both the Americans and the Italians should try not to let it happen again.

06 March 2005

Credit Card Theology

A friend recently commented about how "real" the Incarnation and Crucifixion could have been.

"If Jesus was truly God and truly Man, then wasn't it like a kid leaving home, but taking Daddy's credit card?" he asked.

To me, the phrase, "truly God and truly Man" means that, in the Incarnation, God became an ordinary human being, just like the rest of us. No Divine Credit Card included. Jesus would have been able to buy his way out of the Crucifixion, if he had that. It was all as real for him as it is for you and me.

All of which strikes me as capturing a major difference between Islam on one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other. In Islam, all the Prophets got the Credit Card, in order to maintain the Dignity of God. In Judaism and Christianity, all the Prophets got was a message to deliver, and the barest of instructions. They did what was asked of them, often at great cost to themselves, to show their Devotion to God.

05 March 2005

A Duty to Remember

My mother told me that many Germans are comparing President Bush to Hitler. Sure enough, some are.

Now before I say what I must say next, let me point out that I speak German, and I am married to a German-American. Further, I think that Germany's embrace of the Nazis came from a quality of soul that exists in every human being and every human organization. But the Germans, alone in Western Civilization, gave in to it en masse.

Apparently, some Germans have studiously forgotten what Hitler was like, and what National Socialism (Nazism) really was. In this they commit a new moral outrage. Because, for themselves and for all humankind, it is their duty to remember.

04 March 2005

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

North Korea isn't a country. It's a family owned and operated business that masquerades as a Communist dictatorship. Moreover, the family appears dysfunctional, and its business acumen appears to be zero.

Let me illustrate. Take a look at NASA's Night Lights of the World. Scroll over to the Korean Peninsula (just above Japan). South Korea looks like an island! Between China and South Korea there are virtually no lights, despite the presence of several nuclear reactors that North Korea used to claim were for generating electricity. What you are looking at is a picture of bad government -- so bad that it can be seen from space.

I think that the US needs to tell North Korea that the Cold War is over, and that it is time to go beyond the current truce and make formal and actual peace between North Korea and South Korea. A process needs to be put in place (with South Koreans leading it) that begins with cultural exchanges and food aid, and grows to include ever more frequent contact between North Koreans and South Koreans. Then South Korea should start building businesses in North Korea and employing North Koreans, with the goal of developing North Korean businesspeople who can create North Korean businesses for which South Korea provides investment capital. Someday the DMZ should be make into a Wildlife Sanctuary (and lucrative Tourist Destination), and lanes cleared through the minefields for some North-South roads to enable more social contact and commerce.

You get the drift. And to get Kim Jong Il and company to go along, South Korea should buy them out. Give the dysfunctional family and friends huge stipends and homes on the French Riviera for life, provided they never come back to Korea.

In other words, we need to try to stimulate the kind of reunification that East and West Germany experienced, with the people leading and the governments following. It may take a long time, but its probably the the most constructive way to deal with the North Korean nuclear weapons. A united, democratic Korea would dismantle them because they are cost too much to keep.

And what of the US? Our troop levels should decrease as the North Korean troop levels decrease. Call it constructive disengagement.

Or do I just hope for too much?

03 March 2005

Does God have a Religion?

It depends on what you mean by religion. If religion is a set of beliefs that cannot be proven objectively, then, according to Judaism and Islam, two of the worlds major monotheistic religions, the answer is no. God does not believe, because God knows.

But, according to Christianity, God does manifest an opinion that seems incapable of objective proof: God believes that people are worth dying for.

If one had to give it a name, I suppose it could be called "Sacred Humanism."