Monday, November 24, 2008


It seems that truly pondering God inexorably leads to mysticism. (Which I describe as thought and experience outside the sanctioned walls of dogma.) And here's why: God is by almost all religious revelation, (Jewish, Christian, Hindu, etc.) defined as being beyond our understanding and categories. But paradoxically, religion is all about understanding and categories. To have an organized religion requires definitions. God IS this. God IS NOT that. So to follow the logic that God transcends our understanding, categories and definitions, means we have to leave the walls of our religious context.
I feel like this is what is happening to me whether I want it or not. I feel like I would have to be disingenuous to keep my definition of God if it contradicts The definition of God as One Who Transcends. I mean, aren’t all our dogmas and doctrines based on our faith in a specific revelation(s) of the nature and definition of God? Yet we contradict them all if we simultaneously hold to the conviction that God cannot be fully revealed or defined by our finite minds in our finite experience.
I suppose the traditional answer to this is that what has been revealed is 100% accurate as it pertains to its designated context. So the idea that God is love applies perfectly when taken in a specific context. God hates Esau is perfect revelation within its context. God saves those with faith. God saves those who feed the poor and cloth the naked. God is eternal. God creates from nothing. God creates good and evil. God humbles the proud. All these revelations feed our doctrine and our attempt to synthesize them drives Christian theology. But problems arise when the contexts overlap, or apparently universal statements contradict specific examples.
It’s in these crevices of uncertainty where an utterly transcendent God is most clear. All our best attempts at grappling with the bewildering complexity of the books of scripture and nature fail on some level or another and we are left with “paradoxes”. This fancy theological term for contradiction are the cracks through which we can peer through the walls of theology to catch the slightest glimpse of One that cannot be fully seen or comprehended. These walls give us comfort, security and identity. I wonder how terrifying it is to step outside of them to try to grapple with God in a wider context.
I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to do lately as I’ve been studying other religions and philosophies to see if they have concepts that can be helpful to me as I’m trying to understand reality and the idea of God. If God does transcend, it seems likely to me that various thinkers have grasped bits of Him that I and my tradition have not. Is this mysticism? Is it heresy? Is it the spiritual buffet that my evangelical world has so decried? I don’t know.

Let me clarify something though. What I am not saying is this: “Christianity is inferior, and I am on a search for a superior religion.” It’s more like: “Let’s see if other cultures and times have read the book of nature with different presuppositions that granted them a clearer picture of this or that character of God.” Perhaps the idea that God put all His eggs into one basket (Christianity) is a little presumptuous. Perhaps Aslan is less tame then we Christians would like Him to be.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How the internet is changing the world

Someone posted this question on a forum I frequent. It's interesting food for thought. Here's my response:

Ok. Just off the top of my head here's what I see as having potential societal impacts.

1. The pluralism of the West is intensified. We all grew up understanding that there were other people with other beliefs. But that reality is much more accessible and interactive to those outside urban areas. I think this pluralism is a force that breaks down traditional structures and institutions such as religion, constitutional government, marriage, education, patriotism, etc. As these break down new traditions will emerge. I have no idea what they will be.

2. Fundamental attitudes about what constitutes intelligence are emerging. In pre-enlightenment times intelligence was measured by ones ability to memorize. Information sources were rare, and those who could keep that information were praised as a result. Now we have the inverse. Information is everywhere and easily accessible. Memorization is rendered almost useless when cut/paste is available. Rather than narrow/deep specialization, broad/shallow apprehension will be revered. This will change the way we educate our kids and ourselves, and make us very dependent on our technological infrastructure.

3. The psycho-sexual makeup of men is changing. Access to hardcore and fetish pornography for teens and even pre-teens will shape our culture's attitudes towards sex and assumptions about gender roles and normalcy. I have no idea what the result of this will be.

4. Our language is evolving more rapidly than the historical norm. "leet speak" is a joke, but the impulse behind it is a real force that is shaping the way we communicate. No other language that I know of has placed such a large emphasis on shortcuts, acronym, abbreviation, slang and other non-formal additions. I think when you are young you see no reason to place any value in formality, tradition and the sacred. And this language shift is being driven by the young. As the computer culture ages they will find that they have undercut these psychological necessities of maturity and will either radically swing back the other way or find substitutes for them.

5. E-lationships. I just coined that, what do you think? When I hear news about JER or Fycus' life I feel like I'm getting updates about friends, not just random people from the internet. Why is this? A lot has been said about how the anonymity of the internet can unleash all sorts of character devolution. And that's certainly true. But another development is the sub-cultural tribal communities like BZ or Threadless. What it means to be a friend is evolving. What it means to know someone is evolving.

That's all I can think of for now. I'll post more if I think of any. I'm sure there are a hundred books on the subject, and I'm surprised I haven't read any of them.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The real difference between liberals and conservatives

So here is a guy giving a little talk on my new favorite website:, talking about what makes liberals and conservatives tick. He starts out by polling the audience, and it looks like about 2% of them consider themselves conservative. He claims that liberals are overwhelmingly dominant in the character trait called Openness-to-Experience.

It’s looking like it’s going to be an all out conservative-bash-fest, but Haidt does something cool. He turns the tables by using a liberal concept to force them to consider the value of the conservative mind. He points out that when everyone in a group thinks the same way they fall into a team psychology which shuts down open-mindedness. A general lack of moral diversity is going to make understanding the world a lot harder. So he challenges all these open-minded liberals to “take the red pill” and look at some moral psychology with him.

What we end up with is some charts that show five foundations of morality which he and cohort concocted after lots of study. These five foundations are:
1. Harm/care - This is what makes us care for others and protect each other, especially the vulnerable.

2. Fairness/reciprocity - The foundation for The Golden Rule.

3. Ingroup/loyalty - Tribal psychology has developed this foundation of forming groups that fight other groups. Even without warfare we establish the same patterns with organized sports.

4. Authority/respect - Sometimes based in power, sometime in deference and love.

5. Purity/sanctity - Any kind of ideology that tells you you can attain virtue by controlling what you do with your body or what you put in your body. The political right moralizes sex, the left moralizes food.

So Haidt visualizes these five foundations as equalizers on a sound system, where each can be raised or lowered to produce a different sound. His online questionnaire has given him the following data: liberals tend to favor the first two of the five foundations, (two channel) and conservatives favor the last three foundations but also see about the same value in the first two. (five channel)

Liberals reject the last three foundations as even being related to morality. They see them as xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism.

To bolster his claim, he brings up an interesting poll about what kind of dog liberals like versus conservatives. Liberals are much more likely to want a dog described as “Independent-minded and relates to its owner as a friend and equal.” Conservatives want a dog that is “Extremely loyal to its home and family, and doesn’t warm up quickly to strangers.”

So, he asks, what is the value of those three foundations that liberals seem to despise: Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity? Haidt points to Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych: The Garden of Earthly Delights as a description of social entropy. He shows through other tests that the idea of social entropy is not a construct of the Christian imagination, but a consistently repeatable fact. So what social foundations combat this problem? Why, the ones conservatives value of course. He posits the typical modern idea of religion as an evolutionary adaptation to secure group cohesion.

Haidt gives us conservatives props: “The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose.” As Burke said after the chaos of the French Revolution, “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” So Haidt proposes that once you see the value of a balance between liberal and conservative you can step outside the “moral Matrix”. Then he points to Asian religions (of course) as exemplars of this balance. And he makes the hilarious claim that “the deepest insights that have ever been attained in moral psychology” are in this quote from the zen master Sent-ts’an, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” Kind of makes me wonder why Jonathan Haidt is promoting anything.
Then he completely goes over the deep end with this conclusion: “Our Righteous Minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to truth.”

So I obviously disagree with a lot of his premises and conclusions, but I find his five foundation theory fascinating. One thing that’s really interesting to me is that he looks at the first chart and sees liberals exalting two foundations and denigrating three. He sees conservatives holding them all in high esteem. And his conclusion is that we need a balance of liberal and conservative thought. But I already see balance on the chart, and no, it’s not in the moderate category. It’s right there! On the right! Look at it, Mr. Haidt! I circled it for you.

(Even your silly dog-chart shows conservatives as balanced.)

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