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Category Archives: Rationalism
Posted: May 24, 2020 at 3:24 pm
By Joshua Steely, Voices Contributor | Monday, May 18, 2020 Joshua Steely | Courtesy of Joshua Steely
At the end of March, Time published an essay by distinguished New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, with the rather brazen title Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. Its Not Supposed To. The title is wrong, and the essay is strange, to say the least. But it serves as an interesting catalyst for asking what answers the Christian faith does have regarding the present pandemic.
Dr. Wright reflects on the privations were experiencing, which are indeed painful not to mention the many who are sick and have died. He notes that a pandemic makes for an unusually severe Lent, And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We cant tick off the days. Then he begins to muse about the Christian response:
No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesnt?
For Wright, those who try to offer explanations are silly, rationalistic, and acting in a pseudo-Christian manner. Now, I dont doubt that some of those offering explanations for the coronavirus are silly, that some of the motivations for offering answers are pseudo-Christian, and maybe even that rationalism has some onions in the soup. But I hardly think that a charismatic preacher declaring coronavirus is the punishment for x sin is showing heavy rationalistic influence. Nor is it really the case that the desire to explain a pandemic is a sign of the Enlightenments footprint; the search for answers is a characteristically human trait, and can be found in similar circumstances in other times and places. Rationalism is an ideological bogey-man in this situation, and Wrights conjuring of it is significant.
Wright doesnt think that offering an explanation is the appropriate Christian response; nor does he think that offering concrete hope is: What if, after all, there are moments such as T.S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because wed be hoping for the wrong thing? Instead, he exhorts Christians to embrace lament, and in the strongest part of the essay, he points to sections of lament in the Psalms. He then turns to theology proper, and is apparently no friend to classical theism and the doctrine of divine impassibility.
Having noted Jesus grief at the tomb of Lazarus and the testimony to the Spirits groaning, Wright drives home his main point: It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain whats happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explainand to lament instead. As the title says, Christianity offers no answers.
Now, there surely are bad ways to offer answers in a time of crisis. People do offer trite and unhelpful words to those who are suffering. People go well beyond what God has revealed, and declare that the disaster is a punishment for x sin, and will go away if people do y. Lament is certainly a part of the Christian response to the suffering of the world, and at times it may be the only response: mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15, NIV). But has the church really no answers, no hope to offer?
The church does not have a specific answer for this specific disease. But the church does have an encompassing answer that applies to this disease as to every disease of this world, the people on it, and our souls: the sufferings of this world are the result of sin. And the church does have a hope, and should Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15). God has provided a wonderful answer to all suffering, the gospel of Jesus Christ: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
Is the coronavirus pandemic a punishment? Yes, for our world is in rebellion against God Almighty. Is it a warning? It should be. Every disaster and disease is a memento mori, urging us to remember that we should use this short life to prepare for the life to come. Is it a sign? It signifies that this world is broken, and our time here is short. But does that mean the only advice is to wait without hope, because wed be hoping for the wrong thing? Not if were hoping for the Parousia.
T.S. Eliot has good things to say, but I prefer the apostle Paul on this one (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 16-18):
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hopeFor the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
But in offering these answers, are we manifesting some silly, pseudo-Christian rationalism that has sunk into our bones? This is where the church must correctly reconnoiter the culture. Generals are always fighting the last war, the saying goes; rationalism is the last war or maybe a few wars ago. We are dealing now with a late-modern or post-modern culture that is allergic to truth, answers, and certainty. Indeed and this is the salient point Dr. Wrights essay fits in Time because it offers the message our time wants to hear: we dont know any more than you do. But what our time needs to hear is the Christian message: a pandemic is the result of sin, it should be taken as a memento mori, and there is certain and eternal hope in Jesus Christ.
This harsh Lent is bad, and we should lament; but remember Easter.
Joshua Steely is Senior Pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Illinois.
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Posted: at 3:24 pm
The saying There are no atheists in foxholes suggests that in stressful times people inevitably turn to God (or indeed gods). In fact, non-believers have their own set of secular worldviews which can provide them with solace in difficult times, just as religious beliefs do for the spiritually-minded.
The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals.
The number of non-believers is growing, with at least 450-500 million declared atheists worldwide about 7% of the global adult population. But since non-believers can include not just atheists but also agnostics and so-called nones the religiously unaffiliated, who might tick no religion in surveys this number is likely to be much bigger. Here, we use non-believers to refer to individuals who do not believe in God, and who do not consider themselves religious.
The idea that beliefs or worldviews support us in difficult times is the foundation of Terror Management Theory. This holds we fear death because we are consciously aware of the future and therefore our own inevitable demise. This fear can be so great that it can paralyse us when we try to live our everyday lives.
But we can manage this fear through belief in God and the afterlife, for example, but equally through the knowledge that death is natural. Knowing that one day we will die, worldviews reinforce our beliefs and the identities that we build around them, and can provide comfort by providing us with so-called symbolic immortality, for example, or feelings of connectedness to something bigger than ourselves. Here, it is the meaningfulness of the belief rather than its (religious) content that is important: among non-believers, increased stress and reminders of ones mortality are associated with an increased belief in science.
With a team of international collaborators, I designed an online survey to ask non-believers about the worldviews, beliefs or understandings of the world that are particularly meaningful to them. We gathered 1,000 responses from people from the UK, US, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Turkey, Brazil, Canada and Australia.
We found that across these ten countries, the six most common beliefs and worldviews were those based on science, humanism (or belief in humanity and human ability), critical thinking and scepticism (including rationalism), being kind and caring for one another, and beliefs in equality and natural laws (including evolution).
This overlap was striking. Despite huge geographical and cultural differences, we found these categories came up over and over again. Frequently mentioned worldviews included statements like: I believe in the scientific method and the ethical values of humanism. I reject all beliefs that are not evidence based, and We have one life. We have this one opportunity to enjoy our brief moment in the sun, while doing the most good we can to help our fellow creatures and protect the natural environment for future generations.
But we also found variation. While responses from countries such as the Netherlands and Finland focused particularly on caring for the Earth, responses from countries such as the US and Australia focused on the general improvement of human well-being.
We also asked non-believers to think of challenging times in their lives: when someone close to them passed away; when they or someone close to them had a serious injury (an accident) or discovered they had a serious physical illness; when they felt particularly alone or disconnected from others; and when they felt particularly down or depressed.
Asked to recall whether any of their worldviews were helpful at the time, we found that what helped most often were worldviews based on science, detachment and acceptance. These included beliefs in the naturalness of death, the randomness of life, humanism, free will and taking responsibility. For example, people suggested knowing that family members live on in their descendants, through personality traits and memories helps when dealing with a bereavement, while enduring an illness was just randomness. Stuff like that happens.
Beliefs about the nature of life and death helped many, including the view that suffering and isolation are universal experiences, and that these states will pass: Things change, and this situation isnt always going to be like this. Many indicated that a humanistic worldview was highly important to them, valuing my relationships with those close to me, and understanding that life can be all too short so we must value the one life that we know we have.
But how do these worldviews help in times of crisis? Most frequently, the respondents said they helped cope with the situation, reduced anxiety, created an increased feeling of control and sense of order, and explained or gave meaning to the situation.
Many participants indicated that understanding a difficult situation proved paramount to accepting it and coping with it. One said that understanding the process of loss and moving on via understanding psychology helps. Others stated that my belief in science explained what was happening and I also trusted in modern medicine that we could overcome it, or that it helped to consider that depression [is] a condition that responds to time and care.
What this research suggests is that worldviews and beliefs, whether religious or secular, can provide comfort and meaning in even the very toughest situations.
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Posted: at 3:24 pm
Herein lies a difference between the Catholic worldview and the secular one.
Rutger Bregmans excellent article The Real Lord of the Flies: What Happened When Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for 15 Months was published in Londons The Guardian a few days ago. The article explored the real-life case of a group of schoolboys who were marooned on a deserted island in 1965. Fortunately, life doesnt always imitate art as the real case of the marooned boys turns out well and not all like British author William Goldings magnificent 1954 bestseller, The Lord of the Flies.
Goldings book centers on a group of British schoolboys who, having been evacuated due to a war, are subsequently marooned on an uninhabited island. The situation is at first idyllic no school, no adults, no rules and as much food as they can catch. But things go awry when basic rules such as tending to the signal fire are ignored, allowing it to go out. Ultimately, the band of boys descend into anarchy, losing their civility and, indeed, their humanity. Two factions form one group made up of boys who strive to retrieve and secure their humanity, and the other group whose members wish to descend into brutality and self-destruction.
Just as the latter are about to kill the former, a British officer shows up to rescue them, stopping their murderous rage just in the nick of time. The boys start crying and the officer responds, I should have thought, the officer says, that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that. At that, the officer turns and spies his warship in the islands inlet.
Like the boys in the story, the reader weeps for the loss of innocence and the darkness of mans heart.
In Goldings view, humans are monstrous beasts enshrouded in a thin veneer of civilization that is little more than an illusion. Given the opportunity, humans would cast off that lie in a second and show the world what he really is.
Im very grateful I went to a Catholic high school. I was given a list of 500 classics on the first day of school and was told I had to read 100 by the time I graduated. Its commonplace for me to meet recent university grads whove never read a book in their lives including the ones with degrees in English Literature.
Herein lies a difference between the Catholic worldview and the secular one.
For Catholics, truth or more specifically, Truth really exists. Beauty exists. Justice exists. Catholics call these three eternal truths, transcendentals (Latin: transcendentalia). They correspond to three certain aspects of the human experience. To science belongs truth (i.e., logic). To the arts belong beauty (i.e., aesthetics). To religion belongs goodness (i.e., ethics).
If youve been paying attention in church, to the Bible and keeping up with your commitments to yourself and others, the existence of these transcendentals should be apparent to you. I was reminded of them when I read Rutger Bregman article The Real Lord of the Flies, which then directed me to an historical account of an actual situation of boys shipwrecked on an island.
Goldings The Lord of the Flies was just a fictional piece that told only one side of mans nature. There is another. One of peace and cooperation and respect and kindness and compassion as is exhibited by the case of the Catholic Tonga kids in Ata. A real-life example to discredit what naysayers and doomsters when about. But there are by far more examples of altruism and self-sacrifice
Apparently, in 1966, 13 years after Golding published his The Lord of the Flies, six boys from a Catholic school in Nukualofa on the island of Tonga half European and the other half Pacific Islanders, ranging from 13 to 16 years old thought it would be better to ditch school one day and venture out on a lark on the ocean without a map, without a plan and without a clue. (Coincidently, this perfectly describes my childhood. You gentlemen know what Im talking about.)
Their plan was to make their way to Fiji (500 miles away) or even to New Zealand (1600 miles further). They liberated a boat and took with them little more than some bananas, coconuts and a small gas burner. A storm overtook them after the boys fell asleep and they drifted for eight days without food or water. They carefully shared the water they managed to collect. They were shipwrecked for 15 months on a deserted island named Ata.
The boys in The Lord of the Flies starting fighting simply because they allowed the signal fire to burn out. These actual kids managed to keep the fire burning for more than a year. The Catholics kids on Ata agreed to work in teams of two, creating a work schedule. They sometimes quarreled, as boys do, but all problems were resolved with a timeout. Every day began and ended with songs and prayers.
Disaster struck when a boy fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys tended to the injury and managed to set it like professionals, according to the physician who examined the kids after they were brought home.
Captain Peter Warner was en route home when he encountered Ata. As he swung by it, a young boy leapt from the tall cliffs and swam to his ship. He introduced himself as Stephen and explained that he and his schoolmates had been on the island for more than a year.
When Captain Warner examined their camp, the boys showed him their huts, vegetable gardens, chicken coops, gym, badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent signal and cooking fire. They survived initially on fish, coconuts, seabirds they drank the blood and ate the meat and eggs. The boys later discovered a village that had been abandoned a century earlier, chickens and gardens of wild taro, and bananas still growing.
Captain Warner ferried the boys home and they were reunited with their families.
Golding later explained in interviews that he drew the idea of the dark, beastly nature of man described in The Lord of the Flies from his own life experiences. He admitted he was an alcoholic who often suffered from depression and would beat the students in his care. I have always understood the Nazis, Golding conceded.
For centuries, Western culture has labored under a Manichean dualism that we never could completely excise from Western culture. People affected with this outlook celebrate death and destruction and have brought about some of the worse anti-humanistic ideas our species has ever birthed communism, nihilism, occultism, Freudianism, feminism, gender theory, extremist environmentalism, positivism, scientism, fundamentalist atheism, postmodernism and anthropological structuralism all of which embrace anti-rationalism and anti-scientific outlooks.
To them, humans are wayward genetic accidents spawned by a violent and uncaring universe. Christians, on the other hand, have Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for us (John 3:16). Hes been our model and standard all these centuries.
Whereas Goldings The Lord of the Flies is a dark, twisted and depressing view of unredeemable human nature as barely above that of a beast, the story of the Ata castaways is a testament to friendship, hope, altruism, devotion, Christianity, the goodness of human nature and the innocence of children.
Life or death. The choice is set before you. Choose life! (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
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Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed calls for end to ‘culture of excess’ to protect food security – The National
Posted: May 11, 2020 at 11:28 am
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, said the UAE must rein in its "culture of excess".
The Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces called for needless overspending and food waste to be tackled and the natural resources of the Emirates to be protected.
Hosting his online Ramadan majlis with Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Food Security, he said he believed the public would be receptive to the need to move away from unwanted habits.
Food security is a holistic ecosystem that pertains to not only food production, but also addresses the culture of handling food or the culture of rationalism and avoiding overuse and waste," Sheikh Mohamed said during the video conference.
We have a habit of excess that we need to restrain
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed
"We have a habit of excess that we need to restrain. If this excess or overspending is for a good cause, like charity, it is good and we support it, but overspending for no reason is bad.
"This is a key part of the food security strategy: how to think of our various natural resources such as water, food sources, energy and others.
As we talk about rationalism and eliminating overuse, I would like to thank you for your efforts in educating people, because as you know, brothers and sisters, it is a cultural habit one that comes from traditions that is hard to move away from without some challenges.
"We want to part ways with such traditions that are not useful to us and not Islamic as well.
"This requires work in homes, schools and through different media outlets to raise awareness.
"UAE citizens and residents are very receptive and responsive. We can raise awareness about this issue to our people in the UAE and we will witness change very quickly."
The majlis, titled Nourishing the Nation: Food Security in the UAE, gave insight into the measures being taken by the ministry to tackle the challenges posed to food security by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UAE at this time was not and will not be affected, whether its local produce, stockpile or imports," Sheikh Mohamed said.
He said the country was passing the test presented by an outbreak that has affected the lives of billions of people across the globe.
He said the UAE was playing a key role in supporting other nations by delivering essential aid.
Coronavirus was a test and I would like to stress in front of the others, that it was a test for you [Ms Almheiri] specifically in terms of food and we passed it due to your plans and your level of readiness.
"Surely, there might be some shortages but you are feeding a country, a nation of nearly 10 million people, without noticeable change.
"Some countries were impacted. We wish them well and sympathise with them, and that is why you saw how your country, the UAE, rushed to send them aid.
"The UAE sent aid to nearly 10 countries every week. It is our duty towards our brothers, allies and friends as we see some countries in a difficult situation."
Ms Almheiri said the UAE took steps to ensure it had ample food supplies, including setting up the Emirates Food Security Council to help co-ordinate a national effort.
As soon as the global pandemic hit, the council held an extraordinary meeting to develop an early mechanism system to monitor food imports and local food production capacity potential," she said.
"The council also connected with the Food Security Alliance companies in the UAE to best prepare for all scenarios.
In a way, going through this crisis is testing whether we have set up robust systems, and it has shown that this strategy has set the right foundation to be able to overcome this crisis.
We get our food through imports and local production but because of the harsh environment we import large amounts of our food.
Ms Almheiri said many did not realise that the UAE grew so much food.
Last month, it was revealed that close to 6 million tonnes of food was produced in the UAE each year, reflecting a growing shift away from a dependence on imported goods.
Local farms have ramped up production and more local produce has begun appearing on supermarket shelves.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, said stores in Abu Dhabi would now dedicate a section to promote locally grown produce.
Updated: May 7, 2020 11:17 AM
Posted: at 11:28 am
An Iranian flag flies at the Sorough oil field in 2005.(Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)A new book on the SunniShia conflict makes clear that the steady radicalization of sectarian difference in the Middle East was not inevitable.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLEWhen youve done your days viewing of government coronavirus briefings Governor Cuomos, Governor Newsoms, President Trumps spare a minute for Grand Ayatollah Khameneis. In a cozy fireside-chat format, Irans Supreme Leader has been taking the opportunity presented by this moment of shared global suffering to remind the world that the true enemy of mankind is not epidemic disease, but the vicious, lying, brazen, avaricious, cruel, merciless, terrorist United States, and atheist, materialist Western civilization.
Throughout the Middle East Khameneis clients provide a steady chorus for this kind of invective. One consequence is that the claim he is now broadcasting that the U.S. government intentionally created the coronavirus has become a commonplace among his adherents. A French historian once described the young Ali Khamenei as the Robespierre of the Iranian Revolution. We are living in the world in which Robespierre won the one in which that most radical and bloodthirsty of revolutionaries lives on, in his dotage, to spread his message to millions over social media.
Laurence Lours new book is a reminder of quite how much the world has lost by not having a responsible regime in Iran. Sunnis and Shia is principally an exploration of that second great Islamic denomination, which revolves around the figure of Mohammeds son-in-law, Ali ibn Abu Talib, known as the first Shiite Imam. Lour shows how reason and the embrace of rationalism is central to Shia faith and theology, and explains the contextualism that allows its clergy to adapt to social and historical change in ways denied to their majority Sunni counterparts. She emphasizes Shiisms historic role as a creed of social justice, a movement of the weak against the strong, and of the people against unjust rulers alongside a Sunni orthodoxy that embraces hierarchy and established authority. It was Shiism that would have been the faith most naturally predisposed to bring about a reconciliation of Islam with Western scientific modernity and yet it is everywhere submerged under the atavism of its political leaders, from Khamenei to Hezbollah to Iraqs rival sectarian warlords. The world has lost not just by the absence of a moderate Iran, but of a moderate Shia power.
The early history is well known. Ali, who had married Mohammeds daughter Zaynab, became the fourth Muslim Caliph in 656, almost a quarter of a century after Mohammeds death in 632. But his reign coincided with deepening division in the growing Arab Caliphate and, amid a revolt led by a powerful rival in Syria, Ali was assassinated in 661. The Sunni Caliphate was continued from Damascus, but Alis followers broke away and recognized his descendants as a lineage of divinely appointed Imams who would lead a community of true Muslims. When the third Imam, Alis son Hussein, was killed in 680 in battle with the forces of the Caliph, his martyrdom became a focal point of Shiite belief commemorated in the festival of Ashura, and the site of his death in Karbala in southern Iraq became one of the main sites of Shiite pilgrimage alongside Alis mausoleum in Najaf.
The story of the Shiite Imams to follow is almost a parody of factionalism and its calcified remains still lie dotted across the map of the modern Middle East. A dispute over the succession to the fourth Imam (d. 713) produced a splinter group known as the Zaydis, who went on to dominate the politics and government of northern Yemen for over a thousand years. A dispute over the succession to the sixth Imam (d. 765) brought us the Ismailis, who now reside in the south of present-day Saudi Arabia, and the Lebanese Druze. The lack of charisma shown by the tenth and eleventh Imams allowed a pretender to arise in the 870s, bequeathing to us the Alawites, whose successors are still hanging on to power as the rulers of modern Syria.
These petty sects are better known as Alidism. Mainstream Shiism, by contrast, was the creation of the educated and prosperous clergy of southern Iraq in the ninth century. Frustrated by the proliferation of radical creeds, and impatient with ineffectual Imams, the Shia ulema hit upon a deus ex machina in the claim that the twelfth Imam a minor, with no obvious successor, who presumably died had miraculously disappeared in 874, and would remain hidden until his return on Judgement Day. In the meantime, they would be responsible for interpreting His will and thus the will of God. As the architects and guardians of dogma, these Shiite clergy were able to consolidate Shiism into an organized faith with a sophisticated theology able to rival the established corpus of Sunnism.
The final piece in our contemporary puzzle fell into place in 1501, when a new Safavid king of Persia established Shiism as the official state religion. From that point on, geopolitical and ethnic rivalry was fused with religious schism, as Sunni Ottomans and Shiite Persians confronted one another along a frontier stretching thousands of miles, from the mountains of Kurdistan in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. In the 20th century, it would be this divide, now separating Iran and Iraq, that would form the bloodiest international border outside Europe one of the few, its worth recalling, that had nothing to do with Western colonialism.
Sunnis and Shia is also concerned with exploring how the sectarian divide has been managed in practice in a range of national contexts in the present day including in Pakistan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. It used to be said of the Washington, D.C., foreign-policy establishment that, having discovered the SunniShia split in the aftermath of the second Iraq war, they started to see its malign hand everywhere. Lours survey is an effective antidote. She makes the commonsense point that the pattern of SunniShia engagement throughout the Islamic world has as often been one of coexistence and cooperation as of sectarian conflict and war. We can find, for example, even in the puritanical Saudi Kingdom large Shiite populations free to apply their own religious law within their community, and whose leaders have served on the kings consultative council. In Bahrain, now a major flash-point, we can find a deep history of Sunni monarchs engaging closely with loyalist Shiite subjects, not least because they were valued by their Sunni rulers as allies against the Communists.
What can we learn from this? Well, one thing that seems emphatically not to be a good solution for managing sectarian difference may be the one that governments and international agencies have long pursued to press Western-style democratic and open political systems upon Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, the main points of SunniShia dispute could hardly have been designed to be more potentially incendiary if freely aired in the public square. One Shia ritual Lour identifies involves the public insulting of Mohammeds earliest Companions and the first three Muslim Caliphs that is, precisely those figures most sacred to Sunnis as models for true religious life. (They are known as the Salaf hence Salafism.) Most modern Shiites have retreated from their early claims that the Koran itself is a Sunni-doctored falsification. But many continue to regard fundamental elements of Sunni worship as false, and do not regard Sunni mosques as real mosques. For their part, Sunnis give as good as they get. Lour tells us that there is a school of Sunni scholars today who maintain that Shiism tout court was created as part of an eighth-century Jewish conspiracy designed to sow discord in the Muslim community. One suspects that increased contact, freer debate, and better understanding, rather than building bridges, would simply make people hate one another more.
In a political world that requires tact and subtlety, where struggling factions reach for recognition and toleration, rather than radical equality, there can be nothing so dangerous as religious entrepreneurs promising political utopias which brings us back to Ayatollah Khamenei. In each of Lours national audits, the story since 1979 is one of extremist violence and steady radicalization of sectarian difference, as Tehrans efforts to export revolution throughout the region transformed once-integrated Shiite communities into vectors for Iranian influence and interest. The Shiite pressure groups and civil-society organizations of the 1970s became the Islamic Liberation Fronts of the 1980s. Coup attempts replaced compromise, as in Bahrain in 1981.
Many of these national scenes have yet to recover and so long as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards exist to freewheel around the region as gun-runners and king-makers, it is difficult to see how recovery begins. One doesnt have to admire John Bolton to share his hope that Irans current rulers will come to an unpleasant end, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Sunnis and Shia is a reminder of all the reasons to be excited for what may come, once they do.
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Posted: at 11:28 am
From Plato to Heidegger, philosophers have taken a dim view of the common people. That, however, began to change when the common people turned into a mass-reading public hungry for a little philosophy, under the delusion that the subject has something interesting to say about the meaning of life. A number of pop philosophers emerged to meet this demand, some of them admirable such as Simon Blackburn, others more like the slightly sozzled character you bump into in a bar who thinks the stars spell out some momentous statement. The line between the pop and the pub philosopher is easy to cross.
One way of making things easier on your audience is to avoid a philosophers ideas and talk about his or her life instead. Very few readers understand the synthetic a priori or the law of the excluded middle, but a lot of them know about falling in love or what it feels like to be miserable. It helps, however, if the life of the thinker in question is reasonably exciting. This was certainly the case with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who fought in the first world war, had a number of illegal gay relationships, lived in a hut on a Norwegian fiord and had to do a runner as a village schoolmaster when he struck a pupil across the face.
The problem with the American philosopher William James, founder of so-called pragmatism, is that his life, externally at least, was about as exciting as a slugs. He was born in New York in 1842, the brother of the novelist Henry James and the grandson of an Irishman from the small Ulster town of Ballyjamesduff, who emigrated to the US and made an enormous fortune from banking and real estate. As an academic psychologist, William spent most of his life teaching at Harvard, and in his later years was fascinated by ghosts, table-rapping and general spookery. He also discovered he could attain a kind of Nirvana with the help of laughing gas. As a celebrated public intellectual, he preached a number of standard liberal pieties, including respect for the individual and the sanctity of personal freedom.
None of this was likely to set the Hudson on fire, so John Kaag has found various ways to liven up his subject. The first is to say as little about the intricacies of pragmatism as is decently possible. Popularly caricatured as the belief that truth is what works, it is more accurately a highly sophisticated creed for which truth is what, in the long run, makes a difference to the world. Kaag conveys something of this, while saying nothing at all about its notorious problems. He also tells us rather vacuously that pragmatism is about life and its amelioration and that its exponents study lifes value and worth, adding the stunning revelation that human thought (is) personal, continuous and changing.
In a curious way, it is pragmatism itself that licenses Kaags reluctance to delve into its subtleties. For if it is often described as the first distinctively American school of philosophy, it is partly because its critique of European rationalism can be made to merge into good old American anti-intellectualism. Kaag is all for the feel and taste of immediate experience, in contrast to some arid scheme of thought, and so is James; but in Jamess case this takes the form of a rigorous inquiry into truth and meaning, whereas rigorous is the last adjective one would use to characterise this book. We are told, for example, that the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was an idealist (he was in fact a materialist) and that Darwin taught that the weak shall perish, which is not what the doctrine of the survival of the fittest means.
Kaags cracker-barrel wisdom is occasionally punctuated by forays into his own biography, given that Jamess life fails to yield much drama. Sick Souls, Healthy Minds belongs to the American confessional genre, which runs all the way from Puritanism to Norman Mailer. As befits the Me generation, it is as much about the author as his subject. James is sometimes no more than a convenient peg on which Kaag can hang his dishevelled thoughts about getting divorced, his predictably beautiful daughter, getting divorced again and so on. We learn that he has a beer at five oclock every day, that as a kid he was uncoordinated and stuttered badly, and that his daughter swallowed some amniotic fluid on the way out of the womb but quickly recovered. He even threatens us with a future book on bringing up a child as divorced parents. It isnt obvious quite what any of this has to do with, say, the pragmatist claim that truth can only be established retrospectively, or indeed with the life of James, but like many an autobiographer Kaag seems to assume that others will be as interested in the small change of his own existence as he is himself.
Another way of peddling philosophy to the masses is to package it as spiritual therapy, for which there is a seemingly endless appetite. Hence the whimsical subtitle of this book: How William James Can Save Your Life. In reality, Kaag has to admit that James didnt so much save his life as, rather less sensationally, save him from depression. He tells us how as a young man he felt life was meaningless, as indeed did James himself. In truth, for an East Coast Brahmin with a liberal father and without material worries, he was something of a psychological mess. As well as a Sartrean sense of nausea at the futility of existence, he suffered from partial blindness and was haunted by thoughts of suicide.
Then, in a moment of enlightenment, James discovered that the world was not entirely governed by determinism and that there was something called free will. Like knowing where Sweden is, this is a discovery most of us have made without much sense of spiritual illumination. Kaag reads about his masters conversion and becomes equally life-affirming. There is a widespread prejudice in the Unites States that pessimism is somehow unpatriotic, along with the falsehood that you can be anything you like as long as you set your mind to it. In the end, James turns out to be exemplary of the power of positive thinking. The point of philosophy is to sort yourself out. William Jamess entire philosophy, from beginning to end, Kaag writes, was geared to save a life, his life. It is a typically imprecise claim.
It is no accident that Jamess brother Henry is among the finest stylists of the English language, given Williams own supple, graceful prose. Kaags literary style is rather less elegant: Nope, I sort of get it, sure as hell, to sweat a bunch and so on. But writing popularly doesnt mean you have to write badly. And being attuned to the nuances of everyday experience, as James taught us to be, doesnt mean you have to be suspicious of abstract ideas. What else is free will?
Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life is published by Princeton (RRP 18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Posted: at 11:28 am
Amidst a welter of commentary about how momentous this Thursday's Budget will be, how about this for a prediction? Prepare to be disappointed.
To those on the left, who hope the Government will have crafted a new, green utopia: forget it. Like the rest of us, they're still trying to work out what's hit them.
There will be plenty of nods in the direction of climate change resilience, but also plenty of new roads and fast-track resource management legislation to get the economy moving again.
To the promoters of so-called 'shovel-ready' projects, who hope $170 billion of aspiration can be jammed into maybe $5 billion to $10 billion of immediately available capital spending: forget it.
The list of possible projects is so long and the ability to fund them so inevitably limited that there will be disappointment aplenty.
To small and medium-sized business owners hoping there's more in the kitty for them: forget it. The wage subsidy scheme and the various cashflow measures to date - in particular, the almost haphazard conversion of the tax department into a bank of last resort - are probably as good as it's going to get.
HELP FOR TOURISM
The only likely exceptions to that: tourism operators and associated parts of hospitality and the events sector.
Even there, there is only so much a government can do when the reality for many is that their businesses will be either much smaller or unable to operate until international tourists return - whenever that may be.
Some of the help for these sectors will target retraining for the employees who must swiftly find a new trade.
Even trade unions, who have been closer to the emergency policy-making action than they have been for years during normal times, may not welcome Finance Minister Grant Robertson's enthusiasm for encouraging small, entrepreneurial businesses to flourish.
Disappointed, too, will be the modern monetary policy theorists who think central banks should simply fund everything that everybody wants out of thin air. It is tempting to think that's already happening, with the Reserve Bank pumping up financial market liquidity by buying government bonds at unprecedented levels.
But Robertson is no fan of that. He knows debt created today must, some day in some way, be paid back. And he values the fact that New Zealand has had its super-strong credit ratings reconfirmed in recent days. Maintaining that credibility - hard-won over the past four decades - remains important for a small, open economy.
However, Roger Douglas, who kicked off that path to credibility, will be disappointed too. Robertson delivered a curt "no" when asked last week whether he'd read the latest think-piece from the reforming Labour finance minister whose radical egalitarianism remains as chronically misunderstood as ever.
ON THE BACKBURNER
Perhaps most disappointed of all will be those who were looking forward to the progressive political investment agenda outlined in the Budget policy statement in December last year. Robertson was very clear last week: unless there are cost pressures that must be addressed, those priorities are shelved for now.
Nor will there be much, if anything, for anyone hoping for a fairer tax system. It is far too early to start raising taxes to pay for the current debt pile-up and it would be political suicide to broach the debate that must be revived about the taxation of wealth.
For taxpayers on middle incomes who are now paying the top income tax rate, there might be a skerrick of relief, but dealing to fiscal drag is something even governments with strong books resist. Now is not the time.
A UTILITARIAN SHORTLIST
Instead, this Budget is a first, inevitably imperfect attempt to get to grips with one of the biggest shocks the New Zealand economy has ever experienced, and which is not over yet.
So, rather than a utopian wishlist, how about a utilitarian shortlist of five key things to watch for in this Thursday's Budget?
1 - Budget surpluses
Firstly, will the word 'surplus' appear in the Budget documents? For all Robertson's rejection of Roger Douglas, it is an enduring Douglas legacy that New Zealand governments have both striven for and produced Budget surpluses whenever they could during the past 30 years.
In an interview last week, Robertson avoided the word, carefully defining his ambition as a "sustainable" fiscal position, with a focus more on the level of net Crown debt than whether income exceeds expenditure any time in the next decade.
That may simply be prudent. It's likely that current forecasts show Budget deficits as far as the eye can see because of the size of the economic crater made by covid-19.
However, the rhetorical ambition to return to surplus is a political as much as an economic totem. Its inclusion or exclusion will be significant in itself.
2 - Treasury forecasts
On Budget day, it will be exactly a month since the Treasury released its first set of scenarios outlining possible paths for the economy post-covid.
These were not forecasts but guesstimates based on various possible outcomes for the global and domestic economy. If anything, the scenarios given greatest credence were less apocalyptic than might have been expected. Unemployment was low, back under 5 percent, within four years and the economy bounces back strongly to be as large in 2022 as it was in 2019.
That picture will have changed in the intervening weeks, but by how much?
The important thing will be the direction rather than the extent of change. No one can accurately predict anything about the economy right now. The disruption is so great that Statistics New Zealand probably can't even be sure it's collecting all the right data at the moment.
Instead, it's the frequency of updates that matters. This week's forecasts are a way-station before the production of pre-election fiscal and economic updates in late August, assuming the election goes ahead on Sept. 19.
3 - Level 1 and the trans-Tasman travel bubble
The Australian government has so far been franker than ours about a timeline to something close to normal life, which includes the potential for open borders between Australia and New Zealand. Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison has talked about the bubble being in place by July. Being able to travel across the Ditch again is less significant than the powerful signal that such a relaxation will give, acting as both a fillip to confidence and as a proxy for confirmation that both countries have the virus under control.
Will our government chance its arm by nominating its own timetable, or maintain its currently more conservative stance?
4 - Articulation of a vision
Robertson talked last week about the opportunity to use covid-19 to "build back better." It should be far too early to give anything more than a verbal outline of what this means, with perhaps one or two symbolic but probably low-cost pointers.
However, the way the government talks about the role of government in this Budget is vital. If it says too little, it will be suspected of developing an agenda that it doesn't want to discuss before the election.
Equally, it must judge carefully how much and exactly what it says about these ambitions because they will be key to the themes of the election campaign. The government is already a far larger player in the economy than it was possible even to imagine two months ago.
For some, this is an opportunity to rebuild a fairer, better society and economy. For others, it threatens to march New Zealand backwards into a low productivity, state-directed future where capital is allocated politically and a generation of economic rationalism is unwound.
By the time the election rolls around, the covid-19 virus will be less the focus than the unemployment, business closures and hardship its impact will wreak. The competition of ideas for how best to get out of this mess will be intense. The Budget is the government's throat-clearing moment for that contest.
5 - How Simon Bridges reacts
The National Party leader has fallen twice at crucial hurdles - first when the initial level 4 lockdown was announced and second in reaction to the move to level 3.
The Budget is a third such hurdle.
If Simon Bridges pitches his tone wrong again this week, the chances of a reluctant but unavoidable attempt at a leadership coup will go through the roof.
- By Pattrick Smellie
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Posted: at 11:28 am
Men do not face the same dual economy of idleness and intensive work, or the social expectation to teach their children. Their domains of construction, manufacturing and mining are relatively unscathed for the time being, and are well placed for recovery.
This will come as a shock to politicians on both sides who see this recession as an opportunity to revive industry protection, and those on the fringes who want to take the short cut of xenophobia. This is a pink-collar recession, targeting the better educated half of the country, and the young instead of the old.
Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:
Australia faces a realignment of the economy at warp speed. Almost a third of the 950,000 jobs lost across the economy since March 14 have been in accommodation and food services. Most were casual positions. They are not easily restored without a vaccine for COVID-19.
Before the coronavirus, accommodation and food services was the sixth-largest employer in the country with 940,000 workers, representing just over 7 per cent of our entire workforce. Ahead of it in fifth place was education and training services (1.1 million) but behind it was manufacturing (920,000).
Today, it sits in ninth place, with around 630,000 workers. Manufacturing (880,000) has replaced it in sixth place, while public administration and safety, and transport, postal and warehousing have also risen one rung each. The irony is that accommodation and food services were safe havens in the early 1990s recession, with more jobs at the end of the crash than at its commencement.
The second tragedy is what is happening at the bottom end of the jobs ladder, among the sectors that traditionally employed smaller numbers of workers. Before the lockdown, the arts had been ranked 15th of the 19 sectors measured by the ABS, with 250,000 jobs in total. To put that part of our lives in perspective, we had more people in the arts than in mining, or real estate, or information media and telecommunications. Now the arts are ranked second last, with only the electricity sector below it, after losing a quarter of its workforce since March 14.
Australia didn't need to wait for data to know a recession was on the way, long lines at Centrelink told the story.Credit:Nick Moir
The ABS says 8.1 per cent of all jobs held by women and 6.2 per cent of jobs held by men have disappeared since March 14. This suggests the unemployment rates for men and women will diverge sharply. At the last recession, the male unemployment rate peaked at 12 per cent; 1.5 point higher than the female unemployment rate.
You could see this economic, and cultural crisis coming from the moment Scott Morrison announced stage two of the lockdowns on Sunday, March 22, which closed pubs, cinemas, restaurants, gyms and churches.
Australians did not need to wait six months for the data to come in, or to hear if the Prime Minister or Treasurer thought this was the recession we had to have. It was livestreamed the very next morning, in the long, anxious queues outside Centrelink offices in high income postcodes like Bondi Junction, and in the clueless response of Stuart Robert, the minister for government services, who thought a 15-fold increase in traffic on the MyGov website was a cyberattack.
By this point, the government had already fired two shots of stimulus at the economy a $35.4 billion package on March 12 directed primarily at businesses, and a further $26.7 billion on March 22 aimed at those who lost their jobs. But confidence was in freefall because the government was missing a critical element, the relationship between employer and employee. Businesses, and organisations, had no incentive to hang on to staff. On the contrary, the doubling of the dole on March 22 was the signal to sack.
The scale of the JobKeeper payment, announced on March 29, showed the government finally understood the forces it had unleashed. At $130 billion, it was more than double the combined cost of the first two attempts to stabilise the economy for lockdown.
We now have enough information from employers to judge the effectiveness of that monumental intervention. The ABS data records the sharpest fall in employment occurred in the week immediately after the JobKeeper announcement. This seems counter-intuitive until you realise who was excluded from the payment casual workers with less than 12 months at the same business, or organisation. That is why the hospitality and the arts sectors have been ground zero for retrenchments.
The Morrison government is treating these younger workers as expendable, and has refused to countenance extending the JobKeeper program to protect them. They are being supported at the moment by the doubling of the dole. But what happens when restrictions are eased, but there are no jobs for this group to go back to because entertainment and cultural life is permanently hobbled by social distancing policies?
Does the government cut the dole by half to its pre-pandemic level, and hope this jolts young people to look for another career?
It is hard to see the Morrison government testing any theory of economic rationalism before the next federal election, especially if the unemployment rate remains above 10 per cent. But it might be tempted by nativism. Higher unemployment increases the scope for scapegoating.
Labors homes affairs spokeswoman Senator Kristina Keneally used an opinion piece in last weekends Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age to call for a review of the temporary migration program. It came with a catchphrase of old Labor. We need a migration program that puts Australian workers first, she wrote.
Morrison didnt bite this week. Migration remains a moot point while the borders remain tightly controlled.
For Labor, it was the wrong fight to pick in a pink-collar recession. Any appeal to the prejudices of older Australians, who are actually hanging on their jobs, will only divert attention from younger Australians who have been short-changed by the lockdown.
George Megalogenis is a journalist, political commentator and author.
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Posted: April 11, 2020 at 8:02 pm
Easter When We Most Need a Resurrection!
This year in North America, Easter feels different. This year, there will no sunrise services, trumpets, lilies, bonnets, new suits and dresses. There will no joyful hugs and triumphant hymns in our sanctuary. We have been shaken out of our North American complacency. Our assumptions and illusions have been dashed by the realities of the Coronavirus. No willful pastor can defeat Coronavirus by holding Easter services. We dont expect the virus to go away miraculously. The stone of the virus is in our way, and it appears that it will roll away on its own terms and not ours. All the bloviations of political leaders and defiant pastors cannot dislodge the stone or produce the miracle we might hope for.
We need a miracle and a resurrection, but it will not come from the outside. It will come from the Easter event surfacing in our own lives and congregations, shaped the realities of history and nature.Still, there is no getting around the Easter miracles if you belong to the Jesus movement. Jesus first followers were transformed by their encounters with the Risen Christ. Once fearful, they became courageous; once uncertain, they became confident that Jesus was unique, the savior of humankind, victorious over sickness, sin, and death. The power of the resurrection to transform the lives of Jesus first followers cant be denied by any honest observer. For two thousand years, the amazing power of Jesus resurrection has continued to bring healing and wholeness indeed new birth to peoples lives. Stones have been rolled away, and way has been made where we perceived no path forward.
Moreover, within span of some of their lifetimes or the lifetimes of their closest confidants, the written gospels emerged and with them the clear but amazing affirmation that Christ is alive and that both cross and resurrection are central to the good news of our healing and salvation. Something dramatic happened that cannot be reduced to a tall tale, repetition of myths of death and rebirth, or a rotting corpse. Something mysterious and amazing occurred that cant be confined by a literalist understanding of the biblical stories. As the gospel of John proclaims, there is always more to Jesus than our own fabrications or the written text: his life, death, and resurrection will always transcend and sometimes transform the rational mind, opening the mind to a deeper rationalism in which all is wonder and miracle. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.(John 20:30)
The resurrection will always remain a mystery, hidden from rationalists, Enlightenment-thinkers, and literalists. It is always more than we can ask or imagine. Some try to domesticate the Easter message by positing the creation of fanciful stories, recycled death-rebirth myths, trying to locate Jesus tomb and the corpse buried within, or suggesting that dogs ate the bones. The gospels even suggest that a rumor arose that Jesus corpse had been stolen by his followers. But the gospels make plain that a stolen body cant inspire a spiritual revolution. Others try to control the story by literalizing flesh and bone and questioning the piety of those who provide imaginative visions of the resurrection or seek to discern the events beneath the texts. The quest for the resurrected Jesus is often an act of faith.
Still, we cant separate the pre-Easter or post-Easter Christ, or the Christ of history and the Christ of faith: they are one holistic reality that transformed cells and souls in the first century and continues to do so today. The power of each energizes the power of the other.We can never fully encompass Jesus resurrection, but we can find a clue in C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. As the tale goes, in order to save Edmund, the lion-savior Aslan must sacrifice his own life. The White Witch, however, is unaware of the laws of Deeper Magic, which promise resurrection to the innocent victim. Aslan rises and the White Witch and her minions are defeated. The Deeper Magic embedded in the creation of the universe is mysterious, but it is part of the larger causal interdependence of the universe; in fact, it may be its animating energy. The resurrection of Aslan does not circumvent the laws of nature but occurs as a result of deeper laws of nature. This opens the door to seeing resurrection as part of Gods amazing universe and affirming that certain moments can be so closely aligned to Gods vision that unexpected and transformative energies can be released, radically changing cells and souls.
I will not try to explain resurrection, nor will try to explain it. However, it is clear to me that throughout his ministry Jesus tapped into deeper energies to promote the transformation of bodies, minds, and spirits. The energy of the universe flowed through Jesus, in response to a womans faith, immediately curing her of a hemorrhage. A Samaritan womans child is healed from a distance of a mysterious disease through the interplay of her faith and Jesus intentionality. Waves are calmed as a result of Jesus spiritual powers. All these amazing events can be understood in terms of the interdependent and energetic nature of the universe, described by cosmology, physics, and biology. The congruence of faith and science hardly minimizes our wonder but places our wonder in the context of an entirely wonderful universe, of which we are mostly oblivious.
For those of us who need a miracle, the miracle is always with us. There is a deeper naturalism, dynamic, open-ended, many-faceted, and containing random events. But even random events are touched by a gentle providence that moves through the universe, giving direction and life to personal, communal, planetary, and cosmic evolutions. Resurrection does not defy the causal relatedness of life or the dynamic laws of nature but reflects the deeper energetic nature of reality which is always amazing and revelatory of more than we can ask or imagine.
Today, our prayers and hymn may not eradicate the Coronavirus, but they give us power and courage to yes to life, to reach out to the vulnerable, to plan for a new future with radical changes in our national and global priorities beyond the pandemic. And, this very action may enhance our immune systems, give strength to help others in their anxieties, and nurture hope in a time of pandemic. That may be miracle enough. More a miracle than those faithless pastors who restrict Gods resurrection to their places of worship.
What, then, happened on Easter morning? While we may never know for sure and should never domesticate such amazing moments, let me suggest that Jesus resurrected body incarnated the deeper laws of the universe that were already manifest in his ministry of healing and hospitality. Perhaps, Jesus resurrection body became a highly charged quantum body, able to move from one place to another in a blink of an eye and move through dense material bodies, such as walls, as if they were air. While we cant literalize the gospel stories, the recognition that Jesus was recognized by his followers and known by his wounds points to a continuity of his post- resurrection body with his pre-resurrection body. Such events are possible in a lively, dynamic universe, and are surely no more marvelous than invoking the big bang as the first moment of our universe. How can one not be amazed to recognize that from a microcosmic energy event a universe of a trillion, and counting, galaxies emerged? All is natural, yet all amazing, mysterious, and beyond our imaginations.
This Easter, open to possibility, awaken to wonder, and look for hints of Jesus resurrection in your own cells, your spirit, and the world around. Look for miracles and as Wendell Berry counsels practice resurrection in pandemic. Beyond the fanfare of megachurch preachers, fearful prognostications, and bloviating of political leaders, you will discover that Christ is Risen in your life today!
+++Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC and GOD ON LINE: A MYSTICS GUIDE TO THE INTERNET
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Posted: at 8:02 pm
Today, we are witnessing the medical equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Moon Mission.
The great Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C., when Spartan armies invaded the Attic peninsula. The agrarian population fled to the great city of Athens, whose population soon tripled. In 430 B.C., plague broke out in Athens. Chaos and death followed. Thucydides speculated that the plague came from somewhere south of Egypt, but ancient Greeks knew nothing of the biological nature of the invisible force that was killing them:
No other human art was of any avail; and as to supplications in temples, and inquiries of oracles, and the like, they were all useless; and at last men were overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up.
The plague raged within the city for four years and debilitated Athens far more than the fearsome Spartan warriors outside its walls. Eventually, as much as half of Athens bloated population would perish before the plague disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.
Parts and Wholes
Our current response to the Coronavirus pandemic could not be more different than that of ancient Athens. Modern science does not deal with problems by means of supplications in temples nor with inquiries of oracles. Science attends to reality in a way quite different than religion and, in turn, generates its own kind of knowledge. Science deals with facts, as revealed by scientific methodologies.
Todays pandemic is precisely the kind of problem modern science is best equipped to deal with. Modern science offers detailed and specific knowledge, and it prescribes a range of specific remedies and behaviors. Today, we are witnessing the medical equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Moon Mission. The analytic powers of science have been summoned, and armies of researchers and health workersas disciplined as a hoplite phalanxwage war upon a microscopic enemy.
For over two hundred years, science has systematically displaced religion as our way of knowing reality. The science versus religion conflict, however, tends to miss a more elemental conflict. The significance of the dominance of modern science is not simply that it renders religion irrelevant when it comes to knowledge; science renders the human imagination irrelevant as a way of knowing reality.
Many of the most profound critiques of the rise of science in the early nineteenth century were not made by theologiansbut by artists and poets. Goethe, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and otherseither explicitly or implicitlyaddress the rise of modern science. The great poets of the Romantic Age were not interested in protecting the prerogatives of the Church or of kings. Nor were they themselves necessarily hostile to the emergence of reason and science. What concerned them was that human reason (in general) and scientific methodologies (in particular) only presented a limited knowledge of reality
Percy Bysshe Shelley in his essay A Defence of Poetry describes two classes of mental actionreason and imagination. Science is a ritualized form of reason that tends to focus on the parts or pieces of reality, whereas the imagination deals with the relationships and the whole. Science is concerned with analysis, and the poetic imagination with synthesis. The imagination is capable of describing and revealing relationships by means of metaphors, myth, music, dance, stories, and images that are not amenable to scientific procedures.
Unlike the scientist, nature for the poet is not treated as some object outside of ourselvesbut as part of who we are. The human imagination is the principle within human beings capable of adapting to the forces that envelop us. All of usnot just poetshave a capacity not only to analyze facts but to harmonize facts to generate meaningful wholes. This is precisely what we do all day every day.
Poets, dealing in images and metaphors, implicitly acknowledge the unknown and the limited nature of human knowledge. Understanding that all human-generated forms and ideas are limited is what Nietzsche called the tragic insight. The Greeks called defiance of the limited nature of human knowledge hubris
A work of art is a kind of description or analogue of how nature worksand who we are in relationship to nature. Poets, claims Shelley, are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society. What we call a religion itself began as a poetic event and may be the accumulation of a series of poetic events.
Religions are dynamic systems which, like a life form or any way of thinking, evolve over time. They are born, they grow, flourish and tend to become sclerotic and even decay. Every epoch, says Shelley, under names more or less specious, has deified its errors. Modern critics of religion seem to fixate on religions in their latter sclerotic forms with little acknowledgement of the whole complex process. Such critics are apparently unaware that their own thinking is subject to precisely the same processes and even the same hubris.
A Long Slow Coup d Etat
Science and arts differing ways of attending to reality are, not surprisingly, reflected in the actual structure and functioning of the human brain. The brain says psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist, is a metaphor of the world. The brain functions like the world functions. In his provocative book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist documents how the left and right hemispheres of the brain tend to focus on different aspects of reality and, in turn, generate different kinds of knowledge.
McGilchrist stresses that real hemispherical differences exist but that both sides are quite interdependent, as they integrate two aspects of experiential reality. The left side is concerned with things (or human generated distinctions and abstractions), while the right hemisphere is concerned with the relations between things and is open to the whole. In our normal day to day activities, both sides tend to function simultaneously, more or less in harmony. McGilchrist generally affirms Shelleys distinctions between reason and imagination: We live by harmonizing distinctions.
McGhichrist argues that the balance of part to whole radically shifts with the emergence of modern science. The left hemispheres focus on details comes to dominate as our common cultural way of interpreting reality. Sciences capacity to break the world down into its pieces predominates, with little concern for the right hemispheres capacity to look at the whole. This is a momentous shift in consciousness that virtually defines the modern world. Roberto Calasso describes this radical shift as a long and slow coup d edat by which the brains analogical pole [is] gradually supplanted by the digital pole.
As science objectifies reality (today, we literally see the transformation of reality into digital information), a great coup dtat is set in motion. It is consummated when our consciousness is thoroughly adapted to this new reality.
The story of the modern world is very much a story of this coup d etat. The emergence of the modern world is both disturbing and exhilarating. Science subverts traditional forms and breaks the world into pieces, and this generates both alienation and liberation. As traditional forms dissolve, we lose a sense of wholeness and meaning though ultimately we are compensated with a sense of power over the elements of nature. Much of the art and literature of the past two centuries can be understood as manifestations of and commentary on our shifting consciousness.
Nietzsche not only observed the coup dtat in progress; he could see where it was heading. He well understood that the great changes were not political or even ideological but in the very nature of human consciousness. Nietzsches infamous pronouncement of the death of God has been routinely interpreted as a kind of achieved wisdom of modern man over naivet and superstition. However, as Nietzsche himself suggests, I believe it more accurate to describe it as a psychological state of human beings incapable of transcendence, incapable of seeing wholes.
Nietzsches commonly used term decadent signifies not only a cultural breakdown but a psychological one. He characterizes decadence in literature as
life no longer animates the whole. Words become predominant and leap right out of the sentencethe sentences themselves trespass beyond their bounds, and obscure the sense of the whole page, and the page in its turn gains in vigor at the cost of the whole,the whole is no longer a whole.
Nietzsche is anticipating what would become postmodern literary criticism. A great work of art epitomizes the imaginations highest powers of apprehending unity. But its presumed transcendent powers dissolve as the works are interrogated, demystified, and deconstructed by postmodern critics. A great work of art which once radiated all kinds of connections is torn apart, the author himself is declared dead and even the end of metanarratives proclaimed. Not only is the whole no longer a wholeit is denied as ever having even existed. Harold Bloom calls this approach to literature and art, the School of Resentment.
It is not without great irony that Nietzsches skepticism, which is to say, his ability to take things apart, would be appropriated by postmodern theorists. Nietzsche is indeed the greatest of modern skeptics, but he, ultimately, is all about wholeness and transcendence. Referring to himself as an artistic Socrates, he recognizes the need to apprehend reality as whole is as important as breaking it into pieces. Art critic Clement Greenberg once defined the word kitsch as debased and academized simulacra; postmodernism can be describe as kitsch Nietzsche.
Postmodern skepticism even presumes to challenge the modern world formed by science and reason. One of the great paradoxes of the triumph of science as knowledge is that the more the world is turned into an object, the more we think of ourselves as subjective beings. Postmodern hyper-emphasis on the subjective nature of reality is not so much a challenge to Enlightenment rationalism as it is its fulfillment. These seemingly conflicting ways of thinking are merely two manifestations of the incapacity to see wholes:manifestations of the atrophy of the imagination and the disjunction of the left and right sides of the brain. In both science and postmodern skepticism, the brains digital pole subjugates the analogical poles proclivity to make connections and apprehend unity. The scientific mind generates fragmentation; the postmodern mind adapts to and even celebrates fragmentation.
What we call postmodernism is emblematic of the fragmented thinking of modern secular man in general. The denial of (or the incapacity for) transcendence is precisely what characterizes Nietzsches last man. Abstracted from nature and history, the last man is smug, hypersensitive, and incapable of creativity. In Nietzsches vision of the land of education, he mocks those who mindlessly pride themselves on their lack of belief: real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition. It is precisely the educated who have most lost faith in faith, who have lost any sense of transcendence or unity. It is, then, in Academia, with all its expertise and isolated silos of knowledge, where we see the consummation of the coup d etat.
We modern secular humans now pride ourselves on our education, our skepticism, our critical thinking and our openness. The inability to see connections is now celebrated as a kind of liberation from what appears to be the arbitrary authority of any claim to a transcendent whole. All social hierarchies, social mores, artistic conventions, and even geographic borders appear as arbitrary, nave, or self-serving. Unhappily for the educated, the world is yet full of true believers, rubes, and deplorables, clinging to their guns and religion.
The coup d etat ushers in what Calasso calls the Experimental Society.We are now in what Calasso calls post history (or what Fukuyama calls the end of history), where the constitution of society is not a problem of the imagination but a purely theoretical problem. Modern society has been transformed into a vast laboratory where we conduct experiments on nature and on ourselves. Our great ideological conflicts largely consist of power struggles over who controls the laboratory and which experiments are run.
The Experimental Society knows no boundaries and perpetually replicates itself to envelop the whole globe. It is a metanarrative of no metanarratives, and, in the name of denouncing imperialism, it is the greatest imperial force the world has ever seen. Society, like everything else, is more or less raw material, data generated by science, which can be molded into whatever we determine to be fair and just. All problemssocial, environmental, personalare to be treated essentially the same way as a viral pandemic. The tragedy of life can be alleviated by a deus ex machina of technological wizardry or the intervention of beneficent experts. Suffering is just natures way of telling us we need better experiments.
If the brain is a metaphor of the world, then the world is a metaphor of the brain. With the rise of modern science, we make the world over in our image. The McGilchrist tell us that extreme hyperawareness of the pieces in individuals is called schizophrenia. The extreme hyperawareness of the pieces in a whole civilization we often call Progress.
Speaking of how the world works, Calasso writes:
There are two movements:
We cannot do without either of these two movements, in any of their articulations
Calasso is again making a similar distinction as between the digital and analogical poles of consciousness. Clearly, confronting our current pandemic, we require the powers of science to address the coronavirus as if it is usable material. We want science to break the problem down into its fragments; we want to be able to control or even annihilate the virus. A viral pandemic is a problem of knowing the fragments and conducting effective experiments.
But how does the emergence of our current pandemic relate to the whole vast world we call the Global Economy? How does a relate to b? How does touching one element affect all the other elements?
In the post-historical phase, only the action of a is generally recognized by society; b leads a wild and clandestine life, but radiates its power over everything.
With our fragmented minds we are blind as to how a relates to b. The coronavirus is indeed a disease which can be known and controlled by science. Yet, simultaneously it is but one manifestation of powers and relationships which, unnamed and unacknowledged, lead wild and clandestine lives.
And how do we know these invisible powers even exist? Consider this: Someone touches a bat in Eastern China, and a whole global civilization is brought to its knees.
The Athenians never fully recovered from the plague, and the great Peloponnesian War dragged on for decades. In one great final attempt to extend its power, imperial Athens invaded distant Sicily. Overextended, unsure of purpose and led by corrupt and weak generals, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat. The end of Athens Golden Age was precipitated by a great act of cultural hubris
Hubris is the arrogance that you know more than you know. The hubris of modern science as knowledge is that it tends not even to know what it does not know. Breaking the world up into pieces can never give us knowledge of the whole. Scientific knowledge can be enfolded or guided by some vision of the whole, but it cannotas sciencegenerate that whole. The complete domination of the kind of thinking that allows us to overcome a great pandemic is, at the same time, the kind of thinking that ensures events like pandemics. The strength of science is simultaneously its weakness.
The whole is illimitable and, therefore, can never truly be known. Ultimately, its radiant powers can only be described by metaphor or analogy. We can eradicate a thousand viruses and still not know who we are in the universe. Addressing the emergence of modern science, the poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his 1891 Studies for the Physiology of Plants,
The seekers of knowledge may cross themselves and bless themselves against imagination as often as they wishbefore they know it, they will have to call upon the imaginations creative power for help.
Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.
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