Traditional values

Consider this sentence from the Bible:

Be still and know that I am God.

The recent decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States have raised many questions, as well as settling the ones explicitly dealt with in the cases, particularly gay marriage and Obamacare.

These ancillary questions are many, not least in the realm of jurisprudence (were the decisions fundamentally reached by doing what the Constitution instructs and limits the justices to do?) and politics (has the court become simply another aspect of the political activities of the other two branches of the government?)

My concern in this post is to comment on something other than these questions. My concern is the debate that has resulted and will continue for some time about whether “traditional values” are under assault in the United States not just broadly within the culture, which is indisputable, but specifically in an organized way by the organs of the State.

It strikes me that to have this debate is an entirely good thing, but it requires a rigid and demanding kind of clarity. This bring me back to the biblical quotation I opened this post with. Please reread it.

My question is this:

What core value does it embody? There are two possibilities, and this duality points out the puzzle and the challenge in the debate to come.

Is the core value knowing God?

This will be the immediate conclusion, I suspect, of many advocates of “religious traditional and conservative values.” Thus, the debate centers on God and excluded from the biblical injunction are all those for whom belief in God or a god is troubling or impossible.

But, what if the core vale is somewhat different?

Is the core value being still?

It may well be that one has to “be still” to “know God,” but it is not necessary that being still will result in such knowledge. In this event is being still worthless from a biblical perspective? I think not. There is core value to being still in and of itself.

In a debate about protecting traditional values, therefore, I would be prepared to argue and indeed fight for your right to be still (I know, I have not filled out what this might entail; that for another time) whereas I am sure I would not argue and fight for the necessity of you believing in God.

If one simple little biblical sentence can offer this degree of subtle depth of meaning we (those who seek to live by biblicality, if I may put it that way) would be wise to be cautious in our instincts to discern the truth and slow to pontificate, prescribe, and proscribe.

Moral Ambiguity

Over the past 10 days or so I have been in the midst of a move.

Moving, it is said, is one of life’s more stressful undertakings. Ours was made more so by a complication: we were selling and buying and both closings were cash closing and scheduled on the same day several hours apart.

At the first, where we were selling, our buyer showed up with no cash. It would not be available for another week. (The reason for this is private and I will not bore you with the details nor embarrass our buyer, save to say, inexperience and stupidity are a dangerous mix.) This meant we were in a pickle for our second closing and we in turn had to postpone for a week.

Thus we were both victim and villain simultaneously.

(All’s well that ends well, of course, and the next week everything proceeded smoothly. It did entail our having to cancel our movers who were unable to schedule our work until July 6th, so as I write we are in the new place “camping out” as it were.)

My point is the simultaneity of two contradictory moral states: victimhood and villainy. This is a possible state of affairs, as our experience simply, and without undue seriousness, illustrates.

It strikes me that this morally ambiguous simultaneity is the norm not the exception.

What blinds us from seeing this in various instances is our impatient desire to ascribe blame. This desire in turn arises, I suspect, from our innate unease with ambiguity as such. We have an inner bias towards or a tendency for a black and white universe. But the messy ethics of actual living does not permit this simplistic intellectual luxury.

The voice of judgmentalism ought to be stilled over run-of-the-mill moral dilemmas so that when actually required in the rare and exceptional case, its bite might be more clearly discerned.

Adverbs

For anyone who knows anything about sports in general or golf in particular, yesterday was a demonstration in ineptitude.  It was given by Tiger Woods.

Following an 85, his worst ever round as a professional, yesterday’s first round of the US Open saw him shoot an 80. After the first 18 holes he is 15 shots behind the leaders and second bottom of the entire field.

Here’s the thing: Woods has been injured, had several surgeries including to a nerve in his back, not to mention his widely publicized personal life turmoil.

OK: I won’t talk about sports anymore. But, we need to pay attention to Woods’ press conference following this, yet another, catastrophic round of golf. From a piece in the New York Times note these two sentences:

Got off to a bad start and just couldn’t quite get it turned around. It’s one of those things that I’ve just got to work through.

I’m trying as hard as I can to do it, and for some reason I just can’t get the consistency that I’d like to have out there.

Teaching us how to read complex sentences and entire passages, a theology professor of mine years ago advised us to “pay attention to the adverbs.”

Adverbs are the subtle, reveal all, qualifiers. From Woods’ two sentences I quoted, note from the first the power of the little word “quite” and from the second, “just.” Remove them from those sentences and Woods would be offering a far bleaker assessment on his game.

Here’s a non-sporting example.

President Obama was speaking at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills yesterday (yes, a fundraiser) about political gridlock and partisanship. Many Republicans, his political opponents of course, feel he has been one of the most active players in DC in this type of maneuver. Be that as it may, this is reported about his comments yesterday:

Obama told donors at a Democratic Party fundraiser hosted by filmmaker Tyler Perry Thursday evening that he has struggled “mightily” against division in politics but the system “still is broken.”

Mightily? Does that actually mean “somewhat,” or “a little bit,” or “not at all?”

From Tiger Woods (not really important) to President Obama (actually more so) and everything in between and far beyond, pay attention to those little giveaways, the adverbs.

Pathetic

I am sure many will be commenting on the new Mazda ad. You can watch it here (just scroll down for the video.)

It’s the last line that is the kicker.

I am not going to play spoiler (a role I was born for with Game of Thrones, of which I am firmly on the book side in the books vs. series conflict!) but I will say this:

That last line is the anthem of our culture

That last line will be the epitaph of our culture

That last line is a scary joke

Nice car though.

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Magna Carta and baloney

This week the UK is going a bit gaga over the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The document even has its own website for the occasion.

It is touted as a “celebration of democracy.” In some sense of democracy I suppose it was, marginally, slightly, a tiny wee bit, if, that is, democracy is taken to refer to the partial reduction of the absolute right of the monarch and the elevation of the inherited nobility to a position of some decision –making.

If you think of democracy as the rule of the common people, then Magna Carta is not your document. Not really. Sorry.

Abraham Lincoln best captured what democracy is all about, or is meant to be all about: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The key here is “the people.” It is intended to be utterly inclusive. By defining  democracy in this way, Lincoln, in his lawyerly way, was intentionally seeking to embrace all citizens in the nation to be part of its system of government.

Any system which excludes anyone is not democracy.

Hence democracy is opposed to monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by an inherited class), oligarchy (rule by a few), theocracy (rule by God’s spokesmen), and dictatorship (rule by force, i.e. the powerful.)

(It is worth noting, by the way, that oligarchy can take various forms dependent on how the “few” of its definition are identified. A plutocracy, for example, is an oligarchy of those who are wealthier than the vast majority of “the people” and who use their wealth to wield power. Take note: plutocratic oligarchies, history teaches, usually end in disaster.)

Democracy sounds good. But the issue is whether it is truly scalable. It is one thing for “the people” of ancient Athens to gather to settle their affairs, quite another for the people of the United States. There evolves, therefore, the odd notion of representative democracy.

Representative democracy is government by some of the people elected by the people. A representative, of course, is called this because the sole purpose is to re-present the people’s views and in doing so this system is meant also to be for the people.

Alas, between the cup of this idealistic vision (re-presenting) and the lip of actuality (governing or ruling) there is many a slip.

Yesterday gave us a stunning illustration of such a slip.

Remember AIG? Big company and thus bad company, right? Wall Street, right? Naughty, naughty. Caused the 2008 mess, right? Needed a bail-out …. wrong! Money from “the people?” You gotta be kidding me.

But, wait. AIG got a “loan.” A big loan. And repaid it to the people, with an enormous profit. (Profit? Yes, that is what big companies do; make a profit, otherwise they do not stay big.)

Happy ending, right?

Not so fast.

The devil is in the details and you can read them here. The devil, it turns out, is complicated, but this much from the judge’s ruling spoken about is clear:

The federal government (the representative of the people) unfairly and illegally “took over” the majority of a big company.

They call that stealing where I come from.

Now wait: going back to the land of Magna Carta, didn’t Robin Hood do the same thing? Didn’t he rob from the rich and give to the poor?

Well, yes but no.

He robbed from the government!

He took back the taxes the poor had given to the king and redistributed them. He gave taxes back to the folks who had earned the money in the first place.

The greatest threat to democracy is when representative democracy, in the name of democracy, becomes statist federalism, which in itself is usually a mask for a plutocratic oligarchy.

If Magna Carta’s voice is relevant at all today, this is what it says.

Watch out

(Check out the “My New Book” page at the top for the latest news.)

The last couple of days have seen reports of the pending comments by Pope Francis on climate change.

Climate change is, to say the least, a controversial topic.

It is made so not by anything inherent to it, although in the northern USA the cool summer has combined with two particularly brutal winters to spur the prevalence of anecdotage, the announcement of the personally trivial as the universally authoritative.  No, the issue with climate change is science. Scientific opinion is not unanimous and the data we, the public, are given from both sides seems equally convincing. It is a puzzle.

This puzzle in turn leads many to see the issue as something calling for political solution. That alas, seems to be what is happening. The environmentalist wings of various political parties argue for climate control measures, while those measures are viewed by their political opponents as ideologically motivated and opportunistic attempts to limit “big business.”

Clarity is far from imminent.

Into this drama steps the pope.

Set aside the matter of which side he is going to support. That is not my concern in this post.

My concern is the nature of the kerfuffle his opining about it at all has caused. See this piece from the UK’s The Guardian, a leftward leaning newspaper. Two paragraphs in particular are worth noting:

“The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours,” James Inhofe, the granddaddy of climate change deniers in the US Congress and chairman of the Senate environment and public works committee, said last week, after picking up an award at a climate sceptics’ conference.

Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic and a long-shot contender for the Republican nomination, told a Philadelphia radio station: “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”

The point to focus on is the assertion that the pope’s and by implication the church’s “job” is to comment on matters not of the common good, particularly not science, but rather of “theology and morality.”

Forget morality, for the moment. It’s theology that is my focus.

If theology has nothing to say about the common good, including but not restricted to science, it really has very little to say; of interest and relevance, that is. The theos of which such a narrow theology would speak becomes a circus clown, a domestic pet, a cosmetic curiosity.

Frankly, I very much anticipate disagreeing with what Pope Francis will be saying about climate change, but his saying cannot be anything but a good thing. His God is not tame, clownish, nor a cosmetic curiosity.

His theos may well make politicians nervous. That can only be a good thing.