Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Little Spong

‎"God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew. God is not a Muslim, Buddhist or a Hindu. All of those are human systems which humans have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Original Good part one

The following are some religious thoughts on original sin and original good.

I don't have a huge problem believing in original sin, which is the idea that all people are imperfect and make mistakes. But I have a huge problem with original sin if we don't also include original good.

People do so many wonderful things for each other. We sacrifice immediate, simple gratification for a longer, more rewarding goals. We are community-oriented creatures who work together for good all the time.

So I can understand original sin, which could coexist with original good, but I cannot understand the doctrine of "total depravity", the idea that man is unable to do good by his nature.

The Calvinist idea of total depravity would say that we are unable to do anything unselfish by our natures, and that we must, through Christ, take on the nature of God in order to be selfless at all. I think this is a confusing way to view things, because ultimately everything we do is for ourselves. For instance, if God commands something resembling "selflessness", why would we do it if it were of no benefit to us? Surely there is selfishness of a different variety still at work?

The Buddhist understanding is that people act evilly out of ignorance. People think they are doing themselves a favor, but really they are hurting themselves by not taking, what is commonly called, the more "selfless" road. Compassion is what brings happiness, and compassion is the identification of the self with others. When we identify others with ourselves, we are part of a community and working for the best for ourselves takes on a more enlightened meaning. But we're still working for ourselves, just not in a separate sense.

When faced with a moral dilemma - do I share the cookies or eat them all? - I have different desires that are in competition with each other. If my appetite says "eat them all!", should I consider myself evil? Certainly not. My appetite is just that, a hunger response to food. It's a good thing. It keeps me alive. But then I have a competing desire to take care of others, to share. And this desire is for community, to broaden my sense of self to include others. An enlightened moral choice will get me more bang for my buck. Belonging to the community, embodying compassion and identification with others, is more valuable than indulging my simple appetite which knows little of the circumstances at hand.

But of course, many time, ignorance - or a lack of mindfulness - rules the day. We are certainly not perfect. We make short-sighted choices that lead to suffering, for ourselves and others. But we also make wonderful, enlightened choices which inspire us all and give our lives meaning. And we do it all the time!

So anyway, back to original sin. I have seen two Evangelical evangelists use the following formula fairly recently:

"Have you ever told a lie?


What does that make you?

A liar.

That's right. You're a liar."

Then the conversation proceeds to the idea that sin means we deserve separation from God. We deserve punishment - and not the corrective, rehabilitating kind, but the eternal, death-of-all-hope kind - in order to preserve God's "justice."

But what about the flip-side of the conversation?

"Have you ever told the truth?

Yeah.....the overwhelming majority of the time actually.

Then what does that make you?


That's right. A truth-teller."

So we may have original sin, but we also have original good. All those apocalyptic verses in Revelation, and elsewhere, about liars being punished eternally, don't include the fact that not only did these people tell lies, steal things and commit infidelity, they also helped people. They worked hard to provide for their kids. They gave to charity. They helped friends who were in trouble. They got up in the middle of the night to soothe a frightened child. They told the truth countless times, even when it was difficult.

And if all good things have their origin in God, does this mean that the original good is also in Hell? Part of God is in Hell? Or does it mean that the bad parts of us all are burned away and the good bits of us all, the parts that are really us, that we really value, will be preserved?

One need not be a religious person to see how the deep feelings behind these different positions manifest themselves in us all. And I should definitely say that there are myriad different Christian positions that I find very inspiring and fulfill our highest ideals. I am focusing on a brand of evangelical Christianity here that I have problems with.

And I have another reason for believing in original good.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Being Nice

In many secular and religious conversations, the question arises of what the best way to convert, or "de-convert", people is. Some people argue that being abrasive, even ruthlessly mocking your opponent's view, can sometimes offer a way to jolt the person out of her current mindset. Others counter that this strategy is more likely to further cement the person in her position, creating even more defensiveness.

I am open to the idea that there is a place for heated debate. I think when done respectfully, a passionate emotional exchange can be cathartic and can help us see past a stalemate in the exchange of ideas. I think there may even be a place for a bit of mockery - certainly satire can be a great eye-opener. What constitutes the difference between appropriate and inappropriate satire is another (very interesting) subject.

The flip side to the debate is that being nice to a person, and charitable towards her views, is the best strategy for changing her mind. Perhaps if one is kind, it will break through stereotypes about certain allegedly "militant" positions, and it will open the gate more widely for differing ideas to move through.

While all this is certainly important to discuss, I grow tired of the idea that the standard by which we should behave is set by how effective we are in changing the opinions of others. I think effective communication is invaluable, but I also think that being nice has value unto itself, apart from it's ability to change minds.

This value is certainly enjoyed by the object of a person's charitable attitude, but perhaps it is most enjoyed by the person being nice herself. When we are kind, we keep an open heart and mind, and we are able to achieve relationship with the object of our focus as she is, a real person, rather than seeing her as just a potential convert. The conversation itself becomes valuable, rather than just the outcome. Perhaps relationship trumps debate, but a quality debate can stay aware of this greater truth. I am not suggesting that a person should become a milquetoast. But surely one can be strong in her communication without sacrificing her compassion.

I realize that saying “relationship trumps debate” could potentially become one position in a debate itself, but without relationship there is no debate. Even if one is alone, thinking through arguments requires a relationship of different thoughts, and treating them all charitably to some extent is a requirement of clear thinking.

Here's an analogy to my overall point: I am a huge believer in music education (obviously!), and I like the argument that teaching kids music will help them at math. That is great. But I do not buy into the idea that the best defense for music education is that it will help us do better in another subject. I think music has value unto itself and should be preserved primarily for that reason. I could go into various reasons - music uses all parts of the brain simultaneously, requires teamwork, teaches us to give of ourselves when seeking to appreciate something, teaches us to seek and value beauty, etc, etc. but that's not the main point here - ;)

Music has value unto itself. It is not merely a means to another end. Niceness has value unto itself. It is not merely a clever debating tactic in the culture wars of our time.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


The Empty Suits was the artsy college band to which I belonged during my stay at Oklahoma City University in the mid to late 90's. We had a great time trying to resurrect new-wave sensibilities in a sea of post-grunge, party pop, Lilith Fair and the Spice Girls.

Our most anthemic song was "1986" written by our bassist Jason Cooper. Guitarist Nathan Siler sang the lead vocals and I played the cellos. Jim Clanton played drums.

I don't think our other member, Elizabeth Inghram, performed on this particular song, but she sang and played keyboards and flute all over our other songs. I remember her flute playing as being a particularly interesting part of our sound.

Steve Kelley was a fan and fellow OCU student at the time. He began collecting clips for a video and sometime in the early part of the 2000's he put it all together. I think he did a fantastic job, taking us on a journey through the pop culture and events of 1986. He organized the montage quite thematically, and I find it pretty moving, actually. I also like that the very last frame of the video is his 1986 school picture.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mr. Mailman

Earlier in the summer I did some cello session work at Blackwatch Studios in Norman. I liked the song immediately, especially after the artist, Ben Rector, described it to me as an 80's Randy Newman-esque piano-driven pop song. If you mix that with a bit of the Jackson 5 chord progression from "I Want You Back" you get this excellent summer pop song called "Mr. Mailman." It is part of a 2 song EP called Summer Candy which recently reached #15 on the iTunes pop charts and somewhere around # 50 overall.

I don't have a youtube video or anything to post, but go check out the 30 second clip on iTunes. The cello stuff worked out really well, I think.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Justice part two

Thought Experiment #1

Imagine a society with several powerful families, or clans perhaps. Each clan is constantly striving for control. Because of this, clans often kill members of the other families. And every single time a member is killed, a revenge killing occurs, without fail. It become a series of vendettas, which are always satisfied.

According to the idea of retributive punishment, would this not qualify as a just society? Each time a killing occurs, it is answered in equal proportion. Few young people remain alive within the clans, as the killings are fairly constant, but a sense of order or an "evening out" of actions is maintained.

Is this a just society?

Thought Experiment #2

Imagine that a man has killed another man. Although this is totally impossible, now imagine that we know without question that he is totally reformed. We know that he understands what he has done is wrong and that he is truly sorry for it. Moreover, we also know beyond question that he will never commit murder again. And beyond that, we also know that no one will ever know if we let this man go. In other words, it will not sacrifice the deterrent effect of the law on any potential criminals if the man is released, because no one knows what happened.

What purpose does it serve to put this man in prison or to kill him? Does it rob society of another productive member? Does it simply make two wrongs instead of a right?

Can we make a case for retributive punishment in the above thought experiments without referencing the goals of a more utilitarian theory of punishment - namely rehabilitation, deterrence or security?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Justice part one

I have been interested in the subject of justice for quite a while now. While justice encompasses a broad range of subjects from fair distribution to ethics - it is theories of punishment that are most interesting to me.

I suppose the popular idea of penal substitutionary theory in Christianity is a big reason for my interest in the nature of punishment, but I have been interested in the idea since I was a teenager.

Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) states that Jesus was killed to pay the price for humanity's violations of God's law. This requires a view of punishment that is retributive in nature. This means that a person should be punished for wrongdoing to achieve a sort of "evening out" of events. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I think this idea sees justice as an end in itself, not a method to another end. Achieving this "evening out" of events, this balance, is seen as the way things should be. I do not see justice as an end in itself, but rather see justice as a means to achieving better lives for individuals and society as a whole. I believe that the letter of the law serves the spirit of the law.

So I do not agree with the retributive theory of punishment. While I am not sure I agree completely with broader utilitarian views, I think the utilitarian view of punishment is correct. This idea is that punishment should accomplish a purpose, and that the retributive idea of "evening out" is not coherent when it is not accompanied by one of the following reasons for the punishment. Good reasons are:

1. Rehabilitation - attempting to educate, heal, create empathy and understanding of the wrongdoing in the criminal.
2. Deterrence - creating disincentives for potential criminals to violate the law
3. Security - keeping dangerous people locked up for the safety of society
4. Paying back something when it is actually possible to do so - suing someone for some reason - lost wages, pain and suffering, to get back stolen money, etc.

The last category above is different than the idea of "evening out" in retributive justice. The reason is that if I have lost wages because of a car accident, and I sue the person that hit me, I can actually get back some of what I have lost. Money. If a person steals from me, loses all the money, and goes to prison, then this punishment does not actually pay me back anything at all. I am personally no better off.

I am going to leave #4 above for now, but actually, I don't think it qualifies as punishment at all.

Of course if someone murdered someone close to me, I might really feel that I want them dead. But regardless of this, the idea of retributive justice here is an absolute insult. It suggests that by the murderer being killed, it could somehow make up for the absence of my deceased loved one. No way. The death of the murdered pays me back in no way whatsoever. If they die, justice has not been served in my book, because the death of my loved one is a violation that can never be repaid. My loved one's death would be unjust and would remain unjust. The only thing close to justice would be for the killer to really, REALLY realize what he/she had done. And this is rehabilitation. And the person must be locked away for the security of society, both to keep the killer off the streets and to show create deterrence for others who may be tempted to kill.

Retributive justice is punishment inflicted without the purpose of rehabilitation, security, deterrence or making material amends when it's actually possible to do so; and this type of punishment, even when done carefully and dispassionately by the state, is still synonymous with another term. Revenge.