Sunday, April 05, 2009

From Above and From Within

While walking through a neighborhood in Rancho a few days ago, I had an interesting thought. From the hiking trails there, which take one up into hilly areas, one can see the city from a sort of bird's-eye view. It's a very commanding, fascinating way to view your own community, and gives one a good idea of the lie of the land. At certain point on one of the trails, though, a concrete stairway leads down directly into one of those neighborhood. I took that route and ended up wandering through Rancho's neighborhood for an hour or two. Then I was able to see what each house looked like instead of seeing a sea of red tile roofs interspersed with some other buildings. What occurred to me is that both views, both experiences, had shown me something that the other could not. The commanding view from the hills showed me how the city was planned and where it lies in terms of Southern California geography, but it could not show me what walking down the neighborhood streets did: the character of each house, and how life progresses at the individual level.

It is probably an obvious conclusion, but I think that to view life, the world, faith, and any other important thing properly, one must similarly come at it from both perspectives. We hear of generals or statesmen who have singular ability in seeing the big picture, or in their minute administrative abilities and attention to detail. It is probably rare when a man possesses both in equal measure. And is it not so that we have a God who is both above all and in all? Unlike the polytheistic deities, who work within the natural world, God is independent of His creation and understands it (because He made it) from a planner's perspective. Yet unlike Islam's impersonal Allah, He also became a man, as an infant laying His eyes first on the rough walls of a Judaean stable. I cannot think of a more grounded, earthy perspective on life than this: growing up, as we presume, learning carpentry; reaching out to the poor, the sick, the corrupt and the unlovely; staying in the homes of friends and countering the specious arguments of the smug religious establishment with truth and common sense. God is not merely the world's engineer, or its judge. He is these things, and He would not be God if He were not. But He has also known what it is to be its tenant. To walk in the Columbia Gorge or around Trillium Lake or over the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains is quite another thing than looking at them on a map or a satellite image. But without looking at maps we could easily become lost, trapped by the limitations of seeing things only from the ground. Happy for us that we have a God who does both perfectly.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lessons from Sloths

Last school year I read and did a presentation on a book called Life of Pi. Written by a Canadian author in roundabouts 2001, this is the story of a young Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and drifts through the Pacific in a lifeboat for an incredible amount of time (at least a couple hundred days) with a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra aboard with him. Finally it is only he and the tiger and they must survive together in a kind of symbiotic relationship, while in the meantime he instructs the reader in some gooey postmodern hash about understanding animals, and relativism, and how every major religion is just wonderful and should learn to get along.

I bring up this book because it starts by talking about sloths. As I recall, it praises their slow-moving and contemplative natures, encouraging the reader to step back and take a look at life and the world and all that typical guru stuff. This is a common call. Close your eyes. Step back from the rat-race. Contemplate nature. See deep inside yourself. Get in touch with the good energy out there.

I thought about something this morning that was very convicting for me. Recently, in how many concrete ways have you expressed your faith? I knew that the number was painfully and ridiculously low. I knew also that the ways in which I had expressed concrete actions or thoughts contrary to my faith were very many, whether laziness or selfishness or gluttony or any number of other things. The point being, that if someone analyzed my life over the last two weeks or month, other than attending church and reading the Bible a few times they would find it hard to point to something that explicitly identifies me as a Christian.
This was, as I said, a convicting thought. And it made me think of those sloths.

I think it is a great error and even a great heresy to teach that the key to right living and healthy spirituality lies in severance from the world. It lies in severance from the actions and attitudes of the world and the total embrace of the actions and attitudes of Christ. Let's take a doctor as an example. Christ said that He came to heal the sick, so I figure it will make a decent analogy. Doctors strive through any means possible to prevent death by repairing the body and treating unwholesome symptoms. They themselves do not partake of the disease if they can help it. Infecting yourself with rabies does not in the slightest help a rabies victim. But ignoring rabies and letting it rage unchecked in someone's system will not help any more, and in the end that doctor will be held accountable for making no attempt to save his patient's life.

I feel that this latter option is what the proponents of a "batten down the hatches" spirituality are doing. I'm thinking of more than just Christians here, although of course I would apply it most specifically to them. Various Eastern religions seem to contain aspects of this as well. But I think we know best those Christians who interpret the Bible's words about being "not of this world" as meaning that it's okay for them to just sing praise songs and to preach daily, not to the lost, but to the found. It's like a trail guide running around the shelter at the end of the trailing, joyfully shouting to those inside: "You found it! Isn't it great! We're such privileged people because we found it! Now let's warm our hands over the fire."

Meanwhile all over the forbidding country outside the shelter men and women are struggling through dark forests, drowning in bogs and falling into pits. It's not wrong to rejoice with someone at having found the light--in fact, the Bible commands us to--but we need to rejoice together as we go out into the world and use our unique talents to show that light to others. What does Jesus say about putting your light under a basket? He says it's not the way to do it. Not only is light smothered under something of no good to anyone else, it is swiftly no good to itself either: it runs out of oxygen to burn and snuffs out.

There is plenty of room for contemplation. In this land of plenty, this America, we have plenty of time to ponder the wonder and glory of God and the universe and the imago Dei in man if we simply take the effort to make that time. It is the helter-skelter, submissive, uncontrollable activity that these gurus are warning against, the Eastern mystics who want us to just close our eyes and breath: senseless activity, a scrabbling for nothing, appointments and deadlines and 8-hour jobs that ultimately have no meaning or purpose as we descend into retirement and then finally into death. A tale full of sound and fury.

But, though they are right to dislike purposeless action, they are not right to advocate the life of the hermit, the life of distance and separation. There is another kind of action that is crying out for fit instruments for its application. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this kind of action is worth a million. It may not be a missionary journey to Cambodia (though I'm sure they need missionaries there), but it had better be something, friends. It is action born not of selfishness or the inability to control our schedules, but of the belief that there is work yet to be done, work that cannot be left to others. Others will work, sometimes more and sometimes less, but that couldn't be less important for our own duty to join in. If my friends, or my family, or my pastor--or almighty God--were to take a review of any given week in my life, what would I want to hear? Would I want to hear, You blew it? Would I want to hear, Good talker but not a deed to show for it? Or would I want to hear, This man lives, speaks, thinks, works, worships, helps, hinders, as he ought?

Here's the tough question: what would you hear?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Trading Homo Sapiens for Homo Ignorans

This is something I posted in my academic blog, The Quintessence of Dust, and I figured I would post it here as well, since the topic is suited to Musings. The text I quote is The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Anthony Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York.


So, I've been musing a bit about this passage in Keller on page 117:

All Christians believe all this--but no Christians believe just this. As soon as you ask "How does the church act as the vehicle for Jesus's work in the world?" and "How does Jesus's death accomplish our salvation?" and "How are we received by grace?" Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians will give you different answers. Despite the claims of many to be such, there are no truly "generic" nondenominational Christians. Everyone has to answer these "how" questions in order to live a Christian life, and those answers immediately put you into one tradition or denomination or another.

Christians seem to struggle with this a lot. It can be somewhat embarrassing to declare that you have been led to find the truth and then admit that others teach a radically different practical application or interpretation of the same truths. Some Christians teach that grace is so predominate in salvation that our actions do not matter. Others teach that works can of themselves produce meritorious results and grant us a better place in heaven. Still others teach something in between. This is only one of a host of disputes, ranging from whether infants should be baptized to whether salvation can be lost.

Both Keller and Miller are not concentrating on these disputes for obvious reasons. Since they are trying to convince non-Christians of the basic veracity and authenticity of the Christian faith, a detailed description of doctrinal disputes would be distracting and probably bewildering to much of their intended readership. Christianity can be boiled down, so to speak, into its most basic tenets, those truths which the Bible unmistakably teaches. I am not, therefore, blaming either author in any way for avoiding these sticky issues, given their stated intents.

But the subject of intramural disputes got me thinking. Are Christians the only people who disagree as to the practical application and interpretation of their faith? Certainly not. I am not familiar with all the 'denominations' of all the world religions, although I know that Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have tended to disagree on a few things. Even atheists tend to agree only to the extent that they deny the existence of any deity (and often hate the very idea of his existence). Keller cites the atheist scientist Stephen Jay Gould disagreeing with fellow atheist Richard Dawkins on a key belief of many atheists, that religious faith and science are incompatible (90-91).

No animal is uncertain of how to live. Apes do not form anti-vine-swinging lobbies, nor do lionesses debate hunting methods. Fish do not have various schools of thought as to how one should best swim, or whether swimming is necessary at all, or whether every fish simply dreams that he swims but in reality always remains stationary. Humans are the only living things that debate how to live: whether they should be humble or arrogant, meek or aggressive, hungry for power or eager to help others, whether to worship themselves or something outside themselves, whether something they hear is true or false. Keller and Miller would be out of a writing job if this were not so. And this is also, I think, a compelling argument for both truth and goodness. This may seem a logical leap, but this impulse is absolutely unique to humans. We are the only creatures who can reorder our lives based on something other than external circumstances, and we are constantly trying to do it, either because we have failed to live up to a particular standard or we have become convinced that a different standard is more worth achieving. I do not believe that we would do this if there were not some sort of ultimate standard to which all humans know they must attain.

As I recall, C.S. Lewis (whom, I notice, both authors we are reading seem to quote frequently) makes a similar argument in the first chapter of Mere Christianity. He calls it an appeal to 'fair play' or some kind of moral standard. We do not feel offended that someone has stolen our property for no reason at all. We recognize that something outside of ourselves has been violated. We may be more properly categorized as homo ignorans than homo sapiens, but this is what the Bible would lead us to expect. We are born piloting the ships of our lives without a map, and most of our lives are spent, whether consciously or unconsciously, in seeking a light by which to steer. In this case ignorance may be the first step toward truth.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Trust in Him Alone

It has been a while. I ask your pardons all for having neglected this site for so long, but I either couldn't think of something to post, or didn't have the perseverance to write up a post. I have something short to share now, though. (Knowing me, it may end up being long; we'll see!)

I think most of us tend to take our circumstances for granted. I know I did. It may be affluence, it may be your favorite bicycle, it may be your own health, it may be your father's life, it may be your best friend's trust. We all know that they will eventually pass away (though as for fathers and friends, we will never lose them forever if they have faith in Christ). The bike will wear out, our health will fail from old age if from nothing else, and anyone who took out a sub-prime loan knows that affluence isn't permanent. But while these things are with us, I think we have a tendency to rely on them as semi-constants. Our routines, from the breakfasts we eat to the dynamics of our families, tend to define who we are. I submit that, although family and friends and even good breakfasts on a crisp and sunny autumn morning are wonderful things--blessings from God that should be enjoyed with thanksgiving--we should nevertheless take care that we are prepared to lose these things. In The Two Towers, Tolkien said through the character of Aragorn that a man who cannot give up a treasure at need is in fetters. We do not usually even give up these treasures voluntarily. They are taken from us, by time, by disease, by betrayal, by human weakness.

Because life really is precarious--because it can change in three seconds while tying your shoes for church--we need to have an anchor which nothing that happens to us can dislodge. We must look to something beyond ourselves, to something beyond our beloved wives and beloved children, our trusted parents and our familiar territories. We must look to Christ. My friends, there is one promise that is never broken, one friend who never turns His back, one who never dies, and never sleeps, and never passes away. That is the one without whom nothing would be of lasting importance.

When Jesus told His disciples to hate their parents and brethren and love Him, He did not mean that every Christian should be at enmity with his family, or not love them dearly. What He meant, I think, is that we must love Christ first and above all things else. It may be a bit like what Dietrich Bonnhoeffer said--that we can never truly love someone else unless we love that person through Christ. In this life, on this side of Heaven, everything that we know will ultimately pass away, from a stillborn child to the oldest grandparent dying in sleep, except for God, and the promise of the Gospel. Cling to Him, and then you can be the truest friend, the most devoted spouse, and the most honest businessman. You never, ever know what is going to happen to you, so you have to be prepared for anything. And you can be. Not because you are strong, but because He is strong. May God's name be glorified.

And yes, that turned out to be fairly long. Good night to you all!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Japan, Firebombing, and Nuclear Warfare

Reading Retribution: The Battle for Japan has given me a lot of food for thought, and a lot of things to go on diatribes about to my patient parents on walks. :-) It's a fascinating book to read, though much of what it chronicles is brutal, horrifying, and regrettable. I didn't realize before, for instance, that the battle for Manilla cost the lives of 100,000 Filipino citizens.

A very interesting subject which the author has just been raising is that of the bombing of Japan. As I understand from the cover flap, the author defends the atomic bombings. I can't describe or answer his arguments, yet, because I haven't come to that part of the book yet, but I think he believes that they reduced the potential cost of an amphibious invasion of Japan. Given the massive human cost already incurred by the Pacific war and the legendary fanaticism of the Japanese army, that was probably quite true. Reading this book, however, though I can agree on principle that the nuclear bombing probably reduced the potential casualties that would have resulted from the U.S. strategy, I'm not convinced that the conditions wherein a nuclear bombing is the only answer to 'reducing casualties' are conditions into which we should have entered. That's a roundabout way of saying that we had such an economic stranglehold on Japan, such military supremacy, that we should never have obliterated so much of their civilian population. I'm not a seasoned historian and I'm not thoroughly familiar with every aspect of that theater of war, but to me the immense moral problem of, for instance, torching 100,000 civilians of Tokyo with napalm, leaving a million homeless, and obliterating 10,000 acres of buildings more than balances out the satisfaction of coercing a nation into signing formal surrender documents--particularly a nation which had already effectively lost the war.

Yes, more kamikaze missions might have threatened American ships and sailors, for a while. That's not a good thing. But Japan was running critically low on fuel, aircraft, and trained pilots (and willing suicide pilots). They were low on food, pitiful in industrial capacity, and completely outclassed militarily. Our extremely successful submarine blockade would probably have reduced them to desperation before long, though mass starvation would not be an appealing eventuality either.

Until late 1942/early 1943, I can understand a certain prevailing fierceness about our war effort: until then it was by no means clear that the Allies were going to win the conflict, and so some nations, primarily Britain and Russia, were actually fighting for survival. I'm sure countless atrocities occurred among the Allies that never should have, particularly in Russia, but I can understand why the Allies wanted to take the war to the enemy, and do it fast. After 1943, though, when industrial might, technological superiority and military initiative were almost entirely on our side, we continued grinding down the Axis through total war in our eagerness for the conflict to end sooner. Granted, we had suffered much, but that is no good excuse for inflicting the same suffering on the enemy--and the U.S. suffered negligibly compared to, for instance, the Soviet Union, which blasted, butchered, and raped its way through Eastern Europe to Berlin in 1944-45 in revenge for the 20 million civilians and probably more than 5 million soldiers who had already perished since Operation Barbarossa.

The Japanese treated POWs and civilians brutally in many, many cases. They were a rapacious militaristic empire with domineering ambitions. Such unbridled aggression and flouting of human rights required a reckoning as much as Germany's perverse ethnic cleansing and dreams of world domination did. But the B-29 pilots and commanders seemed, on the whole, remarkably callous about the manifold terrors, torments, and deaths that their incendiary bombs were inflicting on hundreds of thousands of people who had little to do with the militaristic governments that had launched them into the war.

Curtis LeMay, commander of the XXI Bomber Command responsible for bombing Japan, for instance. He claims there was "no point in slaughtering civilians for the mere sake of slaughter." Yes, but... "All you had to do was visit one of those targets after we'd roasted it, and see the ruins of a multitude of tiny houses, with a drill press sticking up through the wreckage...The entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of, women, and children. We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town. Had to be done" (qtd. in Hastings, Retribution 309).

That is a paltry defense at best, especially when Japan's inferior aircraft had almost been cleared off the sky at this point, so much so that the triumphant Hellcats and Corsairs were running out of targets to shoot down, and the Japanese navy could be bombed and torpedoed with increasing ease. The very B-29s involved in this operation met negligible fighter resistance: of the 414 aircraft downed over a five-month period, only 148 were due to enemy action, which includes anti-aircraft fire as well as fighter activity. 151 were lost because they failed to operate properly in flight (Hastings 314).

Here is the defense offered by the official USAAF post-war history of this bomber group, which probably gives the strongest argument in favor of incinerating civilians:

In its climactic five months of jellied fire attacks, the vaunted Twentieth killed outright 310,000 Japanese, injured 412,000 more, and rendered 9,200,000 homeless...The 1945 application of American Air Power, so destructive and concentrated as to cremate 65 Japanese cities in five months, forced an enemy's surrender without land invasion for the first U.S. soldier, sailor or Marine had to land on bloody beachheads or fight through strongly-prepared ground defense to ensure victory in the Japanese home islands." (qtd. 317)

Yes, true--but my question is, should it have been our purpose to inflict unconditional, prostrate surrender on an already crumbling nation, no matter what the cost to the civilian population? Were our only options Invade or Torch? Could we actually say it was in defense of our nation to obliterate most of Tokyo and 64 other Japanese urban centers, to torch infants off their very mothers' backs as they fled from walls of flame and turn whole families to ash inside their bomb shelters? Will those responsible for such actions be able to successfully defend them when they are judged?

I can't say that there are easy answers to those questions, nor can I give answers for most of them. Perhaps some of this post will have to be amended once I read more of the book. So far, though, I think that those who condemn the decision to drop the nuclear bombs should be more concerned with condemning American Pacific Theater war policy in 1944-45. Was it a brutally necessary strategy for saving American lives--which aren't intrinsically more precious than Japanese lives--or was it just a gross excess of slaughter that should have been avoided at all costs? A lot of soldiers, politicans, and historians might opt for the former, but if someone told me that the key to saving a few of my buddies was to murder three mothers and their young children, I don't believe I would take that path. In any case, it seems to me that we could have kept Japan subjugate and incapable of significant resistance without an outright invasion. Sooner or later they would have been forced to surrender.


Friday, July 25, 2008

New Kinds of Evil

In my Shakespeare class this summer, many of the plays that we're reading are scraping the bottom of the Stratfordian barrel, more or less. Some are speculated to be unfinished, or collaborative efforts. Some are early plays and betray a lack of authorial assurance, or major character problems. With the help of our tutor and mutual discussion, however, we typically find much more to even these least read, least regarded plays. One theme that has recurrently come up in our discussions is the preservation of some good (purity, honesty, faithfulness) in the face of often very strong evil. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance, Julia's sworn betrothed Proteus abandons her for another woman on first sight, then angles to get his own best friend banished in order to have a crack at his new love. In spite of all this treachery and callousness, however, Julia remains stubbornly faithful. This kind of enduring goodness pops up all over Shakespeare.

It is fascinating to trace, study, and ponder these themes that so much creative work across so many cultures shares. It's also interesting to look at works of art that play around with these themes, maybe not denying them but challenging them. No Country For Old Men is a fairly good example. There is not much "redemptive" about the story, as folks like to say. The good characters, those that survive, are bewildered and helpless before the immensely powerful evil characters, who come off with even more destruction and less liability than the Dark Knight's almost unstoppable Joker. The main villain isn't immolated or shot by a hero rising from the mud for the last time--his worst injury, in fact, comes from a freak car accident, which has more in common with the random violence that he unleashes than with the Sheriff's old-fashioned sense of morality and justice.

The result is a rather depressing novel, but a thought-provoking one. It doesn't deny the good, and in fact the good does survive, though it's kind of cowering under the table by the end. What emerges as a key question is good's power to prevail against a "new" kind of evil. It's really, again, not far removed from some of the themes raised in the Dark Knight--anarchic depravity that doesn't fight like a gentleman. I suspect it is too early to really analyze such things, but many people like to point to this as an evidence of new questions coming to light after the Twin Towers terrorist attacks and the Iraq War. Terrorism is dirty fighting, and it doesn't fit in smoothly with even World War II standards of combat. Millions of private citizens died in the Second World War, but most of these deaths were either organized genocide, collateral damage from bombing and shelling, or post-conquest violence (as in the siege of Berlin). Terrorism, where a small band outside normal government boundaries intentionally targets civilians in order to create fear and satisfy vendettas or religious imperatives, is relatively new, at least to the experience of the average American.

It is not very surprising, then, that many people are pondering the implications of how people can or should adjust to a different manifestation of violence and evil. Nor is it surprising that some people question the ability of goodness to actually survive evil, though men have been doing that since long before September 11, 2001. Many works of art where the end is depressing do not necessarily indicate an author who firmly believes in the ultimate triumph of evil--evil does win many battles, and it would be a poor imitation of reality to perpetually invent fictional scenarios where everything turns out exactly as hoped, and all live happily ever after (not a bad thing of itself, necessarily, but sometimes a hallmark of poor writing or film-making, when forced upon the plot).

I suspect that there are some people, however, who do have a depressing outlook on the war between good and evil. (There are even those who deny its existence, which is absurd.) The answer to this sort of worldview can be found in yet another theme of Shakespeare's which our tutor has mentioned several times: the relevance and vital importance of the afterlife. It is easy to look upon the success of evil with dismay if one does not recognize anything beyond life on earth. It is not only easy, in fact, but logically it is inescapable. If self-sacrifice, courage, and purity carry nothing over after death, then tragedy on earth becomes permanent tragedy. Nothing will make it right again, and the book that leaves you with a host of characters dead at the end (Hamlet, say) leaves you hopeless.

We need not fear each new manifestation of evil if our eyes have been opened to look beyond this life. If one limited his scope to merely earthly concerns, certainly things would look bleak. What does Darfur mean, what do the 9/11 attacks mean, if each casualty simply molders in the grave without a shred of consciousness that lives on? But if we understand that any stand against evil, even the most cruelly unsuccessful of stands, has transcendent meaning, then we have grasped a very wonderful truth. Though the times for mourning may sometimes seem to brutally outnumber the times for rejoicing, they do not give us cause for despair.

Art should absolutely tackle evil. It is an integral part of life until the Second Coming and a confusing, terrible, but somehow necessary part of God's redemptive plan, and to ignore it would be to ignore what makes story Story: conflict. Nevertheless, art which embraces hopelessness is also ignoring a huge part of reality, to its peril. Weeping endures for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Interesting Quote

"We honestly believed that America, a nation of storekeepers, would not not persist with a loss-making war, whereas Japan could sustain a protracted campaign against the Anglo-Saxons.”
Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, quoted in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, page 6.

It seems the opinion of us hasn't changed much in 67 years.