Time for a Come to Jesus Meeting

About three weeks ago, the Baptists came calling, ringing the doorbell and inviting me and mine to join them at Sunday service. I politely declined. As I started closing the door, one of the men reached out with a pamphlet, asking if I would like some information about Jesus Christ, “your Lord and Savior.” Tempted though I was to point out he was making a pretty bold assumption about the status of my soul, I declined again, telling him that I would just throw the pamphlet away unread.

I’ve made no secret in this blog (or anywhere else) that I’m not a particularly churchly man but I also hope I’ve been pretty clear that, as far as I’m concerned, we are all free-agents in this world. The two Baptists have just as much right to ring my doorbell as the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Islamist, and any other group of folks who feel strongly enough about something they want to traipse around town and meet jerks like me.

Fortunately, I also have every right in the world to turn down both their invitation and their pamphlet without fear of repercussions. They can, of course, curse my soul as they head down the sidewalk, but last time I read my bible those are pretty hollow words coming from mortal men.

The reality is that I’m happy those men have found something that helps sooth their soul on this veil of tears we traverse every day. I tell my students all the time that one of our goals in this world, in fact, should be latching on to something that helps provide solace in times of trouble and humility in times of plenty. Mostly, I tell them, we need to find something that helps us respect our fellow humans. If loving God (and hoping God loves you back) does it for you, more power to you. If hugging a tree lights your fire, far out and rock on.

Like art, I tell them, religion and beliefs need to provide a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. If they don’t offer us such things, what good, we might ask, are the beliefs? I’ll readily admit that I’m always really bothered by angry religious fanatics. The gods of religions aren’t angry and vengeful: we probably shouldn’t be either.

One of the glories of America, I also remind them, is that we are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to seek out and follow those beliefs. The State cannot “prohibit” that free exercise. Feel free, I tell them (looking at a couple in particular) to pray before any exam you want. Kneel down after the game, praise your god after victory, and ask for solace upon defeat.

But, I remind them, don’t fall into the narcissistic trap and assume my god and your’s are the same.

That same State that lets you practice your religion is also barred from establishing one that we all have to follow. Those dudes were pretty smart that way.

While it is true that Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it’s also true that Article VI makes a religious test illegal with regard to public office. In other words, the Constitution forbids a religious litmus test for holding public office, rejects the State’s ability to establish a religion, and makes it illegal for the State to prohibit the expression of religion all the while requiring that public officials support the Constitution, the “separation” Jefferson was so passionate about seems pretty clear.

We should tread carefully, then, when our theology turns into politics. (Go ask the Iraqis how that kind of system works out for ya.)

Certainly, our religious history in America is dominated by a Judeo-Christian past, and we should never deny or reject that part of our history. It is equally, true, though that the very nature of democracy dictates that the basis of that religious history has assumed a clear desire to provide checks and balances that respect the separation of earthly and transcendent powers. “Render unto Cesar” and all that jazz, right?

The power of that separation was, for Jefferson and many of our founding fathers, a desire to reject revealed truths in favor of rational thought. At the risk of offending a wide-swath of people (if I have’t already), the Virgin Birth is anything but rational. So is forcing me to believe what you believe.

Most important, though, that separation was designed to stop the religious majority from merging the power of the pulpit with the strength of the government to limit the free expression of ideas. They recognized that we can’t combine the power to condemn a man to hell with the threat of public incarceration and create a government of the people and for the people.

The only true democratic system is one that stops the public, democratically elected government from restricting the free expression of ideas and prohibits that very same government from endorsing particular religious systems.

We are, simply put, so great because Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Rick Perry can’t tell us what we can and can’t think nor can they create a system where we have to run through a gauntlet of Christian prayer just to enter the town square.

Except maybe they can.

Yesterday the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that Greece, NY can, in fact, offer a de facto endorsement of one religion by offering Christian only prayers before their town meetings. The Supreme Court ruled that prior to a public meeting where citizens appear and petition their local government for progress, redress, or revisions, every person in the room must listen to and be subjected to a state sponsored religious message that focuses on one single belief system.

There goes Jefferson’s wall. And one more civil liberty.

Understand that the issue isn’t offering a prayer in a public forum that is state sponsored. The Court is certainly correct that we have a historical precedence for prayer in public spaces. (A fact, I remind my Christian friends, that shouldn’t make them feel very good. In essence, the Court seems to recognize that prayer has simply become something people are accustomed to and it rises above–or falls below I guess–it’s original meaning. In other words, prayer is okay, they say, because no one is paying attention anyway.)

The real issue is restricting and limiting the prayer to a single, solitary type of prayer and, by implication, endorsing Jesus as our only hope for filling that pot hole over on Magnolia Street. Welcome to our come to Jesus meeting. First they tax my body and now they want to help my soul. All I want to do is complain about my trash pick up times.

Talk about big government.

We are a short step, it seems, from claiming that “the First Amendment only applies to Christians” because “Buddha didn’t create us,” Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court Justice said 3 days ago. “Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures.” 

That, my friends, should scare every one of us regardless of what we believe.

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It Was a Dark and Stormy Century: And It Just Might Be Our Fault

IPCC_2001_TAR_Figure_2-CD-thumb-650x440-121127

Dr. Mann and colleagues graph for the IPCC

Dr. Michael E. Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is on our campus today. Dr. Mann is most well known for the graph you see in the upper left-hand corner. The graph, submitted to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), shows the temperature changes over the last thousand years. If you look closely (or if you click on the graph), you will see a sharp uptick in temperatures starting during and directly after the industrial revolution.

The graph is designed to provide a simple, easy to read measurement that demonstrates anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change based on 1,000 years worth of temperature and climate data using multiple measurement tools.

The graph and leaked emails from members of the IPCC research group thrust Dr. Mann into the political spotlight. Critics of climate change and global warming cherry-picked sentences from emails and willfully (or ignorantly) misconstrued conversations between scientists who had been working together for many years to cast doubt on both the data and Dr. Mann’s professionalism.

It was, in many ways, a picture perfect example of the politics of personal attack writ large on the cultural landscape. Notable climatologists Sean Hannity, Michelle Bachmann, Jim Inhofe, and Sara Palin attacked Dr. Mann’s data while other critics accused him of politicizing climate change. Dr. Mann was called before Congress and dressed down while Senators grandstanded on tv, collecting campaign contributions from Exxon, Haliburton, and Mobile in the backrooms. For his critics, Dr. Mann’s hockey stick became an example of his hockey shtick and they clearly imagined that destroying him personally would discredit his data. (A rhetorical device, I recognize, I employ in this paragraph as well.)

Certainly, there are legitimate questions to be asked about rising temperatures and all science requires peer review. The very nature of scientific inquiry demands that data be reproduceable. When data can be reproduced, we move toward scientific consensus.

And please note that we have scientific consensus on global climate change and global warming. No reputable scientific agency throughout the world denies humanity’s impact on the levels of CO2 and other measures of global warming. The ice caps are melting, super-storms are quickly becoming the norm, and long-term droughts have human fingerprints all over them. The question, at this point, isn’t really if humans have impacted climate change. Groups like 350.org and Dr. Mann aren’t leading some world-wide scientific conspiracy, cooking the data, and tricking people.

The question, instead, needs to be how we balance our needs for fuel, energy, and food within the ecological limits of our planet. Driving hybrids and eating granola can’t be the only answer but doing nothing isn’t really an option at this point.

But what is most fascinating, I think, about Dr. Mann’s story isn’t the coming global climate disaster but the intense and incredibly loud adverse reaction to the scientific data.

In some ways, the reaction to any data that disrupts our livelihood and threatens our way of life reflects an ages old distrust of science and experts. One need only look at popular culture’s presentation of mad scientists and recognize that we have a healthy distrust of people who play with chemicals and the other fundamental building blocks of life on earth. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jeckyll, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Strangeglove: when scientists go bad they can destroy the planet. My guess is we will eventually learn that the zombie strain terrorizing Rick and his crew on the Walking Dead is man-made.

The visceral reaction to the climate change data, I think, reflects some of this distrust. Truly disruptive ideas in the scientific arena have an ability to change the way we see humanity’s role in the universe. Imagine, if you will, living your entire life believing the earth is the center of the universe and our role is pre-ordained, defined by a higher power. When that belief is challenged by science and when the very underpinnings of our moral identity are called into question, we often fight back and reject the change.

In the 21st century, social media, the internet, and an ability to isolate ourselves the echo chamber of like-minded people has also turned too many of us into “experts” in our own minds. We reject scientific inquiry for observational data, forgetting that just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it might not be true. Too many of us forget that our life time, these 70-90 years we walk the planet, are but a small sample of time. Dr. Mann’s data covers over a thousand years. Your memories from 1950 barely register as a trend and just because last year was cold in Topeka, Kansas doesn’t disprove global warming.

But I also recognize that things aren’t so simple.

Andrew Hoffman argues “Climate change is an existential challenge to our contemporary world view.” Multiple polls show us that climate change is poised to replace health care as the essential battleground issue in the coming years because, I think, it challenges our relationship with the physical world. Religion and myth show us as passive recipients of weather and climate. Floods, droughts, hordes of locusts, and other phenomena are “natural” disasters, occurring mysteriously or as a way for God (or the gods) to remind us that they have the power to unleash such things and we don’t.

Except now Dr. Mann and his colleagues are arguing we do have that power, and I think it scares the bejeesus out of some people. But I think it also smells to some as yet another large, international organization trying to define and redefine what it means to be a human being. Well meaning skeptics of climate change sense a loss of power as that “self” is redefined and the power of God (or the gods) is diminished.

Simply put, climate change is both a moral issue and an issue of morality that brings science, religion, and politics into conflict.

Perhaps justly so. As we embark on this conversation, though, it might be nice if we could focus less on the messengers and pay far more attention to the message. Doing so, I think, might help us save the planet and emerge as better people in the meantime.

Shifting Scenes–A poem

My first-year-in-college son is reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in one of his classes. Interestingly enough, NPR interviewed poet Paul Muldoon about Eliot’s great poem recently. The poem hasn’t lost it’s glamour, Muldoon says. No doubt.

Back when I thought I could write poetry, I began the poem below as part of a poetry in response to poetry series. I was reading Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, and Eliot at the time. What always struck me as powerful about Eliot’s poem is his ability to capture the fragmentation of a world losing its hold on the shared mythological knowledge of the past. In essence, Eliot’s poem is an admonition that we must remain connected through narrative or we risk losing our sense of humanity: love becomes lust and we become the young man carbuncular, groping our way down unlit stairs. The stories Eliot alludes to, these shared myths of Western and Eastern tradition, connect us, allowing us to give, sympathize, and recognize our place in the universe.

Simply put, I tell my students, Eliot tell us that art and narrative keeps us human because they remind us we are part of a much larger enterprise. For Eliot, it’s not necessarily about religion: it’s about the stories that create the religious experience. When we stop paying attention to those stories, we create a sterile, meaningless existence.

It’s easy to forget, in an era of never-ending news cycles, that we need to take a few minutes to enjoy the arts. Here of late, the world, as Whitman might say, has been too much with us and we need what Frost called that momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. I encourage you to hit the link above and read Eliot’s poem. If you’ve never read it, you might need to move in with it for a few days. But, I assure you, the payoff is worth the effort.

Feel free, of course, to enjoy or ignore the poem below. I certainly make no claims that I’m producing great art, but if you get some small enjoyment, that’s enough.

Shifting Scenes

His disinterested touch
The impersonal grope.
A force of habit years in the
Making.
This is not a movie
Where the years
Melt away
And the fire stays kindled. The
Books on marriage said “Don’t
Go to bed angry.” They said
Nothing about apathy.

She almost flinches
Pretends to be asleep while she
Stifles a weary groan,
Hoping he will not press his case.
He rolls out of bed
Tired of wondering what happened
Unable to imagine that
Repetition destroys beauty.
He
Stumbles out of bed,
Finding the bathroom unlit.

Nothing so exciting as
Starnbarghese or hyacinth girls
At the breakfast table.
Kids asleep:
“How many times did he cry out?”
“I have a meeting at 4:00.”
“You making breakfast or lunches?” “The
Car needs gas?” “What’s for
Supper?” “The eggs are
Burning.”
No one listening.

A peck on the way out
No passion, nothing
Solved. Her smile
Masking indifference. Her
Relief palpable when he’s
Gone.

The scene shifts.
The camera pans to
See children
Stumbling
Into the room
While the credits
Roll and
She turns to
See them
Sitting,
Expectant,
Hungry for a
Break in their
Fast.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Very Dull Boy

A couple of weeks ago, my sister asked if I loved my job. I’m not sure if I give off some aura of total contentment or a sense of abject sadness, but people take an inordinate interest in my job satisfaction and I get this question quite often. She asked me this while I was slurping away at my first cup of coffee and I imagine my answer was a bit disjointed and, probably, incoherent. That happens the older I get. I’ve also found that questions like this are much easier to answer over a couple of beers. I’m usually smarter, better looking, and a good dancer after an hour at the bar.

I’ll state for the record that I do not love my job. I’m not even sure I like my job some days. As jobs go, it beats the heck out of digging ditches or artificially inseminating cows but, at the end of the day, it’s still a job.

Periodically, I’ll have students (and others) quote a little Confucius and tell me “you should choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Confucius, I’m sure, was a great guy, but as a career coach he left something to be desired.

Let’s start with the obvious notion that we can’t all choose jobs we love because 1) most of us aren’t qualified for the jobs we love (or think we would love) and 2) if we could all simply do the jobs we loved there would only be about 4 garbage men, 6 roofers, 3 people to slaughter pigs, 1 person teaching junior high math, 52,000 creative writers, and 5 million X-box professionals.

Certainly, there are people out there who work jobs they love (or learn to love their jobs) and can play junior Confucius at dinner parties.

But, let’s also note that Confucius’ argument sets up a philosophical conundrum where there is no distinction between work (something you do under the rules and guidance of others) and play (something you do for yourself). Importantly, the basic tenets of Confucianism center on character within accepted cultural norms, loyalty to one’s “true” nature, giving or reciprocity, and filial piety. (Hear that kids!) While I’m a fan of the humanism at the heart of Confucian thought, I think we would certainly agree that his advice about work lacks a certain practicality. We should also note that Confucius makes some pretty important assumptions about both culture and individuality. He assumes that accepted cultural norms are humanistic, pure, and fair. Just as importantly, he imagines we have some special insight into our own “true” nature.

To thine ownself be true, Confucius might say were he a Renaissance playwright. I have my doubts, though, about most of our abilities (or willingness) to recognize our true self. Importantly, Confucius assumes we have a true self that remains constant over the course of time. What we want at 51 should mirror our 21 year old self?

I suspect that Confucius’ idea was perfect for the time in which he spoke. Certainly, we want to avoid oversimplifying 550 BCE, but I do think we can say with some confidence that the job opportunities were not as robust as they might be today. You can see in most philosophies/religions emerging at the time a movement away from feudalism and toward emerging identities. In other words, people at the time had their identities, jobs, and lives defined by feudal lords. While Confucius maintains some of that loyalty to the larger culture, we also see an emerging idea about one’s independent self and a philosophical movement away from defined identities to a greater autonomy.

But when Plato (who lived about the same time) argued that the “unexamined life was not worth living,” he was offering a radical departure from the cultural norm. The “examined life” begins our ascent out of the cave of illusions into the reality of daylight. What we realize is our self is multi-faceted and we play many roles throughout our lives. While I wouldn’t dare trace the the work/play dichotomy to Plato, we might note that during this era work and play didn’t exist as two separate entities. There were no work place laws or regulations. In essence, what you did at sun up is what you did until sun down. Wise words from Confucius then but when we begin to examine that life, we begin to call into question the notion that our live is tied to simply producing that which we need for survival.

Notably, we exist in a vastly different economic system as well. As workers moved from barter economies to a monetary system, we stopped working to trade goods and services and became employees earning money in order to purchase goods and services. I’m no longer trading you a footstool for a chicken I can eat. I’m selling you a footstool so I can go buy a single piece of chicken from anywhere I want.

As the western world has changed so to has our relationship with work and play. Whereas in 550 BCE our day might last 12 hours (in the field, shop, or street), we have “progressed” into an economic system that values the 40 hour week. I’m no mathematician, but if there are a 168 hours in a week and we spend 40 at work, we spend 75% of our time on not-work. Even if I sleep 10 hours a day (70 hours) and go to work 40 hours, I still have more not-work, not-sleep time than I do work.

Why, then, should I be defined by my job and worry about loving my job?

Our job, then, should be a tool that allows us to pursue our “selves” during those other hours. It is not imperative, then, that I love my job. It is far more important, it seems to me, that I find a job that allows me to do the things I love with all my free time.

Boy, if I had just been drinking Irish Coffee, maybe that’s what I would have said.

Freewill, Sacred Duty, and Rights

Click to View the Video

I have a friend who is not voting in today’s presidential election. He’ll go to the polls and cast his ballot, marking his choices for some of the other races, but he’s so disgusted with our presidential candidates he’s opting out. This is a guy with a long military career who normally votes Republican (he did vote for Clinton twice) and who has voted in every election since the early 1960s. He’s opposed to Obama’s economic policies and philosophy of government, and he tells me Romney is such an opportunist he can’t be trusted.

His refusal to vote for president is his choice, and, importantly, not an abdication of responsibility. In fact, his decision to forego casting a ballot for president is, technically speaking, his expression of both free will and free speech. It is, simply put, his right as an American and his moral obligation as a citizen of this country to choose whether he votes.

My friend’s willingness not to vote is important to remember on election day 2012. The San Antonio Express News today ran an editorial titled “Election Day Brings Sacred Duty, Right” in which they, like so many other news outlets, admonished people for not voting. They tell us it’s our right and our duty. If that doesn’t work, they try to guilt people into voting because our men and women died protecting that right.

Unfortunately, this strikes me as an awful and dangerous mis-reading of, well, everything. We’ll take the low hanging fruit first. Voting is not a “sacred” duty. In a country whose first amendment establishes the Jeffersonian wall between church and state, we must remember that “sacred” duties are those associated with religious doctrine. For instance, sacred burial grounds are those whose importance is tied directly to religious or theological importance. We hold sacred rituals in observance of religious duty and to honor whatever deity we use to justify our existence. Voting in America, then, is only a sacred duty if it’s held in conjunction with some religious event and the very nature of America’s stability as a country is keeping the sacred out of our public requirements and duties. To be blunt: look at a map and tell me which countries require religious affiliation as a public duty and as a marker of citizenship. Which countries, for instance, deify their leaders or “elect” religious men (yes, they are all men) to positions of power. Which one do you want to live in?

It is worth noting as well that we don’t have a “right” to vote. One of the most amazing things about our Bill of Rights and our Constitution, when you read them closely, is that they don’t actually require or compel you to do anything. Our government is such a mess because our founders crafted a governmental system designed around freewill. (This is, by the way, a great thing. Democracy is messy business. Listening to all those voices and opinions tend to slow things down.) You have a right, for instance, to free speech, but you are also protected from being required to speak freely. You have a right to bear arms but you are not required to bear arms. Voting works the same way. The 15th Amendment doesn’t give people a right to vote. The 15th Amendment restricts the government from stopping people from voting. In essence, the Bill of Rights and Constitution is more about government responsibility and less about personal rights.

These are subtle but important distinctions promised us as American citizens. It is, then, our right, not to vote. In fact, one might argue (as my friend does) that his “duty” in an election such as this is not to vote. (In the same way, we might argue not voting in those races where you are totally ignorant about the candidates is a greater act of responsibility than simply voting for the sake of voting.) My friends only real “duty” as an American is to use his freewill, that which is guaranteed by the constitution and voice his opinion by not participating in what he sees as a flawed and corrupt system of choosing a national leader. In choosing not to choose, he is, to paraphrase the lyrics from a different Rush song than the video above, making a choice.

Mark Twain once wrote “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Our “sacred” duty is tied to our religious affiliation (if we have one) not our public responsibility. Our only duty as American citizens is being informed enough to choose the manner and extent of our participation in the public arena. If the public arena is corrupt, our refusal to participate in that arena does not constitute a lack of duty or participation.

As American citizens we have the “right” not to be forced, bullied, or guilted into participating in elections. We don’t forfeit our right to complain about the government if we willingly refuse to participate whether by well-informed choice, laziness, or disenfranchisement. The beauty of America, and the reason immigration into our nation far exceeds emigration out, is that our minds “are not for rent / to any god or government” unless we make that choice.

Be a citizen today. Demonstrate your freewill and do your duty.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)