Sunday, December 21, 2008

$1.6 Billion for Bailed-Out Executives

The AP is reporting that at the financial firms that have received taxpayer bailout money, the top 600 executives have received a total of $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses and perks. That's an average of $2.6MM each.

Normally, I'm not a fan of government interference in executive pay. I find multimillion dollar pay packages as distasteful and excessive as anyone else does, and knowing that a company pays its executives outrageous sums makes me less likely to invest. But under normal circumstances, I don't think the government does anyone any favors by mandating salary caps. It's shareholders, not the government, who should be demanding sane and reasonable compensation packages. Executive compensation should always be oriented strongly towards performance, and in a year like this, in which the decisions these executives made were responsible not only for the systemic failure of their own businesses, but also for bringing the American economy to its knees, it's inconceivable that any investor would think these executives' contributions were worth anywhere near $1.6 billion. But it's shareholders, not the government, who should normally demand change.

In this situation, however, I think the government does have a legitimate reason to call these companies' compensation committees to task. These executives have had to come, hat in hand, to the taxpayers, asking for money: in other words, they're being paid, not with money earned legitimately in the open market, but with my tax dollars. And I don't like it. I supported the original bailout bill, and I still do, but only with fairly stringent conditions attached. Before it approves the second half of the $700 billion bailout, Congress should demand reasonable executive compensation as a condition for any company that wants to participate in any aspect of the program. (Not just the asset purchase part, now scrapped.)

I thought it was stupid that General Motors spent $20,000 to fly their chief executive to Washington to ask for a bailout. I think it's really stupid that these financial companies collectively spent 80,000 times that much on compensation for executives who were clearly asleep at the wheel. And before these companies get any more of my money, whether as an investor or as a taxpayer, I want to see that number lowered significantly.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Warning on Linksys WRT110 Firmware

Several months ago, I upgraded my wireless router to a Linksys WRT110, which supports a (draft) version of the 802.11n protocol. Everything worked well out of the box – as you would hopefully expect – until today, when I tried to upgrade the firmware. I'd been having some odd trouble with DNS queries getting handled in unexpected ways; that and a couple other things that I noticed led me to suspect that my router might conceivably be the source of the problems. So I upgraded my firmware from the 1.0.02 that it had shipped with to the available on the website here.

Big mistake. Turns out that this version of the firmware can't handle multiple connections to the router, which of course is sort of the point of a router. If only one computer was connecting, the router would stay up and work just like you'd expect. But as soon as a second computer (say, my desktop upstairs) tried to connect, the router would go completely silent: it wouldn't route traffic or respond to pings or answer HTTP management requests.

Apparently this problem isn't necessarily universal with the firmware, but it's been reported again and again on the Linksys discussion forums ever since Cisco first posted the firmware back in May, and Cisco still hasn't done anything about it.

The solution, I found, was to downgrade the firmware. Cisco won't let you download the older firmware from the WRT110 support page, but they will let you download it from the WRT100 support page. I downgraded the older firmware, and all was well (unless you count the two hours I lost troubleshooting the problem, of course).

[Updated 2/15/09: Cisco has removed the 1.0.02 firmware from their main site ( The above link points to an alternate version of their website, which as of 2/15/09 still has the old --good -- software. I've also copied it up to my website in case they remove it again. Cisco also has the source for all the versions of their software posted here, but I'm not enough of a Linux hacker to get it to compile, and I'm not sure you should trust my version if I did.]

This is the second day this week that I've been astonished at the poor choices made by very large, well-funded, reputable companies.

On a side note, this would have been an interesting time to try one of the open-source firmware options (here or here, among others), but apparently the WRT110 is based on an Ralink platform instead of the more common Broadlink, so the drivers aren't available as of yet.

[Update 7/2009: Apparently the best drivers to use are the recently released 1.0.05. They can be downloaded here: As mentioned above, do not use I don't know why it took Cisco so long to fix this problem.]

[Update 10/2009: Folks are still reporting problems with the 1.0.05 firmware, and I've run into them myself. I'm backleveling my own router to the 1.0.02 firmware available (among other places) here. This whole situation is bizarre.]

[Update 3/2010: Since the last time I'd looked, Cisco posted a 1.0.07 version of the firmware on the WRT110 support page.  I tried it, but it ended up breaking (of all things) certain Subversion operations.  I've since backleveled to 1.0.02.  Again.  Huh.]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Schwab Password Insanity

For some reason, I've never signed up for web access to my Schwab investment accounts, but I just did today, and I was astonished at one particular security feature. Schwab actually limits your password to 8 characters, and doesn't allow any special characters (#./!, etc.). This is sheer insanity from a security perspective, since you want your passwords to be as long as possible (8 characters is closer to a reasonable minimum length than the maximum), and in addition, you want the character space to be as large as possible, so you want to include as many special characters as possible. Does anyone have the slightest idea why Schwab would do this? The only thing I can think of is to make their password rules as abstruse as possible, to make it unlikely that you'll re-use passwords from another service. Of course, that has its own security risk, since it virtually guarantees that you'll need to write the password down somewhere…

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Starbucks vs. Tully’s

I keep trying Tully's for my morning coffee. Tully's has free wi-fi and a store on the most direct route out of my neighborhood. I'm probably the last coffee drinker in America who has to drive out of his way to get to a Starbucks. And yet I keep driving right past the Tully's and five minutes out of my way to find a Starbucks.

There are three reasons.

  1. Starbucks simply has better coffee. I don't know what Tully's does to mess up their drinks, but probably 75% of the time, a latte from Tully's tastes bitter and burnt. Their consistency seems to have improved over the last several years, but it's a long ways from Starbucks. A latte from Starbucks consistently has exactly the right combination of sweet and bitter.
  2. Starbucks has at least a few edible pastries that aren't guaranteed to give me diabetes. The Tully's selection consists either of "a doughnut by any other name", or inedible health food.
  3. Starbucks wants me there. This morning, I tried out Tully's again, because I wanted the free wi-fi. I sat down at one of the tables wearing a long-sleeve shirt, a fleece, and my ski jacket, but the AC was blowing at full blast, and it was so cold I couldn't type. When I asked the barista if they could turn off AC, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sorry, we don't control the heat."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Google outage?

I've been having odd trouble with Google's various applications over the last two days – including at least Picasa and Gmail (and Blogger). They're much slower than normal, and periodically stop responding altogether. Has anyone else noticed this?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving at Yachats

Galena, Caedmon and I are spending Thanksgiving with her family at Yachats, on the Oregon Coast. This is the first time that Caedmon has really been able to play on the beach, and we've been having surprisingly good weather. A few pictures:
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008
From Yachats Thanksgiving 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Recent Caedmon Activities

Caedmon's been busy outside a lot these days. A few pictures:
From Caedmon 15 Months
From Caedmon 15 Months
From Caedmon 15 Months
A bit of explanation: he's started noticing airplanes flying overhead lately, and takes every opportunity to point them out when he has a chance.  Since the flight path for east coast planes landing at SeaTac goes right over our house, he has quite a number of opportunities.
From Caedmon 15 Months
From Caedmon 15 Months
From Caedmon 15 Months
But now I need to go rescue him from his afternoon nap -- which he's so far refused to take.  Tonight promises to be a long evening...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Online Greek Text of Aristotle’s Physics

If you happen to be looking for an online version of the Greek text of Aristotle's Physics, you'll look in vain on Perseus or any of the other standard sites. So I was very glad to discover that there's a version available out on It doesn't have the Bekker numbers, unfortunately, and of course it doesn't have the Perseus grammatical and vocabulary helps, but it's otherwise quite usable.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Wow, not smart. These executives are living in a new world – they just don't know it. The CEO's from GM, Chrysler and Ford may have just put the final nail in the American economy by choosing to fly their corporate jets to DC to ask for more money. I think the auto-makers need a bailout, that the American economy will suffer if we don't give them one, and I fully realize that the $20K it cost to fly the jet will be less than a rounding error on their red ink this quarter – but still. I think the automakers just lost out on any opportunity to get help from the government. When people here about this, I don't think there's any way that Congress is going to be able to vote for a bailout.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wendell Berry

I've just discovered Wendell Berry. I found him recommended in a book by Stanley Hauerwas, and I've been reading through his marvelous book of essays Standing By Words. He has a great deal in common with both Lewis and Chesterton, and crafts lovely, precise sentences that make my own seem somewhat silly and pedantic in comparison. For a book whose ostensible object is literary criticism, it has far more to do with my interests in technology than I would have thought.

A few examples:

Value and technology can meet only on the ground of restraint. (p. 57)

Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows. One cannot love the future or anything in it, for nothing is known there. And one cannot unselfishly make a future for someone else. Love for the future is self-love – love for the present self, projected and magnified into the future, and it is an irremediable loneliness. (p. 61)

We know that people stay married for different reasons than those for which they get married, and that the later reasons will have to be discovered. (p. 67)

The standard of decorum calls all available art and learning and experience into its service; that of "originality," as often construed, calls only for self-importance, irreverence, and recklessness – the "daring" of the manifestoes and reviews. (p. 85)

The right function of abstraction is to give appropriate clarity and distinction to the particular. (p. 105)

A product that exists for its own sake is a debased and a debasing product. (p. 111)

Temperance, not gluttony, is the safeguard of abundance; sexual discipline, not promiscuity, safeguards fecundity. (p. 126)

The great economic discovery of modern times is that vast numbers of people can be made to believe that "we might be all/We dream of…," and that, though there may be no correspondence whatever between this belief and any history or hope, people so believing will buy things. (p. 167)

Three Visions of the Good Life: Aquinas

Common Ground

The debt that Thomas Aquinas owes Aristotle is widely known. The extent of this debt is acknowledged perhaps most eloquently by Aquinas himself, who refers to Aristotle simply as "the Philosopher". Still, while Aristotle's philosophy provided much of his conceptual framework and vocabulary, Aquinas was not afraid to disagree with his master. An exegete far less subtle than Aquinas could realize that Aristotle and Paul did not always point in the same direction. When Aristotle's philosophy differed substantially from the Christian and Pauline tradition Aquinas was attempting to elaborate, Aquinas was forced either to reframe Aristotle's analysis, to extend it, or on rare occasions, to disagree with it outright. Aquinas indeed plundered Aristotle as the fleeing Israelites had spoiled the Egyptians , but Siger of Brabant was evidence enough that golden calves could be smelted from that same Aristotelian gold.

Divine Happiness

The degree to which Thomas was dependent on Aristotle, and the reasons for his occasional departure, can be seen clearly in their mutual accounts of the good life. With Aristotle, for instance, Aquinas agrees that the "good" is "that for the sake of which all else is done" (Comm. Nic. Eth., I, lect. 9), that happiness is the ultimate end of a human being (Compendium Theologiae, 106; Comm. Sent. lib. 3 d.27 q.2 a.2 co), and that happiness is an activity of the soul (Debated Questions, VIII, q.9 a.1; Sum. Theol. Iª-IIae q.3 a.2 s.c.). However, Aquinas differs from Aristotle on two important points, and in both of these instances, he departs from Aristotle for typically Pauline reasons.

First, for Aquinas, true happiness is not contemplation per se, but rather, contemplation of God in the beatific vision. As noted above, Aristotle's account of the good life is teleological, but not eschatological: he argues that we are happy when we are oriented towards the good, but he has no reason to believe that we will ever meet that good face to face. Following Paul, however, Aquinas believed that it was the destiny of creation not merely to travel hopefully, but actually to arrive. Aristotle perceived that there is something of divine origin in contemplation, but Aquinas goes further, saying that God is our true happiness, and that we may one day contemplate Him directly.

To be sure, God may not be known unless He directly enlightens the human intellect. Although we can only know the essence of an object through its species, we may know an object incompletely if we know a related genus: we might have never seen an ibex, but we can know something about it if we're told that it's like a deer. However, no creature has anything generically in common with God, so it is impossible for us to know His essence in this way. Aquinas' solution is elegant and incarnational, and turns Aristotle's epistemology on its head: "Therefore, so that God Himself can be known in His essence, it is necessary that God become the form of the knowing intellect, and join Himself to it" (Compendium Theologiae, 106). However, when God does so, this satisfies our natural desire for knowledge completely; this intellectual vision of God is thus the "end of our desire". "The act by which we are primarily united to Him is originally and essentially our happiness" (Quodlibetal Questions VIII, q.9 a.1 co). Or as Paul would have it, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has in store for those who love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9; see Is. 64:4).

Second, Aquinas places love on an equal footing with knowledge in his account of happiness. Unlike Paul, Aquinas is careful to never deprecate the importance of scientia: he acknowledges, for instance, that we are primarily united to God "per actum intellectus" (Quodlibetal Questions VIII, q.9 a.1 co), and in that sense he is not far from Aristotle. However, while Aristotle can provide a nearly complete account of the good life without mentioning love , this would be impossible for anyone who regarded Paul's epistles as Scripture. Choosing Ephesians 3:19 as his proof-text ("supereminentem scientiae caritatem Christi"), Aquinas fundamentally relativizes the importance of the life of the intellect: "With respect to things that are above the soul, love (amor) is higher and nobler than knowledge; whereas in respect to those things that are below the soul, knowledge (cognitio) is more important" (Comm. Sent., lib.3 d.27 q.1 a.4 co).

Natural Justice

Justitia is also an important part of Aquinas' perspective on the good life. In the Summa, Aquinas closely follows Aristotle's understanding of justice: like Aristotle, he defines justice as a "state of character" (Gr. ἕξις; Lat. habitus; IIª-IIae q.58 a.1 co), and hence a virtue (IIª-IIae q. 58 a. 2), which is concerned with equality between two parties (IIª-IIae q.58 a.2). Similarly, Aquinas divides justice into "general" and "particular" (IIª-IIae q.58 a.7), the latter consisting of "a certain proportion of equality between the external thing and the external person" (IIª-IIae q.58 a.10 co), and similarly divides particular justice into the two species of "justitia distributiva" and "justitia commutativa" (IIª-IIae q.61 a.1; Super Sent. lib. 4 d.17 q.1 a.1 qc.1 co).

However, beyond "general" and "particular", Aquinas introduces a third meaning of justitia, "a certain rectitude of order in the interior disposition of a man" ("rectitudinem quandam ordinis in ipsa interiori dispositione hominis", Iª-IIae q.113 a.1 co). He finds this definition tucked into Aristotle (NE V.13.1138b4), but while Aristotle makes little use of it in his Ethics, it's critical to Aquinas, allowing him to reconcile Aristotle with Paul's account of a God who "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5). Building on this definition, Aquinas argues that justificatio impii consists of a movement from internal disorder to right order. This movement comes entirely from God, though human free will cooperates: "He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free will to accept the gift of grace" (Iª-IIae q. 113 a. 3 co). "God gives grace to none but to the worthy, not that they were previously worthy, but that by His grace He makes them worthy" (Iª-IIae q. 114 a. 5 ad 2). In this way, at least in theory, Aquinas maintains the Pauline order of receiving and then giving.

However, in practice, Aquinas' writings provide rather less opportunity for women and slaves than Paul allowed for. With Aristotle, he presents an extensive account of the inferiority of women, arguing that they are "deficiens et occasionatus" (Iª q.92 a.1). He similarly offers a basis for the institution of slavery as beneficial for the slave ("utile est huic quod regatur a sapientiori", IIª-IIae q.57 a.3 ad 2). Aquinas says that anyone who talks a slave into escaping is guilty of theft, because a slave is property (IIª-IIae q.61 a.3 co), and for this same reason, a slave cannot lawfully receive the sacrament of Orders (Supp. q.39 a.3).

Nevertheless, these exclusive tendencies are somewhat modified by statements which point toward a more inclusive perspective. For instance, Aquinas acknowledges that women are not naturally deficient with regard to general human nature (as opposed to their individual human nature, Iª q.92 a.1 ad 1). Similarly, he contends (IIª-IIae q.57 a.3 ad 2) that slavery belongs to "positive law" (jus positivum, laws originated by human beings), and not to "natural law" (jus naturale, laws originating in human nature). Consequently, because marriage is a matter of nature and not of human convention, slaves can marry without their masters' consent (Supp. q.52 a.2). Moreover, while the condition of slavery may affect the legality of the sacrament of Orders, it does not affect its efficacy (Supp. q.39 a.3 ad.5): divine grace is as available to slaves as to free. Aquinas does not perhaps make the same room for excluded classes that Paul does, but he clearly modifies Aristotle's doctrine of the "natural slave" in a more humane and inclusive direction.

The Beatific Vision

Aquinas follows Paul in asserting that divine love is our ultimate goal. In a rather startling passage, Aquinas argues for a nearly complete mutuality of love between God and human beings. Paul had exulted in the fact that we are "more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37), but Aquinas goes even further. Noting that Aristotle describes friendship as enjoyment of each other's company and a common pursuit of delightful activities (NE 1171b30-1172a5), Aquinas concludes that this may adequately describe not merely our love of God, but God's love for us: "It is therefore appropriate to acknowledge a certain friendship (amicitia) with God, by which we live together; and this is charity" (Comm. Sent., lib.3 d.27 q.2 a.2 co).

For Thomas, as for Paul, God is our end, and thus our happiness. In this beatific vision, both cognitio (as an act of the intellect) and amor (as an act of the will) are united. Because our wills desire God as their object, there is a sense in which the happiness of the beatific vision consists of our love for God. However, because this love is fulfilled only when our intellects actually perceive God, there is another sense in which the happiness of the beatific vision consists of our knowledge of God. Aristotle said that "pleasure perfects the activity" (NE 1174b20-1175a1), and Thomas uses this definition to merge these two conceptions: "Because this action [of perceiving God by the intellect] is most perfect and the object most worthy, the greatest joy follows, crowning this action and perfecting it, as beauty does youth" (Quodlibetal Questions VIII, q.9 a.1 co). The essence and source of happiness is thus in the intellect's vision, but the form and completion of happiness is in the will's joy and love.


Although Aristotle occasionally refers to God (or the gods), his moral philosophy is fundamentally secular in nature. The God who is the end of all things is nevertheless abstract and unknowable. If every reference to the divine were removed, Aristotle's ethics would for all practical purposes remain unchanged.

Paul would certainly have been sympathetic to some of Aristotle's positions, but the structure of Paul's gospel is fundamentally incompatible with Aristotle's secular perspective. For Paul, the good life has its beginning and its end in a God who loved His creation enough to become a part of it. As a result of the Incarnation and Resurrection, God's creation has changed absolutely and permanently. Paul's ethics are always and everywhere a response to God's action in human history and in our lives.

Aquinas plainly finds Aristotle's conceptual analysis helpful: he accepts much of Aristotle's ethical framework, borrows extensively from his vocabulary, and agrees with many of his conclusions, on occasion even when those conclusions stand in some tension with the New Testament. However, Aquinas is unable to accept any conception of happiness which does not have its origin and goal in God, and which is not finally expressed in love. As a result, he constructs a new framework around Aristotle's ethical theory by redefining happiness as a vision of God which completes itself in joyous love. With this one change, which has its origins in Paul's apocalyptic and inclusive theology of redemption, he is able to retain very nearly the rest of Aristotle's ethical theory.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life: Paul

Initial Difficulties

Any attempt to place Paul's vision of the good life next to Aristotle must deal with several complicating factors. The first is the dramatically different vocabulary of the two authors: like England and America in Shaw's quip, Paul and Aristotle are two writers divided by a common language. The single most important word in Aristotle's ethical vocabulary, υδαιμονία, does not occur in the New Testament, and Paul uses other critical terms like λόγος or ρετ either infrequently or with dissimilar meanings. Any comparison of the two must focus on the concepts they communicate, and not on the words they use to express them.

The second difficulty is that Paul was not a philosopher, nor even a theologian in anything like the modern sense. If the typical form of an Aristotelian argument was a syllogism, Paul's writings were closer to a diatribe (Stowers 1992). Paul saw himself as an apostle, an envoy with an assigned mission, and even his most systematic writings are occasional in both form and substance. To put it in Aristotelian terms, the τέλος of Paul's letters was not clear exposition of a system of categories, but rather the edification and expansion of the body of Christ. Comparisons between the Aristotelian and Pauline worldviews will thus remain somewhat inexact, and must depend to a great deal on inference and sympathetic extrapolation. Nevertheless, the two writers are not incommensurable, and a discussion of their similarities and differences is possible.

A third difficulty is that, apart from the letters which are undoubtedly Pauline (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Philemon), there is little agreement on the authorship of the remainder of the Pauline corpus. My current view is that the evidence, on balance, favors Pauline authorship even for the so-called deutero-Pauline letters, but addressing that question is somewhat beyond our current scope. For the purposes of this paper "Paul" means simply "the individual or individuals who stand behind the letters traditionally thought to be authored by Paul."

Common Ground

Not surprisingly, Paul would have found a great deal to affirm in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics . For Paul as for Aristotle, the good life is bound up tightly with community and fellowship (see Rom. 12:9-21; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; and many other places). Furthermore, Paul would agree with Aristotle's critiques of naked hedonism (NE III.11; X.2): while Paul has nothing against physical pleasures in the right context (1 Cor. 7:1-9), he would deny that they define the good life. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die", Paul quotes, with obvious disapproval (1 Cor. 15:32; see Is. 22:13). Virtue is the result of practice and self-discipline (1 Cor. 9:24-27; NE II.1). Both shared an appreciation for σωφροσύνη (Titus 2:12; NE III.10-12) and disapproved of homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-27; NE 1148b30). Nature is often the standard in Aristotle, as "nothing that is contrary to nature is noble" (Politics 1325b10), and Paul periodically employs φύσις in a similar fashion. Homosexuality is wrong because it abandons "τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν τῆς θηλείας" (Rom. 1:27), and "ἠ φύσις αὐτὴ" teaches us that long hair is dishonorable for men (1 Cor. 11:14). While Paul only sometimes shares Aristotle's teleological vocabulary, it's clear that his ethical standards are oriented towards normative goals. "Having been enslaved to God, your fruit is sanctification, and your goal [τέλος] is eternal life" (Rom. 6:22). "Through the Spirit, and by faith, we await [ἀπεκδεχόμεθα] the hope of righteousness" (Gal. 5:5).

Eschatological Happiness

Nevertheless, the "infrastructure" supporting Paul's vision of the good life differs dramatically from Aristotle's. How Aristotle arrives at his eudaimonism is quite typical for an Aristotelian treatise: he surveys the common views, discusses the difficulties to which they give rise, and then provides an overarching, a-historical account which preserves as much common sense as possible and yet solves the noted difficulties. In contrast, Paul's account is profoundly historical in character, and takes its cue directly from the narrative structure of the life of Christ. As a Jew, Paul's theological vision presumes the narrative of the Hebrew Bible: creation, fall, covenant, exodus, law, kingdom, exile, and restoration. But Paul rereads each of these narrative events through the lens of Jesus Christ. All things were made through Christ (Col. 1:16). The human race is now represented by Christ in redemption, as it was once represented by Adam in failure (Rom. 5:12-21). Christ's sacrifice initiates a "καινὴ διαθήκη" (1 Cor. 11:25) which supersedes the covenant at Sinai (Jer. 31:33ff). Jesus is the "τέλος νόμου" (Rom. 10:4), the anointed son of David (Rom. 1:3), and Israel's hope in exile (Rom. 10:16-21). In Jesus, the messianic age, the age of the Spirit, has been inaugurated (Rom. 8:1ff).

Crucially, Paul applies this narrative framework to the life of each Christian. Christians are, of course, "in Christ" , and as such, they participate in his life, death and resurrection. We have been baptized into Christ's death, Paul says, and will be united with him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:1-10). "Χριστῷ συνεσταύρωμαι", Paul reiterates in Galatians 2:19, and seems to mean it. Thus the cosmic narrative which backgrounds Jesus' history corresponds to the personal narrative of each Christian. As the human race first sinned then found redemption in Christ, so each of us has a story which begins in sin but may be followed by repentance and membership in the body of Christ. Both the cosmic and personal narratives find their fulfillment, their τέλος and their ἔσχατον, in Christ: not only Christians, but all of creation, longs for this final redemption to be achieved (Rom. 8:23). Thus if Aristotle's account is primarily teleological, it may be said that Paul's is ultimately eschatological: the good life is to be united with Christ in his death, to experience proleptically in this life the power of the Spirit, and to live in the new creation with the full power of Christ's resurrection.

The specific content of this apocalyptic narrative of divine action accounts for many of the differences in detail between Paul and Aristotle. Because Jesus humbled himself and assumed the form of a slave (Phil. 2:7), not only craftsmen (1 Cor. 4:12; Eph. 4:28) but even slaves are full members of the body of Christ (Gal. 3:28; Philemon 15-16). Because participation in Christ's life, death and resurrection is sheer gift, the haughtiness Aristotle praised in the μεγαλοψυχός (NE 1124a19) is excluded entirely (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:27). Because we share in the death of Christ, and will one day share in His resurrection, Christians rejoice even in their sufferings (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10), and count external goods as worthless in comparison to the glory that they will one day share (Phil. 3:2-11; Rom. 8:18). Because Christ loved us and gave himself for us, love is the ultimate virtue: it is more valuable even than σοφία or γνώσις (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16; 8:1-2), and is the closest we may approach to the divine (1 Cor. 13).

Ecclesiastical Justice

Paul's apocalyptic theology also leads him to understand justice, and the good life which arises from its application, in a dramatically different fashion from Aristotle. Unlike Aristotle, Paul never provides a precise definition of this critical term, nor does he use it in an entirely consistent fashion. Nevertheless, certain key aspects of what Paul intends when he uses δικαιοσύνη and its cognates may be discerned and elaborated.

In Paul's writings, God possesses δικαιοσύνη in an exemplary fashion, and because of His justice He will necessarily judge the sinful human race (Rom. 3:9-20), both now (Rom. 1:18) and in the age to come (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Nevertheless, because of the sacrificial death of Christ, God's justice has been made available to all who believe (Rom. 3:21-26), and in this sense, God's justice is revealed not simply in His judgment, but also in the mercy proclaimed by the Gospel: "δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν" (Rom. 1:17). Indeed, Jesus Christ is our justice (1 Cor. 1:30). When Paul uses δικαιοσύνη in these contexts, it's clear that he doesn't mean "a fair distribution of goods" as in Aristotle, or even "righteousness" as many English translations have it, but rather something like "right standing before the righteous judge". When we possess this justice, we are "justified" (δικαιοῦσθαι, Rom. 3:28), or as Calvin phrases it, "clothed in righteousness" (Institutes, III.11.2). On the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment is revealed, those who have accepted this justice will be shown to be truly just.

For Paul as for Aristotle, justice is the basis for community. However, the ἐκκλησία is composed not of those who have contributed something of value, as in the πόλις Aristotle describes, but rather, consists of those to whom God has given δικαιοσύνη as an unmerited gift. Consequently, those who have received this gift are obligated to live a life characterized by self-giving love (Gal. 5:13-26; 1 Cor. 12-13; Eph. 2:19-21; 5:28-32), and the members of the Church are to use the gifts they have received from God for mutual edification (Eph. 4:1-16). Similarly, because slaves and masters alike, women and men, Jews and Greeks have all received this gift, participation in the community is extended to all impartially (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:9-11), and even slaves deserve "justice and equality" (τὸ δίκαιον καὶ τὴν ἰσότητα, Col. 4:1).

It should be acknowledged that Paul never makes an explicit effort to undermine the institution of slavery. On the contrary, he encourages slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22), and once even sent a runaway Christian slave back to his Christian master (Philemon 8-18). But his inclusion of slaves as full members of the Christian community undercuts any conceivable justification for one human being to own another. Paul addresses slaves as much as their masters as full moral agents, and there is nowhere any hint of Aristotle's φύσει δουλος, a human being who lacks a moral or deliberative capacity. "Any slave called by the Lord is the Lord's freed man, and any free man called by the Lord is Christ's slave" (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Paul believed that the time until the day of judgment was short, and from this eschatological perspective, even slavery was of secondary concern (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

Like Aristotle, Paul is concerned with ἰσότης, but the form of this concern becomes clear in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Paul had long encouraged Gentile Christians to donate to famine relief in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-28; cf. Acts 11:27-30), but after a promising start, contributions from the Corinthian Christians had been underwhelming. Their lackluster response was apparently due to a perception that they were being expected to contribute unfairly, and in 2 Cor. 8:13-14, Paul addresses this concern: "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality [ἰσότης]. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality [ἰσότης]."

In this light, Paul's account of justice can perhaps be summarized with an equation similar to Aristotle's: , i.e., the value of the gifts [g()] given by God to A stands to the value of the gifts given to B as the response [r()] from A should stand to the response from B.

Two key claims are included in Aristotle's account of political justice: (1) The benefits of political participation should be restricted to classes which contribute appropriately to the community, and (2) fairness is maintained when members of that class receive the rewards of citizenship according to their individual contribution. Paul's theory, however, turns Aristotle on his head: (1) The benefits of participation in the community should be extended universally to anyone who has received the gift of justification from God, and (2) each member of the church should contribute according to how they have received. In other words, for Aristotle, the logical order of distributive justice is giving followed by receiving; for Paul, it is receiving and then giving.

The Redeemed Life

One way to summarize these differences is to imagine Paul's response if he were presented with Aristotle's definition of the good life. As noted above, Aristotle defined happiness as "an action of the soul in accordance with virtue." Paul would likely be satisfied with this definition only if he could add substantial qualifications: "The good life," one can imagine Paul insisting, "is an action of the redeemed soul in accordance with virtue, as a response to God's free and loving gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, and oriented towards the Spirit's actualization of the New Creation in the Church."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life: Aristotle

The next three posts will be from the paper that I turned in as my "writing sample" for my grad school applications. It's going to be significantly more, well, academic than my recent posts, but if I haven't written anything on my blog in a while, it's because I've been putting this paper together. This first post is on Aristotle's vision of the good life; post #2 will be on Paul's, and post #3 will be on Thomas Aquinas'. Feel free to ignore it if it's not your cup of tea.


Aristotle's eudaimonistic account of the good life is notable on many levels. It is subtle and sophisticated, but nevertheless makes a successful appeal to common sense. More than two millennia later, it remains plausible, interesting, and provocative.

Still, Aristotle's ethical perspective differs significantly from the view of the good life assumed and proclaimed by the New Testament, and by Paul in particular. Paul was of course influenced by Hellenism in various ways, but his Jewish heritage, transformed by his encounter with the life and death of Jesus Christ, was ultimately determinative in his outlook. For Paul, the only adequate account of the good life was one which placed God's gift of His son, Jesus Christ, firmly at the center.

Like us, Thomas Aquinas was heir to both the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian traditions, and struggled to reconcile their divergent perspectives. While Aristotle provided a philosophical vocabulary and a great deal of content for Thomas, the New Testament was divine in origin and thus ultimately authoritative. And of course, these two primary sources for his ethical theory at times differed significantly from each other in both form and substance. An overview and critique of Thomas' attempts to synthesize the Pauline and Aristotelian accounts of the good life may be informative and helpful as we struggle with similar challenges in our own modern context.

Aristotle's Account of the Good Life

Teleological Happiness

At the heart of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is his contention that the ultimate good for humans is "happiness", or in Greek, εὐδαιμονία. His reasoning is fairly simple: the good is that at which all things aim; and all human beings aim primarily at happiness.

Of course, neither culturally nor linguistically is "happiness" quite the right English translation. Our psychological age is obsessed with emotions, and while Aristotle is quite clear that εὐδαιμονία is connected with the παθήματα, it is not in itself a feeling, and may even at times involve painful emotions. Etymologically, εὐδαιμονία seems to refer to the spirit, or δαίμον, which every individual was believed to possess; and it ascribes either to this daemon or to its bearer a certain state of wellness (Liddell 564). Generally, therefore, εὐδαιμονία should be understood as a state of human well-being or flourishing.

However, Aristotle also has a somewhat more specific definition in mind: "an activity of soul in accordance with virtue" (ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια κατ᾽ ἀρετήν) (NE 1098a15). How he arrives at this definition is worth some exploration. In Aristotle's view, the good of an object resides in its ἔργον, or function: the ἔργον of a flute is to produce music, the ἔργον of a hammer is to pound nails, and similarly the function of a human being is a certain kind of action (NE 1097b27). Furthermore, the defining attribute of a human being, according to Aristotle, is rationality: our genus is animal, the differentia is rationality, and the resulting species is a "rational animal". Thus, the appropriate function of a human being is rationality (NE 1098a5): this is the "action of the soul" that partially constitutes happiness.

Τhe nature of this action is further elaborated in the second part of Aristotle's definition, that happiness is an action of the soul in accordance with virtue (ἄρετη, or excellence). The function of a flute is to play music, but its τέλος, its ultimate good, is to play music in an excellent manner (NE 1098a10). Because humans are rational animals, their ἀρετὴ is to be found when their rational soul acts in an excellent manner, and consequently, the τέλος of a human being (and thus human good, and thus happiness) is the action of our soul in accordance with virtue. Throughout books 2-9 of the Ethics, Aristotle continues to build on this basic understanding of virtue. In book 2, he argues that human moral virtue is κατὰ λόγον in the sense that it obeys the law of the mean. A virtuous action will always be less than an error in the maximal direction, and more than the opposite error in the minimal direction (NE 1106b). He works through the individual moral virtues in this way, showing (sometimes more successfully than others) that courage (ἀνδρεία) is the rational mean between cowardice and unwarranted confidence, that temperance (σωφροσύνη) is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility, that liberality (ἐλευθεριότης) is the mean between prodigality and meanness, and so on, through proper pride (μεγαλοψυχία), gentleness (πραότης), friendliness (φιλία), truthfulness (ἀληθεία), ready wit (εὐτραπελία), and justice (δικαιοσύνη).

As an activity of the soul, happiness is ἐνέργεια, active and not passive: to be happy in an Aristotelian sense requires doing something. Whether in the military or in politics, a life well lived is a life of activity. Consequently, the context in which the good life may be pursued is critical. Aristotle is no Stoic: a truly virtuous man needs the economic resources that enable him to do virtuous acts. As he says repeatedly throughout both the Ethics and Politics, "[Happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment" (NE 1099a31). In addition, the good life is always politically situated, for "man is a political animal" (Politics 1253a5). Aristotle notoriously excludes slaves, farmers and craftsmen from happiness (NE 1177a8; Politics 1328b38; see below), but not even full citizens of a πόλις are necessarily candidates for the virtuous life. "The virtue of a citizen must be suited to his constitution" (Politics 1276b29), and though Aristotle does not state it explicitly, the implication is that a citizen residing in an imperfect πολιτέια must necessarily possess virtue imperfectly.

Political Justice

Because the life of virtue depends to a great degree on its social context, Aristotle's account of happiness is similarly dependent on his account of justice (δικαιοσύνη). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces his discussion with a popular definition that he seems to largely accept: "Everybody means by justice that state of character [ἕξις] which makes people disposed to do what is just and makes them act justly and wish for what is just" (1125b3). He then proceeds to distinguish between the senses in which the word "justice" is used. The most basic distinction is between "universal justice" (δικαιοσύνη ὅλη), that aspect of virtue which has to do with the law and therefore relates to our neighbor (1129b15), and "particular justice" (δικαιοσύνη κατὰ μέρος), that aspect of universal justice which specifically has to do with fairness (1130b8-15). Within particular justice, Aristotle distinguishes two additional senses: distributive justice, which is concerned with the proper distribution of honors in a community, and corrective justice, which is concerned with fairness in transactions (συνάλλαγμα, 1130b30-1131a9). If I purchase stock in AT&T, it is according to distributive justice that I receive a dividend; if I select AT&T as my mobile carrier and pay my bills, it is according to corrective justice that I'm able to make calls.

Both distributive and corrective justice share a concern with fairness and equality (το ἴσον), but Aristotle uses different mathematical models to describe their key features. If A and B are the two parties concerned and were initially equal, and N is that which has been wrongfully taken from A, then corrective justice says that the situation may be returned to a state of justice if half of the amount by which B now exceeds A is returned to A; and the amount returned will be equal to N (1132a25-1132b12). The model for distributive justice, in contrast, can be expressed as , i.e., the quality or worth [q()] of A stands to the quality of B as the value [v()] of the thing distributed [t()] to A should stand to the value of that which is distributed to B (1131a24-1131b17; see also Keyt 57). Or to put it another way, if A and B are the two shareholders in a company, and A has invested $25 and B has invested $75, and the company sells for $1000, then A should receive $250 and B should receive $750.

This concept of distributive justice is at the heart of Aristotle's political philosophy, and he uses it as both an analytical and a prescriptive tool. In any constitution, the primary honor to be distributed is citizenship, and the primary difference between the various constitutions he describes (monarchy/tyranny, aristocracy/oligarchy, polity/democracy) is how they account for the content of q() in the formula above (Keyt 59). Democracies, for instance, define q() as freedom, and thus contend that all free men should receive citizenship and its associated honors equally. Oligarchies, in contrast, base q() on wealth, and distribute offices to their citizens in proportion to their net worth. Aristotle argues (Politics III.7) that correct constitutions should restrict citizenship to those who contribute virtue to the community, whether military virtue in a polity, ordinary virtue in an aristocracy, or superhuman virtue in a monarchy (Keyt 72); this is, in effect, an argument for several specific ideal values of q().

Slaves and non-Greeks, of course, are excluded entirely from the political life, because they have nothing of independent value to contribute. Slaves are natural slaves (φύσει δοῦλοι): they belong to someone else because they can belong to someone else. A slave "shares in reason [λόγος] to the extent of understanding it, but does not have it himself" (Politics 1254b16-1255a2). Consequently, although slaves can enjoy bodily pleasures, they have no real virtue, no share in human life, and hence no true happiness (NE 1177a8).

The Contemplative Life

In the end, however, the ideal for Aristotle is not a life of physical or even political activity, but a life of contemplation (βίος θεορέτικος). Aristotle argues (NE 1177a10-1178a9) that the life of σοφία must be the best, because it exercises the highest parts of ourselves, is the most pleasant, self-sufficient and leisured, and is virtually divine in origin (θεῖόν τι ἐν ἀυτῳ ὑπάρχει). Indeed, the activity of God must consist solely in contemplation, and to the extent that we engage in it ourselves, we attain to something like the life of God (NE 1178b31). "If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more" (Meta. 1072b25). Xenophanes once joked that cows would draw gods that looked like themselves (Fairbanks 67), and it must be remarked that Aristotle's God looks suspiciously like a philosopher.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Perseus Running Locally

I didn't think I'd ever quite get there, but I've managed to get Perseus running on my local machine.

For those of you who don't know or don't care, Perseus is the Tufts University project which has put pretty much all ancient Greek literature online, and quite a bit of other stuff besides. The problem is that it's a complicated, resource-intensive system, with a lot of users. And so during the day, it's pretty darned slow. Starting back in May, they began offering up an open-source version you could run locally, which I initially thought was very cool, right up until the point when I started trying to install it.

I got past the requirement for a Linux machine by loading up Sun's VirtualBox on my main desktop, and then proceeded to spend the next week downloading, compiling and loading up the required texts, indexes, source code and required support systems. I'm frankly pretty darned astonished that it works at all, but despite the fact that I'm pretty much a Linux newbie, by following the reasonably good directions included in the source code download, it's now up and running. And I feel reasonably good about that.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #4: The Fall

My friend wrote:

Here's a being that knows all: past, present and future.  He creates a universe so large that we can't even wrap our heads around the sheer size of it: billions of galaxies, with billions of solar systems, etc.  But then he only populates one Planet in the whole thing!  And then within a very short time, days maybe weeks, he puts Original Sin on the whole human race forever, because Eve was tricked by a talking snake (presumably the devil) into taking the forbidden fruit. But this is before they have the knowledge of Good / Evil?  How are they supposed to understand these concepts at that point?!  And yet God basically curses the entire human race from thence forward for the very first mistake made by his very recent creation?

With respect to the whole "Garden of Eden" thing, if I understand you correctly, I think there are two problems you're more-or-less trying to work around: (1) How could God make a creation that went bad so quickly? (2) What's up with the snake and all the other details of the story?

I'll tackle the second one first, because it's a lot easier. I'm fairly confident that if you'd had a video camera around some 6000 years ago, you wouldn't have anywhere seen the story that gets told in Genesis 2-3. These are clearly folk tales, a little like the Arthurian legends, and they're not trying to talk history. They're driving at something else. (That doesn't mean they can't be inspired: it just means they're a different [inspired] genre than history.)

Now, I'll confess, I don't know that I can summarize clearly exactly the truth that these chapters are driving at, anymore than I can tell you the exact point of a Flannery O'Connor story like "A Good Man is Hard to Find". But I know that the story rings true to me on a profound level. To understand exactly how it rings true to me, we'll have to step back a moment, and look at the dominant mythological account of morality in our culture, namely, evolutionary psychology. I think there's a truth in evolutionary psychology, and indeed, it may be a fairly accurate account off how we developed a moral sense. But I don't think it's a very good account of whether our moral sense is ever right, or even, whether there's anything for our moral sense to be right about. Evolutionary psychology thus leaves something out, something quite important -- and that something very important is addressed in a profound way by the story of the Fall. I don't know if there was ever a historical Fall, before which things had been going very good, and after which things went very bad -- though at least at the moment, it seems rather unlikely to me. And even if there was, the fossil record seems clear that there couldn't have been the sort of Fall after which there was death and pain and disease, and before which there wasn't. (Indeed, if you read Genesis carefully, you'll notice that it doesn't imply that Adam and Eve would have been immortal before they ate the apple, and in fact, it seems to imply exactly the opposite.) But whether or not there was a historical Fall of some sort, clearly human beings have ended up in a place where they know that they should do certain things, they realize they don't do them, and they feel like they've lost something amazing and profound as a result. I think this sense of loss refers to something very true, and I think the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 phrases that sense dramatically as well as anything could.

In other words, I agree that from a modern perspective, for those of us who imbibe pop psychology with our mothers' milk, there are parts of the story that don't quite make psychological sense. But this is true of any mythological story from the ancient world, whether The Epic of Gilgamesh, or any of the stories in The Golden Ass; and a story can be great mythology, and indeed, inspired mythology, without being a Henry James novel.

It's the first question that's more difficult, how a world from the hands of a good God could have gone so bad. And to be honest, I'm not entirely clear about the answer. This is something that's bugged me for a long time, and it's the one element of evolution and Christian theology that I can't reconcile in a satisfactory manner. If there was an historical fall, then I think the question becomes a bit less pressing, as we can answer it with a standard appeal to "free will". But if there wasn't an historical Fall, and I think that's at least a possibility, the question is more difficult and more problematic.

Here are a few things that I think about when this starts bugging me:

  1. There may actually have been an historical fall. It's quite possible that evidence of a Fall wouldn't show up in the fossil record at all. For instance, imagine that God decided to grace a particular branch of the homo tree with a soul, with the recognition that they were made by a Creator and had an obligation to Him. They could have been granted natively the same sort of control over their bodies (and disease and pain) that you find on occasion in the great yogis of India: though not immortal, their lives would have been dramatically better than ours, and even if they suffered from disease or pain, they would have experienced pain very differently, as an important point of feedback, but not as overpowering, distressing and crippling. This branch could have even developed a very advanced culture (not necessarily an advanced material culture, which is quite different), before making some crucial decision, some critical rejection of the good, which ruined their paradisal world forever. Imagine how difficult it is to live honestly in a country like Mexico, where corruption runs rampant, and how nearly impossible it is to change that culture of corruption. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that, once ruined, a completely honest and loving society would be gone forever. If this happened, that primal rejection is now remembered only through legends and myths, whispers of golden opportunities forever lost and rumors of a shadow embraced, stories of gardens and naked innocence and a serpent coiled around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You could hunt through the Olduvai Gorge for a thousand years and never once discover a fossil or a potsherd that would confirm or disconfirm that event.
  2. I don't want to discount the possibility of Satan. The Biblical idea that there's a powerful, evil spiritual force at work in this world explains quite a lot. This is very much the case when you look at human history, but I'm at least open to the idea that it could also have been the case during evolution as well. Perhaps God hadn't originally "intended" disease at all, but Satan introduced it – and God let him get away with it, if only because if God exists at all, it's clear that he intends to play by the rules He set up at the beginning.
  3. At any rate, for the sake of this argument, let's assume there was pain and death and disease, well, pretty much from the time the plant and animal kingdoms diverged. If so, how do we explain so much pain and things to be avoided if our world came from the hand of a good God? Part of the answer might be to point out that evolution itself is a very little like the crucifixion. Christians have always believed that Jesus' death and resurrection wasn't an isolated event, but was somehow built into the very nature of reality. And we discover, looking back at the people and animals that were our ancestors, that we are only here because of the pointless, sacrificial death of billions of "hopeful monsters", creatures bearing maladaptive genetic mutations that were all but guaranteed to result in their owners' painful deaths and the extinction of a particular genetic branch. We are here, and our bodies work more-or-less well, because they are not here, and because their bodies did not work well. And when you think about it, that's not a bad picture of the death of Christ. "By his stripes we are healed," as Isaiah put it.
  4. The "problem of evil" (which is what this is) can be summarized by saying that, if God exists, it's very difficult to believe all three of the following propositions simultaneously: (a) God is all good; (b) God is all powerful; (c) shitty things happen. But if God doesn't exist, the "problem of good" is equally troubling. It can be summarized, similarly, by saying that it's very difficult to believe all three of the following propositions simultaneously: (a) Humans derive their moral sense from evolution; (b) evolution is random and not directed towards any goal; (c) humans are obligated to do good things, and avoid bad things, even when they don't want to. If (a) and (b) are true, then (c) certainly is not true. And if (c) isn't true, we're in for a pretty bleak existence: go read some Nietzsche, ponder what he meant by the death of God (see section #125), and get back to me.
  5. Nearly every religion falls down on one of the three "points" of the problem of evil: either they don't insist that God is completely good, or they can't quite acknowledge that He's completely in charge, or they deny that shitty things happen. Christianity, I think, is unique in insisting very, very strongly that all three are fully the case. It doesn't precisely have an answer to this question – but it enframes this mystery at the heart of its proclamation. For at the heart of Christianity stands the cross, the sign and seal that God has entered this broken, shattered world, and taken its pain and suffering on Himself. The story of the cross (which I believe to be true history, as well as a great deal more) doesn't solve the impossible equation by saying, "Ah, yes, it all works if x=5". It's more like saying, "Try to imagine what you could do with this equation if we assumed that x=sqrt(-1)."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #3: Taking the Bible Literally

My friend wrote:

More things that trouble me . . . if you take the Bible literally then you are stuck with the Young Earth idea and the Flood actually happening sometime around 2500 BC, which I think most intelligent people would find extremely unlikely.  And so if you decide not to take the Bible literally well then it's basically just a book, not divinely inspired.  But if it's not divinely inspired, then what's the point?

With respect to the dichotomy you describe between "taking the Bible literally" (and buying into a young-earth style creationism) or "then it's basically just a book, not divinely inspired," well, that's one that bothered me for a long time too. Now, though, I have a hard time remembering why, or at least, feeling why it bothered me so much. In brief, I think that the dichotomy you describe is something that fundamentalists invented in the late 19th century. It isn't a part of historic Christianity at all, and I don't think it's true. And I'll go a bit further: to the extent that you continue to buy into it, you'll always remain a fundamentalist: either a religious fundamentalist or an atheist fundamentalist. (On a side note, there are plenty of atheist fundamentalists around, not least on Fundamentalism is a temptation for anyone with strong opinions on religious questions, and one doesn't stop being the sort of person who thinks, feels and responds like a fundamentalist by merely ceasing to believe in God.)

Here's an example of what I mean. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the Bible is, in some sense, the Word of God. If so, it's abundantly clear that God can use different genres of literature as the vehicle for inspiration: letters (e.g., Romans, Philemon), history (Acts, Kings), poetry (Psalms, Isaiah), weird-ass apocalyptic stuff (Daniel, Revelation), and so on: and, again, working off our assumption that God somehow inspired all this, presumably it communicates a certain sort of truth: not necessarily propositional truth, but something about the nature of God, of the world, and the sort of people He created.

Now, have you ever found a certain sort of truth, maybe even a profound and moving truth, in a story that clearly wasn't "true"? From your career as a fellow geek, I'll assume that you've probably read The Lord of the Rings, and that would be an example of the sort of story I mean. If you're so unlucky as to remain unmoved by LOTR, though, just think of any novel or short story or movie that struck you as revealing an astonishing truth about the world. Well, I don't think it's at all a priori unlikely that God could, on occasion, use stories like that to reveal truth, as the vehicles of divine inspiration. And indeed, when I sit down and look at the Bible, it seems pretty clear that certain books like Jonah, Esther, Job and even Genesis are writings of that sort. I think they express truth, and beyond that, I think they somehow communicate inspired truth, but I don't think there's any reason to believe that they express truth about history.

Now, I don't think that every book of the Bible is that way. Parts are clearly intended as history and, so far as I can tell, are reasonably accurate. The Gospels are probably this way: they tell you what the historical Jesus actually said and did. To be sure, I don't think they record what you would have seen if you'd had a video camera there. They're more like the movie Gandhi, which communicated fairly accurately who Gandhi was, even though it ignored certain aspects of his life, conflated some events, and even made up other incidents out of whole cloth. Or if you're a Shakespeare fan (or a Kenneth Branagh fan, which may amount to the same thing), watch Henry V, and then read up on the actual battle of Agincourt (and the events preceding and following it). If you want the "historical Jesus", you're probably going to have to do a bit of digging, but ultimately, the Jesus that meets us in the Gospels is the real thing, just like Shakespeare's Henry V is in some sense really Henry V.

But all of that to say – I think it's silly to read Genesis, and start adding numbers up. It's just not that sort of book. The truth that it tells touches on the truths of astrophysics, geology and paleontology in a quite tangential fashion.

I'll admit, it's not easy to start reading the Bible the way that I'm describing. If you're used to reading it in a particular fashion, or if you've heard it preached in a particular way your whole life, you can't pull your mind out of those channels easily. But it's possible, and once you've successfully done it for a while, you'll wonder what all the bother was. It's a little like discovering that you've been riding a bicycle backwards your whole life. It's complicated and difficult to figure out how to ride it facing forward, and you'll take a few falls. But once you figure it out, you'll wonder how you could have managed so long trying to turn your neck around to see where you were going.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #2: Thinking About Creation

My skeptical interlocutor wrote:

I guess one of the biggest things for me is the philosophical concept of God as he is portrayed in the Bible.  I don't want to seem like I'm a blasphemer here, but it strikes me as absurd that a being that is infinite in all ways and is outside the dimension of Time would have any reason to create us in the first place; and then to create us and screw it up so badly, when he's apparently omniscient, is really strange.  Here's a being that knows all: past, present and future.  He creates a universe, which is actually pretty hard to wrap your head around the sheer size of, well, billions of galaxies, with billions of solar systems, etc.; and then to only populate one Planet in the whole thing!  And then within a very short time, days maybe weeks, put Original Sin on the whole human race forever, because Eve was tricked by a talking snake (presumably the devil) into taking the forbidden fruit. And this is before they have the knowledge of good and evil?  How are they supposed to understand these concepts at that point?!  And yet God basically proceeds to curse the entire human race from thence forward for the very first mistake made by his very recent creation?  It seems very arrogant to me that you would create a race with free will and then require them to worship you or else suffer mass executions…. Or that you would care at all after having been around an eternity, outside the bounds of time. 

I don't know that I've got great answers for all your questions, though I can tell you how I approach thinking about them.  I don't have time or room to talk about everything you mention, but I'll try to talk about the ones that have bothered me as well, so I can at least be talking from experience.

With regard to how and/or why God created us . . . yeah, it's kind of mind-blowing, and sometimes it seems so incredible to me as to be unbelievable.  It does rather beggar belief that an all-powerful being would in any way be interested in anything less than Himself.  (And indeed, a certain trend of philosophy with a pedigree going back to Aristotle has assumed that God doesn't particularly care about the world, since He's too worthy to think about anything unworthy, i.e., anything less than Himself, i.e., us.) 

There are two ways I tend to think about this when it starts bothering me:

  1. I agree that it's hard to imagine God either existing or creating us – but I can't figure out any other way that we could get here.  As Martin Heidegger put it, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  In other words, isn't it astonishing that there's anything at all, however big or small it might be?  I'm aware that physicists have speculated about what might have "preceded" the Big Bang (if the word "preceded" has any meaning in that context), but from what I've read, it pretty much all comes down to, "We have no frigging idea how it all started or why or why then."  And even if a theory about what preceded the Big Bang ever does gain general acceptance, it still begs the question, "Where did that come from?"  The idea of God – a being who, if He exists at all, exists necessarily – seems more plausible to me than any theory about why an obviously contingent universe must have come into existence.  (Though, like I said, the Big Bang seems like a perfectly valid description about what happened once it all got kicked off.)
  2. I also agree that it's incredible God would take any interest in us.  This is one of the reasons why I'm specifically a Christian and not, say, a Deist or a Muslim.  The Christian theory is that God is nothing if not humble.  In other words, most other theories about God (whether philosophical or religious) describe a God who insists upon getting his due, and there's of course a sense in which this would necessarily be correct (if God exists at all).  But Christians believe in a God who, alongside everything else, is pretty damn humble, willing to, say, arrive in this world in a mess of blood and mucous, take His shits on the shore of the sea of Galilee, and leave this world impaled on a spike.  It may be difficult to believe that any being who could call Himself God would be willing to engage in that sort of behavior – but it's certainly the God that Christianity describes.  And if God is anything like humble enough to die for us, I don't think it's a priori unlikely that He would create us in the first place.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #1: The Infidels are Partly Right

One of my parents' friends recently asked me to strike up a correspondence with their son, a man in his 30's, who grew up in a Christian family, but has been questioning both religion generally, and the Bible and Christianity in particular. As he put it:

I had always just believed in God and all the bible stories, it wasn't until I decided to actually read the Bible that I immediately started having issues with it.

The two of us struck up the conversation in question, and so far it's been both interesting and productive. I thought I'd post some edited versions of the emails back and forth. What follows is from my introductory email to him.

Just a bit of background on who I am . . . I grew up in an Assemblies of God church, and the summer before my senior year in high school, I felt like God might be calling me to the ministry.  As a result, I have a BA and an MA in Theology, but I eventually figured out that I had way too bad of an attitude to be a pastor, and as a result, I ended up going a different direction with my career.  I got into computers, and over the years worked my way up.  About nine years ago, along with my brother and a few friends, I helped to start an Internet advertising company named Zango, where I was CTO until last June.  I'm now looking into going back to school, to get my Ph.D. in theology.  I still have a bad attitude, but luckily, God doesn't seem to mind too much.

I should note that after I graduated from seminary in '92, I was so angry with God and Christianity and especially Christians (it's a long story) that I didn't darken the door of a church for nearly five years.  It wasn't until I got divorced in '98, and was lonely beyond belief, that I returned to church, and even when I did, it was only after I made a rather unorthodox deal with God.  I pretty much told Him outright, "Look, I don't want to be here, I'm not going to read my Bible, and you can kiss my ass if you think I'm going to do daily devotions.  But I'll show up, and hopefully that's sufficient."  And it turns out, it pretty much was.  I could put it in more devotional language – I could say, "God is faithful, even when we're not", and that would be true – but the reality of it was that I told God He could kiss my ass, and He was humble enough to take me in even on those terms.  And somehow, over the years, my bad attitude has tempered, I found a wife I loved and from whom I could learn about love, I'm teaching two different Sunday School classes, and I've even been reading my Bible a bit more (though nothing like I used to).

One of the things that I sympathize with in your emails is your critique of the fundamentalist use of Scripture.  I grew up with folks all around me who used Scripture in precisely the way that critiques so effectively.  And I have to say, I fully agree with their criticisms of that particular way to use Scripture.  Fundamentalists read Scripture as if it were a 20th century historical document, following all the rules of 20th century literature.  And of course, it's not.  It's variously a mish-mash of bronze age folk tales, iron age chronicles, half-pagan poetry, short stories, good stories, bad characters, profound theology, more-or-less accurate history, half-cocked letters, and hallucinations the likes of which Timothy Leary was never so unlucky to experience.  To the extent that the Infidels point out that this is the case, there's absolutely nothing (in my opinion) to disagree with them about.

In other words, I fully agree with everything you have to say about young earth theory.  I think "scientific creationism" is worse than wrong: it's silly.  It's also pretty clear that the New Testament writers, umm, appropriated prophecies in ways that the original authors never intended.  The various verses you mention in Matthew are some of the more blatant examples, though Paul's allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar is pretty good competition.  If you want to get fancy, compare Numbers 2:32 and 3:42, and do the math.  Or check the Greek of the book of Revelation: it's written like George Bush talks.  Were there two demoniacs that showed up after Jesus calmed the storm (as it says in Matthew), or was it just one (like it says in Luke and Mark)?  And was it in Gadara (like it says in most of the Matthew manuscripts), or was it in Gerasa (like it says in most of the Mark and Luke manuscripts)?  Is it all right to eat meat offered to idols, like Paul says (1 Cor. 8), or is it a Really Bad Thing, like Revelation says (Revelation 2)?  Does God actually want us to bash babies' brains out against the rocks (Ps. 137)?  Or would He prefer that we forgive our enemies instead (Matt. 5)?  Did God create humans after animals and plants (Genesis 1), or before (Genesis 2)?  And I could go on – but it gets boring after a while.  If you've been reading, you know these examples better than I do.

I guess my point is that if you accept that the fundamentalist way of reading Scripture is the only valid way, and is the only way that you can continue believing in God (and Jesus), then I think you're quite right to reject the Bible and God along with it.  My question to you is whether you think there's any room for a different way of reading Scripture. 

You can probably tell what I think the answer is – but you should be clear that I'm not talking about namby-pamby, watered-down liberalism, or any way of understanding Christianity that makes Christ anything other than what He claimed to be.  I believe that our God is nothing less than a consuming fire, in Whose presence we would do well to tremble.  And more than that, I believe the Church has generally managed to express truths about God faithfully and accurately.  I'm a catholic, orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical Christian.  But it took me a long time to get there: it took Jesus a great deal more fuss and bother to exorcise the fundamentalist out of me than it took Him to get Legion out of the Gerasene demoniac(s).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Caedmon and the Pumpkin Patch

This afternoon, we took Caedmon to a local pumpkin patch. The lighting was just perfect. Caedmon hadn't had an afternoon nap (he screamed from his crib for an hour, until we finally took pity), so he was pretty tired, but he still had a great time walking around, looking at the pumpkins, playing in the dirt.
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
For reference, this was Caedmon last year at this time:
From Caedmon and the Pumpkin
From Caedmon and the Pumpkin

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Missed Opportunities

The Washington Post has a very interesting story today on the failure of our government agencies to regulate the derivatives market, and the consequences that has had for our financial system. A very few people in the Clinton administration wanted additional regulation on the derivatives market, but substantial majorities, both in the executive and the legislative branches, and in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, shot down the various attempts that were made to introduce additional legislation. As a result, the government had no insight into the full size of the derivatives market, nor to how badly individual firms were leveraged.

I think the Washington Post's story is an important one, but we should also remember that there are lots and lots of people and factors to blame for this: it can't all be laid at Greenspan's feet. The Republicans were responsible for pushing so hard against common-sense regulations; the Democrats were responsible for pushing Fannie and Freddy to underwrite stupid mortgages; the folks on Wall Street were responsible for stupidly believing, umm, "flawed" computer models; and you and I were responsible for buying up houses at inflated prices and mortgaging ourselves up to our necks to buy shitloads of stupid consumer goods that we don't need.

One of many, many interesting and slightly scary things about this crisis is that less than a year ago, I purchased and read with great interest Nicholas Taleb's flawed but fascinating book The Black Swan. In that book, he spent several hundred more pages than he really needed explaining why our current financial system was so badly at risk. His indictment of the risk models used by Wall Street made perfect sense to me. And even so, I didn't get it: I didn't understand at the time what is so clear now, that our financial system was a house of cards, waiting to come tumbling down.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life

Today, in a very strange conjunction of circumstances, I was exposed to three radically different visions of the good life. It was too strange, and too moving, not to share.

It started with my class at the UW, on Aristotle's Ethics. The topic for the last couple of classes has been the nature of the good life, specifically, Aristotle's claim that the appropriate human end is happiness. Aristotle takes this in two roughly common-sense directions. On the one hand, he says, happiness typically requires certain external goods, such as wealth, family, and friends:

[Happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness – good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death.

But on the other hand, Aristotle is quite clear that happiness does not consist of external goods. On the contrary, he defines happiness in quite a different direction, as "an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue". We are only truly happy, in other words, when we are doing something worth doing. Wealth and other external goods can help us to accomplish those worthwhile things, but they have a purely instrumental value. The life of virtue, performing acts of moral and intellectual excellence, is the appropriate goal of human existence, and is what makes for a truly happy person.

I think you could do a great deal worse than this, and independent of God's revelation in Christ, I don't know that you can get much better. But of course, Paul is clear that human beings generally choose to remain willfully ignorant of the nature of the world, and I don't think you could find a much more clear example of this than the second vision of the good life to cross my path.

Last night, I was reading Joel Stein's column in the latest Time about his evening with Flo Rida's "posse". I'd never heard of Flo Rida before, but apparently he's a flash-in-the-pan rapper who made some money last summer off a typically misogynistic hip-hop song called Low. I thought the column was entertaining enough to read it to my wife, who said, "You know, I think our ten-year-old niece was doing a dance to that song last summer." That got me interested enough to look up the lyrics. Apparently the song is about a stripper that Flo Rida (with some expectation of success) would like to, umm, sleep with. A selection of the poetic gifts in question:

So sexual She was flexible,  Professional,  Drinking X&O Hold up wait a minute, do I see what I think I whoa Did I think I seen shawty get low Ain't the same when it's up that close Make it rain, I'm making it snow Work the pole I gotta bank role I'ma say that I prefer her no clothes I'm in to that I love women exposed She threw it back at me I gave her mo' Cash ain't a problem I know where it go

That's when I threw her legs on my shoulders I knew it was over That Heny and Cola got me like a soldier She ready for Rover, I couldn't control her So lucky, oh me, I was just like clover Shawty was hot like a toaster Sorry but I had to fold her Like a pornography poster

Of course, apart from the fact that my 10-year-old niece was doing a dance to this song, there's nothing here to shock us anymore, nothing that we haven't learned to expect from our culture generally, and hip-hop more specifically.

Still, it was thrown into dramatic light by an email I received a little later in the day. The last time I was in Israel, I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Hanna Massad, the once and future pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. As I mentioned in my blog posting, he and his family were at the time living in the West Bank, having fled Gaza for their safety. Just a few months before, Rami Ayyad, a friend and employee, had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists for being a Christian. He was tortured and eventually killed, and his assailants dumped his body in a field.

Today was the one-year anniversary of Rami's death, and Dr. Massad sent me a link to a website which had been established in his memory. Especially moving was this message, written by Rami's mother:

I write about my son while my heart weeps. I will weep all my life. My pain grew deeper when four months after his death, his daughter Sama was born. What wrong has this baby committed not to be able to feel the warmth of her father? What crime have his wife and two boys done to live without a dad? What crime has Rami done? His only crime is that he had faith in Christ Jesus. We trust the Lord that he will not leave his wife and children because the blood of the martyr is not given in vain. Rami defended the word of God. He has made us all proud, all the Ayyad family. We are proud of his martyrdom because he died while defending his faith and refused to deny Christ.

As plausible, reasonable, and perhaps even as persuasive as Aristotle's account of the good life is, an event like this throws it into some relief against the New Testament. It's true, as Aristotle says, that no one can be happy on the rack: no one could say that Rami ended his life "happy", by any definition. But the question is whether Rami's life was a good life. "I am crucified with Christ," Paul said, and it's clear that this moves substantially beyond metaphor. "No man can be blessed [μακαριος] if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam," Aristotle says; and yet Jesus very specifically contradicts him: "Blessed [μακαριοι] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Of course, there's a great deal of overlap between Aristotle's ethics, and the moral vision of the New Testament: Aristotle also knew that courage, and perhaps even death in battle, could be a part of the good life. But where Aristotle looks to the edge of the world and sees a final horizon, Christians look to an empty tomb; and in the darkness of this tomb they see beyond the horizons of this world.