I apologize for the lengthy interval since my last post–with the proviso that there will probably be just as long an interval before the next one. Ordinary life calls, I have children, and so on, plus I have been bitten by the novel-writing bug yet again. But, since I don’t have access to my novel-writing PC right now, I might as well do my duty here, right?
Since I’m feeling lazy, I’ll tackle another of the internet’s common attacks on religion: the argument from atrocity. Here I mean extra-biblical atrocities: certain incidents from the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, various pogroms, the Thirty Years’ War, etc. Those weird little bits from the dusty back corners of the Pentateuch, which all go something like, “And the Lord commanded Jerushaphat to slay seven and fifty of the Edomites, together with their wives, and their children, their slaves, and the slaves of their children, the children of their slaves, the children of their slaves’ children, and their oxen, and their sheep, and the sheep of their neighbors, but not the sheep of their neighbors’ slaves, etc.”–well, those are a different matter, which I will probably not bother over, because those bits are only ever read by infidels with chips on their shoulders, and these days said infidels tend to focus more on obscure anecdotes from the Koran. Also, it’s not clear whether any of the early Biblical atrocity anecdotes ever even happened. Continue reading
I mentioned evolution a couple of posts back, and now seems as good a time as any to comment on it. Or rather to use it as a blatant springboard to start a post with, since I always have the devil’s own time figuring out how to begin. I have no intention of arguing over the political game of “creation science” or “intelligent design” or whatever it’s being called now. Science is a naturalistic discipline, ergo the supernatural has no place in it, and that, so far as I am concerned, is that. But there is an argument that, because many parts of creation, and in particular the human body, are not optimally designed, they are unlikely to be the work of an intelligent Creator. Continue reading
I don’t know who first said that we like people for their virtues, but love them for their faults. It used to make sense to me, but I don’t think I believe it anymore. Certainly I love people for their eccentricities–for their little quirks of behavior, for their strange obsessions, for the unfathomable things that make them tic. The strangeness of other people makes them fascinating and unique, and hammers home their essential reality. I don’t think you can love anyone until they’ve become so vividly weird in your eyes that you cannot help seeing them as something distinct from the background pattern of everyday humanity; until they are strange, we reduce them to symbols or types.
But their faults? There are certain feelings we feel when we see other people’s faults, and these feelings are often pleasant to us, but I don’t think you can accurately describe them as love. The best they can do is enable love indirectly, by overcoming our own insecurities. The presence of a genuinely perfect man or woman would be deeply unsettling, if not humiliating. Who could be happy in the presence of such a completely superior person? At best, we would feel uncomfortable. At worst, we would fear and resent their perfection. Think Sir Galahad from the Arthurian legends–the perfect knight comes across as an insufferable prig. Continue reading
As the father of a two-year-old, I face many challenges. One of the most persistent and difficult has been getting my little man to stop throwing. For the longest time, his first (and only) impulse on catching sight of a small object was to pick it up and hurl it in a random direction, purely to see how well it flew. It took a long time, and a lot of reminders, to get him to the point where he is now: he only forgets and starts chucking things around when we are not present, or when he’s suddenly distracted by something. So, once or twice a day, that we know of. It helps a bit to channel the urge by letting him go outside and throw his balls or his Frisbee.
In the course of this long quest for civilized behavior, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the causes of such a deeply ingrained urge. I’ve concluded that, in essence, I’m fighting evolution here: he has a strong urge to learn how to throw hard and accurate, and we are frustrating it when we tell him no. And that urge exists for a very good reason. For millions of years, our ancestors needed every hand in the group to pummel the snot out of any large predator that showed its fanged mug around their territory. Even when predators were not a risk, it would have been an essential hunting skill for a pre-archery group.
At any rate, my son learns quickly; I showed him how to throw the Frisbee less than a month ago, and he straightaway adapted the sideways technique to double his distance with a ball (still working on doing it accurately). If my boy’s desire to hurl were indulged completely, I imagine that by age five he would be able to throw a rock with sufficient force to knock a full-grown man unconscious. If you do not believe me, you clearly are not the parent of a little boy. Perhaps girls do it too; I don’t know. Continue reading
“You see this boat, children? Do you know who used to row boats like that? Slaves. All slaves. They were chained to their oars, and they were whipped to make them work, and if the ship sank they went down with it. Isn’t that horrible?”
I manage to hold back my sigh and grimace. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t much matter if these sixth-graders swallow a grossly incorrect tidbit of information about ancient history. Certainly it would be both foolish and wrong to interrupt her in front of the class and undermine her authority by explaining that she’s thinking of Turkish galleys from nearly two thousand years later than the Greek trireme she is pointing to. I wait until the end of class, while the students are chattering, to go up and quietly tell her that those rowers, far from being slaves, were the core voting bloc of the world’s first democracy. That rowing a trireme was highly skilled labor, and they took pride in it, and the fact that their work was turning their little city-state into an empire. That their importance in both war and peace had won them the franchise; that we vote today because they rowed back then. That they did go down with the ship a lot–but it didn’t stop them from signing up in droves, because the back-breaking work made them the thriving middle class of the Greek world. She nods and thanks me; I don’t know how much she’s taken in. By and by, the end-of-day bell rings. Continue reading
At the risk of sounding colossally pretentious, I believe that an important part of being human is to live and think in narratives. We love stories, and not just stories. Everything about healthy human life is drenched in multiple layers of meaning. Early modern thinkers thought of the mind as a blank slate that received impressions; now we know that perception is an immensely complex feat of computation. Our minds are constantly receiving a flood of impressions and assembling them into an intricate internal mock-up or copy of the world. As I write this, I am telling myself, “That narrow yellow thing with a broad white thing on top to my left is a lamp. The bumpy clicky thing under my fingers is a keyboard,” and so on for all the hundreds of different objects in the cluttered room I’m typing this in. You might say I have never actually known the world I live in, strictly speaking; I experience it through the gigantic copy of it I am making in my head. Continue reading
I read somewhere–I can’t recall where exactly, to my regret–that there are two opposed forces within Christianity, constantly tugging it in two different directions. They might go by many names: conventional and unconventional, worldly and unworldly, fleshly and ascetic, or what-have-you. In Orthodoxy, they are roughly represented by the hierarchy and the monastics, respectively, though neither has a strict monopoly; there are “unworldly” elements within the first, and sedate, passive, and conventional elements in the second. And this duality, this push-and-pull division, is not unique to Christianity. There are austere Hindu ascetics and serene village Brahmins, Buddhist Lamas and Buddhist family altars.
Only one of the two forces can be dominant in a given area, in a given faith, at one time. A balance between the two is possible–and desirable–but not likely to occur, or to be stable when and if it does. We’re always drifting in one direction or the other, and back again, overreacting to an excess before we overreact to our overreaction. Continue reading