Archive for category Ethics
In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God. Both were Deists. Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God. Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover. Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator? Beyond that, though Deists had different views.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans. Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires. He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God. On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake. It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants. It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”
(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).
Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw. Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery. Horrific suffering thanks to nature. How could this be the handiwork of a loving God? Why would God allow such misery to occur?
Rousseau offered an answer. Nature is God’s message, and God is love. So the problem must be humans. God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities. People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake. It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.
This infuriated Voltaire. He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril. But Voltaire was not sure how to respond. Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity? But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?
He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.” Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences. Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”
So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote. And wrote. The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist. It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical. Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best. Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake. Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved. (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).
By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best. Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”
That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:
To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant. I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work. Perhaps God is out creating other worlds. In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love. Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.
Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.” It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct. It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement. It is secular because God is irrelevant. Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need. Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.
Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics. We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans. Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.
Yet perhaps there is a middle ground. This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning. Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value. Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology. Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value. Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.
It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be). But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.” Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”
Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world. Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense. For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs. Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.
That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute. Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion. Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience. Perhaps both were right in their own way. We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive. God? Spirit? Does it really matter?
The idea that a new year represents rebirth, renewal and change is on its face silly. Every day is a new day, the year is just a human construct, making days numbers and delineating them in an arbitrary fashion. The idea that this is a time for resolutions and transformation is irrational – it’s just a new day, like every day.
Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that ideal of a new beginning. Yes, every day is potentially a chance for rebirth and renewal, but usually we squander those opportunities, living hypnotized, following the same routines. Instead of asking what would make life truly joyful, we check off our “to do” lists and take care of the mundane tasks at hand.
And that’s OK – life is a series of moments and we need to shop, cook, clean, work, and take of things that just need to be done. Yet we can do those things thinking the mundane is life – that life is about making money, paying bills, achieving success and consuming products. Or we can work through the mundane with a higher ideal in mind – happiness, love of both nature and others, and a sense of magic. The world unfolds for us, we just have to trust it.
So my resolution for 2013 is simply to live awake.
To try every day to look out the window and see nature as magical and beautiful. Not to get used to it or take it for granted. To feel blessed to live in foothills of western Maine, a place of pure beauty. To be sure, the wide open plains of South Dakota, where I was last month visiting family, has its own magic and beauty as well. Wherever one is, one key to living awake is not to take nature for granted.
To be true to myself. We humans are our own worst enemies, we repress who we are, we say what we think others want to hear, we distrust our ability to simultaneously be true and be accepted. We conform. We decide that our dreams are silly or unobtainable. We settle for a life less than we could have.
It’s not that we humans are stupid. We settle because it’s comfortable. It’s easy to conform, to go with what others want, to push aside youthful ambitions and dreams of happiness. We replace those with stuff – or perhaps with societal approval of us as successful. Prestige replaces joy. To be normal is safe, to conform is to be comfortable.
And then we slowly stagnate.
Please read this “comic”. It is a powerful comparison of two good women who choose different paths. One was true to herself, one conformed. The price of conformity isn’t always so high – and there is nothing wrong with being like others if one is at the same time true to oneself.
But too often we drown our inner voice and make choices out of fear of not fitting in or somehow missing out. We fear lacking income, making others mad, or ending up alone. Fear can’t guide life, to be truly happy one must be true to oneself. We need to trust our conscience and inner voice, even when it goes against what most people seem to be thinking and doing. And that is my resolution for 2013. To live awake, to listen to the voice within, to live true to myself.
I’ve always had a very logical argument as to why I am not a vegetarian. Vegetables are living entities just like animals. They feel in different ways, experience the world in manners we cannot comprehend, but they are life forms just as we are. Since in the animal kingdom it is natural for creatures to eat both plants and animals, there can’t be anything inherently wrong with eating meat. A cat could never become a vegetarian and survive, for example. As long as we do not over-indulge, eating other living entities, plant or animal, is natural.
Lately, though, I am rethinking my argument. Not that I’m doubting the logic, but there is another factor to take into account: corporate farming. Consider: In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little House in the Big Woods, Pa butchers a pig that they have been raising for some time. Every part of the pig is used, Laura and Mary even use the pig bladder as a balloon. Plants are sown and reaped, tended to by the family. In one book a locust attack ruins the harvest, such were the risks of life on the frontier.
That seems a healthy relationship between humans and nature. You may eat the plants and animals you raise, but you raise them with care. Certainly you should not be cruel to them. The food tasted better too – most of us will never know just how good natural food tastes.
This year many things are changing in my life, I feel like I’m entering a year of personal transformation. One change is to stop closing my eyes to ramifications of how I eat. I plan to think about where the food comes from, buy local, and move away from fast foods and the chemical laden processed foods that are so easy and convenient.
I was thinking about this as I walked through my local grocery store, seeing the packages of meat and vegetables, processed and ready for sale. Everything designed to entice you to buy; packages with idyllic farm scenes or products labeled “organic.” The bananas had a sticker that said “no cholesterol.” I’m glad they told me! It’s all marketing.
Then I look at the shoppers, behaving much like I have always behaved. Looking at different foods, picking them up, dropping in them in the cart. The intercom switched to the song “King of Pain” by the Police. I forced an ironic smile.
When I teach about the rise of fascism in Germany I try to explain it in a way that most people in the class end up admitting that if they lived in Germany in 1936 they’d probably have supported the Nazi government. The reason you can get something like fascism is that the culture accepts as natural and mundane that which should be condemned. It’s normal to eat genetically modified food. It’s normal to eat animals who have lived in ghastly conditions, genetically manipulated to increase profits. Assembly line cars, assembly line chickens. The fact they are alive is irrelevant, profit comes first.
How cruel are we to the plant kingdom when we manipulate every crop, altering the very nature of the environment. Farming itself is a violent act, taking the free form of nature and forcing an order to it in order to feed ourselves. But that’s the same kind of violence that a lion undertakes when he cuts down and devours a zebra. It’s part of who we are, it’s what we need to survive. We have brains that make it natural for us to move beyond hunting and gathering.
I can’t help but think that in a generation or two people will look back and see us as barbaric and ignorant. They’ll look at how factory farms treat animals, the way big corporations play with plant genetics and our penchant to not give a damn about nature if we can make money by manipulating it. They’ll wonder how we could have been so brutal.
But to us it’s normal. We don’t think about it. We’re good consumers, programmed to spend and to believe that Monsanto’s main goal is to end world hunger and that the chickens who will make up our McNuggets are happily scampering around the coop as a loving farm girl throws them seeds.
So I’m going to shift towards farmers markets, local food, and try to stop my long running contribution to the cruelty being undertaken against plant and animal. There are many family farms struggling to get by, working hard and treating their animals right. I want to give them my business, as much as possible.
Ultimately, that cruelty is really directed at ourselves because everything is connected.
Such is our culture – close our eyes, mock those who think differently and see the world as full of objects to use for our own self-interest, no matter how much damage it does to the planet – to the humans, the animals, the plants, the atmosphere, the land and sea. But I believe we are connected. Every bit of cold cruelty that we engage in or enable comes back to bite. And every bit of love we share or show returns in time to empower.
UPDATE: The comment from La Kaiser below suggests that my post may read as too broad. There are a lot of family farms here — the Daku dairy farm just up the road, Sandy River Farms that have their own store, and Marble Family farm, to name a few. These are the good guys! People struggling to produce quality food. I’m concerned about the mega-corporations that look only at the bottom line and are removed from the process. I hope that the practices shown in those images are more rare than common, but I fear that as the mega-corporations grow, it’ll be all about money.
Today is Easter, a day Christians celebrate due to their belief that a Jewish spiritual teacher named Jesus was actually the son of God, was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby granting Christians a promise of eternal life.
While I am not a Christian (I do not subscribe to any organized religion, though I try to show all of them respect), the emphasis Christians put on forgiveness is very powerful. If people could learn to actively forgive the world would be a much better place. If you want happiness in life a good first step is to embrace the principle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness comes on many levels. The first is to forgive others for causing us harm. That’s the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first. Some people have trouble with that. When they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive. Moreover, in most disputes both sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.
The secret is to let go and forgive anyway. If one takes the first step and reaches out the other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture. In some cases the other person can’t let go of resentment. There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the emotions of the conflict. If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s his or her problem. That’s the power of forgiveness. Once you forgive you cease to allow others to have power over your emotional state.
How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done? People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment. Yet what is gained? That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation. Forgiveness allows us to deny others that power. We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive pursuits. Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own self-interest.
The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes. When someone unintentionally does something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset. “He should have known better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.” Yet if it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason to be angry. If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced. Forgive mistakes.
To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too many mistakes. Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences for mistakes. I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.
Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds. This is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn. People beat themselves up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.
Mistakes, though, are the way people learn. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving. One also has to forgive oneself for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite. I believe it’s only possible to accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself. That is the first step. Moreover, most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them. The inability to forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do. They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own unresolved inner conflicts. Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.
Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal. How often have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger? How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends? How any people engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?
Yet it is easy. To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose. Learn from it, but don’t let it add emotional weight to your life burden. Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and acceptance of the past. The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to make change. We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in. So while I don’t believe the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as the core of Jesus’ teachings. To me Easter is a reminder of the power and good that forgiveness brings.
Don Henley’s Heart of the Matter has always been one of my favorites. I especially like the lines
“These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness, how can love survive in such a graceless age
Ah, trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill I guess
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they’ve let you done, you know they’ve hurt your pride
You gotta put it all behind you because life goes on, you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside
Been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets week and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…”
William James gave shape to a philosophy that would be known as pragmatism, a kind of “grown up” version of Nietzsche’s perspectivism. At base pragmatism recognizes that truth claims are human constructs, tools that we use to manipulate and navigate our world.
This rejects the idea that truth is somehow a copy of reality — that we can have a proposition or claim that mirrors the way the world is. The world is not language. Language is a human construct designed to allow us to interpret sensation and experience. We communicate our experience through language, meaning that linguistic claims reflect the brain’s effort to impose order and understanding on the world we experience.
Linguistic claims therefore cannot be said to able to convey any kind of absolute truth. Some contain definitional truths — 5 is defined as a numeric quantity that comes from adding, say 4 plus 1. We have constructed a useful truth claim that works. The weirdness of quantum mechanics is often denied by those who do not want the kind of bizarre paradoxical reality that the theory implies – some want to believe in a clear mechanical like order. But it works — and so it is accepted as truth.
When one moves away from linguistic definitional constructs to efforts to understand whether humans have free will, is there a God, is a materialist or spiritual understanding of reality correct, or what principles should guide us, we lack the linguistic clarity of mathematical definitions. Instead multiple competing discursive interpretations of reality can be constructed, many internally consistent and able to explain reality, but in contradiction with one another.
For James this was not a weakness of philosophy any more than the protestant reformation was a weakness of religion. Rather it was a humanistic liberation from philosophical absolutism. Just as the Roman Catholic church once claimed that religion could only be received through the Church, traditional philosophy looked to find one absolute truth that all should follow. Just as the reformation created the idea that the individual could have his or her own interpretation of scripture and relationship with God, pragmatism liberates individuals to determine their own approach to philosophy and truth.
For James this was good because he believed that your philosophical predilection was based less on how you rationally analyzed arguments and came to conclusions and more on temperament. “Tender minded” types tended to idealism and rationalism, trying to find principles that yield the one true philosophical system. Moralistic, idealistic and often unyielding, this often created an opening for spiritual and optimistic views on life and nature. Their views might not correspond to reality as they experience it now, but these people believe there is a deeper truth. Tender minded folk can take solace in that, and the fact they do understand truth, even if the world does not.
Tough minded people, on the other hand, tended towards realism, cynicism, skepticism and materialism. This yields a secular, empiricist world view, but one often cold, devoid of hope and pessimistic about the human condition. Both world views can be held, and each can interpret reality consistently and logically – yet each yields a very different view on life. Tender minded types build systems which seem to operate on logical core principles, tough minded folk are positivists and pluralists who question the very existence of core principles or the applicability of theoretical systems.
Pragmatism in that sense tells people that rather than try to figure out what is right (since that answer will come more from your personality than anything about reality), understand what truth claims mean for you and then choose those which work best for you and your experience in the world. This does not mean “work best” in terms of getting what’s best for ones’ self at the expense of others. This means what “works best” in terms of value fulfillment — what kind of beliefs will yield a life that is more full and meaningful for each individual? Pragmatism is not simply an amoral approach to achieving ones’ desires.
James also focused on the mass public rather than specialized circles of philosophers. Specialized philosophers are just people who are very good at developing linguistic defenses of their particular take on reality, debating with others about which take is “right.” Not much is gained by the linguistic sophistication and logical complexity, except that the experts can feel superior with their own specialized jargon. That’s not useful philosophy, that’s just playing intellectual games. Useful philosophy must be accessible to any educated person, meaning James’ books and lectures were far more interesting and popular than those of the “professional” philosophers.
For James different beliefs mean different things. If you believe in a spiritual approach to reality there is hope — there is meaning beyond the material. For a materialist there is hopelessness — no matter what one achieves all will be demolished someday, the sun will explode all we know will be forgotten. There is at base an essential meaninglessness to existence. If you believe in free will there is a chance to improve the world; if you are a determinist all is as it must be, also a kind of hopelessness.
All these beliefs are possible — you can interpret reality to fit any of them. Which you choose leads to certain conclusions. Choose that which fits your temperament and intuition. Go with it. But don’t expect others to share the same view.
The pragmatist at base is about liberty — we are all free to choose how to look at reality and how to understand it. There is no “right” answer that we should have. That would be a kind of totalitarianism. Those who think they have the “true” ideology will usually think that all should act in accord to what they see as the “truth.” These are the equivalent of intellectual despots. They think they have the right answer and condemn those who don’t think properly. Since humans are fallible and the idea that one fallible human has somehow come up with the absolute truth is the height of arrogance and irrationality; a philosophical absolutist is a kind of intellectual Stalinist. You can have your truth, but don’t pretend that it should be my truth.
Which means that the fundamental principles behind pragmatism are liberty and tolerance. If there is no absolute truth — if truth is just a human constructed tool to use in the world — then dogmatism and intolerance are wrong. They are wrong because they don’t work, they impede value fulfillment and the ability of people to make free choices about what to believe and how to act in the world. Truth claims are all simply interpretations of reality, human linguistic constructs that can’t be measured against the world to see if they are ‘accurate.’ The world is not a linguistic construct. Constructs are things we create, and are necessarily subjective and interpretivistic. They are tools which can be judged only by how they work for each individual, how they allow value fulfillment and the ability to make sense of the world.
The claim that this necessitates tolerance and liberty is therefore not a claim of absolute truth, but a proposition based on the belief that dogmatism and absolutism are not only indefensible (no philosophy can prove itself true, since its truth is based on contingent definitions and assumptions), but yield a result that doesn’t work – it prevents value fulfillment and individual liberty. The truth of this claim is not one that is asserted as a logical and necessarily truth, but has to be championed as a political and chosen truth: seeing the world this way is preferable to people than looking for some sort of “answer key.” It is a normative belief that liberty trumps dogmatism and orthodoxy.
So pragmatism is, at base, the actualization of the principles of liberty and tolerance. It is the quintessential American philosophy, justifying our belief in democracy and pluralism, similar to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, but more optimistic and positive. It appears relativistic, but rests on a key insight: embracing subjectivity is to embrace freedom, to strive for objective truth is to risk tyranny.
Rawstory reports on how one State Senator put in an “every sperm is sacred” amendment proposal to a controversial “personhood” bill in Oklahoma that would make all forms of abortion and some forms of birth control illegal.
The above Monty Python classic song, from the film The Meaning of Life exemplifies why I find arguments opposing contraception and abortion to be so weak.
If one really believed that all human life, even very early stages, was sacred and not to be interfered with, then one would have to question any sort of non-pregnancy related use of male ejaculation. Masturbation, anal sex, and even sex when a woman is not likely ovulating is questionable. One could also argue that women are obligated to have sex when they are ovulating because not to do so does not give the egg a chance to grow. Indeed, birth control during ovulation would be a clear denial of the chance of life.
The idea that abortion or contraception interferes with God’s will is utterly absurd. Humans do all sorts of things ranging from mass murders, wars and genocides to bad diets and dangerous sports. If those things don’t hamper God, not having a baby isn’t going to be some kind of disaster.
The claim that human life is inherently valuable is also a canard. Consider: why do we choose to consider human life valuable? It can’t be valuable just because cells with human DNA are reproducing and creating the building blocks for a later human birth. There is nothing inherently different about those cells than any reproducing cells of any creature, except that given time they will become something else. Moreover, in terms of feeling, intelligence, and capacity to endure pain, the born creatures we slaughter and devour are more like us than early stage human fetuses.
So when someone gets indignant about how abortion is murder, I simply shake my head and think “their imagination is running wild.” The cells that get aborted are no more human or inherently valuable than any creatures early cells. One can imagine a child, a baby, and think about what it could achieve and say that this is being ruthlessly stifled. The same when an ovulating female gives her partner a condom to wear before sex. Or when that same woman chooses not to have sex.
Life is valuable because we choose to value it. Humans have value because they have emotions and thoughts, we can empathize and imagine what it would be like if it was ourselves being killed and not another. Humans ban murder because they want to live in peace, and murder creates threats to our existence. We choose to have a world with stable social systems, customs, traditions and laws.
Abortion and contraception do not kill or harm anything that is truly human, at least in the sense of what it is about being human that causes us to consider human life valuable. The fact that cells can become humans does not alter that fact.
Forcing women to keep a pregnancy to full term or not to use birth control is a violent and repressive form of control, one that does real harm to human dignity and value. Real existing humans are repressed in such cases, and often psychologically abused in order to be made to feel guilty about their choice.
I realize that religious and philosophical reasons many people disagree strongly with what I wrote. I can accept that and respect the difference of opinion. I also find the arguments against abortion when the child is viable outside the womb to be persuasive for a variety of reasons. But the radical anti-abortion argument just seems inherently weak.
Today there is snow on the ground. Normally that would be a matter of course statement in the foothills of western Maine this late in December. The local ski slope would be gearing up for winter break skiers and we’d pity all those in the south who don’t enjoy a white Christmas. Alas, yesterday the ground was still dry, a small dash of snow over Thanksgiving weekend long forgotten. But now it is looking like Christmas! It won’t be enough for skiing, but it’s a start.
I want to wish everyone who stops by this site a wonderful Christmas. Yet as we settle in to celebrate, there is a nagging question of what Christmas is really about. The easy answer is that it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s partially true. Early Christians choose this as their holiday in order to coopt the traditional Winter Solstice holidays everyone else was celebrating. Even traditions ranging from Christmas trees to mistletoe pre-existed the holiday’s Christian identity.
Therefore, while Christians are on solid ground proclaiming Jesus is the “reason for the season” in their eyes, non-Christians don’t have to wash their hands of the holiday, or even phrases like “Merry Christmas.” This time of the year remains a kind of universal holiday, celebrating as days start to grow longer and humans find joy in the depths of winter.
Moreover, the Christian/Christmas values of love, peace, joy, forgiveness are universal. The magic of the season transcends theological dogma and even whether or not one believes in Jesus, Muhammad, Hussein, Buddha, the Brahman of Hinduism, or a personal sense of spirituality that defies organized belief.
I put myself in that last category. I’ve long believed that human religions tell more about the cultural state of a society than about God and the meaning of life. Individual beliefs about God usually reflect that person’s temperment. Humans create God in their own image, a strict stern man sees a judgmental, harsh God. A loving caring man sees God as being primarily about forgiveness and inclusivity. A woman focused on the material world sees God helping those who help themselves. A woman immersed in charity work sees God as wanting us to care for the least in disregard of material success.
That doesn’t mean religion is meaningless. There are reasons why books like the Koran, the Bible, the sayings of Buddha, and the Upanishads are compelling across time. The same is true for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or great poets such as Petrarch and Dante. In various ways ideas that cut to the core of who and what we are as humans have staying power. They touch something inside our souls and remind us that we are part of a world far more mysterious and meaningful than our senses and minds can comprehend.
As we trudge through our daily routine who cannot help but be inspired by the parables of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of the Buddha, and the power of ideas of love, faith and joy? Anyone who has chosen to forgive rather than hold a grudge, or show friendship rather than disdain to an adversary, cannot help but attest to the power of forgiveness. One even pities a person locked in negative, mean spirited behavior. The co-worker that stabbed you in the back becomes less someone whose actions arouse anger and drive you to revenge than a poor pathetic fool sacrificing principle for short term temporary gain.
Moreover, the longer I live the more I believe in some form of karma. What comes around seems to go around, though in ways that aren’t materially obvious. Someone who steals $100 may not lose $100 later, but at some level the spiritual cost of the act is extracted. I also am a firm believer in the power and ubiquity of coincidence. Often small, sometimes dramatic, I do not believe they are random. There is a greater force at work in our lives than material cause and effect or quantum probability.
And this brings me back to Christmas. If “Christian” was something one could be by believing the basic principles of ethical behavior, I could be called one. If it means someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God who died for my sins and by believing in him I’d be saved, I’m not one. But I still claim the right to regard Christmas as my holiday too, including religious carols, long standing traditions, and the core values of peace, joy, love, tranquility, forgiveness, and a sense of awe at the majesty of a world whose true depth and meaning I cannot more than slightly glimpse.
In so doing I respect Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who celebrate their holidays with religious reverence. I say “Merry Christmas” to a Christian with knowledge of what it means to them, just as saying “Happy Hanukkah” has particular meaning to a Jew. But I also recognize that Christmas has become more than just a religious holiday, but a part of our culture, with values that transcend religion.
To the business woman it may be a secular holiday where as much as 90% of a year’s profits are earned in some businesses. To the atheist it might be a time to fight organized religion, battling nativity scenes on public property and religious songs in schools. I disagree with each; this isn’t a time to either fight against or be threatened by religion. One can acknowledge the role of Christianity in our history and culture even if one doesn’t believe. The nativity scene is still beautiful and powerful.
And yes, this is an important season for the economy and for material prosperity. But to the extent that drowns out the values being celebrated, as shoppers fight each other for the last of an item or keep lists of who and what they received in order to reward the generous and punish the stingy, it cheapens the holiday. People getting up in arms over the innocuous greeting of “happy holidays” should focus on how materialism undercuts the spirit of the season.
So Merry Christmas! I wish everyone love, peace, joy, and happiness this week and beyond!