Archive for category Religion

The Anachronistic Candidate


Hearing Rick Santorum talk about contraception, religion, the separation of church and state, and culture in general I sometimes get the impression he was born in the wrong century.   For all the indignation and anger from women’s groups, gay organizations, and others incensed by his insensitivity, I’m struck by the fact he makes a cogent and logical argument — by 19th Century standards.

I don’t mean that as an insult either.    It’s just he’s fighting a culture war that has already been lost, and there’s not much chance to go back and refight it.    He’s channeling Pope Pius IX, who put forth the “Syllabus of Errors of the Modern World” – “the scourge of liberalism” in 1864.

Consider the following quotes from Santorum, the first threefrom this campaign:

1.   “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life. We have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible. But, nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.”

2.  “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

3.  “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American Left who hates Christendom. … What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers. What we’re talking about are core American values.”

4.  “In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don’t both need to. … What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else — or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon — find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism.”  (His 2005 book It Takes a Family)

5.  “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. … That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.” (AP 2003)

The worst quote in my opinion is number 3 – defending the crusades.   That’s historically wrong and given the times we’re in politically stupid.    Will he also defend Pope Alexander VI?

Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, was a vicious, greedy and promiscuous pontiff

Quote one arouses anger and disdain from most women who can’t imagine the violence of rape followed by being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then being responsible for the child after birth.  Even most anti-abortion women don’t think that way.   Yet it makes sense in the traditional Catholic world view about the sanctity of life being paramount.  The “rape baby” is a life, and killing it is wrong in that line of thinking.

Quote two says the only purpose of sex is reproduction (the ‘every sperm is sacred’ creed) and that with contraception immorality and lust abound without consequence.   To most of us that sounds hyper-prudish.    Most people think there isn’t anything really wrong with premarital sex; adultery and cheating are bad less because of the sex and more because of the betrayal and dishonesty.   But before the sexual revolution starting in the 60’s, that kind of moralism was common. People didn’t live to those ideals, but they at least felt they had to pretend to.

Quote four seems horribly sexist.   The idea women should stay home and men go to work reeks of the kind of family oppression women suffered for centuries.  He’s also wrong about his history.  The idea that children should be isolated to grow up with a parent staying in the household is a western invention.  Throughout history villagers, male and female, had to work to survive, and children in the villages were cared for by a group of women/mothers.   Day care is more natural to humans historically than isolation in the family unit.  By the 19th century male dominated society had become the norm, and women were expected to stay home and raise kids – in German Kinder, Kueche und Kirche – children, kitchen and church.    It’s only been in the last fifty years that women have started to achieve real equality in the work place — Santorum’s quote is anachronistic and sexist, yet until recently reflected what most people saw as normal and natural.

Quote five on gay marriage is similar.   Sex not in line with normal social norms was weird, perverse, and scary.   Two men having sex, sex with pigs or chickens, polygamy, that all got lumped together as sexual perversions.   The cultural shift on the issue of homosexual rights and gay marriage has been dramatic over the last fifty years, and very evident if you talk to young people today.   Young conservatives are not as closed on this as their elders – the culture has changed.

Pope Pius IX’s argument was that liberalism (at that time that meant democracy and free market capitalism) was destroying cultural norms, traditions, and the moral authority of the Church.   It would bring decadence, perversion, atheism, and nihilism.   Without something strong to believe in, without the moral authority of God through the Church, he argued, the material world and reason can give no sense of moral purpose – anything goes.   That would be chaos, anarchy, and ultimately destruction.

When you look at Santorum’s defense of his statements, it’s clear that’s what he’s seeing.   His world view reflects that of Pius IX, it’s not just petty bigotry against gays and women, but a principled (if misguided) view on the nature of society and morality.

But Pius lost that war.   He was right in some ways, of course.   Without tradition and a strong sense of Church authority  humans have done horrid things — communism, the holocaust, etc.    I myself have been a critic of runaway materialism, consumerism and a sacrifice of the spiritual for a mundane and ultimately dissatisfying materialist notion of the meaning of life.  Pius IX correctly saw the dangers and the potential emptiness that a path of individualism and radical freedom would lead to.

But that’s the path we took.   Most of us don’t want to go back.    Yes, there are real challenges in dealing with uncertainty, no clear guidelines to truth, and the lack of the social cohesion and community that once protected our mental health and self-esteem.   We’ve chosen a path that is psychologically, politically and spiritually very difficult.   We choose the path of freedom and knowledge, we partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and reason.

We can’t go back.   The world of Pius IX and by extension Santorum is gone.   I don’t believe Santorum is psychologically a bigot or homophobe, I think he’s reflecting a set of traditional beliefs that had such things embedded within them.    We had to work to show that those things were wrong and did harm to people, Santorum never learned that lesson.

This has been a weird political year.  There’s something surreal about such an anachronistic yet apparently honest and principled politician making it to this level in the year 2012.   It’s symbolic of the nostalgia that seems to have gripped the Republican party as it realizes the country has undergone radical cultural and demographic shifts in the past decades.   He will fade; he has to.    But what does it say about the state of the GOP that he can rise to such prominence, even with values so contrary to the social progress made in the last century and a half?


Happy Christmas!

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!


Disgusting Islamophobia

TLC is doing a reality show called American Muslim,  following five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan.   The show follows average Muslims living every day lives as cops, coaches and consumers — typical Americans.

Not for the Islamophobes!   Islamophobia is similar to the anti-semitism of the Nazi party in Germany before World War II.  It wants to posit Muslims as a different kind of people, not truly American – just as Jews were not truly German to the anti-semites.   They want to spread myths about Islam, making it sound like Sharia law is always some kind of horrific set of barbarian practices, that women are treated horribly, and every Muslim secretly wants the Taliban to come to power.

Not everyone who is concerned about Islamic extremism is an Islamophobe.   Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of Islam, usually present when people become convinced that Islam is an inherently anti-western anti-modern religion that can never co-exist with Western values.   Such a view is absurd when taking into account the history of Islam and the reality of Islam in America (or Europe).     Yes, there are extremist and irrational Muslims too — and it’s right to oppose them, and when a filmmaker is killed in the Netherlands or a terror act occurs in London, the religious element has to be dealt with openly and clearly.

However, true Islamophobia is as dangerous as anti-semitism was in Germany in the 20s and 30s and must be fought just as fervently as any of us would fight anti-semitism if we were transported to Germany in 1930.   It is the stuff of vile bigotry, a kind of evil that is fundamentally anti-American and ignorant.   Alas, it still has clout.

The big retail chain Lowe’s caved to pressure from an Nazi Islamophobic organization called “The Florida Family Association.”    Like the Nazis, this group’s irrational fear and hatred is not limited to Muslims, they are also homophobic, warning of a gay and Muslim “agenda”.  From their website:   “TLC’s “All-American Muslim” is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values. ”

Get that – seeing Muslims as average Americans is dangerous because it hides the “Islamic agenda.”   Just like how the Jewish agenda in Germany was put forth when Jews were seen as normal shopkeepers, scientists and artists.   It is morally equivalent and Lowe’s is doing the moral equivalent of caving to Nazi pressure.   According to the neo-fascist website for the Florida Family Association, Sweet-n-Low is also withholding sponsorship, as is Home Depot.

One might be tempted to cut them some slack because they are a Christian organization.  But the world view they espouse does not differ much from any fascist world view.   Hitler said he was fighting to save Germany from anti-German elements — not just Jews, but liberals, socialists, pacifists, internationalists and homosexuals, all of whom stood against traditional German values.   Fascists portray themselves as promoting strength, virtue, and wholesomeness.   They defend their violence as saying it is the true strong German (or, in the case of this group they’d say American or Christian) is unafraid to speak the truth about threats to society and willing to do what is necessary to counter them.  Violence and intolerance is to them a virtue.

For Hitler the battle in the 20s was a culture war for Germany’s soul, promoting fear of the diversity emerging in the 20th Century in order to get people to embrace what was sold as a return to strong German values.   The world view of this “Florida Family Association” is similar.  They want to protect American culture from Muslims, gays, liberals, and secular humanists.   The core of their ideology is fear of difference, and even though they are not yet espousing violence, once a group is defined as a danger to society and something different and even evil, the line to violence is much easier to cross.

But even if it doesn’t go as far as Nazism did, such fear-based bigotry is fundamentally anti-American and enables discrimination, prejudice and abuse against others.  It is fear of people based on the essence of who they are — their faith, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity.  As such it’s an anti-human ideology, one that must be countered.

The best way to do that is to contact Lowes, Home Depot, and Sweet and Low — and whoever else refuses to advertise on that show.   Tell them that their support of an anti-American boycott is despicable and unless their policy changes you’ll shop elsewhere.  Moreover, one should speak out and condemn this kind of organization and the fear that underlies its mode of operation.  Having studied German history in the 20s and 30s, I know that apathy — or a belief ‘well, they’re a bit extreme but they have a point’ — is extremely dangerous.   Finally, watch the TLC show and support advertisers who don’t cave to extremist pressure.

Most importantly, however, is in our every day life to support tolerance and mutual respect for all people.   Disrespect and opposition should be based on actions people take, not who they are or even what they believe.   This includes groups like the Florida Family Association.

One has to focus on the specific actions taken by that group, and not use their actions as an excuse to be bigoted against Christians or even those whose personal belief system is one that does not support Islam, gay marriage or homosexuality.  There is room for all kinds of beliefs in this country, and we can’t respond to bigotry with bigotry in return — that simply reinforces and deepens the intensity of bigotry.   Instead the focus has to be on countering their message and offering a positive alternative.

We have come a long way in ten years.   The country understands and accepts Islam far better now than it did then, and groups like this are on the periphery.   Let’s keep it that way.


On a Roller Coaster

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

In our honors course we discussed a few intriguing minds over the last week.   Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza and Blaise Pascal were to of the most fascinating, each dealing with the power of the unleashing of human reason in the 1600s alongside the loss of authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Baruch "Benedict" Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza (1632-77) was a determinist and philosophical monist, who died when he was only 45.   Pascal (1623 – 1662)  was a fideist and Jansenist who gave up his amazing scientific career at a young age to devout himself to religion.  He died when he was only 39.   They both lost their mothers when they were young, both lived in ill health, both were on the margins of their religion (Spinoza rejected by the Jewish community while Pascal’s Jansenism was ultimately branded heretical by the Pope).

Though each were responding to the Meditations of Rene Descartes, they went in different directions.   Spinoza maintained a strong rationalism, even while rejecting Descartes dualism of mind and spirit.  Pascal was the ultimate skeptic, noting that even contradiction did not prove something untrue (nor did lack of contradiction indicate truth).

Pascal without a doubt had the more impressive intellect.   His early scientific discoveries are amazing.   He is said to have invented the first computer, pioneered work in probability (he lived in a community where gambling was very popular), and once when we had an energy audit at our house the auditor measured air pressure in “Pascals” — a remnant from his early work on barometrics.  There is even a computer language named in his honor.

Ultimately he sacrificed his scientific career to use his intellect to use reason to destroy reason.   He was one of the first who understood that reason itself cannot be a path to truth and that ultimately it could undercut any argument.   He seemed to sense that Christianity’s embrace of reason might come to haunt it later.    He took Descartes skepticism but, while Descartes escaped it through his “first principle” (cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am), Pascal was unconvinced.   Overwhelmed by the absurdity of life, the superstition and pettiness of human nature, he decided that the only way to truth was through the heart.

Consider his rejection of the principle of contradiction.   That seems straight forward, if two things are in contradiction one of the two cannot be true.  I cannot be both human and not-human.  But Pascal’s skepticism extended to even the observations and logic that allows such linguistic constructions to be built.   You can never know through reason, reason devours itself.   But, he argued, through God’s grace you can know in your heart God’s love, and that will give one the perspective and understanding to live in an absurd world.   The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.  Fideism was faith, and faith alone, with a commitment to an Augustinian notion of grace.

Spinoza, on the other hand, rejected the notion that there was anything different about mind/spirit and body, and saw reality as being all the same stuff, positing a deterministic world decades before Newton’s physics provided the clockwork universe (though keeping with Descartes’ view on universal laws.)    Perhaps an atheist or maybe a pantheist, Spinoza saw of all reality reflecting God’s will unfolding by necessity in a path already perfect and predetermined.   Free will is an illusion; reality is.

Good and evil become relative for Spinoza, something is only good or bad relative to your experience of it; as part of the whole neither good nor evil exist, all is perfection.   Humans can drive themselves crazy worrying about what will happen next, what their life has in store, or fretting over some mistake or threat.   But all of that is pointless, nothing can be changed.   Perhaps the only thing one can do is train oneself not to be shaken or disquieted by how reality is unfolding; one must just accept it with the knowledge that it is as it must be.

It strikes me that the two very different philosophies have one thing in common: they want to make the ride of life more bearable.   For each, life is like a roller coaster.   For Spinoza it’s a ride that you cannot alter.  After you’re strapped in and the roller coaster starts going up the first hill, there is no way you can change your experience.   Every curve, dip and loop is pre-determined, you cannot stand, move or do anything until the ride stops.   What you can do is enjoy the ride, scream, be scared, hate the ride, be mad, or whatever — all that you control is how you respond.   For Spinoza life is like that, to experience life to the fullest one must accept it is as it must be.

Pascal sees the absurdity of human existence in the tumultuous 1600s, as well as the roller coaster ride of reason.   Reason can prove anything, given the right assumption and definition.   Yet it can destroy any proposition, no truth claim can be made in the abstract through reason; all empirical claims can be questioned.   Skepticism may annoy philosophers, but it’s powerful, especially if one extends it to being skeptical of even skepticism itself!

So absurd, humans using this tool “reason” to try to figure life out, yearning for the “right answer,” or a “first principle” upon which to build some edifice of knowledge.   Doomed to fail or be locked in delusion, the absurdity of the whole effort overwhelms Pascal who decided that faith alone is the key.   God’s grace saves us from this trap, the heart can understand clearly what the head cannot comprehend.   Faith provides meaning where reason is helpless.

It’s easy to dismiss these brilliant thinkers now.   Quantum mechanics throws Spinoza’s determinism for a loop (though it creates a capacity for free will to exist within Spinoza’s framework — we may be playing out one path in a pre-determined set of possible paths).    Pascal’s faith in God can be seen as seeking emotional solace.   Moreover Pascal’s famous wager (a metaphor used because of all the gamblers of his era) is thrown a curve by the existence of many potential Gods to believe in.

Yet the roller coaster ride is still here.   Pascal criticized the way people lived through distractions, afraid of asking the question “who am I” and “why am I here.”   He certainly would recognize the same tendency in our modern hectic consumer society where distraction is a way of life.    Looking beyond the distractions and asking those questions leads many to the same kind of solution Pascal embraced: faith.   It may not always be Christian faith, but its a belief in the heart that life matters.

It’s a shame that we so rarely take the time to think about our intellectual history and how philosophers and thinkers handled the changes that have been sweeping western civilization for a millennium, and which now confront other cultures and peoples.  Understanding Pascal and Spinoza — and others — gives us insight on core dilemmas we still face, and how people worked through them in the past.  It won’t answer the timeless questions, but will help us get insight into various ways the nature of our world can be understood.  It is enriching and enlightening.


No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.


Martin Luther’s Impact

This is another post inspired by my honors first year seminar, “Explorations of the Western Canon.”  So far we’ve engaged the “age of religion” from Augustine to Aquinas, as well as humanism such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Erasmus.    The Church reconciled the challenge from Aristotle by making him an authority, and embracing “faith and reason.”   Yet by making the material world now something worthy of consideration, they opened a Pandora’s box.

Nowhere was this more true in Italy.   Thanks to double entry bookkeeping and connections across the continent, the Medici family in Florence became the bankers to Europe, bringing lots of money into an already prosperous Florence, Italy.   With this money came a shift towards realism.   Rediscovering the classics led people to desire the good things – better clothes, homes and food.  Life increasingly became defined by the material rather than the spiritual, humanism gave way to the realism of scholars such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527).

The Church fell into this head first.   After a crisis of a divided papacy in the 1300s, the Church by the 1400s was corrupt, led often by Popes who killed rivals, had illegitimate children, and cared little about the Christian faith.   As corruption grew, disagreements with Christians north in the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” intensified.   The pious in the north saw what was happening in Rome, bristled at efforts to control them, and started to question whether or not devotion to God required devotion to the Church.

By 1517 this was a powderkeg.   Ideas from people like the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who wanted to reform the church (but would oppose breaking from it) could be passed along more easily than ever, thanks to the printing press.   Discontent grew, especially as Rome undertook a major new project: to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica and have earthly splendor to rival it’s claim of spiritual authority.   Should not the center of God’s home on earth demonstrate that glory with the most spectacular structures in the world?

That rebuilding gives us what we see today when we visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s — a grand cathedral, an ornate square, and a sense of majesty that overwhelms both the faithful and non-Catholics.   Yet building this monument to the Church and papal authority was not cheap.   They had to outshine every other cathedral and square in Europe; this had to be the centerpiece of western civilization.   The church had to raise money.

Luckily the printing press helped.  The Pope had often given something called an ‘indulgence’ to people who had done great favors for the church.  It amounted to time off from purgatory, the place where you worked off your sins before being admitted to heaven.   To the average materialist of the era, this meant license to sin a bit — pay the church and you can break God’s laws, at least a little.

Up in the more pious north in the German town of Wittenberg, an Old Testament Professor at the Church University was appalled at the practice, especially when an unscrupulous guy by the name of Tetzel came with a printing press ready to raise money for the Church (and take his own middle man’s share).

This professor, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), was not your average monk.   Not only was he devout, but he lived in constant terror that he wasn’t really saved.   He feared that his belief was motivated by fear rather than love, and this would lead God to hate him.  He would go to confession sometimes ten or more times a day (no doubt irritating some of his colleagues).   When he heard what Tetzel and the Church were doing he was enraged.  If people think they can buy a right to sin they are likely damning themselves by showing disdain for God.  The Church was leading the faithful to Satan, he believed.

Angered, he wrote a list of 95 complaints against the Church, in Latin, and on October 31, 1517 hung them on the equivalent of the university bulletin board — the church door.   At that time he didn’t plan to lead a revolt, but after some colleagues took his complaints, translated them to German, and then used the printing press to spread them, the powderkeg exploded.   This gave people the rationale to break with the political authority of the church.

It also solved Luther’s crisis of faith.   When the church came back and demanded he recant and threaten excommunication (a threat they made good on), Luther had a revelation.   God said he was saved if he believed; he should trust God’s word.   The Church had made it difficult to see that by its rules, rituals and claim to mediate between man and God.   For Luther, one could have a personal connection to God.   For him this made the Pope the anti-Christ, trying to intervene in his relationship with Christ.

Luther thus stepped up his attacks on the Church and became the leader of a revolt against over a millennium of Roman Catholic authority.   Others such as John Calvin (1509-1564) would develop other alternatives to papal authority as the protestants (those protesting Church authority) rose.   Europe would be enmeshed in war and chaos for the next 130 years as the reformation spread, people sided either against or for the Church, and the Church undertook a major effort to reform itself and end the corruption that helped motivate the revolt.

When the dust settled in 1648 Europe entered a new era.   They created a new political entity, the sovereign state, to replace the old authority structure relying on tradition and the church.   The political power of the church collapsed.  Even in places remaining loyal to the Church, like France, Spain and the Hapsburg empire in Austria, political power was now clearly in the hands of local rulers.    The Church was increasingly relegated to attend to spiritual rather than material issues in a Europe becoming less spiritual as time passed.

Martin Luther no more caused the reformation than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused World War I.   His actions ignited a powderkeg that would have gone off sooner or later — dissent and dissatisfaction with Rome had reached a point that the system was doomed.   Luther happened to provide the spark.

This also marked the end of an era.   It was not only the end of Catholic dominance in the West, but also of the marriage of faith and humanism exemplified by Petrarch, Dante and even Erasmus.    While Luther himself distrusted reason and preached a more Augustinian emphasis on faith, the lack of a clear authority opened up paths to question knowledge about the world without risking heresy.   During the wars of reformation Aristotelian scholasticism would give way to Francis Bacon’s scientific method (1608), Galileo would challenge the Church’s sole capacity to interpret scripture (1615 – letter to Grand Duchess Christina), and we would move from the age of faith to the age of reason.   The world would never be the same.


Petrarch and Augustine

My honors course for first year students (HON 101: Explorations of The Western Canon) is emerging as one of the most enjoyable courses I’ve ever taught.   I’m teaching it as an intellectual history course, delving into how the civilization known as “the West” came to be what it is today.   We don’t spend a lot of time on Plato and Aristotle and jump instead to Plotinus, Augustine, and the Church.  In fact in these first weeks of class you’d think we were in a religious setting there is so much talk about God and faith.

That is important — you can’t understand the West without understanding the religion that defined it for over 1000 years.   Although it sounds political incorrect, western civilization is a Christian culture.    This doesn’t mean people are all devout Christians, only that the history of and development of the Christian faith has done more to shape the West than anything else.   Even a radical atheist has cultural views and values that come from Christianity, it’s embedded in our culture.

We’re currently on the fascinating period at the end of the medieval age when Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotelian thought and logic into church theology — faith and reason became the motto of  the Church.    This shifted focus away from the Augustinian view that the material world was essentially worthless.   To Augustine all that mattered were spiritual issues and preparation for the afterlife.    Trying to succeed or progress in this world was meaningless and even dangerous — you could become addicted to ‘things of the flesh’ (wealth, power, material comforts) and lose sight of what brings true happiness.  Augustine’s view defined the early Church and helps explain why  for hundreds of years Europeans did not progress.  Tradition and custom defined the proper way to behave, and material progress was not a goal but in fact something to avoid.

Aquinas discovered Aristotle through the work of Islamic rationalist philosophers, especially Avicenna and Averroes.   But it wasn’t just Aquinas — Aristotle’s works were spreading through Europe among intellectuals, causing a potential challenge to church authority.   Aquinas is important because he provided the framework for the Church to adapt to the change and accept Aristotle’s ideas.   Since taking Aristotle too seriously would mean that church authority could be called into question, the church decided to make Aristotle an authority about material matters.   Aristotelian scholasticism became the academic norm.     Aristotle’s logic would be used to examine and prove facts already known to be true rather than to question authority.

The Italian poet and philosopher Petrarch is often called the ‘father of humanism.’  Living from 1304 to 1374, his writings explored human emotions, driven by his muse, the ever intangible Laura.   Yet he had one foot in the new humanistic world inspired by re-discovering old Roman and Greek literature, and one in the medieval world of Augustinian asceticism.   The class read some of Petrarch’s letters to the Romans like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca, expressing delight and admiration at the beauty of their ideas and literature.  They opened up a new world to Petrarch, one that moved him and filled him with awe.   He couldn’t really communicate with them, but the letters allowed him to transcend the centuries with his imagination.

Yet he also carried with him a copy of Augustine’s confessions.   We read a conversation Petrarch imagined between himself and Augustine as he pondered deep in his soul the allure of humanist love and Augustine’s insistence that only the spiritual mattered.   When Petrarch defends interest in the material side of life — why would we be in a material world if God did not mean for us to partake of it — he imagines this response from Augustine:

“O man, little in yourself, and of little wisdom!  Do you, then, dream that you shall enjoy every pleasure in heaven and earth, and everything will turn out fortunate and prosperous for you always and everywhere?  But that delusion has betrayed thousands of men thousands of times, and has sunk into hell a countless host of souls.  Thinking to have one foot on earth and one in heaven, they could neither stand her below nor mount on high.”

From Augustine comes the message that earthly delights and material goods cannot bring happiness.  Humans delude themselves in pursuit of them, addicted to a desire for more pleasure, more power and more wealth.    People believe that they can “have it all,” succeed at all times, and thus set themselves up for despair and failure.  The deeper one falls into the material world, the more trapped one becomes, addicted to the pleasures, pains and competitions of the day, losing sight of the soul’s only path to real happiness — for Petrarch and Augustine, that would be through the Christian God.

Yet Petrarch cannot simply embrace Augustine’s rejection of earthly matters.   He laments in his letters to the ancient Romans the manner in which people pursue silver and gold rather than the beauty of literature and philosophy.   There is something profound in the human experience, even if one agrees that materialism alone can be dangerous and addictive.

In class we discussed what Augustine and Petrarch might think if they were to visit the 21st century.   We talked about how they might feel sorry of the people of this age, seeing us wholly addicted to material pursuits, suffering the highest rate of depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and discontent in history — even as we are the most prosperous.   To them we’d given up the true path to happiness and instead embraced delusion.  Even religious folk tend to treat their faith as a sidelight, their material pursuits dominate their actions.  The competing forces in Petrarch’s soul are still relevant almost 800 years later.

Yet Petrarch also suggests a solution: appreciation of true beauty, such as poetry, literature, art or the highest of human emotions.   There is joy and beautify in friendship, love, companionship and human experience.   That is more real than collecting material possessions or winning a competition.   And while devout faith in a religion may be impossible for many of us (including myself), an openness to the spiritual gives perspective.  Our lives are just a tiny speck in the expanse of time.   Everything we touch, everything we do, all that we take seriously fades.   What seems profoundly important now may be forgotten next week.  If we rely on the material world for our joy or for meaning we will be disappointed because by nature the material world is transitory.

Many of Augustine’s ideas came from Plotinus, whose neo-Platonism he adapted to Christian theology.   Plotinus had a purely intellectual view of spirituality, and we can still use our minds to contemplate deeper meaning and the purpose of existence.   Even if we don’t find answers that satisfy us the way Christianity satisfied Augustine, the intuition and perspective spiritual contemplation provides can make life joyful rather than painful.

It’s easy in the modern “we want it now” world of forward looking progress to think that we can ignore the past.   I hope in this course to help students appreciate that we can better understand ourselves and the nature of our cultural reality by looking back at those who came before, including the great humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca.   Knowledge can bring a richness and joy to life that material possessions can never provide.

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On Religion and Reason

I believe that existing organized religions are all culture products, expressions of a deep spiritual truth.

All religious faiths emerged in specific cultural and geographic contexts.   While many espouse universality, belief in them is usually an accident of birth.   Islam and Christianity spread farther because they emerged from more violent cultures.   The Christian West colonized the world and used its religion as a rationale for destroying indigenous religions and exploiting colonies for resources.    Muslim leaders and later the Ottoman Empire used Islam as a rationale for conquering northern Africa, the Arab world and parts of Europe.   Each might point to their growth as a sign that they are favored by God, but that’s a little obscene: God favors violent conquerors?

Buddhism and Hinduism claim universality with a kind of caveat.   Hinduism seeks to understand the laws of the universe and claims that all of reality is ultimately indistinct from the Brahman, or supreme spirit.   Life is about ethics, livelihood, pleasure and freedom.    They lack a concept of heresy and thus are open to other expressions of belief.  There is only one God or ultimate spirit, but since we cannot fathom it, they express God in multiple forms.  This makes it appear polytheistic, but there is only one Brahman.   Buddhism sees desire and addiction to the material world as the source of misery, and tries to plot a path for liberation.

The fact of the matter is there is absolutely no objective reason to take any religion literally, and a plethora of reasons not to.  The only way one can hold on to a faith — especially the fundamentally exclusivist ones of Islam and Christianity — is to defy reason in favor of faith.   An example:  Christian fundamentalists who think Jesus is the only way to heaven and God will punish those who reject Jesus are in direct contradiction with the core values of their belief system.  A God of love and forgiveness would never act is such a cruel, arbitrary manner.

Yet religious belief remains powerful.     Deeply shared cultural beliefs are taken as “natural” and “normal” by people, and thus things contrary to those beliefs seem strange and wrong.   In the past it was women in the work place or blacks as equal to whites, now gay marraige is the classic case.  There is no reason-based rationale for opposing it, but culturally it seems to many to be weird and unnatural.

Religion is like that, people grow up with it permeating their culture and being taken as natural — it is a powerful psychological force.  There are also social reasons for people to stick with it — when ones’ family, community and life has been defined by religion, breaking from it could mean immense personal costs.  Often when people get doubts their response is to double down and dive deeper into the faith.

Beyond that, religious beliefs can be profoundly powerful for people who face crises or otherwise feel as if they are drifting in life.    Consider the conversion experience.  It is almost always a purely emotional affair — a sense of fulfillment and joy at accepting a power outside oneself, realizing that life has purpose and there is a plan that one can be part of.    Conversion unleashes joy at letting go of the pain of feeling tied down by the limits of human frailty and material reality.    For many, it is a vehicle for embracing a positive view of reality.

These are powerful because there is an element of truth in that experience.   Letting go of worries, fear, and feelings of inadequacy is necessary for happiness.   That’s the core message of Hinduism and Buddhism as well.   It’s hard for individuals to do that, it’s easy to get swept up by self-doubt, comparisons to others, wondering ‘what’s the point,” and thinking that others have it better.  One glimpses the insignificance of an individual existence in the grand scheme of things and feels down.   One looks to relationships, work, children for meaning and is disappointed.   Life becomes a series of distractions and a sense of dissatisfaction.

The only way out of that is to break away from the weight of material conditions and live each moment as it is.   One has to accept reality and not fret about what is outside ones’ control (which includes past mistakes and bad luck).   To do that requires reflection, self-honesty and confidence.  One also has to overcome the most profound fear of all — the fear of meaninglessness.  That fear drives modern humans to depression, addictions and sociopathic behaviors.   Letting go of fear is not easy in a world where magazines tell you how your life should be — where we’re told to live according to the fantasies of marketers.

Religion can be a short cut to that point.     If you use a God concept to create an entity that brushes that aside, it’s easier.  People then equate faith and connection to God with the removal of meaninglessness and as a vehicle to overcome fear.    At it’s best, it can create joyful lives, devout folk of various religious beliefs who take life as it comes with a sense of joy and understanding.  At its worst it can torment.   If one believes but is not able to translate that into a removal of fear, material discontent or even self-loathing, it can create powerful contradictions that do more harm than good.   Hence the religious life is a ‘fight of faith’ for Christians, the “higher jihad” for Muslims, and a difficult path requiring teachers for Hindus and Buddhists.

Reason can destroy religious teachings and dogmas but cannot destroy the core truths and values that underlie all great religions.   Therein lies the paradox.   Reason cannot prove or disprove statements about values, ethics and morality, but it can show particular stories about how the world operates to be non-sensical, contrary to reality, or extremely unlikely.   When a candidate for President says the world is only about 6000 years old, we realize he’s believing a myth, out of touch with science and reason.

But reason cannot give us what religion provides — a way to overcome fear, to see through the illusion of material worry and despair, and grasp higher values and a sense of meaning.    We need that.   Yet reason ultimately destroys religious belief.

Or does it?   What reason and evidence destroy is belief in a particular story or individual as the key to faith.   It can make it seem ridiculous to believe only Jesus is the path to heaven, or that Islam is the one true faith.  It can poke holes in Buddhist teachings and philosophy.   But reason doesn’t destroy the core power of religious faith – the power of the spirit to transcend the material.

In the debate between atheists and theists, both are right — atheists are right that religious dogmas are not credible or worthy of belief;  theists are right that reason cannot disprove religion and is itself an empty vessel:  a tool, not an answer.   While Hindus and Buddhists may claim their approach merges reason and religion (and in many ways it does), it is part of a culture that doesn’t translate well into western thought.

So where does that leave us?  Despite my rejection of organized religion, realizing the power they grant to individuals in overcoming the immense burden of life in the material world, especially in these times, I must respect those of sincere religious faith, those who don’t try to force others to live by their beliefs.    They often live with more meaning, ethics and value than atheists and materialists.

Ultimately, though, that isn’t going to be enough for society to deal with the dilemmas of the modern and post-modern world.   Reason is powerful.   It is a tool that humans underestimate.   We believe it liberates us, but it also can imprison us as we use it to justify and rationalize inhumane actions, or to dissect life and find it empty and meaningless.    Many embrace ideologies that they think reason provides, using them as ersatz religions to give their life meaning.   Devout Marxists or followers of Ayn Rand believe ultimately absurd ideologies in order to find a way out of the jungle of meaningless that reason provides.

My answer, pragmatic and for one wanting demonstrable truth unsatisfying, is to look at the values behind the great religions, and reflect on ones own emotional and spiritual self.   That can provide the capacity to break out of the chains of meaningless that materialism and reason can build, to overcome fear and find joy.   But this path also requires letting go.   To the reason-bound, it still requires a leap of faith, that there is something outside the material world — a spiritual essence — that we need for valuable lives.   To the religion-bound it would mean giving up a story and the existence of an authoritative set of teachings one simply believes in.  Religion still works for some, but is becoming increasing un-credible in the modern world.

One needs both:  mind and soul, reason and sentiment, rational thought and spirituality.


Merkel’s Challenge

Europe's unlikely leader

Angela Merkel’s father Horst Kasner was a Lutheran Minister who lived in East Germany, but the family could travel to the West.  This suggests that her father had a solid relationship with the Communist party, focusing on his religious duties over political activism.  This kind of pragmatic “do what you can given the situation” attitude was passed on to his daughter.   Though she was a member of the Communist youth, she did not go through the coming of age initiation Jugendweihe that most East Germans participated in, she was confirmed in the Lutheran Church instead.

Although fluent in Russian, she was not political.   She studied science, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry.   When the wall came down in 1989 the then 35 year old joined the party Democratic Awakening and won a seat in the last East German legislature.    She worked closely with Christian Democrat Lothar de Maziere who formed that last East German government, leading towards a unification agreement with the West.

She won a seat in the German Bundestag in 1990 as a Christian Democrat (CDU), and was chosen as Womens and Youth Minister in Kohl’s cabinet.   Most saw this as symbolic — Kohl wanted an “Ossi” (someone from the East), and to put a woman on what is one of the lesser cabinet positions seemed a kind of political show.   Yet in 1994 Kohl moved her to the more important post of Minister of Environment and Nuclear Safety.   Kohl jokingly referred to her as “mein Mädchen” (my little girl).    Most Germans still were skeptical, thinking Chancellor Kohl wanted to show off an East German woman in the cabinet to help the process of cultural unification (which came about at a much slower pace than political unity!)

She has been under estimated for much of her career.   She’s a scientist, not a politician, pragmatic rather than ideological, and her conservative Lutheran values seem out of place coming from the mostly atheistic former East German.   When Kohl lost in 1998 she became Secretary General of the CDU, second to the Party Chair, Wolfgang Schäuble (who is currently finance minister).   This was seen by many as simply a sop to Kohl, since she was clearly one of his favorites.   However, the CDU did very well in state elections in the coming years, and she built strong ties with the local parties.   She also distanced herself from Kohl when a party financing scandal broke out and it became apparent Kohl had an illegal slush fund.   She was elected to lead the party in 2000, a result that surprised many and was criticized by many in the CDU who thought her weak.

Normally the CDU leader challenges the SPD leader in the elections, but in 2002 the CSU, Bavaria’s sister party to the CDU (the CDU doesn’t compete in Bavaria, the CSU competes only there) put forth Edmund Stoiber as the Chancellor candidate in 2002.  He was extremely popular and she acquiesced.   In an election shocker Gerhard Schröder (SPD) held on and defeated Stoiber.   In 2005 Germany’s closest election took place (a year early due to coalition instability), with the SPD and CDU forming a “grand coalition” (usually one of the two major parties forms a coalition with a small party).   Schröder tried to hang on to the Chancellorship, but since the CDU/CSU had 0.1% more votes than the SPD, Merkel got the prize.

Because she is center-right, many likened her to Thatcher (who was also a scientist by training).   Her steely eyes and apparent immunity to political pandering seemed like that of the “iron lady.”   However, while Thatcher was a nationalist and had an ideological faith in markets, Merkel is a Europeanist and a pragmatist.   Rather than a radical program of budget cuts and privatization, she focused on reforming programs that didn’t work, and forcing Germany to try to get back to living within its means.   She not only deftly managed a very unstable grand coalition — one that lasted all four years, surprising many — but then won the 2009 election in a way that allowed a more traditional coalition with a smaller party (the FDP).   That put her clearly in charge as Germany’s leader.    People had come to appreciate her and no longer saw her as a symbolic sop to the East; Germans started calling her “Mutti” (mother), and given the recession in 2009, her ability to win the election speaks to the faith Germans had in her to guide the economy.

Now she faces her greatest challenge.   This could be seen this week as she went to her home state of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern to campaign on behalf of the battered CDU (now behind the SPD in polls) before that state’s election on September 4th (German states have elections scattered throughout the calendar, rather than the US tradition of all being on the same day).    Her goal is nothing other than to save the EU and the Euro, preserving what her mentor Helmut Kohl considered the crowning achievement of his Chancellorship after German unification.

It has not been easy.   Despite budget cuts and tax increases at home, Germany has paid a major share of bailout money to Greece and Ireland.   This has made her and her party less popular.   Ever the scientist, she puts policy ahead of politics; it may be unpopular, but its necessary (also for the German economy, given that German banks hold a lot of the questionable sovereign debt).  However she’s also rebuffed French President Nicholas Sarkozy who has suggested Euro-bonds as a way out of this crisis.

Right now every state finances its debt with its own bond — meaning countries that manage debt and their economies well get AAA ratings and low interest rates.   Countries like Greece and Italy, on the other hand, risk being forced to default.   Moving towards Euro-bonds may solve the crisis in the short term, but Merkel worries that it will weaken incentives for solid economic policies.   The EU can’t function if countries aren’t forced to deal with the consequences of their policy choices.   Good policy has to be rewarded, poor policies punished.

She tells Germans that the EU is on the right track.   The Euro is solid.  She’s instead pressuring the problem countries to pass a Schuldenbremse like Germany did in 2009 (during the Grand Coalition) — the functional equivalent of a balanced budget amendment.  That would show investors that the countries would be forced to get debt and deficits under control.     She’s kept pressure on the problem states to cut spending and raise taxes like Germany has.   In her view this is like a scientific problem — you analyze the variables, determine the proper course of action, and then implement the plan.   Political pressure, protests and unpopularity should not push you off course.

Merkel’s government should last until 2013 when the next election is scheduled.   That means she has the capacity to push ahead, despite opposition at home and abroad.   Europe is lucky that Germany has such a solid, pragmatic and fiscally conservative leader.   Despite proclamations about the death of the Euro and the fall of Europe, it’s just a few problem states that are in deep trouble, and Germany’s capacity to out perform the rest of the West makes it the central player in European politics.   As one friend quipped, “Germany may be winning in peacetime what they couldn’t win in war — dominance of Europe.”

That’s overstating it, but not by much.  If  Merkel again defies those who under estimate her and manages to guide Germany and Europe through the crisis with her steely, pragmatic and utterly rational resolve, the EU and Euro will not only be saved, but will thrive.   While Merkel’s not ideological, her Lutheran upbringing is clear in her attitude.   There is a moralism to her policy.    A united Europe is good, but individual states need to be responsible for their own budgets and policies.  Europe can only succeed if budgets are balanced, programs are rationally run, and states accept the reality of the current demographic and economic situation.

It may seem odd, but I can think of no better leader for this crisis than this 58 year old quantum chemist from just north of Berlin.   Her integrity and analytical mind suggest she won’t back down or get thrown off course by political intrigue.  She’s not blinded by ideology but grounded by core moral beliefs.   She’s one reason I think Europe will get through this crisis.

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Lately I’ve written a lot about politics and economics, and I have to remind myself that no matter how important the issues may seem, and how emotional the debates become, politics and economics simply provide the context within which we live our lives and make our choices.   If we take it too seriously, we risk losing ourselves.     It reminds me of the old Billy Joel song, “Angry Young Man” from Turnstiles, one of my favorite Joel albums:

“I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness & righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view,
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right

And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.”

I see political activists on the left or right, socialist or libertarian, centrist or extreme, and realize that while they convince themselves that they are seeking truth and justice, many are deluded – trying to find from an external cause what they lack within.   Those with whom they disagree are disparaged – fascist, communist, religious extremist… reminding me of another song, this one by Rush and lyricist Neil Peart — “You bet your life” off the Roll the Bones album.

The song conjures up a vision of a young man in the world, surveying all the different beliefs and lifestyles.     The chorus/refrain is a collage of different ways you can bet your life:

“anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist

Armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist
Deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist
Be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metalist
Gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist

The odds get even – you name the game
The odds get even – the stakes are the same: you bet your life.”

You bet your life.   In each person’s life the true reality is not the power games in Washington (or even Madison), nor is it the ideological struggle between various philosophies.  It’s not about unions or corporations, or about taxes and regulation.   It’s not even about religion.    Reality is about friends, family, and daily choices we make about what to do in complex situations where people’s emotions and perhaps life direction is on the line.

It’s a coward’s way out to hide behind an ideology or a political cause.   It’s a way of avoiding life, of losing oneself so deep in an abstract reality that one doesn’t recognize the pitfalls of “consciousness and righteous rage.”   Life does go on no matter who is wrong or right.

The political and cultural backdrop may change, but each person is confronted daily with the need to make choices on what to do in diverse situations — to help a friend or not, to cheat on a spouse, to lie to a stranger, to steal or even kill.   Yes, the backdrop will change, but to go back to Neil Peart and Rush, you have to stick it out (from the Counterparts LP):

Each time we bathe our reactions
In artificial light
Each time we alter the focus
To make the wrong move seem right

When caught up in a cause, a belief or a sense of “righteous rage” as Joel put it, it’s easy to make the wrong move seem right.   It may be dramatic like the Hutus feeling they had to eliminate their Tutsi rivals, or it may be trivial, like pulling out an opponents’ election signs from front yards — either way, it’s easy to rationalize doing something wrong.  Whenever one is driven by ideology to justify doing things that would otherwise be wrong, that person has lost perspective.

The older I get the more I sense that reality unfolds as it must.   The political and economic turmoil that surround us reflects humanity’s inner state — and is a mere stage for the unfolding of dramas about ethical and moral choice which each of us undertakes.   To focus on the political quest and lose sight of one’s personal connections, friendships and moral choice can lead to a kind of psychological pathology.   It’s why so many political leaders turn out to have personal failings — Senator Craig seeking gay sex in airports though he was a social conservative, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s liaisons with women, or the moral scandals of religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.   Whenever one gets more caught up in the abstract cause or game than focused on the moral implications of each individual choice, one risks losing sight of what is right.

Greenpeace attacks whaling ships, “Anonymous” hacks corporate and governmental websites, PETA throws red paint on fur, Timothy McVeigh bombs a Federal Building because America’s government is ‘too oppressive’: any time one uses ideology to rationalize actions that otherwise would be wrong, that’s a sign of moral nihilism: anything for the cause.

When I was 11 years old I bought a 45 RPM with Les Crane  reading The Desiderata, written by Max Ehrman back in 1927 – when the world was about to face unpleasant times.  It’s wisdom still comes through:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

(The Desiderata, by Max Ehrman, 1927)

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