Wednesday, April 30, 2003
Religious liberals — like many American liberals — are uncomfortable with power. The word conjures up concepts that we don't often regard as liberal notions, like coercion or force. Some Unitarian Universalists even get twitchy about "authority," "rules," or "law" — as if the liberal concern is with power itself rather than the legitimate use of power. I'm reminded of the post-Civil War era group of religious liberals who thought the American Unitarian Association was too dogmatic, and who set up the "Free Religious Association." Sadly, the FRA embraced a notion of "freedom" that involved no actual requirements or obligations — to the point that the group's secretary wouldn't even ask members to pay their annual dues for fear of imposing on their liberty! In the end, they embraced an empty freedom, a liberalism without a shape, and passed fruitlessly away.
Which brings us (once again) to James Luther Adams, the liberal theologian and social ethicist, who often said, "By their groups ye shall know them." So here's a bit of Adams's less well-known work that Unitarian Universalists might find useful as we try to imagine the relationship between love and justice, or compassion and power:
We often hear it asserted that a wellspring of modern democracy is the Judeo-Christian conception of a divinely derived dignity of the human being. The assertion can be supported cogently.
But the dignity becomes an airy nothing unless it is protected by the respect for law and by the procedures of legitimate legal institutions. The dignity of the child of God cannot be maintained by a figure of speech. Nor can it be maintained by sentiment, nor even by the sentiment of love.
Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets envisaged the will of God as demanding justice. Like love, justice does not become incarnate through simple proclamation. Justice requires just institutions; just attitudes alone are not sufficient. The ideals of justice promoted by the prophets were plowed into history by the Ezras and Nehemiahs, by the legalists who defined the rights and duties of the nation and of individuals and who elicited loyalty to the institutions that maintain these rights and duties. The prophets provided the consuming vision of Israel, but the law served to give body to the vision.
Jesus affirmed a love that was not to destroy but to fulfill the law. He repudiated the small matters of the law; but the love he offered presupposed the fundamental law before it could fulfill it or go beyond it. A gospel of charity apart from this law is no longer the gospel of love — it is a pious form of irresponsibility. Love may criticize and attempt to enlarge the conceptions of law and justice, but it does not demand something less than these. According to any conception of love that is fully responsible, not only does the Good Samaritan have the duty of personally assisting the victim of lawlessness; he also has the duty of bringing about the enforcement of the law that stops the thievery.
(From a sermon delivered at the University of Chicago in 1950, in Adams's collection The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach, Beacon Press 1986, page 110.)
How does this kind of thinking apply to international affairs? The question was the topic of last Wednesday's "James Luther Adams Lecture" at Harvard Divinity School, and as soon as I have an hour to polish my notes, I'll post a report here. The short version of my report, though, is that David Little identified institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court as expressions of the "organized power for justice" that Adams advocated; Little seemed sure that Adams would have opposed war with Iraq as a violation of these international legal institutions. Arthur Dyck, however, wasn't so sure. He pointed out that such international institutions didn't exist when Adams tried to rouse American liberals to oppose Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Adams's opposition to "tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression" would have predisposed him to demand international responses to regimes like Saddam's.
However Adams might have responded — and I'm slightly more inclined toward Dyck's view, although I can't imagine Adams endorsing President Bush's style of diplomacy — the crucial point is that neither Christian faith nor liberal principles requires us to embrace weakness, passivity, or even dependency on persuasion without an ultimate appeal to legitimate kinds of coercion. Love and law are not enemies, even though the law ultimately has force on its side.
"Covenants, without the sword, are but words," Hobbes wrote, an uncomfortable truth for liberals. (Martin Luther King Jr. understood it, though, which is why the March on Selma was a demand for the intervention of the executive branch to enforce the rights of African Americans to vote. He wanted Lyndon Johnson to send federal troops to enforce federal law in Alabama!) So the liberal question isn't whether law should be backed up by force, but whether the covenant that the law upholds is just.
Update 5.7.03: I should clarify one thing: It is highly unlikely that James Luther Adams would have endorsed President Bush's war. His name appeared at the top of a list of several hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers in early 1991 in a full-age ad published in the New York Times. A photograph of a military cemetary was accompanied with a headline that said, "Talk is cheaper." The text read: "We, the undersigned Unitarian Universalists, join the millions of concerned citizens nationwide in calling for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Persian Gulf crisis. Talking may not save time. But it will save lives."
It is always liberal to prefer dialogue, of course, but the real question is whether both sides are willing to talk their way to a just solution. And at some point, talking doesn't save lives: It just obscures the fact that an illicit regime is carrying on the slaughter in its own way. There does come a point where war is the preferable option, but the hard question is figuring out when you've reached that point. Adams would never have regarded the persistence of a tyrannical regime as kind of "peace." I think he would have protested against the war and against the tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression of Iraq's government. But I'm also convinced that he would not have endorsed much of the rhetoric of the antiwar movement.
Sunday, April 27, 2003
John Brady Kiesling, the US diplomat to Greece who resigned over President Bush's war with Iraq, explains why he quit in today's Boston Globe Magazine. He also describes the United States' global situation quite succinctly:
In Greece, they refer to the president of the United States as the Planitarchis, the Ruler of the Planet. . . The title is one we have earned, in several senses. Without the United States, the world cannot act on the global scale that a shrinking world and an expanding world population require. It is not just that fear of our military deters cross-border aggression around the world or that our excess consumption fuels the world economy or that American marketing genius has altered forever the language and culture of the planet. The United States is the sine qua non of the international system. To the extent that international law has utility, it is because we accept it. Neither the world's interests nor our own can be protected without the engagement of the United States, either as first among equals in the evolving law-based international system we largely created, or if, as now seems the case, we are rejecting that system, then as autocrat in whatever system or non-system we replace it with. And the American president is the face and voice of the United States to the world.
The post-war. Another must-read this weekend: journalist and blogger Dan Kennedy's Boston Phoenix interviews with foreign-policy hot-shots about waging the post-war. Kennedy talked to just about everybody whose opinion I'd like to hear: Samantha Power, Fareed Zakaria, Joseph Nye, Paul Berman, Khaled Abou El Fadl (whose book The Place of Tolerance in Islam I reviewed for UU World), and several others. (If you're more hawkish than I am, there's the New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan. If you're more dovish, there's the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel.)
Saturday, April 26, 2003
The author of Terror and Liberalism reviews hawkish Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror and dovish Richard Falk's The Great Terror War in the Times Book Review. Read it.
Update 4.28.03. Joshua Micah Marshall dislikes Terror and Liberalism.
Wait, who is Tenzin Gyatso, the author of this weekend's religion-and-science op-ed in the New York Times? (Last week, you recall, was cosmology day on the op-ed page.) Oh, yes: He's the 14th Dalai Lama!
How refreshing to see this simple acknowledgment that a person — even a person recognized by a religious community as its own divine leader — is still, in the public sphere, an individual human being with a personal name.
Friday, April 25, 2003
Two small things of note in the May/June Mother Jones (the best progressive magazine these days; this issue not yet on-line):
"Virtual Peacenik" (page 24) about MoveOn.org's 22-year-old Eli Pariser:
"I don't want to be part of the Great Left Martyrdom story," Pariser explains, "where we simply say, 'We fought the good fight and we lost.' I don't want to be on the losing side."
Pariser understands the need to adopt tactics that will work — and the antiwar movement's ability to attract mainstream participants this time around owes a lot to Pariser's work.
Also worth reading — especially by my ministerial colleagues — is George Packer's essay "Stop Making Sense" (page 28):
"May you live in interesting times" is not, in fact, an ancient Chinese curse. According to the experts, the only Chinese proverb that comes close says, "It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a man in a chaotic time." The "curse" is Western, probably American, in origin. We've lived under its spell for going on two years now. Lately I've been thinking about the effect this is having on our minds.
It's the nature of the age to expose us to an endless amount of information about wars, planned wars, threats, atrocities, grievances, hatreds — and, simultaneously, to our own inability to do much about any of it. These days everyone's brain is a situation room, but the activity flows only one way — inward. The response team inside is flooded with updates, warning lights, alarms, but the crisis atmosphere never resolves itself in constructive action. It's the mental equivalent of a permanent orange alert, with words in place of duct tape.
Packer then identifies four habits of the besieged mind, coping strategies that we've all been using to make sense of the overwhelming flood of terrifying information. But these habits of mind also keep us from thinking clearly. "Clarity and conviction are wonderful things," he concludes; "I wouldn't want to be told that I can never have them again. But a better test of mental health and civic responsiblity just now may be whether you can endure inconsistency, hold a fact without manipulating its shape, use words that will expose the falseness of your own thoughts, and accept that you will be embarrassed tomorrow by much of what you think and say today."
Phil Carter has some provocative things to say about the UCLA Academic Senate's resolution condemning the war with Iraq. He quotes three law school professors who publicly objected (in the LA Times, reg req'd); they point out that the resolution was passed by a special session of the academic senate, called by a small fraction of the faculty, and doesn't meaningfully represent the faculty:
But they were not content to speak out in their own names, as they had every right to do. Instead, they insisted on speaking in our names — and in the names of the more than 3,000 people on the UCLA faculty.
In their letter to the Times they put it even more strongly than the passage Carter quotes: "A rump group of our colleagues put these words — words that we find loathsome — into our mouths." Carter's comments are worth reading as a reminder that radicals sometimes prefer the appearance of deliberative democracy over its substance:
Certainly some UCLA faculty know a lot about war, strategy, international affairs and other related issues. But this resolution didn't come from those faculty — it came from the most radical members instead, who sought to stamp their views with the imprimatur of the UCLA Academic Senate. It didn't contribute anything meaningful to the debate, besides the additional voices of those who could have easily spoken as individuals instead of hijacking their faculty organization. Everyone ought to have the right to speak their mind. But I believe the UCLA faculty should use its voice with more measured judgment in the future, lest it squander the value of its collective voice on issues like this.
It's a lesson that could be applied in lots of other democratic settings, too.
Only one news story so far about the third Humanist Manifesto released last week: "A new embrace of Humanistic reason is needed to hold back this assault on our protections and prevent us from going down a path toward theocratic despotism," said the [American Humanist Association's] Roy Speckhardt. (Chicago Tribune, 4.25.03, reg req'd)
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
A powerful story in today's Globe about the Amy Biehl Foundation in South Africa, established by the parents of a white American graduate student who was murdered by a mob while helping to register black South Africans for the country's first free elections. The subhed says it all: "After a South African mob murdered Amy Biehl in 1993, her parents set up a foundation in her name, then hired two of her killers to continue her work."
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Michael Skube asks, "If Liberalism's Such a Dead Horse, Why Beat It?" A good case for ignoring Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and their ilk.
Worth reading. Bernard Lewis argues that "only two civilizations have been defined by religion," and asks: "To what extent is a religiously defined civilization compatible with pluralism—tolerance of others within the same civilization but of different religions?" (Worth comparing: Jack Miles's essay in CrossCurrents, "Theology and the Clash of Civilizations.")
And, from today's New York Times, "Anxiety and hope in a mystical fusion," a review of Marc Chagall's paintings.
Monday, April 21, 2003
This year is the seventieth anniversary of the publication of "A Humanist Manifesto," the theological statement (if you'll forgive the "theo") of a group of progressive religious and philosophical intellectuals whose ideological heirs have just released a brand new manifesto. While you're pondering it, you might also pick up a copy of William Schulz's book, Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism. (Edwin H. Wilson's first-person account of the story, The Genesis of A Humanist Manifesto, is now on-line, although you might want to buy a copy.)
If you are a Unitarian Universalist or religious liberal, you will especially want to join in the conversation being sponsored by the organization for religious humanists within the UUA, HUUmanists. They are trying to revive the religious humanist voice, and could use your ideas and financial support. On their e-mail chat group, they are gathering humanist "elevator speeches" in response to UUA president Bill Sinkford's challenge: "Put a name to what calls you, and to what you find yourself called to do in response." Few humanists seem to connect with Sinkford's use of the word "God," but I'm glad to see HUUmanists taking the challenge and trying to revive an important part of the liberal religious tradition.
Easter, from the archives here at Philocrites: a sermon on Doubting Thomas, the patron saint of religious liberals; a few thoughts on the resurrection of the body; an Easter hymn; and a theological commentary (several years old) on Christina Rossetti's poem "A Better Resurrection."
At long last, the Abston Church of Christ is back on-line, 7 feet by 5 1/2 feet by 30 inches of modern plastic church architecture, and it really is quite amazing. And if it's a bit too sincere for you, cat-ownership-wise, there's always the deeply irreverent Brick Testament, with its droll Bible dioramas.
Friday, April 18, 2003
Thank Tina Brown for identifying "the last of the Institutionally Unaffiliated New York Intellectuals Whose Unexpected Ideas Make Him The Strange Bedfellow of Administration Hawks" and "New York’s hot brainiac of choice."
Unitarian Universalists won't be the only people interested in next week's "James Luther Adams Lecture" at Harvard Divinity School. David Little will speak on "Religion and World Order: The Thoughts of James Luther Adams" on Wednesday the 23th at 6:30. See you at Andover Hall!
(Don't know who James Luther Adams was? Start here, then read The Essential James Luther Adams. A university library will also have his larger books, On Being Human Religiously, The Prophethood of All Believers, and An Examined Faith.)
Thursday, April 17, 2003
"Multinational oil companies, US and other, have plenty to be ashamed of, from their despoliation of the Niger Delta to their support for state terrorism in Indonesia. But they have not been pushing for a war against Iraq," writes Yahya Sadowski in Le Monde diplomatique. "The Bush administration planned its campaign against Baghdad without input from these companies, and apparently without a clue about the basics of oil economics."
They thought, apparently, that a quickly revitalized Iraqi oil industry might break OPEC, where Saudi Arabia exerts its primary influence. Sadowski says that is now unlikely. He also argues that U.S. oil companies won't benefit directly in Iraq — and that Halliburton stands to pick up "service subcontracts" for economic reasons rather than Cheney's influence. To this extent, the antiwar sloganeers were wrong. But Sadowski's larger point is that the Bush administration assumed that oil would figure into their geopolitical plans in a way that it simply can't — and that this is evidence of a major foreign policy blunder.
It's time to celebrate Ralph Waldo Emerson's bicentennial. Mark your calendars: the Sage of Concord would turn 200 on May 25 if he were cryogenically preserved like Ted Williams! (Sorry, folks, sometimes you have to stretch to make a Red Sox connection.)
Sarah Ferguson, writing for the Mother Jones Web site, says:
[F]ollowing last week's footage of jubilant Iraqis cheering the downfall of Saddam Hussein, antiwar campaigners concede that their universal plea — "US out of Iraq!" — has become more difficult for the American public to hear.
Um, one reason for this disconnect might be that the United States now has an obligation to get Iraq back into some semblance of order, as the more sane branches of the antiwar movement recognize. Calling for a withdrawal now is calling for total anarchy and full-scale civil war. MoveOn.org's Wünderkind Eli Pariser has the right idea, though:
Pariser says his group isn't ready to back any specific candidate, and cautions the peace camp against squandering its potential influence in pursuit of ideological purity. The real goal, he says, has to be voting Bush out.
I like the voter registration drive idea on TomPaine.com:
Let's say that two million Americans participated in some way in protests against the war (there's no way of knowing, but we think this is a conservative estimate). Say each of them commits to registering one new voter every month between now and Election Day 2004. That would yield 36 million new voters registered for peace.
Now that's what democracy looks like.
Neoconservatives now say they want WWIV to look more like WWIII:
[A]lmost all of the leading neoconservative intellectuals have portrayed the Iraq war as just one chapter in a larger struggle against Islamic extremism. But in a flurry of articles and statements since the fall of Baghdad, many of those same thinkers are contending that the next steps should involve diplomatic and economic pressure, not military force.
At least, not right away. Ronald Brownstein explains in today's Los Angeles Times. (Don't worry, he also explains the new "world war numbering" system.)
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Like me, you may visit your favorite Web sites every few days to see what's new. (Okay, if you're really like me, you want to know what's new from Talking Points Memo, Matt Yglesias, and Slate a couple of times every day. But you are more disciplined than I am.) Google and other search engines, however, bring people in through the back door, pointing them directly to old stuff that lurks deep inside a Web site. I've been intrigued to see what people are finding here at Philocrites when they arrive via Google rather than through this page.
Most popular essay: Unitarianism and early American interest in Hinduism, although February was a banner month for my essay on Max Weber's secularization thesis. (Ouch. For them, I mean. It was painful for me to write it, but I have fully recovered.)
Most popular sermon: God's lovers, a reflection on the ever-popular Song of Songs — although it's really about the power of metaphors.
And — not every Web page can boast such a category! — most popular hymn: O my restless heart, written for a friend's ordination. (I think her new congregants were googling her.)
Whether you arrived through the front door or came in on a search-engine quest, welcome! I hope you find something interesting.
"Why does any country need more guns than people?" (U.S. Army engineer, collecting abandoned weapons in Iraq, LA Times 4.15.03)
"The four horsemen of the Sox pen..." (Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe)
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
If you have not yet experienced Beliefnet's evocative multimedia stations-of-the-cross meditation, Bitter Journey, this would be a good week for a visit. Meanwhile, I've also been listening to Osvaldo Golijov's new Passion, La Pasion Segun San Marcos. It's quite unlike Bach's Passions, but like them it evokes the season in powerful and startling ways.
Update: Here's Paul Davies speaking somewhat informally on the anthropic principle:
The evolution of the big-bang theory leads to a discussion of the anthropic principle, which says that the world we see must reflect, to some extent, the fact that we're here to see it — not only here but here at this particular location in space and time. There are different variants of the anthropic cosmological principle, and how much credence you can give it depends on which one you're talking about. What's quite clear is that there must be an anthropic companion to our science. To take a trivial and extreme example: most of the universe is empty space, and yet we find ourselves on the surface of a planet. We're therefore in a very atypical location, but of course it's no surprise that we're in this atypical location, because we couldn't live out there in space.
Obviously, there's an anthropic factor to what we observe and the position in the universe from which we observe it, or maybe the time, the epoch, that we observe it. Having said that, the question is whether it's just a comment about the universe or in some sense an explanation for some features of the universe. If there's only one universe, it's just a comment on it. But if we imagine that there is a whole ensemble of universes — a huge variety, with different conditions, different laws — then it starts to become an explanation, or a selection principle. Part of the reason for the order we observe in the universe is that this is one of the few universes out of the whole ensemble that is cognizable. Some people have tried to carry this principle to a ludicrous extreme by making out that ultimately there are no laws of nature at all, that there is only chaos, that the lawfulness of the universe is merely explained by the fact that we've selected it from this infinite variety of essentially chaotic worlds. That is demonstrably false, and an unreasonable extrapolation of the whole anthropic idea.
It's remarkable that the universe is lawful, that there exist underlying rational principles which govern the way the universe behaves. We can't account for that just on the basis of the fact that we're here to see it, as some people have tried to do. There's a dual principle at work. There's a principle of rationality that says that the world is fashioned in a way that provides it with a rational order, a mathematical order. There's a selective principle — which is an anthropic principle — that says that maybe out of a large variety of different possible worlds this type of world is the one we observe.
We can't avoid some anthropic component in our science, which is interesting, because after three hundred years we finally realize that we do matter. Our vantage point in the universe is relevant to our science. But it's very easy to misconstrue the anthropic principle, and draw ridiculous conclusions from it. You have to be very careful how you state it. What it is not saying is that our existence somehow exercises a theological or causative compulsion for the universe to have certain laws or certain initial conditions. It doesn't work like that. We're not, by our own existence, creating such a universe.
And check out the Counterbalance site, where, if you have more time on your hands than I do, you can listen to Davies talk about purpose in the universe, our place in the universe, or faith and reason. A bit of critical appraisal is here.
Sunday, April 13, 2003
Of course you already read Holy Weblog!, the best religion-in-the-news blog, but you might not have noticed how often Utah figures in the mix of stories over there. It may be that the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News simply print a lot more religion stories than, say, the Boston Globe — but it could also be that Massachusetts simply doesn't have as many weird religions as Utah. Like Summum! Sometimes I miss Salt Lake City. . .
"I'm not sure . . . that America's foreign-policy objectives are served by having a Bush-loving, Islam-bashing, Muslim-converting Christian icon on the ground in Iraq tending to the bodies and souls of the grateful but deeply suspicious Muslim population. Or, to put it more simply, the idea is absolutely loopy." (Beliefnet's Steven Waldman on Franklin Graham, in Slate)
Terror and Liberalism is the book of the moment. Here's the author's essay in today's Boston Globe, "The twilight of tyrants and the promise of liberal revolution." Why, Berman asks, do all the statues of Saddam Hussein look so much like the statues from communist Eastern Europe and fascist Italy? "The iconography of Saddam's Ba'ath looks like the iconography of modern Western totalitarianism because that is, in fact, exactly what it is."
Ian Buruma reviews Berman's book, and finds much to praise:
As a general analysis of the various enemies of liberalism, and what ties them together, it is superb. All—Nazis, Islamists, Bolsheviks, Fascists, and so on—are linked by Berman to the "ur-myth" of the fall of Babylon. The decadent city-dwellers of Babylon, corrupted by luxury and poisoned by greed, infect the people of God with their wicked ways, even as the forces of Satan threaten the good people from afar. The people of God will only be freed from these abominations after a massive war of Armageddon, in which the city slickers and Satanic forces will be exterminated. A pure new world will rise from the burning ruins and "the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God."
But Buruma also says that Berman suffers from "Kosovo syndrome," a liberal infatuation with "revolution from above." Leftists, whether they still identify with the left or have undergone that strange transformation into "neoconservatives," are too easily tempted by revolutionary schemes. "[S]uch missions always come to grief, leaving ruins where they meant to build utopias."
Saturday, April 12, 2003
I've been following news stories about Unitarian Universalist churches' responses to war with Iraq. Here's this week's round-up: Student minister Brent Was (profiled on this site earlier) was jailed for refusing to show his ID to a police officer during a March 27 antiwar rally in Portland, Oregon. "As required, Was appeared at court the following Monday, only to find that the district attorney had declined to file a complaint." (Willamette Week) . . . At a weekly protest outside the Exeter, N.H., town hall, Kendra Ford, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church, said, "To live out the true democratic ideals of this nation, we better disagree with each other." (Hampton Union) . . . Antiwar activists in Norwich, Conn., who had marched from the Unitarian Universalist church to the office of the congressman, got a seven-page response from Rep. Rob Simmons, but they say he still didn't explain his vote authorizing military action (Norwich Bulletin) . . . "[T]his thing could have been done without bloodshed," said Joy Wood, chairwoman of the Peace Action Task Force for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill [N.J.] (Courier-Post) . . .
"Since 1994, [Dr. Syed Arshad] Husain and his trauma team have made 23 trips to Bosnia, training mental health professionals and teachers in helping children deal with war. He will share his knowledge at 2 p.m. Sunday at Unity Church-Unitarian" in St. Paul, Minn. (Star-Tribune) . . . "More than 40 people from around the state attended a session that offered tips on how to prepare both practically and philosophically for nonviolent civil disobedience" at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bangor, Me. (Concord Monitor) . . . "A drum circle from Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist in Palatine" planned to join a protest sponsored by "Northwest Suburban SUSTAIN (Stop U.S. Tax-Funded Aid to Israel)" in suburban Chicago (Daily Herald) . . . Laura McLean "is part of a Unitarian Universalist social action committee that helped organize weekly peace vigils in Thousand Oaks [Cal.]. While she said a church leader has to follow his or her conscience, she has trouble digesting decisions not to take a stance on the war." (Ventura County Star) . . . "About 15 people attended Poetry of Ultimate Concern, a peace-themed reading where several bards recited their verse" at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Stamford, Conn. (Advocate)
In unrelated news, a followup story about the tragic shooting of a man in the West Brattleboro, Vt., church last year: Police won't be charged in church shooting (Rutland Herald)
How odd to find "A brief history of the multiverse" nestled among the op-eds in the New York Times this morning. Does anyone have thoughts on why exactly it's on the op-ed page?
I haven't read anything significant about religion and science in a few years — George Johnson's Fire in the Mind: Religion, Science, and the Search for Order was the last great book on the topic I read — and I'm no expert about the much-debated "anthropic principle." I hold your standard modernist biases against creationism in its old-fashioned and "intelligent design" forms, and your basic literary-humanistic objections to scientific reductionism. But I'm pretty intrigued by the cosmologists' suggestion that our universe may be only one of many real or potential "universes," each operating with its own set of natural laws. Sure, we live in a three-dimensional universe, but there might be nine- or thirteen-dimensional universes, too!
I had assumed that this idea was essentially a thought experiment, a way of saying that there's no real reason that our universe had to have the peculiar set of laws that seem to make life as we know it possible. The dice just rolled this way — or maybe every potential universe "exists" somehow, in some sense, right alongside our own, running according to its own rules, and we're just the lucky occupants of this universe. Sure. Why not?
So was Paul Davies's intriguing op-ed just a bit of Cosmology 101? Or is there some arcane debate going on that he was taking sides on? Is the Kansas school board about to demand teaching the One Universe Only theory? I don't really know. But I did find this interesting:
Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.
He goes on to comment on the probability that in some universes, intelligent creatures would create virtual worlds with their own artificially-intelligent creatures — "The Sims" meets "The Matrix," I guess — and that these virtual universes might proliferate without end, too. Infinite regress shows up infrequently in the Times, so the vertigo I experienced over coffee this morning shouldn't happen too often — at least in this universe. Davies adds, about the infinite regress of virtual as well as actual universes:
Far from doing away with a transcendent Creator, the multiverse theory actually injects that very concept at almost every level of its logical structure. Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space.
So what's the upshot? Multiverse theory is really just faith for scientists? Does Davies have a proposal for multiverse theory that has some theoretical-physical limits? Does he think that our universe's "laws of nature" are just a lucky roll of the dice? Does he think that there is an "anthropic principle" at work? Or that there might be some kind of intelligent design in our world? The only point I could really find was that science can only answer certain kinds of questions, but that human beings have many other questions, too. Some of those other questions are basically religious or leaps of faith. But I'm still not sure why the op-ed was there in the first place.
Friday, April 11, 2003
There are so many ways to discover new and interesting blogs. The most entertaining I have found is Blogstreet, where (if you have a fast Internet connection) you can actually download an almost infinitely expandable visual map of related blogs. Click here to see my neighbors.
Or scroll down this page if you want to see which blogs I actually pay close attention to. Current favorite: Harvard philosophy student and newly-hired scribe for the American Prospect Matthew Yglesias.
Thursday, April 10, 2003
I'm looking forward to digging into Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, Joseph S. Nye Jr.'s The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone, and Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. That ought to keep me busy.
I've been meaning to write about Tony Judt's New York Review essay "America and the World," in which I was most struck by this comment on Zakaria's book (in a comparison to Michael Mandelbaum's The Ideas That Conquered the World):
Zakaria's skepticism is a nice antidote to Mandelbaum's Wilsonian picture. It also suggests that if we have lived in a peaceful world these past fifty years, this has little to do with democracy. It is liberal states—states that have enshrined the constitutional protection of liberties—that don't go to war with one another. Democracies may or may not be warlike—they haven't actually been around long enough to draw conclusions (though Alexander Hamilton thought "popular assemblies" were unlikely to prove peace-loving, and nothing in the past two centuries has proven him obviously wrong). In any case, the world itself is not a democracy, so there is nothing even in Mandelbaum's thesis to preclude international war, particularly between liberal and illiberal democracies. And, for liberal and illiberal democracies alike, it is nuclear weapons rather than public opinion that have most effectively inhibited aggression.
Self-generating liberal democracies are historically unusual, even in the West. Like capitalism, they require, in order to succeed, indigenous antecedent qualities that cannot be retroactively supplied. Democratic institutions grafted from abroad onto culturally distinctive and impoverished nations have a mixed track record. America's rediscovered mission, to make the world "safe for democracy," thus risks proving self-defeating, even in its more plausible guise as a mission to make the world safe for Americans. And in the absence of any accompanying ambition to make the rest of the world richer, safer, healthier, or better educated, this mission stands a good chance of constructing and defending some quite unwholesome "democracies."
Sobering and thought-provoking stuff, especially for religious liberals who think that "democracy" is synonymous with "liberty." More on this soon . . .
Wednesday, April 9, 2003
From Anthony Shadid's powerful report from Baghdad today:
At that moment, someone down the street called out that the Americans had arrived. The curious and the jubilant ran down the road. As they gathered, a line of tanks and armor paraded down Saadoun Street, toward a statue of Hussein in Firdaus Square. An Iraqi exile working with the Americans shouted from a microphone, "We're bringing freedom for everyone, we're making a free Iraq."
Crowds that lined the streets erupted in cheers. Women ululated, a cry of joy in the Arab world. One man asked if a soldier could be found to marry his daughter. Others threw candy, cigarettes and flowers at the soldiers atop vehicles flying the U.S. flag. When they stopped, many ran to the soldiers to shout hello, to shake their hands and, for a few, to kiss them on the cheek.
"Did the war end?" asked Kamel Hamid, as he stood on the road. "Is it over?"
"It is a liberation," shouted Abbas Ali, holding his daughter's hand.
Others, more reserved, held back from the curb. Some uttered words of caution or rebuke: the Americans wanted Iraq's oil, that war was not the answer, that U.S. troops were here to stay.
"This is my country and this is an occupation," said Stefan Abu George, a 59-year-old standing along the street. "I can't imagine what the result of this is going to be." A friend, Wathiq Abzara, answered, "Like Palestine."
Down the road, Mazin Hussein, a doctor at Ibn Haitham Hospital, and a friend, Saad al-Kaabi, gingerly approached a U.S. tank, with the words "Love Machine" scrawled on its side. Over the roar of its engines, they asked the soldiers to take down the American flag. They could not be heard and, after a few minutes, they gave up.
Another resident told Shadid: "I want to feel that I'm a human being, I want to feel that I'm free and that no one can take it away," he said. "I want to work, so that my family has enough to live. I want to live like everyone else in this world who lives in peace." Amen.
William Saletan unpacks the paradox in Tony Blair and George W. Bush's promise to Iraqis: "First, we're going to get out of Iraq so that Iraqis can govern themselves. Second, we're going to stay in Iraq so that Iraqis can govern themselves." In the process, Saletan also neatly states why real freedom depends on the rule of law:
Freedom isn't the absence of rules. It depends on rules. Without rules, new tyrants grab power. Constitutions lay down those rules, parliaments clarify them, and armed officers enforce them. No arms, no enforcement, no rules, no freedom.
That's why liberals should support careful and thorough reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, too. A lawless society is a disaster. A world without the Taliban and without Saddam Hussein is a better world only if we help build stable societies that can sustain better regimes.
The "fall of Baghdad" is of course good news. The war isn't over, but we've reached an important turning point. And, my fellow liberals, the "pro-peace" movement needs to be refocused. A U.S. pull-out anytime in the immediate future would result in an unjust "peace," to put it euphemistically. (We'd be leaving Iraq in total chaos.) We need to put intense political pressure on our government to provide the basic security and humanitarian assistance the country needs — and we need to demand that our country provide this help in the most responsible manner possible. Winning the battle is not the same thing as winning the war, and it is in everyone's interest — yours, mine, and the people of Iraq — that we leave them with something better than Saddam Hussein's brutal regime and the world's crippling sanctions.
Meanwhile, Thomas L. Friedman writes from southern Iraq:
We are so caught up with our own story of "America's liberation of Iraq," and the Arab TV networks are so caught up with their own story of "America's occupation of Iraq," that everyone seems to have lost sight of the real lives of Iraqis.
"We are lost," said Zakiya Jassim, a hospital maintenance worker. "The situation is getting worse. I don't care about Saddam. He is far away. I want my country to be normal."
America broke Iraq; now America owns Iraq, and it owns the primary responsibility for normalizing it. If the water doesn't flow, if the food doesn't arrive, if the rains don't come and if the sun doesn't shine, it's now America's fault. We'd better get used to it, we'd better make things right, we'd better do it soon, and we'd better get all the help we can get.
It's going to be hard enough to put Iraq back together. Let's see how well we can do it before we try the road to Damascus.
Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Beliefnet has picked up — and so apparently vouches for — a story that had bloggers blazing a week ago. Ken Joseph, a Protestant minister from Japan who is ethnically an Assyrian-Iraqi-American, writes:
I was wrong. I had opposed the war on Iraq in my radio program, on television, and in my regular columns—and I participated in demonstrations against it in Japan. But a visit to relatives in Baghdad radically changed my mind.
I am an Assyrian Christian, born and raised in Japan, where my father had moved after World War II to help rebuild the country. He was a Protestant minister, and so am I.
What changed his mind?
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Iraq with supplies for our church and family. This was my first visit ever to the land of my forefathers. The first order of business was to attend church. During a simple meal for peace activists after the service, an older man sounded me out carefully.
Finally he felt free to talk: "There is something you should know—we didn't want to be here tonight. When the priest asked us to gather for a peace service, we said we didn't want to come because we don't want peace. We want the war to come."
When I first read this story, I dismissed it as so much propaganda. As with the human shield who discovered that Saddam's regime is really scary, my inclination has been to treat Ken Joseph's story as so much shattered idealism. But if Beliefnet is willing to give it some play, we might as well spend a moment on the simple fact that Iraqi Christians are divided about the merits of having Saddam Hussein's regime brought forcefully to a halt.
Jonathan Cohn reported a few weeks ago in The New Republic that Michigan's Iraqi-American community is divided about the U.S. war — along ethnic lines. "While Muslims overwhelmingly favor the assault on Saddam, Christians, who make up the vast majority of Michigan's Iraqis, have decidedly mixed feelings." These Christians are mostly Chaldeans. (As Ken Joseph suggests, Assyrian Christians may have another view.) Cohn writes:
Chaldeans have been leaving Iraq for places such as the United States since the turn of the century, first to find economic opportunity and later to flee political persecution. Indeed, it was the rise to power of the Baath Party, and eventually of Saddam, that sent what was probably the largest wave of Chaldeans to the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. Nowadays, most Chaldeans have at least one family member or friend who has felt Saddam's wrath, even if they haven't felt it themselves . . .
Still, Saddam never singled out Chaldeans for the kind of vicious treatment he has visited upon Shia in the south or Kurds in the north presumably because Chaldeans never had the numbers to threaten him politically, as those other groups did. (Apparently, Saddam has also spared Chaldeans some of the cruelties he has visited upon Iraqi Assyrians, the Christian group from whom the Chaldeans broke off centuries ago and who have been outspoken critics of Saddam for years. According to Assyrian advocacy groups, in the 1970s, Saddam destroyed literally hundreds of Assyrian churches and villages as part of his effort to "Arabize" the population.) As a matter of fact, many Chaldeans within Iraq have remained loyal to Saddam, serving prominently in his regime (as in the case of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz). For years, Saddam rewarded this service by interfering minimally in the Chaldeans' right to practice their faith. "To be honest, as bad as Saddam is, there are still Chaldean churches in Iraq," says Manna. "He hasn't targeted the Christians so much."
So what do we learn from this? That most of the Muslim Iraqi-Americans are refugees from the first Gulf War, when many Shi'ite Muslims joined the disastrous revolt against Saddam. That the Chaldean-Christian Iraqi-Americans have plenty of reasons to dislike Saddam, but see him as preferable either to war or to an Islamic regime in Iraq. And that Assyrian Christians may have suffered more targeted repression than their Christian cousins — which may explain the reaction Joseph received on his eye-opening visit.
But I'm left with a question even after visiting AssyrianChristians.com. What is this Protestant minister's stake in Iraq? Joseph's family left Iraq in 1919. It seems religiously and culturally inaccurate to describe him as an Assyrian Christian, although I can understand his interest in his family's heritage. But what is his Christian interest?
Could this story from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network about Ken Joseph and Iraq's Christians hold a clue? "God could use this terrible situation not only as a way to bring the Christians back to the Middle East, but to bring revival to the oldest church in the world." I hate to be cynical, but many Protestants looking for a silver lining in Iraq are already waiting in Kuwait for a chance to evangelize. Is Ken Joseph's change of heart propaganda not for President Bush but for the 700 Club?
Update 4.9.03. According to a Christian Broadcasting Network story from before Ken Joseph's trip to Iraq, he is "a missionary." Ken Joseph is an interesting guy: An article in Buddhism Today two years ago identifies Joseph and his father as two advocates of the theory that Nestorian Christianity made it all the way to Japan around 1,500 years ago!
Monday, April 7, 2003
Fascinating responses to Robert Pape's essay, "The World Pushes Back" in Sunday's Globe. Andrew Moravcsik comments: "Where many once proclaimed the primacy of 'hard' military power, the post-war world has converted most to the liberal conviction that 'soft' power—public opinion, trade, civilian foreign aid, and international law—matter just as much. When historians look back in a half-century, they may well record this as the enduring lesson of the current crisis." But will American voters buy this idea quickly enough to usher George W. Bush out of office before he embraces the rest of the neo-conservative vision for U.S. foreign policy?
Saturday, April 5, 2003
More news stories about Unitarian Universalist reactions to war in Iraq: "Over lasagna, carrots and ice cream at a Unitarian Universalist Congregation dinner Wednesday evening" in Traverse City, Mich., members talked about the antiwar movement (Record-Eagle) . . . "With the war in Iraq polarizing people, expect protest songs aplenty at the upcoming Phil Ochs Song Night May 18 at Fort Lauderdale's Unitarian Universalist Church" (Miami Herald, last item) . . . "[P]rotesters will hold a civil disobedience workshop at noon Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bangor [Maine]" (Kennebunk Journal) . . . "Iris Tate, a retired licensed practical nurse and member of the care team at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tahlequah [Ok.]" attended a public meeting on ways to help people stressed out by war news (Daily Press) . . . "'If you choose to live a life of peace and cooperation, you’re going to live a life of leadership,' said Cory Booker, keynote speaker of the Youth Empowerment Against Violence conference held this Monday at the Unitarian Church of Montclair [N.J.]" (Montclair Times).
Of special note: A Pittburgh Post-Gazette profile of Amnesty International USA head William Schulz, former president of the UUA.
Oh, and this unrelated AP story:
Actor Christopher Reeve told a standing-room-only crowd of Yale University medical students and researchers Thursday that religious groups and social organizations have no right to shape public policy on stem cell research . . .
"I don't object to anyone's religion," Reeve said. "I'm a Unitarian myself. We're talking about the promise of science, the ethics of science, not religion."
A different policy question, to be sure, but this is a question worth pondering: When does an ethical question or a political question become a religious question? And why are so many Unitarian Universalists — who complain about the politics of the religious right — suddenly so eager to ask for attention to their religious opposition to war?
Michael Kelly's Atlantic Monthly was wonderful in every way. The redesign he launched at the magazine made it one of a very small handful that we refer to frequently when we discuss good design at UU World. The writers he favored were livelier than the magazine had known in many years, but the feisty conservatism of Kelly's columns and some of the writers he brought to the Atlantic didn't turn it into a political magazine. Instead, it reclaimed its legacy as the home of some of the best cultural reporting and literary journalism in America. Kelly — who was the first U.S. journalist to die in the war with Iraq on Thursday — will be sorely missed. (Globe | NYTimes | Post | Atlantic)
The Washington Post reprinted one of his columns this morning as a tribute, which brings us back to my favorite topic: contemporary Unitarianism. In December 2001, Kelly described the Unitarian Christmas pageant in which his son played a small role. (Kelly is Catholic, his wife Jewish — a combination that has brought many families to Unitarian Universalist congregations.) The season is all wrong, but the message is timely:
Jack has not been cast in a pageant. Tom has, though. He has a walk-on in the pageant staged by our local Unitarian church. There was a rehearsal the other Sunday after the service, which featured the lighting of a menorah (during which apologies were offered to anyone who might take offense at a lighting before sundown), followed by the traditional singing of the great Christian hymn "Oh, Mitten Tree" (during which the faithful paraded around a tree that was decked, in fact, with mittens). A Unitarian pageant turns out to be different from a Roman Catholic one. In Tom's pageant, Jesus Christ is celebrated as "a very special person" and "a great rabbi" and an all-around asset to the community. The Son-of-God debate, which has proved so regrettably contentious over the years, is not mentioned.
Kelly also sums up the Unitarian theology he learned (after discussing the differences between tasteful folks who only put up white lights for the holidays, and people like himself who prefer colored lights and a bit of excess in their celebrations): "I should not be judgmental. I learned that from the Unitarians. Colored-lighters aren't any better than white-lighters; we are all special persons. Very."
Ouch. As my own tribute to Michael Kelly, I'll raise a flag for judgmental Unitarianism.
It's always nice to be noticed. I made this week's Yahoo! list of new blogs, where I'm sandwiched between "The Pagan Prattle Online" and "The Raving Atheist." Which can only mean that religion was the subject du jour. (Well, that and sex, another favorite topic among the two dozen blogs on the list. From the carnal to the sublime!)
Thursday, April 3, 2003
Do you have a favorite philosopher? When I was in college, I fell madly under the spell of Alfred North Whitehead, the British metaphysician and philosopher of science. But lately I'm into Isaiah Berlin, the British political philosopher. (Someday I'll try to figure out how they overlap, if at all. One thing is clear: I like off-to-the-side British philosophers!) But in the midst of a very busy week, here's a favorite passage from Berlin's essay "The Pursuit of the Ideal" (1988):
The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable — that is a truism — but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss. Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of their leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of forms of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human.
From The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. by Henry Hardy (Princeton, 1990): 13-14.
Tuesday, April 1, 2003
Thanks to this week's Christian Century for the following Cliffs Notes to the Good Book:
Acknowledging the risk of oversimplification, J. Clinton McCann Jr. summarizes the plot of the Bible this way: "Sinners do not get what they deserve," which is "precisely what grace means." Unless we perceive this single plot, we are "in danger of missing the simple but profound biblical message that God is essentially, characteristically, and fundamentally gracious." McCann maintains that a hermeneutic of grace is needed as a corrective to the use of the Bible as an "instrument of hatred, discrimination, self-congratulation, and exclusion." This is a hermeneutic which yields an ethic of gracious living toward others: "only when we interpret by grace will we live by grace."
McCann's article, "The Hermeneutics of Grace," appeared in the January issue of the biblical theology journal Interpretation, which offers a seven-day online trial subscription as well as an online-only subscription — two things the still-stuck-in-the-mid-20th Christian Century should consider.
The whatever hermeneutic. Meanwhile, in the May Atlantic Monthly, Jonathan Rauch declares that he's not an atheist. He's an "apatheist."
Apatheism—a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's—may or may not be something new in the world, but its modern flowering, particularly in ostensibly pious America, is worth getting excited about. Apatheism concerns not what you believe but how.
"Atheism," "secularism," "tolerance," and "agnosticism" don't cut it for Rauch. He's interested in a new temperament of restraint: "people who feel at ease with religion even if they are irreligious; people who may themselves be members of religious communities, but who are neither controlled by godly passions nor concerned about the (nonviolent, noncoercive) religious beliefs of others."