He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Praying with Icons: Diadochos of Photiki

Pray for us, St. Diadochos, that we might be
given the gift of the discernment of spiritual
influences, so that we may know the Godly
promptings from the promptings of the evil
spirits, and follow those of the Holy Spirit.

Pray for us, ancient holy bishop of Photiki,
that we would be given the strength to hold
fast to the catholic and apostolic faith, free
of the heresies which tempt us to either add
to or subtract from the deposit of the faith.

Lord, we ask you, the dear Father whom we
truly worship unto ages of ages, that the truth
which you revealed to us in Your only Son be
preserved in our hearts, that our final breath
would speak of the Word, of Love Himself.

The above is a picture I took of an icon of Saint Diadochos of Photiki ordered from Teshin Iconographics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Waking Up Half-Asleep: Scientific Racism and Sam Harris

The latest controversy surrounding Sam Harris has been generated by his willingness to admit that he was wrong about Charles Murray, who earned great notoriety for his book The Bell Curve.  Others disagree, and continue to claim that racism is either Murray's motivation for the research and the policies he supports or something he conveniently ignores.

I think the question of Murray's views on race have been beaten to death, re-animated, and beaten to death again so many times that it's largely a futile effort to address it again.

What interested me more was the subject of scientific racism, and Harris' response to Ezra Klein's points about it.  You can see the transcript here at Vox if you prefer not to listen to the podcast version.

I want to look at a portion of the conversation and quote the transcript to address the issue of scientific racism:

Ezra Klein: Something you brought up a couple times is something I wrote in my piece, and I am actually very happy to talk about this. I say that the belief that African-Americans are genetically less intelligent than whites, and then also inferior in other ways, which I’m not saying you guys said, is our oldest, most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry. Do you disagree with that? When you look at American history, when you look at what we said at the dawn of this country and all the way through the 1950, the 60s, when I say that, am I wrong?
Sam Harris: In a sense you’re wrong. I agree with the spirit of it. I think you could say the Bible is just as much of a justification, the notion that the race of Ham came under a curse and that these races have a separate theological stature. You had Bible-thumping racist maniacs defending slavery and without any reference to science. That’s a great American tradition.
I think tribalism is at the bottom of it and perceiving other people who look different and sound different from yourself as ineradicably different. I think that is a problem we must outgrow, and I fully agree with the social concerns that follow from noticing how far we have to go in outgrowing that.
Ezra Klein: One of the things I detect in this conversation, this maybe gets to something we discussed that we would talk about later and maybe we’ve hit that point. Something I detect here is the idea that, and I want to think about how to phrase this carefully, because I want to do it without making you defensive, is that ideas can only fit into this lineage if they are being said with racial animus, if they are being said by someone who doesn’t like the people they’re talking about.
I think an important thing when we study the history of racism in this country is that it has always had a scientific wrapper. It has always been not something people thought they were doing because they were hateful, it was something they thought they were doing, because it was true.

This is the area where I think Sam Harris' tribalism (which Ezra Klein accused him of ignoring) is actually a factor.  Sam Harris has a fundamental commitment to science and scientific values.  He's a neuroscientist himself.  He's part of the tribe of scientists and pro-science public intellectuals.  He's gone so far as to claim that morality can be grounded in a scientific framework.

My sense is that Harris's self-perception is that he's taken his tendencies toward tribalism into account and mitigated those already.  Also, he doesn't pretend that no one has ever used science to support racist ideas.  He acknowledges this, albeit briefly.

I don't think the tribalism is a problem for him here in a straightforward and obvious way.  It's more roundabout, and by way of his views on religion.

Even very rigorous philosophers who regularly take into account their own biases, when they happen to be religious, can easily tilt the way they interpret the strength of the arguments against their religious views to avoid dealing with the full strength of those arguments.  I'm sure Harris is familiar with this process from long experience.

What I would suggest is that the same tilting of the way the strength of the arguments is interpreted is happening here.  The strength of the arguments regarding the extent to which the Bible was used to rationalize slavery in the U.S. is given a bit greater weight because Harris is committed to opposing religions generally and for that reason the various religious tribes (who generally oppose him).

At the same time, he is unlikely to weight the strength of the arguments regarding the extent to which scientific research was used to rationalize slavery and eugenics and so on in the U.S. so heavily because his view of science is that it is helping us leave those ideas behind rather than keeping us in those ideas as he believes religion does.

My view of the issue is that religious views rather than scientific views played a larger role in maintaining slavery, and that religious views rather than scientific views played a larger role in ending slavery (and the Jim Crow laws and segregation which followed) in the U.S.

It was much more the American moral sense formed by Christianity that motivated the change in views on the issue of slavery and the issues of Jim Crow laws and segregation.  The scientific evidence we have now does indeed support the view that traditional racial categories are not very accurate as a description of intra-species differences in humans, but this evidence was not yet well-established and popularized during the colonial era or the Civil War era.

What was well-established at that point were the Christian moral arguments for slavery and the Christian moral arguments against slavery.  And it was those religiously-motivated moral arguments that carried the day, and still inoculate us against a return to slavery.

Scientific research doesn't, by itself, produce moral progress in a society.  It's typically used in a self-serving way by both sides of any given controversial moral issue, but it's not what motivates societies to change.  And that's for a very simple reason: science is generally not what motivates people to change (religion is much more motivating), and it's the people who need to do the changing for societies to change.

Now, I would feel safe betting that Sam Harris would agree with me that people ought to be more motivated by scientific findings.  He and I would likely reach an accord quickly on that point. 

Certainly more quickly than an accord could be reached by Harris and Klein on the question of whether or not Klein's publishing of articles contra Murray and Harris poisons the space for debate on important issues.

I think it's probably true that Klein's behavior has contributed to poisoning the space for public debate on the policy implications of IQ score differentials, but only ever so slightly.  It was a poisonous space for debate long before Klein was involved, and I don't see his contribution being a very large one.

I would also say that Klein is dead wrong about the most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry being the belief that folks with dark skin are less intelligent than those with light skin.  The roots are deeper than that.  Bigotry based on physical characteristics is much older than any of the recorded history for the colonial era (or even the medieval era), and likely much older than any recorded history...period.

We need to look deeper for the roots of bigotry, and even slavery, which is older than any of the religious traditions or scientific findings that have recently been used to rationalize its continuance.  We can and should do this while still guarding against future uses of moral reasoning grounded in those religious traditions and scientific findings to bring slavery back or to continue other kinds of ongoing injustices.

I think Klein is exactly right, however, that racism in the United States has consistently had a scientific wrapper.  And that we ought to be skeptical of our ability to claim today that we can be reasonably sure that the scientific data showing differences in average IQ scores among populations represents a real innate difference in IQ due to heritable traits.

I can acknowledge that the data exists while remaining agnostic as to the exact causes and their implications (which I do).  This curious agnosticism with regard to the question would probably have been a better approach for many people who used scientific research to prop up their racism in the past or the people who continue to use it that way today.

I think we need to make sure that we are not waking up to the problem of racism, still half-asleep and stumbling around while unable to see that the same old pitfalls are still there.

It is probably better to give ourselves a chance to wake up fully before we attempt to leave our resting place too boldly, and then we can make our way more safely while avoiding those old pitfalls.

Sadly, I'm not sure any of us are fully awake at this point.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Praying with Icons: The New Martyrs of Libya

The waves of the ancient sea move steadily
to and fro upon the ancient shore readily
soaking up the blood spilled on the grains
of sand which have seen many bloody reigns.

The lips of the martyrs refuse to deny Him,
the Son of God who died crucified for them
and rose again that they might have a life
beyond the cold stroke of the deadly knife.

The crowns of those who died for the Son
rain down around the glassy sea, all won
by those who remained faithful to Love's
command, so wise to be gentle as doves.

Those who die with Him arise with Him
into the heavenly life prepared for them
by the gentle Father with whom the Son
and the Holy Spirit are dwelling as One.

The above is a picture I took of an icon of the New Martyrs of Libya which I ordered from legacyicons.com.

Below is a list of the names of those martyrs whom you can ask for intercession.

Unfair Questions: Was Jesus a Buddhist monk named Issa?

Recently, an article which claims that "Jesus Was a Buddhist Monk Named Issa Who Spent Time in India and Tibet" was brought to my attention.

Given that I've studied both Buddhism and Christianity in an unusual amount of depth for a layperson, and that I've seen some interesting parallels between them, you might think that this is something I would leap to believe.  But even when I was first introduced to it, I didn't buy in.  I just thought it was an interesting possibility.

When I went to college for my first degree, I encountered this idea that perhaps Jesus traveled to India and became a Buddhist monk for a number of years before returning to his homeland.  At the time, I thought it was an interesting and exciting idea (partially because this was shortly before I seriously considered converting to Buddhism).

Why does this theory remain so popular?  For several reasons.  The first being its explanatory power.

The explanatory power of this theory is that it explains where Jesus was between the Presentation at the Temple and the period of time shortly before his public ministry began at the Wedding at Cana.  It fills a big narrative gap in the story of Jesus' life, which we like because we are not comfortable with narrative gaps once we notice them.

There's not inherently anything wrong with wanting to fill in gaps in our knowledge.  That kind of desire is generally good.  At the same time, we ought to be careful about how we find the missing pieces of knowledge.  We need a way to assess which explanation is more likely to be accurate before using it to complete the narrative.

This helps us avoid getting conned.  One common way of persuading people to believe falsehoods is to call their attention to a gap in their narrative, and then propose a way of filling that gap which pulls on their heartstrings and their confirmation bias leads them to believe without properly checking the evidence.  (You can see this tactic being used in the BBC documentary displayed at the end of the article.)

The other appeal of the theory is that it fits the intuitions of many people who believe instinctively that for a religious figure to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he must be a cross-cultural figure with universal appeal.  And because there is a high degree of fascination with Buddhism in the West along with high levels of residual belief in Christ, it's natural to gravitate to a theory that connects them and (from their perspective) lends legitimacy to both religious traditions.

It also pokes those stodgy close-minded establishment Christian groups in the eye and subverts their beliefs, which is another advantage for many who are cynical about the religious groups in their home countries in the West.  These are the parts where the confirmation bias is coming in.

The trick here is validate folks' residual attachment to Jesus as a great religious figure and/or personal savior while also feeding their dislike of traditional Christian religious perspectives.  Everyone involved gets to feel like they are subverting the oppressive traditional and institutional religious groups while at the same time confirming their own more enlightened views.

This isn't a new technique, and it's used quite regularly today, but if we're not aware of it, it's easy to fall for it, whatever your religious views might be.

All that said, what do we use to fill in the narrative gap?

The simple answer is that we examine competing theories and see which theory is supported by the available evidence.

Is the story told by Nicolas Notovitch, the theory that Jesus traveled to India and studied as a Buddhist, supported by the evidence?

No.  Actually, a well-known scholar of Eastern religions (he prepared the English translations of the Jain works in my personal library), found out pretty quickly that Notovitch fabricated his claims.

Even Bart Ehrman, a secular scholar of the history of religions who is happy to prod traditional Christian believers using historical evidence, admits that this theory was just started as a hoax.

It takes only a short time to check this information, and does not require extensive research.

So why would people continue to peddle his theory?

I will leave it to my readers to fill in the gap in the narrative as to their motives.

Related: How similar are the births of the world's major religious figures?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Fair Questions: Why charismatic worship?

In Catholic circles, charismatic worship styles are not always approved of, either by laypeople or clergy.  Of course, the Catholic Church as an institution has approved of it in some fashion, and indeed has even encouraged it as part of the life of the Church.

We can see this in the video below:

How did you react to the charismatic worship in the video?

There are at least a couple of obvious dangers when watching charismatic worship. It is easy, if your intuitions about how worship ought to be done are that this is a wrong way of worshiping, to write it off and assume bad faith or spiritual or emotional immaturity on the part of both participants and leaders.

It is also easy, if your intuitions about how worship ought to be done is that this is a great way of worshiping, to ignore the concerns of those who think it is not and go on about how wonderful and energizing it is without asking whether or not it's spiritually healthy.

As a former Pentecostal, I am aware of both the value and the risks of charismatic styles of worship. We ought to be able to loudly and with deep emotion express our longing for God. Charismatic worship is a way to do that., a way to fulfill this potent emotional need for freely expressing our joy to our Creator and Savior.

The big danger is that a reliance on this emotionally powerful form of worship can unbalance us spiritually. We can begin to rely on the swell of feelings as a way of buoying up our faith life, and that's a real problem, because then our faith begins to fail once the big swell of feelings is gone and the hard work of ordinary spiritual growth through suffering sets in.

Each type of worship is prone to become unhealthy for us in different ways.  Liturgical prayer, for example, can easily become a ritualistic practice disconnected from the heart, a purely mechanical process in which we simply repeat the words without integrating their spiritual significance into our lives through the heart, the intellect, the will, and ultimately the soul.

This must be vigilantly guarded against, of course.  And fortunately, the beauty of the ancient Christian liturgies tends to draw us out of purely rote and mechanical recitation anyway.  This helps to keep us from falling into the pitfall of empty worship.  Similarly, we need something to keep us from falling into the pit of mere emotional exuberance for its own sake, an emotional high that has the same basic function as a chemical high and is primarily selfish.

My advice to any Catholic community engaging in charismatic worship is to make sure that it doesn't begin to take the place of the solemn Mass or change the way we celebrate Mass (via ignoring or flouting the rubrics by adding things to the Mass), and that it remains a supplement to the spiritual life of the community rather than becoming its daily bread.

There's real value in charismatic worship.  As with all things of real value, the key is to keep it in right order with the other valuable parts of our spiritual lives.