Monday, May 25, 2015

The Future of the Roman Catholic Church

5/25/2015—It is a mark of the richness of the Roman Catholic Church that two men who have recently been beatified, and one now a saint, had conflicts with each other when they lived. I’m speaking of Archbishop Oscar Romero and John Paul II.

I am no expert in these matters. The story of the Pope’s concern about communism and Marxism in Central and South America leading him to blindness concerning the death squads and oppression in some of these countries, notably El Salvador, where Archbishop Romero was murdered, is well known. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the story is largely a myth. You could look at Filip Mazurczak’s piece from February 2015 to see this other side.

I am most interested, however, not in the conflict, but in how the Church could respond so well to the needs of the time in these disparate areas of the globe. JP II was needed in Poland. His stance against the inhuman oppression of communism will stand forever in the annals of human rights.

But liberation theology and the stance of the Church with the poor against overwhelming economic and military power, symbolized by Romero, was also needed then and is needed today in the face of global capitalism. The Church is able to respond to both. Can this be said of any other institution in the world today?

This brings me to Ireland. The media is reporting the very welcome news of Ireland’s endorsement of gay marriage as a defeat for the Church. And I suppose you could say that. The Church spends a lot of time and effort opposing gay marriage.

But the stories only obliquely refer to the illegality of abortion in Ireland. This matter, a crucial matter, a matter of life and death apparently finds no similar cultural change. Perhaps it is not a decline of the Church. Perhaps the Church is simply wrong about gay marriage.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Finally, a Krugman Column on the Trade Pact

5/23/2015—Well, I finally got the op-ed from Paul Krugman on the proposed trade pact (the Trans-Pacific Partnership—TPP) that I have been waiting for. The column appeared Friday.

If you read the column really carefully, Krugman is, as he has said in his blog, mildly opposed. But it is a mealy-mouthed opposition. There are reasonable people on both sides, he says.

Krugman ends up writing mostly about how the Obama Administration has not been forthright. The President has not made the case etc. It's not really about trade, it's about intellectual property—as if protecting property rights is not an aspect of free trade.

Krugman even seems to say that free trade is no longer important—because we have already realized most of the available benefits by generally lowering tariffs.

But this is a real sleight of hand. Many of the opponents of the TPP are opposed to free trade. They believe that we would be better off with tariffs and other trade barriers. If they are wrong about that, shouldn't Krugman have said so?

Krugman wants the issue to be technical and narrow. But it is not. The Democratic Party is turning against trade. Krugman disagrees with this new thrust. Why does he not say so?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Martin Heidegger’s Humanism

5/19/2015—Well, that title is certainly misleading. Heidegger made clear that he was not a part of humanism in the Letter on Humanism. Every humanism is grounded in metaphysics that Heidegger was trying to overcome.

But yesterday, in reading Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy, I came across indications of the place of the human being that I could only call humanism.

The terms will be strange upon first hearing them. The subtitle of Contributions is Of the Event. The event is that which appropriates the human being. (You could return to the statement in Introduction to Metaphysics—the human being is that being for whom being is an issue).

Heidegger writes often of the gods or the god. You could hear divinity. But you could also hear history. Creativity. Holiness. Significance. Heidegger places the Supreme Being of Christian and Jewish thought in the tradition of metaphysics. So he is not speaking of a being when he speaks of God.

Here are the two sentences that struck me. “[The fissure of being] can come into question only if the truth of beyng as event lights up, specifically as that of which the god has need in such a way that the human being belongs intrinsically to the event.” “The appropriating event conveys god to the human being, even while it assigns the human being to god.”

In some way, Heidegger sees being as between the human being and the god. The point for me is not just that the human being is claimed—Heidegger would write that expressly in the Letter on Humanism. The point for me is that the god needs the claimed human being.

This is not a recapitulation of Christian thought, though it evokes Christian thought. It is an essential task of humans. God—the call of what is essential here and now—comes to us and we are thereby claimed.

This is a way to think human life that could be called religious, though Heidegger would point out that such universalisms are metaphysical. This thinking calls forth a credible way of life outside the usual categories of religion and nonaffiliation. There is something important for humans to be.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Where Is the Democratic Party Leadership on Trade?

5/18/2015—I thought pandering to the base was a Republican Party monopoly. Apparently not. Specifically, where is Paul Krugman on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the Trade Deal?

In his op-eds, Krugman is pro-free trade. But he has been mostly silent on the opposition in the Senate by Democrats to the TPP. I had thought that Krugman was afraid to say he supports the deal because Democratic Party sentiment is against it. Turns out, if you read his blog, he mildly opposes the deal and does not think it that important. He says it is not really a trade deal.

But there is a larger point here. The New York Times today ran a story about a closed refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois that Barack Obama had noted in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. It’s still closed. The workers are still out of work or underemployed.

In other words, the argument is not just over this trade deal, but still over the NAFTA. On this issue, Krugman originally supported free trade, rather strongly, but in the telling by William Greider in the Nation in 2013, Krugman has since pulled back in his support.

Look, I don’t know about trade. I assume that it is generally a very good thing. And even closed factories in the US would probably have closed anyway, free trade or no. But I can be persuaded by a real debate.

But what is needed is that real debate within the Democratic Party—and we are not having it. Right now, there is less discussion of the trade issue in the Democratic Party than over global warming in the Republican Party. Why am I reading about trade in Krugman’s blog and not in his columns? It ought to be possible to decide whether the NAFTA was overall a good thing for America or not. This absence of discussion is more indication of the sickness within our political life than the partisan gridlock in Washington.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Philip Kitcher’s Life After Faith Attacks Transcendence

5/16/2015—Philip Kitcher should have written the book that transforms secularism. The book he did write, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, does not appear to be that book.

I’m in the midst of it and having trouble finishing it because it’s sort of boring. As I expected from the book reviews, there is too much attacking religion. The book is supposed to be about life after faith, not about why people leave religious faith. The case against religion is not important and has certainly been done to death. (It’s not important because people don’t leave religious traditions because of arguments and, anyway, why should anyone try to get people to leave religious traditions?)

But I am struck by how Philip (I’m trying out first names in an attempt to promote human solidarity) defines the basic terms of the religion/secular divide. On page 6, in the setup, he writes that secularism (I hate the term secular humanism—the point is the truth of reality of which humans are just a part, not the whole thing) demands of religion a reply to only one question—“[t]he core of secularist doubt is skepticism about anything ‘transcendent.’”

Philip describes the transcendent as “something beyond the physical, organic, human world… .” Now, leaving aside human world—if Philip means materialism, why not just say so?--obviously, love and music are beyond the “physical, organic.” Or, maybe later in the book, Philip will explain how all of existence is rooted in the physical, which it is, but humans do not yet understand the connections. Think of the brain and consciousness.

But I don’t think Philip is going in that direction. He also writes a revealing additional description of transcendence in relation to Christian resurrection—“there was no abrogation of normal physical and organic processes.”

Well, OK. But a very different claim. Somewhere I have written—probably more than once—the world is all there is, but there is more to the world than meets the eye. If all it means to be secular is not to believe in things that violate scientific laws as we know them, a lot of religion remains quite safe. Wittgenstein (not using Ludwig) answered Philip years ago in two observations about early tribes—their religions told many stories, but not that enemies’ heads exploded during battles and when they carved weapons, they did so with exactness and not by myth. In other words, early man did not abrogate the laws of science. There remains a great big mysterious world of otherness out there without denying anything scientific.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Religion Trends in America

5/13/2015—I suppose that I should be expected to be happy about the news reported yesterday by the Pew Research Center that the group of which I am a member, the religiously unaffiliated—the nones—is rapidly growing. But I’m not.

The numbers of startling. As of 2014, the nonaffiliated are now 23% of the adult American population. (Presumably, the real percentage is even higher since this is self-reporting). Meanwhile, the percentage of self-identified Christians is 71%. Sounds high, but it was 81% just a few years ago and 90% if I remember correctly in 1963.

Well, what of it? My concern is with the future of American life. We forget that, according to the sociologist Robert Putnam—the Bowling Alone guy—going to church is one of those aspects of social capital that help wealthier people live better lives and help their children advance—along with other things, like getting and staying married. Today, if people are not going to some kind of church, chances are that their kids are not going to do well.

We don’t think of things this way, of course. But having a church is like any other part of a rich social life. Not having one is not just a declaration of independence from God. It is also cutting one more social tie in life.

One more depressing fact, from Frank Bruni in today’s New York Times—the percentage of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track is higher than ever: 62% to 28%. This trend has continued uninterrupted for the past ten years.

Now of course, there is a sense that we are on the wrong track; by almost any measure the trends are bad for America. But since America is also doing pretty well today by any world standard and much better than we have been since the 2008 economic crisis, you would think the surveys would at least show improvement. But they do not. Is that because religion is also a source of optimism about the future and America is less religious?

America is going to continue to get less religious: 35% of the millennials are unaffiliated. Real Christian commitment is already pretty rare—I noticed last week that many Catholics mistake references at a Catholic funeral to resurrection with references to heaven, for example. There is no point bemoaning this.

But if declining religion is not going to mean declining everything else, nonaffiation is going to have to be translated into new affiliation. I don’t know what social forms that will take. But I do know that nonreligious life is going to have to be social and have substantive content—a story if you will about the nature of reality. A story from which to live.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading Heidegger I

5/12/2015—-What is needed for secularism in America, and in the West generally, to flourish? By secularism, I refer, as I do in Hallowed Secularism, to that great movement of what could be called “unchurching” that leads to human life outside of religious myths and images. It is no longer unusual for young people in America to have never lived within the teachings, stories and calendar of any religion.

That is something quite new. Almost all people my age in America grew up within a religion, usually some form of Christianity. And even among people in their forties today, that is the case. But, among people in their thirties and twenties, that trend changes. And this will continue to be the case, more and more.

So, what is needed for religiously nonaffiliated people to live satisfying lives? To answer that, we must think about what religion does for people, even for people who no longer believe in the religion in which they were raised.

Religion offers an orientation to reality. Religion answers the question, what is reality like at its deepest, most real level? Secularism needs to be able to offer answers to that question.

Obviously, I am suggesting that secularism cannot do that now. Instead of serious attempts to grapple with the question of the nature of reality—-of ontology-—secularism currently offers a hodgepodge of materialism, positivism, naturalism, empiricism and rationalism. None of these orientations is really satisfactory, which will become clear once secularism moves away from bashing religion to attempting to ground human life.

Thus, I turn to the philosopher Martin Heidegger for that orientation. I have been reading philosophy and religion with my teacher, Robert Taylor, since the early 1980’s. We started with a group that read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations line by line for ten years. Robert and I studied a variety of philosophical and theological works after that, but recently we have been studying Heidegger’s great work, Contributions to Philosophy, an hour and a half in the morning, Monday through Thursday. It is slow going.

Under Robert’s influence, I have begun to interpret Heidegger in a very religious way. Indeed, sometimes Heidegger seems to me to be retelling the Christian story in non-dogmatic terms. He writes of God and gods and seems to be referring to divinity itself—certainly he rejects the notion of a supreme being just as he finds the classical metaphysical tradition in general to be at an exhausted end. Divinity is what moves history.

I have not been referring to this Heidegger study, but now I think that I must. Secularism needs Heidegger to set itself on some kind of ground. Gradually, in pieces, I want to explore what that might mean.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Two Odd Things about the Shootings at the Cartoon Contest Last Week

5/10/2015—Happy Mother's Day to all. A secular holiday if ever there was one.

There were two odd things about the reactions to the shootings last week in which a police office shot and killed two would-be terrorists obviously intent on killing people involved in the Mohammed cartoon contest. [I have no idea why authorities will not confirm this motive when it is so obvious. One of the two shooters reportedly had ties of some kind to radical Islamic movement and everyone knows that some Muslims believe it is proper to kill people who demean the Prophet by representing him visually. Anyway, why else would they be there with assault rifles—a Second Amendment display? Actually, that does make you wonder why the NRA did not protest the shootings. Surely it can't be a crime to carry assault weapons in Texas.]

One oddity is the sudden love affair between conservative Christians and the First Amendment. Some years ago, when a crucifix was placed in a jar of urine, some of the same people were calling for an end to government funding for the arts. Now, I realize that ending funding and shooting people are quite different. And even then, no one thought the artist could be put in jail. I only mean that it is not inherently good to make fun of peoples' religious beliefs. Doing so is not something admirable.

But this leads me to the second odd reaction—or rather silence. This is one of those "I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is absolutely true that if there are people willing to kill others whose speech offends them, that speech absolutely must go forward, whether or not the speech is offensive. Otherwise, the criminals will decide what can be spoken in this society and we are no longer free.

Where are my fellow first amendment fundamentalists on the left? I almost want to send money to the group that sponsors these cartoon contests. And I certainly want my tax money spent defending them. They are willing to risk their lives for the sake of speech. How many of us are willing to do that?

And as for the fact that they are anti-Muslim—well at the moment, the only point they are making is that some Muslims believe that Islam is inconsistent with free speech. I believe the shootings make their point about that quite well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Iconic Picture of Burning Silliman Hall

5/6/2015—This year is the 50th anniversary of the famous picture of Silliman Hall burning as a high school football game continues to be played between Mt. Herman and Deerfield Academy. So much of my life was formed at Mt. Herman that I have to mention here that this photo appeared in the New York Times today. Why today I have no idea.

Mt. Hermon is a good reflection of the trends in society that led us to the secularized place we are now in America. When I went there from 1966-1970, it was still a very Christian school, but was subject to the buffeting of the 1960’s. (The school and its sister school, Northfield, were founded by Dwight Lyman Moody, the great evangelist of the 1890’s.)

A little over 25 years later, when my older daughter graduated, it was still pretty religious, but very much interreligious, with a curriculum emphasizing the world’s religions and their wisdom. But I’m not sure how long that phase lasted. By the time the son and younger daughter graduated, over the next 7 years, my impression is that the religious emphasis was fading under the influence of good works in the world: a sort of combination of psychology and ethics.

I don’t know much about what the school is like today.

The story about the photo emphasizes that today, the football game would have been stopped—too much fear of a lawsuit or some safety danger. Undoubtedly that is true. Undoubtedly, a decline in society.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Choosing to be Good Without God

5/4/2015—I had no idea that there had been a particular Christian response to the claim that atheists can be good without God. Last night I watched the beginning of Time Changer, a self-identified Christian movie from 2002. In the movie, a Professor at Grace Seminary in 1890 has written a book that argues that the Church should teach morality without attaching that teaching to the authority of Jesus Christ. Another Professor, who has seen where such teaching leads because his father invented a time machine, opposes Seminary endorsement of the book. To settle the matter, he sends the author into our future to see for himself.

Not a great movie, but a great question. Satan does not oppose morality. Satan’s enemy is Jesus Christ. People who suppose that if they are good people, they are going to heaven are in for a shock when they end up in hell.

We do see today the decline in confidence about the good and all sorts of experiments are going forward to find a solid ground for making judgments. Sam Harris argues that science can show us what is good. Peter Singer is arguing in a recent book—The Most Good You Can Do—that reason leads us to what he calls effective altruism. And so forth.

The problem is not deciding to do good. The social crisis is that doing the good becomes merely a personal choice. The decline is not in morality as much as it is in authority, just as the movie argues.

So, the question is not what is good. The question is what is binding. Or, as Heidegger is translated—“what holds sway.” Here is where many modern people have a problem—with any claim of authority.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How to be Spiritual but not Religious

4/29/2015—It is hard not to be religious. It is hard to know what to do. This is more a question of ritual and practice than of belief. Consider the book review by Meghan O’Rourke of The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.

The book is a memoir of the sudden death of Alexander’s husband and her response to it. He was relatively young. They were very much in love. It was sad.

That said, my point here is the difficulty. Here is how O’Rourke puts it: “One might argue, of course, that the recent swarm of grief memoirs is just another manifestation of our confessional culture of self-disclosure. I’m biased — I wrote one of these books myself — but I think what we’re seeing here is something deeper and more useful: a desire to understand and give shape to an experience that defines us, an experience that is ethical and social in nature. How we grieve alone tells us something about who we are together. These books teach us that grief is not something merely to endure, medicate away or ‘muscle through,’ but an essential aspect of life — even a kind of privilege. ‘What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture?’ Alexander asks, devastated by her seemingly unbearable loss, searching for meaning where none initially presented itself.”

You never hear about things like this. But this is what a religious tradition really gives: a way of living. Something to do when your spouse dies. In contrast, the secularist does everything herself. And who can bear that?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Is Matter Enough? But What is Matter?

4/25/2015—The physicist Freeman Dyson reviews Steven Gimbel’s book, Einstein: His Space and Time in the New York Review. Dyson concentrates on politics and what he calls Einstein’s philosophy, by which he means “a general view of nature.”

It is here that the usual disagreement between believers and nonbelievers (in orthodox religion) comes into play. Atheists and their fellow travelers like to say that we follow reason and evidence. It is a silly claim—like believers saying that they are good, I guess—but it is also incomprehensible, as Dyson shows. We have no idea what nature is like.

According to Dyson, Einstein’s general view of reality “describes nature as a single layer of observable objects with strict causality governing their movements. If the state of affairs at the present time is precisely known, then the laws of nature allow the state at a future time to be precisely predicted. The uncertainty of our knowledge of the future arises only from the uncertainty of our knowledge of the past and present. I call this view of nature the classical philosophy, since all objects obey the laws of classical physics.”

Einstein’s view is that of most of the nonaffiliated. But ten years after Einstein worked this out, Niels Bohr, looking at quantum mechanics as understood by Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, described “the universe as consisting of two layers. The first layer is the classical world of Einstein, with objects that are directly observable but no longer predictable. They have become unpredictable because they are driven by events in the second layer that we cannot see. The second layer is the quantum world, with states that are not directly observable but obey simple laws. For example, the laws of the second layer decree that every particle travels along every possible path with a probability that depends in a simple way on the path.” The two layers are connected by “probabilistic rules.” The future in the first layer is in principle uncertain.

Bohr’s understanding dominated the twentieth century and led to new sciences dominated by mathematical symmetries at the quantum level that were only approximate for the world we know. Both layers are real, but we don’t understand their connection.

Today, however, a new generation of scientists reject Bohr’s dualism. According to Dyson, these new scientists believe that only the quantum world exists and the classical world is an illusion brought about by a process called decoherence that erases many quantum effects.

Then Dyson gives this summary: “there are three ways to understand philosophically our observations of the physical universe. The classical philosophy of Einstein has everything in a single layer obeying classical laws, with quantum processes unexplained. The quantum-only philosophy has included everything in a single layer obeying quantum laws, with the astonishing solidity and uniqueness of the classical illusion unexplained. The dualistic philosophy gives reality impartially to the classical vision of Einstein and to the quantum vision of Bohr, with the details of the connection between the two layers unexplained. All three philosophies are tenable, and all three are incomplete. I prefer the dualistic philosophy because I give equal weight to the insights of Einstein and Bohr. I do not believe that the celestial harmonies discovered by Einstein are an accidental illusion.”

Now this is a physicist writing, a Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. So, I’m sure this account of our situation is accurate.

Most atheists know nothing of quantum theory. In a vague way, they assume Einstein’s view. They can’t be dualists because that would allow both this world and another world to be real, which would smell religious to them.

But that means, from the perspective of many scientists, atheists believe in an illusion—rather comically, precisely what they accuse religious people of believing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reform of Judaism

4/22/2015—Considering Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now, suggests the question of what other religious traditions need a reformation, from the point of former adherents, anyway. Hinduism on matters of caste? But hasn’t that been worked on quite a bit? Christianity on gender and sexuality? But, again, the tradition is hard at work on these matters. No one I know has a problem with Buddhism.

But what about Judaism? Granted, it is a tiny religion—around fourteen million in the world, mostly in Israel and America. But, for whatever reason, Judaism has an outsized influence on world events. I am not speaking of a world Jewish conspiracy, but that old canard does show the impact that Jews have had.

What is the problem with Judaism? Ironically, it is the same as the root of the problem in Islam—the problem of the other. In Islam, it is an insistence that everyone become a Muslim, or at least an unclarity as to what it means theologically that someone is not a Muslim. In Judaism, it is the meaning of the goyim—of the non-Jews in world history.

Years ago, the Jewish thinker and founder of Jewish Reconstruction, Mordecai Kaplan, called for an end to the concept of chosenness—the idea that Jews are the people chosen by God to be the fulcrum point of world history. But Kaplan’s call has had no effect.

Judaism traditionally teaches that the point of world history is what God has planned for the Jewish people. Eventually, the day is to come when the Jews are reinstalled in Israel and the Kingdom of God will reign. The only suggestion I know of the role of the other nations at that future time is that all the nations will worship God on the hills of Jerusalem.

There are warnings in the Torah that Jews should be especially sensitive to the stranger—“you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And the book of Ruth places an immigrant at the center of Jewish history as the ancestor of King David.

But the horrible history of the Jewish people—exile and death followed by a threatened existence in the modern State of Israel—has hardened Jewish concern for the survival of the Jewish people above all other considerations. So, I never heard religious insistence—that is, in the synagogue—to be kind to the stranger in the sense of the non-Jew in Israel and the West Bank. Nor did I hear that Jerusalem should be shared so that the Muslims may also worship God on the hills of the city. (though, to be fair, the religious sites in Jerusalem are open to all religions, as they were not before 1967).

I am speaking here theologically. There are many Jews in Israel and outside working for peace. And there are many Jews, again in and out, who favor harsh polices out of a feeling of necessity and not out of prejudice against others, who would love not to be threatened. But in both cases, the feelings are essentially secular.

What is the religious meaning of the current situation? What does Judaism teach about the land of Israel and its native population? And its neighbors? Obviously some of the ancient traditions are not good—in the Old Testament, they were to be exterminated. But what about later teachings? I have never heard clear religious thinking here. That is what I mean by the need for a reformation in Judaism.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Campaign Finance Becomes an Issue

4/20/2015—-not two days back from Cleveland and campaign finance has become an issue—-for the moment. As I told the Symposium audience on Friday, the simplest answer and most immediate answer is to eliminate caps on contributions. This would end the era of the super PACs.

But the fact that Mike Huckabee has now proposed this—if he did before, I was not aware of it—is the problem. For the moment, Democrats and liberals oppose this change. If only a few of them switched on this, eliminating contribution limits would pass tomorrow.

So, I asked them to act now. A few phone calls is all it would need and it would accomplish two things—first, put control back with the candidates and therefore with the voters. Right now, voters are told by candidates that they should not be held accountable for independent spending because they are not allowed to control it (which is technically true).

Second, because disclosure requirements are strict for candidates, all the sources of money would be known. Actually, this is not even strictly necessary, since candidates themselves would be forced to disclose or pay the consequences.

As I will show in an article for the Cleveland State Law Review, none of this is inconsistent with other reforms, such as public financing. No need to fix everything at once.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Taking a Break for Campaign Finance Reform

4/16/2015—My responsibilities this year at Duquense Law School have been preventing me from traveling and speaking—-and thinking, actually. But tomorrow, I take a break and head to Cleveland-Marshall Law School to speak at a symposium on campaign finance reform sponsored by the Cleveland State Law Review. The keynote speaker is Professor Larry Lessig, whose book, Republic, Lost, has achieved best-seller status.

I will be proposing the counter-intuitive strategy of eliminating contribution limits as a way of restricting the super PACs. Without contribution limits, money would go to candidates—-an enhancement of democracy—-and legal independence of the super PACs would be gone. That independence is a function of enforcing contribution limits. I am hoping for an op-ed tomorrow in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Going After Faith

4/12/2015—I have always thought that Philip Kitcher is the best of the New Atheists. That is the group that came to the consciousness of the American public around ten years ago arguing against religion. The first wave of the movement culminated in the late Christopher Hitches’ blockbuster, God In Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Other well known members of the group were Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. My own books, particularly American Religious Democracy (2007) and Hallowed Secularism, (2009), which no one can afford to buy, were written in opposition to certain aspects of the New Atheism, though acknowledging the reality that many people were leaving the religious traditions—including the author.

Kitcher was the best of this group because of his compassion for people, especially in Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith in 2007. He knew that religion offered something that people needed and he thought that trumpeting atheism without regard to that was almost cruel.

Kitcher’s recent book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, appears to continue in that vein. I haven’t read it yet so I’m not going to discuss it. I want instead to inquire after its starting point.

Why would anyone want to argue “the case for” an alternative to religion? In much the same way that almost all people born into a religion end up becoming members of that religion without actually evaluating the other religions, people don’t “choose” to cease believing and become secular. Once that happens, people might “choose” to leave or stay in a religious tradition physically, but once the supernatural becomes unreal, that is the end of a certain kind of faith. At least that is what happened to me. (I know that there is a tradition of radical doubt within the religious traditions, which leads to crisis, but that is another matter. In a culture in which the supernatural is in question, doubt need not be experienced as crisis.)

So, why seem to argue against religion and for secular humanism? In his review of Kitcher’s book in the New York Review, Adam Kirsch points out that “secular humanists have the duty to be evangelists.” That is how Kitcher and the others feel--evangelists against religion--and it is the wrong starting point. Since Kitcher has always said that faith is great for those who have it—-something Christopher Hitchens could never admit—-and since faith is not an option for those who don’t, why argue at all? In other words, why should the nonaffiliated write about religion, other than as a resource for secular life?

Therefore, the subheading of Kitcher’s book should have been “Life in Secular Humanism.” Kitcher knows this—-in fact, the blurb on Amazon reads, “Although there is no shortage of recent books arguing against religion, few offer a positive alternative—-how anyone might live a fulfilling life without the support of religious beliefs.”—-so why does Philip still speak of argument? Why does he devote a chapter to vindicating doubt about religion and another to refined religion that does not espouse supernatural belief?

The answer is that Hallowed Secularism—-or secular humanism-—is hard. Criticizing religion is easy.

Philip Kitcher does not accept the responsibility of this hour. How do we now live, now that God is dead? It is a simple question. But the question haunted Nietzsche. I doubt that the answer to that question is any kind of humanism. Humans are not in control of reality.

It may be that among the nonaffiliated, the differences may finally have to be confronted, which the preoccupation with religion still prevents. For me, the category of the transcendent is the starting point. Phillip points out that the transcendent cannot function the way traditional religion does. Fair enough. But is the transcendent real? Does it teach humans something lasting about reality? If it is real, then it, not reason, is our proper starting point.

The holy does not disappear when one stops going to church, synagogue, mosque or temple. It just becomes harder to live by it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Only Ten Years Stopping an Iranian Bomb

4/8/2015—I feel like I am living in some fantasy land. I heard an analyst today say that the proposed deal with Iran is a mistake because it would only delay an Iranian bomb for ten years and after that it might be easier for Iran to build a nuclear weapon than it is today.

I would have thought that the guarantee that we would have ten years breathing space would be greeted with rapture. A lot can happen in ten years, including peace and regime change or reform.

Everything I have heard about the deal makes it sound like the real thing. And the extremes to which critics are going to criticize it makes it sound all the better.

Which brings me to the real point. What is it about Iran that makes the Israeli government so crazed? Yes, Iran backs Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel. But really doesn’t Saudi Arabia do the same thing? And Israeli seems close to a tacit deal with the Saudis.

My theory is that the problem for the Israelis is that the Iranians are actually religious. The government of Israel is basically secularist. And that is true even on the right. There is a fear of what a really religious state might do—drop a bomb to bring on the apocalypse, maybe.

But Iran has not acted in such a weird way. The country suffered horrible loses in a war with Iraq. I don’t believe they would welcome an Israeli retaliatory bomb dropped on Tehran.

We made the mistake with the Soviet Union of thinking it would risk nuclear war. That was never true. It is not true of Iran either.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Making the Worst of Religion

4/3/2015—I hope my reaction was not partisan. One of the best pieces of news in years was the President’s announcement yesterday of a possible, not-yet-quite-final nuclear weapons deal with Iran. The very specificity of the announcement seemed to shock everybody. The New York Times referred to it as “surprising” and even Republicans in Congress were hesitant to condemn it. A real deal would change the politics. American does not want more war. Especially in the Middle East.

So, what headline does the Tribune Review run in its Passover story? Nuclear Deal in Iran Casts Pall Over Jewish Holiday in Pittsburgh.

Now, granted this newspaper is an opponent of President Obama. But it is still a newspaper. If the basic reaction the reporters had encountered had been cautious, overwhelming joy, they would have reported it. (My experience with the Tribune Review is that the reporters are very fair).

So, how does that look to everybody? It looks like another example of a religion in the way of peace.

This occurs at the same time that Good Friday arrives on the heels of religious believers forced to retreat on discrimination against gay people in Indiana and Arkansas.

Welcome to the new face of religion—discrimination and war.

Of course religion is supposed to stand up to the culture. So, all I can say here is that the religions in question are wrong. I’m all in favor myself of protecting that 70-year-old florist from delivering flowers to a gay wedding if she does not want to. But if that religious protection had been coupled with a gay marriage bill in the first place, and the rest of the bill linked with protections of sexual orientation from discrimination, none of the controversy would have happened. Religious believers offer gays nothing and then are surprised at the reaction.

Where is the lure of religion? Where is its surpassing beauty in a world of gray ordinariness? It’s there. Many, many millions will experience it during the next few days in Good Friday and Easter and Passover. But one of humankind’s reservoirs of insight is drying up, like a California lake.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Can the Cross Mean?

4/1/2015—What can the cross mean to the nonreligious? (I mean the nonaffiliated). After all, the cross is the intensely Christian symbol. What can it mean for the rest of us?

I’ve been reading Martin Heidegger’s difficult masterpiece, Contributions to Philosophy. Heidegger is on the traces of being. Heidegger writes that the original thrust of western philosophy turned from being to beings. That tradition of metaphysics culminated in the various sciences and is now exhausted. He is seeking a new beginning.

Philosophy seeks after the truth of being. Being is a formal symbol, which can be contemplated as how the holy, the sacred, comes to us. We have a hint of being as refusal.

Refusal is the mysterious secret of human life. We don’t know much. We can’t know much. But we can know that.

What is Jesus’ last moment on the cross but the refusal? “Why have you forsaken me?” God does not speak or reassure.

Yes, I know it is all happiness ever after on Easter, but that is not true of the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, the only way we know that the Kingdom of God endures after the cross is through the life of the participant.

Heidegger presents a new understanding of Christian knowing.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Think about Religious Exemptions

3/29/2015—For the last several years, I participated in a group that urged legislators to enact compromises on the issue of gay marriage. The legislature would amend the state’s marriage law to allow gay marriage, while at the same time enacting a religious exemption from participating in gay marriage. The group’s intellectual leader was the nation’s leading expert on church state, Douglas Laycock.

The group’s raison d’ĂȘtre has disappeared because the courts have brought about gay marriage judicially, thus leaving legislatures only to deal with the issue of religious exemption.

But religious exemption by itself, without the compromise of permitting gay marriage in the first place, presents a serious political problem. To understand the problem, and to see how it is playing out in Indiana right now, the reader must understand that there are two ways to think about a religious exemption from any kind of general law.

Perhaps the classic way of thinking about a religious exemption is to imagine a Jewish or Muslim prisoner who requests not to eat pork. The religious believer is focused only on his or her own religious life in such an example. The religious exemption is not intended to be a protest against the policy generally of prisoners eating pork.

But now imagine a devout prison guard, perhaps a Roman Catholic, who opposes the death penalty. The guard requests a religious exemption from participating in an execution partly out of concern for his or her own religious life but partly also as a protest against the underlying policy of the death penalty.

It is not usually necessary to distinguish between these two ways of thinking about religious exemptions because the religious believer in the second situation is usually such a minority that the protest part of the exemption is practically insignificant, politically speaking. The prison guard might hope to delegitimize the death penalty through a religious witness, but has no realistic expectation that this will happen.

But now consider the case of gay marriage. Although proponents of religious exemptions like to frame the issue in terms of the first example – – the 70-year-old Florist, who only wishes to be left alone by a gay couple about to be married – – the clearly political message being propounded by requests for gay marriage exemptions is opposition to gay rights. Religious believers are using exemptions to try to halt or retard the legitimation of gay marriage in particular and gay rights in general.

It is really not fair for proponents of religious exemptions in this context play such a double game. That is why compromise, like the Utah example in which discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was linked with a religious exemption, can work, whereas simple religious exemptions spark controversy, as in Indiana right now.

I am not suggesting that anything can be done to limit the problem of religious exemptions in the current political context. But it would be helpful to think in these terms. It would help explain to religious believers who are not involved in the gay-rights issue to understand why people might oppose religious exemptions. And it would also help proponents of gay rights and gay marriage to more clearly delineate what they can accept and cannot accept by way of religious exemptions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Holding Back the Chinese Tide

3/25/2015—Is there anything as pathetic as an aging power attempting to retard the rise of a new one? Or, as pointless? Thus, the failure of the Obama Administration to convince our allies, especially Germany, to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was both comical and embarrassing. Great Britain, Germany and France joined last week. Italy to follow.

Joining the Bank should have been seen as positive--as a way of bringing the Chinese into the international community in a way that might have enabled our European allies to influence their new partner in territorial disputes China is having with its neighbors. (Of course, our allies can still play that role).

But really what was the point? China is a rising power and very wealthy. And, unlike the US, able to act coherently. The surest way to conflict with China—unnecessary conflict—is to refuse to recognize that fact. In setting up this bank, China was not invading Ukraine. Was not insisting on its own sphere of influence to the exclusion of anyone else. China was expecting to use its new power to expand its influence. That is what nations do.

If this was a subtle game—I doubt it—reassure Japan and South Korea by appearing to oppose the Chinese Bank, it was too subtle for me. I was just embarrassed by my country.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Problem for Post-Netanyahu American Judaism

3/21/2015—Let’s assume that Netanyahu ran a racist campaign in which he revealed his true colors. He believes Arab Israelis have no place in Israel. He opposes creation of a Palestinian State. He wants the West Bank for Israel. He’s willing to bomb Iran. Etc.

Now what for American Judaism? Jews have been acting like supporting Israel through American power is a given and a good thing. That stance is now impossible for some American Jews because the policies above, which a majority in Israel voted for, do not deserve American support. So, support for Israel will have to end, or at least diminish. The Jewish vote in America is about to split. The Republican candidate in 2016 might get one-third of it. And maybe more than one-third of Jewish money.

But that is just politics and might be reversed by a deal with Iran that would force Congressional Republicans and Netanyahu to back down. America is not in a mood for war with Iran. The Democratic nominee for President in 2016 would love to run on such an agreement.

More difficult for American Jews is the religious question. Just what is Judaism apart from support for Israel? What is Judaism apart from identity?

The pre and post-war period of Jewish thought looks now like a golden age that ended. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were widely read in America. Who is read now among young American Jews? And the religious current was so strong that it could fruitfully merge with secular thought, as in the work of the Jewish existentialist Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. This is no longer happening in America.

The next step for American Judaism will have to be back to theology. Or, should I say, back to religious thinking. It is not clear that the resources are there for such a step.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sustainable Political Thinking

3/17/2015—The current conservative insistence that social disintegration is unrelated to money—so that the current push by the left to do something about income inequality will not raise taxes on the rich—is curious. It proceeds from an assumption that income inequality is not inherently bad, so that it is necessary to invent another goal other than redistribution to justify it. But, if worker productivity gains do not translate into more money for workers, then the bosses are stealing money that properly belongs to workers. You can correct that in different ways—stronger unions for example—but you don’t need a theory of culture to do something about it.

But the conservative drumbeat, by Ross Douthat and George Will, for example, reminds me that there is more to political life than money. In the same way that ecological systems must be sustainable, political life must also be sustainable. Political life that is nothing but argument by one side against the other is not sustainable.

There are different ways of thinking about the styles of political life. Right now, all America has is ideological confrontation. (It is not really ideological). That is getting us nowhere. This style suggests far more differences among Americans than is really present. We exaggerate our differences because our political goals are merely oppositional.

What would a more sustainable political life look like? I’m not sure. And maybe it is not possible. I’m told that the Permaculture Movement has an aspect of decision-making style. And it was once thought that President Obama’s career as a community organizer would aid him in building consensus in Washington. But that did not happen.

Maybe here, in styles of thought, is where philosophy could be of service to politics. Not philosophy in the analytic style of logic—though a little of that could not hurt in politics—but Martin Heidegger’s questioning after being. A more soulful politics. On the other hand, did Michael Lerner’s politics of meaning go anywhere in the 1990’s?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Would Prosperity Matter?

3/14/2015—The extent to which working people have contributed to the prosperity of the owners of capital is truly astounding. Since 1979, I read today, productivity has grown over 60%, but wages have climbed only 6%. Put another way, if wages had matched productivity, which in economic theory they should, the median wage today would be $54,000 rather than $35,000. That is a lot of money and it has gone to shareholders of corporations rather than to workers.

Now, what America should do about that, or whether anything could be done about that, is one question. But another question is whether a more equal distribution of the fruits of labor would make any difference.

That second question asks what you think the basic problem in America is. If you think the basic problem is economic, then obviously you try to do something directly about the money. But if you think the basic problem is something else, then you do something about the money, but also you look to do something else as well.

A friend of mine said last night that the basic problem in America is a general social breakdown. Students are dropping out of school. Families are not being formed. There is a general lack of social solidarity. There is great distrust.

If he is right, let’s ask whether a fairer distribution of income might contribute to more social cohesion? Would students be more likely to stay in school if they saw themselves getting really well paying jobs? They might. If the median income were much higher, would some people marry and raise children who now decide not to do so? They might. So, even if we accept what could be called a conservative view of America’s troubles, that the troubles are moral, we might decide that economic inequality has to be aggressively dealt with.

For me, the more fundamental breakdown is not economic or moral. It’s hard for me to give it a name. Let me say for now that the problem is that we hate each other. And it may even be deeper than that. Our language may be exhausted. (But that would not prevent us from doing something to spread the wealth around.) Maybe all our troubles start there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Well, Some Dare Call it Treason

3/11/2015—The news is dominated by the letter from 47 Republican Senators to the Iranian leadership explaining that they will not be bound by any deal President Obama makes with Iran. Even the sympathetic Daily News called them “Traitors” on the front page.

Well, why not? Why not send such a letter? Another sympathetic newspaper, the Tribune Review, wrote today that the letter was giving President Obama a dose of his own medicine. We have a President who legislates in violation of the separation-of-powers and a Congress that conducts its own foreign policy, also in violation of the separation-of-powers.

Yesterday, New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented relativism as it affects family life. He was referencing, if I remember correctly, Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. The poor lack values, Brooks wrote.

But Brooks is wrong to see nihilism only among the poor and only in intimate life. Here, in the President’s Executive orders and the Netanyahu speech and Iranian letter, is the face of nihilism. For nihilism is the lack of restraint that comes when there are no standards other than my own will. It is the will to power. Why shouldn’t the President act to promote good policy as he sees it? Why shouldn’t the Republicans try to protect the nation from the folly they fear?

None of us has faith that our existing institutions will vindicate the good in the long run. So, we have to act. We are ensnared in what Heidegger called the nihil, the nothing. All that is left is self-assertion. And it is on all sides.

I’m not without hope that we will not remain in this plight. Heidegger famously said “only a God can save us.” And he did not mean a return to old-time religion. But he did mean that a saving could happen.

The question is, how does it happen? I wonder if we could begin to prepare in law?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Watching the Left Behind Movie

3/7/2015—Last night I watched the highly entertaining Left Behind movie, starring Nicholas Cage, Chad Michael Murray and Cassi Thomson, and based sort of loosely on the novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

Let me say up front that, as Jackson Cuidon wrote in Christianity Today, this is not a Christian movie in the sense of raising any serious issues of theology about the Rapture in which believers are taken up to heaven by God before the tribulations of the end times can begin. Instead, it is, on the surface, a basic disaster movie with a plane landing with little fuel and a kind of alien movie, in which supernatural forces disrupt human life. Or maybe, as Cuidon also writes, it’s basically Harry Potter. [He also points out the cruelty with which a dwarf is treated in the movie as showing its unchristian heart.]

The rapture event is portrayed as entirely a matter of belief. You get taken because you believe something—presumably Christ as your savior. Other pious believers are not taken. This is symbolized by a Muslim in the movie. Undoubtedly, the producers were afraid to use a Jew in this context. This avoids the issue of the liberal Christian. In the movie, the world is binary—you are either a recognizable believer or not (or a child—all the children are taken). No instance of a rich person not taken because, although professing faith, he amassed too much money. One insincere minister is shown.

One issue raised in the movie is whether a loving God would act this way. Thomson’s character doubts it. Lots of people are killed, after all, when the Rapture happens. Airplane pilots are taken at a higher rate it seems than other adults.

Nor is the question raised whether Mom, who is taken, should have renounced Christ to be with her daughter in her time of need.

But I have more sympathy for the movie’s religiosity than Cuidon does. It’s very clear that the characters who are not taken are lost. A number of them are conventionally sinful—Cage is about to have an affair, for example. But some—Murray and Thomson—are not. They are good people who have not thought deeply about what human existence is about. They are brave and even loving, but they are in a kind of limbo. And because of that, they have no views on the structure of existence, human or otherwise. No critique by them of economics or anything else. Murray, the famous reporter, is asked about the tsunami he covered. He criticizes a believing woman who stayed with her child when she should have evacuated because God would protect her. But this is just the joke about God and the rowboat. (“I sent a rowboat to save you.”)

Revealingly, when he is asked by Thomson about the meaning of the tsunami, he has no answer. Not even, all those people could have been saved if more money had been spent on warnings.

So, Left Behind is a kind of wake-up call after all. Don’t drift through life. Make a decision. Not about religion, but about reality.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Foreign Leader Speaks

3/4/2015—Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to a joint meeting of Congress that the deal that President Obama is trying to make with Iran is a bad deal and should be rejected. I did not watch. Of course there are good and bad deals and I have no idea what the Administration will be able to do with Iran. From the perspective of a deal, Netanyahu’s speech might be helpful, since it will show Iran how difficult it is for the President to go forward. This might encourage Iran to reduce its own demands.

I am interested in what the speech will mean for the future of American Jewry and American politics. It seems obvious that Israel is now a politically partisan issue in a way it was not before. Before, Israel enjoyed almost automatic political support. But now any position Israel presses in America will be evaluated more like any other issue.

If the Administration does make a “one-year” deal with Iran—freezing activity so that it would take one year to make a bomb, Americans will support it. Such support would be overwhelming if Americans paid attention to foreign affairs. But it will be pretty high if the Administration mounts a “the alternative is war with Iran and more terrorism as a result” campaign. The Republicans are riding a bad horse here.

If that happens, American Jews will for the first time line up on the opposite side of a position that Israel is pressing. You might say that has already been happening in regard to building settlements in the occupied territories, but the matter has never been presented that dramatically.

The fundamental question is not an Iranian bomb, as important as that obviously is. The fundamental question is the nature of Judaism in America. If Judaism is not support for Israel, what exactly is it? The answer to that question will determine if Netanyahu’s speech will be seen in retrospect as a marker on the path to the end of Judaism in America or as the first step in a religious rebirth.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Is There Something Wrong?

3/1/2015—I am visiting our grandson and family and my thoughts turn to his future. (It is also my birthday) I see America and the West in general as running out of steam. Our basic commitments, such as democracy and the rule of law, no longer seem to inspire. As we experience one more threatened government shutdown, we must acknowledge that forces more powerful than our criticism of this or that political figure are in play. People in public life may not be at all different from how they were before. It may be the context that has changed. It may not be possible now to
perform properly in American public life.

If so, what does that mean for the life of my grandson?

As a symbol that something may be deeply wrong, take a look at pages 22 and 23 of the New York Times Book Review of February 22, 2015—two weeks ago. On page 22 is a review of Tom McCarthy's Satin Island; on page 23, a review of Jonathan Lethem's Lucky Alan short story collection.

The reviewer of McCarthy's book likens him to the French theorist Guy Debord, who coined the term "society of the spectacle." I can't tell that much from the review, but McCarthy writes about a world dominated by corporations and technology, from which authentic human relationships have more of less disappeared. This is the commodification of experience, of which Debord wrote. McCarthy doubles as a cultural critic of a decidedly ironic bent—his collaborator is Simon Critchley. It is questionable what these people offer beyond parody and loss.

Michael Greenburg's review of Lethem uses terms like absurdism to describe him. The best story, he writes, is the last one, Pending Vegan, in which a man with his family "feels under spiritual assault upon entering SeaWorld.

The point here is the lack of authenticity. This is not some personal failing. It is, instead, an absence of credibility. There is no larger story that makes sense of existence. Both these writers feel that.

The only beginnings of an alternative that I know of is the work of Martin Heidegger. Critchley's last book was about Heidegger. Maybe something will happen to change things and usher in a more hopeful future. But would you bet your life on that?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Transformed Without God

2/24/2015—The question is often asked, and resented by the religiously unaffiliated, can you be good without God? Obviously you can, say those who call themselves nonbelievers.

It’s the wrong question, for two reasons. First, religious practitioners are not good. They are terrible sinners. Just ask their traditions. The word “good” here means, I haven’t killed anybody. It does not mean I have lived in dedication to others, to truth, in depth or anything else. It does not even mean I have been faithful to those around me. It does not mean anything important. Jesus said, why do you call me good?

So we’re not good and that is related to the second point—-the question of life is not ethics. The question is transformation and human possibility. Organized religion is not too good at that. But non-organized religion is terrible at it.

To illustrate this, listen to how Phil Zuckerman describes secular life in his new book, Living the Secular Life—(by the way, I got this from a book review by Susan Jacoby in the New York Times) “He extols a secular morality grounded in the ‘empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world.’”

Now nothing about this is terrible. But it is boring. It’s proud of itself for accepting that we die. But Martin Heidegger long ago spoke of authentic human life as being toward death—-sein zum toda. Indeed, Cicero described philosophy as learning to die. This is not new and Zuckerman's take, extolling pragmatism, is empty. What is pragmatic if I’m going to die anyway? Does pragmatism mean reasonably self-regarding but not hurting anybody, at least not doing so outside normal limits? Why not just quote Google—don’t be evil?

But Google can be sinister, too. Good people are monsters sometime. Maybe most of the time.

Now, contrast this with the call to enlightenment in Eastern religion. Or the call to self-sacrifice in Christianity—he who would save his life will lose it. And what about living in depth, in art, for example? Or devotion to truth? Or anything that would make life worthwhile?

There is a view in secular thought that the problem with human life is the belief in transformative possibility itself, that such a view leads to death camps. This view was stated classically and elegantly by Isaiah Berlin. I just reread A Message to the 21st Century in the New York Review of Books, which says this specifically:

“Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.
***
The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. …This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false.
***
So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen.”

Berlin admits that his view “is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march.” His view “does not engage the generous emotions… .” But it will keep you from killing anybody and may to a certain extent improve the world.

This is the dead air of positivism. It is Phil Zuckerman’s air also. And I want to tell you that if all you can aim at is not killing anybody, you will not even succeed at that.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bad News From Ukraine

2/20/2015--There is plenty of bad news in the world this week. Certainly ISIS. The economic situation in Greece. But the potentially dangerous news had to do with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, is playing a deadly game. And no one knows what he wants--does he?

This morning, Ukrainian military forces continued their retreat from Debaltseve, while British fighters scrambled to intercept Russian bombers near the British coast.

We may assume that nothing is accidental. Putin is insisting on a free hand in Ukraine and is threatening--what? War with the West? Over what? A land bridge to Crimea? Incorporation of all Russian speakers into Russia?

At some point, there will be a response from the West that will be harmful but insufficient to deter Putin, who has put all his eggs seemingly in the Ukrainian basket. He can't back down without real political pain at home.

It is funny to see Putin participating in "cease fire" talks he has no intention of honoring. Putin controls the military situation in eastern Ukraine and there would be a cease-fire if he wanted one.

Meanwhile, what happened to the Obama Administration and its talk of military assistance to Ukraine? Where are the missiles extended to Poland?

Economic sanctions have worked. But they have not been dramatic enough. It's time for a different kind of response, mainly to remind Putin that he is playing with fire. Because he is and does not seem to realize it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Why Does ISIS Have Any Support?

2/13/2015—After all, everything about ISIS is repulsive to decent people. And that has nothing to do with the nature of one’s religion. Its action are horrifying to Muslims too.

And yet it does attract thousands of Western youths. Why?

I believe the reason is the emptiness of Western life—the bankruptcy of our ideals. The exhaustion of our tradition.

Two hints of this from the New York Review of Books. Sarah Birke in How ISIS Rules attributes the growth of the group to the absence of “convincing ideologies” in the West. And Mark Lilla in France on Fire points out that Republican ideology collapsed in French schools in the 1970’s and nothing really took its place.

What do we believe in? Conservative and libertarian thought is at heart a corrosive individualism. Capitalism is greed. Technology is an addiction. And liberalism no longer believes in its proffered truths.

Worst of all, we Americans have failed to build a political culture of affection and community. We hate each other. We mistrust each other. Why should young people find our way of life enticing?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Deep Cynicism of the Political Parties on the Electoral College

2/10/2015—A couple of years ago, the national Republican Party floated the idea of moving a couple of blue leaning states they controlled from winner-take-all Presidential election states to congressional district winning states. What the Republicans did not explain is that such a move would destroy democracy in the United States.

The reason this is so is the peculiar way we Americans elect the President. We do not vote directly for President but for Presidential Electors state by state who meet in the Electoral College and cast their votes for President. This system is a holdover from a theory of the framers of the Constitution that the President would be selected not democratically but as a result of a deliberative process—-like the way Cardinals elect the Pope.

America evolved to regard its President as necessarily democratically elected and that understanding sits uneasily on top of this rickety structure. Most of the time, the Presidential candidate with the most votes wins. Even when this does not happen, as in 2000, the vote is close.

The reason an undemocratic Electoral College usually yields democratic results is that most 48 states practice winner-take-all. Thus, Republican votes in California are discounted, as are Democratic votes in Texas. The system only works as a whole.

The system would also work if all the states divided their electoral votes by congressional district.

But if a couple of blue states changed to congressional district while the rest remained winner-take-all, only democratic votes would be discounted nationally. The result would be that the Republican candidate for President would usually win, even if that candidate received less votes. This might happen every time.

Obviously, that would be the end of democracy in America. Eventually, the people would wise up and some military coup would end Republican rule. The Republicans who floated this idea had no notion of how dangerous this idea was.

But to see how deep the cynicism is, in both Parties, the New York Times reports that Nebraska, one of the two states with congressional district election, is considering moving to winner-take-all.

All believers in democracy should rejoice. We need all states to go to winner-take-all and stay there.

But this is not how the matter is seen. Republicans are pushing it because they want to maximize their electoral vote—“It’s obvious that the majority of citizens of the State of Nebraska are Republicans,” said J.L. Spray, the state Republican chairman. “They want to have the maximum voice in the Electoral College.” Meanwhile, “Democrats, not surprisingly, are fighting back.”

No. Democrats should be very happy. They should press for a national commitment to keep the Electoral College as democratic as possible by having the same system in every state. But Democrats are no more committed to democracy than are Republicans.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Building Better Secularists

2/7/2015—Some kind of watershed in the growth of secularism passed this week. Four days ago, David Brooks wrote Building Better Secularists, which was a column about what secularism needs to be healthy—obviously of great interest to a hallowedsecularism blog. Last Sunday, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, two secularism stories appeared: Re-Creation, about the godless Sunday Assembly movement, and Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Sherman’s op-ed, Morality on the March, about how great the non-religious Enlightenment was.

OK. So secularism continues to grow. I’m glad I got in on the ground floor.

But all three instances demonstrated the same nihilism in secularism. Brooks was mildly criticizing, while it was unconscious in the Sunday Assembly and Sherman.

For Brooks, Phil Zuckerman’s book, Living the Secular Life, is the model of growing secularism: “Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.”

Now, of course, this is nuts. There is no reason to think that people who don’t go to church reason at all, just as there is no reason to think that people who go to church employ reason. Choice is usually an illusion, as much of psychology teaches us. Secularists are as prone to groupthink as anyone else—actually more, as you will see if you try to be pro-life in a Unitarian Church. Brooks makes this point and calls for “an enchanted secularism.” [holiness, Brooks, not magic—hallowed secularism].

The nihilism is implicit here. One builds one’s own moral code because the only standard is to thine own self be true.

The nihilism is also a little hidden in Sherman, who believes he is celebrating morality. But he give away the game by his reference to “human natural rights.” This is Sherman’s weak spot, because the point of natural rights was that they are independent of human choice. That is why majorities cannot take them away from us. Natural rights might be grounded in reason, of course, but it is the kind of reason employed by the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis—rights are what is proper to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we humans are. Efforts to ground rights outside traditional religion have proved impossible—have proved impossible within religions also, as Nietzsche saw.

Finally, the nihilism is explicit in the Sunday Assembly movement. These are people who feel they cannot go to church or synagogue, but who crave community. They are the people that Zuckerman and Sherman are writing about.

But, listen to how one such member described her spiritual journey—“it made more sense to be agnostic, to be open-minded, not believing any one thing is right or wrong.”

Now, thank God, (if you’ll pardon the expression) this person does not believe that. She believes plenty of things are right and wrong. But once you are in this habit of speech, you are lost. Reason is impossible. Reason requires the burning determination to understand the way things actually are. Thinking is only possible in an ordered universe. And an ordered universe is one in which, though we see darkly, as St. Paul said, we know it is crucial to reality that we believe what is true.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Sanctions Crowd Want War with Iran

2/4/2015—The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reported last week on efforts to build a veto-proof majority to back more sanctions against Iran. Iran has warned that such a bill would end efforts to reach a deal with the Obama administration and an international coalition to reduce the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

I disagree strongly with the sanctions crowd, but isn’t it irresponsible to say the “want war” with Iran? Isn’t that kind of rhetoric what’s wrong with American politics?

But it isn’t always wicked to want war. Churchill would have preferred an early war with Hitler, before Germany could complete its rearmament. If you believe, as the columnist Charles Krauthammer does, that Iran would use a bomb against Israel out of religious anti-Semitism despite the losses that use would cost Iran, then of course you prefer war with Iran over any feigned negotiations. The government of Iran must be just playing for time, as Hitler was doing.

Actually, I should say, this crowd does not want war. They want to perform an act of war against Iran—-bombing its production facilities—-to which they believe Iran will be unable to respond. Well, who says Iran will be unable to respond? To me, that is war.

These people do not realize that they just demonstrate the need for Iran—-or any other State—-to have a bomb and a delivery system. No one is suggesting bombing North Korea.

But more to the point, the fanatics here are the crowd itself. To them, the Iranian leadership is not fully human. And it is the same paranoia that used to say that the Soviet Union would be willing to absorb the losses of nuclear war.

We now know that the Soviets, having suffered so much in WWII, abhorred the idea of world war. They never intended to attack the West. That was a psychological projection by some officials in the United States.

Similarly, Iran lost heavily in the eight years of war, from 1980 to 1988, against Iraq. Those who say Iran would just attack Israel notwithstanding the certain Israeli retaliation, are making the same mistake we made with the Soviet Union.

The idea that bombing Iran would do much to stop the march to a bomb is another fantasy. The sanctions are working. They have certainly helped drive Iran to the table. If negotiations fail, there is plenty of time to increase them. I believe the real fear of the sanctions crowd is that a deal will be reached. Since they believe peace is impossible, any deal will just aid Iran in its drive to genocide against Israel. If you believe that, you prefer war.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

How to Think About Constitutional Government

1/31/2015—I am reading the manuscript of a new book by Randy Barnett, Georgetown Law School professor and the author of Restoring the Lost Constitution. It is great and Barnett is the most profound and provocative legal writer in America today.

Barnett’s approach is to try to return us all to what might be called “first principles”: what is constitutional government all about? And the basic answer is that the purpose of government under the Constitution is just what it was thought to be in the Declaration of Independence. Government is instituted to secure our fundamental rights and the consent of the governed is presumed to be just that. No one would consent to a government that did less or more than that.

The Constitution is not a first principle in this sense. The constitutional system is just one way to structure a government that could reasonably be expected to accomplish the goal of securing our fundamental rights.

The framers thus might be wrong about the best structure. The structure of government must be strong enough to defend the nation and prevent interference by others with individuals pursuing their own happiness. But, of course, the framers might also be wrong about what fundamental rights are.

They might even be wrong about the reality of fundamental rights. If they are, Barnett’s premises become a kind of Rawlsian experiment—-Rawls' original position-—of asking what a hypothetical group of people would consent to concerning government.

Now, in this context, the structures of the Constitution should be thought of as experimental, not fundamental. And I think they should be tested by history. That is, if some government action that needed to be taken to secure our fundamental rights, would not have been taken if the constitutional structure were strictly construed, then the structure is defective. (This is like asking how well a current climate model would have predicted past climate change—if it was inaccurate then, we should not trust it now).

So think about Martin Luther King’s call to J. Edgar Hoover in 1964 for the FBI to do a better job investigating the murder of civil rights workers and church bombings. There is no obvious constitutional authority for such federal investigations. These crimes were carried out by individuals whom the local authorities sometimes refused to indict, but sometimes just did not try very hard to investigate.

So I believe that congressional power should be thought of as available whenever the states prove incompetent to act to secure our fundamental rights. (there was a moment at the constitutional convention when something like was passed).

This view makes the litigation over Obamacare—-National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius—-questionable but trivial. The question should never have been whether Congress could force Americans to buy broccoli. As a matter of regulating commerce, the answer to that should have been, why not? Such a requirement would have increased the flow of commerce.

The question should have been whether any government can force Americans to buy a product. The NFIB case was always a fundamental rights case masquerading as a commerce case for reasons of legal strategy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Politics at the Water's Edge

1/28/2015—Too late perhaps, but newspaper reports indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is suffering politically during the Israel election campaign for his decision to become part of a domestic political dispute in the United States. Specifically, some voters in Israel worry that Netanyahu's decision to speak to Congress without the approval of President Obama may redound to Israel's harm. That is undoubtedly the case.

The decision by John Boehner, Speaker of the House, to invite a representative of a foreign power to come to the United States in order to criticize the foreign-policy of the president of the United States, is shocking. It used to be said that politics stops at the water's edge. You could not imagine, for example, Congress inviting Winston Churchill to speak to Congress without the approval of FDR. But, that era is long gone. We no longer have that kind of political discipline.

What is almost comic about Boehner's decision, is that the notion of Congress having its own foreign policy is a direct violation of the separation of powers. It is far more of the violation of the separation of powers than anything done by President Obama in his executive order regarding immigration. Outside of spending and treaties, the president alone makes the foreign-policy of the United States. Basically, you change the foreign policy of the United States by electing a new president.

I'm only sorry that president Obama did not force Netanyahu to the public humiliation of canceling the speech. Since President Obama controls the veto at the United Nations, that would not have been hard to do.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

More Nihilism on Abortion

1/24/2015—In a column today in the New York Times, Gail Collins puts her finger on the real issue in the abortion debate—-when does human life begin? She notes that opponents of abortion grudgingly recognize exceptions to bans on abortion, like rape, because they believe that life begins at conception.

But then she adds this: “But the question of when a fetus inside a woman’s body becomes a human being is theological. If you truly believe that human life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, you can’t admit any exceptions. The only real debate is whether you get to impose your religious beliefs on the entire country.”

Why is this question theological? Everybody agrees that a fertilized egg becomes a human being sometime. When is it? There were cultures in which the death of a child within ten days of birth was treated differently from a death later in time—-or so I remember. When is that definition not a matter of theology? At birth? But why?

It has always seemed inescapable to me that my life began when sperm fertilized egg. I don’t feel like this is a theological issue and I’m not aware of any theological teaching on the matter influencing me. I just cannot think of another point at which my life could be considered to have begun.

Isn’t there anything of truth here? No. Because there are interests at stake—-the interests of pregnant women in being able to get an abortion. So the question becomes theological, which means subjective, which means any answer is as good as any other, which is how nihilism works.

This is how global warming denial works too.

Of course human life begins at conception. The question is not theological. It is biological.

The legal, social, question, however, is how a society that has ultrasound images of developing babies treats early human life. Does such a society allow abortions and when? You can even call that theological, if you mean it is inescapably normative. But it is normative for everyone. Here, compromise is inevitable.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

We’re On a Crash Course

1/21/2015—The U.S. Supreme Court reached practically the only result it could yesterday in Holt v. Hobbs, the case of the Muslim prisoner who wanted to grow a full beard in an Arkansas prison and compromised by proposing a ½ inch beard. Prison authorities still said no and the Court held unanimously that this refusal violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. (RLUIPA). The case was ably handled by the dean of law and religion, Douglas Laycock.

The main takeaway from the unanimous opinion is that even “idiosyncratic” religious beliefs are protected by the statute (although this instance was clearly not such, Justice Alito went out of his way to state that agreement by others is not the test) and the heightened scrutiny of the Act means just what it says.

Most states now have statutes like RLUIPA and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In many contexts, religious believers are going to be able to challenge government policies on the basis of their own perceived religious needs. Under the standards of Holt, many should win.

And, if the “spiritual but not religious” crowd decides to get in on this action, how will the courts make any judgments about what is and is not a religion?

Years ago, in limiting the reach of the Free Exercise Clause, Justice Scalia warned that this would happen. Most people, including me, thought that he was insufficiently protecting religious liberty. History may prove him right.

On the other hand, these are statutes. They were passed and they can be repealed or modified. Undoubtedly, one day they will be.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How Serious is Global Warming, Really?

1/18/2015—I don’t mean by this headline to refer to the effects of global warming (not climate change—the problem is that it’s getting warmer). Those effects are really bad. I am referring to the effort to prevent the harm. Is such prevention possible without changing everything?

I have always thought that global warming fits easily into a capitalist model. It is a case of the tragedy of the commons—an example of a massive but simple market failure. Nobody owns the climate. If someone did, then you would have to pay to change the climate and no one could afford to do so. Economic growth would then have to proceed without changing the climate.

Capitalism knows how to deal with market failure—you redefine property rights and/or regulate the price structure to compensate for the failure. In the case of global warming, you allow losers to sue winners—south sea nations whose land is disappearing—and you put a massive tax on forms of emissions—carbon, methane etc.—that contribute to global warming. Since the point of such a tax is not revenue but to change the price of products, such taxes get returned to the public. Lower social security taxes, as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer proposes.

In theory, none of this is inconsistent with a continuing market economy.

But Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, argues that this kind of thinking is wrong. And dangerous. In her view, the instincts of climate deniers are right. They know deep down that if they admit the truth of global warming, their whole world will have to change. No more growth. No more private economic activity. Government regulation of everything. No more absurdly rich people.

But this could be good. Because such a massive change could destroy the worst excesses of the current socio-economic-political arrangements of late capitalism.

This is very much worth thinking about. But here is my first take. Prior to WWI, some people in Europe yearned for a big change—and they got it. The pre-war world was destroyed. And it took WWII to destroy the colonial system. But those events were so horrible in themselves that you have to wonder about this kind of catastrophic change-making. Maybe global warming would be preferable.

And anyway, command economies don’t necessarily deliver either equality or environmental health.

There is also a danger in imagining that global warming will deliver the sorts of changes that someone really wants anyway but cannot get politically right now. That is using global warming, not dealing with it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heidegger and the Jewish Question

1/14/2015—An exchange in the December 4, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books shows once more how we need to understand the philosopher Martin Heidegger in order to confront the condition in which humans find themselves today. Specifically, Peter Gordon had written in the October 9, 2014 edition a story about new publications of Heidegger’s notes. Bruce Henley wrote a letter to the editor in December noting “Martin Heidegger’s bizarre metaphysical equivalence between mechanized food production and death camps.” Gordon responds and notes Heidegger’s opposition to the “racial breeding” of the Jews.

Since I rely so heavily on Heidegger, it may seem I come to his defense. Well, yes and no. Heidegger’s action in the 1930’s were not courageous, insightful or even honorable. He clearly hoped that Hitler and the Nazi movement would represent a third way between America and the Soviet Union. He joined the Party and became Hitler first Rechtor—University President.

But he resigned his post by 1934 and during 1935 to 1936 wrote his Contributions to Philosophy, some of which would have gotten him shot if it had been made public. Contributions is now available in English and there is no excuse to ignore what it tells us. Heidegger criticized racial politics and the manipulations of mass media—pretty clear references to the regime. He may have felt the same way about the racial orientation of the Jews—I don’t know. But in the 1930’s it would have been impossible not to think in racial terms considering the emphasis in German society. Heidegger was not supporting the final solution—undoubtedly he was horrified by it.

And this is the point about industrial farming. Heidegger saw the roots of mass murder not in individual guilt but in the foundation of technology itself. Here is the quote, from a lecture in 1949:

"Farming is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the peasantry, the same as the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb."

People who find this outrageous are not understanding Heidegger’s point. He is saying that these matters are beyond individual guilt. Technology is destroying the world. I would have thought that in the world of global warming that may kill millions, if not billions, Heidegger’s point would be better understood.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Islam is Violence, Judaism is Exclusion, Capitalism is Inequality, Christianity is Colonialism

1/10/2015—In the wake of the horrific shootings in France, Muslims all over the world have protested that Islam is a religion of peace—which of course in a sense is true. There are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Obviously, Islam allows for peaceful existence.

But the major reigning ways of existence all have flaws at their heart that must be confronted if these ways of life are going to lead to human flourishing. They are inherent, not accidental. Specifically, Islam has not yet confronted its violent past. Islam originally spread largely through violence. Its current calls for violence still resonate. Death for denigrating the Prophet is not heretical. The Saudi punishment of 1000 lashes for free expression is not so different from the shootings in France.

These flaws are tendencies, not the whole truth of these traditions. But if you pretend they don’t exist, they just remain.

Judaism in its turn has never solved the problem of the stranger, the non-Jew. God’s plan for the world always centered on the Jews, not on anyone else. That is why the movement to deny democracy in Israel to non-Jews resonates. That is why peace with the Palestinians is a theological necessity, not just a political one.

Similarly, inequality in capitalism is not easily eradicated. It is part of the inherent logic of capitalism. Can it be cured or even tamed? I doubt it.

Of the four traditions I mentioned in the title, the colonialism of Christianity, which arises from the call to make disciples of all nations, is the closest to being confronted. Christianity has denounced nationalist colonialism. But Christianity still defends its efforts to spread itself. It now claims the right to do so nonviolently.

Maybe that is the answer. None of the traditions can be cured, but each can be reformed so that its flaws do less harm. But there is no pretending the flaws do not exist. They are historic tendencies that must be confronted.

Secularism and liberalism are not immune from this analysis, either. They tend to materialism and individualism respectively.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

29 Nome, Alaska—11 Pittsburgh

1/8/2015—It’s been very cold in Pittsburgh the last few days. And it was very cold last winter. How then can 2014 have possibly been the warmest ever?

I noticed a pattern last year that has held up this winter. When it is cold—not record breaking, but cold—in Pittsburgh, it is unseasonably warm in Nome, Alaska. And vice versa. When it is warm in Pittsburgh during the winter, it is seasonable in Nome.

This suggests to me that there is not as much cold air to go around in the Northern Hemisphere as there used to be. And the warmth in Nome dwarfs the cold in Pittsburgh. Right this minute, around 7 p.m. local time, it is 29 degrees in Nome—16 degrees above normal. In Pittsburgh, it is 11 degrees below normal.

This has been the pattern. Pittsburgh is not setting records, but Nome is close to doing so.

Pittsburgh will warm up. Nome will get colder. But the trend is unmistakable.

People still doubt global warming. George Will just wrote a column about it—a weird one about how other factors warm and cool the climate, as if anyone ever doubted that. But even as they deny, the climate keeps warming.

Friday, January 2, 2015

What Obama Can Do On Iran

1/2/2015—I was listening to NPR interviewing US Senator Marco Rubio yesterday morning. I had heard in an advertisement for the interview that Senator Rubio was trumpeting the likelihood of a veto proof majority in Congress for additional sanctions against Iran.

This news has left me angry, even astounded. President Obama clearly believes that a deal with Iran is close and has therefore been conciliatory. There have also been indications from the leadership in Iran of a similar desire for a deal. News reports had indicated that the reigning Iranian people were encouraged by President Obama's language and were very desirous of peace. Under the circumstances, it seemed to me that Senator Rubio was trying to wreck the deal intentionally for political reasons – – he is considering a run for the Republican nomination for President in 2016. Such a cynical calculation struck me as almost treasonous.

However, after listening to the interview, I believe I have done Senator Rubio a disservice. He pretty obviously does not believe that any deal with Iran will be forthcoming. Senator Rubio does not believe that the leadership of Iran wants a deal. Therefore, from his point of view, he is wrecking nothing at all.

In addition, all Senator Rubio said in the interview was that Congress preliminarily would require President Obama to report any deal to Congress before it goes into effect.

So, Senator Rubio is sincere. But he is still terribly misguided. Senator Rubio's conclusion that no deal with Iran is possible amounts to nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, he is not being candid. If no deal is possible, and if a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, then military action against Iran should be undertaken. It is not a matter of sanctions.

I am going to try to reach someone who advises President Obama, perhaps with some other law professors, about the legality involved in all this. First, if President Obama has authority to enter into an executive agreement with Iran, then Congress has no authority over such negotiations nor over any such agreement. Teh President cannot be ordered to report anything. Whether the president has the authority is another matter.

Second, Congress clearly does have authority to enact mandatory sanctions against Iran. The president would be obligated to carry them out. But such sanctions would be ineffective unless they are part of the coordinated action by America and her allies. Such unanimity is present now, but would not be present if unilateral sanctions enacted by Congress scuttle a deal.

Therefore, I would urge President Obama to throw down the gauntlet if Congress attempts to interfere with negotiations with Iran. The President should enter into an agreement, should agree to the beginning of the process of normalization of relations and should denounce sanctions enacted by Congress. In fact, President Obama should publicly and expressly urge our allies to ignore any such increased sanctions. That would render the sanctions ineffective and would help gain the trust of the leadership in Tehran.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Radical Religious Message of A Charlie Brown Christmas

12/30/2014—I did not see A Charlie Brown Christmas this year, though I read that it did air on ABC uncut on December 16. The radical message of this class Christmas story is simply that it properly sets its feel-good story of the little Christmas tree against the background of the Gospel message—Linus quotes the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verses 8 through 14 from the King James Bible, in which angels from heaven tell a group of shepherds of the birth of the baby Jesus, and instruct them as to where they can "find the babe" who is the savior.

It is safe to say that today, although the story of the miserable little tree that only needed a little love versus the commercialization and gift-giving frenzy of Christmas, might still be able to find a national audience, the link to the Gospel would never be permissible. The show still airs because in 1965, when it was made, the link could still be made. And the show is too beloved for the networks to pass up.

The triumph of love and giving is a theme in a lot of Christmas programs. But the actual Christmas message itself cannot be told today to a mass audience. Nor could it seriously be suggested today that all the kids in the neighborhood celebrate your basic Protestant Christmas—-Linus is reading from the King James Bible. It’s not true anymore—-and was not true in 1965.

And what is the link? On the simplest level, the Christ child is this Christmas tree, rejected by society as poor and marginal, but seen in a different way, a true symbol of love. The truth of the universe is here, at the margins and with the rejected ones. Charlie Brown is the Christian seeker, whose doubts and failures are used by God to bring the world closer to Christ.

I urge everyone to see it and show it to their children, whatever their orientation. The best part of the show is the lightness with which all of this is done. For on the one hand, A Charlie Brown Christmas is too religious for a mass audience today. But on the other hand, it is way too secular for a Christian audience. It makes its religious points with real restraint.