October 4, 2017

On Epistemology

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:38 pm

We are living in a post-truth world. Belief in a universal, knowable truth has given way to truth as multiple, personal and subjective. What is true for me may not be true for you. Post-modernists argue that even scientific laws are contextual and culturally derived.

The amount of pseudo-science, conspiracy theorizing, and outright rejection of empirically verifiable facts is killing us. Too many people believe that everything is political, everyone is biased, “they” are keeping secrets from us, no one has integrity, everyone has a hidden agenda and the whole system is rigged. In this mindset, there is no source of truth except me and my tribe.

This is bullshit.

How do we decide what we believe? And how should we decide what we believe?

Herewith, then, is my epistemology.

Values are values, facts are facts. We will all disagree about our personal values and what gives meaning to our lives. We will all have different religious (un)beliefs. But facts can be measured and validated by both liberals and conservatives. They are not opinions, but can be empirically determined.

Any engineer with the right resources can measure the torque a 747 wing can withstand, the lateral tensor strength of a column in the World Trade Center, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, the degradation in tensile strength of steel at that temperature, etc. In fact, many engineers know these facts. Math is not subjective, and the structural analysis of the World Trade Center collapse has been reviewed repeatedly by architectural and structural engineering graduate departments all over the world. They come to the same conclusion, because physics is not culturally determined, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist.

Things that are not facts include Youtube videos, which have been used to “prove” that we never landed on the moon and that Obama is a lizard alien. (I am sure that Obama is not a lizard alien. I am still undecided regarding Mitch McConnell.) Video is notoriously unreliable, especially when coupled with a compelling voiceover. Even if it is not tampered with, selective editing, lighting, point of view and other effects I’m not qualified to opine upon make them a poor substitute for quantifiable facts.

Speaking of which, compelling narratives aren’t facts. We have evolved to be storytellers, and we love telling and hearing stories. We form our deepest held beliefs based on stories. But good stories may not be true, and they certainly aren’t facts. It is tempting to believe in untruth because we want good stories to be true stories.

It’s a big world. Anecdotes and hearsay stories are not facts. They can’t be verified, and even if true, as the saying goes, data is not the plural of anecdotes. Yes, a true anecdote is a fact. But conclusions regarding how the world works can’t be based on a single fact. We need a wider lens.

I have no doubt that some children have developed autism following a vaccination. But of course many children develop autism when not preceded by a vaccination. And vastly more children don’t develop autism following a vaccination. Correlation does not imply causation (cliche I know, but true).

We can easily jump to conclusions based on our narrow experience of the world. It is easy to think that our little slice is what matters and that the rest of the world looks just like what we have experienced. How arrogant of us to presume that because we are attracted to the opposite sex that the same must be true of everyone! How arrogant to discount the truth that trans people tell of their lives because it is not what we have experienced! How arrogant to believe that blacks are treated fairly by the justice system because it has treated us fairly! But truth is much bigger than our personal experience and it is very presumptuous of us to believe that we are the center of reality.

One fact is not enough. We need to determine truth based upon a universe full of facts.

Credentials matter. The logical fallacy argumentum ad verecundiam (arguing from authority) is when we point to the opinion of an authority as truth by virtue of their status. Logical arguments must stand on their own, and are not true because some third party says so. The problem with this in day-to-day life is that we aren’t all structural engineers, epidemiologists or climate scientists. I can’t replicate NIST’s analysis of the World Trade Center collapse, the CDC’s epidemiological studies of vaccinations or NASA’s climate modelling. So we have to rely on the opinions of authorities. But which ones?

I am an IT strategy consultant in the area of data governance. I spend hours of my life reading dry industry articles, watching boring webcasts, and talking to clients about solutions to their real-world problems. I have specialized because I have no choice. I can’t be of value to clients unless I have the deep knowledge and experience they require. They choose me over competitors because of my credentials and reputation, and as soon as I let up I will be unemployed.

I would never pretend to be an expert outside of my field. To do so would be fraud. And yet anyone with a laptop and wifi connection can advocate for any opinion in any field based on any rationale or none at all. And such is their right. But the Dunning Kruger effect is real. The more one knows about a subject, the more reluctant one is to make bold assertions.

Since I can’t be an expert in all things (I’m lucky if I’m an expert in one), I rely on experts in their fields. But never just a single voice in the wilderness. I look for consensus among authorities. Such a consensus among experts, if not absolute unanimity, exists for 9/11, the safety and necessity of vaccinations, and global warming.

There is an anti-intellectualism in the US and elsewhere that is 180 degrees in opposition to my view on authorities. It seems many people view expertise and education as invalidating their opinions. They believe that experts are somehow “in on it” as part of the establishment. And if many experts agree, then that is viewed as de facto evidence of a conspiracy. The anti-intellectualists are free to choose this as their epistemological foundation, but think about the outcome of this belief: they are forced to rely on those who know the least with opinions that have not been checked or validated by anyone else. They have chosen ignorance over knowledge. Such is their right, but it reflects more on their psychology, in my opinion, than on the subject they are debating.

Truth doesn’t care about us. The US has elected a President who was clearly unqualified, besides being a narcissist, serial sexual abuser and profligate liar. How could this happen? Trump told people what they wanted to hear. A large segment of the US electorate (although not a majority) wanted to believe that trade deals and immigrants have taken their jobs, that a wall would stop illegal immigration, that repealing and replacing Obamacare would give them better and cheaper healthcare, and that the preceding two administrations were “stupid” but Trump alone would solve all their problems. Trump told them exactly what they wanted to hear, and they believed him in spite of all the signs that they were being conned. Most of them still want to believe, even in the face of the gross incompetence of the Trump Administration.

But Trump was lying. (It’s unclear whether consciously or not; he may actually believe his own con.) We tend to believe things that we think should be true, or that we want to be true. But truth, whether in economics, climate, disease or foreign affairs, really doesn’t care what we want to be true.

No one can keep a secret. Lastly, so many conspiracy theories depend on, well, conspiracies. But any theory that depends on large numbers of people keeping secrets defies human nature. Maybe small numbers of conspirators, say a dozen or less, can keep a secret. But to fake the moon landings, or blow up the World Trade Center towers, would require hundreds or thousands of conspirators, any one of which could sell their story for millions if they came clean now. Secret societies controlling the world economic system would require participants in hundreds or thousands of investment banks, exchanges and regulatory bodies. The closest thing to a secret society I can think of are the Scientologists, yet we have hundreds of ex-Scientologists spilling the beans about Xenu, abuse and Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes. Humans are not evolved to keep secrets.

* * * *

So this is my epistemology, or at least part of it. I have not addressed my religious or moral epistemology, which would take another post or ten. Let me just say that once we step beyond the world of empirical facts we enter a completely different set of epistemological guidelines. But in the world of empirical reality, this is how I decide what is true.

September 11, 2016

Trust vs Belief

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:50 am

Peter Enns is a Bible professor at Eastern University, a prolific author and blogger, and an evangelical Christian. He is a mainstay of my blog reading habits, and I have just read his latest book The Sin of Certainty.

Pete has much to say about the value of trust over belief. I could paraphrase his arguments, but instead I will just direct you to this video from his recent blog post:

Pete Enns | Trust from Chalk & Table on Vimeo.

The Lutheran church, like the Roman Catholic church from which it sprang, is a credal church. Although it seems to have disappeared from many ELCA church liturgies lately, until recently one of the traditional creeds was spoken at every service. This got me thinking how different the Apostles Creed would sound and feel to us on Sundays in church if it were a statement of trust instead of belief. So here is my humble suggestion for a reimagined Apostles Creed:

I trust in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I trust in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I trust in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I like this version much better. Maybe it would make we mainline protestants more comfortable with being credal denominations. More importantly, maybe it would help us all to live our lives trusting in God, not just believing in God.

May 19, 2015

Mottoes

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:33 pm

I was speaking to a friend about their personal mottoes: Avoidance of Future Regret, and Our Purpose in Life is to be Happy. Those are both good mottoes, ones I can certainly identify with, but they aren’t mottoes I can adopt as my own. A motto should be a personal statement capturing something essential about how one chooses to live one’s life. Otherwise, any saying from a Hallmark card would do.

I already have several mottoes that I have inherited by virtue of my last name. The English branch of the Giffords has a motto emblazoned on the family crest: Malo Mori Quam Foedari, Death Before Dishonor. Great for a knight in the age of chivalry, not so relevant in the age of the internet. The Scottish Giffords are a sept of Clan Hay, whose motto is Serva Jugum, Keep the Yoke. There is a great story behind that motto, but again, not something I’m going to tattoo across my bicep.

Much more personal to me is the name of this blog, which I’ve come to think of as my motto: Cogito, Ergo Dubito. This not only reflects the centrality of doubt to a life of faith, but also the healthy attitude of “question everything”. In the post-modern era, we are besieged by opinions. But the fact that soneone or some movement or some news network believes something to be true does not make it so.

So that’s a good motto, but I think I have two more. The second is Do Good. A life well lived is a life that leaves the world a better place. This doesn’t only mean we should feed the homeless or give money to relieve poverty in Africa, although it certainly includes those things. It also means that as we pursue our own desires and pleasures we should do so in a way that leaves those around us happier and better off.

The third: Judge Not. I actually read that one in a book somewhere. This does not mean that we condone any and all actions of others, or that actions don’t have consequences. I will not hang out with someone who is abusive, inconsiderate or bigoted. Those convicted of a crime, assuming due process justly executed, need to be removed from society. But remember that we don’t know their story and that redemption may be doubtful but always possible.

So those are my mottoes, at least for now: Cogito, Ergo Dubito. Do Good. Judge Not.

February 6, 2015

Sophia, Part 3

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 12:25 pm

Apparently that last post wasn’t the big finish I thought it was. The song isn’t over it would seem.

The Slacktivist sharply criticizes the epistemological arrogance of Christians who insist the Bible only has one correct interpretation (theirs) and disagreement with this interpretation is due to a moral error which inevitably leads to eternal damnation.

How can these Christians be certain that their particular interpretation of the Bible is the one correct one — the narrow way that leadeth to life and not one of the many incorrect interpretations along the broad, wide way that leadeth to destruction?

Their answer is that we have the blessed assurance that the Holy Spirit will guide us in understanding the Bible correctly, if only we devoutly open ourselves to such spiritual guidance. If we turn to the Bible with pure hearts and the best of intentions, then the Spirit will not allow us to go astray.

That sounds lovely, at first. It seems for a moment to be a devout expression of evangelical piety and the kind of intensely personal devotion it can produce. But then, once it sinks in that this idea is a response to the inescapable fact of interpretive pluralism, you begin to realize that it isn’t lovely at all. It’s actually just a sanctimonious euphemism for a really vicious and nasty accusation being made against every other Christian or group of Christians in every other place and time.

Oh, I agree. While I described the Holy Spirit as the provider of Sophia, this does not mean we should accept whatever rosy sentiment we experience as epistemological proof of divine guidance and moral certainty. Sophia is always always an aspiration, a distant goal never to be reached. The Holy Spirit guides us, but also demands discernment and a humility as we stumble and mistake an undigested bit of beef for ultimate truth. Andrew Sullivan (Godspeed Andrew) has a quote today from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing that describes it nicely:

The true value of a [person] is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indifferent, proud.

If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this – the pure Truth is for You alone.

Both posts excerpted above are well worth reading in full. Oh, and Emo Phillips:

January 7, 2015

Sophia, Part 2

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 8:16 pm

I had a guitar teacher who told me a story once. I doubt it actually happened, but it is most certainly true. Pop songs always end on the root note, the “home” note of the key the song is played in. Think of the big pounding finish for a live rock anthem — that is the root. My teacher told me he was playing in a blues club and he stopped playing after hitting the fifth (think of that big major chord right before the big pounding finish). He set down his guitar (so he said) and took a sip of beer and proceeded to take a break. The crowd became very agitated until a woman came up to him and screamed “if you don’t play that last note I won’t be able to go to sleep tonight!”

Things unfinished have a way of making us very uncomfortable.

I haven’t blogged for a couple years now. Nothing wrong with that, but I have had this unfinished “Sophia Part 1” post in the back of my mind that whole time. I hit the fifth, but didn’t bring it home.

Time for the big finish of this two-note rock anthem.

———————

Political ideologies are a priori commitments to a set of beliefs that go much beyond the empirical evidence. So communism is defined by a belief in the perfectibility of humans as a collective in the absence of individualism, while libertarians believe in the perfectibility of society as individuals in the absence of a collective. In both cases, empirical facts about the nature of humans as we actually exist in the real world are not enough to overturn the ideology. The ideology comes first, and empirical facts are selected, rationalized and explained away so as to fit into the ideology. So both libertarianism and communism are forced to assume that human nature and the nature of society as a whole will fundamentally change if and only if their political system is implemented, lack of evidence be damned.

The challenge with these political ideologies is that they are impossible to refute. Communism was tried in in the 20th century and was a dismal failure, but communists still exist, people who believe all previous attempts were corrupted by outside forces. Libertarians believe in their ideology in defiance of the fact that it has never existed, ever. No amount of evidence for global warming, the need for effective financial regulations or the value of a minimum wage will convince movement conservatives. The loyalty is to the ideology, and all facts are filtered and distorted to fit within the a priori intellectual commitment.

Of course ideologies aren’t only political. Religion has them too. Hence we have something called the Christian Worldview. Christian worldviews seem to be exclusively the province of conservative evangelicals. Charismatics and mainline Protestants are more concerned with praxis, and Roman Catholics with the authority of the church. But conservative evangelicals seem to have a desire for an all-encompassing worldview that provides a fabric of belief that answers every possible question. A worldview squeezes out the empty spaces where ambiguity might creep in to our religious, and very often, political, beliefs. A Christian worldview provides the same safety and security as a political ideology. Everything makes sense, all questions are resolved, any doubts erased. It becomes the a priori commitment that pre-determines all doctrine and theology.

The only problem is that a Christian worldview leaves no room for Sophia. There is no room for God to act, for the Holy Spirit to enter into the human condition. It explicitly rules this out:

How does a biblical worldview get diluted?

Here is the big problem. Nonbiblical worldview ideas don’t just sit in a book somewhere waiting for people to examine them. They bombard us constantly from television, film, music, newspapers, magazines, books and academia.

Because we live in a selfish, fallen world, these ideas seductively appeal to the desires of our flesh, and we often end up incorporating them into our personal worldview. Sadly, we often do this without even knowing it.

The purpose of a Christian worldview is to insulate the believer from any ideas coming from outside the gatekeepers who have defined and police the borders of what is acceptable belief. And just like a political ideology, it is impossible to refute. The worldview comes first, and all facts and experiences are selectively edited to fit the worldview. Allowing any cracks in the worldview would cause the entire structure to collapse, so all intellectual energy must be expended to preserving the worldview entirely intact.

Christians are to follow Jesus. We don’t need to know where he is leading us. As soon as we presume the destination by becoming committed to a worldview, we are no longer followers, but have become something else.

May 26, 2013

Sophia, Part 1

Filed under: Church,Theology — Bob Gifford @ 8:26 pm

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.”

– Proverbs 8:1-4

Today is Trinity Sunday, which immediately follows Pentecost. These two Sundays force us Lutherans to consider the Holy Spirit for a spell, after which, with a sigh of relief, we place the Spirit back on the shelf for another year*. The lectionary for today included the text above. The Old Testament Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom, is traditionally understood as the second person of the Trinity: Christ, the Logos. But the wisdom texts seem to be more easily understood as the Paraclete, not the Logos. It is the Spirit that calls to us, that is calling to us all to follow God’s divine wisdom. Christ is the savior, but it is the Spirit that sanctifies us. And we cannot be sanctified without divine wisdom.

Another one of the lectionary lessons for today:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

John 16:12-15

Jesus did not tell his followers everything, because they could not “bear them”, but these things are to be revealed by the “Spirit of truth”, which sounds suspiciously like our Sophia from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The message is discomfiting but clear: the New Testament does not contain all of God’s truth, so we must listen for the Spirit of truth to teach us what was kept from the earliest Christians.

What could Jesus’ followers not bear to hear, that may have been revealed to us since through the Holy Spirit?

The Bible was frequently used to defend slavery in the 19th century because it contains no prohibitions against it. The Bible exhorts masters to treat slaves fairly, but in doing so it seems to condone slavery. Still, it was Christian abolitionists claiming that justice can only mean that slaves be free. They did not have the Bible on their side, but they were listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of God. Perhaps a command to abolish slavery was something Jesus’ followers could not bear to hear, but that the Holy Spirit has taught us in God’s own time.

What else? Perhaps the equality of women, including their acceptance as pastors, bishops and political leaders, is another truth the early church could not bear, but is one the Holy Spirit has guided us to. And I believe that the equality of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered is another. The Bible doesn’t support either of these ideas explicitly, and in fact seems to oppose them.** But we are learning from the Holy Spirit, Sophia, the divine wisdom, those things that the earliest followers of Christ could not bear to hear.

Insisting on the completeness of the Bible as a record of God’s instructions for all time not only ignores Jesus’ own words as recorded in the same Bible, but it silences the Holy Spirit. It ends God’s ability to continue guiding us to the divine truth. God is still speaking, and it is up to us to listen.

—————

* Kidding! But all humor has a kernel of truth inside.

** Yes, I know there are plenty of hermeneutical arguments against the anti-gay and anti-women clobber verses, which I ascribe to, but the fact remains there isn’t any explicitly positive instruction regarding women and GLBT equality in the Bible.

September 8, 2012

I can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe…

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:56 pm

I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.

I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.

I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.

I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste.

I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the martians in War of the Worlds.

I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.

I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.

I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.

I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too.

I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.

I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.

-Samantha Black Crow
from Gods In America
by Neil Gaiman

May 19, 2012

Polyamory v. Same-Sex Marriage

Filed under: Politics,Theology — Bob Gifford @ 10:19 am

An argument against same-sex marriage is that it is a slippery slope from there to the legalization of polygamy (or more technically, polyamory) and incest. While I am in favor of same-sex marriage, I am not in favor of legalizing polyamory. (We’ll save a discussion of incest for another time.) So am I just imposing my own personal morality on others, and does that make me a theocrat just like the worst of the Christian Reconstructionists?

Any law or legal regime instantiates a moral viewpoint. There is no such thing as a morally neutral legal system. So the question isn’t whether a law imposes morality, but whose morality. Majority rule is supposed to make sure that laws implement an ethic that is widely held, but we put limits on majority rule so that the majority can’t violate the rights of the minority. Minority rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, which is where the Establishment Clause comes in. The Establishment Clause requires that the ethics implemented in laws be justified based on universally applicable secular arguments, not sectarian ones.

My argument against the legal recognition of polyamory as marriage while recognizing same-sex marriage is based on secular moral arguments. As a veteran of the same-sex marriage debates, I would define marriage as mutual, chaste and committed (at least in intent if not fully realized), all of which apply to same-sex marriage but not polyamory. It’s not mutual, because there’s usually at least one person in the marriage who would prefer monogamy. It’s not chaste, because the participants have not committed to “forswear all others” since additional spouses can always be added. (Do members of a polyamorous marriage date? I guess they must, otherwise how would new spouses be “courted”.) It’s not committed…how many polyamorous marriages are celebrating their 20th anniversary?

Of course there is also a purely secular argument against the government recognizing any form of marriage, and leaving it as solely a private legal contract. This would allow people to define marriage for themselves depending on the contract that formalizes it. So evangelicals could have “covenant marriage” contracts, but the godless heathens (joking!) could have no-fault divorce written into their contract. I actually would be fine with this. My only issue with this approach is that I don’t think there’s anyway to get from here to there politically, so it’s somewhat moot. So for purely practical reasons I’d go with legalizing same-sex marriage while excluding polyamory.

But the bigger point is that my definition of marriage isn’t arbitrary…it’s based on a secular ethical rationale that would be universally applicable. This is not true when defining marriage as only one man-one woman. It’s impossible to justify this definition without resorting to a very particular theology. The utilitarian arguments fall apart on closer inspection, leaving same-sex opponents to rely on their interpretation of the Bible. Even if this theology is held by a majority of Americans (or North Carolinians — see Amendment One), it is violating the Establishment Clause because it enacts a religious ethic, not a secular one. That’s why the role of the courts is so important with same sex marriage.

April 15, 2012

Richard Land, Race and Crime

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 12:19 pm

Fred Clark has been chronicling some offensive and racist statements made by Richard Land, the president of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. By virtue of his office, one would think that Land would embrace the highest ethical standards of the Christian faith. But not so. On his radio show, Land said that passions around the killing of Trayvon Martin are being inflamed by “race hustlers”, including President Obama, for purely political reasons. But where he really went off the ethical rails was when he later justified his statements, saying that “a black man is ‘statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man’.”

On its face, this can seem like a reasonable and factual statement to make. After all, the per capita rate of murders committed by blacks is seven times that of whites. Let’s accept this statistic as accurate, unsullied by disproportionate arrest, prosecution and conviction rates between blacks and whites. Doesn’t this justify increased suspicion and surveillance of young black males over whites?

No. No it doesn’t.

The murder rate is roughly 5 murders per 100,000 people per year in the US. Ignoring the fact that some murderers will have multiple victims, this means that for a population of 160,000, seven people will be murdered by a black, and one will be murdered by a white. Which means that 159,992 people will not be murdered by anyone, black or white.

The probability of someone being murdered by a black is 0.004%. But this back of the envelope calculation ignores quite a few important factors. First, black crime is far more often black-on-black crime. Victims of crime typically know the perpetrator. Crime rates are higher in certain areas at certain times of day. Perpetrators have motives and a desire to avoid arrest, both of which make it easier to avoid them (e.g. don’t walk down a dark alley while counting out loud your stacks of 20 dollar bills). The chances of a white person becoming a random victim of violent crime without any warning at the hands of a black person are effectively zero.

All of this means that using the sole criteria of a person’s race to determine whether they mean you harm, independent of any other sign of danger or intent, is guaranteed to give the wrong answer! It is more likely to miss a white perpetrator of violent crime as it is to correctly identify a black perpetrator.

If Land’s statement falls apart upon a minute’s reflection, why do Land and so many others find it compelling? Because it’s not really about understanding crime and public safety. It’s about tribalism. It comes from a sub-rational, primeval reaction to those outside our tribe, that if they are not us then they are an enemy to be feared and hated. An enemy must be conquered before they conquer us.

But remember, Land is a Christian ethicist. Christianity holds that all people bear the imago dei, even more, that the face of the other is the face of Jesus, that we are to welcome the stranger, that it is the Samaritan and not the priest who has done God’s will, that we are neither Greek nor Jew. Christ calls us to move beyond tribalism and into the City of God.

Which makes me think that Richard Land is not very good at his job. Which is why he should be fired.

March 31, 2012

Theodicy Part 3: The New East Boston

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 3:19 pm

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10

A future eschaton is a comfort in times of earthly hardship, but it is not the answer, or not the entire answer, to the problem of evil in the world. We need the eschaton now, not in some unknowable future. And this leads us to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity: God’s kingdom is both now and not yet. Jesus teaches us to work towards building an eschaton in our own communities here and now. Of course we will always fall short. But this is why God has created a universe that can be so cruel: so that when faced with pain and sadness in others we will bring the eschaton back to the present to the extent we are able. And we do this, as Jesus taught us, through love. It is not through laws, judgment, purity or power that we make the eschaton a present reality, but through love.

If God is a God of love, then a world that includes pain is the best of all possible worlds. But it is more than that. It is a world that tells us that the highest good is not the absence of pain, but the presence of love. It is a world made by a God who loves us enough to ask us to participate in creating the eschaton instead of being passive and naive recipients. A world with pain is not just the best possible world, but a thing of perfection, because it requires us to become more than unthinking children but something far greater: the kingdom of heaven in our midst.

The book of Revelation describes the future eschaton as a New Jerusalem. In her book The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing quotes Beth Utto-Galarneau, a Lutheran seminary student:

“What does our city look like?” I asked this question of our Bible study group one Wednesday evening…I hardly had to wait for a response: stinky, scary; there are gangs…people are crying because they are hungry…there is poverty; people are homeless, it’s unsafe…It seems a far cry from the glorious, radiant New Jerusalem.

“Where is that holy city where God dwells among the people?” I asked. They replied: The promised city must be describing heaven. It’s something we look forward to, in the future, after we die. It’s impossible now they said.

Then I asked the group, “Can we try to imagine what the holy city, what the new East Boston might look like?” The people were quiet…and in the end this is what they said: “We saw the holy city, the new East Boston, coming down out of heaven from God…It has clean streets in which people can walk in safety and with peace at any time. There are no drugs, no fire, no fighting; no one is hungry; everyone has a place to live. People are planting flowers and trees…and God is there.” (pp 166-7)

This is both God’s reason for and answer to the problem of evil.

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