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:

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

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.

November 9, 2009

Perfect Enemy of the Good &c.

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:12 pm

Are these people nuts?

As a passionate follower of politics, I have railed on this blog about political stupidity from time to time. I think without exception it has been about those on the right. But just to prove I’m not biased, this one is about crazies on the left.

I happened to catch a snippet of The Ed Sullivan Show on MSNBC (I’m not a regular viewer). Ed Schultz was interviewing Dennis Kucinich, who was bragging about his vote against the House health care reform bill. Kucinich talked about how we need a single-payer health care system, health insurance companies need to be cut out of our system, and this bill is a sell-out to the insurance companies. And Ed Schultz was agreeing with him that passage of this bill was not a victory for progressives.

Politics is the art of the possible. The bill passed by a narrow margin. Kucinich was the only Democrat voting against it from the left, while 38 Democrats voted against it from the right. Do Kucinich and Schultz really believe Congress could ever pass the bill they want? Do they really believe the status quo is better than a first step towards reform? Would they prefer the current bill fail rather than pass the best bill that could actually get a majority of votes in the House?

Yes, these people are nuts.

Update: Schultz and Kucinich were not talking about the Stupak Amendment, and neither am I. My thoughts apply to the based health care reform bill itself.

Update 2: Some similar thoughts from Ezra Klein.

October 2, 2009

The Flaws in the Tea Party Conservative Ideology

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:34 pm

The libertarian wing of the conservative movement has two intellectual problems, it seems to me.

The first is their canard that taxes is the moral equivalent of stealing. US economic growth, i.e. our income, is to a large extent thanks to government. The low cost of raising equity capital? Government (SEC). Low friction commerce within the US? Government (enforcement of regulations means we don’t have to worry that we’re being lied to or sold worthless drugs, lead paint, tainted milk, infected meat, etc etc). The fact that we aren’t all left penniless because our banks failed? Government (Fed, Treasury, FDIC). Like the low cost of pretty much any commodity? Government (FTC preventing monopolies and price-fixing). Like being able to buy cheap plastic stuff from China? Government (trade deals). So much of our personal wealth and standard of living in the US is directly due to government.

Disagree? Let’s look at countries that don’t have such government mechanisms. Mexico, Russia, Turkey, where graft and bribes are required to get anything done. China, where the drive for profitability of party members’ companies leads to tainted milk. Every single one of the prosperous countries in the world have effective government regulation of commerce. Every one. And every country that does not is stuck in poverty.

But anti-government anti-tax conservatives don’t want to pay for what they’re getting. They’re selfish that way. They insist that what the rest of us consider “paying your own way” is “theft”. The government (i.e. the people) say that if you are going to receive all of these benefits, you’re going to pay for them whether you like it or not. And rightly so. To do otherwise would make all of us worse off. Think Darfur, where as I understand their marginal tax rates are rather low and regulatory burdens fairly light.

Problem #2: libertarian conservatives live in an either/or world, as though there are only two choices: pure libertarianism, or pure communism. Put differently, we either exalt the individual and ignore the community, or exalt the community and ignore the individual.

But it’s not an either/or proposition. We must find a balance between individualism and communalism (not communism). France, say, has found a balance that is too far towards communalism for me. Among developed nations, the US is the furthest towards individualism. I believe we should nudge it a bit towards communalism in some things, but not many and not very far. The world is analog, not binary, and I just want to turn the dial a tad to the left.

That doesn’t make me a communist, and doesn’t mean I don’t care about individual freedoms. I care very much. I care about civil liberties that many on the right are happy to sacrifice to communalism: privacy, protection from unlawful search and seizure, freedom of speech (flag burning, say), and many more. So the anti-government libertarians too are somewhere in between pure libertarianism and communism. We’re just at different points on the spectrum.

The libertarian conservatives view the left as godless, as if our political beliefs are unchristian. So is my view compatible with Christianity? Oh my yes. I want a community where people aren’t ruined financially because they get cancer, or where they die from cancer needlessly. Where, while we treasure individual liberties, we also balance them against a communal desire to care for the least of these. And we do these things together, as a people deciding these things democratically, under the rule of law. As a people realizing that we can do some things together that none of us can do alone. As a people understanding that, while we are all individuals, we all suffer or benefit from the well-being of the entire community.

The Tea Party right, however, seems to want a world in which they benefit from the vibrant and thriving society all around them, but don’t have to pay for it. Now that’s not Christian.

August 7, 2009

In Defense of Truth

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

Here we go again.

Conservatives have been ignoring reality so long they wouldn’t recognize it if they were stuck in an elevator with it. Not all of them. There are still plenty of conservative Republicans with integrity, but they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

It started with Clinton Derangement Syndrome in the 90’s when conservatives believed Bill Clinton was a drug-runner and Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster. It continued during the 2000 election, but really came of age with the run-up to the Iraq War and the swiftboating of John Kerry. It continued with the Obama is a Muslim, a socialist and a fascist memes. But now it’s getting really bizarre: Obama wants to kill off seniors, the healthcare bills in Congress will outlaw private insurance, and Obama is a Nazi born in Kenya. This disconnect with reality has been getting worse and worse and is at risk, I believe, of imperiling our democracy.

I happen to like truth, or as the ancient Greeks would say, Truth. Many things in life cannot be boiled down to a binary true/false dichotomy, but many things can. We can find the truth for ourselves — we can read about the healthcare bills coming out of committee, we can look at Obama’s birth certificate, we can visit non-partisan fact-checking websites like factcheck.org. Truth is good, and we should pursue it aggressively and embrace it wherever we find it.

Democracy relies to a large extent on an understanding of reality shared by the electorate. We can’t debate whether a public option is a good thing or a bad thing until we understand that it won’t outlaw private insurance. We can’t discuss the benefits of healthcare reform with people that believe it’s a plot to kill our seniors. Without an agreement on what is objectively true and what is not, we can’t talk with each other, as the August congressional town halls are demonstrating. The tea-baggers at these town halls are denying reality, and trying to drag the rest of us into their fevered hallucinations. They are shouting down objectively true statements as though if only they shout loud enough, their reality will become true. If only they clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will live and the union be saved.

Truth matters. It matters a lot. And a large swath of our citizenry has abandoned truth. While the left has departed from reality often enough in its history, today conservative untruth is far more widespread. My fear is that this departure from reality will lead to violence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist German Lutheran theologian, participated in the plot that almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler. He did so because after long consideration and prayer, he believed he was called to do so. When so many people are claiming that Obama is just like Hitler, how many will decide that assassinating Obama is their calling? It’s terrifying.

Blame can be placed various places. Conservative talk radio, Fox News and Coulterian demagogues. A mainstream media that is afraid to inform us on what is really true and what is not, instead covering the debate while remaining agnostic on each side’s claims. A conservative movement that has been ruthlessly enforcing uniformity of thought.

But I think there’s a deeper cause. I think the problem is us. For a democracy to succeed, voters need to work to be informed, to educate themselves on the issues and to resist settling on the emotionally satisfying yet factually challenged opinion. We need to test our ideologies against reality, and modify or abandon them accordingly. We need to read and listen and think. We need to be adults.

Change is hard and our country has been undergoing cultural and demographic change at what seems to be an accelerating pace. But the viability of our democracy relies on our ability to understand the reality we find ourselves in and to vote and act accordingly. We need to return to a shared sense of what is true, a reality we can all agree on, while we disagree on how to respond to it.

We will get the government we deserve. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that we will get the government we earn through the effort we expend to seek truth. And we desperately need to earn a better democracy than what we’ve been experiencing in these town halls.

December 20, 2008

My Podcasts

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:18 pm

It seems to be a tradition on blogs to share your iPod song list to demonstrate your eclectic and refined taste in music. Instead, I’d rather demonstrate my eclectic and refined taste in podcasts. Herewith, my current subscriptions:

  • The Onion Radio News
  • Shields and Brooks | NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Podcast | PBS
  • Science Talk: The Podcast of Scientific American
  • APM: Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett
  • APM: A Prairie Home Companion’s News from Lake Wobegon
  • NPR: Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Podcast
  • Philosophy Bites
  • The Economist
  • Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS
  • NPR: Fresh Air Podcast
  • BILL MOYERS JOURNAL | PBS
  • NPR: Intelligence Squared

Yes, this is a lot of stuff to listen to every week, but that’s one of the benefits of running and doing yardwork — lots of podcast listening time.

And lest anyone doubt my taste in music, maybe I’ll post some of that in the future.

November 20, 2008

What This Blog Reveals

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:56 pm

No way! Andrew Sullivan linked to this site that purportedly determines what type of person you are from your blog. So I entered ergodubito.org and was amazed to be told, accurately, my Myers-Briggs personality type. I have received this personality type each of the several times I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs test, and this website was able to correctly deduce it from my blog posts!

My results:

The analysis indicates that the author of http://ergodubito.org is of the type:
INTP – The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Of course that last sentence is bosh — whoever wrote that is too clueless to understand the profundity of us INTPs.

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