Saturday, January 09, 2016

Theology as Logos...

The American eangelical school Wheaton College has apparently decided to fire one of their professors, Dr. Larycia Hawkins for stating that Christians and Muslims pray to the same G-d. Wheaton claims that this statement violates their profession of faith, which the institution requires all staff and students to assent to. The institution has come in for criticism: some strong, and some balanced between support and criticism. Some of the support they have received makes specific reference to the need for institutions of learning committed to a specific viewpoint to ensure all the scholars adhere to that viewpoint; to, as Rod Dreher's comments put it, "police their theological boundaries". Whatever the value of setting limits to enquiry in a religious school, doing so carries a risk: that the school may end up enforcing an logically contradictory position. You can't alter a logical conclusion by firing someone for following it.

Start with an element of basic Christian theology: G-d as universal, the Creator of all things. We know (and can prove) that by its very Nature language does not and cannot encompass the universal (Gödel's proof). Therefore, as Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12) says: we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
It therefore follows that if we pray to G-d simply as we conceive G-d to be, we necessarily pray to an incomplete idea of G-d. As  C. S. Lewis put it, we must, logically, pray to G-d as G-d knows G-d's self to be. If we do this in humility, acknowledging our inadequacy to fully conceive of G-d but directing our worship to the great "I am" (Exodus 3:14), and if Muslims do the same, then they and we necessarily pray to the same G-d. And if we do not, if we pray to our conception of G-d, then we can only hope in humility for G-d to bridge the inevitable gap between the limited concepts in our minds and the transcendent reality. And if Muslims do the same, do we dare ask that G-d not grant them the same mercy?

Friday, December 25, 2015

All I want for Christmas...

is a safety culture on Ontario's streets, roads and highways. And some respect for vulnerable road users would be good, too.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

These aren't the droids you're looking for -- and by the way, this is the best movie ever

It's probably just me, but somehow the rave reviews for "The Force Awakens" have a whiff of jedi mind tricks about them. It's not that it's a truly bad movie. Certainly, if you compare it with "Phantom Menace", it's a real accomplishment. But it's been called the best movie of the year, which seems just a little excessive in a year that saw the release of "Room" and "Spotlight".

For those who go to movies looking for spectacle, "The Force Awakens" delivers. For those who want to see plot twists, this movie will more than satisfy. If you want to see moments of convincing acting between the explosions, it comes across as well. For those who want to see truly coherent, truly excellent writing: see "Spotlight", or see "Room".

In his book "The Empty Space", the great English theatre director Peter Brook wrote about the disconnection between plays that described inner lives and plays that addressed the great sweep of world events. Brook points to the Elizabethan theatre as proof that writers could address both interior thoughts and feelings and world events, exposing the conflicts and interactions between the fears and hopes of individuals and the great events of the world. Perhaps Star Wars aims to do the same thing on a mythic scale, but it misfires badly.Star Wars has a red shirt problem. The first movie of the series, in 1977, began with the destruction of the planet Alderan.

All story-telling risks a kind of narcissism: telling a story inevitably means telling it from a particular point of view, and the listeners come to understand, and to that extent sympathise with, that view. Some story-tellers resist, making a conscious effort to remind their hearers that people outside the circle of the story also matter. Other storytellers happily capitulate to the limits of the form, even turning effect into ideology. Star Wars explicitly defines some of its characters as "chosen", some as auxiliaries placed by fate in the orbit of the chosen, and the vast majority as grist for the cosmic grinder. But this juxtaposition of the few who matter with the many who do not creates jarring inconsistencies in the heart of the story. At the end of Return of the Jedi, the film clearly presents Annakin Skywalker as fulfilled and redeemed, together with Obi-wan and Yoda which leaves the audience to wonder where in that afterlife the inhabitants of Alderan have got to.  "The Force Awakens" does not change this; it doubles down on the anonymous slaughter.

The problems with "The Force Awakens" start with, well, the force. An invisible, quasi-religious and very loosely defined principle associated with a set of abilities, mostly telepathy, the ability to manipulate others, and telekinesis, the Start Wars movies describe it as a grace somehow passed on by heredity. The force, in fact, provides a continual deus ex machina for the series, and particularly for the current film. The film depicts one of the principal characters as a scavenger, scratching out a subsistence living selling parts scavenged from the debris of space battles of a generation ago to an exploitative and oppressive junk dealer. Yet this character goes on to display excellent piloting and combat skills, skills that take decades to master and in fact act as the hallmarks of military aristocracy. Who taught this character these skills? Why would they? It should not surprise any viewer that the film makes it abundantly clear that the force is strong in this one. The films express a vision of profound inequality, and "The Force Awakens" does not change this.

Some of the best works of literature and drama to describe great historical events and movements have done so from the point of view of a random participant, as "Casablanca" tells the story of the Second World War, or from the point of view of the victims, as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" or "Johnny Got His Gun" do. The protagonists of these stories represent the millions of people who went through the same experiences. Other accounts tell the story of major events from the point of view of people who happened to make specific decisions that had a profound impact. The choice of protagonist matters, and in Star Wars, the choice of protagonists, by an impersonal blessing from the universe passed on in the family line, contradicts the ostensible theme of the series, the struggle to preserve, then the struggle to restore, then the struggle to maintain a democratic state. The writers of Star Wars do not manage this tension well. "The Force Awakens" is spectacular; it has good acting between the blasts, but it does not tell a compelling story.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cultural appropriation and the millennial environment

The recent protest at Yale University over issues of cultural appropriation and Halloween have received support, analysis and condemnation. Responses opposing the protestors run the gamut from thoughtful concern about free speech to indignant clucking.

Much of the thoughtful criticism focuses on the supposed "intolerance" of the protesters, asking what happened to the legendary free speech protests of the 1960s. Some of the writers objecting to these protests seem to think objections to racial caricature, at Halloween or any other time, represent a new low in public support for free speech. That would probably come as a shock to the Nuremberg tribunal, who found the vicious anti-semitic caricatures of Der Sturmer had helped fuel the hatred that drove the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jewish population. The court sentenced the publisher of Der Sturmer to death for crimes against humanity. Free speech has always had limits, and most Western countries acknowledge that in a society that aims at tolerance and diversity, incitement to hate lie falls outside these limits.

To understand why student complaints about the use of cultures in Halloween often seem to focus on practices that do not seem hateful, it helps to understand the environment the millenial generation has grown up in. The Internet has shifted the context in which today's students experience restrictions on speech. The power of the Internet has made the actual repression of information and opinion very difficult, except for extremely authoritarian governments willing to endure considerable self-inflicted harm. Students today have never lived in a world where censorship of ideas can plausibly come from an American civil servant or a judge. Instead, they have spent their lives in the world of the DMCA, where expressions get blocked not by laws but by licenses, not by bureaucrats but by lawyers, not by state power but by private claims of ownership over ideas. The controversy over cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes involves not free expression but property.
"MGD06JesusSaysBuyMoreArt" by Infrogmation - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -
Connor Friedersdrorf quotes the offending email by Erika Christakis: "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?" That looks to me like a naive and nostalgic view. In Halloween celebrations of the 1960s and 1970s, parents whipped up costumes for their children, Halloween decorations were made at home, and students pulled sheets of their beds for toga parties. Some parents still make costumes for their children, but Halloween today is a multi-million dollar business. Stores pop up in major cities in September and October, selling multitudes of ready to wear costumes. These costumes come with design copyrights, trademarks, even business method patents. The only people who do not get to make claim on this revenue stream are the people who created and maintain the living culture that gives many of these costumes their meaning. Cultural appropriation is not kids being transgressive; it is yet another an example of big business using the powerless as raw material to make a buck. Moreover, it is one means of turning that many things appropriated from the powerless into cash that individual students can choose not to participate in.  The email from Erika Christakis advised students offended by a costume "...if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other." That misses part of the point. Costumes are big business. By the time a student puts on an offensive costume, the exploiters have rung up another sale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


for the people of France mourning loved ones. And the people of Lebanon. And Syria, Iraq and Russia. Pray for everywhere terrorism leaves its ugly imprint.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The 11th day

of the eleventh month, the guns of the war to end all wars fell silent. The millions of the dead in that war included my great uncle Launcelot Cumpston. Eleven years after the end of that war, my father was born. I was born eleven years after the Second World War; a war in which my cousin John Cox died.

We frequently commemorate the war dead with the phrase "lest we forget". In its original context, the phrase did not refer to the need to remember the dead and the sacrifice they made. It appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem recessional as a refrain: it calls us to remember that power politics and military might will not keep us safe.

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

let us remember all the men and women who served in war and peace, those who stood guard and those who bound up the wounds, those who gave their lives in battle to resist aggression, and those who laid down their lives to witness that there is another way.

Above all, let us honour the memory of those who died without complacency. I believe the near future must include a day on which we can say: here ended war. I believe that if that day does not come, then a day will come, although nothing will ever mark it, when humanity ended. And I honour the sacrifices made by brave men and women in the armed services of our country.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

NDP and deficits

Writing in the Progressive Economics Forum, Louis-Phillippe Rochon denounces Thomas Mulcair's stated intention to avoid running a deficit. He pronounces himself shocked, shocked that Mr. Mulcair would ever suggest that deficits and debt make it impossible for governments to do good things for those they govern. He writes:
But in embracing balanced budgets, Mulcair has also endorsed all the right-wing rhetoric and lies that come with it. On the campaign trail, Mulcair has said in response to Trudeau’s promise of infrastructure spending, “I am tired of watching governments put that debt on the backs of future generations.” Later, he said “Mr. Trudeau seems to have the same approach as Mr. Harper – they both want to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself … There’s a reason why we want to be good public administrators with balanced budgets, because if we’re not, then we’re not going to be able to have the types of programs that we all believe in going into the future.”
Historically, running a deficit without a just tax structure simply creates more debt, which rich people and corporations buy because poor people can't afford to; this requires governments to pay interest, which the poor pay for and which rich people and corporations collect. We have also reason to believe that citizens pay more attention to what governments spend  their money on when they have to actually hand it over as taxes, rather than watch the numbers add up on a debt clock on the web. Experience over the last five decades doesn't do much to support borrowing money as a means of building a durably just society. Infrastructure projects, public benefits, and economic stimulus without a strong, just and sustainable base of fair taxes can end up in the sorry mess the Greeks find themselves in, or the wildly irresponsible bank bailouts the Americans and others engaged in at the outset of this decade. Above all, I see no way to build a just society on injustice,whether you borrow money to do it or not.

And that, rather than the nicer points of public finance, explains why I, unlike Dr. Rochon, plan to give Mr. Mulcair and the NDP as much support as I can. Unlike Justin Trudeau's Liberals, the NDP voted against Bill C-51; unlike the Liberals, the NDP has promised to repeal it as soon as they get into power. And that matters, because C-51, effectively declares open season on First nation communities trying to protect their culture, land and rights. If, as they have said they will, the Liberals retain any part of a law that makes it easy to trample the rights of people Canada already has a shameful history of abusing, they will run a moral deficit far worse than any numbers in a financial ledger, and they might as well build their infrastructure projects on sand.