False Pattern

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jesus Toast:

                                Taste and see.

This serving of crispy-chewy-cheesy goodness gets a mention in the “Cosmos” series starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the context of today’s subject:  Pattern recognition.  Namely, the human tendency to perceive false patterns.

I would have let it go, except that this silly mantra has been trotted out ad nauseum as a way of dismissing belief in God.  The thinking goes that much of belief is perceiving divine intervention where there is none.

Now, it won’t do any good to interject, because the cynic is about to pontificate:  Naturally, pattern recognition has been a great boon for humans.  This ability enables us to recognize friends and foes, to classify good foods and harmful foods, to distinguish a predator from the background noises of nature.

Just as naturally, our capacity for pattern recognition is bound to produce false positives:  You think there is someone in the room with you, but you come to find you are alone.  You get a string of green lights on the way to work, and you imagine some intelligent agent has cleared the way for you.  You notice a large – what is that, a bear? – in the forest, but upon closer inspection, it is a hallowed out tree.

It is the same way, the cynic wants to say, with religion:  We are universally prone to this flaw in our thinking, and so a great many of us have been led to believe there is some kind of divine agency where there is none.  It is like seeing a ghost, which is to say, there’s no such thing.

The cynic intends for the conversation to be over at this point.  You ought now to be humble enough to admit that your brain is faulty, and so these beliefs of yours cannot possibly be true.  And yet, we resist the cynic’s conclusion.

A bit of pedantry first:  The claim is often that we perceive a pattern where there is none.  But this is a perfect error.  We perceive a pattern because there is one, not because there isn’t one.

That is, when you think you’re seeing a bear in the forest, that’s because the proportions and features are such that they really do resemble a bear.  They exhibit the same pattern a bear might, up until you reach a certain level of clarity.  Once you realize that it was a log, and not a bear, you don’t deny that you actually recognized a pattern; you deny that it was actually a bear.

The stronger version of the cynic’s claim, then, is that we perceive false patterns when we imagine that “God” or any other divinity has intervened in our lives.  No such thing has happened.

This conclusion does seem odd, doesn’t it?  After all – like a great deal of the cynic’s claims – it simply assumes atheism is true.  If atheism is true, then it follows that there is no divine intervention.

Otherwise – if we don’t all assume atheism is true – it is quite an intrusion into a person’s interior life.  And if the claim is to be taken seriously, it is quite an intrusion into the interior life of every single religious person in the world.  The cynic would do well to have some Jesus Toast and mind his manners.

And what about Jesus Toast?  Well, one can see how the image kinda looks like Jesus.  So what?

(Cynic, take note…)

What does it matter to you, or to me, or to Neil deGrasse Tyson if a person finds some significance in that pattern?  Or if they think God sent them five green lights in a row?  Are you sure He didn’t?  (Please, enlighten us!)

These things are not the substance of Christianity (or any religion that I’m aware of), so if the plausibility of religion or the question of God’s existence are at issue, we will certainly dispense with Jesus Toast.  But then the cynic should also dispense with fried bread in general when he wants to make his case for atheism.

At the Sunday School BBQ, on the other hand, the best Jesus Toast gets a blue ribbon.

Secularism and Right of Conscience – 3

In a previous post I commented on secularism as a worthwhile agreement in a pluralistic society, a guiding principle by which we can assure liberty and justice for all…or something like that.

To wit:  Secularism, I claimed, is the agreement not to impose any particular worldview on a nation.  Rather, we should work toward the common understanding of the common good, and protect the freedom to authentically express and exercise a sincerely held worldview.

We saw in the last post how one cannot even begin to develop a basic health care package (BHCP) without immediately imposing upon certain worldviews.  This, of course, does not rule out that there might be some BHCP which would serve us well, perhaps well enough to garner the support of most everyone.

But it shows, first of all, that the way is difficult.  Witness:  Twenty questions asked in the course of the post which are variously controversial and perhaps unanswerable in a perfectly disinterested way.

If our aim is to honor the agreement of secularism, then the situation only becomes more challenging for the BHCP.

That is, notice that the very notion of a BHCP, which would be the right of all citizens, requires the justification of some worldview in order to succeed.  In other words, the exercise of developing a BHCP just assumes this is a good thing.  But is it?

If you think it is, then you must tell us why it is a good thing.  For example:

 

BHCP Advocate:  It is good because people have a right to affordable health care.

Questioner:  Why think that?

BHCP Advocate:  Well, we know good health is a major contributor to happiness, since it is a critical component in one’s quality of life.

Questioner:  Why is that a good thing?

BHCP Advocate:  Happiness?  Because it just is!

Questioner:  Is that so?*

 

What seems fundamentally true to you – e.g. happiness just is a good thing – may not seem fundamentally true to others.

Thus, in order to fully honor secularism, it would seem that protecting the right of conscience is the way to go.  This avoids any grievous imposition on some for the purported benefit of others, and it still gets you some form of BHCP for all.

Notice a further point, though:  If you opposed the HL decision on the grounds that no one should impose their beliefs on other people, you must come to grips with the reality that, by supporting the ACA (for example), you are already imposing.  Yours – whoever you are – is not the default worldview in a secular society.  Either you must give up the notion of secularism (in which case, it is fair game to impose on you, after all), or you must protect the principle of secularism against attacks and encroachments, both explicit and implicit, even when you disagree with the particulars.

This leads to a kind of stalemate between the principle of secularism, on the one hand, and what rights are granted to citizens on the other.  Of course, many have noticed this conflict; we are only exploring some of the background principles and assumptions.**

Now, if all of this is intolerable, and you are sure that a BHCP is fundamental right, and you don’t care what the nihilists think (or don’t think) – that’s fine.  And you might be right.  But you must, at the very least, admit that you would want to install a “your-worldview-ocracy.”  You can’t hide behind the charge that people shouldn’t impose on other people when that’s precisely what you’re doing.  There’s a word for that.

Virtually any decision about a particular in the real world means that some worldview is being preferred to another.  Secularism is the attempt to manage that dynamic so that no particular worldview is unduly imposing; conversely, various forms of “-ocracy” represent the attempt of one worldview to rule the others.

 

Post script –  This concludes this series on the principle of Secularism as it relates to the HL decision (unless I am provoked!).  I plan to continue with a series on a “most just” society, which, like this series, will very much be the thoughts of an untutored amateur, but has been fun for me nonetheless.

 

*A nod to the Buddhists.

**I might suggest that not many have noticed the role that Secularism plays, at least in the form I’ve described.

Secularism and Right of Conscience – 2

We have in this post to begin crafting a basic health care package (hereafter BHCP).  If we want to do away with the categorical right of conscience, this seems to be our only option.  Let us at least make the attempt.

The context of this BHCP is an ideal secular society, one which allows its citizens to live authentically according to their respective worldviews, at least as much as possible.  But if we are dispensing with the right of conscience, we must have our eyes open:  Someone’s worldview is going to be discarded as wrong, harmful, or invalid.

Take the nihilists, for example. These are people who believe in nothing, who maintain that everything is ultimately and completely meaningless and void.*

Say what you want, this is a worldview which exists, and would be part of our secular society.  Now, what if a nihilist employer (why did he bother starting a business?) wants to say that health insurance is pointless, because life is short and we’re all going to die, anyway?

Well, according to the ACA, he has a tax/penalty to pay.  But we’re dealing with a blank slate, and asking what the government ought to do, not what it has done.

According to our previous answer, it would be his right not to provide any health insurance.  But we’re starting from the assumption that there is some basic package of health care.

And so, we must start by imposing upon the nihilist.  He must provide a BHCP, or pay a price.

So much for the nihilists; their complaints amount to nothing anyway.  What’s next?

I have to say, I appreciate that my allergy medicines have been covered by our family’s BHCP’s, and I think that is a reasonable thing:  Any condition which can be treated by medication of some kind ought to be available through BHCP’s.

But here we are imposing upon the Christian Scientists.  Or, at least a simplistic caricature of them.  Nevertheless, assume they were categorically opposed to medicines.

Now we must require both nihilist and Christian Scientist employers to act against their worldviews in order that our BHCP may be universally available.

(Isn’t, like, Tom Cruise a Christian Scientist?  I know Jeffrey Tambor is, and as funny as that guy is, he holds to a crazy worldview, no?)

Questions for reflection:  How many groups of people would have to be imposed upon before we thought the BHCP went too far?  What about as a percentage of the total population?

Let’s get beyond the mundane – a family is in an accident.  The parents die, and the child is in critical condition.  The child survives a life-saving operation, but is in need of blood.  A common, safe way to replenish the blood supply is by transfusion.  Sure, this should probably be included in the BHCP.

Not so fast, though:  The father worked for a Jehovah’s witness.  Shall we impose on this employer, too?  Bear in mind, the transfusion will be done either way.  We are only asking if the employer should be forced to pay for it (at least in part).

Questions for reflection:  Should expensive treatments and products be preferred for inclusion in the BHCP?  If we’re talking about a car, for example, the insurance policy does not cover oil changes, but it does cover major accidents.  If so, what amount qualifies as expensive?

Now, what about preventative treatments?  Nothing is actually wrong yet, but they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This raises the question of birth control, which was linked to the Hobby Lobby case.**

It became clear from that case that several stripes of Christians are morally opposed to the HHS mandate.  The mandate, of course, was only enacted because these forms of birth control were presumed to be part of the BHCP.  In our ideal society, should they be?

Questions for reflection:  Is pregnancy a disease?  If not, how should we classify it?  If not as a disease, should it be part of a BHCP to prevent it?  If you opposed the HL decision, were you aware of the full argument against birth control/abortifacients?  If so, did you formulate a complete and successful rebuttal?  Who decides which argument prevails?

And what about some unorthodox methods of treatment?  I’ll suggest two.

A woman believes strongly in the power of prayer, and she believes particularly in the power of a certain mystic’s prayer.  He lives in Nepal.

Now, for the mystic’s prayers to work, he must be physically present, and perform a series of rituals which require great concentration, unrivaled devotion, and the most exotic of resources.

He requires that his hermitage be transported with him; a modest abode, though cumbersome to move.  He requires a chemical found only in expensive bottles of port, preferably recovered from a shipwreck.  He also requires the fifth leg of 1,003 Brazilian beetles, and a hand-drawn, perfect circle on the floor, within which he will pray.

Say what you want, this mystic has a success rate significantly higher than random results would offer, and all other available treatments are experimental.  Now – shall we impose on the materialist^ employer, include this treatment in the BHCP, and insist on the employer’s financial contribution?

Questions for discussion:  If you would not include this in the BHCP, why not?  What criterion does it violate?  Why is that a criterion for our BHCP?  Is that an inviolable criterion, or are there other possible instances the BHCP could cover, which might violate your criterion?  What about untested forms of psychoanalysis, or new age therapies?

Second - Consider a white supremacist who suffered a debilitating stroke.  He has been in therapy for many months, with very little progress.

The doctor believes the symptoms are, to some extent, psychosomatic.  She wants to find a way to snap him out of his feelings of helplessness and frustration.  Now, she is the unfeeling kind, a person who considers all options regardless of stigma.

Her solution is to commission a short film made at the local college.  It will, in essence, feature three white men harassing a black woman, leading to a sexual assault of the woman.  The doctor is able to get the film made on the pretense that she is conducting a psychology experiment.  The school agrees, if she will pay a fee of $1,000.

Keep in mind, the issue is not whether you think anything like this would ever occur (but don’t be naive).  You must assume it is about to occur, and you are this man’s employer.  Do you want to be on the hook for this treatment?  Would you want to contribute even one dime?

Questions for discussion:  What if the treatment works?  What if the doctor and the patient are both completely satisfied with the treatment?  What if, in fact, it leads to the use of other widely stigmatized practices in the treatment of psychosomatic conditions?  Does anything go?  Should we still impose on people who believe racism is wrong, sex crimes are wrong, and all manner of such things are wrong, and expect them to contribute financially to these treatments?

This is a serious problem with developing a BHCP – what one considers basic or necessary, another may consider offensive and detrimental.  That we have largely made do with existing health care insurance is an interesting point and worthy of discussion.  But we have moved beyond that point with the recent controversy, and we have one more point to make in the next post.

 

*It would be difficult to grasp the depths of skepticism and despair present in nihilism.  Impossible, even.  This is why you can depend on the fact that any nihilist you meet is also a hypocrite (not unlike Christians, but we are supposed to admit that upfront).

**A common objection to the HL case is that the morning after pill does not actually cause an abortion, because it merely prevents implantation.  This is supposed to be distinguished from an abortifacient.

For the purposes of our discussion, it is only necessary to say that someone objected to it, in full knowledge of the facts, even if there remains some confusion about what the drug’s effects are.

^A materialist, of course, is a person who believes all of reality reduces to the physical.  There is no spiritual/supernatural realm, mathematical objects are all useful fictions, logic is a happy accident, and our consciousness…well, let’s not talk about that.

Secularism and Right of Conscience – 1

An earlier post generated a good deal of discussion on Facebook; that I was indisposed to join the discussion was a shame, but unavoidable.  Nevertheless, I’d like to continue the line of thought from that earlier post, with some reference to the FB conversation.

The driving point of that post was the following question, which was quoted by a commenter:

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

The commenter answered with a “categorical yes.”  This, of course, is equivalent to saying “absolutely, always and everywhere, yes,” which would lead to some troubling implications.

Take for instance the example posed by another commenter, who worried that the Hobby Lobby decision would open the door to forced compliance in “animal sacrifice.”  Now, forget for a moment that this concern seems to have the actual issue upside-down and backward, and consider how it neatly answers our first commenter:  Is it right, then, that we should require people to be complicit in animal sacrifice, even if they are morally opposed?

Our first commenter says yes, categorically; our second commenter says no, implicitly.  Having thus answered the first, let us address the second.

Our second commenter has the issue upside-down because the employer, in this case, is not imposing upon the employee, but rather is being imposed upon from above.  If we are to take the his concern seriously, this is how it would look:  The employer is not demanding employee compliance in animal sacrifice.  Rather, the government is demanding the employer provide for animal sacrifice, because of the belief that it is good and basic to the employee’s welfare.

That some people persist in this confusion is odd and would be amusing if it weren’t so troubling.  In the animal sacrifice example, Hobby Lobby is simply demurring, asking not to be required to participate in animal sacrifice due to religious objection.  That some employees might like this because it makes it easier to sacrifice animals, and that our government wishes to mandate the coverage exactly for that reason, does not make it less objectionable.  Surely our second commenter could throw his weight behind this; in fact, he already has.

Now, if we were to take these objections and strengthen them, what would happen?

In the first instance, our commenter might have used another “c” word, and said, “Is it right to impose on one worldview in favor of another?  Conditionally, yes.”

And our second commenter could have added, “For example, what if an employer was opposed to using animal organs in transplants?  Could he refuse a life-saving operation for one of his employee’s children?”  Modest claims are often stronger, since they are easier to support.

There are two answers ready to mind, and I don’t suppose that either is categorically wrong or right, but that they are both defensible in a secular society.

First, one might say that the right of conscience is to be protected, categorically.  That is, no matter what a person’s belief system is, government should not impose upon them to violate it.

Let’s use a stock objection to demonstrate:  One wants to know if an employer who is a Jehovah’s witness may refuse to provide coverage for blood transfusions, since he is morally opposed based on his religious beliefs.  The answer here would be yes, he may.

Another, more imaginative scenario:  Say an employer held the religious belief that all life is divine, and fit for use only after a ritual un-deification.  In principle, then, we could continue to source our medicines from plants and molds and such, though only with the widespread adoption of these ritual practices.  But the religion has not caught on, and so there are precious few un-deified resources available.  To be safe, the employer wants to refuse to cover any kind of medicine, to avoid this grievous sin.

According to our first answer, we would have to say yes, that this employer also has the right to refuse coverage, if we are to fully protect the right to conscience.

Questions for conversation:  What are the pros and cons of this position?  What values underlie your assessment of this position?  Are you implicitly putting more emphasis on liberty (right to conscience) or on positive rights (these things must be provided because I think they are good and basic)?  And what are the consequences of that emphasis?  Are your answers conducive to the authentic expression of any given worldview?

The second answer would be more challenging to implement, yet seems to garner greater favor with the Zeitgeist:  There is, at bottom, a program of health care which is truly basic, and ought to be universally provided.  In this case, the right of conscience is restrained, and it is the extent of that restraint which is up for debate.  We’ll consider this next time.

Weeds

One of the most debated topics of philosophy and perhaps one of the biggest barriers to faith is the problem of evil. Put simply, man has a hard time reconciling a kind, loving, and just God with the pain, suffering, and evil surrounding him.

Today’s Gospel cuts straight to the heart of this matter. Here we have good seed and weeds sown together in one field. Both are watered by the spring rain. Both soak up the summer sun. Both enjoy the cultivating done by the farmer. And both take nutrients from the same soil. But weeds and good seed don’t coexist peacefully. Weeds take the water and nutrients away from the good seed. Their overgrowth can blot out the sun, depriving the good seed of the nutrients it provides. So it was natural that the farmer’s servants asked if they could pull up the weeds before they had a chance to compete with the good crop. Yet the farmer instructs the servants to wait until the harvest when the good crop and the weeds will be harvested together, with the weeds being bundled and burned.

There are two topics lately that have fallen out of favor to be preached on from the pulpit – hell and the devil. Yet these are unavoidable topics in this parable. As with all of Jesus’ parables the actors are always bigger than those he presents in His story. Jesus makes clear that the devil, the enemy of God the farmer, is the one who sows the seeds that grow into weeds. The seed is such an interesting choice of imagery as well. We know from Jesus’ other teachings that both good and evil spring forth from the heart of men – and what a better way to describe the heart of man than the seed – the very essence of life from which all else grows. When evil is in the heart of man the fruit is thorny, disruptive, harmful to the good crop, and ultimately utterly useless. Evil, left to grow, grows wildly like a weed looking to feed on and overgrow everything in its path. When the life of an evil man comes to its end – the harvest – Jesus makes it crystal clear that what awaits him is fire – the symbol of hell. And unlike a weed, which would simply burn up in the fire, the fire of hell is eternal.

At this point you might be asking, how is this fair? A seed is to grow into what is made of. A grain of wheat becomes wheat, a seed of a weed because a weed. How is the weed destined to be anything but a weed, and therefore destined for the fire?

Yet Jesus’ words once again ring true – what is impossible for man is possible for God! Only God has the power to change the heart of a man. Only God has the power to transform a weed into wheat Jesus’ life shows us time and time again that he has the power to change man’s circumstances and even their very heart. Today we will be reminded of God’s power to transform when we come to the Eucharistic table and we partake of bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. God can do this. God has done this. And God will continue to do this.

And so, God being the creator of all things, brings the rain and the sun to both the good seed and the weeds. God, through His Holy Spirit, cultivates the soil and makes it ready for harvest. And this great Farmer is patient because He knows this is more than just wheat and weeds. This field is filled with the souls of his greatest creation. And so His patience with these weeds is not at the expense of the good crop, but as 2 Peter tells us ”he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Let us also then be reminded that the harvest is great, but the workers are few. We live, work, and play in a field filled with good crop and weeds. Tomorrow, after we get our food for the journey today, we need to run among these fields not sidestepping the painful thorns of the weeds, but watering them with the Grace that flows from this table of plenty. Because, unlike the harvest whose time is clearly marked, the end of our days can come at any time. We need to recognize this so that we not only continue to mature into the good crop, but to realize that the weeds around us may be pulled at any time where the fire awaits them.

Social Justice

Sit back, now – I aim to cover the entire subject of Social Justice in just one blog post.

Social justice (may I borrow the apt abbreviation of “SJ”?) is a worthy, even noble pursuit – as long as one realizes it is impossible to attain.  It can only obtain in Paradise, and even then it is hard for us to imagine just how this could be.

If I may take the liberty to define it, SJ is the idea that the world should be a fundamentally fair place, that our laws and institutions should be geared toward justice for all.  (The metaphor here is meant quite vividly – the mechanisms of government, of business, and so on, should be constructed in such a way that “justice” is the outcome).

A well-known example of the practice of SJ is fair trade coffee.  The aim behind fair trade is that everyone involved in the transaction is treated with dignity:  We will not pay the farmer a pittance just because he’ll take it, because he has no other choice.  No, his pay should genuinely reward his efforts, and give him the means to provide for himself and his family.

This particular application of SJ has caught on, at least in my experience:  I sit now at Starbucks, beside a picture of beans the size of my nose, luxuriating in their oily glory.  Starbucks promotes fair trade coffee, as does my church, which sells fair trade coffee after Mass every couple of weeks.  Most coffee shops and many churches I’ve visited have similar practices.

And this is grand, it really is.  It’s a great success of the pursuit of SJ.

Any noble pursuit, though, is at risk of distortion, even abuse.  Citations of abuse I leave out, because they are sourced from among the deluded, and there can be no constructive discourse there.  An example, though, would be the shrewd, systematic silencing which calls itself “checking your privilege.”  It is hard to imagine anything more egregiously ironic than promoting diversity of thought by actively silencing whole categories of people, but truth is stranger than fiction.*

We are, at any rate, more concerned with those who are sincere about SJ, and not the brood of vipers.

There is a tension at play in SJ, and it seems to be between Justice and Power.

Power is much-maligned, but fundamental and necessary to our existence.  We need power – ability, capacity – to work, to acquire the basics (and more) for living.  Even if we start there, it is clear that some have little power, and some have a great deal more.

SJ does not entail – or does not necessarily entail – that power be distributed equally.  Nature does not distribute talents and opportunities equally.  People of similar talents and opportunity do not implement them equally.  In the course of our lives, power may be given, and power may be taken away.

These things cannot be held in perfect equilibrium – this is why SJ is a pursuit, and not an achievable goal.  It is an ideal to strive for, not a standard which can be imposed.

What is the modus operandi of those who strive for SJ?  There are two, and they are at odds.

The first, and more common – leading to distortion and abuse – is, “Give us power, and we will set things right.”

The second, and more perfect, is, “You who have power – come, let us seek Justice.”

The first is just thinly veiled arrogance.  But let me phrase it more sympathetically.

Since the 8th grade, and probably earlier still, I have wanted to help the poor.  I have prayed, throughout the intervening years, for God to give me chances, opportunities – positions of influence, wealth, confidence – so that I could try to set things right.

I have to say that God has not answered this prayer to the satisfaction of my younger self, but it has been answered to my current (hopefully wiser) satisfaction.  Why am I satisfied now?

On a practical level, I did not know – and hardly do now – the first thing about really helping the poor.  In fact, solutions to this issue are hotly debated.  If I had the power, how do I know I’d use it wisely?

On a spiritual level – and more critically – I am not perfectly obedient to God, who is Justice.  I am not sure that I’m even halfway obedient to God.  How, then, could I possibly be serving justice if I am not truly obedient to Justice?

It has been my observation that those who distort or abuse SJ regard obedience as useless and degrading.  They have not heard that the Lord came to serve, not to be served, and they have the whole principle upside down and backward.  They make an idol of social justice.

What about the second mode, then?

Here, the proponent of social justice does not impose his ideas either on the rich or the poor.  Rather, he takes a stance of obedience to a transcendental: Justice.

Come what may – even dismal failure – he will obey Justice.  His is an invitation, not an imposition:  Come, let us seek Justice.

Even if he is rejected, he does not despair.  He does not apostatize.  He does not demean the rich, nor belittle the poor, but calls on them both to recognize Justice.^  He understands that he will not cure all ills, that more worldly power will not make him more successful, much less stripping such power from others (and here is an opening for the teaching on nonviolence).  But obedience compels him to be weak, so that God might make him strong.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – this is the basis of true social justice.

 

*I’ve had a good chat with a friend who accepts the principles of this system of privilege, and believes everyone ought to be checking their various forms of privilege.  Aside from taking tedium to a stupefying level, I pointed out that the intention here is not wrong.  It is good to bear in mind that you may have had certain advantages in life and that you should be mindful of the disadvantages of others.  But to contort this principle – I’d call it “thoughtful consideration” – into a pecking order for public discourse is, frankly, backwards and petty.

^Simone Weil’s thoughts on gratitude as the proper disposition of those receiving charity are pertinent here.

Hobby Lobby and Secularism

The controversy over the Supreme Court decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has been…well, hysterical, when you think about it. There are, for instance, otherwise intelligent people shuddering for the United States. It is unbecoming for a scientist to be reading tea leaves – principally because they aren’t any good at it – since it causes them to declare that a “theocracy” is afoot.

Of course the word “theocracy” only enters the conversation because it’s scary, like communism, and not because anything like a theocracy is imminently threatening.

Rather than dig into the case as one more bloviating layperson, I’d like to comment on an issue which plays into the discussion, which has plenty of application over and above SCOTUS.

Namely, there is a peculiar fear of religion, and a distinction of religion from…well, I guess the “normal” or “ordinary” way of looking at things. There is also the widespread illusion that science and religion are so different from each other that they are actually opposed.

Here I would like to introduce the notion of worldview. This is simply the way a person believes the world to be.

Is the world knowable, or not?  If so, how can we know it, and what can we know about it? Is there a God, or not? Am I the only one who exists, or do all these other people exist in the same way that I do?

If these questions sound philosophical, that’s because they are. One’s worldview might also be likened to one’s personal philosophy. What do you perceive to be the purpose of life, if anything? What is all of this for? What duties and obligations do you have, if any?

How one answers questions like these, then, determines (or is indicative of) his worldview.

It should be obvious, I think, that while there may be trends in the way people answer these questions (the ancient Chinese might answer differently than the medieval Muslims, who again answer differently than modern Latin Americans), there is not necessarily any neat, “standard” response.

In other words, there is not a neat, “normal” response from which we could say that religion departs. If anything, religion would have to be part of that normal response, given its ubiquity across space and time.

Now, let us usher in an interesting idea: Secularism. This, of course, is a lack of commitment to any particular religion, and a positive commitment toward the common understanding of the common good. This is such an alluring idea, in fact, that it is taken to be the “standard” worldview, from which other worldviews (especially religious worldviews) depart.

I would then argue: Secularism is not meant to be a worldview. It is meant to be a mutual agreement not to impose any particular worldview. In the same way, a recipe is not an ingredient – it is a description of the way the ingredients are meant to come together.

The fascinating thing – to this bloviator, anyway – is that in its refusal to impose a particular religious worldview, secularism has thus seemed very attractive to those who reject all religious worldviews – I mean, atheists.

In fact, many atheists have often been only too happy to wear the mantle of secularism, and many Christians have been too dense to understand the distinction: Atheism is a worldview, but secularism is not. (I do think, lest I hang too many of my brethren in Christ, that plenty of atheists are so fanatical as to miss the distinction, too).

The truth is, both Christians and atheists (and Muslims, and Hindus, and…) should be happy to wear the mantle of secularism – unless they have a better strategy for governing in a pluralistic society.

Or, I suppose, unless they intend to install a theocracy.

Now, critical to secularism, it seems to me, is the free exercise of religion; but let’s amend it, and call it the free exercise of worldview.* We should not leave the atheists out, after all, or they might claim the whole damned system for themselves and install an anti-theist-ocracy. (Don’t laugh…it’s been done).

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

Forget for a moment that this was an issue raised mainly by Christians. Think of yourself, and your sincerely held worldview. Think of one particular action which you find morally offensive.

The argument is, can a society really be justified in forcing you to commit (or be complicit in) that action, no matter how “good” other members of that society perceive it to be?

Don’t be hasty. Don’t assume you’re cool with whatever. That is not the meaning of secularism.

The meaning of secularism is to provide a real opportunity for people of multi-various worldviews to live authentically within their own worldviews, while living in common with each other.

Government impositions on sincerely held beliefs are a sin in secularism. They cripple secularism.

And they necessarily favor one worldview over others.

 

*Whether this bears the spirit of the Framers is a fair and interesting question, but I aim to talk about secularism principally as a concept, and not within any particular historical context.

Yes, permaculture.

Last time I introduced the concept of permaculture (assuming some might not already know) and offered a sampling of Catholic teaching which fits neatly – some would say plainly – with the practice of permaculture.  Then I said some hopelessly optimistic things about living with Mother Nature.

This time, a start at implementation.

Most of the resources I’ve encountered seem to agree on the principles of permaculture, which are summarized here.

As the Permaculture Association has it, the first principle is “Observe and Interact.”  Other permaculture resources say likewise, and some recommend an observation period of at least a year, if not longer.

Ain’t nobody got time for that!  No, but seriously, I’m a 21st century American – who thinks I’m going to wait around after I’ve just publicly committed to starting into permaculture?  I’ll observe, alright – then immediately act!  What, am I supposed to be patient, and restrain my desires?

Almost took up an inverted soapbox there.

Fortunately, I have been observing, and for longer than a year.  Every time I’ve mowed the lawn, I thought how I would like to incorporate more garden beds, and how to arrange them.  Once we started a garden in the backyard, I noticed how the sun moved across it, how the wind blew, and where things would have room to grow or climb or drain.

According to my foray into permaculture, it was observation by accident; but according to purposes I already had in mind, it was sustained observation.

For example:  One technique suggested for implementing permaculture is an herb spiral.  There are even videos guiding the curious to herbal glory.

We Pluchars like herbs at the ready, and so I thought of two locations, and Marcy picked one – the more reasonable one, of course.  This is just outside our back door:

IMG_1096

Foundation for our herb-phitheater.

Now, as to observation:  This particular location is on the south side of our property.  That white vinyl fence is on the south side of the frame.  That particular area – next to the heat pump, with a short concrete sidewalk and two pebbled areas – has always seemed hot to me.  This struck me immediately, from before we bought the house, and has been verified repeatedly.

I believe this is because our house and the neighbor’s (relatively close by – maybe 40′, with a fence in the middle) act as a wind block, the heat pump generates heat in the summer, and the sidewalk and pebbles absorb heat on top of that.  Even when the “weather” is breezy and tolerable elsewhere on our property, it is stifling in this area.

Furthermore, I believe we will modify the herb spiral, in favor of an herb amphitheater…or and herb-phitheater, if you please.

Weep at my raw talent.

Weep at my raw talent.

The reason for this is that any herbs on the north side of a spiral would have precious few hours of sunlight – given the house sandwich.  Another drawing?

Site Map - Herb garden

Therefore – I presume, at any rate – an amphitheater design will be more advantageous.

But where to find the building materials?

Permaculture?

WTF is one of the TCG posting on permaculture?  ROFL!  IMHO, this is BQYE!

Yep, made the last one up.

Welcome to a new category, an informal series, meandering as it will through my family’s adventures in permaculture.

But seriously, permaculture?  On a Catholic blog?  Let me learn you something.

This comes as little surprise to those who know me, or who have any real understanding of the Catholic faith.  For a start, observe the confluence of these two:  Bethlehem Farm.  I spent a year on the farm, and another three nearby, helping people build and repair their houses and helping establish (what is now) a very impressive garden.

Bethlehem Farm is an explicitly Catholic community, and sustainability is actually one of their philosophical cornerstones.  They encourage organic farming, living in harmony with the seasons and one’s local climate and resources, and making every effort to live in a way which promotes giving (to others, to the Earth) over and above taking.

It is in giving, after all, that we receive.

And Bethlehem Farm is not an anomaly, but right in line with Catholic teaching.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, tells us that “caring for and cultivating the world involves…joyful appreciation for the God-given beauty and wonder of nature…” and “…protection and preservation of the environment, which would be the stewardship of ecological concern.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has it, “[m]an’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”

Of course, you did not see the term “permaculture” used in either of those passages, nor is it immediately visible (if at all) on the Bethlehem Farm website.  Neither will you see the term “The Trinity” in Scripture, but it follows from what is written.

Permaculture, of course, is not the only …I beg your pardon.  Perhaps you are as unfamiliar as I was with permaculture, only a few sunrises ago!  Here you go!

As I was saying, permaculture is not the only way to carry out God’s command to “take dominion” over the Earth, but it seems to be at least one possible means.  Moreover, it seems to be a challenge given a suburban setting, which only motivates this writer.

And, it seems…romantic, to me.

In college, I was introduced to the idea that a good garden is the way man “perfects” nature.  Nature by itself, this view held, is wild and chaotic, and not particularly conducive to human needs.  In order to make the greatest use of the Earth, humans would need to cultivate it.

But traditional gardens – even suburban lawns! – seem almost comical to me.  I remember spending five weeks in the woods as a camp counselor, then returning to my suburban home, and laughing – heartily, without effort – for a minute or so when I first laid eyes on the clean and well-defined borders given to plant life.

There’s no doubt gardens can be beautiful – I simply find most of them amusing, like a dog wearing a sweater.

But to cultivate nature within one’s humble lot, to welcome her genius and offer a home to her lovely and untamed essence, and to barter with her evenly, as much as possible – now that awakens the soul, doesn’t it?

Mystics

This is a cheap trick of the charlatan, but it is used because it works:  Forget everything you think you know about “mysticism.”  Let’s refresh our understanding.

A mystic is a person – you or I could be a mystic.  You might also call someone a winner, or a loser.  You might call them blessed or cursed.  You might call them a mystic, or a muggle.

Now, these pairs have been chosen because they relate to experiences a person has had.  No one is a “winner” until he wins; no one is a “loser” until he fails.  A person must experience blessings before we call her blessed, and must endure afflictions before we call her cursed.

One might now object:  “Muggle” sounds more like an innate property of a person, rather than an experience that person has had.  This would miss the point!

Alas, one may not speak anymore without a preponderance of intellectual speed bumps and stumbling blocks!  Say this about modernity – it is awfully tedious.

No, muggle, I was only being colorful.  I will now be technical:  You have your mystic, and you have your naturalist.

What, then, is the experience which the mystic has had, which the naturalist (at least according to his philosophy) has not?

For the Christian, it is really quite simple:  It is an encounter with the living God, directly or indirectly.

In the details, the curious naturalist can get confused, skeptical, even dismissive.  Rightly so, given his intellectual commitments.  But it really isn’t so confusing, and while skepticism is often a virtue, it is careless to be completely dismissive of mystical experiences.

On at least one front, I tend to line up with the naturalist.  I do not buy as mystical any kind of experience which is reliably induced, which fits neatly into a preconceived system of belief, or else which is described by terms meant to be profound, which have no clear meaning (e.g. “thoughts of light”).

Behold – my earlier complete dismissal of contemporary Christian music!

Now let the speed bump appear:  Ah, but it was not good to be completely dismissive.  Very well – I have learned.

While I do not necessarily endorse every song or effort from such bands, I have come to appreciate Jars of Clay.  I would commend to you certain songs from Third Day and Hillsong United.  And I would commend David Crowder Band.

Please note, I do not hereby commend the videos or comments to you.  Probably best just to listen.  Nor do I commend them as musically exceptional.  They are not, as far as I can tell, especially innovative or challenging.

What I see in them I recently noticed while listening to “How He Loves” from David Crowder Band (linked above).  I said to myself, “He’s had a mystical experience.”

What one notices in “How He Loves” is a concerted, desperate effort – like a man trying to paint a picture of his deceased wife – to express and thus, to share, his encounter with God.

The true naturalist can hardly guess at this.  It may seem to him that, because the mystic uses words which are intelligible to him, such an experience must not be so extraordinary.  Indeed, consider:

He is jealous for me

Loves like a hurricaneI am a tree

Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy

When all of the sudden

I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory

And I see just how beautiful You are

And how great Your affections are for me

To the naturalist – let us presume a humble naturalist – this is perhaps a little strange, as it suggests a powerful encounter with a non-existent entity.  The lyrics themselves, from the mouth of David Crowder, seem to be authentic and are perhaps charming in their style, though not what we might expect from a master of the English language.  The humble naturalist might back up my claim – contemporary Christian music is not all terrible.

Such a review is (quite precisely) condescending, but who can fault the reviewer?  Such a person imagines himself above the song because he can’t imagine himself in it.  After all, he has not had a mystical experience.

A fellow mystic, however, might find herself weeping at these humble lyrics.  For her, they are not merely charming, but evocative.  They call out, from the fogginess of memory and doubt, her own encounter with the Everlasting, with Love Himself.

She is not especially caught up in the literary value of the words.  She knows their authenticity is better gauged by their insufficiency, though they strive for all of the beauty and grandeur they can convey.  She knows that words will never be enough; one evokes the oceans because there is nothing else which is so vast and yet so immanent.  The sky is likewise vast, but out of reach; the ocean can touch every inch of her body, and swallow her whole.  (Says David Crowder:  “If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking“).

The mystic understands how God is like an ocean.  More importantly, she understands how God surpasses the ocean, and this is why she weeps.

 

Allow me one more note:  What about the one who is not a naturalist, nor a mystic?  Let’s take an “ordinary” believer, who simply thinks Christianity is true, but has not experienced the presence of God in any direct or astonishing way.  (This could be extended, in a way, to people of other faiths, but there is not space for that here).

Though I have asked the question, I reject the premise – there are only mystics.  It is the true naturalist who is illusory, established on a false view of reality.  No one is really a pure naturalist.

Perhaps not, you might say, but they would deny any encounter with God.

True enough, and now we venture close to that deeply troubled position of reading others’ minds.  I have no interest in that.

Rather, with respect to their minds, I invite them to consider these things.  Only consider the parts of your experience which defy physical explanation:  Why do you think anything is good?  (Is love good?)  Why is truth so valuable that you respect people who will sacrifice for it?  Why do you trust logic to sort out truth from falsehood?  (Does it matter whether a thing is true or not?)

Why do you wish to pour yourself out into the water when you gaze out over the ocean at night?  Why do you wish you could walk on water, or run without growing tired, or live forever?  Why is it that you can imagine sharing something better than sex with a person, but you can’t say what it is?

Loosen your restraint – follow for a moment, and see where the questions lead.

The longing is sincere, and ubiquitous.  A direct encounter with God is not required, only an answer:  Is there anything which satisfies these longings, or not?

The mystics answer in the affirmative; some have even tasted and seen.