Saturday, October 30, 2010

Showdown at Pizz’a Chicago

“One: if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Two: objective moral values do exist. Three: therefore, God exists,” I said, explaining the moral argument for the existence of God to my a few Christian classmates over Pizz’a Chicago. This argument is one of the oldest and best available to the Theist; for those interested in the argument itself, I would commend you to the work of William Lane Craig. We had just finished a wonderful hike in the mist and trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains and warming up around a fire at my place. We were beginning a lively philosophy discussion. For anyone who knows me, you know that there aren’t too many better possible days. The pizza was delicious (the “Al Capone”; who’d have thought pecans go well on pizza?), and it was looking like it would be the perfect end to a perfect day.

Then there was a person standing over us at the end of our table. It was the man from the next table. He was a short man in his fifties, balding slightly, wearing a full beard with flecks of grey. Surprised, I gave him my attention. He said, “We can hear you from over there. And, you’re wrong!” I suppose I had been a bit loud; it was a pizza joint, after all, and I had to raise my voice to get it across the table. I wondered which of the two premises he disagreed with (I guessed it was the first; this is the approach most Atheists take). I started gesturing for him to join our conversation, but he had already turned around and returned to his seat, next to what appeared to be his high school-aged son and elementary school-aged daughter.

He shot a glance over to me, to see what effect his breach in manners had caused. Perhaps he was hoping for shock, outrage or anger. I don’t think he was expecting polite curiosity. “Which premise?” I asked him. “Both of them!” he shot back, surprised and not looking at me. “Please explain,” I offered politely, again gesturing to the empty seat next to me. At this point, the man came to his senses. He did the most rational thing a mature thinker could have in such a situation: he utterly ignored me.

After this brash interruption of our conversation, I composed myself. I soon continued my exposition of the argument to my friends and the conversation continued pleasantly. All the while, in the back of my mind, I was thinking how to repay this guy. He had interrupted my conversation on a topic which was extremely important. He tried to embarrass me in public and in front of my friends. He wanted to make me look bad and show off to his kids. And then I thought of a way. He’d be so pissed. It would shame him in front of his kids and he’d never be able to get me back. He’d never forget me. Ever. It was perfect.

I called the waitress over, gave her my credit card, and quietly paid for his family’s dinner.

My friends and I finished our pizza, and got up to leave. I walked over to the man’s table while they were still unaware of what I had done and I said warmly, “Enjoy your dinner!” For those unaware of American customs, the proper response would have been something like, “Thank you.” Perhaps this courtesy had shocked the man into silence, or perhaps he was still ignoring me. Maybe his mouth was full. In any case, it was his son who responded with an accusatory tone that ought to be reserved only for the basest of criminals, “You can’t prove God! It’s not falsifiable and therefore false!” Recovering, the man, with what he must have thought was an irrefutable disproof of my argument, said with the confidence of a mathematician delivering the conclusion to a proof, “William of Occam.” Now for those of you who are not experienced in Philosophy, William of Occam is a man and not himself an argument, or at least the words “William of Occam” do not compose a well-formed or convincing argument. But it seemed to be offered as one, which might suggest conversation was actually possible.

I started to respond that proof was possible, but they weren’t listening. I cannot now remember how I knew that they were not listening and desperately wanted me to leave. I don’t have a memory of them covering their ears with their hands, or shouting to drown out my words, or shooing me away like a dog, but however they did it, they communicated as much to me. Then the most unexpected thing of all happened: the daughter, in stark contrast to her family, showed me kindness. She stood up, walked over to me, and gave me a paper craft she had been working on all through dinner.

I walked out of the restaurant smiling. The man and I had battled in the pizza parlor, and I think both of us will remember the day for years to come. And I will treasure my prize, his daughter’s paper craft.

Freewill and Fate in Photos

How can the sovereignty of God and Man coexist? How can God be omniscient and man retain freewill?

In focus: the Sovereignty of God

In focus: the Sovereignty of Man

Friday, October 29, 2010

Venipuncture and the Essence of Love – Relationships

In my last post, I talked about how Christian love was, at its essence, sacrificial. This is in sharp contrast to the common understanding of love which seems to be, at its essence, for the benefit of the other. If love is as Jesus defined it, then it changes everything. The first thing it changes is what is for most people where they will experience the deepest love: the romantic relationship.

This Christian view on love turns relationship on its head, or at least it turns what we’ve been calling relationship on its head (I feel like I’m late to the party on this one; St. Paul seemed to already understand this 2,000 years ago). We Americans believe that relationships (that is, sexual relationships, both “boyfriend/girlfriend” and modern “marriage”) are about love, and love is about pleasure. Both parties get peace/happiness/pleasure by entering the relationship, and so long as that peace/happiness/pleasure endures, so does the relationship. This theory of relationship is supported by data collected by the dating site MyCupid that shows that people of my generation have an average of about 1 new sexual partner per year from the time they’re 18.

On the American definition of love, Biblical passages on marriage like Ephesians 5 sound terrible: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph 5:22,25). Why should the wife have to submit when the husband only has to love?

But what if love was not pleasure? What does a marriage entered into under Christian terms look like? It is not about pleasure (or at least not directly), it’s about suffering and sacrifice. Suffering and sacrifice are not things that must be endured for the love. They are the love. Today, suffering is a red flag, it’s a sign that we are in the wrong relationship; we try to minimize our own suffering. Christians would rather forget about the Godly marriage of Hosea who was commanded to marry a prostitute named Gomer, and stay married to her while she stayed a prostitute. For that matter, we want to forget about Christ, who did the same thing except we, the Church, are the prostitute.

On Christ’s definition of love, the Ephesians passage takes on an entirely different meaning: women have to serve men; men really have to serve women. CS Lewis explains, “The husband who gets this verse is the one whose marriage most feels like a crucifixion…This verse is most embodied in the husband whose wife receives most and gives the least.”

Then how do we pick our partners? Could we maximize suffering by picking the least compatible person possible, a person who hated us? Would that lead to happiness?

To answer that question, I think I need the council of St. Ignatius. Christians in the first and second century died violent deaths with such joy that it was inexplicable to the world. This witness was so dramatic that it became a major factor in the conversion of the brainy Justin Martyr (whose given last name gives some clue as to the fate he himself would later ‘suffer’). People were legitimately asking, “If you like death and martyrdom so much, why don’t you actively seek it out, or commit suicide?” Ignatius, on his way to his own martyrdom, wrote that it is something that must be borne, but not sought. As a warning, he tells the story of another Christian who volunteered for martyrdom, but apostatized at the moment of truth. He denied Christ; he chickened out. So we should not seek martyrdom, neither in the lions' den nor in the bedroom.

So the question remains. How do we pick our partners? Well, how does Christ pick the Church? It seems arbitrary, following no pattern that we can understand. We, the Church, certainly aren’t intrinsically beautiful; we have nothing to offer, neither dowry nor wealth. Contrary to all reason, Jesus chooses us nonetheless. What does that sound like? Could that be anything but romance?

Surely all of our desires can honor God when used properly, even (perhaps especially) romance. Romantic feelings seem to follow no rules, pairing up people that really have no rational business with each other. In a culture without arranged marriages, I think this is as good a pairing rule as any. The important part is not who you pick, but how willing you are to sacrifice for the person you’ve picked.

Sacrificial love completely transforms relationship. It’s no longer about maximizing your own benefit, but your own sacrifice to your partner. If this is love, it does not need to be bi-directional; one partner can always give and never receive, and still have love. But of course, the most loving relationship is one where both parties are sacrificing completely to each other. How often would we cheat on each other if our eyes were perpetually fixed on sacrifice instead of pleasure? How many arguments would be averted? How many tears of sadness prevented? How many more tears of joy would we shed? How happy we would be if we stopped obsessing so much about pleasure, and thought more about love, that is, about sacrifice!

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Venipuncture and the Essence of Love – Introduction

[This is a working "paper." I’m not sure all this (or the connected posts) is right, and would really love feedback on it]

Today we were practicing drawing blood on each other (everybody’s favorite day in medical school). My partner (who shall remain nameless), had trouble hitting a vein, and so I encouraged them to try again. And again. I now have 13 holes in my skin.

The person felt terrible. Part of it was pride (not being rock star doctors after 11 months of medical school instruction is infuriating for most of us here at Stanford). But part of it, and I would venture to say most of it, was because of the pain that the person caused me. I said that I was happy to be of service. And I really meant it. I was legitimately happier after the session; I was in a significantly more pleasant mood having served the person in this way (and, indirectly, a patient who would not have to get poked). The pain was significant, but the pleasure in service was far greater. But why? What theory of pleasure/pain was I working under? I’m no masochist; pain did not directly become pleasure. I searched for something encouraging to say. I said, “It’s an important part of my religion to love my neighbor as myself, and there aren’t too many opportunities to serve my classmates.” I’m not sure it helped much.

Later in the day, I thought about what I said. Why was it that I connected love with service, and service with pain? I thought of Jesus’ words: “No greater love hath a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jhn 15:13). Christ was no hypocrite; He gave up His life for us day by day in Palestine, and then literally, dying on the cross. But why is that the greatest love? Why isn’t it, “No greater love hath a man than this, that he benefit his friends maximally”? Why was suffering so connected to the Christian definition of love? This is a really important question that I do not have a good answer for yet but will be praying and thinking about in the days, weeks and probably years to come.

The why is still a mystery to me. But the what is clear: love as Christ defines and demonstrates it, is sacrifice. But if that is true, it changes everything. Everyone agrees with “love thy neighbour as thyself,” but the statement has entirely different meanings if love is sacrifice or if love is benefit. We all seek love, and to a lesser extent, we seek to love in relationships and in society. Jesus’ flip of the definition of love threatens to change everything that we thought we knew. Over the next few posts, I’ll discuss some of these implications.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Monday, October 25, 2010

How Glenn Beck convinced me to leave the Republican Party

Yesterday, I was a Republican. Today, well, I’m still a Republican, but that’s only until I can re-register. Glenn Beck, the anathema of everybody and the very popular host on Fox News, convinced me to leave the Republican Party. If you’ve read this far, it probably means Glenn Beck wasn’t who you thought he was: just another crazy Republican. He’s not who you think he is, and his ideas aren’t as crazy as you think they are. He wrote a book called “Common Sense,” and is what it claims to be. Before you make another snipe at everyone at Fox News or call him crazy, read this book; see if it makes sense. Try to understand him and this position; it’s the Democratic thing to do. But even if you care only for Democrat/Republican power, this opinion is surging in popularity and it would be prudent, even for strategic reasons alone, to read it so you know how to fight it.

The great thing about being convinced through reason is you don’t have any hard feeling about it. In fact, you’re somewhat grateful to the convincer because your old ways were wrong and erroneous. This has happened to me many times, but it has happened acutely twice. The first time was in listening to Bill Clinton on a proposition for clean energy a few years ago. I wanted to see him speak (convinced that I would vote against the bill). After his speech, I had completely changed my mind. And I was happy I did it.

Today, a similar thing happened. Glenn Beck talked about the Corrupt Two Party System. I’ve often talked about the Corrupt Two Party System. You’ve often talked about the Corrupt Two Party System. It’s bad. Congress has 13% approval ratings, 95% of incumbents get reelected. There is a serious problem with this system! Beck asks why we are playing into it. He says we’re playing into it every time we vote against someone or some party. We’re not voting for leaders; we’re voting for colors. We ought to judge candidates not by the color of their party, but by the content of their character.

It is all a game. They’re both the same. They both want the government bigger and you more dependent on it. The vilification of the other side is a red herring. The issues which make blood boil (gay marriage, abortion) are making us hate each other and not see/notice/have time to care about the massive increases in debt and spending that are going on, the erosion of our rights and incomes in exchange for peace, safety and comfort. We owe $13 trillion (every one of us owes ~$43,000). We have another $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities (e.g. social security). We have a spending problem, and this problem is turning us and our children into the servants of our debtors.

Bush spent trillions on a war because it, “woulda’ been worse if we didn’t.” Obama spent trillions on a bailout because it, “woulda’ been worse if we didn’t.” This game has been going on for a century. One crisis to the next, there is always some urgent need for our money. And when that ran out, the crises didn’t. We started spending our children’s money. There always has to be a crisis for the system to survive. It reminds me of the need for perpetual war in Orwell’s 1984: “War is Peace.” But instead of wars with guns (we have some of those, too) the war is Red vs. Blue. “Sure my party lacks principles, but at least the right color is in power.”

Make politicians into public servants again. Give them term limits (some of our congress people have served longer than Fidel Castro). Fairly redistrict. Move tax day right before election day (ever notice how they’re as far apart on the calendar as can be?). Hold them equally accountable for the laws they pass (no get-out-of-jail-free cards for ‘errors’ on taxes).

All that to say: I’m independent. I want out of the Corrupt Two Party System. I’m returning to common sense and I’m voting for people who can balance a budget, red, blue or neither. I’ll start there. Once we’re out of the spending tailspin, we can start to talk about other issues. I want comfy incumbents, safe with campaign contributions and gerrymandered districts, to be afraid of We the People; I want unaffiliated candidates to be viable. And I will work to bring this about with my pen and my ballot. All the other issues which the parties talk about are important, but not if our country collapses under the weight of its own debt or if our freedom and livelihoods are corroded away, right by right, dollar by dollar, into nothing, by fear of class warfare/terrorism.

There is a way out of the Corrupt Two Party System: leave your party.