Sunday, October 22, 2006

Here I Stand

"Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me."

These were Martin Luther’s closing words at the Diet of Wurms in defense of his 95 theses, posted on the door of the Wittenberg Church three years earlier, protesting the pope’s sale of indulgences. His 95 theses had spread like wildfire around Europe, and the pope, realizing that this “drunken German monk” had stirred up a massive controversy, demanded that he recant 41 of the 95 theses which were criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church.


In essence, his criticism centered around the pope’s desire to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, certainly a worthy task, since it sorely needed restoration. The pope chose to send papal commissioners throughout Europe to sell “indulgences” for cash. The commissioners announced that anyone wishing to ensure that their loved one in purgatory would quickly make their way into heaven needed only to pay the price, and “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther had previously preached against the sale of papal indulgences, but had never before challenged the papal hierarchy in a direct way. The controversy stirred by his criticisms threatened the ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church and even the secular authority of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It was only by dint of some plucky and independence-minded German princes that Luther was spared capture and death as a heretic at the hands of Charles V and the pope.

In the 95 theses and in later teachings, Luther argued that the pope could only absolve Christians of guilt in connection with church-appointed discipline; in other words, if the church (the pope, bishops, or priests) had enforced a penance against a Christian for a sin committed, then the pope could pronounce absolution as far as the Church was concerned. As for the sin itself, only God could forgive and pronounce the sinner clean.

Further, even if the pope were able to confer absolution, Luther argued, shouldn’t he do so entirely for the sake of love, and not for money? He believed that the pope himself was rich enough to repair St. Peter’s basilica without the hard-earned money of the poor but faithful and fearful Christians that the sellers of indulgences preyed upon. Luther felt that Christians should give to the poor rather than buy indulgences.

Also, Luther believed that if the pope held any power to help sinners, it lay in intercession before God, not in proclaiming man-made absolutions. He urged the pope to intercede on behalf of Christians, not take their money.

Finally, he called upon Christians to avoid the temptation to “buy” salvation. Instead he urged them to take up the cross and “be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell; and thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace” (theses 94 and 95).

Luther’s stand, excommunication, and the schism which followed ushered in the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Catholic counter-Reformation, both of which brought wide-ranging changes in the exercise of ecclesiastical and temporal authority. No longer did the lords of church and state make unilateral demands of the people, and more importantly, Church tradition (the pontifical law which was based on edicts and rulings of the pope, and not necessarily Scripture) was no longer considered equal to the Scriptures in ultimate authority.


OK, there are a myriad of points to be made, but since I’m neither a historian nor a theologian, I’m severely limited in the breadth of my conclusions. First, Luther challenged Christians to seek personal connection with Christ, and trust only in his atoning blood for salvation, not in the edicts of popes or the purchase of false assurances. We would do well to examine our present ecclesiastical situation and make sure we are not promoting a form of works-righteousness in place of God’s unmerited favor toward us.

It is so easy for church leaders to impose a set of behavioral rules and regulations which, while instituted to help the Christian reach a higher level of personal discipline and perhaps a greater measure of sanctification, in fact become a rule book which determines who is saved and who is not. Because no church or denomination can have an exhaustive list, and because internal sins (jealousy, envy, lust, greed, malice, deceit and many others) are very hard to monitor and measure, the list usually involves external markers that are easily seen and measured.

In the churches most influenced by the holiness and Pentecostal movements, the list has included smoking, drinking, dancing, going to movies, card-playing, and whether girls should wear make-up or short skirts. In mainline denominations (non-holiness churches like Presbyterian, Episcopal, Anglican, and even Luther’s own denomination), the list today often runs along politically correct lines: intolerance, environmental abuse, chauvinism (see my earlier blog), homophobia, and even specie-ism (abrogation of animal rights).

I am not prepared (and neither are you, I suspect) to fully debate which of these behaviors is most sinful or the converse of which is most holy. That debate might be helpful to clarify grey areas, but that is not how or why those sorts of debates are usually held. Most debates about holy or sinful behaviors are held more like the Diet of Wurms than like St. Thomas Aquinas’ disputations. Rather than coming closer to a Christian truth or reaching a greater unity in the faith (as Thomas Aquinas attempted), we usually end up trying to find someone to label as a heretic and burn at the stake (if only in effigy).

The second point I want to make about Luther’s stand is this: he did not go looking for a fight, but when he found that papal edicts and pontifical laws oppressed Christians and preyed upon their fears in order to increase the wealth and authority of individuals, he refused to stand by and watch. When he was excommunicated and his very life threatened, he continued to follow his conscience:

“Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason . . .I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

Having found the key to salvation in the statement “the just shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:38 and Habakkuk 2:4), he refused to back down. He was not willing to live under an authority that oppressed people with rules and regulations that were man-made. He resisted these unnecessary intrusions into the life of the Christian, and staked his very life on two simple creeds: Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) and Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone).

In Matthew 23:4, Jesus denounced the Pharisees because “they tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (NIV). Our ecclesiastical leaders would do well to encourage godliness but avoid tying up these heavy loads of traditional rules; we as Christians would do well to strive to live godly lives and refuse to be burdened with a yoke of slavery to dead works of the law. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (NIV).

Standing requires balance, strength, and awareness; the disoriented, the weak, and those asleep cannot stand by themselves. Luther never imagined that his 95 theses would lead to a world-wide reformation of Christian belief and practice. He only knew that he could not go back to what he knew to be false. He had no choice, so he stood. And there he continues to stand as a model for us. May we say with him:

Here we stand, we can do no other; God help us all.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What you've all been waiting for...

You can stop holding your breath now--they arrived a long time ago, I just forgot to tell you. The statues, I mean. Sorry if you've turned ten shades of blue and keeled over from hypoxia. I didn't mean to kill you with suspense, and besides, if you're that easily transported by my sorry little story, it's really your fault, not mine.

Anyway, we played phone tag with the DHL people in Ohio for most of a week before we finally got a hold of a live person. Or at least a live if disembodied voice named Jennifer. After all that effort, a sort of seance if you will to call up the voice, all she wanted of me was a copy of my Social Security card. That's it.

No manifest, packing slip, store receipt, de-tax form, Passport number, or customs form. Just a xerox copy of my Social Security card. The trouble is, I don't remember when I stopped carrying it in my wallet, so I consulted my organizational manager aka Beth. She looked in all the obvious places, and finally found it in my junk drawer.

I haven't decided yet if that's a case of irony or poetic justice, but the fact is that I had relegated the card (given to me in 1976 and signed in a very adolescent style) to a sort of junk pile. This may just be a Freudian error that betrays my basic belief that I am amassing Social Security benefits for all my older baby boomer comrades, and when I become eligible they will have just finished giving it all away.

No matter, it was of critical importance for at least this one time, and with a touch of the fax button, the now disembodied card was wafting toward Ohio to free our imprisoned personages. Two days later, the box arrived, in one piece with all statues intact and the packing material (new clothes and boots) more or less undamaged.

Without further ado, I present to you the infamous Artisanats Personages:

The 15 personages: I don't think they'll be coming down until after my birthday in January.

Two of the magi and their camel (actually, it's a dromedary).

Two shepherds, their donkey, Joseph (in blue) and the innkeeper's wife (Mary needed a midwife, didn't she?).

Mary and the baby Jesus.

Photos do not do this creche justice. The figures are so beautiful, you want to cry. All the ridiculous labor and hassle and waiting has been worth it all. This is art for a lifetime.

I believe I will be repeating the prior sentences in a few months, substituting the word "Katie" for "the figures." I don't think we'll be sending our infant daughter back from China in a DHL box, though. She is one little figurine that I'll be carrying on the airplane.

I'd better start learning some Mandarin soon...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What is Truth?

Pilate said to him, “what is truth?” (The Gospel of John, chapter 18, verse 38.)

We’ve been asking that question ever since. Lately, what with the demythologizers and the existentialists and the deconstructionists, the whole notion has gotten a lot foggier. The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t all that helpful either: it defines “the truth” as “that which is true as opposed to false.”

Going to the word “true” we get “in accordance with fact or reality; genuine; real or actual.” For you budding etymologists chasing word origins (as opposed to entomologists chasing little bugs around), the word is from Old English treawe, meaning steadfast or loyal.

Mark Twain popularized British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's statement, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Having grown up in a household of 4 loquacious boys who preferred debate to fisticuffs, I know better than most that one can find statistics or facts to bolster even the most outrageous position.

“Mean Joe Green is the toughest defensive lineman in football.”

“Uh uh, Too Tall Jones is.”

“No way! Mean Joe hits harder cuz he weighs more.”

“Forget it! Too Tall is so tall, when he tackles you, he falls over on top of you and crushes you.”

“Does not!”

“Does too!”

“No way!”


At that point, the debate usually fell into ad hominem arguments, sometimes verbal, sometimes more physical (only to demonstrate for argument’s sake how Mean Joe actually hit or Too Tall actually fell on top of you). This phase of the debate rarely lasted very long, since my Dad usually resorted to the “Divine Right of Kings” argument to silence our debate.

“Shut up and sit down! You’re blocking the game.”

“Why should we?”

“Because I’m your father and I said so.”

Since that is a non sequitur that is unwise to attempt to breach, we usually sat down until the next infinitely important debate began minutes later.

It might be useful to review the various forms that bad arguments can take. I’m well aware of them since I’ve put all of them to fairly good use over the years. I have freely borrowed much of the following material from this critical thinking website.
Ad Hominem means “to the man” and refers to arguments, direct or indirect, that attack the person rather than their belief. Watch any political debate, and you’ll see mostly these body punches (often landing below the belt). “Candidate X wants to raise taxes because he is ignorant.”
Appeal to Authority: this might entail appealing to a famous person’s view, or a view on a certain topic by an expert in a different field. “Lindsay Lohan says that CO2 gas definitely causes global warming.”
Straw man: this refers to the ancient battle practice of placing dummies made of straw on the battlements of a castle to draw the arrows and spears of the enemy. This usually requires one to simplify and misrepresent the views of an opponent, making him an easy target to refute the simplified argument.
Argument from ignorance: here one asserts that X must be true because no one has yet proven it false, or the converse: that it is false because it has never been proven true.
Appeal to pity: playing on the feelings of the listener in order to win them to an otherwise poor argument.
Playing to the gallery: using an example, argument, or story likely to appeal to the observers, causing them to enter the debate (usually by applauding or disrupting the opponent’s speech).
Hasty generalization: an argument that generalizes from exceptional cases or creating a rule that fits the specialized case rather than the majority of cases. This is a favorite of bureaucrats. “A doctor was caught cheating Medicare, so now all doctors have to get fingerprinted.”
post hoc ergo propter hoc: the “false cause” argument where A supposedly causes B just because A precedes B. “Every time I sneeze, the door slams.”
Begging the question: assuming as a premise the very conclusion that we are trying to prove.
Irrelevant conclusion: in a long-winded argument, the actual conclusion being argued is different than the one that is supposedly being argued for. If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your BS.
False dichotomy: here, one argues that either X is true or Y is true. In reality there may be several other possibilities. This argument usually fails to consider all the available evidence.

Which brings us to the idea of critical thinking: not being critical, which usually involves finding petty faults or “picking” at someone, but thinking analytically about a topic. This usually involves an element of open-mindedness, some intellectual skepticism about the claims, ideas, or arguments, and an unwillingness to take things at face value.

Critical thinking asks several important questions about a claim:
Who is making the claim? This question helps you to identify the source of the claim.
What is the authority for the claim? This question will help you to identify whether the claim rests on opinion, prejudice, hearsay, evidence or whatever.
What evidence is there to support the claim?
How reliable is the evidence?
What other interpretations of the evidence might there be?

Thinking critically helps us assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument, assumption, or idea. It’s too bad that most of what I’ve just presented is seen as hopelessly academic and theoretical by most people. Most television shows, popular books, and other media (not to mention far too many educational materials for our children) are composed of long strings of bad arguments connected together by bursts of uncritical thinking.

Critical thinking as I said requires some open-mindedness; not the sort of mushy, hyper-tolerant “big tent” blather that many liberal politicians spout, but a form of intellectual courage that decides to follow a sound idea wherever it goes, as long as it heads in the general direction of truth. It also usually requires a skepticism of “playing to the gallery,” straw man arguments, and false dichotomies often offered by politicians, editorialists, the clergy at their worst, and members of the press in the popular media.

Perhaps the most important aspect of critical thinking lies in an unwillingness to take things at face value. This is simply a disciplined form of intellectual curiosity. We actually learn it at a very early age with the “why?” questions. We often lose it just as quickly in early grade school, when our teacher shushes us for “talking out of turn.”

At its best, critical thinking should cause us to question standard operating procedures, outdated traditions, and "my way or the highway" leadership styles. It should also give us a healthy skepticism for "new and not improved" ideas, fuzzy logic, and fanaticism devoid of intellectual rigor. Heresy under the guise of "church tradition" on the one hand, or "progressive revelation" on the other is still heresy.

Failure to exercise this curiosity over a lifetime leads to a mindset that says, “we’ve always done it that way.” Or, “we’ve never done it that way.” This was the very problem that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day fell into: Jesus brought the truth in the form of “new wine” which didn’t fit well in their “old wineskin” thinking. The leaders failed to apply disciplined curiosity to the epiphany of the Messiah, choosing instead to make a desperate (and violent) stand on tradition. Ultimately, they were responsible for bringing Jesus before Pilate, resulting in the opening quote above.

Jesus himself claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Truth, Jesus claims, is not a concept, but a person. Now that’s an idea we can sink our teeth into: let’s try using some critical thinking to assess Jesus’ truth claims about himself, his mission, and his place in our world. But that I will leave for another day.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Do the Right Thing

Did you ever notice how easy it is to figure out the right thing for someone else to do? I’m never at a loss for advice to give to someone who doesn’t know what to do. Amazingly, I’m often right! It isn’t that hard to look at someone’s situation fairly objectively and pick out the right course of action.

Of course, unsolicited advice is just that: unsolicited. Most people don’t actually want to hear my advice, right or wrong. Maybe they don’t know me, or don’t trust me, or maybe they are so preoccupied with the decision in front of them that they can’t even hear me. Whatever the cause, my words fall on deaf ears.

The word advice comes from (you guessed it) Latin: ad + visum, from videre “to see.” It means “guidance or recommendations offered with regard to future action.” In order to give advice, you have to see a little of what’s ahead, and give the person guidance to find success or avoid disaster as the case may be.

The real trick is to be able to give myself advice on doing the right thing. Every day we find ourselves making hundreds of small decisions in many areas of life. Each decision of itself is entirely inconsequential, but taken together, our decisions come to define us. Make mostly aggressive decisions, and you become aggressive. Make mostly self-centered decisions and you become selfish. You get the idea.

Spike Lee made a movie in 1989 called “Do the Right Thing,” describing one hot day in an urban neighborhood when racial tensions erupt. The day starts innocently enough, with a variety of odd and endearing characters waking up and going about their business. But hidden in their daily routines are racial prejudices and stereotypes built imperceptibly by thousands of little decisions that are subconscious. It takes only a few small misunderstandings, and tragedy strikes in the form of deadly violence. Spike Lee leaves it up to us to decide if anyone on that hot but otherwise normal day “did the right thing.”

My brother’s favorite poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling, opens with the lines:
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
Keeping your head is mostly a matter of perspective: it’s not always all about me; there are more important things in this world than just my own comfort or wealth or freedom or leisure.

Even when I know what the right thing to do is, it isn’t always easy to force myself to do it. It is hard to set aside my longing for what is comfortable or beneficial for me in order to do what is right, especially when it seems like no one is watching. In fact, since the solipsists believe that the self is all that can be known to exist, it follows that what is good for me must be the right thing to do, since I’m the only person that I can be sure of the existence of.

Thomas Hobbes wrote of a “natural state of man” in which everyone is completely free to selfishly pursue all of their own desires. This sounds enticing, but soon one man’s freedom tramples upon another man, resulting in "no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Hobbes offers the idea of a “social contract” in which we give up a few of our personal freedoms in exchange for a society that allows us to safely exercise a host of other personal freedoms. The social contract theories of Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau formed the philosophical basis for the American Revolution, ultimately finding their voice in Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” as well as the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…"

It is interesting and challenging to think that our founding fathers, having decided that liberty was of paramount importance, proceeded to give up everything they had—property, livelihoods, even their very lives—in order to secure for all who came after them the very liberties that they themselves never knew. Somewhere in this irony lies the key to the concept of doing the right thing.

It seems that there are some things (the Declaration calls them “unalienable Rights”) which are so important, so critical to the human spirit, that to lose these things is greater even than losing one’s very life. Liberty is one of those things, as is freedom from tyranny. These are ideals that have a life of their own, and will be present in society long after each of us is gone.

Maybe that is one way to help me decide what the right thing to do is: if the decision pits my own interests against a larger, more universal, and more important ideal, then I should probably choose to deny some of my selfish interests and affirm the greater good. In my office I have 6 partners: I can either take advantage of them and always look to my own interests alone, or I can sometimes put the good of the clinic ahead of my own benefit.

If I only look to my own interests all the time, I reject the social contract, and I can expect my life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Or I can “lay up treasures in heaven” by giving up some of my selfish ambitions in favor of what’s best in the long run. Ultimately, though, choosing against my own interests in favor of the greater good is only possible if I also believe that I will have to give account to God for everything that I’ve done.

The biblical book of Hebrews says “therefore, being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [the saints], let us…run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We can deceive ourselves and pretend no one is watching while we choose the selfish way, but once we realize that Someone is always watching, it definitely makes it easier to Do the Right Thing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Platitudes and Pity

Respect your elders.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Waste not, want not.

These quaint platitudes and many other similar old clichés have been passing through my mind the past few days, but with a twist. I’ve been in Red Wing, Minnesota the past 3 days while Beth attends a “Preserve Minnesota” Statewide Historic Preservation Conference here. I didn’t attend any of the sessions, preferring to catch up on some Continuing Medical Education (and sleep) while Beth attended lectures on color theory for old neighborhoods, preserving and renovating historic city parks, and developing civic efforts to preserve and promote historic downtowns statewide. But I certainly heard about preserving the past over dinner and at their awards banquet Friday night.

Our local neighborhood organization, SCHNPA (St. Cloud Historic Neighborhood Preservation Association), won an award from the Statewide HPC for grassroots efforts to recognize and preserve the historic downtown and Southside areas of St. Cloud. I’ve been on the fringes of most of these efforts, since Beth is vice-President of the organization and has been the architectural and artistic heart of the beast. I have been to more community meetings, city council meetings, fundraisers, civic events, and historic house tours than I care to count.

To their credit, the folks at SCHNPA have instigated a great deal of change: they have succeeded in making important changes to city ordinances, changing biases among city politicians and employees, helped to create two historic districts, and promoted a historic downtown area. Their efforts to create a Heritage Preservation Commission resulted in city ordinances to promote historic preservation and to prevent “remuddling.” It just makes sense to rescue and renovate the best of the old, which is why the old platitudes have been drifting through my mind: it’s just not that hard to figure out that old buildings have a charm and an appeal that is missing in many of today’s mass-produced cardboard (OK, chipboard) structures.

In the same way, the quaint platitudes of yesterday have a charm and an appeal that is easy to identify, but difficult to put to use, at least without some renovation. Modernism and now postmodernism have been hard on these time honored social conventions, just as their architectural soul mates Brutalism and Modernism have been on historic downtowns. Many a lovely Victorian storefront was assaulted by well meaning “modernizers” with a 50s or 60s era aluminum or plastic façade which smothered the charm of the building until it finally lay fallow altogether, another victim of the heartless and soulless Big Boxes of the suburbs.

The anonymity and dehumanization of postmodern life isn’t a result of building Big Boxes; the Boxes are a product of the process. I don’t pretend to be an economist or a political philosopher, but it seems to me that we are becoming victims of our own success. Selling our souls in pursuit of material success and comfort, we wonder how we got where we are now, and how we missed the place we were hoping to go to instead.

It seems to me that morally speaking, we can take a cue from our historical preservation colleagues to look for the charm in what has gone before, and seek to preserve at least a little of what seems attractive but outdated, like old-fashioned courtesy, pity, and charity. Our Victorian ancestors knew instictively how to be kind, merciful, and loving toward one another (whether they actually practiced it or not). Modern and postmodern citizens seem to have lost that instinct, and our social landscape shows its own form of "Brutalism."

Having recently returned from Paris, I’m struck by the “politesse,” or formalized courtesy, of relationships there. There are no malls or Targets there, and it takes longer to get anything done, because you have to actually greet people, shaking hands with the guys and kissing the ladies on both cheeks. But therein lies the humanity: you make real contact with real people who don’t always smell nice or have halitosis, but who also have the power to render to you a measure of humanity and groundedness missing in an exurban SuperTarget. In the same way, our political and social “business district” has suffered from dehumanization.

Pity is utterly outmoded, having given way to dispassionate “rights” and desultory pride. Of course, no one wants to be pitied; therefore it is legislated away. A scene that would have moved our ancestors to deep, gut-wrenching pity (like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath of destruction) now brings mostly pronouncements about which political party or administration is responsible for this disaster, and how important it will be to vote them out of office next election cycle. Pity gives way to political self-righteousness.

Charity has given way to an entitlement society: doctors are no longer allowed to give “charity care” for free, because we have come to believe that “everyone has the right to basic medical care.” So our state governments develop under funded programs that do not adequately cover medical needs AND fail to pay doctors and hospitals enough to cover their expenses in caring for the poor. The doctor no longer sees Mrs. Jones, the widow in need of free care, he sees just another Medicaid patient. Charity gives way to entitlement on one side, and begrudging resentment on the other.

I’m perfectly guilty of this dehumanizing anonymity myself: I am much more inclined to give some money to an anonymous charitable organization and never get my hands dirty actually helping out. It’s true that your hands do get dirty doing good, as I’ve discovered over a number of trips to rural Guatemala to provide medical care to destitute victims of the prolonged civil war there. I recall washing my hands a lot during my visits there, but it’s funny: I never remember feeling the least bit resentful about it.

The best way to address the ills of the world, as I see it, is to get your hands dirty touching other people. Unfortunately, human touch is so old-fashioned, so quaint, so unsanitary, that it isn’t likely to find a large following among the movers and shakers of the modern and postmodern world, who just might prefer to knock down some more old buildings and erect yet another Wal-Mart. Pity. If we all tried it, it just might work…