Sunday, February 18, 2018

American Parents Love Guns more than their Children, study shows

Dateline: KALAMAZOO—In the wake of the school shooting in Florida, in which a young male killed 17 of his former fellow students, a team of researchers at the Technocracy Institute in Michigan explains the impossibility of sensible gun regulation in the United States, by citing its study which indicates that most American parents love guns more than their children.

The study began by comparing the speed at which randomly selected parents attempted to save their child or their gun from harm.

Drawn from both liberal and conservative states, each subject was positioned at one end of a concrete room. At the other end was his or her child. Suddenly, what appeared to be a metal light fixture directly above the child squeaked, shook, and began to fall. The subject then raced to save his or her child, but the child was in no real danger because the light fixture was painted Styrofoam.

The scientists recorded the time it took for the subject to reach the child, and compared it to the time it took for the subject to reach his or her gun which was also placed in apparent danger. Instead of being threatened by a fake light fixture, an unrelated child with a plastic hammer pulverized the floor as he or she walked towards the gun. Loud, realistic sounds of hammer smashing into concrete were piped in from hidden speakers to preserve the illusion that the child was about to destroy the subject’s gun. Again, the subject raced towards his prized possession.

In 936 out of 1000 tests, the subject ran slightly faster to rescue his or her weapon than to protect his or her child.

In a variation of the experiment, the subject’s child was strapped to the middle of the floor in a narrow hallway, and the gun was positioned at the opposite end from the subject so that the child was between the two. What appeared to be a flamethrower was pointed at the gun, and what looked like flames inched closer and closer before engulfing the firearm. The flames, however, weren’t real, so the gun was in no danger.

The question, though, was whether the subject would trample his or her child or reach into apparent flames to rescue the weapon. Again, a strong majority of subjects chose to do so: 803 out of 1000 American adults stepped on their child in a mad dash to their gun, as well as risking serious burns to retrieve it from the apparent flames.

In the reverse situation, however, with the subject’s gun strapped to the floor and the child in apparent danger of being scorched alive, most subjects were more reticent. Over two thirds of the American parents stepped carefully over or around their gun rather than risk damaging the expensive hardware, and less than a quarter of the subjects reached into the bogus flames to save their child. Those that ran to their child but didn’t reach in only yelled for help. One tenth of the subjects unstrapped their fire arm, turned around and left their child to burn without even attempting to save their offspring.  

The researchers concluded that most Americans care more about guns than their children, and that this is the basis of American gun culture which empowers the National Rifle Association in American politics and prevents any legislation that threatens Americans’ right to own guns.

“Whenever there’s another school shooting in America,” said the lead researcher, “the same tired script about thoughts and prayers is trotted out, and there’s never real momentum behind any attempt to restrict Americans’ access to firearms, even though most developed countries have much fewer shootings because they have tighter control over guns. We think the reason is that most American parents would rather see their children die in a school shooting than to see the government take away their gun.

“Americans love their guns even more than they love their children. So the talk of gun control laws here is futile. The next time there’s a school shooting, we shouldn’t pretend our hearts go out to the victim’s families. The real question on most Americans’ minds is whether the authorities will dare to destroy the perpetrator’s innocent firearm.”

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cosmicism, Tragedy, and Greek Mythology

In the Western world (the one that’s still led largely by American culture), we learn in public school about the ancient Greek myths of Zeus, Perseus, Sisyphus and all the rest. It turns out that the reason for this isn’t just historical. Greek religion and philosophy are foundational to the “free world” of our Western civilization, but the conservative, nature-loving Greek ethos is also currently a fashionable way of making sense of secular humanism. Life-affirming new atheists and hedonists or neo-teleologists like Richard Carrier, Sam Harris, and Massimo Pigliucci need to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, between the anachronism of a theistic defense of morality and the horror of the cosmicist suspicion that life is absurd.  

The Ancient Greek Myths

Both Plato and Aristotle were virtue ethicists, meaning that they thought that happiness is our ultimate goal and that to achieve that goal we need to learn to excel in certain ways. Excellence requires a balanced character so that we avoid emotional extremes and make wise practical judgments. Their preoccupation with balance, harmony, virtue, and self-restraint was endemic to ancient Greek culture as a whole. As Luc Ferry explains in The Wisdom of the Myths, you can find these themes throughout Greek myths which predated the Presocratic philosophers. From the birth of the gods and the creation of the cosmos and of humankind, to the warnings about hubris and the celebrations of heroic battles for justice, the Greek mythos was founded on respect for the natural order, due to the assumption that this order is a metaphysical compromise between the lethal extremes of supernatural stasis and chaos.

The cosmogonic myths tell of how the cosmos was forged in epic wars between forces of order and chaos and specifically between Gaia and Uranus, the destructive Titans, monstrous Cyclopes, and the more creative and stable Olympians. According to these myths, Cronus the Titan betrayed his oppressive father, Uranus, castrating him and creating the conditions for the birth of a new generation of gods. Cronus and his sister Rhea create this new generation, but Cronus gobbles them all up to prevent a similar rebellion against him by his progeny. His child Zeus escapes and overthrows Cronus, freeing his siblings, the Olympians, as well as the Cyclopes and other chaos monsters from Tartarus, who reward Zeus with the gift of the lightning. That added power enables Zeus to prevail in the war against Cronus and the Titans, the outcome of which amounts to the current cosmic settlement. Ferry emphasizes the “profundity of the existential problem that begins to take shape in the crucible of this first and original mythological narrative.” The point is that
all of existence, even that of the immortal gods, will find itself trapped in the same insoluble dilemma: Either one must block everything, as Uranus blocked his children in the womb of Gaia, in order to prevent change and the attendant risk that things will deteriorate—which means complete stasis and unspeakable tedium, such as must ultimately overwhelm life itself. Or, on the other hand, to avoid entropy one accepts movement—History, Time—which includes accepting all the fearful dangers by which we are most threatened. How, henceforth, can there be any equilibrium? This is the fundamental question posed by mythology, and by life itself! (59-60)
Hubris is the arrogance arising from ignorance of our proper place in the world, which misleads intelligent creatures into attempting to overreach, to transcend their nature or station. The myths of Asclepius, the model for Doctor Frankenstein, of Sisyphus who is punished for playing a trick on Zeus, and of Prometheus who is punished for attempting to perfect part of Zeus’ creation all warn that pride leads to our downfall. The gods reestablish the cosmic order as soon as anyone attempts to disturb the equilibrium. Heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason, by contrast, fight for justice which is likewise interpreted as balance, as in the figure of Dike, Lady Justice, who was depicted as carrying a physical balance scale. Heroism for the Greeks was a means to immortality through merited fame, whereby the hero escapes the oblivion of the masses who never so memorably distinguish themselves by their actions and who are thus doomed to become anonymous shades in Hades. The greatest heroes fight “in the service of a divine mission, in the name of justice, or dike, in order to defend the cosmic order against the archaic forces of chaos, whose resurgence is an ever-present threat” (248). These heroes are demigods, half-human and half-divine, and so their attempt to immortalize themselves isn’t hubristic.

According to Ferry, the good life for ordinary humans is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus shows himself to be a wise, self-made man as he lives in harmony with the cosmic order. Odysseus is cunning in that he possesses instrumental rationality, meaning that he focuses on the narrow questions of how to get what he wants, because he takes for granted what he is and where he’s going. That is, instead of trying to alter his nature, he understands and accepts his finitude and sets himself the task only of figuring out how most efficiently to achieve his human goals, namely those of returning home after the Trojan War and of reuniting with his family. He demonstrates his lack of hubris by resisting the temptations—by the Lotus-Eaters, the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso—of immortality or renunciation of the world (forgetting Ithaca and abandoning his voyage home). 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Will Trump’s Presidency be more Traumatic than 9/11?

Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were bad, but President Trump might be worse. Not worse for the families or friends of the victims of 9/11, of course, and not deadlier since President Trump hasn’t (yet) been responsible for killing thousands of Americans. But the abomination of Trump’s presidency is potentially more traumatic for Americans generally and for the people around the world who depend economically, militarily, or culturally on the United States. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were traumatic, but not for long, because Americans easily incorporated the motives behind the Islamist terrorism into the myth of American supremacy. As George W. Bush said, the enemies hate Americans because they’re jealous of their freedoms. That line of defense isn’t crazy, since Americans should know from their familiarity with cults and from strains of Christian fundamentalism that those who resent their own inferiority might indeed make the best of their failures by committing themselves to some irrational fantasy or scheme of renouncing popular pleasures. This is to say that the right-wing slogan about foreigners’ jealousy of American riches and freedoms is theoretically plausible.

As it happens, though, the slogan is dubious. Islamist contempt for American culture began perhaps with Sayyid Qutb, who was an Egyptian author and Muslim Brotherhood member in the first half of the last century who spent two years in the United States and was disgusted by, rather than jealous of, American liberties. American freedom is wholly humanistic and godless, the late-Christian rationalizations of hedonism and financial wealth not even nearly withstanding. Therefore, the American Dream will disgust anyone who tries to love a transcendent God more than the material world. If you want to say that everyone who claims to be revolted by American culture is unconsciously jealous of it, you can just as easily declare that everyone who claims to love America secretly despises the American way of life. Pop psychological speculation is cheap, after all. Islamists claim to hate America not just because their religion is severely conservative, since Islam mandates that they submit to an otherworldly God at every moment of the day (only in heaven will martyrs supposedly be awarded with the earthly pleasures that Americans create for themselves on humanist grounds); the Islamist hatred is evidently also political, since the grievances against the West in the Middle East go back decades to the creation of artificial national borders after WWII in that part of the world, and to American and European support for secular dictators who pacified Muslim populations to squander the wealth from their natural resources in business with infidel nations.

In any case, Americans ignored all of that and weren’t overcome by the palpable waves of hatred emanating from the Muslim world. No American self-reflection was forthcoming except from some anxious progressives and socialists. Most Americans shrugged off the attacks as aberrations arising from insanity, evil, or jealousy, and so the trauma was mainly material, not psychological. American pride was temporarily wounded, Americans realized their homeland wasn’t impregnable, and New Yorkers had to live with an altered Lower Manhattan skyline, but American values after 2001 were intact. Indeed, Bush doubled down on Western adventurism in the Middle East, with his bungled neoconservative wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After 9/11, Americans didn’t have to question Americanism, because their Islamist enemies were so easily demonized.

President Trump represents the enemy within, however, and so to demonize Trump is to discover that Americanism itself is a fraud. Thus, the social impact of Trump might be more longstanding and devastating than that of 9/11. Indeed, Trump is the philosopher’s stone, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving—and not just for comedians who have in Trump’s madness and wickedness an endless source of comedy, but for thinkers of all stripes. The obviousness and extremity of Trump make him an object lesson that can’t be missed by any halfway rational and sane person who’s paying attention. Trump teaches us inadvertently what it means to be living in a ghastly, unjust world; to be driven to mistake a hideous idol for a divine saviour, because there’s no such thing as real divinity; to see Evangelical Christianity, the mass media, and the government crack and crumble from their hypocrisy; to realize, in short, that Donald Trump’s America is a sham, that all Americans and their allies are complicit in the emptiness of our freedom-loving way of life, and that Trump’s political victory might as well have been the dawning of the reign of Cthulhu. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s Just-So Story of Religion

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist who has recently become famous thanks to a YouTube video that went viral, showing a standoff between him and transgender or progressive millennials who insisted he use their preferred pronouns. Peterson defended freedom of speech and pointed to the Orwellian potential of the liberal priority of tolerance. If we only tolerate others’ interests, we lose ourselves by allowing others to dictate our thoughts or our language. If Peterson is compelled to call a gay male by the female pronoun, he’s lost his freedom to speak his mind. It’s beyond rude to demand that others speak and thus think in a certain way. In true, non-decadent liberal society, the practice is to attempt to persuade others to your point of view, not bully them. Peterson stood his ground and demonstrated patience and rationality in the video, becoming a hero of the alt right. He displayed the same toughness and political incorrectness as when he regularly appeared in discussion panels on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, years ago. You could always count on Peterson to insist on making blistering pronouncements. His alt right followers now herald him for his refreshing wisdom.

Maps of Meaning

Peterson developed his worldview over a period of fifteen years during which he wrote his masterwork Maps of Meaning. In that book he combines Jung, Thomas Kuhn, and cognitive science to naturalize the world’s religions. While he doesn’t assume the existence of God, he maintains that religion is crucial to moral development and to maintaining social order. The book argues that all religions grow out of a meta-myth which in turn is based on the fundamental human experience of needing to creatively navigate between order and chaos, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, explored territory and the wilderness, society or group identification and antisocial decadence, masculinity and femininity, hyperrational totalitarianism and “emotional valence” such as the terror of bewilderment. These dichotomies are facets of the primordial, pragmatic experience of the earliest, nomadic humans, and so our very brains adapted to those categories. Religious myths thus express these “maps of meaning.”

In particular, people typically form groups and create symbolic representations or cultures, preserving their limited understanding of the world. That understanding is passed on in apprenticeships to discipline the next generation. But if the society is healthy, says Peterson, the point of enculturation isn’t to indoctrinate and enslave, but to instill self-confidence to enable the members to act heroically in handling anomalies which are bound to crop up as these heroes explore territory that lies beyond the bounds of this culture’s experience. Ideally, the hero finds a creative interpretation of this novel part of the environment, thus assimilating the unknown and enriching his or her culture. The ultimate goal, then, or the meaning of life in general, from a religious perspective is “self-mastery,” the use of foundational lessons encoded in myths to become a brave, disciplined individual whose self-interest in exploring the unknown benefits the group, albeit sometimes by revolutionizing its conventions. Thus, we ought to take religious myths seriously, according to Peterson’s analysis.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Life Coach Recommends Obsessive, Idiosyncratic Behaviour to Earn Immortality by Word Coinage

Dateline: TORONTO—Melvin Meister’s Labour of Fame Organization, founded in 1973, has been vindicated over forty years later, as the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “smeelian” to its account of the English language, in recognition of the life’s work of one Mr. Meister’s acolytes, Anita Smeelie.

Considered the philosopher of fame, Mr. Meister founded his organization to convince people to dedicate themselves to a single pursuit throughout their life, however bizarre their preoccupation might be, for the purpose of becoming so personally associated with that practice as to acquire a kind of immortality by compelling the guardians of language to coin a word in their honour.

Mrs. Smeelie spent 38 years wearing unseasonal clothing in Canada. In summer she wore multiple layers of sweaters and coats, and in snowy winter she wore shorts and T-shirts. Crucially, she filmed herself daily to prove her topsy-turvy lifestyle. An anthropologist came upon her archive of films on YouTube and wrote an article about “the smeelian demonstration of liberty, by systematically and steadfastly rejecting the proper response to the environment.”

Mr. Meister explained his philosophy at a press conference. “Fame is silly,” he said, “so you have to be silly to become famous. But what’s even greater than fame is legend. To become a legend, you must devote yourself to an idea, as the movie Batman Begins said. The idea’s merit is inconsequential, since any idea can eventually seem inspired and apt, because circumstances are always changing.

“Think of Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, whose legend is memorialized with the word ‘quixotic.’ The character became immortal because Cervantes wrote a long book hammering home his point about the silliness of the medieval myth of honour. Cervantes’ only error was that his character outshone him and so he wasted the opportunity to become immortal himself, by living as a real-life Don Quixote.

“By contrast, Giacomo Casanova wrote up his myriad sexual exploits and became personally famous for them, so that his name is synonymous with ‘womanizer.’ Rabelais scored a double victory, since his works compelled fans to speak both of what’s ‘rabelaisian’ and what’s ‘gargantuan,’ since his character Gargantua was so forcefully depicted in his satires.”

Mr. Meister stresses that the fame-seeker’s ideal can be preposterous or embarrassing, as it was in the case of sadism and masochism, practices inspired by the literary works of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

“Duns Scotus only had to be a committed medieval Christian theologian to earn himself the title of ‘dunce’—as in the dunce cap worn by slow-witted students who are sent to the corner of the classroom by the complacent humanist teacher.”

According to Mr. Meister, “social critics are bound to find some obsessive behaviours pertinent when they scrounge for materials to illustrate this or that notion that pops into their head. That’s why I tell my pupils to add their idiosyncrasies to the societal slush pile. If they stay true to their bizarre ideal, steadfastly recording their faithfulness for posterity, one day someone will stumble on the work and coin a word to preserve their essence for all time. That’s the road to real immortality.”

Indeed, Mr. Meister contended that YouTube and the internet at large function as repositories for records of cranks’ life work, the hope being that their videos or writings will one day be relevant and compel others to think of their authors as legendary.

Mr. Meister currently has dozens of long-time pupils, one of whom, Leon Snodgrass, has for twelve years given an “Eskimo kiss” to everything that has ended up in his immediate vicinity.

According to his journal, Mr. Snodgrass once found himself in a garbage dump and commenced to rubbing his nose on every piece of garbage in sight. Despite the repulsive odors, he powered through and successfully “greeted” everything in the dump, because of his “single-minded dedication” to his ideal.

What that ideal is is anyone’s guess, but Mr. Snodgrass hopes that someone someday will guess right, in which case he’ll have won his immortality.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Eastern and Western Christianity

MODERATOR: Welcome to Clash of Worldviews. This evening our topic is Eastern Orthodox Christianity and how it stands apart from the Western church. To discuss this matter, we welcome conservative Catholic Lindsey Rowe, postmodern cynic and skeptic Heather Fogarty, and philosopher and Eastern Orthodox theologian David Rolls-Royce Spleen. Welcome to the panel. Lindsey, perhaps you’d like to start us off by telling us briefly what you think the chief difference is between the Eastern and Western churches.

LINDSEY: Well, in a nutshell, the main difference is that Catholicism is authentic Christianity, its traditions deriving from Jesus and the apostles, whereas the more mystical, Gnostic, and individualistic flavours of East Orthodox Christianity are heretical.   

SPLEEN: Those “flavours” are actually shared with the early Church fathers, before Christianity became tainted by its connection to the Roman Empire. The main difference, then, is that the Eastern Church is for Christian insiders, while Catholicism represents exoteric Christianity, the religion for less-serious Christians.

LINDSEY: Need I remind you that the Western Roman Empire ended long before the Eastern one, so if anything, the secular empire tainted the Eastern Church, not Catholicism.

SPLEEN: Not so. Precisely because the prosperous Eastern Empire lasted until 1453, it provided the stability for sophisticated theological thinking in the Eastern Church. Moreover, the Eastern Empire was, of course, the Byzantine Empire, which was culturally more Greek than Roman. Christianity was enriched by Greek philosophy, but poisoned by Roman pragmatism, and so although the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 CE, Emperors Constantine and Theodosius I had already identified Christianity with that empire, leaving Catholicism with the burden of having to deal with Rome’s collapse. The Holy Roman Empire, therefore, had to debase itself to appeal to a lower class of believer, to the unwashed, illiterate peasant.

LINDSEY: Did Jesus lower himself by tending to the prostitute and the leper?

SPLEEN: No, but Catholics aren’t divine, so they typically haven’t withstood secular temptations with Christ-like resoluteness. Instead, they were typically corrupted by the power they held over the helpless masses of medieval Europeans, and that power infected their version of the gospel message.

MODERATOR: And what are the differences, then, between the two creeds?

David Bentley Hart,
inspiration for David Spleen
SPLEEN: Catholics submit to the institutions and traditions of their Church, because the Catholic Church had to divinize itself to maintain social order in its Dark Age. That would have been fine had the Catholics retained an institutional memory of the practices of the Church fathers. But that memory was lost and yet the masses needed something to look up to, a light at the end of the tunnel, and so that light became the very Church hierarchy that failed them, since the Catholic leaders grew arrogant and complacent instead of seeking wisdom from Christianity’s founding fathers. That wisdom was preserved mainly in the East. The Catholic corruption prompted the Protestant Reformation, but Protestants’ emphasis on faith and the unenlightened individual’s right to his or her interpretation of the Bible meant that their sect would depart even further from the early Church practices and thus from Jesus.

LINDSEY: The Catholic Church, that is, the Western communion of believers rather than the material institution, is divine in so far as it’s informed by the Holy Spirit and it upholds the traditions passed from Jesus to Saint Peter.

SPLEEN: But that Spirit evidently came and long ago went from the West, because Western Christians often lacked saving gnosis. The Catholic hierarchy took advantage of the weakness of those living in the ashes of the Western Roman Empire, and that’s reflected in the Catholic view of Jesus’s purpose on earth. Both Catholics and the Protestants who splintered from them say that Jesus came to offer his life as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for everyone’s sins, which is supposed to be good news because it leaves Christians with little spiritual work to do. On the contrary, Christ was supposedly the only one who could satisfy God, because he was perfect and God himself, and so Christians merely need to submit to Christ to enable him to live eventually in their hearts. Unfortunately, this is only a garbled, exoteric rendition of the true Christian message.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Documentary Film Teaser

To the left is a teaser picture of something I've been working on. It's the introductory sequence of an Adam Curtis-style documentary tentatively called "The Horror of Life's Meaning: From Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism." The movie pulls together some themes from my blog and adds some ideas I haven't written about yet, especially with regard to monotheistic religions, and it will be around three hours when it's done. By "Adam Curtis-style" I mean that it's mainly a collage of archival clips with music and me talking in the background.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Calling All Human Robots: Don’t be Too Introspective at Work

Psychologist Tasha Eurich is the leader of a “boutique executive development firm that helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.” This is according to the bio in an article at Harvard Business Review, in which she reports on studies she’s done on different kinds of self-awareness and argues that the philosophical kind of introspection is counterproductive.  

Counterproductive Introspection

She distinguishes between internal and external kinds of self-awareness. The former “represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” The latter kind “means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors.” The two kinds of self-awareness are independent, and she finds that “internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression,” while “people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives.” She also finds that experience and power hinder self-awareness, since they can make people over-confident, but effective leaders can compensate for that by increasing their external self-awareness, that is, by seeking reports on their character and behaviour from those who are liable to be honest, such as family members of long-time friends.

She also argues that introspection, or “examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” doesn’t always improve our self-awareness, since most people think about themselves “incorrectly.” The incorrect or ineffective way, she says, is to ask why questions, as in, “Why do I like Employee A more than Employee B?” or “Why am I so against this deal?” The problem with this type of question—which happens to be quintessential to philosophy when asked about meta issues—is that we have little access to our unconscious thoughts and so instead of discovering the mental facts, we’re liable to invent answers to flatter ourselves or rationalize what we wish were the case. Our confidence in the answers we find to those why questions is due to our innate biases and our tendency to think fallaciously—especially when our inner worth is at stake. Another problem with introspective why questions, she says, is that they invite “unproductive negative thoughts.” She finds that “people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns.”

The alternatives to why questions, she says, are what ones. So instead of asking, “Why do I feel so terrible?” we can ask, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” Instead of, “Why did you say this about me?” we can ask, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” Instead of “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” we can ask, “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?” These what questions are more productive, she finds, because they have definite answers and foster open-mindedness. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Donald Trump, the Antichrist, is “Close Enough to Christ,” said Evangelical Leader

Dateline: LICKSKILLET, KY—Evangelical Christians are supporting President Donald Trump, because “he’s probably the Antichrist and that’s close enough,” according to evangelical leader Leon Birdbrain.

Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump to be president, and polls indicate that they haven’t wavered in their enthusiasm for President Trump and the GOP despite the opinion of a growing majority of Americans that, because of his “many scandals after only one year as president” and because of his “manifest unfitness for high office, Mr. Trump is easily the worst president in U.S. history,” as one national poll concluded.

This has led political scientists and pollsters to wonder why Mr. Trump can still count on his base of evangelical Christians even though his behaviour is obviously unchristian. According to the president’s many critics, his mendacity, sexism, racism, bigotry, narcissism, and personal wealth all indicate that Donald Trump has no interest in even appearing to care about the Christian message, and yet the most vocal American Christians flock to Trump and to the Republican Party, which has so far shielded Mr. Trump from impeachment proceedings. 

Mr. Birdbrain, a televangelist in Kentucky and author of 4,012 books on evangelical Christianity, held a press conference in which he announced that he believes evangelicals support Donald Trump precisely because they think he’s “not just a God-awful president and an abysmal human being,” but “the Antichrist in the flesh.”

When asked why so many supposedly earnest Christians would intentionally cheer for the Antichrist, whereas the New Testament is widely interpreted as preferring Christ to Satan’s earthly representative, Mr. Birdbrain said, “The Antichrist is close enough. I mean, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for Jesus Christ to return. It’s been over two thousand years and the Bible says he was supposed to come back before the first generation of his followers died. He’s evidently been delayed, to say the least, and many Christians now are getting impatient.

“So when we see the Antichrist, Donald Trump, in our very midst we figure, well, it’s only four letters away from ‘Christ,’ right? You take away the ‘anti’ and lo and behold, you’ve got the Christ. We’ve been waiting too long and Antichrist is close enough to Christ. That’s why Trump has my unconditional support and I know I speak for tens of thousands of my evangelical congregants.”

Leon Birdbrain went on to explain that he wears an upside down cross around his neck for similar reasons. “Once again, it’s simple: it’s close enough. You just turn the cross around 180 degrees and you’ve got the old-time cross, so I’m still in God’s good graces.”

According to Mr. Birdbrain, if President Trump does manage to destroy the planet, “it will be close enough. Christians have been waiting a long time for God to destroy human civilization to install his divine kingdom, so if the Antichrist accomplishes that in God’s absence, because of whatever’s been delaying Jesus Christ for so long, evangelicals will be fine with that. Either way, we’ll have a wrecked planet, so what’s the difference who pulls the trigger? Hopefully at that point God will finally step in to fix things and everything will be good as new. Like Satan, the Antichrist is being used by God anyway, so it’s all good.

“You can worship Christ or the Antichrist. You say ‘tomayto,’ I say ‘tomawto.’”

Monday, January 8, 2018

Is Jesus Lord or Legend?

Tom Gilson, “a Christian strategy and communication specialist,” according to his Amazon webpage, formerly with the Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “Cru” to avoid the connotations of “crusade”) and Ratio Christi has an article out in a Christian journal called Touchstone. The article extends C.S. Lewis’s infamous Trilemma Argument, which Lewis intended as a rebuttal of the liberal view that you can admire Jesus’s moral caliber but deny Jesus’s divinity. That’s a non-starter, according to Lewis, because Jesus called himself divine. Thus, there are only three options: you either have to grant that Jesus was who he said he was, namely God, in which case you become a Christian, or you must condemn Jesus as a devil or a crackpot, that is, as a liar or a lunatic. You can’t have it both ways and accept some of what Jesus says (his moral teachings) while rejecting other parts of the gospel narratives (the parts where he indicates that he’s God).

Except that of course you can do that. Lewis seems to have forgotten that those who deny the Christian claim that Jesus was God naturally aren’t going to accept the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. Indeed, over the last two centuries, critical as opposed to dogmatic Bible scholars have shown how the legend of Jesus’s divinity would have built up over the decades after his death, such that the moral teachings in the gospels might go back to an historical Jesus while the more radical theological statements would have been added later by the early followers who were struggling to understand how their dear messiah could have been executed on the cross as a common criminal.

Gilson’s Argument against the Legend Hypothesis

Gilson’s argument is meant to shut down this “Legend” response to Lewis’s Trilemma. So Gilson argues that the early Christians couldn’t have invented the whole character of Jesus, that is, the character of someone who is perfectly moral (selfless, self-sacrificial, and other-directed) and perfectly powerful. Jesus’s sacrifice was “unique” and incomparable, according to Gilson, because Jesus sacrificed himself intentionally and from the very beginning, before his human incarnation, according to Philippians 2. Moreover, says Gilson, Jesus never used his supernatural power to benefit himself. Instead, his moral character is shown in how he laid aside his divine powers to sacrifice himself and save humanity from certain death (due to our original sin which forces God’s hand on Judgment Day). “By perfection,” writes Gilson, “I mean that there is no flaw in the consistency of the storyline, with respect to Jesus never using his power for his personal benefit.”

This is supposed to show how unlikely it was that the gospel writers invented Jesus’s character out of nothing, because everyone knows that power corrupts, so Jesus’s heroism is extremely counterintuitive. The gospel writers must have been Shakespearean geniuses to have conceived of such a fictional character. And Gilson doesn’t scruple about positing four separate gospel authors, to make the fiction seem all the more miraculous, as if the fiction had to have been created four times. Gilson acknowledges that “For the Gospel authors to have produced generally compatible pictures of Jesus would be no surprise: we can certainly assume that they worked interdependently, borrowing sources from each other, relying on common tradition, and so on. In the end, though, they all worked independently to some degree, and yet they all produced a character of unparalleled power and self-sacrifice, with no mar or imperfection of any sort.” Still, Gilson says that if Jesus were a fiction, “all four sources just happened to come up with a character of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination” (my emphasis). That’s contradictory, so Gilson is trying to have it both ways. If the synoptic gospels are interdependent, which they are, it was no accident that those gospels so closely resemble each other. They didn’t “just happen” to retain Jesus’s character. Luke and Matthew read it in Mark, and John’s likely independence explains why Jesus’s character in that later gospel is so different from the Jesus of the synoptic narratives. Whereas the synoptics are muted about Jesus’s divine role, in John Jesus is much more open and verbose about his relationship to the Father.

Gilson next shows how unlikely it would have been for the fiction to have developed by something like the Broken Telephone game, to have been orally transmitted before it was written down, and for the early Christian writers to have been motivated by the human need to avoid cognitive dissonance. According to Gilson, if the gospel narrative developed by word of mouth, adding distortions over time, we can’t say that the narrative developed in a “community of faith,” that is, within group of believers who were interested more in protecting their religious faith than in getting at the historical truth like Sherlock Holmes.