May 30, 2009

The Nature of God

Remember the father who had a bunch of kids, some of whom he called his favorites, the others he ignored? Do you recall how he permitted his favorite children to steal from the others and sometimes do worse? Remember the rules he established for them (the two most important that they never speak ill of him and always hold him in the highest esteem)? You might also recall how he tested his children with a variety of torments in order to prove their worthiness. Once he even did it on a bet. While he demanded unquestioning loyalty, the father’s answer to disobedience was utter destruction of his children, a consequence he exacted more than once.

Who was this awful father?

He was the God of the Old Testament, of course, who gave his chosen people—Abraham’s posterity—a Promised Land for which they were required to kill and displace others to obtain. It was the same God who commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test of faith—the same God who, just to make a point, went into cahoots with the devil to torment Job. It was the same father who flooded the earth and leveled Sodom and Gomorrah as responses to disobedience—the same father who relished the fear and trembling of his children as they approached him in prayer.

Why would anyone worship such a being, much less call him perfect? I would burn in hell rather than do so (not that I believe in any such consequence). In fact, I would first honor the mythological Zeus or Apollo, whom the Greeks acknowledged as imperfect and therefore not the best of role models. That amount of insight allowed them to recognize capricious behavior when they saw it. But to call moral any being who would demand the violence and destruction recorded in the Old Testament, is to embrace a worldview that chooses war over peace, punishment over forgiveness, and levitical nitpicking over love and compassion.

Fortunately there’s an option to believing in such a being. The alternative is to see God the way Christ described Him. How is that, you ask? Christ’s description of the Father is clear from the very treatise that establishes His higher law, the Sermon on the Mount. If I were banished to a proverbial desert island and only allowed to take a few hundred words of literature with me, it would be chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew. They describe, in my opinion, the most important ideas ever articulated. Not only is it a summary of what God wants from us, but it is a description of His very nature.

Christ’s guidelines for the higher law are, as I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, the following:

  • Don’t just refrain from murder, bridle your anger
  • Go beyond abstaining from adultery, control your lust
  • Don’t stop at honoring contracts, let your word be your bond
  • Do more than seek justice, forgive
  • Love more than those close to you, love everyone

You might ask what this has to do with the nature of God. Jesus closes His comments about the higher law by saying, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” In this way, Christ implies that His gospel circumscribes the kind of perfection God honors and practices. I can’t imagine our Heavenly Father so angry that He would flood the earth and kill all, but eight, of His children. Furthermore, to believe the account—and to concurrently assume that God is a perfect moral being—is to think such acts are acceptable. It isn’t too far a leap from that viewpoint to believe God wanted us to invade Iraq because of the boorish behavior of its leader. In that way, a Judeo-Christian ethic that is premised upon a vengeful and jealous version of godliness is dangerous and can lead to thug-like acts of its believers.

But is that what Christ would have wanted? Let me know what you think.

May 26, 2009

Logic Leads to Faith

In an earlier blog, I reiterated a statement that I’ve made numerous times. In short, I believe that behind each momentous decision we make, we can trace a logical line of justification that eventually leads to a leap of faith. At various times I’ve described that process as a leap into a canyon of uncertainty or wonder. In response, DC said the following:

True, logic—and evidence—take us only so far in knowing and understanding, but “canyons of wonder” can thrive happily in “faithless” uncertainty. Wonder does not lead inevitably to faith…

Let me try to articulate why I think otherwise by first saying that my idea of faith includes any reliance on an unproven premise as a guide to correct behavior. For example, I don’t know for a fact that the phenomenon we call global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, yet there seems to be evidence of a causal link between the two and so I’ve taken steps to reduce my consumption of the earth’s resources. In the final analysis, I believe we all have a responsibility to the earth. To me, that is as much a leap of faith as refraining to murder only because the Bible says it’s a sin.

To further demonstrate what I mean, let’s say three men (Alex, Bob and Corey) at different times come across the same parked car at the side of a road. They notice that the vehicle is unlocked with the key still in the ignition and the identical idea occurs to each of them—I could easily take this car—but, based upon vastly different premises, they resist the temptation. The grounds by which they make their decisions are as follows:
  • Alex thinks he would get caught in the act, the consequence of which would exceed his desire for the car
  • Bob decides to act in accordance with the law, which he believes is the key to social harmony and stability
  • Corey considers the needs of the car owner and reconfirms his commitment to do no harm to others
In terms of the construct I introduced in my very first blog, Alex is following the Law of the Jungle, which encourages him to insure his own survival and seek personal gain to the exclusion of any and all other objectives. Presumably, if he’d thought he could avoid the possible consequences, Alex would have stolen the car. Bob, on the other hand, is following the Mosaic Law, which instructs him to avoid certain acts, including theft. This heuristic set of rules has become his reference guide to life. Finally, Corey is following Christ’s gospel, which encourages him to let love and conscience direct his behavior. The gospel’s requirements are less formalized and often require some amount of improvisation. How do we love our neighbor? There is no gospel equivalent to Leviticus.

In the end, all three men take what is arguably the correct course of action by not stealing the vehicle, but their motivations put them on differing planes. Of the three, who do you consider to be the most trustworthy? As William James was famous for asserting, knowing a person’s “philosophy” is quite possibly the most important thing we can understand about him, since it is the best predictor of how he will act in the future. Now, for purposes of my argument, it’s important to point out that, despite their contrasting motivations, each man could have reached his conclusion by first asking, “Why shouldn’t I steal the car?” and validating the answer by asking, “How do I know my conclusion is correct?”

For inquiring minds, the second question often leads to a string of logical inquiries, until the questioner eventually arrives at one of the canyons of uncertainty of which I spoke. For instance, returning to the example above, Bob, upon seeing the unlocked car, might have processed the following logic in his head.

Question: Why shouldn’t I steal the car?
Answer: Because God commanded me to do otherwise
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because the Bible says so and it’s God’s word
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because the spirit testifies that it is so
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because I’ve felt the spirit
Question: How do I know that?

Eventually, a truly honest Bob will admit that he doesn’t know if he has felt God’s spirit testify of the Bible’s truthfulness. He may have been moved by the Bible’s words, but that isn’t evidence of a Godly communion. People of other faiths, after all, seem similarly motivated by texts they deem sacred and are willing to die as proof of their confidence. So the way we’re sometimes touched by Biblical teachings could be an emotional response (though admittedly a powerful, life-changing and often good response) rather than a spiritual communion, whatever that entails.
Yet, even if we were in contact with God’s spirit, how can we know we've interpreted it correctly? As I’ve said before, if God is as great as we believe, His thoughts must be beyond human understanding. (Think of Einstein squared, or cubed). Is it possible, for example, that the nightmare of the inquisition was God’s will? Or could it have been a terrible misinterpretation of God’s intent. What I’m trying to say is that at some point in the process of logically defining who and what we are, we must admit that we’re making value judgments that we cannot know as fact.
Furthermore, one need not be a Christian to go through the same exercise. Let's say Bob is a scientist, who has no religious bias, whatsoever. Perhaps his thinking would follow more along these lines:
Question: Why shouldn't I steal the car?
Answer: Because that would be wrong
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because society has decided, through long experience, that stealing leads to chaos, which would be intolerable for everyone
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because I can imagine the consequences of a world in which all people steal, but I guess that is a supposition on my part and I really don't know that for a fact
That doesn’t mean, however, that we live life in a corner, shaking from the possibility—no, the certainty—that we will occasionally be wrong. On the contrary, once we know where we stand, we act with assurance that we’ve done our best to define the lines that make us who we are. However, we are equally willing to redefine those lines, when contrary evidence demands it, and we respect the actions of others to define themselves, as long as such actions do no harm.

May 17, 2009

Social Responsibility and the Profit Motive

My favorite teacher was Mr. Napoli, whose class I attended in the fourth grade. He was a stocky, dark-headed man, who loved baseball, singing, and all things Italian. There was much to admire about him, but perhaps the thing we loved most was this: For half an hour each day he would read to us from wonderful books that instilled in us a love of stories. But that’s not all. Once finished with some delightful yarn, he would lead a discussion about the issues it had raised. After listening to a Jackie Robinson biography, for instance, we talked about racism in a manner that was wonderfully adult-like and life-changing. In that way, we considered topics as important and varied as personal responsibility and the 60’s counter culture.

One day, Mr. Napoli finished a story set in war-torn Germany and began to question us on a subject of curiosity to me—the idea that we lived in a free country. After hearing our teacher and several students make that assertion, I raised my hand and expressed as best I could a question that had bothered me for quite some time.

“If we live in a free country,” I asked, “why can’t I go outside and pull down my pants?”

To my fourth grade classmates, that was an incredibly bold and hilarious question that caused a minor disturbance as my friends guffawed and nearly fell out of their seats. After quieting us down, however, Mr. Napoli smiled and said something I’m sure I didn’t understand at the time. As best as I can recollect, he spoke of how freedom comes at a cost and that a free people, of necessity, will choose to restrict their actions and agree upon laws that restrict the actions of others.

That idea finally fell into place in 1991 when I read a Wall Street Journal editorial written by Peter Drucker. In it, Drucker talked about visiting Russia, which at the time was struggling with the meaning of open markets. He was asked to speak to a classroom of management students, where he quickly discovered a misconception shared among the young people. The students there, it seemed, thought capitalism required prices to be set artificially high so that all businesses were able to survive. It was difficult for them to believe a free economy could survive otherwise.

In response to this notion, Drucker said the following:
There is no such thing as ‘profit.’ There are only ‘costs’: costs of doing business and costs of staying in business, costs of labor and raw materials, and costs of capital; costs of today’s jobs and costs of tomorrow’s jobs and tomorrow’s pensions. There is no conflict between ‘profit’ and ‘social responsibility.’ To earn enough to cover the genuine costs which only the so-called ‘profit’ can cover, is economic and social responsibility— indeed, it is the specific social and economic responsibility of business. It is not the business that earns a profit adequate to its genuine costs of capital, to the risks of tomorrow and to the needs of tomorrow’s worker and pensioner that ‘rips off’ society. It is the business that fails to do so.
By including the costs of social responsibility in the ideal profit motive, Drucker teaches something insightful and powerful. Free enterprise—and by extension, life in a “free country”—must reward socially responsible choices. In short, freedom is a balancing act that is not possible without personal restraint and acceptance of responsibilities. Perhaps the irony in this statement is obvious, but let me try to articulate it: For freedom to work, no one may exercise it to its fullest extent, since that will invariably impinge on the freedom of others.

I believe that God’s greatest wish for us is that we be truly free—free of all varieties of bondage: physical, spiritual, and even economic. In this sense, Christ said in John 8:32 the following about His gospel:
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
At the time of the Savior’s earthly sojourn, the Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah who they mistakenly believed would free them from the political bondage of life under Roman rule. Yet, by Christ’s own admission, His freedom was a very different animal, which—based upon knowledge of the truth—held the power to free men and women in a way Emily Dickenson must have understood when she wrote her poem, Emancipation.
No rack can torture me,
My soul’s at liberty.
Beneath this mortal bone,
There knits a bolder one
You cannot prick with saw,
Nor rend with scimitar.
Two bodies therefore be,
Bind one and one will flee.
The eagle, of his nest,
No easier divest
And gain the sky,
Than mayest thou,
Except thyself be thine enemy.
Captivity is consciousness,
So is liberty.
What is the truth Christ mentioned? It was, of course, His higher law that leads to a liberty greater than freedom from theft and murder, but emancipates the spirit from the bondage of unquenchable appetite and desire. It’s a variety of liberty based upon self-interest tempered by neighborly love and compassion. Do we experience this freedom today? Of course not. As Christ once said: By their fruits ye shall know them. And by the fruits—or the results—of our freedom, it’s clear we live lesser laws. These are standards more concerned with protecting what is ours (thou shalt not covet) than in service to those who truly need our succor (love thy neighbor). Until we fully incorporate the costs of social responsibility into the profit motive, we will fall short of Christ’s hope for us. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, we can do this, in part, by encouraging corporations and other public enterprises to make their employees—as well as other insiders—shareholders.

May 9, 2009

Wishing Mom a Happy Day!

My mom is one of the funniest people I know, but her humor isn’t always intentional. Sometimes she says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and though she’s lived in the states for the last 50 years, she speaks with a Japanese accent that makes her sound like one of the computer-generated characters out of a Star Wars movie. When I was a kid, my friends loved her and would drop by the house just to say, “Hey, Mrs. Bahr,” because they knew she didn’t like to be greeted with a “hey” and would always reply, “Hay? Hay da fo hos!” (which, in her Jar Jar Binks manner of speaking meant: Hay is for horses).

I could go on and on about her various misadventures using the English language, but perhaps I can give you an example. This happened one evening when my brothers and I were home for the holidays, shooting the breeze. Suddenly the phone rang and mom stood to answer it. We heard her say hello, after which confusion clouded her expression. The caller, apparently, had misdialed and was asking for Bill or Tom or someone else who wasn’t a member of our family. So mom replied in a way that she must have considered direct, but helpful.

“No,” she said. “Dis a bar.”

Now, we all knew what she was trying to say—that the caller had mistakenly reached the Bahr residence—but her execution was lacking. My brothers and I started to laugh, imagining what the person on the other end of the line was thinking. Did I just call Bob’s House of Ale and reach someone who’d had more than her share to drink? My mom heard us snickering and started to laugh, too, but she quickly composed herself and said, “Solly bout dat,” before hanging up the phone.

It wasn’t until I relearned Japanese that I got to know my mom in a way that her second language had kept hidden. When speaking in her childhood tongue, she conveys a kind of authority and grace that is surprising and causes me to wonder how difficult it must have been for her to grope for words most of her adult life. Then I realize she doesn’t think that way. She isn’t bothered by a misplaced article, or an improperly conjugated verb. You might say that, to her, perfection is overrated—especially when quirky is an option.

And guess what? I believe that, too.

My mom used to be passionate about football. When the 49ers played, she’d be super-glued to the TV and shame on you if you tried to pry her away. Then, a few years ago she was suddenly bemoaning the fact that she didn’t like the sport anymore. The reason? She didn’t have a team to root for! You see, her favorite player, Steve Young, had retired and because my brothers and I were out of school, there were no college teams that interested her, either. Hearing that, I reminded her that she had a grandson (my boy, Matt) who was attending UC Berkley and I suggested she could root for the Golden Bears of Cal.

Mom replied matter-of-factly, “That’s not good. I can’t say Cal.”

And she was right. The way she pronounced “Cal” sounded more like “Cow.” That’s when a picture entered my head. It was of my mom at a college game flinging tortillas and yelling, “Go cow. Go cow,” while those around her wondered what pasture she was minding.

So I offered an alternative. “Just refer to the team as Berkley.”

Mom thought for a moment and replied, “Bukwee? I can’t say that either.”

The point I’m trying to make is that mom had to find something endearing about the game to make it interesting to her, which certainly serves as a lesson to me. When I’m bored by life, the first thing I have to do is find something about it to like. Everything falls into place after that. (By the way, since mom and I had that chat, the Seattle Mariners drafted Ichiro Suzuki—the man I consider to be the finest lead-off hitter since Ricky Henderson—and now baseball is her great fascination).

Happy Mothers' Day, Mom.