Friday, October 30, 2009

Thirty True Things

On November 1, I plan to start in earnest on writing my next book. Even though I still have much to do to get The Limits of Liberalism published, I am eager to start on this new project.

At this point I am calling the new book "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs to Know Now." The title, and the idea for the book, comes from a bestseller titled Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now (2004) by Dr. Gordon Livingston, an American psychiatrist. (Can I get by with using a title so similar?)

This new book is designed to be more “popular” than my first two books; that is, I will be writing it for a more general public. I am planning to write a chapter of about five pages for each of the “thirty true things” with no footnotes (although I may have a few end notes and suggestions for further reading).

At this point, the first chapter will be called “God is greater than we think, or even can think.” Perhaps drawing some from J. B. Phillips’ Your God is Too Small (1952), I want to emphasize that most people’s idea of God is, indeed, too limited. For several reasons, it is important that we work on developing a broader, deeper, and fuller concept of the nature of God and God’s relationship to us humans and to the entire universe.

I wonder if you have any ideas about this topic that you could share with me. In what ways do you think people’s ideas about God are too small? Do you agree that God is greater than we think, or even can think? If so, what is one of the main reasons for that?

I don’t know how much I will be able to give credit those who respond to these questions or make other suggestions about this subject, but I will not use any ideas others suggest without some acknowledgment.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Does Might Make Truth?

“The truth is what the jury will believe.” That was the statement made by a federal judge that Keith heard as a young lawyer and cited in his comments made after my previous posting. That statement embraces a serious problem that is related to the question about what is true.

Most people are familiar with the idea that might makes right, an idea especially associated with Machiavelli, a contemporary of Columbus—and, perhaps, implemented to a certain degree by Columbus. But that is a highly problematic idea, and closely related to the judge said. If the truth is what the jury will believe, those lawyers with the mightest arguments and with the greatest wealth of experience—and often the greatest wealth—are able to determine what is “true.” Thus, might makes "truth" as well as right. But even if that is often so, is it right?

“The truth is what the jury will believe” may be correct in its consequences, but do we really want to affirm that concept of truth? Think about an innocent person charged with a serious crime. A powerful prosecuting attorney may get the jury to believe the man to be guilty, resulting in the man being sentenced to a long prison term. But what is true? The decision of the jury might be “true” in its consequence. But surely we want the truth that corresponds to reality to be found and followed, not just the “truth” of a jury persuaded by a powerful attorney.

In spite of cynical judges, the legal system in this country is based on the idea of truth as something that corresponds to reality. Words ascribed to Jesus are incised into the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court Building: “The truth shall make you free.” For the innocent man falsely sentenced, it is objective truth, not the “truth” of a falsely persuaded jury, that is liberating.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Their understanding of those “truths” was seriously limited. “All men” must include women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, “illegal” aliens, etc. But the assertion about the basic equality (that is, the inherent worth) of all people is a basic truth, even though it may not always be self-evident. That is, the belief that all people are to be treated justly, as well as lovingly and respectfully, is true whether the jury believes it or not.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Is True?

I have been trying to think what it means when someone says, "It may not be true for you, but it is true for me." That, to me, has seemed to be an illogical statement, for I have accepted what is called "the correspondence theory of truth" to be universally true.

The correspondence theory of truth holds that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to external reality, whether is accurately describes (that is, corresponds with) what is real. In all situations, something is true if it corresponds to reality; it is false if it does not. There is no third possibility. Given that theory of truth, to say that something is true for me but not true for you is nonsense.

But people use words in different ways, and that evidently is case for the word true. From what I gather, some seem to use true to refer to ideas that they believe and are willing to live by. Since other people have other ideas they are willing to live by, those ideas are true to them. To that way of thinking, there seems to be no real problem if those ideas are contradictory. Obviously, that position is quite different from and contrary to the correspondence theory of truth--as well as different from the dictionary definitions of true.

My recent postings have been about Columbus, who clearly thought it true that the earth is round. So he was willing to set sail for the unknown West. The spherical nature of the earth was true for him in that he acted on what he believed. Those who thought it was not true that the earth is round would have nothing to do with the voyage. Even some on board Columbus' ships began to think it was not true and wanted to turn back. So, in a sense the spherical nature of the earth was true for Columbus, but not true for others.

But with the correspondence theory of truth, it is obvious that only one "belief," that of Columbus, was true. Those who thought that the earth was flat were in error. No postmodern or relativistic maneuvering can change that situation. Only Columbus' view corresponds to reality. Those who held to a flat earth view were wrong. Columbus' belief did not make the earth spherical, and the "flat-earthers'" ideas didn't change the fact that the earth is round. Relativism just doesn't work in some situations.

Of course, we don't have as much sure knowledge about many things as we do about the shape of the earth. It is not clear in a multitude of situations what does correspond to reality and what does not. But that lack of knowledge doesn't make it any more logical to say about anything, or about all things, "it may not be true for you, but it is true for me." Complete relativism is a logical contradiction in this way, and in others. That is why I believe that logical thinking cannot accept metaphysical relativism.

I certainly admit that there are problems with absolutism, as I have previously acknowledged. But the answer to absolutism is not relativism. I want to uphold a position that corresponds to reality and that is not self-contradictory. In spite of those who reject assertions about Truth (absolutes), I maintain that logical thinking demands such a position.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wide Open Spaces?

Keith's question (see the end of the previous posting) is worth considering: "is it imaginable that North America should have remained lightly populated by native Americans while much of the rest of the world was overwhelmed?" What about the wide open spaces of this country in 1500?

My friend and fellow church member Chris Thompson, an ardent advocate of Native American rights and founder of Project Warm Embrace, posted passionate comments in response to what I wrote and Keith's comments. He questioned the accuracy of "lightly populated." According to the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians, though, the population in 1500 of what became North America was under two million. Some think it was probably much larger; one Native American advocate estimates it around six million.

Even with the larger number, that was still a very small population for an area that now supports more than three hundred million people. But how many people could be supported if everyone still lived according to the lifestyle of the Native Americans? (I am indebted to Keith for causing me to think about this several years ago.)

Perhaps it was legitimate for Europeans to come to the wide open spaces of the New World. (Do some people have the "ownership" of land in perpetuity just because of where they were born?) Perhaps it was necessary for the survival of the human race (and I don't mean just Europeans) for new lands to be found and developed for swelling populations. (Most migrations, as well as perhaps most wars, have been due primarily to population pressures.)

So while I cannot completely censure the migration of Europeans to what became North America, I do deplore the villainous treatment of the native people here. The Europeans may have had the right to come and even to settle in these wide open spaces, but they did not have the right to steal the land from the people living on it. And certainly they did not have the right to kill at will the people who lived here.

There were some, thankfully, who did seek to deal fairly and kindly with the Native Americas. One such person is Roger Williams (1603-83), one of my heroes. Although a pastor, he was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, partly because of his insistence that the "Indians" should be compensated for their land. English colonization, Williams argued, was "a sin of unjust usurpation upon others' possessions." Christian kings somehow believed that they were invested with the right, by virtue of their Christianity, "to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men." Williams thought that was nonsense, absurdity! (See Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty [2001], p. 17.)

Treatment of the Native Americans in the manner of Roger Williams is the way things might have played out in a more nearly perfect world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Re-Thinking Columbus

Keith Seat, my son who is a full-time mediator and arbitrator in the D.C. area, raised some important issues in his comments posted under my October 12 posting. He wrote, "I wonder about the extent to which moral judgment is meaningful for other eras when the circumstances were so different and our understanding of the facts limited." That is an important matter to consider.

One looks in vain for any examples of toleration of other religions or cultures in the fifteenth century. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, under whose patronage Columbus undertook his voyage, began the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. A historian who died in 1492 estimated that the Inquisition had burned at the stake 2,000 people by 1490. Columbus, as we all are, was a person of his time, and the fifteenth century was not a time of celebrating diversity.

Keith also wrote, "No one is pure--certainly native Americans and African tribes were routinely warring against each other as well." I think that is important to realize also; violence was not used just by the Europeans. Those who in the present day tend to idealize native Americans sometimes seem to overlook how they were often involved in intertribal wars for survival--or the enhancement of their own tribe at the expense of other tribes.

What we know as the Caribbean today got its name from the Caribs, a far more warlike people than the Tainos that Columbus found on the island of Hispaniola. According to one source, "During their numerous battles against the dwindling Arawak [Taino] population, they [the Caribs] massacred the men and kept as many of their women as possible." The Caribs were also cannibals, and another source says if the Taino had not been destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, they likely would have been eaten by the Caribs.

Finally, Keith wrote, "I find it an interesting mind experiment to wonder how we would have wanted to see things play out in a perfect world--is it imaginable that North America should have remained lightly populated by native Americans while much of the rest of the world was overwhelmed?" That is a question well worth pondering, and I want to respond to it in a subsequent posting.

I welcome your comments in response to Keith's last question, as well as positive comments, should there be any, about Columbus as we re-think the ramifications of his coming to the "new world."

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Discovery of Columbus

As today is Columbus Day, think with me for a couple of minutes about the discovery of Columbus. Usually, the emphasis is upon what Columbus discovered, but let’s think about the aboriginal people's discovery of Columbus on their land.
In 1493, Columbus established the first permanent European settlement in what came to be known as the West Indies on an island he called La Isla Española, a name translated into English as Hispaniola. But as Bob Corbett of Webster University points out, “Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americans” already there. Those “Indians” discovered Columbus and the other Spaniards invading their land. 
Hispaniola was inhabited by as many as 500,000 aboriginal Tainos in 1493. (Some estimate a much greater population.) According to Corbett, by 1507 the number of Tainos had shrunk to around 60,000 and by 1531 the number was down to 600. The discovery of Columbus was bad news for the native Americans.
In my previous blog article I wrote about Hispanics. That term that comes from Hispania, the name given by the Romans to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain, Portugal, etc.). Then Hispaniola, as mentioned, was the name given to the island now occupied by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
As we honor the Hispanics in this country, as we should, perhaps we need even more to honor and to affirm the personhood of all the indigenous peoples of Central and Latin America who were exploited and mistreated in many ways by the Europeans (Hispanics) who colonized the many countries in the Americas where Spanish (or Portuguese) is now spoken.
Spanish (or Portuguese) is spoken in the Latin American countries due to colonialization. Thus, as we work against the mistreatment of Hispanics in American society, we realize that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries their ancestors mistreated the aboriginal peoples in what is now Central and South America—just as most of us are descendants of Europeans who mistreated the aboriginal peoples of what is now North America.
Except for the Native Americans and the descendants of those who were once slaves, most of the people in all of the Americas today are descendants of people with blood on their hands. And it all began with the discovery of Columbus.
For those of us who are Christians, Columbus’ “missionary” zeal is one of the saddest aspects of his discovery. According to what he wrote, spreading Christianity was one the main motives for his voyages to the “new world.” But what we see in him, as in too much of the missionary activity through the centuries, is the corruption of Christianity by power and greed. Christianity can never be wedded to political or economic interests without being corrupted.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Honoring Hispanics

Even though it seems quite under-publicized, this is Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM). Unlike most special months, HHM starts on September 15 and goes to October 15. In 1968 Congress authorized President Johnson to proclaim National Hispanic Heritage Week, and the observance was expanded in 1988 to a month long celebration.

June and I are members of Vital Conversations, a monthly book discussion group that we enjoy. The group meets from 1:00 to 2:30 on the second Wednesday afternoon of each month, and next week Geraldo Rivera's His Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S. (2008) is one of the books we will be discussing.

I have never seen Geraldo on TV, and somehow I had negative ideas from what I had heard about him. I checked out his book and began reading it with some reluctance, but I have found it to be highly interesting and informative. He describes well the considerable anti-Hispanic racism extant in this country.

In his book, Geraldo deals, of course, with the problem of Hispanic immigrants--both legal and illegal. It was refreshing, after hearing so much negative rhetoric about "illegals," to read of the many contributions Hispanic immigrants have made and are making to the U.S.

Geraldo's thirteenth chapter is "Immigrants and the Church," which is largely about what is called the New Sanctuary Movement which began in March 2006 when Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony called on American Catholics to defy attempts to criminalize illegal immigrants and those who help them.

Earlier, in December 2005, Cardinal Mahony wrote a letter to President Bush condemning an attempt to require churches and public services to verify the status of parishioners and only serve those legally in the U.S. In that letter, Cardinal Mahony wrote, "Our golden rule has always been to serve people in need--not to verify beforehand their immigration status."

It is becoming clearer to me that those of us who seek to follow Christ should not only support universal health care but immigration reform as well.

In another vein, during this final week of HHM, I will be cheering for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and the other Hispanics who play for the St. Louis Cardinals, the baseball team I have followed for the past sixty years.

Monday, October 5, 2009

All Knowledge Is Personal Knowledge

The "thinking friend" who made comments about my posting on what happens after death charges that I am actually a relativist in my thinking. He is partly right when it comes epistemology, but I still maintain there are absolute truths. And I find his statement "all faiths are true for those particular adherents at a particular moment in history" to be highly questionable. Maybe the problem is how the term true is used, but I cannot agree that truth depends on subjective belief rather than upon the nature of objective reality.

I still have not read Mark Heim's writing on this subject, but it seems completely unlikely that "our religious life/beliefs can create the afterlife we find following death." How could that possible be? Belief in a heaven with streets of gold creates such a place? I cannot see how that could possibly be true.

But if there absolute Truth, as I affirm, how do we know such truth? Well, we don't know it absolutely. So here there is a lot of commonality between my protagonist and me. Our beliefs, and even our assertions, about what is true are relative, related to context, and not subject to proof. All knowledge is personal knowledge.

The latter statement comes from the seminal work of the Hungarian scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). His Gifford Lectures given at the University of Aberdeen in 1951-52 were later published as Personal Knowledge (1958). In the 1960s I spent many, many hours reading that difficult book and preparing a seminar paper on it. Later, I wrote essay about Polanyi that was published as one chapter in Science, Faith, and Revelation (1979), edited by Bob E. Patterson. I wrote that chapter during the year we lived in Liberty in 1976-77. I was teaching part-time at William Jewell that year, and remember well working on it in my provisional faculty office on the sub-floor of the library.

Polanyi states that the purpose of his book was "to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivably be false" (Personal Knowledge, p. 214). That is an important frame of mind, I believe. But that does not mean falling into complete subjectivism or relativism. Polanyi also writes, convincingly, about the "intellectual passion" (also called the "heuristic passion") for finding truth and the "persuasive passion" by which one seeks to convince others of the truth discovered.

As I am always seeking a valid position between polar extremes, through the years I have found Polanyi's position a viable one, standing between objectivism and subjectivism as well as between absolutism and relativism.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Limits of Liberty

My forthcoming book is The Limits of Liberalism, and I am happy to say that I have finished the manuscript except for some editing of the final chapters. But in this posting I am writing about the limits of liberty.

June (my wife) has long been involved with a parent education program marketed as Active Parenting, and one of their parenting principles is "freedom within limits," a significant slogan. (That is also the title of the third chapter of J. Melvin Woody's book Freedom's Embrace.) A proper emphasis on freedom or liberty always includes a concomitant emphasis on responsibility.

In my posting on September 23, I mentioned listening some to “talk radio.” Mark Levin is one of the commentators I hear for a few minutes each week on my way home from Rockhurst University where I teach on Thursday evenings. Levin is the author of Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, which has been on the bestseller lists since it publication in March of this year.

The liberty Levin writes and speaks (loudly and abrasively) about is partly freedom from what he thinks is excessive taxation. The first section of his “conservative manifesto” is about taxation—and his first appeal is for the elimination of the progressive income tax. Then under “7. Entitlements,” he admonishes: “Fight all efforts to nationalize the health-care system.”

Because of our responsibility to support the public good, we are not free not to pay taxes, including some taxes that we have problems with. For example, we are not free not to pay taxes to support war—a serious problem for those of us who are pacifists, and even for many who are not pacifists but who oppose(d) the war in Vietnam and Iraq. (I admire those who have had the courage to practice war tax resistance, but I have not been able to do that myself.)

People are not free not to pay school taxes, even though they do not have, and maybe have never had, children using the public schools. Those taxes are justified, rightfully, as being for the public good.

Here in Liberty (I like the name of this town!) where I live, people are not at liberty not to pay a library tax as part of their property tax, even though they may never set foot inside it. Again, it is for the good of the community.

If we Americans are taxed to support libraries, schools, and even wars that we oppose, why can the critics say that some taxation to help provide universal health care is a form of tyranny and a violation of liberty? Is it not for the public good that everyone in our country has access to health care? And for us Christians, isn’t helping the needy a part of our responsibility? We may not necessarily be our brother’s keeper, but we are our neighbor’s neighbor. And Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.