The Task for Advent: Awakening the Already-Awake

flight_egyptThroughout my 20’s, my spiritual life was a process of asking, searching, and wondering. Around the age of 21, I realized that I was not convinced by the idea of Jesus’s divinity, and so I began to seek a spiritual community where that doctrine was not espoused, or at least not essential. I ended up worshiping with a Friends’ meeting for more than two years. But I ultimately felt that there was something still missing, and so I ended up searching farther afield–I began reading about Buddhism and Islam and attempting to practice some form of meditation, as well as integrating elements of Islamic prayer into my prayer life.

Ultimately, by the age of 27, I found myself returning to Trinitarian Christianity. After having actually studied the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity more closely, I came to realize that my earlier repudiation of them had been based largely on my own ignorance. I joined the Episcopal Church at the age of 28, and my spiritual and religious identity has been stable since then.

After spending the better part of a decade searching, seeking, and asking, this stability was welcome–I felt that I was finally able to really dig into the tradition I was committed to, instead of constantly gliding over the surface of various communities. Yet, over the last year or two, I have felt a sort of dis-ease in my spiritual life. Although I think there are many causes to this–the process of discerning ordination, the grind of academic life, raising a young daughter–lately I have come to recognize a new dimension to it. I think that I have begun to miss the sense of seeking and questing in my spiritual life. Throughout my 20’s, spiritual truth was this elusive quarry I was chasing, and though at the time I only wanted to end my search, now I find myself missing that chase.

Or–not missing that chase per se, but missing the sense of wonder and discovery that came with it, To accept that, somehow, in Jesus, God is revealed and present is, in one sense, to end the journey of seeking and discovering. To rest in the peace and power of Jesus Christ is to accept that no further search is going to reveal a greater or deeper truth. Of course, I might still research other faiths, both out of curiosity as well as respect towards the diverse systems of human spiritual and religious thought. But the sense of yearning, even of desperation, that drove me before, is no longer there.

This is, of course, a good thing, and yet it has also led to a stultifying of my spiritual life to some extent. Not feeling that desperate yearning, prayer and meditation now have less emotional and existential draw. Because I now have a spiritual and religious life that is intellectually satisfying and more or less complete, I don’t have the same energy behind my spiritual practice.

But reflecting on these thoughts and feelings has only revealed to me how foolish I am; even at thirty-five years of age, I am still so ignorant. Just as I showed my ignorance at 21 in rejecting doctrines I didn’t even understand, these last few years I have shown my ignorance in thinking I know and understand far more than I do. It’s one thing to say that in Jesus, God reveals Godself to me. It’s another thing to really know what this means. I can say that God is revealed and even present in Christ, but I then have to immediately add a qualifier–this revealed presence is utterly mysterious. If I utter the name of Jesus, or reflect on the Incarnation, or receive His body and blood in the Eucharist, I do not suddenly have some total conceptual clarity about what it means to call Jesus divine. I can–and do–say these things, think these things, and do these things, all without really uncovering the mystery of what it all means.

In truth, then, my sense of spiritual stability was really rather temporary. My identity as a Christian is not changing, and yet what it means to be Christian remains really beyond my comprehension. I stopped journeying, asking, seeking, and questioning, not because I had actually reached some final point of truth, but because I was both tired of the search, I think, and also because I put too much stock in my own intellectual abilities. I thought that the deepest mysteries of being, of life, of existence, were just puzzles to be solved, instead of realities beyond the horizons of human consciousness. I stopped the journey, but I was not at the destination.

So one of my tasks, I think, during this Advent, is to really accept my ignorance, to recognize the depth of the mystery of Jesus’s divinity, and to thereby rekindle my spiritual curiosity, and to reengergize my prayer, meditation, and devotional practices. Christ calls us to remain awake, aware, and vigilant. This is a call meant, I think, most of all for those of us who think we already are awake, aware, and vigilant.

Forever Stewards: A Sermon for Thanksgiving, 2017

giftThe readings for this sermon (Thanksgiving Year A) can be found here. I focus on the passage from Deuteronomy.

What are we thankful for? This is a question some of us have been asking ourselves this week, and especially today. In some homes, families will ask each person at the table to say at least one thing they are thankful for. What will we say? Family: we are thankful for our families–at least most of the time. Those of us with work will be thankful for that, and for the money to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Those of us in good health are thankful for this, to be able to get up in the morning and go about our day without pain or difficulty. Those of us living in the US are probably thankful for the relative peace and security we enjoy here.

The truth is, of course, that whatever we have that is good or valuable, we should be thankful for. As Christians, we know that God created the world as a free gift–God did not have to create anything, but out of an abundance of love, God chose to. This means that not only everything we have–all our possessions–but even all of our skills and abilities, and indeed our very lives: it’s all a pure and free gift. This is why we hear God warning us in Deuteronomy today:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth

Everything we have is a gift. So how can we give thanks? How can we thank God if everything we have that we might give in thanks, God already gave? If everything is a gift from God, then, in truth, everything already belongs to God. How do you thank the God who already has everything?

Those of us gathered in church might begin by saying: through prayer, worship, and praise. And this is certainly important. But our thankfulness cannot and should not end here. If we are thankful to God for God’s generosity, let us be generous with God’s gifts. Let us pass on God’s loving gifts to those in need.

Churches around the country are now wrapping up their stewardship seasons, a time when members of churches discern how much they can financially support their parish. And this is certainly important. But stewardship does not begin or end with our pledgecards. Stewardship is a way of life, it is our response to God’s love and gifts. To be a steward simply means to be responsible for what belongs to someone else. If everything we have, and everything we are, is a gift from God, then our whole lives are a time of stewardship. We are looking after what God has freely given. So what does this mean?

Well, it means that if I give food to a hungry person, if I clothe a naked person, if I help a homeless person find a home, if I help a sick person get the medical care they need–I am not giving away anything that belongs to me. I am simply passing the gifts God has given to me on to the next person. I am being generous because God has been generous. This is Christian stewardship.

We come to the altar to receive communion. Another word for this communion is the Eucharist. Now, “eucharist” is a Greek word that means–you guessed it–“thanksgiving”. In the Eucharist, we give thanks. We give thanks to God for creation and all the gifts of life, but especially for God’s work of healing and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. God didn’t have to do this. Just like in creation, God chose to freely give because of God’s infinite love for a broken world. And we come to the altar and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood–we receive the gift all over again. And for this, we give thanks.

My hope for us today is that we will not let our Eucharist, our thanksgiving, end at the altar. When our deacon dismisses us, and we extinguish the candles, and walk through those doors, let our Eucharist continue! Let us give thanks, not only on Sundays or on one day in November, but every day of our lives. And if we are thankful, let us be generous as God has been generous with us.

To conclude, I can think of nothing better than to repeat the collect our priest prayed just a few minutes ago:

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.



Superstore’s Super Disappointing Health Care Episode

superstoreCastThe sixth episode of the third season of Superstore got a little political. The episode opened with employees of the store “Cloud 9”–a not-so veiled stand-in for Wal-Mart–commiserating about how they were avoiding routine medical care because they simply couldn’t pay for it.  One of the employees has an idea to start a “health fund”–they could donate money to the fund each month, and then when one of them had a really serious health concern, they could draw money out to pay for medical care.

The episode then unfolds by showing how this innocent and worthwhile intention would be wrecked upon the rocks of reality: employees were giving $20 a month, but frequently wanted to withdraw thousands. By the end of the episode, the two employees who had spearheaded the idea were coming up with solutions that will be familiar to anyone who has shopped for health insurance: various tiers of care based on how much a given employee paid, for instance, and having the sicker members pay ten times what healthy members did. The episode concludes with the employees admitting that coming up with a solution to the healthcare crisis was far harder than they had imagined.

The episode is disappointing because it begins with an honest portrayal of a problem that millions of Americans face–but by the end, the episode basically mocks those who criticize our current healthcare system, and seems to suggest that, for all its faults, this is the best we can hope for. But the episode only reaches this conclusion by misrepresenting the problem and obscuring the real issues at play.

The health fund that the employees pull together functions by having the very-low-income employees pay into a fund to help each other. While the employees’ willingness to contribute to this kind of mutual-aid arrangement is itself laudable, it should be obvious from the outset why such a plan will never work. You can’t get blood from a stone, can you can’t get the fortune you need to pay for medical care from a group of poor people. They just don’t have the money.

The real question here, of course, is: why are these people so poorly paid to begin with? Why don’t they have the resources they need to pay for basic needs like medical care? In short, the healthcare crisis in this country is not really about technology, or government red tape, or poorly-managed corporate bureaucracies–although we could be doing better in each of these areas, of course. The healthcare crisis in this country is simply one of justice. People can’t access healthcare because they are not paid a just wage for their work. It really is that simple. If people were paid a living wage, they could afford healthcare. Because they are not paid a living wage, they cannot.

So while I was happy and excited when this episode of Superstore began, because I thought the writers might take this opportunity to address a serious topic, by the end of the episode it was clear that no serious discussion of the facts was forthcoming. In fact, by presenting the mutual-aid health fund as the only option to respond to the problem of exorbitant health care costs, this episode may actually deceive its viewers. It is telling that none of the employees ever mentioned political action, or, say, a strike as a way of securing better healthcare (to be fair, it is worth mentioning that the employees did successfully strike on a previous episode, so this topic has been positively addressed by this program). And the characters never once raised the simple question of whether they were being justly paid. Their poverty was simply taken for granted, as an unfortunate but unremarkable feature of the world that they simply had to accept.

This is a pernicious message to present to viewers, and those of us who want to see a more just world should be concerned–though, of course, not surprised–to see this message reinforced on network television. While we should not expect any show that is broadcast on a network owned by wealthy interests to speak honestly about the injustice of our economic system, we should consistently call attention to this kind of deceptive, bait-and-switch messaging on serious topics. I say all of this as a fan of Superstore; it’s one of the few current sitcoms my wife and I consistently watch. But if we can’t criticize things we like when they misstep, then we really can’t criticize anything. I hope this criticism of the episode can be the beginning of a more serious conversation about the injustice of our healthcare system.

Spending Our Inheritance: A Sermon for Nov 19, 2017

The Readings for this Sermon (Year A Proper 28) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. My sermon focuses especially on the Epistle and Gospel readings:

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 — Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30 — Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what appears below is a version written from memory.

hands-moneyHow do we think about God? How do we talk about God? How do we picture God? We Christians draw on Scripture to talk about God, and Scripture provides a wealth of images and ideas: God as a parent, God as a king, God as a mighty warrior. These images are especially prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. From the New Testament, we hear about God as a shepherd, tending the flock, and about God as both priest and as as sacrifice, at the same time. We also hear about God even as an inanimate object: God as a rock, as a castle, as a stronghold.

Now it’s crucial that we don’t make the mistake of understanding any of these images literally. God is not actually our biological father, and God is not literally tending sheep on some hillside. And God is certainly not actually just a rock! But to say that these names for God are not literally true is not to say they are not true; indeed, these words are the Truth made accessible to us humans. Our minds cannot grasp the mystery of God, and so we need such language to try and reach beyond ourselves. These images of God are in fact true because they are not literal.

Today Jesus gives us another image of God in our parable: when you come across the words “lord” or “master” in Scripture, there’s a pretty good chance it’s referring to God. And in this case, it refers specifically to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. I think that’s pretty clear. As for the slaves or servants, who might they be? I think this is relatively clear, too: if the lord is Jesus, then his servants are the disciples–not just the original twelve, but we here in this room today as well. We are Jesus’s disciples–or, at least, we are trying to be.

So far, so good. But what about this journey that the lord takes? What’s going on with that? This isn’t so immediately clear. But if we meditate on this for a moment, I think the answer will appear: Jesus frequently tries to teach his students about the inconvenient fact that he will die and leave them, and about the mystery of his eventual return. I think this is what the trip signifies: Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension is the beginning of the trip, and the return his Jesus’s second coming.

So we have our characters and the basic story: Jesus, his disciples, and the time between his ascension and his return. But there’s a lot more here; Jesus is trying to tell us what we should be doing during this long absence. And so we come to the last piece of the parable: what are these talents? What is this inheritance? This is really the center of the parable; if we are going to understand it, we have to get this right.

The first thing we need to make clear is that the “talents” here are not referring to our skills or personality traits, as the English word might suggest. Here, a talent is a unit of measurement. It’s a weight. Gold and silver were measured in talents. When I was researching earlier this week, I came across one scholar who explained that a talent of silver might have been worth as much as 38,000 denarii–a denarius was basically the daily wage at the time. So think about how much you make in one day, and multiply that by thirty-eight thousand, and you will have some idea of what a talent was worth. Millions, maybe even billions, of dollars. A lot of money.

So, what does Jesus mean by this? Was he being literal? Was he giving investment advice? Was he saying that at the second coming, he’s going to bring his accounting book and demand some pretty serious donations? I don’t think so! First off, all evidence suggests that Jesus himself was rather poor. The idea that he left some huge sum of money to the early church doesn’t hold water. And indeed, all the evidence suggests that all of his disciples were pretty poor too. Furthermore, whenever Jesus did talk about money, he pretty much told us we should just it all away.

So Jesus wasn’t being literal–just like the images of God we discussed before are not literal. So what does he mean then? It’s a difficult passage, but I think that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us here. Paul is talking about the same issues–he is discussing the “night time” that the church lives in, after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, yet before his return. It’s a dark and difficult time. Yet Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, and so we must not be discouraged. And we don’t have to struggle here alone. We are called to do the work Christ has left for us to do, and we have been given tools to do that work. Paul uses a military metaphor–just as we talked about before, Scripture sometimes describes God as a mighty warrior–and Paul draws on this tradition. He says that we have a breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of hope. These three–faith, hope, and especially love–are a favorite theme of Paul’s writing. And they are doubtless essential to what it means to be a Christian. If we have faith and hope, it is because we know God loves us.

What if this is the inheritance that Jesus has left, the talents from our parable? We have no record of Jesus leaving any money or property, but we have ample evidence, not only of his love, but that he called on his disciples to love–each other, and neighbors, and even their enemies. If it is love that is the inheritance that Jesus left us, what does this parable then teach us?

Well, the first two servants, they took their inheritance of love, and they went out into the world and traded it, spent it, shared it. Yet when they got home, they found that they not only had all the love they started with, but actually twice as much! This isn’t how money works–if I have $10,000, and I give you 8,000, I only have 2,000 left. But God’s love doesn’t play by the rules of our world, of our economy. The more I give freely the gift of God’s love, the more love I know and feel and have.

The third servant tries a different strategy. He takes God’s love and buries it in the ground. He tries to save it for himself. And if this were money, that might make sense. He’s trying to keep it safe. But what he finds, at the end of time, is that when he goes back to dig up his treasure, he’s lost it all. This is how it is with God’s love. If I try to hold on to it for myself, I find that it withers away, it shrivels and dies, and I am left with nothing.

So what does this mean? Well, I think it means we are called to spend God’s love recklessly. We should take this gift and share it. If we do, we will find that the more we share God’s love, the more love we have. So to conclude, let us remember that prayer we pray every week, and which many of us recite daily. It begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed by thy name

God’s will, God’s kingdom–not mine! And then we continue:

thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven

We are calling for God’s kingdom, not just at the end of time, or in some metaphysical place somewhere else, but here and now, in this place. Sometimes, people think of prayer and action as polar opposites. They think that if we pray, we don’t need to act, or if we want to act, we shouldn’t bother praying. But this isn’t what prayer is about. Prayer is preparation for action. We should pray, and then act. So if, on Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, let’s go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and act on that. Let’s make it happen.

So my hope for us is that when [our deacon] dismisses us today, and we walk through the doors of this church, each one of us will ask ourselves: “how can I spend God’s love recklessly today and in the days to follow?”


An Inverted Spirituality

guruWhat do we seek when we seek spirituality or a religious community? It’s a difficult question because the terms “spiritual” and “religious” are so vague and broad; many people mean many very different things with each term. But if we don’t even know what spirituality is, then how can we seek it? How do we know if we’ve found it?

Now I certainly won’t propose to dictate the definition for such an old and complex term, but I think that a historical comparison can shed some light on this question and help us understand what we may mean by “spirituality”. In short, like many terms, I think this one’s meaning has shifted and changed over the centuries. And that shift itself can tell us a lot about ourselves and what we may be seeking when we seek the spiritual.

If one reads a traditional religious text, whether its an account of the life of Siddhartha Guatama the Buddha, or one of the gospels describing the ministry of Jesus Christ, one will find a common theme: strangers come up to the teacher seeking knowledge, truth, or peace. They assume the teacher has some kind of special wisdom, and they want to learn that wisdom. The student tends to assume that they will need to submit to a certain kind of discipline in order to access or attain to this wisdom, and they also tend to put real trust and authority in the teacher.

Consider, for example, Matthew 19:16-22:

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

This young man comes to Jesus to ask him how to attain eternal life–a spiritual question if ever there was one! And he clearly thinks that Jesus has some kind of information or wisdom that he, the young man, lacks. Jesus has authority, and this young man recognizes it, and seeks to learn from it. Notice too that when Jesus gives him the answer to his question, the young man grieves because he doesn’t like it–but he doesn’t argue with Jesus. He seems to accept the strength of Jesus’s authority, even if he isn’t pleased by the outcome.

Now, how easily could we imagine this scene in a 21st century church, synagogue, temple, or other religious community? Do we expect people today to approach spiritual communities or teachers with this same attitude? I don’t think so. Spirituality today, generally speaking, has a rather different quality. It’s not marked by this student-teacher relationship, but is rather generally presented as a personal quest that an individual engages in more or less on their own. Indeed, if spirituality in the past was more or less equivalent to seeking wisdom, spirituality today might be summarized as equivalent to “self-actualization”.

Obviously this is a generalization, and it therefore won’t apply to every spiritual “seeker”. But I think it’s accurate enough to apply to many and indeed perhaps most seekers in the West. If this is so, two questions arise: first, why has this happened? And secondly, is it good or bad?

The first question is as important as it is complicated, and I won’t endeavor here to try and give some exhaustive social explanation for why spiritual and religious life has changed over the last few centuries. Needless to say, spirituality is not the only thing that has changed over this timespan, and so we might guess that spirituality has changed precisely because society has changed so much overall. Political, technological, cultural, economic, and other aspects of our lives have been transformed since the 17th century. So it stands to reason that our understanding of spirituality, the problems that spirituality is meant to solve, and the means by which it might to do so will also have changed. If spirituality is always a human response to questions of meaning, then as human lives change, then it makes sense that human means of interpreting meaning and purpose will adjust as well.

The second question–Is this change good, or not?–is complicated as well. Answering this question will ultimately involve us taking a closer look at what each of us really thinks spirituality is all about. Before we go there, however, let’s survey the ground we want to cover:

First off, if we reflect on this question for a moment, we should see that we are unlikely to have a straightforward answer. We might–and, I think, should–expect to find that this change in spirituality is good in some ways, and not so good in others. We should resist simplistic and polarized answers to such a serious question.

In particular, we might say that this change in spirituality is good for one of the historical reasons it probably arose–the corruption, hypocrisy, and abuse of power by religious authorities. Many people today, quite understandably, have little trust for clergy or other religious teachers, and so what I have presented as the old model of student-teacher spirituality might immediately appear to them as inherently problematic. Furthermore, many people are suspicious of anyone who seems to take spirituality or religious faith too seriously, and assumes that they are up to something devious. This speaks, to some extent, to the cynicism of our age, but it can’t be denied that that cynicism has its root in real, and tragic, experience. Stories of sexual abuse, financial corruption, and egoism among religious leaders are all too common to deny. So, perhaps spirituality has changed because the old approach was inherently broken? Perhaps the authority entrusted to religious leaders was always a mistake?

Doubtless this lack of trust and the reality of religious hypocrisy has played its role. Yet we might just as easily turn the tables around, and ask about the social and material basis for the rise in individual-centered self-help spirituality. First, as a general observation, we might point out that such spirituality seems self-centered and even selfish at its core; spirituality in this form often looks like little more than an effort by an individual to cover their own opinions and interests with the mantle of the numinous. Secondly, we might go further and argue that this mode of spirituality actually reflects a very specific set of economic and cultural values and perspectives: that it arose from, and reinforces, a certain kind of middle-class or bourgeois attitude towards society and reality. If this is true, then modern spirituality is not an inherently liberatory or postive thing, a progress in response to changing circumstances, but actually an effort to shape individuals and society in particular ways. We might ask who wins and who loses under such a model of the spiritual or religious.

Thirdly and finally, we might ask whether the individually-focused spirituality actually solves the problems it seems targeted at solving. Does it really challenge religious hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse? When we think of such modes of spirituality, movements like the Prosperity Gospel or pseudo-Eastern self-help communities come to mind–and such communities are actually rife with deception, egomania, and hero-worship. And even when such a spirituality seems to work as advertised, it seems to replace an out-sized authority and respect for an elder with an even more out-sized authority and respect for ones own self. It’s not immediately clear that this is necessarily an improvement.

Nonetheless, even if one is fundamentally opposed to the changes in the way spirituality is conceived of and sought, it would be foolish to simply dismiss the changes as bad across-the-board, or as having no value. Ultimately, to address the question of whether this change in spirituality is basically good or not, I think we need to address what, at root, we really mean by spirituality in the first place.

In seeking to answer this question for ourselves, we might find that the two models of spirituality we explored above: the old and the new, the traditional-authority model and the self-actualizing model, actually reflect not just differing historical and social contexts, but actually differing sets of values. Do we fundamentally believe that human life is a search for Truth (with a capital “T”!) or do we fundamentally believe that human life should be centered on personal fulfillment, pleasure, and comfort?

Such questions should be taken seriously, for they reveal ever deeper layers of philosophical concern. Some people today, for example, might deny, right off the bat, there there really is any Truth to seek in the first place. For such people, the above questions will have been answered before they were even asked. To recognize this level of the question about spirituality is to address topics like postmodern thought and what, exactly, is the modernism to which postmodernism is responding to and critiquing. In the interest of brevity, I will not attempt to address such a thorny topic here and now, but I want to conclude both by promising to address this question in a future post (or posts) and also by encouraging you, the reader, to reflect on your own values and assumptions when it comes to these big-ticket questions. What do we value, at a foundational level? What do we really care about? I think our questions about the nature of spirituality in the 21st century will be answered by these more fundamental questions.

Idols & Windows: A Sermon for October 8, 2017

The Readings for this sermon (Year A Proper 22) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I preach most specifically on these two selections from those readings:

Exodus 20:4 — “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Philippians 3:4b-7 — “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

I delivered this sermon without notes; what appears below is a version written from memory.

bullGoldenWallStI need a little help with this sermon today. I want to take a quick survey. Please raise your hand if you have a garage, or a shed, or even a barn on your property. OK, keep your hands up. Now raise your hand if you don’t have any of these, but you do have a foyer, or some other space just inside of your front door, where you can put your shoes, or maybe have a small table. OK, you can put your hands down. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever felt the temptation to carve a statue of a bull or maybe an eagle, set it up in that shed or in that foyer, and, once a day…bow down and worship it?

I don’t see any hands up–and that’s good, because if someone had raised their hand, I’d have to quickly write a new sermon! But no, I don’t think any of us have been tempted to carve an idol and worship it. And so the second commandment we heard in Exodus today can sound today a bit old, a bit archaic, even irrelevant. We don’t worship idols of stone or wood in the 21st century. But I think if we take a moment to reflect, we may find that there are still idols in our lives. Not idols of stone or wood, but idols we place on the altars of our hearts, on the altars of our minds.

If we want to figure out what might tempt us to worship, just think about what we spend most of our time doing. Where our time is, that’s where our heart will probably be. And what do most of us spend most of our time doing? Many of us spend 30, or 40, or 50…or even 60 hours a week working, to make money. And if we are not at work, we are sitting at the kitchen table balancing our checkbooks and paying bills: rent, car insurance, setting aside money for groceries. And when we aren’t working or paying bills, many of us are worrying because we don’t have enough money. We’re not sure where the money for rent will come from this week.

And of course, to work and be paid a fair wage or salary for that work is a good thing. We need money to pay those bills, there’s nothing wrong with that. Work and even money aren’t inherently bad. But if this concern for money looms larger an larger in our vision, until it takes up our whole field of vision and we can’t see anything else, well that’s different. That’s dangerous. Just like wood and stone, and bulls and eagles aren’t bad in and of themselves–they are created good by God. But if we come to worship them, that’s a different matter.

Now, if you are going to make a lot of money, so you can get a lot of the things that money can buy–property–what will you need to do? You’ll probably seek out a high-powered education. You’ll try to make connections with influential people. You’ll work to develop the skills you need to get that next promotion. In short, you will need power. And again, there’s nothing wrong with power per se. People can use power to speak the truth and work for justice. But just like with property, if the pursuit of power takes up your whole field of vision so that you can’t see anything else, it becomes dangerous. It can become an idol.

And if you are the kind of person with a lot of property and a lot of power, how will people treat you? They will probably ask you for advice, flatter you, and treat you with greater respect. In short, you’ll have a lot of popularity or prestige. And again, we can use prestige to do good things. We all know about people who use their celebrity status to try and make the world a better place. But again, if that pursuit of prestige comes to dominate our whole field of vision, if we seek prestige for its own sake, it can easily become an idol.

So property, power, and prestige–I think these can easily become idols for us. Again, just like wood and stone, bulls and eagles, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these, as long as we keep our perspective. If we remember that everything we have, and everything we are, an everything we might be are all free gifts from God, then we can use all of these as tools to serve God. It’s when we lose this perspective that the temptation to idolatry comes to the fore. We have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I think Paul knew something about this temptation. Today in his letter to the Philippians we learn that Paul was not just any Jewish person, he was a Pharisee, very well educated–he knew the Law forwards and backwards. And we know from the Acts of the Apostles that he had a position of authority in his religious community–he had power and prestige. The problem was that his Jewish faith–which was and is a path to knowing and serving and loving God–had come to be a sort of idol for Paul. He became so focused on the rules and hierarchy and prestige of religious practice that they no longer pointed beyond themselves to the mysterious Creator. Again, just like wood and stone, bulls and eagles, property, power, and prestige, his faith wasn’t bad. But it became bad because it came to dominate Paul’s whole field of vision, until he couldn’t see beyond it.

In this way, I think Paul shows us that religious faith is a lot like a window. If you have a window in your home, the whole point is that it is transparent, and you can open it. You can see the whole world outside, and you can open the window to hear what’s going on outside too. You don’t install a window to look at the window (well, unless it’s stained glass!) you install it so that you can look through it, hear through it. Just like that, religion is meant to always point beyond itself, to God.

We Christians can learn something from Paul here. Our religious practice, too, can easily become something that dominates our whole field of vision, until we can no longer see what it’s supposed to be pointing us to. We didn’t come here today to stare at the pews, or to study the altar fabric. And the bread and wine we will eat and drink in a few minutes, it’s not especially delicious bread or fine wine. No, all of this is meant to show us the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our faith should be a window onto this revelation. But if we focus on our religious practice without remembering this, it too can become an idol.

If you want an example of someone who fell into idolatry in the 21st century, look no further than Stephen Paddock, the man who attacked more than 200 people last Sunday in Las Vegas, and killed more than 50. Now I don’t know much about Stephen Paddock. I don’t know his political views, or his religious background. I don’t know his personal life. Nonetheless I feel confident saying this: Stephen Paddock fell to the temptation of idolatry. He worshiped the idol of power, specifically the idol of violence; violence is the most direct power we can have over another human. He became obsessed with violence until it occupied his whole field of vision, and he couldn’t see anything else.

Now, this is an extreme example, of course. Most of us–God be praised–will never be tempted to this degree. But I think this still shows us the power and the danger of idolatry, that if we lose perspective on who we really are and who made us, we can easily be deceived. And so my prayer for us this week is that we will always have eyes to see and ears to hear, to see everything in our life as tools to love and serve God, to be able to hear what God is calling us to do. Amen.


Learning vs. Learning: Transforming Piles

learningWe live in a culture obsessed with learning. We are told that learning is the answer to our problems: we have to learn to love ourselves. We have to learn new skills to meet the needs of the New Economy. We have to learn how to find romance and friends in the digital era. We have to learn to live with the realities of global warming. To live, we must learn. And of course in the 21st century, the list of things to learn has grown and grown, and continue to grow exponentially. We’ll never even learn all the things we need to learn.

But like so many words that are used with frequency and enthusiasm–like, say, democracy–it seems to me that “learning” has become a superficial and vague term. What do we really mean when we talk about learning? And do we all mean the same thing all the time? If not, then all our talk about learning might just be a lot of heat generating little light. So what is learning?

Of course, a broad term like learning has many meanings, as it should. Our goal here is not to narrow it down to one “correct” one, but rather to identify some of the different meanings. Because if one person intends one meaning while another understands a different one, then they aren’t really communicating. It’s that kind of scenario, where two people are using the same word in different ways, but without realizing this, that we need to avoid. As I have said before, if I say “dog” and you understand that to mean a furry, four-footed mammal that barks, we are probably on the same page. But if you understand “dog” to mean a thing with feathers on two feet, then we probably won’t communicate well. Such a misunderstanding around the word “dog” is, of course, rather unlikely. Unfortunately, I think the word “learning” is more vulnerable to vagueness.

As I said above, “learning” has a wide diversity of meanings, connotations, and specific nuances in various contexts. One could no doubt write a book on them. Today I want to just focus on the two meanings that I think are most common, and explore the importance of the gap between them.

On the one hand, learning very often means simply adding a new bit of information to one’s memory. “Dogs are mammals.” “Ice is frozen water.” “Canada is in North America.” To learn, in this sense, is to come across a new statement that one basically just adds to the “pile” of one’s knowledge. Much of our time in school, perhaps, is spent simply adding to this pile. And it’s worth pointing out that to be considered a relatively educated person today, we have to know quite a lot. The pile has to be pretty big. We expect schoolchildren to know all kinds of facts about history, about astronomy, chemistry, physics, about music. There’s a lot to know, and so it makes sense that we spend much of our educational time adding to the pile.

So this understanding of learning is important. But I think it’s a bit limited. I’m not sure this captures everything we mean when we talk about learning.

First off, if we take a moment to really explore any of the example facts above about dogs, ice, and Canada, we will see something curious. I can’t actually add any fact to my pile. Each new fact has to already have a connection to my pile in order for me to place it there. For example, if I tell you that “Canada is in North America” but you don’t know what “Canada” or “North America” are, then this statement is meaningless to you. Likewise, if you aren’t familiar with dogs or mammals, then telling you that “dogs are mammals” doesn’t help you in the slightest. You have to already be familiar with at least one of the terms in order to really learn anything from the statement.

New information, then, always builds on old information. That may seem obvious, but it’s important, because the “pile” model of learning presented above tends to assume that learning happens simply by presenting lots of facts to students. Certain education systems prioritize funneling huge amounts of information to their students as quickly as possible. This is especially true in certain cultures or disciplines; many are aware of the high-pressure, memorization-focused education systems in places like South Korea and Japan. Interestingly, they share a lot in common with the post-graduate education of lawyers and physicians here in the US: the focus is on memorizing a huge bank of facts that can be drawn on later.

But if it’s true that each new fact can only be learned to the extent that it connects to the facts already known, such a funnel-the-facts education model may be problematic. For one thing, the order the facts are presented in would end up making a big difference. For another, unless each individual student has the same pile of facts on day one, then the facts that each student can learn will actually be different. And yet curricula are not (and, realistically, could not) be tailored to meet each individual student. It could be the case that the conditions for good learning are just too subtle for any large educational institution to meet.

But this recognition that new facts can only be learnt when they can connect to the pile of already received and recognized facts should, upon some reflection, lead to a deeper point. How does the pile begin to be formed in the first place? And is the pile really a “pile”–that is, a more or less disorganized mess of facts? Is that really how our brains keep and access memories?

These questions should lead us from considering the object of learning–new facts–to the subject or agent of learning–the student. And this shift brings us to the second major understanding of the very term “learning”, I think. Here we are not concerned with each individual fact, but rather the structure or system in which all these facts are placed–that is, the mind that knows, recalls, and uses the facts.

We already touched above on how a new fact can only be learned if at least one of its terms is familiar to the learner. But this isn’t all. If we compare two learners, one who knows each term in a sentence, but not well, and another who knows at least one of the terms very well, their learning will actually look rather different. Imagine one student who knows that North America is the continent that the US is on, but not much else about its geography, history, geology, etc. Imagine another learner who knows a lot about the human history of the continent–knows about slavery, about colonization, about the diverse cultures of Native Americans, etc. For this second person, learning that Canada is also on this continent will mean much more to them than for the first learner. Immediately, the second learner will make connections and form new questions that the first learner could not: did Canada have slavery? How did Canadian settlers interact with Native Americans? When did colonization of Canada begin? They can ask these questions because they are already familiar enough with the term “North America” to know that these questions make sense to ask. To see this point more clearly, just consider whether you would ask the same kind of questions–about slavery, colonization, etc.–if you were talking about dogs or ice. Would it make sense to ask if frozen water had human slaves, or ask about dogs’ policies on colonization? Having a deeper knowledge about a subject makes one’s learning more about that subject easier and richer.

What I think this shows us is that our “pile” of facts isn’t a pile at all. It’s a complex system of connections. We don’t really keep a sort of mental rolodex filled with trillions of abstracted and separate factual statements. Instead, we organize our knowledge around concepts, and we integrate new facts according to the concepts we already have. Instead of a long list, our concepts are like a big cloud, with each concept able to be connected to dozens of others either directly or indirectly. So if I learn that Canada is in North America, and I already have the concept “North America”, I do not simply remember the sentence “Canada is in North America.” Instead, I relate this new concept of “Canada” to my previously-received concept “North America”, and I enrich this latter concept with new meaning. I have a complex system of concepts and their connections, and new learning is integrated into this system.

So far, so good, you might say. Perhaps we now have a better way of understanding how to “funnel facts” onto the “pile”. Seeing the facts as opportunities for new conceptual connections to be made within the “pile”–which is actually not a pile but a complex system–may allow educators to better hone their techniques for delivering as many of these opportunities to connect concepts. But there’s more here. Once we see that knowledge, that thinking, is a complex system of conceptual connections, we can begin to ask questions about its shape, its structure. When we thought of our knowledge as just a “pile”, then such questions made no sense. The pile simply needed to be bigger. But once we see that knowledge is a sophisticated structure, then we have come to understand it better.

Now seeing students not as piles of facts, but rather complex systems of conceptual interrelation, we might ask whether all such structures are equally effective or healthy. We might come to see that sometimes, what we want a student to gain is not a new fact to add to the pile–er, system–but rather we may want the structure itself to change. This is learning as transformation.

If we picture concepts again, and we bring to mind a vast three-dimensional cloud of concepts which can connect to many dozens of nearby concepts, and through those connections connect to even more distant concepts, we can imagine different ways of arranging those concepts. Depending on how many connections each concept has, and which other concepts are closest to it, and the overall shape of the whole cloud, different kinds of learning might be easier or harder. For example, if each of our concepts only connects to one or two other concepts, then new learning will be more difficult. Most new facts will involve a long chain of concepts connecting and connecting. So a new statement will be murky and difficult to articulate. On the other hand, if each of our concepts has a direct connection to a dozen, or two dozen, other concepts, then new learning will be comparatively easy. The number of connections we would have to follow to arrive at new learning will be fewer, and thereby quicker, easier, and clearer.

Likewise, if we imagine our cloud as a long sort of line, perhaps only a few dozen concepts across, but thousands of concepts long, we can see that trying to move from one end to the other would take many thousands of connections. So concepts on either end of our “cloud” will be hard to connect. On the other hand, if our cloud is more spherical, than all the concepts will be relatively close to one another, and so, again, connections will be quicker and more direct.

Of course such a discussion of “shape” is basically metaphorical (whatever relationship it may have to neuroscience is completely beyond the scope of my knowledge). But I hope that this discussion captures something crucial: the way our system of concepts is arranged, organized, and connected will greatly affect how well, quickly, and clearly we can think. If the first kind of learning is simply tacking on new concepts–perhaps to the outside or periphery of the cloud–then the second kind of learning is more radical. It involves reworking, remapping the cloud so that its member concepts are closer together and more densely, richly connected. This is what we might mean by the second kind of learning, learning as transformation: sometimes, we want to teach students not what to think, but how to think better.

Of course, doing so is no easy task. But I think it’s important to keep this distinction in mind when debating K-12 educational policy, for example, or the role of colleges and universities. It is common today for many to talk about education as only worthwhile to the extent that it gives students information or skills they need to find work. But while this is no doubt very important, it may miss the second kind of learning, transformational learning. It may be the case that to tackle some of the issues that will be most pressing for us in the 21st century, we humans will have to not just add facts to the pile, but rather learn new ways to think. It may be also be the case that we will have to re-learn older ways of thinking that have been lost over the past few centuries if we want to discuss certain topics–ethics and theology come to mind.

In any event, my goal is not to necessarily privilege one kind of learning over the other–both are important–but to stress that if we are going to discuss or debate something as important as learning, we need to make sure we are really talking about the same thing. Trying to talk with unclear terms is like measuring in inches and then building in centimeters: a confusing mess, and sometimes even a disaster.


Life’s a Lap is now Noisy Gong

cropped-stfranciswithlambHello, folks! Just a quick housekeeping announcement: For those of you who have read my site before, you may notice that it has a new name. I blogged at Life’s a Lap for many years, but recently changed the name to Noisy Gong. All posts, old and new, will be here (and you may have noticed that the old url redirects here as well). Thanks for reading!

Defining Democracy

democracyWhenever we talk to one another, we use words. And for those words to communicate what we intend, they have to have a more-or-less agreed upon meaning. If I say “dog” and you picture a furry creature with four legs that barks, then we can move forward with our conversation. But if instead you picture a two-footed, winged creature covered in feathers, our conversation will quickly break down. To use a language is to participate in a community of meaning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that words each have some complete, narrow definition. The word “dog” covers a nearly infinite number of possible creatures, from wolves to chihuahuas, and is also used figuratively to refer to anything from pained feet (“my dogs are really barking!”) to untrustworthy men (“he’s such a dog!”). Even so, the word can’t just mean anything, because in that case it would actually mean nothing at all. The boundaries that contain a word’s possible meanings are the very structure upon which our meaningful speech and writing are based.

This means that an ambiguous word is not very helpful to us. Indeed, most of us know immediately that vagueness is the enemy of clear communication. And yet, to the extent that we recognize vagueness, it isn’t much of a threat. If, for example, I say “so then I told him to leave me alone”, and we aren’t sure who “him” refers to, we know to ask, and thereby clarify the meaning of the sentence. Having recognized this vagueness, we can resolve it, and clarify our communication. So it is unrecognized vagueness that is the true enemy of clear communication. If two people are using the same word to mean different things–and neither of them realizes it–then no real communication will happen. Indeed, both people will simply be speaking past each other, rather than to each other.

This kind of hidden vagueness afflicts more of our communication than I think we’d like to admit, but today I’d like to just focus on how this vagueness afflicts one word in particular: Democracy. This is a word whose meaning we need to hunt down because it is both ubiquitous and powerful. It’s a keystone in much of our political, social, and cultural life. And yet I think it often means very different things to different people.

Although I am sure there are many different ways of understanding democracy, for now I’d like to focus on the two meanings that I think are most common, and most formative to our political culture.

The first meaning is something like this: democracy means a system of government in which the government interferes with individual life as little as possible (“The best government is that government which governs least.”) In this understanding, democracy is about removing the barriers that impede individuals from living autonomously. Most notably, advocates of this kind of democracy tend to focus on ensuring that individuals can make decisions about their private property with as little interference as possible. Indeed, this vision of the democratic, which is historically linked to small-“r” republicanism, we might call “libertarian democracy” (though of course this adjective introduces its own vagueness). This approach understands democracy as simply releasing the power of property-owners to maximize their own welfare.

It’s important to see that while advocates for this understanding of democracy definitely want to limit the control the government has over them–i.e. kings are seen as very bad–they are at the same time generally very interested in maintaining their control over other people. Profiting off of private property always involves efficiently using the labor of other people. Much of the freedom that advocates of libertarian democracy want is the freedom to employ labor as cheaply as possible. This is how one gains the economic means to live prosperously. This is why, seemingly paradoxically, this vision of democracy frequently come hand-in-hand with slavery. This relationship is evident both in ancient examples of this mode of democracy (e.g. Athens and Republican Rome) but of course, also in democracy as it was envisioned by the founders of the United States.

In short, libertarian democracy seeks to limit the control the government has over property owners in order to give those property owners maximum ability to exercise control over others–that is, labor. This vision of democracy is probably the more dominant in American culture; the fetish for constantly minimizing taxes, even among working-class people, speaks to the power of this vision. As John Steinbeck (maybe) said, “…the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We all seem to want to limit government’s control over us, so that we can use our skills, power, and connections to exploit each other. Because so many of us understand democracy in this way, we have a hard time imagining what else it might mean. But in truth, there is at least one other major tradition of understanding what it means to believe in democracy.

The libertarian vision of democracy is focused on releasing the individual (or at least some individuals) from any kind of control, restriction, or oversight from the state. The logic of this vision of democracy is perhaps best glimpsed in the work of Ayn Rand, whose political philosophy amounts to a fetishization of the individual’s will. Upon a moment of reflection, though, this might seem odd. Doesn’t the very term “democracy” come from two Greek words, demos, meaning “people”, and the root kratia, meaning “to rule”? If so, then at first glance, democracy seems as if it should be focused not on the arbitrary autonomy of any individual, but rather on the will of the people more or less as a whole.

Indeed, this understanding of democracy is not absent from American political life. It is perhaps most clearly seen in two examples: first, whenever we talk about the importance of majority rule, and second, in the fact that the motto of the United States originally was the Latin phrase E pluribuis unum: “Out of the many, one.” These elements of our political thought point to this different, second conception of democracy. Instead of understanding democracy negatively as a set of limitations on government, meant to free individual (property owners) from any interference, this vision of democracy understands the democratic impulse as the desire to create a prosperous, harmonious, and just community. Understood this way, an individual may actually believe that it is his or her belief in democracy that should lead them to accept restrictions or discipline by the community and government. This is at the heart of the celebration of majority rule: if someone feels the need to uphold a law, value, or goal that they do not personally hold, but which the community has decided upon according to a democratic process, then this community-focused vision of democracy is in action.

We might call this second understanding of democracy “social democracy”, though like the term “libertarian democracy”, this term comes with its own vagueness, as well as a set of assumptions and biases that may cloud, rather than clarify, our meaning. This vision of democracy may not always be mutually exclusive with its libertarian counterpart, but there will often be tension between them. To cite just one example, the libertarian understanding of democracy will likely lead to one rejecting the idea of single payer healthcare as a violation of democratic principles, because it will involve taxing property owners to provide healthcare for others. However, someone who asserts a social democratic understanding will draw the exact opposite conclusion: since government guarantees for healthcare are not only hugely popular, but also help to ensure a prosperous, harmonious, and just community, support for such a measure will be seen as necessary for anyone committed to democratic principles.

What’s crucial to see here is that our public discussions and debates are not enriched by arguments in which each side simply asserts “democracy” at each other. Since each side actually means something rather different when they utter this word, no real communication is happening in this case. It is only once we explore what this word means for each of the groups using it that we can see the real divide.  Once we can see this, we are armed against overly simplistic debates in which two sides simply denounce each other as insufficiently democratic. Exploring the details of what each of us means by the word “democracy” allows us to get the fundamental values that are really motivating us. For any real political discussion to happen, this is essential.

Contained within discussions and debates about democracy is a deeper conflict between conflicting priorities: individual autonomy, on the one hand, and the general welfare, on the other. The point is not that one of these is wholly good and the other wholly bad, but that each of them is good in some way and to some extent. Crafting a political system is about weighing the relatively value of each, and admitting that we may have to make trade-offs in balancing which value we are pursuing. Seeing this allows us to perceive the difficult complexity of our political and economic life, and allows us to bring to the surface the real conflicts, while avoiding long-winded debates about the purely superficial.

Between Reality and Reality: Tom Whyman’s Truncated Reasoning

cavePlato.jpgIn a recent article published in The Baffler, Tom Whyman suggests that we should not be as opposed to the “post-truth” era that so many insist is dawning upon us in the age of Trump and Brexit. Indeed, Whyman insists that what many consider the indubitable truth is really nothing more than a set of claims that benefits a small empowered group at the expense of the majority of humanity (that is, an ideology.) And in pointing out that what is presented as truth is often nothing more than an attempt to deceive exploited people so that they cannot even admit that they are exploited–much less to actively resist that exploitation–I think that Whyman offers a valuable reflection.

However, the way that he discusses the term “reality” raises a number of concerns for me, and points to a serious problem that I think has infected a lot of contemporary discourse. Perhaps the most offending passage comes with the sixth paragraph as Whyman discusses the work of Herbert Marcuse:

For Marcuse, “reality” is constructed by means of the Freudian reality principle, through which the infant psyche learns to delay gratification in response to the fact of scarcity. This process forges the ego from a portion of the id, and as the infant develops it leads in turn to the formation of the superego, in the first instance through the child’s dependence on its parents. Over time, the superego absorbs “a number of societal and cultural influences,” causing it to “coagulate” into “the representative of established morality.” The superego ends up enforcing the demands of what Marcuse calls the “performance principle,” which is his term for the “prevailing historical form” of the reality principle. In short: the superego, one’s “conscience,” acts to enforce prevailing social norms.

On the one hand, this strikes me as a wonderfully concise synopsis of Marcuse’s central point (not being a scholar of Marcuse, I can’t vouch for its accuracy–but as someone interested in social theory, it strikes me as insightful and useful). But the way in which Whyman uses the term”reality” here immediately caused me consternation (I should be clear that I do not know whether this terminological vagueness is present in Marcuse or whether this is Whyman’s own addition.)

Whyman presents two options for understanding reality: the first is the more common idea, that reality describes that set of existing circumstances which have their existence or being independent from any mind and which constrain human thought and action. Whyman questions this conception by claiming that what is often presented as reality is really little more than slick propaganda:

Imagine if it wasn’t really “true” that your landlord owned your flat, and you could stay indefinitely without paying rent. Imagine if it wasn’t “true” that your boss was paying you to fulfil any particular duties at work, and you could spend your time there playfully doing whatever. Imagine if the laws of physics didn’t bind you, and you could simply flap your arms and fly to the stars.

The first “alternate reality” he presents is really a critique of the concept of property–Whyman is suggesting, I think, that we could create a different set of social relations, a different way to decide how to disburse scarce resources. Such a claim need not question the idea of reality in general, but simply suggests that the building blocks of the real can–and should–be rearranged to meet human needs.

The second alternative above, however, seems to me to move in a different direction. Here, Whyman seems to be moving from the revolutionary towards the utopian. And in the final suggestion, he moves towards science fiction. And it is this juxtaposition that is concerning. That Whyman seems to think that to question reality in the first sense is no different from questioning it in the second or third suggests a seriously deficient conceptual analysis on his part. It seems that, fundamentally, he is working with a binary, discrete understanding of the term “reality”–either reality is just what those in power says it is, or it’s nothing at all. This warped and overly simplistic way of thinking, which strikes me as a sort of metastasis of the rule of the excluded middle, renders Whyman’s piece, which begins with such a worthwhile impetus, deeply misleading.

For Whyman, the options before us are stark and irreducible: we can either accept the status quo, or commit to a Quixotian project of simply fantasizing our way out of difficulty. What is perhaps most perplexing about this suggestion is how thoroughly un-Marxist it is. Whyman suggests that Marcuse offers the prefect synthesis for Marx and Freud, but for Marx, the economic base was, and would always be, the reality which defined the political and cultural options that humanity could truly act on (the possible “superstructures”). By de-coupling Marx from this realism, we get an odd creature, a sort of inverse, positive-thinking ersatz Marxism that strikes me as simply an opium of the people for the 21st-century: imagine what you want and ignore your material circumstances.

What is necessary here is not to marshal better arguments for one of the two sides that Whyman presents, but rather to realize that the very structure of argumentation that he offers is mistaken: there are more than two options on the table. We can both affirm that there is a reality which constrains us and yet also affirm that this reality is flexible enough to yield a more human and liberative society. If we begin by accepting the framework that Whyman offers, however, such a possibility is foreclosed upon before we can even consider it.

Most of all, what is needed is sound conceptual analysis–sustained reflection on the terms we use–and then conceptual synthesis–recognition of the way in which our understanding of any given concept shapes the way we understand concepts related to it. By simply employing our terms without reflecting on them, critiquing them, and developing them–and this is what I think Whyman does in this piece–we understand little and achieve nothing. It’s far too easy to allow a dichotomous mode of thinking to colonize our imagination. Whyman seems to engage in a simplistic, knee-jerk reasoning: the inverse of my opponent’s position must be true. But in fact, the inverse of my opponent’s position is awfully similar to my opponent’s position, just turned inside-out; in seeking freedom from oppression and exploitation, we actually reproduce its form even if we negate its content. What is needed is something genuinely different.

I hope to have shown above the error in Whyman’s mode of reasoning; wanting to explore the ways in which public discussions of truth and reality often offer only propaganda, he short-circuits the full discussion before it can even begin. Though he offers the beginning of a cogent critique, that critique never develops, since what he offers in place of what he opposes is little more than its negative-image. What would greatly enrich his argument is simply a less-vague sense of the word “reality”. Whyman employs this term without adjective or qualification, and this leads to a problem for the reader: what, exactly, does Whyman mean by this word?

On the one hand, it seems that at times he means by “reality” something more like “perceived reality”; that is, he seems to be pointing out that how things actually are and how they may seem to any particular observer can be quite different. On its face, I think this is hardly even controversial. A more stringent and perhaps more controversial–but still, I think, very sound–claim would go slightly further: since the reality discussed by any individual or community is always reality as perceived by that individual or community, the reality we talk about can never be reality-as such. This will ruffle some feathers, no doubt, but it’s a position well-attested by a range of philosophers: not only Immanuel Kant, C.S. Peirce, Edmund Husserl, and Emmanuel Levinas–but also a deeper lineage of critical thought that stretches back to the Stoics.

Understood in this way, reality–the “real” reality–is always, ultimately, beyond our grasp to fully determine. But, importantly, this is not the same thing as saying that reality is somehow unreal or utterly absent. It is important to be able to critique our perceptions of reality–and even to go as far as to realize the radical implications of this–without allowing this critique to collapse into a naive anti-realism. Unfortunately, the history of philosophy from the late-19th century on shows that there is a lineage of thought that seems to make precisely this error, confusing the unavailability of any total certainty about reality with the conclusion that reality must simply be absent, false, and meaningless in any sense.

Thus, Whyman seems to counter what we might call call a naive perceptual-realism–“what I see just is real”–with the aforementioned naive anti-realism–“since what I see isn’t necessarily the real, there must be no real”. Presented this way, I hope it is not hard to see how the latter position is really just the inverse of the former; both take perception itself as the unquestioned starting-point. But the impact of postmodern thought should be to question perception, not reality as such. Whyman ultimately fails to do this, as far as I can see, and thus falls into a trap that seems to have befuddled many other thinkers (Nietzsche, Sartre, and Boudrillard all come to mind as probable examples, though of course this claim is not without controversy).

But real and valuable critique of the ways in which the perceived reality of the powerful is used to oppress others can only come about if we get comfortable occupying the awkward middle place between these two naivetes. We must be able to both recognize that our perception fails to meet reality as it is, and yet also admit that there is some reality that nonetheless constrains us, even if determining its full details remains beyond our ability (for a technical approach to appreciating this, the first third of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is of immense, if at times opaque, value). Living in this space will begin to show us new ways of thinking about our world and ourselves, and will also begin to reveal new options for how to organize our common life. Anything less is simply to repeat the old ways while calling them new.