Wednesday, May 5, 2021

I Believe With Complete Faith That All Students Can Learn

I am about to start work on a teaching credential at an Evangelical college. Thankfully, they have not asked me to confirm that I have undergone a personal experience of being saved. Reading through their course material, I have discovered that they do insist that a teacher must believe that all students can learn. I am curious as to what that is supposed to mean.

To use an analogy from Christian theology. Does a teacher have to follow Origen, who believed that everyone, including Satan, could be "taught?" Can someone be a "Calvinist" and believe in double prelapsarian predestination that God decided before the world was even created who is going to pass my class. God's ways are mysterious and outside our comprehension so we do not know who will pass and who will fail? Our Calvinist teacher would have to treat every student as if they could pass even though he believes that most of them will fail. To further the analogy, the purpose of Calvinist teaching would be to make sure that, when some students inevitably fail, they will not have an excuse to complain. They were given every opportunity to succeed and the only reason they did not was because of their own shortcomings. Perhaps my school follows a John Wesley approach that teachers should work with the non-elect to bridge that gap to passing. As a tutor, this was largely the attitude I took as to my role.

My position is that I do not honestly know if every student can succeed. If a student walks into my class, though, my job is to try to help. I am not allowed to give up on a student and must be willing to fight for them. A practical implication of this is that I would not actively lobby the administration to have a student removed nor would I tell a student that they should have themselves transferred to a lower class.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Fall of Community and the Rise of Secular Modernity

Previously, I criticized C. S. Lewis for his argument that modernity took away people's ability to judge objective truths and make life-changing positions because they believed that something was true. What I believe is missing from that argument is the role of community. Modernity is important in the rise of secularism not because people stopped judging arguments objectively, they never were good at that in the first place, but that modernity broke down traditional community authority. This flipped the incentives when it came to religion. Where once people's lived experiences made it almost impossible not to be at least somewhat religious, now people live in a secular reality that makes it quite difficult for them to be religious. 

The importance of communal authority is most obvious when dealing with Judaism as the Jewish experience with modernity (at least in Europe) involved fairly clear-cut moments where communal authority broke down. Jews went from being members of their local kehilla to being citizens of a country, leading to rapid secularization during the following generation. The Christian experience of modernity provides fewer clean breaks with religious authority, the French and Russian Revolutions being the obvious exceptions. That being said, the practical implications of the modern breakdown of community, once it happened, are relevant to Christians as well.  

It is the combination of community and ideas that forces people to make life-altering decisions. If you grow up within a particular faith community, you might be very smart and be able to come up with all kinds of challenging arguments against your religion but as long as an alternative community with a superior doctrine then it is unlikely for a formal break to happen. One thinks of the tragic life of Uriel da Costa, who fled Catholic Portugal only to find that the rabbinic Judaism of Amsterdam did not suit him either. He found himself caught in a cycle of being excommunicated for heresy and humiliating himself in order to get the community to take him back. Eventually, he committed suicide. Most people are going to avoid such a fate by accepting the parts of their religion they can accept while quietly placing anything else as beyond their understanding. 

Take away the sense of a religious community and two things happen. One, our person likely will have encountered an anti-religious ideology with which to argue against any argument for religion we might wish to make. Two, even if you get past his arguments, as long as our person has no religious community, your arguments for religion will never get past the level of interesting theory that does not need to be put into practice. Before modernity, it was unbelief that had to get past people's lived experiences and, as such, even the best arguments against religion could be dismissed as interesting theories with no relevance to "reality." Now it is religion that has to scale that wall of people's lived experience in a secular world where the a priori assumptions of the game are fixed against religion.  

The problem of community helps us understand the challenge of science and other academic disciplines. For many people, science offers a kind of objective truth. Even if particular claims of science can be refuted, the scientific method carries authority as something against which other truths are going to be judged. It is very easy to make a convincing case for Genesis if there are no ready alternatives competing for the person's attention. Introduce evolution and the mere fact that it exists as an alternative explanation makes it harder to accept Genesis as an absolute. This becomes all the more so once we accept evolution as part of science and come to see science as fundamental to how we understand the world.  

From this perspective, it does not matter if I reconcile Genesis with evolution. The moment dinosaurs living millions of years ago becomes something to take more seriously than a literal Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, my religion is going to be critically hobbled. As my brain becomes filled with all sorts of things from science, math, and history that I honestly believe in at the bottom of my heart, the religious truths I hold are going to become pushed aside to the point when, even if they are not rejected, they become relativized to the point that it will not be able to make absolute claims over my actions. The only way to escape this trap is to undermine the very authority of the academic disciplines as a means of making any claims regarding even physical reality.   

Keep in mind that most people, myself included, are not professional scientists. Even among professional scientists, the number of people who are in a position to directly evaluate the case for evolution is going to be small. It is likely that there are only a few thousand such people on the planet. Everyone else is forced to accept what such people say as a matter of faith. This is going to come down to a question of whose authority are you going to accept. If you are part of a religious thought structure then it is easy to reject evolution. Scientists are just a bunch of power-hungry fools trying to convince people to reject the obvious truth of creation. This is in contrast to our wise and virtuous gedolim (or whatever your religious leaders like to call themselves). Once this is your a priori, it is easy to find evidence to justify this belief. The moment that science becomes the basis of your lived reality then the script flips and it becomes easy to dismiss any objections to evolution as religious backwardness.   

To be clear, when I talk about secularism, I do not necessarily mean that people become outright atheists. Religion can still survive as a social hobby that people attend to on a weekly basis. This does not change the fact that such people still live in a secular reality. Religion, no longer the full-time live experience, is pushed to the margins with little hope of reaching the next generation let alone the wider society. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Golden Calf (The Original One)


This is an idea that has been sitting around in my head for a while. It seemed like the appropriate week to do it. I am sure I could have done a better job but for now here is my retelling of the Gold Calf. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Something to Yell At: R. Avigdor Miller’s Books and Audiocassettes

The most insulting thing my older brother has ever said to me was that he thought I would like R. Avigdor Miller (1908-2001). I had no idea who R. Miller was at the time so I took no offense. My brother explained that R. Miller was not his personal taste but a lot of people at his yeshiva liked him and I might as well. Sometime later, when I started high school at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, I was at a local seforim store buying school books when I came across a shelf of R. Miller books. I picked up one of them, Awake My Glory. I got back to my room and eagerly opened the book. To my horror, I discovered that I had spent $10 on a rant about the evils of atheism, evolution, Christianity, Zionism, and Reform Judaism. Eager to demonstrate the economic principle of loss aversion, I did not stop at the introduction, which set out R. Miller’s agenda. (To his credit, one could never have accused R. Miller of lacking clarity or of trying to hide his agenda.) Instead, I read the entire book. Not satisfied with that, and perhaps desirous of raising my blood pressure to new heights, I soon discovered that Torah Vodaath had a lending audio cassette library with R. Miller’s lectures. I started listening to them diligently to yell at them. This was still in the early days of the internet so the ethos of “someone on the internet is wrong” was still new to my teenage self.

I am sure I could write a book on the topic of why R. Miller was wrong and when I was a teenager, I dreamed of doing so. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate the limits of trying to argue against people like R. Miller. His books are readily available within the Haredi community and you can read them for yourself. You can also find clips of him speaking on YouTube. He had a rather distinctive voice. I use it as the basis for Professor Pippy Poopypants from Captain Underpants and other such characters when reading to my kids. Either you are going to be repulsed by R. Miller, in which case you hardly need a book by me, or you are not, in which case there is something deeply wrong with you and nothing I can write is going to fix that. My interest here is to explore why it was that I came to passionately loath R. Miller almost instantly even as it was hardly obvious that I would have such a reaction.

I was a yeshiva kid, R. Miller’s target audience, and my own brother thought I was the kind of person who would like R. Miller. I liked being right and had little patience for people who disagreed with me. It was around this time that I discovered Rush Limbaugh, who my teenage self found to be perfectly congenial. So, what was it about R. Miller that I found so repulsive? I suspect it was the fact that R. Miller blatantly espoused a worldview in which people like him were good and the entire rest of the world was bad without the cover of telling stories that only implied that.   

The most important thing you need to understand about my religious background is that I was raised Haredi but in Columbus, OH, where my father was a rabbi, and in McKeesport, PA, in my grandfather of blessed memory’s shul. While my father saw his “home planet” as Haredi New York, he was not raised in that world and did not raise his children there either. I spent the school year in Columbus Torah Academy where most kids were not Orthodox and spent the summer in Haredi summer camps like Camp Torah Vodaath and later, after it closed, at Camp Rayim. I was raised with American culture, including movies, television, and regular trips to the public library.

There is an irony in this as it was my father, and not his Haredi friends from his “home planet” who was being traditional. My father was raised this way and so were his friends, even those who lived in New York. It was not practical, in the 1950s and 60s to raise children any other way. There was essentially no Orthodox publishing or music industry. Parents had no choice but to allow their kids to consume American culture, which was less obviously problematic at the time anyway. Also, keep in mind that the post-war generation was still focused on entering the middle-class and gaining social acceptance for themselves. Walling oneself off from American culture was simply not an option for them.   

It was my father’s friends who changed. They made the decision, under the influence of people like R. Miller, to raise the children of my generation without American culture. They had the luxury of living in Haredi enclaves and no longer having to worry about what the gentile neighbors might think. They had Artscroll, Feldheim, Suki & Ding, R. Shmuel Kunda, Mordechai Ben David, and Avraham Fried to raise their kids. It was no longer necessary to take the chance of exposing kids to secular books let alone movies and television so those things could be disposed of. I find Haredi rabbis to be quite open about this, apologizing for the “leniency” of their parent’s generation as something necessary under the circumstances but no longer.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the early educational value of many Haredi audiocassettes produced for my generation. Thanks to my exposure to Orthodox media, Jewish studies in kindergarten and first grade were largely a waste of my time. Like any good cultural education, Orthodox media gave me the basics of Jewish life without my having to be conscious of learning it. This is particularly useful for keeping people in the fold. It is difficult to reject things that you never consciously learned in the first place. What you never consciously learned is simply what “normal” people do.

Growing up in Columbus, OH listening to religious story tapes and only actually being in Haredi society during the summer, it was easy to not realize that a major culture gap existed. An incident that does stick out in my mind was when I stormed off from the dining room table because my bunkmates were using the n-word and making racist jokes. The head-counsellor, one of my father’s best friends, supported me and said that the kids were out of line. He assured me that he was raised not to use such terms. What I took from this encounter was that the yeshiva system was about producing people like me and that my bunkmates were jerks whose values did not reflect the system in which they and not I lived.

What I did not consider at the time was the protentional Faustian bargain the head counsellor and the Haredim of his generation were making with my generation. If you had told him that the price of raising non-racist kids was that these kids would not be religious, would he be so quick to oppose racism? It was not so farfetched to believe that there is an inverse relationship between Jewish kids being raised with a strong subconscious distaste for non-Jews and the religious drop-out rate. As an inner-city black person, the “schwartze,” was a pretty useful stand-in for not-Jewish and certainly not-Haredi, so why not use him as the embodiment of what you were trying to oppose.

Being Haredi is hard. What can they offer kids to make up for the long school hours, and the forgoing of American culture? In return, kids can be rude to secular teachers and make racist jokes about black people. To be clear, it is not that anyone ever openly made this argument. It is simply a matter of following the incentives. If you have the kind of society you would expect from such an agreement then it becomes highly plausible to imagine that, at the very least, this agreement has been made subconsciously.

The camp culture was filled with more subtle forms of hate that I failed to appreciate at the time. We were fed a steady diet of stories in which Catholic priests kidnapped Jewish children in order to force them to convert to Christianity or murdered Christian children to set up blood libels. One of the rabbis gave his priest villains the name Father Shmutz (dirt). The Golem was a popular character in the stories I heard at camp. The nuance of defending the Jewish community against anti-Semites was often lost. One example I remember had a golem going into a church to beat up Christians in modern-day America. For those trying to understand this sensibility, I recommend R. Gershon Winkler’s Golem of Prague, one of my favorite Jewish books growing up. The villainous priest, Thaddeus, is obscenely over the top. Murdering a Christian for the purposes of framing the Jews is the culmination of a streak of villainous deeds. It is rather ironic that Haredim would turn the blood libel around and use it against Christians.

During the year, the head counselor put out a radio show called Chassidic Tales of Inspiration. He sent us a case of audio cassettes of the show for my older brother’s bar mitzvah. My younger brother and I listened to them to death and could quote long passages from our favorite stories. To the head counselor’s credit, he really was a fantastic storyteller and he was not even the best at camp. That being said, looking back, there was some really problematic material. For example, one of the stories has a Father Francois murder a Christian child in order to set up a blood libel. He gets caught by the not very Jewish trope of being forced to shake the corpse’s hand which then does not let go. The head counselor told this story not to a few friends after getting drunk on Purim but on the radio as if anti-Semites do not exist and do not pay attention to Jewish media with the intent of making the point that Jews hate Christians.  

Before anyone walks away with the impression that Haredi summer camps are simple hate fests, it should be stated that this head counselor was one of the most thoroughly decent, loving, not hateful people that I have ever met. I am positive that, as with racism, he would have denounced any attempt to use these anti-Christian stories as the basis for interacting with actual Christians. He was not trying to convince us to hurt Christians or even to hate them. That being said, as with racism, teaching us to not hate Christians was certainly not his priority. Parents were not paying good money to send their kids to camp so that they could become more tolerant of non-Jews. If hating non-Jews was a side effect of an educational system designed to make sure that, at a deep gut check level, there would be no plausible alternative to Haredi Judaism then so be it. All the more so if the medium of story-telling allowed him to Pontius Pilate himself of all responsibility. (If you do not know who Pontius Pilate was, you have clearly never read the New Testament and are a terrible Jew.)   

That is what is so dangerous about stories. They are not inherently normative, telling us what we should do, so you cannot say that a story teaches people to do certain things. For example, it would be the height of absurdity to claim that World War II era Looney Tunes cartoons with Bugs Bunny killing Japanese soldiers teaches people to kill their Japanese neighbors in the twenty-first century. And yet stories do have lessons even as their authors can always deny them. Furthermore, stories can become even more pernicious when you consciously disbelieve the message. It becomes all the easier to miss how the subconscious still believes. You cannot rationally escape a belief system that you never reasoned yourself into in the first place.   

My father sent my older brother to the Yeshiva of Scranton and then to South Bend. He was thrown out of both of them for refusing to comply with school restrictions on secular books and TV. By the time I was ready for high school, he was already leaving Orthodoxy. My father was determined not to repeat the same mistakes with me. He, therefore, sent me to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, his and my grandfather’s alma mater. By the time I arrived in the Fall of 1997, there were only a few high schoolers in the dorm. This meant that the school would not be policing me like a regular yeshiva high school student and I would be able to read secular books without interference. In fact, the dorm counselor wrote me a note so I could get a library card from the Brooklyn Public Library.

As I mentioned at the beginning, it was at this point in my life that I discovered R. Miller.  He did not tell stories with a particular set of Jewish values to be simultaneously consciously ignored and subconsciously accepted as an inarguable reality of how the world works. Instead, R. Miller came right out with his ideology. It is not as if I were an atheist, a Christian or a Reform Jew. I was pretty neutral then about evolution and my Zionism was, as it still is, more pragmatic than principled yet I could not shake the sense that I, as a practicing Jew who valued general culture, was R. Miller’s real target. It is not as if atheists, Christians, or non-Orthodox Jews were ever likely to read his books.

Once I became alerted to R. Miller's existence, I began to notice his pernicious existence all over the place. It was not just that his lecture tapes were being lent out by the yeshiva. An older friend, with whom I studied with on a nightly basis, informed me that he attended R. Miller’s weekly lectures. I do regret that I never took advantage of the opportunity to join him and contented myself with yelling at his tapes. I am sure I could have found it in myself to behave myself in a public setting. One of the rabbis recommended R. Miller to me when I got into a theological discussion with him, unaware that I already detested the man.

As with the head counselor, I am willing to give R. Miller’s fans at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath the benefit of the doubt. When I asked people about R. Miller’s claim that Zionists and other secular Jews were responsible for the Holocaust or his willingness to make sweeping general statements about entire groups based on the problematic statements and actions of some of its members, they acknowledged that R. Miller said things that were out of line. He was a zealous person and the important thing to take from him was not to cherry-pick his most extreme claims but to focus on the larger picture, his love for God, the Jewish people, and his willingness to unapologetically say things that other people would not. Notice how that last statement implicitly defends R. Miller most troublesome statements even as it pretends to distance itself from them.

As with black jokes and blood libeling priests, the point was never really to convince us that non-Orthodox Jews caused the Holocaust. Rather it was to inculcate us with a sense of disgust to the non-religious. The fact that we did not really blame them for the Holocaust would simply make it difficult for us to locate that disgust with such a claim and we would conclude that our opposition was simply based on the “facts.” If some kids might go over the deep end and take these claims literally, the rabbis could deny any responsibility.

I did not last long at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. This was not the fault of the administration, which treated me with great indulgence. I look back on my time at Torah Vodaath with great fondness. I certainly cannot blame R. Miller as he never even met me. That being said, my lack of friendships with anyone my own age took its toll on me emotionally and I became clinically depressed. Later on in life, I would be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Coming into an awareness that society was not designed for someone like me certainly did not help my mental wellbeing. By January my father had to bring me home. For the rest of high school, I attended the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, MD where my parents had just moved.

Even here, I could not escape the specter of R. Miller. Our Jewish History class used him as a textbook. As a historian, R. Miller functioned as a kind of Haredi version of the 1619 Project in which occasionally legitimate skepticism regarding mainstream sources was used as cover for the wholesale acceptance of rabbinic sources.

There is an important lesson here about skepticism. Skepticism and belief are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. To be skeptical about something most always mean skeptical in contrast to something else. I take science and the historical method very seriously as tools for understanding the world. This is what allows me to treat the Haredi version of reality with skepticism as lacking by comparison. Without such a sincere belief in the methods of science and history, I would probably be one of those people who actually like R. Miller.  

As I have gotten older, I have mellowed a bit regarding R. Miller. This is strange because I am significantly to the left religiously now than I was as a teenager. I still consider myself religiously observant. This is not the case with my older brother, who abandoned orthodoxy during high school. The biggest difference between us was that none of the rabbis I encountered over the course of my education ever truly wronged me. I respected their decency and their kindness to me even as I disagreed with them about theology. It was R. Miller who made me aware that I was not really part of the Haredi world. Without him, I could have continued for far longer to focus on how much I personally liked and respected my father’s friends from his home planet (in contrast to most of the kids my age) and only hear what I wanted to hear about their theology. In this sense, R. Miller deserves credit for his honesty and willingness to openly say things that most people in the Haredi world had the good sense not to say. If I came to despise the man personally, despite never actually meeting him, that was me and my need for the Haredi world to be something to serve my needs, something it was never designed to do.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Which Army Is Supposed to Have the Bad Guys?


In recent posts, I have talked about the Karate Kid series and how narratives can subtly set up good guys and bad guys. Fictional narratives are all the more effective at making people prejudiced because there is no arguing people out of it as there never was an argument in the first place. All that we have is a work of fiction. I think it worthwhile, therefore to point out how Karate Kid uses this technique against the United States military. 

It is not a major plot point and it is certainly easy to miss if you are not paying close attention but the villain John Kreese is a Vietnam War veteran. It is alluded to in the first film and provides the connection to his corrupt businessman buddy from the third film. In the TV series, we get some flashbacks to Vietnam. This would not be a big deal in of itself. Villains, like everyone else, need to come from somewhere and have some kind of backstory. 

I am hardly going to claim that all people in the American military are good or that all of America's wars have been just. That being said, Mr. Miyagi's backstory is that he was in the Imperial Japanese army during World War II. He even puts on his Japanese uniform. It is a funny scene with Miyagi getting drunk and it adds a lot to his character, indicating that, underneath his quirky personality, lies a tragedy. 

Clearly, not every Japanese soldier during World War II was a mass murderer. We have no reason to assume that Miyagi was anything other than a young man serving his country honorably and doing his duty. That being said, the Japanese army did commit war crimes almost on par with that of the Nazis. There is no way that the film could have gotten away with making Miyagi a veteran of the Wehrmacht. You could make all the personal apologies for the young German Miyagi you want but audiences would still have lost their sympathy for him. 

Obviously, no one involved in making the series is actually claiming something so absurd as Japan fighting World War II, which included invading Vietnam, was less immoral than the United States in Vietnam. That being said, a seed is planted in the audience. It is all the more powerful because no argument is being made. Keep up a steady diet of this poisonous claim from other films, combined with the failure to actually teach history, and you can produce a society of people who cannot imagine atrocities committed by anyone other than Americans or at least white Europeans. Did the Japanese army murder millions of people? No, Japanese soldiers were cute karate people like Miyagi. The United States army, by contrast, sent a bunch of Kreeses to Vietnam to oppress civilians.    

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Screwtape's Modernity and the Failure of Objective Belief

At the beginning of C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape castigates his nephew Wormwood for trying to get his patient to read texts that argue against the existence of God.

That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. but what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false,' but as 'academic' or 'practical,' 'outworn' or 'contemporary,' 'conventional' or 'ruthless.'


By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. (Letter I)

From this perspective, modernity created a major shift in how people think. Beforehand, it was assumed that there was an objective truth in which if something is true and we find ourselves living lives that are not keeping with that truth, we must accept that we are living the Wrong way and must change ourselves so that we live according to the Truth. We moderns, though, have been trained to accept things as true from a certain point of view. Something can be true for some people and in some places and not in others. 

The practical implication of this for anyone in Christian or any other kind of outreach is that you can have the best arguments in the world and it still will not help until you have forced the person to acknowledge that there really are objective truths that we must believe accept in ways that affect how we live. It is not even that people will disagree with you. Instead, as subjectivists, people will say that your beliefs are very nice for you and they are glad you find it meaningful but they are going to go live their lives as they wish to find their own meaning. 

This is what lies behind Lewis' famous Trilemma. His point was not that Jesus was God, which Lewis certainly believed, but that you cannot think of him simply as a great moral teacher like Socrates to be admired but not necessarily listened to on any particular issue. Either Jesus was someone much greater or much less than Socrates. If he is worth paying attention at all, he must become the basis for your life.   

Think of the theory that smoking causes lung cancer.  It makes no sense to talk about the elegance or the noble sentiments of the theory. Either the theory is true in which case I had better quit smoking at the risk of my health or it is a wicked conspiracy to destroy innocent tobacco companies. In the same sense, we might say that either a certain nice Jewish preacher arose from the dead in first-century CE Judea and therefore, I need to radically change my life for the sake of my immortal soul or Christianity is one of the greatest and most diabolical frauds in all of human history. Modern secularism has gained its dominant position not because it was able to convince people that Christianity was the latter but because it was able to convince people that the question of Christian truth did not really matter, robbing Christianity of its ability to have meaningful say in how even nominal Christians lived their lives.  

The advantage of this interpretation of modern secularism is that it calls attention to the fact that what has happened has not been the masses of people reading science books and becoming convinced atheists. The Enlightenment caused very few people, outside of intellectual circles, to reject Christianity and that nineteenth-century Europe was actually a more religious place than medieval Europe. Atheism, outside of academic circles, remains rare even as religious observance continues to plummet. Most people remain vaguely spiritual even as they eschew the notion of belonging to a formal religion that can demand specific behaviors. 

My problem with Lewis' theory of secularism is that I am skeptical about the claim the pre-modernity was some kind of rationalist golden age in which it was possible to convince people to change their lives through argument because they believed that certain things were True. It was ancient and not modern rhetoric that invented the concept of pathos, that people should emotionally connect to your argument, and made it critical for ending speeches. The purpose of engaging people's pathos is precisely because, apparently even in the ancient world, you could have a logically unassailable argument and people would still say that this is all very nice but has nothing to do with them and go on their way. 

The preaching orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans came into existence in the early thirteenth-century precisely because even in medieval Christendom there were plenty of Christians who needed to be "converted" to Christianity. While the Dominicans were formed to argue with actual heretics like the Albagensian Cathars, the Franciscans, when they were not seeking martyrdom in the Islamic world, must have been trying to reach nominal Christians content to live their lives untainted by Christian practice. Clearly, the need to bridge the divide between theoretical belief and actual practice is not a recent problem.      

Furthermore, I fail to see certainty in belief as necessary for changing one's life or even for giving it up. Socrates, certainly not a modern, was a martyr to philosophy as a way of life. He did not die because he was absolutely convinced of any particular doctrine as to the nature of the soul or of justice. On the contrary, Socrates was a man of doubts, whose claim to knowledge was that he knew that he knew nothing. There is a critical tension at the heart of Socrates in that he was the ultimate non-dogmatist and yet he died for philosophy. The mystery at the heart of the Platonic dialogues is what is this philosophy that Socrates died for. Philosophy is this process of asking questions and to love the question more than any answer you might find. This can become a way of life to the extent that to be forced to live any other way would be death. 

This balance between taking ideas seriously and claiming absolute objective knowledge applies to followers of monotheistic religions as well. An inescapable part of monotheism is that God is distinct from the world which makes him fundamentally unknowable. Yet we are commanded to know this God. If you are a Jew or a Muslim, you try to know God by studying his Law and following his commandments. If you are a Christian, you try to know God through the person of Jesus. 

All three of these religions developed rationalist and mystical traditions in dialogue and confrontation with each other. Both religious rationalism and mysticism are premised on God's unknowability. Even as mysticism holds out the hope of achieving unity with God, its starting point is that the gap is unbridgeable. True unity with God requires God to cross the divide in ways that are impossible, at least from a human perspective. One thinks of Christian writers like the author of Cloud of Unknowing, Nicholas of Cusa, and St. John of the Cross. All of these were thinkers whose starting part for their theology was that God is someone fundamentally outside human understanding. As with Socrates' knowledge of his own ignorance, one comes to know God and develop a relationship with him, paradoxically, only by recognizing that one does not know him.     

The fact that God is outside our understanding means that any attempt to talk about God is going to be imprecise. This means that any statement we make about God at best is going only to be true from a certain point of view. Certain ways of talking about God and relating to him are going to be appropriate for certain people and not for others. Even a seemingly innocuous statement like God commands is riddled with theological pitfalls.

Modernity did not create Averoeism with its doctrine that there can be multiple religious truths, one for the masses and another for philosophers. Similarly, it was Boccaccio from the renaissance who gave us the legend of the three rings. The message being that Jews, Christians, and Muslims should concern themselves less with which religion is ultimately True and more with building the best version of their religion they can. The idea being to let divine providence reveal itself in its own time.   

Long before the advent of modernity, if people were going to be religious there was always going to be something more at work than simply believing with absolute certainty that their religion was True and could be translated into clear do or don't actions. Living your life, religiously or otherwise, means having faith. At a certain point, you need to act in a way that implies certain knowledge even though that certainty does not exist.             

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Standing in Line for Justice: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Arlie Russell Hochschild's Stranger in Their Own Land stands as a phenomenal example of a liberal attempting to empathize with conservatives. To get into the minds of Louisana Tea Partyers, she employs the following model. Imagine that you are standing in line for the American dream. You have been told that if you played by the rules and waited your turn, you would eventually get to the front. Then the economy begins to turn poorly, calling into question whether you will ever get there. To make matters worse, you begin to see people behind you, who look different from you, stepping out of line to be escorted closer to the front. Sooner or later, you are going to begin to suspect that you are being cheated and that the game has been rigged against you.   

I find this concept of a line useful for thinking about justice. Part of the problem with the sort of cosmic justice that dominates leftist thought is that it ignores the reality that human justice in the real world is a line in which only a few groups at the front are going to receive anything resembling justice. To make matters worse, not only will those at the back of the line not get justice, they are going to be left footing the bill for that justice given out to those in front. The reason for this is that history does not break down into neat perpetrators and victims. In practice, everyone is a mixture. When someone asks for justice, in practice they are asking for someone else to pay for that justice and then to be protected from having to pay out for anyone else's person's justice. Furthermore, considering the cost of all the injustice that has ever been perpetuated since the dawn of time, there are not enough resources to go around to satisfy everyone's sense of justice. Hence, as the little justice that is passed around to the few, it must be paid for by others.

Those at the front will defend their taking justice for themselves at the expense of those in the back by saying that those at the back committed some wrongdoing or at least, as the descendants or countrymen of the wrongdoers, benefited from this wrongdoing and should be allowed to bear the consequences of justice. The people at the front are likely not wrong. The problem is that other people, including those in the back, have their own narratives of injustice, many of which would flip the script and turn those at the front into the wrongdoers. And it is not obvious that these other narratives are wrong. 

Take someone like me for example. I am a Jew descended from Holocaust survivors. In examining Allied understandings of the Holocaust as it unfolded during World War II, you see a consistent pattern where the Jewish nature of the suffering was downplayed. Jews were seen as simply one group, among many suffering under the Nazis. Hence no particular action would be taken to save them. Jewish life was not a priority even to the Allies and millions of Jews, who might have been saved, paid the price. I see the State of Israel as the main thing that protects us from being slaughtered again. In essence, having Israel is what keeps Jews close to the front of the line and protects them from the horrors of ending up at the back

From this perspective, it was perfectly reasonable to demand that Germans, despite the deaths of over a half-million civilians due to Allied bombing, should pay reparations for the murder of Jews. I accept that the bombing of German cities was morally justified as the Nazi government had placed all of Germany outside of the social contract, rendering the lives of German civilians forfeit. Germans, the many terrible things that happened to them over the 20th century, were sent to the back of the line and suffered the consequences that go with it.  

Similarly, Arabs should pay the price for a genocidal series of wars against Israel by having to accept not only the Palestinians who fled in 1948 but also those Palestinians currently living within Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank who are not inclined toward living in a Jewish State. 


Part of being at the front of the line and having the Palestinians at the back is that we can pretend that we are not sentencing those Palestinians who remain in defiance of Israel to death and turning the rest of the Palestinians into refugees dependent upon the tender mercies of the world. As just people, seeking to defeat bigotry, we love even those "hateful" Palestinians. When things do not turn out to be peaches and cream for the Palestinians, it will, of course, be the fault of the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. If only they were more cooperative in accepting our version of justice, things would not have turned out so badly. So not only are the Palestinians destined to suffer, they are meant to carry the blame for their own misfortune.   

To be clear, unlike those on the Israeli hard right, I recognize that this is not a practical goal and should not be the basis for public policy. All I am saying is that this is what my vision of justice looks like. There are good reasons to be terrified of my justice as something monstrous. Of course, you should also be terrified of anyone else's justice, particularly those people who are not honest enough to acknowledge how bloodstained their justice would inevitably be in practice. Talking about such justice and putting it on the table is still important as a weapon to threaten the other side. Do not come at me with your version of justice and I will not strike at you with mine.   

For you see, those on the Palestinian side of things, along with their allies on the Left, have an inverse line for justice. The chief source of evil in the world is racism manifested in colonialism and Zionism is the grand colonial project. As such, giving the Palestinians justice at Israel's expense becomes a moral task that worthy of taking the United Nation's attention. What might happen to those Jews who flee or find themselves living under Palestinian domination? Since the Palestinian cause is just, it is illegitimate to ask the question. If things take a tragic turn for the Jews, it can only be the Jews' fault for resisting the Palestinians in the first place.  

Part of the difficulty in handling an issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the facts are going to matter little in face of one's starting narrative structure. Being at the front of the line for justice means that nothing bad your side does is really your fault. By contrast, being at the back means that all the bad things that happen to you are really your fault. You can list all the Israeli actions against Palestinians you want and I can just dismiss them as either legitimate Israel responses to Palestinian atrocities, hence the Palestinians are really at fault, or the actions of lone individuals that do not taint the righteousness of the Israeli cause. Of course, the Palestinians can play the same game. 

This can, perhaps, best seen in the seemingly innocuous habit of newspaper headlines of describing Palestinians deaths in terms in active terms like "Israel kills" while describing Israeli deaths passively such as "Israelis die in a bombing attack," as if bombing attacks are simply unfortunate things that mysteriously happen that no one can be held responsible for. Even worse is when a particular point is made that the Israeli victims were settlers, implying that it was legitimate to kill them. This sets up a framework in which Israel is assumed to be the only party that can be held responsible and from whom demands can be made. If Israeli concessions lead to dead Israelies that is simply Isreal's fault for not giving the Palestinians everything their justice demands.  

If there is going to be hope one day for peace, it will require both sides to surrender any claim to justice. In return, each side will be protected from being subjected to the other's version of justice. Any attempt to pursue cosmic justice is going to turn into a Procrustean game in which reality is cut to pieces in order to fit one's personal convenience. Since we cannot give everyone justice, justice will become the highly unjust process of claiming that certain people do not deserve justice. On the contrary, those people will be sliced and diced and we will pretend that all of this is actual justice.   

Monday, January 4, 2021

No, Your Good Works Are Not Enough and That Is Ok: What an Actual Christian Should Have Told Johnny Lawrence


Season three of Cobra Kai opens with the anti-hero Johnny Lawrence (the bad guy of the original Karate Kid movie) trapped in a spiritual crisis in the aftermath of season two. His son, Robby, knocks his favorite student, Miguel, over a stairwell, putting him in a coma. Miguel eventually wakes up but is paralyzed. In episode three, Johnny goes to see Bobby, one of his old pals from his Cobra Kai days, who has become a Christian minister. In a wonderful scene, Johnny pours out his heart talking about how has tried to do right and it has all gone wrong. Bobby responds: “You don’t do the right thing because it always works out. You do the right thing because it’s right.”

This scene is perfect for Johnny because our empathy with him relies on the fact that we never think of him as a good guy but as a villain who is honestly trying to be better. As such Johnny, much like Eleanor Shellstrop, gets to ask the question of why be good as something more than an academic exercise. Since our standards for Johnny are low so we judge him on a curve. This is in contrast to Daniel (the hero of the original movie), who, despite probably being a better person, still has real flaws. In essence, we judge Daniel for not being Mr. Miyagi as opposed to Johnny who just needs to not be John Kreese.

If Bobby were Jewish, his answer would make sense. Perhaps Rabbi Bobby could explain the Talmudic rule that a person who intends to do a good deed but fails, it still counts as if he did it. Johnny's job in life was never to succeed. He thought his mission was to teach Miguel karate. God runs the world and he has a plan; it just happens to be that his plan might not be ours. It very well might be that God wants Johnny to support Miguel as he learns to use a wheelchair and to let Robbie know that he is loved even if he is in jail.  

From a Christian perspective and particularly from a Protestant perspective (note that Bobby makes the point several times that he is not a priest), Bobby's response is problematic. If Johnny were to seek spiritual counsel from Martin Luther, we might imagine Luther first sharing a few beers with Johnny before going after the basic flaw in his reasoning. Johnny was trying to improve the world through works. The logic being that if he taught Miguel karate, he would turn Miguel's life around and Johnny, in turn, would be transformed into a good person and find forgiveness for all the terrible things he has done, particularly for being a lousy father to Robbie. 

Teaching Miguel karate was never going to change the fact that Miguel was a poor teenage kid without a father. While mastering karate might help Miguel with bullies, it would be more likely to turn him into a bully than actually make him a better person. Furthermore, nothing that Johnny can do would ever change the fact that he is Johnny, likely to fall back on his anger and drinking when faced with difficulties. 

The world runs by the rules of the Devil, manifested, in this case, in the persona of Kreese. There is no defeating Kreese in this world. The only way to physically defeat him is to become like him. No matter who wins the battle, Kreese, and everything he represents, will win the war. The only way to win a fight that has been rigged against you is to recognize that the fight is rigged and refuse to play along. 

What Johnny needs to do is recognize that he is a sinner, whose works, even when well-intentioned, would likely fail and cause more harm than good. As a sinner, fashioned by the same hatred for God and love for this world as Kreese, he can never defeat Kreese. The only solution for Johnny is to recognize that there was only one person in all of human history capable of being virtuous and he died on the Cross for sinners like Johnny. If only Johnny could accept him as his savior, meaning letting go of any claim to accomplish good works on his own, then he might have a chance of helping both Miguel and Robbie.

In truth, it was fine that Bobby did not mention Jesus. Still, at the very least, he should have said something to challenge Johnny's faith in works. How can he be a Protestant minister otherwise? I guess, maybe Bobby is supposed to be a Methodist but even Methodists are supposed to avoid the belief in salvation simply through works. 

One of Christianity's strongest points is its theodicy. Bad things happen in this world but God does not stand aloof from it all. On the contrary, he suffered worse agonies than you can possibly imagine on the Cross and he did it because he loved even the worst "Jerusalem Sinner" (to use John Bunyan's term). Particularly relevant for someone like Johnny is Christianity's ability to handle theodicy when it becomes intertwined with personal guilt; why did God allow me to make the mistakes I have made when I honestly tried to do good? The answer is that Johnny is a sinner and such a sinner that only God could ever truly love him. And that is ok because God does love Johnny and has already forgiven him for all of his sins. In fact, God loves Johnny so much that he died on the Cross for him so that Johnny could be forgiven. If God could forgive Johnny for everything he has done, perhaps Johnny could learn to forgive himself.