Music Monday: Modest Mouse Edition

I’ve always liked this band. Their lyrics often betray a sort of optimistic nihilism. They remind me of Douglas Adams in that respect. Happy atheism seems rare, it probably isn’t, but it just seems rare. Anyhow, here’s a somewhat haunting song off Modest Mouses’ new album. My favorite lyric is probably this:

Expulsion from an exoskeleton
Of our mothers we arrive
Soft sticky cold we arrive and then start to cry

It’s a stark description of birth that reminds me of how fragile we are.

Lyrics:

I’d hate to be shit in your cut
But the package it’s gonna be late
I buried it in an abandoned lot for
When I was young, this was where I’d played

Dug under the fence with my claws
Smelled the cool dirt on my face
I’m waiting ’til the hands fall off the clock
Spending dollars at the nickel arcade

I think I’ll ride this winter out
I guess we’ll ride this winter out
Alone

You echo from side to side
Pacing in your clumsy ballet
Based on the books and clothes on your floor
I don’t think that this is even your place

When the doctor finally showed up, oh boy
His fur was soaking wet
He said that this should do the trick
We hadn’t told him what the problem was yet

Kaw kaw kaw kaw
We’ll have to ride the winter
This time we’ll ride the winter out
With the strain and the comforting
You know everyone needs to go

But don’t everyone go
Don’t everyone go at once

Expulsion from an exoskeleton
Of our mothers we arrive
Soft sticky cold we arrive and then start to cry

All those insects that I sent are trapped
In my window once again
Empty their pockets out and I’ll sort it at the table

Line up then shoo ’em off
Sure as hell they’ll all get caught
In our window pockets full as they are able

The signs all flicker and buzz all night
Passing by you could hear them say
“Hey, please won’t you just come on in”
“Won’t you please just go away”

This time we’ll ride the winter out
I guess we’ll ride this winter out
I think I’ll ride this winter out
Alone

With the straining and the comforting
I know everyone needs to
But don’t everyone go at once

With an abundance of counselors

Today I read Proverbs 24:6:

…for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Proverbs 14:23:

In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.

While I was mowing my yard I began to think about the relationship between the two ideas. One is that any action is better than none, the other is that well advised action is more likely to succeed.

I thought that in the military setting mentioned, the meaning of 24:6 is clear. If you have help from people who understand the terrain, the weapons in use, and the other military then your victory (or quick surrender) are more likely to succeed. If you read your Von Clauswitz and Sun Tzu, you’ll be more likely to succeed. If you’re a martial artist, but you only know boxing and a jiu-jitsu guy gets a grip on you, have a nice nap. But if you’ve learned from both styles, then your chances of success increase.

In a ministry setting it makes sense to have many counselors too:

  1. The whole range of Scripture
  2. A network of wise men and women upon whom to rely for advice
  3. Knowledge of local experts in psychology and family doctors to recommend to the sick (people often go to their pastor for very random advice)
  4. Books on theology and bible commentaries to help you answer hard questions
  5. Books on philosophy and reasoning to help you solve problems
  6. Books on leadership and business to help you do the same.

But all that talk, the other Proverb says, is meaningless if it does not lead to action. Imagine a military leader drawing up strategies while his compound is being breached!

Any other counselors or sources of wisdom for ministers? How about for those who are not preachers or Bible teachers? What counselors could help bring them victory?

Music Monday: Vesuvius

Sufjan Stevens has been one of my favorite artists since about 2006. I always liked him, but when his album The Age of Adz dropped I was a bit disappointed except for this song. I hope you like it.

Here are the lyrics:

Vesuvius
I am here
You are all I have
Fire of fire
I’m insecure
For it is all
Been made to plan
Though I know
I will fail
I cannot
Be made to laugh
For in life
As in death
I’d rather be burned
Than be living in debt

Vesuvius
Are you a ghost
Or the symbols of light
Or a fantasy host?
In your breast
I carry the form
The heart of the Earth
And the weapons of warmth

Vesuvius
The tragic oath
For you have destroyed
With the elegant smoke
Oracle, I’ve fallen at last
But they were the feast
Of a permanent blast

Vesuvius
Oh, be kind
It hasn’t occurred
No it hasn’t been said
Sufjan, follow the path
It leads to an article of imminent death
Sufjan, follow your heart
Follow the flame
Or fall on the floor
Sufjan, the panic inside
The murdering ghost
That you cannot ignore

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor the host

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor the ghost

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor the host

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor the ghost

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor your host

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor the ghost

Vesuvius
Fire of fire
Fall on me now
As I favor the ghost

Fall on me now
Or follow down

Why does it have to be so hard?
Fall on me now
Or fall on the ground

Why does it have to be so hard?
Fall on me now
Or fall on the ground

Why does it have to be so hard?

Book Review: Starship Troopers

Robert Heinlein. Starship Troopers 1959.

The Good:

Heinlein wrote a very solid sci-fi novel. It contains my favorite science fiction elements:

  1. Speculative World Building: The imaginative nature of the battle armor and the change of civilization at the advent of interstellar travel are both very exciting.
  2. Speculative Philosophy: The author has his characters philosophize about the nature of war between humans and other species as well as about human nature in a fashion that is made compelling because of the stakes in the story. I think that the philosophy leaves much to be desired, but it very nearly is the most compelling modernist expression of ethics I’ve read and I’ve read a lot.
  3. Quotable moments:
    1. “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men. We’re trying to teach you to be dangerous – to the enemy.” (77)
    2. “That old saw about ‘To understand is to forgive all’ is a lot of tripe. Some things, the more you understand the more you loathe them.” (141)
    3. “On the bounce.” (various)
    4. “Now continued success is never a matter of chance.” (233)
    5. “If I ever find a suit that will let me scratch between my shoulder blades, I’ll marry it.” (131)
    6. About what was learned in officer candidate school: “Most especially how to be a one-man catastrophe yourself while keeping track of fifty other men, nursing them, loving them, leading them, saving them-but never babying them.” (221)

The Bad:

The world was very compelling, the characters were interesting, but the story itself didn’t seem to go very far.

Conclusion:

I highly recommend this book. It is pleasant yet challenging read.

Love Believes All Things or Does It?

I think a lot of young Christians in their desire to be radical apply certain verses of Scripture in really extreme and naive ways. For instance, “Love…believes all things (1 Cor 13:7)”.

If you go back and read 1 Corinthians, this is not an indicator of how love always handles everything. It is a description of how love handles disagreement and misuse of gifts in church meetings and why love is superior to any ability that can help the church (it mediates between abilities). Thus, love believes the best of people that you find grating or irritating. Does love actually believe “all things” in all circumstances? Check out this paragraph from Proverbs:

Proverbs 23:1-8  When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you,  (2)  and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.  (3)  Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.  (4)  Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.  (5)  When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.  (6)  Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies,  (7)  for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.  (8)  You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words.

Now compare this to these passages in the gospels:

John 2:24-25  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people  (25)  and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

Matthew 12:38-39  Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”  (39)  But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Jesus, in these, and in many other places is acutely aware of the way people are. I wonder if sometimes the effort of Christians to have Christian character (loving the unloving, showing mercy, etc) leads Christians into thinking that the unloving actually are loving, the dishonest are honest, and so-on. It’s something I need to think more about, but I fear that some of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity for making people weak is true, though it was a mistaken understanding of Christian meekness that did so.

I suppose one could argue that Christians should “believe all things” and that Proverbs is being corrected by Paul, but Paul himself does not believe the best of the Corinthian Christians about whom he writes the letter. He believes the reports that they are disorderly and so-on.

Thoughts?

Logic and Morality

In a wonderful little essay, Jesus the Logician, Dallas Willard observed:

To be logical no doubt does require an understanding of what implication and contradiction are, as well as the ability to recognize their presence or absence in obvious cases. But it also requires the will to be logical, and then certain personal qualities that make it possible and actual: qualities such as freedom from distraction, focused attention on the meanings or ideas involved in talk and thought, devotion to truth, and willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads via logical relations. All of this in turn makes significant demands upon moral character. Not just on points such as resoluteness and courage, though those are required. A practicing hypocrite, for example, will not find a friend in logic, nor will liars, thieves, murderers and adulterers. They will be constantly alert to appearances and inferences that may logically implicate them in their wrong actions. Thus the literary and cinematic genre of mysteries is unthinkable without play on logical relations.

I really appreciated his observation that the practicing hypocrite will find no friend in logic because of the moral presuppositions of the will to be logical. The whole thing is a good read despite or maybe even partially because of one part that I do find a bit weird (you’ll have to read it yourself to find it).

On Trials

Introduction
Certainly, the problem of evil is philosophically persistent and even more certainly is it emotionally difficult. I think that the problem of evil has multiple solutions many of which are true and many of which are entirely compatible with one another. And though I find the problem interesting and though the problem in some way bears upon this post, I think that it can be put aside for the purposes of what follows. Whether the problem of evil has a solution or not, here we are and we face struggles, trials, unfair horrors, and nature-inflicted deformations of personhood and body. The question is this, “How shall I respond?” I don’t mean this in some insensitive way, where I claim that all difficulties are actually a good thing. Evil is evil. I mean it in this precise way:

Whatever difficulties we are facing, no matter how terrible or inexplicable, are exactly the difficulties that we are facing. This means we must face them until death ends our difficulties or until we overcome them. It is not comforting to have this knowledge, it is simply the fact of the case in question. If you or I face an obstacle, trial, or trouble, it must be faced.

Again, I offer here no explanation for one’s sufferings or attempt to justify why they happen in a way that makes God seem good or evil seem less bad. I also do not mean to say, “Tell people who are suffering right now that God is testing them.” I am attempting to bring an issue to the foreground concerning the difficulties that we face as individuals and as a species. When we face various trials and look for metaphysical explanations or emotionally satisfying warrant for our going through them, we can ignore the problem at hand. Questions like “Why am I facing this?”, “Has God forgotten me?”, “Couldn’t this have been stopped?” have their place and often have answers. Even Jesus asked them. But the issue I wish to tackle is the way we face these trials when they come. The trials could be anything. Take these examples or any number of similar ones:

  1. A sad diagnosis with a worse prognosis
  2. A terrible accident
  3. Sudden loss of career
  4. Harmed by somebody’s incompetence
  5. Trouble raising children
  6. A wrongful accusation (or a correct one)
  7. Being tempted to sin, cheat, steal, or avoid blame for wrongdoing
  8. Having terrible and dangerous enemies
  9. Being oppressed
  10. Being born in unfair circumstances

Our approach to trials will determine whether or not we can make it through them with grace, character growth, or by leaving the world a better place. I am recommending this experiment as a personal solution to the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. The solution is somewhat simple, though probably not easy. I simply mean to agree with yourself in advance to do this: treat difficulties as tests. In other words, when any trial comes, immediately approach it with an attempt to improve oneself through the trial. You’ll note that the word “trial” is practically a synonym for test, but I think that in modern usage, trial to simply means “hardship.” Please excuse the apparent tautology.

The principle is contained in Stoic format in Aurelius’ Meditations:

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher.” – Aurelius, Marcus (2002-05-14). Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1117-1120). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What the emperor is saying is that when the human organism is operating at tip-top capacity, it is capable of turning obstacles into fuel for moral improvement. The notion is Biblical in the highest sense, in that the author of Hebrews says that Jesus learned this lesson:

(Hebrews 5:7-8 ESV) In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (8) Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

Again, this isn’t meant to be some theological explanation for why we suffer. It is meant to offer an approach to personal suffering that prevents us from being overwhelmed, which provides us with a mindset aimed at overcoming evil with good.

Conclusion: In Practice
How does an approach of this sort actually work out in life? I propose that when you wake up in the morning remind yourself of the character you wish to have and the goals you wish to achieve. Then, no matter what comes throughout the day, instead of losing your temper or giving in to despair ask yourself questions like those listed below and change your habits and add to your knowledge accordingly.

  1. Is this a problem I caused?
  2. Is this a problem I can solve?
  3. Do I need to make a course correction?
  4. How can I make the most of this situation?
  5. How can I help people make it through this?
  6. How do I feel about this moment and are these feeling useful?
  7. How could I have been better prepared for this moment?
  8. What is the best and wisest thing to do right now?

Secondly, I propose that when you go to bed at night ask yourself what you learned throughout the day and how you could have done the day better.

These two rather simple steps will no doubt seem daunting and even exhausting at first. But I think that this sort of Stoicism is precisely attuned to human nature and our need to make progress. Seeing ourselves as the project and the outcomes around us as a gymnasium for personal growth has the ability to add some transcendent value even to our most mundane tasks. The world is not merely a gymnasium for moral improvement, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t that at all.

Any thoughts about this topic? What results have you had trying to approach life’s struggles this way?

Appendix 1: Clarifying the Model
The test model of difficulties does have support in the psychological literature (see Carol Dweck), in the religious literature (see almost every religious text), and in the traditions of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Platonism (they often saw trials as a gymnasium or the soul). It also might have some support in your personal experience in school or preparing for a new position at work. Learning how to perform a new skill, though difficult and perhaps causing you to become sleep deprived is worth the struggle and sometimes full of joyous anticipation of the future you prepared for.

What I am not saying is that in every circumstance our difficulties, trials, and sufferings are tests from God or that they all have cosmic meaning. The Bible says that a great deal of suffering in the cosmos is meaningless (Romans 8:20-21). I am saying that because our trials come no matter what, we have to deal with them. Thus, if we wish for life to improve our character, a tool for coping with trials is to approach them as tests. Tests offer insight into where we are strong, what we care about, what our weaknesses are, and just like tests in other endeavors, they offer stressors that may indeed make us stronger somehow.

This is difficult for somebody born with a bone disorder, who loses a loved one, loses a job, goes to jail for one bad decision, or loses a limb (or several). I have no doubt of this. On the other hand, if you survive such things, then here you are. Nobody else can face the world or your struggles for you.

It would be a mistake to adopt this perspective for yourself and then to tell people as they suffer, “I sure bet you can grow from this.” On the other hand, if this experiment has positive results for you, it would similarly be a mistake not to help others adopt a similar stance toward difficulty and suffering.

Appendix 2: New Testament Support for Treating Difficulties as Tests
If you are not a Christian, feel free to skip this section, but I do think it could help you. If you are a Christian, here are a few passages of Scripture which exemplify this perspective on difficulties:

  1. Rom 5:3-5 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, (4) and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, (5) and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
  2. Heb 12:5-11 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. (6) For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (7) It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (8) If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (9) Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? (10) For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (11) For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
  3. Jas 1:2-4 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (3) for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (4) And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

So, as an experiment treat your difficulties as tests which prepare you for a more pleasant reality. Even death, in Christian perspective, is an evil which God’s Son experienced. Hell, your difficulty could be a temptation to sin rather than some horrible struggle with physical pain or emotional suffering. Even count your bad habits as opportunities or tests.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Apologetics

In De Rationibus Fidei, St. Thomas explains how best to go about arguing with those who do not identify as Christians:

First of all I wish to warn you that in disputations with unbelievers about articles of the Faith, you should not try to prove the Faith by necessary reasons. This would belittle the sublimity of the Faith, whose truth exceeds not only human minds but also those of angels; we believe in them only because they are revealed by God.

Yet whatever come from the Supreme Truth cannot be false, and what is not false cannot be repudiated by any necessary reason. Just as our Faith cannot be proved by necessary reasons, because it exceeds the human mind, so because of its truth it cannot be refuted by any necessary reason. So any Christian disputing about the articles of the Faith should not try to prove the Faith, but defend the Faith. Thus blessed Peter (1 Pet 3:15) did not say: “Always have your proof”, but “your answer ready,” so that reason can show that what the Catholic Faith holds is not false.

Aquinas means some very specific things by “articles of faith.” For instance, God’s existence for him was a matter of rational demonstration. But the Trinity or the Atonement were matters of “the Faith” meaning that they were revealed by God and not things which could have been determined by mere investigation or deduction from first principles. Aquinas doesn’t mean, “some things you just take on faith [belief for no reason].” He means that certain articles of the faith aren’t to be proved in discussing Christianity with those who do not adhere to it, but rather to be defended against charges of falsehood. Far from being baptized Aristotle, Aquinas here claims that the revelation of God, though perfectly reasonable, is within the purview of reason to be examined once revealed though not within the purview of reason to be proven or discovered.

Roast Game and Enjoying the Finer Things

Proverbs 12:27 (ESV)  Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.

There are essentially two possibilities for interpreting the first part of this saying:

  1. A slothful man will have no game to roast because he’s lazy.
  2. A slothful man will not roast the game he has, because he’s lazy.

Because of the nature of the Proverbs, it is possible that both are implied, but I’m more interesting in the second. I think that this is a good heuristic for determining whether or not we’re slothful and whether or not we should buy something new. For instance, if I have a nice set of digital Bible commentaries that I never use, is it wise for me to buy new ones just because they’re on sale? The answer must be, “No.” The evidence is that I’m the type of guy who doesn’t roast his game despite having it in the freezer.

This might apply to gym memberships, exercise equipment, a laptop, a writing desk, tools, hobby equipment, and so-on. Why buy an expensive study Bible if you never read the Bible you have? Similarly, why go “church shopping” if you don’t know the names of anybody at the church you already attend?

The contrast in the Proverb is with somebody who becomes rich through diligence, but I want to entertain the opposite possibility of the first clause. What if one learns to enjoy the nice things already possessed before moving on to more things? Is it possible that the great discontentment many experience is precisely due to a lack of diligence with the sliver of the world under their care?

The Bible’s Teaching on How to Learn Anything

The Bible contains a great deal of advice based upon observation of the world that would be helpful to know even if you did not accept any of its claims about God. One of the most helpful pieces of the Old Testament is this little gem from Proverbs:

(1) My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, (2) making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; (3) yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, (4) if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, (5) then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5 ESV)

The passage is about learning from teachers. It basically tells us how to learn anything we choose. The main goal of the passage is to teach young men and women the fear of the Lord because the author sees this as the foundation of all knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). But, the author is also trying to help young people gain skills in philosophical, literary, practical, and ethical reasoning. So, even if “fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of God” are not what you want out of life (and at the end of the day you will want them), the advice given here is useful for any field. Look at the instructions from the father:

  1. If you receive my words
    The father (or teacher in this case) says that receiving his words is part of gaining wisdom. I am both a teacher and a student. And one of the chief difficulties for students today is actually receiving the words of their teachers. They do not listen, they do not take notes, they do not think about them, and they do not respond well to teacher criticism. But if students would receive the words of their teachers, then wisdom would suddenly be a potential result.
  1. If you treasure up my commandments
    The father then challenges the hearers to memorize what he says (Learn about permanent memory here). In math you memorize proofs, in languages you memorize endings and vocabulary, in science your memorize instructions for lab equipment, for mechanics you memorize vehicle schematics. Barbara Oakley has argued that the major flaw in mathematics education today is a lack of focus on brute memorization. I would argue that this is true in seminary, humanities, philosophy, and local church discipleship programs.
  1. If you make your ear attentive
    This is similar to the first, the idea is that you make yourself listen when your mind veers off. If you’re reading, you force yourself back into focus.
  1. If you incline your heart to understanding
    Here the idea is that you treat the topic as though it interested you, even when it doesn’t. Study after study demonstrates that “grit” or a tolerance for delayed gratification, endurance, deliberate practice, or a growth mindset in the face of difficulty often correlate with cognitive success.
  1. If you call our for insight and raise your voice for understanding
    I think that a lot of people infer without reason that this merely means “pray to God.” But the context is that of learning lessons from human teachers. If you wish for wisdom, ask questions and then test the answers against evidence and experience.
  1. If you seek it like silver
    This is similar to #4 above. Treat wisdom as something that is worth seeking, even when it is difficult. Treat wisdom like an economic transaction even. Be willing to pay for it with less valuable objects and hold on to it rather than lose it through disuse.
  1. If you search for it as for hidden treasure
    Finally, search for it as for hidden treasure. In whatever you study there are hidden insights, flashes of insight, undiscovered connections, more efficient processes, overlooked facts, and so on. It is often said that part of learning more is realizing how much remains unknown. If we know anything, it is that there is more to learn. With knowledge that there is hidden treasure, it is a lot easier to dig everywhere in a field no matter the cost or to sell everything and just buy the field! If we search for wisdom as obsessively as we would search for hidden treasure of whose existence we were certain, I suspect we would become much wiser.

The author goes on to note that an active pursuit of wisdom leads to this:

(Pro 2:9-15 ESV) Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; (10) for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; (11) discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, (12) delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, (13) who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, (14) who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, (15) men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.

Becoming wise, in any pursuit, leads to doing thing well. In fact, the very thing which you master will shape you into the kind of person who loves excelling at that thing. The wise, in this case will be able to determine the difference between those with knowledge and those without as well as those who are cheating and deceiving and those who aren’t. I think most people would love to become the kind of person who finds learning pleasant and who is difficult to fool, it’s just that we often do not know how to get to that point.