Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Obnoxiousness is Bravery Fallacy

It always strikes me as odd when someone says or writes something that is obnoxious that you have people saying things like "At least he's brave enough to put it out there and tell it like it like he really sees it," or something along those lines.

No. It isn't brave. It's just obnoxious plain and simple. What would be brave is to listen to and engage those with whom you disagree, treating them with respect and courtesy. You see, that makes you vulnerable.

That this is true is evident by those who defend the loudmouths. They hurl ad hominems at those who demand common decency and respect--"you're just weak" or "spineless" or "brainless" or worse. They seem to imagine that pretending you can't be wrong and blustering your way through, insulting, and using coarse language shows that you are strong. It's all a façade, though, to cover up the reality. It's a lie. Lying isn't a sign of courage or strength; it is cowardly and weak.

Honesty is brave, the kind of honesty that exposes your own doubts, that doesn't hide or ignore the weaknesses in your arguments, that shows you know that you are fallible and that, all other things being equal, the other person is just as likely to be right as you. Showing that honesty but still respectfully engaging with people of contrary opinions, that is brave. Courage doesn't mean you have no fears; it is having fears and yet confronting them with wide eyes, head on.

The honesty I'm talking about is not the "honesty" that uses "the truth" to bludgeon other people and attempts to intimidate them into silence. It's not the "honesty" that readily sacrifices the dignity of others to win an argument; it's not the "honesty" that holds courtesy in contempt and considers mutual respect as a byword for the weak. It's not the "honesty" that deceptively inflates the certainty of one's position. That is not honesty; it is false honesty. It is an abuse of the truth.

That's not to say that obnoxiousness is never an effective rhetorical device. But it's not brave. It may win an argument; it may effectively make a point, but it is fighting dirty. And that's not something to be admired.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Not so Turbo Taxes

You know.. you pay a service that says they take care of everything for you.  And then you get a letter from the IRS saying, no, bucko, we need this form that your service claimed you don't need. So you fill it out, not sure 90% of the time if you're doing it right, then you find, yep, you didn't need it. But you still have to send it in.  Now, if the service (cough, TurboTax) just would have sent it in just to be on the safe side, you wouldn't have had this trouble.  Grrr..

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Avoiding Warped Sexual Morality

This morning an online buddy of mine shared some of his struggles with his sexuality in the context of his marriage. He's a practicing, devout Catholic, as is his wife. The trouble, you see, is that they find themselves too busy to get it on as often as he'd like. As a father of four younguns and a baby who only recently started really sleeping on his own, I can certainly relate to the, shall we say, frustration that such a situation brings.

What I don't follow, though, is the perplexion, even fear, he seemed to feel in considering his wife the object of his desires. Okay, I do get the "object" part--she is a person, not an object. I get the whole anti-objectification thing, but you can't let that drive you into thinking that considering your wife as the.. focus of your sexual desire is a bad thing. It's not. That's actually good--it's awesome! I'll bet you few wives would object to being so monogamously desired by their husbands.

This struggle illustrates a problem when one's understanding of sexual morality is based more in a list of don'ts than dos. "Don't treat your wife as a sexual object, that is, don't use her as a thing for your own sexual gratification" is of course something I'd hope most of us could agree to. But it doesn't tell us how to relate to her sexually; it only points out one way of how not to. This lack of knowledge leads to a necessary uncertainty in regards to how to act. It leads to a constant tentativeness, even fear, when not informed by a positive proposition.

A strictly negative approach also warps our perception. It causes us to rest our focus on the bad, and if not balanced out by the positive, it can lead to an unhealthy presumption that some things are bad that are, in fact, not bad. It can lead, in the worst case, to a despair of being able to practice virtue and subsequent giving up trying. Have you ever met anyone in that boat? I have.

It can lead to a quite understandable revulsion for an otherwise good ethical system, such that the system is seen as bad in itself because of all these consequences of focusing too much on the negatives. How many times have you had someone tell you they gave up on being Catholic (or even Christian) because "it's all about guilt and what you can't do"? I know I've heard that a lot, and even more than that, this distortion leads to a perception that Catholic sexual morality is somehow "extremist"--a label applied to Santorum many times in the media.

A better approach to sexual morality, and morality in general, is to seek out and practice the good and the beautiful. And that's precisely what a correct understanding of Catholic sexual morality is--nothing less and nothing more than to fully understand what is truly good for human beings and to fanatically pursue it. And yes, I would say that is true of all Catholic morality.

A positive moral proposition provides a basis and, indeed, a strong motivation for action, instead of inaction. This basis provides more freedom and more certainty that your action is good than simply proscription. When you see and understand the true, the good, and the beautiful, you are motivated to pursue it, and you know how. Show me such a person, and I'll show you someone who is happy and free.

This is not to say that negative moral expressions are never good, of course. They are definite signposts to help us more fully understand the limits of the good--when a good thing can become twisted and abused. And so it is with sexual morality. It is an appetite, and appetites can become unhealthy. Not everything we desire is good for us, and it is helpful to know to avoid certain foods that are unhealthy. We can overeat. We can eat things not good for us, things that don't even have any nutritional value at all (but sure are tasty!). Sex is no different.

Now, I'm not about to attempt a full positive exposition of Catholic sexual morality--books have been written on that, even on just aspects of it. But at a high level, it can be expressed in terms of generous love, a mutual giving and receiving of self that holds nothing back, an embrace of two sexually complementary persons that offers the fullness of each to each and graciously receives the other in turn. There are very many implications to be derived from this.

Our sexual drive is a good thing in this context of sacramental marriage; it is a powerful motivator towards such a full, inseparable union of persons. "Wanting" the other is not wrong. On the contrary, it is good. We humans are not incorporeal entities of pure thought--we are bodily. To fully partake of each other necessarily involves this intimate bodily expression, and being inclined toward it is a good thing.

So I'd say rather than being tentative about one's attraction to one's spouse, one should rather embrace that attraction, express it, and, if I may, consummate it with full freedom. Enjoy each other fully, not holding anything back.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Towards Real Open Mindedness

Every so often I hear or read someone wringing their hands about information bubbles--the basic idea being that all these social media and feed personalization services allow people to "hide" or "shield themselves" from viewpoints that differ from their own.

This has always struck me as an odd thing to worry about. First, because people have been doing this forever, both intentionally and not. The simple fact that communication and mobility over large geographic areas was until recently in human history relatively difficult meant that people naturally were more isolated. More than that, our tribal inclinations mean that we tend to want to be with people who are like us, so, coupled with that being not hard to accomplish in most historical circumstances, it strikes me that this socio-cultural isolation has been the norm for most of human history. Why get so angsty about it now?

Another example comes from my own background growing up as an evangelical Protestant at a mega church, with its own school, located next to an ideologically similar university. One could literally grow up within that sphere and rarely encounter people of other viewpoints. We kids often debated the value of the "Victory bubble" growing up, all the way up to debating whether or not to go to said university or not based on that consideration.

For better or worse, my family could not afford to keep me in the bubble for all of my school years. I will say that those years outside of it were hardly wonderful and enlightening. The "world" is not all it's cracked up to be, and I told my friends who never left the bubble that at the time. (Of course, this could provide a digression on whether or not public schooling really reflects "real life" itself or not, but I will save that for some other time.)

So anyways, that touches on the "why now?" aspect. The second thought is that maybe the isolation enabled by these media channels is not so bad. By that I am being more pragmatic than idealist. People seem by and large to need this isolation. It feels safe. It is less emotionally draining. Unless it's your job, it is simply too tiring to not be able to have such an ideological retreat.

Perhaps more than that, it seems to me that the people wringing their hands about this are usually worried about other people. They see themselves as so wonderfully enlightened and open minded. In short, by taking the position they are taking, they are representing an ideology, an ideology that is inescapably one sided. Why do they want these other people to not be isolated? Because they hope that by making them so, they will become more like them. It is the same exact tribal inclination at work.

And along with that, you will find that rather than increasing dialogue and open-mindedness, including ideologically opposed channels in your feeds will often rather simply reinforce your own views, in a negative way. You are more regularly opposed to the "stupidity and idiocy" of the other side. You will, instead of gaining ground on the way to enlightenment be dragged into anger and outrage. Only the most disciplined mind could avoid this, and I'm not sure it is possible even then.

So rather than arguing that everyone stop using services that let them create a like-minded information bubble, which I think is normal, healthy, and possibly healthier than the other alternative, I suggest rather carving out focused and limited times in your life to engage with "the enemy." The popular media, and most of social media, is not the place to look for this engagement--because these are the centers of the echo chambers/bubbles. Instead, find a thoughtful person or two on the other side who is interested in dialogue, i.e., really open minded and not just doing lip service to it. Discuss your differences, share selective sources, don't worry about convincing each other. Just be honest and respectful.

Doing this enables you to both minimize and manage the emotional drain of such encounters while providing the most likely ground for mutual enrichment and growing in respect. This is the way to learn to view "them" as real, thoughtful human beings rather than as the enemy.

- tapped from a tablet, pardon the typos

Thursday, February 21, 2013

LEGOs on the Floor

What I remember most about LEGOs chart.
My four year old, Tommy, started wailing unexpectedly the other night. That, in itself, is not so unusual, but he did seem utterly distraught. So as usual, we checked for any obvious damage, and after that, tried to get him to tell us what was wrong.  After some effort, he finally explained, "stupid LEGO!"

It may be wrong, but my first reaction to this was, "See!? We keep telling you to not leave them lying around. Now you know why!"

Isn't parenting fun?

Since You Asked...

I have studiously avoided blogging about The Papal Resignation because everybody else is, and frankly, mine is just one more opinion among many.  But since an online friend asked, and since I have to blog every day for Lent, here you go. :)
It's great!
That's the long and the short of it for me. It's not at all because I don't like HH BXVI. Quite the contrary. I've read a ton of his stuff, and it resonates deeply with me. I think it's awesome what he's done for the liturgy. I like him so well that I was motivated to put up the day he resigned. (BTW, go add your thanks if you haven't already!)

Needless to say, I'm a big fan. And maybe it's because of this that I implicitly trust his judgment in this matter.

On a more human level, I think he is setting a good precedent. As he's done with the liturgy, I wouldn't be surprised if that isn't part of his motivation--showing by doing that it is okay, maybe even good, for a pope to retire when it seems prudent to do so. Most bishops have to retire at the young age of 75. That's 8 years longer than the retirement age in the US, and more in other countries. Benedict is well beyond that.

It's not at all that old people shouldn't be in the workforce. It's more that they should have the option and, in a sense, have the luxury to rest towards the end of their lives. And while JPII showed illustrated the suffering servant to the end, illustrating the dignity of those with disabilities or are elderly, BXVI is illustrating the dignity of those who choose to retire.

So I fully support him, and I am praying for him and for the upcoming election.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Enough is Enough

I came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church on Easter Vigil 2001. Can you think of anything else that was really getting going in the American church in that time period?

Yep. The abuse scandal was gaining momentum then and came to its peak not long after. Needless to say, my entire time and experience in the Church has been in the shadow of this scandal. And it gains fresh energy every so often thanks to some discovery somewhere in the world, although it gets and keeps most of its life from half truths, exaggerations, and outright lies.

There are people who use every and any opportunity to bring it up again. Anything they don't like about the Church becomes a reason to drag this decayed horse out and beat it again. Even things that have little to no connection beyond the mere fact that the Church is involved. And it is with the blind, bigoted, fever pitch of utter self righteousness that the criticism is hurled.

And every time it is brought up, the reality is distorted, blown way out of proportion, and generalized to the entire hierarchy, the entire Church, despite the fact that the Church has acted decisively to prevent these things from happening again, despite that the Church has paid enormous sums in reparation, despite the sincere efforts to reconcile with those hurt many times, even by the Pope himself.

So it is a relief when you find someone in the media outside the Church try to bring the tiniest bit of realty and balance to the issue. I shared this on G+. And in the whole article, do you know what my atheist friend pulled out to quote and comment on?

Was it that not one single case of abuse was found at the laundry that had been maliciously misrepresented? No, it was this: "That is a horrific number as it is; why embellish it?"

Seriously? Excuse me, but What.. The.. Fuck?!?

What all these amazingly self righteous people seem to conveniently forget is that DUH. I mean, we Catholics have a very demanding moral code that is fundamental in our religion. We know that child abuse is a horrendous offense. We know it 1000x better than you, I promise.

Guess what else we know. People, yes even priests (or as a certain priest friend of mine would say--especially priests) are inherently sinful. (That means not morally perfect for those who don't grok the idea of sin.) So we're gonna screw up sometimes, just like every other human being. Sometimes, we screw up royally. And we have to make reparations. It is part of our belief system--there is no get out of jail free card. And yes, that's true even though some churchmen tried to avoid it.

We as a society are way, way, way, way beyond any kind of proportional response to this problem. When journalists suggest that it's okay to distort the facts, that's not ok. When movies and art are made that impugn the good name and character of every priest, that is not okay. When comedians think its funny to imply that all priests are child molesters, that's not okay. When every Tom, Dick, and Jane thinks they have a carte blanche to dismiss, malign, and cast aspersions on the entire Church, that's not okay. When anyone who tries to bring some semblance of proportion, level thinking, and basic fairness gets characterized as a molester sympathizer, That. Is. Not. Okay.

Our society has become hypersensitive to this issue. And no, that's not okay. Justice carries the concept of proportionality within it, and we are far beyond that. We need to deal decisively with the individuals who perpetrate this crime. We need to take steps, as the Church has long since done, to prevent it. In short, we need to practice real justice and prudence. But demonizing an entire institution, an entire profession and all those individuals who practice it, as well as those who speak up for justice is just plain despicable, even evil, and it needs to stop.

Don't Sweat the Little Things

I just lost a post I typed on my iPad. It's tempting to get angry about it, but I have to remind myself to not. It's just not that important. Besides, it was a stupid post. :)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Us Weirdos

Have you ever thought about the fact that you are reading this makes you a weirdo? Well, at least the fact that I am writing makes me one!

I mean, most people I know--even intelligent people in highly-skilled, knowledge-worker jobs--don't spend much time thinking about life, the universe, and everything. And guess what, they're not terribly open minded or reticent, either, from what I can tell.

Go to any mall and sit in the food court or even a coffee shop. Listen to conversations around you (it's okay, if you do it for science! ;) ). Look at what's popular on TV; listen to popular music. Even check out the top sellers lists at a bookstore. Talk to your friends about what their plans are for any given evening or weekend. Go to a club. Go to a theater. Watch Twitter's main feed, or even just "local" tweets. Poke around on Facebook. Even universities, which are supposed to be all about higher learning and critical thinking, are chock full of ebullient young folks who act as if they couldn't care less.

People by and large seem pretty disinterested in the deeper things in life.

On the other hand, I am told that people deep down really long for deeper meaning in life. The thing is, you'd never know it by looking at all this evidence. Are they all just waiting, hoping to have deep conversations? I don't think so, judging by the way such things get so quickly dismissed when brought up, and judging by how people fill their free time.

All I can figure is that those of us who actually like to engage in these things are weird. And since I am weird, I don't really relate to not wanting/caring.  I can't imagine what it would be like to not be actively, regularly engaged in philosophy and theology. Believe me, there are times when I want to not care, but I can't not (at least not for long). It's just not in me.

And it's not like these things are just a "special interest group" kind of thing. I mean, we're talking about philosophy and, for a theist, theology. These are things that apply to everyone. They're not hobbies or simple diversions. They are the fundamental things in life. People are quick to have an opinion on them, but not very interested in dialoguing about them. People certainly live according to a philosophy, and many nominally practice a religion, but they seem to do so without giving much thought to them. (Except occasionally, like in moments of life crisis.)

And while I know this situation is not new in human history, I think there is maybe less justification for it today. By that I mean that we middle class Westerners are, as a rule, more affluent than the rich in earlier times. It is actually practical for most middle class folks to engage in philosophy nowadays, something that in the past was relegated to only the wealthy, educated elite. And we are also massively more educated than the average folk of earlier times.

And yet, here we are. The most educated and wealthy masses in history, and what do most do with all that leisure and education? Sports. Video games. Partying. Shopping. Reality TV?

Don't get me wrong. I have no axe to grind against all these, taken in moderation. Certainly I regularly enjoy many popular things. I am no cultural elitist--I am not anti-TV or anti-internet or anti-social media.. But I can't go very long without coming back to these deeper things.

Not because I am better or smarter or more disciplined (God knows I am not that). It's almost more like a compulsion. I can't ignore the deeper things, even if I try. And more than that, I positively enjoy thinking about them. I enjoy having respectful dialogue about them.

It seems to me that saying "you're just an intellectual" is insufficient, given the aforesaid universal bearing these matters have on us human beings. But alas, I am most certainly biased. It's as much a part of me as being male. So all I can do is accept the evidence and what other people tell me--that I am just not normal in this way. I am a weirdo. Are you?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beard, A Day in the Life Of

Wake Up, Beard!

Done working out. See how full and strong Beard is?

Pike Beard, so nice and scrubbily. 

Poofy Beard is poofy. All clean and mostly dry.

Good Beard. Tame Beard. Ready for the day.

Beard is getting droopy and hungry; it's lunchtime. 

By end of day, Beard is tired and straight
 after a day of unconscious pulling. Time to go home.
Viking Beard says sleep is for wusses.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Life Experiment

It occurred to me the other day that all this hubbub about being a theist or an atheist is misplaced, for your average scientific-minded atheist. The common explanation for disbelief is "there is no evidence." By this is meant, of course, no empirical evidence, no evidence that can be subjected to evaluation using an empirical scientific method.

But here's the thing. The question of whether or not God exists is a metaphysical one. By its very nature, it would be improper to subject the question of his existence to empirical evidence. In order to verify his existence scientifically, we should expect evidence in the dimension appropriate to the problem at hand. So of course we can't prove (nor disprove) that God exists using physical evidence and experimentation upon it, and asking theists to do so is fallacious, a form of moving the goalposts.

There is, in my judgment, plenty of metaphysical evidence based on sound reasoning to at the very least give God a good benefit of the doubt. But hey, let's be scientific about it. Each of us is looking at (theoretically) the same metaphysical evidence and reasoning and forming contrary hypotheses from it. Each of us believes that his hypothesis comes from good reasoning. If we are to be scientific, what is left but to experiment? So let's experiment with our lives.

The theist proposes the hypothesis that God exists. In order to test that hypothesis, he will choose to believe in God and live his life accordingly.

The atheist proposes that God does not exist, or at the very least he remains sufficiently skeptical to be inclined towards that hypothesis. Either way, he will choose to not believe in God and live his life accordingly.

So, when each of us dies, we will find out the results of our individual life experiments, and in the meantime, we're all being scientific about it, right? Plus, it's an eminently repeatable experiment. Every single human being has everything needed to form a hypothesis and test it. And in the afterlife, if there is one, the results will be in.

So Why All the Gnashing of Teeth?
Of course this is all well and good. What is all the arguing about then? The atheist might say, "fine, you can have your religion, but keep it to yourself, in private--don't let it affect me or anyone else in any way." Whereas the theist (and especially a Catholic Christian) says, "sorry, no can do. Part of my life experiment involves letting my belief system inform the way I act and the way we relate to each other, both in private and public life."

There's the rub. What we need to do is find a good balance to let each of us carry out our life experiments as freely as possible. Neither of us should insist on social arrangements that prevent us from carrying out our experiments effectively.

Atheists by definition don't have a common creed. Plus, if their hypothesis is correct, then it really doesn't matter how they act. They could live their life as holy as a saint, and it wouldn't matter. On the other hand, if the theist hypothesis is correct, then how they live their lives really matter. They do have fixed creeds. They do have definite rules they have to live by, some of which do include behaviors that can impact other people (usually for the better). They are bound to share their beliefs (especially with their children). They are bound not to deny their beliefs or to hide them (even if others find them objectionable). They are bound to charity towards everyone (not just people who share their creeds).

So if we were going to be strictly scientific about it, then it would follow that the atheists, not the theists, are the ones who need to accomodate more. Since the success of the atheist experiment does not depend upon any particular way of living, they can freely accomodate theists in cases where the success of the theist experiment depends upon some behavior that calls for such accommodation.

Ironically enough, though, this is the exact opposite of what the self-proclaimed "scientific" atheists demand. They demand to control how the theists are allowed to carry out their life experiments. They demand that theists cannot freely exercise their religion. Some even call for the outright extermination or suppression of religion.

That is hardly scientific. It is hardly the mark of an open, freethinking scientific mind. It is, rather, a very unscientific and prejudiced jumping to conclusions, a short-circuiting of free scientific experimentation. It is, in short, everything that a good scientist should abhor.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Great Ash Debate MMXIII

It's a perennially favorite topic for Catholics--to wear the ashes on Ash Wednesday or to not wear. So I figure, why not weigh in?

Simply put, it is an individual choice. People should do what they think is best for themselves.

Personally, I have vacillated over the years. Initially (when I first converted to Episcopalianism and later to Catholicism), I was all gung ho about it. Wear 'em! Show 'em! Coming from an evangelical Protestant background, this whole "external witness" thing resonated for me.

Then I ran across Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O.P's blog. (Yes, he is a fellow Dominican, so I'm biased to agree with him. ;) ) He is our perennial, self-anointed Ash Wednesday Grinch. Just take a look at a search of 'ashes' on his blog to see what I mean. I stole the image above from him; he stole it from Jeff Miller. We're all a bunch of thieves! Gives us one more thing to repent of during this penitential season.

He makes a good point, really. It's kind of hard to argue with the whole Gospel passage. Jesus' words are pretty straightforward. Don't put on a show when you fast.  And yet...

Most recently, I think it was last year maybe, the best reason I could find to justify keeping them on is that it is a sacramental, it is in itself a means of grace. Still, last year I think I went in the evening to Ash Wednesday service, so it was kind of a moot point for me.

This year, I probably won't make it to Ask Wednesday service. Pausing, while I wait for gasps of shock and horror. Maybe it's just laziness. I would have gone with my fam, but we have a few sick kiddos right now, so they're not going. As Fr. Philip Neri pointed out, this isn't an Holy Day of Obligation, so it's okay. I'll take my kids being sick as of late as my reminder that we are mortal.

But even if I did go today, I would wipe them off. I've been won over to the Gospel argument.

Anecdotally, an atheist colleague at work lost no time in commenting on some other Catholic here who was wearing her smudge. He turns to me and says, "but Ambrose, you don't have ashes, and you're like the most fanatical über Catholic of them all. She's upstaging you." He also reminded me how he was raised Catholic and so on..

I do try not to be obnoxious and showy about my faith, but I am unapologetic and forthright about it. I'd happily engage in meaningful, thoughtful conversations with him about it, but that never seems to happen because he seems more interested in ridiculing religious people than engaging with them, a sad commonplace amongst contemporary atheists.

I digress. But a takeaway from his comment is that you don't need ashes on your forehead once a year for people to know you are "fanatical" about your faith.

I don't say this as a matter of pride but rather simply as food for thought. All this focus and teeth gnashing about the ashes is missing the point. People should be able to tell you are Catholic the rest of the year, regardless of what you do on Ash Wednesday. If that's not happening, maybe it's time to reflect on why that's not happening rather than focusing on wearing the ashes.

I'll also point out that in all my time seeing people wearing ashes and wearing them myself, including today--not once have I ever observed a meaningful, thoughtful conversation ensue based on, "why do you have a smudge on your forehead?" It just rarely works like that. Without exception in my observation and experience, you explain briefly, and people are like, "oh, ok.  That's cool/interesting/whatever/mumble."  And that's it. 

I'm not against external religious symbols by any means. I'm not telling you to wear or not wear ashes. You need to decide for yourself.  I just think such external symbols need to be a normal, natural, everyday true and real manifestation of the life of faith that you live. If you want to display your faith in some way, or you are bound to do so because of a rule of life that you live under, by all means, do so. But just don't forget that the Holy Spirit is the mover of our hearts towards God. He will open doors to meaningful conversations about the faith. We just need to be ready and listening.