Archive for March, 2019

Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility

 

St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.

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What Jesus Didn’t Say

March 12, 2019

It’s been too long since I posted anything here, and I regret that.  Once I got my most recent book out on Kindle I was focussed on writing this sermon, the first I’ve preached in over thirty years.  You can listen to it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZlvrASSTSo ; it starts at about 31 minutes in.  Or if you prefer, you can read my draft below.  

 

 

What Jesus Didn’t Say

 

 

 

 

I confess that I have some nervousness about preaching again after a twenty-five year hiatus. I’ve given lots of lectures, but to share God’s word with God’s people is more intimidating than sharing my own words. What could I have to say that is fitting to the significance, the sanctity of this setting? Nothing, really. Our human words are, as Paul said, like cheap pottery holding precious jewels. Besides, a lecture with a lot of pretentious vocabulary is a good lecture; but no one wants a sermon with a word study. Lectures and sermons are just different.

Then I read the lectionary selections for today, and hope dawned. Both the reading from the Prophets and from the Gospel are about teaching! And I’m a teacher! It seemed to me providential, or at least lucky, that of all the days that I could have been invited to preach, I’d have scriptures for the day that seem so suited for my background.

First, Nehemiah. Nehemiah is not usually known as a teacher. I don’t think his book is the first choice for Rally Day sermons. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Exile. He was a cupbearer to the Persian king, and got permission to return to Jerusalem and direct the rebuilding efforts. My memories of Nehemiah are that I usually heard from him when the preacher was launching a capital fund drive. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. He was about separation between people, about conflict, and about building a wall to keep them away from us. But this scripture we read today is not like that. It is in fact just the opposite. First, consider the setting. Scaffolds were set up by the Water Gate, a public square where everyone could gather. They aren’t in a sacred space separated from the life of the people, where only the men could gather, and of those only the ones who were not ritually unclean for some reason like having just attended a funeral. No: they are in a public space, and everyone is invited. Men, women, even older children, everyone who was capable of listening and understanding was invited to come and listen to the Word of God. And there was to be no separation between the clever and the uneducated, or between those who were proficient in Hebrew and those who, over the long exile, had come to speak Aramaic as their primary language. There was to be no separation between those who were in the front row and those who were further back and couldn’t hear as well. Levites moved among the crowd, explaining and interpreting, “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” And there was to be no separation between those who attended worship and those who could not; those who heard were to celebrate, and were to provide food and drink and celebrate with those who had not been there to hear the word of God taught, so that everyone could share in the joy of the LORD on this holy day.

It seems as if there are two Nehemiahs. One has his people building walls, each with a sword on his hip, with half standing guard while the other half worked, ready to fight, to keep outsiders away. The other is a uniter, not a divider, bringing people together. And historically, both are the same person and both tasks were important to preserving the faithful, and the faith. What would have become of the word of the LORD if Nehemiah had only built the walls, but not taught the people? What would have become of them if he had only taught, but they had no walls, no protection from bandits and enemies, no secure home? So we can’t really say either is unimportant. As Christians, though, we can ask, which is most important and most relevant to us, as disciples of Christ in the world today?

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue. Any Jewish male could be invited to read from the Scripture and offer interpretation. The leader of the synagogue would generally invite someone beforehand; they didn’t just pull people out of the crowd unprepared. Jesus had been teaching in the neighboring villages, full of the power of the Spirit of God, and had gained quite a reputation. Now he was the hometown boy made good. No wonder the leader of the synagogue invited him to speak! So he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he selected a well-known messianic prophecy. He read the words of the prophet, that the Spirit of the LORD is upon him because God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. God has sent him to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. To an observant Jew that was not just a metaphor or platitude; the year of God, the Jubilee, was to be a monumental shaking of the social structure. According to the Law, every fiftieth year was the Jubilee, the year of the LORD’s favor. All slaves were to be freed. All debts were to be forgiven, so the poor could start over with a clean slate. Those families that had fallen on hard times and sold their land at some point during the last forty-nine years were allowed to return and reclaim their property, for free. Was Jesus referring to a literal Year of the Lord’s Jubilee that had just occurred? It doesn’t seem very likely that the Romans would have gone along with this festival of freedom. But when Jesus spoke of the Year of the LORD’s favor, it meant something concrete and special to the congregation. It was to be a time when everyone lived off the blessings of the LORD, enjoying the bounties of their past labors. It was a time when those who were impoverished or oppressed or troubled with physical impairments were to be renewed, whether by having their family inheritance returned or having their sight miraculously restored. And Leviticus makes clear that the Jubilee is to be a time when rich and poor come together as family, as children of God and joint tenants in God’s land; no one is to cheat another or begrudge another, but all are to celebrate together the blessings they have received as children of the covenant, receivers of God’s promises.

And Jesus does two remarkable things here. The first is that he cuts off Isaiah. The original prophecy ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus leaves out the talk of vengeance. He leaves out all talk of punishing “them” to glorify “us,” even if the punishment is perhaps deserved. With Jesus, the day of the Lord’s favor is a blessed day for everyone, and all are invited to share in the good news. The congregation would have heard that prophecy before, perhaps many times, and would realize he had made an important change. What he was not saying was as noteworthy as what he had said.

And then, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not “someday.” God has proclaimed that this, despite all appearances, despite the tax collectors and Roman soldiers and Herod’s despotism, is the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus began his ministry by traveling the countryside telling people to repent, for the kingdom of God is among you, now. It is still among us, even though we can’t see it any better than they could who lived under Roman occupation.

What does this mean for us today? I’m not going to discuss what it meant then, since the lectionary saves the end of this story for next week. I’m going to leave it where the lectionary leaves it: Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled. Not “the day of vengeance,” of warfare against the wicked, but the day of the Lord’s favor, the day of good news, of release and renewal and rejoicing for all God’s people. Nehemiah—I haven’t forgotten him—-Nehemiah had to build the walls of Jerusalem, but that is not the last word. What gives all the building of walls and the Temple and everything else meaning is that day when everyone worshipped together, everyone was taught equally, everyone celebrated together: for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Thanks be to God!