Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: This is Water, Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life (2009) by David Foster Wallace.

This isn't water.

This is genius. It's genius in its profound simplicity (or simple profundity).

Writer David Foster Wallace gave only one commencement address. He spoke to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. Since he hung himself in 2008, there regrettably won't be any more. However, it's hard to fathom how he could have improved on this one.

Wallace begins with a story about two young fish swimming one way who encounter an older fish swimming the other direction when the older fish asked the younger, "How's the water?" (p. 3.) A little later, one of the younger fish asks the other, "What['s] water?" (p. 4).

Wallace uses this story to illustrate how one can live unaware of "the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities" and these "are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about." (p. 8.)

Wallace posits that education does (or should) teach one how to think, but in a different sense than most understand this "single most pervasive cliche in the commencement speech genre." (p. 12.)

"The liberal arts mantra of 'teaching one how to think' is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some 'critical awareness' about myself and my certainties....because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded." (p. 33.)

As his core example, Wallace cites the human default setting of self-centeredness. (pp. 36-41.) He suggests that "'[l]earning how to think' really means learning how exercise some control over how and what you think." (p. 53.) Wallace explains that this control comes from choice. (p. 54.) Those who can't or won't exercise this control are doomed, Wallace argues. (p. 55.) Rather shockingly given what happened later, Wallace transitions directly to speaking about those who commit suicide. (pp. 58-59.)

Wallace states that the real value of a liberal arts education is to keep from going through life "unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out." (p. 60.) Wallace submits that in consciously broadening one's horizons and thinking about others, one can develop the compassion and empathy necessarily to living a well-adjusted life. One can also decide what to worship. (p. 98.) Wallace observes: "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everbody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." (pp. 98-101).

In so doing, Wallace gets at something far more fundamental than mere head knowledge. He's getting at real learning. In this sense, Wallace's analogy about water really is apt. It's the substance necessary to avoid dehydration and its final result, death. Whether you are in school, out of school, or about to enter school, this book contains a valuable lesson about life to "hydrate" any learning experience. Highly recommended.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Every Treasure.

This weekend in Newport Beach, California, I saw a license plate holder, piously playing on Matthew 6:20, which read: "Driver Carries No Cash...Treasures Laid Up in Heaven" on a late-model four-door Mercedes-Benz.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Book Review: Is There A God? by Richard Swinburne.

Since Is There A God? kept appearing as source material in the recent philosophical literature I've been reading (some reviewed here), I thought it about time I went to the source.

Too, I wanted to read it as a prelude to Richard Swinburne's follow-up, Was Jesus God? (2008) (which I'm reading now).

Formerly the Nolloth Professor of Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford, Swinburne's "big idea" in Is There A God? is applying "Ockham's razor" (p. 31) to argue that theism is more reasonable than atheism to explain our existence (or the earth's or the universe's) because it's the simplest explanation. "The thesis of this book is that theism provides by far the simplest explanation of all phenomena. Materialism is not...a simple hypothesis, and there is a range of phenomena which it is most unlikely ever able to explain. Humanism is an even less simple hypothesis than materialism." (p. 41.)

Theism's persuasively simple, according to Swinburne. "Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that ever property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes. There could be in this respect be no simpler explanation that one which postulated only one cause." (p. 43.)

In addition to offering affirmative evidence of God's existence, Swinburne attempts to answer objections. First, in dealing with evolution, he more than acknowledges it; he essentially appropriates it. Swinburne writes: "And, as we now know, humans and animals did come into existence through the gradual process of evolution from a primitive soup of matter which formed as earth cooled down some 4,000 million years ago. In that process natural selection played a central role. Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) taught us the outlines of the story, and biologists have been filling in the details ever since. The clear simple modern presentation in Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker (1986) is deservedly popular." (p. 58; emphasis supplied.) I doubt Dawkins thought he would be cited approvingly in a book arguing for theism.

Swinburne continues: "So, in summary, the Darwinian explanation of why there are the complex animal and human bodies there are today is that once upon a time there were certain chemicals on earth, and, given the laws of evolution..., it was probable that complex organisms would emerge. This explanation of the existence of complex organisms is surely a correct explanation, but it is not an ultimate explanation of that fact." (p. 60; emphasis supplied.) Thus, Swinburne incorporates Darwinism, and then simply adds a step of regress to place God at the beginning of the process. Here, Swinburne partially undermines his simplicity argument, since he's adding steps (and complexity) into the creation process. Swinburne likewise paints himself into a corner for his later book with respect to the Trinity (but that will have to wait for the review of Was Jesus God?).

Second, Swinburne deals with the "problem of evil" (also known as the problem of suffering or the problem of pain) in Chapter 6, entitled "Why God Allows Evil". To his credit, Swinburne does not posit the ubiquitous "free-will defense" and leave it at that. He attempts to grapple with "natural evil" (i.e. events that cannot be explained by human choices, called "moral evil") such as natural disasters. Some may not find his explanations satisfactory, but Swinburne does provide a lucid theodicy for both types of evils.

The book curiously ends with dissatisfaction--from the author. Swinburne laments: "I reach the end of this book with some dissatisfaction. I am well aware of objections other than the ones which I have discussed which can be made to almost every sentence which I have written... I am also aware of counter-objections which can be advanced to turn against every objection to my views, and also of the need for qualifications and amplification of most of the assertions in this book. Argument and counter-argument, qualification and amplification, can go on forever." (p. 140.)

This apologetic tone seems unnecessary and defensive. Either Swinburne could have expanded the book to deal with more objections (it was only 139 pages before this epilogue) or have stated its limited scope or purpose at the outset. Nevertheless, I can see why Swinburne's book has been cited because it represents a straightforward and thought-provoking assertion and defense of theism. Recommended for those interested in this genre.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

State Court Solomonic Sagacity, Part IV.

A tentative ruling in a case not mine:

"ARGUMENT REQUIRED on this motion to quash for lack of jurisdiction.

"‘The time has come'
To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings.’ (Lewis Carroll)
And of how it is that Defendant can argue that Orange County is not the proper jurisdiction for this case when this same defendant argued in Maryland that Orange County was the proper jurisdiction and was able to convince the Maryland court to dismiss without prejudice because Orange County was the proper jurisdiction!"

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Book Review: Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace (2009).

Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it.

That's an ironic (if inadvertent) lesson of William Lobdell's Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace.

Lobdell prayed for over four years to get the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times.

He got the job. And lost his faith.

As a broader memoir, Lobdell begins well before his experience as a religion reporter and records how he became a professing Christian. Even though the "losing" aspect has been more celebrated, his "finding" of faith is just as rich.

Lobdell describes his conversion and growth into his Christianity with numerous Southern California references. For example, he talks about how his "best friend" (radio personality and author) Hugh Hewitt strongly encouraged him to investigate Christianity, and more particularly, to attend a men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains, where Lobdell had his "mountaintop conversion." He also chronicles his attendance at local churches, including Mariners Church in Irvine.

"By 1999, it had been seven years since my mountaintop conversion. I felt a growing muscularity to my Christianity. I was learning more and more about the Bible. I wanted to plunge deeper into belief, history and custom. I didn't need as much self-help as I had earlier; my life had long ago gotten out of intensive care and had stabilized. I started to feel claustrophobic at Mariners Church. The seeker-friendly services--which had drawn me so effortlessly back to Christianity--now seemed simplistic. I wanted to strip away the happy songs, the upbeat, black and white messages and the cappuccino machine. I wanted something more authentic, more raw, even. I was grateful of my time at Mariners, but I felt I had graduated. We stopped going as a family one day and slipped away. Nobody noticed. That was the blessing and curse of belonging to a mega-church. No one knows you've arrived and no one realizes when you've gone." (p. 54.)

Lobdell then attended St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. "With his booming baritone voice and sharp mind, [pastor] John [Huffman, Ph.D.] gave thought-provoking sermons with academic overtones for churchgoers who wanted to believe with both heart and mind." (p. 55.) Lobdell was more than a casual attender. "We started attending services in 1999 and put our three (soon to be four) boys in their youth programs, which they loved. We keep our tradition of attending church on Saturday evenings and stayed afterward for pizza and salad with friends. St. Andrew's also had a great Bible study on Wednesday evenings, along with a parallel children's program. Saturday and Wednesday evenings served as the tent poles of our family life." (p. 55.)

Thereafter, Lobdell began the process of converting to Catholicism. He attended "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults classes." (p. 140.) Simultaneously, his work at the Times required him to investigate the Catholic sex abuse scandal which had a locus in Southern California. This tension wore on Lobdell. "Though I continued to work other religion stories, my editors wanted my primary focus to be the Catholic sex scandal. I began to live a dual life. By day, I investigated the local dioceses, dug up documents in courthouses, talked with a seemingly endless string of victims and interviewed bishops, their aides, attorneys and priests. In my off-hours, I put in my final months of training to become a Catholic."

Lobdell began to connect man's religious institutions with God. For example, Lobdell questions, "If an institution is corrupt, does that have any bearing on God? At the time, I thought the answer was obviously negative. But now I think I was wrong." (p. 136.) As these questions mounted, Lobdell asked Dr. Huffman if he would he would help. "I took John to dinner and told him about my crisis of faith. I asked him if I could email him some tough questions about Christianity. He agreed without hesitation. ...My questions were basic, verging on the cliched, but I desperately wanted some solid answers I could grasp so I could climb back up into my faith. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when He's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord [sic]?" (p. 236.) Lobdell then reproduces their exchange (at least in part). (pp. 236-243.)

Lobdell's response to Dr. Huffman's gracious answers: "From a Christian perspective, his answers were nearly perfect. He was giving me the best Christianity had to offer, but I just didn't believe it anymore. I replied to John that though I appreciated his response, it was frustrating because I had seen too many innocent people live out lives full of tragedy and pain." (p. 240.)

It should be remembered this book is a memoir. It is not a philosophical or theological treatise (and doesn't indicate Lobdell delved into any with depth). As a result, it doesn't deal with great sophistication with the "problem of evil" or theodicy. Indeed, if Lobdell's reasons for leaving Christianity were his problems with certain religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or Benny Hinn, then he might be justified in distancing himself from them. However, he doesn't effectively bridge these complaints or concerns to an outright rejection of Christianity or even theism. Lobdell admits that his questions "verged on the cliched." (p. 236.) I think he's right, along with his conclusions. Nevertheless, Losing My Religion is a quick and engaging read that believers and nonbelievers could find beneficial.