Creationless Creation

Over at Salvo, Jennifer Fulwiler has a great article, “Mad About Babies:  What’s Sex Got to Do With It?”

Until a couple of years ago, I was militantly pro-choice. When I heard people make anti-abortion statements, it filled me with a white-hot anger that I could barely contain. Behind my views was a buried but unspoken sense that there was something inherently unfair about being a woman, and abortion was a key to maintaining any semblance of a level playing field in the world.

My peers and I were taught not that sex creates babies, but that unprotected sex creates babies. We absorbed through cultural osmosis the idea that every normal person will have sex at some point in his or her life, and that the sexual act, by default, has no significance outside the relationship between the two people involved. In this worldview, when an unexpected pregnancy came up, it was seen as a sort of betrayal by the woman’s body.

Later, after her conversion, she “started to see the catastrophic mistake our society had made when we started believing that the life-giving potential of the sexual act could be safely forgotten about as long as people used contraception. It would be like saying that guns could be used as toys as long as there were blanks in the chamber. Teaching people to use something with tremendous power nonchalantly, as a casual plaything, had set women up for disaster.”

Our society, she argues, as disconnected the once shared conditions for consideration of two questions:  When it it acceptable to have sex and when is it acceptable to have a baby.  She makes this comparison:

Conditions under which it is acceptable to have sex:

  • -If you’re in a stable relationship
  • -If you feel emotionally ready
  • -If you’re free of sexually transmitted diseases
  • -If you have access to contraception

Conditions under which it is acceptable to have a baby:

  • -If you can afford it
  • -If you’ve finished your education
  • -If you feel emotionally ready to parent a child
  • -If your partner would make a good parent
  • -If you’re ready for all the lifestyle changes that would be involved with parenthood

As long as those two lists do not match, we will live in a culture where abortion is common and where women are at war with their own bodies.

This is just another example, to me, of the Church as captive to the culture.  Most American modes of Christianity no longer speaks out against socially acceptable sexual sin (like “responsible” pre-marital sex, living together) and as homosexuality becomes more and more socially acceptable, they will gradually accept that, as the ELCA has most recently.  As long as it’s committed and monogamous, it will fulfill the conditions under which it is OK to have sex.  And, babies have nothing to do with it.

Obects of History

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked On-Line, wrote what is probably the most perceptive essay on the Obama phenomena that I have seen:

So there was a dual historic element to the inauguration: there was the real history of it, but more powerfully still there was the projection of a yearning for history on to it, the semi-official and on-the-ground transformation of the inauguration into a clear, unambiguous, internationally recognisable dividing line between then and now, between the old cynical order and something new, between who we were yesterday and who we are today. Ironically, this intense Historification of the inauguration, driven by people’s desire for a sense of purposeful destiny, ended up exposing the absence of genuine history-making today. In the past, people tended to tell stories about what they did during major historic events (as captured in the age-old question ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’), while the question of ‘where were you?’ was confined to one-off, freak occurrences that took us by surprise (‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When Diana died?’). Today, the rush to ‘participate’ in Obama’s inauguration simply to say ‘I was there’ captures the view of history as something that we observe, something that is done on our behalf by other people, something we can be at but not really part of.

Indeed, watching the inauguration yesterday – both the historic and Historic versions – one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was the American people themselves who made this event happen. Increasingly, Obama is discussed not as someone who was elected by the masses, mandated to govern the United States, but as someone who ‘arrived’, who ‘came’, who ‘emerged when we most needed him’. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘And out of [our] great need, I believe he came. Barack Obama came’. There is a religious twist to this view of Obama ‘coming’, and it also strikingly reveals the absence of, or at least the weakness of, a sense of human agency in the Obama phenomenon. The inauguration confirmed both that millions of people want meaningful change but also that they feel incapable of bringing such change about – so they invest all of their hopes and aspirations on to one man instead; one man who, as a woman in DC said when interviewed by a journalist on what Obama should do next, is expected to ‘do everything’. Fundamentally, and contradictorily, Obama represents both people’s urgent and positive desire for a new way of governing, and also their feeling of atomisation, their sense of being the objects rather than the subjects of history.

A Letter To My Representatives On Oil Prices

Dear Senators Burr and Dole and Representative Jones,

Last week I listened on C-SPAN to the testimony of oil executives from the big five oil companies. As a father of five who is forced to drive a large van, this issue is of great concern to me. I recognize that there are things that I as a consumer can do, and I have been trying to do them. I combine trips, make as few trips as possible, and use one of our more fuel-efficient vehicles when I can.

However, you know there is very little consumers can do when they have to get to their jobs and they have long commutes. America is not laid out like Europe. We often have long drives to church, grocery stores, jobs, and extended family. This is especially true of rural Americans of whom I am one.

There also seems to be very little that citizens can do. The political process has become so layered and policy issues so complex that many Americans feel the best they can do is to get through their day-to-day lives and hope that their leaders are wise enough, diligent enough, and courageous enough to do something about national and global issues that lie way outside the average citizen’s grasp or control.

It seems the only thing that we can do as citizens is write the occasional letter to our elected representatives and give them our input. Here’s mine.

I do not now remember if the hearings were held before the House or the Senate, but one of the Congressional questioners said that we need short-term, medium-term, and long-term approaches to this very difficult problem. Score 1 for wisdom.

I am a Republican and an evangelical Christian, and I am also a student of history. Capitalism was built on a foundation of integrity, frugality, and standards. Large corporations often provide a lot of jobs, a lot of economic growth, and a lot of innovation, and free trade is not the bugaboo it’s often made out to be. (Auto mechanics, teachers, doctors, lawyers, grocers, dentists, and a host of other jobs are quite safe from the threat of being moved to India.) However, a corporation’s final loyalty is to the shareholder, and the shareholder thinks short-term.

In the early days of capitalism, religious and cultural standards and personal integrity helped offset the desires of personal gain at all cost. Early corporations understood that they had obligations to their employees, their community, and their nation. Today, unfortunately, large multinational corporations need incentives to do what it would have been unthinkable not to do in the past.

With that in mind, Congress needs to realize that while the free market ultimately brings increased prosperity, innovation, and opportunity there is a place for judicious political oversight on behalf of the citizenry.

It seems clear that America must lead the way in searching for, developing, and utilizing alternative energy sources. It also seems clear that a much needed short-term solution to the current rising cost of gas is an increase in supply. How can that be accomplished while encouraging the oil companies to not merely focus on short-term profit? I think Congress needs to immediately pass legislation to allow greater access to American oil sources such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and in the Pacific Ocean.

If you do that, however, what is to stop the oil companies from just exploiting those resources for the short-term gain of their shareholders? I suggest that in the legislation that opens those resources it be mandated that any corporation that develops those resources be required to put 20% of the profits made on those resources into developing alternative energy sources and the infrastructure to accommodate them. Continue reading

The Worlds Of Christopher Columbus

There are few historical figures as controversial as Christopher Columbus. If public debate since the five hundredth anniversary of his first voyage is an accurate indication, how one sees Columbus is not a matter of historical analysis but rather one’s personal political views.

It is already difficult enough to piece together the details of Columbus’ life given his lost original journal, the biases of early biographers, and the absence of documents, but when you interject contemporary political posturing into the historical debate, it becomes impossible. One side wants to blame Columbus for all the horrors of the modern world, and the other side wants to give Columbus the credit for all of the advances of the modern world.

Was Columbus a hero or a villain? One can not even begin to answer that question without an understanding of Columbus’ historical period. That is probably why William and Carla Phillips title their book The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. It is as much a biography of an age as it is of a man with Columbus being really just a case study of the age.

The Phillips never come out and directly answer the question as to Columbus’ status as a hero or villain. However, after reading the book, one gets the sense that if they were asked directly they would reply that he was neither; he was human with both strengths and weaknesses, and as such he was neither a mythic hero nor an evil villain.

Columbus had perseverance, but he was stubborn. Unlike the mythic Columbus the human Columbus was not the first to conceive of reaching the East from the West, nor was he the only one to believe the Earth was round- most people did. However, as the Phillips write he “was the first, not to conceive the plan, but to persevere until he found backing for it” (p.104).

Perseverance in Columbus sometimes went too far, though, and it turned into stubbornness. This hurt him at times and was almost fatal at others. For example, Columbus was convinced that Asia was closer than it was. Even when more educated geographers disagreed, he stubbornly refused to change his view; this could have been fatal. If there had been no land between Europe and Asia, Columbus and his crew would have died. It was his error that inspired him to proceed with his plan (p.100).

This error also demonstrates another of Columbus’ flaws- his lack of judgment. This lack of judgment shows itself in several ways. One example was when Columbus was faced with the rebellion led by Roldan. In settling with Roldan, Columbus granted the labor services of chiefs to his men. This far exceeded his authority to grant land grants according to merit (p.223).

This is also connected to Columbus’ lack of judgment with slavery. He consistently displeased the crown by taking slaves or proposing to take them and sell them. This contributed to his fall from grace as it angered Queen Isabella (p. 239).

Columbus may have lacked judgment at times, but the other side of that coin is he was intelligent. He was not intelligent like Thomas Jefferson, though, more like Abraham Lincoln in that he learned what he needed to know in order to do what he dreamed of doing. Psychologists today recognize several different types of intelligence: abstract, rhythmic, artistic, mechanical, physical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. It seems that Columbus was at least intelligent mechanically, physically, and interpersonally.

That he had interpersonal intelligence leads directly to another pair of Columbus’ traits; he was a good salesman but overly ambitious. That he was a good salesman seems obvious. He convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to back him and to continue to back him. He was also able to convince many ordinary men (not fleeing criminals) to sail with him, and he was able to sell the idea of developing the New World, although not always honestly, but more on that later.

Also the way he used the eclipse to gain the cooperation of the Jamaicans can best be described by a word associated with salesmen (and politicians if there is a difference), and that is slick. On the other hand he hungered for wealth and status. The Phillips suggest it was this drive that prevented him from writing about his early life as his family was of humble origin (p.87). It also kept him from marrying Beatriz and thereby legitimizing his son Hernando.

It was this drive that acted as a catalyst for one of Columbus’ most serious flaws- his deceitfulness, of himself and others. He constantly mislead the crown as to the resources and profitability of the New World. The Phillips describe one of his letters as “a tissue of exaggerations, misconceptions, and outright lies” (p. 185). He played up all the good and downplayed the bad (accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative as the old Johnny Mercer song goes).

He used evidence to suit his purposes, and if there was no evidence, he made it up. It was this deceit combined with his ambition that caused him to set up unfulfillable expectations that eventually caused him a great deal of trouble.

The Phillips’ view of Columbus can be summed up by saying that Columbus was a good sailor (sailsman if you will pardon the pun) but a terrible administrator. All of the traits that made him a good explorer (perseverance, intelligence, salesmanship, optimism, and religious belief) made him a bad administrator (poor judgment, stubborn, egotistical, deceitful and ambitious).

The Phillips write that “when reality intervened, Columbus needed the practical skills of a manager and administrator; not only did he lack those skills, but he seemed to lack the temperament to develop them” (p.186). They also, after giving a list of Columbus’ strengths, write that “Columbus was always more interested in continued exploration than in the humdrum satisfactions of careful administration, and the new tasks constituted a challenge that he was unwilling or unable to meet”(p.194).

The Phillips’ account of Columbus is not like most of the information I have read about him. They do not try to use historical evidence to shore up their own ideological view. Instead they try to see Columbus and his times as clearly as possible as he and they really were.

It is hard to disagree with them. I found it interesting that while they discussed slavery and disease they only discussed it as it occurred at a particular time without trying to make any broad generalizations about it. Why? Because it is pointless and misguided.

No one can take the blame or the credit for all that has been laid at Columbus’ feet, and rather than credit or blame one man, it is much more interesting and exciting to try to see the big picture of the times and how so many advances seemed to converge at the same time to facilitate Columbus’ voyages. It’s like trying to put together a difficult jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture.

If you accomplish the task of completing a historical jigsaw puzzle, it’s much more rewarding and information yielding than just asserting a position because it supports your personal political agenda. The Phillips put together a good puzzle, and I think they hit the nail on the head.

Columbus was like most people. He had strengths and weaknesses, and when he was doing a job that utilized his gifts he did a good job, but when he attempted to do the things he had no aptitude for, he failed miserably.

Foucault’s Folly

Unable to participate in national debates in any other way, I have participated in religion and politics discussion forums on the Internet for years. I have noticed that many of the exchanges are based on power. Discussions are frequently full of postmodern machinations designed to subvert any attempts at clear thinking.

It is an axiom of contemporary postmodern posturing to see everything as some Foucaultian power struggle for control of perceptual reality. Such po-mo chic argues that “everything is permitted; nothing is true.” (I for one wish that those who wish to affect such an ironic knowingness would just remain silent because each time they engage in a debate they indict the very foundation of their pose and saw the very branch upon which they sit out from under themselves.)

Instead of trying to discover as much as is possible about some specific, concrete historical event (real historical scholarship), be it Waco or the Holocaust, many would rather play relativistic games with rhetoric in order to manipulate opinion; history is ironically imperialized and treated as strategy. Just look at an old article in “The Atlantic” which describes a lawsuit in Great Britain as “putting the Holocaust on trial and making historical truth the defendant.” There a Holocaust denier was suing for libel because an American historian called him a “dangerous spokesperson for Holocaust denial.”

Truth is becoming a power struggle. Many in the national media, for example, try to discredit a source, or they slant a person’s motivation with endless interpretation and cries of partisanship. Rarely do they attempt to discuss the issues or debate matters of disputed fact.

Others will try to confuse people with assertions of truth’s relativity, but just because human knowledge may be more or less contingent does not mean that something specific, concrete and actual did not take place in a particular moment of history. That our knowledge of those events can only be partially known, and the fact that cries of partisanship are shouted, in no way changes that or precludes our responsibility to the truth.

It is the highest of human conceits to argue that historical reality, or any other reality, is somehow implicated by and entwined with human fallibility and finitude. Simply put: because human knowledge is subjective, to a more or less greater degree, in no way means that truth is relative.

Knowing the limits of reason, the contingency of human knowledge and the self-limiting nature of all conceptual frameworks, some people try to mitigate those limitations through an open, well-informed presentation of issues and points of factual dispute.

Others, however, use the above limitations to obfuscate: manipulating, mischaracterizing, dissembling and deconstructing in order to try and keep the discussion enmeshed in some meta-struggle for conceptual control of the public square. Turning discourse into “Thus Speak I” shouting matches and charges of partisanship, they attempt to manipulate perceptions with rhetoric so that they do not have to actually bring any evidence to bear on their assertions.

All one can do, I suppose, is attempt to rescue cogency from the grip of muddled reasoning one hipster doofus at a time.

Becket; or For the Honor of God

There are some who believe that history is history and fiction is fiction and they should never mingle.  Those who think this way see no place for historical novels and movies, and they limit themselves by thinking this way.  Why?  Because good historical fiction can illuminate an age or a person in ways that are inaccessible to an historian who is strictly bound to historical evidence.  The movie “Becket” is one of the best examples of this argument.

Despite the fact that it sometimes distorts historical evidence (e.g. it makes Thomas Becket a Saxon), “Becket”, because it is fiction, can delve deeper into the possible nature of the rift between Henry II and Thomas Becket.  It seems clear, even from a brief study of the Becket affair, that Henry and Becket’s dispute was more personal in nature than one can find in the historical evidence.

This seems to be the case simply because the issues that Becket and Henry quarreled over had been argued over before, and would be argued over again throughout English history, without the drastic consequences that occurred on December 29, 1170.  But what were the personal elements to the Becket/Henry dispute?  Where historians can only speculate, the movie “Becket” asserts three motives: love, jealousy, and honor.

At first, Henry loves Becket like a brother, but the love becomes stained by jealousy and bitterness.  He is jealous that Becket can do everything from hunting to riding better than he can.  However, there is something much deeper here.  Henry is bitter that  Becket does not love him.

Oh, Becket is loyal to his duty, but duty without love is but a hollow shell of hypocrisy, and Henry knows this.  That is why he is always testing Becket’s devotion like the time he insists on taking Becket’s female friend, Gwendolyn, away from him.  (This is another example of fiction, but the movie uses it to make a point about Becket’s absence of any sense of honor prior to his appointment as Archbishop.)  Henry’s jealousy only increases when Gwendolyn commits suicide rather than stay with him.

As far as honor goes, Becket, in the movie, has none until he is appointed Archbishop.  His loyalty switches from the chancellery to the church as easily as a chameleon changes colors.  He also has no sense of honor when it comes to his friends (e.g. Gwendolyn mentioned above).  Also, and this is why the movie portrays Becket as Saxon, he has no sense of national honor.  He betrays his Saxon brothers by serving a Norman king, and this is why the Saxon monk tries to kill him in the movie.

When Becket finally does find his honor, Henry, his love almost completely replaced with jealousy, feels betrayed and becomes enraged.  To think that Becket finally found his honor and it was not the king’s honor but God’s is more than Henry can stand.  His jealousy and anger eventually take complete control; he subtly orders Becket killed; immediately his love reasserts itself; he repents, but it is to late.  Becket is murdered.

Love, jealousy, and honor, then, are the three personal reasons that the movie Becket offers to explain why the Becket controversy developed as it did.  It enhances this view by not going into any great detail with historical events such as the Constitutions of Clarendon or the criminious clergy.  To the movie these are just side issues- the context within which the personal drama is acted out.

In conclusion, by doing what historians can not do, that is, offering an  interpretation that is intuitive but not verifiable, “Becket,” adds to one’s understanding of a complex and fascinating period of history.