On “Going Low”

I’m teaching critical reasoning this term. It’s one of my favorite classes because it’s so important. Few things are as empowering as being able to reason well. And yet this skill is also a source of enormous frustration in that it is so rare it’s also rarely appreciated. That is, it takes someone who is good at analyzing arguments to be able to recognize when someone else has actually legitimately won an argument rather than simply pummeled his opponent with a hodgepodge of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric.

I have to explain this to my students. I have to explain to them that reasoning well is actually a rare skill and that people who do not have it will often think they’ve won an argument when they haven’t. You can try, of course, to explain to them what is wrong with their pseudo-argumentation but most people won’t even be able to follow the explanation let alone accept they’ve been beaten in an argument.

This point was driven home to me again recently when I found myself on the receiving end of a hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric in the “Letters” section of the Times Literary Supplement in response to a critical review I had done of a book, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Allen Lane, 2019), by one of their regular reviewers, Clare Carlisle.

The first barrage of pseudo argumentation came from Carlise herself who began her letter with the observation that she knew of me only via my “online dissections of other scholars’ work.” Of course I was thrilled to see my blog described this way, but Carlisle clearly did not intend it as a compliment. It was an ad hominem. That is, I am disparaged personally twice in that one sentence. I am purportedly obscure, in that my work has not come to Carlisle’s attention, hence I’m not qualified to comment on her book. Moreover, I’m not a nice person because I “dissect” the work of other scholars (I was actually taught that such dissection was an important part of what scholarship is.)

This ad hominem is followed immediately by a straw man. That is, Carlisle accuses me of being unable to appreciate the unique genre of her book. which is a combination of biography and philosophy. This is a straw man, which is to say a mischaracterization of one’s opponent’s argument, in that my criticism was that the book was in fact a combination of biography and fiction in that Carlisle simply makes up thoughts that she attributes to Kierkegaard without this qualification, and in that she gets some facts wrong.

This straw man is then followed by a claim that is demonstrably false. That is, I had mentioned in my review that the references in the book were incomplete. This charge, claimed Carlisle “is simply false.” Except that it isn’t simply false, as I detailed in a letter in the “Letters” section the following week where I cited by page number four of the many quotations for which she is missing references.

I doubt that Carlisle intentionally lied when she asserted that my charge that the book’s references were incomplete was false. She just didn’t bother to check to see if she might have forgotten to include a reference here or there.

Following immediately upon this falsehood is another straw man. Here, instead of responding to my observation that she had based her claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity on a conflation of two distinct Danish terms, she mischaracterizes my criticism as a claim that ambivalence and deep commitment are mutually exclusive and argues that it is possible to be both deeply committed to something and ambivalent about it. This point needs further qualification, of course, in that while it is certainly possible to have these conflicting feelings intermittently with respect to the same object, it is not possible to have them simultaneously with respect to the same object. They are mutually exclusive.

That’s not the point, however. The point is that whether it’s possible to be both ambivalent about something while also being deeply committed to it was entirely irrelevant to my criticism. My criticism was that Carlisle had used Kierkegaard’s pejorative references to “Christendom” to support her claim that he was ambivalent about Christianity when she should have known that Kierkegaard does not use “Christendom” to refer to Christianity. but to a culture that purports to be Christian but is not. I made that point very clear in my review, so it is disingenuous of Carlisle to ignore it and and argue instead against a point I did not make.

Carlisle next accuses me of “grim positivism,” a charge it would appear she does not even properly understand because she advances it against my criticism that her portrait of Kierkegaard is “not new” whereas positivism concerns whether claims have been adequately supported by evidence, not whether they are novel (for more on this charge see “‘Grim Positivism’ vs. Truthiness in Biography”).

Next Carlisle inserts a red herring in that she observes that “the facts of [Kierkegaard’s] life are expertly documented in the recently completed critical edition of his journals and in earlier biographies.” She doesn’t argue, as one might expect, that these other sources support her account of the facts of Kierkegaard’s life, hence her reference to them is a red herring. That is, whether the facts of Kierkegaard’s life have been documented somewhere else is irrelevant to the issue of whether she has gotten them right.

Following on this red herring is another ad hominem. Among the earlier biographies that she asserts, erroneously, have expertly documented the facts of Kierkegaard’s life is “Joakim Garff’s monumental SAK, which Piety has been hounding through the dark tunnels of her blog for years.” Unfortunately, whatever the strengths of Garff’s biography may be, expert documentation is not among them. In fact, some of Garff’s facts were proven by another Danish scholar, Peter Tudvad, to have been wrong. That is not the point, however. The point is that Carlisle invokes non-argumentative rhetoric (“dark tunnels”) to disparage both my character (I am a bully) and a blog that she clearly has not even read because if she had read it, she would realize that of the more than 115 posts, fewer than half a dozen have Garff or SAK as their subject and that one of those is very positive.

Carlisle closes, finally, with the informal fallacy known as the sob story, or appeal to pity, in that she asserts that she found it “rather difficult” to write Philosopher of the Heart, as if the fact that she struggled to produce the book could legitimately be advanced as a defense against substantive criticisms of it.

Carlisle’s letter to the editor of the TLS is, from beginning to end, nothing but informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric. Nowhere does she present a genuine response to any of the substantive criticisms I advanced against her book. What would possess Carlisle, a scholar, to write such a letter?

To return to the point about how few people have well-developed reasoning skills, people sometimes “go low,” so to speak, in their “argumentation” simply out of ignorance, or because they can’t distinguish legitimate arguments from pseudo-arguments. Public discourse in the U.S. is so riddled with informal fallacies, etc., and our educational system is generally so bad that it isn’t surprising that even purportedly educated people in this country often stoop to illegitimate rhetorical tactics to defend their positions.

I’d assumed that the situation was better in the U.K. I have to assume, however, that Carlisle is unaware that her letter is nothing but a collection of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric or she wouldn’t have allowed the TLS to print it. After all, scholars usually want to avoid creating a public record that their reasoning skills are weak. What’s going on, I wonder, with the the teaching of critical thinking in the U.K.? I was subjected to a similar hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric by another U.K. theologian, Daphne Hampson, a couple of years ago.

But even if Carlisle is unaware just how poor the reasoning in her letter was, she certainly cannot have failed to be aware that it is bad form to cast aspersions on the character of someone simply because she doesn’t like their evaluation of her work.

It’s tempting to conclude that Carlisle is simply very ill-mannered. I have it on good authority, however, that she’s actually ”a very fine person.” How is it possible, then, that a very fine person could behave so very badly?

The answer to that question is contained in the letter itself. Someone has clearly disparaged me to her. By her own admission she does not know me and is unfamiliar with my work. She has not even actually read my blog or she would have known better than to charge that I use it to harass Joakim Garff. No, Carlisle has herself no first-hand knowledge of the blog, or at least had none when she wrote her letter. Someone had simply told her about it, and about me. Someone had slandered me to her, told her that I was a bad person, so she felt entitled to “go low” in her letter to the editor on the basis of that slander.

“Civility is a wonderful thing, when shared among equals,” writes Jennifer Weiner in a recent article in the New York Times entitled ”Why Did It Feel So Good To See Trump Booed? We are supposed to ”go high” she observes, quoting the former First Lady, even when others go low. ”Except,” she continues, ”it turns out, going low feels wonderful. More than that, if feels effective and proper and just.” “When you’re confronted with evil,” she continues, however, “you don’t shake its hand … If booing is incivility, bring it on.”

Carlisle has been led to believe that I am a bad person, so rather than responding to the substance of my criticisms of her book, she has effectively booed me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that she is not generally “a very fine person.” I’ve seen other purportedly very fine people behave similarly toward individuals they thought were undeserving of civility. It’s an ugly sight. It reminds me of pack animals turning on a member of the pack they deem to be weak. It makes me doubt sometimes that there really is a significant difference between human beings and those animals.

If standards of decency and decorum really are reserved for those we deem to merit decent treatment, then we really are no better than those animals and civilization as we like to think of it, is a chimera.

I will close with the very Kierkegaardian point that the way one treats another person should be a reflection of one’s own character, not of the character, or imagined character, of the other.

(This essay originally appeared in the 1 November 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)



“Grim Positivism” or Truthiness in Biography

Euro-Cinema-COVER-605x770Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,”, TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)

No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification.

Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I have no problem with that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.

The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.

Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.

What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism.” It was not even that I exposed that she had attributed thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying that they were mere speculations. The most damning revelation of my review was that there were actually errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the facts on which they creatively elaborate correct. That is, she not only imputed thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she made claims about him that were demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.

Charges of “positivism” are the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There’s an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.

Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the October 18, 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)

Educating Ourselves about Violence

IMG_2992I’m at a loss to say whether Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover’s highly-celebrated account of her escape from a fundamentalist, survivalist, home-schooled upbringing in Idaho to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is a good book. What I can say without hesitation is that it’s a disturbing book. It took me awhile to get through it, actually. I was reading it at night before I went to sleep. I had barely started it when I was overcome one morning by dizziness and nausea as I got out of bed. The feeling subsided as the day wore on, but it returned the next morning, and if anything, was even worse.

I don’t remember now how long it took me to figure out what the problem was, and I still can’t be certain that I was correct. I believe, however, that the problem was that I was reading Westover’s extended and graphic descriptions of serious head injuries just before going to sleep and hence planting the suggestion in my mind that I had suffered a similar injury.

Whether my guess was correct or not, the dizziness and nausea, disappeared when I stopped reading the book. I was afraid to pick it up again and didn’t for a long time.  I wouldn’t have picked it up again except that it was the selection of a reading group I was hoping to join. The thing is, there isn’t much to it but these extended, graphic descriptions of injuries. It is essentially a collection of such descriptions strung together with accounts of Westover’s physical and emotional abuse by various family members, and, toward the end, thin filaments of hope as she gradually extricates herself from a web of nightmarish familial relationships.

The book assaults the reader. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I hope never to read anything like it again. I couldn’t get through even a few pages without feeling as if I had been physically throttled, or worse. Here’s just a brief snippet of the one of the many descriptions of head injuries. The Westover family, at the father’s insistence, had set out after dinner on a twelve-hour drive from Arizona, where they had been visiting, back to their home in Idaho. It isn’t clear how the accident happened, as Westover had fallen asleep.

I looked around. Tyler had twisted his upper body so that he was practically climbing into the backseat, his eyes bulging as he took in every cut, every bruise, every pair of wide eyes. I could see his face but it didn’t look like his face. Blood gushed from his mouth and down his shirt. I closed my eyes, trying to forget the twisted angles of his bloodstained teeth. When I opened them again, it was to check everyone else. Richard was holding his head, a hand over each ear like he was trying to block out a noise. Audrey’s nose was strangely hooked and blood was streaming from it down her arm. Luke was shaking but I couldn’t see any blood. I had a gash on my forearm from where the seat’s frame had caught hold of me” (pp. 50-51.)


I don’t know how we got home, or when, … Once inside, I watched Tyler spit streams of crimson down the bathroom sink. His front teeth had smashed into the steering wheel and been displaced, so that they jutted backward toward the roof of his mouth.

Mother was laid on the sofa. She mumbled that the light hurt her eyes. We closed the blinds. She wanted to be in the basement, where there were no windows, so Dad carried her downstairs and I didn’t see her for several hours, not until that evening, when I used a dull flashlight to bring her dinner. When I saw her, I didn’t know her. Both eyes were a deep purple, so deep they looked black, and so swollen I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. She called me Audrey [Westover’s sister], even after I corrected her twice.

Mother didn’t come out of the basement for a week. Every day the swelling worsened, the black bruises turned blacker. Every night I was sure her face was as marked and deformed as it was possible for a face to be, but every morning it was somehow darker, more tumid. After a week, when the sun went down, we turned off the lights and Mother came upstairs. She looked as if she had two objects strapped to her forehead, large as apples, black as olives. (pp. 52-53).

There’s a lot more of this stuff. There’s a second car accident under almost identical circumstances, with equally serious injuries described at similar length and in similar detail.

Westover and her brothers are repeatedly injured in their capacity as employees of their father’s scrap metal business and their injuries are described at similar length and in similarly graphic detail. Westover’s father isn’t cavalier about occupational safety. That would be putting it too mildly. He is outright contemptuous of it. He seems, in fact, diabolically to court disaster.

One of Westover’s brothers, and then later, her father, accidentally sets himself on fire. We get extended graphic descriptions of both those injuries as well. Here is just a little snippet:

I don’t remember what I saw when I first looked at my father. I know that when Mother had removed the gauze that morning, she’d found that his ears were so burned, the skin so glutinous, they had fused to the syrupy tissue behind them. When I walked through the back door, the first thing I saw was Mother grasping a butter knife, which she was using to pry my father’s ears from his skull. I can still picture her gripping the knife, her eyes fixed, focused, but where my father should be, there’s an aperture in my memory. (p. 281.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I say the book is little more than such descriptions of injuries. I’m not. There are so many violent incidents in the book it’s impossible to keep track of them. There are car accidents, motorcycle accidents, falls, impalements, immolations, assaults. The variety of accidents and injuries staggers the imagination.

Westover’s father never carried any of the heavy pieces of metal that littered his scrap yard to a sorting bin. He just “chucked” them “with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing” (71) … . He orders Westover into a bin of scrap iron that he’s about to dump in order that she can help to “settle it” — as he’s dumping it… ! There’s the “Shear” that Westover’s father acquired for cutting large pieces of scrap metal that was so obviously “lethal” that one of Westover’s brothers called it “a death machine”… . There’s the forklift and “old cheese pallet” that Westover’s father insists on using instead of a “man lift with a basket” (157)… .

The book is generally well written. But why write such a thing? Westover can’t possibly have wanted to relive those experiences. Did an editor put her up to larding the book with gore on the assumption that readers would like it? I was happy for her at the end after it was clear that the rest of her life was going to be better than the portion she had shared in her memoir. Yet I found the book as a whole deeply disturbing

Clearly, it resonates with many readers, however. It was a best seller and has catapulted its author to fame and fortune. It was nominated for numerous awards. The New York Times listed it as one of the ten best books of 2018. Time magazine named Westover one of the most influential people of 2019. President Obama included it in his summer reading list.

Part of the reason for the book’s success is undoubtedly that it dovetails so neatly with the liberal-elite world view. Young woman caught in a world of violence, racism, sexism, separatism and religious extremism, extricates herself from these evils through — education!

There isn’t much in the book, however, about Westover’s education, and what there is runs like a parallel narrative that rarely seems to connect in any meaningful way with the story of Westover’s violent and abusive childhood and adolescence. Westover’s story deserves telling. It could have been told, however, in much less graphic detail. A couple of extended descriptions of accidents would have sufficed. An account, for example, of the first car accident could have been followed by “…and then later, there was a second accident.” The fist burn description could have been followed by “…and then later my father also accidentally set himself on fire, only this time, the burns were even worse than those my brother had suffered.”

It is almost as disturbing to me as reading the book itself to realize that, based on the book’s success, the public clearly has a taste for such gore. Of course I’ve known Americans love violence. The whole world knows that. I had naively assumed, however, that intellectuals were in the minority of consumers of violent entertainment.

James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist and author of several excellent books on violence, writes in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic that all the serial killers he has worked with were abused, either emotionally, or physically, or both, as children. This abuse was so severe, he argues, that their only defense was to deaden themselves emotionally. They feel very little. “This absence of feeling,” he writes, “is described consistently by murderers throughout the world and throughout history….Many murderers,” he explains, “find that the only way to feel alive, since they cannot feel anything emotionally, is to feel physical pain. So they attempt to induce such feelings by cutting or otherwise injuring their bodies” (p. 39).

Well, that’s us, isn’t it? That’s the U.S. Our culture is so bullying, so punitive, so insensitive, so inhumane, even for those in its upper echelon, it has reduced our capacity to feel. We use violent entertainment to shock ourselves into feeling something, anything, even fear and revulsion, just to reassure ourselves that we are alive and capable of feeling. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the success of Westover’s relentless horrific memoir.

Westover may be a great writer, but Educated is not a great book. There’s too little in it that is edifying and too much that’s profoundly disturbing. Westover was ultimately very lucky. If you persevere through the book, you’ll be happy for her. I can’t recommend you do that, though. My recommendation, contrary to President Obama’s, is that you don’t read the book at all.

If you have a taste for violent reading, read Gilligan, and in particular, his Preventing Violence (Prospects for Tomorrow). There’s plenty of gore there, but lots of humanity and wisdom as well. More importantly, while Westover’s book is an account of how one woman escaped from an intolerably violent environment, Gilligan’s books offer a way out for all of us from our intolerably violent culture.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the online political journal Counterpunch.)


On Biblical Inerrancy

Greek text of RomansThe United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States , voted on voted on Tuesday, February 26th, to affirm its official stance that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not all Methodists agree with this view, of course, as is detailed in an article on the vote in The New York Times. Many do, though, hence the outcome of the vote. And Methodists are not the only “Christians” who consider homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. People who hold this view usually justify it by pointing to specific passages in the New Testament that appear to support it. The question is: Does the New Testament unequivocally condemn homosexuality?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is inerrant. What are the implications of that? That means, it would appear, that the Bible can’t be wrong in either descriptive or prescriptive terms. What does it mean, though, to be “right” in those terms? Is the primary purpose of historical narrative to present an accurate reconstruction of past events, or is it to guide readers, or listeners, to teach them something about human folly, human weakness and frailty, with the aim of making humanity’s future better than its past? Is an “accurate” historical narrative one that gets the facts right or one that presents them in a way that will be optimally instructive?

My concern here is not so much with the descriptive nature of biblical narrative as with its prescriptive nature. People who believe in biblical inerrancy often do so because they believe the Bible is God’s speaking directly to humanity and that that message contains rules for how we are to behave. Even if it were the case that the Bible was God speaking directly to humanity, it would not solve the problem of determining what God meant in a particular instance because all communication is meaningful as such only after it has been interpreted, and any interpretation undertaken by people who are assumed to be marred by sin is going to be problematic. “Love your neighbor” seems fairly uncomplicated and yet for some people that means forcing their neighbor to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, while for other people it means positively assisting their neighbor in his efforts to stand on his own.

The idea, however, that the Bible is God speaking directly to humanity is foolishness. God speaking directly would be God speaking directly and not to some specific people who are then tasked with recording the divine message and passing it on to the rest of humanity. The Bible is, by definition, God speaking indirectly to humanity through the agency of specific individuals (and many more individuals, it appears now, than was originally supposed). That, in itself, does not mean the Bible cannot be inerrant, but it does complicate the task of determining what God’s message is.

Add to this the fact that much, if not all of the Bible was undisputedly written long after the events it records and in many instances in a language other than that of its source. Jesus communicated with his followers in Aramaic, so even ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ώς σεαυτόν, let alone “love your neighbor as yourself,” are not Jesus’s original words. Imagine for yourself the potential for alteration that is unavoidably associated with the translation of a message from one language to another and then the passing down of that translation orally from one generation to another for thirty, forty, fifty, or even a hundred years before it is actually written down. Anyone who has ever played a game of “Telephone” knows how badly a message can be mangled even over the course of a single evening, to say nothing of a period that transcends a generation.

Add to that the fact that it is now clear, as Bart Ehrman and others have argued, that portions of the texts of the New Testament were not merely inadvertently changed when, of necessity, they were copied by hand, but deliberately changed to make them more unequivocally reflect evolving church doctrine. Such a practice might seem sinister at first, but it is merely a result of the fact that even the earliest copyists of the writings that eventually became the New Testament realized that the texts they had inherited were themselves interpretations, products of other human hands, inevitably marred by mistakes and misinterpretations that they, with their changes, endeavored to put right.

Paul is now widely believed by scholars not to have said that women shouldn’t preach, that that injunction appeared in a letter that he didn’t even write, but which was erroneously attributed to him. In fact, quite a number of writings that have traditionally been attributed to Paul are now widely believed not to have been written by Paul but by later adherents to the new Christian faith.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that we have the original texts of the New Testament in their pristine and unadulterated form. Even that would not relieve of us the burden of interpretation. Even that would not eliminate all possibility of error in our interpretations. Take, for example, Matthew 13:12: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Revised Standard Version).

To him who has what? What does that passage mean? Is it a reference to how wretched is humanity that it would so order itself that the rich get would get richer and the poor get poorer? That’s how Billie Holiday interpreted it. Does it refer to love, so that it means the more love a person has, the more love that person will receive? That’s how I used to like to think of that passage. It makes sense to me that loving people would tend to be more loved than those who were less loving.

But then one day I became curious and decided to find out what the Greek term was that was translated as “has” in that passage and learned to my surprise that among the many meanings of that term, ἔχω, listed in the online edition of the Liddell-Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, was “to possess mentally, understand.” So the passage might actually mean something like “to him who understands more understanding will be given,” etc.

That meaning actually fits best both with what appears to be the meaning of the preceding passage where Jesus talks about the importance of having “ears” to hear his message, as well as with the line that immediately precedes it (i.e., Matthew 13:11) where Jesus says to his disciples “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, because they understand Jesus’s basic message, they will understand his individual parables and hence gain more understanding with each new parable.

Of course it is possible that the passage means all three of these things at once. That’s part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “the genius of language,” that the same combination of words can have multiple meanings.

What, to pick a passage that is more apposite to the recent decision of the leaders of the United Methodist Church to continue to condemn homosexuality, is the meaning of Romans 1:26-27.

Therefore God gave them to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The Oxford Annotated Bible says

[a]lthough widely read today as a reference to homosexuality, the language of ‘unnatural’ intercourse was more often used in Paul’s day to denote not the orientation of sexual desire but its immoderate indulgence, which was believed to weaken the body (the due penalty).

That makes sense because it sounds like the Greek position more generally, or at least the position of many Greek philosophers and Paul was an admirer of Greek philosophy. Passion, they believed, was suspect because it led to excess and excess is generally bad. Moderation, the Greeks believed, was to be aimed at in all things.

So what does the passage mean? Does it refer damningly to a lack of restraint? Does it mean that excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh is “unnatural” and “shameless”? Does it mean such unrestrained physical passion is bad. Or does it mean only heterosexuality is pleasing to God?

I’m inclined to the former interpretation because a lack of restraint and excessive indulgence in almost anything tends to be self destructive. God’s creatures have a sacred duty to preserve and protect themselves. The main crime, according to Paul, of the people to whom Romans 1:26-27 refers was that they had turned away from God. They did not see themselves as God’s creatures. “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21).

A creator that loves its creatures would not want them to engage in self-destructive behavior. By the same token, however, a creator that is defined as love would presumably approve of the love its creatures had for one another. It seems not only bizarrely arbitrary, but directly counter to what most people like to think of as the core message of Christianity that God would condemn love because it was directed at a purportedly inappropriate object. Such a view doesn’t seem divine. It seems, on the contrary, all too human.

Unfortunately, much of what goes by the name “love” is not genuine love, but actually the instrumentalizing of one person by another, the use of one person merely as a means to another person’s sensuous or egoistical gratification. But that sad practice has no direct relation to sexual orientation. It is as pervasive in heterosexual relationships as in every other purportedly loving relationship including those between friends, siblings, and even parents and children.

Of course it is possible that Paul really did mean to condemn homosexuality as such. Human beings throughout history have condemned certain things as “deviant” simply because they were not the norm. That is the origin of the pejorative connotations of “sinister,” a Latin word that simply means “left.” There was a time when purportedly good, God-fearing Christians believed left-handed people were in league with Lucifer.

Fortunately, few Christians believe that now. They abandoned that view, presumably, because someone actually thought about it a little and decided that it would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings to condemn people simply because they were different.

So if Paul actually meant to condemn homosexuality as such rather than simply to condemn unrestrained physical passion, that would appear to be a place where he erred in his understanding of Jesus’s teaching. We don’t have to assume that’s what he meant, though, at least not in that passage. It isn’t actually all that clear what he meant. We have to try to figure that out for ourselves.

Even for those who believe in biblical inerrancy, the Bible is very far from a comprehensive set of specific rules for how to live. Human existence is just too complex; novel situations are constantly springing up. No set of rules for how to live can cover every conceivable situation. What is needed in order to give human beings instruction in how to live are not specific rules, but general ones.

“Christian revelation was intended,” asserted John Stuart Mill way back in the nineteenth century (Utilitarianism, chapter 2) “to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is.”

I’m inclined, sometimes, to think of Biblical inerrancy as consisting in the inexorable quality of scripture to reveal what lies deepest in people. My mother, whose parents were both ministers in the Assemblies of God church, once said that in her experience religion made good people better and bad people worse.

Don’t be quick to judge the meaning of scripture. Even if the truth is always there somewhere its substance is arguably rarely obvious. One must look deeply into any text in order to divine its true meaning and nowhere is this more true than with the Bible, hence James’s admonition that one must “persevere” when attempting to understand it (James 1:25). Even people who believe in biblical inerrancy must look long and hard into the “mirror” of the New Testament if they want to divine God’s message to humanity there.

So look long and hard into the mirror of what you assume to be God’s word. If what is reflected back to you is anger and condemnation, then look again. Look again and keep looking.

Persevere in your looking until what is reflected back to you is love.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the March 11, 2019 edition of Counterpunch under the title “On Biblical Inerrancy: Some Reflections for United Methodists and Other “Christians.”)





On The Presence of Things

IMG_1991My father died in January and his death has forced me to face a question for which I still have no answer. The issue is the relation of the psyche, or what I will call the “spirit,” to the material world. Since Plato, we’ve tended to think of human beings as defined more by their minds than by their bodies. This view is probably most pronounced among religious people, for whom the material world, including our physical bodies, are encumbrances from which we will one day be liberated. Our attachment to material things, or to physical reality more generally, is viewed as a kind of disease of which we cannot help but long to be cured.

Strive as we might, though, it appears we cannot be cured of it. When a person we love dies, we are almost never content simply to commune with their spirit, or to remember them in our thoughts. We crave relics that testify to their earlier physical reality, their tangibility.

When my father died, I took on the task of clearing out his apartment. This was not merely to help my siblings, but because I wanted to be among his things. It was comforting. In the beginning, when the apartment was just as he left it, it seemed almost as if he were still alive, as if he had just stepped out and might walk through the door any minute. I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but there was something comforting in the fact that his home was still there, just as he had arranged it. It was a physical expression of who he was and it gave him a physical presence even though he could no longer be physically present himself. As the days passed, though, and the apartment was gradually emptied as things were boxed to be shipped or given away, it became excruciatingly painful, like witnessing a wasting away of flesh.

I had difficulty parting with anything and, in fact, I kept many of my father’s things, things I know I will probably never use. Some things, such as the little metal box my sisters and I had bought him when we were children, and which he always used to store his cuff links, I have kept purely as mementos. That box sits now on my own dresser. I open it periodically and examine its contents. There’s nothing in it of any value, only a few pairs of cuff links, and some screws and safety pins, but looking at my father’s things makes me feel closer to him somehow.

My father was a writer. I also have his papers. It isn’t just the thoughts expressed in them, though, that are important to me. I’m attached to the papers themselves, to the faded and dirty typescript of his unpublished novel, to the yellowed copies of his newspaper articles. I’m scanning everything to preserve it and so I can share it with the rest of my family. If I were “prudent” I’d dispose of the originals once the process is complete. I don’t have a lot of storage space. I won’t dispose of the originals, though. I debated doing that and that debate is what prompted these reflections.

Religious people often think that contempt for the material world is supported by scripture. I suppose it is, at least to a certain extent, or in a certain respect. And yet, Genesis has God looking on physical creation and pronouncing it “good.”

Most contemporary philosophers are materialists of some sort. That is, they don’t believe in the non-material “mind” the way Plato did. And yet, the difficulties of reducing inherently subjective mental phenomena to inherently objective neurobiological phenomena, as Tom Nagel famously showed in his now classic article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” appear intractable. The philosopher John Searle is as uncomfortable as are most contemporary philosophers with what is called “substance dualism,” or the view that reality comprises both physical and non-physical substances. To his credit, however, he is unwilling to ignore the difficulties of what is known as “mind-brain reductionism.” Even if you can map all mental phenomena, such as the joy one feels on being in the company of a loved one, onto neurobiological phenomena, you can’t actually completely “reduce” the former to the latter. Something is lost when you do that. We can all see, in principle anyway, the neurobiological phenomena, but we don’t experience the joy they represent. The experience itself is lost in the reduction.

Searle wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to acknowledge the intractability of the problems associated with mind-brain reductionism while at the same time avoiding the stigma of substance dualism. His answer is a new kind of substance monism –– not materialism, but “physicalism.” He believes that materialists operate with a very crude understanding of what it meant for something to be physical, an understanding that had remained essentially unchanged since the Enlightenment. People in the Enlightenment thought they knew what physical substance was. It was solid. It had extension, etc., etc. Searle argues, however, that since the advent of quantum theory we can no longer claim to have a good grasp of what a physical object is, that all of physical reality had become profoundly mysterious.

Perhaps all of reality is one substance, one substance pronounced “good” by God. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to things, to the things that have meant something to us in our lives, such as toys from childhood, awards we have won, things we’ve created with our own hands, or gifts from those we love. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to the things that meant something to those people, even if that meaning was merely utilitarian. Perhaps it is because our things are a physical extension of our selves. Perhaps we feel diminished when we lose something because we are diminished. The artist Al Gury lost nearly everything he had in a fire recently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Memories cannot substitute for the actual physical presence of one’s things. Memory is important, of course. If you couldn’t remember the meaning a thing had for you, then its physical presence would be meaningless. The presence of the thing adds depth, though, to one’s experience of the memory of its significance.

Even more mysterious, I think, is the fact that it is enormously important that the thing in question is the original. A facsimile of a treasured object does not elicit the same depth of emotional response, the same feeling of connection with the past, that the original does. This isn’t a physical property of the object, of course. We can be fooled when some cherished object is broken and then surreptitiously replaced. If we find out this happened, though, we’re disappointed. We want the original. A facsimile is better than memory alone, but it is not the same as the original. Why? Perhaps Searle’s insight holds the answer. Perhaps, if he is right that all of reality is made up of one substance, then it makes a difference whether one has the right bits of it. A facsimile is less “right” than the original.

My father’s things are now spread about my house. His cuff-link box is on my dresser. His books are on my bookshelves. His pictures are on my walls, and the hutch that he made is in my kitchen. I look at these things as I move about the house, and I feel closer to him. Religion, with the exception, to a certain extent anyway, of Catholicism, has tended to discredit this feeling. That is, religion has tended to give spiritual significance to only the non-material, to our memories of those we have lost rather than to their things and the meaning those things have for us. This does a disservice I would argue, however, to human beings, because human beings are physical beings who cannot help but have a deep emotional attachment to physical reality. It does a disservice to creation as well, because physical reality, whatever it ultimately is, is a part of reality, even if, perhaps, it is not the whole of it.

I am taking careful care of my father’s things, and this act of caring for them is comforting. It is, in a strange way, almost as if I am caring for him. It isn’t just his things that have come, since his death, to command my attention. I’m so grateful for the fact that my father existed, that he was a part of physical reality, that I am trying to be a better steward of the whole of it, and that has been enormously comforting as well, though I am still uncertain concerning how best to articulate why.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the  March 7, 2018 issue of Counterpunch. I’m indebted to the editor, Jeff St. Clair, for his excellent suggestion of a title. I am indebted, as well, to a reader, Henry Galmish, for reminding me that Catholicism is better than Protestantism at recognizing the spiritual significance of material reality.)

New Vampire Novel!

_9788763832489October 31, 2017 will be the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg. Perhaps it was the date that gave Danish author and public intellectual Peter Tudvad the idea for his latest book, Manteuffel. “Manteuffel” is an actual German surname that literally means “man-devil.” There could not be a more appropriate name for the protagonist of Tudvad’s novel about a fictional, villainous contemporary and friend of Martin Luther, Friedrich von Manteuffel.

If it wasn’t the date of the anniversary of the birth of Protestantism that inspired Tudvad to write Manteuffel, then it was probably what he learned about Luther while doing the research for his earlier book Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of anti-Semitism). Denmark, which still has a state church, The Danish Lutheran Church, tends to downplay Luther’s moral failings such as his anti-Semitism. Virulent anti-Semitism wasn’t Luther’s only moral failing, however. Tudvad goes into detail in Manteuffel concerning Luther’s approval of a horrifically brutal and bloody suppression of a peasant revolt led by his own fellow protestant reformer, the unfortunate Thomas Müntzer, who was tortured and executed because of his role in the revolt.

Tudvad, who has spent a great deal of time in archives while working on his earlier non-fiction works, begins the novel with a description of how the narrator purportedly discovered Manteuffel’s long-lost correspondence while working in a German archive.

Anyone who has ever researched the history of his family, country, or hero is familiar with the exalted stillness and hushed piety of an archive. It’s not like a library where students hold noisy study-group meetings, or a church, where parents allow their children to yell and scream. Despite all our democratic pretensions, archives have escaped the profanation that has transformed other cultural institutions into transit halls with flat video screens, loudspeakers and lines of people waiting for their number to be called. Here there is no librarian who paternalistically doles out the discipline of fines to those who return books late, and no priest who with maternal solicitude explains when you should rise from the pew and then sit down again.

Instead, there is an archivist who, like a sibyl is initiated into the mysteries, both large and small, of the archive. You explain your project to the archivist as well as you can, because you don’t know yourself in which of the archives the answer to your question is found. You try, though, and the archivist succeeds miraculously in finding, behind the armored door that protects the hidden treasure of the archive, precisely the document that satisfies your thirst. You sit there at the little table, where the soft light from the single small lamp falls generously on the document whose secret shall now be revealed, like a monk in his cell. It occasionally happens that your expectations are immediately disappointed, not over the content, but over your own limited abilities as you struggle to read ancient handwriting or decipher a stenographer’s shorthand. You return to the archivist, who is able not only to locate documents, but also to decipher them, and hence in the best sense reminds one more of a priest than a librarian.

When, after some time, you’ve persevered through the trials of the novice and learned to use an archive properly, entering it is like crossing the threshold to another world. You become one with the archive and all its other users who are like so many limbs on a single body. What these others are searching for is a mystery. You know only that their research is part of the eternal tidal movement of the archive itself. Documents begin to pile up on the table until you have disappeared behind a mountain of the past, while outside the present waits to become ripe enough for archiving. You learn to balance like a stylite on the precise geometrical point where the future slices into the past for the future is the family history, dissertation, or biography on which you are working, and the past is everything that is worth writing about.

Hours pass. You lose all sense of what time it is, fail to notice your own hunger, or how long you’ve sat there without eating or drinking. You remain faithful to your work, despite time wasted on unhelpful documents, like a Catholic praying the Rosary. The work brings with it its own rewards, for while the visible world was dissected and analyzed long ago, measured and counted in its depth and breadth so that it is now no longer possible to learn anything new about it, it is otherwise with the hidden world of an archive. Here you place again your requisition form in the basket on the counter, thank the archivist deferentially when he reappears at the counter with your fulfilled wish, don the white cotton gloves required of those who desire to dig down into the virginal past. And then it happens that you find what you had sought –– or find something entirely different from what you’d sought.

Count Manteuffel had a consuming interest in theological questions and hence conducted an extended correspondence with Luther, as well as with other actual historical figures such as the notorious serial killer Elizabeth Báthory. What, you may wonder, does the famous protestant reformer have in common with a serial killer? All becomes clear in this meticulously researched historical novel.

Manteuffel, it turns out, is a vampire, so there is lots of blood and gore in the book. What distinguishes it, however, from the standard vampire thriller is the richness of meticulously researched historical detail, the depth of analysis of philosophical, theological, and social-political issues, and some genuinely beautiful writing, such as in the passage above.

Luther emerges as, to put it euphemistically, somewhat unsympathetic, not simply because of his association with Manteuffel, who happens to be a particularly gruesome and bloodthirsty vampire, but because of what Tudvad reveals he actually said (or wrote) and did.

Manteuffel is, among other things, a serious indictment of the father of the Protestant Reformation and hence promises to do for Protestantism (or at least Lutheranism) what The DaVinci Code did for, or perhaps it would be better to say “to” Catholicism. Tudvad’s writing is so compelling and convincing that one Danish reviewer actually thought that he had found Manteuffel’s papers in an archive in Germany! The book is an erudite page-turner that would be a blockbuster were it dramatized for the BBC.

Unfortunately, Manteuffel has yet to be translated into English. Fortunately, there is no more opportune time for an English-language publisher to seize upon it. Increasing attention is going to be deservedly focused on Luther this fall and some of the revelations to which that attention will give rise, including the social-political ramifications of Luther’s alliance with feudal authority against peasants, will guarantee continued interest in Luther for a long time to come.

Plus, it’s a book about a vampire. What’s not to like?

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Martin Luther and the Man-Devil in the 4 September 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)