On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?

 

Protecting your Heart from Itself: A Response to “Let’s Talk?”

There is a real tension between talking and doing.  In the present election cycle, establishment politicians are the talkers, and who are the doers?  Well, Trump and his supporters, who are going to “make America great again.”  But notice that just as politicians have their reputation for not getting anything done, Trump and his supporters have their reputation for being unthoughtful and inarticulate.  You have to be one or the other, you can’t be a talker and a doer.

The Bible says that there is a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them.  There is obviously a time for talking and a time for doing.  Talking implies delayed action.  When action is needed, somebody needs to declare that the conversation is over.  On 9/11, Todd Beamer said to his fellow passengers “Let’s roll” before taking on the highjackers of Flight 93.

When people are in danger or pain, it is hard to argue that the conversation should continue.  Pain demands a response.  Pain demands action.  If my arms are full of groceries, and I suddenly feel an ant biting my ankle, then I’m dropping those groceries, milk and eggs be damned.  If I’m addicted to drugs, and my addiction generates extreme pain when I’m off the drug, then I’m taking the drug.

Conversation is an activity of the mind, while doing is an expression of the heart.  It is the heart that needs to be convinced by the mind, not vice-versa.  The default mode is to do, and to do immediately.  If the mind can make a compelling case that action should be put off, that more thought needs to be had, then patience can be achieved — for a while.  But if the heart has to wait too long it loses faith in the ability of the mind to deliver on its promises, and the heart will go it alone.  It can be tragic when this happens.

The saying is true that love is blind.  The heart might know what it wants, but it has no idea how to get it or to keep it.  The heart wants love and affection, but without the mind the pursuit of love and affection from another can become creepy.  It’s a turn off for the beloved.  The mind says wait, the heart says go.  The mind says settle down, the heart says reach out, demand, force.  The heart reveals its own desperation, its weakness, its vulnerability, its willingness to give up everything.  The heart is a self-destructive beggar.  The mind of the beloved asks: why give this beggar my heart?  What here is worth wanting?  The world is indifferent, it says, “that’s not how this works.”

All lasting love is led and informed by the mind.  This is why communication is so important in marriage as it is in politics.  In marriage, our hearts want love, but our mind says first be worthy of love, be virtuous.  This is frustrating, and tests the trust between the heart and the mind.  In politics, our hearts want happiness, but our mind says first have a successful marriage, have a great job, have dignity, have respect.  This is frustrating, and generates resentment after resentment as marriages fail, jobs are lost, and with them, dignity and self-respect.  It gives charge to the self-destructive beggars within us, with frustration giving way to recklessness, failure, and a nod towards death.

We need to protect our hearts and ourselves by being patient and open-minded.  There are ways–some clever, others straightforward–to satisfy our hearts and sooth our frustrations, but we can never make the best use of them if we close ourselves off from the wisdom of the world.  This is why talking matters, in marriage and in politics.  It takes us from quick and easy assumptions to a winning strategy that can go the distance.  Isn’t that what we all want?

Trump, Jerry Springer, and the Destruction of Our Cultural Institutions

In a recent interview, Jerry Springer opined that the public’s dislike of Washington has been brewing for so long that it was inevitable that an outsider would be chosen to shake things up.  Springer smartly observed that such a person would have to be famous, and the main ways of getting famous are through sports and through entertainment celebrity.  So we were bound to one day have an athlete or another type of celebrity with zero political experience make a serious run for the White House.  Springer has endorsed Hillary and is adamantly opposed to Trump’s candidacy.

jerry springer

Springer was asked of course about his violent and trashy tv show, and whether he had more in common with Trump than he was willing to admit.  His defense was that on his show, everyone is a complete unknown.  He said he would not involve famous people in his show because that would harm our society.  It would harm our society because when famous people act badly, people pay attention and copy what famous people do.  If famous people quickly resort to violence, then the rest of society will follow suit.

I think Springer is probably right on everything except in his belief that his hands are clean.  (But who cares about him?)  As much as we hate to admit the we are all influenced by others, especially our close circle of friends and family, and the famous people our close circle of friends and family talk about.  Every time I see someone important in my life doing the right thing, I’m a little more motivated to do the right thing.  Every time I see someone important in my life doing the wrong thing, I’m a little more inclined to do the wrong thing.  Examples matter.  The power of suggestion is real.

This isn’t to say that a famous person can do anything he or she wants and people will imitate him or her.  The rules that we have internalized about right and wrong over the long course of our lives limit what we can be influenced to think, to feel, and to do.  But this is where cultural institutions matter.  Institutions are sets of rules that have acquired an air of authority.  There are institutions shaping the family, shaping religion, shaping national pride.  Parents should take care of their children, God is good and rewards the faithful, the American flag should not touch the ground.  Why do we believe these things?  Because we recognize them as authoritative, rooted in tradition and popular agreement.  We often have little need to question them.

But institutions are on the decline in our culture.  Everything is being challenged and re-thought.  The traditional family, religion, national pride — these things are criticized by us more and more, not respected at all as authoritative.  Why we challenge them is a complicated question we need not answer right away.  What can be observed is that these sources of authority are what compete with the influence of famous people over our lives.  It is no surprise, then, that famous people so often undermine the authority of these institutions. Once they are completely discredited, a new authority — the authority of their own popularity — can emerge.

The reason so many blue collar whites are supporting Trump may not be first of all their economic anxiety, but the slow erosion over time of their respect for the family, religion, the laws, and the Constitution.  They may lack the internal rule set offered by these institutions to resist the external temptations of a flashy, brash-y, celebrity.  They may be hungering for order, for purpose, for meaning, for trust, and for hope.  And they may want to enjoy all of these things while they last, because the alternative they had just been experiencing is a vast internal emptiness.

Trump and the Wall

Trump’s Wall is similar to JFK’s call to put a man on the moon.  It is big, it is ambitious, and it is declared in the face of tremendous skepticism.  It promises a great sense of accomplishment for our nation, a great act of self-assertion.  Gingrich last time around tried something like this in proposing to start a colony on the moon.  It was ambitious, but there wasn’t any appetite for it.  A great nation project can’t just be big, it has to match the taste of the nation.  Romney called Gingrich “zany” for proposing it, as I recall, and it hurt his campaign.

The Wall has sustained Trump’s campaign and shows that it does match the current taste of the nation.  Why is that?

china_great_wall_from_a_distance_

It serves a variety of purposes.  One, the Wall is the cornerstone of any Republican plan to fix illegal immigration.  This is the lesson of history from Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants — the border wasn’t secure and the problem returned.  The problem matters to blue collar Americans because it is hard enough to make a living while competing with those here legally.  Employers will hire illegal immigrants because they will work for cheaper wages.

The Wall appeals to our national pride and the desperation of many to find a good job, to get a better car, to pay down some debt.  We’ve had 9/11, the recession, and a transforming global economy.  The Wall isn’t just functional.  It’s symbolic of a country than can do anything it puts its mind to and is willing to take care of its own.

So why does Trump take so much heat?  The answer is simple: he used the idea of the Wall to go hard after a big slice of the white vote.  He depicted Mexico as the great villain.  Mexicans coming into the country illegally were called rapists and drug dealers.  The drug epidemic in places like New Hampshire is said to be the work of Mexicans.  Many of the jobs leaving the country are said to be going to Mexico.

He made Mexicans into villains in order to justify tough anti-Mexican policies.  Mexico will pay for the Wall or suffer a trade war. Mexican illegal immigrants, along with all other illegal immigrants, are going to be deported.  Even the children of illegal immigrants born here will be deported.  The precedent he cited for this government action was Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback.”  He threw Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, got in a public dust up with Telemundo, later said he doesn’t trust anything Univision says.

There have been no olive branches extended by Trump or his campaign to Mexico, to the Mexican-American community, or to the Latino community, beyond saying that “the good ones can come back in.”  He proudly accuses everyone else running for president as being “weak on immigration.”

There are a lot of good reasons why we probably should build some sort of Wall on the southern border.  Trump acknowledges some of them.  But he goes way beyond that because he clearly doesn’t believe that a great national project matching the taste of the nation will win him the election.  He therefore self-consciously juices his sales pitch by appealing to white Americans in a racist way.  This embarrasses his supporters, and they often admit to feeling the heat, because 1. they are seen as biting on a racially infused message, and 2. we all see them cheering as much or more at his anti-Mexican applause lines and confrontational theatrics as they do at his calls for jobs, national pride, and taking care of our own.

It’s too bad Trump estimated America’s current greatness as non-existent.  He might have calculated differently, that a respectable campaign would be the key to victory.  He might have worried about the harm such a campaign would cause.  Instead, he’s motivated by a dog-eat-dog attitude, and he doesn’t care.

3 End of Year Observations

  1.  There is tremendous confusion over the authority of religion.  Gay marriage is now legal in the United States after a long and bitter culture battle.  ISIS is a serious threat, making religion seem uniquely accommodating to extremism and hence an unfortunate institution altogether.  Scripture is constantly under scrutiny by those looking to either smear it or use it to smear others as hypocrites.  Religion finds itself on the run, except mainly for a Pope that resonates with many for championing the causes of the poor and disadvantaged.  Religion did also put some points on the board this year in the aftermath of the South Carolina church massacre.  Religious faith seems to have overcome hatred there through the saving power of forgiveness.  But the broader takeaway seems to be that the way forward is to recognize that everything we find good in religion is already present in one political ideology or another.  All of this widespread irreverence toward our civilization’s great seers and truth-tellers is remarkable.  Who among us is prepared to replicate their achievements, and usher in the next great epoch?  Who among us even tries to understand their messages?
  2. This lifetime is not going to be enough to learn everything I want to learn, no matter how many years I get.  Nor, for that matter, will it be long enough for me to grow in spirit and character as far as I would like.  But my dissatisfaction with the amount of time I have in this world is offset by my growing conviction that this world is in many ways perfect for me.  If there is another life, I hope that at least another segment or two of it can be spent back here.
  3. I think I’ve learned more staring at my first-born child these last two weeks than I ever would have imagined.  I can’t say what exactly I’ve learned, but looking at her has been the most illuminating experience I think I have ever had without the aid of words.

“Discovering” the Right to Gay Marriage

The United States has just discovered in its Constitution the right to gay marriage.  So, this raises the question: what does it mean to discover a right?

This immense national event having many dimensions, I’m going to dance around several things here, beginning with the concerns over constitutional democracy.  My confession is that I’m basically now stuck between the opinion on one side that the writers of the Constitution never contemplated a right to gay marriage and the opinion on the other side that the writers of the Constitution did nevertheless contemplate the limits of their own contemplation.

But the Constitution, it has thus occurred to me, does, generally speaking, invite philosophical discovery.  James Madison, some scholars argue, for a time opposed the idea of a Bill of Rights because he thought it might dampen such discovery.  Listing out a bunch of rights might suggest that those mentioned were the only rights, or maybe the way the amendments were written would leave Americans with a deficient and narrow understanding of them.  Madison also worried in the Federalist Papers about the cloudy medium of language and how poorly it communicated meaning, and how limited the mind was at discerning ideas in the first place.  Hence (more or less, I’m certainly not an expert here) we get the 9th (and 10th) Amendment, which the Court has relied on sparingly because it basically writes a blank check to the people allowing ideas of rights to expand as necessary.  It is so wide open that, as far as I understand it, the Court doesn’t know what to do with it most of the time.

Justice Thomas in his dissent tried to say that the “liberty” protected under our Constitution is strictly negative liberty, but rather than arguments in favor of negative liberty he leaves us with definitions of how Framers and philosophers have used the term.  A point I don’t think he sufficiently makes is that trustworthy philosophers don’t come along very often.  In that sense, we should keep in mind what certified trustworthy philosophers have said in that past, like John Locke.  New philosophical discoveries cannot legitimately or logically occur by simply forgetting previous philosophical discoveries.

Chief Justice Roberts is likewise very skeptical of the practice of philosophical discovery in his dissent, and repeatedly points out that the Supreme Court is comprised of lawyers (not philosophers or theologians or prominent social scientists).  Furthermore, he ties this case with Lochner, seeing it as another case of where pop-philosophy wrongly becomes a catalyst for judicial activism.  C.J. Roberts thus seems to be even more against philosophical discovery than J. Thomas.  Rather than counsel us to remember what previous philosophers have discovered, C.J. Roberts counsels the Court that lawyers are not suited for philosophical discovery at all.  It isn’t clear how strong he means this — if perhaps philosophers were serving on the Court, would then he perhaps be more comfortable?

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, seems to think philosophical discovery is a crucial activity for the Court to engage in.  He himself, a la J. Thomas, even briefly cites a philosopher in Alexis De Tocqueville.  So what is philosophical discovery, and did J. Kennedy get it right?  What has happened when we say that a philosopher (or a Justice) has discovered something?

I can’t tackle this question now, but I do have a few closing thoughts on what I saw in J. Kennedy’s opinion.  He wrote about universal human dignity and the suffering that is loneliness.  He wrote about marriage in the strongest possible terms, as the fulfillment of the human experience, that it “embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”  And he wrote about homosexuality as an immutable identity.  Somewhere in the intersection of all these ideas is the philosophical discovery that J. Kennedy believes has been now revealed.  Interestingly, the right to gay marriage has been revealed not by any particular leading philosopher in this case.  It seems to have been made visible by the slow erosion of once dominant beliefs, prejudices and social concerns.   It thus appears that democracy deserves a lot of credit here, but we must also remember that democracy is not a philosopher, and can never be.  Democracy leaves us no philosophical treatise to study, scrutinize, believe in, or teach.  This doesn’t mean democracy is wrong, but it does mean that democracy probably just received a dubious promotion in popular esteem, and that opponents to democratic will (minorities) will consequently look even more prejudicial and paranoid and intolerable.

The only way to fix this problem isn’t by taking back the right to gay marriage and going back to handling the issue “democratically.”  What we do need, I think, now more than ever, is actually a philosopher who can stand in as our newest moral-political authority, to present us with the philosophical roadmap, the necessary arguments, so this issue can evolve from a contest of wills to a contest of ideas, where all philosophical discoveries–past, present, and future–belong.  Perhaps such a philosophical roadmap already exists “out there,” but unfortunately I didn’t see it in J. Kennedy’s opinion, nor did any of the Justices writing in dissent.  Do you know of a good candidate?