I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: March 2016

The moral implications of individualism and collectivism

The moral implications of the question of individualism verses collectivism have been a splinter in my mind since I first studied the issues around ten years ago. Some cultures—like Western cultures, especially American culture—view the individual as an autonomous unit, responsible for all of his/her own decisions. Other cultures emphasize broader social units: decisions are made by groups (or by leaders within groups), and people identify not primarily a free agents but as members of a familial or social group. (More here.)

The books I’ve read about this, from the likes of Harry Triandis and Geert Hofstede, have emphasized that both individualism and collectivism create social problems. Individualism’s focus on the individual creates problems like pathological self-centeredness and high divorce rates—in short, a personal ethic that extends no further than individual desire, and a social ethic than recognizes nothing more than mutual consent (even if this produces inconsistent judgments in some cases). Collectivism’s tendency toward in-group/out-group dichotomies promotes things like discrimination and genocide.

From the perspective of cultural relativism, there’s nothing more to say. Cultural relativism doesn’t allow cultures to be compared along a moral dimension, since morality too is relative in that framework. I, however, believe in morality—even absolute morality—and so am faced with a quandary. Do cultures really just choose between divorce and genocide? Should we split the difference, as India and Spain seem to do? At what point is it illegitimate for a society to intrude on the actions of the individual? At what point should individual desires be subordinated to the group life?

I myself stand out as an individualistic person in the most individualistic society in the world. I was chided in high school for my lack of school spirit. I don’t have any branded clothing except what I may have picked up at a thrift store. I’m not patriotic (though I am proud of some aspects of American culture). In my bones, I just don’t care about group identity. On the other hand, the perils of individualism are plain for me to see: the aforementioned divorce (along with a general lack of loyalty to family), lack of interest in civic life, selfishness, and so forth. So I’m an individualist with strong reservations about individualism. My experience in a more collectivist society has shown me both some strong points and weak points of collectivism: the tendency on the one hand for the individual to be steamrolled by (in this case) the family, but on the other hand the strong family ties that exist, and the individual’s commitment to the welfare of people beyond his immediate family.

All of this a prelude to a distinction that occurred to me this morning as potentially helpful. By way of introduction, here are four decisions that, as an individualistic American, I would expect to make for myself.

  1. Who to marry
  2. Whether or not to kill someone
  3. What I do for a living
  4. What religion I practice, if any

As an American, the very idea that someone would make these decisions for me produces a wave of revulsion. Am I not free? Can’t I make my own decisions? I have rights! The full emotional and intellectual response, etc.

Where I live, most people would generally not make these decisions on their own, but to follow the decision of the head of household, or the broader family (#2 in special circumstances only, of course, like an honor killing). As an American, I bristle at that. And yet, I see that arranged marriages don’t produce notably unhappier marriages, and that most people would never think of choosing their own profession. (In fact, I’ve basically come around on the idea of arranged marriages.) The problem is that I’m certain that my reaction mixes some legitimate moral concern and some American culture—how to distinguish these?

Here’s the distinction I’ve realized. Decisions #1 and #3 are matters of preference; decisions #2 and #4 are matters of conscience. I’m slowly arriving at the conclusion that cultures can “legitimately” delegate matters of preference to units larger than the individual. On the other hand, matters of conscience need to remain in the hands of the individual. When the group makes a decision in a matter of conscience, I may bristle as an individualistic American, but that’ just a cultural difference. When the group makes a decision for an individual in a matter of conscience, then the culture has perverted the moral order. (As all cultures do, one way or another: Tim Keller said once that all cultures take good things and turn them into ultimate goods. I think that is a very elegant way of describing things.)

To take this a bit further, even an American can recognize that #1 and #3 are not only up to the individual. Maybe I love Jane, but Mary is the only one willing to marry me. Maybe I want to be a doctor, but I can’t get into medical school. These are cases were my preferences may be strong, but not determinative. If I can’t marry the person I want, or if I can’t get the job I want, then that’s disappointing, but I haven’t been forced to violate my conscience. But if I don’t want to kill someone and society requires me to, or if I want to change my religion and society will not allow me to, then I am forced to violate conscience. (C.S. Lewis helped me to realize that the former is why I am a pacifist.)

This doesn’t solve the problem for me, but I feel like there is a seed of a solution here. I feel like I have at least some intellectual traction in parsing out my emotional/moral/spiritual responses to various cultures.

Losing Faith

In graduate school I once attended a one-man show, put on by an Australian who was visiting a friend of mine. We had chatted a bit before the show, and it turned out that he and I were about the same age. As I watched him cavorting around the stage—in a way entirely appropriate to the performing arts, but still, he was a grown man—I had a very clear sense: that could never be me. Odd as it seems to me now, I had never really considered that certain paths of life were effectively off-limits to me.

This essay is prompted by reflections about the nature of the Christian faith, and about how that faith is alternately gained or lost. Any change in a person’s ultimate beliefs about reality is quite a remarkable thing; it’s perhaps for that reason that changes in religion are relatively infrequent among adults. I’ve known three or four people to leave the Christian faith, who were Christians as adults. When I think about those people, part of me has a similar feeling as with the guy on the stage—that could never be me. But another part of me says: that could certainly be me. And (more provocatively) that is like the thought you get when standing on a cliff or the edge of a tall building: I could jump off. The immediacy of the possibility is somehow gripping.

The Christian faith is unique among the world’s religions, I believe, in that it is founded on a single historical fact: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19; ESV)

The whole edifice is built on a single event, one Sunday morning, not quite two thousand years ago. Here I contrast historical fact with (say) a set of propositions or a logical proof. I cannot believe that Christ rose from the dead in the same way that I believe in the Pythagorean Theorem. I have to believe that Christ rose from the dead in the same way that I believe in my wife’s faithfulness—as a contingent fact, one which can never be known with absolute certainty, but which is established on the basis of relationship—and indeed a relationship that would be destroyed ipso facto if I demanded the rigorous sorts of evidence that I would demand in mathematical demonstration.

The other major faiths are founded on religious texts. The Qur’an is its own witness; the Tanach simply is. The Bible is probably unique among religious texts in identifying a single particular fact which, if falsified, would bring the whole thing down. (Paul is not doubting the Resurrection in the text above, but is instead highlighting its importance for the Corinthians: as if to say, if there were no gravity we would fly off into space, toward certain death in the absence of the sun’s warmth.)

Historical facts are flimsy in at least a few ways. There is in the first place the logical possibility that the disciples overpowered the guards and stole the body—or that some or all of the gospel accounts were simply fabricated. (There’s no external corroboration for or against the miraculous claims, so one’s view on those matters will be a recapitulation of what one has decided a priori to be possible.) The five hundred people who Paul cites as witnesses to the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6) have now all fallen asleep, so I am denied immediate access to the eye witnesses—not that, if I were inclined to doubt, that would not beget ever more elaborate objections about the nature of eyewitness evidence.

Historical facts are also flimsy in that one’s acceptance a given fact is strongly dependent (as noted above) upon one’s worldview, and consequently upon the company that one keeps. Example: In the middle of our city there is a religious shrine frequented by white pigeons. All of the pigeons near the shrine are white; elsewhere in the city the pigeons are the usual greyish color. The local story is that a bird that spends forty days at the shrine turns white. I don’t believe this for a second. Of course I have no explanation for why the white birds are concentrated in that very part of the city, but it’s certainly not evidence some supernatural bird-whitening force. It’s simply not possible in my worldview.

And the company one keeps. The go-to example here is the Flat Earth Society, but any survey of the public will reveal that large numbers of people hold nonsensical beliefs, and are reinforced in these beliefs by their respective communities. One is struck by the very flexibility of belief. This is amply demonstrated in any of the instances of paradigm shift provided by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Just before the paradigm shift, the entire scientific community is a reactionary anti-empirical mob. After the paradigm shift, they are once again aligned to reality. Of course, there is no guarantee that the paradigm shift occurs.

One cannot help but see the applicability of these facts to one’s own situation. My beliefs are undoubtedly communally conditioned—and I say that as a person who stands out as individualistic in the most individualistic society on earth. Our globe apportions the faith of its citizens in groups of billions: to believe anything or nothing is to believe that an awful lot of people have deceived themselves rather thoroughly.

Two things follow on from these reflections. The first is an idea from Joseph Ratzinger’s excellent non-introductory book, Introduction to Christianity. He observes that the fact that the person who embraces faith and the person who rejects faith can never be entirely certain. That lack of certainty is perhaps the strongest point of contact between a believer and a non-believer.

The second thing is to consider the role that the community of faith plays in the maintenance of faith. I believe it is uncontroversial to say that loss of faith is generally preceded by a disconnection from the faith community. I am aware of exceptions, but I believe that on the whole the pattern holds. Among adults I have known who have turned away from the Christian faith as adults—as I mentioned, three or four people—I believe that a separation from Christian community preceded the loss of faith.

This ineluctably leads to the suggestion: “Aha! There is no such thing as faith in Christ: it is simply a large group of people playing make-believe, and as soon as they’re apart, the game ends.” I don’t wish to be dismissive of such an argument because (as noted above) that is more or less my own analysis of the billions of people in the world who see things differently from me. But to acknowledge the communal dimension of Christian faith has no bearing on the truth of Christian beliefs. That would be as illogical as scattering a brazier of coals and concluding from the coals’ subsequent cooling that there is no such thing as fire, or scattering a sports team and conclude therefrom that there is no such thing as football.

I confess freely that I make every intellectual effort to conform my heart mind to the Christian faith. Repeated prayers, reading of Scripture, a consistent semi-liturgical structure: aside from offering meet worship to the Creator, a substantial portion of that time is devoted to transforming my own mind. And one cannot devote such energies to forming one’s character without at least thinking, “I sure hope I’ve got this right.”

As an exegete-in-training I must point out that the Bible has no idea of individual Christians. The community is the locus of salvation, which is why the unity of the community is so important in, e.g., the letters of Paul. A great deal of theological shoehorning is required to make an inherently communitarian faith relevant to the individualistic West. So, to update my earlier sentence, one cannot live in community with others without thinking, “I sure hope we’ve got this right.” (Actually, I run with a pretty fringe crowd, and we live in sort of an extreme context—if we’ve got it wrong, we’ve got it really wrong—so I have thoughts like that a lot.)

When I was younger I was much enamored of worldview analysis, tracing broad historical movements using intellectual commitments as a guide. So for example, Augustus accepts ascriptions of divinity, and within a few generations Nero has made his horse a senator. Eugenics aims to improve the bloodstock of the human race, and within a few generations we have the racial policies of the Third Reich. The hidden implications of ideas work out historically. While there’s a liability to blunt analysis and over-interpretation, on the whole I think there’s a lot to it.

More recently I have become more interested in the way that decisions are reinforced and amplified over time, the way that habits form character for good or for evil. Why can’t I run a marathon today? Not because of any one decision, but because of thousands of decisions not to train for a marathon—or rather the lack of any conscious decision to that effect. Why can I read the New Testament in Greek today? Not because of any one decision, but because of thousands of decisions to spend about 20 minutes a day on it, for about five years. Why can’t I love my enemy today? Why doesn’t material wealth have as much of a draw as it once did? Why I am a tea person and no longer a coffee person? Why I am married to the woman I am married to? Why do my children exist? I am constantly walking through a multi-dimensional universe of watershed moments. Sometimes an early decision has permanent effects; sometimes they have to be reinforced constantly. Recognizing this is probably the most important intellectual development in the last fifteen years of my life. Fifteen years ago I had the Romantic (or, perhaps just the young man’s) infatuation with spontaneity, freedom, and individual choice. I have now torn down the poster that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” In its place I have, “Today is the day you’ve been training for your entire life.”

I think the decision to remain in community is one of those decisions. A decision to be in Christian community is a decision to amplify the Christian resonances, and dampen non-Christian resonances. By the same token, choosing to engage in a non-Christian community is a decision to dampen the Christian resonances, and to embrace whatever else is there. It is surprising that this is true, given that even the best Christian community is not very Christ-like; but there you go.

Politics and postmodern decision making

In his article “Equality” (The Spectator, CLXXI, pg. 192) C.S. Lewis identified two arguments in favor of democracy, one of which he considered valid, the other invalid. The valid argument democracy is that people are inherently sinful, and that there is every reason to suppose that people who are given power will abuse it. If the people are given a voice in selecting their leaders, the leaders are less likely to abuse their positions. I take this to be uncontroversial. The invalid argument in favor democracy is that people are inherently good and wise, and therefore deserving of having a share in governing. Quite the opposite, Lewis says: “I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors.”

Our current political season is of course dominated by people who believe advertisements, think in catchwords, and spread rumors. Indeed, if there’s been anything else going on I’ve missed it entirely. This, and other developments, have given me occasion to reflect on the nature of communal decision making.

The humanism that Lewis criticizes can be updated to postmodernism. There is no notion of inherent goodness, but rather a claim that all individual claims to truth are power plays designed to assert power. If somebody claims to be interested in truth rather than power, then that is just a sneaky way of trying to seize power. One can develop a political morality from this analysis in two ways. You can either try to be the strongest and seize power, which was popular in Germany from the time of Nietzsche until around 1945, or you can develop a pluralistic society that somehow assigns weight to all points of view. There is no ultimate reality, in this analysis, there is just a sort of negotiated middle ground, which merely has to be defended against the baddies who make such manipulative power plays as to claim that 2+2 really does equal 4, that the world really is round, that you really shouldn’t murder.

I’ll then update Lewis in this way. When we are making decisions as a group—whether in a committee for an organization, or even at the societal level—there are two reasons that we would seek to involve a diverse group of people. The first reason—the legitimate reason—is that each of us has our own perspective on the world, but none of us sees the entire picture. “Where there is no guidance a nation falls, but there is success in the abundance of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14, NIV). The second reason is that there is no actual reality—no actual best solution—so that the best we can do is try to appease a variety of power centers. The group decision is simply a negotiation of competing interests.

An example of the importance of taking in a diverse set of views. In the 1990s police developed the “broken window” principle: if police kept after people in a neighborhood about seemingly trivial details, it raised the image of a neighborhood as a whole, leading to a decrease in crime. Something as simple as enforcing trivial municipal ordinances (i.e., broken windows, loitering) actually leads to a decrease in violent crime. I’ve read about the broken window principle in a variety of articles; Malcolm Gladwell discussed it in one of his books. It’s a great story because it seems like a win-win: enforce the laws, communities improve, crime drops. Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve found that there’s another point to view to that: that the police are harassing poor people—who, given current demographics, are more likely to be black people. Given that every interaction with the police carries a certain probability of someone getting shot—even if that probability doesn’t seem to depend on race—then the broken window principle means larger numbers of black people getting shot by the police. That’s not competing visions of reality; it’s mathematics. But I did not consider the mathematical logic until I had reason to think about things from another perspective. That’s why I know we need to rethink the broken window principle.

An example of illegitimate decision-making from diverse views. One time a committee chair was reporting on a controversial decision. He said that all of the members of a committee who voted in favor did so for his/her own reason. There was no single, widely-accepted argument in favor of making that particular decision. This is foolishness. Even if that committee had representatives of every point of view, and even if they had all individually considered the matter wisely, it is apparent that their discussions didn’t lead to any shared conclusion about reality. It wasn’t a discussion, it was a poll.

Even as I write this I have that sinking feeling you get when you realize that the idea you’re putting forward is unlikely to be understood, much less implemented. Is a lively debate about reality, leading to conclusions about reality, and then to a decision based upon reality, too much to ask? For the most part, it seems that the answer is ‘yes’.  Certainly at the national level, none of our political structures is oriented towards developing consensus and moving forward. They’re aimed rather at the baser second-tier democracy of determining the will of the majority. At lower levels—levels at which I participate—I am a little more hopeful… a little more.

Loving Trump Supporters

This is not as good as I had hoped it would be, but run out of steam and want to be able to stop thinking about it, so here goes…


Like any other politically observant person, my reaction to the Trump phenomenon has shifted over the last few months from amusement to confusion, and finally to horror. I have some ideas about the mechanics of how Trump has succeeded in the media, but I am largely befuddled by the relatively widespread support that Trump has received in the Republican nomination process. I understand can understand the appeal of Clinton, Bush, and Obama as leaders. I cannot understand how anyone can stand to be in the same room as Trump. Surely part of the secret of his success is that it is almost impossible to take him seriously as a person, so that he is always underestimated. But how could anyone support him?

I confess that Trump produces a feeling of loathing deep within me, hitherto reserved for Nazis and pedophiles. The recent description “everything we teach our children not to be” resonates. And yet he has his supporters, and a substantial portion of the electorate at that—not the entire population, but apparently those who care enough to vote in primaries, whom one would imagine to be the better sort. The idea of anyone supporting Donald Trump produces a range of questions, but I will stick to: Why?

I think it will be uncontroversial to say that nobody is voting for Trump over moral issues. The phrase “unrepentant serial adulterer,” which appeared somewhere in my Facebook feed, seems accurate, given his Wikipedia article and his public statements. Trump claims to be a Christian, but also says he has never asked for God’s forgiveness; this means that no person who understands what it means to be a Christian (much less an evangelical Christian) could take Trump’s claim to faith seriously. I can take him at his word if he is using the word “Christian” as it was used in my elementary school days­­­­—as a sort of ethnic label—to mean “not Jewish.” Similarly, I take heart in the polls that show much lower Trump support among churchgoers, rather than just among “evangelicals” (which, in that context at least, appears to have become a proxy term for “white trash”). So I set aside any possible moral or religious appeal.

Trump is an inarticulate person ranting incoherently at the status quo. This is an important point of contact between him and the average American. Most people are not terribly well-informed about political and economic issues. Polls routinely show Americans’ ignorance of basic civics issues (e.g., the identity of our leaders, various constitutional rights, etc.). So, if you’ve got a candidate whose analysis of the American political and economic scene is little more than an inarticulate grunt of frustration, that resonates with a lot of people. I don’t think that the appeal of this should be underestimated.

Still, I believe that economic issues play the biggest role. Various commentators have suggested that the Trump and Sanders candidacies have largely played on working class dissatisfaction with globalization—the increasingly competitive global marketplace, which generates wealth by leveling the economic playing field across nations. American manufacturing has hollowed out; there are studies that indicate that wages have been stagnant in real terms for people without a college degree, since the early 1980s.

Trump has been successful with less-educated people; Sanders has been successful with more-educated people. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Who do you blame for the world’s problems? Generally not people who occupy vastly different social stations. It’s natural for white collar people to blame “Wall Street” for financial problems, because they are their white-collar peers. If they’re not direct competitors for jobs and resources, they’re at least natural targets for envy. By the same token, it’s natural for less educated people to fault immigrants, who are their competitors in the manufacturing and services sectors.

(This is basic human nature. What prompts envy in the heart of a linguist? A successful surgeon? No, I’m not a surgeon; it’s not even my world. An astronaut? No, they’ve got great jobs, but it’s not my path. One of the elder statesmen of linguistics? No, I reverence them. It’s own peers who generate feelings of envy: those producing the publications that I wish I were producing.)

(Of course, as I’ll note below, blue collar workers at least understand who represents an economic threat. I am amazed at the white collar narrative that America is a country of great, hardworking people, but that the Wall Street thugs are tricking us and stealing our money. It’s a familiar story if you have any experience with the mentally ill: “I used to have it all man, but then this so-and-so tricked me, and I lost it all! Someday I’ll teach him a lesson.”)

The first humility check for me, then, is that I am not in the socioeconomic class that is hit hard by globalization. Computer programming jobs—which would probably be my most lucrative option if I were in the traditional workforce—are not in danger of being sent overseas any time soon. (I’m not actually part of the normal economy, anyway, but that doesn’t matter psychologically: I know that any time I wanted to I could walk away from my current situation and make two or three times as much money. Moreover, I have no reason to fear for the future economic well-being of my sons.) So my desire to welcome immigrants from all over the world carries zero personal cost. They’re not threatening my livelihood, and—at least in the places where I’ve lived in America—their assimilation issues do not really affect my life. Who wouldn’t be generously inclined in my situation? “What credit is it to you? The pagans do as much…”

Nevertheless, the moral argument for globalization is clear. If two people are willing to do the same job, and the first has the lower bid, but I choose the second instead because he is an American and the first is something else, then I find that to be morally unacceptable. I feel that I’m on rock-solid moral ground there. At the same time, I can’t pretend that it is personally costly for me to accept that argument.

That said, I am not prepared to conclude that anyone who is opposed to immigration, or who is in favor of trade protectionism, is personally motivated by racial animus. It may just be economic self-interest. If I dig ditches for $20/hour and someone comes into the country willing to do it for $10/hour, then that person is a threat to my livelihood, whether the person is English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, African American, Mexican, or whatever. This, I think, is why America has a history of short-lived animus against recent immigrants. It’s always been clear who the competitors are, and the racial/ethnic labels are laid over the economic concerns.

(Given that nowadays American racial issues tend to break across skin color, it is funny to imagine discrimination among rival European immigrants. Still, a friend of mine is from a Portuguese family who changed their name long ago to avoid discrimination. It’s similarly difficult for me to take seriously the insistence of my British friends that English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, etc. are all different groups. And it took five years at least before I could begin to pick out the differences in facial features that distinguish the similarly-hued ethnic groups here in my adoptive country, and I’m still not very good at it.)

Another nasty thing about Trump is the anti-Muslim animus—the call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for instance. I can’t really find a perspective from which this makes sense. I have this in my favor personally: that I’ve met hundreds of Muslims, and never one terrorist. Still, it’s not as if I had to meet those people before concluding that not all Muslims are terrorists.

I’m then left with what, morally, feels like accepting the null hypothesis: these yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television. As I’ve previously written, I’m not really comfortable assigning people the category of moral cipher—people whose moral judgments are simply a result of sociological conditioning rather than reasoned reflection. But I’m not really sure how I can reconcile that discomfort with the facts before me.

“These yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television.” Of course, it’s at least a little more complicated than that. There are competing narratives in the media as well, and there is profit to be made in pushing false dichotomies. It’s how they get attention, how they get advertising revenue. (Who doesn’t enjoy controversy? Who doesn’t enjoy criticizing people of the other camp?) That’s not all the news that’s available, but it’s not hard to find a news diet that features nothing but invented controversies. I think that in historical perspective it will certainly become clear the damage that this has done to our national discourse. It pushes people away from subtlety and common sense.

I think for instance of the controversy, I believe now six years old, over the “Ground Zero Mosque.” One didn’t so much become aware of the plans for building a cultural center, as of the controversy over people’s reactions to it. Some were affronted at the idea; others called those people anti-Muslim bigots. That was the story, and those were the only two positions. “These people are gloating over the destruction of the World Trade Center.” “We have to repudiate the claim that there is any association between Islam and terrorism.” It was the equivalent of the old joke: have you stopped beating your wife? There dichotomy contains an implicit assertion, which is somehow not available for analysis. There were secondary controversies as well. “It’s not even a mosque, it’s a cultural center with a prayer space”—irrelevant non-arguments produced for the benefit of people who wanted to feel better informed than the other side. I followed the coverage fairly closely, and it was some time before I read what seemed to be the only sane opinion about the matter (I believe from Charles Krauthammer): no one holds present-day Germans responsible for the Holocaust, but you still don’t build a German cultural center right outside of Auschwitz. Good taste alone provides the middle ground. No surprise, the common-sense observation was barely discussed.

Repeated controversy. Repeated false dichotomies. Tribal affiliations based on loyalty to opinion leaders. It sounds like Fox News vs. MSNBC, but these forces have been around for a while. There’s a reason the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cater to different audiences.

I am aware that this brings me back to the narrative that I mocked earlier: the American people are decent and generously inclined, but the cable news executives manipulate them into being prejudiced!

It’s the same narrative, and yet different. People generally consume media to be reinforced in their existing opinions rather than to discover new facts and arguments. That may be human nature, but it is not morally neutral. I believe that there is an intellectual responsibility to consider different points of view, to gather a variety of perspectives, and—shocking, I know—to discard analyses that presuppose false dichotomies. I’m not saying that everyone need possess the intellectual capacity to absorb the entirety of a complex situation and then look at it from different angles. But wisdom doesn’t require that we be able to compute all the possibilities, because it’s always possible to listen to other people.

The fault in being a Trump supporter, then, isn’t so much the decision to support Trump, as the meta-decision, made years ago and perhaps unconsciously, to be formed by certain types of sources: which can mean specifically alarmist and controversialist news media, but can mean more generally a limited intellectual diet. It could also mean past decisions to engage with one’s own cultural and linguistic group, when others were available. (Different parts of the country enable that to different degrees, I suppose.) Those far-off decisions have begotten present-day Trump support. Wisdom is known by her children, indeed.

It’s far easier for me to identify with weakness along this intellectual access. I’ve got a better record in maintaining  intellectual diversity in politics, for instance, than in theology and biblical studies. So then, what are my blind spots? In what areas of my life am I content not to be challenged? Those are the areas that might, in now-unforeseeable circumstances, lead me to embrace morally reprehensible positions.

It would be nice if I could make a short checklist and then mop up the extra bits. I expect that the reality is that I’ll be repenting of some things in eternity—not Trump, but then I doubt that will be the most decision I make in life.


Ten Questions

Today I took a half-day for prayer, reflection, and Bible study, reflecting on how my life is going and how things should change. Along with many more personal reflections I developed a list of questions, which are below. I welcome anyone’s input. (Your answer to #1 might be more of a guess, unless you’ve known me in years past. After #1 they got a little more general.)

  1. Have I always needed nine hours of sleep? Or is that new? It’s not hard to believe that I was previously chronically sleep-deprived.
  2. How does one balance the need for personal time with the need to spend time with the spouse and children?
  3. How can learners be made (to speak frankly) to accept responsibility for their language learning?
  4. How can I embrace a vocation of suffering when—so far—increased stress levels have harmed family life? How do I protect my family without that being an open-ended license for laziness and self-indulgence?
  5. How can I satisfy my intellectual (and moral? and spiritual?) need to articulate the rottenness of a given situation, without discouraging others and prompting despondence in myself?
  6. How do I hold forth a positive vision for language learning without snuffing out smoldering reeds and/or ignoring the more significant pastoral issues involved?
  7. How do organizations work? How can there ever be congruence between the kind of person the leader is and the kind of person the people need for a leader?
  8. How does a person in a position of strength relate genuinely without overpowering a person in a position of weakness?
  9. What kind of leadership profits strong-minded and self-motivated people?
  10. How should a strong-minded person relate to an organization? With no loyalty, cooperating incidentally on shared aims as a matter of convenience? Or with an intensity of commitment to molding the organization that will (almost inevitably) beget conflict? Or is there a middle ground?

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