God’s ecology

On some days I think ‘God’s economy’ is a better descriptive phrase, but although both ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ are encrusted with unhelpful connotations, the dictionary definition of ‘ecology’ (the relations of beings to one another and their surroundings) comes closer to what I mean—the way God’s creation actually works, as opposed to the way our flesh would have it work.

My current favorite example comes from Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Certainly the world doesn’t believe this, And how many times have you heard Christians explain it away, arguing e.g. that we must take care of ourselves first so that we have something to give to others? But the meaning of the text is plain.

I won’t deny that following this principle puts one at a significant disadvantage in a world where everyone else puts themselves first—you give and give as they take and take, with no reasonable expectation that they will give in return. But imagine an alternate world where everyone, believer and unbeliever, put everyone else first. Is life better—for everyone—when we are required to take responsibility for our own interests, in competition with folks whose focus is to defend their interests against ours? Or would it be better to have the whole world looking out for us, at only the cost of looking out for everyone else?

I think we actually live in that second world. I don’t think it’s strong enough to say Philippians 2:3 describes the way things ought to be, or how the Kingdom will be when it eventually comes, or the sort of world we should be working to build as an improvement on this one, or a replacement for this one, or even that it describes the separate, new and different community that Christians experience . Philippians 2:3 describes the here and now, the way things actually are, and problems arise when we deny that reality and choose to act in accord with an ecology of our own imagining.

Even if you’ve been given eyes to see and ears to hear, It’s hard to discern the reality that lies beneath the layers and layers of selfish, deluded thinking we coat it with. But it’s there, and with diligent practice we can improve our spiritual perception. And sometimes it just peeks through anyway, as in this recent post from Seth Godin, where he isn’t speaking as a Christian (I have no idea whether he is a believer) but as someone who knows something about how the world actually works. It’s very short, so I’ll reproduce it in its entirety.

Go first

Before you’re asked.

Before she asks for the memo, before the customer asks for a refund, before your co-worker asks for help.

Volunteer.

Offer.

Imagine what the other person needs, an exercise in empathy that might become a habit.

This could very easily be offered, word for word, as pious advice from the pulpit. But in fact it’s a businessman offering highly practical advice on how to succeed in business. And it’s good advice, because that’s the way the world actually works.

A devotion to authority that borders on insanity

Lately I’ve been watching the outpouring of revelations about sexual abuse in protestant churches, and I’ve gone back and read up on the Roman Catholic church scandals that first made the news fifteen years ago, and I’ve also taken a broader look at abuses of institutional authority in the church. Some of it has thrown me for a loop—I never realized things were this bad.

But none of it has scared me at a personal level. Looking back, my family was never in any real danger of being subject to such abuse because we always rejected the claims of other men to have fundamental authority over our lives, social or spiritual—even during some stretches when we desperately wanted to put ourselves under such authority. To be blunt, we knew people too well, and always saw that the men who claimed such authority were in no way qualified to wield it.

I try to choose my words carefully, and I try to resist bolstering my case with over-the-top characterizations. So when I describe a tendency as “bordering on insanity”, I really do mean that I think madness is on the horizon. And in what follows, this joky definition of insanity may be applicable: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

I recommend that you read these two blog posts, one by Damon Linker called The greatest threat to traditional churches isn’t liberalism — it’s the men who run them, and then this response from Rod Dreher called Can Traditional Religion Survive A Wired World? What strikes me is that neither writer entertains the possibility that the traditional church might simply be done–not even in order to weigh and then reject the idea. It is simply not possible for them that the traditional church is done, and consequently its troubles are not the evidence of irreversible terminal decay in the institution, but of external and internal threats against which she must be defended.

I won’t summarize the posts because I don’t think the stories they tell are especially new or interesting, we’ve all heard them many times In many ways. What I want to do is extract and highlight the descriptions of church authority.

… So let’s just say that if you hadn’t heard the news before you started reading this column, you would have heard about it elsewhere before long. And that is a big problem for the churches, especially the conservative churches that seek to uphold and promulgate traditionalist views of morality and doctrine. …

…. Stated simply, the problem is this … when a scandal reveals that those who preach the stringent traditionalist view of morality fall far short of the standards they publicly demand of others, it makes them look like hypocrites and the church’s teachings look like a cruel sham concocted by psychologically unbalanced clerics. ….

…. Clerical hypocrisy and corruption are, after all, nothing new. They’re as old as the church itself — because the church is run by human beings, and human beings find it extremely difficult to live up to what the church holds out as right behavior. ….

…. When a priest, bishop, pope, or pastor was accused of impropriety, sexual or otherwise, the instinct was to cover it up, for the good of the institution. ….

… our role, we were told, was to publicly defend the church, not to add fuel to the fires lit and stoked by its enemies. We needed to circle the wagons and stop making such a public fuss about ugly facts that would only do damage to the institution. ….

…. How long will the remaining parishioners keep returning to the pews when they’re confronted by a persistent drip of scandal implicating people at all levels of the institution? …

…. Once we recognize the crucially important role of publicity in driving a mass exodus from the churches, something far more troubling becomes obvious — namely, that more than anything else it is the truth, and not some external cultural or political force, that may ultimately destroy the churches. Not the indemonstrable "truth" that God doesn’t exist. But rather the ultimately undeniable truth that, despite what they might say about themselves and what many of us would fervently like to believe about them, the churches are all too human. All the way down.

… [quoting a lawyer]: ““Everything I had heard about Archbishop Nienstedt,”  led me to think that if there was ever a guy who was not going to put up with this kind of stuff, it would be him. Would you ever think that somebody with a reputation for being dogmatically pure would turn a blind eye to this kind of stuff? I was completely unprepared for it.” …

… Just this morning I received an e-mail from a faithful orthodox Catholic friend in which he mentioned that he and a Catholic seminarian friend of his have had to dramatically lower their expectations of the hierarchy in order to stay strong in the faith. …

… As a matter of guarding my own heart, I expect the worst from Orthodox bishops and clergy. … I’ve lived through what happens when you trust those in religious authority as strongly as I once did, and I cannot afford to get fooled again. …

… It turns out that “everybody knew there was something funny about the priests there,” said my friend (“everybody” being the parents). But those families stayed faithful to the Church, despite the corruption of their parish clergy. It was a different world then. …

… Here’s a perhaps more radical claim: the wide dissemination of truth may, in time, destroy the authority of all institutions. Walter Bagehot famously said about the importance of keeping the British monarchy shrouded in mystery, “We mustn’t let daylight in upon magic.” This is true for the leadership of all authoritative institutions, don’t you think? …

I have my own biases, of course, but trying to imagine myself as being open to the value of institutional authority and then reading through the above, I think I would end by asking: please tell me again why you think it is a good idea to expose yourself to this sort of danger.

But people continue to think it is a good idea, one that shouldn’t be jettisoned simply because it can be abused. Rod Dreher ends his post with this paragraph.

From a theological point of view, what all of us Christians are living through now, and will live through, could be seen as God’s judgment on His people. Purification is painful; bourgeois Pelagians in the clergy and in the laity will be burned away. Increasingly, churches whose leaders cannot withstand the scrutiny of the all-seeing eye of the Internet will not survive over time. And not just churches.

Well, I suppose. But it could also be seen as the latest in a very, very long series of proofs that men are completely incapable of wielding spiritual authority over others, and that denying it is just wishful thinking.

The modern cult of spontaneity

Here’s an enjoyably cynical essay which turns a gimlet eye on our culture’s celebration of spontaneity, deeply skeptical without being curmudgeonly, plenty of fun passages which I shall proceed to quote at length.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.

So why do we find the idea so attractive?

We dream all the more of being able to be spontaneous – at least in our free time. Our “free” time, of course, as Guy Debord noted, is just that time which is left to us after the violent expropriation of most of it. And so the idea of spontaneity is a dream of liberty.

This reminds me of the “Wild at Heart” fad of 15 years ago, where John Eldridge made significant coin by encouraging men to tap into their wild side—on the weekends, of course. And it reminds me of all the paid pastimes that were invented in the 20th century (movies, dance halls, vacations, eating out) so that workers could better endure the drudgery of the workweek.

And it really is a mark of genius that modern business can take the problems caused by its money-making activity and turn them into brand new profit centers:

Consumer spontaneity, you might suspect, is at least very good for business. It seems as though it would be very much in the interest of people selling things if a habit of recklessly spending money at a moment’s notice were considered part of a desirable personality.

Those in charge are also learning to turn spontaneity toward their own ends.

The wise folk who design the nudges are pleased to call themselves “choice architects”. As we are led unsuspectingly along their mazy garden path, on which what they consider the “right” choices are the easiest ones for us to make – the healthy meal is at eye level; we are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless we can be bothered to opt out – we casually make the decisions that they have already chosen for us. Thus, through careful engineering of the alternatives presented, the liberal paternalists of nudge ideology want to exploit our lazily automatic behaviour.

The writer also detects a connection between the cult of spontaneity and a newcomer on the scene which purports to be un-spontaneous, namely mindfulness.

The invitation to citizens to luxuriate in a pleasurable absence of deliberation perhaps connects, too, the rhetorical fashion for spontaneity with the sudden promotion of “mindfulness” by corporate and state interests. […]

it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy.

And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

There is an ability to respond gracefully in the moment which we confuse with spontaneity, but is nothing of the sort—the traditional Chinese virtue of wu-wei, described as “the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.” Ironically, this can only be achieved through long hours of deliberate practice.

The true and valuable kind of spontaneity for which Slingerland argues must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales. (After an early humiliation when he had the confidence but not the chops to sit with a pro band, Charlie Parker locked himself away to practise for years before he ventured on stage again.) In the matter of respectable behaviour, more­over, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether.

(I bolded the passage above because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about character formation, in particular the fact that we preach loud and long about how important character is but don’t give people the slightest hint that character can be built, though the process may be long and hard. Where are the training manuals in habitual virtuous action?)

In fact, pursuing spontaneity at all costs can lead to a constitutional inability to act spontaneously.

The problem with a devotion to spontaneity is that we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable. “It’s ironic that people resist schedules because they want to be spontaneous and savour the moment,” Burkeman writes, “given that your average Zen monk – whose whole job, to simplify somewhat, is to savour the moment – abides by a rigorous schedule”.

And here we come to the crux of the matter.

Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better.

And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.

Not only rob the victim of that ability to take pleasure, but turn them into desperate customers ready and eager to pay top dollar to anyone who promises pleasure.

And so it might be that those dedicated to the spontaneous lifestyle will continue to be frazzled and unhappy, however many bikini razors and pairs of Brazilian flip-flops they own – while their masters, whose plans are anything but spontaneous, look on with dark satisfaction.

Dark satisfaction. Wow!

Blaming the customer

I like to read marketing guru Seth Godin’s blog, because he is sensitive to the difference between dealing plainly with people and manipulating them, and is adamant that plain dealing is the more effective route. Which means that many of his posts take a close look at where the line needs to be drawn carefully, and the temptation to cross it need to be resisted.

Some of his examples are blatant, but many are subtle, like this one.

If you need to explain to a customer that he’s wrong, that everyone else has no problem, that you have tons of happy customers who were able to successfully read the instructions, that he’s not smart enough or persistent enough or handsome enough to be your customer, you might be right.

But if you are, […] you’ve lost him.

Some people are more trouble than they’re worth, and you need to recognize that. But you also need to recognize that when you treat a customer as if they’re not worth your trouble, they will soon be no trouble to you at all.

By all means, fire the customers who aren’t worth the time and the trouble. But understand that the moment you insist the customer is wrong, you’ve just started the firing process.

The first part is true, and good business practice. Joel Salatin is adept at identifying customers who will not be worth his time and trouble, and has no problem unilaterally dropping their name from his mailing list. The second part, though, is a typically savvy Godin observation, which he elaborates on as follows:

If you find yourself litigating, debating, arguing and most of all, proving your point, you’ve forgotten something vital: people have a choice, and they rarely choose to do business with someone who insists that they are wrong.

This is where the post goes beyond marketing advice into life lesson. Customer or not, it’s shocking how often we’re treated this way by people we deal with, people who we have no obligation to deal with. It touches all areas of life, but I’m thinking at the moment of writers who, when they are misunderstood, blame the reader for not reading carefully enough! Very strange, especially since to writers their readers are precious and hard-won things, whereas to readers the writers they follow are a dime a dozen, easily traded in on a model who offers the same wisdom more clearly or congenially.

Godin wraps up with a bit of marketing advice that is clearly applicable to any writing, and to dealing with others in general:

PS here’s a great way around this problem: Make sure that the instruction manual, the website and the tech support are so clear, so patient and so generous that customers don’t find themselves being wrong.

Good writing alert

Have I ever mentioned how much I admire Peggy Noonan’s writing? When she addresses difficult social issues she is clear, straightforward, concise, level-headed—and so warm! This column about the current border crisis is a good example of how she can help the average person understand the human fallout of a disastrous policy.

This is how I think normal people are experiencing what is happening:

It’s like you live in a house that’s falling apart. The roof needs to be patched and there are squirrels in the attic, a hornet’s nest in the eaves. The basement’s wet. The walkway to the front door is cracked with grass growing through it. The old boiler is making funny sounds. On top of that it’s always on your mind that you could lose your job tomorrow and must live within strict confines so you can meet the mortgage and pay the electric bill. You can’t keep the place up and you’re equal parts anxious, ashamed and angry. And then one morning you look outside and see . . . all these people standing on your property, looking at you, making some mute demand. Little children looking lost—no one’s taking care of them. Older ones settling in the garage, or working a window to the cellar. You call the cops. At first they don’t come. Then they come and shout through a bull horn and take some of the kids and put them in a shelter a few blocks away. But more kids keep coming! You call your alderman and he says there’s nothing he can do. Then he says wait, we’re going to pass a bill and get more money to handle the crisis. You ask, "Does that mean the kids will go home?" He says no, but it may make things feel more orderly. You call the local TV station and they come do a report on your stoop and then they’re gone, because really, what can they do, and after a few days it’s getting to be an old story.

No one’s in charge! No one is taking responsibility. No one who wants to help has authority, and no one with authority is helping.

What I like about this passage is that it is capable of reaching people who think differently, of conveying to them what the opposition is thinking and why it is reasonable, to enable empathy in the absence of agreement. Empathy is a vital social lubricant,, but we’re awfully short on it these days, taught instead to see it as a sign of weakness.

I just read a helpful book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I hesitate to recommend it because it let me down in certain ways—way too much emphasis for my taste on experimental results, backed up with just-so stories from evolutionary psychology, and the last third of the book promised a payoff that never really came. And since Haidt is an excellent writer, I found it all the more frustrating.

But Haidt did note that there has been a profound shift in psychological theory recently (at which he is at the forefront, so take it with a grain of salt) which dethrones reason and gives it an important but subsidiary role in thinking. Which explains why the truth has no persuasive power on its own. And why it’s hard to persuade someone of something when their salary depends on them not believing it. And why you can’t change someone’s mind by pointing out what is objectively a flaw in their reasoning.

If this is a real shift in psychological theory, better books are probably on their way. Anyway, if you’re interested in exploring this and can handle a frustrating reading experience (I managed it with the help of frequent skimming), take a look at Haidt’s book.

Don’t believe the hype

I thought Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was about something, but according to the Cato Institute I was wrong:

The Department of Health and Human Services has already developed a way to exempt religious non-profit corporations—such as churches, charities, and hospitals—from the legal mandate to pay for employees’ contraception coverage.  In what amounts to an accounting trick, they permit those corporations to purchase plans without such coverage, and then require that insurance companies themselves independently provide it to the uncovered employees.  Because pregnancy is quite a bit more expensive than contraception, this apparently ends up not imposing any additional net cost on the insurers.  The result is that employees of religious non-profits end up with no-copay contraception coverage, exactly as if the employer were required to provide it directly, but the employers are satisfied by this ledger shuffling that they aren’t being compelled to violate their most deeply held moral convictions.  Which, one would think, is a win-win.

Against this background, the Court simply held that […] they must do the same in the case of for-profit employers, at least where the for-profit corporation is “closely held.”  The majority quite explicitly denied this ruling has any implications for cases where there might not be such a happy win-win means of achieving the government’s ends, at no additional cost, without forcing employers to violate their convictions.

So: employers are allowed to purchase a plan that explicitly does not cover certain things, but only if the insurance company providing the plan explicitly covers those things. As the Cato institute notes, this is merely ledger shuffling. And if it makes Hobby Lobby feel better to shuffle its ledger this way, why not allow it? In fact, why not allow any employer to do so? The net impact on employees is zero.

According to this, the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t satisfied with ledger shuffling. To shuffle the ledger, they would have to fill out a particular form (ESBA Form 700) stating their objection to providing contraceptive coverage—which would trigger such coverage from their insurer. They are refusing to fill it out, and the net impact on employees is positive, i.e certain contraceptives are not provided.

Abby advises friend on how to be one

To be blunt, being a good friend means getting your focus off yourself and onto the other person.

Here’s how one woman described the dilemma a friend had put her in:

Dear Abby: My friend’s husband has been writing a novel for several years. He just self-published it, and it’s available on Amazon. He gave me a copy, asked me to read it and enter a great review on the Amazon page. The problem is the book is filled with misused and misspelled words, and there is missing punctuation. He even switched the names of two characters. (His wife, who is a "perfectionist," was his editor.)

Aside from the fact that I don’t want to finish the book, I know he or my friend will ask me how I liked it. I don’t want to lie because I’m afraid if someone else brings these things to their attention, they’ll know I didn’t read it or think I should have told them. I know they will be embarrassed if I bring it to their attention.

Frankly, I think it’s too late to say anything negative because the book has already been printed. I also don’t want to cause hurt feelings because I know how long he worked on this project and he’s proud of it. How do I handle this?

I thought this response from Abby was perfect:

Dear Reader: He’s a friend, right? And you’re only a reader, not a literary critic whose credibility will suffer if you don’t point out every flaw. Find something you liked about the book and mention that on the Amazon page. You could call it a "page turner" because you had to turn from Page 1 to Page 2, didn’t you?

The inquirer’s dilemma stems entirely from her concern about herself—her integrity, her reputation, her critical skills. Abby’s solution is to get the focus off her and onto the other, i.e. what is the most loving thing she can do for her friend at this point? Clearly, it’s to respond to the request without embarrassing her friend or her friend’s husband. Can it be done while remaining honest? Of course. In fact, Abby mentions a key strategy:

In a case like this, less is more. And remember, you’re doing this in the capacity of being a friend, not an English teacher.

I’m certain the friend and her husband would be satisfied with any positive response, no matter how weak it had to be in order to remain honest. And taking the “less is more” approach might also do a bit of level-setting for the inquirer—after all, if her critical opinion was so important to them, why didn’t they seek her out before the book was published.

“Less is more’’” had done invaluable service for me over the years, both in helping me treat people lovingly and in keeping me humble.