The joys and sorrows of neverending discussion

One of the bloggers I follow is Jeff Atwood, because he’s pretty good on all things programming, and lately I’ve been a bit of a programmer. But in this old post he just linked to on Twitter, the programming part is only incidental to the wisdom he offers. I offer it as is (emphasis in original), leaving it as an exercise to the reader to substitute something more relevant for “programming”—perhaps parenting, or discipleship, or just living life properly.

But it is possible to go too far in the other direction, too. It’s much rarer, because it bucks the natural introversion of most software developers, but it does happen. Take me, for example. Sometimes I worry that I spend more time talking about programming than actually programming.

At the point when I spend all my time talking about programming, and very little of my time programming, my worst fear has been realized: I’ve become a pundit. The last thing the world needs is more pundits. Pundits only add ephemeral commentary to the world instead of anything concrete and real. They don’t materially participate in the construction of any lasting artifacts; instead, they passively observe other people’s work and offer a neverending babbling brook of opinions, criticism, and witty turns of phrase. It’s pathetic. […]

It’s helpful to discuss features, but sometimes the value of a feature is inversely proportional to how much it has been discussed. Our job as software developers is to deliver features and solve business problems, not to generate neverending discussion. Ultimately, As Marc Andreessen notes, we will be judged by what we – and our code – have done, not the meta-discussion that went on around it.

Not only is it not our job in life to generate neverending discussion, I think we need to view neverending discussion as a symptom that something is wrong. Discussions needs to end as soon as they cease being helpful, and if a particular discussion isn’t accompanied by tangible benefits then it isn’t one that should have ever existed.

“I thought we were better than that”

I have a longstanding tradition of not discussing events of the day on this blog. I will be breaking with that tradition for the duration of this post. As partial atonement, I will do my best to keep it brief. All three items involve the response of the church to a current event.

The first is the release of the Planned Parenthood videos. The initial response from the Christian community was gleeful—finally, the world will wake up to what abortion mills are doing!—followed by a baffled and crushing disappointment—where’s the outrage?

I have some hope that the disappointment will inspire us to face the facts. Our instincts tell us that normal, decent human beings should be outraged by these revelations. But the news has moved on, and not much has changed. So what went wrong? Did they not hear? Do they need to hear it again? Do we not live amongst normal, decent human beings? Or are we mistaken in how we understand the situation? (I vote for the last.)

The second is the sudden awareness of mistreatment of blacks at the hands of the police. I am afraid that society at large is far ahead of the church in being brought up short by the constant stream of outrageous revelations. But I do have some hope, precisely because the church has been so feeble and mealy-mouthed in its response. I think as a community we simply don’t know what to say, that our understanding of the situation has failed us, and for once we haven’t yielded (completely, anyway) to the temptation to retreat into some pious claptrap about how the real problem is that we’re all sinners, or whatever. Perhaps in the partial silence we’ll find the strength to do some thinking.

The third event is the hacking of the Ashley Madison website, which revealed that when it comes to sexual purity many Christians, pastors and teachers and laymen, celebrities and little-known, talk a far better game than they live. The response I’ve seen from the community so far is exactly the sort of response the commumity hoped the Planned Parenthood videos would evoke but didn’t—shocked, stunned disbelief. An unbelieving observer who noticed both would have to laugh at the irony. Meanwhile, I take heart from the fact that folks were at least shocked, stunned, and disbelieving. At least the standard which was violated turns out to not be cynically hypocritical—we really did believe our men were better than that.

How could the church have failed so miserably in this third area? I have my own answer, and I think it applies to the first two situations as well. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people will find it very helpful.

It is this: we choose to put our faith in the rules, rather than in what the rules point to. We require righteousness, but don’t train people in righteousness. When those in the community fail to meet the standard, our response is: didn’t you hear me the first time? Here, let me tell you again, slower and louder and in a very stern voice. Surely you didn’t understand me before, and once you do you will naturally do what I tell you is right. Just stop doing what is wrong. That’s all it takes.

We’ve told our men to be pure, and they’ve failed to be pure. We’ve told ourselves that ours must become a colorblind society, and blacks suffer disproportionately at the hands of police. We’ve told ourselves that good people view life as precious, and good people are not outraged by events where life is treated as a commodity and (in)convenience. None of this excuses the behavior of the people involved. But perhaps we should re-examine our faith in the power of our rules and standards.

We thought we could save the world (and ourselves considerable effort) by codifying the Christian worldview and then imposing it on everyone, Christian or not. Instead we found that not only did the unbelieving world reject it, believers began substituting the code for character—rather than exemplifying a way of life as a result of long years of training, they substitute a promise to adhere to the code, without regard to whether they are constitutionally (or situationally) equipped to fulfill that promise.

Based on my own experience, I believe that everyday people can train themselves to meet the Christian standard—eventually, and imperfectly, but with increasing success as a result of their efforts. Unfortunately, these days that almost certainly means self-training, with little or no assistance or guidance available. Teachers are all too pleased to expound the standard, and we’re all too eager to judge one another against it. But there’s precious little available to train you in how to meet that standard.

Ivan Illich

Still immersed in reading, but I’ll poke my head up long enough to mention one particular writer who is new to me, and to offer some links to his work.

I was aware of Ivan Illich, but only vaguely. I knew he had written a book called Deschooling Society, and was often mentioned along with people like John Holt, Raymond Moore, and John Taylor Gatto, all known for training a gimlet eye on the idea of institutional education. And I once had a copy of Tools for Conviviality on my shelf, having a long-standing interest in community and being intrigued by the idea implied in the title, that there were tools conducive to living together—but I never even opened it, and it is long gone. Aside from that, I knew nothing, not even that he was a Christian, much less a Roman Catholic priest.

The impetus for my current bout of reading was the series of three essays by Alan Jacobs mentioned in my previous blog post. I wanted to know more about Charles Taylor’s thinking on the origins of modernity, but a little bit of research suggested that A Secular Age, his masterwork, is a supremely difficult book, not to mention hideously expensive. But I remembered that James K.A. Smith had written a sort of guidebook to A Secular Age, called How (Not) to be Secular, and so I decided to start there. It’s been very helpful. And I wanted to read the two Taylor essays which Jacobs claims are vital, so I bought Taylor’s collection Dilemmas and Connections, and also the book of transcribed Illich conversations to which Taylor contributed the introduction, Rivers North of the Future.

For the record, Taylor is actually a clear and straightforward writer, with a peculiar but maybe necessary habit of neologizing. I say “maybe necessary” because he always gives his inventions detailed definitions and uses them precisely as he fits them together to build his explanations. Whether or not adequate words already existed, his new ones are so distinctive that they serve as a constant reminder to the reader that they denote key concepts. In any case, I actually find Taylor’s writing clearer than Smith’s summarizing—but Smith provides the sketchy overview I need but don’t have time to construct for myself from Taylor’s massive and complex book.

But this is about Illich. I read Taylor’s introduction to Rivers North of the Future, and was surprised to find Taylor saying that in these conversations he had discovered a key concept for structuring his then-ongoing research into the sources of secular thinking—namely, that modernity is not opposed to Christendom but in fact its full flowering, an inevitable perversion of the Gospel. That inspired me to dive into the conversations right away!

The conversations occurred near the end of Illich’s life and were intended as a summary of his thinking, with particular attention paid to a unifying idea that had underpinned his various writings but never been addressed explicitly in them. The Latin expression he uses to capture it is perversio optimi quae est pessima, or “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Shakespeare says it this way in Sonnet 94: “For sweetest things turn sour by their deeds / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Others have detected this in the arc from the advent of the Gospel to the early church to Constantine to Christendom to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to modernity to post-modernity. But usually the story is told as things ticking along pretty well until some outside force came along and knocked the project off the track—and if we could only set it back on the track, things would be good again. Illich (and Taylor) locate the source of perversion internally, and much more deeply in the project—at one point Illich despairs that it may actually be inherent, an unavoidable consequence—so deep that it is pointless to think about fixing it.

Illich studied several matters that are dear to me, and I mean studied—his original work focused on the history of the 12th century, where he saw the direction of Christendom change for the worse in several fundamental ways, but he was widely read—and I appreciate that he can back up in detail conclusions I’d reached tentatively and mostly intuitively. Some of his claims:

  • Things went badly wrong when we elected to take the Christian view and codify it, turning it from a spontaneous response to our neighbor into a standard of behavior which could be imposed and enforced (what he calls the “criminalization of sin”).

  • In the name of “development” modernity has tyrannized inhabitants of the pre-modern world by stealing the ability to subsist, substituting needs that can only be satisfied by participating in the system (Illich worked extensively among Mexican peasants).

  • Doctors had no concept of disease until the mid-19th century. Before then their role was to help people get their body back into balance, to facilitate nature’s working, and to help people endure whatever suffering that might entail. Now bodies are no more than collections of mechanisms which doctors are charged with “fixing.”

  • Our current understanding of “tool” is not fundamental but came into existence in the 12th century, and the change in thinking was critical to the development of modernity. Now there is another sea change—tools have been replaced by systems, which include the operator—and this change in thinking will have equally profound effects.

  • The parable of the good samaritan encapsulates the Gospel, i.e. the new thing that Jesus made possible. Before Jesus your neighbors were chosen for you, by locale or ethnicity. Jesus freed us to choose our neighbors, to choose them in the moment, and to encounter Him in the other.

  • Churches, schools, hospitals, political systems, and other such institutions should be viewed as rituals, the purpose and effect of which is to make people believe in the necessity and goodness of what the ritual is supposed to achieve.

Well, there’s a lot more—my copy of the book is heavily highlighted. Still, I’m not sure I can recommend the book as a starting place. If you’re not initially sympathetic to Illich’s view on a particular matter, justification for the view has to be found elsewhere in his work. Since I’d long ago come around to his general way of thinking, I found the reflection Illich does here both helpful and delightful. But someone who is skeptical of a particular claim will need to go to the source of it.

Fortunately, much of Illich’s writing is available for free online. Look here for some core pieces, including his books Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality. And this site has collected together various occasional pieces by Illich.