Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.


Everything is marked by oscillation. From the vibration of the smallest wave/particle, to the galaxies and clusters of galaxies swirling around and sometimes through each other, whatever else is going on, there is oscillation.

In that phase of existence which is between the smallest and the largest – the plane on which we live – we see the effects of oscillation as well. The tide ebbs and flows. Seasons come and go and come again. Birth and death and life renewed. The phases of the moon. The systolic and diastolic within our very blood.

We don’t drive straight down a highway. There is always the slightest veering to right or left, followed by the correction back to the center. Every pilot knows that straight-and-level flight is really a constant fluctuation of pitch and yaw and roll.

And so it is in our lives. Activity is followed by rest, sadness by joy, amazement by boredom.

Even the great philosophers, sages, Buddhas, rishis, saints, and yogis are never free of this. Only the unenlightened believe in some state of perfection, in which there is no variation or twist. The enlightened ones know that no one escapes the laws of existence.

There is a story of the death of the wife of a great Buddhist teacher. When his disciples found him crying in his grief, they asked him why he was so sorrowful. Hadn’t he taught them that all life was impermanent and appearances only an illusion? “Yes, but my wife: what an illusion!”

We don’t know much about the life of Jesus, pretty much only the last few years of his public ministry. We are fortunate to know more about other spiritual giants. The Buddha, for instance, lived to be 80. We know much more about him. We know that early on in his ministry he taught certain themes. Later, he expanded them further, not abandoning the early teachings but building on them. Finally, towards the end of his life, he once more introduced great new themes into his life’s work.

It can be said, with great certainty, that each of these stages was preceded by a time in which he plunged back into – what to call it? – engagement, involvement, attachment. Drama, if you will. This is how the human psyche works. Not by constant progression, but in pieces, one step back for every two forward.

Carl Jung, in his autobiography, gives a thorough account of how this worked in his life. Every one of his great insights was preceded by a time of confusion, even darkness.

It is not just this way for the great and famous. I’ve just been through a period in which I lost perspective, got wrapped up in details, let go of what I know about impermanence, misplaced some of my sense of humor. Yet now it seems I’m emerging into new acceptance of myself,  a new recognition of my flaws and assets. When I first began to realize this, it was with that ego-energy that says “you were wrong, you screwed up, you’re a fraud,” because ego thrives on those petty judgmentalisms. Now, as the mists part and I step further into the warmth and light, I remember that this is just how it works. No up without down. No in without out. No learning without mistakes to learn from.

Homeostases are made to be broken.

Welcome to the New Association of Friends

Quakers have been watching, with various degrees of dismay, the slow slide of Indiana Yearly Meeting towards schism. Like a slow train wreck, this process has taken years. It has not been certain what would happen.

Briefly put, the impetus for this split dates back to a 2008 decision by West Richmond Friends Meeting to be a welcoming and affirming congregation for gays and lesbians. They allow GLBT folks to be full members, and by full they mean that no program, no position is barred to anyone on the basis of sexual orientation. (The full statement can be found here.

This caused a serious problem within Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which West Richmond Friends has been a part. IYM passed a minute in 1982 which states unequivocally that “Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:21-32, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:9-10).” (Doug Bennett, past president of Earlham College, discusses these scriptures in his essay “Five Snippets”.)

As if the discussion of how to view homosexuality was not enough, another theme emerged during the lengthy discussions. Must West Richmond bow to the authority of the Yearly Meeting? Or could each Meeting determine its own views, like the congregationalist denominations such as the United Church of Christ or most Baptist churches? In other words, were the local Meetings coordinate or subordinate bodies to the Yearly Meeting?

I’m not going to give the whole history of the debate. It has been covered very well by Stephen Angell in Quaker Theology  in issues 18-22. More information can be found elsewhere, including further essays by Doug Bennett and others.

Now, the new shape of the Society of Friends in Indiana, western Ohio and Michigan is taking form in the New Association of Friends. Having held their first meeting in January 2013, they are still going through the organizational phase. There are many decisions to be made. It is not all hard work, though. They have scheduled a family camp for the Memorial Day weekend, and will have a picnic after the business sessions on June 30.

I pastored an Indiana Yearly Meeting congregation in the mid-1980s for a couple of years. This Monthly Meeting is one of the founding Meetings of the New Association. I also have friends who remain in IYM. In some ways, it is very sad to me that it has come to this.

It didn’t have to be inevitable. I can easily imagine ways in which this split could have been avoided. Acknowledging the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light in everyone, that the true light which enlightens everyone has come into the world, really means “everyone”, would have been a good place to start. Sticking to ancient Friends’ practices of seeking that Light on all decisions, rather than making choices based on doctrine, dogma, or what George Fox called “notions,” would have been another. Recognizing that West Richmond Friends might have been offering a prophetic voice to IYM, rather than an errant and defiant one, would have been a third.

But people being what people are, this is where we’ve gotten.

I welcome the New Association of Friends into the world. Already, 13 Meetings have affiliated with it. It seems more arrive every week. I expect that they won’t all be from IYM, either; Wilmington Yearly Meeting has its own internal conflicts, and some of their Meetings may find the New Association to be a better fit.

Whatever the case may be, I pray sincerely that IYM may find its way forward without falling victim to the Scylla and Charybdis of further dissension and hemorrhage on the one hand, and doctrinal rigor mortis on the other.

And I pray that the New Association will take its place as a healthy, hearty new thread within the Quaker tapestry.

Growth and the Society of Friends

[Something along these lines was given me to share at Meeting for Worship on Saturday, April 27 at the Representative Body gathering of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative.) Often, when I have shared, I can sit down with the feeling that I have discharged the burden. This isn't one of those times. The message would not leave me alone, and I found that I needed to  develop it further. So here it is, after another week's work in thought, meditation, prayer, research, note-taking, etc.]

The subject of growth and decline is a common one among Quakers. I have heard Friends moan for as long as I have been a member about declining numbers, meetings being laid down, and so forth.

Most of the time, I find these statements to be sincere but misguided.

Let’s begin with the Society of Friends itself, and the nature of our testimony and mission in the world. (I’m not foolish enough to try to define “nature of our testimony and mission in the world” in one short blog post. I’m going to assume some familiarity with that among my readers, or at least a willingness to Google it and read an article or two on the Net.) What we represent, and especially our foundational declaration of that Light which enlightens all humanity, may have universal applicability, but does not have universal appeal. We may believe that there is that of God in everyone, but not everyone rejoices to hear this.

There are those who could care less about religion or spirituality. A lot of them. I won’t venture to propose a percentage, but if we were slicing a pie, it would be a big slice. So set that number off to the side.

Then there are people who are satisfied to remain in the faith in which they grew up. They don’t have questions. They aren’t seeking something else. I don’t blame them. Most of us make many decisions this way, without reflecting that we are doing so. The places we like to live, the clothes we like to wear, the people we like to hang out with, all of these choices are influenced one way or another by the experiences we had as youngsters. Quakerism has always been most successful among Seekers. Most people are not Seekers. Set aside another large slice of pie.

Then there are those who want an authority to tell them what to do, think, feel. That authority could be a priest, it could be a dogma, it could be a ritual, it could be a tradition. Whatever it is, it provides a kind of security that a whole lot of people find sorely lacking in their lives. If they can find it in religion, they grab it and don’t let go. Security is the second of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have no argument with those who find it in this way. My heart goes out to them. I’m genuinely glad for them. Another large slice of pie, off to the side.

That pie is looking mighty small by now.

Then there are those who are willing to reconsider the faith of their youth, want to find a faith that speaks to them deeply, are willing to risk all to find it, whose particular combination of abilities, character, personality, preference, etc. leads them to find what they are seeking in a branch of the Christian community other than among Friends. I consider Dorothy Day, for instance, as a fellow traveller, but she found what she was seeking in Catholicism. Martin Luther King, Jr., found it in the Baptist church. The Wesleys, Alexander Campbell, and others had to establish their own communions. Emerson and Thoreau, who would have been highly influential Quakers had they chosen that route, found it outside of any organized body. Whitman, who grew up among Friends and remarked to Hamlin Garland in 1888 that “I am a good deal of a Quaker,” found it in poetry.

Even less of the pie is left. From where are we to draw thousands of new Friends, as some seem to want to do?

Moving from that strictly quantitative approach, I would like to ask if we are so arrogant as to believe that bunches of folks, already members of churches from Catholicism and the mainstream Protestants, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and all the little one-horse churches dotting the landscape with names like “God’s House of Prayer,” will suddenly abandon their former affiliations because, by golly, they’ve been wrong all along and suddenly realize that they must be Quakers?

To end our consideration of quantity, let me say this: It is odd that such a worldly yardstick should be used to measure a spiritual body. Ad men, Nielsen raters, sports promoters, and the like may well use such a criterion. It is important to the success of their trade. But we are not tradesmen. The profit we seek is not money, fame, prestige or power.

Growth doesn’t have to be in numbers. Growth can be in depth, richness, seasoning. Growth can mean that we are more thoroughly following the leading of that Light we proclaim. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Do your duty to the best of your ability, thinking always of the Lord, abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.”

The story of Gideon is instructive. In the 6th chapter of the book of Judges, we learn that God had a task for Gideon to do, to deliver Israel from oppresion. “Pardon me, my Lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord answered, “I will be with you.” Gideon was the least of his clan, which was the weakest. It was not his strength or numbers that God wanted, but his faithfulness. God doesn’t explain how things will work out, he just says “I will be with you.” Trust me. Do what I ask, without attachment to the results. Let me handle the rest.

In Judges 7, Gideon shows up with 32,000 men to fight the Midianites. He figures this is how it is done. It’s what the Midianites themselves would do. God tells him it is too many men. He pares the army down to 10,000 men by letting all who are afraid go home. But this is still too many. God doesn’t want the Israelites to think they have won the victory by their own strength. And they would have. Most of us would, too. Pride wants to take credit for every success and avoid responsibility for every failure, today as much as in Gideon’s time. God trims the army down even further, to 300 men. 300! Less than one percent of the 32,000 who first showed up! The author of Judges doesn’t tell us how many Midianites there are, just that their camels numbered more than the sands on the seashore. Taking on an army of that size with 300 men is an act of radical faith. This is definitely a case of “abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the 11th Tradition states that AA is a program of attraction, rather than promotion. What about the program would make it attractive? It is this: people who work the 12 steps have their lives transformed, from the powerlessness, despair and wreckage of alcoholism to a vital spiritual life which is reflected in selfless service to others as well as personal metamorphosis. AA groups in which few members are living the 12 steps in their daily lives tend to be lifeless. Groups in which most people are working the steps are radiant. Anyone who has been around AA long enough can attest to the truth of this.

Some other germane verses from the Bible:

‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” — Isaiah 66: 1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” John 15:1-7

A friend of mine who pastors a  vigorous, spirited church which has grown from a small group to several hundred in a few short years agrees with what I am saying here. It is the health of the vine that counts. If the vine has exuberant good health, it will produce good fruit. In some cases, that may mean numbers. The impact on lives will be seen in how many lives are touched. His church is living proof of that. In other cases, the fruit may be few in number but have an impact which is farther-reaching than might be expected. We have many evidences of that in Quaker history, from Mary Fisher who walked from Greece to Adrianople to meet with the Sultan of Turkey, to the physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, among whose other accomplishments are included the experimental measurement of the bending of light near the Sun during a solar eclipse which furnished the first real proof  of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter what the outcome is; it matters very much. I wouldn’t want to be interpreted as saying that a little lethargy couldn’t hurt. What I am saying is that if we are true to the Light as it is given to each of us, we can safely leave the outcome in the hands of the Great Architect of the Universe.

Welcome, Paco!

The world has paid a lot of attention to the election of a new pope. The election of Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis, has caused a lot of interest around the world, and not just among Catholics.

Readers of this blog will know of my longstanding involvement with liberation theology. As explained in greater depth elsewhere, liberation theology had its genesis in Latin America. It is based on the theme that runs throughout the Bible, most prominently in the Gospels, that God’s love is most fully expressed in his desire, spoken by Jesus, “to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.” The phrase which, for me, sums up the heart of liberation theology is “the preferential option for the poor.”

Jorge Bergoglio, although he is a South American, is not a liberation theologian. He has spoken out strongly against what he sees as a politicization of the gospel. He fears the Marxist overtones which can be heard ringing through the works of many liberation theologians.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, he has led a notably simple life. He has refused the trappings of office, taking buses instead of limousines, maintaining his home in an apartment rather than the grand edifices typically occupied by bishops and cardinals, and opposes exploitation and poverty. He has been clear about the negative impact of the International Monetary Fund on the poor. He has been quoted as saying “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

It is thought by many that his choice of the name Francis, although he is a Jesuit rather than a Franciscan, symbolizes his desire to lead the church in a more humble and selfless manner, as opposed to the imperial style associated with the papacy.

On the third hand, he opposes abortion and birth control. He is against same-sex marriage. I don’t know of his stance on feminism or on the ordination of women to the priesthood, but I’m sure more on those topics will be made clear as time passes.

How he handles the huge scandals with which the Roman church is struggling, chief among them the sexual exploitation of children by priests and the investigation of criminal mismanagement at the Vatican bank, will tell us a lot also.

For now, I want to share in the optimism. I don’t require that Francis be a perfect human being in every way and on every topic. If he can restore a sense of humility and simplicity to the largest Christian denomination, then he will have done a good work, not just for Catholics, but for the world at large.

Pacifism II – Call and Response

[I received a number of responses to the post on pacifism. This one came via email from a friend and fellow Quaker. It is so thoughtful and raised so many important issues, issues that I wanted to address, that I asked its author if I could post it and respond to it on my blog. He agreed, while asking to remain nameless at this time. His remarks are in regular type, and indented. My responses are in bold type.]

This is a well-written, accessible piece about real-life pacifism, and I appreciate thy adding this to the blogosphere.  All too often spokespeople on either side are too entrenched in their own extreme position to do much more than lob stones at those who disagree.

I’m not a life-long pacifist, having had my conversion experience as a 2nd LT in the US Air Force, also during the war in Vietnam.  A quirk in the law at that time meant I was eligible for the draft even after the USAF had decided I was a legitimate CO.  My lottery number was 1, so there was no avoiding it.  I’m one of the few folks who is an official CO in the eyes of both the military system and the Selective Service system.

Thanks for sharing your bona fides.

It seems to me that thy analysis of the situation in Dayton, leading to thy purchase of a handgun, does not include two important costs of the decision to defend thyself violently:  the cost to thee spiritually/psychologically, and the cost to the intruder(s) should thee happen to shoot straight.  Perhaps thee considered these things but just did not include them in the blog, or perhaps they were not part of thy thinking then but (one hopes) would be important considerations now.  Either way, it feels that the posting would have been stronger if thee had mentioned them.

I agree that these are two important considerations. I didn’t include them because they were peripheral to the point I was making, and because I try to keep my posts concise. There is a great deal more that could have been said about what I did say, not to mention what I left out.

For instance, much more could have been said on the dawning realization that I myself was worth saving. Someone else has said it much better than I’m likely to, so I’m just going to put up a link to Jeffrey Snyder’s “A Nation of Cowards.” I don’t endorse everything that Mr. Snyder says nor the way he says it. For our present purpose, the section early on entitled “The Gift of Life” is what is pertinent. He quotes a 1747 sermon which equates failure to defend oneself with suicide.

Sweeping generalities being what they are, there are exceptions to this. Failure to give it full consideration, though, is as big a mistake as failure to consider the two points you make (What about the cost to me of taking a life? What about the cost to the dead and his loved ones?) In fact, all of these questions are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If I could protect myself and don’t, what about the cost to my loved ones? If I let someone else take my life when I could have prevented it, what about the cost to them?

I may, at some future time, go into more detail on those questions. While I found them to be secondary to the point I made in the original post, they are not secondary to the question of violence, whether you or I or anyone else would ever act violently and under what circumstances.

Definitions are always tricky, which leads me to a second concern, which is that a commitment to nonviolence in some situations but not in others seems vulnerable to being labeled as not pacifism at all but personal utilitarianism of the sort that every person follows to a certain extent.  In other words, thy definition is too broad – almost everyone qualifies as a pacifist.  Even the most hawkish, war-like of persons does not advocate the use of lethal violence to solve every disagreement:  some things we talk out to resolve, some things we resort to lawyers to resolve, and some things we resort to war to resolve.  It is the personal equivalent to just-war theory on a larger scale.  We should use non-violent means unless the conditions of just-war theory are met, in which case lethal violence is justified.  The problem with this approach is that, to the best of my knowledge, no just-war advocate with decision making power has ever decided that in his particular case, war is not justified.

Thank you for providing me this opening. If pacifism is an intellectually-based ethical decision, then I think what you are saying is absolutely true. Left to my own devices, I could well end up with something that looks like the just war doctrine, with all its frailties that you point out. Seeing that no one is ever 100% consistent — even Gandhi and King had their moments of aggression — then we end up concluding that all pacifists are either covert “just war” apologists at heart, or hypocrites.

The pacifism I follow, like that of Gandhi and King, is not an ethical stance but a spiritual discipline. As with any discipline, I acknowledge that failures will occur. I recognize that there is room for improvement. “Progress, not perfection” as our 12 Step fellowships would put it. My motivation, first and foremost, is not to find a way to negotiate the many opportunities for aggression within an a priori philosophical framework, but to be true and obedient to “that of God within.” How well do I hear and follow the voice of the Spirit as it is given to me and as it is tried within the communities of which I am a part?

I should probably expand on the last phrase of that sentence. “Tried within the communities of which I am a part.” I do not see this as a discipline which I practice in solitude and to which none other may contribute. For instance, when I cite Gandhi and King, it is not to refer to them as authorities (my anarchist side shudders at the very thought), but because they are part of a larger community of which I am also a part and to which I am responsible. And they to me, brother, and they to me. It works both ways.

Individualism is part of our modern sickness. Communalism is not the answer to that sickness either. There is a balance in which I am an individual, who is a part of a system of inter-locking communities. Some of them are local, some are global, some span centuries. As a Quaker, I am part of a local Meeting, a Yearly Meeting, a global movement, and an historical movement. When I say “try my pacifism within the communities of which I am a part”, that means that I share openly and honestly my response to aggression within them, and am affected and changed when others in those communities share their responses with me. Because I am a pacifist, I don’t expect my experiences to be a rule which is forced on others to follow, nor do I take their experiences as such. The question is, have I followed the Light? Have you? Can we be more faithful? How?

Perhaps a pacifist is a person committed to nonviolence in all situations, who hopes (but can never be certain in advance) that his/her behavior will always be consistent with that commitment.  We are all sinners, and all fall short of the glory of God.  Thee may well say my definition is too narrow – I would certainly agree that it is very much narrower than thine.  Our reach should exceed our grasp.

This follows very well with what I’ve said in preceding paragraphs. I do find that I fall short, and I am sure you do too. Imitating one another would not lead us out of this mess. There is no way out of this mess. Human beings by nature are imperfect. What we can do is to encourage each other, as much by example as by exhortation, and what really encourages me is when I see you live up to the Light as it is shown to you, no matter what particular form that may take in this particular moment.

Of course thee is a pacifist because it is right – we make our ethical choices based on what we see/feel/believe is right.  There are various ways of understanding what is right, however.  A commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right consequentially, because the immediate consequences are not predictable and therefore can’t be a reliable basis for that ethical commitment.  (I do believe the long-term consequences are predictable and desirable but that’s a different matter.)  In similar manner, a commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right deontologically, because on the one hand we may disagree on what the relevant rules are or even on what the rules actually mean; and on the other hand, a deontological commitment to pacifism may border on coercion, which is antithetical to pacifism itself.

Exactly so. We don’t get to coerce one another into a particular stance. “This way, and no other, is the right way to be a pacifist.” Faith, humility, loving-kindness — these are the means by which you have the most influence on me. And by “you” I mean “everyone.”

My sense is that a commitment to pacifism makes most sense in the context of virtue ethics, which may be what thee is getting at by saying thee is a pacifist because the Spirit in thy heart leads thee to that commitment.  Pacifism is a character trait, so to speak, that God wants us to develop in ourselves – a virtue.  In that context, the Spirit teaches thee that pacifism is right for thee.


My main purpose in writing the other post was not philosophical. Musing on the  nature of pacifism may be a pleasant pasttime, but it was not my object. I hope to open the door to those who might be pacifists, but who don’t know that it might include them even though they do swat mosquitos and would protect their children from an assault. It’s a bigger tent than it appears, if only the most strident voices are heard. The fact that one of the more heartfelt comments I received was from a retired Marine tells me that there is a place for this and that I succeeded in some measure. Perhaps some will read it, choose not to describe themselves as pacifists, but have a greater understanding and respect for what we are about, if their only previous exposure was to media coverage of the groups that show up in the streets during demonstrations and polarize these complex issues in very simplistic ways.

As it happens, I have just finished a book by Nancy Murphy and George Ellis entitled “On the Moral Nature of the Universe” (1996, Fortress Press) which argues for the kenotic nature of both God and Creation, making a strong case (imo) for a personal commitment to self-sacrificing nonviolence and accounting for nature’s apparently violent “red in tooth and claw” character on those grounds.  It is a closely argued unification of theology, cosmology, ethics and the natural sciences and rather heavy lifting in several places, but might be of interest to thee.  I know I’m planning to dive into it again right away.

I will add it to my list. You know that list? I bet you have one too.

Anyway, thanks for thy posting such a provocative blog entry.  I hope that it sparks as much reflection in other folks as it has in me.

Amen, brother. Amen.

Quaker Plain VI: Money — The Wealth Didn’t Go Anywhere

[This is the first of, I think, two posts on money and finances. Both will be short, but have something important to say that I rarely see elsewhere. They will not seem terribly Quakerly; I won't be using typical Quakerese because I'm not addressing issues that are specific to the Society of Friends. And so some of my Quaker readership may not find them as interesting as the posts, for instance, on plain dress. This is just a guess, and I would like to be wrong, for these posts are of as much importance, and directly relevant to the heart of plainness, as any others I've posted. Which is why I'm giving them the "Quaker Plain" topical title that has prefaced all the other posts in this series.]

Since late 2007, the world has struggled with a vast, deep and long recession. Somehow, it seems as though there is less to go around. For those who lost jobs or homes, that is accurate to a point. That point will be discussed further down. For many of us in industrialized countries, the “less to go around” is a matter of perception. Perhaps even of hypnotism. We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Let’s understand one thing: the media — all media, not just the “mainstream media” which my conservative friends like to decry — have self-interest as their primary concern. For large media outlets, of no matter what stripe, the principal purpose is not to publish the news but to make money for the stock-holders. I’m sure not the first one to notice this; my oldest brother’s first journalism professor said that, if I have the story straight, on the first day of class. For the kind of micro-media, like this blog, which the Internet has made more powerful and ubiquitous than ever before, the self-interest lies in self-expression. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t want to share what is on my mind, and I expect that is true of micro-media in general. If I have some influence in some small way, I’m glad, but I have no inflated ideas along that line.

And what does this have to do with money, or the recession? Well, in order to sell newspapers, to use the old-fashioned phrase, they have to publish stories with drama and human interest. Doom and gloom are big sellers. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Not much incentive for advertisers to buy ads if no one reads your copy.

They can’t just totally make up stories, though. (Okay, tabloids do, and the New York Times on occasion.) There has to be some kernel of truth. Most of the drama comes in how you spin it. So, there was a huge bubble in the real estate market, for instance, in which properties were way over-valued and mortgages lent to people who were way over-risky, and when that bubble popped it had ripple effects — tidal wave effects perhaps — which eventually had an impact on all sectors of the economy.  That really happened. The rest, however, is spin. Much of the “disaster” took place because people started acting like a disaster had taken place. Any clear observer of the stock market, to give only one example, knows that psychology has an enormous impact on the stock market. When people get scared, values go down. The companies themselves didn’t change; the perception changed.

This applies to the economy as a whole. Strong emotional reactions such as fear or anger have impacts on our behavior, including our buying/saving/investing choices, and that adds up to real effects on the macro economy.

But the wealth didn’t go anywhere, only the faith in it did.

Wealth is not money. Money is just a marker. An important marker, to be sure; I’ll address that in the next post. But money is not wealth. Wealth is found in three things: natural resources, such as minerals and oil and arable land and water; the infrastructure, the tools we use to do things with natural resources, from the factory to the railroad to the carpenter’s hammer; and most importantly, in the creativity, intelligence, and hard work of people. That’s it. That is what real wealth is composed of. Lack of any of the three produces conditions which are more conducive to poverty than to wealth, although an abundance of two can overcome a deficiency in one. Look at Japan and its relative lack of natural resources; they more than make up for that in their brilliant application of the second two.

Let’s take this understanding of wealth, then, and apply it to the current recession. What receded? As the title of this post says, the wealth didn’t go anywhere. When stocks drop and real estate values plunge, it doesn’t mean that the land is worth less or the factory is suddenly unable to produce. Something else has happened. And, while I am no economist and cannot describe the intermediate financial steps by which this plays out, what has changed in the main is faith. Faith in the system. Faith that needs will be met, that there will be enough to go around.

Faith that was misplaced in the first place. Because if your faith is in money you are in real trouble already, even when you have a lot of it. If your faith is in wealth, you are a little better off but not much. If your faith is in a loving and caring Higher Power, you are much more likely to make the kinds of choices that will get you and others through this situation. I emphasize “and others” because selfless service is an important facet of the kind of faith I mean. So much of our economic life is done in hope of reward. I like getting paychecks. But the things we do for each other, without seeking any payback, are immensely important in life as it is lived (not as it is reported in the media), and do  not show up in any economic measurement because they fly below the radar.

Let me say that I am addressing the situation as it pertains to industrialized countries here. In the non-developed world, or whatever we are calling it these days (do we still say Third World?), the conditions of political and economic domination by both internal and external forces are such that much of this does not apply. The part on faith does, though. I wish I could be more explicit about that, because it is remarkably important, but I just don’t have enough information to do a credible job. If you look for it, the information is out there.

A Lifelong Pacifist Speaks on Pacifism

I’ve started this post at least twice before. One, I lost in some cyber netherworld. The other is still there, about half-done. I don’t really think either one was going to get finished. Not the way they were.

Thing is, in both of them I got bogged down. I was trying to establish my bona fides as a pacificist, before saying what it was I have really been given to say.

There is something to that. But I can do it with a few quick stories, rather than the lengthy biographical detour that they had both become.

I registered with the draft on my 18th birthday as a conscientious objector. There were a lot of important people in my life who did not understand or like it. My draft board was unlikely to grant the status, and so I knew I was faced with jail if I was actually called up. Due to the dwindling demand for US soldiers in Vietnam and the vagaries of the lottery system, I was never faced with a draft notice.

I’ve been arrested twice in protests against US militaristic ventures. Once was in 1982, at the Pentagon, as a witness against the obscene sums of money being spent on nuclear devices. That is where I met Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. Had things turned out a little differently, we could have become friends. Our paths diverged, however, and this didn’t come to be. They left an indelible imprint on me, entirely for the better.

The second arrest was at the CIA HQ in Langley, VA. This was in protest of the mining of the harbor of Managua. Say what you will about the Sandinistas, mining a civilian harbor, especially of a country against which we are not at war, is a violation of international law and the laws of humanity.

I have put my own body on the line to prevent domestic violence between neighbors more than once. This is a very dangerous — some would say stupid — thing to do. Didn’t matter.

Finally, I have spent my entire career as a social worker treating the victims of violence. My particular specialty for most of that time has been treating the survivors of sexual assault. I’ve seen more of what violence can do, both in the short and the long run, than most people.

There — that’s enough — and took far less than the several pages I had filled up before. I feel clear that I can continue with the real message now.

Another story, but this is not about bona fides. This is about how my views of pacifism, once pretty absolute, became more finely textured.

I was in a duplex apartment in Dayton, Ohio. The neighborhood, once genteel, was becoming seedier. The plague of crack had already arrived in Dayton, and we were sandwiched between two neighborhoods where it had taken over, and it was only a matter of time before our neighborhood was taken over by the plague as well.

In this building, there was one apartment downstairs, mine on the top two floors. There was one stairway to the bedroom on the top floor where I slept. No other way up or down. I found myself waking up scared in the night. I thought I was having nightmares because there was nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t remember any nightmares, but what else could it be? I even talked to a psychiatrist with whom I’d worked to try to figure it out.

And then one night I woke up, afraid, and there were voices down in the alley. No one has any business in that alley at that time of night, which means that their business was criminal. I also realized that this was what had interrupted my sleep all the times before; I just hadn’t heard the voices. I also realized that the fear was the subconscious realization that, should someone decide to break in, I was a sitting duck. One way out, the way they would be coming up.

I made a decision that they could have all the TVs and VCRs and stereos and computers they wanted. These were all on the 2nd floor. There was nothing worth stealing on the third floor. Nothing at all except me. And I realized that, pacifist views to the contrary, I considered myself valuable enough to protect.

I bought a handgun, a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm that was made by the Canadians during World War II. A fine piece of manufacturing, sturdy, dependable, reliable, accurate. I learned how to shoot. I learned that, as hobbies go, I enjoyed it, and that while guns are weapons, target shooting can be an enjoyable past time in its own right.

And the waking up scared came to an end. I was no longer a sitting duck. My fate was not entirely in the hands of someone whose judgment had already been proven faulty — a burglar. I had, as they say, a fighting chance.

And my views of pacifism changed. They had to.

Pacifism, I have found, is a continuum. Absolute pacifism, in which one would not use violence for any reason, is only one part of the spectrum. It is on the extreme end at that, and has all the problems that extreme views always entail. No wonder my girl friend’s parents asked my “Wouldn’t you fight someone if they tried to rape L….?” At the time, I said No. I plead youth and inexperience. I didn’t know then that my own moral purity would not be worth the more drastic sacrifice of the harm that would come to a loved one if I did nothing.

There is a place for absolute pacifism, though. I can still respect it. I hope that those who hold this belief will never be challenged in such a direct and dramatic way.

If you accept that you  might use force in some conditions, then you have to find another place on the spectrum. I find that there is another end to the spectrum, and I think it goes like this: Pacifism might be the recognition that we should seek non-violent solutions to all conflicts, from the personal to the geopolitical, while acknowledging that in an imperfect world, we might end up making a choice for the use of force. I think that’s about as far as you can go and still call yourself a pacifist.If you see non-violent solutions as one choice among many, but not to be preferred until all else fails, then I don’t think you can call yourself a pacifist. Anything between those two extremes, the absolute pacifist and the violence-as-a-last-resort pacifist, qualifies.

I don’t think pacifism is a suitable foundation for foreign policy for any government. I think it is a personal, spiritual decision. I am not a pacifist because it is right; I am a pacifist because the Spirit that moves in my heart wants me to be one. It wants me to “try what Love can do”, and keep trying, and keep trying. Governments don’t love. People love. People can work with, or within, or against governments on the basis of this personal spiritual choice, trying to eliminate or at least decrease the use of violence.

To have become a healer has been an important expression of how that Spirit moves within me, but there is no reason a pacifist couldn’t be any other profession or occupation, including a member of the armed forces. Some of the people who want peace the most have been those who have seen war the closest.

On the flip side of that one, some of the best warriors I’ve ever known have been pacifists who would not pick up a weapon.

As a Quaker, I’ve learned over time that Friends are pretty evenly spread out over the whole spectrum.This is as it should be. Pacifism does not lend itself well to dogma. Dogma insists. This is the opposite of pacifism. Pacifism doesn’t insist, it loves, it encourages, it reflects. These are not passive qualities. The phonic similarity between pacifism and passive is not descriptive of what pacifism is like. Two of my heroes, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were far from passive. They were dynamic, active men who threw themselves into life with passion. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart, for those with lily-white hands who would never soil them by being involved in the grit and the grind of conflict.

Speaking of not soiling one’s lily-white hands, all pacifists are not vegetarians. And if you are not a vegetarian, you are complicit in the death of animals. Me, I hunt. Since I’m not a vegetarian, I find it incumbent on me to soil my lily-white hands with the blood of the animals I eat, at least every so often. For me, to do less is hypocrisy. This may not be true for everyone. I don’t want to start any new dogmas. This is my witness, not yours. Unless it is yours. In that case, welcome. It’s all a matter of how the Spirit moves in your heart, and mine. If it moves me away from hunting, then I won’t hunt.

In Meeting for Worship, when I am moved to vocal ministry and come to the end of what I’ve been given, I just sit down. It’s not an oration, which needs to be properly wrapped up with closing remarks and flourishes. Since I can’t visibly just sit down, then I guess I stop writing, because that seems to be all I need to say.

Faustus Socinus and the Roots of Modern Christianity

[As I have said in earlier posts, it is not necessary to believe in superstition or medieval concepts in order to be a Christian. Here is the story of one man who, many centuries ago, made remarkable sacrifices to help formulate the Christian faith in such a way that a modern person could adhere to it without betraying reason or knowledge.]

Fausto Sozzini, or in Latin form Faustus Socinus as he is usually known, was born in 1539 to a wealthy Italian family. The Reformation was in full flower as he grew up and the ideas of Luther and others were fermenting all over Europe. Luther himself was interested mainly in establishing the authority of the Bible, as opposed to that of the church hierarchy, and of cleaning up the corruption in the church. Many of his contemporaries went further. Some of them, such as Michael Servetus and Thomas Munzer, preached against the idea of the Trinity and the practice of infant baptism. Socinus’ uncle Laelio Sozzini was involved in this movement, which we call the Radical Reformation, and influenced Faustus immeasurably. Laelio learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the original, and found that much of the church’s doctrine was directly contradictory to Scripture. Laelio had a fascinating life, living in various cities in Italy and Switzerland, and knew many of the Reformation’s outstanding figures.

At the age of 21 Socinus went to Lyon, France, and was probably engaged in a mercantile business. A year later he shows up in Geneva, Switzerland, but there is no evidence that he ever came under the sway of John Calvin. Letters from this time show that he was already formulating a more radical Protestant theology, asserting that Jesus was not essentially divine — in other words, that he was not born both God and Man. He returned to Italy and lived as a member of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo Medici in Florence for many years. During this time he had many literary pursuits — he loved to write poetry — but was not remarkably fertile as a theologian.

When Duke Cosimo died in 1574, Socinus traveled back to Switzerland and never returned to Italy. In the safer theological atmosphere of Basel he once again began to publish theological works. From Basel, Socinus traveled to Transylvania. There were many there who had rejected the idea of the Trinity. The interchange between Socinus and the Transylvanian anti-trinitarians is one of the principal threads in the development of modern-day Unitarianism. Socinus left Transylvania for Poland in May of 1579, where there were many others of like mind. He remained in Poland until his death in 1604. He was a major influence on the development of the Polish Brethren, a dissenting church which forms another thread in the development of a non-supernatural way of participating in the Christian faith.

What were his principal beliefs? I’ve already alluded to his rejection of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are somehow separate yet one and the same. He says that Jesus was not born the Son of God. He suggests that, when the gospel of John says “In the beginning there was the Word,” this means in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning of the Creation. Jesus was the Son of God because he became like God. The Holy Spirit is not a separate being from God, either, but simply the activity of God’s power and presence among us.

Socinus also disagreed with the idea that Jesus died on the cross for the remission of sins. Stephen David Snobelen tells us that “Fausto Socinus rejected the orthodox satisfaction theory of the atonement, a theory that held that God’s wrath was appeased or satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross, a sacrifice that involved a sort of legal transaction in which Christ died as a substitute for humans. Socinus held that the view that held that God was a wrathful deity who demanded the satisfaction of a legal transaction prior to granting atonement for the sin’s of men and women was inconsistent with an understanding of God’s grace. Instead, Socinus argued that God has the right to grant atonement and eternal life freely, without any transaction. Socinus believes it unjust for God to ask men and women to forgive each other freely, if he does not do so himself. There is in Socinus’ model of the atonement a greater stress placed on Christ’s crucifixion as exemplary of an ethic of self-sacrifice to which humans should aspire.”

Socinus did not believe in original sin, thus there was no need for justification. Socinus considered it absurd that some would be saved and others predestined to be damned to hell, as Calvin taught.

Socinus believed that the rewards of the Christian life were not to be won simply in saying that you believe in what Jesus taught, but by doing what Jesus taught. He took the demands of the Sermon on the Mount as binding on all Christians, and was a pacifist.

He denied that God’s omniscience means that God knows everything that is going to happen. Free will prevents this. Since people can make their own choices, no one including God can know everything that will take place. If there is no free will, then God must be the cause of sin. This, Faustus said, was absurd. Therefore there must be free will, and if there is, then foreknowledge cannot be said to exist.

Finally, while Socinus and his followers believed in miracles such as the virgin birth, they also said that religion should not contradict natural reason, or what we would today call scientific understanding. The rise of such beliefs in Europe, of which Socinus was an early pioneer, led to what we call the Enlightenment, or the philosophy of thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. The spirit of the Enlightenment played a large part in the formation of the American experiment in self-government, believing as they did in the rule of reason and law, and the separation of church and state.

After Socinus’ death, the Polish government was taken over for a time by counter-reformers, zealots for Catholicism and the more conservative branches of the Protestant movement. The doctrines of churches such as the Polish Brethren were outlawed, and members had three years to either convert to an accepted church or to leave. Many of the Polish Brethren fled to the Netherlands, where religious toleration was still practiced.

Socinus’ ideas had considerable influence over Isaac Newton. Newton was found to have had many Socinian books in his library upon his death, and they all gave evidence of having been studied. Four of them were written by Socinus himself. By contrast, there were only two books by Martin Luther and one by John Calvin. In addition, Newton had correspondence with several Socinians, and appears to have helped fund the publication of one of their works.

While not a Socinian as such, Newton did not believe in the Trinity. His attitude towards the Atonement was similar to Socinus, in that he did not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sins. Like Socinus, he studied the early history of the Christian church and found that such doctrines as the Trinity and the Atonement were either absent or were only one among many, quite distinct from the position of orthodoxy those precepts later obtained.

In England at one time, the term Socinian was used to denote any of the more radical forms of the Protestant church. My own Society of Friends was often labeled Socinian, although strictly speaking they were not. There are some parallels, such as the pacifism and the use of empirical reasoning in matters of faith.

I had heard of the “Socinian heresy” many times in my own studies. In those brief descriptions I saw something that seemed interesting and which resonates with my own views. Running across his name in a book again quite recently, I thought I would like to find out more who this Socinus guy was. As I learned more about him, I discovered how much his view of religion parallels my own. It’s almost like doing some genealogy and finding an interesting ancestor in your family tree.

Pacifism, the War on Terror, and Politics in the 2012 Elections

[I made a decision at the very beginning that this would not be a political blog. I have definite political opinions, but in general I think that politics get more attention than they should. Partisan politics are especially hideous. I'm going to sound off just a bit about politics here, because there are times when it is important. This is one of them.

In a larger sense, this is still not about politics as such. This is about issues which have a political context.

I always welcome comments, but I suspect that this post will invite comments that will have a pointedly political or partisan thrust. Do yourself a favor: post them on your own blog. I won't approve them for publication here. Don't be surprised or disappointed if yours never sees the light of day. Forewarned is forearmed.]

Politics should be the handmaiden of our lives, not the mistress. Too many people think of the government as “the decider”, to borrow George Bush’s famous oversimplification. People want government to do things. Every time some problem emerges — from a deadly hurricane to unemployment to the cost of health care — too many people look to government to provide the solution. Governments are notoriously bad at this sort of thing. There is little evidence to the contrary. What drives this, for most people, is that they really want a parent to take care of them.

What governments are good at, and necessary for, comes down to a few things: To secure our borders and protect the country from foreign invasion. To pursue a foreign policy that enables our citizens to travel and do business freely around the world. To coordinate efforts that affect all the states — not to provide or run those efforts, but to coordinate them. And, most importantly, to secure the civil rights of all citizens. Every one, regardless of race, creed, disability, mental status, gender, sexual preference, you name it.

So when I say politics should be the handmaiden and not the mistress, that is because there are many things that are much more important than politics, such as ethics, and commerce, and relationships between people and groups of peoples. To the extent that government can remove obstacles that make those things difficult, it is good. To the extent that politics is necessary to the conduct of government, it is acceptable. Anything beyond that, quite frankly, is delusional.

That’s pretty abstract. Let me give a more concrete example.

I am a lifelong pacifist. I don’t expect my government to be pacifist. Governments are based on force. Laws carry the threat of arrest and imprisonment, a form of force. Borders are secured by our armed forces. Foreign policy is conducted largely with the knowledge that some things lead to war if not managed better. I don’t expect this to change; I am no utopian. What a pacifist can contribute, is to keep the pressure on to find humane and peaceful ways of conducting foreign policy, border security, or law enforcement. That is no small project.

So when America becomes involved in torture, people of ethics in general and pacifists in particular say STOP! When massacres such as My Lai occur, people of ethics in general and pacifists in particular act to have the people who committed them held accountable. (The people who were most responsible for My Lai were never held accountable. While Lt. Calley should not have gotten off scot-free — we don’t accept “I was just following orders” as an excuse for atrocity — he was wrongfully used as a scapegoat by those who were even more truly responsible, the ones who set the policies and gave the orders which created the atmosphere in which the slaughter occurred.)

And when politicians use those humane impulses to win elections, and then go right on doing the very things they condemned in order to get elected, ethical people in general and pacifists in particular have to stand up to the deception.

I am not going to vote for Mitt Romney. Keep that in mind as you read what follows.

Barack Obama made a lot of political hay, talking about torture, extraordinary renditions, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and other such policies of the Bush administration in his historic rise to the Presidency. What has he done since then?

* Guantanamo Bay is still operating the prison for terrorists. As of September 2012, 166 detainees remain in the facility. [LA Times, 9/23/12]

* The use of drones in targeted killings has increased under President Obama. Administration sources say that this keeps civilian casualties down. Yet reports increasingly describe how whole provinces in Pakistan — nominally our allies — are terrorized by the drones. Many die. More are kept in a state of terror as the drones fly overhead day and night, not knowing where the next explosion will occur.

* Assassination: how is the use of a drone to take out a targeted individual any different from sending in an assassin with a gun or knife? It’s not. Except the “collateral damage” (civilian deaths and casualties) is higher. We have had a longstanding prohibition of the use of assassination by the U.S. Apparently this has been overlooked by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

* Passing death sentences on U.S. citizens without a trial in a court of law: 16 year old native of Colorado:


Google the name and learn more about this incident.

* President Obama followed neither the War Powers Act nor the Constitution in ordering military operations in Libya in 2011. Ralph Nader called him a “war criminal” for doing this. Good old Ralph. At least he is consistent. “If Bush should have been impeached, Obama should be impeached.” Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich said the same thing.

* Warrantless wiretaps: The ACLU has recently released findings that warrantless wiretaps have quadrupled under the Obama administration. http://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security-technology-and-liberty/new-justice-department-documents-show-huge-increase

What I don’t see is the same kind of outcry by the people who so strenuously opposed these things when done by the Bush administration.

People of ethics in general, and pacifists in particular, have to stand up against this deception, whether you like the guy or not.

The Problem with Thinking

[This is not the post I thought I would put up this weekend. That one is pretty much in the can, and will see the light of day before long. In the meantime, here's the thing about trying to be Spirit-led: sometimes a topic will just grab hold and insist on jumping to the head of the line.]

First question: What’s the problem with Cognitive Therapy?

(Waves hand in air:  Ooo ooo ooo, I know this one.)

Anyone? Arnold?

The problem with Cognitive Therapy is that it doesn’t go far enough.

(Right. Here’s your gold star.)

What does that have to do with “The Problem with Thinking?” Keep reading.

When I was a young social worker, trying to do a good job with just a decent liberal arts education (a very good starting place BTW ; highly recommended), a smattering of psychology, and some native intuition, I sat down after a couple of years and tried to sum up what I’d learned. The result was an essay which described a new form of therapy, which I called Empirical Therapy. I discarded the essay later, when I found out that I was late to this party. It had been done, 10-15 years earlier, and a lot better. It was called Cognitive Therapy. (I went to a Master of Social Work program at around this time because I knew I was wasting time and effort every day, re-inventing the wheel. Boy, was I.) I encountered Cognitive Therapy in a counseling class, and recognized it for the mature expression of what I’d been groping for on my own. Aaron Beck had done stellar work in this area. So had Albert Ellis, who called his version Rational Emotive Therapy.

In 1994 I was introduced to Dr. David Burns’ work in this field, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It was like putting on a tailored suit. I’ve been fortunate to have attended a 2-day seminar with Dr. Burns. I’ve been even more fortunate to have seen the results. I literally use CBT every day, in every professional interaction, in some way or another. It’s that good.

In 2006, I was lucky enough to be included in a pilot program run by the North Carolina Child Treatment Program, a joint venture of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. 60 therapists in eastern NC were taught Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This was a fantastic educational experience, led by a group of talented young clinicians. Representing pediatrics, psychology, and social work, most were young enough to be my children. I got over that pretty quickly, when I saw how much they had to offer. The thrust of the pilot program was this: TFCBT had proven its worth over years of research. Could it be taken off campus, and taught on a wide scale to active clinicians actually out in the trenches? Yes, it could. Working with survivors of sexual assault has been a specialty of mine ever since sort of accidentally getting involved with a case in 1980. With TFCBT, I’ve seen the time it takes for good treatment reduced from a year or so to around 4 months, with very good results. Once more, CBT has proven its worth, not just in its effectiveness but in its flexibility as well.

I’ve said for years that CBT is the most important development in psychotherapy in the last 50 years. I stand by that today. I’m not as disdainful of other forms of therapy as some CBT practitioners are. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a powerful tool in the hands of a well-trained clinician. It’s a lot harder to produce well-trained clinicians in that mode, though. Good old B.F. Skinner-style behaviorism is being used with good results too. Ericksonian hypnosis and its many offspring are superb, the psychotherapeutic equivalent of laser and arthroscopic surgery. And nothing has ever superseded Carl Rogers’ insights into the nature and importance of the relationship between therapist and patient.

I dearly love a good dream analysis, and watching the ensuing changes in mood, thought and behavior as they unfold.

But if for some dire reason we were forced to select only one mode, I would have to pick CBT. You can teach more providers to be more effective with this one system than any other I have used. And, once patients have learned how to use CBT, they can use it themselves, for the rest of their lives, without a therapist. Slam dunk.

At the risk of over-simplification, here’s how it works: If you have negative thoughts, you will have negative feelings. Negative thoughts can be easily changed, with new information that either changes the thought itself, or calls the negativity into question. So if I think you are angry with me, and this makes me anxious, this can change either by finding out that you aren’t angry — new information — or learning that I can be calm even if you are angry at me — calling the negativity into question.

What, then, is the problem with CBT?

It doesn’t go far enough.

Why doesn’t it go far enough? Take, for instance, the problem of information. Computer folks have known from the dawn of time (computer time) that old saying, Garbage In, Garbage Out. CBT is like a computer program, software for the mind. The best program in the world cannot overcome bad data that is fed into it. As a grad student, I was introduced to a statistics program called SAS. SAS was marvelous. You could use it to slice and dice your data any way you chose. You could run all kinds of analyses, and turn out all kinds of charts and graphs. Here’s the thing: if your data collection was bad, SAS couldn’t point it out. It would give you wonderful stats and graphs that meant nothing, or were actually misleading.

Same with the mind. The information I have, from so many sources, affects my mood, outlook, ideas, opinions, etc. How can two people — patient and therapist — be certain that they are using the best information? They can’t. Neither can see past the blind spots they share. If I really think that women should never wear pants, and I am counseling a woman who is struggling with restrictions placed on her by a church that only allows dresses for women, where is the new information that she needs going to come from? Worse yet, if I only ever really talk to people who agree with me, will my basic fallacies ever be challenged?

Also, neither of us knows that there is needed information that we don’t know. It seems this goes without saying — you don’t know what you don’t know, duh — and yet it is seldom taken into account. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his landmark work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, science advances when it becomes apparent that what we think we know is wrong. Scientific advance is held back by people who are certain that they know what isn’t so.

I see this all the time. It is a major factor in our public life. Liberals who only talk to liberals. Conservatives who only talk to conservatives. Religious people who only talk to other religious people, and atheists who only talk to other atheists. People who get angry and bitter when confronted with different beliefs than their own. People only read books and magazines, or watch TV shows, that support their own favored views. Things seem evidently correct, because “everyone agrees.” It reminds me of the Chicago socialite who couldn’t believe Eisenhower beat Stevenson, because “no one voted for Eisenhower.” No one she knew, that is.

Try it yourself. Take any random politically oriented post on Facebook. Say something that disagrees with it. Watch the fireworks.

Many people who are the most convinced that they have an open mind, have very closed minds. As A.A. Milne put it, “The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.” There are so few first-rate minds. The other two are not really thinking at all. They are massaging their biases.

Which brings us to the second way in which CBT does not go far enough. The first is that it can’t guarantee that you will get better information than you have. The second is that it doesn’t really teach how to think. It does a very good job of pointing out some of the most common fallacies — perfectionism, taking things personally, etc. — but learning what constitutes the wrong way to think does not equal learning how to think.

For that matter, there are many ways to think poorly that are not covered in CBT. For these, you might need to take a basic course in logic. There, you would find out about the ad hominem fallacy, circular reasoning, “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” the straw man, and others.

It’s not a matter of intelligence. Not entirely. I know some people of average intelligence who are better thinkers than those of vastly greater intelligence. They are, however, limited in what they can think about; the ability to reason abstractly does not show up until somewhere around an IQ of 120. But having a big brain is no guarantee of being a good thinker; some of the poorest thinkers I know have very high IQs. They’ve learned how to use it in some ways, but not in this important way.

What does it take to be a good thinker?

1. High quality information, from a variety of sources. For instance, when a major world political crisis takes place — say, the fall of the Berlin Wall — don’t just watch your favorite news programs. Get a shortwave radio and tune in to news shows from around the world, such as Deutsche Welle, the BBC, Radio Canada International, Voice of Japan, Voice of China, and one of my favorites, Radio Prague. Shortwave radio listening is fun, too — check out all that different music. (If for some silly reason you don’t want to fool with a radio, many stations also livestream over the Internet. But this is cheating.) If you like Fox News, listen to NPR. If you hate Fox news, find one of the more reasonable conservative bloggers such as Victor Davis Hansen. Do whatever it takes to stay out of the “echo chamber.”

2. Be aware of the signal-to-noise ratio. Signal is useful information. Everything else is noise. Most of what you get in daily conversation and via the mainstream media is noise. With just enough signal to make it seem worthwhile. This is a tough one! Recognizing good information from bad takes work.

3. Learn about the obstacles to clear thinking. CBT is very good at identifying the most common cognitive distortions — ways we let our emotions affect our thinking. And there are many websites, such as the Wikepedia article on logical fallacies, that describe ways in which we fail to keep our thinking straight in a more formal sense. Learn them. Learn to spot them when other people are under their sway. Your favorite commentator might look very different.

4. Learn to trust the limits of knowledge. Get comfortable with the idea that no one knows all there is to know about anything. We have to make decisions, even though there is never sufficient high-quality data for complete assurance.  That person you dislike so much just might know something you don’t — and it’s just as likely you know something he doesn’t. Live and let live.

5. In a special application of #4, but worthy of a spot all its own because it is so dang important, learn to accept the legitimate difference of opinion. Everyone who disagrees with you is not a fascist, or a communist, or whatever your bete noir may be. I’ve written a whole essay on this and posted it on this blog. It is the least-read of any essay I’ve posted. Many, many people just don’t really want to know how to think.

6. Practice, practice, practice. If you want to learn how to think, you have to read the works of great thinkers. Not novelists (although some of them were great thinkers), not poets, not biographers, not cookbooks. You can’t become a great musician without listening to great music, and practicing your scales over and over and over. You can’t become a good thinker without the company of other good thinkers.

7. Honesty. You have to be able to take an honest account of who you are, what you do, which distortions you allow into your thinking, what poisons do you allow into your data stream, and so forth.

As always, I know I will get comments that will add a lot to this. Good data stream!


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