Monday, June 25, 2018

POST-TRUTH

I've been around a long time.  In my lifetime I've been exposed to many truth claims, not all of which are true - some by my contemporaries, some by those considered experts in their field, some by political leaders.  Truth telling seems most difficult for those in the political arena, even, especially for those with political power.  We as Americans, as Christians are often forced to distinguish between genuine facts and propaganda.

And we've heard some doozies from our leaders, even our Presidents and their spokesmen, many of them outright lies, intended to deceive:  justifications for wars, break-ins, sexual scandals.
But our present situation surpasses them all.  We have a President who tells us in the face of contradictory evidence, that three million people voted illegally for his adversary, that the crowds at his inauguration were the greatest ever, that his predecessor was not born in the USA (wait - he took that one back and blamed its spread on his opponent).  And those are just the laughable ones.  There are many more instances that are much more serious, designed to promote his agenda.

However, this battle against the truth did not begin with Donald Trump.
Friends who know I'm a reader, often recommend books to me, sometimes telling me, "You've got to read ______!"  Somehow those words raise resistance in me, so I seldom use them myself.  But this book is different.  To any and every Christian leader or thinker I'd say, "You've got to read this book:  Post Truth!"

We are in a battle for truth today. Of course, one could assert that we have always been engaged in this battle - ever since the serpent asked Eve, "Yea, hath God said ....?"  However, I believe that we have entered a period in America - and the world - where we are no longer attempting to ascertain facts, but are simply selecting assertions that confirm our own prejudices.  Truth has become that which we choose it  to be.
The little (172 pages) book Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre is an attempt to explain "How we arrived in a post-truth era, when 'alternative facts' replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence.'" (back cover blurb)  McIntyre, we are told, "is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School."  The book is a volume in The MIT Essential Knowledge Series.  The author informs us, however, that this book is unique in its topic.  It "was born from a sense of regret by those who worry that truth is being eclipsed" and that it is "impossible to achieve the kind of dispassionate neutrality that one might expect in an academic book." (Preface p. XIII)

He lets the reader know right at the beginning that he is not seeking a balanced view, which is clearly not possible.  "To do so would engage in a kind of false equivalence that is the hallmark of post-truth itself."  He goes on to explain that this challenge to truth is used "as a mechanism for asserting political dominance," and thus this book will not "shy away from politics." (p.xiii)
McIntyre gives us The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of post-truth as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."(page 5)  To understand post-truth we must, of course, know what truth is.  He gives us Aristotle's as his minimum definition ... "to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true." (page 7)

Post-truth is a subversion of truth and it can take many forms - simple "falsehood," "willful ignorance" and "lying" which involves the "intent to deceive."  Post-truth, however, goes beyond this to "self-deception and delusion" where one actually believes one's falsehoods and that this belief somehow changes the facts.  One has created one's own reality simply by believing.  The challenge of post-truth is not just to the knowledge of reality "but to the existence of reality itself." (p. 9, 10)  Facts have become subordinate to one's opinions, especially political opinions.
Though denial of truth has been around since the beginning, McIntyre sees its recent uptick in the denial of science in recent years - climate change, vaccine and evolution.  He presents the work of the tobacco industry in casting doubt on science with alternative views as being the pioneering work in science denial.  He speaks of "a straight line .... from the 'tobacco strategy' of the 1950's to today's "controversy over global warning." (p.27)  The strategy is not to disprove scientific data but simply to raise doubts about their accuracy.  And of course,  the media have willingly cooperated by presenting "'both sides of the story' on any 'controversial scientific issue.'" (p. 33)  Thus are implicated in this trend not only the industries who have a financial stake, but the news media as well.

The author devotes a chapter to "cognitive bias," its roots and its branches.  Cognitive bias is our tendency to accept as true those data which confirm our preexisting views.  He describes our tendency to "social conformity;" to "motivated reasoning" - "what we hope to be true may color our perception of what actually is true;" "the backfire effect" - doubling down when confronted with contradicting data; the "Dunning-Kruger effect"  - the inability to recognize one's own ineptitude.
Another chapter is devoted to "the Decline of Traditional Media." Not only are traditional news - sources losing their readership, but biased sources are arising to take their place.  Talk radio's Rush Limbaugh "set himself up as a source of truth in opposition to the rest of American media," (p. 68) exploiting confirmation bias. But even the traditional media have been complicit by attempting to "tell both sides of the story" and thus "creating false equivalence" between two sides of an issue even when there were not really two credible sides." (p. 72)

Chapter 5 is devoted to "Social Media" and "Fake News."  It would seem that the intelligent reader would be aware of the use of social media to spread deception, but many users simply click "share" and pass on anything without critical examination.  McIntyre devotes much material to the need for critical thinking in this area.
Though throughout most of the book, it is those of the political right, and especially Donald Trump who are given as examples, the left is not without excuse.  Academia is also to blame, especially the concept of postmodernism.  It is in this school of thought that "the notion of truth itself was now under scrutiny,"  (p. 125)  Truth claims are treated as merely expressions of ideology.  In postmodernism, "there is no such thing as objective truth." (p. 126)  Though the political right in the past was involved in battling postmodernism, they have evolved into its greatest users.  They have turned an abstract philosophical concept into a weapon.  Even Intelligent Design creationists have been guilty of utilizing its thinking.

The final chapter, "Fighting Post-Truth" was not very encouraging to me.  Though some strategies are given, most boil down to simply stating the truth in the face of its enemies.
So how do I, how do you the reader, react to the warnings in this book?  How do we who claim to be followers of the One who claimed to be "The Truth" react to the data presented here?

First of all we need to beware of "confirmation bias" on our part.  I am afraid that many Evangelicals are guilty of rejecting any truth claims simply because they appear to contradict our own rigid set of beliefs.  As has been said many times "all truth is God's truth."  We have nothing to fear.  Most of the assertions in this book are easily verifiable simply by observation of what's happening around us.
We need to get out of our bubble.  There's more out there for us than "Christian Radio" and/or Fox News.  Expose yourself to other thinking.  Read news magazines.  Watch the News. Learn to distinguish facts from opinions.  Don't be afraid to seek to know the facts about matters even though they may be threatening.

Become biblically and theologically astute.  What are the real moral issues on which we stand?  I have found that many Christians are guilty of opposing scientific knowledge, not because it contradicts the Bible, but because it doesn't agree with their political prejudices.  [Do you know that there is not one passage in the Bible that says manmade global warning cannot occur?]
As I said earlier, this is a must read book for the Christian leader or thinker. It is however, not a "Christian" book.  But if secular thinkers actually believe that we are engaged in a battle for the truth, then we who are followers of the Truth should be careful which side we are on.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

CUT OFF?

I received the following question on a facebook post a while back:  "I'm listening to the Bible on audible.  What does it mean when someone is cut off from their people in Leviticus?  Is it like a social shun and ejection or their exclusion from God's "people" or something else?"

My reply was "I think that 'cut off' could mean any of the things you mentioned.  I think I need to dig a big deeper though.  I'll get back with you later."
Then someone else added, "Now I'm curious.  Do share your research please."

My reply, "When I get to it."
Well here we are.  Actually this is one of those expressions in the Bible that's quite troubling, so I suspect that I've ignored its meaning for that reason.  So, after doing a bit of study I'm still not sure.  I still feel that the meanings may vary according to context.

The Hebrew word is KARAT and its simplest meaning is "cut."  The meaning of "cut off" is usually clear from the context.  When used literally the meaning is obvious.
Exodus 4:25:  "And Zipporah took a knife and cut off her son's foreskin ...."

1 Samuel 17:51:  "And David ran up and stood over the Philistine (Goliath), grasped his sword, pulled it from its sheath and killed him and cut off  his head with it."
However, when used metaphorically the exact meaning is hard to determine.  A few passages clearly speak of capital punishment.

Exodus 31:14:  "You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you.  The one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
Leviticus 20:2, 3:  "Any one ... who gives an of his children to Molech shall be put to death ...  I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people..."  All of chapter 20 seems to equate cutting off with capital punishment, especially in the areas of idolatry and sexual taboos.

There are many passages that appear to refer to exclusion from the covenant community for failing to take part in the prescribed rituals.
Genesis 17:14: failure to be circumcised.

Exodus 12:15, 19:  failure to properly celebrate the Passover.
Exodus 30:33, 38:  using the holy perfume for personal use.

Leviticus 7:20, 21, 25, 27; 18:29; 19:8; 22:3:  ritual uncleanness, eating non-kosher food.
We could go on and on.  The word is used 100s of times.  While I would like to believe that its normal metaphorical meaning is exclusion or shunning or excommunication, I have a strong suspicion that it may usually refer to capital punishment.  We don't like to admit it but the Mosaic Law was extremely harsh, some would even say cruel.  However as we read the rest of the Old Testament we come to realize that these laws were often ignored and not regularly enforced; they were frequently broken or ignored, without penalty.

The Mosaic Law (Exodus - Deuteronomy) was given for many reasons.  While many parts of it are there to demonstrate the holiness of God and the requirements for approaching him, I believe that much of it was simply given (as laws are today) to regulate the behavior of sinful (though redeemed) people.
But this Law is not given to regulate the behavior of these who know Christ.  As Jeremiah promised, God has set aside the Old Covenant with its laws and given a New Covenant in which He writes His laws on the hearts of His people - including even us non-Israelites.

The Mosaic Law was also given to show us our lost condition.  It pronounced a curse on those who fail to follow it.  But as the Apostle Paul said in Galatians 3:13:  "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us."  (Read all of Galatians 3:10-14.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

MISPLACED ALLEGIANCE

The American embassy in Israel has been moved from Tel Aviv - where many nations still have theirs - to Jerusalem.  Though many students of American foreign policy believe this to be an unwise move, many feel that this was the right thing to do and has been too long in coming.  The nation of Israel claims Jerusalem to be its capital, though many Palestinians claim East Jerusalem is, or at least should be their capital - the capital of the Arab West Bank.

Our President claims that this move will ultimately lead to peace in the Middle East, without (of course) specifying how this is to occur.  Mr. Trump is lauded as a hero in Israel, with great ceremonies commending this move by America and its President.  Speakers in these ceremonies include prominent "Evangelical" preachers.  Meanwhile the conflict between Israel and its neighbors seems more volatile, while deadly demonstrations by Palestinians are carried on.  (Of course the "deadly" applies to the Palestinians, not the Israelis - 50+ Palestinians dead and innumerable wounded.)

Many in the American Evangelical community are rejoicing in this action, some seem almost giddy.  Why is this?

A large number of Evangelical Christians hold to a theological system known as Dispensationalism, even though many who hold this position may never have heard the word.  Dispensationalists take pride in "rightly dividing the Word of Truth," in noting the distinctions made in the Scriptures.  To some extent this is an excellent way to interpret the Scriptures.  But sometimes Dispensationalists make distinctions where the Bible is not that clear.  And they also at times carry those distinctions to illogical conclusions.

Dispensationalists distinguish (as do many Christians) between God's Old Covenant people and His New Covenant people, between the nation of Israel of the Old Testament and the Church of the New, between Judaism and Christianity.  They do not however see the Church (Christianity) as a continuation of God's promises, expanded to include both Jews and non Jews who believe in Christ. They seem to ignore Paul's words, "So then, know this; that those who are of faith, these are sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7).

Dispensationalists see Israel as a people set aside until the end times when God will again deal with them.  "And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion to turn away ungodliness from Jacob'" (Romans 11:26; Isaiah 59:20).  And many see the birth of the present (secular) nation of Israel in 1948, and the following events  as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  According to Dispensationalist eschatology (the doctrine of last things) the nation of Israel, scattered for millennia, must be back in their land and undergo seven years of "Great Tribulation" before Jesus returns.  The recent move is seen as one more step in that direction.

And this eschatology has led some (not all) Dispensationalists to a strange devotion and commitment to a foreign nation.  Some even refer to themselves as "Christian Zionists."  Many American Dispensationalists appear to place their loyalty to Israel above their loyalty to their own country.  The nation of Israel is regarded not simply as an American ally in the Middle East, nor even as the homeland of a people who have been homeless for 2,000 years.  Israel in the land is regarded by them as the fulfillment of prophecy.  To disregard Israel is considered to be akin to heresy.

And so many Dispensationalists and other Evangelicals demand that the U. S. government support Israel both financially and militarily.  A great part of the pro-Israel lobby is in fact, not Jewish but "Christian."  There are even "Christian" organizations that support Israel and even promote the sending of Jews back to the land.

But why is this?  Though I no longer consider myself a Dispensationalist, even when I thought I was one I had second thoughts on this position.  If Israel's return to the land is a fulfillment of prophecy - and I'm not sure it is - then God is the principle Actor in this drama.  Does He need the help of well-meaning American Evangelicals?  Why should we rejoice over this nation?  Why should we seek to protect it?  Do we expect to prevent the "Great Tribulation"? Or are we actually hoping to bring it on?

When the New Testament was being written, the land of Judea, at that time a Roman province with similar boundaries, was going through political turmoil.  Their conflicts led to a revolt against their Roman overlords, ultimately leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jewish people.  Jesus prophesied these occurrences, and some think the Book of Revelation may also speak of these.  Yet nowhere are Christians of that day urged to support Israel financially or militarily.  In fact the Biblical writers Paul and Peter urge submission to the very government that would soon destroy their homeland.

The New Testament is clear as to what our obligations as followers of Christ are to our fellow human beings:  we are to love them as we love ourselves; we are to "go and disciple all the nations."  Distinctions are not made as to which people or which nations deserve our concern.

Peter says that we - the church - are "a holy nation, a people for His own possession."  It is this "nation" to which our allegiance belongs.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A HIGHER LOYALTY

"Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides." - Margaret Thatcher (quoted on page 158)

It seems that no one knows how to understand James Comey.  He is castigated by those on both sides of the political divide and by many in between.  Hillary Clinton blames him for her loss of the election; Donald Trump calls him a "slimeball."  And yet when he appears in interviews on TV, (and he's had a lot of them) he seems earnest and sincere.

James Comey is probably best known as the 6'-8" director of the FBI, who was fired in May of 2017 by President Donald Trump.  He was appointed to that position by Barack Obama, and had previously served as Deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, and before that as assistant U. S. Attorney and U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  He has had a long history of service, although many only know of him from his appearances on the TV news programs.

After it seemed Comey had receded to the background of the news cycle, he began reappearing, promoting the release of his book, A Higher Loyalty - Truth, Lies and Leadership.  He appeared in interviews by many of the TV newspersons as well as some of the late night comics.  Reactions by the interviewers were mixed, generally relaxed, though some almost sounded prosecutorial and Stephen Colbert's seemed actually congenial.

But many of the critical comments on his book were almost malicious.  It was called "bitchy;" it "torches what's left of his own reputation."  Comey "surrenders the high ground," he "descends to Trump's level" [as if that were possible]; he lets "Trump, once again get the better of him;" he lowers himself to Trump's "sordid level;" "showing that his judgment is flawed."  All these, coming from the print media, both left and right seemed to contradict our early impressions of Comey as reasonable, honest and sincere.

So of course, Uni and I had to read his book.  And we somehow did not come away with the same impressions that the news commentators did.  The book in a sense, defies categorization - it is a memoir; it is an apologetic; it is a treatise on personal ethics; and of course it has much to say about our political situation in America, while attempting to be apolitical.  It is a book, as the author lets us know, about ­truth.  Comey lets us know the inadequacy he feels in writing a book about "ethical leadership," but feels that truth is under fire in America today and that this is "a time when examination of ethical leadership would be useful."  He tells us "... there is a higher loyalty in all of our lives...The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth."

The early chapters are well-written, fascinating reading.  Comey relates many details of his childhood, youth and college experiences that he apparently believes have brought him to where he is today.  Bullied as a child (he was not an early bloomer), threatened with a gun by a burglar; taking part in bullying himself in college; all these actions making an impression that would last.  He tells of those who mentored or had an early influence on him.  One who apparently made an impact on him was a grocer named Harry Howell, of whom he said, "Looking back, even after working for presidents and other prominent leaders in and outside government, I still think Harry Howell was one of the finest bosses I have ever had." (page 34).  Quite a statement considering the many other well known figures mentioned.

While the book is filled with many examples of positive leadership style, there are also a few who serve as bad examples.  The mafia leaders he dealt with as Assistant U. S. Attorney, whose leadership style was based on personal loyalty, the mafia killers whom he dealt with who could justify their actions and appear to be otherwise normal people, of whom he commented, "Evil has an ordinary face.  It laughs, it cries, it deflects, it rationalizes, it makes great pasta." (page 27).

Then there was the influence of his wife.  "But the person who taught me the most about leadership is my wife, Patrice." (page 43).  He tells of their struggles with the early death of their son and of Patrice's campaign for early testing for Group B streptococcus which had killed him, and of the wisdom in dealing with God and suffering that she had taught James.

Which brought up to us James Comey's faith.  Uni said, "He must be a Christian ... or at least he talks and acts like a Christian ought to."  We spent much time and conversation on this topic.  Religion was his second major as a college undergraduate.  He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther.  The paragraph on "God's role in human history" on page 47 reflects deep thought on God.

One could read this book superficially, simply as a series of episodes of adventure in the crime fighting profession.  We like the casual "name-dropping" and the roles he played in many national political crises.  His clash with some of President Bush's people, even his confrontation with the President himself, where he quoted Martin Luther, "Here I stand.  I can do no other." (page 96).

Yet James Comey did his best to avoid politics.  His concern was always "to do the right thing."  He speaks as one totally committed to truth and justice.  "I don't care about politics.  I don't care about expediency.  I don't care about friendship.  I care about doing the right thing.  And I would never be part of something that I believe to be fundamentally wrong.  I mean, obviously we all make policy judgments where people disagree, but I will do the right thing." (page 94), an excerpt from his confirmation hearing was taped by his wife to the refrigerator door.

We also get the idea that he had a great amount of respect for both President Bush, under whom he served as Deputy Attorney General and President Obama,.who appointed him as FBI Director.  He seemed to actually like them both and wanted them to succeed, while at the same time avoiding politics.

Of course, nearly the entire second half of the volume is taken up with matters that are still discussed in the daily news:  Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation, the Russian influence on the 2016 election and of course his relations with, and firing by Donald Trump.  I suppose that this was the main reason many purchased this book.  The pundits of course homed in on this part of Comey's story and then criticized as mentioned above, also complaing that the book adds nothing to our knowledge of the current soap opera in Washington.

However, as for Uni and me, our motives for reading were not those of the pundits.  We both felt that here was a man with whom we could empathize, a man who sought to always "do the right thing" even at personal cost.  We felt that with all the lies and self-serving that accompany the current series of scandals, here was one man who stood above the crowd (and not just physically).

Yes, his remarks about Donald Trump are harsh, but nowhere do they descend to the level of that man.  His warnings to America are not sour-grapes or the angry reactions of his firing.  We agree with him that "Donald Trump's presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation," and that the adulation of "so-called conservative commentators, including some faith leaders ... strikes me (and us) as both hypocritical and morally wrong."  (page 25).

We believe that one reason there is so much criticism of James Comey is that very few of his critics, right or left, have ever met a man who is totally committed to "do the right thing," who believes in **a "higher loyalty."  And so they attack his person, and even worse, his motives.  Attacking a person's motives rather than his actions is wrong  headed and seems to us to show that there are no greater criticisms to levy.

We're not saying that James Comey is beyond criticism.  He may do something in the future to greatly disappoint.  But this book presents a man who is exemplary in both his motives and behavior, a man who is humble enough to examine himself - and he is much more honest in his self-evaluation than his critics.