Friday, November 12, 2010

The Purpose Driven Life

John Calvin once stated that the Christian life and all of the theologizing that goes with it could be summed up this way: "humility, humility, humility."

At its core, humility has more to do with motive for action than anything else. And as present day "Christianity-at-large" has become more focused on the end result, production and "purpose," and often trying to "quantify" the Christian life in much the same way that the business world quantifies things, the art of true humility and the motive for our actions are becoming lost.

Let me briefly explain my phrase humility has more to do with motive for action than anything else. We live in a world of false humility and especially so in "Christian" circles. False humility emerges when action and motive do not align as they might appear to align. Let me be more clear - and as a good friend recently pointed out to me - action and motive always align. In other words, we always do what we desire most to do at that time. However, there is usually more than one motive for action - what will be the effect of the action, and how does the action effect me? So, a simple example of what is meant here by false humility would be doing something designed for good but doing so for the sake of a motive ulterior to that good itself when that ulterior motive is in reality greater than the motive we want people to think is greater - ie. I give $1000 to The Salvation Army because I want to help the helpless, but not only that, and in reality greater than that, I want to be recognized for doing it, and I want to get a break on my taxes as well. Most likely, this would be false humility.

False humility
is born from a "wrongful" motive for action, or perhaps more accurately, a "deceptive" motive for action. I would submit that this is any motive not born out of Love (the capital "L" here is intentional). Why? It must be true that any motive that is pure is born out of Love (Keep in mind the context here is dealing with the spirit and not the flesh, ie morality - so I am not talking about eating being motivated by hunger or drinking being motivated by thirst, etc.). As an aside, the philosophical types at this point might be considering whether man is even capable of a pure motive at all, which is a very good question to ask. My short answer is no, at least not man by himself, in his natural state; such a man is not capable of a pure motive. In fact, in an absolute sense, no man - save Christ - has ever had a pure motive. Perhaps the purity of one's motive is most accurately marked by the one whose image it reflects.

Let me put some meat on the bones here, explaining true humility as pure motivation with the following:

Consider the notion of being needful versus being useful as it relates to humility and motivation - and this is perhaps my main point.

The desire to feel needed and to be appreciated is so very strong within each one of us that it perhaps motivates us to action as often as anything else. By our very nature we like to know that our efforts or our very presence are needed in a cause or a relationship. It feels good to be needed by others. It feels good to help others in need. It feels good to know that our time here, our relationships, that our causes all have a particular "purpose" behind them.

But think about this - could it be that this need to feel needed is a root cause of false humility in our lives, and thus when it looks like we are serving the Kingdom, we are more often only serving ourselves?

Or think about it this way: is the need to be needful making us more or less humble, more or less pure, more or less true towards the calling of following Christ? Is our intrinsic need to be needful a pure motive? Does it rightly reflect a new nature born of Love?

Enter the idea of being useful versus being needful.

If as Christians we are to be truly concerned about more than our own "purpose" here and if rather than being driven mostly by end-results, our motives are important (and in fact critical), then being useful must be a great concern towards living in a state of humility and reflecting the true nature of Christ.

Useful is more concerned with the greater good than needful is with self.

Useful asks how can I give, how can I be used, not how am I needed or what will the result of my giving be?

Useful is born of Love supernaturally, while needful is born of self naturally.

When Christ came to crucify the natural self and all of its impure desires, He at the same time established that true humility is about being used for the sake of the Kingdom - always, and in every circumstance.

Only when one has resigned the idea of being needed by God, can one then truly be used of God in humility. In past writings, I have quoted Karl Barth with an idea that has lodged in my mind for the past couple of years, which is this - a Holy God, who is "wholly other" and without need, who is by nature self-sufficient and self-sustaining, does not need man in order to accomplish His will. God does not need you or I in order to accomplish His will. If He is Holy, it must be so. And as His followers we must know He does not need us. But we must also understand that He sure can use us.

Think too about Paul's 1 Cor 13 passage with the repetitive theme of "and have not charity" or "love" in light of this idea of right motivation or useful being tied to humility and ultimately being tied to Love. In a very real sense, Paul is saying that having the right motivation is the center of everything we do as Christ followers. It is not enough for a Christian to simply do the right thing absent of the right motive. Just as saying one thing and doing another or professing one way and secretly living another is hypocrisy, so too is doing one thing while feigning to desire another or even doing something seemingly right without a greater motive of Love.

And this, I believe, is not only a reason for the "hollowed out" or "shallow" Christianity we see out there as well as sometimes within, but it might also be this more subtle hypocrisy that causes a lost world to increasingly look upon the "Christian" world with growing disdain.

Where the greatest concern is for "purpose driven lives," or in aligning with my vernacular here, where the greatest concern is for finding and fulfilling the needfulness of our lives, the peace of true humility will never rest its head. To simply be "driven" by Love rather than a sense of "purpose" is the path of the rarely humble Christian. To be "purpose driven" is a dangerous path where action separates from motive which leads to the nearly certain destiny of false humility and the common hypocritical "Christian."

But where Christians are motivated by supernatural Love and are willing to be used regardless of what that has to do with feeling needed, then perhaps in those moments when motive rightly aligns with action, we can understand what Calvin meant by "humility, humility, humility." And perhaps then too, by the grace of God, we can live more often as we believe.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

“Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?”

“Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?” (Job 38:33)

This rhetorical question was posed by God to a human. The human’s answer was “I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” (Job 42:3)

In Solomon’s wisdom, there is an admonition about speaking: “let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” (Ecc 5:2).

Questioning is not necessarily a virtue, but it can sometimes be a vice.

So what should one do, when s/he has unanswerable questions…questions that only the Almighty could possibly answer?

When the events of life don’t seem to follow the presupposed patterns, when change comes rushing in like a flood, when faced with the bold assertion, “you have no control,” how should the potential questioner proceed?

Deriving guidance from wise men (Job, Solomon), a tentative answer seems to be: don’t be hasty in your questioning, check your attitude, and if you can…remain quiet.

And remember, “now we see through a glass, darkly”…but there will come a day when the secret things shall be revealed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Locked Out

She wanted to talk. She was a reader. At least she had a book, a book by a female comic, fraught with obscenities. Let’s call her “J.”


“Is that Hebrew you’re reading?” J asked. “No, Greek,” I replied. I didn’t elaborate lest I pressure her into some unwanted discussion of religion. I knew she wouldn't like that.”


“What are you reading?” I courteously queried.


“The funniest book I ever read.”


A few moments of silence followed.


“Are you a Tampa native?”

“No,” J replied, "I live in Little Rock." And then the deluge came.


J was on her way to Sarasota to rescue her daughter. Let’s call the daughter “A.”


A was in a relationship with "C," whose name derived from Greek, “Christ bearer.”


A and C had cohabited in Little Rock, moved to Sarasota despite an “intervention”because of C’s repeated violent outbursts against A. Sarasota would be worse.


C had choked A, the last straw in a haystack of other violent actions in Little Rock and Sarasota.


A, an interior designer, bore two illegitimate twins to C in December. Now, with the protective order against C, J was on her way to Sarasota to bring her promiscuous and foolish daughter and “grand” babies back to Little Rock to start life anew.


Ironically, J belonged to a motorcycle club devoted to protecting abused children. Her tattoos and overly-sun-exposed, leathery skin testified that she was a tough old gal with lots of rides in her past. Now her own daughter, and her "grand" babies were victims. But what else should they expect?


Married three times, J was now separated from her current husband.


J then told me C’s story.


C’s mother, a prostitute and drug addict, bore two children, C and a younger brother.


In a drug-crazed tantrum, C's mother locked him out of the house when he was fourteen.


When the authorities came to take C and his little brother into custody, C ran away. He eventually knocked on the door of a family in the neighborhood who had been kind to him. After a lengthy legal process, the family adopted C.


"But they always had trouble with him,” J told me. “They were Southern Baptists, probably too strict on him. But I don't think he'll be able to hurt us while we're loading up in Sarasota; we changed the locks. He's locked out.”




Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Journal Entry

Odd news this past weekend. An aunt I’ve not seen in twenty years called to tell me my biological father, who I haven’t spoken with in thirteen years, died. I’m not exactly sure when he died, frankly. Perhaps I’ll refrain from actually knowing the date, “Father died today, or yesterday maybe. I can’t remember.”

My aunt wanted me to make an appearance in the probate proceedings. Apparently, I’m the only child sired by my father, though it seems he adopted one or two stepchildren, whose mother he married and later divorced. I understood very quickly that my aunt and her mother are not fans of my former stepmother, who I was told actually ran over my father with her car… twice.

One of my favorite classes in law school was Wills & Trusts. The common law that developed regarding wills is fascinating, and most of it has been codified to one degree or another in the various states. I remember one case we read actually involved a man who scrawled his dying wishes on a wall just before death.

Two hundred years ago I, as the eldest son, would have taken all of my father’s property under the doctrine of primogeniture. This is essentially what Esau gave up when he sold his birthright to Jacob for some pea soup. There was good reason for such a rule in an agrarian society, as it preserved large estates and kept families tied together to work the land.

Back to my narrative. Monday came and I called the probate court in Sebastian County, Arkansas, and a very nice lady told me who the attorney was for the executrix of the estate. I called and spoke with his legal assistant, who was very sweet to me. She informed me that I was not listed as an heir. This really didn’t surprise me, as my aunt had indicated as much on the phone. Then she told me there was a will, and I asked whether she’d fax a copy to me, which she kindly did.

“I have two children,” it read, “Phillip McGuire and Christian McGuire.” I read that sentence a few times. Checked the signature page. I can’t say I was shocked, or overwhelmingly hurt. It was expected based on my conversation with the legal assistant. But it was surreal.

When presented with a new experience that inherently provokes emotion one can quickly switch from just thinking to thinking about what one should be thinking. This, in turn, can devolve into a bathetic display of crafted emotionalism rather than actual expression. For those who wonder, I felt sad. I thought I should feel some sense of anger, as the poison of old memories was dredged up through the telephone, and I tried to gin up some truculence for good measure. It didn’t really work. Then I thought I should feel some great sense of loss. But I hadn’t really lost anything other than an unexercised expiring option, that is, the perceived option to “reconnect.” Options are not worthless, however, and it is the loss of the option that leaves the hole. But it is mishandled filial duty that caused my sadness. Christ commanded that it is the aggrieved party that has the responsibility reconcile, not the instigator. There is no doubt but that I have sin in that regard: sin that I had pride in, actually. Is that two separate sins, or just one? So if the sadness is over the lost option, and the option is lost due to my own sin, then perhaps my sadness is a mourning of sin, which would ironically be in accordance with the implied command to mourn our sin contained in the Sermon on the Mount. Hopefully, there’s truth to that, as the mere knowledge of that would be comforting.

He owed me nothing. Whatever obligations nature imposes on a biological father were long ago transferred to my stepfather, whom I affectionately call “Dad” and “Pop.” He’s the one who taught me to ride a bicycle, throw a football, and make funny noises with my hand in my armpit. Nevertheless, it is difficult to read that “Michael Shane McGuire” doesn’t acknowledge a son by his same name. I would understand a provision stating, “I intentionally make no provision for my son, Michael Shane McGuire, whom I have not seen since 1993.” That would at least have averred to my existence and proffered a reasonable explanation for the will’s contents.

Well, that didn’t happen. For those interested, Arkansas law actually presumes my father forgot to mention me. There’s a statute pertaining to “pretermitted children.” Historically, such statutes are derived from the common law which provided for children who are born subsequent to the execution of a will. The Arkansas statute is quite broad, and states that any child omitted from a will takes under the estate as though the decedent passed without a will. So in a goofy turn of events, I am legally entitled to more money having been omitted from the will than I would be had he written, “I hereby bequeath $10.00 to Michael Shane McGuire.” Somebody in the Arkansas legislature must have had a father who left him out of a will.

I suppose I could try to spiritualize this little story, make a comparison to not being found in the Lamb’s Book of Life or something to that effect. But I haven’t been struck by any great spiritual revelations yet, so any efforts to spiritualize would turn out forced and stilted.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note several things for which I’m thankful, though (perhaps thankfulness is a spiritual revelation in and of itself). The estrangement of my father gave me a very early admiration for my Uncle Hal (who I distinctly remember wishing was my father when I was four years old) and especially my grandfather, who served as my first male role models. From a very early age I was emotionally antagonistic toward my father, and the biological imperative to aspire to be a particular person was quickly focused on my grandfather. I doubt there’s a finer man such affection could be directed toward: a Bible-quoting marine. (And there’s certainly no finer man than the bigger than life, perfect version of my grandfather I maintain in mind.) That is a very real, tangible blessing conferred to me through having a wayward father. And I am thankful for that blessing. I am also thankful for my very loving Dad, who has always treated me as a son, not only in affection and discipline, but also in the effusive pride a parent naturally displays for his child’s achievements. That’s special, as is his selfless love for my mother. These are great and profound blessings.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pale Blue Dot



The late astronomer Carl Sagan once claimed, "the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever shall be." This is a pretty good definition of naturalism.

With the picture to the left in mind (which was taken from Voyager 1, 1990), Sagan delivered these words in a commencement address in 1996 just prior to his death:

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.


When you really consider the enormity of "this vast cosmic arena," in many ways it is difficult to deny Sagan. Astronomers tell us that the diameter of the observable universe is at least 93 billion light years. For perspective, our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and roughly 2.5 million light years from the nearest sister galaxy (a light year is a unit of length equal to just under 10^13 Kilometers). In a world where astronomers now estimate the existence of billions of galaxies like the Milky Way, our pale blue dot seems to many scientists "the product of a mindless and purposeless natural process which did not have us in mind" (biologist George Gaylord Simpson). Many scientists believe that the earth is a fairly typical planet orbiting around a fairly typical sun in a spiral arm of a fairly typical galaxy positioned in a fairly typical universe (John Lennox, God's Undertaker).

But from modern physics and cosmology a new idea is starting to emerge, calling into question the concept of a "typical" earth; instead, it contends for an earth that is "finely-tuned." Proponents of a "finely-tuned" earth believe that the sustainability of life on earth demands an explanation that is more than mere chance. Among the examples of "fine-tuning" from the fundamental constants of nature are our abundant carbon supply (modify the resonance of the nuclear ground state energy levels by 1% either way and life on earth no longer exists) as well as the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force (had it been different by 1 part in 10^16, no stars could have formed). In fact, if you increase it by only 1 part in 10^40, then only small stars can exist (Lennox).

Just what is 1 part in 10^40? Glad you asked. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross provides this illustration to explain. "Cover America with coins in a column reaching to the moon (236,000 miles away), then do the same for a billion other continents of the same size. Paint one coin red and put it somewhere in one of the billion piles. Blindfold a friend and ask her to pick it out. The odds are about 1 in 10^40 that she will" (Lennox).

Those examples however pale in comparison to the precision necessary for our current rate of entropy in the universe. The mathematician Sir Roger Penrose states: "it would be relatively 'easy' to produce a high entropy universe...but in order to start off the universe in a state of low entropy - so that there will indeed be a second law of thermodynamics...the 'Creator's aim' must have been accurate to 1 part in 10 to the power 10^123, that is 1 followed by 10^123 zeros, a number which it would be impossible to write out in the usual decimal way, because even if you were able to put a zero on every particle in the universe there would not even be enough particles to do the job" (Lennox).

On a smaller-scale more pertinent to earth's "fine-tuning" including surface gravity, temperature, rotational speed, distance to the sun and so on, Ross "makes a rough but conservative calculation that the chance of one such planet existing in the universe is about 1 in 10^30" (Lennox).

The real impetus for this blog entry came several months ago after watching The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W Richards. Their main point is that the earth is the most ideally suited place in the universe in which to observe the universe. In other words, not only is the earth "finely-tuned" for habitation, but it is similarly "finely-tuned" for science. In other parts of the universe there would be too much starlight, or an atmosphere too opaque or translucent rather than transparent, or the visibility of the sun would not be possible without a perfect eclipse from the moon. And as they point out, other more specific examples are abundant.

They conclude: "And yet as we stand gazing at the heavens beyond our little oasis, we gaze not into a meaningless abyss but into a wondrous arena commensurate with our capacity for discovery. Perhaps we have been staring past a cosmic signal far more significant than any mere sequence of numbers, a signal revealing a universe so skilfully crafted for life and discovery that is seems to whisper of an extra-terrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect or imagine" (Lennox).

When pondering the content of The Privileged Planet several ideas occurred to me.

First, the infinite mind of God as the author of creation is truly a stupefying notion, especially when all that we see in the created universe only represents six days of an eternity. As Bridges has written, "what he has brought to light only shews how much is concealed."

But then, when considering the universe and our pale blue dot as a terrestrial metaphor of a greater spiritual reality, something even more telling about the nature of God with respect to man comes to the surface.

Is it possible that something seemingly "obscure" on a "very small stage in a vast cosmic arena" is actually the most "finely-tuned" of all?

Could a "lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark" really be more significant than the wonder and splendor of all the world?

If you read him with a right perspective, Sagan's words might actually point to The Truth, albeit a different truth and one more significant than he had intended - "it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

To Gonzales and Richards' point about the earth - our pale blue dot - being the only capable place of true observation of the cosmos, of seeing reality without the obstruction of an opaque or translucent atmosphere, of seeing more clearly the function of the sun during a dark and very rare solar eclipse, consider the implications of this notion as a spiritual reality as well.

Do you see the Pale Blue Dot?

Perhaps those who have lost the spiritual for the material and the Creator for the creation need only consider more deeply the spiritual significance of the Pale Blue Dot?

Now, understanding more clearly our vast universe and the place of the pale blue dot within it, perhaps the implications of Paul's first chapter of Romans are even further reaching than even he might have realized when it was penned?

Perhaps the implications of spiritual life reflected by creation run deeper than we have ever considered?

But then again, it is only from the perspective of a "finely-tuned" Pale Blue Dot that one can truly see into eternity.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Comforting Light

It is 1am.

I am illuminated to an idea that I have never really considered before. In scripture the metaphor of light is undeniable. And usually, the metaphor points us rightly to the holiness of God - the bright whiteness of his moral righteousness. But there is another dimension to the reality of light that I cannot deny - light is a comfort as well.

Let me briefly explain.

Having gone to bed at around 9:30p, I am now up per our current routine, awakened from some sort of RIM cycle by the cry of my two month old boy. As I, still half asleep, feed him a bottle of milk in our mostly darkened living room, I notice three sources of light.

The first light is unapproachable yet desirable - it comes from the heavens. If you have never seen the stars from 7200 feet above sea level, away from the city-glow, on a clear night, you should. Just over my right shoulder, the big dipper is positioned downward between two small mountain peaks, like an ice cream scoop poised to rake down upon some unsuspecting frozen goodness. The sky is bright with stars tonight. And I find the illuminating light comforting at this late hour.

The second light is approachable yet undesirable - it comes from the earth. Across the small frozen lake behind our back yard sits O'Malleys Irish Pub. The bright lights there are colorful and neon. The blue, green, red, yellow lights are distinguished enough to know what they represent but not clear enough to read from here. While the beauty of this light pales in comparison to the light from above, I must admit that it is somewhat comforting in a strange way to know that I am not the only one awake at this late hour.

The third light is approachable and desirable - it is the reflection of heaven upon earth. As I hold my son in front of me, the light from the stars reflects off of his face. I can see his eyes; his forming features reflect enough light to be distinguished in the dark. I approach his face with a kiss on the cheek. Although the other lights are brilliant and interesting, I find more life in this light than the others. I also find this light is most comforting of all at this late hour.

With perhaps a few flickering and interesting lights surrounding them across the countryside, a brilliant light from above that caused them to rejoice with great joy and a third light that reflected from the face of the One whom they traveled so far to worship, there is little doubt that these wise men were impressed by the holiness and innocence of the little One before them.

But perhaps at that late hour, they were made to feel the comforting light of heaven upon earth as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Remembering Judy

One year ago today, my wife of thirty-four years died of ovarian cancer. Diagnosed on July 27, 1999, with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer, at that time Judy's life expectancy was about three years. She lived nine and one-half years.

Judy's doctors called her "a poster child for effective cancer treatment." She endured over fifty chemotherapy treatments, the first two dozen characterized by five days of post-chemo sickness that no medication could bring under control. Each cancer patient is different with regard to how they experience the side-effects of chemo, and how they respond to anti-nausea medication; for that matter, each cancer has its own various medical protocols, and each patient is unique in his/her response to specific medications. Eventually, a new anti-nausea drug alleviated the worst of Judy's nausea.

Judy experienced hundreds of radiation treatments, five major surgeries including stereotactic brain surgery, and a stem-cell transplant. The stem-cell transplant was brutal. Judy was deathly ill for thirty days at M. D. Anderson. The most vivid expressions of that treatment are too indelicate to mention here.

Despite all that, for the nine years after her diagnosis, Judy was "in good health" most of the time. She deteriorated rapidly during the last year of her life, the cancer metastasizing to her lungs and brain. Thankfully, the brain tumors never manifested neurologically or physiologically, but the lung tumors caused increasing respiratory distress and were the eventual cause of her death.

During those nine years, Judy lived gracefully and graciously, the same way she had lived the previous forty-nine years. She "walked in beauty," not just physically but in every other way, especially spiritually. Those who knew her saw the personification of God's grace throughout her life, especially during her sickness. She has left upon us an indelible impression of heaven, a testimony to the reality of God, and an almost impeccable Christian example. Indeed, "the king's daughter was all glorious within."

All who knew her miss her and love her. Those who know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior will see her again.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Goddess of the Market": A Book Review

Formidable, irascible, incorrigible, and eerily prescient: Ayn Rand.

In a recently released biography of every misanthropic, libertarian college student’s favorite philosopher, Jennifer Burns captures both Rand’s undying fervor for her philosophy as well as her personal failings. "Goddess of the Market; Ayn Rand and the American Right" is a must read for both Randophiles and political conservatives who have heard of Rand, but who may not have the time or perseverance to slog through "The Fountainhead" or "Atlas Shrugged."

Burns clearly holds admiration for Rand, but is not mired in the sycophancy one often finds with self-identified Objectivists, making "Goddess of the Market" the most even-handed discussion of Rand I’ve ever read.

Three areas of Burns’ biography of Rand were especially interesting to me: the discussion of Rand’s early childhood and move to the states; an explication of Rand’s personal life with her husband and paramours; and Rand’s atheism.

CHILDHOOD TO EARLY AMERICA

Born Alisa Rosenbaum, Rand came into this world in Russia, at a time when millions of Jews were emigrating from that country due to rising antisemitism. Rand’s father was apparently an erudite, irreligious man who owned a chemist shop. As the Bolsheviks took over czarist Russia, they took Mr. Rosenbaum’s chemist shop, in the name of the burgeoning dictatorship of the proletariat. Mr. Rosenbaum was permitted to reopen his shop at some point, only to have it confiscated once more. At this point, portending John Galt, he refused to work.

Rand was a precocious child, and her parents encouraged her education. At some point in her teens, Rand discovered Aristotle and his syllogisms while a student in Russia; she was never the same. Rand even attended university in Russia, studying history and philosophy. Of course, all of her classes had a Marxist tilt, but Rand was able to overcome pedagogical brainwashing. She was exposed to Herbert Spencer, Plato, and began reading Aristotle and Nietzsche, her two greatest influences. The only thing Rand loved as much as Nietzsche and Aristotle was the movies.

Through a family connection in Chicago, Rand was given the opportunity to flee Russia in favor of the land of the free. It was on her way to the states that the Alisa Rosenbaum transformed into Ayn Rand, taking on the new name just as would a Hollywood starlet. Eventually, Rand matriculated from Chicago to Hollywood, armed with the hopes of someday having a script made into a movie. Rand had a knack for script review, but a face for radio. She was probably on her way to becoming a spinster until she met Frank O’Connor, a young actor with Hollywood looks.

Ultimately, her big break, professionally, came when a producer saw potential profit in a gimmick employed by Rand in a play she wrote. The climax of the play was a courtroom scene with an impassioned plea by the protagonist, a person who broke the law standing up for his individualism. Rand wrote two alternate endings to the play, depending on whether the jury (made up of audience members) found the hero guilty or not-guilty.

AYN, FRANK, AND NATHAN BRANDEN

Frank O’Connor, it turns out, was a dutiful wife to Ayn Rand. It was clear early on in their marriage that Rand was going to have a brighter future than O’Connor. Every time the couple moved from one city to another, it was at Rand’s behest, even before the couple was wealthy. Once Rand became the breadwinner, O’Connor found solace in gardening, and later painting. Rand loved entertaining at her house, especially when college kids or twenty-somethings were on the guest list, and O’Connor was always the amiable host. Rand was inevitably mercurial at her salon, exploding at those who deigned to disagree with her. O’Connor was always there to smooth things over and douse rhetorical fires, usually sparked by Rand’s incendiary treatment of friends or admirers.

Rand’s philosophy was as near a complete worldview as a single person could develop, complete with political, religious, and even relational precepts. At the core of Rand’s philosophy were a rejection of altruism and an embrace of selfishness. Holding selfishness as a first principle, of course, led Rand to become an impassioned defender of capitalism, especially in light of her Bolshevik experience. She fancied herself a philosopher in the mold of those predicted by Nietzsche, who could offer a moral code sans religion. Although Rand’s morality, such as it was, made her a friend to capitalism, it impelled her to views of love and sexual expression that were abhorrent.

As Rand reached her fifties, she was idolized by tens of thousands of college students who rejected the status quo, but were not taken in by beatnik culture. One such young man was Nathaniel Blumenthal, who later changed his surname to Branden in honor of Rand. Branden, at one time, was tapped as Rand’s philosophical heir, and was the only person other than Rand permitted to be called an Objectivist, as opposed to a student of Objectivism. At some point, Branden and Rand shared a kiss. Rand called a meeting at her apartment, requiring the attendance of Branden, his wife, and Frank O’Connor. At that meeting, Rand stated that she and Branden would require a few hours alone each week. Bam! Rand made Frank a cuckold right there to his face. He sought solace at a local bar.

The flame burned out, and Rand was left confused. According to Burns, Objectivism taught "that sexual love was a response to values and a reflection of self-esteem." In Rand’s mind, to be shunned romantically was to have her whole philosophy rejected. This was unbearable for her, and she could not accept that a man thirty years her junior might simply be more attracted to a more nubile gal.

All that is not to say Rand wasn’t devoted in some way to Frank O’Connor. She needed him, and he was the emotional rampart the outlandish Rand required.

RAND AND GOD

Like many with a libertarian bent, I’m a great admirer of Rand, and tend to disregard her atheism. After reading "Goddess of the Market" I’m now convinced that Rand’s atheism is an essential part of her philosophy, and makes Rand a dangerous influence on the political right. (On the flip side, Rand hated the idea of Ronald Reagan, arguing that his religion made him far more dangerous liberalism.)

Rand sought to make capitalism and individualism distinctly moral issues, but did so in the Nietschean mold: atheistically. However, as much as Rand fancied herself a rational Aristotelean, accepting only what she could observe and deduce logically, her view of rights was more a premise than a deduction. Rand seemed to start from the premise that men have rights and are equal, without proving it up. She stated, "all men are free and equal, regardless of natural gifts." She held as a principle the immorality of the initiation of force, but her atheism prevented her from being able to support that precept. While traditional conservatives like Buckley could support their values with their religion, Rand was attempting to be the philosopher of the ubermensch. Her philosophy contained no room for a god, other than her.

Objectivism was a quasi-religion in Rand’s day. Rand was constantly followed around by The Collective, a group of youthful disciples. Branden started an organization to disseminate Rand’s ideas all over the United States. In New York, Branden’s seminars were presented by him in person, while in other cities students gathered to hear Branden’s instructions from a tape recorder placed on a table in the front of a room. And like most religions, Rand, as the leader, was not to be questioned negatively. Rand loved interacting with students of Objectivism, but she would denounce questioners she disliked by having them removed or dismissing them as having low self-esteem. One student wrote to Rand, "Last spring I discarded my religion, and this past fall I took the Principles course in Washington. Two better choices can hardly be imagined."

Rand maintained her atheism to the end. When Frank O’Connor died, she told Phil Donahue that she would commit suicide to be with him if she believed in an afterlife. I would add that after reading "Goddess of the Market" I found the Donahue interview on You Tube, and I have to admit that I didn’t realize that Donahue was such a good interviewer 30 years ago.

I highly recommend reading "Goddess of the Market." Someone, I can’t remember who, once stated that history affords great men and women one sentence: Lincoln freed the slaves; Washington was the first president; Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. I reckon Rand’s sentence would be, "She was the author of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’" She would have preferred to be remembered as a great philosopher, but both in life and in death it’s difficult for scholars to take Rand seriously as a deep thinker. She never published in academic journals, and the greatest expressions of her philosophy are contained in her fiction. But she did predict the big-government nature of environmentalists almost 40 years ago, and of course foresaw the exponential growth of the nanny state.

I’m certain Rand was brilliant. And her success story is truly American—Russian girl from an impoverished country comes to America to follow a dream. But she traded godless communism for godless capitalism. In the former, men are the highest order of creature; in the latter, Man is (to paraphrase from the book).
Go here for part 3 of Phil Donahue's first interview with Ayn Rand. Go to the 2:30 mark for a discussion on sin. Go to the 8:15 mark to see Rand's vitriolic response to a questioner who disagrees with her.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Art of Conversation

Paul states, “There are many voices in the world, and perhaps none of them without significance.” I suppose Paul was more blessed than I, certainly more gracious, for methinks I have heard many an insignificant voice. Or maybe Paul means that even a fool’s voice, characterized by a multitude of words, is yet significant because of the weighty judgment that will sever and silence the fool’s tongue for all eternity. To Paul’s credit, he did say “perhaps.” Of course, in context, despite Paul’s usage of phone instead of glosso, he refers to intelligible languages, viz, no language is insignificant. However, the point here is, no matter what language they speak, whether or not most people have anything meaningful to say. At the risk of being called a cynic, I think the answer is “no.”

I do not know who said it first, but I have quoted that person often, “People can talk only about three things: persons, events, or ideas.” The vast majority of conversations involve the first two categories, persons and events, and I can take only three or four minutes of such narrative before I develop a mysterious deafness.

I have also known people who can talk about great ideas without an appreciation of discourse. One former colleague of mine, quite brilliant, could talk impressively about profound ideas – philosophy, literature, science, and music – ad nauseum. I always think of that person when I say, “Great teachers are dialogues, not monologues.” Socrates and Jesus Christ are our examples and mentors here. They both understood, like flint and steel, that discourse sparks the fire of imagination and ignites the light of learning. Socrates and Jesus always drove their conversations heavenward to the atmosphere of transcendent truth, elevating their disciples’ consciousness to a contemplative realm. In every conversational setting, one should always try to follow their examples, drive the conversation heavenward, out of the boring dimensions of people and events and ever upward towards ethereal matters. If tedious guests stay too long or too late, just shock the social atmosphere with depthful conversation and you shall soon bid them a happy adieu.

Only readers of great books can be good conversationalists and not the majority of them unless they practice discourse. Conversation is an art, the brush and canvas of which are eloquent speaking and intense listening; great books, and the ideas within them, provide the color and form by which the ear and tongue may paint. Better to be in thoughtful discourse with a well-read atheist than a superficial theist. One would have little to learn from the tepid theist, and much to profit from the informed infidel, perhaps even an opportunity to engage the thoughtful unbeliever in a meaningful conversation about things that matter.

The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “have compassionate on the ignorant" but, alas, how difficult to love one’s neighbor if he is uninteresting. One might say that such an opinion is bitter or arrogant, but the real bitterness, the real arrogance, belongs to those whose tongues are no longer voluntary organs, who say everything that comes to their minds without refinement of the rhetorical quality or intellectual validity of what they have to say, and without respect to the eardrums of their victims. To paraphrase Solomon, “Even a fool is thought to be wise when he keeps his mouth shut.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Speaking of Evil: Something Uplifting

If you're like me, you grew up hearing about five names significant to WWII: Hitler, Mussolini, FDR, Stalin, and a little Dutch Jewish girl named Anne Frank. While nobody reads Mein Kampf anymore (it's virtually unreadable, anyway), and FDR's fireside chats aren't widely, or even narrowly, read, Anne Frank's diary is required reading for school children all over the country, perhaps the world.

Before young Anne was taken off to one of the many prisons within that wicked archipelago of concentration camps and gulags that dotted Europe in the 30's and 40's, she was secreted away by a few brave souls, one of whom was Miep Gies (pronounced "Meep Khees"). (Hiding people in WWII always reminds me of a joke about a diminutive Eastern European, the punchline of which is "can you cache a small Czech.") Miep died on Monday of this week, at the ripe old age of 100. The obituary is here.

Some tidbits about Ms. Gies: She never read the diary prior to giving it to Otto Frank, Anne's father, out of respect for Anne's privacy. It turns out this concern, while admirable, may have been misplaced as the diary would have "incriminated" a number of those helping Anne and other Jews.

I love this quote from Gies, which she apparently wrote to the AP via email shortly before her 100th birthday, wherein she resists accolades: "Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary." Bravery and humility are anything but ordinary.

People in this space may come down differently on the means to reduce the number of abortions in this country. But I think we can all agree that people like Miep Gies, and the countless other brave souls who nobody's ever heard of, who resisted Nazi and Soviet tyranny are to be admired and emulated.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Some thoughts on the pending healtchare legislation

I’ve been absent from this space for sometime, and hope you’ll extend forgiveness on the off chance that you log on daily looking for my witty pixels to appear on screen. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the current healthcare debate, and the bills current matriculating through Congress, possibly toward becoming law.

The Senate Bill, as most of you know, is the one that is most likely to become law, and is considered the more “moderate.” I’m not exactly sure what a moderate healthcare bill is; it sounds like it would only provide a moderate amount healthcare, which doesn’t sound like a good selling point.

Under that bill you and I will be required by law to purchase health insurance. There are a few exceptions. For instance, if a person is indigent you and I will be required to purchase his health insurance as well. If one is an illegal alien (that is, an undocumented member of a Democratic constituency) you and I will still be required to subsidize emergency room care for him as well (including care for things that can’t be considered emergencies). While conservatives and libertarians have long lamented the creation and bloated nature of so-called entitlement programs, this new bill goes far beyond a Western European style welfare state founded on the misguided world vision of Rousseau. Instead, this bill is fascism in essence tinctured by democracy.

Communism, of course, involves the state owning all property and dictating means and amount of production, as well as prices. At one time the USSR was setting 24 million prices on products throughout Stalin’s tundra. But Fascism, economically speaking, focuses on dictating (no pun intended) production standards while permitting private ownership. I don’t generally engage in hyperbole, but in case you recoil at the idea of the term "fascism" being slung at this bill, let me explain.

The government, by decree of a single political party, is making a law that says you and I have to purchase a product offered by a heavily regulated by the government, and therefore the party. The coverage offered by carriers will be limited to plans deemed to be acceptable by the government, and therefore the party. The carriers will only be permitted to make a certain amount of money, and you and I will be required to purchase coverage that enables those carriers to make what profit the government and party has decreed an acceptable return on their capital.

This is the product of a wicked world view that sees all people as inherently good: all people, that is, except for producers. The people with this vision toss around terms like “rights,” and say that people have a right to whatever good thing the government/party wants to bestow. In this case, we are told that people have the right to affordable healthcare. No one bothers asking where this right came from. Moreover, nobody has bothered to ask why I have a duty to ensure that a nonproducer enjoys this right.

But such is the nature of entitlement programs. Producers pay money to the government under the threat of imprisonment to provide for nonproducers. (Keep in mind, one can make good arguments for this type of distribution, but those arguments always involve taking from producers and giving to nonproducers.)

The far more troubling aspect of this legislation is it forces the producer to transfer money, not to the government, but to a private company that sells insurance. It will be the law. You will have to pay money to a company whether you want its product or not, and the government will make you do that because 220 years ago a document was ratified by the several states that entitled a fledgling government to regulate interstate commerce. Once the government, under the auspices of conveying to you the right to healthcare, can force you to pay money to a private company, then it can force you to pay money to ACORN to ensure everyone’s ability to exercise suffrage.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Altruistic Darwinian

The altruistic Darwinian is like a toothless, old lion, an emasculated fool, an intellectual coward who lacks the courage or strength to live the life his philosophy demands. He boasts the theory "nature red in tooth and claw," yet in his social and political relationships he espouses altruism, the vaporous idea that a violent and egocentric universe allows for human compassion. At best he can argue that, like a pride of lions, the human pack must act in unison for its own protection and well being. That works well for women, perhaps, since prides are predominantly female with a distant male or two in the distance to breed often and kill occasionally. But such a pitiful analogy breaks down when another lion comes, a new sire, a new king, a new lord who will chase away the old lion, or gnash his jugular, and kill his cubs. Then the women, the pride, just cower in fear and willingly submit to a new king, altruistic indeed!

"Nothing is evil about the killing of an old lion or his cubs. Nothing is evil about the self-interested surrender of the fickle and fearful lioness to a new breeder; in fact, she naturally prefers the stronger male. Nothing is evil about death, or violence (violence is not "viol" in such a world), or seduction, or promiscuity, or infanticide. It's all natural," so it goes.

The altruistic Darwinist cannot abide the comparison, imagining that at least some among the human species, especially those of his ilk, have somehow evolved a benign benevolence towards their fellow apes. Presuming the relativity and therefore the ultimate worthlessness and meaninglessness of any Darwinian theory of good and evil; presuming the intellectual fodder called "altruism"; and presuming the immutable natural laws of "survival of the fittest" and random selection, the altruistic Darwinist must be, will be, and should be eaten alive by the very evolutionary theory he propounds, unless, of course, he admits that, if not among lions, then among humans, killing out of self-interest is Evil. But then the altruistic Darwinist shall be eaten alive again, for by the acknowledgement of Evil, he tacitly acknowledges Good.