Progress

“The difference between Chabad and Conservative Judaism is this: Conservative Judaism says ‘do only that with which you are comfortable.’ Chabad says ‘do only that with which you are comfortable – just keep going.’ ”

Rebbetzin Dini Lipskar Freundlich

A Better China

Success of the Rule of Law depends on two factors:

  • Fair and effective enforcement of the laws, and
  • A population that is morally and ethically healthy.

China has neither.

Our quest must be to change that, not through evangelism, but by quietly demonstrating success does not need entail legal chicanery or moral bankruptcy. That’s a lot tougher than preaching, but it is the only way that will really work.

Science, Faith, and Limits

In an article in More Intelligent Life called “The Limits of Science,” Anthony Gottleib makes a point that many men and women of science have been reluctant to acknowledge to themselves, much less utter.

At the end of her book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History” (2009), Patricia Fara of Cambridge University wrote that “there can be no cast-iron guarantee that the cutting-edge science of today will not represent the discredited alchemy of tomorrow”. This is surely an understatement.

Kudos to both Ms. Fara and Mr. Gottleib for having the moral courage to make the point. It is almost verboten these days for science to acknowledge its own shortcomings for fear such frankness would be used by anyone from quacks to pseudoscientists to creationists as a pretext to discredit science.

This is a great shame. As someone who is frequently critical of scientists who overstate the exactitude and definitiveness of the inexact and non-definitive in order to undermine religious beliefs, I also frequently find it hard to blame them. The religious assault upon science is as wrong-headed and narrow-minded as is the scientific assault against religion. The entire process has lead to a polarization with science on the left, faith on the right, and nothing in between.

This polarization must end. It is time for us to give heed to the voices of faith who eschew misguided attacks on science, give voices to people of science who do not engage in spurious attempts of deicide, and to rediscover a middle ground where the two outlooks are allowed to live in harmony.

It is time for people of faith to acknowledge that science is as much the creation of G-d as it is of man, and that for the thinking believer there need be no conflict between the rational pursuit of science and the supra-rational quest for meaning. We must stop thinking in terms of “Adam or Australopithecus:” we must seek to find the a path that reconciles both, but not one as pat and contrived as Intelligent Design. And the ad-hominem attacks must stop: it is time to acknowledge that disbelief and goodness are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, it is time for the people of science to acknowledge that at its best, science gives us the tools to describe existence, but not to give it meaning. Philosophy may be dead to Stephen Hawking, but his greatest discoveries lack the power to compel mankind to continue its existence, much less propel it to greatness either collectively or individually. And is time also to acknowledge that faith and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

These are steps we all can take without surrendering our own beliefs. They simply demand that we take the more challenging, the more humane step of acknowledging the value implicit in the way others think, and recognizing they are all of a piece.

I wonder who will find that more difficult?

The Searchers

In his superb article “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” Michael Lewis quotes the abbot of Greece’s Vatopaidi monastery , Father Arsenios, explaining the popularity of his domain as a destination for modern Greeks.

There is more of a spiritual thirst today,” he says when I ask him why his monastery has attracted so many important business and political people. “Twenty or 30 years ago they taught that science will solve all problems. There are so many material things and they are not satisfying. People have gotten tired of material pleasures. Of material things. And they realize they cannot really find success in these things.”

Leaving aside whether Vatopaidi is the right place to go for spiritual nourishment, he’s right, and what I think angers scientists is that science and technology are no longer recognized as the answer to all of mankind’s important questions. While their work is of profound material and spiritual importance, many of us are finding that scientific explanations, for all of their technical accuracy, are somehow inadequate.

Riposte to the Libertines

Reading a superb analysis of the effect of Hugh Hefner on the psyche of American culture by Algis Valiunas in the May 2010 issue of Commentary. In the piece, entitled “The Playboy and His Western World,” Valiunas makes a strong case that Hefner and his Playboy empire were the vanguard of the force that turned western morality on its head.

It is not an unfair claim, though I would argue that Hefner as much rode as drove that tsunami of post-modern libertine thought over the seawall of mid-century American morality. (Let us not forget the Beat Generation, which was itself the most extreme expression of popular most-modernism in 1950s America.)

The key to The Playboy effect, though, is, as Valinuas puts it, that “the brave new world demanded an end to the timorous old one,” and what Hefner called Puritanism was “what Hef wanted to rid the world of.”

This is a fascinating and, in my opinion, accurate criticism of the movement that lies at the roots of today’s secular humanism and of radical atheism. Hefner and his contemporaries were not interested in merely claiming legitimacy for their way of thought in a free marketplace of ideas (as they occasionally claimed.) No indeed: the only goal worth pursuing would be the de-legitimization of all contrary forms of thought.

Martin Amis picked this up in his 1973 novel The Rachel Papers, which Valiunas quotes:

“The so-called new philosophy, ‘permissiveness’ if you like, seen from the right perspective, is only a new puritanism, whereby you are accused of being repressed or unenlightened if you happen to object to infidelity, promiscuity, and so on. You’r enot allowed to mind anything anymore, and so you end up denying your instincts again – moderate possessiveness, say, or moral scrupulousness – just as the puritans would hav you deny the opposite instincts.”

The last forty years have been a testament to this orthodoxy of permissiveness, and the result has been a generation that gives heed to writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, men who seek to take up Friedrich Nietzche’s sword in the quest to kill G-d.

Tolerance has become a one way street, and Hugh Hefner has forged a cultural orthodoxy as stifling and repressive as the one he rebelled against and helped overthrow.

I argue not for our culture to return to the evil depicted in The Scarlet Letter, but for us to advance to a time where we are able to replace damnation and ridicule with debate and tolerance. If we do not, we must suffer the fate of all societies that succumb to monochromatic, universalist orthodoxies: fascism, blood, fire, and downfall.

Karl Marx, Secular Humanist

Karl Marx 1882 (edited)

Image via Wikipedia

Whatever the failings of the system of political economy that bears his name, in calling religion “the opiate of the masses,” Karl Marx has endeared himself to a century of religious skeptics. Religion, Marx tells us, is a means used by the upper classes to keep down the proletariat. And in rejecting his own religious background in the quest for a reason-based ethos, he is the prototypical secular humanist.

Even a cursory study of Marx’s writings on the topic reveals his incomplete understanding of its social functions. This is unsurprising: Marx was a political economist, not a theologian or a sociologist. In this, he saw religion as the Second Estate, a political and economic force rather than a moral one.

He was also cynically disingenuous, if not hypocritical, in his condemnation of religion. Marx’s writings, The Communist Manifesto in particular, do not so much eliminate religion as substitute a political credo and doctrine for established faiths. This paleo-humanist Cult of the Proletariat took on the political and economic functions of religion and was no less (and I would argue even more) focused on anesthetizing the masses than even the most organized of faiths.

Yet even if we ascribe to Mr. Marx the purest of motives, we must concede that at best he failed to understand the inherent weakness of a rationalist ethos once it needed to guide the day-to-day lives of the proletariat. He seemed to reject out-of-hand the need for a moral code, much less one that was more than a mere human construct. As a secular humanist Marx believed – overoptimistically, as it turned out, that man is a moral beast, in need of no code to guide his way.

History and human nature beg to differ.

Whether Marx was cynical or hopeful in rejecting the importance of a moral ethos, that rejection has wrought confusion and havoc among the Chinese populace. Having cast off Confucianism in 1911, religion in 1949, and Marxism/Leninism/Maoism with Deng’s Southern Trip in 1992, the Chinese people seem to have been left with two laws uttered by Deng: “to get rich is glorious,” and “it matters not whether the cat black or white is as long as it catches mice.”

The result for China has been the emergence of an Amoral Oligarchy, a nation where self-interest prevails and where material success comes upon the rejection of any residual behavioral strictures. For many of those who have attained the pinnacle of success, that is enough.

Yet there is a small but growing number of prosperous Chinese who are dissatisfied. They have their jobs, their cars, their houses, their families, food in their bellies, liquor in the cabinet, mistresses in town, and they ask “is that all there is?”

These people are particularly vulnerable to quack religions and cults of the variety that invite demagogues and exploitation. And therein lies danger.

What is unclear is whether China’s leaders, well acquainted as they are with the failings of Marxist economics, are similarly attuned to the failure of Marxist morality. Hu Jintao’s call for a Harmonious Society does not seem to ask whether Chinese are good or evil: it asks them only to “get along.”

Over the next ten years, there will inevitably be efforts to attack the symptoms of moral decay: prosecuting the corrupt, enhancing law enforcement, and propaganda campaigns that call for a more genteel society. The best indicator of whether China’s leaders comprehend the cause of the problem will be the actions and leadership of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in the wake of Xi Jinping‘s ascent to the Presidency.

For what must precede a truly Harmonious Society is a Moral Society, wherein the first line of behavioral enforcement – the individual – successfully takes from the police the greater burden over personal behavior. As Marx failed to learn, states must be prepared to cleave the spiritual life of the nation from its political or economic life. The answer is either a return to faith or the introduction of a supra-human code of behavior that can guide both man and state.

Guidebook

When you buy a car, you get an owner’s manual from the manufacturer. You are given the choice whether to read it or not. If you read it, you are given the choice to pay attention to what it says, or to ignore it. But what you find is that if you do read it and you apply the instructions inside, your car will run more smoothly, operate more safely, and will last longer.

Torah is the owner’s manual for human beings, given to us by our Manufacturer.

Shalom/Salaam

If you believe in G-d, then you must believe he had a reason for bestowing upon Jews, Christians, and Muslims a shared heritage in the Holy Land. Perhaps in doing so He set for us our most holy task: to make peace with each other, and to learn to live together in peace, and, indeed, to love each other for the brothers that we are.

And what a blueprint, one that would prevent us from dispersing to our respective corners of the Earth, of the galaxy, of the Universe, and demand of us that we build a paradise in this life of tolerance, understanding, and respect.

Right

A Silver Torah Case used to hold a Sefer Torah...

Image via Wikipedia

Who am I, as not only a layman but, worse, a bar noach, to write of G-d and Torah? What chutzpah is this that someone like me would have the temerity to write of things about which I know so little?

Forgive me, Hashem. My learning is poor and my faith inadequate. But my heart is drawn to your Torah, and it brings my eyes, my soul, and my hands along for the ride.