Malevolent Hope and The Desire To Burn Things Down

Anger

Fresno Bee, September 6, 2020

This is a season of malevolent hope. Hope is usually positive. So this may seem strange. But the desire to see enemies suffer is common, as is the urge to burn things down in pursuit of power.

We see malevolent hope when Republicans imagine benefiting from civil unrest. Kellyanne Conway said last week that “chaos and anarchy” are good for Trump’s re-election.

Another example showed up this week when the president told his supporters to vote twice to test the electoral system. If the system is broken, Trump gets extra votes. But if chaos ensues, after Trump voters are charged with the crime of voting twice, this reinforces Trump’s claims about a broken system.

Democrats may have their own form of malevolent hope, perhaps secretly hoping that a vaccine does not appear until after the election. Republicans are already accusing Democrats of wanting to block the vaccine. Conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey claims that the Democrats “wish failure” on every COVID-19 breakthrough.

It is obviously wrong to wish for the worst as a bridge to the better. It’s cruel to desire more disease. It’s evil to cultivate chaos. It’s perverse to encourage criminality and felonious voting.

But malevolent hope is as common as greed and envy. When a relationship sours, you hope your former lover suffers. When a rival is winning, you wish he would fail.

Good people realize this is wrong. Such thoughts ought to be repressed. Wicked wishes can give birth to evil deeds.

Politics often slips down this devilish slope. Terrorists actively seek to make things worse. They attack in order to provoke a backlash. Once the backlash occurs, they say, “see, I told you—those guys are oppressive.” A different example comes from Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag was burned. The Nazis blamed the Communists and soon seized power.

Malevolent hope often includes a story about a savior. The jilted lover imagines himself swooping in and consoling his miserable former love. Political partisans believe that when things get bad enough, their candidate will save the day.

This narrative also appears in apocalyptical faith. Plagues, pestilence, and war are signs of the end times. Does this mean that the faithful should hope for these horrors? That question is a recipe for theological heartburn.

Malevolent hope is connected to gloating. To gloat is to take joy in your enemy’s misfortune. Ancient warrior cultures encouraged gloating. It’s not enough to kill your enemy. The warrior also disfigures his enemy’s corpse and dances on his grave.

Some ancient sources condemn this. The Bible’s book of Proverbs warns against envy, pride, and gloating. One verse says “don’t gloat when your enemy falls and don’t rejoice when he stumbles.” Jesus went even further. He told us to love our enemies.

That may be too much to ask. A basic concern for the common good would suffice. To hope that things get worse actively encourages pain and misery. We should want our rivals to succeed in business, politics, and even in love because we want happiness to spread.

To the jilted lover we say that if you really loved her, you should hope she finds joy in her new relationship. And patriots should want peace, justice, and prosperity regardless of who is in the White House.

But we are jealous and greedy. And we tend to fight evil with evil, violence with violence. Malevolent hope grows out of selfish pride and a zero-sum view of the world.

This is corrupt and self-defeating. It is simply wrong to wish harm upon others. Peace and prosperity require cooperation, solidarity, and concern for the common good.

It is difficult to remember this lesson of common decency in a world that has grown ugly and angry. But common sense tells us that if we hope things will get worse, they probably will. It is easy for things to fall apart. Holding them together is difficult. Creating something better is harder still.

For things to improve, we need positive hope. Benevolent hope affirms human creativity. It keeps open the possibility of enemies becoming friends. This is the kind of hope that grows from love and wants joy to spread. It is a hope that builds instead of burns.

Seeking wisdom in dark times

Fresno Bee, January 5, 2020

This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.

The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.

Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.

We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.

SEEKING WISDOM

But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.

Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.

Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.

Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.

One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.

We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.

JESUS’ PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.

That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.

So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.

The Tough and the Tender-Hearted: Trump, Jesus, and Socrates

Fresno Bee, December 22, 2020

President Trump has a steely spine. He is feisty and pugnacious. Some people admire him for his toughness. But toughness is not the only thing that matters. There is also a need for a more tender-hearted morality.

Trump is a paradigmatic tough guy. The title of Trump’s 2011 book is “Time to Get Tough.” He explained that to fix America “we’ve got to be smart and get tough.” Earlier this year Trump bragged that all of the tough guys are on his side: the police, the military, and the bikers. And in a famous tweet from 2105 he said, “When somebody challenges you unfairly, fight back, be brutal, be tough, don’t take it. It is always important to WIN!”

Trump’s recent letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a great example of how tough guys operate. A softer man would have apologized, resigned, or attempted to negotiate a compromise. But Trump expressed no remorse or interest in reconciliation. Indeed, he touted his toughness in the letter, saying “I have been far tougher on Russia than President Obama ever even thought to be.”

The letter is scathing and belligerent. He accuses the Democrats of staging a partisan coup. He says the Democrats view democracy as their enemy and are “declaring open war on American Democracy.” He even suggests that Pelosi has weaponized religion, suggesting that she prays for his demise.

Some people admire truculent tough guys. Pop culture is full of them. Americans love movies about cowboys, soldiers, gangsters and cops. We like Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and Samuel L. Jackson.

History is also full of tough guys. Plato described a tough guy named Thrasymachus, whose name literally means “bold fighter.” Thrasymachus defined morality simply as helping friends and harming enemies.

That’s how tough guys view the world: divided between friends and enemies. They reward loyalty and show no mercy to their rivals. For tough guys, the essence of morality is power, since power allows you to help your friends and punish your enemies.

The tough world view is self-reinforcing. You assume that your enemies are waiting to pounce and that your allies may sell you out. The solution is to be relentless toward friends and enemies alike. But that causes friction and animosity, which increases the need for further toughness.

In a tough world, even loyal comrades are temporary. The assumption is that people only do favors looking for something in return. This is a world of cronies and accomplices, vendettas and possible violence. It is the world we see in Shakespeare and Sophocles, as well as in Hollywood.

Philosophy and religion provide a critique of toughness. A more tender-hearted morality is espoused by Socrates, who argued against Thrasymachus’s hard-hearted worldview. Socrates said, “we ought not retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone.”

Jesus said something similar. But Jesus went a step further in his advocacy of love. Not only are we to love our neighbors, we are even supposed to love our enemies.

Tender-hearted morality looks beyond the distinction between friend and enemy. It judges things impartially. It sees dignity and worth in all persons. It respects everyone equally. It forgives and shows mercy. It wants to transform enmity into community.

Tender-hearted morality elevates love above power. It thinks that gentle kindness is superior to tough-minded ferocity. Instead of seeking favors, soft hearts give without expectation of payback. Instead of a loyalty and revenge, tenderness calls for hospitality and compassion.

Tough guys will see tenderness as foolish. Softness shows weakness and vulnerability. In a tough world, enemies will exploit weakness. Those enemies must be defeated. And the cronies and accomplices must be kept loyal. The tough cannot yield. They cannot admit wrongdoing. They cannot offer mercy or seek forgiveness.

The logic of toughness is understandable. But unyielding Scrooges and gritty Grinches inhabit a dark and lonely place. The antidote is to soften up your spine and open up your heart. The Christmas message calls us toward charity and joy. Instead of winning and fighting back, this is a time of giving and forgiving. It is a season that encourages us to set aside the love of power and recall the power of love.

Individual Conscience and the Common Good

When conscience and common good collide

Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee, February 6, 2015

There is no easy way to reconcile individual conscience and the common good. The argument about the measles vaccine makes this clear. Some have refused vaccination, despite the dangers this creates for public health._55524133_friedrichwandererabovetheseaoffogoriginal

Similar disputes play themselves out in a variety of contexts: Ebola quarantines, eminent domain, and the like. During the past half-century, exceptions have been carved out for individual conscience with regard to military service and a variety of other issues. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a corporation, Hobby Lobby, an exemption to federal insurance laws requiring contraception coverage, based upon a claim of conscience.

Society demands that individuals should serve the greater good and conform to the norms of social life. The risk of allowing conscientious refusal is significant, as we are seeing in the current measles outbreak. Those who are not vaccinated put themselves and others at risk.

But individuals (and apparently even corporations) can refuse to comply. The advocates of conscience might quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Or they may assert with Emerson that nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Human beings are fundamentally conflicted. We are social animals. But we are also individual persons. Each of us views our own life as special, unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, each of us is merely a replaceable member of the herd, subject to biological forces that flow through our bodies and affect the whole.

Human life is fractured by this irreconcilable rift. Life is lived in the first-person: you are the hero of your own drama. And yet from the outside, each of us is merely a bit player in a much larger story. You will be entirely forgotten in four or five generations. And yet, this life is the only one you’ve got.

Your own death is one of the most important events in your biography — the final, defining moment of your life. But from the perspective of the species, your measly life is inconsequential. Nature will digest your flesh. The planet will not notice your departure. But for you and your loved ones, your departure to the undiscovered country will be an infinite loss.

Our heroes have often been conscientious refusers: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King. But refusal antagonizes the herd. It is not surprising that these heroes were killed. Occasionally the moment is ripe for a refuser to make a difference, especially when the herd is obviously wrong. But most of the time, the tidal movements of society and nature sweep individuals along, and away.

Some individualists claim that individuals should never submit to society’s demands. On the other hand, collectivists claim that social welfare always trumps the right of conscience. At one end is lonely egoism. At the other end is totalitarianism.

Neither solution is acceptable for those of us committed to a democratic social life. Individuals should not lose themselves completely in the herd. Nor should we live in defiance of society. To be human is to suffer in the middle. The tragedy of being human is that we are pulled in multiple directions by opposing forces and conflicting duties.

Religion appears to offer one sort of resolution. An omnipotent God can hold all of this together in his benevolent hands. God is big enough to love each of us infinitely, while also understanding the substance of the common good. But the mystery of divine omnipotence gives us little to go on. We live this side of paradise, without access to divine omniscience.

Does God want us to vaccinate our children, to provide contraception, or to serve in the military? Religious people disagree about the answer to those questions. Every act of conscience is a leap of faith.

Another solution appeals to science. Scientists understand how vaccinations help prevent epidemics. But science can’t tell us how to live in the first-person or how to balance our values, duties, and commitments. Individuals must still interpret the data and apply it to their own lives.

There is no way around this dilemma. Claims of individual conscience can cause outbreaks of measles. But each measly individual also has a claim on infinite value. And a democratic society of conscientious individuals is as dangerous as it is inspiring.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/06/4367159_fiala-on-ethics-when-conscience.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Bible and Proof

We need faith, but we still want answers

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-07

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala is contributing his column from Israel, where he is on sabbatical.

Is it possible to prove that religious belief is true? One approach would be to look for archaeological evidence. When ancient scrolls were found near the Dead Sea — the Dead Sea Scrolls — this discovery provided evidence of the antiquity of the Bible. But Christians and Jews still disagree about the meaning of these texts. Evidence still needs to be interpreted.

And archaeological evidence can be faked. Consider, for example, the findings of Ron Wyatt, who claimed that he had found the Ark of the Covenant buried in a cave in Jerusalem, directly beneath the spot where Jesus was crucified. Wyatt claimed to have found blood that had dripped from the cross. When he tested the blood, he found that it had only 24 chromosomes (23 plus a mysterious Y-chromosome), proof that it came from a man born of a virgin.

I learned about Wyatt when we visited a place called the Garden Tomb, which was where Wyatt claimed to have found his evidence. In the 19th century, this spot was suggested as a possible place for the crucifixion. Other Christians think it happened across town on the Mount of Olives. But most Christians believe that the Easter story unfolded at another place, at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an uncanny place, full of candles and incense and filtered light. The church holds shrines and altars commemorating the location of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. This ancient building conceals strange nooks and crannies. At one point, I took a candle and crawled into dark and dusty tomb in a hidden corner of the church. Later I entered the holy tomb itself and touched the stone of the resurrection. It was cold and dark and slightly spooky.

The Garden Tomb is not nearly so mysterious. It sits in the open air, near a rock that looks like a skull. This fits the Biblical story that Jesus was crucified at Golgotha — the place of the skull. The empty tomb here is much bigger and airier than the tomb in the Holy Sepulcher. There is a groove cut into the ground in front of the tomb, through which a rock could have been rolled away on Easter morning.

Our tour guide in the Garden Tomb was a retired minister. He acknowledged the dispute about the location of the first Easter. But he said that the essential thing was to believe that on Easter morning the tomb was empty — wherever that tomb may be.

He also said that for him, the most memorable part of the whole Easter story was the moment when Jesus asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him. I like the message of forgiveness, too. But I wonder what kind of archaeological evidence would prove that Jesus actually said those words? The Gospel stories contain differing accounts. The words of forgiveness only show up in Luke.

How do we know what Jesus said or where he said it? Archaeology simply cannot dig that deep. The religious answer points away from knowledge in the direction of faith. Faith comes in when evidence is lacking.

The hunt for archaeological evidence of Biblical events thus points to a paradox. If the evidence were indisputable and obvious, then there would be no need for faith. If we really could see the blood and believe that it wasn’t fake, then we wouldn’t need faith at all. It might even be that, from a religious standpoint, there is more virtue in believing when the evidence is lacking, more virtue in faith than in knowledge.

Sometimes the craving for evidence can inspire wishful thinking that leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. Even Jesus warned about false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But who do we trust, who do we believe? And what do we do when there is no evidence? What do we do when there are conflicting interpretations of the evidence we possess? These are the sorts of questions that keep you awake at night. These are the sorts of questions that can lead you to want to crawl into a dark tomb with a candle in your hand, looking for something, waiting to be shown the light.