Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I've seen the term on homeopathy on products in health food stores for years, but never really bothered to look into it. But today I came across this video of James Randi giving a lecture at Princeton University explaining the philosophy behind the practice. James Randi is a well known investigator, who some may remember as the man who exposed Uri Gellar as a fraud. Here's the video:

Friday, May 27, 2011

Political Oddities

I tend to be pretty cynical toward politics in general and politicians in particular. I’m not a member of any particular political party and probably never will be. I have a friend who has a tag at the bottom of all his emails that says, “In God we trust, it’s politicians we should doubt.” That pretty well sums up my view of politicians. Besides a general distrust of them, I also find their parties to be very odd. I find them odd because their platforms are composed of many differing sets of ideas that often have nothing to do with one another. Nothing. There is no rhyme or reason or logic as to why they have chosen to fold all of the positions they hold into one platform. Instead, their positions are, more often than not, accidents of history that are the result of building political coalitions – bringing together different groups and ideologies under one banner in order to have enough votes to defeat their political opponents. My own country is full of examples of this cobbling together of disparate positions.

For example, what does it mean to be pro-life? In the U.S. it means to be anti-abortion. Now, whether you agree with that position or not, the logic behind it seems fairly obvious:

It is wrong to take innocent human life.
The unborn fetus is an innocent human life.
Therefore abortion is wrong.

What is unusual is the position this issue takes in each of the perspective parties. Democrats are more likely to be pro-choice, and Republicans are more likely to be pro-life (even Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney became pro-life when he decided to run for president). Now, the odd thing about this is that democrats are also more likely to be against things like capital punishment, and aggressive military strategies. And with the Republicans it is just the opposite. Though, of course, you can find exceptions in both cases.

Now I personally believe that these issues are apples to oranges – too different to really be comparable. But what if someone believed that to be truly pro-life you should be against all three? Whether we agree with them or not, we could not accuse them of inconsistency. After all, abortion, execution, and invasion all involve the taking of life. And there really is nothing that says the typical stands that either party have taken on these issues have to be paired together in that particular configuration. A person could just as easily be against (or for) all three, or for and against differing pairs (e.g. against abortion and invasion, but for execution). It all seems rather arbitrary to me.

Another example of odd political pairings, or in this case plain old inconsistencies, comes with most politicians who label themselves as libertarian. To be libertarian means that you want to be free of government intervention and involvement beyond the maintenance of basic services – keeping the roads paved, the mail delivered, basic laws enforced, etc. However, libertarians in both parties apply this principle inconsistently. In the Republican party, libertarians don’t want the government to be involved in things like economics, but typically are happy to let the government make rules and regulations on social issues like gay marriage. Likewise, Democrats that consider themselves libertarians want the government to keep their nose out of social issues, but are happy to let them regulate the economy and redistribute wealth through the tax system. But are either really libertarian? Wouldn’t a consistent libertarian be against government involvement in all areas of life, social or economic? And why do those particular inconsistencies show up so consistently in each party?

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the party in Australian politics that is roughly analogous to the Republican party in the United States is known as the Liberal party. This would be a surprise because Republicans are generally thought of as conservatives. The reason for the seemingly strange parallel is that the Republican party, generally speaking, holds to a liberal economic position. Again, this would come as a surprise to many American voters because in common everyday usage Republican = conservative, and therefore any position that the Republicans take is labeled conservative. But historically, and still today in many places in the world, the economic position that supports an unregulated free market, laissez-faire capitalism, is considered a liberal position. What Republicans are conservative on is social issues - especially Republicans who identify with the religious right. But again, this marriage of the religious right with the economic left seems rather arbitrary. One does not entail the other. It is not far fetched to think that a person could be for increases in both social and economic regulation. Or likewise, that they could be pure libertarians, and be against both.

The more conservative economic position would be a market in which the government places more controls and regulations on the economy through taxes, tariffs, etc. And this is, generally speaking, the position of most Democrats. This also may surprise some people because Democrats are usually referred to as liberals. And they are, just not on economics. They are liberal on social and religious issues. And again, we have this strange pairing of liberal and conservative ideas – only in the exact opposite configuration – they are liberals religiously and socially but conservatives economically.

Am I the only one that sees all this as odd? Wouldn’t it make more sense if there was some kind of unifying center in each of the parties? Wouldn't it seem more natural to have one party that was against the taking of life on dogmatic grounds and the other that left open the possibility on pragmatic grounds? Or wouldn't it make just as much sense if there was a party that was conservative both socially and economically, and a party that was liberal both socially and economically? 

And these are just a couple of examples – you can do this with almost every political issue you can think of. There is no unifying code of ethics, or political ideology, or even a common theme from issue to issue. It is almost as if every time a particular issue came up, the parties each rolled a dice to decide what position they would take (or more likely, took a poll). The end result being that neither party is truly characterized by a consistent position across the issues. Instead, both look like patchwork quilts sewn together by a blind person.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Authenticity Fails as a Virtue

There is a phenomenon in our culture right now that goes by the name of “authenticity.” Authenticity is a new virtue. In fact, it is THE virtue. The virtue that all other virtues are judged by. You can find it and its synonyms everywhere these days, from your teenage kids that tell you that that they just want to be “like, for real,” to authors that will help you find your “authentic self.” You can even hear celebrity athletes that talk about “keeping it real on the field,” whatever that means.

Most commonly the virtue of authenticity is found on television and movies. You can see it in the character who, against the opposition of others and perhaps even the oppression of society, stands up to the world and triumphantly says, “This is who I am, deal with it.” And, of course, the typical foil for this character will be some protagonist who is an absurd religious hypocrite. The contrast is intended to leave the audience thinking, “I’d rather be authentic than a hypocrite…especially a religious hypocrite.”

I admit that until recently I bought into the authenticity hype. In fact, our team listed it as one of our core values before we began our church planting ministry. And I have since noticed it on the websites and newsletters of other new church plants. But I’ve discovered there are some problems with thinking of authenticity as a virtue.

First, a little linguistic side note: Even though people have begun talking about authenticity as a virtue, it really isn’t. Authenticity is a value neutral descriptor. Authenticity says something is really and truly _______. It doesn’t mean anything until you feel in the blank. Authenticity can only be used as a virtue because people are using the word as a stand-in for other words. For example, authenticity is commonly equated with openness, i.e. not wearing a mask or being a hypocrite. So when a person says, “Suzy’s authentic,” what they are really saying is that Suzy displays openness. This is not what authenticity actually means, at least not yet anyway. (But definitions do change with custom, so it might very well come to mean this someday.)

The problem with using this new definition of authenticity as a virtue is that there isn’t much genuine value for mere openness. To see openness as being virtuous, we have to make assumptions about the motives of a person’s openness. Because, after all, a person can be open for different reasons. A person can be open about their many sexual exploits because they are in a therapy group for sexual addictions, or they can be open about them because they are bragging to their friends. In both instances they are open, but in one instance they are contrite about what they’ve done and are seeking help from others, and in the other they are proud of what they’ve done and are seeking recognition from others.

Likewise, lacking in hypocrisy (showiness, mask wearing, etc.), is only a good thing if there is something good underneath. If a nice person doesn’t wear a mask, that is only good because we can see the nice person underneath. But if a jerk doesn’t wear a mask, is his situation really improved? Does being open about his jerkiness make him a better person? Not at all, we just see clearly that he is a jerk.

What I’ve found in the real life application of this virtue-that-isn’t-a-virtue is that authenticity becomes a convenient excuse not to change. “This is just who I am,” is given as the final word about someone’s character. Like the people in the movies they are taking their stand. But they are taking their stand so that they don’t have to do the hard work of changing.

I’ve also found that it becomes a celebration of sinful behavior. “With me, what you see is what you get,” is a common statement on the value of authenticity; and it is most often uttered after someone has just said or done something that is completely inappropriate. Anything can be excused under the excuse of being authentic - a dirty joke, a racist comment, a hateful diatribe, anything. “I’m just being real.” And if you buy into the authenticity-as-virtue line of thinking, what can you say to that?

So therein lies the problem with authenticity: it is a value neutral descriptor, improperly used as a virtue, vaguely understood as openness, and more often than not applied to motives that are downright sinful. And, unfortunately, even if being authentic keeps you from being a hypocrite, it doesn’t really make you a better person – which is the goal of a true virtue.

But we need not be discouraged by this, because there is already a virtue that both eliminates hypocrisy and makes you a better person, and that is the Christian virtue of being confessional. The major difference between confession and authenticity is that confession leads to repentance and accountability. Confession isn’t mere openness, confession is brokenness. It is admitting one’s faults, and admitting the need for help. Confession takes place in the context of a community committed to the Lordship of Christ and the fellowship of the saints. Confession is tears and prayers and thanksgiving. There’s no such thing as a hypocrite in confession, just flawed people, admitting their flaws, and striving for an authentic goal – being made into the image of Christ. Genuine change – nothing superficial.

In retrospect, I’m amazed that confession wasn’t listed as one of our values. Sometimes we get too clever for our own good. An “authentic” new church? What about confession?! What were we thinking? Ah, the lessons we learn in life…


Post Script: Ok, so here’s your homework, the next time you hear someone talk about being authentic, ask them, “Authentic what?”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Your Reasoning Stinks

I don’t consider myself some kind of genius when it comes to life. I’m a practical person and I like practical ideas. I’m about to give you one.

Here’s my disclaimer: This isn’t scientific. It’s based on personal experience. It probably won’t sound profound. I haven’t mastered the art of sounding profound yet. And it won’t be right 100% of the time. Life is too complex and complicated for that. But I’m convinced that it is closer to true North than just about anything else I could tell you.

Here it is. Drum roll please…

When you need to make a decision, GO WITH YOUR GUT.

Now let me explain that little bit of advice.

Your gut is that tiny little voice in your head which manifests itself as intuition, conscience, instinct, etc. You need to listen to that voice. Do NOT listen to the loud, obnoxious voice in your head that is commonly called reasoning.

Your reasoning is usually wrong. It gets you into all kinds of trouble because it is always asking the wrong question. When it comes to self reflection, “Why?” is the wrong question. That’s the question that your reason likes to ask. It sounds quite reasonable doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. It’s a stupid question, and you must break yourself from asking it.

The question of why is incredibly difficult to answer. In fact it’s practically impossible if you’re asking it of yourself in isolation to the input of others. The mind doesn’t have direct access to the gut. So when you ask the why question, the mind has to use your so called “reason” to come up with some kind of hypothesis that is, at best, an educated guess, and in most cases just a collection of complex self deceptions.

Here’s an example: Your mind says, “Why do I want to discredit my coworker Cindy? It must be because I’m concerned about her methods and afraid that she might lead others astray.” In reality, she’s been more successful than you and you’re jealous. Your gut knew that all along, but your mind doesn’t have access to that kind of information.

Why am I this way? Why do I want to do this? Wrong questions. Stop asking them. You’ve got a very slim chance of stumbling onto the right answer.

Your intuition is better at answering questions. The question of intuition is, “Is this good?” That’s the right question. That’s the question we want to come back to again and again. Let’s practice with a couple of examples:

“I want to punch Steve in the face. Why do I…”
Stop! Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?
Answer: No
Then don’t do it.

See how easy that is? Let’s try another:

Situation: You’re driving home and you pass a vender selling flowers on the side of the road, you have the sudden urge to stop and buy flowers for your wife.
“Why do I…”
Stop!! Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?
Answer: Yes
Then do it. Do it now.

What difference did it make? Well, your mind might have come up with some stupid theory that explained away your desire to buy your wife flowers. Add in the fact that you are lazy and cheap, and you almost certainly wouldn’t have bothered to stop. But your gut, being much wiser than your mind, remembered that it had heard a slightly stressed sound in your wife’s voice last night and knew flowers would cheer her up. That’s the difference that following your gut can make.

Some, upon reading this, will accuse me of advocating emotional decision making. Let me just nip that in the bud. I’m not. I’m advocating just the opposite. I’m not saying, “Just follow your heart,” or something equally ridiculous. I’m saying follow your intuition. Listen to your conscience. Don’t ignore your “spidey” sense. You need it. It’s there to help you.

If you are a counselor, minister, or anyone else whose life involves working one on one with people and their issues, then what I’m about to say will come as no shock. The truth is, the vast majority of what we call “reason” is actually emotion. That’s right, emotion. Emotion that sounds very logical (to ourselves) but is still, without a doubt, emotion.

In 2004 my wife and I spent a summer in Brazil with her aunt and uncle who have been missionaries there for over three decades. I remember several times her uncle coming in after a long day of work, plopping down onto his favorite chair, letting out a big sigh and saying, “Corey if you’re going to continue in ministry you have to understand something – people are NOT logical.” He must have told me that at least a half dozen times while we were there. At the time, I only half understood what he meant. Seven years later, I understand him perfectly.

If you are someone who sees yourself as intelligent, don’t think this doesn’t apply to you. It applies to everyone. Granted, a simpleton’s false reasoning may be easier to see through, but complex and convincing deceptions are still just deceptions. And there is a good likelihood that your thinking is full of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of logic. When I go to my doctor for a check up, he better be using it. When I take my car to a mechanic, he better be using it. But I’m making a distinction here between logic and reasoning. Not on philological grounds - I understand that a thesaurus would list these as synonyms - but just for the sake of clarifying the difference between actual logic and what people commonly call reasoning. I might trust my doctor’s logic, but I wouldn’t trust his reasoning.

I don’t want sound patronizing here, but I’ve met so many people that would swear up and down that every decision they make is based on logic that I’m not taking any chances. Let me just give you a few examples of very basic logic: There are tautologies (in the old rhetorical sense) such as “all bachelors are unmarried men." There’s deduction: All spiders have eight legs; a tarantula is a spider; therefore a tarantula has eight legs. And induction: We’ve observed a thousand different species of spiders; all of them have eight legs; therefore it’s probable that all spiders have eight legs. - All of this is logical. 

Now here’s how people think: “I want to leave my wife. Why do I want to do that? Well, it’s not because I really want to, but because she is forcing me to. She has repeatedly shown that she does not love me or respect me for who I’ve become.”

I hope the difference between these two modes of thinking is obvious. Logic is restricted to a very precise structure. People’s “reasoning,” on the other hand, is complex, hard to quantify, laced with all sorts of judgments (or lack thereof), and most of all, emotion.

Your reasoning stinks. It stinks bad. Trust me. Mine does too. That’s why I’m giving up on it.

Here’s a monologue where intuition is in the driver’s seat:
“I want to leave my wife.
Is that a good thing?
Then don’t do it.
What should I do then?
Maybe I should see a counselor.
Is that good?
Then do it. Do it now.”

And if this was a real life scenario I would say that is the one time when you should ask why - when you get in the counselor’s office. Then you can ask the why question all you want because you’ll have someone with you who’s professionally trained to help you smell your own b.s. - But other than that, don’t even bother.

So that’s it. Follow your gut. It isn’t always right, but it has a heck of lot better track record than your reasoning.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Should Look Different from the World

As Christians we should look different from the world around us. And likewise, we should look at the world differently. Justice is a better outcome than injustice...but it is only necessary in a world distorted by sin. The need for justice is a reminder that we live in a fallen world that desperately needs the redemptive love of Christ.

When a Christian says something like "Burn in hell Osama," they mock the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are telling the world that our Father in heaven doesn't desire that all men be saved. They are telling the world that Jesus taught that we should pray for revenge upon our enemies. They are telling the world that the angels rejoice when a soul is lost. That is not the message of the Kingdom of God. That has nothing to do with Christ's mission of redemption in the world.

I don't like Osama Bin Laden. He was a mass murderer. I do not doubt that what happened to him was deserved. But that's the end of the story. His story didn't begin that way. He was a human being made in the image of God. I've read that as a young man he was known for his piety and was a respected member of his community. But somewhere along the way this world twisted him.

I can only feel sadness for what he became and the way his life ended. I'm NOT trying to absolve him for his crimes. I understand why the U.S. government took these measures, and I'm sure the world is a better place without him. But when a human being made in the image of God ends with a bullet through the head, no matter who they are, that should be a sad reminder of the brokenness of our world, not an occasion for celebration.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Vampires, Breast Implants, and the Demise of Western Culture

A few days ago I was online looking at the news stories of the day. In the pop culture section, there was an article discussing the explosion of vampire movies and television shows being produced by Hollywood. It has become quite a phenomenon. There are vampires everywhere these days, and of course, in our consumer society that means all sorts of retail products as well, from books and magazines to clothes and accessories; apparently there’s even a vampire perfume out now - doesn’t that sound lovely?

Just beneath that story was an article about the cosmetic surgery industry, which this year reached the 40 billion mark. Forty billion dollars is now spent every year on breast implants, face lifts, tummy tucks, and the like. The range of products is amazing. All promising to make you look younger and sexier. And that’s when it hit me – I realized that these two seemingly unrelated articles are really just manifestations of the same cultural phenomenon.

There was a time when vampires were disgusting parasitic monsters - blood sucking zombies who were strange and frightening…but not anymore. Now vampires are young and sexy. But not just young and sexy; because of the vampire “curse” of un-death, they are now perpetually young and sexy. And therein lies the obsession. Our culture is obsessed with youth and the fantasy of never growing old. This obsession is the inevitable end point of secularism, which at its core is rooted in naturalism, the belief that the physical world is all that exists.

It’s been said that every culture begins Stoic and ends Epicurean. I’m convinced we are seeing the final stages of this shift in Western culture. For the past two hundred years Western culture has been involved in a monumental cultural shift from a Judeo-Christian worldview to a secular humanist worldview. In secularism there is no God. You can believe in God if you like, but those that know better understand that God is merely a superstition that should be kept out of any serious discussion of history, politics, anthropology, etc. In place of God we have the human being – the highest being in the universe.

Early on, the trade off from God to human looked promising. During the Enlightenment, human beings had not only rediscovered the science of the ancient Greco-Roman world, but had taken that knowledge to new heights. With its new found knowledge the Western mind swelled with pride. Human understanding of the universe, it seemed, would grow forever; eventually, it was thought that man would know all things. “Someday man will be able to do anything” was the common sentiment at the turn of the last century. Human reason was seen as the greatest of virtues and eventually all obstacles would fall before it. Someday human beings would be able to fix any problem, cure any disease, and perhaps even conquer death itself. Once all of humanity embraced a life of wisdom, and they would because reason is not only infallible but irresistible, then human beings would finally lay every enemy to waste and would live in an age of universal peace and reign as gods on the earth.

This sounds ridiculous today, but at that time this was the soup everyone was swimming in – especially in the academy. Even many Christian theologians were taken in by this new messiah and began to reshape Christian doctrine to fit with the secular religion. Such was the gravitational pull of the movement.

But that all began to crumble with the outbreak of World War One. Now the most “enlightened” nations of Europe were doing their best to wipe each other off the map. Human learning and technology proved to be very useful in this regard. Some secularists began to lose faith in humanity. Not all of them though, some said that it was “the war to end all wars,” and when the conflict was over, the new age of human divinity would begin. But we all know how that turned out.

Eventually the secularists would have their hopes fully crushed – stomped out of them as it were. Since they had no real understanding of the depth of human sin, they couldn’t fully explain where things went wrong, but it was obvious to most that their experiment had failed. In the wake of this failure, some academics recovered concepts like sin and idolatry in order to make sense of what had happened. These came to be known as Neo-orthodox theologians. Of course, most Christians had never lost these ideas - it was mainly in the academy that such things had to be rediscovered. It would be nice if the rest of society had followed in their footsteps, but that is not how this story ends. The vast majority of the secular humanists did not return to the religion of their ancestors. Instead they slipped from a hopeful, yet misguided, modernism into a cynical and ultimately nihilistic post-modernism.

Which brings us into the shallow depths of the present. If you accept that the physical world is the entirety of existence, then what’s left when you’ve lost faith in human intellect and human virtue? The only thing left to be impressed with is the physical form itself. That becomes the focus of our energies because that is all that is left.

Now some secularists might object to this characterization (and I admit I'm simplifying things here for the sake of brevity). They might point, for example, to existentialist philosophers who have tried to find meaning in the meaningless and sound a hopeful note for humanity. But the great mass of people in our culture are not existentialists, but rather, body worshipers. If you want to know who those great masses are, just look at the advertisements you find everywhere in our society - that's who they're aimed at.

But body worship is an even more futile religion than the worship of the mind. The human body has a very short shelf life - it is only impressive for a brief period in young adulthood…if ever. And so you end up with the ridiculous spectacle of young people fantasizing about staying young forever, and old people trying to make the fantasy a reality through expensive, and ultimately worthless, medical procedures. In Hollywood, the average 60 year old looks like a piece of cling wrap stretched over a coffee can – a disgusting farce of someone who has grown wise with age.

What does it say about a culture when the dominant religion is the cult of youth? When people worship at the alter of sexual attraction? When you have kids who would be willing to become blood sucking monsters if only they could stay young forever? And when the older members of society see wrinkles as a curse rather than a reminder that our time here is short and that we will soon stand before our judge? It means that you're in the twilight of your culture...pun intended.

I'm no prophet. I have no idea if it will be 25 years from now or 200 years from now. But one need not be a prophet to realize that a hedonistic society has no staying power. That's just plain old historical observation. Sooner or later, a people of greater moral fortitude will take our place. And the age of blood and silicone will be no more.