Revenge of the Fifth

This is a reposting of the fourth of a previous series on alcoholism and addiction.

 
MercuryIt seemed like such a great idea at the time…

His name is Darin. Of course, that’s not his real name, but he is a casual friend of mine. A bright young man, possessed of good looks, a warm smile, and a soft-spoken demeanor. Darin is brilliant with computers–not merely competent, as many are, but a true geek, tear-’em-down-and-rebuild-’em smart, fearless in the depths of sockets and motherboards, Windows registries and Unix terminals. A true success story, you might say, bright future, make some girl very happy. But Darin was toolin’ down the freeway of goin’ nowhere fast.

You see, Darin had a little problem: a fondness for the grape and the snort which always seemed to get the best of him. Not that he didn’t try: he was in and out of AA rooms more often than a pastor’s wife at church socials, always returning beaten and remorseful, determined to do better this time. “This time” rarely lasted more than a few weeks or months.

Darin was quiet, but a man of passion. He was always in love. Intoxicated with the flush of a new romance, that rush of euphoria so real yet so maddingly transient. Each new girl was “the one”, but nights of passionate, drug-enhanced sex soon proved impotent to overcome the waning charm of Miss Demeanor, the rumpled sheets, and the rumblings of his restless soul. Before long he was again cruising for some other codependent wench, herself seeking a sodden soul to save. Like an ugly tie wrapped up pretty under the Christmas tree, Darin’s package looked good at first glance, but he quickly proved to be a daddy’s nightmare: “no phone, no food, no rent”, as the song goes. Soon he was once again welcome only in his mother’s house, with whom he could do no wrong.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Darin: someone did him dirty, stiffing him out of a good deal of cash, and forgiveness was not one of his many charms. The details are murky: a computer built or repaired, promises made but unkept. There was much lighthearted chatter at the coffee houses–was it Darin’s fault, or his nemesis? No matter–like a quiet bubbling cauldron in a witch’s lair, Darin was cooking up his favorite dish: a rip-roaring resentment. Not visible on the outside, of course, but raging like a Jerry Springer slugfest in the conference rooms of his mind. It was the perfect mixed drink: a perceived injustice blended with that unique obsessiveness which addicts possess seemingly in endless measure.

It is not clear when the brainstorm struck–an idea so brilliant, so flawless, that it would right all injustices and settle all disputes: Darin would break into his detractor’s home and steal back the computer which tortured him so. No mere larceny, mind you, but the picture-perfect crime, a liberation to rival Paris in ’45. Carefully timed when the enemy was not at home, staged so not even Sherlock Holmes would presume that Darin might be the perpetrator. Sweet revenge, sweetly executed.

Like tightly-written computer code, Darin’s nimble mind set the parameters, checked the variables, and executed commands in a tight loop whose efficiency and speed wasted no cycles. The Day of Vengeance arrived, with only one small ingredient missing: courage. But Darin had that algorithm factored as well: a fifth of Vodka erased all fears, drowning all doubts. By stealth of night, with watches synchronized and bottle drained, the window glass parted to usher him to glory. The mission was underway.

No one knows whether anyone heard the shattering of glass, but despite his stealth the disruption somehow caught the notice of neighbors. When the police arrived, the cause of the disturbance became evident: there was Darin, passed out on the floor, beside the untouched computer he coveted. Fate had struck a cruel blow–his celebratory blackout had arrived on the wings of Mercury rather than with the spoils of Mars. He awakened to handcuffs and an open-ended reservation at the Gray Bar Hotel.

All good stories–even true ones–should have a moral, but Darin’s story eludes easy lessons. He was taken by that peculiar insanity which alcoholics possess in abundance, even while sober. When Darin hatched his master plan, he was not drinking, but engaged in one of his countless attempts to clean up. For the alcoholic, the danger lies not in the bottle, but in the brain. The sane among us make mistakes, to be sure: wisdom comes from experience, and experience often comes from lack of wisdom. But facing the inevitable consequences of bad choices, we generally rearrange our lives and priorities to ensure that such a travesty does not happen again. Not so the alcoholic. Obsessively repeating behavior long ago proven destructive, he nevertheless pursues the optimism of denial which says the next time will be different. This baffling disconnect from reality cascades from farce to tragedy, as the alcoholic perceives no problems other than those bastards who are out to get him.

There is much resistance to the idea that alcoholism and addiction are a disease. Much of this comes from conservatives, and those of religious conviction, whose proper emphasis on personal responsibility and moral rectitude sees in the alcoholic only reckless hedonism and wanton irresponsibility. These qualities the addict has in spades, but less obvious is the driving obsessive compulsion, the thought disorder which is their engine. The medical evidence for the disease model of alcoholism and addiction is deep and wide, as I have detailed in part elsewhere (see also this and this for more on the topic). The liberals have this one right: the alcoholic is a victim of his or her genetics, and the addition of a mind-altering drug–which one is probably moot–starts a swirling whirlpool whose vortex holds only misery, destruction and death. Not many survive its power.

Yet defining deviance from normal as disease also has its risks: the proliferation of social disorders redefined as diseases seems endless, and points to the abrogation of all responsibility for one’s actions. It can become laughable at times. Several years ago, I saw a patient, a healthy, athletic women in her 40’s, who was covered under Medicare. Medicare covers the elderly, but also those with chronic renal failure and the disabled, so I inquired as to the nature of her disability. I was informed she had “hyperactivity disorder.” Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? No, just hyperactivity disorder–she was restless. A black belt in Karate, she travelled around the country constantly, competing in tournaments and teaching seminars. She was disabled, in short, because she couldn’t sit still. No “cripple” jokes around her, no siree, unless you wanted your skull crushed by a foot you’ll never see coming.

The concern about labeling alcoholism, or any other behavioral disorder, as a disease is the tendency to tolerate and rationalize the resulting behavior, to use the “disease” label as an excuse for selfish, self-centered behavior destructive to one’s self, society, and those around you. The issue is not disease or no disease, but rather what drives the behavior and what can be done to change it.

The paradox about 12-step programs–which have the only reliable track record for successful recovery from addiction–is that they emphasize the disease as the problem, and honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility as the solution. They do not excuse the behavior while admitting the disease, and this blend of honesty and humility, acceptance and tough love, works like nothing else. It is, as recovering alcoholics are quick to point out, a spiritual program: the Catch-22 of a body which craves alcohol without limit and a mind which denies the resulting problems cannot be solved any other means.

But as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, the problem is not the booze; it is not even the obsessive, irrational mindset which drives the drinking. Both these problems are symptoms of an underlying decay, one of spiritual dimensions, characterized at its core by extreme self-centeredness. The pursuit of happiness by feeding this monster creates not the promised joy but rather pain and emptiness. Alcohol hides that pain for a while, until the monster, growing ever stronger by its constant feeding, kills its host spiritually, emotionally, and often physically.

But addiction is hardly alone as a symptom of this dark core. The list of destructive behaviors arising from its belly is endless: obesity, sexual promiscuity, compulsive overwork, materialism, computer obsession, gambling, the pursuit of beauty over character, the lust for money and power. Some may be biologically-driven; some learned behaviors or dysfunctional coping. All seek to fill a hole with no bottom, providing the wrong salve for the pain, and more of the same when the salve makes the wound fester.

And what of Darin? In many ways he is fortunate: his life is on hold, and forced reflection and change are his for the taking–should he choose to grasp them. The price is high; it might have been much higher. Yet his choice–and ours–is the same: feed the monster, or turn life over to One whose burden is light, who alone can fill that deep inner void.

Truth & Consequences


In the trial of Jesus, ancient texts have recorded this exchange:

Pilate replied, “You are a king then?” “You say that I am a king, and you are right,” Jesus said. “I was born for that purpose. And I came to bring truth to the world. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
 
“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Some questions are truly timeless.

We live in an age where the notion of truth, of absolutes which transcend the individual and society, is increasingly under assault. Ours is an age of radical individualism, wherein man alone becomes the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong, where moral relativism reigns, where postmodernism trades absolute truth for “narratives”, which vary from individual to individual, culture to culture, and age to age.

It is no small irony that ours is an age of science and technology — disciplines which depend by their very nature on the absolute, unchanging, and permanent laws of nature. Yet this same age rejects or disdains the concept of absolutes and transcendent truth. No one questions the speed of light, or the Pythagorean theorem, or the laws of gravity, or the quirky and counter-intuitive physics of subatomic particles. The postmodernist whose narrative does not accept the law of gravity will still need a sidewalk cleanup crew when he flings himself from a tall building, believing he can fly.

The difference, of course, is that the absolutes of physics and science apply to the physical world, quantifiable and tangible in greater or lesser measure, while the absolutes of ethics, morality, and religion touch on the metaphysical, the invisible, the theological. The materialist rejects such notions outright, as superstition, “values” (i.e., individual beliefs or preferences based on nothing more than feelings or bias), as mindless evolutionary survival skills, or the dying remnants of an age of ignorance. Absolutes are rejected because of the presuppositions of constricted materialism, the arrogance and conceits of intellectualism, the notion that if it cannot be weighed or measured it does not exist. But the deeper and more fundamental reason for the rejection of transcendent absolutes is simply this: such absolutes make moral claims upon us.

In truth, man cannot exist without transcendent absolutes, even though he denies their existence. Our language and thought are steeped in such concepts, in notions of good and evil, love and hate, free will and coercion, purpose and intentionality. We cannot think, or communicate, or be in any way relational without using the intangible, the metaphysical, the conventions, the traditions. We are by our very nature creatures who compare: we judge, and accept or reject; we prefer or disapprove; we love or hate, criticize or applaud. All such choices involve the will as a free agent — and free will is meaningless if it is not used in the context of an ethereal yet unchanging standard against which a choice is measured. We say a rose smells beautiful and a rotten egg rotten, because we judge those smells against an invisible standard which determines one to be pleasant and the other offensive. We cannot measure the love of a child, or or weigh the sorrow of a death, or calculate the anger at an injustice or the beauty of a Bach concerto; yet such reactions, and the standards by which we recognize and judge such intangibles, are every bit as real as the photons and protons, the law of gravity or the principles of physics. Even the most hardened Darwinist, atheistic to the core, by necessity must speak the language of purpose and transcendence and choice, as Mother Nature “selects”, and “chooses”, and “intends”, and “prefers” this genetic trait or that survival skill. We are incapable of describing even the purported randomness, mindlessness, and purposelessness of evolutionary biology without concepts and language of intentionality, preference, good and evil.

No, the rejection of absolutes is the rejection of their claim upon our wills. To reject that absolute truth exists, to deny that standards and principles stand apart from mere constructs of human imagination, is to affirm the absolute that we are absolutely autonomous, answerable to nothing and no one, masters and gods accountable only to ourselves. To deny absolutes is to deny free will — and to deny the consequences of choices which violate the very principles we dismiss as foolish, ignorant, prejudiced, and superstitious. To deny dogma is to be dogmatic; to reject absolutes absolutely is to affirm absolutes, even if unknowingly. Transcendent absolutes define our very humanity; dogs do not have dogmas, nor are cats categorical.

G.K. Chesterton, prescient and insightful as ever in his vision of the foolishness of man in his intellectual hubris, said:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

Ideas have consequences, philosophies have predicates, and the rejection of absolutes absolutely dehumanizes us, for we devolve from a species of high principles and moral light to denizens of a depravity far lower than the animals. For animals have rational restraints on behavior, brutish though it may be, while there is no end to evil for the human mind unleashed from absolutes.

Speaking of the fall of Carthage, with its materialism, wealth, and power, steeped in a religion whose worship sacrificed infants in the fires of Moloch, Chesterton says thus:

This sort of commercial mind has its own cosmic vision, and it is the vision of Carthage. It has in it the brutal blunder that was the ruin of Carthage. The Punic power fell, because there is in this materialism a mad indifference to real thought. By disbelieving in the soul, it comes to disbelieving in the mind … Carthage fell because she was faithful to her own philosophy and had followed out to its logical conclusion her own vision of the universe. Moloch had eaten her own children.

The rejection of absolutes, with the resulting moral relativism and narcissistic nihilism, is no mere intellectual folly nor faddish foolishness. It is instead a corrosive toxin, appealing in its seeming rationality and reasonableness, but pervasive and deadly for both person and polity.

If the Truth will set you free — and it most surely will — its rejection will surely enslave you.

What Brilliant Darkness

tomb

What brilliant darkness now descends
To slay the weight which life doth rob
To bear the anguish undeserved
On frigid stone no glorious end.

The blazing lanterns light the night
As noble leaders drain the cup
To toast the end of ghost not known
And praise the triumph of blind sight.

What brilliant darkness now hangs deep
In hopeless end of fruitless dreams
In upper room no brightness cast
In lowered light a restless sleep.

The blazing lanterns light the night
As slumbered warriors wrap their cloaks
And starlight bathes the tethered beam
Where blood poured out in sacred rite.

What brilliant darkness now breaks bright
With light a sun can scarce reflect
To roll the stone which triumphs death
The lamps of countless souls to light.

Have a blessed and fruitful Easter.

He is risen!

Three Men on a Friday

CalvaryThree men on a Friday, condemned to die. Ensnared by Roman justice, convicted, and sentenced to a lingering death of profound cruelty and excruciating agony.

The Romans knew how to do it right: execution designed to utterly humiliate its victims, and maximize their suffering–a public spectacle and object lesson to others about the foolishness of defying Roman authority. First used by the Persians in the time of Alexander the Great, and adopted by Rome from Carthage, crucifixion was so horrible and debasing a fate that it was not permitted for citizens of Rome. Victims hung for days, their corpses consumed by carrion.

Our knowledge of these three men is incomplete. Two are described in ancient texts as thieves, the other a preacher run afoul of religious leaders, delivered to the Romans under pretense of imperial threat. There should have been nothing unusual about this event: the Romans crucified criminals often, sometimes hundreds at a time. Yet these men, in this spectacle, were different: on these crosses hung all of mankind.

Two thieves and a preacher — an odd picture indeed. And even more peculiar: the most hated was the preacher. Taunted, insulted, ridiculed, reviled. A miracle worker, he, a man who supposedly healed the sick and raised the dead, yet now hung naked in humiliation and agony, unable to extricate himself from his dire circumstance. Even those convicted with him–themselves dying in unbearable pain and mortification — join the fray. Insulting the rabbi, demanding he set himself–and naturally, themselves as well–free. They know his reputation, yet selfish to the end, desire only their own deliverance.

But one thief is slowly transformed, in frailty considering his fate and the foolishness of demanding release when his punishment is just. And he marvels at the man hung nearby — why? Why does this preacher, unjustly executed, not proclaim innocence nor demand justice or vengeance? Why does he–amazingly–ask God to forgive those who have so cruelly and unjustly punished him? Why, in the extraordinary agony only crucifixion can bring, does he seem to have peace, acceptance, perhaps even joy?

His revulsion at the baying crowd, at the arrogance of his fellow convict reviling this man of character and grace, bursts forth in rebuke at him who ridicules: “This man has done no wrong!” Turning to the preacher, he makes a simple, yet humble, request: to be remembered. Only that. No deliverance from agony, no sparing of death, no wealth, prosperity, or glory, no miracles–only to be remembered.

The reply reverberates throughout history: “This day you shall be with me in Paradise.” A promise of hope, a promise of relationship, a promise of forgiveness, a promise of comfort, joy, healing, peace.

Three men on a cross. In these three men are all who have lived: two are guilty, one innocent. Two are justly executed, one unjustly. All three have chosen their fate: one thief to revile, ridicule, hate, blaspheme; one criminal to trust, to seek consideration and mercy from one greater; one man to submit to brutal and humiliating torture and death, willingly, for no crime committed — or for all crimes committed, everywhere and for all time. Yet only one promise given–to the one who, though guilty, trusted and turned.

Who was this man in the middle, this preacher? A charlatan, perhaps – but an impostor abandons his schemes when such consequences appear. Delusional, deceived zealot, or presumptuous fool? Such grace in agonal death is inconceivable were he any such man. What power did he have to make such a promise? What proof that the promise was delivered?

An empty grave. A promise delivered by a cavern abandoned, a stone rolled away. A gruesome death transformed into a life of hope, meaning and purpose for those who also trust.

Open Hands

I have not been writing much of late. The usual excuses apply: busy physician, caught up in other interests, yada yada yada. My wife has also suggested that working long hours, then coming home and sitting on the computer for the rest of the evening and all weekend is not what she would describe as a “relationship” — funny people, these women are — don’t they understand we men have our needs? And of course, she is entirely correct, and I’m committed to making some changes to fix my malfeasance in this area. Obsessively scanning the web for the latest Obamanation is not terrible good use of time or mental energy anyway, so the change is truly a blessing in disguise.

But change there is aplenty, and its rapidity and breadth makes it hard to comprehend and process in such a way as to organize one’s thoughts and communicate them in meaningful ways. We are rapidly becoming a different country and culture, transforming in ways that are hardly new but accelerating seemingly at light-speed. The leaders of our country, a nation long a force of enormous good and beneficence in the world despite her many flaws, now travel the world apologizing and criticizing the very nation and citizens they purport to lead, while praising the Europeans whose parasitic socialism and arrogant superiority exist solely because we have liberated, protected and sustained their existence from crush of fascist nationalism and the dangerous bear of Russian aggression. We now pretend, with stunning naivete, that nice talk will restrain monomaniacal tyrants with nuclear dreams in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The scimitar of Mohammad is resharpened in a much-needed respite after years of crushing humiliation sustained in defending our nation from a new and extraordinarily dangerous fascism fired by a suicidal religious ideology.

At home, our economy stutters and stumbles to ground, suffering the hangover of decades of consumption which we could not afford, purchased with money we did not have. In response, our government spends untold trillions it does not have, bartering the future prosperity of untold generations for the present opportunism of slight-of-hand socialism disguised as a solution. Our banks and auto companies are nationalized; their executives fired by presidential fiat; their salaries capped by politicians who themselves have leveraged their political power to rape, pillage and plunder their way to untold personal millions mendaciously acquired.

Our government is officially, intractably, and utterly corrupt — and we are in no small part to blame:

By almost every measure, Washington is hopelessly corrupt.

And we are at once victims and accomplices.

Career politicians are spending the country to near-bankruptcy as they feather their own nests, tighten their leash on our necks and pat us on the head. They take our money, bend it to their will, then return small portions of it at their discretion to make us feel it has all been worth it.

Washington is to the taxpayer as the drug cartels are to the addict…

Washington is over $10 trillion in debt already. The Obama budget blueprint calls for adding another $9 trillion to that debt in the next 10 years. And the country is already facing untold trillions — $60 trillion or more — in Medicare and Social Security promises we’ve made to future retirees, money for which we have no identifiable source.

… Despite record-low approval ratings for Congress last year, we continued sending our congressmen back at about a 90 percent retention rate.

We have, sadly, been corrupted.

Our health care system, straining under unsustainable and spiraling costs, appears headed for nationalization as well, pouring untold millions of patients into the already-bankrupt Medicare system, while promising illusory “cost savings” through preventive medicine, electronic health records, and national boards to determine “appropriate” health care. The health care system we now enjoy, imperfect as it is, will be unrecognizably worse within the decade. It will not be a pretty sight. The health care bubble is about to burst: the grand mansions of high-tech healthcare, as unaffordable as they are sexy and seductive, are headed for foreclosure. Our pursuit of eternal life through technology is failing; we have exhausted our fortunes seeking a futile utopia of endless life without pain, sparing no expense to vanquish death and disease. Cerberus and Eurynomos reign triumphant, while we, penniless and disillusioned, have forgotten that to live is but to suffer and die — and we no longer know how to do either well.

Culturally, the war is over: the walls have been breached, the barbarians rule. While we focus on the dying paradigm of left and right, liberal and conservative, red and blue, the Goths in Gucci loafers and judges’ robes rule us. Arguments about tax rates, government size, foreign policy, domestic agendas are but flashy choreography on the steepening incline of of the Titanic’s ballroom floor. We will, in short order, see physician assisted suicide — if not active euthanasia — in every state; unrestricted fetal embryonic research and human cloning; all cultural and legal support for monogamous heterosexual marriage eliminated, as the foundational unit of civilized society quietly recedes into the oblivion of endless “lifestyle choices.” Expect all traces of Judeo-Christian influence to be be purged from public view and expression, as the relentless secular assault cements in the public mind the image of Christianity as hateful, bigoted, ignorant superstition. Health care professionals will be coerced to violate their consciences or forced from their profession if they refuse to do so; nor will other professions be spared from this purge. Tax exemption for churches and home schooling will likely come under assault, as society cleanses itself of all Christian influence in the name of tolerance and human rights. This process is nearly complete in the West, as evidenced by Canada’s ironically-named Human Rights Commission persecution of religious freedom and Britain \'s naked public square. It is nearing completion here as well.

The Church, once the strong beacon of light warning of dangerous shoals in a dark sea, now embraces the darkness in pursuit of “cultural relevance,” piling empty flattery on those who hate her, corrupting the doctrines for which saints and martyrs gave their lives. Her own universities, once an oasis for truth and reason, now issue meaningless honors to those who embrace and enlarge the culture of death, repudiating thousands of years of moral teachings in the name of “open-mindedness” and “diversity.”

“When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on the earth?”

It is, I suspect, this dismal litany of developments which constrains me, which makes it difficult to write, to make sense of the senseless and signal hope in hopelessness. To be a Jeremiah, in however small a measure, is an unenviable job. Not only must you look forward to the looming disaster awaiting a foolish and deceived culture; that alone would break the heart and pierce the spirit. Not merely must you encounter the hatred and ridicule of those thus warned, who will hear none of it. But more than this, the greater pain is that of mourning; grieving over the loss of what has been and what might have been; mourning lost opportunities to have spoken, or acted, or exhorted in some way, to have touched and changed another or steered but a few back on course. It is this grief which is so hard to process: the grief of a great and noble country crumbling and rotting from within; the grief of wealth unrivaled in history, squandered where moth and rust destroy; the grief for a church which slept with the harlot in hopes of bringing her to holiness. I find myself clinging, with knuckles blanched and fingers bleeding, to a fading dream which slips through the fingers like a mist wafting through an iron gate, drifting silently and relentlessly towards the unfathomable darkness.

It is time, it seems, to open the hands.

The walk of faith is said to be belief in the unbelievable, the fool’s way out of life’s challenges and disappointments, the easy path of cowards and naves. It is in truth none of these things, but rather the very hardest of things: submission. It is to bend the knee; to trust when sight is dim or absent; to rely on the benevolence and wisdom of One who knows all and reject the false knowledge we tenaciously trust in our self-will, fear, and deception. If there is a God — sovereign, transcendent, just, good in ways we cannot begin to fathom, and above all passionate in His love for us — then there is nothing to do but trust, to submit, to rest. It is the Cross — in all its horrors, irrationality, agony, foolishness — and victory.

This week the church celebrates Holy Week, commemorating and meditating on that moment in history when darkness seemed triumphant, when earthly hopes were dashed, when the irrational ruled and evil gloated. In that dark moment, the glorious hopes of man haughty and triumphant were forever dashed on the stones of Golgatha; the blood of a failed prophet sealed their fate forever. Such is as true now as then; it is a timeless certainty, eternal despite all appearances to the contrary.

And so I must — we must — open our hands, and bend our knees. It is a time for prayer, for humility, for fasting, for simplification. It is time for turning over the foolishness of man and the corruption of a culture to Him who alone knows the ways of man and the wanderings of nations. We must lift up the country, its leaders; the culture; the church. It is not ours to seize nor to save. We must stand in truth, suffering what consequences we may endure.

It is time once again to be a light.

Gnostic Fascism

Courtesy of the always-excellent blog What’s Wrong With The World, we read this gem about the philosophy and worldview of our current educational system:

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we — we…liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists — most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of “needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions. This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavior (that is, to get them to read Darwin and Freud without disgust and incredulity). It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.

What is the relation of this idea to the regulative idea of ‘reason’ which Putnam believes to be transcendent and which Habermas believes to be discoverable within the grammar of concepts ineliminable from our description of the making of assertions? The answer to that question depends upon how much the re-education of Nazis and fundamentalists has to do with merging interpretive horizons and how much with replacing such horizons. The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that the typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei [domination free] than that in the Hitler Youth camps.

These parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students….When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank.

Putnam and Habermas can rejoin that we teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The Racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people --black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children \'s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don \'t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents. It seems to me that I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.

Rarely do we get such a clear window into the thinking and motives of those who rule our educational institutions, to whom we have entrusted our children, that they may transform a society through their indoctrination into the secular, Utopian vision of their dreams. Richard Rorty, the late philosopher and postmodernist who died in 2007 (and simultaneously discovered the Truth he so long ridiculed and denied, much to his eternal detriment), epitomizes the mindset of our secular culture, which insinuates itself at every opportunity through our media, our institutions of “higher learning”, our popular culture and the entertainment industry.

This is the soul of our now-thoroughly post-Christian, postmodern culture.

This is the soul of our now-thoroughly post-Christian, postmodern culture.

Keep in mind that the “fundamentalists” whom Rorty sought to discredit, ridicule, and reeducate are not simply knuckle-dragging, illiterate, six-day-creationist bumpkins, the straw men they create to dismiss and destroy with presumptuous arrogance — but rather every Christian who believes in absolute truth, who places themself under the authority of Christ, the Church, and the Scriptures. Our enlightened masters have their secret knowledge — and the sworn duty — to coerce all “unbelievers” into discarding their “primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions.” This is Gnosticism with a fascist bent — the arrogance of superior knowledge, forcefully applied to all who resist.

This philosophy, now thoroughly inculcated in generations of students, and echoed incessantly in media, entertainment, the arts, and popular culture, have engendered a societal world view which can no longer be redeemed with reason, or persuasion, or by the religious engagement in the low compromise of “cultural relevancy.” The culture of materialism and the ideology of atheism have merged, and are now entrenched, dominant, and empowered. The church has fiddled as Rome burned — and now finds itself engulfed in the fiery holocaust it did little to avert. It is long past time for the church to stand proudly apart, to state the truth without fear or compromise, to serve as light and salt to a very dark and increasingly dangerous and toxic society. We will be hated for it — but we are already hated: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”

The challenge of the church today is to stand apart, to be the prophet, to be, if necessary, the martyr. It is time to abandon congregations and churches which have been compromised and co-opted by this corpse of a culture — let the dead bury their dead. It is time to call church leaders and pastors to account, and rebuke or even reject them if they refuse to stand for and teach the truth of the Gospel. It is time to train our children — after we ourselves have been trained — in the core beliefs of our faith, its historical veracity and integrity, in the defense of that which is true, and unchanging, and eternal. It is time to set aside the petty differences of denominationalism and sectarianism, join hands in submission to Christ, and recognize the true enemy we face. Your enemy is not the Baptist, or Catholic, or Pentecostal church down the street; however large your differences may seem. It is not the man who makes you uncomfortable by raising his hands in church; not the woman who loves the Mass and respects the saints; not the Biblical literalist nor the contemplative mystic who sees visions and dreams dreams. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Get to know them, discerning their spirits and the passion of their hearts. Learn to love them, learn from them, serve them, respect them. Pray, worship, and study together. The faith which you proclaim is broad and deep, rich in gifts and heritage, a spectacular jewel with countless facets reflecting the unlimited brilliance of a gracious God.

The night grows darker; it is well past time to fill your lamps with oil, and light them.

A Life Not Long

Last week, President Obama removed virtually all restrictions on fetal stem cell research, claiming a triumph of science over “ideology.” The hope, of course, is that science may find new ways to prolong and improve our lives, now that the shackles of moral restraint, humility, and ethics have been removed. It seemed fitting, therefore, to repost this older essay, pondering whether the “victories” which science now has in store for us will be indeed Pyrrhic.

 
sunset

A link from Glenn Reynolds hooked into something I’ve been ruminating on in recent days: the endless pursuit of longer life.

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering: is it an absolute good to be continually striving for a longer life span? Such a question may seem a bit odd coming from a physician, whose mission it is to restore and maintain health and prolong life. But the article which Glenn linked to, describing the striking changes in health and longevity of our present age, seemingly presents this achievement as an absolute good, and thereby left me a tad uneasy — perhaps because I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this unceasing pursuit of longer life.

Of course, long life and good health have always been considered blessings, as indeed they are. But long life in particular seems to have become a goal unto itself — and from where I stand is most decidedly a mixed blessing.

Many of the most difficult health problems with which we battle, which drain our resources struggling to overcome, are largely a function of our longer life spans. Pick a problem: cancer, heart disease, dementia, crippling arthritis, stroke — all of these increase significantly with age, and can result in profound physical and mental disability. In many cases, we are living longer, but doing so restricted by physical or mental limitations which make such a longer life burdensome both to ourselves and to others. Is it a positive good to live to age 90, spending the last 10 or more years with dementia, not knowing who you are nor recognizing your own friends or family? Is it a positive good to be kept alive by aggressive medical therapy for heart failure or emphysema, yet barely able to function physically? Is it worthwhile undergoing highly toxic chemotherapy or disfiguring surgery to cure cancer, thereby sparing a life then severely impaired by the treatment which saved that life?

These questions, in some way, cut to the very heart of what it means to be human. Is our humanity enriched simply by living longer? Does longer life automatically imply more happiness–or are we simply adding years of pain, disability, unhappiness, burden? The breathlessness with which authors often speak of greater longevity, or the cure or solution to these intractable health problems, seems to imply a naive optimism, both from the standpoint of likely outcomes, and from the assumption that a vastly longer life will be a vastly better life. Ignored in such rosy projections are key elements of the human condition — those of moral fiber and spiritual health, those of character and spirit. For we who live longer in such an idyllic world may not live better: we may indeed live far worse. Should we somehow master these illnesses which cripple us in our old age, and thereby live beyond our years, will we then encounter new, even more frightening illnesses and disabilities? And what of the spirit? Will a man who lives longer thereby have a longer opportunity to do good, or rather to do evil? Will longevity increase our wisdom, or augment our depravity? Will we, like Dorian Gray, awake to find our ageless beauty but a shell for our monstrous souls?

Such ruminations bring to mind a friend, a good man who died young. Matt was a physician, a tall, lanky lad with sharp bony features and deep, intense eyes. He was possessed of a brilliant mind, a superb physician, but left his mark on life not solely through medicine nor merely by intellect. A convert to Christianity as a young adult, Matt embraced his new faith with a passion and province rarely seen. His medical practice became a mission field. His flame burned so brightly it was uncomfortable to draw near: he was as likely to diagnose your festering spiritual condition as your daunting medical illness — and had no compunction about drilling to the core of what he perceived to be the root of the problem. Such men make you uneasy, for they sweep away the veneer of polite correction and diplomatic encouragement which we physicians are trained to deliver. Like some gifted surgeon of the soul, he cast sharp shadows rather than soft blurs, brandishing his brilliant insight on your now-naked condition. The polished conventions of medicine were never his strength — a characteristic which endeared him not at all to many in his profession. But his patients — those who could endure his honesty and strength of character — were passionate in their devotion to him, personally and professionally. For he was a man of extraordinary compassion and generosity, seeing countless patients at no charge, giving generously of his time and finances far beyond the modest means earned from his always-struggling practice.

The call I received from another friend, a general surgeon, requesting an assist at his surgery, was an unsettling one: Matt had developed a growth in his left adrenal gland. His surgery went deftly, with much confidence that the lesion had been fully excised. The pathology proved otherwise: Matt had an extremely rare, highly aggressive form of adrenal cancer. Fewer than 100 cases had been reported worldwide, and there was no known successful treatment. Nevertheless, as much for his wife and two boys as for himself, he underwent highly toxic chemotherapy, which sapped his strength and left him enfeebled. In spite of this, the tumor grew rapidly, causing extreme pain and rapid deterioration, bulging like some loathsome demon seeking to burst forth from his frail body. I saw him regularly, although in retrospect not nearly often enough, and never heard him complain; his waning energies were spent with his family, and he never lost the intense flame of faith. Indeed, as his weakened body increasingly became no more than life support for his cancer, wasting him physically and leaving him pale and sallow, there grew in him a spirit so remarkable that one was drawn to him despite the natural repulsion of watching death’s demonic march.

Matt died at age 38, alert and joyful to the end. His funeral was a most remarkable event: at an age in life where most would be happy to have sufficient friends to bear one’s casket, his funeral service at a large church was filled to overflowing — thousands of friends, patients, and professional peers paying their respects in a ceremony far more celebration than mourning. There was an open time for testimony — and such a time it was, as one after another took to the lectern to speak through tears of how Matt had touched their lives; of services rendered, small and large, unknown before that day; of funny anecdotes and sad remembrances which left not one soul of that large crowd untouched or unmoved.

A journey such as his casts critical light on our mindless pursuit of life lived only to live long. In Matt’s short life he brought more good into the world, touched more people, changed more lives, than I could ever hope to do were I to live a century more. It boils down to purpose: mere years are no substitute for a life lived with passion, striving for some goal greater than self, with transcendent purpose multiplying and compounding each waking moment. This is a life well-lived, whether long or short, whether weakened or well.

Like all, I trust, I hope to live life long, and seek a journey lived in good health and sound mind. But even more — far more indeed — do I desire that those days yet remaining — be they long or short — be rich in purpose, wise in time spent, and graced by love.

The Phoenix Gift

It was time.

The bare bulb threw sharp shadows, angular in their diminished brilliance, leaving remote closet corners barely illuminated. Casting about the cluttered closet — that mortuary of materialism where much that was once precious now lies entombed in dust and disuse — a glimpse of a black vinyl case peaked through the litter: this was it. Clambering over the clutter, I grasped the handle, and stumbled across the junk to lift it free.

It seemed so very heavy, perhaps less from its mass than from the burden of its past, and the history which it bore. It had been many, many years since I had shouldered that weight.

Flipping its latches and opening the lid, a fleeting sense of emptiness filled me, in that dark, ill-lit corner of the soul where unfathomable loss resides, long since grieved, rationalized, and set aside amongst the litter of life’s unmet expectations, disappointments, and futile hopes, in that process we euphemistically call “moving on.”

The passion had been real, and intense, if short-lived. From the infancy of struggle to master simple chords and rhythmic strumming; to the adolescent incoherence of lessons teaching orchestral chord comping and chordal melodies in an age of Hendrix and Cream; to the maturity of a group of bizarrely eclectic musicians hammering together rock rhythms and jazz harmonies into something akin to fusion jazz, well before anyone quite knew what to call such a musical chimera: throughout this musical coming of age I had discovered something which, for the first time in those younger days, expressed the depths of a soul at once both lonely and frightened, yet hopeful and excited. Hours were spent in practice; days in arranging pieces I had written in the still-unfamiliar language of musical notation; years in coming to a place where I felt comfortable creating and performing something uniquely of my own spirit with and before others.

As that dusty case swung opened, the guitar now in full view, I experienced as well, for a brief instant, another moment in time: The cockiness of overconfidence unwarranted by experience or training. The intoxicating smell of hardwood carved by blindingly fast blades. The gunshot sound of mahogany hurtled across a room to land splintered on hard concrete. The first stunned look at a hand mangled beyond recognition. The shouts and chaos of a wood shop where something catastrophic had just occurred. The utter despondency of seeing a musical gift, once soaring and graceful, now fallen in the ashes of a smoldering and dying dream. The other-worldly moment where I mysteriously felt moved to thank God for what had just happened — and the stunning inner peace that followed immediately thereupon. The long, painful recovery filled with false hope that I could use my left hand to play again. The brief and fruitless attempt to play with my opposite hand a decade later, soon abandoned in frustration as I came to terms with a loss which was not to be regained, mourned alone in dark rooms with inconsolable, sobbing tears.

It was time to sell this guitar, and another, and move on.

I gently picked up the instrument, its strings dull and lifeless, its frets oxidized and rough, its neck slightly bowed by years of constant pull from strings left tuned to pitch. I sat, and began, gently, to strum, a little.

And a small smoldering ember deep within briefly flickered into flame.

It would need to be cleaned up to sell. New strings, a gentle polishing of frets with fine steel wool, some tender cleaning and polishing of wood dulled by dust and grime, and it found new life again. The guitar, a low-end left-handed Stratocaster built in Japan in the 80’s, would not bring much on eBay. The action was too high, the bridge and tuners low-quality, but the active pickups I had installed shortly after it was purchased had superb sound — and made it seem worth saving. Perhaps I should keep it, upgrade some components, and sell it then — or even give this silly idea of playing one more chance. After all, you never know…

Two months later, a new guitar emerged, with high-quality hardware, a new neck, and far enhanced playability. The project was a sheer joy, as I mastered new skills at guitar repair and setup. The time spent waiting had not been wasted, as I set about laboriously mastering the basic skills necessary to play again.

It was far more labor than play.

Most guitar players play “right-handed” — which paradoxically means they use their left hand to finger the notes to play on the fretted neck, while their right hand plucks the strings directly or with a flat pick. Switching to “left-handed” meant the right hand handled the fretting duty — made somewhat easier by being the stronger, dominant hand — but now meant the weaker left hand, with much reduced finger flexibility and strength from the injury, had to handle picking the strings. Even holding a pick was exasperating at first, as it shifted position constantly or dropped out of my fingers altogether, leading to endless frustration. The pick hand must also move nimbly across the strings, coordinating the string plucked with those fretted by the right. The lack of left-right coordination was maddening, as striking the wrong string, or multiple dissonant strings — compounded by the challenges of controlling the pick — made for painful and fumbling attempts to play even the simplest melody line or chord progression.

Then there was the mind-muscle disconnect: the mind had a pretty good (albeit rather rusty) idea of what to play, from my previous musical training and experience — but the muscles controlling the fingers had an entirely different idea, and balked at positioning themselves to manage even simple chords and scales. One day would bring apparent progress; the next would leave me with little doubt that this whole effort was foolishness and futile, a waste of time better spent on more productive pursuits.

But yet I persisted, driven in no small part by the reawakened passion to play — and the determination and persistence that time and maturity have taught me are the only way to accomplish any goal which is worthwhile. I have just begun taking lessons, putting aside the all-too-easy presumption that I can magically acquire skills without the guidance of others and the disciplined paths they prescribe.

And I am making progress which is both encouraging and measurable. I have not as yet reached a level by any means where I am competent, much less accomplished — but I have reached a place from where such an accomplishment is no longer a hopeless fantasy, but a realizable and foreseeable future.

And I can now see, through eyes of faith, a day where my spirit may once again soar on the winds of song and the harmonies of the heart. To die, and be born again; to be immolated, and rise from life’s ashes; these are the mysteries and the wonders of the ever-unfolding journey of faith.

There can be little doubt that there will be much music in heaven — soaring, glorious, beautiful beyond words. And I now know that I shall be there, adding in some small measure to that infinite and glorious song of eternity.