Last week I wrote an article critical of capitalism in part because the Pope had also released a document critical of capitalism. (His was better.) This week I am unsurprised and somewhat glad to find that a number of conservative political commentators have come out against the Pope’s statements (and have mangled them in a familiarly short-sighted way). I say I am unsurprised because as I said in the last article capitalism is religion for some people. I am glad because any situation in which someone whose first religion is capitalism has to say, “And yes, this puts me at opposition with the Pope,” is a situation in which the truth becomes clearer. This is especially valuable when the capitalist at hand also holds on to a large Christian audience through professions of Christian faith.
However, one of the other unsurprising things about these critiques is that they get the facts wrong. Many of these commentators said that the Pope favored government control of the economy. Oddly enough, the Pope never made any policy suggestions. He simply claimed that the current course of unfettered capitalism was not going to get us to a morally-acceptable place. One of the more common mental traps is the false dichotomy – the belief that there are only two options when there are more. Politics (in the United States at least) steers one towards false dichotomies: there’s our way and the bad way. It is completely unsurprising to see that people who live in the mentally-poisonous atmosphere of politics can fail to notice that when the Pope criticized capitalism he did not endorse communism. To realize this requires being able to separate the Pope’s advice on a personal moral level from policy decisions. A failure to manage this ends in theocracy.
I will circle back around to theocracy in a bit but let’s first talk about communism. Let’s reduce it to an economic system alone – ignore what Marx had to say about religion and culture, throw the tendency for communism to come about through unelected governments out the window, let’s just talk communism as an economic system. As I said last time the critique to level against communism is simple: it doesn’t work. Communist countries fix their economies by becoming less communist. The simple fact is that if people are not going to be paid any differently based on job performance they won’t perform1.
Now imagine a mostly-Christianized world. This requires far too much restructuring of everything that we know to think easily about all the ramifications of this but imagine a world in which most people are not just Christian but take it seriously. What happens if someone is poor? Well, obviously they are taken care of. People with resources donate to those who lack them. If this happened at the hands of a government we’d refer to this as wealth redistribution. If a committee of the proletariat came together and decided who got what instead of church members we’d call this pure Marxism2.
The odd fact is that the reason Marx’s ideas don’t work is that not enough people live good Christian lives. In a suitably-Christianized world Marx would never have proposed a governmental system to redistribute wealth because religious charity would already do that.
This brings us back to that issue of theocracy. To the theocratic mind if something is a moral idea the government should do it. If a suitably Christian society would redistribute wealth through the private virtue of Christians then the government should force this behavior. To this sort of mind there is no difference between saying, “It is immoral to do X,” and banning X. This would not work well for capitalism since capitalism runs on one of the more prominent sins, greed. There are two issues with theocratic minds (besides their essential incorrectness): the first is that theocratic minds breed theocracies that, like communism, don’t work. The second is that theocratic minds can run backwards.
Take capitalism again. It’s fairly obvious that capitalism runs on sin. It could run on something like the moral virtue of trying to improve people’s lives but what it actually runs on is selling people trinkets by convincing them that trinkets will make them happy. A lot of this greed is sparked by advertising that hooks people using other baseline sins: lust, pride, and sloth are big these days. For a theocratic mind endorsing capitalism this is a problem since government policy should perfectly align with what is morally right. The government should not compromise and create working systems that are more damaging than certain unworkable systems would be if they worked. Now the theocratic mind can run backwards. If capitalism the correct policy then greed, and lust, sloth, pride, envy, and anything else needed to grease its wheels must be morally acceptable. To a non-theocratic mind this sort of reasoning is obviously nonsense. I don’t believe people should go around getting drunk but I don’t want to see a law against it. I can see that it would be worse to have a law against the bad behavior than have the bad behavior and some laws to limit its consequences. I can see that capitalism is a compromise between perfect care for God’s children and something that works and say, “Ok, that’s the way it needs to be,” and use tools like charity to try to bridge the gap3. However, the theocratic mind likes a flat world and so we can’t have one set of rules about personal behavior and another for legal behavior.
Ayn Rand is a very good example of this. Ayn Rand took a stance about economics and worked it backwards. If it is bad for the government to give charitably then it is bad for everyone to give charitably. If the best economy comes about by the clash of great economic powers and the victory of economic strength over economic weakness then it is also wrong to interfere in that clash on the small-scale. While I think Rand is wrong in a very scary sort of way I have to admire her philosophical consistency4. Many of her followers try to have it both ways and end up believing impossible combinations of things.
Part of this is again the issue with making economics religion. If your religion is capitalism (or libertarianism – most devout capitalists favor this term these days) then you really can’t separate economic policy from moral good. You have to be an economic theocrat at the very least because your theology is economic. Jesus may get the rest of your life (or may not – serving two masters is notoriously difficult) but he just gets his name rubber-stamped on your economics whether he wants it there or not.
The real problem is poor-quality thinking. Economics can be a religion. Is there any reason why not? Why should personal moral rules (which are frequently aimed at one’s internal state) be the outer rules for governments (which try to avoid dealing with your internal state)? When do these categories need to run together? Where do we make compromises between what works and what doesn’t but would be better if it did? I generally think we shouldn’t make those compromises at all in our personal lives (or, if we make them, we should drive a very hard bargain in favor of the unworkable) but does that hold when we discuss the policies of nations? If none of these questions are asked then room is left for answers that make sense only because the questions weren’t very good.
Theocratic minds are flat minds without dimension. Most bad thought is like that. The real world is extremely complex. Real moral decisions often reflect that complexity. Real solutions to real problems must take that complexity into account. Economics is no exception and it’s a pity that our economic conversations are so frequently dominated by simplistic extremes.
 Except in close-knit communities. There are plenty of groups that have communal property and chores that get them accomplished because everyone knows when you broke something or slacked off an applies social pressure to make you stop. This doesn’t work in a group where the person who needs to use the widget you broke doesn’t know who you are.
 Assuming we’ve read Marx and don’t just use “Marxism” to mean “whatever I think the Soviets did”.
 This is where Christian experts come in. I’m not an economist and so I don’t know how the system could be tweaked to be workable and still give better outcomes. Someone does though and so we need their expertise steered by Christian goals. This is how to be a Christian in one’s profession – do what you do well and do it with Christian aims in mind.
 What is good about Rand – her unwillingness to back down from scary conclusions – is also what is bad about her. Most people would be (and are) restrained from Rand’s moral conclusions by their horror. In some cases horror is a way to scare people away from the truth. In this case it’s a way to keep people from being horrible.
Two events have happened recently that ask some interesting questions about how Christians should think about economic systems. One is the Pope’s encyclical critiquing the economic systems of the developed world. The other is Black Friday and the start of a shopping season that is nominally part of celebrating Christmas but which has probably eaten Christmas alive and screaming. Despite the fact that it is at least occasionally clear that the invisible hand of the market is pushing back at Christianity most Christians in America seem to equate Christianity and capitalism. Of course, this is probably because communism tends to be openly anti-religious but it’s not entirely clear that this makes capitalism pro-religious. In fact, I tend to think that capitalism’s stance on religion is more like that of the less-aggressive communists: religion will die on the vine if it is left alone and people are given something better.
In reality this article is an extension of my previous thoughts on equality and so I am going to focus most of my energy on this point. However, I will briefly mention some of my non-equality concerns with capitalism first.
Why critique capitalism and not communism? The answer is twofold but fairly simple. First, I don’t know many Christians who like communism but I know a lot who think capitalism is very Christian. There are even politicians running libertarianism and Christianity together in a manner I believe shows a serious lack of understanding of both. Second, the major critique against communism is simple: it doesn’t work. We could spend a lot of time criticizing communism at the finer points but let’s be real: communist nations drive their economic growth by jettisoning parts of communism. There’s room to discuss things like European-style socialism but if we are restricting ourselves to the extremes1 capitalism is the system attractive enough to have to sound warning notes about.
The first of my concerns about capitalism is a fairly straightforward one: it can become a religion. I know people who are Christians and ardent free-market capitalists who wouldn’t dream of talking your ear off about Christianity if you weren’t interested but would evangelize for the free-market without mercy2. I know people who would violently twist aside from any command of Jesus’ that looked to infringe upon the freedom of the markets. Direct religious competition can exist between Christianity and capitalism.
The second of my concerns is that capitalism is all about growth and that frequently means selling people things they don’t need by first convincing them that they need these things. Instead of teaching people to rely on Christ and to engage in character-transformation the market teaches people to buy stuff to be happy. This is an anti-Christian message. It may also not be necessary for capitalism but its efficacy in aiding a company would make it at the very least a constantly-recurring threat.
The third of my concerns is where I want to spend the most time. Capitalism makes an appeal to fairness. In fact, both capitalism and communism call on equality in different ways. Communism calls directly on equality – everyone should have equal access to stuff or perhaps equal amounts of stuff. Capitalism calls on equality through fairness which is another way of claiming that units of work should be equal. If I do three times as much work as Bob I should have three times the benefit. Of course there are issues this this since “three times the work” involves scaling comparisons between different types of work and these scales may be unfair but the basic idea is one of equality – it’s not actually equal to give the same pay for unequal work. (Now, there’s a parable about this exact thing and it’s well worth asking whether Jesus is interested in this form of equality at all but I am going to ignore that question for now. It would be a whole article or two to tackle in even a simple fashion.)
The issue is that capitalism assumes an unreal society. In capitalism we assume that all people are equal and effectively interchangeable. If Joe works harder than Bob employer Terence can fire Bob and hire Joe to increase productivity. Of course we acknowledge that if Bob is a welder and Joe is a programmer this might not work but the general idea is there – Joe could have chosen to be a welder back when he got career training and he didn’t. There was a point when we could have switched Joe for Bob. This is where the fairness of capitalism comes in: if you want more just work harder or smarter and you’ll get more. If this is not possible for someone then capitalism is unfair. For instance, not all that long ago there were a lot of jobs that were effectively closed to African-Americans. No matter how hard an African-American might work they couldn’t occupy some of the highest-earning jobs in the country and so the system was unfair. More work didn’t translate to more benefit past a certain point.
The real world is full of people who can’t do things. Some people can’t walk because of injuries. Some people can’t take care of themselves because of conditions they were born with. Some people will never think of the next great idea because they were raised (by other people of course, no one is self-raising) in such a way that their mental faculties never got much exercise and now they are stuck being rather dim-witted. Is it actually fair to pit these people against more-advantaged people?
There are also a lot of people who could achieve more but have been trained not to. I deal with this frequently when I deal with students from bad high schools. For instance, I am aware of a story about a student who passed in his older sister’s A paper for a particular class because he suspected that the teacher favored women. The teacher did not notice that the paper was a repeat from a previous year but did give the student a D. If this sort of thing happens often enough a student learns that hard work is meaningless, that the key to success is to be born as the right sort of person. Small inequalities can breed larger ones. If the first inequality teaches someone that there is no fairness they may be mentally ill-equipped to take advantage of fairness when it appears. People for whom the system has worked tend to assume that everyone knows that the system works and behave accordingly but those who have found that the system doesn’t work frequently behave as if it doesn’t.
Finally, capitalism is a game of averages. If you work hard and think carefully about your decisions will you succeed in capitalism? No. On average you will but we can’t guarantee that you personally will. Perhaps when you went to college a particular field was growing strongly and looked to be a good long-term prospect but developments in technology that nobody had really predicted suddenly made the whole field obsolete3. The average person who worked hard and thought about their career path will still do better than the average lazy person who spends no time thinking about their career but that won’t help the individuals who end up on the wrong side of the averages. When markets readjust they bleed people. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency amongst free-market proponents to treat the markets are primary and the people as secondary. If the markets shake off a particular problem it doesn’t matter that a lot of people lost livelihoods and were replaced by people from a different market sector doing something else, it just matters that the markets had a bit of a problem but then another sector took up the slack. This is hardly a Christian view. (As is probably obvious a lot of this is implicit messaging. Nobody ever says, “The stock market matters and individuals don’t,” they just act in ways that don’t make sense unless this is really what they believe. The article The Power of the Implicit actually began as an introduction to this article.)
This remains a fairly cursory sketch of the problems capitalism has with equality. However, the biggest problem is the assumption of equality. If we assume that all players in the game start off equal then their fates are the result of gameplay and chance. If we assume that chance is negligible because we focus on the average person (for whom good and bad luck average out) then a player’s fate is entirely decided by gameplay. In the real world though people do not start out equal and their fates may be strongly influenced by random events. I feel strongly that it is not a Christian idea of fairness to ignore this and unfortunately capitalism’s claim to moral virtue is that it is fair.
 The modern extremes, that is. At one point capitalism was pitted against mercantilism and the modern antithesis of capitalism and communism has flattened our economic thinking in unhelpful ways but that’s a whole different train of thought.
 Communism’s anti-religious stance probably comes about because communism really is a religion – a centrally defining core of beliefs – and simply makes explicit the competition that exists between religions for followers. Capitalism lacked Marx to make the philosophical comparison between economic and religious philosophy and so the battle for followers is much more covert.
 This might end up happening to a lot of people this century.
In my last article I described why it is that I feel it is simultaneously important to read Scripture carefully and thoroughly and also to believe that we don’t know very much at all and, as long as we remain mortal, never will. I am quite happy with my explanation in that article but I also feel like the complexity of mysticism deserves better explanation. In fact, the term “mysticism” is inherently problematic since all it does is lump anything that is basically about mystery together and not all mysteries are of the same sort.
There are at least three major types of mysteries in the world. The first is the type that lends its name to a book genre, the mystery that will eventually be solved with more information. Who stole the famous gem? Is there life on other planets? Is the person I’m interested in interested in me too? The answers to all of these are quite comprehensible but currently unknown.
The other two types of mysteries will never be less mysterious. The second type is something that is mysterious because it works in a way that defies human logic. We have a lot of expectations about how the world is supposed to work but there is no guarantee that everything that exists must follow these rules. A lot of really mind-bending philosophies and religions1 start out by assuming that the true nature of reality works on some other system that does not resemble human logic and is therefore fundamentally incomprehensible.
The third sort of mystery is a bit tamer than the second sort. It is the sort of thing one could understand if one had a much bigger mind. One can understand the details but one can never grasp the whole picture. In fact, this is a lot like a computer program in many ways. I can read a piece of code and determine that a particular function takes two coordinates and determines the distance between them. I can see that this function is used by another function that finds an object that fits into one category and determines how many objects of a second category are within a certain distance of it. I could track this sort of thing out function by function but to actually imagine what will happen when one hundred functions are running at the same time in a complicated simulation is more than I can handle. I can, at best, track a single small fragment of simulation through to the end.
The third category is where I belief that Christian mysticism lies. The first type of mystery is not mysterious enough – it assumes that humans are missing details and little else. The second type assumes that humans are missing everything but God does communicate with us and so His mode of action cannot be completely alien to us. The third type of mystery assumes that God made us in His image and so He is comprehensible to us in one sense but that He is also much better than us in all ways and so He remains incomprehensible to us in a practical sense.
My general sense of Christian mystery is this: a complex problem that you could work out if you spent a week on it multiplied by a thousand and everything shown to you for half a second. The picture in my head is one of your mind as a bird in an aviary learning where everything is. It’s a huge aviary and everything is changing all the time and things grow. Just about the time you’ve figured out the cycle for the lianas hanging off the ridgepole and where all the water in the little creeks actually goes the whole roof pulls back and you see that you’ve been mapping a few square miles of cage in a world and that there are world upon worlds stretching out to the edges of space to map and you’re not even sure how you’ll get to any other world but the one your cage is on.
Some people hate this. Some people genuinely resent the world for making them learn. There are people who on some level feel that it is unfair that one must learn physics to send a rocket to the Moon. Some people, like myself, love solving problems. The idea that there are so many questions to answer that you would never run out is exhilarating. Perhaps, of course, the way I see the mysteries of God is tinged by this. However, this idea of vastness emphasizes what I said last time: even though God is ultimately beyond human understanding the little stuff matters. If you wanted to understand how the heart-beat of one great whale changes the current patterns off of New Zealand you can’t make rounding errors in your calculations. If you want to understand the vastness of God’s world you can’t be sloppy with the basics.
One of the perennial problems I face talking to anyone about my faith is that I hold what are generally thought to be two opposites very dear: a critical, thoughtful reading of Scripture and mysticism. There are some bad reasons these are considered to be opposites (including the fact that any idiot who mutters nonsense can call themselves a mystic and not get called out for it) but there are also some very good reasons that these seem to be opposites. One of the most compelling reasons is that careful reading is based on establishing what we do know whereas mysticism is more interested in establishing that whatever we know it isn’t much. It is hard to say, “Even these small details matter,” and also, “No one really knows much of anything.” However, I find myself doing both quite a lot.
One of the reasons I do this is because I am a scientist. There’s an idea out there that science is about having grand ideas that explain parts of nature. That’s not actually true – science is about testing those ideas and throwing them out when they don’t work1. All sorts of people have grand unifying ideas and science recognizes scientists for truly great grand unifying ideas but what separates science from other methods of inquiry is testing. This means that sometimes in my religious life I find that two things are true and cannot explain how this can be. Instead of insisting that my grand theory must be correct I take the evidence (that both things are true) and ask how to string together a theory that does not reject one of the two truths. What follows is my best attempt at such a theory to explain why one should read the Bible very carefully and thoughtfully, why it matters when people read it loosely and sloppily2, and yet no one really knows much of anything about God because Who He is fundamentally beyond human comprehension3.
Imagine teaching a hamster calculus. It won’t work. Even the brightest hamster will never learn calculus. There are basic mental prerequisites (including the ability to handle the language necessary to describe calculus) that a hamster lacks. However, since you have imagined yourself to be sufficiently motivated you will start on this task anyway. The first part of the larger (impossible) task is to get a hamster to comprehend numbers and attach these numbers to their symbolic representations. This is probably doable for smaller numbers. I doubt that hamsters can understand the number 20,000 but they can probably manage the number 2 just fine4.
This may be where the teaching ends. The hamsters will spend the rest of their short lives working on larger numbers with maybe the very bright ones working on simple addition and subtraction5. At this point the mystic can step in and make his or her point: the hamsters will never get close enough to calculus to so much as smell it. They will never touch their paw to algebra, trigonometry, or even long division. When you draw an integral symbol on the board, a very bright hamster will assume that you meant to write 2 but got it backwards and sort of flattened out.
However, the careful reader can also make a point here. Numbers are fundamental to calculus. If a hamster throws in the towel and gives up on that important distinction between the flavor of “many” known as 5 and the flavor of “many” known as 6, then calculus will actually retreat further out of view. The fact that numbers are not calculus or even close to calculus, does not mean that we can play fast and loose with numbers because they don’t matter. If some other trainer came in and trained one of these numerically-adept hamsters that 2 is really the same as 8 then you would not shrug and say, “Sure, in the grand scheme of things these differences are minor,” you’d be very irritated. Just because understanding that 2 is not 8 will not vault you to calculus (or even calculus’s nearer neighbors) does not mean that regarding 2 and 8 as the same is not a major problem.
The union of the mystic and the careful reader comes here: careful reading of the Bible is not going to bring all mysteries and all knowledge bursting in on one’s hermetically-sealed mental world6. However, it will allow one to lay the groundwork for the larger structure. If the groundwork is laid wrong everything else will be wrong too. This is where the bad mystic gets it all wrong – foundations don’t matter because we think they are houses and haven’t yet realized that there’s more to a house than that; foundations matter because houses sit on them. You can’t say, “Yes, but that’s not the whole thing or even much of it,” and then ignore it. If the mystic strives to see the workings of a machine too complex to fathom it is exactly the wrong attitude to say that it doesn’t matter what an individual gear looks like. Instead because the machine is so complex there are more things resting on the shape of each gear than there would be if the machine were simple.
To understand the big picture one must also understand the small. You will never understand a forest if you spend your whole life studying one tree but it is equally true that if you think trees are a sort of small elephant that forestry will never make much sense. It is simultaneously necessary to have a large view that places the smaller objects correctly and an understanding of what those small objects are. A view that gets fuzzy at either end of the spectrum is in some ways fuzzy at both ends since both ends inform each other. To know that true reality is unknowable without knowing anything else is just giving up. To be unaware that there is more to know is just sad.
 The opposite of science is politics, having an idea and throwing out reality when the idea doesn’t work.
 I actually won’t go into as much detail here as I could but the evidence is everywhere. When people read the Bible funny they do things that are bad to other people – endorse slavery, start crusades, start heartless churches and stare blankly at you when you try to explain why a church that can’t send anyone to talk to the mother who has just lost a child has gone around an important bend without so much as shuddering when it plowed through the safety rails.
 Not fundamentally incomprehensible, which would mean that He works in ways that are completely alien to us. He is fundamentally beyond us – the small fragments of His methods make sense to us (we understand dimly justice and love and truth and so on) but we are incapable of hooking all the pieces together without our brains exploding. (Which they generally don’t. Instead they just drop pieces of the puzzle in reflexive self-protection.)
 Most humans don’t really understand very large numbers either except by understanding how much work it would be to whittle them down to numbers small enough to understand.
 I may be short-changing hamsters here. Mathematical ability seems to be wider-spread in the animal kingdom than one would guess from the average freshman math class.
 And if it did people would ban the Bible in self-protection.
Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the best-known Western medieval theologian, writes at some length about the problem of the origin of evil. Was evil created? If it was created was it created by God (problematic) or by someone else outside of God’s control (problematic for other reasons)? Aquinas concludes that evil isn’t a thing but an absence of a thing. Good is a thing, evil is its absence.
In John 5 Jesus makes this point in a somewhat more concrete way. In the first part of this chapter Jesus heals a man who has spent thirty-eight years waiting to be healed. Apparently the process is pretty simple – get in the pool that the man has been positioned near for all this time whenever the waters stir. The issue is that the man needs help to do this but no one has ever helped him. (Whether or not this is effective is of little consequence. The man does not say that the waters didn’t heal him but that no one has ever helped him in.) Jesus sees the man, heals him, and sends him on his way carrying his mat. Some Jewish leaders stop the man and ask him why he is violating the Sabbath law by carrying his mat. This is the point where we can stop.
One of the more critical things that is normally not done in Bible reading is to think carefully about circumstances and motives. It’s easy to see everyone as a special class of motiveless “Bible people” who appear where they are needed and do things for no reason other than advancing a narrative1. In this case the whole situation deserves a bit more attention. This man has been in roughly the same place for thirty-eight years. Any other long-timers in the area probably know him. They know of his condition and they know what cure he is attempting. In the case of some of these long-timers they are also zealous followers of Torah. On the Sabbath they don’t sit in quiet contemplation but scan the streets through their open doorways looking for the unfaithful who break the Sabbath. On some Sabbaths they get up and walk the allowed distance to the Temple apparently on the look-out for miscreants who risk bringing the wrath of God on Israel through Sabbath-breaking the whole way. For almost forty years some of these religious zealots have walked past a man who needs help in the form of a friendly push, stuck their hands on their hips, glared around, and said, “Hmph, no Torah-breaking here,” and kept going.
These people are desperately wrong. By the end of chapter 5 Jesus will explain that Moses himself accuses these people. They are the Torah-breakers, the willfully-ignorant and lawless. Against that backdrop it’s not hard to see the problem. These men never notice the one who suffers and needs their aid until he no longer needs their aid but, now able-bodied and walking, carries a mat on the Sabbath.
Good is a thing. Evil, for these Torah-zealots, is a thing. It is a willful act of disobedience – a carried mat, a plucked head of grain, an unclean animal. Good is the absence of evil much as dirt is a thing but cleanness is only the absence of dirt. When these people walk out and survey a sea of human misery, the sick and the lame crowded around a pool, they don’t see evil. Instead, they look for willful acts of disobedience and, not seeing any, keep going. Jesus, faced with the same scene, sees a disruption in the pattern of God’s world. He sees evil in the absence of good and does good. Good is the thing, evil merely its absence.
It is always easiest to believe that evil is a thing. Getting rid of a thing is a much easier task than populating the world with things. It is easier to fight a thing than a non-thing, easier to raise troops to combat a clear, defined goal than to raise a great standing army that will forever patrol for the surfacing of a new threat. Wars are terrible but in some odd way they are easier than police work. Once WWII ends you are done – there is no enemy left. When you arrest one criminal another is ready to take his place. Wars are episodic. Police work is forever. It is easiest to believe that evil is a thing to lay siege against and not a creeping absence that appears in every undusted corner of the world.
Good is a thing. Good isn’t done by avoiding evil but by doing good. When good is not done evil advances. In some sense this is terribly scary because evil can crop up wherever one forgets to do good. In another sense this is greatly empowering – holding back the dark is impossible but lighting a light is not.
In some worlds this is called “application”. (This paragraph, I admit, flies off in its own new direction as if it wants to be its own essay but finds its growth constrained by my willingness to type.) It is held to be a great virtue to find applications in Scripture such as “concentrate on doing good and not on making evil go away”. Whole schools of thought mine for application in Scripture often with a certain resemblance to the newer methods of mountain-top removal. But here we begin with a thread of philosophy (the least practical thing that ties the universe together), delve through ancient culture, consider the motives and actions of those long dead, see the world anew, and act. Seeing is applying. Good is a thing. Do it.
 This is an especially common belief amongst people who do not believe in narratives, something that itself comments on the act of reading in an interesting way.
As long time readers of this blog are aware I am very interested in implicit ideas (three examples here). There are several reasons for this. First, everyone recognizes and discusses explicit claims and so those get rather boring after a while. Second, the power of implicit claims is different than that of explicit claims but perhaps stronger in some critical ways. Thirdly, if one were ever to write an autopsy of Western Christianity I’m pretty sure the cause of death would be the almost wholesale adoption of non-Christian implicit stances and a failure of the Church in the West to articulate a counter-narrative of human value and existence. Indeed, this is so important to me that it is the largest reason for my gradual swing towards more philosophical (as opposed to exegetical) articles: while many people write good exegetical articles I fear that what may doom Christians most surely is the philosophical boxes that we live in which have been carefully constructed by a post-Enlightenment society to prevent the infinite from ever opening upon us. Without a strongly Christian sense how the landscape of evidence and logic is composed Christians are running in a race against a secular world with their feet tied together with a short rope. All of this adds up to a strong interest in implicit claims.
The problem with implicit claims is that they seem weak. The power of implicit claims is that they seem weak and so are ignored while actually being strong. However, the power of implicit claims is not like the power of explicit claims. Explicit claims have one strong advantage over explicit claims: because they are explicit one is able (and often expected) to lay all one’s evidence on the table when one makes the claim. If someone says, “Life is a zero-sum game – if we do good to one person it inevitably involves harming another person,” you expect them to follow up with some evidence of this. When one makes the same claim implicitly (e.g., responding to a suggestion to help one group of people by saying, “But who is that going to short-change?”) it is much harder to present the evidence. Indeed, doing so would tend to make the claim explicit.
However, the weakness of explicit claims is that they are almost always accepted or rejected on the spot. A speaker says, “Life is a zero-sum game – if we do good to one person it inevitably involves harming another person,” and by the time the conversation is over most of the audience has either agreed with the speaker or has a long list of reasons why the speaker is wrong. Only a small minority will be undecided and will continue to let the idea exist as a possibility that they occasionally turn to. Implicit ideas in contrast almost always exist within someone’s consciousness for extended periods of time. Because they are not explicit ideas they are rarely clearly accepted or rejected. Instead, they ride in to someone’s mental working space as part of a larger package and then exist in that space as unknown visitors for an extended time, slowly reshaping the way the person thinks.
Take the example idea that all life is zero-sum. If this idea is put forward explicitly it may sound too harsh – does the speaker mean to say that all choices are only who to harm with no option to simply do good? This might cause the idea to be rejected and since it has been identified and rejected the person who rejects the idea will begin to form mental defenses against that idea. Indeed, one consistent problem with explicit ideas is that many people already know what they think about most of the ideas that are explicitly offered in their culture and engage in no thought whatsoever when asked to accept or reject a particular idea. However, if the same person who would reject the explicit idea that life is zero-sum is constantly asked who will be harmed by plans to help others and is presented evidence (however flimsy) that someone is harmed by every one of these decisions they will eventually connect the dots themselves and teach themselves that life is zero-sum. Now, if the evidence is truly atrocious this may not happen because being constantly presented with ridiculously bad evidence can cause someone to label a particular idea as the province of crazy people but in a lot of cases some sort of evidence can be found for most ideas if one looks for it and forgets to look for counterbalancing evidence on the other side.
C.S. Lewis said (I can’t remember exactly where) that if someone wanted to convince a Christian to stop being Christian they would be better off placing that Christian in an environment where everyone regarded Christianity as rather silly rather than engaging that Christian in a direct confrontation about their beliefs. This is the power of implicit ideas. If you live in a society where “everyone knows” that Christianity is silly you are constantly being presented with that idea without being asked to make a defense against it. Over time this can wear you down – you keep hearing the idea, you never reject it, and eventually it becomes very easy to accept.
There are several places where the power of implicit ideas seems to be most obvious. One of these is college campuses. Most Christians are aware that large numbers of Christians in high school will not be Christians by the time they leave college. This is often assumed to be the product of direct (explicit) challenges to their faith. My own continued close contact with college culture suggests that there are actually two things happening (neither one of which involves much direct challenge). The first is simply that young adults tend to become rather self-absorbed and there is always a general trend for people to drift away from church and then maybe drift back when they have their own families. The second is that we send people off to college with a high school faith and no guarantee that it will grow with the rest of them. For many students a time simply comes when all the rest of their ideas have matured through college discourse and their faith hasn’t. No one ever needs to explicitly challenge a student’s faith, the student merely needs to reach a point where their faith consists of “I believe this just because” and every other stance they hold can be articulated much better. The implicit claim is already there: we don’t talk about faith because it is silly. Suddenly reality and the claim appear to match.
Every explicit claim comes with a tractor-trailer full of implicit claims attached. “Dogs are better pets than cats,” is an explicit claim that rests on the implicit claims that pets should want to interact with you constantly and that the time and space required for pet care are unimportant costs (since dogs take more time and often more space than cats). “No one in the twenty-first century should starve to death,” is the sort of explicit claim that almost everyone would agree with. However, like all claims, it comes with implicit claims attached, in this case the myth of progress. Is starvation really the sort of problem that is more solvable now than a century ago? Probably – we can get food everywhere in the world relatively quickly if we really want to – but the major barrier to feeding people is often political issues that are no more tractable in 2013 than they were in 2,013 BC. This is ultimately the problem with implicit claims: it is quite easy to ingest them without realizing it. Our world is constantly handing out ideas and they all come with implicit claims attached. What are these ideas and what effect do they have on us?
Last week I discussed the trend in Western societies towards treating more and more categories of people equally. Frequently when a new group demands equality in a loud enough voice to register with society at large, one side claims that the debate is about equality and the other side claims that equality has nothing to do with it. The debate about abortion breaks these rules – both sides claim that human equality is at the core of their stance. For the pro-choice side the debate is about the equality of women. For the pro-life side the debate is about the equality of unborn children. This makes this debate a very interesting one for anyone interested in ideas of human equality.
It’s also fairly hard to draw some clear historical trend in relation to abortion. Both sides can discuss history in ways that make it appear that they are on the side of the (imaginary) forces of history. On one hand abortion was once part of a kit of family-planning tools that included infanticide and selling children into slavery. It’s not hard to talk about a world where over the course of history we increasingly realize that just because children are helpless we cannot dispose of them like garbage and so the various parts of these toolkits are eventually banned. On the other hand there is also a familiar narrative in which women gain increasing freedom to make their own decisions including the (extremely important) decision about whether to be pregnant. In a very real sense, two different trends both based on seeing a disadvantaged group as equal have collided.
A much larger issue for the present debate, though, is that both movements have also been hijacked. It isn’t hard to miss the fact that the debate about abortion is one about human equality (exactly who is human and who gets priority when rights interfere with one another) because the abortion debate almost never involves any debate about this question. In fact, most of the debate about abortion has degraded into a massive insult-fest. Witness the recent trend to drop the “pro” labels (pro-choice and pro-life) when talking about the other side – obviously describing someone as anti-choice or anti-life has better rhetorical punch but that punch is also a cheap shot. However, this is an obvious choice to make when one decides that the way the world works is that you (whichever side you are on) are clearly and obviously correct and the other side is brutally oppressive of whichever group you are protecting. Certainly admitting any doubt makes a position appear weaker in a debate (although it may make it a significantly more honest position). It’s simply hard to imagine a world in which a pro-choice individual would say that it was debatable whether they were a baby-killer or where a pro-life individual would say that women’s freedoms have gone too far. Of course both statements reflect a view in which the other side is not wrong merely because they are nefariously evil but that they have reasons for saying what they say.
Part of the way back out of an unconstructive dialog is to recognize the concerns of each side and to see that there are similarities between them. For reasons that I will explain shortly I myself am pro-life but this does not make the issue of women’s reproductive freedoms irrelevant. Not too long ago one of my students asked me why she never saw pregnant animals. The answer is that she has but that humans are almost alone amongst mammals in being obviously pregnant – if a human woman is unable to move quickly, work for long without becoming tired, or any of the other physical issues associated with being heavily pregnant, her extended social network will take care of her. Similarly, human infants are cared for by their parents and other relatives in ways that far exceed that of any other mammal. Babies require nearly constant attention and may take almost a decade to reach the level of independence where they do not require close adult supervision almost all the time. In cultures where women are expected to spend most of their young adult lives pregnant and then caring for young children, all the opportunities for jobs and education in the world will not help raise the status of women until they have some freedom from being baby factories.
There are three primary reasons that I believe a large number of pro-life Christians are unwilling to see this problem. The first is that calling children a burden is taboo in our family-friendly churches (an odd trend for a religion started by celibates). Of course children do take a lot of time and resources. While this may be balanced out by the joy they bring, children are not a no-cost life enhancement. Committing to raise a child is one of the largest investments a person can make. The second reason is that a lot of Christians in the West feel that women could avoid the whole issue of unwanted pregnancies if they’d just stop being slutty. The issue of one moral travesty arising from another is real, but there also needs to be a realization of the extent to which women with bad sexual morals develop the same from pressure (or abuse or rape) from men who have worse sexual morals. If men never pressured women for sex, if women never worried that their boyfriends would leave them if they didn’t put out, and if women were never objectified so that they would feel that their worth was inherently tied to sex then much of the issue of bad sexual morals in women would go away because the problem didn’t start with the women who exhibit it. (This isn’t to say that women all have perfectly pure sexual morals until dirty boys infect them with bad ideas [a claim that would be incredibly sexist in a weird way] but as someone who teaches college students and pays attention to the culture of late teens and early twenty-somethings, I am well aware of how predatory male culture has become when it comes to sex.)
The third, and very important, reason that many pro-life Christians do not worry about women’s reproductive freedoms is that they do not worry much about women’s rights in general. This is probably largely because the reference point for no women’s rights in conservative America is 1950. If I were forced to choose between being a woman living in the US in 1950 or a woman living right now in Afghanistan or a dozen other fully patriarchal societies I would choose America in 1950 in a heartbeat. The 1950s weren’t great for women but the sort of paternal patriarchy of chivalry is a far cry from the direct and brutal oppression that full-scale patriarchy brings. We think of feminists complaining that they are capable of opening their own doors but we never think of feminists complaining that they should not be always forced to open doors for men. When we talk about women getting access to higher education, we talk about debates in which women were largely depicted as incapable of benefitting from higher education and not ones in which women were simply considered to be sub-humans whose hopes and dreams didn’t matter. (Some of this is, of course, whitewashing a nastier history.) If you believe that the threat of patriarchy is not the threat that one day women might have to vacuum the house in high heels but that one day men might sell their teenage daughters to each other to cement a friendship, then you believe that there are important reasons to safeguard women’s rights, especially their right to refuse sex.
Oddly, the pro-choice blindness to the problem of abortion fits almost exactly the same category. Just as many conservatives cannot really imagine that men and women might have different places in society where men’s place would be to be fully human and women’s place would be as slaves, almost no one in modern Western societies can imagine a world in which children are anything other than the dearest treasures of their families. The recognition of children as properly human predates feminism but it is still within relatively recent history. Child labor laws, which enshrine a child’s right to try and make good on their potential, are state-only in the United States until the 1930s. Even then these laws are somewhat partisan – it is unions that first back child labor laws, perhaps because child labor undercuts union bargaining power. Perhaps more shockingly, until the 1980s many doctors assumed that babies couldn’t really feel pain and would do infant surgeries without any real attempt at pain management (the drugs used induced paralysis so that the child could not writhe in agony but did nothing to block the transmission of pain signals). Going back further in time we find that in many societies children were not immediately named because they might die and they should not be considered part of the family until they made it to some age where their odds of dying were lower. This is the same attitude that made infanticide so common once. A child wasn’t anybody when it was born and so if you didn’t want the child you just left it out to die. The early church saw abortion and infanticide as different points on the same continuum and it seems relatively difficult to me to see how one can really argue otherwise. Indeed, a number of modern ethicists (of whom I have a generally bad opinion) have suggested that infanticide isn’t a moral problem.
What ties both sides in the abortion issue together (assuming that we ignore the number of callous political vultures on both sides) is an interest in making sure that powerful groups cannot write off other groups as less-human and deny them equal treatment. What blinds both sides is the unwillingness to recognize how easy it would be to deny these rights to groups like women and children who we now feel “obviously” have these rights. (There is a fairly obvious reason that children prior to birth get completely different treatment than children who may be only a handful of hours older – we can see children who have been born and humans tend to treat people invisible to us very badly.) Where the abortion debate needs to live is at the point where we ask who is human and what rights this grants them. This will require many fewer insults and much more deep thought about who various definitions of humanity include and exclude.