Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chocolate Conflict Resolution

If you're looking for something fun to read, Alexander McCall Smith is the perfect author to turn to.  I've devoured the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and the 44 Scotland Street series.  His books are sweet, you care about the characters, and there are satisfying story arcs. And there are gems of wisdom or fresh perspective liberally scattered about.  Below is one of the gems I ran across recently in The Importance of Being Seven, page 220.  For context, Bertie is a six year old boy with a controlling mother, to put it mildly.  Stuart is his dad, who is taking on his first fishing trip.  They are at a gas station, filling up with gas and provisions for the day.

'A good choice, Bertie,' said Stuart, as he came in to pay for the petrol. 'And how about some chocolate?'

Nobody had ever said that to Bertie before.  How about some chocolate? It was not a complex phrase, but its power, its sheer, overwhelming sense of gift and possibility filled Bertie with awe. Well might more of us say these words to others, and more frequently--how healing would that prove to be. 'Look, we've had our differences, but how about some chocolate?' Or: 'I'm so very sorry, how about some chocolate?' Or simply: 'Great to see you! How about some chocolate?'

 Now, I am a great lover of chocolate (65-70% cacao, with dried cherries or hazelnuts please), but I don't think that I truly realized its potential for greatness.  That chocolate carries with it a power, an "overwhelming sense of gift and possibility" that fills one with awe--beautiful! 

I say we start a movement.  Before the opening of the UN General Assembly, we place a chocolate bar at every seat.  We airlift chocolate to North Korea and Iran.  We urge Hershey's to make corporate donations of chocolate in equal proportions to Republicans and Democrats!  It's not just Charlie's rare golden ticket in the wrapping that fills us with a "sheer, overwhelming sense of gift and possibility"--it's the chocolate in every one!  I, for one, will be working on future conflict resolution with my new found tool, chocolate. 

Monday, November 21, 2011


Since I wrote about axioms, I’ve been trying to reduce my world view down to its barest parts.  What are the foundational axioms upon which everything I believe rests?  How can I succinctly state the beginning from which I start to view and interact with the world?  It’s difficult.  

Which leads me to an interesting side thought—that we can’t live our lives like a geometry class.  (Which some people rejoice about!)  We don’t come out of the womb and are instantly handed our set of axioms.  Imagine the picture—baby comes out, doctor whacks your butt to make sure you’re breathing, cut the umbilical cord, and says, "Here are your four to six foundational principles, start figuring out the world outside the womb. Have a nice day!"  We don’t live a dry, clear cut, systematic theology.  You can’t.  Life is  messy.   We even come out messy, covered in blood.  You have to start in medias res, in the middle of things, and work out your world view from there. 

But, what if we are handed our axioms from the moment we exit the womb?  Do our surroundings and how we are brought up stamp our world view on us, like a plastic play dough mold?  I think so.  At least, our initial world view.  Hopefully we reach a point where we think about what we think about—come to the point of living an examined life.  At which point we choose to accept or reject the axioms of our parents, friends, teachers, media, leaders. 

So, tracing my way back from that rabbit trail—when I first started to try to encapsulate my axioms, I thought of an exercise to help boil down what you truly believed. 

  • First, take out a blank piece of paper (or blank spreadsheet) and write out your schedule, every single thing you do in a day, adding what you do weekly, monthly, yearly.  Nothing is too mundane (really), just get it all down. 
  • Second, next to each item, write why you do it.  Write the first thing that comes to you mind, don’t think too hard about it.  You can go back later and philosophize.  :o)
  • Third, re-list the items on your list in the order of the time you spend on each one. 
  • Finally, evaluate if the order in step three matches what you think your priorities should be. 

My idea behind this is that we will spend our time on what is important to us.  And what is important to us reveals what we truly believe.  With some reflection, we should be able to get to the axioms underneath.  What this exercise also shows is the difference between what we think we believe, and what our actions show that we believe. 

So what say you? Care to join me in this exercise?  For a lot of us this is Thanksgiving week, so in between turkey comas and crazed pre-dawn deal hunting, see if you can find some time to try the exercise out.  Let me know if you’re going to give it a go, and we’ll see what we find out!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dogs and Fences

I didn't finish the blog post I was planning for today.  Here's why:

Meet my dog Stewie.  I got him from the pound, and they told me he was a black lab mix.  I'm guessing he's mixed with kangaroo, because he jumped my SIX FOOT HIGH fence a record four times this week!  (He also jumped the fence at the dog park twice, but he came back on his own in under two minutes each time.)  So this week I've spent a lot more time than I planned with my dog, the farm store, and my fence. 

I'm thinking about putting up an electric fence, but they are a.) costly and b.) complicated.  So while I weigh the pros and cons and feasibility, I'm putting about 18 inches of chicken wire on the top of my fence, all the way around (oh boy, won't my neighbors love me!).  I've been playing the proverbial whack-a-mole, putting chicken wire up in places where he has succeeded or tried jumping.  So I'm cutting to the chase and putting it up everywhere--and praying he doesn't figure out how to dig under the fence!

While I'm finishing the full implementation of the Stewie Containment System©, Stewie is always on the leash or tie out.  He's really pathetic on the tie out, just sitting at the end of it, looking at me pleadingly, with those big brown eyes.  I have to say, "No! You can't pull the cute card on me! This is for your own health and safety!"

While I was wrestling with the bamboo, chicken wire, and staple gun, thinking I should have grabbed my safety goggles so my eyes don't get poked out, it is interesting what verse popped in my head.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
   I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
   which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
   or it will not stay near you.
Psalm 32:8-9

In response to this verse, I think, "Exactly! If only Stewie would stay put, or learn to come when called, we could be out walking and playing, instead of me bleeding from bamboo splinters and chicken wire pokes.  Hmm, when was my last tetanus shot, anyway?"  Then I remember this is a psalm of David, not Dr. Doolittle, and it's addressed to me, not Stewie.  And I think, "Ouch," and not (only) because of splinters.  The horse and mule is without understanding, but it is implied that I am to have understanding.  What fences, what heavy handed hemming in of circumstance, do I try to escape?  How much more fun could God and I have if I yielded sooner?  Hmm.  I'll let you know how Stewie does with his fences, as I ponder how I'm doing with mine.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Crappy Mercy

A friend recommended a book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? by David T. Lamb.  In it, the author answers the seeming contradictions in God’s character between the Old Testament and the New.  (A great book so far, by the way.)  In the chapter I’m on, Lamb is answering the question of God being angry or loving.  And he’s talking about my favorite Hebrew word, hesed, which can be translated as steadfast love or mercy.  It’s my very favorite word, so Lamb’s walking close to my heart when I read this:

“Yahweh also waited to punish the Canaanites because, even though they were guilty already, their sin was not yet finished (Genesis 15:16).  So God waited four hundred years to punish the Egyptians and the Canaanites, and during this period his own people paid the price.  Because Yahweh is slow to anger, his people were not only homeless but also slaves and victims of oppression.  Eventually, Yahweh got angry at the crimes of Egypt and Canaan, and he finally delivered Israel from enslavement and provided them with a homeland.  However, for four hundred years in Egypt, they paid the price for Yahweh’s slowness to anger.”  (p41)

The thought flashes across my mind that some of the crap I endure might be because God is showing mercy—hesed—to other people.  

Well that sucks.

 – is my first, not so saintly reaction.  I always try to figure out why or where the crap in my life came from, in order to get rid of it as quickly as possible.  None this four hundred year stuff, thanks.  So I ask, “What did I do wrong? What lesson is God trying to teach me?”  Because if I can identify the wrong, then I can correct it.  If I can identify the lesson, then I can learn it.  And then the crap leaves.  Or that’s how I’d run things.  But the crap in my life might be God showing mercy to someone else.  In which case there is nothing I can do to get rid of it any faster! 

While these thoughts are hitting home, I remember that God tells us to be like Him—“be holy as I am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-16) We’re to imitate Christ.  The word Christian even means "little Christ".  Some parts of God’s character are that He is long suffering, slow to anger, and merciful.  Which means that I am suppose to be long suffering, slow to anger, and merciful.  And I think, "I just want to not have to deal with crap.  I don't want to be long suffering."

So I wonder, well, how can my crap be related to another’s mercy, anyway?  And I decide that I don’t know.  In the midst of it, the Israelites didn’t know that their period of four hundred years of slavery was actually God showing mercy to the Egyptians.  On the flip side, neither did they know that at the end of it they’d have their own country.  Which is amazing, since before ending up in slavery, the Israelites were nomadic foreigners, with no land they could call their own.  Next I remember the verse that tells us to trust in the Lord and not rely on our own understanding of things.  With this new take on God's mercy, trusting is a bit more difficult.  In the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the girls asks if Aslan is safe.  She’s told, “'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.” Trusting God isn’t safe, but He is good.  Trusting God doesn’t mean that I get to be comfortable. 

After Jesus said something particularly difficult for people to swallow, He asked Peter and the disciples if they were going to leave him like the crowd did.  Peter said, “Where could we go?  You have the words of life.”   

I just figured out that God thinks showing mercy to people is more important than my comfort—to the point where His “chosen people” are subjected to four hundred years of harsh slavery so that He could extend mercy!  So I could choose not to follow this God who sacrifices my comfort, my happiness even, so that He can show mercy to others.  He may even have me endure crap so that he can show mercy to people who won’t respond to that mercy!  But where else could I go? I am convinced that this God has the words of life.  It’s not worth it to go elsewhere.  And, on a practical level, there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t suffer if I didn’t follow Him.  At least here I have the assurance that the crap will have meaning. 

So if you’re dealing with crap in your life, there could be many reasons for it.  I know that I’ve had a hand in creating a lot of the crap I’ve had to deal with.  But one reason I had never considered was that the crap in my life and yours, may just be because God wants to show mercy to someone. 

What do you think?  Does ring true to you?  Am I full of crap?  :o)  Leave a comment and let’s dialogue. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Of Hair Dryers and Geometry, Part 3

“Ok, Sarah, “ I hear you saying, “so it’s pointless.  Atheists and theists can’t talk to each other.  Awesome.  Thanks for the despair.  Now what?”  So, is dialogue between people holding different axiomatic systems/world views impossible?  No, I don’t think so.  But we first have to acknowledge the difference is deeper than the level at which we usually discuss, and examine our own axiomatic systems.  Otherwise, you’ll just end up preaching to your choir.   

Here’s an example, which a friend of mine thought of.  It was my experience that I didn’t really learn English grammar until I started to study a different language, in my case, Latin.  English is my native language, so I think in English.  In order to understand how Latin worked, I first had to understand how English works.  I had to go beyond the intuitive understanding of English that I absorbed through growing up speaking English, and really learn the rules and mechanics.  Once I understood how English worked, I could understand and appreciate the difference in how Latin works.  And, most importantly, this native English speaker could begin to understand things written in Latin. 

Saying listening to God is the intellectual equivalent of listening to a hair dryer will be thought clever by atheists and dismissed out of hand by religious people.  Quoting the Bible to prove why God is not like a hair dryer would be respected by Christian religious people but dismissed out of hand by atheist.  In spite of their validity within their own circles, there will be no dialogue using these methods. 

The importance of understanding axiomatic systems/world views is similar to the importance of learning grammar.  First, you need to understand your own axiomatic system, so you know how you view the world.  Examine what you accept as authority.  You may need or want to change things.  Do what you think you believe—what you accept as axioms—line up with how you live your life?  Second, you need to understand other people’s axiomatic systems.  Understand how they think and reason, and what they accept as authority.  Understand how someone who accepted those axioms would live their life if they applied them.

I am not equating dialogue with winning or losing, but a useful analogy is video games.  The rules and game play of Super Mario Brothers is different from Zelda, and is even more different from Words with Friends.  You won’t find a fire flower in Zelda, and a sword is only useful in Words with Friends because a W is worth four points.  You have to know the rules of the game you’re playing.  Just because you can beat Super Mario Brothers in an hour doesn’t mean you’re awesome at Words with Friends.  If you know and understand the rules of how you think and believe, and put the effort into knowing and understanding the rules of how others think and believe, then and only then can you start true dialogue. 

The goal of dialogue is understanding, not winning.  The goal of understanding is to reveal and know more Truth.  I personally hold that objective, capital T, Truth exists.  Dialogue is one tool to discover and learn more of it. 

Some closing thoughts. 

Knowing your world view is like stating your bias when you are reporting or researching.  It is much more honest—and useful—to state that bias, than to assume erroneously that you do not have one.  Because that’s silly, if you breathe, you have a bias. 

People, myself included, need to be prepared to discard or change their axioms, their givens, if they discover that they don’t work.  Just like with Euclidean geometry and planes flying over the poles.

Lastly, I don’t believe that all axiomatic systems are created equal.  Some reflect reality and Truth better than others.  Nor do I believe that Truth is unknowable.  Can we know Truth exhaustively?  Remember that chick at the end of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull?  If we had exhaustive Truth downloaded into our heads, I think they'd explode.  But can we know part of Truth truly?  Yes, absolutely.  I invite you to interact with me and others on this blog as we search for what Truth we may find.  Please do leave comments! 

The Truth is out there.  –Fox Mulder, X-Files

Seek, and you will find.  –Jesus Christ, Book of Matthew

Monday, October 24, 2011

Of Hair Dryers and Geometry, Part 2

To sum up the last entry, an atheist blogger said that Hair Dryer = God.  I reigned in my instinctive reaction to vigorously pontificate, thinking better of ranting in light of a deeper problem at hand.  That of Axiomatic Systems.

I could just say World View, but I think axiomatic systems better illustrate a concept that we all think we know.  Everyone has world views, but not everyone knows what their own one is, let alone what other people’s are.  World views are very much like axiomatic systems (AS).   AS’s are mathematical concepts.  Here’s a great, though technical, article describing AS’s.  The definition given on that article is, “An axiomatic system consists of some undefined terms (primitive terms) and a list of statements, called axioms or postulates, concerning undefined terms.”  If you ever took geometry, you have been exposed to AS’s.  The geometry you studied was Euclidean geometry, based on the axioms posed by an ancient Greek, Euclid.  Axioms cannot be proven.  They must be granted, taken as givens.  Euclidean geometry is based on five axioms, and everything you learned in geometry can be proven from those five axioms alone.  I think that’s pretty neat.

But do you want to know a secret?  That geometry you had to learn doesn’t completely line up with the world in which we find ourselves.  Everything works if the world is flat.  But we in on a roundish planet.  Euclid’s fifth postulate, the parallel postulate, has some difficulties with it (see here for a technical explanation).  Here’s a simple example of the practical applications of those difficulties with this axiom.   Take out an atlas, and tell me the shortest way to fly from Portland, OR, to Frankfurt, Germany.  You’ll use a ruler and draw a straight line.  Now take out a globe and tell me the shortest distance—it’s by going over the pole, not straight across the Atlantic. 

The vast majority of the geometry you learned is still useful.  Some of it doesn’t apply to the world we live in, our reality.  But all of it is true in its own system, in that it is all proven from the initial five axioms.  The axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry is a cohesive system, where everything can be proven based on the five stated axioms.  It’s just that one of those axioms doesn’t match up with reality. 

Now, back to our hair dryer/authority problem.  The problem is our individual axiomatic systems—the things we accept as givens, and can’t prove.  These are what we base our world views on, and from that, what we base our lives on.

The problem with the Atheist vs Religious person argument is that the two axiomatic systems are not the same.  Both accept or do not accept different things as unprovable givens.  One of the typical axioms of the atheist’s world view is that the material world is all that there is—there is nothing above the material/natural world, no supernatural.  One of the typical axioms of the religious person’s world view is that there is a super-natural being(s) that interacts with matter and nature.  Both are unprovable givens—axioms—around which their entire world views are based. 

That last sentence was a purposefully inflammatory sentence.  I hear you say, “You’re telling me I base my life on things I can’t prove? Yeah right.”  You’re probably thinking about some links you want to post in the comment section below, which reference the best argument you’ve ever read for pure materialism or for the existence of God.  However, before you start to prove something, anything, you must start with some givens.  Before you build a house, you must first lay your foundation.  You must have a starting point.  Your axioms, your givens, are that starting point. As in geometry, if the underlying axioms of a system are not accepted, the proofs based on the axioms are not accepted.  If you reject Euclid’s first postulate, which essentially defines a line, you’re not going to get very far in geometry.  It’s a fundamental assumption, and it must be accepted before you can move forward and reason anything out.  

Also, when you are discussing with someone and trying to prove something, you both must agree that each step in the reasoning is true.  If one of you thinks that one of the steps is false, you end up not agreeing to the conclusion.  Here’s a kind of a nonsense example.  You ask me what two plus two equals, and I say six.  You tell me that it’s actually four.  We both look at each other like we think the other is silly, since we know our answers are correct.  What you don’t know is that I had parents with a weird sense of humor who taught me to count, “One, three, two, four, five, six.”  The axioms in this example are the values of the names of numbers.  For me, I associate “Two” with 3, not 2 like you do.  So when you ask me what two plus two is, I say 6.  The example breaks down, because unless I’m amazingly stubborn, you can teach me that “Two” actually is the name for 2 not 3.  But the point is that we disagree on what the word “Two” means, so we can’t agree on any problem that involves “Two”.  Our axioms are different.

So an atheist and a deist walk into a bar and start talking.  How do they overcome their differences, instead of yelling, getting into a fist fight, and getting kicked out of the bar?  Tune in next week for the final gripping installment, of Hair Dryers and Geometry!  ♪♫ Dun dun dun. ♪♫