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January 2017


Eliot Cohen, who served in the second Bush administration, has been a conservative critic of Trump. In a piece this week for The Atlantic he wrote about what we must continue to do in order to defy Trump.  Reading Cohen's essay actually encouraged me, the most encouraged I'd been after a week of unmitigated horror coming from the White House.  

I read the essay in the context of the widespread denunciation and protests against the refugee ban.  The American people are not going to sit idly by and let the new administration destroy what is most valuable about our nation and its high ideals.  I believe that.  And we will learn, as conservatives are often ones to remind us, how limited is the power of the government in the face of other social institutions such as the church, business, the media, non-profits, families, etc.  

Maybe we will even have a renewal of the social fabric and participatory democracy--in other words, citizenship--in the wake of this catastrophe, as people across the ideological spectrum are drawing together in their opposition?

Here are the encouraging final paragraphs of Cohen's essay, which come after the warning that things will get worse than the first week, so we must be prepared for that:

In the end, however, he will fail. He will fail because however shrewd his tactics are, his strategy is terrible—The New York Times, the CIA, Mexican Americans, and all the others he has attacked are not going away. With every act he makes new enemies for himself and strengthens their commitment; he has his followers, but he gains no new friends. He will fail because he cannot corrupt the courts, and because even the most timid senator sooner or later will say “enough.” He will fail most of all because at the end of the day most Americans, including most of those who voted for him, are decent people who have no desire to live in an American version of Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.

I Wonder

An oft-heard or oft-read response to the election in November was that Trump's opponents had taken him literally but not seriously and Trump's voters took him seriously, but not literally.

In recent months, as recent even as an NPR interview I heard last week, Trump supporters were saying things like, "The wall was simply a metaphor for taking control of immigration."

What are those folks thinking now?

Science and Facts

Because the world is messy

We needed a method to determine which statements about the world were ones we could all agree were, indeed, facts of the matter. And the essence of the method we came up with, the one called science, hinged on something absolutely remarkable in the history of humanity.

It all depended on an agreement.

Over time, and as a society, we decided to agree what the rules of the fact-finding method called science should look like. It went something like this: Public facts will be accepted as public facts, if and only if you can show multiple and independent lines of public evidence to support them.

So writes Adam Frank in a very good blog post on how science is the method our modern society agreed upon to deal with the messiness of the world.  He cautions that our use of this method is based merely upon social agreement, and that can be broken.  But, he wonders, is there another method?  For the sake of our democracy, we should be concerned.

The Summoned Self

In the second chapter of David Brooks's The Road to Character, he writes about how the traditional concept of vocation is different from what many experience today:

In this scheme of things we don't create our lives; we are summoned by life.  The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside.  This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded.  This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the  brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs.  Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole?  What is it that needs repair?  What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?  

This paragraph made me think of Gandalf's conversation with Frodo in the Mines of Moriah when Frodo laments the dark and dangerous path his life has taken.  Gandalf tells Frodo that he cannot choose the times in which he lives, but only what he does with those times.  

Sobering advice for those of us lamenting this week.  We had expected to live in radically better world than the one that has fallen upon us, yet our test will be what we do in this moment.


Brooks then explores some of the key ideas in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  Frankl wrote about his effort to survive and find meaning while he was in Auschwitz.  Frankl understood that a moral and intellectual task was before him, and the task was to suffer well.  If you've not read Frankl's classic, I encourage you to. I usually use it as an illustration in my intro to philosophy classes.  Frankl quotes Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

Brooks writes that this notion of vocation as a summons or call means that "a person becomes an instrument for the performance of a job that has been put before her. She molds herself to the task at hand."  

The focal subject of this chapter is Frances Perkins, of whom I will write in a later blog post, at this chapter had material I wanted to respond to in more than one post.  After his discussion of her life, he returns to this notion of vocation:

Perkins didn't so much choose her life.  She responded to the call of a felt necessity.  A person who embraces a calling doesn't take a direct route to self-fulfillment.  She is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself.  Such vocations almost always involve tasks that transcend a lifetime.  They almost always involve throwing yourself into a historical process. They involve compensating for the brevity of life by finding membership in a historic commitment.

The End of the American Century?

According to Richard Stengel, former Time editor, the American Century, originally announced by Time's founder Henry Luce, came to an end this week with Trump's America First administration. This is a piece worth your read no matter your ideology.  

For instance, these revealing sentences:

The inaugural address of Donald Trump did not contain the word justice or cooperation or ideals or morals or truth or charity. It has only one reference to freedom. It did mention carnage and crime and tombstones and a variety of words never uttered before in a presidential inaugural.


Soul's Yearning

In my morning devotion yesterday I was reading about Jewish views of prayer and want to share these two insights:

"Prayer is the soul's yearning to define what truly matters and to ignore the trivialities that often masquerade as essential."

"Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgment; a process of removing oneself from the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie one to the purpose of life."

Developing Character

In my graduate studies of ethics, I embraced virtue theory.  When I began reading more theology, I was deeply influenced by theologians who also worked within a similar paradigm.  My ministry and my teaching have often focused on the development of the virtues.

Last year I ordered David Brooks' most recent book The Road to Character.  Brooks has long been one of the conservative commentators I find most compelling to read, and I read a handful of them.  Today I finally began reading this book, which seems timely as we've entered an age when the leading citizen of the Republic flaunts his vices and treats the virtues as something only snobbish elites are interested in.

In the introduction, Brooks describes one day listening to a radio program from the week following the end of the Second World War in which the prominent celebrities of the day performed.  The overwhelming one of the broadcast was humility and gratitude, far different from how our contemporary culture treats such things.  Listening to this broadcast sent him upon a deeper study of the character traits of that earlier period in our history.

He writes that "Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character."  Only pursuing the former can turn you into "a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and who turns everything into a game."  One of the results is that "You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow." (No great leap of imagination to picture who this brought to mind.)

He wants to defend an older tradition "that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we  build character."

He describes the person of character:

Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion.  They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives.  They have achieved inner integration.  They are calm, settled, and rooted.  They are not blown off course by storms.  They don't crumble in adversity.  Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable.  Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. . . . They radiate a sort of moral joy.


He discusses the virtue of humility which we arrive at through a process of self-confrontation.  He writes, "Truly humble people are engaged in a great effort to magnify what is best in themselves and defeat what is worst, to become strong in the weak places."

He adds that we cannot engage in this struggle alone, but require "redemptive assistance from outside."

Brooks writes that the humble person has self-respect, which is not the same as self-esteem or self-confidence.  The difference--self-respect is "earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation.  It emerges in one who is morally dependable.  Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones."

He concludes his first chapter by saying we aren't worse than our forebears, in fact we've advanced on significant fronts.  Instead, he believes "we are morally inarticulate."

The next nine chapters of the book each focus on a particular person from which we can learn about character.  First up is Frances Perkins.