Aztec Philosophy

Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in MotionAztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion by James Maffie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Life on earth is slippery because order and being are always sliding into disorder and nonbeing. The existence and well-orderedness of the things upon which humans depend slip away from under their feet, causing them to lose their balance and suffer pain, hunger, thirst, sorrow, disease, and death."

An at time dense and other time exciting (for example, the philosophical importance of sweeping with a broom) survey of Aztec metaphysics. Since reading an article by Maffie some years ago, I've wanted to understand Aztec thought better, because of this core idea that the world is constantly changing and that to live well is to develop balance. That seems more useful than the centrality of certain foundations and unchanging ideas in much Western thought.

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How to Be Perfect

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral QuestionHow to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My former nextdoor neighbor sent this to me thinking I would like it. And I did. Which isn't always the case when a professional read a book by an amateur writing for a general audience. But Schur is a wonderful writer who grasps this subject matter well and arranges it in a way that I don't think an academic philosopher would have been able to do. This, then, is a most helpful book for introducing philosophical moral reasoning. I heartily recommend it.

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Good, Hard Lessons

Good, Hard Lessons

Luke 16:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 September 2022

            “This is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables.”  So writes Brandon Scott, one of the foremost authorities on the parables.  As you listened I’m sure you thought it sounded weird.  Just know that the scholars and commentators feel the same.

            Amy-Jill Levine, that other scholar of the parables whom I like to draw upon, reminds us that the stories Jesus tells are often supposed to be disturbing.  And that we can get too lost in trying to find their “meaning.”  Instead, she asks us to “allow ourselves to be open to various interpretations” because then the parables can become tools “for good, hard lessons learned with a sense of playfulness.”

            With a playful attitude then, let’s try to unpack this story Jesus told.  Then we’ll try to make it mean something for us today.

            Brandon Scott says we run into problems with this parable when we make two interpretative mistakes at the beginning.  First, we have a tendency to turn parables into allegories and in this case that means we try to make the master into God.  But, clearly, that doesn’t work.  Which is one reason we are uncomfortable.  So, give up the notion of trying to make this allegory, trying to make it tell us something about God.

            The second mistake we make is reading our own capitalist economic system into the story.  That wasn’t the economic system of Jesus and his compatriots.  They existed in a very different system built upon patronage.  So, as Brandon Scott writes, “Capitalist assumptions obscure the social structure implied by the parable.”

            What social and economic system, then, is the story operating in? 

            Scott first points out some facts about the characters in the story.  These are men of wealth.  Wealth far in excess of anything the average person listening to the story would be familiar with.  The debts are also very large debts.  The characters can read and write, also not widespread in the time period.  These, then, are all wealthy elites and the person listening would have understood it as such.  This is a story, then, about how wealthy elites treat and mistreat one another.

            Now, the average listener would have been familiar with debts.  Usury was forbidden by the religious economic laws of Jesus’ time, but even that society had found ways around the laws and customs.

            And as a result, we know from historical sources, that many common landowners had lost their property to the wealthy because they were unable to pay their debts.  Many people who had been self-sustaining farmers had fallen to become tenant farmers.  Families that had once sustained themselves were now peasants.  Some were even sold into slavery.  The burdens of debt were massive in first century Palestine, and a wealthy elite had benefited from the system.  Brandon Scott reminds us, “The request to ‘forgive us our debts’ in the Lord’s Prayer is not an idle spiritual request, but a peasant’s plea of desperation.”

            The manager, then, in this story, seems to be the property manager for the truly rich guy who owns a lot and is gaining even more property because of these exorbitant debts.  The master might even be an absentee landlord, and the manager the one doing the real work of overseeing the properties and accounts. 

            But he isn’t an employee as we understand it in our current system.  The master would be his patron, and he would be a client.  Any power, authority, or wealth the manager has is because he is in the service of the master.  If the master dismisses him, the manager can’t simply go get another managerial job elsewhere, he has lost his patron.  And as the manager tells us in the story, if he loses his status, he fears he’ll be reduced to begging or digging in the mines.

            Patronage systems work by doing the bidding of those above you in the hierarchy.  You don’t have much freedom or agency unless you are on the top of the social pyramid. 

            So, what is it that the manager does when he loses his position?  He goes to the various folks who owe the master money, who haven’t yet heard that he’s been fired, and he reduces their debts to the master.  This is a way of getting back at the master, for the master will now lose his profits, and it is a way of currying favor with other potential patrons who might support this shrewd manager who saved them money.

            Where the story surprises both its original listeners and us, is that the logical outcome would be for the master to become furious when he learns of this scheme.  Instead, in the story Jesus told, the master praises the manager for his shrewdness.  And then Luke adds those strange comments to the end of the story.

            Brandon Scott writes that this ending makes it difficult for any of us to make sense of the story and what Jesus meant.  He then asks us to consider, “what if the strategy of the parable teller is to frustrate our efforts to fit it together, to make sense of it, to relieve its tension?”  Amy-Jill Levine would say that any meaning of the story slips away from us, inviting us to use our imaginations and engage playfully in meaning-making ourselves.  And in that process maybe learn some good, hard lessons.

            From my study and reading of this parable over the years as a pastor and teacher and simply as a faithful reader of the Bible, I’ve come to a way I understand it, that I offer to you today.

            Part of what’s going on here is that Jesus is making fun of the wealthy elites and the way they treat each other.  But he’s doing more than that.  If that alone were the goal, then he’d end the tale in the predictable fashion.  Instead, Jesus surprises the listeners with his ending.

            Which invites us to think about the entire social-economic system.  I think his original listeners were able to walk away puzzling about how strange and weird the patronage economy of their time was.  And in that puzzling, maybe begin to engage in criticism and imagination of something better.  What might that something better be?

            The clue is contained in the story itself.  What puzzles us is a strange act of grace.  Of unmerited, undeserved favor.  Power, debts, greed, shrewdness—those don’t surprise us.  What surprises is the strange, maybe even foolish, act of grace that ends the story.

            Maybe Jesus’ listeners then began to ponder—what would a social and economic system built around grace look like?

            One reason I think this is the direction we can head in listening to Jesus’ story, is that so many of the other stories he told seem to point in the same direction.  Many of the parables he tells about rich men, property managers, debts, money, income, etc. have really surprising outcomes.  But grace, as opposed to merit, desert, or what one has earned, seems to be a common theme.

            What then are we supposed to do with this story today then?  Clearly we don’t operate in a patronage socio-economic system.  We aren’t, generally, peasants losing our land to greedy landlords. 

            There’s an old adage that a sermon is best when it models the form of the story you are preaching.  Earlier this week I realized that the best way to approach this text, then, would be to craft my own parable that exposes absurdities in our own socio-economic system and invites us to imagine alternatives.  But I don’t think I’m that gifted of a story-teller.  Especially to write something so clever in just a few days.  After all, I’m not Jesus.

            But I do think that Jesus’ story can invite us to use our imaginations to think about how absurd our socio-economic system is.  Maybe reading about the disputes between Elon Musk and Twitter are a good example—elites treating each other poorly.  I invite you to think of your own examples.

            Because even if our economic system is an improvement upon the patronage and debt system of first century Palestine, I think we can all agree that our current system is clearly not an expression of the kingdom of God.

            There remains too much inequality, too much injustice, too much greed and exploitation.  It could be fairer, with more grace and generosity and kindness.

            This summer on my sabbatical I read a number of books on climate change.  Not about how the climate is changing, as that has become obvious, but more about what we can and should still do if we are to live resiliently and faithfully in this time of world history. 

            In one of those books, by the British theologian Timothy Gorringe titled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, he has a chapter entitled “Economics as if the Planet Mattered.”  Because, of course, it does.  The planet does matter.  But our current system isn’t very good at taking that to account. 

            He wants to return to the most basic sense of the word “economy,” which in its Greek origin means “household management.”  What do we need to do to properly manage our household?  What all is included in the household?  Does our circle of concern expand to all creation?

Gorringe invites us to consider the question “What is it that people need in order to live well?”  That seems like a key consideration for us as we try to live in this time as faithful followers of Jesus.

            Now, Jesus didn’t tell his story and then lay out a set of economic policies to be implemented.  And I’m not either today. 

            Instead, I believe Jesus wanted his faithful followers to start asking themselves such questions.  To begin criticizing what was wrong about the system they lived in.  To playfully imagine alternatives.  And then to start trying them out.  Make those changes in their own lives that they could make in order to further the values of a better, more gracious, more generous world. 

And I think that’s what Jesus wants for us, his faithful disciples today.  To imagine a better world.  And to do what we can in our daily activities to make a better world—kinder, more loving, more gracious.  A world where everyone and everything can live well.  Those are the good, hard lessons I believe we can take from this very strange story that Jesus told.


Initial thoughts on Bentham

I've begun reading Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation for the first time.  What an opening paragraph!

A few chapters in, my pre-existing opinions of Bentham are being affirmed.  

The theory has deep flaws because of a naïve understanding of human psychology and a complete obtuseness to some topics (he actually writes that no society ever created a plan to oppress and plunder).  But . . .

What he was trying to do in his time was so liberative and so ahead of its time.  When teaching him I often write on the board a list of views he held and how they'd locate him on the progressive left in 21st century America, much less 18th century Britain.

His basic intention was spot on--let's clear away all the clutter and free people up to live happy lives.  Can we all leaves such a legacy?

One more thing.  As far as a principle of legislation, as opposed to an ethical theory, it's difficult to argue for any better approach than the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest period of time.


The New Negro

The New Negro: The Life of Alain LockeThe New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A spirit lurks in the shadows of America that, if summoned, can launch a renaissance of our shared humanity. That is his most profound gift to us."

So glad to finally read this major, award-winning book. I spent most of my sabbatical summer, and then some, getting through it.

While there is much to commend this biography, it really feels too long, going too in depth into minutiae at times. And was at times repetitive, I think because of the challenge of a text so long. It needed serious editing.

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Reviewing the Sabbatical

May be an image of 3 people, office and indoor

This morning I returned to the office after my summer sabbatical.  Yesterday I attended church services and our annual Homecoming Picnic--it was a beautiful, wonderful day and Katie's excellent sermon on the topic of coming home really spoke to me.

So, let me review the summer a little.

I read a bunch of books on dealing with our current global crises, particularly climate change.  My goal was to make sure that as a congregation we are doing what we need to as we live with the effects of a changing climate, that we are being faithful and resilient and effective.   I am almost finished with the last of those books, Hannah Malcolm's Words for a Dying World.

If I had finished all of those, I had other things to read, but never got to them.  I'm still not close to finishing the philosophy book I've been reading all summer--Jeffrey Stewart's 878 page Pulitzer Prize winning biography of philosopher Alain Locke, The New Negro.  Because it's so long I saved it for this sabbatical summer, but even after three months I'm only on page 581.

One thing I learned with the last sabbatical is that even with all that extra time you don't get everything accomplished you thought you might.  I did take that into account this time when planning.  And I think I did get less reading accomplished than six years ago because then I had a one-year-old I was home caring for much of the time, and I also didn't travel as much as this summer.

I got most of my home projects accomplished.  The last one on the summer list is in process right now, so I think it will finish up within the next few weeks.  Feel really good about where I am with those.

My main goal with this sabbatical was simply to take a break, after two years of pandemic, social turmoil, and divorce.  Ironically, one of the first things I read this morning was a New York Times article on pastor burnout which claimed  “Your pastor needs a long break, probably longer than they think.” 

That goal was achieved.  I had a wonderful summer, full of rest, relaxation, fun, adventure, renewal.  I'm so thankful I got to have it.  And it also felt like a foretaste of retirement.

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The only feature which I really missed this summer was that with all my freedom and flexible schedule for three months, there was no romantic interest to spend time with.  The sabbatical fell during a dry spell in that regard.  But that lack didn't rob my summer of joy.  And I'm probably now in even better shape for any potential relationship than I was before, after spending that time on self-care.

As I've written in previous posts, I had three revelations that turned into resolutions during the course of the sabbatical.  First, was how much I find joy and comfort in my home (which was not always the case over the last three years), and so I'm going to prioritize more time and energy in making it more beautiful, comfortable, and enjoyable. 

Second, is that I really want to get back to a regular writing practice.  That feeds me, and I have so many ideas in various stages of work.  I didn't get too much writing accomplished this summer, but just enough.  So I need to figure out what routine is going to work for me now and make it a habit.

Third, is that I've always wanted to do more outdoor activities and have been frustrated many times over the years that this has often fallen to the wayside.  When I re-entered the dating world last year, I thought I'd look for some outdoorsy guy who could help me prioritize these activities.  But after our successful trip to Yellowstone I realized how much I want to do these things, that I can do them myself and can figure out the things I don't currently know how to do well, and that I don't need to wait for someone else.  So I'm going to prioritize these activities as well--my recent purchase of a paddle board was one step in living into this resolution.

So, thanks for a splendid summer.  Onto a fabulous fall.

May be an image of 4 people, people standing, outdoors and crowd