A few remarks about church-going

I’ve mentioned here that Mrs Acilius and I can often be found among nearby God-bothering societies, notably the Quaker meeting of which she is a member and an Episcopal parish in which we are also active.  Recently, I shared with the readers of some other blogs this fact and a partial explanation for it.

In response to a post by Rod Dreher about an unsightly and not very obviously Christian work of art placed prominently outside an Episcopal cathedral, I wrote the following:

“You know it’s a rockin’ Episcopalian argument when somebody uses the word “ghastly.” That’s like chair-throwing in any other fight.”

One recent Sunday, I was at coffee hour in the parish hall at an Episcopal church whose doors I darken on a fairly regular basis. I happened to be sitting next to a stack of books that were being reshelved. One of the books was the Book of Occasional Services. A couple of parishioners noticed it. “Does that have an Episcopalian exorcism rite?” Another replied, “Free this soul of bad taste!” Everyone laughed.

The seriousness with which they take aesthetics and lightness with which they take themselves are among the things that keep drawing me to the Episcopalians, and to Anglicans generally. Not only do I find that combination attractive in itself, but I think it is a vital corrective to a culture that relentlessly encourages the opposite traits, militantly rejecting any idea that beauty is a real thing that makes demands on us while it rewards and glorifies the weightiest self-importance and the most morbid self-absorption. The Episcopalians are in a position to make a unique contribution to breaking the spell these vices have cast on us, and so I very much hope they thrive.

That said, when I mention the Episcopal Church to people not affiliated with it the single most common response is the question, “Is that still around?” So perhaps it will take some time for their particular share of the Light to overcome the darkness around us.

I went on at even greater length in responding to a post by Alastair J. Roberts called “Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons.”  While, as a Calvinist, Mr Roberts sees the chief purpose of preaching as instruction in correct doctrine, he also puts considerable emphasis on the value of the physical act of sitting still and listening while another person speaks at length, even when relatively little of the content of that speech stays in the memory of the hearer.  This led me to expound on the role of sermons in the religious gatherings Mrs Acilius and I most regularly attend:

Very interesting. On most Sunday mornings, my wife and I attend two Christian gatherings. At 8 AM, we go to an Anglican service. Then at 11, we go to the Quakers. Different as they are, the two traditions have similar views of the proper function of sermons.

The Anglicans tend to believe that the role of the sermon, like that of each of the other prescribed parts of the liturgy, is to sweep away the distractions that might be buzzing about in one’s mind when one enters the worship space. So the penitential elements sweep away, first, the sinful preoccupations that may have taken root in our minds, then the idle guilt in which we dwell on the fact that we have been in the grips of those preoccupations. The lessons and the creed sweep away any impulse to enter theological or political disputes, reminding us as they do that we not only agree on a great deal, but that whatever disagreements do divide us have been around so long that it is unlikely we will miss anything by taking a pass on any particular opportunity to try to persuade people of the rightness of our views. Hymns and corporate prayers and greetings dramatize the fact that we’re all in this together, sweeping personal resentments aside for the time being. The preacher must have a sense of what is going on with the congregation to know which of these distractions is likely to represent the biggest distraction at any given iteration of the Eucharist and design the sermon to put some extra force behind the broom aimed at it.

Our 11 AM gathering is more of a “Friends Church” than a “Quaker meeting.” They have hymns, accompanied by an organ; a choir, accompanied by a professional pianist; a sermon, delivered by a professional preacher; and other formal practices, all laid out in a printed program and introduced by cues that must be expressed in precisely the correct words. However, the climax of all this formalization is a period of shared listening, in which we sit for ten minutes or so, many times in complete silence, but not infrequently hearing from two or three Friends who feel that the Holy Spirit has entrusted them with a message for us. Quite often this message is something along the lines of, “I forgot to mention it during the announcements, but I brought some cabbages from my garden, please take them home with you.” Be that as it may, each of those liturgical elements found its way into the practice of our branch of Quakerdom as a preparation for that shared silence. As our Anglican friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find in the reception of the Eucharist, so our Friends friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find “wherever two or more are gathered in [His] name.”

My wife is more of an old-fashioned Quaker than are most in our meeting. For her, the sheer act of sitting still and waiting for the Holy Spirit in a circle of others doing the same is quite enough to achieve the clarity needed for the sacramental experience. If another should speak, or pray, or break into song, that is all the better, but she does not find it necessary. The physical act, as you put it, is sufficient to prepare her for an encounter with Christ.

These two descriptions may seem to depict liturgy as therapy, or perhaps therapy as liturgy.  Certainly in each case the goal is to help people to get themselves out of their own way.  Of all the parts of the liturgy, when liturgy is conceived as preparation for sacrament, the sermon is perhaps the one where the therapeutic is most likely to make itself obvious.  Perhaps this is why sermons so often inspire resentment, because the preacher may stray too far into territory where a psychologist might have a surer touch.  And so rarely does even the most engaged preacher really know what is on the minds of more than a small fraction of her congregation; a sermon perfectly crafted to clear the minds of that fraction may be pointless or even distracting to many others.

Mr Roberts’ post is really quite excellent.  I’d also recommend one of the later comments, from someone called Tapani:

Repetition is the mother of learning. I got an A in A level maths (a long time ago; wouldn’t pass GCSE now, I suspect!)—not because I could draw on this particular lesson or that for the answers, but because I had acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes over 14 years of mathematical education. I can recall just about one specific lesson (first term of lower sixth), and that because we were being something important (differentiation, from first principles) which I failed to grasp in the lesson and was, therefore, very frustrated. And yet I got that A.

I do wonder how much of this emphasis on memorability is a by-product, or at least sister, of the experiential turn in Christianity. We seek experiences, feelings, in worship in general, so we also seek experiences (feelings, or thoughts to hang on to) in sermons too. And if we don’t get those experiences but merely individual moments of life-long Christian formation, we are dissatisfied.

The phrase “individual moments of life-long Christian formation”  strikes me as a remarkably concise statement of a distinctly Protestant view of the role of preaching.  Anglicans are Protestants too, of course, even though some of them are strangely reluctant to admit it, and Quakerism originated as a radical reimagining of Anglicanism.   I do think that a tendency to equate cases of instruction in points of doctrine with “moments of life-long Christian formation” is native to Protestantism.  Surely that phrase would more naturally suggest, to a non-Protestant Christian, the experience of the sacraments.  In that sense, the emphasis on encounters with the divine and the aversion to systematic theology that characterize Anglicanism and its offshoots marks a point at which those movements part company with the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and move toward common ground with the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

Anyway, this post has the noun phrase “church-going” in its title, so here is Philip Larkin reading his poem “Church-Going“:

I am not much of a believer myself; my attitude is not really so different from Larkin’s, when one comes down to it.  I do think it would be a shame if a day were to dawn when even disbelief has finally withered away, when the last, the very last person has sought a church for what it was, and all that remains is a vague sense of “a serious house on serious earth.”  If that day never does come, and if at the end of it all there are still those like my wife and our friends among the Friends and the Anglicans who find renewal and transformation and surpassing truth in such places, I suspect the seeds from which that infinite future will have grown are striking their roots deeper in the hushed moments of sacramental encounter than in the ringing words of the dogmatist.

Illegals

On October 15, linguist Neal Whitman wrote a piece on his blog in which he conceded that there are several good reasons to avoid the term “illegal immigrant.”  He cites three of these:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.

Mr Whitman accepts all of these arguments, and grants that the term “illegal alien” is dehumanizing and should be avoided at all times.  He does register a dissent from a fourth argument, however:

[The phrase "illegal immigrant"] is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

Mr Whitman categorizes this claim as “just plain silly, and grasping at straws.”  He explains:

When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

On October 17, I commented on Mr Whitman’s post as follows:

I have a reservation about “illegal immigrant.” It is a long, awkward expression (six syllables, two lexical items, several highly abstract notions embedded in it,) so people will naturally want to shorten it. And the form to which it always seems to be shortened is “illegal.” As in, “How many illegals are in the USA?” That usage doesn’t exactly invite the full range of opinions as to what our policies should be with regard to immigration. Granted, a phrase like “undocumented worker” also signals a strong preference in the same regard. Using either term suggests that the speaker has set his or her face firmly against one side of the discussion. Perhaps if we as a society declared both expressions off-limits in polite conversation, people would come up with a truly neutral term. Of course, there would always be the danger that one or both of the expressions would sneak back into the language and steel American jaws, but that’s just something we’d have to guard against.*

On October 22, functional linguist Daniel Ginsberg wrote this comment:

Full disclosure: I’m a functional linguist, so I tend to be skeptical of people talking about what “words mean” in the absence of a person who used those words to encode a specific message. Also, I’m pretty far to the left of mainstream in American politics, and I’ve spent years working with immigrants, so you can guess what my personal choice of phrase is.

That said, my intuition is that the problem with “illegal immigrant” isn’t as much in the semantics of adjective-noun compounds as in the associations with the word “illegal.” The top hits of a COCA** search for “illegal [*nn]” are “immigrants, immigration, aliens,” and after that we get into “drugs, weapons, substances, acts, dumping, gambling, arms,” as well as “workers,” which seems to be a euphemism for “immigrants.” Going down the list, other collocates that refer to human beings are always other terms for *ahem* undocumented workers: “residents,” “entrants” (into the U.S.), “population.” The top 100 collocations in COCA don’t show any “illegal” + person pairings except for “illegal immigrants” and synonyms.

So the question becomes, if the language permits “illegal N” to mean “person who did N in an illegal way,” why is N nearly exclusively reserved to signify “immigrate into the United States”? Why isn’t Bernie Madoff an “illegal banker,” or Jack Kevorkian an “illegal doctor,” or Lance Armstrong an “illegal cyclist”?

The CDA*** researcher in me says, we’re making a class of “illegal things” here, that is implicitly expressing an ideology about the nature of illegality. The contents of that class include assault weapons, addictive drugs, the pollution of waterways with industrial runoff, cutting trees on protected land, running a casino out of your basement … and sneaking across the US border because conditions in your home country are so dire that you have no hope for a better life there.

Mr Whitman’s post and the discussion appended to it presaged a news story that broke a few days later.  On October 19, the Associated Press released a statement announcing that it would continue to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to refer to people who have entered and established residence in the United States without the permission of the legal authorities.  The wire service‘s defense of this decision reads eerily like what Mr Whitman had posted a few days before:

Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law. (Precisely to respect the dignity of people in this situation, the Stylebook warns against such terms as “illegal alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals.”)

The press release goes on to describe circumstances in which the AP would avoid the phrase or add qualifications to it, descriptions which again recall Mr Whitman’s agreement that the first three arguments he cites constitute good reasons for using another expression:

The first thing to note is that “illegal immigrant” is not the only term we use. The Stylebook entry on this subject was modified a year ago to make clear that other wording is always acceptable, including “living in the country without legal permission.”

In fact, there are cases where “illegal immigrant” doesn’t work at all. For instance, if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of “immigration” himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.

There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.

But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?

To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.

Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.

Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).

Mr Whitman’s blog is titled “Literal-Minded“; its tagline is “Linguistic Commentary from a Guy Who Takes Things Too Literally.”  So when he argues that the rules of English semantics permit a construction like “illegal immigrant,” it is quite believable that his agenda does not go beyond the explication of those rules.  The sheer fact that the phrase is well-formed does not mean that anyone should ever use it, and so his argument is by no means a defense of its use.  He recognizes this; the AP does not.  Its press release offers no defense of the phrase beyond its formal admissibility as a semantic structure, and does not answer any of the objections Mr Whitman had so readily acknowledged.

On October 31, Slate magazine carried a piece by Kerry Howley, associated with the title “Is Saying ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Like Saying ‘Illegal Logger‘?”  Ms Howley reports on the AP’s decision; a photo accompanying the piece carries the caption “Support for undocumented immigrants at the Democratic National Convention. Supporters of illegal loggers never showed.”  Neither Mr Whitman nor the AP had mentioned any particular group or individual that had asked the wire service to discontinue use of the phrase “illegal immigrant”; Ms Howley links to a website associated with the campaign known as “Drop the I Word.”  In response to the AP’s observation that “[t]erms like ‘undocumented’ and ‘unauthorized’ can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork,” Ms Howley argues:

“Illegal” suggests fault with immigrants rather than the system of laws in which they are ensnared. It’s possible that illegal loggers are illegal because of poorly drawn statutes about public land—maybe they’re really freedom loggers—but that’s not the connotation.

“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word “undocumented” just as restrictionists do when they say “illegal.” What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission. You have to pick one and own it, which “Drop the I-word” seems to recognize. They suggest you start saying “NAFTA Refugee.”

Here Ms Howley echoes my comment of the 17th, though without my suggestion that we might try to invent a new term that will be neutral.  Of course, I made that suggestion in less than total earnestness- there doesn’t seem to be any great demand for detached, objective discussion of immigration policy, much less for new vocabulary to promote such discussion.  All sides of the debate are driven by people who favor policies which they regard as indispensable to their livelihoods.  In that position, people look at words as weapons with which to fight the enemies who threaten them, not as laboratory equipment with which to gain understanding.  So when you choose your words, you choose your battles.

*None of the subsequent commenters said anything about “steel American jaws,” a line of which I was somewhat proud.  I would have been happy if they had said it made them laugh, but I’m not upset that they didn’t. 

**COCA = the Corpus of Contemporary American English

***CDA = Critical Discourse Analysis

A possible etymology of the name “Acilius”

I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC.  It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.

A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name.  Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan.  In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:

I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:

*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)

The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.

This intrigues me very much.  If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading.  Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.

On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself.  This is where the Acilii come to mind.  Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius.  A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley.  So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.

Without a net

I’ve written long comments recently on two blogs, Secular Right and Kenan Malik’s Pandaemonium.  Both of these blogs are written by and for secular-minded people who value freedom of speech.  As its name would indicate, Secular Right usually favors a conservative political agenda; Mr Malik is a man of the center-left in politics.

A week ago, Mr Malik posted this “Jesus and Mo” strip at Pandaemonium.  Mr Malik said that the strip said in fewer than 50 words what he took more than 4000 words to say in this talk earlier last year:

I for one preferred Mr Malik’s talk, and explained why in this long comment:

I think you and Plato, in the talk to which you link, do a better job of handling this particular question than Jesus and Mo do. The greatest advantage religious codes of conduct have over the philosophical study of ethics is that they are slower to collapse into debates about contrived hypothetical scenarios.

I should explain that in his talk, delivered to theology students at the University of Bristol, Mr Malik had discussed Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro* if it is the will of the gods that makes an act good, or if it is the goodness of an act that makes the gods will it.  Euthyphro tries to answer, and like most of the amateur philosophers Socrates encounters in Plato’s dialogues quickly gets lost in a tangle of abstractions and finds himself making absurd, self-contradictory remarks.  Mr Malik suggests that a rephrasing of the central dilemma in which Euthyphro finds himself would be “Is God good because to be good is to be whatever God is; or is God good because He has all the properties of goodness? If it is the former, then we find once more that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. If, on the other hand, God is good because he has all the properties of goodness, then it means that such  properties can be specified independently of God.”  In the first case, belief in God or in any other kind of supernatural order would not be sufficient to provide a rational basis for morality; in the latter case, such belief would not be necessary to provide that basis.  So the point I was making in this opening paragraph was that Euthyphro has a bigger problem even than that, and that it is one which a believer might be able to escape.

Unlike the cartoon Jesus and Mo, actually existing Christians and Muslims can refer to bodies of law and traditions of practice that have steadily been growing in tandem with conditions of daily life among vast populations for centuries. So they can answer questions like these with “It depends,” and avail themselves of a tremendous amount of material on which the answer might depend.

Someone setting out to create a philosophical system, by contrast, occupies the position in which Socrates found Euthyphro. With only abstractions as building material, such a person cannot distinguish between extreme situations in which moral reasoning is unlikely to produce useful conclusions and normative situations in which we can be expected to achieve moral clarity, Still less can such a person establish a hierarchy of cases and rules that will define some cases as analogous to others, therefore usable as precedents to decide right action in those other cases. That is so even in the case of someone like Euthyphro, whose kit of abstractions includes theological abstractions.

In other words, Euthyphro’s problem is not that he is approaching morality in terms of the wrong abstractions, but that he is approaching it in abstract terms at all.  The occasion of the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father on a charge of murder.  Socrates wants to know how anyone could have so little filial piety.  In his questioning of Euthyphro, he finds that the man’s devotion to his abstract, and as it happens ill-thought-out, notions of justice has deadened him to family feeling and made him into a sort of monster.  At the close of his talk, Mr Malik seems to have such monsters in mind when he writes “The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”  This follows a discussion of Albert Camus, whose thought Mr Malik seems to recommend we use to help keep our balance as we walk this tightrope.

I value Albert Camus’ works highly, but I think the path to sanity runs not through books, but through human relationships.  As we try to hold onto each other, as we imitate each other, as we take up work that earlier generations began before we were born and that later generations will continue after we die, as we draw on past experience to find analogies that will help us resolve present difficulties, we connect with each other and with the world around us.  It is in those activities and the striving for the immediate that underpins them that we avoid the fate of Euthyphro.  What we need is not the “ethical concrete” Mr Malik disparages, but a concrete ethics of actual experience and loving relationships with people who are close enough to us that it would hurt if they didn’t love us back.

If theological abstractions drift about unmoored to codes of conduct and myth and ceremonial, they are little different from other abstractions. So if instead of Jesus and Muhammad, the cartoon showed Sam Harris declaring that moral questions should somehow be reduced to neurological questions, it would be just as easy to show the cartoon version of Mr Harris presented with some lifeboat scenario, and to conclude with him scratching his head as he tried to resolve that scenario by looking at an fMRI scan as it is to show Jesus and Muhammad stymied in an attempt to find a similar solution in their holy books. That would be no more cutting against Mr Harris than the present cartoon is against Jesus and Muhammad, since his appeal, like theirs, is not to any particular document, but to a deep and rich tradition of shared practice and mutual understanding. In his case, that appeal is to science, in theirs, to religion. At the end of the day, none of these appeals is more convincing to me than it is to you, but they are far more powerful than the sorts of arguments Euthyphro and his heirs make.

In his talk, Mr Malik had mentioned his disagreement with Sam Harris about the role of science in ethical debates.  He claims that there is a dividing line between himself on one side, and Mr Harris and Euthyphro on the other: “Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, and perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, in his book The Moral Landscape, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. ‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.   Science, and neuroscience, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. A Christian might look to the Bible to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.”  Mr Malik links to a detailed critique of Mr Harris’ views that he offered last year.

I made very similar points in an even longer comment I posted on Secular Right in September.  In a post called “What is it like to be a theist?,” John Derbyshire mentioned this review of a book in which philosopher Alvin Plantinga defends belief in God as defined by the Reformed tradition in Christianity.  I haven’t read that book, but I am familiar with Professor Plantinga’s other works, and so I made some remarks about them.  That brought a friendly response from “Steve Cardon,” which was all I needed to prompt me to post this:

@Steve Cardon: Thanks for the kind words, and for several very interesting ideas.

I’m going off to think more about what you’ve written. All I know I want to say now is this:

“I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous.”

That may well be so, but the stories are only one part, usually a rather small part, of what religions offer their followers. Myths, doctrines, ritual, ceremonial, etc, all work together to help bind generation to generation and create a community with a sense of shared purpose.

Likewise with “the ultimate answers to the universe.” Religions, including ancient religions, can give you some questions about the universe, an expectation that the universe is set up to answer those questions, and a sense that it is urgent to find those answers, but the particular answers people offer are never as important as they seem at the time. So in debates about science or sexuality or economic systems or environmental policy or what have you, believers proclaim opinions in the firm conviction that they are speaking with the voice of the ancients. There we see believers feeling that their generation is bound to generations before and that they represent a project that will continue into generations yet unborn, and in some cases repeating language that they inherited from old texts.

Yet their ideas, however antique the language in which they are expressed, are about topics no one had ever heard of until recent decades. What would Moses have thought of the theory of evolution, or relativity, or the heliocentric model of the Solar System? Probably nothing- these ideas all answer questions he never asked and rely on concepts no one in the time of the Pharaohs had ever imagined. What would Paul have thought of the people in the contemporary West who want to marry members of the same sex? Again, probably nothing, certainly nothing useful. Family structure and sex roles in our time are so radically different from anything known in the Roman Empire that neither side of the debate would have been intelligible to him. Yet there are believers who find it necessary, and evidently find it gratifying, to try to square the findings of science with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and to analyze twenty-first century family formation in accord with formulas drawn from Paul’s writings. Their ideas are not ancient ideas, but their words may be ancient words. That alone seems to suffice to give them assurance of continuity.

*When I was in college, one of my Greek professors pointed out that the name “Euthyphro” is formed from Greek words meaning “broad-browed” or “wide-headed.”  So, when students translated the dialogue in class, he insisted that they call Euthyphro “Meathead.”   That was long enough ago that all of remembered this guy, and we laughed at the image of him as Socrates’ respondent.

The Battle of the Acilian Chuckle

Victor Mair is one of the most distinguished scholars of Chinese language and literature in the United States.  Among his many services to the enlightenment of his countrymen are Professor Mair’s frequent contributions to Language Log.

I mention Professor Mair’s great eminence because he and I recently engaged in a remarkably absurd conflict.  (more…)

Things I’ve been saying

Recently I’ve posted comments on several blogs and forums.  In response to a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip, I mused about James P. Carse’s theories of religion and Michael Oakeshott’s political theory.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, I proposed that political scientists might be able to make use of work done by economists to strengthen the concept of “legitimacy” to which they often appeal.   At The Monkey Cage, I suggested that a survey which appears to show that Americans who support the Republican Party are somewhat likelier than their Democratic compatriots to harbor anti-African American sentiments might, if interpreted more carefully, show that the difference is actually much more dramatic than the raw data shows.  And at Secular Right, I expressed reservations about the idea of awarding $100,000,000 to every woman who carries to term a pregnancy begun in rape.

Where the action is these days

I haven’t posted much here lately, though I’ve been quite active at our sister site, Thunderlads After Hours (our tumblr.)  Just today, I put up three pictures of dogs riding tricycles, as well as a post that starts with an old Peanuts strip, continues with a quote from Oliver Cromwell, and concludes with a remark about the purpose of theology.  Also today, I put up a quote from Franz Kafka and added a comment in which I tried to explain my attitude towards mysticism.  In fact, I posted a total of fifteen things there today.  Aside from the five I’ve listed, the rest are just photos to which I added little or no comment when I saw them on my dash and hit “reblog.”    That’s the thing about tumblr, it’s so easy to slap stuff up there.

 

“If politicians would stop arguing, they could work together– to get things done! Doesn’t matter what! Just, you know– things!”

The other day, The Monkey Cage featured a post called “Why Does Congress Flail?  Voters Reward Positions More than Success.”  As the title implies, the premise of the post was that the US Congress has been relatively ineffective in passing major legislation of late because its members know that their jobs depend, not on passing bills into law, but on striking poses that resonate with the ideological leanings of their constituents.

In a comment, I challenged the first part of the premise.  In the last ten years, the US Congress has in fact passed a great deal of major legislation, changing American government and American life far more profoundly than in almost any other epoch of US history.  Among this legislation are bills funding several wars, permitting the president to wiretap virtually anyone he likes, maintaining indefinite detention of persons accused of terrorism, creating the Department of Homeland Security, formalizing a variety of terrorism watch-lists, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, requiring citizens to buy health insurance, dramatically expanding the federal role in education, handing a trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money to Goldman Sachs and companies friendly to it, and repeatedly cutting taxes on the largest incomes, to name just a few measures with vast ramifications.  It’s true that members of congress rarely cite these achievements in their reelection bids.  That isn’t because they are unimportant, but because none of them is at all popular.  If these acts constitute “success,” then it is no wonder voters don’t reward it.  Rather, it is a mystery that voters don’t punish such “success” by deserting both the Republican and Democratic parties, and replacing their entire set of political leaders.

Yet one still hears Americans who wish to be regarded as “moderate,” or “centrist,” or “responsible” say that top elected officials in Washington should stop battling with each other so that they can be more effective at “getting things done.”  I’ve found that the people who say this seem puzzled when I point out how much has “gotten done” in Washington since 2001 .  What seems equally difficult for them to grasp is the point Tom Tomorrow makes in this cartoon::

Brian Barder is a nice guy

Political blogging is not generally regarded as an activity that brings courtesy to the fore, but retired UK diplomat Brian Barder never fails to show good manners.  Though most of the topics he discusses are outside my usual circle of interests, I read him regularly, since it is such a pleasure to see politeness at work.

For example, the other day Brian Barder* posted a proposal about reforming the UK constitution. Brian Barder has considerable expertise on this subject, and his proposal is sufficiently close to his heart that he has been working to promote it for some years.  My knowledge of the UK constitution is limited to what I picked up during the years I took The Economist, and as someone who does not live in the UK my stake in its reform is close to nil.  Yet I took the liberty of posting comments (here and here) in which I expressed skepticism about the practical aspects of his plan.  Brian Barder would have been perfectly within his rights to ignore my uninformed remarks, or even to dismiss them icily, yet in fact he took the time to provide detailed responses to each of them.  In fact, he even emailed me to make sure that I knew he had done so.  Such generosity is not to be forgotten.

*I’d call him “Mr Barder,” but that isn’t actually his name.  He holds a knighthood, and so the proper courtesy title for him is “Sir Brian.”  I cannot bring myself to refer to any living person in that fashion; to me, it suggests only Monty Python.   So the only respectful way I can name him is as “Brian Barder.”  This is a shame, since Brian Barder is himself so scrupulous a user of courtesy titles that he titled his condemnation of the Oslo massacre “There are no lessons to learn from Mr Breivik.”  If Brian Barder can bring himself to give the correct title even to the murderer of dozens of helpless innocents, it seems churlish of me to withhold his title from him, yet I must, I must.

Overheard on my lunch break

This afternoon, I stopped at a theater box office to buy tickets for a show Mrs Acilius and I want to attend later this month.  I overheard a snippet of conversation between the box office clerk and the customer ahead of me.  I didn’t hear the part leading up to it, so I don’t know what information the clerk was trying to find:

CLERK: Have you bought tickets here before?

CUSTOMER: Yes.

(CLERK types on computer, looks puzzled): Could it be under your spouse’s name?

(CUSTOMER thinks long and hard, then answers in a doubtful tone): I’m not sure… probably not.

CLERK: Do you have a spouse?

CUSTOMER: No.

From the box office, I went to Subway to eat lunch.  While I was eating, I overheard another brief cross-counter conversation:

(CUSTOMERS enter.)

SANDWICH ARTIST,* smiling brightly: Welcome to Subway!

CUSTOMER: Hi.  You seem happy.

SANDWICH ARTIST, smiling just as brightly as before: It’s fake!

*Hey, that’s their official title.

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