Monday, January 15, 2018

My grandparents and me at the Gregory House

Here's a picture of my grandparents holding me at Torreya State Park during our family reunion in 1969.  The Gregory House, seen in the background, is the last remaining building from Ocheese Landing, where my ancestor Thomas Cupples Richards moved in 1821.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


The only thing that made the children of Israel special was the calling they received from God.  They were not great builders; they were not great warriors.  They did not have great philosophers or mathematicians.  They were not renowned for their art.  They were not wealthy; they were not, at the time of their calling, even free.

God is not a respecter of persons; He is a respecter of Nobody.  Moses was a Somebody in Egypt, but after he had been herding sheep for forty years in the Sinai desert, he was Nobody, and it was then he received his call.  David was Nobody when Samuel was sent to anoint a new king -- David was left out in the fields, tending the sheep, while his brothers, who had the potential to be Somebodies, were brought before Samuel.

Only a Nobody is fit to represent the True God.  If a rich man were chosen, people would think he was chosen for his riches; if a learned man were chosen, it would be thought he was chosen for his learning; if a strong man were chosen, it would be thought he was chosen for his strength.  "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty."

We see the same thing in the Gospels.  OK, in the non-canonical "Gospel of James" there was a sort of competition among all the widowers of ... Jerusalem?  Judea? Galilee, too? to find a suitable husband for Mary, and a miracle revealed God's choice to be Joseph.  But that book is non-canonical, and neither St. Joseph nor the Virgin Mary were given any special accommodation for the birth of Jesus, nor did they seem to be VIPs in Nazareth.  As far as the world was concerned, Jesus was a Nobody:  "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.  He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not."

Incidentally, this is probably how Pontius Pilate saw Jesus -- though he was troubled by his wife's dream -- and, based on the few surviving extrabiblical references to Pilate, it is 100% how he saw the Jews.  When he had the inscription written to be placed over the head of Jesus, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", to him it likely meant, "Nobody from Nowheresville, King of the Nobodies", and it was meant as an insult to all those impudent Nobodies that the imperial Caesar had sent him to govern.  Like Caiaphas, he did not truly understand the meaning of what he said; "for had [he] known it, [he] would not have crucified the Lord of glory."

What about today?

Today the Jews are Somebodies.  Many of the greatest artists, scientists, and politicians are Jews.  Jewish culture has embraced learning more than most other ethnic cultures, and that has made them wealthy and powerful -- and envied.  Everyone from China to Chile pays attention to threats exchanged between the modern state of Israel and Iran, in part because the Israelis are pretty well known to be members of the nuclear club.  

Being a Somebody has never really been compatible with Israel's unique calling, though.  David conducted a census to see if he was really a Somebody, and that turned out badly.  Solomon was indisputably a Somebody, which contributed to his fall into idolatry and the splitting of the Kingdom.  Hezekiah showed off being a Somebody by exhibiting to the Babylonians "all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures," which impressed the Babylonians so much that they returned to take it not long after Hezekiah's death.

Today's state of Israel is a Somebody, just like Greece or Japan or the UK.  Just like Greece or Japan or the UK, though -- Netanyahu does not lead the Kingdom of David.  Even if the Temple in Jerusalem is one day rebuilt, it will only take the Jews farther from their sacred origin as divinely chosen Nobodies.  There is no going back to the Temple of Solomon, and for a Christian, no reason to miss it, either.

There are still Nobodies in the world, and God still makes use of them, but the key fact of this stage of salvation history is not that God respects Nobody, but that God desires the salvation of Everybody.  That will be my next topic.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Can Moral Relativists Be Good?

This question comes up now and then -- usually about atheists, but it is their moral relativism that makes the question interesting.  At any rate, the answers tend to be a bit too glib.

Let me start by saying that by "being good" I do not mean by the standards of Mark 10:18, which would guarantee an answer of "no".  Nor am I asking if they still bear the image of God (though no longer the likeness) and are valued by God; this question would guarantee an answer of "yes".  I mean, can they behave well by human standards?  Oh, and just because some choose not to does not mean they could not have.

It's worth adding that even by human standards, we are a species of stinkers.  Nothing drives this home so forcefully as a daily examination of conscience.  As Hilaire Belloc said, we
... pretty nearly all day long
Are doing something rather wrong.
The ancient Greeks knew this, which is why we have the story of Diogenes carrying a lit lamp during the day to look for an honest man.  If the question is to be interesting, we can't set the bar very high.

We do need to set it high enough, though, that "being good" is inconvenient.  It is only through some degree of sacrifice that we can be sure there is real commitment.

Now imagine that you have a friend who insists, loudly and frequently, that Napoleon never existed at all, being entirely a fiction created by the British and Russian ruling classes to keep their populations awed and subjugated.  In spite of that, this friend insists on dressing and acting like Napoleon.  He persists in this behavior even though it has cost him friends and job opportunities.  If anyone says he does not really look like Napoleon, he becomes angry -- almost as angry as he becomes if anyone says there was a real Napoleon for him to look like.

This behavior is possible, but by no means rational.  Furthermore, when you say the friend "looks like Napoleon", you mean there was a real man whose appearance can be accurately determined (in spite of conflicting accounts) by careful research; all the friend can mean is that he looks like the popular image of Napoleon.

The point is, of course, that anyone who loudly insists that there is no real moral standard, but who nevertheless behaves as though it did, is not really behaving rationally, and he certainly is no judge of what good behavior really is.  Nevertheless, he may be better than his beliefs; many people are saved from being monsters by being slightly irrational.

Monday, November 20, 2017

What Does Atheism (Typically) Mean?

If "atheist" merely means someone who believes there is no Supreme Being, he might still believe in a whole hierarchy of spirits with different personalities and powers.  Buddhism is perhaps like this, as was early Greco-Roman paganism, though Hindu, Egyptian, and late Greco-Roman paganism see the many gods as manifestations or aspects of one Supreme Being.  In some beliefs, this Supreme Being is more personal, and in some less.

On the other hand, atheism can be defined not not by the non-belief in powerful non-human beings, but in the non-belief in the right of these beings, by virtue of their very nature, to receive worship.

The claim that anyone or anything can have rights due to its nature alone, rather than based on his utilitarian value or his ability to punish or reward, is probably less popular today than it was in the ancient world, but it has not disappeared entirely.  Most people will agree that a child has a right to food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and even education, however inconvenient that might be and whether or not the person (or even society) supplying these benefits gets anything in return.  Most people think that each person has a right to a fair trial before punishment, a right not to be enslaved, etc.  There has always been a feeling that gods have a similar right to worship -- as distinct from human despots like those of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, who often demand worship.

It seems fair to say that modern atheism has more to do with the second point than with the first.  First of all, modern atheists are apt to think it likely that not only are there other intelligent beings in the universe, but that many of them may be so technologically advanced that they could do things that would seem completely impossible to us.  Secondly, atheists tend to believe that the ultimate Theory of Everything in physics is one, simple (in a sense), and beautiful (in a sense); Christians may agree, on the basis of God's creation reflecting God's nature, but atheists make the TOE into a kind of Ersatz God.  Christians say that God is uncreated and responsible for the reality of everything else; atheists say the TOE is uncreated and responsible for everything else.  Modern atheists basically acknowledge a pantheistic god who makes no moral demands, and they occasionally like to celebrate the glories of this god (like Carl Sagan did in the "Missa Gaia" in 1993) in quasi-religious ways, but truly and fundamentally they refuse to worship it.

No doubt there are some exceptions, but practically all modern atheists are moral relativists.  In other words, they would deny that conscience (contrary to, for example, Budziszewski) is a perception of an objective, external, non-physical reality.  On the contrary, they understand conscience as preferences based on (biological, not metaphysical) nature and nurture.  They might paraphrase Yoda:  "Do.  Or do not.  There is no good or evil."

The odd thing is that someone who truly embraces these ideas has no imperative to share them.  He might feel an irrational desire to share them, or he might share them in order to try to induce people to behave in a desired way.  Then again, he might find it more useful to pretend to be the prophet of a god in whom he does not believe.  Look at how many cults -- including cult-like organizations like the Legion of Christ under Marcial Maciel -- end up being schemes to provide the leaders with sex and money; is it really plausible that these leaders truly believe in God?  But if there really is no God and no real right or wrong, it is more rational to be a cult leader than to be an evangelist of atheism.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

USA: Our Diversity Is Our Strength

Carthage:  Our diversity is our strength.
Rome:  Our unity is our strength.

1st Punic War:  Rome beats Carthage.
2nd Punic War:  Rome breaks Carthage.
3rd Punic War:  Rome destroys Carthage.

EDIT:  "Unity" was not exactly the right word for Rome; "cohesion" is more accurate, or perhaps "coherence".  Rome, and for that matter Alexander's Macedonians, had the cohesion and coherence that came from a shared culture and a shared identity.  Carthage and Persia, on the other hand, relied much more on adhesion and adherence.  Obviously those also worked well, or else we never would have heard of Carthage and Persia.  Adhesion and adherence, though, are much more likely to give way to the desertion and defection of whole groups of people, particularly in the tight spots when desertion or defection are most likely to be fatal.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Slow News Day?

I'll concede that much of the 24-hour news cycle is filled not just with fluff, but with stale fluff.  At the same time, I was surprised yesterday to see "Soldier salutes funeral procession in pouring rain", picture and all, held up as a story of national interest.  What's next?  "Man removes hat when entering church"?  "Man opens door for woman"?  "Child thanks grandma for Christmas gift"?  These are all instances of good manners, and Heaven knows we need more examples of good manners these days, but are any of these really news stories?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Preserving Monuments

Yesterday I visited Serpent Mound in Peebles, OH.  There are not many truly ancient constructions still visible within the United States, but this one dates to about 300 B.C., is relatively nearby, and the head of the snake and several coils appear to be aligned with astronomically important directions, as signs at the site indicate.

These combine to make this perhaps the best local counterpart to Stonehenge.

The precise significance of Serpent Mound to its builders, or for that matter to later people who lived in the area, is not entirely clear.  Think of all the migrations that have taken place in Europe since 300 B.C.; well, people in the Americas moved around, too.  Likewise, since 300 B.C. Europe has seen not only the various pagan traditions that were present at the time, but also Christianity (with significant developments like the Protestant Reformation), Islam (particularly in the Iberian Peninsula and southeastern Europe, Mithraism, and Gnosticism, and these various religions frequently used the same symbols to illustrate different ideas.  Even within the superficially stable area of Egyptian polytheism, there were important changes from pre-dynastic Egypt to the banning of polytheism in favor of Christianity.  Again, the native inhabitants of North America must likewise have had dynamic religions, only they left no written record.  It is safe to say, though, that what American Indians believe today is not identical to what they believed in 1492, and what they believed in 1492 was not the same as what they believed in 300 B.C.

Although we do not share all the beliefs of the people who created Serpent Mound, it is widely accepted that we should respect the monuments for historical reasons.  Not everyone does this, of course.  In 2001, the Taliban dynamited the "Buddhas of Bamiyan" because they did not agree with the ideas represented by those statues.  More recently, ISIS has destroyed countless buildings, statues, and artifacts (to say nothing of people) that represent ideas with which they disagree.  And, in much the same vein, it has become fashionable for universities and cities to remove Confederate monuments that have stood for decades, or even for over a century.  No one (except, perhaps, a Buddhist) who approves of that has any solid basis for condemning the Taliban for destroying the Buddhist statues.