Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Ghost in the Machine

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosphy.
Steve Pinker’s article on the “The Moral Instinct” continues to draw a lot of attention on the web. At the risk of reviewing the reviews (or reacting to the reactions), what strikes me is the anxiety expressed by some about the notion there might be biological traits in humans associated with the exercise of moral reasoning or religious belief. I’m not talking about the creationists or proponents of ID; I’m talking about the average person who professes faith in God and who otherwise sees no conflict between that faith and modern science.

Now I’m not going to defend everything Pinker said in his article or the pop-journalistic style he used. What surprises me is how ready many have been to attack, jumping to the conclusion that he is arguing for a materialistic, mechanistic view of human beings and their moral behavior, and by implication, one that is contrary to the foundations of religious belief and practice. Maybe we have the militant atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to blame for this – I do not recall quite so much anxiety about this back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when Ashley Montagu was trying to bridge the gap between the sociobiologists and cultural anthropologists of his day. Neverthelesss, some of the knee-jerk reactions against Pinker's article, such as that of Claire Hoffman (in "A Questionable Moral Instinct" at her Newsweek blog, Under God), rather astonish me. I sometimes wonder whether even so-called religious progressives can be as dismissive of science as the creationists they so often deplore.

Although I am not familiar with Pinker or his writings, I found a good description of the kind of attitude I mean in Steve Johnson's review of Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate. Johnson finds that critics of the various kinds of disciplines or schools of thought described as “biological determinism” often jump to the same conclusion:
The true straw man of biological determinism, however, is the latter term, which implies a fantasy of genetic programming in which we are all slaves to our DNA, with free will, education, culture, chance, life experience – all the nonbiological forces--relegated to the margins of who we are. Not one of the leading neo-Darwinians – Wilson, Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, William Hamilton or the science writers who have helped popularize their work, like Richard Wright and Matt Ridley – has ever argued for a pure genetic determinism. You can't read more than a few pages into any of the major books written on the subject without encountering the obligatory disclaimer, making it clear that the author believes that we are greatly shaped by culture and experience, and the biological component is only a part of what makes us human.
"Sociobiology and You," The Nation, November 18, 2002. [Note, the same can be said about Pinker's article, where he discusses how many behaviors have become amoralized and moralized in recent years, indicating that culture is terribly important in determining what gets loaded into the hypothetical biologically-loaded "grammar" that frames the way we may conceive and act upon our notions of what is and is not moral.]

What Johnson and Pinker both find surprising is that many so-called liberals -- those who claim to be strong supporters of science -- nevertheless embrace "human exceptionalism" – i.e. Pinker’s "blank slate" – the notion that, "Unlike all the other organisms on earth, which clearly arrive with a sophisticated set of instincts designed to exploit the parameters of their environment, human minds are merely abstract learning machines, born with no innate proclivities other than to soak up information along the way." Id. at 2. Johnson describes this phenomenon as follows:
But the more interesting question – and the one Pinker spends the most time unraveling in The Blank Slate – is why that exceptionalism should prove to be so appealing to liberals and leftists who otherwise count themselves as proud defenders of the Darwinian faith. The argument for the blank slate turns out to be a strange kind of Not in My Backyardism: We need to have Darwinian theory in those Kansas schools, but we don't dare use it to understand what's going on in our own heads.
Id. (emphasis added). This peculiar bias has been acknowledged even by those who disagree with Pinker on other grounds (See Louis Menand, "What Comes Naturally," The New Yorker, November 22, 2002 and Simon Blackburn, "Meet the Flintstones"). However, I especially like Johnson's view of the middle ground, or more accurately, the multivalent context, in which nature and nurture, and our knowledge of each, can interact:
Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite--understanding the particular channels that we're prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive. And just because our mental modules are implicated in political issues, that's no reason to hand over our societal reins to the evolutionary psychologists. To include biological explanations in a discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations. What Pinker and E.O. Wilson are proposing is not biological determinism but rather biological consilience: the connecting of different layers of experience, each with its own distinct vocabulary and expertise, but each also possessing links up and down the chain:
Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another. The black boxes get opened; the promissory notes get cashed. A geographer might explain why the coastline of Africa fits into the coastline of the Americas by saying that the landmasses were once adjacent but sat on different plates, which drifted apart. The question of why the plates move gets passed on to the geologists, who appeal to an upwelling of magma that pushes them apart. As for how the magma got so hot, they call in the physicists to explain the reactions in the Earth's core and mantle. None of the scientists is dispensable. An isolated geographer would have to invoke magic to move the continents, and an isolated physicist could not have predicted the shape of South America.

I would suggest that while religion, in some senses, is the way that many of us not only view but experience "the whole shebang," in other senses it is one of many building blocks in human knowledge and understanding. It needs the others, as much as they need to be informed and guided by religion's understanding of larger eternal truths. And there is no good reason why we should shy away from learning whatever science can teach us about how we and the physical universe we inhabit function.

For many people it is not necessary to resolve the tensions between faith and science. We just go on our merry way thinking that evolutionary biologists can do whatever it is that they do as long as they keep to themselves and apply their work to advancing medicine and improving or protecting the physical environment. Meanwhile, we think and pray, live and die as though there is a ghost in our machines – as spirit, soul, and/or mind in each of our bodies and as God in the universe as a whole. And – here’s the rub -- we argue with atheists about whether there really are such ghosts, even though we admit we cannot prove, empirically at least, that they exist.

The work of biologists, physicists, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers all can shed light on who and what we are without losing the mystery that keeps us from ever glimpsing the full reality of who and what God is. Theirs are not competing spheres of knowledge or understanding but rather the means by which we might better be all that God calls us to be. God's design and purpose may be working within what we know as our physical bodies, not extraneously -- or, for all we know, both internally and externally, or in terms of dimensions we will never fathom. Nevertheless, when science begins to talk about some kind of neurological predisposition for developing and exercising a sense of morality, for some kinds of altruism, or even having religious beliefs, a sudden chill seems to fill the air, as if in anticipation of someone suddenly yanking the curtains away to reveal a cold, dark, complex machine without even an Oz to pull the levers. Our faith should be bigger and better than that.

There is much to observe, learn, argue and debate. There are Pinker and his critics. There is Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up Their Minds and Societies of Brains); António Damásio (Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain), and now Andrew Gluck (Damasio's Error and Descartes' Truth: An Inquiry into Consciousness, Metaphysics, and Epistemology). There appears to be no end to the questions, let alone answers.

Putting it all together suggests yet another kind of chain. As Steve Johnson envisioned it at the conclusion of "Sociobiology and You":
Neuroscientists explain how the brain's underlying electrochemical networks function; evolutionary psychologists explain how and why those networks create channels of "prepared learning"; sociologists explain what happens when those channels come together in large groups of individual minds; political theorists and ethicists explore the best way to structure society based on those patterns of group behavior, and the individual needs and drives contained within them. Including a few layers of biological knowledge in this chain doesn't hijack the process; it doesn't turn us into genetically programmed robots. In fact, it might well make our cultural systems more effective by showcasing useful avenues to explore and suggesting areas where our prepared learning may create too much resistance. The more we understand our nature, the better we'll be at nurturing.
The same can be said about loving God and our neighbor. The more we understand about how it is that we think and act the way we do, the better we'll be at building the Kingdom.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Hedgehog in the Fog

Today's features at You Tube brought me this delightful short animated film, "The Hedgehog in the Fog".

Meanwhile, I thought to check the Anglican Communion websites to see if there were any new statements or articles released. I found that the The Archbishop of Canterbury's pages have been revamped considerably. The Photo Gallery is especially intriguing, including this image.

As for new writings, the following, "A Hundred Years on from the Establishing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, How Much Further Forward are We?" was just released today.

Here is an excerpt:

To speak about mutual recognition is, of course, to grant implicitly that unity is not about absorption into a single mega-institution; it is about distinct and even divided communities freely consenting to be reconciled because they have recognised one life, Christ's life, in each other. To keep on insisting that this is bound up with recognition of where Eucharistic life is present in its fullness is not to prefer legalistic scrutiny over spiritual fellowship; it is simply to hold on to the conception of Christ's Body as the organ of a unity in which everyone genuinely lives for and 'into' the welfare and salvation of everyone else, because all are carriers of life for one another.

In our current rather bemused or becalmed ecumenical environment, we could do worse than revisit Lima and the ARCIC texts on ministry and the Church as communion, and reacquaint ourselves with the questions that we all have to confront about how we can see this or that ecclesial body as authentically more than just local and contingent. And perhaps we shall learn as we do so that the alternatives are not careless pluralism and cast-iron centralism. Between them lies the biblical conviction that we are responsible to each other for the faithful communication (in every sense) of the one Christ, and that we have to be in search of the structures which will properly serve that end.

These are, indeed, fine sentiments, however bemused and becalmed. I just wish someone would translate them, please.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ashley Montagu

RMJ at Adventus has been pondering the article (mentioned below) by Steven Pinker on "The Moral Instinct" featured in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. I hope to address it further later, but for now, let me offer a voice from the past, whom I recall from my days as an anthropology student reading anthropology and sociobiology and their conflicts over theories of the source and nature of aggression in humans.

Here from A Commemorative Essay, by James W. Prescott, Ph.D., are some notable quotes from Montagu:

In his chapter “What Ought We to Do?”, Ashley Montagu states:
We should by this time know what human beings are for. They have evolved as cooperative creatures, and their further biosocial evolution quite clearly lies with the further development of their cooperative capacities. This is what human beings are for. And it is upon the solid foundations of the development of their cooperative capacities that all their other capacities may be developed. We need, then, to recognize that the rearing and education of children must be designed to enable them to realize their cooperative capacities to the optimum. And by “cooperative capacities” we mean the ability to love. (p.30).

In LIVING AND LOVING, also published in Japan in 1986, Ashley Montagu provides the following commentary on “The Origins of Aggression”:

The findings on children in every culture who have been deprived of love, whether it be in a home, an institution, or whatever situation, are identical. Such children, by virtue of the fact that they have not been loved, don’t learn how to love others. Their expected satisfactions have been thwarted. They have been frustrated and if the frustrations are sufficient in quantity during particular critical developmental periods, the response is invariably the same. The response is then with a mechanism which is calculated to elicit and evoke the love and attention which has been withheld. This response we call aggression or aggressive behavior (p. 17).
In spite of the current pop anthropology associated with the names of Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris, and others, purveying the view that man is an innately aggressive creature, and that much of his cruelty can be explained by his being driven by a powerful “instinct of aggression,” the evidence, in fact, points in quite another direction. The evidence, at least as some of us see it, indicates that, as a consequence of humanity’s unique evolutionary history as a highly cooperative creature, the drives of infant and child are oriented in the direction of growth and development in love and cooperation. This is not a popular view, and, indeed, the pervasiveness of the opposite view is so ancient, and fortified by time and tradition—namely, that man is a sinful, ornery creature, evil, as St. Paul declared, in the flesh—that anyone who maintains the view that potential human beings are born with their needs all oriented in the direction of love, the need not only to be loved but also to love, is likely to be dismissed as a “romantic.” (pp.39-40).

In many cultures, the newborn’s and child’s intrinsic orientation and direction toward love, (and later in development, sexual love), is profoundly damaged through the barbarous acts of torture which are inherent in the rituals of genital mutilation. In his distinguished address “Mutilated Humanity” before the Second International Symposium On Circumcision in San Francisco (May 1991), Ashley Montagu observed:

I think it would be greatly to our advantage if, instead of calling ourselves Homo Sapiens, we called ourselves Homo Mutilans, the mutilating species, the species that mutilates both mind and body, often in the name of reason, of religion, tradition, custom, morality and law.� Were we to adopt such a name for our species, it might focus our attention upon what is wrong with us, and where we might begin setting ourselves right. It is characteristic of our much confused species that we should, in many parts of the world, begin the process of mutilation with male circumcision.
From Ashley Montagu, Receipient of the 1995 Humanist of the Year Award, A Commemorative Essay, by James W. Prescott, Ph.D., Institute of Humanistic Science

Let's Hear it for Quirky

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

I caught this the other day online and just had to save it. Words of wisdom from Eileen:

"There are certainly many behaviors and characteristics that we all have that are "quirky", and only become problematic when they really interfere with daily functioning. Some people count, some people have some 'magical" thinking - but as long as you can still get out of the house, in a reasonable amount of time, and not act out your quirkiness too much, it's just another of God's alternatives. The problem comes from people wanting homogeneity - especially in schools. Everyone needs to learn the same thing, at the same time, at the same rate, in the same way, even though so many in the fields of intelligence and creativity have shown that we don't all experience the world in the same way - we all have strengths and weaknesses."

(I'm smiling because fortunately for me, I don't have to get out of the house everyday, at least not to get to work.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quote of the Day

Today's New York Times reported the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in New York State Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres upholding this state's "unique" system of nominating state court judges. Quoted in the article was the following passage from Justice Stevens' concurring opinion:

But as I recall my esteemed former colleague, Thurgood Marshall, remarking on numerous occasions: "The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws."

I knew that, but what a pleasant reminder.

One flew east, one flew west

Wire, briar, limber-lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east, one flew west
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Remembering the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, Ken Kesey, and all who fly. More later, but for now, I offer this music and video.

* * * *

Reading Ken Kesey's book is something of a rite of passage in 10th grade English classes here. I was thinking of my daughter this morning, knowing that she left for school with only the last few pages yet to read on the bus. I cannot imagine starting the day with that ending. But she's young and she didn't have Jack Nicholson's face before her. I was nearly out of college when I saw the movie. It left me stunned, nearly unable to leave the theatre.

I used to react intensely to movies then. All the sturm und drang of the late '60's and early 70's used to roil in and out of me without much provocation. The combine. Michel Foucault. Jefferson Airplane.

Only a few years later, however, I found myself working not in mental institution but, strangely enough, in the middle of one. My first job out of college was with a Supported Work Program site located in what had been an abandoned building in the middle of the grounds of the Winnebago Mental Health Institute. I'm not certain, but I think it was the only remaining building of those originally built (and depicted above). The state allowed the program to fix up the building and operate from there.

Our program was one of 13 across the country as one of the early projects designed and funded by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. The target groups nationwide were delinquent youth, single mothers on AFDC for two or more years, and ex-offenders. Our non-profit sponsor had applied on the basis of a unique proposal to include persons with mental health problems, trying to see if persons recently leaving or about to leave institutionalized care would be helped by the four-step transitional work program. As it turned out, we did not get all that many people being released from WMHI, nor did administrative staff like myself have anything to do with the institution, even though our building was literally in the middle of the grounds. Yet everyday we had to drive by the one maximum security building to get to our parking lot.

I don't know if it ever had a McMurphy, a Bromden, or a Nurse Ratched. Certainly the counseling and support staff in our own program was full of caring people who were more concerned with helping people than trying to make people conform to any more social norms than what people needed to try to be self-supporting and not overwhelmed by much of the chaos in their lives. My job was to take our internal research data and weave it into narrative reports to MDRC, state and local funding agencies, and to work alongside the Director in meeting and working with advisory board members, social service, and vocational rehab people. I loved the job and the people, but the funding was precarious, so eventually I left to go to law school. I hoped to do criminal defense or poverty law when I graduated. I did do that for awhile, but somehow I never made it inside a place like WMHI.

Googling this morning, I was surprised to find that MDRC still is very much in business. Supported Work, at least in the form of our R&D project, is long since gone. WMHI, sadly, has been in the news due to questions about deaths that have occurred there.

I can't quite explain what all that place conjures in my mind. It was the beginning of living in the real world, in some ways, the underside of life barely seen before. I learned even more later practicing law, with all the frustrations inherent in trying to help people with just a few of their problems only to see other kinds overwhelm or undo what little I could do.

Those are just bits and pieces of what I remember. The rest is rolling around in the Fog Machine.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Thank you Louie (and Dylan)

I've been reading Louie Crew for a long time but have never had the privilege of hearing him speak. Thanks to Louie and Sarah Dylan Breuer, I now have the chance.

Dr. Crew's 1994 Integrity Eucharist sermon is available here at

Monday, January 14, 2008

Start the Revolution Without Me

Karl Marx Day T-Shirts

What the heck is going on here? First I find out that someone I thought who had some interesting things to say (Frank Furedi) was a founder of the now defunct RCP in Britain. And now there's this. Honest to goodness, I have not now or ever have been a . . . . My daughter received this photo by email in connection with a European History course she is taking at school. They're selling these t-shirts for $10.00 a piece to wear on the first annual EH Karl Marx Day, which will be held, with the teacher's blessing (they also had a Guy Fawkes Day celebration earlier in the school year), the first day back at school after winter break in late February. Note the "Nerds of the World Unite!" on the back. The times they sure are a changing. Gosh, I know anyone who wore anything like at our school would be sent packing, possibly getting a suspension. But then I was of the generation that had the nuclear attack drills in elementary school requiring us to hunker down under our desks with our hands clasped around the back of our necks (like that was going to help in the event of a bomb). Funny thing is that the teacher is really a bog-standard (is that the word?), mild-mannered liberal -- thinks that R.R. Palmer (author of the History of the Modern World) is the cats meow (or whatever). Well, at least red is a cheerful color for mid-winter, and a t-shirt doesn't break the bank like a soccer jersey.

Multi-culturalism and other thoughts

I’m in one of those weird moments in life when I feel bombarded by thoughts on all sides, on the verge of making some kind of connections, but they are just somehow beyond me. This past week I’ve been intrigued by some of the discussions at Mad Priest’s about multi-culturalism, first prompted by Bishop Nazir-Ali’s remarks about Muslims in Britain. While it seemed easy to dismiss his remarks as, well, Nazir-Ali, it did seem to strike a nerve with some Brits who, while they see themselves as generally tolerant of cultural diversity, are fearful of being overwhelmed by the religious and cultural differences brought by recent immigrants who seem more religious, insular, and less inclined to adapt to British culture than others. Two issues lurking in the background are (1) class differences, with social and intellectual elites in the government and academia and maybe even parts of the church embracing diversity while working class people are the ones who have to live side-by-side with the changes; and (2) the difficulty many progressive Christians have with finding the balance between being respectful of and tolerant of persons of other faiths and, at the same time, being comfortable with asserting their own faith.

At the same time I ran across a number of articles by Frank Furedi, a sociologist and professor at the University in Kent, who is about to publish a new book on terrorism. [After reading him all week, I am now amused to discover that Furedi (whose family is from Hungary, and who has lived in Canada and, for the last 30 years or more, in Britain), is a libertarian Marxist (can’t say I don’t have eclectic tastes)]. His premise is that there is an absence of meaning at the core of contemporary Western culture that leaves it confused and powerless in the face of the kind of radicalization that comes from “a growing number of people developing relatively strong destructive urges and backward-looking ideals.” He says:

But what strikes me is that in contemporary society, one of the most powerful influences on public and social life is fear and anxiety, and the politicisation of fear and anxiety. The second feature is that our political and cultural elites are very disorientated and are uncomfortable with the values into which they were socialised and therefore are very reluctant to uphold them. And when you have both cultural disorientation and elites who are distancing themselves from their own societies, and who regard their own people with contempt and find refuge in politicising fear, I think, yes, that serves as an invitation to terror, an invitation to try to destroy us, if you like.

[From "The war on terror is a symmetry of confusion."]

For various reasons, I find his concepts of risk and terror fascinating and relevant to a number of different topics, including the way the worldwide insurance industry has responded to various kinds of threats, geobiological as well as sociological. But for the purposes of their relevance to religion and cultural values, it seems like he has described something that progressive Anglicans seem to squirm a lot with, leaving conservatives like Nazir-Ali and others, in both the C of E and the Roman church, to “fight the good fight” against Islam, atheism and its proponents like Dawkins, and anyone else who does not buy into “backward-looking ideals” of the brand of Christianity advanced by Nazir-Ali, Wright, Benedict etal.

In the context of discussing the co-called culture war over Christmas ["Do They Know its Christmas?"], Furedi wrote:

The attempt to restrict the public role of Christmas is encouraged not so much by a hatred of religion, but by a profound sense of moral malaise. It has become commonplace in contemporary Western society to assume that it is not possible for us to have a common language through which we make sense of the world. It is assumed that there are no durable values that can transcend differences in identity, culture and religion. Instead of attempting to uphold values to which all humans can subscribe, we are counselled to respect difference and celebrate diversity. From this perspective, it is offensive to wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to someone who is not a practising Christian. Such sentiments are now fairly widespread – at least among sections of the middle class and in public institutions. . . .

The bewilderment that surrounds Christmas is symptomatic of the far wider problem of not knowing how to behave in circumstances where we lack a moral language for expressing right and wrong. We feel far more comfortable describing something as safe or risky than in making a value judgement using words like good or bad.

This last bit – the change from describing something as morally wrong to describing it more or less amorally as risky or preferential behavior – was discussed recently in a scientific context concerning the nature of “The Moral Instinct” (hat tip to Chuck Blanchard), Steven Spinker writes in this week's New York Times Magazine:

Much of our recent social history, including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralization or amoralization of particular kinds of behavior. Even when people agree that an outcome is desirable, they may disagree on whether it should be treated as a matter of preference and prudence or as a matter of sin and virtue.

At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality…. This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault …. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it….

This is critical in his analysis, or at least the hypothesis that it is linked to identifiable neurological processes – that there is kind of an off/on switch. He describes moralization as characterized by two features that seem to cross cultures: (1) “that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal” and (2) “that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished.” He also describes what most would recognize as the feeling they have towards something they deem immoral:

We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause

Id. This kind of analysis supports the kind of either/or thinking of Furedi (call it Marxist dialectic, if you will) – that it is difficult to stand in the middle and not be actively “for” or “against” something, whether it be matters of social morals, religious faith and practice, or even political ideals.

Yet so-called Post-Modernism makes it difficult to take sides or create and affirm a new view that bridges the old exclusive ways of thinking and believing. In thinking over the everyday realities Mad Priest raised with regard to amplified Muslim calls to prayer, cultural competition, and concern for the parts of diverse cultures that arguably are “backward-looking” – e.g. repression and discrimination against women and homosexuals, autocratic and patriarchal religious and political structures – I recalled a visit made to our area over a year ago by Samoa’s Archdeacon Taimalelagi F. Tuatagaloa-Matalavea (“Tai”), who then held the office of the Anglican Observer to the United Nations. Unfortunately, I was not able to hear her in person, but heard both from someone who did and saw the DVD presentation of her work. I’m afraid I don’t recall the details anymore, but what struck me deeply was the way in which women were working in all parts of the world to help other women and their children to enable women to have more power over their lives, to run businesses, farm, or whatever it takes to help feed and care for themselves and their families, to promote education for all children, male and female, and to alleviate the suffering brought by hunger, war, and other kinds of violence. There was a kind of implicit understanding and agreement of what needed to be done in ways that crossed cultures, recognizing how certain practices and attitudes supported by tradition needed to be changed but working towards change as much or more by doing and aiding rather than waiving ideological banners -- all without apologies for viewing some traditions critically and acting upon such criticism. She didn’t address these issues directly, but I would have loved to have had the opportunity to talk to her about them.

Reminiscent of what I think she was trying to convey are what I’ve heard and read about Dr. Jenny Plane te Paa, an Anglican theologian, teacher, and leader of social service projects, whom Jane Redmont and Richard Helmer have met and written about on their blogs. In a speech she recently gave, "Each of us was given grace," posted at Inclusive Church blog, she spoke most eloquently about how the conflict in the Anglican Communion is both distracting and damaging to the kind of work that needs to be done and the need for absorbing what she calls the lessons of “inclusive relationality.” There’s much to be found in the speech, but I was especially struck by the following:

I can’t help myself when I want so much to cry out in rage, about anyone who dares to ‘fuss’ about who is worthy of participation in the orders and offices of the Church while so many in our shared family are suffering and dying needlessly. I want to rage on about what a travesty of faith this kind of attitude and behaviour represents, about what an abuse of the gift of God’s grace all of this is and then I am reminded that the more I focus upon blaming and judging, anticipating and reacting the less I am present and able instead to develop what Thomas Cahill describes as the narratives of grace, ‘the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by the circumstance.’

And this I realize is what being ‘drenched in grace’ is calling me into – is calling us all into. We are being challenged to find within ourselves renewed appreciation of all that is good and true.

I think many of us want to cry out with her. But sometimes we stumble at both talking about and doing what is needed to further “the good and true.” In my search for some of her words, I happened on report from early in 2007 from Richard Helmer about Epiphany West 2007: Re-visioning Anglicanism, held at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California. In it he spoke of a paper, "From Modernity to Post-Modernity: Rethinking the Myth of Anglican Communion" by Carlos Eduardo Calvani, Director of the Anglican Center of Studies in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, Porto Alegre. Richard writes of Calvani:

"Truth" itself must be recovered as a viable term for a post-modern era. It strikes me that post-modernism is sometimes perceived as most threatening because it implies relativism, leading to the dangerous slippery slope of anarchy. But this fails to see the deeper reality that Calvani raised up for me in his paper: modernism sees "truth" as essentially exclusive. For truth to exist, there must be some kind of opposite. Orthodoxy demands the existence of heterodoxy. Religiosity demands the existence of apostasy. Faith demands the existence of infidelity.

All of these categories assume, in a very modern way, measurable quantifications of "truth." In the post-modern era, and indeed, in the hoped for future of Anglicanism, we recover the notion of "truth" as mystery: while not utterly hidden, not utterly knowable to us either, but glimpsed in the organic communion we call The Body of Christ, whose boundaries are beyond the span of a single Christian, Church, or even the world or time. This means our understandings of truth must always be held provisionally and with humility. Such an understanding subverts the terribly violent ways we have used "truth" to attack those who disagree with us.

That is not to say that truth cannot or should not be defended, particularly in the face of human suffering and against all kinds of oppression, but it must be seen as contextualized in an organic way, not held out as an abstraction or universal for all time. Nor can it be inflicted, but truth can only be embraced through the inspiration of the Spirit.

Id. This really struck me in contrast with Furedi’s and Spinker’s writings. What Richard writes strongly resonates with my own beliefs and attitudes, but it makes me wonder whether and how we can really hold “our understandings of truth… provisionally and with humility” and at the same time defend truth “particularly in the face of human suffering and against all kinds of oppression.” How can we act on behalf of moral and religious “truth” and find the “good and the true” from various traditions without doing so as an expression of our moral sensibilities which may be binary? Or to put it more simply, when and how do we articulate what we are for and against?

I know this touches on big issues such as universalism in the realm of theology and multi-culturalism in religious, social, educational, and political institutions. I know I can read (and have read) much further on Modernism, Post-Modernism, Naturalism, and all the latest in psychology, sociobiology, etc. No doubt I will. But I confess to have some difficulty translating all the complex perspectives to be gleaned there into everyday realities – like what to do with and about Christmas, prayer calls, veils, and the deeper questions of when and how one should actively work to change some cultural traditions and practices. Conservatives certainly have their own answers to these questions, most of which I reject. But as much as I dislike the snarky way they often raise them, they do, I think, have a point as to some of it.

When and how do we profess to be Christians? How do we witness that in a multi-cultural world? How do we advocate for some features of Western humanistic thought and culture? How can we possibly do any of these without being, at least in the short-run, for or against certain things? Is there a way to speak to atheists, agnostics, and adherents of other religions in ways that can actually persuade them to adapt and change to new ways of thinking and acting (and keep us humbly listening to them and re-considering our own notions of the “good and true” without losing our passion and commitment to them?) What can we do to help form, reform, and modulate the operation of our moral “on-off” switches? These are the questions floating through my mind lately. I don't know if they are "taboo" for progressives or not, but here they are.