Three Maxims on Knowledge, Belief, Action Don’t claim to know what you merely believe even on good evidence. Don’t claim to believe what you are not prepared to act upon. Don’t let insufficient evidence prevent you from believing what you are better off believing in the long run than not believing in the long run.
Man is godlike and therefore proud. He becomes even more godlike when he humbles himself. The central thought of Christianity, true or not, is one so repellent to the natural human pride of life that one ought at least to entertain the unlikelihood of its having a merely human origin. The thought is that God humbled himself to the point of entering the world in the miserably helpless and indigent way we in fact do, inter faeces et urinam [between feces and urine], and to the point of leaving it in the most horrendous way the brutal Romans could devise, and from a most undistinguished spot, a hill in an obscure desert outpost of their empire.
We have reasoned our way to uniformly conditional relationships. This is at the very center of the crisis of the family, since the word means, if it means anything, that certain people exist on special terms which each other, which terms are more of less unconditional. We have instead decided to respect our parents, maybe, if they meet our stringent standards of deserving. Just so do our children respect us, maybe.
At the heart of these incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.
Marriage is increasingly the big sociological divide in American life. Getting and staying married makes you part of a privileged elite. As Charles Murray documents in his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” that divide tracks the income divide, with low-income whites much less likely to be married than their high-income counterparts. (I criticized a different aspect of Murray’s book in this column.) The causality is debatable. Maybe poorer people have a harder time getting married. Maybe being married makes it easier to earn more. Maybe some third factor causes both phenomena. But what is clear is that you’re most likely to have a better life if you’re married — even if, it turns out, you get cancer.
Like every other psychology researcher, Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert believed that people are happier when they can change their minds. But in 2002 he and a colleague discovered that people are generally happier about irrevocable decisions: once you are locked in to a decision, you tend to focus on its positive aspects and ignore the negative ones. But if you are allowed to change your mind, you ruminate on both the positive and negative aspects of the choice, which makes you less happy. Inspired by his findings, Gilbert proposed to his girlfriend. Since the “till death” vow makes marriage an (almost) irrevocable decision, the result is that “I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend.
From the days of our founders the social contract of the United States has been equal opportunity. A newborn child bears no responsibility for the circumstances of her birth and yet is often destined to a life of advantage or disadvantage based on those circumstances. The American commitment to equal opportunity is not being fulfilled. With what we know, it is morally offensive not to act.
At its core, college football is about the connection between the actors on the field and the devotees who watch them. There’s something more than zone reads and blitz schemes at work when millions of people choose to spend their Saturdays firing up the grill nine hours before kickoff or working their remote from the couch. Certain elements of our love affair with college football remain impervious to NCAA bylaws and bloated television contracts.
Why then do we think that this [hoping for change in the pagan faith] is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?… For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.
This culture is on an extraordinary pace toward needing things to be more efficient. But that is a value that is ultimately antithetical to the gospel. I’ve never heard of efficient wisdom, efficient love, efficient suffering, or efficient compassion. So what does it mean that we inhabit a world that is so dominated by this ideology of efficiency? That’s my interest in asking, what does it actually mean? How is it shaping you without your knowledge or permission right now?
I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature - not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forwards, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense, and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Faith is the confidence that in every life situation there is meaning, opportunity and hope. It is not up to me personally to invest life with meaning, the meaning is already here and challenges me to find it and strive to understand it as fully as I can. So I don’t have to despair and flee from reality however complicated and harsh it may be. Nor do I have to dress it up in illusions. That is why I believe that faith is the ally of realism and critical thinking and the enemy of superstition, prejudice and illusion. It is the courage of truth.
A painting summons us to relish its lines and colours; a tree invites us to marvel at its roots and leafy shadows; the body of a lover beckons us to draw delight from its hidden wells; young children demand that we face them while they play, so that the miracle of their difference will not be without witnesses. Left to ourselves we shrink inwards, anaesthetised by a drowsy solipsism. Joy is waking to reality; joy is salvation from the self. It is our startled response to the call of another. … Raw materials for a Christian ethics of joy: the distance of prayer; the patience of reading; the veneration of the meal; the delight of friendship; the tenderness of eros; the love of childhood; the obedience of learning; the speed of imagining; the superfluity of art; and the omneity of language.
I’m thankful for sleep cycles that disrupt our progress, for children that stop your work and force you to keep someone you love alive, for the need to stop and eat, to stop and drink water, to stop and talk to friends. We buy billions of dollars in books that help us be more efficient, we praise the profit margin, and all the while, God is trying to slow us down, trying to remind us of what matters and what doesn’t, trying to stop our human progress, stop our creation of false Gods.
The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine - which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
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