On Joy

So, my girlfriend has been encouraging me to write a final post to close out this blog forever and always. .. … I don’t honestly want to say that this will be the last post that I ever write on this blog. I might need it again someday for venting, or for better and more edifying purposes. However, reading back through these posts about a year later I was definitely not in a great place when I wrote them. … Admittedly, when I wrote most of these I was hurting, angry, and hadn’t slept in two or three days, but nonetheless, I wasn’t in a good place. However, I do want to write a last post (for a while at least) and give anyone of bothers to read this an update on my life. First things first, I have a girlfriend now. She’s a pretty amazing woman who puts up with all of my problems and loves me in spite of them. Honestly, she’s a woman who looks for reasons to love me and be with me, instead of looking for reasons to walk away, and that’s a different feeling for me, but I am definitely thankful for it (p.s. she’s kind of gorgeous too, seriously, really pretty). However, lest the title fool you, she is not the reason that I am joyful. I think that my relationship with her is a wonderful thing, and it is absolutely a huge blessing in my life, but the reason for my joy is much deeper than that.

This is the thing that I’ve learned over the past year. Joy is a virtue, and like all virtues it is developed over time through a process of individual choices that lead to the formation of habits and then become dispositions. This is a slow process that takes both the right environment (for me that was my Church, a local coffee shop, my roommates, and happify.com), an intentional effort to develop the virtue, and the inherent capacity for that virtue. In all of this God has been working in my life in incredible ways since I wrote my last post. Honestly, looking back, this blog was a place for me to vent during a difficult time in my life. Not the most difficult, but still a difficult time. Actually, if you go back and look at the dates on my posts, you can track the initial development of joy in my life by the length of time between posts :P. It’s kind of sadly funny. Anyway, God had created a joyful spirit in me. I’m not going to say that I’m a perfect epitome of joy… far from it actually, but I do like to think that I am now a generally happy and joy-filled person.

It was after this development of joy that I met my girlfriend, who I am going to keep referring to as my girlfriend… you don’t get any other name for her. And after that things started happening in short order. I’ve moved, and I’m now in a graduate program looking at finishing up next year and hopefully starting a Ph.D. program sometime in the next couple of years. I’m reading… a lot… I managed to set myself up with about 45 books to read this semester, something like 10,000 pages I think… I’ll be honest, I haven’t really done the math. From time to time I feel overwhelmed. However, in those times, I turn to God because he is good, and if you take away anything from this post (you know… the three people who actually read it :P) this is what I want you to take away: 1) Joy is a virtue, it comes with time, practice, and reliance of God and 2) God is good. He is good when things are easy, and he is good when things just plain suck. He is good when you are suffering, and he makes your suffering good.

That’s the thing that I really want you to think about. God takes our worst times, whether it is a hard class, a lost job, a difficult marriage, or a dying child, whatever your worst time is, God is there with you in it, and he will make it good… if you let him. I absolutely believe that we are capable of stopping God’s good work in our lives. Of hindering him, walking away from him, and ignoring him. However, if you trust him, if you rely on him, he will make your most difficult experiences something to rejoice over. Not because everything was suddenly fixed, I’m not preaching health/wealth gospel here, but because he was so good in them, and because he made you good through them. So, remember: joy is a virtue and God is good :). And have a better day!

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Thoughts on Blogging

Man, it’s been a little while since I have a chance to write anything here. I actually just wrote a more professional piece on this topic for the other blog I run, but I wanted to put down some ideas here. Well, first of all its been a busy month. I’ve had a lot of work, which is always good, and a few problem students… which isn’t, but hey, it’s experience, right? Heh, it actually is good experience. It certainly develops my people skills and my confidence in my own abilities. So, I drove down to Southeastern yesterday. The trip had three purposes really, all of which were accomplished after a fashion. I met a lady that I’ve been emailing with on eHarmony. I really like her as a person, and after meeting her I can say that I am attracted to her physically, though not as attracted as I’d like to be. However, I really like her as a person, so as long as there’s an attraction there, looks aren’t my first priority. I didn’t get to spend much time with her, and hardly any of it was spent alone, but it was good to actually meet her in the flesh. I also had lunch with a close friend of mine, and I got to meet with the man that I’m hoping will be my major professor if I get accepted. I almost wrote ‘when’ there, but I’m really trying not to jump the gun. So, all of that was good. However, I managed to get lost on the way there, and then slid out in the snow on the way back and slammed my car into the bank of an exit ramp. I’m going to have to get it looked at before I know how much damage there is, but I’m really hoping that I don’t have to buy a new car :(. I’m afraid that the frame might be bent. Still, God will provide. He always has in the past. Perhaps the damage won’t be that bad, or perhaps someone will up and offer me a new car, or perhaps he work it out so that I don’t ever need a car (not sure how that would work though… …).

Anyway, my Facebook news feed has been filling up pretty quickly with some pretty ridiculous blog posts. I don’t post status updates all that often on Facebook, and when I do its usually a scripture passage, something funny that one of my students said, or a passage from some book I’m reading. It’s actually really rare for me to post blog links on facebook. So, I’m not entirely sure why its suddenly so popular. However, what gets me even more than this is the fact that the majority of the blog posts that pop up are pretty sad. It’s not that the writing is horrible. Most of these people (though not all) have decent spelling and grammar. However, I see so many posts that are just… pointless. Not even pointless personal ramblings like this blog is. If the posts read like someone’s journal entry, then I could give them a pass. I’m doing the same thing here. These, however, are clearly not journal entries. Many of these posts start off with 10 Things or The 7 Things, etc, and its pretty obvious that the authors are trying to say something to the world. What really gets me, though, is how facile most of these posts are. They read as though the writer is trying to prove why his/her way of doing… something is better than everyone else’s.

It’s this egotistic defensiveness that really frustrates (and if I’m honest, kind of frightens) me. The idea that I can post a short list of ideas that everyone should read, agree with, and follow without really explaining them or defending their importance (speaking of which, I need to get back to thinking about virtues…) seems to be incredibly common. I could understand if the authors were posting these simply as ideas to remember, or posting them as personal thoughts, or even posting them with an intent to return to the subject at a later date and fill out an argument for each thing on the list. However, this idea that everyone should be like me so that I can be the best, or even because I’m the best, appears to be increasingly common. It seems to me that in a world where a thousand voices are already telling me what I should do and who I should be, the addition of a hundred thousand more really isn’t a good thing. … …I suppose this is why I’m a luddite, isn’t it :P?

Questions

So, I started the year reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I’m not finished yet… obviously. However, it has inspired a few questions that I wanted to jot down before I forget them:

On the Omnipresence of God:

1) Is presence a necessary quality of sustaining power?

2) If presence is a necessary quality of sustaining power (which Aquinas seems to assume) then is God present in hell through his sustaining power (opposing the common Christian doctrine that the primary torment of hell is the absence of God) or is hell a self-sustaining entity (opposing the common Christian doctrine that God sustaining power is necessary for the maintenance of all things)?

3) Is God present in hell? If so, is the primary torment of hell not the total separation from God? If not, can God really be said to be omni-present?

On Women:

1) My niece has been trying to convince me that I’m the kind of guy every woman dreams of marrying. This strikes me as prima facie false. However, is it possible that it is true and I’m either a) pursuing the wrong women (certainly I’ve dated many of the wrong women, but the ‘right women’ simply reject me out of hand) or b) for whatever reason quality women simply overlook me, don’t give me a chance? If the latter, why? (I don’t think I’m ever likely to actually answer this question…)

2) Rousseau argues that women are incapable of true virtue (though his definition of true virtue is questionable in the first place). Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, tends to argue that women are capable of true virtue (and she generally has a stronger definition of virtue), but they must be trained in virtue in the same way that men are. I tend to agree with the latter, but this leaves me wondering why so many women seem to reject the need to be trained in virtue? I assume culture elements are primarily responsible, but is this a valid assumption?

3) Why in the world do women obsess over clothing… especially accessories?

On School:

1) Is God finally calling me back to school? He seems to be, and things seem to be falling into place, but I find myself feeling very cynical and assuming that it will all fall apart before long.

2) Can I actually make the grade? I assume that this will be answered in time if God is calling me back to school.

I’m also writing again. This, I think, is a good thing. Although I’m working on a story that I’ve tried to write several times before. We’ll see if I can manage to finish it this time.

Wisdom Part 2

Age gives the opportunity for wisdom, but does not guarantee it. Yesterday I said that I really don’t know how to become wise. However, I do have a couple of ideas. First of all, I think we can clearly says that knowledge does not bring wisdom. I briefly explained the difference between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Clearly, simply learning something does not make one wise. Some degree of knowledge is certainly required for wisdom, but knowledge doesn’t bring wisdom with it (though we often like to act like it does). However, age doesn’t bring wisdom either. Ultimately, I think that wisdom comes through a combination of knowledge, experience, and character. Proverbs tells us that you can beat a fool a thousand times and he will learn nothing (I often think this describes me better), but a wise man will learn simply from watching others.

I think that without experience there can be no actual advance in wisdom. However, we all know people who simply refuse to learn. They fail in the same ways over and over (maybe I’m describing you… all too often I’m describing me), and despite their experiences, they do not grow in wisdom. So, experience does not simply bring wisdom. This is where character comes in. Our character determines how we respond to our experiences. Do I do the same thing over again, even though it ended badly last time, or do I learn from my mistakes? In many ways pride is the enemy of wisdom. If my pride keeps me from learning from my experiences, then it keeps me from developing wisdom.

Similarly, hope can sometimes be the enemy of wisdom. As I said yesterday, wisdom answers the why questions. Why should I do this, or why shouldn’t I do this? Hope, especially foolish hope, often presents unrealistic reasons that wisdom should pierce. For instance, I’ve mentioned before that in the past I’ve had a bad habit of dating young, emotionally traumatized women. Let us say that I meet a young woman who’s just come out of an abusive relationship. Wisdom should tell me that pursuing her is a bad idea. It is unlikely that she will be ready for or willing to enter the kind of relationship that I’m looking for, and I will probably get hurt if I try. However, hope whispers in my ear: ‘maybe this time will be different’.

This hope is not realistic, nor is it wise. It is, in many ways, prideful and it focuses on me and what I want, rather than focusing on God and seeking to do his will. So, I wind up following a hope that pridefully puts my own selfishness before my devotion to God. This is, of course, obviously not a wise thing to do. So, pride and prideful hope can both be enemies of wisdom, and either might result in keeping me from wisdom no matter how old I get.

What is Wisdom?

So, I promised that I’d write more about each of the virtues that I’d put forth concerning masculinity. I already wrote a little about courage, though probably not nearly enough, and the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be wise. This is not to say that I’ve actually come to a conclusion about it, but I have some thoughts. First, I think we often confuse knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Every journalist knows that there are six (not five) important questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. I think that these questions also provide a good progressive exemplar for the differences between the above terms. Knowledge is simple information that has been memorized. A person with knowledge can determine the who, what, or where of a question, perhaps the when of a historical question, but he can’t go beyond this point. The knowledgeable man has only plain information at his disposal. A man with understanding not only can determine the who and what, but also the where and importantly the how of a question. While knowledge provides only rote information, understanding brings with it the ability to apply that information. For instance, a man with the knowledge of punching may be able to tell you what a punch is or where to hit someone, but he can’t show you how to actually throw an effective punch. This requires understanding. Understanding moves this person from simple knowledge of what a punch is to the ability to use that knowledge effectively. Wisdom, however, adds a third dimension: the when and why.

That is to say, in my example of the punching man, a man with wisdom will not only be able to throw an effective punch, but will be able to determine when it is good to throw that punch. He can answer the question ‘why would you punch someone’. This is, I think, exceedingly rare. Many people, like Richard Dawkins, dismiss the why questions of life as entirely unimportant (perhaps one of the greatest mistakes I’ve seen anyone make). Many others never even reach the point of considering the why questions of life. It’s not that these people have dismissed the questions as unimportant, it’s that they’ve never even considered whether the why questions might be important. So, having said this, I’m not at all sure that I’m wise. Being wise requires not only knowing enough to ask the why questions, but being able to answer them. Honestly, I don’t think that I have many meaningful answers. I can pretty easily give a lecture about what lots of other people think about a particular question, and there are some question that I can even tell you what I think, but to actually answer a why question. I don’t know about that.

About a week ago a friend called me ‘a wise man’. I responded by saying, ‘I make too many mistakes to be wise’. He asked, ‘Isn’t that how you become wise?’ When he asked that question I realized that I honestly didn’t have an answer. I have the beginnings of an idea of what wisdom is, but I can’t really say how one actually becomes wise. There are lots of people in the world with lots of opinions, and I’m fairly sure that wisdom means ignoring 90% of them. However, even with that tongue in cheek definition, I’m not entirely sure how to actually do that. Don’t get me wrong, I can ignore people with the best of them, but actually knowing who to ignore and who to listen to is another issue entirely. Take the current scandal involving Mark Driscoll, while it’s fairly clear that Driscoll hasn’t been particularly careful with his writing, there are a hundred different opinions ranging from people screaming for his resignation to people claiming that he didn’t do it in the first place to people claiming that even if he did, it wasn’t wrong. The sheer amount of voices is quickly overwhelming (I spent 3 hours last night just reading about this), not to mention the people connecting this to his teaching on Esther and his views of women in general.

So, how do we begin to parse this situation? Does a wise man simply sit back and wait? Perhaps for a while, but certainly not forever. A wise man is not an eternally passive man. However, we can say that the wise man knows when to act. A man with understanding might know what to do, but a wise man can see when to do it. He knows when to wait and when to step forward. He knows when to listen and when to speak. This isn’t an easy thing. I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I definitely need to think about this more.

A Culture of Fear

I generally take Tuesdays off. I might log into my classroom to answer any questions that students have posted, but beyond that I don’t touch it. On my days off I generally do a fair amount of reading. Grading papers all day, every day is not conducive to reading (either scholarly or otherwise), and so on days when I am working I generally have to do what reading I intend to actually complete before I start working. However, on Tuesdays, I can read all day if I want to (every so often I actually do). As part of my reading today I found this article. While I agree with the post as a whole (though I do keep a facebook album of my nephew’s baby pictures, I’ll probably take it down (or at least make it unviewable) when they turn five or so. However, there is one specific point that she makes in the middle of her article that I think is particularly important to keep in mind.

We live in a culture that promotes fear. Every day we are told by various news outlets that crime rates are rising exponentially. Friends, churches, various celebrities, and recognized national speakers all warn us that we are in danger, or our children are in danger, or our homes are in danger. Commercials actually play a big part in this now. Security companies sell their services by warning us that, without their protection, our homes will be broken into (of course, I could just buy an ADT sticker, put it in my front window, and achieve much the same effect as actually hiring the company). Drug companies warn us that if we don’t take their new phramaceutical miracle we will inevitably die of a heart attack (of course, the warning that their drug might actually cause said heart attack is rushed to the point of being unintelligable). Facebook news feeds  and twitter are commonly filled with claims and articles (many of them easily falsifiable) that both infuriate and terrify us, such as the ‘scandal‘ a week or two ago concerning Costco’s ‘attack on Christianity‘ and the outrage from fearful Christians, which then sparked outrage in response from equally fearful liberals. Of course, when someone actually bothered to ask Caleb Kaltenbach (the pastor in question) what he thought, his response wasn’t directed at Costco. All of that hubub over a labeling error… it boggles the mind. Whether our response is to be outraged or to quail in the corner, the response is inspired by our fear of what the reported situation means.

However, much of this fear is utterly without any realistic foundation. Jennifer Doverspike (author of the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post) isn’t technically correct that our children are ‘safer than they’ve ever been’. Children in the mid-1950s enjoyed one of the lowest violent crime rates in US history, and they probably were a little bit safer (at least from criminals), but the intent of her message is perfectly accurate. We are fairly safe, our children are fairly safe. In the last 100 years the homicide rate (the near-universally recognized best indicator for violent crime rates) has remained fairly steady. At it’s lowest (the mid to late ’50s) the homicide rate was four murders per 100,000 citizens. At it’s highest (the early ’80s) it was a markedly increased 10 murders per 100,000 citizens. That’s right, in 1980, the most dangerous year in the past century, you had a 0.0001 chance of being murdered. Personally, I can see how that would terrify everyone. Really, I mean, the idea that I might be selected out of a crowd of 100,000 people is utterly terrifying. If you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.

Since the early ’80s violent crime rates have actually fallen drastically. They stayed high through the ’80s and early ’90s, then dropped in the mid ’90s, only to rise again. Then, in the early 2000s violent crime rates plummeted to a mere 6 murders per 100,000 citizens. Needless to say, this isn’t something that any of us should be overly terrified about. Now, obviously, local crime rates differ. At the moment, if you live in inner city Chicago, IL then you certainly have more reason to be cautious than people who live in Wake Forest, NC. However, in general our culture pushes us to an utter and abstract terror of everything that is not even remotely justified. Doverspike’s points about how we have let this fear affect our children are well founded (and, as I said above, I agree that we need to treat their online lives with a little less fear and a little more respect).

Instead of being sucked into a culture of fear, we should be exploring the nation we live in. (Oh, and by the way, I have actually lived in close proximity to drug dealers for an extended period of time. Sometimes they wanted to shoot each other, but I never found one who wanted to shoot me. This isn’t to say that drug dealers aren’t dangerous, but they don’t generally go around willy-nilly shooting potential clientele.) We should be exploring our neighborhoods, getting to know our neighbors, meeting people at local venues, and enjoying our lives. If we weren’t so busy being scared and then mad and then scared again, we might actually succeed in both finding meaning in life and sharing our faith with friends who don’t know much about it, rather than trying to ram it down the throats of strangers.

So, my point? Isn’t it obvious? Plato set out four virtues: Courage, Wisdom, Justice, and Temperance. As a culture we encourage none of these. Personally, I think it’s time to man-up.

Solitude

I often consider living on top of a mountain somewhere, or joining a monastery, or finding an island someplace where no one will bother me. In his play No Exit (Huis Clos), Jean Paul Sartre presents several excellent points. Sartre was by no means a Christian, but in No Exit he shows a particular insight into the human condition that I rather enjoy. Two particular quotes stand out, one of which Sartre is quite famous for. No Exit is about three people, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, who are trapped together in a room in hell. As the play develops the three reveal their true natures to one another, hoping that these revelations will help them come to terms with their situation. However, in actuality, the revelations instead cause the three to hate on another all the more. The resolution of the play, Sartre’s thesis statement as it were, comes in Garcin’s realization that “Hell is other people”, which is the quote Sartre is famous for. However, another excellent point in the play is Ines’ declaration that “we are our lives and nothing else”. Plenty of atheist principles could be read into this latter statement, but for the moment I’m going to choose to take the line at face value.

I’ve spoken before about the cyclical nature of life that is portrayed in the competing standards of Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism essentially argues that if I am right internally (right being), then I will do the right things (right action). Confucianism, on the other hand, argues that if I do the right things, I will become right internally. These are both true and both false. Because of the imperfection of man (i.e. natural sin) no matter how deeply I cultivate my being, I will still be prone to wrong actions, and no matter how many right things I do, I may still do them from wrong motives. However, the opposite is true. If I truly cultivate a right spirit, then I will be more prone to right actions, and in pursuing right actions, I will encourage the rightness of my spirit. Thus, both right actions and right being are necessary for a right life. However, Ines’ claim is, on the surface, true. I am my life. Whether I am judged by men for my actions or judged by God for my heart, both are formed through the life that I choose to live. I cannot be ‘essentially a good person’ if I cultivate neither right being nor right actions. If God is not in my heart, and if my actions are not focused on his glory and the well-being of my fellow man, then my life is without value. I have nothing to offer to either God or man beyond my life.

However, my life is far from perfect. As is yours (don’t get cocky). We are all fallen people, prone to inflict immense amounts of pain upon one another. We are all selfish, even at the best of times, careless, and cruel. Even when we have the best of intentions we still manage to hurt one another, and so when our intentions (as is so often the case) are less than the best, we become for others the very hell that we fear. Please, don’t take me wrongly, I am not denying the existence of a literal hell (though I find more references in scripture to ‘outer darkness’ than to ‘fire and brimstone’. Nor am I denying that the torments of hell will far surpass the pains of this world. What I am saying is that the closest we will ever come to knowing hell during our lives is in the community of others. Similarly, the closest we will ever come to knowing heaven during our lives is in the community of others.

Tonight, a couple of friends and I were bitching about women. Specifically about the repetitive cowardice, dishonesty, and truly perverse expectations/desires that we see in most of the women who populate our city. Specifically the Christian women who populate our city. There are times when some (not all) of these women have shown a true depth of compassion, grace, and love. However, there are also times when each of them have shown a callousness and cruelty that, to this day, I find astounding. Women who have lost much of our respect through their actions towards ourselves and others (we kept the conversation very general so as to avoid gossiping about anyone in particular). Women whose lives, and thus whose selves, have inevitably been tainted by the stain of sin.

I live in a culture that often presents women as ‘innocent’, ‘pure’, ‘chaste’, or ‘virtuous’. I live in a culture that essentially says to women ‘you’re already morally perfect, so you don’t need to try, focus on your looks instead’. I cannot express how utterly devastating this culture is to American women. Forget the focus on looks. Forget the extreme dieting. Forget the size zero obsession. None of these even begin to compare to the incredible lack in moral quality that this attitude has encouraged in women. Instead of developing their hearts and minds too many American women have focused on career, appearance, relationships, etc to find their identity and virtue. The problem is that none of these things actually develops either identity or virtue. Instead, Christian women should be focusing on developing a strong relationship with God and learning the moral qualities that exemplify that relationship. This is where true identity and virtue lies, regardless of gender.