Monthly Archives: April 2011

Traditions of Faith

One might easily guess that the book with the most translations and most editions in all of history is the Bible. But who can guess what book has the second place slot?  It is not the Harry Potter series nor is it the Purpose Driven Life. It is definitely not on Oprah’s Book Club list and you may be hard pressed to find it in a book store at all. In fact, I would wager that most people never heard of this book let alone have read it.

Until the mid 20th century, it was a given that, aside from the Bible, all educated people would have been well acquainted with another collection, Euclid’s Elements. It is a book that outlines in gruesome, logical detail, all the rules governing geometry, number theory, ratios, proportions not to mention the Pythagorean Theorem, Platonic solids and all we “love” about fundamental mathematics.  Obviously with contributions by Pythagoras and Plato, it was not entirely attributed to the Greek mathematician Euclid in 300 B.C. but he was the one responsible for this exhaustive vivisection of all mathematical wisdom known at the time and still relevant today—so relevant that modern life rests on its documented principles.

The first book of Elements lays the foundation for the entire universe which rests delicately on five axioms. It’s not important what those axioms state but that the reader knows what an axiom is in the first place. I cite Wikipedia which defines an axiom as “a proposition that is not proved or demonstrated but considered to be either self-evident or subject to necessary decision”. The point is this: all that we have amassed technologically is based on these little cotter pins that we faithfully and un-mathematically have to regard as true. We might attempt to break them down further but, quite frankly, the ancient Greeks would have distilled this more if they could. We might also attempt to dispute them but then we would all still be brachiating through the jungle rather than marveling at engineering wonders like the Bugatti Veyron or enjoying the fruitful work of Kees Schouhamer Immink.

One of these fundamental Euclidean postulates in Elements is known as the “pons asinorum” which, when translated from the Latin, means “bridge of asses”. The transcendent idea behind this postulate is that the student must mentally cross this bridge commencing as the unenlightened jackass, work through the logic, and finally emerge the Vitruvian Man full of wisdom, light and symmetry.

Now to the point, albeit circuitous: the traditions of faith are analogs of the Euclidean axioms by which a progressive (nay radical) society rests.

In recent times our axioms of tradition have been eclipsed by the transit of secularization or simply tossed into the dark ocean of doubt. Consequently, society has crossed back over the pons asinorum and it is no wonder we—spiritually and culturally—continue to eat grass or whatever we might catch. Like those in Elements, the traditions of faith are based on self-evident axioms. Radical traditional thought assumes them to be true (or at least subject to necessary decision) and in the remainder of this essay I will humbly put forth a handful. I will also put forth comments that suggest why these should be self-evident for those who need help crossing our “bridge of asses”.

Axiom 1: The universe is not an accident.

I find it interesting that, regardless of world view, everyone shares a belief in “discovery”. My simple question is why? Why would anyone EVER expect that there’s an answer to a problem or issue waiting for some determined individual to uncover it as if all of time waited for him[1] to do so? Isn’t it more than fortuitous that Vincristine™, a chemical derivative from the Madagascar periwinkle, would act as a cancer fighting drug in human beings in North America six thousand miles away; that life might exist elsewhere in the universe despite Fermi’s paradox; that all physical forces should be unified under one overarching theory; or that someone will one day find the closed form of the Riemann zeta function for s=3? Why do companies spend tons of money on research and development if they don’t expect that something would come of it? Why be so concerned that clear cutting the Amazon rainforest would remove a potential gold mine of genetic diversity conducive to pharmaceutical objectives? Who says it will?

The answer has to do with the first axiom. We ALL believe there is some other agent at work other than a stochastic process—an agent that has prepared the world for us and us for the world. Benjamin Franklin remarked that the existence of beer was proof that God exists and at some point everyone has a similar epiphany from altogether different experiences. The mainstream would have us discount our personal epiphany and toss aside this gentle reminder that the universe is not an accident.

Axiom 2: There are absolutes, including absolute truth.

The IPK is a platinum–iridium alloy cylinder created in 1879 and kept in an environmentally controlled safe in a vault locked by three independently controlled keys – all at the Bureau international des poids et mesures located at the Pavillon de Breteuil in Sèvres, France.  It’s been in the news recently since it was discovered to have lost a few micrograms of mass since its creation over one hundred years ago.

So?

So, the IPK is the international prototype kilogram. It is supposed to be the definition of the kilogram, error free by definition and the unit by which all other kilograms are measured. If it is not constant then who’s to say what a kilogram should weigh. No worry, as one essayist sarcastically suggested[2], since we can just “float” the value of the kilogram just like we float the value of the dollar. Let the august Federal Reserve decide what a kilogram is today, tomorrow, next week. Then when I order hamburger from the butcher I can be pleasantly surprised or totally disappointed depending on what Ben Bernanke said that day. Of course I might have to adjust the ingredients in the chili I’m cooking, but, alas, there are no absolutes.

Just ask Hollywood, the antithesis of tradition. A scene from the Star Wars epic shows Anakin Skywalker battling Obi Wan; the latter indulges in expository dialog laced with a convincing British accent, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” thereupon the illusion of Hollywood’s reality falls away. Kids would have missed the slight, or worse, metabolized the lie. I simply don’t appreciate being socially engineered when I am supposed to be entertained. Now I’m cheering for Darth Vader but he sits on the edge of the lava river, burning.

In a world gone mad with relativism the traditionalist must daily put forward the abandoned idea that there are absolutes. Counter-traditional thought would suggest that truth is relative and that “my truth is not your truth”. But it’s much worse than that because “my truth is not really my truth either”. Even if I set up my own private, syncretistic moral code I am bound to negotiate it away when I violate it — and I will violate it. No worries—I’ll just let it float, like the dollar.

Axiom 3: There is good and evil, right and wrong.

This is mostly a corollary of the previous axiom and its rebuttal is to portray evil as a social pathology such as lack of education, economic deprivation, political disenfranchisement, insanity, bad karma,  drug addiction,  poor upbringing, conditional love, genetic propensity, menopause or month old yogurt. And then how do we explain Axiom 4?

Axiom 4: Humanity is fallen.

For the purpose of this axiom I will define “fallen” as mankind’s propensity to do wrong despite all advantages to do otherwise—or worse yet, do wrong, and then blame someone else. Shakespeare made a living creating plays around characters with this propensity: Othello (jealousy), MacBeth (power), Hamlet (revenge) and other tragic heroes.

Can anything be more axiomatic? Consider the following modern dramatis personae: Martha Stewart, Eliot Spitzer, William Jefferson Clinton, William J. Jefferson, Gary Condit, Michael Vick, Jeff Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Bernie Madoff, Newt Gingrich, Christopher Lee, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker, executives, clergyman, tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers. These are, or were, people of power, privilege, education, talent, wealth, celebrity and even catechism.  Nevertheless, they made vows they could not keep, defrauded their fellow man, took bribes, lied, cheated, stole or simply self destructed before our eyes.

Now here’s the radical part: add my name to this list. Add your name as well. Offended? If so remember that it is at the top of our game that we live the most precariously.

Axiom 5: There is an eternal aspect to our lives.

We play a dangerous game when we put forward the philosophy that all that we see is all that there is. In such a scenario, the only thing immortal about our personalities and selves is the mark we make on others, on future generations, on human history or on Facebook. In such thinking some have adopted the idea that notoriety may be preferred over obscurity and the measure of our virtue is the indelibility of our mark whether it be good (say, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu) or bad (say, Seung-Hui Cho) or digital.

The radical view repudiates this tired, old philosophy. The grave is not the end and there is an instinct in all of us that longs for the balance of eternity. There is, after all, the laws of algebra, stoichiometry, conservation of energy, conservation of matter, conservation of momentum—why not the conservation of identity—that part of us which is independent of both matter and energy but clearly measureable?

In closing, the premise of most traditions and the cumulative wisdom of the past is that, by and large, there is a point to them, a purpose, a reason. Often our traditions are a mechanical reminder of some historic event or commemoration, lest we forget. The traditions of faith remind us that there is a transcendent purpose to life in general and our lives in particular. Many of the axioms I’ve put forward will not be vividly demonstrated on the landscape of our personal and materialistic experiences. But the radical considers that maybe—just maybe—-the universe and its maker are simply BIGGER than the finite reach of our personal experiences.

 


[1] As is tradition, the neuter form of traditional English grammar will use the masculine pronoun forms (see the other axioms in Elements of Style by Strunk and White). Unlike O’Reilly publishing, I will not vacillate between grammatical forms or exclusively use the feminine just to annoy or socially engineer the readership.

[2] Lipsky, Seth “The Floating Dollar as a Threat to Property Rights”, Imprimis, Feb 2011.

Google’s page ranking

Easter is this Sunday but unlike most holidays, birthdays or key events, Google will probably commemorate the day in the same way they commemorate Christmas–by not commemorating it.  So instead of seeing this on my browser Easter morning:

I will be seeing this instead:

Courageous

I was fortunate to see an early screening of the movie Courageous which the rest of you will have to wait until September to watch:

This is from the Kendrick brothers of Albany, GA (Sherwood films)  that also produced Flywheel, Facing the Giants and Fireproof.  As some of you may know, the films produced by the group fill a niche market of hard-core radical traditional Christian values. Perhaps some of you may also know that the actors and actresses are ordinary parishioners of the Sherwood church, that the films are done on a shoestring budget and gross about 20x what they cost to make.  The acting can range from pretty-amazing-good-for-free (Kurt Cameron in Fireproof) to you-get-what-you-pay-for meh. In any case the films always rest on a solid and soul-plumbing story that evokes a deep spiritual emotion Hollywood films can only dream about.

Courageous is no exception and the issue the Kendricks take on this time is fatherhood. The story centers around a group of men, most of them policemen, evaluating their role as father in many of it’s modern forms: divorced, dead beat, so-so, to great. A life changing event in the main character has him re-evaluating his performance and what it means for his family, community, nation and world.

Critics will likely blast the movie not only because of the implementation but because they generally do not share the neo-traditional values represented in the work.  Such low marks might be merited if there were similar movies to compare it to but that’s just the problem. There aren’t any!  And that’s the other problem–the major studios don’t make these kinds of films. If Hollywood had their act together, they could make a financial killing featuring similar themed movies because there is such a hunger for them.  Don’t believe me? The Passion of the Christ was a major hit, grossing in excess of $600 million despite the fact that no one would finance it. Fireproof was the highest-grossing independent film of 2008, making $33M but only costing $500k to make.  But no, Hollywood would rather squander their money on uninspired plots and re-makes of old ones because they are totally out of ideas.

 

 

 

Namesake

The film  “Namesake” is a powerful illustration of neotraditionalism. As a foreign film, “Namesake” will not follow the usual Hollywood formula of hero, nemesis and romantic interest—refreshingly. The movie follows the entire life of a Bengali couple who make their home in and around New York City.

In America, the couple starts a family with a son, who they name Nikolai Gogol (the namesake of the famous Russian writer of Dead Souls, The Overcoat) and, later, a daughter. As usual, the children become the vapid and culturally void automatons of selfishness and pleasure that is the hallmark of modern American society.  Forsaking his roots, Nikolai lives with his cosmopolitan rich white liberal girlfriend who flits from one shallow moment to the next, each filled with romance, entertainment, parties and retreats to her parents New England estate. Nikolai has been distancing himself more and more from his own parents and their old fashioned (progressive?) ideas—that is, until his father dies and Nikolai wakes up.  The event is transformational. His grief is manifested according to custom, with public mourning, traditional garb and shaved head. Nikolai, along with the Bengali community, descend upon his mothers home where the community’s grief is corporately and publicly expressed.

Then the girlfriend appears who looks upon the event as quaint. Her lack of sympathy and her inability to understand the value of tradition is remarkable. A pivotal point in the movie is where she suggests getting away from the house of no-fun-at-all to which he responds sharply and  negatively. Nikolai begins to see that even with the moments of tears and unsophistication, the traditions of his family and culture are exceedingly more valuable than the carefree life of upscale New York society. Nikolai ends up marrying a Bengali girl but that too is plagued by the contagion of backward American culture. Ironically, the great marriage in the movie is the arranged (gasp) one shared by his parents.

I obviously recommend this movie for the thinking members of my audience, particularly, the friends of tradition.

The tradition of having time

It’s strange that the things we don’t have time for are probably the things that matter the most. Yesterday I visited a sick friend who was too weak to communicate or engage me. I sat there in the chair at the hospital and decided that it was really OK not to say or do anything for an hour or so. I would just be there.

I studied his sleeping face. I prayed. I read the Bible some. I meditated. I chided myself for being fidgety and anxious. Like many of you, I had a heap of things TO DO!  And so does he. But now things have a new perspective and tried to place myself, once again, in those shoes.

A pathology of society is not having time. I insulate myself from real relationship in the cocoon of business. I lie to myself that quality time can substitute for quantity time, that awareness is as good as involvement, that the internet is as good as community, that career is identity.

Time to go.

P.S. The friend that I was visiting last weekend has passed away.

 

O’Reilly’s old animal

O’Reilly Books is known for a variety of technical publications on computer administration,  computer programming and other technical topics. In the community, they are affectionately known as “animal books” since many of their texts feature an animal on the cover:

Unfortunately, for the keepers of tradition, O’Reilly has a policy of socially engineering their readership. In one publication on agile methods, the engineering was so blatant and overbearing that I stopped reading the book  altogether, as it kept breaking the required concentration. I followed up by rating the book as poorly as their feedback scale would allow.

I was recently treated to another case of this irksome policy, albeit small. Here is an example from their “Embedded Linux” publication.

Despite a growth in both the availability of Linux distributions targeted at embedded use, and their use in embedded Linux devices, your friend’s development team may well have custom built their own system from scratch (for reasons explained later in this book). Conversely, when an end user says she runs Linux on the desktop, she most likely means that she installed one of the various  distributions, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES), Ubuntu Linux, or Debian GNU/Linux.

The traditions of good scholarship require that the neutral pronoun form be the masculine, in this case “he”, not “she”. O’Reilly’s use of the feminine pronoun can only serve a few purposes outside of annoying its male dominated consumer base. One purpose might be the fashionable promotion of the stereotype in our heretical society that men, particularly husbands and fathers, are irrelevant at best and buffoons at any rate. Already the portrayal of these roles is common in the entertainment industry along with deliberate single motherhood and loss of patronymic traditions. Why not in the fabric of our language as well?

This use of the feminine pronoun in a field highly populated by male nerds makes the attempt at social engineering extremely cartoonish.  I am not the only one that thinks so. The following link on O’Reilly’s website outlines the issue extant for ten years: Ask Tim.  Although I like the publications in general, I can  no longer purchase them simply based on this policy. Fortunately, there are cheaper and less intrusive ways of getting spun up on a technical topic.

 

Lost traditions, lost reality

I was delighted to hear a TED Talk recently by anthropologist Elizabeth Lindsey, presenting an appeal about the lost traditions of our world. The title of the link article on CNN.com is called “Wisdom is found in our heritage, not our cell phones.” A worthy quotation from that article and talk:

We are living an illusion that calls itself reality. We track the every move of city dwellers in New York as if it’s breaking news while forsaking those with valuable insight. An African elder said, “You worship the jester, while the king stands in plain clothes.”

You can watch the lecture here: Curating Humanities Traditions

 

Tradition – the new radicalism

An audio lecture by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College was catching my attention as I was driving home from work one day. One of many statements he was firing off made a permanent impression on me. The statement went something like this:

When we have embraced a hundred heresies as the orthodoxy of the future, the only possible radicalism left is tradition

As I pondered this statement it dawned on me that through nothing more than cultural attrition I had become radicalized. I am now a progressive because the traditions, the so-called “guns and religion” that I tenaciously cling to in a mindset caricatured as bigotry and ignorance have been abandoned by the mainstream.  It made me smile to think that, after the reclassification of societal norms, I was relegated to punk status.

Tradition – the new radicalism.  Let me introduce you to this alternative lifestyle marked by the preservation and practice of our spiritual and cultural traditions. These are important because they build on the collective wisdom of the past.  As is often said, if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it and in the same way traditions – of a family, of a culture or of a nation—preserve the cumulative wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors and forward it to future generations that will benefit from, and incrementally influence, it. But today’s traditional thinking is much more than that.

Neo-traditionalism understands the value of tradition in a society that carelessly abandons it and does so almost as a religious exercise. Tradition provides culture, community, spirituality and identity—all items that modern American life attempts to outsource if not eradicate.  One may make the case that many social ills — crime, drug abuse, suicide, promiscuity, indebtedness and even environmental destruction can be linked to the erosion of tradition mostly because the loss of its provisions (community, identity, etc) leave a void that is invariably filled with destructive counterfeits.

There’s a potent National Geographic documentary I encourage others to watch called “God Grew Tired of Us” about the lost boys of the Sudan and their immigration to America.  In many ways it is also a mirror on our own society and when I watch it I can only feel shame for our empty and bankrupt culture.  In one scene the tall and stately dark Africans are sitting at a table in their pathetically small apartment in Syracuse eating dinner. They’ve opted to eat the macaroni and cheese in the Dinka way—with their hands. Why? One of them explains that to do so maintains their identity and purpose, saying “…because as you know, a person without culture is like a human being without land. So it is good to keep our tradition.” Despite the tragedies of their boyhood, the men are smiling, happy and excited about the new life afforded them in the U.S. feeling somewhat guilty that their relatives and friends back in Africa continue to wait in a refugee camp. But as the film progresses, our culture of work, isolation, stupefying entertainment and frivolity presses in and manifest as the wasteland that it is.  We are the proverbial rich country of Western civilization where everyone has an expensive watch on their wrist—-but no time!  And we pass this form of death on to our children daily.

But the man or woman of our new radicalism tries to reclaim the lost heirlooms of tradition, and to do so means charging against the grain of a society gone mad with celebrity worship, materialism and a thousand other forms of idolatry. Granted, some traditions need to be abandoned or re-evaluated; but I would argue that the bulk of tradition has served us well and we do ourselves, especially our progeny, a disservice (to put it mildly) when we abandon it.

What are these traditions and how do we reclaim them? The answer to this question requires a series of essays each targeting a specific aspect of life where essential traditions are being abandoned. I will look at the traditions of the past, why they were of benefit then and what to do about it now.