Thursday, July 27, 2017

Further musings about philosophical foundations

A reader sent these reflections in response to my recent Ethical Musings post, Why we cannot return to our Western heritage:
I think your key point is that those who purport western values fail to engage the philosophical and theological depth of that which is foundational to the western European/Anglo-North American heritage. The philosophical and theological traditions that carried the “founders” of the nascent North American republic were shaped by classical studies (conditioned by their own time and context) as well their contemporaries (in the UK and France). I read a study of the philosophy/political theory of John Adams that connected him to a “natural law” tradition mediated through Locke and Hooker. Modern American Christian fundamentalism has lost theological/philosophical moorings — but that is not unlike our political environment that is post philosophical (a la Ayn Rand). In the era of Trump, we live into a myth of accumulation and self-promotion. There is really is no “heritage” in the philosophical/ theological sense, but a manufactured myth of power (largely white and male) that trades on fear and alienation. In international relations, we therefore have abandoned the notion of a community of nations (based in the 20th century on some notion of "natural law" and ideal of objective “justice”) for an absolutist notion of spheres of influence devoid of morality and accountability. It is true that we cannot return to our Western heritage exclusively, but 21st century America has abandoned that heritage for an illusion. How can we truly engage the other without a starting point ourselves? We must be self-aware to engage the other. So, yes, I have been rereading Aristotle, Aquinas, Hooker, Maritain and Arendt this summer. I am doing so while engaging some Chinese philosophy. I must read Womanist theology from some conscious place.
Those reflections prompted the musings that follow.
Your description of a manufactured myth of power (male and white), I think, is on target. In teaching ethics to MA/MS students at the Naval Postgraduate School, one of about ten texts that I used in the course was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Her ethics, embedded in the novel, exemplify the ethical egoism by which many live, perhaps none more (in)famously today than Trump. Ethical egoism includes, I think, the myth of accumulation and self-promotion that you mention. Sadly, my one student who found Rand unshakably sound also self-identified as a fundamentalist Christian.
My reading tends more toward ethics than philosophy more broadly. Only in the last couple of months have I had the mental energy to resume much serious reading, at present mostly in politics.
In many ways, contemporary philosophy (dominated by the analytical school), and philosophical ethics more narrowly, struggle for relevance. As a pragmatist, I find the most promising path ahead for philosophical ethics to be in dialogue with science. Ethical egoism, illustratively, coheres well with the work of, among others, Richard Dawkins (cf. his The Selfish Gene). Conversely, evolutionary biologists such as Frans de Waal argue that Dawkins and his compatriots are wrong; reciprocal altruism rather than ethical egoism best describes the path of human evolution. If that is correct, then the question becomes which ethical approach (e.g., utilitarianism, deontology, relativism, etc.) best coheres with science and optimizes human experience/life, which inherently includes caring for all creation.
Another factor that has pushed me to integrate science and philosophy (as well as theology) is that the more biology I read, the more I realize that any attempt to dissect humans into some constellation of body, mind, and spirit is futile. A human is her/his body. All of the research that I have read emphasizes that when a human thinks s/he has made a decision, the body has made and already is acting upon that decision. The delay between the unconscious/subconscious (these terms are inadequate, but perhaps the best available) decision and the conscious choice is probably less than a second. However, the delay suggests the futility of seeking a priori reasoning or conclusions and may explain why contemporary philosophy seems stalled to outsiders who are disinterested in its parochial academic disputes.

Perhaps the widespread disconnect between much theology and science is also a partial explanation of why so many well-educated people find traditional theological formulations dissatisfying. Chardin got into trouble with the Roman Catholic Church for his efforts to engage in theological-scientific dialogues. I think that some of the process theologians (including Suchocki, Cobb, and Griffin) build on earlier efforts, as well as that of Whitehead and his subsequent interpreters (e.g., Hartshorne), to offer a more promising, suggestive framework.

Monday, July 24, 2017


A friend sent me this personal anecdote after both the Grenfell fire in London and the fire in Waikiki:
I was once asleep on the 22nd floor of a Marriott in Cambridge, Mass. when the fire alarm went off. I could smell smoke. It turned out to be a minor fire, and I was able to get back into my room after a few hours. But ever since, when I enter a tall building, I look for sprinklers. They aren’t foolproof but they’re certainly better than nothing.
People who check into a hotel or move into a high rise trust the contractors, cognizant government approval authorities, and others have all honestly collaborated to construct a safe building, something that obviously failed to happen in London but may have been true in Waikiki. Standards should improve over time and retrofitting is often expensive, but the responsible parties should still make a good faith effort to keep the building safe. People who do not believe in human sin should consider the Grenfell fire as a case study in greed triumphing over concern for one’s neighbor.
The word “sin” is out of favor in many intellectual circles. For example, some evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins describe human selfishness in terms of genetic dynamics that program humans to act in an individual’s perceived self-interest (cf. Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene).
Others, including some theologians and evolutionary biologists, believe that biological dynamics include not only selfishness as usually understood but also reciprocal altruism, a form of selfishness that presumes self-interest is sometimes maximized by actions whose immediate benefit is for others, not self. The work of Frans de Waal, an evolutionary primate biologist, supports the concept of reciprocal altruism (cf. my Ethical Musings’ posts Metaethics - part 2 and Loving and being loved).
Sometimes people apparently act in good faith and bad things still result, as with the deaths, injuries, and other harms caused by the apartment building fire in Waikiki. Other times, bad things happen because of what theologians of many different faiths call “sin,” i.e., persons acting selfishly discounting or disregarding potential harms to others and to creation.
Forgiveness is not the remedy to sin. Sin’s remedy is described by words such as reformation, transformation, healing, and so forth – all words that denote an individual more fully balancing self-interest with the well-being of others.
The daily news is full of reports that demonstrate a widespread need for this type of change: stories about “America first,” tax proposals that favor the wealthy over the poor, health insurance proposals that seek to balance the budget by reducing the access of a society’s most vulnerable to healthcare, etc.

Christians believe that Jesus is the remedy for our sin because he exemplifies the triumph of love (reciprocal altruism) over sin and evil. May we, like Jesus, recognize the reality of sin, dare to stand up to evil, and thereby experience the life abundant that only love makes possible.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why we cannot return to our Western heritage

Occasionally, I will hear or read a call for the US to return to the Western values upon which it was founded, values that generally include democratic governance, human dignity, civil rights, etc.
While I affirm many Western values rooted in Judaism, Christianity, Greece, and Rome, I find the calls to return to those values biased, narrow minded, and historically inaccurate. I live in Hawaii, a state comprised of an Asian majority that exceeds 77%. These patriotic Americans cannot return to Western values that were never part of their heritage.
Similarly, in US communities in which a majority of the citizens share an African heritage, those people cannot return to Western values that were never part of their heritage. Indeed, the vast majority of the first ancestors of today’s African Americans to live in North America arrived involuntarily as slaves.
Genuine inclusivity calls for the US to incorporate the best of its global heritage, including the values of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans. Most fundamentally, all of these traditions affirm the dignity and worth of all humans. More broadly, all of their major religious traditions point towards establishing communities that protect the well-being of all, care for creation, and aim to help their practitioner live meaningful lives.
Furthermore, calls for a return to Western values are often code language for insisting upon establishing Christianity as the one true religion. Such calls explicitly devalue other religions and are historically inaccurate. Late eighteenth-century commentators on the founding of the United States often worried that its lack of an established religion would doom the democratic experiment to failure. Many of the persons prominent in founding the US were theists, not Christians. The US at that time was home not only to a wide assortment of Christian groups, many of whom denied that all other alleged Christians were not true Christians, but also to Jews, Muslims, adherents of Native American religions, adherents of African religions, and a few atheists. Declaring that the US was founded upon Christian principles and beliefs is “false news.”

Genuine multiculturalism enriches rather than impoverishes our ideas, our communities, our governance, and our prospects for justice, peace, and living abundantly. Conversely, the US cannot return to its exclusively Western heritage because that never existed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Comments and suggestions

Through comments, suggestions, and subscriptions, Ethical Musings has created a small, online community of persons interested in reflecting about ethics in general and military ethics in particular, spirituality, and progressive, post-theistic Christianity.
Subjects of Ethical Musings' posts cover a wide range of issues. Comments and suggested topics for Ethical Musings' posts are always welcome. Each post has a link for adding comments; my email address is included in my blogger profile.

If you know someone whom you think might enjoy reading Ethical Musings, please forward a link to them. The easiest ways to ensure that you regularly receive Ethical Musings are by email, RSS feed to the reader of your choice, or via Networked blogs. Simply go to Ethical Musings and follow the simple instructions there to sign up for the subscription method of your choice.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Lost causes

By nature, I am an optimist. For example, I sometimes characterize the role of the clergy as that of a professional hoper.
However, being an optimist and a professional hoper does not mean never recognizing that the issue is settled and the cause is lost. Recent news reports highlight two lost causes with respect to which some people continue to have an ill-founded hope.
In the first instance, continuing to hope may feel easier and more moral than recognizing the cause is lost and being overwhelmed with grief. This first instance is the tragic case of a baby, Charles Gard, who for eleven months has subsisted on life support in a London hospital. He was born without the ability to breathe or eat. Without life support systems, he would quickly die.
Charlie’s parents, the Pope, and President Trump don’t want to end his life and suffering by terminating the life support because they want to try an untested new treatment that may help Charlie. Roman Catholic doctrine, the hospital, and the British courts all support withdrawing life support because there is no hope for a cure.
Grief is hard. Yet tragedy and death are unavoidable aspects of life. Frittering away scarce resources on cases in which there is no hope, thereby protracting suffering for all involved, is neither moral nor Christian. Surely there are babies who suffer from the same condition as Charlie Gard but in less severe ways and in closer proximity to the doctors who have devised the experimental treatment who would be better suited for testing the treatment.
In the second instance, North Korea has both nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the US (Alaska and perhaps Hawaii) on which to launch those weapons.
While the world would indisputably be safer if North Korea had neither nuclear weapons or ICBMs, there is no way to force North Korea to give up one or both. Military experts agree that North Korea has too many possible targets for a first strike by the US to succeed in destroying all North Korean nukes. A first strike that did not eliminate all nuclear weapons would almost certainly result in North Korea launching its own nuclear strike against the US, South Korea, or Japan. The death toll from these strikes and the inevitable war that would follow is too high to contemplate.
Similarly, scholars – experts in politics, foreign affairs, economics, and North Korea – agree that no set of sanctions will coerce North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons or ICBMs. North Korea rightly perceives its nuclear weapons and ICBMs as insurance against invasion and forced regime change.
As a child, I lived with the constant threat of a Soviet nuclear strike against the US. Those old enough to remember will recall Soviet threats and bluster as well as civil defense drills, e.g., school children seeking safety under their desks. Living now in Hawaii, perhaps within range of a North Korean nuclear attack, I feel no less safe than I did as a child.
The policy of mutual assured destruction has prevented a nuclear war not only between the US and the Soviet Union, its successor state of Russia, and China, but also between Pakistan and India. I do not believe that North Korea has a death wish. However great an injury they might be able to inflict on the US, the result would be the near, if not complete, annihilation of North Korea. A policy of mutual assured destruction will continue to prevent nuclear wars.
Instead of pursuing hopeless policies, the US and other nations would do well to engage North Korea in constructive ways, such as those advocated by South Korea’s current president. No matter how slim the odds of that engagement succeeding in improving global stability and moving North Korea toward better governance, those odds are infinitely greater than pursuing a policy that has no hope of success.

As with individuals, God never desires that we pursue the hopeless. Instead, genuine hope entails seeking the possible that advances us and our neighbors along the trajectory that leads to more abundant life, greater peace and justice for all creation.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Time to simplify and expedite clergy searches

The search processes for diocesan bishops, rectors, and vicars are broken. Little evidence exists, beyond anecdotes, to demonstrate that the current processes efficaciously select clerics who succeed in their new posts regardless of one’s definition of success. Indeed, numerous anecdotes suggest that the processes result in calling unsuccessful leaders at least as often as the processes result in calling successful leaders. Furthermore, the current processes entail excessive and unnecessary delays and costs.

Significant improvements are easily identified and implemented.

First, eliminate the frequently intentional long interim periods in congregations (parishes and missions) and dioceses. Accumulating research on the effects of long interim periods between permanent congregational leaders generally shows that congregations decline or at best subsist in a holding pattern until the new leader arrives. The same is likely true for dioceses.

Other types of organizations generally avoid intentionally long interim periods between top leaders, e.g., businesses, non-profits, and governments. In The Episcopal Church (TEC) we already have no interim periods between Presiding Bishops and in dioceses that select a coadjutor who will become the diocesan bishop upon the retirement or departure of the current incumbent.

Second, dioceses and congregations should commence transition planning immediately upon an incumbent announcing her/his departure. Some dioceses already do this when the diocesan bishop calls for the election of a coadjutor. A bishop, rector, or vicar who announces her/his upcoming departure becomes in the eyes of many a lame duck. Members frequently adopt a wait and see attitude to determine their level of support for new initiatives and sometimes for existing programs. Visitors may opt to go elsewhere or, if they stay, similarly hesitate to commit, uncertain of the congregation’s future tone and direction. Commencing the search process as soon as possible minimizes this period of uncertainty.

A good leader inevitably shapes the organization s/he leads. Postponing the start of the search process for a new leader until the current leader has departed will not prevent controlling leaders from attempting to meddle in the process. Instead, organizations should insist that current leaders and search process participants maintain good boundaries.

The rationale that a trained interim can best assist a congregation or diocese in resolving serious problems (entrenched conflict, abusive relationships, etc.) is wrong. A newly called bishop, rector, or vicar may already have the skills to assist the diocese or congregation in working through its problems. Alternatively, the person may easily acquire those skills by attending training for interims, seminary courses, receiving mentoring or coaching, or through other means. An incumbent’s advantages compared to an interim include the stability and length of tenure that s/he brings to the diocese or congregation. Lastly, well-trained interims know that in spite of their best efforts, resolving many of a diocese’s or congregation’s most serious problems will require many years of consistent efforts by the new leader. People too often see an interim as just temporary help.

Occasionally, a diocese or congregation will require an interim. For example, an interim’s services are temporarily unavoidable when the incumbent dies in office, departs unexpectedly, or is precipitously fired. I have served as an interim in all three situations (one incumbent literally died in his office, another had a stroke, and a third was abruptly dismissed after the congregation discovered the married leader’s affair with a prominent choir member). Regardless of an interim’s best efforts, the pain, distrust, and other problems caused by the previous incumbent inevitably persist into the first few years of the next incumbent’s tenure. Interims unfortunately have no magic tools with which to make problems disappear.

Third, eliminate the preparation and distribution of diocesan and congregational profiles. Most of the information in those profiles is now available online from diocesan and congregational websites. Carefully perusing newsletters, photos, and other information reveals who attends (race, age, gender, etc.), what the congregation or diocese does in ministry and mission, and the organization’s self-identity. Supplemental information not on the website (e.g., not all dioceses and congregations have finances and membership statistics available on their websites) can be added to the website or sent to clergy who express an interest in applying for the position. Almost all of this information conveniently exists in digital format.

Instead, diocesan and congregational search committees should focus their efforts on preparing a short (optimally one page but no more than two pages) statement of the organization’s expectations and goals for the next chapter in their life and the gifts and skills they hope the next incumbent will have.

Fourth, dioceses and congregations should rely on the cadre of professional headhunters that TEC already employs to winnow through potential candidates expeditiously. These professional headhunters consist of diocesan staff responsible for the deployment process and the staff of the Church Deployment Office (CDO). The CDO, using its database, can identify clergy who want to move and whose profile seems to fit what a congregation what in its next leader. Diocesan deployment staff can supplement that list. Some dioceses, at least part of the time, presently utilize this approach, providing congregations the names of a handful of candidates that the deployment staff deem represent the best match of clergy skills and personality with the congregation’s aspirations, goals, and characteristics.

TEC’s Office of Pastoral Development in collaboration with the Presiding Bishop (PB) and CDO can provide the same assistance for episcopal search processes. The Office of Pastoral Development and PB know dioceses, their contexts, and their current situations. The CDO using its database can easily identify potential candidates whose self-identified qualities and qualifications appear to meet a diocese’s expressed aspirations.

Selecting and forwarding several names to a congregation or diocese will often require only a week instead of the months that congregations and dioceses now typically expend winnowing through possible candidates. Search committees after reviewing profiles/resumes and conducting phone interviews, as well as any personal interviews, may reject all of the candidates. In that case, the diocese or Office of Pastoral Development should use search committee feedback to refine their selection process and then forward the search committee a fresh set of candidate names and information.

Fifth and finally, teach the revised search process and transition management to clergy and lay leaders in diocesan forums. Initially, the training should emphasize changes to the process as well as how the changes will benefit both clergy and the Church’s ministry and mission. Subsequent training sessions can constructively focus on teaching dioceses, congregations, and clergy to identify their gifts, skills, relevant personality characteristics, as well as goals for the next chapter of their life. Training sessions can also teach transition management, a skill that I had to acquire as a Navy chaplain who received a new assignment every two to three years.

The changes to the search process outlined above obviously presume that we Episcopalians trust those who work in the deployment process. This trust is fundamental to Jesus’ command that we love one another. Demonstrating that we trust one another will also improve our witness to the world and the efficiency of clergy transitions, thus both saving money and enhancing organizational effectiveness. Our current process, centered around trusting a well-meaning but inexperienced search committee to weed through a stack of clergy profiles and resumes, seems much less likely to discern God’s will than does a process constructed around committed Christian leaders whose calling includes faithfully assisting other clergy to hear and to answer God’s call.

I am not so naïve as to believe that all bishops, clergy, and church employees are worthy of that trust. However, the preponderance of these individuals has chosen to serve Christ by working for TEC. While they, you, and I may assess clergy and job openings differently, I have rarely found a reason to question their motives. In the twenty-first century, few persons choose to work for the Church because it pays well, gives them significant power, or offers so much prestige.

TEC, struggling for institutional survival, badly needs to reduce the time and money expended in clergy transition processes. This requires a culture of mutual trust and respect. Arguably, the most important step that TEC can take to avoid perpetuating whatever culture of distrust now exists in its transition processes is to deal boldly, appropriately, and openly with those few persons who are untrustworthy. Ending distrust entails refusing to tolerate unacceptable behavior, breaking unhealthy cycles of co-dependence, strongly encouraging the mentally ill to seek treatment, etc. In other words, ending distrust means emulating Jesus’ tough love to bring healing to the broken.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The value of freedom

When Abraham Lincoln was brought the Emancipation Proclamation to sign, he started several times to sign the document but stopped each time and dropped the pen. In answer to Secretary Seward's quizzical look, Lincoln said, "I have been shaking hands since nine o'clock this morning, and my right arm is almost paralyzed. If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say:  He hesitated.'"

Never hesitate to celebrate or to share the gift of freedom.

Happy Fourth of July!