How To Cope In the Best and Worst of Times

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“What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint) is our teeming population. Our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us . . . . In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”

That quotation, while it sounds current, was written by Tertullian, an early Christian writer, in the second century and in a time when the human population was around 190 million—as in total population of the planet!

Today, nearly two millennia later, with a population of 7.7 billion of us anxiety cucumbers, we carry on this tradition of handwringing and worry about overpopulation. Books, written decades ago, predicted there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and yet here we are—each new generation fearful of the impending doom.

How could this be?

How could the experts of a generation ago be so wrong in their gloomy predictions?

We have perpetually overestimated our importance in the grand scheme of things and then simultaneously underestimated our ability to innovate (collectively) and adapt to an ever-changing planet.

Sure, we’ve had our impact, things like extinctions and deforestation are concerning and there’s a strong argument for conservation of resources. However, those preaching about the coming apocalypse are often either the victims of their own pessimistic bias or being exploited for political reasons.

No, the Amazon is *not* the lungs of the planet. It is an ecosystem that also consumes nearly as much oxygen as it produces. The widely reported fires are not unusual and, for the most part, involved land that has already been cleared rather than the old-growth forest. Furthermore, the trends of deforestation are slowing and will likely reverse. The only real change is that a man whom leftists dislike was recently elected in Brazil.

Climate alarmism is also a perennial favorite of secular doomsayers. But, oddly enough, these dire warnings never seem to change the behavior of those making them. For example, the Obamas recently made a purchase of a $14.9 million dollar estate in Martha’s Vineyard. That would be an incredibly stupid move for someone who really believed that the oceans were about to rise. But the truth is that the headlines screaming about the end coming in a decade have been a reoccurring theme for decades and the only thing that has changed over the past couple decades is an *increase* in the polar bear population.

What is missing from the fear-mongering campaigns and politically motivated hype is some perspective. This planet has been around for a long long time and has seen dramatic changes in climate. North America was once covered in glaciers. The Sahara desert was once lush and populated. Species have come and gone. Events like Permian Triassic Catastrophe (the ‘Great Dying’) have nearly made this planet uninhabitable, took eons upon eons to recover from, and occurred long before humans arrived. This or something like it will probably end the world as we know it and no amount of windmills will make the slightest difference.

We are not in control. We do not make the sunrise in the sky nor do we know what lies ahead. Tomorrow could just be another day or it could be the day a civilization ending asteroid hits and wipes out everything we have worked tirelessly to create, accumulate or preserve. My point isn’t to be defeatist or to encourage indifference. No, my point is to free you from fear and give you an opportunity to embrace what we do have—this fleeting moment to live and enjoy the experience.

No Earthly Good…

There is an ironic expression “don’t be so heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good” that is used to describe a person who wrongly uses big things to escape their small responsibilities. For example, when the Pharisees, always concerned about maintaining appearances for their religious peers, would declare “Corban” (set aside for God’s use) resources that should have gone to their mothers or fathers instead and Jesus calls them out for it.

Many use lofty reasons as an escape from faithfully performing their own mundane duties. It is easy to decry abuses a world away, but much harder to sacrifice our own personal advantages to serve local needs. We live in a world full of virtue-signaling social media personalities who either naively believe their 280 characters is making a difference or do so cynically, for selfish gain, and simply know what will help them climb the social ladder. There are many who would gladly make others suffer for sake of their conscience and yet rarely lift a finger themselves.

Those stuck in their worries rarely do much good in the world and especially when the anxieties are about things well out of their control. If anything the environmentalist’s obsession with planet-sized issues leads to indifference. In other words, some excuse their own hypocrisy in the name of saving the planet. Many others, more realistic about their ability to save the planet, are disheartened and give up entirely on the enterprise. Both miss the opportunity to make their own corner of existence better.

I recall many lectures from Evangelical pastors about things like the “10/40 window” and millions of ‘lost’ people in the world. The message, if meant to encourage, backfired for me. Unlike them, evidently, I could “do the math” and, by their reasoning, millions of souls would be damned regardless of my involvement and my time would be wasted. I mean what difference could one man make? Likewise, many are frozen rather than empowered by their global focus, even the activists themselves, and would be far more effective if they significantly reduced their scope.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, the two who passed by the wounded man were too concerned with other things to intervene on behalf of the immediate need. Likewise, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the unnamed rich man overlooked, possibly even stepped right over starving and sick Lazarus, on his way to important business elsewhere. In both cases above you have ‘big picture’ people missing a small, but obvious, local need and being condemned as a result.

To be truly “heavenly-minded” (at least according to the Gospel) is actually to love your neighbor, meaning that person right along the path you are on or literally at your front gate. That is how to be heavenly in a way that makes a real difference in the world. Those who try to ‘play God’ and save the world are “out of their lane” and are bound to be completely delusional or constantly overwhelmed. To be actually lofty means to sacrifice global ambition and to become locally active.

True faith does not require travel over land or sea, does not need outside funding or forced cooperation of the multitude, it only requires seeing the need in front of you and being the solution.

The Real Problem of Our Time…

The times we live in are unusual, but not for lack of a means to feed ourselves. And we’ve definitely left our mark on the planet, we (like all organisms) consume and in our consumption change the environment we live in. The universe is in a state of entropy, this planet is no exception, yet somehow there is life and we are here, extremely advanced, consciously aware of our place in it. We did not create the order we live in nor will we preserve it forever.

The established order of life, death, and birth again is something that should awe-inspiring and never a source of anxieties. From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

However, we are social creatures, we desire to have meaning and purpose in our lives, therefore we should find a role to serve. Which is the big problem in our time, we have our basic needs met with very little effort (at least in the developed countries) and should feel happy and content. But we are also more acutely aware than ever of the world’s problems and as a result, many feel more helpless and stressed than ever. In a time of peace, prosperity, and connectivity many are feeling angry, alienated and desperate for attention.

A History Guy video, “John B Calhoun and the Rats of N.I.M.H.,” about the threat of over-crowding and urbanization, deserves credit for provoking my thoughts. Calhoun had led a series of scientific studies involving rodents placed in a controlled, seemingly ideal, environment where necessities were provided and conditions right for a rapid expansion of population. The results of the experiments were startling, as the crowding increased so did the social dysfunction. Traditional mouse courtship was abandoned. Bizarre behavior from that of non-breeding “beautiful ones” to inexplicable violence (cannibalism, killing young, etc) became increasingly commonplace leading to a total collapse.

This “behavioral sink,” as Calhoun described it, was not a problem of lacking resources, the rats and mice had more than enough to thrive. But it was an issue of socialization, a question of carrying and comfort capacities, and illustrated the need for social structures. There are problems with this experiment, like all experiments, and human behavior is much more complex than that of rats or mice, but there does seem to be information relevant to our own human condition, as social creatures, and the rapidly changing times we live in.

What is really happening in our time is a disruption of beneficial structures and indiscriminate destruction of normalcies. Long gone are the times when most people stayed closely connected to a small group of people in one geographic place, we now drive thirty minutes to be with a friend, search for love across oceans, and many have no church, were raised in daycare by strangers and think “likes” on social media is relevance. The increase in substance abuse, mass shootings, and suicide could all be symptoms of a break down of social structures, like family and community, that give individuals a secure place.

We seem to be accelerating towards a cataclysmic end of our civilization, but that is a bit too pessimistic an outlook. Our species did not rise in numbers solely as a result of prolific breeding or by living in ideal environments. No, in fact, we survived to later thrive as a result of our unique capability to adapt ourselves to any climate and modify the environment to suit our own needs. Still, that does not mean we can continue to go in the direction we are going and our introspection is good so long as it leads us to make the changes needed.

Calhoun spoke of the need for a “compassionate revolution” and that our success often came as a result of honoring deviance over tradition. But he was also a man of his age. In our time it may be revolutionary, even rebellious, to live an ordinary life, to not indulge in travel, to stay local, to be loyal to our own familial commitments and remain faithful to the needs right at our doorstep. We need a restoration of the home and sacred space, a place to belong and also to be separate from the chaotic din of the mass media age.

We are not gods nor are we dumb beasts. We cannot singlehandedly save the planet, we can’t fix every problem either, but we can help to improve our local environment and settle our own internal space in a way that will bring light into the life of those we meet. The world needs fewer things to worry about, more love, hope, hugs, and Matthew 6:34:

“…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

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Struggle, Meaning of Life and Suicide

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In the early hours of a Sunday morning, I was lying in bed, engaged in a conversation with an old classmate, now living in New Zealand, about the drug overdose death of someone familiar to both of us and what it says about the times we live in.

The dialogue itself, scattered about my morning routine, was an example of the unique pressure of modern life. Our discourse continued, in fragmented text message form, one of us going to bed soon and the other starting their day, past my short nap, beyond my morning shower, on the way to church and ended only as I entered the sanctuary for worship.

My “smartphone” allowed me a level of connection to someone on the opposite side of the world that was impossible a generation ago. And I am glad to be able to maintain this relationship despite the distance and for the electronic tool in my hand that allowed me to do this once unimaginable feat with ease. But this device also deprived me of some extra sleep, it often interrupts my most private moments, distracts me while driving, and does not allow me to be singularly focused. It comes along to work, to the gym, while I’m out dining, and visiting friends, and is almost impossible to control.

My grandpa had morning chores—mundane physical tasks like feeding animals, milking a few cows or shoveling manure. And grandma too—she would, in the wee hours of the day, go about making breakfast for her working man and the family clan. But they likely did not (at least not frequently) get a surprise visit from a former debate partner (geared up for a discussion of weighty matters) while they were in bed and still seeing double.

So, what did we discuss?

The rate of drug overdoses and number of suicides have risen dramatically over the past few decades and for poor middle-aged white men in particular. Several of my former classmates have now become part of this statistical category and, sadly, their stories are being repeated over and over again across the United States and especially in rural areas. The suicide rate for African American men has actually decreased over the same time period, which has led to some speculation as to why this is the case.

My left-leaning friend speculated this is a product of eroding “white male privilege” and yet all the cases that I am familiar with involved men who were, since childhood, as disenfranchised as anyone by the current system. There was never an erosion for them because they never had this imagined privileged status, they grew up in predominately white communities, from working-class homes, they didn’t go to college, they couldn’t seem to get out of their rut of low-paying jobs, relationship drama or financial woes, struggled against addiction and depression.

No, while true that white men are not a protected class and some do endure a significant amount of bullying and are just expected to take it, I do not see this as the real issue. Men in prior generations went into mines, labored hard under the sun, endured the terror of war, worked long-shifts on the assembly line and all without the help of a psychiatrist to tell them how to feel. They were just supposed to suck it up and keep going, against the odds, for the good of their communities and families—which is exactly what they did.

What has changed?

A more likely explanation for the increase in suicide and drug abuse is a combination of factors rather than one—the evaporation of economic opportunity and dissolution of the family unit and communities, along with the hectic pace of modern life, playing primary roles in the epidemic. A couple of decades ago decent paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful, the community was strong (usually with a local church as the nucleus) and the world’s problems were not constantly being shoved in our faces in a 24-7 on cable news, social media, etc. There have been big changes in rural America and some are impacted more than others.

The media deluge…

In the 1990s Ted Turner’s CNN was a novelty, the breathless reporting of alleged atrocities used to sell the American public on the Persian Gulf War, and only a foreshadowing of the media deluge to come. Two decades later there is almost no escape, there is no time anymore to process the information assaulting us from all angles, and the coverage is by and large negative.

Then there is the explosion of social media. It is a world where we primarily see the highlights of the lives of our friends and skews towards a positive presentation—because nobody wants to be that person.

This alone doesn’t drive anyone into depression and despair. But it certainly can help to feed feelings of isolation, it can never replace in-the-flesh social interaction, and could leave a person feeling overwhelmed. I mean, how can we not be influenced by this endless stream of information? It is a far cry from the time of our grandparents when yesterday’s news arrived in print form and the only scandal that really mattered was that juicy bit of gossip overheard on the party line.

Could it be that we aren’t built to take in the world all at once?

Could it be that we are reaching our capacity to handle and that the most vulnerable are first to fall down under this load?

We should consider the increase in suicides and drug overdoses as the “canary in a coal mine” and an indication of something very wrong in the air of our current culture. Where some have been overcome by the noxious fumes there are probably many more who are gasping for breath or in the beginning stages of hypoxia and need to be guided back to fresh air or they will soon also perish. An overdose of bad news and fear-mongering propaganda won’t take a strong person down, but it might be enough to push the vulnerable over the edge.

Working more for less…

Twenty years ago, in the towns around where I grew up in (prior to the NAFTA disaster) the wheels of industry were still turning and a blue-collar worker could easily make $20/hour or more working a factory shift. Yes, the cracks of outsourcing where beginning to show before this, the domestic steel and auto industry collapsed against cheap foreign imports before then, but it was mostly big urban areas like Detroit and Baltimore that felt the pain. We still proudly produced furniture, paper, bread, cable assemblies, and various other products before these businesses were shuttered.

However, since then we have felt the full brunt of trade policies that primarily have benefitted globalist elites. Since the 1990s, dozens of factory doors have closed in my own immediate area and nothing came to replace them. Well, nothing besides more low paying retail jobs—shopping centers springing up in the same lots, literally, where many men and women once made a wage where they had a chance of economic advancement. The idea that everyone could simply get some additional education and become a computer programmer or a professional with a bachelor’s degree has become the out-of-touch “let them eat cake” statement of the modern era.

Wages have stagnated in a time when costs in housing, healthcare, education, and housing have skyrocketed. The cost of college, for example, has gone up at eight times the pace of wages, in 2016, home prices increased at twice the rate of inflation, and we now spend thirty times what we did for healthcare a few decades ago. And again, this is a change the predominantly white working-class men who, unlike many others in the economy, have no control of their wages and, in addition, are often in direct competition with illegal immigrants for the same jobs. There is no professional licensing to protect the jobs of the yard guy or the drywaller—thus they are forced to work more for less.

Only the wealthy elites and beneficiaries of the welfare system have come out on top. For those taught that their value is in their ability to provide for their own, who are unable to compete in the academic or intellectual realm, prospects can indeed be very bleak and especially when coupled with other factors like failed relationships, lack of community and loss of purpose. It is no surprise that in this environment more are turning to the various means of escape available to them—with suicide being the ultimate expression of their deep despair.

Life without purpose…

The one place where rates of suicide are higher is amongst those who are part of the Native American population. This, coupled with substance abuse, has been a tragic outgrowth of the reservation system for many years and underscores the problem of a purposeless existence. There is not much to do on a reservation. The land is rural and very sparsely populated, the opportunities for gainful employment are extremely limited, basic needs are often subsidized by the government, many succumb to feelings of boredom and/or isolation and decide to end what seems (from their perspective) to be a purposeless life.

I believe the circumstances leading to higher suicides on reservations are very similar to that of many non-Natives living in rural areas. We all have an idea of what we are supposed to be, we have religious and cultural expectations to live up to, but not all are able to overcome the obstacles between themselves and these higher aspirations. Perhaps they were born into a dysfunctional home, sexually abused, are less naturally gifted than their peers, born in a time of declining wages and are unable to compete in the market or attain their life goals? Failure early on can lead a person into self-defeating cycles, especially when there is nobody intervening to help overcome them, and the result is depression, substance abuse, etc.

Men, at least in rural America, are expected to be the “breadwinner” for their families. Those who do not provide are disparaged as “deadbeat dads,” he cannot simply abort his bad decisions, and will be on the hook financially long after his fifteen minutes of fun is up. It is a matter of Christian conscience, the Bible says that a man who does not provide for his own “is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8 KJV), and is a standard that is embedded in our laws. And, truth be told, most men don’t need to be told that their children are their own responsibly either. So, naturally, it is no small thing for men conditioned this way to underperform or fail at their duties.

Men unable to provide adequately (according to cultural norms) for themselves or their families will struggle to find great purpose anywhere else. And while there is the “welfare queen” pejorative to describe a woman who fraudulently games the system, women were traditionally dependent on men to provide financially and there is not nearly the same stigma for a woman who is unable provided financially for her own needs. Things may have changed elsewhere, but in rural America, a man who doesn’t pay child support, even for children he is rarely (if ever) allowed to see is considered to be worthless and a bum.

Relationships are less stable than they were when marital commitment meant something and yet, in a time of wage stagnation, men are still expected to carry the financial burden. The purpose religion once brought men (beyond their work and family) has been under withering assault for many years now, but the yoke of moral responsibility has not faded away and leaves many to struggle in the wilderness alone. So it comes as no surprise when men, surrounded by dysfunction, deprived of their purpose and absent of any real help, could see death by their own hands as something honorable.

From an article about veterans returning to ‘normal’ civilian life:

Now one was looking for work in Wisconsin, one had killed himself, and several had returned to Afghanistan to get back into the fight. Most of them wanted to be back there, in their own ways. Like so many vets, they missed the camaraderie. And as with so many vets, their lives at home were defined less by togetherness than by isolation, which took on many forms. Dodd was in Kansas City making aerospace bolts and smoking weed on his breaks to stave off the stress of “dumb-ass civilian questions.” Simpson was working the phones at a call center for the Department of Veterans Affairs, talking to vets who wanted counseling or benefits or sometimes nothing at all, other than to talk with another combat veteran.

Men would rather be in a literal war than alone and stuck in a purposeless life.

Lack of community…

The collapse of community is one thing my left-leaning friend did seem to strongly agree on as a possible explanation for the epidemic of drug use and despair. His definition of community tended towards civic engagement and mine went in the direction of religious involvement, but we both agreed that this is something essential. And that community, real life “in the flesh” community, has been on a precipitous decline and especially in rural America.

This is the trend even in the conservative Mennonite culture I was born into and spent many years of my life. Guilt-driven church attendance may be holding steady, there is certainly more involvement there than in some other segments of society, but there has definitely been a big change in my lifetime. Sunday evening visits became far less frequent, more parents choose to homeschool their children rather than risk other schooling options and the church community has more or less devolved into a conglomeration of cliques. Of the dozens who called me “brother” over the years, as part of religious ritual, only a couple (primarily one family) have checked in to see how I’ve been doing.

A community is one of those underrated privileges. It is a place where you are missed when you’re gone, where a person can live with far less material wealth and still be happy having their place in the social fabric. Even a slightly dysfunctional community offers protections, a social support network, for those that are a part of it and the individual members are all stronger as a result. Communities take many different forms and can center around many different things. It can be as simple as a group of friends who care about each other and do things together. It can be a military unit that is compelled to do drills together, who eat, sleep and live as a group, and where comradery is encouraged.

In rural America, in the past, the church was often a center of a community, a place where people got together for worship, to make perogies together and share each others’ burdens. Church attendance has been in steady decline, “nones” now constitute the largest religious group affiliation, and with this, there has been a parallel decline in mental health.

And organized religion isn’t the only dwindling expression of rural community, volunteer fire departments are having difficulty filling their ranks—people are too busy with their other obligations and do not have the time.

People also have fewer close friends than they once did according to a recent study, in the time between 1985 and 2004 Americans have gone from an average of three close friends to only two, and this implies a shrinking support network.

The increase in social isolation cannot be good for those already vulnerable.

A profile of a vulnerable person…

When I saw a friend request from “Adam Bartlett” it was a name that I recognized immediately and accepted without hesitation.

Adam was a grade below mine in school. He was one of those anonymous in a crowd people, average height, not particularly athletic or anything, friendly enough, and not too different from me other than my being Mennonite. We both went out for football the same year, he quit the team early (which, in my teenage mind, made me think of him as a quitter) and that is pretty much all I knew about him—there was a gap of twenty years before I heard from him again.

It was not too long after connecting on Facebook that I received a message from Adam. We chatted briefly about a mutual acquaintance, my being off work because of an ACL tear, a shared interest in firearms, how he wanted to reconnect with “old friends” because he had few friends anymore, I offered the next weekend might be a possibility and left it at that—we never did get together the next weekend despite my offer and his interest.

However, a month after that he messaged me about his financial woes. He was upside down in his car payments and was hoping that I could help him out with that. I felt bad about his situation. But, I was not in a position to purchase the vehicle and was not very interested even if I did have the extra cash. It was in the course of that discussion where we ventured a little into his relationship problems, he told me his wife stopped paying bills without telling him and things would soon go from bad to worse.

In our next exchange, he asked me for a place to sleep. His wife had moved back with her parents and he told me he was not welcome to stay there. Of course, being that we had just got reconnected, and also considering that I was on the road all week in the truck, I was leery of having him live in my house alone. Still, he definitely needed help. I decided, rather than have him move in, to pay his security deposit and the first month of rent instead.

He accepted this solution. We met a few days later in the Big Lots parking lot where I handed him a check for his rent.

Then, on the spur of the moment, I asked if we could pray together, he said we could. So I put my hand on his shoulder, prayed that he could get his life turned around and hoped my small contribution would make a difference.

Later on, in many different private conversations online, he complained about the hypocrisy of Christians (including his significant other) and would ask me many questions. Why couldn’t these different denominations agree on anything in the Bible? Which denomination was right? How could his wife be so dogmatic about things like Creationism and then cheat on him over and over again?

Adam had basically given up on religion.

He was rightly skeptical too.

However, it seemed that the prayer had helped. He never did use the check that I gave him, he eventually would start to attend church services again, his social media posts seemed more positive, and last I had known he was back with his wife and daughters.

There were still problems at work and at home. Our last conversation, that he initiated, was on the topic of his drinking habits. He told me that alcohol made him honest, even more spiritual, but was frustrated because his wife disapproved. Perhaps I could have called him out a bit more or been a little more forceful with my opinion, because he definitely sounded like an alcoholic excusing his bad habit—but I figured I would not win an argument and, rather than say too much, simply encouraged him to honor his wife.

A year so after our alcohol discussion, I asked, “How have things been going for you?”

He never did answer.

Adam had confided many things and, both for the sake of those struggling and for those who wish to do something to help, I’ve decided to share his story more openly than I would otherwise. His dysfunctional home life was only made worse by the fact that he had been exploited, as a child, by a sexual predator (a college professor) who was only very recently prosecuted for his serial abuses and given a light prison sentence. He had no real friends in the world, he seemed to try to bury his pain using substance, and this coping strategy, evidently, failed him in the end.

In August, less than a year ago, Adam gunned down a man who had emerged from the apartment where his wife had moved and then, using the same handgun, took his own life.

Dangerous Complexity: What To Do About the Complex Problem of Complexity?

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Air-travel has become safer than ever and that due, in large part, to the increase in automated systems in the cockpit. However, with this advanced technology there comes a downside and the downside being that an otherwise perfectly functional aircraft (I.e., mechanically sound) with competent operators, can be lost because of a small electronic glitch somewhere in the system.

This issue was discussed, at length in response to the crash of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, in 2009, when an issue with an airspeed indicator and automated systems led to pilot confusion—which, in the end, resulted in a plunge into the ocean and the loss of all 228 people on board. The pilots were ultimately responsible for not responding in the correct way (they were in a stall and needed to push the nose down to recover lift) and yet the reason for their failure is as complex as the automated systems that were there to help them manage the cockpit.

It is this problem with advanced electronics that is summarized as a “systemic problem with complexity” in the quote below:

One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.” (“Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?,” The Human Factor)

More recently this problem of complexity has come back into focus after a couple disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft. Initial reports have suggested that at an automated system on the aircraft has malfunctioned—pushing the nose down at low altitudes on take-offs as if responding to a stall—and with catastrophic consequences.

It could very well be something as simple as one sensor going haywire. It could very well be that everything else on the aircraft is functioning properly except this one small part. If that is the case, it certainly not something that should bring down an aircraft and would not have in years past when there was an actual direct mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces. But, now, since automated systems can override pilot inputs and take away some of the intuitive ‘feel’ of things in a cockpit, the possibility is very real that the pilots simply did not have enough time to sift through the possibilities of what was going wrong enough to diagnose the issue, switch to a manual mode, and prevent disaster.

The FAA, following after the lead of China and the Europeans, has decided to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft pending the results of the investigations. This move on the part of regulators will probably be a big inconvenience for air travelers. Nevertheless, after two incidents, and hundreds dead, it is better to take the precaution and get to the bottom of the issue.

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President Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter response, basically stating “the complexity creates danger,” was met with the usual ridicule from those who hate the man and apparently do not understand hyperbole. (It ironic that some, who likely see themselves as sophisticated, have yet to see that through Trump’s putting-it-in-simple-layman’s-terms shtick.) However, technically incorrect is not the same as totally wrong and there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about the general point being made—there are unique (and unforeseeable) problems that come with complex systems.

The “keep it simple, stupid” mantra (aka: KISS principle) is not without merit in an age where our technology is advancing beyond our ability to control it. If a minor glitch in a system can lead to a major disaster, that is dangerous complexity and a real problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, if something as simple as flight can be made incomprehensible, even for a trained professional crew, then imagine the risk when a system is too complicated for humans alone to operate—say, for example, a nuclear power plant?

Systems too complex for humans to operate?

On the topic of dangerous complexity, I’m reminded of the meltdown of reactor two at Three Mile Island and the series of small human errors leading up to the big event. A few men, who held the fate of a wide swath of central Pennsylvania in their hands, made a few blunders in diagnosing the issue with serious consequences.

Human operators aren’t even able to comprehend the enormous (and awful) potential of their errors in such circumstances—they cannot fear to the same magnitude or to the proportion of the possible fallout of their actions—let alone have the ability to respond correctly to the cascade of blaring alarms when things did start to go south:

Perrow concluded that the failure at Three Mile Island was a consequence of the system’s immense complexity. Such modern high-risk systems, he realized, were prone to failures however well they were managed. It was inevitable that they would eventually suffer what he termed a ‘normal accident’. Therefore, he suggested, we might do better to contemplate a radical redesign, or if that was not possible, to abandon such technology entirely. (“In retrospect: Normal accidents“. Nature.)

The system accident (also called the “normal” accident by Yale sociologist, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book on the topic) is when a series of minor things go wrong together or combine in an unexpected way and eventually lead to a cataclysmic failure. This “unanticipated interaction of multiple factors” is what happened at Three Mile Island. It is called ‘normal’ because people, put in these immensely complex situations, revert to their normal routines and (like a pilot who has the nose of his aircraft inexplicably pitch down on routine take off) they lose (or just plain lack) the “narrative thread” necessary to properly respond to an emerging crisis situation.

Such was the case at Three Mile Island. It was not gross misconduct on the part of one person nor a terrible flaw in the design of the reactor itself, but rather it was a series of minor issues that led to operator confusion and number of small of mistakes that soon snowballed into something gravely serious. The accident was a result of the complexity of the system, our difficulty predicting how various factors can interact in ways that lead to failure and is something we can expect as systems become more and more complex.

And increased automation does not eliminate this problem. No, quite the opposite, it compounds the problem by adding another layer of management that clouds our ability to understand what is going on before it is too late. In other words, with automation, not only do you have the possibility of mechanical failure and human error, but you also have the potential for the automation itself failing and failing in a way that leaves the human operators too perplexed to sort through the mess of layered systems and unable respond in time. As the list of interactions between various systems grows so does the risk of a complex failure.

[As a footnote, nuclear energy is cleaner, safer and far more reliable than wind and solar farms. And, in the same way, that it is safer to fly than to drive, despite perceptions to the contrary, the dangers of nuclear are simply more obvious to the casual observer than the alternatives. So, again, with the fierce opposition to nuclear power by those who are unwittingly promoting less effective and more dangerous solutions, the human capacity to make good decisions when faced with the ambiguous problems created by the interaction of various complex systems does certainly come into question.]

Has modern life become dangerously complex?

There is no question that technological advancement has greatly benefited this generation in many ways and few would really be willing to give up modern convenience. That said, this change has not come without a cost. I had to think of that reality over the past few weeks while doing a major overhaul of how we manage information at the office and considering how quickly years of work could vanish into thin air. Yes, I suppose that paper files, like the Library of Alexandria burned, are always susceptible to flames or other destructive forces of nature. But, at least fire (unlike the infamous “blue screen of death“) is a somewhat predictable phenomenon.

Does anyone know why the Bluetooth in my car syncs up sometimes and not always?

Or why plugging my Android phone into the charger causes my calls in Facebook Messenger to hiccup (I.e., disconnects and reconnects multiple times) sometimes but not always?

I’m sure there is a reason hidden somewhere in the code, a failed interaction between several components in the system, but it would take an expert to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s quite a bit different from the times when the problem was the rain and the solution was cutting down a few trees to create a shelter. That was also true in the early days of machines as well—a somewhat mechanically inclined person could maintain and repair their own automobiles. However, the complicating factor of modern electronics has put this do-it-yourself option out of reach for all but the most dedicated mechanics.

Life for this generation has also become exponentially more complex than it was for prior generations when travel was as fast as your horse and you were watching your crops grow rather than checking your Facebook feed updates every other minute. It is very easy to be overwhelmed, as individuals, by information overload. The common man is increasingly over his head in dealing with the technological onslaught. We have become increasingly dependent on technology that we cannot understand ourselves and fails spontaneously, without warning, at seemingly the most inopportune times.

Advanced modern technology represents a paradigm shift as much as the invention of the automobile was a revolution for personal transportation. We have gone from analog to digital—a change that has opened a whole new realm of possibilities and also comes with a new set of vulnerabilities as well that go beyond the occasional annoyance of a computer crash. We really have no idea how the complexity of the current system will fare against the next Carrington Event (a solar storm that caused widespread damage and disruptions to the electric grid in 1859—a time of very basic and sturdy technology) nor are we able to foresee the many other potential glitches that could crash the entire system.

It is easy to be lulled into thinking everything will be okay because it has been so far. But that is a false security in a time of complex systems that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. As when a pilot of a sophisticated airliner fails to comprehend the inputs or like the flustered operators of a nuclear reactor when the alarm bells ring, our civilization may be unable to respond when the complex systems we now rely on fail in an unexpected way that we could not predict. It is not completely unlikely that a relatively small glitch could crash the entire system and lead to a collapse of the current civilization. That is the danger of complexity, having systems that are well beyond our ability to fix should they fail in the right way at the wrong time.

The last human invention will be too complex to control and could be our demise…

Computers far exceed the human capacity to process information. We’ve come a long way from Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov in the 90s and the gap between man and machine continues to grow wider after our best representatives were surpassed. Yet, while vastly faster in their abilities, computers have long only been able to do what they were programmed to do and thus their intelligence is limited by the abilities of their human programmers.

However, we are on the cusp of development of this technology and the implications far beyond the finite capacity of the human mind to grasp. We could very soon couple the processing speed of a computer with a problem-solving ability similar to that of a human. Except, unlike us, limited by our brain size and relatively slow processing speed, this “machine learning” invention (a video on the progress so far) could continue to expand its own intellectual abilities.

Machine learning is a massive paradigm shift from the programmed computers we currently use. It would lead to super-intelligence beyond our ability to fathom (literally) and, any more than a monkey can control us, could not be stopped. Imagine something that is always a hundred steps beyond any scenario we could imagine and has less in common with us (in terms of raw intelligence) than we do with an ant—would it have any reason not to treat us better than bacteria?

There was a time when I would not have believed that artificial intelligence was possible in my lifetime and a time after that when I would’ve thought it is something we could control. That was naive, artificial intelligence would, at very least, be unpredictable and almost totally unstoppable once the ball got rolling. It could see us as a curiosity, solve cancer simply because it could in a few nanoseconds—or it could kill us off for basically the same reason. Hopefully, in the latter case, it would see our extermination as not being worth the effort and be on to far greater things.

It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will solve all of our problems or see us as a problem and remove us from the equation. This is why very intelligent men, who love science and technological advancement, like Elon Musk, are fearful. Like the atomic age, it is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, cannot be closed again. But unlike a fission bomb that is dependent on human operators, this is a technology that could shape a destiny for itself—an invention that could quite possibly make us obsolete, hardly even worth a footnote in history, as it expanded across our planet and into the universe.

Whatever the case, we will soon have an answer…

Neural nets, the key component to artificial super-intelligence, are already here…

In fact, it is in your smartphone, it enables facial recognition and language translation. It also helps you pick a movie on Amazon by predicting what might interest you based on your prior choices.

Artificial intelligence technology could be our future. It could be that last invention that can finally manage all of these dangerous complex systems that modern convenience is so dependent upon and allow us to return to our simple pleasures. Or it could be a dangerous complexity in and of itself, something impossible to control, indifferent to our suffering and basically (from a human perspective) the greatest evil we ever face in the moments before it ensures our extinction.

Artificial super-intelligence will be complexity beyond our control, a dangerous complexity, and comes with risks that are humanly unimaginable. It could either solve all of our problems in dealing with disease and the complexity of our current technology—or it could make our woes exponentially greater and erase our civilization from the universe in the same way we apply an antibiotic to a pathogen. It is not ridiculous or absurd to think a little about the consequences before flipping the “on” switch of our last invention.

Should we think about simplifying our lives?

It is important, while we still reign supreme as the most inventive, intelligent and complex creatures on this planet, that we consider where our current trajectory will lead. Technological advancement has offered us unique advantages over previous generations but has also exposed us to unique stresses and incredible risks as well. Through technology, we have gained the ability to go to the moon and also to destroy all life on this planet with the push of a button.

Our technologies have always come as two-edged swords, with a good side and bad side. Discovering how to use fire, for example, provided us with warmth on a winter night and eventually internal combustion engines, but has often escaped our containment, destroyed our properties, cost countless lives, and creates air pollution. Rocks, likewise, became useful tools in our hands, they increased our productivity in dramatic fashion, but then also became a means to bash in the skulls of other humans as a weapon. For every positive development, there seems to be corresponding negative consequences and automation has proved to be no different.

The dramatic changes of the past century will likely seem small by comparison to what is coming next and there really is no way to be adequately prepared. Normal people can barely keep up with the increased complexity of our time as it is, we are already being manipulated by our own devices—scammers use our technology against us (soon spoof callers, using neuron networks, will be able to perfectly mimic your voice or that of a loved one for any nefarious purpose they can imagine) and it is likely big corporations will continue to do the same. Most of us will only fall further behind as our human weakness is easily used against us by the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence.

It would be nice to have the option to reconsider our decisions of the past few decades. Alas, this flight has already departed, we have no choice but to continue forward, hope for the best, and prepare for the worse. We really do need to consider, with the benefits, the potential cost of our increased dependence on complex systems and automation. And there is good reason to think (as individuals and also a civilization) about the value of simplifying our lives. It is not regressive or wrong to hold back a little on complexity and go with what is simple, tried and true.

The Terrible Irony of a Person Who Hates People

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One of my biggest pet peeves?

How so many people hate people.

They see encroachment on animal habitats, destruction of the environment, our nature, and imagine the world as being better without people.

Sure, I do understand the sentiment, I do not want to see something good be ruined. And I believe, for the good of humanity and all other living things, we should be caretakers of this amazing planet to the extent that we are able.

However, without us to observe, what would be left to make the judgment that the world is better or worse without us?

Without a Capable Observer—Does Anything Really Matter?

Like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the existence of anything is a matter of there being a capable observer. Rocks or even simple organisms show no sign of being capable of appreciating their own existence—let alone beauty or the universe.

Our existence in time and space is something profoundly mysterious no matter what you believe about the origin of life—created in six days or over the span of 13.8 billion years—it is incredible.

But we are unique in this capacity to use words to describe our existence. We are, by all appearances, alone in this ability to contemplate our own existence or at least able to do it at a level unmatched by anything else known. Dolphins and elephants are, indeed, very intelligent yet, at very least, lack our vantage point as observers.

The Contradiction of a People Hating Person

Those who claim to prefer the creature over humanity are truly at odds with themselves. Not only are humans the pinnacle of the complexity of life on this planet, but we are also special for our ability to appreciate that we or anything else exists.

In other words, no beholder means no beauty, because beauty is not something out there or independent of an observer—beauty is rather a concept of mind that depends on the existence of the observer as much as the things being observed. What is out there only exists to the extent that something is able to assign value or appreciate that it does exist.

People who hate people underappreciate the wonderful mystery of their own consciousness and completely fail to comprehend that their observation is what gives all things value.

An amoeba may exist independently of us in some form, but it lacks the human mind to process things like future and understand the result of actions or consequence—which is the basis of the moral reasoning and the very thing that can cause some to view themselves (or just other people) with contempt.

Maybe it isn’t that people hate all people so much as they are narcissistic and simply hate every other person—with exception of themselves?

Narcissists Only Value Their Own Consciousness

It does seem that there are many people, who see themselves as being worthy of resources because they are (in their own minds) enlightened and special in comparison to others.

This aggrandized perception of self is possibly due to their own inability to imagine others being equally (or more) intelligent, as consciously aware or moral as they are, and otherwise equal. Their deficiency of imagination is only made worse by a culture that promotes a notion of self-worth that is independent of love for humanity in general.

Whatever the case, it leads to self-contradiction, it leads to a person who values themselves and their own moral judgment while not recognizing this capacity in others to do the same. It is basically a person who loves their own consciousness so much that they can no longer value perspectives that do not mirror their own and thus hate (rather than appreciate) anyone in competition with them for resources.

A people hating person sees other humans as being greedy and abusive, but fail to comprehend their own jealousy and control freakishness. They judge humanity as a whole without turning the criticism back on themselves or understanding that they themselves, with the mundane choices they make on a daily basis, are as responsible for the large scale problems as the collective whole.

A person who sees others as morally or otherwise inferior to themselves it is on a path to self-destruction. Pride coming before the fall is not karma—it is consequence. A person can become so blinded by their own arrogance and contempt for others that they are actually worse than those whom they condemn. They cannot learn or grow and are bound to hit a wall at some point when their own hatred makes their own life unbearable.

In some cases, when coupled with young male aggression, they become school shooters.

But in most cases, people who undervalue people simply live as one led by the nose by their own confirmation biases and emotions. They see themselves as having all the right answers, as always being the good or righteous person, and are really just egotistical and hypocrites. They may feel entitled because of their inflated self-worth—but are deceived. Like Cain who slew his brother Abel (as means to deal with his own cognitive dissonance as a result of his sacrifice being rejected), they are truly an enemy of themselves.

Why Care About What Will Eventually Burn Anyways?

Another deficiency of a person who hates other people is their inability to comprehend the reality of the universe as it is. Both an atheist astrophysicist and religious fundamentalist should be able to agree on this and that is that the universe as we know it will eventually end. Solar physics (evidenced in the stars) and Scripture point to fire as being the ultimate end of life on earth.

Even if some life were to somehow escape that consuming fire it too would cease as the cosmic clock spring of thermodynamics (behind all movement and life in the universe) became completely unwound. That, the “heat death of the universe” may be billions upon billions of years in the future, but it is as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning and everything we know in this life will cease. There will be no stars flickering, no photosynthesis, no warmth or entropy—all will have expired.

But we do not even need to go that far out in time to understand the reality of life. Take a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sometime, consider for themselves all of those various forms of creature that went extinct and went extinct long before humans could have played a significant role in the environment. Nobody cries over Pakicetus nor laments the complexity of the ecosystem that it lived in, so why be upset about Pandas or Polar Bears following the same path?

Certainly, we should be concerned about the decline in the diversity of life, especially as rapid as it has been in recent centuries. That said, there have always been periods of expansion and contraction, usually related to cataclysmic events such as comet strikes or super volcanos, which will happen whether we campaign to “save the whales” or not. Which isn’t to say that we should care any less than we do, but we should probably care differently knowing that it is all temporal regardless.

Which leads into a question, if all this will end one way or another…

What Really Is Important?

Humans are magnificent creatures. We are the only creature capable of planetary destruction. But also creatures so extraordinarily capable of perceiving the future and contemplating things like value. It is our unique abilities that make our complex moral reasoning possible, where we can examine our own actions (collectively or individually) and pronounce judgment.

We are more responsible, but only because we are better at understanding the consequences of our actions and are able to adjust our behavior accordingly. We make priorities. We decide, in our own minds, what is good or bad, what is worthy of our love and what is deserving of our hate, whether flamingos matter more than fetuses.

We determine what is important.

So what is most important given that everything in this universe has a definite expiration date?

If there is anything timeless or beyond this universe, more important than life itself, what is it?

For me the answer is love.

If anything can escape our temporal existence it is love. Love transcends. Love allows us to show grace to the other creatures on this planet which are most like ourselves and that being all of those other fallible human beings. It is true, people are often unappreciative and wasteful. But hate for other people is really only self-loathing (removed a few steps) and to underestimate the value of our existence as the observers most capable of appreciating the beauty of this world.

It is important that we love other people. Sure, there billions of us and it is really hard to love those faceless masses sometimes. Still, other people have as much right to exist as anything else in the universe, we should appreciate them that they are conscious, like us, and love them as we want to be loved ourselves. Without love, nothing is really important and our existence, this tiny snapshot we get of the universe as humans, is meaningless.

Redemption In An Age Of Unjust Outrage—Should People Be Given Second Chances?

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President Trump’s State of the Union address was very well received and perhaps some of the reason for that being his call for redemption. Two of the special guests had been incarcerated during the Clinton administration (when things like “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes,” often disproportionately impacting minorities, became Federal law) and have been recently given their freedom.

The first mentioned was Alice Johnson who had been convicted in 1996 for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking organization (apparently not the CIA), sentenced to life in prison, and having their sentence commuted by the Trump administration:

Inspired by stories like Alice’s, my Administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law. This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, States across the country are following our lead. America is a Nation that believes in redemption.

The second guest mentioned, in relation to this redemption theme, was a man named Matthew Charles. Charles, with a face that beamed with gratitude, had been sentenced to 35 years in 1996 for selling crack cocaine in 1996 and became the first prisoner released under the “First Step Act” signed into law recently by Trump.

Like the President or not, this kind of criminal justice reform—after decades of excessive punishments—is something worthy of our praise. It is a first step back towards what once made America great and that being the opportunity to move on from our past failures, both individual or collective, and pursue a better tomorrow together.

Grievance Culture Never Forgives

Unfortunately, while legislative reforms are important, the President can’t undo a cultural progression away from Christian ideas of redemption and towards that of eternal grievance. Those sentenced by an outrage mob in the “court of public opinion” cannot face their accusers, they are denied any form of due process and are rarely, if ever, pardoned.

Media fueled public shaming campaigns, often at the behest of social justice warriors or their sympathizers, have destroyed careers mid-flight over a bad joke on Twitter—who can forget Justine Sacco’s sardonic quip about Africa, AIDS and race? One moment she was an anonymous leftist speaking cryptically about her white privilege to a small circle of friends and the next she is an international pariah for an allegedly racist remark.

Then there is Austen Heinz, the socially awkward genetic researcher and entrepreneur, who was driven to suicide by a bullying campaign led by Huffington Post, Daily Mail, BuzzFeed and other clickbait media sources.

His crime? He mentioned, off-the-cuff, some potential to change feminine scents, which was characterized as being “misogynistic” and “sexist” in one sensational story after another. Who knows what amazing breakthroughs someone as brilliant as Heinz could’ve produced in his lifetime had it not been cut tragically short by those who profit by pushing identity politics and division?

That’s not to say that there is no pushback against this sort of abuse. The wrongly accused boys from Covington Catholic High School are being represented in defamation lawsuits after suffering harassment and threats as a result of a media campaign, involving celebrities and other public figures, to shame them. One of the vicious commentators, Kathy Griffen, who called for their identities to be revealed and falsely accused them of using Nazis signs.

To Forgive Or Not To Forgive?

Of course who can forget the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or ignore the current uproar in Virginia over a photo in Democrat Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface with a Klansman?

And that’s not to mention the two sexual assault allegations that surfaced since then against Virginia’s Lt Governor, Justin Fairfax, and a Duke basketball player. Reportedly Fairfax used his knowledge of a young woman’s prior rape allegation being quashed by university officials as a means to victimize her again since he believed she would be unlikely to report as a result of her prior experience.

In all of these cases the evidence and allegations are different. They all should be addressed on their individual merits and in the correct venues. But all are also in the realm of politics and from many years ago, which really does significantly complicate matters. Who or what many believe seems to become more of a matter of whose ideological team you are on or the potential political fallout more than the actual veracity of the claims being made.

Political campaigns have long relied on digging up comments, years old, served up out of context, is simply how the game has been played. That said, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the more serious allegations, it is one thing to accuse someone of being a racist, sexist, or liar (largely subjective judgements) and quite another to be accuse them of rape. The latter accusation is either objective reality or it is not, potentially criminal behavior, and definitely reflective of a serious character flaw if true.

Still, with the lessor offenses or with unsubstantiated allegations, at what point do we forgive “human frailty” (as the Wall Street Journal puts it), remember that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 2:10), “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:2), and move on? Should we ever treat human failure (real or alleged) like a permanent stain, a reason to always be suspicious of a person, or an irredeemable blemish? I would say no, based on the references provided above, but then…

Maybe Forgiveness Is Only For Some…?

One of the problems with how forgiveness is often used is that is used as a license for our friends and political/religious/tribal peers while simultaneously denying the same privilege to others. This is why a perceived smirk can become a national outrage while actual violence in malls is dismissed as “teenage boredom” and largely ignored.

I’ve long been against collective punishment for individual sins. I’m part of that generation who had Martin Luther King’s “content of character” rather than “color of skin” speech drilled into them and have always made a sincere effort to put that axiom urging judgment based on individual merit to practice. But I’ve found that this steadfast conclusion makes me a relic in the time of intersectionality, group shaming, unforgivable guilt for some and permanent victim status for others.

Perhaps this current generation is a correction to the overly optimistic outlook of my own?

Stereotypes are not entirely baseless, statistics do bear out differences in attitudes, behavior, and outcomes of groups, which could be proof of systemic oppression or simply our own cultural and biological inheritance. There is a reason why many professional athletes are typically of one demographic and chess players are of another, it has to do with discrimination and yet is discrimination based on ability despite coinciding with differences in race or gender. So it is conceivable, as well, that some groups are more likely to become school shooters and for others to me more generally violent as well.

There is a time for generalization…

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. (Titus 1:10‭-‬14 NIV)

There may indeed be tendencies of groups that should be called out. That said, I doubt very much that St Paul, in the passage above, is making a case for unforgivingness or collective punishment. No, I’m quite certain that he, as one who once persecuted and killed Christians before his dramatic conversion, understood very much the need for redemption or he himself would forever be condemned. Had he been held to the same standard of today he would likely be completely disqualified from leadership and certainly never embraced as a brother by those whom he harmed.

Forgiveness Is For Those Who Repent.

One of those other problematic teachings that I’ve frequently encountered (particularly in my Mennonite religious culture) is this idea that forgiveness should be bestowed upon all people regardless of what they do or how often. This is based in a misapplication of Christian examples in a way that too often provides shelter for repeat sexual abusers and others who have learned how to game the system.

This idea that forgiveness removes any sort of accountability for sin is dead wrong. Sure, Zaccheaus needed to be forgiven for his taking advantage of people as a tax collector, but he also needed to repent of his sin and repentance required taking responsibility (financial or otherwise) for the wrong he had done.

In other words, had Zaccheaus been a child-molester simply admitting the sin or even an “I’m so sorry” speech is not enough, he would need to also face the civil penalties for his actions and also the social consequences as well.

The plea of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not permission for those in the crowd chanting “crucify him” to go on murdering innocent people or an escape from need for repentance. Those in that outraged mob who called for his death would eventually need to repent and face the consequences of their sins like everyone else.

Forgiveness does not absolve a person from need to repent. Yes, there are times when we need to forgive those who have offended us without them repenting, we should always give a second chance (even 70 x 7 chances) to those who do truly repent (ie: have confessed and also paid the penalties for their sin), but this idea that forgiveness means complete freedom from consequences or removes the need to repent fully is not at all Christian—repentance is a requirement.

So, yes, we must forgive as we want to be forgiven and we should also not hold a grudge against those who have wronged us, but there is no indication that those who do not repent will be forgiven by God and we owe it to them to tell them the truth. Furthermore, according to 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, we should not even associate with a person who calls themselves a Christian and continues to live in unrepentant sin.

So, returning to the question initially asked…

Should People Be Given Second Chances?

The answer is both yes and no.

Forgiveness is something conditional. Jesus called for repentance, saying “go and sin no more” to a woman whom he forgave, and using a parable of a man forgiven a great debt who did not forgive to illustrate the point that forgiveness can be revoked for the unrepentant.

Second chances are for those who acknowledge their error (and repent) or can’t be found guilty of wrongdoing after the matter has been addressed in the appropriate manner.

There should also be allowance for growth—people do mature and change. There should also be some tolerance given to all people, because nobody is perfect, we all have our flaws, and would probably look pretty bad if our lives were put under the microscope of the outrage mobs. However, this tolerance and allowance should not only be for those who are on our team.

For example, we cannot say that blackface is the unpardonable sin of racism in one case and then play it off as a “coming of age ritual” (it certainly wasn’t for me) because our own guy got caught. We can’t treat a boy’s expression as a “facecrime” (thank you, George Orwell) worthy of national contempt while totally ignoring the grown men yelling homophobic and bigoted things (or worse, describe their hateful and intentionally provocative slurs as “preaching about the Bible and oppression” (*ahem* CNN) while simultaneously heaping condemnation on a boy for wearing a MAGA hat and an awkward smile.

That said, I would expect more from a fellow Christian, raised in a good home and under good instruction, than I would from some random dude on the street. Jesus did say that more will be expected from those who are given more (Luke 12:48) and that may mean we hold some to a higher standard. And yet we should also be aware that our own judgment is clouded by prejudice, that we don’t see everything a person is going through or the disadvantages they’ve faced in their lives, and therefore should err on the side of forbearance in all cases.

So there is no simple answers.

I do believe that our culture, due to social media, click-bait stories and a progressive decline in moral values, has veered dangerously away from forgiveness and redemption. We should definitely think twice before joining an outrage mob, we also need to do whatever it takes to keep partisan politics and tribal identities from perverting our judgment, and we should always give as many second chances to others as we would want for ourselves.

No matter your politics, you very well could be the next less-than-perfect person turned into an unforgivable villain by the mob, so keep that in mind next time you see a sensational headline, read a poorly concieved Tweet or watch a video clip without context.

Is Traditional Masculinity Toxic?

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I’ve been extremely critical of abusive men in my blogs, taking on things like blame-shifting, patriarchal and purity cultures. Men who use their natural strengths or positions of authority to take advantage of others are reprehensible and should be called out for their abuses of power.

That all said, I’ve shied-away from using the term “toxic masculinity” to describe male abuses and my reasons for hesitation were confirmed in the past few weeks when the American Psychological Association (APA) claimed that traditional masculinity is harmful and lumped it together with murder, bullying and other toxic behaviors.

This is not an overgeneralization. No, it seems to be a part of broader misandry campaign and, at very least, is a complete misdiagnosis of the problem. It would be like pulling out crime statistics for a particular racial demographic and applying them as criticism to all within that group. That, of course, is stereotyping and unfair to the many who do not fit the broad brush of statistics.

It is true that men, as a category of gender, do dominate statistics for violent crime. However, what is not true is that all men are equally guilty and should be judged on the basis of the bad examples. The vast majority of men have not murdered, raped or otherwise act violently and would never excuse such behavior. I say this as someone who has been around men his entire life: Most men that I know aim to be protectors, not predators.

The Protector and the Predator…

A few weeks ago, before the APA taking aim at traditional masculinity (and an ill-advised Gillette ad) became a topic of conversation, I had started to write a blog to describe two distinct but related categories of male behavior—the predator vs. the protector—and what makes the difference.

The first category (and the one rightfully called toxic) is that of the predatory male. The predatory man is only concerned about his own wants or needs and will use any power he is given to exploit others for his own gain. This includes men who use religion or other means to manipulate others for their own personal gain and especially those who are coercive in pursuit of sexual gratification.

For example, the boyfriend who pressures his girlfriend into sex. I can understand, with teenage hormones raging, that waiting for sex is not easy for a passionate man and know this from personal experience. But there is simply no excuse for the young man who believes his natural urges entitle him. The young man who makes his commitment to relationship contingent on her compliance with his premarital sexual desires (ie: “If you love me, then you will…”) is a predator.

By contrast, the second category, the protective male, consists of men who use their strengths and abilities to serve others. This is not a man without desires. A protective man is tempted to serve his own needs and wants like anyone else. However, a protector is one who chooses to resist any evil or exploitative impulses and follows an example of self-sacrificial love instead. The protective man is even willing to give his own life for the good of others.

Traditional Masculinity Is Not Toxic…

As long as there have been appetites and differentials in power there have been abuses. Much of human behavior has to do with instincts, it is why we breathe, why we seek food to eat and why we desire companionship. This isn’t something that needs to be trained, we observe similar behavior in animals, and is natural.

There is no concern for morality with animals and in the natural world. When a lion, acting on predatory instincts, stalks, pursues and takes down it’s prey, this is not a cause for consternation. We understand that this and “survival of the fittest” is part of life and even how biological life thrives. If predators were removed, as they have found out in Yellowstone Park after wolves were reintroduced, everything in an ecosystem is thrown out of balance and deteriorates.

A young buck does not need any training to be overcome by hormones, to pursue a doe, fight off the competition, and do his thing whether the female consents or not. His sexual aggression is just part of his natural composition, it is not a choice, he is as controlled by his biological impulses as much as the female is subdued by his physical strength and stamina. We cannot make a moral judgment of a creature incapable of moral reasoning or choice.

However, human society works differently and notions of morality are used to push back against some of our baser instincts. Part of this push back has come in the form of tradition. In fact, our traditional morality, that arose in conjunction with religion, formed to provide protection against predatory behaviors. It is Christian religious tradition that has promoted the idea that behavior is a choice and therefore men, unlike deer, should be held accountable for what they do.

Traditional masculinity is not responsible for the toxic behavior of men who choose to act on their most vile and violent imaginations. Quite the opposite. It was the traditional men in my life who taught me to respect boundaries, to save sex for a marital commitment and to offer my life as a sacrifice to the world. It is traditional masculinity that has stood as a protector against predatory animals and opposed to toxic (or what we would traditionally call immoral) behavior.

With Every Strength There Is Weakness…

I would be remiss to claim that everything the APA says about masculinity is baseless. Men so tend towards certain and some of those behaviors are definitely harmful. However, it is one thing to say that men should not bury their emotions nor ever excuse behavior that is harmful to other people or even themselves. It is quite another thing to declare: “…traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

First of all, there is the question of what traditional masculinity is and if it is truly defined by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—I would argue that it is not. Second, those characteristics also are part of a two-sided coin, one side positive and the other negative, where stoicism becomes loving restraint, competitiveness is a drive to provide, dominance is an urge to explore (pursue science, innovation, etc) and aggression is merely assertiveness.

Not just that, but those things listed are not all bad in and of themselves. In an age where we are constantly told to embrace diversity, tolerance, and inclusion, on what basis can we declare something to be “on the whole” harmful?

I mean, what is really wrong with some friendly competition, say a game of basketball or a Poker (Rook, if you’re Mennonite) tournament, where everyone gets the exercise or thrill of the experience—despite there being a winner and a loser?

It is a sad day when we can’t discern the difference between a harmless playful tussle between boys and harmful bullying behavior. It is an even sadder day when the negative expressions of masculinity are used as a basis to bash the very thing that channels natural male qualities in a socially beneficial and positive direction. It is traditional masculinity that has long urged young men to use their physical strength and competitive nature to make the world a better place for all people and we have succeeded.

The inability of the APA to see traditional masculinity in a more nuanced and balanced way will likely do more much more harm than any good it accomplishes. It is, in effect, an attempt to bully young men, through quasi-intellectual means, into compliance with their own prejudiced worldview and expectations. They fail to see the good in their focus on the bad and have done a disservice, and not only to traditionally masculine men but also to their own profession and all people.

Everyone Is Hurt When Good Men Are Destroyed…

My conservative Mennonite father, the embodiment of traditional masculinity, gave me an example of a man who didn’t use his emotions as an excuse to lash out. This ‘stoicism’ was for the benefit of not only my mother, myself and my siblings, it was also for the men who worked with him. There are many men today who do not exercise this kind of restraint, they become screaming tyrants when things do not go their way and have neglected the tradition of my father, his fathers and our Father:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. […] Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:19‭-‬20‭, ‬26‭-‬27 NIV)

The tragedy of this new targeting of traditional masculinity is exactly the opposite of what is needed in the world. It is the lack of traditionally masculine role models that has led to more toxic behavior in young men. It is not a coincidence that mass shooters come from fatherless homes. Indeed, fatherlessness is a more reliable predictor of future poverty than race and is linked to many negative outcomes for both male and female children.

The real crisis in this country is not traditional masculinity, the real crisis is the lack of traditional masculine role models that often leads to harmful and self-destructive behavior. The real truth is that traditional values have been under assault for a long time now and we are reaping a crop of toxic behavior as a result. But those who are responsible for this destruction, rather than admit their mistake, have decided to double-down and continue to punish the wrong people.

Traditional masculinity is to serve as a protector and provider, the man who looks after the widows and orphans, as James implores. It is the man who reads and obeys the instruction of John the Baptist to soldiers, in Luke 3:14—and doesn’t use his physical strength to extort or do violence to others. He is a man who follows after Jesus who treated women (including his mother) with absolute respect and told men to serve others rather than exploit them:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25‭-‬28 NIV)

To conflate toxic behavior with traditional masculinity is not only frustrating to the men who are least deserving of rebuke—it is also convenient cover for abusers and those truly guilty of toxic behavior. Good men do not need to become the scapegoats for predators, but rather need to be appreciated and encouraged to continue to live a healthy and traditional masculine example.

Toxic Behavior Need Not Be Coupled With Masculinity…

I had never liked the term “toxic masculinity” and long suspected that those behind the wording (not the average users of the term) were targeting masculinity itself as much as anything else. But now the cat is out of the bag, the APA and others are lumping my father in with the wolf-whistlers, womanizer’s and Weinstein’s, and I’ve had enough.

My father is not perfect, but he’s not toxic for his traditional masculinity either…

My father spending some toxically masculine time with his grandchildren…

We can and should distinguish between traditional masculinity and toxic behavior. No, that does not mean we bury our heads in the sand and pretend all problems with men started with the social upheaval of the 1960s nor should we deny the reality that extreme expressions of what could be called traditional masculinity are bad. But the extremes of anything are often unhealthy and yet we are able to delineate one from the other.

Furthermore, women can be predatory and violent too. It is true that men are statistically more likely, as a general category, to be violent, but women also can be self-centered and abusive as well. Women, however, often prey on children or other women, usually in less visible or openly violent ways—like destroying reputations through gossip, cyber-bullying or other passive-aggressive means.

And, ironically enough, while reading the sanctimonious blather about toxic masculinity another article popped up on my news feed, “Video shows group of women allegedly trying to attack food court employees…

What?!?

Do we call that toxic feminity and blame traditional female expectations?

Sorry Gillette, APA and all others condemning what you do not truly know, but your campaign is picking the wrong target. Traditional masculinity, at least in a Christian cultural context, has Jesus Christ as the ultimate example and not Bruce Willis.

Traditional masculinity is not the problem, immoral behavior is the problem and women are not guiltless when it comes to sin. We all, male or female, need to repent of our selfish instincts and change our bad behavior to good.

So let’s target the bad behavior, not the gender!

I Prefer Representatives, Sound Doctrine and the Holy Spirit Over False Choices

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I was speaking with a friend a week or two ago (a conservative Mennonite searching for his place in the church) and he shared this quote:

“Doctrine is dead as a doorknob without the presence of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life.” (Paul Washer)

That quote drop of a Calvinist commentator was annoying to me. It was annoying because it was shared in the context of a conversation about Orthodox worship and prayers. The clear implication being that established doctrine is somehow in conflict with spiritual life.

So, without hesitation, I asked my friend: “How do you know Washer’s doctrines (like the one you just quoted) are inspired by the Holy Spirit?”

My question was based on my own experience as one who had put his full confidence in the Holy Spirit and has since learned (the hard way) the need to be grounded in sound doctrine as well. In fact, it was my desire to follow the Spirit without compromise which had led to my pursuit of the impossibility, which led to my eventual disillusionment with the Mennonite denomination, which led me to the ancient faith of Orthodoxy and new spiritual life.

So, getting back to Washer’s quote, he presents a false choice between doctrine and the Holy Spirit. He, like many Protestant commentators, seems to equate established religious dogma with spiritual deadness. His quote suggests that we devalue church traditions (those pertaining to worship and prayer in the case of my friend) based in an assumption that what is new or spontaneous is somehow more authentic and real than something that has been passed down through many generations.

But is that truly the case?

Do we ever need to choose between established doctrine and authentic faith?

From what I can tell, church doctrine and real spiritual life originate from the same source (that source being the Holy Spirit) and thus we should not ever have to choose between the two. The traditions passed down by the church (including the canon of Scripture) and the Holy Spirit are never at odds. To deny the importance of church doctrines and tradition is basically to speak against the authority of Scripture:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3‭-‬4 NIV)

Nowhere in Scripture do I see sound doctrine being presented in contrast with living according to the Holy Spirit. However, I do see James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and also know, according to the Gospel (Matthew 7:22-24), that there will be those who have professed faith in Jesus, even worked miracles in his name, whom he will tell to depart because he never knew them and therefore authenticity of faith is about more than making a claim.

Thus I do question the basis for this commentator’s opinion and the many others out there of those who speak with a similar confidence about spiritual matters. By what authority do they speak? How do we know that they, along with their devoted followings, are not deceived? I mean these ‘spiritual’ commentators are often at complete odds with one another. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search “Paul Washer false teacher” and you’ll find dozens of articles denouncing him and his teachings.

So who is right? Who is wrong? How do we know?

My contempt for commentators…

My reaction to the Washer quote isn’t something unusual for me. I have a near-universal contempt for commentators and especially those who can’t at least ground their statements directly to something found in Scripture. And perhaps that strong aversion is because I have enough strong opinions of my own, more than my fill, and therefore seek something a little more grounded than mere opinions?

Not to be misunderstood, that’s not to say that I find no value in reading commentators. I do believe we can gain many valuable insights from listening to various men and women sharing their personal perspectives on spiritual issues.

But, that said, not all commentators are equal and anyone can say anything and our feelings (one way or another) about what someone says doesn’t make it any more or less true. There are likely false teachings that would resonate with any one of us and we should guard against being closed off to truth based on our emotions. We should remember that all religious groups are able to justify their own understanding of spiritual matters, many of them live morally upright lives, and can be very convincing to those who don’t know any different.

And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about those commentators who say “the Holy Spirit tells me thus and such” without offering any corroborating evidence from church history or Scripture. Being a Bible scholar or well-educated and intelligent does not make a person less susceptible to confirmation bias. No, if anything, being well-studied and smart brings a danger of pride and pride can prevent us from seeing our own biases and the many things we have missed in our studies.

Proof-texting, when a person soundbites Biblical texts at the cost of context, is a real problem for any commentator. That is why we have a multitude of denominations all claiming their authority comes from Scripture and, yet, can’t agree on some very basic issues. It isn’t that one side is more ignorant of the book than another nor that one side is less sincere about their profession of faith than another either—the problem is a lack of accountability to anything more than what feels right to us.

My own commentary on spiritual life…

Going back to Washer’s quote, I believe we can all agree that there is no life in the church or elsewhere without the Holy Spirit.

As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”

We know, from the creation narrative, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) and is also the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) that entered Adam. Life, both physical and spiritual, comes from the Holy Spirit, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture and even at the end of the Gospel when Jesus empowered the disciples to continue his ministry of forgiveness:

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Note how that parallels with the Genesis account where God breathes life into Adam. Note also that this being “breathed on” comes after the resurrection, after Jesus spent years teaching these men, and is what enabled them to fully understand what he had taught:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:45‭-‬49 NIV)

The disciples being “clothed with power from on high” (a step that should happen before we go out on our own commission) is something that happened in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when they received an outpouring of the Spirit and many came to believe in Jerusalem.

Truth, according to Paul’s commentary, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. That is something that mirrors what Jesus said in his promise of a “Comforter” that would “guide you (his disciples) into all the truth” (John 16:13), and there is no way around it. All the Bible study and religious knowledge in the world cannot breath spiritual life into anyone.

All that said, sound doctrine and spiritual life are never at odds with each other. That it took a special outpouring of the Spirit before the disciples could understand what Jesus taught doesn’t make his prior effort useless. His teachings, if anything, provided substance, like the dust God formed up into a man in Genesis, and his breath the catalyst.

Furthermore, those waiting on the right feelings, or teachings that resonate with them and their own prior experience, will likely be like the rich young ruler who left disappointed after asking what he must do to be saved. Faith demands we go outside of our own comfort zone, that we go beyond our own understanding, preferences or calculations, and begin to walk before we have our eyes opened. In fact, the Spirit is something promised only to those who those who love Jesus and keep his commandments:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15‭-‬17a‭, ‬23 NIV)

So, what comes first, belief and obedience to Jesus or is it the revelation of truth via the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand what we read?

That is a paradox and something that has always made me uncomfortable. Jesus appears to make obedience a prerequisite to spiritual revelation, which ran counter to my own intuition, and why I had always stressed the second half of the teaching rather than the first part. How could I know what is sound doctrine (as in the correct understanding of what Jesus taught enabling my obedience) without the Holy Spirit coming first?

My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…

One would think that I, as one raised in a church with Anabaptist heritage, would understand that interpretation of Scripture and establishing doctrine is something we do together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as a church.

But somewhere along the line (somewhere between urban myths being shared from the pulpit and men like Bill Gothard being given a platform), I had lost trust in the ‘ordained’ leadership and other members to discern truth. And, as a result, I began to look beyond my religious peers for answers. Eventually, after an epiphany about faith, I began to find answers in Biblical passages that had once confounded me and became more confident in my own individual discernment through the Spirit.

However, that paradigm of understanding was incomplete and all came crashing down when my own individual ability to discern spiritual truth came into serious question.

It is easy to claim the Holy Spirit is leading you while you remain safe within the boat of religion. But true faith requires going beyond our own established range of possibilities, to let go of our own human logic and reason, and step out of the boat. I did that. I stepped out. I took a few steps across the waves and then was promptly overwhelmed by doubts—doubts that were, in part, a product of running headlong into the plans, prejudices and cynical calculations of those in the church whom I had still counted on to mirror my faith.

I had questions that I could not answer nor could be answered in the Mennonite context. I had lost faith in my Mennonite identity and Anabaptist heritage to provide reliable guidance. I felt I had been fooled, once again, misled by the desire to find meaning in my struggles and a delusional faith that the impossible would be made possible. I had nothing, besides an obligation to continue to fight for the hopes of my bhest, and needed answers.

Fortunately, I ran into a man, a fatherly figure, who did have answers that I needed and set me right again.

Fr. Anthony, an Orthodox priest, arrived in my life as if by divine appointment. He had the right attitude, asked the right questions, never said a disrespectful word about my Mennonite identity (offering praise for our “peace witness” instead) and could speak with an authority that was missing where I was coming from. There was no pressure. However, he always seemed to show up at the right time and was always able to explain things in a way that made sense to me.

The timing was right for me in the same way it was for the man St. Philip encountered on the road:

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:29‭-‬31 NIV)

In an individualistic understanding, this man (the eunuch) should’ve had all he needed to find salvation—I mean, according to what many Biblical fundamentalist commentators put forward, Scripture is basically self-explanatory and all we need to do is believe what we read, right?

But clearly, that is not the case.

The Bible itself tells us that somethings in it are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and this eunuch, an important and likely very intelligent person, could not discern for himself what was written in Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit did provide him with an interpretation, yet that interpretation came through a man named Philip. Philip did not speak his own “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) as a mere commentator offering an opinion. He was a representative. He was a man both directed by the Spirit and also commissioned by the church in the book of Acts:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)

Philip was chosen and ordained to be a representative of the apostles, the apostles who themselves were representatives of Christ. His authority to interpret Scripture went beyond being merely a product of his own religious studies. He was not simply a religious commentator spouting his own opinions. No, rather, he was ordained as a representative, as one judged to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” by the church, and therefore had an authority greater than a mere commentator with an opinion.

My individualistic filter was wrong, I could not understand everything on my own, we still need those representatives who are sent:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NIV)

Why I prefer representatives…

Anyone can offer commentary, we hear ‘expert’ commentators tell us their opinions of sports, politics and the economy all the time. Some people prefer Paul Krugman, others Rush Limbaugh, and typically we choose those who confirm our existing biases to those who would challenge them. That is also true of Biblical commentators as well. We like those men whom we choose based on our own feelings, on what resonates with us or provide our itching ears with what we wish to hear. Unfortunately, commentators are not accountable to anything besides their own understanding and too often play to the prejudices of their particular audience.

A representative, by contrast, does not speak on their own authority and is ultimately accountable to the authority that sent, commisioned or ordained them.

For example, in a Republic, like the United States, we elect Representatives to speak on our behalf and represent our interests. There are also representatives of a corporation authorized to act on behalf of the collective group and must also answer to the other representatives of the group.

Jesus, likewise, came as a representative of the Father who sent him, on several occasions he tells his audience that he speaks on behalf of the Father and not by his own authority:

Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:14-18 NIV)

Jesus is imploring his audience to test his credentials. He is saying that those who choose to do the will of God, by following his teachings, will find out if his words are true or not. In other words, his teachings are a testable hypothesis, established directly on the authority of the Father, and not just his opinions that can’t be verified one way or another. Jesus is not a commentator speaking by his own authority, but a representative, commissioned by the Holy Spirit (confirmed with a voice from heaven and dove descending upon him at his baptism) and spoke with the authority of the Father rather than his own.

The difference between a commentator and a representative is accountable to an authority beyond their own. If a representative goes beyond their commissioning they can be voted out or brought before a council and condemned. A commentator, on the other hand, only needs to be accountable to their own understanding and the whims of their particular audience—their authority rests on their own credentials rather than on a true commissioning by an authority already established.

Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make us representatives as well?

My answer to this question, with my shift in paradigm, has changed.

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, in that we do, as individuals, receive authority from the Holy Spirit.

But, no, as far that authority giving us license to be free from accountability and operate apart from what has been established by Christ and his church.

The Holy Spirit, the true spiritual guide sent by the Father rather than a counterfeit spirit, should lead us into unity together rather than to divisions. The early church was full of commentators, some who claimed to have the authority of the Spirit or Scripture on their side, but the book of Acts shows us that not all commentators were equal and some had to be rebuked:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.

[…]

They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said… (Acts 15:5‭-‬8,22‭-‬24 NIV)

Heretical teachings in the church have always been sorted out by council and consensus.

Even St. Peter and St. Paul were accountable to the body of believers represented in this coming together of apostles and elders.

It is by this process we were even provided with a canon of Scripture: Councils, representatives of the church, decided what books belong in the Bible and which ones (while possibly still useful) did not meet the criteria of Orthodox teachings. Not every book, not every person, is equally authorized to speak on behalf of Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit does work in the life of the individual, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the church and especially through those sent, ordained or commissioned by Christ and is church:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We are told the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and that is to say that the church does have authority over the individual as a representative of Christ. We really do need that—we really do need to be accountable to something more than our own ideas and/or interpretations—and should seek to hold fast to the teachings that have been passed by “word of mouth or by letter” of those who, through Christ and his church, have more authority than their own personal opinion.

Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…

Anyone can claim to have the Holy Spirit, but not all who do are true representatives of Christ or his church, and we must use discernment. There have many heresies throughout the ages of those who felt they individually could discern truth without being accountable to anything besides their own religious knowledge and feelings of spiritual superiority to others. We need to be on the guard against their false teachings and also against being deceived by ourselves.

We are all very fortunate, we do not need to choose between the Holy Spirit and sound doctrine. This is a case where we can both have our cake and eat it. The church has preserved the teachings of Jesus, in traditions both written and spoken, as the basis for sound doctrine and that “breath of life” comes in our Communion together. We are not called to be “Lone Rangers” finding our own way, serving our own preferences, etc. We are called to be a part of the body of the church, representatives of the church past, present and future, this church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19 NIV)