God is Dead . . . or is He?

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and IslamA History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists because it deftly explores a wider mystical tradition that goes well beyond the literalism of Western Protestantism against which modern atheism is chiefly a reaction. It is a good book to instill humility into Christians because it exposes the religious limitations of the cramped historical literalism that has proved a cul de sac for modern Christianity.

By definition, the more mysterious God is, the less knowable it is. At the same time, the more knowable God is, the less credible it is. If the notion of God is to be saved, it must be predicated upon the mystical, ineffable, incomprehensible awareness of a divine being that transcends the nature of the physical universe as we know it. The problem then becomes that such a God is not only essentially unknowable but also irrelevant to human affairs. Every attempt to connect God to human affairs makes God at once less mysterious and paradoxically less believable.

On the one hand, the author does provide a fascinating history of the attempts of mystics — from Buddhists to Byzantine Christians to Sufis to Kabbalists — to attain an experience of God by routes other than rationalism. And she has a fascinating insight into the universality and openness of such approaches, which typically recognize the possibility of many approaches to one God. These approaches have the merit of recognizing that what cannot be apprehended by reason should be approached by other means, and there is clearly something to be said for the idea that reason is not the only mode of perception. The more unapproachable and incomprehensible God becomes, however, the less apparent it becomes that its existence or non-existence has any bearing on human affairs.

On the other hand, the literal, personal, interventionist God of Western Christianity has become increasingly untenable thanks, ironically, to Western Christianity's emphasis on literal interpretation of the scripture. The problem with the literal historicity of the Bible is that much of it is demonstrably, provably, laughably false. Quite apart from the question of human parthenogenesis or revivification, my then six-year-old daughter exposed the empirical problem quite succinctly when listening to Bible stories at the County Fair: "There's no way you could fit all the animals in the world on one boat!" People who insist on the literal nature of parables set themselves up for self-contradiction, and people who insist on the parabolic nature of reality open themselves to the charge that they are merely reciting fictions.

Fundamentalists come in different stripes, however, and the author draws a distinction between the cultural conservatism and literalism of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-imperialist reaction of Islamic fundamentalism, which she argues is primarily a reaction to the political evisceration of the Muslim world by superior European technology. As such, she argues, it is marked not so much by anti-scientific obscurantism and as by a fierce desire to reverse European political dominance.

Although the author concedes that "a passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism," it is clear that she finds atheism an emotionally unsatisfying alternative. After all, her comment assumes that "religious" is a term of approbation and leaves no room for a clear-eyed and dispassionate skepticism that the "force is with us." Armstrong gives a nod to the idea that one can be passionate about the world as it is on the assumption that for all practical purposes we are on our own, but she is clearly unwilling to accept such a view as the final word.


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Captain of the Team

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnTeam of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a friend of mine remarked on hearing that I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwins' Team of Rivals, "Goodwin had a good subject." This account does its subject justice. It conveys the emotional power of its great subject while persuasively delineating the qualities that forged an obscure Illinois lawyer into the greatest commander and statesman in the history of the United States. While some have suggested that Team of Rivals is primarily about political compromise, it is really about one man's ability to rise above political compromise — the squabbling of his cabinet members and the factionalism of the Republican Party — to forge an unprecedented war machine, crush the rebellion, and eradicate the greatest institutional evil in American history, Remarkably, he accomplished this in the service not of subverting but of successfully preserving America's system of democratic government (a lesson subsequent leaders might take to heart). Ultimately, it is the clarity of Lincoln's moral vision that sets him apart.

The Lincoln We Never See

George Orwell once famously remarked that saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent, and there is no doubt that our veneration for Lincoln the historical giant — "Father Abraham" as the soldiers called him — obscures our view of Lincoln the man. While Goodwin does not shy away from Lincoln's abused childhood, or his mentally ill wife, or corruption in the War Department, one does have a sense that her critical portrait may be slightly airbrushed. There is a bit of a "feel good" quality to her portrait; then again, it takes a very jaundiced perspective or a strong effort of will to "feel bad" about Lincoln.

Sausage in the Making

A little bit of the seamier side of politics does come out in the account of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, in which it is pretty clear that Lincoln was willing to beg, bribe, or steal any Congressional vote he could obtain to secure passage, which he narrowly did. His tactics, which are only briefly described, seem more reminiscent of our picture of Lyndon Johnson than of Abraham Lincoln. But perhaps it is as well to have a realistic view of Washington deal-making even in the noblest of causes.

Greater Vision

The strongest sense that one gets from Goodwin's biography, however, is that Lincoln had a vision, moral clarity, and political acumen that clearly transcended those of his admittedly very gifted political contemporaries. In the political chess game, Lincoln was always two moves ahead. And the man who could go from plans for voluntary colonization of African Americans abroad to keeping a governor waiting so the he could speak with "my friend [Frederick] Douglass," and who could grow from the simple preservation of the union to the complete abolition of slavery under the Constitution, is a man of unusual moral capacity. Goodwin weaves a fascinating story of the men in Lincoln's cabinet who formed his "team of rivals," but she leaves no doubt as to who was the captain.



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An NSA Watchdog not an NSA Lapdog

I was deeply disappointed in Congressman Chris Van Hollen's decision today to vote against the Amash Amendment to defund the NSA's massive spying program on patriotic, law-abiding American citizens, a program eerily reminiscent of Eastern European Communist dictatorships and unworthy of a free society. To have a national police force spying on every aspect of every citizen's life, accountable only to a rubber-stamp court hand-picked by George Bush's Chief Justice, is intolerable and un-American. I can safely say that on this day, for the first time, I am ashamed to be a Van Hollen supporter. We need an NSA watchdog not an NSA lapdog.

Hypocrisy Southern Style

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wants to ban any federal aid to Detroit in order to save federal dollars, even as his own state's economy only survives because it wallows in more federal dollars than a pig in . . . you know.

The Fire This Time

I respect people's right to disagree with the tactics of FEMEN, Europe's radical feminist momement that has embraced high-profile topless protests. I understand that not everyone shares their views on religion, or the sex trade, or even dictatorship. I can accept that. But firebombing the homes and offices of the activists is absolutely unacceptable, and all civilized people should stand against it. For those who wish to support free expression and condemn violence, I suggest making a small donation to rebuild FEMEN's offices.

The Killer Angels

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of whom you may never have heard unless you are a student of the Civil War, was one of the pivotal figures at the Battle of Gettysburg, playing a key role in twice repulsing determined Southern assaults. He is also the most fully realized character in Michael Shaara's Killer Angels, whether he is agonizing over putting his brother in harm's way, coaxing a regiment of deserters back into action, or tending to his men while an old friend dies awaiting the surgeon's knife. But although Chamberlain plays a key role, the action is ultimately dominated by General James Longstreet and the legendary Robert E. Lee.

For this story is as much the story of the failure of the South as of the triumph of the North. And, like Tolstoy's Borodino or Hugo's Waterloo, the real protagonist is the battle itself, from the initial skirmishes at Cemetery Hill to the desperate defense of Little Round Top to the final awful and appalling calamity of Pickett's Charge. Shaara's story is compelling not so much because of the development of his characters, which is deft but not remarkable, but because he gives a thorough and lucid account of what happened during the battle and why, including the ultimate folly of hurling the infantry across an open field against fortified artillery on high ground. Shaara, himself a soldier, muses in the epilogue over why the lessons of Gettysburg seem not to have been learned by European generals in the twentieth century.

I strongly recommend this book not so much as high art but as living history, a crucial explication of one of the most significant events in American history, whose repercussions are felt to the present day.


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Free Speech, Feminism, and Femen

Sara Salem at muftah.org has a thoughtful piece on the reasons why she disapproves of Femen's demonstrations in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who was threatened with death by Tunisian fundamentalists because she posted a half-naked protest picture of herself on Facebook. Since I disagree with Ms. Salem on several points, I attempted to post the following comment, which was not published:

It actually seems there has been a lot more coverage of the “problem” of Femen than the murderous response of the Salafists. However you wish to characterize Femen’s protests, they are a non-violent form of expression that should be protected. I am not familiar with the Orwellian Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, but it is hard to believe that any body with such a name has a place in a free society. A proportionate response would be to treat Amina’s demonstration youthful indiscretion as a footnote and the Salafist response as a crime. Instead, Amina is being hounded from the country while the Salafists apparently remain in positions of growing influence. To suggest this is Femen’s fault is classic “blame the victim.”

As far as I know, neither Ms. Salem nor the many other women criticizing Femen's protest so much as said a word in Ms. Tyler's defense while she was receiving death threats before Femen responded with the "Topless Jihad."

I am fully in support of the right of Muslims to practice their religion freely on the same basis as adherents of any other religion. But I am even more committed to the free expression of ideas, even if they offend. The violent suppression of ideas by Muslim fundamentalists or by anyone else is something I abhor, and I think it is a shame that so many feminists seem intent on putting cultural relativism before free speech and opposition to violence against women whose style of protest does not suit them.

Cybertheft

For the moment, at least, williamsonday.com has become williamsonday.net. A cybersquatter has hijacked my domain, and short of a federal lawsuit, it does not seem likely that I am going to get it back.

Take the Toys from the Boys

If the time has come to repeal the Second Amendment so be it. This atavistic relic of a less civilized age is not worth the carnage it imposes daily on American life. The Constitution countenanced slavery; modern society has outlawed it, albeit at great cost. The time has come to outlaw guns.

There is a spurious reasonableness to the argument that Americans need guns. Even strong advocates of controls kowtow before the "right" of Americans to engage in blood sports. Why we outlaw dog fighting but not deer hunting is a mystery to me. (If starving families in Appalachia depend on hunting to survive, I am sure exceptions could be made.) By and large, however, hunters engaged in the practice of gunning down defenseless animals in the name of so-called "sport" should be unabashedly labeled what it is - "barbaric."

As for the self-defense argument, it is both circular and spurious. Circular because there would be little pretext for owning guns if we were not so afraid of our neighbors who presumably have them. Spurious because gun ownership is largely unavailing for self-defense, particularly in the hands of the largely ill-trained and unprepared American civilian population. As Michael Moore so aptly pointed out, owning five guns did not help Nancy Lanza. (And it is very little exculpation that guns are owned in quantity in sociopathic backwaters such as Texas (whose oft-expressed desire to secede should perhaps be given greater consideration)).

You Didn't Build That or Where Did I Go Wrong?

My superficial resemblance to Mitt Romney does not extend to his great wealth. I am admittedly the son of an automobile executive, albeit not a CEO or a governor, and Romney and I went to some of the same schools, and we both ended up with a law degree. Now, I realize that for Mitt to be more than a thousandfold wealthier than I am, he did not have to be more than a thousand times smarter and harder working. Probably he is both smarter and harder working, with a better temperament, at least enough to reach some kind of tipping point after which wealth just explodes exponentially. But I don't quite see how Romney's edge makes him more than a thousand times more deserving than I am. And I am also pretty sure that Romney is fortunate simply because fortune has smiled on him, and that there are plenty of other people, equally talented and ambitious, who will live on modest means and die in obscurity. As the Good Book reminds us, time and chance happen to us all. See Ecclesiastes 9:11.

The Naked Romney and the Unrobed Royal

Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post takes first prize for the most strained rationalization of Mitt Romney's crude remarks to a group of fatcat donors about the dependency culture of half of America. Petri writes:

Didn’t we agree as a society that no one had any privacy any longer? There is no such thing as In Private. Look what happened to Mitt Romney. If you want to say some off-the-record remarks to donors, the only way to do so is to erase the donors’ memories afterwards — and confiscate their phones. (A variant of this argument implies darkly that any woman who ever exits the house without being entirely covered deserves whatever is coming to her. In fact, how dare she make her Womanly Parts visible to anyone, even her husband? Shame, shame. But the less this is dwelt on, the better.)

Petri translates indignation over a woman's inability to sunbathe in her own home without being photographed into indignation over a political candidate's inability to deceive the American public by concealing his too candid remarks at a $50,000 a plate dinner. It is one thing to argue that royal figureheads should not be subject to intrusive photographs in their homes. It is quite another to shill for a presidential candidate by suggesting that he has the same expectation of privacy in the midst of a political cabal. Put another way, while Kate Middleton's breasts may excite as much attention as Mitt Romney's (alleged) thoughts, there is clearly a much more compelling national interest in the unveiling of the latter than the former. Petri cheapens her asserted indignation over Middleton's loss of privacy by making it a stalking horse for Mitt's catastrophic moment of candor.

George Will: Segregationist

George Will writes in the Washington Post that a wedding photographer is being victimized by a lawsuit over her refusal to photograph a gay commitment ceremony because of her religious beliefs. Will writes, "Elaine Huguenin, who with her husband operates Elane Photography in New Mexico, asks only to be let alone." But, of course, she doesn't ask only to be let alone. She asks to operate a public business, but to serve only customers who meet with her approval based on her religious beliefs. By Will's logic, she might just as easily be entitled to reject Catholics or Mormons based on their religion.

But what really leaves a bad taste in Will's mouth is that the victims of Huguenin's discrimination decided to sue. 'Willock could then have said regarding Elane Photography what many same-sex couples have long hoped a tolerant society would say regarding them — “live and let live."' Just as, after all, Martin Luther King, Jr. could have gone to eat at a different lunch counter and Rosa Parks could have quietly sat at the back of the bus.

King had words to the well-meaning white people George Will (perhaps unconsciously) echoes:

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Ms. Huguenin is free to practice whatever poisonous bigotry she wishes in her home and in her "church." However, she is and ought not to be not entitled to freedom to deny others retail services based on either her religious ideosyncracies or their sexual orientation.

We needed these words then. We need them now.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Speech Announcing the Second New Deal October 31, 1936

The French and the Russians

Just as when I read Wilde for the first time, I immediately thought, "This is Shaw;" upon reading the description of Waterloo today in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, I thought, "This is Tolstoy!" And, indeed, I suppose it would be an interesting project to attempt to untangle the relationship between nineteenth-century French writers and their contemporaries in Russia.

The Trouble with Linux

GNOME co-founder Miguel de Icaza has a trenchant post on why Linux desktop computers have not been more successful.

A few quick points in response:

  1. I am very happy with my Debian desktop and Arch laptop.

  2. I agree with de Icaza's praise for the new GNOME shell interface, which I use on my laptop.

  3. I think de Icaza's critique of the Linux development model is worth listening to, although I am evaluating it more on the basis of his status as a longtime leader in the community than any ability to independently evaluate Linux development.

  4. De Icaza's blandishments notwithstanding, I am not ready to jump ship for OSX.

No Brainer

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding YourselfYou Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect recall. In fact, it is more akin to an evolutionary afterthought that operates on dubious premises, fuzzy memories, and irrational impulses. We are finely tuned to survive in a world where we may be someone's next meal, but the very behavior that may be adaptive under those circumstances may be unforeseen, unnoticed, or ignored in today's world, with consequences that range from the comical to the tragic.

McRaney offers a series of tart essays, each of which illustrates a quirk of the human mind that may be familiar to clinical psychologists but a revelation to the rest of us. If, like the ancient Greeks, one seeks to know oneself, this is an excellent place to start.

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Agility and Accomplishment

Getting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and LifeGetting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and Life by J.D. Meier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homework in a demanding scientific discipline (while studying Chinese on the side) before dinner, and went to bed promptly by 9:00 p.m. after a leisurely dinner and a couple of hours of science fiction. This book is not for him.

Being the opposite of my best friend on the organizational scale, much of my life has been spent on a journey to bring life into focus and clean up my act. I am a modest, but not obsessive, consumer of organizational self-help books, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow to David Allen's Getting Things Done to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.

J.D. Meier's Getting Results the Agile Way, based on his experience as a program manager at Microsoft, strikes me as a thoughtful and important contribution to the genre. Meier does not despise the minutiae of task management, but he attempts to transcend it. His emphasis is on identifying measurable goals, working toward them systematically, and evaluating the results regularly. In addition, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that time and energy are finite resources, and he writes at some length about both effectiveness — doing the right things — and efficiency — doing them well.

Part of being both effective and efficient is boundaries and balance. If you work to exhaustion, it affects your ability to perform in every other area of your life. If you do not get at least a minimum amount of sleep, you won't function effectively. If you do not have some fun, your motivation will plummet. And if you do not pay attention to your relationships with other people, they will atrophy. While these observations may seem obvious, it nevertheless takes a certain amount of planning and discipline to ensure that people schedule a ceiling to the amount of time spent at work and a floor to the amount of time spent for fun, sleep, and other people.

Beyond his emphasis on the importance of short and long term goal setting, Meier is also an astute observer of the self-defeating mind games that prevent people from working effectively toward their goals, and he breaks down a number of simple strategies for addressing them, from settling for something less than perfection on a first iteration to plunging into work to escape analysis paralysis.

In all, Meier's book achieves what should be the goal of every good organizational book: it does not settle for tidying our schedules, but insists that we examine our goals in the hope that we will choose to live more meaningful lives.

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