Selfishness is Boring

From time to time, I get tired of writing.

I think I stopped writing in February because I got it in my mind that I was going to write a book, but I never found time to write a book and so for a month I just haven’t written.

I was going to write a book about all of the horrible things I do because I thought that if someone wrote a book like that, it could change the world. (I was on an honesty kick. It was inspired by some of my friends’ kicks which include but are not limited to: sincerity, innocence, desire, rationality. All of my friends have kicks.)

I have a friend who believes that we are all selfish. For a long time, I resisted that. I thought that was a tragic idea.

I’m pretty sure she is right, though. And I don’t know that it’s all that tragic anymore. Most of the time, being selfish helps me make decisions. When deciding what I want to have for dinner, for instance, it is easier to simply consider my own desires rather than how my business going to a certain establishment is going to affect their monthly profits. But when I interact with other people on a personal level, that’s when selfishness starts to be a problem. Unfortunately for me, interacting with people is approximately 99% of life.

I hate it when people play favorites. But I play favorites, too. I hate when I can see how funding is affecting an organization, but if I ran an organization and another organization gave me money, I have to say that I would act favorably towards my funders.

Selfishness is not really that big of a deal. People wanting power is not something that is worth talking about. The real issue is when we let the conversations about selfishness and power and greed consume us – when we spend all day pointing fingers at other people.

Jesus once said:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:42)

A lot of people think this means that after we judge ourselves, that we can judge other people. Some people think this means that there is such a thing as moral high ground.

There isn’t. We all always have the plank in our eye. That’s the issue.

I think real change comes when people stop talking about selfishness and power and greed and start talking about how we can love people where they are. I know that sounds hokey, but I don’t know how else to say it.

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In Response to “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”

A couple of weeks ago, this guy named Jefferson Bethke posted a video to his Youtube channel called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” It opened a firestorm. Bethke had previously gone viral with a spoken word piece called “Sexual Healing” advocating abstinence. A good looking 20-something guy pushing abstinence? The social media world swooned.

But then his follow-up came in the “Why I Hate…” video. Initially, it was just as popular, but then people began to challenge it. There was backlash. Why was Bethke so mad at the church? The church did wonderful things. Atheists got in on the madness. If Christ came to abolish religion, then what exactly do you call Christianity? It was a very complicated thing.

Typically, I don’t like writing about controversial things unless I feel like I can be very honest and open about it. But a friend of mine asked for a post about it, and I thought it might be good to do so. So, before we go any further, let’s take a moment to watch the video.

I only have two things to say about this video.

This video is poetry, not philosophic theology. Poetry and prose serve different purposes. Poetry is about emotion. Its words are meant to incite, to make the audience happy or sad or in love. And in doing so, poetry takes all of these seemingly non-truths and illuminates a truth that is normally difficult to articulate. In this case, the truth is that sometimes people forget that Jesus and His love are at the center of Christian spirituality, not religiosity or the church. That’s true. And people need to be aware of that truth. Sometimes Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and the Orthodox fight over who is right and who is doing the best job of showing God’s love. And the answer, when they are arguing, is none of them. God’s love is about peace and grace and about people working together and loving each other. That’s what this video is (mostly) about.

It was not meant to be a philosophic treatise. It was not meant to be an argument to be picked apart by theologians and atheists. Typically, things that rhyme or have rhythm aren’t supposed to be full arguments. Rhyme and rhythm limit the number of words you have to work with. Why would anyone trying to make a full-proof argument use these techniques?

It’s easy to criticize something. It’s much harder to support something. Yeah, the Church is imperfect and God is perfect, but that’s not really an original thought. The Church is made up of people. And people need God. But that doesn’t mean we should destroy the Church. The Church is important. God loves it. He talks about it a lot.

There are a lot of people who are fed up with the Church who call for the dissolution of it, and quite honestly, that’s annoying. Because what then? Who would organize community service on a large scale? Who would raise large sums of money for third-world countries to get clean water? Who would provide stable after-school groups for a large portion of our nation’s youth? People come together and organize because sometimes it is easier for them to do so. I think sometimes we forget that. We wrongly think that if everyone just left us alone, we would be happier. I don’t think that’s true, and the Church is one of those organizations that keeps us as part of a community.

I would love to start listening to people and reading writers who worked on making the Church better. How can we work within systems to make them better? I think that’s where the most radical change comes. How would the Civil Rights Movement have been different if African Americans had all emigrated to Libya?

Both sides are right. The critics and the supporters are both correct. This video is both true and mistakenly inflammatory.

Turning the Other Cheek Turns Emotions Into Justice

I’ve always kind of struggled with the concept of turning the other cheek and all that.

Our God is one of justice, right?

The Lord works righteousness
And justice for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6)

So why then are we not allowed to help with that whole justice thing?

A lot of people try to explain this away by saying that we don’t really know what justice is – that only God can judge. I don’t know about that. I know that rape, murder, and slavery are wrong. That’s a judgment. I think I am capable of judging. And we forget that turning the other cheek has to do with someone slapping you. Slapping is pretty wrong, I think. I know that I don’t like it when someone slaps me.

I’m in a Psychology of Gender class this quarter. In that class, we are learning about pro-feminist men right now. Pro-feminist men are men who actively support feminist women to push gender equality. I think pro-feminist men are pretty awesome. Feminist women are pretty awesome, too. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against oppression. But I’ve been thinking a lot about pro-feminist men. I’ve been thinking about how they don’t really have a lot to gain from gender equality. Men are on top. In fact, a lot of men fear that gender equality would mean loss of status for themselves. Pro-feminist men have to believe that gender equality is intrinsically more important than having a wife who stays at home or who is submissive.

There are studies out there that show that the shackles of oppression begin to fall off when members of the oppressor group begin to speak out for the oppressed. Sexism is most successfully combated when men correct their friends when they make a sexist joke or when men refuse to take a job that they have obtained based on sexist hiring practices.

Like most things Jesus taught, the turn the other cheek policy shows a keen insight into human nature. It’s easy to be angry when you have been attacked. It’s easy to clamor for justice, then. But mostly, that’s just emotion. When a friend makes fun of me, I am not mad because my friend has violated the intrinsically moral rule that making fun of people is wrong. I am mad because I was the subject of the ridicule. And if I say anything, it is easy for my friends to say that I am making a mountain out of a molehill. But what if I never got mad when people made fun of me? What if, instead, I made fun of myself?

Then, when someone was making fun of another friend, I could say something. Because people would say “Hey, Spencer is usually so chill about joking around. We must really be out of line if he’s not okay with this joke.”

That’s what turning the other cheek does. It creates a world in which people know that your emotions are not tied to your sense of justice.

God is Gestaltian

There’s a psychological school, theory, or effect (depending on who you talk to) known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt is a German term meaning “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” Pretty heavy stuff.

The basic Gestalt effect is best summarized by the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There are a lot of different pictures and optical illusions that demonstrate the Gestalt effect. But here’s a relatively good one:

Instead of just seeing three Pacmen and three acute angles when looking at this picture, most people see a white triangle overlapping a black-outlined triangle and three black circles. That’s good ol’ Gestalt working hard.

The Gestalt effect, as a concept that was talked about, originated in the late 19th century. Until then, most people thought that if you studied a thing’s parts, you were studying that thing.

To the modern mind, ingrained with Gestaltian thinking, the idea that people didn’t consider the Gestalt effect seems absurd. I was pondering this absurdity when I remembered the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20:

 For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.

And there it is. The truth of the Gestalt effect right there in the Bible. One person plus one person does not equal two people. It equals two people and God and a dynamic relationship.

Trusting Authority

When I was applying to college, my mom made me go talk to people from a really boring small honors college at a university nationally known for being a top party school. I had my sights set on higher things, more studious places. I was going to be a real academic.

But I went, and after my first meeting with the assistant dean at the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University, I knew it was where I needed to be.

A little over three years later, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Most of who I am today has been dependent on being part of the HTC or being a student at Ohio University. Sometimes, parents really do know what’s best for us.

When someone really cares about us and has more information than we do or a wider world view, they normally make decisions for us that we would make if we had all the information. That’s why I think my failure to not trust God is almost humorous.

God knows infinitely more than me. God cares about me infinitely. Why, then, would God want anything less than the best for me?

Sometimes I perceive God the way I perceived my mom when she was trying to get me to visit Ohio University. God wants me to give up what I really want in order to do something the way God wants it. But that’s not the way it is. God wants to stretch me so that I can consider the kind of options God considers for me.

Jesus said some stuff about this (Matthew 6:25-34):

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

God is going to dress us in clothes brighter than the flowers. We have only to let Her or Him.

The Rhetoric of Evil

Evil is around. A lot of people say that. Enough people say it that I think there’s probably some truth to it. But I often feel like I’m not actually understanding what’s evil. If you are liberal, you learn that conservatives are evil. If you are conservative, you learn that liberals are evil. And if you are in a class about rhetoric, you learn that institutions are evil.

I can speak to that last one because I am in a rhetoric course this quarter. And every week we learn how evil the American government and Hollywood are for misleading the public. Now, I’ve never been in the American government or Hollywood so I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what I’m about to say, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. I don’t think they mean to full us. I don’t think all of the producers in Hollywood get together at biweekly meetings and decide that this week they are going to use war-time propaganda to encourage war. And I don’t think the American government wastes meetings on how to best use domestication as a form of nukespeak.

I think sometimes we criticize others too harshly. How many times do we sit down and say, “I’m going to use rhetoric today to get my way?” I know I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use it. It just means that the study of rhetoric is a useful tool for studying human behavior after the fact. It’s not predictive.

Evil exists, but it doesn’t exist in the places we most think we can identify it. It lives in all of those places where we convince ourselves that we are different than other people. It thrives on us believing that being conscious of rhetoric means that we should be put in charge of the world.

I was talking with a friend the other day, and I asked, “Why are people so confusing?” Instead of answering me (she never answers me), she said, “Isn’t it interesting that we always say that people are confusing. But it’s not like we are simple not-confusing people. I wonder what it would be like to not be confusing.”

Of course, she was correct. When a government uses seemingly rhetorical devices on its constituency, it’s doing so because it thinks it is somehow helpful. That doesn’t make it right. But it’s human. It’s something I can relate with.

Jesus said it really well back in his day and luckily somebody had the foreknowledge to get that stuff down on papyrus. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye ” (Matthew 7:5). Why do we ever think that we have removed the log? That’s not the point of this verse. Evil laughs when we think we have removed the log.

What do you think of rhetoric?